Joseph Sanberg: A one-man army against poverty


On a recent Thursday morning at Casa Teresa, an emergency women’s shelter in Orange County, five spirited, young pregnant women and a new mother gathered around a conference table, waiting for for their class on budgeting to begin.

The teacher was late, so the women joked and laughed about how broke they were.  At the center of the table, a newborn cooed in his carrier.  

Before long, Joseph N. Sanberg, a Harvard graduate, Internet entrepreneur and investor, entered the room a little breathless from rushing. “Did you all do your homework?” he asked, getting straight to business. 

Sanberg was dressed casually, in jeans and a lavender button-down, his strawberry blond hair windswept and wild. Twice a month, he teaches this financial class to Casa Teresa residents, who tend to have little experience with money management. 

“Remember we talked about the key part of budgeting being the difference between spending that’s an expense and spending that’s an investment?” Sanberg said. “What would be an example of spending you did in the last couple of weeks that’s an expense, not an investment?”

“I bought red lipstick,” a woman in a flannel top said. The group laughed, nervous with recognition.

“Why did you do it?” Sanberg asked.

“Because it was a pretty color,” she said.

Sanberg paused, then looked directly at her: “Did you do it because you were trying to make yourself feel better?” he asked.

“In a way, yeah,” she admitted.

“How do you think you would have felt if you hadn’t bought it, and you’d had the confidence to resist that temptation?”

“I’d have more money than I have now,” she said, a little embarrassed. “And it would have been way better for me.”

Sanberg looked pleased. But his cool quickly faded when another woman confessed an addiction — to Starbucks.

“Starbucks?!” Sanberg said, flashing an incredulous smile. “Bad!”

He grabbed a marker and headed for the board. 

“This is a really, really bad expense!” he continued, almost comically exasperated. He popped the top off a dry-erase marker. 

“How many Starbucks do you get in a day, every day?” Sanberg asked.

“One,” she said. “Venti.”

“Five bucks?” he asked.

“Five twenty five.” 

Sanberg did the math. “Roughly speaking, $5 times 365 days, that’s like 1,800 bucks,” he said. “That’s a lot of f—— money. You could literally buy a used car with that.”

He asked the woman if she had a job and how much she made per hour, in order to demonstrate that she had to work 45 minutes for every Venti coffee she ordered. He suggested she buy a thermos instead and fill up at Casa Teresa.

I don’t even drink Starbucks,” Sanberg said. “Rip-off!”

This isn’t what you expect to hear from a guy who spent seven years working on Wall Street, and who, at 36, admits he has already made an amount of money that is “ridiculous,” and that he will “never be able to spend.” But Sanberg isn’t your typical tycoon — he doesn’t wear tailor-made suits or drive a fancy car or sport a fine watch. He doesn’t even own the Laguna Beach house he lives in. “I don’t value material things,” he told me. Instead, the thing that animates Sanberg most is his mission to “change the world,” a formidable goal he talks about with the kind of casual confidence someone else might have, say, for doing a load of laundry: “Everything I do, and the way I think and believe, is bound together by the notion of tikkun olam,” he said, using the Jewish expression for healing the world. 

Sanberg could easily be the guy standing at the front of a boardroom talking about the derivatives market. Instead, he has spent the last five months traveling around California speaking to low-income working families about how to get their share of a $400 million tax credit. This year is the first in California history that a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) has become available, over and above the federal one. Sanberg thinks this anti-poverty program is so important, he has invested $1.5 million of his own money to create an education and outreach campaign, CalEITC4Me, whose aim is to get every eligible Californian to file a tax return by April 15 and obtain their credit. It is estimated that the EITC could impact 600,000 California households and improve the lives of 2.2 million people. 

But reaching everyone eligible won’t be easy: California already has the third-lowest utilization rate of the federal EITC, meaning nearly $2 billion dollars in available tax credits go unclaimed in the state each year. If Sanberg and other like-minded advocates can’t prove in this first year that the new program is indispensable, there is no guarantee it will be part of future state budgets. 

“That’s why our work this tax season is so damn critical,” Sanberg told the community organizers and state leaders at a November United Way conference. “If people use California’s EITC and love it, it’s going to be very hard to take it away. The measure of [our] success is entirely about implementation.”

Joe Sanberg shakes hands with a man while mingling among community members during the listening tour in South Gate last September. Photo by Hector Gomez, CalEITC4Me Campaign

The idea behind the federal EITC first appeared in a welfare reform proposal put forth by the Nixon administration in 1971; it underwent various iterations before becoming permanent under Jimmy Carter. Designed to reward work, the amount of the credit is calculated based on a percentage of earned income and the size of the household — the more you earn and the more people you support, the higher your credit. Initially modest, the program ballooned in the 1990s in a national effort to reduce poverty, and today is considered the largest anti-poverty cash entitlement program in the United States. At a cost of $56 billion per year, the EITC is the third-largest welfare program in the country behind Medicaid and food stamps.

Last June, Gov. Jerry Brown made California the 26th state to offer a state version of the federal credit. “This was a big deal,” Chris Hoene, executive director of the nonprofit California Budget & Policy Center (CBPC) told a confab of community organizations at the United Way event. According to Hoene, in the 2012 tax year alone, the federal EITC helped lift 1.3 million Californians above the poverty line — 630,000 of them children. “It single-handedly reduced the child poverty rate in California by 6 percentage points,” he said, even with California’s low utilization rate. 

A state supplement could do even more: Using the example of a single mother who works part time at minimum wage, earning about $5,600 per year, Hoene said the combined state and federal EITC could boost her total income by $4,000 — a life-changing 80 percent.

Sanberg’s task is basically to blow the shofar on this and wake up low-income households to the possibility of a better future. He points out that the main reason eligible people don’t claim the credit is they don’t know it exists. And low-income earners tend not to file tax returns, because they either don’t owe money or they’re wary of tax agencies. CalEITC4Me has therefore partnered with VITA, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program that provides IRS-certified volunteers to help qualified individuals file returns.

What this all adds up to for Sanberg is accomplishing his most ambitious goal: solving the problem of income inequality in America. When he talks about the lack of opportunity hindering the middle class and the marginalized, he does so with intense idealism and earnestness. As an entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist working in the public and private sectors, Sanberg’s mission is clear and unequivocal: “I always had this sense that I wanted to be a champion for people who are victims of unfairness or injustice,” he told me. “Whenever I observed that, it always really fired me up.”

 

“Everything I do, and the way I think and believe, is bound together by the notion of tikkun olam.” — Joseph N. Sanberg

 

I first met Sanberg last November at a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan Beach, where he confessed his only self-indulgent luxury: “I could give up every other thing that comes with being rich,” he said, “but the one thing I really enjoy is sushi.”

Sanberg is tight-lipped about his actual net worth; the website crunchbase.com lists his investments since 2012 at nearly $77 million. “What matters is what people do with their money, not how much money they have,” he said. Still, rather than spend his millions on the good life, the former managing director of Wall Street’s Tiger Global Management is spending his fortune, and his time, trying to improve  the lives of others. Aspiration, the 2-year-old Internet bank he co-founded with Andrei Cherny, targets middle-income and young people with low-cost, high-quality investment opportunities that are normally available only to wealthy investors. And instead of charging a fixed percentage of profits, as most investment banks do, Aspiration takes the unique step of allowing customers to determine their own fees. So far, 15,000 people have signed up — with upward of 40,000 on a waitlist (Sanberg said that taking time for customer education is part of the “on-boarding process”). Sanberg also claims that Aspiration is doubling its customer base every five weeks. Aspiration’s business model, he says, is “based on trust,” a word not often associated these days with America’s financial institutions. “We are a business that makes the money our customers choose to pay us,” he said, adding that Aspiration also promises to donate 10 percent of its profits to charity. “Investing with a conscience” is the company’s tagline. 

Sanberg applies this same principle to his personal philanthropy as well. Last fall, when UC Riverside launched its inaugural Master of Public Policy program, Sanberg donated enough money for half of the program’s students to attend tuition-free for two years, with additional funds left over to support more students with “significant” scholarships. In 2014, after an electrical fire caused $300,000 in damages at his childhood synagogue, Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, Sanberg contributed $200,000 to the rebuilding effort. He is also a major donor to the Jewish Graduate Student Initiative (JGSI), an organization that fosters relationships between Jewish graduate students and Jewish business leaders, including at an annual conference. Rabbi Dave Sorani, 33, JGSI’s founder and CEO, described how Sanberg frequently speaks to the students, most recently at a Shabbat dinner at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. 

“He blew people away,” Sorani said. When you hear him speak about how he gives philanthropy from his company, the students are like, ‘Who the heck is this guy?’ People are usually nervous to give to charity when they’re so young, but Joe’s different. He’s not saying ‘I’m gonna become wealthy and then give to philanthropy.’ He’s saying ‘I’m gonna become wealthy and give philanthropy.’ Joe is teaching students to think: ‘How can I make the most money, and how can I give the most money?’ We have so many speakers, and no one says that. No one talks about it. ”

Last year, Sanberg caught word that Sorani wanted to host a Passover seder for graduate students with nowhere else to go. Sanberg offered to help fund it, but only if the seder would also include low-income families. “As a nonprofit CEO trying to raise money, you almost … actually … never get anyone approaching you,” Sorani said. “After [that phone call], I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Of course I’ll do that, that’s awesome.’ ” The seder was held at the Peninsula Hotel and more than 100 people — including Sanberg — turned out to celebrate the holiday. 

Friends and colleagues describe Sanberg as “passionate,” “driven,” “full of big ideas” and value-oriented, someone who sees public service not as a weekend mitzvah project, but as a way of life. In 2012, he became chairman of the Jefferson Awards Foundation, a national organization co-founded in 1972 by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis that’s devoted to honoring and facilitating public service. Widely considered the most prestigious prize in its field, past recipients include Michael Bloomberg, Walter Cronkite, Steve Jobs, Sonia Sotomayor and Elie Wiesel. 

Before Sandberg took on the chairmanship, the foundation was struggling to reinvent itself to become an organization that not only recognizes public service, but powers it. Sam Beard, one of the foundation’s founders, personally asked Sanberg to take on the chair position and help rehabilitate their long legacy through better internal business practices.

“We knew we were on the cusp of becoming one of most impactful nonprofits in the country,” said Beard’s daughter, Hillary Schafer, the foundation’s executive director. “But we needed some work to get there; we needed to be structured like a world-class business, something that could have impact and create real scale.” Sanberg helped monetize contributed services, which increased the foundation’s revenue from $2.6 million to $13.5 million and helped Schafer turn around the place.

“Joe fundamentally believes in possibility — in everything he does,” Schafer said. “That really drives him, the concept that possibility should apply to everybody. He believes in big, wholesale change, and I think he feels quite blessed that he is in a position to take big ideas and do something about them.” 

When Sanberg first decided to tackle income inequality full time, he assembled a team of policy experts to research effective programs, and it wasn’t long before they happened upon the EITC. The movement to create one in California had already been building, but it took Brown, and a balanced budget, to finally make it feasible. When Sanberg heard the governor was considering pushing through the EITC, he hired a team of lobbyists to reinforce its passage. And then, when it was clear that the state’s allotment for outreach wasn’t sufficient to reach the hundreds of thousands of eligible low-income households, Sanberg created CalEITC4Me. At the program’s launch in Sacramento last November, Nancy McFadden, Brown’s top aide, credited Sanberg as “the spark” for the entire effort. 

“Now I want you to say it louder and together,” Sanberg commanded a room packed with journalists, state leaders and community organizers at the San Diego launch of CalEITC4Me in January, one of many stops on a statewide tour. In a video posted on Twitter, Sanberg stands at a podium at the front of the room conducting the crowd in a collective chant: “END. POVERTY…

“That’s why we’re here,” Sanberg says. “We shouldn’t have poverty. The problem isn’t a question of resources, it’s [that] the people who need the resources aren’t getting them.”

 

“We reach poor people; we give them money; they spend it on their kids; their kids have better outcomes in life. It’s a very linear relationship.”

 

Sanberg and his younger brother, Rick, grew up in the middle-class suburb of Villa Park in Orange County. They were raised primarily by their mother, Soni, who worked as a book editor and substitute teacher. Their father struggled to support the family. “Before I was born, he was allegedly a successful real estate developer,” Sanberg said, “but then he hit a wall. He kept reinvesting in projects, and the savings he had for our family kept declining and declining.”

Sanberg doesn’t remember his father being around all that much when he was a child. “I don’t remember a single meaningful conversation with my father,” he said. But he does remember dealing with the impact of his father’s choices: Just before Joe’s high school graduation, the family home went into foreclosure. His parents divorced. Sanberg’s mother and brother were forced to move in with his grandparents, while Sanberg went off to an internship in Washington, D.C., with the Democratic National Committee.

He can’t really recall what happened to his father; they haven’t spoken in the 18 years since. When I ask him about this, he answers impassively: “[My father] experienced a number of personal and financial problems, and it was around that time that I last spoke with him. I’m not sure of his circumstances then or thereafter.” 

For Sanberg, the trauma of losing his childhood home was irreparable. “That really conditioned how I saw the world, and how random bad luck and chance could impact how we lived,” he said.

Sanberg’s family story is also something of a selling point on the EITC trail. He talks to people in crowds as if he is one of them. At the United Way event, he said, “You may be asking, ‘Who the heck is Joe Sanberg?’ So let me tell you: By the time I was in high school, I was an EITC family, so the EITC is personal for me.” 

Despite the family turmoil, Sanberg did well enough in high school to get into Harvard. He wrote his admissions essay about the Led Zeppelin song “Ramble On,” which he said got him through his grandfather’s death when he was in 10th grade. “I learned that Led Zeppelin songs were inspired by ‘The Odyssey’ and Tolstoy, so I wrote about how ‘Ramble On’ continued the journey tradition in literature.” 

I ask Sanberg if he was that kid who was tagged “most likely to become president” someday, which made him blush. “Maybe,” he answered. 

His track record of success, which he prefers to attribute to “luck and chance” rather than any innate aptitude, has sometimes come at a cost: In 2014, Sanberg learned that several websites bearing his name had racist and misogynistic posted messages on them, and that an anonymous extortionist was attempting to get him to hand over $750,000. He sued, and the court ordered the domain registrar to disclose the websites’ owner — the name revealed was Sanberg’s brother. 

When I asked him about the fallout, he declined to talk about it, except to say that it tore apart his family. When it comes to personal matters, Sanberg is well guarded, sounding more cerebral than emotional, and he acts completely disinterested in the enigma of his own psyche. Describing when his family lost its home, Sanberg recalled feeling “stressed, anxious, uncertain and alone,” but stopped short of dwelling on his own pain. “I think it’s self-indulgent to reflect on those kinds of feelings,” he said, launching instead into a more universal assessment. “What I experienced was not a special experience; it’s common to probably a majority of Americans now. That’s why the shrinkage of the middle class isn’t some abstract mathematical phenomenon. It’s a moral crisis. Because when you don’t have the confidence of your basic needs being met, you don’t have the luxury of being fully human.”

 

“I don’t have a problem with people having a lot of money. I have a problem with people not having enough money to meet their basic needs.”

 

For Sanberg, public assistance was not a crutch, but a crucial leg up.

“I wouldn’t have been able to go to Harvard without student loans,” Sanberg said, citing the importance of federal assistance. That support enabled, and perhaps also inspired, Sanberg to plunge into campus politics. In 2000, he even took a year off to work for Al Gore’s presidential campaign, later returning to Harvard to study government. 

Ricki Seidman, former executive director of Rock the Vote, who also worked for both the Clinton and Obama administrations, was a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government when Sanberg was an undergraduate. She decided to mentor him, making Sanberg her intern.

“What stood out to me about Joe was that, some kids were interested in the process of politics,” Seidman recalled. “They wanted to work on campaigns, they liked the machinations of politics. … Joe was always interested in how you could use the political process to bring about change. He was very idealistic. And he had really strong values. He really stood out among the students that I encountered. I really liked him and got to know him.”

Today, Seidman is executive director of Sanberg’s Golden State Opportunity Foundation, which he created in 2015 with the mission to solve income inequality and create more equality of opportunity in America. CalEITC4Me is its first major initiative. “It’s not that often that you’re able to do something that is just so unquestionably good,” Seidman said. “Coming from Washington, where nothing gets done and the atmosphere is so negative, the opportunity to work on something so positive, so non-polarizing that brings people together, is really exciting. There aren’t very many things you can work on in politics where you’re able to make an immediate difference in someone’s life.”

According to several studies, recipients of the EITC tend to spend their refund on housing or household expenses, transportation, food and clothing. “We don’t screw around with indirect transmission,” Sanberg said. “Instead, we reach poor people; we give them money; they spend it on their kids; their kids have better outcomes in life. It’s a very linear relationship.”

While Sanberg spent most of his undergraduate career nurturing his affinity for political activism, the reality of needing to support his mother began to weigh on him as graduation approached. Wall Street and its allure of economic promise beckoned him. 

He started as an analyst at Blackstone’s Private Equity Group in New York, where he paved the way for a younger friend from Harvard, Matt Salzberg, to join the firm. It would become an important relationship: A few years later, in 2012, when Salzberg decided to start his own business, Sanberg invested in the company that would become Blue Apron, a food delivery service providing fresh, healthy ingredients and original recipes to home cooks. Sanberg saved the company from a major headache when he bought out a disgruntled early investor unhappy with the company’s direction. “It was the kind of thing that only a really close friend and supportive, thoughtful investor would do,” Salzberg told me. “And it ended up working out really, really well for him, because Blue Apron did really well, too.” 

In fact, Sanberg says his investment in Blue Apron has been more financially rewarding than his time on Wall Street. According to Forbes.com, Blue Apron now delivers 5 million meals per month and is valued at $2 billion. 

After leaving Blackstone in 2004, Sanberg jumped to Tiger Global Management, where he served as managing director until 2009. He describes his time there as “a very prosperous period” but also a frustrating one, that reinforced his wariness of Wall Street.

“I don’t think a free market is at its best when so many financial rewards accrue to so many people who create so little economic value and solve so few problems,” he said. “I still struggle with the period of time I spent on Wall Street, when I wasn’t living my business life true to my tikkun olam values. I made my money in a way that really created no value for anybody, except for a small number of people at the investment firm where I worked. I struggle with that.” 

Being in the center of the country’s economic engine during the 2008 financial crisis especially tested his conscience. “It was one of the most unfair things that has occurred in modern economic history,” Sanberg said of the Great Recession. “The American taxpayer got screwed by Wall Street, bailed Wall Street out, and then Wall Street complained about regulatory burdens imposed on it by the government to ensure a crisis wouldn’t recur. That whole dynamic astonishes me.”

So Sanberg did some soul searching. “Coming out of the financial crisis, I realized I had become unanchored from my core values,” he said.

Joseph Sanberg with members of the Home Start nonprofit at a press conference for the launching of CalEITC4Me at the Jacob Center in San Diego last month. Photo by Holly Martinez, CalEITC4Me Campaign

When I asked him to talk about the source of those values, I expected Sanberg to cite a book, a treatise, an icon of history. But his answer was much simpler. 

“The No. 1 influence on how I think and live is my belief in God,” he said.  “It informs how I live my life entirely. I’ve always [felt] this way; since I was a kid.” 

Sanberg’s spiritual philosophy is really an argument for a wholly integrated ethics. He doesn’t believe in compartmentalizing. “These distinctions we construct between how we make money and how we give money away are bulls— distinctions,” he said. “There are too many of us who say, ‘I can make my money however I want, as long as it’s legal. And then I’ll heal the world with my philanthropy.’ Those distinctions shouldn’t occur.” 

Driven by these values, Sanberg thought about how to address inequality through the private sector. “There are two ways you can change the financial industry,” Sanberg said. “One is through regulation, the other is through competition.”

He teamed with political wunderkind Cherny, also a Harvard graduate, to create Aspiration, a web-based financial firm targeting people disenchanted with big investment banks; Cherny, a son of Czechoslovakian Jewish immigrants, had already made a name for himself as the youngest White House speechwriter in history, in the Clinton administration. Aspiration quickly attracted high-profile investors, including billionaire Jeff Skoll, former president of eBay and now CEO of Participant Media, which produces social-impact films (among them, this year’s multiple-Oscar-nominated “Spotlight” and Al Gore’s Oscar-winning climate change documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth”). 

Publicly launched in November 2014, Aspiration now offers two investment funds — including a “sustainable” fund that invests in companies with progressive employee practices and environmental policies — as well as a fee-free checking account with a $10 minimum, free ATM access worldwide and a 1-percent yearly interest rate for balances more than $2,500 (“That is 100 times higher than most banks are offering,” Cherny, Aspiration’s CEO, said). Money magazine recently named it in a tie for best checking account in America. 

Some remain skeptical as to whether the company’s premise can turn a profit, but Sanberg insists the foundational hypothesis that “people are fair-minded and will pay for a service they value” is bearing out. He and Cherny said 90 percent of customers are electing to pay a fee for Aspiration’s products. Though there are some like-minded competitors in the field, such as Ally and BofI (Bank of Internet) who also offer attractive banking options, Sanberg believes Aspiration will prevail by being “very, very pro-consumer” and acting as what Cherny described as a “countervailing force” within America’s financial establishment. 

Sanberg thinks of Aspiration as a disruptor. “We’re changing the financial industry by stealing customers from existing firms that don’t treat people well. The failure of the financial industry to well serve middle-income people is one of the many factors that is driving the stagnation of the middle class. So, in my life as a business person, I am trying to solve that.” 

When Sanberg declaims about inequality, his passion is persuasive. In the same sentence, you might feel inclined to vote for him — or give him a hug. “He is in fierce pursuit of justice when it comes to economic opportunity,” Cherny told me. “It makes his blood boil when things are wrong, and he really wears his heart on his sleeve. It’s easy to get his goat by [talking about] some of the terrible things people are doing — he’ll start bouncing off the walls in indignation.”

“I don’t have a problem with people having a lot of money,” Sanberg said. “I have a problem with people not having enough money to meet their basic needs. 

“There’s an isolation that comes with that, and a loneliness, and I think that’s what’s overlooked by the dryness of economics or the aloofness of our politics — it reduces people into numbers.”

That last thought makes me wonder whether that was the worst part for him when he was young — to have his own identity tied to his income level — homeless, poor, on welfare or financial aid. Perhaps that’s why he’s not comfortable being rich, or at least, with playing the part. “I don’t do anything fun that has to do with being rich,” he told me.

For Sanberg, his wealth says no more about who he is, or what he does, than getting cast out of his childhood home defined the student he was in high school.

“My No. 1 belief is that the opportunities kids enjoy in their lives shouldn’t be based on luck and chance. We want to be a society where people can go as far as their skills and hard work can take them.”

Jewish groups join fight against cuts to poverty assistance


Jewish groups joined prayer rallies and demonstrations in Washington and across the country to urge Congress to preserve federal programs for the poor.

The rallies called on members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, also known as the congressional budget super committee, not to reduce the deficit by cutting programs that assist poor families and children in the United States and abroad.

The rallies are part of the Faithful Budget campaign organized by religious denominations and faith-based organizations to urge the Obama administration and Congress to remain committed to domestic and international poverty assistance programs.

“When the Torah tells us that ‘the poor will never cease from the land,’ we are not to read those words as an excuse for neglect,” said Rabbi Jack Moline, director of public policy for the Rabbinical Assembly at a prayer rally in Lafayette Park in Washington on Sunday. “Throughout the history of the Jews, whether in their own land or on distant shores, the commandment to lift our neighbors from a life of want to a place of security has animated our engagement with government and community.”

The super committee, created several months ago during congressional debate on the debt ceiling, has until Nov. 23 to propose a package to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit.

B’nai B’rith International on Monday called on the committee to work to meet the deadline, before “deep, automatic spending cuts kick in that could put our nation’s most vulnerable at greater risk.”

“B’nai B’rith urges committee members and the entire Congress to work aggressively in the coming days to find solutions that are good for the country’s long-term economic outlook, and good for all Americans,” read the statement .

“Deficit reduction can and should be done without breaking the promises of Medicare and Social Security, or shaving more from already thin budgets for programs like low-income housing and other services for the elderly.”

The statement recommended modest tax increases on the wealthy, saying that cutting benefits to the elderly and poor shifts costs to states, individuals and families.

The final indignity


Taking responsibility


Social Justice seems to be the central theme that pervades just about any Jewish periodical. Open any issue of The Jewish Journal, for instance, and you will see all sorts of articles and editorials related to tikkun olam, acts of charity and kindness that help to repair or perfect the world.

I have been raised in a traditional Jewish home. I have attended Hillel Hebrew Academy and YULA, both religious Jewish institutions that have taught me what it means to be a Jew. Perhaps one of the most profound quotes I learned is from the Talmud, Tractate Shavuot, 39:A, where it states: “Kol Yisrael areiveim zeh b’zeh.” The rabbis are reaching out to me with an important message: mutual responsibility and accountability — the notion that every Jew is responsible for each other. This very notion, however, has haunted me for so long. While I recognized the need for responsibility and accountability, I have also been taught that talk is cheap.

A recent study from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles shows that 22 percent of all Jewish households in greater Los Angeles were found to be living in poverty — earning less than $25,000. I can learn all day long about being a good Jew, about those suffering in my own community and all over the world, from Los Angeles to Darfur. But what can I do about it — a 15-year-old living in Los Angeles?

I am proud to volunteer my services weekly for Tomchei Shabbos, an organization that delivers boxes of food — challahs, chicken, eggs, milk and other items — to 200 families every Thursday night and before every holiday. Tomchei Shabbos receives donations from the community to help meet the needs of so many local hungry and needy people. Many of the recipients are from homes where the supporting parent may have just died, gotten sick, lost his or her job or suffered some other catastrophe.

Along with dozens of other teens and members of local synagogues, I volunteer to pack and discreetly deliver the boxes of food every week. Tomchei Shabbos has given me the opportunity to not just sit and learn about my value system in a classroom environment. No longer do I have to hear about suffering and pain and have to sit idle. I can do something about it. I can experience charity. I can experience social justice. I can experience kindness. I can do all this by active participation.

I feel so much more connected, now than ever before, to my Judaism. I can now fully understand what the ancient rabbis of the Talmud meant by their message of caring for one another — for mutual responsibility and accountability. I know that this experience will help me grow as an involved Jew, with a lifelong commitment to social justice, charity and kindness.

Jonathan Shainberg is a junior at YULA High School in Los Angeles.


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

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.”

 

Community Briefs


Gold Train Delivers to Local Agency

The Hungarian Gold Train has finally pulled into the station, figuratively speaking, bearing $67,536 for Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Los Angeles.

In the chaotic days following the end of World War II in Europe, 24 freight cars loaded with boxes of jewelry, cutlery, thousands of wedding rings, art works and other personal property taken by German and Hungarian Nazis from Hungary’s Jewry were discovered stranded in Austria by American troops.

As was the custom in those days, GIs and officers “liberated” some of the valuables. In due course, Washington settled a class-action suit last year and allotted $25 million as compensation.

Rather than attempting the near impossible task of tracking down the original owners 60 years later, the Claims Conference, as steward for the money, has decided to distribute it among needy Hungarian survivors throughout the world.

An initial down payment of $4.2 million has been allotted to 27 social service agencies in seven countries, including the JFS grant.

The local agency is currently assisting 45 Hungarian survivors and, in line with the grant mandate, is forming an advisory committee among them. Lisa Brooks, JFS communications director, said the money would probably be used for the survivors’ ongoing medical needs.

The largest of the initial allocations is going to survivor agencies in Israel and Hungary. The remaining $21 million will be distributed over the next five years, according to the Claims Conference.

In addition, the U.S. government has earmarked another $500,000 to create an archive related to the Gold Train and the Nazi looting of Hungarian Jewry for educational and scholarly purposes. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Jewish Alliance Joins Drive to Improve Life in LAX Area

Five years ago, 30 soaring glass and steel columns, shimmering in ever-changing hues of blues, pinks, oranges and yellows, were installed at the entrance to Los Angeles International Airport. As time passed, the lighting became erratic — colors didn’t change properly and some lights failed. Last month, the entire system was closed for repairs.

But even when they worked, the glowing pylons did nothing to improve a surrounding area that remains plagued by poverty and high crime rates. That deeper problem is the subject of a broad-based coalition spearheaded by religious and community leaders who announced a “Campaign for a New Century.” As a first step, the group is circulating a petition that calls “on city and industry leaders to join us in formulating a plan for a new century.”

Citing a report prepared by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, coalition leaders assert that while the 13 major hotels on Century Boulevard have among the highest occupancy rates and the largest concentration of rooms in Los Angeles County, their approximately 3,500 workers earn far less than their counterparts in the region. The effects of these low wages can be seen in the high rates of poverty, crime and overcrowding in the neighboring communities of Lennox, Inglewood and Hawthorne, where many of these workers live, according to the report.

“We in the Jewish Community understand both the importance and complexity of community,” said Catherine Schneider, assistant director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA). “The people who live and work in the Century Corridor are trying to build a healthy community.

“This campaign is not just about wages. It’s not just about health care,” she continued. “It’s about living in a beautiful place. PJA joins this effort to create a gateway to Los Angeles that we can all be proud of.”

For more information, visit www.newcenturycoalition.org. — Naomi Glauberman, Contributing Writer

ADL Report Links Southland Skinheads to Drugs, Guns

Southern California is home to a small but volatile stew of racist skinheads involved with guns and drugs, according to a report released by the Anti-Defamation League.

“There’s so much of this going on in Southern California,” said Amanda Susskind, the ADL’s Pacific Southwest regional director. “It’s equally hateful toward Jews, African Americans, Hispanics.”

The ADL’s national Racist Skinhead Project has identified 110 racist and neo-Nazi skinhead groups, many of them new, in outlying areas, such as the Inland Empire and Los Angeles County’s Antelope Valley.

While such locales may seem remote to a Jewish community heavily concentrated in the Conejo Valley, the San Fernando Valley’s southern suburbs and on the Westside, individual skinheads have committed crimes in Canyon Country, Simi Valley and Chatsworth. A small gang called the San Fernando Valley Skins has been seen at high schools. The ADL report noted that its members appear “closely allied” with the Nazi-imitating National Socialist Movement.

In total, the number of active, racist skinheads in the region is less than 1,000, Susskind said. Last year, the neo-Nazi group, Volksfront, created an all-California chapter in San Bernardino County. Orange County’s Public Enemy No. 1 Skins has about 300 members and is allegedly involved with methamphetamine sales.

“We track organizations that have an ideological conviction and translate that to action,” said ADL investigative researcher Joanna Mendelsohn.

The ADL described another group, the Nazi Low Riders, as “a strange amalgam of street gang, racist skinhead group and racist prison gang” involved with armed robbery and drug dealing.

In the mid-1990s, Nazi Low-Riders successfully were prosecuted on felony weapons charges in a federal probe by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives (ATF). While the number of Nazi Low Riders has since declined, “you’ve got dozens of other groups out there that have filled the void,” said John A. Torres, special agent in charge of the ATF’s Los Angeles field division.

Whether it’s Bloods, Crips or neo-Nazis, “the common denominator is their propensity to firearms,” Torres told The Jewish Journal.

The ADL report highlighted the March 2005 arrest in San Bernardino County of a Southern California Skinhead group member on several charges, including one involving a stolen handgun.

Similarly, ATF raids on skinhead hideouts in the Antelope Valley have turned up an abundance of guns and Nazi memorabilia. “Signs and pictures — it’s right there, hand-in-hand with the firearms,” Torres said. — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Chaplains Foundation Honors Schulweis, Interfaith Group

An Israel-Palestinian interfaith group and Rabbi Harold Schulweis were honored last weekend aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach for reaching out to other religions.

The honors came from The Immortal Chaplains Foundation, created in memory of the four U.S. military chaplains — two Protestant, one Jewish and one Catholic — who drowned together after giving their life preservers to soldiers on a sinking troopship on Feb. 3, 1943. Organizers said the foundation uses the chaplains’ self-sacrifice as an example to honor others for altruistic, interfaith deeds.

Schulweis and the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous created by him have spent two decades honoring non-Jews who rescued Jews in the Holocaust. In recent years, the longtime rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom has spoken out against the genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region, another outreach prompting The Immortal Chaplains’ honor.

“From their point of view, it was an appreciation of somebody to emphasize the need for goodness,” Schulweis said in an interview. “You had here people of different faiths and backgrounds who had found so much in each other, so much in each other to love and to appreciate.”

The other honoree at the Feb. 5 ceremony was Yehuda Stolov and his Jerusalem-based Interfaith Encounter Association, which has had more than a dozen dialogues, retreats and other interactions between Jews, Christians, Muslims and Druze in the Holy Land.

“For me, the main thing is the recognition of our work and the possibility to leverage it to get more awareness to what we’re doing and get more funding,” said Stolov in an interview. He was scheduled to speak this week in Southern California about his interfaith work. — DF

 

Activists Strategize on Hotel Contracts


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enemy Ties


 

I hadn’t been to a Tel Aviv bar for a while, and I was craving one. I had recently returned from a vacation to Los Angeles, where there were no worthwhile singles bars. Last call for alcohol in Los Angeles is 2 a.m., and a good Jewish girl like me prefers to pick up and be picked up by Jewish men.

That’s why Eliezer, a new bar on Ben Yehuda Street, was a relief for me and also for my friend, Tali, who had just returned from her native Melbourne. Inhaling the smoky air and swaying to the rock music, we reveled in the dozens of masculine men around us.

“Welcome to Israel,” we proudly toasted. “Where you know the men in the bars are Jewish.”

A beer and two vodka shots later, I let my guard down and scoped the scene, looking for hot prospects. Gradually a group of short, stubby men surrounded us. I sighed. None of them had been on my radar, but, nevertheless, we all danced and laughed and flirted.

Suddenly, a man in a gray shirt and gray tie walked in. I was not particularly attracted to him, but I noticed that his tie was practically strangling him. I gestured to him to take it off. We were in a bar, not a conference room.

Tali and I continued to dance and flirt, and the man in the tie passed us by, stiff-necked. I motioned to him again to take the thing off.

Finally, we headed out to go salsa dancing, and I noticed the man in the tie had taken it off and began waving it like a flag, signaling me over.

“Congratulations,” I said. “That’s much better.”

“Where are you from?” he said in an unidentifiable accent.

“I’m from Israel, but originally from L.A.,” I said. “Where are you from?”

“I’m Palestinian.”

“Oh,” I said. “Palestinian.”

No wonder he wore a tie to a bar. Israelis just don’t do that.

“Are you Jewish?” he asked.

“I’m very Jewish,” I said proudly.

There I was. Face to face with the enemy, in a Tel Aviv bar. I immediately recalled the Stage nightclub bombing in Tel Aviv a week earlier, and I looked for a backpack strapped to his waist, but he was strapless. I was safe, but I couldn’t help but provoke confrontation. I wasn’t about to be fake or polite or cordial just because he was Palestinian. A Tel Aviv bar, to me, did not provide sanctuary.

“You know, I’m very right wing,” I said.

I didn’t think he understood what I said or what I meant, or maybe he didn’t want a bar brawl, because he ignored my comment and instead asked me where I lived.

I almost made myself more explicit by adding: “If I were a soldier with a gun, and this were a battle line, I would shoot you. By the way, I entertain the idea of transfer.”

But I stopped myself. This was a bar, I reasoned. He wasn’t the enemy, he was a descendant of Abraham who wanted to break Islamic law and have a drink. I had to respect him for that. So I dropped the politics and told him I lived in Tel Aviv.

“Israeli women are hotter than Palestinian women, aren’t they?” I said, trying to find some common ground.

“No, no.”

“Why, do you like it when they are covered from head to toe, with those veils?”

“Well, women in Ramallah are not so hot. Yes, Israelians are hot,” he said awkwardly.

It seemed like that was the first time he used “hot” in that context.

I told him I had to go, and he presented his tie and said: “For you.”

“What?” I said. “I can’t take this.”

At first, I felt bad. It looked expensive, and don’t most Palestinians live in dire poverty?

Then I thought about the implications: I take this tie, and my hands are tied. I’d forever have to remember that one night a Palestinian gave me an expensive tie, and that he was nice to me. I’d have to question all my stereotypes and generalizations, and recognize that there are good, normal, generous Palestinians who just want peace, who just want to be my friend, who just want some fun.

I couldn’t take the tie.

But then I looked down at its elegant striped pattern. It would look smashing with a white tank and hip hugging jeans, I thought. He insisted, so I gracefully accepted.

“Thank you,” I said, smiling, and blew him a kiss.

As we sauntered out, Tali, a pro-peace activist, said, “You see, they’re not all bad. You’ll switch sides.”

“Hmm,” I said. “Maybe.”

As long as I felt good and stylish with the tie on, I couldn’t resent the fashion benefactor or his people.

I woke up the next morning, both me and the tie hungover in bed, alone.

I glared at it, frightened. Is this the first step toward my own private reconciliation with the Palestinians? If I keep it, is it a personal symbol of possible peace? Or should I just burn the thing?

Eventually, I hung it in my closet as the accessory that will forever go down in my wardrobe as “the tie the Palestinian gave me.” It’s not an enemy tie I’m ready to make, but it’s an enemy tie I’m ready to wear.

A friend told me that wearing a tie is a proven pick-up technique. It worked well for Abbas. Maybe it’ll work for me.

I’ll wear it next time I go to a bar. And when I do, I’ll use it to pick up and tie up a hot Jewish Israeli man, and I’ll have a Palestinian to thank for it.

Maybe then we could start talking about reconciliation.

Orit Arfa is a writer living in Israel.

 

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.

Federation Vows to Help Jewish Poor


Jews have long had a reputation as being among the most successful minority groups in the country. For the most part, they are. But as a new report from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles makes clear, not all Southland Jews live large. While some big machers tool around in BMWs and inhabit Beverly Hills and Brentwood mansions, thousands of less-fortunate community members struggle just to survive.

About one in five local Jews, or 104,000 out of 520,000, earn less than $25,000 annually. An estimated 7 percent live below the poverty line, compared to 5 percent nationally, according to a study titled “Alleviating Jewish Poverty in Los Angeles.” In greater Fairfax, an area with a high concentration of seniors and immigrants, an estimated one in three Jewish households lives in poverty.

“There’s an enormous number of Jews who live at or below the poverty line, and I think it will shock many members of our community to see how many people just scrape by,” Federation President John Fishel said.

In light of the stark findings, The Federation plans to make fighting Jewish poverty an even bigger priority, Fishel said. The agency has already allocated funds to Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) to hire new employees to focus on the need of the working poor. Around the country, Jewish agencies have undertaken several ambitious programs. In Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Jewish Family Service helps poor clients pay outstanding utility bills. In New York, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, has built four buildings for the elderly poor with federal funds.

Jews in Southern California have a harder time eking out a living than their counterparts in other U.S. cities. Los Angeles ranks only behind San Francisco and New York as the nation’s most expensive city. Skyrocketing rents, health care and other costs mean poor Jews can afford little beyond the basic necessities, the report said. And the situation appears to be getting worse. The cost of a one-bedroom apartment in most Jewish neighborhoods is $900 to $1,200 per month, putting it beyond the reach of the poor and many working poor.

Based on the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) poverty study, the disabled account for 48 percent of the Jewish poor, refugees and immigrants make up 22 percent, non-college educated are 12 percent, seniors older than 65 comprise 9 percent, single-parent homes are 8 percent, and 1 percent is classified as other.

Ironically, some local Jews working for Jewish nonprofit organizations fall into the ranks of the Jewish poor. At a time when executives at the L.A. Federation and other agencies earn upward of $200,000, plus benefits, nearly 20 percent of the 450 full- and part-time unionized workers at Jewish Family Service (JFS), the Federation and five other Jewish agencies earned less than $20,000 as of the beginning of 2004. Many Jewish day school teaching assistants also make less than $20,000.

In preparing its poverty report, the L.A. Federation collected no new data locally. Instead, the agency based its findings on a Jewish population study commissioned in 1997 and a 2000-2001 survey by the NJPS. That the L.A. Federation conducted no recent random samples undermines the credibility of its study, said Pini Herman, a demographer and author of the 1997 L.A. Jewish Population Survey.

“It looks like they grabbed their numbers out of thin air,” said Herman, who was not consulted for the new survey. “The data fails to account for mortality, migration and movement up and down the economic ladder. I think it is intellectually dishonest.”

Fishel said he stood behind The Federation’s study, adding that he thought information from the 1997 data was still relevant.

The increased patronage of SOVA by local Jews reflects how much tougher things have become for them, said Paul Castro, executive director of JFS, the food bank’s operator. About 1,000 Jews visit SOVA twice monthly for free groceries, a 15 percent increase from last year and a 100 percent hike since 2002, he said.

“From the street level, the economy doesn’t look like it’s getting any better,” Castro said. “It’s getting worse.”

At JVS, demand for job training and job placement services by poor Jewish refugees and immigrants has jumped by about 10 percent annually over the past four years, said Vivian Seigel, JVS chief executive and president.

A scholarship program for Jewish men and women in L.A. County living at or below the poverty line has also experienced a surge in interest. This year, about 500 young men and women applied for the higher education stipends, up from 350 last year, she said. Skyrocketing tuition costs, combined with surging rents and insurance costs, have placed a heavy financial burden on poor aspiring college students.

“They’re being pushed down,” Seigel said.

The poor are not the only Jews experiencing financial hardships. The report said an ostensibly middle-class family of two working adults and three school-age children must earn $79,750 to cover living and Jewish community expenses, which include religious school, two weeks of day camp and one month of residential camp. Parents wanting to send their children to Jewish day school would have to come up with another $20,400 per year.

“There are significant numbers of Jews in Los Angeles who can’t make ends meet because of the high costs of living [here] and often find that the costs of Jewish affiliation is beyond their reach,” the report said.

Building Dignity


Near railroad tracks and industrial buildings, Santa Ana’s East Adams Street is a modest neighborhood of stucco homes and spare yards distressed by late summer’s heat. From within a fenced lot, the discordant timpani of hammering disturb the quiet a block away.

Armed with hammers, tape measures and tool aprons, a swarm of inexperienced laborers energetically build framing for the interior walls of a new home. Overlooking bruised thumbs, sore muscles and sunburns, by week’s end the construction crew will bubble excitedly over their measurable progress that began with a bare foundation, said Thayne Smith, construction director for Orange County’s Habitat for Humanity.

“They’re way ahead of our expectations,” said Smith, even before the crew had completed its first day.

Using social action to create affordable housing, the construction crew consists of about 20 Jews drawn from Reform congregations around North America. They signed up months ago for an Orange County house-raising that began Aug. 15. The aim of the weeklong project on Adams Street, like last year’s in Vermont, is to build both a home for a needy family and a community among a group of common faith.

But with the High Holidays only weeks away, for some the project is also proving an unlikely source of spiritual preparation for the coming New Year and Day of Atonement.

“This gives me more personal insight into the working poor,” said Deborah Bock, of Los Angeles, who put aside her hammer for lunch and a seat in the partial shade of a construction trailer. “I work with my brain,” she said, a job difficult to compare to a typical day laborer.

The 26-year-old rabbinical student volunteered in order to pump volume into the abstraction of repairing the world, or more routine good works such as advocacy for Israel or raising money for the homeless.

“They’re not permanent. This is so much more concrete to work on the concrete slab,” she said.

Bock believes she will come away changed by the experience.

“We talk about a God that provides food and shelter, but it takes human intervention to take an active role to make it happen,” she said.

Throughout their stay, local synagogues provided lunch and dinner for the volunteers, whose home base was an airport hotel. Their number also included local congregants from Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom and Fountain Valley’s Congregation B’nai Tzedek.

Issues of housing and poverty, extracted from the High Holiday liturgy, were also the group’s study and worship subjects. That message was further underscored toward the week’s end with daily roars from the shofar, heard throughout the month of Elul to rouse Jews to repent.

“The prophet Isaiah, in the Yom Kippur reading, asks us to fast to sensitize us to the ways of the poor,” said Rabbi Alan Henkin, the Reform movement’s western regional director, who revised his planned teaching to lean more heavily on High Holiday themes.

The High Holidays were also on the mind of Jane Paterson, 50, of Calgary, Canada. Drinking in her own mid-century mark as a liberating elixir, Paterson is pursuing the postponed.

“Can you think of a better vacation?” Paterson asked, poised on a dirt mound.

“I’ll have fewer bread crumbs to throw in the river,” she predicted, referring to Tashlich, the widely celebrated custom of “throwing away” one’s sins into water before Rosh Hashanah

“It’s nice to use your muscles spiritually and physically for someone else,” added Toni Kennedy, 52, also of Calgary.

“Even if I never meet the people who live here, I know they’ll have a certain dignity I helped give them,” said another volunteer, Ginger Jacobs, 62, of Sherman Oaks.

Louis and Joyce Mogabgab, Santa Ana building contractors professionally, also signed on as volunteer supervisors.

“What amazes me is people without construction experience are accomplishing so much,” Joyce Mogabgab said, noting her own expertise is limited to phone and paperwork. “It gives me more appreciation for what my husband does.”

Habitat estimates that 90,000 people in Orange County live in substandard housing or are homeless. The group’s labor pool is more typically drawn from Christian groups working on weekends.

Few have experience, Smith said, “but everything is built well beyond the acceptable level of building.”

Smith said the four-bedroom Adams home is one of five currently under construction locally. The $136,000 lot was acquired with a federal government subsidy as well as reduced city fees. While Habitat requires 500 hours of sweat equity by each prospective owner, a family had not yet been selected for the Adams house, he said. A neighboring Habitat-built, five-bedroom home belongs to Maria and Rigo Gomez and their nine children. They previously rented a two-bedroom La Habra house.

“We try to be mission driven, to end poverty housing in Orange County,” said Joe Perring, a real estate developer and chairman of the local Habitat chapter, which builds 10 homes a year. “Urban affiliates have the dual challenge of fundraising and the scarcity of available land.”

“If we can find land, we can get the other resources,” he said. l

Splintered Persian Groups Merge


Long troubled by infighting, the Los Angeles Iranian Jewish community is working toward less conflict as three prominent Iranian Jewish organizations recently merged with the hope of speaking with one voice.

The Iranian-American Jewish Association (SIAMAK), Eretz Cultural Center and the Neria Yomtoubian Foundation came together under the banner of the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center on Feb. 21 in Tarzana.

The merger of the three groups signifies a desire within the Iranian Jewish community for greater participation in the larger Jewish community and a desire to attract Jewish youth to its cause. After more than two decades in the Southland, Persian Jews are organizing to present a united front for their community.

“This is actually a historical event. I do not remember anything like this happening before, and I truly believe that this is a bridge to the future of our community,” said Manizheh Yomtoubian, founder of the Neria Yomtoubian Foundation.

SIAMAK co-founder Dariush Fakheri said he first approached Yomtoubian and Ruben Dokhanian, co-founder and president of Eretz Cultural Center, after he realized the true growth potential of the three separate organizations. The three leaders said that while they have encountered a variety of challenges from logistics to reorganizing their volunteer base in the merge, their primary desire has been to generate more interest in the Tarzana center.

“We have numerous volunteers who give their time, money and effort for the betterment of the community,” said Fakheri. “But we need new members who want to come along with us as we go through this transformation.”

Fakheri said it’s taken a long time for Iranian Jewish organizations to unite because the community has been trying to adapt since its arrival in Southern California nearly 25 years ago.

“You have to look at our situation from so many angles. We are the survivors of a revolution,” Fakheri said. “Our main goal was to survive, so we did whatever we had to do to reach that goal. Now our situation is way different than even a decade ago so we can do more by putting our resources together.”

Lisa Daftari, an editorial intern for SIAMAK’s monthly magazine, The Iranian Jewish Chronicle (“Chashm Andaaz”), said Yomtoubian is the ideal 21st century Jewish activist since she has preserved the memory of her late husband, Neria, by engaging in various activities that encourage young Jews to embrace their Jewish identities.

“Through the creation of Eretz-SIAMAK Center, Manizheh is now determined and able to fulfill both her dreams and Neria’s,” Daftari said. “Her commitment and optimism regarding this project is genuine and unmistakable”.

Yomtoubian has also been very active over the years in an effort to feed nearly 100 Iranian Jewish families living in poverty in Los Angeles by gathering food for them on a weekly basis, Daftari said.

Fakheri said that in the last decade, Yomtoubian has collaborated with SIAMAK — the oldest Iranian Jewish group in Los Angeles — to subsidize food, medical and educational expenses for these needy Iranian Jewish families.

Most notably in 2000, SIAMAK and the Council of Iranian-American Jews were at the forefront of bringing to the world’s attention the plight of 13 Iranian Jews who were arrested by Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic regime on false charges of treason and were in danger of being executed, Fakheri said.

SIAMAK has also had an international presence, donating $20,000 last year to the Jewish community in Argentina, sending medical aid to earthquake victims in India and Iran, as well as providing humanitarian support to Muslim refugees in war-torn Bosnia during the recent Balkan wars.

Several Iranian Jews living in Los Angeles said they were surprised at the bold move by the three Iranian Jewish groups merging, especially since in-fighting is commonplace among many Iranian Jewish groups.

Fakheri and Yomtoubian said that despite differences of opinion among the diverse local Iranian Jewish groups, the new Eretz-SIAMAK organization will continue to reach out to all Jews in order to be more proactive in community and Israel causes. The group will host a variety of Jewish-oriented programs, including adult and youth Hebrew classes, marriage workshops, yoga classes, singles Shabbatons and cooking classes.

Fakheri said he was particularly looking forwarding to collaborating with as many other local American Jewish groups as possible.

“I would like to see a greater intermingling of Iranian-born Jews and other Jewish communities in the U.S.,” Fakheri said. “We can collaborate more with one another and contribute a lot to each other because of our common Jewish bonds.”

For more information about Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center, call (310) 843-9846.

Tull Lends a Hand to the Homeless


What is a homeless shelter? The definition really upsets Tanya Tull.

“A shelter is a place to stay for the night,” she says, raising her voice. “But a shelter is not the answer. Shelters are not going to solve the problem.”

Tull is referring to Los Angeles’ high cost of housing and the resulting homelessness. She first started worrying about those on the streets in 1980, and now, 24 years later, Tull is fighting against a real estate boom that prices the low-wage earners out of the housing market and federal aid cuts that exacerbate the problem. Tull outlined the issue with hard numbers in a March Los Angeles Times article: 8,000 children sleep on Los Angeles streets every night, 5,000 families will lose their Section 8 housing in 2005 and 15,000 families will lose their houses over the next five years.

But she isn’t content with worrying. As the president and CEO of Beyond Shelter Inc., an organization that helps people find permanent housing as quickly as possible and then supports them with services for a period of time, Tull is one of several Jewish Angelenos — like David Grunwald, chief executive of L.A. Family Housing Corp, and Ruth Schwartz, executive director of Shelter Partnership of Los Angeles — who is devoting her career to getting people off the streets and into homes.

“When I started doing this work, my aunts and grandmothers asked me why am I not doing it in the Jewish community,” said Tull, 61. “I answered that this feels right. I am working in third-world America. And if we don’t do this, who will?”

Tull’s programs have been so successful — in 2001 she helped 5,000 families with rental support services and put 220 homeless families into permanent housing — that she is now working with the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the National Alliance to End Homelessness, both based in Washington, D.C., to implement them in other cities across America.

After seeing Beyond Shelter’s five-floor office space in downtown Los Angeles and hearing Tull talk about her myriad programs, it’s hard to imagine that she didn’t even know what a nonprofit was when she started. She plunged headfirst into the world of organized charities and it was her idealism and bullheaded belief in making a difference that drove her success.

After she spent time on a kibbutz in her early 20s, she returned to Los Angeles as a single mother; Tull then worked as a social worker in South Los Angeles and Skid Row and then quit out of frustration because “there was so much poverty and hopelessness and I couldn’t do anything about it.” In the ’70s she briefly retired from changing the world — something she said she wanted to do when she was younger — got teaching credentials and settled down to raise her three children.

But when she read a Los Angeles Times article in 1980 about children living in Skid Row hotels, she was so incensed that she created a nonprofit on her living room table called Para Los Ninos (For the Children). Tull started raising money for a daycare center in a converted warehouse and eventually set up a host of programs for babies and children up to the age of 5.

“Then I began thinking more about the families,” she said. “It really bothered me that these children needed to go home to these hotels every night. I went to the Community Redevelopment Agency of L.A. and asked them where the affordable housing was, and they said there was none and they weren’t building any because the government had pretty well slashed affordable housing.”

Tull got to work. She co-founded the L.A. Family Housing Corporation in 1983 and developed a low-income housing project in South Los Angeles. She wanted the project to function similar to a kibbutz. She envisioned someone providing childcare while the residents tilled a communal vegetable garden. But the experiment failed, and it taught Tull a lesson in her fight to end homelessness.

“Housing is a basic human right,” she said. “It can’t be a reward for good behavior.”

Tull also realized that emergency shelters were only going to “recycle” the homeless, and in 1988 she started Beyond Shelter to get people into permanent homes.

Now Beyond Shelter has an annual budget of more than $4 million and works to build affordable rental units and revitalize neighborhoods, create relationships with the landlord community so it can advocate on behalf of people who have bad credit ratings and numerous evictions on their record, help people find jobs and offer support services to poor families.

And Tull wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

“There were many other things I could do [as a career] and I often wonder about them,” she said. “But I don’t think I could ever have given up this experience of being able to impact so many lives.”

For more information on Beyond Shelter, visit www.beyondshelter.org  or call (213) 252-0772.

American Jewry By Numbers


The National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) 2000-01, dubbed “Strength, Challenge and Diversity,” offers key findings on demographics, intermarriage, Jewish “connections” — that is, communal behavioral trends — and such “special” topics as the elderly, immigration and poverty.

Among the study’s key findings:

Demographics

  • There are 5.2 million Jews in the United States, down from 5.5 million counted in the 1990 NJPS. Those Jews live in 2.9 million homes, with a total of 6.7 million people. So in Jewish households, two out of every nine people are not Jewish.
  • Jews are older, on average, than the American population as a whole. The median age for Jews is 42, compared to age 35 for Americans generally. So while 14 percent of Americans are age 9 or younger, only 10 percent of Jews are. And 23 percent of Jews are over age 60, compared to 16 percent of Americans as a whole.
  • A majority of Jews — 57 percent — are married, but they tend to marry later in life than other Americans. For instance, while 59 percent of American men in the 25-34 age bracket are married, only 48 percent of Jewish men are. Among women in that age bracket, 64 percent of Jews are married, compared to 70 percent of Americans generally.
  • Jewish women’s fertility rates are lower than most Americans. Ninety percent of Jewish women ages 18-24 and 70 percent of those 25-29 do not have children, compared to 70 percent and 44 percent of U.S. women in those age groups. Jewish women had 1.86 children on average overall, versus 1.93 children by all U.S. women.
  • Forty-three percent of Jews live in the Northeast, 23 percent in the South, 22 percent in the West and 13 percent in the Midwest. But while 77 percent of Jews born in the West still live there, only 61 percent of Jews born in the Northeast and just half of those born in the Midwest do, signaling a continued migration westward.
  • That migration was offset by immigration to the Northeast, where nearly 60 percent of Jews from the former Soviet Union live.
  • Jews are more affluent than Americans generally. More than one-third of Jewish households report an annual income of $75,000 or higher, compared to just 18 percent of U.S. households. The median Jewish household income is $54,000, compared to $42,000 for Americans generally.
  • Only 61 percent of all Jews are currently working, compared to 65 percent of all Americans, reflecting the higher median age of Jews.

Intermarriage

  • Among all married Jews today, 31 percent are married to non-Jews. The intermarriage rate, which had been rising since 1970s, leveled off in the late 1980s and early 1990s to about 43 percent. Since then, it has climbed again slightly, with 47 percent of Jews who wed since 1996 choosing non-Jewish spouses.
  • Intermarriage runs highest among the young, with 41 percent of Jews under 35 who marry choosing non-Jewish spouses. By comparison, only 20 percent of married Jews over 55 have non-Jewish spouses.
  • The intermarriage rate is higher among men than women — 33 percent, compared to 29 percent.
  • The greater one’s Jewish education, the less likely one is to intermarry. Forty-three percent of those who lacked any Jewish education intermarried, compared to 29 percent among those who had one day per week of Jewish education. The rate dropped to 23 percent for those who had part-time Jewish education, and to 7 percent among those who attended Jewish day school or yeshiva.
  • Mirroring some earlier studies, NJPS also showed that intermarriage breeds intermarriage, with the children of intermarried couples three times more likely to intermarry. Intermarriage was 22 percent among those with two Jewish parents, versus 74 percent of those with just one Jewish parent.
  • Children of intermarried couples raised in a Jewish household were less likely to intermarry, though a majority still did. Nearly 60 percent of children raised Jewish by an interfaith couple intermarried, compared to 86 percent who were not raised as Jews. But only 33 percent of intermarried households raise their children as Jews, compared to 96 percent of homes with two Jewish parents.
  • Those who intermarry may experience alienation from the Jewish community. Just 24 percent of the intermarried say they have close Jewish friends, compared to 76 percent of those in all-Jewish marriages.

Jewish Connectivity

  • Among all Jews, 52 percent have close Jewish friends, 77 percent attend or hold Passover seders, 72 percent light Chanukah candles, 35 percent have visited Israel, 63 percent are “emotionally attached” to the Jewish State and 41 percent have contributed to a Jewish cause outside of the federation system.
  • NJPS further identified 4.3 million Jews, or 80 percent of the total Jewish population, as more “Jewishly connected” than others. These Jews replied to a more detailed NJPS survey, by first saying they either had at least one Jewish parent; were raised as Jews; considered themselves Jewish culturally, ethnically or nationalistically; or practiced no other religion. Those who practiced a non-monotheistic religion, such as Zen Buddhism, but still considered themselves Jews and practiced some “residual” Jewish activity were also included, said Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, the NJPS research director.

Of the remaining Jews in the overall population:

  • 800,000 met all those criteria but did not consider themselves to be Jews. The previous 1990 survey cast a wider net and counted these people as Jews in measuring rates such as intermarriage and other Jewish connections.
  • Another 100,000 Jews were estimated to exist, living largely in senior-citizen homes, prisons or as part of the U.S. military — the same number used in the 1990 study.

Of the more Jewishly active 4.3 million:

  • Forty-six percent said they belong to a synagogue, while 27 percent said they attend a Jewish religious service at least once per month.
  • Of those who said they were synagogue members, 39 percent identified as Reform Jews, 33 percent as Conservative, 21 percent as Orthodox, 3 percent as Reconstructionist and 4 percent as “other,” such as Sephardic.
  • Fifty-nine percent said they fast on Yom Kippur — meaning four in 10 Jews do not.
  • Twenty-eight percent said they light Shabbat candles, while 21 percent said they keep kosher at home.
  • Twenty-one percent said they belong to a Jewish community center, while 28 percent said they belong to another Jewish organization.
  • A fifth of all Jews said they have visited Israel two or more times, and 45 percent said they have Israeli relatives or friends.
  • Fifty-two percent said being Jewish is very important.
  • Thirty percent of these Jews said they contributed to a Jewish federation.
  • Sixty-five percent said they read a Jewish newspaper or magazine; 55 percent read books on Jewish topics; 45 percent listen to Jewish tapes, compact disks or records; and 39 percent use the Internet for Jewish purposes.
  • Nearly one-quarter said they attend Jewish education classes.

Education

Secular and Jewish education plays a key role among American Jews.

  • Jews are highly educated compared to the population generally, with 55 percent having earned a college degree, compared to 29 percent of all Americans, and 25 percent of Jews holding graduate degrees, compared to 6 percent of the general population.
  • Seventy-three percent of the more “connected” Jews received some kind of formal Jewish education growing up, including 79 percent of those between age 6 and 17 at the time of the survey.
  • Twelve percent of the more “connected” subset attended a Jewish day school or yeshiva growing up, 25 percent had one day per week of Jewish education and 24 percent went to a Jewish school part time. In fact, NJPS found a dramatic rise in Jewish day school and yeshiva education, with 29 percent of those between the ages of 6 and 17 — and 23 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds — saying they have attended day school or yeshiva. By comparison, only 12 percent of 35- to 44-year-olds, and 10 percent of older Jews, say they had a day school education.
  • As for more informal Jewish schooling, 23 percent of children ages 3 to 17 attended a Jewish day camp in the year before the survey was taken, between August 2000 and 2001; 19 percent of those aged 8 to 17 went to a Jewish sleepover camp in the previous year; and 46 percent of those aged 12 to 17 participated in Jewish activities or organized youth groups in that period.
  • Among current college and graduate students, 41 percent reported taking a Jewish studies course, while only 11 percent of those 55 and older did so; 28 percent of those between 35 and 54 attended such courses; and 37 percent of those under age 35 took a college-level Jewish studies class.

The Elderly, the Poor and Immigrants

  • Nearly one-fifth of the total Jewish population is considered elderly (65 and older), with 9 percent age 75 or older. Fifty-four percent of the elderly are women.
  • One third of elderly Jews live alone, with 67 percent being widows or widowers. More than one-third report their health is poor or fair, three times the rate of those under 65.

Because the 1990 NJPS did not track poverty levels, the study could not spot any trends. It did, however, find that:

  • Nine percent of the Jewish elderly live in households below the federally defined poverty line; 18 percent of the elderly live in households with incomes of less than $15,000; and 43 percent of the elderly claim total assets of $250,000 or more.
  • Nearly 8 percent of all American Jews immigrated to the United States since 1980, amounting to 335,000 people. Of these, 227,000 — or slightly more than two-thirds — came from the former Soviet Union. The remaining immigrants came from 30 other countries, with those from Canada, Iran and Israel accounting for more than half of those 109,000.
  • Ninety-one percent of immigrants from the FSU were married to other Jews.

The study will be available at “>www.jewishdatabank.com.

Trauma Triggers Camp Funds


The summer he attended a Christian day camp for free made a lasting impression on Allen Alevy, age 7 at the time. “They said I’d go to hell,” he recalled of an attempted conversion.

His father, a naval shipyard laborer, could afford little else. The nonobservant family of second-generation Russian immigrants lived in a subsidized housing project, Truman Boyd Manor. None of their neighbors were Jews.

Having pulled himself out of poverty through hard work and two California real estate booms, Alevy, 67, said he doesn’t want other cash-poor Jewish families, particularly those in the military, to be guided by their pocketbook this summer.

Alevy is a 25-year financial supporter of Huntington Beach’s Hebrew Academy, which in summer becomes one of the area’s most affordable day camps. In June, he established an open-ended fund for full or partial camp scholarships to permit the children of Jewish military families to attend camp, which has a second location at Morasha Jewish Day School in Rancho Santa Margarita.

Over the course of five two-week sessions, about 850 children, ages 2 to 14, enroll between the two locations. Traditional camp activities include sports, swimming, drama, dance, cooking, computers, ceramics and fabric art. Each week also has a Jewish theme. The cost is $150 per week.

Last year, about 20 percent of camp enrollees received some financial help, amounting to about $20,000 in subsidies, said Rabbi Zalman Marcus, director of the south county camp.

“There are plenty of Christian camps, and every Jewish institution is short of money,” Alevy said. “I may as well spend it while I’m here.”

The number of requests for camp assistance “is a silent epidemic afflicting our community,” says a financial appeal issued in May by Marcus, also rabbi of the Chabad Jewish Center of Mission Viejo. “It’s definitely more desperate than in the past. I didn’t realize how widespread it is.”

His appeal describes the long summer tedium confronting two sets of young children, their parents buffeted by desertion, job loss and injury.

“Those are true stories,” said Marcus, about working parents for whom camp is not an indulgence or enrichment, but an unaffordable necessity. Parents will typically forgo work rather than leave their children alone, he said. “They’re really up a creek.”

“The kids will go out of their minds,” with both boredom and envy, Marcus said.

Many of their more affluent playmates confront a different dilemma: scheduling and selecting from among the ever-increasing array of specialty day camps locally available. These include the Jewish Community Center’s day camp held at Irvine’s Tarbut V’ Torah Community Day School. For nonmembers, its cost ranges from a three-day, $310 kindercamp to $700 for a three-week theater camp.

The needy are not so obvious here because many people superficially retain an image of affluence, Marcus said. “People are embarrassed; they are in cars they can’t afford or don’t have health insurance. They’re just making it; they’re not going into the street. But camp is a luxury.”

Haitian Songs


The following piece was written after a recent trip to Haiti, during which a delegation from MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger was hosted by the Lambi Fund, one of MAZON’S longtime grantees.

It starts with a song. Soft at first, then louder, like slow rolling thunder, gentle harmonies that keep time with the clapping of hands.

Soon there will be time for serious talk — of politics, hard labor and the struggle to find food — but for now there is only the music.

Every Haitian man, woman and child knows this music, and during a recent trip to Haiti, I came to know it, too. I was there to visit several grass-roots organizations that help Haitians — most of them poor, many of them hungry — develop the skills they need to improve their everyday lives.

Haiti is a startling place. By all accounts is seems to be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Driving around, I found a vast, barren wasteland, what you’d expect to find on a desolate moonscape or in some futuristic science fiction movie. Plagued by years of war, famine and political mismanagement, the country has been stripped of its natural resources, and with them its industry. Electricity is undependable, and running water an unheard of luxury. With mile after mile of nothing but rocky dirt road, Haiti seems like a place without hope, and certainly a place without a viable future.

And yet, five minutes into a conversation with a Haitian woman, I realized my first impression was wrong. I visited a grain mill in the center of the country, where local women bring their corn. In Haiti, women bear the brunt of the work burden. They are responsible for milling grain and working as vendors at local markets, while simultaneously tending to the needs of their families. The mill represents a significant improvement for the women who use it, and who previously had to walk great distances to process grain for family meals.

Despite their heavy loads, the women I met bubbled over with enthusiasm. These were not bitter, defeated women resigned to a life of poverty. In fact, the women — and the men — were decidedly upbeat. They recognized that they were poor but not powerless, and that systemic change would have to start with them.

Take Marie-Carmel. A 35-year-old mother of three, she understood what it would take to turn her fortunes around. When we were first introduced, she didn’t hesitate to make her views known.

"The politicians will do what they will," she said dismissively. Then she pointed to the mill and said, "This is my president. This is what I believe in."

In the face of extreme poverty, Haitians retain a tremendous sense of dignity. They may be dressing in rags caked with mud and clinging to machetes, but their children are spotless, wearing immaculate school uniforms and clutching battered books. Like parents all over the world, Haitian parents will sacrifice everything to give their kids a chance at a better life.

Several days into my trip, I drove through a torrential downpour to visit an agricultural site in a mountaintop village. After my visit, I climbed back into a rickety van with threadbare tires and began to descend the mountain, which was rapidly deteriorating into sludge. Several miles outside the village, the van sunk into the mud and was stuck. Within the hour, what seemed like the entire village had descended to help me. There was a sense among these people of the need for collective action, of getting around a problem and solving it. As I stood getting soaked, pushing the van out of the muck side by side Haitian men, women and children, I understood how poverty (unpaved roads, decrepit transportation) can be a physical obstacle to getting things done. But I also felt inspired by a sense of community and possibility.

For weeks leading up to my trip, I wondered what relevance all of this could have for the American Jewish community. For me, the question was more than academic, since I’ve dedicated the past several years of my life to raising funds from the Jewish community and distributing them to fight hunger in our country and around the world. How does Haiti affect Jews when it is a country with so few of us?

I found my answer in the faces of the Haitian men and women I was fortunate enough to meet. We are a people consumed by a vision of a more perfect world, and we are a people, many of us blessed with abundance, who can help build it. As Jews committed to tikkun olam, we send food to poverty stricken Haitians for the same reason we teach inner-city children to read and provide housing assistance for new immigrants in this country. We do it because we believe in kevod ha’beriyot, the respect due to every being. MAZON, the anti-hunger organization I head, was founded with this in mind, and shaped by the principle that Jews don’t discriminate.

Every meeting I attended in Haiti started with a song, and every song told a story. As I’ve replayed the lyrics in my head, I’ve become more convinced that the stories hold a lesson for us as Jews. It’s true that we have our own stories and songs. But ever since I’ve been back from Haiti, it’s struck me that it is the overlap, where our stories meet, where the real work gets done.


H. Eric Schockman is the executive
director of MAZON. For more information on MAZON, call (310) 442-0020 or visit

We Must Share Our Blessings With the Poor


As we began our seders this week, one of our first acts was yachatz. We held high a matzah and recited, "Ha Lachma Anya" (behold, the matzah, the bread of poverty, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.)

The very flatness and blandness of the matzah remind us of the empty and oppressed lives of the Israelite slaves — and of downtrodden people in all places and in all times.

Lest we think that economic injustice is a thing of another place, consider the city of Los Angeles. How can the same city that registers 20 percent of all the Rolls-Royces in the United States also be known as the homelessness capital of the country? The disparity of income between the richest and poorest members of this city should shame even the banana republics.

More than 2.5 million residents of this region have no medical insurance, yet plastic surgery is a cottage industry in parts of Los Angeles. No wonder Los Angeles has been aptly characterized as "a ‘First World City’ flourishing atop a ‘Third World City.’"

This week, Jewish leaders conducted Passover seders to call attention to three local struggles to achieve justice. These three campaigns — for janitors, Santa Monica hotel workers and nursing home workers — represent efforts on the part of the religious community to bring some semblance of economic fairness to groups fighting for better wages and working conditions.

For example, take nursing home workers into whose hands we entrust our elderly, our infirm and ourselves. The annual median salary for California’s certified nurse’s aides, the front-line caregivers in nursing homes, is a shameful $17,638. These workers are 50 percent more likely to lack health insurance than the general population.

Each nursing home worker tends to 15-20 patients during the daytime and up to 35 patients at night, leading to compromised care and high rates of on-the-job injuries. Not surprisingly, certified nursing aides have a turnover rate of 78 percent.

For these reasons, more than 80 rabbis and 75 ministers and priests have signed a statement of principles in support of low-wage workers. The statement reads:

"We, as religious and business leaders, believe that we should strive for a state in which all low-wage workers, whether they are direct employees or contracted out, should be:

"Paid a living wage that allows them to meet the basic needs of their families.

"Provided with full health-care benefits for them and their families.

"Employed by companies that abide by all applicable laws — including the right to organize.

"Treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve."

This simple statement embodies the teachings of Judaism on the just needs of workers. For example, Jewish law absolutely prohibits oshek (withholding fair wages). The principle of oshek is based on two biblical commandments:

1. "You shall not defraud your fellow [man]. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning" (Leviticus 19:13).

2. "You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger, in one of the communities of your land. You must give him his wages on the same day before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry out to the Eternal One against you, and you will incur guilt" (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).

Both biblical and rabbinic law seek to prevent the recurrence of Ezekiel’s indictment: "The people of the land have practiced fraud and committed robbery; they have wronged the poor and needy, have defrauded the stranger without redress" (Ezekiel 22:29).

America has blessed the Jewish community with prosperity, freedom and security. The Passover haggadah calls on us to share our bounty, especially at this season.

"Let all who are hungry, come and eat," says the "Ha Lachma Anya." "Let all who are needy come and celebrate Passover with us. Now we are servants; next year may we all be free."

Now our poor are exploited; next year may they — and we — know the fullness of America’s promise.


Rabbi Alan Henkin is regional director of the Pacific Southwest Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Uruguay Visit Puts Faces to Numbers


People can hear about the economic crisis that has affected South America in the news. People can read about poverty in newspapers, but 22 Jewish and non-Jewish USC students, along with Rabbi Jonathan Klein, USC Hillel director, spent eight days during an alternative spring break trip to Uruguay experiencing firsthand these lives in times of crisis.

We spent our first day at the Jewish Home for the Elderly, where we met Ashkenazi Jews who had immigrated to Uruguay during World War II. Our volunteer work consisted of planting a vegetable garden and painting walls for a project called Kaleidoscope: Colors of Our Grandparents.

Then we volunteered at the neighborhood of El Tobogán in the community of El Cerro, which we later learned had an 80 percent unemployment rate.

Children at El Tobogán had no underwear, and were running shirtless and barefoot amid the spiders and red ants. But the children were no different from other children around the world. They were energetic, happy and innocent.

Community members helped us dig a 5-foot hole for a bathroom, mix the cement for a kitchen and twist wires for floor bases.

The high level of poverty can be traced back to when Uruguay went through the crisis of foot-and-mouth disease in 1998, which did not help the beef export to the United States and Europe. Uruguay’s neighbor, Argentina, one of the top buyers of Uruguayan beef, could not buy anymore after the crisis, said Fernando Filgueira, sociology professor from the Universidad Católica del Uruguay.

He said that the paradox was that while the GDP and social expenditure were growing, poverty was increasing due to lack of employment. Inequality increased. Moreover, the poverty concentrated on children.

For a country that boasts of a 97 percent literacy rate, these statistics are paradoxical.

But then, infant mortality rate is about 14 deaths per 1,000 live births, according to the CIA World Factbook (2002).

Our visit to the Kehila Jewish Community Center was even more discouraging. The Jewish community, which has been middle class, is no longer considered middle class but the “new poor.”

The new poor have homes and cars, but there’s nothing inside their refrigerators, said Becky Stolovich, social worker at Kehila.

“You can’t sell or eat a car,” she said.

The new-poor families experience depression, which leads to family conflicts, divorce and troubled children.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” Stolovich said.

Every day we studied the texts of tzedakah, which provided context to our work of social justice.

The Uruguayan Jewish community is small and people know each other, so they feel ashamed to ask for assistance, said Silvana Pedrowicz, director Tzedek Hillel in Montevideo.

Uruguay is suffering from the economic crisis of its neighbor Argentina. About 20 percent of the population has employment problems, according to Hillel Uruguay. There has been closure of industries and businesses of Jewish owners.

Five times more Uruguayan Jews made aliyah in 2002 than in 2001. About 8 percent emigrated because of the economic situation. Half of the émigrés went to Israel.

About 40 percent of Uruguayan Jewish homes under the poverty line in 2001 were receiving food, clothing, medicine and social assistance from local Jewish communities.

Childhood poverty is such a large national issue that the Research Program on Social Integration, Poverty and Exclusion of the department of social sciences and communication was created by the Catholic University to advocate for children’s welfare.

The program was motivated by the finding that infant poverty has reached 48 percent in children between 5 years old and under, and 42 percent among those 6 to 13.

One in every three Jews in Montevideo is living in economic vulnerability, poverty or indigence. One in every two Jewish children is living in poverty.

So after I returned from my alternative spring break trip, read the statistics and heard about them in the news, I can see they are not just numbers — they have faces — and I have seen them.

For information on Tzedek programs in Uruguay, contact
tzedek@hillel.org.uy .


Seung Hwa Hong is a student at USC majoring in print journalism and comparative literature. She can be reached at isabelhong@hotmail.com.

L.A. Jews Aid Argentines


The plight of Argentine Jews hammered by the collapse of their country’s economy was forcefully brought home to a contingent of Los Angeles Jews this month.

Twenty-two young leaders active at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles joined the United Jewish Communities (UJC)/Ben Gurion Society (BGS) National Young Leadership Mission Oct. 31-Nov. 6.

Standing on the patio of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Association (AMIA) center in the city’s La Paternal neighborhood, Brian Weisberg talked with Graciela Estrin, who had come to the center for help. When Weisberg asked Estrin what had brought her there, the woman tearfully revealed her story.

The 43-year-old Estrin explained that she had been unemployed since December 2001, and her husband, a furniture salesman, only earns 500 pesos a month — roughly $140. The eldest of her three children, she continued, had just quit the university so that the family could buy food.

"This was too much to keep standing on our own," said Estrin, who added that she had only come to the center after many weeks of deliberation.

Estrin’s story is one of only many that the 166 UJC/BGS members heard on the mission. The group visited Argentina to get a first-hand look at the situation. According to officials, thousands of Argentine Jews are being assisted by a Jewish welfare network.

The AMIA center, which opened in August to help Jews in the area who were living near the poverty level, is part of the welfare program. About 550 families receive food vouchers, medicine, clothing and subsidies at the facility, which is supported by AMIA and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

Monica Cullucar, a JDC staffer in Buenos Aires, used to work with Paula Szwarc at the same Jewish high school. Cullucar’s former colleague has been hit hard by the economic crisis.

"Now I teach only four hours a week of classes in a local private and prestigious university," said Szwarc, a former Fullbright Scholar who taught English at international companies. "Many companies became smaller and quit training their staff."

"I used to earn $1,300 a month," said the 32-year-old divorcee, who has a 9-year-old son. "Now I’m getting $70."

Silvana Bloch, a social worker, said of Szwarc, "She does not talk about her needs, but they are urgent."

One of the mission members, Diana Fiedotin, who represents Los Angeles on the United Jewish Communities’ (UJC) National Task Force on Argentina, is the daughter of an Argentine couple.

Fiedotin is involved in the Lifeline to Argentina project, which matches Jewish American families with Jewish Argentine families. The project provides the Argentines with a year’s worth of food vouchers, medicines and day school or Jewish Agency programs. The local Tzedaka Foundation in Buenos Aires and a JDC partner coordinates the program in Argentina.

"The program started last Yom Kippur and has already gathered $40,000," Fiedotin said.

Michele Sackheim, national co-chair of the UJC/BGS mission and the sponsor of a family, said visiting the Argentine Jews was like looking in a mirror. She said the Argentines were educated, well-traveled — "we can relate [to them]."

"It is so emotional because we can all see ourselves in the Argentine community," Sackheim said. "But you need to look beneath to really know that something is happening, and that is why the Argentine story is so compelling."

Sackheim related her visit to the family she sponsors. She said the family’s situation was typical of what many Argentine Jews are experiencing.

"The [husband] used to sell medical materials," she said. "They had a good standard of living. They bought their own apartment, and they even showed me the receipts of contributions they made to the Jewish community when they were prosperous."

"Now," Sackheim related tearfully, "the couple is looking for jobs. Their two kids have a scholarship in a Jewish school. This is so emotional."

Daniel Yoffe, executive director of the Tzedaka Foundation, told the mission, "Argentine Jews lost their dignity. They are like us, but they suddenly became poor."

Despite the desperate economic situation, Yoffe said, Argentine Jews remain involved in their community to the best of their abilities. He said they have contributed 3.8 million pesos — roughly $1.07 million — this year and, "we have just gotten 800 new donors."

Fiedotin, who has made three trips to Argentina this year, has seen the Argentine Jews’ reactions change as the crisis continues. In February, she said, there was panic. In August, there was resignation to the situation and no hope.

On the latest trip, Fiedotin said Argentine Jews have accepted "their new reality and are adjusting to being lower-middle class, having middle-class values and lower-class living standards."

Throughout the trip, the BGS mission members encountered recipients of social assistance programs who thanked them for the help that the Jewish community has received.

"It makes me uncomfortable to be thanked," Sackheim said. "The whole Jewish world is like my family. I know they would have done the same for us."

The Jewish Federation’s Jews in Crisis Fund is still accepting donations for the Jews of Argentina. For more information, contact (323) 761-8200.

Plans for Future Aid

The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI)’s Task Force on Argentina says that Argentina’s Jewish community is restructuring itself, cutting costs and raising money, but the country deteriorated even more dramatically in recent months. JAFI is hoping to come up with $44 million to meet that challenge.
Steve Hoffman, president and CEO of United Jewish Communities (the umbrella organization over JAFI, JDC and the federations) believes another 6,000 Argentine Jews will make aliyah in 2003 if JAFI can provide special aliyah/absorption funding as they did in 2002. Part of the $44 million will go to aliyah and absorption, welfare relief in Argentina, and funding to keep poor children in the Jewish school system. “Without special funding, thousands will soon drop out and be lost,” Hoffman wrote in a recent newsletter.

Shifting Gears


"It’s not someone else’s problem. It’s our problem." The problem Devorah Shubowitz is talking about: poverty.

Over the summer, Shubowitz worked with Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) to study the Jewish working poor in Los Angeles.

Through CLUE, more than 400 religious leaders throughout Los Angeles County have already helped hundreds of workers unionize for better wages, and helped refugees threatened with deportation to become citizens. Now the efforts of CLUE, and the Jewish interns who worked with the organization this summer, are focused on extending those successes, bringing awareness of the working poor to congregations throughout Los Angeles.

Shubowitz came to CLUE from New York, where she teaches at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, a center for women’s advanced study of classical Jewish texts. Mark Goodman and Jennifer Flam, rabbinical students at the University of Judaism, also worked with CLUE over the summer. In addition to studying the problem of the Jewish working poor in Los Angeles, their summer internship included helping organize Santa Monica residents of all faiths to support a living wage initiative for hotel workers, and reviving the "Sanctuary" movement of the 1980s.

With inspiration from the prophets (Goodman likes to quote from Jeremiah because, "All he ever talked about was ‘We must have done something wrong and you haven’t been good to other people,’") the Jewish interns at CLUE worked all summer with clergy and lay leaders of all faiths in support of social action. "It was a summer internship," Flam said, "but it’s a life’s work."

The big project for CLUE these days is on the November ballot in Santa Monica. Measure JJ, the Living Wage initiative, would increase wages for as many as 2,000 hotel workers in Santa Monica’s coastal tourist zone. In the wake of a Labor Day project called "Labor in the Pulpit," in which CLUE-affiliated clergy delivered sermons on the issue, the group plans to hold a get-out-the vote kickoff event on Sept. 22, featuring a performance by folk group Peter, Paul and Mary at Santa Monica City Hall. "CLUE is a bridge between both sides," Flam said, "We’re not bound to the unions, and there are ethical business owners who work with us."

For workers who have been lost their jobs for their unionizing or living wage efforts, CLUE is reviving the Sanctuary program, first used in the 1980s when thousands of workers were threatened with deportation, often back to repressive regimes. CLUE encourages clergy and congregations to publicly support the fired workers. "Even though people are not losing their lives this time, they are losing their livelihoods," Flam said of the program.

One of the biggest problems the CLUE interns faced in trying to bring Jewish congregations into the fight for economic justice was in presenting the working poor as a "Jewish" problem. Working with the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, CLUE’s executive director, and local rabbis including Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Sholom and Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillat Israel, CLUE’s interns supplemented their organizing efforts with a study of poverty among Jews in Los Angeles. They found that, "Poverty among working people also plagues the Jewish community here," Goodman said. And the solution requires more than money.

"The Jewish response to poverty has been more about giving than creating societal change," Shubowitz said. "The problem won’t be alleviated by giving people food."

To support that societal change, Shubowitz, Goodman and Flam undertook a study of Jewish working poor in Los Angeles. Starting with figures provided by a Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles study, they interviewed Jewish workers, counselors at Jewish Vocational Service of Los Angeles and local rabbis. They found Jewish workers, primarily immigrants from the Former Soviet Union or Israel, who worked solely for tips, or below the minimum wage, without any type of health insurance, even after years at the same jobs — the same conditions that non-Jewish low-wage workers face. "Our purpose has been to demonstrate the connection between Jewish poverty and poverty at large," Shubowitz said, "We have the same problems — immigration, lack of organization to fight this problem. It’s important the Jewish community get connected with other communities doing this work."

"At least 13 percent of Jews in the Los Angeles area make below $10,000 a year," said Flam, citing the Federation study, "When we



This year, the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, which has treated more than 500 victims of terrorist attacks, including those from the Passover massacre in Netanya, received $250,000 toward its intensive care trauma unit. Sheba Medical Center received $135,000 toward a portable ultrasound system. And Natal, an Israeli trauma center, received $200,000. All the funds came from L.A. Jews.

Over this past year, during which some of the most insidious and relentless suicide bombings in Israel’s history have occurred, these Israeli institutions, as well as dozens of others, have received — and will continue to receive — millions of dollars in emergency funds, thanks to Los Angeles’ Jewish community.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, through its Jews in Crisis (JIC) campaign, funneled emergency funding to Israel within a short window of time. A roster of emergency agencies and trauma centers, mostly based in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, have received millions of dollars earmarked toward everything from hospitals to children’s education and bomb-sniffing dogs.

"Our goal was to raise $10 million for Israel as part of our share of the $300 million campaign nationwide [sponsored by United Jewish Committee of North America, the umbrella agency for all Jewish federations]," Herb Gelfand, chairman of Los Angeles’ successful JIC campaign, told The Journal. "We also wanted to raise $2 million for Argentina. We’ve raised $18 million. We’re over the national goal [by $8 million]."

In just a few months, The Federation’s JIC was able to bring together a windfall of contributions raised from the community, Federation-sponsored events and a plethora of parlor meetings — fundraising receptions held at the private homes of affluent Jewish individuals. But with the year winding down, The Federation is now shifting gears in its fundraising goals.

"It isn’t over," Gelfand said. "We’ll continue to raise [JIC] money, mainly through direct solicitations, but we’re moving into the end of the regular campaign, and we’re careful not to interfere with that, because the regular campaign feeds into The Federation’s core services and our constituents here and in Israel."

Ed Robin, who, along with Stanley Gold, is co-chair of the Israel and Overseas Committee at The Federation and is in charge of the JIC’s allocations process, said that JIC and the annual campaign are related.

"The general campaign funds the main social services — the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency," Robin said. "The needs we tried to fund with JIC were specifically toward the crisis."

The JIC’s success owes much to the parlor meetings, which became a galvanizing local phenomenon, particularly after the March 27 Passover massacre. Gelfand estimated that about half of JIC’s total came from parlor meetings.

"Contributors were very eager to do something," Robin said. "The JIC [through parlor meetings] gave them a tangible outlet to express their concern."

Gelfand credited The Federation’s Annette Shapiro and Fredi Rembaum for organizing the meetings. But a key element to JIC’s efficiency, organizers said, was The Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, unique to Los Angeles’ Federation, which lent the campaign its focus and cohesiveness.

The long-running partnership — a network of collaborations with Israeli scientists, schools and human service agencies, which until February was directed in Los Angeles by Rembaum — was able to identify Israel’s needs and rally JIC’s efforts by April, rather than June, when most federations organized their JIC campaigns.

In addition to parlor meetings, The Federation sponsored missions to Israel to generate awareness of JIC and its efforts, such as the early June entourage during which The Federation presented contributions to various agencies, singles missions and a late summer mission that sent actor-comedian Larry Miller and others to visit campers at the Jaffa Institute for the Advancement of Children.

Los Angeles’ humanitarian efforts, consolidated by The Federation through JIC, have provided substantial financial support for continuation of programs. The efforts represented an important statement of solidarity, according to spokespersons at the beneficiary agencies in Israel.

"The gift has been like receiving a dose of oxygen, because it will enable us to purchase essential equipment that we immediately need," said Talia Zaks, deputy executive director of ZAKA. She said the $87,000 that was received will go toward the volunteer-staffed organization, which provides first aid and collects body parts for proper Jewish burial after every terrorist attack. "This money will help us save as many lives as possible," she said.

The Jaffa Institute, which shelters underprivileged children, has worked with The Federation before. JIC raised $50,000 to help the institute build a security fence to prevent terrorists from penetrating its Beit Shemesh campus.

"My immediate reaction," said Dr. David Portowicz, Jaffa Institute’s chairman, "was that I could sleep better at night knowing that the 300 children in my charge are not exposed to the risk of a terrorist attack."

Akiva Holtzer, spokesman for Bikur Cholim Hospital, a public facility in Jerusalem, said that its $25,000 gift will go toward trauma center equipment.

"We appreciate the fact that Jewish people worldwide think about us and want to help us," Holtzer said. "The fund will help us provide better services."

"This was the largest gift we’ve received from any federation in North America," said Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, Natal director of development, of its $200,000 grant. "We were overwhelmed by the generosity of Los Angeles Jewry, and very encouraged by the effort made by the delegation of L.A Jews who visited us in June."

"The [JIC] campaign is providing direct support to nongovernmental agencies that are working directly with individuals," said Marty Karp, The Federation’s senior vice president for Israel and Overseas, who is based in Israel. "It is not only providing cash support to help individuals return to good health from physical injuries and psychological anguish, but is also helping those that support them."

Gelfand noted that this year’s general campaign, stimulated by JIC, is on the verge of being the strongest since 1990. "If things go where we expect it to go," Gelfand said, "we’ll raise $45 million in the general campaign, in addition to a $19 million Jews In Crisis campaign."

This would be an improvement over recent years, when the slowing of the economy and the dot-com crash affected The Federation’s fundraising, Gelfand added.

But with the success of this year’s emergency relief effort, will there be a need for a JIC campaign next year?

"It depends on what happens in Israel," Gelfand said. "About 50 of us are going to Israel in October, when we’ll get a better idea. Of course, there will always be a need. But let’s hope that the next six months will bring a relative calm.

"The community has responded extremely well and very generously, as it always does," he added.

Get a CLUE to Help the Poor


"It’s not someone else’s problem. It’s our problem." The problem Devorah Shubowitz is talking about: poverty.

Over the summer, Shubowitz worked with Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) to study the Jewish working poor in Los Angeles.

Through CLUE, more than 400 religious leaders throughout Los Angeles County have already helped hundreds of workers unionize for better wages, and helped refugees threatened with deportation to become citizens. Now the efforts of CLUE, and the Jewish interns who worked with the organization this summer, are focused on extending those successes, bringing awareness of the working poor to congregations throughout Los Angeles.

Shubowitz came to CLUE from New York, where she teaches at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, a center for women’s advanced study of classical Jewish texts. Mark Goodman and Jennifer Flam, rabbinical students at the University of Judaism, also worked with CLUE over the summer. In addition to studying the problem of the Jewish working poor in Los Angeles, their summer internship included helping organize Santa Monica residents of all faiths to support a living wage initiative for hotel workers, and reviving the "Sanctuary" movement of the 1980s.

With inspiration from the prophets (Goodman likes to quote from Jeremiah because, "All he ever talked about was ‘We must have done something wrong and you haven’t been good to other people,’") the Jewish interns at CLUE worked all summer with clergy and lay leaders of all faiths in support of social action. "It was a summer internship," Flam said, "but it’s a life’s work."

The big project for CLUE these days is on the November ballot in Santa Monica. Measure JJ, the Living Wage initiative, would increase wages for as many as 2,000 hotel workers in Santa Monica’s coastal tourist zone. In the wake of a Labor Day project called "Labor in the Pulpit," in which CLUE-affiliated clergy delivered sermons on the issue, the group plans to hold a get-out-the vote kickoff event on Sept. 22, featuring a performance by folk group Peter, Paul and Mary at Santa Monica City Hall. "CLUE is a bridge between both sides," Flam said, "We’re not bound to the unions, and there are ethical business owners who work with us."

For workers who have been lost their jobs for their unionizing or living wage efforts, CLUE is reviving the Sanctuary program, first used in the 1980s when thousands of workers were threatened with deportation, often back to repressive regimes. CLUE encourages clergy and congregations to publicly support the fired workers. "Even though people are not losing their lives this time, they are losing their livelihoods," Flam said of the program.

One of the biggest problems the CLUE interns faced in trying to bring Jewish congregations into the fight for economic justice was in presenting the working poor as a "Jewish" problem. Working with the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, CLUE’s executive director, and local rabbis including Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Sholom and Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillat Israel, CLUE’s interns supplemented their organizing efforts with a study of poverty among Jews in Los Angeles. They found that, "Poverty among working people also plagues the Jewish community here," Goodman said. And the solution requires more than money.

"The Jewish response to poverty has been more about giving than creating societal change," Shubowitz said. "The problem won’t be alleviated by giving people food."

To support that societal change, Shubowitz, Goodman and Flam undertook a study of Jewish working poor in Los Angeles. Starting with figures provided by a Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles study, they interviewed Jewish workers, counselors at Jewish Vocational Service of Los Angeles and local rabbis. They found Jewish workers, primarily immigrants from the Former Soviet Union or Israel, who worked solely for tips, or below the minimum wage, without any type of health insurance, even after years at the same jobs — the same conditions that non-Jewish low-wage workers face. "Our purpose has been to demonstrate the connection between Jewish poverty and poverty at large," Shubowitz said, "We have the same problems — immigration, lack of organization to fight this problem. It’s important the Jewish community get connected with other communities doing this work."

"At least 13 percent of Jews in the Los Angeles area make below $10,000 a year," said Flam, citing the Federation study, "When we spoke with Jewish leaders, they knew nothing about them." Part of the reason Jews and Jewish leaders have not been aware of the problem of Jewish poverty has been that poor Jews are often not affiliated with the larger Jewish community. "It costs a lot of money to be affiliated," Flam noted.

Goodman noticed another reason for the lack of awareness, "The problem of our not recognizing [Jewish poverty] stems from generalizations — really, internalized anti-Semitism. We believe that all Jews are wealthy." The study, which Shubowitz expects to be finished by the end of October, will be publicized by CLUE; the Board of Rabbis of Southern California has also expressed interest in distributing it.

The three CLUE interns said that when they spoke to congregations, "Jews didn’t know what was going on. Frequently people are shocked," Flam said, "Usually once people understand what’s going on, we get a strong response."

With awareness raised, and their summer internships over, the CLUE alumni continue to work to turn concern into action. "Is it deliverance or DiGiorno?" Goodman asked, "Do we wait for God or do we make justice at home?"

When Poverty Strikes


Every evening, the petite, homeless Jewish woman discreetly parks her compact car across the street from a public park. She spends the night in an automobile that holds all her possessions. She keeps it meticulous. In the morning, she washes up, also discreetly, in the park’s public bathroom. She keeps a low profile so no one will call the police and ask her to move on.

A decade ago, Janet*, who is in her 50s, had her own apartment and steady — if modest — paying work as an artist. Then, when her father developed Alzheimer’s, Janet had to give up her career and her apartment to care for him full-time. Father and daughter lived on his life savings until he died several years ago. By then, all the money was gone, and though Janet scrambled to find a job, any job, she discovered there was little interest in a middle-aged woman who had not worked in seven years.

Because Janet was under 65, she was eligible for only some $200 in welfare benefits monthly and around $85 worth of food stamps, hardly enough to pay the rent. When the eviction notice came, she moved into her car, with just a suitcase of clothes, some toiletry items and her portfolio.

Today, she spends her isolated days in libraries, malls and bookstores, trying her best not to appear homeless. Somehow, she manages to keep herself tidy and well-groomed, though she is anxious about the future.

“If something happens to her car, she knows she will be left out in the elements,” says Jan Ballin, regional director of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, Valley Adult and Children’s Services (JFS is a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation). “As a formerly middle-class, educated Jewish woman, she never thought it would come to this.”

Janet is part of a grim statistic in the L.A. area: Almost 50,000 Jews, 10 percent of the total Jewish population, are living near or below the poverty level, says Pini Herman, author of the 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey.