It’s time for words to lead the peace process


It is now clear that no peace agreement, not even on principles, will be signed by the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating team before some time in 2009, after the
new American administration takes charge, the Israeli election runs its course and the fate of Mahmoud Abbas’ presidency is decided.

Analysts who have been urging the two sides to expedite matters for all the many reasons that made the window of opportunities narrower by the day are now urging them to “keep the momentum going,” lest the window, which I doubt ever existed, becomes too narrow to re-open.

But how do you keep momentum going when the two sides are locked in a fundamentally immobile stalemate?

Israel is physically unable to accommodate a sovereign neighbor a rocket range away from its vital airports, one whose youngsters openly vow to destroy it. And Palestinians, on their part, cannot change their youngsters’ vows after having nourished them for decades, especially under occupation, while Iran is promising to turn those vows into reality.

Yet there is a way. If we cannot move on the ground, we should move above it — in the metaphysical sphere of words, metaphors and paradigms — to create a movement that not only would maintain the perception of “keeping the momentum going,” but could actually be the key to any future movement on the ground.

Let us be frank: The current stalemate is ideological, not physical, and it hangs on two major contentions: “historical right” and “justice,” which must be wrestled with in words before we can expect any substantive movement on the ground.

Starting with “historical right,” we recall that a year ago, the Annapolis process was on the verge of collapse on account of two words: “Jewish state.”

In the week preceding Annapolis, Palestinian Authority chief negotiator Saeb Erekat proclaimed, “The PA would never acknowledge Israel’s Jewish identity,” to which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reacted angrily with: “We won’t hold negotiations on our existence as a Jewish state…. Whoever does not accept this cannot hold any negotiations with me.”

Clearly, to the secular Israeli society, the insistence on a Jewish state has nothing to do with kosher food or wearing yarmulkes; it has to do with historical claims of co-ownership and legitimacy, which are prerequisites for any lasting peace, regardless of its shape. Olmert’s reaction, which is shared by the vast majority of Israelis, translates into: “Whoever refuses to tell his children that Jews are here by moral and historical imperative has no intention of honoring his agreements in the long run.”

In other words, recognizing Israel as a “Jewish state” is seen by Israelis as a litmus test for Arabs’ intentions to take peace agreements as permanent. Unfortunately, for the Arabs, the words “Jewish state” signal the legitimization of a theocratic society and the exclusion of non-Jews from co-ownership in the state.

Can these two views be reconciled?

Of course they can. If the PA agrees to recognize Israel’s “historical right” to exist (instead of just “right to exist” or “exist as a Jewish state”) fears connected with religious exclusion will not be awakened, and Israel’s demand for a proof of intention will simultaneously be satisfied: You do not teach your children of your neighbor’s “historical right” unless you intend to make the final status agreement truly final — education is an irreversible investment.

But would the PA ever agree to grant Israel such recognition?

This brings us to the second magical word: “justice.” One of the main impediments to Palestinians’ recognition of Israel’s “right to exist,” be it historical or de-facto, is their fear that such recognition would delegitimize the Arabs’ struggle against the Zionist program throughout the first half of the 20th century, thus contextualizing the entire conflict as a whimsical Arab aggression and weakening their claims to the “right of return.”

All analysts agree that Palestinians would never agree to give up, tarnish or weaken this right. They might, however, accept a symbolic recognition that would satisfy, neutralize and, perhaps, even substitute for the literal right of return.

Palestinian columnist Daoud Kuttab wrote in the Washington Post (May 12): “The basic demand is not the physical return of all refugees but for Israel to take responsibility for causing this decades-long tragedy.”

Similar to Jewish refugees from Arab countries, Palestinian refugees demand their place in history through recognition that their suffering was not a senseless dust storm but part of a man-made historical process, to which someone bears responsibility and is prepared to amend the injustice.

Journalist Uri Avnery, an Israeli peace activist and former member of the Knesset, believes that this deep sense of injustice can be satisfied through an open and frank Israeli apology.

“I believe that peace between us and the Palestinian people — a real peace, based on real conciliation — starts with an apology” he wrote in Arabic Media Internet Network, June 14 (www.amin.org).

“In my mind’s eye,” he writes, “I see the president of the state or the prime minister addressing an extraordinary session of the Knesset and making an historic speech of apology:

‘Madam Speaker, honorable Knesset,

‘On behalf of the State of Israel and all its citizens, I address today the sons and daughters of the Palestinian people, wherever they are.

‘We recognize the fact that we have committed against you a historic injustice, and we humbly ask your forgiveness.

‘The burning desire of the founding fathers of the Zionist movement was to save the Jews of Europe, where the dark clouds of hatred for the Jews were gathering. In Eastern Europe, pogroms were raging, and all over Europe there were signs of the process that would eventually lead to the terrible Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews perished.

‘All this does not justify what happened afterwards. The creation of the Jewish national home in this country has involved a profound injustice to you, the people who lived here for generations.

‘We cannot ignore anymore the fact that in the war of 1948 — which is the War of Independence for us and the Naqba for you — some 750,000 Palestinians were compelled to leave their homes and lands. As for the precise circumstances of this tragedy, I propose the establishment of a Committee for Truth and Reconciliation composed of experts from your and from our side, whose conclusions will from then on be incorporated in the schoolbooks, yours and ours.'”

Is Israeli society ready to make such an apology and assume such responsibility? Not a chance.

For an Israeli, admitting guilt for creating the refugee problem is tantamount to embedding Israel’s birth in sin, thus undermining the legitimacy of its existence and encouraging those who threaten that existence. The dominant attitude is: They started the war; wars have painful consequences; they fled on their own, despite our official calls to stay put. We are clean.

Can this attitude be reconciled with Palestinians’ demands for official recognition of their suffering? I believe it can.

Whereas Israelis refuse to assume full responsibility for the consequences of the 1948 war, they are certainly prepared to assume part of that responsibility. After all, Israelis are not unaware of stories about field commanders in the 1948 war who initiated private campaigns to scare Arab villagers and, on some occasions, to force them out.

So, how do we find words to express reciprocal responsibility? Here I take author’s liberty and, following Avnery, appeal to my mind’s eye and envision the continuation of that extraordinary Knesset session at the end of the Israeli president’s speech.

I see Abbas waiting for the applause to subside, stepping to the podium and saying:

“Madam Speaker, honorable Knesset,

“On behalf of the Palestinian people and the future state of Palestine, I address today the sons and daughters of the Jewish nation, wherever they are.

“We recognize the fact that we have committed against you a historic injustice, and we humbly ask your forgiveness.

“The burning desire of the founding fathers of the Palestinian national movement was to liberate Palestine from colonial powers, first the Ottoman empire and then the British Mandate Authorities. In their zeal to achieve independence, they have treated the creation of a Jewish national home in this country as a form of colonial occupation, rather than a homecoming endeavor of a potentially friendly neighbor, a partner to liberation, whose historical attachment to this landscape was not weaker than ours.

“We cannot ignore anymore the fact that the Great Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 has resulted in the British White Paper, which prevented thousands, if not millions, of European Jews from escaping the Nazi extermination plan. Nor can we ignore the fact that when survivors of Nazi concentration camps sought refuge in Palestine, we were instrumental in denying them safety and, when they finally established their historical homeland, we called the armies of our Arab brethren to wipe out their newly created state.

“Subsequently, for the past 60 years, in our zeal to rectify the injustice done to us, we have taught our children that only your demise can bring about the justice and liberty they so badly deserve. They took our teachings rather seriously, and some of them resorted to terror wars that killed, maimed and injured thousands of your citizens.”

Admittedly, this scenario is utopian. The idea of Palestinians apologizing to Israel is so heretical in prevailing political consciousness that only six Google entries mention such a gesture, compared with 615 entries citing “Israel must apologize.”

Yet, peace begins with ideas, and ideas are shaped by words. And the utopian scenario I painted above gives a feasible frame to reciprocal words that must be said, in one form or another, for a lasting peace to set in.

And if not now, when? Recall, we must keep the momentum going.

Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (www.danielpearl.org) named after his son. He and his wife, Ruth, are editors of “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times


If it says in the Torah that embarrassing someone is worse than death, then why does “Mortified” seem so Jewish?

The show features adults revisiting their own teen angst onstage by sharing their original childhood artifacts — journals, letters, poems, lyrics, illustrations, song and dance numbers — with perfect strangers in the audience. Very few of the performers are actors, which often makes their readings seem even more revealing and unfiltered as they read from their childhood keepsakes and offer comments on them. Many of these, which currently are being performed in versions of the show in five cities across the country, have been compiled into a book titled, “Mortified: Real Words, Real People, Real Pathetic” (Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2006), offering both the original text and a view from the adult perspective. And it is this duality of real exposure and the distance of time that makes this so poignant — and mortifying.

The material often reveals the writer’s innermost fears. Here is Sharone Jelden writing when she was 17:

“Dear Diary ….When you’re Jewish and cheap you’re doomed. At school, I have to act extra-giving because I’m a Jew. Like if I’m in the food line to buy my Lorna Doones and tea in the morning and some popular girl like Cindy Mcklansky is in line in front of me, short of change or something, I have to give her money. I don’t have a choice; it’s a requirement.”

The topic of religious identity — Jewish and Christian — is heavily featured, such as in pieces like “Cheap Jew,” “The Unholy Land” “Gotta Have a (Boy) Friend Named Jesus,” “Courting Catholic Guilt,” but it’s far from the only subject excavated in “Mortified.”

“Religious identity and kids fitting in, that’s one of the top three things kids write about,” says David Nadelberg, creator, producer and self-titled “angstologist.” “We’re just reflecting what kids go through: romance, religion, peer groups, depression, parental relationships, divorce and remarriage and even eating disorders.”

Nadelberg first came across the unlikely combination of shame and humor when he was in his 20s, before the advent of reality television.

“I found some really wretched ancient love letters that I’d never sent to a poor, unfortunate girl, and I started really laughing at it,” he said. “I knew my friends would laugh at it, too.”

In 2002, he mounted his first production of “Mortified” to a sold-out audience in Los Angeles, and people began to ask when the next show would be. It now runs monthly in Los Angeles, with the next shows scheduled for Jan, 24 and Feb. 21. “Mortified” also now plays regularly in New York, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago.

The show does not aim for the kind of exhibitionism of reality shows, Nadelberg says. “It’s not ‘look at me, look at me,’ that’s not our focus. Our comedy philosophy is we want the audience to ‘laugh at, cheer for.'”

He says the point is not to mock what stupid kids we were, but to show warmth and humor in the pain.
In fact, as part of the Mortified “brand” — the five-city shows, the book, as well as animated YouTube videos — “Mortified” has begun to bring its performances back to a different kind of audience: Kids. Last month, for example, there was a special show for a Wilshire Boulevard Temple youth group. Afterward, kids came up to the performers and thanked them. Nadelberg says they showed the kids that “we’re all living these lives, and then we survived.”

It’s hard to believe they will survive, though, when listening to the overwrought angst and suffering in the pieces, which include stories of everything from shoplifting, cutting school, boy trouble, parental problems to coming out to issues of popularity and coming out as a homosexual and homesickness.

For example, from the 1976 summer camp letters of Adam Gropman:

“Dear Mom and Dad, I can’t stand it anymore!!! All the kids in my cabin hate me! They steal and wreck my things! I can’t escape it! I want … to go … KILL MYSELF!!!!”

His parents reply calmly:

“Dear Adam, “Think about something … you feel really good about. And then before you know it, you won’t feel like a Gloomy Gus anymore!”

This is right before Adam’s parents finally pull him from camp — none too soon, because a day after he left, a bunkmate burned down two cabins.

And therein lies the divide between people as adults — possessing life perspective and the ability to deal with crisis — and children, who experience intense fears, anxiety, shame, embarrassment, love and passion. Adults sometimes forget that it was all too real.

“There’s a difference between this and natural embarrassment,” says Neil Katcher, co-producer of “Mortified LA.” “A lot of what the show is about is aggressive embarrassment.

“People go on stage, knowing that what they wrote was embarrassing when they were younger. Allowing yourself to be embarrassed is the most cathartic thing about the show,” he says — for both performers and audience members. The cathartic thing “is very Jewish in my mind.”

“A lot of Jewish kids kept diaries. We’re brought up to be more expressive about our emotions. A lot of us had particularly strong mothers,” Katcher says. Even in Hebrew school you learn how to debate and discuss, he says. “That translates to people who think a lot more and who have a lot of inner debate and inner struggle, and it creates very expressive [people]. With really good inner debates.”

Nadelberg agrees. “It feeds off a Jewish stereotype … we’re just neurotic. We need a place to channel that neurosis. When we grow up and have money and we become Woody Allen, but until that time, we have our journals and letters and pages of horrific poetry. And that’s where we capture that.”

“Mortified LA” will be performed on Jan. 24 and Feb. 21 at 8 p.m. at King King, 6555 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood.

For tickets call (877) 238-5596 or visit www.getmortified.com


David Nadelberg, Angstologist

Law Committee’s gay ruling stepped outside Halacha


The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards last week validated three responsa, or teshuvot, on the general subject of homosexuality.

In fact, the primary technical issue was the Jewish legal status of sex between members of the same gender. From the answers offered to that question followed the views of the authors as to the permissibility of commitment ceremonies — implying, of course, a need also for “uncommitment ceremonies” — and the ordination of gays and lesbians as clergy, who serve as exemplars of commitment to halachah.

Two of the papers reaffirmed the classical position of Jewish law forbidding such sexual activity and, therefore, forbade commitment ceremonies and the ordination of gays and lesbians.

The third paper permitted most sexual activity between men — forbidding only intercourse — and sexual activity between women. As a result, the authors of this paper permit commitment ceremonies and ordination.

I was the author of one of the papers that reaffirmed the classic Jewish legal position, a position I had affirmed in 1992 when this subject was last on the law committee’s agenda.

Despite the popular view of what we were arguing about, I believe that the subject of gays was not what we were really divided over. It happened to be the specific subject that revealed the real fault lines in the committee, and in the Conservative movement in general.

I believe we were divided over the following irreconcilable issues:

  • How entitled are we to overturn longstanding and uncontested precedents of Jewish law? None of the authors of any of the papers denied what the uncontested precedents of Jewish law are, and that the preponderant majority of decisors of Jewish law from time immemorial considered all types of sexual behavior between members of the same sex to be a prohibition of biblical status, d’oraita, based on rabbinic interpretation of scriptural verses, midrash halachah.
  • What divided us was the question of our right to adopt a legal stance attributed to one sage that the prohibitions against sexual behavior other than male intercourse are rabbinic in status, d’rabbanan, and not biblical, which
  • Even if the prohibition against sexual behavior other than male intercourse is rabbinic in authority and not biblical, what justifies our abrogating that prohibition?

The authors of the permissive paper argued that the Talmudic category of “human honor,” which they translated as “human dignity,” allowed for its abrogation. I argued that the category is entirely inapplicable to the case under discussion, even if we assumed that the prohibition is rabbinic and not biblical.

In almost all of the cases in which the category is invoked, the claim is that X may violate the law out of deference to the honor of Y. In the case under discussion, X is to be entitled to violate the law out of deference to his own honor, for which claim there is no real precedent.

What’s more, such a claim is theologically weak, since no law-abiding Jew would ever entertain the possibility that his honor would supersede that of God. And in the few cases of application of the category, which can possibly be understood to imply that X may violate the law out of deference to his own honor, X is always literally in a social context and in the presence of others.

For example, X may wear a hearing aid on Shabbat in the synagogue lest he be embarrassed by his inability to hear the Kaddish being recited and not answer the communal lines when the community does. In our case there is no social context, since sexual relations are, by definition, private. Therefore, the category is inapplicable.

How halachically defensible does an argument have to be before it can be considered within the halachic ballpark? We all understand and agree that decisors of Jewish law often approach the subject before them with a predisposition to give a specific answer. There’s nothing wrong with that, in my opinion.

What, then, distinguishes a good decisor from a poor one?

The good decisor is able to judge his decision with enough dispassion to see whether his predisposition has blinded him to the indefensibility of his answer, and the poor one is not.

It is my opinion that my colleagues have here been blinded to the indefensibility of their conclusion. It is based on three pillars — I have not discussed one of them here — each of which is either quite clearly false or, at a minimum, is debatable.

For their conclusion to follow, however, all three must be considered as true and valid. This leads me to conclude that their decision was arrived at entirely independent of halachic reasoning, and that the defensibility of their after-the-fact reasoning was not relevant to them. The decision simply had to be as it was.

The combination of the above leads me to believe that the permissive position validated by the law committee was really outside the halachic framework, and I resigned from the committee.

Rabbi Joel Roth is a professor of Talmud and Jewish law at The Jewish Theological Seminary.

The so-called ‘perfect date’


The date was going really well. The conversation was flowing. We were practically finishing each other’s sentences.

“Have you ever been to Azumi Sushi?” I asked.

He smiled, secretly, a half smile.

“What is it?” I asked him.

“I was just about to say that,” he replied.

Not that going to the same sushi restaurant meant that we were soul mates, but we had a number of issues we agreed on beyond the superficial. Religion, family, politics, even our lifestyle goals — retire early, travel much — seemed to be in sync. Clearly, the person who set us up wasn’t high on crack — he’s a Jewish boy and you’re a Jewish girl — because we had a lot more in common beyond the nature of our religion, age and geographic location.

I could tell he was excited by these things. The way he paused when I said something he agreed with, like wanting to do Friday night meals for the camaraderie, and his eyes lit up like a Vegas jackpot if I happened upon a subject we had the same feelings about.

These are the kinds of dates I hear about all the time, usually from women. The dates where (finally!) everything is simpatico and natural, almost as if you’re not on a date at all. And then he doesn’t call.

“How could he not call?” these women complain. “You don’t understand, he told me that ___________,” they say, pointing out all the intimate details the guy shared, and all witty repartee they both shared, and all the lack of awkwardness that for sure meant the date was going superbly.

“How could he not call?” they say. “I thought it was going so well.”

I can tell you why he didn’t call. I can tell you why he didn’t call, because I was just on one of those dates where everything seemed to be going perfectly, but it didn’t work out.

It didn’t work out because I wasn’t interested. I know it started even before we met. On the phone we spoke for about an hour, maybe even longer, and it was like talking to someone who was really interesting, but who I wasn’t interested in. I don’t know why.

Not that I’d given it much thought. After our conversation, I didn’t analyze it, or him. To be honest, I didn’t think about him much, and that’s because I didn’t have that heart-pounding anticipation that can, yes, come even from just talking to a faceless person on the phone. But, I reasoned, all that heart-pounding anticipation has never exactly steered me in the right direction, so perhaps apathy isn’t the wrong emotion to have before a blind date either.

But when I met him, everything became clear. He was exactly as described: An average looking guy, not freakishly short or tall, somewhat of the teddy bear type and, well, just not my type. He was one of those guys I was neither dying for nor repulsed by — he just wasn’t for me.

“Why don’t you go out with him again and give it another shot?” my friends would say, if I would ever tell them this story, which I wouldn’t because then I’d have to hear yet again how they hated their husbands for the first X months before they married them. (If you ask me, they are all too readily connected to that initial animosity, which is why, except in the first grade and in Shakespeare, love should never begin with hate.) In any case, I didn’t hate this guy, and I’d never hate him. I knew this, just as I knew I’d never like him any more than as a … friend.

By friend I didn’t mean that I never wanted to see him again either romantically or platonically, or that I wouldn’t mind inviting him to my parties and introducing him to others in my circle who were really my friends.

I knew this from the moment I saw him, but what was I supposed to do? Was I to tell him this in the beginning? Was I to allude to a long and complicated dating history so as to dissuade him from liking me? Not that everyone likes me, but when someone does, and it’s one-sided — what is the proper etiquette?

I decided to be myself. I wasn’t overly flirtatious in a way I might have once been in order to entertain or to fulfill some ego-need to be liked by all; I just answered his questions, asked a few of my own (hopefully, although maybe I didn’t manage to get in too many) the way I would when I am out with a friend.

Which is the unfortunate answer to all those people who thought they had the perfect date and never heard from the other person again and are wondering “why?”

Why? Because it might have been a perfectly nice date, but it’s not a perfect date unless the people are right for each other.

Both of them.

My message to the GA: follow the love, not the money


This column is not about the future of the Jewish people; you’ll get plenty of that in this issue of The Jewish Journal.Rather, it’s about the story of two Judaisms.

The first one is the Judaism I experience when I’m in fancy conference rooms talking to big Jewish machers about the big issues of the day.

The second Judaism, the one I write about every week, is the Judaism I live when I’m desperately looking for kosher marshmallows at Pico Glatt.

There’s a lot that I love about the first Judaism. For one thing, it’s great for my self-esteem. I get to schmooze with the players, and the stuff we talk about is so urgent and important! Do you have any idea how cool it feels to wax passionately about ideas to fight global anti-Semitism, or a new PR campaign that will improve Israel’s image in the world, or what we need to do to unite the Jewish people? When you talk about big stuff in front of big people, you feel like you’re really making a difference in the world.

Another thing that fascinates me about this first Judaism — the same Judaism that organizes major conventions like the annual General Assembly (GA), which this week is meeting in a city near Los Angeles called Downtown L.A. — is how good it is at raising money. Sorry, not good, brilliant.

Have you ever noticed how they know exactly how to push our buttons? They know that we’ll give more money to a crisis than to a problem, and that if we feel like the whole world is out to get us, or that Israel is in bigger danger than ever before, or that the Jewish people are facing an unprecedented crisis, well, we’ll probably add a few zeroes to our checks.

And who can blame them? Where would the Jewish people be today if it wasn’t for the generosity and fundraising efforts of our money people, who over the generations always seem to step up to the plate for the common cause? In fact, it was the generosity of wealthy Ashkenazi Jews that helped my Sephardic family and thousands of others resettle in Canada in the 1960s, when my parents were trying to escape the not-too-friendly confines of an Arab country.

The problem, and I don’t know how else to put this, is that money is way too important. It’s like a nuclear force — a piece of plutonium in Jewish community life. It’s so powerful a drug that it blinds and addicts and overwhelms everything in its path. If I have to make payroll today for my Jewish nonprofit, what else is there to talk about?

Money is so intoxicating that we don’t realize the heavy price we pay for our obsession with it. When you reduce any problem down to money, you suck all the juice out of it. You trivialize the problem, so you can’t see its texture, its depth, its nuance. It becomes that much harder to come up with any deep or creative ideas.

Take the “problem” of Israel, for example, which happens to be the theme of this year’s GA assembly. How often have we all been exhorted to “give to Israel during its time of crisis”? It’s like a broken record. Not only do we become numb to the subject, but we lose sight of the fact that there are things we can give to Israel that are more important than money. Like what, you say?

The best answer I’ve heard to this question came from Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. In a recent salon gathering at a private home in Los Angeles, he explained how the all-consuming attention on dramatic and existential issues in Israel (security, peace, survival of the state, etc.) had drowned out less dramatic but critical issues like education, pluralism, democracy, human rights, the role of the army, the role of religion, the environment and other areas that have suffered from long-term neglect.

Instead of focusing on crisis-driven donations, Hartman called on people who love and care for Israel to connect more personally with the country, based on their own individual passions. For example, if your thing is the environment, connect that passion to Israel and make it the focus of your contribution, financial or otherwise. Whatever your thing is — music, Jewish unity, human rights, solar power, getting more milk out of cows — share that love with Israel and help make it a better country.

What Hartman is yearning for is a more intimate relationship between the Diaspora and Israel. Simply writing a check or staying at the King David Hotel or yelling at demonstrations is not enough. Israel needs your unique gifts, your loving critiques, your creativity, and, in return, Israel will have more to give back to you.

This notion of personal passion brings me to the second Judaism, the one I experience every day in a bustling, Modern Orthodox neighborhood called Pico-Robertson.

If the organizers of the GA had called me a year ago and asked if I knew a good place for their 3,000 delegates to stay in Los Angeles, I would have suggested that they shack up with 3,000 of my neighbors in the hood, who I’m sure wouldn’t mind hosting them. Instead of being close to Staples Center or The Walt Disney Concert Hall, like they are now, they would be close to Nagila Pizza and the 613 Mitzvah store, and all the other shops and shuls and little markets that make up this eclectic, turn-of-the-millennium Jewish neighborhood.

In the mornings, instead of room service or an organized breakfast with other delegates, they’d be schmoozing and having their coffee with the locals, in their cafes or kitchens. After a long day of meetings and speeches at nearby hotels and other venues, they’d return to the hood and see firsthand what it’s like to live and breathe Judaism.

In addition to making new friends, my wish would be that the delegates would gain new insights, the kind that are hard to get from Power Point presentations. Because if there’s one thing that I believe is missing from the first Judaism — the one that’s brilliant at making noise and raising money — I’d say it’s a better understanding of the second Judaism — the one that’s brilliant at staying connected to our Jewish faith.

Jewish day schools short-change kids with special needs


Adam is pushing the strings of his tzitzit through a small hole on the side of his desk.

“If you don’t want to finish your work now, that’s OK,” his teacher, Chau Ly tells him. “You can do it later.”
“It’s easy. I just don’t feel like it,” answers Adam (not his real name).

He looks at the language arts workbook open in front of him, then flips it to examine the bar code. He wants to tell Ms. Ly about the cat next door. Ms. Ly, sitting right across from him, tells him he can do that when he finishes his assignment.
She begins to read him the next question.

He pulls at some rubber on his sneaker and says, “I don’t need help, it’s easy.”

Ms. Ly sits back. Adam, an 11-year-old with learning and emotional disorders, begins to work quietly.

Finally, he finishes his assignment. Ms. Ly adds up the points he’s earned for doing things like getting his head into the assignment and working independently, and sets the timer for his break.

He chooses to spend his time exchanging cat stories with Ms. Ly.

Adam is one of 12 students in Kol Hanearim, an organization that sponsors small classes in three local day schools for children with learning disabilities and emotional disorders such as attention deficit, oppositional behavior, depression or obsessive compulsive disorder. The kids spend part of the time in their own classroom and part of the time mainstreamed in regular classes. They also join their grade level for lunch, recess, art, PE and other activities.

The classes were founded last year by mothers of kids who had been either asked to leave a Jewish day school, or who chose to leave on their own. Their decision to stay and make something new is part of a slowly emerging trend toward integrating diverse learners into the Jewish day school milieu — a move that everyone agrees has been too slow in coming, and has hardly begun to reach the students who need it.

For years, resources for kids with special needs have been scarce in Los Angeles’ day schools.

While supplemental Jewish education programs — camps, Hebrew schools, Shabbatons and parties — have provided wonderful Jewish experiences to the region’s special needs kids during the last 10 to 20 years, other cities seem to be making greater strides with their day school populations.

Parents who want their special needs children immersed in a Jewish environment on a daily basis often have to fend for themselves with minimal school support. Those able to afford it have hired tutors and shadows, which has not always been a successful solution. More often, parents have had to make the difficult choice to take the kids out of Jewish schools.

For parents in the Orthodox community, the decision to pull a kid out of day school means not only forfeiting a vital environment and education, but has social consequences, as well. Since the majority of Orthodox children attend day school, the child will be excluded from social circles, further marginalizing him or her.

With the explosion of day school attendance in the non-Orthodox sectors over the last 15 years, that decision is equally painful for Conservative and Reform parents who hoped to solidify a child’s identity with an intense Jewish experience.
About 10 percent of the general population has a disability, and the Bureau of Jewish Education estimates that between 700 and 800 children with disabilities are in Los Angeles’ 37 day schools, which serve 10,000 kids.

Over the past several years, schools and programs have opened up to teaching a more diverse array of learners in Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and community schools.

“There is a growing awareness that day schools need to be accessible to the widest range of students possible, and schools are working hard to refine their mission statements and to make sure that whatever their aspirations are to work in this area, that they find the financial and human resources to make it successful,” said Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education. The Boston-based group recently published a best practices report from day schools across the country.

Adam’s mother says her son, who previously attended Vista Del Mar’s Julia Ann Singer Center, a school near Culver City for children with severe emotional, learning and developmental disorders, has worked his way from a first-grade reading level to a fourth-grade reading level at Kol Hanearim. Whereas before he was surrounded by other kids with behavioral challenges, now he has nonchallenged children to model behaviors for him.

He is no longer embarrassed to wear a kippah and tzitzit, and can participate in class cooking projects without worrying about kashrut. He now asks to go to shul every Shabbat, and he even sings Hebrew songs in the shower.

While singing in the shower may seem like a silly benchmark, a positive or negative day school experience can have lifelong impact on a child’s Jewish identity.

One woman who contacted Kol Hanearim told the story of her son, now grown, who had been thrown out of yeshiva and told he would never amount to anything. Today, he is working toward a master’s degree in physics and is engaged to a non-Jewish woman.

Slammed Doors, New Opportunities

Kol Hanearim started its classes last academic year, soon after, Sharon Gindi was told that day school was no place for her son. She found that there were no good options for him within the Jewish community.

She got in touch with Kol Hanearim, a group of parents who had coalesced a few years before to offer Jewish programming to their children, who had left day schools. They had already met with principals in hopes of figuring out how to start classes for special-needs kids in day schools. But after two years, those meetings had gotten nowhere.

“I looked at my husband, and I said, ‘ All we need is a classroom and a teacher? How hard can this be?'” said Gindi, who will be speaking on this topic at a session at the United Jewish Community’s General Assembly here this week. So she skipped over the organizational meandering and immediately got down to details.

51 Birch Street: House of Blocks . . . House of Cards?


We all know about “the generation gap.” The “mother-daughter bond.” Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons.” Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” or any number of his plays for that matter. Our literature and our language are rife with expressions of the struggles inherent in that most primal bond Doug Block with his fatherbetween parents and children.

In his personal documentary, “51 Birch Street,” filmmaker Doug Block sets out to explore his relationship with his father. His mother has died, and Block wants to document the dismantling of the family home before it is sold. A “baby-boomer” who came of age in the “let it all hang out” ’60s, Block is taken aback when he learns that his parents’ 54-year marriage was not at all what it seemed. Wrestling with disturbing revelations, Block’s film questions how well any of us truly know the people we love, how well we might really want to know them, and perhaps most importantly, what right we have to know.

On the surface, the Block family is a typical, post-war, middle-class suburban Jewish family. Mike Block and Mina Vogel married shortly after World War II, had three children over the course of four years and moved from Brooklyn to a brand-new house in the suburbs to raise their family. They were among the founding families of a Reform congregation that became the center of their social lives. Their children — two girls and a boy — went to (or more accurately “suffered through,” as son Doug describes it) Hebrew school through confirmation. Mike worked long hours as a mechanical engineer while Mina stayed home to raise the children, working outside of the home only as the children grew up. Mike and Mina were “inseparable.”

Mina’s death was shocking not only in its swiftness, but for the maelstrom of unexpected revelations that followed. Three months after his wife’s death, Mike Block traveled to Florida, returning only to announce that he was moving there to live with Kitty, his secretary from 40 years earlier. They wed shortly thereafter. As if this wasn’t enough for the Block siblings to absorb, Mike and Kitty decided to sell the family home on Birch Street. It fell upon Doug and his sisters to help their father sort through the accumulated detritus of 50 years of family life.

Block, a documentary filmmaker by vocation (“Home Page” and “The Heck With Hollywood!”) and an inveterate home-movie-maker by avocation, always felt close to his mother; her death left him bereft. In contrast, he felt both very different than and distant from his father. He hoped to use his camera, as was his wont, to help him get to know his subject — in this case his father — better.

As we travel with Block through his arduous path of discovery, watching long-buried secrets of his parents’ unhappiness slowly come to light, we see his family struggle with their newfound knowledge. And we struggle alongside them, wrestling not only with our own fears about trust and intimacy, but with questions of privacy and disclosure.

These questions come to a head when Block uncovers volumes of personal diaries his mother had written over a three- year period. Pained as his father obviously is by seeing them, he nevertheless tells his son to “save them.” Block is both drawn to and fearful of reading them, and decides to consult an “expert” on the ethical issues involved.

He turns to Rabbi Jonathan Blake, a young rabbi with a warm smile and quick wit, who Block felt was “wise” beyond his years. Asking Blake if it’s “right” to read his mother’s diaries (the mention of which causes an amusing moment of eyebrow-raising by Blake on camera), Blake first answers in true Rabbinic fashion, with another question: “What does your heart tell you to do?” Yet after wrestling a bit with the dilemma, Blake tells Block that learning more about one’s parents can be valuable, if the knowledge is used for “a holy purpose.”

Thus encouraged, Block decided to forge ahead — at times ambivalent, at times stunned.

“From the outside, to us, we thought they were actually wonderfully compatible. They had similar interests, they traveled, they bickered a bit but never argued,” Block said in an interview.

But as his mother’s diaries revealed, she was deeply unhappy in her marriage.
Block searched for ways to reconcile his image of his parents’ “model marriage” with the emerging picture of discord, anger and infidelity.

Although the film contains no explicit explanation of how Block, a “cultural” but non-observant Jew, interpreted the rabbi’s words, Block said he believed the rabbi “meant if I’m using it to honor and celebrate my mother’s life … it’s a holy thing.”
Yet, during the process of making the film, it wasn’t always clear to Block that his work hewed to this “holy” purpose.

“There were many times I thought it was a holy mess! I thought, all I’m going to do is burn in hell,” he said. “My mother will come off looking horribly, and I’ll look even worse for doing this.” He said he spent “many sleepless nights feeling the weight of picking out the right phrases and words of all the volumes of writings, to honor her complexity, her intelligence, to show her as a rounded human being.”

“On one level,” Block said, his film “is a story of assimilation, of city Jews moving to the suburbs and trying to fit in,” the pressures of which were one source of his mother’s unhappiness. Block says it’s also “very Jewish” that his family “covers up a lot of stuff through sarcasm and humor.” And he believes that his film was a profound act of teshuvah, a concept he discussed with Los Angeles Rabbi Judith Halevy while filming. Creating a portrait of his parents’ lives, including their fallibility, was for Block an “act of coming to forgiveness, and somehow getting cleansed in the process.”

Yet “51 Birch Street” is also a universal tale. Ultimately the story is — like the complex lives it reveals to us — a mass of contradictions. On the one hand, it is a truly sad story: of thwarted potential, of betrayal and of the defeat of good intentions. But it is also a story of redemption, of two men who manage to transcend the pain of their lives to forge new relationships: Mike Block with Kitty, and Doug Block with his father.

UTLA quashes Israel divestment push


Under a tidal wave of pressure from the local Jewish community, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) decided to deny use of its headquarters to the UTLA Human Rights Committee. The committee planned to discuss economic sanctions against Israel, including a boycott and divestment.
 
The move by the roughly 25-member group, a small fraction of the 48,000 UTLA members, caught the attention of the Jewish community, which quickly united in opposition.
 
UTLA President A.J. Duffy said he advocated canceling the planned Oct. 14 pro-Palestinian gathering because it would have served only to “polarize our union members and members of our community.” Instead, he said he supports convening a gathering for a dialogue between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian forces.
 
However, pressure from Duffy and some Jewish organizations has galvanized some UTLA Human Rights Committee members, who now want to proceed with the pro-Palestinian meeting at “an undisclosed location at an undisclosed time,” according to Emma Rosenthal, a committee member and director of Cafe Intifada, which, along with the Los Angeles Palestine Labor Solidarity Committee, officially endorsed the Oct. 14 gathering.
 
“Some of the Jewish establishment is absolutely intolerant of any discussion of any sort that has to do with Palestinian human rights; anything that’s critical of Israel,” said Rosenthal, a poet and political activist, who is Jewish. She added that the organizations planning the meeting probably would have canceled the Oct. 14 gathering anyway because of security concerns.
 
Rosenthal called pro-Israel Jewish organizations hypocritical in calling for “balance” when, she believes, they so rarely offer it at their own meetings and conferences.
 
The UTLA Human Rights Committee and the Cafe Intifada blog have recently received hate mail and e-mails calling members “terrorists, Nazis and murderers,” Human Rights Committee member Andy Griggs said. He added that the committee originally had expected no more than 30 people to attend the meeting.
 
Founded in the 1980s, the Human Rights Committee has sponsored and hosted a variety of meetings and conferences over the years that have addressed the environment, support for striking Oaxacan teachers in Mexico and immigration rights, among other issues. In April, the group’s two-day “Conference on Human Rights and the Environment” featured workshops on topics ranging from the environmental impact of Israel “occupation” on Palestinian communities, to the Gulf War to climate change. A lunchtime plenary session included a discussion of “definitions of genocide and human rights in the U.S., world history and in the Middle East, specifically in Palestine,” according to the group’s Web site.
 
UTLA members can join the Human Rights Committee by attending its first meeting of the year, or two consecutive gatherings.
 
Teacher Elana Dombrower, who is Jewish, said the committee’s latest stance has angered her.
“I am infuriated,” said Dombrower, who teaches fifth-grade at Roscomare Road Elementary School in Bel Air. “How dare this committee try to do something like this that doesn’t reflect the UTLA’s view or the views of its members.”
 
The committee’s planned gathering was to have been sponsored by the Los Angeles chapter of a group called Movement for a Democratic Society Inc., a new organization based in Connecticut that, according to its Web site, includes among its board members author Noam Chomsky, who has been sharply critical of Israel, as well as revisionist historian Howard Zinn. The group has tight links with Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, a student-activist movement that peaked in the 1960s.
 
Some Jewish leaders appreciated UTLA Duffy’s efforts to put distance between the union and the Human Rights Committee.
 
“I’m proud of what the UTLA has done,” said Allyson Rowen Taylor, associate director of the western region of the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress).
 
Earlier, Rowen Taylor had said that allowing such a meeting to take place on union property would have given the appearance that that UTLA endorsed divestment and a boycott, which it does not.
 
An Oct. 6 letter to Duffy from several Jewish groups, including The Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee, AJCongress, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Progressive Jewish Alliance, among others, thanked him for sending “a clear message that UTLA does not endorse the [Human Rights] Committee’s action.”
 
To try to prevent future attacks on Israel by UTLA committees, the AJC has encouraged its members who belong to the union “to make their feelings known about the indoctrination programming done by the Human Rights Committee and the hijacking of this committee,” said Sherry Weinman, president of the Los Angeles AJC chapter.
 
Leaders from several major local Jewish organizations met for two hours at the L.A. Federation on Oct. 4 to discuss how to respond to the planned event. Several participants said Duffy, who attended the meeting, told the group that he is Jewish, supports Israel and sympathizes with their concerns. He told participants that UTLA’s 30-plus committees enjoy much autonomy, and that their positions don’t necessarily reflect the union as a whole.
 
Duffy said that he had removed UTLA’s Web link to the Human Rights Committee and that UTLA would review its procedures for granting use of its facilities to union committees. Duffy said that he found the brouhaha a distraction.
 
“Let me put it this way, I’d rather be focusing 100 percent of my time to the contract negotiations going on, rather than this,” he said in an interview.
 
A former special education teacher and dean of students at Palms Middle School, Duffy described himself as a cultural Jew. When he grew up in Brooklyn, “we used to say there were more of us here than in Israel, and it was true,” he quipped.
 
The UTLA Human Rights Committee agreed to host the pro-Palestinian meeting at the request of the Movement for a Democratic Society and after canvassing opinions of Human Rights Committee members. Although only six committee members responded to the list-serve e-mail, all said they supported the gathering, the Human Rights Committee’s Griggs said.
 
Marla Eby, UTLA director of communications, said Duffy will meet on Oct. 13 with the members of the Human Rights Committee to strongly urge the committee not to proceed. Duffy said he will “share the sheer preponderance of communications I’ve received that translate into our organization having taken a hit from our members. I’m not talking about The Jewish Federation or other Jewish organizations or Jewish teachers. I’m talking about teachers who are absolutely appalled that they think UTLA would sponsoring such an [anti-Israel] meeting.”

Measure ‘R’ contains curious ‘reform’


On November’s ballot, tucked among the local measures affecting only Los Angeles, is curious Measure R, a plan by the Los Angeles City Council to provide each of the 15 council
members an extra $570,000 in pay, by my own estimate roughly $1.25 million in subsidized health care per person for life and an extra pension windfall per person worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Council President Eric Garcetti, as chair of the city Elections Committee, assigned the measure the letter “R” for “reform.” But critics — including retired Department of Neighborhood Empowerment chief Greg Nelson, city ethics commissioner and journalist Bill Boyarsky and the editorial boards of the Los Angeles Daily News and Los Angeles Times — call it something else: a sneaky way to loosen the accountability of our public officials.

And here’s the kicker: The “proof” that purports to demonstrate the measure’s effectiveness? It doesn’t exist.

On the ballot, Measure R will be described by proponents as a law that improves term limits and city ethics rules. Many voters will assume it’s a good idea, since it’s backed by the League of Women Voters and Chamber of Commerce.

In truth, Measure R wipes out the limit of eight years, allowing our existing crop of 15 council members — and all subsequent ones — to stay in office 12 years. (Voters can try ousting them earlier, but the history of such efforts is not encouraging.)

Measure R did not arise from citizens. In fact, polls show that Angelenos oppose efforts to soften term limits. Nor would voters seek to hand each of our current council members an additional $1 million to $2 million in pay and perks.

Only history will tell the tale of how Measure R really came to be. What is known, however, is this: It was proposed in vague outline by the chamber and league on a Friday. The council — which can take months just deciding the color of recycling bins — backed it the following Tuesday.

I’ve seen a lot of self-interested moves by politicians. One was the clever move in 1990 by the City Council, also peddled as “reform,” to forever tie their pay raises to those of Superior Court judges. As a result, every time overworked judges get a pay raise, so do the 15 council members. That’s why they earn $149,000, the highest-paid council members by far in a major U.S. city. (New York City, a far costlier place to live, pays its council members $90,000; San Francisco, another more expensive city in which to live, pays $91,000).

Although Measure R is touted as ethics reform, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and Ethics Commissioner Boyarsky — who is also a columnist for The Jewish Journal — have said it actually helps lobbyists cover their tracks.

Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce board member Ron Gastelum defended Measure R to me, saying the chamber and league proposed it because “it takes a council member the entire first term to really learn the business of the city,” and council members start running for other offices during their second term.

According to Gastelum, “after closely examining all these factors, we had to conclude that an additional term is needed.”

Except no “examination” happened. In an interview, Gastelum told me that neither the chamber nor league studied the achievements of legislative bodies limited to eight years, vs. those with 12. Moreover, they did not contact other cities or regions, nor did they define what “effectiveness” is.

Over the summer, league past president Cindy O’Connor admitted to the Tarzana Neighborhood Council that the league set up Measure R as “a carrot and stick.”

The carrot, she said, was their claim of an ethics crackdown. The stick, she said, was the unpopular term limits extension which could never pass alone.

Nelson says, “Measure R is really horrifying, because if you are lobbyist and you work on a contingency and don’t get paid until the issue you’re working on is over, you don’t, under this ‘reform,’ have to report that you are lobbying on the issue. So they are invisible! This is what Boyarsky and Delgadillo found unconscionable.”

Boyarsky, who cannot criticize Measure R because he is on the Ethics Commission, has nevertheless voiced extreme displeasure that it arose from backroom dealing and waters down city ethics laws.

“When I found out it eases regulations on lobbyists, I started asking all these questions of our [commission] staff,” he told me. “But that was all I could do. I am prohibited from criticizing ballot measures. My only consolation is I believe it’s going to lose.”

Would the City Council be more effective given 12 years instead of eight?
Nelson, who spent decades as an aide to fiery former Councilman Joel Wachs, says no.

“I realized it didn’t matter how much time council members have in office, the day I got this call from the Los Angeles Times,” he told me. About 15 years ago, before term limits, the newspaper asked Nelson to name the most important things the council had achieved that year.

“I couldn’t think of a single thing to put on a list for them,” he recalls. “The lesson is, given more time, the council is no more effective and no more interested in the big issues. I saw it firsthand.”

Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist. Her website is

Labeling ourselves as ‘right’ or ‘left’ limits us


I’m not done.

Social Action Groups Fight for Cleaning Ladies’ Rights


I am sitting in a Brooklyn diner, having breakfast with Marlene Champion, 61, a tall, striking woman from Barbados. Champion makes her living as a domestic worker, and right now she works as a nanny caring for a 4-year-old girl in Brooklyn Heights.

Champion is also an active member of Domestic Workers United (DWU), a Bronx-based organization fighting for domestic workers’ rights. In the 16 years since she immigrated to the United States, Champion has worked in four households, all Jewish. With the exception of one family that treated her badly, she says she’s had good relations with all of them.

Champion felt especially close to a Dr. Steiner, whom she took care of for six years, until he died at 92 with Champion at his side. She was in charge of all his care, prepared his meals, did the laundry and kept his apartment clean. She accompanied him to all the family weddings.

He had specialized in the study of tuberculosis, and he used to tell her stories about his work. Sometimes, he showed her his old slides. You’d make such a great doctor, or nurse, he used to tell her. Champion still keeps a picture of Steiner on her wall, and stays in close contact with his children.

After she finishes telling me her story, I say that my family had a housekeeper when I was growing up. I also say something that she probably already knows: that hiring domestic help is fairly common in Jewish households. And then I ask her what is special, if anything, about working for Jewish families. She smiles.
“We’re of different races,” she says. “But I think we have a lot in common.”

When Jews hire people to do household jobs — anybody who cleans, cooks, does the laundry, cares for children or elderly parents — we are the ones who represent the privileged class, with the funds to hire help. Jews today are generally wealthier and better educated than the majority of Americans. But the widespread practice of having “help” goes all the way back to our grandmother’s day, when even Jewish families in modest circumstances very often had cleaning ladies, perhaps because the wages for domestic work were so low that even working-class families could often afford this small luxury.

“It wasn’t as if you were putting on airs,” a Jewish lady in her 70s told me. “Having a cleaning lady was socially acceptable.”

Yet even the term “cleaning lady” indicates the awkwardness employers feel in the presence of a rather un-American class system. We don’t need to call the electrician the “electrical fix-it gentleman,” after all.

Today, two-career households need housekeepers and nannies and cleaning ladies even more than the stereotypical clean-floor-obsessed housewives of a previous generation might have. Indeed, some of the backlash against the women’s movement focuses on this issue: The gains of middle-class women during the last three decades, critics charge, were achieved through the exploitation of other, less fortunate women. And despite the energy that fueled the 1970s efforts to elevate the status of housecleaners — stating that being paid fairly for a job responsibly done was no different if you were a housekeeper than if you were any other kind of laborer — those early efforts to make the relationship between employer and employee more businesslike never took hold.

Our relationship with the women who work in our homes is still inherently an unequal one. This fact makes many of us so uncomfortable that some Jewish women refuse to have household help even if they can afford it. Breena Kaplan, 65, is an artist on Long Island who has always done her own cleaning,
“It’s my schmutz, so I should take care of it,” said Kaplan, a “red-diaper baby” who grew up in “the Co-ops,” two Bronx apartment buildings populated in the 1940s and onward largely by left-wing Jews.

Her father, who came from Russia, a card-carrying Communist, made “a good living” in the textile business, and he insisted that Luba, his wife, have help in the house. Kaplan remembers Elizabeth, a tall black woman who smelled of starch and soap, standing over the sink, scrubbing the family’s wash. But Elizabeth didn’t last long, because Luba couldn’t stand the humiliation she felt at a black woman coming into her home and slaving away for her in, of all places, the Co-ops.

Some Jewish women attempt to deal with the discomfort they feel at the imbalance of power between them and their domestic workers by reframing the relationship as a collaboration. Carla Singer, a film producer in New York City, employs Grace Smith — not her real name — as a twice-weekly housekeeper. Singer says she really only needs Smith one day a week, but, “this is tikkun. I know where my extra money is going — to support Grace and her son. If I send it to a charity, I don’t know where my money is going.”

Singer feels that the tikkun, or repair of the world, is mutual — Smith helped her out at a very difficult time, after Singer had just made a hugely dislocating transition, she said, moving to New York from Los Angeles with her teenage daughter. One day, as Smith was helping them settle into a new apartment, Singer, stressed-out, snapped at her.

Smith shot back: “You know, Carla, we’re partners in this.”

“She was right,” Singer said. “In a sense, she doesn’t work for me.”

Except that Smith does work for Singer. And it’s time, especially in the context both of the global discussion of immigration laws and the more local desperation of working mothers juggling many needs, to talk openly about the relationship between Jewish women and the help — almost always female — we employ in the intimate settings of our own homes and families.

According to DWU, virtually all domestic workers today are immigrants, the vast majority of them undocumented, which makes it all too easy for employers to exploit them, wittingly or not. The good news is that there’s movement to encourage Jews to treat those who work for us with fairness, as we’re enjoined to do as a basic Jewish value.

A series of interviews with both Jewish employers and their domestic workers revealed that, happily, the mutual respect between Champion and the Steiner family is not unique. But I also heard awful stories about Jewish families who treat their domestic workers badly, ranging from subtle to not-so-subtle insults — recalling Philip Roth’s cringe-inducting scene of Portnoy’s mother and her treatment of the so-called “schvartze” in “Portnoy’s Complaint” — and a real blindness to the basic needs of the employee to allegations of physical abuse.

Some bosses, in flagrant disregard of Jewish teachings and basic consideration, don’t pay their domestic workers on time. “Do not withhold the pay of your workers overnight,” it says in Leviticus 19:13. Or, in a striking lack of empathy, some employers don’t recognize the dire financial consequences to a day worker who may be counting on the next day’s wages to pay the rent, or feed her kids, who gets a call the night before, announcing “I don’t need you tomorrow.”

Some women mistreat their domestic workers in more subtle ways. Gayle Kirshenbaum, 39, who is active in Jews for Economic and Racial Justice, a New York City-based grass-roots group with the stated goal of injecting a “progressive Jewish voice” into New York City politics, once remarked to a friend, also Jewish, how awful it must be for Caribbean domestic workers to have to leave their children back home with relatives. Her friend disagreed.

“No, it doesn’t bother them,” the friend said. “They’re not like us.”

Another woman spoke of her friend, a Holocaust survivor’s daughter in her 50s, living in a New York suburb, who confessed to feeling gratified when she ordered around a non-Jewish Polish immigrant cleaning lady.

The one family that Champion said did not treat her well consisted of two ill and elderly parents, whom Champion looked after for eight months, and their adult daughter who lived nearby. The problem, Champion said, was the daughter.

She would buy only enough groceries for her parents; Champion was expected to get her own food. When Champion lifted the father from his bed to his wheelchair — something she had been trained to do — the daughter, likening Champion to a man, would call her “Harry.”

And one day, when the daughter was visiting, Champion overheard a conversation between daughter and father. The father was telling his daughter how much he liked Champion, so much that he’d like to give her something. Maybe even some stock that he owned.

The daughter was furious. “Oh, no! They’re just the help!” she screamed loudly. Champion, although in another room, could not help but hear. “Give it to your grandchildren!”

Money, of course, is a real issue. Many domestic workers are badly paid. According to DWU, some day workers receive as little as $2 an hour; some live-ins are paid $250 a month. DWU recommends a living wage of $14 an hour.

Even though labor laws technically protect all workers, documented or not, in reality the laws fail domestic workers. Domestics do not have the right to unionize, and most are undocumented immigrants, which makes them doubly vulnerable. These facts make it nearly impossible for them to demand such rights as health care, severance pay, paid vacation, sick days, notice of termination — all things that we would likely assume were due us if we were the employees ourselves. But how domestic workers fare depends entirely on the will, good or ill, of their employers.

Jeannie Prager of Englewood, N.J., spoke about how these issues play out in her tightly knit modern Orthodox community in a New York suburb: “We are the people who seem to hire the most housekeepers. And we’re doing a terrible job.”

Prager knows this, because over the years she’d gotten quite an earful, both from Victoria Smith (not her real name), her former housekeeper, and from Smith’s schmoozing friends, who often hung out at the house.

Prager recently fired Smith, who had been with her for 13 years, providing care to Prager’s ailing nonagenarian mother for the last nine of them.

“It was time for a change,” Prager said. “She was always on the phone. Her friends who worked in the neighborhood often stopped by for a bite and a chat on their way home. It was all just too much, too much noise and commotion.”
Letting Smith go was a tough decision, though. “She was a godsend in many ways. And a 13-year relationship, with two women sharing one kitchen, becomes a very close friendship.”

When Prager finally got the words out, she gave Smith two weeks’ notice and $5,000, six weeks’ severance pay. Smith, also eligible for unemployment compensation, was furious.

“I always held you up on a pedestal,” Smith told her employer. “But my friends always warned me. And now I see that they were right, that you’re just like all the rest.”

“The rest,” of course, meant “the rest of the Jews.” Prager felt horrible. But despite Smith’s anger, she and her family paid a shiva call when Prager’s mother died shortly after the firing.

Smith declined several requests to speak with this writer directly, though she and Prager stay in touch.

It took Smith seven months to find a comparable job. Prager said she was the one to find it for her. In the Prager household, Smith had two weeks off annually to start, increased to three weeks at her 10-year anniversary, five sick days, three personal days and “of course,” said Prager, paid holidays.

Prospective employers, responding to the ad Prager posted for Smith on the shul’s Web site, kept telling her they’d never heard of a housekeeper getting paid vacation.

“These things upset me so much,” Prager told me. “They give us such a bad name.”
Worried, Prager approached her rabbi with the idea of starting a discussion in the congregation about practices around hiring household help.

“I feel that if some of these women could speak in a safe environment and say what bothers them, and likewise for their housekeepers, we would all benefit,” she said. The rabbi said her idea was interesting, and that was the end of it.

Prager had nailed it, though her rabbi wasn’t listening. But at least one rabbi is: Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of the Brooklyn congregation Kolot Chayeinu devoted last year’s Rosh Hashanah sermon to employing domestic workers, not a usual High Holidays theme.

“Since we are Jews sitting here together on a night designated for thinking about doing right, it seems crucial that we Jews be thoughtful about and to the people who work in our homes,” she said. And often, she added, we are not. “Not out of malice, but out of busyness and lack of thought.”

Lippmann cited the story of Sarah and Hagar, whom the infertile Sarah mistreats when Hagar conceives. The Ramban, Lippman said, “says Sarah sinned when she did this and so did Abraham by letting it happen.”

She added: “When we hire someone to work in our homes, we must see that person as fully human, seen by God.”

Lippmann, like Kirshenbaum, is active in Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). Two years ago, the group embarked on a “Shalom Bayit” campaign in partnership with DWU. JFREJ also hosts small group discussions in people’s homes, the “living room project.”

As part of the campaign, the group’s members conduct discussions in synagogues about the just treatment of domestic workers. Last year, for example, Kirshenbaum and DWU members Champion and Allison Julien were invited to visit Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, an upscale New York suburb, for the congregation’s social action Shabbat. The women spoke about domestic workers’ rights.

JFREJ’s membership is decidedly left-leaning. In their shalom bayit, or peace in the house, campaign, the group is consciously trying, says Kirshenbaum, “to broach the line between progressive and more traditional Jews.” Because it is clear, she says, “how deeply this issue resonates in the Jewish community” in both directions. Jews are employers, she said, and they also want to do right by their employees.

“Doing right” means putting your money where your mouth is. At the living room meetings, JFREJ organizers talk about the specifics of treating domestic workers in a professional manner. Which means, for example, offering full-time employees a contract. The standard contract, based on a DWU model, specifies, for example, what responsibilities the job does — and does not — entail, how many paid sick days and vacation days the employee is entitled to, what the rate of payment will be for overtime work, the medical care the employer agrees to pay for, and what the food arrangement will be.

The document explaining the contract goes out of its way to assure employers that using a contract is good for them, too, leading to more loyalty from the employee, and an end to abrupt departures, as there’s a “must give notice” clause.

But it may take a while to shift employers from the more casual — and less fair, though less costly — model of doing business. The JFREJ-DWU presentation last year at Temple Beth-El of Great Neck, said social action committee chairwoman Alice Fornari, did not get much of a response.

“The evening ends and then it’s over,” Fornari said. “Nobody talked to me about it afterward.”

Other social-action subjects — stopping the genocide in Darfur, for example — get a significant response from the whole community, said Rabbi Darcie Krystal, who with Fornari organized the social action Shabbat and was supportive of the domestic workers issue. With domestic help it’s a different matter.

“It’s a very risky topic for a social action Shabbat,” Fornari told me. “People don’t want it in their face.” People, she said, would rather hear about, say, Israel. In other words, things and places that are far away.

“I don’t think most people care about the rights of domestic workers,” Fornari said. “They don’t feel it’s a topic that’s relevant to their lives, even though the women they hire are taking care of their homes and their children. People don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want to do anything about it.”

It is a topic dear to her, Fornari said, because of her involvement with each of the housekeepers she has employed over the years in her own home. She helped one, who came from Bolivia not knowing any English, to get into college; the woman is now a teacher. Extensive interviews reveal that many Jewish employers have tried similarly to improve the individual lives of their housekeepers, to whom they’ve grown close; Fornari’s behavior, like Prager’s, is not an isolated phenomenon. Fornari is determined to continue the conversation that she started at Temple Beth-El. She would love to see a living room session in Great Neck.

Kirshenbaum described hosting such a meeting at a friend’s home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood where a majority of the women pushing strollers on the streets look to be other than the babies’ mothers.

“There were perhaps 11 people there. We raised issues like the fact that if you go on vacation, you need to pay your domestic worker. And people said, ‘But no, if I’m going away, I shouldn’t have to pay.’ ”

“But then,” Kirshenbaum continued, “I could see people shifting categories, for the first time. It was like lightbulbs going on. These women had thought of their domestic workers as casual baby sitters, not as women who were counting on this salary to pay their own household bills. And now, they were suddenly realizing, ‘We are employers and they are our employees, and of course I get sick leave, so why shouldn’t they?'”

“There is no shame in hiring someone to work for us,” Kirshenbaum said. “The only shame is in not treating them well.”

This article is reprinted with permission from Lilith Magazine: Independent, Jewish & Frankly Feminist.

Students Draw on Movie for Tolerance Mural Inspiration


Oscar de la Hoyer Animo Charter High School

In a hallway of Oscar de la Hoya Animo Charter High School in downtown Los Angeles, a three-part canvas mural covers a wall, portraying the transformation of society from one plagued by hate to one free of it.

The mural’s creators are at-risk Latino high school students who spent their Saturdays envisioning a better world, and then painting it.

The students participated in a mural workshop based on a simple principle: Art can change the world.

The engineer of the workshop is Kids for Peace, a children’s art program initially begun to help combat terrorism in Israel by providing artistic and creative guidance to youngsters.

Gayle Gale started Kids for Peace after she returned to Los Angeles from a series of trips to Israel as a visiting artist at Ben-Gurion University, Beersheba in 1994 and 1995. With assistance from the local Israeli consulate and a grant obtained with help from the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity from the Jewish Community Foundation, she set out to teach youth about Israel through artistic means. In the years since, Gale has found herself doing much more.

Gale has traveled around the world conducting Kids for Peace workshops, working with groups to create artworks for all variety of venues, including the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, where kids made a mural to commemorate the celebration of the 50th anniversary of human rights in 1998. In 2001, Gale received the Fete d’Excellence gold medallion for Youth from the coalition of nongovernmental organizations that are a part of the United Nations.

After Sept. 11, 2001, Gale expanded the Kids for Peace focus beyond terrorism and Israel to include issues of hunger, gang violence and AIDS, depending on the location of the workshop and the most relevant issue in the part of the world she was attempting to reach. In the process, Gale sought to avoid making Kids for Peace a politically charged initiative.

“I don’t consider this a political project,” she said. “I consider it a way of bringing people together using the creative process for harmony and to make social statements that educate people because I believe that we’ll have peace when there’s education.”

Run in conjunction with Barnsdall Arts, which has worked with Kids for Peace since 2003, the Oscar de la Hoya workshop allowed 20 students to create a series of murals to adorn their campus in the Los Angeles World Trade Center.

After viewing a documentary called “The Devil’s Miner,” about a young Bolivian boy forced to work in a mine to support his family, the students agreed upon the images they sought to portray after performing yoga and participating in a discussion of social justice led by Gale, who routinely uses such methods to get students thinking and feeling. Then they get painting.

The particular focus of the workshop was the importance of education to the achievement of peace.

When Gale discovered the “The Devil’s Miner” at a special screening at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood in April, she realized it was a tool she could use to further emphasize the relationship between education and peace in her workshops. Its protagonist dreams above all of saving enough money to one day attend school.

“I thought that if kids in America could see this film, they would appreciate what they have, and they would take their educations more seriously,” Gale said. The students at Oscar de la Hoya Animo devoted three Saturdays in May and June to working on the murals.

Gale and her patrons are hoping that it will be the first of many “Devil’s Miner” workshops she will conduct.

“My goal is just to travel around the world and keep doing workshops,” Gale said.

Performers Go It Alone and Like It That Way


Michael Raynor moves with the balletic grace and cocksure athleticism of a former pickup basketball player and street fighter. He simulates dribbling a ball between his legs with the adeptness of the highly recruited hoops star he once was, then he assumes his grandfather’s boxer’s crouch, takes on the gravelly voice of the onetime Louis Lepke associate and throws the jab. Effortlessly, Raynor switches time periods and voices, at one moment playing his sassy mother with her elbow against her rib, her wrist bent, and then his grandmother, with her stooped posture and her Old World idiosyncrasies.

In “Who Is Floyd Stearn?” playing at the Sidewalk Studio Theater in Toluca Lake, Raynor goes on a Rashomon-like search for the essence of his father, who left the family when the actor was a little boy. Was his father a deadbeat dad? A mentally ill genius? A con man?

The rugged-looking actor’s only props are a chair and a black-and-white photograph of his father with his arm around him as Raynor, the little boy, plays a guitar. Raynor speaks with the sing-song patter of the New York City streets. He is a Jewish man who hails from an older tradition — the Jews of the first half of the last century: tough Jews, who dominated sports like boxing and basketball and served disproportionately in the first two World Wars and in the ranks of gangsters. But he also has a vulnerability mixed in with that toughness, like John Garfield, to whom he has been compared.

Despite courageous performances by actors like Raynor, solo-show performers have been lampooned often by the likes of Martin Short and mocked by many as self-absorbed narcissists, bent on exploring their own navels rather than advancing the art form of the theater. Nonetheless, one-person shows continue to proliferate and provide performers with a unique outlet for meta-theatrical expression.

Stacie Chaiken, who runs a solo workshop in Santa Monica, says the medium is “a way for actors to take control of their destiny,” but she also admits, these shows are “cheap to produce. It’s very easy for a one-person show to travel around.”

There are some big-name Jewish performers like Billy Crystal, who recently toured with his Tony-winning homage to his father, “700 Sundays,” and Eve Ensler, creator of the “Vagina Monologues.” But in recent months, many L.A. theaters have produced one-person shows featuring lesser-known Jewish talent, such as Judi Lee Brandwein, star of “Fornicationally Challenged,” which played at the Hudson Guild and is moving to New York; Linda Lichtman, whose one-person show, “The Bride Can’t Stop Coughing” is playing at the Actors Playpen; and Carla Zilbersmith, a singer and actress who revisits her days on the wedding circuit in “Wedding Singer Blues.”

While each show follows its own trajectory, Chaiken points out that many Jewish-themed plays explore the issue of legacy. These performers describe conflicted feelings about their parents and the aspirations held out for them. As clichéd as such scenarios may seem, they speak to the pain and humor of family, a commonality that usually resonates with audiences.

Zilbersmith, who has a music degree from the New England Conservatory of Music and a theater degree from NYU, cites the lineage of the art form: “The ancient conversation we call theater has always contained some form of solo performance, and I would argue that the most successful solo pieces acknowledge these theatrical roots.”

Those roots surely include King David, who soothed Saul by singing and playing the harp or lyre, troubadours during the Middle Ages who wandered from town to town and entertained crowds, and, in the past century, Lord Buckley, the now-forgotten, Beat-era monologist who started out in vaudeville and later told tales in a bebop idiom that centered on historical and biblical characters like “the Nazz,” a jive take on Jesus. Buckley’s influence could be seen in the work of Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan, the latter a modern-day Jewish troubadour, who cites Buckley in his recent “Chronicles, Vol. 1.”

Notable works in the field include, of course, Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain in “Mark Twain Tonight!” and Julie Harris’ Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst,” formal one-person shows about external subjects. In the past 15 years or so, as memoirs, particularly those of addiction and recovery, have staked out a dominant place on the bookshelf, solo shows too have become much more personal, including the work of performance artists and monologists.

Chaiken, who teaches acting and solo performance at USC and who studied with Spalding Gray at the Performance Group in New York, credits Gray with formulating “a me that was very close to the me that was him,” and ushering in a new sensibility for monologists.

Fred Johntz has partnered with Mark Travis for seven years in writing and directing numerous one-person shows, including “Fornicationally Challenged.” Johntz says that performance art by L.A. performance artists such as John Fleck (whose work was denied NEA grants due to its provocative subject matter) and Sandra Tsing Loh are “pretty much in the same vein” as the one-person shows he directs.

The trend in self-involved storytelling, which may have reached its apotheosis in the blog phenomenon, has also led to the dissemination of many factual errors and even hoaxes. Likewise, one-person shows and their variants often could benefit from editing. Many suffer from poor storytelling if not outright posing.

Not surprisingly, there have been parodies even in one-person shows. In “Wedding Singer Blues,” Zilbersmith at one point portrays a performance artist as a brain-dead, pot-headed character who spins naked on a rotating East Village stage.

Women have been among the pioneers in this avant-garde art form. Anna Deveare Smith used journalistic techniques for her solo gigs. In the aftermath of the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn and the 1992 Rodney King riots here in Los Angeles, she took to the streets with a tape recorder in hand and captured the colloquialisms that would later inform her award-winning performances in “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992,” respectively.

Most one-woman shows, however, favor sexual politics over political or racial issues.

Lichtman regales us with stories of her liaisons with younger men in “The Bride Can’t Stop Coughing” — a brave performance, not least because she is in her 60s. She invokes Jewish icons like the Dodgers of the 1950s, intersperses her act with Yiddish expressions and speaks in characteristically Jewish syntax when she utters lines like, “Lucky, I didn’t set myself on fire.”

Are Jews particularly well-suited to one-person shows?

Zilbersmith, starring in “Wedding Singer Blues,” now playing at the Coronet Theater, says that while she has a variety of students at the College of Marin in the Bay Area, where she teaches solo performance, those who tend to focus on writing and storytelling are Jewish. But she also notes the strong oral traditions of African Americans and the Irish; she says that most of her friends who are solo performers are African American.

One of Chaiken’s students, Frankie Colmane, wrote and acted in “Body and Soul,” a one-person show about her experience as a French Algerian Jew living in America. With immigration a searing topic both in this country and in France, Colmane’s show, which moved on to the Edge of the World Theater Festival in downtown Los Angeles, transcends Jewishness and speaks to all audiences. Of course, it also speaks to her.

As Chaiken says, “We’re all very interested in ourselves.”

“The Bride Can’t Stop Coughing” plays Mondays, 8 p.m., through July 31 at the Actors Playpen, 1514 N. Gardner St., Hollywood, (310) 560-6063 or (310) 582-0025.

“Cheerios in My Underwear” plays July 30, 3 p.m. and on selected Sundays, once a month, at the Empty Stage Theater, 2372 Veteran Ave., West Los Angeles, (310) 308-0947.

“Wedding Singer Blues” plays Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m., through July 16, at the Coronet Theater, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 657-7377.

“What’s the Story?” a series of new works-in-progress, plays July 10 and on selected Mondays, once a month, at the Powerhouse Theater, 3116 Second St., Santa Monica, (310) 450-1312.

“Who Is Floyd Stearn?” plays Thursdays, 8 p.m., at the Sidewalk Studio Theater, 4150 Riverside Dr., Toluca Lake, (323) 960-1052, (818) 558-5702.

“Zero Hour” opens July 7, plays Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., through Aug. 13, at the Egyptian Arena Theater, 1625 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood, (323) 860-6620. Special gala dinner and performance on Sunday, July 9, honoring West Coast Jewish Theater founder Naomi Jacobs.

NGOs Feel Sting of Hamas Ban


Nearly three months since Hamas took control of the Palestinian Authority, Western governments aren’t the only ones trying to figure out how to deliver aid to the increasingly needy Palestinian population without inadvertently supporting its extremist government.

Nongovernmental organizations — which Western governments opposed to ties with Hamas view as the most viable medium for delivering aid to the Palestinians — are themselves running into problems trying to maintain their operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

With the Palestinian Authority in disarray and Western governments still in the process of defining what is permissible vis-?-vis links to the Hamas-run government, many nonprofit groups operating in Palestinian areas are facing serious funding problems, confusion about whom they are allowed to talk to and work with, and the challenge of having to establish ties with a completely new — and far less institutionalized — Palestinian bureaucracy.

The situation is nothing short of a crisis, many officials with these groups, sometimes known as NGOs, here say.

“I have never seen as much policy confusion in government as I have seen when Hamas was elected in the Palestinian Authority,” said John Bell, director of the Jerusalem office of Search for Common Ground in the Middle East.

“Who can we have contact with? Can we be in the same room as a Hamas person? There are many legal issues for us to consider,” Bell said. “Unfortunately, we’re a bit in the realm of the absurd.”

A variety of officials from nonprofits operating in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip discussed the challenges of operating in Hamas-run territory at a conference last week on nonprofits, human rights and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The forum, hosted by NGO Monitor, was held June 14 at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem.

Many officials from nonprofit groups complained that American, European and Israeli restrictions on contacts with the Hamas government are too far-reaching, threatening nonpolitical and even pro-peace activities, such as the teaching of coexistence curricula in Palestinian schools. Because those schools are now under the aegis of Hamas, coordination with officials from the Palestinian Education Ministry is now banned by Western governments.

“It’s virtually impossible to fund Palestinian society today in the West Bank without encountering Hamas,” said Daniel Seideman, legal adviser to Ir Amim, an Israeli group that advocates for a binational Jerusalem and promotes services to Palestinian residents of the city.

But many Western observers argue that the funding crisis in the Palestinian Authority — precipitated by Western sanctions — is a necessary part of getting the Hamas-run government to abandon terrorism.

“This crisis is necessary and overdue,” said Saul Singer, an Israeli newspaper columnist who spoke at the conference. The idea, Singer explained, is to use the crisis to force Hamas to accept the principle of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We’re talking about a game of chicken here,” Singer said, between the principles of Hamas, a terrorist group that mandates Israel’s destruction, on the one hand, and the principles of the international community — abandonment of terrorism, recognition of Israel and acceptance of existing Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements — on the other.

“I think Hamas should give in,” Singer said.

While this game is played, however, groups funded by Western governments must figure out how to adjust to the new reality of maintaining their activities in a territory where cooperation with the local government is restricted.

There are pitfalls and obstacles everywhere, officials with these groups say.

Other organizations report that donors’ targeted gifts are harder to use because of the new bans. Some say they have been forced to return funds to donors.

Gershon Baskin, co-CEO of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, says his group does not accept funding from the Palestinian or Israeli governments in order to steer clear of restrictions and conflicts of interest. But his reliance on other governments, such as that of the United States, has come at a cost.

According to Bell, the United States is more stringent than Israel when it comes to restrictions on nonprofits’ activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The United States “is putting out extremely stringent demands and conditions,” Bell said. “The Israelis are a lot more practical about it. They know things have to be done, and they’re trying to get them done while at the same time the U.S. government is prohibiting very common-sense activities.”

Many officials with nonprofit groups say Western bans on contacts with Hamas should be more nuanced — both to facilitate easier aid to the Palestinians and to help bring Hamas around to a more moderate point of view.

“I understand the logic behind a government boycotting Hamas,” Baskin said. “I don’t think that has to limit nongovernmental actors in trying to effect change.”

“I would like to see the international community looking for ways that can help us to move the Hamas from where it is to a different place, to a better place, to a reformed political platform, which I believe is inevitable,” Baskin said. “We have to be very careful about both boycotts against Israel and boycotts against Palestine that prevent peaceful NGOs from doing their work.”

 

Schools Give Prum-Hess High Marks


Last year, two Los Angeles schools applied for and won MATCH grants, which are awarded each year by a consortium of Jewish education foundations that reward day schools for cultivating new donors. The grants brought in more than $100,000.

This spring, 13 day schools were awarded the same grant, bringing in $1.5 million.

What changed?

Miriam Prum-Hess, director of day school operations for the Bureau of Jewish Education, entered the Los Angeles Jewish day school picture, and she alerted schools to the opportunity and guided them through the process.

Prum-Hess, an experienced and admired Federation executive, took on a new role working on behalf of day schools last year, an effort to increase the level of professionalism and efficiency in all nonacademic areas. She has become the central address for day schools looking for expertise on operational issues — fundraising strategies, legal advice, business decisions, purchasing, and human resources. During the past 18 months she has examined the big picture of what the city’s 37 days schools — of all denominations — need, and has run seminars, consulted with the school administrators and lay leaders and opened up new resources to meet those needs.

Since Los Angeles’ Federation is the first to fund such a position, national Jewish leaders have trained their eyes here to see how things turn out.

“The whole model that undergirds Miriam’s position, which is that a central agency should have a professional dedicated to helping day schools build their capacities, is from our perspective just 100 percent sound,” said Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Boston-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), which works off a similar model on a national scale. “It is a very important strategy in enabling day schools to grow themselves from the inside by focusing on all the things they need to be strong.”

Local educators have welcomed Prum-Hess, who visited all of Los Angeles’ Jewish schools in her first few months on the job, which she started in December 2004.

“I have been involved with the Bureau [of Jewish Education] as a head of school here for 20 years, and for me adding Miriam was the most significant change in the entire time I’ve been here,” says Lana Marcus, head of school at Adat Ari El, a Conservative kindergarten through eighth grade day school in Valley Village. Marcus credits Prum-Hess for enabling her to win a MATCH grant worth $275,000.

One of Prum-Hess’s primary goals is to bring more money into the schools to bring relief both to parents struggling to pay tuition and administrators struggling to make the budget. She is working with The Federation, the Jewish Community Foundation and BJE Executive Director Gil Graff to set up a $20 million community endowment fund.

But while that is in the works, she is helping schools tap into government and foundation money they can access immediately.

To qualify for the MATCH grants, funded by a consortium of foundations under the leadership of PEJE, the Jewish Funders Network and the Avi Chai Foundation, schools had to generate gifts of at least $25,000 from donors who had not previously given a major gift to a day school.

A BJE-sponsored seminar in November 2005 helped schools gain enough confidence and expertise to approach new donors. Twenty-three schools attended, and more than half of those received one-on-one coaching as a follow-up.

Thirteen schools — of all denominations and sizes — were able to raise a combined $1 million, and the foundations matched 50 cents to the dollar.

In addition, 12 schools this year brought in more than $1 million in grants from the Department of Homeland Security.

Schools credit the BJE-sponsored seminars for giving them the information and know-how to pursue these opportunities.

“It forced a lot of the schools to go outside of their comfort zones and look for new donors or push people they were working with before to go above and beyond what they were doing,” said Alain R’bibo, a lay leader at Or Hachaim Academy, a 3-year-old Sephardic elementary school in North Hollywood. The school, affiliated with Adat Yeshurun Congregation, qualified for the MATCH grants. “Miriam reaches out to make sure we get information and find out about what programs are available.”

In December 2004, the Federation transferred Prum-Hess, then vice president of planning and allocations, into the BJE, where she took on the newly created portfolio of Day School Capacity Building to deal with operational issues for 37 schools, which have a combined budget of $138 million. The Federation funded her salary for two years and BJE funded her expenses such as office support and travel. A Jewish Community Foundation grant of $50,000 provided much of the programming fund.

Federation President John Fishel said that senior Federation leadership has asked the planning and allocation committee to continue funding Prum-Hess’s position past the initial two-year commitment.

“Her work is extremely important and she’s making a difference in the day schools,” Fishel said. “She has accomplished more in a year and a half then I would have anticipated. It’s very impressive.”

Prum-Hess says that every one of the day schools in the L.A. area has participated in at least one of her programs over the past year, most of them in more than one.

“The really exciting thing for me is how open and hungry for this the schools are,” said Prum-Hess, who herself has two kids in day school.

The BJE has hosted seminars on board development, fundraising, legal and tax issues, management training and grant-getting. All of these came with follow-up one-on-one consulting, providing the schools enough expert guidance to implement what they learned at the seminars.

Prum-Hess has also negotiated joint purchasing for items such as copier contracts — a huge budget item for schools — and is looking into jointly purchasing employee benefits. A consortium of lawyers specializing in school issues is now available at a minimal cost.

She has launched a marketing campaign, starting with research aimed at decoding why so many parents who send their little ones to Jewish preschool pull them out for grade school.

These are questions that all Jewish schools share, and Prum-Hess is happy to be there to answer. For the first time, principals and directors say, they feel like they know whom to call with questions unrelated to pedagogy or curriculum. They know they have someone who can take a step-back and evaluate objectively.

“What she has done in 15 months for a system with 37 schools is remarkable,” PEJE’s Elkin said. “At PEJE we see this as one of the really outstanding models for helping to grow and sustain strong and excellent Jewish day schools in North America.”

 

Federation Support of Civic Group Wanes


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

9/11 Museum Head Uses Shoah Lessons


Alice Greenwald vividly recalls touring the Auschwitz concentration camp with a Holocaust survivor and watching how the woman shared her story with her children and grandchildren.

It was as if she was trying to instruct her heirs as to the kind of people she wanted them to become, Greenwald remembers.

“What struck me about that experience was that in a world that exists after something like Auschwitz happens, every one of us is her grandchildren,” she said. “We all are obligated to understand what it means to be a human being and the kind of people our parents and grandparents want us to be.”

For more than two decades, Greenwald has been helping to give people a palpable understanding of the Holocaust through her work with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Beginning this month, she will turn her attention to another terrible atrocity: Greenwald was named in February as the first director of the World Trade Center Memorial Museum in New York, which will commemorate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and their nearly 3,000 victims.

“Where the two [events] intersect for me in my professional life is in the area of memorialization,” she said recently in her Holocaust Museum office in Washington. “We deal with great loss here at this museum, incomprehensible loss. And we deal with trying to integrate that loss into our collective understanding of history, our personal history of what it means to be a human being.”

Greenwald was a member of the Holocaust Museum’s original design team, working from home as a consultant after stints with Jewish museums in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Chicago. She joined the museum full-time in 2001 as its associate director for museum programs.

Gretchen Dykstra, president and CEO of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, said Greenwald immediately understood the memorial’s goals.

“What struck us so quickly was how immediately she understood the sensitivity of what we were doing,” she said. “She’s not somebody who comes knowing a lot about 9/11, but she knows a lot about memorializing and education.”

The hardest part in designing the New York museum, Greenwald said, is that “there isn’t a human being on the face of the planet who doesn’t have a 9/11 story.”

Greenwald herself was unpacking boxes in her new Washington home on that day, having just moved from Philadelphia. Her husband, on an Amtrak train bound for New York, had called to ask if she knew why he and his business associates weren’t moving.

The carpenter working in her home heard her gasp when she turned on the television. They watched the second tower fall together, and immediately embraced.

“This was a man I knew for 10 minutes,” she said. “And we hugged each other in an embrace, watching the television in complete disbelief, because we needed to be with another human being in that moment.”

Emotions are still very raw for those who survived the Sept. 11 attack, and for the families of those who died. But Greenwald has experience dealing directly with survivors and families who may visit the museum.

“Other museums have other constituency issues, but I don’t think they have to deal with the sensitivities we have [at the Holocaust Museum],” she said. “We are immensely fortunate to have the voice of authentic witnesses.”

The proximity in time to the event will be one of her biggest challenges in New York, she said.

“The institution will have to be flexible, because the world will keep moving forward and we don’t know what events will re-characterize our understanding of 9/11,” she said.

She has watched the Holocaust Museum evolve, noting that it was built before “Schindler’s List” and other mass-media portrayals of the Shoah.

The Sept. 11 museum will be part of several structures planned for the area where the World Trade Center stood. The foundation is constructing the museum and a separate memorial, Reflecting Absence, that will honor those killed on Sept. 11 and in a previous attack at the World Trade Center on Feb. 26, 1993.

A visitor’s center and performing arts building also are being planned. Half the site has been zoned for new office buildings, which are being erected separately.

The museum will highlight the magnitude of the attacks, as well as the global response and civic rebuilding.

“You are dealing with a site that is a burial site. People died there. That gives it a sacred quality one has to respect,” Greenwald said.

She compared it to the Holocaust Museum, which she said garners its power from its proximity to other memorials and buildings of power in Washington.

Dykstra said she has been struck by the Holocaust Museum’s impact on visitors, and hopes to replicate that.

“I think what the Holocaust Museum does so beautifully is it takes a historic series of events and personalizes them in a way that universalizes them,” she said. “It’s overwhelming but not didactic.”

The Sept. 11 museum is slated to open on the eighth anniversary of the attacks, in 2009. Greenwald said there is much to be done before then, and she is excited to be a part of this “thrilling” stage of a museum’s birth.

“Each stage will have its own challenges and its own rewards,” she said. She calls it a “Dayenu situation,” saying that if she can at least advance the plans, it would be enough — although she hopes to see the museum built and operating.

“We have to remember that it’s about people,” she said. “There’s a tendency to want to memorialize the building, and there is some significance to that. But this is not a memorial to a building; it’s a memorial to people.”

 

The View From L.A.: Hoping for the Best


Los Angeles supporters of Israel’s political parties praised or mourned the results of the Knesset election, but even the winners weren’t entirely in a mood to celebrate.

Shimon Erem, a former high-ranking officer in the Israeli army, said he had planned to fly to Israel to cast his ballot for Kadima (Israel has no absentee voting). However, with pre-election predictions that the centrist party would gain around 40 seats, Erem felt his vote wouldn’t be needed.

Instead, Kadima got only 29 seats out of a total of 120, a showing he attributed to “faulty strategy due to overconfidence, to taking its support for granted.”

Dr. Yehuda Handelsman, a veteran leader of the local Israeli community, also backed Kadima, but had been more realistic.

“I think we did pretty well,” he said. “If Ariel Sharon had remained healthy and had led the party, I think we would have gotten 35-40 seats.”

As a new party, Kadima has not yet organized an American support group, but Handelsman predicted the establishment of such an organization in the next two years.

The Labor Party came in second with 19 seats and Bea Chenkin, regional executive director of Ameinu (formerly Labor Zionist Alliance), said she was satisfied.

“Considering that [former Labor Party leader] Shimon Peres jumped ship to join Kadima, we did as well as could be expected,” she said. “A lot of Israelis feel that the social problems of the country have been neglected, but now these issues are coming to the fore again.”

Rabbi Meyer May, president of the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of California, said that the three religious parties had done a good job in mobilizing their base among the generally apathetic electorate.

“Shas, National Union-Religious Party and United Torah Judaism understood that there was a lot at stake for the observant community and managed to retain their strength, May said.

Even among the Orthodox parties, there are strong ethnic and ideological differences, noted Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a Loyola Law School faculty member and an Orthodox leader.

At least one of the religious parties, most likely the less ideological United Torah Judaism, will join a Kadima-led coalition, Adlerstein predicted.

Robert Rechnitz, national vice chairman and Western regional president of American Friends of Likud, said he was “obviously disappointed” by the election results.

Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, had been the largest party in the sitting Knesset, but will have only 12 seats in the next one.

Rechnitz blamed the decline on Sharon’s absence at the top of the ticket and defections by many retired and Orthodox voters, who had been hurt by Netanyahu’s past economic policies, as well as by what he called a “vicious” campaign against Netanyahu in the Israeli media.

The leftist Meretz Party managed only five seats, to the dismay of Dr. Isaac Berman, a national board member of Meretz USA.

“Similar to the Democratic Party here, Meretz didn’t seem to have clear message and didn’t make the right kind of noise,” Berman said.

Views on the road ahead in the peace process varied from wait-and-see resignation to cautious optimism among several community leaders interviewed by The Journal.

Roz Rothstein, executive director of StandWithUs, a pro-Israeli advocacy group, said the situation in Israel is so fluid that it is difficult to make predictions about how events will unfold. Given the internal and external challenges Israel faces, though, she said that now is a time for unity.

“This is a time when Israelis need to pull together and work together,” Rothstein said. “You have the potential polarization of the Israeli society on the left and right on the inside and the Hamas threat from the outside.

A more upbeat assessment came from Mark LeVine, associate professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine. He said that despite Olmert’s vow to draw Israel’s final borders unilaterally, a negotiated settlement could eventually emerge. Hamas, he said, despite its refusal to recognize Israel, is not opposed to cutting a deal. And because of its standing in the Arab street, the group has the credentials to do so.

“Assuming Hamas doesn’t engage in too much violence either against military targets or terrorism against civilians, I would assume that in the next couple years there’s going to be a repeat of the negotiations you had at Camp David in 2000 and in Taba,” said LeVine, who wrote the 2005 book, “Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil” (Oneworld). “They’re probably going to be using pretty much the same maps.”

A local Muslim leader weighed in with similarly cautious optimism.

“There’s a recognition by the bulk of the Israeli population that the Greater Israel Project is over,” said Nayyer Ali, past chair of the Muslim Pubic Affairs Council. “Unlike the mood in Israel in 2000 and before, we now have a consensus among Israelis that the end solution is a Palestinian state.”

Ali added that the rise of the terorrist Hamas group on the Palestinian side also should not be viewed as a fatal impediment to peace. Just as the Israeli left cannot make peace without the support of more conservative Israeli parties, Ali said, Palestinian leaders, absent Hamas, also could not make a binding agreement. Despite its vow never to recognize Israel, “like other ideological parties, I think Hamas will have to deal with reality now that it’s in power,” Ali said.

But Sabiah Khan, spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Southern California chapter, said she sees nothing but a stalemate ahead in at least the short term: Israel, on the one side, refuses to negotiate until Hamas renounces terrorism and recognizes its right to exist. The new Palestinian government, on the other hand, won’t engage Israel until the Jewish state ends its “occupation,” recognizes the national rights of the Palestinian people and renounces terror.

“Basically, we have two groups saying the same thing, that they’re not going to talk to each other [until the other side does something that it isn’t willing to do], Khan said. “Outside intervention from the U.S., Europe, the United Nations or Arab governments is needed.”

Some or all of those parties, she said, could break the impasse by encouraging a negotiated settlement based on international law and existing U.N. resolutions.

Regardless of last week’s voting results, the local Israeli consulate was in campaign party mode on Election Day. Consul General Ehud Danoch and his staff festooned the consulate’s Jerusalem Hall with small Israeli flags, and had spread out a generous supply of pita, hummus, techinah and cookies for more than 100 guests who jammed together to watch the results of the first exit polls.

Danoch drew on his own political background for a running commentary on the merging trends and shared the general astonishment at the success of the Pensioners Party, which came out of nowhere to gain seven seats.

 

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.”

 

Parental Values Do Influence Children


It was 12:45 a.m. on a Sunday, and my 14-year-old son and I were returning from a rap concert. It wasn’t my kind of music, but the entertainers were talented, and it had been fun dancing along with the concert crowd. The occasion also gave my son and me time for one of our many small intergenerational exchanges.

I admitted to my son that I didn’t understand the thrill of people shouting the infamous “N” word from the stage or the responding cheers of the audience. He said that he could understand my bewilderment because he couldn’t see why anyone (meaning me, of course) would listen to the Beach Boys. We both laughed.

By the time we arrived home, we had discussed various musical styles, how music can be an expression of cultural rage, sexual inquiry and misogyny, and how music often tells the stories of lives very different from our own. We felt close. It was a satisfying parental moment.

Having an open dialogue — about things like rap music, Xbox games or Polly Pockets — is essential for raising moral and ethical children. Creating the stage begins in infancy. There are no guarantees about the results of our parenting efforts, but there are ways we as parents can tilt the odds in our favor.

The competition is tough: television, movies, popular music, billboards, computer games, Internet access to almost anything and that most powerful competitor — peer pressure.

We will never eliminate the presence and ultimate access to views and values that we would rather they not have. But we can influence our children by displaying our own values through our behavior and words, and by understanding their world so that we can develop a relationship where anything can be talked about with mutual respect for views and feelings.

We can place our children in a school and community where they are likely to meet families with values similar to our own. But we cannot escort our children to every party, or to every friend’s house, or supervise every access to Internet pornography or even illicit drugs.

As my own children grow into adulthood, I do not want to — and can’t –control their choices; however, I do want to be a part of their internal and external discussions as they make their own choices.

Here are seven tips for creating and sustaining that kind of parent-child relationship.

1. Hold, cuddle, and talk with your children from birth. Look into their eyes; be aware of their body tension and yours — at every age. Bonding with parents is the cornerstone of moral development. Talk about moral and ethical issues in the course of daily life and help them understand the meaning of behaviors and events. While parents often worry about trusting their children as they become adolescents, the bigger issue is whether they will trust you.

2. Empathy is essential for moral and ethical behavior. Let your children know how their behavior affects you and others. Teach them to care for other people and their feelings.

3. Observe Shabbat and the holidays, using them as opportunities to celebrate Jewish values. Invite friends to the Shabbat dinner table and guarantee time and attention for each person’s thoughts and feelings, regardless of age. Use Shabbat to teach your children to make time to just think and contemplate — essential ingredients for moral behavior.

4. When your children are young, get on the floor and play with them. Then talk about these adventures both with your children and with adults when your children are present.

5. When your children become adolescents, listen with them to their music. Get the words to the songs. Talk with them about their music as an expression of their world, as you would talk with your friends about their interests. Do not condemn your child’s taste; this stops the conversation (as it would for you). Share the car radio.

6. Compliment moral and ethical behavior. When they make tough decisions, exhibit pride for their contemplation. Disagree with a choice or a behavior, but don’t attack them personally — and always do this away from their friends to protect them from humiliation.

7. Create “car talks” when you want to talk with your children about something important but which is uncomfortable for them. A car talk is a pre-planned opportunity to say one brief idea. Limit it to about 10 sentences and five minutes. In a car ride you have a captive audience for a few minutes. You and your child know this is going to be over soon. Car talks, of course, don’t always have to take place in the car.

Raising moral and ethical children in an often-immoral world can be difficult. Tilt the odds in your favor by creating the conversation.

Dr. Ian Russ is a marriage and family therapist in private practice, and consults at many Jewish schools in Los Angeles.

 

Spectator – Fiddle Dee Dee and Oy Vey!


Like any good Southerner, Brian Bain eats moon pies and punctuates his sentences with “y’all.” But Bain is also Jewish, which colors his experience as a third-generation Southerner in a unique way.

In his documentary film, “Shalom Y’all,” Bain set out to explore exactly what being both Jewish and Southern actually means. Bain travels through the buckle of the Bible Belt, stopping in small towns where once-thriving Jewish communities have now dwindled to single-digit populations, and he juxtaposes these with flourishing communities in places like Atlanta. He visits genteel mansions still occupied by aging Jewish Southern belles and explores the legacy and the part Jews played in historical Southern milestones, including the Civil War and the Civil Rights era.

“Truthfully, my grandfather really was the catalyst for the journey,” Bain said in a phone conversation from Dallas, where he relocated after his New Orleans home was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. He was referring to Leonard Bain, a retired traveling hat salesman and silent film editor who was 99, in 2002, when the film was made. The elder Bain has since died at the age of 101.

“Growing up, I remember him telling us stories about his travels through the South and spending the Sabbath away from home with Jewish merchants, and how he had this interesting connection with other Jews from the South. I really wanted to get my grandfather on film and just talking to him reminded me of the bigger story of the Jewish South.”

“Shalom Y’all” explores issues of identity and submersion into a larger culture. It is, in many respects, a quirky documentary filled with characters and incidents that might be at home in a Christopher Guest film. In Natchez, Miss., there is Zelda Millstein, who still dresses in Antebellum hoop skirts, and Jay Lehman, a grocery store owner who sells pickled pigs feet and who, as a younger man, participated proudly in the Natchez Confederate Pageant — a homage to the pre-Civil War era. Then there is the older Natchez couple whom Bain interviews sitting in the pews of their synagogue, which once boasted 200 families. Now they get five people for Friday night services.

“Except when the student rabbi comes,” says the husband. “Then we get eight.”

Bain hopes to return to New Orleans as soon as his home is habitable, and he says he has high hopes for the future of the Southern Jewish community.

“Young people have left and found new opportunities, and my parents’ generation is pushing toward retirement, but I think it is going to be interesting period of rebuilding for the Jewish community” in the South, he said. “I am optimistic because the community is strong and tight knit, so I have no doubt that it will persevere.”

The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring is screening “Shalom Y’all” on Feb. 19 at 6:30 p.m. at 1525 S. Robertson Blvd. For more information, call (310) 552-2007, or visit

Orthodox But Not Monolithic


The last place most people probably wanted to be on the morning of Dec. 25 was at a convention in a Beverly Hills hotel.

But for Orthodox Jews the time and the place, the Crowne Plaza, worked fine for wrapping up the Orthodox Union’s 15th Annual West Coast Torah Convention, called “The Polarization of Orthodox Judaism: Finding Harmony Within Diversity.”

The four-day conference highlighted the diversity — and at times the tension — in what might appear to be, from the outside, a monolithic community.

The most observant of the four main denominations of Judaism, Orthodoxy in the last decade and a half has shifted further to the right. The basis of Orthodoxy is an adherence to halacha — Jewish law as interpreted by Orthodox authorities — but Orthodoxy still encompasses a wide swath of opinions.

While Orthodox tensions might seem like insider baseball to non-Orthodox Jews, there is often a trickle-down effect on all Jewish denominations, especially on issues such as teaching creationism in schools and forbidding exposure to certain books. Another ongoing issue is how much dialogue should there be withnon-Orthodox Jews and how much engagement is the right amount with the world outside Judaism.

An ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox representative faced off in the first night’s “Fireside Chat” featuring two perceived “factions” of Orthodoxy. Representing the more “modern” faction was Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the national executive vice president of the Orthodox Union (OU); representing the more haredi, or “Ultra-Orthodox,” faction was Rabbi Avrohom Teichman Mora D’asra (head rabbi) of Agudas Yisroel of Los Angeles. The two erudite, bearded men expressed opposing positions on issue after issue.

For one thing, while Modern Orthodox Jews support Israel as the Jewish State and hold as a goal aliyah, or moving to Israel, ultra-Orthodox Jews do not put as much focus on aliyah as a mitzvah; nor are they necessarily proponents of Zionism. Also, Modern Orthodox Jews support secular education, and unequivocally send their children to university while the ultra-Orthodox often view a secular education as presenting a danger to the religiosity of their children.

The discussion between Weinreb and Teichman remained calm and civil, but the discourse grew more impassioned at a panel the following night, after Friday night Shabbat dinner at B’nai David Judea.

“How Flexible is Orthodoxy?” featured four rabbis, but it was the two local ones who ended up most at odds, when moderator Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, of Kehillat Yavneh and the OU, asked, “How is Orthodoxy meeting the needs of the modern Jewish woman?

A woman’s role in the synagogue should not change, said Rabbi Elazar Muskin, of the Young Israel of Century City. Period.

But Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, of B’nai David reiterated his position that there are troubling issues regarding women that must be reconsidered. Kanefsky has drawn fire here for a number of his liberal practices, such as holding a woman’s-only prayer group. The interchange between the rabbis prompted a barrage of questions from the audience, blowing the lid off a volatile issue. The views of Kanefsky, who is currently serving as president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, represent the far left of West Coast Orthodox rabbis, and even cause controversy within the modern faction of Orthodoxy.

Another perspective on women’s issues was offered in a Sunday lecture by David Luchins, OU national vice president and chairman of the Political Science Department at Touro College for Women. He placed the matter in the context of Orthodox Jews’ broader view of engagement in the secular world, citing the example of secular education. Some Orthodox regard a college and professional education as an ideal; others accept this outside education as “necessary” for a professional life; and some reject it entirely. Rejection has long been popular among many Orthodox in Israel, and has become so among some American students who study at Yeshivas there.

On the matter of secular education, he said, the battle is now being fought. Not so, in his view, when it comes to support for Israel and women’s issues.

On the matter of Israel’s centrality, Luchins said, the Modern Orthodox have won. The ultra-Orthodox – who decades ago viewed Israel dismissively as a “Zionist entity” — now are as supportive as the Modern Orthodox.

But on the matter of women, he said, the ultra-Orthodox have prevailed. In 1976, he said, there were three women on the OU board. There are none today. The OU conference featured no women panelists, save for one all-women panel (“The Orthodox Women’s Influence on Her Community”) that was closed to men at the request of the women on the panel.

“Why have we relegated our women to third-class citizens?” Luchins asked. “We’ve done it for the tradeoff,” he posited.

The ultra-Orthodox accepted Israel as a central ideal, and in return, the Israeli community’s conservative attitude toward women has prevailed overall in most of the Orthodox world, he said.

“We’re so busy fighting over the form of where women sit in shul that I think we’ve lost the substance. There was a time that women were the pillars of the Orthodox community,” Luchins said. “We’ve lost on that issue, big.”

Off the record, one rabbi expressed concern about schisms within Orthodoxy. “Sometimes,” he said, “I think the movement is going to have to break into two.”

But OU President Steven Savitsky talked about such divides as challenges to be managed, rather than as a looming crisis.

“How do we find cohesiveness and harmony?” Savitsky asked, when he addressed the opening night dinner of 150 at Beth Jacob synagogue in Beverly Hills.

The short answer, Savitsky later told The Journal, is tolerance.

“We need to see the bigger picture: There are very few of us in this world, and we better find ways of working together,” he said.

 

Activists Strategize on Hotel Contracts


The gala dinner was like many others at the Century Plaza Hotel, featuring festive centerpieces atop crisp tablecloths, well-dressed guests exchanging greetings and servers bustling about offering trays of beverages.

However, this event wasn’t actually inside the hotel. Set in front of the hotel on the Avenue of the Stars, which was blocked off, this banquet-in-the-street supported some 4,000 striking workers at seven Los Angeles hotels. The traffic-stopping April gathering was among a series of actions organized by a coalition of community groups, including the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), in support of an 11-month strike that ended in June.

The outcome was an important step forward for the union: It achieved a wage hike, continued health benefits and a short contract that will expire at nearly the same time as the contracts of other hotel workers in other parts of the country.

Last week saw the next round of activism — a transnational effort in support of hotel workers in eight cities fighting for a new contract in 2006.

On Wednesday, inspired by the success in Los Angeles, Jewish social justice organizations from the United States and Canada gathered at the hotel workers’ union headquarters just west of downtown. The strategy session was convened by New York-based Jewish Funds for Justice and Los Angeles’ Progressive Jewish Alliance. Representatives also attended from other Jewish organizations in Los Angeles, as well as from groups in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, St. Paul, Washington, D.C. and Toronto. In mostly closed-door meetings, organizers discussed the tactics and the coalition building that worked in this year’s L.A. campaign and how the lessons would apply in other cities.

Organizers say that Jewish involvement has been a central fixture within the effort.

Jewish participation, particularly at the Century Plaza Hotel, was essential, said Maria Elena Durazo, president of the hotel workers local, UNITE HERE. The Century Plaza is sufficiently serious about Jewish clientele to maintain a sealed-off kosher kitchen, she said.

“There’s no doubt that if it had not been for the influence and the participation and the constant, constant communication of the Jewish organizations, the Century Plaza would not have settled,” Durazo said.

“The most important aspect of what we did there,” said Jaime Rapaport, the architect of PJA’s hotel worker support campaign, “was this national Jewish response to a campaign that’s addressing poverty.”

The national average median wage for housekeepers is $7.85 an hour, according to the union. Wages are higher where more hotels are organized: In New York, where hotels are 95 percent unionized, a housekeeper’s wages start at $19 an hour; in Los Angeles, with a 35 percent union density, housekeepers average $11.31.

“It’s not just about a contract fight,” UNITE HERE organizer Vivian Rothstein said. “It’s a national approach to address conditions for nonunion and union workers.”

But a hotel industry representative said the union activists are over-reaching with unrealistic demands and that they misrepresent how hotels treat their workers.

“The bulk of hotel workers are housekeepers. They make, under this contract, approximately $13.50 an hour,” said Fred Muir of the Hotel Employers Council, which represents seven unionized Los Angeles-area hotels. He points out that the contract also provides for a pension fund, paid health care and free meals at work.

The strategy on the hotel side has been to prevent union contracts across the country from expiring at the same time. Hotels gave ground on that issue in the last year. Beyond that, individual hotel chains have opposed union organizing and simply worked to hold down labor costs in a business environment that includes rising health-care costs.

The economics of the hotel industry are simple, Muir said. “How many rooms can you fill and how much can you charge for them? The money to pay everyone has to come from somewhere.”

Room rates in New York are twice what they are in Los Angeles, so workers in New York can be paid more than those in Los Angeles, he said.

The activists who gathered last week emphasized that they are trying to make their labor campaign about Jewish values. The meeting’s purpose was to link local Jewish groups to the union organizing in their cities, and, just as important, bring them together to develop “a common language, a common strategy, common goals that would enable us to speak in a louder and more aggregated voice,” said Daniel Sokatch of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. He wants to expand the notion of what constitutes “Jewish issues.”

“We want to put out there on the radar the notion that social justice is central to our identity as Jews,” he said.

The idea resonates with Simon Greer, who just six months ago took over as executive director of Jewish Funds for Justice. The foundation, which handles some $15 million annually, underwrote transportation and lodging costs for participants from the Jewish social justice organizations.

Greer said that the campaign seeks to boost hotel workers into the middle class. “As Jews in this country, the beneficiaries of America as an open society, we are obligated to do something for others in this society,” he said. “A piece of this is about how we reclaim justice as a centerpiece of Jewish identity in America.”

When Jews make choices that support social justice, he added, they are, in effect, expanding the notion of keeping kosher.

Court Nominee Alito Through Jewish Lens


The long paper trail of hard-hitting conservative opinions that Judge Samuel Alito has left in his wake is perfect fodder for the kind of left vs. right, black-and-white confirmation battle that this town relishes.

For Jewish groups, however, the clarity of Alito’s record fades to gray.

President Bush’s new nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld religious freedoms that the entire Jewish community cherishes, on one occasion strongly defending the right of a Jewish employee to Sabbath observance. Yet his views on the establishment of religion as well as abortion hew to a tough conservative line that much of the community repudiates.

“He wrote a very important opinion in expanding what little is left of the free-exercise clause,” Marc Stern, co-director of the legal department of the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress), said, referring to the constitutional guarantee of free religious practice.

On the other hand, in several cases dealing with the constitutional prohibition against the establishment of a state religion, Alito indicated a leaning in favor of religious speakers “to the exclusion of those who might not want to listen,” tern said.

Stern emphasized that the AJCongress had yet to make a decision on where it stands regarding Alito.

Bush announced the nomination of Alito, 55, on Monday, just days after Harriet Miers, his White House counsel, withdrew her name. Miers’ lack of a paper trail failed to satisfy Republican conservatives, who for years have clamored for a nominee who could be trusted to unambiguously issue rulings in supports of a conservative agenda, especially on the issue of abortion.

A corporate lawyer, Miers also drew fire because of her lack of judicial or constitutional experience.

By contrast, Alito’s 15 years on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Philadelphia, establishes a strong constitutional and conservative record. Social conservatives who vigorously opposed Miers’ nomination immediately hailed the decision.

“President Bush has hit a home run with this nomination,” Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition of America, said in a statement.

Just as predictably, liberal groups mounted an immediate call to arms.

“The judicial philosophy of Samuel Alito is far to the right,” People for the American Way wrote at the start of a 24-page evisceration of Alito’s record, posted on the group’s Web site within minutes of his nomination. “He has demonstrated hostility toward the principles undergirding a woman’s constitutionally protected right to govern her own reproductive choices.”

Liberals already were making much of a nickname Alito earned among some lawyers, “Scalito” – meaning “little Scalia,” a reference to Antonin Scalia, widely regarded as the most conservative judge on the Supreme Court.

National Jewish groups at times have been pivotal in joining liberals in opposing judicial candidates; President Reagan’s failed nomination of Robert Bork in 1987 stands out as an example. The White House was eager on Monday to get out the message that Alito was safe for the Jews.

“Judge Alito has been a strong defender of religious liberty as guaranteed by the First Amendment,” Jeffrey Berkowitz, White House liaison to the Jewish community, wrote in an e-mail within minutes of the announcement.

Legal scholars say Alito substantially expanded First Amendment rights in 1999, when he ruled that the Newark, N.J., police department violated the rights of Muslim officers by banning them from wearing beards, though it allowed an exception for health reasons.

Another Alito opinion had a more immediate impact on Jewish observance. In Abramson v. William Patterson College in 2001, the court considered the case of Gertrude Abramson, who sued the New Jersey institution in 1995, claiming that it violated an earlier agreement to allow her to take off Jewish holidays. Abramson also alleged a pattern of harassment, including meetings scheduled on the Jewish Sabbath.

The court ruled in Abramson’s favor, but Alito’s separate concurrence was even stronger, citing favorably an amicus brief filed by the Orthodox Union.

Title VII, the applicable civil rights law, “does not permit an employer to manipulate job requirements for the purpose of putting an employee to the ‘cruel choice’ between religion and employment,” Alito wrote.

Such insights are typical of Alito, his former law clerk, Jeffrey Wasserstein, told JTA.

“He is a Catholic, but his sensitivity to non-majority religions was quite interesting to watch, not what one would expect from someone being tarred by the press as extraordinarily conservative,” said Wasserstein, an observant Jew who served with Alito from 1997-98 and now is a health care attorney.

Despite his tough opinions, Alito has a reputation as a modest, accommodating figure, even among his most strident opponents. People for the American Way noted that — unlike Scalia, whose sarcasm is notorious — Alito’s “tone during oral arguments is probing but always polite.”

Wasserstein agreed: “He is very modest and self-effacing.”

Alito expressed interest in Wasserstein’s own Sabbath observance, and was quite probing when it came to religious cases, he said.

“During the Muslim police case, we spoke about Islam and its precepts,” Wasserstein recalled.

Wasserstein insisted that Alito did not come to cases with preconceptions, but liberal groups and their allies in the Jewish community already were fretting at a body of work that suggests otherwise. Of special concern are two cases in which Alito upheld the right of New Jersey towns to display Christmas-season cr?ches.

In the opinion in the cr?che cases, “he was on the opposite side of much of the Jewish community,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center.

Alito’s assent in a 1992 abortion-rights decision is perhaps his most controversial. The court upheld a Pennsylvania law that imposed a 24-hour waiting period for women who wanted abortions, required minors to inform their parents and required abortion clinics to publish reports about their operations.

Defeating that case became a rallying cry for pro-choice advocates, and the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down in a landmark decision the same year.

Significantly, however, the appeals court had struck down a portion of the law that required women seeking abortions to inform their husbands. Alito was the lone dissenter from that part of the decision, saying such notification was not an undue burden for women. His willingness to go a step beyond marked him as an “extremist” in liberal circles.

The National Council of Jewish Women, which usually takes the lead in abortion-related announcements, has yet to weigh in, but sources said the group is working on a strategy.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the Democrats’ leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, already has linked Alito to “the radical conservative right.”

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), the Jewish chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which must consider Alito’s appointment, was more circumspect, but notably held back the enthusiastic endorsement of other Republican senators.

“We are in the process of assembling his opinions,” said Specter, a Republican moderate who is pro-choice. “It is estimated that he has been involved in about 3,500 cases and has some 300 opinions which he has written.”

That record suggests a clear battle, Pelavin said.

“We’re going to have the kind of debate over judicial philosophy in the Senate that has long been brewing,” he said.

The Jewish lines already were being drawn.

The Orthodox Union does not endorse judicial candidates, and Alito is not an exception, said Nathan Diament, the OU’s Washington director.

However, Diament said, Alito is “clearly someone who is sensitive to religious minorities.”

Should the left mount a multibarrelled assault on Alito’s church-state record, Diament said, “our role will be making his record clear, trying to prevent it from being distorted.”

Pelavin suggested the Reform Movement also would have a role to play — probably not one particularly sympathetic to Alito.

“It’s not just about competence, it’s about the court shifting on fundamental issues, including reproductive rights and religious liberty,” he said.

 

Tribe


Back when I was working at a newspaper in New York, my editors and I tried to come up with a teen-sounding headline for a story on voting for our new teen section.

“How about ‘Gettin’ Out the Vote’?” my editor offered.

As if dropping a “g” off the end of the word is all one needs to do to appeal to teens.

I knew then, and I know now, that to really speak to teens, you just have to be one.

Adults can affect any sort of teenish language they want; they can claim to understand how the teenage mind works, to get the issues teens are thinking about. But teens know a fake when they see it.

That is why The Jewish Journal has decided to hand this page over to teenagers. Once a month, we will choose columns, feature articles or news stories submitted by teens in grades 9-12.

As you can see on this page, Natalie Goodis, a junior at Marlborough High School, has inaugurated the page with a column about how her experience in Eastern Europe and Israel changed her.

Here’s your chance. Write an article about what a teenager has to weigh when deciding whether to date only Jews. Send us your thoughts on evolution vs. creationism. Tell us about what you think about Ariel Sharon, about this country’s hurricane response, about your grandmother. Describe an event at your school that moved the whole student body to action.

The topics are up to you; the voice is yours.

We hope the monthly page is just the beginning. We want teens to talk to us — to have some input into what their peers should be writing about. That is why we are creating a Jewish Journal Teen Advisory Committee. (How would that look on a college resume?) The committee will meet several times a year to determine what topics you want covered in these pages, and to get your feedback on where things should go.

Being a teenager is intense. It is when you form your values, you solidify lifelong relationships, you choose a path for your future. Most teens are profoundly aware of just how pivotal these years are, and a lot of teens have something to say about it.

If you’re one of them, we’re waiting to hear from you. This is your chance to help more than 100,000 Jewish adults get a glimpse into your world.

Action Items:

  • Articles: First-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words — submitted as an attachment to an e-mail.
  • Jewish Journal Teen Advisory Committee: Send your name, age, school and up to 200 words on why you should be on the Jewish Journal Teen Advisory Committee.

Ground Rules

Teacher Class on Mideast Stirs Doubt


An upcoming course on the Middle East for public school teachers has gotten the attention of Jewish organizations for its allegedly unfair tilt toward a pro-Palestinian viewpoint.

Titled “Teaching About the Middle East,” the professional development course, which earns participants points toward salary increases, will be given Oct. 14, 15 and 17 at the Wilshire District headquarters of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the L.A. teachers union.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) will send an observer to monitor the sessions. Spokeswomen for both the ADL and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles said their organizations are looking into the matter, but withholding judgment.

The heightened scrutiny arises from the complaints of Paul Kujawsky, a teacher at Germain Street Elementary School in Chatsworth and past president of Democrats for Israel. A routine listing of the workshop caught his eye, and on Sept. 1, Kujawsky sent a formal, three-page letter, headed “Propaganda, Not Education” to Superintendent Roy Romer of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and UTLA President A.J. Duffy.

The letter listed two primary observations and allegations:

The course is funded by the Middle East Teacher Resource Project, an arm of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). The Quaker organization has a long, honorable history of pacifism and aiding refugees (including this reporter’s parents), but is considered by many in the Jewish community as leaning consistently toward a pro-Palestinian perspective.

“Overall, the AFSC’s position is that the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict is the result of European imperialism, not Arab or Muslim refusal to admit that the Jews have any historic or legal right to sovereignty,” wrote Kujawsky, who is undeniably and unapologetically pro-Israel.

The initiators and administrators of the workshop have denied any bias, and have rejected Kujawsky’s request that the course be reorganized or dropped. However, the course leader said that she was sufficiently concerned to seek a pro-Israel speaker for a session on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The course has been officially vetted and accredited by LAUSD, with input by the teachers union. In 16 class hours, it strives to deal with the Middle East’s people, art, food, music, literature and cultural stereotypes, as well as Arab Americans, Muslim women and the veil, wars and conflicts, oil strategy, nonviolence, human rights and peace movements.

For better or worse, what the teachers learn will influence what they pass on to their students. At least 40 teachers have enrolled.

In the opinion of Kujawsky, “The Quakers’ goal is to end the Israeli occupation, not to end the Arab war against Israel,” he said in an interview.

Shan Cretin, the Friends Committee regional director in Pasadena, objected to attempts to “politicize” either the teachers’ course or the Quakers’ position on the Middle East, which, she said, is to work toward a nonviolent resolution.

“This workshop grows out of our larger concerns for peace in the Middle East,” she said. “In the wake of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, we believe that students need to know more about Arab and Muslim culture, history and politics to become informed citizens. This is not a workshop focusing mainly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Cretin, who worked with Israelis and Palestinians on health care programs in the mid-90s, acknowledged that “many of our speakers have ties to Arab organizations, but given the topics that are to be the focus of the workshop, this does not seem so surprising.”

The course was deemed appropriate by Ronni Ephraim, LAUSD’s chief instructional officer for elementary schools. She readily provided documents on the course, and explained how it was approved by a three-person committee that included a Jewish member.

The course was proposed and put together by Linda Tubach, an LAUSD staffer in instructional support service who is active in UTLA.

Tubach’s involvement is one concern cited in Kujawsky’s letter. He submitted that Tubach serves on the advisory board of Cafe Intifada, whose Web site states that it raises funds for “cultural programs in Palestine, highlighting the current plight of the Palestinian people.”

Tubach said she was part of the now-inactive advisory board two years ago, when she was involved in a Cafe Intifada pen pal writing project involving American teachers and Palestinian students, but that she no longer had any connections with the organization.

She said that she proposed the course as “a basic survey of Middle Eastern culture, religion and government … and it is our intention to have dialogues and discussions representing all points of view.”

Nevertheless, she became concerned enough about any real or perceived imbalance to ask Deanna Armbruster, who is leading the session on “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” to team up with an advocate of the Israeli viewpoint.

Armbruster is the executive director of American Friends of Neve Shalom/Wahab Al-Salam, a community in central Israel, whose 350 Arab and Jewish adults and children live together, study in the same school and share civic responsibilities.

“I’m very passionate about understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of human experiences,” said Armbruster, and her book, “Tears in the Holy Land,” is based on this passion.

Armbruster, a volunteer with the Friends Committee’s Middle East Peace Education Program, said that the Quaker organization “strives for a better understanding of both the Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints, but it tends to delve more deeply into Palestinian issues and the problems they face” — especially in light of a widespread presumption that the Israeli side gets more favorable exposure, thanks to strong Jewish advocacy.

For his part, Kujawsky perceives a bias in the affiliation of some of the instructors, some of whom have ties to Palestinian organizations.

Among the workshop’s instructors is attorney Ban al-Wardi, who is president of the Los Angeles-Orange County Chapter of the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee. He will lead the session on “The U.S. and the Middle East: Before and After 9/11.”

The session on “Middle Eastern Cooking, Music and Literature” will be taught by Sami Asmar, who is a NASA physicist and an expert on Middle East music and literature.

None of the assurances of balance and fairness have satisfied Kujawsky.

“This is not a question of Jew vs. Arab, it’s about truthfulness in teaching,” he said.

 

Letters


Misunderstanding

I would like to clarify a misunderstanding in a recent press release from the Orthodox Union that was reported in The Journal, “Mourning For Gaza, New Orleans” (Sept. 30). The OU organized a nationwide ta’anit dibbur, or period of silence, over this past Shabbat. The purpose was to mark the tragic destruction of synagogues in both Gaza and New Orleans with a resanctification of our own synagogues.

In no way was the OU making a political statement, pro or con, regarding the disengagement. Nor was the OU in any way suggesting that the destruction of synagogues was Divine retribution, as was intimated in The Journal.

Instead, this was merely our way of expressing our profound sorrow over the loss of holy places in the world, and our desire to counteract the loss of holiness with an infusion of added sanctity into our own communities and synagogues on the last Shabbat of the year.

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin
Director
Community and Synagogue Services
West Coast Orthodox Union

New Orleans Fixture

I am a native New Orleanian. I was looking for Universal Furniture in New Orleans to get a price on furniture I’d purchased that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, so I can present it to the insurance adjuster. The article written by Ann Brenner about Hurricane Katrina popped up because Universal Furniture was mentioned in it (“City’s Plight Brings Flood of Memories,” Sept. 9).

People have told me that in the last great hurricane of New Orleans (Hurricane Betsy), the owners of Universal Furniture erased the debts of the people who still had balances on furniture purchased and financed by Universal Furniture. I don’t know if it is just a story or the truth, but I do know that Universal Furniture is a New Orleans fixture that is well respected.

I am not Jewish; just ran across the article and truly enjoyed it because it spoke of my home. Perhaps, Ms. Brenner could do a followup, as she did before, just about the city of New Orleans, its beauty and charm, and the beauty of the people who made it unique.

The city does look war-torn and desolate. We are a strong people, and realize tough times don’t last, tough people do. I do plan to go home soon.

Name withheld by request

Portraits

What a wonderful series of portraits of real people asking real questions and coming up with diverse answers (“How We Worship,” Sept 30).

In Detroit when I was a child, there was a barrier between different branches of Judaism and even between different temples. But now, times are different, and we are finally learning to love and appreciate the many ways of wrestling with the mysteries of God’s presence.

Thank you for showing so much respect and so much good writing in these diverse vignettes. I hope anyone who hasn’t yet read this article and met their interesting neighbors will do so during a free moment during these days of awe.

Leonard Felder
West Los Angeles

Never Again

I never thought that I’d be writing a letter defending the NRA, but Irene Joseph must be a descendent of Marie Antoinette, when told that the poor masses of people huddled outside the castle walls are starving, by responding, “Let them eat cake.”

As for me, my “faithful companions” are Mr. Colt, Mr. Remington and Messrs. Smith and Wesson. I also own several “never again” rifles.

I am Jewish and will never be led to another slaughter of my people without defending myself. The memory wall of my temple is filled with the names of the dead, including nine family members murdered in one day in pre-war Poland. I’ll bet that they wished they had the chance to protect themselves with guns.

I’m also a new and proud member of the NRA, and also a long-time member of the ACLU. I hope that with my financial support, both sides of the gun issues, including extremists like Ms. Joseph on the far left, will learn to compromise their views somewhere in the middle, where only a true democracy can govern.

Elliot Gilbert
Chino Hills

I am Jewish and a member of the NRA and proud of it. I am also proud of the fact that Sandra Froman is Jewish and president. The facts misstated by your readers are incredible. The thought that gun control would take guns out of the hands of criminals puts forth an incredible naiveté, mostly by well-meaning people who really haven’t done much research. We do have drug control, and that does not seem to be working.

Steve Flatten
Los Angeles

Cruel Statement

Thank you, thank you, thank you Rabbi Wolpe for your words regarding Rav Ovidiah’s foolish and cruel statement blaming the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina on G-d’s wrath against President Bush for supporting the relocation of the Jews of Gush Katif. (“We Must Condemn Heartless Bilge,” Sept. 16).

The rav’s absurd and insensitive words only serve to horribly minimize the grief and loss of those stricken in the Gulf region, and to demean the pain and sacrifice made by those affected by the resettlement in Israel. Instead of acknowledging the sad similarities of both situations, he pits one tragedy against the other, thereby denigrating both.

Rikki Moress
Freeland, Washington

 

We Must Heal Divide Over Life Views


The first half of the 20th century saw Americans locked in a fierce ideological debate surrounding economic class and the distribution of wealth.

In the second half of the century, the cultural wars addressed issues of race and gender.

As we stand at the dawn of the 21st century, a perhaps even more fundamental issue divides the American body politic. From stem cells, abortion and human cloning to the Schiavo case and physician-assisted suicides, the question of life has become this generation’s great ideological battle ground.

Jewish tradition certainly sees life as a primary value. Rosh Hashanah is so significant in the Jewish calendar precisely because it celebrates the birth of the world. Life is God’s first gift to humanity.

The liturgy of the High Holidays constantly celebrates life, and as Rabbi Irving Greenberg has suggested, in the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, God tells Abraham that Divine service does not mean sacrificing human life for the Divine but rather living a life devoted to bringing the Divine into the world.

However, Judaism’s emphasis on life is matched by its emphasis on choice. Human freedom to choose is incorporated within Maimonides’ 13 primary theological principles. Maimonides in his Mishnah Torah (Laws of Repentance 2:1) suggests that the essence of repentance is rooted in choice.

“What is complete repentance?” he asks. “It is the case of someone who has the opportunity to commit a sin he or she has committed, and has the ability to commit it [again], and yet separates from it and does not commit it, because of having done repentance, not because of fear or because of lack of power … such a man is a master of complete repentance.”

Such a conception of law highlights the unique choice-centered nature of Jewish law and repentance.

But in today’s American society, the complementary qualities of life and choice have come to represent opposing worldviews. Both sides have taken absolute positions, demanding that human beings live either by the credo “the sanctity of life” or the motto “life without choice is not worth living.” So blinded are those who express such ideologies that in their talk radio extremes, they refer to the other position as the equivalent of communism or Nazism.

Both these noisy sides ignore the silent majority who stand in the very gray, murky and complex terrain called living. Those who stand in the world of the living realize each of us chooses life: “ubacharta b’achaim.”

Living means recognizing that though dogmatic, absolutist and all-encompassing worldviews might make for good media headlines, tenure at a university or electablity at the voting booth, they fail to make any sense in the real world. In the real world, people are not rational computers who make every decision based on a priori theoretical doctrines.

In some cases, we are more open to the pain and suffering of the present. In other cases, we feel more the weight of history and text.

Jewish tradition recognizes that each decision involving human life is a world unto itself. To be sure, the Jewish tradition is not unprincipled. It states unambiguously that never one, but a number of competing factors exist in every bioethical decision. It stands in opposition to both extremes of the debate and offers a sober worldview that gives dignity to the often conflicting rhythms of life.

While the tradition worries about partial-birth or late-term abortions, there are times that even under such circumstances the most stringent of rabbis would allow for terminating a pregnancy. Likewise, almost all rabbinic authorities acknowledge the importance of stem cell research, and while the vast majority of the tradition opposes physician-assisted suicide, much debate and legal room exists around the status of those who are brain dead.

These rulings might seem contradictory, but on closer examination, they give testimony to a theology not of life or choice per se, but rather a theology of the living. The word repentance, teshuvah, so commonly heard over the High Holidays, has many meanings. Among them is reconciliation.

As we sit and watch the political and religious absolutism infecting the American body politic threaten to irreversibly rend our national soul, we as Americans and Jews must become baalei teshuvah, masters of reconciliation. We need to help in healing and reconciling this divided country and remind our fellow citizens there is more to living than life or choice.

Rabbi Eliyahu Stern is scholar-in-residence at Park East Synagogue and is finishing a Ph.D. in Jewish studies at UC Berkeley.

 

A Picture of Hate


Quite possibly the curators missed it entirely. Or maybe they noticed it, and included it without comment as a quiet reminder that we, and they, are perhaps not entirely different after all.

I always try to go to Mass on the anniversary of my mother’s untimely death 26 long years ago. But this year I decided to do something different. I attended the “Liberation!” exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance — photos and objects and footage from the moments in the spring of 1945 when the doors of the Nazi concentration camps were thrown open to the world, and when those few remaining within were set free.

I was immediately drawn to a photograph of a couple dozen dazzling young Jewish women … in prison stripes, in Bergen-Belsen, liberated by the British on April 15. I did some quick arithmetic, and concluded that my mother had been a dazzling young Irish Catholic woman in Brooklyn on that day, busily tormenting the young Irish Catholic men of Brooklyn who hadn’t yet been sent off to war. Most of the young women in this photo, I suspected, had only been in the camps a short while — they looked too healthy, too well-fed, too unbowed to have been there very long. And all were flashing the most glorious, breathtaking, resplendent smiles — saved, miraculously, from certain and immediate doom. Now, suddenly, they had decades not hours of life ahead; their fates were so different from the unfortunate Anne Frank and her sister, Margot, murdered in this very charnel house only a few weeks earlier.

I poked around the exhibit, looking at letters home from liberators, a huge Nazi flag autographed by American soldiers, photos of Gens. Eisenhower and Bradley and Patton — all rather pale and sickly as they toured the Ohrdruf camp on April 12, 1945 (the day Franklin Roosevelt died).

I moved on to a set of nine pages from one soldier’s personal photo album, delicately laid out inside a glass case, taken by “a U.S. Army medical officer” at the Gusen and Ebensee camps. Somehow these seemed more real than the official historical photographs enlarged on the walls — pictures snapped by an ordinary GI with a cheap camera who happened to be in the presence of history.

The medical officer clearly had sympathy for victims of Nazi cruelty. “A very pathetic case,” he wrote. “A 24-year-old German lad [half-Jewish] died of tuberculosis.” “A previously wealthy Hungarian businessman — gone berserk in concentration camp.”

My eyes moved on to four U.S. soldiers posing side by side — hale, hearty, on the side of the righteous and embarked on the adventure of a lifetime.

Then, suddenly, I stopped. I wasn’t sure I had seen what I thought I had just seen. I rubbed my eyes. I looked again.

The medical officer’s caption read: “Abe — Myself — Nigger — Stanislaus.”

I peered more closely at the tiny snapshot. Indeed, the third soldier from the left did appear to be African American. An African American, apparently for the medical officer, with no name. An African American, apparently for the medical officer, who was not so much a man as a thing. An African American, apparently for the medical officer, whose primary characteristic was not his individual identity, but his racial origin.

Why could this man so plainly see the Nazis for what they were, yet so utterly miss the roots of the same attitudes in his own heart? How could he be so eager to remove the log from his brother’s eye, yet be so oblivious to the speck in his own eye? And shouldn’t this stunning incongruity cause us to ask ourselves whether we, in other times and other places, might find ourselves lured down a similar road?

The late American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan, posted to Moscow in 1944 and watching a long column of haggard, hungry and humiliated German POWs on forced march through Red Square, felt compassion for the young captives (likely destined to starve to death in Soviet camps) and observed that “they are no more responsible for the accident of birth that brought them to this place than are the young Russians who fight against them.”

What if I’d been born in Dresden in 1920, rather than in Detroit some decades later? By 1937 I would have been young, impressionable and desperate to prove my manhood. Hitler would have whispered to me that I was the vanguard of a master race. He would have implored me to eradicate the subhuman elements from our superior civilization. He would have demanded that the humiliations suffered by the fathers in 1918 now be avenged by the sons.

Would I have been able to view what was going on from the perspective of some detached, universal morality? Or would I instead have devoured the führer’s demagoguery, fallen under his spell … and found myself seven or eight years later sporting an SS Death’s Head insignia, and shoving a pregnant teenage Jewish girl that I myself had raped into a cage filled with ravenous dogs?

I’d very much like to believe that had I been born at that place at that time, I would have mustered the courage to at least ask some hard questions of Hitler’s foul henchmen before joining them on their one-way excursion to the gates of hell.

But I really don’t know.

Do you?

Tad Daley (tad@daleyplanet.org), issues director for the 2004 presidential campaign of Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), is now peace and disarmament fellow in the Los Angeles office of Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Nobel Laureate anti-nuclear organization.

 

Jews Forced to Flee Arabs Want Redress


Jews who fled Arab countries following the creation of the State of Israel are preparing to launch a new campaign for restitution.

Meeting in London at a forum organized by the World Organization for Jews From Arab Countries and Justice for Jews From Arab Countries, Jewish representatives from 14 nations met for two days last week to create the steering committee for the International Campaign for Rights and Redress.

The group plans to conduct an international advocacy and public education campaign on the heritage and rights of former Jewish refugees, documenting human rights violations against those who fled Arab countries, as well as their lost assets.

The director of the justice group, Stanley Urman, said the summit was a landmark occasion.

“It is a commitment by Jewish communities in 14 countries on five continents to once and for all document the historical injustice perpetrated against Jews in Arab countries,” he said. “It is not just a theoretical and educational exercise; it is concrete.”

Supported by the Israeli government, the plan also has the backing of Jewish communities in North and South America, Europe and Australia, with organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International and the World Sephardi Congress involved.

“We are delighted to play a key role in this crucial project,” said Henry Grunwald, president of British Jewry’s umbrella group, the Board of Deputies. “The plight of Jews from Arab countries is all too often a cause that we in the wider Jewish community forget, and we must act to educate and raise awareness of this important issue.”

Organizers long have been unhappy that the issue of Palestinian refugees largely has eclipsed the question of the nearly 900,000 Jews displaced from Arab countries around the 1948 creation of the State of Israel. They want the Jewish refugees’ fate addressed as well in any peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Approximately 600,000 of these refugees settled in Israel; by 2001, fewer than 8,000 Jews remained in Arab countries. The displaced Jews were recognized as refugees by the United Nations, but there was virtually no international response to their plight.

The only way that the rights of former Jewish refugees can be asserted, organizers believe, is through an international advocacy campaign. They will launch the campaign in March with a special month of commemoration to highlight the torture, detention, loss of citizenship and seizure of property suffered by many Jewish refugees.

“This is a milestone in the effort to address the historic injustice to the Jewish communities in Arab countries,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We hope that this renewed, unified campaign will not only succeed in creating a comprehensive data bank, but will also put this issue on the agenda of the international community, which has neglected it for so long.” Data on the communal and individual assets lost in the mass displacements — incorporating public education, the collection of testimonies and programs to lobby media and governments — will be collected and preserved in a special unit established in Israel’s Ministry of Justice.

Urman declined to speculate on the value of the Jewish refugees’ assets, insisting that the fundamental issue was justice rather than compensation. Redress might come in many forms, he said, from a commitment to protect and preserve historical Jewish sites in Arab lands to the endowment of chairs at universities to preserve Middle Eastern Jewish culture.

In Iraq, the Jewish community numbered around 140,000 before being mostly dispersed in the 1950s. Like many others in his community, Maurice Shohet, president of Bene Naharayim, the Iraqi Jewish community in New York, abandoned his possessions when he fled Iraq with his family in 1970 at age 21.

The combined assets Iraqi Jewry left behind now could be worth billions of dollars. When the U.S.-led Iraq War began in 2003, the prospect of an elected, post-Saddam government offered some hope of restitution for the community.

But “so far, all we are hearing is the voice of the insurgents,” said Shohet, who visited his hometown of Baghdad last year, but cut short his trip because of violence.

With divisions rampant within Iraq society and the government still going through a transition period, compensation still seems far away. Yet that makes the issue more urgent, Urman said.

After Israel’s recent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, there might also be a new impetus toward fresh talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

“If Gaza results in renewed commitment by the Palestinian Authority to advance serious peace negotiations, it will have moved us forward to a resolution of both the Arab and Jewish refugee issues,” Urman said. “But it’s a big if.”