September 21, 2018

Power of Vows

I have twins who are almost 5 years old. One of the things that my wife and I are trying to teach them is the power of words, both for the positive and the negative.

They are learning that words can inspire, motivate and excite a situation, as they discover new and innovative ways to talk to each other, to us as parents and to the people with whom they interact. They are also learning the harder lesson that words can just as easily hurt, insult and change a situation for the worse in just a matter of moments. It is a lesson that we all learn; yet, how we carry forth these critical childhood moments of language education and speech management can determine the kinds of lives we lead, and the kinds of interactions we have with one another.

Parshat Matot opens with a lesson in the power of words. God commands Moshe to speak to the leaders of the tribes, saying, “If a person makes a vow to Adonai or takes an oath imposing an obligation on him/herself, he/she shall not break that pledge; he/she must carry out all that has crossed his/her lips” (Numbers 30:3). I am leaving aside the sexist language of this parsha, where women cannot make vows, and am operating with the knowledge that we have moved past the ancient subjugation of women. Having said that, the power of the word is what matters here.

Our ancestors understood that when we make a vow, promising to give something to God, or take an oath regarding our own actions, this was the highest and most serious endeavor, as the power of speech is what separates us most critically from the animal world. “Baruch She’amar V’hayah Ha’olam, God spoke and the world came into being.”

In the first of his two important comments on this section of Torah, the Chatam Sofer, 19th century sage and scholar, teaches that “the entire Torah is dependent on this matter of vows, for it is the foundation of foundations, for if we don’t keep our word through the vows we make, then there is no foundation for our receiving Torah in the first place” (Iturei Torah).

How many of us say things that we don’t mean? How many of us use words or phrases like, “I swear…”or “I promise…”or “You have my word…” in a colloquial or trivial fashion? I catch myself doing that all the time. Our society has lost the power of our word and that is a detriment to our ethical composure. With all of the scandals that have rocked us, from Enron on down, we know that our capitalist nature has in some ways affected our ability to be honest; making the most money at any cost drives people to make false promises or lie about the situation. That is why Torah is so important and the cycle of our religious life is so necessary in today’s world; we must all work hard to ensure that we are all leading lives founded in truth, dedication to keeping our word and thinking before we speak.

In noticing that the Torah calls on Moshe to speak to the “heads of the tribes,” the Chatam Sofer says, “People in high public office are more often tempted to make promises that they cannot keep. Their behavior could lessen the respect others have for the spoken word.”

Our public figures, to a large extent, operate on saying things in order to keep power. While this is not true for all leaders, too many have been found guilty of lying, misrepresenting the facts, making empty promises and not keeping their word. Of all the terrible things happening in the world today, two stand out in this regard.

First, the war in Iraq — which has taken 2,500 American lives and tens thousands of Iraqi lives, and cost us our reputation in the world through Abu Ghraib — was based on false premises and lies. How can we trust a leader who lies in regard to the highest level of commitment, war and peace? The amount of misconception in this war, and in the whole “war on terror,” speaks volumes to what the Chatam Sofer was warning leaders against.

Second, the response to Hurricane Katrina. After failing to adequately respond to the crisis while it was happening, the federal government made promise after promise to the recovery and rebuilding of the devastated Gulfport region, only to renege or abandon most of those promises. Nearly a year after the hurricane, whole parts of the area still look like a war zone. There is no better illustration of false promises than what has not happened in New Orleans. Thankfully, religious groups, including our own Board of Rabbis of Southern California, and local synagogues have been partnering with other religious institutions to do our small part. But promises not kept are failing thousands of innocent and needy people.

As I try and teach my children to speak kindly and wisely, I am thankful for the words of the Torah and the comments of the Chatam Sofer, who guide me in offering a legacy of honesty and commitment to the value of integrity. May we all find ways to keep our word, imitating God, by whose word our entire existence was created.

Jesus’ Man Has a Plan

Are there any Jewish Rick Warrens?

That’s not a fair question.

There are few people of any faith like Warren.

As I sat listening to him speak at Sinai Temple’s Friday Night Live Shabbat services last week, I thought of the only other person I’d met with Warren’s eloquence, charisma, and passion — but Bill Clinton carries a certain amount of baggage that Warren doesn’t.

Warren spoke at Sinai as part of the Synagogue 3000 program, which aims to revitalize Jewish worship.




Rick Warren’s speech at Sinai Temple. Audio added 8/14/2008



The program’s leader, Rabbi Ron Wolfson, met Warren a decade ago and was influenced by the pastor’s first book, “The Purpose-Driven Church” (Zondervan, 1995). And to demonstrate what such a church looked like in action, Wolfson brought two busloads of synagogue leaders to Warren’s Saddleback Church in South Orange County to experience firsthand the pastor’s success. The church has 87,000 members. Its Sunday service draws 22,000 worshippers to a 145-acre campus in the midst of affluent, unaffiliated exurbia. Clearly, Warren has reached the kind of demographic synagogues had all but given up on.

There are two aspects to Warren’s success, and both were on display Friday night. First, he is an organizational genius. His mentor was management guru Peter Drucker.

“I spoke with him constantly,” Warren said, right up until Drucker died last year at age 95.

It is Drucker’s theory of “management by objectives” that Warren replicates in every endeavor — translating long-term objectives into more immediate goals. Here let’s pause to consider that Jews are learning to reorganize thier faith from a Christian who was mentored by a Jew.

In his church, Warren serves as pastor to five subordinate pastors, who in turn serve 300 full-time staff, who administer to 9,000 lay volunteers, who pastor 82,000 members spread out among 83 Southern California cities.

“It’s the individual cells that make the body,” he told the Sinai crowd. All his church’s endeavors — from working to cure diseases in African villages to reinventing houses of worship — work according to a model that parcels larger goals into smaller ones, empowering believers to take action along the way.

The other secret to his success is his passion for God and Jesus. Warren managed to speak for the entire evening without once mentioning Jesus — a testament to his savvy message-tailoring. But make no mistake, the driving purpose of an evangelical church is to evangelize, and it is Warren’s devotion to spreading the words of the Christian Bible that drive his ministry.

Good for him and his flock — and not so bad for us either. His teachings apply to 95 percent of all people, regardless of religious belief. As he put it to a group of rabbis at a conference last year — using a metaphor that might be described as a Paulian slip: “Eat the fish and throw away the bones.”

Warren told Wolfson his interest is in helping all houses of worship, not in converting Jews. He said there are more than enough Christian souls to deal with for starters.

The success of Warren’s second book, “The Purpose-Driven Life” (Zondervan, 2002), demonstrates his ability to turn a particular gospel into a universal one. As Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe told the capacity audience of some 1,500, “The Purpose-Driven Life”turned the self-help model on its head by asserting that the answer to personal fulfillment does not reside with the self.

“Looking within yourself for your purpose doesn’t work,” the book begins. “If it did, we’d know it by now. As with any complex invention, to figure out your purpose, you need to talk to the inventor and read the owner’s manual — in this case, God and the Bible.” “The Purpose-Driven Life” has sold 25 million copies in 57 languages.

As Warren pointed out — with an odd ability to be humble and matter of fact about it — it is reportedly the biggest-selling nonfiction book in American history. It brought him fame and fortune. Warren spent much of his sermon describing how he dealt with his new-found money and influence, turning his personal solutions into lessons on confronting the spiritual emptiness and materialism that all comfortable Americans face.

The pastor said he practices an inverse tithe — giving away 90 percent and keeping 10 percent of his income. He takes no salary from the church and returned the 20 years of income he received from it.

I haven’t checked his portfolio to verify this, but the message is an impressive and important one.

“We do not go into this line of work to get rich,” he said. “If you give it to God, he will bring you to life.”

Similarly, Warren has leveraged his fame to bring attention to AIDS in Africa and other global problems. He said he’d just come from a photo shoot at Sony Studios with Brad Pitt and was about to meet overseas with the leaders of 11 countries in 37 days. While he was at Sinai Temple, his wife, Kay, was at the White House.

“The purpose of influence is to speak up for those who have none,” he said.

Warren wore a kippah made by the Abuyudaya tribe of Uganda and gifted to him by the country’s president. Before his sermon, he sang enthusiastically with musician Craig Taubman, who performed along with Saddleback Church music director Richard Muchow.

“This is my kind of service!” he said when he took the stage to deliver his remarks.

Afterward, as one Friday Night Live contingent repaired to a ballroom to carry on the hard work of scoping out other singles, another filled Barad Hall to get more time with Warren in a Q-and-A.

Along the way, he described in detail how he organized a national Purpose Driven Church campaign to get some 30,000 houses of worship across the world to define and implement their mission. He also punctuated his anecdotes with simple statements about God’s role in our lives: “God created you to love you,” he said, “and to love him back.”

I have no doubt the people who turned to Warren to help them reinvent synagogues for the 21st century can and will learn a lot from the man’s organizational skills. But the deeper message he conveys, his unstintingly devoted and enthusiastic faith — how in the world can we Jews learn that?

The Circuit

Hoop Dreams
For 16-year-old former Encino resident Marisa Gobuty it’s all about basketball.

Throughout the summer, Gobuty, a 5-foot-7 high school junior point guard, who now lives in Israel and plays for Israel’s National Basketball Team, will be playing for the Southern California-based Finest Basketball Club (FBC), and compete in tournaments across the United States.

Six years ago, she and her family moved to Israel for a short two-year stint. They have lived there ever since. But like in Encino, Gobuty’s love and passion for basketball led her back on to the courts around Tel Aviv, eventually landing a spot on the Israel National team at age 15. She is now one of only 12 team members on Israel’s Segel Zahav, which means Gold Team. It is comprised of the top players in the 16-24 age bracket.

“Living in Israel has been a great learning experience culturally and emotionally,” Gobuty said. “By playing basketball there I’ve also gotten to compete against some of the best in the world playing in European FIBA Championships, as well as having the opportunity to learn about different cultures. But some of my most rewarding moments have been talking to other high school-age teenagers about what it’s like to grow up in a country that is constantly on alert in a war time like state and being able to share my experiences.”

Support Your Students
The West Coast Supporters of Yeshiva University (YU) recently held a dinner at the L.A. home of Esthi and Walter Feinblum. Forty YU supporters attended the event and raised $100,000 for the West Coast Scholarship Drive to ensure that all qualified undergraduate students who wish to attend YU can do so regardless of their financial circumstances.

Love ‘Triangle’
Take one part Jewish mother, one part Italian mama, add a dash of hot-blooded lethario and you have an evening of laughs with Renee Taylor, Lainie Kazan and Joe Bologna at the Brentwood Theatre production of “The Bermuda Avenue Triangle.”

The star-studded opening night featured such icons as Carl Reiner and wife Estelle, Larry Gelbart, Dom DeLuise and Norm Crosby who showed up to support the cast. The farce, written by Taylor and Bologna, addresses the plight of two mothers in their golden years and the daughters who love and endure them.

Lucky Night for JFS
The Regent Beverly Wilshire was filled May 23 as guests mingled and munched on healthy appetizers. The occasion was the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS) 13th annual gala fundraising dinner. Husband and wife Deborah Barak and her Dr. Etan Milgrom received the Spirit of Humanity Award, and Connie Mandles was honored with the Anita and Stanley Hirsh Award.

The annual gala brought in $700,000 to help JFS provide vital services to people of all ages, ethnicities and religions. JFS’ nationally recognized programs counsel troubled families and individuals, support the elderly, house the homeless and abused and feed the hungry.

Rob Morrow and David Krumholtz, the stars of the hit CBS series “Numb3rs” were a standout as masters of ceremonies, bringing to the job the sharp and funny relationship they share as the Eppes brothers in their show.

Renee Olstead, 16, a star of the CBS sitcom “Still Standing,” wowed the crowd with sultry jazz standards and an original tune from her upcoming second CD, accompanied by Grammy Award-winning producer David Foster. Foster also coaxed Krumholtz into crooning a respectable version of the Frank Sinatra hit “That’s Life,” to the delight of the crowd.

Founded in 1854, JFS is the oldest and largest social service agency in Los Angeles. JFS is a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation and United Way.

A Call to Action
Noted author and journalist Frank Gaffney Jr. spoke to an overflowing crowd May 30 at Valley Beth Shalom when more than 500 people attended the Republican Jewish Coalition Los Angeles chapter event.

His new book “War Footing and President of the Center for Security Policy America & Israel: How We Can Prevail In The War On Terror” speaks to America’s role in supporting the war on terror. The crowd listened — and noshed — as Gaffney addressed the issue of Iran and its potential threat to Israel and the United States, urging Americans to play a more aggressive role in stopping terror.

Gaffney said threats to Israel are designed to demean the American spirit.

“We need to support our troops by doing more than putting a bumper sticker on our cars,” he said. “We need to ensure they have the resources they need to fight the war. To mobilize the resources of this country’s resources, energies and talents to prevail.”

 

Rising Singing Star Pitches New Sound

Many young girls dream of a life on the stage, but few could have envisioned the career now enjoyed by Hila Plitmann, a Jerusalem-born soprano who these days makes her home in Studio City. Plitmann, 32, is not famous in the way that, say, sopranos like Renée Fleming, Deborah Voigt and Anna Netrebko are. She is not a star. But she is making a name for herself, and not by singing music by Puccini, Mozart, Strauss and Wagner.

Instead, Plitmann is building a career based largely on new music by composers like David Del Tredici, John Corigliano, Roger Reynolds and Esa-Pekka Salonen, the latter the longtime music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and something of a Plitmann champion. Indeed, Plitmann was one of two featured soloists in the premiere of Salonen’s “Wing on Wing,” written for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003 and dedicated to its architect, Frank Gehry.

That work — for orchestra, two sopranos and Gehry’s voice sampled on tape — has become something of a calling card for the soprano, who most recently sang it at Disney Hall on May 31. That concert came on the heels of another at Disney Hall on May 9, in which she participated in premieres of Unsuk Chin’s vibrant “Cantatrix Sopranica” and Reynolds’ sprawling, multidimensional “Illusion,” two works commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group.

On June 7, she’ll appear in a less likely space, at Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Encino, joining two other singers — mezzo-soprano Alma Mora Ponce and tenor Mark Saltzman, cantor at Congregation Kol Ami synagogue — for a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “From Jewish Folk Poetry” and a selection of Yiddish songs. (The trio gave the same program at the Jewish Community Center in La Jolla on May 24.) She’s doing this in part, out of friendship for Neal Brostoff, who is producing the concert and accompanying the singers.

Though Shostakovich, who died in 1975, used Russian translations of the poems for his song cycle, musicologist Joachim Braun restored the original Yiddish texts in the 1980s. And it’s that version Plitmann and her colleagues are singing.

“From Jewish Folk Poetry” doesn’t require Plitmann to enter the vocal stratosphere, but her ability to do so has served her well and marked her for distinction. A coloratura soprano with a silvery tone who seems utterly at ease projecting high notes, Plitmann says, “I was always a screamer.”

She describes her father, an academic, as having “a beautiful voice” and her mother as a classical music enthusiast, but neither was more than a hobbyist. Both remain in Israel, as do the singer’s sister and brother.

Early on, Plitmann was an ambivalent pianist, and though she sang in a youth choir, she gave it up for athletics, particularly gymnastics, dancing and running — something her needle-thin dancer’s body still attests to. But she missed singing and soon found herself taking private lessons and enrolling in a music high school.

Unable to find the advanced vocal training she needed in Israel, Plitmann, at her teacher’s urging, enrolled in New York’s Juilliard School, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. But talented singer or not, she still had an obligation to the Israel Defense Forces.

“I did my basic training for the Israeli army in the summers, during my second and third years at Juilliard,” she says. “I learned how to shoot Uzis and run around in the dirt. It was very bizarre.”

Juilliard is also where she met her husband, Eric Whitacre, a composer.

“He wouldn’t leave me alone, so I married him,” she says. They now have an 8-month-old son, Esh.

Whitacre is composing an opera for his wife. Titled, “Paradise Lost,” and described as “opera electronica” on Whitacre’s Web site, the work is an amalgam of styles, including, techno, rave and ambient. Plitmann likens the music to that of Bjork and the Postal Service (the band, not the letter carriers).

Often, classical artists come to appreciate the rigors of modern music once they mature, but not Plitmann. Her interest in the new dates back to her childhood. That youth chorus her mother sent her to emphasized contemporary Israeli music. At 14, she appeared in her first opera, singing the role of Flora, the bewitched little girl at the center of Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw.” And while still in high school, she sang Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” with the Israel Philharmonic.

Plitmann describes her specialization in new music as “an accident that turned into a choice,” noting that she likes “the challenge of learning something difficult, whatever the era,” yet singling out modern works for their “many dramatic elements.”

She says that audiences can’t be forced to love new music but insists that committed performances from artists like her can help sway them to be more open-minded.

“I find there’s more in contemporary music that can be used expressively than both musicians and audiences realize,” she says. “People think contemporary music is cold and intellectual, but that’s not always true.”

Plitmann is certainly no snob when it comes to music. Her personal interests extend to various forms of pop music, and even professionally, she makes choices that some might consider too populist. Her limited discography will soon include a song cycle to Bob Dylan texts called “Mr. Tambourine Man” by Corigliano, who won an Oscar for his score to the film, “The Red Violin.” And though she isn’t exactly getting star billing, Plitmann is the vocal soloist on Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to “The Da Vinci Code.”

She got the job through a close friend of her husband’s and made the recording in London, an experience she calls “amazing.” The lyrics, she says, are meant to mimic Latin, though no actual language is being sung. The soprano admits that the score is “not the most complex music,” yet it has another virtue: it sounds good.

“I love singing beautiful music,” Plitmann says.

The “Shostakovich at 100 Concert” will be held at 8 p.m. on June 7 at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For information, call (818) 788-6000 or visit

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O.C. Incidents Raise Anti-Semitism Fears

The president of a Los Alamitos high school’s Jewish students’ club came out to the school parking lot last October to find swastikas and “Jew Bitch” scrawled on her car. Across the county, a San Clemente high school student was harassed last year with anti-Jewish slurs to the point that she transferred out of the district.

These two instances in which Jewish students from Orange County were targeted by peers coincide with a broader rise in anti-Semitism, including in schools. Local Jewish groups have sounded an alarm, while the reaction of local school officials has varied.

“There has been a significant rise in the past four years in anti-Semitism generally and on school campuses,” said Dr. Kevin O’Grady, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Orange County/Long Beach Region. O’Grady’s office recorded 43 cases of harassment and vandalism last year, nearly 50 percent more than in 2003; one-third of these involved public schools.

In its 2004 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, the ADL documented 1,821 cases of harassment, threats, assault and vandalism against Jews nationwide — up 17 percent from the previous year. This jump was due in part to a spike in reports of anti-Jewish harassment in American middle and high schools.

These incidents have included defacing lockers with swastikas and anti-Jewish graffiti and name-calling, bullying and intimidation in hallways and Internet chat rooms. Incidents tend to be spread evenly throughout the county, although Los Alamitos and San Clemente have the most reported cases, according to ADL research. In the northwest corridor, skinheads, with their white supremacist ideology, are actively recruiting teenagers in schools, said ADL regional director Joyce Greenspan.

School administrators are responding to these incidents with varied intensity. In some cases, their actions have been resolute. One Costa Mesa middle school principal notified police and suspended 18 students after a girl was harassed on the Web site, My Space, O’Grady said. In San Clemente, a high school principal met with Jewish leaders following reports of several incidents, and ran tolerance programming for the student body, said Rabbi Mendel Slavin of the Chabad Jewish Center of San Clemente, who attended the meeting.

At Los Alamitos High School, administrators banned clothing bearing an iron cross and other paraphernalia associated with white supremacy.

Districts have also adopted zero-tolerance policies for ethnic-based intimidation and offer sensitivity and diversity training programs to prevent problems before they arise.

“When you see that firm and clear response, you see a drop in anti-Semitic incidents,” ADL’s Greenspan said.

Other schools deny the presence of anti-Semitism on their campuses, even in the face of some evidence to the contrary.

Parents of a Tustin-area 10th-grader perceived the administration’s response to be deficient after reporting that their daughter was being continuously harassed by a fellow student.

“He’d walk by and sneeze and say ‘a Jew,’ and say ‘shalom’ and laugh,” said the 15-year-old girl, who asked to be identified only as K. “In class, I’d hear him talking and I’d hear the word ‘Jew’ and [my name] and I knew he was talking about me. He actually called me a ‘kike’ one time.”

The boy described himself as a Nazi and would talk about how Jews killed Jesus, according to K., who said she felt scared and intimidated.

She reported the harassment to a counselor and was instructed to document the incidents in a statement to the vice principal. Because she was afraid to confront the boy and his parents in a face-to-face meeting, she was told that he could be disciplined only if caught in the act.

When the abuse continued, K.’s parents met with the vice principal, who allegedly said that he would direct teachers to send the boy to the office if he made offensive comments. Not all teachers followed this instruction, according to K. In the face of the boy’s unrelenting taunting, the distraught parents removed their daughter from the school.

“What I’m most upset with are the teachers and the way they allowed it to happen, and the way that the vice principal, after receiving such a powerful statement from K., just did not respond,” said K.’s mother. “I feel that they allowed it.”

Tustin Unified School District officials denied knowledge of this incident, but stated that they do not tolerate racial or religious harassment.

“The safety and security of our campuses is our first priority,” said Ron Heape, Tustin Unified’s district administrator for child welfare and attendance. “We are not timid at all about going after these kids.”

Peer-to-peer anti-Semitism is not limited to high schools.

“Our most recent phone calls have been third- and fourth-grade related,” said the ADL’s O’Grady. In one case, a fourth grader was called “dirty Jew” by two classmates, who then wrote the word “Jew” on a piece of paper, circled it and drew a line through it.

“This is what we do to Jews,” Grady says they said.

ADL officials suspect that only a small percentage of incidents gets reported.

“The numbers are staggering,” agreed Robyn Faintich, director of the Orange County Board of Jewish Education’s (BJE) youth education program. Faintich recounted that at a recent gathering of 110 public school 10th graders, more than 90 percent said they had been targets of anti-Semitic comments, vandalism or other encounters.

“Schools are not mandated to collect data [on hate incidents] so there is no global perspective,” said Georgiann Boyd, student services coordinator for the Orange County Department of Education.

For that matter, many incidents never leave the school yard. Fear of being further ostracized prevents some students from reporting confrontations to school or community officials.

“We are aware that there is anti-Semitic activity in the schools,” said Orange County Human Relations Executive Director Rusty Kennedy. “Each year we learn of at least a half-dozen incidents in schools that we’re concerned with, and I’m sure there’s more.”

He said that while the number of cases is too small to indicate a trend, he believes that school-based anti-Semitism is comparable to hate acts in the adult community, in which Jews, African Americans and gays and lesbians are most frequently targeted.

“These things that are happening at an early age are concerning, because this is a taught or learned behavior,” said Heather Williams, director of gang victim services at Community Service Programs, Inc. “These children are learning to be anti-Semitic by their parents and people who they’ve been around for a long time.”

 

Wandering Jew – Spiritual Headliners

Dozens of young giggling girls dressed in their finest skirts and blouses crowded the front of the Universal Hilton ballroom, which was hot and stuffy and filled to standing-room only capacity with women in anticipation of the big event.

When the music started all the girls and women jumped to their feet and started clapping, beatific, expectant smiles on their faces.

It could have been a rock concert — perhaps the debut of famous boy band — but it was not that kind of music and these were not that kind of girls. For most of the 3,000 men and women — seated in separate rooms, with a video screen for the women — the happening was one of the most important ever in Los Angeles and in the lives of these ultra-Orthodox Jews.

These members of Los Angeles’ ultra-Orthodox community had come together for an asefa, a spiritual gathering, to see and hear two of Israel’s greatest rabbis speak words of Torah and offer spiritual reinforcement to this far-flung Diaspora community.

These were gedolei hador, luminaries, leaders of the generation and the heads of the two separate — and often divided — factions of the ultra-Orthodox communities. Rabbi Yakov Aryeh Alter, known the Gerrer Rebbe, represents the Chasidic faction, and Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman leads the Litvak, or Lithuanian (non-Chasidic) faction.

To the outsider, the sea of black hats might look monolithic, but these were worlds among worlds gathered in the room. The Chasidim, with their long curly peyos (sidelocks), furry streimel hats and shiny black kaputa coats, came from a long tradition that began in the 17th century, one that emphasizes spiritual joy in addition to academic Torah study.

More austere in trim beards and black suits were the Lithuanians, or Mitnagdim, literally meaning opponents to Chasidism. But today the word usually refers to black-hat non-Chasidic Jews who have a more analytic approach to learning, as practiced in their yeshivas.

It was like the Jets and the Sharks coming together. In the men’s section, a three-level podium contained a veritable who’s who of the Los Angeles rabbinical world: Rabbi Avrohom Union of the Rabbinical Council of California, Rabbi Meyer May of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Sholom Ginsberg of Toras Emes, Rabbi Eleazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, Rabbi David Toledano of Adat Yeshurun Sephardic Congregation, Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik (an actual Gerrer Chasid). There, too, standing out in a black hat and startlingly royal blue tie, was Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

To start things off, a number of rabbis spoke leading up to the two luminaries. They explained the significance of the evening.

“How could we be zocheh [meriting] for two gedolei hador to come here?” Rabbi Baruch Yehuda Gradon, from the Los Angeles Kollel, asked in that English-Hebrew-Yiddish mixture so prevalent in the ultra-Orthodox community.

“It’s hard to believe we’re on the West Coast of the United States,” he said.

Rabbi Ginsberg took pride in the growth of the community in this nonheavenly city.

“We in Los Angeles, we are not Eretz Yisroel [Israel], we are not New York, we are not even Lakewood,” he said, referring to the New Jersey community where the men learn full-time in Kollel yeshivas.

But, he said, this city has its own network of Kollels, yeshivas and outreach institutions.

In recent years Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest Jewish community, has become a stop for visiting Jewish dignitaries — especially politicians, hoping to tap into the fundraising network here. The visit of these two luminaries — together for the first time — also put Los Angeles on the map as an up-and-coming spiritual center. And perhaps, this appearance also was a testing ground for such an unusual pairing, an event that might get out of hand in a community as big as New York or New Jersey or Israel.

The occasion was also an effort to show unity between the two factions.

“There is no division between a Chasid and a Mitnaged, between Ashkenaz and Sephard, and between a businessman and yeshiva man,” Rabbi Ginsberg said.

There were some divisions, of course, with the men and women in separate rooms. According to the Israeli press, the two rabbis chartered a special El Al flight with no women stewardesses and no women in first class — and without movies. But this is de rigueur for a community accustomed to segregation (especially the Chasidic community).

The main purpose of the evening was to offer a lifeline of spiritual support to the Los Angeles community — a soulful community in a city of soul-seekers and religious innovators.

Rabbi Steinman, 93, clutched the podium, his face pale as paper, flanked on each side by rabbis for support. He spoke for 20 minutes in Yiddish. The Gerer rebbe, Yakov Alter, a more robust man with white hair and peyos and heavy lidded eyes, delivered a short, one-minute speech from his chair.

Both men’s words were translated by Rabbi Usher Weiss in a crisp, booming European-accented English.

“If all we would do here tonight is look and listen, then this effort would be in vain and this trip would not have achieved its goal,” he said to the rapt audience, some of whom were taping the remarks on their PalmPilots and other electronic devices.

Weiss was mostly translating the words of Rabbi Steinman, but he seemed to intersperse his own comments, as well: “A person must feel every day that our worship of yesterday is not enough. Every day is a new responsibility. The angels are great but they have no tests. For us it’s all about [personal] growth.”

“What matters is not how big you are but how much you grow,” said Weiss in his translation/commentary.

It was no accident that this gathering fell on the holiday of Lag B’Omer, a celebration in the middle of a mourning period, the 49 days of counting the omer. Jewish groups around the city made traditional bonfires to mark the holiday, which, by some accounts, marks the end of an ancient plague that killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students.

At the Universal Hilton, Weiss spoke of Rabbi Akiva, whose most famous teaching was love thy neighbor as thyself.

“Mutual respect, this is the lesson we have to learn on this day,” he said.

He blessed the rabbis and the audience, his voice ringing out loud and clear: “I am confident that each of the participants will remember this day to the last of his days.”

 

A Young Violinist With a Lot of Pluck

Her name is Camilla Tsiperovich. But, growing up in Azerbaijan, there were times she wasn’t allowed to use it. As a 9-year-old violinist performing for world-renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, she was told to call herself Camilla Gadjieva. Her headmaster at the Azerbaijan Conservatory considered this a more suitable name, one that reflected the Muslim heritage of her country. While representing Azerbaijan in international music competitions and spending her first year of high school at the famed Moscow Conservatory, she always understood that “there was something wrong because you were Jewish.”

Tsiperovich no longer needs to hide who she is. A year ago, her talent was noticed by Anita Hirsh, whose work with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has given her a deep commitment to the Jews of the former Soviet Union. Hirsh, the widow of The Jewish Journal’s late publisher, Stanley Hirsh, sponsored Tsiperovich’s entrance into the Idyllwild Arts Academy. Now, at age 17, Tsiperovich is flourishing as a full-time student who divides her days between academic subjects and an intense focus on her chosen instrument.

Idyllwild Arts Academy, a boarding school nestled in the mountains above Palm Springs, is home to 270 high school students who are preparing for careers as artists, dancers, actors, filmmakers and musicians. The atmosphere is international, with about one-third of the student body hailing from Europe, Asia and Latin America. As an entering student with shaky English skills, Tsiperovich is enrolled in a basic course in English as a Second Language. She introduced herself to her classmates by saying, “I’m from Azerbaijan. None of you know where that is.”

The course has required her to write and speak often about the homeland she’s left behind. Todd Bucklin, the school’s ESL teacher, commends her for being frank and responsive: “It’s great having her strong presence in the class.”

He also admires her social progress. In her dormitory she’s been spotted watching Korean-language movies with her new Asian pals, reading the subtitles to understand what’s going on.

At Idyllwild, all academic classes are held in the morning, to leave afternoons free for lessons, rehearsals and practice sessions. Life is so busy that Tsiperovich finds time to practice her violin only five or six hours a day. Back home, her passion for the instrument led her to practice 12 hours daily. Such devotion had its downside: she was prone to developing injuries in her hands, wrists and feet.

Her family, though always supportive, is not especially musical. In fact, a career in music was completely Tsiperovich’s idea. She was only 3 when she saw a televised concert of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G and became obsessed with learning the violin. She began lessons before she turned 4, and it wasn’t long before she was winning competitions and presenting public recitals. She is also a gifted visual artist, who received her current instrument from an American oil company after it used one of her paintings in an advertising campaign.

Tsiperovich admits that in Azerbaijan it’s almost impossible to follow the rules of religious Judaism (her family’s tiny synagogue is now defunct). Nonetheless, she learned from an early age to respect Jewish tradition. She was active in her local chapter of the World Jewish Agency, also known as Sochnut, an organization that encourages Diaspora Jews to feel connected with the State of Israel. It was Sochnut that paved the way for her to participate in an Israeli music festival, where her violin performance won first prize. Because her stay in Israel coincided with her 13th birthday, she was able to celebrate an impromptu bat mitzvah in a local synagogue. Though her parents were far away, she was by no means lonely.

In Israel, Tsiperovich says in her careful, accented English, “I felt like I am at home. I felt so warm. People were so close to me.”

Now she’s learning to feel at home in the United States. She says Hirsh often acts as “my parent in America” and sees her during holidays. Hirsh took Tsiperovich to Utah over winter break for her first attempt at skiing. Still, it’s hard for her not to miss all that she has left behind. When her school took its spring break in late March, she flew to her home city of Baku, on the Caspian Sea, to reunite with her family for the first time in five months. As luck would have it, she was able to share in the festivities of her favorite holiday, Azerbaijan New Year.

Tsiperovich is determined to follow high school with four years at a major American music conservatory. Because her long-range goal is to forge a career as a soloist, it’s likely she won’t be spending many more New Years in her native land. The life of a professional musician can be heartbreakingly tough, but it offers one great reward.

“When you play music,” Tsiperovich says, “you feel really free.”

 

Food for Thought

Vica is tall, blonde and Jewish. She is my interpreter.

It’s February 2005 and I am in Vilna, Lithuania, at the Baltics Limmud Conference. I am here as part of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ strategic partnership with the Baltics communities to teach subjects as varied as “Judiasm & Sexuality,” “Conservative Judaism” and “The Meaning of Mitzvah” to a Jewish community whose knowledge of the Jewish tradition was decimated by 50 years of Soviet oppression.

Vica translates what I teach into Russian, the lingua franca of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, a remnant from the Soviet era. She is active in the burgeoning Jewish community in Vilna, and comes to Limmud to work as a translator and to participate in learning. Yet she dates a non-Jewish Lithuanian because there are so few Jewish men her age.

When I ask about her Jewish upbringing, she says she didn’t really have any.

“My mother is Jewish and my father is not,” she says. “My mother had forgotten most everything from her childhood and she was not allowed to practice or learn anything, so by the time I arrived she really didn’t know what to teach me. But once we went to shul on Passover, and I do remember the matzahs from the shul. I don’t remember what they were for, but I remember eating matzah once in shul.”

Vica remembers eating matzah. Don’t underestimate the importance of the taste buds. Jews are a smart people. We value good grades and we love a good debate. But at the beginning of all good Jewish learning, there is food.

In traditional communities, the Alef Bet is still taught by feeding Jewish children Hebrew letters covered in honey so they associate sweetness with Torah. After Moses and the leaders of the Jewish people affirm their covenant with God at Mount Sinai and have a dramatic vision of God, they sit down to eat and drink (Exodus 24:12).

On Passover, when the central mitzvah of the seder is to teach our children the story of the Jewish people, we eat. We eat spring and call it parsley. We eat bitterness and call it maror. We eat bricks and call it charoset. We eat poverty and call it matzah.

We teach our children the words, but when our children are denied the story for 50 years, when a mother “has forgotten most everything from her childhood” and “doesn’t know what to teach,” when nothing else remains, matzah, like a stubborn daffodil blooming after a hard winter’s frost, is what Vica remembers.

Why does food work so well?

Scientists will tell you that the senses of smell and taste are most strongly associated with memory. I think eating resembles what learning the Passover story should be — we allow something from outside of ourselves to enter us; we “digest it” and change it (it is we who must tell the story so that our children can hear it) and it changes us and nourishes us and stays with us forever.

The Passover seder is among the most observed holidays in the Jewish world. When other ties with Jewish life have frayed, Passover remains. The food of Passover has much to do with this fact. Too often, Jews feel disempowered to teach their children, or themselves, the Jewish tradition because they feel they do not know enough. But on Passover, the haggadah teaches — “all who are hungry, come and eat.” Everyone can eat. Passover remains.

But Passover cannot be enough. Matzah cannot be enough. During the rest of the year, what do our homes taste like? Will our children remember the taste of Shabbat dinner on Friday night? Will they remember blintzes on Shavuot? Latkes on Chanukah? Honey and Hebrew letters? Will they remember the smell of cooking food to be delivered to a family who is mourning? What will remain beyond matzah?

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Max & Pauline Zimmer Conference Center at the University of Judaism.

 

Another Tendler Steps Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not so, Sholom Tendler said.

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

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

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

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

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

So why is Sholom Tendler leaving?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Nonverbal Baby Talk a Sign of the Times

While other infants and young toddlers let out a howl when they are hungry, 14-month-old Emmet Weisz simply brings his hands together at the heel and rotates the right hand over the left, making the hand-sign for his favorite food: cheese.

“He has a great love for dairy,” laughed Emmet’s mother, Rabbi Debra Orenstein, who lives in the Pico-Robertson area. “If I say it’s time for lunch or let’s go to the kitchen, he’ll sign ‘cheese.'”

Rather than waiting for her son to express himself verbally, Orenstein, like many Southland parents, decided to enhance Emmet’s language skills by taking baby sign-language classes. Teaching sign-language to preverbal hearing babies is one of the fastest-growing parenting trends in North America.

“Imagine that your baby is crying at night and you have to play the guessing game as to what the baby wants. Baby sign-language makes it so easy because they tell you exactly what they want,” said Etel Leit, founder of SignShine, a West L.A.-based company that offers American Sign-Language (ASL) workshops and classes for parents, caregivers and children.

Teaching her 19-month-old daughter, Zoë, more than 100 signs has quelled those late-night brainteasers. In addition, sign-language has become a unifying language in the family’s bilingual household.

While signing has only recently become popular for nondisabled children, it has been used to help special-needs children communicate for decades. At the UCLA Intervention Program, a program for infants and toddlers with a variety of disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder, sign-language is one of the typical means used to help children with language delays.

The recent popularity of baby signing is a comfort to many families with special needs children.

“It’s nice that [signing] has become mainstream,” said executive director Kit Kehr. “It helps the families in our program feel like it’s not an odd thing they’re doing.”

Research shows that sign-language reduces frustration between parent and child, helps accelerate verbal language development, can serve as a bridge between English and non-English speakers and may increase a child’s IQ.

Not everyone agrees. Critics of the trend feel that teaching babies to sign is a symptom of an overachieving parent. Other naysayers fear that parents will depend on sign-language and abandon the spoken word.

“I don’t think parents should ever use [sign-language] as a substitute for speech or as a way to teach children to develop language faster,” said Deena Bernstein, professor and chairman of the department of speech-language-hearing sciences at City University of New York’s Lehman College in the Bronx. “I think children are born to talk and some believe they are pre-programmed physiologically to do so.”

Leit, however, has seen the benefits firsthand.

In her Sign, Sing and Play classes, parents and/or caregivers and their children attend six one-hour classes consisting of interactive games, music, singing and storytelling. By the end of the series, parents and children are exposed to over 100 signs focusing on topics like mealtime, bathtime, clothing, bedtime, animals, family, colors, emotions and playtime. Students take home supplementary materials and are told to practice throughout the week.

Babies are ready to learn sign-language when they can point and clap their hands. Leit suggests that anywhere from 4 to 6 months is a good starting point and she claims that it’s never too late to learn.

Children who already speak can also benefit from sign-language because it enhances their vocabulary. At age 2, babies who sign have more than a three-month advantage over nonsigners in the area of speech; at age 3 they often speak at a nearly 4-year-old level, according to a National Institute of Health study conducted by Dr. Linda Acredolo, a professor of psychology at UC Davis, and Dr. Susan Goodwyn, professor of psychology at California State University Stanislaus.

West Hollywood resident Revital Goodman signs with her 2-1/2-year-old daughter, Abigail.

“We use it when we’re at the park,” Goodman said. “Instead of yelling for her to come here or to come eat, we sign.”

Abigail, who is already bilingual, constantly asks her mother how to sign new words.

Dimple Tyler, a stay-at-home mom from Los Angeles, believes in the benefits of signing. After several classes, her 8-month-old son, Jonathan, is showing his first indication of interest in sign-language: a smile.

“Watching me sign is a game to him and it engages him,” Tyler said. “I can tell he’s learning the concept.”

Amusement is often the first stage for babies learning sign-language. Recognition, imitation and the baby’s first sign follow.

As a language teacher, Leit feels that her Judaism and Israeli roots have influenced her outlook on communication.

“People who know more languages are more open-minded,” she said. “Instead of looking at a deaf person or a person who speaks Hebrew or Farsi and saying how different they are, we realize how similar we all are.”

For information on SignShine classes, call (310) 613-3900 or visit www.babysignshine.com

 

The Hebrascope: Signs of the Jewdiac


HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

(February 19-March 20)
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Josh Groban

There’s a study that shows that lab rats don’t get as stressed from being shocked as they do from not knowing when the shocks will come. Put that rat on a regular shocking schedule, and it doesn’t freak out. How does this apply to the human Pisces? Some of your anxiety right now comes from a simple lack of knowledge. Get more information. The more you know, the less you will suffer from the fear of how and when that shock will arrive. This week, make a special effort to befriend casual business contacts. A stream of new work may be coming your way, and you never know whose friendship will yield rewards.

(March 21-April 20)
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Matthew Broderick

That whole “pay it forward” thing is pretty easy, as far as good deeds go. If someone is prompt, warm or even excellent in a service they provide, it’s all about referrals. Your generosity will come back to you. Aries employees may face a heavy workload this week to due the absence or illness of a co-worker. Still, if you start a project this week, it’s likely to come to fruition. Here’s the bad news: Mercury turns retrograde until March 25. That means details regarding travel, mail and technology may become frustrating. What’s an Aries to do? Back up all computer files and dip into your reserves of patience.

 

 

(April 21-May 20)
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Barbra Streisand

Business and pleasure – two great tastes that don’t always taste great together – may combine this week as someone from your social circle introduces a business proposition. The catch is that dastardly “hidden agenda” friends can have. You can’t play “hide and seek” with someone else’s agenda, but you can gently suggest that all parties show their cards and express their real desires. If you have any important messages to send, do so before Thursday. Be certain to be very clear in your communications; that funny, sarcastic e-mail that sounds hilarious in your head may be misunderstood.

(May 21 – June 20)
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Barry Levinson

Information you are getting this week is just a lot of blah blah blah until you confirm and clarify what you are hearing. Someone may be using verbal skills to manipulate your mind. Here’s where you throw down with your research skills and separate fact from fictions. Unattached Gemini may want to attend a social function with work colleagues. While it may not be the best idea for you to “dip your quill in the company ink,” don’t rule out the possibility of a co-worker bringing along a cute and appropriate-to-date friend.

(June 21-July 20)
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Sydney Pollack

Intuition has many faces. Sometimes it’s a gut feeling, or a voice whispering in your head (not the kind that happens when you forget your meds), or a nagging thought. Sometimes, intuition is just a flash. However it shows itself, this is not the week to second-guess it but to act on it. Whatever feels right is right. It’s that simple. In career matters, this is a week to embrace the old cliché about “it’s not what you know but who you know.” Information gathered privately from inside sources will help you make bold moves in your career. Who do you press for information? It’s gut check time.

(July 21 – August 21)
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Monica Lewinsky

Money may not be the root of all evil, but it is certainly the root of many a trivial argument. This week, you may find yourself at odds with a personal or professional partner about just how the cash is getting doled out. Fortunately, when it comes to dealing with banks, creditors or outstanding debts, this is an excellent week for these kinds of financial dealings. Also, this week may find you daydreaming more than usual. One second you’re getting on the freeway, the next, you’re already at your exit and have no idea how you got there. Harness your daydreams; they are filled with creative ideas. And try not to get too lost.

(August 22-September 22)
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Adam Sandler

Any Virgo who is studying, learning or composing simply must have privacy. Annoying roommates? Get away from them, sling the laptop in a bag and get to a coffee shop. If the family is around, hole away in a separate room for a couple of hours and get the alone time you need to focus. As for your emotional life, think of it this way. Why do athletes stretch before a big game or event? So they don’t break. Flexibility is key to your emotional health this week. Bend, stretch and don’t jump into an emotional situation ice cold. You don’t want to pull a mental hamstring and end up on the injured list. 

(September 23-October 22)
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Michael Douglas

Going to the gym and starting a fancy new workout regime in January is for suckers; that’s when everyone is trying to act on their secular New Year’s resolutions and the line for the treadmill is worse than the IKEA checkout line on a Saturday afternoon. Good thing for Libra, now is the time to start a routine with the stars supporting your efforts. Normally indecisive Libra may have a more difficult time making decisions. Should you have the mint chip or the rocky road? It all seems so critical and hard to maneuver. Just remember, all the flavors taste good – not to mention giving you extra encouragement to stick to your new workout plan.

(October 23-November 22)
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Jonas Salk

Welcome to a cosmic carnival of amusements. This week will be a delight for the senses, some cotton candy, a few rides and lots of pinball in your brain. There’s nothing to do but enjoy the frenetic energy and all the bright lights and colors. Oh, there is one thing to do: start up a romantic affair. If you’re in a relationship, this is a good time to win her a stuffed animal or buy him a stupid t-shirt. Basically, anyone you love or would like to love into your world, invite them to your carnival and show them a good time. If it’s unexpected or bizarre, embrace it.

(November 23-December 20)
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Harpo Marx

Watch out for savvy salespeople. You know the type; they tell you to get the timing belt changed when you just needed an oil change. They encourage you to buy the foundation primer when all you needed was the $10 makeup sponge. You may be especially susceptible to buying things you don’t need. Do not be “upsold.” This is also a good time to watch your money in other ways. Keep your purse on your lap instead of on the floor and keep your wallet safe. You may have big, inspiring dreams filled with metaphors and ideas. Keep a journal by the bed and write them down.

(December 21-January 19)
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Dave Attell

Don’t dismiss the oldsters in your world. Someone with far more experience than you do may have wisdom to impart this week. When it comes to work, you may have been coasting and it’s time to roll up your sleeves and dig into it. Are you working as hard as you can, or breezing out at exactly 5 p.m. after a solid half hour of checking e-mails and reshuffling papers? If you leave late and get to work early, your superiors will notice. What’s more, you want get that icky feeling that comes from wasting time on someone else’s dollar.

Aquarius (Jan. 20-Feb. 18)
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Ted Koppell

Tuesday is the day if you are planning a small celebration for a loved one. I don’t mean a gigantic surprise party with a piñata or girl jumping out of a cake. If it just means ordering a pizza and renting a favorite movie, make it happen. Take care of the little details so a special person in your life can feel valued. As for the rest of week, you will feel more comfortable and aligned if you make sure you household chores are complete. Wash those last couple of dishes, take in the dry cleaning, wash the bath mat and all will be slightly better with the world.

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Wandering Jew – Music to My Ears

“In syngagyng a sangasongue … ” — James Joyce, “Finnegans Wake.”

Singing in synagogue is something I wish I were better at doing or at least less embarrassed about doing full-throated. At the Synagogue for the Performing Arts, the congregation doesn’t have that problem. They have David Coury.

A voice expert known for coaching singers and nonsingers, and working with deaf and autistic students and contestants for TV shows like “Extreme Makeover” and “American Idol,” Coury is unique and considered “revolutionary.”

When I heard about his “So You Always Wanted to Sing!” seminar, I knew it was time to put my mouth where my … or my money where my … whatever. Who isn’t a wannabe chazan from way back?

The Sunday afternoon workshop was held at the Howard Fine Acting Studios on Las Palmas Avenue, off a stretch of Sunset Boulevard east of Highland Avenue near Buckbuster (“Less Than $1 Many Items Sell For”) and the Hollywood Center Motel (“Electrical Heat”), which looks like an abandoned set from “L.A. Confidential.”

A few dozen singees sat nervously in the studio theater. Lee Miller, television director and president of the Synagogue for the Performing Arts, introduced Coury. The syagogue bills itself as “L.A.’s original entertainment congregation.”

“Isn’t there another shul like this in New York or Branson?” I asked.

Miller shook his head.

“We’re it,” he said. Coury chanted “Kol Nidre” last fall with Synagogue for the Performing Arts’ cantor, Judy Fox, and, Miller said, “a lotta jaws dropped.”

I was skeptical at first, hearing how Coury’s accompanist on piano had just got the day off from studio work “with Natalie Cole.” Coury had that hipster headset and two bottles of Sparkletts at the ready, high energy that got me wondering: How will I know if he’s the real laryngo-glottal guru? This is Hollywood, after all. If you can fake it here you can fake it anywhere, right?

“How brave you are,” Coury butters up the attendees — each paid $75, which goes to Synagogue for the Performing Arts. The teacher is trim and dark in black sweatshirt, khaki slacks, sneakers.

“It’s a long road from the shower to the stage,” he says, rolling up his sleeves and diving right in. “I like to just get to things,” he tells us. “There’s no revving up.”

A fellow named Sky is the first actor ready for his voice-up.

Our music man’s method? It’s all about the mask.

“That’s where you sing from,” Coury says, gripping his face as we model him. But wait. What? No up from the diaphragm and below bellowing?

“That’s an old wives’ tale,” explains Coury. “A cave has resonance and an ant hole depth. You’ve got to use your mouth.”

Alternately praised and nudged, each vocalist eventually expresses more than he or she thought they ever could. Whatever their issue, Coury calms them into laughter or steers them back to the mask. Soon they’re singing “Moon River” like Mandy Patinkin or “People” like Barbra Streisand, bounding off stage to high-fives or applause.

OK, not like Streisand, obviously. But it is amazing to observe. Coury has no tricks or even a warm-up technique.

He can explain “pre-frontal rostrum medial cortex” like a speech therapist, but something else is at work, too. When Serena forgets her lyric and goes off into just sounds, Coury is laudatory toward her. “She has reached Yummyville,” he says, “where it feels good, and there are no nerves anymore.”

“Willingness and desire are everything,” he teaches. “So the challenge is just the nerves. Put yourself in my hands and meet me halfway.”

And darned if it doesn’t happen right before our ears.

A good listener with a wicked laugh, Coury stops one singer as soon as she starts.

“Favorite food, Denise?” he asks.

“Clam Chowder,” she replies, smiling.

“See how we light up when we talk about food?” he says with a laugh. “Singing and speaking are very oral. Singing equals speaking equals singing … the voice should be musical, symphonic.”

Powerful medicine.

“You can’t fake a blush,” he says to a woman named Stephanie. “You’ve had a transformation.”

Already full of fabulous pipes, Stephanie wants a “a fuller belt.”

In moments, Coury releases her “Tiger Song” from “Les Miz” out into the wilds of Sunset Boulevard somewhere. Teary-eyed, she thanks him.

And I know it may sound silly, but he’s got us all belting words like “I” and “you” over and over. No kidding. Love should be sung as “lahhv,” you know, and pronounced as in “va va voom.” The expert lets us in on the ins and outs of “eees” and “ooos” and how “eh” is a vowel, but they don’t teach you that.”

Well, that’s one way to praise Yahweh. But how does he get us to do it?

“You must risk three things,” Coury says. “Sounding weird, looking bad and being disliked.”

Um, do we have to? Why?

“Because the world worships the original. Take these tools and risk it.”

The tools are learned through little inspirationals, like the one he gives a lusty singer named Shelley, who gets up and growls, “Rock me, baby, like my back ain’t got no bone.”

Coury wants more.

“Be like a dog to a steak,” he tells the loungey bombshell. “Bite into it. Not with your voice, with your mouth.”

And for guys like Phil, afraid he can only drone a tone deaf “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Coury teaches: “There’s no such thing as fearless. There’s being afraid and doing it anyway — that’s being extraordinary.”

So after hiding out fearfully as long as possible, I climb on stage. After a taste of Perry Como (“Just in Time,” a song I want to sing at my wedding), I’m convinced I’m no crooner.

But with the coach’s encouragement, I go for something even higher, recalled from the car radio while driving Sunset Boulevard to get here. It’s a ballad from a lame top-40 band, Foreigner. “I’ve been waaaaiting for a girl like you, to come into my liiife….”

I tell him I had my tonsils out when I was 10, but Coury takes no lip.

“Listening to yourself is not going to allow the magic,” he says. “Looking directionally at me will bring it. Use the human in the room. You’ll find your humanity immediately at play.”

Suddenly something comes out that I’ve never felt, not even while alone with the windows up and stereo blaring. I’m exhilarated. Euphoric.

He shakes my hand and I bounce off stage, hearing his final instructions to all of us:

“Dare to be heard. In this world of communication, you have to speak out to be heard. You can literally touch somebody with your voice. Who knows who’s there? And that’s magic.

“Do! Sing! Big! Not big voice, big mouth. It’s not the singing; it’s the learning. Your voice is greater than any song you’ve ever sung, if you’re working on your voice. So keep your yapper open.”

Sound advice. What else did I learn?

Singers should keep their eyes open and it’s quite all right to lick your lips. Pronouncing is what gives life. And when you run out of breath? Breathe. Listen for me next Friday night and Shabbat shalom, Los Angeles.

Synagogue for the Performing Arts has another seminar, “Journey Into Self-Discovery,” taught by Howard Fine, Feb. 17-19. For more information call (310) 472-3500 or go to www. SFTPA.com.

Hank Rosenfeld is a storyteller for “Weekend America,” heard on public radio stations every Saturday, including KPCC-FM 89.3 in Los Angeles.

 

Simple Minds

I shared a ballroom last Saturday night with a group of people whose lives could easily inspire nothing more than pity. Like me, they were attending the annual gala of Etta Israel Center, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides outreach and services to developmentally disabled Jews and their families.

Etta Israel is one of those rare organizations that attracts support — and offers support — across denominational boundaries. So the lobby of the California Science Center, decked out for a private evening affair, was host to bearded, black-hatted rabbis and smooth-shaven, kippah-less types. There were women in cocktail dresses and women in fashionable shaidels. UCLA Hillel Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, whose politics veer left, ran into an old acquaintance, Rabbi Baruch Kupfer, executive director of Maimonides Academy of Los Angeles, and the two men joked about who was going to swing whom over to his side.

Also among these Jewish leaders and financial supporters of Etta Israel were dozens of the young adults and children whose named and unnamed challenges — cerebral palsy, autism, Down’s syndrome and others — are often used as reasons to exclude them from many things that society has to offer, like an education.

The Etta Israel Center runs programs to teach Judaism to developmentally challenged children and young adults, as well as group homes for adults (its third home will open in the Valley in June) and a popular summer day camp. It helps Jewish day schools meet the learning needs of all its students, and has trained thousands of teachers in how to help all children learn through its Schools Attuned programs.

One of the young women in its girls yeshiva program saw me taking notes and approached me.

“She wants to show you her writing,” said the educator I was speaking with. The young woman couldn’t form words, but offered me her notepad, on which she had written several rows of wavy lines. It was just lines — no words, no letters — but it was her writing. She beamed and blushed at once.

In another context, the moment could have inspired pity. But pity is cheap. Like guilt, it’s only useful as a tool to pick the locks on our hearts, to compel us to change, to act.

Surrounded by friends from her class, helped along by the educator and the people at Etta Israel — as well as by parents, like the dozens of committed ones in the room — the young woman struck me as confident and fortunate. She found herself embraced by people who wouldn’t settle for mere pity.

One of the evening’s honorees was Valerie Vanaman, an attorney whose relentless advocacy on behalf of special-needs education has improved the lives of thousands of children and their families.

“Every child is entitled to receive an appropriate educational program,” Vanaman said during her award acceptance speech. It is such a simple idea, but like most simple ideas, it takes people of great intellect to conceive it and men and women of iron will to implement it.

Conversely, the idea that people with mental, emotional or physical disabilities might be barred from partaking in a public or Jewish education is, no matter how cool and rational it may seem, the fruit of simple minds, and it takes no more ability than the slack acceptance of the status quo to realize it. Vanaman railed against challenges to opportunity and funding of special-needs students at the state level, and urged parents to contact their representatives and State Board of Education Superintendent Jack O’Connell to protest the decrease in services. “Lawyers can’t save the day,” she said. “Only parents can save the day.”

The other honoree was David Suissa, the founder of Suissa/Miller Advertising and publisher of Olam magazine. During his speech, Suissa recounted the story of Etta Israel, a teacher who, after retirement, took it upon herself to teach developmentally disabled children at Beth Jacob Congregation for 20 years. Her experiences led Dr. Michael Held to create a center in her name. Again, it was a simple idea: instead of offering pity, offer parity. Extend the beauty and benefits of Jewish learning to those most likely to be left behind. Focus teachers on the students’ abilities, working through — and around — their deficits.

The organization, which has largely focused on the Orthodox community, is looking to be of service to non-Orthodox day schools, as well. Held wants more schools to emulate the model of schools like the CSUN-affiliated CHIME Charter schools in Woodland Hills, where enrollment is 80 percent “typical” children and 20 percent special-needs children. Why can’t the Jewish community, he asked, support a Jewish high school following that model?

A simple, brilliant idea — waiting for people of iron will to make it a reality.

For more information, go to www.etta.org

 

Bonding Over Torah

On a recent Sunday morning, a group of bat mitzvah-age girls and their mothers sit together reading and discussing the story of Chana, who, wretched and weeping because she is childless, prays to God for a son.

“Pay particular attention to the verses describing how Chana prayed,” educator Marcie Meier tells the group.

These 11- to 13-year-old girls and their mothers are learning about Chana and other female role models in a Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar held at Congregation Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills. There, in the book-lined beit midrash, for six Sunday mornings, the mitzvot (commandments) and midot (characteristics) of these ancient women come alive through exploring English and Hebrew texts and engaging in arts-related projects such as calligraphy and singing.

Now in its third year, the seminar is one of the most popular offerings of Netivot, an independent Torah study center for women founded six years ago whose name is Hebrew for “pathways.” And it is unique in the Orthodox community, where bat mitzvah is neither routine nor ritualized and where organized bat mitzvah classes, for the most part, are nonexistent.

“The seminar is filling in a niche for those who want to make the experience more meaningful,” said Irine Schweitzer, founding president of Netivot.

Generally taught once a year, with 10 to 20 girls enrolled per class, the program affords mothers and daughters special time together. It also introduces the girls to peers from other schools, allowing them to view bat mitzvah as a more universal experience.

Additionally, Schweitzer says, the seminar provides the girls with a historical connection between them and the women who came before them and with the knowledge that they are carrying on an important legacy.

“We learn from Shmuel’s mom [Chana] that you whisper when you daven and say the words to yourself. I didn’t know that,” says Nava Bendik, 11, who is taking the class with her mother, Alisa.

Meier adds that you are supposed to pray with kavanah (intention) and that these laws refer specifically to the Shemoneh Esreh prayers or Amidah.

During this class, the girls also learn how to write words of prayer in calligraphy, with the help of artist Rae Shagalov.

“Talent sometimes comes from interest rather than strength,” Shagalov tells them, explaining that her enthusiasm for calligraphy was sparked when she wanted to copy Torah.

In addition to Chana, the girls and mothers learn about Sarah, Miriam, Devorah and Ruth, and take part in candle making, dancing, singing and learning about tikkun olam (healing the world). Also, one Thursday evening they visit the nonprofit organization Tomchei Shabbos, where coordinator Steve Berger gives a warehouse tour and puts them to work assembling boxes of Shabbat food for needy Jewish families.

And for the last class, the girls select and interview a female role model — usually a teacher, mother or another relative — and present the findings to the class.

“You’re supposed to learn before your bat mitzvah and that’s happening,” says Jessica Gittler, 11, who is participating with her mother, Naomi.

These girls are all planning to have a bat mitzvah, but what constitutes that rite of passage varies greatly in the diversity of the Orthodox community. Many girls do nothing or have a small party. Others write and present a d’var Torah in synagogues such as Young Israel of Century City or at a family celebration. And a few actually lead a service and chant Torah, an option at Shirat Chana, the women’s monthly prayer group at B’nai David-Judea Congregation.

“While girls pretty much universally have some kind of celebration, I think the piece of it that’s become more prominent in the last couple of decades is the learning they bring to it and the public role in sharing it,” says Luisa Latham, an educator and Netivot board member.

Bat mitzvah preparation is traditionally done one-on-one with a rebbetzin or teacher (boys in the Orthodox world also learn individually with a rabbi or teacher), but supplementary learning programs, such as Netivot’s Seminar, are beginning to appear.

At Young Israel of Century City, now in its second year, Ruchama Muskin, educator and wife of Rabbi Elazar Muskin, teaches a two-part bat mitzvah workshop on laws and responsibilities pertaining to women. She also incorporates hands-on projects such as baking challah.

The girls in Netivot’s Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar plan on doing some additional learning with a rebbetzin or teacher and on preparing a d’var Torah. They also intend to do a chesed (lovingkindness) project for their bat mitzvah. Nava Bendik, for example, with the help of family and friends, is knitting scarves and donating them to an Israeli orphanage. She hopes to collect 70.

Schweitzer believes that the mothers who themselves enjoy and seriously engage in learning are the ones encouraging their daughters to have more meaningful b’not mitzvah. She hopes to see even more movement in this direction.

But what is unusual in this program is the opportunity for mothers and daughters to learn jointly.

“This was not around in my time,” Marcie Meier says. “The idea of mothers and daughters studying together and taking life a little bit deeper is a welcome part of growing up today.”

And it’s not only the mothers who appreciate it.

“It’s really cool learning with my mom,” says Leanne Bral, 13, the daughter of Evana. “Sometimes she knows more than I do and sometimes I know more.”

For more information on Netivot and the Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar, visit www.netivot.org or call (310) 226-6141.

 

Lesson in Tolerance Seeks to Aid School

A group of students from Jefferson High School gathers around the tour guide, Jewish grandmother Diane Treister, at the Museum of Tolerance on a recent Friday morning.

While Treister talks about personal responsibility and respect, the students, many in jeans and T-shirts and carrying cellphones, chat among themselves, mostly in Spanish.

“This is going to be a tough group,” Treister whispers to an adult visitor. “You just hope the kids will remember what they see today. I try to tell them to be ambassadors of tolerance and to speak up. Because the Holocaust happened because no one spoke up.”

This tour is no typical high school field trip, with its predictable mix of unruly, disinterested teenagers. These students are here mainly because their school, Jefferson High, became a flash point last year for fights between Latino and African American students. The overcrowded, underperforming campus in South Los Angeles was 92 percent Latino, 7.5 percent black and, seemingly on a handful of occasions, nearly 100 percent out of control.

Since then, hundreds of students have transferred to a new school south of Jefferson, police have increased their campus presence and a new principal has taken charge. The school district also has arranged for human relations speakers to visit the campus.

Now, students are getting a special kind of training that officials hope will make a difference at school: They’re learning about human rights abuses and the fight for civil rights in the United States and, especially, about the Holocaust.

Throughout November and December, ninth graders from Jefferson High and eighth graders from Carver Middle School, which feeds into Jefferson, spent a day at the Museum of Tolerance, the educational arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

On this particular winter day, Treister leads the students into a room called the Millennium Machine, where they squeeze into six-person booths. Video monitors flash images of child abuse, including slavery, forced labor and pornography. The monitors ask, “What is the most common form of child abuse?”

The students overwhelmingly choose physical abuse. But they’re wrong. The answer is forced labor.

“I think it’s just sad,” says a girl with long brown hair, as she makes her way out of the room for the next exhibit. Here, 16 video monitors show historical film footage of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others fighting for civil rights.

Then, it’s time for the Holocaust section of the museum. Students sit on the floor, while Treister kneels, imploring them to pay special attention to this part of the tour. She explains anti-Semitism, using her own, expanded definition: “Anti-Semitism means hatred of Jews — and hatred of anyone of color.”

Two tall doors part, and the students walk into another room, where a reproduction of a Berlin street from the 1930s awaits. The ninth graders pass by a scene at a cafe, where sculpted figures sit at tables. A voiceover brings the scene to life, offering snippets of the cafe patrons’ conversations about the Nazis’ rise to power.

Less listless than before, the students eavesdrop on a recreation of the Wannsee Conference, where the Nazis determined that “The Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was to kill all Jews in German-controlled lands. In a Hall of Testimony that resembles a concentration camp gas chamber, students listen to survivors’ stories.

Leaving the exhibit, Treister asks, “Who was responsible for this?”

“Hitler,” a student says.

“Who else?” she asks.

“The people who followed Hitler,” answers Jose Albarran, 14.

“What could’ve been done?” Treister asks.

Tames’e Smith, 15, raises her hand and says: “Somebody standing up to make a difference.”

Smith seems to get the point of the tour. The question is how she, a girl who says she has grown weary of witnessing gang fights and parties “getting shot up,” will apply what she’s learned to life at school.

Ron Rubine, the 46-year-old head of Standing on Common Ground, an organization that trains students in peer relations, tried to make the connection.

“Today,” he told the students at the start of the tour, “is going to be a day for you to think about making Jefferson a place where everybody’s included and nobody’s left out.”

After the tour, Rubine led the ninth graders in a session on how to make the day’s lessons relevant. He also brought in guest speakers — a reformed white supremacist and a gay rights activist — to broaden the message of tolerance.

“In terms of acceptance and learning more about how to get along,” said Juan Flecha, Jefferson High’s principal, “I can’t think of a better opportunity” than a trip to the museum.

Flecha added that simply visiting the Westside was eye-opening. “It’s really important for our students to see a different part of the world,” he said.

With 30 buses provided by Los Angeles Councilwoman Jan Perry (Ninth District) and free admission tickets offered by the Museum of Tolerance through a Wells Fargo Foundation grant, an estimated 1,000 students participated.

After this day’s tour, ninth-grader Smith explains that “standing up” means stopping child pornography, “babies getting exposed on the Internet,” as she puts it.

Another student, Mayra Rivas, 14, says, “I think it could happen again — to Mexicans.” Just as Jews could not escape Europe, her own grandmother, she says, cannot immigrate to the United States today.

A certain amount of confusion — as with this questionable analogy — is inevitable because many students arrive knowing little or nothing about the Holocaust, said Beverly LeMay, manager of the museum’s Tools for Tolerance program. She added that she hopes to follow up with students.

As the day wore on, most students had paid attention to substantial parts of the presentation, sometimes participating in discussions with enthusiasm. If all went well, they will take away something of lasting value — and Jefferson High will be a more peaceful, respectful place.

“You don’t come to the Museum of Tolerance in one visit,” LeMay said, “and be resolved on all these issues.

 

So Much to Learn, So Little Time

Gina Gross would like to attend Jewish adult-education classes, but at the moment, she has a hard time even talking about how much she’d like it. The Beverly Hills licensing consultant briefly puts down the phone and turns lovingly to her 7-year-old daughter: “Dani, buzz off!”

Dani runs off to play with her 5-year-old sister, Sydney, which gives Gross a few minutes to discuss adult education, but not nearly enough leeway to pursue it.

“My kids are too little,” said Gross, who adds that her Reform congregation, Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park, “does a really good job of marketing adult education during the High Holidays. And every year I hope I’m gonna do it. And I never do it. Kids. Work. Everything else.”

There are thousands of adults in similar straits throughout Southern California.

“We are blessed in Los Angeles with a plethora of adult learning opportunities,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. “Synagogues offer literally hundreds of courses for adults as do many other fine institutions.”

“Having said that,” the Conservative rabbi added, “I wouldn’t even hazard a guess to how few Jewish adults are actually involved in ongoing Jewish learning. I fear the number is relatively small. People need to avail themselves of these programs.”

There are no comprehensive statistics on how many adults attend classes related to Judaism, or even whether these classes are attracting increasing or shrinking numbers. But synagogues and local universities continue to list impressive offerings, relying on their own learned staffers and rabbis, talented community members and a broader Jewish community rich with resources and scholars.

At Westwood’s Conservative Sinai Temple, Rabbi David Wolpe’s Torah study classes attract an average of 100 people every Thursday morning at 8:15 a.m.

“That’s huge,” said Sinai program coordinator Rachel Martin.

Lunch-and-learn events at Sinai regularly attract about 80 people.

“Anything on mysticism is really popular,” Martin said. “It’s more of the touchy-feely stuff that’s really popular.”

Over the years, said Reform Rabbi Steve Jacobs of Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, congregants have shown tremendous interest in “learning about lifecycles, and in adult [b’nai] mitzvah classes.”

Courses on Israel peaked in the 1970s and ’80s, Jacobs said, but now interfaith courses and classes on Jewish cooking are on the upswing.

But who has the time? Attorney Josh Wayser and his life partner have three young children in Beverlywood and are members of both Temple Isaiah and the gay/lesbian Reform synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim, in Pico-Robertson.

“If you have young children, it’s almost impossible to do adult education,” said Wayser, a national board member with the Union of Reform Judaism.

“The problem is you’re choosing between spending time with children or enriching yourself,” he said. “They don’t want to hear that you’re going off to adult education at night or on the weekend. I have to spend time way from home because of work, and I volunteer in the Jewish community. Everything personal comes last.”

Not that he hasn’t tried: “It was very enjoyable, but it was on a Saturday. On Saturday there are birthday parties and all these things that you have to do.”

Orthodox Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein said that deepening one’s knowledge of Judaism should not be considered an option, nor buried near the bottom of the to-do list.

“I hate to be blunt about it, but the Orthodox have an advantage that the heterodox movements do not, and that’s the concept of mitzvah — mitzvah in the real sense of commandment rather than in good deeds,” said Adlerstein, who does extensive teaching and directs Project Next Step at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “The mandate to study Torah is one of the most important of all of the 613 commandments in the Torah.”

For Orthodox Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, “the barometer of success can’t be how many people come. It’s how good the program is,” he said.

Muskin has mixed traditional Torah study with offerings such as scholar-in-residence programs. “Our approach is what the Talmud says,” he said. “If you only learn Torah from one person, you haven’t learned Torah.”

And, he added, there’s no seasonal slowdown: “We don’t only run a series that lasts for six weeks or five weeks. There are regular classes, day in, day out.”

One new option is the Internet and sites such as www.aish.com or www.askmoses.com, which are Orthodox in orientation.

Diamon of the Board of Rabbis said these sites will never replace people-to-people encounters.

“Internet learning is great,” he said. “But nothing replaces sitting down with another individual or a group of individuals and studying together face-to-face and in person. That’s classic Jewish learning.”

For Kol Tikvah’s Jacobs, Jewish learning also is about more than history, scholarship, religious tradition and ritual. It’s about a cleaned-up Santa Monica Bay, too, and fair rental housing rates for migrant farm workers in Oxnard onion fields.

“Learning Torah for the sake of Torah does not complete the act of what it is to be a Jew,” he said. “It’s a combination of action and learning. It’s what you do in terms of tikkun olam and tikkun hanefesh, the repair of the soul’ You must act, and you must do, and you must learn.”

Intense Me’ah Gets High Marks

A Jewish adult education program is bearing fruit, according to a recent survey.

And now Me’ah — an intensive, two-year Jewish adult-education program marking its 10th year — is spreading from Boston across the country.

The name of the program, which means 100 in Hebrew, refers to the roughly 100 hours of study time participants spend over the two-year cycle.

Me’ah, which began in 1994 with 50 students in greater Boston, is also now being offered in Baltimore, Cleveland, Rhode Island, Florida, New Jersey and New York.

In separate conversations about Me’ah, its creators, David Gordis, president of Hebrew College, and Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, cite quality and location as the key to its success.

The program is held in neighborhood synagogues and Jewish community centers.

Gordis and Shrage are touting the results of a survey of Me’ah’s Boston-area graduates, who are moving into leadership positions in their Jewish communities.

Nearly two-thirds of graduates say the program had a major or moderate impact on their involvement in Jewish communal life. Close to half report increasing their charitable giving to synagogues and other Jewish causes.

“Adult education is up there with day schools [as far as] transformational opportunities,” Shrage said. “This is the right moment in Jewish history because there’s a huge longing for spirituality, community and a serious engagement with Judaism.”

Me’ah’s rigor and neutrality are appealing to a broad range of the American Jewish population, said Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. At the same time, he added, he would like to see a more sophisticated, outside, independent evaluation. The lack of such evaluations is a consistent issue with programs serving the American Jewish community, he said.

But Wertheimer applauded how Me’ah taps such resources as Jewish scholars for the benefit of the broader community as well as its transdenominational approach.

“The down side,” he said, “is that it may be too neutral and not sufficiently prescriptive to encourage involvement.”

Me’ah is one response to the controversial National Jewish Population Survey published in 1990, which alarmed the community about the long-term affects of assimilation.

“We were dealing with a population of people who by and large have been exposed to quality higher education and had become accustomed within their Jewish connections to be satisfied with mediocrity,” Gordis recalled.

Their prescription was a high-quality, academically rigorous curriculum taught by college-level professors during a two-year course of study using Jewish texts.

“We’re bringing the university to the synagogue,” said Richard Feczko, Me’ah’s national director. “It changes the relationship because it brings together elements of the Jewish community that normally don’t come together.”

Tuition runs about $1,200 for each student, about half of which is covered through subsidies from sponsoring Jewish federations.

If Me’ah’s approach sounds obvious now, there were nonetheless few offerings of this caliber when the program was launched, said Gordis and Shrage. Other adult Jewish learning either was episodic or was higher-level learning aimed at a small cadre of synagogue leaders.

“Me’ah begins the exploration at an extremely high level,” Shrage said. “You have the chance to change the zeitgeist.”

Terry Rosenberg heard Shrage’s motivational speech about Me’ah about nine years ago when her synagogue, Beth Elohim in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, was looking to revitalize its synagogue life.

“It was five minutes that changed my life,” Rosenberg said.

Shrage prodded the group, Rosenberg recalled vividly: “‘How come you have no problem if I asked you to distinguish between a Rembrandt and a Monet, but you’re not embarrassed that you don’t know about Rashi or Maimonides?'”

Rosenberg was so inspired that she organized a Me’ah class for Beth Elohim. In its first year, 1997, it attracted 50 members, who were divided into two classes.

“We realized that we wanted a Jewish identity which meant more than bagels and lox and High Holiday services,” she said.

Many of the Beth Elohim graduates now are active leaders in the synagogue. Rosenberg now co-chairs the organization’s committee on Jewish continuity and education, which is the funding source for Me’ah.

Richard Pzena could easily be the poster face for Me’ah: After he heard from a friend who works at Hebrew College that Me’ah might be expanding beyond the Boston area, he organized a group in his synagogue, Temple Sinai, in Summit, N.J.

“It struck a chord with a lot of people. You create bonds with your classmates and really learn on an academic level. Most of us went to Hebrew school, which was like pediatric Judaism,” he said.

Eighteen people enrolled in the first two-year class. By the time they held an open house for the second class, 25 people signed up.

Pzena, 46, who runs a small money management firm, caught the Me’ah bug. Post-Me’ah, he’s a member of his synagogue board, and sits on the investment committee of the United Jewish Appeal as well as Me’ah’s advisory board.

“If you look at our group of synagogue leaders, there’s a lot of overlap with Me’ah graduates,” Pzena said. “Some were already involved, but others had a desire to be involved and saw Me’ah as an entree.”

A Big Impression

I’m too old to have heroes. But for those who live their lives with courage, I can make an exception. Like the Impressionists, for instance, whose lives of self-sacrifice I was trying to share with my class of older adults.

“OK, everyone,” I say, “whoever’s not here, raise your hand.”

Naturally, Saul raises his hand. Maybe I should explain.

My senior students suffer from short-term memory loss, a condition less severe than Alzheimer’s and dementia but nonetheless frightening. They can recall exact moments from decades past, but in the present, from one moment to the next, many don’t remember who or where they are. Sort of like elected officials.

“Are you saying you’re not here, Saul?”

“Are you?” he asks, a sour look on his face.

“Good question,” I say. “Now let’s look at an amazing movement in art called Impressionism. First, we’ll watch a video to appreciate the magnificent works of Renoir, Manet, Monet and Pissarro, because this class is art appreciation, right?”

Nothing. No response. Twenty-five people and not a whisper, not a murmur, not a peep.

“Which art movement are we learning about this morning?” I ask. “Anyone?”

Louise takes a stab at it.

“Art.”

“Yes, but which movement?”

Silence. You can hear a pacemaker ticking. Imagine being able to remember the color of your socks when you were 3, but you can’t remember where you put your shoes five minutes before.

“OK,” I press on, “aren’t these just wonderful, these paintings of nature and the human form? What do you think Saul?”

He shrugs. He sighs. A big, burly man in his late 80s, he sits week after week collapsed in his chair, with his head in his chest, and I can’t get a word out of him.

I continue. “Now in the late 1860s….”

Suddenly, here’s Marla.

“Who does those clown paintings?” she yells.

“Clown paintings?”

“Yeah,” she hollers. “I saw a painting with a clown, and there was a tear on his cheek. Who does them? They’re great!”

Clown paintings? We’re talking Renoir here. It’s Monday morning; the class is five minutes in, and I’m wondering if it’s not too late to get my real estate license.

“Red Skelton,” I say with scorn.

“Oh,” says Marla, now softly. “That’s right. Red Skelton. Was he an Impressionist?”

“Yes,” answers Bob. “He did impressions of clowns. He was funny.”

“I used to be funny,” says Jake. “Then I got married.”

“Your wife doesn’t know you’re funny Jake?” I ask.

He makes a face. “My wife doesn’t know I’m living.”

“How about you, Saul?” I ask. “Are you married?”

Slowly, Saul raises his head, waves me off and drops his head back to his chest.

“Saul,” I say, “if you don’t take part in the class, I’m going to have to ask you to bring your parents to school.”

“You’ll have to dig them up,” he replies.

I throw my hands in the air. “Oy!” I exclaim.

“You’re Yiddish?” asks Jake.

“The world’s Yiddish,” I tell him. “Who knows the difference between a shlemiel and a shlimazel?”

“The shlemiel spills the coffee on the shlimazel,” says Jake.

“OK,” I say, “now how many of you know that one of the leading Impressionists — Pissarro — was a Jew?”

No response. Nothing. Nada. Bubkes. Maybe I could become a plumber. I already have a wrench. I know I saw one somewhere in the garage, I think, a month ago.

Two hours later, I’m exhausted. One last time, I explain how much the Impressionists believed in themselves and what they were trying to accomplish.

“OK,” I say, “what have we learned today? Nellie?”

“Nothing,” she says, cheerfully.

“Nothing? I’m up here talking for two hours, and you’ve learned nothing?”

“We remember nothing,” says Molly.

“Yeah,” says Ray. “Don’t take it so personal.”

Oh. OK. Surely, the West Valley could absorb one more real estate agent.

“What about you, Vivian?” I ask. “Tell me one thing you’ve learned about the Impressionists.”

“Stick to your guns,” she says.

“Thank you,” I cry.

On the TV monitor, the video is now showing breathtaking paintings of the French countryside. One last try.

“Has anyone here ever been to France?” I ask.

“France would be a great place without the French,” says Jake.

“Anyone else?” I ask.

Like an ancient tortoise, Saul lifts his head, and staring off into the beyond, mutters under his breath, “I’ve been to France.”

“Hallelujah! Tell us about it, Saul. Did you go to the museums?”

“I was on the beach,” he says to his feet.

“The Riviera, Saul? Girls? Bikinis? Ooh-La-La?”

“We landed in the water,” he says. “All my friends around me were shot. The water was blood. I was on the beach.”

The room goes extra silent, the only sound the air conditioning. My hero lowers his head back to his chest, but not before my eyes meet his. I am 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, and I think I am going to cry.

Wildman Weiner is a credentialed teacher of older adults.

Rebels: The Other Face of Chasidim

Recently, my friend Stan — a nonpracticing lawyer who spends much of his time retooling his Web site and rollerblading around Venice in tight green biking shorts and what can best be described as Elton John sunglasses — has been flirting with becoming Lubavitch. Even though he isn’t ready to trade his shiny spandex for a black suit and hat, Stan is deeply attracted to the Lubavitch way of life: He longs for a wife and house full of children and is drawn by the prospect of fully expressing his Jewish identity as a member of a tight-knit community, steeped in Jewish tradition and insulated from the pressures of modern life.

Given all this, I was hardly surprised by Stan’s reaction when I began telling him about my own forays into the Chasidic world, conducting research for my book, “Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels,” among people who are struggling to live within, or even leave, their communities, and who are secretly transgressing in all sorts of ways in order to fulfill their intellectual and emotional needs.

“You mean there really are Chasidic people who are unhappy with that life?” he replied incredulously. “But it’s so beautiful.”

Stan is an incurable romantic.

Over the past two years, I have met many Stans — usually non-Orthodox Jews who look longingly upon the Chasidim as representatives of a kind of alternative lifestyle, attractive for both its perceived spirituality, as well as its commitment to the maintenance of Jewish tradition. Of course, more often than not, these Stans turn out to know almost nothing about how life is actually lived in contemporary Chasidic communities.

They are usually unaware of all the ways in which Chasidic people’s lives are governed by the strict interpretation of Jewish law their communities embrace, ranging from how they are supposed to put on their shoes to whom they can socialize with, and even when they can touch their spouse. (By the way, the hole in the sheet is a myth.)

And many also don’t know that — with the exception of the Lubavitchers, who are unique among Chasidic sects for their outreach to secular Jews — members of Chasidic sects are raised to avoid all unnecessary contact with the outside world. This means they are not allowed to read secular books, watch movies or television, use the Internet, go to museums, follow sports, listen to non-Jewish music or go to college. Being identified as someone who does any of these things can result in rejection by one’s relatives and friends, loss of employment in the community and stigmatization of family members by association.

Despite these prohibitions, there are those Chasidim who nonetheless feel compelled to explore the world beyond Chasidic borders. Some such people are religious questioners, like Steinmetz, a young married man who sneaks off to the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary behind his unsuspecting wife’s back to read forbidden books on Spinoza and Kant and the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment).

Despite his break, Steinmetz feels he cannot leave. He hails from a prominent rabbinical family and has a wife and several children. As a result, his fantasy of escaping what he calls the “tight cage” of his life is likely to remain just that, and books his only comfort.

Other people I interviewed are motivated to transgress in smaller ways, just to experience parts of the world. Chanie, a religiously observant woman, loves nothing more than to spend the day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an activity that, if discovered, could get her fired from her teaching job in the community, but which is too important to her to give up.

For some Chasidim, these furtive forays into the outside world provide a much-needed outlet that enables them to remain in a community to which they feel deeply attached. For others, this kind of exploration can lead to doubts and questions about the Chasidic way of life, and even the tenets of the religion.

For example, when a married woman named Dini began surfing the net on a computer she and her husband had sneaked into their house in garbage bags, she started to encounter people and ideas online that caused her to reevaluate the Chasidic understanding of gender and to challenge it in her everyday life, earning her numerous letters and phone calls from the community “modesty patrols.”

When I describe these and other “rebel” Chasidim to the Stans, they are often somewhat taken aback. Most concede that the Chasidic way of life may not be for them after all. But many still express chagrin that it might not be good for some Chasidic people, either.

And they’re not the only ones who seem to feel this way. I have encountered many secular and Reform Jews who, while they actively oppose the Chasidic way of life, somewhat paradoxically still feel the Chasidim play a vital role in upholding “authentic” Judaism. This reaction is genuinely puzzling to the people who participated in my research.

“If these other Jews feel it’s so important to preserve this way of life, let them switch places with me,” one man suggested. He had done his time in the living museum and would be happy to quit his display case and give someone else a chance to be in the exhibit.

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Mental Workouts Keep Your Brain Fit

I work out regularly — power walking, aerobics, weight lifting, yoga. But none of these have exhausted me as thoroughly as my first year sitting in a college classroom as a “nontraditional” (a.k.a. “old”) student. By the end of each day of classes, I felt like I’d run a 10K carrying two toddlers and a week’s worth of groceries.

That’s not surprising, said Duke University neurobiologist Lawrence Katz, explaining, “The brain uses an enormous amount of the body’s energy. Even under normal circumstances, it uses about 20 percent of your body’s entire energy production.

“When you work your brain harder, you use more. The blood flow goes to the brain, and it’s really like working out.”

The good news is that by my sophomore year, exhaustion was replaced by exhilaration — comparable, perhaps, to an athlete’s being “in the zone.”

Going to college is on the power-lifting level of brain exercise, but the more researchers learn about the brain — and this is “the century of the brain” said Sandra Chapman, executive director of the Center for BrainHealth and a professor of behavior and brain science at the University of Texas at Dallas — the more they stress the power we each hold to keep our brains fit throughout our lives.

One myth brain researchers want badly to debunk is the idea that the brain is “an untouchable black box,” Chapman said. Rather, she pointed out, “the brain is highly modifiable by everything we do.”

Katz said that the adage that after age 30 we lose 100,000 brain cells daily is just another depressing myth.

“Basically, the human brain remains intact until very late in life,” he said. “What does happen is that the richness of the connections between cells begins to decline.”

Granted, as with a lot of things, we lose speed as we age.

“As people get older, they learn more slowly,” said Guy McKhann, professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of “Keep Your Brain Young: The Complete Guide to Physical and Emotional Health and Longevity” (Wiley, 2002) “But once they get it, they keep it as well as younger people.”

Teaching your brain new tricks is like a workout for the mind. It’s never too early to start, and you don’t have to ante up tuition to start your brain fitness program.

Warm ups: In his book, “Keep Your Brain Alive” (Workman, 1998) Katz suggested simple ways to stimulate new neural connections within the brain, including brushing your teeth with your nondominant hand and taking a new route to work.

“Do routine things in a nonroutine way to use new pathways in the brain,” he said. “This can lead to greater flexibility and agility in the brain. Rearrange your desk. Put your telephone or wastebasket in a different place. You will be amazed, if you move your wastebasket, how long you’ll throw paper on the floor.”

Social interactions also appear to benefit the brain. When you have time, skip the self-service gas pump or bank ATM and conduct your transaction with a person instead.

“These interactions are unpredictable,” Katz said. “Because so many parts of our brains are evolved to respond to other human beings, social interaction stimulates large parts of the brain.”

Travel, too, provides new experiences that create new neural pathways, especially if you step out of your chain hotel.

Katz conceded that these theories work backward from the observation that strong social connections and active lives correlate with better cognitive functioning in older people, and even novice researchers can tell you that correlation does not mean causation.

However, Katz is convinced that the connection works two ways: Better brain function causes more active lives and richer social networks, and people with active lives and rich social networks maintain better brain function.

Aerobics: You may have heard that working crossword puzzles is good exercise for the brain and that’s true — for the crossword-puzzle-working parts of the brain. If you enjoy crossword puzzles, have at it. Indulging in activities that work the brain is always great exercise, and choosing activities you love will keep you engaged, be it crossword puzzles, playing the piano or writing poetry.

“Whatever you spend time doing is what part of your brain is going to strengthen,” Chapman said. “Don’t do random things. Ask yourself if that’s the part of your brain you want to build.”

In her work with stroke patients, Chapman noted, “We see people who lose a lot of their ability, but the first thing to come back is the thing that they did the most.”

To keep building brain strength, you must keep reaching for new skill levels. Brain imaging reveals that learning uses large portions of the brain.

“Once you’ve gained expertise in that skill, less of the brain lights up [when you do it],” Chapman said.

Power lifting: Going to college, learning a language, taking up Japanese calligraphy — these sorts of things are the power lifting of brain exercise.

However, just as you don’t want to try hoisting 200 pounds your first day in the gym, you must allow yourself time to master a new challenge, Chapman said.

“You can get better at anything,” she noted, “but it’s important to give your brain time and practice.”

Exercising higher-level, big-picture thinking is another form of power-lifting.

“Read a paragraph and in one sentence give me the higher-level meaning,” Chapman suggested. “Abstract it. That requires a lot of brain power, using world knowledge, using text information. It’s pulling in all your resources.”

Stretching and cool down: Jeffrey Schwartz, a research professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute advocates mindful breathing for controlling out-of-control worrying, as well as for relaxation.

“The key really is the refocusing,” said Schwartz, whose specialty is the research and treatment of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder. “When you refocus, you activate alternative brain machinery.”

Sitting quietly and focusing your attention on the in and out of your breathing “really is like going to the gym; you’re strengthening your brain,” Schwartz said. “When you stop doing it, you have a stronger brain.”

Schwartz described mindful breathing techniques in his book, “Dear Patrick: Life Is Tough — Here’s Some Good Advice” (Regan, 2003) but cautioned that it takes more strength than it appears to require. He recommended 20 minutes of the meditation technique, but said “not everyone gets up this point.”

For a cool down from the day that benefits the brain, turn off the TV and relax with a book instead. Reading is far better for keeping the brain on its toes.

“Reading is a very complex process when you stop to think about it,” McKhann said. “You have to recognize the letters and the words they make, you have sentence structure, you have to take this input information — which is all being brought in visually — and relate it to what your brain already knows. It’s an awful lot of cross-talk in the brain.”

If you must turn on the TV set, feed your brain “thinking TV,” such as history documentaries, in which you must incorporate new information, instead of just empty entertainment.

And remember, these researchers stressed, you’re never too young to start a fitness program for the mind. Developing good brain habits early can keep your brain in shape well into your later years — and vice versa when it comes to bad brain habits.

“Habits are increasingly hard to break as you get older,” Katz said.

So use it before you lose it.

Sophia Dembling is the author of “The Making of Dr. Phil” (Wiley & Sons, 2003).

Chemistry and the Torah: The Limits of Understanding

As teenagers living in America, we are often encouraged to take advantage of our natural capacity to question. Throughout a regular school day, I’ve heard that the average student asks 25 questions, which is 125 questions a week and 4,500 questions in a school year. It is indisputable that questioning enhances our knowledge and helps us grow as people.

In both Judaic and secular subjects at Shalhevet High School, where I am a senior, my teachers are open to questioning and promote intellectual growth in that way. As a centrist Orthodox high school, Shalhevet expects us to adhere to halachic standards and, at the same time, our questions are encouraged and treated seriously.

What we need to ask ourselves, though, is at what point can we accept that answers might be beyond our understanding? Or, at what point are there no answers? And, if we don’t know or understand an answer, does that mean we can’t or don’t have to believe it?

In Judaism, we are always going to be faced with questions that contain answers that either we do not understand, or do not have answers for at all. Built in to the Torah are specific commandments that we don’t know the reason for. These commandments are known as chukim. As with everything in the Torah, these mitzvot must serve an essential purpose or they wouldn’t be there. It is even possible that chukim exist merely to promote the idea that we can’t or won’t understand everything we do.

A lack of understanding is something we deal with everyday. It is irrelevant how much I have paid attention in AP chemistry; I still do not understand colligative properties perfectly. I have questioned, and I have experimented, but the answers I have been given are just too complex. That does not mean that the properties aren’t accurate. It is merely a reflection on myself, and the fact that I am not learned enough to understand. I can still believe that when I mix salt with ice, I will raise the freezing point and therefore be able to make ice cream.

Similarly in Judaism, there are also commandments with reasons I may never understand. I cannot possibly understand why Hashem needs me to praise Him with the same words everyday (daven to Him, which is not a chok). I have heard many explanations, but I don’t understand them; they do not fully explain the requirement. Regardless, I am obligated to daven, whether or not I understand why.

I hope that in the future, after davening and learning, the answers will become clearer. The same way I do not completely understand colligative properties, I do not understand davening. But I never denied the validity of the properties, and I can also not deny the validity of davening.

Judaism is a simple religion containing many complexities. No one could realistically hope to understand everything. It is important to question and to learn. But when we don’t understand something, or don’t agree with something, we need to remember that it doesn’t give us license to not follow halacha or to not keep the Torah.

The Jew who believes in Hashem and the holiness of the Torah is not unlike the struggling chemistry student; if you believe in the foundations of the discipline, then you accept the validity of the parts you don’t understand and push for greater understanding in the future. Religion is simple and you must be loyal to Hashem’s every word regardless of your lack of understanding. But on top of that you are obligated to find out the answers to your questions and adapt them to your life.

It is extremely challenging to keep the commandments while not fully understanding them, but in reality we accept things constantly that we do not fully understanding (i.e., colligative properties). Commandments should, therefore, also be accepted without full understanding since they not only enhance our lives, but lead us in the correct derech (way) every day.

Alison Silver is a senior at Shalhevet High School. Her article originally appeared in The Boiling Point.

Guilt Judo

Rosh Hashanah dinner. My friend — like me, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors — settles into the seat next to his grandfather. The two exchange pleasantries. Then my friend mentions that he’s recently taken his toddler on her first choo-choo ride.

“Trains,” says the grandfather. He splays his hands on the tablecloth, and sighs. “I remember when they put us on a train. This was during the transport from the ghetto to the first work camp.”

The story of the grandfather’s wartime suffering — tragic, inexorable, hypnotic in its familiarity — spins out as the Rosh Hashanah meal is brought to the table, served, and consumed.

“But that’s history,” the grandfather intones at last, as the plates are gathered. “Life is for the young.”

A college buddy of mine — Jewish, though not a descendant of survivors — once observed that his family dynamics follow the rules of a sport: Guilt Judo. The sport requires a range of moves: arm-twists, throws, the art of the pin. Grace and style matter, and it is, of course, imperative to master that most fundamental skill: learning to fall without injury.

“Oh. You’re home. No, it’s just that I thought you’d be home an hour ago. It’s OK, it’s just that the dinner got dry and ruined in the oven. And your uncle went home. He was upset not to see you, though he didn’t want to let on. So tell me, how was your drive?”

To play successfully, my friend maintained, you need to understand the rules. Family obligations pin the needs of single people. The needs of the elders pin the needs of the young (except when said young are infants). Safety pins punctuality.

Q: Why were you late?

A: I wanted to come earlier, but the roads were wet…. I just didn’t want to take the chance.

You get the idea.

The Holocaust pins everything.

Many Holocaust-survivor families — at least the ones I’ve encountered — have powerful vocabulary for everyday troubles. The missed phone call is terrible, as is the stained blouse. The over-seasoned soup? Disaster.

Disaster, in fact, lurks around the most innocent-looking corners. Mountains hang by a thread. I’ve known survivors who are impossibly controlling in day-to-day life — worried about the weather and the canned goods in the pantry; consumed with planning for traffic patterns; beside themselves because you haven’t made reservations, dressed for the cold, put a dust-ruffle on your child’s bed (“It’s hygienic!”). They seem nearly undone by humdrum disorder.

Yet in an emergency they shine. They turn into the heroes you always knew them to be. To varying degrees the same goes, I believe, for us children and grandchildren of survivors. Calm waters may disorient us, yes; small matters may evoke overblown responses. But when you’re raised to anticipate disaster, it’s no big deal when it comes. (The one time when, living in a group house in college, I actually had to say, “Mom, I have to get off the phone, the house is on fire,” my mother barely batted an eye.)

Here is what my mother says about her own mother: She would threaten to jump out the window when she was upset. She would open the door of a moving car and threaten to jump.

Though I didn’t have many years with my grandmother — she died when I was 5 — I adored her. She was a brilliant, artistic, beautiful, rebellious woman who’d lost her community and most of her family in the war. Her hard-won law degree (not a small achievement for a woman in 1930s Poland) was useless in post-war New York.

“She would say she was going to kill herself,” my mother says, “then lock herself in the bathroom for an hour.”

It was only in my 20s that I read Helen Epstein’s “Children of the Holocaust” — a book first published in 1979, with page after page detailing nearly identical behavior. Children standing anxiously outside bathroom doors. Parents enclosed in darkness.

My grandfather told me to have six children. (“They killed one-third of us. We need numbers.”) He said I wasn’t safe in the United States (“We thought we were safe in Poland.”) He counseled me endlessly to remember the stories of the Holocaust. If we grandchildren did not remember no one would. This truism was solemnly echoed in my Jewish school and summer camps. To remember, to remember actively, was to ensure that these things could not happen again. To forget was to let the survivors’ experiences wither away. To forget was to let Hitler’s victims die all over again.

There was never any danger, for children and grandchildren of survivors, of forgetting.

At every Holocaust-related lecture I have attended, there is one. She stands on line for the Q-&-A microphone — it’s usually a she. You can see her coming. Waiting behind distinguished professors, doctoral candidates and a few elderly Holocaust survivors who wearily, politely, offer small corrections of fact to a scattering of interested hums.

She waits on line. Pent up, straining forward, her hair white or perhaps heavily dyed. Something about her dress is often strange — the colors too bright or the blouse askew, the buttons of her sweater misaligned. When at last she reaches the microphone, she seizes upon something one of the speakers has said: the American graduate student’s stray assertion that most refugees traveled a certain route, or perhaps the French professor’s assessment that in the wake of Chirac’s historic speech and the creation of a commission to enact individual restitution, the French government’s rapprochement is, at long last, finished.

“No.” This woman’s hand chops the air. “My uncle traveled this route. My aunt was imprisoned. My cousin traveled a different route so this is not true what you say, that Jews traveled only the Vladivostok route. There was another.”

Often she holds documents, which she reads from in a quavering, accented voice: the aunt’s prison papers. Her voice strains with fury at the betrayal she has just heard.

“Here is the documentation. I brought the documentation. My family was in France. It is not finished.”

The sheaf of pages rattles. Her voice is thick with rage.

This is an academic setting. It is not a place for fury. Of course her specific case may be true, but this is irrelevant to larger historic questions. Speakers are lined up behind her, eyes averted, faces impassive; the session is running late; every extra minute is coming out of the lunch break. Someone rises — everyone has been waiting for someone to rise — and takes the microphone from her: “Thank you. Others are waiting. Your contribution is appreciated.”

I come to think of this woman — this survivor who refuses to be polite — as a Jewish prophet, a wrathful Job or omnipresent, ever-witnessing Elijah. Long after the last of the survivors has died, she will continue to appear at lectures: throwing a wrench into academic discussion, rattling her sheaf of papers, raging with the choking grievances of Lamentations.

I am wrong about this. She will not visit these gatherings eternally. In a few years she’ll be dead.

In college and after, I was periodically asked to speak at Holocaust-commemoration events — I’ve been entrusted with stories. I’ve researched and written fiction and nonfiction about the Holocaust and its aftermath. I’ve felt, all my life, fiercely protective of survivors. And now, as I watch them enter old age, many with a prodigious, stunned contentment at having made it there at all, I understand it’s my job to keep the flame lit.

But does that mean suiting up for a lifetime match of guilt judo?

Perpetuating memory, passing on the stories of the survivors I love: I’ve been committed to these things as long as I can remember. The horrors that were done, and the pure human evil displayed by the doers, need to be known and pondered today and always. But I don’t think that gives me carte blanche to use the Holocaust in any way that happens to feel satisfying. And I don’t believe the point of never again is to render everyone reverent unto silence; to pin everyone else’s suffering to the mat until the end of time.

I refuse to be so intimidated by guilt that I don’t speak up against what I see as misuses of the victims’ memory. I’ve seen Holocaust-education programs that seemed so invested in emphasizing Jewish annihilation that they couldn’t tolerate acknowledging that some Eastern European Jews are still alive. (The March of the Living, an international program that brings teens to visit the Polish concentration camps, initially prohibited Polish Jewish teens from participating.) I’ve met students who can tell you all about Auschwitz but nothing about the pre-genocide lives of the Jews who were murdered there. I’ve been rebuked for my participation in German-Jewish dialogues (“I can’t believe you talk to them”) by a second-generation writer who told me he thinks a 5-year-old German is culpable; I’ve heard the same writer tell audiences, to applause, that Jews have no business living in Europe today. (Isn’t that what Hitler said?)

By birthright, I’m a natural-born black belt. I know the moves. But here is what I now wish I had asked my college friend: What happens to the people who win at guilt judo? If we pin all comers, what then? What is the game’s endpoint?

Like it or not, we’re in this together: descendants of victims, of bystanders, of perpetrators, locked in our holds, straining. Guilt judo isn’t going away any time soon, because the sport was invented for a reason. It’s a wearying but sometimes necessary way of making sure unredressable wrongs are at least acknowledged–making sure you get heard. We all know how to play it, whether recreationally or in self-defense, in our families or in politics.

Of course, this endless contest is not limited to those affected by the Holocaust. Look around and you’ll notice that most of the globe — at least wherever the philosophy of might makes right has evolved into blessed is the lamb–is engrossed in its own intergroup matches. Black vs. Jews (how dare they compare slavery to the Holocaust); Native Americans vs. African Americans (slaughter to slavery); Palestinians vs. Jews (their suffering to ours?).; Catholic vs. Protestant vs. Jew vs. Muslim vs. Hindu. The Hatfields have suffered — but the McCoys have suffered more. You say your population was decimated? Decimated is one-tenth of your population wiped out. Decimated would have been an improvement, compared to what happened to us.

But exactly what — in our homes, in our political conferences — is the point of the game? What is the point of determining who hurts more; whether my tears were more important than yours; whether the Holocaust was worse than slavery? Does it render the opponent’s suffering lesser, unmentionable? Does it guarantee sympathy? Love? Compensation? A better future? Does it work?

We all conduct ourselves as if we believe it does. And sometimes we’re right –sometimes guilt judo is an effective tool for important practical ends. But it’s also, if we’re not careful, poisonous: “You were only in Auschwitz for two weeks. I was there two years. What did you survive? You have no right to call yourself a survivor.”

The person who makes such a declaration is not malevolent; he or she has simply been destroyed in spirit.

May I say something, now, about guilt? I think it has a bad name. American culture presumes guilt is something manipulative, something to be washed away with a good jet of therapy. Guilt, though, is nothing more than a cue that we have a choice to make: Do something to repair the situation, or accept it and move on.

Guilt is a powerful, important road sign. The trick is to remember that it’s not the destination. In truth, it’s a fundamental error to believe that the word for the burden we all carry — we children and grandchildren and neighbors and acquaintances of survivors — is guilt.

I don’t feel guilty about the Holocaust. (I didn’t do it.) Nor do I feel guilty because my family survived. And now that I’m an adult, I no longer feel any guilt about the contrast between my own privileged life and the traumas my family endured. My grandparents wanted me to have a good, safe life; if tragedy should befall me, I know how fervently I’d wish my own children a joyous life. My family’s legacy neither devalues my own experiences, nor does it make me somehow holy. It just means I inherited a history, transmitted by people doing the best they could. So now I need to do the best I can.

What I feel is not guilt — it’s responsibility.

I don’t care who suffered the most. All I care is what we do about the Holocaust’s legacy now, for the generations behind and ahead of us. Getting mired in guilt (mine, yours, theirs) is a waste of all our time. There may be infinite ways to feel guilty about the Holocaust, but the “Your life is good and they died” varieties and the “How dare you compare other people’s suffering to ours” varieties are moral dead ends.

The only one worth sweating over is the one that asks, “What are you going to do about it?”

I have a responsibility to carry on my relatives’ stories; to speak out about anti-Semitism and racism when I encounter them; to do my small part to keep crosscultural dialogue going; to make sure victims’ individuality isn’t lost in thickets of tragedy; to respond actively when I see harm being done, and to avoid posturing and self-importance in the process. I have a responsibility, too, to make sure I enjoy life’s wonders to the fullest. I would be remiss if I neglected to laugh; to make the most of this country’s freedoms; to teach my toddler how to imitate a pterodactyl, talk to the moon and delight in a train ride.

Memory fades. Tomorrow’s children will never know survivors. The responsibilities I bear have no statute of limitations; I’ll always do my best to protect the survivors and their legacy. But that doesn’t change the fact that the history of the Holocaust will grow distant, even abstract. No amount of guilt judo can prevent this. And while strenuously broadcasting that the Holocaust was worse than any other human suffering may be justified, it can’t keep the survivors alive any more than it can undo what happened … and it is going to damage us.

If the memory of the Holocaust recedes, let it not be because I failed to do my part to keep it alive–I’m committed to that labor. But if the Holocaust comes, in some unknown number of generations, to occupy a smaller place on our cultural landscape, I don’t see this as cause for guilt. The point isn’t to pin everyone else ad infinitum, but to carry forward the important pieces of memory so that people see, and understand, and act differently in the world because this happened.

If we can accomplish that, then whenever it comes, the inevitable decrescendo of memory — which some will call abomination and others will call healing — will be, in truth, neither. It will simply be life. It won’t signal that we’ve failed — that we’ve let down the Holocaust’s survivors or, worse, its victims — but rather that we’ve simply, regretfully, tragically, hopefully, moved forward. And that has nothing to do with wrestling each other to the mat, and everything to do with standing up.

Excerpted from “Guilt Judo” by Rachel Kadish from “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” edited by Ruth Andrew Ellenson. (Dutton, $24). Copyright (c) 2005 by Rachel Kadish.

Rachel Kadish is the author of “From a Sealed Room,” as well as numerous short stories and essays. She has been a fiction fellow of the NEA and was the recipient of last year’s Koret Foundation Young Writer on Jewish Themes Award. Her new novel, “Love [sic],” will be published by Houghton Mifflin next year.

Sportsmanship Starts With Parents

Years ago, when my son was beginning his foray into competitive tennis, I entered him in a local, somewhat low-key tournament intended to introduce new players to tennis competition. I thought it would be fun. But as I watched my son’s match, the activity one court over distracted me. A father was screaming at his son from the sideline, for making an error. The boy grew frustrated and angry; their interchange was embarrassing.

An official informed the father that he’d be removed if he could not keep quiet. A short while later, when the boy lost, he threw his racquet and burst into tears. He could barely bring himself to shake his opponent’s hand.

Surprised? Not really. While there are multiple reasons some kids end up being bad sports, parents usually receive the most blame — something we moms and dads ought to consider as another sports season is set to kick off.

In recent years, bad sportsmanship, it seems, has reached new heights, leading to fistfights, assaults and even cases of manslaughter. Remember the hockey-dad fight in Massachusetts five years ago that resulted in the death of a father who had volunteered to act as referee? Or the 13-year-old in Palmdale who was just sentenced to 12 years in juvenile detention for killing a player from another team with a baseball bat after a Pony League game?

Why and how are we, the parents, bringing out the worst in our kids?

Some invest their own egos in their children’s athletic achievements. Some are hoping that athletic prowess will buy a free ride to college.

And some set the stage by exhibiting their own deplorable conduct from the sidelines.

“Most parents support and encourage their children’s athletic activities appropriately,” said Ed Gelb, varsity basketball head coach at YULA, an Orthodox high school in Los Angeles. “But many need to be reminded that the experience belongs to their child, not to them. They need to stress for their children the value of commitment and teamwork. Parents teach their children a valuable lesson when they support their efforts, the team, the coach, and the rules.”

When parents do not support their child properly, or when they demonstrate unacceptable behavior and lack of control, the problems escalate.

“I’ve seen parents become abusive toward other parents and even toward their own children,” said Dennis Rizza, tennis director at the Jack Kramer Club in Palos Verdes. “Tournament play can be very stressful for youngsters and teens. There is no official on the court most of the time, so kids are on their honor to play fairly. If parents send the message that they value the score over their child’s character, that child will learn to cheat.”

There are coaches who contribute to the problem, as well. Some are under so much pressure from parents and school administrators to win that they resort to cheating and encourage overly aggressive behavior.

“If the school is more interested in winning in order to gain publicity, raise money, and keep parents and alumni happy, [the coach] is pressured to look the other way,” Gelb said.

The governing bodies of athletic associations are taking the problem seriously. They’ve revised their rules, and required stricter enforcement. The United States Tennis Association developed a new code of conduct with a penalty system that results in a default after three infractions. According to Rizza, this teaches an important lesson: “If there are consequences to a player’s outbursts, he will learn self-control.”

American Youth Soccer Organization, concerned about negative and violent behavior of kids, parents and coaches, initiated their Kid Zone program, designed to counter the growing trend of bad sideline behavior. Spectators who do not abide by certain standards can be asked to leave the field. The focus for the players is on developing skills, learning teamwork and having fun.

“This is what we strive for,” said Rob Andersen, a girls’ soccer coach. “Soccer is a terrific sport, one in which players can compete hard and have great success. But if they don’t play like a team player — if they’re more interested in personal records than in the success of the team — they bring the team down…. For parents who expect their kids to play on club or high school teams, they’d better help them learn how to handle themselves.”

Parents can set the stage by helping kids learn how to cope with disappointment, said Dr. Jaye-Jo Portanova, a child psychiatrist.

“Children benefit when they lose now and then, because that gives them perspective on reality,” she added. “After a loss at a sporting event, parents and coaches should praise children who have handled their disappointment appropriately. This will lead to better sportsmanship, real self-esteem, decreased anxiety and, ironically, better playing next time around.”

Parents, of course, also have to model that kind of behavior on their own.

As legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne said, “One man practicing sportsmanship is far better than 50 preaching it.”

 

The Way You Are

Our teachers come in many forms and shapes. Many of mine have, over the years, appeared somewhat similar both in regard to gender and profession. The ones that never cease to surprise me, demanding of me to think beyond myself, are my younger students. Clearly, the younger — the better.

Three years ago, while trying to introduce the notion of what it would mean to live our lives within the context of three concentric circles (now, forever, forever and ever) I asked my high school students: “What part of yourselves do you love now? What part of yourselves do you want to take with you till your last day? Assuming that for a moment you believe in reincarnation, what part of you would you like to bring back with you into your next life time?”

Some students had different answers to the three questions. For some there was something about themselves that they loved for now and the duration of their lives, but nonetheless would not like to “come back with it.” Others gave the same answer for all three. Dina fell under this category.

It was the simplicity of her response that stunned me:

“I am mediocre and it is my mediocrity that gives me freedom to try anything and everything,” she said. “I am not afraid of failure since you can only fail if your expectation is excellence.”

Dina was free to live life to its fullest, there was nothing to hold her back from experiencing all that God has planted in this world.

In a world of expectations, demands and desires, I envied her freedom while questioning the source of fear that comes with aspirations of success and excellence.

Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains what may appear as a superfluous verse: “Aharon did so … as God commanded Moshe” (Bamidbar 8:3). Who in their right mind would change the way he or she lit the candles of the menorah after being commanded to do so by God in a specific manner? Yet, Rashi says, “And Aharon did so — to teach us that Aharon didn’t change.”

As if this needs to be said. What would Aharon change?

Or, as the 19th century Chasidic master, the Yismach Yisrael, understands Rashi, “Aharon himself didn’t change.” In this moment of greatness, being designated to perform a mitzvah that will last forever (the Midrash teaches us that we light Chanukah candles every year as the descendents of Aharon), he didn’t change. The sense of grandeur didn’t go to his head. You wouldn’t be able to detect by looking at him how great this moment was for him. The greatness and richness of this moment didn’t over take him, erasing all that came before it. The Yismach Yisrael is sensitive to a known fear — the fear that success will erase who we were until that transformative moment. The fear that success will change our lives in such a manner that we will cease to recognize ourselves.

In the Torah portion of Ki Tavo, the Ishbitzer Rebbe addresses a similar emotion. The Torah teaches us: “All these blessings shall come over you and overtake you” (D’varim 28, 2). The redundancy of verse intrigues the Ishbitzer Rebbe — why “come to you” and “overtake you”? He, too, senses the fear of success and explains that the promise of this verse is that the “you” won’t change. The blessings won’t change the core of your goodness. It will not corrupt the essence of your internal beauty.

A dear friend of mine once shared with me that they feared that the blessings of their life weren’t really theirs. They had inherited a sum of money from a relative and with the money they spent a couple of years in Yerushalayim learning; years that ultimately transformed them. They questioned whether they would’ve made it to Yerushalayim without the inheritance, hence the gifts of their decision were not really theirs at all.

Holding on to the Yismach Yisrael and the Ishbitzer Rebbe I told them that they are indeed blessed with blessings that they are theirs.

The choice of what to do with the money reveals their inner self. Someone else may have gone off to India for five years, or traveled around the world or bought a new car for that matter. Their choice to go to Israel and learn was a reflection of their true self, and thus all the blessings and transformation in their life was a reflection of their inner essence.

The six branches of the menorah faced each other, while focused on the center light. The freedom of mediocrity mirrors the fear of excellence and transformation. Both sides/branches aligned with the light of the Divine in the center. They call us to not live in fear of mediocrity, to be free to excel and change, to wed these voices within ourselves under the canopy of God’s light, to trust that we will not get lost along the way and to live our lives as the children of Aharon the high priest.

Reb Mimi Feigelson is lecturer of rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

 

Learn to Remember

Skip Aldrich signals a student to turn down the lights and flips on the projector. An image of a gaunt concentration camp inmate hunched over a workbench evokes a collective gasp from the 10th-grade world history class at John C. Fremont High School in South Los Angeles.
“What do you see in this picture?” Aldrich asks his students, all of them Latino.
“Sadness,” says a student, and others repeat the word, nodding their assent.
“No hope,” says another.
“Despair,” others agree.
Aldrich’s students are two weeks into their three-week unit on the Holocaust. Like all students in California public schools, these teens will learn about the genocide and its context as part of the state’s mandated social science curriculum. These teens have the added benefit of learning about it from Aldrich, a leader in a growing network of educators who have learned how to teach the Holocaust and who are helping other teachers to do the same.
As more states, including California, have mandated Holocaust education, Holocaust organizations have made teaching the teachers a priority. The goal is to produce a cadre of teachers who can more effectively teach an entire generation of students how to apply the lessons of modern history’s greatest man-made atrocity. Although some Holocaust scholars worry that the Holocaust could become overly universalized or sanitized for mass consumption, nearly all agree that educators must build a bridge to a future when there are no longer Holocaust survivors to tell their own stories.
Building that bridge has become a personal mission for Aldrich.
Students in this class spend several minutes analyzing each slide, all the while, Aldrich drills the students on the causes, events and effects of the Shoah. The kids know their stuff, calling out in the darkened room the keywords he’s looking for — “isolation,” “dehumanization,” “Christian anti-Semitism,” “Nuremberg laws.”
Aldrich, an L.A. public school teacher for 26 years, says the Holocaust is the most important subject he covers, with its implications of how tolerance and individual choices can affect lives. It’s also the historical event that grabs and keeps the kids’ attention the most — an assessment confirmed by nearly everyone who teaches the subject.
Aldrich, 50, is the church-going Protestant son of a history teacher. He grew up with Holocaust survivors in the Fairfax area and became fascinated with the history of World War II. In 1997, he traveled to Europe with Warsaw Ghetto uprising leaders Benjamin and Vladka Meed. He later participated in a teaching fellowship at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C. Last January, Aldrich was one of 17 teachers nationwide to join the museum’s Regional Educational Corps.
“My guess is I’ve taught about 6,000 students by now,” said Aldrich, who teaches in Fremont’s magnet program, which offers accelerated academics with a particular emphasis on math and science. “I’m just one teacher. Imagine how many people you can reach over time.”
Thousands of teachers nationwide have participated in Holocaust workshops, but many thousands more have not. While more than half the states mandate Holocaust education, few pay for teacher training, leaving teachers on their own to master a topic that can be overwhelming. Online resources abound, but so do Web sites put together by Holocaust deniers. And if a teacher is uninformed or uninterested, the Holocaust unit is more than likely to get lost amid the history curriculum’s mountain of names and dates.
California required public schools to teach the Holocaust in the mid-1980s, primarily in world and U.S. history classes in high school. A 2002 Assembly bill, sponsored by Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood), established the California Center for Excellence on the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights and Tolerance at California State University, Chico. The center trains teachers and has a model curriculum for fitting the Holocaust into state academic standards for each grade. It also has created a bank of resources and lesson plans.
State lawmakers have extended the life of the center to 2007, but cut state funding. The center now operates with private support.
The center’s director says his tiny agency plays an essential role in the appropriate teaching of the Holocaust.
“It is not enough that the state has mandates and standards, it is critical to be able to get content out to teachers, and to motivate them to use the material,” said Sam Edelman, a professor of Jewish studies who is the Cal State Chico Center’s director.
Other organizations have a similar agenda. The USHMM has nearly 200 graduates of its intensive summer fellowships and almost 3,000 teachers have gone through its training programs, such as a three-day seminar at CSUN in March that attracted 200 teachers.
About 110,000 students a year visit the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, which provides classroom materials to teachers. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has been running teacher seminars for 22 years and, in February, teamed up with the Cal State Chico Center, the Wiesenthal Center and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust for a four-session seminar in Los Angeles that pulled in 55 teachers. ADL also partners with USHMM and the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., to train Catholic school educators in the Bearing Witness program.
Facing History and Ourselves, a Massachusetts-based organization dedicated to making history — particularly Holocaust history — come alive for teachers and their students, has 1,500 teachers in its Los Angeles network.

At the February conference, the presenters included Marilyn Lubarsky, a social studies teacher at Upland High School, who explained how to make the most of the 10 54-minutes periods allotted to the Holocaust in world history class. When she started teaching the Holocaust 18 years ago, Lubarsky said, she used “Night and Fog,” the seminal 1955 French documentary that shows piles of bodies being bulldozed and buckets full of skulls. Lubarsky, who has since studied in an intensive fellowship program at the Washington museum, no longer shows the film. Instead, she’s developed an interactive, contextualized unit that moves her students without devastating them.
For Lubarsky and others, the key is to make the history both personal and contextualized. Lubarsky gives her students a photo of a teenager from that era, and then asks them to pick a caption for it from Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” a semi-autobiographical account of a teenager’s life in the camps.
Aldrich, in his class, has students research a pre-war photo, then compare it to a picture of themselves in similar circumstances — at the beach, on a picnic, at a family dinner.
Both teachers allow for discussion and ask students to keep journals, and also to think about how choices and circumstances faced by Holocaust perpetrators, victims and bystanders relate to their own lives and to contemporary human rights atrocities.
Lubarsky includes in her unit “The Enemy has Surrounded Upland,” an exercise in which students consider choices they would make under Nazi-like circumstances. She gently prods them to be thorough. If they decide to run to the hills, would they take their frail grandmother? What would they eat?
Carol Edelman, who with her husband, Sam Edelman, runs the Chico Center, cautions against taking such activities too far.
“It is impossible to simulate what the victims went through, so don’t even try because often it ends up traumatizing the kids,” she said.
As an alternative, teachers can use case studies of actual victims or perpetrators, or even better, bring in a survivor — one of the most powerful educational tools available.
“One of the subliminal messages a survivor gives is, ‘You don’t have to be shaped by your history,'” said Michael Berenbaum, director of the University of Judaism’s Sigi Ziering Institute on the Holocaust.
Having it bad “doesn’t mean you have it bad forever and ever,” Berenbaum said, adding that the message is one high school students, with their own dramas both real and imagined, need to hear.
Berenbaum lamented that survivor visits to schools are getting scarcer, but is heartened that so much recorded testimony is available to teachers through the USHMM, the Shoah Foundation and the Wiesenthal center, among others.
The Chico Center, too, helps to make these resources available for students of all ages, while vetting Web sites for reliable and appropriate material. Center materials also help teachers imbed information about the Holocaust in learning activities encompassing everything from literature to art. Even in kindergarten, teachers can include a Holocaust rescuer in a unit on heroes, for instance.
Most organizations are cautious about using graphic images, even in high school. On one hand, teachers find that students already have been desensitized to violent and gruesome images. At the same time, they’re concerned that overly explicit photos can distract from what’s being taught.
“The more graphic stuff can sometimes get in the way of the analysis that needs to take place,” said Bernie Weinraub, program associate for the L.A. office of Facing History and Ourselves. But losing too many of the images might dilute the impact.
“Essential to the arc of the American narrative is hope — we all came from somewhere and reconstructed our lives with decency,” Berenbaum said. “Unless we can tell the story with integrity, and that means to use all the power of its bleakness, we run the risk of sanitization.”
The Museum of Tolerance, where children under 12 are not allowed, uses images to tell a story that words cannot.
“The material is very graphic and the exhibits are deliberately powerful and they need to be in order to make a strong impact,” museum director Leibe Geft said.
Making the experience relevant is driving a rethinking of old Holocaust taboos. For one thing, educators are increasingly willing to compare other atrocities to the Holocaust, a practice that was once thought to diminish the uniqueness of the Shoah. And the Holocaust no longer seems to be taught as history for history’s sake or tragedy for tragedy’s sake, but as a living lesson in tolerance, personal responsibility, and the fragility of a free society.
“A generation ago we were teaching the Jewish tragedy, something that made the Jews bearers of a particular legacy,” Berenbaum said. “That is no longer the case. The event is particular but its implications are universal. And unless you see the implications in a universal way, you don’t quite reach the students in the same way.”

 


For More Infomation

These sites all contain links to other vetted Web sites.

www.ushmm.org The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, with a vast database of photos, survivor testimony and primary sources.
www.csuchico.edu/mjs/center California Center for Excellence on the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights, and Tolerance at California State University, Chico, with model curriculum imbedded in the history-social science standards of the State of California.
www.adl.org The Anti-Defamation League, including sample lesson plans and resources for students and teachers.
www.facinghistory.org Facing History and Ourselves, with lists of teacher seminar dates and locations and teaching resources.
www.remembertoteach.com/museum.htm The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, with listing of traveling exhibits available for classroom use.
www.museumoftolerance.com Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, with a multi-media learning center, exhibits, and downloadable resources for teachers.
www.shoahfoundation.org Steven Speilberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which develops products and programs using Holocaust-related archives.

Let My Students Go

 

To celebrate Passover, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy preschoolers spent time in ancient Egypt.

Teachers and students transformed hallway bulletin boards into a colorful representation of the story of Passover. The journey begins with the pyramids, and then students pass through a parted Red Sea with thick tulle and crinkled tissue paper on either side — some gauze and cellophane even hang above. Life-size kindergartners silhouettes represent the Israelites dancing at the other end of the sea, coffee-stained butcher paper evokes the desert, and the trip ends in Jerusalem.

“[The artwork] makes the holiday come alive for the children, so that it’s just not just a flat learning experience,” said Cecelie Wizenfeld, the school’s early childhood director. “They’re a part of it.”

Wizenfeld is not alone in her efforts to find memorable ways of helping children connect with the holiday. While model seders, seder plate illustrations and handmade afikomen bags have become standard educational fare in the classroom, many Southland religious and day school teachers are finding that creative and unusual holiday projects make more of an impact.

Second-graders at Adat Ari El Day School will reenact the Exodus from Egypt as they embark on a two-hour journey around the school grounds. Head of School Lana Marcus will play the role of Moses, while sixth-grade students will dress up as taskmasters, following the children. Other journey highlights include the parting of the Red Sea (the sprinklers will come on), receiving “manna” from heaven (teachers will drop marshmallows from above) and finally, the arrival to the Promised Land (a grassy area on the property) and pitching tents, eating, singing and dancing in celebration. Afterward, teachers will lead a discussion about the journey.

By second grade, the children have a familiarity with the holiday, but “acting out the story of Passover makes the children think what [the Exodus] must have been like for the Israelis,” said Sari Goodman, the school’s general studies director.

Rather than focusing on the journey like the students at Adat Ari El, this year the kindergartners at the Brawerman Elementary School of Wilshire Boulevard Temple decided what material things they would bring on such a journey and, in turn, what they value. Each child decorated a “Passover backpack” and chose a few items from home to bring to Israel. In past years, these prized possessions have included teddy bears, prayer books, baseballs and pictures of family.

Rabbi Elissa Ben-Naim, who oversees the Judaic studies department, said that these activities allow the children to “enter into the text of the haggadah in a new way.”

The fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at Temple Isaiah’s religious school experienced yet another aspect of the Exodus when they attended a special weekend retreat at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu on April 15.

One of the weekend activities was a homelessness simulation in which students received “eviction notices” on their cabin doors. Students worked together to combat their plight and attempt to get back on their feet.

“We’re equating homelessness with the Exodus of the Jewish people,” said Lisa Greengard, the synagogue’s youth group director. Greengard hopes that this modern take on one of the key aspects of Passover will help children empathize with our ancestors and ultimately, make the holiday more meaningful.

Temple Israel of Hollywood’s fifth- and sixth-grade religious school students will indulge in a “chocolate seder” in which the regular items on the seder plate are replaced by their supposed chocolate equivalents. Roasted eggs are substituted with chocolate eggs. Instead of dipping parsley in salt water, the students will dip strawberries in chocolate sauce. Chocolate milk will replace wine. Trail mix with M&Ms is the new charoset.

Carrie Frank, a Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion rabbinical student who is interning at Temple Israel, adapted the chocolate seder — a concept typically aimed at college students — to make the experience more relevant to younger students. Her goal is to help the children move beyond the story of Passover and take in the core values of the holiday and the concept of enslavement.

By getting the kids’ attention with tasty treats, Frank hopes to touch on deeper issues. She replaces the 10 plagues with what she deems the “10 modern plagues,” so the seder will include more familiar issues like hunger, inequality and disrespect. When the youngsters sip their cups of chocolate milk, they will be reminded of the things for which they are thankful.

“With the kitsch thrown in, it allows you to sneak in some of the good stuff, like values,” Frank said. “And they will absorb that.”

 

A Brave New High School

 

Roberta Weintraub used to be a technophobe.

But that was before she decided to launch High Tech High, a public charter school in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) that integrates technology and education. A fireball of unstoppable energy who served for 14 years on LAUSD’s Board of Education, Weintraub said she was trying to correct a deficiency in Southland classrooms — the lack of integration of media and learning.

“As I personally got more involved in computers and realized the important role they and technology play in the lives of all of us — I work at home most of the time and technology makes that possible — I wondered, ‘Why are schools still teaching like we’re in 1901?'” Weintraub said. “There’s a teacher and they are up there before the class and the blackboard is now a white board, but all the students are still sitting there. It was time to change all that.”

And change it she did, by shepherding the project through bureaucratic and political hurdles, while philanthropist Lowell Milken anchored the fundraising.

High Tech High is a different high school experience. In addition to traditional subjects like English and math, students spend time teaching robots to play basketball, and the computer equipment here is so sensitive that officials purchased a Zamboni, the machine used to clean ice skating rinks, to control the dust.

Located on the grounds of Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, High Tech High Los Angeles opened as a separate program within Birmingham in 2002, and moved into its $13 million facility last fall, with the help of a massive fundraising drive and dollars from the state and federal governments. Current enrollment is 180 students, (35 students each in the junior and sophomore classes, 110 in this year’s freshman class), with a waiting list for the 2005-2006 school year.

It was several years ago that Weintraub first heard about an innovative program in San Diego, the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High Charter School. After contacting the school’s chief executive officer, Larry Rosenstock, she made a trip to visit the school and was impressed by the scope of High Tech High San Diego’s program. With the model of how to create a technology-based charter school in hand, Weintraub turned to the business of locating the best site for her “dream school” and raising the money necessary to make her dream a reality.

Weintraub credits Milken for bringing the project to fruition. Perhaps less well-known than his brother Michael, Lowell Milken has a strong connection to Birmingham High School, having graduated from there. The school has long benefited from his generosity — he helped to create a journalism program there, among other projects — and when the new charter school’s facility was dedicated in November, it was renamed the Lowell Milken Family Foundation High Tech High-L.A in his honor.

Milken is an entrepreneur with global business interests and the chairman of Knowledge Schools, Inc., which provides early childhood education materials as well as support for before- and after-school programs. He is also chairman and co-founder of The Milken Family Foundation, which grants 100 National Educator Awards each year, and four Jewish Educator Awards annually through the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education.

High Tech High fits well into Milken’s philanthropic and philosophical goals. He has long supported partnerships between business and education, and sees High Tech High as nurturing future business and technology leaders. He believes strongly in specialized training for teachers and greater access to technology for children. For most high school students, he laments, technology in school means going onto the Internet to research a paper. But at High Tech High, “the technology is [more than] a tool to drive student learning. It is integrated into the process,” he said.

Students wax enthusiastic about the school’s project-based learning.

“What I like best is the freedom the school gives you,” said sophomore Guy Chriqui, 15, as he shows a visitor around the robotics lab. “We’re responsible for our own learning.”

Chriqui and classmate Alejandra Figueroa are working together on their entry for a regional robotics competition. He describes last year’s entry, a basketball-playing robot that no one would confuse with Kobe Bryant. The robot stood about the height of person, but with the features of a hydraulic lift, and its mission was simply to throw a basketball into a hoop — no extra points for style.

Figueroa, also 15, said she appreciates both the independence and intimacy that comes from being a member of a sophomore class of only 35 students.

“You get to learn what you like,” Figueroa said. “The teacher gives you the general topic and then you get to go deeper. That, and the smaller classes means you get closer to your classmates and teachers. It’s extremely fun.”

Walk into High Tech High on a school day and you will feel like you are witnessing the birth of Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot.” Students entering chemistry class pull a laptop off a cart before taking their seats. In the photography classroom, students get hands-on experience in producing visual images for reports and PowerPoint presentations.

Of course, the school also offers standard classes, such as English and math, and the campus is built around an attractive courtyard to balance the “Brave New World” feel.

“It’s a place where we encourage independent thinking, where you are expected to express yourself and defend your opinions,” principal Marsha Witten Rybin said.

One of the goals of High Tech High is to bring technology to minority and low-income students, and the faces in the school reflect that. Admission is granted on a lottery basis, but students tend to self-select to those who are technophiles, or as Weintraub calls them, “experimental thinkers.” Here, in this small school, they have the potential to find a camaraderie among and acceptance by their peers that can be elusive in a regular public high school.

Because High Tech High is a charter school, students from anywhere in Los Angeles may apply. Charter schools can depart from some Education Code restrictions to promote innovation. They typically have their own governing board and more freedom in terms of spending and seeking donations.

The latter is a serious issue for High Tech High, which engages in significant fundraising to pay for extras — smaller classes, technical aides — that would otherwise leave the program $350,000 in the red. The Milken Family Foundation remains the largest single donor, with others including the S. Mark Taper Foundation, the Department of Water and Power, CISCO Systems, Inc., Lexmark, Apple, Sylvan Learning Systems, IBM, Verizon, NEC Unified, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft.

Milken said he expects many students will eventually find employment with donor companies or other leaders in information technology.

“The school is preparing them to be successful in a most challenging 21st century economy,” Milken said. “I believe these young people have a very bright future.”

 

The Love Impaired

 

You remember the famous line from “Forrest Gump”? “I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is.”

The other day, it suddenly hit me. I’m the anti-Forrest Gump. I am a smart man (or at least I test well) but I don’t think I know what love is at all. There is nothing I find as confusing. Programming my VCR is child’s play by comparison.

Recently, I was thinking of a former girlfriend, so I called her up. We had a great conversation, and after I got off the phone, I was really wondering, “Now why did we break up again?” And then I remembered. “Ohhhhhhhhh — yeah, that was a good reason.”

But it really got me to thinking, what is love anyway?

I bet you thought I was going to answer that question, didn’t you? Well, I can’t. That’s the point. I don’t know. I’m 37 and single. I’m a relationship moron. I’m romantically impaired. I don’t know what I’m doing — at all.

And it’s not just me. No sirree Bob. We are an entire generation of the love impaired. It seems especially bad for folks in their 30s and 40s, and even worse if you’re Jewish. I’m not quite sure why this is, but I have seen polls on the subject. In this epidemic of unmarried singles, it seems Jews have caught the bug worse than other ethnic groups.

And it extends to the observant world, too. Sure, plenty of them are married at 22 and have 18 kids by the time they’re 30, but there are also others who are having the same problems their secular brethren are having. This epidemic goes across the entire religious spectrum. Believe me, it’s not just your mom, who’s noticed. The rabbis have, too.

I went to a singles event a few weeks ago at a synagogue that illustrated this problem really well. The rabbi was asking why young people (and not-so-young people) were having such a problem getting married. He was really mystified. It seemed pretty simple to him:

You meet a girl you like and you marry her. One guy stood up and gave such a perfect answer, it seared into my memory, perhaps permanently: “Well, I meet a girl and like her and she doesn’t like me. Or a girl likes me and I don’t like her. Or we go out and it doesn’t work.”

It’s almost poetry, isn’t it? Well maybe not, but it does seem to sum up the state of things pretty well.

I wonder if we could get this problem classified as a real disability. Maybe it’s like a learning disability. After all, learning to love someone besides yourself is something that people are supposed to learn in adulthood. You can check. It’s in developmental psychology. I took a course.

If not being able to sit still and concentrate is called Attention Deficit Disorder, and not being able to read is called dyslexia, what would you call not being able to love? LDD: Love Deficit Disorder? No, that sounds like a shortage. How about the same initials but different words: Love Development Disorder. That might be it, except it probably sounds too similar to learning disabled. I don’t know.

But, before we go looking for solutions to this problem, maybe it would be worthwhile to take a look at past generations. Why was it so easy for them anyway? Maybe it was because they had matchmakers and arranged marriages. It used to be that your parents would arrange a match for you and, unless you found your intended completely repulsive, you married them. Boom. Just like that.

This brings me to my grandparents. After fighting in World War I, my grandpa, Danny, stayed in Europe to try to get his family out of Russia. Not surprisingly, however, he couldn’t even get in the country, because the Russian Revolution was going on full steam. Here’s where it gets romantic: Poor Danny, stuck in Warsaw, met my grandma, Ina, and was struck by a thunderbolt. Times being the way they were, instead of having a tempestuous affair, they were quickly married and Danny brought her back to New York.

Now, this should be where they live happily ever after, right? Wrong. After a few months, Danny must have done something pretty bad, because according to family lore, Ina got ticked off, packed up and went back to Warsaw. So how is it that I’m telling this story? Because instead of welcoming her back home with open arms and soothing words, my great-grandmother wouldn’t let her in.

“Go back to your husband. Stop behaving like a child. You’re married now!” she yelled as she slammed the door in Ina’s face (or so the family legend goes).

What does this tell us about love? I don’t know. I’m the love moron, remember? But from both these stories, it seems the emphasis was much more on keeping the family together, than on being in love. That, and once you were married, that was it. At least, that’s how it sounds.

But how does this help me, The Love Idiot? Should I call my mother, ask her to find a girl for me and marry her if she doesn’t make me puke at the first meeting? You know, I’m actually starting to consider it.

 

Cure Found for the Summertime Blues

 

When Sarah Winchell needs motivation or encouragement, during her daily prayers she visualizes Chimney Rock, a landmark in the Rocky Mountains surrounded by frozen lakes, a plunging cliff and a blanket of snow. The image has been imprinted in the 15-year-old’s mind since she saw the breathtaking view last summer on a Jewish backpacking expedition program through Teva Adventure.

“One of my counselors said, ‘Take a look around and whenever you need an inspiration when you’re davening, think of this [view],'” recalled the Sebastopol 10th-grader.

At a time when keeping young Jews connected to their roots has become more important than ever, a variety of summer programs help teens solidify their Jewish identities.

Teva Adventure offers a variety of wilderness programs enabling Jewish travelers to develop outdoor skills while keeping Shabbat and kashrut. While backpacking, hiking, mountain climbing and fishing, participants learn Jewish perspectives on the outdoor world. Programs for 14- to 19-year-olds include Rocky Mountain Teen Adventure and Derech Hateva in Israel.

Teva is still accepting applications for this summer. For information, call (310) 765-4035, or visit www.tevaadventure.org.

What better way to embrace one’s Judaism than visiting Israel? Organizations like North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), United Synagogue Youth (USY) and B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO) offer a variety of tours to Israel, Europe and Central America where high school students get to know the culture and meet other teens from around the country. For arts enthusiasts, BBYO and Avoda Arts are offering a unique program fusing Jewish learning with creating art at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.

For more information on USY programs for ninth- to 12th-graders, call (212) 533-7800, or visit www.usy.org.

For more information on NFTY programs for 10th- to 12th-graders and incoming college freshman, call (212) 452-6517, or visit www.nfty.org. Deadline: May 1.

For more information on BBYO programs for 10th- to 12th-graders in outdoor adventures, community service and college programs in Israel and the United States, call (818) 464-3366, or visit www.bbyo.org.

For the politically minded young adult, Aish HaTorah International is offering Hasbara Fellowships, a leadership-development seminar in Jerusalem, which educates college students about the history and politics of Israel and the Middle East.

For more information, call (646) 365-0030, or visit www.israelactivism.com. Deadline: one month before program begins (see schedule online).

High school students looking for a taste of college life can explore National Conference of Synagogue Youth’s (NCSY) special-interest programs, including the Ivy League Leadership Scholars program, which takes students to Columbia University’s School of Law in New York City and parts of Washington, D.C., where they’ll meet high-powered Jewish professionals and learn how to pursue demanding careers while staying committed to Judaism.

In the Summer Medical School Experience students take college-level classes from world-renowned doctors at Northwestern University campus. The “Hollywood Film School” experience at UCLA fosters a Jewish setting while teaching aspiring screenwriters, directors and editors the ropes for their future careers.

Last summer, Tova Wiener, 17, spent a life-changing six weeks in the Michelet program for girls (the boys’ program is called Kollel), a learning experience at a Jerusalem seminary.

“I thought that the best experience for me would be to connect to Israel through learning,” said Wiener, a senior at Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles.

For more information on programs for ninth- to 12th-graders in Israel, Spain, Italy, U.S. college campuses and others, call (212) 613-8233 or (888) 868-7496, or visit www.ou.org/ncsy.

Teens in search of a cross-continental camp experience can meet Jews from all over the world at the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation AJJDC International Jewish Summer Camp in Szarvas, Hungary. Drawing campers from 20 countries, the camp is currently in search of 60 10th- and 11th-grade “American Ambassadors” to meet their international peers and share their Jewish communities and foster friendships.

Ronald S. Lauder Foundation AJJDC International Jewish Summer Camp

For more information, call (212) 362-3361, or visit www.szarvas.org.

To share one’s Judaism and learn about other religions, Interfaith Inventions, a Ventura-based nonprofit organization, boasts Interfaith Summer Camps in Ojai and Rose Mountain, N.M., where teens and preteens from various faiths come together to share their diverse backgrounds. The camp’s inaugural summer last year brought together Muslim, Jewish and Christian teens and preteens to share their cultures in a mutually respectful way with all the fun of camp.

For more information, call (310) 317-9262, or visit www.interfaithinventions.org.

 

All Hebrew, All the Time

  

Morah Safi Netter turns up the volume on her cellphone speaker. Twenty-two kindergartners stifle giggles and bounce expectantly on their knees as a distinctive foreign-sounding ringtone fills the room at Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy in Los Angeles.

Netter’s father, Moshe, answers the phone in Rechovot, Israel. With good humor he obliges his daughter’s request for a weather report. He tells of the cold plaguing Israel and listens as the kids describe sunny but cool Los Angeles.

What is so unique about this transatlantic news exchange is that these all-American kids are conducting the entire conversation in Hebrew.

For up to three hours a day, these children will not hear an adult utter a single word in English — not even at recess or bathroom time or when a child needs disciplining.

Pressman is at the vanguard of a nationwide movement looking to preschools and kindergartens to confront a widely acknowledged problem in Jewish education: Kids spend more than 12 years in day school or Hebrew school and, with a few exceptions, are unable to carry on a fluent conversation in modern Hebrew.

That is already changing for the kids in Netter’s class. After the phone call to Israel they don warm hats and scarves and trek across the yard to a mock Israeli Mount Hermon, where they continue their unit on cold weather. Not one of them seems lost as they listen to instructions in Hebrew about the day’s projects involving ice cubes, powdered sugar and Styrofoam balls. They answer questions in well-pronounced, Hebrew-accented sentences.

These children are part of a groundbreaking Hebrew-immersion program. The idea behind immersion is that children and adults best learn a second language the same way they learned their first — by hearing it spoken without any translations, by using context or multisensory clues to decipher new words, and by using the language to function in everyday activities.

“The difference is before they only got vocabulary, and now they are getting the whole language,” said Tova Baichman-Kass, who has taught kindergarten at Pressman for 10 years and began immersion teaching this year. “We want them to think in Hebrew. We want them to know that aryeh is an aryeh, not a lion or anything else.”

When kids know that a teacher will translate what she has just said, the kids tune out the Hebrew and listen only for the English, noted Sigal Abukrat, who teaches first and second grade at Pressman.

Immersion in different languages has moved into the preschool arena in the last five years, and it seems to be a natural fit. Parents and academics have long observed that young children acquire language with great ease. Recent research indicates that very young kids learn a second language in the same network in the brain that holds the primary language, while older children or adults must develop a whole new network, a less efficient process.

The hope is that these American children will become as fluent as native speakers of Hebrew — a concept that could revolutionize Jewish education.

“To me, fluency with Hebrew language is the cornerstone for building Jewish learning and participation in Jewish life and a relationship with Israel,” said Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, education director at Pressman Academy. “It raises the level of everything that goes on in school when you have a really strong foundation in Hebrew.”

Changing the Old Models

Malkus and principals at other schools are looking to bring the latest in research and teaching techniques, including immersion, to an educational arena that is thousands of years old. Many schools have bought more interesting and more educationally solid texts and curricula. They have brought more noise into the classroom, with music and group conversations replacing teacher talk, workbooks and spelling tests.

Schools are sending their teachers to language-acquisition training institutes or hiring Hebrew-language specialists. And there is a late-in-coming realization that being Israeli is not enough to qualify for the job of Hebrew teacher.

While these changes have been trickling up through the day school movement over the last 10 to 15 years, the success of Hebrew-language immersion in preschools is especially attracting attention.

“I have been teaching Hebrew for many years, but I have never seen instant results like this — and I can really call it instant,” said Miri Avraham, a preschool teacher at Pressman, who often hosts observers from other schools in her class. “When you talk to the children in the target language the whole time, they understand it better and they learn it better — and it’s fun for them when they realize they can understand.”

So far, parents are thrilled with the results.

“My oldest in seventh grade is coming to my little one to ask her for words,” said Sheryl Katchen, who has 6-year-old twins in immersion classes at Pressman.

Using Immersion

Language immersion, which began with a Spanish program in a Culver City School in 1971, has grown nationwide to almost 300 schools. Language learning in general, even in elementary grades, has been coming back into vogue in North American schools, which have historically postponed language classes until middle school and high school.

Immersion is only superficially related to traditional bilingual education, which has fallen out of favor in California. The goal of bilingual education was to use a foreign language, usually Spanish, to teach academic subjects to students who had only a limited command of English. These students were supposed to transition gradually to English. In immersion programs, the goal, by contrast, is fluency in a foreign language.

Many Jewish schools for decades have used the old European model of ivrit b’ivrit (Hebrew in Hebrew), where Judaic content is taught in Hebrew.

While immersion teaching is also content based, it utilizes a more systematic, consistent approach to language acquisition.

The advantage for preschoolers may go beyond merely learning a foreign language. European researchers reported in a 2004 Nature article that bilingual brains have denser gray matter than monolingual brains, and the earlier the language was learned the denser the gray matter.

Gray matter makes up the bulk of nerve cells in the brain and is associated with intellect. Research has also pointed to easier acquisition of additional languages, more creativity, problem-solving ability and even higher SAT scores among children who were bilingual at an earlier age.

Buttressed by such research and frustrated with the imperfect Hebrew of educated American Jews, Frieda Robins, a doctoral student in Jewish education at the New York City-based Jewish Theological Seminary, developed Maalah (Hebrew for benefit, merit and upward). The program, which was launched in 2003 — thanks to a two-year $150,000 seed grant from the New York-based Covenant Foundation and matching funds from the Jewish Theological Seminary — works with local Bureaus of Jewish Education to train early childhood teachers and help preschools develop immersion classrooms.

Maalah is a teaching technique (not a curriculum with texts) that combines methods used to teach young children with those used to teach languages. These involve constant repetition, body language and tasks that require students to get up and do something. Maalah structures thematic units around works of Israeli children’s literature, and the program adapts methods from special education, relying on more than one modality to reach students who might have trouble with visual or audio cues.

“We know that the vocabulary a child comes with into first grade will determine not only his or her reading comprehension at the end of first grade, but also at the end of 12th grade,” Robins said.

Difficult Transitions, Huge Payoff

Pressman is one of four schools locally and 13 nationwide participating in Maalah. Temple Judea West and Shomrei Torah Synagogue, both in West Hills, have preschool classes with 3- and 4-year-olds utilizing Maalah, as does the preschool at Valley Beth Shalom day school in Encino. Two other day schools, Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge and Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, are signed on for next year.

Starting this summer, the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles, an agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angles, will take over local Maalah training and support.

Adopting Maalah has cost Pressman about $17,000, including paying for consultants, new materials and paying teachers extra for developing their own units. Pressman also received a $3,000 federal Title One grant, through which private schools can develop nonreligious programming.

To bring parents on board, schools have presented model lessons at orientation and provided vocabulary lists so parents can understand their children. They’ve even begun adult Hebrew classes.

“There are parents who are afraid of this, who think their kids will be lost or their English will not develop properly if they learn things in Hebrew,” said Aviva Kadosh, director of Hebrew language services for the Bureau of Jewish Education. “I collect articles that say it isn’t so.”

Kadosh explains that what children are learning in the early years is concepts, not words, so that they understand the idea of something being round whether it is called a circle or an igul. Kids function in English outside of those few hours a day, so they won’t fall behind in English.

Avraham, who has been teaching immersion for the last two of her nine years at Pressman, acknowledges that the transition is hard, but kids catch on within weeks. At this point in the year, the children not only understand but are comfortable expressing themselves in Hebrew.

On a recent morning in Avraham’s class, the 4-year-olds were near the end of a unit on plants and vegetables that coincided with the holiday of Tu B’Shevat. As they had been doing for several weeks, the children played games identifying pictures of cucumbers, models of plastic peppers or fragrant heads of garlic. They made and ate a salad, painted with broccoli at art tables lined with Hebrew newspapers and read a book about a neighborhood salad-making party.

Teachers encouraged the kids to speak in Hebrew even among themselves, and if a child got stuck, Avraham helped out with choices, so the kids always came up with the right word eventually. Body language, charade-type motions and pointing helped.

Parents who are worried about children losing out on grammar or writing skills should not be, according to experts. Immersion programs incorporate reading and writing in older grades, and the grammar comes with speaking in a safe environment where expression is encouraged and correction of mistakes is applied strategically.

When it comes to these programs, the students may have the easier part. An immersion program limits the pool of teachers to those fluent in Hebrew. Teachers have to redesign curricula and teaching styles.

“It has been tough for the teachers,” said Jessica Green, director of education at Shomrei Torah. “These are veteran teachers who are training to do this, and they told me it is as if they are brand new teachers and have to start from scratch.”

They also have to be willing, at least at first, to give up some content. Abstract concepts — such as Rosh Hashanah being a new year, or saying sorry on Yom Kippur — have to be saved for older grades, since the 3- and 4-year-olds might not yet have the vocabulary for it.

Moving Up Through the Grades

Pressman has brought immersion as far as second grade, and plans to add a grade per year until the entire school is speaking Hebrew. It will also adapt the program for religious school students, who only attend one or two days a week.

Shomrei Torah, too, plans to bring immersion gradually to the upper grades of Hebrew school.

Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy hopes eventually to teach all Judaic studies in Hebrew, in addition to having Hebrew-immersion periods every day.

“We feel that if our children receive this at the age of 4 or 5, it will serve as a tremendous foundation for when we begin to teach them more formal Hebrew,” said Rabbi Baruch Sufrin, who heads the school.

For Ginni Rosenfeld’s family, the benefit already extends beyond the classroom.

“Just this week my daughter got into the car and spoke to me in flawless Hebrew, saying, ‘Ima, ani rotzah lachzor habaytah [Mom, I want to go home],'” said Rosenfeld, whose daughter attends kindergarten at Pressman. “It was seven o’clock at night. She was coming from a place where no one was speaking Hebrew, but this was just natural to her.”

Summer School for Hebrew Teachers


Kathryn Paul had put two kids through day school, and while their Hebrew was OK, she knew it could be better. And as the assistant director of the Language Resource Center at UCLA’s International Institute, she could do something about it.
And not just for her own children.
She wanted to create a summer program to teach day school Hebrew teachers how to be better teachers. She submitted a proposal to the Jewish Community Foundation, which awarded her program $50,000. UCLA put in another $15,000.
The program, offered in conjunction with the Bureau of Jewish Education, has 10 slots for day school teachers in two six-week, for-credit classes in UCLA’s Applied Linguistics Department.
The courses cover the latest in theories and practice of foreign language teaching.
The program includes help at applying what’s being taught through observations of the day school teachers in their own classrooms.
“Our thinking is that these teachers will rise to the challenge,” Paul said. “They are very committed and love what they do, but they haven’t had the opportunity to take courses like this.”

The deadline for applications is April 1. To download a form or for more information go to www.international.ucla.edu/lrc/jcf/ or call (310) 825-2510. — JGF