City Officials Vow Justice for Vandalized Synagogue

City officials have vowed to aid a Persian congregation in Tarzana whose new synagogue was vandalized last Friday by an arson attack and anti-Semitic graffiti. Two days before the scheduled July 9 ceremonial moving of Beith David Education Center’s Torahs to its new facility, congregation leaders discovered the newly renovated building had been the target of what police are labeling a hate crime.

Damage to the building was limited to a charred oak door, estimated to amount to about $4,000 in replacement costs, enough to classify the crime as a felony.Despite the incident, the Sunday dedication went ahead as planned, but with the supportive presence of city leaders, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Councilmen Jack Weiss and Dennis Zine.

During the dedication ceremony, Zine told more than 300 congregants of his plan to introduce a motion in the City Council for a $50,000 reward, the maximum allowed under the city’s charter, to bring the arsonist to justice. He added that Villaraigosa had already guaranteed his signature.

The blaze was ignited on July 7 at 3 a.m., using a pile of discarded carpet scraps and cardboard boxes that had been moved directly beneath the shul’s oak rear door, according to Sgt. Jim Setzer of the LAPD’s West Valley Division. The flames were quickly extinguished by the synagogue’s fire-suppression system, which runs along the building’s eaves.

Anti-Semitic graffiti featuring a satanic symbol was found on a retaining wall of the building, as well as on a window that looks into a room where Kohanim have their hands and feet washed.

“I hope the people who have done it, they come to their senses,” said Parviz Hakimi, the synagogue’s vice president. He added that the initial damage estimate is enough to classify the crime as a felony.

LAPD detective Ray Morales said police were able to collect forensic evidence at the scene that could help investigators identify the arsonist.Beith David Education Center’s journey to its new location has been a long one. The synagogue purchased a former post office building for $1 million in 2002, but the City Council approval for the new structure turned into a two-year battle.

The Tarzana Property Owners Association said the Orthodox synagogue would require at least 150 parking spaces, claiming that members followed a Conservative style of worship and often drove to services. Synagogue representatives rejected the argument, saying that its congregants were Orthodox, regularly walk to the shul on Shabbat and do not need the parking.After the City Council approved the new Clark Street site in 2004, Beith David spent $1.2 million on renovations.

On Sunday, Villaraigosa joined other public officials carrying 10 Sephardic Torahs from the center’s original Reseda Boulevard location to the new building on Clark Street. The mayor took the half-mile Torah-laden walk in the intense heat of a midsummer Valley day in stride.

“What an honor it was, a kid from Boyle Heights, to carry the Torah all the way over here,” the mayor said. He said he’d been told by Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, “‘If you do this 100 more times, you’ll be a Jew.'”

At the Clark Street shul, Villaraigosa, Yaroslavsky, Councilmen Weiss and Zine, Simon Wiesenthal Center Associate Dean Abraham Cooper and Amanda Susskind, the Anti-Defamation League’s West Coast director, stood on the bimah as congregants engaged in celebratory ululation, threw candy and crowned the Sephardic Torah cases with lilies and other flowers.

“We are absolutely committed to finding whoever did this on Friday and bringing them to justice,” Villaraigosa said. “A shul represents more than just a place of prayer or worship. It represents a place where faith binds a community.”During a tour of the vandalism, the mayor noted how the perpetrator had used misspelling in the anti-Jewish graffiti.

“It shows the level of ignorance of the person who did this,” Villaraigosa told The Journal. — Adam Wills, Associate Editor

Rhodesli Keep the Faith in L.A.

As a student at Cal State Northridge more than 30 years ago, Aron Hasson wrote a paper about the Sephardic synagogues of his ancestral homeland, the Greek island of Rhodes. His professor was so taken with Hasson’s research that it ended up in a history journal.

Hasson paid his first visit to Rhodes in 1975, after a stint in an Israeli kibbutz. In 1997, he returned with his teenage children. Standing in the 400-year-old Kahal Shalom Synagogue, where three of his grandparents had once worshipped, he realized that the tourists who gaped at the Judeo-Spanish wall plaques had no knowledge of Rhodes’ rich and complex Jewish history.

Hasson’s first response was to create a pamphlet, “The Jewish Quarter of Rhodes,” for distribution in Kahal Shalom. Next he turned the synagogue’s women’s prayer rooms into the Rhodes Jewish Museum, in which old photographs and artifacts document the thriving Jewish community of pre-World War II Rhodes, once some 4,000 strong. Now, through his nonprofit Rhodes Jewish Historical Foundation, the Westwood attorney works toward the restoration of other old synagogues and holy sites that can be called “Rhodesli” (or “pertaining to Rhodes”). Hasson has also sponsored the visit of an 800-year-old Sefer Torah — which had long ago been carried from Spain to Rhodes before ending up in Buenos Aires — to Sephardic synagogues across the United States. Although not a religious man, he feels great pride when other Rhodeslis acknowledge his efforts with a heartfelt “Kol Ha Kavod.”

Hasson’s obsession with Rhodes mirrors that of an earlier generation of Angelenos. Cousins Art Benveniste and Shirlee Peha, now both in their 70s, remember growing up in South Los Angeles when the area was a magnet for Jews from Rhodes. Their immigrant parents and relatives, all of whom left the island before World War II to improve their economic prospects, spoke Ladino (also known as Judeo-Spanish) in the home. They helped found the Sephardic Hebrew Center, a Ladera Heights congregation that merged in 1993 with Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, as a way of preserving Rhodesli religious practices. They also instituted the custom of group visits to Catalina Island, whose location resembles that of Rhodes in relationship to Turkey.

“It was natural to them to take a boat across the water to an island nearby,” Hasson said of the immigrants,

By the time Benveniste and Peha reached adulthood, members of the close-knit community were starting to scatter. The annual Catalina trips, which currently attract about 40 of the 900 Rhodeslis now living in the L.A. area, could not fully satisfy their desire to meet and mingle. Since then, they’ve inaugurated regular luncheon gatherings at a local restaurant, and their yearly picnics bring together 200 people representing several generations: on the menu are all-American hot dogs and hamburgers, along with more exotic treats. Benveniste, who also participates in a Ladino-speaking havurah, has made numerous sentimental journeys to Rhodes. His last visit came in 2002, when a group of 20 Rhodeslis traveled from Los Angeles for the dedication of a Holocaust memorial in Rhodes’ Square of the Martyred Jews.

If Benveniste and Peha represent an older generation of Rhodeslis, Rachelle Hasson stands for the future.

At 21, Aron Hasson’s daughter feels increasingly connected to her roots. Having inherited from her Rhodesli grandparents a love for baking, she takes pride in the flaky bourekas, boyos and masas de vinou (Passover wine cookies) that have her family begging for more. In school she elected to study Spanish, because “in the back of my mind I always wanted to learn the language of my ancestors.”

Now, at UCLA majoring in world arts and cultures, she has just returned from a junior year in Spain. She chose the University of Granada partly because it offered courses touching on the Sephardic tradition. Since she’s come home, she delights in chatting with her grandparents in Ladino and said one day she will be the keeper of their memories of Rhodes: “I feel it’s my duty to continue the tradition and keep it alive.”


Rabbi Revolution

Picture major rabbinic leaders of Los Angeles gathering to discuss the future of synagogue funding. Now, instead of seasoned rabbis with well-earned wrinkles and gray hair, picture a group of energized new leaders in their 30s and 40s.

With the retirement this year of several prominent senior rabbis, youthful faces have come to occupy the majority of Westside pulpits and others throughout the city, a confluence of vitality that has the potential to herald the beginning of a new era for the wider Los Angeles Jewish community.

Along with the try-anything spirit of youth, these rabbis bring a refreshingly unladen approach to working with each other and a determination to quicken the momentum of outreach and spirituality that characterized the last decade. In many cases, however, this freshman class lacks a local track record to back up its innovations and represents a loss of communal memory and an attenuated commitment to that which the previous generation held dear.

All the young rabbis expressed admiration for the older generation of rabbis who built the community, and now they have set out on a path that falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between evolution and revolution.

Just how things fall into place will affect not only the style and substance of synagogue life, but the entire Los Angeles Jewish community.

"Ultimately, the synagogue has the opportunity to inspire, to teach, to create a sense of community and connectedness and to enhance Jewishness," said Marvin Schotland, president and chief executive of the Jewish Community Foundation, who, along with Jewish Federation President John Fishel, co-hosted the meeting with rabbis this month.

Among those sitting around the table were Rabbi Steven Leder, 43, who on June 1 becomes senior rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, when Rabbi Harvey Fields retires; Rabbi David Wolpe, 44, who has been rabbi at Sinai Temple for six years; and Rabbi Elazar Muskin, who at 47 and with 17 years of service at Young Israel of Century City, is the most senior rabbi among Orthodox congregations on the Westside.

In the past year, Rabbi Morley Feinstein, 49, became senior rabbi at University Synagogue in Brentwood, after Rabbi Allen Freehling became rabbi emeritus; Rabbi Ken Chasen, 37, will be arriving from Westchester, N.Y., this summer to become senior rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple, where Rabbi Sanford Ragins will become emeritus.

While other rabbis are retiring — Gilbert Kollin at the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, Eli Schochet several years ago at Shomrei Torah in Woodland Hills — the generational shift is especially concentrated on the Westside.

"There is an opportunity for the generation of rabbis coming into this community to create a glorious future together, not just making Shabbos for ourselves, but creating a wider Jewish community that is strong and vibrant," said Feinstein, who has won many admirers in his first 10 months at University Synagogue.

While all the new senior rabbis are men, Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills doesn’t think that point should be overblown.

"The fact that there aren’t women at this moment stepping up as senior rabbis in major congregations doesn’t mean for a moment that there isn’t an extraordinarily rich and talented group of women colleagues who in time will, I’m sure, have open to them all of the different choices that the American rabbinate has to offer," she said.

In fact, some of those women — Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh at Temple Israel of Hollywood, Rabbi Sherre Hirsch at Sinai Temple — have been mainstays in the interdenominational cooperation that is emerging as a hallmark of this generation of Los Angeles rabbis, many of whom are close friends and expressed an interest in working together.

"Without a lot of the baggage of interdenominational squabbling that was really a main characteristic of the generation above us, we have been able to define a new era in interdenominational relationships," said Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, 39, of B’nai David-Judea Congregation.

The Jewish Community Foundation has opened the question of whether the new era demands a new model of funding. It has suspended its program of seeding individual programs at synagogues — a total of $100,000 last year — as it examines whether that money might be better spent on a communitywide endeavor in the model of Synagogue 2000, a revitalization program to bring fresh ideas and energy to congregations.

Community leaders are hoping that pooled resources will go far in giving the current generation of spiritual seekers the fulfillment they are looking for, perhaps even winning back the many Jews who have left the fold in the past several decades.

"The younger rabbis coming in now are facing in a sharper and more intense fashion the dislocation and erosion of the Jewish community," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, who at 78 brings some of the most cutting-edge ideas and programs to the community. "It is much more difficult to be a rabbi in the 21st century."

The current generation has been reared on new ideas about spirituality, egalitarianism, social justice and tikkun olam (repairing the world) and is equipped with — and challenged by — new modes of communication.

It is also a generation of rabbis and congregants who are grappling with a growing distance from the drama that shaped the modern Jew — the immigrant experience, the Holocaust, the creation of Israel. Population surveys depict rapidly declining numbers of Jews and dissipating affiliation.

Schulweis lays some of the blame on his colleagues, who he said neglected to address the growing desire for spirituality and the big questions people had about Judaism.

"There is a lack of philosophical and theological response to people’s needs," he said. "Normally unspoken, not articulated, there are questions of God, of evil, of conflict with scientific outlook…. You just scratch the surface and you’ll see it there."

While older rabbis had to retool their thinking midcareer, rabbis in their 30s and 40s are more prepared for moderating interactive Torah study in place of formal oration, delivering sermons that focus on individual spiritual growth and intellectually challenging an educated core. Text study has become more central to these rabbis, whose ordination process required a year of study in Israel.

But some older rabbis fear that the renewed spiritual quest and the desire for more meaningful Jewish rituals and observance may come at a cost.

"There is an excessive interest in finding satisfaction in religion rather than challenge," said Ragins, who has served Leo Baeck Temple since 1964. "People want religion to make them happy, and I don’t think that is the job of religion. I think the job of religion is to help us deal with life, and sometimes that means things have to upset us."

Ragins and several other senior rabbis worry that the focus on Jewish continuity has left little interest in interfaith dialogue and building bridges to other ethnic communities.

"If all of this means that there is a withdrawal from the larger community, and if that means there is going to be a sense of provincialism and a lack of contact and interaction with others, that will work as a detriment to the welfare of the larger community in which we all live," said Freehling, who is currently the executive director of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission.

Whether youth is the key ingredient necessary to deal with these new challenges is yet to be determined. In this younger-is-better age of botox and Tiger Woods, presumptions abound.

"You find that, contrary to the conventional belief, younger people can be very conservative and fearful of change," Schulweis said.

"The rabbinate, like so much else in the Jewish mind, is so linked to the bourgeois temperament and the corporate structure of the way life is organized that it is not a ground in which creative thought can always take root," warned Rabbi Leonard Beerman, founder of Leo Baeck Temple, who retired 16 years ago.

Some wonder whether young rabbis will have the same fundraising clout as their older colleagues. Leder, who has been at Wilshire Boulevard Temple for 16 years (see box below), has already begun pulling his weight in that area, said Bruce Friedman, incoming president at the synagogue.

"People tend to gravitate to people in their generation, and we’re already seeing that" in involvement and contributions from younger people, Friedman said.

The younger rabbis recognize the limitations of not having the life experience of an older rabbi.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, who 10 years ago became rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood when he was 28, said the first funeral at which he officiated was the second funeral he had ever attended.

"Until I experienced, about six years ago, the death of my mother, I had no idea what I was doing at a funeral," he said.

In the Orthodox community in the Pico-Robertson area, nearly every one of the pulpit rabbis is in his 30s or 40s — a situation that leaves some with mixed feelings.

"It is both liberating and at times frightening," Kanefsky said. "There are moments of self-doubt that would be clarified if there were a grand scholar figure who would help define the center of gravity for the community."

On the other hand, the open slate has been a breeding ground for creativity, and the lack of a firm hierarchy among colleagues has led to friendship and cooperation.

Rabbi Jonathan Muskat, 33, came to Congregation Mogen David last year, and Rabbi Steven Weil, 37, took over for Rabbi Abner Weiss at Congregation Beth Jacob two years ago.

Joining them this summer will be Nachum Kosofsky, a 33-year-old rabbi who will lead Congregation Shaarei Tefilah in Hancock Park.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, 39, founding rabbi at Kehillat Yavneh in Hanock Park, echoes other young rabbis in recognizing that what is being built now is only possible because of the infrastructure built and nurtured by the previous generation of rabbis.

"We have to be respectful of the achievements of rabbis who have been here so many years and helped build this community," Korobkin said, "and at the same time, try to identify those areas where there is room for greater achievement for the community."

Suspect Arrested in Arson Attacks

An Iranian Jewish immigrant has been arrested as a suspect in a string of arson attacks that targeted three synagogues, a church and a Baha’i center, and which had spread fear of hate crimes and even terrorism throughout the San Fernando Valley.

Farshid Tehrani, 40, who apparently suffered from depression, was arrested early Friday by police, which had been tracking him for a day after receiving a tip linking him to the five arson incidents in Encino.

During three successive days last week (May 5-7), incendiary devices, described by some as Molotov cocktails, were hurled at the Baha’i Faith Community Center, the Iranian Synagogue, Da’at Torah Educational Center and Valley Beth Shalom, one of the leading Conservative congregations in Los Angeles.

About 10 days earlier, a similar attack on the First Presbyterian Church of Encino caused $75,000-$100,000 in damage, according to The Los Angeles Times, which had assigned eight reporters to the story. Damages at the other locations were relatively minor and there were no injuries.

Investigation of the attacks was conducted through one of the largest local law enforcement mobilizations in recent history, with more than 150 police, fire department, FBI and other federal investigators working on the case. These included 65 detectives from the anti-terrorism division of the L.A. Police Department.

Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, told The Jewish Journal that his community, as "one of the targets of these attacks, had been extremely concerned that they were hate or terrorism-related."

George Haroonian, president of the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations, said, "It is disturbing that an Iranian Jewish immigrant is believed to be the perpetrator, but I understand that he had psychological problems. You will find this in every community and it tells us that we must try to identify such problems early on."

Haroonian said that there were two major and about eight storefront synagogues patronized predominantly by Iranian Jews in the San Fernando Valley alone. He praised the work of the authorities and local legislators, who had met with community and congregational leaders to advise on security matters.

Pooya Dayanim, president of the Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee, urged government agencies to channel grants directly to the Iranian Jewish community to enable it to deal more effectively with mental and other health problems.

Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles President John Fishel said that the situation is not representative of any particular community but that it is an interpersonal problem.

"It’s important when incidents do occur that we are aware," he said, "but also that we don’t necessarily make sweeping generalizations that every time something occurs to the Jewish community that it is always related to anti-Semitism or some kind of base prejudice."

Police said there was no evidence linking Tehrani to any terrorist groups or causes, while one official described him to the Times as a firebug with serious personal problems.

"We probably saved a lot of lives in this one," the unnamed official said. "He was heading to something bad."

On Tuesday, the L.A. County district attorney’s office charged Tehrani with 12 counts of arson, terrorism and vandalism for attacking five houses of worship in Encino.

During the arraignment in Van Nuys Superior Court, a not guilty plea was entered on Tehrani’s behalf. He is being held on $750,000 bail and a preliminary hearing has been scheduled for May 28.

If convicted on all counts, Tehrani could face a maximum state prison term of 22 years.

According to his immediate family, Tehrani came to the United States about 16 years ago and worked hard in his jewelry business in downtown Los Angeles, until a "depressive disorder" forced him to give up most of his work two years ago.

His younger sister, Sheena Tehrani, described her brother, who is unmarried, as "a kind, caring man who just got burned out. There has to be some mistake. He is not that type of person."

Rabbi Moshe Hafuta of the Da’at Torah Educational Center, said Farshid Tehrani had once come to pray with members of the small congregation, which includes Persian, Israeli and American Jews.

Hafuta also told the Times that he had been involved in a dispute over an apartment he rented from Tehrani, and that a blaze, apparently set with lamp fluid, broke out at the apartment in late April.

The Times investigation also reported that the State of California had filed two tax liens against Tehrani, who, in turn, had tried to sue two judges who had ruled against him.

The fears engendered by the arson attacks motivated congregations and people of all faiths to come closer together through meetings and gestures of support.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom noted that when the Molotov cocktail heaved through a sanctuary window at 6:30 a.m. and landed a few feet from the ark, the Hispanic Catholic custodians rushed in to save five Torah scrolls. Schulweis added that the loyalty and altruistic behavior of the five custodians will be recognized in a gathering of the synagogue’s congregation and board of directors.

"I think we have learned a deep lesson: not to allow hatred to embitter our souls. While we must be vigilant, we must seek out the rescuers and those who love life," he said.

On Thursday night, May 8, worshipers, including various elected officials and religious leaders of many faiths, gathered at St. Cyril’s Catholic Church in Encino to show their solidarity.

"What was impressive was the kinship of fear and the resolution to be for each other," Schulweis said. "I’ve been to many interfaith gatherings where there’s a very noble rhetoric expressed, but never a greater degree of urgency and passion. The lesson derived is that hate is indiscriminate and in order to counter one has to have an ecumenical embrace of love and concern."

Ironically, at the same time (May 5-7) that the hate crimes were being committed in Encino, a conference was being held at USC in the name of religious solidarity. Over the three days, nearly 200 clergy, activists, academics, non-profit workers and lay people from all faiths attended "Beyond Violence: Religious Sources of Social Transformation," a three-day conference intended to "find ways for the religions of the world to work together for peace and justice." In response to the irony, the Rev. James L. Heft, president and founding director of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies, said "Our conference was called ‘Beyond Violence,’ but we were not so naive to think that we would be able to remove all violence. Anytime violence is used it is destructive of human dignity…. People commit acts of violence out of frustration, ignorance, malice and hatred. Whatever the reasons, it must be denounced and opposed."

Amanda Susskind, regional director of the Southwest Regional office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), called the arson incidents "alerts."

"It’s certainly a time to refresh your vigilance in terms of security at your institution," Susskind said, noting that the ADL has scheduled a community forum on security for institutions in the ecumenical community on June 2. "It’s like when there’s an earthquake and afterward you kind of evaluate what your earthquake preparedness is. It’s a good reminder to [exercise] safe practices within the community."

Staff Writer Rachel Brand contributed to this report.