Art Bilger: A philanthropist who wants to change the future of work


In October 2013, Art Bilger, a Los Angeles investor and philanthropist, found himself at a dinner event in New York for high-profile customers of Deutsche Bank, where Lawrence Summers, the former Treasury secretary, was set to speak.

When Summers finished his talk, Bilger raised his hand to ask a question that had been nagging at him for some time.

“I said, ‘Here’s the math,’ ” Bilger recalled in an interview at the Westwood office of Shelter Capital Partners, a venture capital investment management firm he founded. “ ‘A third of the population drops out [of school] at 15, and we keep them alive to 85. What do you do with a third of your population for 70 years?’ ”

Afterward, four people Bilger didn’t know chased him down to tell him his question had floored them. He doesn’t remember who they are, but the interest he generated then, and subsequently when he began preaching about structural unemployment, convinced him that the problem was worth dedicating himself to.

The problem, as he sees it, is this: Technological innovation is moving forward at an unprecedented and accelerating pace, eliminating jobs, especially ones for low-skilled workers, without presenting viable alternatives, at least in the short term.

Since the Summers talk, Bilger has crisscrossed the nation to learn more about the problem. During that time, he and his wife, Dahlia, have poured millions of dollars into WorkingNation, his latest and most ambitious philanthropic effort, and he’s brought on board his two daughters, Sabrine and Eve, to work for the project’s research arm.

WorkingNation hopes to use a sleek media campaign and institutional partnerships to awaken thought leaders and the public to structural job loss and the potential solutions.

Often, when Bilger explains WorkingNation, people don’t quite get it.

“If I walked in and asked for scholarships for 500 underprivileged people, it doesn’t mean I’d get it, but they’d understand that,” he said. “When I walk in and talk about this, they find it quite interesting, but they scratch their heads and they say, ‘Art, what are you looking to do here?’ ”

In response, Bilger asks his audience to think about everything they’re wearing, everything they’ll eat that day, the movie they’ll see that weekend and the last vacation they went on.

“Every one of those decisions that you made with regard to those things was as a result of some party creating awareness and educating you — it’s called marketing,” he said, laughing suddenly, a deep, hearty sound. “And that’s what governs our lives. And that’s really what this is about.”

Bilger doesn’t pretend to know what the future holds, but current employment trends offer reason to worry.  WorkingNation’s first mass media release is a six-minute animated explainer video distributed by CNN Money and named “Slope of the Curve,” referring to the increasing pace at which technology is eliminating the need for low-skilled workers.

The example of drivers looms large for Bilger: If and when driverless cars eliminate the need for people who drive for a living, one of the nation’s largest vocations could vanish almost overnight. But job risk is not restricted to low-skilled sectors, he said, pointing to how big data have shrunk marketing departments while yielding better predictions.

Traditionally, economists hail such advances as necessary and even desirable: Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter popularized the term “creative destruction” to describe how technological change sweeps away old industries to make way for the new.

Yet something feels undeniably different about the microchip age. Bilger pointed out a number of factors that, combined, make this disruption more worrisome than past ones: the pace of technology growth, globalization, lengthening lifespans and a failing education system.

WorkingNation is built on the premise that today’s job loss is unprecedented in scope and scale; in a widely cited 2013 study, two Oxford University employment scholars estimated that 47 percent of jobs could be automated in the next two decades or so.

Bilger is imagining — and spending his own money to address — a future where 25 or 30 percent unemployment could become the norm.

He’s a somewhat unlikely prophet of doom, having spent a career in the top echelon of the investment banking and media worlds.

Bilger’s career began in 1977 at Drexel Burnham Lambert, an investment banking firm.When Drexel folded in 1990, Bilger and a half-dozen co-workers founded an investment fund called Apollo Global Management. From there, he pivoted into media, building up New World Communications, a TV broadcaster that became Fox’s largest affiliate.

The year 1998 brought yet another career change. A year after selling New World to Fox’s parent company, News Corp., a fellow board member at the Jewish-affiliated legal clinic Bet Tzedek, where Bilger still sits on the board, introduced him to what would become his first early stage investment, Akamai Technologies.

Since then, the investor has focused on startups with an emphasis on online education. (He also serves on many boards, and formerly served on the board of Tribe Media Corp., parent company of the Journal.) His experience in marrying content to distribution technology, he said, will be a boon for WorkingNation.

When he first began thinking about structural unemployment, he figured he could make a documentary to “scare the hell out of everyone in 90 minutes.” But rather than a single piece of media, Bilger, whose first foray into Hollywood as an executive producer, “20 Feet From Stardom,” won an Academy Award for feature documentary in 2014, figured a media campaign would do a better job garnering attention.

Later this month, Working-Nation will begin to air a five-episode series by Barbara Kopple, herself a two-time Academy Award-winning documentarian.

The media campaign also hopes to bring attention to another, related phenomenon: globalization. One video shot by WorkingNation follows two workers at the Carrier Corp. furnace manufacturing plant who learn their jobs will be outsourced to Mexico (a fact subsequently made famous by the Donald Trump campaign).

But Bilger’s goal is not just to scare people.

“I wouldn’t be doing it if that’s all we wanted to do,” he said.

He hopes WorkingNation will be able to highlight the jobs of the future and draw attention to organizations engaged in retraining and reskilling workers into those new jobs.

“I’m not suggesting I’m going to create solutions,” he said. “I want to just, through storytelling, highlight what solutions there are.”

For instance, one 10-minute Kopple video features Year Up, a WorkingNation partner.

Operating in a dozen U.S. cities, including Los Angeles as of this fall, Year Up offers urban young adults six months of training in employable skills followed by six months of on-the-job training at a partner company. The goal, according to the group’s website, is to help young people “go from poverty to professional careers in a single year.”

Bilger has undergone something of a career change himself. These days, he’s set aside the great majority of his investment work to run WorkingNation.

“This is my day job, my night job, my middle of the night job,” he said. “This is 18 hours a day.”

Funding a Jewish future


When Allen Alevy was 12 years old, he was called to the Torah for the first time. Although he hadn’t yet had a bar mitzvah, his maternal grandfather’s Orthodox synagogue was one man shy of a minyan

Alevy, who attended morning services regularly, recalls feeling so honored that he pledged a $5 donation to the synagogue, which his grandfather founded. The amount was equal to his daily wages working on his grandfather’s scrap metal truck. 

In the end, it was Alevy’s grandfather who fulfilled the pledge. But for the boy, it was the start of something. Now 76, Alevy said he has since repaid that $5 donation “millions of times over.”

A high school dropout, Alevy is a self-made serial entrepreneur, futures trader and real estate mogul. How many of his millions have gone to Jewish causes?

“I do not have the slightest idea,” he said. “I can count $50 million just in real estate [for Jewish communal enterprises]. But I honestly don’t know.” 

His philanthropic output — an estimated $1 million to $2 million a year, Alevy said — represents a way to repay his grandfather for his teachings. Those fundamental allegiances — to family and Judaism — remain the Long Beach resident’s primary motivations. They also explain this septuagenarian’s commitment to diverse youth initiatives, from mainstream yeshiva education to a Jewish presence at the annual Coachella music festival. 

“I am very selfish. I want somebody for my great-great-great-grandchildren to marry,” said Alevy, who is expecting his ninth and 10th great-grandchildren this fall. “If they don’t get married, there is no future. And if we don’t fund our youth, there is no future.”

Every program Alevy supports is designed to strengthen Jewish connection, identity and longevity. JConnectLA/Jewlicious, for example, provides young adults with events, classes and holiday celebrations, climaxing with its annual Jewlicious Festival, a weekend for ages 18 to 36 featuring speakers, workshops and concerts celebrating all aspects of the Jewish experience. Alevy and his wife of 56 years, Deanna, are lead underwriters.

Shabbat Tent creates Jewish hospitality at music festivals across the country, including Coachella, to celebrate Shabbat in a meaningful way. And at the annual national Rainbow Gathering, a hippie festival that pitches tent in a national forest every summer, Home Shalom offers kosher meals and Jewish programming. 

Through Beth El Synagogue, a shul without walls, primarily funded by Alevy, he supports salaries for Rabbi Drew Kaplan at Beach Hillel, serving greater Long Beach and West Orange County, and Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, rabbi-in-residence at Hillel of the University of Southern California, co-founder of Jewlicious Festivals and the newly launched Pico Shul, a congregation in Pico-Robertson designed for young adults. Alevy said he funds Bookstein’s community programming on the condition that he raise matching funds. 

“There is so much handwringing, thinking about what to do with young adults, but not enough financial support. Which is why what Mr. Alevy and his wife, Deanna, do is so special,” Bookstein said. “Imagine, if we had 10 Mr. Alevys, the amount that could be done to help preserve the Jewish identity of college students and young adults.” 

A native Californian, Alevy’s family lived in Navy housing in Long Beach while his father labored at nearby shipyards. It was his maternal grandfather, Louis Simon, whom Alevy considers his role model. He worked each summer on Simon’s scrap metal truck from the time he was 8. 

At 17, Alevy dropped out of school and worked full time for two years until the scrap metal market collapsed. Later, he moonlighted on weekends operating carnival games and eventually opened his own enterprise, Atlas Greater Shows. He rented his carnivals as sets for TV programs and films, including “Grease,” and consulted for Circus Circus, the Las Vegas family-oriented casino.

In 1970, he landed a 31-year contract for the California State Fair, which the state bought out seven years later. Alevy said he took a portion of the proceeds to purchase Westland Mobile Home Park in Long Beach. 

“I bought some land in Pico Rivera and built a second mobile home park. At the same time, I was buying small shopping centers and putting Laundromats in them,” he said.

That investment later evolved into Westland Real Estate Group. Now semi-retired, Alevy remains the CEO. 

Some of Alevy’s holdings house Jewish endeavors. He owns the land for the North Orange County Chabad Center in Yorba Linda and helped construct the facility. The Alevy Charitable Religious Properties owns the 11-acre property, and the buildings used by the Chabad-affiliated Hebrew Academy in Huntington Beach, attended by three generations of his family. The school’s new computer-assisted education program was underwritten with his recent donation of $120,000.

Each year, Alevy also funds Hebrew Academy scholarships and provides support to a handful of young adults studying in Israeli yeshivas. Alevy also helped build the Chabad in Hashmonaim, in the West Bank, where his daughter Robin Greenspan lives. 

Alevy said he’s interested in results, not the limelight — one reason he didn’t attend the recent opening of the Alevy Chabad Jewish Center de Las Cruces in New Mexico.

“Nobody knows the extent of how much he has helped the Jewish community, because he does not seek honors and titles,” Bookstein said. “Rather, he wants to see the work done, the students reached, people’s lives bettered.” 

The Alevy Chabad’s Rabbi Bery Schmukler is consulting with Bookstein for its programs for college students. 

“If you change a life at that age, you can change an entire family,” Schmukler said.

Alevy, whose surname was changed from HaLevy at Ellis Island, observes Shabbat and kashrut and prays three times daily — in English — in the Chabad tradition, blaming dyslexia for “messing with the Hebrew vowels.” When he leaves this world, Alevy said he would like to be remembered for two things. 

“I did the very best for my family. I did the very best for the Jewish people. I’m in love with both.”


Lisa Alcalay Klug is the author of “Cool Jew” and “Hot Mamalah” and a past presenter at Jewlicious Festival. Her Web site is lisaklug.com.

Seeking impact, Jewish funders convene in L.A.


“Philanthropy is what you’ll be remembered for,” Jewish Funders Network (JFN) President Andrés Spokoiny told the 400 attendees at the Beverly Hilton on March 18, the first full day of the group’s annual conference. “Philanthropy is your legacy.”

What the legacies of Jewish funders in the early 21st century will be may not become clear for a generation, but at JFN, philanthropists, scholars, Jewish community professionals and others all engaged with questions about what causes to support and how to best ensure that charitable dollars are being deployed strategically, effectively and sustainably in the long term.

In organized sessions and impromptu conversations, executives working for some of the world’s wealthiest Jewish philanthropists, as well as some Jews just beginning their philanthropic journeys, focused on a diverse range of challenges and specific causes, including education, Israel advocacy, crisis management and the arts.

The separate conversations could be seen as part of a broader discussion about what, collectively, Jews should fund. But the decisions that funders ultimately make are often undertaken alone.

“We have deconstructed the infrastructure systems of the Jewish community,” said Jeffrey R. Solomon, president of Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, during a session dedicated to the not-always-collaborative interactions between local and national funders. “There are no wholesalers. We are all retailers, and that’s not the most efficient way to operate.”

The charity Solomon oversees is well on the way to completing a spend-down of its assets by 2016; another panelist in the room, Yossi Prager, is executive director of Avi Chai Foundation North America, which will spend its last dollars in 2020.

Prager was acutely aware of the impact the disappearance of Avi Chai will have on the world of Jewish education, particularly on local funders who will almost certainly be approached by organizations that had previously depended upon national support for their operations.

“I’m completely sensitive to the local San Francisco funder who says [to a national funder], ‘You came in, you took a little local organization, you made it a big organization, and now you want to leave it in our lap,’” Prager said.

This year’s JFN conference highlighted work being done to advance social change on the grassroots level.

Thirty-two participants joined Rabbi Sharon Brous ok IKAR on a bus tour on Monday to visit social action projects around Los Angeles. Tuesday’s closing plenary session featured a presentation by James K. Cummings, board chair of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and the organization’s president, Simon Greer, about their recent experience of the “Food Stamp Challenge,” by which individuals attempt to feed themselves for a full week on the minimal allotment given to those on nutritional assistance programs (just under $37 in New York; just under $35 in California).

The Cummings Foundation also announced the creation of a new $1 million matching fund for organizations involved in Jewish social justice efforts.

The reasons the funders attend JFN’s conference are as diverse as they are.

Ami Aronson came to JFN from Washington, D.C., where she serves as the managing director of the Bernstein Family Foundation. Aronson’s grandfather — financier and real estate investor Leo M. Bernstein — died in 2008, at 93; the family foundation made $330,000 in grants in 2011 to organizations focused on Jewish causes, democracy and the arts.

“What JFN does is it helps us celebrate and strengthen our assets as Jewish philanthropists,” Aronson said.

E. Randol Schoenberg, an attorney who has focused his philanthropic energies serving as president of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, said he couldn’t help but think that his personal charity of choice – a museum whose approximately 30,000 annual visitors are predominantly non-Jews – was something of an outlier at JFN 2013. Much of what he heard was focused on charities that serve mostly Jewish people.

“It’s interesting,” Schoenberg said. “What attracts attention and what’s reaching a lot of people are different things.”

For the Jewish funders who came to Los Angeles from out of town, the plenary session on Monday morning offered a taste of what Jewish life in this sprawling city can offer. Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, described his city as one to which Jews came “to escape Jewish institutions, and to build new Jewish institutions.” The speakers who followed him continued in that vein.

Then Joshua Avedon, co-founder and COO of Jumpstart, a think-tank and incubator dedicated to fostering Jewish innovation, moderated a conversation with philanthropist Peter Lowy, who holds leadership positions at a number of L.A. nonprofits, including serving as chairman of TRIBE Media Corp., parent company of the Jewish Journal. Jill Soloway, a TV and film writer, director and producer, who founded the innovative and itinerant Jewish community East Side Jews, was also on the panel.

Lowy and Soloway both talked about the importance of innovation and reinvention in attracting Jews to Jewish events and bringing the disaffected into Jewish institutions in L.A.

As an Australian, Lowy, Co-Chief Executive Officer of Westfield Group, said he tends to “hate” the status quo and authority, “even,” he noted, “when I’m the status quo and I’m the authority.”

Soloway, meanwhile, recognized that East Side Jews, which has organized events in multiple spaces around the region, is now playing against type by making its home the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center.

“The building is there, the people are there,” Soloway said. “How do we put them back together?”

Rabbi David Wolpe, who addressed the conference-goers at lunchtime, made a case for funding local synagogues and Jewish schools — the “unexciting places” that have kept Jewish communities vibrant for generations.

“When I go out and push my synagogue,” Wolpe, who is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in West L.A., said, “I talk about Friday Night Life and the special bar mitzvahs and all the innovative programs. But they’re actually not what I’m proudest of.

“What I’m proudest of,” he continued, “is the morning minyan and the Shabbos service and the shiva committee, and the fact that we have a Bikur Cholim committee that goes and visits people in the hospital – in other words, all the things that institutions do day after day after day that are the lifeblood of a real people.”

Richard Sandler: A philanthropic life


In 2007, when philanthropist Stanley Gold was asked to become board chair of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, he knew he would need an effective partner to accomplish the reinvention of Federation he envisioned. 

Gold met with Richard Sandler, executive vice president of the Milken Family Foundation, and though the two men had known each other only in passing before, and though Sandler wasn’t yet actively involved in Federation, Gold knew he had his guy. They agreed that the old model of “give because it’s Federation” was dying, that they needed to reinvigorate both its lay and its professional leadership and that Federation needed to find new ways to connect with the community and its donors to say relevant in the 21st century.

And Gold saw in Sandler not only the know-how, but also the steady demeanor to offset his own more strident style. 

“I am more confrontational, and Richard is more collaborative,” said Gold, president and CEO of Shamrock Holdings and Federation chair from 2008 to 2009. “And if you look at our terms together, in the beginning we needed to be confrontational to break the logjam and to turn things around, and in the end we needed collaboration to rebuild.”

Gold, with Sandler as vice chair, shook things up during his tenure — he restructured both how money is collected and how it is allocated and hired a new president and CEO in Jay Sanderson, whom many viewed as an unconventional choice because his success was with Jewish Television Network and not the Federation system. Sandler, who took over as chair in 2010, has expanded and solidified the changes Gold set in motion, but in a thoughtful, vision-driven manner that has earned him a reputation as a leader who is not only supremely effective, but also kind.

Last year, the board voted to amend Federation’s bylaws to allow Sandler to serve two consecutive two-year terms. At 64, Sandler is now about to complete the first year of his second term.

“Richard came in at time when there had been a lot of upheaval,” Sanderson said. “There was a new executive, the board has been pared down from 145 to 45, and a lot of the agencies in the community were angry or felt disconnected from Federation. Just by Richard being in the room, and being in conversation, he helped turn things around.” 

Sanderson said he trusts no one in the Jewish community more than Sandler. 

“I’ve never met anyone like Richard. He’s thoughtful; he can consider all points of view, but when necessary he’s decisive,” Sanderson said. 

Sandler, a native-born Angeleno and attorney, is fit with smile lines set deep into his face. His even drawl, perhaps a hint of his father’s Oklahoma upbringing, gives an air of reliability when he serves as the public face of the organization.

Sanderson asserts that Sandler has made Federation more Jewish, while also affirming its role as an effective force locally and nationally, and upping the institution’s professionalism. He has reached out to young people and begun a deliberate transformation of how Federation connects to its donors and constituents. 

These changes are all in service of Sandler’s overriding mission: To help Jews choose to be Jewish.

Sandler said he is dismayed by how many Jews are opting out of Jewish lives, because he understands the meaningfulness Jewish connection can offer.

“I believe that our value system teaches us responsibility to make this world better, to give back, to do the best you can do while you are here,” Sandler said. “And those are values that come from the Torah, and that is what drives me in doing this job. I believe we have to take those values and teach them to our children, so they can decide who they are and where they are going.” 

He believes Federation is best situated to leverage community resources to create as many pathways as possible to Jewish meaning. When he talks to donors or to constituents, he is not just selling Federation, but his commitment to his passion for the Jewish mission.


Richard Sandler’s role with the Milken Family Foundation includes visiting Jewish day schools as part of the Jewish Educator Awards. Photo courtesy of Richard Sandler

“It isn’t about Federation is the only way to go; it’s about Jewish continuity is the only way to go,” said Julie Platt, chair of the Federation’s strategic initiative on Ensuring the Jewish Future. “So he is willing to use his leverage and to partner with whoever it is who will move forward his mission to have more people choose Jewish.” 

Sandler spends between 10 and 40 hours a week on Federation business. He lives in Brentwood with Ellen, his wife of 42 years, and the two have dinner together every night. He works out regularly and plays golf on the weekends. He talks to his three children every day, and spends time with his three grandchildren. 

Sandler’s father, Raymond, was the son of Latvian immigrants who came to Oklahoma when his father was 6. 

“My grandfather was a very devout Orthodox Jew who studied every day, but he taught my father that it was more important to live by Jewish values than to follow all the ritual requirements of Judaism, because he felt in the United States you might not be able to do all of that,” said Sandler, the second of four brothers.

Sandler’s parents moved to the San Fernando Valley in 1950, where his father was a founder of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, which Sandler still attends and where he served as board chair before turning his focus to Federation. His parents were involved in Federation and American Jewish University (then University of Judaism), and Richard Sandler is on the board of that institution as well. 

He also supports the University of California, Berkeley Foundation, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and is a strong backer of Aish HaTorah, an Orthodox outreach organization that he believes is highly effective in bringing Jewish values and inspiration to people previously untouched by Judaism.

Sandler’s mother, Helen, ran a backyard camp for neighborhood kids for years. Among those children were two boys, Lowell and Michael Milken. Lowell and Richard met in first grade at Hesby Street Elementary School, and they continued together through Portola Junior High, Birmingham High School, UC Berkeley and UCLA Law School. 

After partnering with his father in a law firm for 10 years, in 1983 Sandler formed a financial consultancy service that primarily advised Lowell and Michael Milken in their investments. In 1986, Sandler was suddenly thrust into the position of being a white-collar criminal defense attorney when Michael Milken was charged with insider trading and securities fraud. 

Eventually, Michael Milken pleaded guilty, but Sandler said he does not believe he ever committed a federal crime.

“I grew up believing that if our government was investigating something, there must be a good reason for it, and at the end of the day they were seeking truth and fairness and justice. I came to learn that that is not true at all,” Sandler said recently. 

Sandler said he saw young prosecutors who wanted to boost their careers and scared colleagues who gave in to their pressure. 

“A lot of people I knew were put into positions they never thought they would be in in their entire lives — including myself. It was interesting to see those people who just did the right thing and told the truth, and those people who were trying to protect themselves and didn’t necessarily do the right thing.”

Today, Sandler runs day-to-day operations at the Milken Family Foundation, which supports Jewish, medical and educational initiatives. He also sits on the boards of the other nonprofits and for-profits that operate out of the Milkens’ building on Fourth Street in Santa Monica, and he is a partner in Maron and Sandler, a small law firm.

Lowell Milken said he admires his close friend’s integrity and ability to bring people together.

“I always value his guidance. We’ve been through some of the most satisfying and productive times, and we’ve been through some of the most difficult and challenging times, and his loyalty and advice has always been incredibly valuable throughout. When you find yourself in challenging circumstances, he is ultimately the person you would want to stand side-by-side with,” Milken said.

Sandler said his involvement with the investigation helped him develop a levelheaded determination that has served him well at Federation.

“It made me understand what is really important and what loyalty means,” Sandler said. When issues erupt at Federation, Sandler is known for keeping his cool. “I know what real aggravation is, and this isn’t it. These are all people who care about something, and that is a good thing. Then it’s just a question of how do we get people to channel that energy in a positive way.”

Sandler tapped into that equanimity early on in his tenure at Federation, when he made clear to lay leaders that it is the professionals who run the organization, and lay leaders must support that work. 

“In the past, lay leaders would be the driving force, and staff were more administrators than partners,” said Lori Tessel, senior vice president of major gifts at Federation.

Tessel said, Sandler has been “an ambassador” for staff. He often attends working meetings and knows her staff and committee members by name. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever served under someone who has been so clearly appreciative of what I’m doing,” said Platt, a volunteer.

Some lay leaders initially felt shunted by Sandler’s emphasis on professionalism, but Sandler smoothed the transition by responding to every phone call and e-mail and took countless meetings with lay leaders of all levels to explain the changes, according to Sharon Janks, campaign co-chair.

Sandler required lay leaders to bring professionals on fundraising calls — a system Janks says gets more information, and provides more connection, to donors.

“The donor sees that we care enough about their gift, that we want to educate them and make them feel good about what they give to Federation,” Janks said. 

This year the campaign hopes to raise $50 million and is about 75 percent of the way there, she said.

New donors are being cultivated, and long-time donors are being turned on to whole new areas of activity to invest in. It’s all part of Sandler’s approach of building a connection that goes beyond the once-a-year solicitation.

“Because, at the end of the day, this is an awesome responsibility. If the Federation is as important as I say it is — and I believe it is — and if we’re bringing in more than $40 million in community money, we’re responsible for that. That is a lot of responsibility. But it’s a good responsibility.”

Jewish philanthropist Jack Mandel dies


Jack Mandel, a leader in Jewish philanthropy in the United States and Israel, has died.

Mandel died May 12; he was 99.

He and his brothers, Morton and Joseph, started Premier Automotive Supply in a small storefront in Cleveland and built the business into one of the largest distributors of auto parts and electronic components in the United States.

The Mandel brothers are internationally known for their donations to support Jewish causes. Their Mandel Foundation is among the largest foundations founded by Jews in the United States.

Active in many organizations, Mandel served on the national board of directors of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and on the board of the Negev Foundation. After visiting the Negev Desert, he became very knowledgeable about the Negev and brackish water farming, and he provided support for the Israelis’ agricultural efforts in that region.

Mandel was a longtime resident of Hollywood, Fla., where he supported the Chabad of South Broward and the Broward Chai Center for 30 years.

In a 2010 interview, Morton Mandel said of his brother, “Jack is the wisest person I’ve ever met in my life. I define wisdom as intelligent people learning from their experience. I would go see him and say, ‘You know, we’ve got this problem over here,’ and he would say, ‘Well, why don’t you do such and such?’ And, I’m not kidding you, that would be the answer.”

Options for Family Philanthropy


Baruch S. Littman is vice president of development for the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, which manages total charitable assets exceeding $700 million.

With the wealth creation of the past 25 years, a generation of recently minted millionaires is now contemplating the philanthropic options that are a fortunate byproduct of success.

For many, the prestige of establishing a private family foundation (PFF) to dispense charitable gifts to favored causes is alluring — a dream come true. But is it really? As the old adage goes, be careful what you wish for.

Along with the hope of becoming a philanthropist in the vein of Rockefeller, Gates or Buffett, the creators of PFFs assume considerable burdens, as well, in the form of administrative and investment-management obligations, reporting requirements, minimum gifting of assets as required under the tax code and a loss of privacy. The unfortunate reality is that the expense ratios of private foundations holding assets of less than $10 million often make them woefully inefficient as philanthropic vehicles.

According to a 2001 study (the most recent year for which data is available) by the Foundation Management Series on the administrative expenses of private foundations, the mean expense ratios of operating PFFs rose sharply as net charitable assets declined. Specifically, the study showed that the expense ratio of undistributed assets was 2.79 percent for those PFFs with assets of $5 million to $9.9 million, with some paying in excess of 40 percent of assets. For PFFs with assets below $5 million, the expense ratio averaged 1.1 percent but ran as high as almost 13 percent. While this survey is now several years old, it is a fair assumption that those expense ratios have only increased over time.

So given this philanthropist’s conundrum, what are the viable alternatives?

One of those solutions comes in the form of donor-advised funds (DAF), the charitable-gifting instruments that can be established at most community foundations, charitable-fund host organizations and many commercial investment-management firms with as little as $10,000 to $20,000. For that comparatively small amount, the charitable-minded individual or family can have the personal equivalent of a PFF with complete privacy and no back-office headaches. There are no tax returns to be completed, no annual meetings to conduct. In short, the philanthropist leaves the administration to the host organization and is able to experience the pleasure of distributing charity to needy causes through the DAF. The donor receives an immediate tax deduction on assets used to establish the DAF and can continue to add to the fund over time and realize further deductions on those contributions.

Of course, there are a lot of zeros between $10,000 and $10 million, and the obvious question is whether a DAF makes sense for someone with significant charitable assets and who is considering establishing or folding up a PFF. The short answer is a resounding yes, and, in many instances, it actually makes the most sense.

Case-in-point: At the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, the largest DAF account has a balance in excess of $50 million. Certainly, this philanthropist could create his own PFF or family support organization (FSO), the actual community foundation equivalent of a private family foundation. He has already fulfilled funding of his children’s DAFs, FSOs and PFFs for them as they wished. With his vast remaining charitable dollars, our donor’s own DAF represents the easiest option. Each year, he contributes additional funds to his DAF with either low-basis marketable securities or fractional interests in real estate, which, unlike PFFs, community foundations can accept and offer a fair-market-value tax deduction (more about this to follow).

There are, as well, a significant number of other reasons and advantages why an individual or family should consider establishing a DAF or FSO as an alternative to creating or folding up a PFF. Among them:

• Lower costs for management of charitable assets. In general, the management fee for a DAF with assets of $1 million to $10 million will never be more than 1.5 percent. Even better, a comparably sized FSO will have all-inclusive management fees of approximately 80 basis points, or 0.8 percent. Consider these fees in contrast to the aforementioned study of private foundations. In that same data, expenses as a percentage of the annual payout were outsized: PFFs with assets of $5 million to $9.9 million had a mean expense ratio of a whopping 16.3 percent. Those PFFs with less than $5 million still had mean expenses in relation to payout of 7.2 percent.
• Contribution of C-corp stock or low-basis real estate. PFFs are prohibited under the tax code from receiving contributions of C-corp stock, which is regarded by the IRS as self-dealing. With respect to both low-basis and fractional real estate donations to a PFF, as referenced above, the donor’s deductibility is limited to the tax-adjusted basis (i.e., the depreciated value). As such, a fully depreciated piece of real estate can be contributed to a PFF, but would not qualify for a deduction. By contrast, a DAF can accept both of these asset classes and offer your clients a fair-market-value tax deduction, avoidance of all capital-gains taxes on the donated interests and, in the case of real estate, eliminate the recapture of previously claimed depreciation.
• Undistributed assets as part of the required 5 percent minimum asset distribution. Commonly known is that a PFF must make charitable gifts of 5 percent of its total assets annually to maintain tax-exempt status. Less known, however, is that DAFs are an ideal repository for these undistributed assets. In the eyes of the IRS, once transferred to a DAF, the assets from the PFF have been given away for proper charitable purpose. Once in the DAF, your client can then take as long as he or she likes to determine how and where to distribute.
• Second generation (G-2) family issues. Establishing and maintaining a PFF can be a lonely venture. Where to turn for resources? How to engage your children — the second generation — in a shared philanthropic vision? While counsel can be obtained for PFFs, consulting fees can be considerable and add to the above-referenced and onerous operating expenses that cut into available funds for good works. By contrast, community foundations and other host organizations offer a substantial array of resources designed to assist donors: programs on issues in charitable giving, intergenerational planning and assistance in tapping philanthropic passions, for example.

Before a client accelerates full speed into establishing a private family foundation with less than $10 million in assets, financial advisers would do well to flash the yellow caution light, encourage the philanthropist-to-be to yield, and consider the full range of giving options available before opening the charitable throttle. Doing so are critical first steps in becoming a committed, informed philanthropist.

Briefs: Peres elected President of Israel; Oprah criticized for pro-Israel stance


Peres Elected President of Israel

Shimon Peres became Israel’s ninth president. In parliamentary votingWednesday, the longtime leader defeated rival Knesset members Reuven Rivlinand Colette Avital. Rivlin and Avital dropped out after the first round,having received 37 and 21 votes respectively, the Jerusalem Post reported.In the second round 86 Knesset members supported Peres, the only remainingcandidate, and 23 opposed him.

“I have been in the Knesset for 48 years and not for one moment have I lostfaith or hope in Israel,” Peres said in his acceptance speech. “What Israelhas achieved in 60 years, no other country has been able to achieve. I hopeI can represent our faith not because there are no problems but because weall want to overcome them.”

Peres, 83, will assume the presidency, a largely ceremonial post, on July 15for a seven-year term. The presidency will cap a six-decade career in whichPeres has served in virtually every top civilian post in Israel. In 1993 hewon the Nobel Peace Prize along with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat.

Oprah Criticized for Pro-Israel Stance

Joint Advocacy Initiative (JAI), a partnership between the East Jerusalem YMCA and the YWCA of Palestine, said in a June 8 letter that Oprah Winfrey’s willingness to visit Israel was “very shocking” considering her image as someone who “stands with oppressed, marginalized people, fights racism, and works for justice and human rights.”

The letter was apparently a response to the talk show host’s declaration last month that she sympathized with the suffering of Israelis and would accept an invitation from Elie Wiesel to visit the Jewish state. Calling Israel’s policies a violation of international law, the JAI invited Winfrey to visit Palestinian areas and “witness firsthand the refugee camps, Apartheid Wall, movement restrictions and ghettos.”

Health Care Tops Poll for Jewish Progressives

An online poll conducted by progressive Jewish Web sites showed health care to be the top domestic political priority. The poll, coordinated by Jewish Funds for Justice, listed 10 issues and asked respondents to pick the five most important. The top five were, in order: health care, the environment, education, civil rights and wages. The other issues, not in order, were seniors, immigration, housing, child-care and hurricane devastation. Each issue was framed in progressive terminology.

The poll got more than 8,600 responses through participating Web sites, including the Shalom Center, Jewcy and the National Council for Jewish Women. Polling experts believe online polls are suggestive at best, as participants are self-selective.

Grinspoon Offers $300,000 for Youth Philanthropy

The Harold Grinspoon Foundation will award $30,000 to each of 10 communities to start a B’nai Tezedek program, which asks teens to contribute a minimum of $125 of their bar or bat mitzvah money to an individual endowment fund. The foundation matches the contribution to help the teens establish a fund of at least $500, from which they make allocations every year. The program, which started in Western Massachusetts, where the foundation is based, is already up and running in 37 communities. The grants will be given on a first come, first serve basis, the foundation announced in a press release.

“It is essential to the future of Jewish society that we get our teens involved in giving to charity in a personally engaging way, and equip them with the tools to become financially intelligent donors,” said Harold Grinspoon, founder and chair of the foundation.

Rabbi Offers Online Advice for Interfaith Weddings

InterfaithFamily.com, a support and resource center for intermarried families, has hired Rabbi Lev Baesh as its first Rabbinic Circle director. The 1994 graduate of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion begins work July 9. Baesh’s main tasks will be referring interfaith couples to rabbis who will officiate at their wedding and running a listserv for rabbis to discuss the issue and share practical tips.

InterfaithFamily.com President Ed Case, who said he receives about 60 requests a month from interfaith couples looking for officiating rabbis. Case says this service differs from the “rent-a-rabbi” phenomenon because the rabbis on Baesh’s list are all carefully vetted, and couples will be steered toward their local synagogues. “Our intention is not to tell rabbis that they should officiate, or pressure them to do so,” Case said.

The Reform movement’s rabbinic association officially discourages intermarriage, but leaves it to the discretion of individual rabbis whether or not to officiate at interfaith weddings. Conservative and Orthodox rabbis are barred from doing so.

Shalit’s Mother Assails Government

The mother of an Israeli soldier held hostage by Palestinians assailed the government for not doing more to recover him. Aviva Shalit, whose son Gilad was abducted to the Gaza Strip by Hamas-led gunmen last June, broke her silence in a newspaper interview published Monday. Previous public comments on the family’s ordeal have been made by Shalit’s husband, Noam.

“All year I hoped that the repeated promises to do everything for Gilad’s release would bear fruit, but this hope is also beginning to wane,” Aviva Shalit told Yediot Achronot. “My strong feeling is that not enough has been done, because if had they really done everything, Gilad would be home, and so would the other two kidnapped soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev,” Shalit said, referring to troops held by Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon since last July.

Hamas has demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including top terrorists, in exchange for Shalit, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has ruled this out for fear of encouraging further kidnappings.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegrapic Agency

Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson expected to set new charity donation record


Sheldon Adelson, frequently dubbed “the world’s richest Jew,” is about to claim the title of biggest Jewish philanthropist.The Las Vegas-based global casino and resort owner is slated to announce creation of a foundation that will allocate $200 million a year, according to a rising tide of media leaks and speculation.

Adelson himself, in a phone call to The Journal, would not confirm these figures, or that the money would be split between projects strengthening Jewish heritage and medicine. He labeled such media reports as exaggerated or erroneous.

“Everything I do promotes Jewish heritage, and I’ve given more than $200 million to medical research,” he said. “We’re now focusing on 10 different diseases.”

It is believed that half of the $200 million will go for projects to preserve the Jewish heritage and half for medical aid to the needy.

On the current Forbes 400 list of the 400 richest Americans, Adelson ranks third with $20.5 billion, up from a mere $1.4 billion in 2004. That year, Adelson took the Sands public, with his family as the majority stockholder. The shares have more than doubled since the initial public offering.

However, the 74-year-old entrepreneur has made no secret of his ambition to overtake Bill Gates, who leads the field with $53 billion, and Warren Buffett, second at $46 billion.

The expected new mega-donation tops Adelson’s other contributions this year, including $25 million to the Yad Vashem Martyrs Memorial in Jerusalem, between $2 million and $3 million to hospitals and residents of northern Israel hard hit by Hezbollah rocket attacks.

This week, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that Adelson had pledged $5 million to Birthright Israel to send 2,000 additional young American adults on 10-day trips to Israel.

A close friend of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Adelson came under scrutiny some years ago for alleged improper donations to the Likud election fund.

In this country, Adelson has been a generous supporter of Republican candidates and, in Las Vegas, he has underwritten a new Chabad center. He has also pledged $25 million for a state-of-the-art Jewish community high school in the gambling destination.

Much of Adelson’s interest in Israel has been spurred by his second wife, Miriam, an Israeli internist and authority on methadone treatments for drug addicts. She heads rehabilitation clinics in Las Vegas and Tel Aviv.

Adelson is the father of five children and his life and career is in the best immigrant’s-son-makes-good tradition. His father left Lithuania for Boston, where he made a modest living as a cab driver.

Young Sheldon started his business career at 12, when he borrowed $200 from his uncle to buy the “rights” to peddle newspapers at a favorable Boston street corner.

He attended City College of New York, but dropped out to work as a mortgage broker, investment adviser and financial consultant.

Adelson made his first big money by creating COMDEX, which became the world’s leading computer trade show, one of the first of 50 companies he has founded or developed during his lifetime.

In 1989, he joined the big league by buying the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas for $128 million, gutting it and then erecting the 4,000-suite Venetian Resort Hotel Casino.

Legend has it that Miriam Adelson inspired the Venetian concept while the couple was on their honeymoon. Whoever deserves the credit, the super-luxurious Venetian resort complex helped to revolutionize the Las Vegas hotel industry and give a facelift to Sin City.

Not resting on his laurels, Adelson broke into the Asian market two years ago by opening the Sands Hotel in Macao, the former Portuguese enclave on China’s southeast coast.

Next year, he will open the Venetian Macao as part of a complex of 20,000 hotel rooms and 3 million square feet of retail space. In addition, Adelson has won the right to open the first casino in Singapore.

“We’re in an obsolescence-proof business,” Adelson told Bloomberg News. “We’re in the second-oldest business in history.”Recently, Adelson has been slowed by a nerve condition and needs to use a walker, but he is not about to step down as chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation.

“Why do I need succession planning?” he told Bloomberg. “I am very alert. I’m very vibrant. I have no intention to retire. But if I were to retire, I would keep my family interest in the company the same and say ‘don’t sell.'”

Appraising Adelson’s influence, Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, told Israeli reporters, “I predict that Adelson will change the nature of Jewish philanthropy by setting new standards in dollar terms for giving to Jewish causes and hopefully others will follow his lead.”

‘Top 400’ misses full picture of Jewish philanthropic giving


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

This year’s list, called

The Ranking of Jewish Groups


These Jewish organizations on the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Philanthropy 400 (excluding The Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, which the Chronicle accidentally omitted).

  • No. 34: The United Jewish Communities, up from 42, with $333,824,000 raised in private funds in 2005, down 3 percent from 344,106,000 in 2004.
  • No. 54: The Jewish Communal Fund, up from 82; raised $247,296,323, up 49.3 percent.
  • No. 70: The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, down from 60; raised $203,330,851, up 3.4 percent.
  • No. 72: The UJA-Federation of New York, up from 72; raised $196,744,000, up 18.9 percent.
  • No. 141: The Jewish Federation/Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, down from 133; raised $111,118,618, up 0.6 percent.
  • No. 174: Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, up from No. 238; raised $88,779,140, up 40.8 percent.
  • No. 178: Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, down from 153; raised $87,765,940, even
  • No. 194: Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, down from 183; raised $81,043,950, down 3.3 percent.
  • No. 208: United Jewish Foundation and Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, up from No. 237; raised $77,495,442, up 22.6 percent.
  • No. 209: The American Society for Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, up from 247; raised $77,212,300, up 27.7 percent.
  • No. 212: Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, down from 212; raised $76,579,682, down 3.9 percent.
  • No. 237: Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties, down from 215; raised $67,765,291, down 4.2 percent.
  • No. 242: Brandeis University, down from 239; raised $66,346,659, up 7.2 percent.
  • No. 249: Yeshiva University, down from 192; raised $65,164,597, down 17.7 percent.
  • No. 273: Anti-Defamation League, up from 302; raised $56,408,066, up 4.5 percent.
  • No. 276: Greater Miami Jewish Federation; raised $56,285,535, up 75.4 percent.
  • No. 310: Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, down from 277; raised $49,948,849 down 5.3 percent.
  • No. 353: The American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science, down from 263; raised $43,557,000, down 22.7 percent.
  • No. 354: The P.E.F. Israel Endowment Funds, down from 229; raised $43,548,325, down 33.1 percent.
  • No. 355: American Jewish Committee, up from 357; raised $43,504,488; up 8.6 percent.
  • No. 359: Jewish National Fund, not on the list last year; raised 43,130,125, up 27.1 percent.
  • No. 383: The Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS, New York arm, up from 391; raised $39,867,586, up 11.2 percent.
  • No. 400: United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, N.J., down from 292; raised $37,742,627, down 24.9 percent.

— Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Jewish causes must compete to get big charitable gifts


Roland Stanton’s $100 million gift to Yeshiva University is the largest ever to a U.S. Jewish institution. Yet as Stanton himself said, “There are plenty of people who could do it.”
 
Our research shows he’s right: Dozens of Jewish philanthropists are capable of equaling Stanton’s gift.
 
So why don’t they? It’s not that wealthy Jews have no reputation for making large gifts to Jewish causes: Julius Rosenwald in his day invented modern Jewish philanthropy; Charles and Edgar Bronfman have built and continue to sustain the core elements of Jewish life around the world.
 
The question is not one of capacity; the question is whether the Jewish community can imagine and prepare for gifts of that size and scope.
 
Jews are among America’s elite in philanthropy today. They endow professorships, fund museums, build hospitals and science labs and set up foundations. Clearly, wealthy American Jews have no problem parting with tens or hundreds of millions of dollars at a time. b
But why not more to Jewish causes? Stanton is proof that we can succeed when we ask for big figures — $100 million or even $1 billion. Other Jewish organizations can set their sights as high as Yeshiva University or even higher.
 
Our annual research of megagifts — gifts above $1 million — turns up at least 50 people who could match or exceed Stanton’s generosity. These typically are wealthy Jewish business leaders who give only relatively modest gifts to Jewish causes. It’s tempting to write these people off as uncommitted Jews, but it would be wrong.
 
If Jewish causes want to receive megagifts, they have to prove themselves worthy. They have to compete on equal ground with the secular hospitals, symphonies, museums and universities, all of which court and inspire Jewish donors.
 
Richard Joel came to lead Yeshiva University three years ago; his vision has energized the place and clearly energized Stanton, who is chairman of its board. Stanton could have directed his gift anywhere, but this month he chose Yeshiva University. It means that he believes in something.
 
That’s the character of today’s new philanthropists. They typically are unimpressed by the donor recognition events of typical charities — the fancy dinners and building-naming ceremonies. They’re more hands-on and active in their philanthropy.
 
They want to give away their wealth during their lifetimes. Many of them are entrepreneurial in background and temperament; Bill Gates is their living embodiment. They will disburse their money with the same attention they paid to the building of their businesses.
 
The Jewish communal world not only should prepare for this shift in the philanthropic world, it should rejoice. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of wealthy Jews who have yet to become fully engaged in Jewish giving. There is an enormous opportunity to engage these Jewish givers.
 
Look at Birthright Israel. Sending thousands of young Jewish adults to Israel for free is expensive, but it has support from some of North America’s biggest Jewish philanthropists. Look at Nefesh B’Nefesh, a project that is helping thousands of people to make aliyah. And look at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s efforts to feed the hungry and poor.
 
Big ideas attract big donors. These are examples of what good, provocative ideas can do, and we need more of them.
 
Of course, the Jewish nonprofit world — the professionals who staff the organizations — also must be prepared to become more entrepreneurial. Most often, good philanthropists work hand-in-hand with good professionals.
 
Look at it this way: Today’s philanthropists think like investors, because that’s how they got wealthy. They want their money to achieve a return; they want results.
 
We should applaud philanthropists who choose to search for cures for deadly diseases, feed the hungry or educate America’s youth. At the same time, we need to develop and support ambitious initiatives that ensure a secure Jewish community, help grow the Jewish people around the world and take care of the Jewish poor and elderly.
 
Philanthropists then would feel that the Jewish community is worth both a mighty financial investment and the invaluable donation of their personal involvement.
 

Falash Mura Wait and Hope


I pulled my rubber-duck-yellow poncho over my head and trudged through the dirt of the open sewage and trash in the shantytown, trying to breathe through my mouth. I was in Ethiopia with my mother and a mission from United Jewish Communities (UJC) and I could smell the people’s desperation for a new life in the holy place of Jerusalem.

My eyes were opened so wide by seeing what is going on in Ethiopia that they almost ripped. I saw Ethiopian Jews living a life that no one should ever have to bear, Jewish or not, with disease, lack of food and obvious poverty.

Most of the more than 20,000 Ethiopian Jews left in Ethiopia today are Falash Mura, people whose families were converted to Christianity about 100 years ago, but who still identify as Jews. The Israeli government for years has been wavering on whether they are real Jews and should be brought to Israel, even though most have family there. Today there are about 85,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, including about 20,000 who were born there.

Starting in the 1970s, thousands of Ethiopian Jews walked from their villages through the Sudan, hoping to find a way to Jerusalem. Some of them died along the way from sickness and exhaustion. More than 8,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel in Operation Moses in 1984, but still thousands of the community were left with just bubbles of hope back in Gondar. There were 3,000 Falash Mura among the 15,000 Ethiopian Jews who were airlifted to Israel in Operation Solomon in 1990, but the Israeli government sent the Falash Mura back to compounds in Addis Ababa because they weren’t considered “real Jews.”

I wonder how any country, especially Israel, which has suffered so much, can turn away children who could turn out to be doctors, teachers and the world’s next best politicians, and send them not back to their villages in Gondar but to compounds covered in the gray blanket of rain clouds in Addis Ababa, where they don’t have any of their belongings or money to survive.

Falash Mura who are still in the compounds of Addis Ababa or their villages in Gondar are waiting to see what’s over the rainbow — and that place is Israel.
My group went to one of the compounds in Addis Ababa, where we saw the clinics and met the main doctor, Rick Hodes, who inspired and motivated me more than anyone or anything. He has spent more than 20 years helping the sick and needy in Ethiopia.

I thought that doing a four-day mission should make me a good person, but he has devoted his whole career and life to helping, including adopting 12 children himself — and only one fully healthy. He studied at Johns Hopkins and could have lived a well-off life in America. But instead, he chose the path of living in Addis Ababa with Ethiopian Jews, where he could be their doctor, a friend and a part of their lives.

In Addis Ababa, we went to see some one-room, square huts that housed five people. I stepped into an old woman’s hut and saw the dilapidated, stained walls with no light, straw mattresses and the few reed-woven goods that were the fiber of her life. But what really caught my eye was one picture frame crammed with five or six little shots of family members that had made it to Israel.

The old woman sitting on the coarse, straw mattress said that she had been told that she could go to Israel because she has family there. She left all of her belongings in Gondar and went to live with nothing in Addis Ababa. She has been waiting for nine years. I asked the translator to ask her who had told her to go to Israel. The old woman said in Amharic, “God.”

An early one-hour flight to Gondar took us to one of the places where families are interviewed to determine if they are eligible to go to Israel. As I was looking around the room, my mom pointed to a little box filled with passport photos. The box, coincidentally, had the word “lucky” in bold red printed on the side. Those passport photos were of the lucky Falash Mura, those chosen to go Israel, as they believe God intended for them.

The last day, before we went back to Israel with about 50 new immigrant Falash Mura, we stopped at the Israeli Embassy and passed by crowded rooms with classes on how to flush toilets, use refrigerators and what the plane is going to be like.

When the UJC group met at the Addis Ababa airport for our 2:30 a.m. flight, we saw all of the Ethiopian families in their finest white dresses and the little boys in gray suits they had picked up at the embassy. One member of our group brought a Polaroid camera and gave the families pictures of themselves on the day their hopes became reality.

Once we were settled on the plane, these families were reserved and quiet. If they had any fear it was bottled inside. The wheels levitated into the clouds, and only a few of the children giggled, and maybe one baby cried.

When we landed, all of the UJC members walked nonchalantly out of the exit. But as we watched, the Falash Mura came out of the plane — the women modestly enveloped in their white scarves — and when each of them reached the tarmac, they kissed the ground, almost throwing themselves to the pavement. They had gone over the rainbow. They had reached Israel.

Sophia Kay is 15 and attends The Archer School for Girls.

To learn more about Ethiopian Jews, visit the julief@jewishjournal.com.

It May Be Time to Change Goals, Ideas on Philanthropy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Steinhardt is co-founder of Birthright Israel.

Focus on Philanthropy


I opened my mailbox to find several letters, a few bills and a host of requests for donations from various organizations that I have supported over the years. Because I am a stickler for organization (although some would call me Type A obsessive), I sort the letters, place the bills in a folder marked “Look at me soon!” and the appeals for donations in one marked “Save the World.” Between the needs of my local community, the Jewish community, our country and the world at large, I am seriously thinking about renting a storage unit for the hundreds of requests that I receive annually.

I don’t know about how others think about gift giving, but I am honestly confused about it myself. Year after year, questions continue to gnaw at me like: What is the right amount for a gift? Should I support Jewish organizations first and then donate to other charities, like my alma mater or the Red Cross, only after I have made my Jewish gifts?

And while I’m being candid, I sometimes wonder: Why am I giving in the first place? Is it because of peer or professional pressure, social recognition or a genuine commitment to the cause? Does it need to hurt for my gift to be meaningful? Am I willing to give up something — a dinner out, theater tickets, a trip — to make a more substantial contribution this year?

Tzedakah, or the Jewish commandment to give, has been a quintessential Jewish value since the beginning of Jewish time. The Torah teaches: “If there is a needy person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities in the Land that God has given you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against him. Rather, you shall open your hand and lend him whatever he is lacking” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).

Tzedakah is the counterpart to tikkun olam, the Jewish obligation to repair the world. Both affirm our responsibility to distribute a part of what we have to take care of others who are less fortunate than we. Both are grounded in the idea that individual wealth is neither a right nor a privilege but a form of stewardship for which we are charged, as agents of God, to care for the world in which we live.

These obligations operate in concentric circles — originating within our own home and family and extending out into the Jewish community. Yet Jewish law specifically recognizes that any needy person who lives in peaceful coexistence with us is a worthy charity recipient. The Talmud teaches that we should help support the poor even outside our own community, because of the “ways of peace” (Gittin 59 b).

Jewish law is fairly specific in its answer to the question of what we should give. Ideally, we are expected to give what is needed to help restore a poor person to his former position. If a man has lost all of his clothing in a fire, we should help him purchase suitable clothes. If he has lost his job, we should provide him with employment either directly or indirectly by helping him find work.

But Jewish law is both practical and realistic in its demands, for while it requires us to give the needy what they lack, it does not require us to make them rich or to become poor ourselves as a result of giving.

But how much giving is enough giving? Should I have to forgo something I want in order to make a pledge? While no one can ever really answer that question for us, the Jewish philosopher and sage Maimonides provides us with specific parameters for giving. The ideal gift is 20 percent of our possessions, although the average acceptable gift is 10 percent.

But what about our reasons for giving, the “why” behind the gift. Although no one can dictate the feelings we should have when we give, I am inspired by the words of Moses when he told the Israelites to bring gifts to build the Tabernacle, saying: “Take from among you gifts to the Lord: everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them” (Exodus 35:5).

When we give, Jewish tradition asks us to look into our hearts — where our intuitive, spiritual and emotional voices are most clearly heard. We open, rather than harden our hearts to those in need. In doing so, we are more inclined to give willingly, meaningfully and generously.

Since each of us has different resources, property and income, our gifts will differ. But tzedakah is an “equal opportunity mitzvah” and applies to everyone, no matter how great or small our portion. Our sages assured us that we are all capable of giving, even one who receives tzedakah, with the words: “To the one who is eager to give, God provides the means.”

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a nationally syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney. She can be reached at alederman@cox.net.

Matchmaker, Matchmaker Make Me a Donation Match


Call him a personal shopper, a matchmaker or a boutique investment adviser. However he is described, Joseph Hyman is trying to chart a new course in the world of Jewish philanthropy. A longtime Jewish organizational professional and fundraiser, Hyman last year launched the Center for Entrepreneurial Jewish Philanthropy (CEJP) to support and advise philanthropists who are considering major gifts to Jewish and Israel-related causes.

Hyman acts as the middle man between donors and organizations, working with philanthropists to understand their particular interests, then he hits the pavement to locate worthwhile organizations that meet their philanthropic requirements.

The center’s goal is simple: to attract dollars to Jewish groups that might otherwise have gone elsewhere.

“If successful, we believe that CEJP will help to create a new paradigm in Jewish giving,” said Hyman, who is going public about his organization for the first time. “One that empowers and inspires a new generation of philanthropists to participate because they want to, not because they have to.”

His endeavor comes at a time when wealthy American Jews make a disproportionately high number of large gifts in United States but overwhelmingly make them to non-Jewish institutions. It also comes as philanthropists are increasingly looking to have a say in exactly where their dollars go.

The approach seems to be working.

Since its launch 19 months ago, the center already has facilitated more than $10 million in philanthropic donations to Jewish and Israel-related causes. Recipients include some well-known projects, such as Birthright Israel, which provides free, 10-day trips to Israel for young Jewish adults. They also include some lesser-known ones, including Meshi, a center in Israel offering the parents of special-needs children a break from child care, and Project Kesher, a group devoted to Jewish education and advocacy for women in the former Soviet Union.
“CEJP is revolutionary,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president and founder of The Israel Project, which has received two six-figure, multiyear commitments from donors working with the center.

“What it is doing,” she said, “is taking the desires of the philanthropists to heart and saying, ‘What is the outcome that you want? What is the investment that you want to make so that you can make positive change? And what’s the most cost-effective, reliable way to achieve those goals?'”

“There are people out there who are not giving to the level that they’re capable of giving,” said Adam Frieman, a longtime investment banker on Wall Street and a financial sponsor of the new center, said, Some portion of that group would give meaningfully more if somebody were able to connect with them on a personal level and make the giving personal.”

Hyman hopes that his efforts to eliminate much of the work involved in finding worthy causes will attract new dollars to Jewish groups.

“Beginning with the creation of Birthright about 10 years ago, it has been a core group of committed Jewish philanthropists who have challenged the community to move forward,” said Hyman, who stresses that his work is meant to complement that of the federations and other more traditional fundraising arms, not replace them.

“We are now beginning to see a new generation of megadonors emerge whose support is crucial to our future.”

The center today is working with nine North American philanthropists, including real estate developers, senior management of Fortune 500 companies and hedge fund managers, according to Hyman. And while all have donated to Jewish causes before, some now are giving at a much higher level.

Hyman likens the philanthropists “to world-class athletes who, with the proper support and coaching, can become Olympic gold medalists.”

Donor-advised funds are not new, say philanthropy insiders, and in fact have become increasingly popular over the last number of years in Jewish philanthropic circles.

However, said Sue Dickman, executive vice president of The Jewish Communal Fund, which facilitates and promotes charitable giving through donor-advised funds, the center is doing something different.

“What we do and what other donor-advised funds do is simply facilitate people’s philanthropy,” she said. “We don’t provide advice and input into the direction of their philanthropy. What Joe does is help people think strategically about their philanthropy and maximize the input that they can have.”

Other Jewish groups, notably the Jewish Funders Network, offer some donor advice. And several organizations are doing similar work in the general philanthropic world – among them the Wealth and Giving Forum, Rockefeller Advisory Services and the Philanthropic Initiative in Boston.

The center is also seen as attractive because it is supported by investors and does not charge for its work. Donors say that for this reason, they feel the group’s advice is objective.

“We felt that he could offer us something that we needed” because Hyman is “not connected to any particular organization but very well connected in the greater Jewish community both here in the U.S. and in Israel,” said the administrator of a private family foundation in the Chicago area, who requested anonymity for reasons of privacy.

Nearly two years ago, shortly before the center was launched, Hyman sat down with a Chicago-based private investor Robert Sklare to chat about philanthropy. They spent about 10 hours talking, Sklare said, discussing the Jewish philanthropic interests he and his wife, Yadelle, shared, the areas that got them excited and the problems they hoped to help solve. Then Hyman got to work tracking down a series of organizations that fit their bill.

Several did. In fact, Sklare said, since then, he’s donated a “substantial” amount of money to Israel-related organizations – certainly more than he’d have given had he never met Hyman.

He has since funded, among other groups, Birthright Israel; Karev, an after-school enrichment program for inner-city youngsters in Ashkelon, and Meitarim, a group of pluralistic schools that attempt to bridge the gap between religious and secular students.

According to Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, general philanthropy has nearly doubled in the last decade, and the growth of Hyman’s center reflects that trend.

“I think we’re going to see more and more different kinds of approaches to specialize it, make it more strategic, capture it,” he said. “This is the first one that is specifically aimed at Jewish philanthropy.”

Still, asked if this sort of philanthropy is the wave of the future, Solomon demurred.

“It’s hard to know what would have happened had CEJP not been there,” he said. “Would that money have gone to different Jewish organizations? To general charities? Would it have been given at all? While helping to direct millions of dollars is very impressive, it’s hard to know what would have happened had it not been there.”

Rabbi Irving Greenberg, president of the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, said that Michael Steinhardt, a megadonor to Jewish causes, was not initially convinced about Hyman’s efforts, but after he demonstrated that “he had a little bit of a track record, Michael became a funder.”

“I think it’s very significant,” Greenberg said of Hyman’s approach. “My guess is that this has not only got legs, but that this is the wave of the future.”

20+ Ideas to Jump-Start Jewish L.A.


David Suissa:
“Drink more coffee.”

One big, bold idea to energize L.A.’s Jewish community?

Three words: Drink more coffee.

I’m not kidding.

A new study from the University of Queensland in Australia suggests that drinking coffee makes people more open to a different point of view. In other words, it can make all of us more open-minded.

Can you imagine what would happen if our precious Jewish community in Los Angeles became more open-minded? Let’s go on a high-octane ride together:

Imagine if on one Shabbat, every synagogue would “open up” to a different rabbi. For example, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky could switch with Rabbi Yacov Pinto, Rabbi Yosef Shusterman with Rabbi David Toledano, Rabbi Laura Geller with Rabbi David Wolpe, Rabbi Elazar Muskin with the Happy Minyan, Aish with Chabad, Rabbi Steven Weil with the Persians, and so on. All over Los Angeles on this One Sharing Shabbat, Jews would experience something different, but very Jewish. If it’s a hit, we can make it a monthly tradition, and yes, the chazans would also switch, to give us the full effect.

Want a refill?

On campuses, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller would down a double espresso and invite hard-nosed right-winger Mort Klein, of the Zionist Organization of America, to speak. Seidler-Feller himself would go (with three bodyguards) to give his message of peace at Rabbi Moshe Benzaquen’s shul.

You get the picture: cross-promotion across all the colors of Judaism to energize a great community. All we need to put this ingathering of exiles together is one enthusiastic volunteer who is not afraid of rejection and has a good phone plan. (Any takers? E-mail me at dsuissa@olam.org)

This is peoplehood, my friends. We are one big, noisy, opinionated family, and we are diverse. But what good is a diverse family if we all stay in our own rooms? How can we strengthen our bonds if we so rarely hang out, pray, eat, sing and learn with each other? The opposite of love is indifference. Instead of obsessing over Jewish continuity, we should ignite Jewish curiosity. Sure, the unfamiliar can be uncomfortable, but in this case it has one thing going for it: It’s Jewish!

Forget the whiskey club. For those of Jewish unity, let’s all choose the coffee bean.

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

 

Robin M. Kramer:
“Welcoming, modern, accessible, authentic Jewish nursery school experience….”

What if a welcoming, modern, accessible, authentic Jewish nursery school experience were available to the families of every 3- and 4-year-old Jewish child in Los Angeles?

The result would be new dynamism, connection and community, judging by the experience at my shul, Temple Israel of Hollywood, which has tried to create a program worthy of emulation.

What are the characteristics of a top-quality nursery school program? A school’s learned and loving faculty should reach out in the best tradition of Abraham and Sarah, welcoming strangers and those less connected to the Jewish tent, extending the community’s embrace to grandparents and to families of all configurations, including the diversity of faith traditions. Where isolation exists in our big city, the school community should offer warmth and connection — a family-centered, holistic port of entry to Jewish life. This essential school should, with mirth and through experience, mark the sacred moments of the Jewish year, and introduce the literature, music, art and soul of our people, bringing to life the belief that every individual is both special and part of a larger human family. A fine nursery school experience builds family demand for an ongoing pipeline of robust Jewish invention and education, both formal and informal. This could be catalytic.

But how could this be affordable for all Jewish families? It would require unprecedented focus, partnership, wisdom and vision — as well as the development of millions of dollars of new financial and institutional resources. Regional and master plans for early education could provide a roadmap, which would include support for educator preparation, increased salaries, and ongoing professional development. Another key is providing facilities and scholarships to ensure universal accessibility that does not presently exist.

All told, it would be a massive undertaking, but relatively speaking, the investment would be modest, given the potential yield of enduring communal dividends.

Robin M. Kramer is chief of staff for L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Gary Wexler:
“The physical center could be the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.”

The idea is about ideas.

In my work with Jewish communities throughout America and Canada, I have learned that Los Angeles possesses a wonderful characteristic that none of those other communities have.

We are blessed with the absence of ingrained tradition, free of the boundaries cast by “the way things are just done.” Unlike the New York, D.C. and Boston Jewish communities, we aren’t committed to pass our thinking and ideas through a paralyzing hyper-critical sieve encumbered with an inner lining of hyper-intellectualism, hyper policy orientation, and a hyper-sense of ownership of all things Jewish.

The L.A. Jewish community is a wide-open environment where we can embrace the vibrant, free flow of ideas. It is time we grabbed that opportunity. Los Angeles, with its thriving creative industries, is poised to become the center for the creation of new ideas in Diaspora Jewish life and beyond.

If we will it.

We even have space where this mission could be planted, nurtured and allowed to flourish. The physical center could be the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, an institution that has for years been in search of its mission. The Institute could convene the best Jewish and non-Jewish minds in Los Angeles, even establishing a creative and thinking discipline, a Los Angeles/Brandeis-Bardin brand — something that would be celebrated, respected and sought after.

Four times a year, the best minds would convene to discuss such topics as

American values and how they are influenced by Jewish traditions, including themes like education, literature, music, Next Generation issues, Israel/Diaspora relations, medicine/healing, humor, etc. The participants would represent diverse perspectives so that we are not just exchanging the same ideas back and forth. Ideas, like genes, need to be cross-pollinated, or you have a flawed process.

The Institute would have to be strategically and carefully reconstructed so that the Jewish world would wait to see what ideas are coming out of Los Angeles, the natural environment for this gestation. The discipline would lend itself to all other offerings of the Institute, including its camps, and community activities, turning them into national models.

The Brandeis-Bardin Institute would have to give up a lot of what it is holding on to, which is actually holding it back. It would need to form the type of board capable of bringing this to reality. (Imagine that process!)

Of course, you could expect that the East Coast Jewish establishment would reflexively try to negate what we do. The owners of Jewish life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan would write articles challenging our every move.

It could be just what Los Angeles and the Diaspora Jewish community needs.

Gary Wexler is the founder and president of L.A.-based Passion Marketing.

Lisa Stern:
“More children … born, adopted, fostered and reared in loving Jewish homes.”

Twenty years ago the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and my son were born.

In the ensuing years I, indeed my generation, have been busy chasing the illusive balance between career, community service and family. Many of us delayed marriage and restricted the size of our families so we could collect degrees and worldly possessions. We had the lowest birthrate in our history and the trend, we are told, is getting worse. In that echo we may have short-changed our community and ourselves.

It’s time to do something about this. We cannot afford to let our legacy evaporate. This will involve sacrifice. Our progeny may have to do more with less and those who are able will have to fund this vibrancy.

Ours is a shared mission because we are a covenantal people; our fate is inextricably bound one to another. History teaches us that even during the most cataclysmic times our people did not deviate from the Jewish narrative: the preciousness of life, family, community and continuity.

My vision for the future is both simple and radical. I pine for a bold and transformative era where more children are born, adopted, fostered and reared in loving Jewish homes.

Lisa Stern, a Hancock Park attorney, has long been active in local Jewish causes and spearheaded litigation that forced Nazi-era insurance companies to pay benefits to families of Holocaust victims.

Joan Hyler:
“The next generation must learn.”

We are at a key moment — our culture must engage a conversation between the Heeb generation and The Federation generation. The way to do this is to develop a single citywide program that will identify, train and involve these young up-and-coming adults. The program must transcend organizational and denominational boundaries.

We who have come before already know the essentialness of The Jewish Federation, synagogues, the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, etc. The next generation must learn and, indeed, must take over. To make this transition successful, these vital organizations will have to do something that they don’t always do well: work together. The future of the Jewish community in Los Angeles depends on a focused collaboration among these well-funded, mainstream institutions.

As someone who helped initiate start-up groups in Los Angeles (MorningStar Commission under Hadassah and the National Foundation of Jewish Culture’s Entertainment Council), I’ve witnessed the difficulty in getting these large unwieldy institutions to talk to one another. They must do so, and open up to new conversations with the 20-somethings who are pouring into public life — or waiting for the right invitation.

Along the way, we must embrace the tension of not knowing who and what is next.

Joan Hyler, a former William Morris Agency senior vice president, runs Hyler Management, a boutique entertainment company and agency.

Rachel Levin:
“Bring back salons.”

Conversation. That is my “bold” idea to help invigorate Jewish life (and just plain life) in Los Angeles — good old, face-to-face, word-flying, idea-exchanging talk. In a city dominated by cell phones, Blackberries and dinner reservations, the idea of inviting people to your home to sit in person and talk about things that matter may just be a radical notion.

Specifically, I am suggesting we bring back salons — a structure for conversation that originated in 16th-century France, eventually making its way to 19th-century Germany, where the most important salons were run by Jewish women. These evenings mixed Jews and non-Jews, artists and aristocrats and according to some, were “nothing less than central to the development of modernity.”

Lest I scare you off with the weight of these previous gatherings, have no fear. I am not talking about the wittiest of hostesses and guests the likes of Klimt or Rodin. At their core, salons are just “talking parties” and, according to Mireille Silcoff, who started one in Toronto (and is the inspiration for this idea), for a salon to work you only need four things: (1) a willing host; (2) a good mix of people (you don’t want “like minds to sit there and be in agreement all night”); (3) someone to keep the conversation on track; and (4) food and drink. Add to that a topic of your choice – anything from “Jewish Guilt and Pleasure” to “What’s great about our city/What’s missing?” and you’re set. (See www.rebooters.net to download topic ideas and readings.) Now imagine if 100 of these were happening around the city – with people of all ages and backgrounds. Imagine how they could change the way people experience community – not to mention the new ideas they could spark. Now go talk amongst yourselves!

Rachel Levin is the associate director of Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation.

Rabbi Marvin Hier:
“24-hour satellite network….”

Today, the majority of Jews are unaffiliated, and our challenge is how best to reach them. In a world dominated by media and technology, one of the answers is through the medium of television. The time has come for the creation of a 24-hour satellite network that would combine films, concerts, theater, educational programs and live coverage of breaking news events that have particular relevance to Jews around the world. After all, there are specific cable networks for African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, etc.

While it is true that such an undertaking would require significant funds, it is also true that the Jewish community has the resources and its prominence would surely be an incentive for the major network and cable television providers to offer the programming.

Let us remember that our world has changed. If we want to reach the unaffiliated, we must think beyond our small neighborhood and the traditional methods to deliver the message of Jewish continuity as widely as possible.

Rabbi Marvin Hier is the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance.

Zev Yaroslavsky:
“We cannot afford to be silent or absent from the compelling issues facing our community.”

Years ago, when I was active in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, there were two Jewish Community Relations Committees that made a huge difference. The JCRC chapters in San Francisco (under the leadership of the legendary Earl Raab), and Cleveland, Ohio, stood tall and pushed the envelope of social activism. They successfully rallied the Jewish and non-Jewish community to pressure our government and the international community to do the right thing. Our cause was helped, our community was energized and our relations with other communities were strengthened.

It’s time to bring that formula to Los Angeles.

The JCRC of The Jewish Federation should be a forum for discussion, advocacy and action on the issues that affect us and our relations with others. The JCRC should be invigorated by making room at the table for representatives of the wide variety of stakeholders within our community. This should include the breadth of the religious spectrum, our diverse social welfare and social action organizations, and the myriad active youth movements.

We cannot afford to be silent or absent from the compelling issues facing our community or our neighbors at this critical time. We should speak out on foreign affairs, domestic policy, immigration and much more. Our voices need to be constructively heard both within and outside our organizational walls.

We really don’t have a minute to waste.

Zev Yaroslavsky is a Los Angeles County supervisor.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis:
“We need a believable Jewish theology, not a set of dogmas.”

Can the Siddur be taught without Jewish theology? Can you pray without a conception of God? Can you read the Torah or haftorah without understanding the philosophy of the Bible? Can you observe the Sabbath or keep kosher without understanding its sense of purpose?

You can.

It is being done in school and shul, and to our great loss. We have been taught and learned to mimic the “how,” “when,” and “where” of ritual behavior, absent the “why” and “what for.” That sort of practice will not satisfy our spiritual and moral yearnings.

Jewish theology deals with ultimate questions: to whom do we pray; for what do we pray; and can we pray for anything? What is the nature of the God we worship? What are the attributes of Godliness, and can they be imitated in our lives? Stripped of Jewish teleology — the Jewish sense of purpose — we are left with a mindless orthopraxy. Fluency in reading Hebrew does not reveal the meaning of the sacred prayer and biblical text.

The common complaint is boredom. Boredom signifies the emptiness that comes from belief-less living. Add responsive readings, enlarge the choir, multiply musical instrumentation, shorten the sermon and all to no avail. Prayer is poetry, but it is poetry believed in. Without belief, prayer is reduced to rhetoric.

Belonging, behaving and believing are the three marks of Jewish identity. We have wrongly thought that we can overcome the need to believe and fill its vacuum with belonging to institutions, paying dues and making contributions. We have wrongly thought that ritual busyness can substitute for the rationale of our behavior.

The Sabbath; the salting of the meat; the binding of the tefillin; and the blessing over lights, bread and wine — must not be gestures of mechanical behaviors.

We need a believable Jewish theology, not a set of dogmas. We call not for a monolithic set of doctrines, but for the adventure of the ethical and spiritual wrestling with our angels of conscience. Our goal is to persuade the so-called Jewish atheists and acquaint them with the rich theological alternatives within the Jewish tradition. The role of Jewish theology is to awake in our people the excitement and moral sensibility of ideas as ideals, which makes our earned belief system credible and actionable.

C.S. Lewis sagely wrote, “When a person ceases to believe in something, it is not that he believes in nothing, but that he believes in anything.”

Human nature, Jewish human nature as well, abhors a vacuum. A theological hole is soon filled with magic, superstition and cultic sectarianism. Neither esthetics nor edifices can serve as surrogates for the foundation of religious rationale. The three intertwining threads of belonging, behaving and believing must not be unraveled.

Harold Schulweis is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Daniel Sokatch:
“Jewish tradition is just as insistent that Jews respect the rights of workers as it is that Jews adhere to the rules of kashrut.”

Observant Jews in Los Angeles (and elsewhere) look for a certificate of kashrut, a heksher or a teudat heshgoha on a product or on the wall or window of a restaurant or market. These symbols tell them what they can buy and where they can eat. These foods, these restaurants, are certified as strictly following Jewish ritual observance.

Similarly, many Jews and non-Jews have come to rely on the county health department for its own version of a teudat heshgoha: letter grades, portrayed in bright colors on a uniform white placard – to determine, at a glance, the level of cleanliness at restaurants and markets. Whether a restaurant has a blue “A,” a green “B,” or (God forbid) a red “C” has become part of the calculation Angelenos make when considering where to dine.

But there is a next, important step to take. It’s beyond the reach of county inspectors but entirely in keeping with Jewish tradition. The notion of what is “kosher” should extend beyond preparation of food in accordance with ritual law; it should encompass the way in which human beings treat one another.

Jewish tradition is just as insistent that Jews respect the rights of workers as it is that Jews adhere to the rules of kashrut. We can tell if the restaurant we are about to enter is clean and kosher by looking for the certificates. But how does it treat employees?

Los Angeles needs a Human Rights heshgoha. We should insist that businesses that want Jewish customers treat their workers fairly and pay them a living wage. Those that do so could proudly display the blue aleph. And we would know to avoid the businesses with the red gimmel in the window – until they improve working conditions.

Who knows? Other community groups might just follow our lead, making Los Angeles fairer and better for all its inhabitants.

Daniel Sokatch is executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

 

Uri D. Herscher:
“Jews do not and cannot thrive as “a people that dwells apart.”

For many centuries of the Jewish people’s history, the world outside was hostile at best, lethal at worst. In such a world, insularity was tempting, and sometimes essential. We now live in a nation that strives, if not always successfully, to realize democratic ideals that include openness and inclusiveness. The Skirball Cultural Center was founded on the conviction that Jews need to respond in kind, that Jews do not and cannot thrive as “a people that dwells apart.”

And full Jewish participation means that our good works, too, must resist insularity. The Jewish obligation to help the needy, to heal the sick, to school the unschooled only begins in the Torah. It ends on the street, whether that street runs through Fairfax or Pacoima.

If we offer a Judaism that stops at the margins of the Jewish community, we will have marginal Jews. They will walk a narrow path, and a futile one. For we have learned, to our sorrow, that unless the society at large is safe, Jews will never be safe. In an open society, insularity is a grave danger. Even if we could exist in a vacuum, there would be no air to breathe. Whatever the future holds for the Jews, our destiny is tied to the society as a whole, the two strands intertwined — a double helix, like life itself.

When the Torah commands, “Open your hand to your needy brother,” it does not qualify the statement. The person in need is not subjected to an identity test. Jewish concern is ultimately human concern.

We should discover and give voice to people within and beyond the Jewish community. Examples matter! We must seek out opportunities — as individuals and through our organizations — to make positive examples of ourselves. And we should focus the benefits of our good deeds where such acts are most needed — outside the Jewish community as well as within. To open our hands to those in need is to open them as wide as we can.

Uri D. Herscher is founding president and CEO of the Skirball Cultural Center.

Dr. Michael B. Held:
“Build inclusive schools where all students benefit from diversity.”

As awareness of “full inclusion” grows, the distinction between “regular” and “special” education is changing. In truth, every child has both typical and special features and Jewish education should be for every child regardless of ability or challenge.

By typical standards, 10 percent of all students have special needs. Given that, we would expect to find 1,000 students with special needs out of the 10,000 enrolled in local Jewish day schools. But fewer than 100 such students have been identified in this category. Why are so many students apparently excluded and how do we go about creating “inclusive” Jewish schools?

Largely because current efforts to help special-needs children are simply inadequate.

Local educators have sincerely tried to address the need, by adding on special services, but in a piecemeal fashion. Rather, we can build inclusive schools where all students benefit from diversity, state of the art curriculum, and a truly collaborative, team-based approach.

In other words, there needs to be a paradigm shift from the goal of simply creating make-do programs to adopting a human rights model, guaranteeing full access for all Jewish students.

As utopian as that sounds, it is the only way to create and sustain access for special needs children and improve education for all students.

And it is doable. Anyone who doubts this should visit the CHIME Charter Elementary School in Woodland Hills, an inclusive public school. CHIME’s Academic Performance Index (API) jumped an amazing 77 points in one year. Further, the school was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a national model for innovative education.

It is not about the money; it is about transforming Jewish education by including 900 new students who belong in our school system with programming that is educationally sound and morally right. Let’s not delay!

Dr. Michael B. Held is the founder and executive director of the Etta Israel Center.

Rabbi Boruch S. Cunin:
“Any child in Los Angeles who wants a Jewish education should get one.”

Any serious discussion about revitalizing Los Angeles’ Jewish community must focus on one thing: our children. They’re our most precious resource, and we must protect and nurture them to safeguard our future as a people. Sadly, we’re neglecting this responsibility each day that we fail to guarantee them access to an affordable Jewish education.

This is a real crisis. Whenever a child is denied a Jewish education by prohibitive tuition costs, we lose something that can’t be replaced. We squander a chance to impart our values to a new generation- and we abandon the future leaders of our community.

Simply put, any child in Los Angeles who wants a Jewish education should get one. At Chabad schools, we strive to accept every deserving child who comes to us, regardless of family income, so that nobody is denied for lack of funds. Now our entire community must step forward with generous scholarships for all of Los Angeles’ Jewish schools to ensure that no child is ever turned away, anywhere.

Other major American Jewish communities are already doing this. Does it cost money? Yes. But we live in a city of riches. And if we don’t make this investment today, we’ll pay a terrible price tomorrow.

Rabbi Boruch S. Cunin is director of West Coast Chabad Lubavitch.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley:
“Outreach Centers for Jewish Life and Learning as ubiquitous as Starbucks….”

I am pro-synagogue, but synagogues as they now function do not serve all Jews well enough. The problem for these Jews and other potentially interested spiritual seekers is that affiliated Jewish life is too expensive, too boring, too irrelevant, too far and just too “other.”

That’s a shame, because it’s vital to bring in as many unaffiliated Jews as possible to the wonders and beauties of Jewish life, study and practice. And as a people, we need all possible Jews to commit to Judaism and to the state of Israel. Many good people and good places are taking on this mission, but they are not networked nor coordinated, and they are under funded.

What’s needed, communitywide, is the outreach energy of Chabad and Aish HaTorah. We need to reach the hundreds of thousands of Jews (and un-churched Americans) who will not become Orthodox, who may be turned off by worship services, who might not believe in God, for whom Hebrew is (at least for now) too high a threshold for participation in Jewish life.

I would like to see Outreach Centers for Jewish Life and Learning as ubiquitous as Starbucks, as inviting as the as the first sentence of a leather-bound classic. They should feature libraries and bookstores filled with Jewish books, music and videos — for all ages, intellects and interests. There should be ongoing classes conducted by deep, learned engaging teachers who will bring the profundities of Jewish wisdom to bear on people’s lives. And these classes should be geared to different types of beliefs, learning styles, ages, and goals. These gathering spots should include a Beit Midrash (study hall) — some should remain open 24 hours a day.

Because some people are turned off by worship, or by conventional styles of worship, there should be more create ways to celebrate Shabbat. Maybe a group could read and discuss Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Buber, Harold and Larry Kushner, etc. There could be Learners’ Minyans for those who would like to break the code of Jewish prayer. How about music-oriented experiences, meditative experiences, even political discussion (with knowledgeable, fair and balanced moderators)?

As for the next steps…. Well, the possibilities are many, but first a few caveats.

This effort will take substantial funding. Jewish educational institutions – undergrad program, grad programs and seminaries must be ready and able to produce hundreds of talented teachers (who ought to receive excellent salaries and benefits, and lots of variegated support in their work). And synagogues and other communal institutions need to be ready to transform.

What are we waiting for?

How wonderful it would be to send the word out: “All unaffiliated Jews: Come home. We are now ready.”

Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah Congregation, and serves as provost and professor of liturgy and rabbinics at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.

Dr. Bruce Powell
“Pay all, or a significant part, of every third child’s Jewish day school tuition.”

Millions of dollars have been expended by our fabulous national mega-donors for the Birthright Project — two free weeks in Israel for college-age students who have never been on an organized program. This is real vision.

What I now suggest is the next big step: The Birthrate Project.

Married couples with two children, and who value Jewish day school education, have told me that they have chosen not to have a third or fourth child because they cannot afford one more child in a Jewish day school or Jewish overnight camp. These choices portend a Jewish demographic reality that does not even replace our current population of Jews in America, given that many who are physically able have one or no children at all. If we believe that Judaism, and by extension, Jews, have an important contribution to make to America and the world, this situation cannot stand. We have not even replaced, in 60 years, those souls lost in the Shoah.

My “Modest Proposal” is to launch the Birthrate Project where the national community makes a commitment to pay all, or a significant part, of every third (or perhaps fourth) child’s Jewish day school tuition, kindergarten through 12th grade and/or for Jewish overnight camp. All awards would be based on financial need. A fourth or fifth child might also be funded in partnership with the local Jewish schools. If, for example, this funding produces 100,000 new kids, the total yearly cost at, say, $15,000 a year for tuition, is $1.5 billion.

Imagine the historic implications for the community, over time, of a 100,000 new, Jewish human beings all in possession of deep Jewish knowledge, vision and values from day school — or deeply identified through their Jewish camp experiences. Now imagine our Jewish future without this new life.

I’m ready to follow up on this idea. Are you?

Bruce Powell is head of school at New Community Jewish High School.

Randall Kaplan
“Adopt-a-cause, create a fun event, and make it easy for volunteers”

Our business model was relatively simple. We started with the idea for a different kind of fundraiser — a fun and cool event for a great cause — and then recruited between 20 and 30 of our most talented friends to serve on our planning committee and sell tickets and sponsorships.

But here’s where we were different. We weren’t well-heeled people in our 70s, or even in our 60s or 50s. We didn’t do this after our primary careers, after we’d made money. We were in our 20s.

And that’s how The Justice Ball was born about 10 years ago. Each year, it raises vital dollars for Bet Tzedek, a legal aid service for the poor, disabled, elderly and homeless. During nine straight sellouts, we’ve raised more than $3.6 million — making the Justice Ball the most successful under-40 nonprofit fundraiser in the country. Besides making donations, our more than 16,000 attendees and contributors have been introduced to the wonderful work of Bet Tzedek.

We started The Justice Ball at ages when conventional thought dictated that we would be more focused on careers than on philanthropy. In reality, most people in their 20s are interested in philanthropy and simply don’t know how to get involved. In essence, we made it easy for them — we formulated our idea after choosing a great cause, and with those in hand we targeted a specific but untapped group of talented volunteers.

This “adopt-a-cause, create a fun event, and make-it-easy for volunteers” approach is transportable and would work in other contexts. There are tens of thousands of young professionals in Los Angeles (and elsewhere) who want to get involved. Each synagogue could appoint a rabbi or lay leader to identify future leaders. Nearly 130 synagogues exist in Los Angeles, and if each of these adopted a cause and put its best young leaders together, this formidable but unused human capital could be harvested to do an incredible amount of good.

Randall Kaplan is CEO of JUMP Investors.

Gerard Bubis
“No economic barriers limiting the creativity and creative continuity of Jewish experiences….”

We live in a silo community — many vibrant communities throughout the city that connect and cooperate, if at all, intermittently throughout the years.

My wish is to ascertain, in a thoughtful and representative way, the driving Jewish visions for the greater Los Angeles Jewish community. Are people and institutions ready to set forth an over-aching vision for our collective future? Are there those who would act to bring those visions into reality?

I propose a series of town meetings throughout the community. Participants would be asked to ponder:

Is it important that a Jewish community exist in Los Angeles that is devoted to the cultural, social, psychological, and physical betterment of Jews here and around the world?

If the answer is some form of yes, then I would want to explore exactly how to enhance Jewish identity and how to expand interactive and purposeful relations with likeminded Jews throughout the world.

I would have as many venues as possible; the gatherings would be heavily advertised. I would train 100 or so discussion leaders to keep the focus on the question. Discussions could then lead to specific proposals to satisfy those answering the question in the affirmative.

The first stage of the follow-up would be bringing together 15 to 20 opinionmakers, shakers and doers from the worlds of business, the arts, academia, the rabbinate, Jewish educators and communal professionals. Their charge would be to refine the suggestions into an action program, set priorities and put a price tag on the visions about which there was sufficient consensus. This group would become the sales force to package and sell this set of visions to those individuals and organizations that could assure and underwrite the effort.

What do I imagine could come of such an enterprise?

I’d like to see no economic barriers limiting the creativity and creative continuity of Jewish experiences for individuals and families

What if education, trips to Israel, memberships in all manner of organizations were truly open to all, regardless of economic or social status? How much more would Jewish life flourish if more scholarships were available for those prepared to spend the lives as educators, communal professionals and rabbis serving the Jewish community? What if subsidies were available to pay decent wages for those now staffing services that assist the Jewish community in a manner related to their Judaism?

We live in a golden city and could produce a truly Golden Age of energetic,

creative and purposeful Jewish life here. Are we ready? I would hope so.

Professor Gerald Bubis is the founding director of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Presently he is vice president and fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and adjunct professor of social work at USC.

Rabbi Laura Geller
“A year off between high school and college to volunteer for a Jewish “Peace Corps.”

What if we could change the culture so that most American Jewish teenagers took a year off between high school and college to volunteer for a Jewish “Peace Corps” in the United States or somewhere around the world? What if this year of service was organized in such a way that these young Jewish people would be placed in meaningful work situations with social justice or social service organizations so that they would be serving the larger community? What if, at the same time, they would be living together with other Jewish young people, studying Jewish texts about justice, making decisions together about Shabbat and kashrut, and reflecting together on the work they were each doing?

What if that year were sufficiently funded so that these young Jewish people could earn enough money to live (and maybe even save something for college), and that the program could support the training and placement of spiritual mentors, counselors and resident advisers who would live with the participants? What if other young Jews around the same age from all over the world, including Israelis (before army service), also participated in the program so that all these young people came to understand the reality of Jewish peoplehood simply by living, working, learning and becoming friends with Jewish people from different backgrounds?

Maybe then … our kids would actually be ready for college when they got there, because they would have come to understand that to be a mensch isn’t measured by SAT scores.

Maybe then… these young people would have a better understanding of the world, because they would have lived in another culture. And they would be more grateful for all the privileges that they have because they will have worked with people who have so much less.

Maybe then … they would feel more able to make a difference in the world. And they would feel part of the Jewish people, because they would have developed deep and lasting relationships with Jews from other countries and other perspectives.

Maybe then … they would be turned on to Torah study, and understand how profound the connection between Jewish learning and living can be.

And maybe then … the foundation of their future Jewish lives would be enriched by an experience that transformed their lives.

Laura Geller is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
“A community-funded, community-owned and community-operated House of Torah Learning.”

I dream that one day, Los Angeles Jewry will have the vision to create a community-funded, community-owned and community-operated House of Torah Learning. This centrally located House of Learning would not be Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Persian, Israeli or Russian. It would belong to the entire Jewish community. Its common agenda, ideology and language will be one and the same — Torah study. It would offer no academic degrees, no rabbinic ordination and no teaching diplomas. There would be no prayer services, no “prestigious fellowships,” and no one rabbi would be called “the rabbi” in this building. This House of Learning would be open to every Jew, irrespective of background, age group or financial status.

In this House of Learning, Jews would seek spirituality through the intellect, finding God in a page of Talmud. Singles would ask each other out on a “study date,” and would meet at the House of Learning to get to know each other over a Midrashic text. Lay leaders would gather there to take a break from community meetings, and at the end of the night, new ideas would be inspired and born out of an intense study of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. Newlywed lovers would spend a few hours reading Yehuda Ha-Levi’s poems and S.Y. Agnon’s stories, and parents would sit with their children and study Rashi’s commentary to the Torah. Text study would no longer be the realm of a select few rabbis and scholars, but it would belong to everybody. It would suddenly be cool to sit and study text, and the House of Learning would become L.A. Jewry’s hottest hangout. The new Jewish greeting in Los Angeles will be, “Hi, how are you, and what are you learning these days?”

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.


Janice Kamenir-Reznik
“The Circuit Rabbis’ services would be provided free of charge.”

All too often, affiliated Jews and the leaders who serve them, become territorial. This territorialism often clouds the greater sense of purpose of what it should mean to be a Jew or a Jewish leader. Their priority becomes the survival or success of their particular institution, rather than a desire also to serve the broader community or to propose a broader and grander Jewish message. Such behavior presents a special problem in Los Angeles because the Jewish community is so large and dispersed — and because it takes a lot to stimulate people to positive Jewish action in Los Angles’ Hollywood-centered society. Thus, dynamic leaders and dynamic programs need to be even more dynamic.

Here’s one potential remedy: The community could hire 10 outstanding rabbis and/or other leaders to serve as “Circuit Rabbis.” They would travel to various L.A. venues, providing dynamic impetus to stimulate new programs in existing institutions. The Circuit Rabbis would have no bond whatsoever to any existing institution; nor would they have to fundraise as part of their jobs. Their only objective would be to serve as a resource and to work together with the synagogue and organizational leaders and rabbis to improve and elevate programming, learning, and Jewish life. The Circuit Rabbis would be cutting-edge thinkers and effective, collaborative and dynamic doers.

The Circuit Rabbis’ services would be provided free of charge, inasmuch as this program would be underwritten by visionary and generous members of the Jewish community.

Janice Kamenir-Reznik is president of Jewish World Watch.

John R. Fishel
“Our mission is to work toward true community.”

A recent issue of Commentary Magazine contains a provocative article by two well-known Jewish scholars. They hypothesize that the concept of Jewish peoplehood is becoming rarer as efforts to stress individualistic approaches to Judaism and Jewish life in the U.S. increase.

This dilemma manifests itself visibly in Los Angeles. We live here as associated Jews in a vast expanse, but are we a “community” at all or merely a highly diverse group of individuals? Do we coalesce in a meaningful way or are we just occasionally bound together by religious or political ideology, geographic residence or, perhaps, ethnic origin?

I believe our mission is to work toward true community.

A Los Angeles Jewish community that could meld the entrepreneurial creative energies and dynamic singular expressions of Jewish identity with the traditional strength of a collective concern for all Jews as a people, regardless of their beliefs, could set the tone for a potential revolution across the country.

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

 

Young Lawyer Has a Ball With Bet Tzedek


As a young summer associate with a Los Angeles law firm, Jeffrey Sklar looked forward to attending his first Justice Ball. He wanted to see ’80s icon Billy Idol do the “Rebel Yell” live. He wanted to hang out with other young attorneys and law students. He wasn’t going for any high-minded motives.

Back in 2000, Sklar, like most of the 20- and 30-somethings who go to the annual Justice Ball, had only the vaguest notion of what Bet Tzedek, the event’s sponsor and a local Jewish legal-aid outfit, does. That would soon change.

Sklar, an attorney at Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan LLP, went to the Ball and partied with friends. He also listened as Bet Tzedek executives briefly took the stage and talked up their organization and its need for dedicated volunteers to help society’s most vulnerable achieve a degree of justice. Their message resonated with Sklar, who, as a young boy, remembers dropping coins into his family’s tzedekah box. Now, six years later, Sklar is a regular legal volunteer, he’s helped recruit other lawyer friends to volunteer time, and he’s helping to plan this year’s event, which will take place July 8 at the Hollywood Palladium, featuring the Go-Go’s.

Founded in 1997, the Justice Ball has grown into one of the nation’s most successful nonprofit fundraisers/parties targeting young professionals, Jews and non-Jews alike. Over the past nine years, more than 16,000 attorneys, financiers and others have attended the soirees, and scores of them have gone on to become Bet Tzedek contributors and volunteers. Some, like Sklar, have gone on to serve on Bet Tzedek’s Justice Ball planning committee and even on to the board of directors, making the event more than just a fundraiser — it’s an important gateway to the organization.

“The Justice Ball is absolutely a good way for young blood to get involved,” said Bet Tzedek board member Brette Simon, a law partner at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP whose first exposure to the legal aid society came from attending the mega-parties.

To date, Justice Balls have raised more than $3.2 million in ticket sales and corporate sponsorships, said Randall Kaplan, the Justice Ball’s creator and cofounder of high-tech giant Akamai Technologies, Inc. Last year’s event raised $425,000, or nearly 8 percent of Bet Tzedek’s $5.5 million budget, Executive Director Mitch Kamin said. This year, the 10th anniversary gala is expected to be even bigger. Hopes are the popular L.A. Go-Go’s will draw more than 3,000 revelers and raise as much as $500,000, Kamin said.

“Everyone in the philanthropic world is puzzling over how you engage the truly young generation of professionals who haven’t been necessarily taught by their parents that giving is part of their religious or social responsibility,” Kamin said. “This is a chance for us to introduce ourselves to them, give them initial exposure to Bet Tzedek and raise their consciousness.”

Bet Tzedek’s success at reaching the coveted demographic of young Jewish professionals comes as other Jewish organizations are struggling to do the same. Faced with the growing competition from non-Jewish nonprofits, Jewish charities are grappling with a generation that, because of intermarriage and assimilation, often considers itself more American than Jewish, experts said. With young Jews standing to inherit billions over the next 20 years, finding a way to appeal to their generosity is perhaps the greatest challenge faced by Jewish charities.

In Los Angeles, Bet Tzedek is not alone in its success in appealing to this group. Young leadership initiatives at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, including its Young Leadership Division and the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund of Los Angeles, now account for about $5 million, or nearly 5 percent of The Federation’s annual campaign, said Craig Prizant, The Federation’s executive vice president for financial resource development.

Still, The Federation’s strong showing appears to be the exception rather than the rule in the organized Jewish world. Simply put, the stodgy chicken-dinner fundraisers favored by so many Jewish philanthropies fail to bring young movers-and-shakers to the table. The MTV generation would rather rock ‘n’ roll all night long.

The Justice Ball gives them a chance to do just that, along with learning a thing or two about Bet Tzedek’s mission of offering free legal aid to the poor, sick, elderly and homeless.

Soon after his first Justice Ball, Sklar joined the group’s planning committee. Like others touched by Justice Balls before him, he went on to volunteer his legal services to Bet Tzedek, including assisting a Holocaust survivor obtain restitution from the Hungarian government.

“As a lawyer, you make a decent living. You get to sit up here in real tall buildings with a real nice view. You get to drive a real nice car,” he said. “So the bottom line is you need to give back, you have to get back. This is a great way for me to do so.”

For more information on the Justice Ball, visit www.thejusticeball.org.

 

John Fishel


On Feb. 26, more than 150 volunteers gathered early at the headquarters of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles for the annual Super Sunday megafundraiser. Having filled up on conversation, coffee and bagels, the enthusiastic, well-dressed men and women sat side-by-side at tables holding banks of telephones.

In 12 hours, 1,700 volunteers at three locations knew they had to raise almost 10 percent of The Federation’s entire annual campaign. Super Sunday can set the tone for the year. And with government funding shrinking, The Federation’s 22 aid agencies counted on this day as never before to help them meet the growing demand for their services. The Federation is a like a Jewish United Way; it acts as a single central source for donations, which it then distributes to various worthy causes. More specifically, The Federation supports Jews in need and programs that reflect on Jews here in Los Angeles, as well as around the world.

Before things kicked off, with so much at stake, the assembled got a final pep talk, but Federation President John Fishel, the man who holds possibly the single most important Jewish job in Los Angeles, didn’t deliver it. On this, the most important money-raising day for The L.A. Federation, where was Fishel?

Over the past 14 years, Fishel, a young-looking 57, has quietly, firmly and steadily led the Jewish philanthropic organization, determined to somehow unify the Southland’s geographically dispersed and largely unaffiliated Jewish community. In a city that prizes glitz and glamour, Fishel has shunned the spotlight, the backslapping and the glad-handing, preferring a low-key, almost professorial approach that places a premium on methodical problem solving. Whether attending the 50th anniversary party for the Westside Jewish Community Center, lobbying politicians to loosen the purse strings for Jewish nonprofits or taking a potential donor on a tour of Beit T’Shuvah, a Federation beneficiary agency that treats addiction partly through Jewish spirituality, Fishel routinely works six- or seven-day, 70-hour weeks.

“He’s the James Brown of the Jewish community, the hardest-working man in L.A. Jewry,” Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss said. “I see him everywhere.”

Although in some ways, Fishel is everywhere but nowhere. A bearded, slender man with a direct gaze, the shy Fishel seems to prefer keeping his own counsel. He sometimes materializes at events in his well-tailored suits and then slips away after talking to but a handful of folks.

Like Howard Hughes, The Federation president keeps his private self private. It is unlikely that many in the community know that the buttoned-down Fishel once sported long hair and promoted blues festivals in the early ’70s, or that he has never had a bar mitzvah.

Still, Fishel has left a notable mark in the Jewish world. He holds a bachelor’s in anthropology from the University of Michigan and once considered becoming an academic, and he has earned praise for his efforts on behalf of Jews abroad, especially in Israel. An internationalist in a largely domestic job, Fishel helped create the successful Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership and has put the plight of Ethiopian Jews on the North American Jewish agenda.

Closer to home, his calm, analytical demeanor has allowed him to react effectively during crises, from the 1994 Northridge Earthquake to Hurricane Katrina. When others might panic, he coolly devises a plan of action for bringing far-flung members of the community together.

Fishel has fared less well on some of The Federation’s bread-and-butter everyday challenges. On his watch, several Jewish community centers have shut down and the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) has lost influence and standing (see stories on page 17). Most important, The Federation’s annual campaign, has grown sluggishly at a time when community needs have exploded.

So where was Fishel?

On this year’s Super Sunday, he was just where you’d expect: at The Federation’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters. In keeping with his low-key persona, though, Fishel stayed in the background, while others delivered inspiration to the volunteers.

Arriving at 7:30 a.m. — a full hour and a half before the fundraiser officially began — he greeted participants with a smile and expressions of thanks. Fishel spoke with Federation staff members to ensure that everything was under control. Then, he called potential donors and gave an interview to a KTLA reporter: “It’s wonderful to see people who live in different parts of the community, with different backgrounds and different ideologies, come together in a unified manner,” and chatted with bigwigs, including Councilman Weiss.

Fishel was just getting started. Around 11 a.m., he and a couple of Federation lay leaders left headquarters for the phone banks in the Valley. Later, he made his way to the Super Sunday fundraiser in the South Bay. That night, The Federation president returned to Wilshire Boulevard to mingle with the last shift of volunteers, mostly college students. He finally left The Federation to return to his Cheviot Hills home sometime after 10 p.m. — logging more than a 14-hour day.

This year’s Super Sunday raised about $4.4 million, about $100,000 less than last year, but still a solid financial foundation. And those involved included young and old, the religious and nonreligious, Israelis, Persians and Russians — an unprecedented rainbow of Southland Jews.

FEDERATION MATTERS

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is the central address for the local Jewish community, from helping to underwrite the cost of Jewish burials to subsidizing free groceries for the poor, The Federation is involved in myriad vital facets, big and small, of Los Angeles Jewish life.

“If we didn’t have The [L.A.] Federation, we would have to create it,” said Steven Windmueller, director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles. “Ultimately, a community needs an infrastructure for prioritizing, organizing, programming and crisis management.”

Federation initiatives include literacy programs for elementary and preschool students, a venture philanthropy fund that invests in fledgling businesses that benefit the Jewish community and, most recently, a program that coordinates services to Jewish children with developmental or severe learning disabilities.

The Federation most often makes its presence felt through 22 beneficiary agencies. Federation dollars help subsidize the SOVA Food Pantry Program for the hungry, pay for job training offered by Jewish Vocational Service and support the Jewish Free Loan Association, which offers Jewish couples interest-free loans of up to $10,000 for fertility treatments, among other programs.

“There are old people, children, homeless people, the disenfranchised and other people who constantly need help,” said Terry Bell, a former Federation chair who headed the search committee that recommended hiring Fishel. “We do extremely important things that people aren’t even aware of that wouldn’t get done without The Federation.”

The Federation’s reach goes well beyond Southern California. In times of crisis, The Federation has raised millions to help struggling communities around the world, most recently in Argentina. Federation allocations support everything from sending local college students to Israel to subsidizing Jewish day schools. Overseas, Federation dollars have helped support the renaissance of Jewish life in the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

In some ways, The L.A. Federation is flourishing as never before. The charity’s international programs are stronger than ever. Under Fishel, the organization has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to respond to emergencies both at home and abroad, despite the bureaucratic nature of the federation system. The Federation has raised millions for special campaigns for Israel, Soviet Jews and other causes, and has an endowment of $67 million.

Locally, KOREH L.A., a literacy program that is reaching more students than ever, has burnished the Jewish philanthropy’s reputation, introducing scores of volunteers and clients in need to The Federation and its mission. Moreover, at Fishel’s prodding, The Federation increased its annual allocations to the Bureau of Jewish Education by $1 million, funding scores of scholarships for Jewish day school students and capital improvement projects at their schools.

But The Federation’s annual campaign, its lifeblood, has grown anemically during the Fishel era. In particular, The Federation has been largely unable to reach Hollywood money or attract huge donations from affluent Jews not already involved. A shrinking and aging donor base poses a real threat to future giving. And there’s the looming challenge of appealing to younger Jews, a group more attracted to non-Jewish causes than past generations.

Graph

WHO ARE YOU?

Federation supporters know surprisingly little about the person most responsible for The Federation’s current and future prospects.

Ask board members, even those who consider Fishel a friend, and a steady stream of generic adjectives tumbles out: “Kind,” “brilliant,” “committed,” “thoughtful” and “hard-working,” come up most frequently. A JDate profile would provide more than that.

What about anecdotes?

Bell, the former Federation chair, said she and her husband hosted Fishel; his wife, Karen, and their daughter, Jessica, for one week at their home, back when Fishel was undergoing a second round of interviews for his current job. The Fishels, Bell said, were “easy to feed, easy to be around,” she said. “They didn’t demand anything.”

And what about John Fishel? What’s he like?

He’s well-read and interested in “everything under the sun,” conversant about art, politics, food, music and wine, Bell said.

Another Federation board member said he once saw Fishel materialize late one Saturday night at a jazz club clad in a leather jacket. They exchanged pleasantries.

Who is John Fishel?

He’s someone who wants to reveal the answer to that question on only a need-to-know basis. Through The Federation’s spokeswoman, Fishel turned down a request to trail him for the day during Super Sunday or to spend a large block of time watching him in action. Nor would he agree to a lunch or dinner appointment. Near the end of a second recent formal interview — and after years of contact — Fishel opened up, a little.

He was born in Cleveland in 1948. His late father, Richard, owned a company that manufactured sweaters. His late mother, Adelee, stayed home to care for John and younger brother Jim. His family belonged to a local Reform synagogue, where Fishel was confirmed but never bar mitzvahed.

At a young age, Fishel decided that he wanted to venture into the larger world. Even then, other cultures fascinated him. He majored in anthropology at the University of Michigan and later began, but never completed, an anthropology master’s program there.

Leaving the university, Fishel parlayed his interest in blues and jazz into a turn as a music promoter in the early 1970s, partnering with his brother, Jim. John Fishel promoted shows featuring B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf and went on to produce the famed Ann Arbor Blues Festival. He developed enough of a reputation that Rolling Stone once quoted him.

Tiring of the hectic life of a promoter, Fishel decided to become a social worker. Graduating from the University of Michigan in 1972 with a master’s in social work, he soon landed back in Cleveland as a caseworker in the Welfare Department. A year later, he headed to Africa for an extended backpacking adventure.

His Jewish journey began a few years later, when Fishel took a position doing community work for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. There, he began to consider issues of Jewish identity and, on his own, studied Judaism and Jewish history. In effect, he began applying his anthropological training to his own roots. Fishel soon became an activist in the Soviet Jewry movement.

Two years after arriving in Philadelphia, he moved on to became director of the New York-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS, which has helped Jewish and other immigrants coming to the United States for more than 100 years. Through his new job, Fishel developed a deepening appreciation for the plight of Jews around the world, especially those fleeing post-revolutionary Iran and the Soviet Union.

Years later, after becoming executive vice president of the Jewish Federation in Montreal, Fishel finally made his first trip behind the Iron Curtain. In 1986, he visited Moscow and Lithuania. He came armed with hard-to-obtain Judaica and blue jeans that he gave to local Jews. He also secretly met with Refuseniks, Jews denied permission to emigrate.

In Lithuania, Fishel joined a group of Refuseniks who, in a park near the capital city of Vilnius, placed homemade Jewish Stars, fashioned from cardboard, where Nazis had executed Jews.

“I was really scared,” Fishel said. “But you want to know something? I figured, what’s the worst thing that’s going to happen? They’ll detain me and then let me go. I’m an American citizen. Those guys were stuck there. They were truly courageous.”

THE GOOD; THE NOT SO GOOD

Fishel never visited Israel until after he turned 40, but he has since traveled to the Holy Land more than 50 times, spending time with prime ministers, Russian and Ethiopian immigrants and fellow leaders in the Jewish communal world.

“I happen to believe that Israel is our Jewish state,” he said. “I think that the centrality of Israel as a focal point of Judaism and Jewish life historically and in contemporary times is very unique and very special.”

Fishel has played a major role in the successful Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, a 9-year-old program that fosters cooperation and connections between local Jews and Jews in Tel Aviv in education, health, culture and economics.

Under the multifaceted partnership, 18 Tel Aviv and 18 local schools have been “twinned,” sharing programming and lesson plans and frequently interacting via video conferencing and e-mail. In addition, curators from museums in Tel Aviv and Los Angeles, including the Getty and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, have participated in institutional exchanges. Federation and other community leaders also successfully lobbied Israeli politicians to allow Tel Aviv to become the first Israeli city to issue municipal bonds (the proceeds funded a parking garage). The list goes on.

The Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership is “a jewel and an unusually creative and innovative approach to relating to Israel in a new way,” said Gerald Bubis, a former Federation vice president and the founding director of Hebrew Union College. “That is, as a partnership rather than the old liberal, colonial way of sending money to a benighted people.”

More than that, participating local residents have gained a greater appreciation of the larger Jewish world, their own Jewish identity and the importance of The Federation, experts said. The Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership later spawned the successful Federation-sponsored Los Angeles-Baltics Partnership.

The Tel Aviv program might never have been birthed without Fishel’s dedication. Originally, the Jewish Agency, which called on federations across the United States to fund regional development in Israel, wanted The L.A. Federation to link with either Galilee in the north or the Negev in the south. Fishel, with the support of the lay leadership, rejected those options. Instead, he chose Tel Aviv, a large metropolis more appealing to local Jews because of its accessibility, sophistication, cultural life and large pool of potential individual and institutional partners.

Fishel’s willingness to defy the Jewish Agency, the bedrock of the Jewish communal establishment, reflects his ability to think, in his words, “out of the box,” especially on international issues. The Federation president would again employ that out-of-the-box thinking for the Jews of Ethiopia (see sidebar) and for Argentina’s Jewish community.

In December 2001, Argentina’s economy crashed. Almost overnight, the country’s middle class was plunged into penury; families lost their life savings. The crisis hit the Jewish community hard, with an estimated one-third of Argentina’s Jews falling into poverty.

Diana Fiedotin, a member of The Federation’s Israel and Overseas Committee, viewed the economic collapse firsthand while visiting the country in February 2002, to attend a wedding.

After Fiedotin returned to the United States, she started the Lifeline to Argentina with local Rabbi Sherre Z. Hirsch of Sinai Temple. Fishel suggested that Fiedotin expand her fundraising to synagogues across the city. The Federation president put Fiedotin in touch with Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Fishel later made an unsolicited gesture that floored Fiedotin: The Federation would offer a matching grant of up to $1 million to Lifeline to Argentina. The campaign eventually reached that target and, thanks to Fishel and The Federation’s generosity, Lifeline contributed $2 million to alleviate the suffering.

“He’s always open to new ways of raising money and creative ways of bringing different elements of this community together,” Fiedotin said. “I never could have done this without John. I and the Jewish community of Argentina owe him.”

Fishel’s international efforts, dating back to his work on behalf of Soviet Jewry, have won him widespread respect from colleagues, said Bob Aronson, chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. “We turn to him for advice and guidance,” he said.

Still, some in the community think Fishel focuses on overseas issues at the expense of a domestic agenda. Carmen H. Warschaw, a longtime Federation board member and former Southern California chair of the Democratic Party, said Fishel’s international emphasis meant less money for such important beneficiary agencies as Jewish Family Service and Jewish Vocational Service.

“There has to be more of a balance, with more of an emphasis on things in our front and backyards,” Warschaw said.

Fishel said he believes The Federation allocates its resources well to ensure that the nonprofit meets both local and international needs. He makes no apologies about helping Jews in need wherever they are.

“I’m very committed to the concept of Jewish people-hood,” Fishel said.

About 70 percent of every dollar the local Federation raises in its annual campaign supports domestic programs. Thirty percent goes for overseas programming and relief.

COOL IN A CRISIS

Fishel receives consistently high marks, even from detractors, for his ability to bring the community together in times of crisis.

Within 48 hours of the devastating Northridge Earthquake, The Federation president had overseen the production of a manual containing names and numbers of the agencies victims could call for counseling, health care, shelter and other services, said Irwin Field, a Federation Executive Committee member and past Federation chair.

“He was the one who really got everything rolling, made things happen and saw them through to the end,” said Field, who also chairs the board of L.A. Jewish Publications, publisher of The Jewish Journal. (The Journal is not affiliated with The Federation.)

At the same time, Fishel had to ascertain whether The Federation staff would have to leave the 6505 Wilshire headquarters because of earthquake damage. After experts concluded the structure had become unsafe, Fishel oversaw the evacuation and move into temporary quarters. He later helped raise $22 million to renovate and retrofit 6505, said Herb Gelfand, former Federation board chair.

After the 1999 shooting spree by a white supremicist at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, Fishel quickly showed up on the scene. The Federation helped arrange counseling for traumatized victims and took measures to improve the center’s security.

Fishel recently again displayed his knack for quick response. After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Fishel contacted Jewish federations and other agencies in Baton Rouge, La.; Jackson, Miss., and Houston to find out what evacuees fleeing to those cities needed. In just a few days, the L.A. Federation had raised $600,000 to help the Jewish and non-Jewish refugees.

The philanthropic group also brought local Jewish agencies together to provide therapy, job training and other services to homeless Katrina victims who made their way to the Southland. In addition, The Federation rented about a dozen trucks that transported clothing, canned food and other supplies collected by area synagogues to the Gulf Coast.

The Federation, at Fishel’s behest, also gave Hillel $20,000 to help underwrite the costs of sending students from USC and Cal State Northridge to the Gulf Coast to help with rebuilding efforts, said David Levy, executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council. The Federation’s generosity, he said, has improved its image among many Jewish college students, a demographic the philanthropic organization desperately wants to reach.

“John may be at his best when things are at their worst,” said Gelfand, the former Federation chair.

But some community leaders offer a more mixed assessment when it comes to issues not so clear-cut as providing emergency aid. One such complicated task is community building, which embodies the challenge of raising and distributing money, while simultaneously fostering Jewish identity.

The Boston Federation oversees two innovative adult Jewish education programs that have touched the lives of more than 2,700 area Jews and, in the process, strengthened ties to The Federation.

Me’ah (which means “100” in Hebrew) is a two-year, 100-hour intensive learning program that includes immersion in core Jewish texts, including the Hebrew Bible and rabbinics. More than 1,800 Bostonians have graduated from the course, which is heavily subsidized to maintain the low tuition price of $500 per person. The Boston Federation and Hebrew College also offer Ikkarim (“essence” in Hebrew), which provides Jewish education (and free child care during classes) for the parents of preschoolers.

“We want people to think it’s just as important to know Maimonides and love the Torah as it is to love Plato, Homer or Shakespeare,” said Barry Shrage, a leader of the effort and president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

The Boston Federation’s investment has probably already paid off. From 1995 to 2006, the annual campaign of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies increased by 57 percent to $34.2 million in a city of 200,000 Jews, growing at a significantly higher rate than the nation’s federations as a whole.

In contrast, a high-profile community-building effort in Los Angeles proved a bust.

In 2001, Fishel’s Federation lured Rabbi David Woznica to come West from New York City’s prestigious 92nd Street Y. In New York, Woznica oversaw thousands of hours of adult Jewish education and 35 high-profile lectures per year. More than 1,200 Jews regularly attended his High Holiday services. His travels and lectures around the world enhanced both his and the Y’s reputation.

In Los Angeles, Woznica was hired at a six-figure salary on the eve of Federation layoffs.

Then, critics said, The Federation never maximized Woznica’s talents by establishing forums for him to reach large numbers of Jews. So adrift was The Federation that it formed a special committee months after hiring Woznica to figure out how to best use him. The respected rabbi ended up becoming The Federation’s best-kept secret; he spent much of his time offering private tutorials to well-heeled donors and Federation executives. He left The Federation in 2004 for a rabbi’s position at Stephen S. Wise Temple.

“Fishel never really followed through,” said Pini Herman, a demographer and former Federation research coordinator who was laid off. “You would have thought that he would have paved the way for the success of a high-value personnel acquisition like Woznica, but he didn’t. Fishel left him kind of twisting in the wind.”

Woznica could not be reached for comment for this article. In the past, he has said he worked tirelessly at The Federation to help elevate the role of Judaism there and throughout the community.

Fishel responded that, in time, The Federation would have figured a better way to expand Woznica’s community visibility and impact.

SHOW ME THE MONEY

Fishel has the challenge of raising money in a wealthy but difficult market. Failing in this task literally would mean fewer free meals for the hungry, the elimination of job-training programs or even the shuttering of homeless shelters.

On a macro level, federations, including Los Angeles, are “very healthy institutions, when you include all their assets, including endowments,” said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco.

But there’s reason for concern. The nation’s federations raised a total of $859.5 million in their 2004 annual campaigns, the most recent year for which statistics are available. That’s up only 4 percent from 2000.

Time was, federations received the lion’s share of Jewish charitable giving. In a world with virulent anti-Semitism and constant threats to Israel, federations were seen as the protector and exemplar of Jewish values and interests.

That began to change, though, as Jews became more assimilated. Hospitals, symphonies and universities that once shunned Jews not only began to accept their money but appointed them to their boards. That mainstream acceptance led Jews to give less to federations and more to secular institutions. Suddenly, the federations’ pull on Jewish giving began to wane.

“If you used to ask somebody about their Jewish giving, they would tell you about a nonprofit that had the word Jewish or Israel in its title,” said Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, which represents more than 1,000 Jewish family foundations. “Now, especially with younger donors, they talk about charities that reflect their Jewish values, which could be a gift to a local food pantry or an environmental organization, rather than to a Jewish organization.”

Over the past eight years, the number of Jewish family foundations has exploded, jumping from about 2,500 to 8,000. Those foundations, Charendoff said, control an estimated $30 billion in assets and give to a variety of causes, ranging from AIDS research to education. They have undoubtedly siphoned money away from federations, which some megadonors see as distant, unresponsive bureaucracies.

Another problem is that L.A.’s Jewish community is geographically dispersed, lacking the traditional powerful machers who enforce community giving elsewhere. Recently, competing Jewish institutions such as the Wiesenthal Center and the Skirball Cultural Center have appeared on the scene, further complicating things.

And surveys show that Californians, including Angelenos, give less per capita than Americans in many other places. They also volunteer less, said Donna Bojarsky, a Jewish Community Relations Committee board member and a Democratic Party public policy consultant who advises such celebrities as Richard Dreyfuss.

“L.A. is a particularly hard nut to crack,” she said.

Fishel’s Federation has made some noteworthy attempts at trying.

In response to donor demands for more control, The Federation helped create the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund of Los Angeles. Over the past four years, this self-funded group of youngish entrepreneurs and professionals has raised and awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to start-up and existing nonprofits that benefit Jews, including the teen magazine, JVibe, and a Jewish Vocational Service program that targets Jewish Russian and Iranian immigrants for training as certified nurses.

Several Venture Philanthropy participants, each of whom has contributed at least $10,000, were first-time L.A. Federation donors, said Andrew Cushnir, vice president of planning for The Federation and staff head of the Venture Philanthropy Fund.

“John has been a major champion of the fund,” Cushnir said. “He has been more than willing to let the fund experiment, learn and grow.”

The Federation has also greatly improved outreach to young Jews — tomorrow’s big givers. The Federation replaced a money-losing leadership program with the apparently more successful Young Leadership Division, which, unlike its predecessor, places more emphasis on Jewish education and spirituality, although a social component still exists. The Federation also funds Taglit-birthright israel, the New Leaders Project and young leadership groups within its women’s, real estate and entertainment campaign divisions.

Federation-supported programs have touched the lives of thousands of young Jews, said Craig Prizant, The Federation’s executive vice president for financial resource development. That outreach has more than paid off, he added. “On a yearly basis, our young leadership initiatives are now raising about $5 million, or nearly 5 percent of our annual campaign.”

Not good enough, say critics. In 2005, The Federation’s annual campaign raised $47.3 million. (Overall, The Federation raised $55 million, when one-time gifts, special campaigns and other targeted giving are included.) Although last year’s annual campaign total represented a 6 percent increase over 2004, that’s only 2 percent more than the $46.4 million raised in 1990.

“I think at this point we ought to be around $60 million or $65 million,” said Leo Dozoretz, an ex-Federation board member and former president of the Valley Alliance, The Federation’s San Fernando Valley operation. “We’re the second largest community in the world behind New York. Los Angeles even has more Jews than Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.”

Dozoretz doesn’t hold Fishel responsible for The Federation’s middling performance. A weak lay leadership, among other factors, has contributed, he said.

Others are less understanding. They point to Fishel’s lack of charisma, The Federation’s alleged indifferent treatment of donors who are not megarich and Fishel’s inability to entice Hollywood Jews and other potential megadonors.

Former President Bill Clinton meets John Fishel
Former President Bill Clinton meets John Fishel.

In Southern California, charisma counts. An actor, director or producer with a megawatt smile and engaging personality can get farther than an equally talented but bland counterpart. What’s true for Hollywood can also hold for the corporate and nonprofit worlds. That partly explains why a gregarious charmer like Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal center can so easily coax big donations out of supporters, said a former high-ranking L.A. Federation fundraising executive.

Fishel, by contrast, often fades into the background, appearing ill at ease at social gatherings. He lacks “star power,” said the fundraiser, who asked not to be identified.

Fishel’s low-key, no-nonsense manner might serve him well in a down-to-earth place such as Minneapolis or Milwaukee but is no asset in Southern California, the land of Botox and BMWs. “Look, people live next door to movie stars here. They want entertainment value,” the fundraiser said.

Fishel responded that he’d prefer being perceived as honest, ethical and committed, rather than as Mr. Personality.

Another former Federation fundraising executive said he thought the organization treated donors giving less than $25,000 with indifference. Sure, a $10,000 donor might get invited to a special dinner or to participate on a mission to Israel, but Federation officials, he said, make little effort to make that person feel special. That absence of a personal touch has turned off some givers, leading them to give elsewhere, the ex-fundraiser said.

“The attitude some donors have is that you come to me once a year, you get my money and you come back when you want more,” he said. “And, in between, I’m not really thought of a great deal.”

Fishel said The Federation tries to be accessible and engaged with the broadest base of donors, although, given the number of contributors, that can sometimes prove a challenge. Still, Fishel said, he personally calls or has the appropriate staff member phone all donors — and non-donors — who contact him for assistance.

BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY

Critics say that one of Fishel’s greatest failings has been his inability to tap into Hollywood. Imagine, they ask, how much bigger the annual campaign would be if such Jewish entertainment royalty as Barbra Streisand, David Geffen and Michael Eisner began writing million-dollar checks? Supporters counter that Hollywood is a narcissistic world unto itself, virtually deaf to appeals by anyone outside its small circle of players.

Some of the industry’s Jewish titans are “self-hating Jews,” said Lynn Pollock, a Federation board member and a former vice president at Paramount Pictures. Others have long identified more with “American Protestant” traditions, she said, rather than Jewish ones in their films and in their lives.

“How in the world is John supposed to accommodate these types of whimsical people, who are used to getting whatever they want and living in a kind of la-la land?” Pollock said.

Former Federation Chair Gelfand remembers his own brush with Jewish Hollywood and its unhappy ending. In the late 1980s, he persuaded two powerful entertainment executives to co-chair a major fundraising campaign for Soviet Jewry. The co-chairs — one a former studio head, the other a former talent agency bigwig — hoped to attract $10 million from their Jewish colleagues. After just three weeks, the pair resigned, having raised a grand total of zero dollars, Gelfand said.

Not everyone gives Fishel a pass. Movie producer Scott Einbinder said The Federation missed an opportunity to engage young, Jewish Hollywood when it unexpectedly pulled its sponsorship from Vodka Latka, a party/fundraiser he co-founded, which raised money for Jewish nonprofits. Vodka Latka also increased young Hollywood’s awareness about The Federation and funneled dozens of new members to the Jewish philanthropic organization, he said.

“Vodka Latka was definitely meant to be a bridge to The Federation, to show young Jews in the entertainment industry that The Federation could be more than an organization that just asks for money,” Einbinder said. “We wanted to help The Federation compete with sexier philanthropic organizations around L.A., organizations that are considered cooler and have more celebrities involved.”

After the 2002 event, which attracted more than 1,000 revelers to the Hollywood Palladium, The Federation bowed out. At the time, Federation executives said Vodka Latka demanded too much staff time. Fishel suggested the event was terrific but on the verge of becoming stale. The Progressive Jewish Alliance now holds the Vodka Latka soiree.

In the entertainment business, as in some other industries in town, Fishel said, “there’s no clarity in terms of what makes them want to be engaged Jewishly.”

The same apparently goes for potential new donors among the megarich, said Bubis, the former Federation vice president who has such praise for Fishel’s international work. The Federation president, Bubis said, has failed to provide an overarching vision that would inspire those givers.

Last year, The Federation received no million-dollar gifts for its annual campaign. The organization has made going after large donors a bigger priority going forward, Federation executives said.

And there’s some good news on that front. Earlier this year, an anonymous donor made a $3 million unrestricted gift, sources confirmed.

So has Fishel done a good enough job making The Federation attractive to donors?

Fishel himself believes more needs to be done.

“When need outdistances the means to do all of the good things brought to The Federation for support, you always want to raise more,” he said.

Fishel took the helm of the L.A. Federation in 1992, during a period of great uncertainty. The Southland’s recession had taken a bite out of the annual campaign; the institution was in turmoil. Fishel righted The Federation’s finances through spending cuts and layoffs.

Besides restoring stability, he also worked on inclusiveness, several Federation leaders said. Over the years, Fishel reached out to Persian, Israeli and Russian Jews, said attorney David Nahai, a Federation board member.

Fishel has received mostly positive marks from Federation watchers, despite much dissatisfaction over the handling of the Jewish community centers and the Jewish Community Relations Committee. Tobin of the Institute for Jewish Community Research called him “one of the most thoughtful and really analytical executives in The Federation field.” UJC President and Chief Executive Howard M. Rieger called Fishel “one of the best we’ve got.”

The pressures of running The L.A. Federation have sometimes gotten to Fishel. A few years back, he briefly considered leaving The Federation after other Jewish organizations expressed an interest in him, including the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. These days, though, Fishel insisted that he couldn’t be happier.

“I’ve had 30-plus years working in Jewish communal life. I’ve had a lot of really amazing experiences meeting some extraordinary people here in this country and around the world, ” he said. “I love what I do.”

 

$61.8 Billion


Of the 50 wealthiest Angelinos, 27 are Jewish.

Each year, The Los Angeles Business Journal uses legwork and a little guesswork to discern who’s worth the most in Los Angeles. Once the list comes out, as it did this week, I like to run it through the old “Who’s a Jew?” detector.

I’m well aware that the only people who habitually do such things are the heads of Jewish charities and anti-Semites. The former do it to garner fundraising leads, the latter do it to “prove” a worldwide conspiracy. I do it because I have something I want to tell these people — my Sermon on the Count.

My count a few years back put the number at 25. This year there are two more, including Jamie McCourt (Jew), vice chairman of the L.A. Dodgers and listed with husband Frank McCourt (not a Jew). So it goes, this slightly unseemly business of sussing out religious affiliation on a list that reveals just net worth, business interests and a bit about philanthropic activities.

It’s, of course, on that last subject that I’d have the most to say. Adding up the numbers provided by the Business Journal, I get a combined net worth of $61.8 billion.

Three things struck me about this year’s list. The first is: wow. Jews make up barely 2 percent of the Los Angeles’ population, but more than 50 percent of city’s richest of the rich. There have been precious few times in history when Jews have been blessed with so much wealth, along with so much freedom. In a city of openness and opportunity, these men and women have made the most of their chances.

Despite their common membership in a rarified group, these folks are a diverse lot.

Most are L.A. — or even American — transplants, with roots in Canada (eBay’s Jeffrey Skoll); Israel (Alec and Tom Gores, Haim Saban) and elsewhere. Their backgrounds range from Holocaust survivor (Leslie and Louis Gonda) to able scions of family fortunes (Anthony Pritzker). Their political affiliations run the spectrum, from Hollywood liberal (DreamWork’s Jeffrey Katzenberg), to George W. Bush stalwart (Ameriquest’s Roland Arnall, now ambassador to Netherlands). Their religious practices range from observant to none of your business.

You might think with great wealth has come great assimilation, as previous generations of Jews often had to choose between asserting their religious identity and social acceptance. But another striking fact of this list is how many of these people are deeply involved in Jewish communal life and causes. Westfield’s Peter Lowy is chair of the University of Judaism. The Milkens, Michael and Lowell, are pillars of Jewish philanthropy. Biomedical innovator Alfred E. Mann gave $100 million to Technion-Israeli Institute of Technology last year. As for Spielberg, there’s a little something called the Shoah Foundation. By my estimate, most have given to Jewish causes.

And this is not to sniff at their non-Jewish philanthropy. Eli Broad (No. 4 on the list) has been at the forefront of efforts to improve education and art in Los Angeles. DreamWorks’ David Geffen donated $200 million to UCLA’s School of Medicine in 2002, the largest contribution ever to a U.S. medical school. For a man worth $4.2 billion, that’s almost real money.

At the same time, the larger picture is that L.A. County trails behind other places in terms of charitable giving. As reported in the Business Journal, a 2003 Chronicle of Philanthropy study of IRS tax returns concluded that L.A. County residents with incomes greater than $50,000 gave only 7.3 percent of their income, or about $4,000, to charity. New Yorkers gave 10.9 percent and Detroit residents, the national leaders, gave 12.1 percent. In California, San Francisco residents gave 9.3 percent, people in Long Beach 8.4 percent, and residents of the city of Los Angeles 6.9 percent.

I wonder if the Jewish billionaires on the list skew the averages in L.A.’s favor. I hope so.

The last thought to strike me as I reviewed this year’s list was how incomplete it is. The Business Journal stops at 50. But there’s serious wealth from 50 to 100, from 100 to 10,000, and loads more down the line. In short, there are many challenges this community faces, but lack of resources is not one of them.

Jewish professionals often complain to me that there just doesn’t seem to be enough money. But there is — and then some.

There is enough money, I suspect, to develop a social service program to help every one of the 7 percent of L.A. Jews who live beneath the poverty line.

There is enough money to build and sustain a network of first-rate Jewish camps and give every child a chance to attend one — and there are few better ways to instill Jewish values than camp.

There is enough money to pay Jewish communal workers a wage that enables them to participate fully in Jewish life.

There is enough money to provide significant scholarships for every child in need who wants to attend a Jewish day school and to improve the quality of public schools.

There is enough money to sustain a network of state-of-the-art communal centers — either Jewish community centers or synagogues — inviting, welcoming and affordable to the entire community.

Any one of these would revolutionize the face of Jewish Los Angeles for the better, and most could be accomplished just by upping our average giving to the standard set by … Detroit.

If only our vision were equal to our assets.

Young Moseses


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Passover.

 

Post-Katrina, Jews Raised Funds Fast


Major Jewish organizations have raised more than $30 million to house, feed, educate and relocate thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi.

The biggest chunk of money has come from the United Jewish Communities (UJC), which represents 155 Jewish federations and 400 independent communities across North America. As of Dec. 13, UJC said it had collected $25.5 million in Katrina disaster relief, of which $7.9 million already has been allocated to Jewish and non-Jewish hurricane victims.

The single largest beneficiary of UJC’s generosity has been the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, which received $4 million for programs ranging from emergency assistance for individual Jews to general funding for social services.

UJC funds also have gone to the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, as well as groups such as MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, to aid 13 food banks and other groups along the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast.

Smaller amounts have been allocated to groups such as the Dallas Mayor’s Housing Initiative, to provide housing assistance to evacuees ($250,000); the Jewish Federation of Northern Louisiana to provide Wal-Mart gift cards to evacuees in shelters ($153,900); and the Jewish community of Jackson, Miss., for emergency aid to evacuees ($50,000).

The American Jewish Committee also has been active. In mid-December, the group’s executive director, David Harris, visited New Orleans to present a total of $575,000 in hurricane relief funds to four institutions.

Dillard University, a predominantly black college, got $200,000 to help rebuild its Information Technology Center, while $125,000 each went to Clement of Rome, a Catholic church, and two synagogues — Congregation Gates of Prayer, a Reform synagogue next to St. Clement, and Congregation Beth Israel, an Orthodox shul in suburban Lakeview that was severely damaged by Katrina.

“Each of us is potentially vulnerable to the fury of Mother Nature, irrespective of where we live, the religion we practice, or the lifestyle we lead,” Harris said. “Responding to the needs of our fellow Americans in New Orleans was a moral imperative, and we are glad to be able to contribute significantly to the long-term rebuilding and recovery efforts.”

In addition, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), which represents more than 900 Reform congregations, has raised $3.4 million in general hurricane relief.

Rabbi Deborah Hirsch, director of regions at URJ, said about half of that is going to general assistance for both Jews and non-Jews, and the other half to Reform congregations throughout the Southeast that suffered damage this fall from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

“Whenever there’s a disaster of this kind, there are often high uninsured losses. Obviously, the fund won’t be able to cover all those losses,” Hirsch said. “Between these three hurricanes, the losses are going to exceed whatever is in the fund.”

The URJ also has raised $225,000 for SOS New Orleans, a new fundraising campaign to help four New Orleans-area Reform congregations maintain their operations, programs and services: Gates of Prayer in Metairie; Temple Sinai and Touro Synagogue in New Orleans; and the Northshore Jewish Congregation of Mandeville.

According to a URJ press release, some 500 to 600 of the more than 2,000 families that belonged to these four synagogues before Katrina might not return. This puts an added burden on the synagogues’ fundraising efforts at a time when they need money more desperately than ever.

“Never in our modern Jewish history have we witnessed such a dramatic displacement of a Jewish community in North America: so many people displaced, for who knows how long a time,” said Robert Heller, chairman of URJ’s board of trustees. “Those who want to return need to know their congregations will be there for them. The buildings can and will be repaired, but souls and spirits do not mend so easily.”

Eric Stillman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, said that besides the institutional grants, his federation has received over $100,000 in private, individual donations from outside the New Orleans area since the hurricane.

“We’re tremendously grateful to the American Jewish community for the way they’ve stepped forward and provided financial support,” Stillman said. “I don’t know where we’d be otherwise.”

 

Hillel Students Help Rebuild Gulf Coast


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Step Into Secular


Chaim breezes into a diner on the Upper West Side of Manhattan clutching two huge shopping bags.

“I got some clothes, this plaid shirt, two for $5, this leather jacket just $20,” says Chaim, 19, in the clipped, Yiddish-accented English of the Chasidic world he comes from. “I didn’t know what to buy, my roommate went with me, he told me what’s nice,” he says, fingering a sweater gingerly.

Chaim is — or was — a Skver Chasid, born and raised in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of New Square, N.Y. His world until recently was Torah, family and a close-knit community.

But now he’s entering the secular world.

In September, he shaved his beard, left his parent’s home and took a bus to Brooklyn, where he now goes to college and shares an apartment.

“I found it on craigslist,” he says with pride, referring to the online classified site.

His new life comes with help from Footsteps, a 2-year-old Manhattan-based nonprofit group that helps dropouts from the Charedi world transition into secular society.

No one knows how many American Jews have left the ultra-Orthodox fold, although most are believed to have come from the New York area. There are no statistics, and, until Footsteps was created, no organization to help them learn how to make it on the outside.

While the organized Jewish world doesn’t usually think of Chasidic dropouts as “Jews in need,” outsiders can’t begin to imagine how frightening and complicated the everyday world can seem to a person who only knows the carefully controlled cocoon of Satmar, Skver or Bobov.

Particularly for a young person, whose departure can be hasty and unplanned, the road out of the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg or Crown Heights is fraught with confusion and loneliness — and sometimes drug abuse.

“People who have decided to make this transition don’t have a place to go,” says Hella Winston, the author of “Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels” (Beacon Press, 2005).

Chaim isn’t using his real name out of respect for his family still in the community. His journey from ultra-Orthodoxy to young, secular Jewish New Yorker didn’t happen overnight.

A year and a half ago, he says, “I heard there was such a place as a public library,” where he could find a computer and Internet access.

“I didn’t know how to use the mouse. I started tapping on the screen,” he says, smiling in embarrassment.

He began reading about the world outside New Square, and soon realized “it’s not all drug dealers and crazy, like they say in our community.”

Slowly, he felt more and more alienated from his Chasidic world.

Although he lived at home until this fall, last year he was already sneaking into Manhattan after work to walk the streets and look at people. He let his hair grow longer under his yarmulke, and bought black jeans, sneakers and a baseball cap to wear on his urban forays.

“I’d changed in my mind a long time ago,” he says. “Something pushed me away, I don’t know what.”

He planned his departure carefully. His first step was to get his GED, or high school equivalency, so he could apply for a loan to go to college. But Chasidic boys receive very little secular education, and he didn’t know how to begin studying for the test.

In late February he met the founding director of Footsteps, 24-year-old Malkie Schwartz, an ex-Lubavitcher.

She introduced him to the few dozen other ex-Chasidim in her organization, and he enrolled in the GED class.

This summer, Chaim passed his exam. He’s in a liberal arts program, but hopes to major in math or science. He hasn’t gone on a date yet — “Socially, I’m very awkward,” he admits — but says he’s looking forward to that, too.

The transition can be difficult.

Winston recently heard from a young man who spent six months sleeping in New York City parks and subways after he left his Chasidic community.

“He had nowhere to go,” Winston says. “America is a very individualistic society, and for people leaving a community it’s important to have one to move into. Otherwise they run the risk of becoming lost.”

Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology and Jewish studies at the City University of New York, agrees.

“Missing their families [is a major problem],” says Heilman, the author of “Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry” (University of California Press, 1999). “For most people in the Charedi world, the single biggest part of their lives, and the part that outsiders are often envious of, is connection to family and community.”

And when they leave, those connections are radically broken. Even if the one who left remains in contact with family members, those contacts often have to be surreptitious, Heilman says.

A support system like Footsteps didn’t exist when Schwartz left Crown Heights five years ago.

She was 19, and knew she would be expected to marry soon. That’s often the point at which young Chasidim who are unsure about their faith or their lifestyle make the move to leave, Winston writes, before their decision will impact their future families.

“I felt I couldn’t make this decision for myself and for the large number of kids that would follow,” Schwartz says. “I wanted an education.”

She moved out, enrolled in Hunter College with financial aid and got a bachelor’s degree.

But it was tough to go it alone. In December 2003, she organized a meeting for what she hoped would become a support group for former Chasidim. Twenty people showed up, and Footsteps was born.

Schwartz runs everything out of her apartment. GED classes, support groups, art and writing therapy groups and discussions on health, sex and relationships are held at ad-hoc spaces around the city. Once a month there are sessions on life skills.

Footsteps has received grants from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Alan B. Slivka Foundation, the Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women and an anonymous donor, and in early December was accepted into Bikkurim, a program that provides office space and technical support for Jewish start-ups in New York City.

More than 200 former Chasidim have passed through Footsteps; about 40 are currently active, mostly young Jews in their 20s. One thing Schwartz would like to offer is a halfway house, a temporary safe space for those just leaving their communities.

Many of the former Chasidim in Footsteps are not observant anymore, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have strong Jewish identities.

Zelda Deutsch, 28, left her Satmar community in early 2003, along with her husband and their son. Leaving was, she says “a very complicated and lonely process,” and she wishes Footsteps had been around.

The Deutsches no longer go to synagogue, but they speak Yiddish at home and celebrate all the holidays.

“My son is very aware he is Jewish, the environment in our home is filled with the way we were raised,” she says.

In November they began hosting Friday-night dinners for fellow Footsteppers.

“The people who come don’t go to synagogue, they’re not religious,” Deutsch says. “We serve kugel, stuffed chicken, the traditional foods, and we sing all the zemiros,” or Shabbat songs they grew up with.

“For some people the singing brings up bad memories,” she admits. “But the Jewish life filled such a large part of our daily lives, now that it’s gone, there’s a huge void. As a rule, everybody wants some connection to a spiritual life.”

 

Andrea Bronfman, Charity Giant, Killed


Andrea Bronfman, a giant in the world of Jewish philanthropy, was killed Monday when a car struck her while she was walking her dog in Manhattan. She was 60 years old.

“She was a Zionist — and her parents were lovers of Israel and strong Zionists,” said Marlene Post, who worked with Bronfman at Birthright Israel, the 6-year-old program that to date has brought nearly 100,000 young Jews to Israel for free 10-day trips.

Born in London to a Scottish father and a mother from New York, Bronfman and her husband — the billionaire businessman and philanthropist Charles Bronfman — maintained residences in New York, Florida and Jerusalem. They spent about three months of each year in Israel and in 2002 were awarded honorary Jerusalem citizenship.

Twenty years ago, the Bronfmans founded the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies Inc. The foundation has supported numerous programs and initiatives aimed at strengthening Jewish life, in addition to programs not related to the Jewish community.

Bronfman worked to establish a nexus between her concern for Israel and her artistic pursuits. In 2003, in response to the drop in tourism dollars at the height of the intifada, Bronfman founded AIDA: the Association of Israel’s Decorative Arts, which has helped expose Israeli artists to North American galleries and collectors and educate North Americans about decorative arts in Israel.

For her 60th birthday earlier this year, Charles announced creation of the “Andy Prize,” a $10,000 annual award for an Israeli artist.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bronfman turned her philanthropic eye to the attack’s victims. She became founder and deputy chairman of The Gift of New York, a nonprofit initiative to provide free tickets to a variety of cultural offerings and sports events for the bereaved families of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Other initiatives included 21/64, which supports young philanthropists; and Reboot, which nurtures young Jewish leaders outside the mainstream of organized Jewish life.

Friends and colleagues described Bronfman as attractive, dignified, vibrant — and highly intelligent. Those who knew her also spoke of Bronfman’s deep devotion to her husband, five children and six grandchildren.

A memorial ceremony was held Wednesday at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan. Burial is scheduled for Friday in Jerusalem.

 

MATCH Puts Giving in Students’ Hands


Learning about the importance of giving tzedakah is a basic tenet of any Jewish education.

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“It’s not just about giving away money,” said Emanuel’s Rabbi Laura Geller. “It’s about teaching young people how to be responsible Jews when it comes to giving tzedakah. It’s not something you should do instinctively. You have to do it thoughtfully.”

The program, now in its second year, is called MATCH — short for Money and Teenagers Creating Hope. It started with an anonymous gift to the Temple Emanuel Endowment of $125,000, which the congregation was obliged to match. MATCH students use the interest earned from those funds to make philanthropic donations to a variety of organizations of their own choosing.

“They model what it means to be grown-up Jews,” Geller said. “Many of the kids in our synagogue are children of privilege, and some of them will have the opportunity to manage their own family foundations some day. All of the children in this program are learning about what it means to be a thoughtful philanthropist.”

Last year, the students, who range from eighth to 12th grade, gave away $5,000. This year, the program is divided by age into two distinct boards with 36 students currently participating. Having raised all the necessary matching funds, Temple Emanuel can now provide each group with $5,000 to give away.

Over three sessions last year, the students analyzed Jewish texts about tzedakah, heard from local philanthropists and engaged in heated discussions about where the money should go. They also learned practical skills, such as how to read an organization’s 990 tax form and how to use various Web sites to research charities on the Internet.

“I would wager that most people who give charity don’t have a clue about that,” Geller said.

Ultimately, the young participants decided to give $750 to the Make a Wish Foundation, $1,000 to AIDS Health Care, $1,000 to Camp Harmony and $1,000 to Friends of Israel’s Disabled Veterans.

One requirement of the original endowment gift is that 25 percent of the money the students donated should be directed to a project within the temple itself. Geller said she was particularly touched by the teenagers’ discussion of where those funds should go, and by their conclusion last spring to return that portion of the money — $1,250 — to the temple’s endowment for use by future generations.

“One kid said, ‘Our grandparents made sure there was an endowment for us. We need to make sure that it’s there for our grandchildren,'” Geller recalled. “It’s interesting to see what areas the kids feel are important for Jewish organizations to be funding, how they think Jews ought to be giving their money.”

Justine Roach, a 16-year-old from West Los Angeles, is participating in the program at Temple Emanuel for the second year. Last year, she headed the team that investigated inner-city youth, which ended up supporting Camp Harmony.

“It felt so good and empowering, especially being a teenager and getting to make these kinds of decisions,” Roach said. “I gained responsibilities and it felt really nice. I think we’re about the right age to be making these types of decisions. In the future I’m going to be dealing with these issues, too.”

In addition to the practical experience MATCH provides, Geller said it has been a wonderful way to keep teenagers engaged in the life of the congregation after their bar and bat mitzvahs.

Geller said she had been thinking about creating such a program for a long time, and when a donor approached her looking for a program to fund, she jumped at the chance.

“This is a game that you can play — simulating a family foundation and asking kids to decide where they would give the money,” Geller said. “I had done that in confirmation classes and it always worked really well because it gave the kids the chance to think about something real, and I thought wow, what if we could really do it?”

Now it is not a simulation game, it’s the real thing. And students are even more engaged, Geller said. “It is a lot of money to them. None of them gives away $5,000 a year on their own, and they have the sense of working together and giving away a lot more money. It was very exhilarating to sit with the 10th-12th-graders this year, and to hear them wrestle with what it means to be a responsible citizen in this world.”

 

Super Sunday Calls Raise $4.6 Million


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little-Known Givers Have Big Hearts


 

Robert Rosenthal, a self-described “typical Jewish boy from Manhattan,” sometime bull rider and country music addict, has morphed into the godfather of entertainment at military bases across the United States.

He is among the many Angeleno volunteers and philanthropists, often little known, who are the propelling forces behind notable enterprises both in this country and Israel. The Journal recently interviewed both Rosenthal and another “propelling force” — investment manager David Polak.

Rosenthal’s transformation began when, as a kid, he worked one summer on a dude ranch in Arizona. Although he did all the dirty work, he never got over the experience. He entered rodeos, studied ranch management and never went out without his Stetson hat.

In the 1960s, after Army service, he moved to Studio City and became a successful entertainment lawyer. He retired a few years ago.

Always an ardent patriot, after Sept. 11, Rosenthal felt strongly that he had to do something constructive. When he learned that in contrast to USO shows for troops overseas, there was no similar entertainment at stateside bases, he suggested to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that something be done to close the gap.

Rumsfeld thought it was a neat idea, but let it be known that the mechanics and expenses would have to be borne by public-spirited citizens — such as Rosenthal.

Drawing on his professional background, show biz contacts and family foundation, Rosenthal, now 68, and his wife, Nina, set up the Spirit of America Tour project.

As a first step, he went to Nashville, the country music capital, invited managers and agents of some of the biggest acts and asked them to list dates when their performers were not tied up with commercial gigs.

Then, slashing Pentagon red tape as he went along, Rosenthal coordinated the dates with commanders of Army, Navy and Air Force bases and staging areas across the country.

Without a staff, the Rosenthals have created a show circuit that a professional impresario might well envy. They started with five concerts and shows in 2002, escalating to 18 in 2003 and 21 last year.

Their most frequent and popular performers have been country music stars Clint Black, Charlie Daniels and Travis Tritt. Other favorites have been Blood, Sweat and Tears, David Clayton-Thomas and comedian Dennis Miller.

The entertainers work without fees (though Rosenthal covers their expenses), and the audiences, including families of soldiers and sailors, never pay a penny.

Rosenthal attends all shows west of the Mississippi, while his Nashville liaison, Cathy Gurley, does the same for the eastern part of the country.

By now, Rosenthal has become known as a “one-stop shopping center” for artists who want to entertain the troops.

“Their agents know exactly whom to call,” he said.

Rosenthal, who also put in a stint in the 1960s as a documentary and feature filmmaker (including “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me”) is a man of many interests.

Among the beneficiaries of his volunteer work and money have been Maccabi USA, Professional Bull Riders and Los Angeles Junior Ballet. He has also served on the California Boxing Commission.

As for his present fulltime Spirit of America endeavor, Rosenthal comments, “When you hear 15,000 military cheering an act, that’s the biggest reward. We live in the greatest country in the world, and I feel privileged to do something for it.”

David Polak heads a major investment management firm in Century City, whose shrewdest bet may have been on the brains of an Israeli professor.

Some 10 years ago, Polak and his wife Janet, longtime supporters of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, decided to endow a research chair in the life sciences at the Haifa-based institution.

They consulted with then Technion president Zeev Tadmor, who suggested one of his most promising scientists, Aaron Ciechanover, as the first incumbent of the new chair.

The Polaks were on a cruise last October and while surfing the Internet pulled up a news item that Ciechanover had just been named as the 2004 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, together with his Technion colleague Avram Hershko, and American Irwin A. Rose of UC Irvine.

“We were exhilarated,” recalled David Polak, “and we immediately e-mailed our congratulations.”

The Technion professors are the first Israeli Nobelists in the sciences and with Rose shared the $1.35 million prize. They were recognized for their research on the regulatory process taking place inside human cells, a discovery leading to the development of drugs against cancer and degenerative diseases.

On receiving word of the award, Ciechanover noted, “I don’t think our work could have been done without the help and support of the Polaks and the American Technion Society.”

Polak, who supports numerous other Jewish and Israeli causes, will be reunited with the Israeli scientists in June, when the Technion dedicates the new David and Janet Polak Center for Cancer Research and Vascular Biology.

An MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) engineering graduate, Polak said that his support of the Technion is based on his concern for the growth and survival of Israel.

“Israel’s main asset is its brainpower and the Technion provides this raw material for a high-wage industry,” he said. “The country’s export economy and national security depend on technologically trained men and women.”

 

Charities Seek Ties to MTV Generation


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ironic? Yes. Surprising? No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q & A With Marvin Schotland


by Marc Ballon, Senior Writer


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Millions More for Shoah Museum


The fundraiser in Bel Air featured yellow rose centerpieces on every table. The DJ played big-band tunes, including Bing Crosby’s “San Fernando Valley.” A gay couple cooed over their infant and Ginna Carter, the 30ish daughter of “Designing Women” star Dixie Carter, traipsed through the party barefoot, wearing a white chapeau that gave the Sunday affair a touch of “The Great Gatsby.”

With well-polished Westsiders, relaxed politicians and dressed-down studio executives, anyone catching a glimpse of the event while driving on Beverly Glen would have been surprised to discover that it was a Holocaust museum fundraiser.

“I’m not part of this sort of chicken-dinner-at-a-hotel fundraising mentality,” said Rachel Jagoda, the 31-year-old director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. “I am young and I do have new ideas.”

The event symbolized a small sea change in local Jewish philanthropy; older donors who built Holocaust museums are learning to work with a younger, less Jewishly oriented generation of donors — people in their 30s and early 40s who are respectful of history yet hip to modern issues.

Central to this generational change will be the Holocaust museum’s planned $5 million new building in the Fairfax District’s Pan Pacific Park. With groundbreaking planned for early 2005, the $5 million capital campaign started nine months ago, with most of that money now raised.

“We’re way over halfway there,” Jagoda said while giving a tour of the 43-year-old museum, which is currently set up on the ground floor of ORT Technical Institute’s building on Wilshire Boulevard. “This is rented space; it’s not a permanent building. It wasn’t meant to be.”

The plan for the glass-rich, semi-submerged museum was designed by architect Hagy Belzberg, who envisions it being built on a grassy hill west of the current Los Angeles Holocaust Memorial Monument. Visitors would enter the building from a downward-angled walkway into a 15,000-square-foot space dedicated to the entire 12 million victims of the Shoah. However, its walls will have 6 million stones to commemorate the Jewish victims.

Holocaust survivor and philanthropist Jona Goldrich, who championed the Holocaust Memorial in Pan Pacific Park, supports Jagoda’s vision. “In another 10 and 15 years, there won’t be any more Holocaust survivors left in the world,” he said.

One of her museum’s board members had a heart attack in October and another, also a survivor, was diagnosed with cancer. “They’re dying so quickly, I’m afraid to answer the telephone,” Jagoda said. “How do you teach the Holocaust in a world that doesn’t have survivors in it?”

The survivors’ ranks are thinning. But the extensive testimonials collected by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Visual History Foundation have taken the edge off the Jewish communal urgency to record every survivor’s account in the 1990s.

Nationwide, Holocaust museums are traditionally driven by survivors and their adult children, who feel obligated to keep the museums intensely Shoah-focused and emphasizing their parents’ unbelievable stories.

“It’s a big idea that they have down at Pan Pacific Park,” said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which funds the museum. Fishel and Jagoda are in ongoing talks about the museum’s planned independence from The Federation.

Fishel said that for decades the survivors and their children wanted “to be fairly narrow cast” in defining what a Holocaust museum should be.

Museum of Tolerance dean Rabbi Marvin Hier said the Tolerance Museum always has focused on telling the Shoah story to non-Jewish audiences. “I’m happy to see that they [Pan Pacific museum promoters] want to follow in our footsteps,” he said. “We have 350,000 visitors a year; more than 80 percent of the visitors are non-Jews.”

Jagoda’s supporters believe the Pan Pacific building will be an L.A. architectural touchstone and evidence of a younger donor generation voicing support for future museum culture.

“As a gay couple, we embrace a museum that is promoting tolerance,” said Sony Executive Vice President Peter Iacono, whose life partner Manfred Kuhnert spent his undergraduate days at Harvard with Jagoda’s husband Ian. (Another Crimson alumnus backing the museum is actor John Lithgow, Jagoda’s father-in-law.)

Kuhnert and Iacono opened their home for the Bel Air fundraiser, co-hosted by Sony Pictures Chair Amy Pascal. “I’m Jewish,” Pascal told The Journal. “Given the mood of the world, I think the Holocaust is something we better not forget about.”

Charity List Shows Fundraising Stability


Who’s up and who’s down in Jewish charities? While a recent snapshot of some of the largest Jewish charities reveals that Jewish fundraising generally is stable, nuances in the numbers reveal the viccissitudes — and why.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy last week released its annual list of the top 400 charities in America primarily for fiscal years that ended in 2003.

The 24 American Jewish charities that made the “Philanthropy 400” list raised more than $2 billion from private sources. That was some $42 million less than the total raised in fiscal year 2002 by the 28 Jewish charities on last year’s list.

First among the Jewish charities was the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella group for North American Jewish federations, with nearly $345 million in private donations.

However, since the UJC represents the federations and the funds they raise, much of that amount essentially was double-counted.

Of its $345 million, $233 million was collected by federations for the system’s overseas partners, which run relief and welfare, Zionist education and immigration to Israel. The remaining $112 million is for the federation system’s coordinated Israel Emergency Campaign, which was launched in 2001 to aid Israelis amid the intifada.

While federations raised much of those funds in fiscal year 2002, most were not transferred to UJC until fiscal year 2003. That explains why this year’s list shows a bump in fundraising for the UJC but a dip for many of the federations, many of which already had listed the money in fiscal year 2002.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles fell in rankings out of the top five (see box).

The American Jewish community values the Chronicle’s list because it provides an opportunity to assess the health of their charitable organizations in comparison to each other, the non-Jewish community and years past.

But the list is not foolproof. For one, it doesn’t consider endowments or planned giving, many of which are mainstays of Jewish organizations. It also leaves out donations to synagogues, Jewish community centers and day schools, which boast massive capital campaigns, said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute of Jewish and Community Research.

Since most of the Jewish philanthropies that made the list are federations, which have flat campaigns, Jewish philanthropy appears flat overall — but, in fact, it is growing, Tobin said.

Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, believes Jewish fundraising generally is stable — but that’s not good enough, he says.

“The needs are becoming more acute, and if the Jewish community wants to have a greater impact in fulfilling our mission, then stability is not going to allow us to do the job.”

Additionally, “younger philanthropists view themselves as investors. This is not a generation that is looking to invest in static” charities, he said. They’re “looking to take some risks, educated risks, but risks [in charities] that are taking risks.”

Topping the general list of 400, by a landslide, was the Salvation Army. With some $1.3 billion raised, the group was half a million dollars ahead of the No. 2 charity, the American Cancer Society.

Federations and federation-related agencies make up more than half the Jewish charities listed. That underscores the federations’ pre-eminence in American Jewish communal life despite increasing competition — from both Jewish and non-Jewish charities — for donors’ money.

At the same time, Jewish federations primarily push a collective funding pool, despite a general philanthropic trend to give donors greater control over how their dollars are used.

In analyzing the “Philanthropy 400,” it becomes clear that a group’s ranking and the funds it raises may shift from year to year due to general economic conditions or even a single exceptional donation.

Often it relates to the timing of a special fundraising drive, as was the case for the federation system’s Israel Emergency Campaign.

Such a scenario boosted Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America in this year’s listing. The group’s fundraising jumped from some $75 million in 2002 to $94 million in 2003 due to a campaign to build a new emergency medical center in Jerusalem, said Jane Karlin, Hadassah’s director of development.

“This campaign, which had a $46 million goal, motivated our members across the United States to give generously,” she said, noting that the group had raised $51 million for the project by May 2004.

Some, like the Jewish National Fund, lost their place on the list entirely. Last year, the group’s nearly $30 million put it at 392nd place; while it topped $30 million in fiscal 2003, it didn’t make the current list.

The American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science saw its funds slip from nearly $65 million in 2002 — when it received a few major gifts — to more than $47 million last year.

Others made the list for the first time. The New Israel Fund, which raised nearly $37 million from private sources, debuted at 354th place. That includes a $20 million grant from the Ford Foundation last fall, the group said.

While many federations explained their rise and fall due to the Israel Emergency Campaign, the fact is that federation fundraising remained fairly stable in fiscal 2003. Donations to the federation system’s annual campaign — assembled from federations across North America — dipped only slightly in 2003, to $827.5 million from $831.9 million the year before. The annual campaign has hovered in the low- to mid-$800 million range since 2000.

The UJC raises another $1.2 billion each year through planned giving and endowments.

The list comes as federations report an increase in annual campaign gifts for 2004.

“We’re running 6.4 percent ahead of last year,” having raised some $778 million for the annual campaign this year compared to $745 million by this time last year, said Steve Selig of Atlanta, chair of the UJC’s finance and resource development pillar.

Indeed, some 1,300 women attending the UJC’s Lion of Judah conference in Washington earlier this month pledged more than $18 million, a 12 percent jump from Lion of Judah pledges last year. According to Selig, the UJC’s immediate past national campaign chairman, 2003 was a “good year,” but fundraising was hampered by a struggling economy and “a little bit of a hangover” after the Israel Emergency Campaign.

This year, fundraising has improved because of a better economy, and the fact that donors — many of whom have visited Israel on federation solidarity missions — are aware of the threats facing the Jewish state, he said.

Charendoff has a less rosy take.

With the exception of emergency campaigns, “the general story of campaigns in the federation system is that they have been flat when you adjust for inflation,” he said. “It speaks to several things, including a lack of clarity of purpose and an inability to engage larger numbers of the younger generation.”

Although the Palestinian intifada — and the consequent needs of securing and healing Israelis — continued in 2003, many federations chose not to actively solicit again for the emergency campaign, to avoid straining the system and undermining their credibility.

However, Steven Nasatir, President of the Jewish Federation/Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, didn’t share that outlook. Nasatir links his federation’s increased 2003 revenue to its emphasis on the emergency campaign.

“We really brought that message out to our community in a very strong way,” he said.

The Chicago federation raised more than $145 million in 2003, up from $121 million the previous year, retaining its rank as the largest federation fundraiser after New York.

Who’s Up, Who’s Down, Who’s Flat

Findings from the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s “Philanthropy 400” list include:

The Top 10 Jewish Charities:

In order, they are the United Jewish Communities; the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC); the UJA-Federation of New York; Jewish Federation/Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago; American Friends of Bar-Ilan University; Jewish Communal Fund; Hadassah; Brandeis University; the American Society for Technion-Israel Institute of Technology; and the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.

The Flukes:

The JDC, the federation system’s provider of overseas relief and welfare, made the list for the first time. The JDC took in more than $192 million in funds, putting it in second place among Jewish charities. Yet, the group had “been in that range for the last number of years,” according to its executive vice president Steven Schwager.

Explaining the oversight of the JDC in previous years, the Chronicle said it may simply have come across new information that allowed it to list the group.

With $140 million, American Friends of Bar-Ilan University was the fifth-largest Jewish charity, at 84th place on the list. However, that number may include international donations, according to the Chronicle. No one at the group was available for comment.

By comparison, the Technion raised some $60 million, but ranked in 214th place.

The Top Federations:

The top five federations in this year’s list were New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Baltimore and Boston. In 2003, they were New York, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Boston. Of the 10 federations listed this year, only Baltimore and Chicago moved up the list, while San Francisco stayed steady.

Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Metrowest (New Jersey) all fell in rank. Federations from Washington, Atlanta and Miami, which made the list of 400 last year, didn’t make it this year. — RP