Clergy reflect on Proposition 8

On a wall of the Autry National Center — among Los Angeles Jewish immigrant artifacts, biographies of Hollywood Jewry, above a case of kippot from Uganda — a white banner proclaims in crimson letters: “Beth Chayim Chadashim, Jewish, Gay & Lesbian & Proud.” The banner, used in gay pride marches in the 1980s and ’90s, is part of the museum’s exhibition “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic,” which runs through Jan. 5. Lent to the museum by the world’s first gay synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim, (House of New Life), the banner is presented as a symbol of gay liberation in Jewish life.

Just across the museum’s courtyard, in its Wells Fargo Theater, the gay pride movement and, in particular, the road to marriage equality, came to life at an Oct. 20 symposium, “Faith Meets 8,” linked to the “Mosaic” show. Moderated by Los Angeles Times columnist David Lazarus, speakers included the Rev. Troy Perry, founder of Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), the world’s first gay church, and Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), joined by Mormon scholar Joanna Brooks, and USC religion and sociology professor Paul Lichterman.

This November marks the fifth anniversary of the passage of California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the state. Much of the discussion at the Autry centered on the role that conservative religious groups played in the measure’s initial success — prior to it being overturned by the United States Supreme Court last spring — as well as what the speakers described as recent rapid shifts leading up to this year’s resumption of gay marriages.

“What we’re seeing now is this sea change that’s happening in same-sex marriage in state after state, such a sudden change and such a shift from what we saw in 2008,” said Edwards, whose Reform congregation is in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. The rabbi attributed these changes to the hard work of activists, as well as the positive impact that recent same-sex marriages have had, especially on prior opponents. “There’s nothing like getting invited to a wedding … and seeing what a couple is creating together, a family together, to help people let that fear fall away, to break down those boundaries,” Edwards told the audience of about 60 people. 

It was Perry, whom Edwards referred to as “the founding reverend” of the BCC, whose encouragement led to the formation of the Jewish congregation in 1972, and his L.A. church served as the temple’s original home. In 2004, Perry, along with his husband, was among the first litigants to sue the state of California in seeking gay marriage. The Supreme Court overturned Proposition 8 in June, along with the landmark ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act, and in October, New Jersey became the 14th state to legalize gay marriage. Other states, including Michigan, are expected to follow soon. Although Perry emphasized his belief in marriage equality as a civil right, he also found grounding in his faith: “I’m as serious as a heart attack over this issue. … I come from a religious background that told me it was moral to marry … so for me it was a religious issue.” 

The conversation at the Autry also focused on how many Mormons, Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews voted in support Proposition 8, because they believed same-sex marriages might lead to infringements on their own religious liberties. When moderator Lazarus asked whether religion has impeded social change, the symposium speakers said that faith and progress can go hand in hand, and that it was time to look forward.

In an interview, Edwards said she has been delighted to see her calendar fill up with weddings and noted an influx of younger gay and lesbian couples joining together under the chuppah. “Celebrating Jewishly, and within the law,” Edwards said, “feels so good.”

Growing the fruits of peace in El Salvador

Don Israel speaks no English, and I speak almost no Spanish. But I understood him well enough to realize that, as I began to plant one of the mango trees that would be placed in his field that day,  he obviously thought I was doing it wrong. Our mutual patience eventually conquered our communication barrier, though, and with time, I learned and understood. We went on to plant about a dozen mango trees together that morning.

Don Israel’s small parcel of land is in a rural village in the Lempa River region of El Salvador. I was there as part of a delegation sent by American Jewish World Service (AJWS), consisting of 16 extraordinary young people training to be rabbis, educators or leaders of Jewish nonprofits. (I was honored to be the scholar-in-residence for the group.) For 10 days, we labored alongside our hosts, planting trees, digging irrigation ditches and building latrines. But it became obvious fairly early on that our primary mission there was not to work (we were, after all, a fairly inexperienced work bunch), but rather to learn and to understand, as human beings and as Jews. Patience turned out to be our most important asset, as the story of the Lempa River region took time to comprehend. And though there is still much more to know, I left with at least the outline of a story of war and peace, of exile and return, of anxiety and hope, and of human courage and nobility. It is a story that has enriched my religious life and has expanded my sense of religious duty.

The story begins with an event that I had been embarrassingly ignorant about, the vicious civil war that wracked El Salvador through the 1980s. And although I had done some reading about it in anticipation of this trip, the event was still remote and emotionally inaccessible. But this changed suddenly and dramatically on our very first afternoon, as we gathered beneath the thatched-roof courtyard just outside Chungo Fuentes’ home. Fuentes is the bearer of the story, the embodiment of the memory.

Fuentes’ part of the story is rooted in the political dissent that had been growing throughout the 1970s among El Salvador’s lower economic classes. The dissent was fueled by bitter resentment against the military-backed government under whose rule the great majority of the country’s land was owned by fewer than 20 wealthy families, leaving much of the population struggling for sustenance. The Catholic Church became a major organizer of the political protest movement, whose voice was thwarted through the government’s rigging of elections, and the military’s tactics of physical intimidation and violence. The 1980 assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, a highly influential figure in the protest movement, helped to spark an all-out civil war between leftist guerilla groups and the Salvadoran military. Many rural villages whose civilian residents were sympathetic to the guerillas came under attack at the hands of military death squads, who killed indiscriminately, and who, in December 1981, carried out a horrific massacre of civilians at the village of El Mozote. (“Report of the U.N. Truth Commission on El Salvador” is an excellent source of further information.)

As this was unfolding, Fuentes led a group of nearly 1,000 villagers across the border into Honduras, and from there to the mountains of Panama, where they were granted political asylum. As he recounts the story for us, Fuentes speaks of the faith they all had that this exile would be temporary, and that they would return to their homeland one day. That day came 10 years later, in 1992, when the two sides signed a peace accord in which the government, among other things, agreed to distribute land to the common people, including Fuentes and his fellow refugees.

It is worth noting that all of us in the group reflexively drew parallels between the story we were hearing and our own national story. It was only the following week that we realized that we were far from the first to make the connection. The massive mural in town depicting the story dedicates one panel to the oppression at the hand of the government. It prominently features an image of the Egyptian pyramids.

As dramatic as it was, though, it was not primarily a story of war that we had come to El Salvador to learn and understand, rather a story of how people recover from war. It took time and required patience for the details of this story to come together, but when it did, what we learned is that recovery only happens when people on the ground are able to summon up the very best of what makes us human, and when people from the outside bring their core moral and religious convictions to bear on the situation of strangers.

The peace accords were far from a panacea. Yes, men and women now came to the Lempa River region to claim their new parcels of land. But as many of these men and women had been on opposite sides of the fighting, distrust and the potential for further violence came with them. In addition to which, no one had money to invest in farming, and nobody was trained in modern agricultural methods. The area lacked even the most basic infrastructure — to this day, in fact, most of the roads are unpaved, streetlights are few, there are no sanitation or postal services, and the nearest hospital is an hour and a half away — and on top of all of that, the new landowners were living, without any evacuation plan, right next to a river that regularly overflowed its banks. I can still see Fuentes holding his palm to his waist when he described the devastating floods of this past October.

That people aren’t fighting and aren’t starving in the Lempa River region today is due to a small group of residents who convened right after the war, pledging to create a peace zone in which grievances could be aired, but also that a commitment to putting aside past differences in the name of community-building would prevail. They pledged to go from village to village to hear what people most needed and also to enlist them in a voluntary cooperative through which they would become trained in sustainable methods of farming and environmental protection. They also would agree to work collectively to market their agricultural output, thus maximizing profit for all. They drew up an evacuation plan for the next flood (last October they succeeded in evacuating 7,000 people, losing not one soul to the disaster). A parallel women’s group created an NGO that provided micro-loans for war widows, enabling them to purchase livestock. (Today it provides all kinds of economic and social services to the women of the region.) People, scarred by years of poverty and war,  with every reason to be untrusting and suspicious of one another, instead formed a democratic, self-governing organization to forge a better life for everyone. Two of the organization’s directors today serve in El Salvador’s parliament.

But this is only one half of the story.

The other part is that none of this could have unfolded without outside help. There was plenty of evidence on the ground of the impact of USAID, most dramatically in the person of our local guide, Chema Argueta, who was plucked as a high school senior from a poor fishing village on the Jiquilisco Bay, trained for two years in Portland, Ore., in the management of natural resources, and returned to his community where he today humbly leads the effort to preserve the bay’s mangrove ecosystem, thus securing the future for the bay’s fisherman and their families. And then there was the ubiquitous presence of the AJWS, which has been making grants for community organizations in the Lempa River region for decades. One group after another gratefully acknowledged AJWS’ impact. It’s difficult to describe, by the way, the sense of pride we felt each time AJWS was mentioned by people who otherwise would never have had any contact with Jews, but who now know us as a compassionate, smart and forward-looking humanitarian partner. 

And this is the other half of the story we had come to learn: that visionary outsiders empower visionaries on the ground. It can’t happen any other way.

Torah study was woven through our 10 days in the country. Within our group we learned and analyzed texts concerning the halachic responsibility to respond to human beings in crisis, the imperative to extend justice to the disadvantaged, the command to preserve the dignity of those who are receiving aid, and the very complex question as to where tzedakah directed toward the wider human community fits within our tzedakah obligation toward our fellow Jews. As leaders and future leaders of Jewish institutions, we all intuitively understood how important this latter question is.

The story of the Lempa River region is far from over. Next year, hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. economic development aid will flow into El Salvador through the Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC). Local leaders are worried, though, that the MCC’s requirement that the recipient government invest the funds in a manner that will attract international private sector investment (not a bad plan in and of itself) might undermine their work by creating incentives and pressures on farmers to grow crops that will bring short-term profits but long-term soil depletion, or to sell their parcels to larger land owners, which will ultimately land them back where they were before the war. Good news might be bad news. Everything is complicated.

And of course, as the autumn approaches, everyone there will be keeping a wary eye on the water level in the Lempa.

On the plane ride home, I thought a lot about Don Israel, Chungo Fuentes,  Chema Argueta, and the many other men and women we met. I thought about the nobility of their common struggle, the fragility of their gains and the vulnerability of their livelihoods. And about the wise teaching of Rabbi Tarfon, who taught that while it is not ours to complete the task, we are not free to desist from it either.

For more information about American Jewish World Service, visit

Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.


Before therewas “Ellen,” Chastity Bono, Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS, or AIDSitself, there was Beth Chayim Chadashim. The year was 1972, and mostlesbians and gay men were deep in the closet. For four gay Jews whoshowed up for a rap session at Metropolitan Community Church in LosAngeles, there was no other place to seek spiritual solace. But, aswelcoming as Rev. Troy Perry was, MCC was still a Christian place ofworship. Many gay and lesbian Jews felt deeply alienated from thesynagogues in which they had grown up, but there were no shuls wherethey felt comfortable to be who they were and love who theyloved.

Supported by Perry, the four Jews decided to formtheir own synagogue and to seek affiliation with the Reform stream ofJudaism, which they felt would be the most friendly toward theircause. In this quiet way, inside a gay and lesbian church, was bornthe world’s first and oldest synagogue with outreach to the gay,lesbian and bisexual community. Next month, it will mark thecompletion of its 26th year. This Sunday, as part of its ongoingcelebration of its first quarter century, BCC will host theappearance of Rabbi Alexander Schindler at Leo Baeck Temple in LosAngeles. Schindler, president of the Union of American HebrewCongregations from 1973 to 1996, was instrumental in BCC’s gainingacceptance to the Reform movement in 1974, the first congregation oflesbians, gays and bisexuals to become part of any mainstreamreligious denomination.

Also speaking at the event Sunday (via videotape)will be Rabbi Erwin Herman, Pacific Southwest Council and newcongregations director for UAHC when BCC’s affiliation wasconsidered. Herman reached out during BCC’s early days, offering theresources of his North Hollywood offices to the fledgling synagogueand helping to secure the use of Leo Baeck Temple before BCC found apermanent location. But finding a rabbi to officiate at its firstHigh Holiday service was a problem. “Several rabbis locally turned usdown,” he recalled. “They were afraid of being misperceived as gayrabbis.” But a rabbi from Washington, D.C. agreed to conduct theservices without pay.

Securing UAHC affiliation was even more knottyproblem. “Some of the more liberal, respected rabbis within ourmovement were totally opposed to it,” Herman said. “Their attitudewas [BCC] wasn’t necessary. They said: ‘Our temple will welcomethem.'” Others took refuge in biblical text that cites homosexualityas an abomination.

BCC was ultimately admitted to full UAHCmembership in July 1974. Still, it wasn’t until 1977 that it had itsfirst permanent home at 6000 W. Pico Blvd., a modest one-storybuilding with a purple facade, where it still resides today. Notuntil 1983 did it welcome its first permanent rabbi, Janet RossMarder.

Marder, now director of UAHC’s Pacific SouthwestCouncil, said many people assumed she was a lesbian at first,although she was married and about eight months pregnant at the time.Marder, who remained at BCC until 1988, was rabbi there during theearly years of the AIDS epidemic, when each week seemed to claim thelife of another congregant. “Those were traumatic years,” she said.BCC focused its efforts in those dark days on educating the largerJewish community about AIDS through a program that later became LosAngeles Jewish AIDS Services, and continues today as part of JewishFamily Service of Los Angeles.

Much of the Jewish gay, lesbian and bisexualcommunity was closeted then, with many listed on the membershiproster only by first name and last initial. Now, says Rabbi LisaEdwards, who has led the congregation since1994, there is almost noone who isn’t “out,” at least at BCC. With new medicines, there havebeen fewer deaths from AIDS recently, but there are still many BCCmembers who are HIV-positive, the rabbi said.

Cantorial Soloist Fran Magid Chalin (left) and Rabbi LisaEdwards.


Edwards, slender, soft-voiced and much youngerlooking than her 46 years, grew up in a Chicago suburb and received adoctorate in English literature from the University of Iowa beforedeciding to become a rabbi. She interned at BCC while completing herstudies at Hebrew Union College and became a full-time rabbi there in1994. One of her predecessors, former BCC Rabbi Denise Eger, left toform another Reform gay, lesbian and bisexual synagogue, CongregationKol Ami, in West Hollywood in 1992.

Despite the pain and loss caused by AIDS, theatmosphere at BCC is more often one of joy and celebration ratherthan sorrow. Often close to 100 of its 270 members crowd into thesmall sanctuary for Friday night services. “There’s not a singleperson who is there because someone is dragging them,” said MarkLevine, chair of the temple’s education committee and a teacher of apopular BCC Jewish history class. “That’s why our services are veryspiritual. There’s the same kind of a feeling that there was insummer camp. People are out there actively participating.”

BCC has brought a lot of people back to Judaism,added Levine. “I can’t tell you how many people that are closetedbefore they come out almost give up their Judaism. What BCC hastaught gays and lesbians is that it’s okay to be both.”

What finally helped him bond most deeply with BCC,Levine said, was when his partner died of AIDS a few years ago. RabbiEdwards and Cantorial Soloist Fran Magid Chalin were able to help himthrough the ordeal, even attending the funeral in Chicago. At a moremainstream synagogue, the relationship between the men might havebecome an issue, but at BCC, it’s not only accepted, it’s celebrated,he said. “It’s interesting to have to go to a gay synagogue to makegay not part of the discussion.”

A BCC wedding celebration, left to right: Rabbi LarryEdwards, brides Tracy Moore and Rabbi Lisa Edwards, and Rabbi LauraGeller.

Although BCC is associated with the Reformmovement, it attracts members of all denominations — and nodenomination. Levine believes the synagogue may also have among thelargest number of Jews by choice of any synagogue in the city –probably over 20 percent. Many left the church and embraced Judaismbecause they felt they had more leeway to question in Judaism thanChristianity, he said.

Even among the gay and lesbian community, thereare still battles to fight and prejudices to overcome. As a bisexual,Chalin has encountered it from both the gay and straight communities.Now in a monogamous relationship with a man, she spent 15 yearsidentifying as a lesbian, and has made it part of her mission to makebisexuality better accepted at BCC and elsewhere.

Another contribution that Chalin has made to BCCis making the synagogue, which has always catered to adults, morewelcoming to children. Chalin, who has a 3-year-old boy, Eli, saidBCC was always proud that it was a place that people didn’t choose tobelong to simply in order to find a place for their children’s bar orbat mitzvah. With more congregants having children throughalternative insemination, adoption, previous relationships andmarriage, the synagogue is taking its first steps to create achildren’s program. Eventually, Edwards hopes there will be Hebrewschool and a bar and bat mitzvah program. “For a long time, the focusof our community was in dealing with the loss from AIDS,” Chalinsaid. “Now we’re looking at having children in our community andcaring for aging parents. We’re finally coming of age, so theseissues that affect the larger mainstream community also affectus.”

The backward glance that Rabbi Schindler plans tocast on BCC’s accomplishments this Sunday will also scan the unpavedroad ahead. “The job isn’t totally done,” he said. Homophobia remainsentrenched, even among enlightened Jews, and gay marriages are stillnot legally recognized, even if some rabbis choose to perform them.Although gays and lesbians are increasingly accepted as members ofcongregations, Schindler said, “it doesn’t go quite as far inaccepting them as youth leaders and rabbis. There, the old[homophobic] demons reappear.”

Rabbi Schindler will speak on Sunday, March 29, at7:30 p.m. at Leo Baeck Temple, 1300 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles.The topic is “One in Every Minyan: Jewish Outreach to Gay, Lesbianand Bisexual Jews.” For information, call BCC at (213) 931-7023 ore-mail them at


The Life of the Party

Vice President Gore reaffirms theadministration’s support of Israel

By Robert Eshman, Managing Editor

From left, Vice President Al Gore, AIPAC LosAngeles chapter Chair Hentu Amis, Israel Consul General Yoram BenZeév and American Jewish Congress Los Angeles chapterPresident Barry A. Sanders

If the multicultural panel of speakers were thehonored guests at the American Jewish Committee and AIPAC’s50th-birthday party for Israel last Saturday evening, then thekeynote speaker — Vice President Al Gore — was the icing on thecake.

The event was a hybrid: part love-in for Israel,part exercise in coalition building, part political rally for the manwho aspires to be our next president. Gore himself made the lastpoint apparent when he began telling a joke about the first Jewishpresident of the Unites States. “This, obviously, takes place in2008,” he said, prefacing the joke.

For organizers, the fact that representatives ofthe African-American, Latino and Asian-American communities, as wellas elected state and local officials, turned out was testament enoughto the event’s success.

Those looking for harder news heard the vicepresident disclose details of an earlier meeting in Washington withRussian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who has just beendismissed from office by President Boris Yeltsin. The foremost topicon the agenda, according to Gore, was Russian arms sales to Iran, asubject that has worried Israel and its supporters.

Before Gore entered the room to an extendedstanding ovation, the 430 people in attendance — AIPAC and AJCmembers, state and local elected officials, and students — heardspeaker after speaker avow his or her affection for Israel andappreciation for the Jewish community.

“The black, Asian-American and Latino communitieshave always been a bedrock of support for Israel,” said CongressmanHoward Berman, in introducing three of the evening’s four mainspeakers: toy magnate Charlie Woo, president of Chinese-AmericansUnited for Self-Empowerment; Genethia Hudley-Hayes, executivedirector of the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition; and AntonioVillaraigosa, speaker of the state Assembly.

Woo praised Israel for better representingAmerican values than his own homeland, and he thanked AIPAC and AJCfor “volunteering to stick with us” when the White House fund-raisingscandals cast suspicion on the dual loyalties of Chinese-Americandonors. “They defended our rights as citizens in the Americanpolitical process.”

Woo ended his speech by quoting from the Mishneh:”At 50, you have gained the wisdom to offer counsel to others,” hesaid.

Hayes, who had traveled to Israel on anAJC-sponsored trip last year, said that the country derives “strengththrough diversity,” just as Los Angeles does. She recounted meetingswith Ethiopian Jewish children, then referred obliquely to theproblems within Israeli society. “I remember how their faces mirroredmy face,” she said. “A democratic Israeli state is theirpassion.”

Villaraigosa spoke more personally of growing upin a mixed Latino-Jewish neighborhood of City Terrace andexperiencing the kindness of Jewish neighbors. The son of immigrants,raised by a single mother, Villaraigosa said that his AJC-sponsoredvisit to Israel in November 1997 reaffirmed his belief in “thevindication of the indomitable spirit.”

Reflecting on all the speaker’s comments later,AJC-Los Angeles chapter President Barry Sanders said theydemonstrated that “support for Israel is not just from Jewish people;it’s across the board.”

Gore, for one, didn’t need to be won over. Praisedby former national AIPAC Chair Larry Weinberg as a lifelong supporterof Israel, Gore appeared to be among friends, employing the kind ofbackpats, hugs, asides and self-deprecating humor that have become aClinton trademark.

He drew applause for pledging continuedadministration support for the peace process, but the supportiveaudience withheld initial applause when Gore, prompted by a commentfrom Weinberg, lauded the administration’s achievement in gettingChernomyrdin to commit to ending arms sales to Iran. “These peoplearen’t pushovers,” said an AIPAC official. “They want to hear aboutverification and timelines and conditions.”

Gore was on firmer ground in recounting hisattachment to Israel. Using intermittently flawless Hebrew, he quotedbiblical scripture, poet Chaim Bialik and Hebrew prayers, praisingIsrael as a “story of redemption and freedom for all oppressed peopleeverywhere.”


Town Hall Meeting

Parents gather to discuss the issuesconfronting Los Angeles’ public schools>

By Beverly Gray, Education Editor

What about the public schools? With increasingnumbers of Jewish parents opting out of the public school system, theJewish community, whose support for public education is legendary,has tended to shift focus to Jewish and nonsectarian privateschools.

But last Sunday, March 22, a Federation-sponsoredEducation Town Hall brought the issues of public education backbefore the community.

More than 160 parents and educators of allethnicities gathered at Roscomare Road Elementary School to questiontop administrators, ranging from Ruben Zacarias, superintendent ofthe Los Angeles Unified School District, to a representative fromMayor Riordan’s office, to several widely respected public schoolprincipals.

The kickoff was a rousing call-to-arms by DelaineEastin, state superintendent of public instruction, who had a readyanswer for those in our state who say they can’t be worried about theschooling of other people’s children. Said Eastin, withcharacteristic fervor: “Think about that next time you’re on anairplane. This country runs on other people’s children.”

Eastin left quickly — to catch a plane –outraging one woman in the audience who wanted immediate comments ona long list of educational trouble spots. Her rant — “I want to hearabout Compton! I want to hear about the Unz Initiative!” — attractedsome sympathetic nods of agreement.

In later sessions, political issues such as thecontroversial Unz Initiative — which sets stringent limits oneducation in a child’s native language — resurfaced. But mostparents seemed more interested in the specific problems facing theirown children. A young mother asked about the procedure for enrollinghe
r children in magnet programs. The grandmother of a child withcerebral palsy brought up issues related to special ed.

Although debate in the four sessions on topicsranging from “20 Choices in Public Education” to “Life AfterElementary School” was polite, discussion in the hallways sometimesgrew heated. An angry former teacher who now heads the Coalition toSave the Children could be heard telling anyone who’d listen, “Godhimself couldn’t teach with 40 kids and no books.” And there was atelling moment when two attendees stood face to face, one demanding,”What about the teachers?” and the other insisting, “What about theparents?’

Parents found in the Town Hall a rare opportunityto attach faces to the names behind the huge public schoolbureaucracy. Loren Grossman, a Venice mom currently busing her twosons to a highly gifted magnet in Mission Hills, lobbied educationofficials for her own pet project: the creation of a Westside HighlyGifted Center. “I met all the people I’ve been sending letters to forthe last year,” said Grossman.

Though the event was sponsored by the Commissionon Urban Affairs of the Federation’s Jewish Community RelationsCouncil, there was nothing particularly Jewish about the Town Hall’sagenda. In the past, said Helen Katz, chair of the JCRC’s Task Forceon Education, task force events have been directed at Jewish parentswho are trying to make informed choices for their sons and daughters.This time around, the focus was on the needs of the school-agepopulation as a whole. “It’s important for Jewish parents to get theperspective of the other people in the community,” Katz said.

The Wonder Years

Early childhood educators are those heroic soulswho wipe noses, soothe hurt feelings, clean up paint spills, andmanage to perch gracefully on pint-sized chairs. But their hiddenagenda lies in introducing Jewish values and culture to their youngcharges. It’s a tall order.

That’s why the Bureau of Jewish Education sponsorsan annual conference at which early childhood educators can hear new,creative ideas, delve into the latest academic research, andgenerally recharge their batteries. This year’s Early ChildhoodSpring Institute, held on Monday, March 16, at Valley Beth Shalom,drew some 850 teachers from the 65 BJE-affiliated preschools in thegreater Los Angeles area. Surprise — many educators discoveredsimilar experiences and questions when it comes to working with smallchildren.

For some 50 teachers, the conference highlight wasa discussion session led by Dr. Ellyn Gersh Lerner of Temple Emanuel,who outlined the special issues faced by “Parent and Me” teachers.The overflow crowd freely chimed in on such pressing topics as how toeducate parents while keeping their toddlers amused, and what to dowhen nannies and housekeepers come to class as parental substitutes.The more things change, the more they same to be the same.

Tova Goldring, who teaches “Mommy and Me” at GanIsrael of Tarzana, noted that this year’s conference marked the firsttime the unique needs of programs such as hers have been addressed.Goldring said, “The teachers who were there were so excited to bewith people who do what they do.” In fact, at session’s end, therewas talk of organizing monthly meetings so that the shared encounterscould continue.

Because the conference’s theme was Israel at 50,several presentations dealt with the Jewish homeland. A delegationfrom Stephen S. Wise showed how its “Windows on Israel” curriculummakes Israel a vital year-round presence for its pupils, while theVBS demonstrated some of its schoolwide approaches.

One of the most ambitious workshops dealt withIsrael in a far less sunny light. Called “The Dark Side of the News:In Israel and In Our Community,” it featured two veteran preschooleducators, Bea Chankin and Dafna Presnell, who admitted at the outsetthat they had far more questions than answers. Their goal was to findapproaches through which young children can be given emotionalsupport at times of war and natural disaster.

Presnell, director of the Stephen S. Wise NurserySchool, lived through numerous close calls while growing to adulthoodin Israel. She broached the fact that children, who are taught inpreschool to “use their words” instead of coming to blows, have ahard time reconciling the contradiction when adults go to war.

Chankin, who earlier in the day had received oneof this year’s Lainer Awards for distinguished early childhoodeducators (the other recipients were Marian Milman and Bea Prentice),stressed that it is the teacher’s first responsibility to makehis/her students feel safe.

Both acknowledged that because popular classroomholidays such as Chanukah exalt military heroes, it sometimes may behard to convince children that the way of the peacemaker also hasvalue in Jewish tradition. The session wasn’t nearly long enough tofully debate this thorny topic, but attendees left with a stack ofuseful handouts, along with more questions than they hadanticipated.

Another out-of-the-ordinary session was titled”Growing Up Jewish. It was an opportunity for a small group to sharetheir own stories. One woman grew up in Mexico, the child of Jewsfrom the Middle East. A second described the public schools inNorfolk, Va., where she was one of the few Orthodox Jews enrolled. Bycontrast, another was raised in a family where the “religion” wasSocialist Zionism. The range of personal stories reinforced the ideathat Jews come in many varieties. But all agreed that high standardsof ethical behavior were intrinsic to their concept of being Jewish,and all felt duty-bound to transmit these standards to theirstudents.

— B.G.


Taking a Stand

Who should speak for the Jews of LosAngeles on hard issues that arouse diverse and passionate feelingswithin the community? Maybe nobody — say someleaders.

By Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer

When is an issue a Jewish issue? Should the JewishFederation or its departments only take stands on obviously “Jewish”issues and only when there’s a clear consensus in the Jewishcommunity?

These are perennial questions at the Federation,and they came to the forefront last week, following the abruptresignation of a Jewish Community Relations Committee commissionchair.

Douglas Mirell, who had chaired the JCRC’s UrbanAffairs Commission for the past several years, tendered hisresignation in a five-page letter to JCRC Chair Carmen Warschaw. Init, he accused her of “stacking” a March 11 JCRC executive committeemeeting so as to obtain the outcome she wanted, and then curtailingdebate and preventing a possible stand by the JCRC on a key stateballot initiative.

Warschaw’s reasoning: Proposition 227 — theso-called “English for the Children” initiative that will appear onthe June ballot — didn’t fit the profile of an issue the JCRC oughtto tackle. It simply wasn’t Jewish enough.

Mirell disagreed. “Consonant with what I believeto be the desires and intentions of Federation leadership, yourtenure as a JCRC chair has witnessed a steady and precipitous declinein the willingness of the JCRC to straightforwardly and unabashedlylead the Los Angeles Jewish community,” he wrote.

At a previous meeting, the Urban AffairsCommission (UAC) had taken a 22-2 (with one abstention) vote againstProposition 227, which would require, with few exceptions, that allCalifornia public-school children be taught only in English. It wouldeffectively end most of the s
tate’s bilingual-education programs.Mirell and his supporters opposed this.

“I don’t believe this is of particular Jewishinterest, except that Jews are being impacted by it,” Warschaw saidof Proposition 227. “It’s an American or California issue that weshould know more about, but it’s just not a Jewish issue.”

When she made the ruling that the issue would notbe considered, Warschaw said, she thought that it would be lesscontroversial than if she had asked for a vote. “If they didn’t likemy ruling, they could have asked for a vote, but no one did.”

But Beverly Hills School Board President VirginiaMaas, a UAC member who was present at the meeting, thinks thatWarschaw should have allowed the issue to be heard. “I think she hadthe votes to support her position not to bring it to the JCRC board,”said Maas, who believes that 227, which she supports, is relevant tothe Jewish community, since about 65 percent of Jewish childrenattend Los Angeles public schools.

Warschaw agrees that the issue is “terriblyimportant” and the Jewish community should be well-informed aboutboth sides of 227, and there are many public forums for this purpose.But, she said, the JCRC should confine itself more narrowly to issuesof Jewish concern. “I think the Federation and the JCRC should takepositions on issues that really pertain to and affect the Jewishcommunity,” she said.

JCRC Executive Director Michael Hirschfeld echoedWarschaw’s sentiment, saying that in cases where there is nounanimity, taking a stand can sometimes be difficult. “Thisparticular ballot issue, I think, totally lacks consensus in theJewish community and possibly in other communities as well,” hesaid.

For his part, Mirell said that he couldn’t thinkof anything “more core to Judaism” than education. “I don’t thinkthere is anybody who would deny the importance that students whograduate from our schools can speak and write fluently in English,”he said. “The debate about the best way of ensuring that is criticalto this community and every other community.”

Mirell’s letter raises the larger question ofwhether the JCRC, a department of the Federation, should take a leadon controversial positions, as it has from time to time in the past,or merely serve as a gatekeeper on issues of Jewish concern.Previously, the JCRC’s executive committee took stands on a number ofissues, including opposing the nominations of Clarence Thomas andRobert Bork to the Supreme Court. But those stants enjoyed widespreadsupport. Two years ago, amid some angry debate, the JCRC recommendedthat the Federation oppose Proposition 209, the controversialanti-affirmative action initiative over which the Jewish communitywas deeply divided. After much discussion, the Federation finally didso. Many participants in that fight questioned the appropriateness ofthe JCRC taking any stand at all.

After all, one observer noted, it seemspresumptuous for a group of political activists to serve as the voiceof the Jewish community — especially when there are deepdivisions and personal interests (of a large minority) at stake. It’soligarchy at its worst.

In some communities, such as San Francisco, theJCRC is an independent body and, consequently, has more leeway toweigh in on controversial issues. But, as part of the Federation, theLos Angeles JCRC’s actions are more constrained. As FederationPresident Herb Gelfand sees it, the JCRC’s role isn’t to take aposition, but to recommend one to the Federation — and only onmatters of clear Jewish interest. Bilingual education, he said, “isabsolutely not a Jewish issue.”

Since the Federation is a consensus organizationrepresenting 519,000 Jews, it shouldn’t take positions on Jewishissues where there is no unanimity, Gelfand added. When theFederation took a strong stand against Israel’s conversion bill lastyear, he said, “there was no question in my mind that this was notonly a Jewish issue, but there was a very large consensus againstit.”

Gerald Bubis, a member of two JCRC commissions andthe Federation board and executive committee, believes that the JCRCshould be an independent entity. “As a committee of the Federation,it is not able to fulfill its function of sometimes taking unpopularstands.” The Federation, by definition, has a dilemma, he added. Itsmajor function is to raise funds to provide “the bloodline” forserving Jews, while its other purpose is to build community. One isoften at the expense of the other, he said. “If 90 percent of themoney is coming from 10 percent of the people, [the Federation is]going to be very concerned about what the 10 percent feel. If youlose $10 million from the very dissatisfied people, you’ve destroyedthe very system you put in place to support Jews.”

Israel at 50 Bash at

Pan Pacific Park

By Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer

It’s being called the biggest community-widecelebration of Israeli Independence Day outside of Israel. No, it’snot the two-hour CBS TV special on April 15. It’s the IsraeliIndependence Day Community Festival.

Jointly sponsored by the Jewish Federation and theCouncil of Israeli Organizations of Los Angeles (CIO/LA), the May 3event is expected to draw as many as 50,000 people to a multiculturalJewish blend of live entertainment, ethnic foods andcelebration.

This is the first time that the CIO/LA, which putson the annual Israeli Festival for Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day),and the American Jewish community in Los Angeles are putting on ajoint celebration.

The establishment of Israel is “the second-mostimportant event, after the Exodus from Egypt,” said Morrie Avidan, amember of the steering committee overseeing the Pan Pacific Parkcelebration. “That’s why this Independence Day is so important. Wewant to make it like a Cinco de Mayo for the Jews.”

Plans for the event include:

* More than 200 booths, including a “heritagepavilion,” roughly the size of a football field, with arts, cultureand food of the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities.

* Entertainment, including Israeli popularsinger-composer Danny Sanderson, Israeli musician Lisa Wanamaker, thePini Cohen Band, the Keshet Chayim Dance Performers and the ZimriyahChorale, among others.

* Dignitaries, including Israeli Minister ofInternal Security Avigdor Khalani, a decorated Yom Kippur War hero,who will be part of a formal commemoration ceremony.

* The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s DepartmentGolden Stars, a five-person skydiving team, will parachute out ofhelicopters and then hand out Israeli and American flags to thechildren.

* Children’s events, such as rides, games, apetting zoo, arts and crafts, and special entertainment

The festival may be worth checking out just forthe kosher eats, which will include everything from falafel to sushi,from kugel to hot dogs.

Festival director Yoram Gutman, who directed theIsraeli Festival in the past, expressed the hope that thousands ofpeople would show up at Pan Pacific Park. “This is our biggestopportunity to identify with Israel and show our support,” Gutmansaid.

The festival will run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. onMay 3. There is no entrance fee, but parking will be $5. Pan PacificPark is located two blocks east of Fairfax on Beverly Boulevard. Formore information, contact Susan Bender at (213) 761-8120 or Gutman at(818) 757-0123.

South Bay Celebration

The South Bay is p
lanning its own IsraeliIndependence Day celebration for Sunday, April 26, from 1 to 5 p.m.,at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center. At least 2,000 people areexpected. Impresario Sam Glaser will emcee. Booths, pageantry, artsand crafts, and entertainment will be part of the mix. Eventco-chairs are Rabbi David Lieb of Temple Beth El and Center and ReneeSokolski. The Jewish Community Israel 50 Jubilee, as the event iscalled, is being sponsored by the Jewish Federation South BayCouncil, six South Bay synagogues, the Torrance Hilton and The DailyBreeze.

For more information, call (310) 540-2631.



 ‘Long Way Home’ WinsOscar

It’s the second Academy Award for theWiesenthal Center

The headline honors went to “Titanic” and thestars of “As Good As It Gets,” but Oscars in two less glamorouscategories illustrated the continuing impact of the Holocaust and itsaftermath on filmmakers.

“The Long Way Home” took the prize as the bestdocumentary feature for producers Rabbi Marvin Hier and Richard Trankof the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The film chronicles the fate of Holocaustsurvivors in the immediate postwar years and their desperate attemptsto reach the Jewish homeland.

In his acceptance speech, Hier, the dean andfounder of the Wiesenthal Center, dedicated the award to “thesurvivors of the Holocaust, who walked away from the ashes, rebuilttheir lives, and helped create the State of Israel.”

Host Billy Crystal seemed dumbfounded at thepresence of the yarmulke-wearing Hier, saying: “What a night, whenyour rabbi wins an Oscar. Unbelievable.”

It was the second Oscar for the Wiesenthal Center,whose first documentary, “Genocide,” won in 1981. The production teamof “Long Way Home,” including writer-director Mark Jonathan Harris,is rushing to complete the official film of Israel’s 50th-anniversarycelebration, titled “If You Will It.”

The dramatic, true story of a diplomat who paidwith his career for saving thousands of Jews won an Oscar for theshort film “Visas and Virtue.”

It honors Chiune Sugihara, who was the Japaneseconsul in Vilna, Lithuania, in 1940. As throngs of desperate Jewsbesieged his office to escape the expected Nazi onslaught, Sugihara,against the direct orders of Tokyo, wrote out thousands of visas toenable Jews to escape to safety via the then neutral SovietUnion.

The film was produced by Irish-American ChrisDonahue and Japanese-American Chris Tashima, who plays the role ofSugihara in the 26-minute film.

There were the usual Hollywood/Jewish insideasides during the Academy Awards. In one, Robin Williams, acceptingan Oscar as best supporting actor for his role in “Good WillHunting,” thanked Bob and Harvey Weinstein, heads of the film’sMiramax production company.

“My thanks to the mishpoche Weinstein,” said thenon-Jewish Williams. “Mazel tov.”

In his opening monologue, Crystal spliced himselfinto a scene from “The Full Monty,” during which candidates displaytheir qualifications for a male stripper’s job. As Crystal pretendedto drop his pants, the camera panned to the long, amazed stares ofthe “judges.” A prolonged silence ensued, finally broken by Crystal,who asked, “Too Jewish?” — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor