No need to shame the Federation


This column is a response to a column posted March 17 at jewishjournal.com, “A Deafening Silence from the Jewish Federation,” taking the Los Angeles Jewish Federation to task for not speaking out against certain policies and statements of President Donald Trump. You can join a Facebook discussion on this issue here.

Our local Federation can do no right. When it took a public stand two years ago against the Iran nuclear deal—which many of us considered bad for Israel and America, and still do—it got reamed by local Jews who felt the Federation should not exclude the many Jewish voices who favored the deal.

Although I was against the deal, I had sympathy for that pushback, since politics in general is very divisive and the Federation’s role is to be as unifying and inclusive as possible. The Federation learned its lesson. 

But now that Donald Trump is in the White House, some of those same voices are taking the Federation to task for staying out of politics and keeping quiet. In a joint op-ed in the Journal by four prominent progressive Jews, the Federation is shamed for remaining “deafeningly silent” in the face of the outrageous words and actions from our new president.

This goes against a long local tradition, the authors write, where “Los Angeles has had active Jewish community organizations that often spoke with one voice, took stands, ventured into politically risky territory and helped mark Jews as a force to be reckoned with on the community relations and political scenes.”

But the authors cite no precedent of past Federations taking on a president, or even a political cause. They use the loose term “Jewish leaders” without specifying if those were Federation leaders.

What they do suggest is that if anyone as bad as Trump would have become president over the past forty years, “The non-profit leadership of this community would have been vocal, visible and busy organizing in opposition.” 

If there’s any “statement” the Federation can make, it might be to organize “Open Nights” where different voices of the community would be heard in a civil and open way.

Fair enough, but here’s the problem with that position: I know a lot of Jews in Los Angeles who think Obama was pretty bad, too. They believe Obama increased the racial tensions in our country, did virtually nothing to stop the massacre of 500,000 civilians in Syria and the worst refugee crisis of the century, and tried to turn America into another failed, socialist European state.

Some of those Jews claimed Obama’s policies violated Jewish values, and that it was a Jewish value to oppose him. In fact, had progressive Jews mobilized to oppose Obama during the massacres in Syria, and implored the Federation to speak out in the name of Jewish values against Obama’s Syria policy, they might be getting a better hearing today.

Either way, I have no political dog in this fight. I’ve written columns urging Republicans to “dump” Trump and even wrote a piece calling him worse than a liar. Personally, I enjoy seeing the Trump opposition movement—it shows me our diverse community in action.

That long and noble tradition that the authors write about, of Jews being “active participants in meetings, demonstrations, legislation, community events and forming alliances,” is alive and well. It reminds me of how much I cherish our freedom to protest and hold our leaders accountable, which I never take for granted.

But should that be the role of the Federation at the expense of further dividing our community? I don’t think so.

It’s interesting to note that when the authors try to strengthen their case by showing examples of prominent conservatives who had the guts to take on Trump, they cite three newspaper pundits. These pundits, they write, “all have readers, long-time admirers and fee-generating organizations that they have angered and alienated because of their courage—but they spoke out nevertheless.”

Yes, but speaking out is the core role of a pundit. Pundits don’t have the duty to unify a community or help it heal. Federations do. Our Federation has made its share of mistakes over the years; I just don’t think that aiming for bipartisanship in tremendously divisive times is one of them.

If there’s any “statement” the Federation can make, it might be to organize “Open Nights” where different voices of the community would be heard in a civil and open way. Instead of picking one voice, the Federation would convene multiple voices. Maybe really smart people will find a middle ground that can project Jewish values in a Trumpian world without dividing us any further.

As the Journal’s Esther Kustanowitz wrote on a Facebook post, “It’s easy to emerge as leaders, with a statement to rouse community to action, when everyone agrees. It’s when people disagree—when a community holds different beliefs in tension with each other—that emerging as a community leader gets difficult.”

If you ask me, any leadership move that can bring Jews together under the most divisive and stressful circumstances would be worthy of the highest Jewish value—Trump or no Trump.

Should Federation take sides?: Moving forward together


If you’ve ever heard me speak, you’ve heard me say, “I have the best job in the world.” I work with an incredibly talented and dedicated staff and with the most extraordinary group of lay leaders and donors. Together, we are supporting and sustaining this Jewish community and ensuring our Jewish future. These are not slogans or catchphrases. It is in our Federation’s DNA.

Los Angeles is the most dynamic, diverse and exciting Jewish community in the world. Our Federation is committed to working with our partners from every religious, ethnic, cultural and political perspective to accomplish our shared goals and realize our common dreams.

Having the best job in the world does not mean it is not complicated or that it is not messy.

As you can imagine with more than 600,000 Jews, there are many strong and differing opinions and many voices that want and need to be heard. From my first day, I have heard and listened to the many voices in our community.  

In January of 2010, two weeks after I started, my wife and I were at an event when an older man approached me and, inches from my face, started yelling at me in Farsi. While I did not understand what he was saying, I felt his anguish and pain.

Our Federation is not reactive, but we are thoughtful and driven by careful consideration and sound strategic thinking. The next day, I told our senior staff the story and we began to discuss the challenges facing our large Persian-Jewish community. We committed ourselves to broadening our outreach locally, and we reached out to our global partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, to better understand the plight of the more than 20,000 Jews still living in Iran. We went back to the Persian community and we listened.

We may never know why that man was so angry but his outburst helped make positive communal change. This is how our Jewish Federation works.

We also listen to the tens of thousands of voices of those whose lives we touch and change together. Exactly a year ago, as rockets flew overhead, our deeply dedicated board chair, Les Bider, and I were sitting with traumatized Israelis in a bomb shelter not far from the Gaza border. We listened to their pain, and this summer we began providing critical psychological and social services to thousands of Israelis, including children and seniors, throughout Israel.

This summer, we also are listening to the hundreds of children enjoying camp at our growing number of amazing Jewish summer camps. Many of these children are at camp for the very first time and many come from financially challenged families.

Our reach covers every corner of our community, from the Conejo Valley to the South Bay. Our work has no boundaries.  We are working with thousands of young adults and have played an integral role in the creation and development of many of our community’s most progressive and inclusive enterprises, from East Side Jews/Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center and JQ International to Moishe House and IKAR.  

We are working closely with our growing Orthodox community and we continue to provide much-needed financial aid to hundreds of day school students and their families.

We care and are concerned for the safety and security of our Jewish community and for the safety and security of the State of Israel.

We respect our communal organizations and the outstanding professionals and rabbis who lead them. We encourage those who agree and those who disagree to talk with us and with each other from a place of respect and work with us as we move forward together.

We understand that there are times when decisions we make and positions we take will be challenged and our Federation will come under fire. We ask that we all be respectful and civil. We are steadfast in our commitment to our mission and our work. These challenges make us stronger and our work more effective.

We should not be judged by any one thing. We should be supported for the impact we make each and every day in every corner of our community and in Jewish communities around the world.


Jay Sanderson is president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Moving and shaking: City Hall Passover, Shalhevet School crowned champs, Beit T’Shuvah runs


Los Angeles City Hall held its first-ever Passover celebration, which was organized by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The March 19 festivities took place on the City Hall forecourt, adjacent to the Spring Street steps. It brought together city leaders and clergy, including Los Angles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; L.A. City Council Members Jan Perry, Paul Krekorian, Dennis Zine, Bill Rosendahl and Joe Buscaino. Rabbi Joshua Hoffman of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) led the ceremony. Jonathan Freund, interim executive director of the Board of Rabbis; Rabbi Judith HaLevy, of the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue, who is president of the Board of Rabbis; Cantor Ilan Davidson of Temple Beth El; Rabbi Morley Feinstein of University Synagogue; and David Siegel, consul general of Israel in Los Angeles, also participated. Cantor Phil Baron of VBS led a chorus of sixth-graders from VBS Day School, and additional music was performed by kindergarteners and transitional-kindergarteners of Beth Hillel Day School.


Ryan Dishell. Photo courtesy of BBYO, Inc.

 

 

 

Pacific Palisades teenager Ryan Dishell, a student at Crossroads School, has been elected to serve as the international vice president of programming of the BBYO (formerly B’nai B’rith Youth Organization) leadership program and high school fraternity, Aleph Zadik Aleph. Dishell, who was elected to the board of the worldwide pluralistic teen movement during BBYO’s international convention this past February, will hold the post for a yearlong term beginning in July.


Shalhevet School's Firehawks were crowned the champions of Yeshiva University's annual Red Sarachek, a prestigious tournament for Jewish high school basketball teams. Photo courtest of Yeshiva University.

After beating the Frisch School Cougars of Paramus, N.J., 62-53, in a basketball game on March 11, the Shalhevet School’s Firehawks were crowned the champions of Yeshiva University’s annual Red Sarachek, a prestigious tournament for Jewish high school basketball teams.


Run

Beit T'Shuvah resident Noah Mann completes the L.A. Marathon in 3 hours, 35 minutes and 26 seconds. Photo courtesy of Beit T'Shuvah.

Culver City’s Beit T’Shuvah, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility, participated in the Los Angeles Marathon on March 17. As part of team Run to Save a Soul, 54 runners, including Beit T’Shuvah residents, board members and alumni, completed the 26.2- mile race. This is the fourth year that Beit T’Shuvah has participated in the marathon, with residents training for six months leading up to it. As of March 22, the rehab center’s team had raised $125,500, surpassing its goal by $500, to help fund the cost of care for residents of Beit T’Shuvah.


Michel Jeser. Photo Courtesy of Marvin Steindler Photography.

 

 

Michael Jeser, executive director of Hillel at USC, will move to become executive director of Jewish World Watch (JWW) in mid-June, USC Hillel Foundation board chair Howard Schwimmer announced on March 20. Jeser will replace JWW interim director Lois Weinsaft. JWW was founded in 2004 to fight genocide, and its education and advocacy work is done through a coalition of synagogues, churches, individuals and partner organizations. JWW’s ground-breaking solar cooker program has helped women in the Sudan and Congo to cook without having to leave their camps to search for firewood, which had previously left them vulnerable to rape and assault.


Suzy and Stephen Bookbinder and Leora and Gary Raikin were honored March 17 at Kadima Day School’s annual gala, held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Westlake Village. Suzy Bookbinder, president of the school’s board of trustees, is chief development officer for Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, while Stephen is a senior high-definition video editor at Technicolor. Leora Raikin has a passion for African folklore embroidery and lectures, exhibits and teaches workshops throughout the United States, while Gary is a CPA. A Special Lifetime Achievement Award from the school, which is now in its 42nd year, went to Ronit and Amnon Band.


Moving and Shaking acknowledges accomplishments by members of the local Jewish community, including people who start new jobs, leave jobs, win awards and more. Got a tip? E-mail it to ryant@jewishjournal.com

LA leaders find inspiration at innovative special needs programs for adults in Israel


Eliza Wilson’s holy moment in Israel didn’t come at the Western Wall. Sure, the 21-year-old with autism was honored and moved to place a note in the Wall on behalf of the 40 people traveling with her on a mission to learn about Israel’s programs for adults with special needs.

But Wilson’s most intense inspiration came at Beit Issie Shapiro, an innovative nonprofit promoting disability inclusion programs for children and adults in Israel. There, Wilson visited the Snoezelen room, a multisensory Mecca of lights, textures, sounds and aromas meant to both calm and stimulate those with developmental disabilities.

“When the lights went on, it was like being at Disneyland. It was amazing. I was blown away by it,” Wilson said.

She spoke about the July mission at a meeting Nov. 5 at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles for 140 parents, advocates and professionals who came to hear what members of the Federation-sponsored trip learned in Israel, and what could apply to Los Angeles’ rapidly growing population of young adults with special needs.

“I know that a lot of you were thinking we were going to come back and we were going to build a kibbutz over here in West L.A. — and we did think about that while on the trip,” said Judy Mark, an activist who co-chaired the trip.

But, she said, while the group saw many examples of innovative programs, what became most apparent was the need for a force to benefit the entire emerging field.

Mark and others on the mission outlined a list of goals centered around funding, advocacy, research and collaboration, and said they hoped to mobilize working groups quickly.

At the same time, the Federation has invited the mission’s leaders, as well as a targeted group of Jewish professionals and lay activists in the field, to a planning meeting at the end of this month to chart a comprehensive communal approach for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

“This has become a priority for the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, and we are very proud to partner with so many of you in this room and to see how we can go forward and make a difference and meet the needs,” Lori Klein, the Federation’s senior vice president in charge of Caring for Jews in Need, told the meeting.

The move toward comprehensive planning comes at time of heightened focus on helping adults, and not just children, with developmental disabilities. In addition to the Israel mission, lay activists locally are working on creating a pooled trust, so that parents can set up communally monitored private accounts to fund long-term care for their adult children. Etta Israel, an advocacy and service program for individuals with special needs, has just merged with Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, a social service organization in New York, raising its profile and programming expectations. Various parent groups are experimenting with independent living models, and Bet Tzedek legal services is spearheading a task force focused on the elderly with disabilities.

Federation and Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles together run HaMercaz, an information clearinghouse and communal umbrella group for families of children with special needs. But HaMercaz is not yet equipped to meet the exploding needs of adults with special needs. 

In the next few years, the population of adults with autism is expected to rise by 500 percent. Parents need to plan for the long term by finding not only stable living situations, but programs that will enable their children to have meaningful daily activities, friends, jobs and romance, said Michelle Wolf, who co-chaired the mission to Israel. 

The goal was to bring home ideas from successful Israeli programs.

At the Nov. 5 meeting, a film showed highlights of the trip and members of the group described visiting Kibbutz Harduf, where residents with developmental disabilities grow their own organic food and serve it in a cafe they run, and where they create pottery and handmade paper. The film showed Kishorit, a village where residents live mostly in private quarters and participate in the village’s industries — making toys, breeding champion dogs and raising horses, goats and free-range chickens.

The group also visited other models, where those living in private apartments in the community receive enough support services and job opportunities to live independently. 

They visited inclusive playgrounds that are being replicated across the world and a deaf/blind theater ensemble.

“It exemplified how they are bringing out the best in each person,” said Elaine Hall, director of Vista Del Mar’s Vista Inspire programs, which bring art and spirituality to children with developmental disabilities. “We can do the impossible because it’s being done every day in Israel.”

While Israel still has some work toward becoming a fully inclusive society, mission-goers were inspired by a man with Down syndrome who works at an army base, and by parent advocates who work to bring together government and private funding to get their needs met.

Mark said the group was most inspired by the collaborative model at Beit Issie Shapiro, a model she can see replicating in Los Angeles, and, she said, Beit Issie Shapiro is committed to helping Los Angeles lay the groundwork.

While Beit Issie Shapiro creates programs, facilities and therapies, Mark said she is more interested in the advocacy aspect of its work, which supports widespread innovation and brings different groups together. 

“I see at least a half-dozen of you sitting here today who are building something of some sort, and most of you don’t know each other. One of the best things we as a group can do is to introduce you to each other,” Mark said. 

That collaboration is one of six goals Mark and others outlined at the meeting. In addition to bringing cooperation and communication where before there was competition, they hope to raise inclusion awareness, advocate for more government and private funding and provide families with thorough, accessible information. They also hope to fund research into quality of life issues, and then to use that research to fund the most effective programs. 

While expressing gratitude for Federation support, Mark cautioned that the needs of the community are too urgent for bureaucratic slow down.

“I think we have to figure out the balance between being inclusive and getting as many voices as possible heard, and moving forward as quickly as we can, because we’re in an urgent situation,” Mark said. 

Klein responded that the understandable sense of urgency has made this process evolve faster than anticipated, and Federation is eager to organize the various strands.

“We are not holding this up for the sake of holding it up, but there are things to consider. Every time we have a conversation, everyone has their own priorities, whether it’s about housing or a resource center or a pooled trust. Everyone has what they want, and we believe it is our role to say we’re going to take the lead on this and figure out what are all of the communal needs, and how are we going to prioritize those,” Klein said.

Why counting counts: Who knows who L.A.’s Jews are?


Susan Goldberg, rabbi of Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, grew up in nearby Echo Park.

“There were no Jewish families around when I was growing up,” Goldberg, 38, said. Now that these neighborhoods are being gentrified, and a young, creative crowd is moving in, the Jews are coming, too.

Some five years ago, Temple Beth Israel, a nearly 90-year-old congregation, counted 30 individual members. Today, she said, “We’re bursting at the seams with young families, parents in their 30s and 40s who are living here, in Mount Washington, in Highland Park, in Eagle Rock,” Goldberg said.

But for all the anecdotal evidence that Jews are moving eastward, no one knows exactly how many Jews comprise this trend.

“We know they’re out there, because when we have events, they come,” Goldberg said. “But it would be so, so tremendously helpful to know where they are, who they are, how many there are.”

Los Angeles hasn’t done a Jewish community survey since 1997, and with nothing concrete in the works, organizations are “flying blind,” in the words of one demographer.

“No other large Jewish community has been without a study for such a long period of time,” said Jacob Ukeles, president of Ukeles Associates Inc., a firm that helped conduct New York’s recently released survey.

And that can have serious implications for how effectively a community responds to needs.

“We need to know who lives where, what they do Jewishly, what diversity exists among Jews, what needs they have, what resources they have and what they think on a variety of issues,” said Sarah Bunin Benor, associate professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles. “That’s my take on it, from the perspective of somebody who wants to help Jews have a better life.”

Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said conducting such a study is “rising to the top of our agenda.”

“We really need to do it. We know we need to do it, and I believe we will do it. We have to figure out the resources and how we’re going to pay for it,” Sanderson said in an interview.

A study of Los Angeles’ Jews, who are believed to number between 500,000 and 600,000, would likely cost somewhere around $1 million. In most cities with large and medium-sized Jewish populations, Federation pays for a survey once a decade. Los Angeles conducted community surveys in 1950, 1958, 1968, 1979 and 1997.

When Sanderson took office in 2010, no study was in the pipeline, and he said he had initially hoped to launch one quickly. But as the impact of the recession became more severe, Sanderson said, funds continued to be redirected to such programs as the Emergency Cash Grants, which has provided more than $2.6 million in relief to 5,350 recipients since 2009.

“Now, with everything we’re doing, we’re still trying to put a survey on the front burner,” Sanderson said.

Federation hopes to launch the process in the next year, Sanderson said — if he can figure out where the money will come from.

But the more time that goes by without a survey, the less efficiently the community is spending its dollars, demographers say.

“If you have a Federation that says they are the planning body of the community, where are they getting their information?” asked Pini Herman, a principal at Phillips and Herman Demographic Research. Herman was the L.A. Federation’s research coordinator for the 1997 survey; he has also worked on surveys in San Francisco, Houston and Seattle.

“The longer you don’t have a survey, the more you have to guess, and basically you’re snatching ideas and data out of thin air. And without any community study, there is no way to confirm or refute what they say,” Herman said.

Community leaders say they are eager to have current data.

“Synagogues call all the time, wanting to know where the Jews are moving. Are they moving into our area? Out of our area? Are we losing members because Jews are leaving this area, or for some other reason?” said Bruce Phillips, a principal, with Pini Herman, at Phillips and Herman Demographic Research and a professor of sociology and Jewish communal studies at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. Phillips has conducted or published research on more than 20 Jewish community surveys.

Other questions in Los Angeles also need answering. How many Iranian Jews live here, and what is there economic profile? Their Jewish identity? Their integration patterns?

What areas are people moving to and away from? Are nearby cities that are experiencing growth, such as San Francisco, Phoenix and Las Vegas, doing so at the expense of Los Angeles, or along with Los Angeles? How many French and Latin American Jews have moved into the area, and are they being served? Has the Orthodox population increased, and if so, in what sectors?

Anecdotal evidence about subpopulations can be deceiving, Phillips said, as it’s easier to count visible Jews who are frequent users of community resources — for instance, the Orthodox, or immigrant populations. The unaffiliated are more likely to go undetected if you rely on visibility or data from Jewish organizations.

A topic open to debate is how many Israelis are in Los Angeles. While some estimate there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis in Los Angeles, Herman says his own research points to a number closer to a maximum of 25,000, a figure corroborated by the official Israeli count of how many people have left their country.

The Los Angeles Jewish population, once concentrated on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley, is migrating toward the East Side and north to areas such as the Conejo, Santa Clarita and Simi Valleys.

Several organizations are investing both money and resources in the East Side, including Federation, which has funded a new staff person at East Side Jews, a nondenominational Jewish community that has attracted hundreds of young, hip Jews to its irreverent monthly holiday celebrations and social events. East Side Jews recently became part of the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, an organization that is on a short list to receive significant Federation funding for a renovation and expansion project.

At the same time, Temple Beth Israel’s Goldberg said, Jews in the area remain underserved. When she needs to refer people for social services, she is often told that Jewish agencies don’t extend out to her part of town. In addition to leading Temple Beth Israel, Goldberg serves as rabbi-in-residence for East Side Jews, a position co-supported by Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which is also interested in being part of the East Side Jewish renaissance.

Indeed, Wilshire Boulevard Temple is in the middle of a $150 million project to restore and revitalize its historic sanctuary and campus in Koreatown. Before embarking on that project, the congregation commissioned its own demographic study of the area — roughly from West Hollywood on the west to Eagle Rock and Pasadena on the East, stretching from Adams Boulevard on the South up to Studio City and Glendale.

“I intuitively felt that young Jews were moving eastward, but intuition is not always right,” Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Rabbi Steven Leder said.

Their study, which cost them about $25,000, found around 30 percent growth in the area over the last 10 years, with the most significant increases in the population of childbearing and -rearing age. That information convinced the synagogue’s leadership to buy up the rest of their square block to make room for more parking, an expanded day school, religious school and social service center.

Having data has also made it easier to approach donors, Leder said.

“It’s important to know that there is hard data to support your assumptions when you’re trying to raise money,” he said.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s study was based on Jewish surnames in voter registration listings — a method that may have left out Jews who have a non-Jewish parent or who are married to non-Jews, a population that, anecdotally at least, accounts for much of the growth on the East Side.

Jewish federations see a slight dip in fundraising


North American Jewish federations generated nearly $2.5 billion for program needs in 2010, according to their umbrella group.

The Jewish Federations of North America raised about $925 million last year in its 157 federated and 300 network communities, down from the 2009 campaign totals of $938 million. JFNA spokespeople attributed the dip to the continued economic downturn. In 2008, the annual campaign raised $1.04 billion.

Fundraising in 2011 is “looking up,” a spokesman told JTA.

An additional $1.5 billion was generated in 2010 in endowment funds for specific charitable projects in North America, Israel and dozens of other countries, totaling more than $2.4 billion for global needs in 2010. Jewish Federations’ philanthropic endowment portfolio is worth $13.5 billion and currently yields approximately $1.5 billion in yearly earnings.

“We are incredibly proud that thanks to our generous donors and the hard work of federation professionals and lay leaders, the Jewish Federations continue to help enrich and sustain Jewish life around the world,” Kathy Manning, JFNA’s board chair, said in a written statement.

Tribefest survey: Many attendees were federation first-timers [VIDEO]


New data shows that Tribefest met its goal of drawing many federation first-timers to the recent Young Leadership conference in Las Vegas, federation officials said.

“We’re not only satisfied, we’re thrilled,” said Joe Berkofsky, spokesman for the Jewish Federations of North America, which organized last week’s gathering.

Nearly 1,300 Jews, mostly in their 20s to early 40s, showed up for three days of lectures, workshops and performances devoted to Jewish politics, religion and culture.

It was a first step in what federation officials say is a new outreach strategy for the national federation organization that is aimed at bringing in new blood along with the committed donors that were targeted by previous Young Leadership conferences.

Story continues after the jump.

Video by VideoJew Jay Firestone.

Results from 150 participants who took a post-conference survey showed that 30 percent of them were not already federation donors. Forty-two percent said they had never participated in or helped organize a program at their local Jewish federation and 45 percent had ever served on a federation committee. Sixty-two percent said Tribefest was their first national federation conference.

Berkofsky said that because these are only the initial survey results, and probably come from the most involved participants, who are typically the first to answer such surveys, “The later numbers should show even more people not previously involved, which is what we hoped to see.”

Follow-up is a major part of the federations’ outreach effort. As participants entered each event, their badges were scanned and their identifying information was electronically stored. Those details will be given to their local Jewish federations for concerted follow-up.

“We want to keep the momentum going, to capitalize on the energy,” Berkofsky said.

In the lions’ den: Federation women cap week in the Big Easy


Just down the road from where the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America had concluded a day earlier, more than a thousand of the federation system’s most generous women found a philanthropic sanctuary of their own.

At the Hilton Hotel here, the International Lion of Judah Conference drew about 1,100 of the women that the federation system refers to as “lions”—those who give at least $5,000 each year to the system—for a number of sessions dedicated to showcasing the best of what that system supports and highlighting some of the interesting projects women are running in the broader Jewish nonprofit world.

They told stories about strong women and mothers. And at a conference without men, the humor was decidedly female-centric: Comic Judy Gold, performing at its closing gala, got her biggest laugh in response to a joke involving a yeast infection and Passover.

The absence of men was vitally important to making the five-day event a success, said guests at the Nov. 10 closing gala at the Hilton.

“You can let your hair down more,” Shanny Morgenstern, the president of women’s philanthropy at the Kansas City federation, told JTA.

While annual campaigns have fallen across the country with the recession, women’s giving to the federation has held steady over the past two years, said Kim Fish, the senior director of national women’s philanthropy for the Jewish Federations of North America.

The lions made $19.1 million in pledges over the course of their conference—a 12 percent increase compared to their last get-together in late 2008, just before the recession took hold. In the Big Easy, their average gift was more than $17,000.

The Lion of Judah has become something of a cultural phenomenon within the federation world since Norma Wilson came up with the concept in Miami in 1972.

Her idea was to spur giving by rewarding women who gave $5,000 or more with a gold brooch featuring a roaring lion and a diamond eye. As the idea spread from federation to federation the lion evolved, with the diamond eye turning into a ruby for a gift of $10,000, a sapphire for $18,000 and an emerald for $25,000. The lion turns platinum if a woman has given a gift of more than $100,000—and if a woman endows her gift, the philanthropic feline gets a little gold torch to hold in its outstretched paw.

And while the GA, the annual conference for the federation system’s lay and professional leaders, is more about the system’s functionality, best practices and policy, the biannual Lion of Judah conference is strictly about fund raising—and instilling a sense of feminine camaraderie in some of the most generous benefactors of the multibillion-dollar per year charitable system.

“It’s about sisterhood,” Bari Freiden, a Lion from Kansas City, told JTA between sessions. “You are all the same because you are at a certain giving level or above no matter where you are from. You recognize a lion and all of a sudden you have a connection.”

The idea has worked—big time. The federations may do a better job of raising money from women than any other philanthropy, Jewish or not. About 17,000 women in the United States have become Lions, and they provide the core of the $180 million raised by the federations through their women’s philanthropy campaign.

All told, giving by women accounts for about 23 percent of the annual $900 million general campaign, according to Fish.

At federations like the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, the women’s campaign brings in about 40 percent of the organization’s overall annual campaign, according to Steve Rakitt, the federation’s president.

While some insiders openly wondered whether federations should have spent more time at the GA working on how to articulate their story more clearly, the system clearly knew how to pitch its Lions. Their conference this year was orchestrated to put the federations front and center, and to pull at the heartstrings of its participants.

Sessions ranging from “Slim Peace: Diet for a Peaceful Planet” to “Strong Women and ‘Lipstick’ Leadership” to “Business Women and Politics” generally avoided becoming bogged down in philanthropic theory, instead focusing on making the attendees aware of the more interesting programs being funded by the federations. The sessions told the stories of the programs through women’s voices.

For example, during one session, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee—one of the federation system’s two main overseas partners—focused on a woman it rescued from Georgia and another it saved from Bosnia. The session also highlighted the generosity of Anne Heyman, a major funder who worked with the JDC to establish the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda for orphans of the country’s genocide.

Each presentation drew more on the emotional than on nuts and bolts—and each included a pitch for the federation system.

Plenary sessions were more about positioning the federation and the Lion of Judah as not just organizations offering opportunities to donate to good works, but also venues for making friends and empowering women through philanthropy.

Having no men around was key, participants said.

“You can say things you wouldn’t necessarily say with men there,” said Morgenstern of the Kansas City federation. “If there would be men, the women would be less open to share.”

“It is an exclusive network both because it is women and the giving dollar amount,” said Freiden, a fellow Kansas City lion.

And while that included a bit of feminine high-jinks on Bourbon Street that both acknowledged, the conference all led up to a caucus closed not only to the press but also to all but the highest-level staff, at which the women poured out their hearts and opened their checkbooks.

After spending five days hearing about the power of the federations and of being women associated with the federations, the Lions broke into groups. The women sat in a circle and, one by one, told their stories about how their local federation had personally touched them.

The caucus became a tear-filled affair as the women related their intensely personal stories—and made financial pledges to their local federations, often disclosing the dollar amount or at least the percentage of increase over their last pledge, according to several participants.

Despite the success, some federation insiders say the model would need to be tweaked to attract a younger generation. This year the conference included a service project in which Lions, in partnership with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s PJ Library, handed out backpacks of books to underprivileged New Orleans children as the federations become convinced that service is the gateway to a younger generation.

But for now, the federations are banking on inspiring more giving through sisterhood.

“If you put women in a situation where there is abundance and where they can all succeed, they are incredibly cooperative and helpful to each other,” Freiden said. “Whereas if you are in a situation where you are taking from my cubs, they come out with their claws. Here it doesn’t hurt us to share good things. It helps us and we help each other.”

This article was adapted from The Fundermentalist newsletter; sign up at Fundermentalist.com.

L.A. Receives Emergency Grant, Sinai Head Appointed, Composer Wins Soup Contest


L.A. Receives Emergency Grant to Pay for Jewish Education

Five communities, including Los Angeles, will split an $11 million emergency grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation for day school and Jewish camp tuition assistance over the next two years. The San Francisco-based foundation will begin paying money out immediately to Jewish federations in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston and its neighboring North Shore, and the greater Washington, D.C., area.

“This is a critical economic time,” Jim Joseph Foundation President Alvin Levitt said, “and a critical response to an emergency situation. To the greatest extent possible, these grants are meant to make the difference between kids being able to afford to go to Jewish school and camp — and not going.”

The L.A. Federation will administer the grant of up to $2.5 million over the next two years to help families pay for Jewish day school and high school, residential summer camp and early childhood programs. The Federation is still working out the mechanism by which it will distribute the funds to the 10,000 kids in Jewish day and high schools in the Los Angeles area and thousands more in overnight camps and preschools.

L.A. Federation President John Fishel called the grant “an extraordinary gift,” but one that comes with challenges.

“The scope here is so vast, it’s going to take some extremely thoughtful people to really develop the criteria,” Fishel said. “This is a significant sum of money to get from a single body, but how you administer it in an equitable fashion, get it out as quickly as possible, get it out to the neediest people, and have it be really meaningful — that will be a big challenge for us.”

The Jim Joseph Foundation hopes the money will stabilize schools as well, since many institutions have seen ominous drops in registration for next year, and even some students dropping out this year. Fishel said a recent study revealed that the Los Angeles area’s 35 day schools and other community organizations have given out $28 million in tuition assistance this year.

This is the second tuition assistance grant the Jim Joseph Foundation has made in Los Angeles in recent months. Last December, the foundation announced a $12.7 million grant to the L.A. Federation and the Bureau of Jewish Education to help five high schools increase enrollment by paying for tuition subsidies for middle-income students over the next six years. Part of the $12.7 million pays for development directors, additional teachers for new students, and marketing, evaluation and administrative costs. The schools and the larger Jewish community are obligated to raise an additional $21.25 million within the next six years for a community endowment fund to pay for Jewish education into the future.

Like the $12.7 million grant, the new money is meant to provide scholarships on top of what schools are already offering; recipient schools may not replace their scholarship money with the Jim Joseph funds.

The Jim Joseph Foundation has given out $142 million since it was founded three years ago. In Los Angeles, it has funded Jewish camp initiatives and a study of alumni of Birthright Israel, a program that strengthens Jewish identity by sending young people on a free trip to Israel.

Levitt hopes the emergency grant will inspire other foundations — which themselves are hurting — to respond in this time of crisis.

“Private foundations have an obligation to step up — at least proportionally to their assets. But it doesn’t have to be in Jewish education, as we’ve done,” Levitt said. “It could be to help the elderly — or the poor. This is a critical time and people are in real need. If not now, when?”

Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Senior Writer

Sinai Head of School Appointed to National Post

Sinai Akiba Academy’s head of school, Rabbi Laurence Scheindlin, has been appointed president of the Solomon Schechter Day School Association, an organization that develops tools and resources for professional and lay leaders in its 76 member schools. This is the first time a head of school, and someone from the West Coast, is leading the association, a part of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ).

“We think we have a unique role to play among the day school associations in that we have a lot of expertise in areas of curriculum and instruction,” said Scheindlin, who has spent more than 30 years at Sinai Akiba, the day school connected to Sinai Temple in Westwood.

Three years ago, the association adopted a strategic plan that for the first time put heads of school and educational professionals on the board, to serve along with Conservative day school lay leaders. The plan also yielded an emphasis on selling parents on the need for a day school experience, curriculum development and publications to help teachers and lay leaders. The association produced a curriculum on Bible that is used not only in Conservative schools, but also in other Jewish schools, and is currently finishing up a similar curriculum on rabbinics.

Scheindlin said he sees increased attention to students’ spiritual experience.

“Without diminishing the academic rigor of our Judaic studies programs, we are finding way to enhance spirituality on campus, so kids are not just learning about Judaism, but they are coming away with a feeling of Jewish life and inner life, and the ways in which we sense God’s presence around us.”

Scheindlin’s appointment is a one-year position, at the end of which a new governance structure will be implemented. Scheindlin is leaving open the possibility that his tenure will be extended.

“We are extremely pleased to have Rabbi Scheindlin serve as our board president,” said Elaine R. S. Cohen, associate director of USCJ’s department of education. “His extensive experience and insights are already a tremendous asset to our organization and integral to achieving our strategic priorities of promoting educational excellence, increasing advocacy and promoting synergies with partner institutions.”

Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Senior Writer

L.A. Architect Wins Top Israel Prize

A Los Angeles architect has won two top prizes in Architecture of Israel Quarterly’s third annual Project of the Year Competition. Raquel Vert, principal at Raquel Vert Architects, won the building category and the Yuli Ofer Prize for Advancement of Architecture for her work on The Deichmann Center for Social Interaction and the Spitzer-Salant School of Social Work at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Vert shares the awards with Irit Axelrod and Yasha Grobman from Grobman-Axelrod Architects.

More than 300 works were submitted for prize consideration. Vert beat out four other finalists in the building category, and earned a first-place win for the Yuli Ofer Prize, which is awarded to the top three projects among the competition’s six categories (building, landscape, interior design, unbuilt projects, research and student).

Vert, a Tel Aviv native, lives in Encino and worked for several Southern California architects — including Frank Gehry — before setting up her own practice in Santa Monica. In 2004, Vert established a branch office in Israel and was commissioned to design the Spitzer-Salant Building and the Deichmann Building. The buildings are part of a complex at the entrance to Ben-Gurion University, which links the town of Beer-Sheva with the campus.

“The buildings’ form have a bold, playful and sculptural spirit, with a tilted concrete wall sitting in water holding a floating cubic structure and a curved metal wall penetrating the building through sheets of glass, all enforcing a sense of indoor-outdoors,” Vert said.

“Truly, as important as the prestige of these awards, is the knowledge that our design has succeeded in its goal of opening BGU to the city, linking the university’s academic life with the history of Beer-Sheva and establishing a cultural core for the entire community.”

Adam Wills, Senior Editor

Local Composer Wins Soup Contest

A Los Angeles amateur chef has won the 2009 “Better Than Your Bubby’s Chicken Soup Challenge” sponsored by the National Jewish Outreach Program.

Michael Cohen, 31, a Hollywood composer who scored “The Hebrew Hammer,” beat out four contestants in the final round of the nationwide search for the best chicken soup recipe. Cohen’s recipe, “Elat Chicken Soup,” named for the Pico Boulevard market where he buys his ingredients, features a mix of chickpeas, eggplant and Middle Eastern spices. 

Noted food experts, including kosher cookbook author Jamie Geller and syndicated columnist Lenore Skenazy, judged the finals, which were held on March 12 at Abigail’s on Broadway, a New York City kosher restaurant. 

Cohen received a round-trip ticket to Israel for his prize-winning recipe. He has won $40,000 in previous national cooking contests over the past four years.

To see the winning recipe, visit http://betterthanyourbubbys.blogspot.com.

Lisa Armony, Contributing Writer

L.A.’s Jewish Community Library Likely to Move


A coalition of Jewish Community Library supporters say leaders at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles have spurned their efforts to create an independent library and to stop a proposed merger with the American Jewish University.

Since March 2008, leaders of Federation, which funds the library through the Bureau of Jewish Education, and AJU have been exploring a merger of the 30,000-volume collection at the Jewish Community Library with AJU’s 115,000-volume library at the Mulholland Drive campus. AJU plans to expand its library facilities in the next few years and to open the library up to the community.

BJE leaders say the merger is the only way to keep the collection public, since Federation has been steadily reducing its funding for the library, which draws about 2,000 patrons a year to its third floor suite in Federation headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard.

BJE will not request funding to run the library for the 2010 fiscal year, BJE executive director Gil Graff told The Journal.

But library supporters say AJU shouldn’t be the collection’s only option. They have formulated a plan that would set the library on an independent course, to open a freestanding, centrally located facility, possibly with satellite facilities, that would increase community access to the library. They are not asking for funding from Federation – just to entrust it with the collection.

The supporters say a merger with AJU would sacrifice the library’s identity as a community resource.

“I just don’t think an academic library that sits on top of a hill, over a freeway, which you can’t even see from the street, which few people ever go to is the place to put a community library,” said Sherrill Kushner, an attorney who is heading up Save the Jewish Library, which also includes Orange County’s Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie.

But Federation officials say this plan is just another version of a 2006 plan that was already analyzed and rejected by a BJE task force set up to determine the library’s future. In 2008, that task force recommended pursuing the possibility of a merger with AJU. Those talks have been under way since June 2008.

Issues on the table include what to do with duplicate volumes, which could be placed in other libraries or institutions where the community could have access to them, Graff said. Still unclear is what would happen to the Slavin children’s library. Graff says BJE will not be asking for funding for that entity in 2010, either.

Eliezrie and Kushner say Federation leaders seem sold on the AJU plan, and they have had a hard time getting anyone to discuss their approach. While Federation vice president Beryl Geber said she is planning to meet with Eliezrie, Eliezrie said 10 days worth of emails to Geber, Graff and Federation President John Fishel have not yielded indication that a meeting will take place.

“The library should be an independent oasis for everyone,” said Eliezrie, who as Chabad’s liaison to United Jewish Communities is well seasoned in working with Federation. “I’ve been shocked that they won’t even talk about it. Let everyone meet and argue and hear what we have to say.”

Graff expressed pessimism about the ability of the grassroots effort would be able to take on the responsibility for the community collection with no facility, supporters or infrastructure to manage a library in place.

“It’s not clear to me that this is something as attractive as an entity with a history of 60 years and a campus,” he said, referring to AJU.

Kushner counters that it is difficult to fundraise without any indication that they could have access to the collection. The BJE and Federation will jointly decide whether the AJU merger will go through, and then the Federation’s Education Pillar will decide whether the new entity would get funding, and how much. Under a new structure put into place in Federation last year, Federation agencies do not get any entitlements and any non-profit can apply for funding – including AJU or an independent library.

The idea that AJU could get funding for absorbing the community collection is appalling to Abigail Yasgur, who resigned from her position as Jewish Community Library director in protest to the merger.

“Giving the library to the AJU serves only the interests of the AJU and the Federation, but not the interests of the people.  The arrangement serves the AJU by enlarging its collection. (While the specifics of the Federation-AJU arrangement remain unknown, should the Federation also decide to give funds to the AJU to take the Library, that would be scandalous,)” she wrote in an editorial submitted to the Jewish Journal. “The arrangement serves the Jewish Federation by lowering or eliminating the cost of running the library, which it has borne in major part.  But the losers in this deal, which has not been subjected to public scrutiny, are you and me and everyone else who seeks a Library that serves the people.”

Geber disagrees. She says the merger will give more people more access.

“What we are talking about is not the disappearance, but the expansion of the Jewish Community Library, and it relocation,” Geber said. “It means an expansion in the possible number of hours it is open, in the number of volumes, in the space it will have. These are all things it can’t do here.”

” title=”http://www.jclla.org/” target=”_blank”>http://www.jclla.org/
” title=”http://www.jewishla.org” target=”_blank”>http://www.jewishla.org

‘Top 400’ misses full picture of Jewish philanthropic giving


Jewish groups annually look to The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of top 400 fundraising organizations the way the business world looks to the Forbes Fortune 500 list — to see how well Jewish philanthropy is doing.

This year’s list, called

JCRC’s Schwartz-Getzug picked to head Jewish World Watch


Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug, a longtime Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles executive and director of the organization’s Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC), has been named executive director of Jewish World Watch (JWW), a coalition of synagogues, schools and Jewish community members working to combat genocide around the world.

Schwartz-Getzug plans to leave the Community Relations Committee, which is one of the prominent faces of The Federation in the non-Jewish world, in November and begin her new position in early December. The committee has not yet announced her replacement.

Schwartz-Getzug, who is also The Federation’s senior vice president of public affairs, said she has mixed feelings about leaving the “epicenter of the local Jewish communal world” after six years of service. Still, the opportunity to head a small up-and-coming organization outweighed her misgivings.

“This was an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up,” said Schwartz-Getzug, a 44-year-old mother of three. “This felt like an opportunity to branch out.”

“Tzivia will definitely be missed,” Federation President John Fishel said.

Schwartz-Getzug will help the two-year-old nonprofit raise money, market itself to the community, oversee the creation of a strategic plan and help determine which issues the group should spotlight, said Janice Kamenir-Reznik, JWW president and acting executive director.

Schwartz-Getzug was selected from 40 applicants for the top spot at JWW. Schwartz-Getzug said she plans to work closely with JWW’s board and other leaders to determine how to grow the organization.

The Community Relations Committee programs have grown in scope and importance under Schwartz-Getzug’s direction, observers say. Among them is KOREH L.A., a well-regarded reading mentoring program, which offers literacy programs to children as young as 3 and 4. Schwartz-Getzug also increased the number of JCRC-sponsored trips to Israel for California legislators, a program that helps increase political support for the Jewish state and for Federation social services.

Recently, she oversaw the creation of a new coalition that has brought together more than 80 local Jewish staff members from congressional, county supervisor, City Council and other political offices. Schwartz-Getzug hopes the new group will reach out to other ethnic and religious coalitions to network and figure out ways to collaborate.

Still, Schwartz-Getzug, like other JCRC directors in the past decade, has had a hard time leading the JCRC to take public stands on controversial political issues. In mid-May, for instance, the JCRC board approved a pro-immigrant rights statement that some members hoped would demonstrate solidarity with the Latino community. The approval process was so slow, however, that the statement appeared several weeks after the largest pro-immigration demonstrations in the country, a reflection of the JCRC’s, and, by extension, The Federation’s, cautious approach.
A lawyer by training, Schwartz-Getzug’s career has taken “a lot of left turns” over the years, she said. After practicing law for four years as a litigator, she joined the Anti-Defamation League to become civil rights director for the Western Region. She moved on after six years to become community liaison at DreamWorks SKG, principally working on “The Prince of Egypt” and its prequel, “Joseph: King of Dreams.” Schwartz-Getzug joined The Federation in 2001.

“It is clear from my career choices that I am most happy and passionate working in the Jewish community,” she said. “And I look forward to continuing to play an important role in it.”

L.A. gets ready to be the center of Jewish universe


In just three weeks, more than 3,000 leaders of the international Jewish community, including the prime minister of Israel, are coming to Los Angeles.

What, you hadn’t heard?

This season’s best-kept secret among L.A. Jews seems to be that the 75th annual General Assembly (GA) of the United Jewish Communities is being held in Los Angeles — the first time in 26 years this city will host one of the largest annual gatherings of Jews in North America.

“This is a great opportunity for Los Angeles to participate in this national convention, where we don’t always have a critical mass participating,” said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “More importantly, we have some extraordinarily talented Jewish human resources and some extraordinarily creative programming in L.A., and this will be an opportunity for us to highlight those individuals and programs.”

But while some locals have already signed up, and hundreds have volunteered, a mention of the GA is more likely to elicit a blank stare than an excited nod in most Jewish circles.

“Never heard of it,” said Marlene Kahan, a teacher who lives in Beverlywood. “But it sounds interesting. I’d love to read about it and find out what happens there.”

The GA is one of the largest Jewish events on the North American calendar (the Reform movement’s biennial conference surpasses the GA, with about 5,000 attendees), with thousands of lay and professional leaders from hundreds of communities gathering to explore the state of the Jewish world, and to set a vision for the year to come.

The United Jewish Communities represents 155 Federations and 400 independent communities, and the four-day conference, Nov. 12-15 at the Los Angeles Convention Center downtown, brings together Federation machers as well as other organizations and activists from around the world. Anyone who wants to be a player in the Jewish community is at the GA.

The powerful bloc of participants attracts an impressive roster of leaders, scholars and experts to run daily plenaries and a menu of hundreds of sessions on topics from global anti-Zionism to new trends in Jewish education to savvy solicitation techniques.

Anyone can register as a delegate. Southern Californians are offered a local’s discounted rate of $275 (non-residents pay $525), and people who have volunteered to help out for a few hours can attend the conference on that day (volunteer slots have been filled). All events — including a concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Monday, Nov. 13 — are open to registered delegates and volunteers only.

But word has been slow to trickle out to the far-flung L.A. Jewish community.

While a call for volunteers went out to synagogues and organizations months ago, full-page ads have only shown up in the last few weeks, and the UJC Web site didn’t post program details — such as speakers and session topics — until early October.
There are currently 425 local delegates signed up, along with about 300 to 400 student delegates, some of them at Southern Californian schools, signed up through Hillel. About 750 Angelenos have also volunteered to staff the convention, which is estimated to attract 3,000 delegates and an additional 1,000 exhibitors, organizers and staff, according to Judy Fischer, who is the Los Angeles Federation staff GA director. Fischer is working with lay host community chair Terri Smooke to organize the event.

Organizers admit publicity has been slow because the program was revamped following the war in Israel.

“The focus was transformed in light of what happened over the summer, and particularly in light of the implications of the war for Israel and for the Jewish people in our communities and across the world,” said Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Chicago Federation, and head of programming for the GA. “There is a strong sense of connection with Israel, and recognition that as much as this means as a single war, it wasn’t just that. It has a deeper meaning.”

The theme chosen over the summer was “On the Frontlines Together: One People, One Destiny,” meant to encompass the war’s implications regarding the Israel-Diaspora connection, global Jewish security, Israel’s identity, its military, its leadership and how that reverberates out to Jewish communities across the world.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is scheduled to deliver the keynote on Tuesday evening (though in the past prime ministers have often ended up canceling or speaking through video feed). A record four Knesset ministers are also scheduled to address the group, including foreign minister Tzipi Livni, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s ministers of education and tourism.

During and following the war, federations from across the country funneled $330 million dollars to Israel through UJC.
“In some ways this was kind of a breakthrough in the recognition of the centrality and significance of the UJC Federation system,” Kotzin said. “The prime minister wants to be able to come and participate to express his appreciation and to advance ties between Israel and the North American Jewish Community. The GA exists at a moment where we can really keep up with what is going on and move things forward.”

Other speakers include Canadian Parliament Member Dr. Irwin Cotler; Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International; and French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levi.

A plenary on “The Jewish Future” will feature a panel with Norman Cohen, provost of the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Insitiute of Religion; Arnie Eisen, chancellor-elect at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary; and Richard Joel, president of the Orthodox Yeshiva University.

But all other conference-wide sessions will focus on Israel, as will more than half of the smaller sessions.
It is a shift that not everyone is thrilled with.

“As someone who lives in Israel and is a Zionist, I think it is unfortunate and actually speaks to the lack of an overarching vision for the future of the Jewish people,” said Yossi Abramowitz, founder of Jewish Family and Life, who now blogs daily at peoplehood.org.

Abramowitz has attended around 20 GAs, and moved to Israel this summer.

Tranforming the Synagogue — A Scorecard


Synagogue transformation programs exude good intentions, but do they actually work?

The record is mixed. They are no panacea, but they sometimes benefit participating congregations — at least temporarily — by attracting newcomers, energizing existing members and perhaps forcing the synagogues to re-examine themselves.

For example, Rabbi Shawn Zevit, a spokesman for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, said participating congregations in his movement have enjoyed “modest success” in luring unaffiliated Jews, although getting them to participate in synagogue activities has not always been easy. On the other hand, he added, some existing members have become more deeply involved in congregational life thanks to transformation initiatives.

Those initiatives include Synaplex, whose core mission is to strengthen Jewish identity and create a sense of community largely by making Shabbat meaningful.

Turnout at synagogues that have participated in the program for at least two years generally doubles, triples, or even quadruples on Synaplex weekends, according to Rabbi Hayim Herring, a spokesman for Synaplex’s parent organization, STAR, or Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal. What’s more, Herring added, membership has either stabilized or increased at 17 pilot congregations evaluated by his organization, even those that had been losing members.

But a boost in headcount does not necessarily translate into meaningful change, according to representatives of both transformation projects and participating synagogues.

“The goal of a synagogue is not simply to get people to use it, although that may be the initial goal,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “The ultimate goal is to effect change in the person and the congregation. I’d look at the situation two years from now and see how many people have had continuous involvement, or became involved only because this is something new.”

The success rate of these experiments varies dramatically, according to Epstein. Without offering percentages, he said he has observed “large numbers” of congregations that seek a “quick fix,” and therefore have achieved only limited success — and “large numbers” that have been able to reinvent themselves and become more vibrant institutions.

Benchmarks of congregational transformation come in many forms — some of them concrete and easy to quantify, but many more of them abstract and difficult to attach numbers to. They may be manifested by congregants who now take Jewish learning seriously. Or who have inculcated Jewish values into their lives. Or feel prayer in their bones for the first time. Or it may be reflected in a once-impersonal synagogue that now has a warm, friendly atmosphere and makes newcomers feel at home.

Whether these innovations actually take root is the product of many factors, according to Epstein and others, including the quality of leadership at individual congregations, and that can vary widely. The consensus: The best leaders are visionaries who cultivate congregations that creatively and boldly pursue long-lasting change rather than simply add new programs. Ideally, such an approach is so firmly implanted in the congregational culture that it will survive changes in synagogue personnel.

“You have to be ready to look at yourself objectively and critically and really be honest about what your strengths and weaknesses are,” said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “You need to create rising expectations and break your sense of complacency. It’s very difficult.” Freelander said only about one-half of the congregations he has monitored have been able to create a climate that is conducive to profound change. “But when it happens,” he added, “you can see the light bulbs going off and the congregation is better for it.”

The point at which change becomes “meaningful” or even “profound” is subject to interpretation, of course. Herring of Synaplex, for one, said an important threshold has been crossed when a congregation “moves from using Synaplex as a program to using Synaplex as a way of doing business in the synagogue.”

However it is defined, fashioning a truly transformative approach to congregational thinking and decision-making “is incredibly hard to do and we still have a lot to learn about how to do it,” said Lawrence Hoffman, the co-founder of Synagogue 2000, an initiative that was launched in 1995 and recently evolved into a leadership-training program known as Synagogue 3000. The goal of Synagogue 2000, in part, was to help congregations become more spiritual, adult-centered and welcoming.

Hoffman estimates that about one-third of the 100 congregations served by Synagogue 2000 had poor leadership, and therefore achieved lackluster results. Of the remaining synagogues, he said, about one-third of them were modestly successful at transforming themselves and one-third were very successful.
Amy Sales, associate director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, said that about half of the Synaplex synagogues she surveyed could legitimately be called success stories.

A third major shul-overhaul program is the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE) , which focuses on Torah study as an important entry point into Jewish life. “On one level, transformation seems daunting,” said ECE director Rob Weinberg. “But on another level, we’re just asking congregations to do the best of what they already do, but on a regular basis.”

Stressing that he considers success to be a “continuum, rather than a yes-no proposition,” Weinberg estimates that roughly one-half to three-quarters of the synagogues that have participated in his program for several years have in fact transformed themselves.

Temple Shalom of Newton, Mass., is one of them. Under the ECE aegis, the 1,000-family Reform congregation spent five years coming up with five core Jewish values — lifelong learning, enriching spirituality, creating community, social action, and Jewish continuity.

Ideally, every new synagogue event or program exemplifies one of those values. For example, when three of the temple’s aging Torah mantles disintegrated, more than 330 members, from nursery school children to grandparents, needlepointed decorative covers for the new mantles, illustrating the values of kedusha (holiness) and kehillah (community).

Meanwhile, the congregation has become active in its local federation and the national Reform movement and has sent two large groups to Israel this past year.
“That’s what it means to us to be a learning congregation,” said Temple Shalom education director Julie Vanek. “Not just creating programs, but helping people reflect on who they are and what they want to be.” l

Large-Scale Israel Solidarity Rally Planned for Sunday


In an effort to demonstrate solidarity with Israel, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and other Jewish groups are organizing a major community rally to take place in front of the Federation’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters this Sunday, July 23 at 4 p.m.


RELATED LINKS

The Federation

Board of Rabbis

Wiesenthal Center Hosts 900+ for Pro-Israel Rally

Simon Wiesenthal Center

United Jewish Communities (UJC)

Planners hope to attract 10,000 supporters.

“This is an opportunity for a broad cross-section of our community to come together for the people of Israel at this difficult time,” Federation President John Fishel said.

The Federation and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California are coordinating the rally, which will include the pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, among other organizations. Fischel said The Federation will work with public agencies to ensure participants’ safety.

First Federation Rally

Sunday’s event is the first major pro-Israel rally organized by the Federation since 2001, Fischel said. That year, the nonprofit organization held a rally in support of Israel just after the outbreak of the Second Intifada.

To publicize the rally, many local rabbis are emailing congregants and will speak from the pulpit on Shabbat about the demonstration’s importance, said Board of Rabbis Executive Vice President Mark Diamond.

“The rally will send a clear message to American politicians, the U.N. and to world leaders that the people of Los Angeles stand with Israel,” Diamond said. “I think the world needs to be reminded over and over again what started this war, and that Israel is a sovereign state that has a right to defend its people.”

The attacks on Israel by Hezbollah and Hamas represent nothing less than the latest step in radical Islam’s quest for world domination, said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Standing up to the threat, whether on the frontlines of Israel or the streets of Los Angeles, is a needed challenge to the forces of darkness.

“Their first step may be the state of Israel, but it is not the last stop in their international Jihadist journey,” Hier said. “This is an historical moment for the state of Israel. And Israel is doing what the world should be doing: confronting terrorists.”

Wiesenthal Center Plans Screenings

As part of its attempts to educate the public about the roots of the current crisis in the Middle East, the Wiesenthal Center has plans to screen three films, beginning July 25. “The Long Way Home,” discusses the story of Israel’s creation; “In Search of Peace” details the conflict from 1948 to 1967; and “Ever Again,” Hier said, spotlights the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Semitism.

Meanwhile, the Federation has established an Israel in Crisis Fund. One hundred percent of all monies raised will go toward sending Israeli children living in northern communities under attack to summer camp in safer areas.

The Federation’s emergency campaign is part of an initiative among U.S. and Canadian federations to raise $1 million weekly for the summer camp program.

As a measure of its support, the L.A. Federation announced that it had donated $100,000 to the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for 155 Jewish federations and 400 independent Jewish communities across North America.
New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington D.C. and Toronto have had or will also hold rallies to show solidarity with the Jewish state.

The upcoming Los Angeles event comes less than a week after a Chabad-sponsored pray-in and two weeks after an emotional rally at the Wiesenthal Center.
On July 17, Chabad held a pro-Israel prayer rally at Rabbi Schneerson Square in Los Angeles. The lunchtime gathering attracted about 1,000 people, including 500 children from local Chabad camps and youth groups.

“Whenever the Jewish people are threatened, our special weapon is the prayers of our beautiful children who now cry to the Almighty for the safety of our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land,” said Rabbi Boruch S. Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad.

Four days earlier, about 500 supporters of Israel attended the last-minute gathering. The two-hour ceremony included speeches from Wiesenthal Rabbis Hier and Abraham Cooper, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yarsolavsky, L.A. Consul General to Israel Ehud Danoch, Judea Pearl (father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl) and The Federation’s Fishel.
“This operation will not end until we make an end to Hezbollah,” Danoch said. “Israel is strong. The government is strong. The Jewish people are strong, and we will last an eternity.”

Religion Editor Amy Klein contributed to this report.

Let There Be Yiddish


“Gut Shabbes.” Synagogue vice president Donna Groman stands at the door, warmly greeting each guest. Inside, a samovar sits on a white-clothed table alongside temptingly arranged platters of homemade kugel and apple cake for the oneg.

Tonight is a Yiddish service, Zol Zahn Shabbes — literally, we should have Shabbat — and it’s happening at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), founded in 1972 as the world’s first synagogue for lesbian and gay Jews.

It’s a meeting of two seemingly incongruous worlds — an almost extinct 1,000-year-old Eastern European language and culture and a progressive and now well-established congregation of 180 gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and heterosexual families. And the Pico Boulevard synagogue is expecting a big crowd.

The sanctuary begins to fill. The congregants, young and old, male and female, are respectfully but comfortably attired. Many hug or kiss as they claim their chairs. All have varying allegiances to Yiddish.

Member Rebecca Weinreich, with daughters Shoshanah, 8, and Ashira, 4, is a celebrity this evening. Her grandfather, scholar Max Weinreich, founded the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Vilna, Poland, in 1925. Escaping from the Nazis in 1940, he re-established it in Manhattan.

“Do you speak Yiddish?” I ask Weinreich.

“Not in public. The expectations because of my name are too high,” she says.

“Shalom Aleycheim.” The lights dim as cantorial soloist Fran Magid Chalin welcomes everyone.

I peruse the 17-page booklet, which includes the evening’s program, a history of the Yiddish language and links to Yiddish resources. Even a nar (fool) could realize that this evening’s agenda is not just a kitschy visit to the alte velt (Old World).

Immediately the chorus begins singing, “O, Vee Gut un Vee Voyl Iz,” a Yiddish version of “Hiney Ma Tov.” They segue seamlessly into “Meer Viln Ale Nor Sholem,” which is “Heveynu Shalom Aleycheim.” People are clapping and singing along.

More people enter, and I count more than 100 guests.

After a break to greet one another, Chalin says, “Yiddish is the language that childproofed what parents said.”

Chalin herself studied German and, in her early 20s, sang in a Yiddish adult choir in Philadelphia. There, singing songs about the early labor movement, she felt electric, establishing a deep bond with the language. Later, after graduate school, she enrolled in a two-month Yiddish immersion class at Columbia University in New York.

“Many of us have this romantic relationship with Yiddish. It speaks to us about a time gone by,” she says. But she cautions that we can’t have a relationship if we relegate it to little pockets or little sayings.

The songs that Chalin has chosen for the choir quickly dispel any sense of romanticism. “Un Du Akerst, Un Du Zeyst” (“And You Plow and You Sow”), written in 1864 for the German Workingman’s Federation, taunts workers for how little they have to show for all their hard work. Others were written during the Shoah, giving comfort to the Jews in the same ways the Negro spirituals sustained the slaves.

Chalin introduces Lilke Majzner, Yiddishist and president of Los Angeles’ Yiddish Culture Club, founded in 1926. A native of Lodz, Poland, and a survivor of seven concentration camps, Majzner came to the United States in 1950 at age 17.

“I came without any script,” she says in a booming, confident voice. “I came to talk to you in English about Yiddish. That’s silly. That’s very silly.”

People laugh. But it’s clear that this diminutive figure, 84, professionally dressed in a beige suit and sensible shoes, isn’t here to entertain us.

She proves that further by reading a poem by Yiddish writer Malka Tussman. It begins, “You have a Jewish mouth, so speak Yiddish.” It ends, “Let there be Yiddish. That’s how I talk.”

How Majzner talks is even more emphatic: “I am shouting into your Jewish ears. Let there be Yiddish.”

And shouting she is. She educates us about the 1,000-year history of Yiddish — a history not just of words, of grammar and of curses but also of political parties, of freedom and of going on strike for Jewish and human rights.

And she exhorts us — passionately and convincingly — to take up the banner of her legacy, to learn Yiddish to make up for the 3.5 million Yiddish-speaking Jews who were murdered in the Shoah and to build a better world.

“And when you don’t feel the heaviness of the legacy, I will put some rocks in it,” she says.

She receives a standing ovation.

After services, a crowd gathers around Majzner, some speaking Yiddish.

I talk to Davi Cheng, a Chinese American Jew-by-choice. She grimaces as she describes the frustration of mastering the guttural sounds of Yiddish.

“There’s no ‘ch’ sound in Chinese,” she explains.

I also sit briefly with Chalin who tells me how, in her experience, she finds a disproportionate number of gays and lesbians studying Yiddish.

“In my classes at Columbia, we talked about how Yiddish doesn’t have a country and how often the GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender] community feels like a people without a country,” she says.

Chalin thinks many of those who desire to speak Yiddish fluently, like gays and lesbians, long for the notion of a secure community.

At evening’s end, as people leave, I notice the samovar is empty and the apple cake and kugel gone.

Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.

 

The Lichtenstein Formula for a Jewish Paper


“The role of a Jewish newspaper is to connect the Jewish community, not to unify it,” said Gene Lichtenstein, founding editor of The Journal.

During his nearly 15-year tenure, which ended in 2000, Lichtenstein’s formula was to hire good, independent writers and columnists who could produce articles that raised the interest, and frequently the hackles, of both professional and peripheral Jews.

“I wanted stories that people would discuss and argue about the following day,” Lichtenstein said during a lengthy interview at his home near the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

This concept doesn’t seem so revolutionary now, but it went counter to the tradition of most American Jewish weeklies in decades past.

The purpose of those publications was precisely to unify their communities in material and moral support of their federations, which usually financed the papers, and other Jewish and Israeli causes. A basic rule was to avoid criticism and controversy.

In that sense, Lichtenstein was an odd, even risky, choice as editor, and his selection split the then Jewish Federation Council, he recalls.

When Lichtenstein visited Los Angeles in 1985 to court his future wife, Jocelyn, the city’s Jews had the unusual choice of three competing weeklies.

They were the venerable B’nai B’rith Messenger, the maverick Heritage, both independently owned, and the Jewish Community Bulletin, the official Federation organ.

Much of The Federation’s leadership was dissatisfied with the coverage of all three papers and decided to explore a new format with a new editor to replace its own Bulletin.

At this point, Lichtenstein remembers, he was contacted by Ethel Narvid, a key player in Democratic and city politics, on behalf of a Federation committee appointed to find a new editor to shape a new paper.

Lichtenstein, the grandson of Russian immigrants, had a resume combining experience as psychologist, journalist and academic.

He had worked for The New York Times, Fortune, London Economist and as literary editor at Esquire, where his contributors included the likes of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.

On the academic side, he had served as chairman of the journalism department at the University of Rhode Island and taught courses in mass communications at USC and UC Berkeley.

Perhaps equally important for the position at hand, he had started a newspaper in the Boston area, the Jewish Journal of the Northshore.

As he recalls it, in his first interview with The Federation committee, chaired by attorney Richard Volpert, Lichtenstein outlined his concept for the new paper.

“I wanted an American newspaper, Jewish but connected to the larger world,” he said. “It wouldn’t just reflect the viewpoint of The Federation or be mainly about fundraising. It wouldn’t print only favorable stories about the Jewish community and Israel.”

In addition, he would insist on good writing, and the contributions of columnists would be central to the paper.

After that presentation, Lichtenstein thought that his chances of getting the job were pretty slim, and he and Jocelyn went on a vacation trip to London.

To his surprise, “I got a midnight call from Volpert and he offered me the editorship,” Lichtenstein said.

Shortly afterward, Narvid gave a lunch at her home for some old friends, including Los Angeles Times labor editor Harry Bernstein and this reporter, to introduce Lichtenstein.

“Harry told me that I was kidding myself if I thought The Federation would let me put out an independent paper, and you backed him up,” Lichtenstein reminded me.

Despite the prediction, The Federation committee and larger Federation board of directors agreed, in the face of considerable internal opposition, to establish an independent Journal, to advance a $660,000 loan for its operation, and to pay a subsidy to mail the paper to each of its 52,000 donors.

There had been two other finalists for the editor’s job, Yehuda Lev, an outspoken, liberal journalist, and Marlene Adler Marks, a talented writer active in politics and feminist issues.

Lev and Marks were the first editor/reporters hired, soon joined by such early staffers as Tom Waldman, Sheldon Teitelbaum, Joe Domanick and Naomi Pfefferman.

The first slim issue of The Jewish Journal appeared on Feb. 28, 1986, with Volpert, whom the often-critical Lichtenstein praised for “a real standout job,” as the first publisher.

Early issues won kudos for lively writing, outraged criticism by some Federation leaders and Jewish organizations, and a weak response from advertisers.

Within one year, the paper was hemorrhaging money, and some influential Federation leaders demanded that in the future they approve all major stories and editorials. Lichtenstein refused and, in a committee vote, carried the day by a narrow margin.

However, there was enough dissatisfaction with the editorial and business performance of The Journal that The Federation invited Charles Buerger, publisher of six successful East Coast Jewish papers, to buy out The Journal.

Buerger made a “low- ball” offer, then raised the stakes, but “to my astonishment,” The Federation decided not to sell, Lichtenstein said.

Nevertheless, by June 1987, the paper had run through the $660,000 lent by The Federation and faced an early demise.

At his point, major Federation leaders, with Edward Brennglass, Stanley Hirsh and Osiah Goren in the lead, rode to the rescue, putting up their own money to repay the loan. The Journal lived to fight another day.

Brennglass took over as publisher for the next 11 years, the paper established a solid reputation and actually started to make a profit. After Brennglass’ death, Hirsh, an influential businessman and Democratic heavyweight, became publisher in 1997.

However, by the year 2000, strong editorial and personality differences between publisher and editor-in-chief led to a parting point. Lichtenstein resigned and was succeeded by the managing editor, Rob Eshman.

Looking back on his 15-year tenure, Lichtenstein said he had “a wonderful time,” which included reporting trips to Israel, Germany, Hungary and Croatia.

“I think we put out a pretty good paper, though not as good as it could have been,” he reminisced. Part of the problem was a running conflict between himself and Federation leaders, which, he acknowledged, were partly his fault.

“I was really always an outsider, with one foot in the community, and one foot outside,” he said. In addition, “I believe that a Jewish weekly belongs to the editor and staff, and it is the editor’s job to make the staff realize that the paper belongs to them.

“That is hard for some organizational leaders to accept,” Lichtenstein added in an understatement.

His major contributions, Lichtenstein said, were to publish as many diverse viewpoints as possible, recruit talented writers and columnists and insist, at all times, on good writing.

True to his initial inspiration, “I tried to put out a paper that was part of America and the world,” he said.

“I’ve met some Jews, very wealthy and powerful Jews, who embrace Jewish victimhood, who told me that you can never trust a gentile,” Lichtenstein said. “I don’t champion that. I believe that the walls we build around ourselves are only in our minds.”

The “victim” mindset is encouraged by many Jewish organizations, Lichtenstein said, “which wave the flag of anti-Semitism to keep their members loyal and to raise funds.”

For Lichtenstein, there is a busy life after journalism. While he still writes, he has returned to his first profession as psychologist and is the director of mental health and social services for 26 clinics of the Aegis Institute, which specializes in the treatment of opiate addicts.

In addition, he has established a private practice, which includes family and marriage counseling.

He draws a distinction between core committed Jews, who go to synagogue and contribute to Jewish causes, and the “integrated” Jew on the periphery of the organized community.

“It is not the job of the American Jewish press to ‘convert’ the integrated Jew,” he said. “Our job is to open a dialogue with him.”

 

Federation Support of Civic Group Wanes


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Views Differ on Role in Centers Crisis


The news stunned John Fishel. In the fall of 2001, the L.A. Federation president learned that the city’s Jewish community centers were in crisis. If The Federation didn’t act quickly, some or all of the JCCs would have to shut down.

Fishel had every right to feel upset. He and other Federation leaders had allocated millions to support the JCCs over the years, with the expectation that the money was well spent, with proper oversight. In the late 1990s, for instance, The Federation had forgiven $1 million in loans to the parent organization running the centers.

Now, not only were the Jewish centers’ futures at stake, but also nearly $3 million in additional loans advanced by The Federation.

The financial troubles at the local JCCs were by no means unprecedented. Years earlier, difficulties flared up in Pittsburgh and Cleveland. In those instances, the local federations acted quickly to bail out troubled centers. They forgave loans, made emergency cash infusions and hammered out long-term strategic plans.

Other cities saved their JCCs because they saw them as invaluable community resources. They not only provided valuable services to Jewish families but also strengthened or even established connections between individual Jews and the Jewish community. In Los Angeles, JCCs also were known for serving the larger non-Jewish community.

But Fishel did not act as though preserving the centers was a community necessity. His approach to the problem was markedly different than in other cities.

“It all became: How are you going to pay back the money? When are you going to pay back the money? What interest rate will there be for this accrued debt?” said Nina Lieberman Giladi, former executive vice president of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA). “I would have expected The Federation, as leader of the organized local Jewish community, to have taken a different, more collaborative tone.”

A former Federation executive close to the parent organization corroborated her account, as does documentation. The Federation brought an attorney to the first post-crisis meeting between group executives and representatives of the centers’ parent organization. Many in the community began to see Fishel as intent on liquidating the centers to get the Federation’s money back. Fishel did little to dispel that perception by opining that perhaps the JCC model was antiquated and megasynagogues, day schools and other Jewish institutions might fill the void.

Eventually, The Federation restructured the debt and agreed to some loan forgiveness. But Fishel created no special fundraising campaign. He didn’t hold a fundraiser dinner. And the repayment terms virtually guaranteed that most of the JCCs would be shuttered, with their land sold to repay The Federation.

His actions suggested that he had lost faith in the mission and relevance of some of the city’s JCCs, especially the smaller ones.

Within three years, the venerable Bay Cities JCC in Santa Monica went out of business; the small Conejo Valley JCC shut down, and the JCCs’ parent organization sold the North Valley JCC. Although the property’s new owner has permitted North Valley members to continue operating on the site, the number of families participating at the center is off nearly 80 percent from the late 1980s.

And in Silver Lake, it was a Christian cleric — not The Federation — who partnered with the local community to purchase the land under the Silverlake Independent JCC. Otherwise, that profitable center would have closed because of a debt that it did not create. Most of the proceeds went to The Federation to repay a secured loan.

All this occurred against the backdrop of a JCC movement that is booming nationally. Close to $700 million in construction is planned, under way or has recently been completed, said Allan Finkelstein, president of the JCC Association of North America, the umbrella organization for the nation’s 200 full-service JCCs and other community properties, including Jewish camps. In coming years, Las Vegas; Boulder, Colo., and Naples, Fla., are expected to have new state-of-the-art facilities.

So what happened in Los Angeles, a city with such an affluent Jewish community? For one thing, the JCC parent organization mismanaged its finances and never raised enough money to maintain and improve the centers as Federation funding began declining in the 1990s, said attorney Ron Leibow, a vice chair of the national JCC Association. Leibow ultimately helped negotiate a final settlement between The Federation and the JCC parent organization, the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles.

The local Jewish community, unlike those in other cities, neither supported most existing centers nor clamored for the types of state-of-the-art facilities that have proven so successful elsewhere, he added. As for Fishel, Leibow said, he erred in initially taking an intransigent stance.

“There’s lot of blame to go around,” Leibow said. “I blame The Federation. I blame the JCC system. And I blame the community.”

Fishel, supporters argue, did much more for the local JCCs than he’s given credit for. In 2001, at the height of the crisis, Federation grants, loans and advances to the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles totaled $3.3 million, or nearly one-quarter of its $14 million budget, according to The Federation. (That figure included a $1.1 million emergency loan, with interest.)

“I can assure you John did all he could,” said Harriet Hochman, a former Federation chair who worked closely with Fishel on the JCC issue. “This caused him a great deal of pain and agony.”

The Federation, Hochman added, has increasing demands on its finite resources and simply lacked the money to prop up the entire system.

Given the mismanagement at the JCC parent organization, Fishel could be excused for not rushing to throw new money at the problem.

But to critics, Fishel and The Federation seemed to be choosing with their funding which Jewish communities were worth fighting for.

In the end, those JCCs considered worthy were the state-of-the-art New JCC at Milken in the West Valley; the Westside JCC (near the Fairfax district), which has raised millions for a planned renovation, and the often-struggling Valley Cities JCC. They have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in Federation support.

“Without John Fishel and all the lay and professional support we’ve gotten from The Federation, we wouldn’t be here — period,” said Mike Brezner, president of Friends of Valley Cities JCC, which operates the center. “They got us over the hump.”

Fishel’s unwavering support, Brezner added, allowed Valley Cities to rebuild programs, attract new members and gave it time to find an anonymous donor who paid off the Valley Cities outstanding debt. More than 1,000 visitors per week now come to the center.

No such luck with Fishel for the Silverlake Independent JCC, which arguably was more successful than Valley Cities. The Federation, in recent years, gave nearly nothing to Silverlake.

A boisterous 2004 protest held by Silverlake supporters at Federation headquarters brought out television crews and put Fishel and The Federation in a negative glare. Afterward, when Silverlake formally requested a grant, Federation officials asked for audited financial statements. Silverlake executives said they couldn’t afford to pay the audit fee.

“In my estimation, [the Silverlake leadership] chose not to go through the route we recommended,” Fishel said curtly.

In April 2005, just as Silverlake appeared on the verge of closing, Bishop J. Jon Bruno, head of Los Angeles’ Episcopal Diocese, stepped in to assume a 49 percent ownership stake on behalf of the local Episcopalian diocese. The Silverlake group retained 51 percent control. The center, which operates in the black, now offers ballet, gymnastics, yoga and other classes. Its preschool has a waiting list.

“I was stunned when we ultimately received no help from the organized Jewish community,” said Janie F. Schulman, president of the Silverlake Independent JCC. “I kept thinking that at the end of the day, they would come through for us.”

For a city its size, Los Angeles now has a relatively weak JCC system. Whereas metro New York has 26 full- or part-service JCCs and Chicago has seven, Los Angeles has five.

“I don’t feel the JCC model is necessarily outmoded,” Fishel said, “but we have a different community today than we did 10 or 20 years ago.”

Fishel Facts

Name: John Fishel.

Position: President of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles — 1992 to the present.

Age: 57.

Salary: $332, 000 (according to 2004 federal tax documents).

Birthplace: Cleveland.

Education: B.A. in anthropology from University of Michigan; M.A. in social work from University of Michigan.

Family: Married for 31 years to Karen, preschool teacher at Temple Isaiah; daughter, Jessica, 19, freshman at University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Hobbies: Reading, international adventure travel, music, especially jazz and blues.

Spirit Up, Tally Down on Super Sunday


Leon Weinstin has spent much of his life fighting on behalf of the Jewish people.

In his late 20s, he participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis and somehow managed to escape a near-certain death. Later, he immigrated to the United States, opened a successful clothing manufacturing business and contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to mostly Jewish charities, especially yeshivas.

The 95-year-old Weinstin volunteered his time Feb. 26 to call prospective donors on Super Sunday, the annual mega-fundraiser of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. In just two hours at Federation’s headquarters at 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Weinstin, resplendent in a blue blazer, red tie and wool slacks, raised $15,000.

“I believe in tzedekeh. I believe in helping people,” said Weinstin, who has participated in 26 Super Sundays. “As long as I’m alive, I’m going to come to Super Sunday.”

Seated next to Weinstin, Beverly Hills resident Esther Brenner could hardly contain her excitement whenever she landed a contribution, big or small. The retired Hebrew school teacher seemed to become especially animated when lapsed donors ponied up.

“Hey,” she announced to nearby volunteers, a smile crossing her face. “I just got somebody to give $10 who hadn’t given since 1990.”

An estimated 1,700 volunteers working at three locations obtained pledges for about $4.4 million this Super Sunday, about $200,000 less than last year. Participants included young and old, the religious and non-religious, Israelis, Persians and Russians — a veritable rainbow of Southland Jews. Given the diversity of and interaction among the volunteers, Super Sunday seemed as much about building community as raising money.

“This gives everybody a chance to come out and make this community a better place,” Federation President John Fishel said. “Super Sunday’s a unifying event.”

It’s also an opportunity for politicians to show solidarity with Jewish voters. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and L.A. City Councilman Jack Weiss each dropped by the midtown Federation headquarters and the phone banks in West Hills. L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and L.A. City Councilman Bill Rosendahl both volunteered at headquarters. The third fundraising hub was the Torrance Marriott.

“I want to make some calls. Let’s do it!” said Weiss as he made his way to the phones at 6505 early Sunday morning.

The stakes were especially high this Super Sunday, because many of the Federation’s 22 beneficiary agencies have seen their government funding shrink. At a time when demand for its services have surged, Jewish Family Service, for example, has been unable to keep pace because of government cutbacks, said Jewish Family Service (JFS) Executive Director Paul Castro in an interview. The JFS Gramercy Place Shelter has lost about $180,000 in federal and state money over the past two years, a huge financial hit for the 57-bed homeless shelter.

Nationally, Super Sundays have proven so successful that, in recent years, many federations have added Super Mondays and Super Tuesdays to attract more volunteers and to increase the likelihood of reaching donors at home. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington even has a Super Week.

Participants caught up with one another at 6505 between calls, noshing on bagels and cream cheese, pastries and ice blended coffee drinks. Clusters of purple, red and white balloons decorated the main call center. Gummy bears and bottled water seemed within arm’s reach of most callers.

Anne Blank worked the morning shift. The Beverly Hills psychotherapist said she attended her first Super Sunday to pay homage to her late father, an active philanthropist in Jewish causes who passed away nearly two years ago at age 82. “He’d be thrilled I was here,” she said.

At the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills, mothers and fathers came with young children to enjoy the family-friendly amenities, including a daycare center, a bounce house and inflatable slide. Teenagers dropped by with buddies to make calls and gossip.

Twelve-year-old Shani Mesica staffed the phones from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. By early afternoon, she had landed a $75 donation. Although she said the majority of callers reacted positively to her pitch, a couple told her they weren’t Jewish and demanded that she place them on a do-not-call list. Still, the seventh-grader at Kadima Hebrew Academy in West Hills said she planned to participate in Super Sunday again next year, even if her school waves its community-service requirement.

“It’s nice to help people who can’t afford to get flu shots or buy food for themselves,” said Mesica, amid the cacophony of voices that filled the gymnasium where volunteers seated at long tables made calls.

A contingent of 20 well-heeled members from El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana were among those staffing the phones at Milken. Many of them pitched fellow club members, who are expected by El Caballero to give 3 percent to 5 percent of their income to charity, said Donald Marks, a club member who personally raised $150,000 from fellow club goers. His pitch?

“I tell them that if Jews don’t give to Jews, who’s going to give?” said Marks, a 61-year-old industrial real estate developer. “We’re not talking about cancer or other catastrophic diseases. We’re talking about helping our Jewish brothers.”

 

Super Sunday Aims at Aiding Programs


In 1999, Alexander Khananashvili left behind his prosperous life as a Moscow doctor to immigrate to the United States with his wife and two daughters, hoping for a better future. He came with little money, no job prospects and no knowledge of English.

With the help of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Khananashvili and his family quickly found their footing. Within two days of their arrival, the former doctor and his wife met with a social worker from Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), a Federation beneficiary agency.

The social worker spoke to them at length about life in America, giving them information on everything from opening a bank account to enrolling in a medical plan. Within a few weeks, Khananashvili had several job leads, courtesy of JVS, while his wife enrolled, for free, in an English-language class offered by the agency.

Subsequently, The Federation awarded scholarships worth tens of thousands of dollars to enroll the Khananashvili daughters in Jewish day schools and Jewish camps, which, Khananashvili said, has helped cement their Jewish identities.

“The Federation improved our lives,” said Khananashvili, now a 48-year-old social worker and Beverly Hills resident. “They gave us our start here and protected us under their shield. We’re very grateful.”

During the past 30 years, The Federation has helped 30,000 Jews from around the world settle in the greater Los Angeles area. On Feb. 26, The Federation will hold its annual Super Sunday megafundraiser to support its 22 beneficiary agencies, including the Refugee and Resettlement Program that helped the Khananashvilis, as well as myriad other programs.

For the fundraiser, an estimated 1,900 volunteers will gather from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. to staff phones at three sites: The Federation’s headquarters at 6505 Wilshire Blvd., the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills and the Torrance Marriott. They will be making calls to potential donors, with the goal of raising $4.7 million.

Craig Prizant, The Federation’s executive vice president for financial resource development, said he hopes this year’s Super Sunday fundraising will break its record by $200,000 over 2005. He said he feels optimistic, because many local Jews have profited from the sizzling real estate market, enabling them to give more generously. In addition, The Federation has identified and plans to contact the growing population of Jews in the West Valley, including West Hills, and in such South Bay cities as Manhattan Beach and Torrance.

Still, “the needs are always going to outweigh what we can raise,” Prizant said.

That’s especially true for Jewish Family Service (JFS) and Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), two Federation beneficiary agencies that have been particularly hard hit by cuts in government funding.

The JFS Gramercy Place Shelter, for instance, has lost about $180,000 in federal and state money over the past two years, a huge financial hit, according to Paul Castro, the agency’s executive director. The 57-bed homeless shelter, which, Castro said, “seems to be chronically at risk,” has managed to stay afloat only because JFS has filled the gap with private donations. However, because of the government shortfall, JFS has not been able to expand the existing programs or introduce needed new ones at a time when demand for services has skyrocketed, Castro said.

In this age of budget deficits, JFS and other local nonprofits increasingly rely on funds generated by Super Sunday and other private-sector initiatives to maintain present service levels, Castro said.

“When you look at what’s happening with government funding, you’re seeing a bigger expectation that private donors will take a greater responsibility for meeting the safety net,” he said. “And Super Sunday is an important example of how this community is working toward that reality.”

JVS also has seen demand for its services outstrip resources to provide them. In 2002, for instance, the agency’s staff included eight full-time job developers tracking down leads for clients. Today, JFS has one full-time and one part-time employment developer.

Reduced funding has forced JVS to move away from individual sessions for resume writing and interviewing. Instead, said Vivian B. Seigel, JVS chief executive, much of the training is now done in a group setting.

In light of those realities, she said, Super Sunday’s importance to JVS should not be underestimated.

“We look at the money generated by Super Sunday as extremely important,” Seigel said. “It has enabled us to reach out to families we know are living below the poverty line and to offer important services, ranging from help in finding jobs that pay a living wage to college tuition scholarships.”

Among those calling prospective donors will be the Khananashvilis, who, in addition to making pitches, will make their own donation, just as they have every year since coming to America.

“We like being able to give back,” Khananashvili said. “In the beginning, it was only $10, but $10 for us was maybe more than $1,000 now. It was a lot of money.”

To volunteer for or make a donation to Super Sunday, call (866) 968-7333.

 

L.A’s Helping Hands


Two months ago, I had dinner with a friend who lived in New Orleans. We chatted about our communities, and I reminisced about the two years I spent in her city almost 40 years ago.

Last week, I received an e-mail from the same woman, who emotionally recounted fleeing New Orleans with two children, just in front of Hurricane Katrina. Although safe, she and her family were trying to adjust, dealing with the children’s schooling and arranging housing. They had taken only two days of clothing, expecting to return home in 48 hours.

My friend’s tale is one among tens of thousands; many are far more devastating, as families are dealing with the deaths of loved ones and the loss of nearly everything they own. As New Orleans is dredged, the true scope of the devastation will be understood. Already, the evacuees realize that a return to their former lives in that wonderful city may take months or years, and that some things may never be recovered. Into that disheartening reality, the Jews of Los Angeles and elsewhere have stepped in willingly and generously to help as they can, exactly as their religion says they should. And all the fractiousness, all the confusing, competing layers of the various Jewish organizations have seemingly melted away, coordinating the relief aid very much as they were designed to do.

As one of the largest social service agencies in Southern California, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles kicked into gear to coordinate our region’s Jewish response, and to play an active role as part of the nationwide response of the United Jewish Communities.

The efforts of the voluntary community and nonprofit organizations, both sectarian and nonsectarian, have been extraordinary. Thousands of volunteers have come forward and given time and money. Clothing and food have been sent to assist evacuees in cities like Houston, Baton Rouge and Jackson, Miss.

It is a tribute to the organized Jewish community that there was never a question — but that its assistance would go to all who needed it, regardless of faith or ethnicity.

The Houston Federation, in particular, is playing a central role. With its partners in the synagogue community, the Houston federation has responded compassionately and effectively in helping to collect small items like toothpaste and soap, to distribute food and to sort clothing for those with nothing but what is on their backs.

They have helped evacuees with temporary housing and the essentials of daily living. They have counseled the traumatized, and made it somewhat easier for the bereaved.

Beyond the affected region, the organized Jewish community is mobilizing across the country. Here in Los Angeles, we began our work immediately. After the hurricane, our communal network of affiliated human service agencies was convened by Federation senior staff, representing Jewish Family Service, Jewish Vocational Service, Hillel, the Bureau of Jewish Education, Jewish Free Loan Society and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, among others, to share information and to discuss how to coordinate and how assist evacuees expected in our city. The Board of Rabbis reached out to the synagogue community to help both Jews and non-Jews from the impacted region who started to arrive.

A natural disaster of this sort creates confusion exacerbated by the difficulty in using normal channels of communication. Our Federation has stepped in, fielding calls from local residents, connecting them with friends and family in the Gulf Coast.

We also have reached out to connect local manufacturers and businesses that have offered crucial in-kind contributions of supplies and locations needed to feed, shelter and clothe, including offers of water, trucks or mobile homes. And we’ve tried to quickly and thoughtfully match those offers with needs.

We can do so because we have over many years been set up to do it. Of no small consequence is the nearly $600,000 donated by Los Angeles residents through The Federation’s Hurricane Relief Fund. Much of this money is going directly to food banks in Houston and for other vital supplies in Houston, Baton Rouge and Jackson.

Going forward, the organized Jewish community will continue to raise funds. It will continue to coordinate the collection of goods. And it will attempt to broker opportunities for volunteers who wish to do something meaningful in the healing process. This relief work to assist hurricane victims is a reminder of the importance of the social service network through which The Federation plays a lead role. Today, such efforts to help residents from the Gulf Coast are in the spotlight, but even when that spotlight fades, we intend to stay on the job.

Raising money, delivering services and building networks to help people here and around the world is what we are supposed to do and part of our daily life as Jews.

John Fishel is president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

 

Super Sunday Calls Raise $4.6 Million


Frank Ponder put in a long, fruitful day at the Feb. 13 Super Sunday annual fundraising campaign, helping gather the phone-driven dollars that became part of more than $4.6 million pledged that day for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Last year, the Federation raised about $4.5 million at Super Sunday 2004, about $800,000 more than 2003’s Super Sunday success. The money will fund agencies such as Jewish Family Service and Jewish Vocational Service, as these two critical-needs agencies join other non-profits in bracing for state and federal cutbacks.

“My goal is just to see if I can make about 100 calls,” said Ponder, 62, describing what turned out to be an easily achieved objective in the large phone bank room at The Federation’s headquarters. “I’ll take a dollar, anything. The hardest part is the noise in the room, but it also provides the energy.”

A Beverly Hills household’s polite brush-off was a request to call at year’s end, but minutes earlier, a Westside doctor and his wife pledged another $1,000, as they did a year ago.

Ponder’s Super Sunday was like that: a little donor gold struck here, an answering machine encounter there. But throughout five hours he maintained his drive to plow through the stack of salmon and yellow sheets containing donor data. Reaching a criminal defense lawyer known for her Court TV analysis during the O.J. Simpson trial brought a $500 pledge.

“People give every conceivable reason not to give,” said Ponder, prior to calling a reliable donor, a retiree who lives in a swank area of Wilshire Boulevard.

“Can we raise that to $1,500?” Ponder asked.

With his pencil marking a form-of-payment box, Ponder clicked off that under-a-minute call and said, “You just took $1,500 out of someone’s pocket, and they want to get off the phone as fast as possible.”

Ponder has spent two decades participating in Super Sundays. Great Southern California weather and answering machines are his enemies. His allies are an old-pro demeanor and the phone bank room’s camaraderie.

L.A. Federation staffers this year decided against Super Sunday T-shirts and instead donated several thousand dollars of planned T-shirt production money to Asian tsunami relief efforts.

Celebrities and politicians visited the main Super Sunday phone room, with prominent names also popping by the event’s Valley Alliance phone room in West Hills. The smaller South Bay Council phone bank volunteers worked in Torrance.

The Los Angeles mayoral candidates each made a cameo appearance at Wilshire Boulevard headquarters, along with other politicians. Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti’s phone pitch perseverance specifically impressed Ponder, whose seat was across from where the politicians each took a stab at phone pitching.

“Voicemail, voicemail, voicemail,” Garcetti exclaimed after another fruitless call, with Ponder nodding approvingly at his efforts.

“He’s been here longer than any other politico,” said Ponder, a retired retailer, who looked over at the young councilman and said, “Your father used to be a customer of mine.”

“Oh really?” said Garcetti, the son of former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti and a grandson of Federation pioneer Harry Roth.

“I used to run Bel Air Camera,” said Ponder, as Garcetti’s phone luck turned and he began getting real voices instead of answering machines.

The councilman’s personalized donor pitch included the phrase, “You probably know my grandfather, Harry Roth.”

By early evening on Super Sunday, a doctor took over Ponder’s spot, and other phones were taken over by members of the Federation’s Young Leadership and Women’s Campaign divisions.

“I’ve heard every make and model of answering machine,” said Dr. Jeffrey Hirsch, a Beverly Hills internist and the husband of Sinai Temple’s Rabbi Sherre Hirsch. He admitted to some culture shock due to growing up in a much smaller Jewish community in Baton Rouge, La.

“In L.A., a $3,000 giver just gets a phone call on Super Sunday,” he said. “A $3,000 giver in Baton Rouge is like, ‘God, we need that person.'”

Seated next to Hirsch was Diana Fiedotin, a fellow Jewish Southerner and Brown University alumnus who now handles West Coast development for The Federation-supported American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The college pals recognized the donor card of a 40ish doctor.

“He was at my birthday party,” Fiedotin said.

Beverly Hills real estate financier Eric Erenstoft kept his headset filled with call after call, his scribbled list of $1,000-$1,500 pledges becoming a testament to how he used his salesman’s energies as a closer to The Federation’s benefit.

“I’m closing!” Erenstoft said, finishing another call.

Awards Appreciate the Unappreciated


 

Sitting in a roomful of teachers and the people who love them in a Bel Air hotel on a recent Thursday afternoon, you could almost forget that Jewish educators are inexcusably underappreciated, underhonored and underpaid.

The Jewish Educator Awards luncheon, hosted by award sponsors the Milken Family Foundation (MFF) and the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) of Greater Los Angeles, is a yearly fest of pride, love and admiration for the wide swath of Jews who belong to Los Angeles’ day school world.

Beyond being a chance to recognize five outstanding educators, the day is, at heart, a wider celebration of Jewish education and those who dedicate their lives to it, from the Mormon math teacher at the Orthodox boys school who pronounced “Yeshiva Gedolah” like an Eastern European zayde, to the principal of a Reform day school that has doubled in size under her leadership over the last decade.

“If we are going to assure a quality education for our children, it is absolutely essential that we have quality educators in the classrooms,” said MFF executive vice president Richard Sandler. “Thank you for doing all you do for the next generation.”

That thank you is backed up by a $10,000 purse, no small change for a teacher at a Jewish school (though not quite as much as the $25,000 award that goes to the 100 winners a year of MFF’s National Educators Award, not restricted to Jewish day schools. But no one else is doling out such nice gifts to Jewish teachers, so whose complaining?).

The goal of the awards is not only to appreciate the specific recipients — 75 teachers and administrators have been recognized since the award’s inception in 1990 — but to enhance the status of the profession in general. By giving teachers incentive and appreciation, and by showing the wider community that Jewish educators are not taken for granted, MFF has handed the profession a classy and dignified opportunity to pat itself on the back.

MFF does its best to make a production of the whole thing.

Leaders from across the spectrum of Los Angeles Jewry were at the luncheon, including Federation President John Fishel and other federation officials. Leonard Nimoy, who hosts a radio series for Milken’s Jewish Music Archive, was present to honor Eileen Horowitz of Temple Israel of Hollywood, where he is also a member. Former Rams lineman/pop singer Rosie Greer, a MFF trustee, sat at the table with Nimoy.

But the festivities began long before the luncheon.

Over two days in October and November, members of the BJE and MFF appeared at school-wide assemblies to surprise the five educators — Publishers Clearing House style — with notification of the award.

A video, followed by a slide show narrated by Sandler, brought those days to life for the 275 people — from black-hatted rabbis to women in kippot — at the Luxe Summit Hotel Bel-Air in early December.

Rabbi Mordechai Dubin, described as the “soul of Maimonides Academy,” led the school in song and dance minutes before he was tapped as the award winner, with the children screeching and cheering in his honor.

Rick Hepworth worked for 25 years to build up the secular studies at Yeshiva Gedolah, and the emotion and disbelief showed through the deep blush, set off by his yellow hair, as he became the school’s first MFF Jewish Educator Award recipient.

Horowitz, head of school at Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School, quipped at the luncheon that her dad always wanted her to be a famous actress, and there she was that day accepting an award on a Hollywood stage — a bimah to be precise.

Hugs from teachers and students alike awaited Pamela Kleinman, a fifth-grade teacher at Heschel West, when she was told of the award at an outdoor assembly, where American and Israeli flags flapped in the cold morning wind coming of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Inez Tiger, a life-skills facilitator and middle school counselor at Pressman Academy who has helped dozens of pre-adolescents learn to deal with emotions, could not stop her own tears when the award was given to her.

The element of surprise found its way into the Luxe Summit as well, when Lowell Milken, chairman and co-founder of MFF, made an unwitting Gil Graff, executive director of the BJE, the first ever recipient of an honorary Jewish Educator Award for his years of service to the Los Angeles community.

“If you combined the wisdom of Solomon, and the patience of Job and the teaching of Hillel, you might very well end up with Dr. Gil Graff,” Milken said, noting that under Graff’s tenure not only the number of students, but the quality of the education, had risen dramatically.

True to form, a shocked but composed Graff was able to present off the top of his head a perfectly crafted d’var Torah, replete with quotes from that week’s Torah portion, to express his gratitude for the surprise presentation.

That Graff, whose educational, academic and personal credentials stand out in the world of Jewish professionals, was honored on this day honoring Jewish education itself was only appropriate.

“I can’t imagine any audience to better appreciate the brilliance of this educator who has devoted his life to the academic, moral and spiritual enrichment and growth of our children,” Milken said.

He knew he was talking to an audience that gets it, because they do it, and today, at least, that was worthy of recognition.

 

Buy It Now


It continues to baffle me why anybody who cares about the future of Jewish communal life in Los Angeleswould seriously contemplate closing the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center (JCC).

Here is a vibrant center, serving about 1,000 people each week, in the midst of a large and growing Jewish population eager for center services, on a piece of highly desirable real estate that has been bought and paid for. We should be arguing over how much to expand Valley Cities JCC, not whether to close it.

The center is slated to be shut and sold by June 30 so that its owner, Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA), can get its financial house in order. The organization owes The Jewish Federation $2.2 million, and the agency must make good on $1 million in its special fund and owes banks $450,000.

JCCGLA already sold off Bay Cities JCC, holds the ax over the head of the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center and is itself facing dissolution.

From the very beginning of the centers crisis, the debate has never veered far from the bottom line. I understand the logic. I’ve heard eloquent voices argue the case for fiscal responsibility, but precious few powerful voices argue the case for more communal generosity on the JCC’s behalf.

One can argue that the Jewish community is moving west, and that it is time to abandon the old neighborhoods and cut our institutional losses. Such steps were necessary in the past. The shuttering of the Menorah Center near Boyle Heights in 1953 provoked outrage over an action that, in retrospect, looks visionary.

But East San Fernando Valley isn’t dying. Driving along Burbank you pass busy kosher markets and Israeli-owned restaurants, and run into the massive campus of Adat Ari El synagogue and the thriving Orthodox neighborhoods of North Hollywood.

A needs and assessment priority report prepared for Valley Cities JCC determined that the center sits amid a Jewish population of 30,000-40,000 people. It is made up of American as well as Israeli, Russian and Persian Jews, many of whom are recent immigrants. About 60 percent of the children enrolled at Valley Cities are Israeli American. They are eager for a Jewish home away for home, a way to integrate into the larger Jewish community, a Jewish place for their children and seniors to play and learn.

I’ve never been convinced that the philanthropists who raise and allocate the bulk of the Jewish communal charitable dollars in this city, and the leadership they speak with, truly believe in the future of the JCC movement. They, along with a few rabbis and others, have told me they believe centers are over — although many of these people themselves usually came to Jewish life through involvement in a JCC.

The evidence contradicts the naysayers.

Across the country JCCs are booming, even in cities where they face competition from mega-synagogues, health clubs and public after-school programs. JCCs reach 1.7 million Jews, 28 percent of the entire U.S. Jewish population, according to a new report for the JCC Association of North America. That’s more than the Reform movement itself can claim. Are L.A. Jews that different? Of course not. A successful Jewish community has many doors of entry.

The JCC Association, which is on the cusp of a major national ad campaign to strengthen the centers, also found that successful communities teamed JCCs with other organizations — federations, synagogues, agencies — to collaborate on programming and services. Closing the actual JCC buildings then renting other facilities to deliver JCC-ish services seems ingenious and synergistic now, but would inevitably weaken the sense of a Jewish “home away from home” that is at the heart of the center movement’s appeal. Better all parties synergize now to work hard with potential donors, bankruptcy attorneys, bankers and agencies to figure out a way to buy Valley Cities from JCCGLA.

I spent last Tuesday morning at Valley Cities, saw its classrooms and playgrounds filled with children, its auditorium the site of a large gathering of local seniors debating anti-Semitism in Europe.The local demand for center services, despite repeated threats of imminent closure, has actually increased. Members have raised $30,000 in mostly small donations since the troubles began — Valley Cities Director Marla Minden won’t cash the checks until the center’s survival is assured — and have organized bake sales, carnivals and letter-writing campaigns (including to The Journal).

More importantly, a younger and more astute leadership has come on board, and shows the kind of acumen that given a chance could turn the place around.

The folks at Valley Cities are not sophisticated fundraisers. Not one of their members sits on the board of The Federation, and none of them are lunching or golfing where the big money is raised. (They hadn’t even thought to turn to the Jewish Community Foundation, with its $470 million in assets.) This particular JCC serves a less-affluent Jewish population, many of whom are among the 16-20 percent of Los Angeles’ poor Jews. Last year Valley Cities gave out a good chunk of its budget in scholarships.

“Just because Jews don’t have money doesn’t mean they don’t deserve these services,” Valley Cities President Michael Brezner said. “There will be a huge void in this community if and when this center disappears.”

A member of the center sent me a postcard that echoes Brezner’s feelings.

“The Jewish Center gave me a very good childhood. And they also helped my family pay to send me and my brother to camp while my mother was in the hospital,” the 14-year-old boy wrote me. “It would be very sad if the JCC closed.”

Sad, yes, and short-sighted.

Hello, Israel Calling


Phones will be ringing in at least 5,000 Jewish homes around Orange County on March 14, when volunteers pitch in to help raise money for O.C.’s Jewish Federation, the umbrella fundraising organization that helps support a dozen Jewish agencies.

This year, though, Super Sunday dialing will be divvied up between about 75 local volunteers punching numbers in the morning from the Costa Mesa campus and Israelis, who will take the afternoon shift from across several time zones.

"It’s very special to get a call from Israel," said Marc Miller, who is campaign chair for the Federation, which develops programs to foster ties between Israel and the U.S. Jewish community. "I think it will change the dynamic of conversation."

"There is a substantial cost savings between using the Israel call center and renting extra lines for the Federation," campaign director Alissa Duel said. Several other federations have also tapped the call center provided by the IDC Corp., which is based in Newark, N.J. The 14-year-old company provides international phone service at a flat rate.

"Here’s an innovative way to build bonds with Israel" and give support to its ailing economy, Miller said.

Miller’s fundraising goal is to surpass last year’s record $2.25 million Federation campaign by 10 percent.

Community Briefs


L.A. Officials Honor Israel

Senior City of Los Angeles officials, visiting Israel under the auspices of the L.A. Jewish Federation, presented a proclamation from the L.A. City Council to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai praising Israel as a “bedrock of stability, democracy and modernity with shared common values of pluralism and cultural diversity.” (From left) City Council President Alex Padillo, Huldai, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and City Councilman Jack Weiss. Photo courtesy Israeli Free Sun

Kuehl: Anti-Hunger Groups Shouldn’t GiveUp

About 22 percent of Israelis suffer from the fear a food shortage called “hunger insecurity,” according to Los Angeles-based Jewish anti-hunger group MAZON. That figure is an increase from prior Israeli surveys on hunger.

“It’s a spike because of three years of terrorism,” MAZON Executive Director H. Eric Schockman told The Journal. Though Israel lacks regional food banks and other American solutions to hunger, Schockman does not believe in creating a new Israeli government hunger office but said that Israel’s 150 anti-hunger agencies must start communicating. “They don’t talk to each other.”

California’s various MAZON-funded anti-hunger groups met Nov. 9-10 in Santa Monica, and heard state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles) outline how she sees the new Schwarzenegger-run California government handling budget cuts, especially to social service agencies.

“There is very little else to cut but education and social services,” Kuehl said to about 100 nonprofit executives. “It’s always going to be a struggle. We have to be the squeakiest wheel we can possibly be.”

Kuehl also said that anti-hunger groups should never stop asking for state funds because, no matter how much money a nonprofit raises, “It will never be as much as I’ve got to give out.” — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Wolpe Recovering From Surgery

Rabbi David Wolpe was released from the hospital last week following a successful surgery to remove a brain lesion. Wolpe, Sinai Temple’s senior rabbi for the last seven years, first experienced a seizure on Oct. 23 at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was speaking at the dedication of a new Hillel House.

Wolpe is recuperating at his home and plans to return full time to his duties at Sinai and in the community at large. He and his family thank the community for their prayers, concern, calls, e-mails, letter, donations and most of all, love.

In lieu of flowers, balloons or food, donations can be made to Sinai Temple or Sinai Akiba Academy. Any inquiries, cards, or well wishes should be directed through Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90024, Attn: Tracy Schatz. — Staff Report

Israeli Cultural Attaché Resigns

The Israeli cultural attaché in Los Angeles, Moti Reif, resigned this week following a sexual harassment complaint filed against him in Israel’s Foreign Ministry earlier this month. Reif, a former model and TV producer, was appointed to Los Angeles some three months ago, amid heavy criticism from Israeli ministry officials who said Reif had no diplomatic experience. There are no current plans to replace him. — Staff Report

Delegates at UJC Assembly Show Solidarity


Waving Israeli, American and Canadian flags and hoisting signs naming their hometowns, thousands of delegates at the Jewish federation system’s General Assembly (GA) wound their way through the back alleys, markets and main streets of Jerusalem, vowing to stand by Israel.

A mission of about 20 Angelenos attended the GA under the auspices of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The group took part in a massive solidarity march on Monday in which most of the GA’s 4,000 participants walked from convention hall down historic Jaffa Road in a show of support for Israel: Soldiers and delegates linked hands and danced the hora, vendors at the Mahane Yehuda market cheered, Israeli folk music and shofars blared, and blue and white balloons bobbed overhead.

Security was tight. Police and soldiers manned street corners along the march route, which had been blocked to traffic. Pedestrians were searched before being allowed to enter parts of downtown Jerusalem.

Federation President John Fishel moderated a panel "Jewish Identity, Affiliation and the Next Generation." A group of conference participants also toured Tel Aviv schools involved in a twinning relationship through The Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership as part of an excusion examining "Innovative Models of Israel and Diaspora Relations." The day in Tel Aviv also included a demonstration by bomb-sniffing dogs in the Pups for Peace program, founded by Glenn Yago of the Milken Institute, and an evening reception at the Neve Tzedek neighborhood for all assembly participants chaired by Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership Chair Herbert Glaser and featuring remarks by Daniel Kurtzer, U.S. ambassador to Israel, and Donald Sinclair, Canada’s ambassador to Israel.

Revitalizing the Core


We live in an extraordinarily diverse and pluralistic city. It is in our Jewish DNA to want to participate in making the world a better place. It is also in our self-interest to live in a place where the societal needs are being adequately addressed. That is why The Jewish Federation must aggressively reposition itself as a compelling player in the field of community relations with a strong Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC). To do so at a time when financial resources are limited is a challenge, but it is certainly doable if we tap into the abundant creative energy in our community.

The Federation is committed to a strong and vibrant JCRC.

Engaging residents of our community to impact the "urban agenda" is the objective. But the agenda of the organized Jewish community must be redefined in a thoughtful, targeted and strategic way to successfully mobilize human resources beyond the core of active, identified Jews. This important core must be supplemented with participation from the scores of involved, but often assimilated Jews. The opportunities for leveraging individuals who burn with a passion for tikkun olam (healing the world) is not only possible but necessary.

Last week we began to engage people about what a future JCRC will look like.

The Federation will work to build a community relations agenda that enhances the decades of intergroup and interfaith activity that has made the JCRC so vital an institution to the organized Jewish community. It is a portal through which Jews will walk if they feel it can make a difference. Thus, it is vital for the JCRC to become a more active outlet for a broader group of volunteers.

The JCRC has a base of strength from which to grow. KOREH L.A., the Jewish response to illiteracy, is a magnificent example of volunteer action. With the continuing generosity of the Winnick Family Foundation, KOREH L.A. has become the largest volunteer children’s literacy project of its type in Los Angeles, helping children in our public schools learn to read. Through the support of the Jewish Community Foundation, The Holy Land Democracy Project is working with children in Catholic schools to educate them about Israel.

So why stop there? Let’s consider a range of other programs directed at children in schools. This would provide a compelling example of the Jewish community’s engagement in an area of concern to all. We can, with planning and action, build extraordinary bridges to the Latino and other ethnic communities around issues of this type.

The extraordinary government-relations work of the Los Angeles JCRC in Washington, D.C., and in Sacramento has led to the granting of funds for California’s first Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs), has staved off Medi-Cal cuts for some of our local agencies’ critical programs and has led to the adoption of stronger hate crime legislation.

Beyond the critical service we provide in maintaining public support for essential programs of our agencies, we can engage these agencies in the creation of the new JCRC agenda.

Jewish Angelenos participate in disproportionate numbers as leaders in organizations addressing public education, health, welfare and even the environment. Our goal is to engage these activists so that they see that the JCRC is relevant to their interests. We live in a place where people do not always communicate or cooperate with others who care deeply about the same societal goals. The JCRC must reach out to a broader base of influential Jews to exchange ideas, successes and failures and to strategize about the communal urban agenda.

Where are the opportunities to engage more volunteers? Virtually every synagogue has a social action committee. Let’s create a mechanism to tap into these powerhouses. And how about a plan to take the younger leaders of our community and broaden their involvement? The College Campus Initiative, a collaboration of the JCRC, Hillel and the Shalom Nature Institute, provides college students on seven local college campuses with exciting social action opportunities, as well as training in Israel advocacy. The New Leaders Project gives Jewish young professionals an opportunity to learn about the broader Los Angeles community and to develop leadership skills. These are great examples of the good works of the JCRC. Let’s figure out the tactics to use the graduates of these training programs to be the leaders of the JCRC today.

Last week we met with members of the JCRC to discuss its future. They reminded us of the proud history of JCRC in protecting our interests and serving as the leading framework for the voice of Los Angeles Jewry to the broader community. The opportunities to once again revitalize and expand with meaningful action exist. The recent work of the Blue Ribbon Task Force of this Federation recognizes the need to narrow the focus of our activities in order to ensure impact, while bringing resources to those activities. Let’s make the urban agenda of this organization the centerpiece of the new JCRC. And let’s create a positive force for substantive action. I believe that the resources to implement that force, human and financial, will be a communal priority.


John Fishel is president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

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.”