Younger Persians seeking greater role in community


Many of Los Angeles’ young Iranian Jews arrived in the United States as small children or were born here to immigrant parents.

Now young professionals in their 20s and 30s, they have fully embraced life in America and are championing greater political activity for the Iranian Jewish community in Southern California.

“For 30 years, our community has benefited from the opportunities of America, and now it’s time to give back and embrace our responsibilities as Jews and as Americans,” said Sam Yebri, 27, president of 30 Years After, a new, politically active nonprofit group. The organization was formed earlier this year by a group who wanted to make a contribution to the community but believed their voices were often ignored by the older leadership of local Iranian Jews.

“Our young members are not welcomed onto boards or committees, which are often governed by the same individuals for decades and which covet financial contributions over the creative energy and ideas of young leaders,” Yebri said.

As a result, the group set out to create new opportunities for social action.

This summer, 30 Years After was awarded $200,000 by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. 30 Years After’s planned activities include a communitywide conference titled, “The Iranian Jewish Community at a Crossroads,” which will take place on Sept. 14 at the Beverly Hills Hilton.

The conference will feature speakers from within the community, including Jimmy Delshad. Other speakers will include Rabbi David Wolpe, whose Sinai Temple has a large Iranian membership; Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks); Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and talk show host Dennis Prager. Topics will include life today in Iran and issues facing the Iranian Jewish communities in the United States and Israel.

30 Years After also plans to organize voter registration drives for the November election, host quarterly civic events and expand a pilot mentoring program for younger Iranian Jews, a project created in collaboration with Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters and Nessah Israel Synagogue.

Yebri and other 30 Years After members said they are also seeking greater political participation by local Iranian Jews in hopes of influencing local, state and national elected officials to address issues important to the Iranian Jewish community.

Over the past decades, nearly two dozen local Iranian Jewish groups have been involved with political awareness efforts, but no group until now has seriously pursued or organized communitywide political and civic activism.

Daryoush Dayan, newly elected chairman of the L.A.-based Iranian American Jewish Federation, acknowledged that the community’s leadership does not include the younger generation. He has pledged to resolve the issue.

“It is our hope that we will be able to preserve and combine the best aspects of our culture and moral values with those of the American Jewish community,” Dayan said. “However, this can only be realized to the extent we allow the younger generation to carry the leadership torch.”

We don’t need more gabfests on diversity


The details of the ugly dustup between a leading local Jewish philanthropist, Daphna Ziman, and the local African American head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Rev. Eric Lee, are still at issue. Ziman disseminated her account of the encounter in a widely distributed e-mail. She claimed that Lee gave a speech at a local fraternity function rife with anti-Semitic statements. Lee strenuously denied the charges, and no independent corroboration exists.

But what is of greater interest than what actually transpired at the Kappa Alpha Psi gathering is the response from the leadership of our community to Lee’s remarks and what that portends for intergroup relations in this city.

Predictably, the civil rights leadership of our communities seems to be responding to the incident just as they have in the past — with dialogue groups and resurrected “roundtables” aimed at convincing participants of the value of diversity and of our historic and present commonalities.

What ought to distinguish the response of today from those in the 1970s and 1990s is the context of our very changed society.

Society has caught up and passed well beyond dialogue groups and the need to justify and rationalize the value of diversity. Every major study conducted in this field has revealed an amazing attitude of acceptance of differences by today’s young people. As Morley Winograd and Michael Hais observe in their just-published book, “Millennial Makeover,” “the great diversity of the Millennial Generation [born between 1982 and 2003] and its experiences growing up in a multiracial society is reflected in their relatively color-blind attitudes on racial relations.”

The Pew Center concluded in its multiple surveys of millennials that “they are the most tolerant of any generation on social issues such as immigration, race and homosexuality.” One example documented by the Pew Center (dealing with a historically incendiary issue) found that that between 1987 and 2003, attitudes toward interracial dating among 18-25-year-olds underwent a sea change — those approving such activity rose from 56 percent to 89 percent. Those completely agreeing with interracial dating rose from 20 percent to 64 percent.

The data of a profound change in attitudes is incontestable and is manifested across racial and religious lines. The Reboot study of millennials, “OMG! How Generation Y is Redefining Faith in the iPod Era,” found that today’s youth are “fully integrated into diverse social networks. While previous generations often lived in homogenous religious communities, among Generation Y [born 1980-2000], only 7 percent of youth report that all their friends are the same religion as themselves. Even the most religious youth maintain diverse networks of peers.”

The study oversampled Jewish and black youth to confirm their findings.

Even the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) study of anti-Semitic attitudes indicates a decline in anti-Semitic attitudes among the African American population, historically among the most problematic cohort it surveys. Unfortunately, the ADL study does not disaggregate data for younger blacks and their attitudes.

If one believes the myriad studies that confirm the exceptionally positive trends of the new generation, how should one respond to the Lee incident? More dialogue groups that devolve into vehicles to preach to the converted seems to be what we have in store for us. The Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission and its friends will be busy singing the same old songs.

What ought to inform any actions that grow out of the Lee-Ziman incident is the profound change that has taken and is taking place around us. Young people today don’t need a “coalition” to talk about how to live together — they do it 24/7. Their world isn’t circumscribed by their faith, their race or their ethnicity.

Nor should we trudge out the old nostrums and activities and think that the Lees of the world will change their version of history or their attitudes — nor should we really care. They are not the future, and their historical notions are virtually irrelevant.

Our communities’ leadership has to absorb the reality that the next generation of open-minded young people sees diversity as a plus, not as a burden to be overcome. We need to offer them activities that confirm their positive outlook and involve them in doing, not talking, about things, much as Temple Israel’s Big Sunday program does — people working together as equals, improving our community for everyone. We don’t need more gabfests or sessions of self-flagellation.

Millennials believe that they live in an exciting time, two-thirds rate their lives as “excellent or pretty good,” let’s give them reason to confirm those positive attitudes.


David A. Lehrer is president and Joe R. Hicks vice president of Community Advocates Inc. (www.cai-la.org), a Los Angeles-based human relations organization headed by former mayor Richard J. Riordan.

Teens, college students make their presence known


“Welcome to Los Angeles.”

“Welcome to the GA.”

Erika Levy and Alie Kussin-Shoptaw, seniors at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, easily spotted in their bright orange volunteer vests, stood by the escalators at the Los Angeles Convention Center, greeting arriving United Jewish Communities General Assembly (GA) attendees and directing them to meeting rooms, halls and hospitality suites.

“We have to be like Abraham and reach out and greet everyone, even if it’s a little uncomfortable for us,” said Kussin-Shoptaw.

The girls, both 17, were part of a cadre of teen volunteers brought together by Sulam, the Center for Jewish Service Learning, part of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE). The group included 15 students from New Community Jewish High School, 20 from Shalhevet High School, 11 from the Jewish Student Union (JSU) and 20 from United Synagogue Youth.

The students, already committed to the Jewish community, learned about the mitzvah of greeting, instructed by Phil Liff-Grieff, BJE associate executive director, and Dan Gold, director of Sulam, before being dispatched for a three-hour volunteer shift. Afterward, they were free to attend sessions, visit the marketplace or hang out in the teen volunteer lounge.

“These kids think it’s so cool to be part of this,” Gold said.

For those students from the JSU, an organization that provides ways for Jewish teens in public high schools to become more Jewishly involved, the GA was an extension of a leadership weekend held on Friday and Saturday.

“This is a great opportunity to learn for ourselves, as well as help others,” said Mike Ghalchi, 17, a senior at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills and president of the school’s JSU chapter. He added it was particularly valuable, because “going to public school, we’re not exposed to religion every day.”

For 20 members of United Synagogue Youth (USY) from Los Angeles-area chapters, the GA was also the culmination of a long regional leadership weekend at Camp Ramah.

These young people, many of whom had stayed up till 4 a.m., traveled from Ojai on Sunday morning in time for the opening plenary session, where, among other speakers, they heard speeches by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, as well as Karnit Goldwasser, wife of captured soldier Ehud Goldwasser.

“This supports everything they’re doing in USY,” said Merrill Alpert, director of youth activities for USY’s Pacific Southwest Region. “These kids are our future Jewish leaders.”

While Sulam targeted those who will ideally work in the Jewish community, Do the Write Thing hosted a group of 30 college students and recent graduates who will possibly be reporting on the Jewish community.

“We introduce them to the concept that Jewish journalism is a profession,” said Leni Reiss, former managing editor of the Phoenix Jewish News and American Jewish Press Association (AJPA) liaison for 16 of the program’s 17 years. “Here they get a sense of the living, breathing, organized Jewish world.”

Through this program, which is cosponsored by The Jewish Agency, the Hagshama department of the World Zionist Organization and AJPA, students attended workshops, including one on “Covering Israel in the American Jewish Press.”

Additionally this year, for first time, they were given assignments, asked to fan out into different sessions each day and bring back quotations for the GA Daily, distributed to attendees. They are also expected to write an article about the GA for their school or community paper.

For Ayli Meyer, 21, a University of Judaism student from Houston, the GA is an opportunity to gain some real-life experience. She serves as editor of the school newspaper, the Casiano Chronicle, but, she said, “there are not enough journalism classes at school.”

Another participant, Erin Kelley, 23, a Reno resident who attends Truckee Meadows Community College, is hoping to make aliyah in a year.

“I want to combine my knowledge of Israel and my writing skills,” she said.
Elon Shore, the Hagshama Mid-Atlantic regional director, believes that having Israel as a central theme helps these young people connect with the Jewish community. He referred to studies demonstrating that an Israel experience is effective at connecting young adults to Judaism.

Students also respond very well to social concerns, according to Jeff Rubin, Hillel’s associate vice president for communications, citing a Hillel report.

This year, new to the GA, Hillel sponsored Just for a Day, a day of social action where 300 Jewish students from universities across the United States and Canada, who had come for entire GA conference, joined together on Sunday with another 700 college students, mostly from Southern California.

Just for a Day encompassed projects sponsored by six different organizations. These ranged from Project Angel Food, where students delivered hot meals to home-bound patients with AIDS, to Jewish World Watch, where, at Congregation B’nai David-Judea, students learned about advocating for Darfur. At all locations, students were joined by local celebrities, including “West Wing” actor Josh Malina and comedian David Brenner.

At the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, located downtown, more than 100 students helped unpack cartons of donated canned and packaged foods and sorted them for Thanksgiving distribution.

“I think a lot of people look at college students as lazy,” said Nicole Landa, a USC junior. “As you can see here, students really do care.”

From the University of Arizona in Tucson, 60 students piled into vans after the school’s homecoming Saturday night and drove nine hours to participate in Just for a Day, according to U of A student Michelle Miller.

Half the group worked at the Midnight Mission on Skid Row, distributing hygiene packs that they had preassembled, and on Skid Row. The other half worked at the Downtown Women’s Center.

Then, after attending a concert that evening at the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood, where Guster, an alternative rock band, and The LeeVees, a Jewish holiday music band, entertained Hillel participants, they climbed back into their vans for the nine-hour return trip.

According to Hillel President Wayne Firestone, volunteer days such as this are effective ways to unite Jewish students across the denominational spectrum to work together under the banner of tikkun olam (healing the world).

“We feel that everywhere we go we should leave our mark,” he said.

Rabbi Gary Greenebaum takes national leadership position; Survival of Jews in Iran is a paradox, pan


Rabbi Gary Greenebaum takes national leadership position

Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, a key figure in Los Angeles civic and ecumenical relations for the last 16 years, has been appointed national director for interreligious affairs by the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

As director of AJC’s Los Angeles chapter and Western region since 1990, Greenebaum has worked closely with leaders of the city’s varied ethnic and religious communities to further mutual respect and understanding.

He plans to project the same skills and goals on the national scene in his new post, succeeding David Elcott, who has joined the Israel Policy Forum as executive director.

“I realize now more than ever how strongly religion affects American society,” Greenebaum said.

Greenebaum played another crucial role when Mayor Richard Riordan appointed him president of the Los Angeles Police Commission in 1993, in the wake of the previous year’s riots, sparked by the acquittal of police officers involved in the Rodney King beating.

“I think that my appointment to the Police Commission and my work there helped alleviate a sense among African Americans that Jews didn’t care any longer about their community,” he said. “I also believe that we have established a tremendous relationship with the Latino community over the years.”

In a different arena, Greenebaum and his chapter have spearheaded Jewish communal relations with some 45 countries represented by consulates in Los Angeles. In recognition of this work, he was recently awarded the National Order of Merit by the French government.

Greenebaum, 57, will retain his family residence in Los Angeles and expects to spend one week each month in New York.

Among highlights of his California tenure, Greenebaum recalled taking several delegations of Protestant and Catholic leaders to Israel and the 2003 AJC mission to Salt Lake City to meet with top Mormon leaders.

“Gary is a wonderful judge of people,” said Sherry A. Weinman, president of the Los Angeles AJC chapter. “He knows exactly when to lead with his rabbinical side and when with his statesman side.”

Debbie Smith Saidoff, who serves on the national AJC board of governors, praised Greenebaum’s sensitivity in dealing with representatives of other faiths.

“Gary is a multidimensional leader of great insight, but he is never afraid to speak truth to power,” she said.

In his new position, Greenebaum will work closely with Jerusalem-based Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s international director of interreligious affairs.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Survival of Jews in Iran is a paradox, panel shows

On Oct. 20, the Women of Vision chapter of the Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization, presented a panel discussion on “The Jews of Iran: Will This 2,700-Year-Old Community Survive?” to a standing-room-only crowd at the Museum of Tolerance.

At present, 25,000 Jews live in Iran, 15,000 of them in Tehran, making Iran’s Jewish population the second largest in the Middle East, outside of Israel. In the years following the 1979 revolution, approximately 75 percent of the Iranian Jewish population fled the country, some to New York but many more to Los Angeles, which now boasts the largest Iranian Jewish population in the world.

Speakers at the conference included Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, as well as Hamid Sabi, former chairman of the Iranian Jewish Centre in London. They were joined by Tel Aviv University professors Meir Litvak, an expert in Shi’ii and radical Islamic movements, and David Menashri, director of the Tel Aviv University’s Center for Iranian Studies; television producer and poet Roya Hakakian, author of “Journey From the Land of No” (Crown), about growing up as a Jewish teenager in post-revolutionary Iran; Shirin Taleh, a relatively recent immigrant to Los Angeles from Tehran, where she was a Jewish preschool and kindergarten schoolteacher; and Israel Radio personality Menashe Amir, who hosts a regular program listened to by Iranians the world over. The panel was moderated by Sharon Baradaran, a professor in UCLA’s Israel studies department.

The conference presented a complex look at the recent history of Jews in Iran. Amir made clear that over the last century, the condition of Jews in Iran had gone from bad to better (under the shah) to worse, prompting Baradaran to ask whether the better times under the shah were more of an aberration than had been thought.

Hakakian and Sabi both spoke of the role of Jews in the revolution and post-revolutionary period, time of great intellectual ferment and hope. Hakakian, in particular, still hopes a democracy will emerge in Iran, and she is encouraged by reports that average Iranians are losing interest in Iranian government-produced Palestinian propaganda and are showing interest in Israel.

By contrast, Litvak was vocal in pointing out that Iran only tolerates Jews living under Muslim rule — not as people living in an independent state. Iran has become the world leader in Holocaust denial, Litvak explained, as part of a political strategy to undermine support for Israel’s existence.

The panelists agreed that today’s Iran presents a paradox. In many ways, as Hakakian, Sabi and Taleh made clear, life for Jews in some ways has never been better. They are a “protected minority,” allowed to drink wine for their rituals, while Muslims are not allowed alcohol; Jews may allow men and women to mix, while Muslims cannot.Nonetheless, Jews are barred from government jobs, and under Muslim laws, their rights in criminal and civil courts are not equal to other Iranian citizens.

Iranian Muslims consider Jews “filthy” and impure. Yet Jews in Iran have the right to passports and to travel abroad and could leave if they choose.

Litvak suggested that Iran’s Jews have little future living as a minority in Iran and will not likely be able to improve their place in society. Kermanian recommended that the remaining Jews of Iran leave as soon as possible, in case conditions should change.

Menashri suggested that all Iranian Jews should move to Israel, while Hakakian argued that Iran’s Jews should remain and will flourish under a future regime. Taleh believes that there always will be a Jewish Iran, as long as parents teach their children about Judaism.

— Tom Teicholz, Contributing Writer

The Circuit


Kudos for Kuh

Los Angeles culinary expert Patric Kuh was honored recently in New York by the James Beard Foundation for his humanitarian efforts during the the James Beard Foundation Journalism Awards.

Kuh won kudos in the Magazine Restaurant Review or Critique category for his work at Los Angeles Magazine.

A Clear Need

Bob Ralls and Linda Falcone accepted awards from Harold Davidson, chairman of the board for Junior Blind of America, at the nonprofit organization’s gala at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The event was held specifically to recognize the contributions of the couple to Junior Blind of America, where they have served as president and vice president of development for more than 20 years. For more than 50 years, Junior Blind of America has offered unique programs and services to help blind and visually impaired people become more independent.

Farewell to Anat Ben-Ishai

While many Jewish Angelenos gathered to do a mitzvah for Big Sunday or to celebrate Yom Ha’Atzmaut at the Israel Festival, a group of almost 300 Wilshire Boulevard Temple staff and families gathered at the Irmas campus for a cause equally personal. The morning’s event was dubbed a “Farewell to Anat Ben-Ishai,” who retired this year after 15 years as director of the Edgar F. Magnin and Gloria and Peter S. Gold Religious Schools.

“You’ve been an inspiration to our children. We can’t pay any person enough for that,” Rabbi Emeritus Harvey J. Fields told Ben-Ishai via a video message. Fields prerecorded a special goodbye message to Ben-Ishai, knowing he would be out of the country for the event. He said what would be missed most in Ben-Ishai’s absence would be her “poetic soul,” her storytelling, and her “care about each of us.” He also noted the excellence of the synagogue’s religious schools today “is your crowning achievement.”

Indeed, in the time Ben-Ishai served as Hebrew school director, the school grew from less than 400 students attending Hebrew school once a week at one campus, to close to 1,000 students attending three days a week at two different campuses.

The haimishe event, as one attendee described it, included many students, several of whom came with their parents. The day began with the tribute and was followed by Israeli dancing, children’s art projects and lunch, as well as a video station to record personal messages to Ben-Ishai and another station to “Write an Anat-o-gram.”

Students also participated in special art projects in their classes, as well as a video project, in which they bid Ben-Ishai farewell and told her they would miss her friendliness and her stories.

Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), acknowledged Ben Ishai’s leadership contributions over the years, stating that out of the five outstanding teachers recognized by the BJE last year, two teachers were from Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

“Anat,” he told her, “you are truly a teacher of teachers.”

Ben-Ishai told those assembled that her greatest pride came from seeing her student’s independent participation in acts of tikkun olam and tzedakah.

The Anat Ben-Ishai Religious School Scholarship Fund was established May 3 in Ben-Ishai’s honor.

Those wishing to contribute may call the school at (213) 388-2401. — Keren Engelberg, Contributing Writer

Much About Maller

Hot dogs and happy memories were the recipe for the weekend as Temple Akiba, the Reform congregation of Culver City, honored Rabbi Allen Maller for 39 years of dedication and inspiration. The weekend was filled with events to bring the congregation together to celebrate and reflect on the Maller’s years as their leader.

Friday night a special service was held and representatives of California Assemblywoman Karen Bass and L.A. County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke presented commendations. Former Culver City Mayor Albert Vera and Culver City Councilwoman Carol Gross praised Maller’s contributions to the community — the City Council even designated April as “Rabbi Maller Month.” There was a “Potpourri of International Tastes” dinner Saturday night and an original musical review written by Barbara Miller that featured five temple members — performing a “shtetl-flavored” tribute to Maller and Temple Akiba.

Maller will leave Temple Akiba at the end of June. Rabbi Zach Shapiro will become new spiritual leader of the congregation.

Magbit FUNDRAISER

Nearly 800 donors, community leaders and public officials gathered May 7 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel for the 17th annual Magbit Foundation gala to raise funds for interest-free loans for Israeli college students and to celebrate Israel’s 58th year of independence. Master of ceremonies and Magbit leader David Nahai, chair of the L.A. Regional Water Quality Control Board, welcomed the guests and the contributions of the local Iranian Jewish community that started the Magbit Foundation.

Keynote speaker, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, acknowledged Magbit’s nearly $3 million in loans given to almost 7,000 new immigrant Israeli university students during the last 17 years.

“The fact that you have provided a means for the talented students in Israel to get the education that will help better the world is truly remarkable,” Villaraigosa said.

Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch spoke about the uniquely strong sense of Zionism of Iranian Jews living in Southern California.

“My friends I have known many Jewish communities around the world, but I have grown to admire the Iranian Jewish community for your sense of Israel and love of Israel which is heartfelt,” Danoch said.

Guests also enjoyed the Middle Eastern dancing of the Sunflower Dancers and the singing of acclaimed Israeli Noa Dori. Also in attendance were Israeli Justice Ministry official Shlomo Shachar, and Los Angeles Jewish Federation President John Fishel — Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

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.”

 

Competing Moments of Truth on Schools


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Young Moseses


Quick Passover trivia: How many times does the name “Moses” appear in the haggadah?

The answer is none, not once. The man who stood up to Pharoah and led us across the Red Sea out of Egypt doesn’t even get a mention. And you thought “Brokeback Mountain” got robbed.

The standard explanation for this is that the rabbis who compiled the haggadah didn’t want to make an idol out of the prophet. We are to read the story of our freedom and deliverance as a sign of the covenant between the people of Israel and God, or, if you like, between our own addictions and enslavements and our struggle for enlightenment.

In any case, Moses has left the building, and we are obliged to imagine how a great Jewish leader would look and act.

An understanding of Moses, after all, would help us understand how a person confronts the challenges of leadership. But there are ways to approach that subject. And that’s why I went to Pat’s last Friday night.

The upscale kosher restaurant on the corner of Pico and Doheny — it’s Mortons for the glatt set — hosted a dinner for LiveNetworks, a yearlong intensive workshop in professional leadership for Jewish 20-somethings from around the country.

Los Angeles hosted the national kickoff for LiveNetworks last weekend, bringing together about 75 of the program’s 87 participants. Hailing from five regional “hubs,” the participants will meet about six times throughout the year in their hub location. In the process, they’ll meet with local leaders and philanthropists, attend seminars and receive individual coaching and mentoring.

It’s an impressive lot, chosen from about 300 applicants for their professional and academic achievement and their charitable involvement.

The young adults sitting around our table seemed to have this in common: They were curious or even passionate about Jewish life, and their Jewishness has imbued them with a desire to get more involved, but they were unsure what to do about it.

“I never imagined I’d be doing what I’m doing,” Shira Landau told me.

Landau, an L.A. native, is assistant religious school director at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades. She said she has found developing curriculum and working with intensely involved, professional parents rewarding, and she applied to LiveNetworks to learn new skills and meet peers who are similarly enthused.

She’s among the half of participants already involved in professional Jewish life.

The other half are nonprofessional Jews, potential future lay leaders, with varying degrees of Jewish exposure.

Rachel Cohen, the daughter of a mixed marriage, had her Judaism awakened on her first birthright trip to Israel seven years ago. The trip changed her life: She switched majors from business to international relations, eventually getting a job with a U.N. ambassador and throwing herself into Jewish life.

Joshua Atkins, a studio game design director for Microsoft in Seattle, said he “came on a hunch.” Although he had little Jewish background or education, he had begun looking for ways to get involved in philanthropy, and friends suggested he sign up. A program tailored to his age group made sense to him.

“This is a generation that understands things move very fast,” he told me, speaking like a true video game designer. “They aren’t going to be satisfied just watching.”

Atkins took in the evening’s program — a quick, funny talk on making a difference from comedy writer Bruce Vilanch, and an energetic interactive Torah study with Rabbi Steve Greenberg — and by the end of the evening was warming up to the idea he’d made the right choice.

This leadership exercise, to be sure, involves a certain amount of latter-day kowtowing to Generation Y or Z or whatever it is. Previous generations, including mine, had to get inspired without this sort of recruitment-style outreach.

Back when I first wanted to explore Israel, I visited the crusty youth program adviser at his dim cubicle at the old Federation building. He handed me some dated brochures for programs, and when I asked him the best way to get to Israel, his endearing reply was, “I’m not a travel agent.”

Now, setting the hook in their eager young gums has become the new obsession of the uber-philanthropists and Jewish organizations. There is big money behind LiveNetworks: Michael Steinhardt (ID’ed in the information packet as a “demibillionaire), Detroit Pistons co-owner William Davidson and the Shusterman and Applebaum family foundations. Similar largesse has helped underwrite Reboot; the magazine Heeb; birthright; and other attempts to catch and keep these young’uns.

It’s The Old Mensch and the Sea, where crusty, dying Jewish organizations fish desperately for the elusive life force that will land them a rebirth in the 21st century.

But while older studies, like the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey, showed a large number of these younger Jews don’t attend synagogue or remain active in Jewish life, a slew of new studies prove the opposite. An up-and-coming generation is proud of its Jewish identity and culturally creative, JTA correspondent Sue Fishkoff writes. (See article on page 16.) It’s “coming up with new methods of religious expression and feels part of a global community linked by Jewish Web sites and blogs.”

Dining with this precious young cohort, I tended to believe the new studies. These Jews are not all that different from their older counterparts. They are not a different species after all, just a new generation.

This generation has the Internet to help educate and organize and connect to one another. At the same time, they have inherited a model of communal hierarchy and given that, being a new generation, they will challenge or even discard.

As Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion professor Steven Windmueller has written: “If the first ‘revolution’ launched the current Jewish Federation model 100 years ago, the second is now seeking to construct an alternative enterprise.”

L.A. law student Gabriel Halimi said he and his friends wanted to raise money for Jewish causes but found mainstream Jewish organizations “too inflexible.” So he helped found the Society for Young Philanthropists, which now raises and distributes thousands of dollars to worthy causes.

Today’s Halimi could have been any one of the young lions of Los Angeles Jewish philanthropy circa 1950. In other words, I suspect these new “revolutionary” approaches are differences in technology and style, not substance. What I saw and heard at Pat’s restaurant last Friday was passion, communication, a willingness to confront established power and a strong sense that the Jewish people have something to offer one another and the world.

Which, when you think of it, would be a good description of Moses.

Happy Passover.

 

Uncertain Time for Likud in America


Ariel Sharon and his Likud party used to be the safest of bets for American supporters of Israel who are conservative, hawkish or focused foremost on security. And Sharon’s Likud could rely on its American tribe for financial and political support.

But times have changed — and changed again. When Sharon, as Israeli prime minister, pulled Israel out of Gaza last summer, he angered or discomfited many of Likud’s most loyal supporters here. Then, he left Likud to form a new political party. And this month, Sharon suffered a major stroke that almost certainly will end his political career.

All of which leaves America’s Likudniks facing new uncertainties.

The official American Friends of Likud organization, in the midst of a California and national expansion drive, has come down solidly in support of Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the new head of the Likud Party.

By contrast, a sampling of veteran American Likudniks, who have known both Sharon and Netanyahu for many years, indicate an unwavering support for Sharon.

Ari Harow, the 32-year-old executive director of the New-York based American Friends of Likud (AFL), estimated in a call from Israel that less than 5 percent of the membership had followed Sharon out of the party.

“The vast majority of our people do not believe in a leadership that abandons the ship,” said Harow, referring to Sharon’s defection from Likud, which he had helped found.

Robert Rechnitz, who heads AFL’s Western States region, was even more outspoken.

Without Sharon, “Likud is now a better and much cleaner party,” said Rechnitz, adding that he knew of no local members who had gone over to Kadima, the political party .

AFL’s membership figures are modest compared to non-partisan Jewish mass organizations, with executive director Harow claiming 3,000 to 5,000 dues-paying members. The much older Labor Zionist Alliance (recently renamed Ameinu), at the other end of the political spectrum, claims somewhat less than 10,000 paying members.

The New York-headquartered AFL, however, has a national voice as a member of the conference of major American Jewish organizations and the American Zionist movement. Some of its major supporters are quite wealthy and politically well connected.

In the post-Sharon era, a new Likud is evolving under Netanyahu’s leadership. He is currently pushing for a relatively centrist slate of Knesset candidates against a more hawkish faction.

Only time will tell how this will play out with the AFL and how much that might matter in Israel.

Uri Harkham, a Los Angeles business executive and a strong financial backer of Likud since the election of Prime Minister Menahem Begin in 1977, continues to back Sharon unreservedly as well as Sharon’s new political party.

“I totally support Sharon, he bridged the gaps in Israeli society,” Harkham said. By contrast, “Netanyahu is the worst thing that happened to Likud. He left the party in shambles.”

Jonathan Mitchell, whose family members have been pro-Israel activists for generations, said he had known and supported Sharon for 20 years.

Mitchell said that he stuck with Sharon not out of personal loyalty, but based on leadership quality.

“Sharon has been a much better prime minister than Netanyahu was,” he said.

Ehud Olmert, now the acting prime minister and leader of Sharon’s new Kadima Party, is a lesser-known quantity in America than Sharon or Netanyahu. However, Glenn Yago, a leading economist at the Milken Institute, worked closely with Olmert during his long tenure as mayor of Jerusalem.

“Olmert is tremendously hard-working and talented,” Yago said. “He is responsible for the enormous changes in the physical infrastructure of Jerusalem. I think he would make a pretty good prime minister.”

Regardless of Likud’s immediate fortunes in Israel, the American support group is making a serious effort to raise its profile, aiming at a younger demographic through its Caravan of Democracy’s Israel advocacy training program at high schools and a young professional leadership development program.

During the past two years, AFL has sought to expand beyond its New York-area base. Its Web site map of the United States highlights chapters in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans and southern Florida.

Only the New York headquarters and the Los Angeles chapter list any contact numbers, but Harow maintained that groups in other cities are functioning and that the website simply needs updating.

Backing the expansion drive, Israel’s Likud leaders have been paying particular attention to the party’s American supporters. Last year, Los Angeles alone welcomed visits by Netanyahu and education minister Limor Livnat, as well as by Knesset stalwarts Uzi Landau and Yuval Steinitz, both considered on the hardline end of the Likud Knesset faction.

Rechnitz, a 50-year old real estate developer, is on the national AFL board and two years ago founded the Western States chapter, which now claims close to 500 members.

The membership is concentrated in the Los Angeles area, though there are knots of supporters in San Francisco and Oakland who turn out for visiting speakers.

Rechnitz said that more than half his members are from the Israel expatriate community, although other estimates put the percentage considerably lower.

“Most of these expats probably supported Labor when they lived in Israel, but have now become Likudniks,” he said. “There are other members who crossed over from the left, after supporting disengagement from Gaza, because they didn’t like the way Sharon jumped without getting concessions from the Palestinians.”

The latest addition on the local Likud scene is the AFL’s Beverly Hills chapter, founded by attorney Myles L. Berman.

American Friends of Likud invites the public to meet with former refusenik and Israeli cabinet minister Natan Sharansky at 4 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 22, at the Nessah Synagogue, 142 S. Rexford Drive, Beverly Hills. Sharansky will also meet privately with members of the entertainment industry and others. For details, visit www.thelikud.org or e-mail info@thelikud.org.

 

Brandeis-Bardin’s Changing Face


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leadership changes are now well under way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luisa Jaffe is now a committed Brandeis supporter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jordanna Flores
Camp Alonim’s new director Jordanna Flores

A Dream Come True


by Jane Ulman, Contributing Writer


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Camp to Rabbi


by Jane Ulman, Contributing Writer


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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi David Shofet to Serve as Iranians’ Spiritual Leader


Nearly 90 religious and social leaders from Southern California’s Iranian Jewish community have formally and unanimously recognized Rabbi David Shofet of the Nessah Cultural Center as the community’s new spiritual head.

While Shofet was not elected, the leadership from leading Iranian Jewish organizations signed a resolution approving him to serve as their primary religious leader. The pronouncement was made at a community gathering Sept. 29 at the Olympic Collection in West Los Angeles.

For more than 25 years, Shofet worked alongside his father, Hacham Yedidia Shofet, the community’s longtime spiritual leader, who died last summer.

“The resolution was an expression of confidence that Rav David was the best person to follow in the footsteps of his father, Hacham Yedidia, as our community’s leading spiritual leader,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian Jewish Federation.

The event was hosted by Dr. H. Kermanshachi, past chairman and founder of the Iranian Jewish Federation.

 

A Historic Event


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shalom did not attend the Musharraf event.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Musharraf didn’t do much to dispel this impression.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Arnold contributed to this report.

Religion Briefs: All Are Welcome


Religion. Within the parameters of Judaism it can mean many things.

From the usual labels we use to cover the gamut of observance — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist — there are whole worlds in between: Orthodox can be affiliated with Chasidic, black hat, Chabad, Aish HaTorah, Carlebach or Young Israel, to name just a few. Conservative can be Conservadox, Egalitarian, JTS, Sabbath observant, drive only to shul, etc. Reform can mean once-a-year High Holiday Jews or the “New Reform Observant Jew,” who is observant but far from Orthodox (“Reform Reforms,” Jewish Journal, May 20).

A person’s origins also come into play, whether it’s Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Israeli, Persian, Russian, Iraqi, Dutch, German and all the places in the Diaspora the Jews traveled to in thousands of years of exile, where they picked up new traditions and customs and made them part of their heritage, much as we do in America today.

I, for one, am from Eastern European origins — primarily Polish, although my last name is Hungarian (which means that only some of our rooms had chandeliers). I grew up in New York “Modern Orthodox.” (We were so modern we used cars and telephones and faxes and radios.) But I’m not sure the Modern Orthodoxy I grew up with even exists today, just as the Modern Orthodoxy my parents grew up with in the 1950s had faded by the time I was born.

This is the beauty of the Jewish religion. It is forever changing, yet always true to its essence. In the book of Leviticus, God tells the children of Israel, “You should keep My statutes and My laws, which if a man obeys, he shall live through them [v’chai bahem].”

“We shall live through them” is the challenge of the Jewish religion: How do we integrate the holy, the spiritual, the communal with the daily?

As The Jewish Journal’s new religion editor, I will be covering the communal and spiritual life of Los Angeles’ Jewish community, beginning with this monthly column, “Acts of Faith” — because in the end, faith is what keeps all of us Jews, of all denominations, together.

Please send all materials related to synagogues, spiritual movements, holiday-related articles to amy@jewishjournal.com.

Synagogue Surf’s Up!

Dolphins of Malibu get to enjoy Shabbat Services, too, as the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue has taken Friday night services to Zuma Beach, home of surfers and boogie boarders in Malibu.

Rabbi Judith HaLevy and Argentine Cantor Marcelo Gindlin have led these services for the past three years. And guess what? The dolphins have come to 11 out of 12 of the services, said Rabbi Judith, as she prefers to be called.

“They missed one Shabbos, which any congregant can miss,” she told The Journal. “I think it means they are Jewish dolphins, or clearly they hear the sound of people praying or they have some kind of resonance — it’s uncanny.”

The Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, a member of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, has been in Malibu for the last 25 years. More than 100 people usually attend the summer beach services, coming from the valleys, Topanga and South Bay just in time to watch the sun begin its descent. People sit in a circle for the prayers and singing, which is followed by candle-lighting, story time for the children and Kiddush.

“I often ask people to just stand and listen to the sound of the waves for the ‘Shema,'” Rabbi Judith said, “because the power of listening is really important, which is something we all rarely do.”

The next beach services take place Aug. 19, and Sept. 9 and 16 at 7 p.m. at Westward Beach in Malibu (across from the Sunset Restaurant). Bring a pillow, blanket, sweatshirt and beach chairs.

For more information call Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue: (310) 456-2178 or surf to www.mjcs.org.

A New Life

Jewish Life, a glossy color monthly magazine serving the Torah-observant community in Los Angeles, published its first issue this month. Jewish Life will include in-depth features on Orthodoxy in Los Angeles, a calendar of events, a full-color social circuit section, divrei Torah and opinion columns. With a circulation of 10,000, the monthly magazine is distributed free at 250 locations in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, including synagogues, kosher restaurants and stores.

“Jewish Life doesn’t replace coverage of the Orthodox community in our other publications, it enhances it,” said Kimber Sax, COO of nonprofit Los Angeles Jewish Publications, Inc., which also publishes The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Jewish Family of Conejo, Simi and West Valley and Jewish Family of Orange County.

The next issue of Jewish Life will be a back-to-school education-related issue, followed by a magazine dedicated to the High Holidays, Jewish Life Editor Emuna Braverman said.

“I hope that the magazine will become an important resource for Orthodox community events and information,” said Braverman, a mother of nine who lives in the Pico-Robertson area.

Braverman, who holds both a law and psychology degree, started the educational program for Aish HaTorah in Los Angeles 22 years ago with her husband, Rabbi Nachum Braverman, and they both still work for the international organization. Braverman also teaches gourmet kosher cooking classes and is working on a kosher cookbook.

Rabbis from around the city serve on the advisory board of Jewish Life, including Moises Benzaquen, Gershon Bess, Asher Brander, Moshe Cohen, Daniel Korobkin, Yaakov Krause, Baruch Kupfer, Elazar Muskin, Yosef Shusterman, Avrohom Stuhlberger, Yitzchok Summers, Sholom Tendler, Yakov Vann, Steven Weil and David Zargari.

For more information, contact Emuna Braverman at emunab@jewishlifela.com.

Synagogue Subsidies

The Orthodox Union (OU) is accepting applications for its new Synagogue Grants Program, which will provide up to $20,000 apiece to five OU-affiliated shuls across North America to develop innovative programming.

The grants program will support a variety of activities, including leadership development, membership, fundraising, strategic planning, education, communal outreach, social service, youth programs and multimedia technologies. Activities may include discussion series, conferences, symposia, public forums and hands-on learning experiences that impact the lives of congregants.

Preference will be given to programs replicable in other synagogues and communities so that OU shuls can assist one another, said OU President, Stephen J. Savitsky. At least one of the grants will be reserved for smaller Jewish communities, as part of an emphasis to encourage Orthodox life outside of large cities, he said.

Applications are due by Sept. 26, 2005, for programs beginning in January. For more information, contact Frank Buchweitz, OU director of special projects, at (212) 613-8188, or frank@ou.org.

 

Can Jewish Groups Get Back on Track?


A Jewish conference focused on a looming crisis might strike some as more of the same.

But a wave of recent gatherings has tackled the existential questions facing world Jewry, and many are aimed at or driven by new actors.

The slew of new forums focusing on the future of the Jewish people reveals a certain angst about today’s challenges and raises questions about how much faith Jews have in existing institutions to address those challenges.

The conferences reflect a “recognition that the Jewish world is in decline, particularly the non-Orthodox Diaspora, and the organizations are incapable of dealing with that decline” — and may even be partially responsible for it, philanthropist Michael Steinhardt told JTA.

“They have not been able to anticipate the needs of the Jewish people, and, you know, it’s happened under their watch,” he said.

Dan Mariaschin, the executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, said the conferences were spurred by a “kind of a convergence of issues all coming together at one time,” such as the spread of anti-Semitism and a dwindling U.S. Jewish population.

Mariaschin attended a June 22-23 conference in Israel hosted by Israeli President Moshe Katsav. Heads of major Israeli and Diaspora groups who came together decided to establish a World Jewish Forum – based on the model of the World Economic Forum — to tackle the challenges facing world Jewry.

A key question at the meeting was how to attract a cross section of influential Jews beyond the ranks of Jewish organizations.

In May, the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a think tank associated with the Jewish Agency for Israel, took a similar approach at the Wye River Conference Center, in Maryland.

The meeting drew luminaries such as Steinhardt, Harvard President Lawrence Summers and Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz to address issues such as Diaspora Jews’ decreasing affiliation.

Other conferences are focused on distilling Jewish identity. KolDor, a new Israel-based group that serves as a think tank of prominent young Jews around the world, met June 23-27 in Israel.

The group is “seeking to articulate a positive, inclusive platform for the Jewish people,” from defining Jewish values and “peoplehood” to the role of Diaspora Jewry vis-?-vis Israel.

This fall, New York City’s Jewish Week newspaper will host “The Conversation: Jewish in America,” in Aspen, Colo. The conference will draw 75 American Jews “who are leaders or potential leaders in their respective fields to talk about the future of Jewish life in this country and what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century,” according to the conference’s Web site.

Despite the number of annual conferences already held by Jewish organizations, some say the new conferences are filling a void.

According to Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, the gatherings are motivated partly by what is lacking at the General Assembly (GA), the annual conference of the North American Jewish federation system.

“I think there was once the hope that the GA would serve as that meeting ground for Jewish leadership to discuss the larger issues of Jewish life, and I think there was a point in the history of the GA when that was the case, and I think a lot of people are disappointed that it’s no longer the case,” Charendoff said. People are seeing that “all of the organized Jewish community is missing the boat.”

At Katsav’s meeting, “it was pointed out that the collective efforts of organized Jewish life are reaching about 30 percent of the American Jewish community,” said Charendoff, who attended the meeting and expressed his hope that a World Jewish Forum would attract the most talented Jews — from the business world to Hollywood.

Gail Hyman, senior vice president of communications for the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the federation system’s umbrella organization, said Charendoff was “correct that there certainly was a feeling that something had to be injected into GA thinking and planning to bring it back to a place of excitement and energy and purpose.”

But, she said, UJC has been doing just that — moving to make its annual assembly more relevant, interactive and provocative — and instituting changes designed to attract younger Jews.

“We want very much for the GA to be the place to be for Jewish community leaders across the United States and Canada,” she said.

The GA is a “unique place on the calendar and a unique event,” she said, one that tries “to marry those big global discussions” — on issues such as anti-Semitism, the Gaza withdrawal plan or Jewish ethics — “with the very real needs of local federations” and other UJC constituents.

According to Yosef Abramowitz, a KolDor member and CEO of the Newton, Mass.-based Jewish Family and Life, a publisher of Jewish content online, the recent conferences reflect distress over the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, which revealed a lack of progress toward meeting challenges identified in a prior study a decade earlier.

The 2000-2001 survey found an estimated 5.2 million Jews living in America, down from 5.5 million in 1990. Forty-seven percent of Jews who had married in the prior five years had wed non-Jews, up from 43 percent in 1990.

“The community is beginning to realize that there isn’t a deficit of resources, but a deficit of vision,” Abramowitz said. “That’s where new voices and visions come in, and mixing up the many leadership groupings in new ways in search of answers,”

The community’s new agenda will focus on “peoplehood” above religion, a renewed Jewish mission and developing new leaders, Abramowitz said.

Several have found the conferences invigorating.

“While many of the people invited to the president’s meeting started off skeptical, my sense was that by the end they felt that something significant could be accomplished and were pleased to be part of the effort,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who participated in the Katsav conference in June.

But Yoffie warned against conferences that focus on crises while ignoring the vibrancy of modern Jewish life.

“These conferences have become somewhat of a joke among many younger Jews who wonder aloud why they should be part of a people whose major activity is seminars on survival,” he said. “Do we really need one more conference to tell us that we need to do a better job in Jewish education? As if nobody had thought of that before.”

“That fact is that we pretty much know what we need. And there are times when we require less talk and more action, more mitzvot, more focusing on the joys, the satisfactions and the holiness of Jewish life and less on the sword of extinction that hangs over our head.”

According to Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who attended the Wye conference, the new discussions may help overhaul a hierarchy of Jewish leadership that seems to reward wealth over aptitude.

“All these conferences reflect a deep feeling that the time has come to broaden the base of Jewish leadership beyond the ‘gelt-givers,'” he said, adding that donors should remain leaders, but not the exclusive shareholders of Jewish organizations.

“We are too mature a community to have our leadership based entirely on wealth,” he said.

Presbyterians Won’t Budge on Divesting


 

You have to hand it to those Presbyterians. Their leaders know what they want, and they won’t be deflected by things like logic, fairness or the well-being of people in the Middle East.

Church leaders in Louisville, Ky., appear determined to single out Israel for corporate “divestment,” and apparently no amount of internal revolt or outside input will dissuade them.

That’s a big problem for mainstream Jewish groups that have always operated on the principle that dialogue is the first step in dealing with intergroup conflict. The plain fact is that the Presbyterian leaders just aren’t listening.

Groups like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, while reporting useful discussions with local Presbyterian groups, are fed up with the national church leadership. For months after the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to begin a process of “selective divestment” against companies that do business in Israel, the Jewish groups continued to believe that a policy of hard-headed dialogue would help church leaders understand the glaring imbalance of their efforts.

Eventually, they believed, logic would prevail, and the Presbyterians would realize that at the very least, the timing of their action — at the precise moment when the region seemed to be moving toward a new peace process — was perverse.

They didn’t expect a sudden burst of love for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but they thought that the Presbyterians would eventually accept what even ardent Jewish peace groups accept — that Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan represents the best current hope for renewal of a genuine peace process, and that anything that might get in the way should be avoided.

Jewish leaders set up meetings, wrote papers, visited local churches and planned a joint trip to the Middle East with Protestant leaders. Despite those efforts — and despite a strong internal revolt by Presbyterians who were embarrassed by their church’s unhelpful actions — church leaders just didn’t get the message.

Instead of listening, Presbyterian leaders arranged rigged “dialogue” sessions featuring only Jews representing the miniscule minority that doesn’t think the divestment policy is one-sided and destructive to the peace process. When mainstream Jewish leaders complained, the Presbyterian leaders responded petulantly: How dare the Jews meddle.

The Louisville leadership held a training session on divestment and rejected a position paper expressing the mainstream Jewish view, a paper other churches willingly distributed.

Most Jewish leaders involved in the divestment fight now believe the Presbyterian effort at dialogue was just for show, and that church leaders were unalterably committed to the controversial policy.

The Presbyterian position is particularly glaring, because dialogue has shown at least the potential for progress with groups such as the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ. These churches didn’t abandon their criticism of Israel, but they listened to Jewish concerns and made an effort to find a balance between their support for the Palestinians and the call to be fair to the Jewish state.

Jewish leaders are loathe to assess the Presbyterians’ motives, but it’s getting harder to argue that they don’t include outright hostility to Israel and maybe even anti-Semitism.

How else to explain actions that imply that Israel is alone to blame for the conflict, that it is among the worst human rights abusers in the world and that its current peace efforts count for nothing? What other nations are being targeted for sanctions? How else to explain actions that give legitimacy to groups that blame Israel for everything from its separation fence to tsunamis, and drive pro-Israel forces more into the willing embrace of Christian right extremists?

Too often, Jewish groups have conveyed the impression that criticism of Israel is tantamount to anti-Semitism. It isn’t; it’s perfectly possible to detest the occupation and condemn the policies of Sharon without being anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. Israelis and American Jews do it all the time.

But to be as one-sided and as oblivious to both Israeli suffering and the progress that is taking place as the Presbyterian leaders are today suggests motives that have nothing to do with a genuine desire for peace.

Jewish groups are beginning to accept the obvious conclusion: The time for dialogue with the hostile, irrational Presbyterian leadership has passed and a more confrontational approach is in order, including publicly challenging their motives and their commitment to a fair peace in the region. At the same time, dialogue with other groups that have proven more sensitive and with local Presbyterian groups needs to be increased.

The point should be emphasized over and over again: It’s not just the knee-jerk defenders of Israel and Likudniks who think divestment is a terrible idea, but Jewish groups from across the ideological spectrum.

Jewish leaders worked hard to get through to the Presbyterians, but church leaders weren’t listening; they have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that dialogue is not their goal, a fair peace not their real interest, and they should be dealt with accordingly.

 

Letters to the Editor


 

Jewish-Black Ties

The outrageous assertion that blacks and Jews have “passed through a period of hostility and animosity” and come together for “issues ranging from civil rights legislation to Israel” is absurd (“Jewish-Black Ties Loosen Over Years,” Jan. 14).

If it takes “a common thread to revive the relationship,” such as working to defeat David Duke’s run for political office, why does nothing similar happen against the left? The so-called coalition did not denounce black congresswoman Cynthia McKinney for her anti-Israel, anti-Jewish beliefs. It does not distance itself from Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson for their questionable attitudes about Jews.

The coalition does not condemn the NAACP for its racially inflammatory statements and divisiveness. When former NAACP leader Benjamin Chavis was removed for theft, he blamed the Jews. Lee Alcorn, president of the Dallas NAACP, stated his concern with black-Jewish coalitions because of what he called Jews’ preoccupation with money.

The assertion that anti-Semitism is not as strong among blacks as among mutual enemies of blacks and Jews is wrong. A 1996 Gallup survey reported that blacks were more likely than whites to blame liberal Jews for what is wrong with America. The Anti- Defamation League’s own surveys reveal that blacks have higher rates of anti-Semitic beliefs than whites.

A United Nations conference on racism held in South Africa had anti-Israel, anti-Semitic and anti-American themes. Hundreds of prominent American blacks, including Jackson, attended to show their support.

Superficial public relations events such as speaking at Black-Jewish forums do not indicate anything beyond political calculation. Jews would be far wiser to form coalitions with the political right, not the intolerant political left.

Caroline Miranda
North Hollywood

Shawn Green

When Shawn Green arrives for spring training with his new team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, he will be leaving a piece of himself behind while at the same time, he will be taking along large portions of our L.A. Jewish pride. Such is the dilemma that Peter Dreier’s (“Goodbye Shawn Green,” Jan. 21) 8-year-old twin daughters are faced with; who are they to root for now?

To date, there have been 161 men of Jewish heritage to have played major league baseball. The White Sox and the Tigers have listed 17 and 16 respectively, while the Dodgers and Giants have fielded 15 each (those damned Yankees have only had six).

So it looks as if we may have to wait for another Jewish Dodger. But we Jews are good at waiting. Green isn’t the Messiah, but it may take almost as long for the likes of another Shawn Green to wear Dodger Blue. In the meantime … go Diamondbacks!

Jonathan Blank
Calabasas Hills

Birthright Exploitation

I am no supporter of the extreme aspects of Israel Solidarity Movement’s (ISM) agenda, but I am appalled by Gaby Wenig’s implicit suggestion that Jewish love for Israel should come with a political litmus test (“Do ISM Activists Exploit Birthright?” Jan. 21). Perhaps Wenig does not know that there are many Israelis (Jews and non-Jews alike) who have concerns about “the occupation,” that “pro-Palestinian” is not a synonym for “anti-Israel” and that all of us who “love Israel,” as Wenig understands Birthright’s aim, whether we are on the left or the right, have a wide range of views on how Israel can live up to its full potential for social, economic and political justice.

Despite the fact the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) does not appear among the list of Birthright funders on birthrightisrael.com, Western region associate director Allyson Taylor suggests that Birthright alumni who engage in political activism with which she disagrees should have to repay the cost of their trip. Does Taylor also think Aish HaTorah should send a collection agency after every Discovery alumnus who steps foot in a Reform or Conservative synagogue? Should college kids who flirt with Buddhism or Hinduism repay their parents for their bar and bat mitzvah expenses? Perhaps all the ex-AJCongress members in Los Angeles should simply bill the national office for the return of their pre-1999 contributions.

Shawn Landres
Los Angeles

On behalf of 4,000 Birthright Israel alumni from greater Los Angeles, we are responding to the article (“Do ISM Activists Exploit Birthright?” Jan. 21).

It would be extremely unfortunate if your article left the impression with your readers that ISM activists taking advantage of free Birthright Israel trips is a significant problem. In fact, Birthright Israel staff has only been able to find evidence of six people out of more than 70,000 participants who have done so.

Birthright Israel, which provides the gift of first time, peer group, educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26, is one of the most powerful and successful Jewish continuity programs ever devised. As program alumni ourselves, we can confirm the findings of a recent Brandeis University study, Bbirthright Israel participants have a stronger and more sustained connection to Israel and the Jewish people than do their peers.

Thanks to the foresight and funding of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, our groundbreaking birthright Israel alumni association provides local alumni with opportunities to connect with each other and with the L.A. Jewish community. Information is available at www.socal.birthrightisrael.com.

We know Birthright Israel and its alumni association has been instrumental in our connection to Israel and the Jewish community. We would hate for the success of this important organization to be tarnished by a story that creates a controversy where there really isn’t one.

Kimberly Gordon, Joshua Kessler, Abtin Missaghi, Ben Schwartzman,
Members of the Leadership Board
Birthright Israel Alumni Association

 

Awards Appreciate the Unappreciated


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the festivities began long before the luncheon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Charities Seek Ties to MTV Generation


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ironic? Yes. Surprising? No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Partly to reverse that trend, federations around the country have made building bridges to young Jews a major priority.

“We have an absolute obligation to reach down to that younger generation to make sure they’re not only involved but engaged and excited in ways that will encourage them to lead the community,” said Gail Hyman, UJC senior vice president of communications.

In that vein, about 40 federations have created “Blue Knot” affinity groups over the past couple years that cater to mostly young, high-tech workers, she said. The Las Vegas Federation recently held a Vodka Latka Chanukah celebration that attracted 200 hip revelers.

(Interestingly, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the sponsor of the original Vodka Latka, has stopped holding the party, even though the most recent one in 2002 attracted about 1,000 young Jews. Craig Prizant, the Los Angeles Federation’s executive vice president of resource development, said Vodka Latka demanded too much staff time and was too big to expose revelers to The Federation’s important work.)

The Los Angeles Federation, which eliminated its money-losing young leadership initiative a couple years ago, has replaced it with a Young Leadership Division that combines Jewish education and fun. At monthly meetings, young Jews attend movie screenings, meet for java at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf or gather for Shabbat dinners, where, in addition to socializing, they learn about The Federation and Jewish values, Prizant said. He estimated that the revamped leadership program has added an extra $750,000 to The Federation’s coffers.

In recent years, the organization also helped create the Los Angeles Venture Philanthropy Fund (LA-JVPF), a self-funded group of youngish entrepreneurs and professionals that has raised and awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to nonprofits that benefit Jews. Several LA-JVPF participants have become first-time Federation donors.

Other local Jewish agencies have begun emphasizing the need to recruit young Jews.

In October, the Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) created a 14-member young professionals advisory group to raise awareness about the organization’s mission and to develop the next generation of leaders and donors, said Danielle Walsmith, JFLA’s director of communications. At present, most JFLA donors are 55 or older, she added.

The Zimmer Children’s Museum has recently reconfigured its board to include more young members, executive director Esther Netter said, adding that she thought Jewish institutions should make an effort to educate very young Jews about the importance of giving to Jewish causes.

That appears to be happening, said Ann Cohen, a business consultant who has worked with UJC and other Jewish organizations. The rise in attendance at Jewish day schools over the past decade should inculcate those youngsters with Jewish values and an understanding of tzedakah (charitable giving), she said. That could translate into more money flowing to Jewish institutions in the future.

JCF’s Marvin Schotland said he remains optimistic about his and other Jewish organizations abilities to eventually win over younger Jews (see page 13). Even though the group of students participating in the Foundation’s pilot program favored non-Jewish charities over Jewish ones, Schotland said time is on JCF’s side.

“We’re building a relationship with them,” he said. “Fifteen or 20 years from now, some of them are going to be back here, and we’ll have credibility with them. We’ll also have some idea what [causes] they’re interested in and be able to bring them something in the Jewish community consistent with their interests.”

“We have a very long view,” Schotland added.

Q & A With Marvin Schotland


by Marc Ballon, Senior Writer


The Jewish Community Foundation turns 50 this year. Under the direction of Marvin Schotland, president and chief executive officer, the charitable gift-planning and grant-making organization has grown into the 10th-largest Los Angeles foundation, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. During Schotland’s 15-year tenure, the foundation’s assets under management have mushroomed to nearly $500 million from $90 million.

Since 1989, the foundation and its donors have allocated more than $420 million to a host of local Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Community Centers, Zimmer Children’s Museum and the Koreh L.A. literacy program.

Jewish Journal: How did you boost the foundation’s assets by so much?

Marvin Schotland: I think growth is a result of greater awareness of the role the foundation plays in the community. Uniformly, the foundation is seen as outstanding professionally, and that has given our donors an increased confidence level in us.

Second, there’s been a diversification of membership on the board of trustees. Its more representative of the Jewish community, both in terms of its male/female makeup and the religious, political and age groups. Our board members help disparate parts of the community better understand our charitable gift-planning role and our grant-making process.

JJ: With so many Jewish family foundations sprouting up, why should a philanthropist give to the foundation instead of creating his or her own?

MS: If you have $500 million, is it in your best interest to establish a fund with us? Probably not. You can hire your own staff to help you make decisions. But if you have $100,000 to $50 million, I think we can help you out. We know the community intimately and have the broad and deep professional expertise to strategically and effectively guide philanthropists in planning their charitable giving.

JJ: What percentage of your assets do you distribute annually? Some in the community have complained that the foundation could be more generous.

MS: The foundation has adopted a 5 percent spending rate for its permanent endowment funds that support the community. That allows us to continue growing our permanent funds without risking the capital that’s been entrusted to us by the community. If we had a much higher payout rate, we’d have to invest our money in much riskier securities, which we don’t want to do. That’s a conservative philosophy, but we’re an organization that takes a long view, which I think is prudent.

JJ: Why hasn’t the foundation given more to the Jewish Community Centers (JCC)? Given your assets, the foundation could easily afford to save the foundering centers.

MS: We have given to JCCs over the years in many different ways. When they were viable and healthy, we funded all sorts of programs [including] an early childhood education and family center in the early ’90s in the [now shuttered] Conejo Valley. We’ve always been a funder of programmatic initiatives of the JCC and, in certain cases, capital initiatives, like the $2 million we gave to the [Bernard] Milken Jewish Community Campus, which houses the New JCC at Milken.

But when the centers began imploding, we didn’t have enough resources to bail them out. The reality of it was that, as we understood the situation from all the information we had, the issues were not only economic issues but issues of management and broad-based community support. We very quietly talked to donors who had funds with us, and they weren’t interested, because they didn’t think the JCC problems were purely economic. Our dollars will be better served being spent on new programmatic initiatives and on those centers that survive, once the dust settles.

JJ: What are you most proud of during your tenure?

MS: I think we’ve been a wonderful agent for seeding new and emerging projects in the community.

For instance, our early support of Beit T’Shuvah, an agency that helps Jewish individuals with addictions, helped it get off the ground in 1987. Today, it has grown into a successful, independent agency that serves more than 2,500 people a year

The Zimmer Children’s Museum was established in 1992, thanks to seed funding from the foundation. We were also a seeding agent for Koreh L.A., which got its start in 1999 from a modest grant from us and has gone on to be a very, successful literacy program.

We provided substantial seed money to create the College Campus Initiative, a multiyear initiative begun in 2000 to engage local college students more actively in Jewish life. I’m also proud about the establishment of our Family Foundation Center in 2001, which helps donors and funders engage in their philanthropy in a more effective way.

JJ: How much longer do you plan to remain on the job?

MS: I’m hoping to be here until I retire. I’m 58 and not interested in retiring any time soon. I love what I do.

For more information about the Jewish Community Foundation, call (323) 761-8700 or visit www.jewishfoundationla.org.

See Change


 

About 6,000 people pass through the doors of the University of Judaism (UJ) each year, 13,000 if you include the people who catch its high-profile public lecture series at the Universal Amphitheatre. Significant as that number is, it means tens of thousands of other Los Angeles-area Jews have yet to figure out what that campus just off the 405 in the Sepulveda Pass can do for them.

Peter Lowy wants to change that. The recently named chairman of the board of the institution is that rare bird in nonprofit institutional life: a breath of fresh air.

He is young: at 45, practically a teenager compared to the aging membership of many boards. He isn’t from here. Lowy and his wife, Janine, moved to Los Angeles 14 years ago from Sydney, Australia. Not only does that mean Lowy speaks in that chummy, endearing accent, it means he enters his post with a new and expanded perspective.

He is a poster child for the post-denominational Jew. Two of the Lowy’s four children attend a Conservative Jewish day school, and two attend a pluralistic high school affiliated with a Reform congregation. Lowy himself attends an Orthodox synagogue, as does the UJ’s president, Rabbi Robert Wexler.

“When you consider that the president and chairman are secular but daven in Orthodox shuls while running a Conservative institution, that’s where the world’s moving,” Lowy told me during a talk at his Brentwood office. “That’s where the community’s moving.” Lowy doesn’t just walk the walk, he, like so many Jews today, walks many walks.

Finally, he is wealthy and connected. Lowy’s father, Frank, fled Europe for Palestine, fought as a Golani commando in the War of Independence, then moved to Australia, where he built shopping centers. Lowy is now managing director of the Westfield Group, a global real estate investment trust (think Century City Shopping Mall, Westside Pavilion, Woodland Hills’ Shoppingtown). Someone with the head to run a multifaceted, multibillion dollar international business just might be able to move the University of Judaism and L.A. Jewry forward.

But it won’t be easy.

The UJ has been around since 1947. My office window in Koreatown overlooks the block of Ardmore Avenue where it was originally housed. The university followed the Jewish community west in 1979, settling in to the expansive Familian campus, where it fulfills a unique but hardly problem-free niche in a unique Jewish community.

Running a full-fledged undergraduate school — deans, professors, classes, dorms — for a limited number of students is a daunting task. Meanwhile, Conservative rabbis have leveled public and private criticisms that the UJ has veered too far from its roots in the Conservative community.

Some critics have taken to task the UJ’s department of continuing education for offering courses exploring edgier, controversial topics like homosexuality and astrology. The Orthodox community is still leery of a school whose cafeteria, not to mention its courses, is not kosher enough for them.

Lowy said he wants to build on the work of leaders like Frank Maas and Dena Schecter to stabilize the UJ internally, then enable it to reach out to all parts of the community.

On the first front, Lowy and others on the UJ board saw the importance of bringing business-world models of financial accountability and corporate governance to the nonprofit world. They instituted training programs for Jewish day schools on finance and made sure they took their own advice. Lowy said the school’s budget is in the black for the first time in recent memory.

He believes the costly undergraduate school is an asset, one part of a “three-legged stool” that includes the graduate programs and the department of continuing education, which together give the UJ gravitas and reach.

“You couldn’t get the quality of programs and lectures without the university underpinning it,” Lowy told me. “For instance, how would you get Elliot Dorff to come to a lecture on bioethics if he wasn’t part of the institution serving the community?”

His vision is to open the UJ’s resources to the community.

“The UJ needs to be viewed as a community institution,” he said. “We need to be able to give these benefits to the Orthodox community, the Reform community, the Conservative community and the Reconstructionist community. We need to change the mindset of the community. It’s a very difficult job to do.”

One way to do it is to offer these various facets of the community services they need. Jewish unity motivates in theory, good programming motivates in fact.

One place where Lowy hopes the UJ can contribute to the wider community is in tackling the problems facing day school education.

“If you look around, we have a growing system that is very good,” he said. “But the teachers aren’t paid enough, because the schools can’t afford to pay them. The schools can’t expand, because they’re undercapitalized. And the parents are paying too much to send their kids. Those are major issues, but the schools still grow because there is demand.”

Along with the nuts-and-bolts seminar for administrators, the Lowys funded a UJ program to help day school teachers get their masters’ degrees in Jewish studies. Teachers with advanced degrees earn more, and better quality attracts more parents, which brings in more money.

“Let’s make the Jewish day school system the best so people want to go to it, and not just because they believe in Jewish education,” he said.

If Lowy succeeds, it will prove a few things. One, that boards should make way for youthful leadership and diversity. Two, that breaking denominational barriers pays off. And three, that megadonors can have a megaimpact on their community.

I hope this last point resonates. The Lowys give more than 90 percent of their personal philanthropic dollars to Jewish causes. (Westfield Corp. supports charities of all types). A study of Jewish megadonors last year found that just 6 percent made their megagifts to Jewish causes and institutions, which often struggle for funding. The Lowy’s are a rare exception, and a welcome one.

 

Briefs


 

FBI Inquiry Into Expert’s Death

The FBI is investigating the death of an American Jewish terrorism expert. Jason Korsower, 29, died in his sleep in his Washington apartment Nov. 26. An autopsy has proven inconclusive, his family said, and the FBI is looking into his death. Citing policy, the FBI refused to confirm or deny that it was investigating the death of the Atlanta native. Korsower worked for the Investigative Project, which is run by Steve Emerson, an expert on Islamist terrorism who has received death threats.

British Academics Launch Boycott

A university in London hosted a conference to launch a fresh academic boycott of Israel. The event, titled “Resisting Israeli Apartheid: Strategies and Principles,” was held at the School of African and Oriental Studies on Sunday. Organized by the college’s Palestinian society, the meeting saw protests by Jewish and Israeli groups, which organized a counter-event calling for dialogue instead of sanctions. But conference organizers insisted that the new group, the British Committee for the Universities in Palestine, needed to take harsh measures to make a difference.

“We want people to think about the depth of the moral challenge of the boycott,” said the campaign coordinator, professor Hilary Rose, who along with her husband Steven began the boycott calls in a letter to the Guardian newspaper two years ago.

“It’s not an easy matter for any academic to do this, it’s a measure of our despair at the government’s inability to take the situation seriously and work for a just peace,” she added.

Kudos to Israel!

Israel received two awards in The Wall Street Journal’s 2004 Technology Innovation Awards competition: The Silver award went to Given Imaging Ltd. of Yoqneam, Israel for “PillCam,” a tiny camera that patients swallow so that doctors can see their digestive tract. And the Bronze award went to InSightec Image Guided Treatment Ltd. of Tirat Carmel, Israel for “ExAblate 2000,” a nonsurgical way to destroy tumors by focusing ultrasound waves on them.

Mubarak Pushes Peace

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is reportedly brokering peace among Israel, the Palestinians and the wider Arab world. The official Egyptian news agency MENA said this week that Mubarak had brought Israeli and Palestinian officials close to a cease-fire agreement that would pave the way for implementing the U.S.-led “road map” for peace. Jerusalem sources confirmed the report Wednesday, saying it was in line with Israel’s demand that the Palestinian Authority crack down on terrorism so the Jewish state can scale down its military countermeasures in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Mubarak also flew to Kuwait on Tuesday for what Ha’aretz said would be an effort to push Gulf states into normalizing ties with Israel. Cairo and Jerusalem did not comment, but the report appeared to be consistent with recent assertions by Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom that, following the rapprochement with Egypt, as many as 10 Arab states could open diplomatic missions in Israel.

Shooting of Palestinian Probed

Israeli top brass are investigating whether shots fired accidentally by troops in the Gaza Strip killed a Palestinian youth. The probe was announced Wednesday after testimony surfaced linking the slaying last summer of a 15-year-old outside the Morag settlement to soldiers who were on a hike. The Palestinian’s father said the boy was hit seven times in the head by deliberate Israeli gunfire. Reports from inside the ranks indicated that one or more of the soldiers may have fired the shots for fun, and accidentally hit the youth.

Amir Fiancee Defends Her Man

Yigal Amir’s fiancee used an Internet blog to defend his assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“For Yigal, the religious and rational reasons were equally important,” Larissa Trimbobbler said Wednesday in a blog written in her native Russian. The Prisons Service has refused to allow conjugal visits for Amir, who is serving a life sentence in isolation for shooting Rabin dead during a 1995 rally celebrating the Oslo peace accords.

For Amir, “it was also important that most of the nation did not accept the Oslo accord which was ratified in the Knesset on the strength of Arab votes,” Trimbobbler wrote.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

 

Kadima Comes Home


 

Like a young family relishing the newfound freedom of a first home, Kadima Hebrew Academy in West Hills has painted the walls of its new building whatever colors it wants.

Kadima, a 34-year-old Solomon Schechter Conservative day school, had been renting a building from Los Angeles Unified School District, but about two years ago LAUSD wanted its campus back.

Dorit and Shawn Evanhaim, Israeli Angelenos who own California Home Builders, stepped up to the plate with a $7.2 million donation that allowed Kadima to purchase a former hospital about a mile away. For now, just the first floor of the three-story, 55,000-square-foot building on 4 acres has been fully renovated, offering plenty of space for the 180 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The school is opening an early childhood center next year and ultimately hopes to grow to 500 students.

The new building is fully wired and has a gym, computer labs, spacious playgrounds and a swimming pool that will make the campus a great venue for summer camp.

It is next door to a retirement home, and head of school Barbara Gereboff has already set up joint programs where the kids work together with the elderly.

“The thing that people know about our school is our emphasis on character education,” Gereboff said. “Many schools teach values, but we want it to be part of the language the children use all the time.”

City and community dignitaries, including Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), are expected to take part in a ceremony dedicating the Evanhaim Family Campus on Sun., Dec. 12 at 10 a.m. at 7011 Shoup Ave. in West Hills. For more information, call (818) 346-0849 or visit www.kadimaacademy.org.

Youth Leadership Summit

It wasn’t so much the details of the discussions on interfaith marriage or nonaffiliation or Israel or social action that energized Avi Schaefer at Panim El Panim, a Jewish Teen Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., in October.

It was the fact that 60 youth leaders of all denominations spent three days looking past their differences and putting their heads and their hearts together.

“We had all these crazy different viewpoints in one room, and we stood together and said ‘there is a problem with American Jewry and it needs help, and we can do it,'” said Schaefer, a 16-year-old from the Santa Barbara area who is on the board of NFTY-SoCal, the Reform movement’s youth arm.

Sponsored by PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, the yearly summit has brought together 11,000 teens from 200 communities since it began in 1988. In addition to Schaefer, three Californians participated this year.

For more information, visit www.panim.org.

Art for Education’s Sake

Educators from public and private schools around the city had multiple chances to learn new ways to integrate the arts into the curriculum this month.

About six Jewish schools sent representatives to the Skirball Cultural Center last week to view “The Jewish Lens.” Compiled by renowned photographer Zion Ozeri, the curriculum for middle school children asks students to examine Ozeri’s evocative close-ups of Jews from around the world and identify depictions of Jewish values and then link them to biblical and rabbinic texts. The kids then put their own talents to work, shooting photographs that tell their own stories and speak of their own values.

“Teaching texts all the time gets boring, but teaching through the arts really talks to the kids’ hearts,” Ozeri said. “Photography specifically is a great tool, because it is accessible to all. How many people can paint or do a sculpture? Everybody can use a camera.”

A workshop in May in Los Angeles will teach educators how to implement the program.

For more information, visit www.jewishlens.com.

Artwork by Samuel Bak, a Holocaust survivor, is at the center of a monthlong program at the New JCC at Milken. Twenty-six educators from public and private schools gathered last month, and with the help of the national nonprofit group, Facing History and Ourselves, learned how to use Bak’s art as a focal point for studying history and linking it to current events and universal themes of tolerance and diversity.

Bak’s exhibit, “Between Two Worlds,” will be at the JCC through Jan. 9, with a full schedule of lectures and community events, including a Community Festival with art, drama, music and food Dec. 12, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. at The New JCC at Milken, Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus, 22622 Vanowen St. in West Hills. For more information, visit www.jccatmilken.org.

Miracle Recruitment

After Elaine Hall Katz attended an event at the Zimmer Children’s Museum aimed at children with special needs, she wished there were other creative Jewish venues for her child, who has autism. Katz is the founder of Kids on Stage, which stages plays for children of varying abilities from gifted to moderately impaired. She decided to create The Miracle Project, which will introduce children with social and developmental challenges to the world of Judaic art and culture. The project involves two 11-week workshops for children where they will create, act in and stage design their own Jewish-themed play, plus participate in a documentary film on the project and a cast album recording. A concurrent program for parents will involve them in Torah learning and helping with the production.

Katz envisions the 40-child troupe to include 20 “typical” children, 10 children with mild to moderate challenges who are used to being in a mainstream setting and 10 children whose challenges are more serious (for example, requiring an aide). The Jewish Community Foundation has provided a $40,000 grant; Katz is relying on in-kind donations and support from participants to make up the balance, which she estimates at $120,000. There will be a $594 fee per student to cover the workshops and participating in the play, but Katz said no one will be turned away due to lack of funds.

Recruitment for both children and volunteers is ongoing through the end of December, with session one slated to begin Jan. 12. There are no auditions; participants will be accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis.

For more information, contact the Miracle Project at (310) 963-2240. –Wendy J. Madnick, Contributing Writer

And We Want to Thank…

Students across the city celebrated Thanksgiving last week with food, drama and old-fashioned gratitude. At Maimonides Academy, eighth-graders raffled off a turkey to raise money for the class trip, and Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy students collected food and then packaged Thanksgiving baskets for the Jewish Family Service’s Family Violence Unit.

At the Conejo Jewish Day School, kids from kindergarten through sixth grade participated in a Thanksgiving festival, where themes of being thankful for everyday miracles and cooperating with each other were brought into focus through poetry, song and drama.

Please send items for Class Notes or for the upcoming Family Calendar to julief@jewishjournal.com.

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Stakes Loom Big in Future of High Court


The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) gets it and so does the Religious Action Center (RAC) of Reform Judaism. Both groups have made careful scrutiny of the Bush administration’s judicial nominations a top priority in the past year.

Groups on the religious right get it, as well: Almost nothing President Bush does during his about-to-begin second term will affect the American future as profoundly as his appointments to the courts.

Already, the president has appointed more than 200 conservative federal judges. Now, with Chief Justice William Rehnquist ailing and several other Supreme Court justices talking about retirement, most observers expect two to four high-court openings in the next four years.

It’s an issue with enormous importance to the Jewish community, but traditional communal caution may keep Jewish organizations — with those two exceptions — on the sidelines. And that could ultimately compound the damage done to key concerns of the Jewish community.

Last week’s presidential election represented a political coming of age for the Christian right, which turned out in force to ensure the re-election of Bush and help elect a more conservative Congress. Now, those groups expect payback. And increasingly, what they want most is more conservative judges who share their perspective on the nation’s culture wars.

They understand this fundamental truth: While legislation can change day-to-day political realities, the courts — and the Supreme Court in particular — change the very fabric of American democracy.

Legislation to implement priorities like public funding for religious education and social services, curbs on abortion and restrictions on homosexual rights is difficult to pass and always involves compromises infuriating to the purists. Legislation, too, can be undone by future Congresses when the political pendulum swings back.

But a transformed federal judiciary can affect policy in a much more powerful and enduring fashion. Rehnquist, appointed by President Richard Nixon in 1971, has influenced American life for 32 years under seven chief executives.

Congress often lurches off in new directions when elections alter the partisan balance. The court sometimes reverses course, but ponderously — as the Founding Fathers intended.

Conservatives know this, which is why they plan to press their advantage with a president they played a pivotal role in re-electing. And the results could be dramatic.

When lawmakers balked at Bush’s sweeping faith-based initiatives, the president simply implemented sweeping programs to funnel government money to private charities through executive action.

Many of those programs are being contested in federal court, where some cases will be heard by the president’s conservative appeals court judges. A Supreme Court with a few new Bush appointees could turn those programs into permanent reality for America.

Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision legalizing abortion, hangs by a judicial thread. One or two new Bush appointees to the Supreme Court will almost certainly snap it.

The current court, narrowly divided, has moved cautiously in allowing government money to go to parochial schools — something favored by Orthodox groups, opposed by most other Jewish organizations. Bush appointees could help the court throw that caution to the wind.

Christian groups have limited their activism on behalf of school prayer in recent years because of restrictive high court rulings, but already, there is talk in evangelical circles about new school prayer proposals to take advantage of the expected changes in the court.

Christian conservatives say that the biggest threat to the nation now is gay marriage, and they fully expect a new court — possibly headed by Justice Clarence Thomas — to slam the door firmly shut on such partnerships. If they succeed, it will be the nation’s first major retreat after decades of progress on civil rights, a troubling development for other minorities.

Hate crime statutes favored by a range of Jewish groups have been under assault from the religious right and could also be in jeopardy.

The conservatives accuse the courts of “judicial activism” — doing from the bench what Congress and legislatures have been reluctant to do. But that’s exactly what they want to do, but from a conservative Christian starting point.

Judicial tyranny, apparently, is in the eyes of the beholder.

Jewish groups have a huge stake in the debate, but their collective voices may be muted as the battle over the judiciary takes a quantum leap in intensity.

Only NCJW and the RAC, with their strong focus on abortion, civil and religious rights, have made the judicial battle a major focus, although several others have weighed in on one or two nominees they considered particularly egregious.

Most other Jewish groups are too worried about their nonprofit status, their politically diverse lay leadership and contributors — and, most of all, their precious access to the centers of power in Washington.

That reticence will be harder to maintain in the next four years. If Jewish leaders want to play a role in the most sweeping change in American society in generations, they will have to wade into the messy, high-stakes fight over the judiciary.

L.A. Jewish GOP Parties, Dems Despair


Stress and disappointment gave way to jubilation at the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) of Los Angeles’ election night party as President George W. Bush piled up the electoral votes and turned the map of the United States Republican red.

The mood was far more somber at the Manhattan Beach Marriot, where Democrats gathered for a victory party that never took place. By early morning, the crowd had dwindled to a handful of true believers who looked stunned by Sen. John F. Kerry’s disappointing performance.

Things got off to a slow start at RJC’s event at Level One supper club on Wilshire Boulevard. A sense of foreboding filled the crowd of 250 Republicans as early exit polls showed Kerry in the lead.

A dispirited Allen Jacobs, 27, said he felt nervous, anxious and worried. Frustrated by the early results, he attacked newly registered young Democrats as “uneducated voters who do whatever Puffy says,” an allusion to rapper Sean “P. Diddy” Combs’ efforts to get out the vote.

But like a cyclone that suddenly shifts directions, momentum quickly swung the Jewish Republicans’ way. Fox announced that Bush held a 5 percentage point lead over Kerry in Florida with 95 percent of the vote in. Men and women let out shrieks of joy, quickly forgetting about Pennsylvania. All eyes focused on Ohio, the do-or-die state for both Bush and Kerry.

Well-groomed 20-somethings clad in black, reeking of tobacco and wine, sat side by side with rich bankers and middle-aged fallen liberals who said they had never voted Republican until now.

RJC Southern California Director Larry Greenfield smiled as he surveyed the diverse crowd of Bush supporters. He said the high turnout for the festivities reflected the political realignment now taking place among traditionally Democratic Jews. Simply put: he said the Democrats had lurched too far to the left and the Republicans had become the party of liberty and stalwart support for Israel.

“Our movement is growing, and the Jewish conversation is broadening,” said Greenfield, who participated in 40 debates around the Southland before the election.

Early Los Angeles Times exit polls confirmed this trend: In California, 80 percent of Jews voted for Kerry and 20 percent voted for Bush, compared to 2000, when 81 percent voted for Gore and 15 percent voted for Bush.

In Manhattan Beach, a dark mood permeated the ballroom. Beth Matenko, a Jewish Canadian immigrant who hopes to become a U.S. citizen and vote, said she thought Jews had helped the conservative president win re-election.

“A lot of Jewish voters are voting for Bush. It’s obvious,” she said.

Back at Level One, pandemonium broke out at 9:45 p.m. when Fox projected Bush the winner in Ohio.

Jay Hoffman, a 52-year-old retiree from Los Angeles, broke into a wide smile. Around him, friends and family hugged one another.

“I think it helps Jews everywhere to have access to the Republican Party,” he said. “Democrats can no longer take the Jewish vote for granted.”

A number of RJC revelers said they had often voted Democratic in the past, but no more. They said they changed their allegiance because Bush exhibited the strong leadership needed to successfully prosecute the war on terror. Equally important, they said he understood the folly of dealing with Yasser Arafat, a terrorist not welcome in the Bush White House.

Shirley Darvish, a 24-year-old independent, said she disagreed with the president on most social issues. For the Beverly Hills mortgage banker, foreign policy trumps domestic policy in the post-Sept. 11 world. In her view, Kerry worried too much about keeping on good terms with America’s allies and not enough about identifying U.S. interests and pursuing them.

“I don’t want somebody whose going to bow down to the U.N.,” said Darvish, alluding to Kerry’s promise to work closely with the international body. “I want somebody who will make the big decisions, regardless of what other countries think.”

Lifelong Democrat Susan Rabin said she’s a new GOP convert. An entertainment lawyer who marched against the war in Vietnam in the ’60s, Rabin said her transformation from a Mill Valley liberal to ardent Bush supporter began after Sept. 11.

Stunned by the viciousness of radical Islam, she said her friends’ reaction to the terror attacks shocked her nearly as much. Rabin’s progressive pals said U.S. policies and an unflagging support for anti-Palestinian Israel had provoked the tragedy. From then on, Rabin said she considered herself a liberal no more.

“They were blaming the victim,” she said. “I couldn’t stand that they weren’t being supportive of our country and Israel. I was completely turned off.”

David Finnigan and Tom Tugend contributed to this report.

Chabad: To Change But Not Be Changed


The Chabad telethon is an appropriate occasion to consider one of the anomalies of contemporary American Jewish religious life. Chabad will be appealing for funds by skillfully using television, a medium that fewer and fewer of their Chasidim officially have in their homes — they might be hidden away in the closet or behind the sefarim, the holy books that are in the public spaces of a Chasidic home. It is stunning that Chabad is the most acculturated of contemporary American Jewish movements religious — acculturated and yes, even assimilated.

They sure don’t look it.

But don’t let the beards, the black suits and the black hats, the white shirts with the tzitzit flying outward fool you. When you encounter Chabad, you encounter a deeply American religious movement. Ironically, many secular Jews support Chabad because it evokes nostalgia for the Eastern European past, seldom considering how deeply American the movement is, even in Israel.

The difference between assimilation and acculturation is not whether one absorbs something from the larger society that shapes one’s own identity, but what one does with those elements once they are absorbed. If one lives in the world, the dominant culture is absorbed. In assimilation there is a loss of identity; in acculturation the identity is transformed, sometimes unknowingly, most often without acknowledgement.

Throughout Jewish history, acculturation has been helpful to Jewish life and the argument can even be made that assimilation was an essential tool of survival, but it cannot be heard in the contemporary climate in which assimilation has become the bane of American Jewish existence. Thus, for example, Maimonides brought Aristotelian philosophy into Jewish thought, much as Philo had welcomed Plato. Jewish life was enriched by the absorption of these Greek systems, much as Saul Lieberman, Shaul Maggid and Daniel Boyarin have shown, talmudic thinking was enriched by Greek thought and even by Christian thought, brought inward and Judaized, embraced and made sacred; a positive development that contrasted significantly with those Jews who became Hellenized and left Judaism.

One of the remarkable successes of Chabad is that its shlichim (emissaries) can go everywhere, dwell in strange cultures, in bizarre places and not lose their sense of identity. They are the classic examples of what sociologists define as inner-directed. Wherever they are, they remain true to their identity of origin. With the exception of a handful of shlichim, Rabbis Shlomo Carlebach and Zalman Schacter-Shalomi among them, those sent out to change the world have changed it without being changed by it — or so the story goes.

Yet, something far deeper has gone on. Chabad has indeed been transformed by the world it has encountered without quite acknowledging how radical the change.

Example abound, permit me but three:

From its inception, Chasidism was based on charismatic leadership. The Rebbe was a leader, a sacred figure, a tzadik, a holy man to his disciples. And few men in Jewish life have been quite as charismatic as the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who led Chabad for a generation and whose personal impact is attested to by Jews religious and secular, believers and heretics.

In the United States, the successor to charismatic leadership is corporate management. Chabad has not replaced the Rebbe; the role he played — and plays — cannot be replaced, but he has been succeeded by the managementof 770 and their regional managers, which has relied upon the tried-and-true methods of American business: franchising, naming and branding to retain organizational structure and coherence.

The Rebbe’s picture hangs on each Chabad institution, much in the way that pictures of the president of the United States and the secretary of state adorn every American Embassy, and — with due apologies for the analogy (lehavdil, as one says in Hebrew) — pictures of Colonel Sanders are still an essential part of marketing KFC. They certify authenticity; they reassure a sense of quality, they secure the mission. Even 770 is a symbol of succession — witness the erection of such a building in Los Angeles and Kfar Habad in Israel.

Students of contemporary religious life have commented on the two messianic movements in contemporary Jewry: Chabad and Gush Emunim. The latter, spiritual followers of the late Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, and his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, saw the Six-Day War and the Jewish return to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria — the West Bank in secular terms — as announcing the imminent arrival of the Messiah; the return to the land as the unfolding of a Divine drama. There are elements of Chabad that believed before his death that the Rebbe was the Messiah and a significant element — just how significant outsiders do not know and many insiders do not want to know — that believe even after his leaving this world the Rebbe is still the Messiah and will soon return.

Clearly, both of these movements are a response to the Holocaust and take the leitmotif of "from Holocaust to Redemption," "from Auschwitz to Jerusalem" that was prevalent in the narrative of contemporary Jews a decade of two ago. They move beyond metaphor to metaphysical reality.

The fact that such a messianic movement could endure within Chabad despite the Rebbe death’s means one of two things.

Either the idea of a dead Messiah who shall soon return has deep roots in Jewish messianic thinking, and Chabad has been influenced from within Jewish tradition alone — "They [the Christians] got it from us" is the way of Chabad friend explains it — or perhaps, unknowingly, and most certainly without acknowledgement, Chabad has absorbed Christian apocalyptic thinking and cloaked it in a Jewish garment.

To scholars such as David Berger, this is the crisis, dare one say the scandal, of contemporary Orthodoxy. To others, all others, it is a phenomenon well worth noting. Certainly, the timing of such thinking, which seems to be set by Jewish historical events, coincides with developments within Christian religious movements as to the return of Jesus as Messiah. Influence or coincidence, the juxtaposition is undeniable.

So, too, is the range of Chabad’s appeal. Going through the Pico-Robertson neighborhood in which I live, I see the services that Chabad offers from homeless shelters to drug rehabilitation centers, from housing for the poor to residential centers. This mirrors the identical services offered by evangelical Christian churches who reach out to those receptive to conversion. The ba’al teshuvah movement mirrors the born-again movement within Christianity, and is influenced by the same social forces and religious imperatives.

Last year while saying Kaddish for my mother, I visited synagogues throughout the world, at least twice a day every day for 11 moving and exhausting months. Among them were Chabad-led synagogues in at least five countries. It struck me that Chabad rabbis are more like the Conservative rabbis of yesteryear: Orthodox rabbis sent to Conservative congregations whose membership is Reform. Those who attend come from all backgrounds and all places — socio-economic, religious, spiritual and psychological — and are to be found in all places. They are warmly welcomed and the service, however traditional, is tailored to their needs, without compromising Orthodox standards or principles. How the Jews get to synagogue or what they do after Shabbat services is less important than their presence at services. That is the key to their success. The young Chabad rabbis go out in the world fully confident that they can change it without being changed by it. Or so it seems.

Dialogue presumes a give and take that both parties are open to change. Dialectic from Newtown to Hegel presumes that actions also cause reactions; how we act transforms not only the one acted upon but the actor as well. Will Chabad in the post-Rebbe era be the lone exception?


Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust, and adjunct professor of theology at the University of Judaism.

Love-Bombing of Jews Hitting Mark


U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania could hardly contain his delight as he addressed a packed ballroom at the Plaza Hotel while he was in New York for the Republican National Convention.

"Just know I love you!" the GOP senator, a Catholic, shouted to the largely Jewish crowd at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s (RJC) Salute to the Republican Congress.

After kvelling about how thrilled he was to have been introduced before Republican Sen. Arlen Specter — his Jewish colleague from the Keystone state — Santorum commanded the crowd to go back home and sing the gospel of President Bush. After all, it could help in swing states like his.

"I will not be satisfied with 20 percent of the Jewish vote, I will not be satisfied with 30 percent, I will not be satisfied with 40 percent," he said as the crowd cheered. "George Bush deserves a majority!"

At that, the crowd began to chant, "Four more years! Four more years!"

Santorum was part of a round-robin of Republican lawmakers who are love-bombing Jewish audiences with testimonials about the courage of freedom-loving Jewish people. It’s a far cry from the "some-of-my-best-friends-are-Jews" tone struck by some Republicans of yesteryear and even from the tepid meet-and-greets with Jewish groups at the 2000 GOP convention in Philadelphia.

This year, Republicans went all out to welcome their Jewish brethren into the GOP fold in a city with a large Jewish population. It’s not just about votes. American Jews find themselves at the center of a new culture war, the one between secular and religious America, between the blue states and the red ones and the hawks and the doves. And the Republicans want them on their side.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) stated it most clearly.

"There is no Palestinian-Israeli conflict, there is only the global war on terrorism," DeLay said at the Plaza Hotel recently. "On one side stands the United States, Israel and dozens of [other] countries. On the other side stand Yasser Arafat, Al Qaeda and an Axis of Evil bent on the destruction of Israel. All the rest is a question of commentary."

DeLay had thrown down the gauntlet, and the crowd of 1,500 began to cheer. John Kerry, DeLay continued, thinks the war on terror "depends on France and Germany. George W. Bush thinks the war on terror depends on fearless American leadership. That’s the difference that defines them."

A day earlier, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman struck a similar note at an event sponsored by three Jewish groups. Their message was that a vote for Bush is a vote for moral clarity; multilateralism is just a fancy word for appeasement.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), like Giuliani a possible presidential candidate in 2008, also spoke at the event.

At every step, the Republicans message was clear: New York and Jerusalem are closer than you think. When Al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center, America became even more inextricably linked with Israel. The Bush campaign has given the Jews a leading role in the central narrative of the 2004 campaign.

It’s a unique position for a traditionally Democratic constituency. But there’s some logic to it. Since Sept. 11, beleaguered Israel has become a symbol for the U.S. war on terrorism, with the Israelis standing in proxy for the Americans and the Palestinians wearing the face of the whole Arab world.

As such, Israel has become a kind of GOP mascot, one that also plays into Bush’s own religiosity. Israel resonates both in the Bible Belt and the Big Apple.

The Republican efforts may be working. Susan Canter, a registered Democrat who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, explained why she was backing Bush after having voted for Al Gore in 2000.

"He’s just so pro-Israel," said Canter, a lawyer. "There’s been no American president who’s ever come with such strong support for Israel…. I can’t think of not voting for him."

And of course there’s former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who has emerged as one of the most vocal pro-Bush Democrats.

"He knows that Israel faces international terrorism every day, and so do we, and that they are not willing to submit as other countries are, and he’s not going to run out on them," Koch said. "And it happens that international terrorism is threatening to both the United States and Israel. I mean, what they want to do is kill us!"

Koch seems to speak for those who are voting for a commander in chief as much as a president. Indeed, the Bush campaign seems to be taking pains to draw a direct line from Ronald Reagan, the man who toppled the Soviet Union, to Bush, leader in the war on terror.

The narrative conveniently skips Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, who was seen as no friend of Israel during his term from 1988 to 1992. In his failed re-election bid, the elder Bush received only 11 percent of the Jewish vote in 1992.

"Twenty years ago, Ronald Reagan spoke with moral clarity of the nature of the Soviet Union, and it had big-time political consequences," Mehlman said at the Jewish community event on Aug. 29. In a five-minute speech, Mehlman used the term "moral clarity" at least four times.

But even if they’re backing Bush on foreign policy, some Jews are concerned about the evangelical Christian right’s sway with the Bush administration. They did not take kindly to the display at Madison Square Garden during the convention’s first night, when the light and dark wood paneling on the speakers’ lectern took on the unmistakable form of a cross.

The National Jewish Democratic Coalition issued a press release the following day, calling it "the very height of insensitivity" for the Republicans to feature a cross at the center of the podium.

"This wooden cross must be at least 3 feet tall, and it sends a signal of exclusivity loudly and clearly," said Ira Forman, the organization’s executive director.

Others see no threat. "They still think I’m going to hell, because I have not accepted Jeeesus Chrast as mah per-son-al sa-vior," Jonathan Paull from Houston said, adopting a Texas drawl not otherwise evident in his speech as he mingled at the Jewish community event. "I don’t care."

The young attorney said he was voting for Bush because of "a political reality."

Still in New York, where progressive passions have long run high in the Jewish community, there is a core of Jewish voters that remains steadfastly anti-Bush. These Jews don’t cheer when Republicans invoke the mantra of Jewish persecution, and they don’t clap when Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said at the Plaza that "there is nothing they [the terrorists] want but your death and entire elimination from the planet."

Instead, they’ve been protesting. Standing outside the Plaza, a group called Jews for Racial and Economic Justice waved signs reading "elephants are not kosher" and chanted angry slogans peppered with Yiddishisms. "No war in our name, it’s a shanda, it’s a shame," they recited over and over.

As the election nears, Democratic Jewish leaders know they’re in a bind about foreign policy and have been trying to shift the debate away from Israel to trigger issues like abortion, education and the separation of church and state.

"I think it is a mistake to go after George Bush on Israel, because the Jewish community thinks he has been very good on Israel," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). "So here’s what I tell Jewish voters: George Bush is good on Israel, but why vote for someone who you disagree with on everything else? Why let your loyalties to Israel be split from your loyalties on other issues?"

Schumer’s message could help stem some Jewish drift toward the GOP, but it’s hard not to see it as a concession of sorts, an admission by the Democrats that the Republicans have defined the terms of the debate so effectively that it’s not even worth competing on the same rhetorical battlefield.

This shift would have seemed improbable, almost farcical, four years ago, when Al Gore tapped Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut as his Democratic running mate. Lieberman became the first Jew to run on a major party’s national ticket.

For some Jewish Democrats, Lieberman’s nomination was the culmination of its long relationship with the party — particularly since the Republicans had chosen as their candidate the son of a president who was unpopular with the Jews, and who also happened to be a cowboy and an evangelical Christian, who they feared would blur the boundaries between church and state.

It may just be a kind of provincial ignorance, but in the Jewish heartland of New York City, let’s face it, neither of these images played terribly well.

But in the intervening years, some of these same Jews have changed their minds. While few Jewish voters feel much passion for Kerry — even if they are planning on voting for him — Jews for Bush speak about their candidate with an almost religious fervor. It’s the kind of passion that gets them chanting, "Four more years, four more years!" at rallies, and makes this strange new marriage between New York sophisticates and a Texas cowboy seem almost beshert (ordained).

All this may seem like an awful lot of work to win just 4 percent of the voting public. But in today’s frozen political landscape, in which the electorate has hardened into blocks of stubborn Republicans and stubborn Democrats, the support of a well-placed fraction of the Jewish community can ripple and multiply into influence. In states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where the election will be close, every vote counts.

"If you look at the states that are close, the change in the Jewish vote could actually throw the election into Republican hands," said Fred Zeidman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and a prominent Texas fundraiser who has been working with the Bush campaign on Jewish outreach. "So obviously, we are focusing on the Jewish vote in states that could change the election."

Since 2000, the RJC has opened branches in Florida, Southern California, Philadelphia and New York and is looking to start a Midwest regional office. Its membership has swelled to 12,000 from 2,500.

It’s also focusing on younger Jewish voters who may be less tied to party affiliations than their New Deal Democrat grandparents and civil rights era parents, said Greg Menken, 31, who directs the year-old New York RJC chapter.

Yet even as Republican Jewish events celebrated Jewish strength in the face of adversity, a strange kind of energy also coursed through the crowd. Whenever a speaker says words to the effect that "the very existence of the State of Israel is now under siege," the audience applauds. Of course, they’re applauding, because they agree with the speaker, not because they’re happy about the current state of affairs.

Yet at the same time, these Jews seem to show a certain pride, a sense of vindication that the Republicans are beginning to see how ugly things can get. Who knows how it’ll play. What’s bad for the Jews might turn out to be good for Bush.

Copyright Featurewell.com.

20-Somethings


Do you remember what it’s like to be in your 20s?

You’ve just finished college, or maybe you’ve had an entry-level job or two, or maybe you’ve put off entering "the real world" for another couple of years by going into grad school and into unbearable debt. You’re wondering what it all means and how exactly you fit in the picture. You’re unsure about almost every single thing and yet you are interested in all of it just the same.

As I sat on a small stage at the Universal Studios Hilton Hotel on Tuesday looking at the anxious, inquisitive faces of a few dozen 20-somethings who were here at this particular hour to find out about career options in the Jewish community, all the heady uncertainty of that decade came back to me in a rush. The panel was part of a three-day conference called Professional Leadership Project: 20-Something Think Tank and CareerBreak, which brought together 145 21-29 year olds from around the country to figure out the needs of the future Jewish community. Although the participants were brought here to be studied, their concerns for their own career paths were so palpable I could recall that time quite clearly.

OK, maybe it wasn’t so long ago that I left my 20s, but it certainly seems like a quite some time has passed since I was fresh out of college, facing a world spread out frighteningly in front of me, with a million opportunities and only one possible direction that I alone could decide to take.

"I’m listening to all of you talk about the paths you’ve taken to become Jewish professionals, and I’m wondering right now if I’m doing the right thing, if I’m in the right job," a participant from the audience said to the panel: Matthew Grossman (B’nai B’rith Youth Organization executive director), Michelle Kleinert (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s deputy director of community affairs), Craig Taubman (musician, composer, producer) and me. We, along with four others on a concurrent panel in another room, were meant to serve as young(ish) examples of Jewish professionals — people who have chosen to make their careers serving the Jewish community in one way or another. Sponsored by William M. Davidson, the Charles and Lynn Shusterman Family Foundation, Michael Steinhardt/Jewish Life Network, Eugene and Marcia Applebaum and Robert Aronson, the Aug. 22-24 conference may sound like many other well-funded, well-intended and well-attended ho-hum Jewish "renewal" programs, but in reality there was something different in the air, something that I would call the "winds of change" if I weren’t afraid of sounding like… an eager 20-something or an aging hippie.

Here’s the thing: As I sat on stage answering questions and giving advice about what it’s like to work in the Jewish community, based on having been in it for more than 10 years, I thought, when I was their age, I never had something like this.

When I was coming of age who was interested in what I thought? Who, besides my parents and friends, cared about my ideas? And I — like most whippersnappers — had puh-lenty of ideas. But who wanted to listen? Who was interested in how I could contribute meaningfully to the world, to the Jewish community, to anything at all? More importantly, who cared about what I wanted to change about the world, society and the Jewish community?

No one.

When I graduated college and tried to find myself, all I got — after hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on Jewish education, summer camp, seminars, leadership programs etc. — was to be told what was expected of me. To be told how I should fit in to the world around me, to be told what there was, take it or leave it. I went to lectures, programs, seminars, you name it, and there were plenty of people who were willing to tell me the way to lead my life, but it seemed like no one was really interested in anything I had to say. And why should they be? The world wasn’t created for me, it wasn’t stopping or changing just because I was about to participate in it and, sadly, it felt like the only way that there would be room for me is if I’d play by whatever and whosever rules were there. That’s life, right?

Ah, but maybe — and I don’t know, it’s just a thought sparked by this conference — maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.

PLP gathered 146 people — only about a third are already working in the Jewish community — in order to ask them what they think, to find out what they need in order to be involved in Jewish life, what they want to get from being Jewishly involved and how existing Jewish life could change (change!) in order to accommodate them. To attract them. To keep them. To retain them. To get these bright, talented, creative, young people who are just beginning their lives, to begin them in the Jewish community. Not at a computer start-up or law firm or theater company or secular nonprofit, but here in the Jewish community.

Here, in the Jewish community — you know, the one that always complains about "Brain Drain," about losing its best and its brightest, about the "graying" of Jewish community organizations, the Jewish community in which all institutions try and try and try to make themselves "relevant" and "meaningful" so that they can attract the next generation.

This generation, the one sitting right in front of me.

This "think tank" has gathered a few of that next generation here in order to survey them, and analyze them so that PLP can come up with the answers from the grass-roots. It’s the Howard Dean of Jewish programming: instead of established institutions providing top-down stop-gap solutions to the core issues facing the Jewish community, the think tank plans to glean information from the very focus group it is trying to attract. Results will be compiled, studied and published. The question is, of course, what will they find? And will anybody listen?

"Maybe it’s not fair of me to abandon [Jewish community work] because I was having a hard time," Rachel Hochheiser told me privately after our group discussion. Hochheiser, 26, had left her job at Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life after three years because she felt "frustrated and burnt out," in her words, although they’re words I hear all the time from Jewish professionals. Hochheiser is currently getting her MBA in St. Louis, and now, after the emotional highs of the conference — of discussing Jewish issues pertaining to spirituality, history, current events, leadership and contribution — she was troubled: Should she work in the business world that she was being trained for, or go back to the Jewish world she loved but ultimately left?

"There is no career path in the Jewish community; there is no next step," she explained. When Jewish organizations worry about attracting the next generation, they lament the fact that their even within their own ranks, the primary color is gray. Hochheiser talks about it from the other end of the spectrum, from working inside Jewish organizations. "There is something for 25-year-olds, maybe 27-year-olds, and also for 45-year-olds," she said about jobs within Jewish organizations. She worried "what was going to happen when I turn 30? There’s just no middle ground."

The interesting thing about Hochheiser — and many other participants — was that money plays little part in deciding whether to become a Jewish professional.

"Money doesn’t matter, it’s just a certain threshold," Seattle resident Josh Miller said.

Many participants said they were willing to start at low salaries as long as there was promise for growth, because they believed the trade-off would be doing something they loved and believed in.

"I realize how much I care, how much I hope to continue working in the Jewish community," Hochheiser said.

Still, she and others have other concerns: Is there a level of professionalism in Jewish life that you can find in the outside world? Are there people who are open to new ideas?

At 30, Miller is at the end of the decade under examination, and he is confident in his career: post-MBA, he is now the director of Jconnect in Seattle (www.jconnectseattle.org), what he described as a nonprofit for social, religious and cultural activities for — guess who? — 20-somethings.

Why 20? What is it that is so important about this newly defined target group? (Most marketing groups are 18-24 and 25-34, and here, some of the 27- and 28-year-olds felt like they were in a different category than 21- and 22-year-olds.)

"I think we need some sort of 20-something successor to teen youth groups and Hillel," said Jason Brzoska, a 24-year-old from Albany who works at MyJewishLearning.com.

"There is no obvious path for someone who wants to remain involved Jewishly," he said, pointing out that men’s clubs, sisterhoods, all those things were for people who are older and/or in a more settled phase of life.

Times are a changin’. It used to be that after high school and college people got married — especially in the family-oriented Jewish community. Then they joined synagogues, had babies, sent them to Jewish schools, Jewish camps and even conferences. Today, as anyone who’s ever seen one episode of "Seinfeld" or "Friends" can attest, most people get married later. And while people in the Jewish community tend to get married at a somewhat younger age than the general population, it’s unusual to get married at 22. Or 23. Or 24 or even 25.

One way that the organized community has dealt with the changing times is to try push Jewish singles events: Get young Jews married to other Jews, the thinking goes, and then they’ll start having babies and families and be ready for the organized life of the Jewish community — in other words, for the men’s clubs, the sisterhoods, the federations and everything that already exists. That philosophy works, to an extent. New innovations like JDate and SpeedDating have been successful.

But successful at what? Preventing intermarriage, creating new Jewish families, finding someone’s soul mate, for sure. But is it a solution for creating Jewish leaders? For involving passionate post-college students who aren’t ready for marriage, but seem to be yearning for something else?

"Some sort of youth group for 20-somethings is what we need to remain connected to the Jewish world," Brzoska said. "Too many people get lost."

Most of the participants were far from lost, though. They were more like lit matches looking for the right hearth to light their fires. I met Yotam Hod, a 26-year-old public school teacher who had already worked for two years in the Peace Corps, and was just searching for any way to gain entry into working for his own community — maybe with Palestinian and Israeli kids, maybe first going back to graduate school in Jewish studies (alumni from various grad schools with Jewish programming also led a session).

There was Tamar Auber, who runs a nonprofit soup kitchen/food pantry/intervention center in Brooklyn that services 5,000 people. She’s only 26 and already feeling overwhelmed, but here, at the conference, found so many participants who want to volunteer. The conference also pushed volunteerism and philanthropy as ways to get involved Jewishly if you weren’t going to make it your career.

There was Rachel Cohen, who works for an ambassador at the United Nations and wants to improve the image of the Jewish people and Israel there.

And then there were a few people unsatisfied with their experience.

"I felt I missed out on the entire purpose I was coming for — I was trying to figure out how to get [other] 20-somethings involved that aren’t involved," said a 23-year-old Chicagoan, who preferred not to give his name.

"This think tank is not for blank slates," Rhoda Weisman, the executive director of PLP, said at the closing session of the conference, an open-mike evaluation session. "This is specifically for people who have strong Jewish passions, to be involved in something like this."

Questionnaires were filled out, the microphone was passed around, people said what they loved, what they didn’t love, what they’re going to do, what they hope to do.

Weisman previously worked for 10 years as chief creative officer for Hillel and much of this project is borne out of her experience in working closely with college students and within the Jewish organizational world. At 46, She is one of those "middle ground" professionals, and perhaps it is in this place that she can bring the fire of the youth to the hearth that is the staid Jewish organizational life.

"Initially our thoughts are that this could be the forerunner of an institution that will attract first-class people to the Jewish communal world and will incentivize them through fellowships, will mentor them, will keep them together throughout their careers, through various approaches," Michael Steinhardt told me from a lounge chair in the hotel lobby, where we were interrupted by dozens of conference participants who wanted to hang out with him. Steinhardt is one of the other impetuses behind this unprecedented project. As the founder of Birthright, the program that has sent thousands of 20-somethings on free trips to Israel, Steinhardt is used to defying the norm. Back then, he said, "they" said Birthright couldn’t be done, and now "it’s a transformative milestone of Jewish identity."

Will PLP be the next Birthright? Both Weisman and Steinhardt insist that the think tank part of the project is a one-time deal intended to produce an actionable study. But PLP as an organization is now incorporating into non-profit status to continue working with 20-somethings, providing fellowships and career guidance. PLP leaders are hoping what will turn into a continuing national program is CareerBreak — a mentoring program. After the three day conference, 25 participants will "shadow" Los Angeles Jewish professionals to get a taste of working life. Mentors include Jewish Federation President John Fishel, Progressive Jewish Alliance Executive Director Daniel Sokatch, Zimmer Museum Director Esther Netter and Pressman Academy Education Director Rabbi Mitchel Malkus.

"We don’t realize how difficult it is to get in [to Jewish life,] said Rabbi Ron Wolfson, University of Judaism’s vice president and dean of its Fingerhut School of Education, who is also serving as a CareerBreak mentor.

All mentors are being paid for their time, "because people need to know that Jewish professionals’ time and expertise is valuable too," Weisman said.

Full disclosure: the payment part came as news to me, as I had volunteered long ago to become a mentor. My mentee’s name is Lauren Leonardi, a writer who has spent the last five years in Savannah, Ga., and has recently moved back to N.Y. She feels deeply connected to Judaism, but is not sure how to incorporate it into her work.

"Why should I work at a Jewish newspaper?" she asked me. "Why should I work in Jewish life at all?" she said — and this was at the end of PLP on Tuesday night, before CareerBreak began. I’ll have been with her on Wednesday and Thursday, taking her with me to put together this newspaper. I don’t know how I’ll answer the questions — if I can even answer the questions — or if I’ll be a good mentor. Twenty-somethings aren’t the only ones with questions.

Q & A With Rabbi Isaac Jeret


The Brandeis-Bardin Institute (BBI) has had its share of crises in the last year — from toxic well water to wildfires. But one of the more damaging forces the Simi Valley institution has had to weather recently is the pervasive rumor of discord within its leadership following the departure of its former president, Rabbi Lee Bycel.

Rabbi Isaac Jeret will take over as BBI president July 1. The professional songwriter-turned-Conservative rabbi was able to bring peace to Temple Emanu-El, a synagogue in Palm Beach, Fla., which lost more than 200 families due to an internal conflict in its leadership. The Journal recently spoke with Jeret about his plans for the 3,000-acre campus.

Jewish Journal: What is so appealing about this job that you’d leave Temple Emanu-El?

Rabbi Isaac Jeret: First of all, it was not an easy decision to pick up and leave where I am. Temple Emanu-El is wonderful and Palm Beach is a very special community. My family is very blessed to be here. I can tell you that we really agonized over this decision. What ultimately attracted us to BBI was the opportunity to do something on a large scale that can affect the Jewish people very positively in a much larger way.

JJ: BBI is rumored to have weathered some internal strife lately. How would you address such a problem?

IJ: Interestingly, in my encounter with the institute, on any level — be it lay leadership or staff — I have not encountered anything of the sort. I’ve encountered an openness to innovation, an openness to partnership with other institutions and the fundamental understanding that the future can be based upon the past but needs to grow beyond the past as well.

JJ: Former President Lee Bycel had BBI reach out beyond its local audience. How do you plan to keep BBI competitive both nationally and internationally among other Jewish institutes?

IJ: First of all, I know very little about Rabbi Bycel’s tenure. I’m still learning the institute. I have 50 years of history I need to catch up on. The second thing is I can tell you that my own vision for the institute is very much as an international institute that engineers and generates unique and exciting Jewish cultural and religious experiences. To what extent that mirrors any of BBI’s past presidents or doesn’t, I really can’t tell you. But I can tell you that I believe that Shlomo Bardin would be very proud of where we’ll be taking this institute.

I really don’t see a need for us to be competitive in the landscape of Jewish institutions, whether locally, nationally or internationally. What is unique about our institute is that we can be cooperative with virtually every other Jewish institution that can possibly exist — we are decidedly nonideological, we are the largest piece of Jewish-owned land that is available for all kinds of interesting purposes anywhere outside of Israel, and we have and will continue to develop a unique faculty capable of facilitating special and unique gatherings of Jewish people to explore all kinds of issues around Jewish identity and Jewish spirituality. To my mind, we can become a paradigmatic, cooperative meeting point for many Jews and for multiple Jewish institutions.

JJ: BBI has provided a forum for musical expression. As a songwriter, will you be expanding this?

IJ: I definitely hope to, but I hope to expand all of our endeavors, in all of the arts, because the arts have traditionally been and can be one of the most powerful and compelling expressions of Jewish life. In a time when the Jewish people is characterized in large measure by an apathy for Jewish institutional life and divisions among us — ideologically, politically or otherwise — the arts can be an incredibly powerful, unifying force. One of the overarching goals of the institute, as I see it, is to bring Jews together in as many ways as possible.

JJ: Have you planned any changes for BBI programs?

IJ: The truth is that I haven’t done that kind of evaluation. Here’s what I can tell you: We are a mission-driven institution, and I’m a very mission-driven person. We will do what we need to in order to achieve our vision while expressing the core values that we really believe in as an organization and a people. Those parts of our past or present that serve that mission and those values will be valued, treasured and maintained.

For more information about the Brandeis-Bardin
Institute, call (805) 582-4450 or visit www.thebbi.org .

Coalition Lesson


Community activist Karen Bass’ victory in the 47th Assembly District’s Democratic primary provides a valuable opening for coalition efforts between the Jewish community and a new generation of African American and Latino activists.

Los Angeles has a long and distinguished history of biracial coalitions. Rooted in the 10th City Council District, then divided among African Americans, Jews and Asian Americans, the coalition behind Tom Bradley stormed the gates of City Hall.

Bradley was first elected to the City Council in 1963 and then to the mayoralty in 1973, a position he held for 20 years. The Los Angeles black-Jewish coalition became a national model for interracial politics and governance.

But the Bradley coalition has largely fallen by the wayside as the city’s politics have fragmented and as the leadership ties that sustained the coalition have atrophied. While promising efforts to build bridges between Jews and Latinos are beginning to bear fruit, they are still young.

The open 47th Assembly seat seemed likely to hurt rather than help intergroup coalitions. The 2001 redistricting had reshaped the district represented by former Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson from a surefire black seat to one potentially contested between African Americans and whites.

The district was moved westward and northward and now includes such white liberal — and significantly Jewish — areas as Westwood, Cheviot Hills and Beverlywood. Whites represent 37.8 percent of the population; African Americans, 40.1 percent; Hispanics, 22.6 percent; and Asian Americans, 8.5 percent. The voting population, however, is more skewed toward blacks and whites.

With three strong black candidates — Bass, Rickey Ivie and Nate Holden — fragmentation of the black vote and intergroup conflict with whites seemed possible. A white candidate could have potentially won the race but without broad-based support in the district.

Bass took the creative way out of the box: She reached out to Latinos, organized labor and white voters, including Jews. The three black candidates received a combined 88 percent of the vote, with Bass drawing a near-majority 48 percent. Clearly, Bass received strong support both from African Americans and white voters. Out of possible conflict came something much more promising — potential bridges among African Americans, Latinos and Jews.

I was less surprised than I might otherwise have been, because of my knowledge of Bass’ previous work. I first met Bass about a decade ago. A federal agency had contracted with me to study how a particular organization in South Central Los Angeles managed to impact the alarming dispersion of liquor stores.

I visited the offices of the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Training — later shortened, thankfully, to the Community Coalition — where I met Bass, the organization’s energetic director. She was working to prevent the rebuilding of some liquor stores that had been burned down during the violence of 1992. The office was brimming with energy, with young staff and volunteers, African American and Latino.

There was a serious conflict of interest between those who wanted the stores reduced in number and those whose livelihood depended on the stores staying open. In New York City, a similar conflict became highly racialized, as calls arose to "kick Koreans out" of inner-city communities.

By contrast, Bass’ dedication to keeping the conflict nonracial helped Los Angeles to keep the focus on the behavior of individual liquor stores and not on the ethnicity of the owners. Bass insisted that it did not matter who owned the stores, only how the stores were operated.

Because she and her organization stuck to that philosophy with such consistency, no traction could be created for an anti-Korean campaign.

I spoke with leaders of Korean American organizations who saw themselves under attack on the liquor store issue. Those I interviewed were very unhappy and resentful about the coalition’s pressure but recognized and appreciated that Bass kept the racial aspect to a minimum. Bass was also adamant about reaching out to Latinos in South Central Los Angeles and actively incorporated them in her organization’s activities.

Bass’ victory in the 47th Assembly District marks another new turn for the politics of urban Los Angeles. New participants — organized labor, Latinos, young minority activists — are reshaping the city’s traditional politics of black and white.

While African American candidates are likely to keep dominating the offices in Central, Mid-city and South Los Angeles for some time to come, their constituencies are shifting. The Jewish community should keep its eyes and ears open to these developments and look for new ways to connect to a promising, exciting and boundary-crossing politics of the next Los Angeles.


Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at California State University, Fullerton, is the author of “Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles” (Princeton University Press, 1993). His article, “The Battle Over Liquor Stores in South Central Los Angeles: The Management of an Interminority Conflict,” appeared in the July 1996 issue of the Urban Affairs Quarterly.

Kerry Begins Jewish Outreach Effort


Now that he’s proven he’s electable, John Kerry is ready to tell Americans why he should be elected.

Only in recent days has the Massachusetts senator started to outline detailed policy positions. Some of these having to do with foreign policy and terrorism have been of particular interest to Jewish voters.

One measure of his new seriousness was a New York meeting Sunday with about 40 Jewish organizational leaders, where Kerry elaborated at great length on his Middle East policies.

All participants interviewed by JTA described the closed-door meeting as successful.

"It would be impossible for anyone to leave that meeting not impressed," said Hannah Rosenthal, the executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Until now, Kerry’s campaign says, the candidate has had little breathing room for such explanatory encounters because of the grueling primary schedule and because his energies were devoted to his come-from-behind triumphs.

The campaign has hired a Jewish coordinator for New York, Lisa Gertsman. But Cameron Kerry, the senator’s brother who converted to Judaism 20 years ago when he married a Jewish women, is key to the campaign’s Jewish outreach effort.

The Kerry brothers’ own Jewish background — their paternal grandparents were born Jewish in the former Austro-Hungarian empire — gained a further wrinkle over the weekend when an Austrian genealogist revealed that two Kerry relatives died in Nazi concentration camps.

Last week, the senator forcefully defended Israel’s right to build its West Bank security barrier after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed eight people in Jerusalem.

"Israel’s security fence is a legitimate act of self-defense," Kerry said, a salve to Jews who had been concerned after Kerry described the fence to an Arab American audience in the fall as a "barrier to peace."

Participants at Sunday’s meeting said the candidate went into unprecedented detail on how a Kerry presidency would deal with the Middle East.

"He was able to talk to the complexity," said Judith Stern Peck, president of the Israel Policy Forum, which promotes greater U.S. engagement in the region. "He knows Israel; he’s been going there for years."

Kerry displayed a wide-ranging command of the issues, participants said, addressing the failure of the Oslo accords, the collapse of accountable authority in the Palestinian Authority, the role of neighboring Arab regimes and demographic threats to Israel’s future as a Jewish State.

One feature of Kerry’s outlook was using U.S. leverage with Arab allies to end incitement and pressure the Palestinians into making peace.

"He painted a picture that a Kerry presidency would be more engaged" on Israeli-Palestinian peace, "and build on the relationships he has and would hold others accountable," Rosenthal said.

Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, said the meeting helped lay to rest a nagging concern — that relentless Democratic criticism of Bush’s foreign policy implied criticism of Bush’s closeness to Israel.

"He tried to exempt Israel from the critique of Bush’s foreign policy," Foxman said, saying Kerry agreed with administration policy on isolating Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, supporting Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and on the security fence.

Kerry also implicitly backed away from earlier remarks touting former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker as potential envoys to the region.

This time, he named figures regarded as much more favorable to U.S. Jews, including former top Middle East envoy Dennis Ross and Sandy Berger, Clinton’s national security adviser.

Kerry said he would more aggressively pursue disarming Iran of its nuclear capability, saying the Bush administration has not done enough.

Republican strategists suggested that Kerry’s vulnerabilities in the Jewish community would have more to do with terrorism than with Israel.

"He hasn’t been strong in the defense functions of this country," former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, the chairman of Bush’s reelection campaign, said.

Some participants at the Jewish leadership meeting expressed disappointment that Kerry never got around to discussing domestic issues of concern to Jews.

"Surely the community’s fundamental value of taking care of the vulnerable populations should have been up there on top of the agenda," Rosenthal said.

Cameron Kerry said that he believed his brother — like his party — was in lockstep with U.S. Jews on domestic issues. Of particular concern, he said, was the Bush’s administration’s appointment of hard-line conservative judges to appeals courts.

Ultimately, Cameron Kerry said, his brother would continue to be his own best counsel.

"He’s somebody who really sifts through all sides, he likes to have the facts, he’s got an inquiring mind," he said. "He doesn’t accept ideas filtered for him. He tests, challenges, is a devil’s advocate, but in the end — once he’s made up his mind — it’s full speed ahead."

JTA staff writers Rachel Pomerance in New York and Matthew E. Berger in Washington contributed to this report.

Conservative Death Prophecy Draws Fire


A top Reform rabbi is predicting the death of Conservative Judaism, drawing protests from the Conservative movement’s leadership.

The objections surfaced this week in response to an essay by Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis. The essay argued that within several decades, Conservative Jews likely will move either to the more liberal Reform movement or to the more traditional Orthodox world.

Major wedges between the modernist movements will force this exodus, Menitoff argued, including the Conservative movement’s opposition to intermarriage, its ban on ordaining homosexual rabbis and same-sex marriages and its opposition to patrilineal descent, all of which the Reform movement supports.

The Conservative movement may continue to attract those for whom Orthodoxy remains "too restrictive" and Reform "too acculturated," but a more likely outcome will be "the demise of the Conservative movement," Menitoff wrote.

"If the Conservative movement capitulates regarding these core differences between Reform and Conservative Judaism, it will be essentially obliterating the need for its existence," he wrote. "If, alternatively, it stands firm, its congregants will vote with their feet."

Conservative leaders called the argument "delusional" and the product of "immature" analysis.

"His description of the future is rather silly," said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. The essay "is an immature look" at the currents shaping American Jewry, "or maybe it’s wishful thinking."

Unusual in its bluntly pessimistic predictions, Menitoff’s essay comes as Conservative Jewry, which once dominated the American Jewish landscape, is facing major challenges. In the past few years, the movement has been split over major issues, including its stance on homosexuality, and some rabbis have accused the movement’s leadership of lacking vision.

Menitoff’s predictions came in a January missive to the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ 1,800 members. He later outlined the premise at a joint meeting of the western chapters of the rabbinical group and its Conservative counterpart, the Rabbinical Assembly, in Palm Springs in January.

Within a few decades, "you’ll basically have Orthodox and Reform," he said. "This is in no way an attack, it’s just a reasonable analysis of how things could work out. I hope I’m wrong. I’m just looking at the landscape and providing a perspective."

Some signs lend weight to Menitoff’s theory. Last September, the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey found that of the nation’s 4.3 million Jews with some religious or communal connections, the largest group — 39 percent — identified as Reform, while 33 percent called themselves Conservative.

That represented a major decline from the 43 percent that the Conservative movement polled in the 1990 survey. By contrast, the Reform movement rose during that period from 35 percent, and Orthodoxy grew to 21 percent from 16 percent. The Reconstructionist movement rose from 2 percent to 3 percent.

Though Menitoff lamented the blurring of denominational lines as the result of "extreme assimilation" — 44 percent of Jews do not align with any movement, according to the survey — his Conservative counterparts believed they were being attacked.

"The Talmud says prophecy has been taken away from the prophets and given to children and fools," said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean and vice president of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, one of the Conservative movement’s two main seminaries. "No one can predict the future."

Artson and others pointed out that a century ago, many predicted the death of the Orthodox movement and were proven wrong.

Conservative leaders also maintain that their movement’s communal organizations are thriving.

Of the approximately 120,000 students in Jewish day schools, more than 50,000 are in the Conservative movement’s 70 Solomon Schechter Day Schools, while 8,000 youngsters attend the movement’s Camp Ramah system each summer. Another 20,000 youngsters participate in the movement’s United Synagogue Youth organization, and many adults are "engaged in lifelong Jewish study," Schorsch said.

Rela Mintz Geffen, president of the nondenominational Baltimore Hebrew University and a Conservative scholar, also rejected Menitoff’s argument.

If "there are clear lines of demarcation" between all of the movements and they maintain theological differences, "I don’t think they will merge," she said. More likely, she added, is that traditionalists in the Conservative movement might merge with the modern Orthodox movement.

However, Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, agreed with Menitoff. In 2001, Shafran wrote in Moment magazine that the Conservative movement was a "failure."

"It does seem the Jewish community is heading for a crystallization between those who affirm the full truth of the Jewish religious tradition and those who, to one degree or another, don’t accept that," Shafran said.

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