Letters to the editor: Mensches, Prager, optimism and Islamaphobia

Out with Outrage 

Just wanted to say thanks for the “defense” and boost of optimism in Rob Eshman’s recent column (“In Defense of Optimism,” Jan. 1), and for all the work he does through the Jewish Journal — for readers, for the Jewish community, and this year, for my family, by posting my piece for Father’s Day. I appreciate your work! Happy New Year. 

Lauri Mattenson, UCLA

Could We Do Better?

I am a 70-year-old woman and a member of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. Years ago, I listened to Dennis Prager at PJTC when he was just beginning to sell his books.  I have read some of his books and listened to him at various locations over the years, as well as on the radio. Now I am feeling that he should not be a contributor to Jewish Journal. I do not object to his article about transgender people because it is controversial, or because I do not agree with it, but because in his article he embarrassed and disrespected Rabbi Becky Silverstein. There is no question that embarrassing someone in public is a grievous sin, and though Prager was given the opportunity to answer all the letters generated by his original article, this matter was not dealt with by Prager. Not only did he disrespect and embarrass our rabbi, but also any transgender individual and our synagogue, too, by extension. He should not be given a place from which to do this, and it is your responsibility to the Jewish community to take care of this. There are many younger Orthodox men who could do better than Dennis Prager.

Carol Grant via email

I love reading Dennis Prager’s wise and common-sense column. I have for years. His views, unfortunately, are lacking in today’s politically correct environment. I will continue reading him for years to come.

Laurence Gelman via email

New Year, New Lessons

Danielle Berrin’s discussion of the searing new Hungarian film “Son of Saul” in the first issue of the Jewish Journal for 2016 is an important column to read, even for those who cannot bear to watch such a film (“Seeking a Rabbi at Auschwitz”). Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, it is never too late to learn new lessons from the Holocaust.

Berrin mentioned the documentary “Shoah” in her column, possibly the most vital film and documentary ever put together, by Claude Lanzmann. (I would be remiss if I did not also mention “The Sorrow and the Pity” by Marcel Ophuls (1969) and “Kapo” by Gillo Pontecorvo (1960).)

My family and I were privileged to hear Walter Bodlander, a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor, speak for an hour at the Museum of Tolerance on Dec. 30 to a packed auditorium. The hushed, respectful silence of the diverse crowd gives great optimism for lessons still being learned into the future. Walter’s life, from growing up as a German Jew in Breslau to serving in the U.S. Army coming ashore at Normandy and seeing Dachau liberated, covers so many of the pages of history that we never want to forget. And, lo and behold, he was profiled in the Journal on May 21, 2015!

Ben Nethercot, Topanga

When Rationalizing Isn’t Reasonable

Whatever is driving the rage, groups like ISIS and Boko Haram stick to radical Islam because it gives them moral grounds to do inexplicable, violent acts (“You Are an Islamaphobe,” Jan. 1). They are not inventing these acts out of thin air, these acts are sanctioned by the Quran and Hadis. Of course, many Muslims distance themselves from these groups, but do not condemn them strong enough. The resulting picture in the media is that Islam is a violent movement. Until such time, when enough Muslims around the world develop the guts and speak up against this interpretation and seek reform, the violent picture remains — and rightly so. Living in the past and trying to rationalize this behavior, as the author is doing, is not going to help.

Solie Nosrat via jewishjournal.com

Mensches, Here and Abroad

I recently returned to Los Angeles from Israel and read the article about Michael Ullman (“The Mensch List,” Jan. 1). There are several similarities between Ullman and Joseph Gitler, founder and chairman of Leket Israel, as they are both attorneys and help provide food for those in need. (According to both our tour educator and Nechama Namal, Leket’s field administrator, 25-30 percent of Israel’s population lives at or below the poverty level). 

Last week, when I was in Israel, I volunteered (picked clementines) for Leket and had a great experience. It was rewarding to know I was giving back to Israelis in need. (There is no cost to volunteer.) 

Leket Israel can use more volunteers and I am hoping you can spread the word. 

Marilyn Stern, Los Angeles

The Mensch List 2015

For our 11th annual mensch list, we once again invited your nominations of extraordinary volunteers in our community, and again the outpouring of suggestions of amazing people was overwhelming. What we offer here is just a sampling of the extraordinary people who give so much to make our world a better place. If your nominees were not included this time, please remember, we’d welcome those names, and more, next year. We are inspired by all of these stories and highlight this list of mensches each year to motivate us all to live up to their example.

MICHAEL ULLMAN: Food as nourishment for the soul

LEXIE DREYFUSS: A dog's best friend

DR. ROBERT “MATT' BERNSTEIN: A gift of learning

TODD BIRD: Opening doors to addiction recovery

RACHEL SUMEKH: Redefining typical Persian girl

STEVEN SUNSHINE: A hero for those who go hungry

SARAH SHAPIRO: The entrepreneurial giver

ALBERT “ALBIE” COHEN: A giving spirit

JUDY MARK: On the disabled community’s front lines

JANET DIEL: Giving voice to kindertransport’s legacy

The Mensch List 2013

Last month, for our eighth-annual mensch list, we again invited all of you to submit your nominations of extraordinary volunteers, and again the outpouring of suggestions of amazing people was overwhelming. We faced this enormous response only to wonder, once again, how to choose from, among others, a Holocaust survivor who makes an annual trek with teens to the Birkenau concentration camp to ensure they know the story; an Iranian-born woman who created an emergency fund for those in need in her community; an Israeli who matches up his fellow countrymen to business contacts and a high schooler who resells designer bags to help African refugees. (And those are just three who made the cut.)

This list could have been much longer — what we offer here is just a sampling of the extraordinary people who give so much to make the world a better place. If your nominees were not included this time, please remember, we’d love to see those names, and more, again next year. We are inspired by all of these stories and highlight this list of mensches each year to motivate us all to live up to their example.

The Mensch List

Eldad Hagar, Dogged devotion

Sidonia Lax, A survivor marches with the living

Jaleh Naim, A passion for helping struggling Iranian-Americans

Jacob Segal, The matchmaker

Stephen M. Levine, A magical ability to conjure up fun

Maya Steinberg, She has tzedakah in the bag

Leslye Adelman, Feeding body and soul

Armin Szatmary, Person of the Book

Leon Shkrab, Bearing witness to Russians’ Holocaust stories

Wendy Colman Levin, The way home

Beauty Bus delivers much-needed pampering

When Melissa Marantz Nealy died in 2005, her close-knit family was devastated. At 28, Nealy had been diagnosed only a year earlier with a neurodegenerative muscular disorder.

In response, Wendy Levine, Nealy’s sister, along with their cousin, Alicia Liotta, devoted themselves to honoring Melissa, who Levine describes as a “fiery redhead” who was “committed to fighting her disease.”

They knew that during Nealy’s illness, she had been comforted and uplifted by pampering treatments, like manicures and hairstyling, at home.

“Getting beauty treatments improved her quality of life,” Liotta said.

To provide that same experience to others in Nealy’s situation, Liotta and Levine launched the Beauty Bus Foundation in January 2009. The organization is dedicated to arranging in-home beauty treatments free of charge for people suffering from one of seven designated diseases, including cancer, multiple sclerosis and Lou Gehrig’s disease. The foundation also provides treatments for caregivers.

Running the company turned out to be no small task, and both Liotta and Levine eventually found themselves leaving their careers – Liotta as a communications specialist, and Levine as an attorney – to work full time on building and managing the organization. Neither took a salary until recently.

“We’re lucky to have husbands who are amazing, and extremely supportive,” Levine said.

Story continues after the video.

For clients, the time spent with both a beauty expert and a volunteer from the organization — called a “beauty buddy” — offers a welcome respite from persistent thoughts of their illness, and a chance to be taken care of by someone other than a health care professional.

“People in my situation think there’s no hope,” said Patricia Webb, 69, a longtime client who is homebound with leukemia. “To know that someone cares enough to do a pedicure on you when you don’t have the strength to do it yourself is heartwarming.” 

In addition to visiting clients at their homes, the organization travels to communities such as the Ronald McDonald House and Leeza’s Place, where people with serious illnesses live on site.

By teaming up with heavy hitters in the beauty industry like Robbie Schaeffer, owner of the OPI Concept Salon in Studio City, and Ann Mincey, a veteran of the beauty industry, both of whom sit on the foundation’s board, the organization has grown exponentially since its launch.

During their inaugural year, Liotta and Levine estimate that they made two or three visits to clients each month. This year, they’ve done close to 300.

“We never imagined that it would grow and get this big,” Levine said.

To accommodate their growth, the foundation recently moved into a modest office on Olympic Boulevard and hired its first employee. As they gain momentum, Levine and Liotta hope to continue to expand their services.

“We have a lot of ways we can expand,” Levine said. “We can expand nationally or cover more diseases.”

But between their unprecedented growth this year, and the contact they receive from people as far away as Costa Rica who are interested in what they’re doing, there’s one thing they know for sure, Levine says: “We know there’s a need.” 

For more info, visit beautybus.org

Filmmaker puts JCorps in spotlight

In 2008, Adam Irving, a filmmaker and photographer, left his doctoral program in media studies at the University of Texas to make the transition from theory to practice. He landed in Hollywood with the dream of making films, but soon after his arrival found himself feeling unfulfilled by the vanity within the entertainment industry.

“Most of the work I do is serious, introspective documentary films about important issues — so overall, it’s very fulfilling — but there are aspects of my work, like working in reality television and doing model shoots, where I’m just making beautiful people look good,” Irving said.

Earlier this year, in part to connect with people who possess a passion for giving rather than a passion for being famous, he spearheaded the Los Angeles branch of JCorps, an international, nondenominational social volunteer force for young adults ages 18 to 28.

“I thought, what could be better than giving back and volunteering, which is one of the most selfless, fulfilling acts you can do,” Irving said. “It’s the polar opposite of chasing celebrities around Hollywood Boulevard.”

JCorps’ headquarters in New York provided some seed money, but Irving raised additional funds from family and relatives in his hometown of Toronto so he could expand operations even more.

Together with the chapter’s co-director, Rebecca Pasternak, he organized their first meet-up last September at the Midnight Mission shelter in Skid Row, where 20 volunteers fed 100 meals to the homeless. Since then, they’ve cleaned up beaches and sent packages to American troops. Earlier this month, they gave away clothing to more than 3,000 people at the National Council for Jewish Women Thrift Shop on North Fairfax Avenue, followed by kibitzing at Schwartz Bakery down the street. Each of the events is usually topped off with time to socialize over a meal at a local hangout.

Story continues after the video.

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Mom, the full-time mensch

“Is everybody happy today?” Shana Passman cheerfully asked a table of Holocaust survivors eating lunch at Hollywood Temple Beth El at the annual Chanukah party of Café Europa, a social club for Holocaust Survivors run by the Jewish Family Service (JFS).

The survivors’ faces lit up, but one said she needed a napkin — and Passman quickly ran to get one. As Passman and the survivors shmoozed and later danced to the accordion band, it became hard to tell who was helping whom.

“These people inspire me,” said Passman, 60. “They’re not survivors for nothing.”

Passman said she feels fortunate to be able to make giving to others a vocation. For the past 14 years, she has volunteered her time assisting seniors in various capacities, including delivering weekly meals through Meals on Wheels and offering counseling as a case aide at the JFS/ Freda Mohr Multipurpose Center.

She sits on executive and advisory boards of a variety of organizations and educational institutions, including JFS, the food bank SOVA, United in Harmony, Pitzer College, and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Jewish Nonprofit Management.

Story continues after the video.

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From grief, a dream realized

Gabriella Axelrad, a luminous 13-year-old with a striking smile, had been on the final stretch of a family bike ride in Grand Teton National Park when a white van appeared out of nowhere and knocked the last breath out of her lithe dancer’s body.

There were no goodbyes. No time for one last “I love you.” For her mother, Liza Bercovici, there was only unimaginable grief, followed by a long empty life stretching out ahead of her.

That was 11 1/2 years ago, and Bercovici has come a long way since then.

Less than a year after her daughter’s death in July 1999, Bercovici gave up her family law practice in Studio City and established the Gabriella Axelrad Education Foundation. “I had to give myself a reason to go on living,” she said. “And believe me, there was a period there when I really didn’t want to.”

Determined to remain connected to the child she lost, Bercovici sought to establish a legacy for Gabriella. “I didn’t have my daughter any longer, but what I had was her memory; I remember how much Gabri loved to dance.”

Story continues after the video.

In August 2000, Bercovici opened the doors to Everybody Dance, an arts program offering free and low-cost dance classes in low-income neighborhoods for students ages 4 to 19. Serving mostly Latino, Asian American and African American communities, the program began with 35 students, 12 weekly classes and an annual budget of $55,000. Today it serves more than 2,000 students at three locations in the Rampart District and includes the Gabriella Charter School, a kindergarten-through-fifth grade school in Echo Park that opened in 2005 and integrates dance into the academic curriculum. The foundation has plans to expand into a middle school within the next year, and its entire annual budget has now reached $3.8 million.

Dance, Bercovici believes, has been lifesaving for many in the program. She said that 90 percent of the students come from families whose income level is below the poverty line. The dance classes have decreased extracurricular idleness, but even more than that, they have helped students develop their personalities.

“It’s really obvious dance has done wonderful things for them, given them poise and self-confidence, a strong sense of self-discipline, a need to set challenges for themselves and to meet those challenges,” Bercovici said.

“Once in a while, I wonder what would have happened if this dance program and this charter school had not come along. I would like to think that these kids would have made their way anyway, but I think having something that draws children in and engages them makes their lives better and gives them a pathway to future success.”

Bercovici has a husband, attorney David Axelrad, and two sons, ages 19 and 29, and she is well aware of the abundant opportunities for self-development in affluent communities. “That isn’t true in most the communities that we serve, where children go to schools that are generally mediocre, where they don’t feel challenged, and that translates into a lack of academic ambition and a general feeling of apathy.”

Bercovici’s work has impacted thousands of young lives, and it has also saved her own. “You never give up grieving for your child,” she said. But, she added, life becomes more bearable with time and a purpose.

She plans to open another charter school and realizes that, in a way, her life has become the embodiment of her daughter’s dreams: “It is kind of funny and amazing that even though she didn’t get to live out her love of dance or become the classroom teacher that she wanted to be, we’ve managed to have a dance program for children and create a school that I think she would have wanted to serve.”

For more info, visit Gabriella Axelrad Education Foundation/Everybody Dance!.

Teen’s focus on Congo begins at home

David Taylor doesn’t see the point in getting emotional about the evils across the globe.

“What do I accomplish by being sad about it?” he asks.

Rather, he looks at human rights atrocities and thinks about them methodically — where and how can he make the most impact?

And he doesn’t let the fact that he’s 13 years old deter him.

Over the past year, he has convinced the executive board of Kehillat Israel, a 1,000-plus family congregation, to commit to purchasing electronics produced with conflict-free minerals and has mobilized the entire student body of New Roads Middle School in Malibu, where he is an eighth-grader,  to work for a peaceful Democratic Republic of Congo.

Taylor, who lives in Pacific Palisades, first learned about conflict minerals in Congo through a Jewish World Watch presentation while he was researching a bar mitzvah project. Residents in villages at the entrances to the mines are subject to rape and violence by marauding gangs trying to gain control of the tantalum, tungsten and tin trade — minerals used in computers, cell phones and digital cameras.

Story continues after the video.

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Foster kids’ angel of light

As a child, Lauri Burns thought God was punishing her for something horrible she had done in a past life. How else could she explain the years of beatings by her father that began when she was just 5 years old, or the mental abuse that left her suicidal by her bat mitzvah and led her to drug addiction and prostitution on the streets of Santa Ana? 

Today, Burns, 47, is sure that her suffering was meant to prepare her for her life’s mission to rescue children of a foster care system that is failing them.

Each year, nearly 25,000 of the more than half a million children in foster care age out of the system at 18, many with nowhere to go. Only 3 percent go to college, and former foster youth make up 27 percent of the homeless population.

In 2008, Burns started The Teen Project to pick up where the system leaves off. The project gives dozens of current and emancipated foster kids in Orange County the emotional, financial and career guidance they need to become independent. A volunteer-based organization funded by private grants and contributions, The Teen Project has one full-time and one part-time employee and an operating budget of nearly $175,000. 

Story continues after the video.

“We’re a parent to the parentless,” Burns said. “We will never abandon these kids. We’ll stay with them until they finish school and help them get to successful careers. That’s what parents do.”

She strives to provide these teens with the secure family setting she was denied.

The child of a middle-class Jewish family in New York, Burns was removed from her abusive home and sent to a mental hospital after her 12th birthday, when her father falsely told police that she had threatened him with his gun. Straitjacketed to a bed and heavily medicated, she was eventually released to her mother, who had left for California to find safe haven for Burns and her two sisters. But by then she was already “damaged,” she said. A growing criminal record of drug use, theft and constant running away resulted in her being deemed a ward of the state in her midteens and sent to live in group homes. At 18, emancipated, with a young daughter, a drug habit and no home to return to, she took to working the streets to survive.

At 23, Burns was brutally beaten by two men and left for dead. Within 24 hours, she found herself in a recovery home, where she began years of intensive therapy that ultimately gave her a new start in life. She studied computers, eventually launching her own consulting firm, and ran sessions for single moms struggling with drug addiction. She took the first of her 18 foster children into her home in 1996. (Her daughter, Summer, 28, graduated from Columbia University in 2008 and is now a social worker in New York.)

Central to The Teen Project is a pristine home on a quiet cul de sac in Lake Forest that houses up to six women ages 18 to 24, both her own foster children and others referred by social services. Four girls currently live in the six-bedroom, 2,100-square-foot house, which a local contractor renovated free of charge. 

Despite a hectic schedule that has her commuting from her Orange County home to Los Angeles, where she is an executive with a Fortune 100 defense company, Burns creates a sense of stability in the girls’ lives through her constant presence. She talks to and texts them every day, visits several times a week and cooks breakfast with them every Sunday.  They often visit her as well. She helps them secure scholarships and grants for college or trade school.

For kids not eligible for the house, The Teen Project provides alternative support. An all-volunteer street outreach program brings food, bus passes and information on area shelters to nearly 170 kids and young adults, ages 15 to 24, living in Orange County parks and on beaches. Burns’ next goal is to open a drop-in shelter that will channel homeless kids up to age 24 into foster care or youth or transitional housing.

Burns steers clear of government funding that comes tied to age limits and other restrictions.  More than 30 volunteers give medical, financial planning and therapeutic services, and all food at the Lake Forest home is provided at no cost by the Adopt-a-Neighborhood program.

Burns was initially uncomfortable asking for help, but she has been inspired by her studies at the Chabad Jewish Center in Mission Viejo. 

“The rabbi taught me that by not asking for donations, you rob a person of the opportunity of doing a mitzvah,” she said. “As Jews, we have a responsibility to bring God’s light to the darkest places in this world. Each time we do a mitzvah and help someone else, angels of light are created on earth.”

Signed copies of Burns’ 2010 memoir, “Punished for Purpose,” can be purchased at punishedforpurpose.com. Proceeds go to The Teen Project.

Israeli scouting just got hipper

By nature, Eli Fitlovitz prefers to stay in the background. The kibbutz-raised Israeli, who came to Los Angeles in 1982, has wise eyes, an endearing smile and a quiet confidence. A commercial real estate broker, he and his wife are now raising three teenagers. What finally forced Fitlovitz out of his life-long safety zone were his kids, and not in the way most teens make their parents uncomfortable.

Fitlovitz signed up his American-born public school kids for an Israeli youth group, hoping it would connect them to their heritage. The kids grumbled. But instead of letting them off the hook, Fitlovitz decided to revamp the group. And that’s how he found himself in a place he had never been before – the foreground. Center stage and holding the mike. A community leader.

The Israeli Scouts, or Tzofim, have been operating a chapter in the San Fernando Valley for 30 years. Based in Israel, with chapters all over the world, Tzofim is a nonsectarian, non-political youth movement akin to the Boy Scouts, with an Israeli twist. When Fitlovitz signed his children up, the Shevet Chen chapter had dwindling numbers and shaky morale. And worst of all, according to the teens, it was not cool.

Fitlovitz set about changing that.

Story continues after the video.

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The art of living with brain cancer

When Judi Kaufman was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1997, she was told she had five years left to live.

But Kaufman — an accomplished chef, writer and active member of the Jewish community — refused to sit back and accept her prognosis without a fight. 

“I asked [my doctor] who the survivors are,” she said. In response, her physician, Dr. Timothy Cloughesy, director of the Neuro-Oncology Program at UCLA, proposed taking up some form of art as a means of improving her quality of life.

Kaufman took his suggestion and ran with it. She began writing again, exploring through her work the depths of confusion and pain that her brain cancer had caused.

“You lose your sense of self,” she said of the disease that has robbed her of her sense of taste and made it difficult for her to comprehend time and numbers, to remember what day it is, or know how many weeks have gone by. But writing, Kaufman said, gives her something else.

Story continues after the video.

“It gives me my heart,” she said. “It lets me figure out where I want to go and what counts in life.”

After being hit with the profound realization that art could help her rebuild her life in ways she never dreamed possible, Kaufman wanted to help others in her situation make the same discovery. With the help of Cloughesy, she launched Art of the Brain in 1999, under the auspices of the UCLA Foundation. It is a nonprofit devoted to raising money to promote awareness of brain cancer, as well as introducing patients to the healing powers of art.

The organization is run entirely by volunteers and has no operating budget — “Everything is donated,” Kaufman said — and all money is given back to the UCLA Neuro-Oncology Program.

To that end, Kaufman helps to organize an annual gala, which, together with other small events throughout the year, has raised more than $5 million since its inaugural event in 2001.

The foundation is supported by a group of volunteers called “Brain Buddies” who serve as mentors to people with brain cancer and their families, helping them navigate the emotional, physical and psychological changes that the disease can bring about.

And of course, the organization also supports the arts. “When I found out I could write well, it turned everything around,” Kaufman said. “Art can give you something for nothing.”

Kaufman still has difficulty arranging her schedule and, she says, she has “no idea how long I’ll live,” but she works full time managing the foundation, for no salary. Art of the Brain reaches approximately 600 people annually, and over the years, it has reached thousands more.

Kaufman isn’t planning to scale back any time soon. “I live every day thinking of the Jewish value of tikkun olam,” she said. “I always question, ‘Am I doing enough for people?’ ”

Her long-term goal for the organization is nothing less than what one might expect from a woman who has outlived her diagnosis by eight years and counting: At the end of the day, Kaufman says, she wants “to cure brain cancer.”

For more info, visit artofthebrain.org.

Promoting unity, Judaism among local Iranian Jews

Southern California’s Iranian Jewish community has long been divided over a host of social and religious issues, often discouraging hopes among the elders for community continuity. Eman Esmailzadeh, a 27-year-old engineer and community activist, is one of a small number of young people who are now focused on reuniting this immigrant community, in part by encouraging teenagers to identify with their Judaism.

Esmailzadeh volunteers his energy for a whole host of causes, including encouraging fellow Iranian Jews to become more involved with the local Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters programs, or creating his widely popular “Jew-losophy” classes, which offer easy-to-understand lessons about Judaism to young professionals through the Beverly Hills-based Nessah Synagogue. He has also brought together different religious factions in the community by developing programs for troubled teens through the Jewish Unity Network (JUN) organization in the Pico-Robertson area.

“I got involved because I saw serious problems in our community that could be solved through encouraging Jewish education and bringing young people back to their Jewish roots,” the always humble Esmailzadeh said.

What has impressed many in the community is Esmailzadeh’s ability to squeeze in time for community volunteering while still maintaining his own lighting business and helping his wife raise their newborn baby.

Story continues after the video.

“Young people really look up to Eman because he’s educated, has settled down with a family, is successful in his business and really cares about the well-being of the community with his different activities,” said Dara Abaei, director of JUN.  A semi-professional Webmaster, Esmailzadeh has also taken his message of encouraging Judaism online by developing jthoughts.com, a Web site that provides dating tips for Iranian Jewish singles even as it offers insights on applying Jewish values to modern life.

In addition, Esmailzadeh is a co-founder of the Our Legacy Project, started last December through the Los Angeles-based advocacy group 30 Years After (30YA),  videotaping hundreds of interviews with local Iranian Jews telling stories of their lives and struggles in Iran. With Esmailzadeh’s help, some of these video interviews have been placed online at ourlegacyproject.org

Through these efforts, Esmailzadeh’s leadership has helped inspire a new generation of Iranian American Jews here to become engaged in helping their community. “Deep down, I think more than anything else he just wants to help others experience a fraction of the joy and fulfillment he finds in his Jewish activities,” 30 Years After president Sam Yebri said.

Those interested in volunteering with Esmailzadeh are encouraged to contact him via e-mail at {encode=”eman@jthoughts.com” title=”eman@jthoughts.com”}.

The Mensch List 2010

This fall, we again put out our call for nominations for our annual list of mensches, and you responded with your usual outpouring of suggestions of amazing people. We face this enormous response only to wonder, once more, how do you choose between a 13-year-old who rallied his entire school to help victims in the Congo and a Holocaust survivor who spends 800 hours a year volunteering at the Simon Wiesenthal Center? (And those are just two who made the cut.)

The answer is, we do our best to offer stories of just some of the extraordinary people who give so much to our community. Many, many more could have been included, but we always tell ourselves there will be next year. We are inspired by all these stories, and we hope that even this small sampling will serve to motivate us all to continue to do all we can to improve the world just a little bit more.

Click on a photo to your left (or on the links below) to read about our mensches.

Photographs by Dan Kacvinski

The Mensch List

“>Promoting unity, Judaism among local Iranian Jews

“>Israeli scouting just got hipper

“>Teen’s focus on Congo begins at home

“>Don’t call him super-rav

“>Filmmaker puts JCorps in spotlight

Gaza, Madoff, Menschen and Muslims

Situation in Gaza

We call for an immediate cessation of hostilities in Gaza and Israel (“Gaza Outcomes,” Jan. 2). Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israel, chiefly aimed at civilians, are a gross violation of international law.

We recognize that the State of Israel has the right to defend itself. But the manner in which it has chosen to do so has been ill advised and morally questionable, causing considerable loss of life and grave damage (including educational and religious institutions) in Gaza. Hundreds of men, women and children in Gaza have been killed, thousands have been injured and infrastructural damage from air and ground assaults threatens the health and well-being of many more.

In light of this:

1 — We call on the State of Israel to cease its ground offensive and air attacks in Gaza, which have led to the loss of lives of innocent civilians without offering any prospect of political resolution to either Israelis or Palestinians.

2 — We call on Hamas to cease its rocket attacks on Israeli cities, which have no aim other than to inflict damage on innocent civilians and thus defy all norms of decency.

3 — We call on the leaders of the State of Israel and Hamas alike to pursue peace and to recognize that violence — provoked or not — will only beget more violence in the long run. The answer is not to be found in the militaristic reflexes that have been exercised to this point — reflexes grounded in a politics of honor, vengeance and reprisal. It is time to pursue other avenues to reconciliation. It is our hope that after the immediate cessation of hostilities, serious resources and political access be placed in the hands of those with the will and ability to affect real diplomatic progress in resolving the conflict.

4 — We call on all sides in the conflict to abide by international law and to protect the human rights of all persons involved — civilian and military.

5 — Finally, we call on the United States, and especially President-elect Barack Obama, to assume a leading role in pushing the warring parties beyond the cycle of violence and bloodletting. All concerned Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish, should urge the current and new administrations to discard the past eight years of neglect and mobilize American policy toward a diplomatic resolution of the Gaza — and larger Israeli-Palestinian — conflicts. The time for action is now.

In the Jewish tradition, all human beings are created in the image of God. We do not discriminate between Jews and Arabs when violence is directed against innocents; we mourn the loss of life on both sides.

Please join us in calling for an end to the violence and a more active American engagement in the current crisis.

Rabbi Leonard Beerman
Sarah Benor
Ra’anan Boustan
Gerald Bubis
Aryeh Cohen
Bernard Friedman
Sharon Gillerman
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater
Rabbi Steven Jacobs
Baruch Link
Douglas Mirell
David N. Myers
Stephen Rohde
Adam Rubin
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller
Arthur P. Stern
Nomi Stolzenberg
Roger Waldinger


The Journal reported on an early screening of the movie “Defiance” for an audience of Anti-Defamation League delegates (“Zwick’s ‘Defiance’ Brings Heroes of Jewish Anti-Nazi Resistance to Screen,” Nov. 21).

After the screening, national ADL Director Abraham Foxman said he was unsure how “Defiance” would be received by Jewish viewers. He said, “I am not certain whether we are ready to embrace fighting Jews.”

I was appalled at that comment. Tuvia Bielski, the leader of the Bielski Brigade, played by Daniel Craig in the movie, was my former father-in-law.

I was married to Bielski’s daughter for over 17 years and have two children from that marriage. During that time, I learned that this seemingly unassuming man was actually a great hero, as many of the surviving partisans would visit his family in their small Brooklyn apartment. They would tell stories of their harsh life in the woods.

I came to realize that none of those partisans would be alive, and I would not have two wonderful children today, Bielski’s grandchildren, if it wasn’t for those “fighting Jews.”

The Bielski family had been trying for years to publicize the exploits of the Bielski Brigade to show the world that not all Jews went to their deaths without a fight. Finally, director Ed Zwick took a chance to make this film showing fighting Jews we can all be proud of.

Larry Rennert
Long Beach

Honorable Menschen

All of your mensches are very special people (“Mensches,” Jan. 2). But one of them brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes.

Andrew Wolfberg is a special, special person. Wolfberg taking the challenge of the 8-year-old boy with cerebral palsy is such a beautiful act of kindness, caring and tenderness that there are no words to describe the humanity Wolfberg gave to this special young boy.

In these days of the Bernie Madoffs, et al, Wolfberg is a very large breath of fresh air.

Harvey M. Piccus

The Madoff Effect

The Jewish Community has become despondent at a time when we need to take action (“Charitable Boards Face Criticism Post-Madoff,” Jan. 2). Yes, there has been a lot of bad news — tough economic times, the Madoff scandal and concern about Israel’s security. But every single day in our community, there are also thousands of quiet heroes performing their miracles, large and small.

Whether visiting an ailing Holocaust survivor at home, volunteering at SOVA and providing nourishing groceries to those who are hungry, counseling spouses and children who suffer from violence in the home or assisting seniors to find proper health care and other vital services, the philanthropic fabric of our community changes lives for the better every day.

We save lives. Don’t lose hope, and don’t give up on our mission of tikkun olam (repairing the world). At the turn of this New Year, we will be the solution to the challenges our community faces.

It is time for all of us to renew our commitment to the community by becoming active again, giving of our time and donating money to worthy causes.

Jeff Nagler
Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles

Consulate Protests

I believe there are several times as many Jews as Muslims in Los Angeles (Jewishjournal.com video, Dec. 31). Why do they outnumber us badly in each demonstration? Are all the Jews too busy to stand up and be counted on the evening news? Sick!

Louis Richter

Web Editor’s Note: We have a constantly-updated list of rallies and other ways to support Israel online here

Public Schools

Jewish day school didn’t seem like a viable option for my family two years ago when we were considering elementary schools for our then pre-kindergartner (“Can Recession Fuel Return to Public Schools?” Dec. 26, and “Keeping Middle-Income Families in Jewish Schools,” Dec. 19 ).

Our family income is far less than the so-called “middle-class” earnings of $276,000 that Julie Gruenbaum Fax says is required in order to afford Jewish private school for two children. I’d hardly consider that a middle-class income, even in Los Angeles.

Truly middle-class families are not able to afford private school of any sort, and yes, we are compelled to find the best public schools we can and make the best of it.

I agree strongly with Bill Boyarsky that the Los Angeles Unified School District is an oft-maligned system that actually does offer some excellent schools with dedicated teachers and principals.

At our daughter’s public elementary in Venice, there are plenty of other Jewish kids, but few who attend Hebrew school, mostly because they don’t know where the good ones are.

Where are the good Hebrew schools and youth programs? Why can’t I find a Jewish day camp on the Westside? Will they feel alienated at summer camp if they never attended Jewish day school? What if you don’t live in the Valley, Brentwood or Pico-Robertson?

My challenge is how do I provide a Jewish education for kids in public school. I’m open to suggestions.

Rachel Panush
via e-mail

Howard Blume

The “Q&A With Howard Blume” (Dec. 19) presented two points of interest for our community at Temple Isaiah. First, savvy parents can secure a high-quality public education through magnets, charters or SAS programs; second, parents feel they can’t choose their neighborhood schools.

At Temple Isaiah, we believe that a good public education is every child’s right.

Over the last year, in partnership with One LA-IAF, Temple Isaiah has engaged in a process of congregation-based community organizing.

We’ve recently started to work with Emerson Middle School. Our hope is to build relationships among parents, teachers, local businesses and faith-based organizations — all committed to the success of the neighborhood school.

But our cause is broader than the Westside. We recognize that the capacity to change on the local level can lead to change citywide. If we can stabilize one school, we are helping to stabilize the Los Angeles Unified School District and moving toward ensuring a good public school for every child. If we strengthen one school, we can be teachers and models for other communities.

Rabbi Dara Frimmer
Temple Isaiah

Death of Dr. David Lieber

May it give his wife, children and grandchildren some measure of peace to know that their husband, father and grandfather has left an enduring legacy to so many people (“Dr. David Leo Lieber Z”L: To Know Him Was a Privilege,” Dec. 26).

I know I am not alone when I say Dr. Lieber will always be remembered with great love and fondness. I am only one of his former students who were so grateful to have known the teacher and the man. May his memory be for a blessing.


Bella Szkolnik Kapp
Los Angeles

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.

Geller is for real; Pico-Roberston’s no ‘hood; Honorable menschen

Power of Geller

David Ian Salter’s letter regarding Uri Geller infuriated me and compelled me to write my first-ever letter to an editor (Letters, Dec. 29). For Salter to make a blanket statement saying that “Geller has been conclusively debunked as a charlatan” and that “Geller is not psychic” is factually untrue and irresponsible. Slater’s source is mainly James Randi, a man who made a career and plenty of money out of attempting to debunk people.

I have been a close, personal friend of Geller for the past 13 years. We met in 1993, when my husband and I distributed a film based on his life.

When I first met Geller, I didn’t know much about him. I mainly remembered my father in the 1970s getting excited to see a young Israeli making headlines around the world.

Fascinated by his apparent capabilities and charm, I spent some time doing research on him. I read what scientists had to say about him, studied the experiments done on him at the Stanford Research Institute and, of course, read books debunking him to see how they said that he does his tricks.

Randi’s main assertion is that Geller swaps spoons by sleight of hand tricks. If that is so, how did he effortlessly bend my grandmother’s very heavy silver spoon by gently rubbing it in front of my eyes? The Hebrew writing engraved on it made it impossible for him to switch spoons.

And how does a spoon that he gently caresses continue to bend once placed on the table or in your hands, with Geller out of the room? How does he telepathically duplicate a drawing that you have drawn, and almost every time, his drawing is the exact same size to the millimeter as your drawing? Or, better yet — he has done reverse telepathy on me and members of my family, where he draws something first and then projects it into your mind, and you then draw the exact same picture.

He is a fascinating person, and I am among those who are willing to open my mind to the distinct possibility that he is for real. I also witnessed the big hand on the grandfather clock in my entry hall bend forward inside the glass, with Geller across the room, concentrating on bending it. It was nothing short of amazing.

Your description of Geller as “controversial” was the exact, correct description. While some people believe that he is a magician, others, such as myself and many of the people who know him well, believe that he, in fact, has powers that defy the laws of physics.

The fact that he is controversial has kept Geller in the press for over 40 years (incidentally, he is currently starring in the biggest reality television show that Israel has ever seen).

When an autistic savant can perform a piano concerto after only hearing it once, we accept that it is real and not a trick, since the savant does not have the mental capabilities to trick us. But their powers are unbelievably amazing.It is my opinion that some of us human beings actually possess unusual abilities, and people should open their minds to that possibility.

Shauna Shapiro Jackson

Eric Roth

Your recent article on Eric Roth states incorrectly that his family moved to Los Angeles when he was a senior in high school (“A Tale of a Young Man’s Venture Into the CIA,” Dec. 22). Actually, they arrived in the San Fernando Valley when Eric was still in elementary school.

He was active at both Valley Cities Jewish Community Center and Camp JCA, and perhaps this involvement played a role in the development of the Jewish values and sense of heritage that he alludes to as being influential in his life.

Mike Schlesinger
Kibbutz Maagan Michael

Honorable Menschen

[Rob Eshman] set the stage, arranged the props and introduced the real and potential cast. Then, while gracefully complimenting a gentleman who did the right thing, gently drove another arrow into the heart of racism (“Mensches,” Dec. 29).

I’ll happily take the top 10 mensches over any list of the richest, most influential or most powerful. Give yourself at least honorable mention!

David Michels

Angry Neighbor

A short time ago, David Suissa wrote that he recently moved to the Pico-Robertson area (“Chasids in the Hood (or Not),” Dec. 22). As a newcomer, what gives him the right to rename the area, “The Hood?” Is it supposed to be cute?

As a 45-year resident of this area, I protest! The word “hood” is associated with gangsters – and the dictionary confirms this. What’s wrong with the word “neighborhood?”

Bracha Malkin
Los Angeles

Ford and Wallenberg

The death of President Gerald Ford leaves a void at the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, because he was the first and only U.S. president to join the educational nonprofit organization as an honorary member.

Ford was unique among the dozens of heads of state and Nobel Prize laureates who support the Wallenberg Foundation. Like Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat that saved tens of thousand of lives during the Holocaust, Ford was born early in the 20th century. Both men graduated from the same institution, the University of Michigan, and possibly knew each other personally.

Ford has, however, something Wallenberg does not — closure, respect, the final chapter of his life has been written. Wallenberg is still missing, after being taken by the Soviets in 1945.

Wallenberg, an honorary U.S. citizen who saved more lives than anyone else in human history, deserves the respect, honor and closure that Ford received.

Let’s bring Raoul home.

Baruch Tenembaum
International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation
New York, N.Y.

THE JEWISH JOURNAL welcomes letters from all readers. Letters should be no more than 200 words and must include a valid name, address and phone number. Letters sent via e-mail must not contain attachments. Pseudonyms and initials will not be used, but names will be withheld on request. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Mail: The Jewish Journal, Letters, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010; e-mail: letters@jewishjournal.com; or fax: (213) 368-1684

Attention, menschen! CAIR; Michael Richards; Shoah survivors

In 2005, The Journal profiled 10 “Mensches of the Year ” and it became one of our most popular and widely appreciated cover stories. We plan to make this an annual feature … and we’d love your help.If you know someone whose great work on behalf of others goes unsung, who doesn’t get paid for what he or she does (or doesn’t get paid near enough), whose life is the embodiment of the values of tzedakah — please pass their name and contact info to us with a very brief sentence or two describing why they should be featured as one of our 10 mensches of 2006.

Send your nominations to: letters@jewishjournal.com. Names must be received Dec. 15 in order to be considered.


Your publication of the inflammatory rhetoric of CAIR-L.A.’s Executive Director Hussam Ayloush as if it were a reliable source of fact or reasonable opinion makes one question your editorial judgment (“Letters, Nov. 17).

It is very peculiar that Ayloush and his organization, who claim to promote “dialogue, mutual respect and trust and cooperation,” would resort to ad-hominem attacks against Steven Emerson, actually calling him “America’s most vicious Islamophobe.” Moreover, incitement and provocation are not constructive tactics. If CAIR is truly serious about promoting mutual understanding, Ayloush would not have written a letter that clearly defeats CAIR’s stated objectives. Furthermore, the letter serves as a form of psychological warfare, which attempts to erode the credibility, trust and reputation of Emerson with your readers and the general public.

Based on Ayloush’s unfair characterization of Emerson, it appears that he and CAIR have one primary objective, which is to discredit and silence anyone who dares to identify terrorists who happen to be connected to a radical Islamist network. This should be of great concern to the entire community, Christian, Muslim and Jewish alike.

Margo Itskowitch
Beverly Hills

The Survivors

“The Forgotten Survivors” (Nov. 24) raises some crucial issues for the Jewish community, which must decide if it will make a concerted effort to endow the last days of these victims of Nazism with a greater measure of dignity and peace.

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) established the Holocaust Survivor Services program of the Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Los Angeles more than a decade ago. Last year, the Claims Conference allocated approximately $1.5 million to JFS, from various sources of Holocaust restitution funding. This financial support is absolutely critical to the work of JFS in assisting and supporting needy Jewish victims of Nazism.However, the Claims Conference needs partners in this endeavor. It is important for the larger Jewish community to recognize the need and to respond.

Hillary Kessler-Godin
Director of Communications
Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany

Thank you for remembering “The Forgotten Survivors” in this week’s cover story. We at New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) agree that it is our responsibility to offer support and companionship to impoverished Holocaust survivors, both locally and worldwide.

We have recently joined in a collaborative effort with a local organization called The Survivor Mitzvah Project, which sends money and letters to survivors living in Eastern Europe. This project is both educational and philanthropic, offering a unique exchange between the American Jewish community, and Jewish individuals living in their original Eastern European hometowns. Their stories give us singular insight into the vast changes of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before, during and after World War II.

Students in Russian and Yiddish classes at NCJHS are volunteering their time to translate letters to and from the survivors in Eastern Europe, enabling international Jewish friendships to form. We are incredibly proud of these young people and encourage the community to get involved with the Survivor Mitzvah Project, as well as the local organizations listed in the original article, through zzmail@sbcglobal.net or (800) 905-6160.Hannah Pollin
Yiddish Teacher
Lisa Ansell
Head of World Languages
New Community Jewish High School

I estimate that in Los Angeles 47 percent of Holocaust survivors, or more than 4,000 survivors, are currently living in poverty. During the past eight years, the L.A. community has experienced a significant increase in the proportion of Holocaust survivors in poverty from the 32 percent in poverty found in my 1997 research, that was cited in the cover story by The Jewish Federation, to 45 percent of L.A. holocaust survivors in poverty, as compared to 35 percent of Holocaust survivors in poverty nationally in 2005.

An additional $1,000 a year allocated to each impoverished Holocaust survivor in our community would cost $4 million, and during the next 10 years progressively less, as the median age of Holocaust survivors is 81. [For a Federation] that raises $55 million dollars a year and boasts more than $600 million in its Jewish Community Foundation, this would be a good initial gesture of concern for this regrettable situation where the most traumatized and weakest among us grow poorer as they grow older.

Pini Herman
Phillips & Herman
Demographic Research

Thank you for your Nov. 24 cover story “The Forgotten Survivors,” which recognized the vital work of Jewish Family Service (JFS) and others in assisting the aging and impoverished Holocaust survivors in our community.

We are deeply grateful to The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany for its generous and crucial support of our JFS/Holocaust Survivor Services program. In our last fiscal year, the Claims Conference provided $1.5 million to help us meet the needs of survivors living in Los Angeles. We are also appreciative of the ongoing support by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and The Morgan Aging with Dignity Fund that helps us maintain and sustain our work with survivors of the Holocaust.

We encourage the entire community to continue to support us in this important mission.

Our first annual big list o’ mensches

To its detractors, Los Angeles seems very much like a modern-day Sodom or Gomorrah — besotting civilization with a trash culture of celebrity murder trials, reality TV and movies that trade on violence and superficiality. Even to Angelenos, the city can be trying and sometimes disheartening. Our metropolis seems almost biblically plagued with crawling traffic, battling gangs and stratospheric home prices; with a vast divide between rich and poor, between legal and under-the-table and between cycles of boom and bust — as well as with fires, earthquakes and mudslides. And yet, by the standard that should have saved Sodom — 10 righteous souls (we consider families as one) — Los Angeles’ future shines bright at the dawn of 2006 C.E. For Los Angeles is amply provided with tzadikim — good people who do good work in the community. The men and women featured here — beginning what we intend to make an annual list — are just a sampling of what is worth celebrating in our community.


Angels in America

Angels are everywhere in America these days, and a lot of them are tacky. When I was growing up you saw them once a year, adorning Christmas trees. Since then they’ve swarmed across the thin border that divides religious imagery from kitsch. Gift shops stock angel T-shirts, angel bookends, angel-print pillowcases and little angel wings to attach to your pet chihuahua.

Rarely a week goes by without an angel-themed book on the best seller list, and Hollywood has fallen into step with shows like “Touched by an Angel,” “Joan of Arcadia” and this season’s “The Book of Daniel.”

But this week’s cover story celebrates not make-believe angels, but real live ones.

Jews and angels, it turns out, have a complicated relationship. We borrowed the notion from the Sumerians, the good folks who clued us in on the serpent, the Flood, the ark and writing. The Hebrew word for angel is malach, which means “messenger.” In Jewish lore, these messengers shape-shift between the godlike and the human, not just from era to era, but from reference to reference. In Genesis, Hagar encounters an angel, then later refers to “the Lord” who spoke to her. God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but an angel of heaven intervenes to stay his hand.

In other passages, angels take the form of men, visiting Abraham to announce the birth of Isaac; then visiting Sodom to warn Lot to flee before destroying the city. In one of the most physical manifestations, an angel wrestles with Jacob, leaving him wounded. Reading the Bible, you are left with no clear notion of the Hebrew angels: Are they flesh and blood or the voice of God? Are they dreamed of or three-dimensional? The biblical notion of the angel is amorphous, open to argument, hardly the stuff of T-shirts.

In post-biblical literature, angels multiply. Scholars attribute this in part to the influence of other wisdom traditions on Jewish thought in Hellenistic times. By the Middle Ages, Jewish magic and angels were intertwined. By one estimate, the world of medieval Jewish mysticism counted as many as 496,000 angels.

“Houses and cities, winds and seasons,” writes Joshua Trachtenberg in “Jewish Magic and Superstition” (Penn, 2004), “each speck of dust underfoot … no thing in nature exists independently of its … heavenly ‘deputy.'”

Christians got angels from Jews. We meanwhile have all but sloughed off our belief in heavenly intermediaries. With the exception of smallish sects, most Jews see angels not as guardians from above, but as metaphor for the power of our souls, something akin to what that great Chasid Abraham Lincoln posited in his inauguration speech when he spoke of, “the better angels of our nature.”

This special issue of The Jewish Journal recognizes and celebrates those better angels.

Originally we were taken with the idea of the lamed vavniks, the 36. In Jewish lore, these are the 36 people who walk the earth anonymously, pure souls engaged in holy work, whose unique goodness is all that stands between humankind and God’s harsh judgment.

But — here’s the truth — we knew we wouldn’t have enough room in this issue for 36 profiles. The cruel realities of ad pages knocked 26 righteous people off the list.

Ten was the next-best number, because 10 was the number of decent people Abraham offered to find in Sodom to save the town from God’s wrath. Ten people — in this context we chose to consider families as one — going about their lives in humble goodness could indeed change the fate of a People, not to mention a wicked city.

We know that other publications produce annual year-end lists of The 10 Most Powerful or The 10 Hottest New Stars or The 10 Richest. More power to them. But we saw no point in telling people who already know they’re rich, or gorgeous, or powerful, that they are.

The people we chose to profile inside undoubtedly know that they are making a positive difference in people’s lives. They know they are doing so not because that’s their job, not because they have to, but because in helping others, they attend to the better angels of their nature. Some people may buy ceramic angels, and others might believe that angels watch out for them, but these people are compelled to intervene to improve the lives of others — to be the angels that humans have long imagined should exist.

Consider Jennifer Chadorchi, a 20-something Beverly Hills resident who has provided thousands of homeless men and women with food and social services. Or Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen, whose Pico-Robertson home serves as a collection and distribution center for goods to needy families.

Or consider Saul Kroll, 87, a retiree who volunteers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center 35 to 40 hours per week. He’s been doing that since 1987, logging some 24,400 hours. Sometimes he takes a day off to drive his 90-year-old neighbor to the doctor to receive cancer treatments. “Don’t tell someone, ‘OK, call me if you need help,'” Kroll says. “Just go on over and help.”

Now, that’s an angel.


Joyce Rabinowitz: A Type Like No Other


Look at Joyce Rabinowitz’s computer keyboard and you will see six blank keys in the middle row. They are actually the letters SDF and JKL, but the identifying marks have been worn off from use.

In fact, those are only keys Rabinowitz uses, with the exception of the space bar. And she uses them five or six hours a day, five or six days a week, often starting at 5 a.m., before breakfast. She has been doing this continuously for 30 years, though not always on a computer.

Rabinowitz, 76, is a volunteer Braille transcriber. She takes the printed word and, using a special computer program called Braille 2000, transforms it letter by letter into a prescribed set of dots that she saves to disk and gives to the Braille Institute. Each disk, with the help of an embossing machine, is used to produce a book written in raised dot text that a blind person can read with his or her fingers.

Rabinowitz herself doesn’t read Braille by touch.

“You have to have very sensitive fingers,” she said.

But she reads it with her eyes.

She’s transcribed many books over the years, recording the titles, date completed and number of Braille pages in a small notebook. (One average page of text translates into two to three Braille pages, 11 by 11.5 inches.) Her first book, in December 1975, was “Stories by Chekov,” clocking in at 310 Braille pages. Last year, she completed a total of 4,400 Braille pages.

Always an avid reader, she loves doing children’s books and currently is transcribing the young adult nonfiction book “Code Talker” by Joseph Bruchac. She reads each book twice, once while transcribing it and once while proofreading it. She also enjoys transcribing math books.

“I don’t have to work out the problem or know the answer,” she said.

Originally looking for new volunteer work, Rabinowitz began by taking a Braille class at Temple Beth Hillel in 1974, when transcribing was done on the much more labor-intensive Perkins Brailler. Of the 12 students in her class, she was one of only two who completed the course and the only one who became certified through the Library of Congress to transcribe literary works. Later she took additional classes to become certified in textbooks and math books.

She generally works from her Encino home, in one hour to one and a half hour time slots, but goes down to Los Angeles’ Braille Institute on Vermont Avenue every Wednesday and sometimes on Mondays. Her current task there is transcribing a set of complex math tests.

Carol Jimenez, the Braille Institute’s transcribing coordinator, has worked with Rabinowitz for the last 20 years and is impressed with her skill, especially in transcribing complicated math and science books.

“There’s a big need for people to do textbooks,” she said, pointing out that studies have shown that only blind children who read Braille, and not just listen to tapes, are considered literate.

“They’re the ones who grow up to be educated and go on to college and jobs,” she said.

As for Rabinowitz, she plans to keep doing this until she’s no longer able.

“I love it,” she said. “My only answer is I love it.”

Joyce Rabinowitz


Avi Leibovic: Guardian Angel of the Streets

Jack and Katy Saror: Help Knows No Age

Saul Kroll: Healing Hand at Cedars-Sinai

Jennifer Chadorchi: The Hunger to Help

Karen Gilman: What Makes Her Run?

Steven Firestein: Making Magic for Children

Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen: Kindness Starts at Home

Moshe Salem: Giving a Voice to Israelis

David Karp: A Guide for Unity in Scouting