VIDEO: Woody Allen and the Jewish robots (from ‘Sleeper’)


Woody Allen is fitted for a new suit by robot Jewish tailors—from ‘Sleeper’

 

It May Be Time to Change Goals, Ideas on Philanthropy


I have a dream in which Jewish early childhood educators in the United States, who currently receive an average salary of $9.66 an hour, can raise their own children without having to take out loans or marry rich. I have a dream in which Birthright Israel does not have to keep tens of thousands of potential participants on waiting lists for lack of funds. I have a dream in which non-Orthodox day schools truly rival the best private schools and the Jewish socioeconomic elite clamor to enter them.

While these dreams are remote and quixotic, American Jews have achieved levels of wealth unprecedented in our history. The problem is that we no longer give much to Jewish causes.

We are donors to universities, museums, orchestras and hospitals, but when it comes to Jewish philanthropy, we fall short. Today, perhaps 20 percent or less of Jewish giving goes to Jewish causes.

In the middle of the 20th century, it was about 50 percent. Only half of the Jews surveyed in 1990 claimed to have given to a Jewish cause. Of the $5.3 billion in megagifts given by America’s wealthiest Jews between 1995 and 2000, a mere 6 percent went to Jewish institutions.

Among those who do give, the levels of giving are weak. Only 11 percent of Jews donate over $1,000 to Jewish causes.

Can you name a serious non-Orthodox American Jewish philanthropist below the age of 50?

There may be one or two, but it would be looking for a needle in a haystack. Even those who give Jewishly give smaller amounts to Jewish charity than to secular causes.

Too many ignore programs of Jewish education and culture, focusing instead on antiquated preoccupations, such as the fight against anti-Semitism. In North America, the greatest threat to the Jewish people is not the external force of anti-Semitism but the internal forces of apathy, inertia and ignorance of our own heritage.

People’s giving is a mirror image of who they are. Over time, we have become meaningfully more American and less Jewish. That is reflected in our philanthropy.

We have lost not only our connection to Jewish roots but also our understanding of why Jewish identity and involvement matter. It’s an unfortunate cycle: attenuation of identity leads to reduced philanthropic giving, which, in turn, hobbles our efforts to create programs to enrich identity.

How, then, does one revive Jewishness in an increasingly secular American world?
Not easy. Too many of our needs are no longer fulfilled Jewishly. Today’s synagogues and other institutions no longer appeal to the Jewish spirit the way they used to.

Tzedakah is an outcome, an end product of what we care about, what we want to enhance, what we believe in and what we want to see grow. If we were to apply these hopes to our present community, I’m not sure we would like what we see.
The community has not operated by a set of norms and standards of what constitutes appropriate tzedakah. People who have amassed enormous wealth are told by ‘professionals’ that they’re the most altruistic individuals since Robin Hood, regardless of what they give. There are few role models in the community who represent our tradition of giving 10 percent of income or assets.

Historically, the rabbis of past periods anticipated neither the wealth nor the longevity of many contemporary Jews. If they had, they surely would have insisted on even higher levels of giving.

Recognizing that we are far removed from the bare-bones survival of the immigrant generation, it may be time to reconfigure what is the right level of tzedakah and what we should expect from our givers. One of our philanthropic goals may be to develop an ethic of higher levels of giving in relation to net worth.

For a person with assets of $100 million — and there are many such people today — annual philanthropy of $500,000 or $1 million is not serious. Yet, the community fawns as if these individuals have given amounts that are truly selfless.

At present, there is little accountability between wealth and philanthropy. This must end. A person earning $45,000 who gives $5,000 in tzedakah should be acknowledged as heroic, even though he may not get his name on a building.
We need to become part of a movement to change the perception of giving, to spread the notion that real meaning in life comes from selfless acts of philanthropy and to inculcate a sense of responsibility for the fate of klal Yisrael among those who have achieved high levels of wealth.

The challenge is daunting. In a community where people want their names up in lights, where we have a cadre of professionals known as ‘directors of development,’ whose ambition is to separate rich Jews from their money, how can we create a sense of justice, of fairness between rich and poor and recognize true philanthropy? How can we accomplish this in a free and open society?
On the one hand, we value our privacy. How many of us enjoyed the public displays when there was card-calling at events? For many of us, there is something unseemly about it.

I’m not immune to the conflict. In my various philanthropic efforts, I have valued the Maimonidean principle of modesty and indeed anonymity. Yet I, too, have had my name put on some projects and buildings. I frankly feel deeply conflicted.

I think it is a higher calling not to use one’s name, but I haven’t always been able to reach that higher level.

One of the goals of the emerging Fund for Our Jewish Future is to usher in a culture of vastly increased levels of Jewish giving. The fund plans to raise tens of millions immediately for priority action in Jewish education.
Hopefully, this will be followed by a series of focused funds to revivify Jewish commitment levels. Another goal of the fund is to approach individual communities and offer local philanthropists the opportunity to receive significant outside funds for projects that they are prepared to give meaningful down payments toward.

It is clear that what we need is imagination to view our Jewish future in a way that will capture the spirit of those Jews who are mostly on the sidelines today.

We don’t have many of the needed answers. But through hard work, creativity and, again, imagination, we can begin to reach the presently unreachable. With success, the result will be a renaissance of Jewish life in which our flourishing communal structures inspire greater Jewish involvement and commitment, which in turn inspire even greater levels of tzedakah.

Michael Steinhardt is co-founder of Birthright Israel.

What Will Life Be Like in 2026?


In honor of The Jewish Journal’s 20th anniversary, yeLAdim asked some of our young readers at the May 7 Israel Independence Day Festival: What will you be doing in 20 years?

“I will run a restaurant with spaghetti and macaroni and cheese.”
— Hannah F., prekindergarten, B’nai Tikvah Nursery School

“Airplane pilot.”
— Preston, second-grader, Heschel

“I want to be a pharmacist when I grow up, so I can make lots of money and have a great life.”
— Gil M., sixth-grader, Millikan Middle School

“I want to be a basketball player in the NBA.”
— Aaron R., seventh-grader, Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies

“When I grow up I want be a pharmacist or a basketball player.”
— Avin M., sixth-grader, Millikan Middle School,

“A cop. I will help the world with bad things.”
— Emil R., fifth-grader,Brentwood Science Magnet

“I will be a professional chiropractor and married with a beautiful girl. I’ll live wealthy for 120 years.”
— Jonathon A., seventh-grader, Etz Jacob

“I’m going to be a rich person in a recording studio. I’m going to be really rich.”
— David A., ninth-grader, Tarbut V’Torah

“I’m going to be 34 years old.”
— David J., ninth-grader, Reseda High School

“An NBA basketball player.”
— Pedy F., ninth-grader, Tarbut V’Torah

“When I grow up I want to be an acting teacher, because it will help kids be able to do something with their time and it’s a fun thing that most people enjoy. Hopefully I will be a mom and get married.”
— Esther L., fifth-grader, Heschel

“I’ll be a Jewish doctor. I will help all ill and injured Jews. I’ll help my people stay alive. I’ll probably live near a shul. I don’t know. Hashem will show me the way.”
— Daniel V., seventh-grader, Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School

“A veterinarian because I love animals and taking care of them.”
— Shaiel G., fifth-grader, Heschel

“Hopefully living in Israel and helping the government. I will try to make it in as a governor or as a dance teacher. I want to be in the government helping out those in need. And I also want to be teaching the people the joy of dancing.”
— Josue V., eighth-grader, Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School

“I want to work with my dad at Al & Ed’s Autosound.”
— Lerone H., third-grader, Emek Hebrew Academy

“I think I will be teaching classes in a synagogue as a rabbi. I think I could also be a dancing teacher. I think I would be a teacher in Israel teaching people how to sing.”
— David G., seventh grader, Lindbergh Middle School

“An Olympic champion because I ice skate and I will win the gold medal. I try my best and I will love to win in 2026. I hope my future there is great.”
— Sarah W., fourth-grader, Nestle Avenue Elementary School

“Playing my GameBoy.”
— Liad C., prekindergarten, Kol Tikvah

“Playing dress up.”
— Shani C., prekindergarten, Kol Tikvah

“I would like to be a motorcycle policeman to protect the city.”
— Brian S., first-grader, Encino Elementary School

“I want to live in a big house with 100 dogs.”
— Brandon H., second-grader, Wilbur Avenue Elementary School

“I want to be a judge because I’ll have a lot of power. I want to be richer than Bill Gates.”
— Ron V., fourth-grader, Hancock Park Elementary School

“I want to be a lawyer because I like defending people.”
— Robert B., fourth-grader, Hancock Park Elementary School

“A fire medic (aka paramedic)”
— Lisa C., preschooler, Gan Bet

“Playing basketball on the Lakers.”
— Freddy C., kindergartner, Sinai Akiba Academy

“I will probably be a linguist 20 years from now. I want to also be a photographer and have a few other jobs. I want to help people and solve problems between countries. I want to live either in Israel or somewhere in Europe.
— Raj G., eighth-grader, Columbus Middle School

“I will want to live next to the ocean, be in the NBA and have a big house.”
— Esther S., fourth-grader, Kadima Hebrew Academy

Back in 1986…

  • The Space Shuttle Challenger explodes.
  • The U.S starts the first federal Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
  • Refurbished Statue of Liberty opens.
  • Millions take part in Hands Across America charity benefit.
  • Pope John Paul II visits the Synagogue of Rome.
  • Soviet Refusenik Nathan Sharansky is freed from prison.
  • Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wins the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • “Sarah, Plain and Tall” by Patricia MacLachlan receives the Newbery Prize for children’s literature.
  • “The Cosby Show” is No. 1 on TV, followed by “Family Ties,” “Cheers,” “Murder She Wrote” and “The Golden Girls.”
  • Actress Amanda Bynes is born in Thousand Oaks.
  • Actor Shia LaBeouf is born in Los Angeles.
  • Actor Ricky Ullman is born in Eilat, Israel.
  • “We Are the World,” by USA for Africa is named record and song of the year at the Grammys.
  • New York Mets win the World Series.
  • The Chicago Bears win the Super Bowl.
  • The Nintendo Entertainment System makes its debut.

Disengagement Dashes, Spurs Dreams


The evacuation of Gaza Strip settlements is not just a struggle over the question of the future of the territories. At the very core, the pullout was the first big battle on the question of religion and state.

They [religious settlers opposed to the withdrawal] have their own dream. The first stage is the “whole land of Israel,” filled wall-to-wall with Jews-only towns. True, Palestinians and Thai workers can come in to do the dirty work but no more.

The second stage is to transform Israel into a halachic state, a country ruled by Jewish religious law. Elections, the Knesset, the government and the courts may continue to function, but settler rabbis will decide just what issues are appropriate for these bodies to decide and what issues are too “holy” and important to be left to the people and their elected officials.

In their dream world, there is no place for secular Israel: Its culture is not culture; its values are not values; its opinions are not opinions.

In the eyes of the settlers, we are all poor, underprivileged children who never had the chance for a Jewish education. In their dream, our task is to become religious and to join them or at least not to stand in the way while they bring the Messiah.

We must nullify ourselves, and in return, they will hug us, sweetly, of course, and with lots and lots of brotherly love. But if we refuse, the brotherly love and the hugs will go out the window, and we will become little more than traitorous leftists or Nazis.

But we nonreligious Israelis also have a dream. We want to live in an enlightened, open and just country, not in some messianic, rabbinic monarchy and not in the whole land of Israel. We came here to be a free people in our own land.

To be a free people means each person is entitled to choose which parts of Jewish tradition are important to him and which to leave behind. It means to have the freedom to run our country according to our free will, rather than rabbinic dictates.

It means recognizing we are not alone in this land — and demanding from the Palestinians that they do the same.

It means to free ourselves, once-and-for-all, from the nightmare of being an occupying, uprooting, exploiting, settling, expropriating, humiliating, discriminatory country.

For more than 30 years, the settlers’ dream has choked the dream of free Israelis. The dream of the whole land of Israel and a messianic kingship drains daily the hope of being a people free to build a just society.

For more than 30 years, the settlers’ dream has trampled my dreams and those of my friends. But because of this, I can understand the settlers’ pain and desperation as they watch their dream collapse before their eyes.

They are experiencing exactly what my friends and I have gone through because of them, all this time. I opposed their project from the onset, from the very first settlement.

I look into their eyes, and I see true desperation and true pain, and without the slightest joy, I can say: The pain you are going through today is very similar to the pain you have put free Israel friends through for more than 30 years.

I will respect your mourning by remaining silent, but I cannot share in your grief.

And what will be after all the grief? Israel, for all her faults, is all we’ve got. It’s easy to throw stones at her, but this is not the country we prayed for.

The floor is deep, the ceiling cracked, the lights go off three times a day.

It’s easy to come up with substitutes for this Israel, easy to build castles in the sky about messianic monarchies on one hand and post-Israelism on the other.

But Israel, for all its faults, is all we’ve got.

Perhaps instead of kicking her, the time has come to get up and start fixing a little bit: to free ourselves of the occupation that continues to corrupt us; to renew our social solidarity.

A bit less “brotherly love,” a bit more responsibility for others less fortunate than ourselves. A bit less holiness; a bit more justice. A bit less of the whole land of Israel, and a State of Israel a bit more whole with itself.

Through the murky cloud of poetic words and sobs, we can sometimes see during these very days the State of Israel’s quiet, beautiful face: [These are] the faces of youngsters in uniforms who chose, despite the pressure and violence, despite the curses and false hugs and emotional manipulation, to get up and protect with their body the dream of being a free people — to not rule over the Palestinians and to not be ruled over by rabbis.

The beaten, humiliated, slapped-on-the-face soldier boy, the police officer who was spat in the face — at this time they are the brave defenders of the State of Israel in the face of the unruly wave of zealousness.

The young soldier girl, her throat choked by tears, barely 19 years old, already carries the burden of the 2,000-year hope to be a free nation in our country on her shoulders.

Not in Palestinian Gaza, but rather, in our country.

With assertiveness and silent courage, but also with restraint, wisdom and compassion, this female soldier is currently protecting our most vital border — the border between what is allowed and what is not.

This is the border without which we will have no state and without which there is no freedom, no society, nothing but fiery zealousness, messianic-hysterical extremism and complete destruction — a state of affairs the Jewish people has known more than once in the past.

Reprinted with permission www.ynetnews.com.

Amos Oz is one of Israel’s most celebrated authors. This essay originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on Aug. 21, 2005, following the disengagement. He will speak at Sabbath services on Friday, May 19, at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood. The public is invited. For more information, call (310) 475-7311.

 

Memories and Music


Before going inside, every visitor had to sign a waiver agreeing not to sue in case, say, a stray piece of wood or plaster fell on them. It felt, for a moment, like myself and the other members of the audience were embarking on a risky enterprise. But Boyle Heights’ Breed Street Shul, though a hardhat area nowadays, held no such dangers.

We were here, on this April Sunday for a noon performance by The Cuarteto Latinoamericano. Three of the four members of the string quartet are Mexican Jews — adding a fitting resonance to this location in a neighborhood that was once filled with Jews (living side by side with Japanese, Molokan Russians, Latinos and others) and is now a Latino enclave.

For many, the air was filled with nostalgia as well as music.

Gary Platt, 80, whose company manufactures casino furniture in Nevada, walked around the old shul — now in the midst of reconstruction — breathing it in, looking at it as if each piece of folk art and stained glass held a personal history.

“There were other, smaller shuls,” Platt said, “but this was the queen bee. We moved to Boyle Heights in 1934, and I had my bar mitzvah here in 1938. I have wonderful memories of this place. We had all these big social events here. The place was jumping during those years. [This neighborhood] was a fun place in which to grow up.”

Many Los Angeles Jews, often recently arrived immigrants, settled in Boyle Heights and surrounding areas in the 1920s and 1930s. Eventually, most would move to the Fairfax district, then to the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys and the Westside, as wealth and resources permitted, leaving Boyle Heights to other immigrants, often Latino, also seeking their fortune and future in America.

In Los Angeles, as in other American cities where Jews have moved out en masse from their old neighborhoods, they not only left dwellings behind, they also left behind synagogues, social centers, stores and street corners that connected them to a certain time in their lives and to a particular era in their collective past.

The Jewish community, it seems, is always wandering, though it’s part of the human condition, as well — always moving to the next area, the next neighborhood, always thinking that a better life awaits us, while at the same time remembering with profound nostalgia the old neighborhood we left behind.

Some Jews who once lived in Boyle Heights, or whose forebears did, and others want to preserve and celebrate those memories, which is the impetus behind the renovation going on at the Breed Street Shul, whose official name was the Congregation Talmud Torah. Even after nearly all Jews moved out of Boyle Heights in the 1950s, the shul continued to function.

“My bubbe and zayde were members of this shul,” said Ethel Kaplan, 63, a member of the Jewish Historical Society. “Even after my family moved to the Westside, we would come here for High Holidays and sometimes for other holidays and Shabbat, as well.”

But finally — in 1996 — the shul closed its doors. In subsequent years, it was subject to vandalism and decay.

Now the shul, the last remaining building in the neighborhood under Jewish auspices, is being rebuilt by the Breed Street Shul Project, a subsidiary of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. Both organizations are headed by Steve Sass, vice president at HBO.

The project is funded by government and foundation grants, as well as by private donations. Supporters still need to raise $3 million to complete the restoration.

“In reconstructing the Breed Street Shul,” Sass said, “we want to build bridges with the existing community. We want to bring in volunteers to teach English or do other community work, but we don’t want it to be that it’s all one way: We want to not only help the Latino community that lives here now, we also want to learn from them, to have them help us.

“That way we can engage one another and jointly learn from one another,” he continued. “We want to be supportive neighbors, and we really don’t have any models for this. So we have to devise our own models as we go along.

“In other cities where Jews moved out and left shuls behind, the old shuls, the historic ones, have sometimes been demolished, or else they’ve been renovated and turned into museums. We don’t want either of those things to happen here….

“We want this place, the Breed Street Shul, to live again, not as a functioning shul, not as a museum, but as a space that respects its Jewish past [while also serving] the cultural and educational concerns of those who live in the community now. We want it to become an important gathering place for both communities.”

With that in mind, Sass and MaryAnn Bonino, head of Da Camera Society’s Chamber Music in Historic Sites series, devised a program to bridge the gap between Boyle Heights’ Jewish past and its Latino present.

“Steve Sass and I are friends,” said Bonino, “and we’ve talked about doing an event together for some time.”

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano was scheduled to play a concert elsewhere in East L.A. in the middle of the afternoon on that same Sunday, April 9, so Sass and Bonino folded into the day’s events — in Sass’s words — a “forshpeiz,” or appetizer: a miniconcert performed by the group in the Breed Street Shul.

The result was astonishingly, heartbreakingly beautiful.

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano played David Stock’s “Sue?os de Sefarad,” which means “Dreams of Spain” in Ladino, and the music did indeed weave traditional Ladino/Sephardic melodies into its musical fabric. The acoustics were lush and rich in the historic synagogue.

The sounds evoked the nostalgia felt by Sephardic Jews remembering the Spain from which they had been ejected. The crowd consisted of more than a few like Platt and Kaplan, for whom the walls resonated with their own nostalgia for the Boyle Heights neighborhood where they and their families had once lived.

For more information, go to

Invitation to a Ritual


My hair is starting to go. I sent out a notice to the friends who have banded together to support me since I received my cancer diagnosis:

To: All recipients
From: anejenzmom@aol.com
Subject: Upfsherin

Peter, who has been cutting my hair since 1981, will be coming over at 7 p.m. this Sunday night to give me a buzz cut. Since strands of hair have been lingering in my brush and on my sweaters and tickling my face, the time has come to celebrate the fact that the elixirs are doing their job.

An upfsherin is traditionally a ceremony for 3-year-old boys getting their first haircut, but I will be renewing this tradition to mark the progress of my healing journey. You are invited to join me and be a witness for this rite-of-passage. Please bring goodies or musical instruments. I will be providing the hair.

Over the last weeks, I have received gifts of head coverings. A friend, who is both a rabbi and a cancer survivor, brought the beautifully embroidered crown kippah that graced her shining dome during her treatment. A student sent three hand-knit “comfort caps” made by women in her synagogue to cover cancer-tender heads like mine. Several friends have suggested sheitl (wig) shopping.

I don’t think I’m the sheitl type. While I am tempted to see what I would look like with perfect hair and make no judgments about those who choose to cover chemo-induced baldness with manufactured manes, I’m not sure it’s for me. I fidget a lot. My fingers fiddle and scratch at irregularities in fabric and skin. I can’t see me keeping my hands off the hairpiece or wearing it with grace. Also there is a tendency for things around me to be askew — paintings, mirrors, papers. My eyeglasses are always lopsided. I suspect that my wig would reflect this cockeyed balance. I’m not sure I could pull the wig thing off.

Moreover, I’m not sure I want to wear a wig. I don’t want to sugar coat the fact of my cancer. While there is no telling what caused my disease, I think that the fact of cancer –so much cancer — is something we need to look in the face. Cancer, like the devastation that I witnessed in the post-Katrina Gulf South, reveals the diseased infrastructure that riddles our ailing planet. Cover-up and denial exacerbate deterioration.

I don’t feel like an individual singled out to get this rare and nasty cancer. I feel like an envoy sent on behalf of planet earth.

“Look at me,” I want to say. “I am the face of the planet we share. I am your face. Look at me and take healing action. I am not going away. I become more toxic with every gallon of gas, every paper plate, and every soda bottle not recycled You have a choice. You can cover me over with a veneer and deny the future or you can meet my gaze and enlist to save the earth.”

I have spent my career making visible things that are often carried silently inside. To wear a wig, so that the world would not know that I have cancer and to protect those who see me from the reality of my illness, would betray my work and my values.

I am the ribbon lady. I give out rainbows of ribbons to mark what’s really happening with people. My ribbons mark mourning (black) and other life changes (blue), such as divorce, ending a relationship, relocation, loss or change of job, illness or becoming a caretaker for someone else who is ill. I have ribbons for yahrzeits (green) and ribbons for those who have dealt with any of these challenges in the past and have found them to be their teachers (purple). These categories actually reflect the Talmud’s description of those who walked the mourners’ path in the Temple: “mourners, those with someone sick at home, those who have lost a significant object, and excommunicants.” Inevitably, when I offer ribbons, most everyone takes one or more. It appears that just about everyone is in the midst of some sort of personal challenge. The assumption that “normal” means “good” is shattered.

Being marked with the ribbons makes it easier for people to feel more authentic. Visibility brings relief from the incongruity felt when inner experience is masked by the persona they felt obliged to present to a community unaware of their challenges or committed to the myth of normalcy.

When those who suffer do not have to mask, their energy is diverted from hiding to healing. Without the burden of covering up brokenness, people are able to attend to their deeper needs. Without veneers, people are given the comfort of authenticity. When we encounter them, we look honestly into the face of human experience. We surrender the illusions about what normal looks like. Hopefully with eyes opened, we will not avert our gaze and respond with compassion.

The season of masking is past. Both Mardi Gras and Purim are behind us. It’s time for being visible. I guess it is no wig for me.

Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

 

First Person – A Coming Out (of Egypt) Story


Sixteen years ago this month, I planned to take the Passover message of liberation to heart. I was going to come out of the closet to my sister and my parents and, in doing so, free myself from the bondage of keeping this huge and personal part of me from them. I was going to verbalize the secret I had feared revealing to them for more than 15 years since I first was able to put words to the feelings.

I grew up in a small, quaint New Jersey suburb of New York, a commuter town ideal for raising children. Since having moved to Los Angeles in 1987, at the age of 25, I generally visited my parents and sister back in New Jersey an average of once a year. That once a year was usually Passover time, since I had the time off from my work as a day school educator (and would enjoy the additional bonus of being able to lock up my home for the holiday and sell my chametz without having to go through the cleaning and other laborious pre-holiday preparations and rituals).

Perhaps my plan to come out during Passover was just practical, since that was when I typically returned home; or perhaps it was a flair for the dramatic or symbolic, since I had come to think of the emotional bondage of keeping my secret as a modern-day equivalent to the physical slavery of my ancestors. Either way, it was during Passover of 1990 that I had planned to come out to my parents and tell them I’m gay. I returned to my childhood home that year armed with several articles and a book titled, “Now That You Know: What Every Parent Should Know About Homosexuality,” all designed to prove how normal it was to be gay.

I had come out a year earlier (also at Passover) to Rob, one of my best friends from college on whom I had had a crush. We got in his car, and I asked him to pull over on the way to wherever it was we were going because I had something really important and serious to tell him. He pulled into a parking lot (my elementary school parking lot) and turned off the engine. I loosened my seatbelt, turned to face him, took a deep breath and said, “I’m gay.”

To which he responded, somewhat anticlimactically, “Is that all?”

I don’t know if I was more relieved or disappointed, but there was no rejection. My first coming out was successful.

It took an entire year after that to muster the courage to tell my sister — who responded, “I still love you, and of course I won’t tell anyone.” To this I said that I wasn’t telling her so that she would now have to keep the secret. Coming out to my sister was planned to precede the coming out to my parents by several days. It was my warmup, my practice. But anticipating these two experiences, as anxiety-filled as they were, was nothing compared to the immeasurable angst I felt as I practiced and replayed over and over how I would reveal my secret to my parents.

The day I was going to tell them, I went to New York City to visit friends. I took the commuter train back to our town and felt the rumbling in my stomach as I anticipated freeing myself from my personal Egypt. The train sped closer and closer to home. With each station the train pulled into I could feel the rumbling in my stomach increase, and as I walked to my parents’ home (my childhood home) my stomach was on the verge of exploding. I tried to eat normally, but my appetite was limited. The meal, the conversation were overshadowed as I got closer to the point of expelling my truth, all the while wondering whether I would actually be able to follow through on my plan.

After dinner, I told my parents that I had something I wanted to say. They sat down at the table, dishes already cleared. With the gasses in my stomach doing triple axels, I mustered the courage — more courage than I had ever needed to do anything to that point in my life — and I said the words that liberated me from the self-imposed oppression that I had endured since realizing years earlier (beginning in third grade, if not even before) that I felt different than what I thought others felt: “I have something that’s really hard to say … I’m gay.”

Silence. Unbearable silence. To fill the silence I gave them the book and articles that I had brought. Perhaps I had brought them as much to help my parents through this new world as to prove to them that I was serious and that this was thought out. My father’s first words were: I’m shocked but I’m not shocked. (I had never really dated girls and though not effeminate, I fit some of the stereotypes.) My mother, tears filling her eyes, expressed her fears and her anxiety for me — I wouldn’t have a happy life, I would be alone — I did my best to assuage the concerns, but I had, after all, been working toward this moment for years and for them it was all new. And, frankly, I hadn’t thought through the post-liberation experience. The idea of telling my parents that I’m gay was so overwhelming that I hadn’t thought past anything but their initial reactions.

My father left to go to a meeting. My mother went to the sink to do the dishes. There was quiet again, but this quiet was the aftermath, the quiet that occurs when the truth and all of its realities, some becoming known and others not yet thought, become real, and we are trying to make sense of the implications. I felt a confusing mix of feelings – relief, anxiety, disappointment – and freedom from the mitzrayim, the narrow places, in which I had been stuck all those years.

On reflection, I wonder whether, thousands of years ago, the Israelites, too, didn’t experience the disappointment that the liberation wasn’t quite as easy and complete as expected. I suppose the fantasy was that I would come out of the closet and would be told, “Is that all?”

But my parents had more invested than my college friend. Their picture of my future, and by extension their future, would take longer to sort through, reimagine and come to terms with. The beginning of my liberation was now, in some ways, their new wilderness. It would be up to them whether they would turn it into a self-imposed bondage.

Due — in no small part — to my coming out, I have come to believe that our primary task in life is to know ourselves, accept ourselves and to love ourselves and to hope that those who love us will do the same. Each year we are to imagine ourselves as slaves in Egypt and to re-experience the bitterness of the oppression symbolically through retelling the story and through the sensory experiences of the seder. We are to think about the way we are enslaved and oppressed today, how we oppress ourselves and how we can help end the oppression of others. How we can take ourselves out from our personal house of bondage. How we can free ourselves and how we can come out.

Jeff Bernhardt is an educator, Jewish professional and writer living in Los Angeles.

Competing Moments of Truth on Schools


On Tuesday, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to lay the groundwork for the most defining initiative of his term in office: his attempt to take control of Los Angeles’ schools. But the day before he does, opponents of his plan will beat him to the microphone. The L.A. teachers union has scheduled a Monday press conference, hoping, they said, to push Villaraigosa in a different direction.

Villaraigosa’s first state-of-the-city speech is likely to put bone and muscle on his school takeover pitch which, up till now, nearly a year into his term, has been theoretical and short on specifics. If Villaraigosa delivers what people all over town have been waiting for, a slew of interest groups will know where they stand and will begin to respond accordingly.

“Mayor Villaraigosa has made a major commitment to take on the reform of the school district, and the civil, political and media hierarchy of the city have taken up that commitment as a serious benchmark of his performance as mayor,” said David Abel, a publisher who founded New Schools, Better Neighborhoods, an organization that works to shape schools as centers of community revitalization.

Unless Villaraigosa holds off — and further delay might be seen as retreat or indecision — the mayor will set the city on a path toward mayoral control within about two years. That would put Villaraigosa on a timetable to win control in a first term as mayor and wield that power in a second term, if he is reelected.

“Getting this to happen,” said Abel, who supports mayoral control but is not directly involved in the effort, “will be a delicate balance between the doable, the clock and the mayor’s own strategic goals and political ambitions.”

United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the L.A. teachers union, hasn’t been content to wait for the unveiling. Over the past several weeks, union leaders have met with community groups and other key players, trying to set up a parallel juggernaut. The effort is planned to culminate the day before Villaraigosa’s speech, at a news conference during which the union will unveil its own “Call to Action” on school reform.

Early this week, the union was putting its reform declaration in final form, trying to settle on wording that will attract as many allies as possible. The stated goals will have much in common with what anyone would like to see in Los Angeles’ schools: It will call for quality instruction by fully trained teachers, a rigorous, diverse and engaging curriculum and adequate (meaning increased) funding.

“I think Mayor Villaraigosa will agree with almost all of it,” said UTLA spokesperson Steve Weingarten. “This vision of ours does not stop and start with mayoral control. We will be proposing the most dramatic changes at the school site. If you have people at that ground level making decisions, then it’s secondary who’s controlling things at the top.”

Of course, until now, the teachers union has been the most consistently powerful political force in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The mayor’s intervention could change that.

A recent version of the union’s draft declaration didn’t take on mayoral control directly, but spoke generally of more representation, which for the union has meant an elected school board at one end and a switch to community-governed schools at the other. Union officials also have talked about expanding the school board and “professionalizing” it. Which means making school board service a full-time job and increasing a board member’s salary and staff. That agenda is hardly compatible with putting Villaraigosa in charge.

Specific wording on who would call the shots is tricky for the union, because potential members of the union’s hoped-for coalition are not themselves settled on the issue.

“Some are a little more opposed to mayoral control than others,” said one teachers union stalwart, joking that “some are atheists and some are agnostics.”

Groups at the table with UTLA have included ACORN, a national social justice organization with deep Los Angeles roots; CARACEN, an L.A.-based organization that focuses on the needs of Central American immigrants and Latinos; and One L.A., the local affiliate of the national Industrial Areas Foundation. The union also would like to bring on board officials from smaller cities, such as Carson, South Gate and Cudahy, that are served by the LAUSD.

“The new leadership of UTLA prefers to work in concert with community organizations as part of a real alliance for change,” said Joel Jordan, the union’s director of special projects.

The union desperately wants to avoid being the bogeyman of school reform. A hint of that worst-case scenario played out during a late-March panel discussion at the Latino-Jewish Roundtable, held at the West Los Angeles headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League.

“Nobody ever gets fired,” said Marcus Castain, the mayor’s point man for developing a reform plan, while enumerating the district’s ills. “Fifty-three teachers were let got out of 37,000 in a school system where 75 percent of students are not making the grade.”

At the forum, Castain was supposed to have gone head to head with school board President Marlene Canter, who, like other board members, has evinced no desire to turn over authority to the mayor. But Canter couldn’t attend because a school board meeting ran late, and Canter’s pinch hitter avoided a verbal confrontation with Castain.

Instead, Lucy Okumu, an aide to Superintendent Roy Romer, suggested that Romer could find some common ground with the mayor if the goals included making it easier to get rid of bad teachers.

The union failed to burnish its own image recently when it backed a school board candidate, Christopher Arellano, who works for the union as an organizer. His candidacy collapsed after The Journal and other media outlets reported that he’d exaggerated his academic credentials and failed to disclose two theft convictions. UTLA spent more than $200,000 on his behalf and Arellano limped into a runoff, but he and the union have abandoned his candidacy.

The union would prefer to be one of many groups supporting its Call to Action. But each invited participant has interests that don’t perfectly coincide with the union’s. One such group is the Community Coalition, a black-brown social justice organization of South Los Angeles. Its focus has been getting the school district to make a full college-prep curriculum available to every student, said Sheilagh Polk, the coalition’s communications adviser. That goal appears in the Call to Action.

Nonetheless, the Community Coalition and other groups also are meeting with the mayor’s office. It’s clear that the mayor, too, would like to line up as many allies as possible.

The union leadership considered staging a competing event on the day of the mayor’s address, but that idea was dismissed as unnecessarily confrontational, said UTLA’s Jordan. Besides, on the charisma scale, “You’re not going upstage Antonio.”

Jordan spent most of his career in the teaching trenches, one of a legion of Jewish educators devoted to serving communities of poor black and brown students. It was another Jewish educator, Herman Katz, who helped turn around a teenage Villaraigosa when he was in danger of becoming a dropout.

Jordan remains on a first-name basis with the mayor after having worked with Villaraigosa during the future mayor’s days as a UTLA organizer: “He’s one of ours,” said Jordan.

Or so he seemed when UTLA broke with much of organized labor and backed Villaraigosa for mayor last year instead of incumbent James Hahn. Jordan and recently elected teachers’ union president A.J. Duffy met with Villaraigosa earlier this year.

“If we could show him there might be another way to have an effect on schools…” said Jordan wistfully, adding, “he left that door open.”

Jordan also conceded: “He appears to be set on his course. I wouldn’t bet against that.”

 

Competing Moments of Truth on Schools


On Tuesday April 18, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to lay the groundwork for the most defining initiative of his term in office: his attempt to take control of Los Angeles’ schools. But the day before he does, opponents of his plan will beat him to the microphone. The L.A. teachers union has scheduled a Monday press conference, hoping, they said, to push Villaraigosa in a different direction.

Villaraigosa’s first state-of-the-city speech is likely to put bone and muscle on his school takeover pitch which, up till now, nearly a year into his term, has been theoretical and short on specifics. If Villaraigosa delivers what people all over town have been waiting for, a slew of interest groups will know where they stand and will begin to respond accordingly.

“Mayor Villaraigosa has made a major commitment to take on the reform of the school district, and the civil, political and media hierarchy of the city have taken up that commitment as a serious benchmark of his performance as mayor,” said David Abel, a publisher who founded New Schools, Better Neighborhoods, an organization that works to shape schools as centers of community revitalization.

Unless Villaraigosa holds off — and further delay might be seen as retreat or indecision — the mayor will set the city on a path toward mayoral control within about two years. That would put Villaraigosa on a timetable to win control in a first term as mayor and wield that power in a second term, if he is reelected.

“Getting this to happen,” said Abel, who supports mayoral control but is not directly involved in the effort, “will be a delicate balance between the doable, the clock and the mayor’s own strategic goals and political ambitions.”

United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the L.A. teachers union, hasn’t been content to wait for the unveiling. Over the past several weeks, union leaders have met with community groups and other key players, trying to set up a parallel juggernaut. The effort is planned to culminate the day before Villaraigosa’s speech, at a news conference during which the union will unveil its own “Call to Action” on school reform.

Early this week, the union was putting its reform declaration in final form, trying to settle on wording that will attract as many allies as possible. The stated goals will have much in common with what anyone would like to see in Los Angeles’ schools: It will call for quality instruction by fully trained teachers, a rigorous, diverse and engaging curriculum and adequate (meaning increased) funding.

“I think Mayor Villaraigosa will agree with almost all of it,” said UTLA spokesperson Steve Weingarten. “This vision of ours does not stop and start with mayoral control. We will be proposing the most dramatic changes at the school site. If you have people at that ground level making decisions, then it’s secondary who’s controlling things at the top.”

Of course, until now, the teachers union has been the most consistently powerful political force in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The mayor’s intervention could change that.

A recent version of the union’s draft declaration didn’t take on mayoral control directly, but spoke generally of more representation, which for the union has meant an elected school board at one end and a switch to community-governed schools at the other. Union officials also have talked about expanding the school board and “professionalizing” it. Which means making school board service a full-time job and increasing a board member’s salary and staff. That agenda is hardly compatible with putting Villaraigosa in charge.

Specific wording on who would call the shots is tricky for the union, because potential members of the union’s hoped-for coalition are not themselves settled on the issue.

“Some are a little more opposed to mayoral control than others,” said one teachers union stalwart, joking that “some are atheists and some are agnostics.”

Groups at the table with UTLA have included ACORN, a national social justice organization with deep Los Angeles roots; CARACEN, an L.A.-based organization that focuses on the needs of Central American immigrants and Latinos; and One L.A., the local affiliate of the national Industrial Areas Foundation. The union also would like to bring on board officials from smaller cities, such as Carson, South Gate and Cudahy, that are served by the LAUSD.

“The new leadership of UTLA prefers to work in concert with community organizations as part of a real alliance for change,” said Joel Jordan, the union’s director of special projects.

The union desperately wants to avoid being the bogeyman of school reform. A hint of that worst-case scenario played out during a late-March panel discussion at the Latino-Jewish Roundtable, held at the West Los Angeles headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League.

“Nobody ever gets fired,” said Marcus Castain, the mayor’s point man for developing a reform plan, while enumerating the district’s ills. “Fifty-three teachers were let got out of 37,000 in a school system where 75 percent of students are not making the grade.”

At the forum, Castain was supposed to have gone head to head with school board President Marlene Canter, who, like other board members, has evinced no desire to turn over authority to the mayor. But Canter couldn’t attend because a school board meeting ran late, and Canter’s pinch hitter avoided a verbal confrontation with Castain.

Instead, Lucy Okumu, an aide to Superintendent Roy Romer, suggested that Romer could find some common ground with the mayor if the goals included making it easier to get rid of bad teachers.

The union failed to burnish its own image recently when it backed a school board candidate, Christopher Arellano, who works for the union as an organizer. His candidacy collapsed after The Journal and other media outlets reported that he’d exaggerated his academic credentials and failed to disclose two theft convictions. UTLA spent more than $200,000 on his behalf and Arellano limped into a runoff, but he and the union have abandoned his candidacy.

The union would prefer to be one of many groups supporting its Call to Action. But each invited participant has interests that don’t perfectly coincide with the union’s. One such group is the Community Coalition, a black-brown social justice organization of South Los Angeles. Its focus has been getting the school district to make a full college-prep curriculum available to every student, said Sheilagh Polk, the coalition’s communications adviser. That goal appears in the Call to Action.

Nonetheless, the Community Coalition and other groups also are meeting with the mayor’s office. It’s clear that the mayor, too, would like to line up as many allies as possible.

The union leadership considered staging a competing event on the day of the mayor’s address, but that idea was dismissed as unnecessarily confrontational, said UTLA’s Jordan. Besides, on the charisma scale, “You’re not going upstage Antonio.”

Jordan spent most of his career in the teaching trenches, one of a legion of Jewish educators devoted to serving communities of poor black and brown students. It was another Jewish educator, Herman Katz, who helped turn around a teenage Villaraigosa when he was in danger of becoming a dropout.

Jordan remains on a first-name basis with the mayor after having worked with Villaraigosa during the future mayor’s days as a UTLA organizer: “He’s one of ours,” said Jordan.

Or so he seemed when UTLA broke with much of organized labor and backed Villaraigosa for mayor last year instead of incumbent James Hahn. Jordan and recently elected teachers’ union president A.J. Duffy met with Villaraigosa earlier this year.

“If we could show him there might be another way to have an effect on schools…” said Jordan wistfully, adding, “he left that door open.”

Jordan also conceded: “He appears to be set on his course. I wouldn’t bet against that.”

 

What Do Gen-Y Jews Want? Everything


Brandeis University just released a new study of Jewish college students. It found that they’re proud to be Jewish, largely unaffiliated, attracted to Jewish culture more than religion, like diversity and don’t feel strong ties to Israel or Jewish federations.

Reboot, a nonprofit that promotes creative Jewish initiatives, just did a study of the same age group, and found that they’re proud to be Jewish, avoid institutional affiliation, are interested in Jewish culture and have diverse allegiances.

Sociologist Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York did a similar study, as did Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and they both found … guess what? Young Jews are proud, unaffiliated, pro-culture, pro-diversity and anti-tribal.

The last few months have seen a flood of studies of Gen-Y Jews — all trying to map their sense of Jewish identity, affiliation patterns, needs, hopes, beliefs and behaviors.

Why is everyone looking at the same population?

First, there are the numbers: almost half a million Jewish college students, the future of this country’s Jewish community. The very few studies on record, particularly the 1990 and 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Surveys (NJPS), indicate that large numbers of young Jews aren’t going to synagogue, joining Jewish organizations, marrying other Jews or giving money to Israel or Jewish charities.

They’re opting out, which has led to great hand-wringing and head-shaking on the part of American Jewish officials.

Yet the new studies show an up-and-coming generation that is proud of its Jewish identity and culturally creative, is coming up with new methods of religious expression and feels part of a global community linked by Jewish Web sites and blogs.

Researchers say it’s cause for cautious celebration.

“There has been a general angst about the Jewish future for the past two decades, a continuity crisis,” says Roger Bennett, senior vice president at the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, which sponsored the March 2006 Reboot study, “Grande Soy Vanilla Latte with Cinnamon, No Foam: Jewish Identity and Community in a Time of Unlimited Choices.”

Describing his study’s findings as “very positive,” Bennett says, “I hope this study assuages almost all the fear. There’s plenty to be optimistic about.”

The question for Jewish funders and organizations is what they’re going to do with the information, Bennett says.

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, says that while Jewish leaders in the late 1960s and early ’70s were “very unhappy about developments in the youth culture, and took a long time to reconcile themselves to it,” today’s Jewish leadership “is inquisitive, wants to know more.

Even while the older generation “may be shocked at things like Heeb,” an irreverent youth magazine, it “sees that something is going on and is paying attention,” Sarna says.

But if all these new studies are yielding pretty much the same information, are they useful?

Yes, researchers insist. First, each study asks slightly different questions, reflecting the needs of the sponsoring organization.

For example, Hillel’s study was prompted largely by one figure from the 2000-2001 NJPS, which showed that two-thirds of Jewish college students don’t attend Hillel activities, says Julian Sandler, chair of the group’s strategic planning committee. Hillel will release its long-awaited study of Jewish college students in late May.

The statistic “troubled us immensely,” Sandler says. Hillel engaged in two years of research “to try to understand what it is that today’s Jewish students are interested in.”

Hillel already has put some of that information to work. One of the central findings of its study is that young Jews have “a strong desire to find out more about their Jewishness, especially from an ethnic perspective,” which can “be manifested in multiple ways.”

One popular way is through tzedek, or social justice work. To that end, Hillel last month sent hundreds of students on a spring-break trip to the Gulf Coast to help rebuild communities hit by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“Tzedek will be a major emphasis [of Hillel programming in the future],” Sandler says.

Amy Sales, co-author of “Particularism in the University: Realities and Opportunities for Jewish Life on Campus,” a new study by the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis, says her data, collected in 2003, helps the people funding Jewish campus activities to use their dollars more effectively.

Her study found, among other things, that Jewish college students are interested in Jewish studies, want events that have a Jewish “flavor” but are open to non-Jews and need help in finding meaningful, compelling ways to engage in Jewish life.

She and co-author Leonard Saxe used that information to propose that Hillel customize its programs for each campus and develop better relationships with university administrations, other campus groups and local Jewish communities, creating “Jewish-friendly campuses” rather than focusing on simply reaching as many Jewish students as possible.

In fact, Hillel is doing just that, incoming President Wayne Firestone says. The group is convening a Washington summit May 21-23 to bring together funders, university administrators and Jewish organizational heads to talk about how to improve working relationships on campus, the first time such a targeted meeting has been held.

Researchers from all the studies agree that today’s young Jews can be a willing and energetic audience if the organized Jewish community steps up to the plate in time, and with a message that is relevant.

“They are looking for a positive Jewish experience, and every Jewish institution that answers that and puts its faith in young people will have a rosy future,” Bennett says. “Any funder that wishes to innovate is going to prosper.”

 

An Ugly Day in the Neighborhood


Dr. Warren Lent is sure he knows why he was treated with such contempt and hostility that day last June. It was the kippah he wore on his head.

He had come to vote in neighborhood council elections at a jam-packed fire station in Hancock Park. Amid the tension and confusion, an angry poll worker repeatedly accused Lent, a soft-spoken surgeon, of trying to vote twice.

Things escalated to the point where the poll worker asked Lent if he was “man enough to step outside” to settle it, Lent said.

The poll worker eventually backed down, but Lent reported the incident to Michael Rosenberg, a candidate for the council who, along with a group of allies, was recording slights against Orthodox Jewish voters. From his spot the requisite 100 feet away from the polling place, and from his office desk, Rosenberg gathered reports on shouting matches, fraudulent ballots and tense stand-offs between Orthodox Jews and other voters, many of them non-Orthodox Jews.

More proof, to Rosenberg’s mind, that the upscale neighborhood of Hancock Park was out to get Orthodox Jews.

On the other side, non-Orthodox residents were just as disgusted by what they say they saw on Election Day — fake membership cards, line jumping and all manner of deception by Orthodox Jews trying to secure as many votes as they could. Yet more evidence that this group of Orthodox Jews is willing to bend — no, break — the rules to get what they want.

What both sides wanted was control of the local neighborhood council, a relatively new city institution meant to bring grass-roots voices into city policymaking, an ideal that hardly seems worth fighting over in other parts of town. But in Hancock Park, it came to symbolize a battle between those who believed the Orthodox were trying to plant a shul and school on every corner, and the Orthodox who felt that established residents were trying to choke off their community.

Throughout that day and for months following, both sides wondered how the strife ever got this bad. How could it be, they asked themselves, that Jews in Los Angeles were at loggerheads, mosly with other Jews, in an embarrassing conflict that divided along religious lines?

To Rosenberg and his associates, the answer is simple: The neighborhood had been heading in that direction for years, and the election was the climax of years of intolerance.

Other residents challenge that interpretation. They tell a more complex tale, one that holds Rosenberg, an Orthodox Jew and real estate developer, personally responsible for ratcheting up the enmity and pulling the neighborhood into something like a civil war.

On that day in June, the vast majority of Orthodox Jews, as well as unsuspecting local residents who came out to vote, were caught in the middle, stunned. Yes, everyone knew there had been conflicts between the Orthodox and the rest of the neighborhood, mostly centered on land-use disputes. And even while tensions had escalated over several years, setting the whole neighborhood on edge, no one felt as if Hancock Park was roiling with ethnic prejudice, which is how things looked and felt to many on Election Day.

“I can’t say it was anti-Semitism, he didn’t call me ‘dirty Jew,’ or say, ‘you Jews,’ and I don’t want to falsely accuse anyone,” said Lent of the poll worker. “I don’t know what his true motivation was, but one thing was clear to me. He was ready to punch me, and he wasn’t going to give me a chance to explain.”

To moderate — and even extreme — voices on both sides, these elections were a wake-up call, setting in motion halting efforts at peacemaking.

Today, contentious issues and tough questions persist. Aside from continuing enmity over the election, residents are battling in court over the construction of a synagogue on a busy residential street. And an Orthodox school and its neighbors are testing just how far they can push each other.

But on both sides, there are people willing to face tough questions so they can begin to bridge the divide.

Do some Hancock Park residents harbor mistrust toward anyone who looks Orthodox? Is this a case of intolerance, or one of some Orthodox Jews behaving badly and now everyone paying the price? How much is just miscommunication? And is the community suffering because it let a few people, notably Michael Rosenberg, become the voice of the Orthodox community?

Conflicting Claims

In the first two years, starting in 1999, that civic activist John Gresham had been organizing the area’s first Neighborhood Council in the Midwilshire area, he hadn’t heard much from Orthodox Jews, even though he knew that Hancock Park, one of 15 neighborhoods in proposed council borders, was heavily Orthodox.

Michael Rosenberg

Michael Rosenberg: “I told everybody else that we have a little problem — they don’t like us Jews.” Photo courtesy Sheryl Rosenberg

So he recalls being stunned when, in December 2001, Rosenberg, a businessman he knew only peripherally, filed a rival claim on the territory Gresham and a group of about 150 involved residents and business people had staked out as the future Midwilshire Neighborhood Council.

Claiming to represent homeowners, Orthodox interests and other underdog groups he had allied himself with, Rosenberg applied to the city for certification as the official neighborhood council in Midwilshire’s borders, throwing two years of grassroots mobilization into tumult.

“It was essentially our map, but [Rosenberg] had changed the name at the top and said, ‘We represent everyone there,'” Gresham said.

“So my initial reaction was: Why? And my second reaction was: What do we have to do to prevent this? And then my third reaction was: Wait a second, who is in his group? Who does he represent?” Gresham said.

To Rosenberg, the question of why is an easy one to answer. He felt that the existing organization was not doing enough to truly represent the will of the people

“They were certainly not considering us as part of them,” he said. By us, Rosenberg meant Orthodox Jews, but not exclusively that group. He’d also recruited residents and business owners, including Asians, blacks and Latinos, outside Hancock Park proper.

Such a divisive confrontation was not what city planners had in mind when officials developed — and voters approved — the formation of neighborhood councils as part of the 1999 City Charter. The idea was to develop grassroots civic involvement, giving residents, businesses and neighborhood groups actual influence — but not outright voting power — on city matters that affect them. Today, there are 88 neighborhood councils, with influence over issues such as zoning, traffic patterns, utility rates, taxes and general decisions about the character of a neighborhood.

“The bottom line on a national and global level is that everything starts in someone’s neighborhood,” said Gresham, who lives within the neighborhood council’s borders, just south of Hancock Park, and who started mobilizing neighborhoods in the 1970s.

Gresham’s job as a vice president at M.L. Stern Investment Securities leaves him only late-night hours to dedicate to grassroots politics, but his earnest involvement has won him widespread admiration.

In fact, in 1999, when the city was first setting up the neighborhood council system, city representatives asked Gresham, who is also active at the Reform Temple Israel of Hollywood, to organize the Midwilshire area. This effort had been proceeding for two years when Rosenberg suddenly stepped in.

Gresham said he is dumbfounded by Rosenberg’s claim that important segments of the community were willfully excluded. Gresham had spent two years forming the Interim Midwilshire Neighborhood Council, made up of homeowners associations, business associations, and representatives for renters, students and nonprofits. The council area includes 50,000 people in 15 distinct neighborhoods within the area roughly from just west of Western Avenue to La Brea Avenue, from Olympic Boulevard to Melrose Avenue.

“We kept trying to get more people to the table so we would have a true cross-section — including Michael — and we are accused by him of not doing that? I just have no comprehension of what he is talking about. It’s foreign to me,” Gresham said at a late night meeting in his office, glasses perched atop gray hair and eyes squinty with fatigue.

Gresham had first met Rosenberg when he came to a meeting of the Midwilshire interim board, a few months before he filed his rival claim.

Rosenberg appears in the minutes of that November 2001 meeting as having volunteered to help iron out the group’s by-laws and participate in outreach. Gresham invited him to be on the board. But, after the meeting, Rosenberg had a run-in with a board member who recognized Rosenberg as an advocate for a synagogue involved in a vicious land-use dispute.

Rosenberg says he was told that the neighborhood council process had already begun, and that he wasn’t needed — or wanted.

“After the way they treated me I told everybody else that we have a little problem — they don’t like us Jews,” Rosenberg said. “We are outsiders.”

So Rosenberg gathered a few signatures from friends and business associates, including Orthodox activist and developer Stanley Treitel, and in December 2001 filed his own application with the city to become the Greater Hancock Park Neighborhood Council.

The city department that oversees neighborhood councils, which is committed to making these bodies truly representative, did not want to favor existing homeowners groups over ad hoc entities. In the spring of 2002 the city ordered Gresham and Rosenberg to negotiate a merger.

“We ended up giving in to them on every single point they wanted because they would not budge,” said Gresham, saying the negotiations over minutia occasionally became uncivil, to the point of table-pounding and screaming.

Rosenberg says the meetings were a ruse, since Gresham’s group continued meeting behind his back.

Gresham said of course his group continued to meet, openly, to continue the work of getting certified — just as he expected Rosenberg’s group to keep meeting.

But whether Rosenberg had a group at all was a question Gresham never felt was adequately answered. Gresham said Rosenberg seemed to make decisions on his own, without consulting a board, and got angry with Gresham for always wanting to check back with the Midwilshire interim board.

Rosenberg says he had a group of about a dozen active volunteers and many more supporters, Jewish and non-Jewish, who empowered him to make decisions.

While he initially started with some close Orthodox friends, Rosenberg later pulled in some non-Jewish businessmen and disgruntled residents who felt they were not being represented by this nouveau establishment.

Among those was Morris Shaoulian, the lessee of the Scottish Rite Auditorium on Wilshire Boulevard and Lucerne Avenue in Hancock Park-adjacent Windsor Square, who is currently in litigation with the city over the use of the building.

After several months of negotiations, the newly named Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council was formed, with Rosenberg and Gresham as co-presidents, and an unwieldy 56 board members — 28 from each side.

At a hearing in December 2003, the city certified the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council. But before doing so, the city lopped off a section that jutted out of the Council’s linear borders south of Olympic Boulevard, saying the small area, which Rosenberg had added, was not organically part of a territory that was already too big.

That severed appendage had included a large portion of Rosenberg’s allies, including 14 of his 28 board members.

“In that area we had representation of people who were black, Hispanic, Koreans, some gays and lesbians — and they were so upset to be cut off from the neighborhood council,” Rosenberg said. “And after that they said you guys stabbed us and they didn’t want to meet anymore.”

While the council was certified, it still needed to set up procedures to elect its board members, an election initially slated for March 2004.

But disgusted with what he saw as a biased and farcical process, Rosenberg dragged his feet and didn’t bring his representative to any planning meetings. March came and went without elections.

Gresham and the city tried to schedule meetings with Rosenberg, but were continually put off.

Without Rosenberg and his people, the board had no quorum, and could not set up the election procedures, which meant voting could not commence.

Suddenly, in the early summer of 2004, a process that had been in the works for years, involving hundreds of people and thousands of hours of work, was at a dead halt.

Gresham was at his wits end. And he was beginning to wonder what was driving Michael Rosenberg.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, head of Kehillat Yavneh: “We have never tried to steamroll over the neighbors. We have never tried to hide what we’re doing.” Photo by Kevin Scanlon

‘Red Flags All Over the Place’

Baby faced and jowly with a soothing Latin lilt to his speech, Rosenberg doesn’t hide the fact that he is motivated by a large chip on his shoulder, despite his obvious success — he runs a thriving international real estate business, he and his family own thoroughbreds and he is the president of World Derby, Inc., which promotes horse racing events. He and his wife Sheryl have raised their four sons in a luxurious home at the eastern edge of Hancock Park, where they have lived for 21 years.

But Rosenberg’s parents lost everything and everyone in the Holocaust, including three sons — Michael’s brothers. The family found refuge after the war in Peru, where Michael was born and where he lived until the late 1970s.

As for his involvement in Hancock Park politics, Rosenberg is adamant that it’s all a matter of principal. He scoffs at the speculation, put forth with no evidence by some who are critical of him, that his involvement in neighborhood politics has been motivated by potential financial gain for his real estate business, which he says is mostly out of state or out of the country.

Instead, Rosenberg said, he was initially motivated by ill-advised land-use policies that neighborhood establishments supported. But the matter became a personal cause after he encountered intolerance at neighborhood meetings, which he ascribed to his wearing a kippah and representing the Orthodox community.

During the rise of the Nazis, leading up to the Holocaust, “in Hungary, my parents had to endure rules of you can’t go there and you can’t shop here, and this was the beginning of the same things — red flags were going up all over the place,” he says of restrictions being placed on land-use in Hancock Park and the accompanying intolerance he perceived. “That is the ultimate goal, to restrict use of the land and to rein in a group — and that is what they were trying to do with us at the end of the day.”

Rosenberg is referring to the ongoing attempt by local preservationists to designate Hancock Park a Historical Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ), which, at its most stringent, would mean changes by homeowners to their residences would have to go through rigorous scrutiny by city boards.

The Hancock Park Homeowners Association, a 57-year-old body, supports the historic zone, as does the office of Councilman Tom LaBonge, who represents the area. In 2001 Rosenberg had attended a meeting of the association and told the members that a majority of Hancock Park residents did not support the historic designation. No one on either side of the issue, in fact, has done authoritative polling.

The challenge was not well received, and Rosenberg said he was treated rudely, as though he were an outsider with no business there.

Soon after, Rosenberg and Treitel, along with a handful of other Jewish and non-Jewish members, founded the rival Hancock Park Resident’s Association. They sent out a mailing asking people to join them in opposing the historic zone. Rosenberg claims he received 1,100 letters in his support, which he filed with the city’s planning department. A department representative confirmed that his office has received hundreds of letters both in support and against the historic designation.

Within the next month, the city’s planning department will hold the first of many public hearings about the HPOZ, leading up to a likely decision this summer by the City Council.

While the Orthodox community — including everyone from Modern Orthodox to Chasidic — is hardly unified in supporting or opposing a historic zone, Rosenberg was certain he recognized yet another effort to choke off the growing Orthodox presence — many Orthodox families have remodeled old area homes to accommodate large families, adding bedrooms and modern kosher kitchens.

Rosenberg became increasingly convinced that longer established neighbors — many of them non-Orthodox Jews — were uncomfortable with the visibly distinct and insular Orthodox community, people who dressed in black hats and coats in the heat of the summer, who ate at different restaurants and sent their kids to different schools. The Orthodox, he believed, were a grudgingly tolerated “them,” not regarded as part of the community fabric.

Rosenberg is not alone in reaching that conclusion.

“The other side will tell you it’s nothing personal, it’s only about zoning, and I wish I could believe that,” said Alan Stern, an Orthodox businessman and philanthropist, whose wife Lisa won a seat as an alternate in the neighborhood council elections. “But it’s just not true. When you dig deep enough and start talking, there is a lot more that I find worrying. Many of them don’t like those black hats and coats walking in Hancock Park. It’s not a kind of look they feel comfortable with.”

Jane Ellison Usher

Jane Ellison Usher, president of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission: “I think there need to be other Jewish voices.” Photo by Kevin Scanlon

An Urban Oasis, Divided

Hancock Park is one of Los Angeles’s most picture-perfect neighborhoods, where sloping lawns on winding streets are crowned with elegant Tudor, Spanish and Mediterranean mansions built mostly in the 1920s. It covers roughly a linear mile between Highland and Rossmore Avenues, from Melrose Avenue to Wilshire Boulevard.

Jews began to move into this urban oasis 40 years ago, when clauses in home deeds prohibiting sales to Jews or blacks were removed. As Jews shifted eastward from Fairfax, Orthodox institutions became centered on and around La Brea Avenue, a few blocks west of Hancock Park. The last decade has seen a surge in the number of schools, shuls and kosher establishments in the area.

There are about 20 shuls on La Brea, Beverly and surrounding streets, and about a dozen kosher establishments. At least four new schools have been established in the last 10 years, and enrollment at existing schools has surged. Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn Torath Emeth, for example, had about 700 kids in preschool through eighth grade 10 years ago, and today has more than 1,100.

With that growth has come increased tensions with established neighbors, including some residents who have been there for decades, and many more recent arrivals — a good number of them non-Orthodox Jews — who treasure the area’s serenity and architectural beauty.

Some residents fear the character of the neighborhood, which is zoned for single-family homes only, is being threatened by haphazard remodeling projects and by institutions — notably a shul and a private religious school — moving into Hancock Park itself.

“Hancock Park is a beautiful suburb in the middle of a busy city, and if people keep chipping away at it, soon it won’t be a beautiful, serene neighborhood anymore. It will be changed forever,” said Jolene Snett, an activist who is involved in crafting a preservation plan, which would limit what homeowners could do with the parts of architecturally historic homes visible from the street.

Snett, a member of Temple Israel of Hollywood, was elected last June to the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council.

It was the arcane subject of zoning that led to the Neighborhood Council confrontations and became the focus of lawsuits and angry rhetoric over the last 10 years. In 1999, Yeshivat Yavneh, a 400-student Orthodox day school, moved from Beverly Boulevard west of La Brea Avenue into the Tudor estate that had housed Whittier law school on Third Street and Las Palmas Avenue. Neighbors saw to it that Yavneh’s conditional-use permit was highly restrictive (see sidebar).

While the school and neighbors agree that Yavneh has worked hard to be a good neighbor — carefully controlling noise and carpool chaos — tension has continued to build over when and what Yavneh can do with its building. Yavneh is now planning to bring to the zoning board a proposal for an 8-foot security fence, which neighbors oppose, and a plan to change the terms of who can pray in the school on Shabbat, an issue that neighbors say Yavneh has not been honest about.

“We have made every effort to be as conciliatory as possible with the neighborhood and have done our best to make sure we are in compliance with whatever conditional-use permits were granted to us by the city,” said Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, head of Kehillat Yavneh, which holds Shabbat prayers at the school for the Yavneh parent body. “We have never tried to steamroll over the neighbors. We have never tried to hide what we’re doing, and for some reason there are certain extremists in the neighborhood who are opposed to having any greater presence for Orthodox Jews convening for religious activity or prayer, regardless of the impact on the neighborhood.”

At the same time, Korobkin is working with his own community to be more open, because he acknowledges that insularity may have contributed to the hostile environment and closed communication lines.

“Our guilt is that we have not sufficiently been good neighbors in the sense of reaching out and letting them know that we are part of the community, and we are here to work together with the rest of the community,” he said. “If an Orthodox Jew is having a Kiddush [party] at his home because his wife gave birth, and he invites 100 people from all around and his neighbors are not invited to the Kiddush — that type of thing creates ill-will,” he said.

Korobkin, and many others, believe that Yavneh is suffering the fallout of an earlier land-use dispute involving Congregation Etz Chaim, the synagogue to which Rosenberg and many of his neighborhood allies belong.

Etz Chaim is a small congregation that for 30 years met in the June Street home of Rabbi Chaim Rubin. In 1995 it purchased a 3,600-square-foot house on the corner of Highland Avenue and Third Street, enraging neighbors protective of the area’s single-family-home zoning status. The legal battle had already begun when in 2002 Etz Chaim razed the home and rebuilt an 8,200-square-foot structure with a main sanctuary and a mikvah (see sidebar).

Neighbors contend the shul violated local zoning laws and trampled due process, and the shul contends neighbors are attempting to infringe upon its religious freedom. The dispute is currently before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but regardless of the outcome, residents are likely to remain angry about the bulldozer approach the congregation took.

“Third and Highland was this giant smack in the face to all of Hancock Park that said, ‘We are going to do whatever we want and no on is going to stop us,'” said Gary Gilbert, a writer and producer, who lives in Windsor Square.

While Orthodox residents who don’t belong to Etz Chaim were not vocal about the matter, many of them also were troubled by both the manner and the outcome of the construction.

“None of us like that shul either. I didn’t think what they did was right, and I certainly wouldn’t want that happening next door to me,” said Marty Gurfinkel, a Yavneh parent who is now participating in reconciliation meetings.

But the idea of Orthodox Jews speaking out against other shul-goers was anathema, and so, Gurfinkel says, the Etz Chaim dispute fermented a false sense, both among the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox, of us and them.

“It created a lot of negativity and came at a severe cost,” agreed Larry Eisenberg, a pediatrician who rues the fact that none of his Orthodox peers felt it appropriate to challenge Etz Chaim.

Eisenberg, a Hancock Park resident and past president of the West Coast board of the Orthodox Union, was elected to the neighborhood council on a platform of opposing traffic mitigation measures and the historic zone designation. He was not allied with Rosenberg, and had nothing to do with Rosenberg’s quest. But, he says, at the first few meetings of the neighborhood council over the past few months, he has felt that he is the object of suspicion and bias from other council members, just by virtue of being Orthodox.

Indeed, anti-Orthodoxy seemed at its height after last summer’s elections. Deeply troubled by the hostility and intolerance he saw, Gary Gilbert, an active member of Temple Israel, informally canvassed his neighbors in advance of launching reconciliation efforts.

“I went to my neighbors and I said, ‘Tell me about the Orthodox.’ And they said, ‘They think they are above the law, they will do whatever they want if it is good for them, and they don’t care about anyone else’s needs but their own,'” Gilbert recounted.

And while Rosenberg might offer that up as more proof that he was right — that the locals do hate the Orthodox — some argue that Rosenberg himself opened that door, back in 2004, when he and his cohorts brought the neighborhood council process, which activists had been working on for five years, to a screeching halt.

Stanley Treitel

Stanley Treitel, neighborhood activist: “We have to move on to some degree.” Photo by Kevin Scanlon

The City Takes Over

With elections nowhere on the horizon, Gresham was relieved when, in July 2004, the city decided to take over setting up the elections. The city began the process by holding focus groups with area stakeholders to come up with election procedures.

Rosenberg came to some of those meetings with his supporters, and advocated for eliminating both the age limit and the need for proof of identity for voters, pushing for self-affirmation — actions eyed with suspicion by many.

The city, for its part, determined that people could vote in as many categories for which they qualified as stakeholders. That is, you got one vote if you owned property, another if you also rented property, still another if you worked in neighborhood — not to mention a vote for attending a local school or belonging to a local organization. Each category is represented by a board member. In the end, some people would vote as many as 19 times.

In March 2005, after the city decided that age limits and identification would be required, Rosenberg sued the city for violating the council’s bylaws, a case that was quickly dismissed.

Increasingly alarmed at the free-for-all the city seemed to be setting up, Gresham worried that anyone, including non-residents, could become a stakeholder by setting up a bogus organization, and that underhanded scheming would be rampant.

In February 2005, Gresham summoned some active neighbors who decided to form Neighbors United for Fair Elections, a group whose initial mission was to see to it that election procedures were fair and logical.

“The real villain in this enterprise is the [city’s] Department of Neighborhood Empowerment,” said Jane Ellison Usher, a Jewish attorney who answered Gresham’s call to action. “The way the department established procedures was to say to whatever group of people happened to show up at a meeting, ‘How do you feel on these three or four points?’ And whoever was sitting in the chairs would cast votes, and those were turned into formal recommendations for the board and the department.”

Usher, a former president of the Windsor Square Homeowners Association, was recently appointed president of Los Angeles planning commission. She had been involved early on in the neighborhood council process and stepped out in dismay when the city forced Gresham into negotiations with Rosenberg.

Usher is known among friends and detractors for being resolute and blunt — as someone who, by her own admission, doesn’t mince words. As elections neared, Usher began circulating aggressively worded e-mails to bring the masses to the polls.

“Don’t let the bad guys outnumber us again,” begins a Feb. 21, 2005 email, co-signed by Usher, Jolene Snett and Cindy Chvatal, who is now vice president of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council. “Do you want a neighborhood controlled by the man who has leased the Scottish Rite or by the activists who have defied all zoning rules and built a temple at Third and Highland?”

Another e-mail, sent after the city delayed elections that had been set for May 2005, decries the city’s “twisted thought process.”

“Disabled by the notion that Michael Rosenberg might again sue, his forte, they [city organizations] have become the reliable enablers of the hijacking of this neighborhood by a handful of bogeymen,” wrote Usher and Chvatal.

The same e-mail ended with the imperative to “Grab your white hat and enough votes to win.”

Orthodox community members saw in that an allusion to their own black hats. But Usher, who grew up in a small town in Ohio, says the white hat reference is nothing more than a regional expression about good guys in white and bad guys in black.

And, she says, her references to “minions” was in no way meant to evoke minyans (a quorum of worshippers), and “bad guys” referred to the city organizations messing with the elections, not to the Orthodox community.

As Usher’s e-mails circulated, rumors spread within the Orthodox community of nefarious, well-organized plots to stifle Jewish interests. For its part, the Orthodox community fielded nine candidates, many brought in by Rosenberg.

Some e-mails originating in the Orthodox camp compared what was happening in Hancock Park to Nazi-era restrictions, and rumors spread about plots to bus in Muslims on Election Day to defeat the Orthodox.

While some rabbis decried the more egregious rhetoric, the idea took hold that getting out the Orthodox vote was a matter of saving the community.

“On the slate are individuals who have proven hostile to the interests of our community. If they win, any new shul or school, any expansion of existing shuls or schools, any remodeling of any home, will require their approval,” read a letter sent out by the Yavneh school. The letter urged all community members — even domestic help — to vote, and to enroll in newly formed organizations to qualify as stakeholders in more categories.

When Neighbors United got wind of the mobilization in the Orthodox community, fear began to spread that the Orthodox were trying to take over local politics so they could plant a shul and school on every corner in Hancock Park.

To both sides, elections had become a matter of saving the neighborhood.

An Election Debacle

The hype and propaganda worked, bringing out a record 1,200 voters on Wednesday, June 15, 2005, who cast a combined 29,000 ballots, higher than any other council elections since the city founded the Neighborhood Council system, which generally does allow for multiple ballots per person.

But rather than being a triumph of grass-roots activism, the turnout signaled the extent to which fear and suspicion had taken over.

By all accounts, the fire station on Wilshire Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue — the single polling place for the day — was a madhouse, with poll workers overwhelmed by the turnout, and voters and volunteers equally befuddled by the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment’s impenetrable election procedures.

According to the city’s exorbitantly inclusive rules, voters were allowed to define themselves as stakeholders in up to 19 categories.

That meant that on Election Day, voters — many of whom did not live or work in the area — stood on line with fistfuls of ballots, a startling site in this one man, one vote culture. (One of the first actions of the newly elected council would be to revise election rules, allowing a maximum of two votes per person.)

And things got very, very ugly.

Neighbors United, the non-Orthodox group, created an Election Day staging area at the nearby Wilshire Ebell Theater, offering a free shuttle service to the polling place, where parking was difficult.

At the Ebell, Neighbors United registered voters and enrolled them in organizations to qualify for more ballots. Slates of candidates were endorsed. In some categories where the two or three highest vote-getters would win seats, Neighbors United provided an alphabetical breakdown for voters to follow to optimize the number of its winning candidates (i.e., if your last name begins with A-F, vote for this candidate; G-M for that candidate).

Orthodox community members say they saw Neighbors United people — including volunteer poll workers — at the polling place trying to intimidate Orthodox voters and handing out membership cards, some of them for organizations founded for just for the purpose of boosting vote totals.

The Orthodox community was not nearly as well organized, but its members were busy, too. Neighbors United members allege that they saw candidates campaigning outside the polling place, in violation of election rules, and people handing out “your name here” membership cards for organizations. Some of these had changed addresses to be within council boundaries; others hadn’t existed the week before.

One member of Neighbors United said that while she was looking for parking, two Orthodox men sitting in a car in front of the fire station indicated they weren’t leaving. Seconds later, she saw them relinquish the space to another Orthodox Jew.

Orthodox voters speak of harassment: If you looked Orthodox you were treated with greater scrutiny and greater contempt by poll volunteers, who came mostly from the ranks of Neighbors United (they were, after all, better organized).

And throughout the day, e-mails and phone calls continued to circulate, urging more people to come out and vote.

In the end, five Orthodox men, including Rosenberg, were elected to the Neighborhood Council, out of 31 seats. Gresham, ironically, only won as an alternate (when a board member can’t make the meeting, he takes her place). Gilbert and Treitel are alternates; Usher, Snett and Chvatal all won seats.

Nine people, including Rosenberg and Alan Stern, filed challenges against the election results, but the city dismissed all of them.

“There was considerable fraud on both sides, and a number of rabbis were not comfortable with that,” said Irving Lebovics, West Coast president of the Orthodox umbrella organization Agudath Israel. “But the bigger issue to me was that in this election there was a tremendous amount of anti-Semitism. We had people who showed up to vote like any good citizen, and they were harassed and screamed at from vans on the street. It was unacceptable.”

Charges of anti-Semitism became a sore point after the election. After all, a significant number of the Neighbors United activists are Jewish.

“To evoke the Holocaust for political gain in a neighborhood zoning dispute, and for one group of people to allege anti-Semitism against another group that they don’t see eye-to-eye with politically, especially when many in the group are Jewish, is a problem,” Jolene Snett said. “These are serious claims, and to use them in a political manner, so readily and so quickly, and often to fellow Jews, I find very troubling.”

For her part, Usher says she feels compelled, as a Jew, to offer an alternative voice when she sees Jews behaving badly, as she believes some leaders at Etz Chaim and Yavneh did.

“I think there need to be other Jewish voices,” she said. “Frankly, it is repulsive to me that I am connected or associated in any way with the people perpetrating these deceptions, so I intend to speak out.”

“I am a Jew, I am a practicing Jew, and I feel that deception is shameful,” Usher said in an interview at a Beverly Boulevard pastry shop not long after the election. “Did I ever think I would see the day I would feel the need to stand up and say I am Jewish and I have a bone to pick with other Jews? Did I even anticipate that day? No.”

Peace Talks

Today, with the elections well in the past, Usher’s stridency has mellowed.

At the neighborhood council meetings — there have been four since the elections — Usher sits just one seat away from Stanley Treitel, a colleague of Rosenberg’s whose passion and vociferousness were off-putting to some during the thick of the strife.

At the January meeting, Treitel handed Usher his card and asked her to call. Usher and Treitel met for breakfast at La Brea Bagel a few weeks ago, where the two, who had formerly demonized each other, talked about issues in the neighborhood, and vowed to keep an open dialogue.

“I’m very optimistic. I don’t see or feel any hardliners drawing lines in the sand,” Usher said.

“We have to move on to some degree,” agreed Treitel, noting that Usher is now the head of the city’s planning commission, an organization that holds the key to approval of community projects.

While Usher’s and Treitel’s new connection is off to a good start, things are not going as well for a larger-scale reconciliation effort.

In November, a group of Orthodox, liberal Jewish and non-Jewish neighbors met to plan a blood drive and neighborhood safety fair for January. But three weeks after the initial planning meeting the event was off.

Yavneh had offered to host the event, but since Yavneh is in the middle of troublesome negotiations over its city operating permit, residents who live nearby wondered if Yavneh’s hospitality was motivated mainly by a desire to build support for dealings with the city.

And, ironically, holding a large event like the blood drive would have violated Yavneh’s permit.

It wasn’t the outcome Gary Gilbert and his wife Judy hoped for when they convened about 20 people in their Windsor Square living room last summer, following the election, to save the neighborhood from itself.

“One of the reasons I got involved is because I heard the phrase ‘the Orthodox’ 50 times, and then I heard the term ‘Jew’ in a way I never heard before in Hancock Park,” said Gilbert, a producer and writer of comedies, including the “Seinfeld” pilot.

The Gilberts joined forces with Rabbi Korobkin of Yavneh, who independently had set out to begin the healing process, contacting local clergy and L.A. Voice, an organization that works with faith-based organizations to build community.

At the first, smaller meeting about a month after the election, about 20 people from varying backgrounds sat in the Gilberts home and introduced themselves, putting names and faces to the impersonal “other side.”

“I’m not a professional mediator or conflict resolution person. I’m just a Jewish guy from the neighborhood who is really upset,” Gilbert recalled telling those at the first gathering in August. “I’m here to say let’s figure out what to do. I have no plan, no agenda — my agenda is why can’t we all get along. So let’s give it a try.”

A second meeting took place in November at the home of Marty and Candice Gurfinkel — a new home that blends impeccably into its surroundings and stands in regal rebuttal to the charge that the Orthodox have no aesthetic sense. It was there that the plan for the blood drive was devised, and after the meeting, a dozen neighbors stood around the dessert table schmoozing.

But despite the thaw, some were uncomfortable, feeling like they were skirting the real issues, moving ahead with joint activities to foster relationships when old wounds had yet to be healed, or even acknowledged.

“We perceive that the other neighbors look at us with such a sense of suspicion and distrust, that they feel anything we are trying to do is completely self-serving and disingenuous and we are not concerned with being good neighbors,” Korobkin said recently. “If you start with that premise, it is hard to win people’s support to work toward common goals. It’s hard to move things forward.”

But Korobkin persists in his efforts toward reconciliation, understanding that not only Yavneh’s future, but the entire neighborhood’s rests on everyone’s ability to work together.

As for Rosenberg, he has spent much of the last six months in Peru tending to family matters. He’s missed most of the Neighborhood Council meetings, but the one he did attend, he voted against all of the proposed measures, which passed anyway.

One of those measures reduced the number of future board members on the Neighborhood Council from 31 to 21 for the next elections in March 2007. Members who supported the motion said the board was too unwieldy with 31 members.

Treitel, who voted against the change, noted in an interview that Orthodox Jews had a good chance of filling the seats that were cut, in categories such as education, religion and nonprofits. He worries that the interests of the Orthodox community are now further jeopardized.

Rosenberg plans to do whatever it takes to accomplish what he says was his initial goal: to ensure that everyone in the neighborhood is represented, and that no one, especially not the Orthodox community, gets left out of the process.

“I feel bad that people have a perception of me as being a bad person,” Rosenberg said. “I’m not a bad person. I have given a lot of my time and money to make people aware of what I believe to be very important things.”

 

My Jewish Intermarriage


What did you and your spouse discuss after it was clear that you would have a chuppah and ketubah in your future? Probably something that turned out not to matter like, “How many kids do you want?” or “What is your dream vacation?” or “If we have twins, do you think we should dress them the same?”

If you were anything like my husband, Jeff and me, you probably completely overlooked the real marital make-it-or-break-it questions like: “During the Passover seder, do you think the adults should hide the afikoman and have the kids look for it, or the reverse?” Or “Even though neither or us keeps kosher, is bacon OK?” “Is there an exception if I’m following Atkins?” “What is your position on latkes? Scratch or box?”

Let’s face it. Every marriage between two Jews is an intermarriage. I’m not talking about the obvious ones, like a marriage between an Orthodox Jew and a Jew-by-birth who is not at all religious. Clearly if one spouse davens three times a day and the other spouse uses Mapquest to find her way to synagogue on Yom Kippur, a silver anniversary is not in their future. I’m talking about the rest of us.

Because so much of our Jewishness comes from how we were raised — and we were all raised differently — spouses never seem to be identical in the way they live their Judaism. My husband and I are a perfect example of this. Although we both grew up in families that were members of Reform Valley synagogues, our Jewish childhoods were day and night. When my husband was young, his family celebrated Chanukah, and dabbled in Christmas. In contrast, Christmas at the Jaffe home only meant that Bullock’s was closed, dinner was Chinese and that our station wagon would be headed to the nearest movie theater.

My husband’s family showed up at temple twice a year for the Big Two: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And although my mother-in-law became a temple regular after her children were grown, my husband did not chalk up a lot of synagogue time when he was a child. My brother, sisters and I, on the other hand, spent a huge chunk of our childhood at our synagogue, Temple Judea. We first started Hebrew school when we were still in diapers (or so it seemed) and continued through confirmation. We didn’t miss a holiday (OK, I don’t have any specific memories of Tisha B’Av), and much of my family’s social life revolved around our havurah and temple events. If sports camps existed when we were kids, we didn’t know about them; it was a given that we would go to Jewish overnight camps.

(I have no doubt that when my husband reads this, he will point out that the reason my siblings and I did not attend sports or rustic sleep-away camps had less to do with Jewish zeal, and more to do with my family’s complete lack of coordination and irrational fear of camping. And I admit that there is some anecdotal evidence to support that position.)

While many years of celebrating holidays together has put my husband and me mostly on the same Jewish page, our different upbringings occasionally seep through. I feel it every Passover when his family breaks into a song with an unfamiliar melody, when he chooses a salty noodle kugel like his mother used to make rather than the sweet ones that I grew up with, and when we have Shabbat dinner on Friday nights.

I know Jeff and I are not alone in trying to merge the religious habits of two different childhoods. Several friends who had very traditional upbringings are married to Jewish atheists, who could take — but mostly leave — services. These friends have become the synagogue version of the football widow, and frequently attend temple events without their spouses.

By the time you read this, my husband and I will be approaching a dozen years of marriage. So why am I dissecting our relatively minor Jewish differences now? Two reasons.

First, I have written a book about the main causes of divorce. The book is predicated on interviews with 100 divorce lawyers from all over the country. I asked each lawyer for their opinion on why people are getting divorced in droves. While not a single one of them mentioned disagreements over whether the prayer over the wine is spoken or sung, let’s just say I am hypersensitive to anything and everything that might cause marital friction.

The other reason that this is on my mind is that in a few months, summer camp will be in session. This year is the year that we intend to force our children to go to sleep-away camp purportedly for their own good, but really so that we can go on some great adult vacation. No doubt I will vote for a Jewish overnight camp, and my husband will lobby for River Way Ranch Camp. Each of our preferences will be based on what is familiar from our childhoods.

So if you know anyone trolling JDate for a husband, tell them to stop wasting their time on trivial discussions of common goals and values, and get straight to the important questions like: “If we were married, and attending High Holiday services, would you prefer to sit in front near the choir or in the back by the door?”

Wendy Jaffe is a freelance writer living in Bell Canyon. She is also the author of “The Divorce Lawyers’ Guide to Staying Married,” which will be released later this month from Volt Press. She can be reached at wjaffewrite@aol.com.

Hillel Students Help Rebuild Gulf Coast


Southern Mississippi’s Jewish population suddenly mushroomed — as 135 members of the campus organization Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life fan out through the area, repairing roofs of houses severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

The Hillel students, who wore distinctive orange T-shirts that read “Rebuild and Repair: Tzedek Means Justice,” arrived New Year’s Day and stayed until Jan. 15. They constituted the largest-single group of Jewish volunteers to visit the storm-ravaged U.S. Gulf Coast since Katrina struck the area last August.

“We all hear about this and we feel sorry for the victims and send money, but so few people actually get up and do something about it,” said Jacob Leven, a UCLA sophomore who studies engineering.

In addition to Hillel, other Jewish groups were active in Mississippi relief work. Shortly after Katrina struck, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement dispatched a group of emissaries to Biloxi to assist with emergency search-and-rescue efforts.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center sent its director of interfaith affairs, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, to Biloxi to assess the progress of one of its affiliate organizations, the Mississippi Coast Interfaith Disaster Task Force.

“We are a human-rights organization and disaster relief is not the focus of the work of our center,” Adlerstein told the Biloxi Sun Herald. “But it is the interfaith part that got us involved through a back-door channel, and who knows where it will lead us.”

The Hillel volunteers, each of whom paid $125 plus transportation, were split into various teams to replace the roofs on 16 houses, all of them belonging to non-Jews. At night, they slept on the floor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Gulfport.

The program was coordinated by Weinberg Tzedek Hillel, a Washington-based international social-service initiative sponsored by Hillel, which received $108,000 in funding from United Jewish Communities.

“During the past few days, the destruction we have seen has been devastating,” University of Georgia sophomore Joseph Beker said. “Before coming down, I had no idea how bad the situation was, and after seeing it firsthand I realized how important it is that we are down here. The work we’re doing is a very small part of what needs to be done.”

One building Hillel couldn’t fix up was Beth Israel Synagogue, which was severely battered by the hurricane. That’s because the congregation’s board of directors hasn’t decided whether to rebuild the shul at the current site or move to a new site entirely.

“If we make no improvement on it at all, it’ll cost $350,000, and that’s low-balling it,” said Stephen Richer, the congregation’s president. “But that’s probably not the best thing to do. We’ll probably redesign it so we don’t have a flat roof. For what we want to do, the cost ranges from $500,000 to $1.5 million.”

Founded in 1958, Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Mississippi, had 60 member families before Katrina, representing about half the coastal region’s Jewish population.

“A few people have left, and some like me are waiting for their homes to be fixed,” said Richer, interviewed in the crowded 36-foot Coachman trailer that’s parked in his front yard.

Richer, who’s also executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, bought the trailer used for $50,000 and drove it up from Florida; he’s been living in it ever since because his own house is full of mold and uninhabitable.

So is Beth Israel, which sits on the corner of Southern Boulevard and Camelia Street, only a few blocks from U.S. 90, which parallels the Gulf of Mexico. Evidence of Katrina’s destruction is everywhere along the coast, from the twisted remains of a local Waffle House to the floating Treasure Bay Casino barge that ended up on the beach, half a mile away from its moorings.

The synagogue’s administrator, Bonnie Kidd, said she was able to save the office computer, fax machine and important books. Mark Tabor, who lived in an apartment on top of the synagogue and was its caretaker, rescued the Torah scrolls just before Katrina hit.

“It looks as bad inside as it does outside,” said Tabor, a retired military officer who is temporarily living with his son in Mobile, Ala. “Eventually I will come back to Biloxi, as soon as they decide what we’re going to do.”

As bad as Beth Israel is — with its damaged roof, cracked wooden pews and mold — it’s nothing compared to the destruction elsewhere in the Biloxi-Gulfport area.

“We know about 15 Jewish families who lost everything. They have nothing except the clothes on their back,” Kidd said. “Some of them left, some of them are staying with family or friends, and some of them have been able to go through the ruins and see what they could salvage.”

Since the storm, the Conservative congregation has been holding Shabbat services regularly at Beauvoir Methodist Church in Biloxi.

“Our particular congregation is very ecumenical. We’ve participated in Friday evening services” at Beth Israel “for over 20 years, but this is the first opportunity we’ve had to bring in a non-Christian group,” said the Rev. Marilyn Perrine of Beauvoir, which also hosted Hands On USA, a volunteer group that includes Jewish and non-Jewish volunteers. “My folks are very open and excited about having Beth Israel in our building.”

Local churches also offered to host Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, but the visiting rabbi and cantor that had been sent by the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism keep Shabbat, and with most Biloxi-area hotels destroyed by Katrina, there was nowhere within walking distance for them to stay.

In the end, nearby Keesler Air Force Base invited the congregation to use its chapel, Richer said.

Wayne Lord, the commanding general at Keesler, “came to Kol Nidre services before we started and made the most gracious remarks about the role of the U.S. military in preserving religious freedom,” Richer said. “We had probably over 100 people there — not only our members but also FEMA workers and Red Cross volunteers. We had a national audience.”

In the meantime, members of Biloxi’s dwindling, older Jewish community wonder what the future holds in store for them.

Real estate broker Milt Grishman, a lifelong member of the congregation, said he celebrated his bar mitzvah at Beth Israel in 1963. When Katrina hit, Grishman was already at his brother’s house up in Jackson, Miss.

“This is the first storm I ever evacuated for, and I’m glad I left,” he said, estimating that between 10 percent to 15 percent of Beth Israel’s members won’t be coming back.

“We’re such a small congregation that just a few can be significant,” Grishman said. “We had a fair number of military retirees living on a pension, and I’m not as optimistic as some others on our board.”

That’s because local unemployment is now running close to 25 percent, and of the 17,500 hotel rooms along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast before Katrina, only 5,000 are now open, according to Richer. Of the 13 casinos that were either operating or about to open, only three have reopened — which could put a severe dent into Biloxi’s tourism-driven economy.

“Some companies are deciding this is not a good place to be and are leaving,” Grishman said. “There’s a lot of talk about rebuilding and a condo boom, and all that’s encouraging, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”

 

Brandeis-Bardin’s Changing Face


 

Drive into The Brandeis-Bardin Institute, up the pepper tree-lined main thoroughfare and through the gates leading to 3,000 acres of rolling hills in the Santa Susana Mountains. Enter a setting so magnificent that it’s easy to believe, as Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom does, that God lives there.

Sitting on the largest piece of Jewish property owned by a Jewish organization outside of Israel, The Brandeis-Bardin Institute is a pluralistic, nondenominational day and overnight camp, conference and retreat center that caters to all ages. Originally established on the East Coast in 1941 and relocated to California in 1947, it remains committed to educator and founder Dr. Shlomo Bardin’s core mission of helping Jews enjoy vital Jewish experiences through informal and experiential education in a natural setting.

But nature has taken its toll, too. Drive farther back onto the campus and witness about 1,500 acres of outback brush blackened by last September’s devastating wildfires. Since the fires hit, sparing all structures except for the roof and a set of doors at the hilltop House of the Book, the institute’s professional and lay leaders have been considering how best to repair the damaged land.

Less visible and more challenging than the fires has been another, longer-lasting problem, that of Brandeis’ scorched reputation, sparked by years of concern about the institute’s leadership. The two most recent presidents have both left precipitously, and an unwieldy board is currently being reconfigured.

“I don’t think anyone would deny that it [Brandeis] has had problems with leadership,” said former camper and new board member Bernard Lax.

In March, Rabbi Isaac Jeret unexpectedly announced his departure only 10 months after having been selected president following a nationwide search. Prior to Jeret, Rabbi Lee T. Bycel held the position of president for just three years, departing in August 2003, when the board didn’t renew his contract.

Leadership changes are now well under way.

The process began on March 22, the day Jeret resigned and the day Brandeis’ executive committee changed the leadership model entrenched at the institute since its founding in 1941. The committee eliminated the position of president and hired Gary Brennglass as its new executive director, for the first time installing a business person rather than an educator at the helm. The goal is to create a more businesslike atmosphere behind the scenes at the institute, even as it aims to preserve its magical exterior.

“It was a quick decision, and it was absolutely the right decision,” said Board of Directors Chair Linda Volpert Gross of Brennglass, who, since July 2004, had been the full-time, paid director of operations. For 18 years prior, he was an active lay leader who served as a board and executive board member, including the two years from 1989 to 1991 as board president.

The committee also hired consultant Richard Marker of Marker Goldsmith Advisors in New York to create a candid strategic assessment of the institute, with the findings to be presented to the board this month. The assessment entails examining programming, marketing, finances, leadership and community relations, all of which need improvement, according to Gross.

In a sense, said board member Richard Gunther, who has been involved with Brandeis for more than 50 years, the study will take on a visionary role, giving the institute direction to best serve the Jewish community. Others, however, regret the absence of a leader who is also an educator and scholar, such as Bardin, or Dennis Prager, who led the Institute from 1976 to 1983. Such a leader is essential, they argue, to the institute’s ability to translate Bardin’s vision into the future.

On the lay side, Gross, who became board chair in December 2004 and who holds an MBA from Harvard, has added 10 new “involved, passionate” board members, for a total of 70. She is also revamping committees and insisting that all board members take active roles.

Brennglass said the institute’s financial health is fairly strong. Brandeis has in excess of $2 million in endowment and reserves but, like most independent nonprofits, needs to rely on fundraising to augment its fee-for-service programs and to balance its approximately $5.4 million budget, as reported on its IRS Form 990 for the year ending Sept. 30, 2004, the most recent available.

Brandeis hosts an annual dinner each spring that raises between $600,000 and $800,000, with last spring’s event, the most successful ever, topping the $800,000 mark. An “aggressive” fire response campaign, with a goal of $250,000, was launched this fall and has already brought in more than $160,000. Additionally, the institute receives income by renting its facilities for Shabbatonim and lifecycle events, such as b’nai mitzvah and weddings.

Brandeis’ most valuable asset is the land, which board member and real estate professional Gunther estimates to be valued in the tens of millions of dollars.

“The question is how do you get liquidity from that but still not impact future development possibilities,” he said, adding that the board is looking at various plans to buttress the institute’s financial position.

But whatever changes are enacted, the institute remains committed to its core programs. These include the overnight camp, Camp Alonim; the day camp, Gan Alonim, and the Brandeis Collegiate Institute (BCI), a cultural, educational and outdoors program for young adults 18 to 26.

Some changes are already underway. On the professional side, in addition to Brennglass, new staff hires include Rabbi Laurie Hahn Tapper as director of BCI and adult programming and Jordanna Flores as director of Camp Alonim. They are replacing, respectively, Rabbi Scott Aaron and Ed Gelb, both of whom left voluntarily and amicably. In addition, Dr. Gabe Goldman, scholar-in-residence for the past two summers, has just been hired as the full-time director of environmental education, a newly created position.

“We have no interest in remaining one of the Los Angeles Jewish community’s better -kept secrets,” said Brennglass, pointing out that though it is located just 45 minutes northwest of downtown Los Angeles, Brandeis, is also a working ranch with 40 cows, 50 horses and about 25 goats, as well as crops of corn and avocados. The cows are intentionally moved from pasture to pasture to graze and were instrumental in stemming the fire because they had lowered the brush in the margins around the camp.

Board member Lax, like Brennglass, is surprised by the number of people unfamiliar with the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, given the resources it offers. Such was case for Luisa and Saul Jaffe of Claremont, who were invited by friends to a Founders Weekend a couple of years ago. Since then, the Jaffes and their three children have attended three family weekends and sent their 10- and 8-year-old to overnight camp.

Luisa Jaffe is now a committed Brandeis supporter.

“It’s not very expensive, it’s very accessible and it doesn’t matter if you’re very reform or very observant,” she said. “Everyone can fit in.”

Brandeis has kosher facilities supervised by Rabbi Yale Butler and serves as a retreat center, hosting weekends for families, newlyweds, elder hostel groups and others. It has recently begun partnering with other organizations, including The Jewish Journal and Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, among others, for some weekends. Virtually every weekend was booked last year and again for this year.

Brennglass said he would like to expand the outside linkages and attract more weekday bookings, especially for “Jewish organizational snowbirds” in the East and Midwest who are beginning to discover that Brandeis-Bardin is a great destination from mid-January to mid-March.

Additionally, the Brandeis community itself needs to be tapped. Lax, who is heading up and reorganizing the Alonim Committee, one of about six standing board committees, plans to do more outreach to parents of current campers.

“We have thousands of kids coming through the gates, but probably less than 10 percent of those kids have parents who are involved in the institute,” he said. He also wants to reach out to former campers.

Through the recent upheaval, Brandeis’ camping programs have remained strong. Gan Alonim, established in 1991, hosted 240 day campers from kindergarten to sixth grade in 2005. The overnight Camp Alonim, founded in 1953, enrolls approximately 1,000 campers each summer from grades 2 through 10, and in leadership programsin grades 11 and 12. Throughout the summer it’s 90 percent full, impressive at a time when camp enrollment across the country is declining, according to director Flores.

In an effort to attract new campers, last summer Alonim began offering a basketball specialty camp, which it will expand this season to include boys and girls in sixth through eighth grade. (Attempts at diversifying two summers ago by adding soccer, arts and wilderness camps didn’t take off.)

Additionally, Flores wants to improve the sports program. She is adding archery this summer and also wants to enhance the baseball and basketball programs.

Alonim’s physical plant is also getting a lift. A $5 million campaign to rebuild the dining hall, with construction tentatively slated to begin in 2006, according to Brennglass, has evolved into a larger, soon-to-be-announced effort to renew the entire Alonim campus.

BCI — formerly known as the Brandeis Camp Institute, the prototypical experiential program created by Bardin initially in Amherst, N.H. — celebrated its 65th year. It hosts two sessions, or aliyot, each summer, with about 50 18- to 26-year-olds in each, two-thirds of whom are from the United States and one-third from Israel, Argentina, the former Soviet Union and other countries.

Through two-hour blocks of art, outdoor projects and traditional study, BCIers, coming from diverse Jewish backgrounds with varying knowledge of Hebrew but with fluent English, learn about their Jewish selves. They also learn about coexistence, spending 26 days together as one community. Said BCI Director Hahn Tapper, “What does it mean to live with people you don’t always agree with but can still learn with and respect?”

The experience of four weeks at BCI is enduring. BCI alumnus Bruce Powell, currently head of New Community Jewish High School and involved with Brandeis for the past 45 years, believes that it has transformed thousands of lives in profound ways.

Jonathan Bernhard of Adat Ari El and Gordon Bernat-Kunin of Milken Community High School, for example, are rabbis today because of transformative BCI experiences. And Powell himself went on to establish three Jewish day schools.

“I came into Brandeis with lots of loose ends as far as being spiritual, but came away with a sense of peace about Jewish tradition and interacting with other Jews,” said Jaeson Plon, 21, a summer 2005 graduate.

Plon, a senior at UC Santa Barbara, is a religious studies major and had planned to become an academic before his BCI experience. Now he’s bent on doing something in the Jewish community.

Hahn Tapper does not expect to make big changes during her first year but is looking at ways to better serve this age group, perhaps by adding winter- or spring-break programming or by creating a small year-round residential fellowship program.

Additionally, Brennglass said the institute is reviewing ways to reach out to those who are slightly older because 18- to 26-year-olds aren’t always ready to make life decisions regarding religion. He envisions something for those post-graduate young adults already working in their first career and looking to define themselves.

Other changes, especially with Goldman as full-time director of environmental education living onsite, include the integration of nature into all programming. Organic gardening is part of the day and overnight camp program.

Alonim campers also learn Native American wilderness skills and this year will build and sleep in sukkot, imitating their ancestors traveling through the desert. In addition, campers will explore some previously overgrown trails uncovered by the fire and will help restore fire-charred land, giving Goldman an opportunity to teach about nature’s life and death cycles.

Goldman has also added monthly adult and family hikes to the program.

Looking ahead, Goldman said, “The real challenge is to turn the physical setting into much more of a model of what we mean by a green institute,” noting that Brandeis wants to establish itself as a national environmental education center.

And while the institute needs to raise funds and set priorities, the fire, in a sense, gave it a head start. With an entire 65,000-square-foot burned hill to replant, a deliberate, although more difficult and expensive, decision was made to use native plants, such as ceanothus and coyote bush, which are environmentally sound and can better withstand future fires. Part of the planting was done on Fire Recovery Workday Nov. 20, for which 60 people showed up.

Plus, Goldman would like to look at some alternative energy sources fueled by solar or wind power, which he feels will save money in the long run.

Meanwhile, for those whose lives have been profoundly touched by Brandeis, the institute remains a very special environment.

That’s certainly true for Scott Kantrowitz, who has been involved since he began working as a junior counselor at age 16. He met his wife, Julie, there and subsequently sent his three children to Camp Alonim.

“It’s a wonderful, wonderful place,” he said. “It’s given me my family and everyone who’s important to me.”

Jordanna Flores
Camp Alonim’s new director Jordanna Flores

A Dream Come True


by Jane Ulman, Contributing Writer


When she was 15, Jordanna Flores announced that one day she wanted to be director of Camp Alonim. She had been coming to camp since age 11 and loved the joyous, Jewish environment. She remained a camper and then counselor for the next eight years and gives credit to Alonim for her enthusiasm for Judaism and her desire to become a Jewish professional.

Flores, 32, grew up with what she calls “a perfect storm of Jewish experiences.” These included, in addition to camp, an elementary education at Temple Emanuel Day School, a bat mitzvah and confirmation and a trip to Israel.

A graduate of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, where she studied creative writing, and of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where she received master’s degrees in both Jewish education and Jewish communal service, Flores first joined the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in 2003 on a temporary basis to help plan the 50th reunion celebration. Six months later, she was named program director and on Oct. 1 officially became the new Camp Alonim director.

As the first female director, she hopes that no one will think she will be soft about enforcing rules.

“Camp is about freedom and about fun, but it’s also about safety,” she said.

But most of all, she’s looking forward to reaching out to second- through 12th- graders and helping them form their Jewish identity by giving them a vibrant, fun, spiritual and quintessentially Jewish camp experience.

Laurie Hahn Tapper
Laurie Hahn Tapper takes the helm at BCI.

From Camp to Rabbi


by Jane Ulman, Contributing Writer


“Camp Swig is the reason I’m doing the work I’m doing today,” said Laurie Hahn Tapper, the new director of the Brandeis Collegiate Institute (BCI). She spent 13 summers at the Union of Reform Judaism camp in Saratoga, Calif., from age 11 to 23, when she reached the role of head counselor.

Hahn Tapper, 29, grew up in Palo Alto, where she attended public schools and went to Hebrew school at Congregation Kol Emeth, a Conservative synagogue. She majored in history at Stanford University and spent her junior year at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

Looking back, Hahn Tapper said she probably always wanted to be a rabbi but didn’t realize it until after college, when she returned to Israel to study at the Pardes Institute and work as a fellow at Hebrew University’s Hillel. That experience prompted her to apply to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS).

She entered rabbinical school knowing she wanted to offer informal education in a nondenominational setting, and she worked at BCI as a rabbinic intern the summer after her third year at JTS, falling in love with the program. She then applied to become director, beginning part time in fall 2004 while completing her last year at JTS.

Between May and September, Hahn Tapper became an ordained rabbi, moved to California, ran her first BCI summer as full-time director and got married to Aaron Tapper. “I can do anything now,” she said.

And as BCI director that means creating a safe and transformative place where 18- to 26-year-olds can effectively explore questions about Judaism, the world and themselves and gain a new perspective.

Bye Bye Diaspora, Hello ‘New Jews’


“New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora” by Caryn Aviv and David Shneer (New York University Press, 2005).

Earlier this month, I participated in a consultation on “Jewish community in an era of looser connections.” Despite the presence of various paradigm-shifting luminaries, more than one reference was made to three absent influences, specifically, two people and a book. The people: Aaron Bisman and Matisyahu; the book: “New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora.” Bisman’s JDub Records seeks “cross-cultural … dialogue” through music indigenous to just about anywhere except Israel; Matisyahu, JDub’s breakout idol, is a baal teshuvah Lubavitcher who sings “Chasidic reggae.” They are the New Jews to whom the book’s authors, Caryn Aviv and David Shneer, refer.

Aviv, a sociologist, and Shneer, a historian, are both native Angelenos who now teach at the University of Denver. They argue that the bipolar models of home and exile, center and periphery, Israel and Diaspora, no longer apply to contemporary Jewish life. “What,” they ask, “does … an upper-middle-class professional, secular Jew in Los Angeles have in common with a working-class Israeli Sephardic religious Jew in Bnei Brak except the fact that each one calls herself a Jew?”

The authors propose a new map with “multiple homelands” that displaces Israel from “the center of the Jewish universe.” They point out that since the mid-19th century, most Jewish religious innovation has originated in the United States, rather than in Europe or Israel. As of 2003, more people emigrated from Israel to Russia than vice versa, and New York is the communal and philanthropic center of Jewish life. Ultimately, the authors find, contemporary Jews are at home wherever they live. “New Jews,” they argue, “connect emotionally and culturally with multiple places and traverse routes across national boundaries but are nonetheless rooted in a specific place they call home.”

In five case studies, Aviv and Shneer explore the implications of their argument. In Moscow, they find an increasingly vibrant Jewish urban center where Jews want to live, not leave. An examination of organized youth tourism to Poland and Israel uncovers a manipulative identity-building agenda that reveals the desperation of late 1990s “continuity” campaigns — but also points toward a future in which Jews crisscross the globe to explore their diverse cultural heritage. Two other chapters complement one another. A minisequel to their previous book, “Queer Jews,” considers collective identities that connect across geopolitical boundaries, and an ethnographic meditation explores the deep diversity cohabiting within the boundaries of New York City.

Finally, Los Angeles stars in a study of the Museum of Tolerance and the Skirball Cultural Center. Aviv and Shneer provide long-overdue histories of the creation of these two institutions — and important critiques of their respective programs. At the Museum of Tolerance, the authors highlight the tension between the universalistic message of tolerance and the particularistic focus on the Shoah, a tension that leaves the visitor “suspicious of the comforts of America.” At the Skirball, they find a deeply assimilationist message in which Jewish values explicitly are presented as indigenously American. Even as the Skirball upends the logic of Diaspora and exile, the authors observe, it remains “intolerant of difference” when such difference might divide Jews from other Americans.

Religion largely is absent from the discussion, though this appears to be by design. Freed from the theological bonds of Klal Yisrael — though by no means dismissing its importance — the authors make no apologies for their challenge to the political centrality of Israel in secular “Jewish geography, culture, and memory.” They question the sociological utility of thinking about some entity called The Jewish People.

“The only thing that Jews have in common,” Aviv and Shneer conclude, “is the fact that they self-identify as Jews.”

To those who grew up within the narratives of the Holocaust and the return to Zion, this will be distressing; to those in Aviv and Shneer’s generation, like Bisman and Matisyahu, as well as to Chabad emissaries no less than Conservative and Reform outreach advocates — it is old news.

“New Jews'” greatest strength — that it is an open-ended introduction to a conversation, rather than a self-contained argument — also may be its primary weakness. Although I agree with Aviv and Shneer’s assertion that contemporary Jews are at home where they are, rather than in exile from an imagined homeland, I would have liked to see them explore some of the more dynamic implications of Jewish cultural transnationalism, or what scholars call “flows.” To study flows is to follow the movement of ideas, money, even music. Debbie Friedman tells of a Polish youth group’s request to hear the “traditional” melody for “Havdalah” (they meant her own, of course); I have sung Adat Ari El Rabbi Moshe Rothblum’s “V’Shamru” at a Czechoslovak Shabbaton. The late Pakistani Sufi musician Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan wrote a qawwali called, “Allah Hu”; a group of Americans and Israelis living in Israel adopted, adapted and exported the chant to the United States, where it was popularized by Debbie Friedman, Danny Maseng and New York’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun as the liturgical song “Hallelu.”

The authors also do not contend with the sporadic but serious conflicts over Jewish being-at-home, whether in Paris and Brussels or on “Bill O’Reilly” and MSNBC. In the United States, controversies last year over Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and this year over “Christianization” and the “War on Christmas” paradoxically juxtapose cultural complacency and communal insecurity. In Western Europe, anti-Semitic attacks by immigrant Arabs reflect both anti-Israel political violence and the jealous rage of the socially marginal against those perceived to have made it “inside,” those who are “at home.” These, too, are the experiences of “New Jews.”

Still, one hardly can fault the authors for provoking the reader to respond. And this is Aviv and Shneer’s greatest achievement with this book: to force us, gently but insistently, to consider the global implications of a world where Zion is a given and not a proposal; where perfectly respectable Jews emigrate from Jerusalem and make pilgrimages to New York; where, indeed, Los Angeles is the center of a Jewish universe.

J. Shawn Landres is the director of research at Synagogue 3000 and a visiting research fellow at UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies.

 

Written in the Jewish Stars


We’re not saying we believe any of this, mind you, but, yes, Jews, too, like to peek at horoscopes. But up until now, something’s been missing — that Jewish touch. Sure, you could count on Bubbe and Zayde to dispense career advice and to forecast general doom, but that hardly suffices. And, yes, there are always those well-meaning, pushy relatives to talk up eligible singles as the man or woman of your future.

But it’s time for some counsel that’s neutral, detached, learned, authoritative — and perhaps as equally useless but infinitely more entertaining. So, starting Jan. 1, we present for your weekly consideration: Jewish Horoscopes.

They are a Web-only exclusive feature of The Jewish Journal at jewishjournal.com/horoscopes.php — authored by the soon-to-be-famous Minnie Mankowitz.

You’ll have to log on to find out how Karl Marx, Erica Jong and Bob Dylan fit into the picture. Or what to buy or not at Trader Joe’s and IKEA. Or the role of chocolate and romance in the week to come. Should you buy a bra? Whiten your teeth? Go into seclusion?

Log on and start planning your future — before someone else does.

Wolpe Leading Pick for Seminary Spot


The Forward newspaper has reported that Rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles has emerged as a top candidate to head the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York.

The Nov. 18 article, “L.A. Rabbi Eyed as Conservative Seminary Head,” asserted that “support is mounting for a prominent pulpit rabbi from Los Angeles to become the next chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, after he delivered an enthusiastically received speech last week on the future of Conservative Judaism.”

The position of JTS chancellor is widely viewed as the head of the entire Conservative movement, as well as the leader of its flagship institution.

Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Westwood told The Journal that he is flattered by the attention, but that he’s also happy with his current job. And that speech, he added, was hardly intended as part of a campaign strategy.

He said he planned his remarks six months ago, before Chancellor Ismar Schorsch announced that he would be retiring next June.

Wolpe’s Nov. 10 speech at the seminary, “What Does Conservative Judaism Have to Say to the 21st Century?” argued for changing the name of Conservative Judaism to “Covenantal Judaism,” to better encompass the view that rabbinic law is both binding and evolving.

Wolpe’s relative youth (he’s 47) and charisma have garnered him supporters. The search committee will make no comments, but other candidates are believed to include Rabbi Gordon Tucker, the rabbi of Temple Israel in White Plains, N.Y., known for his liberal positions, and Jack Wertheimer, the seminary’s provost, who, like the more conservative Schorsch, opposes ordaining gay rabbis.

Wolpe has served at Sinai Temple for eight years, and he’s known for political adroitness. He has, for example, never publicly stated his position on gays in the rabbinate, an issue of ongoing dispute. On the other hand, Wolpe stirred some controversy of his own in 2001 when he questioned whether the Exodus actually happened in a Passover sermon in front of his congregation.

 

Where India Meets Neil Simon


Michael Schlitt sees a definite connection between his type of Jewishness and his reasons for directing a Neil Simon play in India. Being drawn to India and all things Eastern is Jewish, he says. And so is asking a million questions about everything.

“Basically, my work is very Jewish, even if it’s not about something Jewish,” declares the 44-year-old actor, writer, director and founding member of the Actors’ Gang theater company, now based in Culver City. “I’ve always been a searcher, the wheels in my head always spinning. A rabbi once told me that’s as Jewish as it gets.”

Schlitt spent the past five years transforming a midlife crisis, a professionally disastrous trip to India, and his burning and failed ambition to make a movie about that disaster into a one-man show called, “Mike’s Incredible Indian Adventure.” A play about a film about a play, Schiltt’s work premieres Friday at EdgeFest, the annual Los Angeles festival dedicated to new and experimental theater. His play’s script reads like a page of Talmud, with the central event of the India adventure framed by commentary about the trip itself, the filming of the trip and the questions that inevitably arise from the failure “to create a masterpiece.”

“If someone told me to see some one-man show about a guy’s attempt to make a movie about his trip to India, I’d probably say ‘No thanks,'” says Schlitt over coffee at a Culver City Starbucks. “But on the other hand, there’s a real hook to the show. Neil Simon in India is bound to pique curiosity.”

Directed by Nancy Keystone, who’s also married to Schlitt, the play, at its core, addresses the painful realization that certain youthful dreams will never materialize, “that moment you understand you’re never going to make ‘Citizen Kane,'” Schlitt says. “Rarely is the journey what you think it’s going to be.”

In 1999, a producer of questionable repute invited Schlitt to direct a production in India of Simon’s “They’re Playing Our Song.” In the throes of a midlife crisis, Schlitt, who detests this play, ignored his intuition and accepted the offer to put together a production ASAP and tour it in three Indian cities. His rationale: He’d make a movie about whatever happened because that’s been his dream, even though he despises the movie business.

“All my life there had been this strange tension between working in the theater and working in film. I mean I live in Los Angeles, the film capital of the world,” he writes in the script.

“The whole prospect was so shady,” Schlitt recalls. “I thought I would just bring the cameras and I would have this great film, some kind of cross between ‘Waiting for Guffman’ and ‘Salaam Bombay.’ Instead, I wound up butting my head against the wall for years.”

Unable to complete his film, Schlitt finally listened to the advice of a filmmaker friend and returned to the theater.

“You could say it was the path of least resistance, but it’s where I needed to be,” he says. “I know the theater and that feels great.”

“What I love about Mike’s play is that it’s blazingly honest,” says Keystone, whose directing credits led her to be named as one of 2005’s “Faces to Watch” in the L.A. Times. “He exposes everything, including some unpleasant aspects of himself, and I have a lot of admiration for him.”

Describing himself as “a laid-back neurotic,” which he attributes to growing up first in New York and later in Berkeley, Schlitt says his Jewish education ended after nursery school and until recently, “never thought of myself as Jewish.” Raised by his mother, who once aspired to be an actress, Schlitt also credits his father, who wrote for the 1960s TV show, “The Monkees,” as a considerable artistic influence.

“He was the kind of Jewish father who got me reading Kierkegaard at age 4,” he says.

As a theater major at UCLA, Schlitt met the future famous actor Tim Robbins. And they and other fellow students formed the Actors’ Gang in 1981, a company that rose to prominence in the L.A. theater scene for its often provocative, avant-garde productions.

“We were this group of guys who all hung out together,” he says of the Gang’s origins. “There was a lot of testosterone but we all had this great passion for the theater.”

Standing in as leader of the Gang when Robbins left for a life in New York with actress Susan Sarandon, Schlitt worked on some 40 productions. This included directing the American premiere of George Tabori’s “Mein Kampf,” an adaptation of Gogol’s “The Inspector General” and performing his critically acclaimed solo show, “Drive, He Said.” In 2000, Schlitt essentially parted from the Gang, a move he’d rather not discuss in great detail. It did, however, have something to do with the midlife crisis that led to his current show. “For 16 years, I was the company’s resident Solomon,” he says. “It was time to step away.”

Though Schlitt says he hasn’t completely given up on finally making his movie, the play he wound up with instead “has definitely gotten the monkey off my back. I have fed myself artistically,” he says. “And if it’s between the artistic or the commercial path, I know which one I’d choose.”

“Mike’s Incredible Indian Adventure” runs Oct. 7-23, 9:15 p.m. at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. Tickets are $15 or $8 with EdgeFest Passport. For more information, call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.edgeoftheworld.org.

 

Rhodesli Keep the Faith in L.A.


As a student at Cal State Northridge more than 30 years ago, Aron Hasson wrote a paper about the Sephardic synagogues of his ancestral homeland, the Greek island of Rhodes. His professor was so taken with Hasson’s research that it ended up in a history journal.

Hasson paid his first visit to Rhodes in 1975, after a stint in an Israeli kibbutz. In 1997, he returned with his teenage children. Standing in the 400-year-old Kahal Shalom Synagogue, where three of his grandparents had once worshipped, he realized that the tourists who gaped at the Judeo-Spanish wall plaques had no knowledge of Rhodes’ rich and complex Jewish history.

Hasson’s first response was to create a pamphlet, “The Jewish Quarter of Rhodes,” for distribution in Kahal Shalom. Next he turned the synagogue’s women’s prayer rooms into the Rhodes Jewish Museum, in which old photographs and artifacts document the thriving Jewish community of pre-World War II Rhodes, once some 4,000 strong. Now, through his nonprofit Rhodes Jewish Historical Foundation, the Westwood attorney works toward the restoration of other old synagogues and holy sites that can be called “Rhodesli” (or “pertaining to Rhodes”). Hasson has also sponsored the visit of an 800-year-old Sefer Torah — which had long ago been carried from Spain to Rhodes before ending up in Buenos Aires — to Sephardic synagogues across the United States. Although not a religious man, he feels great pride when other Rhodeslis acknowledge his efforts with a heartfelt “Kol Ha Kavod.”

Hasson’s obsession with Rhodes mirrors that of an earlier generation of Angelenos. Cousins Art Benveniste and Shirlee Peha, now both in their 70s, remember growing up in South Los Angeles when the area was a magnet for Jews from Rhodes. Their immigrant parents and relatives, all of whom left the island before World War II to improve their economic prospects, spoke Ladino (also known as Judeo-Spanish) in the home. They helped found the Sephardic Hebrew Center, a Ladera Heights congregation that merged in 1993 with Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, as a way of preserving Rhodesli religious practices. They also instituted the custom of group visits to Catalina Island, whose location resembles that of Rhodes in relationship to Turkey.

“It was natural to them to take a boat across the water to an island nearby,” Hasson said of the immigrants,

By the time Benveniste and Peha reached adulthood, members of the close-knit community were starting to scatter. The annual Catalina trips, which currently attract about 40 of the 900 Rhodeslis now living in the L.A. area, could not fully satisfy their desire to meet and mingle. Since then, they’ve inaugurated regular luncheon gatherings at a local restaurant, and their yearly picnics bring together 200 people representing several generations: on the menu are all-American hot dogs and hamburgers, along with more exotic treats. Benveniste, who also participates in a Ladino-speaking havurah, has made numerous sentimental journeys to Rhodes. His last visit came in 2002, when a group of 20 Rhodeslis traveled from Los Angeles for the dedication of a Holocaust memorial in Rhodes’ Square of the Martyred Jews.

If Benveniste and Peha represent an older generation of Rhodeslis, Rachelle Hasson stands for the future.

At 21, Aron Hasson’s daughter feels increasingly connected to her roots. Having inherited from her Rhodesli grandparents a love for baking, she takes pride in the flaky bourekas, boyos and masas de vinou (Passover wine cookies) that have her family begging for more. In school she elected to study Spanish, because “in the back of my mind I always wanted to learn the language of my ancestors.”

Now, at UCLA majoring in world arts and cultures, she has just returned from a junior year in Spain. She chose the University of Granada partly because it offered courses touching on the Sephardic tradition. Since she’s come home, she delights in chatting with her grandparents in Ladino and said one day she will be the keeper of their memories of Rhodes: “I feel it’s my duty to continue the tradition and keep it alive.”

 

Face It: Judaism Is Not Hip


This Rosh Hashanah I am praying to escape the tyranny of hip. Hip is infiltrating Jewish life like a migrating plume of acrid smoke meandering its way through our collective body and soul.

I know hip well. I know its insidious nature. I have seen its effect and its damage. I was surrounded by hip. I was taken in by hip. I yearned for hip. I searched for hip. I saw people’s lives and identities consumed by hip. Twenty years of my professional life were spent in the palaces of hip.

I was an advertising agency copywriter and creative director. I was trained to be one of the manufacturers of hip. I would sit in offices and create hip, and then watch all those people lust after the creations. I reveled in hip.

And then one day, it all came crashing down.

There was no earth-shattering event. It was just a moment of realization.

In the ad biz, you win awards for creating hip images. That’s all hip is. An image. A fleeting image. You can’t really describe hip. You can’t put your finger on what it is. What’s hip today is not hip tomorrow. You often here people say, “She’s the hippest person around.”

What does that mean? Nothing.

Absolutely nothing. When I happily left the ad agency business, I used to tell people, “It’s the ultimate liberation. I no longer have to direct my energies into the shallow, ridiculous waters of hip.”

I found salvation from hip in the Jewish world. It was a world of content. Meaning. Real connections to people, the earth, the heavens. It gave me roots into the universe in a way hip could never do.

It was such a refreshing departure from where I had been that I was determined to bring my professional skills into the Jewish world — as well as into other nonprofit organizations.

For years, it allowed me to escape even hearing the word “hip.” Then, hip began to seep out into a few Jewish crevices and corners.

Today, hip is everywhere in the Jewish organizational world. Federations want to be hip. Hillels want to be hip. Israel wants to be hip. Chabad wants to be hip. Aish HaTorah wants to be hip. Synagogues want to be hip. Day schools want to be hip. Jewish publications want to be hip. And the Jewish foundation world is clamoring to create and fund hip.

It used to be that Hollywood was going to be the magic bullet that would save the Jewish organizational world. Now Hollywood has been replaced by hip. At least Hollywood was concrete. It meant a person. Spielberg. Streisand. Seinfeld. But can someone please define or concretize hip?

What is this all about? If Judaism’s image — its brand — has become tarnished, is hip going to save it? Is this the point to which we involved Jews have arrived?

Hip is powerful. As a marketer of Jewish life, I am watching our leaders grapple and bow down to its power.

I am not denying that we have a problem in Jewish life with the products we offer and the images we create. Most are lackluster at best.

But if we think that hip is the solution, we are demeaning the essence of Judaism. We are trivializing its soul. We are convoluting Judaism as much as “haimish” has convoluted it for the past few generations.

Haimish was always an excuse for not being professional. As long as the organization was haimish, it believed it had fulfilled its mission.

Much the same mistake is happening with hip. If the organization is hip, if the offering is perceived as hip, then today the organization believes it is fulfilling its mission.

Hip is not about meaning. Hip is not about depth. Hip is not about the soul. Hip is not about connection to human beings and the world.

Hip is about shallow. Hip is about self-absorption. Hip is about today, this minute. Hip is not about the past and it is certainly not about the future.

This Rosh Hashanah, Jewish organizations need to realize that Judaism is not hip. It’s never going to be hip. It is not supposed to be hip. Judaism has too much depth to ever be hip. Judaism must be perceived as the antidote to hip. The products Judaism offers must be the escape from shallow hip. They must be the refuge, the other road, the real thing.

If we believe that the Jewish masses are looking for hip, there are plenty of places they can fill that need. They can go to the Gap. Now, that’s hip.

During the coming High Holidays, grant us justice and kindness. V’hoshiyainu — save us … from the tyranny of hip.

Gary Wexler is the owner of Passion Marketing for Issues and Causes based in Los Angeles.

 

Young Jews Choose Offbeat Expression


A new study of Jews in their 20s and 30s reveals that though these young people are underaffiliated with traditional institutions, many have a strongly defined Jewish identity that they express in creative new ways outside synagogues, Jewish Community Centers and the federation system.

“There’s indirect evidence that young Jews care about being Jewish, but they are expressing it in ways that are not institutional,” Hebrew University sociology professor Steven Cohen said.

Cohen has been conducting research on Jewish identity and culture, commissioned by the UJA-Federation of New York, with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion research fellow Ari Kelman for the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.

The final reports won’t be released for several months, but the two men discussed preliminary findings from one of the studies, dealing specifically with younger Jews, with JTA.

“If younger Jews are not institutionally engaged, where are they engaged?” Cohen asked.

One place is with friends and family. Another is through cultural events such as Jewish concerts and film festivals, and one-third is through Jewish social service opportunities that are “oversubscribed, with many more young Jews willing to serve than there are places to accommodate them,” he said.

Above all, Cohen and Kelman said, the younger generation is expressing its Jewish identity through culture — a vibrant, socially inclusive, hybrid culture centered in New York and a handful of other cities that draws upon popular youth culture with a distinct Jewish aesthetic.

Noting the emergence of such things as klezmer-hip-hop bands, Heeb magazine, the “Hebrew Hammer” film and alternative holiday “happenings” in downtown clubs, Cohen and Kelman take the explosion of new Jewish culture as a given, and set out to determine what it means for Jewish continuity as well as the young Jews involved.

Is it just fun, they wondered, or does it have implications for American Jewry’s future?

“There are a lot of anecdotal impressions people have, but nothing has been done to date to show how prevalent these programs are or what impact they have on the participants,” said Jennifer Rosenberg, planning director for the Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal of the UJA-Federation of New York, explaining why the federation commissioned the research.

She expects the final reports to help the federation and other Jewish organizations with their strategic planning.

Kelman and Cohen conducted their research at 13 Jewish events in New York City between December 2004 and June 2005, ranging from “Slivovitz and Soul” — a party held at a Lower East Side bar featuring Yiddish rapping, hora dancing and a disk jockey who sampled hip-hop and cantorial music — to “Golem Gets Married,” a mock wedding at the Knitting Factory club starring a cross-dressing bride and groom, and a band that played klezmer music, along with midcentury American dance favorites.

Several themes emerged from the interviews, they say.

First, the events were inclusive and pluralistic, open to non-Jews as well as Jews. Jewish literacy may help one understand the goings-on, but it’s not needed to enjoy the events.

The events are held in clubs, parks and other mainstream venues to make access even less threatening or ethnically specific. That removes a lot of the subtle guilt or sense of obligation that may be associated with attending events at synagogues or other Jewish institutions.

“The organizers would like you to come because they think they have a good product and you’ll have fun, but no one’s taking attendance,” Kelman said. “There’s no sense that you ‘ought’ to be there, or that you’re a bad Jew if you don’t come. It’s not like synagogue in that way.”

Second, the events mix music, dance and other entertainment with Jewish rituals, such as megillah readings or Chanukah candlelightings. Entertainment and ritual are interwoven and both are presented as equally valid, adding to the nonjudgmental, inclusive atmosphere.

Third, organizers and participants use irony and irreverence to distance themselves from Jewish tradition and community — creating a safe zone to explore their relationship to tradition and community, the researchers say.

“One of the hallmarks of modern culture is self-referentialism and playing with stereotypes, like Heeb magazine, but there ought to be substance behind it,” Kelman said. “Having the ability to laugh [at Jewish tradition] opens up a critical space” for Jews in their 20s and 30s to try on different aspects of Judaism and see where they’re comfortable.

That creative play often contains a serious search for meaning, he says. He points to one event where participants started dancing a hora while laughing at themselves — but they continued dancing.

“Really, dancing a hora and playing at it look really similar,” Kelman noted. “So the irony opens up a window to engagement.”

So what’s the message to the organized Jewish world? Though the final reports aren’t yet in, Cohen and Kelman are able to suggest certain guidelines.

First, they say, it’s time to pay attention to what’s going on and stop griping about how young Jews aren’t joining synagogues or showing up at singles events.

“There is an opportunity for organized Jewry to be more active in engaging younger Jews,” Cohen said. “Provide more frequent opportunities for cultural life, support for young artists, more social service opportunities, give them more opportunities to travel to Israel — there’s a segment that wants to spend significant time in Israel but doesn’t know how.”

That means money.

“A judicious use of money to support the cultural and social entrepreneurs” putting on these events would help them focus on their creative endeavors instead of “burning out doing fundraising and administrative work,” he said.

It’s wrong to think the young Jews involved in such events are alienated from Jewish communal life, Kelman said.

“There’s this myth of the ‘great unaffiliated masses,’ but those people are much less likely to come to these events,” he said.

Many of the participants Kelman interviewed had gone to Jewish summer camps and Israel programs, and still go to synagogue on the High Holidays.

“These people are not rejecting synagogue; some just haven’t found one where they feel comfortable,” he suggested. “Even those who told me, ‘I’m not involved,’ as we talked they said, ‘It’s important for me to marry Jewish.’ ”

But the researchers say this cultural renaissance is important on its own terms, and shouldn’t be viewed merely as a way to funnel young Jews into establishment institutions.

“If our research makes one impact, I hope it’s this,” Kelman said: “This is not a gateway drug. It’s not intended as, ‘Come to this, and now go to synagogue or now give money to federation.'”

 

525,600 Minutes


I was sitting in the AMC theater in Woodland Hills, a captive of a dull series of pre-movie advertisements, when I started to think about my next column. I considered writing about fasting (argue that a tall Starbucks latte might be an acceptable fasting exception, compared to a venti latte which is clearly a fasting faux pas); sitting with your kids in the adult service (discuss pros and cons of having children with shpilkes join you in the main sanctuary); and High Holiday attire (assert that Macy’s should have a High Holiday clothing department comprised of conservative yet fashionable clothes that come in textures appropriate for 100 F temperatures, but in fabrics that say “fall”).

These thoughts were interrupted by a preview for the movie version of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, “Rent.” A bunch of hip, actors and actresses with soaring voices and dazzling smiles appeared on the screen singing the opening lines to “Seasons of Love”: “525,600 minutes; 525,000 moments so dear; 525,600 minutes; how do you measure, measure a year?”

I mentally deleted my other potential topics and began thinking how as Americans and Jews we take stock of those 525,600 minutes in two very different ways. As Americans, we anticipate the upcoming 525,600 minutes with unbridled optimism, making big, bold resolutions. As Jews, we examine the year that has just passed, searching those 525,600 minutes for wrongs that we may have caused, or mistakes that could have been avoided.

But the differences in the Jewish approach and the secular approach to marking a new year aren’t just philosophical.

On New Year’s Eve 2005, we will make a slew of resolutions that will be kept for a week or two, dress in party clothes that rarely see the light of day, drink like Prohibition might make a comeback and eat like the calories are on hiatus. The most that many of us will contemplate on New Year’s Day, the first day of 2006, are the instructions on the child-proof cap guarding the Tylenol.

For Rosh Hashanah, we will dress conservatively, visit our synagogues in huge numbers, and eat our meals at home. It is a time for introspection, not partying.

What is the best way to move toward a new year? The Jewish method that calls for an intense review of the past year, or the American approach of entering each new year with a sort of reckless optimism oblivious to what has come before? It seems that the answer depends on whether or not one is a parent.

If you have children, you need to approach each and every new year with one eye on the past and the other eye on the future. To look only backward ignores the reality that our children are constantly changing: the baby that was just on our lap is now a toddler painting pictures; the kindergartener who raided our lipstick to play dress up is now a middle-school kid asking for makeup of her own. The child who screamed at us to stay when we dropped them off at preschool now screams at us to leave them alone when their friends are around.

But even though our children are constantly moving forward toward adulthood and a life of their own, we still must look back and consider our past parenting errors, and figure out how to fix them. The punishment for failing to look at our past parenting mistakes is to make them again; the punishment for failing to make plans for our parenting future is to parent a child that no longer exists. We must face each year with the optimism of New Year’s Eve, and the introspection of Rosh Hashanah.

During the Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah and end with Yom Kippur, I will consider how I spent last year’s 525,600 parenting minutes. Was I too lenient, or too strict? Did I try to shape my child into my image, or was I respectful of my child’s attempts, however shaky, to design her own identity? Did my child spend more time with me, or with his GameBoy? Did I cheer as loud when he did a random act of kindness as when he scored the game-winning point in basketball?

But I will also consider the gift of a new 525,600 minutes, minutes that are fresh and untouched. How will I respond when my daughter begs for a cellphone, asks for a razor to shave her legs or is dumped by a friend? How many minutes a day should she be allowed to IM? What will I do when she finally talks back? How will I make time every day to actively listen to my son and daughter when so many other things seem to get in the way?

The song from “Rent” continues with this verse: “525,600 minutes; 525,600 journeys to plan.”

This year, lets plan our parenting journeys with the exuberance and optimism with which we approach the American New Year, but with the thoughtfulness with which we approach the Jewish New Year. Let’s keep one eye on our parenting past, and the other eye focused on our parenting future so that we may experience 525,600 minutes of Awe.

L’Shanah Tovah.

Wendy Jaffe can be reached at wjaffewrite@aol.com.

A Historic Event


It was a remarkable sight: the president of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan sitting on a New York dais alongside leaders of the American Jewish community and Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations — while eating a kosher dinner beneath a blue-and-white banner reading: “Council for World Jewry.”

It was all the more notable, considering the significant personal risk the appearance must have entailed for Pervez Musharraf, who has been the subject of several recent assassination attempts at the hands of Muslim extremists who are violently anti-Israel and anti-America.

There was near-unanimous agreement among Jews and Pakistanis at Saturday night’s event that Musharraf’s mere presence before an audience of Jewish officials represented a potentially historic step in Muslim-Jewish relations. For his landmark gesture, the Pakistani general received a series of standing ovations.

“I would never have imagined that a Muslim, a president of Pakistan and, more than that, a man in uniform would ever get such a warm reception from the Jewish community,” Musharraf said as he ascended the platform to excited applause.

Beyond the novelty of the appearance, however, Musharraf’s half-hour speech met with disappointment from some Jewish leaders who found his remarks rich in hyperbole but poor in specific proposals.

“If we waited 100 years [to hold this meeting] it would have been even more historic, but what is it we have achieved?” asked Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “In his world, in his culture, in his environment, this is a major step. From our perspective, it isn’t.”

Some lamented that Musharraf said little beyond his previous comments about establishing relations with Israel, which he again conditioned on future actions by Israel, culminating in the establishment of a Palestinian state. Musharraf’s address followed closely his brief encounter last week with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the sidelines of the United Nations World Summit and a recent meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries, which do not have full diplomatic ties.

Still, said Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress — whose Council for World Jewry sponsored the event — given Musharraf’s domestic political constraints, Jews should not underestimate what he was able to offer.

“It is not helpful for us to be critical of a Muslim leader who, given his political pressures, comes to speak to us and doesn’t give us everything we want at that moment in time,” Rosen said. “We couldn’t have expected that he would have announced last night that he would immediately begin normalizing relations with Israel. It wasn’t a real expectation.”

Challenged by Foxman to show more leadership by moving to formalize Israeli-Pakistani relations right away, Musharraf responded that “57 years of hatred, bitterness, animosity cannot be undone so fast.”

“It is my sincere judgment that this is not the time to do it,” he said. “We need to be very patient. I need some more reasons and rationale. I need some more support” to be able to convince the Pakistani people to go along with the move.

Israel’s foreign minister, for his part, said he looked favorably on the meeting as a step in what he acknowledged could be a “long process” toward full ties.

“The time has come, I believe, to have full diplomatic relations with all of these” moderate Muslim countries, Silvan Shalom told Jewish journalists this week. “I believe that many of them are close. They’re always looking for the appropriate time.”

Shalom did not attend the Musharraf event.

Musharraf spoke about religious similarities between Muslims and Jews and characterized recent hostility between the two groups as an aberration against a background of historical coexistence. He further earned plaudits for insisting that terrorism “cannot be condoned for any cause.”

While he referred to “Schindler’s List” and praised Sharon for the recent Gaza Strip withdrawal, Musharraf upset many in the audience by insisting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a root cause of world terrorism, and that Pakistan won’t forge diplomatic ties with Israel until the Palestinians have a state — essentially giving the Palestinians a veto over the entire process, several Jewish leaders noted afterward.

“Palestine has been at the heart of troubles in the Middle East,” Musharraf said. “I have no doubt whatsoever that any attempt to shy away or ignore the root causes of terrorism is shutting one’s eyes to reality and is a sure recipe for failure.”

That sentiment struck a raw nerve among many Jews in the audience, who lamented that Muslim nations for too long have tried to lay the blame for many of the world’s ills on Israel.

“The root cause of terrorism is the same as the root cause of Nazism: simply, the hatred of Jews through teaching hatred of Jews,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.

Musharraf also called on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and respect other faiths’ attachment to Jerusalem. He did not express any corresponding demands on the Palestinian side.

“Israel must come to terms with geopolitical reality and let justice prevail for the Palestinians,” Musharraf said. “They want their own independent state, and they must get it.”

Since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistan has had something of an image problem in the West. Daniel Pearl, a Jewish reporter for The Wall Street Journal, was kidnapped and decapitated by terrorists in Pakistan; Osama bin Laden is thought to be in hiding somewhere along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border; a Pakistani nuclear scientist was discovered to have supplied nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea, and Pakistan’s extensive network of religious schools has been accused of spreading a radically violent and anti-Western version of Islam.

Many in the audience saw Musharraf’s decision to address a Jewish audience as a public relations move, rather than the reflection of a serious desire for detente. Like many in the Muslim world, Musharraf views the American Jewish community as key to securing political influence along the Beltway, some said.

Musharraf didn’t do much to dispel this impression.

“I feel privileged to be speaking to so many members of what is probably the most distinguished and influential community in the United States,” he said.

But Mossadaq Chughtai, director of the Pakistani American Liaison Center, which runs the Congressional Pakistan Caucus, dismissed this line of thinking.

“We have good standing with Congress” and the White House, he said, noting that President Bush has hosted Musharraf at Camp David. “Not as good as AIPAC, but we’re making strides,” Chughtai said, referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Still, many considered the symbolism of the event key. Unlike Palestinian leaders, who often have made conciliatory statements to foreign leaders in English, while urging their constituents to war in Arabic, Musharraf spoke before a full contingent of Pakistani media beaming his words back home, where they are likely to be controversial.

For Dr. Abdul Rehman, an officer of the MMSI mosque in Staten Island, N.Y., Musharraf’s appearance gives the “green light” to Muslims to work toward cooperation and dialogue with Jews.

Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s chief rabbis, thought Musharraf was “very sincere” and praised him for not making grand promises that he would not be able to fulfill.

“There’s no question he will have a hard time explaining to his people what he’s doing and trying to bring them along,” Lazar said. “On the other hand, he didn’t give any kind of time frame” for normalizing ties with Israel.

At the least, the event led to immediate interreligious dialogue in the hallways: Lazar was seen chatting and posing for photos with Imam Ghulam Rasul of the MMSI mosque and invited mosque leaders to visit him if they’re in Moscow.

Pakistani television reporters pulled Israelis and American Jews aside for interviews to be broadcast in Pakistan.

“I think the event was very significant,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “Something that hopefully can be built upon.”

Michael Arnold contributed to this report.

Jewish Groups Lose on Three Judges


The Senate didn’t go nuclear this week, which was good news for those worried that a proposed rule changing barring filibusters on judicial nominations could produce congressional chaos. But the news wasn’t as good for the handful of Jewish groups that have been fighting against some of President George W. Bush’s conservative judicial nominees.

On May 23, 14 moderate Democrats and Republicans signed an agreement to invoke cloture, thereby ending filibusters, on three controversial Bush nominees: Janice Rogers Brown, William Pryor and Priscilla Owen.

In return, the 14 swing voters — seven from each party — agreed that “nominees should only be filibustered under extraordinary circumstances, and each signatory must use his or her own discretion and judgment in determining whether such circumstances exist.”

And in light of that commitment, the group pledged to “oppose the rules changes in the 109th Congress” threatened by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

What that means is that a handful of controversial nominees are likely to be approved quickly, but also that the so-called “nuclear option” of changing the Senate rules on the filibuster is being abandoned, at least for now, because there won’t be enough Republicans to support it.

Democrats and liberal Jewish groups hope this also means President Bush will start making more moderate appointments; groups on the religious right were incensed, charging Frist with a cave-in.

“Compromises are by their nature ugly creatures,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), which has opposed several nominees because of their records on civil rights, women’s rights and abortion rights. “But there’s one very big positive: It means the nuclear option is off the table. That is very important.”

But he conceded this means several nominees the RAC has opposed are likely to be confirmed.

“I don’t know how I could look at anything that paves the way for Owen, Brown and Pryor to get lifetime appointments as a victory,” he said.

The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), which led the fight against anti-abortion rights judges, expressed similarly mixed feelings.

“Clearly we are extremely disappointed that this compromise could pave the way for the confirmation of three particularly egregious nominees,” NCJW President Phyllis Snyder said in a statement. “However, we are gratified by the successful effort made by our grass roots who, united with like-minded Americans across the country, spoke out to preserve our system of checks and balances.”

NCJW Washington Director Sammie Moshenberg said that while the Democrats have abandoned the filibuster option regarding some specific judges, the agreement may have changed the politics of the debate over future judicial nominations.

“Before, there were maybe two Republicans moderate enough to go after on judicial nominations,” she said. “Now we have seven Republicans who have agreed to work in a bipartisan fashion. So we have at least the potential for approaching these lawmakers and working with them.”

 

Will She Marry Him?


In my last Singles column, “Change of Heart,” I left off with one important question for my girlfriend, Carrie: “Will you marry me?”

Did she say yes?

Well, let me back up a bit.

A few days before the column came out, I drove over to Carrie’s parents to ask for their blessing. Carol and Roy were watching “24” when I got there, so I waited until the commercial break — odd priorities, but I suppose it’s more riveting watching Kiefer Sutherland trying to stop the explosion of a nuclear warhead than watching me trying to stop the nervous trembling in my right leg.

Roy stood. Carol took a seat. I dove right in.

“You guys know I love Carrie very much, and I’m going to ask her to marry me. I’d like to get your blessing.”

They both seemed to gasp slightly, but then Carol gave me a hug and began repeating the phrase, “Oh my God!” Roy stiffened his body and seemed to freeze slightly. He didn’t give me a hug. Luckily, I did see some blinking. Carol teared up a little, and I answered all her rapid-fire questions about the ring, and how I was going to propose.

And then suddenly, she admonished me for coming in the middle of her favorite TV show: “You better save it on your TIVO for me.”

Roy relaxed a little, “It’s too bad you couldn’t come on a Friday, when there’s nothing on TV.”

I laughed, although I’m not sure he was joking. Carol hugged me again, and they quickly ran back to catch the last 10 minutes of their show.

The next day, Roy called me to meet him for lunch. I got a little nervous as I drove over to meet him. I get along well with Roy, but wondered what kind of warnings would he have for me before I married his daughter. Although he’s a peaceful man, I imagined him chasing me through the house, swinging his belt if ever I hurt his baby girl.

It turned out he just wanted me to know that he was happy for us. “I don’t show a lot of emotion,” he confessed. “Do you believe how Carol was acting?” he asked me, referring to her “overemotional” display of teary eyes and a hug. I nodded knowingly. I mean, this is my future father-in law. As we left, I thanked him for lunch. Then, just before getting into my car, I grabbed the guy and gave him a big, fat hug.

The morning that the column came out, I drove over to The Jewish Journal office to get a fresh copy of the newspaper. Jumping back into my car, with a new parking ticket flapping on my windshield (so maybe I don’t always read the signs), I drove over to the Farmers Market to pick up some food.

I really wanted to take Carrie on a picnic, but it was still drizzling outside. I stayed optimistic and went to Loteria, our favorite Mexican place to get two of their finest burritos (considering the cost of the ring, I contemplated buying one burrito and splitting it in half).

I picked up Carrie from work and, amazingly, as she walked out the door, the rain suddenly stopped. I quietly thanked God. We drove to a nearby park and spread out the picnic.

“Oh, before you eat, guess what?” I said nonchalantly as we sat down. “I wrote another column in The Jewish Journal,” and gave it to her. Of course, given my last columns, she didn’t know what was coming — especially with this one titled, “Change of Heart.”

She took one look at the title and said, “Uh oh.” I hovered nervously behind her, waiting to pop out the ring. As she read, she occasionally looked up to laugh or nod her approval. And then I saw her body stiffen as she got to the last line. She froze, just like her dad.

“Oh my God,” she gasped, just like her mother.

I grabbed the ring, got on one knee and asked, “Will you marry me?” She cried and answered, “Yes.”

We kissed. Two pot smokers nearby clapped. I waved back to them.

Then Carrie went through a rainbow of emotions, the likes of which I have never seen. She laughed, she argued, she protested, she cried, she smiled, she didn’t know what to do with herself.

Suddenly she stammered, “Ar … re you sure about this? We’ve been arguing lately.”

We had been arguing, but mostly because I was sneaking around trying to deal with the engagement preparations. We’ve never really had secrets before, and the months I was planning all of this were hard for me. It’s strange to not be able to discuss one of the biggest decisions of your life with the woman you love. But Carrie had always wanted to be surprised.

Carrie started to cry. “I love you so much. Of course I want to marry you,” she said.

“Then why are you crying?”

“I guess I don’t really like surprises,” she said. Speaking of which — she hadn’t even looked at the ring on her finger.

“Do you like it?” I asked.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “Is this real or is this cubic zirconia?”

Was she kidding me? “Cubic zirconia? I sure wish I had the option….”

Seth Menachem is an actor and writer who lives in Los Angeles.

People of the Blog


 

Here’s a theory of social change I’d like to float: Initial attempts by the established order to respond to sweeping changes are either murderous or ridiculous.

The first part is obvious: the French Revolution, Kent State, Arab dictatorships.

As for the second, Exhibit No. 1 would be Dick Cavett’s sideburns. Around the early ’70s, when the ’60s revolution was actually happening, I kept noticing how members of the media establishment — Dick Cavett, John Chancellor — all tried to fit in by letting their sideburns grow. Anchormen with sideburns, aging actors with sideburns, middle-aged rabbis with sideburns — everyone I once respected was starting to look like Chester A. Arthur. All because they thought that’s where society was going and they didn’t want to be left out.

Exhibit No. 2 is Arianna Huffington. This week she unveiled her newest venture, The Huffington Post, an online compendium of articles and musings. Following incarnations as biographer, Republican hostess, gubernatorial candidate and right-wing, then left-leaning iconoclastic pundit (not quite in that order), Arianna 6.0 is now the master of her very own digital domain. She has seen the future and is trying to leap from the choo-choo of a weekly print column to the Maglev of daily Internet interactivity.

Being the shape-shifting multilinguist that she is, Huffington’s own posts are close doppelgangers of what the technically hip these days call blogging, that is Web logs or diaries that record the author’s thoughts, feelings and experiences in something like real time while also posting links to online articles or musing by other bloggers.

But many of those Huffington has invited on are more like Exhibit No. 3: actors who respond to the written word like us non-actors would to a close-up; real writers like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. who are clearly uncomfortable publishing something short of a 10th draft, and even Walter Cronkite, who wrote something brief and forgettable, maybe about sideburns.

The only memorable entries out of several dozens were by Larry David and Bill Maher — because no matter what the venue, funny is funny.

One hallmark of the blogosphere is that, like talk radio, it tends to cater to the converted. Instead of people of different political persuasions sharing a common forum, every group gets to fine-tune news and essays to its liking. So Huffington’s Post is the circled wagons of successful, well-off liberals — let the word go forth from Brentwood.

Nothing wrong with that, I just wonder where and how all these online opposing camps will intersect.

Once in a while, a right-wing freerepublic.com blogger might get into a long, predictable e-mail shouting match with a Huffington poster, but that’s not the same as sharing a common medium or forging social progress through dialogue.

As goes the big, wide world, so goes the Jewish one.

Earlier this month, Sh’ma magazine organized an e-mail exchange between a blogger and me on the future of Jewish journalism in the internet age. The magazine will publish an edited version of our on-line conversation in its upcoming issue.

The blogger, Dan Sieradski of www.jewschool.com, informed me that my days in the old media were numbered.

“You guys are finished,” he wrote. I think I took the heat out of his flaming when I wrote back that I agreed.

There are at least 1 million blogs on the internet now. Anybody with a computer, a modem and a thought in his head can start one. In many instances, it seems, that thought is: I think I’ll start a blog.

There are hundreds of Jewish-oriented blogs. One tracks the daily life of an Orthodox woman. New ones detail the struggles of settlers in Gaza, facing the Israeli withdrawal. There are blogs from gay Jews, frum Jews, gay frum Jews, pro-Israel Jews and anti-Zionist Jews. There’s an interesting blog called Jewish Whistle Blower, which purports to detail the shady goings on of the Jewish establishment. But someone out there felt that particular blog wasn’t forthcoming enough, so this week up popped Jewish Whistle Blower2, because, that site says, “Open debate is simply too difficult for JWB.”

Amid all this new media, I’m supposed to be the Jewish Bruce Willis, still reporting for work without realizing I’ve already died.

Of course, no one, not even JWBs 1 or 2, know what the Internet future holds. As high-capacity streaming becomes more common, and live video replaces the ancient act of typing, blogging itself will likely be replaced by even more immediate forms of communication. Today’s bloggers might just be the IBM Selectrics of their time.

Along the way to this future, there’s no question digital information is replacing print. Newspaper readership is plummeting, especially among younger adults. And although you would think the change would take place more slowly in traditional communities, that doesn’t seem to be the case. As one Orthodox rabbi told me this week, he hardly looks at anything in print anymore. I assume the exception is a certain parchment scroll.

This is as it should be. If Moses had access to OS X and an Apple AirPort, he wouldn’t have risked a hernia schlepping stone tablets down a mountain. Here we are, the People of the Blog.

Although new technology replaces old, there’s no cause for hysteria. Journalists, after all, aren’t in the printing business, we’re in the information-distribution business. The Internet doesn’t change the essential news-gathering and news-disseminating function of journalism.

But it does change plenty else.

It is simplistic to speak of blogs in general, as some are brilliant, some, like Huffington’s, predictable, and some awful. But the good Jewish ones inject Jewish life with more immediacy, more information. They allow any and all Jews to contribute to the larger community, to voice opinions and claim a stake in the Jewish debates. Many of them are more entertaining than most of the old Jewish media.

But the ease and anonymity of an Internet post, the heat of the online battle, can induce bloggers to slip their ethical moorings. The temptation to peddle gossip, to spread reputation-destroying questions before they can be fully investigated, to run with half-baked information or coarse material just for the shock value, is as great or greater in the blogosphere as it is in, well, the atmosphere. But blogging makes it easier and cheaper.

The world has changed, yes. But our traditions — as journalists and Jews — are here to remind us that the rules haven’t.

 

New Study Breaks Down 2004 Election


 

Newly compiled information suggests that a few more Jews voted for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry last November than originally reported, and highlights several areas where Republicans are gaining momentum within the Jewish community.

The analysis by the Solomon Project, a think tank associated with the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), shows that the Massachusetts senator received 77 percent of the Jewish vote, to President Bush’s 22 percent. That’s a slight change from the 75 percent Kerry was said to have received in polls released soon after the vote.

The new information, released Tuesday, is based on a broader sample of exit polls that incorporates both the national poll released in November and a state-by-state poll that was not widely released.

The wider survey finds that Bush fared particularly well with Jewish men, garnering 28 percent of their votes, compared to 16 percent of Jewish women. In particular, he captured 35 percent of Jewish men younger than 30.

The new report could put to rest lingering questions about the extent of gains Bush made within the Jewish community. Many Republicans expected Bush would do well among Jews — especially in such targeted key states as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania — because of support for his Middle East policy.

In the end, Bush won more than the 19 percent of the vote he received in the 2000 election against then-Vice President Al Gore and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), the first Jew on a major party national ticket.

“There’s been some small movement in the Jewish community toward the Republicans, but nothing really dramatic,” said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst.

Rothenberg said he found the report’s methodology “kosher,” but Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he is wary of exit poll analysis because the results on Election Day seemed to inflate Democratic strength.

“I think any credible person would look at this as somewhat revisionist history,” Brooks said. “I don’t think this passes the credibility threshold in terms of statistical accuracy.”

The report does confirm the potential for greater movement of Jewish votes to the GOP in the future.

Republicans have been targeting young Jewish voters and the Orthodox, who have become more politically active in recent years, and are considered more likely to vote for the GOP because of their more conservative positions on social issues.

The analysis uses a wide set of polling data on Jews taken in the weeks and months before the election to understand voting trends within subgroups of Jews.

While no analysis of Jewish votes has had enough Orthodox participants to garner a reliable result, Tuesday’s report suggests that Bush may have received half or more of their votes.

Three independent polls had Bush winning at least half of the Orthodox vote, but each had a sample size of only between 49 and 70 people.

A report by the American Jewish Committee last summer, taken of Russian Jews, suggested Bush may have received more than half of their support as well.

A poll by the Mellman Group, which did surveys for the Kerry campaign, found that 47 percent of Jews who attend synagogue every week supported Bush, compared to 48 percent for Kerry. The Democrat did substantially better among Jews who attended synagogue once a month or less.

“We know a lot more about different types of Jewish voters than we did a few days ago,” said Ira Forman, research director of the Solomon Project and the NJDC’s executive director.

Forman said the information highlighted for him that Democratic efforts to court Orthodox and Russian voters were inadequate.

The core of Democratic support within the Jewish community remains women, the analysis found. Kerry received 82 percent of the vote among Jewish women. That Democratic trend ran across the generations, as 90 percent of women older than 60 voted for Kerry and 88 percent of Jewish women younger than 30 backed him.

Despite the support Bush got for his Israel policies, Rothenberg said it’s hard to move ethnic groups from one party to another.

“It’s hard to change people’s inclinations and pre-existing voter preference,” he said. “If they’ve chosen one way for 20 or 30 years, they tend to do it again.”

But, he said, the Jewish vote will remain important if the election hinges on certain states where disproportionately large numbers of Jews live.

“It’s all about what states people are in and how many people you need to move,” Rothenberg said.

 

Will Successor Tread Pope’s Jewish Path?


 

As the College of Cardinals prepared to begin secret deliberations next week to choose a successor, the question remained to what extent John Paul’s exceptionally proactive policy regarding Jews would endure.

“It seems unlikely that the next pope will have the same interest in the church’s relations with the Jews, and the same sense of responsibility in combating Christian anti-Semitism,” said professor David Kertzer of Brown University, an expert on papal relations with the Jews. “John Paul II had an extraordinary biography for a high church official in his early relations with Jews, and of course, lived through an extraordinary moment in history,” he told JTA from Rome.

Born Karol Wojtyla in the small Polish town of Wadowice, John Paul II, who died April 2 at 84, had Jewish friends and neighbors. During his life, he was an eyewitness to both the Holocaust and totalitarian communism. As a bishop, he took part in the Second Vatican Council, which modernized aspects of church practice and doctrine. In 1965, the council issued the Nostra Aetate declaration that condemned anti-Semitism and called for “mutual understanding and respect” between Catholics and Jews.

Elected pope in October 1978, John Paul IImade bettering Jewish-Catholic relations a cornerstone of his papacy. He repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism, commemorated the Holocaust and met with Jewish leaders and laymen. He also oversaw the establishment of diplomatic relations with the State of Israel.

Against this background, observers considered John Paul II’s decision to mention Toaff in his will to be highly significant, seeing it as an indication to his successor not to turn back from his path. Toaff and John Paul II’s longtime secretary were the only living people mentioned in the will.

“It is a significant and profound gesture for Jews,” the retired Toaff told the Rome daily La Repubblica. “But I think it is also an indication to the Catholic world.”

John Paul, he said, “wanted to indicate a road aimed at further destroying all the obstacles that have divided Jews and Christians through the centuries.”

He said he hoped the next pope would uphold John Paul II’s legacy and “do even better.” However, he added, “it is unlikely that there will be someone else like him. Even if we are optimistic, I see many difficulties in finding a successor of his stature.”

Much of John Paul’s teachings about the Jews have been promulgated as church doctrine, and thus, technically are official church policy. But even before John Paul II died, there were indications that his policies had not been accepted unanimously among church leaders — or that they had trickled down to the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics.

“The most important challenge for Catholic-Jewish relations is to take the historic changes in church teaching concerning Jews, Judaism and Israel from the Olympic heights down to the grass roots,” Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, told JTA some time before John Paul II died.

“In many parts of the world there are even bishops who are ignorant of the teachings on this subject, let alone the rank and file,” Rosen said. “Ignorance of this and the concomitant residual anti-Jewish attitudes still prevail in many parts of the Catholic world, and there is still an enormous job to do in this regard.”

Not only that, he said, but “the younger generation of bishops who have not been through the period of the Shoah and were not part of the official transformation of Vatican II do not necessarily appreciate the historical, as well as theological imperatives, involved.”

Brown University’s Kertzer said he already had noted “backsliding in the last few years, when the pope had become infirm and no longer really in control. There has clearly been an important reactionary movement within the church that resents much of the legacy of the Second Vatican Council, and with it the sense that the church has a historic problem with anti-Semitism.”

At a January conference in Washington, for example, Cardinal Avery Dulles, a major Catholic theologian, affirmed the traditional belief that Christians will want “all men and women, Jewish and gentile” to “benefit from Christ’s teaching” and convert to Christianity.

Kertzer also said, “Even John Paul II was unwilling to criticize any of his papal predecessors, nor directly rebuke past versions of canon law. He was thus unwilling to fully come to terms with the church’s institutional responsibility for anti-Semitism in the past. There is little likelihood at the moment that this history will be seriously revisited by John Paul II’s successor.”

Nonetheless, Jewish leaders hope his legacy will prevail.

Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue, who attended the pope’s funeral, said the unprecedented gathering of world leaders, religious representatives and faithful “really showed the capacity and the potential of a righteous person to be a magnet for pulling the world together.”

Whoever was present at the funeral, he said, “would just have to, in his memory, embrace a legacy of coexistence, a legacy of reconciliation.”

Observers noted that in addition to mentioning Toaff in his will, John Paul IIalso highlighted the Second Vatican Council in his testament. He called it a “great gift” to which the entire church and clergy was indebted, and a “great patrimony” he wished to entrust to future generations of Catholics.

“I hope that there is neither a slowing nor an inversion of the road that was opened by the Second Vatican Council and consolidated by John Paul II in the course of his pontificate,” said Tullia Zevi, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. “It was a pontificate characterized by a dialogue relationship with the Jewish world that was very satisfactory, and I hope that in the future, this relationship could extend also to the other great monotheistic religions, Islam, and to the secular world.”

JTA Staff Writer Rachel Pomerance contributed to this story.

 

A fashion ‘do’


 

Somehow within the creaking behemoth of the California garment industry, facing fierce competition from across the Pacific Rim, a Montreal-born, Jewish businessman with a handlebar mustache is expecting $150 million in 2004 sales.

Dov Charney, founder of American Apparel, is successfully selling a back-to-basics, trendy, sexy and socially conscious corporate image. His stores, now in many major U.S. cities, are modern and sleek.

The clothes are all made in Los Angeles, there are no labels on them and they’re touted as “sweatshop free.” In the fashion business, that’s a stark contrast to the stereotypical logo-heavy giant corporations paying 10 cents-per-hour to workers across the Pacific.

Trends in apparel production are extremely important. Fashion is a $24.3 billion industry in California, and some of its larger corporations are intimately linked to Jewish philanthropic causes. Jewish involvement in the business nationwide stretches back 100 years, when European immigrants struggled to lift their families into the middle class.

“Overall, the fashion industry donates approximately $2 million to The Jewish Federation each year,” said Kelly Baxter Menachemson, director of the Fashion Industries Division of The Federation. Menachemson said that there are fewer of these donors than there once were, but they are each very committed and generous.

Today, a combination of free trade, higher workplace standards and anti-sweatshop lawsuits are combining to reshape the way the apparel business is run, and Los Angeles’ huge garment industry is at the flashpoint.

On Jan. 1, 2005, the 1974 Multi-Fiber Arrangement (MFA) will expire. Quotas governing the amount of apparel legally imported into the United States from any single country will be lifted in accordance with a World Trade Organization agreement. That means any U.S. company with the desire to move its production to a foreign country will be able to do so.

The biggest worry is that China, with its combination of super-low-wage workers and a good shipping infrastructure, will increase its dominance over the world textile market, squeezing out more expensive or less competitive labor markets.

Cristina Vazquez, regional manager for the UNITE union, which represents garment workers, says the good apparel industry jobs are already gone. She blames an increasing atmosphere of free trade, starting in the 1970s and culminating in the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and now the MFA expiration.

For Vazquez, the MFA was a last line of defense. “A lot of contractors are going to close, because it’s going to be hard for them to compete,” Vazquez said, adding that many garment workers are looking for ways to get out of the industry.

The numbers bear that out. According to the archives of the California Employment Development Department, there were 111,900 apparel workers in 1997 in Los Angeles County. In 2002 there were 89,300.

Despite this fashion maelstrom, American Apparel is growing rapidly under a new model. It defines a niche buyer, rather than bombarding the entire market with a well-known brand name at rock-bottom prices, where the Chinese advantage is strongest.

“Everybody’s frightened of the quotas coming down, but I really don’t think it’s going to affect our guys at all,” said Frances Harder, executive director of Fashion Business Inc. (FBI).

The nonprofit FBI helps creative young designers develop their start-up businesses.

“They’re not going to try to compete with who’s manufacturing in China,” she pointed out.

Harder says start-up fashion designers’ clothes are trendy, niche specific and subject to quick changes stylistically. Having a local production base is crucial to that approach.

American Apparel markets simple, sleek lines with solid colors; high quality fabrics, and a tight fit to young, urban buyers. Other companies following Charney’s example could have different niches, so long as they maintain the idea of intimately knowing what their target market wants.

Charney’s colorful history, gossiped about in publications worldwide, seems to have led him to this business revelation. He was born in Montreal in 1969 and was already making deals and hustling merchandise in his teens. At Tufts University near Boston, he sold T-shirts out of his dorm.

Charney came to Los Angeles in 1997 with plenty of deal-making street smarts — most importantly, how to sell a product and how treating workers well makes for an efficient team. He’s likened his shop in Los Angeles to a kibbutz.

Harder recognizes Charney’s business as a great example for her startups. “I think what American Apparel does is serve the need,” she said. “He does everything to serve either the people who buy from him or the people who work for him.”

And when it comes to the workers, Charney’s no-sweatshop policy proves that manufacturers in the United States don’t need to try to match wages with countries like China and Indonesia. American Apparel manages to earn impressive profits while paying workers a living wage of $13 per hour on average.

Charney said staying local is not an anomaly, noting the costs of going offshore — including transportation, supervision and quality-control tasks — are all going up. A quick look at the backlog at the Port of Los Angeles supports that hypothesis.

But even if American Apparel’s clothes do end up costing a few dollars more than foreign-made brands, its hip marketing campaign (think saturated-color photos of angsty, attractive models) and its quality products have made up for it.

“I think you can remove duty and taxes and have a complete environment of free trade, and there’s still going to be an apparel business that’s here,” Charney said. “[The MFA issue] is a lot of hype. The main thing is to get behind the businesses that are doing well here and help them to expand.”

“If somebody wants something that’s new and hot, they’re going to spend the money on it,” Harder agreed. That keeps the local manufacturers in business, MFA or no MFA.

And Harder said Los Angeles is at the center of global fashion trends right now.

“I just got back from Europe,” she said, “and it’s the first time I’ve never bought anything over there.”

But according to Charney, the banks and the city make it very difficult for young fashion start-ups, the kind most likely to use local labor, to get off the ground. California has generous, albeit recently reformed, worker’s compensation entitlements. Financing can be extremely hard to secure.

Costs abound for the small apparel company. Stan Levy, founding member of Bet Tzedek Legal Services and chairman of the Labor and Public Affairs Committee of the California Fashion Association, an industry group, said staying in the United States means abiding by a host of rules that don’t exist in countries such as China.

“There are companies [in the United States] spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per year on having monitoring officers trying to ensure that their working conditions are kosher, in effect,” Levy said.

Lawsuits against apparel manufacturers, such as a recent battle between Bet Tzedek and Wet Seal over back wages, are scaring other clothing makers into spending large sums to make sure it doesn’t happen to them.

Charney said American Apparel is by no means the only one taking care of its workers and being responsible: “There are hundreds of companies that do.”

But without the proper support to offset their costs, Charney fears there will be less space and capital available for start-ups, and that will be the real fashion bogeyman. “We should be cultivating a kind of incubation environment where small companies can get started and get rolling,” he stressed.

Those start-ups could be future fashion-industry donors to Jewish philanthropic causes. The Federation’s Menachemson confirmed that as current industry donors near retirement, “there are many young designers today who happen to be Jewish, so in 20 years the industry may look entirely different again.”

But whether free trade or a tough regulatory environment is to blame, there is no question that the Fashion District in Los Angeles is already shrinking.

Developer Mark Weinstein’s Santee Court housing and retail project takes up an entire city block on the northern edge of the Fashion District.

“A small part of it is fashion showroom, but 90 percent is condos, housing and retail mixed-use projects,” he said. “What we’re doing is not dependent on the Fashion District.”

Weinstein said the Fashion District is simply changing. “We’re already losing a lot of manufacturing, but there are better areas for them to do that in Los Angeles,” Weinstein said.

Weinstein’s housing developments are upscale, including trendy lofts and for-sale condos. He targets lawyers, graduate students, East Coast residents looking for a second urban apartment and entertainment executives. Weinstein saids 75 percent of the units are already leased, with the first stage of construction barely complete.

Rents for all units are not available, but the lowest cost publicly listed on Santee Court’s Web site is $1,440 a month for 690 square feet. Garment workers, even those who are decently paid, could have a very hard time affording the housing.

Still, Weinstein dedicated 33 of his currently available apartments to low-income housing, which means he reduces a unit he could rent for $1,500 per month to $492 without public subsidy.

“Others aren’t doing that,” he said.

But none of the condos going on sale in 2005 and 2006 will be so accommodating. “We’d lose way too much money,” Weinstein said.

In the Fashion District today, demographics and manufacturing trends seem to be changing faster than the skirt styles in the boutiques. Will local designers succeed? Will the MFA issue change the business? Will housing and retail take over manufacturing?

We’ll have to wait for the spring fashion season to find out.

Both Sides Point Finger of Blame


The argument about whether free trade or excessive regulation is causing the shrinkage of Los Angeles’ fashion industry is part of a long-running debate between the UNITE union and manufacturers.

The Jewish community, torn between ownership stakes in apparel corporations on one hand and strong alignments with labor on the other, seems stuck somewhere in between.

From the union’s perspective, the workers bear the burden of free trade, while the rich get richer.

“It’s going to get worse for the workers,” said UNITE’s Cristina Vazquez. “Local contractors are always lowering their price, trying to get the work from the manufacturers. The workers pay the consequences at the end.”

Vazquez conceded that some manufacturers will want to keep local cut-and-sew shops open to ride quick-changing trends, but she said there are few who are actually proud of making a product in the the United States.

As a result, the union’s mission of late has been to try to educate consumers about how to buy clothes responsibly, including lists of union shops, so those workers that remain in the industry can earn a decent living. Groups like the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) broadcast that message to the Jewish community.

PJA’s publication, No Shvitz (no sweat in Yiddish), calls itself the “one-stop guide to fighting sweatshops,” educating the reader on the history of Jewish sweatshop work and the struggle of the thousands of minority workers who work in them today. PJA recently worked with UNITE to win passage of a Los Angeles ordinance banning the city from buying sweatshop-made uniforms for its employees.

But on the question of scaring away business, there are some within the fashion industry who say that the union is actually crippling what it claims to protect.

“The union doesn’t even have any [cut-and-sew] membership in L.A.,” said an industry insider who asked to remain anonymous.

Indeed, Vazquez noted that most of the L.A.-area workers she represents now distribute clothes instead of making them. UNITE has not been able to run a successful unionized business in Los Angeles. Its only L.A.-area clothing manufacturer and retailer, SweatX, is closed.

“They’re just targeting local manufacturers,” said the industry source, who complained that UNITE will not support manufacturers unless they have unionized workforces, regardless of how well they treat their workers.

A search on UNITE’s Web page illustrates the point. It promotes shopping at union manufacturers in Illinois, Pennsylvania and even Rhode Island, but apparently no union manufacturing is being done in Los Angeles.

That conflict puts the union somewhat at odds with the small- to medium-sized manufacturers who’ve chosen to buck the offshore trend and stay fashionable in Los Angeles — II

Charities Seek Ties to MTV Generation


 

Jewish charities, already having a hard time because of intermarriage, assimilation and growing competition from non-Jewish nonprofits, face what could be their biggest challenge yet: finding a way to appeal to legions of young Jews who stand to inherit billions over the next 20 years, but whose Jewish identities are generally weaker than that of their parents.

If Jewish federations and agencies fail to forge a close relationship with this highly independent generation of Jews, Jewish charities, experts say, might struggle greatly in years to come. That could mean less money to combat Jewish poverty, bury indigent Jews or provide food and shelter for the elderly and infirm at Jewish nursing homes.

To prevent that nightmare scenario from materializing, federations and Jewish institutions around the country have taken aggressive steps to reach the elusive under-45 set. Whether those efforts can succeed remains to be seen.

Locally, the Jewish Community Foundation (JCF) earlier this year inaugurated a program that brought together Los Angeles teenagers and schooled them in principles of Jewish philanthropy.

Over two months, eight girls and six boys — all nominated by affluent JCF donors, including family members — learned about the Jewish concepts of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and g’milut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness). They gained exposure to several local Jewish and non-Jewish charities, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Puente Learning Center in East Los Angeles, which offers computer and literacy programs for the Latino community.

The young students, after making on-site visits and presenting their findings to one another, then voted on how to divvy up the $10,000 the foundation had given them to donate to their favorite causes. So how did the young Jewish philanthropists-in-training decide to spend the money?

Two non-Jewish organizations, the Los Angeles Free Clinic and PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), topped their list. At the behest of JCF executives, group members later added Vista Del Mar Child and Family Care Services, a Jewish organization.

“I thought it was a little ironic that we were doing this for the Jewish Community Foundation and we picked two non-Jewish organizations,” said Scott Cutrow, a 15-year-old 10th-grader at Crossroads who participated in and said he benefited from the JCF youth program. “I don’t think that was the ultimate goal of the people who set it up.”

Ironic? Yes. Surprising? No.

Unlike past generations, young Jews consider themselves “much more American than Jewish,” said Gerald Bubis, a former board member at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and founding director of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion School of Jewish Communal Service. Whereas Jews 50 years ago gave largely to Jewish organizations, especially federations, younger Jews are now just as likely to give to such universal causes as the environment, universities or the arts, he said.

Jewish affairs expert Gary Tobin said he found that development unsurprising. The president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco said that only about one-quarter of American Jews belong to synagogues, with lower participation rates among the young.

The MTV Generation largely stays away from temples and other Jewish institutions, Tobin said, because many of those organizations lack warmth, a sense of community and a welcoming spirit. As a result, young Jews are failing to build the communal bonds that could one day lead them to contribute their inherited or earned wealth to Jewish causes.

“A lot of Jewish institutional life is not very interesting,” Tobin said. “If it’s a turnoff for a 70-year-old and for a 50-year-old, it sure as hell isn’t going to turn on a 25-year-old.”

Another turnoff is the heavy-handed approach Jewish institutions sometimes take toward young and other donors, said Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network in New York. Some federations and other Jewish organizations, he said, have an arrogant, expectant attitude and treat donors like money machines who deserve little gratitude or explanation about how their gifts will be spent.

That approach might have worked in the past but not with young donors, who demand a more personalized approach to giving, Charendoff said. Simply put: They want direct control over how their dollars are spent and are willing to bypass federations altogether to ensure that happens.

To that end, an enormous network of family foundations have sprung up over the past seven years, from about 2,500 to 8,000 today, he said. Those foundations fund a variety of causes, ranging from AIDS research to the environment, and have siphoned money away from federations and other traditional Jewish charities, Charendoff said.

The United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella organization for the nation’s federations, has seen donations stagnate in recent years. In 2003, volunteers raised $827.5 million, about $500,000 less than in 2000.

Partly to reverse that trend, federations around the country have made building bridges to young Jews a major priority.

“We have an absolute obligation to reach down to that younger generation to make sure they’re not only involved but engaged and excited in ways that will encourage them to lead the community,” said Gail Hyman, UJC senior vice president of communications.

In that vein, about 40 federations have created “Blue Knot” affinity groups over the past couple years that cater to mostly young, high-tech workers, she said. The Las Vegas Federation recently held a Vodka Latka Chanukah celebration that attracted 200 hip revelers.

(Interestingly, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the sponsor of the original Vodka Latka, has stopped holding the party, even though the most recent one in 2002 attracted about 1,000 young Jews. Craig Prizant, the Los Angeles Federation’s executive vice president of resource development, said Vodka Latka demanded too much staff time and was too big to expose revelers to The Federation’s important work.)

The Los Angeles Federation, which eliminated its money-losing young leadership initiative a couple years ago, has replaced it with a Young Leadership Division that combines Jewish education and fun. At monthly meetings, young Jews attend movie screenings, meet for java at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf or gather for Shabbat dinners, where, in addition to socializing, they learn about The Federation and Jewish values, Prizant said. He estimated that the revamped leadership program has added an extra $750,000 to The Federation’s coffers.

In recent years, the organization also helped create the Los Angeles Venture Philanthropy Fund (LA-JVPF), a self-funded group of youngish entrepreneurs and professionals that has raised and awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to nonprofits that benefit Jews. Several LA-JVPF participants have become first-time Federation donors.

Other local Jewish agencies have begun emphasizing the need to recruit young Jews.

In October, the Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) created a 14-member young professionals advisory group to raise awareness about the organization’s mission and to develop the next generation of leaders and donors, said Danielle Walsmith, JFLA’s director of communications. At present, most JFLA donors are 55 or older, she added.

The Zimmer Children’s Museum has recently reconfigured its board to include more young members, executive director Esther Netter said, adding that she thought Jewish institutions should make an effort to educate very young Jews about the importance of giving to Jewish causes.

That appears to be happening, said Ann Cohen, a business consultant who has worked with UJC and other Jewish organizations. The rise in attendance at Jewish day schools over the past decade should inculcate those youngsters with Jewish values and an understanding of tzedakah (charitable giving), she said. That could translate into more money flowing to Jewish institutions in the future.

JCF’s Marvin Schotland said he remains optimistic about his and other Jewish organizations abilities to eventually win over younger Jews (see page 13). Even though the group of students participating in the Foundation’s pilot program favored non-Jewish charities over Jewish ones, Schotland said time is on JCF’s side.

“We’re building a relationship with them,” he said. “Fifteen or 20 years from now, some of them are going to be back here, and we’ll have credibility with them. We’ll also have some idea what [causes] they’re interested in and be able to bring them something in the Jewish community consistent with their interests.”

“We have a very long view,” Schotland added.

Q & A With Marvin Schotland


by Marc Ballon, Senior Writer


The Jewish Community Foundation turns 50 this year. Under the direction of Marvin Schotland, president and chief executive officer, the charitable gift-planning and grant-making organization has grown into the 10th-largest Los Angeles foundation, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. During Schotland’s 15-year tenure, the foundation’s assets under management have mushroomed to nearly $500 million from $90 million.

Since 1989, the foundation and its donors have allocated more than $420 million to a host of local Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Community Centers, Zimmer Children’s Museum and the Koreh L.A. literacy program.

Jewish Journal: How did you boost the foundation’s assets by so much?

Marvin Schotland: I think growth is a result of greater awareness of the role the foundation plays in the community. Uniformly, the foundation is seen as outstanding professionally, and that has given our donors an increased confidence level in us.

Second, there’s been a diversification of membership on the board of trustees. Its more representative of the Jewish community, both in terms of its male/female makeup and the religious, political and age groups. Our board members help disparate parts of the community better understand our charitable gift-planning role and our grant-making process.

JJ: With so many Jewish family foundations sprouting up, why should a philanthropist give to the foundation instead of creating his or her own?

MS: If you have $500 million, is it in your best interest to establish a fund with us? Probably not. You can hire your own staff to help you make decisions. But if you have $100,000 to $50 million, I think we can help you out. We know the community intimately and have the broad and deep professional expertise to strategically and effectively guide philanthropists in planning their charitable giving.

JJ: What percentage of your assets do you distribute annually? Some in the community have complained that the foundation could be more generous.

MS: The foundation has adopted a 5 percent spending rate for its permanent endowment funds that support the community. That allows us to continue growing our permanent funds without risking the capital that’s been entrusted to us by the community. If we had a much higher payout rate, we’d have to invest our money in much riskier securities, which we don’t want to do. That’s a conservative philosophy, but we’re an organization that takes a long view, which I think is prudent.

JJ: Why hasn’t the foundation given more to the Jewish Community Centers (JCC)? Given your assets, the foundation could easily afford to save the foundering centers.

MS: We have given to JCCs over the years in many different ways. When they were viable and healthy, we funded all sorts of programs [including] an early childhood education and family center in the early ’90s in the [now shuttered] Conejo Valley. We’ve always been a funder of programmatic initiatives of the JCC and, in certain cases, capital initiatives, like the $2 million we gave to the [Bernard] Milken Jewish Community Campus, which houses the New JCC at Milken.

But when the centers began imploding, we didn’t have enough resources to bail them out. The reality of it was that, as we understood the situation from all the information we had, the issues were not only economic issues but issues of management and broad-based community support. We very quietly talked to donors who had funds with us, and they weren’t interested, because they didn’t think the JCC problems were purely economic. Our dollars will be better served being spent on new programmatic initiatives and on those centers that survive, once the dust settles.

JJ: What are you most proud of during your tenure?

MS: I think we’ve been a wonderful agent for seeding new and emerging projects in the community.

For instance, our early support of Beit T’Shuvah, an agency that helps Jewish individuals with addictions, helped it get off the ground in 1987. Today, it has grown into a successful, independent agency that serves more than 2,500 people a year

The Zimmer Children’s Museum was established in 1992, thanks to seed funding from the foundation. We were also a seeding agent for Koreh L.A., which got its start in 1999 from a modest grant from us and has gone on to be a very, successful literacy program.

We provided substantial seed money to create the College Campus Initiative, a multiyear initiative begun in 2000 to engage local college students more actively in Jewish life. I’m also proud about the establishment of our Family Foundation Center in 2001, which helps donors and funders engage in their philanthropy in a more effective way.

JJ: How much longer do you plan to remain on the job?

MS: I’m hoping to be here until I retire. I’m 58 and not interested in retiring any time soon. I love what I do.

For more information about the Jewish Community Foundation, call (323) 761-8700 or visit www.jewishfoundationla.org.

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