Israeli-American leaders gather at third ILC gala


“A strong Israeli-American community makes Israel stronger,” Gabi Ashkenazi, the recently retired chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), told the crowd gathered for the third annual Israeli Leadership Council (ILC) Gala on March 20.

In the ILC’s nearly five-year history, the group has established a number of new cultural, educational and Israel advocacy programs in the Los Angeles area and has helped fund others that already exist. It has been likened to an Israeli Federation, and Ashkenazi summed up its guiding principle in fewer than 10 words.

Later in the evening, Ashkenazi would embody the organization’s spirit as well, singing Hebrew songs from the 1950s and ’60s and dancing on stage with Haim Saban and the rest of the ILC board.

But business came first. The night was a chance for the ILC to highlight its projects in video presentations, wall hangings and through the presence of more than a dozen members of ILC-funded troops of Israeli Scouts. Ashkenazi spent the hour before the gala speaking to Israeli-American teens getting ready to enlist in the IDF, and to their nervous, proud parents. Ten of the future soldiers joined Ashkenazi at his table for dinner.

It was also a night to raise some serious coin for these and other ILC programs. ILC board member Shawn Evenhaim exhorted the crowd to give generously, and the fundraising goal for the evening was met in just the first pledge — $400,000 from Saban. By the end of the evening, total contributions crossed the $1 million mark.

Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, delivered the evening’s other keynote speech, and he couldn’t resist pointing out the irony of an American immigrant to Israel speaking in America as a representative of Israel to a group of Israeli Americans. In a speech that raced around the Middle East, from Israel to Iran to Libya, Oren also encouraged Israeli Americans to get involved in local organizations — not only those dedicated to Israel advocacy, but also those aimed at improving and enriching local Jewish life.

To help Israelis imbue their American-born children with an identity that is as Jewish as it is Israeli and American, the ILC has joined forces with Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. Feinstein began speaking with ILC leaders earlier this year about working together to better serve the local Israeli-American community. No formal programming has been devised yet, a representative from the ILC said.

“It’s not genetic,” Feinstein said over dessert. “We have to create something that’s never existed before: Israeli-American-Jewish identity.”

By that point of the evening, the dance floor at the front of the ballroom was packed. Disco queen Donna Summer — who is also an FOH (Friend of Haim) — performed earlier in the evening, but her rendition of “Last Dance” was the last English song heard all night.

Outside, Beverly Hills was being pummeled with record-breaking rain, but for the more than 750 people at the Beverly Hilton, the dress code was much more Gucci than Gore-Tex. They weren’t wearing boots, but the crowd was ready for some stomping.

Israeli pop star Einat Sarouf belted out Israeli hits from across the decades while green-shirted Scouts twirled their scarves. The ILC board members — in their shirtsleeves — swayed arm-in-arm as they sang Naomi Shemer’s “Al Kol Eleh.” Sarouf guided Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad by his necktie toward her microphone, where they did a quick duet of “Ya Mustafa.”

The other political notables in attendance — including Reps. Brad Sherman and Howard Berman, Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Krekorian and others — managed to avoid being drawn onto the stage.

Not so lucky was ILC Executive Director Shoham Nicolet. “You’re still in reserve, and you can get orders from me,” Ashkenazi said, summoning the junior officer.

Nicolet, who is preparing to move back to Israel this month after 10 years in the United States, stood at attention, uncertain as to how such a major element of the evening’s program had been sneaked in without his knowledge.

In recognition of his service to Israel and the ILC, Ashkenazi presented Nicolet with a large framed photograph of uniformed Israeli soldiers dashing across a rutted, dusty field.

Nicolet has served as ILC’s executive director since the group’s inception and plans to continue in that role from Israel.

World BBYO leaders unite in L.A.


Los Angeles played host not only to NBA All-Stars last weekend, but also to all-stars in the Jewish community, as more than 750 delegates from across the United States and around the world participated in BBYO’s 85th annual International Convention (IC) at the Hilton Los Angeles Airport hotel, Feb. 17-21.

Themed “Our Movement, Our Moment,” the convention united rising leaders of Aleph Zadik Aleph (AZA) and B’nai B’rith Girls (BBG) from 35 states and eight countries to “discuss strategies and set the organization’s priorities and initiatives for the coming year,” said Shayna Kreisler, program director for IC 2011.

Jane Sadetsky, 15, of Walnut Creek, Calif., was immediately overwhelmed by the feeling of unity.

“You’re doing the same cheers and singing the same songs as 750 other Jewish teens from Serbia, Argentina, the U.K., all over the country,” said Sadetsky, president of L’Hadash Ahava BBG in the Bay Area. “It’s the most mind-blowing feeling to think we’re all Jewish and we’re all coming together like this.”

Highlights of the weekend included elections of the 2011-2012 international board, a day of service and advocacy, a Harry Potter-themed Shabbat service and Sunday night’s rally announcing the launch of a campaign to end teen bullying and promote inclusion. Representatives from the Anti-Defamation League and The Miracle Project spoke on such topics as cyber-bullying and treating those who are different with kindness and respect.

The teens participated in service projects throughout Los Angeles at 12 sites on Friday, including Beit T’Shuvah, Camp JCA’s Shalom Institute, the Los Angeles Jewish Home, National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles and TreePeople.

“[IC] was a huge success, with teens becoming directly involved in issues they care about most while making memories for a lifetime with their AZA and BBG friends from around the world,” Kreisler said.

Orrin Kabaker of Los Angeles, international AZA president in 1949, spoke to the teens about taking action and standing up for one’s beliefs. Kabaker drafted a motion in early 1948 recognizing the State of Israel by the organization before the state’s official founding.

The teens also heard a poignant speech from Judea Pearl, father of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

“You will all continue to travel the world with a pen and pad, just as my son did. And you will share your knowledge with [the world],” Pearl said.

Steven Windmueller, who holds the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Chair in Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, and Abigail Michelson Porth, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Bay Area, were recognized as Sam Beber Distinguished AZA Alumnus of the Year and Anita Perlman Distinguished Alumna of BBG, respectively, for their contributions to the Jewish community.

“BBYO showed me that it is possible to dedicate a career to one’s personal values, working on behalf of the Jewish community in pursuit of a just society and secure Jewish future,” Porth said.

“It’s been an incredible experience to join with Jewish teenagers and celebrate the success of our movement,” said Ohio Northern Region President Adam Nelson, 18, of Akron. “I’m very interested in developing and expanding the future of the organization, so I’m getting the most out of the programs and will take it back to strengthen my region.”

Nessah Young Professionals party like Paris Hilton; New VP for Masorti women


Nessah Young Professionals Party Like Paris Hilton

Dubbed the “Glamour Summer Night,” the Nessah Young Professionals’ Aug. 26 annual gala drew more than 600 local Iranian Jewish young professionals and college students to the Area nightclub in West Hollywood, where they danced the night away to live music while also raising money on behalf of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF).

Funds generated by the event this year were set aside for the creation of a mobile recreation facility — a place to relax, socialize, exercise and check their e-mail — for Israeli commandos, who aren’t given enough time off from assignments along the Israel-Lebanon border to visit permanent FIDF recreational facilities.

“It is so very meaningful and heartwarming to realize that although we live in Beverly Hills, we are still able to have fun, mingle and raise enough money to build a mobile club for our brothers and sisters who are defending and protecting our homeland in Israel,” said Simon Etehad, head of the young professionals group based out of Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills. “Some of those Israeli soldiers have just completed high school and are not even old enough to drink.”

As in years past, the fundraiser’s ultra-hip venue was donated by SBE Entertainment, which is owned by Iranian Jewish hotel and nightclub entrepreneur Sam Nazarian.

Nessah Young Professionals members said the recreational facility in Israel will also be dedicated in memory of Daniel Levian, a local Iranian Jew in his 20s who died last month in an automobile accident. In past years, the young professionals group has raised funds for other FIDF projects, including the LEGACY Program, which provides all-expenses-paid trips to attend summer camp in the United States for bar and bat mitzvah-age children who had a family member killed in action.

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Brandes’ ‘Quarrel’ Opens Off-Broadway

Pico-Robertson playwright/producer David Brandes has turned his 1991 film “The Quarrel” into an off-Broadway play.

Co-authored by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “The Quarrel” tells the story of two estranged friends — a pious rabbi and a secular writer — who reconnect in an accidental meeting after years of being separated by betrayal and war. What ensues is “a fierce battle of wits and a raw test of friendship, faith and tolerance,” according to publicity materials.

The play opened last week at the DR2 Theatre in New York, where it will run through Sept. 28.

New Veep for Women’s Masorti Movement

ALTTEXTTobie Rosenberg is in line to become vice president of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism. Among her many leadership positions in the Jewish community, Rosenberg has served on the board of directors of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and Valley Beth Shalom, as well as on the International Board and Torah Fund Cabinet of the Women’s League.

Rosenberg will be installed at the 2008 biennial convention on Nov. 9 in Dearborn, Mich.

Founded in 1918, the Women’s League is the umbrella organization overseeing 600 affiliated women’s groups in Conservative/Masorti synagogues in the country.


ADL Reunion Brings Together Scattered Graduates

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reunited 100 graduates from its Glass Leadership Institute, a program established 10 years ago that grooms young professionals for leadership in the ADL. The purpose of the event was to reconnect graduates with the ADL, some of who have gone on to leadership positions within the organization and others who have become lay leaders in other areas of the Jewish community.

Each year, 20 to 25 young professionals in their late 20s to early 40s are nominated to the 10-month institute (formerly known as the Salvin Leadership Institute), which provides education on hate crimes, terrorism, Holocaust education and Israel advocacy. The institute has become a significant talent pool for the ADL, giving rise to new generations of lay leaders.

Current ADL regional board chair Nicole Muchnik is a graduate of the program, along with board officer Seth Gerber and former regional chair Murray Levin.

The ADL is currently accepting nominations for next year’s class. For more information, call (310) 446-4243 or visit http://www.adl.org.

Q&A with Rhoda Weisman — Jewish woman on top


Rhoda Weisman, executive director of the Professional Leaders Project, which is designed to engender and support a new generation of leaders in the Jewish community, talks about why the Jewish establishment needs to change, why young leaders are just as crucial as big donors and what it’s like to be a woman at the top.

Jewish Journal: Working in a Jewish organization doesn’t sound like a sexy job. Why should people want to go into Jewish communal work?

Rhoda Weisman: I think I have the sexiest job. Because sexy jobs are jobs that provide you with a lot of room to be creative moving toward a real sense of purpose and meaning.

JJ: Jewish institutions seem to be inordinately focused on engaging young people. Why is it important to cultivate young Jewish leaders?

RW: I don’t think that we as a larger community have been successful in creating a very strong pipeline connecting the baby boomers to Gen X and Gen Y. There’s never been a time when leaders in their 20s and 30s have been as equipped for leadership as now: Many of them have come from homes of privilege where they’ve been able to advance themselves in a whole number of areas. So, you have people in their 20s that have the same skills and talents etc., as people my age and in their 40s.

JJ: What do Jewish organizations need to do to entice young people?

RW: The power structure has to be changed. The old model is autocratic, and the new model has to become decentralized and democratic so that the next gen that comes in will have the same say as people who have been there for a while.

JJ: But it seems that the Jewish establishment is resistant to allowing young leaders the same kind of power that big donors have.

RW: They need to learn from the boomer generation of parenting — to look at younger talent as partners and provide them power to make decisions.

JJ: Being of the baby boomer generation yourself, do you ever feel inadequate compared to young ‘talent’?

RW: Not only do I never feel that way — there’s not a day that I’m not excited about growing people’s potential. The future of American Jewish life depends on being able to grow this potential that can carry on the 3,000-year-old Jewish story in new ways.

JJ: What’s the biggest problem facing the Jewish communal world?

RW: A lack of courage and a lack of leadership. But also, the inability to look at oneself and be self-reflective. When an organization is not effective, either change it or let it go out of business. We are at a very crucial point in which the next 20 or 30 years will determine the quality of Jewish life in America over the next century. And the biggest problem is a fear of busting out of the old model.

JJ: You seem to be an unconventional thinker. What does it take to think outside the box?

RW: I never think that something’s not possible. Anything can be moved; anything can be changed. But if something really doesn’t work, than I stop, put it to bed, and move on. I believe in excellence, and there’s no excuse for anything less — Jews in America are used to that.

JJ: Why does philanthropist Michael Steinhardt trust you with his money?

RW: He trusts me because I deeply care about him; he’s not a conduit for his money, he’s a partner. We’re true partners. And, because I have the courage to stand up for what I believe in, in a world where oftentimes women don’t and men do.

JJ: You have a reputation for being intimidating and intense. Why do you think people describe you this way?

RW: To create organizations that are successful, it takes time, a commitment to excellence, motivating individuals, hard work and tenacity. When these traits are attributed to men, they are called driven, visionary, a real leader. When these traits are attributed to women, they are often referred to as intimidating, aggressive, intense, tough.

I’m intimidating because I’ll press for people doing their very best, even when it’s not comfortable. And I’ll live with the fact that people don’t like me sometimes.

JJ: What is it like to be a woman at the top?

RW: It’s a lot of fun! One of the reasons that I’m at this place is that I don’t think about it that much. It’s not been a burning issue for me. It didn’t even occur to me that I didn’t have a place at the table. I felt that I had a responsibility to add to the conversation.

JJ: Is there still a glass ceiling?

RW: Yes. I don’t believe one sex or another should be dominant. Gender balance in positions of power is what creates a healthy community. But there’s a dark side — I don’t know how to say that my back is black and blue from the women that I thought were going to help me. People take out their jealousies on you.

JJ: How would you describe your leadership style?

RW: Leading younger Jews is a tremendous responsibility, and I think what we do is very holy work. I believe that I have someone that I’m constantly reporting to. I’m a deeply God-driven person.

For me the most exciting part about anything I’ve done in all of my work is opening doors and getting as many people into these conversations impacted, inspired, longing to lead, wanting to make the Jewish community a thousand times better than it is.

Younger Persians seeking greater role in community


Many of Los Angeles’ young Iranian Jews arrived in the United States as small children or were born here to immigrant parents.

Now young professionals in their 20s and 30s, they have fully embraced life in America and are championing greater political activity for the Iranian Jewish community in Southern California.

“For 30 years, our community has benefited from the opportunities of America, and now it’s time to give back and embrace our responsibilities as Jews and as Americans,” said Sam Yebri, 27, president of 30 Years After, a new, politically active nonprofit group. The organization was formed earlier this year by a group who wanted to make a contribution to the community but believed their voices were often ignored by the older leadership of local Iranian Jews.

“Our young members are not welcomed onto boards or committees, which are often governed by the same individuals for decades and which covet financial contributions over the creative energy and ideas of young leaders,” Yebri said.

As a result, the group set out to create new opportunities for social action.

This summer, 30 Years After was awarded $200,000 by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. 30 Years After’s planned activities include a communitywide conference titled, “The Iranian Jewish Community at a Crossroads,” which will take place on Sept. 14 at the Beverly Hills Hilton.

The conference will feature speakers from within the community, including Jimmy Delshad. Other speakers will include Rabbi David Wolpe, whose Sinai Temple has a large Iranian membership; Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks); Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and talk show host Dennis Prager. Topics will include life today in Iran and issues facing the Iranian Jewish communities in the United States and Israel.

30 Years After also plans to organize voter registration drives for the November election, host quarterly civic events and expand a pilot mentoring program for younger Iranian Jews, a project created in collaboration with Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters and Nessah Israel Synagogue.

Yebri and other 30 Years After members said they are also seeking greater political participation by local Iranian Jews in hopes of influencing local, state and national elected officials to address issues important to the Iranian Jewish community.

Over the past decades, nearly two dozen local Iranian Jewish groups have been involved with political awareness efforts, but no group until now has seriously pursued or organized communitywide political and civic activism.

Daryoush Dayan, newly elected chairman of the L.A.-based Iranian American Jewish Federation, acknowledged that the community’s leadership does not include the younger generation. He has pledged to resolve the issue.

“It is our hope that we will be able to preserve and combine the best aspects of our culture and moral values with those of the American Jewish community,” Dayan said. “However, this can only be realized to the extent we allow the younger generation to carry the leadership torch.”

We don’t need more gabfests on diversity


The details of the ugly dustup between a leading local Jewish philanthropist, Daphna Ziman, and the local African American head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Rev. Eric Lee, are still at issue. Ziman disseminated her account of the encounter in a widely distributed e-mail. She claimed that Lee gave a speech at a local fraternity function rife with anti-Semitic statements. Lee strenuously denied the charges, and no independent corroboration exists.

But what is of greater interest than what actually transpired at the Kappa Alpha Psi gathering is the response from the leadership of our community to Lee’s remarks and what that portends for intergroup relations in this city.

Predictably, the civil rights leadership of our communities seems to be responding to the incident just as they have in the past — with dialogue groups and resurrected “roundtables” aimed at convincing participants of the value of diversity and of our historic and present commonalities.

What ought to distinguish the response of today from those in the 1970s and 1990s is the context of our very changed society.

Society has caught up and passed well beyond dialogue groups and the need to justify and rationalize the value of diversity. Every major study conducted in this field has revealed an amazing attitude of acceptance of differences by today’s young people. As Morley Winograd and Michael Hais observe in their just-published book, “Millennial Makeover,” “the great diversity of the Millennial Generation [born between 1982 and 2003] and its experiences growing up in a multiracial society is reflected in their relatively color-blind attitudes on racial relations.”

The Pew Center concluded in its multiple surveys of millennials that “they are the most tolerant of any generation on social issues such as immigration, race and homosexuality.” One example documented by the Pew Center (dealing with a historically incendiary issue) found that that between 1987 and 2003, attitudes toward interracial dating among 18-25-year-olds underwent a sea change — those approving such activity rose from 56 percent to 89 percent. Those completely agreeing with interracial dating rose from 20 percent to 64 percent.

The data of a profound change in attitudes is incontestable and is manifested across racial and religious lines. The Reboot study of millennials, “OMG! How Generation Y is Redefining Faith in the iPod Era,” found that today’s youth are “fully integrated into diverse social networks. While previous generations often lived in homogenous religious communities, among Generation Y [born 1980-2000], only 7 percent of youth report that all their friends are the same religion as themselves. Even the most religious youth maintain diverse networks of peers.”

The study oversampled Jewish and black youth to confirm their findings.

Even the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) study of anti-Semitic attitudes indicates a decline in anti-Semitic attitudes among the African American population, historically among the most problematic cohort it surveys. Unfortunately, the ADL study does not disaggregate data for younger blacks and their attitudes.

If one believes the myriad studies that confirm the exceptionally positive trends of the new generation, how should one respond to the Lee incident? More dialogue groups that devolve into vehicles to preach to the converted seems to be what we have in store for us. The Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission and its friends will be busy singing the same old songs.

What ought to inform any actions that grow out of the Lee-Ziman incident is the profound change that has taken and is taking place around us. Young people today don’t need a “coalition” to talk about how to live together — they do it 24/7. Their world isn’t circumscribed by their faith, their race or their ethnicity.

Nor should we trudge out the old nostrums and activities and think that the Lees of the world will change their version of history or their attitudes — nor should we really care. They are not the future, and their historical notions are virtually irrelevant.

Our communities’ leadership has to absorb the reality that the next generation of open-minded young people sees diversity as a plus, not as a burden to be overcome. We need to offer them activities that confirm their positive outlook and involve them in doing, not talking, about things, much as Temple Israel’s Big Sunday program does — people working together as equals, improving our community for everyone. We don’t need more gabfests or sessions of self-flagellation.

Millennials believe that they live in an exciting time, two-thirds rate their lives as “excellent or pretty good,” let’s give them reason to confirm those positive attitudes.


David A. Lehrer is president and Joe R. Hicks vice president of Community Advocates Inc. (www.cai-la.org), a Los Angeles-based human relations organization headed by former mayor Richard J. Riordan.

ADL national youth conference inspires and empowers


On an overcast afternoon in Washington, D.C., sitting with about 120 other high school students from around the country, I listened to the empowering words of Holocaust survivor Henry Greenbaum as he described his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. He declared that it wasn’t one particular beneficial trait or talent that enabled him to survive the Holocaust, but just the fact that he had been fortunate. It wasn’t survival of the fittest in the concentration camps but survival of the luckiest.

Greenbaum was speaking during the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) 10th annual National Youth Leadership Mission, which took place over a four-day period in our nation’s capital. The mission sought to educate and empower teens around the country by relating the lessons of the Holocaust to current issues of bigotry.

Having grown up in Los Angeles and attended a private school for the past five years, one of the things that particularly excited me was being able to connect with people my age from completely different backgrounds and perspectives.

The main highlight of the conference was visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where I discovered the true horrors of hatred and silence. One section that specifically affected me was a hallway filled with Holocaust victims’ shoes, where I saw a literal, concrete representation of the true enormity of lives taken in the concentration camps.

It seems my feelings were similar to Greenbaum’s, who mentioned that this is the one section of the museum he tries to avoid, for fear of becoming too overcome with emotion. When asked why, he said that it was entirely possible that one of those shoes had belonged to a member of his family or to one of his friends, and this was just too haunting for him to bear.

In addition to Greenbaum, we heard from a professional Nazi prosecutor, an activist fighting current discrimination in places around the world, and also from many people from the ADL who have made abolishing discrimination their life’s work.

We were fortunate enough to talk with Dr. Leon Bass, an African American who fought in World War II. He explained how he has sometimes questioned why he was even fighting for a country that did not treat him as a capable, equal citizen, and how he has constantly struggled with others’ belief that he “wasn’t good enough.”

Through every aspect of the program, I began to recognize all forms of discrimination and bigotry. Jeremy Browning, a conference delegate from Detroit, said, “You really can’t talk about community and peace without meeting and getting to know people who aren’t like you.”

Feeling similarly to Browning, I especially enjoyed developing relationships with people my age from all over the country, who possess unbelievable qualities of leadership and empathy, and have given me hope for our future generations.

Throughout the conference, I began to realize that not every German citizen — and not even every German soldier — had been an evil, cold-blooded person. They had been misled by ingenious propaganda, stifled by severe fear and, in many cases, had become simply too lazy to care about what was going on around them, as long as it didn’t directly affect them.

Comprehending this made me adamantly decide that I refuse to be a bystander of hate; I refuse to be silenced and to become a living example of the phrase, “Out of sight, out of mind.”

Stephen Czujko, a student from Washington, D.C., who also attended the program, said, “I feel like my experience has helped me to mature and has given me the confidence to really make a difference.”

Czujko and some of his classmates are planning to have a Holocaust survivor visit their school and also want to raise money and awareness about the genocide in Darfur.

Browning and his peers are planning to lobby the Michigan state government for legislation requiring that the Holocaust and other genocides be taught in public schools. Erica McMahon, a conference delegate from Washington, D.C., is in the process of initiating a STAND (Students Taking Action Now Darfur) chapter at her high school.

“We are determined to make a difference, and I know that I can, because there are 120 people [that she met at the conference] doing the same thing,” she said.

With this in mind, the 10 Los Angeles delegates that attended the conference, in addition to about 10 more teens from the city dedicated to inspiring social progress, are beginning to formulate a social action project targeted to benefit our city. Hopefully, our vision will spread to many other communities.

Teenage leaders are beginning to act throughout the country, and I know that it is my generation’s turn to stand up and fight for the changes that we are certainly capable of achieving.

For information about ADL youth programs, visit For information about ADL youth programs, contact mromo@adl.org or go to

The Bloods, the Crips and the rabbi


In 1970, Abraham David Cooper was arrested by Washington police during a sit-in across from the Soviet embassy and put behind bars in a jammed holding cell. The then-20-year old Yeshiva College student came away from the experience with two important observations that may have changed his life:

  • First, that he didn’t like being in jail.
  • Second, that the established Jewish organizations had been missing in action in what Cooper considered the defining Jewish struggle of the time.

In the intervening 37 years, Cooper has made a point of being present in many of the world’s hot spots, and, at the same time, managed to stay out of prison. And during roughly the same time span, he has played a key role in creating one of the most activist Jewish organizations in the world, working outside the boundaries of the traditional organized community structure.

Ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, Cooper’s formal title today is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC). That curious academic rank is a holdover from his initial work with the SWC-affiliated Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, but it hardly defines his role and influence on this Jewish institution whose mission is to promote understanding among the world’s people.

Cooper, 57, is, in most respects, the alter ego of Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, and the 33-year-long relationship in which their interaction and division of labor are defined by a kind of shorthand telepathy, requiring no organizational chart or chain of command.

But if today the SWC is a worldwide presence — with seven offices at home and abroad, a landmark Museum of Tolerance, a reported 400,000 member families, high-profile donors and entr�(c)e to presidents and kings — a considerable share of the credit goes to Cooper.

While Hier is the ultimate decision maker and both men respond interchangeably, and instantly, to the endless real or perceived crises facing Israel and the Jewish people around the globe, Cooper does have specific areas of responsibility and expertise.

One is interfaith relations; another is the burgeoning area of cyberspace. Cooper testified before Congress as long as six years ago that the increasing sophistication of Internet propaganda by hate groups, white supremacists and Islamic extremists was exerting growing influence among younger people.

From his Pacific-oriented vantage point in Los Angeles, Cooper is the point man for relations with Japan, China and other Far Eastern nations, introducing Holocaust exhibits, exposing anti-Semitic literature, and establishing ties with political and religious leaders.

“Abe is the Wiesenthal Center’s ambassador to most of the world,” Hier said.

This “ambassador” also shows up in some unexpected places and situations.

Last year, for instance, Cooper was drafted as witness to a peace treaty signed by the so-called O.G.s (original gangster), the founding elders of the Bloods and the Crips, two of the most fearful rival gangs in South Los Angeles.

He was recruited for the assignment by Katy Haber, a London-born film producer, who has been working for many years with at-risk youth and the homeless in the African American community.

Haber had met Cooper while working as a docent at the Museum of Tolerance and had no doubt that he was the right man to win the confidence of the gang members.

“Who would be more appropriate than a man who works on conflict resolution with world leaders?” Haber asked rhetorically. “Besides, he is a man of deep intellect, extraordinary sensitivity, and one of the major humanitarians in our community.”

In the introductory meeting and after guiding the O.G.s through the Museum of Tolerance, Cooper complemented the broad lesson of mutual understanding with concrete specifics on community activism, finding jobs and how to deal with authorities.

Cooper said he has no particular formula or technique for bringing opposing sides to the table or bridging differences.

“Part of it is my background as a New Yorker, an American and a Jew, which has given me a certain quiet self-assurance,” he said. “Another part is the example set early on by my father.”

By way of contrast, Cooper was on the other side of the world last summer, on the Indonesian island of Bali. He was there as the organizer of the “Tolerance between Religions” conference, which brought together such unlikely participants as leading Muslim, Hindu and Jewish religious leaders, victims of the three faiths targeted by suicide bombers, and a Holocaust survivor.

In one speech, carried by Arab networks and worldwide, former president Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation in the world, upbraided Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his denial of the Holocaust.

Cooper’s organizing partner was C. Holland Taylor, CEO of the Libforall Foundation, which works with Muslim religious, educational, business and entertainment leaders to stem the spread of Islamic extremism.

After the Bali conference, Taylor and Cooper led a high-profile peace delegation from Indonesia, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel, on a weeklong mission to the Jewish state.

The experience impressed Taylor, who in a phone call from Indonesia described Cooper as “a brilliant strategist, who grasps immediately what can be done and who can juggle a dozen issues simultaneously.”

In the relationship between the Wiesenthal Center’s two top men, Cooper’s loyalty and admiration for Hier is unquestioned, but there is one easily noticed distinction between the two Orthodox rabbis.

As the Center’s clout has increased over the years, so has criticism of the institution within the general, and Orthodox, communities.

Complaints, mostly sotto voce, are aimed at the center’s alleged intrusions on the turfs of older community organizations, its political influence, the high salaries paid its top executives, violations of standards for nonprofit organizations, alarmist tactics and, in Israel, plans to build a $200 million Center for Human Dignity/Museum of Tolerance in the heart of Jerusalem.

In practically all these criticisms, the target is Hier, who is sometimes described, in awe, fear or derision, as a “New York street fighter.” By contrast, Cooper gets off unscathed.

Playing a frayed and faded ‘race card’


Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is making a truly impressive run for the White House, and in doing so is being considered by many as America’s first mainstream “black” candidate — in other words a “black” candidate not running on a near-exclusive agenda of identity politics.

In fact, Obama’s soaring stump rhetoric often speaks about the nation needing to transcend racial divisions, arguing that “we are one nation” as he did in his victory speech after the Iowa caucuses. In doing so Obama, the product of a white mother from Kansas and an African father from Kenya, became the nation’s first “black” presidential candidate who was not appealing directly to the politics of racial identity.

However, it didn’t take long for this race-transcendent rhetoric to become mired in the same old tired politics of blame and guilt that have for too long been the un-natural state of America’s racial affairs. As the race has became increasingly heated between Obama and his chief rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the gloves have come off and race has emerged as an issue that has dominated all discussions of the Democrats’ run for the White House.

The series of comments began back in December, when the chair of the Clinton campaign in Michigan speculated whether Obama has ever dealt drugs. Just prior to the New Hampshire vote, Bill Clinton referred to the increasingly successful Obama campaign as a “fairy tale.” Then Sen. Clinton told an audience of supporters that it took the work of then-president Lyndon Johnson to begin realizing the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — which seemed to some sensitive ears to diminish the importance of the great civil rights leader. Candice Tolliver, a Obama spokesperson, said that “a cross section of voters are alarmed at the tenor of these statements.”

Predictably, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said the Clintons, his old friends and allies, “Regrettably … have resorted to distasteful and condescending language….”

Democratic Rep. Jim Clayburn, a critical voice in black South Carolina politics, said he’d now consider endorsing Obama due to what he termed a lack of respect in the Clinton campaign’s approach to Obama.

Bill Clinton went on Al Sharpton’s radio show to explain his comments, and Sen. Clinton appeared on numerous news shows engaging in damage control. But the racial silliness seemed to have a momentum all its own. While campaigning with Sen. Clinton in South Carolina, Bob Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, again raised the specter of Obama’s drug use while a teenager. Clinton refused to repudiate the comments, even though she was standing on the stage as the over-the-top statements were made.

It is impossible to know, at this point, whether the Clintons, stung by the strength of the Obama campaign, decided to reach back for the race card as a device to weaken the cross-race appeal of Obama’s message. The Clintons’ electoral machine is known to “take no prisoners” and to do so with a fair amount of ruthlessness. That said, it is also a stretch to attempt to portray the Clintons as racially bigoted — having been devoted to liberal racial politics their entire lives.

On the other hand, why did it take Barack Obama more than a week to attempt to defuse the growing argument that somehow the Clintons are neo-racists? Only within the past few days has Obama spoken out, saying “Bill and Hillary Clinton have historically and consistently been on the right side of civil rights issues. I think they care about the African American community and that they care about all Americans and that they want to see equal rights and justice in this country.”

So will this issue go away now? Most likely it will not. Once unloosed, the beast of racial identity politics will be tamed only with great difficulty.

Speculation about racial motivations regarding elections is nothing new. A prime example are the views of folks like Michael Eric Dyson, a black Georgetown University professor — a guy who could turn a visit from Santa Claus into a racial issue — who recently made featured appearances on various 24-hour news channels, peddling the view that the so-called “Bradley effect” defeated Obama in New Hampshire. In 1982, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, a black man, was defeated in his race for governor, even though polls indicated he’d win. The continuing claim is that whites lied to pollsters, then went into the voting booth to vote for the “white” candidate, George Deukmejian.

This is, of course, all rank speculation, but the view has become enshrined as reality among those with transparent racial agendas. No one knows what was in the minds and hearts of California’s voters in that 1982 Gubernatorial race — just as race-conscious pundits like Dyson now speculate wildly that New Hampshire’s mostly white voters were mindful of race when they handed Hillary Clinton a narrow three-point win over Barack Obama.

But wouldn’t a more thoughtful analysis have led to the conclusion that Clinton had a more effective New Hampshire ground operation? Or what about the fact that many uncommitted voters waited until the last moment (nearly 40 percent made up their minds in the last three days prior to the election), with women and older voters perhaps influenced by Clinton’s “humanizing” emotional moment in front of television cameras?

Why are some racial “traditionalists” so distraught by what Obama’s electoral successes represent? I think the obvious willingness of white voters to disregard the candidate’s skin color is a direct challenge to the argument that racism dominates the nation’s social, political and economic life. Already, Obama’s highly credible run for the highest office in the land has caused the country’s professional racial complainers to scramble in order to put their spin on things.

It is obvious that if Obama were to win the Oval Office not all racism would be eliminated by this feat. However, I have not heard anyone making that claim. Racism and bigotry will perhaps always exist in some form. There will always be those idiots and fools who define others exclusively by their skin color, ethnicity or religion. But so what? At least 10 percent of the American people believe that Elvis Presley is still alive.

Shopping for back to shul


It can be an exhausting process. And it can sometimes be exhilarating. Because of the hundreds of possibilities among Los Angeles’ shuls, success in finding the perfect one for you and your family too often seems just one more visit away.

Whether you are new to organized Jewish life, have kids, are pinching your pennies or just want a spiritual home base, there are four questions that are best answered before you begin your shul shopping.

First and foremost is your denomination, whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or other special non- or trans-denomination. Then there is the question of community: Are you becoming a member of a congregation because of the religious aspect of Judaism, to find friends or both? Most congregations offer a mix of social and sacred activities, but it’s worth asking yourself where your priorities lie.

Now for question No. 2: What specific features must your synagogue have?

If your main priority is a high-quality religious education program for your children, this city is packed with terrific congregation-affiliated day schools, preschools and religious schools. However, a well-regarded school can provide other challenges for small synagogues. For example, Temple Isaiah has struggled for years to retain families who join for the shul’s renowned preschool but split for larger congregations with more to offer post-graduation.

These days, joining congregations with affiliated day schools has become more popular than ever among parents seeking religious education for their children, and, in turn, membership has become necessary for securing a space on the school’s enrollment list. For example, enrollment at Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy or Temple Israel of Hollywood’s day school is only available to the shul’s members.

Here’s a tip: Becoming a member at a synagogue can sometimes lead to some cost cuts when it comes to the education of your kids. Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s nursery and elementary schools are open to the Jewish community at large, but substantial tuition discounts (not to mention higher positions on the waiting list totem pole) are given to member families because the congregation subsidizes the schools.

For those seeking a religious supplement to the secular education of their children, religious school on afternoons or weekends is key. However, in most cases, the right to send your children to these schools is only given to congregants.

Parents or professionals with full agendas might want to find a synagogue with a flexible schedule of religious services. Congregations have progressively become more willing to compromise when it comes to scheduling in order to attract a wider range of members. Beth Jacob in Pico-Robertson (one of Los Angeles’ largest Orthodox congregations) offers three Shacharit minyamim every morning. Other synagogues have experimented with shorter services and earlier Friday night services for families who want to eat Shabbat dinner together.

If you have never belonged to a congregation before, take a look at the shul’s adult education program. Numerous synagogues offer courses introducing new members to Jewish life.

For widows, widowers or divorcees, a synagogue with singles mixers or a mourner’s club may be the place for you to meet new people.

The singles scene has become an active part of congregational life in Los Angeles. Events like Friday Night Live (on the second Friday of every month) at Sinai Temple cater to the 25 to 40 crowd and have become popular for matchmaking and phone number-swapping.

But beyond all this, connecting with a synagogue’s rabbis is often the most important part of a shul search. If you don’t like the rabbis, it won’t be much fun sitting through their High Holy Days sermons every year. Most will be more than happy to take the time to talk with you as you visit their congregation. Let them know your interests and what appeals to you – or doesn’t – about their offerings. How they address your concerns could give you as much information as what they have to say.

Another important intangible is the lay leadership. Temple presidents and boards decide what occurs on a daily basis at the shul, so it can be useful to speak to at least one board member to get a sense of the ruling body’s future plans. In addition, talking to the synagogue’s executive director and event coordinator can give you some insight on what it means to be a part of a congregation. Be careful, though, and take whatever they have to say with a grain of salt – after all, it is their job to convince you to join their shul.

If community outreach is important to you, look for a shul with an abundance of “social action” activities. For the politically minded, find a congregation that has a “social justice” program, a feature that is rising in popularity among congregations throughout the city.

On to question No. 3: How big do you want the congregation to be? Houses of worship like Stephen S. Wise Temple (the largest congregation in the United States) offer countless ways to explore every aspect of Jewish life, including major lecture series and events, but some people prefer smaller congregations. When you make your decision, don’t forget to keep your children in mind. Shared b’nai mitzvahs and large class sizes are staples of shuls like Wilshire Boulevard Temple. At the same time, kids can connect with a wide variety of friends in larger congregation.

Finally, question No. 4: How much are you willing to pay in membership dues? Most shuls have price tags of at least $1,500 for a yearly family membership, but, if money is tight for your family, some dues subsidy may be offered. Do not be shy. The vast majority of synagogues don’t turn away members because they cannot afford the annual fee. You need to sit down with the rabbi or executive director of the shul and tell them about your financial quandary. And for the devout, joining a Chabad might be the way to go, since membership is completely free of charge.

Don’t forget that what is most important when looking for a congregation is to find an environment that provides comfort, community and challenges. Make sure that you take time and are thoughtful on your shul shopping expedition. This is one purchase that is not easily returned.

Nessah reaches out to young Iranian professionals


Like other Jews in Los Angeles, Iranian Jews have a wide range of Ashkenazi and Sephardic synagogues of different denominations to choose from for High Holy Days services. This year, Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills hopes to attract a sizeable portion of the Iranian Jewish community who value the traditional form of Judaism practiced in Iran.

In particular, Nessah’s leadership is aiming for the many professional Iranian Jews in their 20s and 30s by offering English-language services conducted by Rabbi Hillel Benchimol, who was recently hired as a full-time associate rabbi.

“This synagogue is not Ashkenazi or black hat Chasidic, but with Sephardic roots that are much deeper,” Benchimol said. “We are trying to offer a genuine rebirth of Iranian Judaism that has been watered down in Beverly Hills and Los Angeles over the years.”

Benchimol, while not Iranian, was raised with a Sephardic background in the British territory of Gibraltar. For six years he was the head rabbi at Kahal Joseph, a West L.A. Iraqi shul. Benchimol left Kahal Joseph and spent two years in Europe before he returned to Los Angeles in June to begin working at Nessah.

Nessah board members said young Iranian Jewish professionals who are not necessarily religious have increasingly begun attending the synagogue’s separate English-language Shabbat services because of Benchimol. They find they can relate to the rabbi because he understands the secular world; in fact, he left Judaism for a while as a young man.

“What they love about Rabbi Benchimol is that he relates to them on a one-on one-basis and engages them in an interactive dialogue during services, rather than preaching to them through a sermon,” Nessah board member Simon Etehad said.

Since Nessah’s 2002 move to its Beverly Hills location, the synagogue has designated a separate banquet hall for worship services for young members who are more Americanized than their parents. During the last several years, Nessah has increasingly turned its focus and funds toward the younger generation, including many who had joined Ashkenazi synagogues or even lost interest in Judaism altogether because they do not understand Persian-language services or old-world customs.

Nessah also will target younger people through a lecture series during High Holy Day services. This year the lineup of “hip” Jewish scholars includes Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, host of The Learning Channel’s “Shalom in the Home,” and Rabbi Benjamin Blech, author of the popular “Idiot’s Guide” books on Judaism.

“All of our energies will and need to, go to the younger generation, because they are our future asset,” Nessah President, Morgan Hakimi said.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services for the younger generation have long been important to the Iranian Jews, as the religious gatherings are ideal for singles to meet one another and find their spouses.

Nessah made history five years ago when it became the first Iranian synagogue in the world to embrace congregational membership. For centuries, Iranian Jews have followed the tradition of raising funds for religious activities by auctioning off the privilege of participating in aliyot and other rituals during Shabbat and holiday services. Today, that practice has been phased out at Nessah, and congregants now call in their donations beforehand to receive aliyot and participate in services.

“The beauty of Nessah is that we are trying to transfer 2,500 years of our true tradition and at the same time trying to create a sense of belonging in the community for the new generation through membership,” Hakimi said.

The decision to end bidding on aliyot at Nessah was also based on the new reality that successful young Iranian Jewish professionals do not wish to publicly announce their donations, Hakimi said, whereas in Iran such open announcements were once a source of pride for donors.

“It [the question of bidding on aliyot] has made a lot of people in the older generation uncomfortable because it was a part of our long tradition,” Hakimi said. “But at Nessah we are keeping parts of our traditions that are important and inherent, while letting the others go.”

Even though over the years some local Iranian Jews have accused Nessah of catering only to the wealthy in the community, young professionals are finding the synagogue’s membership fees fairly reasonable. Annual dues are $100 for singles between the ages of 18 and 35 and include the separate English-language High Holy Days services. Couples between the ages of 18 and 35 must pay $200 for their annual membership and High Holy Day services.

Despite Nessah’s membership program, a substantial number of Iranian Jews in Los Angeles remain resistant to paying membership at any synagogue, instead choosing to pay one-time flat fees to attend traditional Persian-language services held at various hotels and movie theatres for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Teens, college students make their presence known


“Welcome to Los Angeles.”

“Welcome to the GA.”

Erika Levy and Alie Kussin-Shoptaw, seniors at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, easily spotted in their bright orange volunteer vests, stood by the escalators at the Los Angeles Convention Center, greeting arriving United Jewish Communities General Assembly (GA) attendees and directing them to meeting rooms, halls and hospitality suites.

“We have to be like Abraham and reach out and greet everyone, even if it’s a little uncomfortable for us,” said Kussin-Shoptaw.

The girls, both 17, were part of a cadre of teen volunteers brought together by Sulam, the Center for Jewish Service Learning, part of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE). The group included 15 students from New Community Jewish High School, 20 from Shalhevet High School, 11 from the Jewish Student Union (JSU) and 20 from United Synagogue Youth.

The students, already committed to the Jewish community, learned about the mitzvah of greeting, instructed by Phil Liff-Grieff, BJE associate executive director, and Dan Gold, director of Sulam, before being dispatched for a three-hour volunteer shift. Afterward, they were free to attend sessions, visit the marketplace or hang out in the teen volunteer lounge.

“These kids think it’s so cool to be part of this,” Gold said.

For those students from the JSU, an organization that provides ways for Jewish teens in public high schools to become more Jewishly involved, the GA was an extension of a leadership weekend held on Friday and Saturday.

“This is a great opportunity to learn for ourselves, as well as help others,” said Mike Ghalchi, 17, a senior at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills and president of the school’s JSU chapter. He added it was particularly valuable, because “going to public school, we’re not exposed to religion every day.”

For 20 members of United Synagogue Youth (USY) from Los Angeles-area chapters, the GA was also the culmination of a long regional leadership weekend at Camp Ramah.

These young people, many of whom had stayed up till 4 a.m., traveled from Ojai on Sunday morning in time for the opening plenary session, where, among other speakers, they heard speeches by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, as well as Karnit Goldwasser, wife of captured soldier Ehud Goldwasser.

“This supports everything they’re doing in USY,” said Merrill Alpert, director of youth activities for USY’s Pacific Southwest Region. “These kids are our future Jewish leaders.”

While Sulam targeted those who will ideally work in the Jewish community, Do the Write Thing hosted a group of 30 college students and recent graduates who will possibly be reporting on the Jewish community.

“We introduce them to the concept that Jewish journalism is a profession,” said Leni Reiss, former managing editor of the Phoenix Jewish News and American Jewish Press Association (AJPA) liaison for 16 of the program’s 17 years. “Here they get a sense of the living, breathing, organized Jewish world.”

Through this program, which is cosponsored by The Jewish Agency, the Hagshama department of the World Zionist Organization and AJPA, students attended workshops, including one on “Covering Israel in the American Jewish Press.”

Additionally this year, for first time, they were given assignments, asked to fan out into different sessions each day and bring back quotations for the GA Daily, distributed to attendees. They are also expected to write an article about the GA for their school or community paper.

For Ayli Meyer, 21, a University of Judaism student from Houston, the GA is an opportunity to gain some real-life experience. She serves as editor of the school newspaper, the Casiano Chronicle, but, she said, “there are not enough journalism classes at school.”

Another participant, Erin Kelley, 23, a Reno resident who attends Truckee Meadows Community College, is hoping to make aliyah in a year.

“I want to combine my knowledge of Israel and my writing skills,” she said.
Elon Shore, the Hagshama Mid-Atlantic regional director, believes that having Israel as a central theme helps these young people connect with the Jewish community. He referred to studies demonstrating that an Israel experience is effective at connecting young adults to Judaism.

Students also respond very well to social concerns, according to Jeff Rubin, Hillel’s associate vice president for communications, citing a Hillel report.

This year, new to the GA, Hillel sponsored Just for a Day, a day of social action where 300 Jewish students from universities across the United States and Canada, who had come for entire GA conference, joined together on Sunday with another 700 college students, mostly from Southern California.

Just for a Day encompassed projects sponsored by six different organizations. These ranged from Project Angel Food, where students delivered hot meals to home-bound patients with AIDS, to Jewish World Watch, where, at Congregation B’nai David-Judea, students learned about advocating for Darfur. At all locations, students were joined by local celebrities, including “West Wing” actor Josh Malina and comedian David Brenner.

At the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, located downtown, more than 100 students helped unpack cartons of donated canned and packaged foods and sorted them for Thanksgiving distribution.

“I think a lot of people look at college students as lazy,” said Nicole Landa, a USC junior. “As you can see here, students really do care.”

From the University of Arizona in Tucson, 60 students piled into vans after the school’s homecoming Saturday night and drove nine hours to participate in Just for a Day, according to U of A student Michelle Miller.

Half the group worked at the Midnight Mission on Skid Row, distributing hygiene packs that they had preassembled, and on Skid Row. The other half worked at the Downtown Women’s Center.

Then, after attending a concert that evening at the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood, where Guster, an alternative rock band, and The LeeVees, a Jewish holiday music band, entertained Hillel participants, they climbed back into their vans for the nine-hour return trip.

According to Hillel President Wayne Firestone, volunteer days such as this are effective ways to unite Jewish students across the denominational spectrum to work together under the banner of tikkun olam (healing the world).

“We feel that everywhere we go we should leave our mark,” he said.

Rabbi Gary Greenebaum takes national leadership position; Survival of Jews in Iran is a paradox, pan


Rabbi Gary Greenebaum takes national leadership position

Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, a key figure in Los Angeles civic and ecumenical relations for the last 16 years, has been appointed national director for interreligious affairs by the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

As director of AJC’s Los Angeles chapter and Western region since 1990, Greenebaum has worked closely with leaders of the city’s varied ethnic and religious communities to further mutual respect and understanding.

He plans to project the same skills and goals on the national scene in his new post, succeeding David Elcott, who has joined the Israel Policy Forum as executive director.

“I realize now more than ever how strongly religion affects American society,” Greenebaum said.

Greenebaum played another crucial role when Mayor Richard Riordan appointed him president of the Los Angeles Police Commission in 1993, in the wake of the previous year’s riots, sparked by the acquittal of police officers involved in the Rodney King beating.

“I think that my appointment to the Police Commission and my work there helped alleviate a sense among African Americans that Jews didn’t care any longer about their community,” he said. “I also believe that we have established a tremendous relationship with the Latino community over the years.”

In a different arena, Greenebaum and his chapter have spearheaded Jewish communal relations with some 45 countries represented by consulates in Los Angeles. In recognition of this work, he was recently awarded the National Order of Merit by the French government.

Greenebaum, 57, will retain his family residence in Los Angeles and expects to spend one week each month in New York.

Among highlights of his California tenure, Greenebaum recalled taking several delegations of Protestant and Catholic leaders to Israel and the 2003 AJC mission to Salt Lake City to meet with top Mormon leaders.

“Gary is a wonderful judge of people,” said Sherry A. Weinman, president of the Los Angeles AJC chapter. “He knows exactly when to lead with his rabbinical side and when with his statesman side.”

Debbie Smith Saidoff, who serves on the national AJC board of governors, praised Greenebaum’s sensitivity in dealing with representatives of other faiths.

“Gary is a multidimensional leader of great insight, but he is never afraid to speak truth to power,” she said.

In his new position, Greenebaum will work closely with Jerusalem-based Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s international director of interreligious affairs.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Survival of Jews in Iran is a paradox, panel shows

On Oct. 20, the Women of Vision chapter of the Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization, presented a panel discussion on “The Jews of Iran: Will This 2,700-Year-Old Community Survive?” to a standing-room-only crowd at the Museum of Tolerance.

At present, 25,000 Jews live in Iran, 15,000 of them in Tehran, making Iran’s Jewish population the second largest in the Middle East, outside of Israel. In the years following the 1979 revolution, approximately 75 percent of the Iranian Jewish population fled the country, some to New York but many more to Los Angeles, which now boasts the largest Iranian Jewish population in the world.

Speakers at the conference included Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, as well as Hamid Sabi, former chairman of the Iranian Jewish Centre in London. They were joined by Tel Aviv University professors Meir Litvak, an expert in Shi’ii and radical Islamic movements, and David Menashri, director of the Tel Aviv University’s Center for Iranian Studies; television producer and poet Roya Hakakian, author of “Journey From the Land of No” (Crown), about growing up as a Jewish teenager in post-revolutionary Iran; Shirin Taleh, a relatively recent immigrant to Los Angeles from Tehran, where she was a Jewish preschool and kindergarten schoolteacher; and Israel Radio personality Menashe Amir, who hosts a regular program listened to by Iranians the world over. The panel was moderated by Sharon Baradaran, a professor in UCLA’s Israel studies department.

The conference presented a complex look at the recent history of Jews in Iran. Amir made clear that over the last century, the condition of Jews in Iran had gone from bad to better (under the shah) to worse, prompting Baradaran to ask whether the better times under the shah were more of an aberration than had been thought.

Hakakian and Sabi both spoke of the role of Jews in the revolution and post-revolutionary period, time of great intellectual ferment and hope. Hakakian, in particular, still hopes a democracy will emerge in Iran, and she is encouraged by reports that average Iranians are losing interest in Iranian government-produced Palestinian propaganda and are showing interest in Israel.

By contrast, Litvak was vocal in pointing out that Iran only tolerates Jews living under Muslim rule — not as people living in an independent state. Iran has become the world leader in Holocaust denial, Litvak explained, as part of a political strategy to undermine support for Israel’s existence.

The panelists agreed that today’s Iran presents a paradox. In many ways, as Hakakian, Sabi and Taleh made clear, life for Jews in some ways has never been better. They are a “protected minority,” allowed to drink wine for their rituals, while Muslims are not allowed alcohol; Jews may allow men and women to mix, while Muslims cannot.Nonetheless, Jews are barred from government jobs, and under Muslim laws, their rights in criminal and civil courts are not equal to other Iranian citizens.

Iranian Muslims consider Jews “filthy” and impure. Yet Jews in Iran have the right to passports and to travel abroad and could leave if they choose.

Litvak suggested that Iran’s Jews have little future living as a minority in Iran and will not likely be able to improve their place in society. Kermanian recommended that the remaining Jews of Iran leave as soon as possible, in case conditions should change.

Menashri suggested that all Iranian Jews should move to Israel, while Hakakian argued that Iran’s Jews should remain and will flourish under a future regime. Taleh believes that there always will be a Jewish Iran, as long as parents teach their children about Judaism.

— Tom Teicholz, Contributing Writer

Democrats have no beitzim


It’s not polite to say the English word for cojones in this paper, so I’ll use the Hebrew: beitzim.
 
Beitzim means eggs in Hebrew, but it is also slang for cojones.
 
And as the midterm election draws near, any clear-eyed assessment of the Democratic Party would have to conclude: the Democrats have no beitzim.
 
Plenty of them are gloating that the congressional page sex scandal will clinch a victory for them in November. But I doubt it. It wouldn’t shock me if, New York Yankees-like, the team that looks unbeatable in the playoffs gets sent packing.
 
This is the party that couldn’t unseat a president who chose to launch a disastrous war, and who waded against mainstream opinion on everything from stem cell research to energy policy to the environment to Terri Schiavo. At every turn, Democratic candidates have failed to offer an alternative voice that makes Americans feel not just sane, but safe.
 
I am sick of Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi and all the other so-called Democratic leaders. I’m all ears, and they’re still tone deaf. They are either smug or shrill, and for all their smarts, rarely inspiring.
 
The most engaging, hard-hitting liberals in this country right now are Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher. But they’re not leaders, they’re jesters. They tell funny bedtime stories so that about 2 million New York Times readers can fall asleep believing the world hasn’t really gone to hell.
 
But last time I checked no president ever won on the Snarky ticket.
 
There are courageous, brilliant Democrats out there, including many Jewish ones. But they aren’t the party leaders, and with the exception of Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), none of them have White House aspirations, and so far none of them seem to know how to inspire the masses from behind a microphone. Does Feingold? We shall see.
 
I can carbon date the age of the Democrats’ petrified beitzim precisely. If my generation will never forget where they were when Kennedy was shot, today’s young voters will always remember where they were when JFK’s party got neutered.
 
It happened on Jan. 26, 1998. On that day, President Bill Clinton lied to the public about his liaison with Monica Lewinsky. Instead of standing up to the Republicans and saying, “Hey, I was wrong, now get over it, because I’m not going anywhere,” he caved. The Democrats have been sorry ever since.
 
Contrast that to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). When revelations emerged last week that he bungled an investigation into the predatory conduct of Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.). Hastert admitted he blew it, but held firm. He dissembled, he got caught, then he apologized, and now he is staring down the media and the nation, like Kim Jung Il and his nukes, refusing to budge, daring them to call his bluff. I never thought I’d write this sentence, but Bill Clinton is no Dennis Hastert.
 
“In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man,” the Pirke Avot says. The vacuum in Democratic leadership has allowed Republicans to launch headlong attacks on long-established liberal bulwarks. With the Democrats offering Titanic-quality leadership, Republicans understand that even the historic Democratic voters — Latinos, blacks, Jews — are in play. What seems impossibly ingrained can change in a generation, or an election. In his new book, “Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South,” Thomas Schaller points out that until Barry Goldwater came on the scene in the 1960s, “white Southerners … trailed only the Jews and African Americans in their degree of economic liberalism.”
 
The struggle over Jewish votes erupted in these pages in response not to an article, but to a series of ads. Smelling blood, the Republican Jewish Coalition bought full-page front-of-the-book placement in major Jewish papers across the country to make their claim that Democrats are weak on Israel and soft on terrorism. One particularly subtle ad featured a full-page photo of Britain’s pre-war Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, likening Dems to Nazi appeasers.
 
Others offered selected quotes from anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan and former President Jimmy Carter, as a way to show an erosion of support for Israel within the party.
 
The Democratic response has been — surprise! — weak. They argue that Sheehan is not the Democratic Party — although the Democrats were happy to use her during the 2004 Presidential race — and that former President Carter is not the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Except that he was, um, president of the United States.
 
The Democrats need to acknowledge that support for Israel is showing signs of softening among the party’s left-leaning activist base, even as blind pro-Israel fervor marks the right-leaning evangelical base of the Republicans. The Democrats should acknowledge this, address it, find a way to repair it — and fight back.
 
They might want to point out that eight years ago every senior Israeli analyst identified Iran as Israel’s greatest strategic threat, and that under six years of President Bush, the Iranian threat — due to the fiasco in Iraq, and despite the president’s rhetoric — has increased multifold.
 
They might want to argue that the president’s failure to wean America from its dependence on oil — despite an ideal post-Sept. 11 environment in which to boldly do so — deeply cripples our ability to stand up to Arab regimes. In his new book, “State of Denial,” Bob Woodward reveals that the president received his foreign policy tutoring from the prince of Saudi Arabia. There’s no doubt President Bush loves Israel, but good for Israel: Hey, Democrats, stop defending Jimmy Carter and make an argument.
 
So who can save the Democrats? The Jews.

Lebanon War: Mission Accomplished


Contrary to what is now the accepted wisdom in the media, Hezbollah, in its recent offensive against Israel, neither badly bloodied the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) nor fought it
to a standstill.

In fact, the opposite is the case.

By any legitimate measure, the IDF handed a resounding military defeat to Hezbollah, and while Israel’s soldiers did not cure the cancer that is Hezbollah, they did send it into remission.

From a military perspective, there can be absolutely no doubt as to the results of Hezbollah and Iran’s offensive against Israel. It was a defeat. Every part of their war plan, except the manipulation of the media, failed.

Hezbollah expected and planned for a massive charge of Israeli armor into Southern Lebanon. The amounts and types of anti-tank weapons they acquired and had operationally deployed in their forward positions, as well as their secondary and tertiary bands of fortresses and strongholds through southern Lebanon, attest to this fact. They intended to do in mountainous terrain what Egypt had so effectively done in the Sinai Desert in the Yom Kippur War.

In that war, Sinai indeed became a graveyard for Israeli armor. Egypt destroyed hundreds of Israeli tanks. Whole brigades were decimated in single battles by the Egyptians’ highly effective anti-tank missile ambushes. In that war, almost 3,000 Israeli soldiers were killed. That was Hezbollah’s plan. It was a good one. And it failed.

Just prior to the cease-fire, Israel suffered 29 tanks hit. Of those, 25 were back in service within 24 hours. Israel suffered 117 soldiers killed in four weeks of combat. As painful as those individual losses were to their families and to the Israeli collective psyche, which views all its soldiers as their biological sons and daughters, those numbers in fact represent the fewest casualties suffered by Israel in any of its major conflicts.

In 1948, Israel suffered 6,000 killed. In 1967, in what was regarded as its most decisive victory, Israel lost almost 700 killed in six days. In 1973, Israel lost 2,700 killed, and in the first week of the first war in Lebanon, Israel suffered 176 soldiers killed.

Why then the impression of massive Israeli casualties in clear contrast to the actual numbers of those killed? It is because the Israeli army is a citizen’s army. It is made up of everyone’s child, everyone’s brother or sister, aunt or uncle. The nation, as a whole, mourned the loss of its children quite literally, as if they were the sons and daughters of each and every family.

Were I, as an Israeli officer in the military spokesperson’s unit, to have made a statement to the Israeli press about the actual lightness of Israel’s casualties, I would, at the least, have been relieved of duties, if not also of rank.

Indeed, members of my unit volunteered to a man to go into Lebanon under fire to help retrieve the bodies of four fallen soldiers and make sure that reporters (who by that time were reported to be simply driving into Lebanon) could not broadcast pictures before the families were notified. We provided an additional covering force, as well, against Hezbollah, while medics and a rabbi safeguarded the sanctity of the remains of four kids, younger than my 22-year-old son. We did so not only not under orders but in violation of orders, because we were all of us fathers, as well as soldiers, and these were not only our comrades in arms but our sons. We were there to bring them home.

That is the emotion. But the numbers are different. They are the lightest casualties suffered by the IDF in all of its wars.

Military historians will spend years deciphering why exactly this was so. Was Israel’s government and its general staff, by its refusal to commit large numbers of forces for the first three weeks of combat, in fact making a highly intelligent strategic choice? Possibly.

Possibly it was dumb luck or divine intervention. Either way it meant three things:

  1. Hezbollah’s ambush never happened, because Israel didn’t take the bait. Instead, it used air power and then a series of probing raids, primarily by infantry, to methodically, slowly identify and root out the enemy positions.

  2. It meant that those small numbers of troops deployed into Lebanon in the first weeks of fighting had to do more with less than perhaps any other Israeli fighters in any other war. Certainly in other wars, there were many individual battles in which so much was expected of and accomplished by so few. But no war comes to mind in which so few soldiers were deployed across an entire front.

    They performed brilliantly and with uncommon courage in the face of withering fire from heavily fortified and prepared positions. These were draft-age soldiers: 18- and nineteen-year-olds, commanded on the platoon and company levels by 20-somethings, none of whom had ever faced anything remotely like the combat against Hezbollah’s terrorist army. In spite of what many see as the logistical and command failures of their superiors, they performed brilliantly and achieved their objectives.

  3. When the vast bulk of Israel’s force was finally deployed, made up primarily of its reservists, these soldiers achieved in 48 hours what many believe they should have been given weeks to accomplish. Despite logistical failures, some times fighting without food or water, Israel’s soldiers, regular army and reserves alike, handed Hezbollah a decisive military defeat.

All of Hezbollah’s Siegfried Line-like system of fortresses and strongholds, their network of command and control bunkers along Israel’s northern border were destroyed, abandoned or under the control of the IDF by the end of the hostilities. Hezbollah’s miniterrorist state within a state south of the Litani had been dismantled.

Its terrorist capital within a capital in Beirut, its command and control center and infrastructure were in ruins. In the end, it sought and accepted a cease-fire resolution in the United Nations that provided the framework for Israel to achieve all of its stated war aims. This last point is of no minor consequence both in terms of what Israel achieved and failed to achieve in the counteroffensive it waged against Hezbollah.

I can speak to this subject with some degree of expertise, since I was one of the people tasked with putting into a simple declarative sentence what the IDF’s mission was as handed down to it by Israel’s democratically elected political leaders. The sentence defining the IDF’s mission read as follows:

Left-Leaning Jewish Groups Out-of-Touch Now


It is time that we American Jewish liberals who have been left leaning about our politics regarding Israel begin to review the support we give to the organizations that have
been leading us.

They are proving themselves obsolete, outdated and out-of-touch. Since the beginning of the intifada they have been making mistakes. But a week ago Tuesday night I believe they committed public suicide at a Town Hall meeting at Westside JCC sponsored by Americans for Peace Now and Brit Tzedek V’Shalom.

At a time when the vast majority of Israelis and Diaspora Jews are united about supporting Israeli actions in Lebanon, the two organizations believed they were assuming a courageous left voice manifesting Jewish values as they echoed the critics’ disproportionate force argument. Then they moved on to call for a truce. Next, they suggested that we begin a Jewish fund for the Lebanese victims of Israeli bombings. This creative proposal received much head nodding followed by a promise of initial funding from a member of the audience.

A former American born Knesset member who now lives in San Francisco, droned on in academic monotone for nearly half an hour, presenting future disastrous scenarios that are certain to result from Israel’s present actions.

Through lamentations more profound than reciting Echa on Tisha B’Av, the two organizations innocently forgot to delve into the real threats of the Syria/Iran axis; the difference between the war in Lebanon and the one in Gaza; Hezbollah’s aim to destroy Israel; the kidnapping of IDF soldiers on sovereign Israeli soil; the unprovoked attacks on Haifa as well as cities, towns and settlements throughout the North; Israel’s unilateral moves to hand back Southern Lebanon and Gaza; and a host of other insignificant events and actions.

As a former board member of both local and national Americans for Peace Now, an organization that at one time defined my heart, my soul and my passionate cause, I can no longer support the organization. When the last intifada began, I suggested to its leaders in Israel that perhaps the Peace Now’s logic had been flawed. They always claimed and we enthusiastically supported their belief that their dialogues between Jews and Arabs and the relationships that resulted were to be the pylons that held up the bridges if there was ever too much weight upon them. “Well,” I remember saying, “those bridges have collapsed and the pylons became insignificant as braces.” They were horrified at my blasphemous thinking.

Yet, for me that realization was the beginning of a journey away from those with whom I had traveled the deep and challenging roads of liberal Israeli politics for over 25 years. I no longer believed that there were real negotiating partners. Through work I had done for the Ford Foundation in Israel, meeting both their Jewish and Arab grantees, I realized that while the Jews talked of creating peace, the Palestinians talked of establishing a state.

For Jews, creating peace and establishing a Palestinian state, was one and the same. The Palestinians I interviewed never talked about peace. For them establishing their state was not in the same breath as creating peace. Further, there was not one Arab, when I asked him or her about suicide bombers, who could ever outright condemn the action. But they could all tell me, “You need to understand why this happens.”

So now, does this mean I am no longer liberal/left? Regarding Israeli politics, I don’t know what those labels mean today. Given current realities, do they have any relevance?

The entire Israeli political spectrum and the ways American Jews demonstrate their support is redefining itself. It would be best right now if along with action, we study and watch the situation, so we can reform, regroup and rethink what the thinking and the infrastructures should be. If we hold on to old knee-jerk reactions and the way everything has been, we will be left totally ineffective.

Americans for Peace Now and Brit Tzedek V’Shalom have to stop what they are now doing and be part of this redefinition. Until they do the hard work of critical thinking and ask themselves the unsettling questions that may possibly crumble cracked foundations upon which they stand, they will be like the Pied Piper leading their liberal/left children into the drowning sea.

Gary Wexler is the founder and president of L.A.-based Passion Marketing and a former board member of the local and Americans for Peace Now,

Jamie McCourt Proves She’s an Artful Dodger President


Bougainvillea and vines curl around a pergola at the Bel Air Hotel’s outdoor patio restaurant, a lunch spot for Westside powerbrokers. It’s 10:30 a.m., and powerbrokers are scarce at this hour, except for Jamie McCourt, vice chairman and president of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who is seated under a canopy at a private table. She smiles when asked what humanitarian work she and her husband, Frank, have done to earn the Scopus Award, an honor from the American Friends of Hebrew University, which they will receive in a ceremony at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in December.

“You don’t think saving the Dodgers is enough?” she quips.

Indeed, she is right, for the Dodgers, a legendary name in professional sports, a franchise once associated with excellence on the playing field, stability in the front office and a commitment to progressive causes, most notably the breaking of baseball’s so-called color barrier, fell on hard times during the Rupert Murdoch era.

Perhaps the beginning of the Dodgers’ decline dates back farther, to that moment in 1987 when longtime Dodger executive Al Campanis, given multiple opportunities by Ted Koppel to atone for his ignorance, nonetheless continued to deny the leadership qualities of African Americans on “Nightline.”

The Dodgers went on to win the World Series in 1988, but the architect of that team, Fred Claire, another longtime company man who had replaced Campanis as general manager, later made a number of unpopular trades, such as dispatching young pitching phenomenon Pedro Martinez for the forgettable Delino DeShields. Claire and manager Bill Russell were ultimately fired by Murdoch, whose cable apparatchiks inaugurated their tenure by trading slugger Mike Piazza, a future Hall of Famer, for five players who do not play any longer for the Dodgers.

Since 2004, when the McCourts purchased the team from News Corp, the Dodgers have had a mixed record. They won their division that first year, though they lost in the first round of the playoffs. By the next year, they had parted with clubhouse leader Paul LoDuca, most valuable player runner-up Adrian Beltre and local hero Shawn Green, three players who were critical to the team’s first win in a playoff game since 1988.

After a dismal season last year, which culminated in the firing of neophyte GM Paul DePodesta, the severing of ties with manager Jim Tracy and the hiring of their respective replacements, Ned Colletti and Grady Little, the team has rebounded surprisingly well. Although Eric Gagne, who is out for the season, is the only player who has been with the ball club for as many as three years, the Dodgers have jelled better than might have been expected.

Colletti spent an active winter acquiring a strong group of veterans, including Rafael Furcal, Kenny Lofton and comeback player of the year candidate Nomar Garciaparra, who have combined with some productive rookies and holdovers like Jeff Kent and J.D. Drew to lead the team to a spot near the top of the National League West Division.

So, Jamie McCourt, an attractive, petite woman with blond hair and an easy smile, has every right to argue that in resurrecting the Dodgers she and her husband have performed a public service worthy of the Scopus Award.

McCourt, who as president of the Dodgers handles much of the club’s business side, as opposed to its baseball operations, once attended the Mount Scopus campus of Hebew University. A native of Baltimore, from the same neighborhood as filmmaker Barry Levinson, she is Jewish and has raised her four sons as Jews.
On this midmorning at the Bel Air Hotel, she wears a brown suede jacket over a white top, sporty attire that gives one the impression that she has just come from working out. In fact, she swims every day and typically climbs the stairs at Dodger Stadium instead of taking the elevator.

She may be remarkably slim, like one of the social X-rays in Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” but she is also athletic and looks like she might have been a coxswain on the college crew team. That is befitting a woman whose husband, Frank, rowed crew at Georgetown, where they met.

Like Levinson’s characters in his Baltimore-set movies, she speaks with a spirited yet soft voice, but she doesn’t accentuate her double O’s as Danny DeVito did when pronouncing words like “food” in Levinson’s “Tin Men.” Despite her Baltimore lineage, she says she has not seen “Diner,” Levinson’s iconic film about her hometown, because she feared that Levinson “wouldn’t get the diner right.”

McCourt’s father, an appliance discount king, worked near that diner, and she fears that her own memory and her father’s experiences have not been honored accurately.

She has, however, picked up on her father’s sloganeering, which included the priceless couplet, “Jack, you know, will save you dough.” She utters one-liners almost effortlessly.

When Danish pastries are brought to the table, McCourt cracks, “It’s all health food.”

When she recounts her first trip to Israel, in which she traveled around the country for several months on a bus, a mode of travel she abhors, she says, “That cured me of touring.”

When asked about her avid swimming regimen, she says, “There’s no talking to me if I haven’t gone swimming.”

If she is quick with a quip, she is no “screaming meanie,” as L.A. Times sports columnist T.J. Simers refers to her.

“I never scream,” she says. “If you want to pick a nickname, at least pick one that’s true.”

Especially during the McCourts’ first year of ownership, the Times sports section for the most part depicted Jamie and Frank McCourt, the latter known by Simers as the parking lot attendant, as carpetbaggers who have little interest in or knowledge of Los Angeles, social climbers who lack the financial resources to run the team and public relations novices. More recently, Times columnist Bill Plaschke expressed mock distaste for their smooching in public.

Although McCourt and her husband have indeed kissed in public, the rest of the charges don’t appear so valid.

On the issue of funding, Jamie McCourt says that no solo purchaser in the history of Major League Baseball has spent as much money by himself in purchasing a team as her husband did in buying the Dodgers. Unlike Yankee honcho George Steinbrenner and owners of other teams, the McCourts purchased the Dodgers without partners, she says, a statement that is not completely accurate, in that News Corp was a “minor, noncontrolling partner” at the outset of the deal, according to the Boston Globe.

While the purchase price, anywhere from $421 million to $431 million based on reports, may be higher than that paid by any one individual for a baseball team, the McCourts borrowed heavily in order to finance the acquisition. The structure of the deal, in which the McCourts put up their South Boston real estate property as collateral and assumed significant debt, including a loan of more than $100 million from News Corp, led some to speculate that they were arbitrageurs looking to game the market and sell the property after a year or so.

Though such speculation may have been unfounded, there was no denying that the deal was highly leveraged. No less than Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor and authority on baseball economics, has stated that Major League Baseball likely waived its debt percentage rule for the McCourts. That rule would have required the McCourts to have at least a 50 percent equity stake in the team at the time of purchase.

Now, more than two years after the purchase, the financing seems more sound. Earlier this year, the McCourts sold News Corp the family’s prized 24-acre waterfront property in the Seaport District of Boston. That sale reportedly satisfied all of their financial obligations to Murdoch’s company.

This past winter, the team also invested roughly $45 million, according to McCourt, in renovating the stadium, putting in new seats and restoring the original color palette to the famed venue that the New Yorker’s Roger Angell once called the “pastel conch.” The Dodgers also acquired numerous free agents during the off season to boost its payroll to a competitive level.

Nor have the McCourts shied away from personal expenditures. They purchased a home and the adjacent property in pricey Holmby Hills and send their youngest of four sons to the elite Harvard-Westlake private school.

In short, they do not look like they are on the verge of bankruptcy or about to leave town, particularly since McCourt says she loves Los Angeles and all its diversity: “There are so many immigrant populations. It’s sort of the way New York must have been once. It’s a place of opportunity. Every day you wake up, it’s ‘today’s the day I’m going to succeed.'”

Oozing optimism, McCourt and her husband have taken a leadership role in Los Angeles and in the Jewish community, joining the Temple of the Arts, where they were recently named founding members, as well as many civic organizations like the Leadership Council of the Literacy Network of Greater Los Angeles.

She cares deeply about literacy and education, holding a bachelor’s from Georgetown, a law degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. She also studied at Hebrew University for a semester of law school and at the Sorbonne while she was in college.
“Education is the great equalizer,” she says. “Everyone should have a fair shot.”

With the Dodgers’ Dream Foundation, she has helped award college scholarships named after Jackie Robinson to minority youth.

She has also reached out to women in the community. The highest ranking woman in Major League Baseball, McCourt says that women comprise 40 percent of the Dodgers’ fan base. “The female consumer,” she says, ruminating for a moment, “is critical.”

To tap into that critical base, the team has created the Dodgers WIN (Women’s Initiative & Network). Last year, the team held four events for women in the community. This year, there will be 11 events, McCourt says, where women and teenage girls can learn about the game and receive baseball clinics from players and coaches on the Dodgers.

She says that second baseman Kent, often characterized by the media as being gruff, is “an ardent supporter of our women’s initiative.” She adds, “If you have 150 women between 18 and 34 gawking at you, who could complain?”

Despite such good cheer, not all women have enjoyed a welcome in baseball. One woman in the Dodgers front office, Kim Ng, a vice president and assistant GM, was insulted a few years ago by Bill Singer, a former Dodger pitcher who was at the time a broadcaster for the New York Mets. More recently, a San Diego Padres employee was criticized by Keith Hernandez, also a Met broadcaster and a former National League MVP, for being in the dugout.

If the atmosphere for women in baseball remains less than optimal, McCourt still sees opportunity for prospective distaff employees. She has added several women to the Dodgers payroll, including chief financial officer Cristine Hurley and Camille Johnston, head of communications.

“You don’t have to just be a statistician,” she says.

You can even be an owner like McCourt, who wanted to write her thesis at MIT on buying a ball club or a new ballpark. With Wall Street the craze at the time, she had to settle for writing about “naked short selling,” but her interest in baseball goes back to her childhood, when she played shortstop in games in her neighborhood: “I’d come home when I was 7 years old and announce that I was buying a baseball team and a camp.”

Of course, that mirrors her husband’s interest. Frank McCourt’s grandfather owned a piece of the Boston Braves. As Jamie McCourt says, a love of baseball is “in his blood,” all of which runs counter to the skepticism of some critics who said that the McCourts, with their real estate background, would raze Dodger Stadium and build condos.

While the McCourts are showing that they care for baseball and Los Angeles, Boston has not completely left them.

Jamie McCourt says that she has to leave for lunch. Who is she meeting? Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who is in town and whom she knew back in Beantown.

When asked if it’s a fundraiser for 2008, she flashes a smile that suggests more than she’s telling, and then she strolls out of the posh surroundings for her next engagement.

The Circuit


Kudos for Kuh

Los Angeles culinary expert Patric Kuh was honored recently in New York by the James Beard Foundation for his humanitarian efforts during the the James Beard Foundation Journalism Awards.

Kuh won kudos in the Magazine Restaurant Review or Critique category for his work at Los Angeles Magazine.

A Clear Need

Bob Ralls and Linda Falcone accepted awards from Harold Davidson, chairman of the board for Junior Blind of America, at the nonprofit organization’s gala at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The event was held specifically to recognize the contributions of the couple to Junior Blind of America, where they have served as president and vice president of development for more than 20 years. For more than 50 years, Junior Blind of America has offered unique programs and services to help blind and visually impaired people become more independent.

Farewell to Anat Ben-Ishai

While many Jewish Angelenos gathered to do a mitzvah for Big Sunday or to celebrate Yom Ha’Atzmaut at the Israel Festival, a group of almost 300 Wilshire Boulevard Temple staff and families gathered at the Irmas campus for a cause equally personal. The morning’s event was dubbed a “Farewell to Anat Ben-Ishai,” who retired this year after 15 years as director of the Edgar F. Magnin and Gloria and Peter S. Gold Religious Schools.

“You’ve been an inspiration to our children. We can’t pay any person enough for that,” Rabbi Emeritus Harvey J. Fields told Ben-Ishai via a video message. Fields prerecorded a special goodbye message to Ben-Ishai, knowing he would be out of the country for the event. He said what would be missed most in Ben-Ishai’s absence would be her “poetic soul,” her storytelling, and her “care about each of us.” He also noted the excellence of the synagogue’s religious schools today “is your crowning achievement.”

Indeed, in the time Ben-Ishai served as Hebrew school director, the school grew from less than 400 students attending Hebrew school once a week at one campus, to close to 1,000 students attending three days a week at two different campuses.

The haimishe event, as one attendee described it, included many students, several of whom came with their parents. The day began with the tribute and was followed by Israeli dancing, children’s art projects and lunch, as well as a video station to record personal messages to Ben-Ishai and another station to “Write an Anat-o-gram.”

Students also participated in special art projects in their classes, as well as a video project, in which they bid Ben-Ishai farewell and told her they would miss her friendliness and her stories.

Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), acknowledged Ben Ishai’s leadership contributions over the years, stating that out of the five outstanding teachers recognized by the BJE last year, two teachers were from Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

“Anat,” he told her, “you are truly a teacher of teachers.”

Ben-Ishai told those assembled that her greatest pride came from seeing her student’s independent participation in acts of tikkun olam and tzedakah.

The Anat Ben-Ishai Religious School Scholarship Fund was established May 3 in Ben-Ishai’s honor.

Those wishing to contribute may call the school at (213) 388-2401. — Keren Engelberg, Contributing Writer

Much About Maller

Hot dogs and happy memories were the recipe for the weekend as Temple Akiba, the Reform congregation of Culver City, honored Rabbi Allen Maller for 39 years of dedication and inspiration. The weekend was filled with events to bring the congregation together to celebrate and reflect on the Maller’s years as their leader.

Friday night a special service was held and representatives of California Assemblywoman Karen Bass and L.A. County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke presented commendations. Former Culver City Mayor Albert Vera and Culver City Councilwoman Carol Gross praised Maller’s contributions to the community — the City Council even designated April as “Rabbi Maller Month.” There was a “Potpourri of International Tastes” dinner Saturday night and an original musical review written by Barbara Miller that featured five temple members — performing a “shtetl-flavored” tribute to Maller and Temple Akiba.

Maller will leave Temple Akiba at the end of June. Rabbi Zach Shapiro will become new spiritual leader of the congregation.

Magbit FUNDRAISER

Nearly 800 donors, community leaders and public officials gathered May 7 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel for the 17th annual Magbit Foundation gala to raise funds for interest-free loans for Israeli college students and to celebrate Israel’s 58th year of independence. Master of ceremonies and Magbit leader David Nahai, chair of the L.A. Regional Water Quality Control Board, welcomed the guests and the contributions of the local Iranian Jewish community that started the Magbit Foundation.

Keynote speaker, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, acknowledged Magbit’s nearly $3 million in loans given to almost 7,000 new immigrant Israeli university students during the last 17 years.

“The fact that you have provided a means for the talented students in Israel to get the education that will help better the world is truly remarkable,” Villaraigosa said.

Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch spoke about the uniquely strong sense of Zionism of Iranian Jews living in Southern California.

“My friends I have known many Jewish communities around the world, but I have grown to admire the Iranian Jewish community for your sense of Israel and love of Israel which is heartfelt,” Danoch said.

Guests also enjoyed the Middle Eastern dancing of the Sunflower Dancers and the singing of acclaimed Israeli Noa Dori. Also in attendance were Israeli Justice Ministry official Shlomo Shachar, and Los Angeles Jewish Federation President John Fishel — Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Federation Support of Civic Group Wanes


When former Democratic Congressman Mel Levine agreed to chair the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC), he hoped to infuse it with the passion and purpose of its heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In those days, the JCRC — which is one of the major voices and faces of The Federation to the non-Jewish world — was a high-profile entity. It took up the cause of Soviet Jewry and Ethiopia’s Jews. It was assertive locally, too, whether in denouncing the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 or reaching out to non-Jewish communities in need.

But something has happened during the John Fishel era at The Federation.

Critics say that starting in the mid-1990s, the JCRC slowly began losing its voice and shirked a core mission: to be as visible and forthrightly active as possible.

As Levine saw it, the community relations committee could once again become a powerful voice by taking principled stands on controversial public policy issues, thereby strengthening coalitions with African American, Latino and other ethnic groups.

Levine’s appointment came at a time when JCRC staff morale was low. The committee had largely abandoned public policy advocacy in favor of its more traditional roles of ardently supporting Israel, reaching out to other religious and ethnic communities and lobbying for government dollars for social programs. Under Fishel, the JCRC has seen its influence, as well as staff and budget, shrink.

“John Fishel doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand it,” said Howard Welinsky, a former JCRC chair. He said that Fishel constantly pushed to downsize the JCRC during Welinsky’s two-year term in the late ’90s.

But Fishel’s view is that the political climate simply evolved. The JCRC has “a unique function,” he said, but the community itself no longer always coalesces, through the committee, as one voice. There are no longer such issues of broad agreement, such as support for Soviet Jewry.

“I think it’s become much more difficult for the JCRC to define what becomes an issue of Jewish concern,” Fishel said.

To be sure, JCRCs across the country have seen budgets shrink as federations’ resources dipped. After the successful immigration to Israel of nearly 1 million Soviet Jews — a Herculean undertaking that community relations councils around the nation helped orchestrate — several JCRCs experienced periods of “searching for meaning,” said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the New York-based parent organization for 125 community relations councils nationwide.

Which is why the appointment of former Rep. Levine was so welcomed. Given his political connections in Sacramento and Washington and his energy and dedication, JCRC supporters believed Levine would restore the committee’s lost luster.

When the Israeli embassy contacted Levine, seeking JCRC public support for Israel’s planned withdrawal of settlers and troops from Gaza, he set about building consensus. Although Levine eventually succeeded in putting the JCRC on record as favoring the withdrawal — a position shared by the majority of American Jews — he said he felt frustrated that it took so long for The Federation to sign off on the public pronouncement. And by this time, The Federation was following the train of opinion shapers, rather than leading it.

Time was, the local JCRC, with The Federation’s blessing, took controversial stands on issues of the day, said Steven Windmueller, the committee’s director from 1985 to 1995. In those heady times, the JCRC opposed the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court and spoke out in support of abortion rights, he said.

Although those positions angered some Jews in the community, Windmueller said the committee’s views reflected those held by the majority of the Southland’s liberal-leaning Jews. The JCRC’s willingness to take those and other positions, Windmueller said, attracted scores of young people to the committee, which served as a gateway to the Jewish community for many. Some later went on to became Federation donors, he added.

About a decade ago, however, the L.A, Federation, like some others around the country, began discouraging the local JCRC from venturing into controversial public policy matters, Windmueller said. With competition for charitable dollars heating up, many federations concluded that the risk of alienating conservative donors outweighed the benefit of taking liberal stands. Increasingly, most JCRCs left political advocacy, whether liberal or conservative, to other groups.

In Southern California, that void was filled by the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, StandWithUs, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), among others. Ironically, the PJA’s willingness to fight against sweatshops and the exploitation of hotel workers along with its boldness in embracing the sort of left-of-center causes once championed by the local JCRC has helped swell its ranks to 3,500. With half its members under 30, the alliance, which just opened a second office in the Bay Area, has succeeded in reaching a demographic coveted by Fishel’s Federation.

“What we find is that pursuing a positive, progressive Jewish response to the issues of the day is profoundly inspiring , especially to young people who one day will be our community leaders and donors,” PJA Executive Director Daniel Sokatch said.

Two of the nation’s most robust JCRCs are among the most politically liberal. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston has a staff of 24 and a $3 million budget, while the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council employs 20, with a budget of $2.1 million. By contrast, the local JCRC has five full-time and two part-time staffers and an annual budget of $1.2 million. Unlike Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco have taken bold policy stands recently, with San Francisco, for instance, coming out in favor of same-sex civil marriages.

A left-leaning JCRC wouldn’t fly everywhere, but the formula has consonance with liberal Los Angeles.

Levine had expected the L.A. JCRC to take positions on ballot initiatives, legislation and other political issues, provided he could build consensus. But The Federation’s new chairman of the board, Michael Koss, worried about alienating donors. Koss said he also thought the JCRC would benefit if led by someone who was not strongly identified with either liberal or conservative politics. Koss, who had the authority as Federation chair, did not reappoint Levine. The former congressman, for his part, said he had no interest in a second term given the lack of support.

“Losing Mel Levine for the JCRC or anyplace Mel puts his hat is a loss,” said Harriet Hochman, a former Federation chair.

Fishel said he respects Levine but added that Federation chairs make their own appointments. Fishel’s critics counter that it’s his job to show leadership.

Koss tapped corporate attorney Ron Leibow as Levine’s successor. Leibow, former chair of The Federation’s Planning and Allocation Committee, said he plans to revitalize the JCRC and has made reaching out to ethnic groups, especially Latinos, a priority.

Those involved with JCRC are determined to make a positive difference. Under new JCRC Executive Director Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug, the committee has added paid staff and seen its budget increase. Several JCRC programs have grown in importance. The Holy Land Democracy Project, for instance, has helped teach thousands of area Catholic high school students about Israel, while, simultaneously, tightening links between Jews and Catholics. The JCRC continues to take elected leaders on trips to Israel — to expose them to the Jewish state and to Jewish issues.

But a recent, tentative step back into the political fray was telling, when the JCRC encountered some Federation resistance and withdrew, for now, a pro-immigrant statement. The scenario unfolded in mid-May, when the JCRC board approved a statement saying that it supported better border security but opposed legislation that would criminalize illegal immigrants. The statement also favored normalizing immigrants’ status, insiders said. JCRC members had hoped the resolution would demonstrate solidarity with the Latino community, she said.

The Federation board, however, barely approved the JCRC resolution, so the JCRC has pulled back, while it develops new wording that could attract more support, Schwartz-Getzug said.

That the JCRC still hasn’t come out with a statement weeks after one of the largest pro-immigration demonstrations in U.S. history reflects the committee’s — and, by extension, the Federation’s — cautious approach. Critics might go farther, arguing that this reluctance to take a public stand on immigration illustrate that those institutions no longer speak for the local Jewish community.

“If the Federation isn’t going to take a position on something as important to the Latino community as immigration, even after the huge marches all over the nation, then what in the world do they have to say to the Latino community?” commented Michael Hirschfeld, formerly the top JCRC staff member. Hirschfeld was himself the focus of an earlier JCRC furor: His unexpected 2003 dismissal, after 24 years with the JCRC, generated a firestorm of criticism, and a few calls for Fishel’s resignation.

Levine believes that until Fishel’s Federation either allows the JCRC to become independent or have more autonomy, the committee will serve as little more than an administrator of such programs as KOREH L.A, a well-regarded tutoring program.

“The CRC and Federation are no longer a meaningful political force in the structure of Los Angeles,” said Levine, now a partner in international law at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. “That’s unfortunate.”

 

Choice of Seminary Leader a Bold Move


The selection of professor Arnold Eisen as the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) represents a bold move of unpredictable consequences for its leadership.

Eisen is a distinguished scholar of modern Jewish thought and an insightful student of the American Jewish community. His work, “The Jew Within,” written jointly with Steven Cohen, explores the identity of marginally affiliated contemporary Jews and illustrates the crisis that institutional liberal Judaism has in maintaining the allegiance of a new generation of American Jews.

Few are as equipped as Eisen to understand the dilemmas of Conservative Judaism, which has been buffeted on the right by Chabad and Modern Orthodoxy and on the left by Reform Judaism. More traditional Jews, including many of those trained by the institutions of Conservative Judaism, such as Ramah and the Solomon Schecter Day Schools, move into Modern Orthodoxy. The less devout easily move to a retraditionalized Reform Judaism, and the categories of Conservative Judaism, a liberal, historically oriented halachic Judaism, are alien to virtually all of its members — save their rabbis — and to the overwhelming majority of contemporary Jews who seek to find their own Jewish path. For the religiously innovative, the renewal movement has been attractive, and the denominational identifications of the past generations have proven more porous among contemporary Jews who have chosen a congregation and a community rather than a movement

Eisen is a scholar and not a rabbi.

The unanswered question raised by his appointment is whether he will chose to be the head of an institution or the leader of a movement.

Traditionally, the chancellor of JTS was the principle spokesman, its most recognizable and authoritative voice in Conservative Judaism. Unlike Reform Judaism, where there are two centers of power, the Union for Reform Judaism (formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) and the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the JTS chancellor was unrivaled for leadership of the movement. It is not known whether Eisen will choose to lead a declining movement or confine himself to rebuilding an academic institution whose graduates of the 1950-1970s dominate Jewish studies in universities and colleges throughout the world. Either way, his appointment is a serious diminishment of rabbinic authority within the Conservative movement.

The rabbi was once a figure of authority because he — and until the 1980s, all Conservative rabbis were men — alone was Jewishly learned; he alone had mastery of text and was intellectually equipped to handle Jewish learning. In the liberal movements of Judaism, learning has moved to the campus, where Jewish scholarship is flourishing and is no longer the monopoly of the rabbi.

Power now has to be shared. For almost a century, JTS was the only place where Conservative rabbis could be trained. Today, New York is one of several centers where Conservative rabbis can be trained. Students can chose Los Angeles or Jerusalem, which now produce rabbis for Conservative congregations. Hebrew College, the new seminary in Boston headed by Arthur Green, one of the most distinguished of JTS graduates from the ’60s, should also be producing rabbis, skilled men and women of serious religious commitment.

Eisen inherits an institution that had recently found itself in the unenviable position of being forced to dispose of valuable Manhattan property to rescue itself from cumbersome debts, all this at a time when elsewhere in the Jewish world, hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised for Jewish scholarship.

As a nonrabbi whose brilliant work is not oriented to classical texts and whose categories of interpretation are not those of Conservative Judaism, he will have quite a challenge in bringing JTS forth into the 21st century.

I would hope that he chooses to lead the movement and not just its seminary, for one wonders whether JTS can thrive without the Conservative movement to produce its students and employ its graduates. Without the congregational base, why would one choose the seminary when the academic study of Judaism is readily available elsewhere.

Were Eisen to assume leadership of the movement, he will find that it has many assets, synagogues where there is genuine community and also serious religiosity, liberal style. The movement includes Camp Ramah, which has been successful for more than half a century and has produced its current and Solomon Schecter schools, which are thriving. There is also the potential of the Masorati movement in Israel. There is much upon which to build.

If Eisen does not lead the Conservative movement, then leadership will have to come from elsewhere, from rabbis, scholars or perhaps lay leaders who can provide a vision of the new generation. Otherwise, the Conservative movement, despite its many assets, will fade from the scene. In conversations with colleagues last weekend, some see the diffusion of leadership as a major virtue, even though it will diminish the influence of JTS, which could not produce a viable candidate within to head the institution.

If reports are to be believed, the search committee rejected the obvious choice, Gordon Tucker, the rabbi who combined academic learning and rabbinic leadership. He faced the problem of many inside candidates whose flaws were known and whose manifold skills were taken for granted. One also suspects that the opponents he made more than a decade ago as dean of the rabbinical school got even and exacted their pound of flesh.

Furthermore, he was an outspoken supporter of the ordination of gays, a position that earned him the enmity of the chancellor, who felt it divisive to the movement and to those on the religious right of Conservative Judaism. Seemingly, Tucker could not be defeated from the right, so an outsider was chosen whose views were unarticulated, although one suspects clearly known.

American Jewry is best off with a strong center, with movements that are thriving; synagogues that are innovating; rabbis who are challenging, spiritually significant and religiously inspired. So one wishes Eisen well as he embarks on his boldest challenge.

Still, in the evolving Judaism of the 21st century, one must marvel at the irony of contemporary Jewish life that the president of HUC-JIR is a far greater student of classical texts, far more immersed in the text of halachic Judaism, than the chancellor of JTS or the president of Yeshiva University. Only in America!

Dr. Michael Berenbaum is professor of theology and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

 

Competing Moments of Truth on Schools


On Tuesday, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to lay the groundwork for the most defining initiative of his term in office: his attempt to take control of Los Angeles’ schools. But the day before he does, opponents of his plan will beat him to the microphone. The L.A. teachers union has scheduled a Monday press conference, hoping, they said, to push Villaraigosa in a different direction.

Villaraigosa’s first state-of-the-city speech is likely to put bone and muscle on his school takeover pitch which, up till now, nearly a year into his term, has been theoretical and short on specifics. If Villaraigosa delivers what people all over town have been waiting for, a slew of interest groups will know where they stand and will begin to respond accordingly.

“Mayor Villaraigosa has made a major commitment to take on the reform of the school district, and the civil, political and media hierarchy of the city have taken up that commitment as a serious benchmark of his performance as mayor,” said David Abel, a publisher who founded New Schools, Better Neighborhoods, an organization that works to shape schools as centers of community revitalization.

Unless Villaraigosa holds off — and further delay might be seen as retreat or indecision — the mayor will set the city on a path toward mayoral control within about two years. That would put Villaraigosa on a timetable to win control in a first term as mayor and wield that power in a second term, if he is reelected.

“Getting this to happen,” said Abel, who supports mayoral control but is not directly involved in the effort, “will be a delicate balance between the doable, the clock and the mayor’s own strategic goals and political ambitions.”

United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the L.A. teachers union, hasn’t been content to wait for the unveiling. Over the past several weeks, union leaders have met with community groups and other key players, trying to set up a parallel juggernaut. The effort is planned to culminate the day before Villaraigosa’s speech, at a news conference during which the union will unveil its own “Call to Action” on school reform.

Early this week, the union was putting its reform declaration in final form, trying to settle on wording that will attract as many allies as possible. The stated goals will have much in common with what anyone would like to see in Los Angeles’ schools: It will call for quality instruction by fully trained teachers, a rigorous, diverse and engaging curriculum and adequate (meaning increased) funding.

“I think Mayor Villaraigosa will agree with almost all of it,” said UTLA spokesperson Steve Weingarten. “This vision of ours does not stop and start with mayoral control. We will be proposing the most dramatic changes at the school site. If you have people at that ground level making decisions, then it’s secondary who’s controlling things at the top.”

Of course, until now, the teachers union has been the most consistently powerful political force in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The mayor’s intervention could change that.

A recent version of the union’s draft declaration didn’t take on mayoral control directly, but spoke generally of more representation, which for the union has meant an elected school board at one end and a switch to community-governed schools at the other. Union officials also have talked about expanding the school board and “professionalizing” it. Which means making school board service a full-time job and increasing a board member’s salary and staff. That agenda is hardly compatible with putting Villaraigosa in charge.

Specific wording on who would call the shots is tricky for the union, because potential members of the union’s hoped-for coalition are not themselves settled on the issue.

“Some are a little more opposed to mayoral control than others,” said one teachers union stalwart, joking that “some are atheists and some are agnostics.”

Groups at the table with UTLA have included ACORN, a national social justice organization with deep Los Angeles roots; CARACEN, an L.A.-based organization that focuses on the needs of Central American immigrants and Latinos; and One L.A., the local affiliate of the national Industrial Areas Foundation. The union also would like to bring on board officials from smaller cities, such as Carson, South Gate and Cudahy, that are served by the LAUSD.

“The new leadership of UTLA prefers to work in concert with community organizations as part of a real alliance for change,” said Joel Jordan, the union’s director of special projects.

The union desperately wants to avoid being the bogeyman of school reform. A hint of that worst-case scenario played out during a late-March panel discussion at the Latino-Jewish Roundtable, held at the West Los Angeles headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League.

“Nobody ever gets fired,” said Marcus Castain, the mayor’s point man for developing a reform plan, while enumerating the district’s ills. “Fifty-three teachers were let got out of 37,000 in a school system where 75 percent of students are not making the grade.”

At the forum, Castain was supposed to have gone head to head with school board President Marlene Canter, who, like other board members, has evinced no desire to turn over authority to the mayor. But Canter couldn’t attend because a school board meeting ran late, and Canter’s pinch hitter avoided a verbal confrontation with Castain.

Instead, Lucy Okumu, an aide to Superintendent Roy Romer, suggested that Romer could find some common ground with the mayor if the goals included making it easier to get rid of bad teachers.

The union failed to burnish its own image recently when it backed a school board candidate, Christopher Arellano, who works for the union as an organizer. His candidacy collapsed after The Journal and other media outlets reported that he’d exaggerated his academic credentials and failed to disclose two theft convictions. UTLA spent more than $200,000 on his behalf and Arellano limped into a runoff, but he and the union have abandoned his candidacy.

The union would prefer to be one of many groups supporting its Call to Action. But each invited participant has interests that don’t perfectly coincide with the union’s. One such group is the Community Coalition, a black-brown social justice organization of South Los Angeles. Its focus has been getting the school district to make a full college-prep curriculum available to every student, said Sheilagh Polk, the coalition’s communications adviser. That goal appears in the Call to Action.

Nonetheless, the Community Coalition and other groups also are meeting with the mayor’s office. It’s clear that the mayor, too, would like to line up as many allies as possible.

The union leadership considered staging a competing event on the day of the mayor’s address, but that idea was dismissed as unnecessarily confrontational, said UTLA’s Jordan. Besides, on the charisma scale, “You’re not going upstage Antonio.”

Jordan spent most of his career in the teaching trenches, one of a legion of Jewish educators devoted to serving communities of poor black and brown students. It was another Jewish educator, Herman Katz, who helped turn around a teenage Villaraigosa when he was in danger of becoming a dropout.

Jordan remains on a first-name basis with the mayor after having worked with Villaraigosa during the future mayor’s days as a UTLA organizer: “He’s one of ours,” said Jordan.

Or so he seemed when UTLA broke with much of organized labor and backed Villaraigosa for mayor last year instead of incumbent James Hahn. Jordan and recently elected teachers’ union president A.J. Duffy met with Villaraigosa earlier this year.

“If we could show him there might be another way to have an effect on schools…” said Jordan wistfully, adding, “he left that door open.”

Jordan also conceded: “He appears to be set on his course. I wouldn’t bet against that.”

 

Young Moseses


Quick Passover trivia: How many times does the name “Moses” appear in the haggadah?

The answer is none, not once. The man who stood up to Pharoah and led us across the Red Sea out of Egypt doesn’t even get a mention. And you thought “Brokeback Mountain” got robbed.

The standard explanation for this is that the rabbis who compiled the haggadah didn’t want to make an idol out of the prophet. We are to read the story of our freedom and deliverance as a sign of the covenant between the people of Israel and God, or, if you like, between our own addictions and enslavements and our struggle for enlightenment.

In any case, Moses has left the building, and we are obliged to imagine how a great Jewish leader would look and act.

An understanding of Moses, after all, would help us understand how a person confronts the challenges of leadership. But there are ways to approach that subject. And that’s why I went to Pat’s last Friday night.

The upscale kosher restaurant on the corner of Pico and Doheny — it’s Mortons for the glatt set — hosted a dinner for LiveNetworks, a yearlong intensive workshop in professional leadership for Jewish 20-somethings from around the country.

Los Angeles hosted the national kickoff for LiveNetworks last weekend, bringing together about 75 of the program’s 87 participants. Hailing from five regional “hubs,” the participants will meet about six times throughout the year in their hub location. In the process, they’ll meet with local leaders and philanthropists, attend seminars and receive individual coaching and mentoring.

It’s an impressive lot, chosen from about 300 applicants for their professional and academic achievement and their charitable involvement.

The young adults sitting around our table seemed to have this in common: They were curious or even passionate about Jewish life, and their Jewishness has imbued them with a desire to get more involved, but they were unsure what to do about it.

“I never imagined I’d be doing what I’m doing,” Shira Landau told me.

Landau, an L.A. native, is assistant religious school director at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades. She said she has found developing curriculum and working with intensely involved, professional parents rewarding, and she applied to LiveNetworks to learn new skills and meet peers who are similarly enthused.

She’s among the half of participants already involved in professional Jewish life.

The other half are nonprofessional Jews, potential future lay leaders, with varying degrees of Jewish exposure.

Rachel Cohen, the daughter of a mixed marriage, had her Judaism awakened on her first birthright trip to Israel seven years ago. The trip changed her life: She switched majors from business to international relations, eventually getting a job with a U.N. ambassador and throwing herself into Jewish life.

Joshua Atkins, a studio game design director for Microsoft in Seattle, said he “came on a hunch.” Although he had little Jewish background or education, he had begun looking for ways to get involved in philanthropy, and friends suggested he sign up. A program tailored to his age group made sense to him.

“This is a generation that understands things move very fast,” he told me, speaking like a true video game designer. “They aren’t going to be satisfied just watching.”

Atkins took in the evening’s program — a quick, funny talk on making a difference from comedy writer Bruce Vilanch, and an energetic interactive Torah study with Rabbi Steve Greenberg — and by the end of the evening was warming up to the idea he’d made the right choice.

This leadership exercise, to be sure, involves a certain amount of latter-day kowtowing to Generation Y or Z or whatever it is. Previous generations, including mine, had to get inspired without this sort of recruitment-style outreach.

Back when I first wanted to explore Israel, I visited the crusty youth program adviser at his dim cubicle at the old Federation building. He handed me some dated brochures for programs, and when I asked him the best way to get to Israel, his endearing reply was, “I’m not a travel agent.”

Now, setting the hook in their eager young gums has become the new obsession of the uber-philanthropists and Jewish organizations. There is big money behind LiveNetworks: Michael Steinhardt (ID’ed in the information packet as a “demibillionaire), Detroit Pistons co-owner William Davidson and the Shusterman and Applebaum family foundations. Similar largesse has helped underwrite Reboot; the magazine Heeb; birthright; and other attempts to catch and keep these young’uns.

It’s The Old Mensch and the Sea, where crusty, dying Jewish organizations fish desperately for the elusive life force that will land them a rebirth in the 21st century.

But while older studies, like the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey, showed a large number of these younger Jews don’t attend synagogue or remain active in Jewish life, a slew of new studies prove the opposite. An up-and-coming generation is proud of its Jewish identity and culturally creative, JTA correspondent Sue Fishkoff writes. (See article on page 16.) It’s “coming up with new methods of religious expression and feels part of a global community linked by Jewish Web sites and blogs.”

Dining with this precious young cohort, I tended to believe the new studies. These Jews are not all that different from their older counterparts. They are not a different species after all, just a new generation.

This generation has the Internet to help educate and organize and connect to one another. At the same time, they have inherited a model of communal hierarchy and given that, being a new generation, they will challenge or even discard.

As Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion professor Steven Windmueller has written: “If the first ‘revolution’ launched the current Jewish Federation model 100 years ago, the second is now seeking to construct an alternative enterprise.”

L.A. law student Gabriel Halimi said he and his friends wanted to raise money for Jewish causes but found mainstream Jewish organizations “too inflexible.” So he helped found the Society for Young Philanthropists, which now raises and distributes thousands of dollars to worthy causes.

Today’s Halimi could have been any one of the young lions of Los Angeles Jewish philanthropy circa 1950. In other words, I suspect these new “revolutionary” approaches are differences in technology and style, not substance. What I saw and heard at Pat’s restaurant last Friday was passion, communication, a willingness to confront established power and a strong sense that the Jewish people have something to offer one another and the world.

Which, when you think of it, would be a good description of Moses.

Happy Passover.

 

The Circuit


Choirs Rock the House

Temple Emanuel was rockin’ recently when it hosted the Temple Bryant A.M.E. Church Choir that performed with Emanuel’s choir at a Shabbat Shira Service. The entire congregation and guests were on their feet singing and clapping in joyous rapture.

Behind the Camera

The Peninsula Beverly Hills was filled with aspiring future filmmakers at the Multicultural Motion Picture Association’s (MMPA) 13th annual Student Filmmakers Pre-Oscar Scholarship Luncheon. Actors, cinematographers, writers, and directors came together for the annual luncheon, to show support for the next Spielbergs and Hillers.

Seven students selected for their outstanding achievements, creative vision and technical talent received financial awards toward their tuition, certificates of merit and grants from film providers like FUJIFILMS and Eastman Kodak.

MMPA President Jarvee Hutcherson, said it was “an honor to pay recognition and award scholarships to a particularly fine group of up-and-coming filmmakers this year.”

The scholarship recipients include Vineet Dewan, Dwjuan F. Fox, Margaret C. Kerrison, Nathan D.T. Kitada, Anthony Sclafani Jr., Phyllis Toben and Ashley York.

Readers and Leaders

Third-graders from Maimonides Academy, Los Angeles, recently donated 48 Jester books and 24 Jester dolls to the Pediatric Hematology Oncology Unit of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The philanthropic youngsters read more than 19,000 pages for a penny a page during the one month Jester & Pharley’s Reading to Give campaign and collected additional funds, as well.

“I’m delighted by the incredible efforts of Maimonides Academy students to help ill children at Cedars-Sinai Hospital,” said Barbara Saltzman, executive director of The Jester & Pharley Phund. “Many people talk about how important it is to help others, but Maimonides students and their families have demonstrated what it really means to actually do something to help others, something that will make a difference for many years to come.”

A Big Step

Beit T’Shuvah held its annual “Steps to Recovery” gala dinner at the Beverly Hilton Hotel recently.

Young and In Charge

A new generation of Jewish leaders is taking the reins of philanthropy and making a difference through its efforts. Young WIZO, an organization dedicated to helping battered women and children in Israel, has brought together young Jewish professionals and business leaders across the L.A. area.

Bernard Hoffman, Lisa Gild, Joyce Azria-Nasir, Sabrina Wizman and many others have found that focusing their energy on Jewish community leadership brings profound meaning and unequivocal fulfillment to their day-to-day lives.

Through participation in organizations like The Jewish Federation, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Young WIZO, they are realizing their goals of helping to build a vibrant, thriving Jewish state.

If you are between the ages of 21-40 and would like to know more about upcoming events, contact Sabrina at Sabrina@mdpropertiesla.com or call (310) 278-8287.

Animal Crackers

Philanthropist Suzanne Gottlieb, and her company, Greenview Inc., gave the Greater Los Angeles Zoo $2 million for expansion and renovation of zoo. Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Zoo officially christened the zoo’s veterinary facility the Gottlieb Animal Health and Conservation Center, in honor of Gottlieb and her late husband, attorney Robert J. Gottlieb. With Gottlieb, is GLAZA trustee and animal activist Betty White.

Friends in Israel

Women’s Alliance for Israel (WAIPAC) welcomed Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Consul-General of Israel Ehud Danoch at a reception hosted by Michal and Danny Alpert and Barbara and Jeff Scapa. WAIPAC is a bipartisan pro-Israel political action committee that supports candidates for and members of Congress who believe that Israel, an important ally and friend, deserves American friendship and support.

 

Why I Became a NFTY Freak


Debbie Friedman, celebrated Jewish songwriter and singer, wrote the words, “The youth shall see visions.” For decades, this song has had a profound impact on Jewish youth of America, instilling value and hope among a generation in search of themselves.

In October of my junior year, I “saw my vision” and embarked on a journey that will shape me for the rest of my life.

It was a cool California Friday, and I had packed up my duffel bag to head off to NFTY Southern California’s Leadership Training Institute. NFTY, the Reform movement’s North American Federation of Temple Youth, has become a huge influence on my life as a teenager, and as a Jew.

NFTY has been around for more than half a century and consists of 19 regions around North America, hosting monthly weekend retreats for Jewish high school students. Each weekend encompasses social action, prayer and socializing. NFTY’s primary job is to confirm Jewish identity in teenagers while providing them with tools for their future as Jews — knowledge of prayer and customs, traditional songs, and lifelong friends on the same journey.

I had always had a strong Jewish identity. I am an assistant teacher at religious school at Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks and have spent 10 summers at Camp Alonim. I know all the prayers like the back of my hand and feel a religious connection to my faith. But when I got to NFTY, I finally felt like I could fully realize my Jewish identity.

NFTY SoCal was an instantly inviting environment. The second I stepped out of the car for that weekend Leadership Institute, I entered the most seminal chapter of my life. Instantaneously I was greeted with big smiles and warm hugs, and I knew that I was going to belong. From the first Shabbat service, I knew my life was about to be enriched with something it had never seen before. After the event concluded on Sunday, I became a devout NFTY freak, counting down the days until the next NFTY event and constantly talking with my new friends.

NFTY inspires youth to change the world. No, NFTY shows the youth that it is up to them to change it. Social action programming, leadership training and intensive lessons in Judaism have provided youth with the framework to lead. NFTY is constantly inspiring all and assuring them that they do mean something to this world, not something miniscule, but something with a massive impact and great importance.

One of Judaism’s highest held values is tikkun olam, repairing the world. In NFTY, we learn about the hardships and challenges that face our earth, and we use our knowledge to educate others on these issues — such as the genocide in Sudan, the kidnapped children in Uganda and modern-day slavery in America and the rest of the world. We have also participated in donating money to relief organizations and contributed endless hours of making bracelets and blankets for recently freed slaves in Los Angeles.

If it were not for NFTY, I would not even know that there was a genocide and that there are still slaves today.

Many people ask me: “Why are you so Jewish? Why are you so religious?” At times I hesitate to answer because my response may shock others, yet most of the time I reply: “I stand up for the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust just because they were Jewish. I have a Jewish identity because I am fortunate enough to be able to have one and not be afraid.”

NFTY has taught me to appreciate life so much more, and to be proud to be Jewish because so many millions of Jews could not be proud of whom they were without fatal consequences. A poem written by Chad Rochkind, a NFTY alumnus, reads, “To be a NFTYite is to know that the words, ‘And the youth shall see visions’ are more than just a song.”

I now know that these words are truly more than lyrics, they are a way of life that NFTY inspires, and they have shaped my path as a Jew, as a leader, and as a human being.

For information on NFTY, visit

Olmert’s Conversion From Pol to Leader


As far as personality goes, Ehud Olmert is not my kind of guy. He comes off like he thinks he’s God’s gift to humanity, riffraff that we are.

I remember several years ago when as mayor of Jerusalem, he came to view the damage to a local Conservative synagogue that had been firebombed. He didn’t walk through the blackened sanctuary, he sauntered through in a stately way, his head in the air. Wearing a very expensive-looking suit and shoes, he was the picture of an aristocrat, of someone who’s always known he’s entitled to power and all its perks. He didn’t light up one of his big cigars, but he might as well have.

This was before the intifada. In those days, and even earlier, I couldn’t bear Olmert. In both personality and politics, he was offensive. He seemed the ultimate sleaze, a cynical pol thoroughly mobbed up with every conniving businessman who had a hand in Israeli politics.

As mayor, he sold himself to the capital’s haredim. Worse, he was the government patron of the radical settler movement in Arab East Jerusalem. Worst of all, he was the prime mover behind the Netanyahu government’s crazed decision to open the Western Wall Tunnel in 1996, which ended with 16 Israeli soldiers and about 80 Palestinians dead.

This is a lot to put aside when judging Olmert today as the interim prime minister and as the man very likely to be confirmed for the post in the March 28 election. But, finally, political leaders shouldn’t be judged on personality, because they’re all full of themselves to a greater or lesser degree. And, unfortunately, Olmert’s attraction to money and the moneyed makes him fairly par for the course among his peers; he’s probably no worse than Ariel Sharon was on that score.

You have to judge politicians, especially those running for prime minister, without sentiment. And if they’ve changed direction, you have to give more weight to what they’ve done lately than what they did before. Unless the candidate is a truly malevolent character, you have to judge him or her on two things: leadership ability and political direction. And on that basis, I think Olmert is better suited to be prime minister than anybody else around.

My opinion of him began to change during the intifada. As Jerusalem mayor, he did a solid job of bucking up a public that was reeling from the suicide bombs. He didn’t talk empty slogans; he didn’t use bombast. Instead, he showed empathy for people and urged them not to heroism or patriotic fervor but to a kind of head-down, workaday, human-scale resilience. I don’t know if it’s better to say he rose to the occasion or bent to it, but this “prince” proved himself an inspirational leader of ordinary people during a long, agonizing ordeal.

Maybe more than anything else, that trial by fire prepared Olmert for the emergency role he just assumed.

The other reason he’s the best suited to be prime minister is his political turnaround, which has been more emphatic and far-reaching even than Sharon’s. As Sharon’s vice premier and closest political ally, it was Olmert who gave the first signal of the disengagement plan to come in his ground-shaking interview with Yediot Aharonot’s Nahum Barnea in December 2003.

Without laying out a map, Olmert made it unmistakably clear that he wanted unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank interior and even from the outlying Arab neighborhoods and villages of Jerusalem. This, from the fellow who came up with Binyamin Netanyahu’s 1996 campaign slogan, “Peres will divide Jerusalem.”

The reasons Olmert gave weren’t moral, they were pragmatic. He argued that if Israel didn’t unilaterally narrow its borders, the world, including the United States, would force it back to even narrower ones. He also warned that if Israel didn’t separate itself from millions of Palestinians, it would stop being a Jewish state and become a binational one.

“We didn’t fight here for 100 years, we didn’t spill our blood to lose the Jewish state,” he said.

Very soon afterward, Sharon unveiled the disengagement plan. It was not easy overcoming the resistance within the Likud, let alone that of the settlers, and the most important soldier in the fight, after Sharon himself, was Olmert.

Cliche or not, he really did show vision and courage. He, too, is a transformed politician. Last week he didn’t hesitate in saying East Jerusalem Arabs would be free to vote in the Palestinian parliamentary elections. The old Olmert would have called such a decision national suicide.

Also to his credit: His worst political enemy is Netanyahu. They can’t stand each other. Enough said.

But one final point: Since 2004, I’ve been writing that Amir Peretz, because of the strength of his leadership in the cause of economic decency — something this country needs desperately — should become prime minister. I changed my mind during the current campaign and before Sharon had his stroke.

To be Israel’s prime minister, it’s not enough to show the way to raise up the poor — you’ve also got to show the way to fight Hamas, Islamic Jihad, etc., and to end the occupation. Peretz has shown only that he doesn’t have a clear way in mind. He gives hardly a clue about how he’d handle the Kassams coming out of Gaza.

As for ending the occupation, Peretz promises to sit down with Mahmoud Abbas and reach a final agreement in a year. Hasn’t he noticed that Abbas isn’t exactly running the show over there?

Peretz acts as if running the State of Israel will be a piece of cake, as if that’s supposed to inspire confidence in him. And when he declares “Oslo is alive and well,” it sounds like the intifada made no impression on him; that the last five years hasn’t affected his thinking at all.

I’d probably feel enthusiastic about Peretz becoming prime minister if we were living in a country whose overriding problem was poverty, one that was not surrounded by enemies — say, Brazil. But we are not Brazil.

Still, if Kadima goes into Election Day with an insurmountable lead over Labor and Likud and is guaranteed to end up running the government, then I’ll vote for Labor. I want there to be a strong voice for economic change, and on that issue, Peretz is by far the best.

But if it’s a close race, and it’s not certain which party is going to form the government, then I’m going to vote for the one that has the best candidate for prime minister. That party is Kadima.

Times have changed dramatically and for the better, and Olmert was out in front when they did. I believe he’s got further changes along those same lines in mind. I still wouldn’t feel entirely comfortable buying a used car from him, but as prime minister of Israel, I trust him.

 

Moses and King


This past week, we observed the birthday of a great leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was able to move his people from seeing and believing his great vision to acting, responding and persevering in the face of violent opposition. In this way, King was like Moses in this week’s parshah. It is also no coincidence that King couched his historical vision in the story of the Exodus, comparing his people’s plight to that of the Israelites in Egypt.

This week we meet Moses, our new leader and adviser. Moses is commanded to go to Egypt, gather the people and demand their freedom from Pharaoh. “And Moses and Aaron went and gathered the elders of the children of Israel. And Aaron told them all of the things that God had said to Moses; and he performed the signs in the eyes of the people. And the nation believed; for they heard that God was remembering them because God saw their plight, and they were humbled and they bowed low” (Exodus 4:29-31).

Nehama Leibowitz, the great modern Torah scholar, calls this “the spiritual height” of the people; they were imbued with “historic awareness.”

The language of the verse is so poignant: va’y’amen ha’am (the nation believed). Two unique words appear side by side: va’y’amen, from the root amen, to affirm, witness, believe in; and ha’am, the nation — no longer a band of brothers, but a group of children, a single family unit. On this day, the nation of Israel is born, as they realize, according to Ibn Ezra, that the “end of the [slavery] spoken to Abraham” is occurring.

Yet, just as quickly as their energy builds, it is crushed by Pharaoh’s denial. Pharaoh is a wise dictator, as he understands the manipulation tactic of internal disputes as a way of breaking the spirit of the unity that was felt just a few verses earlier.

King understood this tactic when he spoke to the sanitation workers the night before his assassination. In his famous “I See the Promised Land” speech, he says, “You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt…. He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. … When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.”

Faith and certainty fall into fear and rebellion. It is precisely this pattern that I see as the ultimate problem facing the Israelites in the attempt to free themselves. The words of inspiration, the signs and wonders performed, the quick fix — these rally the people and bring them together. However, the moment that anything goes wrong, or they face a difficult challenge, the people give up and begin to whine. It is very easy to be persuaded by fanciful language, a powerful message and an easy answer. However, the challenge of true leadership is the ability to guide people through the difficult, dangerous, painful, and sometimes-fatal situations that stand in the way of achieving a moral or spiritual victory. Moses was able to achieve this eventually, but it was not easy.

Today, we again live in challenging, and some would say, dangerous times. How would Moses and King respond to today’s reality?

King never cowered in the face of injustice, never bowed to pressure or intimidation. He spoke his mind from his particular religious, ethical and moral perspective.

What might he say about spending billions of dollars on a war of choice, which has turned out to be fought under false pretenses and cost the lives of thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and the security of our world? What might he say about the large number of children living in poverty, without access to healthcare and education, basic food and water? What might he say about the genocide in Darfur, happening with the world watching silently? And the global warming that is destroying our planet? AIDS and extreme poverty in Africa?

What would they say? But more importantly: What would they do?

I believe that King would be in the streets, standing with the poor and hungry, with the striking workers fighting for a decent wage, and speaking out for justice, righteousness and peace.

And so must we.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose yartzheit we observed this past week, taught us this when he said, “We must first peer into the darkness, feel strangled and entombed in the hopelessness of living without God, before we are ready to feel the presence of God’s living light.”

The lesson from the Torah this week is one that applies to all people fighting for freedom, struggling to make change in the world, or simply wanting to live with an active moral compass. Believing in change is easy. Making change happen is not. We all must have the willingness to be inspired, and the courage to turn that inspiration into reality. This is the message of King; this is the message of Moses; and this is the message of God.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. He serves on the executive committee of the Southern California Board of Rabbis and is chair of its social action committee.

 

Scheinerman/Sharon


The pre-mortem eulogies, the stream of editorials, the international expressions of sympathy — what you are witnessing is Ariel

Sharon’s ascension to the Jewish pantheon.

It is a remarkable aliyah. Once anathema to a majority of American Jews, Sharon is now a crossover hit among Jews and non-Jews alike (well, maybe not Arabs), his picture on the mantle beside David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. There will be Sharon Squares, Sharon honors, Sharon-invoking fundraising appeals. There will be — mark my words — a Sharon Prize for International Peace.

Twenty years ago, the man was a villain.

“I believe [then-Prime Minister Menachem] Begin ought to resign and take Sharon with him,” a leader of the Union for Reform Judaism told the New York Times in 1982. “They are inimicable to the interests of Jewish unity both in Israel and elsewhere in the Diaspora.”

When Amos Oz published an interview with an anonymous Israeli general identified only as “C.” who spouted anti-Arab bile and proclaimed, “Better a live Judeo-Nazi than a dead saint,” most people were certain C. = Sharon. (It didn’t, but that hasn’t kept the misattribution from remaining alive on anti-Israel and anti-Semitic web sites to this day.)

In the early 1990s, as Sharon cast his eyes upon the position of prime minister, the New York Times shuddered. Most American Jews, it wrote, “are moderates and liberals, and many find Sharon repugnant, even scary.”

Now, as Sharon ails and is not expected to resume an active political role, the statements of the current leader of the Union for Reform Judaism reflect a sea-change in American Jewish sentiment.

“As a soldier on the battlefield,” “[Sharon] demonstrated remarkable courage in each of Israel’s wars,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie. “Later, as a politician, he demonstrated equal courage in the political arena, overcoming voices of extremism with a message of reason and moderation.”

What extreme makeover could account for such a shift in perception? How did Sharon go from being President George H.W. Bush’s nemesis to President George W. Bush’s favorite uncle?

The obvious answer is that Sharon himself changed. The architect of the ruinous Lebanon War, the father of the settlement movement, the outrageous and vociferous Israeli opposition leader and the man deemed “indirectly responsible” in the Sabra and Shatila massacre assumed the mantle of office and immediately said that things look different from the top. He recognized the demographic realities that Israel faced if it retained the West Bank and Gaza, and he understood that Israel’s international standing and domestic economy depended on concessions – either with a partner or unilaterally. It was Sharon who first used the word, “occupation” to describe Israel’s, um, occupation.

But the deeper answer goes beyond Sharon’s assumption of office – after all, not all opposition leaders, once in power, move to the center. The answer lay in Sharon’s biography.

“My father did not fit into anybody’s mold,” Sharon wrote with obvious pride in his biography, Warrior (Touchstone, 1989). “Like his neighbors, he was a passionate Zionist. But unlike them, he was no socialist. On the contrary, if anything stood out in his character, it was his individualism. Worse, he made no effort at all to hide his dislike for people he considered too rigidly ideological.”

Sharon was born and raised on Kfar Malal, a moshav 15 miles northeast of Tel Aviv. When the cooperative dictated that his father plant oranges and lemons, Samuil Scheinerman, educated in agronomy in his native Russia, insisted on planting a new fruit called an avocado, which he called, “the fruit of the future.” His father’s dissension and stubbornness set the Sheinerman family apart. Even in death, Samuil stipulated that his body not be carried to the cemetery in the village truck, but that his son drive him there in his own pick-up.

“The man was by nature unable to compromise,” Sharon wrote.

Scheinerman became “Bulldozer” Sharon. And any chapter in his life after Kfar Malal is the stuff of a dozen “Munich”-style movies minus the moral quandaries. Sharon organized and led deadly reprisals against Arab terrorists, fashioned a tank campaign in the darkest hours of the Yom Kippur War that encircled Egypt’s Third Army, launched a war that took Israeli soldiers into Beirut and — hence his nickname — bulldozed his way through international dissent to create a chain of settlements throughout the West Bank and Gaza.

It was this militancy and stubbornness that petrified American Jews, offending their delicate belief in an Israel whose moral limits were set in stone, not quicksand.

“While Ben Gurion’s sense of Jewish power was always tempered by a equal sense of the limitations on Israel,” wrote David Biale in his classic “Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History” (Schocken, 1986), “the new real politik, best exemplified by Ariel Sharon’s invasion of Lebanon, seeks power without restraint.”

But Ben-Gurion liked Sharon. In 1953, when Sharon faced worldwide recrimination for dozens of civilians deaths in a raid on the Jordanian village of Kibeyeh, Ben Gurion privately praised the young officer.

In any case, Sharon was acting in what he believed were Israel’s security interests, despite the repercussions. Decades later, as prime minister, when he came to the conclusion that those interests demanded a withdrawal from settlements he had long championed, he broke from his supporters and set Israel on a new path. To American Jews, the move exemplified the ideal quality of Israeli leadership: pragmatism and power joined to the pursuit of peace.

Thus, Sharon ascends the pantheon.

And what of his detractors, left screaming and scratching their heads? They will have to make do with avocados, not oranges.

 

Brandeis-Bardin’s Changing Face


 

Drive into The Brandeis-Bardin Institute, up the pepper tree-lined main thoroughfare and through the gates leading to 3,000 acres of rolling hills in the Santa Susana Mountains. Enter a setting so magnificent that it’s easy to believe, as Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom does, that God lives there.

Sitting on the largest piece of Jewish property owned by a Jewish organization outside of Israel, The Brandeis-Bardin Institute is a pluralistic, nondenominational day and overnight camp, conference and retreat center that caters to all ages. Originally established on the East Coast in 1941 and relocated to California in 1947, it remains committed to educator and founder Dr. Shlomo Bardin’s core mission of helping Jews enjoy vital Jewish experiences through informal and experiential education in a natural setting.

But nature has taken its toll, too. Drive farther back onto the campus and witness about 1,500 acres of outback brush blackened by last September’s devastating wildfires. Since the fires hit, sparing all structures except for the roof and a set of doors at the hilltop House of the Book, the institute’s professional and lay leaders have been considering how best to repair the damaged land.

Less visible and more challenging than the fires has been another, longer-lasting problem, that of Brandeis’ scorched reputation, sparked by years of concern about the institute’s leadership. The two most recent presidents have both left precipitously, and an unwieldy board is currently being reconfigured.

“I don’t think anyone would deny that it [Brandeis] has had problems with leadership,” said former camper and new board member Bernard Lax.

In March, Rabbi Isaac Jeret unexpectedly announced his departure only 10 months after having been selected president following a nationwide search. Prior to Jeret, Rabbi Lee T. Bycel held the position of president for just three years, departing in August 2003, when the board didn’t renew his contract.

Leadership changes are now well under way.

The process began on March 22, the day Jeret resigned and the day Brandeis’ executive committee changed the leadership model entrenched at the institute since its founding in 1941. The committee eliminated the position of president and hired Gary Brennglass as its new executive director, for the first time installing a business person rather than an educator at the helm. The goal is to create a more businesslike atmosphere behind the scenes at the institute, even as it aims to preserve its magical exterior.

“It was a quick decision, and it was absolutely the right decision,” said Board of Directors Chair Linda Volpert Gross of Brennglass, who, since July 2004, had been the full-time, paid director of operations. For 18 years prior, he was an active lay leader who served as a board and executive board member, including the two years from 1989 to 1991 as board president.

The committee also hired consultant Richard Marker of Marker Goldsmith Advisors in New York to create a candid strategic assessment of the institute, with the findings to be presented to the board this month. The assessment entails examining programming, marketing, finances, leadership and community relations, all of which need improvement, according to Gross.

In a sense, said board member Richard Gunther, who has been involved with Brandeis for more than 50 years, the study will take on a visionary role, giving the institute direction to best serve the Jewish community. Others, however, regret the absence of a leader who is also an educator and scholar, such as Bardin, or Dennis Prager, who led the Institute from 1976 to 1983. Such a leader is essential, they argue, to the institute’s ability to translate Bardin’s vision into the future.

On the lay side, Gross, who became board chair in December 2004 and who holds an MBA from Harvard, has added 10 new “involved, passionate” board members, for a total of 70. She is also revamping committees and insisting that all board members take active roles.

Brennglass said the institute’s financial health is fairly strong. Brandeis has in excess of $2 million in endowment and reserves but, like most independent nonprofits, needs to rely on fundraising to augment its fee-for-service programs and to balance its approximately $5.4 million budget, as reported on its IRS Form 990 for the year ending Sept. 30, 2004, the most recent available.

Brandeis hosts an annual dinner each spring that raises between $600,000 and $800,000, with last spring’s event, the most successful ever, topping the $800,000 mark. An “aggressive” fire response campaign, with a goal of $250,000, was launched this fall and has already brought in more than $160,000. Additionally, the institute receives income by renting its facilities for Shabbatonim and lifecycle events, such as b’nai mitzvah and weddings.

Brandeis’ most valuable asset is the land, which board member and real estate professional Gunther estimates to be valued in the tens of millions of dollars.

“The question is how do you get liquidity from that but still not impact future development possibilities,” he said, adding that the board is looking at various plans to buttress the institute’s financial position.

But whatever changes are enacted, the institute remains committed to its core programs. These include the overnight camp, Camp Alonim; the day camp, Gan Alonim, and the Brandeis Collegiate Institute (BCI), a cultural, educational and outdoors program for young adults 18 to 26.

Some changes are already underway. On the professional side, in addition to Brennglass, new staff hires include Rabbi Laurie Hahn Tapper as director of BCI and adult programming and Jordanna Flores as director of Camp Alonim. They are replacing, respectively, Rabbi Scott Aaron and Ed Gelb, both of whom left voluntarily and amicably. In addition, Dr. Gabe Goldman, scholar-in-residence for the past two summers, has just been hired as the full-time director of environmental education, a newly created position.

“We have no interest in remaining one of the Los Angeles Jewish community’s better -kept secrets,” said Brennglass, pointing out that though it is located just 45 minutes northwest of downtown Los Angeles, Brandeis, is also a working ranch with 40 cows, 50 horses and about 25 goats, as well as crops of corn and avocados. The cows are intentionally moved from pasture to pasture to graze and were instrumental in stemming the fire because they had lowered the brush in the margins around the camp.

Board member Lax, like Brennglass, is surprised by the number of people unfamiliar with the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, given the resources it offers. Such was case for Luisa and Saul Jaffe of Claremont, who were invited by friends to a Founders Weekend a couple of years ago. Since then, the Jaffes and their three children have attended three family weekends and sent their 10- and 8-year-old to overnight camp.

Luisa Jaffe is now a committed Brandeis supporter.

“It’s not very expensive, it’s very accessible and it doesn’t matter if you’re very reform or very observant,” she said. “Everyone can fit in.”

Brandeis has kosher facilities supervised by Rabbi Yale Butler and serves as a retreat center, hosting weekends for families, newlyweds, elder hostel groups and others. It has recently begun partnering with other organizations, including The Jewish Journal and Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, among others, for some weekends. Virtually every weekend was booked last year and again for this year.

Brennglass said he would like to expand the outside linkages and attract more weekday bookings, especially for “Jewish organizational snowbirds” in the East and Midwest who are beginning to discover that Brandeis-Bardin is a great destination from mid-January to mid-March.

Additionally, the Brandeis community itself needs to be tapped. Lax, who is heading up and reorganizing the Alonim Committee, one of about six standing board committees, plans to do more outreach to parents of current campers.

“We have thousands of kids coming through the gates, but probably less than 10 percent of those kids have parents who are involved in the institute,” he said. He also wants to reach out to former campers.

Through the recent upheaval, Brandeis’ camping programs have remained strong. Gan Alonim, established in 1991, hosted 240 day campers from kindergarten to sixth grade in 2005. The overnight Camp Alonim, founded in 1953, enrolls approximately 1,000 campers each summer from grades 2 through 10, and in leadership programsin grades 11 and 12. Throughout the summer it’s 90 percent full, impressive at a time when camp enrollment across the country is declining, according to director Flores.

In an effort to attract new campers, last summer Alonim began offering a basketball specialty camp, which it will expand this season to include boys and girls in sixth through eighth grade. (Attempts at diversifying two summers ago by adding soccer, arts and wilderness camps didn’t take off.)

Additionally, Flores wants to improve the sports program. She is adding archery this summer and also wants to enhance the baseball and basketball programs.

Alonim’s physical plant is also getting a lift. A $5 million campaign to rebuild the dining hall, with construction tentatively slated to begin in 2006, according to Brennglass, has evolved into a larger, soon-to-be-announced effort to renew the entire Alonim campus.

BCI — formerly known as the Brandeis Camp Institute, the prototypical experiential program created by Bardin initially in Amherst, N.H. — celebrated its 65th year. It hosts two sessions, or aliyot, each summer, with about 50 18- to 26-year-olds in each, two-thirds of whom are from the United States and one-third from Israel, Argentina, the former Soviet Union and other countries.

Through two-hour blocks of art, outdoor projects and traditional study, BCIers, coming from diverse Jewish backgrounds with varying knowledge of Hebrew but with fluent English, learn about their Jewish selves. They also learn about coexistence, spending 26 days together as one community. Said BCI Director Hahn Tapper, “What does it mean to live with people you don’t always agree with but can still learn with and respect?”

The experience of four weeks at BCI is enduring. BCI alumnus Bruce Powell, currently head of New Community Jewish High School and involved with Brandeis for the past 45 years, believes that it has transformed thousands of lives in profound ways.

Jonathan Bernhard of Adat Ari El and Gordon Bernat-Kunin of Milken Community High School, for example, are rabbis today because of transformative BCI experiences. And Powell himself went on to establish three Jewish day schools.

“I came into Brandeis with lots of loose ends as far as being spiritual, but came away with a sense of peace about Jewish tradition and interacting with other Jews,” said Jaeson Plon, 21, a summer 2005 graduate.

Plon, a senior at UC Santa Barbara, is a religious studies major and had planned to become an academic before his BCI experience. Now he’s bent on doing something in the Jewish community.

Hahn Tapper does not expect to make big changes during her first year but is looking at ways to better serve this age group, perhaps by adding winter- or spring-break programming or by creating a small year-round residential fellowship program.

Additionally, Brennglass said the institute is reviewing ways to reach out to those who are slightly older because 18- to 26-year-olds aren’t always ready to make life decisions regarding religion. He envisions something for those post-graduate young adults already working in their first career and looking to define themselves.

Other changes, especially with Goldman as full-time director of environmental education living onsite, include the integration of nature into all programming. Organic gardening is part of the day and overnight camp program.

Alonim campers also learn Native American wilderness skills and this year will build and sleep in sukkot, imitating their ancestors traveling through the desert. In addition, campers will explore some previously overgrown trails uncovered by the fire and will help restore fire-charred land, giving Goldman an opportunity to teach about nature’s life and death cycles.

Goldman has also added monthly adult and family hikes to the program.

Looking ahead, Goldman said, “The real challenge is to turn the physical setting into much more of a model of what we mean by a green institute,” noting that Brandeis wants to establish itself as a national environmental education center.

And while the institute needs to raise funds and set priorities, the fire, in a sense, gave it a head start. With an entire 65,000-square-foot burned hill to replant, a deliberate, although more difficult and expensive, decision was made to use native plants, such as ceanothus and coyote bush, which are environmentally sound and can better withstand future fires. Part of the planting was done on Fire Recovery Workday Nov. 20, for which 60 people showed up.

Plus, Goldman would like to look at some alternative energy sources fueled by solar or wind power, which he feels will save money in the long run.

Meanwhile, for those whose lives have been profoundly touched by Brandeis, the institute remains a very special environment.

That’s certainly true for Scott Kantrowitz, who has been involved since he began working as a junior counselor at age 16. He met his wife, Julie, there and subsequently sent his three children to Camp Alonim.

“It’s a wonderful, wonderful place,” he said. “It’s given me my family and everyone who’s important to me.”

Jordanna Flores
Camp Alonim’s new director Jordanna Flores

A Dream Come True


by Jane Ulman, Contributing Writer


When she was 15, Jordanna Flores announced that one day she wanted to be director of Camp Alonim. She had been coming to camp since age 11 and loved the joyous, Jewish environment. She remained a camper and then counselor for the next eight years and gives credit to Alonim for her enthusiasm for Judaism and her desire to become a Jewish professional.

Flores, 32, grew up with what she calls “a perfect storm of Jewish experiences.” These included, in addition to camp, an elementary education at Temple Emanuel Day School, a bat mitzvah and confirmation and a trip to Israel.

A graduate of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, where she studied creative writing, and of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where she received master’s degrees in both Jewish education and Jewish communal service, Flores first joined the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in 2003 on a temporary basis to help plan the 50th reunion celebration. Six months later, she was named program director and on Oct. 1 officially became the new Camp Alonim director.

As the first female director, she hopes that no one will think she will be soft about enforcing rules.

“Camp is about freedom and about fun, but it’s also about safety,” she said.

But most of all, she’s looking forward to reaching out to second- through 12th- graders and helping them form their Jewish identity by giving them a vibrant, fun, spiritual and quintessentially Jewish camp experience.

Laurie Hahn Tapper
Laurie Hahn Tapper takes the helm at BCI.

From Camp to Rabbi


by Jane Ulman, Contributing Writer


“Camp Swig is the reason I’m doing the work I’m doing today,” said Laurie Hahn Tapper, the new director of the Brandeis Collegiate Institute (BCI). She spent 13 summers at the Union of Reform Judaism camp in Saratoga, Calif., from age 11 to 23, when she reached the role of head counselor.

Hahn Tapper, 29, grew up in Palo Alto, where she attended public schools and went to Hebrew school at Congregation Kol Emeth, a Conservative synagogue. She majored in history at Stanford University and spent her junior year at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

Looking back, Hahn Tapper said she probably always wanted to be a rabbi but didn’t realize it until after college, when she returned to Israel to study at the Pardes Institute and work as a fellow at Hebrew University’s Hillel. That experience prompted her to apply to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS).

She entered rabbinical school knowing she wanted to offer informal education in a nondenominational setting, and she worked at BCI as a rabbinic intern the summer after her third year at JTS, falling in love with the program. She then applied to become director, beginning part time in fall 2004 while completing her last year at JTS.

Between May and September, Hahn Tapper became an ordained rabbi, moved to California, ran her first BCI summer as full-time director and got married to Aaron Tapper. “I can do anything now,” she said.

And as BCI director that means creating a safe and transformative place where 18- to 26-year-olds can effectively explore questions about Judaism, the world and themselves and gain a new perspective.

AFTER SHARON


History will note the premiership of Ariel Sharon as the pivotal moment when Israel decided that ending control over the Palestinians was in its own, crucial interest. And it was the time that Israel took dramatic unilateral action to pursue that course. Disengagement, defeating terrorism and building the security fence have been essential in cutting the Gordian knot between Israel’s interests and Palestinian political will and capacity.

Negotiation, by contrast, is what unites Sharon’s critics. From the Left, Yossi Beilin contends that, since the contours of a final status agreement are known, all that remains is to seal the deal. From the Right, Binyamin Netanyahu advocates the logic of the quid pro quo — “if they give, they’ll receive” — implying that time is on Israel’s side and the ball is in the Palestinian court.

But what if the Palestinians are unwilling or unable to end the conflict? What if they don’t “give”? Does that mean that Israel will stay in the Palestinian areas indefinitely?

Though a regional economic and military superpower, Israel had been powerless in the world of negotiations to address the clearly identified threat to its survival. The Palestinians had the ability to hold Israel hostage by refusing to agree to any settlement that would end Israel’s occupation.

History teaches that a stand-off between “occupier” and “occupied” leads to one outcome: liberation and independence. The Palestinians had time, or at least they used to have it until disengagement.

Before the summer of 2005, the Israeli public had two choices before it, both of which depended on negotiations. The first was the pursuit of a final status accord that was going to face implacable obstacles. A failure to reach agreement on the status of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem also would mean no agreements on economics, security or civic issues. The other option was the U.S.-backed “road map” — a sequenced approach to establish a Palestinian state in provisional borders before a Permanent Status Agreement.

Over the past few years, both tracks seemed doomed to deadlock. Profound disagreements on content and structure, the weakness of the Israeli political system and a dysfunctional Palestinian leadership all blocked a permanent accord. The roadmap also seemed stuck due to disagreements on the entry point, and on each of its phases. It is these perceived deadlocks that have legitimized Israeli unilateralism, transforming it into a compelling option.

The powerful logic of disengagement is that it has partially ended Israeli control over the Palestinians without their consent, but with U.S. endorsement and in coordination with other relevant third parties. This combination has galvanized international support and disarmed Palestinian opposition.

The secret of the successful execution of the Gaza disengagement — and an essential part of its logic — relates to Israel’s internal politics. Sharon succeeded in bridging the gap between the requisites of a deal with the Palestinians, on the one hand, and the positions and perceptions of the Israeli mainstream, on the other.

Sharon decided to focus on the latter, designing disengagement around the “stomach” of the Israeli public. He understood that support for disengagement would be solid because it is perceived as good for Israel even under fire and with no reciprocity. At the same time, Sharon understood that expanding disengagement too far might compromise public support, so he rejected all temptations and pressures to go further or to negotiate.

Sharon assumed that politicians would follow the public. He was right.

Disengagement was just the first step of Sharon’s strategy. His public statements reveal that he was seeking to create a new Israeli-Palestinian equilibrium based on five tenets: ending Israeli control over the Palestinians with international recognition; creating a Palestinian state in provisional borders that will assume control over its territory and population; securing Israeli control over issues critical to its national security, such as the airspace; designing a new framework for reaching permanent status; and beginning to permanently resolve the refugee issue within the Palestinian state.

In the apparent absence of a Palestinian “partner,” Sharon’s strategy would have required further unilateral withdrawals. The logic of disengagement may have not been exhausted. For example, under the new unilateralist paradigm, Israel can dismantle isolated settlements and illegal outposts or transfer the Palestinian neighborhoods in north Jerusalem — which are already outside the security fence — to the PA. More powers and responsibilities could be transferred to the PA in the spheres of economics, civic affairs or diplomacy. Eventually, Israel might consider recognizing the PA as a state.

Palestinian statehood has been incorporated into Sharon’s strategy for years. His statements suggest that he may have perceived Palestinian statehood to be as much an opportunity as it was a threat. For example, he assumed that the existence of a Palestinian state would mean that Palestinians could no longer claim to be refugees and that powers of UNRWA, the United Nation’s agency with jurisdiction over matters pertaining to Palestinian refugees, could be turned over to the Palestinian government.

A Palestinian state, furthermore, is a precondition for restructuring the approach toward final status. Once a Palestinian state exists, Israel would be able to negotiate multiple state-to-state agreements focused primarily on the West Bank and Gaza. These agreements might be made piecemeal, rather than holding all progress hostage to a potential comprehensive accord.

Sharon’s strategy to end control over Palestinians enhanced unity within Israel and the Jewish world, boosted Israel’s international standing and offered the only feasible path out of the deadlock. That is his enduring legacy. But he also exits the political stage as the exemplar of pragmatism and realism focused on the pillars of Israel’s national security: preserving a Jewish majority, fighting the nuclear threat, securing personal safety, and bolstering Israel’s alliance with America. This is the consensus agenda that Sharon galvanized into a political force that will transcend his tenure.

By taking the excruciating and courageous step of distancing himself from political and personal friends and allies, as well as, ultimately, from his own political party, Sharon plunged himself and the nation through two years of constant crisis-management toward disengagement and beyond. He demonstrated an outstanding leadership, political skills and executive management. This performance extended beyond security to socio-economics as well.

Many may challenge the logic of disengagement or the wisdom of Sharon’s socioeconomic policies. Few would contest that a large part of his legacy was the capacity to get things done.

Gidi Grinstein is founder and president of the Re’ut Institute (

Clear Ideological Focus Marks Olmert


Ehud Olmert, who took over as acting Israeli prime minister following Ariel Sharon’s debilitating stroke, is a career politician with a clear ideological focus. If he becomes prime minister in his own right, Olmert can be expected to carry on peacemaking efforts with the Palestinians where Sharon left off.

Olmert was one of the chief architects of Sharon’s main foreign policy achievement — last summer’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. When Sharon broke away last November from his ruling Likud Party to form a new centrist party, Kadima, Olmert was one of the first to follow him.

In late 2003, it was Olmert who first outlined Sharon’s new thinking on the Palestinian issue: In a string of interviews in Israeli media, Olmert argued that Israel could not allow itself to remain stuck forever occupying territory where Palestinians lived, which could undercut the Jewish and democratic nature of the state.

If agreements with the Palestinians proved impossible, Olmert said, Israel would have to set its borders on its own. It soon became clear that Olmert was floating the ideas as trial balloons for Sharon, but the same thinking probably would inform his decision making as prime minister.

Olmert, 60, has been in politics all his adult life. Supporters see him as an experienced and savvy politician with proven leadership qualities; opponents denigrate him as an opportunistic wheeler-dealer.

Olmert first was elected to the Knesset in 1973 at age 28. At 43, he was minister without portfolio responsible for Israeli Arab Affairs. At 45, he was health minister, and at 48, he became mayor of Jerusalem, a post he held for 10 years before returning to politics on the national stage.

Olmert was born in Israel into a politically active right-wing family associated with the Herut movement, but he showed his intellectual independence by joining Shmuel Tamir’s Free Center, a breakaway faction from Herut, in the mid-1960s.

The formation of the Likud in 1973 brought the Free Center, Herut and three other parties together, and in 1977, Olmert played an active role in Menachem Begin’s successful bid for prime minister.

As a young Knesset member, the highly articulate Olmert gained attention for his anti-corruption efforts. He also was part of a group of Likud rebels who voted against Begin’s 1978 Camp David peace agreement with Egypt.

Since then, Olmert’s views on the territorial question have changed dramatically. In a recent newspaper interview, he declared that “I am sorry Begin is not alive for me to be able to publicly recognize his wisdom and my mistake. He was right, and I was wrong. Thank God we pulled out of Sinai.”

Olmert is trained as a lawyer, with degrees in philosophy and psychology. He exercises frequently, speaks excellent English and can be extremely charming. However, he can also can be very aggressive in response to media questioning.

His wife, Aliza, a playwright and artist, voices views on the left of the Israeli political spectrum. They have five children. Olmert often jokes that, as the only right-winger, he’s often a minority within the family.

In 1993, running on a right-wing ticket, Olmert defeated the legendary Teddy Kollek for mayor of Jerusalem. He made a political pact with the fervently Orthodox to cement his power in the city, alienating many left-wing and centrist secular voters.

In 1996, when the Likud regained power under Benjamin Netanyahu, Olmert was not invited to take part in the government. He and Netanyahu have remained bitter rivals ever since.

In 1999, Olmert incurred the wrath of many Likudniks when he mocked the party’s election slogan that Labor Party candidate and future prime minister Ehud Barak “would divide Jerusalem.” Olmert later was humiliated when Barak did back a division of the city.

In 1999, after Netanyahu lost the premiership to Barak and resigned as Likud chairman, Olmert challenged Sharon for the Likud Party leadership. He won about 25 percent of the vote, less than half of Sharon’s tally.

In 2003, Olmert returned to national politics as one of Sharon’s closest allies against Netanyahu. Deeply disappointed when Sharon gave the finance portfolio to Netanyahu, Olmert insisted on a deputy premiership as compensation.

Now the wheel has come full circle: He succeeded Netanyahu as finance minister last August and now, as Sharon’s deputy, is acting prime minister.

But it will not be easy for Olmert, who lacks security credentials, to fill Sharon’s shoes. A lot will depend on the extent to which his Kadima colleagues unite round him, and for now, they say they intend to do so.

Olmert is not the most popular politician in Kadima. Recent polls indicate that voters would prefer ex-Laborite Shimon Peres or Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to step up and lead the party. Still, he hopes that their support, and a few weeks in the top job, will persuade the public that he has what it takes to be prime minister full time.

Pundits note that when Golda Meir took over the national leadership from Levi Eshkol in 1969, she had only 3 percent public support but within months had become a very popular prime minister. Olmert, who starts off with higher levels of support, hopes incumbency will create the same widespread acceptance of his leadership.