LimmudLA honors founders


LimmudLA honored its founders, Linda Fife and Shep Rosenman, in an evening of dinner, music and study on Sunday, Sept. 9, at the Los Angeles River Center and Gardens.

LimmudLA is the local outlet of an international model of interdisciplinary, interdenominational, no-boundaries Jewish conferences and events. Founded in the United Kingdom more than 30 years ago, Limmud now conducts 60 conferences in 30 countries, all of them almost entirely run by volunteers.

Fife and Rosenman conceived of bringing Limmud to Los Angeles about seven years ago, after they participated in a Limmud conference in New York. They rallied volunteers and funders and five years ago held the first conference in Southern California over Presidents’ Day weekend, with close to 700 participants converging at the Hilton Orange County in Costa Mesa. The conferences have continued there each February since then.

In 2013, however, LimmudLA plans to forgo its annual marquis conference, instead holding smaller, local events ranging from cultural to academic to family-oriented.

“We’re trying to be localized and organic to the communities where we’re doing different events,” said Yechiel Hoffman, executive director of LimmudLA, the only paid staff member. “Rather than taking people out to Orange County for an event, this gives us a way of being able to provide different options and different access points where people are.”

More than 400 volunteers have stepped up for LimmudLA since its inception. Hoffman said about 120 people are currently active volunteers. LimmudLA plans to hold a multi-day event next summer and is aiming to put on the full conference again in the winter of 2014. 

About 175 people came to honor Fife and Rosenman at what was LimmudLA’s first gala fundraiser. The organization met its goal of raising $75,000. 

The event featured music, text study and an examination of Jewish narrative. Rather than a plaque, Rosenman and Fife each received the newly published Koren Talmud, Tractate Brachot, and rather than a traditional acceptance speech, they staged a musical collaboration that had the audience responding to Rosenman’s “oom-pa-pas” and “ba-da-das.” Fife said it was, like LimmudLA, an example of volunteers stepping out of their comfort zones to produce something meaningful.

Halacha is just a click away at online yeshiva


You can buy tickets online, get a college degree online, so why not attend yeshiva online?

Enter Web Yeshiva, the first real-time Torah center whose second semester begins May 6 with signups at www.webyeshiva.org. Sure, there are thousands of Web sites devoted to Jewish subjects, and plenty of podcasts that offer lectures on Judaism -the “ShasPod” even offers the entire daf yomi of daily Talmud learning loaded on an iPod – but “The Jewish People’s First Online Yeshiva,” as the Israel-based online program calls itself, offers real classes through web conferencing for people around the world.

“There are many people who would like to study Torah but aren’t doing so on a regular basis – either because no relevant classes are given in their communities, work schedules, or whatever,” said founder Rabbi Chaim Brovender. “Then there are people who attend shiurim in a passive way without internalizing the message. But Internet learning provides an option that enables more and more people to involve themselves in committed Torah study.”

This semester, 46 weekly classes are being offered, including Talmud, Bible, Halacha, Jewish business ethics, and a Hebrew Ulpan for beginners. Access to one class is $75 per semester or $250 for unlimited access to all classes. Students are offered access to archives of all classes, 24-hour a day technical support and access to all WebYeshiva blogs and podcasts as well as a daily video on Halacha.

Like other virtual learning and videoconferencing, Web Yeshiva students see and hear each other and the instructor in the virtual classroom. Students must log on at a set time (as opposed to some virtual learning, where lectures are posted for students to read anytime), and they can see the texts being studied on the left side of the screen, and watch the videos and chats on the right.

The only question for yeshiva students is — how do you cut class?

Islam in the Hood


Is Islam a religion of war or of peace? Is it both? How did it start? What are its connections to Judaism?

These and other questions lit upmy house the other night as part of an unusual Torah salon that has been gracing the Pico-Robertson neighborhood for the past 10 years.

It was started by writer and film producer David Brandes and has been informally called the Avi Chai group, after the Avi Chai Foundation (which until recently supplied the funding).

What’s unusual is that this is a group of 20-25 mostly unobservant Jews, many of them writers and filmmakers, who like to go very deeply into Jewish texts. For many years, the class was led by a scholarly Orthodox rabbi and author, Rabbi Levi Meir, whose approach was to dissect the many layers of an original Torah text by delving into Rashi and other classic commentators.

In other words, it was your basic hard-core yeshiva class for Hollywood hipsters.

I participated in several of these salons over the years, and I can tell you it is a sight to behold bright, hip Jews who haven’t spent a minute in a yeshiva take on a Torah scholar on the microscopic difference between two interpretations of a text. Put a black hat on the men and make the whole thing in Yiddish and you wouldn’t be too far from Mea Shearim.

What I also find remarkable is that many of the same people have been coming back, month after month, year after year. I find this remarkable because their deep attachment to Judaism has little to do with their level of observance. They have not chosen a religious lifestyle, which would obligate them to learn regularly. They are learning about their religion, rather than learning how to become more religious.

And as you’ll see, they are very adventurous in their learning.

Lately, under the tutelage of Rabbi Abner Weiss, the class has expressed a greater interest in history and theology, including how Judaism compares to other religions. The class the other night was the first in a three-part series on Islam.

After it was over, there was a strange silence among many of the participants. It wasn’t just that they didn’t want to wake up my kids, or that my mother’s desserts had sucked up their attention.

There was a sense that we’ve all been cheated. Not by the class — which was electrifying — but by the lack of serious reporting in the general news media about history and theology.

People were wondering: Why do we rarely hear about the history of Islam, about the role that wars and coercion played in its conception, about how the prophet Muhammad felt slighted by the Jews of Arabia, and about the many similarities between Islam and Judaism?

In an hour and a half, we gained more knowledge on Islam than in 1,000 reports of any major newspaper or news broadcast.

Did you know that according to the late professor Louis Ginzberg, the eminent authority on Talmud, Arabian Jews at one point actually prayed five times a day, and that the five daily prayers of Islam “were undoubtedly ordained by Muhammad as a result of this early Jewish practice”?

We also learned through the scholarship of professor Abraham Katsh (“Judaism and the Koran”) that the Islamic concepts of “ethical monotheism, the unity of God; prayer; consideration for the underprivileged; reverence for parents; fasting; penitence; the belief in angels; the stories about Abraham, the Patriarchs, Samuel, Saul, David, Solomon; the injunction of a pilgrimage to Mecca; waging war against the enemy; the status of women; and the position of prophets, all have their antecedents in Jewish tradition.”

Of course, we also learned that Islam refashioned many of the original teachings and stories of the Jewish Bible, that military conquest and coercion played a huge role in the birth of Islam and that many Arabs and pagans in pre-Islam Arabia (particularly in what is now Yemen) had a real admiration for Jews and even converted to Judaism.

In short, our minds were provoked and our curiosity aroused. Many of us have tracked down the books quoted by Rabbi Weiss to learn more, and there is a great sense of anticipation for the next class.

Why is all this historical and theological learning so important?Because it gives us a context by which to understand current events. The information we routinely get from the media on a complicated and delicate subject like the religion of Islam seems so limited to the newsy, the violent and the politically correct that it is limiting a much needed debate.

One reason attempts at Jewish and Muslim dialogue fail is they’re too schmaltzy, like some innocuous therapy session that is overly focused on process, at the expense of knowledge.

What we need is less bridge-building and more knowledge-building; fewer dialogue sessions and more learning salons.

I’d love to see Jewish and Muslim groups engage in civilized debate on some of the hard, divisive questions of theology and history that are too often suppressed, or left to be debated in the obscure halls of academia. It may be unpleasant for both sides, but in the long run, the relationship stands a better chance.

Maybe the bridge builders can come to our next Torah salon on Islam, right here in the hood. If the subject becomes too painful, at least there’ll be my mother’s Moroccan cookies.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Composer Martin Bresnick’s classically unique style turns 60


Please don’t think that Martin Bresnick is having a “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” moment.
Sure the acclaimed composer and teacher celebrated his 60th birthday last month with a series of concerts and the release of a new CD of his music, “The Essential Martin Bresnick,” performed by a gang of his former students, centered on the Bang on a Can All-Stars and his longtime academic home, the Yale School of Music.

But he’s not the “grand old man” nearing retirement taking a retrospective look back at a parade of his students through a Vaseline-coated lens of memories.

“Well, there is a little bit of that,” Bresnick says, leaning back in the booth in a midtown diner where he has been sampling the apple pie. “But I don’t think of myself in that role. For most of my teaching career I haven’t been that much older than my students. It’s only recently that students stopped calling me Martin. I’m not an authority figure, and our work revolves around a sense of communal discovery.”

Bresnick likes to cite a famous Zen koan about teaching: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

But he is also highly attuned to the teacher-student interplay. He cites as an example his own studies with the great composer Gyorgy Ligeti (coincidentally, also a Jew).

“He was one of the greatest composers of our era,” Bresnick says. “You learn from what he said about things, but also from what he did. I had that as an example. It’s a way of saying, ‘I am a real composer and people who study with me know that.'”

And it is as a composer that Bresnick wants to be known. He doesn’t downplay the importance of teaching. On the contrary, it is an integral part of the ethos in which he was raised by his Yiddishist, socialist family.

“Teaching for me has always had a strong social component,” he says. “It’s part of giving back. I came out of a working-class family in the Bronx and was given a tremendous opportunity by others. I had it ingrained in me that you serve and have to share.”

That’s a lesson he was taught growing up in the Amalgamated Co-ops.

“I had a very devoted secular Jewish upbringing,” Bresnick says. “My family were dedicated Yiddishists, I was sent to the Arbeiter Ring [Workmen’s Circle] elementary school. My family ran the gamut politically from anarchist to liberal Democrats. I can still read Yiddish, and my aunt, Phylis Berk, is a well-known Yiddish singer. My mother, at 85, is still a professional storyteller who travels around the country talking about life in the shtetl.”

It was a wonderful milieu in which to grow up, but not so hot for learning classical music, he admits.

“When I was little, my parents had very few classical records,” Bresnick recalls. “I could memorize very quickly. Somewhere out there is a disk with me singing snippets of ‘Barber of Seville’ and ‘The Nutcracker,’ which were the two classical records they had at first. But they recognized that I had a talent, and they got me a couple of records when they could. The first time I ever heard a woodwind quintet was when I saw one live at the age of 9 on a school trip. I was completely dumbfounded by the bouquet of timbres.”

It was the beginning of a career and a calling.

“I would listen to a Beethoven symphony when I was 7 and feel that I understood what was intended,” he says. “I had some comprehension of the point of [writing] a symphony. And I felt, ‘I can do it too.’ I think I understood that it had something to do with what it means to be a human being.

“Music for many people at that age is a wonderful refuge. It offers them an ordered world. As a composer, you are making a world.”

On the other hand, Bresnick was also participating in the world around him. As a teenager, he played rock guitar, graduated from the High School of Music and Art at 16 “as the youngest beatnik ever,” he adds with a laugh, and was in grad school on the West Coast by 20. He saw Jimi Hendrix live, still admires Cream as “a great chamber-music group” and gigged as a working musician.

Even today, Bresnick “listens to everything,” and his own compositions have a uniquely American eclecticism.

“It’s Ivesian,” he says, citing the great American maverick, Charles Ives, “It’s totally democratic; everybody’s got a right to belly up to the table and contribute.”

Bresnick is a composer who can juxtapose the repetitive structures of minimalism with Stravinskian harmonies, who can use a Willie Dixon blues riff as the jumping-off point for a Brahmsian chamber piece, who can write movingly for marimba and orchestra.

If you ask him if there is any musical style that he would reject out of hand, he smiles and says, “I’m ready to accept almost any influence into my domain. My ‘border guards’ may ask them to show their passport first, though.”

He admits to excluding only one major late-20th-century movement.

“I’m not that interested in conceptual art,” he says. “Most of it has revealed itself to be poorer conceptually than any physically based art. I believe in the line from William Carlos Williams, ‘No ideas but in things.’ I like the pleasures of the physical world, and if I can embody something in the world of music, that’s good enough.”

Above all, he wants to be known as a composer first and foremost.

“No question about it,” he says emphatically. “I’ve never thought of myself any other way. I love teaching and I’m glad to be well-regarded as a teacher, but I have no doubt of my own self-identity.”

Anyone who hears Bresnick’s music, live or on disk, will agree.

“The Essential Martin Bresnick” featuring the Bang on a Can All-Stars, is available on the Cantaloupe Records label.

Jewish and Muslim students at USC share dorm and friendships


The fact that the Taj Mahal was built by a Muslim Mughal is news to one Jewish student, who asked not to be named. The student and Asad Hasnat, a sophomore from Pakistan, have been talking about architecture in India during one of the weekly Monday Munchies socials put together for the Shalom-Muslim floor in USC's Parkside Apartments, where both live.

Theirs is a fairly typical exchange between students on a campus as large and diverse as USC's. But at a time when Jews and Muslims in other parts of the world aren't having much luck learning from one another, the conversation and the setting for it are both quietly revolutionary. Here Jewish and Muslim students live together in harmony.

Levran and Hasnat are parked on the sofa in Alnatour's apartment. Nobody's watching the television, which flickers and hums in the background, and some of the guys are clumped around a counter loaded with ice cream and cookies like a pack of young lions taking their time with a fresh kill.

“Back then the Mughals ruled everything,” Hasnat said. “They were civilization in India.”

Levran nods, taking in the new information.

Rabbi Susan Laemmle, dean of Religious Life at USC, says the name “Shalom Housing” came to her about a decade ago, when she was head of USC Hillel. Several students had sought her advice about finding a way to keep kosher while living on campus.

“None of the dining halls served kosher food,” Laemmle said, “and finding dorms with individual kitchens seemed like a good way to help observant students who still wanted to be part of campus life.”

Soon after Laemmle moved from her role at Hillel to become dean, a group of Muslim students enlisted her help with a similar project. Laemmle worked with Ken Taylor in USC's Office of Residential and Greek Life to find space to create a Muslim floor. As it happened, a wing of the residential hall where Shalom Housing had been established was available.

“The original concept was not a Jewish-Muslim floor,” Taylor said. “That was the creature of the [Resident Advisors] and the students themselves.”

Alana Bubis and Sahar Alnatour, the floor's RAs, are the unassuming but earnest current stewards of this legacy. Bubis, a junior majoring in business and film studies, is a California native, like most of the residents on the Jewish wing of the floor.

“The Muslim wing is more international,” she said, “and it has more guys. There are more girls on the Jewish wing.”

There are 50 students on the coed floor. Two men or two women share each room. A handful of students who are neither Jewish nor Muslim also choose to live on the floor.

“A lot of people keep coming back,” said Bubis, who's marking her second year as a resident.

It's year three for Alnatour, whose family moved to the United States from Kuwait after the end of the first Gulf War.

“As a freshman, you have something in common with the people who live around you,” Alnatour said, explaining why she was attracted to the floor. Although she laughs when she recalls her surprise at learning she would have Jewish neighbors, too.

“It's not very clear in the housing brochure that the Muslim and Jewish wings are together,” Bubis said.

The fact that USC's Shalom-Muslim floor has evolved both organically and unofficially means that, like Alnatour, many of the students who arrive on move-in day are surprised when they meet some of their neighbors.

Traditions like Monday Munchies and the floor's open-door policy — if your door's open, company's welcome — are designed to help newcomers quickly adapt to the novel environment.

And both the temperament of the current generation of students and the culture of the floor tend to discourage the kind of fiery debates over politics that would disrupt the mellow culture of the floor.

“Politics never comes up,” said Amir Yassai, a junior from Orange County. “I think it has to do with the fact that people my age are more open-minded.”

When he returned to school soon after last summer's conflict between Israel and Hezbollah had subsided, Yassai's Iranian-born parents asked him whether there was any tension on the floor.

“It was hard for them to believe it just isn't an issue,” Yassai said.

Still, some residents perceive an underlying tension on the floor — not between Jews and Muslims, but between the ardor that attracts students to the community and the tacit détente that helps to sustain it.

“It's true that people stay away from political conversation,” said Hasan Qazi, a biology major whose parents immigrated to the United States from Pakistan. “But that doesn't mean that people don't hold deep political convictions. Everyone chooses to live here because they're passionate about their identity as Muslims or Jews.”

Laemmle describes this situation as “the elephant on the Shalom-Muslim floor.”

“Eventually I think students will find a way to engage each other at that level,” she said. “If you build a tradition of trust, political discussion can be safer.”

Bubis and Alnatour have already laid the foundation for what could become the next stage in the growth of USC's Shalom-Muslim Floor. Together they've successfully lobbied for a greater selection of kosher and halal food at a nearby dining hall. The precedent of that small collaboration could help other residents of this quietly revolutionary community find common ground in a passionate, ice cream fueled conversation on some future Monday.

If Laemmle's elephant analogy is apt, it's likely just a matter of time.

B’nai Brith’s new chief visits L.A.; ‘Messenger’ unites local readers


New B’nai B’rith Head Launches Term in Southland

The new president of B’nai B’rith International will make Los Angeles his first official stop of his presidency when he speaks at Sinai Temple on the evening of Dec. 7.Moishe Smith, a B’nai B’rith veteran with more than 30 years experience at the organization, said he is coming to the Southland to show his respect for and introduce himself to the community. At Sinai, Smith will discuss Israel and the Middle East, reflecting his interest in international relations. During his three decades with B’nai B’rith, Smith has held a variety of positions, including chair of the International Council, senior international vice president, and, most recently, chair of the executive.

Smith, a Canadian and the first non-American to lead 163-year-old B’nai B’rith, replaces Joel Kaplan. He will serve a three-year term.

Smith told The Journal that “making sure Israel is supported from every corner of the world” is a top priority. With the Jewish state under siege from Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran and other enemies, Smith said B’nai B’rith and other Jewish organizations have an obligation to “speak out for Israel.”

Under his leadership, Smith said the organization will continue pressuring the United Nations to reform itself and shed its anti-Israel bias. Toward that end, Smith said organization leaders will “dialogue” with the democratic U.N. members and others.

B’nai B’rith has 100,000 members and donors in the United States and 150,000 worldwide. The organization calls itself a national and global leader in the area of U.N. reform, international affairs and Jewish identity, among other issues.

The event begins at 7 p.m. and is open to the public. For more information, contact Lyndia Lowy of B’nai B’rith at (310) 871-0847, or visit www.sinaitemple.org.

— Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

‘Messenger’ Unites L.A. Readers

“One People One Book” usually refers to the Jews and the Torah, but the in Board of Rabbis of Southern California’s communitywide program it refers to a piece of literature participating synagogue members will read for the next six months.

On Dec. 13, “One People One Book: A Citywide Year of Learning,” will launch its second annual program, this time studying Eli Wiesel’s 1976 “The Messenger of God,” where Wiesel reinterprets biblical figures. Some 21 synagogues will participate.

Last year’s “One People One Book” program, which had 300 people attend the opening, which focused on “As a Driven Leaf” by Milton Steinberg, the novelization of the Talmud’s only heretic, Elisha Ben Abuya.

Why one book for six months?

“The notion is that we pick a book that lends itself to a year of learning,” says Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis. He said that last year’s book dealt with powerful themes such as secular vs. sacred, messianism, faith and practice.

For each book, the Board of Rabbis prepares a curriculum for readers to discuss, but there is no particular format to the “One People One Book,” program. Some people will meet in groups like a book club, others will discuss it with their rabbi in synagogue and some will learn with a partner. There will be an opening event on Dec. 13 and closing event on May 9.At the opening session, professor Menhaz M. Afridi and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky will discuss Moses in “The Passion of Prophet: Moses in the Torah and the Qu’ran.”

The opening session will take place at the University of Judaism’s Gindi Auditorium, Dec. 13, 7-9 p.m. 15600 Mulholland Drive. For more information, call (323) 761-8600.

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Students Weigh in on Education Improvements

Students shared ideas for improving education with a panel of public officials at the Museum of Tolerance on Nov. 30. Jasmin Ramirez, 17, took the stage first to present a proposal on behalf of about 100 students involved in the California Association of Student Councils, a student-led organization dedicated to cultivating leaders.

“There’s poor quality of food in our schools and a lack of variety,” said Ramirez, who recommended conducting a widespread survey asking students about the quality of food at school and testing their knowledge of nutritional health.

Listening and taking notes were state Senate majority leader Gloria Romero; Democratic state Assemblymembers Mike Feuer, Paul Krekorian and Kevin de Leon; local district Superintendent James Morris; and Los Angeles Deputy Mayor for Education Ramon C. Cortines.

The officials advised students to think about the costs associated with the proposed survey and consider what would be done with the results. They also commended Ramirez and her peers for thinking creatively about how to solve a real problem.

“What you and the students have done today is absolutely brilliant,” de Leon said.Next, Chris Delgado, 16, suggested that teacher quality could be improved if students were involved in the teacher evaluation process.

“Be careful that your approach is not taken as an attack on teachers,” de Leon cautioned.Cortines added: “I don’t think you realize how powerful you are. I think it’s time that you mobilize yourself and visit with teachers unions.”

After the two proposals were presented and discussed, legislators and students mingled. Feuer congratulated his son, Aaron, who orchestrated the event.

“It was a success,” said Aaron Feuer, 15.

— Sarah Price Brown, Contributing Writer

A night at the homeless shelter


545 San Pedro Street is an address I will never forget.

It is the Union Rescue Mission downtown, inhabited by homeless individuals that reside in their designated corners on Skid Row. My school, Milken Community High School, offered a community service experience for 21 students, and I found myself at the Union Rescue Mission.

During my three-day trip, I had the occasion to sleep in the mission, take a tour, speak with the residents, and serve and prepare food.
The Mission is a recovery center for drug and alcohol addicts, battered women and children. The facility utilizes the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, which encourages people to develop a relationship with God. It teaches individuals to change their beliefs, attitudes and choices. My own beliefs and attitudes were also changed as a result of this experience.

As I searched the dining room holding my tray, I spotted an older African American woman and joined her. I was struck by how focused she was on eating every bite of her meal.

“Hi, I’m Jackie, how are you doing today?”

She told me about her day but was more interested in finding out about me. I told her about my school, my favorite classes and my hobbies. I realized how many opportunities I take for granted. As soon as I mentioned sports, her eyes lit up and she was filled with enthusiasm. She told me about her family, her life and how she had always enjoyed school. She told her stories about sports and how she had received a volleyball scholarship.

Sadly, she chose the wrong path and as a result, her life became unmanageable. She became consumed with drug addiction and self-destructive behaviors. She abandoned her 5-year-old daughter for fear that she would have the same horrible life. I was speechless. The silence grew uncomfortable as I nervously began rambling on about my computer classes to fill the void. I knew at the end of our visit that this woman would remain in my memory bank forever. I realized that each choice we make impacts our future and our relationships with others.

During mealtime we had the opportunity to connect with someone outside of ourselves, sharing our stories and listening to others. I never fully understood how important the concept of a meal was. I realized that mealtime offered much needed support to those who suffered. It had the power to create a connection between people who were polar opposites. It gave me the opportunity to step into the shoes of someone I never would have met.

The next morning, I spotted my new friend as I got ready to return to my usual lifestyle. Little did she know what a lasting impression she had made. My views on those less fortunate had been changed forever.

My life-changing experience at the mission taught me that everyone is a diamond in the rough.

Jackie Greenspan graduated from Milken Community High School last year.


The this essay was written for the Service Learning awards given out by the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Sulam Center for Jewish Service Learning (julief@jewishjournal.com.

The great (non) depression


I overdid it yesterday. Perhaps I misjudged the line between exhaustion and sloth.

Or perhaps my recuperation from the cancer treatment requires a slower return
to fitness than yesterday’s exertion.

But this morning’s desire to stay in bed needs to be honored, unlike yesterday’s, which called forth a kick in the pants.

Some might suspect depression, but I disagree. I am finding, in my confinement, too many sources of pleasure, despite the situation. I am delighting in friends, home, books, writing, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, NPR, PBS….

Besides I am pharmacologically covered for depression.

Depression is a word that has been cheapened. We forget that it is a diagnosis for a bona fide disease. It becomes a catch phrase for the weighty feelings we experience as we come to terms with life’s challenges and honor the process of change. Those who cannot tolerate taking the time and effort that normal healing requires are quick to label depression and try to prescribe it away.

Shortly after receiving a cancer diagnosis, Janet came to my office. She sat down on the couch opposite me and sank into the pillows, settling shapelessly and breathing shallowly. Finally she let out a sigh.

“I feel depressed,” she said. “I feel heavy. I can’t move. I’m paralyzed. I cry all the time. I have no desire to go on with my treatment.”

As she spoke, a trickle of tears ran down her cheek. Janet was mourning her health.

Grief is not depression. It is not a disease. The sense of heaviness and weight that we feel when we face challenges is our organism’s insistence that it is time to stop, give honor to what is lost, and surrender to the healing process. One of the symptoms is often an overwhelming fatigue triggering the fear that we don’t have the energy to face what is demanded.

This feeling sets in when there has been a death and the fires of grief have been banked and the mourner begins to sift through the ashes. In other losses, it descends when the fact of the illness, divorce or other change begins to sink in. Each labored breath exposes what has been left behind and reveals a glimpse of the obstacles ahead. While at times, we may still feel wrapped in gauze and unable to move, this so-called depression indicates that the time of numbness is over. Feeling begins to return. Sadness is palpable. We begin to comprehend the changes that have taken place and their consequences in our lives. Difficult feelings lie in the wake of this understanding. But have heart, this heaviness is a sign of life.

In this state we have no vitality. The pulse of our life force is barely detectable. So we wait. And we can’t move. The time of the broken heart is necessary to heal. There are genuine tragedies, sadnesses and injustices that cannot be denied or rationalized away when we take the measure of our lives and the changes that they have wrought. We must dwell in this valley of tears as if we are seeds, lying fallow in the earth, absorbing the moisture necessary to bring forth the sprouts of spring and the harvests that follow.

Taking time to feel, we honor the need for change. We learn about patience, surrender, acceptance and, ultimately, letting go. It can be a quiet and inarticulate time in which until we are able, literally, to come to terms with our loss.

I take issue with the word “depression.” Depression is a clinical state. It is a psychological diagnosis of something with an organic base. Although elements of the symptoms of depression and of grief have much in common, the two are not the same. Depression describes an illness. Grief is a healthy, appropriate, though often excruciating, response to loss. Loss is not just letting go, which would be difficult enough. It requires us to reconstruct our entire world. We must come to see the universe in a completely different way.

Rather than “depression,” I prefer the Hebrew word “kavod.” “Kavod” means “honor” as in the biblical commandment to “honor thy father and mother.” It also is translated as “weight” or “heaviness.” These latter translations are what people who suffer often experience.

This paralytic feeling is their organism asserting the opposite of what the culture demands. While they are urged to get over their loss quickly and get on with their lives, their bodies and souls are saying, “Stop. Feel the gravity…the weight, of this situation. Honor what is past and what is being born within you. Honor your need to broaden your understanding and come to terms with your new status and new world. Stop.”

By labeling this experience with a holy Hebrew word, perhaps we can be kinder to ourselves and less afraid. Perhaps this will encourage us to take the time we need for healing, learning its lessons and allowing it to transform our lives.
We contemplate our situation and thus give it kavod — honor. We feel the weight; the heaviness of what loss itself is about. In the process, we transform it. As we wait, contemplating our lives and the nature of life itself, we begin to heal.

I’m staying in bed this morning.

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

Jewish day schools short-change kids with special needs


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slammed Doors, New Opportunities

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

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

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

Secrets of cosmos draw eyes heavenward


The Ultra Deep Field Image from the Hubble Space Telescope is rapturous.

Over the course of four months in late 2003 and early 2004, the orbiting observatory trained its eye hundreds of times on a speck of the heavens just south of the constellation Orion.

Why this minuscule spot? With relatively few stars intervening between Hubble and the edge of the Milky Way, it gave the telescope an almost completely unobstructed view of infinity.

“Like many of the images we get from Hubble, this one inspires awe,” said Mario Livio, a senior astrophysicist at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland. “In this tiny patch of sky, we can see over 10,000 galaxies. Some of the light reaching us is 13 billion years old. That’s basically a snapshot of the beginning of time.”

” border=0 hspace = ’12’ vspace = ’12’ width = ‘200’ align = right alt=”Michael Hecht”>Hecht studied theoretical physics as an undergraduate at Princeton and as a master’s degree candidate at MIT. Like Livio, the revelations of the first generation of X-ray satellites inspired him to pursue a career in space science.

“But it wasn’t until my teenage son got interested in astronomy that I actually looked at the stars through a telescope,” Hecht said.

Soon after he finished his doctorate at Stanford, Hecht became a member of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. He’s currently managing a team of scientists and engineers that will send a suite of instruments to Mars to assess the potential hazards Martian dust and soil might pose to human explorers.

With a universe of possibilities, what attracted him to the Red Planet?

“Even through a fairly small telescope,” Hecht said, “Mars looks tantalizingly close. And it’s similar enough to earth so that the physical processes are familiar but not quite the same. An apple wouldn’t fall from a tree in quite the same way.”

Hecht’s next Mars project, which will be launched in 2011, will land near the planet’s north pole and deploy a hot-nose drill to extract samples of the Martian ice cap. With any luck, these samples will turn out to be frozen time capsules that reveal the history of climate change on Mars and help us understand changes in the climate on Earth.

This imperative to make a connection between his work on a distant planet and everyday human experience isn’t a sideshow for Hecht; in fact, it’s the main event.

“Scientists are storytellers,” he said. “But often their storytelling lacks imagination. If we can’t get people excited about what we’re learning, what’s the point?”

As the science editor for Parade magazine and the author of over a dozen books on popular astronomy, David Levy is doing his best to make space science exciting for those without advanced degrees in theoretical physics.

Levy’s love affair with space began when he was at summer camp in 1956. On the night of July 4, the homesick 8-year-old was dazzled when he saw a meteor streak across the sky. The sighting was auspicious: Meteor storms occur when Earth passes through the trail of debris left by passing comets, and Levy has made name for himself as a master comet hunter.

“This past Kol Nidre, I discovered my 22nd comet,” he said. “There it was, near Saturn in the early morning sky.”

His most famous discovery was comet Shoemaker-Levy, which spectacularly crashed into Jupiter in July 1994.

Like Hecht, Levy sees an intimate connection between his passion for astronomy and his religious experience. “When I was 11, I was walking home from synagogue on Yom Kippur and noticed the gibbous moon,” he said. “I realized people have been looking up at the same 10-day-old moon on Yom Kippur for thousands of years.”

Levy pointed out that the relationship between Judaism and sky-watching is as old as recorded human history. In a tradition that has been lost in our era of light-polluted skies, a man used to stand outside each synagogue to wait for the darkness at day’s end to reveal three stars — the sign that marked the end of the Sabbath. And the rhythms of the Jewish year take their cue from the moon as it arcs in its orbit around Earth. Thus the lives of ancient Jews were intimately connected to the night sky in ways that are difficult for us perpetually distracted moderns to imagine.

Whether they’re secular or religious, Jewish astronomers are part of a venerable tradition of inquiry and teaching. And the light transmitted by this tradition shines just as brightly in the upcoming generation of space scientists.

American Jews are learned in everything — except Jewish texts


The American Jewish community is one of the most learned and sophisticated communities in Jewish history – in everything except Jewish texts. As Jews, we are illiterate.

This phenomenon has its roots in our history over the last 150 years. During that time, the Jewish people underwent five events, each one of which can be counted as a major upheaval. These are the emergence of the Jews from the ghetto into the modern world, the mass movement of Jews from Europe to the United States, the systematic suppression of religion in the Soviet Union, the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.

These events went far in determining the nature of the Jewish world today and led to the fact that in the United States, we remain comfortable and sophisticated in the Western world and immature in our Jewish knowledge.
The Jewish educational establishment has tried to remedy this problem and, to some extent, has succeeded. The number of day schools certainly has grown. Still, as a community, we remain undertaught and illiterate.

Consequently, when youngsters go off to a university armed with the Jewish education they received in religious schools, or even many of our day schools, they are unable, by and large, to integrate their Jewish knowledge into their much more sophisticated secular knowledge. Even more so, they are unable to have them in equal dialogue with one another.

The basis of good education does not rest on supplying you with facts but on teaching you how to read. In a university, you do not learn science as much as how to function within science or how to read literature or how to write poetry or solve a mathematical problem.

In Jewish texts, by those criteria, we are illiterate. We do not learn how to read Bible but only learn the stories in the Bible. Rabbinic texts that are central in classical Jewish literature remain foreign to most of us. We celebrate holidays, but know nothing of the theology behind them. We pray, sometimes, but know nothing about the theology of the prayer book. Jewish survival relies on loyalty and nostalgia and not on meaning and value.

How can we proceed? I think the first step is an acknowledged awareness of the problem. The American Jewish community does not have literacy as a central focal point. It is spoken about, but the hard truth is not really expressed. I will give a number of examples.

Many years ago, I spoke at an Orthodox congregation on the West Coast. Most of the 200 people there were elderly, and many of them were European-born. I asked them how many of them read Hebrew fluently, and almost all of them raised their hands. I then asked how many understand what they are reading, and almost none raised their hands.
No other group of people would say that they read a language fluently without understanding a word of what they read. Yet this phenomenon continues. We train people to “read the Torah” but not always to understand what they are reading. We train people to “lead” the services but not really to understand the services.

We have Jewish leaders who speak about the importance of Jewish education, but who themselves are not educated or on the path to being educated. We have teachers who are underqualified.

Our expectations are low. If children enjoy going to religious school, that is enough, even though they are learning nothing. We would never tolerate those same criteria for our secular education. Imagine a high school student who loves going to school but cannot read basic texts.

The Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE) is one of the educational organizations that is trying to change this. Their recent conference at Duke University was dedicated to the theme of “Jewish Literacy.” This is the necessary beginning.

CAJE must define the question and press the individual schools and teachers to address the problem. At the same time, it must provide them with programs that will bring literacy to their teaching staff.

How can this be done? First, we have to set our goals higher. Teachers must know how to read the text. For example, the Bible has its own style, as do rabbinic and medieval texts. These styles must be taught and mastered. We should be cautious about separating between biblical story and midrash or rabbinical explanation.

We must also understand that the rabbis wrote in a very particular nonlinear style. Information was not given from beginning to end; their style was coded. The prayer book, which they composed, is a master composition, but in order to understand it, you have to know how biblical sections are chosen and put in different contexts and how the rabbis established specific forms of prayer.

The Jewish calendar is a complex theological statement and should be taught as such. Unlike the secular American calendar, all of the holidays are connected one to another.

All of this must be taught in connection to the other, secular education that these students are receiving. They should know the tremendous impact of the Bible on Western civilization and how the concept of history comes from it. They should understand Jewish theology in its many facets.

The impact of science and technology should be taught, along with their limitations. Jewish concepts of death, soul, responsibility and government should be studied.

Most important, by the time they finish high school, they should be able to examine concepts of knowledge and truth, beginning with the story of the Garden of Eden and working through modern theories of logical positivism, existentialism, chaos and theories of complexity. Why not?

I was once speaking to a principal of a community Jewish high school. He said that attracting students was very competitive. He had to assure the parents that their child would get a secular education that would enable them to get into Harvard, Yale or Princeton and, at the same time, would get a Jewish education. I said to him, “Why not tell them that here your child will master two alternative systems of truth, Jewish and Greek, upon which Western civilization was built. They will master both Aristotelian linear knowledge and rabbinic nonlinear knowledge and be all the wiser for it.”

It is not only possible to do both, but for Jews living in the modern world, it is necessary to do both. They will become literate Jews.

Yosef Leibowitz, director and founder of the Yad Yaakov Fund, received ordination from Yeshiva University and a doctorate from UC Berkeley. He served as a rabbi in Berkeley before moving to Israel. Leibowitz was the keynote speaker on the subject of Jewish texts at the recent CAJE conference focusing on Jewish literacy.

Nourish Your Soul With a Helping of Jewish Learning


Torah study in its broadest sense is the path to the divine. The Chasidim and their spiritual descendants traditionally reach toward God through ecstatic music, with the mediation of their rebbes.

The more straitlaced Mitnagdim found God in the intricacies of halacha, the “path” that constitutes the Jewish legal system and defines almost every aspect of what a Jew says and does.

Many Reform Jews express their connection with the divine through social action and tikkun olam, fixing God’s world. While all of these are also part of my own life as a Jew, it is study that nourishes my rationalist-traditionalist soul and links me to another realm.

In Deuteronomy 30:11-13, Moses assured the Jewish people that the Torah was neither “too baffling” nor “beyond their reach.” He poetically anticipates their objections — that the words of God are too far way, either “in the heavens” or “beyond the sea,” for a mere human to even approach.

Moses reassures them in verse 14 that Torah is indeed accessible and attainable: “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”

When Torah is in your mouth, when you are studying aloud and in the company of other Jews, you are “observing” the Torah, creating a path to God through study.
For adult Jews today who want to study Torah, in its broadest sense of any Jewish learning, the possibilities are manifold. You can pursue as much or as little as possible, finding something that matches your own time and inclinations.

Fairly early in my life I committed myself to learning Hebrew — not just decoding the letters, which I learned in kindergarten, but as both a mode of communication and a tool for Jewish study.

I made this decision many years ago while sitting in a women’s section in an Orthodox shul and using a Yiddish-Hebrew prayer book. With those two languages of my tradition side by side, I felt deeply the power of language as a force that binds Jews as it conveys our tradition, culture and religion. At that moment, I vowed to become fluent in both languages, but I only managed to succeed in Hebrew.

It was a long, hard slog — college and graduate school classes, tapes, easy Hebrew newspapers and two ulpanim 22 years apart. But the paybacks have been manifold.

Hebrew is a compact language that packs a lot of bang in a small space; an English translation of a Hebrew passage, for example, requires many additional words to express the same material. Hebrew words also echo across the Jewish tradition, accumulating meaning across time — through Torah, rabbinic and medieval commentary, and the flourishing modern Hebrew language. And, as the framework of Torah, the letters themselves are said to have a mystical power.

But these same letters sometimes feel like an impossible wall to many adults, keeping them on the outside, mystified rather than mystically moved. I’ve seen them in the adult b’nai mitzvah classes where I teach Hebrew reading. Fear of making a mistake, a terror that “maybe I’m too old to learn,” worry that “everybody but me knows what they’re doing already” — all of these are bulwarks that maintain ignorance. Yes, learning to read Hebrew requires a commitment and time. But as learners make their way to the other side, they’ll find themselves on the inside looking out and feel connected instead of alienated.

Although being able at least to read Hebrew is an important step for Jewish educational self-confidence, much Jewish learning is available without knowing a single word of Hebrew or even the alef-bet, the Hebrew alphabet.

The format that works best for me in Jewish study has been to learn with a cohesive group that studies together for a period of time. When studying with the same group of people, you get to know them personally as well as intellectually. You benefit not only from the knowledge of the group leader, but from both the Jewish and personal experiences of the individuals around the table (and, I mean specifically around a table — this kind of learning doesn’t happen with rows and a dais — although that kind of learning has its place too).

I owe my awareness of this kind of study to the havurah movement, whose tenet for Jewish study is that everyone has something to contribute, be it from their secular work experiences, their personal relationships or their own Jewish learning.

Some subjects work better than others to really ignite this type of study. For beginners, it’s often an adult b’nai mitzvah class or perhaps a conversion class where participants are taking tentative steps toward Jewish understandings by connecting new ideas to their own life experiences.

For more advanced learners, certain texts may work better to unlock personal sharing. I once studied midrashim, or ancient commentaries and stories, on the near sacrifice of Isaac in the book of Genesis with a class of university professors and townies. The rupture of relationship between father and son and extreme demands of loyalty by God brought latent emotions to the surface and promoted acknowledgement of these feelings and personal responses. In my women’s study group we recently studied selected Psalms where the raw feelings, the suffering and the ambivalence toward God’s actions evoked resonances that created meaningful connections between the people present.

Jewish learning also can work well in a class where the leader’s role is more teacher than facilitator (although both are certainly important for any successful learning experience).

The last leg of my own Jewish learning is the Internet, which offers a realm of possibilities. One fantastic resource is myjewishlearning.com, which covers Jewish learning — from Jewish life, practice, and culture to history, ideas, and beliefs, to Jewish texts — in bite-size chunks. The articles are tailored to an Internet audience that wants good information quickly and at the depth required, offering both broad-based introductions to material and nuanced essays on particular aspects of a field.

Through the Internet I also receive several divrei Torah each week — although I have to admit I seldom read them immediately but rather save them in portion-specific files as resources for future use (both for myself and for parents of my b’nai mitzvah students who want to learn about their children’s Torah portions). I also subscribe to the Bet Midrash Virtuali of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel and every few days receive text and commentary of Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers. The interpretations come not just from the facilitator of the group, but also from other participants who email their own comments.

Not only are there multiple venues where adults too can participate in Jewish education, but books are being written to specifically aid the process. Barry Holtz’s “Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts” (Simon & Schuster) has been a resource since 1984, but a more recent amazing aid to serious adult Jewish Torah study is “The Commentator’s Bible” by Michael Carasik (Jewish Publication Society, 2005). This book translates the medieval Bible commentators into accessible English, with the commentators basing most of their comments on either the new JPS translation of the Torah or the more literal old JPS translation.

Jewish education has connected me to the soul of Judaism. I keep kosher, I observe the holidays, I go to services regularly, yet I find study to be my most dependable spiritual connection to the Jewish tradition. I think the rabbis knew that no single path works for everyone, yet their own pursuit of study and discussion is certainly one they have encouraged us to emulate. It is not a mistake that Torah in its broadest sense of both study and practice is one of the three goals for each Jewish newborn, along with chuppah (marriage) and ma’asim tovim (good deeds).

When Torah is in your mouth, when you are studying aloud and in the company of other Jews, you are “observing” the Torah, creating a path to God through study.

Michele Alperin is a freelance writer and a former lifecycle editor for MyJewishLearning.com. She has a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

How YOU Can Help Israel; Electronic Devices


How YOU Can Help Israel

Kids in Los Angeles can send letters to kids in Israel by e-mailing elka1@jdc.org.il. The letters will be printed out and inserted into “care packages” that are beng sent out to families in shelters in Northern Israel. When you send an e-mail, include your name, age and address.

  • In addition to expressing support, you can write about whatever it is that you, as kids, like to talk about.

  • Ask that the children e-mail or mail you back.
  • It is important that spelling and grammar are correct (have an adult or older sibling read it first), otherwise it can be difficult for the Israeli children to understand.

Remember: Tikkun olam comes in all shapes and sizes.

Kein v’ Lo: Electronic Devices

This section of the page is a way for you as kids to sound off about an issue. This month’s Kein v’ Lo (yes and no) is about personal electronic devices. Are kids spending too much time on iPods, PSPs and cellphones?

The Kein Side:

  • The obesity rate among children is growing because many are sitting down (or standing still), playing games on their PSPs and texting their friends via their phones and not getting enough exercise.

  • A lot of kids listen to their iPods all the time — even in public — and are not learning to how to interact with people. The headphone volume could also cause many of them to have hearing problems.

The Lo Side:

  • Kids are learning to be technologically savvy — skills that are very important for doing homework and will later be used to get good jobs.

  • By texting their friends and talking on cellphones, kids are socializing all the time. Playing games on PSPs keeps minds sharp because players have to constantly think. Some teachers even use iPod podcasts (streaming video or audio) as learning tools for class.

Discuss your opinions in your classroom or around your dining table with your family. We aren’t saying which is right and which is wrong. We want to know what you think. Send your thoughts to Kids@jewishjournal.com with Kein v’Lo in the subject line.

Pages & Picks

Shabbat candles you don’t have to light? A shofar you can drop and it won’t break? A pyramid that you can build without breaking a sweat? Impossible you say! Not so with Joel Stern’s “Jewish Holidays Origami” (Dover Publications, $5.95). In addition to the step-by-step craftmaking, the book includes background on eight holidays — as well as on the objects for that holiday. And because the crafts come in beginner, intermediate and advanced levels, younger kids can make a siddur, while the older ones create a Torah scroll. And the best part? No messy glue — although parents might want to check to see that kids’ report cards don’t turn into a paper hamantaschen.

Summer Tours to Israel Rerouted, But Not By Much


Most summers, the trip to the Naot Sandal factory on a kibbutz close to Israel’s northern border is a highlight of the teen tours run by United Synagogue Youth (USY). But this summer, with the north under constant threat of rocket attacks, the 400 USYers stayed in the central and southern part of the country, and Naot came to them, with a special sale near USY’s base in Jerusalem.

That was one of the easier adjustments to a constantly changing itinerary for USY kids and the other estimated 6,000 American teens on tours in Israel this summer.

“All of us that have kids in Israel are trying to make the best of the situation,” said Jules Gutin, international director for USY, the youth arm of the Conservative movement, which has about 50 California teens in Israel this summer. “We want the experience to be worthwhile and positive, as well as safe.”

So while kids may be missing out on trips to the Golan Heights, to the kabbalistic city of Tsfat, the Banias natural pools or Maimonides’ grave in Tiveria, tours are making up for it with extra time in Jerusalem and challenging hikes through the Negev.

Few Kids Have Returned Home

Most tours departed the United States before the violence escalated in Israel, and most of the teens have stayed. USY reports that as of early this week, three kids went home, and Young Judaea has a similar count, with six kids out of 470 being summoned home. Three of the 390 students on NCSY’s Europe and Israel trip did not continue on from Europe to Israel.

The Orthodox Union canceled a trip scheduled to leave this week with its Yad b’Yad program, where 15 developmentally and physically disabled adults were to be accompanied by 35 teenage counselors on a four-week tour of Israel.

Administrators worried about heightening participants’ anxiety, and about difficulties rerouting the group, or moving it quickly in case of emergency. The day before the trip, it was recast as a West Coast tour.

Israel Experience, the educational tourism arm of the Jewish Agency for Israel, coordinates programming and security for most of the trips that leave from North America.

“Trips are being rerouted based on the current situation, and it’s an hour-by-hour reevaluation,” said Rachel Russo, director of marketing for Israel Experience.

IDF, Police, Jewish Agency Monitor Tourist Itineraries

Israel Experience adjusts the groups’ schedules according to recommendations it gets from a situation room staffed by representatives from the Israeli army, the Israeli police, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Jewish Agency. Each teen tour group that signs up with Israel Experience — and most do — is tracked by GPS.

“They are really fluid in moving the groups when they need to move,” said Russo, whose daughter is in Israel with Ramah Seminar this summer.

Program operators have also been working overtime to keep in constant communication with parents. Young Judaea is sending out three email updates daily, in addition to photos and journals on its Web site. USY increased updates from the usual weekly to daily, and someone is available to answer parents concerns at all times.

Most teens also have cell phones with them, so parents are kept in the loop. So far, while parents have expressed concern, few are panicking. And by all reports, the kids themselves seem to be having a great time.

Bonnie Sharfman, whose 16-year-old, Zach, is on a trip with Nesiya, says she hopes the visit will have a lasting impact.

“We are choosing to look at this situation as an amazing learning experience for Zach and hope that he will return home in a month with much to say regarding the social, political and economic realities of Israel and the region,” she said.

— JGF

The Circuit


Hoop Dreams
For 16-year-old former Encino resident Marisa Gobuty it’s all about basketball.

Throughout the summer, Gobuty, a 5-foot-7 high school junior point guard, who now lives in Israel and plays for Israel’s National Basketball Team, will be playing for the Southern California-based Finest Basketball Club (FBC), and compete in tournaments across the United States.

Six years ago, she and her family moved to Israel for a short two-year stint. They have lived there ever since. But like in Encino, Gobuty’s love and passion for basketball led her back on to the courts around Tel Aviv, eventually landing a spot on the Israel National team at age 15. She is now one of only 12 team members on Israel’s Segel Zahav, which means Gold Team. It is comprised of the top players in the 16-24 age bracket.

“Living in Israel has been a great learning experience culturally and emotionally,” Gobuty said. “By playing basketball there I’ve also gotten to compete against some of the best in the world playing in European FIBA Championships, as well as having the opportunity to learn about different cultures. But some of my most rewarding moments have been talking to other high school-age teenagers about what it’s like to grow up in a country that is constantly on alert in a war time like state and being able to share my experiences.”

Support Your Students
The West Coast Supporters of Yeshiva University (YU) recently held a dinner at the L.A. home of Esthi and Walter Feinblum. Forty YU supporters attended the event and raised $100,000 for the West Coast Scholarship Drive to ensure that all qualified undergraduate students who wish to attend YU can do so regardless of their financial circumstances.

Love ‘Triangle’
Take one part Jewish mother, one part Italian mama, add a dash of hot-blooded lethario and you have an evening of laughs with Renee Taylor, Lainie Kazan and Joe Bologna at the Brentwood Theatre production of “The Bermuda Avenue Triangle.”

The star-studded opening night featured such icons as Carl Reiner and wife Estelle, Larry Gelbart, Dom DeLuise and Norm Crosby who showed up to support the cast. The farce, written by Taylor and Bologna, addresses the plight of two mothers in their golden years and the daughters who love and endure them.

Lucky Night for JFS
The Regent Beverly Wilshire was filled May 23 as guests mingled and munched on healthy appetizers. The occasion was the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS) 13th annual gala fundraising dinner. Husband and wife Deborah Barak and her Dr. Etan Milgrom received the Spirit of Humanity Award, and Connie Mandles was honored with the Anita and Stanley Hirsh Award.

The annual gala brought in $700,000 to help JFS provide vital services to people of all ages, ethnicities and religions. JFS’ nationally recognized programs counsel troubled families and individuals, support the elderly, house the homeless and abused and feed the hungry.

Rob Morrow and David Krumholtz, the stars of the hit CBS series “Numb3rs” were a standout as masters of ceremonies, bringing to the job the sharp and funny relationship they share as the Eppes brothers in their show.

Renee Olstead, 16, a star of the CBS sitcom “Still Standing,” wowed the crowd with sultry jazz standards and an original tune from her upcoming second CD, accompanied by Grammy Award-winning producer David Foster. Foster also coaxed Krumholtz into crooning a respectable version of the Frank Sinatra hit “That’s Life,” to the delight of the crowd.

Founded in 1854, JFS is the oldest and largest social service agency in Los Angeles. JFS is a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation and United Way.

A Call to Action
Noted author and journalist Frank Gaffney Jr. spoke to an overflowing crowd May 30 at Valley Beth Shalom when more than 500 people attended the Republican Jewish Coalition Los Angeles chapter event.

His new book “War Footing and President of the Center for Security Policy America & Israel: How We Can Prevail In The War On Terror” speaks to America’s role in supporting the war on terror. The crowd listened — and noshed — as Gaffney addressed the issue of Iran and its potential threat to Israel and the United States, urging Americans to play a more aggressive role in stopping terror.

Gaffney said threats to Israel are designed to demean the American spirit.

“We need to support our troops by doing more than putting a bumper sticker on our cars,” he said. “We need to ensure they have the resources they need to fight the war. To mobilize the resources of this country’s resources, energies and talents to prevail.”

 

O.C. Incidents Raise Anti-Semitism Fears


The president of a Los Alamitos high school’s Jewish students’ club came out to the school parking lot last October to find swastikas and “Jew Bitch” scrawled on her car. Across the county, a San Clemente high school student was harassed last year with anti-Jewish slurs to the point that she transferred out of the district.

These two instances in which Jewish students from Orange County were targeted by peers coincide with a broader rise in anti-Semitism, including in schools. Local Jewish groups have sounded an alarm, while the reaction of local school officials has varied.

“There has been a significant rise in the past four years in anti-Semitism generally and on school campuses,” said Dr. Kevin O’Grady, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Orange County/Long Beach Region. O’Grady’s office recorded 43 cases of harassment and vandalism last year, nearly 50 percent more than in 2003; one-third of these involved public schools.

In its 2004 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, the ADL documented 1,821 cases of harassment, threats, assault and vandalism against Jews nationwide — up 17 percent from the previous year. This jump was due in part to a spike in reports of anti-Jewish harassment in American middle and high schools.

These incidents have included defacing lockers with swastikas and anti-Jewish graffiti and name-calling, bullying and intimidation in hallways and Internet chat rooms. Incidents tend to be spread evenly throughout the county, although Los Alamitos and San Clemente have the most reported cases, according to ADL research. In the northwest corridor, skinheads, with their white supremacist ideology, are actively recruiting teenagers in schools, said ADL regional director Joyce Greenspan.

School administrators are responding to these incidents with varied intensity. In some cases, their actions have been resolute. One Costa Mesa middle school principal notified police and suspended 18 students after a girl was harassed on the Web site, My Space, O’Grady said. In San Clemente, a high school principal met with Jewish leaders following reports of several incidents, and ran tolerance programming for the student body, said Rabbi Mendel Slavin of the Chabad Jewish Center of San Clemente, who attended the meeting.

At Los Alamitos High School, administrators banned clothing bearing an iron cross and other paraphernalia associated with white supremacy.

Districts have also adopted zero-tolerance policies for ethnic-based intimidation and offer sensitivity and diversity training programs to prevent problems before they arise.

“When you see that firm and clear response, you see a drop in anti-Semitic incidents,” ADL’s Greenspan said.

Other schools deny the presence of anti-Semitism on their campuses, even in the face of some evidence to the contrary.

Parents of a Tustin-area 10th-grader perceived the administration’s response to be deficient after reporting that their daughter was being continuously harassed by a fellow student.

“He’d walk by and sneeze and say ‘a Jew,’ and say ‘shalom’ and laugh,” said the 15-year-old girl, who asked to be identified only as K. “In class, I’d hear him talking and I’d hear the word ‘Jew’ and [my name] and I knew he was talking about me. He actually called me a ‘kike’ one time.”

The boy described himself as a Nazi and would talk about how Jews killed Jesus, according to K., who said she felt scared and intimidated.

She reported the harassment to a counselor and was instructed to document the incidents in a statement to the vice principal. Because she was afraid to confront the boy and his parents in a face-to-face meeting, she was told that he could be disciplined only if caught in the act.

When the abuse continued, K.’s parents met with the vice principal, who allegedly said that he would direct teachers to send the boy to the office if he made offensive comments. Not all teachers followed this instruction, according to K. In the face of the boy’s unrelenting taunting, the distraught parents removed their daughter from the school.

“What I’m most upset with are the teachers and the way they allowed it to happen, and the way that the vice principal, after receiving such a powerful statement from K., just did not respond,” said K.’s mother. “I feel that they allowed it.”

Tustin Unified School District officials denied knowledge of this incident, but stated that they do not tolerate racial or religious harassment.

“The safety and security of our campuses is our first priority,” said Ron Heape, Tustin Unified’s district administrator for child welfare and attendance. “We are not timid at all about going after these kids.”

Peer-to-peer anti-Semitism is not limited to high schools.

“Our most recent phone calls have been third- and fourth-grade related,” said the ADL’s O’Grady. In one case, a fourth grader was called “dirty Jew” by two classmates, who then wrote the word “Jew” on a piece of paper, circled it and drew a line through it.

“This is what we do to Jews,” Grady says they said.

ADL officials suspect that only a small percentage of incidents gets reported.

“The numbers are staggering,” agreed Robyn Faintich, director of the Orange County Board of Jewish Education’s (BJE) youth education program. Faintich recounted that at a recent gathering of 110 public school 10th graders, more than 90 percent said they had been targets of anti-Semitic comments, vandalism or other encounters.

“Schools are not mandated to collect data [on hate incidents] so there is no global perspective,” said Georgiann Boyd, student services coordinator for the Orange County Department of Education.

For that matter, many incidents never leave the school yard. Fear of being further ostracized prevents some students from reporting confrontations to school or community officials.

“We are aware that there is anti-Semitic activity in the schools,” said Orange County Human Relations Executive Director Rusty Kennedy. “Each year we learn of at least a half-dozen incidents in schools that we’re concerned with, and I’m sure there’s more.”

He said that while the number of cases is too small to indicate a trend, he believes that school-based anti-Semitism is comparable to hate acts in the adult community, in which Jews, African Americans and gays and lesbians are most frequently targeted.

“These things that are happening at an early age are concerning, because this is a taught or learned behavior,” said Heather Williams, director of gang victim services at Community Service Programs, Inc. “These children are learning to be anti-Semitic by their parents and people who they’ve been around for a long time.”

 

Rising Singing Star Pitches New Sound


Many young girls dream of a life on the stage, but few could have envisioned the career now enjoyed by Hila Plitmann, a Jerusalem-born soprano who these days makes her home in Studio City. Plitmann, 32, is not famous in the way that, say, sopranos like Renée Fleming, Deborah Voigt and Anna Netrebko are. She is not a star. But she is making a name for herself, and not by singing music by Puccini, Mozart, Strauss and Wagner.

Instead, Plitmann is building a career based largely on new music by composers like David Del Tredici, John Corigliano, Roger Reynolds and Esa-Pekka Salonen, the latter the longtime music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and something of a Plitmann champion. Indeed, Plitmann was one of two featured soloists in the premiere of Salonen’s “Wing on Wing,” written for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003 and dedicated to its architect, Frank Gehry.

That work — for orchestra, two sopranos and Gehry’s voice sampled on tape — has become something of a calling card for the soprano, who most recently sang it at Disney Hall on May 31. That concert came on the heels of another at Disney Hall on May 9, in which she participated in premieres of Unsuk Chin’s vibrant “Cantatrix Sopranica” and Reynolds’ sprawling, multidimensional “Illusion,” two works commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group.

On June 7, she’ll appear in a less likely space, at Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Encino, joining two other singers — mezzo-soprano Alma Mora Ponce and tenor Mark Saltzman, cantor at Congregation Kol Ami synagogue — for a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “From Jewish Folk Poetry” and a selection of Yiddish songs. (The trio gave the same program at the Jewish Community Center in La Jolla on May 24.) She’s doing this in part, out of friendship for Neal Brostoff, who is producing the concert and accompanying the singers.

Though Shostakovich, who died in 1975, used Russian translations of the poems for his song cycle, musicologist Joachim Braun restored the original Yiddish texts in the 1980s. And it’s that version Plitmann and her colleagues are singing.

“From Jewish Folk Poetry” doesn’t require Plitmann to enter the vocal stratosphere, but her ability to do so has served her well and marked her for distinction. A coloratura soprano with a silvery tone who seems utterly at ease projecting high notes, Plitmann says, “I was always a screamer.”

She describes her father, an academic, as having “a beautiful voice” and her mother as a classical music enthusiast, but neither was more than a hobbyist. Both remain in Israel, as do the singer’s sister and brother.

Early on, Plitmann was an ambivalent pianist, and though she sang in a youth choir, she gave it up for athletics, particularly gymnastics, dancing and running — something her needle-thin dancer’s body still attests to. But she missed singing and soon found herself taking private lessons and enrolling in a music high school.

Unable to find the advanced vocal training she needed in Israel, Plitmann, at her teacher’s urging, enrolled in New York’s Juilliard School, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. But talented singer or not, she still had an obligation to the Israel Defense Forces.

“I did my basic training for the Israeli army in the summers, during my second and third years at Juilliard,” she says. “I learned how to shoot Uzis and run around in the dirt. It was very bizarre.”

Juilliard is also where she met her husband, Eric Whitacre, a composer.

“He wouldn’t leave me alone, so I married him,” she says. They now have an 8-month-old son, Esh.

Whitacre is composing an opera for his wife. Titled, “Paradise Lost,” and described as “opera electronica” on Whitacre’s Web site, the work is an amalgam of styles, including, techno, rave and ambient. Plitmann likens the music to that of Bjork and the Postal Service (the band, not the letter carriers).

Often, classical artists come to appreciate the rigors of modern music once they mature, but not Plitmann. Her interest in the new dates back to her childhood. That youth chorus her mother sent her to emphasized contemporary Israeli music. At 14, she appeared in her first opera, singing the role of Flora, the bewitched little girl at the center of Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw.” And while still in high school, she sang Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” with the Israel Philharmonic.

Plitmann describes her specialization in new music as “an accident that turned into a choice,” noting that she likes “the challenge of learning something difficult, whatever the era,” yet singling out modern works for their “many dramatic elements.”

She says that audiences can’t be forced to love new music but insists that committed performances from artists like her can help sway them to be more open-minded.

“I find there’s more in contemporary music that can be used expressively than both musicians and audiences realize,” she says. “People think contemporary music is cold and intellectual, but that’s not always true.”

Plitmann is certainly no snob when it comes to music. Her personal interests extend to various forms of pop music, and even professionally, she makes choices that some might consider too populist. Her limited discography will soon include a song cycle to Bob Dylan texts called “Mr. Tambourine Man” by Corigliano, who won an Oscar for his score to the film, “The Red Violin.” And though she isn’t exactly getting star billing, Plitmann is the vocal soloist on Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to “The Da Vinci Code.”

She got the job through a close friend of her husband’s and made the recording in London, an experience she calls “amazing.” The lyrics, she says, are meant to mimic Latin, though no actual language is being sung. The soprano admits that the score is “not the most complex music,” yet it has another virtue: it sounds good.

“I love singing beautiful music,” Plitmann says.

The “Shostakovich at 100 Concert” will be held at 8 p.m. on June 7 at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For information, call (818) 788-6000 or visit

Wandering Jew – Spiritual Headliners


Dozens of young giggling girls dressed in their finest skirts and blouses crowded the front of the Universal Hilton ballroom, which was hot and stuffy and filled to standing-room only capacity with women in anticipation of the big event.

When the music started all the girls and women jumped to their feet and started clapping, beatific, expectant smiles on their faces.

It could have been a rock concert — perhaps the debut of famous boy band — but it was not that kind of music and these were not that kind of girls. For most of the 3,000 men and women — seated in separate rooms, with a video screen for the women — the happening was one of the most important ever in Los Angeles and in the lives of these ultra-Orthodox Jews.

These members of Los Angeles’ ultra-Orthodox community had come together for an asefa, a spiritual gathering, to see and hear two of Israel’s greatest rabbis speak words of Torah and offer spiritual reinforcement to this far-flung Diaspora community.

These were gedolei hador, luminaries, leaders of the generation and the heads of the two separate — and often divided — factions of the ultra-Orthodox communities. Rabbi Yakov Aryeh Alter, known the Gerrer Rebbe, represents the Chasidic faction, and Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman leads the Litvak, or Lithuanian (non-Chasidic) faction.

To the outsider, the sea of black hats might look monolithic, but these were worlds among worlds gathered in the room. The Chasidim, with their long curly peyos (sidelocks), furry streimel hats and shiny black kaputa coats, came from a long tradition that began in the 17th century, one that emphasizes spiritual joy in addition to academic Torah study.

More austere in trim beards and black suits were the Lithuanians, or Mitnagdim, literally meaning opponents to Chasidism. But today the word usually refers to black-hat non-Chasidic Jews who have a more analytic approach to learning, as practiced in their yeshivas.

It was like the Jets and the Sharks coming together. In the men’s section, a three-level podium contained a veritable who’s who of the Los Angeles rabbinical world: Rabbi Avrohom Union of the Rabbinical Council of California, Rabbi Meyer May of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Sholom Ginsberg of Toras Emes, Rabbi Eleazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, Rabbi David Toledano of Adat Yeshurun Sephardic Congregation, Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik (an actual Gerrer Chasid). There, too, standing out in a black hat and startlingly royal blue tie, was Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

To start things off, a number of rabbis spoke leading up to the two luminaries. They explained the significance of the evening.

“How could we be zocheh [meriting] for two gedolei hador to come here?” Rabbi Baruch Yehuda Gradon, from the Los Angeles Kollel, asked in that English-Hebrew-Yiddish mixture so prevalent in the ultra-Orthodox community.

“It’s hard to believe we’re on the West Coast of the United States,” he said.

Rabbi Ginsberg took pride in the growth of the community in this nonheavenly city.

“We in Los Angeles, we are not Eretz Yisroel [Israel], we are not New York, we are not even Lakewood,” he said, referring to the New Jersey community where the men learn full-time in Kollel yeshivas.

But, he said, this city has its own network of Kollels, yeshivas and outreach institutions.

In recent years Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest Jewish community, has become a stop for visiting Jewish dignitaries — especially politicians, hoping to tap into the fundraising network here. The visit of these two luminaries — together for the first time — also put Los Angeles on the map as an up-and-coming spiritual center. And perhaps, this appearance also was a testing ground for such an unusual pairing, an event that might get out of hand in a community as big as New York or New Jersey or Israel.

The occasion was also an effort to show unity between the two factions.

“There is no division between a Chasid and a Mitnaged, between Ashkenaz and Sephard, and between a businessman and yeshiva man,” Rabbi Ginsberg said.

There were some divisions, of course, with the men and women in separate rooms. According to the Israeli press, the two rabbis chartered a special El Al flight with no women stewardesses and no women in first class — and without movies. But this is de rigueur for a community accustomed to segregation (especially the Chasidic community).

The main purpose of the evening was to offer a lifeline of spiritual support to the Los Angeles community — a soulful community in a city of soul-seekers and religious innovators.

Rabbi Steinman, 93, clutched the podium, his face pale as paper, flanked on each side by rabbis for support. He spoke for 20 minutes in Yiddish. The Gerer rebbe, Yakov Alter, a more robust man with white hair and peyos and heavy lidded eyes, delivered a short, one-minute speech from his chair.

Both men’s words were translated by Rabbi Usher Weiss in a crisp, booming European-accented English.

“If all we would do here tonight is look and listen, then this effort would be in vain and this trip would not have achieved its goal,” he said to the rapt audience, some of whom were taping the remarks on their PalmPilots and other electronic devices.

Weiss was mostly translating the words of Rabbi Steinman, but he seemed to intersperse his own comments, as well: “A person must feel every day that our worship of yesterday is not enough. Every day is a new responsibility. The angels are great but they have no tests. For us it’s all about [personal] growth.”

“What matters is not how big you are but how much you grow,” said Weiss in his translation/commentary.

It was no accident that this gathering fell on the holiday of Lag B’Omer, a celebration in the middle of a mourning period, the 49 days of counting the omer. Jewish groups around the city made traditional bonfires to mark the holiday, which, by some accounts, marks the end of an ancient plague that killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students.

At the Universal Hilton, Weiss spoke of Rabbi Akiva, whose most famous teaching was love thy neighbor as thyself.

“Mutual respect, this is the lesson we have to learn on this day,” he said.

He blessed the rabbis and the audience, his voice ringing out loud and clear: “I am confident that each of the participants will remember this day to the last of his days.”

 

A Young Violinist With a Lot of Pluck


Her name is Camilla Tsiperovich. But, growing up in Azerbaijan, there were times she wasn’t allowed to use it. As a 9-year-old violinist performing for world-renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, she was told to call herself Camilla Gadjieva. Her headmaster at the Azerbaijan Conservatory considered this a more suitable name, one that reflected the Muslim heritage of her country. While representing Azerbaijan in international music competitions and spending her first year of high school at the famed Moscow Conservatory, she always understood that “there was something wrong because you were Jewish.”

Tsiperovich no longer needs to hide who she is. A year ago, her talent was noticed by Anita Hirsh, whose work with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has given her a deep commitment to the Jews of the former Soviet Union. Hirsh, the widow of The Jewish Journal’s late publisher, Stanley Hirsh, sponsored Tsiperovich’s entrance into the Idyllwild Arts Academy. Now, at age 17, Tsiperovich is flourishing as a full-time student who divides her days between academic subjects and an intense focus on her chosen instrument.

Idyllwild Arts Academy, a boarding school nestled in the mountains above Palm Springs, is home to 270 high school students who are preparing for careers as artists, dancers, actors, filmmakers and musicians. The atmosphere is international, with about one-third of the student body hailing from Europe, Asia and Latin America. As an entering student with shaky English skills, Tsiperovich is enrolled in a basic course in English as a Second Language. She introduced herself to her classmates by saying, “I’m from Azerbaijan. None of you know where that is.”

The course has required her to write and speak often about the homeland she’s left behind. Todd Bucklin, the school’s ESL teacher, commends her for being frank and responsive: “It’s great having her strong presence in the class.”

He also admires her social progress. In her dormitory she’s been spotted watching Korean-language movies with her new Asian pals, reading the subtitles to understand what’s going on.

At Idyllwild, all academic classes are held in the morning, to leave afternoons free for lessons, rehearsals and practice sessions. Life is so busy that Tsiperovich finds time to practice her violin only five or six hours a day. Back home, her passion for the instrument led her to practice 12 hours daily. Such devotion had its downside: she was prone to developing injuries in her hands, wrists and feet.

Her family, though always supportive, is not especially musical. In fact, a career in music was completely Tsiperovich’s idea. She was only 3 when she saw a televised concert of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G and became obsessed with learning the violin. She began lessons before she turned 4, and it wasn’t long before she was winning competitions and presenting public recitals. She is also a gifted visual artist, who received her current instrument from an American oil company after it used one of her paintings in an advertising campaign.

Tsiperovich admits that in Azerbaijan it’s almost impossible to follow the rules of religious Judaism (her family’s tiny synagogue is now defunct). Nonetheless, she learned from an early age to respect Jewish tradition. She was active in her local chapter of the World Jewish Agency, also known as Sochnut, an organization that encourages Diaspora Jews to feel connected with the State of Israel. It was Sochnut that paved the way for her to participate in an Israeli music festival, where her violin performance won first prize. Because her stay in Israel coincided with her 13th birthday, she was able to celebrate an impromptu bat mitzvah in a local synagogue. Though her parents were far away, she was by no means lonely.

In Israel, Tsiperovich says in her careful, accented English, “I felt like I am at home. I felt so warm. People were so close to me.”

Now she’s learning to feel at home in the United States. She says Hirsh often acts as “my parent in America” and sees her during holidays. Hirsh took Tsiperovich to Utah over winter break for her first attempt at skiing. Still, it’s hard for her not to miss all that she has left behind. When her school took its spring break in late March, she flew to her home city of Baku, on the Caspian Sea, to reunite with her family for the first time in five months. As luck would have it, she was able to share in the festivities of her favorite holiday, Azerbaijan New Year.

Tsiperovich is determined to follow high school with four years at a major American music conservatory. Because her long-range goal is to forge a career as a soloist, it’s likely she won’t be spending many more New Years in her native land. The life of a professional musician can be heartbreakingly tough, but it offers one great reward.

“When you play music,” Tsiperovich says, “you feel really free.”

 

Another Tendler Steps Down


The longtime principal of one of Los Angeles’ largest Jewish high schools is leaving to start a new school. Rabbi Sholom Tendler resigned last week as Hebrew principal of Yeshiva of Los Angeles (YULA) and as rabbi of Young Israel of North Beverly Hills. He said he plans to open a new yeshiva boys’ high school elsewhere in Los Angeles.

Tendler’s resignation comes shortly after his nephew, Rabbi Aron Tendler, resigned under pressure as rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village. Meanwhile, Tendler’s other nephew, Rabbi Mordechai Tendler was suspended this year by the board of his New York City-area synagogue as a result of longstanding allegations about alleged sexual misconduct.

Sholom Tendler, 61, says his departure is a matter only of his desire to start a new high school.

Sholom Tendler has been YULA’s rosh yeshiva, Hebrew for principal, for the last 26 years, including in 1987, when the school hired attorneys secretly to investigate allegations of inappropriate behavior against Aron Tendler. The internal probe yielded inconclusive results, but Aron Tendler was moved from the girls school to the separate boys school.

“I was aware of that investigation,” Sholom Tendler told The Journal, adding that he recused himself from the situation because his relative was involved.

After news of the investigation came to light in recent months, YULA alums and parents expressed outrage that the school dealt with the matter privately. Some clamored for “accountability.” Sholom Tendler’s resignation, so soon after the disclosures, has inevitably invited speculation that his departure is, in effect, the school’s response to community pressure.

Not so, Sholom Tendler said.

“There is absolutely no connection whatsoever between [what happened with his nephews] and my decision to build this new school,” he said. “It’s unfortunate how unfounded rumors can blacken even the most beautiful of endeavors.”

Sholom Tendler also expressed sympathy for his nephews’ ordeals: “It’s very painful, and I’m supportive of them and their families in this terrible time of agony that they’re going through.”

Aron Tendler has declined interview requests; Mordechai Tendler has been more vocal, denying any wrongdoing.

YULA officials also emphasized that Sholom Tendler’s exit is voluntary.

“He helped create YULA,” said Rabbi Meyer May, the executive director of YULA’s boys division. “He could have stayed at YULA for his entire career.”

So why is Sholom Tendler leaving?

He replied that there is a shortage of yeshiva high schools in Los Angeles.

“Anybody will tell you there are not enough high school desks in Los Angeles. It’s a healthy sign, but a serious problem,” Sholom Tendler said.

His added that his new school will fill a niche for the more “ultra” side of the Orthodox community, while also stressing a serious academic curriculum.

Sholom Tendler is calling his new high school Mesivta Birkas Yitzchok — named for his father, Rabbi Yitzchok Tendler, a rebbe who inspired “a joy of learning,” as Tendler put it. He plans to open in September for about 10 to 15 ninth-graders. He said he is currently scouting for a location in the Pico-Robertson or La Brea area.

The school will provide both serious Torah study and strong secular academics.

“People who are observing the demographics in the Jewish community see that there are a growing number of people who are very serious about religious observance and at the same time want to live in the professional or business world, rather than the rabbinate. We want parents to have the opportunity to prepare their sons for either way of life,” he said.

Because of the labor involved in starting a school, Sholom Tendler also is stepping down from heading Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, where he has served as rabbi almost since its inception 13 years ago. He will stay on until the search committee finds a new rabbi. He said he expects to remain involved in the community, possibly as rabbi emeritus.

 

The Hebrascope: Signs of the Jewdiac


HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

(February 19-March 20)
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Josh Groban

There’s a study that shows that lab rats don’t get as stressed from being shocked as they do from not knowing when the shocks will come. Put that rat on a regular shocking schedule, and it doesn’t freak out. How does this apply to the human Pisces? Some of your anxiety right now comes from a simple lack of knowledge. Get more information. The more you know, the less you will suffer from the fear of how and when that shock will arrive. This week, make a special effort to befriend casual business contacts. A stream of new work may be coming your way, and you never know whose friendship will yield rewards.

(March 21-April 20)
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Matthew Broderick

That whole “pay it forward” thing is pretty easy, as far as good deeds go. If someone is prompt, warm or even excellent in a service they provide, it’s all about referrals. Your generosity will come back to you. Aries employees may face a heavy workload this week to due the absence or illness of a co-worker. Still, if you start a project this week, it’s likely to come to fruition. Here’s the bad news: Mercury turns retrograde until March 25. That means details regarding travel, mail and technology may become frustrating. What’s an Aries to do? Back up all computer files and dip into your reserves of patience.

 

 

(April 21-May 20)
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Barbra Streisand

Business and pleasure – two great tastes that don’t always taste great together – may combine this week as someone from your social circle introduces a business proposition. The catch is that dastardly “hidden agenda” friends can have. You can’t play “hide and seek” with someone else’s agenda, but you can gently suggest that all parties show their cards and express their real desires. If you have any important messages to send, do so before Thursday. Be certain to be very clear in your communications; that funny, sarcastic e-mail that sounds hilarious in your head may be misunderstood.

(May 21 – June 20)
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Barry Levinson

Information you are getting this week is just a lot of blah blah blah until you confirm and clarify what you are hearing. Someone may be using verbal skills to manipulate your mind. Here’s where you throw down with your research skills and separate fact from fictions. Unattached Gemini may want to attend a social function with work colleagues. While it may not be the best idea for you to “dip your quill in the company ink,” don’t rule out the possibility of a co-worker bringing along a cute and appropriate-to-date friend.

(June 21-July 20)
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Sydney Pollack

Intuition has many faces. Sometimes it’s a gut feeling, or a voice whispering in your head (not the kind that happens when you forget your meds), or a nagging thought. Sometimes, intuition is just a flash. However it shows itself, this is not the week to second-guess it but to act on it. Whatever feels right is right. It’s that simple. In career matters, this is a week to embrace the old cliché about “it’s not what you know but who you know.” Information gathered privately from inside sources will help you make bold moves in your career. Who do you press for information? It’s gut check time.

(July 21 – August 21)
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Monica Lewinsky

Money may not be the root of all evil, but it is certainly the root of many a trivial argument. This week, you may find yourself at odds with a personal or professional partner about just how the cash is getting doled out. Fortunately, when it comes to dealing with banks, creditors or outstanding debts, this is an excellent week for these kinds of financial dealings. Also, this week may find you daydreaming more than usual. One second you’re getting on the freeway, the next, you’re already at your exit and have no idea how you got there. Harness your daydreams; they are filled with creative ideas. And try not to get too lost.

(August 22-September 22)
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Adam Sandler

Any Virgo who is studying, learning or composing simply must have privacy. Annoying roommates? Get away from them, sling the laptop in a bag and get to a coffee shop. If the family is around, hole away in a separate room for a couple of hours and get the alone time you need to focus. As for your emotional life, think of it this way. Why do athletes stretch before a big game or event? So they don’t break. Flexibility is key to your emotional health this week. Bend, stretch and don’t jump into an emotional situation ice cold. You don’t want to pull a mental hamstring and end up on the injured list. 

(September 23-October 22)
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Michael Douglas

Going to the gym and starting a fancy new workout regime in January is for suckers; that’s when everyone is trying to act on their secular New Year’s resolutions and the line for the treadmill is worse than the IKEA checkout line on a Saturday afternoon. Good thing for Libra, now is the time to start a routine with the stars supporting your efforts. Normally indecisive Libra may have a more difficult time making decisions. Should you have the mint chip or the rocky road? It all seems so critical and hard to maneuver. Just remember, all the flavors taste good – not to mention giving you extra encouragement to stick to your new workout plan.

(October 23-November 22)
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Jonas Salk

Welcome to a cosmic carnival of amusements. This week will be a delight for the senses, some cotton candy, a few rides and lots of pinball in your brain. There’s nothing to do but enjoy the frenetic energy and all the bright lights and colors. Oh, there is one thing to do: start up a romantic affair. If you’re in a relationship, this is a good time to win her a stuffed animal or buy him a stupid t-shirt. Basically, anyone you love or would like to love into your world, invite them to your carnival and show them a good time. If it’s unexpected or bizarre, embrace it.

(November 23-December 20)
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Harpo Marx

Watch out for savvy salespeople. You know the type; they tell you to get the timing belt changed when you just needed an oil change. They encourage you to buy the foundation primer when all you needed was the $10 makeup sponge. You may be especially susceptible to buying things you don’t need. Do not be “upsold.” This is also a good time to watch your money in other ways. Keep your purse on your lap instead of on the floor and keep your wallet safe. You may have big, inspiring dreams filled with metaphors and ideas. Keep a journal by the bed and write them down.

(December 21-January 19)
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Dave Attell

Don’t dismiss the oldsters in your world. Someone with far more experience than you do may have wisdom to impart this week. When it comes to work, you may have been coasting and it’s time to roll up your sleeves and dig into it. Are you working as hard as you can, or breezing out at exactly 5 p.m. after a solid half hour of checking e-mails and reshuffling papers? If you leave late and get to work early, your superiors will notice. What’s more, you want get that icky feeling that comes from wasting time on someone else’s dollar.

Aquarius (Jan. 20-Feb. 18)
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Ted Koppell

Tuesday is the day if you are planning a small celebration for a loved one. I don’t mean a gigantic surprise party with a piñata or girl jumping out of a cake. If it just means ordering a pizza and renting a favorite movie, make it happen. Take care of the little details so a special person in your life can feel valued. As for the rest of week, you will feel more comfortable and aligned if you make sure you household chores are complete. Wash those last couple of dishes, take in the dry cleaning, wash the bath mat and all will be slightly better with the world.

Simple Minds


I shared a ballroom last Saturday night with a group of people whose lives could easily inspire nothing more than pity. Like me, they were attending the annual gala of Etta Israel Center, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides outreach and services to developmentally disabled Jews and their families.

Etta Israel is one of those rare organizations that attracts support — and offers support — across denominational boundaries. So the lobby of the California Science Center, decked out for a private evening affair, was host to bearded, black-hatted rabbis and smooth-shaven, kippah-less types. There were women in cocktail dresses and women in fashionable shaidels. UCLA Hillel Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, whose politics veer left, ran into an old acquaintance, Rabbi Baruch Kupfer, executive director of Maimonides Academy of Los Angeles, and the two men joked about who was going to swing whom over to his side.

Also among these Jewish leaders and financial supporters of Etta Israel were dozens of the young adults and children whose named and unnamed challenges — cerebral palsy, autism, Down’s syndrome and others — are often used as reasons to exclude them from many things that society has to offer, like an education.

The Etta Israel Center runs programs to teach Judaism to developmentally challenged children and young adults, as well as group homes for adults (its third home will open in the Valley in June) and a popular summer day camp. It helps Jewish day schools meet the learning needs of all its students, and has trained thousands of teachers in how to help all children learn through its Schools Attuned programs.

One of the young women in its girls yeshiva program saw me taking notes and approached me.

“She wants to show you her writing,” said the educator I was speaking with. The young woman couldn’t form words, but offered me her notepad, on which she had written several rows of wavy lines. It was just lines — no words, no letters — but it was her writing. She beamed and blushed at once.

In another context, the moment could have inspired pity. But pity is cheap. Like guilt, it’s only useful as a tool to pick the locks on our hearts, to compel us to change, to act.

Surrounded by friends from her class, helped along by the educator and the people at Etta Israel — as well as by parents, like the dozens of committed ones in the room — the young woman struck me as confident and fortunate. She found herself embraced by people who wouldn’t settle for mere pity.

One of the evening’s honorees was Valerie Vanaman, an attorney whose relentless advocacy on behalf of special-needs education has improved the lives of thousands of children and their families.

“Every child is entitled to receive an appropriate educational program,” Vanaman said during her award acceptance speech. It is such a simple idea, but like most simple ideas, it takes people of great intellect to conceive it and men and women of iron will to implement it.

Conversely, the idea that people with mental, emotional or physical disabilities might be barred from partaking in a public or Jewish education is, no matter how cool and rational it may seem, the fruit of simple minds, and it takes no more ability than the slack acceptance of the status quo to realize it. Vanaman railed against challenges to opportunity and funding of special-needs students at the state level, and urged parents to contact their representatives and State Board of Education Superintendent Jack O’Connell to protest the decrease in services. “Lawyers can’t save the day,” she said. “Only parents can save the day.”

The other honoree was David Suissa, the founder of Suissa/Miller Advertising and publisher of Olam magazine. During his speech, Suissa recounted the story of Etta Israel, a teacher who, after retirement, took it upon herself to teach developmentally disabled children at Beth Jacob Congregation for 20 years. Her experiences led Dr. Michael Held to create a center in her name. Again, it was a simple idea: instead of offering pity, offer parity. Extend the beauty and benefits of Jewish learning to those most likely to be left behind. Focus teachers on the students’ abilities, working through — and around — their deficits.

The organization, which has largely focused on the Orthodox community, is looking to be of service to non-Orthodox day schools, as well. Held wants more schools to emulate the model of schools like the CSUN-affiliated CHIME Charter schools in Woodland Hills, where enrollment is 80 percent “typical” children and 20 percent special-needs children. Why can’t the Jewish community, he asked, support a Jewish high school following that model?

A simple, brilliant idea — waiting for people of iron will to make it a reality.

For more information, go to www.etta.org

 

Bonding Over Torah


On a recent Sunday morning, a group of bat mitzvah-age girls and their mothers sit together reading and discussing the story of Chana, who, wretched and weeping because she is childless, prays to God for a son.

“Pay particular attention to the verses describing how Chana prayed,” educator Marcie Meier tells the group.

These 11- to 13-year-old girls and their mothers are learning about Chana and other female role models in a Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar held at Congregation Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills. There, in the book-lined beit midrash, for six Sunday mornings, the mitzvot (commandments) and midot (characteristics) of these ancient women come alive through exploring English and Hebrew texts and engaging in arts-related projects such as calligraphy and singing.

Now in its third year, the seminar is one of the most popular offerings of Netivot, an independent Torah study center for women founded six years ago whose name is Hebrew for “pathways.” And it is unique in the Orthodox community, where bat mitzvah is neither routine nor ritualized and where organized bat mitzvah classes, for the most part, are nonexistent.

“The seminar is filling in a niche for those who want to make the experience more meaningful,” said Irine Schweitzer, founding president of Netivot.

Generally taught once a year, with 10 to 20 girls enrolled per class, the program affords mothers and daughters special time together. It also introduces the girls to peers from other schools, allowing them to view bat mitzvah as a more universal experience.

Additionally, Schweitzer says, the seminar provides the girls with a historical connection between them and the women who came before them and with the knowledge that they are carrying on an important legacy.

“We learn from Shmuel’s mom [Chana] that you whisper when you daven and say the words to yourself. I didn’t know that,” says Nava Bendik, 11, who is taking the class with her mother, Alisa.

Meier adds that you are supposed to pray with kavanah (intention) and that these laws refer specifically to the Shemoneh Esreh prayers or Amidah.

During this class, the girls also learn how to write words of prayer in calligraphy, with the help of artist Rae Shagalov.

“Talent sometimes comes from interest rather than strength,” Shagalov tells them, explaining that her enthusiasm for calligraphy was sparked when she wanted to copy Torah.

In addition to Chana, the girls and mothers learn about Sarah, Miriam, Devorah and Ruth, and take part in candle making, dancing, singing and learning about tikkun olam (healing the world). Also, one Thursday evening they visit the nonprofit organization Tomchei Shabbos, where coordinator Steve Berger gives a warehouse tour and puts them to work assembling boxes of Shabbat food for needy Jewish families.

And for the last class, the girls select and interview a female role model — usually a teacher, mother or another relative — and present the findings to the class.

“You’re supposed to learn before your bat mitzvah and that’s happening,” says Jessica Gittler, 11, who is participating with her mother, Naomi.

These girls are all planning to have a bat mitzvah, but what constitutes that rite of passage varies greatly in the diversity of the Orthodox community. Many girls do nothing or have a small party. Others write and present a d’var Torah in synagogues such as Young Israel of Century City or at a family celebration. And a few actually lead a service and chant Torah, an option at Shirat Chana, the women’s monthly prayer group at B’nai David-Judea Congregation.

“While girls pretty much universally have some kind of celebration, I think the piece of it that’s become more prominent in the last couple of decades is the learning they bring to it and the public role in sharing it,” says Luisa Latham, an educator and Netivot board member.

Bat mitzvah preparation is traditionally done one-on-one with a rebbetzin or teacher (boys in the Orthodox world also learn individually with a rabbi or teacher), but supplementary learning programs, such as Netivot’s Seminar, are beginning to appear.

At Young Israel of Century City, now in its second year, Ruchama Muskin, educator and wife of Rabbi Elazar Muskin, teaches a two-part bat mitzvah workshop on laws and responsibilities pertaining to women. She also incorporates hands-on projects such as baking challah.

The girls in Netivot’s Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar plan on doing some additional learning with a rebbetzin or teacher and on preparing a d’var Torah. They also intend to do a chesed (lovingkindness) project for their bat mitzvah. Nava Bendik, for example, with the help of family and friends, is knitting scarves and donating them to an Israeli orphanage. She hopes to collect 70.

Schweitzer believes that the mothers who themselves enjoy and seriously engage in learning are the ones encouraging their daughters to have more meaningful b’not mitzvah. She hopes to see even more movement in this direction.

But what is unusual in this program is the opportunity for mothers and daughters to learn jointly.

“This was not around in my time,” Marcie Meier says. “The idea of mothers and daughters studying together and taking life a little bit deeper is a welcome part of growing up today.”

And it’s not only the mothers who appreciate it.

“It’s really cool learning with my mom,” says Leanne Bral, 13, the daughter of Evana. “Sometimes she knows more than I do and sometimes I know more.”

For more information on Netivot and the Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar, visit www.netivot.org or call (310) 226-6141.

 

Guilt Judo


Rosh Hashanah dinner. My friend — like me, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors — settles into the seat next to his grandfather. The two exchange pleasantries. Then my friend mentions that he’s recently taken his toddler on her first choo-choo ride.

“Trains,” says the grandfather. He splays his hands on the tablecloth, and sighs. “I remember when they put us on a train. This was during the transport from the ghetto to the first work camp.”

The story of the grandfather’s wartime suffering — tragic, inexorable, hypnotic in its familiarity — spins out as the Rosh Hashanah meal is brought to the table, served, and consumed.

“But that’s history,” the grandfather intones at last, as the plates are gathered. “Life is for the young.”

A college buddy of mine — Jewish, though not a descendant of survivors — once observed that his family dynamics follow the rules of a sport: Guilt Judo. The sport requires a range of moves: arm-twists, throws, the art of the pin. Grace and style matter, and it is, of course, imperative to master that most fundamental skill: learning to fall without injury.

“Oh. You’re home. No, it’s just that I thought you’d be home an hour ago. It’s OK, it’s just that the dinner got dry and ruined in the oven. And your uncle went home. He was upset not to see you, though he didn’t want to let on. So tell me, how was your drive?”

To play successfully, my friend maintained, you need to understand the rules. Family obligations pin the needs of single people. The needs of the elders pin the needs of the young (except when said young are infants). Safety pins punctuality.

Q: Why were you late?

A: I wanted to come earlier, but the roads were wet…. I just didn’t want to take the chance.

You get the idea.

The Holocaust pins everything.

Many Holocaust-survivor families — at least the ones I’ve encountered — have powerful vocabulary for everyday troubles. The missed phone call is terrible, as is the stained blouse. The over-seasoned soup? Disaster.

Disaster, in fact, lurks around the most innocent-looking corners. Mountains hang by a thread. I’ve known survivors who are impossibly controlling in day-to-day life — worried about the weather and the canned goods in the pantry; consumed with planning for traffic patterns; beside themselves because you haven’t made reservations, dressed for the cold, put a dust-ruffle on your child’s bed (“It’s hygienic!”). They seem nearly undone by humdrum disorder.

Yet in an emergency they shine. They turn into the heroes you always knew them to be. To varying degrees the same goes, I believe, for us children and grandchildren of survivors. Calm waters may disorient us, yes; small matters may evoke overblown responses. But when you’re raised to anticipate disaster, it’s no big deal when it comes. (The one time when, living in a group house in college, I actually had to say, “Mom, I have to get off the phone, the house is on fire,” my mother barely batted an eye.)

Here is what my mother says about her own mother: She would threaten to jump out the window when she was upset. She would open the door of a moving car and threaten to jump.

Though I didn’t have many years with my grandmother — she died when I was 5 — I adored her. She was a brilliant, artistic, beautiful, rebellious woman who’d lost her community and most of her family in the war. Her hard-won law degree (not a small achievement for a woman in 1930s Poland) was useless in post-war New York.

“She would say she was going to kill herself,” my mother says, “then lock herself in the bathroom for an hour.”

It was only in my 20s that I read Helen Epstein’s “Children of the Holocaust” — a book first published in 1979, with page after page detailing nearly identical behavior. Children standing anxiously outside bathroom doors. Parents enclosed in darkness.

My grandfather told me to have six children. (“They killed one-third of us. We need numbers.”) He said I wasn’t safe in the United States (“We thought we were safe in Poland.”) He counseled me endlessly to remember the stories of the Holocaust. If we grandchildren did not remember no one would. This truism was solemnly echoed in my Jewish school and summer camps. To remember, to remember actively, was to ensure that these things could not happen again. To forget was to let the survivors’ experiences wither away. To forget was to let Hitler’s victims die all over again.

There was never any danger, for children and grandchildren of survivors, of forgetting.

At every Holocaust-related lecture I have attended, there is one. She stands on line for the Q-&-A microphone — it’s usually a she. You can see her coming. Waiting behind distinguished professors, doctoral candidates and a few elderly Holocaust survivors who wearily, politely, offer small corrections of fact to a scattering of interested hums.

She waits on line. Pent up, straining forward, her hair white or perhaps heavily dyed. Something about her dress is often strange — the colors too bright or the blouse askew, the buttons of her sweater misaligned. When at last she reaches the microphone, she seizes upon something one of the speakers has said: the American graduate student’s stray assertion that most refugees traveled a certain route, or perhaps the French professor’s assessment that in the wake of Chirac’s historic speech and the creation of a commission to enact individual restitution, the French government’s rapprochement is, at long last, finished.

“No.” This woman’s hand chops the air. “My uncle traveled this route. My aunt was imprisoned. My cousin traveled a different route so this is not true what you say, that Jews traveled only the Vladivostok route. There was another.”

Often she holds documents, which she reads from in a quavering, accented voice: the aunt’s prison papers. Her voice strains with fury at the betrayal she has just heard.

“Here is the documentation. I brought the documentation. My family was in France. It is not finished.”

The sheaf of pages rattles. Her voice is thick with rage.

This is an academic setting. It is not a place for fury. Of course her specific case may be true, but this is irrelevant to larger historic questions. Speakers are lined up behind her, eyes averted, faces impassive; the session is running late; every extra minute is coming out of the lunch break. Someone rises — everyone has been waiting for someone to rise — and takes the microphone from her: “Thank you. Others are waiting. Your contribution is appreciated.”

I come to think of this woman — this survivor who refuses to be polite — as a Jewish prophet, a wrathful Job or omnipresent, ever-witnessing Elijah. Long after the last of the survivors has died, she will continue to appear at lectures: throwing a wrench into academic discussion, rattling her sheaf of papers, raging with the choking grievances of Lamentations.

I am wrong about this. She will not visit these gatherings eternally. In a few years she’ll be dead.

In college and after, I was periodically asked to speak at Holocaust-commemoration events — I’ve been entrusted with stories. I’ve researched and written fiction and nonfiction about the Holocaust and its aftermath. I’ve felt, all my life, fiercely protective of survivors. And now, as I watch them enter old age, many with a prodigious, stunned contentment at having made it there at all, I understand it’s my job to keep the flame lit.

But does that mean suiting up for a lifetime match of guilt judo?

Perpetuating memory, passing on the stories of the survivors I love: I’ve been committed to these things as long as I can remember. The horrors that were done, and the pure human evil displayed by the doers, need to be known and pondered today and always. But I don’t think that gives me carte blanche to use the Holocaust in any way that happens to feel satisfying. And I don’t believe the point of never again is to render everyone reverent unto silence; to pin everyone else’s suffering to the mat until the end of time.

I refuse to be so intimidated by guilt that I don’t speak up against what I see as misuses of the victims’ memory. I’ve seen Holocaust-education programs that seemed so invested in emphasizing Jewish annihilation that they couldn’t tolerate acknowledging that some Eastern European Jews are still alive. (The March of the Living, an international program that brings teens to visit the Polish concentration camps, initially prohibited Polish Jewish teens from participating.) I’ve met students who can tell you all about Auschwitz but nothing about the pre-genocide lives of the Jews who were murdered there. I’ve been rebuked for my participation in German-Jewish dialogues (“I can’t believe you talk to them”) by a second-generation writer who told me he thinks a 5-year-old German is culpable; I’ve heard the same writer tell audiences, to applause, that Jews have no business living in Europe today. (Isn’t that what Hitler said?)

By birthright, I’m a natural-born black belt. I know the moves. But here is what I now wish I had asked my college friend: What happens to the people who win at guilt judo? If we pin all comers, what then? What is the game’s endpoint?

Like it or not, we’re in this together: descendants of victims, of bystanders, of perpetrators, locked in our holds, straining. Guilt judo isn’t going away any time soon, because the sport was invented for a reason. It’s a wearying but sometimes necessary way of making sure unredressable wrongs are at least acknowledged–making sure you get heard. We all know how to play it, whether recreationally or in self-defense, in our families or in politics.

Of course, this endless contest is not limited to those affected by the Holocaust. Look around and you’ll notice that most of the globe — at least wherever the philosophy of might makes right has evolved into blessed is the lamb–is engrossed in its own intergroup matches. Black vs. Jews (how dare they compare slavery to the Holocaust); Native Americans vs. African Americans (slaughter to slavery); Palestinians vs. Jews (their suffering to ours?).; Catholic vs. Protestant vs. Jew vs. Muslim vs. Hindu. The Hatfields have suffered — but the McCoys have suffered more. You say your population was decimated? Decimated is one-tenth of your population wiped out. Decimated would have been an improvement, compared to what happened to us.

But exactly what — in our homes, in our political conferences — is the point of the game? What is the point of determining who hurts more; whether my tears were more important than yours; whether the Holocaust was worse than slavery? Does it render the opponent’s suffering lesser, unmentionable? Does it guarantee sympathy? Love? Compensation? A better future? Does it work?

We all conduct ourselves as if we believe it does. And sometimes we’re right –sometimes guilt judo is an effective tool for important practical ends. But it’s also, if we’re not careful, poisonous: “You were only in Auschwitz for two weeks. I was there two years. What did you survive? You have no right to call yourself a survivor.”

The person who makes such a declaration is not malevolent; he or she has simply been destroyed in spirit.

May I say something, now, about guilt? I think it has a bad name. American culture presumes guilt is something manipulative, something to be washed away with a good jet of therapy. Guilt, though, is nothing more than a cue that we have a choice to make: Do something to repair the situation, or accept it and move on.

Guilt is a powerful, important road sign. The trick is to remember that it’s not the destination. In truth, it’s a fundamental error to believe that the word for the burden we all carry — we children and grandchildren and neighbors and acquaintances of survivors — is guilt.

I don’t feel guilty about the Holocaust. (I didn’t do it.) Nor do I feel guilty because my family survived. And now that I’m an adult, I no longer feel any guilt about the contrast between my own privileged life and the traumas my family endured. My grandparents wanted me to have a good, safe life; if tragedy should befall me, I know how fervently I’d wish my own children a joyous life. My family’s legacy neither devalues my own experiences, nor does it make me somehow holy. It just means I inherited a history, transmitted by people doing the best they could. So now I need to do the best I can.

What I feel is not guilt — it’s responsibility.

I don’t care who suffered the most. All I care is what we do about the Holocaust’s legacy now, for the generations behind and ahead of us. Getting mired in guilt (mine, yours, theirs) is a waste of all our time. There may be infinite ways to feel guilty about the Holocaust, but the “Your life is good and they died” varieties and the “How dare you compare other people’s suffering to ours” varieties are moral dead ends.

The only one worth sweating over is the one that asks, “What are you going to do about it?”

I have a responsibility to carry on my relatives’ stories; to speak out about anti-Semitism and racism when I encounter them; to do my small part to keep crosscultural dialogue going; to make sure victims’ individuality isn’t lost in thickets of tragedy; to respond actively when I see harm being done, and to avoid posturing and self-importance in the process. I have a responsibility, too, to make sure I enjoy life’s wonders to the fullest. I would be remiss if I neglected to laugh; to make the most of this country’s freedoms; to teach my toddler how to imitate a pterodactyl, talk to the moon and delight in a train ride.

Memory fades. Tomorrow’s children will never know survivors. The responsibilities I bear have no statute of limitations; I’ll always do my best to protect the survivors and their legacy. But that doesn’t change the fact that the history of the Holocaust will grow distant, even abstract. No amount of guilt judo can prevent this. And while strenuously broadcasting that the Holocaust was worse than any other human suffering may be justified, it can’t keep the survivors alive any more than it can undo what happened … and it is going to damage us.

If the memory of the Holocaust recedes, let it not be because I failed to do my part to keep it alive–I’m committed to that labor. But if the Holocaust comes, in some unknown number of generations, to occupy a smaller place on our cultural landscape, I don’t see this as cause for guilt. The point isn’t to pin everyone else ad infinitum, but to carry forward the important pieces of memory so that people see, and understand, and act differently in the world because this happened.

If we can accomplish that, then whenever it comes, the inevitable decrescendo of memory — which some will call abomination and others will call healing — will be, in truth, neither. It will simply be life. It won’t signal that we’ve failed — that we’ve let down the Holocaust’s survivors or, worse, its victims — but rather that we’ve simply, regretfully, tragically, hopefully, moved forward. And that has nothing to do with wrestling each other to the mat, and everything to do with standing up.

Excerpted from “Guilt Judo” by Rachel Kadish from “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” edited by Ruth Andrew Ellenson. (Dutton, $24). Copyright (c) 2005 by Rachel Kadish.

Rachel Kadish is the author of “From a Sealed Room,” as well as numerous short stories and essays. She has been a fiction fellow of the NEA and was the recipient of last year’s Koret Foundation Young Writer on Jewish Themes Award. Her new novel, “Love [sic],” will be published by Houghton Mifflin next year.

Let My Students Go


 

To celebrate Passover, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy preschoolers spent time in ancient Egypt.

Teachers and students transformed hallway bulletin boards into a colorful representation of the story of Passover. The journey begins with the pyramids, and then students pass through a parted Red Sea with thick tulle and crinkled tissue paper on either side — some gauze and cellophane even hang above. Life-size kindergartners silhouettes represent the Israelites dancing at the other end of the sea, coffee-stained butcher paper evokes the desert, and the trip ends in Jerusalem.

“[The artwork] makes the holiday come alive for the children, so that it’s just not just a flat learning experience,” said Cecelie Wizenfeld, the school’s early childhood director. “They’re a part of it.”

Wizenfeld is not alone in her efforts to find memorable ways of helping children connect with the holiday. While model seders, seder plate illustrations and handmade afikomen bags have become standard educational fare in the classroom, many Southland religious and day school teachers are finding that creative and unusual holiday projects make more of an impact.

Second-graders at Adat Ari El Day School will reenact the Exodus from Egypt as they embark on a two-hour journey around the school grounds. Head of School Lana Marcus will play the role of Moses, while sixth-grade students will dress up as taskmasters, following the children. Other journey highlights include the parting of the Red Sea (the sprinklers will come on), receiving “manna” from heaven (teachers will drop marshmallows from above) and finally, the arrival to the Promised Land (a grassy area on the property) and pitching tents, eating, singing and dancing in celebration. Afterward, teachers will lead a discussion about the journey.

By second grade, the children have a familiarity with the holiday, but “acting out the story of Passover makes the children think what [the Exodus] must have been like for the Israelis,” said Sari Goodman, the school’s general studies director.

Rather than focusing on the journey like the students at Adat Ari El, this year the kindergartners at the Brawerman Elementary School of Wilshire Boulevard Temple decided what material things they would bring on such a journey and, in turn, what they value. Each child decorated a “Passover backpack” and chose a few items from home to bring to Israel. In past years, these prized possessions have included teddy bears, prayer books, baseballs and pictures of family.

Rabbi Elissa Ben-Naim, who oversees the Judaic studies department, said that these activities allow the children to “enter into the text of the haggadah in a new way.”

The fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at Temple Isaiah’s religious school experienced yet another aspect of the Exodus when they attended a special weekend retreat at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu on April 15.

One of the weekend activities was a homelessness simulation in which students received “eviction notices” on their cabin doors. Students worked together to combat their plight and attempt to get back on their feet.

“We’re equating homelessness with the Exodus of the Jewish people,” said Lisa Greengard, the synagogue’s youth group director. Greengard hopes that this modern take on one of the key aspects of Passover will help children empathize with our ancestors and ultimately, make the holiday more meaningful.

Temple Israel of Hollywood’s fifth- and sixth-grade religious school students will indulge in a “chocolate seder” in which the regular items on the seder plate are replaced by their supposed chocolate equivalents. Roasted eggs are substituted with chocolate eggs. Instead of dipping parsley in salt water, the students will dip strawberries in chocolate sauce. Chocolate milk will replace wine. Trail mix with M&Ms is the new charoset.

Carrie Frank, a Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion rabbinical student who is interning at Temple Israel, adapted the chocolate seder — a concept typically aimed at college students — to make the experience more relevant to younger students. Her goal is to help the children move beyond the story of Passover and take in the core values of the holiday and the concept of enslavement.

By getting the kids’ attention with tasty treats, Frank hopes to touch on deeper issues. She replaces the 10 plagues with what she deems the “10 modern plagues,” so the seder will include more familiar issues like hunger, inequality and disrespect. When the youngsters sip their cups of chocolate milk, they will be reminded of the things for which they are thankful.

“With the kitsch thrown in, it allows you to sneak in some of the good stuff, like values,” Frank said. “And they will absorb that.”

 

The Love Impaired


 

You remember the famous line from “Forrest Gump”? “I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is.”

The other day, it suddenly hit me. I’m the anti-Forrest Gump. I am a smart man (or at least I test well) but I don’t think I know what love is at all. There is nothing I find as confusing. Programming my VCR is child’s play by comparison.

Recently, I was thinking of a former girlfriend, so I called her up. We had a great conversation, and after I got off the phone, I was really wondering, “Now why did we break up again?” And then I remembered. “Ohhhhhhhhh — yeah, that was a good reason.”

But it really got me to thinking, what is love anyway?

I bet you thought I was going to answer that question, didn’t you? Well, I can’t. That’s the point. I don’t know. I’m 37 and single. I’m a relationship moron. I’m romantically impaired. I don’t know what I’m doing — at all.

And it’s not just me. No sirree Bob. We are an entire generation of the love impaired. It seems especially bad for folks in their 30s and 40s, and even worse if you’re Jewish. I’m not quite sure why this is, but I have seen polls on the subject. In this epidemic of unmarried singles, it seems Jews have caught the bug worse than other ethnic groups.

And it extends to the observant world, too. Sure, plenty of them are married at 22 and have 18 kids by the time they’re 30, but there are also others who are having the same problems their secular brethren are having. This epidemic goes across the entire religious spectrum. Believe me, it’s not just your mom, who’s noticed. The rabbis have, too.

I went to a singles event a few weeks ago at a synagogue that illustrated this problem really well. The rabbi was asking why young people (and not-so-young people) were having such a problem getting married. He was really mystified. It seemed pretty simple to him:

You meet a girl you like and you marry her. One guy stood up and gave such a perfect answer, it seared into my memory, perhaps permanently: “Well, I meet a girl and like her and she doesn’t like me. Or a girl likes me and I don’t like her. Or we go out and it doesn’t work.”

It’s almost poetry, isn’t it? Well maybe not, but it does seem to sum up the state of things pretty well.

I wonder if we could get this problem classified as a real disability. Maybe it’s like a learning disability. After all, learning to love someone besides yourself is something that people are supposed to learn in adulthood. You can check. It’s in developmental psychology. I took a course.

If not being able to sit still and concentrate is called Attention Deficit Disorder, and not being able to read is called dyslexia, what would you call not being able to love? LDD: Love Deficit Disorder? No, that sounds like a shortage. How about the same initials but different words: Love Development Disorder. That might be it, except it probably sounds too similar to learning disabled. I don’t know.

But, before we go looking for solutions to this problem, maybe it would be worthwhile to take a look at past generations. Why was it so easy for them anyway? Maybe it was because they had matchmakers and arranged marriages. It used to be that your parents would arrange a match for you and, unless you found your intended completely repulsive, you married them. Boom. Just like that.

This brings me to my grandparents. After fighting in World War I, my grandpa, Danny, stayed in Europe to try to get his family out of Russia. Not surprisingly, however, he couldn’t even get in the country, because the Russian Revolution was going on full steam. Here’s where it gets romantic: Poor Danny, stuck in Warsaw, met my grandma, Ina, and was struck by a thunderbolt. Times being the way they were, instead of having a tempestuous affair, they were quickly married and Danny brought her back to New York.

Now, this should be where they live happily ever after, right? Wrong. After a few months, Danny must have done something pretty bad, because according to family lore, Ina got ticked off, packed up and went back to Warsaw. So how is it that I’m telling this story? Because instead of welcoming her back home with open arms and soothing words, my great-grandmother wouldn’t let her in.

“Go back to your husband. Stop behaving like a child. You’re married now!” she yelled as she slammed the door in Ina’s face (or so the family legend goes).

What does this tell us about love? I don’t know. I’m the love moron, remember? But from both these stories, it seems the emphasis was much more on keeping the family together, than on being in love. That, and once you were married, that was it. At least, that’s how it sounds.

But how does this help me, The Love Idiot? Should I call my mother, ask her to find a girl for me and marry her if she doesn’t make me puke at the first meeting? You know, I’m actually starting to consider it.

 

All Hebrew, All the Time


  

Morah Safi Netter turns up the volume on her cellphone speaker. Twenty-two kindergartners stifle giggles and bounce expectantly on their knees as a distinctive foreign-sounding ringtone fills the room at Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy in Los Angeles.

Netter’s father, Moshe, answers the phone in Rechovot, Israel. With good humor he obliges his daughter’s request for a weather report. He tells of the cold plaguing Israel and listens as the kids describe sunny but cool Los Angeles.

What is so unique about this transatlantic news exchange is that these all-American kids are conducting the entire conversation in Hebrew.

For up to three hours a day, these children will not hear an adult utter a single word in English — not even at recess or bathroom time or when a child needs disciplining.

Pressman is at the vanguard of a nationwide movement looking to preschools and kindergartens to confront a widely acknowledged problem in Jewish education: Kids spend more than 12 years in day school or Hebrew school and, with a few exceptions, are unable to carry on a fluent conversation in modern Hebrew.

That is already changing for the kids in Netter’s class. After the phone call to Israel they don warm hats and scarves and trek across the yard to a mock Israeli Mount Hermon, where they continue their unit on cold weather. Not one of them seems lost as they listen to instructions in Hebrew about the day’s projects involving ice cubes, powdered sugar and Styrofoam balls. They answer questions in well-pronounced, Hebrew-accented sentences.

These children are part of a groundbreaking Hebrew-immersion program. The idea behind immersion is that children and adults best learn a second language the same way they learned their first — by hearing it spoken without any translations, by using context or multisensory clues to decipher new words, and by using the language to function in everyday activities.

“The difference is before they only got vocabulary, and now they are getting the whole language,” said Tova Baichman-Kass, who has taught kindergarten at Pressman for 10 years and began immersion teaching this year. “We want them to think in Hebrew. We want them to know that aryeh is an aryeh, not a lion or anything else.”

When kids know that a teacher will translate what she has just said, the kids tune out the Hebrew and listen only for the English, noted Sigal Abukrat, who teaches first and second grade at Pressman.

Immersion in different languages has moved into the preschool arena in the last five years, and it seems to be a natural fit. Parents and academics have long observed that young children acquire language with great ease. Recent research indicates that very young kids learn a second language in the same network in the brain that holds the primary language, while older children or adults must develop a whole new network, a less efficient process.

The hope is that these American children will become as fluent as native speakers of Hebrew — a concept that could revolutionize Jewish education.

“To me, fluency with Hebrew language is the cornerstone for building Jewish learning and participation in Jewish life and a relationship with Israel,” said Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, education director at Pressman Academy. “It raises the level of everything that goes on in school when you have a really strong foundation in Hebrew.”

Changing the Old Models

Malkus and principals at other schools are looking to bring the latest in research and teaching techniques, including immersion, to an educational arena that is thousands of years old. Many schools have bought more interesting and more educationally solid texts and curricula. They have brought more noise into the classroom, with music and group conversations replacing teacher talk, workbooks and spelling tests.

Schools are sending their teachers to language-acquisition training institutes or hiring Hebrew-language specialists. And there is a late-in-coming realization that being Israeli is not enough to qualify for the job of Hebrew teacher.

While these changes have been trickling up through the day school movement over the last 10 to 15 years, the success of Hebrew-language immersion in preschools is especially attracting attention.

“I have been teaching Hebrew for many years, but I have never seen instant results like this — and I can really call it instant,” said Miri Avraham, a preschool teacher at Pressman, who often hosts observers from other schools in her class. “When you talk to the children in the target language the whole time, they understand it better and they learn it better — and it’s fun for them when they realize they can understand.”

So far, parents are thrilled with the results.

“My oldest in seventh grade is coming to my little one to ask her for words,” said Sheryl Katchen, who has 6-year-old twins in immersion classes at Pressman.

Using Immersion

Language immersion, which began with a Spanish program in a Culver City School in 1971, has grown nationwide to almost 300 schools. Language learning in general, even in elementary grades, has been coming back into vogue in North American schools, which have historically postponed language classes until middle school and high school.

Immersion is only superficially related to traditional bilingual education, which has fallen out of favor in California. The goal of bilingual education was to use a foreign language, usually Spanish, to teach academic subjects to students who had only a limited command of English. These students were supposed to transition gradually to English. In immersion programs, the goal, by contrast, is fluency in a foreign language.

Many Jewish schools for decades have used the old European model of ivrit b’ivrit (Hebrew in Hebrew), where Judaic content is taught in Hebrew.

While immersion teaching is also content based, it utilizes a more systematic, consistent approach to language acquisition.

The advantage for preschoolers may go beyond merely learning a foreign language. European researchers reported in a 2004 Nature article that bilingual brains have denser gray matter than monolingual brains, and the earlier the language was learned the denser the gray matter.

Gray matter makes up the bulk of nerve cells in the brain and is associated with intellect. Research has also pointed to easier acquisition of additional languages, more creativity, problem-solving ability and even higher SAT scores among children who were bilingual at an earlier age.

Buttressed by such research and frustrated with the imperfect Hebrew of educated American Jews, Frieda Robins, a doctoral student in Jewish education at the New York City-based Jewish Theological Seminary, developed Maalah (Hebrew for benefit, merit and upward). The program, which was launched in 2003 — thanks to a two-year $150,000 seed grant from the New York-based Covenant Foundation and matching funds from the Jewish Theological Seminary — works with local Bureaus of Jewish Education to train early childhood teachers and help preschools develop immersion classrooms.

Maalah is a teaching technique (not a curriculum with texts) that combines methods used to teach young children with those used to teach languages. These involve constant repetition, body language and tasks that require students to get up and do something. Maalah structures thematic units around works of Israeli children’s literature, and the program adapts methods from special education, relying on more than one modality to reach students who might have trouble with visual or audio cues.

“We know that the vocabulary a child comes with into first grade will determine not only his or her reading comprehension at the end of first grade, but also at the end of 12th grade,” Robins said.

Difficult Transitions, Huge Payoff

Pressman is one of four schools locally and 13 nationwide participating in Maalah. Temple Judea West and Shomrei Torah Synagogue, both in West Hills, have preschool classes with 3- and 4-year-olds utilizing Maalah, as does the preschool at Valley Beth Shalom day school in Encino. Two other day schools, Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge and Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, are signed on for next year.

Starting this summer, the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles, an agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angles, will take over local Maalah training and support.

Adopting Maalah has cost Pressman about $17,000, including paying for consultants, new materials and paying teachers extra for developing their own units. Pressman also received a $3,000 federal Title One grant, through which private schools can develop nonreligious programming.

To bring parents on board, schools have presented model lessons at orientation and provided vocabulary lists so parents can understand their children. They’ve even begun adult Hebrew classes.

“There are parents who are afraid of this, who think their kids will be lost or their English will not develop properly if they learn things in Hebrew,” said Aviva Kadosh, director of Hebrew language services for the Bureau of Jewish Education. “I collect articles that say it isn’t so.”

Kadosh explains that what children are learning in the early years is concepts, not words, so that they understand the idea of something being round whether it is called a circle or an igul. Kids function in English outside of those few hours a day, so they won’t fall behind in English.

Avraham, who has been teaching immersion for the last two of her nine years at Pressman, acknowledges that the transition is hard, but kids catch on within weeks. At this point in the year, the children not only understand but are comfortable expressing themselves in Hebrew.

On a recent morning in Avraham’s class, the 4-year-olds were near the end of a unit on plants and vegetables that coincided with the holiday of Tu B’Shevat. As they had been doing for several weeks, the children played games identifying pictures of cucumbers, models of plastic peppers or fragrant heads of garlic. They made and ate a salad, painted with broccoli at art tables lined with Hebrew newspapers and read a book about a neighborhood salad-making party.

Teachers encouraged the kids to speak in Hebrew even among themselves, and if a child got stuck, Avraham helped out with choices, so the kids always came up with the right word eventually. Body language, charade-type motions and pointing helped.

Parents who are worried about children losing out on grammar or writing skills should not be, according to experts. Immersion programs incorporate reading and writing in older grades, and the grammar comes with speaking in a safe environment where expression is encouraged and correction of mistakes is applied strategically.

When it comes to these programs, the students may have the easier part. An immersion program limits the pool of teachers to those fluent in Hebrew. Teachers have to redesign curricula and teaching styles.

“It has been tough for the teachers,” said Jessica Green, director of education at Shomrei Torah. “These are veteran teachers who are training to do this, and they told me it is as if they are brand new teachers and have to start from scratch.”

They also have to be willing, at least at first, to give up some content. Abstract concepts — such as Rosh Hashanah being a new year, or saying sorry on Yom Kippur — have to be saved for older grades, since the 3- and 4-year-olds might not yet have the vocabulary for it.

Moving Up Through the Grades

Pressman has brought immersion as far as second grade, and plans to add a grade per year until the entire school is speaking Hebrew. It will also adapt the program for religious school students, who only attend one or two days a week.

Shomrei Torah, too, plans to bring immersion gradually to the upper grades of Hebrew school.

Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy hopes eventually to teach all Judaic studies in Hebrew, in addition to having Hebrew-immersion periods every day.

“We feel that if our children receive this at the age of 4 or 5, it will serve as a tremendous foundation for when we begin to teach them more formal Hebrew,” said Rabbi Baruch Sufrin, who heads the school.

For Ginni Rosenfeld’s family, the benefit already extends beyond the classroom.

“Just this week my daughter got into the car and spoke to me in flawless Hebrew, saying, ‘Ima, ani rotzah lachzor habaytah [Mom, I want to go home],'” said Rosenfeld, whose daughter attends kindergarten at Pressman. “It was seven o’clock at night. She was coming from a place where no one was speaking Hebrew, but this was just natural to her.”

Summer School for Hebrew Teachers


Kathryn Paul had put two kids through day school, and while their Hebrew was OK, she knew it could be better. And as the assistant director of the Language Resource Center at UCLA’s International Institute, she could do something about it.
And not just for her own children.
She wanted to create a summer program to teach day school Hebrew teachers how to be better teachers. She submitted a proposal to the Jewish Community Foundation, which awarded her program $50,000. UCLA put in another $15,000.
The program, offered in conjunction with the Bureau of Jewish Education, has 10 slots for day school teachers in two six-week, for-credit classes in UCLA’s Applied Linguistics Department.
The courses cover the latest in theories and practice of foreign language teaching.
The program includes help at applying what’s being taught through observations of the day school teachers in their own classrooms.
“Our thinking is that these teachers will rise to the challenge,” Paul said. “They are very committed and love what they do, but they haven’t had the opportunity to take courses like this.”

The deadline for applications is April 1. To download a form or for more information go to www.international.ucla.edu/lrc/jcf/ or call (310) 825-2510. — JGF

Drugs? NIMBY


 

Two drug-related incidents occurred in the American yeshiva community in Israel last week, which may give all parents pause.

A 19-year-old American boy from Encino who was studying at a yeshiva in Israel died from a heroin overdose (see story, page 15). Also, four American yeshiva students in Israel were arrested on suspicion of selling drugs to other American yeshiva students.

Most people who have been to yeshiva for a year in Israel in the last decade or so were not surprised by the news. A lot of people were suprised this hasn’t happened sooner. When 18-year-olds raised in somewhat strict environments are on their own in Israel for the first time, many of them will use this opportunity to party — at least at first. The hope is that after a few raucous weeks the students will settle down to their learning and experiencing of Israel, and will return home model students and upstanding members of their communities. Tragically, at least one student will not.

Upon learning the names of the yeshivas in Israel that the five boys attended, many people will say, “Well, of course, it happened there. X Yeshiva is known for troubled students.” True, true. Even I — who attended Machon Gold 15 years ago but have been out of touch with year-in-Israel programs for a while — know the reputation of some of these schools. But this Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) attitude is what has let the problems go on for so long in the first place.

On Internet postings following the boy’s death, some writers castigated these last-resort schools for accepting the so-called high-risk Orthodox youth and blamed the schools themselves. But others wrote in to defend these schools and credited them with saving their lives.

“I am currently 22 years old and I am a recent college graduate. I myself … was once considered one of these ‘high-risk’ students,” Dave Serano wrote on the Jerusalem Post Web Site. “I wonder in amazement at the look of surprise on our Jewish communities’ faces as they read and talk about what awful yeshivot these are, and how these boys should not have gone to Israel to solve their drug problems. How wrong and sadly misled these people are.”

He wrote that the yeshivas and its rabbis have saved “hundreds, if not thousands” of lives, like his own, in a way that a drug counselor could not.

No question that these “high-risk” schools do more good than harm, and that the kids who end up there are probably better off there than in some college in the middle of America — without parental or rabbinical supervision.

But to name the schools is beside the point. The real point is: there’s a problem and it has to be dealt with. Now.

Parents send their children to 12 years of day school, Sunday school or temple classes, hoping to inculcate values and ethical behavior somewhere along the way. But the truth is, no matter where you send your child to school, they are not immune to the problems of the outside world: Drugs, drinking, sex and worse.

Some parents hope Israel will do the trick; that a year in the Holy Land will magically cure their children. They depend on that year in university or yeshiva in Israel to “straighten the kids out.” And while there are certainly many qualified educators in Israel, and many great programs, problem kids weren’t just dropped from outer space at 18.

The truth is that kids in public school use drugs, kids in private schools use drugs and, yes, kids in Jewish schools use drugs. NIMBY? Maybe, as a parent, you think it’s not your kid, not his school, not her friends, but that’s probably what the parents of the boys arrested selling drugs thought.

Pretending something isn’t a problem doesn’t make it go away. Sending your kids off somewhere doesn’t make it go away. What will make it go away? A healthy attitude from all educators and parents to admit that there might be a problem, and they might have to deal with it. It may mean calling in therapists or drug counselors or adopting a 12-step program. But as the Jewish tradition teaches about parenting and educating, when the left hand pushes a child away by rebuking him, the right hand should draw him close — meaning, we should not excommunicate our problems, but help fix them in a loving manner.

There are a number of programs and people here in Los Angeles, in New York and in Israel who deal quietly with the problem children. Who try to help them when no other resources are available. The Orthodox Union is even putting together a drug task force to deal with the problem in high schools around the country.

Drugs? They are in our backyard. But they don’t have to be.

 

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.

 

B’nai Mitzvah for the Young at Heart


Last February, a class of 17 retirees jumped at the chance to pursue a Jewish rite of passage bypassed in their youth by circumstance or cultural rigidity.

One student was 90; the youngest, 63. One is a Holocaust survivor; another uses a wheelchair. Since sessions commenced, one student died, another was stricken by cancer and a third dropped out after an extended vacation.

The 14 who persevered conducted an unusual joint b’nai mitzvah service on Aug. 14 at Laguna Woods’ Temple Judea, near the retirement community where they all reside. Proudly intending to wear their newly earned fringed trophies to High Holiday services this month, most anticipate experiencing the holiest days of the Jewish year with a new sense of entitlement. For others, their achievement yields a palpable connection to previous generations that eluded them over a lifetime.

Entering synagogue used to feel like a foreign experience to Roslyn Fieland, 76, a lifelong New Yorker who moved to Leisure World five years ago.

"I felt I was in a place I didn’t belong, an immigrant," she said. "Without a doubt, the holidays will be more meaningful. I’ll have much more understanding than I’ve ever had before. Now, I’m comfortable."

Fieland’s formal Jewish education ended at age 9 when she and her sibling were expelled from religious school. She had grabbed a ruler from a teacher, who had slapped it across her brother’s face, still tender from surgery.

Her single mother arranged for a Hebrew tutor, but just for her brother.

"Girls didn’t matter," Fieland said. She retained that meager schooling and ended up tutoring some classmates in the b’nai mitzvah class because of her ease relearning Hebrew.

"Here, I have a closeness to my religion I never felt before," Fieland said.

After learning and rehearsing the proper delivery of transliterated Hebrew, the class was divvied up into foursomes that took turns at the pulpit, reciting their selection of the morning Sabbath service in unison. Laura Feigenbaum, 63, dutifully attends High Holiday services. But she expects to absorb a different spiritual pitch this time. She can picture herself at services draped with a hard-earned tallit.

"Now, I’ll feel like I’m a bigger part of it," said Feigenbaum, who suggested the b’nai mitzvah class to the chair of Temple Judea’s religious committee, Ed Fleishman. The last b’nai mitzvah class at Judea — a multidenominational synagogue of 1,000 members, whose average age is 68 — was offered in 1995. Their instructors were congregants Rachel Jacobs and Jack Falit, the Torah reader at the synagogues’ Monday and Thursday minyans.

Feigenbaum, née Levitt, was raised in the Toronto home of her grandparents, whose level of observance included cutting toilet paper before Shabbat. As a child, she learned Yiddish in an after-school class. Although when Hebrew was introduced, she was banished. As an adult, she felt a similar sense of exclusion at the synagogues where her children were enrolled.

"I always felt like an outsider," she said.

Her hunger for Jewish rituals began in Judea’s welcoming environment.

"When we came here," she said, referring to her husband, Paul, "we were taken in like family."

Faithfully rehearsing her prayer portion even while vacationing this summer in Europe, Feigenbaum said becoming a bat mitzvah intensified her Jewish identify and fulfilled an unrealized longing to belong.

"Now, I feel part of the religion," she said. "I’m going to start Hebrew classes next. That’s the last link in the chain. I think we need it."

Toby Weiner, 66, also never felt at home in synagogue.

"I felt like I didn’t belong because I didn’t understand," said Weiner, who quit attending temple out of anger over the death of her husband, Harold, in 1986. Her own family was secular.

Thrilled at the opportunity to at last learn the sanctuary rituals, she is looking forward to the High Holidays with new pride in her own traditions.

"The reason we do rituals, I’m learning why and asking questions I never did before," Weiner said.

The class’s only male member was Arthur Oaks, who dropped out of religious school at age 13, the same year his grandfather died. His mother thought continuing would be disrespectful to his grandfather’s memory. Growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia, Oaks recalls feeling he missed a milestone. As an adult, he’s been called to the Torah many times since.

"At age 76, I’m finally coming of age," said Oaks, who read directly from the Torah during the b’nai mitzvah service, which is more traditional. "I never thought I would have the opportunity. When they announced the class, I jumped at the chance."

Maryan Feingold, 90, suffered a stroke six months ago and was told she wouldn’t walk again. Defying the dire forecast, Feingold ascends the bimah with unsteady legs and pronged cane in hand. She said: "I’m taking the class to thank God I’m walking and talking again."