Teriton ‘landmark’ status upheld but residents still face eviction

A contested Santa Monica apartment complex owned by a Jewish nonprofit, which had hoped to raze the property in favor of a synagogue and condos for Middle East refugees, has had its landmark status upheld.

But Teriton residents are still facing eviction.

The Santa Monica City Council voted 6-0 to back the 2006 decision by the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission to designate the contested Teriton apartment building at 130-142 San Vicente Boulevard as a city landmark, rejecting an appeal by owner Or Khaim Hashalom, or Living Light of Peace.

The June 12 City Council meeting, with councilmember and Teriton resident Ken Genser recusing himself, marked a defeat for the religious nonprofit, headed by Rabbi Hertzl Illulian, and its controversial plan to demolish the three-story, 28-unit, post-World War II garden apartment building and replace it with a private synagogue and 22 condominiums, including two low-income units.

While the building was rescued, the tenants, many of whom have lived there for decades, face a less certain future.

In April, they received eviction notices informing them that they must vacate their apartments within 120 days or by Aug. 8, or for those 62 and older, within a year or by April 8, 2008.

The evictions are legal under the Ellis Act, a state law giving landlords the right to evict tenants and withdraw from the rental business for at least five years. The tenants are regrouping and deciding their next move.

According to Or Khaim Hashalom attorney Rosario Perry, the nonprofit intends to file suit against the City of Santa Monica on the grounds that the landmarking is illegal under California Government Code Section 3736(c), which allows organizations to alter or destroy historical buildings under certain circumstances, such as economic hardship or hindrance of religious mission.

“We’re going to move forward,” Perry said after the meeting, noting that they can’t use the building as it is. “We’re not dead yet.”

Briefs: Survey to catalog landmark Boyle Heights buildings to prevent destruction; Chabad expands on

Survey to catalog landmark Boyle Heights buildings to prevent destruction

A survey of historic landmark buildings in Boyle Heights will start shortly, spurred in part by the mysterious demolition of a former Jewish Community Center last year.

To prevent such thoughtless destruction in the future, City Councilman Jose Huizar announced funding of a survey to identify “sites of cultural and historic significance, enabling the city and community to proactively protect these cultural treasures.”

Huizar emphasized that “after the Boyle Heights community lost the Jewish Community Center at Soto and Michigan — and The Jewish Journal reported the tragic loss — I redoubled my efforts to catalogue and preserve our cultural landmarks.”

In the 1930s and ’40s, Boyle Heights was the oldest and largest Jewish enclave in Los Angeles, with approximately 35,000 to 40,000 Jews living in 10,000 homes. It was dotted with small Jewish stores and such impressive houses of worship as the Breed Street Shul, currently being renovated and converted into a joint Latino-Jewish center.

The early Jewish, African American and Asian residents have now been largely replaced by Latinos, but, said Huizar, “Boyle Heights is filled with Victorian homes, stately synagogues and other precious remnants of our shared history, and we must protect them.”

The survey will focus on the Adelante Eastside Project Area in Boyle heights, containing some of the oldest buildings in Los Angeles.Encompassing 2,200 acres with 2,800 separate parcels of land, the project area is roughly bounded by Indiana Street on the west, the Los Angeles River on the east, Valley Boulevard on the north and Washington Boulevard on the south.

The survey will be largely funded and conducted by a partnership of three municipal entities: Huizar’s office, the Community Redevelopment Agency and the Office of Historic Preservation.

The razed Jewish Community Center was an outstanding example of the architectural style known as California Modernism and was designed in the late 1930s by Raphael Soriano, a Sephardic native of Rhodes.

One year ago, The Journal first reported that the building had been hastily demolished without a permit and without notification to the appropriate city department or neighborhood organizations. An investigation by The Journal found that the culprit was the federal government, which acquired the property to erect a Social Security regional office.

After protests by the Los Angeles Conservancy and Jewish Historical Society, a U.S. government spokesman apologized and promised to take steps to avoid the razing of historical buildings in the future.Huizar said that the survey is expected to begin this spring and should be completed within 12 months.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Chabad expanding West Coast operation

Chabad-Lubavitch, the Chasidic organization known in the Jewish world for its success in outreach, is redoubling its efforts on the West Coast. At its 42nd annual West Coast convention last month, the organization announced that the coming year will see an additional 36 new shluchim, or emissaries. This is in addition to the 220 emissaries already on the West Coast, operating some 150 centers, as well as summer camps, university locales and operational centers.

The Feb. 17-19 convention in Glendale, attended by 212 shluchim from California and Nevada as well as supporters, hosted workshops and presentations designed to better help the rabbis perform outreach in their communities.

Sessions focused on the financial (“Managing Your Finances,” “Making the Dream a Reality: How to build a Chabad Center”), youth (two parts on both “Engaging Your Students” and “Harnessing the Power of Student Participation”) and negotiating in the non-Chabad world (“Resolving Conflicts and Managing Differences,” “Walking on Eggshells: How to Discuss Sensitive Issues”).

“This is one of the most inspiring events of the year for Chabad,” said Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, the head of West Coast Chabad-Lubavitch. “It’s a gathering of people who dedicate themselves every day to helping those in need — whether it’s at hospitals, shelters, preschools, senior centers or on college campuses.”

Unveiled at the conference were the prototypes of the new “Chabad-mobile,” a fleet of mobile mitzvah units that will drive through the streets, attend Jewish events — both Chabad and non-Chabad — to offer passersby the opportunity to do mitzvahs, study and get involved with Chabad. There will be 20 new Chabad mobiles to start, although, as with everything Chabad, they hope to increase the number soon. The new colorful design, by artist Marc Lumer, features a businesswoman holding a cup of coffee, a surfer, a “Fiddler on the Roof” character, a Chabad rabbi and more.

“They needed a facelift,” Rabbi Chaim Cunin, communications director of Chabad said of the fleet. “We wanted to make it represent what Chabad is really about: A place where everyone feels completely at home — both in the centers and in the mobiles.”

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Rabbis and doctors gather at Brandeis for Jewish healing conclave

In January, the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health held its fourth biennial Partner Gathering at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute. The event drew more than 100 rabbis, physicians, social workers and others from the United States, Israel and Brazil whose work or interest involves Judaism’s role in healing.

Tom Cole, director of the Center for Health, Humanities and the Human Spirit at the University of Texas, delivered the keynote address on “Aging and the Changing Nature of the Human.” He spoke about modern medicine’s potential to dramatically increase the human life span, and the implications of such longevity. “Judaism lacks a vision of the good life for our elder years,” said Cole. “We need to create authentically Jewish visions of later life.”

The gathering allowed participants to “learn, network and recharge,” said Associate Director Michele Prince. “Themes of memory and aging were explored during this retreat, and will influence the ways the Kalsman Partners work with one another, their patients, congregants and students.”

“A special element of the Kalsman Gatherings,” she added, “is that we, as a department of the Reform movement seminary, are able to bring together leaders from across the spectrum of Jewish life — from secular Israeli to modern Orthodox. This transdenominational effort is more than symbolic, and it gave us great pleasure as we davened, learned, networked and recharged together.”

At an evening reception, Rabbi Richard Address, director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns, was honored with the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Sherut L’Am Award for “revolutionary work in Jewish congregational life.”

Address has been instrumental in creating congregational programs dealing with such issues as the changing nature of the Jewish family, bioethics, aging and illness.

— Nancy Sokoler Steiner, Contributing Writer

Santa Monica apartment building at center of battle receives ‘landmark’ status

The Santa Monica Landmarks Commission, in opposition to an unambiguous recommendation by the city’s Planning Division to deny landmark status to the contested Teriton apartment building at 130-142 San Vicente Blvd., voted unanimously in favor of designating the building a landmark.

The 7-0 vote at the commission’s regularly scheduled Nov. 13 meeting at Santa Monica City Hall marked a victory for tenants of the 28-unit, three-story garden apartment in their very public battle with a nonprofit religious organization, Or Khaim Hashalom, which purchased the building in April.

The seven commissioners, sitting on a dais below the city motto, “Populus felix in urbe felici,” “a fortunate people in a fortunate city,” also maintained that the Teriton met five of the six criteria used to determine a building’s landmark eligibility. While only one must be met to qualify as a city landmark, the Planning Division had previously found none applicable.

On Oct. 31, Or Khaim Hashalom filed a lawsuit in federal court against the city of Santa Monica and the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission, naming all seven commissioners as defendants. The organization claimed that landmarking “substantially burdens” its religious exercise granted under the First Amendment and under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The attempt by Or Khaim Hashalom to stop the Landmarks Commission from considering the Teriton’s landmarking was rejected by the U.S. District Court Nov. 9.

Or Khaim Hashalom, which was incorporated in January and whose name means Living Light of Peace, wants to raze the building, which was built in 1949, in order to construct up to 40 units, plus a synagogue, to resettle refugees from the Middle East, according to its spiritual head, Rabbi Hertzel Illulian.

At the meeting, Roxanne Tanemori, city associate planner, presented an overview of the building’s architectural and historical significance, based on a 32-page landmark assessment report complied at the city’s request by historic resources consultant, PCR Services Corp.

“Based on the research and evaluation of the property … staff concludes that the multifamily property … is not eligible for city landmark designation,” she read to the commissioners and about 30 people in the audience, many of them Teriton tenants.

The residents were also afforded an opportunity to speak.

“It is painful to think about what used to be and what is no more … this latest evaluation from PCR is inaccurate and incomplete,” said tenant Christie Savage.

Kit Snedaker, who has lived in the building since 1979, was puzzled by the architectural assessment.

“It seems to me the consultant wrote the whole thing from home,” she said.

Only one person, Seong Kim, an attorney from the Century City office of Steptoe and Johnson, which has filed a lawsuit against Santa Monica on behalf of Or Khaim Hashalom, spoke in opposition to landmarking.

“This process, even actually considering whether to landmark this building, is an illegal act under this Government Code,” he said, referring to California Government Code Section 3736 (c), which allows organizations to alter or destroy historical buildings under certain circumstances, such as economic hardship or hindrance of religious mission.

The commissioners, all of whom had personally inspected the Teriton, also voiced their opinions.

Commissioner Ruthann Lehrer, an architectural historian, said, “I don’t think they correctly apply our criteria,” referring to PCR Services Corp.

“It’s apparent [the Teriton] is not easy to access and understand, because it’s such a pure, rigorous example of the style of international design principles, without any embellishment….” she elaborated.

Others spoke of the building’s unique L-shaped courtyard, of architect Sanford Kent’s reputation and his atypical pinwheel footprint and of the Teriton’s location as a gateway to the San Vicente Courtyard Apartment Historical District.

Only one criterion, the building’s identification with historical personages, escaped approval. All agreed that Betty Friedman, a former resident and the sister of the Flex-Straw inventor, didn’t qualify as historically prominent.

Roger Genser, art historian and Landmarks Commission chair, complimented both the tenants and the commissioners.

“In six years on the commission, I don’t think I’ve ever heard such eloquence about modern architecture,” he said.

The controversy over the Teriton (see “Fate of Santa Monica Apartment Building Embroils Rabbi and Residents in Legal Battle,” The Jewish Journal, Oct. 27, 2006) began when a “notice for demolition permit” was posted on the lawn on Nov. 10, 2005. That move, because the building is more than 40 years old, triggered an investigation into possible landmark status.

Or Khaim Hashalom planned to file an appeal with the City Attorney’s Office regarding the landmark designation, according to attorney Rosario Perry, who vowed “never to leave” as counsel to the religious nonprofit.

The appeal, according to city of Santa Monica attorney Alan Seltzer, must be filed within 10 days of the Nov. 13 Landmarks Commission meeting. A public hearing must then take place within 45 days of that filing, with only one 30-day continuance allowed.

In the last few years, according to commission chair Genser, four or five buildings have been designated landmarks against the recommendation of the Planning Division staff. Of those, only two have been overturned. In total, about 70 buildings in Santa Monica have been voted city landmarks.

Currently, according to Perry, Or Khaim Hashalom is settling needy people in Teriton apartments as they become vacant. He said three units are currently occupied by such people. Tenant Snedaker said she has heard that one unit is supposedly occupied by two Talmudic students. However, “these are invisible students,” she said. “We never see them coming or going.” She said she is unaware of other new tenants, poor or otherwise.

Illulian , Or Khaim Hashalom’s spiritual leader, did not attend the meeting but said in response to the commission’s decision, “It’s not as easy as I thought. We leave it in the hands of God to help us to be successful in everything good we are trying to do.”

Boyle Heights JCC

Someone has demolished a part of Los Angeles Jewish history and at this point no one in the Jewish community or even the city’s building department seems to know who did it and why.

The architecturally significant Soto-Michigan Jewish Community Center, the focal point of Jewish social and political community life in Boyle Heights from the early 1930s to the late 1950s, has disappeared under the wrecking ball.

The first to call attention to the loss — after discovering nothing but freshly turned dirt at the site — was Aaron Paley, president of Community Arts Resources. He was leading a Jewish heritage tour of Boyle Heights earlier this month and said he could hardly believe his eyes when he found an empty bulldozed parcel of land in place of the two-story building at the corner of Soto and Michigan.

The JCC not only served Boyle Heights when it was the liveliest “shtetl” in Los Angeles, but was also an architectural landmark.

It was designed by Raphael Soriano, a Sephardic native of Rhodes, who defined the architectural style known as “California modernism,” characterized by the innovative use of prefabricated steel and aluminum.

Famed architectural photographer Julius Shulman, a close friend of Soriano, raised considerable funds to get the project off the ground.

But Paley isn’t the only one surprised at the building’s disappearance.

David Lara of the L.A. Department of Building and Safety, which issues permits for demolitions, searched city records but found no trace of a demolition permit for the site.

A different kind of permit was issued for the location on Feb. 9 of this year, but only for electrical renovation work by Power Plus, a Sun Valley company.

An official at Power Plus confirmed the permit and named C&SO Construction Company as the main contractor. No one was available at the company office on Friday afternoon.

The JCC was not included on the historical landmark list of either the city or the Los Angeles Conservancy, a community organization.

Ken Bernstein of the Conservancy pointed out that many historic, cultural and architectural sites in Los Angeles remain unprotected from developers.

One problem is the sheer size of a city of 460 square miles. “We have in Los Angeles 800,000 legal parcels, but only 800 are designated as historic landmarks,” said Bernstein.

The Boyle Heights JCC had a gymnasium and meeting halls, but it was much more than that. The membership was well known for its “firebrand left politics,” as Paley put it.

One former member, Leo Frumkin, wrote that in his extended family in the 1940s, political ideology ranged from social democrats to communists.

The JCC pioneered the Jewish community’s outreach to other ethnic groups in the immediate post-war years. Its annual Friendship Festival brought together more than 12,000 “Mexican, Japanese, Negro and Jewish youths in a cooperative venture,” wrote historian George Sanchez.

After the vast migration of Boyle Heights Jews in the 1950s — to the Fairfax area, Beverly Hills, Westside and San Fernando Valley, the Soto-Michigan JCC became, for years, a general community center under the name All Nations’ Center.


Zucky’s Counter Culture


There was weeping and gnashing of teeth when Zucky’s Deli in Santa Monica, mecca of pastrami sandwich and borscht lovers far and wide, abruptly closed its doors on Feb. 16, 1993.

“We were like family,” one tearful waitress recalled in an old Los Angeles Times story. “We had elderly customers, who left their homes only to come to Zucky’s.”

Now the venerable eatery, boarded up for 12 years, is in the news again.

A new building owner, John Watkins, is about to remodel and reopen the place at Wilshire Boulevard and Fifth Street as a retail store, and some nostalgic citizens are battling to retain the ex-deli’s distinctive architectural features.

Heading the effort is Adriene Biondo, chair of the Modern Committee of the Los Angeles Conservancy, who hopes that Zucky’s might be designated as an historical landmark.

“Zucky’s was designed by Weldon Fulton as a prime example of the Googie or California Coffee Shop Modern architectural genre,” Biondo said. “In any remodeling, we want to preserve the main Zucky’s signboard, exterior ceramic tiles and stonework, the diagonal treatment along Fifth Street, and the brick wall and window sills.”

Biondo has talked with Watkins, the new owner, and said that he has been very forthcoming to her requests. The city of Santa Monica architectural review board is now considering the case.

The original Zucky’s was opened in 1946, facing the former pier at Pacific Ocean Park, by the late Harry “Hy” Altman. He named the deli in honor of his wife, born Wolfine Zuckerman, but always addressed as “Zucky.”

In 1954, the deli moved to its Wilshire location after a difficult search.

“The city fathers didn’t want Jewish merchants. Santa Monica had one Jewish merchant, a dress shop, and they said one was enough,” Zucky Altman, 86, reminisced in a recent interview with Marcello Vavala, a volunteer member of the Los Angeles and Santa Monica conservancies.

Once established, the deli soon attracted a faithful clientele of movie stars, UCLA football players, stockbrokers and dentists.

Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau were regulars, Altman said. So was everyone from Gold’s Gym, including a body builder named Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“We were also friendly with the nearby churches,” Altman recalled. “Preachers would say, ‘No one here leaves until I finish my sermon. Then we’ll all go over to Zucky’s.'”

“The girls [waitresses] didn’t have to ask customers what they wanted, they just knew,” Altman continued.

After their retirement in 1977, Hy and Zucky Altman endeared themselves to the needy and elderly of the Jewish community by launching SOVA, the free kosher food pantry.

The end of Zucky’s Deli came suddenly, after Health Department inspectors demanded extensive renovations costing more than $500,000. The then-owners decided to shut the place down on a few hours notice to customers and employees.

In an “obituary,” The Times noted mournfully, “It was not easy to find another deli with the same mélange of counter camaraderie, lean corned beef and devoted waitresses.”


Jews Note Role in Historic School Case

Esther Swirk Brown wasn’t the Brown for whom the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case desegregating schools is named — but she is the Jewish woman who helped find Oliver Brown, no relation, to be the lead plaintiff in the historic case.

As a young woman in Kansas, Esther Brown was horrified by the conditions of the school that black children, including the children of her housekeeper, were forced to attend. The one-room schoolhouse in South Park had dilapidated walls and missing light bulbs.

"She went to a school board meeting to press for equal education and was told to go home and mind her own business," said Miriam Katz, who impersonates Brown as part of a one-woman show honoring historic American women that is touring the Midwest.

Instead, Esther Brown stopped black children from attending the school, choosing to home school them in her own house and getting friends to serve as other teachers.

When she took her fight statewide to the capital in Topeka, she met Linda Brown, a young girl, and raised money so that Linda Brown’s father, Oliver, could sue the city’s board of education.

"She just wanted rights for everybody," Katz said. "Maybe she felt like she had to make things right."

As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which changed the face of the civil rights fight, Jews are noting the historic role their community played in pushing the movement forward.

"It was disproportionately black and Jewish lawyers that were fighting the civil rights cases," said David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism and a board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Charles Black, a member of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund team that argued Brown, used to joke that he was the only non-Jewish name on many of the briefs in that case.

Several Jewish groups are marking the anniversary and the Jewish community’s participation in the landmark case.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has created a six-part educational program for schools on Brown’s legacy, including a section on key alliances, which tells the story of Esther Brown.

At its annual Washington meeting last week, the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) showcased a video about the group’s role in the civil rights movement. It featured several television advertisements the AJCommittee funded to promote tolerance.

A predominantly liberal community, Jews felt empathy for the plight of black Americans.

"In the fight for the rights of African Americans, Jews were also in a fight for the rights of all minorities in America," Saperstein said. "There was implicit recognition that Jews wouldn’t be safe in America until they created a country with no room for discrimination."

Jewish organizations lent their names to the civil rights cause, filing amicus briefs for the plaintiffs and funding some of the legal efforts. In fact, the AJCommittee funded research by Kenneth Clark on the effects of prejudice and discrimination on personality development that Chief Justice Earl Warren cited in his unanimous Supreme Court decision handed down on May 17, 1954.

Many individual Jews, like Esther Brown, were part of the effort as well — perhaps none more than Jack Greenberg. As an associate counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Greenberg was one of several who argued Brown vs. Board of Education in front of the Supreme Court. He later succeeded Thurgood Marshall as the fund’s director and counsel for more than 20 years.

"Being Jewish can lead you in any direction," said Greenberg, now a professor at Columbia University’s School of Law. Greenberg said he wasn’t driven by his religion but more by his upbringing in the socialist Zionist movement of Jews who had immigrated from Eastern Europe.

"We were social activists," he said. "Back then, we’d call them socialists; now you’d call them liberals."

Several other Jews who aided the NAACP went on to distinguished legal careers, including Judge Jack Weinstein of the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn and Judge Louis Pollack of the U.S. District Court for the East District of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

But, Greenberg said, not all Jews were "on the good side."

"Some of the lawyers in the South who led the opposition were Jewish," he said.

The Brown case led to a partnership between blacks and Jews that helped herald the civil rights era.

"It was a landmark in what the relationship could achieve," Saperstein said. It led to the drafting of civil rights legislation.

"This really did prove to them that they could use the political legal system to achieve integration and stop legal discrimination in America," he said.

But blacks and Jews have not enjoyed an entire half-century of friendship. Most significantly, many Jewish organizations broke with black groups in 1978, coming out against the affirmative-action policies for which many blacks were fighting.

The ADL’s leader at the time, Nathan Perlmutter, was one of the leading spokesmen against race-based criteria for admission to colleges and universities. Leaders of Jewish groups said the rejection of quotas for affirmative action came largely in light of numerical limits on Jewish enrollment in European and American universities in the 1920s.

Even last year, when the University of Michigan’s affirmative-action policies came to the Supreme Court, the Jewish community was split. The ADL opposed Michigan’s standard of giving minority applicants 20 extra points on a 100-point admission-scoring scale, while the AJCommittee reversed course from 1978 and backed Michigan.

The court ruled last June that affirmative-action programs are legal but struck down the point system Michigan used for undergraduate admissions.

More recently, black and Jewish groups have sparred over policy priorities, each seeking more support than the other for key legislative agenda items. In addition, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish comments by some blacks have fueled tensions.

The black community was angered by Jewish groups’ call for a boycott of the 2001 United Nations Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, because of the conference’s vehement anti-Israel rhetoric.

But black and other non-Jewish groups chose to back the Jewish community last month when it worked to minimize European anti-Semitism at a conference in Berlin.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights joined Jewish leaders in Germany, providing information to European states on tools to combat discrimination.

Support Pledged on Marking Historic Ruling

May 17 will mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling Brown vs. Board of Education that outlawed separate educational facilities as inherently unequal.

Less well-known is Orange County’s role in establishing that historic precedent. In 1947, a group of parents led by Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez of Westminster fought to end California’s segregation of its Latino school children. Their suit came to the attention of the state’s governor at the time, Earl Warren, who went on to hear the Brown case as chief justice of the nation’s highest court.

"This is an opportunity for us to join with the fastest-growing community in Orange County," said Marc Dworkin, executive director of the American Jewish Committee’s local chapter. "We are natural allies over civil liberties," said Dworkin, who recently met with Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana). He pledged the Jewish community’s support for a pending congressional resolution to give national recognition to the Mendez family’s role in history.

Dworkin had company. He enlisted support from Rabbi Shelton Donnell of Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom and Chelle Friedman, staff to the Jewish Federation’s Community Relations Council, to champion Jewish issues in a collaborative approach. "This way we can have a more coordinated effort," Dworkin said. "It strengthens everyone to go in together."

Cultivating Latino-Jewish relations is a priority for Dworkin. Last month, he helped convene a two-day regional summit between Latino and Jewish leaders in Arizona and San Diego, Los Angeles and Orange counties. He has also asked the O.C. Human Relations Commission to help start an ongoing Latino-Jewish dialogue this spring among leaders, similar to the diverse "living room" discussions started after Sept. 11.

‘California Eight’ Sue Italy’s Generali

When Suzanne Weiner-Zada was growing up in Hungary, her father, a wealthy lumber merchant, took out eight insurance policies with Assicurazioni Generali of Italy, one of the world’s largest insurance companies, which operated extensively in the pre-World War II Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe.

One policy was on the life of her 10-year-old brother, Laszlo, who was killed in Auschwitz, as were their grandparents.

Weiner-Zada survived Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz and eventually settled in Los Angeles, working as an artists’ representative. Until two years ago, she didn’t try to redeem the policies, because "I didn’t want blood money," she said.

When she finally did apply, she received a settlement offer of $10,533, later raised to $16,012. The figures were ridiculously low, she said, but what really set off the feisty 73-year-old was Generali’s demand that she sign a statement to the effect that the money was being paid out as an act of charity and not as a legal obligation.

"They want to make us look like beggars," Weiner-Zada exploded. "I said to hell with it. Even if the sums were much larger, I would never sign such a thing. There’s still a lot of spunk in me."

Weiner-Zada is among eight parties of Holocaust survivors and their descendants from the Los Angeles area, who in early April filed a suit against Generali in Los Angeles Superior Court. They claim that for more than 50 years the company had stonewalled their requests for payment on policies or fobbed them off with meager settlement offers.

The actual and potential stakes in this and a half-dozen other lawsuits filed against Generali are huge. Attorney William M. Shernoff, who represents the "California Eight" and has been confronting Generali for five years, estimates that the policies in the current suit might now be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and might reach millions if a jury ultimately adds bad faith and punitive damages to its verdict.

But that may be only the tip of the iceberg. If the eight win their case, they might be followed by tens of thousands of other plaintiffs seeking billions of dollars from Generali and other European insurance companies.

Generali has used various lines of defense, according to Shernoff and his co-counsel, Lisa Stern. First, the company said it could not find records of the disputed policies, or demanded, according to numerous survivors, death certificates for Jews killed in Auschwitz or other extermination camps, a charge denied by Generali.

When these arguments failed, Generali said that the insurance payments had been paid to Hitler’s regime after it confiscated the policies held by Jews.

Generali also argued that its branch offices in Eastern Europe had been expropriated and nationalized by communist governments after World War II. But the latest and strongest barrier was Generali’s position that all claims be routed through a body known as The International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims.

The commission was established in 1998 by major European insurance companies, insurance commissioners from various U.S. states, with the participation of major Jewish organizations, including the World Jewish Congress, and the State of Israel. It was hoped that through the commission setup, claimants would get their money faster and easier than going through lengthy court proceedings.

In practice, critics say, only a trickle of claims has been approved by the commission, which is funded entirely by the insurance companies, with Generali contributing the biggest stake, $100 million.

In a landmark decision, Manhattan Federal District Judge Michael B. Mukasey ruled in early April that the commission could not dispense fair treatment and functioned, in his words, as a "company store."

The decision unblocked the path for the filing of the "California Eight" suit, and other suits which had been backing up.

The other Los Angeles plaintiffs in the case are Stephen Lantos, Edith More, Iga Pioro, George Kunstadt, Helga and Tom Sorter, Susan Ungar, and Jack Weiss and his daughter, Judy Friedman.

The allegations against Generali were vigorously contested by Kenneth Bialkin, the company’s lead attorney, who said that Generali "couldn’t be more forthcoming" in trying to settle 60-year-old policy claims.

There is a certain irony in Generali being cast as the heavy in the ongoing legal battles with Holocaust survivors. The company was founded in 1831 by Jewish merchants in Trieste, had thousands of Jewish agents throughout Europe and, even now, its current chairman of the board is Jewish.

Bialkin said he was particularly disturbed by the claim that Generali had demanded official death certificates from Jews killed in extermination camps, a charge that "immediately raises a horrid image."

Despite testimonies from survivors, Bialkin insisted that the death certificate demands were false and had been officially denied by Generali.

He pointed to a voluntary trust fund established by Generali in 1998 and its $100 million contribution to the international commission as proof of the Italian company’s fairness and good faith.

A former national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League, Bialkin charged that "the plaintiffs want to give Generali a bad name, and that bothers me as a Jew and a lawyer."

ERA –Israeli Style

The Knesset has passed a landmark law granting equal rights to women in every sphere of Israeli life — after the bill’s sponsor gave up her committee seat to a male colleague.

Along with granting women equality in the workplace, the military and in other spheres of society, the new law also lays out the rights of women over their bodies and protects women from violence and sexual exploitation.

The legislation passed Wednesday is an amendment to a law passed in 1951 that set out in general terms the principle of equality in Israeli society.

After adamantly opposing the bill for a year, the fervently Orthodox Shas Party withdrew its threat to sabotage the legislation after Knesset member Yael Dayan, the bill’s chief sponsor, gave up her place on the influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to a Shas legislator.

“For two years I have been trying to get this law through,” Dayan was quoted as saying. “I spoke for an entire year with rabbis. They demanded revisions. Shas officials told me all the time, ‘It will never be passed.’

“If I knew it was possible to resolve the matter this way, I would have done it a long time ago.”

The bill was slated to be brought before the Knesset last month, on International Women’s Day.

But, at the urging of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Dayan pulled the bill from the agenda at the last minute after Shas threatened to turn the vote into a no-confidence motion in the government.

Barak came to the Knesset to participate in Wednesday’s 49-2 vote.

The bill was backed by all the parties in the Knesset, with the exception of the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) bloc.

Knesset member Moshe Gafni, a member of UTJ, said the concept of equal rights for the sexes is inherently wrong.

“There are certain roles for a woman and for a man,” Gafni said. “There is also concern the Supreme Court can take this declaration and use it in a manner that goes against the outlook of the majority of the residents of the country.”

Dayan said the “deal” that removed the final obstacle to the bill’s passage was launched in a casual conversation in the Knesset corridors in which she joked that she was ready to do anything, even give up her position on the committee.

Shas, however, denied any agreement had been reached.

Shas legislator Yair Peretz, who is to assume Dayan’s seat on the committee, said Dayan had asked that Shas withdraw its threat to submit a no-confidence motion if the legislation were presented for a vote.

“I consulted with the rabbis and told her we won’t oppose” the bill, Peretz said.