Congregations help the homeless into homes — one family at a time

Sharon (not her real name) and her 4 1/2-year-old son have been in and out of shelters and temporary housing for the past several years, sometimes living on the streets. A recovering drug addict, Sharon now has a steady job working at a bakery but is about to reach her time limit in a transitional housing apartment.

But this time, she has a team of congregants from Leo Baeck Temple to help her not only find a place she can afford to live, but create and stick to a budget. They’ll help her furnish her apartment, will set up her transportation and will even baby-sit for her son so she can get an occasional break.

Leo Baeck connected with Sharon through Imagine LA, a program in its pilot year that aims to end homelessness among families by connecting Los Angeles’ 8,000 places of worship with the city’s 8,000 families who are on the verge of homelessness.

Three churches and Leo Baeck have signed on, and by 2009 Imagine LA hopes to have 30 families adopted.

Congregations make a financial commitment of $5,000 to adopt a family for two years. Most of that money is put into a donor-directed bank account overseen by the family, the congregation and case managers.

Imagine LA inserts itself into the problem of homelessness at a critical juncture: the exit from transitional housing. While case managers and psychologists help residents in transitional housing stabilize, many find themselves spiraling lower in the cycle of homelessness when the six-month to two-year limit there is up.

Imagine LA coordinators work with facility case managers and faith partners to determine the family’s needs and set up a plan for independent living. They might help a single mother get her high school equivalency diploma, help kids with homework or shuttle kids to sports programs. Sometimes, a mother needs to learn how to shop for and cook meals for a week, or sometimes she just needs moral support.

“The idea is to create a sustainable exit from homelessness, so they don’t just get into housing and get on the treadmill, but feel like they can grow and have some hope,” said Jill Govan Bauman, executive director of Imagine LA, an independent nonprofit founded in 2005 at the Bel Air Presbyterian Church.

The Leo Baeck team has met with Sharon once a week over the last month, since they signed on, and they’re hoping to have her in an apartment soon.

“Many of us here are socially active in many different ways, and there were enough of us who wanted to really do this hands-on,” said Scott Sale, a Leo Baeck member working with Imagine LA. He said the team bought into the idea of each faith-based organization in Los Angeles adopting one family to make a huge impact. “If we have to do it one at a time, that’s how we’ll do it. It’s just like the Jewish idea of saving one life is like saving the whole world.”

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September is a struggle for interfaith families

Months before the High Holidays arrive, Patrick Patterson requests the days off for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur from his job as a firefighter/paramedic with the Los Angeles City Fire Department. A few days before, he reviews the entire High Holiday machzor, or prayer book, so that he feels familiar with the services and, especially, with the Hebrew prayers, which he reads in transliteration.

During the worship services themselves, which he attends at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air, he pays close attention, taking the prayers and the rabbis’ sermons to heart.

On Yom Kippur he fasts.

Patterson, 56 and living in Encino, is not Jewish and has no intention of converting. He can’t embrace Catholicism, the religion of his childhood, but he also can’t envision giving up saying prayers to Jesus. Nevertheless, he has openly and enthusiastically accepted the traditions of Judaism and has taken the Stephen S. Wise 10-week Holiday Workshop class.

“I have a strong sense of faith and a strong sense of family unity,” he said, referring to his Jewish wife, his three Jewish stepchildren and his own two children, whom he is raising Jewish.

But not all interfaith families incorporate the High Holidays into their lives so smoothly. For starters, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, unlike Chanukah and Passover, are not home-based holidays that can be celebrated creatively and confined within a family’s religious comfort zone.

“At Chanukah, you can delight in kindling the menorah, but the High Holidays are truly a full day of fixed liturgy that, the truth is, is a difficult one to follow even for many Jews,” said Rabbi Zachary Shapiro of Culver City’s Temple Akiba, a Reform synagogue with a large percentage of interfaith families among their 300 or so family member units.

Plus, there are no equivalent holidays in Christianity, and the religious concepts of tefillah (prayer), teshuvah (repentance) and tzedakah (righteousness) are often foreign to the non-Jewish spouse. Additionally, a non-Jew is often uncomfortable asking for time off from work for the day for a holiday that is not his or her own, or unwilling to sit through a lengthy service, much of it in Hebrew. This is sometimes an even bigger issue when the Jewish partner rarely attends synagogue but is adamant about showing up to High Holiday services.

And sometimes the interfaith couple simply does not feel accepted.

Judi Brooks Johnson, 50, who identifies as a cultural Jew, would like to attend High Holiday services this year with her husband, an African American who was raised Christian, and their 10-year-old daughter. She has been visiting some synagogue open houses in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, but she is not optimistic.

“It’s difficult to find a place where we can worship when people are not welcoming of my husband,” the Burbank resident said.

For certain, she plans to join her extended family in Los Angeles for Rosh Hashanah dinner and Yom Kippur break-the-fast, and she and her husband will use those opportunities to talk about the holidays with their daughter and nieces. “My husband actually embraces the Old Testament, and he was taught well. We enjoy having wonderful discussions about values and teachings,” Brooks Johnson said.

Still, with intermarriage rates rising in the non-Orthodox Jewish community and with about 31 percent of all Jews who are currently married involved in interfaith marriages, according the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001, Jewish synagogues and institutions are eagerly reaching out to interfaith families.

For the non-Jewish partner in an interfaith relationship, the High Holidays often feel like the flip side of the December dilemma, according to Arlene Chernow, regional director of outreach and synagogue community for the Union of Reform Judaism’s Pacific Southwest and Northwest Councils.

“They feel like the whole world is participating in something that they don’t understand,” she said.

Chernow refers the non-Jewish person to two resources which, she pointed out, are helpful even to those born Jewish. One is “Celebrations! A Parent’s Guide,” a booklet put out by the Temple Israel of Hollywood Outreach Committee. It’s targeted for parents of preschoolers but serves as a basic primer on holiday themes, rituals, foods and activities for all parents. Additionally, Chernow recommends “The High Holy Days” brochure created by the Outreach Committee of Phoenix’s Temple Chai.

At the University of Judaism, Rabbi Neal Weinberg devotes one four-hour session of his Introduction to Judaism class to the High Holidays, explaining the liturgy and customs. In this year’s class on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, held in early September, he explained the difference between the Christian concept of unconditional love, which mandates that people be automatically forgiven, with the Jewish concept of justice, which insists that individuals be held accountable for their actions.

“Jews don’t have love and hate,” he explained to his class. “We have love and injustice.”

Grenda Guilfoil, 42, who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian environment, struggled with the idea that you cannot forgive someone who does not ask to be forgiven. Still, she felt that the session was helpful, especially in terms of dealing with religious concepts and rituals, such as blowing the shofar. She plans to attend High Holiday services at Sinai Temple in Westwood with her Jewish significant other, Richard David, 47, who is taking the Introduction to Judaism class with her.

“But it’s not only going to services themselves. It’s the family rituals also, like lunch at Richard’s mother’s house, that add a whole other level of newness that I’m being introduced to,” Guilfoil said.

Michael Hudson, 51, a Jew-by-choice, has no extended Jewish family.
“I frankly have to make that commitment on my own,” he said. An African American, Hudson was raised United Methodist and, after a lengthy spiritual search, converted to Judaism in 1994. His wife is a practicing Catholic, as are his two young adult children.

Hudson’s Jewish family consists of friends from his job at the Los Angeles Unified School District, where he serves as a labor relations representative, and from his synagogue, Temple Akiba, where he sings in the choir and serves as vice president of religious practices. Hudson will participate in all Temple Akiba services as a choir member. He has no plans for Rosh Hashanah lunch or dinner, but he will attend a Yom Kippur break-the-fast at a friend’s house, where his family will join him.

Jewish Studies Bug Bites Parents, Too

Eighteen months ago, when Lenard Cohen’s 4-year-old daughter was enrolled in the family’s congregational preschool, the Philadelphia-area father of three decided to go back to school himself.

He signed up for the Florence Melton Parent Education Program, a Jewish adult education course for parents of preschoolers.

Raised as a Reform Jew, Cohen said he was on the “lower end” of the observance scale when he signed up for the course, which meets once a week, 30 weeks a year, two hours at a stretch, for two full years.

His goal, he says, was to “increase my knowledge of Jewish practice, Jewish history and Jewish ethics, and to be able to pass it on to my children better.”

The course has done that and more, he says, bringing together a group of parents with disparate backgrounds and experiences.

“We’re all there because we’re parents of preschoolers and we want to learn,” he says.

With a number of recent studies showing that preschools have a profound effect on the Jewish life of the entire family, and that greater linkage is needed between preschools and the rest of the Jewish educational and communal network, educators and philanthropists are engaging in new initiatives to bring parents of Jewish preschoolers into the process.

Some of those initiatives are formal, such as the Melton program, which operates in 15 cities, and some are more informal, involving interaction and greater outreach between parents and their children’s school.

“There’s a sense of fragmentation,” says Lyndall Miller, coordinator of the Jewish early childhood education certificate program at Gratz College in Melrose Park, Pa. “Parents don’t have models of how to parent. People don’t talk to each other about how they can build relationships with their children. Schools must become communities, and they don’t know how.”

Simply making the effort to reach out is a crucial beginning, educators say.

Ina Regosin, founding director of the Early Childhood Institute and dean of students at Hebrew College in Newton, Mass., says that when she was director of a Jewish preschool 30 years ago, she’d routinely invite parents into the building when they dropped off their children, “to educate them, of course.”

The school sent home weekly newsletters for the parents to read, and held evening programs on Jewish holidays and other topics.

The best Jewish preschools today all engage in that kind of active outreach to parents, and try to make it part of the natural rhythm of family life.

“Whatever we do for the children we do for the adults,” says Helen Cohen, who 12 years ago founded a preschool at Temple Israel, a large Reform congregation in Boston. Teachers send home weekly newsletters on the Torah portion, with the Hebrew words translated and transliterated. They hold family Havdalah services, and send parents home with clear instructions on how to do the ritual themselves.

Taking part in a Jewish learning experience at their child’s preschool is a nonthreatening way for many parents with little or no Jewish education to increase their own knowledge and feel more at home with Jewish observance.

Sometimes preschools run separate, adults-only classes for parents to study Torah or learn Jewish parenting skills.

“Our families are so assimilated, a lot of them are not comfortable with the rituals,” says Shelley Smith, preschool director at Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue in Portland, Ore. “We create a safe zone for them to learn from the ground up, together with their children.

Sending kids home on Friday with “Shabbat boxes,” which typically include candles, transliterations of the blessings and challah baked by the child that day in class, is popular at many preschools.

“Who won’t hang the mezuzah your child made on the bedroom door?” Smith says. “Who on Friday night won’t stick candles in the Shabbat candlesticks your child made out of Play-Doh?”

At the Osher Marin JCC preschool in San Rafael, director Janet Harris stands in her front lobby every morning to greet the children and their parents. She shakes their hands and personally invites them to the school’s family programs.

The Osher Marin preschool is one of 12 schools involved in a pilot project by the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative, which was launched in 2004 to develop models of preschools that bring the entire family into the project of Jewish learning.

Mark Horowitz, the initiative’s executive director, says that each school receives funding and coaching to deepen the Jewish and developmental content in the classrooms, and to build strong relationships with the parents.

Next year, the program will add 10 to 20 new preschools to the project.

“If we can create communities of Jewish families around these preschools, then they will want to continue their connection with Jewish education and institutions,” he says. “We will have created a craving for Jewish life. It might mean congregational affiliation, or membership in Jewish Community Centers, or Jewish day school — some meaningful way to continue the communities in which they have been flourishing.”

The Melton Parent Education Program is one of two formal initiatives to emerge in recent years. The program, based at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and run out of its North American office in Northbrook, Ill., is modeled after the successful Florence Melton Adult Mini-School curriculum.

“We promote pluralism, text-based study and interactive learning,” says Mitch Parker, director of the program for preschool parents.

“We encourage the parents to realize that what they learn in class is relevant to Jewish family life, and to take the lesson home. We don’t teach the how-tos, but the whys of Judaism and the importance of it.”

This spring, 450 parents are enrolled nationwide. And it’s having an impact.

More of those parents are enrolling their children in day school — the stated goal of the Avi Chai Foundation, which subsidizes tuition for the program. The program is also, in some cases, open to parents of children in the younger grades of day school.

And, Parker says, “We definitely see behavioral changes” among the parent-students. “They admit that after two years, they are doing more Jewish things.”

Deborah Bradley of Walled Lake, Mich., outside Detroit, is in her second year of the program. Her three children all went to a Conservative congregational preschool. The two oldest are now in day school, and the youngest will start next year. The decision to put her kids in day school “evolved,” she says, as she and her husband saw how much they were learning in preschool.

She decided to take the Melton program “not only because of my love of studying, but to be able to delve into topics my children were getting introduced to in Jewish day school.”

Her 10-year-old had been asking difficult questions about Jewish beliefs regarding afterlife, cremation and where she stood on abortion.

“I came in with good knowledge, but getting Tanach references was helpful,” she says, referring to the Bible. “It helps me communicate better with the kids.”

Another formal education program operates in the Boston area and western Massachusetts. Ikkarim, an adult learning program for parents of 1- to 5-year-olds, is run by Hebrew College and Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston. The Ikkarim program operates at several local synagogues. Focusing on Jewish text study, it targets parents of preschool-age children in its exploration of how Jewish values apply to contemporary family relationships.

Regosin of Hebrew College says that it’s critical to offer this kind of outreach to young Jewish parents, because they’re at the point in their lives when they’re making decisions that will affect the Jewish nature of their home for years to come.

“You’ve got families that are so open at this point, especially when it’s their first child,” she says. If the preschool experience is good, they’re more likely to continue that child’s Jewish education, and to send their younger children to preschool as well.

“When a young family makes that choice and walks through the door, it’s a tremendous opportunity,” she says. “If you have teachers and directors committed to strong Jewish education, they can have tremendous impact.”


Southland Responds to Relief Needs

Prominent rabbis have been urging their congregations to give generously to Hurricane Katrina relief funds, the most prominent being one set up by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which had raised more than $500,000 by early this week.

The scope of the disaster is reaching Southland Jews through media reports and other sources. At Rancho Park’s Reform Temple Isaiah, Rabbi Zoe Klein received an Aug. 31 e-mail from a congregant worried about her relatives stuck in a New Orleans hospital.

“There is nine feet of water outside the hospital where they are staying,” the message read. “They have their two children, a friend’s child and my sister-in-law’s two blind parents with them…. The generators have run out of fuel.

“They think they will be evacuated by boat to a dry area and then hope to drive out of town if they can find a car…. Would you mind saying a prayer and exercising whatever pull you have with G-d….”

In Westwood, Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe told a Sept. 3 Shabbat audience of more than 900 that “the best way to insure both the decency and the safety of the human community is, when we are the lucky ones, to give a model of what it means to have open hands and open hearts.”

At Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, Reform Rabbi Steve Jacobs said the hurricane’s aftermath is something that “has exposed the great poverty in America.”

Among the many temples collecting donations is the Orthodox Young Israel of Century City. “We’re going to send one check in the next few weeks,” said Rabbi Elazar Mushkin. “You do not read this [hurricane] as a judgment of God. Planets are formed, tectonic plates shift, earthquakes occur and sometime innocent people die.”

Some Sept. 3 bar and bat mitzvahs included hurricane donations, rabbis said.

Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge has collected more than 15,000 articles of clothing for shipping to Congregation B’nai Israel in Baton Rouge, La. B’nai Israel is providing shelter for 200-plus evacuees and requested clothing and baby items for immediate distribution.

Heading into the hurricane’s devastation zone were two leaders of the L.A. chapter of the emergency-response volunteer group, Hatzolah. Rabbis Tzemach Rosenfeld and Chaim Kolodny arrived in Montgomery, Ala., on Labor Day to help out for at least a week, bringing with them a suitcase loaded with kosher food.

“We never know who we’re gonna bump into,” Kolodny said.

By early this week, the situation seemed to have improved for Jewish residents and other hurricane victims who’d survived. Los Angeles Federation President John Fishel sent out an e-mail stating that most Jews appear to have been evacuated.

In addition, he had instructions for families attempting to reunite. “Any New Orleans evacuees can report their whereabouts to,” he wrote. “There may be students from the affected areas studying here in Los Angeles. If so, they are asked to contact Hillel.”

Fishel added that New Orleans’ Jewish leaders are asking Jews elsewhere to avoid contacting either the New Orleans or Houston federation staff directly, but “to do so through the L.A. Federation.”


A Race Against Time and Floodwaters

Stepping up to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina, Jewish day schools opened their doors to evacuees, families welcomed strangers into their homes, Jewish rescue squads searched through the storm’s wreckage and Jewish organizations raised millions of dollars for those whose lives were turned topsy-turvy by the deadly storm.

Houston has quickly become a major haven for victims who have been left, for the moment at least, without homes. The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston quickly jumped into action to aid the beleaguered evacuees, Jew and non-Jew alike.

“We have mobilized our community around all the areas that seem to be current and potential needs,” said Lee Wunsch, the federation’s CEO. “There’s a lot of activity. People are very generous with their time. Our phones have not stopped ringing.”

Approximately 15,000 Louisiana evacuees were being housed in the Astrodome, the city’s covered sports stadium, after conditions in the New Orleans Superdome grew unbearable. Houston is hosting tens of thousands of evacuees, including an estimated 5,000 Jews.

The federation has joined an interfaith coalition taking responsibility for feeding the refugees in the Astrodome for the next 30 days, a service that the federal government is not providing, Wunsch told JTA. The effort will require 700 to 800 volunteers each day and is expected to cost between $7 million and $8 million.

“We’re trying to raise the money to make a sizable contribution to that,” Wunsch said.

In the first 24 hours when the fund was opened last week, the federation raised about $75,000 in online donations. Donations are coming in so quickly that by the beginning of this week, the federation had decided to hold off calculating the total until a quieter time.

The Baltimore-based Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation Inc. announced it would be donating $1 million to help relieve survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Funds will be allocated as $500,000 grants to both United Jewish Communities (UJC) and Catholic Charities USA.

On Tuesday, UJC said it had raised nearly $4 million, including the Weinberg Foundation grant. The UJC also said that the local federations directly affected by the hurricane were overwhelmed and had asked that those with questions or seeking to make donations contact the UJC directly.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Jews may be among those still trapped in water-inundated homes or missing in the Gulf region, said Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, Chabad-Lubavitch’s spokesman based in New York.

Chabad rescue teams, comprised largely of New York-based medics and others with relevant expertise, have rescued 32 Jews from their houses over the last several days, he said. The teams are operating both on foot and in boats.

Some elderly Jews resisted leaving their homes, as did one woman who was reluctant to leave her pets behind to fend for themselves. The teams were able to convince some victims to evacuate their homes; others stayed put.

The Hurricane Relief section of Chabad’s Web site asks anyone who knows of people still missing or trapped to provide details through the site (

As of Tuesday, the official death toll in New Orleans was 71, and in Mississippi it was 161. However, those figures were expected to climb into the thousands as floodwaters begin to recede, revealing the true toll of those lost.

Hunger and fear of disease in affected areas engendered anger and disbelief as the federal government’s handling of the crisis garnered sharp criticism. President Bush toured the battered region Monday, comforting victims and vowing to do what is necessary to aid them. In a visit to the area last week, Bush said relief efforts to that point were “not acceptable.”

Jewish organizations in the hard-hit region and beyond pitched in to help those whose lives have been disrupted by Katrina.

Israeli universities are opening their doors to college students whose schools have been shut down by the storm. Tulane University in New Orleans announced that it will not hold classes for the fall semester. Loyola University is also closed though January, and Dillard University is examining its options for the immediate future. The two schools are also in New Orleans.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, MASA — the Gateway to Long-Term Israel Programs and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life have forged a coalition of the five major Israeli universities with study-abroad programs to allow displaced students — Jews and non-Jews — to quickly continue their studies.

Meanwhile, Jewish day school networks across the United States and across the denominational spectrum are working to absorb Jewish students and their families, offering everything from free tuition and school supplies to employment opportunities for parents and living accommodations.

“Jewish day schools across the streams walk the walk and talk the talk,” said Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network.

The UJC and local federations throughout the United States and Canada have also established funds to aid those in need. Numerous other Jewish organizations, both national and local, are also offering help — raising money, coordinating housing and looking into specific medical and religious needs of refugees in their communities.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has composed a special prayer for the victims.

“In the path of Katrina’s destruction, let the good in humanity rise to the top of the flood,” it reads, in part. “Give us strength to console those who have lost family, friends and neighbors. Give us the courage to provide hope to those who despair. Provide us with the guidance to heal those who ail, both in body and in spirit.”

At Beth Am Israel, a Conservative congregation in Penn Valley, Pa., congregants are preparing backpacks full of school supplies for young Katrina evacuees who will shortly be enrolling in the Houston public school system.

Each school bag is being filled with grade-appropriate supplies in accordance with Houston school guidelines — younger students may get crayons and markers while older pupils will receive items like graph paper and protractors.

“In terms of rallying the community, it was really wonderful,” said Gari Julius Weilbacher, who is coordinating the synagogue’s effort. “It’s giving people something to do besides writing really, really vital checks.”

Weilbacher said that she expects more than 150 backpacks to come in, and some congregants are writing checks to pay for postage, while others are donating boxes in which to pack the bags for shipment.

The Houston federation is working feverishly to meet Jewish evacuees’ needs.

A number of New Orleans families are now living with families in Houston, Wunsch said, and local day schools are allowing students from New Orleans to enroll for free. The Maimonides Society, a group for local Jewish doctors, has been mobilized to help those evacuees with medical concerns, and several local rabbis are coordinating an effort to ensure that their Jewish religious needs are met.

Synagogues in the Houston area are providing free Shabbat meals and are expected to open their doors to evacuee families, both in the immediate future and during the High Holidays.

At Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, members are making room in their homes for those with no place to go and have prepared welcome packages of toiletries, snacks and beverages. The synagogue was also arranging kosher meals for those who want them, and sent about 250 volunteers to the Astrodome this week.

The community response has been swift and overwhelming, say those involved in coordinating area relief efforts.

“I’m 150 e-mails behind,” said Adam Bronstone, who fled New Orleans on Aug. 27 and has since been working at the Houston federation office and living with a friend. “There’s one guy here answering four phones at a time.”

The situation, Bronstone said, is “crazy, it’s surreal, it’s loving, its warm. It’s the worst of times — but it’s also the best of times.”

Hurricane damage in the region was staggering. The full extent of damage to sites of Jewish concern remained uncertain. West Esplanade Avenue in Metarie, La., is home to about five Jewish institutions.

Rabbi Yossie Nemes, who rode out the storm at his home there with his family and four others seeking refuge, saw downed trees, power outages, some damage to roofs and up to two feet of water.

Those with knowledge of New Orleans geography said that based on news reports about damage to particular neighborhoods, they suspected that some other buildings, including a Jewish museum, were badly damaged or destroyed.

As Nemes, his wife, seven children and four house guests sat on the second floor of his home — winds howling outside, water rising on the bottom level, rain pelting the sturdy brick home’s protective hurricane shutters — they prayed and played board games.

“We weren’t worried for our lives,” he recalled on Tuesday from Chabad’s offices in New York, where he had arrived by car in the morning after three days in Memphis. “But it was very, very nerve-wracking. We were hoping and praying for the storm to end.”

Things grew more tense, he said, when some of the city’s levees broke. At that point, Nemes had no idea how his neighborhood would fare. In the end, the power went out and his house took in about two feet of water — but everyone got out safely.

“All the appliances and furniture are damaged,” he said. “It’s dirty, bacteria-filled water. There’s extensive damage, but I don’t believe it’ll be condemned.”

In addition to those who landed in Houston, Jews also ended up in Birmingham, Ala.; Nashville; Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Dallas; cities in Florida; and elsewhere.

Many also fled to Memphis. The Orthodox Union (OU) dispatched Rabbi Chaim Neiditch on a fact-finding mission to Tennessee.

“They’re living Jewish lives as best as they can,” said Neiditch, the director of the southern region of the OU’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth. They are attending prayer services and eating kosher food, he said, but there is a real fear that the community, stretched to its limits by the influx of evacuees, will run out of kosher food.

“There is a sense of despair and worse — every single possession is lost, jobs gone,” he said. “They are separated from family and friends. They have no means of communicating with each other. It is beyond comprehension what is going on.”


Acts of Faith – Farewell Service

After World War II, two Jewish GIs returned to Los Angeles and founded a synagogue in Westchester. Beth Tikvah, as it was called, finally found a permanent home in 1959 on the Westchester bluffs.

But last month, the Conservative congregation — known since 1968 as B’nai Tikvah after merging with the nearby B’nai Israel in Baldwin Hills — held its last service at the historic Westchester building, with its 204-seat sanctuary. On Aug. 20, about 100 people showed up for a final Havdalah service to say goodbye.

Because of dwindling membership and a lack of Jewish families in the area, the congregation decided to sell the property and look for a new location on the Westside.

“We got well over the appraised price, and about a half a million over the asking price,” said Rabbi Jason van Leeuwen, or “Reb Jason,” who did not disclose what the congregation received from a real estate company that plans to build condominiums.

At its apex in the 1960s, B’nai Tikvah had some 400 member families, said Rabbi Marvin Bornstein, who served as its leader from 1953-1984.

“It was humming day and night there,” he told The Journal.

But then white flight happened, and Jews began leaving Westchester and the nearby neighborhoods of Inglewood and Ladera Heights. The airport also needed more land and started buying up property.

“They cut our membership in half just by expanding the airport. It reduced us to maybe 150 families,” Bornstein said. “That was a big blow.”

But things are not over for B’nai Tivkah, said Van Leeuwen, who had been brought in a year ago to drive up membership.

The congregation will move its religious and nursery schools to the site of the former Montessori school at 8820 Sepulveda Eastway in Westchester, and will hold most services at the adjacent Westchester Christian Church. In addition, the congregation will share a location with Temple Beth Torah in Mar Vista, which has about 60 families.

Van Leeuwen said he hopes in the next three to five years to increase membership, cultivate a donor base and find a new site.

Bornstein delivered the keynote speech at the goodbye ceremony.

“I told them that the spirit of a synagogue is not expressed in the building that they have. It’s expressed in the hopes and dreams of the congregation, and that I hope they will continue to dream and rebuild. And someday, I hope they will invite me to put a mezuzah on their new building.”

“It must have been a pretty emotional speech,” he said, “because for the first time in my life, I got a standing ovation.”

For more information on services, schools or the Festival of Faith ceremony on Sept. 18 at 1:30 p.m. with the Westchester Christian Church, call (310) 645 6262.

100 Shofars to Sound

Michael Chusid was 10 years old when he first tried to blow a shofar, the traditional ram’s horn sounded on the High Holidays.

“I did not have a teacher, so I huffed and puffed until my cheeks hurt without getting even a small toot,” he said.

It was so difficult that he did not touch a shofar again for 30 years.

“During that time, I would go to synagogue on the High Holidays, but I felt alienated from what was going on there. When I would hear shofar during the services, I noticed everyone around me was excited, but I could not feel any connect with the ritual.”

But Chusid has come a long way. These days he is such an expert in the art of the horn that he teaches classes around the city for other amateurs who were once like himself.

How did he come so far?

In 1994, he began attending Makom Ohr Shalom, a Jewish Renewal temple in Granada Hills. There he discovered how to participate in all aspects of worship — including blowing the shofar, which was accomplished by many members of the congregation instead of just one leader.

“The sound they made was on a whole different magnitude, both acoustically and spiritually, from anything I had experienced before. When I heard the shofar, I felt a great relief, as if a heavy burden had been lifted from my spirit.”

Chusid went out and bought himself a shofar, learned how to play it — and started teaching others. Now, this Rosh Hashanah (Oct. 3, 4 and 5), he expects to hear the sound of 100 people blowing shofar at Makom Ohr Shalom. That’s a twist on the tradition that Jews are meant to hear 100 blasts of the Shofar throughout the holiday.

For anyone who wants to participate — or learn for their own synagogue — Chusid is teaching workshops this month around the city on the art and spirituality of shofar-blowing.

He compares it to “blowing raspberries,” except that the lips have to be curled over the teeth and pressed together. The sound is made by the buzzing of the lips, and when you force air through the pursed lips, they vibrate and make a sound.

“Many people know the shofar as a battle cry, like at Jericho,” Chusid said, noting that it can also be used to call the end of war, for teshuva or repentance, as well as a wake-up call for tikkun olam, the obligation to help repair the world.

“When I blow the shofar, I visualize my blast creating a vibration that travels throughout the community and around the planet to wherever healing needs to take place.”

Free shofar blowing classes: Monday, Sept. 12, 6:30 to 8 p.m., Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 788-6000, Friday, Sept. 16, 7:10-8 p.m., prior to Shabbat services, Makom Ohr Shalom, 5619 Lindley Ave. (at Burbank Boulevard), Tarzana, (818) 725-7600, To schedule classes, contact Michael Chusid at (818) 774-0003 or send an e-mail to


Bebe and Me

A lot of people my age feel pressure from their families to get married, but I think my not being married is the only thing keeping my grandmother alive. Bebe often tells me she just wants to live long enough to see my wedding. I’ll say “I do” and then she’ll immediately keel over. It’s a lot to bear.

Bebe likes to pretend she’s open-minded and doesn’t care if I date non-Jewish women. I should point out that I am technically Jewish — both my parents were born Jews. I never went to Hebrew school but we did celebrate Chanukah — until the year we couldn’t find the menorah. Then that was that: Bring on Christmas!

People see my freckles and last name and are surprised to find that I’m Jewish. They say something like, “Come on, Dutch Jews?” I remind them of a book by a girl named Anne Frank and tell them the reason there aren’t too many Dutch Jews is because of a little thing called the Holocaust. I pretend to be offended, they feel horribly guilty; it’s a win-win. But honestly, I mostly embrace my Judaism as a party trick.

But to Bebe it’s important. I’ll call her to tell her I’m dating someone and she’ll go on her Semitic fact-finding mission.

“What’s her name?” she asks. Sometimes I like to mess with her.

“Christian,” I say. “Christian Hitler.”

“Oh.” A pause. “Is she nice?”

Bebe is in incredible health. She’s 87 years old but you’d never believe it to look at her. She swims laps three times a week at the Jewish Community Center and still rides the ancient stationary bike in her guest room. None of this prevents her from preparing for death.

The last several trips I’ve made to see her, she’s handed me blank labels and asked me to put my name on any items in her house that I’ll want when she’s dead. I refuse to do this; I think it’s morbid and tacky (and besides, how do I know which macramé throws will go with my future settee?). My sister and uncle have embraced this though — their names are on way too many things. I’m talking napkin rings and liquor bottles, and not even good ones. My other grandmother had her kids do the label thing before she died and I think it just ended up confusing her. She had Alzheimer’s and thought the coffee table was named Becky.

I guess if I were 87 I wouldn’t exactly be thinking about my 20-year plan, but I would try to leave my heirs out of it. Bebe is constantly asking me what my father is going to bequeath me. I’m not sure if it’s so she can try to outdo him, or if she just wants to make certain that I don’t end up with two chafing dishes.

Of course, for Bebe, mortality is a longtime companion.

She’s outlived every important relationship you can have in life: two siblings, two husbands, two parents, a child, a best friend. What’s left? Six grandchildren, alive and well and unmarried. Maybe that’s why she worries so much for us.

Whenever Bebe dies it will be the end of an era. She’s not the kind of lady who would have her portrait hanging over a fireplace, but she’s a matriarch nonetheless. She leads this family with the iron fist of guilt in the velvet glove of worry. How do you paint that?

When my mother, died, Bebe became my advocate, often the only voice of reason to counter my father’s short-tempered resolve. Even though she lived an airplane trip away in Louisville and was no longer his mother-in-law, my father knew better than not to listen.

Through the years Bebe and I have bonded over our two common enemies: depression and my father. Our relationships with both have gotten much better, and in a weird way I miss how we’d struggle through them together, comparing strategies, medications, and, ultimately, successes.

If I get a gig, it doesn’t count until Bebe’s seen it. Every time I’m on a set, I make sure to get a Polaroid of me in costume to send to her. Open the cigar box in the top drawer of her rickety highboy and you’ll see square photos of me in all my Hollywood glamour: as Waiter, Ticket Taker, Game Show Host, Usher, Man No. 2 — proof that I did a TV job she may never see.

Another thing she may never see is my wedding.

I don’t know if Bebe will be around long enough to experience the shock of me getting married. If so, I hope she can at least hold out until the reception. Incidentally, Bebe’s been single longer than I have, but I don’t give her a hard time about who she dates. I’ll have to mention that next time I talk to her.

J. Keith van Straaten is a writer and performer who currently hosts “What’s My Line? — Live on Stage” every Wednesday in Los Angeles. For more information, visit

New Berlin Memorial a Sign of Hope


Each year our congregation travels to a different corner of the Jewish world, and last Tisha B’Av, the day commemorating persecutions and destructions that have befallen the Jewish people, we found ourselves in Berlin.

We entered Germany’s gleaming, dynamic capital with ambivalence, eyeing its people, especially those over age 75, wondering what they did during World War II. We sat and watched, discussing our reluctance to be there, but acknowledged that nearly 60 years have passed and accepted the fact that most contemporary Germans had nothing to do with the Shoah.

And while we felt haunted during our stay, we enjoyed Berlin as a lively and lovely city, and took comfort in the numerous Holocaust monuments we saw.

The newest memorial, Peter Eisenmann’s Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe, will be officially unveiled May 10, two days after ceremonies mark the 60th anniversary of World War II’s end.

The memorial’s opening comes nearly six years after the Bundestag originally passed a resolution for its construction, and almost four years after the official opening of the city’s Jewish Museum.

Situated in a five-acre field near the Brandenburg Gate in the center of Berlin, The Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe is made up of 2,751 concrete blocks, emulating gravestones of varying heights. Visitors can enter the memorial from all four sides and can walk through the narrow paths between the blocks. Its wave-like design is haunting in its simplicity, and the unevenness intentionally evokes a sense of being disoriented and lost.

An information center is located beneath the memorial, supplying biographies of individual victims and their families.

Berlin’s Jewish Museum is the city’s second most visited site and is well complemented by the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Designed by architect Daniel Liebiskind, who is now creating the World Trade Center Memorial, the museum teaches its mostly non-Jewish visitors about the Holocaust, but it also explores the pivotal role that Jews played in Germany over the last 800 years.

Architects often say their buildings tell a story. The Jewish Museum is no exception. Its Holocaust spaces evoke feelings of fear and claustrophobia with slanted floors that disorient, mazes that confuse and confined spaces that make escape just out of reach. Never have I seen architecture used more effectively, especially in the Garden of Exile.

When Germans walk by the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag (since 1999, once again the seat of Germany’s Parliament) or the Kaiser Wilhelm Church, purposely left partially destroyed, they are reminded of the past.

Located just outside of the Wittenbergplatz subway station, in the center of town, a large sign lists the names of extermination camps, urging passersby never to forget the horrors. It rests a few yards from where one of our synagogue members lived as a child. And at Levetzowstrasse, where another member was deported to Riga, there are powerful sculptures depicting horrors of the Shoah and plaques that mark where synagogues once stood.

One synagogue still standing is The New Synagogue. Built in 1867, with 3,000 seats and modeled on the Alhambra, the synagogue is now a glorious museum of Berlin’s Jewish religious past, from traditional to liberal.

While there, we joined our cantor, Ruti Braier, in singing “Mah Tovu,” with music written by the New Synagogue’s former Cantor Moshe Lewandowski. For a moment, present and past were joined.

We wanted to see how Jews in Berlin live, so we visited the Jewish Community Center, which is built on the site of the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue, where another of our members sang in the children’s choir on High Holidays. All that is left of the original building is an arch over the center’s main door.

So much of Berlin’s Jewish life is like that — the void is more powerful than what exists.

And, yet, Germany’s Jewish population is growing to fill the void left by the Shoah. Before the Holocaust there were 535,000 Jews in Germany; after, only 15,000. Today the country’s Jewish population is more than 110,000, many whom are from former Soviet countries and have a minimal religious background. As part of its reparations, Germany admits Jewish refugees, providing them with welfare benefits and, ultimately, if employed, citizenship after eight years.

We saw other signs of hope around Berlin. There were long lines for a wonderful Chagall exhibit in artist Max Liebermann’s home, next to the Brandenberg Gate, where six decades earlier Hitler drew adoring crowds. In Pottsdamerplatz, where 60 years before, both blacks and Jews were considered undesirable “untermenschen,” the Klezmatics and American gospel singers performed together, with young Germans singing, clapping and dancing.

Dealing with one’s past — personal and communal — is always a path to healing pain and facing the future more openly. Sixty years later, the situation isn’t black and white. There are many shades of gray. But hate, anger and avoidance aren’t as constructive as engagement and discovery.

Arnold Rachlis is rabbi of University Synagogue in Irvine.


Teens Gear up for Bicycle Tzedakah


With their hands all but frozen, lips blue and feet soaking, nearly 50 South Bay teens and a large handful of adult volunteers braved the storm on Sunday, Dec. 5, to devote their afternoon to testing, cleaning and repairing bicycles.

The second of four Arachim programs, this event focused on tzedakah. Taking over the entire parking lot behind the Palos Verdes Bicycle Center, the volunteers worked on more than 125 bicycles that had been donated by community members for distribution to children at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Care Services and several other local agencies.

“This ended up being a great community event,” said Robin Franko, director of the Jewish Federation/South Bay Council. “We had more bicycles donated than we could have dreamed of and amazing support from local businesses.”

Steve Bowen, Palos Verdes Bicycle Center owner, said, “We had been looking for ways to get involved in the community, to be good citizens. This project made us feel like we were helping out in a big way.”

Bowen provided the space, tools, training and expertise that allowed the volunteers to refurbish the bicycles.

The goal of the Arachim program is to help teens discover the opportunities that exist in their neighborhoods and communities, where their contributions make a significant difference in the lives of other people. The unique project is being observed by numerous synagogues and may serve as a model for communities trying to develop similar programs.

Franko developed Arachim with five South Bay synagogues. Jewish teenagers in eighth and ninth grades meet youngsters from neighboring congregations, while learning about the obligation of mitzvot.

“The South Bay has an incredibly vibrant Jewish community,” Franko said, “and one of my objectives as director for the past year has been to develop programs that will build cohesion and unity within this relatively large geographic area.”

The South Bay encompasses about 35 miles, stretching along the Pacific from Westchester to San Pedro, and is home to nearly 40,000 Jews. It is estimated that only 20 percent are affiliated with South Bay synagogues. Franko said that programs such as Arachim help bring the unaffiliated together and give them a sense of the larger Jewish community.

Teens from B’nai Tikvah in Westchester; Congregation Ner Tamid (CNT), Palos Verdes; Congregation Tifereth Jacob, Manhattan Beach; Temple Beth El, San Pedro; and Temple Menorah, Redondo Beach are expected to be the primary participants, however, students from other synagogues or those unaffiliated with a synagogue are being encouraged to participate.

“We have a very dedicated group of synagogue educators planning these events,” Franko said. “They’ve worked extremely hard to spread the word that kids from all over the South Bay are welcome to participate in these projects.”

Many of the religious schools’ teachers attended the event, fixing bicycles and supervising their students.

“This was an important activity for my class,” said Adam Allenberg, a ninth-grade teacher at Congregation Ner Tamid and a rabbinic education student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “In our last session, we discussed the meaning of tzedakah so that the kids would understand the context of the tradition.”

The point was not lost on the students.

“This was one of the highest forms of tzedakah,” said Mickey, one of Allenberg’s students. “We don’t know who will get the bikes, and the kids who get them don’t know who gave them.”

After the bicycle repairs were completed, Jeff Catania, Vista Del Mar vice president of development, spoke to the group about the children and teenagers who live at Vista Del Mar and the circumstances that brought them to the group home.

In October, more than 40 students gathered at Congregation Ner Tamid, which is located between a nursing home and a residential care facility, for the first Arachim program. Participants were provided an opportunity to perform two mitzvot: bikur holim (visiting the sick) and hiddur p’nei zakein (honoring the elderly).

“This program tapped into the kindness of our students,” said Cheri Ellowitz-Silver, CNT education director. “The children were comfortable and compassionate, and the residents were visibly moved and delighted by their visit.”

Prior to the event, the students participated in a classroom discussion about what these mitzvot mean, and why they are such an important tenet of Judaism.

“It was really neat,” said Adina Knell, an eighth-grader from Manhattan Beach. “It made me feel good to help people in my own community, like I was making a difference.”

Afterward, the students walked back to Ner Tamid for pizza and a social hour, before returning by bus to their area synagogues.

“The social aspect of these events is significant,” Franko said, “and will be a part of all four projects. Again, the purpose of our program is twofold: to give these kids the opportunity to perform meaningful mitzvot and, equally as important, to provide them with a fun and comfortable atmosphere where they will develop strong friendships with other Jewish teens.”

Two more Arachim activities have been scheduled for next year. On Jan. 30, teens will learn about teshuvah (repentance) and sh’mirat ha-guf (respect for one’s body). The students will visit Beit T’Shuvah in West Los Angeles, a residential treatment facility and an agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Beit T’Shuvah provides emotional and spiritual healing to Jews with addictive and behavioral disorders.

On April 17, the students will perform their final mitzvah for the school year, ma-achil r’ayvim (feeding the hungry). They will work at the Project Needs food bank in Redondo Beach, helping to stock shelves and prepare Passover baskets for Jewish families in need of assistance.

The Arachim program is open to all eighth- and ninth-grade students, regardless of synagogue affiliation. For more information or to become involved as an adult volunteer, call Robin Franko, (310) 375-0863.


Where Will a Teen’s Schooling Continue?


When Amy Cohen graduated from Adat Ari El’s day school in 2003, her family faced a decision: Where would she continue her education?

While eighth-graders at Orthodox day schools generally continue on to Jewish high schools, graduates of Conservative, Reform or community day schools matriculate to any number of school settings, including Jewish, public, magnet and private secular.

At this time of the year, parents and students face the task of setting priorities and examining realities that will determine where a Jewish teen’s education will continue.

As the Cohens discussed options, “It became clear that she didn’t want to continue in a religious setting,” recalled Amy’s father, Dennis Cohen. “She wanted to sample the wider world.”

The Studio City family briefly considered public school for Amy, but decided that she would be better served in a private school that could offer small classes and individualized attention. Amy was accepted into Pacific Hills, a private school in West Hollywood. Cohen says his daughter enjoyed the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of the student body and quickly adjusted to her new setting.

Similarly, Cohen’s son, Geoffrey, now 18, left Adat Ari El after fifth grade to attend the gifted program at Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood. There, Cohen said, his son enjoyed “getting lost in the crowd and having a bigger social circle.”

Although Cohen said he would have been happy to send his children to a Jewish high school, he did not object to their preferences.

“You try to lay the foundation for their Jewish observances at home … and you hope it takes root,” he said. “Eventually, they’re going to go into the secular world.”

Although neither of his children is continuing with formal Jewish education, Cohen said that their synagogue remains a central part of the family’s life.

It’s difficult to determine the exact number of families like the Cohens who are choosing to leave the Jewish day school world after the elementary years. Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles, said that one might conclude that fewer students are making the transition from Jewish elementary schools to Jewish high schools, given that last fall there were 685 eighth-graders in day school, and only 621 entering high school students this fall. That number also includes some who enter Jewish high school after attending a secular middle school.

At the same time, Jewish high school enrollment is substantially higher today than five years ago. According to Graff, there were 502 ninth-graders enrolled in Jewish high schools in 1999, compared to the 621 today.

With annual private high school tuition averaging from $18,000 to the mid-20s, the option is beyond the means of many families.

Debbie Gliksman sent her three children to Pressman Academy at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles. But when it came time for her eldest child, Lianna, to start high school, “our options were limited,” she said. Gliksman would have liked to send her daughter to Milken Community High School, but “it’s a very, very expensive proposition to send three kids there,” she said.

Instead, her daughter enrolled this fall in the humanities magnet program at Hamilton High, her local school.

“There’s a big difference [between private and public],” Gliksman said.

She and other parents recommend that families who may want to send their children to a magnet school begin accruing points as early as possible. (For more information about points, visit and click on “FAQs” under the “Discover LAUSD” tab.)

For other families, only a Jewish high school will do. In June, Maureen Goldberg’s son, Joshua, will graduate from Abraham Heschel Day School in Northridge. Goldberg said her family had been “struggling for the last couple of years” over the issue of where he should go next.

Several weeks ago, she said the family “came to an epiphany” while attending an open house for a secular private school they were considering. The school had put out an extensive buffet, and as Goldberg approached the tables and saw the ham and cheese.

“My heart sank,” she said.

She turned to her son and said, “I don’t think I can go back.” And he responded, “I don’t think I can, either, mom.”

“It crystallized for us that we weren’t ready to give up the Judaic experience,” said Goldberg, who added that she considered it even more important for adolescents than younger children to learn Jewish values. “He might get that at a secular school, but I know he’ll get it at Milken.”

Goldberg also said she was disappointed that although 75 percent of her son’s class went on to private schools, only three chose to go to a Jewish one.

Like many other parents sending their children to private school, Goldberg said the family had to sacrifice to afford the steep tuition.

“I’d rather live in the smallest house in the worst neighborhood and send my kid to a private Jewish day school, than live in the largest house and go to public school,” she said. “The sacrifice is worth it. I have a really menschy, kind kid, and he got a lot of that from Heschel.”


Synagogue Perks Entice Unaffiliated

What does $1,000 buy you these days in Jewish life?

Maybe, if you’re lucky, a full-year family synagogue membership. But what exactly does that mean? Two tickets to High Holiday services? Free parking? Entree to Kiddushes?

At a time when families have limited time and money and so much competing for it, synagogue leaders are realizing the need to offer more to potential and existing congregant.

The Journal surveyed a number of synagogues in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley to find out what membership brings these days. Remember: Membership has its privileges.

No. 1: The "Come Join Our Synagogue So You Can Enroll in Our Day School" Model

A family membership at Temple Beth Am ( costs $1,925. The price might seem a bit steep, but not only does the membership come with two High Holiday tickets, but it also gives members the privilege of sending their children to Pressman Academy, the synagogue’s affiliate day school. Pressman Academy is named after Rabbi Jacob Pressman, Beth Am’s rabbi emeritus, and, according to its Web site, it teaches students "to be serious and committed Jews and responsible American citizens." The only way you get to send your kids to Pressman is if you are a Beth Am member.

If those are not enticements enough, then Beth Am also has a social coordinator who helps members meet each other by organizing havurahs, or social groups. The havurahs are grouped together according to age, and they that meet various times throughout the year for different activities, like going out to dinner and to the park.

No. 2: The "Join Our Synagogue So You Can Get a Discount on Our Other Institutions" Model:

With 2,500 members, Wilshire Boulevard Temple ( is one of the largest synagogues in Los Angeles, and it requires you to be a member of the synagogue (cost of family membership: $1,728, includes High Holiday tickets) before you can enroll your children in its religious school. But if you are wanting more religious education for your children than what a secular school can offer, you can enroll them in the temple’s nursery or elementary school. Both are open to members and nonmembers, but members get a substantial discount and get bumped up the waiting list.

"It makes financial sense to be a member in order to get in," Wilshire Boulevard Executive Director Stephen Breuer said. "Our schools are subsidized by the congregation, and the day school tuition for a member is substantially cheaper than for a nonmember. Our schools are part of the total synagogue experience — they are not stand-alone businesses that we operate."

Breuer said that in addition to the schools, the synagogue offers everything from children’s services on Shabbat to grief counseling.

No. 3: The "Come Join Our Synagogue So You Can Send Your Kids To Our Religious or Nursery School" Model.

Most synagogues are not fortunate enough to have a day school attached to them, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t care about Jewish education. A good number of synagogues offer an afternoon or Sunday religious school program for children attending non-Jewish schools. Many also have nursery schools attached to them.

At most of these synagogues you need to join before you can enroll your children in its religious school.

Temple Aliyah ( in West Hills charges $1,950 for a family membership, which includes High Holiday tickets for parents and children younger than 18 and the right to send children to its religious school. Temple Aliyah also offers a children’s program during High Holiday services.

No. 4: The "Join Our Synagogue Because We Make Religious Life Easy For You" Model

Beth Jacob ( in Pico-Robertson is the largest Orthodox congregation in Los Angeles, and while it can’t offer its members anything in the way of affiliate schools, it does offer a full range of religious services that are designed to fit into any schedule. Membership at Beth Jacob is $1,000 for a family, which includes two High Holiday tickets, but throughout the year that membership entitles you to your choice of three Shacharit minyanim every morning, as well as a large range of Torah classes throughout the week.

No. 5: The "Our Shul Needs You" Model

Unlike other congregations, Aish HaTorah Los Angeles ( says its primary mission is not building a congregation, but outreach to unaffiliated Jews.

"We are looking for people who want to be part of that commitment," said William Gross, chair of the Aish Hatorah Los Angeles Community. "Our membership is not just for the synagogue — we are packing it together with the outreach organization as well. If we sell $1,000 worth of tickets to the High Holidays we have failed, but if we get 10 people to help us achieve our mission [we have succeeded]."

Therefore, a family membership at Aish is $1,800, but built into that membership is not only two High Holiday tickets, but also two tickets to Aish HaTorah’s annual banquet, which supports its outreach activities.

There are other membership models, too. Shuls like Beth Shir Sholom (BSS) in Santa Monica which want 2 percent of your gross income as membership, with a suggested minimum of $1,500, which excludes anyone earning less than $75,000 a year (in fairness, a spokesperson for BSS said that people needing to pay less than $1,500 "could work it out with the executive director.")

There is a shul in Pico-Robertson, which offers a $600 family membership that includes High Holiday for all family members, but they don’t want to publicize it because "we don’t want people who are just going to come for the High Holidays and not come the rest of the year."

Despite the secrecy, that shul has managed to boost its membership from 100 families to 210 families within one year.

But the good news for those seeking synagogue memberships is most of the synagogues that The Journal spoke to, in many different parts of Los Angeles, said that they would not turn away any Jew because of financial problems. In other words, getting Jews to be religiously affiliated is more important than money in the bank.

Three Rabbis to Pursue Diverse Sabbaticals

Three of Orange County’s senior rabbis have decided to take a sabbatical. While the three have decided on their own to take a respite from the 24/7 demands of being a rabbi, their congregations are taking a different approach to temporarily replacing an absent spiritual leader.

The most unique arrangement is that at Fountain Valley’s Congregation B’nai Tzedek. Taking the pulpit in the place of Rabbi Stephen J. Einstein beginning Oct. 15 will be his daughter, Rabbi Rebecca Yael Schorr, who grew up in the congregation founded for her father in 1976.

Nepotism wasn’t a factor, they say. Schorr, along with other more seasoned candidates, submitted to interviews by a search committee, which made its recommendation to the congregation’s full board. Einstein and Cantor Linda Ecker, who knew the candidate as a teen, excused themselves from the final selection process in April.

In truth, Einstein thinks Schorr did have an edge over the other candidates. She, like her father, possesses a compelling personal trait, which congregants of B’nai Tzedek have come to expect of clergy.

“She is different from me,” said Einstein, 58. “The part that’s the same is being fully present in the moment. Every week people come up to me and say, ‘You really mean it, don’t you?’ It makes me sense that’s not what takes place elsewhere.”

“My dad’s gift is he connects with people,” said Schorr, 33, who served as an assistant rabbi at Long Beach’s Temple Israel for six years, which included an internship. She was ordained in 1999.

“I’m flattered to fill in for one of the great rabbis of his generation,” she said.

Schorr will get a trial run conducting four Shabbat services this summer, a time when her father enjoys sampling the sermons of colleagues.

Like the biblical instruction to leave fields fallow in the seventh year, clergy and academics are among a few professions that routinely grant long-term paid absences after seven years of service.

“It’s for the same reason as in the Bible — to give a rest,” said Einstein, who has a lifetime contract from the Reform congregation, now at 425 families. “We can have a day off, but if there’s a crisis, that’s the end of that.”

Einstein and his wife, Robin, plan to divide their time between the East Coast and Spain. He doesn’t have a specific goal to accomplish during his third sabbatical, other than a possible congregational tour of Israel around Purim.

“Each time when I came back, I was raring to go,” said Einstein, who is also a chaplain for the police department, involved with an interfaith council and teaches three on-going adult education courses and one semester a year at Cal State Fullerton.

Einstein recalled that a rabbinical career appealed to him, because he naively believed rabbis spent their time studying and reading. He knows better now.

“A sabbatical allows me to get back to that idealism,” he said.

In January, Allen Krause, rabbi of Temple Beth El for 20 years, will also begin his third sabbatical. He received a fellowship from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Jewish Studies, which chooses a single recipient annually.

Although the fellow is only required to study, Krause, 64, proposed reworking his master’s thesis into book form. His topic was Southern rabbis who participated in the U.S. civil rights movement. Revisiting their stories will return Krause to an epiphany that powerfully influenced his own career.

Through his research, Krause came to realize that congregational respect for clergy gives rabbis the buoyancy to support unpopular positions and not suffer career harm. One of his subjects, Rabbi Charles Mantindand of Temple B’nai Israel in Hattiesburg, Miss., was a vocal advocate of integration, a position much of his congregation opposed.

“He’s the one I’m most in awe of,” said Krause, who has openly criticized actions by Israel’s government, despite his congregation’s generally pro-Israel views. “I strongly believe a rabbi has to take moral stands.”

Krause’s research, ground-breaking in its time, underpins publications by several other authors who gained access to his initial 400-page work through Cincinnati’s Jewish American Archives.

“This is truly my own contribution,” said Krause, who intends to update his research. His wife, Sherrie, will accompany him.

“If it weren’t for sabbaticals, I’d never get anything done,” said Krause.

Beth El will hire a temporary pulpit replacement, who will work alongside Johanna Hershenson, returning as the congregation’s assistant rabbi beginning July 1 (see story below).

Elie Spitz, in his 17th year as rabbi of Tustin’s Congregation B’nai Israel will depart after Yom Kippur for the remainder of the academic year.

One option he is considering is traveling the globe with his wife, Linda, and home-schooling their three children. Another is trading housing for teaching in a foreign locale. Returning to Israel is a third option.

“Rabbinic families have a great deal of stress,” said Spitz, describing a high burnout rate among clergy, who often end up working seven days without days off. “The job is to be a teacher and a visionary. To do both, you need a break to engage in intense study to provide a hiatus for perspective.”

Six years ago, Spitz took his family on sabbatical in Israel, where he was able to write a book about reincarnation.

“The first sabbatical was a magical year,” he said. “There is no substitute for a block of uninterrupted time.”

As a substitute for Spitz, the Conservative congregation of 495 families will count on willing lay volunteers, who will help fulfill ritual functions, along with Cantor Marcia Tilchin, hired subsequent to Spitz’s earlier sabbatical break.

Back to the Desert

Modern Jews must possess an ancient collective memory to stay out of the desert. I only had enough vacation days saved up for the Memorial Day weekend, not enough for 40 years of wandering.

But Arie Katz, founder of Orange County’s Community Scholar Program, which sponsored this second annual retreat, promised that we would be on schedule. And I have learned to never doubt Arie. So we loaded up the car and headed for the desert.

Arriving at La Casa del Zorro Desert Resort, we unpacked into our beautiful luxury room overlooking one of the five swimming pools. This four-diamond resort is located in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest state park in the contiguous United States. It covers more than 600,000 acres of rugged, pristine and diverse terrain with spectacular canyons, sand dunes and desert mountains. And now this panoramic but forbidding place was the temporary home of 40-plus Orange County Jewish families. I thought to myself, “How can anyone learn anything in this heat?”

I was wrong.

Rivy Kletenik, our weekend scholar-in-residence, writes and teaches on topics of Jewish interest throughout the world. Taking a cue from the western tableaux, her lively weekend discussions centered on the theme of “Wild Stories of The Talmud & Midrash: the Thin Precipice Between Life and Death.”

A graduate of Pittsburgh’s Hillel Academy, Jerusalem College for Women, Hebrew University and Touro College, Rivy was also recently selected by the Covenant Foundation to receive the Covenant award for outstanding Jewish educators.

Rivy’s lectures were the icing on the cake of an extensive schedule complete with religious services, lectures, gourmet meals and separate activities for younger children. Before we began each morning, Josh Lake, our tribe’s in-house naturalist, offered a sunrise desert walk to help us better appreciate our surroundings. (Confession: I never woke up in time to join the hike. Maybe next year.)

Shabbat was a beautiful sight: 120 Orange County Jews in the desert, from a dozen different congregations, shvitzing and celebrating Shabbat together as a unified community. Congregation B’nai Israel’s Rabbi Elie Spitz led Shabbat services, as well as master songleader Dale Schatz to focused our ruach (spirit).

Our 4-year-old daughter, Adina, loved it. She quickly made friends with all of the other children and fell in love with the weekend’s teen counselors. Her two favorites, sisters Jaclyn and Elena Bendroff, played with Adina during Shabbat free time and babysat her each night.

The weekend was spectacular, not only from an intellectual standpoint, but as a Jewish parent and communal professional. It was refreshing to see so many generations of Jewish families — some with children, some without — learning together, singing together and laughing together.

At the end of the weekend, everyone agreed to meet back in the desert again next year. And, just as Arie promised, the retreat ended as scheduled.

I’ve already put in for my vacation during Memorial Day weekend next year. Wanna join us?

To receive information about the CSP or sign up for next year’s annual desert retreat, visit

With Camperships for All

They are not scholarships but “camperships” in Jewish summer camp parlance. Of the 1,000 campers expected soon at Malibu’s Camp JCA Shalom, which is supported by JCCGLA, about 200 parents applied for camperships.

“It’s amazing, in the past few years, the income level of people who are requesting camperships,” said Bill Kaplan, executive director of the Shalom Institute, which runs Camp JCA Shalom. Its campership aid this year will run about $130,000, $75,000 of which is general camp aid from The Federation. That is an increase from the $50,000 The Federation made available 2002, the boost due to the increase in cash-strapped families.

In addition to that $75,000, there is a separate $18,000 in Federation money for kids from Russian immigrant families, with the rest of Camp JCA’s $130,000 coming from donations and regional federations for campers from Arizona, Las Vegas and Southern California’s outlying Jewish communities not served by the L.A. Federation.

“About half of the parents are unaffiliated,” Kaplan said. “One of our targets is Jews who are not affiliated with a synagogue.”

In an outreach to public high school kids, the Orthodox Union’s National Council of Synagogue Youth is running a $2,500, July 1-25 coed “Caravan West” motorcoach tour of the western United States.

Whatever the denomination, applying for any campership usually is simple and discreet.

“On the application for camp we have a checkbox. Our office then will send out a packet; a financial aid application,” said Rabbi Daniel Greyber, executive director of the University of Judaism’s Camp Ramah in California, which has about 15 percent to 20 percent of parents requesting aid, and this summer will distribute $175,000 in camperships. Parents are also asked if their synagogue will help.

“The expectation is that everybody contributes something,” Greyber said. “Many but not all of the Conservative synagogues have a scholarship fund, either for Camp Ramah in California or Jewish camp in general.”

Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu helps Reform kids through a campership fund.

“We will at least match the temple,” said Hess Kramer director Howard Kaplan. “There are times when I have a rabbi call and say they’re out of funds and they really need to get this kid to camp; can we find a way? We find a way.”

Wilshire Boulevard will distribute about $30,000 in camperships to about 60-80 kids.

“We try to get everyone something, even if it’s a hundred bucks for a short session,” said Howard Kaplan, who added that safeguards are in the application process. “We ask for the front page of their taxes, just so that they’re not earning $250,000 and they don’t want to pay. It happens.”

Camp Hess Kramer gives camperships covering no more than half its fee, and its director avoids making such aid habit-forming.

“If we have families on scholarship we try to wean them off it over the years,” he said.

Above all, he said, “If a kid’s deserving, you get him there.”

Financial aid is also available through interest-free loans from Federation-backed Jewish Free Loan Association and its Morris Doberne Camper Experience Loan Fund.

Aid is not just for sleepover camps. At Temple Israel of Hollywood, the six-week day camp costs $300 a week, with 60 percent of its 70 campers from the shul’s school.

“We don’t have an express scholarship program, but we work with individual families who express a specific need,” said Jackie Symonds, the school’s general studies coordinator. “It’s basically what can you afford.”

How a Death Can Save Lives

After repeated blood tests over many months, Blanche Thoma was impatient with her doctors. She demanded to know their best guess at what was causing her lethargy.

Their answer remained inscrutable until she turned to a medical dictionary. The definition stunned Thoma, then a mother of two young children studying for an advanced psychology degree. In the mid-1970s, primary biliary cirrhosis, a rare auto-immune liver disease, was untreatable. Life expectancy was five to 10 years.

"I was frozen. I was shaking. I was in shock," said Thoma of Lake Forest. Over eight years as the disease progressed, she turned sickly green and stick thin. She took a screwdriver to itchy skin, a disease symptom.

When moving from Woodland Hills to Orange County to be nearer the help of her parents, a flower pot was too taxing for her to lift. Welcome relief from the burden of household tasks came from members of Mission Viejo’s Congregation Eilat.

"It was very hard on the children to see their mother dying," Thoma said. At the time, her daughter was 13 and her son 9.

Then, because of several lucky coincidences, Thoma survived a hemorrhage to see 1984, when Loma Linda doctors kept an infant alive 21 days with a baboon heart transplant. Receiving less notice than the Baby Fae heart case was a novel anti-rejection drug that won approval in January 1984 and would reverse doctors’ grim success in doing organ transplants.

Weeks into that year, Thoma received a new liver from a 13-year-old girl who was an accident victim. Her doctor was Thomas Starzl, a renowned surgeon at Pittsburgh’s Presbyterian Hospital who pioneered liver transplants. Today, even with continuing advances in transplant medicine, Thoma is a rare patient to have survived 20 years after receiving a new organ.

Yet the advent of new drugs that prevent rejection and make transplants more viable has an equally grim corollary: The number of people in need of a life-saving transplant outpaces the number of willing donors. More than 83,000 people are on a national waiting list of the United Network for Organ Sharing, twice the number listed a decade ago.

At a service on March 21 at Mission Viejo’s Eilat, Thoma will share the urgency of giving others a second chance at life, one, in her case, owed to a remarkable gift from people she still has never met.

Although the topic unsettles some and seems as irrelevant as life insurance to others, the need is very real, said Tenaya Wallace, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles-based OneLegacy, a transplant donor network serving 14 transplant centers in seven counties between Kern and San Diego.

"When they hear Blanche’s story, they get it," Wallace said. "She was so sick; it was an absolute transformation."

Yet, mostly because of myths and misconceptions, just 50 percent of families confronted with the unexpected loss of a loved one give consent for the recovery of organs, Wallace said. Nationally last year, 21,373 organs were transplanted, nearly 75 percent of them coming from 15,732 donors who suffered brain death due to sudden injury. Another 5,600 organs came from living donors, like the cousin who gave basketball legend Alonzo Mourning a kidney last December.

It’s a trend that troubles some doctors and ethicists by placing pressure on spouses and relatives and has fostered an organ black market in poor countries such as China and India and in Eastern Europe. Organ sales are prohibited in the United States.

The dot that marks consent for organ donation on California driver’s licenses is inadequate authority for physicians, who demand consent from next of kin, Wallace said.

"No one tells you where you are on the list," said David Rosenbloom, 58, of Los Angeles, whose own kidneys began failing two years ago. "I don’t sit on pins and needles. I take a Zen attitude; it will happen when it happens."

Thanks to dialysis three times a week, self-discipline over food and good health otherwise, Rosenbloom leads a near-normal life, despite having only one barely functioning kidney. His life is different, though. Now, he works only part time making custom cabinets and quit annual trips abroad with his wife, Linda.

"Faced with my own mortality, my big goal was to see the second Harry Potter movie," he said. "Now’s the time where you show your nobility. Other people have it worse and haven’t lived 58 years."

The life-saving impact of organ donation is little discussed in the wider community or the Jewish one, even though the inestimable value of human life is a cardinal principle of Jewish law.

"It should be something Jews feel is their duty to do," said Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, University of Judaism rector and philosophy professor and author of "Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics" published in 1998. "They should make provisions."

Arnie Zepel is grateful he shared such a conversation with his son, Jason, as the boy was readying to apply for a driver’s license near his 16th birthday. Three years later, on Sept. 30, 1994, Arnie and Sharon Zepel, vacationing in Mexico, received word that Jason had fallen more than 8 feet from a theater marquee catwalk, crushing his head against a planter.

"No matter what, there was no way they could save his life," Zepel said. The delicate question about releasing his organs was uncomplicated for the 19-year-old’s parents. "It was much easier because we had discussed it," Zepel said. "It provided us some comfort knowing we we’re carrying out his wishes."

"Seven other people have gotten the gift of having Jason’s life go on in them," said Zepel of Orange, a member of Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom.

Zepel finds solace in a commentary from the Talmud. "He who saves one life, saves the world," he paraphrased. He now volunteers as an advocate for organ procurement.

Yet, for the Zepels, freeing Jason’s organs salvaged meaning from a tragedy that pains them still. "It was where our healing began," Zepel said.

Organ donation is a sensitive topic in the Jewish community, because of traditional prohibitions against disgracing the dead body by disfigurement, as well as benfiting from a dead body.

In the Orthodox community, the definition of brain death is still hotly contested, said Rabbi Joel Landau of Irvine’s Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation, which makes organ donation problematic. Each instance requires a consultation with a halachic medical specialist, Landau said.

The Halachic Organ Donor Society ( was recently created in order to enlist Orthodox Jews to become organ donors.

In 1995, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinic Assembly adopted a responsa by its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards saying that the religious mandate to preserve life takes precedence over all other religious obligations.

"Would they feel the same way if they were in need of a heart?" asked Zepel, a case manager for the state’s Medical Board. "It’s a lesson in looking beyond ourselves. You never know what tomorrow will bring."

Style and Substance

What can the 2003 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) tell us that TheNew York Times wedding announcements can’t?

I read both this weekend, pretty much one after the other, and I can tellyou that the nuptial notices make up in pretty portraits what they lack inhard data.

As for the NJPS, it makes up in hard data what it lacks in sober analysis.

I’m not the first to point out that the usual dire headlines thataccompanied the survey’s release are overripe. “Where have all the Jewishpeople gone?” read one news release. “Jewish Population Declining” screameda newspaper headline. Even comedian Bill Maher chimed in on his HBO show:With fewer Jews, he asked, “Who will write all those sitcoms about Latinoand African American families?”

The survey, funded for $6 million by the federation umbrella group UnitedJewish Communities, reported that the nation’s population of 5.2 millionJews represented a decline of 2 percent from the 1990 survey, which reported5.5 million Jews.

But critics have pointed out that the survey’s numbers are well within themargin of error. Beyond that, barring direct evidence of a decline, the NJPSactually states in its methodological appendix that, “many researchersbelieve that the methodologies of survey research may yield undercounts ofthe Jewish population.” That decline you’ve been reading about all week? Itmay in fact be a slight rise.

As for intermarriage, the survey reported a national intermarriage rateamong all married couples involving a Jew at 43 percent. Hardly shocking, asany weekend reading of Times wedding announcements would seem to indicate.This week, for instance, I saw that Dana Sacher, daughter of Susan and JoelSacher of Springfield, N.J., married John Thomas Rollins, a son of Claireand Paul Rollins of Venice, Fla. A Methodist minister officiated, the paperreported, while Michele Lazerow of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center inTisbury, Mass., “took part in the service.”

There were similar nuptials listed, and, taking a hazardous guess, I’d sayThe Times intermarriage rate for Sunday, Sept. 14, 2003, may be close to the43 percent the NJPS reported.

That number, by the way, is down from the 52 percent rate reported in the1990 survey. You remember how the OVER-HALF-OF-ALL-JEWS-INTERMARRY!statistic became an article of faith among rabbis and Jewish professionalspredicting the imminent end of the Jewish people. It was the number thatlaunched a thousand outreach programs, many of them worthwhile, and, asother numbers in the survey demonstrate, remarkably effective at deepeninglevels of Jewish education.

But it turns out the number itself was wrong. The new survey acknowledgesthat in their zeal to be as inclusive as possible, researchers counted asintermarried people who no longer considered themselves Jews. This time theydefined intermarriage as “the marriage of someone who is Jewish to someonewho is non-Jewish at the time of the survey.”

The result of this stroke of brilliant reasoning is a reduction in the rateof intermarriage in as many as 39 communities to 26 percent or lower.

Taking this into consideration, those dire headlines should instead bedownright inspiring. At a time when Jews can move unhindered up and down andacross the social ladder and marry anyone they want, many still place apremium on retaining their attachment to Judaism.

Among those who do intermarry, the survey found that one-third of theirchildren are being raised Jewish; that their children were three times morelikely to marry non-Jews themselves; that by the common measures of Jewishlife (synagogue affiliation, JCC membership, charitable contribution, homerituals) intermarried couples were much less Jewish.

But once again, don’t think for a second these numbers tell the whole story,or even the most important part of it. Jewish life is not a snapshot, it’s amovie. People’s feelings about their religion change depending, among otherthings, on how others within the faith treat them. Not surprisingly, thesurvey shows the number of Reform and Reconstructionist Jews increasing,while the number of Conservative Jews declining. Guess which denomination ismore welcoming to intermarried couples?

If this survey – and those handsome faces in the wedding announcements – donothing else, they should encourage us to redefine intermarriage not as anonus, but as an opportunity.

JCC Director to Leave Before Project Finish

Part of the team readying O.C.’s Jewish Community Center for its planned relocation and expansion next year in Irvine is not staying to see the result.

Gerry Buncher, 53, the JCC’s executive director since 1999, is resigning at the end of his current contract, effective Dec. 31.

“I decided it’s time to be closer to everybody,” said Buncher, who intends to relocate east in closer proximity to his two adult children and 88-year-old mother, hospitalized twice in the last year. He intends to seek a similar center job in the New York area.

Orange County and Long Beach are among seven communities currently recruiting top executives among the nation’s 275 centers, which have 1 million members, according to the Web site of the Jewish Community Center Association, the group’s national office.

Buncher’s successor will inherit a significantly larger job in a facility described as state-of-the-art. The JCC’s current $2.8 million annual budget is forecast to grow by more than 50 percent in its new location, predicted to open in September 2004, said Maryann Malkoff, the center’s president. The new director will also be responsible for expanding the center’s senior staff, such as new positions that will supervise programs in aquatics and cultural arts.

Future staffing levels will depend on programming, Malkoff said. “We’re still six months away,” she said, from needing to hire middle managers.

JCC membership of 1,200 units, which could be singles, families or couples, has remained stable for at least five years, said Jeanette Lewin, the center’s finance director. In September, the center will employ 38 people in full- and part-time positions. That includes 25 who work in the preschool, which has about 150 students. Staffing doubles in summer to 70 because of teen councilors hired for a day camp, she said.

Initially, the JCC board will consider prospective candidates exclusively from those recruited through the JCCA. “Why not exhaust the best resource first?” Malkoff asked. With a new facility, she predicted little trouble attracting potential job seekers.

Instead of the Jewish Federation, which currently manages the Costa Mesa campus, the JCC and its top executive will also assume day-to-day management responsibilities of the 120,000-square-foot Irvine campus, including its pool and gymnasium. Other Jewish agencies, such as the Bureau of Jewish Education, the Federation and Jewish Family Services, are to be tenants of the Orange County Jewish Campus, a recently incorporated nonprofit entity.

Between Pittsburgh, Columbus, Houston and Costa Mesa, Buncher has spent 26 years in center jobs. The new facility will be improved aesthetically because of insights he’s gleaned on how members use centers, such as eliminating fixed tables in work rooms rearranged for different uses.

“I would feel more guilty about leaving if this was the first year,” he said. “But they’re ready.”

Students Seek Justice for Americans in Israel

Armed with reams of notebook paper and plenty of pens, 600 yeshiva students rallied for legislation that would support American families whose loved ones have died in Israel at the hands of Palestinian terrorists.

In honor of Yom HaZikaron (the Jewish Day of Remembrance), students from Yeshiva University High School (YULA), Maimonides Academy, Emek Hebrew Academy, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy and West Valley Hebrew Day School gathered at B’nai David Judea Synagogue in Los Angeles on Tuesday, May 6 for YULA’s third annual memorial rally and letter-writing campaign. This year’s event was in memory of Yael Botwin, a Los Angeles teenager who was murdered in the September 1997 Palestinian bombing on Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem.

After hearing heart-breaking stories of lives lost, students wrote letters to U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) urging them to co-sponsor the Koby Mandell Act, which would create a special unit in the Justice Department to pursue Palestinian terrorists who have harmed Americans. Last year’s rally led to co-sponsorship of the bill by several representatives, including Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys), Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles).

"I think it’s important to pass the [Koby Mandell Act]. I don’t know why it hasn’t received more attention," YULA senior Motti Klein said.

Ezra Pinsky, another YULA senior, has a personal interest in the act, as he plans to study at a yeshiva in Israel upon graduation from high school this June.

"I’d like to know that America is going to take actions against those who could be threatening me," said the 17-year-old, clutching his letter. "It’s not going to be a pleasant year if I’m in danger."

Lawyer Takes on Looted Art, Austria

In one of the most complex legal battles in the annals of Holocaust restitution, centering on the return of art looted by the Nazis to their rightful owners, E. Randol Schoenberg is stationed on the front lines.

The stakes are enormous. In the biggest collective art theft of all time, Hitler’s minions seized up to 600,000 important works between 1933 and 1945, according to a recent report in The New York Times.

If one includes all art objects, books, Judaica, silver pieces and other valuables, the Nazis stole 10.7 million items in all of Europe, worth more than $37 billion today, the same article estimates.

A current case, which has drawn wide attention, pits Schoenberg against the government of Austria. There is some historic irony in the confrontation, since the 36-year old Brentwood lawyer is the grandson of the pathbreaking Austrian Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, often dubbed "the father of modern music."

Schoenberg, the lawyer, represents Maria V. Altman, an 87-year-old resident of Cheviot Hills, who is seeking to recover six paintings by the early 20th century Viennese painter Gustav Klimt. The paintings, valued at $150 million, include a stunning portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer.

The Austrian government, which holds the paintings, is contesting the claim. Last year, Schoenberg scored a major victory when an appeals court in San Francisco ruled that a foreign government could be held to answer in the United States for a Holocaust-based claim.

But the two-and-a-half year old case is far from over. The Austrian government is appealing the decision and, to Schoenberg’s dismay, the U.S. administration is backing the Austrians on the grounds that a sovereign foreign state is immune to lawsuits in American courts. The case might end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Last December, Schoenberg opened up another front by seeking to recover a $10 million Picasso oil painting for the Berkeley-based grandson of a Berlin woman who owned it before World War II.

The 1922 painting, "Femme en Blanc" ("Woman in White"), was "confiscated" by the Nazis in 1940. After the war, by a circuitous route via French and American art dealers, the Picasso eventually became the property of a Chicago art patron, who is fighting the grandson’s claim.

Besides these headline cases, Schoenberg has advised hundreds of Jewish families from Austria on their restitution rights, usually as a free service, but he earns his bread and butter through more mundane business litigation.

"It is enormously time-consuming to pursue the art recovery cases — I received my first call from Maria Altman in the Klimt case in 1998 — and enormously expensive, running into millions," said Schoenberg, sitting in his high-rise office on Wilshire Boulevard. "So you can only initiate an action if the paintings are immensely valuable. You’re not going to sue over a looted $50 mezuzah."

"Randy" Schoenberg has the rare distinction of being the grandson of two eminent 20th century composers, both of whom fled the Nazis and settled in Los Angeles.

On his mother’s side, his grandfather was Eric Zeisl, best known for his "Requiem Ebraico," composed in 1945 when he learned that his father had perished in a concentration camp. Zeisl also wrote music for a number of Hollywood movies.

But because Randy’s last name is Schoenberg, the young lawyer is most closely identified with his other grandfather, fervently admired, and sometimes damned, for his development of atonal music and the 12-tone technique.

Arnold Schoenberg, who spent the last 17 years of his life in Los Angeles and taught at UCLA and USC, was largely ignored by the classical music world in the 1930s and ’40s. But since his death in 1951, there has been a major rediscovery and appreciation of his works.

"I run into people who are ecstatic to meet Arnold’s grandson and who worship and love him," said the lawyer, who was born well after his grandfather’s death. "There are others who hate his music, but I doubt if they know all his works. He wrote so much, 15 hours worth if you play it all, there’s something a music lover is bound to like.

"It’s funny, people who would hesitate to give an opinion on paintings or literature will instantly pronounce judgment on a piece of music."

Arnold Schoenberg had a stormy relationship with his ancestral faith. As a young man, he converted to Lutheranism and then reconverted to Judaism in 1933, when Hitler came to power.

He predicted the Holocaust with prophetic clarity and eventually became a utopian Zionist, whose opera, "Moses und Aron," expressed his faith in his people’s destiny.

Randy Schoenberg himself grew up in a nonobservant environment, but since his marriage to Pamela, and the birth of their two young kids who attend Sinai Temple preschool, the family has established a kosher home.

"Being Jewish has played such a major part in the history of my family," mused Schoenberg, an ardent genealogy researcher. "I am deeply involved in our culture, history and philosophy and I try to incorporate them in my personal and professional lives."

Haitian Songs

The following piece was written after a recent trip to Haiti, during which a delegation from MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger was hosted by the Lambi Fund, one of MAZON’S longtime grantees.

It starts with a song. Soft at first, then louder, like slow rolling thunder, gentle harmonies that keep time with the clapping of hands.

Soon there will be time for serious talk — of politics, hard labor and the struggle to find food — but for now there is only the music.

Every Haitian man, woman and child knows this music, and during a recent trip to Haiti, I came to know it, too. I was there to visit several grass-roots organizations that help Haitians — most of them poor, many of them hungry — develop the skills they need to improve their everyday lives.

Haiti is a startling place. By all accounts is seems to be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Driving around, I found a vast, barren wasteland, what you’d expect to find on a desolate moonscape or in some futuristic science fiction movie. Plagued by years of war, famine and political mismanagement, the country has been stripped of its natural resources, and with them its industry. Electricity is undependable, and running water an unheard of luxury. With mile after mile of nothing but rocky dirt road, Haiti seems like a place without hope, and certainly a place without a viable future.

And yet, five minutes into a conversation with a Haitian woman, I realized my first impression was wrong. I visited a grain mill in the center of the country, where local women bring their corn. In Haiti, women bear the brunt of the work burden. They are responsible for milling grain and working as vendors at local markets, while simultaneously tending to the needs of their families. The mill represents a significant improvement for the women who use it, and who previously had to walk great distances to process grain for family meals.

Despite their heavy loads, the women I met bubbled over with enthusiasm. These were not bitter, defeated women resigned to a life of poverty. In fact, the women — and the men — were decidedly upbeat. They recognized that they were poor but not powerless, and that systemic change would have to start with them.

Take Marie-Carmel. A 35-year-old mother of three, she understood what it would take to turn her fortunes around. When we were first introduced, she didn’t hesitate to make her views known.

"The politicians will do what they will," she said dismissively. Then she pointed to the mill and said, "This is my president. This is what I believe in."

In the face of extreme poverty, Haitians retain a tremendous sense of dignity. They may be dressing in rags caked with mud and clinging to machetes, but their children are spotless, wearing immaculate school uniforms and clutching battered books. Like parents all over the world, Haitian parents will sacrifice everything to give their kids a chance at a better life.

Several days into my trip, I drove through a torrential downpour to visit an agricultural site in a mountaintop village. After my visit, I climbed back into a rickety van with threadbare tires and began to descend the mountain, which was rapidly deteriorating into sludge. Several miles outside the village, the van sunk into the mud and was stuck. Within the hour, what seemed like the entire village had descended to help me. There was a sense among these people of the need for collective action, of getting around a problem and solving it. As I stood getting soaked, pushing the van out of the muck side by side Haitian men, women and children, I understood how poverty (unpaved roads, decrepit transportation) can be a physical obstacle to getting things done. But I also felt inspired by a sense of community and possibility.

For weeks leading up to my trip, I wondered what relevance all of this could have for the American Jewish community. For me, the question was more than academic, since I’ve dedicated the past several years of my life to raising funds from the Jewish community and distributing them to fight hunger in our country and around the world. How does Haiti affect Jews when it is a country with so few of us?

I found my answer in the faces of the Haitian men and women I was fortunate enough to meet. We are a people consumed by a vision of a more perfect world, and we are a people, many of us blessed with abundance, who can help build it. As Jews committed to tikkun olam, we send food to poverty stricken Haitians for the same reason we teach inner-city children to read and provide housing assistance for new immigrants in this country. We do it because we believe in kevod ha’beriyot, the respect due to every being. MAZON, the anti-hunger organization I head, was founded with this in mind, and shaped by the principle that Jews don’t discriminate.

Every meeting I attended in Haiti started with a song, and every song told a story. As I’ve replayed the lyrics in my head, I’ve become more convinced that the stories hold a lesson for us as Jews. It’s true that we have our own stories and songs. But ever since I’ve been back from Haiti, it’s struck me that it is the overlap, where our stories meet, where the real work gets done.

H. Eric Schockman is the executive
director of MAZON. For more information on MAZON, call (310) 442-0020 or visit

Uruguay Visit Puts Faces to Numbers

People can hear about the economic crisis that has affected South America in the news. People can read about poverty in newspapers, but 22 Jewish and non-Jewish USC students, along with Rabbi Jonathan Klein, USC Hillel director, spent eight days during an alternative spring break trip to Uruguay experiencing firsthand these lives in times of crisis.

We spent our first day at the Jewish Home for the Elderly, where we met Ashkenazi Jews who had immigrated to Uruguay during World War II. Our volunteer work consisted of planting a vegetable garden and painting walls for a project called Kaleidoscope: Colors of Our Grandparents.

Then we volunteered at the neighborhood of El Tobogán in the community of El Cerro, which we later learned had an 80 percent unemployment rate.

Children at El Tobogán had no underwear, and were running shirtless and barefoot amid the spiders and red ants. But the children were no different from other children around the world. They were energetic, happy and innocent.

Community members helped us dig a 5-foot hole for a bathroom, mix the cement for a kitchen and twist wires for floor bases.

The high level of poverty can be traced back to when Uruguay went through the crisis of foot-and-mouth disease in 1998, which did not help the beef export to the United States and Europe. Uruguay’s neighbor, Argentina, one of the top buyers of Uruguayan beef, could not buy anymore after the crisis, said Fernando Filgueira, sociology professor from the Universidad Católica del Uruguay.

He said that the paradox was that while the GDP and social expenditure were growing, poverty was increasing due to lack of employment. Inequality increased. Moreover, the poverty concentrated on children.

For a country that boasts of a 97 percent literacy rate, these statistics are paradoxical.

But then, infant mortality rate is about 14 deaths per 1,000 live births, according to the CIA World Factbook (2002).

Our visit to the Kehila Jewish Community Center was even more discouraging. The Jewish community, which has been middle class, is no longer considered middle class but the “new poor.”

The new poor have homes and cars, but there’s nothing inside their refrigerators, said Becky Stolovich, social worker at Kehila.

“You can’t sell or eat a car,” she said.

The new-poor families experience depression, which leads to family conflicts, divorce and troubled children.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” Stolovich said.

Every day we studied the texts of tzedakah, which provided context to our work of social justice.

The Uruguayan Jewish community is small and people know each other, so they feel ashamed to ask for assistance, said Silvana Pedrowicz, director Tzedek Hillel in Montevideo.

Uruguay is suffering from the economic crisis of its neighbor Argentina. About 20 percent of the population has employment problems, according to Hillel Uruguay. There has been closure of industries and businesses of Jewish owners.

Five times more Uruguayan Jews made aliyah in 2002 than in 2001. About 8 percent emigrated because of the economic situation. Half of the émigrés went to Israel.

About 40 percent of Uruguayan Jewish homes under the poverty line in 2001 were receiving food, clothing, medicine and social assistance from local Jewish communities.

Childhood poverty is such a large national issue that the Research Program on Social Integration, Poverty and Exclusion of the department of social sciences and communication was created by the Catholic University to advocate for children’s welfare.

The program was motivated by the finding that infant poverty has reached 48 percent in children between 5 years old and under, and 42 percent among those 6 to 13.

One in every three Jews in Montevideo is living in economic vulnerability, poverty or indigence. One in every two Jewish children is living in poverty.

So after I returned from my alternative spring break trip, read the statistics and heard about them in the news, I can see they are not just numbers — they have faces — and I have seen them.

For information on Tzedek programs in Uruguay, contact .

Seung Hwa Hong is a student at USC majoring in print journalism and comparative literature. She can be reached at

My Generation

In 1944, when I was 17 and a freshman at Cornell University,
I introduced my mother to my new college girlfriend.

When the young lady left, my mother asked me how we met.

“We were sitting at the same table in the cafeteria and
started to talk.”

Her eyes opened wide. “You what? You mean you were not
formally introduced?”

Before everyone assumes that shadchanim (arranged marriages)
and chaperoned dates were the norms for wartime Jewish youth in the Ivy League,
let me point out a paradox: My shocked mother, a 1925 graduate of Cornell Law School,
made a career as a labor lawyer working for labor unions, truck drivers,
garment workers and the like. She was a secular Jew, a militant feminist and an
active political supporter of the Holy Trinity of New York Jewry: President
Roosevelt, Governor Lehman and Mayor LaGuardia.

But on the subject of marital relations, and all that led up
to them, she was at one with her Lithuanian Orthodox Jewish ancestors.

We, her three sons, did not date until we left for college.
Nor did our friends, all middle-class Jews. There was some gossip about
possible pregnancies among our classmates at Forest Hills High School, but I
cannot recall any of us ever discussing homosexuality and the idea of
cross-dressing — even on Purim — simply never occurred.

We knew, of course, that several girls in our class were
regarded as “fast,” which, to our unsophisticated minds, meant that they petted
in the movies on Saturday night. But it wasn’t until another year went by and I
was a soldier on leave in Paris that I finally discovered what all the
excitement was about.

As I reach my 76th birthday, all this seems like it was
lived in another country. I will spare you the usual doleful comments of the
aged on how today’s youth has declined morally, physically and intellectually.
Actually, if I judge by my four children, three grandchildren and their
friends, they are doing very nicely in all three categories, thank you. (I take
exception only to their taste in popular music.)

One thing they were spared was the chaotic political
environment in which my brothers and I came to maturity. My three older
children grew up, went to college, entered into their professions and made
careers for themselves. Military service was never an issue, nor was the threat
of attack at home by a foreign enemy. My fourth child, younger by two decades,
might yet have to deal with such threats, especially if the present
administration enters into what its enemies will regard as a sacred war against
an infidel culture in which all the world becomes the battlefield.

Contrast this with their father’s experience. By my 22nd
birthday I had served in two armies and the “illegal” immigration movement to
Palestine. It was years before I returned to the college campus to earn my
degrees. Nor was my experience exceptional; millions of American men (and not a
few women) spent much of their youth separated from their families, putting
their lives on the line and on hold, so to speak, while the national interest
was served.

Today people speak of mine as the “greatest generation” and
pay it the homage normally given to firemen and police officers. From the
Olympian heights of a seventh decade, the description is not apt. Certainly, by
one measure at least, we were dreadful failures. What we have left to our
children and grandchildren is a worse legacy even than the one our parents left
to us. We inherited a world convulsed by the effects of two world wars, but
buoyed by the hope that mankind had learned its ghastly lessons and would do
away with genocide, oppression, colonialism and the other ills of the first
half of the century. Instead, we leave them violent nationalisms, atomic
threats, Africa, Cambodia and Al Qaeda, among other actual and potential

My mother grew to be much more accepting of my choice of
girlfriends and even of my ways of meeting them. In fact, 10 years after my
father’s death, she married an attorney whom she met in an elevator in the
building in which they both had offices.

I never had the nerve to make the obvious point. To do so
would not have been befitting a member of the greatest generation.  

Yehuda Lev is a former associate editor of The Jewish Journal. He lives in Providence, R.I.

Call of the Kiwi

Jews in distress are being encouraged to seek out a
trouble-free environment way, way down under — in New Zealand.

With Jewish communities in Argentina and South Africa seen
as potential pools of immigrants, the Orthodox community in Auckland and the
local B’nai B’rith both have launched campaigns hoping to bring more Jews to New

The Orthodox community, through a group known as the
Auckland Jewish Immigration Organization (AJI), has produced a Web site in
English and Spanish promoting the city’s lifestyle and outlining the steps
immigrants must take to meet New Zealand citizenship requirements. The
organization was set up two and a half years ago to encourage immigration that
would bolster the flagging membership of the Auckland Hebrew Congregation.

A large number of Jews, mostly from the United Kingdom, made
a new home for themselves in this quiet, peaceful country after World War II.
However, many of their well-educated and highly trained children left to find
careers overseas after New Zealand suffered an economic decline in the 1980s.

About 7,000 Jews live today in New Zealand, which has a
population of 4 million — and almost full employment. Most live in Auckland,
the country’s largest city.

AJI Chairman Stan Rose, 61, said that the 150-year-old
congregation is seeking new members to fill its seats. The AJI hopes to raise
some $5.75 million to build a new synagogue, a day school and a community

“The Web site has resulted in us getting e-mails every day
from interested would-be migrants. We have had about 85 inquiries from Israel,
with others mainly from Argentina, South Africa, Brazil and Chile,” Rose said.
“We want to double our congregation, but because we are Orthodox, we can only
help those who qualify to join the shul. We want to see a rebirth of our
congregation by introducing much-needed new blood, and we are now experiencing
a steady stream of newcomers.”

The AJI hopes to double its current membership of 1,100.

The B’nai B’rith in Auckland also has been canvassing for
immigrants, without regard to religious level or location. They, too, offer
personalized assistance and advice.

B’nai B’rith started its campaign four years ago,
advertising regularly in the major Johannesburg and Cape Town newspapers and
maintaining a highly detailed Web site.

Treasurer Leon Chapman, 71, who emigrated from South Africa
four years ago, said it is relatively easy for skilled and professional
immigrants to be accepted by the New Zealand government, though professionals
have to pass exams to receive local certifications.

“We have to compete with Sydney, Melbourne and Toronto,
among other cities, but the Web site has produced many inquiries from across
the globe, including South Africa, Israel, Turkey, Argentina and Brazil,”
Chapman said. “We get about five inquiries each day, and constantly have
potential new families visiting for a look-see.”

B’nai B’rith sends immigration consultants from New Zealand
to South Africa several times a year to advise potential immigrants. Those
interested also can access detailed information on lifestyle and the cost of
living in Auckland on B’nai B’rith’s Web site.

Since the campaign began, 10 families have come directly
through B’nai B’rith’s services, with another 30 due to arrive later this year.

Another 300 families have arrived from South Africa — but it
is difficult to gauge whether the promotions effected their decisions.

“Immigration is a long process, and we are just starting to
see the results. Many have used our facilities and initial help but have
arrived independently,” Chapman said. “Moving here is just like crossing the
road for South Africans. The lifestyle is very similar, but with no crime
affecting the community.”

“The number of anti-Semitic incidents in New Zealand is so
minute, we don’t bother keeping records.” noted David Zvartz, the
Wellington-based president of the New Zealand Jewish Council.

The Auckland Jewish Immigration
Organization can be found on the Web at

A Single Problem

Look, I know you’re busy. What with the spouse, the
children, the job, the synagogue, the gym, the board meetings, the dinners —
it’s hard to find a moment in your day, your week, your
month, your life.  But allow me a moment of your time to point your attention
to an issue maybe you haven’t thought about in awhile: Singles.

Specifically, Jewish singles. Jewish communal life is
structured so that you probably don’t associate much with this sector of
society, and therefore, you don’t think about it much; not out of malice, but
hey, there’s only so many issues to which one can devote one’s heart.

Maybe you believe singles are not your problem (something
that you could thankfully stop thinking about once you got married) but if
you’ve ever found yourself asking the following questions —

1) Why is my child moving to the East Coast?

2) What can we do about the intermarriage problem?

3) How can we involve younger people in

— then you have inadvertently been thinking about one of the
biggest unspoken issues facing the Jewish community today.

Consider this: 30 percent of Jewish households contain one
person, (compared to 26 percent in the general population), according to 2002
National Jewish Population Survey. Singles now represent a significant sector
of the Jewish population. Much like the coveted 18-25-year-old demographic
audience TV advertisers are always seeking, Jewish singles should be should be
the prime target of all Jewish communities. Yet, for some reason it’s not.
We’re not.

You know how it goes: there are certain specific events
devoted to singles (those reviled “singles events”), but for the most part, the
Jewish community is segregated. Synagogues, on both the East and West Coasts,
are either/or: You attend Friday Night Live/B’nai Jeshrun/Lincoln Square until
you get married, and then, you self-segregate, moving yourself off to the
Valley/New Jersey (insert suburb here). Outta sight, outta mind.

It’s no secret that Jewish communal life is geared toward
families. But the world today is comprised more of the nontraditional family,
and it’s time the community caught up. It’s more than just the singles. It’s
the childless couples, the divorced parents, the single-parent families. An
unmarried woman from my synagogue in Brooklyn — the one your parents always
warned you about turning into (“Look at X, such a shame”) — admitted that one
of the reasons she adopted a child was to gain acceptance in the community. She
said that it’s much easier to invite a mother and daughter to Shabbat lunch
than it is to have a 40-something year old woman on her own.

Many people on their own shy away from belonging to
synagogues and organizations because they feel like they don’t fit in. Yes,
there are efforts by rabbis and educators and institutions in this city. But
not enough. Many singles achieve their prime connection to Judaism through the
Internet: JDate, Frumster, Jewish Cafe — you name it — these Web sites are so
popular precisely because they fill a void, creating the community that single
Jews often lack. 

But there’s a problem with these types of communities, and
with these types of events that only serve the singles community. For example,
the outreach organization Aish HaTorah recently debated closing down its
innovative “Speeddating” program — where single Jews meet other at seven-minute
musical chairs-like parties — because some felt it wasn’t modest enough, simply
serving as a matchmaking event. For now, the program is remaining open, but the
debate highlights a problem for so many singles events/young leadership events,
regardless of the religious level of the sponsoring organization: they often
lack content. What good is a party — even if the proceeds go to a good cause —
if you can’t hook attendees into getting involved in something more than
finding a husband? 

Matrimony cannot be the only goal of an event, or even a
community, even one built so strongly on family values.

Today is Valentine’s Day, which although is not at all a
Jewish holiday (see Tu B’Av — this year on Aug. 13 — for our version of a love
fest) it is an extremely hard one to ignore, especially if you’re in the
business of looking for a mate. The Hallmark blitz reminds many people that
they are alone, and in the Jewish community, I’m not sure it has to be that
way: single or not, every Jew should be made to feel welcome in the community.

Perhaps our tradition does not prepare us  for dealing with
non-traditional families, but our future must.

“Making Shabbat dinner, going to synagogue, celebrating the
holidays –they’re not impossible to do alone,” a recent singles’ columnist
wrote in this paper, “but they’re much much easier when you have a partner.” 

Community is a tremendous resource: it provides sustenance,
faith, joy, comfort, companionship, love, connectedness and continuity. Should
it be denied to the people who need it most?  

After the Honeymoon

Before they met five years ago, searching for their besherts
kept Lynn and Thad Gerber active in Jewish life: Between singles’ dances,
Shabbat dinners and Jewish discussion groups, their dating lives gave way to a
sense of belonging and connectedness through Judaism.

But since they married in 1999, Lynn noticed that while her
relationship with her husband continues to grow, the couple’s involvement in
the Jewish community has not. “As far as Jewish events, we don’t do anything at
all,” admitted the 32-year-old mother from West Hills. “Ever since I’ve been
married, I don’t know about any Jewish things that married couples can do.”
With a 2-year-old daughter and a second child on the way, the couple is craving
Jewish involvement more than ever.

While growing up, Claudine LaMell Pelc identified as Jewish,
but only went to shul on the High Holidays. After getting married last
November, Pelc, a wedding coordinator in Encino, said she is looking forward to
creating a Jewish life with her new husband, Avi. “We’re going to be more
religious now, because when we have a family we’re going to raise our kids with
more religion,” she explained.

In a country where 50 percent of marriages end in divorce,
some couples find that getting involved in the Jewish community can help
support and enrich their marriages. But many do not know where to begin in
creating their new Jewish life together, said Rabbi Scott Aaron, director of
education of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley.

“With young adults, we celebrate their Jewish adulthood and
lifecycle,” he said, “but we don’t often give them the interpersonal Jewish
cultural skills to choose their own Jewish path and embrace their Jewish

At the Cotsen Institute for Newly Married Couples at Brandeis-Bardin
weekend program, just-marrieds can find their Jewish identity, and mingle with
other couples with whom they can practice together and connect Jewishly.

“Ellen,” a 31-year-old speech therapist from Redondo Beach
went on a Cotsen Institute weekend with her husband three years ago.  “Both of
our families are traditional,” said the new mother. “We wanted to add to what
we were already doing religion-wise. It was also a nice way to meet other
Jewish young couples.”

Some couples establish this important link by taking
classes. One Sherman Oaks couple said they had learned communication skills at
a Making Marriage Work class at the University of Judaism, so they plan to take
a six-session Challenge of Growth seminar, which is geared toward couples married
two to 15 years.

“It will be three years for us in July and there are a lot
of issues that have come up since our Making Marriage Work class,” said the
wife, who works in the entertainment industry.  The 30-year-old also hopes to
meet more couples. 

“It will be nice to be with other Jewish couples who are
going through what we are going through, like figuring out things like money
and defining your roles within the marriage,” she said.

Other Jewish couples find these commonalties by joining
havurot — groups of families or couples that meet socially and share common
interests — through their synagogues. These groups meet on a monthly basis for
lectures, discussions, dinners, group outings and socialization.

“People join because they would like to get to know people
in the congregation and have a group of close friends to do Jewish things
together,” said Jan Ballon, the havurot chair at Adat Ari El in Valley Village,
which currently has 40 havurot.

But not everyone has the funds to join a synagogue, usually
a prerequisite for joining a havurah. For couples wanting to work on their
relationship, the Jewish community has several courses where the focus is on
the couple rather than socialization.

Rabbi Dov Heller, a family therapist in Beverly Hills, runs
the Relationship Institute, a program that offers classes and seminars for
singles and married couples. By incorporating Jewish ideas and psychological
research into his lectures, Heller offers couples a relationship “tune-up” in
his seminar “The Joy of Marriage.”

“Spouses don’t talk about what’s really important 90 percent
of the time,” said Ileene Morris, who, with her husband, Sandy, attended a
Jewish Marriage Encounter weekend in 1974, and has volunteered for this
national program ever since. The 44-hour communication marathon teaches couples
to learn to listen to each other.

While they realize that marriage is constant work, both the
Gerbers and the Pelcs look forward to developing their Jewish identities as

“There’s a big difference in how you deal with religion
growing up with your family and how you deal with it with the person you love,”
said newlywed Avi Pelc.

For more information on the organizations and programs
mentioned, please contact them directly: Brandeis-Bardin Institute, (805)
582-4450; Making Marriage Work classes at the University of Judaism, (310)
440-1566; the Relationship Institute, (310) 659-7449; Jewish Marriage
Encounter, (310) 641-0122.  

Your Letters

Who Should Pay?

While Sharon Schatz Rosenthal’s cover story notes that dayschools are costly, it fails to address cost efficiency (“Who Should Pay?” Jan.31). I believe the Jewish community’s limited funding can be more effectivelytargeted at bolstering supplementary secondary schools. A good example is theLos Angeles Hebrew High School (LAHHS), which Dr. Samuel Dinin established(“Legacy in Motion,” Jan. 31).

LAHHS serves more than 500 teenagers who concurrently attendsecular high schools. With more than three dozen distinguished faculty members,its educational program is on par with the best full-time Jewish high schools.Yet, tuition is around one-tenth the cost.

Leonard M. Solomon, LAHHS Board of Trustees Los Angeles

There’s another reason some of us are unable to send ourchildren to Jewish day schools — the lack of after-school care at most of theschools. Catch 22: We work to be able to afford Jewish day school tuition, butstill can’t send our children there because the schools are not willing toaccommodate working, two-parent families.

Name Withheld Upon Request, Woodland Hills

The truth of the Jewish community is that the vast majorityof non-Orthodox students attend supplementary schools and will continue to doso.

I take particular issue with the article’s innuendo that theLos Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education could be more financially supportive ofday schools. That may be, but they are more supportive of supplementary schoolsthan most, striving to raise the quality of teachers and the esteem of thework.

It is my hope that when we talk about Jewish education, wecan engage in discussion about communal goals and the myriad options that areand could be available.

Cheri Ellowitz Silver, Education Director   Congregation NerTamid of South Bay


I am unable to comprehend Rob Eshman’s logic regardingPresident Bush’s State of the Union address (“Ich Bin ein Missourian,” Jan.31). Saddam will never comply with the U.N. resolutions that demand hiscooperation to reveal what he has done with the weapons of mass destruction. Noamount of inspection is going to find what he has hidden.

Michael Brooks, West Hills

Interfaith Families

As a Catholic Latino married to a Jewish woman, I havelearned that many Jews consider interfaith marriage a terrible threat to thesurvival of the Jewish people (“Jews Must Draw in Interfaith Families,” Jan.24). I understand this concern, but I would argue that the threat is notnecessarily mixed marriage, but rather the Jewish community’s treatment ofmixed families. My wife and I are committed to raising our children as Jews.Sadly, while we’ve belonged to a Reform congregation for many years and havetried to become part of the temple community, we’ve had very limited success.Typically, we have been treated with reactions ranging from indifference tosuspicion. We are politely tolerated, but feel relegated to a marginal status.

In contrast, the church I attend supports a group ofCatholics married to Jews. The parish seems to welcome these families, fullyintegrating them in the church community. Although we as a family are notchurch members, we have developed closer relationships with this group than wehave with families at our temple.

Over the years, the few mixed families we’ve encountered atthe temple have gradually drifted away. We have also started looking foranother congregation. We’ll continue trying to find a Jewish community where wefit in. However, I often wonder how my children will feel about Judaism if theyare always kept at the margins.

R. Hernandez, Los Angeles

Gay Rabbis

Although I am a traditional Jewish man with traditionalideas, I support the idea of allowing gays and lesbians to become Conservativepulpit rabbis (“A Conservative Challenge,” Jan. 17). The Conservative movementshould reconsider its position and at least discuss the issue. Why should anyJewish person be excluded from fulfilling his or her dreams because of personalpreferences? The Conservative movement allowing women to become pulpit rabbisin 1985 was a great decision and helped fortify the views of ConservativeJudaism.

Israel Weiss, Agoura Hills


In Rabbi Michael Beals’ letter to the editor (Jan. 31), TheJournal incorrectly added the translation “repentance” next to the word teshuvot,which here meant “a rabbinic response to a query, based on halacha (Jewishlaw).” We regret the error.

The Ground Floor

A lot of the problems and promise of Los Angeles Jewish life were on display last Tuesday evening in Bob and Marcia Gold’s living room.

The Golds live in a envy-inspiring home high upon a bluff in the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The greater Los Angeles Jewish community, all 4,000 square miles of it, pretty much ends here, where the lights of Portuguese Bend disappear into the dark beyond of the Pacific Ocean. Next stop, Catalina — or Kauai.

The South Bay extends from Westchester to San Pedro. According to a 1997 population study by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, it is home to 45,000 Jews. Most of them live in the seaside cities, such as Redondo Beach and Manhattan Beach, and in the suburban aerie of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. People at the Golds’ house believe the actual number of South Bay Jews to be far less than 45,000, perhaps half as many. But they agree with the survey that the South Bay is among the Southland’s fastest-growing Jewish communities. Along with the young urban professionals moving into the coastal towns, there is a vast infrastructure moving into El Segundo and environs to support the burgeoning film production facilities there. "Manhattan Beach is Hollywood," said Rabbi Ron Shulman of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay.

Most of the dozen or so men and women who came to the Golds’ house that evening were members of Shulman’s shul, which is on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. They gathered to brainstorm ideas for the future of the larger South Bay Jewish community. Decades old, it is, like many similar communities, facing a time of growth and change. "We have a strong synagogue community," Shulman said, "but not a strong Jewish cultural community."

Shulman’s Conservative congregation has 600 families and boasts the largest United Synagogue Youth group in the Southland. Other synagogues, like Temple Menorah and Congregation Tifereth Jacob, are also flourishing. But outside of synagogue life, when it comes to a sense of a larger community, there is no there there. As symbolic proof, they pointed to two buildings, one that exists, one that doesn’t. The Jewish Federation’s South Bay headquarters on Palos Verdes Boulevard has long stood underused. Expected to be the center of Jewish communal life when it was acquired over a decade ago, it is now a reminder of the lack of organized South Bay Jewish life outside synagogues.

The other symbol: "There’s no deli here!" one of the woman said to loud agreement. "We can’t even keep a good deli open."

The people at Tuesday’s meeting want a deli — who doesn’t? — but more importantly they want to expand and enrich Jewish life in their part of Los Angeles. The catalyst, they hope, will be about $1 million coming their way. At the meeting, Federation President John Fishel and South Bay Federation rep Margy Feldman told the group that the Federation plans to sell the old Federation building and invest the proceeds of about $1 million into South Bay Jewish life. The question that this group and groups from a variety of synagogues are gathering to discuss over the next year is how to take a small windfall and create community.

The challenges they face are familiar to anyone in Jewish life these days: How do you get Jews who are uninvolved or marginally involved out of the house? How do you do triage among all the communal needs: teen services, eldercare, recreational needs, Israel advocacy, Jewish education? How do you reach across ages and denominations and — even in a single geographic area like the South Bay — distance?

Fishel said that as well as being dispersed, the Jewish community throughout Los Angeles is diverse — "concentric circles of communities, which sometimes intersect and often don’t." A single solution, he said, will never suffice for everyone.

He said one possibility, in these lean times, is to think in terms of programs rather than capital. The Federation has been very successful in creating community by engaging in social service programs like KOREH L.A., which sends volunteers to area school to teach English literacy. It’s true that software is cheaper and more adaptive than hardware, but some in the group still gravitated toward the model of a come-one-come-all Jewish community center. In places like Orange County and Austin, Texas, where people pursued dreams of major multiuse Jewish community centers, they were able to inspire donors and bring those uninvolved Jews out of the woodwork. Then again, there are no guarantees.

But this group has at least two things going for it, beyond the million bucks. One, the people who turned out to discuss their community’s future are young men and women. They were very conscious of picking up the mantle of leadership from the previous South Bay Jews who had built up the successful synagogues. Two, this city’s Jewish community is relentlessly entrepreneurial. The Wiesenthal Center, the Skirball Center and the Shoah Foundation are just three examples of Jewish enterprises that were created from the ground up, based on an idea and a plan, right here in Los Angeles. They are proof positive that once the Jews of the South Bay set their sights on what their community needs, they can create whatever it is they want.

And maybe even get a deli.

Tzedakah for Chanukah

The Chanukah wish lists of six needy local Jewish families
will be filled by generous families from Rancho Santa Margarita’s Morasha
Jewish Day School.

“These families have been financially disadvantaged for a
long time,” said Charlene Edwards, social services director for Jewish Family
Service of Orange County. “They asked for things our children take for

On Dec. 4, in time for Chanukah, Edwards was scheduled to
collect gift baskets filled with wrapped toys and clothing, along with gift
certificates for groceries, movie tickets and haircuts. The cumulative
contributions from students, parents and faculty likely tallies $1,500, said
Robin S. Hoffman, the school’s Jewish studies coordinator. “We’ve been
inundated in the last week.”

The Chanukah effort is one of the first outcomes of
Morasha’s involvement with a three-year national research project of Hebrew
Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Its Rhea Hirsch
School of Education selected eight schools to participate in Jewish Day Schools
for the 21st Century, a project to demonstrate how schools can serve as a
Jewish learning catalyst for an entire community, said Eve Fein, Morasha’s

As part of the project, a 25-parent panel, which has met
regularly over the last year, settled on enhancing certain Jewish values.
Morasha’s parents chose tzedakah (charity).

“So often, kids never see the end result,” said Kathleen A.
Canter, of Aliso Viejo, a panel participant who has two children in the school.
“We wanted the whole school community involved. It’s powerful when it’s visible
to all.”

Inspiration Burns in Flames of Menorah

Every Chanukah, I am struck by the beauty of my chanukiyah as the flames glow steadily against the darkness around them. It helps that the chanukiyah uses wicks dipped in olive oil, which nourishes them for hours, instead of candles that burn down in half an hour. I usually admire their light until midnight.

For many of us, the chanukiyah has been a vessel of history, concretizing the Chanukah blessing, "She-asah nisim l’avoteinu, ba-yamim ha-hem, ba-z’man ha-zeh," praising God for doing miracles in those days, in this time. Emphasis on "in those days."

Since Sept. 11 and the matzav (situation) in Israel, that emphasis has changed. Ba-z’man ha-zeh. Now we ask for miracles in our time.

"Judaism is a religion of optimism. It’s about increasing the light," said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, author and spiritual leader of The Temple in Atlanta. "It’s important for parents to teach their children that there is a new and additional light each night. The light gets stronger and serves as a weapon against the darkness."

Chanukah, a season of light and miracles, can be especially comforting as we face the "brokenness" of the world today.

"Just when things seem darkest and most chaotic, we can manufacture light," said Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn. "And as we begin to increase the light artificially day by day, miraculously, so does nature and the world around us; the moon returns by holiday’s end, followed by the gradual increase of daylight following the solstice.

The values of unity and diversity that the events of Sept. 11 awakened in Americans is the essence of Chanukah, too, said Rabbi Sandy Sasso, author and spiritual leader of Congregation Beth-el Zedeck in Indianapolis.

"What is Chanukah but a celebration of hope and freedom and respect for difference." Sasso said. "That is also the core of American democracy. The Maccabees fought for the right to be different, to express their own Jewish tradition and not become Hellenists. In America, anyone can practice their own religion without fear."

"In contrast," Sasso continued, "the terrorists are seeking only one way of believing. As we celebrate Chanukah, we can celebrate the spirit of America and the spirit of Judaism."

Chanukah’s timeliness is rooted in the classic triumph of goodness over the powers of destruction, said Rabbi David Wolpe, spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. "Chanukah reminds us that fighting evil is a mandate of goodness in the world," Wolpe said. "You can’t be indifferent to it and ignore it."

Wolpe said the critical difference between the time of the Maccabees and our time is that the most powerful country in the world is not the ally but the enemy of those doing evil. "Maybe it’s a difference we should be celebrating."

Wolpe stressed that the Maccabees were not just battling an external enemy. They represented one side of an internal schism in the Jewish community, defying Hellenism — assimilation — while others supported it.

We, too, need to be careful of splitting our community, Weiss warned. "Even though Jews in America are overwhelmed by the challenges here, we should never forget that Israel faces this every day," he said.

The Maccabees’ decision to fight for their beliefs has made them role models, whether or not we agree with their religious zeal. "Judaism is not pacifist," noted Hammerman. "There are times when we have to break all the rules in order to save lives."

How can families create new and meaningful rituals as part of their own Chanukah celebrations? Parents can transform gift-giving into a healing act by coupling it with tzedakah, rabbis and educators suggested.

Every Jewish family could dedicate one night as a "giftless night" for themselves, Salkin said, giving the gift instead to agencies who help families in need.

Once Upon a ‘Nail’

The joyous holiday of Chanukah is replete with miracles and storytelling. Judy Aronson, Jewish educator in New England, loves telling stories at Chanukah. "The best are handed down from generation to generation. And they change in each retelling," she said. "I first heard the ‘Miracle of the Iron Nail’ in a youth group in Hartford, Conn., when I was 8 years old. Every time I tell it, I add a little something, take a little something out. It’s the same way I cook," she said, mischievously.

This is the story — I couldn’t help but add a little, take a little out:

A long time ago, young Jewish boys were stolen from their families to serve in the Czar’s army. Stalwart soldiers would sneak into their villages at dusk, and march from house to house, wreaking havoc and leaving a trail of brokenhearted parents.

The boys were taken far away, and ordered to forget about their families — especially what it was like to be Jewish. They grew up as soldiers and followed in the footsteps of their captors.

One night, a terrible blizzard blew through the camp, uprooting tents and hurling boys from their beds. Yehuda, Moshe and Reuven found themselves in the pitch-black night in the middle of nowhere. They wandered for days.

Finally, they came to a small Jewish village, looking ragged and pathetic. Instead of taking pity, the villagers ran for their lives, warning each other. "Hide everything in sight, especially your children!" But one housewife wasn’t fast enough, and as the soldiers passed her house they peered into the window and spotted a chanukiah.

Reuven suddenly remembered the holiday he hadn’t celebrated for so many years, and said to Yehuda and Moshe, "Dear friends, it’s Chanukah, remember the delicious latkes our mothers used to make? What I wouldn’t give for a latke." The memory brought tears to their eyes.

They trekked through the town, hoping somebody would give them a latke. They knocked at every door but the only response they got was, "We have no food! Go away!"

Moshe and Yehuda pleaded with Reuven. "Nobody wants us, we might as well go back to the army. At least they’ll feed us." But Reuven was adamant — they mustn’t lose faith.

He knocked at the next house. Miraculously, the door opened. When Reuven saw Nechama, a beautiful housewife, instead of asking for food he stood up straight and announced, "I come bearing food — some latkes for Chanukah."

"How can you possibly have any food?" she asked.

"Because I brought the magic iron nail. All I need is a pot," he replied.

Against her husband’s wishes, Nechama ran into the kitchen and fetched a pot. Reuven led her to the Town Square. He held up his hand and shouted, "Look everyone, I have a magic nail. I’m putting it in the pot. I’m going to make the finest latkes you’ve ever tasted."

The villagers scoffed. Someone picked up a stone and threw it. Undaunted, Reuven stirred the pot. "All I need is an onion." Nobody moved. Finally, Nechama’s neighbor dropped an onion into the pot, then quickly retreated.

Reuven was ecstatic. "We have a pot. We have an onion. Now all we need are a few potatoes." A little girl ran up, dragging a sack of potatoes, and dropped them into the pot.

The three soldiers began dancing. So did the villagers, who started peeling, chopping and grating. "Now all we need is some salt. And matzah meal," Yehuda appealed.

When someone fetched the foodstuffs, Moshe enthused, "We’re going to make it. All we need is some oil." And the oil flowed.

Boruch built a fire in the middle of the square. Rochel brought a fry pan and poured in the oil. Gila fashioned the mixture into latkes and dropped them into the pan, one by one.

The oil started to crackle. The latkes started to fry. Everyone was gleeful, full of the spirit of Chanukah.

The mayor addressed Reuven, Moshe and Yehuda. "We’ve learned there are good soldiers in the world, not just ones who will harm us," he complimented them. "You’ve brought us the most wonderful Chanukah gift we’ve ever had."

Reuven eloquently assured him, "Because you have been so kind, your people will live in peace forever more. No soldiers will harm them ever again."

"All Jewish stories have a deeper meaning," reflected Aronson, a graduate of Brandeis University and Harvard Divinity School. "It’s the community that makes the latkes, the people that create the celebration. If nobody had contributed anything, all they’d have was an iron nail. Because everybody cooperated, they not only had a feast, they had peace of mind forever more."