Koreatown fire destroys 2 homes, damages another; no injuries reported


A fire in Koreatown, at 173. S. Ardmore Avenue, on Friday afternoon caused serious damage to two homes and damage to a third home.

The cause of the fire was unknown as of press time.

There were no reported injuries, according to Los Angeles Fire Department West Bureau Commander Charles Butler, who appeared in a press conference as firefighters finished up extinguishing the flames.

The firefighting chief described the episode as “a two-story residential structure well involved in fire, exposing two additional residences. It took 43 minutes to knock the fire down. Almost 100 firefighters were on the scene controlling the fire. We had no victims. The reported cause is under investigation. We had reports of some kind of explosion we’re looking into right now.”

Firefighters responded to the scene at approximately 11:45 a.m., Butler said.

As firefighters stood on the roof of one home and hosed down the flames and billowing smoke, Marita Geraghty, a science teacher who was on on her way to work when she saw the fire and pulled over to see what was happening, said she feared a fire breaking out at her own home someday.

“This is my worst nightmare,” said Geraghty, a former actress (“Groundhog Day,” “Seinfeld”) and one of many people who crowded at the blocked-off corner of 2nd street and Ardmore avenue to watch firefighters combat the flames.

Others were there for business reasons, including Zack Galajyan, CEO of a Koreatown-based Servpro, a franchise that conducts cleanup of places affected by water and fire damage. He said he did not know what the cause of the fire could be but that an investigation was necessary.

“We’ll get there, it takes time,” he said. “At this point all you can do is fence it up and make sure no one is going inside.”

Another home burned in the fire. Photo by Ryan Torok

Los Angeles Fire department west bureau commander Charles Butler delivers press conference after the firefighters put out the fire, which damaged three homes. He said there were no victims and that the cause was under investigation. Photo by Ryan Torok

The view of the structure fire from the Jewish Journal office. Photo by Julie Bien

Homeless in Koreatown


You can’t knock on a tent, so I had to yell. I wanted to meet the people inside the blue tent and hear their story. I had seen several sidewalk tents on my way to the Jewish Journal offices in Koreatown, and the rain storm had made me especially curious about how the homeless were faring.

I told the man who answered that I worked at a newspaper and wanted to hear his story. The man, Gary Ellison, age 42, from Chicago, was lean and balding with brownish skin and strong features. His eyes were warm and friendly. He was definitely happy to see me.

Gary tried as best he could to untangle the entrance flaps to the tent. As I crouched awkwardly to enter, he put an old grey jacket on a sitting area so I’d be more comfortable. Behind another flap was a dark-haired woman sitting cross-legged on the ground, hugging a blanket. Her name was Cierra Bartholomew, age 23, also from Chicago. Cierra had large brown eyes, olive skin and a gentle demeanor. She had laid out Christmas lights on a little rug in front of her, which created an amber glow inside the tent. Behind her was her boyfriend, Rick Rock, who was sleeping.

The sound of rain falling became like background music to our conversation.

Gary was eager to talk. He was raised by his mother in Lemont, a suburb of Chicago. He didn’t know his Dad, meeting him for the first time when he was 12. “He never respected me as his son,” Gary said. The same was true for his younger brother, who only met the Dad when he was on his deathbed.

But Gary’s mother loved him dearly. He still speaks with her whenever he can. He pulled out a few old pictures of her and proudly showed them to me.

Gary is good with his hands. In his 20s, he made a decent living working on barges at Illinois Marine Towing, before a bar fight put his life on hold. A knife stabbing had severed his main artery and he underwent open heart surgery that incapacitated him for over a year.

He moved to Las Vegas in his 30s and worked as a mechanic. One night, at a 7-11, he met Karlina, a single mother of two. They fell in love and got married.

He made enough money to get an apartment and support his new wife and her kids. But he says “she ran around” on him. “I would wake up in the middle of the night and she was gone,” he said. “She broke my heart.”

With his heart broken, he left Vegas for Los Angeles about three years ago. Unable to find work, he entered a homeless shelter in Costa Mesa but had to leave because he says people would steal his things. “There’s bad stuff going on in shelters,” he told me. “I prefer the streets.”

But not all streets are created equal. Before moving to Koreatown about three months ago, he had pitched his tent at MacArthur Park, which he says wasn’t very safe. Thankfully, though, MacCarthur Park is where he met his future best friend, Cierra.

“We’re both from Chicago,” he said. “We understand each other.”

They consider their new location on New Hampshire Ave in Koreatown a blessing. “The Korean Consulate is right there,” Cierra said. “That keeps us safe.”

As far as the police goes, “If we respect them, they respect us,” she said. In fact, officers have come by occasionally to give them information about shelters and other places that might help them find more permanent housing.

For now, they’re banking on their old tent to protect them from the rain and the elements. It does a decent enough job. I got a little wet, but that’s because I was close to the entrance. Cierra, who was inside and bundled up, seemed reasonably cozy.

I asked them if they had any plans for the future. Cierra said she’d love to open a “dispensary” where she can lawfully sell medical marijuana. Gary would love to do carpentry or any other handy work. He dreams of building a house. He told me he has a Facebook page that he hopes will help him make connections so he can get back on his feet.

Cierra is reluctant to get into a shelter because she doesn’t want to be separated from Rick and Gary. Apparently, the three have built a strong friendship.

Before I left, Gary sang me a song he wrote, called “Homeless Man.” It’s about a homeless man looking for work, who's always dressed in a suit and tie.

Letters to the editor: Trevor Noah, Koreatown transportation, JFS and more


Golden Age of Expansion

I am a recently retired baby boomer who turned to Jewish Family Service’s Freda Mohr Multipurpose Center and Eichenbaum Fitness Center for reconnection to the Jewish community, which is aiding me into this life transition of retirement (“JFS Expands Its Own Heart in the Heart of L.A.,” April 3).

How excited I became after reading in the Jewish Journal of the generous, thoughtful lead gift the Gunthers, Lois and Richard, are contributing to our Jewish senior community. 

The Gunthers possess wisdom in recognizing the value a new building will have for our community on Fairfax Avenue. 

Thank you, and thank you again Mr. and Mrs. Gunther and Jewish Family Services, for we deserve to represent our growing Jewish senior population in a grand building. Many blessings.

Dakota Sands via email

More Listening, Less Talking

I’m a quiet-mouthed person. God gave us two ears and one mouth — the more to listen than to speak (“Let’s Leave Obama Out of Our Seders,” April 3). This is an excellent article with lots to think about. How about each of us has four children inside of us? We can be knowledgeable, arrogant and sometimes do not know how to ask. Maybe all of us, good and bad, have all these qualities.

Barbara N. Roff via jewishjournal.com

Comedy Conundrum

I watched Trevor Noah’s show on HBO and I found him very funny (“The Day After for Trevor Noah,” April 3). He was not politically correct, which made him funnier.

Ilbert Philips via jewishjournal.com

I believe he wouldn’t have gotten away with it if he weren’t part of a certain minority group, which he also disparages. Shame on you, Comedy Central.

Elizabeth Crawford via jewishjournal.com

Trevor Noah’s mom is biracial and Jewish. His father is Swiss, so most probably white. We don’t know any details. In apartheid South Africa, with that family composition, he must have had a bullying hard time, unless they had money and he went to a private school. His humor, if you can call it that, comes across somewhere between juvenile and sophomoric, like most tweets. I’m betting he’s insecure, not quite sure who he is or wants to be, and has layered on this obnoxious persona the same way he tried to acquire “Black American” lingo to impress the Apollo Theater audience. I wonder how that went over. They are tough customers.

Leona Rund Zions via jewishjournal.com

Hop on the Bus, Gus!

This is a terrific article and it’s wonderful that Joel Epstein included [Wilshire Boulevard] Temple’s investment in Koreatown as helping to enrich the communities that make up Los Angeles (“Stop Waiting for the Bus,” April 3). The temple is blessed to be on Wilshire Boulevard, which is well traversed by buses, and we’re especially excited to be equidistant between two subway stops (two blocks in either direction!) 

I think that today’s youth and young adults, in general, and Jewish youth and young adults as a subset, are becoming increasingly comfortable with the use of public transportation — especially if they have lived and gone to school or worked in cities where people have historically used buses, subways and trains. I see that trend among Jewish friends, family and neighbors and it gives me hope!

Karen Schetina via jewishjournal.com

Democracy or Dictatorship?

I work for La Opinion of Los Angeles. I and others here wonder why a Jewish publication would print a cartoonist’s vitriol on a regular basis of Israel’s democratically re-elected prime minister. Do you know if others at the Journal agree with Steve Greenberg’s vitriol toward Benjamin Netanyahu, and why? 

Raffi Padilla, LA Opinion

Our Children’s Keeper

I do believe what God did next — while at one time I would not have, I cannot help but believe now (“Pharaoh Said ‘No.’ You Won’t Believe What God Did Next.” April 3). And I agree that the Jews gave us much more than monotheism — God, through Jacob’s noble descendants, gave us the knowledge of the nature of God — that God isn’t an abstract, imperceptible power (though much about God is unknowable) but, according to Moses and the prophets, God is literally like us as we are in his image, and he continues to deal with us as his children.

John Zimmerman via jewishjournal.com

Correction

In the April 3 issue of the Jewish Journal, a photo caption in the Moving and Shaking section incorrectly spelled American Jewish Committee past President Fredrick S. Levin’s name. 

What Roy Choi can teach the Jews


I was sitting in Commissary, Roy Choi’s new restaurant on the pool deck of the Line Hotel in Koreatown, thinking about the secret of Choi’s success. 

It was my fourth time in the restaurant in the hotel Choi helped resurrect out of the dry bones of an abandoned Radisson.   

Choi transformed the place. He plopped down a giant fantasy of a greenhouse, filled it with rustic chic decor, and fashioned a menu that incorporates his beloved Korean ingredients with California, Mediterranean and Mexican flavors. The food is delicious; the place is always packed. These days, people even swim in the pool.

Choi revels in the hybridness, the mixed-ness of Los Angeles. Born in Seoul, he came of age in an L.A. that offered the tastes and sounds and colors of some 200 cultures, the most diverse city on the planet.

One fateful day, Choi combined the flavors of Korean barbecue with salsa roja on a soft tortilla, and the Kogi taco was born — and, along with it, the food truck craze that revolutionized American street food.

“There it was, Los Angeles on a plate,” he writes of that first Kogi taco in his new autobiography, “L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food.”  

“Maybe it wasn’t everyone’s L.A., but it was mine. It was Koreatown to Melrose to Alvarado to Venice to Crenshaw crumpled into one flavor and bundled up like a gift.”

How did he do it? Not just by blending but by standing out. And I’m not talking, of course, just about tacos.  

Last month, a new business and website launched, The Mash-Up Americans (mashupamericans.com), to celebrate the multiethnic, multicultural America and the fact that we’re not just meeting and mixing, we’re mating. Founded by Brooklynite Amy Choi (no relation) and Angeleno Rebecca Lehrer, the site reflects the reality that the fastest- growing category for race on the U.S. Census is “mixed.” The number of people who reported a mixed-race background grew by 32 percent — to 9 million — between 2000 and 2010. The single-race population increased by just 9.2 percent.

Amy Choi describes herself as a Korean-American married to a Colombian-Mexican-American, and as a mom to “a feisty Korombexican-American.” Lehrer is a self-described “Salvadoran-Jewish-American married to an American-American” — though her Salvadoran side is Jewish by way of Holocaust refugees. In any case, if their children don’t check the box marked “mixed,” the odds are their children’s children will.

“Increasingly,” Census official Nicholas Jones told Pew Research, “Americans are saying they cannot find themselves” on census forms.

Of course in the grand sweep of human evolution, mash-up makes the world go round. That’s why we Jews look more Belgian than Bedouin. Cossacks, Berbers, Templars and others splashed in our gene pool.  After all, is a Kogi taco all that different from a pastrami sandwich, which mashed together basturma, a dried meat that originated in Ottoman-era Turkey, with Eastern European rye?

None of this should surprise us, but it does pose a challenge. In an increasingly mashed-up world, how do we know what our roots are? How do we ground our children in an identity? How does “mashed” not become just “mush”?

Roy Choi has succeeded precisely because his work is founded in his Korean-ness. His embrace of his traditions, his flavors, is what made him unique — it’s what he brought to the party. 

Identity is, after all, not just a funny-sounding last name on a family tree. It is the things that name represents. Not just the foods people cooked, the stories they told, but most important, the values they lived by. What are the bedrock values that a strong Jewish identity brings to the mash-up? The ones that may get mixed but are too valuable to lose?  

This same week, I came across “Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Brief Guide for Seekers,” by Rabbi Arthur Green. At just 100 pages, it speaks to members of the Mashed-Up Generation whose attention span has been calibrated by BuzzFeed.

But Green is a serious scholar, a kabbalist, and he doesn’t reduce, he distills. He manages to deliver what for me is the essence of Jewish teaching, the key values that shape a Jewish identity.

They are: 1) Joy. 2) The fact that we are all created in God’s image. 3) The idea of halacha — walking after a divine path. 4) Tikkun olam — the desire to heal the world. 5) Shabbat. 6) Teshuvah — our capacity for change; 7) Torah — the wrestling with text. 8) Love of education. 9) The embrace of life and death. And finally, 10) The idea of one God, the unity of all things. (I think he missed humor, but no one’s interested in a Top 11 list.)

Many of these values are not unique to Judaism. But taken together, they are what being Jewish stands for — our stories and rituals convey them, our holidays and traditions elevate them. And while we will inevitably blend and mix and mash in the free market of American love and ideas, we need to cherish this identity, nurture it, and offer it to our children and to others, bundled up, as Roy Choi would say, like a gift. 


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

AJR-CA dedicates new campus


With Chanukah marking the rededication of the holy temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabees’ defeat of Judea’s Seleucid rulers more than 2,000 years ago, the week of the holiday turned out to be the perfect time for the Academy of Jewish Religion, California (AJR-CA) to celebrate the opening of its new campus in Koreatown. 

More than 150 people showed up Nov. 24 for a hanukat habayit (“dedication of the home”) party that marked a new beginning for the school, which moved from a location on the property of Hillel at UCLA to 3250 Wilshire Blvd. in September.

“It’s a dedication. Chanukah was a rededication of the temple, [and] here we had a rededication for the academy and its new space,” AJR-CA president Tamar Frankiel told the Journal.

Founded in 2000, AJR-CA is a transdemoninational, rabbinical, chaplaincy and cantorial school. It strives to be a part of the puzzle of a Jewish landscape that — according to the school — had previously left out community members interested in a career at the pulpit but who did not affiliate with any of the major movements. 

Attendees at the event, which took place just days before the first night of Chanukah, included Jewish, Muslim and Christian clergy. They came together on a rooftop courtyard at the seminary’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters to enjoy live music, food, guest speakers and more. 

Among the speakers were Frankiel; Imam Jihad Turk, president-designate of Bayan Claremont, an Islamic graduate school of Claremont Lincoln University; Rabbi Steven Leder, spiritual leader of Wilshire Boulevard Temple (WBT); and the Rev. David Jamir, senior pastor of Rosewood UMC Los Angeles.

AJR-CA, which is located one block west of Vermont Avenue, now sits within close distance of both WBT and Rosewood UMC, a Methodist church. This represents the diversity of the faith communities in the Koreatown area, Frankiel told the Journal.

Representatives of those institutions were among a “wide variety of people from across the community, old supporters, new supporters [and] alumni,” who turned out for the event, Frankiel said. 

There was plenty to celebrate. The event featured room-naming ceremonies for the 6,500-square-foot campus. Mezuzahs were installed, and attendees were treated to a tour of the campus artwork.

 “It was indeed a hanukat habayit,” AJR-CA co-founder Rabbi Stan Levy said in an e-mail to the Journal. “Perhaps not as momentous as the first Hanukkah of the [S]econd temple over 2,000 years ago, but in our own unique way part of the chain and fabric of Jewish religious history past, present and future.”

Academy for Jewish Religion moves to Koreatown


For the first time since the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA (AJR-CA), was founded 13 years ago, the pluralistic institution that trains rabbis, cantors and chaplains has its own space. The school moved from Westwood into the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles earlier this month.

“It just seemed like the right place, the right time, and that’s why we moved. And everyone is very excited about it,” said Tamar Frankiel, president of the transdenominational seminary.

With the move, AJR-CA has joined Bet Tzedek Legal Services and the Jewish Journal in an office building at 3250 Wilshire Blvd., near Vermont Avenue. The 6,500-square-foot space, which includes six classrooms, eight administrative offices, a library and a faculty lounge, is adjacent to a large outdoor terrace area shared by the building’s tenants.

Several factors prompted the move from Westwood, where the school outgrew the campus it had been sharing on the property of the Hillel at UCLA. The incoming AJR-CA class is 40 percent larger than the 2013 graduating class, Frankiel said.  

While Koreatown is not exactly thought of as a conventionally Jewish area, times are changing: an increasing number of Jews are living and praying in and around Koreatown, including with the recent reopening of the renovated Wilshire Boulevard Temple. 

None of this has been lost on Frankiel. 

“We like to think that we’re moving to an urban neighborhood, a neighborhood growing in terms of Jewish institutions and accessible to different Jewish populations,” she said.

Unfortunately, some among the school’s 65 students will have a longer commute than before, Frankiel said. But there’s always public transportation — the location is near the Wilshire-Vermont subway stop and several bus stops. 

Frankiel believes the positives outweigh the negatives.

“Everyone who has been there has been like, ‘Wow! This is so great.’ So I feel wonderful about it, and so does everyone who has come to see the space.”

Bet Tzedek conflict over employees’ health insurance


The chant coming from Bet Tzedek Legal Services employees and their supporters as they marched on the streets of Koreatown on Aug. 22 was unified: “All day, all night, health care is a human right.”

For the past several months, the employees have been fighting with the pro bono legal firm’s management over proposed increases to the cost of their employer-sponsored health care, and they have been hitting the streets to make themselves heard. 

“We’re here to tell Bet Tzedek that we can go forward, even during difficult [economic] times, without destroying [workers’ health care],” said Marc Bender, a litigation and training supervisor, while leading a picket line on Aug. 22. The demonstration took place outside of the office building at 3250 Wilshire Blvd., where Bet Tzedek’s offices are located. Employees also demonstrated Sept. 11 in the same location. They marched and carried picket signs that read: “Don’t Bleed Our Health Care,” “Protect Our Families” and “Si, Se Puede!” (“Yes, We Can!”). 

Bet Tzedek (“House of Justice”) provides services to the poor and underserved in Los Angeles. Lawyers, legal secretaries, paralegals and clerical workers, who make up its 51 non-managerial employees, are unionized members of Bet Tzedek Legal Services Union/American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 946. 

The two sides began disagreeing over health insurance costs in the spring, several months after employees’ previous contract expired on Dec. 31, 2012. Management and employees have agreed to extend the terms of the previous contract while they negotiate, said Elissa Barrett, vice president and general counsel at the nonprofit. 

Bet Tzedek employees expressed satisfaction with the existing amount they have to pay toward their health care premiums. Currently, employees are fully covered as individals, and are required to pay $20 monthly for a spouse or $30 monthly for a family, if they choose HMO coverage. Juana Mijares, an intake supervisor, earns $49,000 annually  and said coverage for her family of five could cost her $650 monthly under a proposal she said the company is making. 

Barrett declined to specify the details of management’s proposals. “That’s a subject of negotiation,” she said. 

Increases to staff members’ contributions to their health care are necessary for the financial health of the organization, according to Barrett. Health care costs have been increasing over the past several years, leaving Bet Tzedek no choice but to pass a greater portion of the costs of insurance on to to its employees

“Our staff works very hard, they do a fantastic job, we value them greatly, [but] if we did not believe it was necessary for the survival and sustainability of this organization to tackle this health care issue, we wouldn’t be bringing it this strongly to the negotiating table,” she said.

The midweek August protest took place after work hours. Approximately 35 people marched at Wilshire Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue. Among them was L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz.

The ongoing disagreement between employees and management has attracted the attention of leaders in the local social justice moment. Those who turned out last month included Leslie Gersicoff, executive director of Jewish Labor Committee Western Region, and Rabbi Jonathan Klein, executive director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice.

Meanwhile, Barrett told the Journal that the employees’ side has “refused to engage, refused to negotiate,” despite Bet Tzedek management offering three different proposals regarding employees’ health care premiums.

“I remain stubbornly hopeful that we will be able to get down to business at the bargaining table and see if there is a solution that we can all live with,” she said.

Arrest made following Wilshire Boulevard Temple bomb scare, vandalism


A naturalized citizen from South Korea was arraigned today on charges related to the numerous bomb threats made Dec. 18 against Wilshire Boulevard Temple (WBT) in Koreatown and a police squad car parked adjacent to its campus, according to the Los Angeles Police Department.

Wan Ryung Song, also known as Patrick Song, 46, was charged with four counts of making a bomb threat in addition to one count of vandalism at a house of worship and one count of a hate crime. Investigators believe that he was responsible for vandalizing the synagogue with a swastika and anti-Semitic rant on Dec. 6, a police statement says.

No evidence was found of any explosives despite phone calls reporting multiple bomb threats. Detectives determined that the calls were made from a pay phone at a nearby health spa where Song was a registered member.

[RELATED: 

BREAKING: LAPD investigating bomb threat near Wilshire Boulevard Temple


[UPDATE: 5:00 pm] ” target=”_blank”>Wilshire Blvd. Temple target of bomb threats

[UPDATE: 2:45 pm] “[The vehicle] was rendered safe. No device was found in or around the vehicle,” said police spokesman Sgt. Rudy Lopez.

The investigation is ongoing as LAPD seeks to identify who placed the bomb threat early this morning. There are “minimal leads,” Lopez said.

The LAPD BatCat vehicle, with the squad car held midair on its lifting mechanism, will remain near the intersection of Wilshire Blvd. and Harvard Blvd. for approximately another hour, Lopez said.

Most of the streets around Wilshire Blvd. Temple have reopened. 

[UPDATE: 2:10 pm] The squad car under investigation was moved by the LAPD BatCat vehicle.

[UPDATE: 1:50 pm] LAPD officer has approached the squad car and is inspecting the vehicle.

[UPDATE: 1:30 pm] Loud boom as the trunk of the squad car flew open. LAPD Robot inspecting vehicle.

[UPDATE 1:00 pm] ” target=”_blank”>KTLA 5

[UPDATE 12:06 pm] An LAPD BatCat unit has now deployed by the suspicious LAPD squad car outside Wilshire Blvd. Temple in mid-Wilshire.  The black fire engine-sized vehicle is using a front fork to lift the LAPD vehicle.

[UPDATE 11:30 am] Bomb squad robot has removed an object from underneath the LAPD squad car near Wilshire Blvd. Temple.

[UPDATE 11:19 am]  A loud bang as the LAPD robotics unit shot out the windows of the LAPD squad car suspected of harboring an explosive device.  LAPD canine  units are now being deployed to search for any “secondary threats,” according to Sgt. Rudy Lopez.  A robotics team is still investigating the LAPD car parked on Harvard St. between 6th and Wilshire Blvd

[UPDATE 11:00 am] The robotic unit is now moving toward the police car that LAPD suspect of harboring an explosive device.

[10:15 am] LAPD units on the scene at Wilshire Blvd. Temple‘s Koreatown synagogue are deploying bomb disposal units and robotic devices “to assess the situation” following a series of three bomb threats.

Wilshire TempleWilshire Blvd. Temple which received a bomb threat early in the morning on Dec. 18. Photo by Lynn Pelkey

Police spokesman Sgt. Rudy Lopez told the Jewish Journal at 10:15 a.m. the investigation should take about two hours.

At 2 a.m. a caller to LAPD headquarters claimed to have planted an explosive device on the grounds of the temple, one of Los Angeles’s largest. An initial search failed to turn up anything suspicious.

[Follow

Wilshire Boulevard Temple target of bomb threats


UPDATE (DEC. 20):  [TIMELINE: Wilshire Boulevard Temple was being investigated following several bomb threats on Dec. 18. Photo by Lynn Pelkey

No one was in the building during the police investigation, according to a statement WBT released in the late morning, while police efforts were still under way.

Cory Wenter, the congregation’s director of safety and security, explained that following the 2 a.m. call, the temple used its mass notification system to cancel all activities. WBT has a nursery school, elementary school and a charter school, Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, operating at the campus, totaling about 600 students in all, he said.

As for the temple’s West L.A. campus at Olympic Boulevard and Barrington Avenue, Wenter said life continued as normal.

[MORE: ” target=”_blank”>Ryan Torok contributed to this article.

Why counting counts: Who knows who L.A.’s Jews are?


Susan Goldberg, rabbi of Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, grew up in nearby Echo Park.

“There were no Jewish families around when I was growing up,” Goldberg, 38, said. Now that these neighborhoods are being gentrified, and a young, creative crowd is moving in, the Jews are coming, too.

Some five years ago, Temple Beth Israel, a nearly 90-year-old congregation, counted 30 individual members. Today, she said, “We’re bursting at the seams with young families, parents in their 30s and 40s who are living here, in Mount Washington, in Highland Park, in Eagle Rock,” Goldberg said.

But for all the anecdotal evidence that Jews are moving eastward, no one knows exactly how many Jews comprise this trend.

“We know they’re out there, because when we have events, they come,” Goldberg said. “But it would be so, so tremendously helpful to know where they are, who they are, how many there are.”

Los Angeles hasn’t done a Jewish community survey since 1997, and with nothing concrete in the works, organizations are “flying blind,” in the words of one demographer.

“No other large Jewish community has been without a study for such a long period of time,” said Jacob Ukeles, president of Ukeles Associates Inc., a firm that helped conduct New York’s recently released survey.

And that can have serious implications for how effectively a community responds to needs.

“We need to know who lives where, what they do Jewishly, what diversity exists among Jews, what needs they have, what resources they have and what they think on a variety of issues,” said Sarah Bunin Benor, associate professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles. “That’s my take on it, from the perspective of somebody who wants to help Jews have a better life.”

Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said conducting such a study is “rising to the top of our agenda.”

“We really need to do it. We know we need to do it, and I believe we will do it. We have to figure out the resources and how we’re going to pay for it,” Sanderson said in an interview.

A study of Los Angeles’ Jews, who are believed to number between 500,000 and 600,000, would likely cost somewhere around $1 million. In most cities with large and medium-sized Jewish populations, Federation pays for a survey once a decade. Los Angeles conducted community surveys in 1950, 1958, 1968, 1979 and 1997.

When Sanderson took office in 2010, no study was in the pipeline, and he said he had initially hoped to launch one quickly. But as the impact of the recession became more severe, Sanderson said, funds continued to be redirected to such programs as the Emergency Cash Grants, which has provided more than $2.6 million in relief to 5,350 recipients since 2009.

“Now, with everything we’re doing, we’re still trying to put a survey on the front burner,” Sanderson said.

Federation hopes to launch the process in the next year, Sanderson said — if he can figure out where the money will come from.

But the more time that goes by without a survey, the less efficiently the community is spending its dollars, demographers say.

“If you have a Federation that says they are the planning body of the community, where are they getting their information?” asked Pini Herman, a principal at Phillips and Herman Demographic Research. Herman was the L.A. Federation’s research coordinator for the 1997 survey; he has also worked on surveys in San Francisco, Houston and Seattle.

“The longer you don’t have a survey, the more you have to guess, and basically you’re snatching ideas and data out of thin air. And without any community study, there is no way to confirm or refute what they say,” Herman said.

Community leaders say they are eager to have current data.

“Synagogues call all the time, wanting to know where the Jews are moving. Are they moving into our area? Out of our area? Are we losing members because Jews are leaving this area, or for some other reason?” said Bruce Phillips, a principal, with Pini Herman, at Phillips and Herman Demographic Research and a professor of sociology and Jewish communal studies at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. Phillips has conducted or published research on more than 20 Jewish community surveys.

Other questions in Los Angeles also need answering. How many Iranian Jews live here, and what is there economic profile? Their Jewish identity? Their integration patterns?

What areas are people moving to and away from? Are nearby cities that are experiencing growth, such as San Francisco, Phoenix and Las Vegas, doing so at the expense of Los Angeles, or along with Los Angeles? How many French and Latin American Jews have moved into the area, and are they being served? Has the Orthodox population increased, and if so, in what sectors?

Anecdotal evidence about subpopulations can be deceiving, Phillips said, as it’s easier to count visible Jews who are frequent users of community resources — for instance, the Orthodox, or immigrant populations. The unaffiliated are more likely to go undetected if you rely on visibility or data from Jewish organizations.

A topic open to debate is how many Israelis are in Los Angeles. While some estimate there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis in Los Angeles, Herman says his own research points to a number closer to a maximum of 25,000, a figure corroborated by the official Israeli count of how many people have left their country.

The Los Angeles Jewish population, once concentrated on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley, is migrating toward the East Side and north to areas such as the Conejo, Santa Clarita and Simi Valleys.

Several organizations are investing both money and resources in the East Side, including Federation, which has funded a new staff person at East Side Jews, a nondenominational Jewish community that has attracted hundreds of young, hip Jews to its irreverent monthly holiday celebrations and social events. East Side Jews recently became part of the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, an organization that is on a short list to receive significant Federation funding for a renovation and expansion project.

At the same time, Temple Beth Israel’s Goldberg said, Jews in the area remain underserved. When she needs to refer people for social services, she is often told that Jewish agencies don’t extend out to her part of town. In addition to leading Temple Beth Israel, Goldberg serves as rabbi-in-residence for East Side Jews, a position co-supported by Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which is also interested in being part of the East Side Jewish renaissance.

Indeed, Wilshire Boulevard Temple is in the middle of a $150 million project to restore and revitalize its historic sanctuary and campus in Koreatown. Before embarking on that project, the congregation commissioned its own demographic study of the area — roughly from West Hollywood on the west to Eagle Rock and Pasadena on the East, stretching from Adams Boulevard on the South up to Studio City and Glendale.

“I intuitively felt that young Jews were moving eastward, but intuition is not always right,” Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Rabbi Steven Leder said.

Their study, which cost them about $25,000, found around 30 percent growth in the area over the last 10 years, with the most significant increases in the population of childbearing and -rearing age. That information convinced the synagogue’s leadership to buy up the rest of their square block to make room for more parking, an expanded day school, religious school and social service center.

Having data has also made it easier to approach donors, Leder said.

“It’s important to know that there is hard data to support your assumptions when you’re trying to raise money,” he said.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s study was based on Jewish surnames in voter registration listings — a method that may have left out Jews who have a non-Jewish parent or who are married to non-Jews, a population that, anecdotally at least, accounts for much of the growth on the East Side.

Q&A: Making a book out of making himself a man


Joel Stein throws himself into things. I know this personally, because he threw himself into making me eggplant parmesan the week my son was born. He and his lovely wife delivered it personally, with bread and wine, braving the dangers and dog barks of Koreatown to feed two hungry, tired new parents.

I’m not just bragging about my friend cooking for me. This has a point, I swear.

He knew what we were going through, having just had a baby boy, Laszlo, months earlier. Stein, whom you may know as the humor columnist for Time magazine or as a charming talking head from many basic cable countdown shows, can cook. He can do lots of girlie things, like empathize. The question he asked himself when he became the father of a boy was, could he teach this kid to be a man? He wrote “Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity” (Grand Central Publishing, releasing on May 15: $26.99) to find out for himself. I asked him some questions and pretended I didn’t know the answers.

TERESA STRASSER: Describe your reaction when the doctor pointed out that the smudge on the ultrasound was actually a penis and that you were about to have a son.
JOEL STEIN: I freaked out. I was sure I didn’t care what the gender was, and if pressed, I would have said that I feared I might prefer at boy, but it turns out I hate boys. Which I should have known from having all female friends as a kid. Boys push and yell and want to go in the woods and throw balls and have way too much energy. There was a moment after that first ultrasound penis spotting when the more detailed 3-D ultrasound seemed to indicate our baby was a girl, and then my wife, Cassandra, freaked out about body image and eating disorders and being a bad role model. I felt vindicated. Then, a few weeks later, we saw the damn penis again.
 
TS: Tell me about your quest to confront your own personal sense of wimpiness.
JS: I figured if I could at least learn how to camp, fight, throw a baseball, watch football and shoot a gun, I could do those things with my son if he wanted, and he wouldn’t have to do those things with some coach or friend’s dad. Those guys are always creepy. I didn’t have time to really learn all those things, so — to at least get over my fear — I did some immersion therapy by trying the extreme versions. I did three days of boot camp with a troop at Fort Knox and fired a tank; I went around with UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture; I got a day trader to give me $100,000 to trade for a day. That last one was kind of Jewish. And the baseball player was Major League Baseball All-Star Shawn Green, also a Jew. And this sergeant I trained with at the Marines turned out to be Jewish. As well as the race-car driving, ex-Navy SEAL, CEO of Patrón who let me work on his pit crew. There are a lot of secret Jews in the world of manliness.
 
TS: Were there any stereotypically “manly” challenges from which you were truly tempted to back out at the last second?
JS: I really dreaded boot camp. I was so freaked out, I didn’t sleep the night before, and three hours into my training, before I did any physical activity — mind you it was hot, and I hadn’t eaten, and I locked my knees — I fainted for the first time in my life. Into the arms of soldiers. I also nearly backed out of the Randy Couture fight, largely because the training the day before, when UFC President Dana White — definitely not a Jew — had me choked out, really messed me up. I couldn’t swallow my own spit that night.
 
TS: How did your cultural background play into your sense of gender identity? Wait, that sounded very graduate thesis. What I mean is: People think of Jewish guys as bookish and non-athletic, which may be totally unfair. What do you make of being more Woody Allen than Sandy Koufax? Do you blame the Jews?
JS: At first I totally blamed the Jews. Since the book is, basically, “A Jew Goes South.” Look at me try to hunt and fish and fight and camp. There is a very Southern Scotch-Irish, rage-fueled, outdoorsman manliness that is the American manliness, compared to a stiff-upper-lip repressed British manliness, for instance. But my dad is very manly. He’s the kind of manly that Larry David has reminded America of. The kind who thrives on confrontation. Al Franken has it. Mamet has it. I don’t have it. But enough Jews — even outside of Chicago and Israel — do, so I can only blame my wimpiness on myself.
 
TS: Your son is almost 3 years old. What is he like these days?
JS: Are you pretending you don’t know my son? Is that some objectivity thing they teach in journalism school?* He’s all man on the outside: He’s obsessed with trains and cars, collects sticks, likes to use tools. But he’s a total wimp. He’s so clingy, my wife calls him a helicopter kid. He cries if I leave the room. Until very recently, he freaked out at toys that light up or make noise. He gets pushed around on the playground and doesn’t push back. He’s definitely my son.
* (Writer’s note: embarrassing)

TS: How did having a son change your relationship with your own father?
JS: I already appreciated so much of what he did — not just his generosity and patience, but also how he made me feel safe enough to take challenges. But writing the book made me realize that he not only accepted but also was proud of me for being so different from him. He didn’t care that I was a wimp. Also, having a son made me realize that previous generations of men — even men in a liberal town in the most liberal period in America — didn’t do a lot of baby taking care of.
 
TS: Of all the “manly” things you tried, did you ever stop and think, “Yes, I totally have a knack for this. I’m a natural.”?
JS: Absolutely not.


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 ExploitingMyBaby.com.

Ask the Rabbi


It’s late on Sunday evening at KFI 640 AM’s &’9;Koreatown station, and within the confines of an overly bright fluorescent-lit radio booth, a tall man with Phil Donahue-white hair and a scraggly reddish beard worthy of the Norse god Thor sits alone at the mike.

Dressed in dependable Chabad wear — white dress shirt, black slacks, yarmulke and tzizit hanging out — Rabbi Chaim Mentz is an unexpected voice, booming out of the radio in a heavy Brooklyn accent.

"You got questions, I got answers!" Mentz enthuses in a gravelly voice.

Mentz, or "the Rabbi," as his listeners fondly address him, also raises questions, every Saturday and Sunday night, when he conducts something of a live farbrengen, minus the Absolut Vodka. With a spritz of humor and little egotistical radio jock pretension, he tackles some serious issues.

"Who are our friends in the Middle East?" he asks his callers. After the commercial break, he ups the ante: "Give me four names of countries in the Middle East helping us."

Merv from Los Angeles starts listing countries: "Israel, Egypt, Iran… "

"Iran!" responds Mentz. "I don’t know what world you’re living in where Iran is your friend!"

"Israel," states a woman caller. With disgust, she then sizes up her view of the U.S. coalition with several Arab nations: "They’ve been taking our money and spitting in our face. They won’t help their own people."

Which is exactly where Mentz wants the conversation to go. "America has been giving billions to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and they’ve done nothing," he says on the air. "When you’re not letting us bring soldiers to your land, you’re helping bin Laden."

Notice how Mentz himself has not mentioned the word "Israel" once during the show.

It’s all a delicate balance. Look around the recording booth, and you will find Sunday’s newspaper, an Osama bin Laden "Wanted" poster; but you will not find a soapbox — it’s just not the rabbi’s style. His style can be summed up in a word that is also a place, a state of mind: Brooklyn.

The Crown Heights-raised rabbi is a follower of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whose practical wisdom informs the way Mentz dissects moral ambiguities.

Mentz’s discourse comes wrapped in that jocular, boisterous bluntness common to his native borough. At times, he becomes theatrical, as only a New Yorker can, singing along with the patriotic tunes on his bumper music or reminding listeners, "We can’t forget Sept. 11."

"I’m just here to shed light," Mentz told The Journal in his thick Big Apple accent.

Leading? Manipulative? Perhaps, perhaps not. What is certain is that Mentz’s humor-leavened backdoor approach makes for compelling radio. Take the way Mentz addresses the anthrax panic and the accompanying 24/7 news, both of which he believes are overblown.

THE RABBI: "We had a scare over here at KFI. A little coffee powder, and they’re calling the FBI."

PHIL FROM DOWNEY: "Fear is a very natural emotion. Fear is what keeps people alive. I’m glad they evacuated Congress. I wouldn’t want 500 dead congressmen."

THE RABBI: "You don’t see anyone panicking over breast cancer or food poisoning, and more people die from that. This is exactly what the terrorists want from us. Their whole realm is negative."

AMY FROM WHITTIER: "I’m wondering if I’m weird. I’m not afraid at all. My husband and I are going out to help stimulate the economy."

THE RABBI: "Take it with a grain of salt, and just be careful."

Mentz’s gregariousness is evident in the way he kibbitzes with colleagues at the studio between segments. On this Sunday night in October, Mentz is in especially good spirits — earlier, his beloved Yankees defeated the Seattle Mariners. He can barely contain himself on the air, and during the breaks he banters with other KFI alpha males the way sports-lovin’ men do, in that nearly foreign, mile-a-minute dialect of numbers, surnames and nicknames.

Mentz later remarks how at home he feels at the radio station. When throwing parties, his co-workers will often pick up a cake from Schwartz’s Bakery for him.

"Even if the food isn’t kosher, they invite me down because they just want me to be there," Mentz says, beaming.

The rabbi’s salt-of-the-Earth style has endeared him also to high-profile people. Laura Bush has conversed with him on several occasions. Mentz has also interviewed Hadassah Lieberman, the then-vice-presidential candidate’s wife, and discussed the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s attempt to negotiate with the Taliban with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News Channel’s highest-rated program "The O’Reilly Factor." According to Mentz, Vice President Dick Cheney’s camp contacted him to schedule an interview after the rabbi’s conversations with the first lady.

Mentz once reported from a rave to expound on the values of American children today. As DJs pumped two-step beats by techno groups like Propellerheads, Mentz interviewed a handful of the 15,000 revelers, some of whom were high on Ecstasy.

"I was easily the oldest person there," he reports.

Mentz, 42, lives in Bel-Air with his wife, Charna, and their five children, ages 4 to 13. Since 1985, Mentz has led Chabad of Bel Air services at his home. KFI notwithstanding, Mentz’s only previous broadcasting experience was "Basic Judaism," a public access show he hosted on Century Cable in the early 1980s.

"I built my synagogue through that show," Mentz says.

In his two years at KFI, he has received only eight pieces of hate mail: two from gentiles; six from older, secular Jews who felt that Mentz sounded "too Jewish." Which amused Mentz, because it is his very ethnic appeal that attracts much of his younger Jewish audience.

But Mentz estimates that the bulk of his listeners are non-Jews, such as those who greet him with an Anglo-twanged "Shalom, Rabbi!"

It’s about 11:30 p.m. Mentz tells listeners about his recent brush with a Muslim man at a Ralphs supermarket who inquired which synagogue Mentz led. Mentz fibbed, telling the stranger that he did not belong to a congregation. The rabbi begs his audience to judge him — did he do the right thing? Once again, by presenting a micro-scenario, KFI’s rabbi has snuck his listeners into a wider discussion: in this case, racial profiling.

TRICIA FROM L.A.: "You did the right thing. If that happens again, you should ask, ‘Why do you want to know? Do you plan to convert or to bomb me?’"

THE RABBI: "We live in a very strange time. Thanks for your call."

TRICIA FROM L.A.: "I love you, Rabbi."

Catch Rabbi Chaim Mentz on KFI 690 AM Saturdays, midnight-3 a.m.; and Sundays, 10 p.m.-midnight.

Finding Our Place


My daughter and I were driving through Koreatown again. Five years had passed since the first Rodney King verdict, since the riots, since the day we’d first driven these same streets, with their smoldering buildings and the militia standing guard. She noted every new building and every lot that remained vacant.

“It couldn’t all have been about Rodney King,” she said, noticing that the street signs change from Korean to Spanish.

Of course not. At 15, she’s better able to understand the concept of precipitating causes. But if I can explain the lack of justice, jobs and hope that led to the worst rioting in Los Angeles history, I have a harder time clarifying what has happened since. Anger, bitterness and ethnic separation have only increased.

What part has the Jewish community played in all this? For most of us, the riots have become part of the background, soon to be joined by fires, earthquakes and even O.J. We have moved on. Like the jacaranda tree, blooming again this spring, our sense of civic life has returned. A few weeks ago, I joined a crowd at the downtown library to hear a theatrical reading. New members are flooding to Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Koreatown, even before the new religious school opens on the Westside in the fall. The beauty of Southern California once again seems overpowering, and we are glad to be here.

In the early post-riot days, people spoke casually about two revolutionary ideas: purchasing guns and moving out of town. A kind of wild-west ecstasy overtook us, in which the future was perceived as either siege or isolation. We hatched dark plots for our own salvation. The new movie “Volcano” strikes me as arriving a bit too late to completely capture this barricaded anti-Los Angeles mentality. By now, one natural disaster can’t shake us.

Instead, I am struck these days by how people are settling in. Book clubs and gardening are the big business now. At Passover this year, friends brought over their home-grown irises and roses and debated over which was the more beautiful. Dueling pistils at dawn.

When I consider what has happened to the Jewish community since Los Angeles erupted five years ago, it is the sense of retrenchment, joined by detachment, that I see. We are here to stay, but not many of us are sure what, in the matter of civic activism, our role should be.

Jewish activists took a beating in the post-riot analysis. Though we were not to blame for the riots, and (unlike the Watts fires 27 years before) were not a target of the civic rage, a verbal berating nevertheless came our way. We were criticized for our isolation, arrogance and self-absorption. And, in those first months after April 1992, we redoubled our efforts, joining task forces, building bridges, joining an endless number of coalitions. Still, we were accused of turning inward, and took the blame for the breakdown in the black-Jewish dialogue, as well as for the stillborn connections with Latinos or Asians.

But looking back now, I wonder if we Jews haven’t made ourselves too liable. We cannot create dialogue on our own. We cannot sit alone at a table and concoct jobs or a political agenda where there are no coalitions. So, while certainly we cannot be satisfied with the moribund status of politics, education and civic leadership in this city, it’s time to acknowledge that at least we stayed the course. In times of upheaval, there is value in merely staying put.

I realize that this is not the common interpretation of what’s occurred. Most commentators look at the Jewish demographic shift from the city to Ventura as an escape from Los Angeles. They accuse us of fleeing the riots, racial chaos and municipal disintegration. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, in particular, is even now accused of leaving town, although its membership had left Koreatown a decade before it broke ground on its Westside campus at Olympic and Barrington.

But if the riots were the final straw, we have to see that this westward and northern shift is a statement not of despair but of hope.

I know something about fleeing. When I graduated college, I joined half my class in a move across the country, from the East Coast to the West. Part rebellion, part pioneering effort, that 1970s shift instinctively recognized that New York was finished and that Los Angeles was the true land of opportunity. We left behind our families and history and made haste for something new.

The same motivations do not apply to today’s young families. For one thing, they’re moving only 40 miles away. And if they’re moving out for cheaper housing and better schools, they’re still staying as close to home as they can get.

A young lawyer recently told me that his dream, once he got married, was to buy his grandmother’s home. If he couldn’t afford that, he’d probably do the next best thing and move to Agoura.

Agoura and its booming neighbors, Westlake and Thousand Oaks, are attractive to Jewish couples who want what Los Angeles has to offer — a strong cultural base and a lot of open space. Rather than rejecting their families and their personal histories, they are voting to extend it, putting down roots and staying involved. And they’re bringing Jewish life with them. Heschel West Jewish day school has expanded so fast that it will soon be seeking permanent quarters and plans to build a high school as well.

This move west reminds me of New York after World War II, when the grandparents stayed in the city while young families moved to Long Island and Westchester. It was arguably the healthiest period of Jewish-community development in the 20th century.

Have these Jews opted out of civic life? There is no evidence for it. Jews still dominate the political, cultural and even the economic scene wherever they move. Where there is a board, we are on it. Where there is no leader…as the Talmud said, we are the leaders. Every ethnic group capable of leaving the inner city has done so. Only the Jewish community sees mobility as having a dark side. I am not sure we deserve the rap — not yet.

Los Angeles deserves better than what the past five years have given us. But there is a future here, and we are part of it.


Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address us wvoice@aol.com.