The Hollywood treatment


“Fundamentally, your job is not that different from my job,” screenwriter Alex Litvak told a room full of rabbis assembled at American Jewish University for the annual High Holy Days conference sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

While most of the 165 attendees were off attending sermon workshops on topics ranging from social media to Mussar, about 20 opted to touch-up their Torah with insights from film and TV. Rabbi Jon Hanish from Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills began the session by asking a panel of eight Hollywood writers what was on their minds this year.

“Why am I here?” one said. “Materialism,” another said. “Political and social divisiveness,” a third added. 

It was a fun but unorthodox match, bringing Hollywood currency to holy categories. 

“I’d want to know what King David’s approval rating would be in the digital age,” said Seth Kurland, a sitcom writer and producer best known for his work on “Friends.” “You think of him probably as courageous and compassionate, but he kills Bathsheba’s husband! Even he must have had a Yom Kippur day; he must have asked, ‘Do I want to define my life by moments of weakness or moments of strength?’ ”

This second annual Professional Writers Workshop, which paired some of Hollywood’s finest with the rabbinate’s most fastidious, looked like an episode of “In Treatment,” offering the best sermon therapy money can buy (and for the bargain conference price of $150). In cross-denominational groups of three, the questions ranged from the practical (“Should I start with a question, crack a joke or tell a story?”) to the philosophical (“What would you say you’re trying to say in this sermon?”) to the political (“This is the time to go for it — make the big point!”). It was classic Freudian role-reversal, with the rabbis in the hot seat and the writers going righteous.

“I don’t know if by the end [of this session] we’re gonna pitch you sermons or you’re gonna pitch us TV shows,” said David Kendall, creator of ABC Family’s “Melissa & Joey” who also worked on older hits like “Growing Pains” and “Boy Meets World.” 

In one group, Rabbi Elie Spitz of Congregation B’nai Israel in Orange County puzzled over how to make a trite topic like tzedakah sexy. He worried about sounding “canned” and “predictable,” but even more so, Spitz said, “There is discomfort in asking for money on High Holy Days, when people want to be spiritual.” To which Kendall offered straightforward advice on the merits of truth: “Say, ‘It feels horrible to talk about this,’ ” Kendall said. “In writer’s terms we’d say, ‘Let’s hang a lantern on it,’ which means you’re going to do something obvious. If something is unavoidable in the plot or exposition, you ‘hang a lantern on it.’ ”

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills’ Rabbi Laura Geller suggested that Spitz tell a story about an event that changed his relationship to money. “That takes people to very personal places,” she said.

But just how deep can you go, she wondered. “How personal can you get?” she asked Kendall. “My sermon is about growing older; about how we devote so much energy and resources to youth. Well, what about me? I’m not dead yet. How vulnerable do I get in speaking about my own fears about aging; how my mother’s getting older? How much do congregants really want their rabbi to reveal?”

Get intimate, he said. A message becomes more memorable if tied to a resonant or relatable story.

Things were less fraught for Rabbi Mark Kaiserman, who will serve this year as interim rabbi at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley after the retirement of 36-year-veteran Rabbi Stephen Einstein. 

“Which gives me the luxury of reusing sermons,” Kaiserman joked to his Hollywood helper, Sam Baum, creator of Fox’s “Lie to Me.”  

“And,” Baum added guilefully, “you can swing for the fences.” 

Rabbi Daniel Feder was more interested in milking Baum for entertainment tips. “I always try to have one or two chuckle moments,” Feder said. “Maybe you could suggest, ‘Put Humor Here.’ ” 

Baum rejoined his request with plot-development 101: “I try to force myself to write a single sentence that gets at the core of the story,” he began. “The first couple of minutes are crucial to creating the feeling that there is a hand quietly guiding you.” And, as Hollywood proverbs go, action must follow inspiration. “It is crucial that in the last two minutes there is something actionable — you have to give the character something to do, not just something to think about.”

It is telling that the people who usually do the teaching were so willing to be taught. And perhaps a little bit ironic that those who often self-protect from congregants felt safe among storytellers with the world’s largest soapbox.

But as writer and producer David Sacks, known for shows “3rd Rock From the Sun” and “Malcolm in the Middle” encouraged, be fearless! Don’t be cowed into feel-good Torah. Although this hardly compelled Rabbi Miriam Hamrell of Ahavat Torah in Brentwood: “Last year I gave a sermon on Israel, and people had a hard time with it,” Hamrell said. “People said, ‘We’re not here to hear politics. We’re coming here to heal, to listen, to open our hearts.” In the wake of that, she said, she had to lead a decompressing discussion circle.

Monica Henderson Beletsky, a Harvard graduate who writes for NBC’s “Parenthood” got a kick out of the strange and wonderful convergence of Hollywood and holy themes. 

“It’s so funny,” she said, “one rabbi wrote about being in a personal prison and another wrote about happiness, and they both came to the same conclusion. And, you know, we’re working with a similar theme on our show, but I can’t tell you about it.”

Hanish, an organizer of the event, said the confluence of high-minded rabbis with highly accomplished writers is a good fit.

“Rabbis know a thing or two about writing, but rabbinic school is about academic writing, and we end up writing things that are too intellectual and not connecting on a human level. Film writers understand how to write to the general populace and get deep messages across.”

And, of course, Hollywood is always seeking good material, a plentiful resource in the life of a rabbi.

“The writers get just as much out of it as the rabbis,” Hanish said. “They come for fun, but they get rejuvenated. Afterward, they’ll say, ‘I was on the fringe of my Judaism, but these rabbis understand today’s world’ —and some consider returning to Judaism.”

For Dahvi Waller, who won an Emmy for her work on “Mad Men,” things got a little too close for comfort. Last year, after a Jewish Journal article covered her session at the workshop, she was bombarded by requests for help from rabbis all over the country. “I can’t say ‘no’!” she gushed, explaining why she didn’t want her session to be written up this year. “They wanted way more than an hour of my time.”

Chabad Telethon raises $4 million


Hollywood stars and dancing rabbis came together for the 32nd annual Chabad “To Life” Telethon on Sept. 9. Held for the first time at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, the high-profile fundraiser raised approximately $4 million for Chabad of California.

“At Chabad, there’s no greater joy than the joy of giving,” declared Larry King, whose hosting duties and interviews were recorded days earlier at KCET in Burbank and shown on screens straddling the stage.

KTLA Morning News’ Sam Rubin, “Good Morning Arizona” anchor Stella Inger and comedian Elon Gold co-hosted the event live, playing to a small studio audience at the Art Deco theater.

The three-hour telethon aired locally on KTLA 5, from 8 to 11 p.m., and was carried nationwide by cable and satellite providers, as well as stations in San Diego, San Francisco, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.   

Actor Jon Voight, one of the evening’s main celebrities, remains an active supporter of Israel and Chabad, having appeared in multiple telethons. 

“I’ve had many major roles in motion pictures, but one of my favorite roles is taking part in Chabad’s” yearly telethon, he said. 

Onstage throughout the evening, Voight was in good spirits, surrounded by a house band, a rotating crew of people working the phone banks and an active tote board. He danced with black-suited Chabadniks young and old. “I’m learning new steps every day,” Voight said. 

Then, catching his breath, he delivered his spiel, asking viewers to call the phone number that appeared on the bottom of their television screens and donate what they could. 

In addition to Voight, speakers included actors Tom Arnold, David Arquette and Howie Mandel, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, L.A. City Councilmen Paul Koretz and Dennis Zine, Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles David Siegel and philanthropist Stanley Black.

Among the featured performers were 11-year-old piano prodigy Ethan Bortnick, Chasidic rock-and-pop duo the 8th Day and Chasidic singer and composer Lipa Schmeltzer. 

The $4.03 million raised on Sunday — last year’s telethon raised $4.2 million — will benefit the international Chasidic movement’s social services and programs, including summer camp scholarships, support for children with special needs, community outreach centers, crisis intervention and drug and alcohol rehabilitation. 

Seated near L.A. Clipper forward Trey Thompkins at the phone bank, actor-comedian Arnold made his pitch for Chabad. Never shy, Arnold highlighted his past as a recovering alcoholic and drug addict when requesting donations in support of Chabad’s drug rehabilitation services.

“They do wonderful work there and they help everybody,” Arnold said.

Highlights from the Chabad “To Life” Telethon: 

7:58 p.m.: Backstage, two minutes until showtime, production assistants scramble to prepare performers, including Voight and dancing rabbis, for their cue. 

8 p.m.: A message from King segues into Bortnick’s piano performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The rabbis follow — young men grab one another’s hands or shoulders, kicking up their feet as they dance in circles. 

8:12 p.m.: Dressed in black sneakers to match his suit, comedian Gold warms up the crowd: “You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy the Chabad Telethon, but it helps,” Gold says.

8:55 p.m.: King interviews Arquette about what it took to get sober. Building “a connection to God” and learning how to manage self-critical thinking both played a role in his road to sobriety, Arquette says. 

9:10 p.m.: Consul General Siegel, City Councilman Koretz, County Supervisor Yaroslavsky and philanthropist Black share the stage with Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad. Black announces his own pledge for $250,000.

9:35 p.m.: Looking out at the theater’s numerous empty seats, Arnold quips from the phone bank, “How about a hand for all of Clint Eastwood’s chairs out there,” referring to Eastwood’s controversial speech at the Republican National Convention.

9:40 to 10 p.m.: Entertainment attorney and Chabad Telethon co-chairman Marshall Grossman pledges $25,000. Television producer Kevin Bright (“Friends”), who was not in attendance, pledges $180,000 and Ralphs supermarket representative Jose Martinez hands over a jumbo-check for $20,000.

10:10: An interview between King and TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal president David Suissa is screened. “Chabad means ‘love’ more than anything,” Suissa says.

10:55 p.m.: The tote board jumps to more than $4 million for the evening’s final total. The rabbis return for a final dance — until next year.

It’s not about a plan


“Remember a time that you felt everything was right. The world just worked. You were in the moment. You felt calm, alive, complete. There was no other place you wanted to be but right there. Everything about that moment worked,” Rabbi Sherre Hirsch writes in her new self-help book, “We Plan, God Laughs: 10 Steps to Finding Your Divine Path When Life is Not Turning Out Like You Wanted” (Doubleday).

What Hirsch most wants is for people to find their “sparkle,” as she writes in Step 7, “Finding Your Divine Spark.”

That’s why she left her job as rabbi at Sinai Temple a year and a half ago. Although she had wanted to be a rabbi since she was 19, after serving at the Conservative synagogue in Westwood under Rabbi David Wolpe for eight years, she decided to move on.

“It was an incredible position for me, and I loved my congregants, I loved teaching and counseling,” she said. But “there were other things I wanted to do,” including spending time with her husband and three kids, and, it turns out, broadcasting her messages of spirituality and hope to a much broader audience.

On a recent day that meant a morning interview with Sam Rubin at KTLA and an afternoon at CBS, with The Jewish Journal sandwiched between—and there have been appearances on “The Today Show,” “Tyra,” Naomi Judd’s “Good Morning” and PBS’s “Thirty Minutes.”

Which may be because Hirsch does sparkle. In a black satin shell and immaculate ivory pants, the 39-year-old’s blue eyes, framed by purple mascara, shimmer as she talks about her message.

“I want people to take a risk, to believe that life may not have turned out like you planned,” she said, leaning forward eagerly on her hands. “I wanted people to have hope more than anything, in an age where people lose hope and get stuck.”

Hirsch knows from plans and getting stuck. Her mother was a small-town Midwesterner who met her knight in shining armor when she was 15. She got married at 19 and had two kids by the time she was 24. But her husband lost his job, became depressed and verbally abusive. After Sherre and her brother left for college, her mother, in her early 40s, finally left her husband. Eventually she rebuilt her life and remarried.

“When I officiated at [my mother and stepfather’s] wedding, my mother wore my wedding dress. What I said then under the chuppah was that, at her first wedding, she was waiting for someone to rescue her. But at this wedding she had rescued herself,” Hirsch wrote in her book. “She had taught us all that to live the life you want, you have to be willing to leap. You have to be willing to realize that your life is not scripted. The happy ending starts with you.”

In recent years many self-help gurus—and rabbis—have taken on the subject of happiness in books and lectures. So what makes this one any different?

“I think that when people say something in a new way, people hear it in a new way,” said Hirsch, who lists Rabbi Harold Kushner (“When Bad Things Happen to Good People”) and Rabbi Ed Feinstein (of Valley Beth Shalom) as inspirations. She also admires Oprah and Katie Couric as “communicators,” which is how she sees herself.

“Do I think I’ve written Aristotle’s new treatise?” she asks. “No.”

She focuses on tried-and-true concepts, such as “finding meaning” and “celebrating the divine in you.” But Hirsch said she didn’t want to write a “rabbi’s” book—i.e., a Jewish scholarly book.

“I wanted them to feel like they were talking to their friend, not being preached at by a rabbi. ‘What would I say to my best friend, and what would they say back to me?’ I wanted a different level of intimacy.”

Every chapter is infused with personal stories—of herself, her family, her congregants and Judaism. She chattily intersperses stories about God’s 13 attributes to teach about our own 13 positive attributes. She uses the Jewish new moon to show how we express our faith in the future, and shows how Moses’ doubting God means that only with doubt can one gain true faith.

What may appeal to a national TV audience—and on the Web site momlogic.com—is that Hirsch, in her own words “is a Midwestern girl.” (She was born in Ohio, although she grew up in Palos Verdes.)

That and the fact that she’s a female rabbi.

“Many of the audiences are women. I’m relatable, a mother with kids, I dated a ton—I struggle with the regular challenges that everyone struggles with, and I’m not afraid to be vulnerable or real,” she said. “I hope that people feel my authenticity.”

“I think everyone makes plans and things don’t go the way we plan,” she said.

People need to stop being so focused on the plan and just take action and see where it unfolds: “We’re not in charge—we can control our actions, but we can’t control our results.”

For her, spirituality is part of the equation, something that should be more than a yearly event on holidays.

“People can incorporate faith into their daily lives,” she said.

“I’m interested in helping people come closer to their faith,” she said. “If you find your faith, you find a way back home.”

New Chabad telethon chief follows in his father’s footsteps


Rabbi Chaim Cunin, the seventh of Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin’s 13 children, has a strong handshake. That may be hereditary. His father, the spiritual leader of West Coast Chabad for many decades, famously used to arm-wrestle the UCLA heavyweights along fraternity row on Rosh Hashanah. The elder Cunin would always win.

“I felt so proud,” says his son, seated at the marble table of Chabad Lubavitch’s fifth-floor conference room in Westwood.

If the idea of an arm-wrestling rabbi sounds a bit unorthodox, the Southland has grown accustomed to the notion of a dancing rabbi, the signature image of Chabad’s “To Life” Telethon, which will be celebrating its 27th year on Sunday, Sept. 9, airing live on KCAL, Channel 9.

Cunin, 33, executive producer of the telethon and CEO of Chabad of California, may represent a movement that dates back to the 1700s, but on a recent August day he wasn’t wearing a dark frock coat. Instead, he sported casual attire: a blue button-down shirt, a brown tie and a yarmulke, that, when flipped around, bore the trademark dancing rabbi logo.

It was a nod to the good-natured whimsy of the telethon, whose theme this year is “People Helping People.” Chabad has always helped people of all faiths. In turn, not surprisingly, Hollywood glitterati of all religions and races, including Jon Voight, James Caan, Edward James Olmos and Magic Johnson, have made appearances on the telethon over the years. They have helped raise money for Chabad, which runs such nonsectarian programs as drug rehabilitation centers, old age homes and the friendship circle. And while Chabad charges fees for these programs, “no one is turned away for lack of funds,” Cunin said. The one requirement of those seeking treatment is that they are “truly committed to turning their lives around,” he added.

Chabad, to be sure, straddles the traditional and the new. To carry out Chabad’s mission of performing mitzvot, Cunin has become an “Apple enthusiast,” navigating the Internet with ease on his iBook. Cunin also keeps handy an iPhone, which he calls an “OiPhone,” because every time his cell phone rings he knows it is one more responsibility he must undertake in preparation for the telethon.

Questioned about the seeming paradox of a Chasidic rabbi using newfangled products, Cunin said: “The values of Judaism, the principles of Judaism, the Torah, are relevant in every generation and every day. Whether it’s the Apple computer today or the telephone when that was invented…. In Judaism these are tools … which help us bring godliness, holiness, the light everywhere.”

As calm as Cunin might have appeared as he leaned back in his swivel chair, there was no denying the anxiety of supervising a major production like the Chabad Telethon.

Next to his Macintosh computer was a box of Commit, over-the-counter nicotine lozenges. As he sucked on one of the cherry lozenges, Cunin explained that he’d quit smoking nine weeks before.

A few books in Hebrew were spread out on the conference table. When asked what the day’s Torah portion was, however, he drew a blank, then said, “I’m losing it.” He looked it up at Chabad.org. It was a portion from Deuteronomy.

If Cunin was stressed this day, that was nothing new. In 1980, when he was six, his family received a phone call at two or three in the morning. He awakened his father, who was informed that the Chabad House was on fire. Three young men died in the blaze, and three torahs were severely damaged and had to be buried. Shortly thereafter, Cunin’s father began the telethon.

As a boy, Cunin stuffed envelopes and distributed fliers for the telethon in stores; he now works nonstop for days, doing everything from helping to pick “stories [that] might be of interest, booking the talent, overseeing the publicity,” he said.

Getting up from his chair, he moved briskly past a warren of cubbyholes to the elevator. A few flights down, he entered the offices of film editor Carter Reedy, who was cutting testimonials with producer Mike Levin. There was very little equipment in the room where they worked, just a TV screen and two computer monitors next to each other, one showing a full-sized image, the other a miniature version alongside computer text.

Levin and Reedy ran three segments, one on a Latino man, who says he “actually didn’t even know what a rabbi was” until Chabad helped him overcome his drug problems; another of a Holocaust survivor who did not have enough money to pay for the funeral of her husband until Chabad came to her aid; and a fun spot at Dodger Stadium featuring former Dodger Shawn Green, comedian Richard Lewis, Fox Sports Radio personality Vic “the Brick” Jacobs and Cunin and his brother, Levi, all kidding one another, singing Ya’aseh Shalom, and running about in antic fashion during batting practice.

“Shawn Green, feeling you,” said Vic the Brick. “No, I’m feeling you,” Green said.

These will air during the telethon, along with a live show, including performances by entertainers and encouragements to donate. The telethon has always had a mix of poignancy and showmanship. Messages are layered throughout, but guilt is not one of them. Cunin called the telethon, which will be hosted this year by last year’s co-host Elon Gold, a “legacy of goodness and kindness … with a smile.”

As this interview ended, Cunin’s face was flushed, even though the air conditioning was on in the room. The last two weeks before the telethon, which he hopes will generate a record $7 million, will be intense, but he can handle it. As producer Levin said of the extra four hours of material he must prune, “These are good problems.”

The Chabad “To Life” Telethon will air on KCAL, Channel 9, from 4 to 10 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 9 and Web cast at

Don’t Hide From Outreach — It Will Find You!


I don’t know where I got the idea or who put it in my head originally, but during my whole childhood the idea was clear: Orthodox Jews were “weird.” Really weird. Of course as a kid my definition of “weird” ran closer to anyone who was the slightest bit different from me rather than someone you would actually see in a circus freak show. Still, while most things as a kid were not clear, save for baseball, one thing was: stay away from the Orthodox Jews. Which made sense.

I mean since Orthodox Jews were not of this earth, I should steer clear of them.

Which I did. In fact I took this idea so to heart that I managed to stay away — far away — from Orthodox Jews for the first 30 years of my life. Until the Orthodox Jews came after me.

It started innocently enough. My then-girlfriend, now wife of 12 years, and I were dating, and during one dinner we were discussing whether we were really compatible. Everything checked out. We had similar views on most things. As a throwaway we checked in on religion. We both knew the other was Jewish, but we discovered that although we were both born Jewish, we both knew “zip-a-dee doo-dah” about Judaism. All that Reform Jewish Sunday school didn’t teach us anything about our heritage. So, we decided to try and find a class in Los Angeles on Judaism and learn something together.

We really did not know if such a class existed in Los Angeles (so disconnected from all things Jewish were we back in the day). Our only lead was an article I had read in the L.A. Times about a program called 20something at some place called Aish HaTorah. We decided that we’d go there and see if they could steer us in the direction of a class. We had no idea it was an Orthodox organization. We had no idea the organization focused on kiruv (outreach). Boy, were we in for a surprise.

The rabbi we met there was amazing, but still Orthodox, so that gave him two and a half strikes against him. Sure he was intellectual, kind, happy and smart, but come on — he was Orthodox. Soon, his true colors came out: He started doing something really weird. He started inviting people from the class over to his house for dinner. I mean who in Los Angeles invites strangers to their house for dinner? At first, we were glad he didn’t choose us, but then we started to resent him for not choosing us. You know — it was like a bad party. You didn’t want to go, but at least you wanted to be invited!

Finally, he did invite us. We were insulted it took so long, so we accepted. He told us to meet him at the shul around 5:30 p.m. on Friday evening. Like fools we thought this was just a neutral meeting point. When we got there we saw his real reason for telling us that time and place: There were Friday night services going on. That’s right — he had tricked us into going to synagogue! I felt betrayed. Even my father had never stooped to such levels to get me to go to services. At least he was always straight forward.

“Shut up and get in the car. We’re going to synagogue!” he’d say.
At the rabbi’s home, we met his family. His wife and kids were nice, but again — they were Orthodox. During dinner, however, they seemed very normal (for weird people) and Debbie and I really enjoyed ourselves. In fact we thought these Friday night “dinner parties” were great ideas. It was also amazing not to have any music playing while we ate because it encouraged conversation. And what conversation we had. Talking about the Almighty and His role in the world and the Torah. By the end of the evening we felt, well, elevated. This was so different than the feeling we got when we had dinner with our non-Jewish or Jewish, but secular, friends. There, the conversation usually went to new lows of gossip or worse. It was quite a contrast.

But then, on cue, the rabbi and his wife did something really weird. I guess they just couldn’t help themselves. It was their nature. They actually suggested that we stay at their house for the night.

It doesn’t get much weirder.

I mean why in a gazillion years would we want to spend the night at their house?

Did they think we were homeless street people who needed shelter for the night?

Hello! We have apartments! You know, like normal, nonweird people?

Of course when we got back to my apartment, we realized that we had locked both sets of our keys to our apartments inside and could not get them until the morning when the manager arrived. In short, we were stuck. We sheepishly went back to the rabbi’s house with our tails between our legs and told him our lament.

He smiled and said, “You should have just accepted the invitation when we made it instead of going through all that!”

Pretty funny for a weird guy.

We quickly realized that these dinner parties on Friday nights were actually religious in nature. That was OK. We were there for the conversation and the food (his wife is an amazing cook). But soon it got to be a little much. I mean how could these people do this every single week? Why would you? So after a while of “doing Shabbat” we decided to take a break for a couple of weeks. One day I came home from work and there was a message on my machine from the rabbi. He said, “Where are you and Debbie? I haven’t seen you for a while? Please call me.”

I was furious. What, was he taking attendance? Was he tracking our coming and going? Who was this guy? I immediately called Debbie and told her of the intrusive call. I told her I’m going to call him and give him a piece of my mind. I’ll teach that weirdo.

I called him.

“Rabbi? This is Ross,” I said very curtly.

He didn’t notice my rude tone.

“Ross!” he said. “It’s so nice to hear from you.”

“Yeah,” I continued. “Look, I’m really upset about your message. I mean what, are your tracking us? Do you take attendance? This is really intrusive.”

“Oh,” he said sounding saddened. “I’m so sorry. It’s not that at all. It’s just that I really like you and Debbie and I miss you when you’re not around.”

I was shocked by his caring. I was also ashamed at my behavior.

“Hold on,” I said. “I’ll get Ross.”

I hung up the phone after our conversation (which included yet another invitation to a Friday night dinner party) and just sat there stunned.
“This guy really cares about us,” I thought to myself.

I mean no one cares about anyone in Los Angeles, but this guy really cared about us. The thought was overwhelming. Suddenly this man and his wife were no longer “weird.” They were actually something special to us. They were our friends.

Slowly, our view of Orthodox Jews started to change. Oh, sure, there were still some “weird” things that they did, like the seders that never ended and wherein you don’t eat until 11:30 p.m. — if you’re lucky — but we were more open to seeing what these strange practices were all about. And even though they ran contrary to our own childhood experiences where the seder at my house, for example, ran about an hour and we all watched TV after the festive meal, we were more willing to overlook the differences and started focusing on finding truth.

And we found truth. Among those weird Orthodox Jews that we are now proudly a part of. It wasn’t easy and it took a lot of love, devotion and patience from our newfound friends — the rabbi (who eventually officiated at our Orthodox wedding) and his wife. And it took a lot of time. But they never gave up on us.

Ross Hirschmann is a former civil litigator. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two daughters.

Another Tendler Steps Down


The longtime principal of one of Los Angeles’ largest Jewish high schools is leaving to start a new school. Rabbi Sholom Tendler resigned last week as Hebrew principal of Yeshiva of Los Angeles (YULA) and as rabbi of Young Israel of North Beverly Hills. He said he plans to open a new yeshiva boys’ high school elsewhere in Los Angeles.

Tendler’s resignation comes shortly after his nephew, Rabbi Aron Tendler, resigned under pressure as rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village. Meanwhile, Tendler’s other nephew, Rabbi Mordechai Tendler was suspended this year by the board of his New York City-area synagogue as a result of longstanding allegations about alleged sexual misconduct.

Sholom Tendler, 61, says his departure is a matter only of his desire to start a new high school.

Sholom Tendler has been YULA’s rosh yeshiva, Hebrew for principal, for the last 26 years, including in 1987, when the school hired attorneys secretly to investigate allegations of inappropriate behavior against Aron Tendler. The internal probe yielded inconclusive results, but Aron Tendler was moved from the girls school to the separate boys school.

“I was aware of that investigation,” Sholom Tendler told The Journal, adding that he recused himself from the situation because his relative was involved.

After news of the investigation came to light in recent months, YULA alums and parents expressed outrage that the school dealt with the matter privately. Some clamored for “accountability.” Sholom Tendler’s resignation, so soon after the disclosures, has inevitably invited speculation that his departure is, in effect, the school’s response to community pressure.

Not so, Sholom Tendler said.

“There is absolutely no connection whatsoever between [what happened with his nephews] and my decision to build this new school,” he said. “It’s unfortunate how unfounded rumors can blacken even the most beautiful of endeavors.”

Sholom Tendler also expressed sympathy for his nephews’ ordeals: “It’s very painful, and I’m supportive of them and their families in this terrible time of agony that they’re going through.”

Aron Tendler has declined interview requests; Mordechai Tendler has been more vocal, denying any wrongdoing.

YULA officials also emphasized that Sholom Tendler’s exit is voluntary.

“He helped create YULA,” said Rabbi Meyer May, the executive director of YULA’s boys division. “He could have stayed at YULA for his entire career.”

So why is Sholom Tendler leaving?

He replied that there is a shortage of yeshiva high schools in Los Angeles.

“Anybody will tell you there are not enough high school desks in Los Angeles. It’s a healthy sign, but a serious problem,” Sholom Tendler said.

His added that his new school will fill a niche for the more “ultra” side of the Orthodox community, while also stressing a serious academic curriculum.

Sholom Tendler is calling his new high school Mesivta Birkas Yitzchok — named for his father, Rabbi Yitzchok Tendler, a rebbe who inspired “a joy of learning,” as Tendler put it. He plans to open in September for about 10 to 15 ninth-graders. He said he is currently scouting for a location in the Pico-Robertson or La Brea area.

The school will provide both serious Torah study and strong secular academics.

“People who are observing the demographics in the Jewish community see that there are a growing number of people who are very serious about religious observance and at the same time want to live in the professional or business world, rather than the rabbinate. We want parents to have the opportunity to prepare their sons for either way of life,” he said.

Because of the labor involved in starting a school, Sholom Tendler also is stepping down from heading Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, where he has served as rabbi almost since its inception 13 years ago. He will stay on until the search committee finds a new rabbi. He said he expects to remain involved in the community, possibly as rabbi emeritus.

 

An Ugly Day in the Neighborhood


Dr. Warren Lent is sure he knows why he was treated with such contempt and hostility that day last June. It was the kippah he wore on his head.

He had come to vote in neighborhood council elections at a jam-packed fire station in Hancock Park. Amid the tension and confusion, an angry poll worker repeatedly accused Lent, a soft-spoken surgeon, of trying to vote twice.

Things escalated to the point where the poll worker asked Lent if he was “man enough to step outside” to settle it, Lent said.

The poll worker eventually backed down, but Lent reported the incident to Michael Rosenberg, a candidate for the council who, along with a group of allies, was recording slights against Orthodox Jewish voters. From his spot the requisite 100 feet away from the polling place, and from his office desk, Rosenberg gathered reports on shouting matches, fraudulent ballots and tense stand-offs between Orthodox Jews and other voters, many of them non-Orthodox Jews.

More proof, to Rosenberg’s mind, that the upscale neighborhood of Hancock Park was out to get Orthodox Jews.

On the other side, non-Orthodox residents were just as disgusted by what they say they saw on Election Day — fake membership cards, line jumping and all manner of deception by Orthodox Jews trying to secure as many votes as they could. Yet more evidence that this group of Orthodox Jews is willing to bend — no, break — the rules to get what they want.

What both sides wanted was control of the local neighborhood council, a relatively new city institution meant to bring grass-roots voices into city policymaking, an ideal that hardly seems worth fighting over in other parts of town. But in Hancock Park, it came to symbolize a battle between those who believed the Orthodox were trying to plant a shul and school on every corner, and the Orthodox who felt that established residents were trying to choke off their community.

Throughout that day and for months following, both sides wondered how the strife ever got this bad. How could it be, they asked themselves, that Jews in Los Angeles were at loggerheads, mosly with other Jews, in an embarrassing conflict that divided along religious lines?

To Rosenberg and his associates, the answer is simple: The neighborhood had been heading in that direction for years, and the election was the climax of years of intolerance.

Other residents challenge that interpretation. They tell a more complex tale, one that holds Rosenberg, an Orthodox Jew and real estate developer, personally responsible for ratcheting up the enmity and pulling the neighborhood into something like a civil war.

On that day in June, the vast majority of Orthodox Jews, as well as unsuspecting local residents who came out to vote, were caught in the middle, stunned. Yes, everyone knew there had been conflicts between the Orthodox and the rest of the neighborhood, mostly centered on land-use disputes. And even while tensions had escalated over several years, setting the whole neighborhood on edge, no one felt as if Hancock Park was roiling with ethnic prejudice, which is how things looked and felt to many on Election Day.

“I can’t say it was anti-Semitism, he didn’t call me ‘dirty Jew,’ or say, ‘you Jews,’ and I don’t want to falsely accuse anyone,” said Lent of the poll worker. “I don’t know what his true motivation was, but one thing was clear to me. He was ready to punch me, and he wasn’t going to give me a chance to explain.”

To moderate — and even extreme — voices on both sides, these elections were a wake-up call, setting in motion halting efforts at peacemaking.

Today, contentious issues and tough questions persist. Aside from continuing enmity over the election, residents are battling in court over the construction of a synagogue on a busy residential street. And an Orthodox school and its neighbors are testing just how far they can push each other.

But on both sides, there are people willing to face tough questions so they can begin to bridge the divide.

Do some Hancock Park residents harbor mistrust toward anyone who looks Orthodox? Is this a case of intolerance, or one of some Orthodox Jews behaving badly and now everyone paying the price? How much is just miscommunication? And is the community suffering because it let a few people, notably Michael Rosenberg, become the voice of the Orthodox community?

Conflicting Claims

In the first two years, starting in 1999, that civic activist John Gresham had been organizing the area’s first Neighborhood Council in the Midwilshire area, he hadn’t heard much from Orthodox Jews, even though he knew that Hancock Park, one of 15 neighborhoods in proposed council borders, was heavily Orthodox.

Michael Rosenberg

Michael Rosenberg: “I told everybody else that we have a little problem — they don’t like us Jews.” Photo courtesy Sheryl Rosenberg

So he recalls being stunned when, in December 2001, Rosenberg, a businessman he knew only peripherally, filed a rival claim on the territory Gresham and a group of about 150 involved residents and business people had staked out as the future Midwilshire Neighborhood Council.

Claiming to represent homeowners, Orthodox interests and other underdog groups he had allied himself with, Rosenberg applied to the city for certification as the official neighborhood council in Midwilshire’s borders, throwing two years of grassroots mobilization into tumult.

“It was essentially our map, but [Rosenberg] had changed the name at the top and said, ‘We represent everyone there,'” Gresham said.

“So my initial reaction was: Why? And my second reaction was: What do we have to do to prevent this? And then my third reaction was: Wait a second, who is in his group? Who does he represent?” Gresham said.

To Rosenberg, the question of why is an easy one to answer. He felt that the existing organization was not doing enough to truly represent the will of the people

“They were certainly not considering us as part of them,” he said. By us, Rosenberg meant Orthodox Jews, but not exclusively that group. He’d also recruited residents and business owners, including Asians, blacks and Latinos, outside Hancock Park proper.

Such a divisive confrontation was not what city planners had in mind when officials developed — and voters approved — the formation of neighborhood councils as part of the 1999 City Charter. The idea was to develop grassroots civic involvement, giving residents, businesses and neighborhood groups actual influence — but not outright voting power — on city matters that affect them. Today, there are 88 neighborhood councils, with influence over issues such as zoning, traffic patterns, utility rates, taxes and general decisions about the character of a neighborhood.

“The bottom line on a national and global level is that everything starts in someone’s neighborhood,” said Gresham, who lives within the neighborhood council’s borders, just south of Hancock Park, and who started mobilizing neighborhoods in the 1970s.

Gresham’s job as a vice president at M.L. Stern Investment Securities leaves him only late-night hours to dedicate to grassroots politics, but his earnest involvement has won him widespread admiration.

In fact, in 1999, when the city was first setting up the neighborhood council system, city representatives asked Gresham, who is also active at the Reform Temple Israel of Hollywood, to organize the Midwilshire area. This effort had been proceeding for two years when Rosenberg suddenly stepped in.

Gresham said he is dumbfounded by Rosenberg’s claim that important segments of the community were willfully excluded. Gresham had spent two years forming the Interim Midwilshire Neighborhood Council, made up of homeowners associations, business associations, and representatives for renters, students and nonprofits. The council area includes 50,000 people in 15 distinct neighborhoods within the area roughly from just west of Western Avenue to La Brea Avenue, from Olympic Boulevard to Melrose Avenue.

“We kept trying to get more people to the table so we would have a true cross-section — including Michael — and we are accused by him of not doing that? I just have no comprehension of what he is talking about. It’s foreign to me,” Gresham said at a late night meeting in his office, glasses perched atop gray hair and eyes squinty with fatigue.

Gresham had first met Rosenberg when he came to a meeting of the Midwilshire interim board, a few months before he filed his rival claim.

Rosenberg appears in the minutes of that November 2001 meeting as having volunteered to help iron out the group’s by-laws and participate in outreach. Gresham invited him to be on the board. But, after the meeting, Rosenberg had a run-in with a board member who recognized Rosenberg as an advocate for a synagogue involved in a vicious land-use dispute.

Rosenberg says he was told that the neighborhood council process had already begun, and that he wasn’t needed — or wanted.

“After the way they treated me I told everybody else that we have a little problem — they don’t like us Jews,” Rosenberg said. “We are outsiders.”

So Rosenberg gathered a few signatures from friends and business associates, including Orthodox activist and developer Stanley Treitel, and in December 2001 filed his own application with the city to become the Greater Hancock Park Neighborhood Council.

The city department that oversees neighborhood councils, which is committed to making these bodies truly representative, did not want to favor existing homeowners groups over ad hoc entities. In the spring of 2002 the city ordered Gresham and Rosenberg to negotiate a merger.

“We ended up giving in to them on every single point they wanted because they would not budge,” said Gresham, saying the negotiations over minutia occasionally became uncivil, to the point of table-pounding and screaming.

Rosenberg says the meetings were a ruse, since Gresham’s group continued meeting behind his back.

Gresham said of course his group continued to meet, openly, to continue the work of getting certified — just as he expected Rosenberg’s group to keep meeting.

But whether Rosenberg had a group at all was a question Gresham never felt was adequately answered. Gresham said Rosenberg seemed to make decisions on his own, without consulting a board, and got angry with Gresham for always wanting to check back with the Midwilshire interim board.

Rosenberg says he had a group of about a dozen active volunteers and many more supporters, Jewish and non-Jewish, who empowered him to make decisions.

While he initially started with some close Orthodox friends, Rosenberg later pulled in some non-Jewish businessmen and disgruntled residents who felt they were not being represented by this nouveau establishment.

Among those was Morris Shaoulian, the lessee of the Scottish Rite Auditorium on Wilshire Boulevard and Lucerne Avenue in Hancock Park-adjacent Windsor Square, who is currently in litigation with the city over the use of the building.

After several months of negotiations, the newly named Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council was formed, with Rosenberg and Gresham as co-presidents, and an unwieldy 56 board members — 28 from each side.

At a hearing in December 2003, the city certified the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council. But before doing so, the city lopped off a section that jutted out of the Council’s linear borders south of Olympic Boulevard, saying the small area, which Rosenberg had added, was not organically part of a territory that was already too big.

That severed appendage had included a large portion of Rosenberg’s allies, including 14 of his 28 board members.

“In that area we had representation of people who were black, Hispanic, Koreans, some gays and lesbians — and they were so upset to be cut off from the neighborhood council,” Rosenberg said. “And after that they said you guys stabbed us and they didn’t want to meet anymore.”

While the council was certified, it still needed to set up procedures to elect its board members, an election initially slated for March 2004.

But disgusted with what he saw as a biased and farcical process, Rosenberg dragged his feet and didn’t bring his representative to any planning meetings. March came and went without elections.

Gresham and the city tried to schedule meetings with Rosenberg, but were continually put off.

Without Rosenberg and his people, the board had no quorum, and could not set up the election procedures, which meant voting could not commence.

Suddenly, in the early summer of 2004, a process that had been in the works for years, involving hundreds of people and thousands of hours of work, was at a dead halt.

Gresham was at his wits end. And he was beginning to wonder what was driving Michael Rosenberg.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, head of Kehillat Yavneh: “We have never tried to steamroll over the neighbors. We have never tried to hide what we’re doing.” Photo by Kevin Scanlon

‘Red Flags All Over the Place’

Baby faced and jowly with a soothing Latin lilt to his speech, Rosenberg doesn’t hide the fact that he is motivated by a large chip on his shoulder, despite his obvious success — he runs a thriving international real estate business, he and his family own thoroughbreds and he is the president of World Derby, Inc., which promotes horse racing events. He and his wife Sheryl have raised their four sons in a luxurious home at the eastern edge of Hancock Park, where they have lived for 21 years.

But Rosenberg’s parents lost everything and everyone in the Holocaust, including three sons — Michael’s brothers. The family found refuge after the war in Peru, where Michael was born and where he lived until the late 1970s.

As for his involvement in Hancock Park politics, Rosenberg is adamant that it’s all a matter of principal. He scoffs at the speculation, put forth with no evidence by some who are critical of him, that his involvement in neighborhood politics has been motivated by potential financial gain for his real estate business, which he says is mostly out of state or out of the country.

Instead, Rosenberg said, he was initially motivated by ill-advised land-use policies that neighborhood establishments supported. But the matter became a personal cause after he encountered intolerance at neighborhood meetings, which he ascribed to his wearing a kippah and representing the Orthodox community.

During the rise of the Nazis, leading up to the Holocaust, “in Hungary, my parents had to endure rules of you can’t go there and you can’t shop here, and this was the beginning of the same things — red flags were going up all over the place,” he says of restrictions being placed on land-use in Hancock Park and the accompanying intolerance he perceived. “That is the ultimate goal, to restrict use of the land and to rein in a group — and that is what they were trying to do with us at the end of the day.”

Rosenberg is referring to the ongoing attempt by local preservationists to designate Hancock Park a Historical Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ), which, at its most stringent, would mean changes by homeowners to their residences would have to go through rigorous scrutiny by city boards.

The Hancock Park Homeowners Association, a 57-year-old body, supports the historic zone, as does the office of Councilman Tom LaBonge, who represents the area. In 2001 Rosenberg had attended a meeting of the association and told the members that a majority of Hancock Park residents did not support the historic designation. No one on either side of the issue, in fact, has done authoritative polling.

The challenge was not well received, and Rosenberg said he was treated rudely, as though he were an outsider with no business there.

Soon after, Rosenberg and Treitel, along with a handful of other Jewish and non-Jewish members, founded the rival Hancock Park Resident’s Association. They sent out a mailing asking people to join them in opposing the historic zone. Rosenberg claims he received 1,100 letters in his support, which he filed with the city’s planning department. A department representative confirmed that his office has received hundreds of letters both in support and against the historic designation.

Within the next month, the city’s planning department will hold the first of many public hearings about the HPOZ, leading up to a likely decision this summer by the City Council.

While the Orthodox community — including everyone from Modern Orthodox to Chasidic — is hardly unified in supporting or opposing a historic zone, Rosenberg was certain he recognized yet another effort to choke off the growing Orthodox presence — many Orthodox families have remodeled old area homes to accommodate large families, adding bedrooms and modern kosher kitchens.

Rosenberg became increasingly convinced that longer established neighbors — many of them non-Orthodox Jews — were uncomfortable with the visibly distinct and insular Orthodox community, people who dressed in black hats and coats in the heat of the summer, who ate at different restaurants and sent their kids to different schools. The Orthodox, he believed, were a grudgingly tolerated “them,” not regarded as part of the community fabric.

Rosenberg is not alone in reaching that conclusion.

“The other side will tell you it’s nothing personal, it’s only about zoning, and I wish I could believe that,” said Alan Stern, an Orthodox businessman and philanthropist, whose wife Lisa won a seat as an alternate in the neighborhood council elections. “But it’s just not true. When you dig deep enough and start talking, there is a lot more that I find worrying. Many of them don’t like those black hats and coats walking in Hancock Park. It’s not a kind of look they feel comfortable with.”

Jane Ellison Usher

Jane Ellison Usher, president of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission: “I think there need to be other Jewish voices.” Photo by Kevin Scanlon

An Urban Oasis, Divided

Hancock Park is one of Los Angeles’s most picture-perfect neighborhoods, where sloping lawns on winding streets are crowned with elegant Tudor, Spanish and Mediterranean mansions built mostly in the 1920s. It covers roughly a linear mile between Highland and Rossmore Avenues, from Melrose Avenue to Wilshire Boulevard.

Jews began to move into this urban oasis 40 years ago, when clauses in home deeds prohibiting sales to Jews or blacks were removed. As Jews shifted eastward from Fairfax, Orthodox institutions became centered on and around La Brea Avenue, a few blocks west of Hancock Park. The last decade has seen a surge in the number of schools, shuls and kosher establishments in the area.

There are about 20 shuls on La Brea, Beverly and surrounding streets, and about a dozen kosher establishments. At least four new schools have been established in the last 10 years, and enrollment at existing schools has surged. Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn Torath Emeth, for example, had about 700 kids in preschool through eighth grade 10 years ago, and today has more than 1,100.

With that growth has come increased tensions with established neighbors, including some residents who have been there for decades, and many more recent arrivals — a good number of them non-Orthodox Jews — who treasure the area’s serenity and architectural beauty.

Some residents fear the character of the neighborhood, which is zoned for single-family homes only, is being threatened by haphazard remodeling projects and by institutions — notably a shul and a private religious school — moving into Hancock Park itself.

“Hancock Park is a beautiful suburb in the middle of a busy city, and if people keep chipping away at it, soon it won’t be a beautiful, serene neighborhood anymore. It will be changed forever,” said Jolene Snett, an activist who is involved in crafting a preservation plan, which would limit what homeowners could do with the parts of architecturally historic homes visible from the street.

Snett, a member of Temple Israel of Hollywood, was elected last June to the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council.

It was the arcane subject of zoning that led to the Neighborhood Council confrontations and became the focus of lawsuits and angry rhetoric over the last 10 years. In 1999, Yeshivat Yavneh, a 400-student Orthodox day school, moved from Beverly Boulevard west of La Brea Avenue into the Tudor estate that had housed Whittier law school on Third Street and Las Palmas Avenue. Neighbors saw to it that Yavneh’s conditional-use permit was highly restrictive (see sidebar).

While the school and neighbors agree that Yavneh has worked hard to be a good neighbor — carefully controlling noise and carpool chaos — tension has continued to build over when and what Yavneh can do with its building. Yavneh is now planning to bring to the zoning board a proposal for an 8-foot security fence, which neighbors oppose, and a plan to change the terms of who can pray in the school on Shabbat, an issue that neighbors say Yavneh has not been honest about.

“We have made every effort to be as conciliatory as possible with the neighborhood and have done our best to make sure we are in compliance with whatever conditional-use permits were granted to us by the city,” said Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, head of Kehillat Yavneh, which holds Shabbat prayers at the school for the Yavneh parent body. “We have never tried to steamroll over the neighbors. We have never tried to hide what we’re doing, and for some reason there are certain extremists in the neighborhood who are opposed to having any greater presence for Orthodox Jews convening for religious activity or prayer, regardless of the impact on the neighborhood.”

At the same time, Korobkin is working with his own community to be more open, because he acknowledges that insularity may have contributed to the hostile environment and closed communication lines.

“Our guilt is that we have not sufficiently been good neighbors in the sense of reaching out and letting them know that we are part of the community, and we are here to work together with the rest of the community,” he said. “If an Orthodox Jew is having a Kiddush [party] at his home because his wife gave birth, and he invites 100 people from all around and his neighbors are not invited to the Kiddush — that type of thing creates ill-will,” he said.

Korobkin, and many others, believe that Yavneh is suffering the fallout of an earlier land-use dispute involving Congregation Etz Chaim, the synagogue to which Rosenberg and many of his neighborhood allies belong.

Etz Chaim is a small congregation that for 30 years met in the June Street home of Rabbi Chaim Rubin. In 1995 it purchased a 3,600-square-foot house on the corner of Highland Avenue and Third Street, enraging neighbors protective of the area’s single-family-home zoning status. The legal battle had already begun when in 2002 Etz Chaim razed the home and rebuilt an 8,200-square-foot structure with a main sanctuary and a mikvah (see sidebar).

Neighbors contend the shul violated local zoning laws and trampled due process, and the shul contends neighbors are attempting to infringe upon its religious freedom. The dispute is currently before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but regardless of the outcome, residents are likely to remain angry about the bulldozer approach the congregation took.

“Third and Highland was this giant smack in the face to all of Hancock Park that said, ‘We are going to do whatever we want and no on is going to stop us,'” said Gary Gilbert, a writer and producer, who lives in Windsor Square.

While Orthodox residents who don’t belong to Etz Chaim were not vocal about the matter, many of them also were troubled by both the manner and the outcome of the construction.

“None of us like that shul either. I didn’t think what they did was right, and I certainly wouldn’t want that happening next door to me,” said Marty Gurfinkel, a Yavneh parent who is now participating in reconciliation meetings.

But the idea of Orthodox Jews speaking out against other shul-goers was anathema, and so, Gurfinkel says, the Etz Chaim dispute fermented a false sense, both among the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox, of us and them.

“It created a lot of negativity and came at a severe cost,” agreed Larry Eisenberg, a pediatrician who rues the fact that none of his Orthodox peers felt it appropriate to challenge Etz Chaim.

Eisenberg, a Hancock Park resident and past president of the West Coast board of the Orthodox Union, was elected to the neighborhood council on a platform of opposing traffic mitigation measures and the historic zone designation. He was not allied with Rosenberg, and had nothing to do with Rosenberg’s quest. But, he says, at the first few meetings of the neighborhood council over the past few months, he has felt that he is the object of suspicion and bias from other council members, just by virtue of being Orthodox.

Indeed, anti-Orthodoxy seemed at its height after last summer’s elections. Deeply troubled by the hostility and intolerance he saw, Gary Gilbert, an active member of Temple Israel, informally canvassed his neighbors in advance of launching reconciliation efforts.

“I went to my neighbors and I said, ‘Tell me about the Orthodox.’ And they said, ‘They think they are above the law, they will do whatever they want if it is good for them, and they don’t care about anyone else’s needs but their own,'” Gilbert recounted.

And while Rosenberg might offer that up as more proof that he was right — that the locals do hate the Orthodox — some argue that Rosenberg himself opened that door, back in 2004, when he and his cohorts brought the neighborhood council process, which activists had been working on for five years, to a screeching halt.

Stanley Treitel

Stanley Treitel, neighborhood activist: “We have to move on to some degree.” Photo by Kevin Scanlon

The City Takes Over

With elections nowhere on the horizon, Gresham was relieved when, in July 2004, the city decided to take over setting up the elections. The city began the process by holding focus groups with area stakeholders to come up with election procedures.

Rosenberg came to some of those meetings with his supporters, and advocated for eliminating both the age limit and the need for proof of identity for voters, pushing for self-affirmation — actions eyed with suspicion by many.

The city, for its part, determined that people could vote in as many categories for which they qualified as stakeholders. That is, you got one vote if you owned property, another if you also rented property, still another if you worked in neighborhood — not to mention a vote for attending a local school or belonging to a local organization. Each category is represented by a board member. In the end, some people would vote as many as 19 times.

In March 2005, after the city decided that age limits and identification would be required, Rosenberg sued the city for violating the council’s bylaws, a case that was quickly dismissed.

Increasingly alarmed at the free-for-all the city seemed to be setting up, Gresham worried that anyone, including non-residents, could become a stakeholder by setting up a bogus organization, and that underhanded scheming would be rampant.

In February 2005, Gresham summoned some active neighbors who decided to form Neighbors United for Fair Elections, a group whose initial mission was to see to it that election procedures were fair and logical.

“The real villain in this enterprise is the [city’s] Department of Neighborhood Empowerment,” said Jane Ellison Usher, a Jewish attorney who answered Gresham’s call to action. “The way the department established procedures was to say to whatever group of people happened to show up at a meeting, ‘How do you feel on these three or four points?’ And whoever was sitting in the chairs would cast votes, and those were turned into formal recommendations for the board and the department.”

Usher, a former president of the Windsor Square Homeowners Association, was recently appointed president of Los Angeles planning commission. She had been involved early on in the neighborhood council process and stepped out in dismay when the city forced Gresham into negotiations with Rosenberg.

Usher is known among friends and detractors for being resolute and blunt — as someone who, by her own admission, doesn’t mince words. As elections neared, Usher began circulating aggressively worded e-mails to bring the masses to the polls.

“Don’t let the bad guys outnumber us again,” begins a Feb. 21, 2005 email, co-signed by Usher, Jolene Snett and Cindy Chvatal, who is now vice president of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council. “Do you want a neighborhood controlled by the man who has leased the Scottish Rite or by the activists who have defied all zoning rules and built a temple at Third and Highland?”

Another e-mail, sent after the city delayed elections that had been set for May 2005, decries the city’s “twisted thought process.”

“Disabled by the notion that Michael Rosenberg might again sue, his forte, they [city organizations] have become the reliable enablers of the hijacking of this neighborhood by a handful of bogeymen,” wrote Usher and Chvatal.

The same e-mail ended with the imperative to “Grab your white hat and enough votes to win.”

Orthodox community members saw in that an allusion to their own black hats. But Usher, who grew up in a small town in Ohio, says the white hat reference is nothing more than a regional expression about good guys in white and bad guys in black.

And, she says, her references to “minions” was in no way meant to evoke minyans (a quorum of worshippers), and “bad guys” referred to the city organizations messing with the elections, not to the Orthodox community.

As Usher’s e-mails circulated, rumors spread within the Orthodox community of nefarious, well-organized plots to stifle Jewish interests. For its part, the Orthodox community fielded nine candidates, many brought in by Rosenberg.

Some e-mails originating in the Orthodox camp compared what was happening in Hancock Park to Nazi-era restrictions, and rumors spread about plots to bus in Muslims on Election Day to defeat the Orthodox.

While some rabbis decried the more egregious rhetoric, the idea took hold that getting out the Orthodox vote was a matter of saving the community.

“On the slate are individuals who have proven hostile to the interests of our community. If they win, any new shul or school, any expansion of existing shuls or schools, any remodeling of any home, will require their approval,” read a letter sent out by the Yavneh school. The letter urged all community members — even domestic help — to vote, and to enroll in newly formed organizations to qualify as stakeholders in more categories.

When Neighbors United got wind of the mobilization in the Orthodox community, fear began to spread that the Orthodox were trying to take over local politics so they could plant a shul and school on every corner in Hancock Park.

To both sides, elections had become a matter of saving the neighborhood.

An Election Debacle

The hype and propaganda worked, bringing out a record 1,200 voters on Wednesday, June 15, 2005, who cast a combined 29,000 ballots, higher than any other council elections since the city founded the Neighborhood Council system, which generally does allow for multiple ballots per person.

But rather than being a triumph of grass-roots activism, the turnout signaled the extent to which fear and suspicion had taken over.

By all accounts, the fire station on Wilshire Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue — the single polling place for the day — was a madhouse, with poll workers overwhelmed by the turnout, and voters and volunteers equally befuddled by the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment’s impenetrable election procedures.

According to the city’s exorbitantly inclusive rules, voters were allowed to define themselves as stakeholders in up to 19 categories.

That meant that on Election Day, voters — many of whom did not live or work in the area — stood on line with fistfuls of ballots, a startling site in this one man, one vote culture. (One of the first actions of the newly elected council would be to revise election rules, allowing a maximum of two votes per person.)

And things got very, very ugly.

Neighbors United, the non-Orthodox group, created an Election Day staging area at the nearby Wilshire Ebell Theater, offering a free shuttle service to the polling place, where parking was difficult.

At the Ebell, Neighbors United registered voters and enrolled them in organizations to qualify for more ballots. Slates of candidates were endorsed. In some categories where the two or three highest vote-getters would win seats, Neighbors United provided an alphabetical breakdown for voters to follow to optimize the number of its winning candidates (i.e., if your last name begins with A-F, vote for this candidate; G-M for that candidate).

Orthodox community members say they saw Neighbors United people — including volunteer poll workers — at the polling place trying to intimidate Orthodox voters and handing out membership cards, some of them for organizations founded for just for the purpose of boosting vote totals.

The Orthodox community was not nearly as well organized, but its members were busy, too. Neighbors United members allege that they saw candidates campaigning outside the polling place, in violation of election rules, and people handing out “your name here” membership cards for organizations. Some of these had changed addresses to be within council boundaries; others hadn’t existed the week before.

One member of Neighbors United said that while she was looking for parking, two Orthodox men sitting in a car in front of the fire station indicated they weren’t leaving. Seconds later, she saw them relinquish the space to another Orthodox Jew.

Orthodox voters speak of harassment: If you looked Orthodox you were treated with greater scrutiny and greater contempt by poll volunteers, who came mostly from the ranks of Neighbors United (they were, after all, better organized).

And throughout the day, e-mails and phone calls continued to circulate, urging more people to come out and vote.

In the end, five Orthodox men, including Rosenberg, were elected to the Neighborhood Council, out of 31 seats. Gresham, ironically, only won as an alternate (when a board member can’t make the meeting, he takes her place). Gilbert and Treitel are alternates; Usher, Snett and Chvatal all won seats.

Nine people, including Rosenberg and Alan Stern, filed challenges against the election results, but the city dismissed all of them.

“There was considerable fraud on both sides, and a number of rabbis were not comfortable with that,” said Irving Lebovics, West Coast president of the Orthodox umbrella organization Agudath Israel. “But the bigger issue to me was that in this election there was a tremendous amount of anti-Semitism. We had people who showed up to vote like any good citizen, and they were harassed and screamed at from vans on the street. It was unacceptable.”

Charges of anti-Semitism became a sore point after the election. After all, a significant number of the Neighbors United activists are Jewish.

“To evoke the Holocaust for political gain in a neighborhood zoning dispute, and for one group of people to allege anti-Semitism against another group that they don’t see eye-to-eye with politically, especially when many in the group are Jewish, is a problem,” Jolene Snett said. “These are serious claims, and to use them in a political manner, so readily and so quickly, and often to fellow Jews, I find very troubling.”

For her part, Usher says she feels compelled, as a Jew, to offer an alternative voice when she sees Jews behaving badly, as she believes some leaders at Etz Chaim and Yavneh did.

“I think there need to be other Jewish voices,” she said. “Frankly, it is repulsive to me that I am connected or associated in any way with the people perpetrating these deceptions, so I intend to speak out.”

“I am a Jew, I am a practicing Jew, and I feel that deception is shameful,” Usher said in an interview at a Beverly Boulevard pastry shop not long after the election. “Did I ever think I would see the day I would feel the need to stand up and say I am Jewish and I have a bone to pick with other Jews? Did I even anticipate that day? No.”

Peace Talks

Today, with the elections well in the past, Usher’s stridency has mellowed.

At the neighborhood council meetings — there have been four since the elections — Usher sits just one seat away from Stanley Treitel, a colleague of Rosenberg’s whose passion and vociferousness were off-putting to some during the thick of the strife.

At the January meeting, Treitel handed Usher his card and asked her to call. Usher and Treitel met for breakfast at La Brea Bagel a few weeks ago, where the two, who had formerly demonized each other, talked about issues in the neighborhood, and vowed to keep an open dialogue.

“I’m very optimistic. I don’t see or feel any hardliners drawing lines in the sand,” Usher said.

“We have to move on to some degree,” agreed Treitel, noting that Usher is now the head of the city’s planning commission, an organization that holds the key to approval of community projects.

While Usher’s and Treitel’s new connection is off to a good start, things are not going as well for a larger-scale reconciliation effort.

In November, a group of Orthodox, liberal Jewish and non-Jewish neighbors met to plan a blood drive and neighborhood safety fair for January. But three weeks after the initial planning meeting the event was off.

Yavneh had offered to host the event, but since Yavneh is in the middle of troublesome negotiations over its city operating permit, residents who live nearby wondered if Yavneh’s hospitality was motivated mainly by a desire to build support for dealings with the city.

And, ironically, holding a large event like the blood drive would have violated Yavneh’s permit.

It wasn’t the outcome Gary Gilbert and his wife Judy hoped for when they convened about 20 people in their Windsor Square living room last summer, following the election, to save the neighborhood from itself.

“One of the reasons I got involved is because I heard the phrase ‘the Orthodox’ 50 times, and then I heard the term ‘Jew’ in a way I never heard before in Hancock Park,” said Gilbert, a producer and writer of comedies, including the “Seinfeld” pilot.

The Gilberts joined forces with Rabbi Korobkin of Yavneh, who independently had set out to begin the healing process, contacting local clergy and L.A. Voice, an organization that works with faith-based organizations to build community.

At the first, smaller meeting about a month after the election, about 20 people from varying backgrounds sat in the Gilberts home and introduced themselves, putting names and faces to the impersonal “other side.”

“I’m not a professional mediator or conflict resolution person. I’m just a Jewish guy from the neighborhood who is really upset,” Gilbert recalled telling those at the first gathering in August. “I’m here to say let’s figure out what to do. I have no plan, no agenda — my agenda is why can’t we all get along. So let’s give it a try.”

A second meeting took place in November at the home of Marty and Candice Gurfinkel — a new home that blends impeccably into its surroundings and stands in regal rebuttal to the charge that the Orthodox have no aesthetic sense. It was there that the plan for the blood drive was devised, and after the meeting, a dozen neighbors stood around the dessert table schmoozing.

But despite the thaw, some were uncomfortable, feeling like they were skirting the real issues, moving ahead with joint activities to foster relationships when old wounds had yet to be healed, or even acknowledged.

“We perceive that the other neighbors look at us with such a sense of suspicion and distrust, that they feel anything we are trying to do is completely self-serving and disingenuous and we are not concerned with being good neighbors,” Korobkin said recently. “If you start with that premise, it is hard to win people’s support to work toward common goals. It’s hard to move things forward.”

But Korobkin persists in his efforts toward reconciliation, understanding that not only Yavneh’s future, but the entire neighborhood’s rests on everyone’s ability to work together.

As for Rosenberg, he has spent much of the last six months in Peru tending to family matters. He’s missed most of the Neighborhood Council meetings, but the one he did attend, he voted against all of the proposed measures, which passed anyway.

One of those measures reduced the number of future board members on the Neighborhood Council from 31 to 21 for the next elections in March 2007. Members who supported the motion said the board was too unwieldy with 31 members.

Treitel, who voted against the change, noted in an interview that Orthodox Jews had a good chance of filling the seats that were cut, in categories such as education, religion and nonprofits. He worries that the interests of the Orthodox community are now further jeopardized.

Rosenberg plans to do whatever it takes to accomplish what he says was his initial goal: to ensure that everyone in the neighborhood is represented, and that no one, especially not the Orthodox community, gets left out of the process.

“I feel bad that people have a perception of me as being a bad person,” Rosenberg said. “I’m not a bad person. I have given a lot of my time and money to make people aware of what I believe to be very important things.”

 

Wolpe Leading Pick for Seminary Spot


The Forward newspaper has reported that Rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles has emerged as a top candidate to head the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York.

The Nov. 18 article, “L.A. Rabbi Eyed as Conservative Seminary Head,” asserted that “support is mounting for a prominent pulpit rabbi from Los Angeles to become the next chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, after he delivered an enthusiastically received speech last week on the future of Conservative Judaism.”

The position of JTS chancellor is widely viewed as the head of the entire Conservative movement, as well as the leader of its flagship institution.

Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Westwood told The Journal that he is flattered by the attention, but that he’s also happy with his current job. And that speech, he added, was hardly intended as part of a campaign strategy.

He said he planned his remarks six months ago, before Chancellor Ismar Schorsch announced that he would be retiring next June.

Wolpe’s Nov. 10 speech at the seminary, “What Does Conservative Judaism Have to Say to the 21st Century?” argued for changing the name of Conservative Judaism to “Covenantal Judaism,” to better encompass the view that rabbinic law is both binding and evolving.

Wolpe’s relative youth (he’s 47) and charisma have garnered him supporters. The search committee will make no comments, but other candidates are believed to include Rabbi Gordon Tucker, the rabbi of Temple Israel in White Plains, N.Y., known for his liberal positions, and Jack Wertheimer, the seminary’s provost, who, like the more conservative Schorsch, opposes ordaining gay rabbis.

Wolpe has served at Sinai Temple for eight years, and he’s known for political adroitness. He has, for example, never publicly stated his position on gays in the rabbinate, an issue of ongoing dispute. On the other hand, Wolpe stirred some controversy of his own in 2001 when he questioned whether the Exodus actually happened in a Passover sermon in front of his congregation.

 

Letters


Though I am somewhat ashamed to admit it, I had barely heard the name Rabbi Eliezer Silver (z”tl) before my arrival in Cincinnati, OH a little over seven years ago. As I quickly became more acquainted with the life of this great leader, I was awed by the extent of his service to our people- Founder and President of the Vaad Hatzalah Rescue Committee (he helped save thousands during and after the Shoah), Founder and President of the Agudat Israel of America, President of the Vaad HaRabbanim of the U.S. and Canada (his determination to improve the religious standards of his day laid the foundation for the fine Jewish infrastructure we now enjoy in this country). There is much more to tell. At a certain point I stopped and asked myself, “Why hadn’t I known of this giant Jew before arriving here?”

And now the Cincinnati Hebrew Day School (CHDS), the school that Rabbi Eliezer Silver (zt”l) was instrumental in founding (then known as Chofetz Chaim) is reaching its 60th anniversary. In recognition of this significant milestone our school is once again turning to Rabbi Silver-this time for inspiration. A younger generation wants to know-his life, Torah insights, stories, historical vignettes-anything that will bring the memory of this great man back to life. If you or your family knew Rabbi Eliezer Silver in whatever capacity could you please forward your contact information to us-we’d love to hear what you have to say.

E-mail: rabbiesilver@juno.com
Phone: 513-351-7777
Fax: 513-351-7794
or Write to CHDS 2222 Losantiville Ave
Cincinnati, OH, 45237
c/o Rabbi B. Travis.

Thanks in advance for your help.

More Articles of Faith

I read your latest piece, and as usual I am always thankful we have such a high-quality newspaper in Los Angeles (“Read All About It,” Oct. 28), in many respects better than the L.A. Times.

Your article highlighted the demographics of an increasing unaffiliated community. Newspapers such as yours serve as a portal for this population. Reading The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles might be a person’s only means to identify as a Jew.

Would you consider increasing the religious content? I suggest a couple of things. First have a commentary on the attendant haftorah in addition to the Torah portion.

Second, we could be the first to also begin weekly articles from Ketuvim. With the plethora of classes one could take from your advertising pages, obviously your readership is receptive to further religious education.

If this resonates with readers and advertisers, you could expand this section further to include Reform, Conservative and Orthodox commentaries on the aforementioned. It would be interesting for laymen to see the interpretative differences among our great branches.

Finally if this works, you could start a rabbinic history section, including background information on historic rabbis of our past. There are some pretty interesting stories.

Bill Kabaker
via e-mail

Skinhead Shock

Adam Wills’ article on his visit to the German Phoenix Club Oktoberfest celebration (“Shocktoberfest,” Oct. 28) and the sudden, ominous feelings he described after noting that Nazi-loving skinheads had “entered the building” reminded me of the Bob Fosse film “Cabaret.” One of the scarier scenes in the film features Liza [Minelli] and friends visiting a beer garden in a small village, where a younger crowd transforms into Nazi-style garb while singing “Tommorrow Belongs to Me.” I would imagine Wills and his group felt extremely uneasy among a crowd that, as he described, wasn’t the warmest toward them. Oy! Some things never change.

Milt Cohen
Chatsworth

Hatikvah’s End

How sad to learn Hatikvah will soon be closed (“Fairfax Shop Feels The Squeeze,” Oct. 21). I fear the other mom-and-pop businesses in the area will also close and the entire area converted to strip malls. Although I currently live in Fort Collins, Colo., I grew up in the Los Angeles area and have fond memories of frequent visits to Fairfax to shop, eat and folk dance. It was possible to absorb Yiddishkayt through sight, sound and taste. As the only Jewish child on my suburban street, visiting Fairfax enabled me to experience an authentic Jewish neighborhood, had a very powerful influence on my sense of connectedness and community, and gave me great exposure to Jewish culture.

There’s a wonderful group of Jews in Fort Collins, but no physical community outside our synagogue, and even less Jewish culture. Whenever I visit Los Angeles I make it a point to spend some time on Fairfax, to recharge that spark of Yiddishkayt that tends to get buried as I go about my daily life. It is particularly important for me to bring my children there, and hopefully fan that same spark inside them. I lament this particular way to reinforce their Jewish identity will soon be lost forever.

Judy Petersen
Fort Collins, Colo.

The Interfaith Age

In your article on the movie “Prime” you quote from the study “Will Your Grandchilren Be Jewish?” (“What, Meryl Worry?” Oct. 28). The author of the study states that the likelihood of an intermarried Jewish parent having any Jewish descendants is close to nil.

This is contrary to my experience in Grand Rapids, Mich., where I lived until two years ago. In this very typical American city, a controversy has raged for more than a decade in the local Conservative synagogue as to the extent of participation in bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies by the non-Jewish parents. In other words, there are a considerable number of intermarried Jewish parents who are raising their children Jewish. Apparently, the non-Jewish parents want to have a part in this important ceremony. One of the worries of our Conservative shul was that the local Reform temple was more liberal in this area, and we might lose membership to them. The board of directors solemnly passed a resolution allowing the non-Jewish parent at a bar mitzvah ceremony to recite the prayer for our country in English. (What if a non-Jewish parent wanted to recite it in Hebrew?)

It seems to me that to a large segment of the general population, Jews are no longer considered pariahs. They look on Judaism as another sect among the many in our country. For better or for worse, we are living in an age when a marriage between a Baptist and a Jew is not much different from a marriage between a Baptist and an Episcopalian in the minds of much of our population; and the children of such a marriage might take up either faith.

Marshall Giller
Winnetka

A Simple Mistake

I was appalled to see the glaring misspelling on your kids page in this week’s issue (Oct. 28). When I showed the page to my 7-year-old son and asked him what was wrong with it, he immediately said that the Hebrew word lo (no) should be spelled with an aleph rather than a vav after the lamed. If something that basic (and visible) is missed by the Journal’s editors, it calls into question the accuracy of everything else within the paper. Please make sure you do not teach our children incorrect information.

Nedra Weinreich
West Hills

A big thank you to those who spotted the mistake on last week’s kids page. We deeply regret the error. On our next kids page, we will print the names of all the kids who detected it, and award a prize to the first to notify us at kids@jewishjournal.com.

 

‘Heaven’s’ Mysterious Spirits


Rabbi Joseph Telushkin has done his part to keep the Jewish people, well, literate, by publishing such erudite tomes as “Biblical Literacy” (William Morrow, 1997) and “Jewish Literacy” (William Morrow, 1991). But it seems he also wants to keep us amused on airplanes, which is why he moonlights as a mystery novelist. He recently published his fourth mystery, “Heaven’s Witness” (The Toby Press), a page-turning whodunit about a creepy serial killer who has a thing for young, pretty girls stuck on Los Angeles canyon roads.

On the killer’s trail is psychoanalyst Jordan Geller, who is drawn into the case after a woman he hypnotizes assumes the identity of one of the murder victims — who was killed several years before the woman’s birth. The book, which Telushkin co-wrote with Allen Estrin, is peppered with talmudic and biblical axioms, and raises some lofty questions about the nature of the afterlife and what happens to us after we die.

Telushkin said that he was inspired to write the book, which CBS plans to bring to the small screen in fall 2005, after he conducted a hypnotic regression with a friend of his who went back to a life in the year 1853.

“She spoke in 19th century American English using odd terminology,” said Telushkin, who has also been the spiritual leader of the Synagogue for the Performing Arts since 1993. “When I asked her if she was married, she complained ‘that the men here are so refractory.’ She used names of relatively obscure 19th century figures, who, after months of research, I was able to trace.”

Telushkin said that he is “open” to the idea of reincarnation, and that writing mysteries does have religious implications.

“The genre of mysteries, like the world of religion, still insists that there is a right and wrong, that not everything is relative,” he said. “You might be able to explain the reason why somebody has committed a crime, but, still, it is imperative to the genre that the person is caught, and that justice should prevail.”

For more information on “Heaven’s Witness,” visit www.heavenswitness.com.

Community Briefs


Hollywood Welcomes Israel Foreign Minister

Israel Foreign Affairs Minister Silvan Shalom met with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a bevy of high-powered Hollywood stars, an achievement granted few foreign dignitaries, during a three-day visit to Los Angeles.

During the 45-minute meeting in his Santa Monica office on Friday, Schwarzenegger spoke with Shalom about trade, the rising global tide of intolerance and the governor’s trip to Israel for the May 2 groundbreaking for the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem.

On Saturday evening, producer Arnon Milchan hosted a private party at his home for Shalom, his wife, Judy, and some Hollywood friends.

Joining in the five-hour party, which lasted late into the night, were the likes of power couples Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, Warren Beatty and Annette Benning and Danny DeVito and Rhea Pearlman, as well as Denzel Washington, Kevin Costner, Angelina Jolie and Naomi Campbell.

Sharon Stone was there, as was director Oliver Stone (no relation), who has not been known hitherto for his pro-Israel sympathies.

The press was not invited, but Moshe Debby, Shalom’s spokesman, reported that the dialogue between the Hollywood contingent and the foreign minister was lively and ranged across the spectrum of Middle East and Israeli-Palestinian problems.

Shalom also met with some 150 community leaders at the headquarters of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

When Shalom mentioned that his office has only a very modest budget for hasbarah, or international information and public relations outreach, community activist Guilford Glazer rose and announced that he was giving $1 million in support of Israel’s hasbarah effort.

"I hope that other American Jews will join in this important cause," said Glazer, a retired commercial real estate developer.

During a Friday visit to the Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, Shalom warned of growing anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe and the Muslim countries.

"Like terrorism, anti-Semitism is not only threatening Jews, but the whole world," he said.

Shalom announced that he was convening a high-level international conference in June at a Jerusalem venue on anti-Semitism and the danger it represents. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

AJC Takes L.A. Consulars on Whirlwind Tour

About 20 Los Angeles-based diplomats spent six hours on a bus March 16 to absorb Jewish Los Angeles in the first consular corps tour sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

Southern California’s 600,000 Jews seem, "well-organized, very strong, very accommodating, interactive," said Ethiopian Consul General Taye Atske Selassie, who toured several Westside Jewish institutions with colleagues from Argentina, Austria, Belize, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Romania, Sweden and Switzerland.

The AJC tour stopped at the Wilshire Boulevard offices of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which that same day was hosting Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom (see story above). The diplomats did not meet Shalom and instead toured The Federation’s Zimmer Children’s Museum and heard presentations from several Federation-funded agencies.

On the bus, tour guide lecturers included Young Israel of Century City Rabbi Elazar Muskin, Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman and Jewish Historical Society President Steve Sass. — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Rabbis’ Tact Puts Sex Victims First


David Schwartz, who pleaded no contest last year to charges associated with child molestation at an Orthodox summer camp, has been released from a yearlong stay at a residential treatment facility and is now living in the Pico-Robertson area. Rabbinic and mental health professionals are taking steps to help the victims and their families, as well as the community at large, feel safe and protected from a man who allegedly sexually brutalized and psychologically tormented 4-year-old boys at a Culver City camp for the arts in summer 2002.

Despite his plea, outside of courtroom proceedings Schwartz has maintained his innocence. His wife Nitzah, a preschool teacher at Yeshivat Yavneh in Hancock Park (where Schwartz himself used to teach), has stood by him throughout, saying to rabbis and others that there is no way the father of her children could have committed the lewd acts attributed to him.

While some rabbis who know the family have quietly supported Schwartz and his family, many prominent rabbis and community leaders have been strident and outspoken in their support for the victims — an indication that the Orthodox community has overcome its historic hush-hush approach to abuse. Taking its lead from Jewish Family Service’s Aleinu Family Resource Center, a group of rabbis has attended hearings, counseled the victims and inserted itself into the case.

Several high-profile cases in recent years — both locally and nationally — have helped foster a newfound willingness among rabbis to work with mental health professionals not only to handle crises, but to take proactive measures as well.

"The families see us there and the community knows we’re there, and I think that it’s an important factor for them to know we are not just going to sweep this under the rug," said Rabbi Berish Goldenberg, chair of the Rabbinical Council of California’s (RCC) Family Commission and a member of Aleinu’s Halachic Advisory Board — groups that often collaborate and have overlapping membership.

In a plea bargain reached in January 2003, Schwartz pleaded no contest to one count of committing lewd acts with a minor under 14. Eight other charges were dismissed, and Schwartz received a six-year suspended prison sentence and one year in a treatment facility, and is now on probation for an additional four years. He must undergo another year of therapy, cannot work as a teacher or with children and must register as a sex offender for life.

Upon Schwartz’s release in late January this year, Superior Court Judge Katherine Mader at the Airport Courthouse ordered Schwartz to stay out of an area roughly encompassing the Pico-Robertson and south Westwood neighborhoods. Schwartz, his wife and their three young children reportedly live just east of Robertson Boulevard, one of the boundaries, but have been ordered by the court to move east of La Cienega Boulevard. In addition, Schwartz must stay 100 yards away from a list of synagogues and schools where some of his victims may attend.

In a letter filed with the court March 2, RCC’s Goldenberg and Rabbi Avrohom Union recommended the judge also prohibit Schwartz from attending any synagogue where children are present and only allow him to attend synagogues populated mostly by senior citizens. They also asked that Schwartz be ordered stay away from all schools and be prohibited from using the mikvah (ritual bath). Mader rejected those recommendations.

"The court has commented that the victims need to step back and let the man lead his life," said Vicki Podberesky, Schwartz’s attorney. "The court put on restrictions it feels are appropriate and the DA thought those restrictions were appropriate."

Podberesky said that while she can’t comment on the Schwartz case, in general the criminal justice system is imperfect and innocent people do get convicted. "Sex offense can carry a life sentence and people make decisions many times about how to handle their case based on the fact that they want to ensure that they will see their family again," she said.

The rabbis say their job is not to retry the case, but to accept Schwartz’s plea and treat him as a sex offender. The RCC, together with the Halachic Advisory Board, oversees a beit din (rabbinic court) to deal with such issues. Schwartz has been invited to sit down with the beit din.

Goldenberg, who is also principal of Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn Toras Emes, said that the beit din’s aim is not to penalize Schwartz, but to protect the community and to work with Schwartz to help rehabilitate him — perhaps help him find a job and a synagogue.

"In one sense we want to be harsh and tough and make him understand that he is going to be monitored," Goldenberg said. "On the other hand we are here to help and we are willing to come to an agreement. If we can tell the victims’ families that he is going to follow what he is supposed to do and be where he is supposed to be, we can help make things better for him and his family."

The most likely scenario, many acknowledge, is that Schwartz will leave town, which he can do with proper permission from the court. Jewish sex offenders have been known to resettle in Israel or other Jewish communities.

Such was the case with Rabbi Mordechai Yomtov, who divorced his wife and left Los Angeles soon after he was released from prison about a year ago. In February 2002, Yomtov pleaded guilty to two counts of committing continuous sexual abuse on a minor and one count of lewd act on a minor at Chabad’s Cheder Menachem. He was in prison for a year and his whereabouts are currently unknown.

While both Schwartz and his victims would likely be happier with him out of Los Angeles, the beit din acknowledges its responsibility to keep tabs on him. "There is no question that theoretically the ideal situation would be for him to leave town, assuming he could be monitored," said Rabbi Shalom Tendler, a member of the Halachic Advisory Board. "It would be entirely wrong and irresponsible for us to just push our problem on somebody else."

The Halachic Advisory Board has taken a strong stand on issues of abuse. Aside from working directly with Aleinu Director Debbie Fox to respond to crisis situations, the board helped draft and implement guidelines for schools and camps to prevent, recognize and deal with situations of abuse.

Those guidelines have set a national standard in the Orthodox community, and have since been modified and adopted by schools throughout the country.

"That is the beauty of our community — the rabbonim and JFS and Aleinu work together on crises and we provide advocacy and support from a spiritual as well as a mental health model," Fox said.

The victims’ families will need that support, now that Schwartz is back in the neighborhood. One mother of a victim said her son had been doing better but is now having nightmares and acting out again.

She plans to take him to the Culver City Police Department, where detectives have been helpful all along, so they can explain to him how Schwartz is free but the child will still be safe.

"He’s always been so worried about other kids getting hurt, so the police made him a special junior detective," the mother said. "Now they’ll give him one more badge and promote him."

For more information on Jewish Family Service’s Aleinu Family Resource Center, call (323) 761-8816.

Community Briefs


No ‘Idol’ Chatter at Milken SpeechContest

Milken Community High School senior Nona Farahnik was named Milken Idol for her stirring pro-Israel speech in the school’s March 10 public speaking finals, with other competitors talking about bullies, cheating, the homeless and Special Olympics in the “American Idol”-inspired contest.

It was the Duke University-bound senior’s call for Zionist solidarity that captured the $500 first-place prize and the Milken Idol title. The contest combined the 800-student school’s contest theme of “Don’t stand idly by,” with judges and audience voting similar to Fox Broadcasting’s popular talent-search show.

“Show Israel that you care,” Farahnik told the 600 Milken students gathered in the school gym. “Israel is fighting a cold and calculating enemy — an enemy who has been trained to not think twice when blowing himself up in a family-filled restaurant, in a disco with dozens of dancing teenagers or on a bus of children on their way to school. Israel is fighting a sick, repulsive enemy and we must empower her to stop him.”

Upon winning, Farahnik, 18, said she would donate her $500 prize to the school’s fundraising efforts to buy bulletproof vests for Israel Defense Forces members.

The second-place $250 prize went to junior David Ashkenazi, who delivered a speech urging fellow students to “not stand idly by” and countenance cheating.

Tied for the $100 third-place prize were junior Matan Agam and freshman Peter Wasserman. Agam gave a highly personal speech about supporting the Special Olympics, which he participates in with his special-needs younger sister, Danielle. Wasserman’s encounter with the poor outside the Staples Center after a Lakers game prompted his speech prioritizing Southern California’s homeless over volatile issues abroad.

“Many times, these situations overshadow the problems that are in our own backyard,” said Wasserman, who told The Journal that he plans to give his prize money to a homeless shelter.

The $100 fifth-place prize went to freshman Lena August, who turned 15 the same day as the competition’s finals. She spoke about bullies, a common problem among students worldwide. August said victims of schoolyard taunts remember not only their tormentors, but also “they will remember all of the faces of the people standing there watching.”

The final round’s judges were Lowell Milken, Milken Family Foundation chairman and president; Nadia Fay, public speaking consultant; Rob Eshman, Jewish Journal editor-in-chief; and John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Public speaking consultant Richard Greene, father of Milken junior Chiara Greene, organized the competition. The finalists were selected from 600 Milken students and received coaching from Greene, author of “Words That Shook the World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events” (Alpha Communications).

Greene said he wanted to give students tools for public speaking and enable them to offer persuasive arguments regarding Israel and other issues that affect Jewish life. The Milken competition was a pilot program for a national teenage speech program that Greene plans to launch later this year. — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Schwarzenegger to Take Part in MuseumGroundbreaking

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will participate in groundbreaking ceremonies for the $150 million Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem on May 2.

Schwarzenegger will speak at a gala dinner at the King David Hotel to be attended by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Cabinet ministers and other dignitaries.

Plans for the groundbreaking were confirmed Monday by Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who initiated the Jerusalem project.

“Gov. Schwarzenegger has been a friend and supporter of the Wiesenthal Center for 20 years, and we are proud that he will stand with us in Jerusalem,” Hier said.

It will be the first trip outside the country for the former body builder and movie action hero since assuming office. He will also discuss trade relations between California and Israel while in Tel Aviv.

The Jerusalem museum is being designed by famed architect Frank Gehry, who will participate in the groundbreaking. The museum is expected to be completed in three to three and a half years, Hier said.

It will rise in the center of western Jerusalem, on both sides of Hillel Street near Independence Park, and will include state-of-the-art multimedia exhibits, conference center, theater complex, library and atrium.

The museum’s 240,000 square feet of usable space will make it three times larger than the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance, which is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary. The Wiesenthal Center recently opened its New York Tolerance Center.

Supporters of the Jerusalem project, in particular former Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, believe that it will revive the center of Israel’s capital and boost tourism.

Concern had been expressed by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance authority, that the new museum would duplicate its mission. However, Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate, said in a statement last week that following discussions with the Wiesenthal Center, “We reached a mutual agreement that the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem will not address the Holocaust. Yad Vashem does not believe there is justification for another Holocaust center in Jerusalem.”

Hier confirmed that the museum will focus on intra-Jewish disputes, relations with other religions and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Deadline Nears on Filing of HolocaustClaims

A final alert to persons with claims against European insurance companies stemming from the Holocaust era has been issued by California Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi.

The deadline for filing such claims has been extended to March 31, but only for survivors or victims’ families who requested a claim form before Dec. 31, 2003, from the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC).

In addition, the claim forms must be received by the ICHEIC offices in Holland or Washington, D.C., by March 31, warned Leslie Tick, Department of Insurance senior counsel, who joined Garamendi in a phone call to The Journal.

If the claim form is filed and received in time, however, backup documentation can be sent later. However, once the deadline has passed, claimants will have no recourse except for initiating private lawsuits.

Garamendi, a member of the ICHEIC board, has been highly critical of the organization and last fall joined survivors in calling for the removal of its chairman, Lawrence Eagleburger.

There has recently been some improvement in ICHEIC’s operation, Garamendi said, but the organization is still two years behind in processing claims.

Claim forms should be sent to:

ICHEIC

LHR/LGW/690547/001

Int. Business Reply Service

I.B.R.S./C.C.R.I. Numero 1746

1110 VG Schipol

Pays-Bas, Nederland

Claim forms sent to this address are supposed to be postage free but cannot be sent by certified mail.

An alternate address that accepts certified mail, is: ICHEIC, 1300 L St. NW, Suite 1150, Washington, D.C., 20005.

The following organizations will provide help in completing claim forms: California Department of Insurance, (800) 927-4357; Bet Tzedek, (323) 549-5883; ICHEIC, (800) 957-3203. — TT

ADL Assails Hate Crime Targeting CollegeProfessor

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has expressed outrage over a recent hate crime committed at Claremont McKenna College against a visiting professor converting to Judaism.

“Hate crimes tear at the very fabric of our society,” said Amanda Susskind, ADL Pacific Southwest region director, in a statement. “It is important and commendable for our law enforcement agencies to demonstrate their commitment to the safety of all citizens by their steadfast pursuit of these crimes.”

On March 9, the vehicle of professor Kerri Dunn was attacked by vandals as she spoke at a forum about racial intolerance. They smashed her windshield, slashed the tires and covered the car with anti-Semitic and anti-African American messages.

A couple days later, hundreds of students at Claremont Colleges rallied to protest the attacks. Administrators canceled classes.

College administrators have offered $10,000 for information about the perpetrators of the crime. Susskind, in her statement, applauded the university’s aggressive stance and the police for their efforts. — Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

Councilman Offers Help in Keeping CenterOpen

Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti has offered his mediation services to keep the embattled Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center open.

Garcetti, who attended the JCC growing up and now represents the area, thinks the center is a valuable asset worth fighting for, said Glen Dake, the councilman’s legislative deputy.

“With L.A. growing, we need more of these facilities, not fewer of them,” Dake said. “That’s why he wants a strong, vibrant facility remaining there.”

Garcetti hopes to set up a meeting among officials from the Silverlake Independent JCC, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA).

Federation President John Fishel said last week that he was open to a three-party meeting to discuss center-related issues. Nina Lieberman Giladi, JCCGLA executive vice president, said she, too, was amenable to sitting down and working toward a viable solution.

“I appreciate [Garcetti’s] willingness to reach out and look for opportunities that may have not been discussed,” she said.

The JCCGLA, which oversees many of the city’s JCCs, has put the Silverlake center up for sale, partly to pay back its $2.2 million debt to The Federation. The Jewish philanthropic organization has a $550,000 lien on the property.

Officials at the JCCGLA said they have already received an offer for Silverlake, though they declined to reveal the amount.

Janie Schulman, Silverlake Independent president, said she felt optimistic about the outcome of any three-party meeting.

“I am confident that if we could get everyone sitting at the same table speaking openly and frankly, instead of pointing fingers and speaking past each other, that we might make some progress,” she said. — MB

Journalist Attacks Actions of Israel’s PoliticalFringes

Israeli journalist Yossi Klein HaLevi portrayed Jewish far-leftists and far-rightists as mutual failures for their respective attempts at peace with Palestinians and increased West Bank settlements, actions which have ushered Israel into what the author called, “the decade of sobriety.”

In his March 4 lecture to about 100 people at the UCLA Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center, the Jerusalem Post columnist assailed both of Israel’s political fringes.

“What applies to the anti-Zionist left applies to the super-Zionist right,” he said. “We live in a Jewish reality where there are very few moorings. We are a generation of chameleons; we’re almost a Purim generation in that sense. We’re all wearing masks.”

Far-right Jews, he said, smother themselves with the ancient history of Israel so much that they “are ready to commit any atrocity in defense of that story.”

Jews on the anti-Zionist far left, he said, have embraced, “the genocidal intentions of the PLO” and are ready to “violate the most basic self-understanding of the Jewish people, legitimizing those who are demonizing Israel.”

“Neither Jewish camp has the answer,” Klein HaLevi said. “We were a politically immature people that barricaded ourselves in our political certainties.”

The lecture, sponsored by UCLA’s Bruins for Israel student group and the Burkle Center for International Relations, was not a debate. But Olam magazine editor David Suissa gave a supportive response after Klein HaLevi spoke, asking Jews not to be so judgmental of each other.

“We have to transcend this energy that tries to make us judge,” Suissa said. “Judgment is easy. Curiosity is more difficult.”

Klein HaLevi’s perspective differed, saying that anti-Zionist Jewish academics such as MIT professor Noam Chomsky are as removed from Judaism as the late far-right extremist Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 killed 29 Muslims praying in Hebron.

“In the end, everyone is not my brother,” he said. “Noam Chomsky and Baruch Goldstein both have very dubious claims to being my brother.”

Klein HaLevi had one bit of advice for both far-right extremists, who accuse their enemies of being akin to Jewish collaborators in World War II, and far-left activists, who routinely use Nazi metaphors to describe Israeli countermeasures against Palestinian terrorists: “Holocaust talk is off limits; no Holocaust invoking in our mutual taunting, because when we get to that, we are in an abyss to which there is no return — the next logical step is civil war.” — DF

The Circuit


Gonna Fly Now!

Zubin Mehta, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO)’s music director for life, announced that the orchestra’s first performance of its 2003 American tour will be a gala IPO fundraiser at the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles on Dec. 10.

“Intifada or no intifada, people are packing the concert halls,” Mehta said of the orchestra’s homeland success.

Joining Mehta and his wife, Nancy, at the Peninsula Hotel press conference in Beverly Hills were a clutch of IPO supporters, including gala co-chairs Margo and Irwin Winkler and Edye and Eli Broad; both couples will be honored at the concert banquet.

“The experience has been wonderful,” said Eli Broad of his years supporting the IPO. “It’s really enriched our lives. It’s a great way to not only support the orchestra, but the soul of Israel.”

“I’m a big fan,” said Irwin Winkler, the producer behind the “Rocky” series and Martin Scorcese classics such as “Raging Bull.” “It’s a great cultural ambassador for the State of Israel.”

Among those on hand for Mehta’s announcement: gala principal benefactors Vidal and Ronnie Sassoon; gala vice chairs Mel and Joyce Eisenberg Keefer and Annette and Peter O’Malley; and Denise Maynard, programming director at K-Mozart 105.1. Following the Dec. 10 event, the IPO will round out December with performances in Costa Mesa, Newark, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Welcome Back, Kosofsky

Congregation Shaarei Tefila of Los Angeles has welcomed its new spiritual leader, Rabbi Nachum Kosofsky, and his wife, Elana. Kosofsky, an L.A. native, returned to his home town from Columbus, Ohio, where he served three years as assistant rabbi for the Beth Jacob Congregation with Rabbi David Stavsky. The Kosofskys return to Los Angeles with their five children, Racheli, 7, Naami, 6, Meira, 4, Shmuel, 2, and Yechiel, 6 months.

A Dream Come True

Leo Baeck Temple organist Shiri Lee Pitesky was honored for her first 50 years as the Temple’s organist by helping her realizing her dream — to play “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch at Dodger Stadium at the June 19 game.

A Verizon Horizon

Verizon Foundation contributed $50,000 to become the first corporate sponsor of KOREH L.A, a program of The Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) that promotes childhood literacy. KOREH L.A. has more than 1,300 volunteers currently reading with students in more than 50 LAUSD elementary schools.

Dinner with Julia

America’s first lady of food, Julia Child, was the honorary chair and special guest at “Endangered Treasures: A Celebration of Cookbook Preservation,” a Four Seasons fundraiser that grossed $50,000 to preserve rare historic cookbooks.

Sponsored by the International Association of Culinary Professionals Foundation (IACPF), the event attracted 135 patrons in support of the project that food historians describe as “doing for old cookbooks what the American Film Institute does for classic films.”

Luminaries in attendance: cookbook author and Journal contributor Judy Zeidler, actress Faith Ford, TV personalities/event emcees Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken and keynote speaker Barbara Haber, author of “From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals.”

“This was a truly magical evening that was made even more special with an appearance by the legendary Julia Child,” remarked food writer Amelia Saltsman, the event’s co-chair.

Child urged guests to support the cause and “do it with flair!”

For information, visit www.iacpfoundation.org/events.html . — Staff Report

Geiger Beachfront-Bound


Geiger Beachfront-Bound

“When we were growing up, no one considered Venice to be a Jewish area,” said Rabbi Ben Geiger, who nevertheless departed last month after five years as a part-time assistant rabbi at Irvine’s Congregation Beth Jacob for a tiny, 25-year-old Venice boardwalk synagogue.

Geiger, who met his wife in Los Angeles’ Pico-Robertson area where he grew up, is the first full-time rabbi of the Pacific Jewish Center, known as the “Shul on the Beach.” The Orthodox shul of 50 families is on the fringe of Venice’s gentrification, which is drawing younger families into an area known for densely packed, low-cost beach cottages. “We’re hoping to increase that growth,” Geiger said.

In the past, the congregation’s size was consistently undercut by relocations to the city’s more established Orthodox neighborhoods. “That will take time to reverse,” said Geiger, who will start by creating programs and developing relationships. His wife, Karen, who administered and taught Beth Jacob’s Hebrew school, eventually hopes to start sisterhood classes. The couple has two young children.

Beth Jacob is now considering hiring a part-time youth director, but will not rehire an assistant rabbi, said Paul Vann, president of the 265-family shul. “We’re not that large,” he said.

Geiger had also helped establish an adult education program, Torah Outreach, with the assistance of Basil Luck, a Beth Jacob congregant. “The idea was to reach people who were intimidated by studying at synagogue,” said Geiger, who taught in a Placentia office Luck provided. Most participants lived in Irvine, Newport Beach or Tustin.

Geiger is uncertain about the program’s continued existence.

Rabbi’s Dealings Jeopardized Wife’s JurySeat

Is the rabbi’s wife telling a fib? Or more likely, are they, like many couples, often oblivious to what goes on in each other’s lives?

The issue was seriously debated halfway through a federal loan-fraud trial against a Wall Street firm and an abusive Irvine mortgage lender founded by Brian Chisick. The lead plaintiff’s attorney discovered a troubling fact that raised questions about potential prejudice by juror Robin Einstein.

Einstein is married to Stephen J. Einstein, rabbi of Fountain Valley’s Congregation B’nai Tzedek. Before the lengthy class action lawsuit was tried in Santa Ana, potential jurors were asked about their familiarity with Chisick, a philanthroper in the Jewish community.

Einstein, 57, declared she didn’t know him. Yet her husband was serving on the board of the Jewish Federation of Orange County between 1993-94, when Chisick made a major gift exceeding $500,000 and an auditorium at the Costa Mesa campus was named after him.

“It was the answer to the jury questionnaire that threw us,” said Richard F. Scruggs, the plaintiffs’ lead lawyer. “It seemed hard to believe she didn’t know him, but my wife doesn’t know half of what I do, either.”

Some members of the plaintiffs’ legal team internally suggested Einstein might be prejudiced in Chisick’s favor, which could have led to her removal from the jury. Scruggs disagreed with them, explaining his decision after the June 16 verdict. “We took her at her word,” he said.

The unanimous jury awarded the plaintiffs $50.9 million in damages, deciding that Lehman Brothers had aided and abetted First Alliance Corporation’s systematic deceptions of 4,500 borrowers between 1999 and March 2000. In a blow to the plaintiffs, however, the jurors determined Lehman should bare only 10 percent of the damage award. First Alliance, Chisick and other executives were held responsible for 85 percent. The remainder was awarded against an insurer.

Last March, Chisick and the firm settled their liability in a previous class action suit brought by numerous plaintiffs and led by the Federal Trade Commission.

Einstein and her fellow jurors self-imposed a gag order on their 19 day deliberations. “I learned a lot,” she said afterwards. “The experience was very positive.”

Seasoned Rabbi Turns Temp

A veteran pulpit rabbi, Robert G. Klensin, will take his second job as a temporary spiritual leader when he succeeds Rabbi Michael Mayersohn at Westminster’s Temple Beth David beginning Sept. 1.

Klensin, 55, is among a growing cadre of seasoned rabbis filling unexpected job openings that allow congregations to conduct a full-scale search for a permanent replacement, said Mark Sklan, president of the 370-family Reform congregation.

The post-holiday fall season is when rabbinic job-shopping reaches its peak and the most candidates are circulating resumes. “If you’re not looking at that time, the pool is smaller,” he said.

In February, Beth David’s 13-year rabbi unexpectedly announced his intention to resign and change career directions, effective Aug. 31. A search committee considered 10 candidates and in June settled on Klensin, who had taken a previous interim post at Temple Beth Israel in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“It takes some healing for a congregation to stop looking back and start looking forward,” said Sklan, adding that “it’s not easy work” and takes someone sensitive to the emotional undercurrent of anger and hurt among some congregants.

Klensin, who spent 28 years at a Maryland synagogue, and his wife, Francine, will take up residence in Seal Beach early in August. He is unsure whether he will seek the job at Beth David permanently. His 10-month contract does not preclude his seeking the position. “It’s the kind of congregation I’d hope to be with in the future,” he said.

Two send-off events are planned for Mayersohn. The synagogue’s brotherhood is planning a farewell brunch Aug. 3 and its sisterhood is planning an Aug. 15 Shabbat dinner tribute.

New Rabbi Hopes More Families Enjoy Sun, Surf, Shabbat at PJC


On Saturday morning in Venice Beach, among the scores of shirtless rollerbladers and bearded aging beach hippies, you are likely to see some conservatively dressed people strolling purposefully past the henna tattoos stands, the Indian deity beachside galleries and the stores selling pleather mini dresses. They don’t stop to get massages or to buy incense from one of the many eclectic merchants that give Venice Beach its beatnik charm. Instead, they turn into "The Shul on the Beach" — a cheery yellow building, where their yarmulkes and long skirts are not out of place.

The Pacific Jewish Center (PJC) has been a Venice beach landmark for the past 60 years. Always a Traditional or Orthodox congregation, PJC has been on the fringes of the larger Orthodox centers in Pico-Robertson and Hancock Park — and a few miles too far west for some. It is a shul where the tightknit, traditionally Orthodox congregation would daven alongside the backpacking travelers who wandered in from the beach, against an aural backdrop of the crashing waves, making the community somewhat different to the staid Ashkenazi norm in other shuls.

But PJC is now taking bold steps to become a more mainstream synagogue and to establish itself as a community of choice among people already living in Santa Monica and those moving to Los Angeles. It has just hired Rabbi Ben Geiger (the former assistant rabbi of Beth Jacob in Irvine) to be PJC’s first full-time rabbi, and PJC members are hoping that the appointment will be a membership booster shot for the 50-family shul and make it more connected to the larger community.

According to Steve Sass, head of the Jewish Historical Society of Los Angeles, PJC was started in the 1940s when two Jewish merchants decided to remove the wall between a butcher shop and another Jewish business to start a synagogue. That was during the heyday of Venice Jewry, when there were at least four other shuls in Venice, including another two on the boardwalk. Back then, PJC was known as the Bay Cities Synagogue, and it was populated by many retired garment workers and union activists who moved to Venice from New York and Chicago, making Venice the "Miami Beach" of the West. But in the 1960s, the city of Los Angeles embarked on a project of urban renewal in Venice, and many of the bungalows and small cottages where the retirees lived were torn down, displacing the residents. Shuls in Venice suffered; many of them had pledged their assets to the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which had rights to the properties if the shuls could no longer get a minyan. As the minyanim dwindled, the JNF took over and sold the properties. PJC was saved in the mid-1970s by a bagel club started by Maury Rosen, who attracted residents to the premises with bagels to make it appear as if there was a regular minyan there. At the time, the roof of PJC was so in need of repair that congregants had to wear galoshes when they visited after it rained.

It was around the same time that a group of congregants left the Venice Conservative synagogue Mishkon Tephilo in search of a more traditionally Orthodox service. The group was lead by Rabbi Daniel Lapin and film critic Michael Medved, who decided to revive the ailing Shul on the Beach. This charismatic duo started attracting many people to PJC’s services, and the community grew. Barbra Streisand had the bar mitzvah of her son, Jason Gould, there; the shul sponsored regular classes attended by hundreds of people; and a day school was started to serve the needs of the community. It was a community that prided itself on its commitment to Torah learning and its generous hospitality. It welcomed newcomers in from off the beach, set them up with meals for Shabbat and would then invite them to attend the classes.

But the thriving community split in the early 1990s. A new school board moved the day school closer to the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, where it became the Ohr Eliyahu school, a decision that was very unpopular with the Traditional members of the synagogue. The move also posed a challenge to Lapin’s authority; some people left the shul to start their own minyan, others stayed in deference to Lapin’s community vision. Lapin and Medved eventually left Venice and moved to Washington state where they both became radio personalities who espoused a conservative vision.

Back in Venice, Lapin’s brother, Rabbi David Lapin, took over the leadership of the now-smaller community (albeit not full time), and Rabbi Avi Pogrow became his assistant rabbi. The shul continued its commitment to hospitality (any stranger walking into PJC generally gets at least three Shabbat-meal offers to choose from), and while the shul was renovated to make its Old World charm clean, bright and modern, it had difficulty in enticing much of the new set of Santa Monica’s urban professionals to join the community and fulfill its growth potential. It also failed to become the shul of choice for other religious Jews; the community had no eruv (boundary that enables Jews to carry on Shabbat), which meant that parents of young children could not take them to shul. Meanwhile, many parents of older children found housing costs in Santa Monica and Venice too prohibitive and wanted to live in larger communities where their children could be closer to their schools and friends.

Recently, David Lapin took an educational post in Washington, D.C., and Pogrow decided to look elsewhere for a rabbinic position, leaving the door open for a new rabbi. A search committee was established, and although the shul had differences of opinion as to what the new rabbi should be — some wanted the rabbi to be more modern; others more traditionally ultra-Orthodox — after a year, the shul decided to employ Geiger, a graduate of both Yeshiva University Los Angeles and the ultra-orthodox Ner Israel Rabbinic School in Baltimore, Md.

"I stand more to the right than to the left of Orthodoxy," said the 28-year-old Geiger, who has his first official Shabbat in the community this week. "By choosing me they chose a religious direction, but overall, those things tend to be less relevant than people feeling that they have a place in the shul and are connected to the shul."

The shul has high expectations of Geiger. In addition to all the regular rabbinic duties of leading services and teaching classes, they would like him to build the eruv, create programs that will make PJC more a part of the greater Orthodox community, expand the community’s National Council of Synagogue Youth chapter and capitalize on the potential for growth and draw new members to the shul.

"Geiger is young and energetic and he comes from a halachic standpoint that is acceptable or preferable to people who have been here for a while" said Michal Geller, who headed the rabbi search committee. "From an age and demographic perspective, he is an L.A. boy, which is helpful for a tie back into the mainstream Jewish community, and hopefully we can get some longevity out of him."

‘Boy’ Puts a New Twist on an Old Rite


Most bar mitzvah boys expect presents — jewelry, vacations or money. So it’s no surprise that Herb Citrin, a recent bar mitzvah, asked for money — and lots of it — but he asked that it be contributed to the Guardians of the Jewish Home for the Aging.

Citrin isn’t your typical bar mitzvah boy. He celebrated his rite of passage at the age of 80. But the ceremony was unusual for other reasons, too. The rabbi who called him up to the bimah at Stephen S. Wise Temple was his son, Rabbi Paul Citrin, who is the rabbi at Temple Sinai in Palm Desert. His bar mitzvah tutor? Citrin’s grandson, Micah, who sang and accompanied him on the guitar.

Why did Citrin wait so long for his bar mitzvah? He grew up in Boyle Heights and also in Glassel Park, where it was “99 percent gentile,” Citrin said, and had no synagogue. As a youngster, it was difficult for him to get a formal Jewish education. The school was miles from his house, and his mother, who kept a traditional Jewish home, didn’t drive; his father worked nights and slept during the day. So his 13th birthday passed without a bar mitzvah.

But to see that his children could have the Jewish education Citrin never had, his first wife, Harriett Jane Rosenmeyer, “was the guiding light” in ensuring that the family joined a temple. In 1963, Citrin and his family left Temple Emanuel with Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin to found Stephen S. Wise Temple.

Citrin’s son, Paul, was bar mitzvahed there, and his daughter, Laurie, was confirmed there. Paul became a rabbi and one of his two grandsons, Micah, is now a third-year student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “I couldn’t be more proud of my son and grandson,” Herb told The Journal.

Like most bar mitzvah boys, the octogenarian delivered a speech, thanking God for all his blessings: a loving family, close friends and colleagues, health and, most importantly, his second wife, Ione, a professional artist. Citrin also gave thanks for being “blessed to be able to give time and money to The Jewish Federation, the Jewish Home for the Aging and Gateways Hospital.”

After the bar mitzvah, everyone shuffled next door to enjoy a salmon-and-salad reception and a live band playing Jewish songs. Flower arrangements in vibrant fall colors adorned the tables, and in the front of the room was a full-sized laminated photo of Citrin in a bikini bathing suit — showing off his body and toned muscles.

Guest also watched a slide show of scenes from Citrin’s life, from boyhood up until his bar mitzvah. The scenes showed a slender, handsome man playing tennis and dancing. Guests laughed when the slides showed Citrin and Ione in costumes, like the couple in Grand Wood’s “American Gothic.”

Unlike most young bar mitzvah boys, Citrin has led a full life. After his discharge from the Navy in 1945, when he was “a radio and sonar man on submarines,” Citrin parked cars at Lawry’s restaurant, he said, “when prime rib dinners cost $1.25.”

The budding entrepreneur decided to make the parking concession his own. “I was making more money parking cars than many doctors and lawyers.”

He began running the parking concessions at other dining establishments on La Cienega Boulevard’s Restaurant Row and soon established Valet Parking Services (VPS) — the first of its kind in the city. Today, VPS contracts with hotels, airports and the entertainment industry. Citrin is still chairman and “chief nudzh” of his company. When not working, Citrin plays tennis, lifts weights and walks daily.

During the bar mitzvah, each guest received a large chocolate key saying, “Herb’s Key to Youth: Growing Old is Not for Sissies.”


Carla Zeitlin is a personal fitness trainer, who specializes in training seniors, and a health and fitness writer.

The Circuit


Rah Rah Riordan!

American Jewish Community (AJC) honored children’s rights activist Nancy Daly Riordan with its Human Relations Award at the Regent Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills. (From left) L.A. Chapter President Peter Weil; honoree Nancy Daly Riordan; AJC Western Regional Director Rabbi Gary Greenebaum; emcee Bill Rosendahl; and keynote speaker Marian Wright Edelman.

Solidarity Rallies

Women In Solidarity, an amalgam of representatives from various Jewish women’s organizations, held its election priming event “Political Hotline: California to Jerusalem” at Stephen S. Wise Temple. Presenters included Women’s Alliance Vice President Elaine Robinson and Special Assistant to Gov. Gray Davis Teri Smooke. Jewish News Editor Phil Blazer moderated the event.

Mission In Action

Friends of Sheba Medical Center held a reception for Sinai Temple’s Mission of Mercy group, which recently completed a mission to Israel. Rabbi Jacob Pressman, Marjorie Pressman, and Sinai’s Rabbi David Wolpe were among the speakers at the Four Seasons Hotel reception.



Center Celebration

Hillel Council At UCLA celebrated the opening of its Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, where “Bonanza” creator David Dortort and his wife Rose; community activist Janice Kamenir-Reznik; and Hillel supporter Helene Spiegel were honored.

Shalom, Sarit!

B’nai B’rith Shalom Unit will welcome newly-elected president Sarit Finkelstein-Boim (pictured) and its incoming board at its annual dinner-dance, to be held on Nov. 16. Singer Pini Cohen and L.A. Shir Choir will entertain. Consul General of Israel Yuval Rotem will serve as honorary committee chair.

B’nai B’rith Shalom Unit has donated an ambulance to Israel Magen David Adom an Ambulance, and will forward funds raised at this event to Israeli charities. For more information, call (310) 471-8545.

A Cool Honoree

Actor/director/producer Henry Winkler, best known as “The Fonz” from “Happy Days,” received the Spirit of Hope Award at the Skirball Cultural Center from New Directions for Youth, a nonprofit that has provided services and programs for at-risk youth and their families for more than a quarter century.

Guthman The Guardian

Rabbi Sidney Guthman received the Guardian of Israel Award at the Jewish National Fund’s Long Beach dinner.

Ivory Tickler

Concert pianist Hershey Felder performed at a benefit for the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony at University Synagogue in Brentwood.

World News

The Children of the World choir, led by founder Marrina Waks, performed at the Hollywood Film Festival on Oct. 7, where DreamWorks mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg was honored. Fellow DreamWorks mogul/director Steven Spielberg and actor Billy Crystal were among the presenters.

Join The Club

The 1939 Club — including Shoah Survivors of Orange County and Long Beach — will celebrate their 50th anniversary at a Beverly Hills Hotel gala honoring the club’s past presidents. Osi Sladek and the Reuben Berci Orchestra will provide the entertainment. For more information, call (310) 276-5401.

A Big Happy-ning

Happy Hats For Kids, a nonprofit headed by founder Sheri Schrier that brings good cheer to children hospitalized with cancer, AIDS and other devastating illnesses, will be forming a new South Bay fundraising auxiliary. A meeting will be held on Oct. 28 at 7:30 p.m. For more information, call (310) 326-8409.

Community-Minded Couple

Solomon and Mahlagha Rastegar will be honored at Western Region of The Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs 2002 Herman Braunstein Red Yarmulke Humanitarian Award, to be held at Sinai Temple. John Fishel, president of Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, will present the award. Singer Pini Cohen will entertain. Net proceeds will go to Magen David Adom Israel Ambulance and Emergency Relief Fund.

Actor Voight Walks

Jon Voight, who won the Oscar for “Coming Home,” has a coming “home” event of his own — The Jewish Home for the Aging (JHA), that is. Voight is the honorary chair of JHA’s Third Annual Walk of Angels 5 K Walk/Run, which will be held on Dec. 8 at the Jewish Home’s Eisenberg Campus in Reseda. For information, call the Walk of Angeles hotline: (818) 774-3100.

A Growing Collection

James Snyder, the Anne and Jerome Fisher director of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, announced recent gifts from Los Angeles supporters who are joining forces during these challenging times in Israel to support the museum through the West Coast branch of the American Friends of the Israel Museum.

Leading the list of major donations by individual supporters is a gift of $1.5 million from Herta and Paul Amir of Beverly Hills, for the renewal of the Shrine of the Book, the D. Samuel and Jeane H. Gottesman Center for Biblical Manuscripts, which was constructed in 1965 on the museum’s campus to house its world-renowned holdings of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Alice and Nahum Lainer of Beverly Hills, have contributed a gift of $1,000,000, to be paid in annual contributions of $100,000, to support the museum’s unrestricted operations. Both the Amirs and the Lainers are longtime friends of the Israel Museum.

An early work by the American artist Frank Stella, completed in 1969, has been donated to the Museum by the family of the late Los Angeles collectors Luella and Samuel Maslon.

Founded in 1965, the Israel Museum houses encyclopedic collections ranging from pre-history through contemporary art, including the most extensive holdings of biblical and Holy Land archaeology in the world, among them the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Don’t Fight This Power

Professional Organization of Women in Entertainment Reaching UP (POWER UP) will honor Jerry Offsay, president of programming for Showtime Networks Inc., and singer/songwriter Melissa Etheridge at its second annual Power Premiere. The gala event will be held at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. For information, call (310) 271-4708; visit www.power-up.net.

Board Room

Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation has announced that it has recently completed a strategic planning process that resulted in the adoption of a new mission for the organization and the expansion of its board of directors with five prominent Southern Californians. Building on the extraordinary accomplishment of collecting almost 52,000 videotaped testimonies, the foundation has now broadened its international efforts and is focusing on the educational use of the testimonies. The foundation has restructured its governance to match this new goal.

Since Steven Spielberg established Survivors of the Shoah in 1994, the foundation has videotaped the testimonies of more than 50,000 Holocaust survivors and witnesses in 57 countries in 32 languages. Today, the Shoah Foundation’s mission is to overcome prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry — and the suffering they cause — through the educational use of the Foundation’s visual history testimonies. Susan Crown, board chair, announced that prominent Southern California community and business leaders Gerald Breslauer, Skip Paul, Bruce Ramer, Mickey Rutman and Severin Wunderman have been named to the board of directors.

Breslauer and Rutman co-founded Breslauer and Rutman, LLC, an L.A.-based business management firm that specializes in the financial affairs of individuals in the entertainment industry. Bruce Ramer has been a partner for over 40 years at Gang, Tyre, Ramer & Brown, a Beverly Hills-based law firm has served on the boards of the American Jewish Committee. Paul is chairman of the board of the IFILM Network and has served as president of MCA Enterprises. Wunderman is an art collector, philanthropist and Holocaust survivor from Belgium.

A Shoah Support

Prominent attorney Arthur Barens and his wife, Maxine, graciously hosted an educational evening on behalf of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation at their Beverly Hills home, where more than 80 guests gathered in the Barens’ garden for a thought-provoking discussion with Shoah Foundation President and CEO Douglas Greenberg, and Renee Firestone, educator and Holocaust survivor.



Brothers Day

Jewish Big Brothers (JBB) kicked off its sixth year of sports mentoring with Sports Buddies 2002 – 2003 at Camp Max Straus in Glendale. Olympic Gold Medallist and Sports Buddies spokesperson Mitch Gaylord appeared. The nonsectarian event is funded by the Amy Phillips Charitable Foundation.



May The ORT Be With You!

While visiting Toronto, actor James Earl Jones broke the news to the Toronto Sun that he will be back in “Star Wars: Episode III” (due 2005) to voice Darth Vader, the character he originated in the original “Star Wars” trilogy. The reason for Jones’ Canadian sojourn? — he was honored on Oct. 2 by ORT Toronto.

The Man of Lonesome Sorrow


He awoke from the nightmare with a scream, as he had every night for almost 40 years. His heart
raced, his body drenched in sweat, his mind filled with vivid images of fiery destruction. He saw rivulets of blood flowing through the streets of Jerusalem, the Holy Temple ground into ashes, the lifeless bodies of the priests scattered about the Temple Mount.

The dreams began after Jeremiah’s 17th birthday. At first, they were benign, inspiring.

Before I created you in the womb, I selected you; before you were born, I consecrated you. I appointed you a prophet over the nations.

I replied, Ah, Lord God! I don’t know how to speak, I am still a boy.

And the Lord said to me: Do not say, "I am still a boy," but go where I send you, and speak whatever I command you.

See, I appoint you this day over nations and kingdoms: To uproot and to pull down; to destroy and to overthrow; to build and to plant. (Jeremiah 1:5-10)

The nightmares came soon thereafter. As a child, he’d been taught that the land of Israel sensed and responded to the behavior of its inhabitants. "You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I Myself abide, for I the Lord abide among the Israelite people." (Numbers 35:34) Suddenly, he could viscerally feel the revulsion of the land for its immoral populace. He was nauseated.

I brought you to this country of fertile land to enjoy its fruit and its bounty, but you came and defiled My land. You made My possession abhorrent. (Jeremiah 2:7).

Assaulted by the horrid visions each night, he came to loathe the petty evils and everyday cruelties accepted in polite society. The daily diet of deceit, betrayal and corruption — the common fare of all urban society — disgusted him. Everything which passed for normal, every commonplace practice of business, politics, religion, especially religion, appeared to him as a precursor to the coming catastrophe. He had no outlet for his rage but to proclaim the vision from the steps of the Holy Temple.

Will you steal and murder and commit adultery and swear falsely and sacrifice to Baal and follow other gods who you have not experienced and then come and stand before Me in this house which bears My name and say, "We are safe?" Safe to do all these abhorrent things? (Jeremiah 7:9-12)

The more bizarre his behavior, the more he became an anathema to family, community and state. Shamed and castigated, he was incarcerated, if not as a dangerous criminal, then as a lunatic and a social nuisance. His lonely sadness soon descended into despair.

Woe is me, my mother, that you ever bore me, a man of conflict and strife with all the land! I have not lent, and I have not borrowed; yet, everyone curses me! (Jeremiah 15:10) Why did I ever issue from the womb; to see misery and woe; to spend all my days in shame! (Jeremiah 20:18)

He had failed. Jerusalem was destined for destruction and nothing could save her. The carcasses of this people shall be food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth, with none to frighten them off. And I will silence in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem the sound of joy and gladness, the song of the bridegroom and the bride. For the whole land shall fall to ruin. (Jeremiah 7:34)

Jeremiah awoke from the nightmare with a fearsome scream. But he knew that this day’s end would be different. The onslaught had begun. The Babylonian armies arrived and besieged the city. As he had seen thousands of times in his dreams, the walls crumbled, the city filled with terrified screams, the Holy Temple burned.

But the prophet Jeremiah, for the first time in 40 years, slept soundly. The horrible nightmares were gone; replaced by a new vision — of new beginning, of rebirth, of renewal. Divine love replaced divine revulsion. The prophet of national doom turned into a champion of spiritual resilience. With the same passion he had once hurled words of despair, he now pleaded with his people to hold fast to hope.

I will build you firmly again, oh maiden Israel! Again you shall take up your timbrels and go forth to the rhythm of the dancers.

For the day is coming when the watchmen shall proclaim on the heights of Ephraim: Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God!

Thus says the Lord: Restrain your voice from weeping; your eyes from shedding tears. There is hope for your future — declares the Lord." Your children shall return to their country. (Jeremiah 31:4-6, 16-17)

It’s Delish Is Delovely


Dressed in a white shirt and black pants with tzitzit hanging out the sides, a red beard and a big black velvet yarmulke on his head, Rabbi Moshe Grawitzky looks like any other yeshiva rabbi. But he’s not — or at least, not anymore. As the founder of It’s Delish, an innovative kosher food manufacturing and distribution company in North Hollywood, the ultra-Orthodox Grawitzky is as likely to be hobnobbing with the head buyers from all the large supermarket chains on the West Coast as he is with colleagues from Toras Emes, the school he used to teach at, while he establishes himself as a mover and shaker in the highly competitive world of retail food merchandising.

Grawitzky and his wife, Chana, started It’s Delish 10 years ago with $100,000 in start-up capital borrowed from credit cards and free-loan societies. They began with a small line of kosher-for-Passover nuts, dried fruit, spices and candy, which they packaged in bags and then peddled to supermarkets. As simple as the idea sounds, there was nothing quite like it available in California.

"Back then, there was no availability of mainstream, normative kosher snacks," Grawitzky says. "In the supermarket’s mindset, they were pitching toward what they thought made the most Jewish bang for their buck. They stocked a lot of gefilte fish and borscht –they must have thought that we took an IV of gefilte fish every morning for breakfast and had these lavish matzah ball parties all the time."

It’s Delish was started with the aim of changing the price and the quality of kosher food. The Grawitzkys wanted to produce up- market products at downtown prices, and, in Grawitzky’s words, "to enhance the joy of being a kosher consumer."

"There has always been some perception that if you were going to keep kosher, then you were going to be punished financially for that pleasure," Grawitzky says. "And I don’t like being taxed to the hilt because I’m Jewish. So we decided that kosher is never going to be more expensive if we can help it. If anything, it was going to be less expensive."

"It has also been a lifelong goal to make Yiddishkayt and Jewish products more user-friendly," he adds. "So we wanted to create a contemporary type of upscale snack that would complement the consumer."

Unlike Jewish food companies such as Manishevitz, It’s Delish offers consumers mainstream food products. And unlike Liebers and Paskez, sold only in kosher stores, It’s Delish is sold in mainstream supermarkets. Colorful packaging and an upbeat logo give the products a bright, cheery and contemporary feel, and when compared with the equivalent products in the supermarket, it wins the price test. At Ralphs on Pico Boulevard, an It’s Delish peach pie costs $3.99, compared to the Ralphs brand at $4.29. It’s Delish basil retails at $3.49 for 2 ounces, McCormick basil is $6.19 for one-third of an ounce.

The Grawitzkys’ dedication to bargain prices — they even put their kosher-for-Passover products on sale before the holiday — is not without drawbacks. "Sometimes that means we take a loss," Chana Grawitzky says. "When pine nuts went up to $12 a pound, we kept the same price, and we did not increase it, because our goal is to give great quality products at great prices."

Presently, the only thing inflating in It’s Delish are its business operations. The company now offers over 300 products which are sold in several hundred supermarkets in California, Nevada, Oregon and Seattle. Products are packaged in a Valley warehouse complete with a $100,000 temperature-controlled cooler room to store the chocolates and candy, and then shipped on one of the It’s Delish trucks to the supermarkets.

At times, It’s Delish will do "kosher runs" at non-kosher manufacturing plants, so that they can produce lines of products that are traditionally not kosher (such as sour worm candies). They recently created a line of kosher-for-Passover soft drinks when kosher-for-Passover Coca-Cola was not available in California.

It’s Delish has also created their own innovative packaging and storage for their products. It’s Delish spices are sold in larger plastic bottles with wide openings, instead of the smaller glass containers that spices are traditionally sold in. In addition, the company builds its own shelving specially designed to hold It’s Delish products to put in the supermarkets.

The company employs 40 people to do the packaging, the shipping and shelf stocking, with the Grawitzkys overseeing most of the product development and marketing.

"When we started it we thought it would be a mom-and-pop type of operation on a very small, localized scale," Grawitzky says. "A hobby so to speak. We never expected it to take over our lives."

He says he makes millions of dollars in sales every year, but not millions of dollars in profits. Although he credits the supermarket chains with being receptive to their dreams of quality kosher products, Grawitzky says that the financial reality of the supermarket business is brutal.

"There is a religion going on in the supermarkets now to save labor, so we send in our own workers to stock the shelves," he says. "We also need to pay slotting fees just to get the shelf space. We end up paying for the trucks, the space and the labor — and this is the type of system where you can drive 300 miles to make a delivery, arrive five minutes late and be told to turn back and come back the next day."

"But the fierceness of the competition to get an inch of shelf space is the most sobering thought of all," he adds. Indeed, It’s Delish does not even try and compete for shelf space in the spice or candy aisles, preferring instead to stock their products in a different part of the supermarket, where they can control the way that the products are presented to the consumer.

Product and display control are a big issue for Grawitzky, who recently turned down a distribution deal with the Wal-Mart chain. "It was an instant sale of millions of dollars," he says. "We turned them down because we thought that they would not do a nice enough job merchandising the product." He says that his displays have garnered praise from high-ranking supermarket executives across the country, and he is reluctant to give that up for the sake of a few more dollars.

It is not only kosher consumers that are enjoying It’s Delish products. Terry O’Neil, director of public relations for Ralphs Grocery Co. in California, told The Journal that It’s Delish is carried in many of the stores that serve a predominantly Spanish customer base, and it sells very well. "In a lot of the Hispanic stores that we have, it is selling better than in the Jewish neighborhoods," he said. "For us, it has been a very good product and a very good seller."

In the future, It’s Delish plans to increase its product line and distribution centers and hopes to continue being ambassadors for kashrut. "I want people to realize that we serve people who are lawyers, doctors, actuaries and venture capitalists making multimillion dollar salaries," says Chana Grawitzky. "They might live in beautiful homes in Hancock Park of Palos Verdes, but they keep kosher."

Father’s Day


"Rabbi, do you make house calls?" the man named Mike on the other end of the phone wanted to know. "My dad was never religious, but he said he’d like to see a rabbi before he dies. He’s living with us now, and he can’t get out any more. Please?"

The address was on a winding, urban, L.A. canyon road. I knocked, and Mike let me in.

"Dad, the rabbi is here to talk to you," he said loudly over his shoulder.

Mike looked much older than when I last saw him. I’d done his wedding some five years before. Now, he was gray and balding. He was tired. When I found his dad, Bud, on the couch I knew why.

Bud was in the last stages of lung cancer. He lay on the couch in his gray sweat pants and undershirt, a leak-proof pad and a round, foam cushion beneath him. He had no idea who I was or why I was there.

He wasn’t in pain, but every gesture, every syllable and word took more strength than he had to spare. I wanted to help. So in my most compassionate rabbi’s voice I said, "Bud, I’m the rabbi. I know you wanted to see me. How can I help?"

Bud slowly rotated his head in my direction, locked in on me with his huge, brown eyes and whispered, "I have to take a crap."

You want to talk theology, you want to pray, you want to plan your funeral — I’m game. You want me to change your adult diaper — I’m out. I went to find Mike. "Uh, I think he has to go to the bathroom," I said timidly.

Mike sighed and headed toward the living room. "OK dad," Mike said facing his father on the couch and bending over. "Put your arm around my neck. Come on, don’t let go dad."

With help, Bud managed to put both of his stick-like arms around Mike’s neck and lace his fingers together.

"One, two, three — up we go." There they stood, the two men, face to face, Bud slumped against Mike, his arms still locked in place behind his son’s neck. Mike kept his arms around Bud’s waist. It was a dance — the most tender dance I have ever seen.

"That’s it dad," Mike encouraged, as he slowly rocked from side to side. With each gentle shifting Bud shuffled a foot, still draped over Mike with all his waning strength. Ever so gently, side to side, side to side, Mike inched them toward the bedroom where Bud could lay down and have his diaper changed.

"Good dad. Now I know why mom said you were such a great dancer." Side to side. Inch by inch. The old man and his middle-aged son, holding on to each other against the sadness and the ache-swaying to a rhythm only they could feel.

Bud died a week later.

When I met with Mike to learn more about his dad before the funeral, I learned why he’d taken him in. Bud was broke. His first wife threw him out for blowing all their money on scams. His second wife threw him out for the same thing. You name it and Bud could sell it — vibrating beds, shoes, oil well investments. Bud always knew that wealth and power were just around the next corner. All he had to do was mortgage the house to get there. But the deal was always a con, and Bud was always the chump. In the end, Mike was all Bud had.

Mike was Bud’s only child. They shared the same birthday. They shared the same apartment and later the same house. When Mike was young, Bud used to come home late from work some nights, wake him up, bounce him in his bed, toss him in the air then, "one, two, three — up we go," on to the kitchen counter, feeling 10 feet tall, to dip graham crackers in cold milk. Sometimes, Bud gave Mike a bath. By the time I met him, Mike had to clean up Bud’s messes. There was a fearful symmetry to it all.

Bud’s wives left him. His friends turned out to be crooks. Mike’s wife wanted Bud in a home. But Mike just hung in there with his dad. I understand.

I think back to my dad coming home late at night, lifting me in my footsie pajamas onto his shiny black wingtips. Walking me in giant steps across the kitchen floor. We’re all locked together, we fathers and sons — our little boy feet on their grown man shoes; until some day we hold their weary bodies and fading lives gently in our arms.

Spiritual Sparring


It’s not often that you hear the New Testament being read or Jesus’ suffering being referenced in a synagogue. It is probably less often that you will hear the merits of celibacy being debated in a Jewish studies forum.

However, both Temple Beth Am and the Jewish Studies Institute of the Simon Wiesenthal Center hosted Jewish and Christian clergymen earlier this month at interfaith forums at which scriptural sparring and cultural clashes made for heated discussions and ultimately ecumenicalism.

At Temple Beth Am, a Conservative temple, the topic was Psalm 22, the chapter in which the writer pleads with God, saying, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The purpose of the evening was to look at the diverse interpretations the psalm has inspired in different faiths — Jewish, Catholic and Protestant.

Participants in the Beth Am program were the Rev. William Martin, a Protestant minister from the Inner-City Christian Center, Father Bill Wolf of St. Ambrose Catholic Church and Rabbi Joel Rembaum of Temple Beth Am.

For Martin, the psalm was a foreshadowing of Jesus’ suffering on the cross and, perhaps, a subconscious prophecy on the part of King David, who is believed to have written the psalm. Martin noted that according to the New Testament, Jesus spoke the words of the psalm while he was being crucified.

"If we say that this is the psalm of David, which I believe it is," he said, "how is it that this psalm is so accurate in its depiction of some of the things that happened to [Jesus] when he was on the cross? That baffles my mind."

Wolf was less keen to take the account of Jesus’ crucifixion so literally. He explained that there was at least a 30-year gap between Jesus’ death and the writing of the Gospels, in which Jesus’ death was described.

Wolf said that it was possible that the writers of the New Testament, "who were all Jewish and knew their religion," took the psalm and applied it to Jesus after the fact. He traced the usage of Psalm 22 through the New Testament and saw it as divinely inspired and as an expression of a tradition of faith in times of suffering that had been passed down through the ages.

For Rembaum, too, the psalm had a universal message about how faith can be used as a vehicle to overcome suffering. "Is a person of faith entitled to say, ‘God, where are you?’" Rembaum asked. "Isn’t God present in our lives always? But that is exactly the point. A person of faith who exists with a very profound relationship with God can yell at God."

At the Simon Wiesenthal Center the same night, 120 people showed up to hear Rabbi Ari Hier lead a spirited discussion on forgiveness. Participants were Alan Reinach, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church State Council; Monsignor Padraick Loftus, St. Mel’s Catholic Church; Dr. Ken Durham, of the Protestant Malibu Church of Christ; Rabbi Elazar Muskin, Young Israel of Century City; and attorney Mathew Schwartz.

The panelists debated subjects such as whether celibacy was still viable (the Catholic said yes; the Seventh-day Adventist said no; the rabbi said it had nothing to do with Judaism) and whether people who had committed heinous crimes could be forgiven.

Both of the discussion groups generated enthusiastic audience participation. "What we do is provocative, and in your face," Hier said. "If you take people who represent different things and ask provocative questions, you are bound to get a spirited discussion going."

Rembaum was more philosophical about the impact that such evenings could have. At the Temple Beth Am forum, he led the audience in a recitation of the blessing "Shehecheyanu," which is normally recited to mark the occasion of something new.

"I just want to remind everyone what a miracle is taking place here right now," he said. "I hope that people can see what is taking place in this room tonight and generalize it around the world."

The Circuit


University Synagogue paid tribute to the 30-year career of Rabbi Allen Freehling, on the occasion of the socially active rabbi’s retirement, with a gala at the Regent Beverly Wilshire.

“I will miss very much the way he pays attention to detail and to the needs of congregants. He knows everybody’s names,” said Cantor Jay Frailich, who has sung by Freehling’s side since 1974.

Janice Tytell, principal of University Synagogue’s religious school, said of the tireless Freehling, “He’s been a phenomenal supporter of everything. I’ve tried to do a lot in the religious school, and he’s been very supportive of a lot of innovations. I’m going to miss him.”

Rabbi Allen Freehling with “Friends” star David Schwimmer, who came with parents Paul and Arlene Schwimmer. The Schwimmers are among University Synagogue’s prominent congregants, who have also included real estate mogul Eli Broad and CBS Entertainment President Nancy Tellem. Photos by Todd Wawrychuk/Long.Photography Inc.

Calabasas High School freshman and Congregation Or Ami member Alex Student, left, joined Dr. Theodore G. Krontiris, executive vice president of medical and scientific affairs at City of Hope, at City of Hope’s 26th annual Bone Marrow Transplantation Reunion on April 19. Student celebrated the ongoing recovery of family friend and cancer survivor Andrea Klapova, for whom he raised $10,000 for his bar mitzvah project. Student’s gift, which will help fund cancer research, inspired his parents, Teri and Gene Student, and the Klapova family to become philanthropically involved with City of Hope. In recognition of his gift, Student’s name will be inscribed on a plaque at the City of Hope’s Duarte campus.

Julia Ruxin, who wrote about Elie Wiesel for her Brentwood School fourth-grade class, met the subject of her report at the gala. “Are you relieved to be a [Holocaust] survivor?” Ruxin asked Wiesel. “I’m relieved because I survived,” responded the Nobel Prize winner.

Marina del Rey and Venice residents Sari Eshman, Leslie Askanas, Carol Berk and Helene Feuerstein join Gerald Zaslaw, president/CEO of Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services at the annual luncheon recognizing Vista’s volunteer corps.

Exodus Revisited


Life was interesting for Rabbi David Wolpe in 2001.

It’s not every year that a man has an ad taken out against him in The Jewish Journal by six well-respected rabbis, accusing him of "threaten[ing] our spiritual continuity by attempting to diminish our faith and sever the roots that bind us to it," and also gets named by The Forward as one of the Top 50 most influential people in the Jewish community.

During the past year, Wolpe, the spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, has been both vilified and lauded for his Passover sermon in which he questioned the truth of the Book of Exodus, as most of his congregants, indeed most of the Jewish world, had come to know it. His statements were recorded by Los Angeles Times reporter Teresa Watanabe, who quoted Wolpe as saying, "Virtually every modern archeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all."

To say such declarations did not sit well with the rabbi’s Orthodox brethren is an understatement. The controversy evoked by the Los Angeles Times article about the sermon crossed not only interdenominational boundaries locally, but drew strong responses from across the United States and in Israel.

Many congregational rabbis were actually grateful. Instead of the usual, "We were taken out of Egypt and therefore must help the poor, homeless, suffering world Jewry…" sermons they try to make compelling year in and year out, suddenly there was a topic to dive into with gusto.

If indeed, the Exodus did not happen as stated in the Torah, what does that mean for the Passover seder, for the veracity of the Torah, for Israel and Judaism?

The debate raged among everyday congregants and world-renowned scholars. It spilled onto the pages of Moment magazine, in which Wolpe responded to an attack by Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeological Review, who in turn rebutted Wolpe as follows:

"…The only aspect of the Biblical account that Rabbi Wolpe legitimately questioned on archeological grounds was the claim that 600,000 Israelite men (plus women and children, for a total of 2 or 3 million) crossed the desert. This is a gross exaggeration, I agree. But if Rabbi Wolpe had simply said this straight out-and-out, his sermon would not have garnered the publicity it did."

Even as recently as a few weeks ago, New York Times reporter Michael Massing made a point in his article about the Conservative movement’s new chumash, Etz Hayim, to bring up Wolpe’s "litany of disillusion" about the Torah.

In truth, Wolpe said that he was only stating what Orthodox Jews had always claimed Conservative Jews believed.

"Part of the outrage was artificial, because the Orthodox have said for years that Conservative Jews treat the Torah as a human document," Wolpe said. "We do, and I said it, and they said, how dare you say such a thing? So that was part of it."

Wolpe said his primary motivation in writing the sermon, was that he wanted to avoid the tendency of many rabbis to hide their knowledge and opinions from their congregants, believing that they would not be able to handle the information.

"A nationally important rabbi with whom I spoke after the sermon said to me, ‘Why did you do this?’ And I said, ‘Because I don’t wish to treat my congregation as children.’ To which he said, ‘But they are children,’" Wolpe recalled, shaking his head.

"I think that is how a lot of rabbis think of their congregants," he continued. "I have had many rabbis say to me, I won’t bring you to my congregation to discuss this because it would undermine my religious position. That to me is a species of intellectual timidity that is unfortunate and even destructive."

Following the sermon and subsequent press, Wolpe said he got a call from a woman in Palm Beach, Fla., who told him that a couple of years ago she went to Israel on an archeological dig, and the archeologist said to her the same things that Wolpe said in his sermon.

"She said, ‘I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. But now it’s two years later, and my faith has deepened, so stick with it,’" the rabbi reported.

"I didn’t want my congregants to hear about this first at UCLA and to come back to me and say, ‘Rabbi, either you’re ignorant or you’re hiding. Why didn’t you tell us about this?’ I wanted them to know you can know this and still be a faithful Jew," Wolpe said.

Although the rabbi’s intentions were good, his characterization of belief in the divine origin of the Torah as blind faith angered some colleagues, particularly those in the Orthodox rabbinate. Rabbi Elazar Muskin, leader of Young Israel of Century City, said after listening to the tape of Wolpe’s sermon that he felt compelled to confront the rabbi.

"I told him I took umbrage with the implication that Orthodox belief is blind belief; that it is an infantile stance, while those who believe in biblical criticism are the intellectuals, the enlightened ones," Muskin said. "To say that the Orthodox belief is that of the Dark Ages is just fallacious.

"We have been dealing with the same questions [as Bible scholars] for centuries, from the writing of the Talmud to the present day," said Muskin, who was part of a panel discussing biblical criticism March 20 at Valley Beth Shalom.

Over time, the controversy has died down somewhat. Muskin said he did not believe the incident created any lasting rift between Conservative and Orthodox Jews in Los Angeles.

Wolpe noted that "all the dire predictions about what this would do to my synagogue were wrong. We still get over 1,000 people every Shabbos morning, and to my knowledge, not a single family resigned over this issue. I think that’s because even though many were challenged, they know that we don’t keep our children Jewish by keeping them in the dark."

Even congregants who dispute Wolpe’s point of view said that for the most part, the congregation stood by the rabbi.

"There are those who disagreed and those who stopped coming, but I don’t know anyone who has left the synagogue," said Sean Nass, a Sinai Temple member.

Nass was present for the initial sermon and said it was "jolting, to say the least." He said he was brought up in Iran to see the Torah as the link between God and humans.

"Then here you are all of a sudden with a prominent rabbi saying the link is deeper than the Torah, that you have to have deeper faith," he said. "It was very unsettling."

Nass, who is enrolled in Wolpe’s class, "Beyond Exodus," that expands on the ideas raised by last year’s sermon, said he believed that the rabbi’s only mistake was in his approach to the material.

"Rabbi Wolpe fell into a trap," he said. "His problem is he is brilliant, and sometimes when brilliant people talk to the masses, what they say could go over the masses’ heads. I think if he had built up to [these ideas] over five or six sermons, he wouldn’t have met with such a strong reaction."

Wolpe concluded that on a personal level, standing up and stating his beliefs has been a powerful experience.

"Churchill said, after the Boer War, ‘There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.’ I sort of feel the same way, that it was very bracing to see that all this could happen, and when it was over, I was still here," he said. "If it happens again, I’m not afraid of it."