Thoughts on the Maccabiah games from local star athletes

Madeline Aibel, 14

Santa Monica

Rhythmic gymnastics

“My experience has been an eye-opening, unforgettable adventure. This is my first time in Israel. When I first found out about the Maccabiah Games, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to visit this amazing country and experience a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete in the games.”

Aidan Blain, 15

Santa Monica

Track and field

“Meeting new people from different countries who are all connected by Judaism and athletics is amazing, and it has been one of the best experiences of my life. The Maccabiah Games is one of the best opportunities I have ever come across, and I’m overjoyed that I was able to take advantage and compete in these games.”

Joseph Leavitt, 43

Santa Monica


“Competing in the Maccabiah Games allows me to experience a full spectrum of emotions, from the joy of walking into the stadium at opening ceremonies to the thrill of victory to the agony of defeat. … Not many people my age get an opportunity to leave their desk job in the U.S. to go to Israel to compete again at a high level.”

Elijah Lichtenberg, 22

Beverly Hills


“My experience has been nothing but incredible. Meeting athletes from each delegation has been a unique experience, and competing in athletic competition in the land of the Jewish people has been very special for me.”

Steven S. Davis, 64

Beverly Hills 


“Nothing is better for me than being in Israel, being able to play tennis every day and meeting wonderful Jewish people from both Israel and around the world.”

How 10-year-olds, not cops, spearhead gang prevention in South L.A.

If you want to limit gangs, law enforcement cannot be the driving force of your strategy.

It seems counterintuitive, but it was one of the most important lessons I learned while leading Los Angeles’ Gang Reduction & Youth Development (GRYD) program in South L.A. and other neighborhoods. The police and other law enforcement officials are precisely the wrong people to be working on gang reduction. Los Angeles is fortunate to have a smart and diverse police force, and officers are needed to stop violent and law-breaking gang members from putting the public in danger. But the gang prevention focus needs to be on keeping gang-age young people out of gangs. Too often, the police can provide a common enemy that solidifies the bonds of young people in gangs, and keeps them there.

This insight was not my own—it’s one of the central ideas of legendary gang researcher Malcolm Klein, an emeritus sociologist at USC. In one of my conversations with Mac, he compared the social relations that bring together gangs to the lifelong affection and solidarity that soldiers have for those with whom they served in combat. In countering gangs, it is vital not to put potential gang members under siege or to give them a common enemy; that just fuels their cohesion.

Applying this insight was an enormous departure in L.A. For 30 years, the city handled gangs as primarily a law enforcement matter. In the 1980s, LAPD Chief Daryl Gates declared war on gangs—which Mac’s research showed was counterproductive. Our overcrowded prison system, too, reinforced gangs by segregating prisoners by race and gang affiliation.

But a decade ago, Police Chief William Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa decided to shift strategies. They figured out that to disrupt the gang phenomenon, you needed to focus on weakening the social ties between gang members and strengthening other kinds of relationships and social ties among gang-age young people.

In 2006, South L.A. was the source of half the gang-related violence in the city. By that year, every category of crime was in decline L.A.-wide—except gang violence, which had increased 16 percent in one year. There had been a series of shootings in Watts at the end of 2006, with nine people killed. On the heels of the violence came a report from attorney Connie Rice and The Advancement Project  and an audit from Los Angeles City Controller Laura Chick that deemed the city’s anti-gang approach a failure, creating enormous public attention—and an opportunity to change.

At the time, I had recently completed two years as chief of staff at Sojourners, the Washington, D.C.-based Christian community dedicated to social justice. I’m also an ordained minister in the Church of the Nazarene. But my expertise and work had been with young people, and figuring out how to engage them during my 17 years at the Bresee Foundation.

Which is why the mayor hired me to develop the new approach to combating gangs that became GRYD. Until then, the city’s anti-gang and youth resources had been spread thinly across 15 Council Districts in Los Angeles like peanut butter. In mid-2008, we won a bruising political battle to consolidate them, taking the money and targeting it in eight zones where rates of violence were four times more than in the rest of the city. Four of these zones were in South L.A.

In summer 2008, we had our first big initiative, Summer Night Lights. We kept certain public parks open late into the night, turned on the lights, and brought in programming that had been designed in consultation with young people, including gang members. Summer Night Lights was, and still is, an immediate hit with young people. It became the linchpin of our efforts to turn public spaces into places where everyone could participate.

We put two-thirds of the money into prevention programs and activities like Summer Night Lights. We spent a lot of time talking to LAPD officers, and suggesting that they focus their attention only on the hardcore gang members who do the shooting, and stop arresting kids who look or walk like gang members.

We also had researchers at USC create an assessment tool to produce data on who might be most likely to become a gang member. The researchers told us we were actually looking for a very small number of people. Even in neighborhoods considered gang-infested, 85 percent of kids will never join a gang; only 15 percent will join, and most will be active for two or fewer years. So how could we identify those few kids who were most at risk to become hardcore gang members, and focus our resources on them?

The research showed that kids are most likely to join gangs between ages 10 to 14, and we came up with 15 primary risk factors to assess that age group for gang membership. If the assessment tool scored them as likely to join a gang, they were eligible to be in the GRYD program.

This was controversial, especially when the assessment tool contradicted what people thought. People might look at a kid whose father and brother were gang members and say, ‘this is a high-risk kid.’ But it turned out that for some kids, having family members who were gang members provided daily reminders of why they didn’t want to be in gangs.

GRYD brought together city agencies to develop plans for high-risk kids that would include improving their school performances and encouraging activities that built strong social relationships. Some of our biggest allies in much of this work turned out to be grandmothers, who worked with their grandchildren, and some of whom also drove the work of the Watts Gang Task Force, a joint effort of law enforcement, communities, and agencies that has made a huge impact on reducing gang violence.

GRYD was just one factor in the decrease in gang violence in South L.A. Gang-related crime was dropping at the time across the country. We don’t understand all of the reasons why, and it’s not clear if previous strategies will work in today’s landscape, where gang violence has shifted to being done online and through human trafficking instead of drug trafficking. But we do know that aggressive assessment of risks and youth development make a difference in keeping kids away from law enforcement—and out of gangs. 

Rev. Jeff Carr led GRYD and served as Chief of Staff under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Most recently he was the interim CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Los Angeles, a new umbrella organization of seven clubs, three in South L.A.  He recently relocated to Portland, Oregon.

This essay is part of South Los Angeles: Can the Site of America's Worst Modern Riots Save an Entire City?, a special project of Zócalo Public Square and The California Wellness Foundation.

6 Garden-starting tips to give your kids green thumbs

Spring has finally come to our neck of the woods, and we're beginning to take the tiny shoots from our mini-greenhouse in our basement out into the world. I want my daughters to know where their food comes from, but growing a kid-friendly garden means more than just planting kid-friendly plants.

If you want to get kids to actually eat their veggies, it helps if you get them invested in the process and care of the garden. If your kids see the backyard vegetable garden as “theirs,” they are far more likely to embrace the products: happily eating radishes and arugula that they've grown on their own. Here are six tips — tested in our home — to get your kids to embrace gardening and become active agents in creating their own food.


Forget the image of white-frocked children basking in a pristine flower bed; that image gets in the way of real gardening. Get your kids dirty as fast as possible. Ask them to dig with hand trowels, sticks or bare fingers, and they will leap at the opportunity. When watering, “accidentally” drench them with a good hosing. They'll squeal, then beg for more — and watering is no longer a chore but a family frolic. Make mud and get them in it. Over-plant in anticipation of grubby little fingers pulling out the extraneous shoots. A garden shouldn't be too precious. Good gardening demands some filth, and when kids realize this, they embrace it.


Kids love gross, and a garden has it in spades. Ask your kids to find worms, then take the opportunity to discuss their impact on the soil. If your garden doesn't have enough worms, go buy them and let the kids play with their new “pets” while you're putting them into the garden. If you want to step it up a notch, create a vermiculture bin and let your kids be in charge of the worm farm. Look for beneficial insects such as ladybug larvae and lacewings. Explain that the reason you wash food that comes from the garden comes down to two words: bird poop. Some kids may react negatively to grossness, but that's part of the charm. Gross things are both attractive and repulsive to young ones, and finding that fine line where attraction and repulsion equal each other out keeps the kids coming back to the garden.


Encourage your kids to rename the plants in the garden. Our girls have dubbed our sage bush as “Hairy Bigfoot Plant.” That name has made the humble herb extremely attractive to our girls and to the neighbor kids — especially after we cut out pieces from a milk jug and made markers for our newly named plants. In fact, our two girls and the neighbor boy run to this plant every morning as they walk to school and actually eat a leaf of Hairy Bigfoot Plant. Without that name, I suspect elementary school kids would not be eating raw sage leaves every morning on the way to school. Have your kids play The Name Game, and they are suddenly personally invested in growing and eating mummy peas (snap peas) and bloody spice balls (radishes).


Kids love kits, so create an easily portable garden set for each child. You can buy them ready-made at the nursery or dollar store … but where's the fun in that? Ask your kids to choose cheap tools for themselves, or gather the tools you already have and put them in specific kits. We turned milk jugs into garden kits, but a tote bag or plastic bucket works just as well. Add more than just a trowel rake and gloves. Put in a magnifying glass, eyedroppers, specimen jars and other “scientific” tools to deploy in the garden. When it's time to do some weeding, tell your kids to grab their kits and you suddenly have an eager workforce.


Make your garden a laboratory, not a display. Ask your kids to experiment with the dirt, the compost, the layout and the results of your planting. Turn gardening into a science experiment. When the plants are coming up, try taste experiments — is this bitter? Sour? Sweet? This type of hands-on discovery helps kids understand that “good” doesn't always mean “familiar” — so that when your crop is ready for the kitchen, your kids will beg to try to results. This may require you to set aside a part of your garden to be devoted to the kids' experiments (so that you don't ruin your entire crop) but their creative/destructive explorations will personalize your garden… and its results.


Learn a lesson from molecular gastronomy: Presentation and entertainment are part of the full experience of food. When it was time to thin the new shoots of butter crunch lettuce and arugula, we had our girls wash the tiny shoots and arrange them attractively on a platter with small chunks of string cheese and a drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice. A garden chore suddenly becomes an art project, then a dish of Farm-To-Table Micro-Greens. In the garden itself, use the “experimental” area for play as well as work: Set up scenes, fairy gardens or Lego cities beneath the plants. The “forest” of carrots grows more lush around the tiny family that lives beneath it … then Godzilla descends at harvest time, pulling the trees by the roots as the dolls run and scream in horror. The garden becomes a playground, and the plate becomes a stage, turning the concept of “playing with your food” into a deeper understanding of the earth, growing plants and the process of creating and eating food.

Religious children less generous and altruistic than secular ones

A new study finds that contrary to conventional wisdom, children raised in nonreligious homes are more generous and altruistic than their peers who receive a religious upbringing.

Called “The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World,” the study of 1,170 children found that the children from secular homes were more likely to share with their classmates and less likely to endorse harsh punishments for those who pushed or bumped into others, the Los Angeles Times reported. The respondents came from a variety of religious backgrounds.

The results “contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others,” said the study published Nov. 5 in the journal Current Biology.

The research team, led by University of Chicago neuroscientist Jean Decety, studied a diverse group of children aged 5-12 from seven cities: Chicago; Toronto; Amman, Jordan; Izmir and Istanbul in Turkey; Cape Town, South Africa, and Guangzho, China.

Forty-three percent of the subjects were Muslim, 24 percent Christian, 2.5 percent Jewish and 1.6 percent Buddhist. Twenty-eight percent of the children came from families that identified as “not religious.”

In one component of the study, researchers found that secular students were 23 to 28 percent more likely than religious ones to offer to share. Regardless of the particular faith with which a child identified, the more religious the family, the less generous the child.

In another part of the study, the researchers described scenarios involving bumping, pushing or other types of “interpersonal harm” and asked the kids to rate the meanness of the offenders. Muslim children judged the offenders most harshly, followed by the Christians and the secular. The sample of Jewish children was small, and the study did not compare Jewish children to those of other faiths.

The findings “call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that the secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness — in fact, it will do just the opposite,” according to the article.

How do you talk to kids about God?

Talking openly with children about sensitive subjects is hard. It always has been. In my parents’ generation, the three-letter taboo was S-E-X. My older sister was 13 when my dad gave a kid “The Talk” for the first time. It was the ’80s, and my dad dodged it like any educated man of his time. He tossed her a sex-education book and said, “Read this, but don’t do it.” 

Discussing sex isn’t quite so scary today. Many modern fathers don’t flinch when their daughters ask about anatomy or start inquiring about how babies are made. But progressive thinking has a way of replacing certain taboos with others. And today, for a great many parents, there is a new three-letter word: G-O-D.

With two of Western religion’s most important holidays—Easter and Passover—in the air, I find myself thinking back to the first time I had the “God Talk” with my own daughter. Maxine was barely five years old when she piped up from the backseat on the way home from her Los Alamitos preschool one day. 

“Mommy,” she said, “you know what? God made us!”

I felt like a cartoon character being hit in the back of the head with a frying pan. My heart raced. I’m quite sure I began to sputter. Visions of Darwin and the evolving ape-man raced through my mind, followed closely by my childhood image of the big guy upstairs in his flowing white robes. I couldn’t speak. 

And, in the awkward silence that followed, I was forced to confront the truth: The idea of talking to my kid about God—and, more specifically, about religion—scared the bejesus out of me.

I swallowed hard and forced myself to speak. “Well,” I said, “Who is God?”

Now, I don’t remember if Maxine actually said “duh,” or whether she simply bounced a “duh” look off the rearview mirror. But I can tell you that the “duh” message came across loud and clear. 

“He’s the one who made us,” she said, her eyebrows knitted. “Okay… well, what is God doing now?” I tried for casual.

Again with the nonverbal “duh.”

“God is busy making people and babies,” she answered. 

This information could not have been delivered with more certainty. My little girl, who had never heard an utterance of the word “God” in our house, aside from decidedly ungodly uses of the word, now had it all figured out thanks to a Jewish classmate who also happened to be her very first boyfriend. I was beaten to the punch by a cute preschool boy. 

I let the subject drop, but my chest constricted all the way home. It stayed that way for hours. Why hadn’t I been prepared for this? What was I supposed to say now that she was getting her information from this boy at school? 

As a science-minded non-believer with a generally non-confrontational personality, I was stumped by how to handle the situation. I wanted to be truthful about what I believed to be truth, but I didn’t want to indoctrinate her into my worldview either. And I certainly didn’t want others indoctrinating her into theirs, either. So where did that leave me? Was I to sit Maxine down and tell her that evolution, not God, was responsible for her existence? Was I to impose my own beliefs on her, the way other parents seemed to be doing? Or should I leave her alone to explore on her own timetable? What was the difference between guidance and pressure anyway? What was I willing to “let” her believe, and what wasn’t I?

Luckily for me, I have a husband who is cool under pressure. Later that day, after I’d rather breathlessly presented him with all the facts of the disastrous car ride, I asked him, “What if she believes in God?” His answer, my wakeup call, has become a mantra I repeat often. He said, “It’s not what Maxine believes, but what she does in life that matters.”

What I took from this was: Relax . . . it’s just God.

So I set aside my own irrational concerns and began to talk with my kid about God—lots of gods, actually. We talked about Brahman and Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. My husband bought her a Children’s Bible, and I brought home lots of picture books highlighting aspects of various religious cultures.

To my delight, Maxine became genuinely interested in religion—as long as it came in bite-size pieces, rather than overly long oratories. She became engaged in the stories we told, and good at deciphering the various “moral” aspects of various tales for herself. In her hands, the Bible wasn’t a tool of indoctrination, but a tool of religious literacy—even critical thinking. Once when she was reading the 10 Commandments, for example, she got to the 10th and read (aloud): “Never want what belongs to others.” Then she stopped and corrected Moses. “Well, you can WANT what belongs to others,” she said. “You just can’t HAVE it. You can buy one for yourself.”

In the four years that have passed since Maxine first told me about God, we have discussed the subject countless times. I have learned that compassion and an open mind are more important than being right. I’ve also learned that the best way to combat intolerance is with knowledge, and that the best way to combat indoctrination is with critical thinking. No longer is there awkwardness around the subject. We talk about lots of different beliefs, encourage her to learn about what motivates the faith of others, and make clear that there is no shame in choosing an unpopular path. After all, her own parents are happy, well-adjusted, and (I like to think) good-hearted people. 

Today, Maxine is 9 and believes in God “two days a week — on Sundays and Wednesday.” Is that logical or rational? No. But who cares? It works for her, and that’s what’s important. 

I haven’t always done everything right. I have stumbled sloppily through more than a few conversations along my own journey and regretted my word choices now and again. (Our unique biases have a way of filtering through from time to time, despite our best efforts.) But, because the conversations keep coming, I’ve almost always had a chance to right my wrongs, to clarify my position, to bring a new perspective to each situation. The point here is not to be perfect—as my daughter says, “That would be boring”—but to give us something to aim for. 

Exposing kids to various brands of spirituality and religion (not to mention non-religious philosophies) is not only fascinating and surprisingly fun; it also has the potential to improve our children’s— and our own—awareness about and compassion for the multiplicity of kinds of people in the world. Like the “sex talk,” discussions about God may come up sooner (and differently) than you had pictured. But it’s our obligation to embrace it. After all, if we’re not prepared to explore ideas of God, religion, and faith with our curious children, someone else will do it for us.  

Someone cute.

Wendy Thomas Russell is an award-winning journalist and author of Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious. Russell hosts a blog called Natural Wonderers at and writes an online column for the PBS NewsHour. She wrote this for Thinking L.A., a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.

Buy the Book: Brown Paper Press, Amazon

Rosh Hashanah message September 2014

Kids who aren’t afraid of failing take the risks that change the world. 

Why? Because optimism and failure are the necessary and inextricable foundation upon which creative confidence flourishes. You have to believe in a better world—desperately and urgently—to take the risks and embrace the failures inherent in working towards this ideal. 

At our school, we engender optimism. Our program enables students to experience the best version of our society. We are a community of learners that celebrates each others’ successes as our own. Our students perceive the world as supportive and encouraging. They perceive learning—whether in or out of the classroom—as joyful and relevant. Many have asked me if we’re sheltering our students; they ask if this reassuring, constructive environment reflects the “real world”. My answer? It reflects what the world could be, especially if our students come to expect it. And that is what the High Holidays are all about. 

Consider, for a moment, the order of the fall holidays. In the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah we practice teshuvah, the hard work of returning to our true selves, to the selves we want to be. It’s self-reflection followed by celebration.

But why do we experience the joy of Rosh Hashanah before the exertion of Yom Kippur? It might seem odd that after the festivity of our New Year—so full of hope and possibility—we plunge into the intensity of Yom Kippur. But we have to experience the potential and promise of the New Year in order to be ready for Yom Kippur, when the process of teshuvah culminates, and we access the depths of our soul and become ready to once again face uncertainty. 

The same is true for education: self-reflection is followed by optimism; optimism equips children with the permission to fail; failing leads to self-reflection. The cycle continues and creative confidence is built. Students must be raised in an environment that reflects the world as it could be in order feel compelled and courageous enough to problem solve the ways the world falls short of this ideal. Each student needs to know that four wrong solutions to a challenge only means that she is closer to the innovation that could produce radical change.  

Skeptical about the radical change part? Try to suspend your disbelief. You see, what we teach students actually goes one step beyond creative confidence. It goes beyond the students’ belief in their ability to create and their conviction to persevere. Yes, it is urgent optimism, yes it is relentless risk-taking, but it is also—most importantly—the unshakable belief that they have a unique and irreplaceable role to play in tikkun olam, in mending or perfecting our world. Self-reflection is followed by optimism; optimism equips children with the permission to fail; failing leads to self-reflection; creative confidence is built and each time the world is a bit better for it. 

May it be a year in which each of our children comes to understand their infinite value and unique capacity. May we work together to develop students’ minds, hearts, and spirits so that they can—now and in the future—determine and actuate their particular, meaningful contributions to the narrative of the Jewish people and all humanity.

Shanah Tovah. 

Sarah Shulkind, Ed.D.

Head of School, Sinai Akiba Academy

Focus on kids’ character, not grades

Not long ago, psychologist Madeline Levine gave a lecture at a Jewish day school near her home in Marin County, Calif. The topic: “Your Average Child.”

Nobody showed up. 

“I guess there wasn’t a single average kid at the school,” Levine quips.  

“By definition, the vast majority of our children are average,” she clarifies. 

It’s a notion that is difficult for parents to accept, especially as many of us grew up hearing that we were anything but average—we were special. If our kids are average, does that mean that ultimately we are (gasp!) average, too?

In an effort to keep such thoughts at bay, we enforce the typical trajectory: have the kids load up on classes and activities. Make sure they get good grades and garner trophies. This will land them at a top-tier college where, the story goes, they will graduate and embark upon a well-paid career.

But Levine, author of the new book “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success” (HarperCollins Publishers), says that despite today’s high-stakes environment, which combines an uncertain economic future with increasingly fierce competition for spots at top schools, parents are paying attention to the wrong things.

“If you spend all this time going over their homework, correcting it, bringing in a tutor, you’ve lost all this time to build other things: character, persistence, generosity—all the things that people now are saying are going to be mandatory” for future jobs, she said. 

In the book, Levine writes: “Every measure of child and adolescent mental health has deteriorated since we’ve decided that children are best served by being relentlessly pushed, overloaded, and tested. Our current version of success is a failure.”

It’s a trap in which much of the Jewish community finds itself ensnared, Levine says, given the historical emphasis of Jews on the value of education.

“There’s always this sense that education is the way to go; it always has been,” she said. “If your 15-year-old says I don’t want to clear the dishes today, I have my AP chemistry test [to study for], most [Jewish] parents say don’t worry about it, go study.”

“That’s a big mistake. There’s more to be learned about the issue of sharing responsibility and community that goes along with three minutes of clearing the table.”

While many Jewish schools emphasize community and values, she says, parents too often worry about a botched test.

“We know everything about their grades and not enough about where they go and what they do,” she writes. “We monitor their performance, but not their character.”

Levine reminds parents of their ultimate goal: “We want to turn out good people who find good partners, find work they like, and contribute to their communities.” 

“Teach Your Children Well” is, in part, a response to Levine’s previous book, the 2006 surprise best-seller “The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.” (“Nobody expected it to end up on The New York Times” best-sellers list, she said. “It did.”)

“The Price of Privilege” touched a nerve. Although its scope was limited to upper-class families, it identified problems also prevalent among the middle- and upper-middle class. Her current book, Levine says, provides a broader perspective along with some solutions. (One example: “Question aggressively a system that seems to sanction excessive homework, competition over collaboration, sleep deprivation, and choosing activities based solely on their resume-enhancing potential.”)

As for her own background, Levine, 62, embodies the notion that “average” can turn exemplary. She grew up in New York City, in the Flushing section of Queens; her father was a police officer who died young, her mother was a social worker.

“We had no money, no insurance, nothing,” Levine recalls. A scholarship enabled Levine to study at the State University of New York, Buffalo.

“I had the best parents,” Levine said. “I was just fine the way I was, whether that was excelling in English or floundering at math. They were more interested in the kind of person I was.”

Levine began her career as a teacher in the South Bronx, a downtrodden, violence-plagued section of New York, in the 1970s. (“I was a terrible teacher,” she said. “I was so bad in the classroom, so good at the one on one.”)

Levine moved to California to pursue a doctorate in psychology and has remained here. She has a private clinical practice—on the back burner at the moment, she says—and is a founder of Challenge Success, a Stanford University-based organization that works with schools and families to promote better balanced, more fulfilled lives for children. 

She and her husband, Lee Schwartz, have three sons, ages 32, 27 and 21. Having adult children, she says, gives her the opportunity to look back and consider what she would do differently. One thing Levine says she’d change: She would have participated more in her children’s Jewish education.

Busy with her family and career, “I remember all the times I dropped them off at Hebrew school, went home and went to bed,” she said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘You have to go to Mitzvah Day.’ Well, if mom’s not going … actions speak louder than words.”

Levine’s youngest son, Jeremy, helped guide her career toward combating the pressure-cooker environment that so many kids encounter at school. While her older sons, good students, “were served by the system,” her youngest (“a perfectly average student,” as she describes him in her book) was falling between the cracks.

“There was very little to feel good about, starting in about sixth grade,” she said. “Nobody was interested in the parts of him that were super good.”

“Every kid has a super power,” she said. “For one kid, it may be calculus. For another it’s an incredible sensitivity toward people.” A parent’s task, Levine says, is valuing these strengths equally. 

“Life hands people all kinds of losses, disappointments, tragedies,” she said. “Why do we want to have kids night after night sobbing over their homework at 2 a.m. because they can’t get it done? It’s something we created that has become an enormous stressor.”

“I feel like adults have a secret: There are a bunch of things you’re good at, a bunch of things you’re average at, a bunch of things you really suck at,” Levine said. “This idea of straight-A students is a perfect mythology to me. Most of us are pretty average in most ways.”

Kidsave changes lives for orphaned children, adoptive parents

Santiago Brown calls himself a “cashew.” It’s his way of combining the words “Catholic” and “Jew,” to refer to his unusual religious background. He lived in Colombia in a Catholic orphanage until being adopted into a Jewish family a year ago, at the age of 12. His mother, Lori Brown, a graphic artist and Nashuva member, says Santiago has Jewish music on his iPod and tells his friends, “It’s awesome to be Jewish.”

Brown first connected with Santiago through the organization Kidsave and its Summer Miracles program. Kidsave founders Terry Baugh, in Washington, D.C., and Randi Thompson, working in Los Angeles, were inspired to start the nonprofit after making visits to foreign orphanages where they witnessed children who were often left alone for hours without personal attention or mental stimulation. Kidsave, which has offices in Bogota, Colombia, and Moscow, is designed to find families for these children, as well as mentors and other sources of support.

Kidsave’s Summer Miracles program brings Colombian children from group homes and foster homes to the United States for four weeks during the summer. The children stay with “host-advocates” who care for the children while they are here, and who take it upon themselves to help find permanent homes for the kids.

Summer Miracles focuses on older children, usually between the ages of 8 and 11, who are often overlooked in the adoption process. Selected children must be legally and emotionally ready for adoption and typically are not more than two years behind academically in their home countries.

“I think there is a niche for these children,” says Sari Weiner, who adopted a child through Kidsave’s domestic hosting program, Weekend Miracles. As an older parent, Weiner did not want to adopt an infant, believing she would be too elderly by the time her child was grown. Other families may not have the energy for younger children or may want an older sibling for their other children.

Once chosen for the program, the children are brought from foster homes and group homes all over Colombia to the country’s capital, Bogota, for two weeks of training, psychological counseling and workshops. They are taught guest etiquette, some English and a bit about U.S. culture.

Estefany, left, and Johana participate in the three-legged race with Kidsave’s Bob Holman.

Host-advocates also complete role-playing workshops before the children arrive to prepare them for how to deal with situations that may arise. Rhona Rosenblatt, who has helped a child get adopted through a hosting program before and is hosting again this summer, jokes, “All the kids are doing great. The adults are constantly checking on them, being paranoid, but they are always fine.”

It costs a total of about $7,500 to bring a child to the United States through Summer Miracles, according to Thompson. Of that amount, host-advocates contribute a hosting fee of $1,250 and an application fee of $275. Host-advocates generally raise money through grass-roots organizing, while Kidsave itself receives grants and large donations.

Once the children are here, the host-advocates’ job is to spread the word about Kidsave and attend weekly events to introduce their visiting children to families. Susan Baskin, who is currently two weeks away from adopting the child she hosted last summer, mentioned Kidsave in her profile in The Jewish Journal’s “My Single Peeps” column. Brown, Santiago’s mother, has used Facebook, word of mouth and even a blurb on the Nashuva Web site to spread information about Kidsave. Brown says she brings up the organization in conversation whenever possible. Once, a teller at the bank who saw Santiago ended up mentioning Kidsave to a friend, and that friend is now in the process of adopting a child of her own.

Kidsave does not facilitate adoptions. Families who wish to adopt Colombian children after their summer visit must go through the normal international adoption process. Lauren Reicher-Gordon, the vice president of Kidsave and director of Family Visit Programs, said, “We are the yentas, the matchmakers.”

However, their success rate is noteworthy. Eighty percent of children from Summer Miracles are now adopted or in the process of being adopted, according to Reicher-Gordon. She attributes the high rate to the time families spend getting to know the kids.

Baskin agrees. Before hearing about Kidsave, she had attempted adoption on her own but was turned off by the lack of information about and time with the prospective children. “As a single woman, I felt I might not have the financial and emotional resources if the match was not good,” Baskin said. Kidsave motivated her to try adoption again because it gave her time to get to know her prospective child and a realistic idea of what it would be like to be a parent. Baskin hosted Johana in the summer of 2011 and will be leaving to pick up her new daughter in Colombia in two weeks.

The risk of any hosting program, of course, is that children’s hopes will be crushed if the adoption does not work out. Marcia Jindal, director of the intercountry adoption program at Vista Del Mar, has worked with Kidsave for seven years, doing home assessments before the children arrive, training the families, providing support and resources while the children are here, and conducting post-placement studies on children who have been adopted.

Jindal says there are pros and cons to every program. In her experience, she said, “The biggest negative that families find in these hosting programs is they feel it’s unfair to get the child’s hopes up. But there’s no way to prevent that, unfortunately.” Even if the families have the intention of adopting, the home countries of the children could at any time revoke permission to adopt. Additionally, a sudden family illness or financial problem could prevent the adoption from going through.

Valentina enthusiastically tosses a bean bag.

Reicher-Gordon says Kidsave has specific instructions for hosting families about how to approach the issue of adoption while the children are visiting. “It is not discussed when the kids are here. They are told they are learning English and having a cultural experience. … We know that kids are hopeful [for adoption], but it is not in the best interest of the children to tell them that before they leave.”

It is, nevertheless, a challenging issue to navigate. Baskin described taking Johana, who was crying and clinging to her, to the airport at the end of her visit. “I wished I could say I was going to adopt her. But all I could say was, ‘I will see you again.’ ”

Jindal stresses, however, that there are more positives than negatives to a program like this one. “Any way that we can get the word out there that children are waiting for permanency is good.” Vulnerable older children do need to be connected with families before they age out of the foster care system, and she says Kidsave does a very good job of matching children with families. “The families are really committed to advocating for the children.”

At the most recent Summer Miracles event, it appeared the hosting families cared deeply about their Kidsave children.

Baskin still remembers the expression on Johana’s face when she walked in the sand and splashed in the ocean for the first time a year ago.

Brown is hosting two more boys this summer, a second boy named Santiago — this one is 11 — and Julian, 12. The visiting Santiago recently learned to ride a bike for the first time.

“My heart is filled with joy and love,” Brown said. “They just need homes; they’re good boys. … The magic in them is amazing.”

Learn to listen to your own kid, not the voices in your head

There is some unwritten statute of limitations on how long one can whine about a crappy childhood, a negligent parent, a few too many chicken pot pies, summers with the grandparents, days spent on Greyhound buses and with dubious caregivers and creepy neighbors. There is just a moment in an adult’s life when the complaining and sad-sacking about how our parents got divorced, or lost custody, or bailed, or otherwise stank up the joint is just kind of pathetic. Let’s face it, that moment had come and gone for me.

Then I had a child myself, and twinges of pain in that amputated leg known as my relationship with my mother started to send fiery jolts into my nervous system. I thought I would get a do-over (as opposed to my childhood, which was a do-under), but instead I got something unexpected: When my son was around 18 months old, I started to freak out. Whatever it is that made her look at the job of motherhood the way an angry teenager views a Friday night shift behind the Frialator, whatever she had, maybe I caught it. 

This is the day, I would think, driving my toddler to day care, or swinging him at the park, or slipping a Grover T-shirt over his giant, blond head, this is the day it happens. This is the day I start to suck at this. This is the day I start to hate it. This is the day of reckoning, when I realize that I’ve been judging my mom for not enjoying my company or any part of raising me, but I’m no better. And this is the day the symptoms start manifesting in me. This is the day I realize that while I see other mothers having moments of both great struggle and magical, indescribable delight, I will only experience the former, because there are just some bullets you can’t dodge.

When I started to panic about my ability to be a parent, it wasn’t about physically being there or providing, it was about something else; it was about the ineffable ability to enjoy my child, because as sure as I won’t forget the phone number of Haystack Pizza down the street, or the smell of the back of a city bus during Indian summer, or the look of abject boredom on my mom’s face across the dinner table, I also won’t forget the feeling of being a tedious wretch, a burden that was ruining everything.

Here’s where having an OK childhood rescues you. Most new moms, I gather, realize early on that the venture isn’t wholly exalted.

They catch on to the reality that normal might mean 17 thrilling, awe-inspiring minutes in a 12-hour day of parenting. Kids can be annoying, they can dawdle, they can cry uncontrollably at what to us is nothing (the green cup is dirty, here’s the yellow one; see you in 27 minutes when you have come back from the brink of insanity). They can be scary, flying off couches and spiking high fevers. They can be, as a matter of course, a bit dull, unless watching the same video of a garbage truck dumping a bin of trash into its hopper repeatedly on YouTube is somehow gratifying for you.

It was about a month into my panic when I turned the ship around. And by the ship I mean my Honda. My son, on the way to day care, uncharacteristically moaned from his car seat, “Don’t want to go to school.”

We pulled over into the parking lot of an Albertsons. I stared back at him.

“Want to ride train,” he said. A tear fell onto his puffy coat.

That was the moment, wedged between a meth-head blasting classical music from his station wagon and a Mini-Cooper glinting in the sun, that I became not a women running from a fear that she will fail at parenting, but a woman running toward one simple day at the mall with her baby. And off we went to the indoor mall in Sherman Oaks with the Ladybug train that runs past the chain stores all day long. Phoning day care to say we wouldn’t make it, cancelling any plans I had for that day, I knew that nothing could make me happier, and in knowing that, I was at least partially free.

If I love being with this boy, even just to share a Wetzel and ride a rickety indoor train for hours, if I love this more than anything else I could possibly imagine doing today, then I can stop worrying. If I had been playing tag with the bogeyman that was “turning into my mother,” this was one very small, yet somehow enormous, “NOT IT.”

No one in my family is sentimental, and I think that’s OK. I don’t have a baby book for my son, I didn’t keep track of when he got his first tooth or tricycle.

That’s why lately, pregnant with my second boy, when I have syrupy thoughts about the baby I can only just now feel moving and kicking, it’s like a million cars turning around in a million parking lots. I love you already, I think, as I rub my hand over my stomach. Sappy. However, when I find myself thinking that this little being is good company already, and enjoying him even now, before he is born, I feel myself turning and turning in the right direction.

In a way, it’s not about my own mother anymore. I may not honor her, specifically, but as I think about that commandment I think the best I can do is to honor motherhood in general, and I can only do that by letting myself get better at it as I go. It’s on me now, as it has been for a very long time.

It’s on me to know that sometimes it’s OK to be less than thrilled with the minutiae of motherhood, the ordering of diaper cream online, the scraping of uneaten carrots from an Elmo plate. It’s OK.

As long as there are days, and they will come when I can’t predict them, when my main function in this life is not to drive my babies forward, but to turn them around. If I can find supreme usefulness in sitting on a train to nowhere, just staring at my baby as he stares into the world, just taking him in and letting the smell of his hair and the feel of his chubby hands fall into the pages of the baby book in my mind, I am not just avoiding becoming my mother, I am getting to stop at all the stations she missed. “All aboard,” says my son to the mall conductor. All aboard.

Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me” (Penguin). She blogs at

‘Where the Wild Things Are’ author Maurice Sendak dies at 83

Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of the children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are,” has died.

Sendak, who wrote and illustrated more than 50 children’s books, died Tuesday at the age of 83. He reportedly had suffered a stroke on May 4.

[ profiled Sendak in 2002, read it here.]

Sendak grew up in Brooklyn the son of immigrant Polish Jews and told the Associated Press that he spent his childhood thinking about the children dying in the Holocaust in Europe. “My burden is living for those who didn’t,” he told the AP.

Sendak, who did not attend college, became a window dresser for Manhattan toy store FAO Schwarz in 1948. A self-taught illustrator, he was commissioned to illustrate the book Wonderful Farm” by Marcel Ayme in 1951, and in 1957 began writing his own books.

In 1964, the American Library Association awarded Sendak the Caldecott Medal, for “Where the Wild Things Are. He received the international Hans Christian Andersen medal for illustration in 1970, and in 1983 he won the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award from the American Library Association. President Bill Clinton awarded Sendak a National Medal of the Arts in 1996 for his body of work.

Groups praise child nutrition law, with qualms

Jewish groups praised the renewal of a law funding school meals, but expressed concern that it was financed in part by money designated for food stamps.

The approval in the U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act means the bill—which had been subject to some last minute wrangling—is ready for enactment by the president.

The bill extends for another ten years funding for school lunches and breakfasts for children from families that depend on the meals, estimated at 4.2 million households.

The passage “is an important achievement that will improve the lives of millions of children,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the public policy umbrella for the Jewish community.  “This bill is an acknowledgement that in a nation as bountiful as ours, no child should worry about when their next meal will be.”

The JCPA was at the forefront of an interfaith coalition lobbying for passage.

Other groups that had sought the bill’s passage included the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and the National Council for Jewish Women.

All three groups in their statements praising passage expressed regret that some of $4.5 billion in funding was drawn from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamp benefits.

“By imposing what amounts to a $60 per month cut in SNAP benefits for a family of four, Congress hurts the very families that this legislation is designed to help,” the RAC said. “Cutting SNAP benefits during the third consecutive year of rising poverty rates negates the positive impact of a strong Child Nutrition Reauthorization. We call on Congress to act immediately to restore SNAP benefits to the level of funding that recipients were told they could rely upon until 2018.”

What’s New for the Kids to Read?

The newest books for Jewish children are unlikely to appear on school summer reading lists. Included here are some of the latest offerings for children that are characterized by positive Jewish themes and can easily be packed into that camp or vacation suitcase. For some of the consistently best Jewish children’s picture books, visit the website for Kar-Ben Publishing ( and load up on the lightweight paperback versions for your trip.

The most unique picture book storyline this season may be found in “Feivel’s Flying Horses” (Kar-Ben, $7.95), by Heidi Smith Hyde, with pictures by Johanna Van Der Sterre. It is a beautifully illustrated account of Feivel, an immigrant woodcarver who had to leave behind his wife and children in the old country to make his way to the good life in America. No longer able to make a living carving three-dimensional figures on Torah arks, he uses his woodcarving skills to carve fabulously ornate horses for the Coney Island carousel until he earns enough money to bring his family to join him. An author’s note describes the life of Marcus Charles Illions, an observant Jew from Lithuania (who used to carve his name in the bodies of his horses), and the lives of other well known Jewish wood carvers, who became nationally known for creating a new art form that delighted generations of children.

Daniel Pinkwater, NPR commentator and author of dozens of children’s books, has teamed up with his wife Jill for an irreverent picture book that ingeniously combines three languages (English, Spanish, and Yiddish) into an offbeat narrative of a “brave and clever” Yiddish chicken. In “Beautiful Yetta, the Yiddish Chicken”, (Feiwel & Friends, $16.99) Yetta escapes from her crate just as Mr. Flegleman, the organic chicken rancher, is unloading his chickens at Phil’s Poultry World in Brooklyn, “with a tear in his eye”. “Where am I? Vu bin ikh?”, she exclaims. She is a frightened outsider in a strange new place with no friends until she encounters a little green parrot named Eduardo who is about to be pounced upon by a sneaky cat. “Gay ahVEK, du fahrSHTUNkehneh kahtz!”, (“Go away, you stinky cat!”) she yells, and saves the day, to the delight of Eduardo’s Spanish speaking bird family. Part immigrant story, part language lesson, and consistently fun, the Pinkwaters’ newest tale reminds children that if you are confident in who you are and where you come from, friends will never be far away.

Older children who are fans of comics and graphic novels will be delighted to see that Steve Sheinken, the author of “The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey” series, has just come out with a third installment entitled “Rabbi Harvey vs. The Wisdom Kid” (Jewish Lights, $16.99).  Subtitled, “A Graphic Novel of Dueling Jewish Folktales in the Wild West”, this title continues the adventures of comic book hero Rabbi Harvey of Elk Spring, Colorado, who has to rely on his Talmudic knowledge and assorted Judaic teachings to overcome a variety of humorous villains, such as sweet-faced “Bad Bubbe” Bloom, and her interloper son, Rabbi Ruben, “The Wisdom Kid”. Clearly the town’s not big enough for two rabbis, and that includes the village of Helms Falls, whose inhabitants (think: fools of Chelm) are interviewing candidates for town sheriff. Sheinken includes an informative afterword explaining the folktale and Talmudic sources for each of the stories in the text along with a detailed bibliography for additional reading. The unusual flat, elongated drawings take a bit of getting used to for adults, but they are unlikely to bother kids who will enjoy Rabbi Harvey’s twist on midrashic logic and lore.

Popular young adult novelist Sarah Darer Littman, author of the excellent Sydney Taylor Award winner, “Confessions of a Closet Catholic,” has another sure winner in her latest offering, “Life, After”, (Scholastic, $17.99) in which she tackles myriad themes, including immigration, 9/11, depression and school bullying. Fifteen year-old Dani and her family escape a crumbling life in Argentina years after her beloved aunt was killed in the 1994 terrorist attack on the Jewish Community Center there. Life in a new country is difficult, especially while dealing with a different language, a depressed father, and an American high school environment where everyone is not particularly friendly. Plus, does she still have an Argentinean boyfriend, or has he moved on? Her life Before was so much simpler. Littman catches the voice of teen readers with her spot-on dialogue and realistic situations as her characters learn how to heal, forgive, and open their hearts as they celebrate their new lives, After.

For those seeking a bit of artistic creativity this summer, the wonderful craft and how-to book by Israeli artist Lorna Sakalovsky may fit the bill. Known for her whimsical ceramic figurines and intricate chess sets, “Grandma Lorna” has gathered up more than two dozen “activities”, as she calls them,  that have been joyously shared with her grandchildren throughout the years. Previously published in Israel, her book now shares her original ideas with anyone who loves playing games, drawing, cooking or enjoying creative tasks with children. “Grandma Lorna’s Hugs Hints and Happiness: For You and Your Grandchildren” (Lambda Publishers, $29.95), includes colorful, sturdy, photo-illustrated pages with instructions for making potato men, mouse masks, cucumber crocodiles, scrambled egg pictures, and more, plus games such as “Fresh Fruit Frenzy” or the “Dots and Squares Game”.  All activities look to be easy to do, even “spoon people theater,” made from plasticine (molded onto spoons) that can be purchased at craft stores. Grandma Lorna’s infectious enthusiasm is explained in the opening pages: “This is your precious time to bond with the grandchildren just loving each other. The grandchildren will remember these moments when they are themselves grandparents and recall the joy they felt being with you.”  This book is useful for any family, particularly scout and camp groups, not just grandparents, and certainly worth the investment.

Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library in Los Angeles and the children’s editor of Jewish Book World magazine.

Hamas Leader Denies Holocaust, Objects To UN Plan To Teach Gaza Children About Holocaust


A Hamas spiritual leader on Monday called teaching Palestinian children about the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews a “war crime,” rejecting a suggestion that the U.N. might include the Holocaust in Gaza’s school curriculum.

A senior Israeli official said such statements should make the West think twice about ending its boycott of Hamas, in place since the group seized Gaza by force in 2007. Israeli officials called the comments as “obscene” and said they place Hamas in a pariah club of Holocaust deniers that includes Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Read the full story at

VIDEO: shows how to craft a home-made menorah shows you a fun way to get in the Chaukah spirit with this homemade menorah.

Calendar Girls Picks and Clicks Dec. 6 – 12: Poetry of La Norte, love and latkes


Whether or not you’re a firm believer in life after death, screenwriter and playwright Dan Gordon has a message for you: People in heaven might be sending you postcards. In his new book, “Postcards From Heaven: Messages of Love From the Other Side,” Gordon explains how a “whisper, a familiar smell in the air, or just the feeling of a presence” can indicate a message from above. This weekend, Gordon is part of Temple Menorah’s second annual “Authors, Books, and Conversations” event. Ariel Sabar, author of “My Father’s Paradise,” will speak about the search for his Kurdish Jewish roots. And on Sunday, children’s book author Kathy Kacer, an expert on writing about the Holocaust for children, will be featured. Sat. 5 p.m. $25-$36 (includes dinner). Through Dec. 7. Temple Menorah, 1101 Camino Real, Redondo Beach. (310) 316-8444. ” target=”_blank”>

“Fiddler on the Roof.” Enough said. You know the story, you know the songs, you know you’re going to enjoy the performance. The Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities presents their production of “Fiddler,” starring Thomas Fiscella as the endearing Tevye and Richard Israel as Motel. Sat. 8 p.m. Tue.-Sun. Through Dec. 21. $40-$65. Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach. (310) 372-4477. ” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ hspace = ‘8’ align = ‘left’>raise $400,000 for the nonprofit Jewish Home — the largest single-source provider of senior housing in Los Angeles. But it’s not all just physical activity. The fun-filled day comes complete with music, food and clowns! The event is open to all ages and will begin and end at the Jewish Home’s Eisenberg Village Campus. Sun. 7 a.m. (registration); 8:30 a.m. (opening ceremony). Eisenberg Village Campus, 18855 Victory Blvd., Reseda. (818) 774-3324. ” target=”_blank”>

Rabbi Mordechai Dubin’s upbeat songs have 3-year-olds quoting from Genesis and Maimonides. The fourth-grade teacher at Maimonides Academy received a $10,000 grant from the Milken Family Foundation Jewish Educators Awards for his excellence in teaching and used it to produce a children’s CD that has become the buzz of day schools across the country. Bring your tots to see Rabbi Dubin live, singing holy hits from his CD, “I Made This World For You,” at the Jewish Community Library. Sun. 3-4 p.m. Free. JCLLA, 6505 Wilshire Blvd. #300, Los Angeles. (323) 761-8648. ” target=”_blank”>


Transit prose queen and performance artist Marisela Norte will not only read selections from her poetry collection, “Peeping Tom Tom Girl,” at ALOUD, she will perform them with longtime friend and talented collaborator Maria Elena Gaitan. “An Evening of Spoken Word and Cello” features two unique female artists ” target=”_blank”>


Esther Jungreis once trembled, starving and terrified in Bergen-Belsen. Many years later, she flew over Germany on the president of the United States’ plane. The world-renowned spiritual leader and speaker, who comes from a rabbinical dynasty tracing back to King David, has come a long way from the death camps of ” target=”_blank”>

Imagine growing up knowing that your father was brutal Nazi leader Amon Goeth. Monika Hertwig learned at a young age of her father’s history and his eventual hanging as a war criminal. But Hertwig didn’t simply try to forget the past; she went on to search for one of her father’s victims and found Helen Jonas, a woman rescued by Oskar Schindler. Directed by Academy Award-winner James Moll, the meeting of the two women captured in the film, “Inheritance,” “unearths terrible truths and lingering questions about how the actions of our parents can continue to ripple through generations.” Wed. Airs nationally on PBS’ series, “Point of View.” Check local listings at ” target=”_blank”>


In its brief 60-year history, Israel has undergone enormous changes and even greater threats. What will the Holy Land look like at 100 years? None of us can say for certain. But that doesn’t stop Israel experts from pondering the question. Rabbi Daniel Gordis tackled the issue on Nov. 13 in part one of Temple Beth Am’s Israel 2048 Master Teacher Series, “Envisioning the State of Israel on the occasion of its 100th Anniversary.” Tonight, another brilliant scholar shares his insights on the future of the Jewish state. David Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, has published numerous books and is the co-editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review. Thu. 7:45 p.m. $15 (Temple Beth Am members), $25 (nonmembers). Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P. required, (310) 652-7354, ext. 215. ” target=”_blank”>

Malibu camp offers respite and community for kids with HIV

It's nearly dusk at Camp Pacific Heartland in Malibu and teenager Stephon Cooperawls sits beside me, watching the summer sun sink into the sea. All the other campers are in the dining room having dinner, but Cooperawls has a story to tell, and this is the only place he feels safe talking about it.

“I first got involved with camp when I was 7 years old. I didn't know I had it when I was 7. I was living with a foster parent, and she just brought me here,” Cooperawls began.

“As I got older, I started to have a clue, wondering 'Why am I here?' and 'Why am I taking meds?' and 'Why am I going to the hospital?' It all just added up, and one day, my father came to me and said, 'Stephon, I just want to tell you something: You have HIV.'”

Cooperawls, a 17-year-old African American, was born with HIV. And like many of the children between the ages of 6 and 20 who have passed through Camp Pacific Heartland or its sister arts camp, Camp Hollywood Heart, he is battling what is considered one of the greatest epidemics of our time.

Cooperawls is both infected and affected by the disease: his biological father died of AIDS, and his mother, who abandoned him as an infant, is also infected.

“When I found out I had it, I always thought I was just going to up and die one day, but I've learned that you're not going to die. You die when it's your time to go,” he said.

But nobody is going anywhere this week. Nestled high in the Malibu Mountains at Wilshire Boulevard Temple's Gindling Hilltop Camp, Cooperawls and the other campers enjoy what many call the best week of their lives. It is the one week of the year when they are free from judgment in a place where they can swim and use the bathrooms without any erroneous worrying about disease transmission, and where they make new friends with whom they can share their secret.

It is an empowering and life-altering experience for each camper, but it has also transformed the life of David Gale, the Hollywood executive whose quest for meaning brought Camp Heartland to Southern California.

“Every one of us asks what our purpose is in life,” Gale said, reflecting on what this experience has meant to him.

“Very often, it's your career, maybe your family, but for me it's been, 'How can I make an impact on people in the world?' But this is not a one-sided exchange. These kids have made me appreciate the value of life.”

Having grown up with Crohn's disease, itself a serious illness, Gale shares a unique kinship with the hundreds of children he helps. An otherwise unassuming individual, today dressed in shorts and a T-shirt with a digital camera hanging from his neck, his sensitivity to the kids' condition is visceral and palpable. At camp, Gale is not one of the top executives at MTV, he's just “David,” and he doesn't really want to talk about his professional success. He wants this story to be about the kids.

Working in an industry characterized by tough personalities and superficial values, Gale's genuine modesty is rare. Inasmuch as his talent and ambition have earned him considerable success (he is a Stanford graduate and also holds a law degree from New York University), the vice president of MTV new media and specialty films has coupled his personal achievements with giving to others. He believes lasting happiness results from three things: doing what you love, contact with people you love and philanthropic giving.

“There's not even close to enough of that happening in Hollywood. That's why there are so many unhappy people despite their success — because they're not giving, they're taking, they're demanding, they're insisting — and they judge their success in life based on the box office, based on their power, their deals and who knows them,” Gale said.

“This camp, this organization [Hollywood Heart] gives me true happiness. I get back so much more in ways that are impossible to quantify, in ways I couldn't get from anything material or anything else I've ever done,” he said.

Gale's desire to give was the result of a tremendous loss. When his mother was dying of cancer, he saw the outpouring of community support coming from her synagogue, which inspired his own involvement with Wilshire Boulevard Temple. And it was 15 years ago, when he sat on the social action committee, that Gale, now 50, realized he could do more than chair the synagogue's food pantry.

At the time, Gale was vice president of MTV Films, a division he created and through which he produced a bevy of hits, including, “Election,” “Jackass,” “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Varsity Blues.” During his 11 years at the helm, MTV Films grossed more than $1 billion at the box office and garnered their first Academy Award nomination (for “Election,” which Gale says, is the film that makes him most proud). Without any personal tie, he was struck by the horrors of the rising AIDS epidemic and immediately decided to start a camp for HIV/AIDS-infected youth.

“I love the movies I've made and I'm very proud of them, but it's just a credit, whereas something that's extremely deep and meaningful and lasting is truly the thing that I would want people to remember me for. Not my movies,” he said.

As fulfilling as philanthropy is, Gale is quick to point out that his commercial success has significantly enabled his ability to give.

“I could not have started this charity without my success and without my connections,” he said plainly. For starters, although Wilshire Boulevard Temple did not wish to directly sponsor the camp project, they offered Gale use of their camp facilities in Malibu at a greatly reduced rate.

With access to money and powerful industry connections, Gale could offer financial support for a camp, but with the demands of his job, did not have the ability to program his dream from scratch.

Enter Neil Willenson, a fellow Jew from Wisconsin who had already established a camp for at-risk kids but without a permanent home yet.

Willenson's journey began when he read a disturbing article in his local paper titled “AIDS Hysteria” about 5-year-old Nile Sandeen, who contracted HIV from his mother and suffered cruel abuse at the hands of his community. Through his friendship with Sandeen, Willenson discovered that the stigma of the disease and the many misconceptions surrounding HIV/AIDS often caused more emotional suffering than the disease itself.

“The scourge of paranoia is worse than HIV,” said Willenson, 37, the founder of Camp Heartland. “HIV may be the most manageable part of their lives.”

In 1993, Camp Heartland's inaugural summer, Willenson welcomed 72 kids from 20 states to a one-week, cost-free retreat at a leased campsite in Milwaukee where there was hiking, horseback riding and archery. The following summer, he received a call from Gale, who took a red-eye to visit Willenson's Camp Heartland. By the summer of 1995, Gale and Willenson launched Camp Pacific Heartland, the West Coast version of Willenson's concept, funded through Gale's efforts and with the goal of recruiting at least 50 percent of its campers from Southern California.

The night I visit is “MTV Night” at camp, and the speakers are blaring Madonna. All 60 kids are breathless with anticipation over who this year's surprise celebrity guest will be. Gale's connections in Hollywood have produced a gaggle of celebrities here over the years, including Chris Tucker, Cuba Gooding Jr., Brandy and David Arquette.

When Wilmer Valderrama of “That '70s Show” arrives, he joins his screaming, adoring fans for a late-night dance party.

A 7-year-old girl gasps, “He's handsome! He's everything!”

She could be talking about Hollywood writer/director John Gatins, one of Hollywood Heart's most passionate advocates and a current board member, who is visiting tonight just for fun.

Gatins, who wrote “Coach Carter,” will return for Camp Hollywood Heart (the arts camp for Heartland graduates ages 16-20) to teach a writing workshop. He says he charts his life by this camp and that it inspired him to have children (he has three, ages 7, 5 and 18 months). Just prior to the release of his first feature film, “Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story,” DreamWorks gave him special permission to screen it at the camp.

“The night that I showed my movie here, I remember driving down that long, crazy hill to leave, and I just started laughing, and then I started kind of weeping, thinking, 'Wow I've never had such an amazing audience,'” Gatins recalled, almost tearfully.

“You work in the business, and everything is about the business. Everything is about, like, 'How did it play?' 'Will it work?' 'How do you sell it?' And to hear 100 kids laugh in the situations they're in, I sent DreamWorks an e-mail the next day that said, 'Look, I just have to tell you that I had an experience last night that for the first time my work felt meaningful on a level it never has.'”

Q&A with Betsy Brown Braun — Hollywood’s go-to parenting guru

Betsy Brown Braun has become known as a parenting guru to the Hollywood elite and beyond. In fact, this child development specialist and mother of 30-year-old triplets earned her credibility serving as site director of Stephen S. Wise Temple’s preschool and founding director of Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s early childhood center, as well as teaching her own parenting classes. On Nov. 16, she’ll discuss her new how-to tome, “Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents” (HarperCollins, $15.95), on “The Today Show” at the Los Angeles Jewish Community Library.

Jewish Journal: U.S. News & World Report dubbed your book a ‘handy parent cheat sheet … when the kids whine, say this. When they throw food, say that.’ How did you come up with the premise?

Betsy Brown Braun: I’d met so many parents who are talented career people, but can be humbled to their knees by a 4-year-old. They’d say, ‘Betsy, what do I say? What do I do? Help!’—so I offer actual scripts that can be a starting point for parents.

JJ: One of your suggestions for dealing with a child who won’t come to the dinner table is to tell him that unless he comes ‘right now,’ he won’t be having dinner—ouch! That won’t go over well with my relatives who are children of Holocaust survivors.

BBB: That’s why I offer several approaches to the same behavior. Your choice may be to say, ‘If you don’t come to the table immediately, you’re going to be eating alone in the kitchen, or eating later, away from the family.’

JJ: Food can be a very loaded issue for parents. That’s like the definition of the Jewish mother.

BBB: I think the Jewish mother thing is a stereotype, but parents do freak out about picky eaters—and it’s no coincidence that picky eating often comes at the age when children are learning to assert themselves. It’s, ‘I’m not going to eat even that delicious chocolate éclair because it feels much better to say, “No.”’ The best thing to get a child to eat is to stop talking about it. Sit down at the table and talk about squirrels, because when it crosses the line to a control issue, you’re going to have trouble. 

JJ: What differences do you see in ways parents raise their kids now as opposed to when you were raising your triplets? 

BBB: I see people tackling parenting in the same way that they would a career—they read every book and end up micromanaging everything. You would plotz—parents come to me and say, ‘Just tell me what’s the best nursery school that will get him into the best elementary school that will get him into the best college’—and the rest is obvious.

JJ: But if you’re not doing those kinds of things, you can feel like you’re a not-good-enough mommy.

BBB: Parents need to develop what I call a ‘Teflon coating,’ meaning: don’t absorb what your friends are doing. Just because your friend is putting her 18-month-old in a soccer skills class doesn’t mean it’s right for you. How about just playing in the dirt or throwing rocks?

Then there is the danger of giving your child too much.

I teach a class called ‘Affluenza: The Perils of Overprivilege,’ which I’ve changed to ‘Gimme, Gimme Gimme’ in light of the economic downturn—but it’s not so much about ‘stuff’ as about how we interact with our kids. Parents need to build lessons that help children learn how to tolerate frustration, disappointment and to delay gratification, and in doing so, cultivate gratitude and the importance of longing.

JJ: What’s one key thing you recommend for dealing with difficult issues, such as death and divorce?

BBB: Forget euphemisms. I think parents don’t keep in mind that children take things very literally, so when you say Grandpa’s in a better place, they’re like, ‘Well, where? I wanna go see him,’ and ‘why did he leave me to go there?’

JJ: When a client is powerful in Hollywood, is it a role reversal for you to be telling them what to do?

BBB: I’m careful. I don’t say, ‘You’ve got to do this. I say, ‘I think such-and-such will really help.’ For example, the head of a major agency once came to me because one of his children was having separation issues. I knew that a breakthrough was going to come when the dad drove the child to school, because kids have a harder time separating sometimes from mommy than from daddy. So I said, ‘You have to drive your son to school every day for three weeks, and he said, ‘I can’t do that!’ And I said, ‘Here’s the deal. You can do this or that, but this is liable to work and that isn’t.’ So he drove the kid.

Post-election healing — kumbaya in class and at the beach

Alison Weinreb, a teacher at Maimonides Academy in West Hollywood, invited her sixth-grade social studies class to her home for an election-night viewing party.

As the electoral map turned increasingly blue, she noticed that her scattered Obama supporters were keeping pretty quiet — embarrassed even in victory to be in the minority among their McCain-supporting friends.

At the same time, McCain supporters — who have been the majority of students at Orthodox day schools like Maimonides — needed a fair amount of reassuring that an Obama presidency would not spell immediate disaster for Israel and the Jews, the message they had been hearing throughout the election from their friends and gleaning from conversations at home.

Weinreb wasn’t the only one facing a distressed and confused community in the aftermath of this year’s presidential race. Jews battered one another in passionate arguments throughout this election season, as each side staked out their positions, often spilling over into questionably grounded rhetoric and incivility. Friends and institutions squared off around Shabbat tables and at debate lecterns in what each considered life-or-death debates.

How children have interpreted such passion offers a revealing, though slightly distorted, mirror in which to view adult political discourse.

While children selectively perceive and then reinterpret information that comes their way, they reflect an atmosphere where issues of race, security, economic class divisions and Israel’s future have stirred up strong emotions.

At Orthodox day schools, mock elections yielded landslide McCain victories.

Students from at least one elementary school came home reporting that friends told them that if Obama were elected, he would “kill all the Jews.”

On the other side, at a another, more liberal school, one mother reported that her daughter was afraid to let on that her parents were McCain supporters, since everyone around her was so enamored of Obama.

Now that the election is over and campaign exaggerations can give way to reality, in schools, and everywhere else, people are making efforts to put things back into perspective.

At Maimonides, Weinreb helped organize a post-election assembly on Wednesday morning. On the stage, between the American and Israeli flags, two piñatas — an elephant and a donkey — stood side by side. Rabbi Karmi Gross, headmaster of the school, invited the sixth- through eighth-graders to come together to celebrate this historic triumph for American freedom and democracy.

“But we also come together for a different reason,” Gross continued. “We come together because this was one election — and I have seen quite a few — where the battle lines in America were drawn more clearly than ever, which pitted American against American, the red and the blue states, the left and the right, against each other in ways I do not recall. And sometimes the debates became very loud, and many times the debates became very nasty.”

Gross, using a talmudic parable, urged the children to understand the difference between disagreeing with an idea — which is fine — and attacking the person who holds such ideas, which is not.

Students together watched a video of McCain’s concession speech, and were asked to pull out some of the major themes.

“He said he was more proud to be associated with America than anything else,” one student offered.

“He said that we shouldn’t be upset that Obama won, because he’ll do good things for this country,” another said.

One rabbi acknowledged that many of the students were worried about Israel, but he assured them that Israel was strong, and that Israel’s ultimate fate lies in God’s hands, not in any president’s.

Jews who believed McCain was the better choice for Israel had to do a delicate dance with children.

One father, who asked not to be named to protect his son’s privacy, described a conversation he had with his 6-year-old son about the historic nature of this election and about the many reasons he was voting for McCain. In an age-appropriate way, they talked about security, the economy and issues that were important to them — such as having a president who had a record of supporting Israel. And the father posed the idea that he didn’t know whether Barack Obama would be a friend to Israel and the Jews, because there was not a very long record to rely on.

“Then — like all kids do, they pick up a small amount of what you tell them — he picked up from that that Barack Obama may not be nice to the Jewish people,” the father said, a declaration the boy made to his horrified mother.

The couple talked to their son again, softening the stance and saying that Obama might end up being a very good friend to the Jews. By the time Obama’s picture covered the front pages on Nov. 5, the boy seemed fine with his new president.

Helping kids process the broken-telephone game of information coming from the home and through their friends was a major focus at Emek Hebrew Academy-Teichman Family Torah Center in Sherman Oaks, where teachers integrated ideas about democracy or the specific campaign issues into the curriculum.

“But there were also moments where the students made baseless or exaggerated claims, repeating things they had heard,” said Gabriela Shapiro, general studies principal at Emek. “What we did at the time and will continue to do is teach the students about discernment — in other words, if someone makes a negative comment about Obama, we want the student hearing the claim to ask ‘what is the basis for your claim?'”

Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills brought in Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, who introduced a pre-election debate by highlighting a moment several weeks ago in which McCain asked riled-up ralliers to stop relying on rumor and innuendo to attack Obama as a person, and to focus instead on the issues.

Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, headmaster of Hillel, plans to use examples from the election when the school starts a conflict-resolution and community-building program next week.

“We’re going to deal with issues of perception and judging others favorably, and attacking issues, not people. We’re going to talk about accepting people’s differences and understanding what you have in common,” he said.

It’s a tough message to get across to kids, when adults themselves haven’t been behaving well.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom said he found the rancor among Jewish voters “painful and discouraging.” At a pre-election debate in his synagogue, Feinstein had to put on his former middle school principal hat to discipline the crowd.

“It’s discouraging to me as an American and as a person who believes in democracy, and it’s discouraging to me as the rabbi of a synagogue where important things should be discussed that you can’t have a serious political debate without hooting and hollering and drowning out the other side,” Feinstein said.

ALTTEXTIt was such rancor that a Healing Havdalah — the ritual marking the end of Shabbat — last Saturday night aimed to overcome. The event was organized by LimmudLA, the apolitical, nondenominational, Jewish-unity organization that will hold its second annual conference in Orange County over Presidents’ Day weekend, in February.

Saturday’s event, organized by Gary Wexler, a Jewish marketing expert, attracted 150 people to Dockweiler Beach, where drums and guitars competed with the wind and planes taking off from the nearby LAX.

Warming themselves around a crackling fire, participants talked about how Havdalah, like the election, marks the end and the beginning, the perfect moment for healing.

Many kids were at the Havdalah, joining their parents in singing and dancing, basking in the very Limmud idea that no matter our differences, we can come together for a kumbaya moment of Jewish oneness.

While a lot of healing may still be needed before that sort of unity can move beyond a Saturday night at the beach, one uniting factor all agree on is that this election brought a new level of political awareness and passion across party lines and across ages.

“I’ve heard kids saying that for the first time in their lives they care about politics and elections and personally feel involved, and that is amazing — that energy is constructive,” Vicki Helfand, a teacher at Maimonides, told the students at the assembly. “When you care about something, you can do amazing things. Now that this election is over, we encourage you to keep being passionate, to keep believing that what you think matters — because it does.”

Danielle Berrin and Orit Arfa at Dockweiler Beach. Photo by Joe Haber

In Israel, cutting edge help for visually impaired kids

Strolling among the young children playing on ELIYA’s vibrant and colorful campus in Petah Tikva, just outside Tel Aviv, feels, for an instant, like a visit to any well-run preschool. But ELIYA is that and more — a preschool for blind and visually impaired children designed to assist their growth and development through programs ranging from classroom teaching to hydrotherapy.

ELIYA (pronounced eh-LEE-yah), the acronym for The Israeli Association for the Advancement of Blind and Visually Impaired Children, serves more than 100 children, infants to mid-teens, through its various programs. The organization’s three branches, located in Petah Tikva, Jerusalem and Be’er Sheva, offer mommy-and-me classes and a daily preschool program for children (ages 1-3), while ELIYA’s summer camps and retreats bring blind or visually impaired older children together with family, friends and volunteers.

At ELIYA’s main branch in Petah Tikva, coordinator of resource development Orly Layzer pointed out features that reflect the careful consideration behind every aspect of the schools’ approach. For example, the color scheme — white and red — offers a contrast, which children with partial vision can discern and use to orient themselves. Classroom floors are divided into three tactile parts — wood, carpet and rubber — so children can use their sense of touch to find their way around the classroom. The same principle applies to the playground, where a little boy was able to keep his toy truck within the bounds of a gravel area by pulling back whenever he encountered a surface that felt foreign.

The hydrotherapy center provides another means for the children to work on their sense of orientation and comfort in new environments. ELIYA also provides rehabilitative horseback riding, offering blind and visually impaired children an enjoyable way to improve their navigational abilities and develop steadiness and balance.

ELIYA’s chadar choshech (dark room), helps pinpoint what, if any, vision a child has. Computers, glow-in-the-dark stars and even disco balls become the sole source of light in the room, allowing teachers and therapists to track a child’s eyesight. Then, having identified the limits of the field of vision, staff can help a child maximize abilities. Teacher-child ratios are at most 1-to-2, and ELIYA individualizes its program for each child.

This degree of specialization is what ELIYA executive director Michael Segal considers key to accomplishing ELIYA’s goals. “We want to help children with visual impairments to become more independent people…. It’s a different concept for philanthropy — a philanthropy of excellence,” he said.

Segal uses a Hebrew phrase, mitztainut lo miskainut (which roughly translates as “excellence not pity”), to express ELIYA’s mission. The organization also works hard to accommodate a diverse religious population. The Jerusalem branch, for instance, serves Orthodox and secular Jews as well as Muslims and Christians, and tries to provide for the needs and observances of each.

Segal began volunteering for ELIYA in 1984, in response to an advertisement he saw in a local Israeli newspaper. His involvement grew, and in 1991 he took on the role of executive director, his current post. Segal has never taken a salary for his ELIYA work, and in 2005 he received the President’s Award for Volunteerism. But he humbly deflects questions about this choice. “I wanted to continue the work, and I was able to…. I grew up with the notion of wanting to do for the community,” he said.

ELIYA hopes soon to have an interactive Web site where parents and the general public can access information about the blind and visually impaired.

Another special program is ELIYA’s summer camp for visually impaired children. Some attendees (ages 5-13) are past graduates of ELIYA’s preschool program, but others come from different parts of the country. Together with volunteers, they participate in a full range of regular camp activities — arts and crafts, sports, cooking, nature trips and music.

Segal told a story of one graduate whom he met on an air force base years after he’d left the school. Despite his visual impairment, this graduate now held an extremely sensitive job in the army. It felt wonderful, egal said, to see the young man had carved out a rewarding niche for himself.

ELIYA-USA will honor Maury and Lisa Friedman with its 2008 Visionary Award on Nov. 9 at the Skirball Cultural Center.

PJ Library families snuggle up with Jewish books

Ellianna Brandt, age 3, doesn’t get much mail.

But when her monthly package from PJ Library arrives, she knows just what she is tearing into: A Jewish book that she will enjoy with her mother, Aviva, or her father, Scott, who isn’t Jewish.

The Brandt family of Portland, Ore., has been enjoying the books courtesy of PJ Library, a project of the Harold Grinspoon foundation that sends Jewish-themed books to families with young kids. The program, now in 80 cities, just launched in Los Angeles with spots for up to 2,100 families in the Valley, with funding from private donors and the Valley Alliance of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Over the past month, hundreds of Valley children have received books such as “The Always Prayer Shawl” by Sheldon Oberman (Boyds Mill Press), “It’s Challah Time!” by Latifa Berry Kropf (Kar-Ben) and “Shlemazel and the Remarkable Spoon of Pohost” by Ann Redish Stampler (Clarion). In addition, a mass invitation to join the PJ library went out to thousands of families, along with a gift of the book “Something From Nothing” by Phoebe Gilman (Scholastic Press).

Something for nothing is an idea organizers are spreading among Jewish families.

“You can sign up and get books once a month just because you’re a Jewish kid, or because you have a Jewish child. We want people to know that there are no strings attached,” said Carol Koransky, executive director of the Jewish Federation Valley Alliance. “This isn’t a gimmick, this isn’t a book club, this is something that the community is sponsoring fully.”

Age-appropriate books geared for kids 6 months to 7 years arrive with explanations about the book and the topics covered — everything from Jewish holidays to biblical characters to Israel or themes related to Jewish values or history. The idea is to lay the foundation for Jewish conversations and to help the family feel more tied in to the larger Jewish culture and community.

That has been the case in the Brandt household, where both Ellianna and her father are learning from the monthly packages.

“My husband’s not Jewish,” said Aviva Brandt, who heard about the program at Mommy and Me class at her local Jewish Community Center. “He learns a lot about Judaism through the books. We’ve been though Intro to Judaism and the textbooks that come with programs like that, but the PJ Library books really bring him much closer to feeling comfortable about actually bringing Judaism into daily life.”

Harold Grinspoon and his Massachusetts-based foundation conceived of the idea as a way of creating an at-home entry point for Jewish involvement. While the program was initially envisioned for the intermarried or unaffiliated, it has expanded to encompass a large swath of the Jewish community. The program so far has reached 30,000 families in 80 cities, and 40 more communities are launching this academic year.

Communities who sponsor the program become funding partners with the Grinspoon Foundation. The Los Angeles program is starting with a two-year pilot in the Valley, and will expand if the program is well-received.

But just how much of an impact on Jewish identity can a few free books make?

Marcie Greenfield Simons, national director of the program, says the strategy has always been to look past those few minutes of snuggling on the couch with books like “Sammy Spider’s First Passover.”

“Ideally, what we envision for the program is that having the books in the home will inspire families to want to pursue other steps in their Jewish journey,” Simons said.

The program doesn’t require much of the recipients — they sign up for a free service, delivered to their door, and their only action is to read with their kids. But that doesn’t diminish the level of engagement it has achieved, Grinspoon said in a phone interview. He pointed to the feedback PJ Library gets not only from parents, but from community leaders.

“After implementing The PJ Library, we realized just how important this program was in helping to build our community,” said Steve Rakitt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. “Being able to make a connection to individuals in a very purposeful and thoughtful way has opened many unaffiliated doors for our Federation.”

The Atlanta Federation has supplemented the library with live programming, bringing the families together for holiday and other celebrations. In the process, the families feel more a part of the larger Jewish community.

“Essentially, our federation is able to provide more value to our community; we are giving something back and not asking for money,” Rakitt said. “It is a positive message to bring the program to families and not associate it with donations.”

The program has also been a boon for the Jewish publishing world. PJ Library has distributed 250,000 books since 2005, bringing some classics back to print, and even commissioning some works specifically for PJ Library.

Deborah Turobinor, a young mother, is looking forward to building her family library with selections for her 5-year-old, 3-year-old and 3-month-old.

Last week her baby received a Shabbat board book, and her oldest received “Jodie’s First Dig” by Anna Levine (Kar-Ben) about an archaeological expedition in Israel.

Turbinor feels that the program will not only increase her children’s positive associations with their Judaism but also help them understand how to be thankful for what they are given and how to give back in return.

“We love books, and we love being Jewish,” she said. “Why would we not do this?”

A limited number of spots are still open for children ages 6 months to 5 years in certain Valley zip codes.

Marion Ashley Said and Molly Binenfeld contributed to this story.

They never run out of patients

An Iranian Jewish girl was going through chemotherapy treatment — which tends to suppress your appetite — but one day, she got this craving for a lamb stew with carrots. Within an hour, someone was headed to the nearest Persian restaurant to get the dish and bring it to the girl.

Another young patient was in Minnesota for a special medical procedure. She was used to getting challah delivered to her every Friday afternoon while she was in Los Angeles. Again, just like magic, a FedEx package arrived before Shabbat with her favorite challah.

A mother and father decided, at the last minute, that they both wanted to spend the night at the hospital with their young child, who had a serious illness. No problem: a babysitter immediately showed up at their house to take care of their other children, including helping them with homework and serving them dinner.

Where did all this magic come from? Not from the Magic Castle, but from a little Jewish organization called Chai Lifeline.

For many years, because of its highly visible banner on the corner above Pat’s Restaurant, where it rented office space, Chai Lifeline was a fixture in the heart of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

They recently moved to a less visible but larger location a few blocks west, where they can now accommodate their growing list of volunteers. I went by there the other day and met one of these volunteers, a mother of four named Helena Usdan.

Usdan fell in love with Chai Lifeline 18 years ago when she was a counselor at their Camp Simcha back East, and helped open the West Coast office nine years ago. She told me that one the best decisions they made was seven years ago when they brought in executive director Randi Grossman, who had worked for many years at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.

Grossman runs a cause that’s all schmaltz, but she’s all business. Perfect manners. Perfect tone of voice. Perfect answers. Still, behind the professional demeanor, she’ll choke up at a video of someone Chai Lifeline has helped.

Like little Chana Bogatz, who was born with a rare renal disease and received a kidney transplant before turning 1. When the new kidney began to fail, the doctors told Chana’s parents that she would need another kidney to survive, but the high percentage of antibodies in her system made finding a compatible donor almost impossible. So they needed to get the word out to as many people as possible.

Grossman and her staff had already become an extension of the Bogatz family, so they put on their PR hats, and in partnership with Chana’s parents, helped get three stories over several months onto the evening news about the urgent need for a kidney. By the third, a donor was found, and Chana made it.

But not every story has a happy ending.

A few weeks ago, Grossman had to cancel a breakfast meeting because one of their kids “didn’t make it.”

It doesn’t happen often, she says, but death is not something she’s comfortable talking about. That’s why they never use the word “terminal”; they say “serious” or “life-threatening.” They let God and the doctors worry about things like “terminal.”

Grossman and her group worry about the “life” part — adding joy to the life of the children and doing whatever it takes to ease the lives of their families.

Many of these seriously ill children and their families were present last week at Chai Lifeline’s annual signature event: A community-wide carnival at the Scandia amusement park in Pomona during the Sukkot festival. I was there, but I couldn’t really tell who the seriously ill children were.

I guess when kids are having a ball, it’s hard to tell them apart.

Having a ball is one of Chai Lifeline’s basic services. When I hung out in their office, at one point it felt like being in one of those creative brainstorming sessions in an advertising agency. They’re always bouncing ideas around to come up with creative ways of helping their “patients.”

A young boy with a serious illness was a big football fan. So Grossman, Usdan and the staff made some calls and found someone to donate two Super Bowl tickets, and someone else to sponsor the trip. When the boy found out about the trip, his parents said it was “the first time he smiled since getting his diagnosis.”

Over the years, they’ve used their creativity to develop a slew of different programs, like KidShops (art therapy for patients and siblings), Wish at the Wall (trips to Israel), Chanukah Angels (adopting a child for Chanukah), Seasons of Respite (separate retreats for mothers and fathers of patients), and ChaiLink (individual tutors and Web cam-based connections between classrooms and homebound or hospitalized children).

One of the best things I heard, though, was a lot more mundane: They have a team of professional advocates who help parents navigate the complex bureaucracy of insurance coverage for serious and long-term illnesses. (That comes in handy when you have an insurance company that covers an electric wheelchair but won’t cover the electric wheels.)

I couldn’t leave without asking Grossman what it was like to spend so much of her waking hours dealing with seriously ill children and their families. Isn’t it draining? Isn’t there a burnout point, when it gets just a little too heavy?

“It’s the good news,” she says. “The little moments of joy, the recoveries, the smiles on the kids’ faces, the gratitude of the parents, the generosity of all the volunteers, all those things help.”

I thought of something else that probably helps: The unspoken gratitude any of us would have to be in the position of helping people with a life-threatening illness, rather than being the person needing that help.

When I brought that up, Grossman — all choked up again — just nodded quietly.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at

Honey cake, down on the farm

Off The Page

It is fall 1943, and David Nathan knows life has changed since the Nazis have taken over the streets of his beloved city of Copenhagen (that’s in Denmark):

Everyone is keeping secrets; David’s older sister, Rachel, sometimes doesn’t come home; and people are waiting for the Allies—the U.S. and Britain—to arrive to come to the rescue (they’ve heard horrible things are happening to the Jews of Europe). When David’s father, a baker who can no longer afford to use butter and cream, asks the boy to deliver a special order of chocolate éclairs, David’s life is forever changed.

“Honey Cake” by Joan Betty Stuchner, illustrated by Cynthia Nugent (Random House, $11.99), offers a lesson in friendship, bravery and courage. The story is a great one for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, because it talks about the choice each of us has between doing what is easy and doing what is right.

It also includes a recipe to make “Mama’s Honey Cake” and a short history of what happened to the Jews in Denmark. For ages 6-9.

Down on the Farm

” target=”_blank”>

One more time with nachas — gift that keeps on giving

Our boys have surprised us by some of the choices they have made, and while we might not have made the same choices for them, we are proud of their growing commitment to living wholly, and holy, Jewish lives.

Anyone who has planned a bar mitzvah can easily recall the stress of preparing for that milestone, not only for the boy who is constantly reminded to practice his parsha, but also for the mom who is usually behind the scenes, negotiating with the caterer, revising guest lists and hoping the balloons don’t drop too early in the evening. As a mom who has gone through her own case of pre- and post-bar mitzvah stress disorder three times, I hope to offer some comfort and reassurance that after all these efforts and antacids, the bar mitzvah anniversaries are a piece of cake.

That’s right, I said anniversaries. Don’t panic: These do not involve any ostentatious table centerpieces, party favors or the cha-cha slide. They only require an annual reprisal of the role of Torah reader, while the parents sit back and kvell. It only took a small bit of encouragement by my husband to convince each of our sons to agree to do this. Why not get our money’s worth out of all those lessons, after all? For us, this practice has made the original bar mitzvah an unexpected gift that keeps on giving.

Our sons are now 16, 18 and 20, and watching them step up to the bimah for their annual readings has given us major infusions of good old-fashioned Yiddishe nachas. Each year, we watch them stand a little taller, more confident in who they are, more firmly rooted as young men in the Jewish community. We are awed by their continued growth physically, spiritually and emotionally. And frankly, some years we are simply relieved that we have survived another year of their adolescence.

In our experience, the minute a boy becomes a bar mitzvah, he grows faster than bamboo. The growth seems unstoppable, even frightening. This makes the first anniversary, at 14, the most physically striking. Each boy required a much larger suit and impossibly larger shoes. Their faces were also losing any residual boyish plumpness. And none of us worried about a potentially embarrassing high note cracking through the baritone that had in one year settled in for the long run.

More than that, these anniversaries allow us to sit back and mark our sons’ personal achievements, as we quietly reflect on their singular paths to adulthood. While we have sent them to Orthodox Jewish schools for their entire lives, they have each made it clear that they are individuals and will make their own choices about the way in which they will manifest Jewish values in their own lives. Like all kids, they’re a little bit like Frank Sinatra, insisting they do it “my way.”

And like nearly all parents, we’ve endured the confusion, commotion and occasional turbulence of the teen years. We’ve worried about them, argued with them, lost sleep over them. We easily remember our own teen years and the aggravation we caused our parents, although our kids don’t seem to believe us when we tell them that we were once teenagers, too. (How could anyone remember such ancient history, like before the Internet was invented?) Despite their skepticism, we really do understand that they need to carve their own paths in life. Our job is to keep loving them, encouraging them and even disciplining them, while praying that they will find a comfortable and purposeful place in the world. We pray that they will hold our values dear, even if their adolescent psyches are wired to fight us from time to time.

Our boys have surprised us by some of the choices they have made, and while we might not have made the same choices for them, we are proud of their growing commitment to living wholly, and holy, Jewish lives. We do not alone take credit for this. Each has benefited from caring, committed and wise teachers who have helped them see the enduring truth of Judaism in a way that kids sometimes need to get from someone not named “Mom” or “Dad.”

Too often, the bar or bat mitzvah seems an end point or culmination of Jewish education. This is a profound loss, because teens absolutely must find ways to feel independent and distinct from their parents. Too often, they can get in trouble during that search, and this is exactly the time when they need to have their essential Jewish values anchored in place through ongoing involvement with Jewish education, values and community life.

We know we’ve been blessed with kids who have chosen to make Jewish values their own. In fact, because my husband and I came to Jewish observance only as young adults, our kids are light years ahead of us in Jewish knowledge. (Sometimes, I need to ask for translations during dinner discussions. Alas, my public high school didn’t offer Aramaic as a foreign language.) And I know our special anniversary “celebrations” won’t last forever, since kids have this maddening habit of growing up and moving away. So I have to savor these opportunities while I can, watching my young men stand up and lead the congregation, while I sit back and smile in gratitude and wonder.

Judy Gruen’s latest book is “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement.” Read more of her work at

You can’t be too involved in supporting your child

A while back, the president of my alma mater penned a scathing denunciation of pushy parents. Barnard College’s Judith R. Shapiro cited egregious examples — a mother who met with a dean to discuss her daughter’s research project and parents who don’t let their children get a word in edgewise on campus visits. Her op-ed joined in the media sport of haranguing “helicopter parents.”

While I saw Shapiro’s point, as a mother, I resented that she didn’t at the same time empathize with parents’ strong loving and protective feelings and our separation pangs as our fledglings go off to school. I wished she had addressed the well-meaning parent’s ever-present dilemma: How do you draw the line between supporting your child and inappropriately taking over?

Fortunately, there’s a huge body of psychological research to answer just this question, as I found when co-authoring, “Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids: Dealing With Competition While Raising a Successful Child” (Prometheus, 2008).

Thirty years of research, much of it conducted by my co-author, Clark University psychologist Wendy Grolnick, has found that the more parents are involved with their children — be they toddlers or teens — the better it is for their kids. In fact, you can’t be too involved with your child. A multitude of studies has found that the more support we give our children, the happier they are and the more they achieve. High parental involvement gives kids high self-esteem and helps them feel secure and solidly connected to us.

When Grolnick studied parents of elementary school children, for example, she found that the more involved mothers were with their children — that is, the more time they spent with their kids and the more they knew about what their children did, as well as their likes and dislikes — the better their children did on report cards and standardized achievement tests, and the fewer learning and behavior problems they had in school. The highly involved parents weren’t necessarily at home more than other parents, but when they were, they made sure to spend time with their children. They asked about their children’s school day, knew which subjects they enjoyed or didn’t and who their friends were.

There’s only one caveat to involvement: It’s wise to make sure you’re respecting your child’s autonomy at the same time.

But just how do you do that?

Let’s first define autonomy: Autonomy is the feeling of initiating an action. We want to solve our own problems whenever possible. That doesn’t mean doing whatever you want. Autonomy is simply a willingness to do something — the opposite of feeling controlled by someone else.

When children — in fact, all human beings — feel that what they do is self-initiated, they’re happier. And they perform better, because the enjoyment motivates them to study or practice more, building up their skills.

Think about your own experience. You might have to learn Excel for work, for example, but if you choose to learn it for tracking your family’s budget, you’re much more likely to enjoy it.

How can you make sure that your involvement isn’t intrusive or controlling?

Take your child’s point of view and acknowledge her feelings.

Say your 10-year-old isn’t doing his homework. You are thinking that studying will get him into a good college and a good job, but he’s reasoning, “It’s going to get dark soon. I want to have some fun now. I can do my homework later.”

You could take his point of view by trying to imagine, “If I were his age, what might I prefer doing right now — riding my bike outside or reading a chapter on coal production?” Then you can say, “I understand that it’s going to get dark soon. But tonight we’re going to Aunt Karen’s for dinner, so unfortunately, this is the only time to do your science homework.” What counts is acknowledging your child’s feelings. You want to convey “I’m with you.”

Support your child’s independent problem solving.

One of the best ways to support your child’s independent problem solving is to ask questions, as I did when my son, Zach, was making a pinhole camera for the middle school science fair. Instead of simply taking him to a store to get the cardboard box he needed, I asked him, “Where do you think we could find a big box?”

He looked befuddled. But after a minute he said, “I know — behind the store on Pico Boulevard where they sell refrigerators!”

“How could we make the pinhole?” I asked next — and so on.

Give your child choices.

Even a tiny degree of choice boosts a child’s feelings of autonomy. Sometimes it’s simply a question of your language. Studies have shown that words like have to, must, don’t and I want you to have a significant chilling effect on kids’ feelings of autonomy. Instead, you might try giving limits as information, including the reasoning behind the rule. So if your child is painting, you might say, “The materials need to be kept clean so you can keep using them for a long time,” or “To keep the paint clean, the brush needs to be washed before switching colors.” (I know this wording sounds awkward. But using the third person avoids phrases like, “I want you to” or “you must,” which can lead to a power struggle.)

As my own children have gotten older, I’ve found that phrases like “have you considered….?” or “do you think you might want to … ?” also do the trick.

Encouraging your child’s feelings of autonomy will help you stay involved without controlling him. That way you can stay close to your child without becoming one of those dreaded helicopter parents.

I wish my alma mater’s president had given at least a nod to the normal, strong and essentially healthy impulses to help our children when they fly from the nest, whether to preschool or to college. After all, the urge to protect is in our genes: Those hunter-gatherer kids whose parents watched over them best were the ones who survived. They became our ancestors, and we’re the modern recipients of their genes, hardwired to want our children to win whatever battles they may face.

Since our kids face an increasingly competitive world, it’s no wonder we get anxious and want to do all we can to support them.

Kathy Shenkin Seale, a writer living in Santa Monica, will discuss her book, “Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids: Dealing With Competition While Raising a Successful Child,” at Village Books in Pacific Palisades on Sept. 4, 7:30 p.m.

Back to school, Yiddish for kids

Back to School … Again

Hard to believe, but it is already time to go back to school. Where did the summer go?

As the new school year begins, there are some fun things to look forward to: For instance, have you gone shopping for new clothes yet? Did you get an awesome Batman or Zac Ephron folder? Are you excited to see your friends again? And just think: only a few more months until Thanksgiving!

Class Act

YeLAdim decided to register for classes, but something funny happened to the computer. Instead of listing the name of the class, it printed out clues that begin with the letter B. Can you help straighten things out before the bell rings? BR>

Classes: drama, English, Hebrew, history, lunch, math, physical education, typing, science

8:10-8:59: backspace 8:10-8:59:__________________
9:02-9:51: billions 9:02-9:51:__________________
9:54-10:43: bibliography 9:54-10:43:__________________
10:46-11:35: battles 10:46-11:35:__________________
11:38-12:27: bet 11:38-12:27:__________________
12:30-12:57: bread 12:30-12:57:__________________
1:00-1:49: basketball 1:00-1:49:__________________
1:52-2:41: beakers 1:52-2:41:__________________
2:44-3:33: backstage 2:44-3:33:__________________

Deep-Sea Schooltime

The learning continues … under the sea. On Tuesday, Sept. 16, the Aquarium of the Pacific offers a trip to a coral reef specifically for preschoolers. Learn about the amazing creatures that live there and the importance of the reef to the ocean ecosystem — not to mention that you get to see these animals for yourself and take home a colorful coral reef craft. $24 (per kid), $19 (for members) 2:30-4:30 p.m. 4- to 5-year-olds. For more information, call (562) 951-1630 or visit

Let the games begin!

Aug. 8 is the start of the XXIX Olympiad (just a fancy way of saying the 29th Summer Olympics) in Beijing, China. The games bring together athletes from more than 200 countries to compete for national glory and gold, silver and bronze medals — in a variety of sports (no, shopping is not one of them — I checked).
The opening ceremony will be shown on ” target=”_blank”>23rd annual Children’s Festival of the Arts. Kids of all ages will have the chance to enjoy music from Russia, Korea and India; eat yummy food; get their faces painted, and make really cute crafts they can take home. The folks at Paramount are playing host, which means you never know which famous faces will show up to play.

Free. Noon to 4:30. On the lot of Paramount Pictures, 5555 Melrose Ave., Hollywood (free parking at Bronson Gate). For more information, call (323) 871-2787.

Have We Got a Story for You with your first name, age and city — along with your opinion about gossip. One winner will be selected at random — but the runners-up will have their essays printed on an upcoming YeLAdim page.

Jewish identity defined — a la Facebook

Ora Weinbach is not satisfied with merely calling herself a Jew. Instead, the recent high school graduate strives to put the za za zoo back into her religious observance by being an “impassioned Jew” — a term she uses to define herself on Facebook.

As opposed to the generic “Jewish — Orthodox” listed under the majority of her friends’ profiles, she has created an entirely new category to express the fervor of her faith.

“Selecting Orthodox Judaism from a dropdown list, after Jehovah’s Witness and Jain, just didn’t seem as ‘ Wear it proud!’ as it should,” Weinbach said.

Facebook has become far more than a social network; it is a virtual social necessity.

Providing a do-it-yourself outlet for people to express their likes, dislikes and even their faith, the interactive platform allows users around the world to join together — whether on the newly available Facebook chat or in myriad groups that cater to almost any interest. The Jewish community, in particular, has created a haven for itself on this booming network, claiming hundreds of groups, applications and pieces of Jewish flair.

Beyond providing aesthetically appealing odds and ends for all its Jewish participants, Facebook — unlike MySpace or Friendster — hands over the reigns to developers by allowing them to create their own add-on applications.

Rabbi Moshe Plotkin, the head of the Chabad house at the State University of New York at New Paltz, is the creator of the popular Jewish Dates 2.0, which displays the current Hebrew date and a user’s Hebrew birthday. The application, like JewMeter and Jewish Gifts, is intended as a fun tool to help reinforce Jewish identity.

“I wanted to use every medium to bring Jewish culture closer to their father in Heaven,” Plotkin said.

Putting hundreds of hours into creating various “jewpplications,” developers like Plotkin are ensuring that Facebook is a means of inspiration, rather than just a tool for finding old friends and staying in touch.

Facebook groups can be found for almost any interest, and the selection for Jews extends from the serious, “We Are Still Here (Holocaust Memorial),” to the humorous, “I am a Victim of a Jewish Mother.”

For Zoe Jurkowski, a sophomore at YULA Girls High School and a member of several Jewish Facebook groups, the platform represents more than just sharing pictures and connecting with friends.

“When some show that they are proud of their religion, others are suddenly inspired to embrace it despite some social stigmas that might influence them not to,” she said.

Facebook has also become an asset for community organizers, such as Rabbi Effie Goldberg, the regional director of West Coast National Conference of Synagogue Youth. He uses Facebook as an opportunity to reach out to new members in a comfortable atmosphere where both he and his NCSY-ers can communicate about everything from upcoming events to the underlying goals of his organization.

“I have found through my experience in using Facebook and dealing with teenagers, that teens will go to the nth degree to express their Judaism,” he said. “Whether with a Hebrew letter or the Hebrew date on their page, each profile has a connection to their religious view. Teenagers want to stay together as a strong Jewish network.”


On Facebook, The Jewish Journal is “pretty Jewish.”

Be our friend, please!

Keep the youngest wedding guests happy — and keep your sanity

Some things go together like matzah balls and chicken soup; some don’t. And the wedding/kid combination traditionally falls into the latter category. After all, unlike the bar/bat mitzvah bash, which is generally a party designed with kids in mind, the wedding celebration has adult written all over it. Toss in a stressed-out bride, a drawn-out nuptial ceremony, imported caviar and free-flowing liquor, and you’ve got an event that’s about as kid-unfriendly as they come.

Nevertheless, the flower and ring bearer must march on. Not to mention that there are times when kids belong at the wedding. As in cases of second marriages and blended families (statistics show that in America alone, 1,300 new stepfamilies form daily), family obligations (it wouldn’t be nice to blow off your soon-to-be nieces and nephews, would it?) and out-of-town guest considerations (Cousin Howie and the gang came all the way from Florida to witness your big day. How could you ask him to deadbolt his kids in a claustrophobic hotel room with a rent-a-sitter for the night?).

Fortunately, it’s perfectly possible to welcome children at your wedding without compromising the sanctity of the event or the sanity of any involved parties. The following kid-friendly touches will help ensure your littlest guests remain happy and occupied throughout.

It’s in the Bag

Upon arrival, present children with a special wedding goody bag packed with items like crayons and coloring books and bride and groom paper dolls. Be sure to throw in some kid-friendly snacks like granola bars, raisins, and goldfish crackers to fend off any hunger-induced meltdowns during the ceremony.

Put Them to Work

Kids are amazingly capable of rising to the occasion — especially when they have an “important” job to do, like passing out wedding programs, manning the kippah station or ushering guests to their seats. And they needn’t clock out after the ceremony. At the beginning of the party, give each child a disposable camera labeled with his or her name and explain that they have been hired as a junior photographer. In doing so, you’ll not only keep little hands snapping and out of trouble, you’ll capture unique, child’s-eye-view imagery of your celebration that you wouldn’t otherwise have.

Make It a Happy Meal

Let’s face it. Your pint-sized guests have a bagel’s chance at a Passover seder of successfully sitting through a five-course meal made up of exclusively grown-up fare. So ask your caterer to set up a kiddie buffet line. Nothing extravagant — a no-frills table topped with carrot sticks and ranch dressing, chicken nuggets and french fries is all it will take to keep the younger set satisfied. (Happy Note: This strategy is liable to work in your favor from a cost-per-head standpoint, too.)

Set Up a Playspace

Off in the corner of the ballroom — or a nearby nook or cranny — create a makeshift kid-zone. Blocks, LEGOs, board games, Play-Doh, minimal-mess art supplies, even a couple of muted GameBoys will give jittery kiddies a welcome retreat from the adult-oriented wedding festivities.

Arrange a Mitzvah Station

Include in your playspace an area where kids can take part in an act of gemilut chasadim (lovingkindness). Put out papers, markers and stickers and let children make cheerful cards for patients at a local hospital, or have them pack care packages for American and Israeli troops. By orchestrating such mitzvoth you’ll cap the festive flair of the evening with some good old-fashioned Jewish values.

Work Magic

If you will have a significant number of children in attendance (and some extra funds in your budget), consider hiring a kid-friendly entertainer to work the crowd at the party. Magicians fit the bill nicely as they traditionally don black-tie attire that won’t clash with the decor while captivating the interest of children and adults alike.

Send Them Hunting

Keep kids constructively mingling with the crowd with a wedding guest scavenger hunt. Give each child a pencil and a list of descriptions, such as “a member of the bridal party” or “someone from Georgia,” and challenge them to collect signatures of guests who meet each criterion. Award prizes to successful searchers.

Hire “Camp Counselors”

Truth be told, even taking kid-friendly measures, such as those mentioned above, can’t ensure your littlest guests won’t stray into the lobby for a round of elevator races or — worse yet — into a crowded parking lot or hotel swimming pool. Keep your troops safe and under control, while giving their parents a welcome break, by hiring some trustworthy individuals to act as camp-style counselors at your event. These responsible parties should orchestrate games and activities in the kiddie corner, ensure children move smoothly through the buffet line and other child-friendly activities and put out fires caused by sibling spats and other munchkin meltdowns. (Hint: If you have a sizeable age span among children, assign one counselor to the older kids and another to the younger group.)

Wind Them Down With a Video

If your wedding celebration will last into the wee hours, arrange for your event facility to set up a television and DVD player in a nearby-but-out-of-earshot-of-the-party spot. As the bewitching hour draws near, have your counselors invite all of the children to watch a G-rated late-night flick. Supply pillows, blankets and a couple of bags of popcorn and — with a little luck and a well-chosen movie (nothing too peppy or scary) — your crowd will be crashed by the closing credits.

Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist, award-winning educator and mother of four. Her Jewish parenting book, “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah?” is now available everywhere.

The greatest gift of all — and Bunnies!

The Greatest Gift

On June 8, we will celebrate the festival of Shavuot. What is Shavuot?

Choose the words below that make the sentences correct, and then dazzle your friends with all you’ve learned.

  1. Shavuot marks the day we received the (phone book/Torah) at (Mount Sinai/the library). It is one of three (harvest/birthday) festivals.
  2. We count the (omer/animals) for (13/49) days starting on the second day of (Chanukah/Passover).
  3. Shavuot was also the first day on which people could bring the Bikkurim, or the first (fruits/chocolates) to the Temple in Jerusalem.
  4. It is popular to serve (salty/dairy) foods such as cheesecake and blintzes.
  5. We also read the story of (Ruth/Esther), because it talks of the barley and wheat harvest seasons, as well as her conversion to Judaism and acceptance of the (phone book/Torah).

Answers below

The Town That Bunnies Built

“Bunnytown,” the one of the newer

Special-needs athletes score in basketball program

“What happens next Coach Jeff?” Tali asked. She stood in her long skirt and T-shirt in the middle of the basketball court.

“Right now nothing,” Jeff Liss answered. “But we’ll figure something out just for you, Tali,” he added in a cheerful tone.

Tali Hill, 17, has been asking this question for several weeks now, knowing that the weekly basketball practices she looks forward to more than anything else will soon be coming to an end.

Tali, a vibrant girl, was born with cerebral palsy, which has significantly impaired her motor skills as well as her ability to hear and speak. She also has frequent seizures and is accompanied by a personal assistant at all times.

Yet despite these challenges, she stands out as one of the most enthusiastic participants in Special Macabees, a free basketball program for Jewish special-needs athletes that met every Sunday evening from 5:30-7 p.m. at the Westside Jewish Community Center.

The athletes range in age from 10 to 60, and their disabilities include autism, Down syndrome and seizures. They play in separate groups of males and females, and based on their abilities — which vary greatly — they work with coaches on basketball basics, such as dribbling, passing and shooting. Occasionally, the more skilled players get a game going.

“I have a kid who can dunk,” said Liss, who is founder as well as the heart and soul of Special Macabees.

Some athletes initially have trouble participating at all. “Joseph, who is now a star athlete and can shoot really well, couldn’t even throw the ball two years ago,” Liss said, pointing to a young man in a yarmulke. “He just kept repeating the same phrase, ‘I want to go to 7-11. I want to go to 7-11.'”

Liss had been volunteering with Special Olympics as a basketball and baseball coach for 15 years when he started Special Macabees in 2005, after realizing that observant Jewish athletes cannot participate in the better-established program because many of the practices and games are on Saturdays. Liss became observant more than a decade ago and had to scale back his own involvement in Special Olympics because he keeps Shabbat. He wanted to start a sports program in which every Jew could participate.

Two years ago, Liss started basketball practices with a handful of developmentally challenged boys and men. He chose basketball because it is easy to teach, requires little equipment and can be played with any number of athletes. Last year, due to scheduling conflicts at the JCC’s indoor gym, the program did not come together.

This year, however, Liss expanded Special Macabees to include women. He put up fliers at synagogues, JCCs, coffee houses and kosher restaurants. He advertised in newsletters and approached families to invite them to participate.

Practices began on Oct. 21 and were scheduled to continue for 10 weeks. Some Sundays, eight athletes showed up. At other times, the gym was near capacity with more than 30 excited players.

“If we have one person show up, it’s worth it,” Liss said.

The turnout was so great, thanks to the support from other Jewish organizations, such as Etta Israel, and discounted rates on the Westside JCC’s gym, and the response from the athletes and their families so positive, that Liss extended the program for five more weeks.

“When Tali wakes up Sunday morning, the first thing she talks about is basketball practice,” said Tali’s mother, Leah Hill, as she watched from the sidelines. “She likes being treated with respect, and that’s what she gets here.”

Tali is a senior at Bais Yakov. “She’s very aware of her disabilities — the differences between her and others,” Hill said. “Luckily, the girls in her school have been wonderful.”

This year has been particularly difficult, however, because her classmates are all talking about going away to seminaries when they graduate. Though Tali has been accepted to a seminary for special-needs girls in Israel, her mother is still debating whether she will send her.

“Yes!” Hill cried, her attention momentarily taken away by the action on the basketball court, where Tali had made a basket.

“I knew she would make that!” Hill said, smiling with delight. Tali high-fived a teammate.

“This is every parent’s dream: physical activity, fun, socializing. Jeff does this out of his own love for these kids. He’s just incredible. Where are his wings?”

Though many agencies provide resources for people with special needs, there is nothing else like Special Macabees in the Los Angeles Jewish community.

“We’re shomer Shabbos, and every activity we come across is on Saturdays,” Hill said. “I’m so grateful for this. I really hope it continues.”

Liss would love to run Special Macabees year round, but there are several reasons why that is not yet possible. Starting this month, Liss will be coaching Special Olympics every Monday night. Juggling the two programs isn’t possible for the recent father and full-time salesman.

Also, a year-round program would need a consistent number of athletes and volunteer coaches. Funding, of course, would have to increase as well to cover the cost of the gym and equipment.

But Liss would like to expand Special Macabees to include other sports and would like to see it grow into a national organization with an annual competition similar to the the Special Olympics and the Macabee Games.

The fledgling organization, which is currently in the process of applying for nonprofit status, has a long way to go before it reaches such goals, but though the season ends on Feb. 10, Liss is optimistic about the future.

“We’re going to grow,” he said confidently. “When you have something really good going, it just keeps growing. People want to be a part of it; they want to help, and it gets bigger and bigger.”

To sign up for next year’s Special Macabees program or for information on how to get involved, call Jay Davies at (818) 585-3257.