Laurie and Steve Keleman: Volunteerism, built for two


Given their parents’ connections to the Jewish community, it makes sense that Laurie and Steve Keleman of Woodland Hills would be active, as well. Laurie’s parents, Lester and Virginia Wagner, who are 94 and 88, still volunteer at the synagogue in which she grew up, Temple Akiba in Culver City. Steve’s late father, Myer, edited the now-defunct B’nai B’rith Messenger newspaper in Los Angeles; his mom, Helen, started the local chapter of Pioneer Women, a Zionist organization.

When Laurie and Steve were raising their two now adult children and both working full time — Laurie for the IRS and Steve as a business consultant — they let Judaism “take a back seat,” as Laurie recalled. But a trip to Israel a dozen years ago with members of their temple, Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, rekindled something, and soon after returning, they began volunteering at the temple.

“You start with stuffing envelopes,” said Laurie, who is 64. Next was helping set up for various temple functions. Then, there was that moment during an Israeli dance at the temple nine years ago, around the time Laurie was about to retire, that Rabbi Paul Kipnes danced past her and mentioned he had the perfect volunteer gig for her. That’s how Laurie became chair of the Variance Committee, which makes decisions that enable families with limited resources to join the temple.

Steve, 68, began his volunteerism at Or Ami by creating a temple directory so members could network and seek out one another’s services. “That mushroomed into the rabbi asking me if I would be interested in managing the temple’s security and safety,” he said. Since then, he and Laurie have taken on more and more roles at Or Ami.

“I joke with them that they are going to start charging me rent,” Steve said. “Both me and Laurie are there two to three times a week, and not just for the cookies that are left over.” 

In addition to the security commitment, Steve chairs the Henaynu Caring Community Committee — Laurie also is a member — and the Inclusion Committee. Last February, he helped organize a special service celebrating differences, attended by 250 people. He is busy planning the second annual event for Feb. 3 to coincide with Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. In recent years, he also has helped rabbinic interns with their resumes, and interview skills, even setting up mock interviews. 

“Knock on wood, they have all gotten their first choice of synagogue,” he said. “I can’t take complete credit. But they come out a lot more polished.”

Laurie and Steve also have started to create programs at the temple for empty nesters and active adults who may be inclined to leave the temple, as many do, after their kids have a bar or bat mitzvah or head off to college.

Laurie volunteers outside the temple, as well. Twice a month, she spends a day at Tamar House, a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse, operated by Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. She was hoping to work directly with clients, but her skills were needed with reports. “Because I worked for the IRS, I know paperwork,” she said.

As meaningful as all of these efforts are, there is one act that stands out among the Kelemans’ giving. When their son Adam was a teenager, he was diagnosed with a kidney disease called IgA nephropathy and required a transplant. Laurie and Steve volunteered to donate one of theirs; Laurie was chosen.

“I’m his mother. It’s just something you do for your kid,” she said. “You give birth to them. You want them to be healthy and you fix them.”

At 30, Adam required a new kidney, and he got one from the cousin of a friend. And now, said Laurie, “He is doing great.”

Judy Mark


Improving rights within the disabled community isn’t just a battle; it’s an out-and-out war, and activist Judy Mark is on the front lines. 

In 2013, as a co-chair of the Government Relations Committee of the Autism Society of Los Angeles (ASLA), Mark helped enact California’s self-determination law designed to give individuals with developmental disabilities greater control over the services they receive. Getting the law in place was a major victory, but seeing it through to implementation has been a challenging process.

Mark reports that progress is steady, and she is equally optimistic over federal regulations requiring individuals with disabilities to establish a person-centered plan in order to receive funding for state services. According to Mark, these plans will give affected individuals a greater say over the type of care they want to receive, bringing them directly into the discussion and giving them a voice.

“We’re really entering a new day for people with disabilities,” said Mark, the mother of an 18-year-old son who has autism. “I’m kind of on a mission to tell the world about it in whatever way I can.” 

Mark’s avenues for this mission are numerous and diverse. She recently co-taught a class titled Current Perspectives on the Autism Spectrum through the Disabilities Studies program at UCLA. In February, ASLA will hold a two-day “It’s a New Day, It’s a New Life” conference, where experts from across the country will discuss upcoming changes within the developmentally disabled community. 

An L.A. native, Mark spent 16 years working in Washington, D.C., on behalf of women and low-income families, primarily in relation to immigrant communities. Mark learned, she said, “what it means to create a movement and what it means to support these individuals.”

Her son’s diagnosis brought her family, including her daughter and her husband, Allen Erenbaum, to Los Angeles, where she joined the disability community as an advocate and volunteer. She serves on the board of directors of Disability Rights California, among many others.

The Jewish community in L.A. has helped Mark’s son get a Jewish education, Mark said. She also co-chaired a Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Israel mission exploring programs for adults with disabilities. Mark is especially grateful to mentors — and 2013 Jewish Journal mensches — Dr. Harvey and Connie Lapin.

“They have the same evolution that I had,” Mark said. “Now I can give them advice.” 

Boys to men: Jewish education helps prepare kids for life


Raising three boys to be well-rounded, menschy men isn’t easy, and I admit to making one or two mistakes (per hour) in my efforts to guide my sons toward actions that reflect soulfulness, integrity and compassion.

As my children grow, so do my expectations of their accountability for their decisions. However, there is much that I — that all of us — can do, as our sons lurch toward manhood. In partnership with their educators, we can make a difference in helping them become stand-up young men.

Seeing the impact of an ethically based Jewish high school, both as a parent and as a professional in the school, I’ve witnessed much to give me hope. This is in spite of all the news spotlighting boys walking onto campuses to vent rage and fear with bullets, and young men at colleges assaulting women.

As an educator, I’ve witnessed how much of an effect the parent-educator partnership can have. I’ve seen boys who have reacted in anger to classroom situations learn to recognize the triggers and articulate frustration productively. I’ve seen young men poke fun at weaker kids on one day, then, weeks later, encourage those same kids when they’re teamed up on a soccer field. I’ve seen shy freshman boys who tease girls at the lockers later become superb co-leaders with young women in student government. 

All of this requires parents to engage with educators, giving context to the students’ situation, expressing hopes for their children’s maturation and staying consistent on a plan of action. Meanwhile, teachers, deans and administrators must spend ample time talking, setting boundaries and goals, and following through with the young men and their parents.

I do not profess to have easy answers. Negative things can happen in spite of all the right efforts. However, I do believe in the power of a parent-school commitment to painstakingly and repeatedly teach our boys values and behavior that help them navigate their emotions and the expectations placed on them by a society that too often rewards aggression.

One of my conclusions: Leading by example trumps everything. So many times, I have lectured my boys with a torrent of words, only to realize they don’t hear much of it. What they do gather are my actions. When they’ve seen me disagree with their mother, they’ve watched me listen to her side as much as argue my own. And when I’m wrong, I admit it (even if it’s long after the argument). When greeted by a homeless person asking for money, they’ve witnessed how I say hello and often give something, usually a food item, because I want to stress that ignoring someone in need is a missed opportunity to have a direct impact. 

I’ve also discovered that there may be no skill more important than communication. Being able to articulate an idea, concern or feeling can make life much easier in everything from business to personal relationships. This is especially important for guys to learn because, even in this more egalitarian age, males still find it difficult to express their emotions and needs, which sometimes results in the building up of tension that gets released negatively.

As an educator at a Jewish high school, I’ve noted how role modeling and communication can be addressed through tradition and text. This is why we commit a year’s worth of assemblies to hearing senior students give presentations, called drishat shalom (messages of peace and wholeness). The students each summarize a piece of Jewish text, explaining what the text has taught them about particular values and recommending ways younger students can apply the values. 

It is also why we gather our entire school for a yearly off-campus Shabbaton. Some of the programming is led by kids from all grade levels and allows them the time to value their relationships with one another and with their teachers. Because faculty often bring family with them, students see first-hand how these adults model the values they espouse.

Of course, teachers and pupils need to notice when students seem upset. When necessary, an experienced school counselor and the parents must be brought into the loop.

I feel so fortunate to raise my boys in partnership with an ethics-based Jewish school. Although I am still ultimately responsibile for rearing my children, I don’t have to be the only role model, and I don’t have to do all of the complicated explaining of why character counts so much. In these ways, I am more confident that my boys, and the many others who are educated similarly, can become the kind of role models and communicators who will make the world a little safer and better.

Nominate someone you know to be part of the Jewish Journal’s annual Mensch issue!


” target=”_blank”>www.themenschlist.com.

Please submit your nomination to editor@jewishjournal.com by Monday, Dec. 3. Nominations must include contact info for the nominee and a description of his or her activities and menschiness.

Letters to the Editor: Foie Gras ban, JCC closures, being a mensch


Praise for Ban on Foie Gras

In the June 8 Graduation section, I read about an 18-year-old young lady who helps rehabilitate abused horses and is moving into a nursing program with the goal of becoming an orthopedic surgeon (“Healing Others, and Herself”). I am so proud of our community and its compassionate heritage.

On the other hand, I am appalled to read on the “Foodaism” page, regarding the ban of foie gras, that several chefs claimed “the ducks like to be engorged,” thus defending cruelty by claiming the victims enjoy it (“Duck Liver and the Sixth Taste,” June 8).

The article also tells us chefs “resent being told by non-chefs what they can and can’t serve.” Chefs don’t like to be force-fed rules? Ducks and geese don’t like to have pipes rammed down their throats two or three times daily to be pumped so full that some have died from ruptured organs and others can barely stand due to their engorged livers. Two rescued from a leading foie gras producer were being eaten alive by rats because they could not move.

Hats off to California! Welcome, and long live the ban.

Marilyn Russell
Los Angeles

Closure of JCCs Is a Real Loss

As someone who until last week worked at the Milken JCC building for the Jewish Free Loan Association, I was witness to the demise of the vibrant programs for seniors and the nursery school. Those children represent our future no less than the jFed generation (“Fueling the jFed Generation,” June 1). That Federation could have saved the JCCs and chose not to breaks my heart. Travel to any city, especially smaller ones, and the JCCs are the communal center for people of all ages in the community. How sad that a city like ours cannot boast of thriving Jewish centers.

I am happy that New Community Jewish High School will have a beautiful new home, but what a price our community has paid. Whether it is the fault of the JCCs or Federation is really irrelevant. We should be embarrassed and ashamed by all of this.

Pearl Taylor
Sherman Oaks

First, Be a Mensch

The article “Dear Graduates” (June 1) by Rabbi Michael Gotlieb was wonderful. Notwithstanding his sagacious advice to new graduates, I would add one other thought: The ultimate degree or appellation that one can earn is “mensch” — a title that “good Jews” strive to attain their entire lives. The benefits and rewards of earning the title mensch far outweigh any degree awarded by any educational institution.

Michael Waterman
Encino

Listener, advocate for the dying


Getting old, as Bette Davis famously said, is not for sissies. And developing a terminal illness, as Davis later learned, is no picnic either. Yet while most of us fear sickness, aging and the end of life, hospice volunteer Michael Curtis finds solace and purpose — pleasure, even — in being with the elderly as they face death.

Curtis, 62, has been volunteering for a dozen years with Skirball Hospice in Encino, a program of the Los Angeles Jewish Home. He brings to his hospice work skills honed over many years spent helping people through difficult times — starting with his 28 years at Rancho San Antonio Boys Home, a residential rehabilitation facility for adolescent boys who have been in and out of foster care. While working at Rancho, Curtis became a licensed massage therapist and volunteered with AIDS patients through The Heart Touch Project, a nonprofit that delivers compassionate and healing touch to the ill. He has volunteered for Chernobyl Children International, several times traveling to Chernobyl to help children who still suffer the ongoing effects of the 1986 nuclear disaster. And in 2008, he became an instructor certified by the International Association of Infant Massage; he currently makes his living training others in massage techniques for use with medically fragile infants, including those born premature or drug-exposed.

As a Skirball Hospice volunteer, Curtis is part of a team that can include a doctor, nurse, social worker, home health aide, therapist, counselor and dietitian. Volunteer coordinator Lee Rothman said she asks each volunteer to commit one hour a week to a patient, yet Curtis “will visit every day if he has the time.” But it’s not just the amount of time he puts in that makes him unique, she says: “Because of his training, and just who he is, he brings a sensitivity and maturity to working with patients that other volunteers don’t have.”

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For Levinson, it’s an easy sell. “The clothes are incredibly nice,” she said.

And as if all that weren’t enough, she recently started volunteering for Reading Partners, tutoring at a school in Leimert Park. She also participates in video-conferencing chats with Afghan high-school students and experts in global affairs through the Global Nomads Group, a nonprofit that creates interactive educational programs, and she helps organize ARTribe, an annual art show of works by high-schoolers that raises funds for medical and prenatal care in Nepal and Vietnam.

Because part of the ARTribe gig is asking adults for donations, Levinson has gained a lot of experience in talking to adults.

“I think, for teenagers, there’s sort of this, not awkwardness, but apprehension, about addressing adults in a really straightforward way … that was just a really important life skill to learn,” she said.

It’s common for chronic volunteers to say that they get more back than they give. And that holds true for Levinson, who said she’s found that volunteering has helped her in many ways, including putting her in contact with people whom she otherwise would not have met and increasing her awareness of the world’s diversity.

Levinson might be trying to forge a path different from the one her father took, and she admits she hasn’t read his book, “Everyone Helps, Everyone Wins,” a self-help guide to volunteerism — “I have read snippets of it,” she said, laughing — but she sounds more like him than she realizes. She had high expectations for how she would help in Senegal, but she found, once there, that her work wasn’t having as big an effect as she had hoped. Rather than letting this bring her down, she realized, as her father says, that when it comes to volunteering, it’s less about the “what” and more about the “how.”

“One of the most important aspects of community service is the feeling of doing it together,” she said. “This feeling of, regardless of what your background is or where you come from, everybody can participate and everyone can form their own community that doesn’t discriminate and is incredibly accepting. And where everyone can gain something from one another.”

Japan disaster and Itamar killings put Jewish giving on the spot


Almost as soon as the catastrophe in Japan began unfolding last Friday, Jewish groups scrambled to figure out how to get help to the area.

In Israel, search-and-rescue organizations like ZAKA and IsraAid readied teams to head to the Japanese devastation zone. In Tokyo, the Chabad center took an accounting of local Jews and began organizing a shipment of aid to stricken cities to the north. In the United States, aid organizations ranging from B’nai B’rith International to local and national federation agencies launched campaigns to collect money for rescue, relief and rebuilding efforts in the Pacific.

But then Shabbat came, and with it the news that a suspected Palestinian terrorist had brutally murdered five family members in the Jewish West Bank settlement of Itamar, and the focus of the Jewish community seemed to shift.

“Not sure who to think about first,” Nadia Levine, a British Israeli event planner living in Jerusalem, wrote on Facebook on Tuesday. “The devastated remaining members of the Fogel family from Itamar, Gilad Shalit — 5 years in Hamas captivity — or the survivors of the Japanese tragedy and the dangers they may be facing.”

The Orthodox Union, which sent out a message last Friday calling on supporters to donate to the organization’s newly established earthquake emergency fund, sent out another urgent message two days later calling on donors to give money to the OU’s victims of terrorism fund.

As of late Monday, the totals collected by each fund were running neck and neck, the OU’s chief operating officer, David Frankel, said in an interview.

“We have an obligation to care for our own,” Frankel said, “but the enormity of the tragedy that happened in Japan is so extraordinary that for the Jewish community not to have an outpouring of support would not only be a denial of one of our primary obligations to care for everyone in their time of need,” he said, but also a missed opportunity to honor the memory of Chiune Sugihara — the Japanese consul general to Lithuania who in 1940 helped save at least 6,000 Lithuanian Jews from the hands of the Nazis by getting them transit visas to Japan.

“The Japanese community helped us in our time of need; this is our way to help them in their time of need,” Frankel said. “We can never repay the debt, but this is the right thing to do.”

By Tuesday, Israeli teams of rescue personnel, emergency medical officers and water pollution specialists had reached the suburbs of Tokyo, and they were in contact with aid workers in the northern part of the country where the tsunami hit hardest, according to Shachar Zahavi, chairman of IsraAid.

Several American Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Federation in Chicago and the American Jewish Committee, are funneling money to IsraAid for disaster relief in Japan.

In Tokyo, the Chabad center commissioned a bakery in Sendai, one of the cities battered by the tsunami, to bake bread for its residents and surrounding areas. The center also trucked several tons of food and supplies to Sendai, Chabad officials said. The officials estimated that Chabad’s relief in Japan is costing approximately $25,000 per day.

In the United States, Jewish humanitarian organizations reported that the money was coming in fast for mailboxes set up to receive donations for Japanese disaster relief.

“We are determined to provide emergency relief as quickly as possible and to work with our partners to provide support over the longer term as well,” said Fred Zimmerman, chairman of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Emergency Committee.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the main overseas partner for the Jewish Federations, said it had collected more than $100,000 over the first weekend.

What makes the Japanese situation a unique challenge for Jewish humanitarian organizations is the absence of relationships in a country that traditionally has been an aid donor, not a recipient.

Indeed, when the American Jewish World Service, which led the Jewish aid response to the 2004 Asian tsunami, was asked what its aid effort would be for Japan, the answer was none at all because AJWS has no partners in the country, spokesman Joshua Berkman said.

The JDC found itself in a similar situation.

“We had no programs in Japan prior to the earthquake; we just worked with the local Jewish community,” said Will Recant, an assistant executive vice president at JDC.

But almost immediately after the earthquake and tsunami hit, the JDC consulted with the Jewish community in Tokyo to identify local Japanese nongovernmental organizations working in the affected areas. By Tuesday, JDC had begun funneling money to JEN, a Tokyo-based organization specializing in shelter reconstruction, support of the socially vulnerable and emergency supply distribution that had managed to send personnel to the ravaged Japanese prefectures of Miyagi and Fukushima.

As with other disasters, Recant said JDC will stick around to help with long-term relief, budget allowing. Only money raised specifically for Japan will be spent on disaster relief. There is no money in JDC’s budget for additional nonsectarian, humanitarian work, Recant said.

While Japan continues to reel from the triple disaster of an 8.9-magnitude earthquake, a massive tsunami and a subsequent nuclear crisis, experts in Israel are trying to figure out what lessons from Japan can be applied to the Jewish state, which lies on two fault lines, the Carmel fault and the Dead Sea fault.

Israel experiences tremors every so often, but the last time a ruinous earthquake struck the area was in 1927, when the West Bank city of Nablus suffered serious damage. An 1837 earthquake destroyed much of the northern Israeli cities of Safed and Tiberias and left thousands dead.

Israeli building codes have been updated for better earthquake safety compliance, but regulations and enforcement still are said to lag behind places like California, which experiences larger and more frequent quakes.

“There’s still a lot that has to be done as far as building codes are concerned,” said professor Michael Lazar, a tectonics expert at the University of Haifa. “There’s an attempt to encourage people to renovate older buildings and make them earthquake ready, but it really hasn’t caught on.”

A scenario in which Israel’s nuclear facility at Dimona, in the Negev Desert, would face the kind of meltdown scenario situation that Japan is seeing now is much less likely, Lazar said, because Dimona is far from the tectonic lines that cross Israel.

“But,” he cautioned, “it’s hard to tell how an earthquake would disperse.”

Japan earthquake relief: How you can help

Don’t call him super-rav


“Is Rabbi T a crime-fighting rabbi?” That’s what a student asked Pressman Academy Rav Beit Sefer (head school rabbi) Chaim Tureff at a recent question-and-answer session.

“Lehavdil,” Tureff responded, using the Hebrew word to draw a distinction between himself and the person his students think he might be. “They want to know if I’m Superman.”

Clark Kent never admits to being Superman, and Tureff, who is at least 6-foot-4, teaches Torah-infused tae kwon do and hapkido classes at a studio on Wilshire Boulevard and competed in two different sports at the collegiate level, is similarly reluctant to talk about the charity he does in and beyond the Jewish community.

Tureff has been a volunteer with the Pico-Robertson Hatzolah Emergency Rescue Team since it was established in 2004. (He was once disgusted by the sight of blood but overcame that.) He also works with Jewish teens who need a bit more support than they may otherwise be getting. Humble and discreet, Tureff wouldn’t say much more than that.

When he will cop to some charitable or kind act, Tureff is quick to give credit to others. He organizes annual lunches on Thanksgiving and Purim at B’nai David-Judea for 40 or so homeless people from Pico-Robertson, but insisted that the synagogue’s rabbi, Yosef Kanefsky, laid the groundwork to make it possible. “He’s the gadol [great man] when it comes to these things,” Tureff said. Tureff has also helped to plant trees in his neighborhood (he gives credit to L.A. Green Mile founder Noah Bleich) and has worked as a counselor to recovering addicts at the Chabad residential treatment center (but mentioned how great the work being done at Beit T’Shuvah is).

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For the most recent “Got Mitzvah?” project, a program Tureff launched at Pressman in 2006 as a way to get students directly involved with good causes, the students sent care packages and wrote letters to American servicemen and servicewomen in Iraq. “Other teachers gave me the idea,” Tureff said.

Getting Tureff to accept the title of Mensch took serious urging from relatives. “‘You inspire me,’” Tureff said, recalling his mother’s words. “ ‘You do little things every day. People need to know they can do things like that.’ ”

“Which made me feel a little better,” Tureff said, sitting in his office at Pressman, a windowless former bridal chamber only slightly bigger than a telephone booth. “As it is, it’s still a bit awkward.”

For more info, visit hatzolahofla.org.

L.A.’s Top Ten Mensches — big hearted Angelenos


“It is hard to convey the special sense of respect, dignity and approbation that can be conveyed by calling someone ‘a real mensch,'” writes Leo Rosten in “The Joys of Yiddish.”

The Yiddish word infuses the basic German denotation — “person” — with an almost indefinable connotation. A mensch is a person who is upright, honorable, decent, as Rosten writes, a person to admire and emulate.

Boy, could we use some now.

As the last pieces of 2008 crash down around us, there is ample evidence that mensch-hood (more properly, menschlikayt) is in short supply, at least judging by headlines. Worse, the Bernard Madoff scandal revealed a disturbing tendency to hide chicanery under the guise of do-goodery. Madoff, his middlemen and some charitable boards were doing good while doing wrong — either out of evil, in Madoff’s case, or, at best perhaps, just out of gullibility and incompetence.

So we look to The Journal’s fourth annual Top Ten Mensches list to brighten our spirits and boost our hopes for a better year. As the stories here demonstrate, these are people who in the course of lives no less hectic and demanding than our own, facing temptations no less alluring than those we all confront, manage to reach out and help others, making the world a better place, day in and day out.

The Jewish Journal created this list as a response to all those lists extolling fame, money, power and hot-ness. We honor these special ten because they are just people — menschen, to use the proper Yiddish plural — who understand the power and possibility of what just one person can do to help others.

Thank you to all our mensches, and to all who offered up names for consideration. Maybe next year we’ll all be candidates for the list….

Gabriel Halimi: Partying For a Cause

It was a stuttering problem that turned Gabriel Halimi into a mensch.

“I had a really bad stutter when I was kid,” the now 27-year-old recalled recently. “My therapist said I needed to speak up in class and try to get myself to talk more, and then I started falling into leadership activities because it forced me to talk.”

Dressed in a pink shirt and a brown blazer, Halimi looks much like the young professionals he now helps lead in the 4-year-old Beverly Hills-based nonprofit, Society of Young Philanthropists (SYP).

By day, Halimi works at ACG, a real estate consulting firm. But he recently passed the California Bar exam and said he hopes to be practicing as an attorney by February.

In addition to working full time and attending Loyola Law School, Halimi is one of 25 young professionals who helped found SYP and is currently serving as one of its board members. The philosophy behind SYP, Halimi said, is simple.

“We wanted to do well in our work,” he said. “We wanted to party, and we wanted to do something bigger than ourselves, and that’s kinda where SYP was born.”

Halimi grew up in Los Angeles, attending Temple Emanuel Community Day School before eventually transferring to Beverly Hills public schools. But Halimi said it wasn’t until college that his Jewish roots really took hold.

At UC Santa Barbara, Halimi joined the Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, and became immersed in its world of partying and doing good.

“He was really seen as a leader even among his peers,” said Elishia Shokrian Bolour, a childhood friend who, along with Halimi, helped found SYP.

However, Halimi insists that working with SYP has demanded little self-sacrifice. Throughout the year, SYP holds events — big, bold, boisterous events — and rather than have all the money go to the DJ, the club or the liquor, the majority of the proceeds (about 70 percent) goes to charity.

“We just kinda wanted to get people to think in more philanthropic terms,” Halimi said. “If you’re going to be doing this anyway [partying], you might as well be doing it for a good cause.”

On May 14, 2005, Halimi and his friends launched SYP’s first event by pulling all their resources together and throwing a huge bash in Beverly Hills.

Approximately 500 young Angelenos — mostly ages 18-30 — raised close to $70, 000 for three Jewish organizations: IMA Foundation, which is dedicated to disaster relief in Israel; the educational foundation Magbit, which helps those in Israel gain a higher education; and Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish drug rehabilitation center in Culver City.

Halimi said his favorite SYP cause so far, however, has been one that doesn’t directly involve the Jewish community: Darfur.

“It was just so beautiful,” Halimi said, referring to the $45,000 SYP donated to American Jewish World Service’s relief work in Darfur. “We could see beyond ourselves and recognize that there are a lot of people out there that could use our help.”
“It goes to the principle of tikkun olam,” healing the world, he said.

SYP is not a Jewish organization, although most of those involved have grown up within the Jewish community, and the nonprofit does not make any outright political statements.

“We don’t want to take any kind of political stance that might alienate someone,” he said.

The organization chooses the causes it supports democratically, allowing every member to have a say in the direction of the nonprofit.

In addition to SYP, Halimi is involved in 30 Years After, a nonprofit dedicated to uniting the Iranian American Jewish community, and the Lev Foundation, which promotes balanced, responsible living and is named in honor of Daniel Levian, a recent victim of a drunk driving accident.

When asked, Halimi said he doesn’t consider himself a mensch — he’s not worthy, he claimed — but he offered up this definition of one: “Someone who can see past themselves.”

But just ask Rhoda Weisman, executive director of the Professional Leaders Project, an organization dedicated to developing the next generation of Jewish leaders. She said, “In all honesty, if you were to ask me what a definition of a mensch is, I would name you Gabe.”

— Lilly Fowler, Contributing Writer

Kim Krowne: ‘Hakuna Matata’Means Bringing Hope to Tanzanian Kids

Kim Krowne thought she’d be attending medical school. Instead, the 24-year-old Northridge native, a graduate of Sierra Canyon and Milken Community High School, spent most of 2007 and 2008 in Tanzania, improving the lives of orphaned children and many villagers. She’s been home for the past several months and plans to return to Africa in January.

ALTTEXTOnce a “total planner,” Krowne’s current philosophy of life is more hakuna matata — “there’s no problem” in Swahili, a language she speaks fluently. “Obviously, this was not my plan. But I love it. There’s so much work to be done,” she said.

The focus of her passion is the Matumaini Child Care Center, a small three-room building in the village of Rau that houses 20 children, ages 6 to 15. Krowne discovered it in the fall of 2006 while taking a year off after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where she fulfilled her premed requirements while majoring in the sociology and anthropology of health, concentrating on Africa.

At that time, the nongovernmental, nonreligious and nonprofit Matumaini Center cared for eight children whose parents had either died of HIV/AIDS, were alcoholic or couldn’t afford their care. Newly opened, it desperately needed funds for food and school fees, less than $20 annually per student. Krowne immediately e-mailed family and friends and raised $1,000.

She came home in March 2007 knowing she would return. Her last week there, she had met Michelle Kowalczyk, 27 and a nurse, and asked her to look after the kids, who then numbered 20. Kowalczyk also became enamored.

The following December, Krowne and Kowalczyk together formed a nonprofit, Knock Foundation (www.knockfoundation.org), to help solicit donations and grants. They also signed a five-year contract with Matumaini (meaning hope in Swahili) to fund the nonprofit and become decision-making partners.

When they returned to Tanzania they facilitated a host of improvements, including providing the children with nutritious meals, medical and dental care and school uniforms and supplies and paying salaries to the orphanage workers.

They also had bunk beds built in the rooms, upgraded the latrines, improved the general cleanliness and constructed a chicken coop on the property.

Their reach extends as well to the greater community in Rau and nearby villages, with the goal of making families more self-sufficient. One such effort, dubbed the Piggery Project, has provided 50 families with supplies needed to build a pig hut, as well as two pigs to raise. The families will keep some of the proceeds from the sale of the pigs and reinvest the remainder. They hope to expand the project.

They have also renovated a government medical clinic and dispensary in Shimbwe, the only health facility available to serve thousands of people in the Kilimanjaro region. In addition to repairing the clinic’s roof and painting its rooms, they purchased laboratory materials and medications.

Plus, they organized a two-day life skills and HIV/AIDS seminar in conjunction with a local NGO that was attended by 100 women and children. It will become a yearly event.

To date, Krowne and Kowalczyk have raised about $85,000 and need an additional $35,000 for 2009 to sustain the current projects. They would also like to construct a new building for Matumaini, start another orphanage and help provide secondary and university education for the children, among other dreams.

Kowalczyk marvels at Krowne’s ability to transcend barriers. “Kim has been able to reach people who otherwise would have been untouched,” she said. “We’ll be doing this for the rest of our lives.”

To make a donation or for more information, visit www.knockfoundation.org, call (818) 831-6075 or e-mail kim@knockfoundation.org.

— Jane Ulman, Contributing Editor

She’s a mensch


Last week, my new boy, Ryne, and I volunteered together at a Jewish Federation event. After a long, mitzvah-filled day, I turned to him and said “You’re a mensch.” He smiled back and said, “You’re a mensch, too.”

That’s when I blushed. And not just because this fine boy’s hand was on my tuchus. But because he called me a mensch! The last time anyone called me a mensch was at my bris. Exactly — I’ve never been called a mensch. Macher? Yes! Mayven? Yes! Shayna punim? Of course! But mensch? No. The word mensch has always been reserved for nice Jewish boys. Which is a problem for us nice Jewish girls.

From a young age, Jewish women are raised to dream the impossible dream, to date the impossible mensch, and when we find one, we scoop him up faster than the last chocolate chip challah at The Bagel Factory. But what about Jewish men? What are they looking for? Besides a fantastic shtup. In one word, describe the perfect Jewish woman. Thanks, but Carin Davis is actually two words…. Try again. What’s the female equivalent of a mensch?

(Insert “Jeopardy” music here.)

(Insert more “Jeopardy” music here.)

(Insert Alec Trebek saying “Time’s up” here.)

Can’t think of one? Know why? Because there isn’t one. There’s no handle for a female mensch. And this word jumble is the cause of so much heartache. The battle of the sexes starts with a battle of words.

Like Canter’s famous mishmosh soup filled with matzah balls, kreplach, rice and noodles, a mensch is all the good stuff served up in one smoking-hot dish. A mensch is a kind, smart, funny, giving, inspiring, exciting guy who makes your heart smile. The term mensch is shorthand for a Jewish man with ineffable qualities of intense goodness. And there’s no such codeword for an equally amazing Jewish gal.

So, like Susan B. Anthony in a mini-skirt, I am taking a stand for women everywhere. A true dating suffragist, I won’t stop until men and women are flirtatiously equal. I won’t sleep until Jewish men put us on a verbal pedestal. I won’t eat until there’s a word for a female mensch (or a slice of deep dish in front of me).

Look, every other woman has her own word. A homemaker is a balabusta, a gossip is a yenta and a girl who’s blown her share of shofars is a nafka. Even non-Jewish women have their own word. What does a shiksa have that I don’t have? Besides naturally stick-straight hair. Kick-tush Jewish women need our own tag.

What? You think I’m one candle short of a menorah? A rose by any other name would cost half as much. It’s not that gerber daisies and sunflowers aren’t beautiful and thoughtful and something Ryne should be buying me by now. But people automatically think of roses as superior, simply because they’re labeled the “R” word.

Same thing with dating. A mensch by any other name would just be another nice guy I met. And probably never called back. But if someone’s described as a mensch — he’s a keeper. Forget romantics, it’s all about semantics.

When I tell people that Ryne is a mensch, they know what I mean. And they know I’ve got it good. But how does a Jewish guy know when he’s got it good? If he’s not on a treasure hunt, how will he know when he’s struck gold? Or platinum? Or platinum with diamonds, like in the engagement ring that a Jewish man won’t buy until he grasps how magical his girl is. Ladies, we need to brand ourselves so Jewish men know exactly what they’re looking for and feel lucky when they’ve found it.

In Hebrew, female nouns tend to end in “h” or “t,” so what about menschah or menschat? We could stay Yiddish and call ourselves menschke or menschilah. There’s also the French menschette, the Spanish menschita or the Jewish American menschess. Of course people probably don’t throw out the M word for women, because the word mensch contains the word “men,” right? So what if we accessorize it with a feminine prefix? I would like to be called a she-mensch. Or a womensch. Or just a w’ensch. Wait, scratch that.

OK, so maybe we don’t need to create a new word, we just teach an old word new tricks.

In Yiddish, mensch literally means a decent person or human being. A good, honest, caring, compassionate, big-hearted person. Male goods not required. So it’s not that we can’t use mensch to describe women, it’s just that we don’t. But no longer.

I’m here to switch up the lingo. I’m asking the Jewish community to start throwing around the word mensch when talking about exceptional men and women. Saying the emot’s names every time we say the avot’s will be small potato pancakes compared to this feminist leap. Establishing women as mensches could be the single-greatest dating advancement of our generation. Suddenly, we’re classifying ourselves as the mind-blowing mates that men should crave. We’re identifying ourselves as the ultimate partners that men should desire. We’re establishing ourselves as the incredible girlfriends that men should cherish. And love. And spoil.

So I encourage you — yes, you — to start slipping mensch into your daily chats and cell phone small talk.

“She’s such a mensch for lending me her black Prada.”

“I was a total mensch and let that girl cut in front of me at Pinkberry.”

“Do these jeans make me look mensch?”

And once it becomes common usage, we can move onto our next lingual challenge.

For thousands of years, only men have counted for a minyan. Well it’s time for a change. Who will come forward, stand beside me, and be counted for a wominyan?



Carin Davis, a freelance writer, can be reached at sports@jewishjournal.com.

Mensches: Our third annual salute to big-hearted Angelenos


“It is hard to convey the special sense of respect, dignity and approbation that can be conveyed by calling someone ‘a real mensch,'” writes Leo Rosten in “The Joys of Yiddish.”

The Yiddish word infuses the basic German denotation — “person” — with an almost indefinable connotation. A mensch is a person who is upright, honorable, decent, as Rosten writes, a person to admire and emulate.

So, why not just call such people saints or angels?

Because, as the stories below will demonstrate, these people have no such airs. They are people, like you, like us, who in the course of schedules no less hectic and demanding than our own, manage to reach out and help others, make the world a better place, day in and day out. They are doing what we all should, and what we all can do, despite the fact that most of us don’t. They are just people — menschen, to use the proper Yiddish plural — who understand the power and possibility of what just one person can do.

So, we are delighted to introduce you to The Journal’s third annual List of Top Ten L.A. Mensches.

We received a far greater number of worthy nominations than could make this list, but these all stood out — in many different ways.

Thank you to all our mensches and to all who offered up names. Maybe next year we’ll all be candidates for the list….

Samantha Weiner: Caring for People in Need

by Jane Ulman, Contributing Editor

Every other Wednesday after school, Samantha Weiner changes into navy blue scrubs and travels 35 miles from her home to the Westminster Free Clinic in Thousand Oaks. There, from 5 p.m. until often 11 p.m., this Milken Community High School senior volunteers as a student intern for the nonprofit clinic, which provides primary care for about 60 working poor and homeless people from a space in the United Methodist Church. And she’s been doing this since she was a freshman.

Weiner, 17, works one-on-one with the patients, taking medical histories and documenting their complaints, checking vital signs and presenting the information to the doctor. Initially she began working at the clinic because she thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to give back. But she said that her many experiences — from assisting a homeless man with a severely infected finger to helping stabilize a diabetic patient who now leads “a healthy and happy life” — have focused her on a future as a general practitioner.

Weiner is one of 72 high school interns who volunteer at the clinic, half of them from low-income families themselves. All of the kids are treated as part of the medical team, receiving extensive training and ongoing education from the volunteer doctors and nurses.

“Samantha stands out because she takes her work so seriously,” said Lisa Safaeinili, Westminster Free Clinic’s executive director. “She is kind and compassionate to all the people and makes them feel really cared about.”

But that’s not all that Weiner does to give back. She is on the advanced leadership track of Yozma, Milken Community High School’s social action club. Last year she helped raise $1,400 for Heifer International, a nonprofit aiming to end world hunger. This year, inspired by a Ramah Seminar trip to the Nazi concentration camps in Poland, she is serving as section leader of Yozma’s Darfur advocacy group, educating middle school students about Darfur and helping make backpack tags for an educational project that provides schoolchildren in Darfur with backpacks filled with books, school supplies, clothing and other necessities.

Weiner credits her family with teaching her the importance of tikkun olam. Together, among other activities, they all participate in Mitzvah Days and serve Thanksgiving meals at local shelters. She also acknowledges Heschel Day School, Milken and Camp Ramah for helping mold her community-service conscience.

But there’s time for school activities, too. She’s team captain and middle blocker for Milken’s varsity volleyball team, though she is currently recovering from ACL knee surgery for an injury she recently sustained in the third round of the California Interscholastic Federation’s volleyball championship.

In the future, she said, she would like to volunteer for Doctors Without Borders or set up health centers similar to the Westminster Free Clinic in other communities.

“This might sound corny,” she said, “but there’s no greater feeling than knowing I’ve made a difference to a person in need.”


Neal Shapiro: Conscience of the Shul

by Jane Ulman, Contributing EditorWhen Neal Shapiro was just 8, growing up surrounded by desert in Phoenix, Ariz., he saw his first Jacques Cousteau television special and was immediately smitten with the ocean, vowing to devote his life to protecting it.

He pursued his dream by earning a bachelor’s degree in marine biology at UC Santa Barbara and a master’s degree in marine policy at the University of Maryland. After graduation, Shapiro spent a decade with The Jacques Cousteau Society. More recently, for the past eight years he has worked for the city of Santa Monica’s Environmental Programs Division, overseeing water conservation and urban runoff management programs.

As an adult, Shapiro has also became increasingly Judaically observant, transitioning from Reform to Modern Orthodox after graduate school, and along the way he has melded his ecological passions with Judaic principles, expanding his environmental activities into his private life, as well.

For Tu B’Shevat in 2000, and again in 2001, Shapiro spearheaded B’nai David-Judea Congregation’s community tree planting, helping to beautify and provide shade along Pico Boulevard with nearly 100 Chinese flame trees. He continues to co-organize annual plantings, and this year, like last, is also helping facilitate plantings in private homes’ parkways, between the curb and sidewalk.

Shapiro’s efforts extend indoors, too. Since last spring, he has promoted reusable Kiddush kits, but though he has sold about a dozen, he said, only two or three congregants regularly use them. “I’m trying to change behavior,” he admitted.

Brave + mensch = ?


Three years ago, we were sitting around our offices dreaming up an end-of-the-year issue, inundated with examples from other magazines: The Ten Best Movies, The Ten Richest Angelenos, The Ten Most Powerful Hollywood Players, The Ten Top Restaurants, The Ten Hottest Bars and et cetera.

Since these lists are both celebration and statement, we decided we wanted to promote something a little different. What if a list championed a Jewish value, not people, things or bars (not that there’s anything wrong with them….)?

Thus was born The Mensch List — a roster that, humans being human, is far more difficult to crack than one tabulating power or wealth or even cool.

But this year, after we made the list, I — in the spirit of some holiday — checked it twice. And there are four people missing.

These are people I’ve come across in 2007 who didn’t make this list but who deserve some special notice of their own. That’s because they are not only mensches, they are also remarkably courageous.

Funny that the Yiddish adjectives that mean “strong” and “brave” never made the jump into the modern Jewish vernacular. Somehow, schnorrer and shmendrick and ferklempt remained near and dear to our tongues, but mutik and bahartst are no more a part of our lives than Benny Leonard or Kingfish Levinsky. When great Jewish prizefighters like these went down for the count, so did the words their fans used to praise them. That leaves shtarker. But shtarker has baggage that mensch doesn’t begin to carry.

I’m no Yiddishist, but to my ears, the word has always been said with a wink, the speaker already knowing that strength and health, no matter how abundant, are fleeting. To this day, when I drop my son off at a teen party, my last words aren’t “Be a shtarker!” but “Be a mensch.”

So I don’t know what neologism will suffice for someone who is both extraordinarily brave and a mensch to boot. What word describes those Jews and non-Jews who risk their lives to stand up for the things we all believe in? This year, I found four, and I suppose their names will suffice:

Benji Davis and David Landau

These two young men packed up this year and left their comfortable lives in Los Angeles and moved to Sderot, the beleaguered Israeli town under near-constant bombardment by Qassam rockets launched by Islamic Jihad and Hamas terrorists in Gaza.

Davis is a college student from Beverly Hills volunteering at an elementary school in Sderot — there is a charmingly awkward YouTube video of him trying to folkdance with his young charges — and at the Sderot Media Center, which tries to raise awareness of what Israelis within the Green Line are faced with every day.

“Sderot’s residents deserve protection,” Davis writes on his blog, 90210tosderot.blogspot.com. “Sderot’s children deserve some sense of normalcy. Sderot deserves our help.

“We can protect Sderot from the terrorists — it’s up to you.”

Landau is 19. When I asked his father, Fred, why his son moved — of all places — to within two miles of Gaza, he said, very matter-of-factly, without a hint of boastfulness, “Because he’s a Zionist.” Many of Sderot’s own residents have moved away, the Israeli government has for a year now struggled to come up with a response to the Qassams, Jews from Tel Aviv to Tarzana have gone about their normal lives, but Davis and Landau have chosen to risk their lives to remind us that, no, not all is milk and honey.

They’re on my list.

Wafa Sultan

Sultan is the Syrian-born psychiatrist who has become well-known for her outspoken condemnation of Muslim extremists and the so-called Muslim moderates whose unwillingness to speak out forcefully serves as tacit approval of the fanatics.

The Journal was the first newspaper to run the text of Sultan’s famous February 2006 rant against two Muslim clerics on the Al Jazeera network. I finally met Sultan last week when I interviewed her on the bimah during the One Saturday Morning service at Adat Ari El Synagogue in North Hollywood.

Beyond the extremists who shower the L.A.-area-based, 49-year-old mother of three with almost daily death threats, Sultan has many liberal critics who deride her for condemning all of Islam and thereby feeding the most negative stereotypes many Americans already harbor.

I asked Sultan about that charge. “I read classical Arabic,” she said. “I know what is in the Quran.”

As a woman, she also personally experienced the most painful and misogynistic aspects of her culture. If the religion is to be saved, she seemed to be saying, the culture would have to drastically change. And Sultan, at great personal cost, refuses to back down from her demands that it do so.

Mordecai Sorkin

I started reading Moti Sorkin’s blog this summer, and I continue to be astounded by his combination of courage and clarity. Sorkin is currently an infantry platoon leader in Afghanistan, with the 82nd Airborne Division.

He grew up in Sacramento and attended Claremont McKenna college. He is young, married and idealistic. Sometimes he can blog at motisorkin.blogspot.com about where he is and what he’s doing; sometimes he can’t.

A while back, I e-mailed him to ask how he’d like to be identified in The Journal. He wrote back: “You can write, ‘He is serving in the Army because he believes in making the world a better place, and defending America against radical Islam is one of the best ways to accomplish that goal.'”

That is four names on a my new rarified Top Ten list — in the coming year, may we all aspire to be one of the other six.

Our Second Annual Mensch List


“It is hard to convey the special sense of respect, dignity and approbation that can be conveyed by calling someone ‘a real mensch,’” writes Leo Rosten in “The Joys of Yiddish.” The Yiddish word infuses the basic German denotation—“person”—with an almost indefinable connotation. A mensch is a person who is upright, honorable, decent, as Rosten writes, a person to admire and emulate.

So, why not just call such people saints or angels? Because, as the stories below will demonstrate, these people have no such airs. They are people, like you, like us, who in the course of schedules no less hectic and demanding than our own, manage to reach out and help others, make the world a better place, day in and day out. They are doing what we all should, and what we all can do, despite the fact that most of us don’t. They are just people—menschen, to use the proper Yiddish plural—who understand the power and possibility of what just one person can do.

So, we are delighted to introduce you to The Journal’s second annual List of Top Ten L.A. Mensches. This year we’ve added a new category, as well: Honorary Mensch—A non-Jew whose work exemplifies this very Jewish notion. Thank you, Marilyn Harran.

And thank you to all our mensches. Maybe next year, we’ll all be candidates for the list….

:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

‘>Alex Baum

‘>Eve Marcus

‘>Marilyn Harran

‘>Rebecca Levinson

‘>Yoram Hassid

 

Barri Evins: A Book Can Change the World


“It is hard to convey the special sense of respect, dignity and approbation that can be conveyed by calling someone ‘a real mensch,'” writes Leo Rosten in “The Joys of Yiddish.”

The Yiddish word infuses the basic German denotation — “person” — with an almost indefinable connotation. A mensch is a person who is upright, honorable, decent, as Rosten writes, a person to admire and emulate.

So, why not just call such people saints or angels?

Because, as the stories below will demonstrate, these people have no such airs. They are people, like you, like us, who in the course of schedules no less hectic and demanding than our own, manage to reach out and help others, make the world a better place, day in and day out. They are doing what we all should, and what we all can do, despite the fact that most of us don’t. They are just people — menschen, to use the proper Yiddish plural — who understand the power and possibility of what just one person can do.

So, we are delighted to introduce you to The Journal’s second annual List of Top Ten L.A. Mensches.

This year we’ve added a new category, as well: Honorary Mensch — A non-Jew whose work exemplifies this very Jewish notion. Thank you, Marilyn Harran.

And thank you to all our mensches. Maybe next year, we’ll all be candidates for the list….

:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

‘>Alex Baum

‘>Eve Marcus

‘>Marilyn Harran

‘>Rebecca Levinson

‘>Yoram Hassid

Each Christmas, Barri Evins and a group of volunteers give away thousands of books at Head Start magnet centers throughout the Los Angeles area. At each center, volunteers greet each child individually, ask them their age and then present them with a brand new book especially selected for them.

“We want them to feel important and cherished” said Evins, who 15 years ago created From the Heart, a nonprofit designed to promote literacy and foster a love of reading in children living below the poverty line.

The daughter of two psychologists, Barri Evins was born in Florida and raised by a mother whom she describes as “an extraordinary woman … a philanthropist, and a hands-on volunteer.”

Evins emphasized “hands-on,” because that is at the core of the philosophy of From the Heart.

“We want them to have something new of their own,” she said. “To create that moment is a transformational experience for both the people who are giving and those who are getting.”

For many children, this gift is the first book ever to go into their home.

Evins is dedicated to the concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world). She firmly believes that “when you give a child a book, you give them the world” and, by promoting literacy, you can empower them to do virtually anything.

Her organization works most of the year collecting, counting and sorting books and preparing for the Big Book Giveaway, where volunteers, often together with their families, meet at Head Start centers to put the books into the hands of some 5,000 children who range in age from 3 to 18. To date, From the Heart has given away nearly 70,000 books.

A graduate of Northwestern University, Barri heads her own film production company, “be movies.” She is currently working on a project about Stetson Kennedy who, she says, was considered to have been the single-most important factor in curbing the Ku Klux Klan.

While From the Heart was started with a group of young women in the film industry, it has grown greatly, and today, Evins said, its biggest challenge is “finding other people from all walks of life who would like to get their hands dirty, shlepping, sorting and giving books to make sure that each child gets a book that excites them.”

On a personal level, Evins confided that she would “like to find a nice Jewish boy who’d like to help me give out books.”

From the Heart works with One Voice, a grass-roots, nonprofit agency that creates meaningful, innovative and effective ways for people to help others in need. It has no overhead and all contributions are used to carry out its mission.

To contribute or volunteer, contact Barri Evins at FromTheHeart345@aol.com.

Alex Baum: Wheels of a Dream


‘>Alex Baum

‘>Eve Marcus

‘>Marilyn Harran

‘>Rebecca Levinson

‘>Yoram Hassid

Alex Baum, who will be celebrating his 84th birthday on Dec. 30, fought in the French Resistance, survived two and a half years in the concentration camps, and has since dedicated his life to performing good deeds, most notably in his advocacy of amateur athletics.

Yet, when asked if he is a mensch, he says, “You never know.”

Baum is of French Jewish ancestry, but he speaks with a German accent, befitting one who was born in a small town in Lorraine, which along with the province of Alsace was frequently the subject of territorial disputes between the French and the Germans. Concerning the war, he says without embellishment, “We fought the Germans in any possible way we could.”

Although he was caught by the Nazis, he convinced them that he was a resistance fighter, not a Jew. Due to his Algerian passport (his mother was from the North African country), he was treated as a political prisoner in the camps. The Nazis did not question why he was circumcised, because Algerians, being desert dwellers, practiced circumcision for hygienic reasons.

After surviving the Holocaust, Baum vowed that he would be a good role model, like his grandparents and uncles: “I felt a need to do that.”

He moved to the United States shortly after the war and settled in Chicago, where he played semipro soccer for the Chicago Kickers. A center-forward on the team, he scored his share of goals, but his greatest goal has been developing cycling programs and recreational facilities for inner-city kids in Los Angeles.

When not working as a caterer, his living for 30 years, he has been an adviser to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the previous three Los Angeles mayors, but Baum is not simply a cycling enthusiast and fitness fanatic — he has also shown the vision of an urban planner and the determination of a mensch in implementing the now-ubiquitous bike paths throughout the city of Los Angeles, pioneering the Tour of California bike race and building velodromes in Dominguez Hills and Encino.

Of all his projects, he remains most passionate about the creation of bike paths and facilities along the L.A. River. In the next 10 years, he expects to see a 50-mile path bordering the river from the Valley to Long Beach. Speaking with unmistakable enthusiasm, he envisions the following: “You can stop anywhere through the city, enjoy the Sunday or the weekend without using the car; [you can] even ride at night. We have lights and rest stops, parks and a restaurant.”

Although the complete river restoration has not come to fruition yet, Baum says that, due to all the bike paths in recent years, 2.5 percent of people now go to work by bike, as opposed to 0.5 percent in the past.

Despite constant talk of ethanol and hybrid cars, this goodwill ambassador to the city of Los Angeles, who served on the 1984 Olympic host committee, might have the simplest and greenest solution of all for Los Angeles’ gridlock as well as global warming — riding a bike.

Betty Neymark: Second Career From a Second Language


Betty Neymark

Barri Evins

Alex Baum

Betty Neymark

Eve Marcus

Fran Rosenfield

Marilyn Harran

Noah Bleich

Rebecca Levinson

Yehoram Uziel

Yoram Hassid

“Why isn’t Temple Judea doing something like this?” Betty Neymark’s daughter, Nancy, asked her more than 19 years ago, referring to an English as a second language program at a nearby church. That was all the push Neymark needed.

She and her daughter, along with friend and reading specialist Evelyn Stecher, promptly began a program at their Reform synagogue in Tarzana.

On the first day of registration in January 1990, Neymark thought no one would show up. Instead, she encountered a line of people stretching past the Temple’s driveway. Fifty students registered, and Temple Judea’s all-volunteer ESL program was born.

Today that program boasts 150 students, 25 volunteer teachers and five administrators, including Neymark. While her daughter has begun a new career and Stecher has moved away, Neymark remains.

“I just love it. I meet wonderful people. It enhances my life,” said Neymark, who previously worked as a human resources administrator in two school districts.

Those “wonderful people” include the students, primarily from the former Soviet Union, Iran and South America. Most are 50 or older, and they are both Jewish and not. Many are new immigrants. A few have lived here as long as 20 years.

Neymark also has great affection for the teachers, who range in age from 21 to 89. Only two are new this year, and 18 of them have been with program 10 years or more.

The classes are small, with four to seven students. They meet for two hours twice a week, from September to June. In addition to English, students learn about American culture.

“Students come in with no English and then are able to function in society and make their lives better,” said Neymark, noting that many go on to become citizens and to vote.

Temple Judea provides the classroom space. The program is free; students pay only for their textbooks. Donations and a corporate grant cover other expenses.

“I call myself a coordinator,” said Neymark, a 47-year temple member who won’t reveal her age. She registers new students, evaluating their English proficiency and placing them in one of six homogeneous classes, ranging from beginning to conversational English. She also arranges for new teachers to receive 12 hours of training each fall.

Additionally, she publishes a newsletter twice a year for the teachers, holds two faculty meetings a year and organizes the annual faculty party.

Neymark is reluctant to take credit for program’s accomplishments.

“It runs itself,” she said, emphasizing that it’s a team effort. She also refers to her husband, who does all her computer work, as her “secret weapon.”

Hilda Fogelson, a retired Los Angeles Unified School District teacher who has taught in the program for 16 years, said, “Betty is very organized and very professional. That’s why the program is so successful.”

Neymark feels a responsibility to continue to support Temple Judea and the Jewish community.

“I’m not going to fade away any sooner than I have to,” she said.

Eve Marcus: Soul of the Food Pantry


Eve Marcus

Barri Evins

Alex Baum

Betty Neymark

Eve Marcus

Fran Rosenfield

Marilyn Harran

Noah Bleich

Rebecca Levinson

Yehoram Uziel

Yoram Hassid

Eve Marcus asks that people not call her on Saturday. Mostly they comply.

Otherwise, as volunteer director of the North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry, she is on call and in command of a staff of 150 volunteers and an operation that currently provides emergency food for more than 30,000 people a year.

Marcus, 70, first became involved in the fall of 1984, when she read a newspaper advertisement seeking volunteers for the Food Pantry, which had been founded more than a year earlier as a result of the Valley Interfaith Council’s Task Force on Community Emergency Needs and in response to the 1982-83 recession.

“I could do that,” thought Marcus, a Studio City homemaker and mother of three girls. She began working Mondays at the First Christian Church of North Hollywood, packing bags, interviewing clients and pitching in wherever needed.
And she has been doing that ever since.

Early on, Marcus was asked to serve as Monday captain. She has continued in that capacity while also taking on the responsibility of volunteer director four years ago.

As director, she runs the monthly board meetings; oversees staffing, donations and grants, and fields myriad phone calls. She also coordinates volunteers for the yearly National Association of Letter Carriers Food Drive and organizes the Food Pantry’s annual Interfaith Service of Thanksgiving.

But to the other volunteers, she encompasses much more.

“Eve is the soul of the Food Pantry. She just knows that people cannot be hungry and we need to do whatever is necessary,” said Joy Grau, a member of St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church in Studio City and a 15-year volunteer.

The North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry was founded in 1983 by five women from two synagogues (Temple Beth Hillel and Adat Ari El) and three churches. It is now a coalition of 10 congregations in the East San Fernando Valley.

“We ask people to come once a month but we never turn anyone away,” Marcus said. These days the largest segments of their clientele, mostly from the East San Fernando Valley, are the homeless and the elderly. There are also some “rare but heartbreaking” instances of those who fit both categories.

For Marcus, the benefits of her work are the lasting friendships she has made over the years and the discovery of hidden abilities, like public speaking. She credits her cardiologist husband with handling the computer work.

The worst problem is the aging of the volunteers, who now range from late 50s to early 90s and who often can’t do the heavy lifting that’s required. Recruiting new volunteers, with so many people working in full-time jobs, is difficult.

Marcus attributes her upbringing with drawing her to volunteer work. She was raised in a modest household in Brooklyn where, although imprinted by the tragedies of World War II, she somehow always felt fortunate.

“I had good parents, food and love,” she said. “I want other people to enjoy some of the comforts I do.”

Marilyn Harran: A Modern Righteous Gentile


Marilyn Harran

Barri Evins

Alex Baum

Betty Neymark

Eve Marcus

Fran Rosenfield

Marilyn Harran

Noah Bleich

Rebecca Levinson

Yehoram Uziel

Yoram Hassid

As a young assistant professor at New York’s Barnard College in the mid-1970s, historian Marilyn Harran befriended one of the school’s maintenance workers. One day the man asked Harran to look at some of his wife’s artworks.
“Why not?” she remembers thinking.

Unbeknownst to her, his wife was a Holocaust survivor whose charcoal drawings depicted the horrors she had witnessed. A rendering of dead babies’ bodies being stacked like lumber underscored for Harran the Holocaust’s horror and brutality. From that moment on, she made a personal mission of bringing the Shoah to light out of the dark recesses of hidden nightmares. For Harran, who is Protestant, keeping these memories alive is nothing less than a human imperative.

“I want to create a generation that never believes some people are more human than others,” she said.

A diminutive woman with an easy laugh, Harran, now 58, is a professor at Chapman University in Orange, which is affiliated with the Disciples of Christ. Over the past two decades, largely through her efforts, Chapman has come to offer several courses on the Holocaust; it also hosts annual lectures on the subject and even offers a minor in Holocaust history.

In 2000, Chapman opened the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education and established the Stern Chair in Holocaust Education, which Harran holds.

In April 2005, again at Harran’s instigation, Chapman opened the Sala and Aron Samueli Holocaust Memorial Library. The renowned Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel, after two years of coaxing by Harran, attended the library’s dedication ceremony.

With the help of her supporters, Harran “has been able to place awareness of the Holocaust at the center of Chapman’s intellectual life, and, perhaps even more remarkably, as a topic of regular attention and concern in Orange County,” said David N. Myers, a professor of Jewish history and director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.

William Elperin, an attorney and president of the “1939” Club, an organization for Holocaust survivors and descendants that has supported many of Harran’s endeavors, goes even farther in his praise.

“She is the person most responsible for transforming Orange County from a Holocaust denial center to a Holocaust education center,” Elperin said.

Sitting in her Chapman office surrounded by books and a photo of Wiesel, her hero, Harran said she spends about 100 hours per week on Holocaust-related activities. She teaches three classes on the subject, arranges for guest lecturers and oversees her students’ work on an ambitious survivor project she hopes will lead to publication of a book detailing survivors’ experiences. She also participated in the publication of “The Holocaust Chronicle: A History in Words and Pictures,” which has sold 200,000 copies.

Looking forward, Harran dreams of establishing a visiting scholars’ program at the university and growing the Holocaust library’s small collection, although raising the needed money might prove difficult, she said, given her distaste for fundraising.

Harran admits her “obsession” with the Holocaust has taken a toll on her personal life, but she believes it’s a small price to pay. She hopes that maintaining a focus on the Holocaust might encourage students and others to speak up against present-day atrocities in Darfur and elsewhere.

Still, she wonders whether she has done enough.

“I hope I’ve made a contribution,” Harran said.

Noah Bleich: A Man of Many Hats


‘>Alex Baum

‘>Eve Marcus

‘>Marilyn Harran

‘>Rebecca Levinson

‘>Yoram Hassid

Noah Bleich is standing at the entrance of an elementary school with a blue-and-white menorah on his head. Once again, he has dragged himself out of bed to read stories to children.

“I’m not a morning person,” he says, “but it’s easy for me to get up if I have a reason.”

Every other week, for about three years, Bleich has been visiting neighborhood schools to read to kids. Each time, he arrives in a different hat. This morning, he has tossed aside his zebra-print cowboy hat, giant sombrero and Mad Hatter top hat in favor of a white faux-fur and blue velvet piece topped with felt candles. The kids love it.

Bleich, 31, is used to wearing many hats. As the newly elected president of the South Robertson Neighborhood Council, Bleich not only runs the council’s monthly meetings, but he spends much of his time — as many as 30 hours a week, he says — planning projects to benefit the community.

“He’s like the Superman of the Neighborhood Council,” said Steven Coker, a council board member. “Most people think of themselves first, and if there’s time or money left over, then they think of everybody else. With Noah, it’s reversed. He thinks of the community first and himself second.”

An observant Jew, Bleich provides a Jewish rationale for his commitment. While Judaism teaches that each individual is unique and special, it also emphasizes community, he says.

He tries to put this teaching into practice: “Judaism should be about living it.”

Bleich, a self-employed computer consultant, has started building a computer lab at the local community center. He has also written a grant application, asking for funds to renovate the center and build a garden outside.

He recently helped a group get funding for a three-week program for at-risk youth. Kids will now be able to go to the community center to take life-skills classes during their winter break from school. Bleich has volunteered to coach the children on how to build computers and how to cook.

One of Bleich’s greatest passions is protecting the environment. As the leader of the council’s Green Team committee, Bleich runs monthly neighborhood cleanups to pick up garbage, paint over graffiti and plant trees and flowers (he initiated a project to plant hundreds of trees in honor of the firefighters who died on Sept. 11 and the Los Angeles firefighters who have died in the line of duty).

Bleich pays careful attention to how his own actions impact the environment. To save gas, he walks, bikes or takes the bus whenever he can. He is a vegetarian who uses canvas shopping bags and energy-efficient lightbulbs. Bleich will pay extra for goods made in countries with high environmental and social standards.

He tries hard to do the right thing, he says, not because he believes he will change the world, but because he sees no satisfactory alternative.

“I don’t do the environmental work because I think I’m going to make a difference,” he says. “I don’t think I can, given the scope of what needs to be done.

“I do it,” he says, “because I don’t believe I’m excused from trying.”

To get involved in the South Robertson community, e-mail noah@soronc.org.

Rebecca Levinson: Born to Be a Volunteer


Rebecca Levinson

Barri Evins

Alex Baum

Betty Neymark

Eve Marcus

Fran Rosenfield

Marilyn Harran

Noah Bleich

Rebecca Levinson

Yehoram Uziel

Yoram Hassid

Rebecca Levinson grew up always doing things for the community.

“This is what you do,” the 17-year-old junior at North Hollywood’s Oakwood School, said matter of factly.

Just recently Levinson, who goes by Becca, joined PEP/LA, the Peer Education Project of Los Angeles dealing with HIV/AIDS. She has been trained to lead informal discussions with other teenagers on ways to avoid risk-taking sexual behaviors. Already Levinson has spoken at Children of the Night, an organization dedicated to helping child prostitutes.

In addition, for a second year, Levinson is mentoring Francisco, currently a fifth-grader at North Hollywood’s Monlux Elementary School. She meets with him weekly, tutoring him in whatever subjects he needs help.

“He is super-duper cute and obsessed with magnets,” Levinson said.

And last summer she spent a month in El Salvador through Putney Student Travel Global Awareness in Action program. She traveled with 15 other teenagers to San Salvador, where the group learned about the country’s history as well as immigration, globalization and other issues.

They then traveled Santa Marta, a small town on the Honduras border, where they lived in a communal home and assisted the local residents. Levinson, who chose to look into economy and gender issues, worked in a women’s bakery every day, baking bread and talking with the workers. Additionally, she did some AIDS outreach education.

“It was a great experience,” she said. “It taught me how one country’s decisions affect the world.”

Volunteering is in her blood. Her father, David Levinson, is the founder of Big Sunday, which began in 1999 as Temple Israel of Hollywood’s Mitzvah Day and evolved into an annual citywide day of volunteering, now co-sponsored by the mayor. Last year’s event had 30,000 volunteer participants.

This past Big Sunday, Rebecca Levinson manned the clothing market at the Figueroa Street School carnival, which was actually a schoolwide fair and community service day coordinated her mother, Ellie Herman. Levinson’s job was procuring and selling clothes for a minimal amount.

“It was more stressful than I thought it would be,” she said. “Only about five people spoke English.”
While Levinson’s activities seem disparate, she explained the connection.

“They are all interactive. It is necessary for both people to gain something,” she said.

An exception, however, is the American Cancer Society Relay for Life event she organized last year at Walter Reed Middle School.

“A lot of people in my family have had cancer, and I felt an obligation,” she explained. She will facilitate the event again this year, hoping to broaden the turnout.

Levinson’s other major interest is drawing, which she hopes to combine with her passion for social justice. “There are a lot of different ways to communicate with people that interest me,” she said.

As for her future, she wants to become fluent in Spanish. She’s also developed an interest in economics as well as international relations after her summer in El Salvador.

“We’ve been dragging the kids along ever since they can remember, whether to nursing homes to sing or to furnish apartments for the homeless,” David Levinson said. “But Rebecca has found her own path and knows where she can be most useful.”

Yehoram Uziel: A Lifeline to Mexico


Yehoram Uziel

Barri Evins

Alex Baum

Betty Neymark

Eve Marcus

Fran Rosenfield

Marilyn Harran

Noah Bleich

Rebecca Levinson

Yehoram Uziel

Yoram Hassid

Yehoram Uziel, 56, began volunteering right after he finished serving in the Israeli army as a tank corps officer. First he worked nights at the suicide hotline service, then he moved to the family services center in Haifa.
“I learned volunteering is something that adds to your self-esteem; it’s not just donating — it’s something that benefits you,” he said.

So when he was sent by his high-tech company to America in 1989, it was only natural that he would begin to search for more volunteer opportunities. An experienced pilot, Uziel, 56, began working for various medical aid organizations, flying needy sick people, as well as medical equipment and doctors around the country.

Some 10 years ago, he began devoting his efforts exclusively to The Flying Samaritans, a volunteer medical aid organization that assists clinics in Mexico. In addition to flying personnel and equipment there, he stayed over on weekends to help out. “Once I get there,” he says, “I do everything that doesn’t require a medical license and requires a good pair of hands — fixing handles, overhauling generators, repairing equipment, installing dental chair, roofing, putting in air conditioning, fixing the water supplies and pumps.”

“Sometimes,” he said, “I’ll go play with the kids.”

Last year, when The Flying Samaritans became beset by internal politics, Uziel, who now owns his own business and who is also trained as a mediator, stepped in to resolve the conflict — and found himself nominated president. Now he’s focused on integrating new technology for the “Sams” so they can schedule their 2,500 volunteers at the 20 clinics in Mexico, improving services provided to the Mexicans by conducting a marketing survey and boosting the spirits of the volunteers.

“We want to make sure the service we give is worthwhile to the people that get the service, and, more importantly, when you ask so many volunteers to donate their time and money, you better make sure that they feel valuable.

Otherwise they get worn out,” he said. “It’s really important that volunteers can come back and not say they just threw money at some altruistic cause.”

Uziel, who is married to Rhoda Weisman Uziel and has two children from a previous marriage, was raised a secular Jew in Ramat Gan, Israel. His outlook on life was shaped by his great uncle — the chief rabbi of Israel.

“When my father was ordered to go to World War II, he went to his uncle to get a blessing. The uncle said: ‘I know you’re not going to keep kosher, and I know you’re going to drive on Shabbat, I know you’re not going to follow the etiquette, but there’s one thing I want you to remember: You’re always a Jew.'”

Volunteering one weekend a month in Mexico gives his life perspective.

“I go to Mexico and come back — and no matter how much it costs me it’s better than sitting on a shrink’s couch and whining about how terrible things are,” he said. “We’re lucky. We have a good life. We have so many options — cultural, financial. And when you see what they live through, you get perspective, you appreciate what you have.”

Yoram Hassid: The Man in the Middle


Yoram Hassid
Barri Evins

Alex Baum

Betty Neymark

Eve Marcus

Fran Rosenfield

Marilyn Harran

Noah Bleich

Rebecca Levinson

Yehoram Uziel

Yoram Hassid

For the past 20 years, Yoram Hassid, a 60-something financially successful general contractor, has been quietly helping scores of local Jews — in particular Iranian Jews — avoid the courtrooms, acting as an unpaid mediator in disputes over everything from multimillion dollar real estate deals to challenging family conflicts.

“I’m not a storyteller, I’m only here to help solve people’s problems,” replies a humble Hassid when asked how many people he has aided or how much money he has had his clients donate to international Jewish charities in lieu of receiving fees for his services.

Hassid started as a mediator in the Iranian American Jewish Federation’s committee to help the community resolve business troubles outside of the court system, but now volunteers his mediation services alone. After the death of the committee’s chairman, Davood Ghodsian, Hassid and other committee volunteers a few years ago formed the Arbitration and Mediation Committee, an independent mediation group based in Beverly Hills.

Hassid said that he primarily handles cases of misunderstandings between the parties, rather than intentional fraud, because in the latter, one of the parties is unlikely to agree to attend mediation sessions.

“I’ve had success in resolving 80 percent of the cases that have come to me, where I was able to convince both parties to accept a mutual settlement,” Hassid said.

But he refuses to take all the credit for his successes, and he said local rabbis, community leaders and even attorneys have been instrumental in referring cases to him and providing support during mediation sessions.

“He knows the ‘bazaar mentality’ from Iran and is able to speak with people with that in mind,” said Noah P., an L.A. area real estate broker and former Hassid client, who did not want to give his name for business reasons.

“Getting the money was not important to me, but I will forever be grateful to him because of the fact that he voluntarily came forward to help me and spent a substantial amount of time on my case when others were not able to do so”.

“Mr. Hassid has been very instrumental in resolving several tough cases which others have not been able to conclude,” said Rabbi David Shofet of the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills. “His activities are a blessing for many who might otherwise land in the court system and we are grateful for his help.”

The American litigation process was initially an unfamiliar concept to Iranian Jews, who for centuries in Iran resolved business disputes with the aid of elders in their communities. In Iran, their cases were heard by community leaders, and all parties were persuaded to find a fair compromise, since Jews often did not have recourse of going to the country’s Muslim-dominated courts.

While Hassid has never had any formal legal education, four of his six children are now attorneys.

“The first thing he has is an incredible ability to go inside the heads of both the parties and understand their perspectives; this is not a gift that everyone has,” said Hassid’s daughter, Yifat, a Century City attorney. “He also has an uncanny ability to skip through all the great nonsense and force the parties to get to the heart of matter with the goal of finding a solution.”

The Arbitration and Mediation Committee can be reached at (310) 860-1826.

A Mensch


A month ago I lost my wallet.

I had just picked my son up from day school at 5 p.m., run an errand, then returned to pick up my daughter, whose religiousschool classes got out at 6:30 p.m.

It was one of those days. My wife was out of town on a work trip, and between my own job and drop-offs and pick-ups, I’d logged about 100 miles, and the day wasn’t over.

I had until 7 p.m. to make it to the auto shop to switch cars, and the clock was still ticking on dinner and baths and bedtime. That last sequence of “Good Fellas” where Ray Liotta has to do a drug deal, launder cash, run family errands and avoid the Feds? That was me, without the drugs, cash and cops.

Trying to shave a minute off deadline, I parked a block from the school, ran at a dead heat up La Cienega Boulevard, grabbed my daughter and power-walked back to the car. Then off through rush hour traffic to Miller Honda, where I arrived as the giant metal garage doors were rolling shut. I hurried to pay for my repairs — without my wallet.

It wasn’t gone, I told myself. It was black, my seats were black and the sun had set. I searched. The kids searched. Small hands went in and out of seat cracks. It took me a good two minutes to go from bemused to perplexed to frantic.

Forget the 100 bucks. What about the credit cards? The driver’s license? The identity theft. The hours on the phone navigating voice commands. A crazed thief showing up at our home address. My ATM card somewhere on its way to Vegas.

I drove back to the school. By cellphone I alerted the security personnel there, who quickly scanned the sidewalk and came up empty-handed. I traced my steps and found nothing.

“If you dropped it in the hallway,” one guard comforted me, “whoever finds it will give it to us. If you dropped it on the street, forget it.”

Of course he was right. It was dark. That section of La Cienega hosted a stream of transient foot traffic from the bus stop to 7-Eleven to dark alleys where pickpockets warmed their hands around trash can fires kindled with the useless receipts from emptied wallets … or so I imagined. I was, at that point, without hope.

And my kids, hungry and tired, were aching for food, which I had no money to pay for.

Just before I left school, I had the idea to call my work phone. Who knows? There was a message, which I’ve saved: “Hi Rob. This is Michael. I’ve found your wallet. Give me a call. I’m sure you’re probably looking for it.”

I pulled over and called. The young man on the other end of the line gave me his address, which turned out to be on Corning Avenue, the next block over. He was waiting out front when I swung around.

I rushed out to shake his hand, to thank him. I thrust a reward at him, which surprised and slightly embarrassed him. Somehow I figured words weren’t enough.

When I drove back to school to thank the security guards and share the good news, they were astonished.

“In this city,” said one of them, “That’s one in a million.”

They asked how old he was. Around 20. They asked what color he was. I said black. They shook their heads. From their faces, I could see their stereotypes melting about as gently as nuclear fuel rods.

A little while later I called Michael Evans to thank him a bit less breathlessly.

On the one hand, he didn’t cure cancer or rescue an endangered species or rush into a burning building. On the other hand, he found a wallet full of cash on a dark street, made the effort to contact the owner, and returned it. No big deal? Not if it were your wallet.

Michael told me he is 22. He was born in New York City and moved out here when he was 10. His parents died when he was 4 — not a subject he wanted to delve into — and he was raised by his grandmother, a retired schoolteacher. She’s 92 now, and Michael decided to live with her to watch after her.

Michael attended Carthay Circle Elementary, Hamilton High and Los Angeles City College. He works as an accountant in Burbank for Smith Mandel and Associates.

The night we met, he was walking up La Cienega toward the 7-Eleven to buy his grandmother a newspaper when he saw my wallet.

“I thought I might as well go and help this person,” he told me, verbally shrugging off the whole incident. “It’s not inconvenient, and I’d want somebody to do the same thing for me.”

He searched out my business card, called me and e-mailed me. “I don’t think it was too much trouble to go and do that.”

I told him what the security guards said, that in a city like this, he’s one in a million.

He laughed.

“It’s just the right thing to do,” he said. “There really was no other option.”

This is the second year The Jewish Journal has compiled a list of our “Top Ten Mensches.” Let other magazines slobber over the 50 Sexiest or the 400 Richest or the 20 Most Influential. Rich, sexy and powerful are easy. Mensch is hard.

How hard? You could make all those other lists and still not qualify for ours. There are three crowns, says the Pirke Avot, the crown of the law, which is knowledge; the crown of royalty, which is power and wealth, and the crown of priesthood, which is holiness.

But the crown of a good name surpasses them all.

Thus, Michael Evans.

Interfaith dialogue continues locally despite Hathout brouhaha; Sukkot huts inspires home building


Interfaith dialogue continues locally despite Hathout brouhaha
 
After the brouhaha surrounding Maher Hathout, the Muslim spokesman who received a human relations prize last month amid protests by some Jewish groups, the state of interfaith relations in Los Angeles may appear to be at a low point.
 
But in fact, that is not the case, as evidenced last week, when Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Bahá’í­s and more gathered at Sinai Temple for a dinner honoring Rabbi Paul Dubin, one of the founders of the Interreligious Council of Southern California.Interfaith dialogue is “at a high point,” said Dubin, 81, seated at a small, round table during the evening’s cocktail hour. “Fifty years ago, interfaith relations really consisted of (conversations between) Christians and Jews. Today, we have more than 10 faith groups in this Interreligious Council,” said Dubin, who helped create the council nearly 40 years ago.
 
Nearby, two Hindu monks wrapped in orange cloth, representing “the fire of the spirit,” huddled together. A Catholic priest, dressed in black with the traditional white collar, greeted a Buddhist in a brown robe and jade prayer beads.
 
A Sikh wearing a white gown and turban surveyed the room with satisfaction. “People need to see us like this more — doing things together,” she said.
 
During dinner, Jihad Turk, vice president of the Interreligious Council, sat beside a Holocaust survivor, discussing ways to deal with extremist elements within religious communities. “My father is Palestinian, and my name is Jihad,” Turk said. Nevertheless, he has come to realize that “Islam and Judiasm share so much in common. We truly are close kin.”

At another table, in between bites of salmon, sweet potato and asparagus, an Episcopal priest was talking about a trip he had taken to Israel with Jews, Christians and Muslims. Across from him, the Rev. Albert Cohen, a delegate to the council who represents Protestant churches, explained why the board decided to honor Dubin.
 
“We wanted to have a dinner, and we wanted to build it around the person we loved the most,” Cohen said. “Rabbi Dubin relates to everybody.”
 
“In our religion,” chimed in Dr. Jerome Lipin, a Jewish pediatrician, “we’d call him a mensch.”
 
As dessert arrived, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism, gave the keynote address.
 
“If we believe each of our religions is true, then how is it that all the other religions aren’t false?” he asked.
 
Dorff suggested a few ways we might believe in our own religion without negating others.
 
Humans are not omniscient, so we can recognize that our own knowledge is limited, he said. Also, if we all were intended to have the same views, then we would have been created the same. The fact that each of us is unique suggests that every one of us has an element of the sacred within.
 
Next, Dubin took the spotlight.
 
“I want to tell you why I have felt so strongly about participating in interfaith meetings and dialogues,” Dubin said. “It can be summed up in one word: pluralism. By pluralism, I mean not the toleration of another faith — I hate that word, ‘toleration’ — I mean respect and acceptance.”
 
After a standing ovation, the Rev. Gwynne Guibord, president of the Interreligious Council, announced, “Our time has ended. Go in peace.”
 
The guests dispersed into the halls of the temple. Some visitors peeked into rooms, hoping to get a glimpse of the main sanctuary.

“This is quite the place,” one said on his way out into the chilly night.
 
— Sarah Price Brown, Contributing Writer
 
Sukkot huts inspires home building for homeless
 
While many Los Angeles Jews commemorated the second day of Sukkot by eating outside in their temporary dwelling created just for the holiday, Wilshire Boulevard Temple members took the edict of the holiday even further.
 
On Oct. 8, some 300 members — adults and children — at the temple’s two locations partnered with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles to help build real dwellings for low-income families.
 
Adults helped build housing frames, which will be used in the homes of “partner” or low-income families. The children sewed 400 pillows and made 400 welcome home signs. The congregants put together 800 outreach kits for PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) and they fed 140 families at the temple’s food pantry.
 
“The Festival of Sukkot commemorates the temporary shelter Jewish ancestors lived in during their years of wandering in the desert and represents the building of shelter,” said Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in a press release. This first-time partnership between Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Habitat “helps to raise awareness and support of the need for affordable housing for local families.”
 
Habitat strives to eliminate poverty housing through advocacy, education and partnership with families in need to build simple, decent, affordable housing. Since 1990, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles has built more than 180 homes, transforming the lives of hundreds of individuals. In the fall of 2007, the organization will host the Jimmy Carter Work Project, Habitat for Humanity International’s preeminent event. The project will bring Carter, his wife, Rosalynn, and thousands of volunteers from around the world to Los Angeles to help build or renovate 100 homes.
 
“It was a very productive day as regards to Tikkun Olam at Wilshire Boulevard Temple,” Stein said.
 
For more information, visit www.habitatla.org.
 
— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Shop for a breast cancer cure
 
With Breast Cancer Awareness Month in full swing, M”&”Ms, KitchenAid appliances and Coach key chains have consumers seeing pink. Mattel has launched a new Pink Ribbon Barbie as a way for adults to talk with kids about the disease. Dyson is featuring a limited-edition pink vacuum cleaner and Seagate has jumped on the Susan G. Komen Foundation bandwagon with a pink external 6 gigabyte hard drive.
 
Locally, the newly opened Nordstrom at Westfield Topanga will feature Fit for the Cure, a special bra-fitting event on Oct. 21. Wacoal will donate $2 every time someone gets fit for a bra, as well as an additional $2 for each Wacoal, DKNY Underwear or Donna Karan Intimates bra purchased during the event. Also, Vons and Pavilions stores are hoping to help generate $6 million as part of Safeway’s fifth annual Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign, with proceeds from sales of pink ribbon pins and pink wristbands at checkstands going to services for patients and research. The grocers will also donate funds from purchases of specially marked products, and are making a free download of Melissa Etheridge’s song, “I Run for Life,” available to its customers.
 
Other retailers running special sales promotions include Aveda, Lady Foot Locker, Payless ShoeSource, Target and Bed Bath & Beyond.
 
— Adam Wills, Associate Editor

Letters


Mensches, Menschen

The plural of “mensch” has always been “menschen” (“Mensches: Some Big-Hearted Angelenos You Would Be Proud to Know,” Jan. 6). Come Purim, will we read about “hamentasches”?

I was impressed, though, by the dedication of those featured in the accompanying article.

Ruth L. Brown
Los Angeles

I do not profess to be a Yiddish linguist, but I learned my Yiddish in the Sholem Aleichem Folk Shul in Perth Amboy, N.J., about 65 years ago, where everyone knew that the plural of “mensch” was “menschen.” Please tell me whether or not I’m correct.

Marv Frankel
Los Angeles

Ed. Note: According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the plural of “mensch” is either “mensches” or “menschen.” We chose the style closer to English, but feel free to come by and discuss it over some beigelech and blintschikes.

Interfaith Celebrations

We were disappointed by your editorial/news story, “Tis Never the Season for Chrismukkah” (Dec. 23), with its premise that interfaith or intercultural celebrations shouldn’t be tolerated.

The predictable seasonal staple about how children are confused by joint celebrations provided no evidence to support that conclusion. It was a missed opportunity.

Instead of probing how Jewish communities can respond sensitively to the growing number of intercultural or interfaith families, it adopted the contemptuous tone articulated by Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who dismisses those who want to combine holidays as “totally ignorant,” misguided and misinformed. By disparaging and discounting non-Jewish members of intermarried families, Jewish leaders put their heads in the sand and push them away.

In our secular Jewish organization, the Sholem Community (www.sholem.org), we’ve welcomed intercultural families who have been made to feel uncomfortable at synagogues.

We don’t ask non-Jewish family members to reject their backgrounds. We discuss how family members can honor each other’s heritages with respect and understanding. We explore common cultural themes in seasonal festivals, and we’ve seen how families can observe loving and warm, respectful celebrations.

This approach doesn’t work for everyone but is appropriate for people whose outlook is cultural and secular. Instead of the my-way-or-the-highway approach, families who honor each other’s cultures and traditions can enrich their own experiences, their humanity and connect themselves and their loved ones to their Jewishness.

Jeffrey Kaye
Katherine James
Alan Blumenfeld
The Sholem Community

IRS Charge

In his opinion piece, “IRS Errs on Endorsing Candidate Charge” (Jan. 6), Rabbi John Rosove correctly observes that the Tax Code prohibits, at the risk of loss of tax exemption, intervention by synagogues and other charities “in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

It does not prohibit all political activities. Charities, including synagogues, can take positions on legislation — that is lobby — so long as their lobbying activity is not substantial. (Positions on initiatives and referenda, as well as positions on nominees to the federal judiciary, are considered lobbying.) Moreover, these organizations can take positions on questions of public policy without limit.

Thus, even had Rabbi Rosove named leaders in his erev Rosh Hashanah sermon in October 2005, he would not have violated the campaign prohibition, since no election was looming. Nonetheless, since he did not mention any leader’s name, Rabbi Rosove could have offered this same sermon just days before an election without any violation of the prohibition.

In unofficial guidance, the IRS has treated discussions of issues of public policy without mention of candidates’ names as falling outside of the category of campaign intervention.

Ellen Aprill
Past President
Temple Israel of Hollywood
John E. Anderson Professor of Tax Law
Loyola Law School

Orthodox Women

I write in response to Amy Klein’s thoughtful article on “Orthodox But Not Monolithic” (Jan. 6). While your reporter generally presented both the spirit and the substance of my remarks on the issue of women in Orthodox Jewish communal life, I was misquoted as stating that no women currently serve on the board of the Orthodox Union (OU).

While I noted that there are currently no women officers in the OU, I did not suggest that there aren’t any women board members. I know better than that. My wife, Vivian, is one of the most active members of the OU’s Board of Governors.

David Luchins
OU National Vice President

Illegal Immigration

Like every apologist for illegal immigration, Rob Eshman makes a case for “assimilation” of the undocumented, while ignoring the wholesale violation of our laws and sovereignty that got us into a fiscal and social quagmire (“The Slop Sink,” Dec. 30).

According to the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., the net cost of public benefits and services for illegal immigrants in California is $10 billion a year — a structured deficit that no one in Sacramento is willing to address. L.A. County public hospitals lose $340 million a year providing uncompensated care for undocumented immigrants.

Here’s the kicker: The proposed Totalization Agreement with Mexico will provide Social Security benefits to Mexican nationals and, by extension, illegal immigrants. The price tag: $345 billion over 20 years.

Les Hammer
Los Angeles

Winter Break

Jennifer Garmaise’s article (“Taking Winter Break on Jewish Time,” Dec. 30) did not address the logistical and economic impact that shifting winter vacations to late January has on families of moderate means. Far from “disrupting vacation plans,” moving winter vacation from late December poses a serious challenge to parents who work outside the Jewish community, particularly single parents and those families where both parents must work in order to make ends meet.

Many of these parents hoard their sick leave and vacation time in order to take off for Yom Tov. Taking a week off in January (when alternative forms of child care are not available) in order to care for children out of school poses a financial hardship and, sometimes, a barrier to employment altogether. It is also difficult to see what educational or religious benefit the children gain from this week.

Giving the children a week’s break at Chanukah (as is done in Israel) would not completely solve the child care issue, but at least it has a logical Jewish rationale. Starting winter break on Dec. 26 would comply with Rabbi Feinstein’s ruling, while alleviating the child care situation.

Offering affordable day camps would also go a long way toward addressing the needs of ordinary working parents who sacrifice in order to send their children to Orthodox Jewish day schools.

Miriam Caiden
Los Angeles

 

A Face in the Internet Crowd


As soon as incoming freshman Chana Ickowitz received her UC Berkeley e-mail address, she registered on the online directory facebook.com. There, on her personal profile, she described herself as someone with moderate political views who likes sushi, rainy days, Urban Outfitters and “Jane Eyre” … and who is a member of a group called Jew Crew.

Yes, college is about learning. But it is also about establishing new social relationships. And this class of freshmen — the largest ever with almost 2 million students, according to the U.S. Department of Education — has been crisscrossing cyberspace for most of their lives, existing as comfortably in the virtual world as in reality. So it’s not surprising that, before even setting foot on campus, they are using facebook.com to make new friends, scrutinize roommates and search for potential romantic interests.

And for many of those freshmen who are Jewish — approximately 90,000 according to Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life — they are using the site not only to scope out fellow members of the tribe, but also to announce their own allegiance to Judaism by joining Jewish-related groups. These groups, created by students, exist exclusively on facebook.com and are particular to each campus.

“The first thing I did when I was searching groups was put in ‘Jews’ and there were a lot of them,” explained Ickowitz, 18, a graduate of Milken Community High School in Los Angeles. She joined Hillel’s online group. She also joined Jew Crew, a virtual group whose description reads, “There’s nothing better than Jewish pride! … well, there is, but Jewish pride is really cool! Hooray for Jews!”

Many of these students may never actually step foot into Hillel or other brick-and-mortar Jewish organizations, but they want their profile to show that they are members of such groups as USC’s For the Love of Mensch Club or Jew Crew (unrelated to the UC Berkeley group). It serves as the virtual equivalent of wearing a Star of David.

“I think this is about trying to find people, in this sea of people, that are just like me,” explained Ickowitz, who, growing up in Sherman Oaks and attending Jewish day schools, never had to work at finding Jewish friends.

“It’s what we all do, just as adults moving to a new city will look up synagogues and associations that interest them,” said psychology researcher Elisheva Gross, a doctoral candidate at UCLA. “Imagine moving from a setting where you know [almost] everyone … to a new, utterly unfamiliar, probably much larger and quite possibly daunting setting where you likely know few people.”

Perhaps that’s why facebook.com, launched by three Harvard University sophomores in February 2004, reports 6 million registered members at 2,027 colleges across the country. Additionally, about 15,000 new users are signing up daily, according to facebook.com spokesperson Chris Hughes. (The privately held company also opened a high school network on Sept. 2 that already has more than 500,000 members.) Currently, about 67 percent of Facebook’s members check in daily, while almost 90 percent check in weekly.

With only a school e-mail address and no fees, students can register on facebook.com, creating their own profiles by posting photos and personal information, including relationship status, favorite music and movies and contact information. They can also join online groups, send mail to their friends and post messages on their friends’ “walls,” which serve as a kind of public bulletin board on individual profiles. Anyone in their school community can view their profile, but those on other campuses need to send a request asking permission to become their Facebook “friend,” which the receiver can accept or reject.

For Jewish students, facebook.com is a non-threatening way to identify as Jewish, says Kim Rogoff, assistant director of student affairs at USC Hillel. “All they’re doing is clicking a button and saying, ‘I’m Jewish.'”

USC junior Alexis Kyman, 20, in fact, created Jew Crew a year ago as a way for students to demonstrate their Jewish pride.

“Personally, I started it because I went to a Catholic school in Phoenix, and I’ve gotten more in touch with my Jewish identity,” she said.

But she doesn’t envision Jew Crew, which currently has 445 members, as a way for Jewish students to meet in person.

Instead, those students who want offline Jewish friendships generally show up for Shabbat dinners or other activities sponsored by established organizations such as Hillel or Chabad. But they may also join the organizations’ virtual groups as a way to receive announcements or talk about upcoming events.

Freshman Veronica Renov, 17, a graduate of Marlborough High School in Los Angeles, for example, joined an online group created solely for FreshFest 2005, a Hillel-sponsored overnight orientation for incoming Jewish USC students, which helped her prepare for the trip.

“We posted messages like, where’s everybody from and what are we supposed to bring,” she explained. Of the 59 freshmen who attended FreshFest 2005, 55 had already connected on Facebook, according to Hillel’s Rogoff.

Facebook is also way for college faculty and other organizations to reach out to students who might not otherwise self-identify as Jews. Anyone with an e-mail address ending in “edu” can join Facebook.

For Rabbi Dov Wagner of Chabad Jewish Student Center at USC, it’s a way to connect with students who, for whatever reason, might be averse to attending a Chabad event or approaching him directly.

For her part, Rogoff sees the service as something that also works for Hillel: “It’s a nice way — certainly one we don’t exploit — to interact and stay in touch with students on terms they’ve set for themselves.”

 

Car Crash Claims Beloved Northridge Rabbi


The beloved rabbi of a Northridge synagogue apparently committed suicide in the wake of personal disclosures that jeopardized his job. These disclosures had to do with allegedly “inappropriate” actions by the rabbi, but nothing that was criminal or illegal, said officials of Temple Ramat Zion.

This new information emerged Thursday night at a congregational meeting that was held to address questions and concerns.

Rabbi Steven Tucker, 47, the longtime spiritual leader of Ramat Zion in Northridge, died in a solo car crash that authorities have called a suicide. He left behind a lengthy note whose contents have not been released. Tucker’s speeding car veered off Wawona Road near the Wawona Tunnel in Yosemite National Park at about 7 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 10.

Temple officials presided over a somber and reverential Sabbath services last weekend, but initially released no information about the rabbi’s death even as rumors swirled about his job status.

More than 300 congregants attended the Thursday gathering at Ramat Zion, which was called by the board of directors. The meeting was not open to the media, but the temple released a brief pubic statement at the start, and a temple spokesperson also answered some questions afterwards.

The temple’s account of events is that its executive committee had voted to recommend against offering a new contract for Rabbi Tucker. The full board of the temple had not yet acted on this recommendation at the time of the rabbi’s death. One factor in the evaluation was information about the rabbi that came to light during a review process.

“Rabbi Tucker subsequently indicated to the executive committee that he had engaged in behavior which was not criminal in nature, but was determined by the rabbi and the executive committee to be inappropriate behavior for a rabbi,” said synagogue board president and executive committee member Bill Wendorff. All parties agreed to keep the information confidential.

Tucker’s car was traveling at high speed when it left the pavement and then rolled, said Gail Sgambellone, the assistant coroner for Mariposa County. Parts of that roadway are steep and treacherous.

Park rangers are investigating, but have called the incident a suicide because Tucker left a suicide note, Sgambellone said. Tucker’s wife Gabrielle had reported her husband missing on Nov. 9.

News of the rabbi’s death was met with disbelief and grief during Friday night services at Ramat Zion.

“It is with great sadness that I must tell you that our beloved Rabbi Tucker has passed away,” Cantor Paul Dorman announced from the bimah to a standing-room only crowd of several hundred. “We are all here tonight to pay our respects to him, and we will never, never forget him.”

Some congregants wept openly. Following a moment of silence, Dorman asked those gathered to chant the Mourner’s Kaddish for Tucker, the father of three. He later recalled how Tucker would frequently ask him to sing the niggun after the Amidah. Following this tradition, the cantor led the congregation in the wordless chant.

Congregants described Tucker as a gentle, caring man. He also attained prominence among his peers, once serving as president of the Pacific Southwest chapter of the Rabbinical Assembly, a leadership organization for Conservative rabbis.

Rabbi Sally Olins, who later succeeded Tucker as president and became the first woman to head the chapter, called him a close friend and mentor.

Tucker had the gift of always seeing the lightness of life and putting a smile on people’s faces with his warmth, said Rabbi Moshe Rothblum of Adat Ari El in North Hollywood.

“There’s an expression that a person is the same on the inside as on the outside,” Rothblum said. “I think that for Steven Tucker that was true. He came across as a mensch, and he was a mensch.”

Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills called Tucker “a healer of people.”

Born in San Bernardino and raised in Costa Mesa, Tucker had a lifelong love affair with Judaism that blossomed during his undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley. After his graduation in 1980, he decided to become the first rabbi in his family.

Following his 1987 ordination at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Tucker accepted a posting at an East Windsor, N.J. synagogue. He came to Temple Ramat Zion in August 1992, replacing Rabbi Solomon Rothstein.

“There is a great need here for some quality Jewish education,” Tucker said of the synagogue in an interview prior to his installation.

On Friday, the synagogue community went ahead with a previously scheduled bar mitzvah, largely because it honored the rabbi’s commitment to Jewish education.

“I think that it shows the synagogue that we … continue with what our tradition is,” Dorman said.

Several hundred mourners attended funeral services for Tucker on Nov. 15 at Mount Sinai Memorial Park in Simi Valley.

Father’s Day Fix


Several years ago, my wife, Linda, and I attended a conference of psychotherapists and sat next to a recently divorced female therapist who said to us, “Next time I’m going to marry a Jewish man.”

My wife asked, “Oh, are you Jewish?”

The female therapist replied, “No, but I’ve always heard that Jewish men make the best husbands and the most involved dads for their children.”

This wasn’t the first time we’d heard someone insist that Jewish men were the “chosen” husbands. But my wife and I weren’t sure if she was correct. Should we have told her about certain Jewish men (including some in our extended family) who are quite frustrating for their wives and frequently unavailable for their kids? Or should we have let her go on believing the stereotype?

As a Jewish psychologist counseling couples for more than 23 years, I wanted to find out the truth about “The Myth of the Menschey Jewish Husband.” So, for the past few years, I have been collecting data. I’ve surveyed several hundred couples in my counseling office and several thousand more at workshops nationwide. I’ve interviewed individuals and couples at men’s club programs, sisterhood events, federation gatherings and temples nationwide where I’ve been a guest speaker or instructor. I’ve also talked to friends and colleagues. Based on this sizeable but unscientific sampling of over 2,700 Jewish men from 22 Red states and Blue states, here’s what I found:

Good News: Almost 34 percent of Jewish husbands and fathers seem to qualify as a definite mensch.

Slightly more than one-third of the Jewish men I was able to assess in these surveys fit the criteria for a great husband and father. These individuals are able to work hard at their jobs and still find time and energy to be involved in household chores, child-care, shared spousal teamwork and family activities. On Father’s Day 2005, these multitasking and compassionate men deserve something a lot nicer than another department-store tie. They deserve our heartfelt thanks because their kids are growing up with great role models and their wives know the joy of having a true teammate in life.

Sad News: Almost 29 percent of Jewish husbands and fathers are emotionally unavailable to their loved ones.

Despite the stereotype that says Jewish men are great catches, in fact, there are a sizeable number (some with high incomes) who don’t seem able or willing to be good listeners or helpful partners at home. They don’t tend to pitch in much with child-care or family activities. His wife and kids typically complain that, “When he’s finally at home, he’s either cranky and short-tempered or he’s obsessed with golf or video games or watching his favorite shows on television while tuning out the rest of us.” Or he’s described as, “A bit self-absorbed and even though he does some good volunteer events for the community, he’s always got an excuse as to why he won’t do his fair share regarding the kids or the chores.” It’s almost as if the kids are being raised by a single mom.

Mixed News: Approximately 37 percent of Jewish husbands and fathers fluctuate between sometimes being a caring family member and at other times being too stressed or unavailable because of other priorities.

This group fascinates me most as a psychologist. More than one-third of Jewish marriages have occasional tension because a husband/dad, who deeply desires a peaceful and involved family life, gets pulled away by stressful work demands, sporting events, volunteer commitments or hobbies that eat up most of his free time. Most, it seemed, didn’t grow up with good modeling from their own dads or from other adult males in their lives. These dads are appreciated sometimes by their wife and kids and resented at other times for failing to follow through on family commitments.

There are remedies, and the problem is obviously worth addressing if you are a Jewish husband and dad (or if you know one) who needs either a minor tune-up or a major overhaul. The first place to start is early in the week when you carve out sacred family time. You should make sure nothing will disturb a beautiful family Shabbat dinner, and you should plan some enjoyable, connecting family activities on the weekend. You also should set aside time for one-on-one conversations during the week. And you should volunteer to share the load of weekly tasks with your spouse rather than waiting for her to plead or get fed up.

To do this, it helps to carry in your wallet a “Kavanah Note Card” stating your good intentions. You can pull it out and reread it just before entering your home each night. The note card that you write in your own words should say something like: “The precious souls I am about to listen to during the next few minutes and hours are more important than any customer, boss, or colleague I’ve spoken to all day. They deserve my most compassionate and helpful self, not my crankiness or my criticism. Don’t take this for granted, because the emotional and financial costs of doing a mediocre job with my family life will be enormous.”

Collectively, we Jewish men still have some inner work to do. Father’s Day 2005, possibly, will inspire each of us to make improvements and learn what they don’t teach in high school, college or even graduate school — how to be the involved, deeply caring husband and dad that your kids and truly deserve.

Leonard Felder, a licensed psychologist, has written 10 books. His newest is “Wake Up or Break Up: The 8 Crucial Steps to Strengthening Your Relationship” (Rodale, 2005).

Appreciating Saul Bellow’s Jewishness


 

It disturbed me to hear on U.S. public radio and read in The New York Times that Saul Bellow was to be seen as simply an American writer — which, of course, he is — and not significantly a Jewish writer.

Maybe they think they’re doing him a favor? I think they’re bleaching out a lot of the substance of Bellow, who died Tuesday at 89.

The Times quoted him as saying he had no wish to be part — along with Roth and Malamud — of the “Hart, Schaffner & Marx” of American letters. Well, who would? No good writer wants to be pigeonholed or limited in scope. But he is deeply a Jewish writer — not just a Jew by birth.

Jewish culture, Jewish sensibility, a Jewish sense of holiness in the everyday, permeate his work.

As a child, Bellow attended Jewish schools and grew up in a Jewish family, where he learned Hebrew thoroughly and spoke Yiddish as a primary language. It’s a Yiddish that never went away.

Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” is read today in Bellow’s great translation. Yiddish phrases and syntax are found in many of the novels. In “Herzog,” the protagonist is snobbish about the Yiddish of his wife’s lover.

But more important is a Yiddishkayt sensibility: never a schmaltzy echo of Sholem Aleichem, but a reliance on the Eastern European Jewish heart against which to measure life. I’m thinking, for example, of Schlossberg in “The Victim,” the old Yiddish journalist who makes the beautiful speech that defines the moral vision of the book. It’s a great speech and central to Bellow’s vision.

Attacking those whose suspicions of human life turn it into something cheap and empty, Schlossberg says, “I am as sure about greatness and beauty as you are about black and white. If a human life is a great thing to me, it is a great thing. Do you know better? I’m entitled as much as you…. Have dignity, you understand me? Choose dignity. Nobody knows enough to turn it down.”

Bellow has said of the “Jewish feeling” within him that it resists the claims of 20th-century romanticism, the belief that man is finished and that the world will be destroyed.

The world in Bellow’s fiction is, on the contrary, sanctified. The sanctification is often ironic, often in struggle against the neurotic patterns of characters and the foolish, vulgar, meretricious quality of contemporary life. Herzog, for instance, resists “the argument that scientific thought has put into disorder all considerations based on value…. The peculiar idea entered my [Jewish] mind that we’d see about this!”

Of course, Moses Herzog, like so many of Bellow’s Jewish characters, feels ashamed that he can’t live up to his ideal, his Jewish ideal of a mensch. But it is a Jewish ideal — for Herzog and for Bellow.

In novel after novel by Bellow there are Jewish characters in a significantly Jewish milieu. “The Victim” concerns a character facing anti-Semitism and his own neurotic defenses as a Jew. “Seize the Day” deals with a son who wants love from his cold, un-Jewish father; the novel ends at a Jewish funeral with the protagonist weeping for the dead stranger and for himself. “Herzog” is centered on the complicated world of a Jewish childhood.

Even the late short fictions, especially “A Silver Dish” and “Something to Remember Me By,” are deeply Jewish. “A Silver Dish,” for example, sets a Jewish worldview against a Christian one.

Bellow has given us a rich Jewish American world. But he has also given me as a writer a complex style, a way of handling contemporary reality, which he derived from both Jewish and American fiction.

You find in Sholem Aleichem, in I.L. Peretz, in Isaac Bashevis Singer, a way of finding the beautiful, the holy, the meaningful in the midst of the comic, the ordinary, the tragic. Bellow is a poet who works with laughable, vulgar materials and works them in the service of a noble vision.

Irving Howe quotes these famous lines from the great Yiddish writer Mendele Mocher Seforim: “Israel is the Diogenes of the nations; while his head towers in the heavens and is occupied with deep meditation concerning God and His wonders, he himself lives in a barrel.”

But Bellow has added to this mixture the grace and rhythms of the art novel in English, such as those by Henry James and James Joyce, and the speech rhythms of American writers like Mark Twain. He has given us a new kind of sentence, composed of street talk and philosophy, mixing language of the heart and language of moneymen, machers, American sports and con men.

This new sentence has been taken up by all American writers, Jewish and non-Jewish. If Israel is a blessing to the nations, Saul Bellow has been a Jewish blessing to all writers.

John J. Clayton, a retired professor of modern literature and fiction writing at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is an award-winning and widely published author of novels, short stories and literary criticism. His work “Saul Bellow: In Defense of Man” won awards in literary criticism. His collection “Radiance” was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in 1998.