Military chaplains gather to answer call of duty

It’s not easy being an observant Jew in the military sometimes, especially under extreme circumstances. What do you do, for example, if there’s no kosher pot that can be used for cooking?

Rabbi Avrohom Teichman of certifying agency Kehillah Kosher offered an answer to a collection of chaplains and community members on May 14 during a gathering sponsored by Jewish Friends of the American Armed Forces (JFAAF): Any pot can be used as long as no one has cooked treif in it during the previous 24 hours. 

“There are certain circumstances when you’re stuck that you can follow minority opinion,” he said. “[When you’re in the military], it’s considered a pressing circumstance, and not the normal halachic circumstance.”

Twelve Orthodox chaplains in the United States Army, National Guard, Marines and Navy gathered May 13-17 at Beth Jacob Congregation in Pico-Robertson to meet one another, undergo training, and interact with the community to show who they are and what they do. 

“The community here in Los Angeles came out, showed their appreciation and made relationships with the chaplains. They saw that these chaplains are a light unto the nations in the U.S. military,” said Rabbi David Becker, who started JFAAF and serves as its director. 

The chaplains at the event, all ordained rabbis, serve more than 21,000 Jewish members of the military, offering spiritual and emotional guidance as well as helping celebrate Shabbat and other holidays. 

According to Becker, chaplains must have a master’s of divinity or an equivalent degree, along with smichah (rabbinic ordination). Then they go through tests and interviews administered by a board of chaplains. He helps candidates by recruiting and training them with supplies provided by Yeshiva Pirchei Shoshanim. 

At the local series of events, the chaplains sat in on shiurim (classes) detailing how they could fulfill their rabbinic duties, prayed together, and ate meals with one another in homes, restaurants and synagogues across the area. 

Rabbi Daniel Lapin of the American Alliance of Jews and Christians gave a class called “Safeguarding Our Relations With Chaplains of Other Faiths.” The chaplains also attended a presentation on suicide prevention. Becker said during this class, they learned “how to recognize the symptoms and the telltale signs to be able to help, even if it means having to [send the person to] visit the base’s medical clinic.” 

During a Friday night dinner at LINK, the Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel, Army Reserve Maj. Elan Carr (a former California Congressional candidate) spoke about his experience attending Chanukah services at Saddam Hussein’s former presidential palace in Iraq, while Lapin gave a speech related to Shavuot.

Rabbi Aaron Kleinman, a chaplain and Navy lieutenant stationed in San Diego, said seeing his peers gave him “moral support” and also taught him “how to deal with current, pressing halachic issues.” 

Rabbi Kevin Bemel, a Navy chaplain serving in Ventura County, never had the chance to interact with Jewish chaplains in other branches of the military until the JFAAF gathering took place. 

“Meeting them and learning about the situations they face is very useful,” he said.

For his part, Bemel said he tries to be of assistance to the handful of Jewish sailors and Marines on his base by holding Chanukah parties, Rosh Hashanah services and large Passover seders. “I try to mark Jewish holidays with some kind of event,” he said.

On a day-to-day basis, Bemel’s duties include helping sailors and Marines — Jewish or not — deal with personal and career challenges. 

“They could be involved in some sort of disciplinary issue, or they may be looking for some emotional or spiritual support,” he said. “On my base, I take care of everybody.”

Rabbi Dovid Egert, a lieutenant in the Air Force, said as a chaplain, he’s there for his airmen when they need to talk about issues they’re going through. 

“They don’t want to have to go to their first commanders and say they’re having problems,” he said. “They need a chaplain who they can feel comfortable talking to and who will make them feel better.” 

Now, if he ever needs someone to ask for assistance with his position, he can lean upon his fellow chaplains. 

“I know whom to call,” he said. “I am better affiliated to help people out now.”

LINK to daylong learning

On any given night, upward of 75 Jewish men and women cram into a building at 1453 S. Robertson Blvd. to study Torah, discuss religious texts and educate themselves on what it means to live a Jewish life.

From sunup to sundown, they come and they learn and they pray — just a day in the life at LINK, the Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel.

Rabbi Asher Brander, who was the rabbi at Westwood Kehilla and teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high school for 20 years, started LINK in 2002. It’s a kollel, a place where rabbinic scholars study among themselves and teach people in the community. 

For nine years, it was located at Kehilla before moving to Pico-Robertson in 2011. Seven days a week, classes are taught on everything from Talmud to Psalms. High Holy Days rituals are covered, as is halachah, Jewish law. 

“At LINK, there is a very vibrant, dynamic environment, and that creates a tremendous connection with the Torah, HaShem and Judaism,” Brander said. “And that’s what it’s all about.”
Along with the traditional classes on Jewish texts and law that are held from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. nearly every day, LINK offers prayer services, space for independent study, and courses on everyday situations and issues. The 10 rabbis and instructors teach, in English, about character development, marriage, parenting, dating, finding a soul mate and why bad things happen to good people.
Among the five or six classes taught per day — and more than 30 per week — some are solely for men or women, but others are open to both. The schedule is revised four times a year — during the High Holy Days, the fall, winter and spring — and four guest speakers visit each year. In February, LINK is hosting a Shabbaton with Rabbi Mordechai Becher, a senior lecturer from Gateways, an organization that helps Jews connect to their religion.

Rabbi Eli Stern, LINK outreach director and an instructor, said the kollel is for everyone from every background and affiliation.

“We are teaching Torah. We are not preaching how someone should practice. It’s not about preaching to people. It’s about learning with people,” he said.
Since moving to Pico-Robertson, attendance at classes has grown significantly, doubling from 75 to 150 people coming every week, according to Brander.

The move from Westwood meant adapting to the needs of a new neighborhood, too. Now it is in the thick of one of Los Angeles’ most vibrant Jewish communities and among a variety of Orthodox shuls. As a result, LINK has been transformed from an introductory setting to one that welcomes all levels of learning. 

“There is a wide variety of classes,” Brander said. “It changed because any institution needs to be sensitive to the needs of community. Pico-Robertson has its own set of needs, and it’s a different type of clientele [than Westwood]. Obviously Jews are Jews, but Pico-Robertson has a lot going on, and we cater to what the niches are.”
LINK is a nonprofit, and during the first year it was open on Robertson, it didn’t charge dues to members of its synagogue division. Even now, people can come in any time free of charge for services as well as for learning. 

Jews can walk into LINK not only to learn, but to connect with people in their community as well. The Torah Learning for Collegiates program (TLC), led by Shoshana Rivka Bloom, is for women only and meets every Tuesday night. It features local and out-of-town speakers each week who talk about relationships, Jewish study, history, law and hashgacha (kosher supervision). Among the two dozen or so women who show up every week, the majority are single and in their 20s.
“LINK fills a void … in the Pico-Robertson area,” Bloom said. “The rabbis are very talented in reaching out to people who have very little or close to no background in Judaism. Rabbi Brander is warm and loving and cares about every Jew. Everyone feels welcome. It’s really a wonderful thing.”
Mitch Karp, who lives in the neighborhood, has been going to LINK for the past year. He takes classes on tehillim (psalms) and the Rambam and studies there on his own. Before it came along, he hadn’t found his spiritual home. 

“At the other shuls, something was definitely missing,” he said. “It had maybe the learning, but I didn’t feel connected to people. LINK has the learning, the prayer and the connection with the rabbis.”
Karp said that in the community, there is no one-stop shop for all-day learning and prayer.

“I can stay there 24/7 if I wanted to do that. There isn’t any other place on Pico where you can go early and stay as long as you want. It’s more like a yeshiva, but it’s also very open as well.”

Another student, Elliot Cavalier, has been taking classes at LINK since 2002. He said that it’s a valuable space because “it brings Torah to the masses and makes it accessible to the masses. There are a lot of classes geared toward people who don’t have a background [in Jewish studies].”

At LINK, Brander and his colleagues are there primarily to provide the many students and members with the education they never received at a Jewish day school. In addition, there is a program called The Beis, which has a double meaning. It’s pronounced “base” in English and means “house” in Hebrew. It’s for men who attended Jewish day schools but have drifted and not yet found their way back to Torah study.
Stern said that LINK doesn’t care about the level of observance of potential students, or if they’re a beginner or an expert. 

“The main thing is that you’re interested in learning,” he said. “We have a very eclectic group of people who are learning in this neighborhood. They are coming here on a regular basis and learning the skills to empower themselves to one day pick up a text and study on their own. It should be the goal of every Jew.”
What makes LINK special, according to Brander, is that any and every kind of Jew can enter the building and begin his or her learning. 

“We have under the same roof many different people from different walks of life. We have Jews that are not observant to Jews that are very religious. We have people wearing white shirts and black pants, and some people wear jeans and T-shirts. There are Persians, French people, Ashkenazim, men and women. There is a tremendous sense of diversity. People feel very welcome. The Torah does the talking.”

New genetic evidence links Spanish Americans of Southwest to Jews

In 1995, Demetrio Valdez, his wife, Olive, and some of their neighbors in Conjehos County, Colo., started a kosher food co-op.

“We wanted to harvest our own meat, but we couldn’t get a good price for it, so we decided to do it kosher to make more money,” said Valdez, 64, who has raised cattle all his life.

The co-op members, all non-Jews, flew in a rabbi from New York to instruct them in kosher slaughter. To Valdez’s surprise, many of the practices introduced by the rabbi were ones that Valdez, a Catholic, had grown up with and maintained on his ranch.

“I saw that we do a lot of things the same,” he recalled. “The rabbi was surprised, too.”

Financial woes and a fire forced the co-op to close soon after it started, but Valdez’s experiences with the rabbi—the first Jew he had ever met—lingered.

Since childhood he had heard rumors that his family had Jewish ancestors dating back to colonial New Spain when, as historical records show, a good number of Converso Jews—Jews and their descendants forcibly converted during the Spanish Inquisition—came to the New World. Many of the Conversos who had made the trek over had become Catholics in name only. They were Crypto Jews who in traveling across the Atlantic were attempting to flee the Inquisition.

“My parents never spoke about it, but everyone knew there was something there,” said Valdez.

Now a new study in the Journal of Human Genetics has turned up fresh scientific evidence that the Spanish Americans of the Southwest must have had some Jewish forbears.

A group of researchers in the United States and Ecuador analyzed DNA from two communities who trace back to Spanish colonial times: one in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, which includes Conjehos County, and one in the Loja Province of southern Ecuador.

The study found “observable Sephardic ancestry” in both communities and calculated Jewish ancestry among the Lojanos at about 5 to 10 percent and among the Spanish Americans, also called Hispanos, at about 1 to 5 percent.

“This study provides firmer evidence for what people have been conjecturing for up to 20 years now,” said the study’s director, Dr. Harry Ostrer, director of genetics and genomic testing at Montefiore Hospital of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

Over the past several decades, scholars have been pursuing stories like Valdez’s and claim to have found remnants of Crypto-Jewish practices in communities in the U.S. Southwest and Latin America. Some Hispanos and Latin Americans also have come forward to claim a Crypto-Jewish past, with a small number embracing a Jewish identity outright.

“The ancestry is really dispersed throughout the communities,” Ostrer said of his findings, which also concluded that along the maternal line, Native American ancestry is as high as 30 to 40 percent.

“You can’t say person A has Jewish ancestry and person B does not. These genes were introduced some 500 years ago,” he said. “Originally there was a fair amount of intermarriage, and then the communities remained isolated.”

As the historical hypothesis goes, once the Inquisition arrived in the New World, Crypto Jews pushed on to the remote corners of the Spanish empire, such as New Mexico and Colorado, to escape the Church’s reach. The San Luis Valley and Loja—both located in the farthest corners of what were once Spanish holdings—would therefore be expected to have discernable Jewish ancestry.

But the groundswell of interest in a Crypto-Jewish past among those of Spanish origin, particularly in the American Southwest, also has sparked controversy. A number of scholars have vociferously disputed any present-day evidence of Judaism, arguing that practices reported as Jewish had their origins in Seventh-day Adventism or fundamental Christianity.

“It certainly wasn’t my intention to take sides in this argument,” said Ostrer.

Rather, he and his team were, in part, picking up on previous genetic and clinical studies that found something surprising: Genetic mutations viewed as predominantly Jewish for a number of diseases, like breast cancer or Bloom’s syndrome, were popping up at a notable rate among Hispanos.

A mutation for breast cancer called 185 del AG that is much more common among Ashkenazi Jews than other populations, for example, turns out to be prevalent among Hispanos as well. According to Dr. Paul Duncan, a medical oncologist in private practice in Albuquerque, N.M., only his Hispano and Ashkenazi Jewish patients carry the mutation.

Curiously, scientists calculate that 185 del AG arose approximately 2,000 years ago prior to any split between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

In Loja, genetic traces of ancestry are even more apparent. Scattered across the remote villages of the province are nearly 100 people with Laron syndrome, which is marked by a severe short stature. When Dr. Jaime Guevara-Aguirre, a diabetes specialist based in Quito, Ecuador, who collaborated with Ostrer on his study, first began treating this group in 1987, the referring physician told him that legend had it that these people all descended from the same Sephardic Jew who had come over with the explorers.

In 1992 and 1993, scientists discovered that all Lojanos with Laron’s carried the same mutation and shared it with one person in Israel and nine others in Latin America.

“When I saw this I thought there is a strong possibility that the story was true,” said Guevara-Aguirre, because “what are the chances that in the billions of nucleotides the same mutation would happen twice at random? But Harry’s study confirms it for the first time.”

Ostrer’s study stands out from previous studies in its scope. It is the first time that any researcher has looked beyond particular disease mutations or shared individual genetic markers to view the entire genome for large chunks of DNA that indicate shared ancestry.

“Statistically it is very difficult to see it any other way” other than that “these people [in Ostrer’s study] were descendant from Conversos,” agreed Duncan.

Back in the San Luis Valley, Maria Clara Martinez, a retiree who edits the local paper, La Sierra, said she wasn’t “at all surprised” by Ostrer’s findings. A genealogist who has amassed a database of more than 77,000 individuals from New Mexico and southern Colorado extending back to 1598, Martinez explained that everyone in the area is somehow related.

Martinez helped to publicized Ostrer’s study, but did not get tested herself because, she said, “I’m afraid of needles.”

Although she said she never heard of any ancestors in her own family who were Jewish, she has heard others speak of Jewish forbears or family practices. And then there was an ancestor of hers who married a woman from Portugal whose father was tried by the Inquisition.

“Community members were jealous of him, so they reported him, saying he had a tail,” Martinez recalled. “He was cleared, but it’s very likely he was Jewish, although it was never proven.”

The intercontinental JConnector dreams big

Just try to put Michal Taviv in a box — she won’t fit.

She’s a multinational citizen with passports from Israel and South Africa; she’s at home in Pico-Robertson and comfortable traveling abroad; she’s a double-degree business major who spends most of her time networking, matchmaking and community building. It’s taken 30 countries, two homelands and finally Los Angeles for her to put down roots.

But instead of settling for the status quo, she’s created the community she craves. Taviv is using her own religious struggles as a springboard to create a forum for young, disaffected Jews — or more precisely, those who are disconnected from their Jewish roots.

She started small, organizing hiking trips, Shabbat dinners and parties, hooking herself into Jewish Los Angeles, hitting the scene and hoping that she could inspire a loyal following for her baby, JConnectLA.

Enter Cheston Mizel, who had long been dreaming — and seeding — a new concept of Jewish unity. All he needed was a partner. Together the two created JConnectLA as a social networking “clearing house” for Jews between the ages of 20 and 40, of any background, affiliation or level of observance.

Now in its third year, JConnectLA’s primary focus is bringing together these Jews from different backgrounds, providing them a space in which to commune and connecting them with organizations that can further develop their Jewish involvement.

Just don’t confuse it with a singles organization.

When Taviv, 29, first arrived in Los Angeles from Israel three years ago, she didn’t know where young Jewish singles could go to socialize. As she explored the city, she found that it lacked a social center where Jews of different cultural and religious backgrounds could come together as a community.

Taviv, an effervescent woman, devoted herself to reaching out to multicultural Jews. She hooked herself into any Jewish event she could find, hitting bars, clubs, concerts and shuls in order to inspire a following.

“So many young Jews are being ignited, and it’s not necessarily in a religious or political way,” she said, but people are yearning for ways to live a meaningful life.

“We want to live a life that allows us to contribute, that allows us to feel like the potential we have as human beings is being fulfilled, and it’s really starting to come forth,” she said.

Taviv didn’t connect with religion until adulthood. The eldest of four siblings, Taviv spent her formative years in South Africa, raised by scientist parents originally from Russia. Her father, a nuclear physicist, and her mother, an engineer, both emphasized hard math over Judaism, reason over spirituality.

“Shabbat on Friday night was the only meal that we ate together as a family — then we’d go watch TV or go out,” Taviv said.

“I was suspicious of dogma, suspicious of institutions, of rules and regulations and definitely did not want to take on some system that I didn’t understand, that just told me what to do,” Taviv said.

After her brother made aliyah and immediately entered yeshiva, her family thought he had been brainwashed.

Taviv went to Israel to investigate her brother, but she found herself relating to the multifaceted nature of Israeli society, and her trip became a catalyst for broadening her own Jewish journey.

“I think I was always a seeker spiritually, but I hadn’t scratched beyond the surface of Judaism to see the value and the beauty of what was there,” she said. “But once in Israel with open eyes and a more open heart, my soul couldn’t help but respond.”

After a sojourn that took her around the world, Taviv landed in Los Angeles, a multicultural hotbed that possessed all the ingredients of the diverse, dynamic community she desired.

In January 2006, as program director for Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel (LINK), which she credits as a critical partner in helping launch JConnectLA, she was assigned to work with Mizel and build the grass-roots organization.

“JConnectLA started at the Shabbat table of Cheston Mizel, as an ingathering of the exiles,” she said, betraying pride that the organization’s unconventional roots reflect her own.

The founding partnership proved to be a lucky one. Although they had different roles, Mizel, as the primary fundraiser, and Taviv, as the programmer, shared the same vision: Jewish unity.

“Unfortunately, I felt like there wasn’t enough conversation or dialogue happening here between the different groups, different cultural and religious backgrounds,” she said.

Formed quickly through word of mouth and fueled by a handful of private donors who committed to a three-year operating budget of approximately $250,000 per year, JConnectLA began attracting a vast network of multiethnic, multicultural Jews by offering Jewish-themed social programming. In only three years, it has increased its database from 800 to almost 4,000 people.

“This is the place where all Jews need to feel comfortable, where any Jew from any walk of life can feel a sense of belonging, a sense of welcome and kinship,” Taviv said. “What we want, what we measure our success by, is if a Jew comes to one of our events and walks away feeling ‘That was a good Jewish experience.'”

In order to appeal and be accessible to everyone, Taviv has been especially sensitive to ramping up religious standards to the highest level of acceptance so that even the most devout Jews can participate in their activities.

At their annual Purim party last March, black hats were bopping to the band Moshav in the same room as scantily clad Queen Esthers.

Taviv insists JConnectLA has no religious agenda.

“We’re not trying to fundraise from them, we’re not trying to make them religious, we’re not trying to send them to Israel — if all that stuff happens, fabulous! That’s a byproduct,” she said.

Perhaps the greatest impact of JConnectLA has been on Taviv herself, whose Jewish identity has deepened in tandem with the organization’s growth. While she once identified as secular, Taviv is now shomer Shabbos and a regular in the Pico-Robertson hood.