Los Angeles mom pleads for life of son kidnapped in Iran


“Why is the world so silent — why are Jews so silent about the plight of Jews being held captive in Iran?” Elana Tehrani, an Iranian-born Jewish woman now living in Los Angeles asked a crowd during a speech at the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills.

Tehrani believes her son is being held captive in Iran, and after 12 years of trying to quietly work through channels, she and 11 other families — who also believe their loved ones are in the same situation — have filed suit against Iran’s former president, Mohammad Khatami, in U.S. Federal Court. They are asking that the U.S. courts hold Khatami responsible for the kidnapping, imprisonment and disappearance of loved ones between 1994 and 1997.

“As a citizen of the United States,” Tehrani said at a rally in New York, “I ask that President Bush and those in Congress help me retrieve my son from the hands of the Islamic Republic!”

Tehrani began speaking out on Sept. 20 before a crowd of more than 30,000 people who were gathered outside the United Nations in New York for a rally organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to protest Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presence at the United Nations. With her were Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, U.S. senators, national Jewish leaders and Israeli officials.

“I was hoping that from this rally … the world would become more aware of this issue,” she told The Journal in an interview from her West Los Angeles home. “But I don’t know why there was no media coverage of it anywhere, and no one said another word about it since.”

She believes her son, Babak, was kidnapped and imprisoned by Iranian secret police while trying to flee Iran in 1994.

“We have been trying for the last 12 years to get our sons back, but since we have not heard anything about their status after all these years, we were forced to take this action against Mr. Khatami,” Tehrani said. “We want to tell the world that with every day that passes by, we will pursue this issue more and more, until the Islamic Republic of Iran gives us answers”.

A homemaker who also works with her husband in their downtown L.A. shoe store, Tehrani said doctors have told her she has developed glaucoma as a result of excessive crying.She said she has developed a closer bond with her two other sons, who also live in Los Angeles, and an inner strength from praying three times a day.

“I refuse to give up on Babak and give up hope that he’s still alive,” Tehrani said. “We have witnesses that have seen him, and I will not stop looking for my child until he is back in my arms.”

Tehrani said her worst nightmare became a reality on June 8, 1994, when Babak, then 17, and his 20-year-old friend, Shaheen Nikkhoo, attempted to secretly leave Tehran. Because they were the age of military conscription, leaving the country was illegal. The two boys, both Jewish, arrived with their smuggler, Atta Mohammed Rigi, in the southeastern city of Zahedan, near the Pakistani border. Witnesses saw them being arrested there by non-uniformed Iranian secret police, Tehrani said.

Leaders from the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF), a Los Angeles umbrella group of Iranian Jewish organizations, have made quiet diplomatic efforts for the last 12 years to help secure the release of Babak Tehrani and the other imprisoned Jews. Six years ago some activists in the Iranian Jewish community, among them George Haroonian and Frank Nikbakht, became so unhappy with the IAJF’s lack of progress, that they began to pursue a more vocal public approach in attempting to secure the release of the prisoners.

IAJF leaders have long advocated minimizing criticism of Tehran’s regime out of fear of retributions against the approximately 20,000 Jews still living in Iran. Despite internal differences of opinion, the various factions within the local Iranian Jewish community recently banded together in support of victims’ families’ lawsuit.

“Our entire community is united in demanding the immediate release of these individuals and will support any legal and moral course of action that their families may choose to pursue,” the group said in a statement released by the IAJF.

In 2000, with the assistance of various American Jewish groups, the Iranian Jewish community spread news of the case of 13 Iranian Jews from the city of Shiraz who had been imprisoned in 1999 on fabricated charges of spying for Israel. Ultimately the international exposure put pressure on the Iranian regime, prevented the execution of the “Shiraz 13,” and they were eventually released.

Babak Tehrani was last seen in 1996, according to Fereidoon Peyman, an Iranian Jew who was the Tehranis’ neighbor in Iran and who now lives in Los Angeles. In a sworn affidavit given to the Tehrani family, Peyman said that in 1996 he visited Tehran’s infamous Evin prison while attempting to sell land nearby to prison officials. While there, he stated, he saw Babak.

“As I was walking, a jail cell with a window caught my eye, I went forward and I saw several youths who were sitting on the floor,” Peyman stated in his affidavit. “The poor kids, including one whom I knew particularly since he was my daughter’s classmate and whose name was Babak.”

Evin prison is a maximum-security prison allegedly used by the Iranian government to house and torture political dissidents, student protesters, journalists and anyone else believed to pose a threat to the Iranian regime, Nikbakht said.

Experts familiar with Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic laws say such a long imprisonment of Babak Tehrani and the other 11 Jews is highly unusual for an attempted escape from the country and could be politically motivated. According to Chapter 11, Article 34 of Iran’s official Criminal Laws and Regulations, punishment for illegal exit from the country is either a fine or a prison term ranging from two months to a maximum of two years.

Babak’s father, Joseph Tehrani, said he was particularly disappointed with the lack of support and assistance from the Israeli government for the plight of his son and the other imprisoned Iranian Jews.

An open letter to the rabbis at the Jewish Theological Seminary


I want to share with you an email I wrote to Chancellor Elect Eisen as well as Rabbi Joel Roth on the JTS board to support allowing gays to marry and become rabbis:

Dear Mr. Eisen,

I am a 46-year-old woman born and raised in Los Angeles. I am writing to ask that the Conservative movement support gay marriage. As a child, my family was members of the Conservative Temple Beth Am with Rabbi Jacob Pressman at the helm. I am a private person but I wanted to share a bit of my story with you as I know mine is the story of many.

In elementary school I realized I was different. I had no vocabulary for it, but all the books, movies and relationships I saw led me to believe that my feelings were not normal and needed to be suppressed.

I began hiding what was to me a dark and terrible secret that I could not admit even to myself until my 20s. I did not want to be different. In fact, I went to sleep every night for years and years praying that I would wake up and be straight. Of course, that never happened. The thought of coming out and hurting my beloved parents or having them feel ashamed of me was more than I could bear and I thought my only options were either to commit suicide, which gay teens do three times more than their straight counterparts, or move to another city and hide my true self from my family forever.

I stayed in the closet until I was 28-years-old, dating men and sacrificing my youth and happiness trying in vain to fit in. I started having terrible panic attacks and actually thought I was going crazy. I realized one day that it was suddenly more painful to hide who I was than to admit the truth. I tried to prepare myself to lose my family. There were hints all my life that I was gay that my parents either ignored or denied hoping, like myself it wasn’t true or it would simply go away, or perhaps I would grow out of it. Their reactions let me know this would break their hearts.

Mr. Eisen, how different my life would have been had in my early years my temple and temple community openly welcomed gay people or if there were openly gay rabbis to demonstrate that everyone has value.

As Jews we especially understand the pain of being an outsider and of doors being closed to us simply because we were born Jewish. How terrible to think that we ourselves would ever make a fellow Jew an outsider.

By locking gay people out of the rabbinate or of the sacrament of marriage is to send a very strong message that gay people are flawed and not entitled to the same rights and responsibilities as those who happen to be straight.

The reality is that 10 percent of society is gay. With an estimated 14 million Jews worldwide, that’s 1.4 million Jews that happen to be gay. With our numbers dwindling, we cannot afford to lose even one person or make any Jew feel not welcome. I have always felt great pride in being Jewish.

This year I became a bat mitzvah after two years of study. I love Jews and Israel as much as anybody. I do not think it is fair that I am excluded from being a full member of the community I love so much because of the way I was born. It’s like saying people with blue eyes can never marry.

Mr. Eisen, whether we have blue or brown eyes, straight or gay most of us grow up dreaming of the day we will stand beneath a chuppah with our family and friends surrounding us with a rabbi to bless our union.

It is my deep hope that the Conservative movement will make a strong and courageous decision to embrace all of our members so that someday no Jew will ever again feel like an outsider in our own community.

Sincerely,
Pamela Witt

Pamela Witt is a business owner in Los Angeles. She can be reached at pamwittla@aol.com.

Eight ways how ’tis better to give back


Having trouble finding the perfect gift for the one who has everything?

Want to give back to the community this holiday season and into 2007?

Here are eight great ways to contribute.

  • Make a Relief Donation: Israel has cease-fires in Gaza and with Hezbollah. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita occurred more than a year ago. But Magen David Adom and the Red Cross are still seeking financial assistance in these areas — as well as for other disasters such as house fires, explosions and transportation accidents. For more information and other donation options visit www.afmda.org and www.redcross.org.
  • Volunteer and Support Youth: It is said that the Jewish people should remain with previous generations and future ones, l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation. Make a connection with a member of the next generation by becoming a mentor. Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Los Angeles offers mentoring opportunities for adults older than 21 to pair with 6- to 18-year-olds, primarily from single-parent homes. Volunteers are expected to be involved for a minimum of a year and meet with their little brother or little sister twice a month. To apply and/or learn more about JBBBS’ mentor program and the sports buddies and art buddies opportunities visit www.jbbla.org.

    Another mentoring option is with Koreh LA. Koreh (Hebrew for “read”) sets a volunteer up with a preschool or elementary school student in the Los Angeles Unified School District to read for one hour each week. For more information, visit www.korehla.org.

  • Purchase a Gift Basket for a Soldier: Let an Israeli soldier know they are in your thoughts with a snack package from Dash Cham. The Jerusalem-based company includes a mix of snacks, a cup of soup and a juice in the $10 parcel. Available www.dashcham.com.
    Another basket option supports The Daniel Pearl Foundation — whose goal is cross-cultural tolerance through music, journalism and unique communications — with a 40 percent donation of each $195 package sold. The basket features the Judea Pearl and Ruth Pearl edited book, “I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl”; a CD with compositions that weave in readings of Daniel Pearl’s articles, as well as candles, dreidels and chocolate. The baskets are sold at www.flashybasketsbymichelle.com.

  • Help Refugee Family From Darfur: A $30 donation to Jewish World Watch will provide a Sudanese family in a Chad refugee camp with two solar cookers. The light, small cooker, made of cardboard and aluminum, removes the family’s need to send women and girls in search of firewood which has put them in danger of gender-based violence. The pluralistic organization — comprised of various synagogues throughout Southern California with a mandate to fight genocide — also sells Chanukah cards with the proceeds going to the cooker program. To make a donation visit www.jewishworldwatch.org.
  • Join the Bone Marrow Registry: It is written in the Talmud that “He who saves one life, it is as if he had saved the entire world.” People with life-threatening illnesses such as lymphoma and leukemia, seek cures through bone marrow and blood stem cell transplants from someone that has a similar tissue type. The Gift of Life wants to increase the amount of prospective Jewish donors in the registry, especially since the Shoah severed bloodlines. An $18 donation enables the medical resource to send kit for a self-administered test, where a swab of cells could be taken quickly from inside one’s cheeks. Online donor registration and a list of upcoming donor drives are available at www.giftoflife.org.
  • Have a Tree Planted in Someone’s Honor: Help Israel’s environment — and the world’s — by giving a unique gift to a loved one or friend. For $18, the Jewish National Fund will plant the tree and provide a customized certificate with the honoree’s name and your personal message. In addition to the different themes available for the tree certificates, water certificates are also available. To make the world a little greener visit www.jnf.org.
  • Have a Winter Cleanup and Donate: One doesn’t have to wait for the spring season to clear up a closet or home and give to a good cause. The National Council of Jewish Women, Los Angeles (NCJWLA) accepts clothing, accessories, collectibles, furniture and appliances for their Council Thrift Shops year-round. NCJWLA also has a vehicle donation program. To set up a pick up or get more information, visit www.ncjwla.org.
  • Join Mazon’s 3 Percent Circle: It’s the season for eating, but there are still many that go hungry. Mazon – A Jewish Response to Hunger, a grant-making organization that combats hunger of people of various faiths and backgrounds, has multiple ways to donate. One option for this holiday season is to donate 3 percent of the cost of your event, whether it is a Chanukah party, bar/bat mitzvah or a wedding. The 3 percent pledge could continue with the cost of birthday parties, attending sporting events, restaurant dining, etc.

    To find out more information about the circle or how to get a holiday tribute card in someone’s name, visit www.mazon.org.

A night at the homeless shelter


545 San Pedro Street is an address I will never forget.

It is the Union Rescue Mission downtown, inhabited by homeless individuals that reside in their designated corners on Skid Row. My school, Milken Community High School, offered a community service experience for 21 students, and I found myself at the Union Rescue Mission.

During my three-day trip, I had the occasion to sleep in the mission, take a tour, speak with the residents, and serve and prepare food.
The Mission is a recovery center for drug and alcohol addicts, battered women and children. The facility utilizes the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, which encourages people to develop a relationship with God. It teaches individuals to change their beliefs, attitudes and choices. My own beliefs and attitudes were also changed as a result of this experience.

As I searched the dining room holding my tray, I spotted an older African American woman and joined her. I was struck by how focused she was on eating every bite of her meal.

“Hi, I’m Jackie, how are you doing today?”

She told me about her day but was more interested in finding out about me. I told her about my school, my favorite classes and my hobbies. I realized how many opportunities I take for granted. As soon as I mentioned sports, her eyes lit up and she was filled with enthusiasm. She told me about her family, her life and how she had always enjoyed school. She told her stories about sports and how she had received a volleyball scholarship.

Sadly, she chose the wrong path and as a result, her life became unmanageable. She became consumed with drug addiction and self-destructive behaviors. She abandoned her 5-year-old daughter for fear that she would have the same horrible life. I was speechless. The silence grew uncomfortable as I nervously began rambling on about my computer classes to fill the void. I knew at the end of our visit that this woman would remain in my memory bank forever. I realized that each choice we make impacts our future and our relationships with others.

During mealtime we had the opportunity to connect with someone outside of ourselves, sharing our stories and listening to others. I never fully understood how important the concept of a meal was. I realized that mealtime offered much needed support to those who suffered. It had the power to create a connection between people who were polar opposites. It gave me the opportunity to step into the shoes of someone I never would have met.

The next morning, I spotted my new friend as I got ready to return to my usual lifestyle. Little did she know what a lasting impression she had made. My views on those less fortunate had been changed forever.

My life-changing experience at the mission taught me that everyone is a diamond in the rough.

Jackie Greenspan graduated from Milken Community High School last year.


The this essay was written for the Service Learning awards given out by the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Sulam Center for Jewish Service Learning (julief@jewishjournal.com.

Two-state solution ASAP only chance for peace


Lebanon held the world’s headlines for much of the summer as Hezbollah and Israel waged sudden, furious battle. On the strength of the internationally brokered cease-fire that
brought a halt to the violence, Israel has now withdrawn the last of its troops and the world is holding its breath, hoping the cease-fire is sustainable.

But in the meantime, the Gaza Strip has continued to fester and collapse, seemingly forgotten. The situation in Gaza has been deplorable since Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in August 2005, its population suffering from hunger and growing desperation. Late spring saw further deterioration and an escalation in the violence.

During a June 25 attack on an Israeli army base, two soldiers were killed and Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit was captured.

Since that time, Gazans have been subjected to repeated Israeli attempts to combat terrorism, resulting in enormous loss of life and damage to the area’s infrastructure. Newspaper readers know, for instance, that the war in Lebanon led to the deaths of more than 850 Lebanese and 150 Israelis, combatants and civilians. How many know that since June 25, more than 240 Palestinians, combatants and civilians, have been killed by the Israel Defense Forces?

Meanwhile, Qassam rockets have continued to be launched into southern Israel — far fewer in recent weeks, but still a source of fear and tension for those living within the rockets’ range. Despite an iron-fisted response to the Hamas attack and reports of a possible prisoner exchange, Shalit remains in his captors’ hands.

Most critically, the humanitarian situation in Gaza has gone from awful to far worse. The New York Times reported earlier this month that “it is difficult to exaggerate the economic collapse of Gaza,” and Jan Egeland, the United Nations undersecretary for humanitarian affairs, called Gaza “a ticking time bomb.”

Gaza’s economy, health care and social services are near collapse, and there are growing signs of malnutrition. Sixty percent of the population is without electricity, due to Israel’s bombing of Gaza’s only power station.

Border crossings have been open for only a few days over the past several months, leading to drastic shortages in basic human necessities: hospital supplies, essential medicines and food. Seventy-nine percent of households are now subsisting below the poverty line, and the World Bank forecasts that if the current situation persists, 2006 may be the worst year in Palestinian economic history.

As American Jews for whom Israel’s well-being is of paramount importance, we find it impossible to believe that these circumstances will lead to Israel’s security or help bring about a lasting peace. While it is understandable that we focused our attention on Lebanon for many weeks, we now call on the U.S. government and international community to dedicate the resources employed in achieving the Hezbollah-Israel cease-fire to address the looming disaster in Gaza and work toward reviving negotiations for a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

First and foremost, the United States must work with Israel and the international community to open the border crossings on a regular basis to ensure receipt of desperately needed humanitarian supplies and the establishment of a functioning economy. Indeed, the Israeli daily, Ha’aretz, reported early this month that the U.S. Security Coordinator, Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, told a group of Israeli and Palestinian business leaders that “without the restoration of commercial activity, there will be no security in the area.”

The possible formation of a Palestinian unity government may allow for the resumption of direct aid to the Palestinian Authority but seeing to it that more Palestinians get enough to eat and can meet their basic medical needs will not be enough.

Ha’aretz columnist Gidon Levy said of Israeli actions: “There is a horror taking place in Gaza, and while it might prevent a few terror attacks in the short run, it is bound to give birth to much more murderous terror.”

The only thing that can bring a final resolution of the conflict, creating economic stability for Palestinians and Israelis alike, as well as the longed-for end to the violence, is a negotiated, two-state solution.

Now that the cease-fire is in place and Israeli troops have left Lebanon, the international community, led by the United States, must turn its attention to Gaza. Continuing to ignore the problem will not make it go away. On the contrary, if the crisis is not addressed soon, Palestinians and Israelis alike will pay dearly as the peace process is further delayed.

Steve Masters and Diane Balser are the chair and co-chair of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom’s national advocacy committee. Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, is a national grass-roots movement more than 35,000 strong that educates and mobilizes American Jews in support of a negotiated two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

L.A. Times in turmoil: is it good for the Jews?


Thinking about the mess at the Los Angeles Times, I can’t help but raise the question we usually bring to matters great and small. How does it affect the Jews?

The paper is going through hard times. The owner, Tribune Co., unhappy with the paper’s substantial profits, ordered publisher Jeffery Johnson and editor Dean Baquet to make big cuts. When they refused, Johnson was forced out. Baquet is hanging on, trying to forestall the inevitable.

For this particular Jew, it’s a sad time. I worked there more than 30 years. I retired in 2001, and I still have friends at the paper. I talked a lot to two of them last week and shared their worries over their futures and those of their families. It’s also sad to read the paper, to see it shrink, to watch the editorial staff drop from 1,200 to 940 and, likely, eventually to Chicago’s goal of about 800.

Why is this bad for the Jews? It’s bad because as residents of the Southland, we have a long and great tradition of civic activism, going back to early in the 20th century and continuing today in homeowner groups, neighborhood councils, public school support organizations, political parties, sports leagues and all the other activities that permit this sprawling area to function.

Because of their intense activism, Jews have been among the paper’s most devoted readers and fiercest critics. A substantial part of the paper’s circulation base has long been in the broad Jewish belt extending from the Westside through the West Valley.

Granted, the base has dwindled. Each year, I see fewer copies of the Times in front yards in my Westside neighborhood early in the morning. Some of the losses come from exsubscribers who now get their news on line. Other former Times subscribers are single-issue Jews who abandoned the paper after parsing every story about Israel, looking for imagined bias or anti-Semitism.

But a large number of us remain. For us, and for everyone else, a strong Times is important because it is one of the few institutions that holds this vast region together.

When I went to work there in 1970, covering politics, I was overwhelmed by the geographic immensity of my beat. In those ancient days, before the Global Positioning System, I was given a thick book known as a Thomas Guide, and I used its maps to navigate through the neighborhoods of Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Valley, through Watts and Reseda, from Malibu to Boyle Heights.

Everywhere I went, the Times was a big deal. It connected these diverse regions, saw things in a regional way and championed regional solutions to the problems of the Southland, whether they were smog, education, health care or transportation.

As I began at the Times, less than a decade had passed since Otis Chandler had raised the paper from its long years as a right-wing rag to a publication of national renown. Jews, who had been brought up to read the old Daily News and to scorn the Times, had become loyal Times subscribers, depending on the paper for news of the state Capitol, their city halls, their freeways and their schools.

Public affairs was just part of the package, not as interesting to many readers as the sports pages and Jim Murray. And not as vital to many as the stories produced by the foreign staff, the Washington bureau and correspondents around the country. And not as important to many as news of movies, food, music, books, galleries and other aspects of the arts.

The secret of the Times’ success was the package, putting it all together. No matter what their interests, we knew our readers had something in common — they were readers, and they found something in the paper to interest them.

Now the management of the Tribune Co. is tearing up the package or at least diminishing it.
You can see it in the paper. The sports section grows thinner. I can get more and better sports news from the Web. The front section is squeezed for space, as is the California section.

This means that reporters who dig up good stories have to fight for a place in a paper that can barely find enough room for daily news. And as the staff shrinks, the remaining reporters are spending their time catching up with fast-moving events, rather than digging below the surface.

This is the way to lose readers. And as space and staff dwindles, the Times will no longer be able to exercise its function as the one regional voice of the Southland. Our problems are regional. What happens in a school in Carson has an impact on one in the Valley. The closing of an emergency ward in Inglewood will have a direct affect on emergency care on the Westside. If the paper can’t cover this — extensively as the news breaks, as well as with in-depth investigative reporting, both of which take substantial resources — we all lose.

This is why the dismantling of the once great Los Angeles Times is bad for the Jews and everyone else.

Bill Boyarsky’s column on Jews and civic life appears each month. Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.

Media reporters meet community; Karnit Goldwasser appeals for help


A sold-out crowd of close to 450 men and women attended the Women’s Alliance for Israel Aug. 8 symposium on “Israel and the Media — How Fair the Coverage?” The event at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel included panelists Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project; David Lauter of the Los Angeles Times; Jay Sanderson, president of Jewish Television Network; and Bill Boyarsky, Pulitzer Prize winner, author and Jewish Journal contributing columnist.

For information about Women’s Alliance for Israel please call (310) 281-4711.

A Wife’s Plea

On Sept. 6, the American Jewish Congress (AJ Congress) sponsored an event at Sinai Temple in Westwood featuring Karnit Goldwasser, wife of kidnapped Israeli soldier, Ehud Goldwasser. Along with her father, Omri Avni, Goldwasser spoke about the plight of her husband held captive in Lebanon by Hezbollah terrorists since July 12.

“I am asking for help from anyone who has the key to show us that Udi is still alive,” Goldwasser said.

Both Goldwasser and Avni urged the audience of nearly 200 to pressure U.S. government officials and the International Red Cross to send on a letter sitting in the Red Cross office in Beirut from Karnit for Ehud. Following Goldwasser’s pleas for financial help to cover the costs of her travels across the United States and the world, Iranian Jewish businessman John Farahi pledged to pay for the expenses for the next six months. Goldwasser and her father have also visited Chicago, Miami, Houston and Washington, D.C., in order to raise awareness about her husband’s captivity (see story page 8).

Gary Ratner, executive director of AJ Congress, said his group would try to get Goldwasser another meeting with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Appointment for Prager

President George Bush recently named radio host and Van Nuys resident Dennis Prager to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, the governing body of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The council consists of 55 presidential appointees, in addition to 10 congressional representatives and three ex-officio members from the departments of Education, Interior and State. Prager will complete the remainder of a five-year term that expires in January 2011.

“Dennis Prager’s unique moral voice and dedication to the mission of Holocaust education and remembrance make him an ideal candidate to serve on the council, particularly today as we witness rising global anti-Semitism,” said council chairman Fred S. Zeidman. “I welcome the talent and enthusiasm he brings to the position and congratulate him on joining the council.”

Prager, host of the nationally syndicated “The Dennis Prager Show,” is a speaker, author and film producer. In 2003, Simon and Schuster reissued his work on the history of anti-Semitism, “Why the Jews,” written with co-author Joseph Telushkin. Deeply involved in interfaith dialog efforts, he is a frequent contributor to national publications and regularly offers commentary on many national TV outlets.

For more information, visit “>www.hadassah.org.

Beverly Hills TV Agent Casts Himself in Reality Show: Lebanon War


Most American Jews were upset when the conflict broke out between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon this summer. Many felt frustrated and helpless watching the news from so far away, wondering what they could do about it.
Matt Altman knew what he had to do: He had to get on a plane to Israel to volunteer up north.

The 30-year-old Angeleno was not the only American to volunteer during the war — there were a few emergency missions from synagogues and young professional groups, such as Care for Israel, which organized a weeklong trip of 80 people. But Altman went on his own, and he was also not your typical rabbi or synagogue member on a mission: A television agent at Creative Artists Agency, he just took off, using his vacation time from work, despite protests from family and friends.

“A couple of people said, ‘It’s crazy, don’t do this,’ but I had had enough of people saying they were giving money and not knowing where the money goes, and I thought it was important to go there.”

Go there he did, leaving abruptly on Aug. 6 on an airplane that was practically empty and arriving at an airport that was practically empty — especially of arriving tourists — for a 12-day trip.

“I always told my parents that I would have fought if I were in the Holocaust, I wouldn’t have just stood there,” he said. “For me, this was something that was like the Holocaust of my time, and I had to go.”

Altman is not a child of survivors. He grew up Conservative in Newton, Mass., attended Solomon Schechter Day School, became bar mitzvahed in Israel and, until this trip, had only visited the country two other times with his family.
“I think that any Jew is a survivor,” he said in the impassioned tones he uses when talking about Israel.

“I must write to tell you all what is happening right now in Haifa … it is horrible and Hezbollah MUST BE STOPPED!!!!” Altman said on a blog he wrote from Israel, which originally started as a letter to friends and family and then was posted on The Jewish Journal’s blog site, along with his photos of bombed-out buildings, empty cities and attractions, soldiers and people he met and spoke with in the north.

Looking at Altman in his Beverly Hills regalia — a shimmery silver pinstriped suit and thin azure tie perfectly matched to bring out the subtle stripes, his power hair supergelled and spiky short — it’s hard to believe this is the same scruffy guy that appears in the Israel photos wearing jeans and a T-shirt, which was sometimes filthy from his work.

Altman got down and dirty in the trenches, volunteering at a different place each day of his trip, which was coordinated by Dani Neuman, executive director of the Haifa Foundation.

“He was amazing,” Altman said. “He was able to take me to many different places — I was able to work at hospitals, a food shelter, help make packages for the army and help make packages for children. I was able to see a lot of things that I wouldn’t have been able to see,” Altman said, including a visit to a city hall meeting in Haifa and a meeting with the city’s mayor, Yona Yahav.

Altman rented a studio apartment in Haifa — paying the rent of a student there who couldn’t afford it because of the war’s economic devastation — from where he could hear the sound of war.

“A lot of the missiles were hitting north of where I was staying; you’d hear boom, boom, boom in the distance,” he said.

Like many people on the missions, Altman toured the sites of the devastation — the shelled, caved-in buildings; the cement walls riddled with ball bearings from the rockets. “The whole cement looked like it was torn off. It was a frightening thing.”

But he wasn’t exactly frightened, at first. He visited with soldiers who hadn’t seen their families for weeks, delivered meals to people in shelters who had evacuated their homes and sat with soldiers and civilians hurt in the conflict.
“There was an old Russian woman who went to the post office and her leg got blown up. She was in the hospital and only spoke Russian — no Hebrew or English — and to me that was the most horrible thing, seeing this woman who was already incredibly poor, how her life had changed. She had her leg [amputated], and yet she was still very sweet. I couldn’t imagine being in that situation,” Altman said.

Before he went, Altman also couldn’t imagine being in a situation of war, and many of his postings read like they were from a naive, earnest foreigner.

“Please tell everyone you know that they must get behind Israel now, as Israel is fighting the worst terrorists in the world, and if Israel doesn’t destroy them, we are about to enter World War III. The news media is INSANE, and the fact that they report anything positive about these murders is asinine! [sic] ….Israel NEEDS YOUR SUPPORT NOW MORE THAN EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Altman is not all ideologue, however. Some of his postings are quite funny, such as one from Aug. 11, when he worked at the Koenig Soldiers Center, where the navy puts together boxes for every soldier.

“On this particular day, I happened to be helping when we received a virtual mountain of men’s dress socks with little cartoon characters on them. I joked with the soldiers that if we ran out of bullets, we could always scare them away with the horrible looking socks,” he wrote.

But his humor is mixed with the realities of war.

“One soldier and I went out to take a break, and he told me about his uncle who was driving home from work last week and was killed by a direct hit on his car. It is so maddening to me, as well as him, that nothing was said on TV.”

Most days didn’t turn out as expected. One day he was at B’nai Zion Medical center thinking he was going to visit with the patients but ended up in the kitchen, preparing food because they were short-staffed.

“After meeting the crew of 15 chefs, the crazy Russian chef took a special liking to me. If you’ve seen the movie ‘Armageddon,’ he was exactly like that crazy Russian cosmonaut, except he didn’t speak a lick of English. He was the clown of the group, and he spoke to me the whole time, knowing I didn’t know what the hell he was saying…. I should have listened to my parents when they told me to study at Hebrew school; it would have been very handy in this situation.”

Handy is not really the word for something that could help you in a life-threatening situation.

Altman couldn’t hear anything over the clang of the pots and pans. So when the Russian chef motioned Altman should follow him upstairs, Altman thought they were going to get food.

“The next thing I knew, we were on the roof, overlooking the entire coastline. Sirens were going off, and while everyone in the building was running to the opposite side, we ran up a stairwell.” Alone on the roof, the chef looked at him and said one Russian word Altman did understand: “Katyusha.”

What Altman saw next changed his life forever: “FOURTEEN rockets were flying in the air…. To say it was scary was an understatement. He had wanted to show them to me, and that’s why we were running. I was paralyzed. My heart was in my throat, and I nearly sh — myself. It was unreal; I watched rockets come at me, not being able to even move.”

Altman could not stop shaking for the next two hours. “Try serving soup while shaking; most of it lands on the ground,” he writes jokingly.

But the sight of the Katyushas was not all that shook him to the bone. So did the barrage of rockets on Haifa on Sunday, Aug. 6, killing three and wounding dozens and hitting near his apartment.

“When the missiles hit six doors down, I thought I was going to die,” Altman recalls. “It was the largest, scariest noise I ever heard.”

On his blog he wrote, “The first few hits sounded like normal … but then think what the loudest firework you can ever imagine sounds like … one hit outside where I am staying. Then another! Then another! It is complete and utter chaos right now! Sirens are going off everywhere!”

“It’s very real. You could die,” he explained later. Altman cut his trip short — which was a good thing, he said, considering the terrorist plot thwarted in Britain the following weekend. He decided he’d be more use talking about his trip than packing more food for soldiers and families. “I had been there; I had experienced it; I could be more helpful telling people what happened there from a first-person view,” he said.

Altman left Israel on Aug. 16, and he plans to speak to groups at friends’ homes and synagogues to discuss what he saw and learned there, and to raise money for the Haifa Foundation.

“I think it’s something that no one understands. The bomb sirens go off, and you have to go into a bomb shelter and get into between two buildings, it’s pretty scary. It’s amazing and frightening to me. I don’t know how I could do that every day. I don’t know how they could go outside — to me it’s a very hard way to live. That’s why we need peace. These people should not have to live like this. Nobody should have to live like this.”

On Sept. 13, Altman will be at the Israel in Crisis Fund’s winetasting fundraiser in Santa Monica.

During his time in Israel, Altman saw the remnants of war, such as these ball bearings that killed Israelis and inflicted damage on homes.

On Sept. 13, from 7:30-10:30 p.m., Israel in Crisis Fund will be holding a wine tasting fundraiser with an auction and live music at Hamilton Galleries, 1431 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica. $25 (in advance), $36 (at the door). For more information, contact (310) 963-5674.

College Students Find High Holidays’ Place in Higher Learning


The High Holidays are here. With them comes a new school year, whereupon many recent graduates of Jewish high schools will face the challenges for the first time that can accompany being an observant Jew in an academic environment that runs on the Christian calendar.

Gone are the days when observant Jewish students suffered for their absences from class or exams on the High Holidays or Passover. The California Education Code fully protects students’ rights to observe religious holidays free of academic penalty.

But the fact remains that academic life at nonsectarian universities may not have become much easier for young Jews who want to observe, because there are still indirect effects of such absences.

At top schools, such as USC and UCLA, observant Jewish students are finding that the penalty to be paid is all in the details.

Some students say that although professors are understanding about Yom Kippur, and despite the fact that Rosh Hashanah falls on the weekend this year, time they spend in shul could set them back because of assignments that are due the day after the holidays or even on Yom Kippur itself.

“I am worried because I am an architecture major, and there are deadlines, and it’s fast paced so I just have to be ahead of game constantly,” said Yoav Weiss, who just entered his freshman year at USC.

Although most universities have support staff available to aid students dealing with religious issues — at Hillel, the Office of Religious Life or University Chaplain’s office — most can only help deal with the major scheduling conflicts, like those that involve rescheduling an exam that falls on a holiday.
Rabbi Susan Laemmle, dean of the Office of Religious Life at USC, admitted that she couldn’t come to the aid of students over the myriad little conflicts that affect them.

For example, some professors offer four midterms and throw out each student’s lowest exam score in the calculation of the students’ final grades — but if they inadvertently choose to give an exam on a Jewish holiday, thereby making that exam the student’s lowest, the student likely has no recourse. In circumstances like this, the Office of Religious Life can do little to help, according to Laemmle.

“Sometimes Jews have to work a little harder, and that’s OK,” said Laemmle, who said she tries not to show Jewish students any favor in her role at the school.
Observing Shabbat weekly may be the greatest challenge of all, however, at universities where honors programs or intensive, fast-track programs demand extra time on Fridays and weekends. Some students said they have encountered professors who cannot comprehend why they cannot stay late on a Friday night, or e-mail them on Saturday.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director at UCLA Hillel, was skeptical of the notion that there is a “problem” for young Jews who want to observe Shabbat or holidays at universities. He thinks students should look at the positive aspects of the modern university, which allows them to miss class so that they can affirm their Judaism.

“You’re dealing with a system that attempts to create the best possible climate for someone who wants to be Jewish and who wants to observe,” he said. “So, I’m trying to understand why someone would want to make out of that an issue. On the contrary, one would want to enterprise. Look at the opportunity you have.”
Seidler-Feller emphasized that the university is the place where students learn to prioritize their commitments with confidence.

“You go out into the world, and you know that you’re in a law job, and it’s tough … and then they say they want you to work on such and such a day, and you have to have the inner strength and self-confidence and integrity,” he added. “So when do you start learning this? At a university, where the downside is minimal.”

Not surprisingly, observant Jewish students who have already experienced the fork in the road that a nonsectarian education can present tend to be more relaxed about dealing with it in college.

David Goldenberg, a recent graduate of La Jolla High School, just began school at UCLA. He’s already made up his mind about when he’ll miss class and when he won’t and put on a relaxed front.

“It’s only a few days a year,” he said. “It’s not a big deal.”

Return to the Promised Land


“Do you think we’re crazy?” Avi Rembaum is sitting with his wife, Sharon, on a couch in his parents’ lovely living room in the Pico Robertson area, while their impish, blue-eyed 21-month-old, Ella, runs back and forth between her parents, and her brother Itai, 8, is watching a video in the family room. Ella’s other brother, Dani, 5, is out at a sleepover.

The Rembaums don’t look crazy. They don’t even look like many of the bearded or skirt-wearing flag-waving people being interviewed on television who are moving their families to Israel on group flights sponsored by Nefesh B’Nefesh, the American organization that gives grants to North Americans who want to immigrate to Israel. By the end of the year, Nefesh B’Nefesh will have sponsored 10,000 olim, most of whom are Orthodox.

No, the Rembaums don’t look crazy, or militant. Avi, 35, is wearing a green baseball cap and khaki shorts, and Sharon, 38, is wearing cargo pants, a short-sleeved T-shirt and matching tan plastic Crocs, and they look just like any other couple you might see in the parking lot at Pressman Hebrew Academy, a Conservative school their sons attend that is affiliated with Temple Beth Am, where Rabbi Joel E. Rembaum, Avi’s father, is the senior rabbi.

But the Rembaums could pass for a typical American family living in Israel, perhaps one from an anglicized neighborhood in Jerusalem or Ra’anana. They look that way because that’s what they once were, when the couple met and married 10 years ago. And it’s what they were about to become again, just last week, as the family prepared to once again make Israel home.

Last Sunday, while thousands of Los Angeles Jews were rallying in front of the Jewish Federation headquarters to show support for Israel, the Rembaums were showing a different kind of support for the Jewish state: They were on a plane moving there.

After living six years in Israel, and nearly the same amount of time in America, the Rembaums have weighed their options, compared the two countries, debated which lifestyle is better for their children — and themselves — and come up with one conclusion: Israel. They hope, they say, this time they’ll stay for good.

While this back and forth story sounds unusual, it’s not as uncommon as one might think; theirs is a conflict that many Diaspora Jews struggle with — an inexplicable, heart-wrenching love for and attachment to Israel, versus a pull toward a native country filled with family, friends, better economic opportunities and, especially as of late, better security. This struggle is experienced not only by people who have lived in Israel, but also many who have visited there — on summer tours or one-year programs or university semesters, or on missions – as well as virtually any child who goes through the Jewish school or camp system, with their strong emphasis on the State of Israel and Zionism. And it’s a struggle that is often heightened in times of war.

“The bottom line,” Avi’s father, Rabbi Joel Rembaum told his wife Fredi when they were discussing how upset they were over Avi and Sharon’s departure, “is that when you train your children to be Zionists, somebody’s bound to want to live in Israel.”

The rabbi of Beth Am tells the same thing to parents who want to send their kids to Pressman: “We tell the people who sent their kids to the school here: ‘Expect that your kids are going to be turned on to Judaism — you may get back a child who is different from the one you sent.'”

It’s the same thing with teaching Zionism, he told his wife: “If you’re really serious about it, then [someone making aliyah] is bound to happen, and it did.”
The Rembaum children were trained to be Zionists, attending Jewish day schools, summering at Camp Ramah, growing up in the home of a Conservative rabbi. Joel Rembaum has been the leader of Temple Beth Am for the last 21 years, and Fredi, who is now director of development for the Western Region of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, was director for overseas relations for the Federation for eight years, and has traveled to Israel as often as four times a year.

Zionism stuck particularly with Avi, who moved to Israel at 22 and attended the World Union of Jewish Students, a one-year program in Arad that teaches Hebrew and Jewish studies and helps new immigrants integrate into the Israeli job market. That’s where he met and fell in love with his future wife, Sharon Isaac, a new immigrant from London.

“My parents were Israeli, and I grew up in a very Zionist home, and I had a huge family in Israel,” Sharon said. “It was always Israel, Israel, Israel. I was always torn.”

Sharon’s parents had moved to England in 1966, where her father had citizenship, and always planned to go back.

“They got wrapped up in life there,” Sharon said. Her parents moved back to Israel after Sharon and her sister did.

In Israel, Avi worked in the booming hi-tech industry, and Sharon worked at the BBC and then became a correspondent and anchor for the local English TV news, a program widely watched by Americans and diplomats and tourists who don’t speak Hebrew. They lived mostly in and around Tel Aviv, and tried to make life work there.

But reporting daily on the deteriorating political situation was depressing for Sharon.

“After Baruch Goldstein, everything went downhill,” she said, referring to the American Jewish doctor who killed 29 Muslim worshippers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

“I remember the bombings, and I remember the assassination [of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin]. It was relentless, it was every other day; the beeper would go off every morning, so it was very hard to live in it and breathe in it,” Sharon said. “Most Israelis have the opportunity to close it out,” she said. But she couldn’t because she was immersed in it for her work. “Israel is a great place to be a journalist if you’re removed from it, if you’re [a Brit] working for the BBC, but when you’re Israeli, it’s different.

The economic situation is what got to Avi.

“We were overwhelmed by our overdraft, we weren’t able to make ends meet, and our financial situation was going downhill,” Avi said. When his company offered to move the couple and their one child to Boston, they decided to go.
“We wanted to come to America. We wanted to have more kids. It made more sense to move here,” Sharon said.

There’s a figure that new immigrants in Israel throw around to determine whether a person will make it: Seven years. If someone stays seven years, it’s likely they’ll be there a lifetime. Even Nefesh B’Nefesh’s generous gifts are dependent on a family staying three years. That’s because people leave. Some for economic reasons, others for security reasons. Some, like Sharon, just want a break.

“I wanted to be somewhere that I didn’t have to think about it for awhile. But our intention when we left was always to go back.”

That’s another thing about new immigrants who leave Israel. Most plan on coming back. Some have a monetary goal, others set a time goal: the three-year plan, the five-year plan, the 10-year plan.

“We didn’t have a plan,” Sharon said. But they knew it was the right thing to do.

“When we left, at the airport, I turned to you and felt like someone [leaving] Europe in World War II,” Avi said, addressing his wife. “It felt like the time was right.”

Indeed, only seven months after the Rembaums moved back to America, in the beginning of 2000, the second intifada broke out. The next four years were a tough time for Jews in Israel; they shut themselves in, avoiding the threat of crowded places like malls, the movie theaters, restaurants and cafes, for fear of terror attacks.

Avi and Sharon really liked Boston.

“It was amazing; it was an incredible community,” Sharon said.

But Avi’s company shut down after a year and a half, so they decided to come to Los Angeles.

“It was a bit too cold, and we wanted our kids to have grandparents,” Sharon said. “If we would have stayed in Boston, we might have stayed [in America.]”
Sharon wasn’t crazy about Los Angeles at first.

“When I first moved here, I vehemently hated it. I couldn’t stand the fake boobs, the plastic-ness.”

But then she got involved with Pressman school and the Beth Am community, and she started working at KCRW, as a producer of “To the Point,” the call-in news show hosted by Warren Olney. “That was when I started to really like L.A.; I saw a very different side of it,” she said.

Avi, who describes himself as the “optimist” in the family, didn’t have problems with Los Angeles, perhaps because his family and childhood friends were here. But, he said, “Israel’s always been on my mind.”

There is a moment, for some people — one particular Eureka moment — that they can point to as an impetus for any decision, and especially for the decision to move to Israel. For Sharon, it was when her father died a year ago, and she was sitting shiva in Israel. “It was a very emotional time for me,” she said.
Her sister, who lives in the north of Israel, said to her, “Sharon, do you want to grow old in the city of Los Angeles?

“Oh God, no,” Sharon replied, repeating the emphasis as she retold the story.
“I didn’t want to live forever here, and I wanted to live my life there,” Sharon said now, explaining her vehemence.

“I am a better person there,” she said, choking back tears.

As she spoke, Avi took her hand in his. For him, it’s always been what he calls a “gestalt” thing.

“I am the happiest person when I’m there,” he said. “I’m most confident as a person when I’m there.”

For both of them, though, it was also about their children.

“It was about the life we want our kids to love, the freedom to be children. It seems hard to raise sane, Jewish children in L.A.,” Sharon said. “It’s very expensive here. You have to pay through the nose. In Israel it’s a no-brainer [because school is free]. You don’t have to work on chag. Here you get two weeks of vacation, if that, a year, and you have to take it off on the holidays.”
After spending Passover in Israel, they seriously began to consider moving back. But this time they weren’t going to be undone by the economic realities of Israel.

“We had three criteria: Sell our house for more money, buy a house for a lot less money and get a well-paying job,” Avi said.

They expected this would take them some time — months, maybe even a year.
“We did all those things in two weeks,” he said. Less than a month ago, they bought their tickets to Israel.

Ironically, it was Sharon, the non-native, who had a harder time leaving Los Angeles.

“It was very hard for me to leave. Even though we never said we wanted to stay here forever, I could have stayed,” she said. But “in many ways, it was now or never.”

But Sharon wasn’t the only one having a hard time leaving.

“I feel sad that they’re leaving,” said Fredi, her mother-in-law, in what was surely an understatement. “It’s going to be a big hole in our lives.”

Avi jumped in: “I reminded [my mother] that she dragged two kids to Israel in the middle of the Yom Kippur war, so she has no right to say anything.”
There is a strong parallel. In 1973, Rabbi Rembaum and his wife took a sabbatical in Israel — arriving there on the eighth day of the Yom Kippur war, when Ariel Sharon was leading the campaign to cross the Suez canal.

“When our El Al flight came to Israel we were accompanied by Phantoms,” Fredi recalled.

“As long as Israel is letting us in, we’ll go,” Rabbi Rembaum said at the time. Those words have come back as a strong reminder that each family has to choose its own way, the rabbi said, “We have no moral grounds on which to tell them they shouldn’t go.”

And besides, even though he’ll miss them, “I’m proud of them. I’m a Zionist.”
As the family talked about this landmark decision, about moving to Israel, no one really mentioned the current military actions going on, the fact that Israel is fighting in Lebanon, that Katyushas are being fired on the Northern cities, and the country might soon be in a state of war.

“I’m less distressed about the situation they’re going back to than about losing them on a daily basis,” Fredi said.

When the fighting started, Sharon said, “We looked at each other and said, ‘Are we doing the wrong things for our kids? Are we taking them into a potentially difficult situation?’ The only thing we always think about is our children.”

But they’re moving to Ra’anana, at the center of the country, where the rockets don’t hit. And they’ve already sold their house, shipped their stuff and enrolled the kids in school.

“In some ways it makes us want to go more,” Sharon said about the situation.
Avi added: “It’s happening now, but it could have happened three months from now, and we’ll be living there. It’s just the way that living in Israel is.”

Why, then, was Sharon crying? Was it because of the war, leaving Los Angeles and her family or moving to Israel?

“I just got emotional thinking about Israel and all the amazing things,” she said. “I love the fact on Friday at 3, 4, 5 in the afternoon it’s quiet, and you start to smell chicken soup, and the country just relaxes,” she said. “I love the unity that we see when times are bad: It’s the only county in the world that opens its arms and says, ‘Come.'”

Nation World Briefs


Rebbe Commemorated at White House
A commemoration of the death of the Lubavitch rebbe culminated in a White House briefing. Leaders of both parties in Congress, as well as top Bush administration officials, attended the two-day tribute to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died June 12, 1994. The theme was education, and speakers included Elie Wiesel; U.S. Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff; and Australia’s defense minister. Chertoff and Joshua Bolten, the White House chief of staff, who are both Jewish, attended the White House briefing Wednesday morning. About 30 diplomats joined Lubavitch emissaries to their countries at the events. Thousands of people gathered at the rebbe’s grave in New York on the anniversary of his death.

Tourists Attacked in Mea Shearim
Fifty pro-Israel Christian tourists were attacked June 28 in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, according to reports in The Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz. The tourists, who arrived decked out in orange T-shirts that read “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” were seemingly identified as Christians by Charedi residents of the neighborhood, 100 of whom then gathered in the vicinity of the visitors and proceeded to hit them. Police broke up the attack, which left three tourists and one police officer with minor injuries. Israeli authorities have made two arrests but are waiting for the tourists to press charges before proceeding. — Ali Austerlitz, Contributing Writer

Kosher Suppliers Subpoenaed
Federal subpoenas were served against several kosher meat suppliers in the United States in connection with an antitrust investigation. The New York Jewish Week reported that AgriProcessors, in Postville, Iowa, is among those hit with subpoenas. The subpoenas could be focusing on collusion in the kosher industry. The Conservative movement currently is investigating complaints about working conditions at AgriProcessors, the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse. After an animal-rights group produced an undercover video of conditions at the plant in 2004, investigators with the U.S. Agriculture Department determined that some plant employees had violated humane slaughter regulations.

Darfur Postcard Campaign Reaches 1 Million
The Million Voices for Darfur campaign has reached its goal of collecting 1 million postcards against the genocide in Sudan. The postcards, which will be delivered to the White House and Capitol Hill, ask President Bush to “support a stronger multinational force to protect the people of Darfur.” The campaign has been a project of the Save Darfur Coalition, the group of 150 faith-based advocacy and humanitarian organizations responsible for April’s Darfur rally in Washington. The coalition now is planning a second major rally this September in New York City. Despite the signing of a peace agreement last month, the systematic rape, torture and killing of black Africans by government-backed Arab militias continues in Darfur, where some 400,000 have been killed since 2003.

Jewish Astronaut Asks for Ramon Mementos
A Jewish astronaut asked Ilan Ramon’s widow for mementos from the late Israeli astronaut to take on a shuttle mission in 2007. Garrett Reisman, 38, will fly to the International Space Station in 15 months. He underwent training and became friends with Ramon, who died in the Columbia shuttle crash in 2003. At Rona Ramon’s invitation, Reisman attended a ceremony Tuesday in Rehovot, Israel, naming the Kaplan Medical Center’s new emergency medicine department in Ilan Ramon’s memory. “It was so incredibly tragic,” Reisman said. “Ilan had a great sense of humor and worked very hard to represent not only Israel but every Jew in the world.”

Technion Tops Israeli University List
The Technion was named Israel’s best university. A poll conducted by the Israeli Student Union, released this week, put the Haifa technological institute at the top of 35 schools of higher learning in the Jewish state. Often described as Israel’s version of MIT, the Technion was followed by Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The study was conducted on the basis of 56 criteria, including the employment rates of alumni and quality of on-campus life.

Ashkelon Named Politest Israeli City
Ashkelon is Israel’s politest city, according to a study. Ma’ariv published a study Wednesday in which Israel’s biggest cities were scored on residents’ responses to basic etiquette tests such as holding doors for women or providing instructions to motorists. Ashkelon came out top, followed by Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Lowest on the list was Rishon le-Zion. According to Ma’ariv, Ashkelon’s average score an 86 percent responsiveness rate is higher than that of New York City in a recent courtesy test carried out by Reader’s Digest.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

 

20+ Ideas to Jump-Start Jewish L.A.


David Suissa:
“Drink more coffee.”

One big, bold idea to energize L.A.’s Jewish community?

Three words: Drink more coffee.

I’m not kidding.

A new study from the University of Queensland in Australia suggests that drinking coffee makes people more open to a different point of view. In other words, it can make all of us more open-minded.

Can you imagine what would happen if our precious Jewish community in Los Angeles became more open-minded? Let’s go on a high-octane ride together:

Imagine if on one Shabbat, every synagogue would “open up” to a different rabbi. For example, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky could switch with Rabbi Yacov Pinto, Rabbi Yosef Shusterman with Rabbi David Toledano, Rabbi Laura Geller with Rabbi David Wolpe, Rabbi Elazar Muskin with the Happy Minyan, Aish with Chabad, Rabbi Steven Weil with the Persians, and so on. All over Los Angeles on this One Sharing Shabbat, Jews would experience something different, but very Jewish. If it’s a hit, we can make it a monthly tradition, and yes, the chazans would also switch, to give us the full effect.

Want a refill?

On campuses, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller would down a double espresso and invite hard-nosed right-winger Mort Klein, of the Zionist Organization of America, to speak. Seidler-Feller himself would go (with three bodyguards) to give his message of peace at Rabbi Moshe Benzaquen’s shul.

You get the picture: cross-promotion across all the colors of Judaism to energize a great community. All we need to put this ingathering of exiles together is one enthusiastic volunteer who is not afraid of rejection and has a good phone plan. (Any takers? E-mail me at dsuissa@olam.org)

This is peoplehood, my friends. We are one big, noisy, opinionated family, and we are diverse. But what good is a diverse family if we all stay in our own rooms? How can we strengthen our bonds if we so rarely hang out, pray, eat, sing and learn with each other? The opposite of love is indifference. Instead of obsessing over Jewish continuity, we should ignite Jewish curiosity. Sure, the unfamiliar can be uncomfortable, but in this case it has one thing going for it: It’s Jewish!

Forget the whiskey club. For those of Jewish unity, let’s all choose the coffee bean.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

 

Robin M. Kramer:
“Welcoming, modern, accessible, authentic Jewish nursery school experience….”

What if a welcoming, modern, accessible, authentic Jewish nursery school experience were available to the families of every 3- and 4-year-old Jewish child in Los Angeles?

The result would be new dynamism, connection and community, judging by the experience at my shul, Temple Israel of Hollywood, which has tried to create a program worthy of emulation.

What are the characteristics of a top-quality nursery school program? A school’s learned and loving faculty should reach out in the best tradition of Abraham and Sarah, welcoming strangers and those less connected to the Jewish tent, extending the community’s embrace to grandparents and to families of all configurations, including the diversity of faith traditions. Where isolation exists in our big city, the school community should offer warmth and connection — a family-centered, holistic port of entry to Jewish life. This essential school should, with mirth and through experience, mark the sacred moments of the Jewish year, and introduce the literature, music, art and soul of our people, bringing to life the belief that every individual is both special and part of a larger human family. A fine nursery school experience builds family demand for an ongoing pipeline of robust Jewish invention and education, both formal and informal. This could be catalytic.

But how could this be affordable for all Jewish families? It would require unprecedented focus, partnership, wisdom and vision — as well as the development of millions of dollars of new financial and institutional resources. Regional and master plans for early education could provide a roadmap, which would include support for educator preparation, increased salaries, and ongoing professional development. Another key is providing facilities and scholarships to ensure universal accessibility that does not presently exist.

All told, it would be a massive undertaking, but relatively speaking, the investment would be modest, given the potential yield of enduring communal dividends.

Robin M. Kramer is chief of staff for L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Gary Wexler:
“The physical center could be the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.”

The idea is about ideas.

In my work with Jewish communities throughout America and Canada, I have learned that Los Angeles possesses a wonderful characteristic that none of those other communities have.

We are blessed with the absence of ingrained tradition, free of the boundaries cast by “the way things are just done.” Unlike the New York, D.C. and Boston Jewish communities, we aren’t committed to pass our thinking and ideas through a paralyzing hyper-critical sieve encumbered with an inner lining of hyper-intellectualism, hyper policy orientation, and a hyper-sense of ownership of all things Jewish.

The L.A. Jewish community is a wide-open environment where we can embrace the vibrant, free flow of ideas. It is time we grabbed that opportunity. Los Angeles, with its thriving creative industries, is poised to become the center for the creation of new ideas in Diaspora Jewish life and beyond.

If we will it.

We even have space where this mission could be planted, nurtured and allowed to flourish. The physical center could be the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, an institution that has for years been in search of its mission. The Institute could convene the best Jewish and non-Jewish minds in Los Angeles, even establishing a creative and thinking discipline, a Los Angeles/Brandeis-Bardin brand — something that would be celebrated, respected and sought after.

Four times a year, the best minds would convene to discuss such topics as

American values and how they are influenced by Jewish traditions, including themes like education, literature, music, Next Generation issues, Israel/Diaspora relations, medicine/healing, humor, etc. The participants would represent diverse perspectives so that we are not just exchanging the same ideas back and forth. Ideas, like genes, need to be cross-pollinated, or you have a flawed process.

The Institute would have to be strategically and carefully reconstructed so that the Jewish world would wait to see what ideas are coming out of Los Angeles, the natural environment for this gestation. The discipline would lend itself to all other offerings of the Institute, including its camps, and community activities, turning them into national models.

The Brandeis-Bardin Institute would have to give up a lot of what it is holding on to, which is actually holding it back. It would need to form the type of board capable of bringing this to reality. (Imagine that process!)

Of course, you could expect that the East Coast Jewish establishment would reflexively try to negate what we do. The owners of Jewish life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan would write articles challenging our every move.

It could be just what Los Angeles and the Diaspora Jewish community needs.

Gary Wexler is the founder and president of L.A.-based Passion Marketing.

Lisa Stern:
“More children … born, adopted, fostered and reared in loving Jewish homes.”

Twenty years ago the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and my son were born.

In the ensuing years I, indeed my generation, have been busy chasing the illusive balance between career, community service and family. Many of us delayed marriage and restricted the size of our families so we could collect degrees and worldly possessions. We had the lowest birthrate in our history and the trend, we are told, is getting worse. In that echo we may have short-changed our community and ourselves.

It’s time to do something about this. We cannot afford to let our legacy evaporate. This will involve sacrifice. Our progeny may have to do more with less and those who are able will have to fund this vibrancy.

Ours is a shared mission because we are a covenantal people; our fate is inextricably bound one to another. History teaches us that even during the most cataclysmic times our people did not deviate from the Jewish narrative: the preciousness of life, family, community and continuity.

My vision for the future is both simple and radical. I pine for a bold and transformative era where more children are born, adopted, fostered and reared in loving Jewish homes.

Lisa Stern, a Hancock Park attorney, has long been active in local Jewish causes and spearheaded litigation that forced Nazi-era insurance companies to pay benefits to families of Holocaust victims.

Joan Hyler:
“The next generation must learn.”

We are at a key moment — our culture must engage a conversation between the Heeb generation and The Federation generation. The way to do this is to develop a single citywide program that will identify, train and involve these young up-and-coming adults. The program must transcend organizational and denominational boundaries.

We who have come before already know the essentialness of The Jewish Federation, synagogues, the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, etc. The next generation must learn and, indeed, must take over. To make this transition successful, these vital organizations will have to do something that they don’t always do well: work together. The future of the Jewish community in Los Angeles depends on a focused collaboration among these well-funded, mainstream institutions.

As someone who helped initiate start-up groups in Los Angeles (MorningStar Commission under Hadassah and the National Foundation of Jewish Culture’s Entertainment Council), I’ve witnessed the difficulty in getting these large unwieldy institutions to talk to one another. They must do so, and open up to new conversations with the 20-somethings who are pouring into public life — or waiting for the right invitation.

Along the way, we must embrace the tension of not knowing who and what is next.

Joan Hyler, a former William Morris Agency senior vice president, runs Hyler Management, a boutique entertainment company and agency.

Rachel Levin:
“Bring back salons.”

Conversation. That is my “bold” idea to help invigorate Jewish life (and just plain life) in Los Angeles — good old, face-to-face, word-flying, idea-exchanging talk. In a city dominated by cell phones, Blackberries and dinner reservations, the idea of inviting people to your home to sit in person and talk about things that matter may just be a radical notion.

Specifically, I am suggesting we bring back salons — a structure for conversation that originated in 16th-century France, eventually making its way to 19th-century Germany, where the most important salons were run by Jewish women. These evenings mixed Jews and non-Jews, artists and aristocrats and according to some, were “nothing less than central to the development of modernity.”

Lest I scare you off with the weight of these previous gatherings, have no fear. I am not talking about the wittiest of hostesses and guests the likes of Klimt or Rodin. At their core, salons are just “talking parties” and, according to Mireille Silcoff, who started one in Toronto (and is the inspiration for this idea), for a salon to work you only need four things: (1) a willing host; (2) a good mix of people (you don’t want “like minds to sit there and be in agreement all night”); (3) someone to keep the conversation on track; and (4) food and drink. Add to that a topic of your choice – anything from “Jewish Guilt and Pleasure” to “What’s great about our city/What’s missing?” and you’re set. (See www.rebooters.net to download topic ideas and readings.) Now imagine if 100 of these were happening around the city – with people of all ages and backgrounds. Imagine how they could change the way people experience community – not to mention the new ideas they could spark. Now go talk amongst yourselves!

Rachel Levin is the associate director of Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation.

Rabbi Marvin Hier:
“24-hour satellite network….”

Today, the majority of Jews are unaffiliated, and our challenge is how best to reach them. In a world dominated by media and technology, one of the answers is through the medium of television. The time has come for the creation of a 24-hour satellite network that would combine films, concerts, theater, educational programs and live coverage of breaking news events that have particular relevance to Jews around the world. After all, there are specific cable networks for African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, etc.

While it is true that such an undertaking would require significant funds, it is also true that the Jewish community has the resources and its prominence would surely be an incentive for the major network and cable television providers to offer the programming.

Let us remember that our world has changed. If we want to reach the unaffiliated, we must think beyond our small neighborhood and the traditional methods to deliver the message of Jewish continuity as widely as possible.

Rabbi Marvin Hier is the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance.

Zev Yaroslavsky:
“We cannot afford to be silent or absent from the compelling issues facing our community.”

Years ago, when I was active in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, there were two Jewish Community Relations Committees that made a huge difference. The JCRC chapters in San Francisco (under the leadership of the legendary Earl Raab), and Cleveland, Ohio, stood tall and pushed the envelope of social activism. They successfully rallied the Jewish and non-Jewish community to pressure our government and the international community to do the right thing. Our cause was helped, our community was energized and our relations with other communities were strengthened.

It’s time to bring that formula to Los Angeles.

The JCRC of The Jewish Federation should be a forum for discussion, advocacy and action on the issues that affect us and our relations with others. The JCRC should be invigorated by making room at the table for representatives of the wide variety of stakeholders within our community. This should include the breadth of the religious spectrum, our diverse social welfare and social action organizations, and the myriad active youth movements.

We cannot afford to be silent or absent from the compelling issues facing our community or our neighbors at this critical time. We should speak out on foreign affairs, domestic policy, immigration and much more. Our voices need to be constructively heard both within and outside our organizational walls.

We really don’t have a minute to waste.

Zev Yaroslavsky is a Los Angeles County supervisor.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis:
“We need a believable Jewish theology, not a set of dogmas.”

Can the Siddur be taught without Jewish theology? Can you pray without a conception of God? Can you read the Torah or haftorah without understanding the philosophy of the Bible? Can you observe the Sabbath or keep kosher without understanding its sense of purpose?

You can.

It is being done in school and shul, and to our great loss. We have been taught and learned to mimic the “how,” “when,” and “where” of ritual behavior, absent the “why” and “what for.” That sort of practice will not satisfy our spiritual and moral yearnings.

Jewish theology deals with ultimate questions: to whom do we pray; for what do we pray; and can we pray for anything? What is the nature of the God we worship? What are the attributes of Godliness, and can they be imitated in our lives? Stripped of Jewish teleology — the Jewish sense of purpose — we are left with a mindless orthopraxy. Fluency in reading Hebrew does not reveal the meaning of the sacred prayer and biblical text.

The common complaint is boredom. Boredom signifies the emptiness that comes from belief-less living. Add responsive readings, enlarge the choir, multiply musical instrumentation, shorten the sermon and all to no avail. Prayer is poetry, but it is poetry believed in. Without belief, prayer is reduced to rhetoric.

Belonging, behaving and believing are the three marks of Jewish identity. We have wrongly thought that we can overcome the need to believe and fill its vacuum with belonging to institutions, paying dues and making contributions. We have wrongly thought that ritual busyness can substitute for the rationale of our behavior.

The Sabbath; the salting of the meat; the binding of the tefillin; and the blessing over lights, bread and wine — must not be gestures of mechanical behaviors.

We need a believable Jewish theology, not a set of dogmas. We call not for a monolithic set of doctrines, but for the adventure of the ethical and spiritual wrestling with our angels of conscience. Our goal is to persuade the so-called Jewish atheists and acquaint them with the rich theological alternatives within the Jewish tradition. The role of Jewish theology is to awake in our people the excitement and moral sensibility of ideas as ideals, which makes our earned belief system credible and actionable.

C.S. Lewis sagely wrote, “When a person ceases to believe in something, it is not that he believes in nothing, but that he believes in anything.”

Human nature, Jewish human nature as well, abhors a vacuum. A theological hole is soon filled with magic, superstition and cultic sectarianism. Neither esthetics nor edifices can serve as surrogates for the foundation of religious rationale. The three intertwining threads of belonging, behaving and believing must not be unraveled.

Harold Schulweis is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Daniel Sokatch:
“Jewish tradition is just as insistent that Jews respect the rights of workers as it is that Jews adhere to the rules of kashrut.”

Observant Jews in Los Angeles (and elsewhere) look for a certificate of kashrut, a heksher or a teudat heshgoha on a product or on the wall or window of a restaurant or market. These symbols tell them what they can buy and where they can eat. These foods, these restaurants, are certified as strictly following Jewish ritual observance.

Similarly, many Jews and non-Jews have come to rely on the county health department for its own version of a teudat heshgoha: letter grades, portrayed in bright colors on a uniform white placard – to determine, at a glance, the level of cleanliness at restaurants and markets. Whether a restaurant has a blue “A,” a green “B,” or (God forbid) a red “C” has become part of the calculation Angelenos make when considering where to dine.

But there is a next, important step to take. It’s beyond the reach of county inspectors but entirely in keeping with Jewish tradition. The notion of what is “kosher” should extend beyond preparation of food in accordance with ritual law; it should encompass the way in which human beings treat one another.

Jewish tradition is just as insistent that Jews respect the rights of workers as it is that Jews adhere to the rules of kashrut. We can tell if the restaurant we are about to enter is clean and kosher by looking for the certificates. But how does it treat employees?

Los Angeles needs a Human Rights heshgoha. We should insist that businesses that want Jewish customers treat their workers fairly and pay them a living wage. Those that do so could proudly display the blue aleph. And we would know to avoid the businesses with the red gimmel in the window – until they improve working conditions.

Who knows? Other community groups might just follow our lead, making Los Angeles fairer and better for all its inhabitants.

Daniel Sokatch is executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

 

Uri D. Herscher:
“Jews do not and cannot thrive as “a people that dwells apart.”

For many centuries of the Jewish people’s history, the world outside was hostile at best, lethal at worst. In such a world, insularity was tempting, and sometimes essential. We now live in a nation that strives, if not always successfully, to realize democratic ideals that include openness and inclusiveness. The Skirball Cultural Center was founded on the conviction that Jews need to respond in kind, that Jews do not and cannot thrive as “a people that dwells apart.”

And full Jewish participation means that our good works, too, must resist insularity. The Jewish obligation to help the needy, to heal the sick, to school the unschooled only begins in the Torah. It ends on the street, whether that street runs through Fairfax or Pacoima.

If we offer a Judaism that stops at the margins of the Jewish community, we will have marginal Jews. They will walk a narrow path, and a futile one. For we have learned, to our sorrow, that unless the society at large is safe, Jews will never be safe. In an open society, insularity is a grave danger. Even if we could exist in a vacuum, there would be no air to breathe. Whatever the future holds for the Jews, our destiny is tied to the society as a whole, the two strands intertwined — a double helix, like life itself.

When the Torah commands, “Open your hand to your needy brother,” it does not qualify the statement. The person in need is not subjected to an identity test. Jewish concern is ultimately human concern.

We should discover and give voice to people within and beyond the Jewish community. Examples matter! We must seek out opportunities — as individuals and through our organizations — to make positive examples of ourselves. And we should focus the benefits of our good deeds where such acts are most needed — outside the Jewish community as well as within. To open our hands to those in need is to open them as wide as we can.

Uri D. Herscher is founding president and CEO of the Skirball Cultural Center.

Dr. Michael B. Held:
“Build inclusive schools where all students benefit from diversity.”

As awareness of “full inclusion” grows, the distinction between “regular” and “special” education is changing. In truth, every child has both typical and special features and Jewish education should be for every child regardless of ability or challenge.

By typical standards, 10 percent of all students have special needs. Given that, we would expect to find 1,000 students with special needs out of the 10,000 enrolled in local Jewish day schools. But fewer than 100 such students have been identified in this category. Why are so many students apparently excluded and how do we go about creating “inclusive” Jewish schools?

Largely because current efforts to help special-needs children are simply inadequate.

Local educators have sincerely tried to address the need, by adding on special services, but in a piecemeal fashion. Rather, we can build inclusive schools where all students benefit from diversity, state of the art curriculum, and a truly collaborative, team-based approach.

In other words, there needs to be a paradigm shift from the goal of simply creating make-do programs to adopting a human rights model, guaranteeing full access for all Jewish students.

As utopian as that sounds, it is the only way to create and sustain access for special needs children and improve education for all students.

And it is doable. Anyone who doubts this should visit the CHIME Charter Elementary School in Woodland Hills, an inclusive public school. CHIME’s Academic Performance Index (API) jumped an amazing 77 points in one year. Further, the school was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a national model for innovative education.

It is not about the money; it is about transforming Jewish education by including 900 new students who belong in our school system with programming that is educationally sound and morally right. Let’s not delay!

Dr. Michael B. Held is the founder and executive director of the Etta Israel Center.

Rabbi Boruch S. Cunin:
“Any child in Los Angeles who wants a Jewish education should get one.”

Any serious discussion about revitalizing Los Angeles’ Jewish community must focus on one thing: our children. They’re our most precious resource, and we must protect and nurture them to safeguard our future as a people. Sadly, we’re neglecting this responsibility each day that we fail to guarantee them access to an affordable Jewish education.

This is a real crisis. Whenever a child is denied a Jewish education by prohibitive tuition costs, we lose something that can’t be replaced. We squander a chance to impart our values to a new generation- and we abandon the future leaders of our community.

Simply put, any child in Los Angeles who wants a Jewish education should get one. At Chabad schools, we strive to accept every deserving child who comes to us, regardless of family income, so that nobody is denied for lack of funds. Now our entire community must step forward with generous scholarships for all of Los Angeles’ Jewish schools to ensure that no child is ever turned away, anywhere.

Other major American Jewish communities are already doing this. Does it cost money? Yes. But we live in a city of riches. And if we don’t make this investment today, we’ll pay a terrible price tomorrow.

Rabbi Boruch S. Cunin is director of West Coast Chabad Lubavitch.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley:
“Outreach Centers for Jewish Life and Learning as ubiquitous as Starbucks….”

I am pro-synagogue, but synagogues as they now function do not serve all Jews well enough. The problem for these Jews and other potentially interested spiritual seekers is that affiliated Jewish life is too expensive, too boring, too irrelevant, too far and just too “other.”

That’s a shame, because it’s vital to bring in as many unaffiliated Jews as possible to the wonders and beauties of Jewish life, study and practice. And as a people, we need all possible Jews to commit to Judaism and to the state of Israel. Many good people and good places are taking on this mission, but they are not networked nor coordinated, and they are under funded.

What’s needed, communitywide, is the outreach energy of Chabad and Aish HaTorah. We need to reach the hundreds of thousands of Jews (and un-churched Americans) who will not become Orthodox, who may be turned off by worship services, who might not believe in God, for whom Hebrew is (at least for now) too high a threshold for participation in Jewish life.

I would like to see Outreach Centers for Jewish Life and Learning as ubiquitous as Starbucks, as inviting as the as the first sentence of a leather-bound classic. They should feature libraries and bookstores filled with Jewish books, music and videos — for all ages, intellects and interests. There should be ongoing classes conducted by deep, learned engaging teachers who will bring the profundities of Jewish wisdom to bear on people’s lives. And these classes should be geared to different types of beliefs, learning styles, ages, and goals. These gathering spots should include a Beit Midrash (study hall) — some should remain open 24 hours a day.

Because some people are turned off by worship, or by conventional styles of worship, there should be more create ways to celebrate Shabbat. Maybe a group could read and discuss Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Buber, Harold and Larry Kushner, etc. There could be Learners’ Minyans for those who would like to break the code of Jewish prayer. How about music-oriented experiences, meditative experiences, even political discussion (with knowledgeable, fair and balanced moderators)?

As for the next steps…. Well, the possibilities are many, but first a few caveats.

This effort will take substantial funding. Jewish educational institutions – undergrad program, grad programs and seminaries must be ready and able to produce hundreds of talented teachers (who ought to receive excellent salaries and benefits, and lots of variegated support in their work). And synagogues and other communal institutions need to be ready to transform.

What are we waiting for?

How wonderful it would be to send the word out: “All unaffiliated Jews: Come home. We are now ready.”

Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah Congregation, and serves as provost and professor of liturgy and rabbinics at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.

Dr. Bruce Powell
“Pay all, or a significant part, of every third child’s Jewish day school tuition.”

Millions of dollars have been expended by our fabulous national mega-donors for the Birthright Project — two free weeks in Israel for college-age students who have never been on an organized program. This is real vision.

What I now suggest is the next big step: The Birthrate Project.

Married couples with two children, and who value Jewish day school education, have told me that they have chosen not to have a third or fourth child because they cannot afford one more child in a Jewish day school or Jewish overnight camp. These choices portend a Jewish demographic reality that does not even replace our current population of Jews in America, given that many who are physically able have one or no children at all. If we believe that Judaism, and by extension, Jews, have an important contribution to make to America and the world, this situation cannot stand. We have not even replaced, in 60 years, those souls lost in the Shoah.

My “Modest Proposal” is to launch the Birthrate Project where the national community makes a commitment to pay all, or a significant part, of every third (or perhaps fourth) child’s Jewish day school tuition, kindergarten through 12th grade and/or for Jewish overnight camp. All awards would be based on financial need. A fourth or fifth child might also be funded in partnership with the local Jewish schools. If, for example, this funding produces 100,000 new kids, the total yearly cost at, say, $15,000 a year for tuition, is $1.5 billion.

Imagine the historic implications for the community, over time, of a 100,000 new, Jewish human beings all in possession of deep Jewish knowledge, vision and values from day school — or deeply identified through their Jewish camp experiences. Now imagine our Jewish future without this new life.

I’m ready to follow up on this idea. Are you?

Bruce Powell is head of school at New Community Jewish High School.

Randall Kaplan
“Adopt-a-cause, create a fun event, and make it easy for volunteers”

Our business model was relatively simple. We started with the idea for a different kind of fundraiser — a fun and cool event for a great cause — and then recruited between 20 and 30 of our most talented friends to serve on our planning committee and sell tickets and sponsorships.

But here’s where we were different. We weren’t well-heeled people in our 70s, or even in our 60s or 50s. We didn’t do this after our primary careers, after we’d made money. We were in our 20s.

And that’s how The Justice Ball was born about 10 years ago. Each year, it raises vital dollars for Bet Tzedek, a legal aid service for the poor, disabled, elderly and homeless. During nine straight sellouts, we’ve raised more than $3.6 million — making the Justice Ball the most successful under-40 nonprofit fundraiser in the country. Besides making donations, our more than 16,000 attendees and contributors have been introduced to the wonderful work of Bet Tzedek.

We started The Justice Ball at ages when conventional thought dictated that we would be more focused on careers than on philanthropy. In reality, most people in their 20s are interested in philanthropy and simply don’t know how to get involved. In essence, we made it easy for them — we formulated our idea after choosing a great cause, and with those in hand we targeted a specific but untapped group of talented volunteers.

This “adopt-a-cause, create a fun event, and make-it-easy for volunteers” approach is transportable and would work in other contexts. There are tens of thousands of young professionals in Los Angeles (and elsewhere) who want to get involved. Each synagogue could appoint a rabbi or lay leader to identify future leaders. Nearly 130 synagogues exist in Los Angeles, and if each of these adopted a cause and put its best young leaders together, this formidable but unused human capital could be harvested to do an incredible amount of good.

Randall Kaplan is CEO of JUMP Investors.

Gerard Bubis
“No economic barriers limiting the creativity and creative continuity of Jewish experiences….”

We live in a silo community — many vibrant communities throughout the city that connect and cooperate, if at all, intermittently throughout the years.

My wish is to ascertain, in a thoughtful and representative way, the driving Jewish visions for the greater Los Angeles Jewish community. Are people and institutions ready to set forth an over-aching vision for our collective future? Are there those who would act to bring those visions into reality?

I propose a series of town meetings throughout the community. Participants would be asked to ponder:

Is it important that a Jewish community exist in Los Angeles that is devoted to the cultural, social, psychological, and physical betterment of Jews here and around the world?

If the answer is some form of yes, then I would want to explore exactly how to enhance Jewish identity and how to expand interactive and purposeful relations with likeminded Jews throughout the world.

I would have as many venues as possible; the gatherings would be heavily advertised. I would train 100 or so discussion leaders to keep the focus on the question. Discussions could then lead to specific proposals to satisfy those answering the question in the affirmative.

The first stage of the follow-up would be bringing together 15 to 20 opinionmakers, shakers and doers from the worlds of business, the arts, academia, the rabbinate, Jewish educators and communal professionals. Their charge would be to refine the suggestions into an action program, set priorities and put a price tag on the visions about which there was sufficient consensus. This group would become the sales force to package and sell this set of visions to those individuals and organizations that could assure and underwrite the effort.

What do I imagine could come of such an enterprise?

I’d like to see no economic barriers limiting the creativity and creative continuity of Jewish experiences for individuals and families

What if education, trips to Israel, memberships in all manner of organizations were truly open to all, regardless of economic or social status? How much more would Jewish life flourish if more scholarships were available for those prepared to spend the lives as educators, communal professionals and rabbis serving the Jewish community? What if subsidies were available to pay decent wages for those now staffing services that assist the Jewish community in a manner related to their Judaism?

We live in a golden city and could produce a truly Golden Age of energetic,

creative and purposeful Jewish life here. Are we ready? I would hope so.

Professor Gerald Bubis is the founding director of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Presently he is vice president and fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and adjunct professor of social work at USC.

Rabbi Laura Geller
“A year off between high school and college to volunteer for a Jewish “Peace Corps.”

What if we could change the culture so that most American Jewish teenagers took a year off between high school and college to volunteer for a Jewish “Peace Corps” in the United States or somewhere around the world? What if this year of service was organized in such a way that these young Jewish people would be placed in meaningful work situations with social justice or social service organizations so that they would be serving the larger community? What if, at the same time, they would be living together with other Jewish young people, studying Jewish texts about justice, making decisions together about Shabbat and kashrut, and reflecting together on the work they were each doing?

What if that year were sufficiently funded so that these young Jewish people could earn enough money to live (and maybe even save something for college), and that the program could support the training and placement of spiritual mentors, counselors and resident advisers who would live with the participants? What if other young Jews around the same age from all over the world, including Israelis (before army service), also participated in the program so that all these young people came to understand the reality of Jewish peoplehood simply by living, working, learning and becoming friends with Jewish people from different backgrounds?

Maybe then … our kids would actually be ready for college when they got there, because they would have come to understand that to be a mensch isn’t measured by SAT scores.

Maybe then… these young people would have a better understanding of the world, because they would have lived in another culture. And they would be more grateful for all the privileges that they have because they will have worked with people who have so much less.

Maybe then … they would feel more able to make a difference in the world. And they would feel part of the Jewish people, because they would have developed deep and lasting relationships with Jews from other countries and other perspectives.

Maybe then … they would be turned on to Torah study, and understand how profound the connection between Jewish learning and living can be.

And maybe then … the foundation of their future Jewish lives would be enriched by an experience that transformed their lives.

Laura Geller is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
“A community-funded, community-owned and community-operated House of Torah Learning.”

I dream that one day, Los Angeles Jewry will have the vision to create a community-funded, community-owned and community-operated House of Torah Learning. This centrally located House of Learning would not be Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Persian, Israeli or Russian. It would belong to the entire Jewish community. Its common agenda, ideology and language will be one and the same — Torah study. It would offer no academic degrees, no rabbinic ordination and no teaching diplomas. There would be no prayer services, no “prestigious fellowships,” and no one rabbi would be called “the rabbi” in this building. This House of Learning would be open to every Jew, irrespective of background, age group or financial status.

In this House of Learning, Jews would seek spirituality through the intellect, finding God in a page of Talmud. Singles would ask each other out on a “study date,” and would meet at the House of Learning to get to know each other over a Midrashic text. Lay leaders would gather there to take a break from community meetings, and at the end of the night, new ideas would be inspired and born out of an intense study of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. Newlywed lovers would spend a few hours reading Yehuda Ha-Levi’s poems and S.Y. Agnon’s stories, and parents would sit with their children and study Rashi’s commentary to the Torah. Text study would no longer be the realm of a select few rabbis and scholars, but it would belong to everybody. It would suddenly be cool to sit and study text, and the House of Learning would become L.A. Jewry’s hottest hangout. The new Jewish greeting in Los Angeles will be, “Hi, how are you, and what are you learning these days?”

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.


Janice Kamenir-Reznik
“The Circuit Rabbis’ services would be provided free of charge.”

All too often, affiliated Jews and the leaders who serve them, become territorial. This territorialism often clouds the greater sense of purpose of what it should mean to be a Jew or a Jewish leader. Their priority becomes the survival or success of their particular institution, rather than a desire also to serve the broader community or to propose a broader and grander Jewish message. Such behavior presents a special problem in Los Angeles because the Jewish community is so large and dispersed — and because it takes a lot to stimulate people to positive Jewish action in Los Angles’ Hollywood-centered society. Thus, dynamic leaders and dynamic programs need to be even more dynamic.

Here’s one potential remedy: The community could hire 10 outstanding rabbis and/or other leaders to serve as “Circuit Rabbis.” They would travel to various L.A. venues, providing dynamic impetus to stimulate new programs in existing institutions. The Circuit Rabbis would have no bond whatsoever to any existing institution; nor would they have to fundraise as part of their jobs. Their only objective would be to serve as a resource and to work together with the synagogue and organizational leaders and rabbis to improve and elevate programming, learning, and Jewish life. The Circuit Rabbis would be cutting-edge thinkers and effective, collaborative and dynamic doers.

The Circuit Rabbis’ services would be provided free of charge, inasmuch as this program would be underwritten by visionary and generous members of the Jewish community.

Janice Kamenir-Reznik is president of Jewish World Watch.

John R. Fishel
“Our mission is to work toward true community.”

A recent issue of Commentary Magazine contains a provocative article by two well-known Jewish scholars. They hypothesize that the concept of Jewish peoplehood is becoming rarer as efforts to stress individualistic approaches to Judaism and Jewish life in the U.S. increase.

This dilemma manifests itself visibly in Los Angeles. We live here as associated Jews in a vast expanse, but are we a “community” at all or merely a highly diverse group of individuals? Do we coalesce in a meaningful way or are we just occasionally bound together by religious or political ideology, geographic residence or, perhaps, ethnic origin?

I believe our mission is to work toward true community.

A Los Angeles Jewish community that could meld the entrepreneurial creative energies and dynamic singular expressions of Jewish identity with the traditional strength of a collective concern for all Jews as a people, regardless of their beliefs, could set the tone for a potential revolution across the country.

John R. Fishel is president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

 

Special Delivery – When Baby Brings More Than Expected


Sarah Berger had a tough pregnancy. Berger, who asked that her real name not be used, had severe morning sickness for six months, and then was on bed rest for her last 10 weeks. But it wasn’t until her baby came home that trouble really began.

“On the third day, I remember this dark cloud descending on me…. I cried all the way home from the hospital,” she said. As she prepared for her son’s brit milah, “I started falling apart,” Berger said. “I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t stop crying.”

She called her obstetrician, who suspected that Berger had postpartum depression (PPD).

Experienced by about 10 percent of new mothers, PPD’s symptoms include sadness, apprehension, difficulty making decisions and changes in sleeping and eating habits. The symptoms of PPD last longer and are more intense than the tearfulness and fatigue characteristic of the “baby blues,” which generally subside after two weeks.

“Despite the common belief that motherhood automatically brings … a state of bliss and contentment, in reality the postpartum period is a time of increased vulnerability to psychiatric illness, particularly for women with past histories of depression or serious anxiety disorders,” said Dr. Vivien K. Burt, professor of psychiatry at the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and director of the Women’s Life Center of the Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA. “We don’t know for certain what causes postpartum depression, but we believe it stems at least in part from the rapid decline in estrogen following childbirth,” she said, noting that during pregnancy, estrogen levels rise several hundred times and then drop back to prepregnancy levels within several days following childbirth.

Women suffering from PPD often fail to receive help for a number of reasons. They might be ashamed of their feelings, or they simply might not know where to turn. And not all obstetricians and pediatricians are as attuned to the condition as Berger was.

After she began seeing a therapist and taking medication, Berger quickly responded to treatment. When PPD hit again after the birth of her second child, she knew what to do.

Now Berger helps other women experiencing the condition by volunteering for New Moms Connect, a PPD support program offered by Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS). Volunteers for this free service help new moms and family members via telephone calls, home visits and referrals to community resources.

With a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation, New Moms Connect was developed as a response to calls received by JFS from new mothers “who were depressed and felt they had no one to reach out to,” said Debbie Fox, director of child and family services for JFS. “Their husbands had no understanding of what was happening, they had no understanding and their families had no understanding.”

“There’s so much pressure to be joyous when a new baby comes,” said Tamar Springer, a licensed psychotherapist who supervises the program’s volunteers. “A woman may be reluctant to come forward with her feelings…. Our goal is to decrease stigma, educate the community and help people understand that this is a medical disorder that’s not something to be ashamed of.”

So far, 10 volunteers, including Berger, have undergone training. One is a nurse and another is a dentist. All are mothers.

Berger said she chose to volunteer because she felt there was a lack of information about PPD both in the Jewish community and the community in general. She was pleased to be part of an effort to “let women know about it ahead of time instead of just getting hit with it afterward,” Berger said.

In her role, Berger listens as the women describe their situations, asks questions and makes suggestions for how new mothers can get support, whether by hiring temporary household help, attending a new mothers group in the area [see below] or seeing a physician. She often refers women to UCLA and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, both of which offer PPD programs.

So far, she has spoken to about five women over the phone and visited two more in person. Her husband has also spoken with one of the women’s husbands. She advises new mothers “to surround themselves with what makes them comfortable” and to articulate their preferences, rather than let other people decide what’s best.

Berger, who is Orthodox, said that certain factors can intensify the problem in her community. In her lactation consulting practice, she said, “a lot of the moms I deal with … are very young — around 19 or 20 — and are extremely unprepared” to deal with the changes that a new baby brings.

When family and friends learn about PPD, their reactions can vary. Berger said that after a friend heard a mutual acquaintance talking about Berger’s PPD, the friend told Berger that her openness might result in difficulty finding a shidduch (match) for her children.

Despite such comments, Berger felt that the experience also had its benefits. “It’s taught me a lot about myself and about how I want to raise my children and the kind of person I want to be,” she said.

When Mom Needs Help
Symptoms of Postpartum Depression

  • Sad, weepy, anxious and moody feelings that fail to go away after about two weeks
  • Feelings of doubt, guilt, helplessness or hopelessness that disrupt day-to-day functioning
  • Sleeping most of the time or inability to sleep when tired
  • Loss of interest in things that normally bring pleasure
  • Extreme concern about — or lack of interest in — the baby
  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Fear of harming the baby
  • Thoughts of self-harm

A New Moms Connect Peer Support Group, which started June 21, is still accepting participants. The six-week session, designed for mothers with babies newborn to six months, meets Wednesday, 9:45 a.m.-11:15 a.m., at The Parenting Place at the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging, Grancell Village, 7150 Tampa Ave., Reseda. The program is also sponsored by JFS and the Valley Beth Shalom Infant/Toddler Program. For information, call Donna Ramos at (323) 761-8800 ext. 1213.

New Moms Connect (323) 761-8800, ext. 1028 (calls generally returned within 24 hours).

The Woman’s Life Center at UCLA (310) 825-9989

Cedars-Sinai Medical Center Postpartum Depression Support Group (310) 423-1510

Postpartum Support International: www.postpartum.net.

Middle-Class Squeeze


In the past six years, Diane Demetras and her husband, Marcel Indik, have taken one low-cost vacation and have dined out only on rare occasions. They don’t buy themselves new clothes, they drive old cars and rent movies rather than go to them because weekend activities have been whittled down to what is cheapest.

They’ve done this — willingly and without regrets — so they could afford to send their two children, Emile and Olivia, to Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School, where they feel their kids are getting a great education, a grounding in Jewish tradition and a sense of belonging to a values-based community.

The Demetras-Indiks are solidly middle class. She is an academic adviser at USC and he is a successful commercial photographer. They co-own the fourplex they live in, and, if not for the $30,000-plus a year they spend on their kids’ school and camp (that’s including a few thousand dollars in financial aid), they would be considered comfortable in the Southern California economy.

But it is families like theirs who are feeling the squeeze of the upward crawl of day school tuition over the last several years, which has brought the average tuition for elementary and middle school to about $12,600 and for high school to as much as $20,000. Those numbers are about 30 percent above what a year of schooling cost four years ago and nearly double 10 years ago.

To be sure, at secular private schools tuition has risen just as sharply, and often far more so, but non-Orthodox Jewish schools are competing on two fronts: with the lure of fancy private secular schools for many who can afford to pay whatever it takes, on the one hand, and with the tuition-free option of public schools, particularly the gifted magnets or other specialized programs for those who are struggling to make ends meet, on the other. Neither socio-economic group is willing to compromise educational standards, which means Jewish schools have to maintain a high academic bar, but also give the added value of a Jewish education — making the latter a convincing selling point to those who might opt for just Sunday school enrichment.

Most of the 10,000 students in Los Angeles’ Jewish day schools come from families with too much income to qualify for significant financial aid, but many are not wealthy enough to easily absorb such a significant hit on their budget. And there are also those who do not see themselves as “scholarship families,” and who choose therefore to send their kids to public schools rather than open their financial records for the aid applications.

About 14 percent of school-age Jewish children in Los Angeles are enrolled in day schools, the majority of them in Orthodox schools.

In the past 15 years, day school enrollment across the country has boomed. Between 1992 and 1998, enrollment jumped by 25,000 students, and from 1999 to 2004, another 20,000 students enrolled, bringing the total to 205,000 nationwide. Much of the growth occurred in non-Orthodox schools, new schools and in high schools.

While Los Angeles has generally mirrored that growth, in the past five years the number of students enrolled in L.A. day schools declined by about 400 students. Last year saw a turnaround, however, with an increase that brought the number close to its 1999 peak of 10,000 students.

But the decline has educators concerned, and while they know that cost is not the only factor — there was also an overall economic downturn and demographic dip in school-aged children — tuition increases certainly don’t help.

Over the past 11 years, Temple Israel has seen its enrollment increase from 82 children to 200, but the school has had losses, too. Like many families, the Demetras-Indiks had to make a tough choice. Tuition at Temple Israel Day School went from $9,500 four years ago to $12,170 for the next school year. So come this September, Emile will be attending public school for the sixth grade.

“We couldn’t handle the cost anymore,” Demetras said.

Diminished day school enrollment — or enrollment from a narrow socioeconomic stratum — hurts the entire Jewish community. Population studies have shown that day school alumni are more likely to retain a lifelong affiliation rate with Judaism, and to educate their own kids Jewishly. Day school graduates, in a sense, boost the knowledge base of the entire community.

“We have learned so much about what keeps kids Jewish in this world that is always pulling at them, and the day school movement is such an important contributor to the Jewish people. To not be able to make a day school education affordable for people who want it is an awful alternative,” said Rennie Wrubel, head of school at Milken Community High School.

Over the past decade, with increasing sophistication, schools are looking to sources other than tuition to make ends meet. They are setting up endowment funds, ramping up marketing both to potential parents and donors, and nurturing new supporters — from alumni and grandparents to people and foundations previously unconnected to day schools.

“If we believe in this, and we believe in how powerful it is — and some of us do — then we have got to have the whole community get behind all of our efforts,” said Bruce Powell, head of school at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills. Powell believes a massive communal endowment — $1 billion — needs to be set up to cover the cost of Jewish education.

Lisabeth Lobenthal couldn’t agree more. Lobenthal is a synagogue director who put her son, Aaron, at Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy for kindergarten. A single mother who does not receive child support, Lobenthal was making $48,000 a year when she applied for financial aid. She tried to make do with the $2,500 break on the tuition of about $9,000 — she was told it was the maximum she could receive and never asked for more — but once she paid for tuition, rent, basic bills and groceries, she was, literally, penniless.

“They called me for a donation for a pizza party, and I couldn’t give them the $10,” Lobenthal said.

She pulled Aaron out in first grade and put him in public school, where he’s been happy, but his Jewish identity has suffered. Now 11, Aaron hates Hebrew school.

“I’ll be happy if I can get him to have a bar mitzvah,” Lobenthal said.

Currently, the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), a Federation agency, allocates $2.35 million to Los Angeles’ day schools. For the past two years, the wheels have been turning to set up a $20 million endowment fund for day school education. The Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation have each pledged $1 million to the fund, and are working with BJE to secure lead donors. The interest from the endowment — about $1 million annually — would leverage endowment dollars raised in the schools at a rate of 25 cents to the dollar. So if a school raised $1 million for its endowment, the fund would then pay the school an additional $250,000, according to Miriam Prum-Hess, the director for day school operational services at BJE. That approach, rather than, say, discounting every child’s tuition, works for a city the size of Los Angeles. With nearly 10,000 students, a community fund to discount tuition by $2,000 per child would cost $20 million. With this model, schools have incentive to raise their own money, and then can use the money however best suits the particular schools.

Other communities have managed to generate large gifts in the last two years. In late 2004, three philanthropists gifted $45 million to Boston’s 16 day schools, and other communities have seen numbers between $13 million and $20 million.

“I have found a great willingness among major Jewish philanthropists to invest tremendous amounts of capital in models of Jewish education that work,” said Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Boston-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE).

Elkin also believes that with the right training, technology and motivation, the 759 day schools that serve 205,000 students nationwide can double their annual giving to cover the gap between tuition revenue and what it costs to run a school.

In Los Angeles, while some schools have to make up about 10 percent of their budget in fundraising, others find themselves with gaps of 40 percent or more. And with a huge jump in insurance — particularly workman’s comp — and increased security costs since Sept. 11, as well as the pressure to keep teachers’ salary and benefits on par with public schools, raising tuition is a tempting way to make up the shortfall.

But Prum-Hess, who moved into her position at BJE after serving as vice president of allocations for The Federation, hopes that schools can hold the line on tuition by tapping into unrealized revenue potential.

This year, as part of a national Match Grant program, she helped 13 schools raise a combined $1 million from new donors, which earned the schools an additional $500,000 from the Jewish Funders Network and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education. Schools also brought in $1 million in homeland security grants, with Prum-Hess’s help (see sidebar).

She wants to see schools think more strategically, setting up endowments and seeking bequests.

“I think the biggest problem that day schools have is that many live hand to mouth and it’s very hard to think beyond the immediate when that is the way you operate,” she said.

Change is coming slowly. A handful of schools have already started endowments.

Emek, an 824-student Orthodox school in Sherman Oaks, last year set up the Emek Heritage Endowment Fund, asking every family to contribute $200 a year. Now at the end of its second year, the fund garnered 100 percent participation and has $70,000, and administrators hope to reach $1 million within 10 years.

But long-term planning isn’t going to help the Katz family (they asked that their real name not be used to protect their privacy). Jennifer is a social worker; David is in the allied medical field. Both have advanced degrees and good jobs. But between the housing market in Los Angeles and the cost of day school — even with financial aid — they have made the decision to move to Cleveland this summer. There they can trade up from their two-bedroom duplex to a four-bedroom house that costs $250,000, and they will pay $11,000 less than they do now to send their three children to an Orthodox day school.

“We’re just not getting ahead,” Jennifer said. “We can’t take trips that we want to take to see our family on the East Coast. We’ve got three kids living in one bedroom. We work too hard for our money to have nothing to show for it.”

Prum-Hess calculates that to send two kids to day school and live decently in Los Angeles, a family has to earn about $160,000 annually.

“Part of the message that we need to give is that you might be earning $150,000 and saying ‘I’m earning a great salary and I can’t pencil out what is wrong,’ and we say we know you’re not making ends meet, and you need to apply for a scholarship,” Prum-Hess advises.

All Jewish schools have scholarship programs, with a wide range of giving levels and procedures for how parents can access than money.

At Milken, tuition and fees for the 600 students is about $24,000 each. The school gave out $1.2 million in scholarship money. New Community Jewish High School, where tuition and fees run about $22,500, has allocated more than $1 million for the 320 kids it has coming in next year.

Pressman Academy, a Conservative K-8 school where the bottom line comes to more than $12,000, gives out $340,000 to its student body of 367. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a Reform elementary school, allocated $200,000 to its 210 students last year to defray the $14,000 price tag. In the school’s seven years of existence, the temple has kicked in more that $1.5 million to the school’s budget.

The Reform Temple Israel of Hollywood parcels out $77,000 annually among its 200 students, but caps aid at 30 percent of tuition so the school can help more families. On the few occasions where families who apply aren’t able to afford the day school, Temple Israel guides them toward the religious school, where no child is turned away for financial reasons.

“It’s a very difficult situation for all of us who are passionate about Jewish day school education,” Temple Israel Day School head of school Eileen Horowitz said. “We want to be able to help as many families as we can.”

Other Reform and Conservative synagogue schools acknowledge that while they only rarely have to turn students away, they don’t often see those families that truly can’t afford the education. It is an economically self-selected group that even applies.

That is not the case in the Orthodox community, where a day school education is seen as mandatory, even when a family has six, seven or eight kids. Schools that serve the Modern Orthodox population give out about 30 percent to 40 percent of tuition revenues in scholarships every year, compared with 10 percent to 20 percent in non-Orthodox schools.

At the YULA boys high school, last year $1 million was distributed among 195 boys to help cover the $19,000 tuition.

“There is no such thing at YULA as a student unable to attend because of inability to pay tuition,” said boys’ school principal Rabbi Dovid Landesman. “At the same time, we will put as much pressure as we can on parents who can pay. It has to be their most important priority — they can’t say ‘we prefer a Jewish education, but not at the expense of a nice car or going to Puerto Rico for Pesach.'”

The “no child turned away” policy finds extreme expression in the ultra-Orthodox community, where in some schools as much as 80 percent of the student body receives financial assistance, including some who pay only a nominal amount.

At Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn Toras Emes, the two principals, Rabbi Berish Goldenberg and Rabbi Yakov Krause, handle financial aid personally. Last year, the school allocated more than $2 million in tuition subvention. Goldenberg estimates that only 350 to 400 of his 1,100 students are paying full tuition, which added to fees comes to about $12,000 a year for the first child (as at most schools, there is a sibling discount and teachers get an automatic break).

The parent body includes many teachers at other schools, as well as rabbis and Jewish communal professionals who serve the wider community. Many of them have large families.

Toras Emes is currently phasing in a minimum tuition requirement of $3,500, so that every family is paying something. (Goldenberg expects exceptions to that minimum, too.)

Like most yeshivas, Toras Emes functions in the red, constantly begging and borrowing to make payroll and pay bills.

“This yeshiva exists on miracles, and you only see it when you sit behind this desk,” Goldenberg said. “Somehow Hashem [God] takes care of us.”

“God will provide” is also the mantra at Chabad schools, which have an open-door policy for anyone who wants a Jewish education.

Rabbi Baruch Hecht, director at the girls’ elementary and junior high schools Bais Chaya Mushke and Bais Rebbe, allocates about half his budget toward financial assistance.

“There is no point sitting in my chair if you are not prepared to do what we do,” he said. “If you are going to run a Jewish day school, then part of that process is knowing you are going to be handing out scholarships — a lot of them — because your mission is to make sure every child has an opportunity for a Jewish education.”

But for now, most middle-class families either aren’t willing to ask, or don’t qualify for much help. Instead, they make lifestyle choices to support their educational goals for their children.

Joanne Helperin went back to work full time when her daughter was 2 so her two kids, now 7 and 4, could attend Maimonides Academy, an Orthodox day school in West Hollywood.

“And I feel guilty about it every day,” Helperin says of the need to work full time.

Helperin is a journalist, the senior features editor at Edmunds.com. Her husband, Robby, is the owner and bandleader of Spotlight Music and the Simcha Orchestra. Business is booming, but with the high cost of living in Los Angeles combined with day school tuition, they find it hard to refuse the offer of tuition help from the grandparents.

“And the question is, will I be able to do that for my grandchild? And what about college? I think we’re going to have to work longer and retire later,” Helperin said.

Tuition assistance programs that have sprung up in small communities across the country over the past five or six years are aimed at precisely this demographic. In Morris County, N.J., tuition was automatically capped at $5,500 for families who earn less than $120,000, and those who earn more can qualify, too.

In the Bay Area, the Levine-Lent Family Foundation set a goal of doubling the number of day school students in Northern California by the year 2010. In 2002, the foundation gave every child enrolling in the newly opened Kehilla Jewish High School a $9,000-a-year tuition voucher for four years, and the following year entering students were offered $7,000 vouchers. The school had expected 18 students in its first class; 34 enrolled, and half of those students had not gone to a Jewish elementary school.

But with 10,000 students at 37 schools, a similar endeavor in Los Angeles would cost tens of millions of dollars — a daunting figure.

The Avi Chai Foundation, a leader in promoting day school education, launched a pilot program in 1998 in day schools in Atlanta and Akron, Ohio. Students were given $3,000 vouchers, but analysts concluded that while the vouchers did help attract and retain students, more important factors were the child’s happiness and the quality of the education.

“The cost of education is not the only challenge the day school world has,” said Elkin of Boston’s PEJE. “We have to market Judaism. We have to market the quality of the education, we have to deal with concerns about ghettoization, concerns that that the schools are too narrow and that kids will be socially crippled when they get out of school. There is a whole range of selling we have to do. There is no silver-bullet panacea for the day school world.”

In Los Angeles, where the non-Orthodox day schools compete for students not just with public schools, but also with other private schools — which cost more and are often perceived as offering more than day schools — competition has increased among the Jewish schools, which is one of the reasons tuition has gone up. Schools vie for the best teachers and pay for extras to attract kids who might end up at Harvard-Westlake or Buckley.

“We want great teacher-to-student ratios, and great science labs and great sports,” said Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. “We want an orchestra and computers and art and dance and music — and, and, and. It costs a lot of money and I’m not embarrassed or ashamed of that fact. It simply needs to be made a priority and we need to go out and raise it,” he said.

Powell of New Community Jewish High School agrees. “How can we do any less 60 years after the Holocaust, when we have not even replaced the 6 million? How can we turn Jewish kids away from Jewish school, kids who want to learn how to live a joyful Jewish life?”

 

Drive Sends Love, ‘Gratitude’ to Troops


As Carolyn Blashek knows only too well, good things come in small packages. The founder and motivating force behind Operation Gratitude, a nonprofit organization that sends care packages to American troops overseas, Blashek serves as an inspiring testimony to one woman’s dedication to provide faith and hope to lonely soldiers.

Blashek is a Jewish mother in Encino who, like most Americans, was horrified by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. However, her reaction was slightly different than that of the average Jewish mother — she tried to enlist in the military. She soon discovered that, at 46, she exceeded the age limit of 35, and “as a civilian there were very few opportunities to show your support to the military.” She began volunteering at a dilapidated military lounge at LAX, until one day in March 2003 (the outset of the war with Iraq), a heart-wrenching talk with a despondent soldier inspired her to create a system to show soldiers that she cared.

“I’m going back to a war zone,” she recalls him saying. “I just buried my mother, my wife left me and my child died as an infant. I have no one in my life. For the first time I don’t think I’ll make it back, but it really wouldn’t matter because no one would even care.”

Blashek was devastated as she realized that many of the soldiers are fighting in foreign countries without support systems.

“What gives someone the strength to survive when bullets are flying?” she wondered. “The belief that someone cares about you.”

She decided to express her compassion by sending food, entertainment, and personal letters in packages.

“The Jewish mother in me had this need to communicate concern and love and appreciation,” she said with a little laugh. “It’s that sense of nurturing… the Jewish mother element.”

Primarily through word of mouth, the project snowballed. What began three years ago as a humble living room project financed and organized by her alone exploded into an organization that coordinates donation drives for packages across the country.

“Now I’ve sent over 111,000 packages in three years,” she said.

After Operation Gratitude’s third annual Patriotic Drive, which is to take place at the end of this month, she hopes to reach 150,000.

Blashek vividly recalls an emotional encounter she had with Kayitz Finley — the son of her local rabbi, Mordecai Finley of Congregation Ohr HaTorah — to whom she sent packages while he served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both a soldier serving in a distant land and a member of her local community, he became her inspiration. “The first most emotional experience I had through all this was when he came home and he and I got to meet in person for the first time,” she said. “It was at a Saturday morning service. We saw each other, threw our arms around each other and couldn’t stop hugging. Neither of us could get any words out. We both just kept saying ‘thank you’ to each other. It was very powerful.”

Operation Gratitude’s Third Annual Patriotic Drive continues at the California Army National Guard Armory, 17330 Victory Blvd, Van Nuys on June 17-18. Items requested for donation can be found on the website

Invitation to a Ritual


My hair is starting to go. I sent out a notice to the friends who have banded together to support me since I received my cancer diagnosis:

To: All recipients
From: anejenzmom@aol.com
Subject: Upfsherin

Peter, who has been cutting my hair since 1981, will be coming over at 7 p.m. this Sunday night to give me a buzz cut. Since strands of hair have been lingering in my brush and on my sweaters and tickling my face, the time has come to celebrate the fact that the elixirs are doing their job.

An upfsherin is traditionally a ceremony for 3-year-old boys getting their first haircut, but I will be renewing this tradition to mark the progress of my healing journey. You are invited to join me and be a witness for this rite-of-passage. Please bring goodies or musical instruments. I will be providing the hair.

Over the last weeks, I have received gifts of head coverings. A friend, who is both a rabbi and a cancer survivor, brought the beautifully embroidered crown kippah that graced her shining dome during her treatment. A student sent three hand-knit “comfort caps” made by women in her synagogue to cover cancer-tender heads like mine. Several friends have suggested sheitl (wig) shopping.

I don’t think I’m the sheitl type. While I am tempted to see what I would look like with perfect hair and make no judgments about those who choose to cover chemo-induced baldness with manufactured manes, I’m not sure it’s for me. I fidget a lot. My fingers fiddle and scratch at irregularities in fabric and skin. I can’t see me keeping my hands off the hairpiece or wearing it with grace. Also there is a tendency for things around me to be askew — paintings, mirrors, papers. My eyeglasses are always lopsided. I suspect that my wig would reflect this cockeyed balance. I’m not sure I could pull the wig thing off.

Moreover, I’m not sure I want to wear a wig. I don’t want to sugar coat the fact of my cancer. While there is no telling what caused my disease, I think that the fact of cancer –so much cancer — is something we need to look in the face. Cancer, like the devastation that I witnessed in the post-Katrina Gulf South, reveals the diseased infrastructure that riddles our ailing planet. Cover-up and denial exacerbate deterioration.

I don’t feel like an individual singled out to get this rare and nasty cancer. I feel like an envoy sent on behalf of planet earth.

“Look at me,” I want to say. “I am the face of the planet we share. I am your face. Look at me and take healing action. I am not going away. I become more toxic with every gallon of gas, every paper plate, and every soda bottle not recycled You have a choice. You can cover me over with a veneer and deny the future or you can meet my gaze and enlist to save the earth.”

I have spent my career making visible things that are often carried silently inside. To wear a wig, so that the world would not know that I have cancer and to protect those who see me from the reality of my illness, would betray my work and my values.

I am the ribbon lady. I give out rainbows of ribbons to mark what’s really happening with people. My ribbons mark mourning (black) and other life changes (blue), such as divorce, ending a relationship, relocation, loss or change of job, illness or becoming a caretaker for someone else who is ill. I have ribbons for yahrzeits (green) and ribbons for those who have dealt with any of these challenges in the past and have found them to be their teachers (purple). These categories actually reflect the Talmud’s description of those who walked the mourners’ path in the Temple: “mourners, those with someone sick at home, those who have lost a significant object, and excommunicants.” Inevitably, when I offer ribbons, most everyone takes one or more. It appears that just about everyone is in the midst of some sort of personal challenge. The assumption that “normal” means “good” is shattered.

Being marked with the ribbons makes it easier for people to feel more authentic. Visibility brings relief from the incongruity felt when inner experience is masked by the persona they felt obliged to present to a community unaware of their challenges or committed to the myth of normalcy.

When those who suffer do not have to mask, their energy is diverted from hiding to healing. Without the burden of covering up brokenness, people are able to attend to their deeper needs. Without veneers, people are given the comfort of authenticity. When we encounter them, we look honestly into the face of human experience. We surrender the illusions about what normal looks like. Hopefully with eyes opened, we will not avert our gaze and respond with compassion.

The season of masking is past. Both Mardi Gras and Purim are behind us. It’s time for being visible. I guess it is no wig for me.

Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

 

Super Sunday Aims at Aiding Programs


In 1999, Alexander Khananashvili left behind his prosperous life as a Moscow doctor to immigrate to the United States with his wife and two daughters, hoping for a better future. He came with little money, no job prospects and no knowledge of English.

With the help of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Khananashvili and his family quickly found their footing. Within two days of their arrival, the former doctor and his wife met with a social worker from Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), a Federation beneficiary agency.

The social worker spoke to them at length about life in America, giving them information on everything from opening a bank account to enrolling in a medical plan. Within a few weeks, Khananashvili had several job leads, courtesy of JVS, while his wife enrolled, for free, in an English-language class offered by the agency.

Subsequently, The Federation awarded scholarships worth tens of thousands of dollars to enroll the Khananashvili daughters in Jewish day schools and Jewish camps, which, Khananashvili said, has helped cement their Jewish identities.

“The Federation improved our lives,” said Khananashvili, now a 48-year-old social worker and Beverly Hills resident. “They gave us our start here and protected us under their shield. We’re very grateful.”

During the past 30 years, The Federation has helped 30,000 Jews from around the world settle in the greater Los Angeles area. On Feb. 26, The Federation will hold its annual Super Sunday megafundraiser to support its 22 beneficiary agencies, including the Refugee and Resettlement Program that helped the Khananashvilis, as well as myriad other programs.

For the fundraiser, an estimated 1,900 volunteers will gather from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. to staff phones at three sites: The Federation’s headquarters at 6505 Wilshire Blvd., the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills and the Torrance Marriott. They will be making calls to potential donors, with the goal of raising $4.7 million.

Craig Prizant, The Federation’s executive vice president for financial resource development, said he hopes this year’s Super Sunday fundraising will break its record by $200,000 over 2005. He said he feels optimistic, because many local Jews have profited from the sizzling real estate market, enabling them to give more generously. In addition, The Federation has identified and plans to contact the growing population of Jews in the West Valley, including West Hills, and in such South Bay cities as Manhattan Beach and Torrance.

Still, “the needs are always going to outweigh what we can raise,” Prizant said.

That’s especially true for Jewish Family Service (JFS) and Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), two Federation beneficiary agencies that have been particularly hard hit by cuts in government funding.

The JFS Gramercy Place Shelter, for instance, has lost about $180,000 in federal and state money over the past two years, a huge financial hit, according to Paul Castro, the agency’s executive director. The 57-bed homeless shelter, which, Castro said, “seems to be chronically at risk,” has managed to stay afloat only because JFS has filled the gap with private donations. However, because of the government shortfall, JFS has not been able to expand the existing programs or introduce needed new ones at a time when demand for services has skyrocketed, Castro said.

In this age of budget deficits, JFS and other local nonprofits increasingly rely on funds generated by Super Sunday and other private-sector initiatives to maintain present service levels, Castro said.

“When you look at what’s happening with government funding, you’re seeing a bigger expectation that private donors will take a greater responsibility for meeting the safety net,” he said. “And Super Sunday is an important example of how this community is working toward that reality.”

JVS also has seen demand for its services outstrip resources to provide them. In 2002, for instance, the agency’s staff included eight full-time job developers tracking down leads for clients. Today, JFS has one full-time and one part-time employment developer.

Reduced funding has forced JVS to move away from individual sessions for resume writing and interviewing. Instead, said Vivian B. Seigel, JVS chief executive, much of the training is now done in a group setting.

In light of those realities, she said, Super Sunday’s importance to JVS should not be underestimated.

“We look at the money generated by Super Sunday as extremely important,” Seigel said. “It has enabled us to reach out to families we know are living below the poverty line and to offer important services, ranging from help in finding jobs that pay a living wage to college tuition scholarships.”

Among those calling prospective donors will be the Khananashvilis, who, in addition to making pitches, will make their own donation, just as they have every year since coming to America.

“We like being able to give back,” Khananashvili said. “In the beginning, it was only $10, but $10 for us was maybe more than $1,000 now. It was a lot of money.”

To volunteer for or make a donation to Super Sunday, call (866) 968-7333.

 

A Step Into Secular


Chaim breezes into a diner on the Upper West Side of Manhattan clutching two huge shopping bags.

“I got some clothes, this plaid shirt, two for $5, this leather jacket just $20,” says Chaim, 19, in the clipped, Yiddish-accented English of the Chasidic world he comes from. “I didn’t know what to buy, my roommate went with me, he told me what’s nice,” he says, fingering a sweater gingerly.

Chaim is — or was — a Skver Chasid, born and raised in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of New Square, N.Y. His world until recently was Torah, family and a close-knit community.

But now he’s entering the secular world.

In September, he shaved his beard, left his parent’s home and took a bus to Brooklyn, where he now goes to college and shares an apartment.

“I found it on craigslist,” he says with pride, referring to the online classified site.

His new life comes with help from Footsteps, a 2-year-old Manhattan-based nonprofit group that helps dropouts from the Charedi world transition into secular society.

No one knows how many American Jews have left the ultra-Orthodox fold, although most are believed to have come from the New York area. There are no statistics, and, until Footsteps was created, no organization to help them learn how to make it on the outside.

While the organized Jewish world doesn’t usually think of Chasidic dropouts as “Jews in need,” outsiders can’t begin to imagine how frightening and complicated the everyday world can seem to a person who only knows the carefully controlled cocoon of Satmar, Skver or Bobov.

Particularly for a young person, whose departure can be hasty and unplanned, the road out of the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg or Crown Heights is fraught with confusion and loneliness — and sometimes drug abuse.

“People who have decided to make this transition don’t have a place to go,” says Hella Winston, the author of “Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels” (Beacon Press, 2005).

Chaim isn’t using his real name out of respect for his family still in the community. His journey from ultra-Orthodoxy to young, secular Jewish New Yorker didn’t happen overnight.

A year and a half ago, he says, “I heard there was such a place as a public library,” where he could find a computer and Internet access.

“I didn’t know how to use the mouse. I started tapping on the screen,” he says, smiling in embarrassment.

He began reading about the world outside New Square, and soon realized “it’s not all drug dealers and crazy, like they say in our community.”

Slowly, he felt more and more alienated from his Chasidic world.

Although he lived at home until this fall, last year he was already sneaking into Manhattan after work to walk the streets and look at people. He let his hair grow longer under his yarmulke, and bought black jeans, sneakers and a baseball cap to wear on his urban forays.

“I’d changed in my mind a long time ago,” he says. “Something pushed me away, I don’t know what.”

He planned his departure carefully. His first step was to get his GED, or high school equivalency, so he could apply for a loan to go to college. But Chasidic boys receive very little secular education, and he didn’t know how to begin studying for the test.

In late February he met the founding director of Footsteps, 24-year-old Malkie Schwartz, an ex-Lubavitcher.

She introduced him to the few dozen other ex-Chasidim in her organization, and he enrolled in the GED class.

This summer, Chaim passed his exam. He’s in a liberal arts program, but hopes to major in math or science. He hasn’t gone on a date yet — “Socially, I’m very awkward,” he admits — but says he’s looking forward to that, too.

The transition can be difficult.

Winston recently heard from a young man who spent six months sleeping in New York City parks and subways after he left his Chasidic community.

“He had nowhere to go,” Winston says. “America is a very individualistic society, and for people leaving a community it’s important to have one to move into. Otherwise they run the risk of becoming lost.”

Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology and Jewish studies at the City University of New York, agrees.

“Missing their families [is a major problem],” says Heilman, the author of “Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry” (University of California Press, 1999). “For most people in the Charedi world, the single biggest part of their lives, and the part that outsiders are often envious of, is connection to family and community.”

And when they leave, those connections are radically broken. Even if the one who left remains in contact with family members, those contacts often have to be surreptitious, Heilman says.

A support system like Footsteps didn’t exist when Schwartz left Crown Heights five years ago.

She was 19, and knew she would be expected to marry soon. That’s often the point at which young Chasidim who are unsure about their faith or their lifestyle make the move to leave, Winston writes, before their decision will impact their future families.

“I felt I couldn’t make this decision for myself and for the large number of kids that would follow,” Schwartz says. “I wanted an education.”

She moved out, enrolled in Hunter College with financial aid and got a bachelor’s degree.

But it was tough to go it alone. In December 2003, she organized a meeting for what she hoped would become a support group for former Chasidim. Twenty people showed up, and Footsteps was born.

Schwartz runs everything out of her apartment. GED classes, support groups, art and writing therapy groups and discussions on health, sex and relationships are held at ad-hoc spaces around the city. Once a month there are sessions on life skills.

Footsteps has received grants from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Alan B. Slivka Foundation, the Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women and an anonymous donor, and in early December was accepted into Bikkurim, a program that provides office space and technical support for Jewish start-ups in New York City.

More than 200 former Chasidim have passed through Footsteps; about 40 are currently active, mostly young Jews in their 20s. One thing Schwartz would like to offer is a halfway house, a temporary safe space for those just leaving their communities.

Many of the former Chasidim in Footsteps are not observant anymore, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have strong Jewish identities.

Zelda Deutsch, 28, left her Satmar community in early 2003, along with her husband and their son. Leaving was, she says “a very complicated and lonely process,” and she wishes Footsteps had been around.

The Deutsches no longer go to synagogue, but they speak Yiddish at home and celebrate all the holidays.

“My son is very aware he is Jewish, the environment in our home is filled with the way we were raised,” she says.

In November they began hosting Friday-night dinners for fellow Footsteppers.

“The people who come don’t go to synagogue, they’re not religious,” Deutsch says. “We serve kugel, stuffed chicken, the traditional foods, and we sing all the zemiros,” or Shabbat songs they grew up with.

“For some people the singing brings up bad memories,” she admits. “But the Jewish life filled such a large part of our daily lives, now that it’s gone, there’s a huge void. As a rule, everybody wants some connection to a spiritual life.”

 

Community Briefs


After 22 years as head rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village, Rabbi Aron Tendler resigned last weekend.

“It is with mixed emotions that I write you today to let you know of my decision that, after 22 wonderful years, I have decided to step down as rabbi of Shaarey Zedek,” Tendler wrote in a letter to the 400-member families of the Orthodox synagogue.

“This has been a decision I have contemplated for some time, and after great soul searching and deliberation and with the full support of Esther and the family, I decided that it was time to explore other opportunities and embark on a new aspect of my personal and professional life.”

Tendler wrote that he intends to stay in the community but wants to spend more time with his family and pursuing writing, teaching and other projects.

“On occasion, I would like to sleep for more than four hours. Selfishly put, I want more time, and if not now when?” he wrote. Tendler will stay on through the High Holidays and help the search committee in its quest to find a new rabbi.

“Rabbi Tendler turned innumerable lives around, and it will be a great loss for us,” Brad Turell, Shaarey Zedek’s communications director, told The Journal. “He’s very talented and we wish him the best.”

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Sharansky Visits Southland

Israeli politician Natan Sharansky spent a quick two days in Los Angeles last weekend, giving four speeches on Jan. 22 calling for more American Jewish involvement in the upcoming World Zionist Congress.

“People have a need to strengthen their bond, somehow feel themselves part of a bigger family,” Sharansky told The Jewish Journal. “It doesn’t matter what origin; it doesn’t matter whether they are right or left; more and more Jews feel the need to become close to Israel. Before you are looking for the new way with your connection with Israel, what about the most traditional way?”

The prominent Likud party member was brought to Los Angeles last weekend by the West Coast chapter of American Friends of Likud. He encouraged Jews here to get more active in the quadrennial congress this summer of the World Zionist Organization (WZO), which controls the multimillion dollar budgets for The Jewish Agency.

Organizers said Sharansky spoke to about 35 Likud supporters at a Sunday breakfast, then to 100 people at the Hillcrest Country Club, plus more than 200 people later Sunday afternoon at Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills and finally another 90 at a private dinner at a television producer’s home.

Since last November, the WZO’s American branch has been selecting delegates for this June’s 35th WZO Congress in Jerusalem. Voting ends in late February with U.S. candidates from Likud, Russian, Green Zionist, Meretz, Harut and other Jewish movements. Sharansky wants more U.S. Jews to sign up with the $7 registration fee on the WZO’s American Zionist Movement Web site and then vote for delegates concerned about WZO spending.

In an interview between two of his speeches, Sharansky criticized the WZO Congress as a, “narrow group of people without broad involvement of Jews [worldwide]. So people simply don’t know, its connection of involvement and distribution of funds. Jews have an opportunity to participate in it, but they’re not using this opportunity. One percent maybe knows about its existence.”

Sharansky quit his minister-without-portfolio post last May in protest to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s pullout last August of Gaza settlers. While Sharon’s former Likud party sponsored Sharansky’s two-day L.A. visit, the onetime Soviet dissident said, “When speaking abroad, I’m trying to speak as little about splits in Israel as possible. When speaking to the Jews of Diaspora, you have to speak about building bridges between Jews of Diaspora and Israel.” — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

A Dozen Nonprofits Get Foundation Grants

The Jewish Community Foundation recently awarded grants totaling $116,000 to 12 mostly local nonprofit organizations to support a variety of services, ranging from suicide prevention hotlines to dental care for the poor and counseling and tutoring for abused and neglected children.

The Foundation’s grants ranged in size from $5,000 to $20,000 and will help fund valuable services that government money alone cannot underwrite, said Marvin I. Schotland, foundation president and chief executive.

“There are vast pockets of need that cannot possibly be met at this time by the public sector,” he said. “Support by our organization to the greater community is more critical, and immensely gratifying, than ever and remains a vital part of our mandate.”

The foundation, created in 1954, is the largest manager of charitable assets for Greater Los Angeles Jewish philanthropists. With more than $590 million under its management, the Foundation distributed last year $58 million in grants to more than 1,300 organizations.

Among the nonprofits that received grants in January:

  • The Los Angeles Free Clinic received $10,000 for its dental program. This year, the clinic, which provides health and other services to the uninsured and the working poor, expects more than 3,500 children and adults to make more than 9,000 visits for dental services.
  • Trevor Project Inc., based in Beverly Hills, received $10,000 for a suicide prevention hotline and educational programs that promote tolerance for gay teens and those questioning their sexual orientation.
  • New Ways to Work in Sebastopol, Calif., received a $10,000 grant to help prepare children in foster care for independence at age 18. Over the next four years, nearly 4,000 Los Angeles youths currently in foster care are expected to become emancipated and leave the foster care system.
  • Inner-City Arts received $10,000 for a hands-on arts program designed to improve literacy among grade school students enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

Chabad in the House

What is “The Rebbe’s Gelt?”

Literally, “the rabbi’s money,” it’s the name of a new Chabad program unveiled last week at the annual West Coast Convention of Chabad/Lubavitch for Shulchim, or emissaries. The new initiative will provide grants and loans to those rabbis who need short-term financial aid.

More than 170 Chabad rabbis and emissaries gathered at the Renaissance Long Beach Hotel and the Hebrew Academy in Huntington Beach, for the Jan. 15-16 convention. Chabad West Coast unveiled Camp Gan Israel Running Springs, a new Jewish overnight camp located on Chabad’s Kiryas Schneerson mountaintop campus. Chabad also announced its plan to organize the first ever Woman’s Convention of Shluchos on the West Coast, tentatively scheduled for May in San Diego. — Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Thousand Oaks Temple Teacher Receives Award

Bobbie Match, who has spent 10 years at Temple Adat Elohim’s Early Childhood Center received the Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education presented by the Jewish Education Service of North America, Inc. The award recognizes outstanding classroom-based teachers in formal Jewish educational settings. It includes a $1500 grant for continued professional development. Last year Match received the prestigious Lainer Distinguished Early Childhood Educator Award from the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles (BJE).

Other recent BJE Award winners from Temple Adat Elohim are Michelle Princenthal, winner of the 2005 Smotrich Family Education Award; Tara Farkash, winner of the 2003 Lainer Distinguished Early Childhood Educator Award; and Marcy Goldberg, winner of the 2004 Lainer Distinguished Educator Award. — NZ

Yago Joins Israel Securities Authority Board

Glenn Yago, director of Capital Studies at the Milken Institute in Los Angeles, was appointed to the International Advisory Board of the Israel Securities Authority (ISA), the government body that oversees and regulates the Israeli capital market and serves the same function as the Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States.

Yago joined key Israeli economic policy makers, including ISA chairman Moshe Tery, Bank of Israel Gov. Stanley Fischer and Tel-Aviv Stock Exchange chairman Yair Orgler, for the first meeting of the International Advisory Board in New York. Other board members from the U.S. include Leo Melamed, chairman emeritus of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange; Douglas Shulman of the National Association of Securities Dealers; Bill Brodsky, chairman of the Chicago Board Options Exchange; Milton Harris of the University of Chicago School of Business; and David Loglisci, deputy comptroller of the State of New York.

Appointing Yago, Tery said that he wanted the economist’s experience and insight “to help build the legal and economic infrastructure to advance Israel’s capital markets and its standing as a venue for global investment.”

Yago is a leading authority on financial innovations and capital markets and specializes in privatization projects to improve the economic climate in the Middle East. He has experience working with municipal, government, business and academic leaders in the region to promote economic reform. He is a senior Koret Knesset Fellow and teaches at Tel-Aviv University and the Interdisciplinary Center-Herzliya. He is the author of numerous books and studies, including “The Economic Road Map: Beyond the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” (Milken Institute, 2005). —NZ

Bubis Honored for Community Service

Professor Gerald Bubis, founding director of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service (SJCS) at the Los Angeles School of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), was honored recently when the school celebrated its 36th Anniversary at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Two-hundred guests turned out for the event, including colleagues, community leaders, fellow SJCS alumni and old friends, saluting Bubis’ efforts at the school and in the field of Jewish Communal Service.

The (SJCS) was founded in 1968 and is the oldest professional school of its kind. Its inter-disciplinary approach combines study of Jewish tradition and text with tools from the fields of the social sciences and business. Open to students from all areas of religious thought and communal life, the School seeks to be inclusive and pluralistic. Since its inception, 650 people have graduated from the school.

More than 300 SJCS graduates hold dual master’s degrees from USC. Twenty-five rabbis hold degrees from the school and 37 SJCS graduates have received dual degrees in Jewish Education from the HUC-JIR/LA Rhea Hirsch School of Education.

Concurrent with the celebration, alumni and friends of the School of Jewish

Communal Service raised more than $135,000 in scholarships in honor of Bubis. —Norma Zager

Stan’s Customers Go Bananas Over Reopening

Asked about the past three and a half months, shopper Kathy Mannheim said, “I hated it. It has not been a happy time in my life.”

She’s referring to the period of time she endured without her favorite local produce store, Stan’s. A Pico-Robertson neighborhood fixture, Stan’s closed after the High Holidays, when owner Stan Pascal got sick and was unable to carry on his usual six-day-a-week schedule.

Earlier this month, Pascal reopened and was greeted with the kind of enthusiasm normally reserved for rock stars.

“I’m thinking of giving autographs,” he joked.

Feyge Yemini, who patronizes the store twice a week to supply her large family, said she was “extremely happy” about Pascal’s return.

“I never found a comparable high-quality fruit store,” she said. “I had to go to five places to get what I can get here.”

Pascal started in the produce business as an 8-year-old in Windsor, Ontario, where he would help his father out on the weekends. In 1957, he came with his family to Los Angeles, and worked at his father’s three produce stalls at the Grand Central Market downtown. After his father died, Pascal and his wife, Susan, opened their own store on Fairfax Boulevard, where they remained for more than two decades before moving to the current location.

Fairfax resident Miriam Fishman continues to shop at Stan’s despite the distance.

“It’s a haimisch place,” she said. “There’s no other fruit store like it in town.”

In a time of big box markets and megastores, Stan’s has remained a place where retailer and customer maintain a personal relationship. Pascal greets customers by name, allows regulars to purchase with IOUs, and has been known to weigh a customer’s new baby on the produce scale.

During his absence, rumors circulated that he had sold the store, and in fact, he almost did. “At the last minute I changed my mind,” Pascal said. “I missed the people.”

The feeling is mutual. “I went to other places but it wasn’t the same,” said customer Mannheim. “It wasn’t Stan’s.” — Nancy Sokoler Steiner, Contributing Writer

 

Nation & World Briefs


Israel Reacts After Gaza Attacks

Just weeks after Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, fighting with the Palestinians resumed with sound and fury — and, some feared, the potential to evolve into a full-blown border war. Israeli forces answered Hamas rocket salvoes from Gaza with airstrikes, arrest sweeps in the West Bank and, in an unprecedented move, by putting its artillery on standby to fire.

On Sunday, Hamas announced that it would stop its rocket salvoes against the Jewish state — but the declaration was quickly followed by more Palestinian rocket and mortar fire into Israel.

At the same time, Islamic Jihad vowed to avenge the death of Mohammed Khalil, commander of its military wing in the Gaza Strip, who was killed in an Israeli air strike Sunday night. His deputy was killed as well, and four other people were wounded.

The escalation began with a terrorism-sparked tragedy: At least 15 people were killed last Friday when a munitions truck taking part in a Hamas victory parade in Gaza exploded, apparently by accident.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, embarrassed by the chaotic display of arms banned under the U.S.-led “road map” peace plan, condemned Hamas as irresponsible.

But with its prestige on the line just months before a January election for the Palestinian Parliament, Hamas put its own interpretation on the blast, calling it an Israeli airstrike or sabotage. Vowing to “open the gates of hell” on Israel, Hamas launched at least 35 Kassam rockets across the Gaza border at the southern Israeli town of Sderot. At least five Israelis were wounded in the strikes.

Wiesenthal Buried in Israel

Dignitaries from the United States, Israel and Austria joined hundreds of mourners in laying legendary Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal to rest in Herzliya last Friday. Wiesenthal, 96, died Sept. 20 in his sleep at his home in Vienna. No Israeli Cabinet ministers attended the funeral, but Deputy Minister Michael Melchior represented the government and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon issued a statement: “The State of Israel, the Jewish people and all humanity owe a great debt to Simon Wiesenthal, who dedicated his life to ensuring that the horrors of the past do not recur and that murderers do not escape justice.”

U.S. Jew Arrested in Alleged Sharon Plot

An American Jew was arrested in Israel on suspicion that he planned to assassinate Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Police said they planned to deport Shen’or Zalman Hatzkolevitch, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man from Brooklyn. It would mark the first time a Jew is deported from Israel for security violations.

Iran One Step Closer to Sanctions

The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog is one step closer to referring Iran to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions. A resolution passed last weekend by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board requires Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, end construction of a heavy-water treatment plant and allow increased inspection of its nuclear facilities. Israel and the United States, believing Iran may be less than two years away from manufacturing a nuclear bomb, had been pressing the IAEA to pass such a resolution. Iran may face sanctions as early as November when the IAEA board next meets. The resolution was pushed through by European nations, which had been on the fence until this summer. It passed 22-1 with 12 abstentions; Venezuela voted against it.

Joint Peace Rallies Held

Thousands of Israelis and Palestinians held rallies calling for a return to peace talks and an end to violence. In an address first delivered Saturday in Ramallah and then broadcast in Jerusalem, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas extended greetings to the Israeli peace camp, saying that the crowds at both rallies were fighting for the same goal of peace and an end to suffering. Some 10,000 people attended the Ramallah rally and 7,000 assembled in Jerusalem. The rally in Jerusalem was characterized by the strong presence of young people and members of the Russian-speaking community.

Withdrawal Aid Off the Table

Israel’s request for additional assistance from the United States to resettle evacuees from the Gaza Strip pullout is off the table for now, a senior Israeli official said.

President Bush had expressed interest in assisting Israel following the withdrawal, but “with one disaster after another, the momentum we had before the disengagement” has been lost, Yossi Bachar, the director general of Israel’s Finance Ministry, said Sunday.

He cited the massive costs the United States faces this hurricane season. In light of the hurricanes it is appropriate for Israel not to raise the matter, Bachar said, and he could not say when it would come up again.

Israel wanted $600 million from the United States in compensation for moving its army bases out of Gaza and an undetermined amount estimated in some reports to be $1.6 billion to absorb evacuated settlers into Israel’s Galilee and Negev regions. Bachar is in Washington with the governor of the Bank of Israel, Stanley Fischer, to attend International Monetary Fund meetings. Bachar, who met with his Russian, Jordanian, Egyptian, Dutch and Chinese counterparts over the weekend, as well as with board members from major investment banks, said interest in investment in Israel was high in the wake of the withdrawal.

French Dictionary Recalled

A French dictionary was recalled after a computer virus caused the publication to revert to an edition with anti-Semitic definitions. Earlier this week, MRAP, a French anti-racism association, charged that the 2005 edition of Le Petit Littre had reverted to an 1874 edition that contained racist and anti-Semitic definitions. A computer bug caused the 19th century edition to be sent to the printer by mistake. The publisher said the 2006 edition will be published with a foreword explaining the evolution of these terms since the 19th century.

Rita Damages Synagogue Containing Rescued Torahs

A Louisiana synagogue that was housing Torahs recovered from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was damaged by Hurricane Rita. The Torahs being kept at Beth Shalom Synagogue were not harmed, but water overwhelmed the synagogue’s rooftop drainage system, leaving an inch in the sanctuary, along with fallen tiles from the ceiling and hanging electrical wires, the Advocate News in Baton Rouge reported.

Jewish Woman Dies, 2nd Hurt in Hurricane Evacuation

A Houston Jewish woman died when a bus evacuating residents of an assisted-living community ahead of Hurricane Rita caught fire. Bessie Kaplan, 92, was among more than 20 people killed when a bus chartered by Brighton Gardens of Bellaire burst into flames as it was transporting them to Dallas. Another passenger, Ruby Goldberg, was treated for injuries at Dallas’ Parkland Hospital and released. Authorities believe a mechanical failure caused the fire.

Israel Aid Escapes Cut in GOP Committee Proposal

Funding for Israel would remain untouched in cuts proposed by Republicans in the wake of recent hurricanes. Funding for Egypt, Africa, the AIDS initiative and the Peace Corps would take hits under a Republican Study Committee document obtained by JTA. Israel is the single largest recipient of U.S. aid, receiving more than $2.5 billion a year, but is not on the list for cuts. The report is a proposal that House Republican leaders may bring to the floor.

Jewish Court to Rule on Ritual Circumcision Method

The city of New York agreed to allow a Jewish court to handle the case of a ritual circumcision practice that may have caused an infant’s death. Metzitzah b’peh, a circumcision method used only in some ultra-Orthodox communities, involves the mohel placing his mouth directly on the wound.

Rabbi Yitzchok Fisher’s use of metzitzah b’peh allegedly led to the death of a baby who contracted herpes. Fisher has agreed to suspend the practice while the beit din (Jewish court) studies the issue, the New York Jewish Week reported.

The city’s decision reportedly came after ultra-Orthodox rabbis persuaded Mayor Michael Bloomberg that the rabbinical court is the best place to resolve the issue.

Mourning for Gaza, New Orleans

The Orthodox Union has called on its rabbis to declare this Saturday, Oct. 1, a day of mourning for both the Gaza evacuation and the hurricanes that devastated New Orleans. It asks that each shul institute a ta’anit dibur — literally a “speech fast” or a period free of conversation, in commemoration of recent events.

“We ask all those attending shul that Shabbat morning to refrain from conversation while inside the sanctuary,” — including speeches or even conversation between pauses in the praying, according to a press release. Even traditional greetings of “Good Shabbos” or “Yasher koach” (good job), the OU says, “should be replaced with a handshake, a smile or both.”

The recent hurricane destruction in New Orleans and the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, which resulted in the razing of Israeli villages and synagogues, both transpired because of a loss of Torah and holiness in the world, and these events require a day of mourning, according to the OU, which is the main body representing Orthodox Judaism in the United States.

The OU interpretation is at odds with both the position of the Israeli government and that of many Jews and Jewish organizations in the United States. A majority in the American Jewish community supported the pullout. Other Jews and Jewish organizations combined neutrality with general support for the Israeli government.

The call for communal mourning has historical resonance. Throughout Jewish history, rabbis and leaders have called upon their communities to participate in speech fasts and food fasts in response to devastating world events or in preparation for repentance. — Amy Klein, Religion Editor

New Beer for New Year

North America’s only Jewish beer company has brewed a special beer for Rosh Hashanah. He’Brew’s Jewbelation 5766 is a nut-brown ale made from nine malts and hops to mark the company’s ninth anniversary, He’Brew owner Jeremy Cowan said.

More information is available at www.schmaltz.com.

Chabad to Dedicate Torah at Pentagon Chapel

The Lubavitch movement is dedicating a Torah at the Pentagon to mark the Sept. 11 terrorist attack there. The Torah will be installed Monday in a chapel built precisely where a hijacked plane hit on Sept. 11, 2001. The Aleph Institute, a Chabad affiliate that reaches out to prisoners and troops, is dedicating the Torah in coordination with the Pentagon chaplain’s office.

House Approves Funding for Faith-Based Head Start

The House of Representatives extended funding for Head Start programs to religious institutions, legislation opposed by some Jewish groups. The Reform movement strongly condemned last week’s vote, saying it would lower standards by allowing institutions to use federal funds to hire early-childhood teachers based on religion, not qualifications.

U.S. Imposed Arms Embargo, Ex-Shin Bet Chief Says

The United States imposed a limited arms embargo on Israel in the first year of the intifada, a former Israeli intelligence official said. Avi Dichter, former chief of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, said the embargo was imposed on helicopter parts, because of their use in Israel’s targeted killing of terrorist leaders, but that U.S. officials resisted calls for a wider arms embargo. The United States opposed targeted killings at the time.

Dichter was speaking at the Saban Institute in Washington, where he now is a fellow. The embargo ended after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the United States used helicopter-launched missiles to assassinate an Al Qaeda terrorist leader in Yemen in 2002. President Bush later said he could not keep Israel from carrying out an anti-terror strategy that he himself favored.

Jewish School Chief Testifies on Hurricane Aid Assistance

The president of a Memphis Jewish school was invited to testify before a Senate committee considering compensation for schools absorbing Hurricane Katrina refugees. Michael Stein, president of Margolin Hebrew Academy, was to testify before the Senate Health and Education Committee on the needs of parochial schools that take in displaced children.

“Our school adopted a policy of ‘doing whatever it takes,’ even though there was no way of knowing the cost and where the money would come from,” Stein said in prepared remarks distributed by the Orthodox Union before his testimony last week. “During the week of Aug. 28, our school enrolled 24 students ranging in age from 3 years to 17, increasing our school’s current population by 10 percent.”

The Orthodox Union wants the government to compensate parochial schools. Some Democrats oppose such funding, saying it violates church-state separation.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

 

‘Apostle of the Ugly’ Outlasts Nazis, Gets His Due


For 40 years, painter Max Liebermann was the premier artist of Berlin, a cultural icon and pioneer in his native land, and the pride of the Jewish community in Germany.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Liebermann became officially a nonperson — and when he died two years later at the age of 87, the controlled Nazi press ignored his death and accomplishments.

The Skirball Cultural Center, in the most ambitious artistic project in its nine-year history, will present the first American survey of the painter’s life and works in “Max Liebermann: From Realism to Impressionism.”

The exhibit opens Sept. 15 and continues through Jan. 29, 2006, after which it will travel to the Jewish Museum in New York.

Born into a wealthy German Jewish family in 1847, Liebermann spent a lengthy apprenticeship in German art academies and travels to Holland, and scored his initial success with his realist paintings of Dutch peasants and workers, particularly his “Women Plucking Geese” in 1872.

His depictions of life among the poor won praise for their skillful technique, but were denounced by hidebound critics who dubbed him “the apostle of the ugly.”

He followed the next year with “Self-portrait With Kitchen Still Life,” the only one of his many self-portraits in which Liebermann, posing as a kitchen chef, ventured a half-smile.

Keen viewers will spot a kosher seal attached to the chicken on the kitchen table.

In the 1880s, Liebermann started his large collection of French impressionist paintings by Manet, Degas, Renoir and Pissarro. He himself began to experiment with a looser, spontaneous impressionist style, a move denounced as “anti-German” by some critics.

He perfected this style over the next decades, especially in lovely paintings of beach scenes with tennis players, bathers and a pensive portrait of his wife Martha (who committed suicide in Berlin in 1943, after receiving her deportation orders for Theresienstadt).

Liebermann rarely used Jewish themes in his paintings, perhaps discouraged by the reception of his 1879 drawing, “The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple,” debating a group of rabbis. The young Jesus was originally portrayed as a scruffy, unkempt boy with gesticulating hands and a distinctively Semitic nose. The painting elicited howls of outrage that a painter, and a Jew at that, would depict Jesus in such an unflattering manner. As a result of the attacks, Liebermann cleaned up his act by changing the painting to show the young Jesus in a clean white robe and with an “Aryanized” nose.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Liebermann emerged as the leader of the German avant garde as president of the Berlin Secession, which promoted modernist German art rejected by most official museums and galleries, and works by French impressionist and post-impressionist artists. Around this time, he painted “Parrotman at the Amsterdam Zoo,” considered by many as his greatest impressionist work.

With the outbreak of World War I, Liebermann joined in his countrymen’s patriotic fervor, even suggesting in a letter that “war seems to be necessary to curb the excessive materialism of peacetime.”

He contributed for two years to the “Wartime Art Pages,” which featured heroic portraits of the kaiser and advancing German soldiers, but he also sketched the Kishinev pogrom, inscribed, “To my dear Jews.”

With the end of the war, Liebermann again explored new avenues. He became a highly regarded and well-paid portrait artist, whose sitters included Albert Einstein, Richard Strauss and German President Paul von Hindenburg.

At the same time, as the Weimar Republic brought a brief interlude of liberalism to Germany, Liebermann reached the apogee of his influence.

Wrote one historian, “During the Weimar Republic, Liebermann embodied the artistic and intellectual establishment like no other person in Germany.”

However, with advancing age, Liebermann retreated increasingly to his spacious villa in the Berlin suburb of Wansee, growing and painting flower and vegetable beds, and, toward the end of his life, concentrating on intimate family scenes. A 1932 photo shows Liebermann, aged and leaning on a cane, leaving a polling station, with a Hitler poster in the background.

Liebermann hardly fit the image of the bohemian, hard-drinking and loving artist. He was a devoted family man, and, even when painting at a beach, always wore a well-cut suit, tie and hat.

“In my daily habits,” he said, “I am completely bourgeois. I eat, drink, sleep and go for walks with the regularity of a church clock.”

His sober habits yielded some 1,500 paintings, studies and drawings during his long life, of which about one-third disappeared during the Nazi regime and World War II.

In addition, he was a prolific and conscientious correspondent, writing thousands of letters. In one, he characterized himself as “an inveterate Jew, who otherwise feels like a German,” and most of his life he was able to combine and balance the two loyalties.

As late as 1931, he wrote to Tel Aviv mayor Meir Dizengoff, “Art knows neither political nor religious boundaries … although I have felt as a German throughout my whole life, my kinship to the Jewish people is no less alive in me.”

But three years later, responding to an appeal for support of a Zionist youth group, Liebermann observed:

“We have only awakened now from the beautiful dream of assimilation…. I am too old to emigrate, but for the Jewish youth there is no salvation but to leave for Palestine, where they can live as a free people.”

Liebermann was “squarely in the tradition of Jews shaped by German culture and language,” who have made enormous contributions to the arts and knowledge, noted Dr. Uri Herscher, president and CEO of the Skirball Center.

Included, he said, are such names as Martin Buber, Einstein, Lion Feuchtwanger, Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm, Heinrich Heine, Franz Kafka, Otto Klemperer, Gustav Mahler, Jacques Offenbach, Leon Panofsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Kurt Weill.

Senior Curator Barbara Gilbert spent eight years in preparation for the exhibit, researching Liebermann’s life, tracking his works across Europe, and persuading museums and private collectors to lend some 70 paintings and drawings for the Skirball exhibit.

“We are trying to introduce the American public to the art of Max Liebermann, as well as to illustrate the politics of art,” Gilbert said. “Art became quite politicized during Liebermann’s lifetime and he used his position to speak out for the equality and broad inclusiveness of art.”

Underlining the point, museum director Lori Starr observed, “This unprecedented exhibition rediscovers Liebermann and illuminates how he leveraged his artistic talent and position in the Berlin art world to promote social change and campaign tirelessly against censorship, intolerance and injustice at a time when Nazism presented grave dangers.”

Accompanying the exhibit will be a series of concerts, lectures, workshops, family programs, German silent film screenings, courses in drawing and painting, an introductory video and a 220-page catalogue with 150 color images.

For information, call (310) 440-4500, or visit www.skirball.org.

 

‘Mothers’ Offer SOS for Abused Children


Yael Friedman, a 53-year-old single mother, lives in the Israeli village of Arad with her 10 children. But she’s not a typical single mother by any measure. For one thing, she gave birth to none of those children. Friedman works as a professional mother in a community that matches neglected and abused children — 10 at a time — with a women who is willing to assume the role of mother. This mother-by-choice also has to agree to stay single, to avoid any entanglement that would distract or detract from her task.

To assume this role, Friedman, who is divorced, left behind a travel business in Jaffa and wanted to make a change in her life.

“I was alone and dealing with business and things on the surface of life,” Friedman said. “I wasn’t involved with feelings.”

“Now I am a professional mother,” she said. “Every year I get a new child. I work 24 hours a day and their worries are mine.”

Friedman and her children live in an SOS Children’s Village, part of an international nonprofit for abused and orphaned children. The concept, developed in Austria after World War II, is a way to manage the needs of the country’s many widows and orphans.

Originally the organization was named just SOS — an abbreviation of the Latin Societas Socialis — an expression long associated with the international cry for help. Today, such villages are answering a universal cry in 137 countries. Villages in Southeast Asia, for example, were able to accommodate new orphans after the devastating December tsunami. But whether in Canada or India, Israel proper or the disputed territories, the villages follow the original Austrian model: one single woman manages a household of about 10 children. Village funding comes from SOS-Kinderdorf International, the umbrella organization, and where possible from government sources and private donors. The children in each village, typically 100 of them, benefit from being part of a long-established international program. At the same time, the children of each village are raised within the local culture that is familiar to them.

In Israel, the children integrate into Israeli society, which includes serving in the army, aspiring to higher education and getting a job. Israeli youths typically spend two to three years in army service. The village supports them up to age 25 should they opt for college.

There’s also an SOS village in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem; it raises children in accord with Palestinian norms. There’s no mandatory army service; the children are raised with the expectation of getting married and/or entering the workforce. Teenagers are encouraged to study or learn a trade at 18; the village will support them up to age 22.

Although some children in the village are orphans, about 65 percent are removed from family homes through a court order.

“These children have very tough stories. Once I hear them, I can’t sleep for a week,” said Matti Rose, the director at the village in Arad, a quiet desert town of 30,000, some 25 miles east of biblical Beersheba in the Negev Desert.

Somehow, despite its location, the village is almost European in its feel. Lavish landscaping, including enormous cactuses and banana trees, lend privacy to the tidy array of small bungalows.

The village employs a handyman, who encourages the children to build awnings and comfortable outdoor areas to avoid the intense sun. There are well-planned activities, a computer room and a resident soccer team.

SOS children are free to have birthday parties with friends from the outside and celebrate traditional holidays. The children get an allowance, but they’re also taught to contribute through volunteer work.

Whether Palestinian or Israeli, each village has the same mission in mind — raising healthy, educated and self-sufficient adults. Similar villages are scattered throughout neighboring Middle Eastern countries, including Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

One of the Arad village’s older teens, 18-year-old Tal, is getting ready to leave; it’s her time for army service. She has the assuredness of any other teen raised in a secure family environment. Sunny and bright and with career goals of work in education and medicine, she talked about her gratitude.

“Mothers do holy work, because their life is for their children,” said Tal, who arrived at the village when she was 8. She had come to Israel at age 4, from Uzbekistan, and after a series of placement homes came to the village. She and her sister arrived with nothing but a pair of underwear.

She’s got more now; as she talked she sat on a leather couch in front of an entertainment unit with a state-of-the-art DVD player and a big-screen TV. During the interview, Tal’s “brothers” slid in through the front door — and headed straight for the fridge, just like in any other family. Dire Straits was playing on the radio.

But it’s not material things, but Tal’s growth as a person that Friedman has been most concerned with, and she’s obviously proud of how Tal has grown up. On occasion, Friedman thinks of leaving the village — her home of 12 years — because of the constant challenges. The success stories make her stay, including those of “her boys,” who are now in university.

“It is a way of life, a big sacrifice, and whether I like it or not, I do it for my goal — to help these small kids,” said Friedman, while smoking a cigarette. “I give a child security after the chaos, so that day by day a certain life can emerge — one they can believe in.”

She’s helped by a village support network with live-in social workers. Support services include therapy, music lessons and social activities.

Although the region’s SOS villages are either predominantly Jewish or Muslim oriented, each village selects children based on circumstance, not religion. Many non-Jewish children from the former Soviet Union and Palestinian territories reside in the Israeli villages, and Christians mix with Muslims at the Palestinian locations.

On the Palestinian side, children’s lives have been especially disrupted by political unrest and economic hardship, said Mohamed Shala’ade, the SOS village director in Bethlehem.

“If a father is not working for five years, and there is nothing in his pocket, then this difficulty affects all aspects of the family life,” said Shala’ade.

In his view, the instability has even lead to some cases of child abuse.

“The politics here are affecting all the people, even though we know that everyone wants to be secure and in peace,” he said.

Donations can be made on behalf of Israeli or Palestinian locations. For Israel, contact Hezi Ditzi at 972-3-613-2438; for Palestinian territories, contact Mohamed Shala’ade at 970-2-274-2267. For more information, visit www.sos-childrensvillages.org.

Karin Kloosterman, a freelance journalist living in Israel, can be reached at

Letters to the Editor


Jewish Festivals of Yore

Rob Eshman does not have to apologize for sounding like a cranky old-timer in his lament about the Jewish festivals of yore (“A Bigger Sunday,” May 27). Much has changed since I participated in the Rancho Park festivities with my children. If attendance at the Woodley Park festival was 90 percent Israeli, many in Los Angeles must share the belief that Israel today may not represent the Diaspora view of Jewish values or Judaism itself.

The actions of the Israeli state suggest a people marching to a different drummer than the communal spectrum of the ’70s and ’80s that gathered at Rancho Park.

Martin Wallen
Bethesda, Md.

Many thanks for the nice mention of Big Sunday in your recent editorial.

Big Sunday is a volunteer day whose mission is to bring diverse people together from all walks of life, all over the city. As such, finding a date that is convenient for everyone is like walking a minefield. Big Sunday is always on a Sunday in the spring, and once you eliminate Passover, Easter, school breaks and Mother’s Day, the pickings are slim. One year we finally found a date, only to discover it was Greek Orthodox Easter. (Who knew?) This year we overlapped not only with the Israeli Festival, but with the NoHo Arts Fair, as well – and we happily sent volunteers to help out at both.

At Big Sunday our goal is to celebrate inclusiveness. Please tell your readers that any or all of them (and their congregations, schools, clubs and offices) are welcome to join us next May 7 for Big Sunday 2006.

David T. Levinson
Chairman
Big Sunday

As one of those cranky old-timers, I read, with nostalgia and great sadness, your description of the present-day festival. I’m afraid that the community of the ’70s and ’80s may be irretrievably gone. The Solidarity Walk of yore was organized and operated by The Federation as a communitywide event – not Israeli, Russian, Sephardic or any other single group – nor did we secularize it with “Mitzvah” programs on that day. We had and have other days for those programs.

It was truly an inclusive Jewish community day, demonstrating our solidarity with Israel and as a Jewish people. Organizationally, the only competition among ourselves was to vie for the honor of having more people participate, be they from the country clubs, the Jewish day schools, or from each and every synagogue in the city. The 30,000-50,000 people who participated – whether walking the 18 km, organizing the event, singing or dancing in the park ’til dusk, working the booths – all felt a sense of the total community that unfortunately doesn’t prevail today.

You raised an issue that is, I believe, a sad manifestation of what our community has and is evolving to. Your plaintive hope that the future generations will somehow change this situation is, I feel, misplaced.

I feel the loss that you have articulated. Somehow, that sense of community must be recaptured. It does not exist today. What should we be doing about it and whose responsibility should it be to act? It won’t happen by a laissez-faire approach, and that seems to be the present status quo.

Ozzie Goren
Los Angeles

Reform’s Reforms

I cannot speak for all Reform Jews, but I love the feeling of pluralism (“Reform’s Reforms,” May 20). If congregants choose to worship with us garbed in head-to-toe tallit, wearing tefillin and are comfortable sitting next to me with my bare, bald head, and having a young woman in a mini-skirt on the other side, they are more than welcome. Our temple, in the Conejo Valley, had a beautiful standing-room-only community prayer service after Sept. 11. Clergy and local residents representing every race, color and creed, sang, hugged and wept together. I have no problem if fellow congregants, or our rabbis, choose to become more halachic as long as there is no impact on my personal Jewish lifestyle or beliefs. That’s the beauty of Reform Judaism.

Martin J. Weisman
Westlake Village

Cantorial Correction

Thank you for the wonderful article highlighting how far the Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR) has come in just a few short years (“Student Rabbis, Cantors Take Next Step,” May 20). The article and accompanying photo do, however, merit a clarification and correction. In addition to the nontraditional roles noted, our graduates are also becoming congregational clergy. Indeed, of our 2005 ordinees, five out of seven will be serving in synagogues, in California as well as Arizona and Iowa. In addition, five of our eight past ordinees are also serving as congregational rabbis and cantors. Finally, the accompanying picture stated that it was of the “AJR rabbinical ordinees.” In fact, Paul Buch and Phillip Baron are being ordained as cantors.

Everyone associated with AJR has worked very hard to make the accomplishments noted in the article possible and we appreciate The Journal’s recognition of those efforts.

Rabbi Stan Levy
Chair, Board of Governors
Academy for Jewish Religion Los Angeles

Reform’s Reforms

Perhaps Micha Odenheimer of Ha’aretz has an excuse, but your editors have none. The principal architect and driving force behind the Pittsburgh Statement is our own community’s Rabbi Richard Levy, then president of the [Central Conference of American Rabbis]. That was itself a tribute to his stature within the movement as he was then neither a congregational rabbi nor a full-time teaching one, but instead the long-time executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council. He is a major influence on the movement’s return to tradition, not to mention author/editor of several of its prayer books, which reintroduced Hebrew to the liturgy. Your failure to acknowledge Levy’s contributions in print is unforgivable.

Immanuel I. Spira
Los Angeles

Yip Is a Yid

Whatever her credentials may be, Jacqueline Bassan, author of the letter on May 27 denying Yip Harburg’s Jewishness, is simply wrong. Yip Harburg was born Isadore (or Isidore) Hochberg in New York City (Letters, May 27). His work is repeatedly referenced in “Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish: How Yiddish Songs and Synagogue Melodies Influenced Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood” by Jack Gottlieb (State University of New York Press, 2004).

Eric A. Gordon
author,
“Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein”

Given his passionate and quintessentially Jewish concern for the underclass, not to mention his literary genius, I confess I would have been crestfallen to read that E.Y. “Yip” Harburg was of some other persuasion, had I not known better. In fact, he was a product of both Russian Jewish immigrants and the Lower East Side. I’m quite sure the Christian lyricist the writer had in mind was Johnny Mercer, one of the very few non-Jewish songwriting giants of that era.

Mark Ellman
Los Angeles

Lost Parking, Lost Temper

On my return to my car after attending the Israel Independence Day celebration in Woodley Park, I could not help but notice on the other side of the street a young man wearing a kippah in his early 30s arguing with another young man of similar age about a parking spot (“L.A.’s Big Sunday,” May 20).

He was so enraged, this young man wearing the kippah, he couldn’t let it go. Soon some people passing by saw what was going on and tried to extricate the two men from a soon-to-be fist fight or worse. The young man wearing the kippah had left his young wife with a baby in tow and kept going back and forth to the man that aced him out of a parking spot. The anger was so evident you couldn’t help but notice. I feel sorry for this observant young man; he obviously had a problem that it ticked him off so bad. I’m sure this is what the media calls “road rage.” But still, how can you ruin a lovely Sunday afternoon for yourself and your little family all over a lost parking spot? How will we ever achieve peace in the Middle East if young men here fight over a parking spot on Israel’s Independence Day?!

Jacqueline Bereskin
Calabasas

Platform for Extremist

Why are Jews so self-destructive? In response to an ad in The Jewish Journal, I attended a forum run by UCLA Center for Jewish Studies on May 22 (“Is Israel Jewish, Democratic, and Western? And What Should It Be?” May 20).

One of the three speakers was Israeli Arab Nadim Rouhana, who rejects Israel’s right to exist. That he’s not tried for treason is proof that Israel is indeed “liberal, democratic and western.” The question I have for the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies is why provide a platform to this extremist so he can reach impressionable students and Jewish Angelinos? Surely there are other Israeli Arabs with whom a rational dialog is possible. Why buy the bullets for someone who wants to kill you?

Harriet P. Epstein
Santa Monica

Stand With Sudan Refugees

Almost four years ago, Roz Rothstein, executive director of StandWithUs, and I brought out Francis Bok, a Sudanese slave who escaped after 10 years of being held in captivity to speak in Los Angeles prior to Pesach 2002 (“We Must Work to Free Today’s Slaves,” April 9).

We made calls not only to synagogues and Jewish schools, but to many African American Churches to hear the horrific account of what happened to him as a 7 year old when he lost his entire family and became a slave for the next 10 years. His account of violence and slavery was not unusual and continues to happen to his people, the Dinka tribe, and the people of Darfur.

Four years ago, we were sadly met with a strange sense of indifference by the First AME Church where the Pastor Cecil Murray asked us, “Why should blacks in America care about slaves in Africa when we are still slaves here?” Although Murray did have Bok tell his story at the First AME, only about 150 of more than 400 members were interested enough to show up and listen.

To their credit, Francis was welcomed at UCLA, B’nai David, Beth Am and Stephen S. Wise to tell his tragic story. The most touching and heartwarming event was when Bok spoke to the Stephen S. Wise eighth-grade classes, which had been studying and doing a project on Sudan over the year. They welcomed him as if he was a rock star! This class had more knowledge of what was going on than their adult counterparts, and the Stephan S. Wise administration is to be congratulated for that.

Every year after that, Roz and I tried to again bring this issue to the Jews in Los Angels and were met with very little interest. More than 2 million human beings have died, and we are happy to see Los Angeles waking up. We need to show support and hope that this urgent message is brought to the attention of thousands if not millions of Jews. Jews can certainly identify with slavery and genocide and should play an active role in helping to stop this horrific atrocity. It is never too late to step up to the plate.

Allyson Rowen Taylor
Associate Director
American Jewish Congress

Throw Book at Quran Flushers

Rob Eshman’s article makes good sense in reporting on religious stories; writer treat them sensitively (“Articles of Faith,” May 20).

I take exception to his questioning Newsweek’s story on the flushing of the Quran. They do indicate it was done by American interrogators. They are the guilty parties and need be tried by a military court.

Hyman Haves
Pacific Palisades

Another Jewish D.C. Museum

Most visitors to Washington, D.C., are aware of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (“Learn to Remember,” April 29). Yet for Jewish visitors there is a little-known museum that should also be seen: the National Museum of American Jewish Military History at 1811 R St. N.W. (free admission). Exhibits include a section on Jewish military involvement in the liberation of the concentration camps and a section on Jewish women in the military.

Phyllis Zimbler Miller
Los Angeles

 

Listen to What the Machers Are Saying


 

Sounds like the Jewish people need to have their mouths washed out with soap. Not all the Jewish people, of course. But quite a few of them. At least quite a few of those in the category of macher.

It’s important you know what they’ve been saying, because they are those who lead us, who control the Jewish agenda, control the Jewish purse, who those outside the Jewish world look to as representing the Jewish world.

It’s important you know, because then maybe you’ll do what way too few Jews do these days — namely, get outraged. See what’s going on, what’s being done in your name and say something about it, do something about it.

Jews have a deserved rep for being contrary, for being argumentative, for being curmudgeonly. And yet, today, we all seem to have a bad case of Jewish politically correct fever.

Meaning, everyone is afraid to say anything that isn’t totally PC — meaning totally bland, meaning totally meaningless.

And because everyone is afraid to say anything about the powers that are, we are in the mess we are in, in terms of Jewish disunity, in terms of making Judaism attractive to young Jews, in terms of making Judaism relevant in the 21st century.

Which is why it’s so important you hear what some of our leaders have been saying lately.

To start, listen to the words of one Alon Pinkas. Until recently, Pinkas was Israel’s consul general in New York, the Jewish state’s representative to the largest Jewish community in the world.

For reasons I never understood, supporters of Israel thought this guy was great, loved seeing him on TV standing up for Israel. He frankly was never my cup of tea, and I said so in a column, for which, of course, I was criticized. One simply does not question who Israel sends to represent it.

In any case, after several years of serving in New York, here is what Pinkas said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post. He said that American Jews treat Israel like a “goddamn synagogue,” and that the behavior of American Jewish organizational officials reads like a chapter out of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

If a non-Jew had said that, the Jewish press releases would have been flying. But here were such vile remarks about American Jews being made by one of Israel’s highest-ranking diplomats, by the guy they sent to New York to be Israel’s guy.

Tells you a lot.

Next, we have two Israeli rabbis. One is Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, who is no less than Israel’s former Sephardic chief rabbi. He recently sent a pamphlet to thousands of synagogues in Israel declaring that the tsunami in Asia happened because of world support for Israel’s plans to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

Yes, a rabbi whose word is law to many Israelis said that God killed maybe 300,000 innocent people in the tsunamis, because Sharon plans to move settlers out of Gaza. And he backed that up by citing a passage in the Talmud.

Then there is Rabbi Dov Lior, chief rabbi of the Yesha Council, the umbrella group of all West Bank and Gaza settlers. What did this ultimate rabbinic authority tell those settlers to do about the Gaza withdrawal? Resist it to the death.

“Better to die than disengage,” he said. “To destroy the land and give over the Strip to the terrorists is against the Torah of Israel.”

Better to die than disengage. This is what the settlers have been told by their top rabbi. Jewish leadership in action.

Which brings us to Edgar Bronfman. Bronfman is president of the World Jewish Congress and has been for more than 20 years. The World Jewish Congress (WJC) is an important organization, because it is seen by many world governments as the place to go to talk to the Jewish people.

When it was led by Nahum Goldmann and then Philip Klutznick, the WJC was a great organization led by Jewish statesmen.

But any doubt about what kind of “leader” Bronfman is should be dispelled by a recent article in New York magazine.

Now this is all a bit complicated, but here goes. Isi Leibler is one of the most honorable men in Jewish life. Leader of Australia’s Jewish community, he has done much for Israel and the Jewish world. He is a true mensch and a true leader.

And for a long time, he was senior vice president of the World Jewish Congress. But then, Leibler discovered some serious financial hanky-panky going on at the World Jewish Congress involving bizarre bank transactions, stolen computer files, cover-ups, intimidation and millions of dollars. When he tried to uncover the wrongdoing and do something about it, Bronfman and his henchmen went into action.

They first smeared Leibler, calling him the ugliest of names. Then they made sure he was thrown out as vice president of the WJC.

The whole thing stunk to high heaven and offended many in the Jewish organizational world who knew Leibler to be a man of integrity and honor, and so stood up for him, and who joined in questioning WJC’s questionable accounting practices and secretive management style.

But instead of reconsidering its actions, and doing teshuvah, Bronfman’s WJC went ballistic.

Namely, Stephen Herbits, a Bronfman lackey who he just appointed as secretary general of the WJC, gave a profanity-laced interview to New York magazine, in which he torches any and all who dare to question Bronfman.

“As you talk to the leaders of other Jewish organizations, check their accomplishments against their governance. They’ve got perfect governance and no f—ing accomplishments.” He then goes on to accuse other Jewish organizations of illegal activities — such as misusing funds, lying to the government and offering bloated benefit packages — and threatens to expose them if they aren’t nice to Bronfman.

“They better be careful, because if they cause enough problems in the press … then you’ll see some real fireworks.”

Amazing. A Jewish official, representing the top man at the World Jewish Congress, besmirching Jewish organizations and doing it in a magazine read by a whole lot of non-Jews.

“I don’t remember another example of a spokesman for one Jewish organization making such mean-spirited, slash-and-burn comments about other organizations,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

He’s right. And it’s our own fault. Bronfman has been given a free ride by the Jewish world for decades, solely because he is worth billions and spends millions on Jewish causes, mostly on the World Jewish Congress.

And so, as king of the Jews, he figures he can do whatever and what the WJC does is nobody’s business, and if anyone dares to question it, even someone as noble as Leibler, it’s off with his head, and if other Jewish organizations come to Leibler’s defense or raise questions about how Bronfman operates, well, then it’s off with the gloves and on the record with New York magazine to say all Jewish organizations are crooked.

Ladies and gentlemen, all of the above is being done and said by those who are your leaders. Which is why maybe it’s time you stopped being so PC and started being very outraged.

Joseph Aaron is editor of Chicago Jewish News.

 

Little-Known Givers Have Big Hearts


 

Robert Rosenthal, a self-described “typical Jewish boy from Manhattan,” sometime bull rider and country music addict, has morphed into the godfather of entertainment at military bases across the United States.

He is among the many Angeleno volunteers and philanthropists, often little known, who are the propelling forces behind notable enterprises both in this country and Israel. The Journal recently interviewed both Rosenthal and another “propelling force” — investment manager David Polak.

Rosenthal’s transformation began when, as a kid, he worked one summer on a dude ranch in Arizona. Although he did all the dirty work, he never got over the experience. He entered rodeos, studied ranch management and never went out without his Stetson hat.

In the 1960s, after Army service, he moved to Studio City and became a successful entertainment lawyer. He retired a few years ago.

Always an ardent patriot, after Sept. 11, Rosenthal felt strongly that he had to do something constructive. When he learned that in contrast to USO shows for troops overseas, there was no similar entertainment at stateside bases, he suggested to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that something be done to close the gap.

Rumsfeld thought it was a neat idea, but let it be known that the mechanics and expenses would have to be borne by public-spirited citizens — such as Rosenthal.

Drawing on his professional background, show biz contacts and family foundation, Rosenthal, now 68, and his wife, Nina, set up the Spirit of America Tour project.

As a first step, he went to Nashville, the country music capital, invited managers and agents of some of the biggest acts and asked them to list dates when their performers were not tied up with commercial gigs.

Then, slashing Pentagon red tape as he went along, Rosenthal coordinated the dates with commanders of Army, Navy and Air Force bases and staging areas across the country.

Without a staff, the Rosenthals have created a show circuit that a professional impresario might well envy. They started with five concerts and shows in 2002, escalating to 18 in 2003 and 21 last year.

Their most frequent and popular performers have been country music stars Clint Black, Charlie Daniels and Travis Tritt. Other favorites have been Blood, Sweat and Tears, David Clayton-Thomas and comedian Dennis Miller.

The entertainers work without fees (though Rosenthal covers their expenses), and the audiences, including families of soldiers and sailors, never pay a penny.

Rosenthal attends all shows west of the Mississippi, while his Nashville liaison, Cathy Gurley, does the same for the eastern part of the country.

By now, Rosenthal has become known as a “one-stop shopping center” for artists who want to entertain the troops.

“Their agents know exactly whom to call,” he said.

Rosenthal, who also put in a stint in the 1960s as a documentary and feature filmmaker (including “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me”) is a man of many interests.

Among the beneficiaries of his volunteer work and money have been Maccabi USA, Professional Bull Riders and Los Angeles Junior Ballet. He has also served on the California Boxing Commission.

As for his present fulltime Spirit of America endeavor, Rosenthal comments, “When you hear 15,000 military cheering an act, that’s the biggest reward. We live in the greatest country in the world, and I feel privileged to do something for it.”

David Polak heads a major investment management firm in Century City, whose shrewdest bet may have been on the brains of an Israeli professor.

Some 10 years ago, Polak and his wife Janet, longtime supporters of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, decided to endow a research chair in the life sciences at the Haifa-based institution.

They consulted with then Technion president Zeev Tadmor, who suggested one of his most promising scientists, Aaron Ciechanover, as the first incumbent of the new chair.

The Polaks were on a cruise last October and while surfing the Internet pulled up a news item that Ciechanover had just been named as the 2004 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, together with his Technion colleague Avram Hershko, and American Irwin A. Rose of UC Irvine.

“We were exhilarated,” recalled David Polak, “and we immediately e-mailed our congratulations.”

The Technion professors are the first Israeli Nobelists in the sciences and with Rose shared the $1.35 million prize. They were recognized for their research on the regulatory process taking place inside human cells, a discovery leading to the development of drugs against cancer and degenerative diseases.

On receiving word of the award, Ciechanover noted, “I don’t think our work could have been done without the help and support of the Polaks and the American Technion Society.”

Polak, who supports numerous other Jewish and Israeli causes, will be reunited with the Israeli scientists in June, when the Technion dedicates the new David and Janet Polak Center for Cancer Research and Vascular Biology.

An MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) engineering graduate, Polak said that his support of the Technion is based on his concern for the growth and survival of Israel.

“Israel’s main asset is its brainpower and the Technion provides this raw material for a high-wage industry,” he said. “The country’s export economy and national security depend on technologically trained men and women.”

 

Israel Lays Plans for Post-Arafat Era


As Israel looks ahead to the post-Arafat era, the government is considering a series of policy options: in the short term, easing conditions in the Palestinian territories to help a new leadership consolidate power and in the longer term, restarting peace talks based on the “road map” plan.

However, there also are contingency plans for a far more pessimistic scenario: The possibility that the new Palestinian leaders may fail to assert their authority, and that the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip could degenerate into chaos and internecine violence.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon laid down the general outlines of the new policy in a string of meetings last week with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz; Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, Israel Defense Forces chief of staff; and other senior defense establishment officials.

Sharon made two key decisions. Israel will do whatever it can from a distance to help Mahmoud Abbas, who seems to be emerging as the dominant figure in the new Palestinian leadership, to establish his position, but at the same time it will prepare for chaos if the broad coalition Abbas is forming falls apart.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom highlighted the delicate nature of Israel’s position with regard to the new Palestinian leaders.

“Any name we mention,” he said, “will be stigmatized as a collaborator. But we expect whatever leadership that emerges to be more moderate and more responsible.”

For the time being, Israeli hopes rest on Abbas. He has come out strongly against Palestinian terrorism and in favor of the political, economic and security reforms the Palestinians committed to under the internationally backed road map to peace.

Position papers produced by the Foreign Ministry and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) suggest Israel made two cardinal errors the last time Abbas held a share of power, when he served as Palestinian Authority prime minister between late April and early September 2003: It embraced him too tightly while failing to make some concessions, like large-scale prisoner releases, that Palestinians expected Abbas to achieve. These are mistakes the Israeli establishment says it does not intend to repeat.

Proposed moves to help the new Palestinian leadership win popular backing can be divided into two areas — military and civilian. A Foreign Ministry paper urges the IDF to go into “defensive mode” and not launch preemptive strikes against terrorist organizations, and the defense establishment seems to be adopting the advice.

The IDF plans to cut offensive “seek-and-destroy” operations to a minimum and to focus on intercepting terrorists on their way to attacks. The hope is that if Palestinian factions also display moderation, it could reduce the level of violence in the territories, improve the quality of Palestinian life and enhance Palestinian support for the new leadership.

Other planned moves are aimed directly at improving civilian life: for example, further easing restrictions on Palestinian movement and encouraging economic activity.

Another goodwill gesture will be to allow Yasser Arafat to be buried in pomp and circumstance, with a full complement of foreign dignitaries in attendance. A special air corridor will be opened to allow Arab leaders technically at war with Israel, such as Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, to fly directly to the funeral without passing through Israeli border controls.

However, there could be a serious confrontation over where Arafat will be buried. Sharon is adamant that the Palestinian Authority president not be interred in Jerusalem, and Palestinian officials in recent days have spoken of burying Arafat in Ramallah instead. If the Palestinians insist on Jerusalem, it could cause serious tension.

Abbas has been trying to establish a broad coalition of all Palestinian factions, including the radical fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The key question is whether the radicals will agree to a cease-fire with Israel, or whether the coalition will break up over this or other conciliatory moves. Israel is taking into account the possibility of open warfare between Palestinian factions and might even target the radicals if that occurs.

If, however, Abbas is able to establish his position and makes progress toward a general cease-fire and reforms, Israel will consider reciprocal steps such as releasing prisoners. There also would be an Israeli effort to coordinate the withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank, as outlined in Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan, with the new Palestinian leadership.

If all goes smoothly, the next move would be to restart political negotiations based on the road map. This would jibe with European efforts to jump-start stalled peace talks and get the new U.S. administration to join in playing a more active role.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, is said to be working on a “street map” that would lead the parties to the road map, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair is planning to invite all the relevant parties to an international conference in London to get a peace process restarted.

“We may be starting to get out of the nightmare,” one upbeat Foreign Ministry official, who insisted on anonymity, told JTA. “We have a historic [disengagement] plan in place, a new American administration and Arafat out of the picture. There is a huge opportunity here.”

But some Israeli analysts who know the Palestinian scene well suggest that the government is being far too optimistic, and that Abbas won’t have the clout to make the compromises necessary for peace.

Menachem Klein, a specialist in Palestinian studies at Bar Ilan University, maintains that a relatively weak Abbas leadership would prove to be only a transitional episode, and that Israel soon would have to deal with a new generation of local Palestinian leaders who have far more grass-roots support — people like Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti, who currently is in an Israeli jail on terrorism charges.

“They are the people who led the previous intifada in the late 1980s, and they are behind the Tanzim today,” he said, referring to the mainstream Fatah movement’s terrorist militia. “They are not a bunch of collaborators.”

In Klein’s view, the young lions would make peace with Israel only on terms similar to those acceptable to Arafat. Though Arafat never spelled out his conditions for peace, they are believed to include Arab control over eastern Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders and a “right of return” to Israel for millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, conditions no Israeli leader would accept.

“Otherwise they will say, ‘We will fight on,'” Klein warned.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

Jerusalem Gets Business Jump-Start


Jerusalem might be a spiritually moving “holy city,” but many Israelis see it as an economic backwater from which young people are fleeing. Roughly 7,000 highly educated young people leave the city each year, and 40 percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line.

The establishment of the Hebrew University in 1927 created an image of an ivory-tower town, while commerce and industry developed primarily at the center of the country. Today, Nir Barkat, high-tech entrepreneur and dynamic Jerusalem councilman, is trying to breathe economic life into the city by using the academic and intellectual sectors to jump-start the capital’s economy. In partnership with venture capitalist Alan Feld, Barkat has created StartUp Jerusalem, bringing together high-tech and venture capital leaders, university researchers and Jerusalem businessmen in a promising new business initiative under CEO Eli Kazhdan.

The largest non-Israeli delegation at the StartUp Jerusalem Conference, which recently launched the initiative, came from California. State Controller Steve Westly pointed out that in today’s high-tech world, academic institutions, like those found in Jerusalem, are the springboard for business and industry.

“Government investment in research at Stanford University led to the flourishing of Silicon Valley,” said Westly, an Internet development pioneer.

“The future of the world economy is in technology, particularly in the life sciences,” he said, calling for investment in Jerusalem’s medical and university research, and the creation of a culture that provides incentives to take risks.

StartUp Jerusalem initiative is based on the economic “clusters” theory of Harvard professor Michael E. Porter, who served as honorary chairman of the conference, and consults for StartUp Jerusalem through his Center for Middle East Competitive Strategy. Porter was impressed that, in spite of Israel’s security situation, it has maintained its competitive advantage. In line with his clusters theory — geographic concentrations of interconnected companies — Porter offers strategic tools to analyze the dominant economic sectors in the city, and create infrastructure and links between the various companies in each sector. He emphasizes co-operation and exchange of information, rather than competition among the businesses of each sector.

“Prosperity is a win-win situation,” Porter said at the conference. “If one company within a sector is productive, it will help others be productive as well.”

StartUp Jerusalem is concentrating on biotechnology, since Jerusalem boasts resources that can make it an important player in that field. In addition to high-level research being done at the Hebrew University and Hadassah Medical Center, Jerusalem College of Technology and Hadassah College, Jerusalem also hosts 28 percent of the Israeli companies in biotechnology, including Teva and Medinol. Fifty percent of the biotech patents registered in Israel come either from the Hebrew University or Hadassah Hospital.

StartUp Jerusalem is also highlighting outsourcing, a fast-growing player in Jerusalem’s economy particularly suited to Jerusalem’s multilingual and ultra-Orthodox population. According to Kazhdan, hundreds of residents can be employed in service centers for foreign companies, particularly American organizations. Jerusalem possesses the infrastructure for such centers and the government is willing to provide subsidies for them. But most of all, Jerusalem boasts former American residents, both Jewish and Arab, fluent in English and steeped in American culture, who can man the telephones for hotel and airline reservations, banking and telecommunications organizations outside of Israel.

“Israel cannot compete with India’s cheap labor,” Porter said, “but it can provide a quality labor force able to communicate with clients on their own wavelength.”

David Silbershlag, an employment consultant and a StartUp Jerusalem board member, urges the business community to reach out to the potential in the ultra-Orthodox community.

During the 19th century, Jerusalem became a place where Jews came to study Torah supported by communities in the Diaspora. This tradition continues, accounting for a large unemployed ultra-Orthodox sector.

“But there are different types of ultra-Orthodox, many with multilingual and technical capability,” Silberschlag said. “Outsourcing can provide employment for them in frameworks that respect their unique religious character.”

Clustering can also be a model of Arab-Jewish co-operation. Since service centers must function without interruption, English-speaking Arabs can be on call Saturday and Jewish holidays, while Jews can take over on Arab holidays.

Jerusalem’s cultural and religious treasures also make it a great tourist attraction. But it must be honed and refined. But interfacing between tourism and cultural organizations must be improved to develop a clearinghouse of information for tourists.

“Economic development is not magical,” Porter said. “It involves a relentless process of improvement.”

Jerusalem must overcome many obstacles to become a flourishing business center. Former Jerusalem Manufacturing Association head Motti Tepferberg said that one of the problems is the lack of open land for manufacturing. He also points out that there hasn’t been sufficient attention given to the subject of attracting business to Jerusalem.

“The government has not provided business incentives or tax breaks to attract businesses to Jerusalem,” he said. “There also have to be greater cultural incentives.”

Terrorism has certainly affected the city.

“Foreign investment has been very low in the past few years,” said Avraham Aberman, a prominent Jerusalem lawyer. “But as terrorism has declined, or people simply got used to it, large venture capital groups situated themselves in Jerusalem, and tourism is flourishing again. The main problem remains Jerusalem’s image. It’s a psychological matter. Jerusalem doesn’t have the image of a dynamic center, a place where the action is.”

StartUp Jerusalem hopes to change this perception by highlighting Jerusalem’s competitive advantages. But what assurance is there that StartUp Jerusalem can work? Barkat, who ran an unsuccessful mayoral bid in Jerusalem, has confidence in the city’s innate advantages. But as he also pointed out, “We’re not inventing the wheel. We’re following a method that has succeeded in other places.”

“The government is on board,” said Barkat, who pointed to significant support from Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “However, the government is not investing or interfering. We’re not asking for fish, but rather for rods that will enable us to catch the fish.”

Barkat feels that things have begun well, with the top echelons in the health and medical fields, in particular, buying into the idea.

“We don’t have any choice but to be successful,” Barkat said. “The alternative is unthinkable for the future of Jerusalem.”

Rochelle Furstenberg is a Jerusalem-based journalist and critic writing about social, cultural and religious issues. She’s a columnist for Hadassah Magazine and a regular contributor to the Jerusalem Report.

Task Force Reviews Access for Disabled


Childhood polio didn’t slow Jay Kruger. Although he couldn’t run, Kruger led a normal life as a teenager and into adulthood. Now, like other seniors experiencing post-polio syndrome, his strength is receding. To get around, three years ago he began relying on an electric wheelchair that he controls with a joystick.

While federal laws require public buildings to provide access for the handicapped, Kruger still encounters restaurants without ramps, public restrooms with hard-to-open doors that trap him inside and theater seating that is spitting distance from the screen. One quarter of the nation’s population cope with either physical or cognitive disabilities.

“People with two good legs, it doesn’t hit them,” said Kruger, who recently toured the recently opened Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Irvine to critique its accessibility for the handicapped.

Kruger had another motive, too. He is a member of a special Jewish Family Service (JFS) task force, which this fall will survey for the first time the needs and barriers of the physically and mentally disabled at synagogues, day schools and other Jewish institutions in Orange County.

It is hoped the Jewish Federation-funded survey will identify synagogues or programs that address needs of the disabled, which can be a model for others. The subject is a sensitive and complex one, as it will put a spotlight on community support for special services and conflicting attitudes over how to provide those services.

Findings initially will be compiled as a local Jewish resource guide, said Mel Roth, JFS executive director.

“When you find yourself with a child with special needs, it’s a maze out there,” said La Rhea Steindler, a JFS case manager and counselor, who is leading the 18-member task force, and is a mother of children with disabilities. “If it takes you three years to identify special needs, you’ve lost three precious years and have the emotional damage that goes with it.”

“If we shorten that process, we may prevent it,” she said.

The task force includes representatives from local Jewish groups, like the Jeremiah Society, as well as county service providers.

“It’s a very difficult job to get the community to recognize there are people among us who can’t benefit from society,” said Rose Lacher, who for 20 years has tried without success to establish a Jewish group home for mentally disabled adults in Orange County. She founded the Jeremiah Society, a social club of 30 members that draws participants from outside the county, reflecting the scarcity of such services.

“There are a lot of barriers,” Lacher said. “Some people just don’t want to hear about people who are different.”

“Using a public restroom has nothing to do with being Jewish,” said Joan Levine, who trains special education teachers at Cal State Fullerton. Levine, the author of a vocational guide for Orange County’s disabled, is dyslexic and has attention deficit disorder. She also is a JFS task force member.

Even so, she pointed out, observant Jews with disabilities face some particular hurdles. As an example, she said, turning off a hearing aid on Shabbat is considered an act of work, which is prohibited. Levine recalls having to seek permission from a religious court to use a sign language interpreter at a bat mitzvah where a deaf relative was to be called to the pulpit.

While day schools and supplemental religious schools willingly enroll special needs students, few are staffed with teachers expert in their needs. Some training is available locally through a little-known group, Special Needs Learning Partnership, formerly known as Jewish Education For All. The group provides highly regarded training in special-needs instruction for religious school teachers, hosts experts for talks with parents and teachers, and supplements teacher salaries.

“It’s the best-kept secret,” said Linda Shoham, the partnership director and also a member of the JFS task force. In the coming year, partnership-trained teachers will offer special-needs religious school classes at Fountain Valley’s Congregation B’nai Tzedek and Huntington Beach’s Congregation Adat Israel.

Yet even when such resources are available, many parents with special-needs children prefer mainstream classes rather than a specialized one, which can be stigmatizing.

During the JCC tour, Kruger was pleased to learn the fitness staff includes Angel Luna, a victim of cerebral palsy, who is a rehabilitation specialist. Luna’s expertise with stroke and heart-attack victims would serve the disabled, too, said Sean Eviston, the JCC athletic director.

“He fits a niche perfectly that is lacking in most commercial gyms,” Eviston said.

Kruger was equally impressed with a submersible chair, allowing the wheelchair-bound to be immersed in the swimming pool.

“I’ve never seen another one,” he said.
But entering a JCC restroom or the senior center was a considerable effort for Kruger from his wheelchair.

“There are people with walkers who will have more difficulty than I getting through all those doors,” said Kruger, none of which open automatically. For those reasons, Kruger gave the JCC a “B” grade. “I couldn’t give it an ‘A.'”

Once Upon a Kvetch


"I never get any sleep, I never have sex and how many Jewish holidays can there be in one month?" Karen Schilling-Gould says in her comedy revue, "The Shlepperellas: Mothers Gone Mad."

She and co-star, Linda Merriweather, kvetch about cooking for Rosh Hashanah between driving carpool, fixing the toilet and "worrying about having to repent for the time and money I’ve just spent on the outfit to wear to temple to repent in," Schilling-Gould says.

It’s the latest mom tribulation-fest to emerge from the ranks of the baby boomers, like Iris Krasnow’s "Surrendering to Motherhood: Losing Your Mind, Finding Your Soul" and the Bay Area troupe, the Drama Mamas.

"We take the things that totally exasperate us, find the humor in it and put it in our act," Schilling-Gould says. "Like the fact that we’re sick and tired of saying we’re tired."

"And underarm flab," Merriweather says.

In fact the flab inspired a "Shlepperellas" song, "Vecha Flesh" ("soft meat" in Yiddish): "You reach for something in the cupboard, and you smack yourself in the face," Merriweather says.

While the Shlepperellas have earned good reviews for their humor, their beginnings weren’t so funny. Back in 1991, a freaked-out Schilling-Gould, then the mother of 8-month-old twins, attended a mom’s support group after learning she was expecting her third child.

"Has anyone ever had this many children in this short of a time and is it possible to survive," she asked group members, before bursting into tears.

Participants suggested she meet Merriweather, who had already experienced having three children in 16 months.

The two women ultimately founded the Shlepperellas in 1999 after discovering a mutual love for improvisational comedy. So how did they come up with the name? "We shlep a lot," Merriweather says.

"And we feel like Cinderella," Schilling-Gould adds. "As in, ‘Cinderella, get my clothes. Cinderella, get my shoes.’"

But there’s a glass slipper as well; family life is ultimately fulfilling for the Shlepperellas. And the show helps them deal with the aggravation: "It’s like a good therapy session," Schilling-Gould says.

The Shlepperellas perform Sept. 12 at the University of Judaism. Tickets, $36 general admission, $30 group rate, benefit Yad B’Yad Los Angeles, which provides services for underprivileged children in Israel. For reservations, call (323) 658-5021.

A Perestroika for Russian Women


It’s not every day the words “brit milah” work their way into conversation, let alone in discussing a 12-year-old boy. But here in the Russian air they hang for a moment.

“Yes,” Olga Finogenova says through a translator; her son, after returning from a summer spent at a religious school for boys, wanted to undergo a brit milah, also known as a bris, or Jewish ritual circumcision.

It’s a sunny day on the Volga River when Finogenova imparts this story. We’re partaking in a conference to bring together Jewish women from the United States, Israel and the former Soviet Union (FSU). Our trip, Women Turning the Tide, A Voyage on the Volga, is being sponsored by Project Kesher, a Chicago-based organization that’s been working with Jewish FSU women for the past 10 years in the areas of Jewish renewal and women’s empowerment.

It’s a few days into our trip already (they sponsored me), but I still manage to be continually awed by the stories these women have to tell. To visit Russia is to see a country where history is just a few years old, where Moscow street signs are newly replaced to indicate a return to pre-communist street names. To speak to these women is to hear the stories of those who have lived it — have lived communist anti-Semitism and perestroika. How can I convey to them that their passion is so inspiring to someone who comes from a place where we take our Judaism — and even our food on the table — for granted? It’s embarrassing to admit, and so I don’t. I just listen.

Despite having known all her life that she was a Jew, when Finogenova first got involved with the group in 1999, it was her first real introduction to Judaism.

“Since childhood, Judaism had always been a thing that was upsetting to us. There have been many problems with being a Jew and studying Judaism,” she told me, noting that her first positive Jewish experience was with Project Kesher. Now Finogenova is the Project Kesher women’s group leader in Smolensk.

Today, Judaism is clearly an important part of her and her family’s life. Her son’s choice to have a bris at age 12 is just the most startling example. She and her son celebrate all the Jewish holidays, and also welcome Shabbat every week by lighting candles and saying Kiddush. Finogenova leads the Torah study for her Project Kesher women’s group. Her son will have his bar mitzvah next year.

Finogenova’s group in Smolensk is one of 165 Project Kesher women’s groups operating throughout Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus. While it is only one of numerous organizations working for Jewish renewal in the FSU since the fall of the Iron Curtain, it is the only organization that focuses on women.

It didn’t start out that way, according to founder Sallie Gratch. In the beginning, Gratch was interested in trying to help FSU Jews, as a whole, to organize. But in visiting small-town community leaders, she found herself surrounded entirely by men. Women were not included in official meetings, and in Briansk, for example, “the head of the community didn’t understand why we’d even want to meet with the Jewish women,” Gratch said.

Thus, it didn’t take long for Gratch to realize that the kind of organization she was trying to build — self-led, pluralistic and egalitarian — would only be possible if she started with the women. In 1994, with the help of her Russian friend and translator Svetlana Yakimenko (now Project Kesher’s FSU director), she convened the International Conference of Jewish Women, clearly defining Project Kesher as a women’s organization for the first time. Ten years later, what has emerged is an organization that focuses on the spiritual and practical concerns of Jewish women in the FSU: Jewish learning; computer vocational and leadership training; and activism in the issues the women’s groups feel most impact their lives, namely women’s health education, trafficking in women and domestic violence.

On the second day of our trip, there’s a low but energetic hum as we take our seats in the dimly lit auditorium of Moscow’s Hermitage Theater. Off to one side of the stage, six Torahs lay covered on a large podium. They have been carried the long distance from communities in the United States to be donated to six budding FSU Jewish communities and officially handed over today in what is sure to be a highlight of the week: the Torah Return ceremony.

As we settle in, folksinger Debbie Friedman and Project Kesher’s musical coordinator Azariya Medvedova play an opening song in English, Hebrew and Russian on their guitars. Various women speak, including Jewish feminist educator and spiritual leader Tamara Cohen, who offers a blessing on the women handing over the Torahs, and then on the women receiving them for their communities.

Friedman is one of a number of prominent American women leaders who have made the trip. The long list also includes Orthodox feminist movement leader Blu Greenberg and Angeleno Marcia Cohn Spiegel, Creative Jewish Women’s Alliance organizer who, like a number of women, has brought her daughters with her.

It’s a tearful ceremony, with women trying to express the emotional weight of the moment — and failing.

“All of these overwhelming feelings cannot be put into words,” says Olga Shevchuk of Vinnitsa, Ukraine, whose Torah originates from a dwindling classical Reform Jewish synagogue in Helena, Ark.

“Gratitude,” she says, is the closest she can get to putting a name to what she is feeling.

We move so organically from a state of tears to song, dance and cheers that I can’t say how it happens. Only suddenly, Friedman and Medvedova are playing again, and women have linked hands and started impromptu horas, circling around the bolted-down chairs and making their way into the area behind the seats to dance more freely. Other women embrace, caught up in the moment.

At breakfast the next morning, I sit with Carol Avins and her daughter, Claire Solomon, at a table finely set with black bread, smoked fish, blini and other Russian breakfast delicacies. They, along with Avins’ sister-in-law Nancy Solomon, carried the Torah from the Helena synagogue where the Solomon family once belonged. At its peak in the 1950s, Temple Beth-El’s membership included some 125 families, but today, only about 10 elderly members remain. I ask Avins how she felt standing up on that stage.

“I found myself unexpectedly emotional about it, especially because the community that’s giving the Torah is becoming a thing of the past,” she says. “But then I got amused…. Women were dancing around with the Torah and I thought it was the kind of celebration with the Torah that [Temple Beth-El] would never do. Their tradition is dignified and simple. This Torah kind of goes on to a new phase of its existence.”

In the weeks to come, Avins will be proven right. We will all get updates about the great celebrations taking place in the cities that receive these Torahs, their women’s groups now continuing their Jewish learning armed with real Torahs, and using the lessons of repairing the world and charity as the inspiration for their activism.

With the current state of economics in the region, many FSU women dream of marrying foreigners or of finding lucrative jobs abroad. They are promised these things, but the dream quickly turns to a nightmare as they find themselves the victims of unscrupulous businesspeople trafficking in human beings. They are sold into sexual slavery in countries where they have come illegally, and with no support system and little knowledge of their new country, they often have no way out.

“Until recently, the problem of trafficking wasn’t spoken of. It only recently became a subject of the mass media,” Elena Zyablikova tells us in one of our lectures. As the leader of Belarus’ Borisov women’s group, she has helped coordinate their campaigns to combat trafficking in women and domestic violence.

There are no laws against trafficking in women in Russia or Moldova, and while Ukraine and Belarus do have laws against it, they are rarely enforced, she says.

No statistics exist in the region on the numbers of women being trafficked (nothing showing the general state of apathy more clearly). But in Israel, for example, it is estimated that about 80 percent of people involved in trafficking are Russian-speaking, and the 432 reports of trafficking to police stations in Belarus in 2003 are considered to be just the tip of the iceberg in a region where there is a great sense of shame in coming forward.

Educating women and working for legislative gains are primarily where Project Kesher has put its efforts, including being a signatory to the advocacy group working to get the International Marriage Brokers Act passed in the United States. In addition to other measures, it would force men seeking marriage brokers to submit to criminal background checks.

More than 90 Kesher groups are also involved in programs to fight domestic violence. A recent poll indicated that 60 percent of female university students believe that it is women who make men violent. By educating the public through pamphlet distribution and lectures in schools, Kesher groups work to put an end to this tragic misconception.

They also participate in the annual 16 Days Against Domestic Violence campaign and have united with 18 governmental and nongovernmental institutions to provide free legal, medical and psychological assistance to victims of domestic violence.

With about one-fifth of all calls to police relating to domestic violence, Project Kesher’s next step will be creating coalitions with local police departments, said Evelina Shoubinskaya, a social worker at the forefront of Kesher’s anti-domestic violence programming.

Recognizing that these problems have everything to do with economic concerns, Project Kesher works to empower women through its various programs, as well. Its new micro-enterprise loan program has granted more than 90 small low-interest loans to women to build their businesses; its vocational computer training centers, co-sponsored by World ORT, assist women in finding better jobs in a region where unemployment and underemployment are significant problems; and its leadership training program teaches women to lead in their Kesher groups and the world.

The sun continues to shine for us in Rybinsk, and actually well into the night. As we travel farther and farther north, experiencing Russia’s famous white nights until almost midnight, I remember that I’d thought this place would be gray and dreary, cold and sad. Instead, I’ve witnessed rebuilding, and the warmth and joy and optimism of a people who see much work ahead, but a bright future at least, perhaps for the first time. The near-eternal sunshine suddenly feels symbolic and very fitting.

“I connected with yesterday’s prayer where Miriam stood at the edge of the river and everything was new,” Elena Knyazhitskaya says at Saturday’s Shabbat service, which included a Hebrew naming ceremony for some 22 of the women. Elena picked the name Ruth, because she, like Ruth, is not halachically Jewish. There was also a Leora (“for her there is divine light”), Chana, Leah and Eliana (“it was she who got answers”).

“I feel in my life that a lot of changes are about to happen,” Knyazhitskaya says to me.

Big changes seem imminent for Project Kesher, too. While its slow growth has been intentional — it was important to Kesher leaders that group members and potential members feel “ignited, not pushed,” according to Yakimenko — with more than 3,000 members, they’ve now built solid foundations and are ready for people to know who they are, Executive Director Karyn Gershon said.

The two largest impediments against future goals of expansion into Moscow, Germany and Israel seem to be lack of recognition and consequent lack of funding. Next year’s budget weighs in at just $650,000, as opposed to Chabad’s FSU arm, whose annual operating budget is $15 million, with $80 million set aside for new projects.

“If you can get a person to underwrite the concert, I will come to your city!” singer Friedman announces at our end-of-the-trip brainstorming meeting. Other women have also caught the fever, raising their hands to speak, promising to tell their synagogues back home about Project Kesher and to organize various fundraising events to get the word out about the work we’ve now witnessed firsthand.

“My daughter told me that you have to go to Israel to practice Judaism,” Finogenova said, “but through Project Kesher, we understood that we may lead Jewish lives here.”

For more information on Project Kesher visit,