In rural Uganda: Let there be light

We take light for granted. But in the Torah’s opening chapter of Bereshit, it was God’s first gift.

It seems fitting, then, that when a local synagogue committed itself to helping an impoverished village in rural Uganda, the first gift would be to turn on the lights — to give the gift of solar-powered electricity. With light, doctors can deliver babies with more than just candlelight late into the night; people can see one another and plan activities in the long evening and night hours. Indoor classrooms in schools can be lit, so students can learn more easily.

The project began a couple of years ago, when the spiritual community of IKAR first conceived of founding its first nursery school for its congregation. Rabbi Sharon Brous and IKAR executive director Melissa Balaban saw an opportunity to do more than just offer one more educational program in Los Angeles; they wanted to instill a sense of connection to a larger world in the “DNA of the preschool,” as Balaban put it. They knew it would take about $100,000 to establish their school, so they decided to allocate 10 percent of all donations to another school project somewhere else in the world, where it could benefit others. “To teach our kids, this is what it means to be a Jew; it’s our responsibility,” Balaban said. 

Brous and Balaban had both just read the book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and they were inspired by its message that even a small amount of cash can have a ripple effect, effecting enormous change in communities by allowing people to rebuild their own lives.

“We spent a lot of time fretting about which school and where,” Brous told a group of supporters who gathered one evening last August at a Santa Monica home to learn about the project. After lots of research and one false start, Brous and Balaban, working with a group of IKAR volunteers, came across an organization called Jewish Heart for Africa (JHA — It employs Jewish people in African communities to bring Israeli solar systems to power African schools, medical clinics, orphanages and water pumping systems.  

It was a perfect match for IKAR, to partner with a Jewish group that could oversee their project on the ground and to bring “the best of Israel,” as Balaban said — Israel’s technology — to a remote place where a little could go a long way.

JHA connected IKAR with the village of Katira, some five hours from the Ugandan capital city of Kampala. And in early August, the lights went on.

IKAR donated about $12,000 for this initial project, and JHA installed solar panels on the roof of the Katira Primary School, a simple, blocky building with large, unadorned classrooms, that serves nearly 1,400 students from the surrounding area, according to JHA. People in Katira live in primitive thatched-roof huts, and their school had the lowest academic performance in its district.

As it turned out, the school’s pitched metal roof was perfect for capturing the strong African sunlight, and the JHA representatives have trained the locals on the simple techniques of maintaining the panels so they can keep it working themselves, without outside help. And now, although the solar-powered electricity lights only the one building, students — who once had nowhere to go to do their homework after spending long days in school and then helping with the housework at home — can now go to the school to study late into the evenings. They will have the opportunity to study harder, enhancing their chances of future success.

No IKAR members could make it to Katira for the ceremony, but witnessing the lights going on was still important. So, Brous’ mother, Marcia Brous, made a connection to a woman she had met through Rotary Club here — Marsha Hunt, who travels regularly to Uganda through the Uganda Development Initiative (, an aid group. Hunt was already planning a summer trip there, and she readily agreed to become IKAR’s emissary, adding to her trip a visit to Katira to watch the ceremony of the lights being turned on.

“I thought I’d be doing a simple report,” Hunt said. Instead, she arrived at the village to a scene of “tears and celebration, singing and dancing.” She became a witness to a modern Bereshit.

The Israeli solar panels had already been installed. And as she watched, lights for the first time lit the school’s classrooms. 

“They were so gracious and wonderful,” Hunt said of the villagers. And in thanks, the people of Katira gave her gifts intended for her to bring back home to Los Angeles — a turkey, a chicken and a rooster. For obvious reasons, those didn’t make it back to L.A.

But what did was the sense of accomplishment, extraordinary joy and connection between the people of Katira and the people of IKAR, as evidenced through photos that you can see by viewing this article at 

And the project continues, Balaban said. “We are now raising money to light the medical clinic, and hopefully to install a solar-powered water pump.”

The light that came from God is now being harnessed to power a different kind of light — an electric energy that will also sustain growth, vision and warmth into the future.

And it is being channeled from Los Angeles via Israel to a remote village in Africa.

As Balaban said, “This is what it means to be a Jew.”

Susan Freudenheim is executive editor of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. She can be reached at You can follow her on Twitter at 

Senior Moments – Great-Grand Marshal

As I walked through the grounds at the Jewish Home for the Aging (JHA), I noticed a man in a wheelchair reading a magazine. It was called “Life Extension.”

I had to laugh. Someone must have strategically placed this magazine, like a prop, for the interview I was about to conduct. Talk about life extension! My subject, Sylvia Harmatz, could be the poster child. She’s 107 years old.

And for the sixth year in a row, Harmatz will be grand marshal of the Dec. 4 Walk of Ages, a 5K walk/run to raise funds for the JHA’s vital services.

She called JHA “a haven for people who have nowhere’s else to stay, like me. I sometimes wonder how in the world can they like so many people? They are so good to everyone!”

Since so many people seem interested in living forever, Harmatz is, of course, repeatedly asked: “What’s your secret?”

She smiles sweetly, showing great patience: “I don’t know.”

She doesn’t eat meat, but she does like candy, “because I need something to replace the meat.”

I told her my 14-year-old son would like that strategy. She laughed.

We sat a moment, and then Harmatz said, “You know, my husband lived to 104.”

In fact, Sylvia and Louis Harmatz were married for 80 years.

“He was very much in love with me,” she told me, with a smile.

I said maybe it was love, not a special diet, that contributed to their longevity.

“I think so,” Harmatz agreed. “We were very close. He wanted to be with me all the time. He never walked with me that he didn’t hold my hand. He was afraid I was going to run away from him, because I always walked so fast!”

The couple, who met at a dance in Brooklyn, married in 1921. They continued to love dancing and had a chance to waltz together after they moved to the JHA in 1994.

“We were always together,” Harmatz recalled. “He used to get up at night and cover me [with a blanket], to make sure I wouldn’t catch a cold. He took care of me. And I don’t know why, because I was always very strong and independent. I guess he noticed that I needed to be taken care of. When he passed away, I reassured him that I wouldn’t be long, that I’d be coming to meet him soon. But it hasn’t been that way.”

Harmatz laughed, but looked a little sad.

Born in Hungary in 1898, her earliest memories are of her father, a rabbi.

“He took me everywhere with him,” she said. “And I remember him teaching the children who couldn’t speak Hungarian, so they could learn too. I loved to sit and listen to him.”

Harmatz had her fourth birthday on board the ship to America.

Life was hard in this new country, says Harmatz, but she has fond memories of her parents’ relationship.

“My mother was very beautiful and they were very much in love. I used to know when they were going to have relations because [my father] used to leave his yarmulke on the bed.” Harmatz said with a laugh. “He was telling my mother, ‘Don’t forget, I’ll be there tonight!'”

Her father died at 42, leaving his wife with nine children. Harmatz started working at 13 to help out, then went to night school to become a nurse.

After marriage, she became a homemaker, raising the couple’s two daughters. There are now five grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren.

In 1935, Sylvia and Louis decided to come West, and settled in Hollywood. “I used to go downtown for seven cents on the Red Car!” Harmatz said.

Her political involvement as an avid Democrat goes at least as far back as Franklin Roosevelt. “Politics was my piece de resistance!” said Harmatz, who would go door-to-door seeking donations. “I knocked at a door once and [asked for] a dollar. The woman says, ‘No I’m a Republican.’ So I said, ‘You don’t have to apologize to me, all you have to do is change your affiliation!'”

One thing that pleases Harmatz about being the grand marshal is riding in a convertible. In fact, last year when it rained on the parade, someone suggested they put up the top, but Harmatz wanted it left down.

“I’m not a fussy person, but I do like a red convertible,” she said, laughing. I asked her if red is her favorite color. “Yes, I like red. In fact, I’m going to be buried in a red dress with polka dots.”

Harmatz has been interviewed by CNN, local newspapers and radio stations. I asked if she likes being a celebrity.

“It’s not important to me,” she said. “I like it because it’s helping the Home. I want the Home to have everything they need. They asked me, ‘What do you want for all your trouble?’ I said, ‘I want a little plaque that says: You too can be involved.'”

For registration and sponsorship for Walk of Ages VI, call (818) 774-3100 or visit

Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer, owner of Living Legacies Family and Organizational Histories and producer of “Meet Me at Brooklyn & Soto.” She can be reached at and


Still Kicking

Residents and staff of the Jewish Home for the Aging (JHA) gathered March 26 at Eisenberg Village on Victory Boulevard to celebrate the institution’s 90th anniversary. About two dozen residents participated in blowing out the 10 candles (one for each decade and one for good luck) on the massive birthday cake.

The decorous moment was not without humor. As one bright-eyed resident in her 80s hovered nearby, a staff member asked if she wanted to move closer to watch her friends blow out the candles.

"Oh, yes," she replied. "I want to make sure they don’t spit on the cake!"

The JHA was first created in 1912 when the Jewish community of Boyle Heights obtained a small cottage to enable elderly Jews from the county "poor farm" to observe a traditional, kosher seder. According to a JHA press release, the original JHA was so tiny that the first board of directors had to ask residents to wait outside while they held their meetings.

The JHA’s current San Fernando Valley facilities include two campuses in Reseda that house more than 750 people and offer a continuum of care ranging from independent-living assistance to skilled nursing for the ill and severely disabled. In April, the JHA will open their long-awaited, state-of-the-art Alzheimer’s care and research center, part of a $72 million campaign to expand and upgrade the JHA to meet the Jewish community’s growing demand for senior housing.

Molly Forrest, the JHA’s chief executive officer, said she looks forward to helping the institution continue meeting the Jewish community’s needs.

"Our goal for the future is to make the Home more accessible to the community, both by simply having more beds available and by expanding to the Westside," she said.

Residents expressed a variety of reasons for why they selected the JHA as the place to spend their golden years.

Zola Zevit, 84, and her husband David, 90, said they chose the JHA because it allowed them to remain together — an important factor when you’ve been married 62 years.

"I also like that it has religion the way we like it, like the way we were at home," Zola Zevit said.

In addition to helping residents celebrate all the Jewish holidays, the JHA offers kosher meals and employs a rabbi on each campus to conduct services and provide spiritual counseling.

Ellis Simon, one of the youngest residents at age 78, ran the JHA’s thrift store in Reseda from 1984 to 1991.

Simon came to the JHA two years ago, following the death of his wife. "I sat in my house for two years watching television," he recalled. "One day I said, ‘That’s enough of this.’"

"Next to heaven, this is the greatest place in the world," said Simon, who participates in the institution’s choir and is putting together a JHA production of "Fiddler on the Roof." "You make a lot of good friends here, and if you stay active, it makes it that much better a place."

Grand Marshal, Grand Lady

Sitting in her seat at the Max Factor Family Foundation Recreation Center of the Jewish Home for the Aging (JHA), 103-year-old Sylvia Harmatz cannot recall the first state to give women the right to vote. But, she remembers very clearly the first day she voted, in 1936.

"I wasn’t a citizen until I married my husband, and so I used his papers and got a ballot so I could vote for [Franklin D.] Roosevelt," she said. "I was very active in politics from that time on."

Harmatz immigrated to the United States from Austria during the tenure of a different Roosevelt — Franklin’s cousin Theodore. She is the oldest resident of the Jewish Home for the Aging in Woodland Hills, and for the second year in a row, will serve as grand marshal of its annual Walk of Ages 5K Walk/Run, slated this year for Sunday, Dec. 2. The JHA’s goal is to raise $100,000 for the home, the largest long-term residential care facility for the elderly in Southern California.

Harmatz has lived at the Jewish Home for seven years, five of those with her husband, Lou Harmatz, who died in 1999 at the age of 104. The lovely centenarian, whose bright eyes and enthusiastic grin make her seem decades younger, said although she wasn’t exactly asked, she was delighted to get the part as grand marshal.

"The finger was pointed to me and [JHA chairman Meyer Gottlieb] said ‘You are it!’" she told The Journal. When Gottlieb told her she could have any vehicle she desired for the event, "I told him I thought I’d like to ride in a red convertible. So last week he came to me and said, ‘Sylvia, we got you that red convertible,’ and I said, ‘Meyer, I was only being facetious!’"

Not only will she get her convertible, Harmatz will also wear new running shoes provided by Nike, one of the sponsors of the event. Other sponsors include Wells Fargo Bank, the Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center, B’nai B’rith and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.

The walk begins at 8 a.m. from the Jewish Home’s Eisenberg Village, 18855 Victory Blvd in Reseda. For volunteer or sponsorship information, or to register for the Walk/Run, please call (818) 774-3324.

Keeping Their Promise: JHA Launches Huge Capital Campaign

Citing the growing elderly population in Los Angeles, representatives of the Jewish Home for the Aging announced plans this week for a new capital campaign, titled “Keeping the Promise,” to raise $72 million to expand and renovate the Home’s facilities.

Much of the fundraising effort is necessary to replace or improve buildings damaged in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, said campaign co-chair Richard Ziman, who along with co-chairs Martin Appel and Steven Good and JHA President Earl Grenitz will lead the fundraising effort.

“This capital campaign is mandatory for the survival of the Jewish homes,” Ziman said. “A significant portion of the facilities have to be replaced, re-engineered or modernized to comply with seismic requirements and the new and more pervasive fire safety laws. And of course we want to extend better and more extensive services to the residents and to better serve a larger community.

“Few causes come close to assuring the elderly live in dignity, with modern, comfortable accommodations [while] receiving the range of services they deserve. That’s what this campaign is all about.”

JHA leaders and staff will kick off the campaign Sunday, March 12 at 10 a.m. with a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Special Care Building, a state-of-the-art facility designed to meet the needs of residents with Alzheimer’s disease and related illnesses. The ambitious campaign is the largest fundraising push in the history of the agency; thus far, JHA volunteers have raised $11 million in donations, enough to cover the costs of the new facility which will open in June 2001.