Pick a cause

When I was in eighth grade, I went on a school field trip to the Museum of Tolerance. My grandmother being a holocaust survivor, I had learned much about the Holocaust and took an interest in it. At the Museum of Tolerance, however, I learned about other things as well.

At an exhibit called the Millennium Machine, the last stop, I was in shock at all the horrible things that are still happening to children today. I couldn’t believe that in the world I lived in, kids were being enslaved and starved. I had always been involved with community service, but at the sight of this exhibit I knew I had to do something to help these children.

It was only a couple of weeks later that I was shopping at a jewelry and clothing boutique, when the owner noticed my necklace — which I had made. She offered to sell it at the store. That very day I brought in a tray of my work, and my guitar-pick jewelry was an instant success at the store.

This was right before summer started, and before I knew it I would be spending my summer days making jewelry. When I realized how much money I could make, I remembered that exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance and how much those children needed the money — much more than I did.

So I decided to give all of my proceeds to these unfortunate kids, and I began looking up charities that benefit kids. The first charity I donated to was UNICEF, because I knew that the money I gave would directly help youths in other countries that I had seen in the video at the museum. Ever since, I have given all of my proceeds to various charities, amounting to about $10,000.

In addition to my business, I always take on the opportunity to help in my own community. I believe that it is important to help out whenever you can, whether it’s picking up trash at the beach or working at a charity benefit, as well as taking on new challenges.

I love art and jewelry making, but giving to charity is the heart of my business. I might not be making jewelry forever, but I know I will always be charitable, because I have a love for helping those less fortunate than I am. Since I am a creative person, I’m glad to know I can use my talents to help others.

I also realize how fortunate I am to live in a nice house and to have food to eat, something that is easily taken for granted. I have also learned that we fortunate kids hold the responsibility to help children who are in desperate need for simple things that we have an abundance of. I believe that one person can make a difference, and with my charitable business I would like other young people to see that they, too, can use their talents for a good cause.

Amanda Martin is a junior at Viewpoint School in Calabasas. Her jewelry can be purchased at www.pickmejewelry.com.

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.

Austria Makes Reparations for Nazi Past

The expulsion and extermination of 182,000 Austrian Jews during the Nazi era is a wound that will never heal completely, but two important decisions during recent weeks at least point to a symbolic closure for the dwindling number of survivors and the Austrian government.

In a high-profile case, Maria Altmann won her seven-year battle to recover from Austria five famous paintings looted by the Nazis and now valued at $200 million. The art works were seized in Vienna in 1938 from Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Jewish sugar magnate and Altmann’s uncle.

After an even longer period of legal and diplomatic wrangling, a court decision has cleared the final hurdle for payment of restitution money to survivors or the heirs of victims.

The drawn-out Altmann case finally reached its end when the Austrian government accepted the decision of an arbitration court in Vienna that the five paintings by Gustav Klimt rightfully belonged to Altmann and four relatives.

The decisive ruling in favor of Altmann and her attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg, is “the most important victory in the entire history of litigation on Holocaust restitution,” said professor Michael J. Bazyler of Whittier Law School, whose latest book, “Holocaust Restitution: Perspectives on the Litigation and Its Legacy,” has just been published by New York University Press.

Altmann, a tall and animated Cheviot Hills resident, who will celebrate her 90th birthday next month, greeted the decision as “Fabulous…. It is wonderful that justice has finally been done, that was my whole goal.”

Born Maria Victoria in Vienna in 1916, she was raised the pampered daughter of the fabulously wealthy Bloch-Bauer family. Her uncle Ferdinand owned Austria’s largest sugar-refining factory, numerous mansions and a major art collection.

The Bloch-Bauers were Jewish, but in the selective manner typical of central Europe’s Jewish upper class.

“We went to a temple once a year on Yom Kippur, where I remember seeing the Rothschilds, the men in top hats and cutaway coats,” Altmann recalled. “But otherwise, we celebrated Christmas and Easter. That’s sometimes hard to explain to American Jews.”

In December 1937, in the last grand Jewish wedding in Vienna, Maria Block-Bauer married Fritz Altmann, an aspiring opera singer. The newlyweds left for an extended honeymoon. Shortly after their return, Hitler’s troops marched into Vienna, amid the unrestrained jubilation of the Austrian people, Maria Altmann remembers well. In one of their first acts, the Nazis seized the art collection of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, including the Klimt paintings.

The most famous of the paintings is a gold-flecked portrait of Altmann’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, currently a centerpiece of the Austrian National Gallery and one of the most reproduced pictures of all time.

Following the ruling, there remain some loose ends to be tied up, especially whether Austria will try to buy the Adele portrait, considered a national treasure, from Altmann.

The portrait itself is valued at about $100 million, and the government has said it cannot afford the sum, which is equal to the annual budget for all Austrian museums.

It is Austria’s hope that a generous private donor might step up and pick up the tab.

The other Klimt works are a second portrait of Bloch-Bauer and three landscapes.

Schoenberg predicts that his client’s victory will encourage other governments and museums, especially in France and Spain, to arrive at settlements on other cases of Nazi looted art taken from Jews during the Hitler era.

A bizarre touch was added last week, when Schoenberg received an anonymous e-mail, whose sender threatened to destroy the Klimt paintings in order for “hungry people to get bread.” Austrian authorities temporarily removed the paintings from the National Gallery, and then arrested a 50-year-old man, tracked down through his Internet provider.

The unidentified man claimed that he was drunk when he sent the e-mail.

Until two years ago, Altmann, mother of four and grandmother of six, supported herself by running a fashionable dress shop for women over 40.

Her fortunes have changed in recent months. In addition to the money she is expected to receive under the settlement with Austria or the sale of some of the Klimt paintings, Altman and 13 co-heirs got $21.8 million last year in recompense for the sugar factory and other properties seized by the Nazis.

Although the Bloch-Bauers had the foresight to set up a trust account for the factory’s stock in a Swiss bank to shield it from seizure, the bank turned around and sold everything to a well-connected German businessman at a fraction of its value.

Altmann said she plans no changes in her lifestyle.

“I’ll stay in the same home where I’ve lived for 30 years and keep driving my ’92 Ford,” she said. “And I don’t need any new clothing.”

However, she plans “to do something” for the Jewish communities in Austria and the United States and for Israel.

Once the money is in hand, she also hopes to realize her long-held dream of sponsoring a performance by the Los Angeles Opera, starring her idol, tenor Placido Domingo. The event would be dedicated to her late husband, whose operatic career was cut short when he had to flee Austria.

Altmann said she had urged Austria seven years ago to arbitrate the dispute, “but I never got a response back.”

Schoenberg savored the end of the lengthy confrontation, noting that “at the beginning, we didn’t think we had any chance at all.”

A decisive break in the legal proceedings came in June 2004, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Austria could be sued in a U.S. court, despite the opposition of the Austrian and American governments.

The Supreme Court decision helped Austria “to finally see the light” and agree to arbitration, Schoenberg said.

Austria Accepts Responsibility

While the Altmann case has made headlines, it is only part of the larger question of Austria’s responsibility toward Nazi victims in the postwar decades. Austria, whose native son Adolf Hitler incorporated it into the Third Reich during the 1938 Anschluss, played the role of “first victim” of the Nazis, guiltless of the Holocaust and other atrocities.

This attitude changed in the mid-1990s, when the Austrian president admitted for the first time that his country bore its share of blame for Nazi crimes against Jews, as well as against the Roma and Sinti (gypsies), homosexuals and the disabled.

In 1995, the Austrian parliament established the National Fund for Victims of National Socialism, which over the past 10 years has appropriated some $770 million under various programs compensating for loss of property, education, pensions, tenancy rights, and for slave labor and hardship cases.

But Austria has held back a good chunk of the allotted money, some $210 million, until the government was guaranteed that no subsequent class-action suits against Austrian businesses would be filed by survivors.

Last month, a U.S. District court in New York dismissed all such class-action suits, a decision welcomed by the Claims Conference, which negotiated with Austria on behalf of survivors.

The first payments to some 19,000 claimants in 69 countries are to start next December and should be completed one year later, said Hannah M. Lessing, secretary general of the Austrian National Fund. Lessing was in Los Angeles last week to meet with survivors and, accompanied by Austrian Consul General Martin Weiss, met with The Journal over cappuccino at a Brentwood restaurant.

Lessing was born in Vienna in 1963, the daughter of a Jewish photographer who had fled from Vienna to Palestine in 1939, but returned to his native city after the war. He had left behind his mother and grandmother, who both perished in Auschwitz.

Lessing’s non-Jewish mother, with Hannah and her siblings, formally converted to Judaism in 1973. Her later resumé includes a stay in Israel, where she worked as a hotel receptionist and businesswoman.

The raven-haired Lessing wore a prominent Star of David around her neck, which led to a question about the widely reported wave of anti-Semitism again rising in Europe.

She said that the reports were greatly exaggerated, although remnants of classical anti-Semitism remain and in France, especially, threats from young Muslim immigrants.

“I wear my Star of David in Vienna without any comments or incidents,” Lessing said. “But when I’m in Paris, my friends think I’m crazy to do so, and in New York I am often advised that I might be better off leaving it at home.”

On a subtler level, she acknowledged that most non-Jewish Austrians would categorize her first as a Jew and secondly as an Austrian, just as in past decades most non-Jewish Americans considered Jewish citizens as not “real Americans.”

Her answer drew a pained rebuttal from Consul General Weiss.

“I am a Catholic, and I consider Hannah as much an Austrian as I am,” he protested.

When Lessing switched from her career as a banker five years ago to accept her present position, she insisted on a pro-active policy of seeking out survivors, open access by claimants to her offices and a minimum of red tape. Nevertheless, she acknowledged criticism that the whole process is still too slow and complex, especially given the advanced age of the remaining survivors.

“There are only some 12,500 Austrian survivors still alive, and every time one dies, we lose,” she said.

Lessing also wishes that she could raise the payment rate for Jewish property lost during the Nazi era, which now stands at only 10 to 15 percent of current valuation.

“No amount of money can ever make up for the suffering of the Holocaust,” she said. “Whatever we do is meant as a gesture of reconciliation toward our former citizens.”


Juvenile Offenders Taste Teshuvah

The slightly built, 13-year-old Latino boy sitting in the Starbucks near downtown Los Angeles didn’t know much about teshuvah, the Jewish notion of repentance.

But it lies at the heart of L.A.’s Jewish Community Justice Project, and it kept this scared kid with the tremulous smile from a likely stint in juvenile boot camp for throwing rocks at a police car.

Instead of going before a judge, the boy was brought face-to-face with the policeman whose car he’d damaged, and in a two-hour meeting facilitated by two trained mediators, he had to tell the cop he was sorry.

Then he had to pledge to make restitution by working a set number of hours for his parents and a local gardening firm to pay $200 for a new car window.

“I felt nervous in that room,” the boy admitted. “I told him I was stupid, and not thinking about what I was doing at that moment. He was kind, he was a good person. He told me to thank my parents for raising me.”

It was the first time the boy had worked for money, and his mother said he was tempted to keep the first $50 he made.

“But I told him, ‘You have to take care of your responsibilities first,'” she said.

The Jewish Community Justice Project is a partner of the Centinela Valley Juvenile Diversion Project, which has been running a victim-offender restitution program in Los Angeles since 1992.

Four years ago, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles funded the joint project between Centinela and two L.A.-based Jewish groups, the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish recovery program.

According to the agreement, the PJA trains volunteers to mediate in cases forwarded by local law enforcement and juvenile courts. There currently are almost 60 Jewish volunteer mediators.

“The alliance with PJA has been so exciting because they’ve recruited motivated, dedicated volunteers,” said Steve Goldsmith, Centinela’s executive director. “The religious component, the education of teshuvah, really keeps the people motivated.”

The mediation project is based on the legal concept of restorative justice, according to which offenders must take personal responsibility for their crimes and make restitution directly to those they have offended.

Participants say it dovetails neatly with the Talmudic notion of teshuvah, which specifies that one must seek forgiveness from those one has wronged before asking God’s forgiveness, something Jews are meant to do every year between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“Part of teshuvah is attending to what one did, and turning to the person who was hurt or offended to see whether you can come back to an open relationship with that person and their family,” said Rabbi Richard Levy, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

Levy helped create the Jewish part of the curriculum — eight hours of Jewish text study on justice and forgiveness — for the volunteer training program.

Daniel Sokatch, director of the PJA, said he brought his organization into the program in 2002, when Los Angeles became the nation’s murder capital.

“We realized that most of the murders were in the 310 area code, home to most of the Jews who don’t live in the Valley,” Sokatch said.

The most affected neighborhoods weren’t those where many Jews live, Sokatch said, but “it’s still our city, and in the words of Jeremiah, you must work for the welfare of the city where you live and there find your own well-being.”

Cases involving murder aren’t eligible for mediation. Most of the what comes to Centinela involves petty theft, vandalism, bullying and similar crimes.

One of the hardest parts of the program is making sure that appropriate cases are referred to them. There were 45,000 youths arrested last year in Los Angeles, Goldsmith said, yet Centinela received only 600 to 700 referrals.

To address that problem, Sokatch said, the next volunteer training program in early 2006 will include a separate, less-intensive track for volunteers, who will learn how to schmooze intake cops, “visit them every week, bring doughnuts and coffee and review the docket with them” to ensure that fewer juvenile offenders slip through the cracks.

Jordan Susman, a former television writer and filmmaker, was in Sokatch’s first group of volunteer mediators.

“I felt that’s what a Jewish organization should do,” said Susman, who is now a third-year law student. “It appeals to my Jewish point of view. The juvenile justice system is beyond broken — once you’re in the system, you learn how to be a better criminal. This is about breaking that cycle.”

Keren Markuze, a documentary television writer, has mediated about a dozen cases since her training last year.

“Jewish law is very big on giving people chances,” she said. “Let’s do everything we can to make sure the punishment is appropriate, especially when we talk about children.”

Jewish law also takes intention into consideration when looking at crime, Markuze noted. She described one case she mediated in which a boy stole pants, a shirt and shoes from a department store.

During the mediation, the boy confessed in tears that his mother was laid off and couldn’t afford to buy him a new school uniform, and he was tired of being humiliated by the other kids at school for his clothes.

“That’s an issue of economic justice,” Markuze proclaimed. “Of course, he had to learn that stealing is not a solution, but for him to end up in the conventional justice system would have been tragic.”

Restorative justice programs exist in many cities around the world, according to several Web sites devoted to the topic. And it’s not about feeling sorry for kids — statistics show that such programs work.

According to the Center for Restorative Justice and Mediation at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, recidivism rates are lower following mediation than following traditional punishment. Approximately 80 percent of young offenders who participated in mediation complete their restitution to their victims, compared to just 58 percent of offenders who were ordered to do restitution by the courts, but who did not sit face-to-face with those they had wronged.

“When you go to court, you’re not sitting across from your victim, forced to look them in the eye and hear what they have to say to you,” Markuze said. “It’s very powerful.”

Susman said he has his young offenders “do the math” to figure out the number of jobs lost because of crimes like theirs every year in Los Angeles. When they realize it’s their parents and friends who are losing those jobs, it “really affects them,” he said.

In the L.A. mediation project, Goldsmith said, about 70 percent of juvenile offenders complete their restitution pledges. He pointed to a study done by California’s Supreme Court that found the re-arrest rate was half that of young criminals who did not go through mediation.

“It helps divert kids from the court system, and it actually shows a pretty good success rate of keeping kids out,” said Michael Nash, presiding judge of L.A. County Juvenile Court. “Not every kid needs to be brought into the court system if there’s another way they can be

held accountable, make restitution to the victim and develop a sense of responsibility.”

The mediators take away something from it as well. For Susman, who said he and his wife are “always looking for ways to incorporate more Judaism” into their lives, acting as a court mediator “is where my Judaism is expressed existentially through the actions I do.”

Markuze said she often “feels ambivalent” after a mediation, “because there’s so much more we as a society could be doing.”

Sometimes she feels the juveniles “aren’t really contrite.” But overall, she said, “I feel good I’ve given someone a chance to make amends.”

The next volunteer mediator training session will be held in the spring. For information, contact www.pjalliance.org.


Vote No on 57, 58: They Erode Duty

One of the central tenets of our Jewish political and ethical tradition is that cities and states are communities of obligation. Citizenship in these communities is defined by responsibility, and the most basic responsibility is to care for the neediest among us. Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas articulated this same fundamental truth in the concept of “humanist urbanism.”

Unfortunately, over the past quarter century, this core value has been eroded in California — dating from the abdication of communal responsibility embodied in the 1978 passage of Proposition 13. Because they continue and exacerbate this pernicious trend, Propositions 57 and 58 on the March 2 state ballot deserve to be defeated. However, two other ballot measures — Propositions 55 and 56 — merit the Jewish community’s wholehearted support.

Proposition 57, which seeks authorization for a $15 billion bond to pay off the state’s accumulated General Fund deficit as of June 30, 2004, violates California’s constitutional requirement that bonded indebtedness be incurred only for a “single object or work” — such as the educational facilities whose repair and restoration is provided for in Proposition 55. Even worse, repayment of this enormous bond will be based upon one-quarter cent of the state sales tax — the most regressive form of governmental taxation.

More fundamentally, since this proposed bond will take between nine and 14 years to repay, Proposition 57 simply passes the burden for current spending onto future generations and raises the overall debt burden beyond what is fiscally prudent, costing an average family more than $2,000. This is akin to taking out a second home mortgage in order to pay monthly living expenses.

Balancing the state’s budget on the backs of society’s weakest segments is also unethical. During their administrations, both Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson raised income taxes on the state’s highest earners. We would have expected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to do likewise — as well as to abrogate his unilateral reduction of the existing vehicle license fee — in order to ease the current economic crisis, and thereby protect education and social services.

Increased taxes on alcohol and tobacco products should also have been given careful consideration. Instead, the governor (with the Legislature’s complicity) opted to evade responsible action in the present and risk having the neediest disproportionately shoulder an enormous future burden.

Proposition 58, whose fate is tied directly to Proposition 57’s adoption, purports to require the enactment of a balanced state budget. However, it in fact permits short-term borrowing to be used to balance an unbalanced budget, thereby undermining this measure’s avowed goal of ensuring that a balanced budget will actually be enacted and implemented.

Moreover, although Proposition 58 purports to prohibit all future deficit-financing bonds, it cynically exempts the $15 billion bond called for by Proposition 57. To do so, Proposition 58 temporarily repeals existing provisions of the California Constitution that prevent the issuance of such a bond.

By contrast, Proposition 55 presents the archetypal purpose for incurring bonded indebtedness. Safe, modern and uncrowded schools are vital to the educational achievement of our children — a core Jewish value. Proposition 55 authorizes the state to sell $12.3 billion in general obligation bonds for the construction and renovation of K-12, as well as higher-education, facilities. Especially important, this measure makes a total of $2.44 billion available for use by districts with schools that are considered critically overcrowded.

Proposition 55’s strict accountability requirements should ensure that these funds are spent only on school rehabilitation and building costs, and these bonds will not raise taxes. Even the conservative California Taxpayers Association believes that Proposition 55 is a fiscally responsible way to finance school repairs and construction. The California Chamber of Commerce likewise supports Proposition 55 because it invests in our economy and in our future work force.

Finally, past experience proves that state budgetary gridlock harms those who are most vulnerable — the poor, the sick, the disabled, children and the elderly. To avoid the recurrence of this phenomenon, Proposition 56 permits the Legislature to enact budget and budget-related tax appropriation bills with a 55 percent vote, rather than the two-thirds majority vote currently needed.

A 55 percent vote still requires a larger majority to pass our budget than 47 other states and the federal government. Arkansas and Rhode Island are the only other states that currently require a two-thirds vote to pass a budget.

Because Proposition 56 further mandates that the Legislature and governor permanently forfeit their salaries, per diem allowances and expense reimbursement for each day the budget is late, accountability is assured and the likelihood of partisan gridlock significantly minimized. Proposition 56 also has broad support from a wide array of education, health, public safety, disability rights, environmental protection, religion, business, labor and community groups.

Douglas Mirell is the immediate
past president of the Progressive Jewish Alliance and currently chairs its
executive committee. He may be contacted at dmirell@pjalliance.org


Spiritual Parenthood

Sometimes we wonder how the translators arrived at the names they designated for the books of the Bible. But our parsha, the opening one of the book of Bamidbar, makes the translators’ choice self-evident. After all, what is this parsha more than a collection of Numbers?

Why did God count the Jews in this protracted census? And why did the Torah bother to tell us about it? Rashi explains that God wanted to demonstrate to us, his children, how dear we are to him. Like a caring shepherd who counts his flock after each storm and attack, God repeatedly counted us in the wilderness to exhibit and communicate the special place that each Jew holds in His heart. Thus, the exhaustive detail that the Torah affords each census: Tribe by tribe, and family by family, the Torah shares with us the numbers breakdown to stress the singular affinity that God has for every Jew.

Amid the details of the general census, the Torah takes pause to reintroduce us to the family of Aaron, the high priest. The associate kohanim — Nadav, Avihu, Elazar and Itamar — are introduced by the following repetitive clauses: "These are the offspring of Moshe and Aaron…. These are the names of the sons of Aaron."

"Where is the mention of the sons of Moshe?" the sages of the Talmud ask. "And what does Moshe have to do with the sons of Aaron?"

The subtle implication of the text, the sages explain, is that the sons of Aaron were also the sons of Moshe, their teacher, because, "Whoever teaches his friend’s son Torah, Scripture views him as if he birthed him."

The Torah elevates the holy task of the educator to spiritual parenthood. A good teacher, a great giver who imparts wisdom to his or her disciple, plays an essential role in rearing and shaping the student and is akin to a mother or father.

The Torah imparts this notion in another place as well. Jews around the world read the "Shema" every day and night, where it says, "You shall speak them to your sons" (Deuteronomy 6:7). Here, too, the sages of the Midrash explain, "’Your sons’ — these are the students."

The Torah once again defines the relationship between teacher and student, between rabbi and congregation, in familial terms.

But why did the Torah have to demonstrate this more than one time? In Numbers it taught that the student is like one’s own child. Why restate it in Deuteronomy?

Some years ago, a teacher of mine shared an answer: the Torah recognizes two distinct dimensions of a mentor or teacher. One role of the teacher is to impart information — an intellectual achievement that continues to provide for a student long after he or she leaves the classroom. But the teacher also plays a distinct role in influencing the subtleties of personal development and spiritual growth. Every child — indeed every person — must acquire knowledge. More importantly though, that same person must acquire wisdom.

One must recognize that those two roles can be satisfied by more than one person.

When it comes to our children — and our own spiritual growth — we must stay conscious of who those mentors are. Yes, our children are learning from us and from their teachers about the rich history and culture of Jewish tradition (not to mention algebra and chemistry), but their senses of morality and life values might be the product of prevailing popular conceptions, celebrity sound bites or even fictional characters. Our teachers may be Rabbi X or Rabbi Y, but our rebbes (mentors) might be Judge Judy or Forrest Gump.

Our responsibility to ourselves and to our children demands that we find spiritual mothers and fathers in those bearers of the millennial wisdom that has been our key to survival and success: the Torah. Together, we must teach our children how to steer through life guided by the moral compass of Torah wisdom.

Rabbi Gidon Shoshan is the director of outreach at the Los Angeles
Intercommunity Kollel (LINK) in Westwood. He can be reached at ravgidon@LinkLA.org.

Domestic Violence: A Jewish Issue, Too

During Jewish holidays and festivals, many of us recite the
familiar blessings for our loved ones. As a Jewish communal professional for 30
years and a synagogue member for 23 years, I wonder why congregations don’t devote the
same time and attention during religious services to discussions of Jewish
family issues as we give to prayers for the Jewish family. The former might
make the latter more meaningful.

One of these issues is domestic violence, in all its
virulent forms and varieties. Jews, despite their reputation as a peaceful and
family oriented ethno-religious group, are not immune from domestic violence.

Nevertheless, there is a prevalent myth that Jewish men don’t
beat or sexually abuse their wives and children. When there is a publicized
incident involving a Jewish family, Jews gasp in horror and disbelief. After
all, these things don’t happen in the Jewish community.

Perhaps the most notorious incident in recent memory was the
1988 story of Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum, an upper-middle class Jewish
couple in New York City. Steinberg was an attorney who systematically beat his

Both Steinberg and Nussbaum beat their 6-year-old adopted
daughter, Lisa, and it was Steinberg who struck the blow that killed her. When
this violence was discovered and during the subsequent trial, this family was
headline news in this country. How could a Jewish couple be so physically
violent? Yes, Jews commit acts of domestic violence, like our gentile

It is estimated that 2 million women in the United States
suffer as victims of spousal-partner abuse each year, and that between 3,000
and 4,000 battered women in this country die each year from physical abuse.
Equally tragic is that 2,500 abused children in the United States die each year
from abuse. Figures show that 95 percent of the perpetrators of domestic
violence are men.

The incidence of domestic violence in the Jewish community
approximates the incidence in the general community. Domestic violence is an
equal opportunity phenomenon. It transcends racial, religious, ethnic,
geographic, sexual orientation and socioeconomic boundaries. Children who are
victims of abuse often become abusive as adults, abusing their children and
spouses or partners.

In Jewish homes, there is an intensified shame and stigma
associated with family violence. When there is violence in the Jewish family,
both victims and perpetrators go through great pains to conceal it from their
friends, employers, clergy and other segments of their social and community
life. Jewish victims tend to go to family and friends for shelter and financial

What can the Jewish community do?

Spokespeople in the Jewish community, such as rabbis,
educators and other Jewish communal professionals, should learn the following:

1. Signs and symptoms of victims, as well as perpetrators.

2. Mandatory reporting requirements, with respect to child
and elder abuse.

3. Local community resources, such as the community’s Jewish
Family Service. The staff there can provide many direct services and refer the
calling party to other important resources, such as domestic violence shelters,
law enforcement agencies, other social service agencies, legal assistance,
medical care and financial assistance.

4. Rabbis and other congregational leaders should talk about
domestic violence at religious services, in children’s classrooms and in
adult-education programs. Domestic violence issues should be on the curriculum
for all age groups, as prominent as Torah study. Identify religious and sacred
texts and traditions that are the foundations for the sanctity of life and
teach them to all congregational members.

While we are talking here primarily about physical abuse,
let’s remember that relationship abuse can also be economic, emotional, verbal
and sexual. All forms of abuse are seriously damaging to individuals and

If you know someone who is being abused, be supportive and understanding.
Help the victim develop a safety plan and assist the victim in securing
assistance to ensure survival, safety and recovery.

If our religious traditions believe that human life is
sacred, then domestic violence is wrong in any form and under any
circumstances. We have a collective responsibility to educate ourselves about
the problem and to do everything possible to prevent domestic violence and
reach out and help victims and perpetrators alike. Â

Mel Roth is executive director of Jewish Family Service of Orange County.

Man as Creator

A woman who had taken fertility treatments became pregnant only to learn that she was carrying four embryos. Her doctors suggested multifetal pregnancy reduction, a process to eliminate some of the embryos so that the remaining ones would have a better chance of normal development. What does Jewish medical ethics advise her to do?

The above incident was one of the hypothetical scenarios put forth by Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein, who along with Dr. Judith Partnow Hyman, VBS congregant and psychotherapist, convened a panel of experts — a rabbi, a perinatologist and a medical ethicist — to discuss conception issues for the first of three Medical Ethics Beit Dein programs, "A Time To Be Born: The Creation of a New Life," examining modern medical issues from a Jewish perspective. (The second program, "Healing the Body, Soothing the Soul, The New Role of the Physician," took place on Nov. 21.)

Human beings are now called upon to make choices once considered "decisions that only God has the wisdom to make," Feinstein said. The series addresses the moral conflicts people face today as a result of advanced fertility technology.

Jews often face dilemmas surrounding conception because they generally marry and start families later in life, said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a University of Judaism professor and panel member who serves as vice chair of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. This makes them more likely to need such procedures as fertility treatment or in vitro fertilization in order to conceive.

The instance of multiple fetuses has grown dramatically with increased use of reproductive technology. The more fetuses present in the womb, the less likely each is to survive, said panel member Dr. David Braun, regional director of perinatal care for Southern California Kaiser Permanente. Those that make it to birth are prone to experience serious long-term health problems. In addition, having multiple fetuses increases the mother’s chances of experiencing life-threatening complications. "Because of that, we tend to recommend seriously considering reduction of the pregnancy to fewer babies," Braun said.

If the parents’ goal of undergoing these procedures was to have a healthy baby, "very quickly one reaches the question: How can they not do multifetal pregnancy reduction?" said the panel’s third member, Dr. Neil Wenger, chair of the UCLA Medical Ethics Committee and a professor of medicine. At the same time, Wenger said, couples and their doctors should clarify their goals and values ahead of time, discussing the likelihood of multiple pregnancy and how it would be handled prior to facing the situation.

"In Jewish tradition, God owns our bodies," Dorff said. "We have them on loan for the duration of our lives and we have a responsibility to take care of [them]." This means we are forbidden from mutilating our bodies, and at the same time we are obligated to take action to save our own lives, even if it means sacrificing a part of our body.

Thus in the case of the multiple pregnancies, Dorff said, "It seems to me from a Jewish perspective [the mother] would have the requirement to reduce the number of fetuses in her womb in order to save her own life and health as well as the [remaining] fetuses. There are stages in coming into life and … in leaving life. Your halachic status depends upon what stage you’re in in that process." Our tradition, he said, does not recognize the fetuses as full-fledged human beings.

In vitro fertilization presents its own set of ethical challenges. Dorff pointed out that potentially there can be up to five individuals involved in the conception — the couple wanting the child, an egg donor, a sperm donor and a woman to carry the fetus to birth. (To which Feinstein commented, "Practically a minyan.")

More problematic is the issue of screening the embryos for gender, disease or — if it ever became possible — personality traits. Dorff said that because the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply" is only fulfilled once a couple has both a boy and a girl, there may be religious grounds for allowing gender selection.

Wenger suggested looking at the broader picture. "There is something called a communal ethic, where each individual or couple has a responsibility to the rest of its social network." Selecting by gender could harm the community by ultimately swaying the population in one direction or another.

As for selecting for traits such as athletic ability or musical talent, Wenger said we have a responsibility "not to use science in such a way that our whim gets satisfied [at the expense of] society as a whole."

"Jewish tradition respects the power of human intellect and human imagination and human judgement," Feinstein said. "We’ve always been a pro-science community because we respect the power of human beings to make the right judgments."

The final program "A Time to Live, A Time To Die, Accepting the End of Life," will take place Dec. 5, 7:30 p.m at VBS, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For more information, call (818) 530-4093.

Your Letters

Jewish War Vets

I would like it to be known that the reality of my statement regarding Jews in combat was that I spent too much time experiencing WWII to make an insensitive comment that Jews were not on the front lines (“Jewish War Vets Remember,” Nov. 8). I removed the dog tags off many of my fallen buddies who never came home. Some of them were imprinted with the word “Hebrew.” Yes, I am proud to say that I am a Jewish war veteran. Yes, I am proud to say that I fought along with many other Jews on the front lines.

If this episode has embarrassed any Jewish War Veterans of the United States (JWV) member in any way, I wish to state emphatically that what I recall saying to the reporter and what was printed are two completely different views. I hope in some way that the above article has not diminished the commitment and overall good that the JWV brings to our sick and disabled vets in hospitals all over the United States.

Retired Cpl. Paul Cohen Senior Vice Commander JWV Post No. 603 Woodland Hills

Fuel for the Fire

Rob Eshman and The Jewish Journal are to be lauded on the editorial in favor of reducing our oil dependence (“Fuel for the Fire,” Nov. 22). What will happen to Los Angeles when gasoline supplies are reduced, whether tomorrow or in 10 years? There are a host of alternatives which we should be exploring personally, and as a matter of policy: solar panels, greater car fuel efficiency standards, lighter cars, electric cars, hydrogen fuel cells, natural gas, etc. Let’s reduce the leverage of Islamic terrorists, support the environment and support Israel.

Robert Bonem, Los Angeles

One Community, Many Voices

I must commend the “One Community, Many Voices” group for putting their money where their mouth is in purchasing a full-page ad in The Jewish Journal (Nov. 22). It is also apparent that they have the best interests of the Jewish people at heart. However, none of this necessarily makes their perspectives accurate or their positions correct. They see “little evidence that anti-Semitism poses a serious danger to Jewish life in America” in arguing for the unfettered exchange of ideas on campus — presumably as opposed to those who would ban hate speech. One wonders how they would respond to racist or homophobic speech. Would it be acceptable as long as it didn’t immediately result in physical assault? How many attacks on Jews would it take for the group to truly consider anti-Semitism a serious danger?

The group also calls for “communal leaders to reopen the channels of free debate,” with no evidence that the channels have ever been closed. They apparently mistake rejection of the merit of their positions, as a sign of intolerance. For example, they argue for ending the occupation “which will contribute to fostering peace between Israelis and Palestinians.” Been there, done that. The peace process did not die for lack of Israeli effort or concessions. While polls consistently show that most Israelis envision a future Palestinian state on the bulk of the West Bank, they do not trust Palestinians as peace partners at this time.

Rather than lecturing our community, perhaps the “One Community, Many Voices” group’s efforts would be better spent convincing Palestinians to “recover the principles of tolerance, responsibility, and empathy” that would give peace a real chance.

Larry Eisenberg, President Orthodox Union-West Coast

One People, Two Worlds

I highly recommend the book “One People, Two Worlds — A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues That Divide Them” by Rabbis Ammi Hirsch and Yosef Reinman (“Dear Rabbi Wolpe,” Nov. 22; “Spiritual Agoraphobia,” Nov. 15; “Closed Chapter,” Nov. 8).

Sadly, as illuminating as their discussion is, it isn’t a “dialogue” at all. Dialogue requires that the two sides listen and acknowledge the other where possible and then come to new understanding between them. Though Hirsch is open and gives credit to the positions of Orthodoxy, Reinman never reciprocates in kind even though the latter calls Hirsch his “friend.” What kind of friendship is this? Happily, there are Orthodox rabbis in our own community who make a far better effort in this regard than has Reinman.

Rabbi John Rosove, Temple Israel of Hollywood Vice President ARZA/World Union for Progressive Judaism Los Angeles

Congratulations to Orthodox Rabbi Daniel Korobkin for indicating that he is in favor of dialogue between the streams of Judaism. We hope and pray that the leadership of the Orthodox rabbinate will someday follow his enlightened reasoning.

Middie and Richard Giesberg, Los Angeles

Irv Rubin

While one may not dispute its facts, the article, regarding the life and public behavior of Irv Rubin, was tasteless and insensitive in its timing (“The Lure of Extremism,” Nov. 15). I have known, admired and supported the work of David Lehrer for years and still do, but I was dismayed when I read his article in The Journal truly days before Irv Rubin was even laid to rest. Is it not true that our tradition encourages a 30-day period of formal grieving for the departed? Even if one wasn’t grieving, a respectful interlude should have been observed.

What was the great rush to print Lehrer’s article?

Stu Bernstein, Santa Monica

The Battle for Jewish Souls

In the interest of interfaith tolerance, or better, mutual respect, I would like to point out that Jews for Jesus does not represent all Christians by any means (“The Battle for Jewish Souls,” Nov. 15). I would like our Jewish friends to know that, just as in Judaism, the various branches of the church differ widely in their interpretation of Scripture and in their doctrines and practices. I regret to say that there are still some Christians who feel an obligation to convert Jews. They are in the minority. Today most would not agree with either the goals or the tactics of Jews for Jesus.

The Rev. Jane C. Turner, St. John’s Episcopal Church Los Angeles

I was horrified when I found my name in the Jews For Jesus article. I guess you might call me the “other Susan Pearlman,” and I urge you to print this letter so that my relatives, friends and former students will not think I’d converted.

I am proud to say that this Susan Pearlman is not now, nor never has been, a member of Jews for Jesus. Actually, I find them and their tactics totally repugnant, and I want everyone to know this.

While I have your attention, I’d like to add my opinion on some of the recent provocative cover pages. We have enough problems without having The Journal blatantly advertise our shortcomings.

Susan Koslovsky Pearlman, Northridge