Obama conference call with rabbis covers education, the meaning of the shofar, support for Israel

Barack Obama told a conference call of rabbis this morning that he supports government funding for after-school and mentoring programs in faith-based schools.

Speaking to 900 rabbis on a pre-Rosh Hashanah call, Obama said he opposes “vouchers” for private schools, but would continue to support funding, as is currently provided in the No Child Left Behind law, for after-school, tutoring, mentoring and summer programs at private and religious schools, according to a press release from the Orthodox Union and other rabbis who participated in the call.

Participants said Obama talked about a number of issues and took four questions from leaders of the four major denominations during the more than 40 minutes he spent on the call. The economy, education, energy, Israel and Iran were among the topics he discussed, reiterating the “unacceptability” of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.

With the call coming less than two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, the Democratic nominee wished the group “Shanah Tovah.” He also discussed how the shofar raises people from “slumber” to “set out on a better path” and how he hoped his campaign could do the same, according to rabbis on the call.

Rabbi Sam Gordon, who introduced Obama and serves as co-chair of “Rabbis for Obama,” said he believed that a presidential candidate speaking to hundreds of rabbis was “unprecedented” during a political campaign, and that Obama showed an impressive “depth of knowledge” — at one point referring to the largest modern Orthodox high school in Chicago by name, the Ida Crown Academy, when discussing faith-based schools.

The one complaint about the call was the speech of the other rabbi introducing Obam by Elliot Dorff, vice chair of the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and a professor at the American Jewish University (AJU). One rabbi who did not wish to be identified said Dorff’s speech was “way too partisan” and the Orthodox Union’s blog said Dorff essentially compared John McCain to Haman.

The Obama campaign has released portions of his remarks on the call:

“I know that for rabbis this is the busiest time of the year as you prepare for the High Holy Days. So I am grateful for a few minutes of your time. I extend my New Years greetings to you and to your congregations and communities. I want to wish everybody a Shana Tovah and I hope that you will convey my wishes to all of those you pray and celebrate with this Rosh Hashanah.

The Jewish New Year is unlike the new years of any other cultures. In part because it’s not simply a time for revelry; it’s a time for what might be called determined rejoicing. A time to put your affairs with other people in order so you can honestly turn to God. A time to recommit to the serious work of tikkun olamof mending the world.”

Senator Obama noted the significance of the Shofar in our lives for Rosh Hashanah and beyond, stating:

“And I know that the Shofar is going to be blown in your synagogues over Rosh Hashanah and there are many interpretations of its significance. One that I have heard that resonates with me is rousing us from our slumber so that we recognize our responsibilities and repent for our misdeeds and set out on a better path. The people in every community across this land join our campaign and I like to think that they are sounding that Shofar and to rouse this nation out of its slumber and to compel us to confront our challenges and ensure a better path. It’s a call to action. So as this New Year dawns, I am optimistic about our ability to overcome the challenges we face and the opportunity that we can bring the change we need not only to our nation but also to the world.”

Barack Obama also stated the need for leadership in both our troubled economy and foreign policy. Speaking of his recent trip to Israel and his unwavering commitment to the US-Israel relationship and Israel’s security, he noted: “I think that it’s also important to recognize that throughout my career in the State Legislature and now in the U.S. Senate I have been a stalwart friend of Israel. On every single issue related to Israel’s security, I have been unwavering, and will continue to be unwavering. My belief is that Israel’s security is sacrosanct and we have to ensure that as the soul democracy in the Middle East, one of our greatest allies in the world, one that shares a special relationship with us and shares our values, we have to make sure that they have the support whether its financial or military to sustain their security and the hostile environment. And its also important that we are an effective partner with them in pursuing the possibilities of peace in the future, and that requires not only active engagement and negotiations that may take place with Palestinians but it also requires that we stand tough and with great clarity when it comes to Iran and the unacceptability of them possessing nuclear weapons. During my recent visit to Israel, I had the occasion to meet with all of the major political players. That was my second visit there and I think that they all came away with assurance of my commitment with respect to Israel”

Get ready Jewish leaders, the Next Generation is here

We gave them melting ice caps, outsourcing and global terrorism. They’re giving us — energy and optimism?

If the group of Gen Y-ers — also known as Millenials or NextGens or iGens — who gathered for a Jewish leadership conference in Santa Monica last week are any indication, it seems that parents who did everything to build their children’s resumes and self esteem may have been on to something. This handpicked group of Jewish leaders in their 20s and early 30s have the self-confidence to think — to actually believe — that if the old people would just make some room for them, or maybe get out of the way altogether, they could fix this mess of a world. They are committed to social justice; they are willing to get their hands dirty; they have great ideas, time to volunteer, and they have the arrogance, self-centeredness and technological savvy to bring their ideas to fruition.

The question is how to channel all that into the Jewish community.

The Professional Leaders Project (PLP) took on that challenge when it was founded three years ago by some of American Jewry’s biggest philanthropists, who sensed that young people with leadership potential were staying far from a Jewish establishment they perceived as staid and uninterested in hearing new voices or developing the skills and careers of newcomers.

Through programs that combine mentoring, peer networking and a two-way conversation between top Jewish leaders and young people, PLP has made some inroads into this age group.

Over the past three years, PLP has identified and nurtured more than 200 young people, and it now has many success stories of professionals who have moved from careers in law or finance into professional Jewish leadership, as well as volunteers who have rechanneled their energies into Jewish causes. Among others, they targeted artists who might not have considered themselves leaders and people who are already working in –or had recently left — Jewish organizations, hoping to keep them happier in Jewish careers. With a budget of $1.5 million annually, PLP also funds about 12 graduate students in nonprofit management or pubic administration programs, with the requirement that the fellows then commit to careers in the Jewish community.

“I’m looking at the next 20 years, and I’m elated, whereas before I was disappointed, frustrated, and had written off the Jewish community to a large extent. PLP has made me optimistic,” said Ari Moss, a 28-year-old attorney who got involved with PLP three years ago. While he had been active in organizations specifically targeting young Jews, he felt the “pay to play” model of establishment organizations excluded young Jews.

“PLP sees a Jewish community that looks radically different than the organized Jewish community that exists today,” said Moss, who co-chaired last week’s conference. “They see a future Jewish community that is warm, inclusive and more inter-connected, that is more than just dinners and golf tournaments.”

PLP leaders have done an admirable job of getting out of their own Gen X or Baby Boomer mindsets and into the quirks and needs of this generation.

On the surface, PLP has created an image that is slick and hip, using the lingo and the look of a new generation. Participants are known as “talent,” a word that even when spoken seems to require quotation marks; trendy word treatments — like ThinkTank3 — adorn printed materials worthy of the graphic design generation, and, of course, everything is online, and everything is green. (At the closing session, it was announced that the hotel staff had picked the plastic cutlery out of the garbage for recycling; where’s the social justice in that?).

The catering at the conference was elegant, but outside of every meeting room was an oversized bucket of Red Vines licorice and a shiny pile of Israeli Bisli snack bags, a testament to the fact that this generation isn’t quite ready to admit to being adults.

But it’s not just the trappings that are Next Gen. At the centerpiece of PLP is LiveNetworks, a one-year program where 20- and 30-somethings dialogue with one another and with high-profile Jewish leaders about the larger vision and smaller practicalities of maintaining a vibrant Jewish community. In monthly meetings in five regional hubs, high-ranking professionals and volunteers discuss with the talent real case studies, and the group also participates in Jewish text study and leadership skills. They receive one-on-one coaching from their hub director and are paired with mentors from the established Jewish community.

“They are very interested in the generations above them and want to be mentored,” said Rhoda Weisman Uziel, founding executive director of PLP. “Maybe it’s because many of them had good relationships with their parents, so they are not angry and intimidated by boomers — in fact they see a lot of wisdom that can help them move forward, and they want to network with them.”

They are entrepreneurial and high achieving, yet team players, she said, although they have little tolerance for hierarchical bureaucracies.

“Respect is very important to them, and if they’re respected, they’ll respect you and be more courageous and be willing to take leaps,” Uziel said.

At ThinkTank3, the talent — a new cohort of about 75 people, along with about 60 from last year’s LiveNetwork, a dozen or so academic fellows, and some 35 other potential leaders — spent three days talking with each other, as well as about 180 Federation heads, rabbis, major philanthropists and veteran volunteers.

There were big name keynotes, such as Harvard’s positive psychology guru Tal Ben-Shahar. Mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt had to cancel at the last minute, so Jewish rockers Blue Fringe overnighted in from New York. Keynoters Scott Sherman and Jennifer Robin came, respectively, from the Transformative Action Institute and The Great Place to Work Institute, which pretty much speaks for itself.

But the conference was mostly about schmoozing. All the sessions were led by as many as four people, so that, rather than presentations, there were conversations on issues like interdating, spirituality, volunteerism, Jewish identity, the work-life balance, harnessing the power of the new media and lots and lots about social justice. There was a painful discussion on Israel, making evident that Gen Y-ers are not as passionate or as convinced about Israel as their elders — a message the establishment has been slow to take in.

Sulam Summer Service Corps puts Jewish learning into play

Above the din of screeching shoes, cheering kids and the staccato reverb of every sound, there was a buoyant excitement on the basketball court at Robertson Recreation Center.

But when the calls from the sidelines morphed into panicked directives — “Wait, run that way! No, THAT way!” — it was clear there was also, well, a bit of confusion.

When the final buzzer rang, the scoreboard’s illuminated “15-18” was of no help — no one was sure who’d scored what for whom. But the kids all high-fived each other anyway, amid good-natured shrieks of “We won!”

This game took the concept of teamwork to new heights.

Which is exactly what the teams’ mentors, a group of high school-age kids participating in a Bureau of Jewish Education-sponsored service learning program, had been working toward since they’d come to the rec center nine days earlier.

As part of Sulam Summer Service Corps, the teens, who come from Jewish day schools and public schools throughout Los Angeles, have been spending their days with local kids who attend the center’s day camp. The emphasis for the day camp’s elementary school kids is on sports, teamwork and friendship; for the mentors, on giving back.

But the teens are also being asked to reflect thoughtfully about their service experience. As one of a growing number of programs incorporating the methods of a burgeoning field known as “service learning,” Sulam requires its teen volunteers to examine their motivations for serving, their interactions with the campers and the ramifications of their shared experience.

Sulam is largely the handiwork of Phil Liff-Grieff, Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) associate director. Concerned that educators weren’t mining the full power of tikkun olam (repairing the world), he began looking a few years ago for ways to help teens make connections both “between their actions and Jewish teachings and between their actions and who they are as human beings,” Liff-Grieff said.

In service learning, he found an existing educational model that fit the bill.

Although the term “service learning” was coined in the mid-1960s, the intellectual underpinnings date back to the 1920s, when John Dewey pioneered the concept of “experiential” education. Dewey’s model of “learning by doing” has become common even in mainstream education, but his idea of connecting service with personal and social development has been less widespread.

In recent years, however, service learning has been gaining popularity in schools across the country, with organizations like the National Service-Learning Partnership — an 8,500-member national coalition of educators, policymakers, community partners and researchers — supporting their efforts.

In most schools, service learning is a way to enhance classroom curriculum. Jewish educators have been tweaking that model by both reversing the order — starting with the actual service — and then anchoring the learning and reflection in Jewish sources.

The field has been growing, as evidenced by regional and national organizations that offer resources, consultations and support for Jewish programs (e.g., Spark: Partnership for Service); intensive full-time service learning (e.g., Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps), or increasingly blend study with their existing service programs (e.g., KOREH LA).

Liff-Grieff and his staff launched their umbrella program, Sulam: The Center for Jewish Learning, in January 2006. Funded largely by a three-year grant from the Covenant Foundation (with additional support from The Jewish Federation and the BJE), the result is a multifaceted portal for disseminating information about service learning. Sulam offers online resources for students, parents and teachers; consultations and workshops for educators and administrators; and Spotlight Awards that recognize students for achieving a high level of service.

In the Web site’s first year, more than 1,000 users have accessed the vetted and categorized 200-plus agencies offering service opportunities; another 2,500 have used the pedagogic resources. Sulam staff also maintains a resource library of about 250 volumes at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, supplementing the Web site’s virtual holdings with additional Jewish sources and materials for educators.

This summer, for the first time, Sulam is offering two sessions of two-week programs, each with a different focus — from the environment to homelessness to sports and mentorship. In the first session’s environmental track, students spent one week replanting and clearing brush in Griffith Park after recent fires and a second week at the Ballona Wetlands.

Most of the teens who chose this session’s mentorship track at Robertson Recreation Center did so because they have a passion for working with younger kids; some, like Sara Fletcher, also happen to love basketball. Although Sara said her mom signed her up because she needed community service hours for school, her experience exceeded her initial expectations.

“It’s great when the kids see me and run up to me and they’re so excited,” Sara said. “And it feels like I’m making a difference.”

Sara’s friend, Maxine Bani, also loves the closeness she’s developed with the kids, many of whom she says are now “hugging and kind of sticking to” her and other teens. The two Shalhevet 10th-graders say they’ve found the study component helpful, though the topical secular sources (e.g., John Wooden on teamwork) more readily so than the Jewish sources.

“When I actually help the kids, some of the stuff we learned pops into my mind, like when we talked about teamwork and discipline — I use it in how I talk to the kids,” Maxine said. She also values “reflecting afterwards, because it makes me think about the things I did with them and [the] affect it has.”

Although the Jewish sources “seemed random at first and didn’t really seem to fit,” Sara said “when we talked about it [as a group], it made more sense.”

Fifteen-year-old Arthur Schtrickman is relieved the Jewish learning isn’t “just the boring stuff like history. It applies to life in general and to me now, helping these kids.”

Most of these teens were enrolled in Sulam by their parents, and while they’re uniformly enthusiastic about their interactions with the day campers, not all of them are equally enamored of the structured discussions and exercises. Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman, the sports and mentorship track leader, said this is one of his biggest challenges.

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.”

New Hadassah Chief Does Balancing Act

As a mother of two grown children, Morlie Hammer Levin knows the challenges of balancing family, career and spiritual life. But factor in the L.A. native’s recent New York move, a high-pressure job with a high-profile organization and finding a new religious community and you have the makings of what would be a well-deserved nervous breakdown for anyone else.

But Levin has taken it in stride. In September, the former Jewish Federation vice president became national executive director of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America — the largest Jewish membership organization in the United States.

As she settles into her new routines, she’s looking forward to what her future holds without forgetting her past.

“New Yorkers have been surprisingly and thankfully welcoming and encouraging,” she said. “I miss friends and family and being part of the L.A. Jewish world, but we’re settling in well.”

Levin grew up in Sherman Oaks. She graduated from Millikan High School in Long Beach, earning her bachelor’s degree from UCLA and receiving her master’s in public policy from Claremont Graduate University.

However, working in the Jewish community was not something Levin set out to do. She came into it along the way. Levin began her career as a policy analyst with the Rand Corp., where she worked for 21 years before starting her own consulting firm.

“My involvement in the professional Jewish community followed my personal path toward Judaism,” said Levin, whose 1991 visit to Israel inspired her to get actively involved in local Jewish activities.

Her foray into Jewish communal work began with a position as manager of operations and projects for the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles in 1998. By 2000, she had joined The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and worked her way up to vice president of strategic donor initiatives.

During her time at The Federation, Levin developed a keen appreciation for mentoring and came to understand the importance of guidance and support in the workplace.

“Success is about finding the right people and then aligning their skills with their responsibilities,” Levin said.

Of all her contributions to the Los Angeles Jewish community, Levin sites the 2002 launch of The Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund among her favorites. The program makes targeted, significant investments in scalable and sustainable philanthropic ideas, which appealed to people who wanted to donate their skills and abilities, along with their money.

Levin may look to advocate similar hands-on programs while at Hadassah, but for now, she’s using the transition period to familiarize herself with the 93-year-old, 300,000-member organization. Founded in 1912, Hadassah supports medical care and research, education and youth programs, reforestation, social action and advocacy, volunteerism and connections with Israel. Most recently, Hadassah advocated for stem cell research, supported the Violence Against Women Act and was nominated for a 2005 Nobel Peace Prize.

Levin understands that elements of Jewish professional work are often at odds with family life. Evening meetings and weekend events can make things difficult. Despite the challenges, Levin says there are unlimited career opportunities for women in the Jewish sector.

“People often talk about a glass ceiling in the Jewish world and in the federation world, but I never found one. I received guidance and training, learned a tremendous amount, and was able to advance quickly,” Levin said. “I think quality can win out in the workplace.”


Jewish Aid Sought on Gang Problem

"I’d love to tell you I’m some brilliant mastermind that chartered this treaty, but the reality is that week by week, we’re still working the streets," William "Blinky" Rodriguez said about the gang treaty he helped broker to bring rival groups together to talk. "We’d be out until 2, 3, 4 in the morning."

Rodriguez is executive director of Communities in Schools, a group that works against violence and provides after-school and employment services. He builds coalitions of nonprofit groups, law enforcement agencies and legislators that help youth avoid joining gangs.

Throughout his life, Rodriguez said, the intervention of several caring Jewish men helped him along the right path. Today, he is asking the Jewish community to be at the forefront of his plans to help return communication and hope to neighborhoods ravaged by violence.

"As an individual, I got into this work with high-risk youth in the ’70s," Rodriguez recalled. "The hook that I had was the martial arts."

Rodriguez, 50, was a hall of fame pioneer in kickboxing. Students from around the country would flock to his gym in Van Nuys.

"But in 1990 a tragedy happened," he said. "One of my sons was killed in a drive-by shooting in Sylmar. So it was really at that time in my life that I had to make some real decisions."

One decision was pivotal: to devote his life to ending violence in his community.

"In 1993, I was able, along with a few other people, to pull off a peace treaty with 76 gangs in the San Fernando Valley," Rodriguez said.

Homicides in the year following what became known as the Valley Unity Peace Treaty plummeted from 56 to two. But peace treaties are not self-enforcing. Rodriguez and his allies walked the streets in the East Valley in the dead of night, trying to keep violence from erupting.

"The bottom line is that before the treaty, there was a lot of killing going on, mothers getting killed, kids getting killed," Rodriguez said. "Within the prison system there were guys doing life sentences [in the meantime] losing kids and grandkids in the barrios, in the ghettos."

"They basically said, ‘Ya basta, that’s enough,’ so we just seized the moment and pulled a meeting off," he explained. "Every Sunday, when there were issues, we met [with the gangs]."

Communication, it turned out, was the key, Rodriguez explained, adding, "Instead of guys picking up guns, they’d pick up the phone."

"He [still] meets every Wednesday night with gang members from around the Valley, and he’s been trying to broker another peace treaty," said LAPD Deputy Chief Ron Berman, in charge of the San Fernando Valley.

The 1993 treaty is no longer in effect. The Valley’s population has grown substantially since 1993, and the number of gang-related homicides in the LAPD’s Valley Bureau in 2003 was 24.

For any peace to last, open communication has to begin with the youth early. For this, at least, Rodriguez could draw on his personal experiences.

"It seems like at pivotal times in my life, a Jewish man would appear." At the age of 12, Rodriguez met middle school teacher Jack Jacobson. "He took the time to ask me [about] my problems. He could have just swatted me away, but he ended up taking me deep-sea fishing with him. That’s communication and exposure."

"Ultimately, it’s all tied to a quality of life," Rodriguez said.

His longtime friend, Robert Arias, introduced him to Communities in Schools, a national organization. Together they built the local chapter, which now runs a gamut of social, educational and conflict-mediation services.

"We have 35 people who facilitate prevention and intervention programs for middle school youth, providing case managers for the 250 most disruptive or at-risk kids in the school," said Arias, president of the greater Los Angeles chapter of Communities in Schools.

The organization also works with the County Probation Department, helping 30 youngsters who are on probation on each of 40 middle school campuses, in addition to last-ditch, hard-core gang intervention efforts.

With more early intervention in youngsters’ lives (in the tradition of Jack Jacobson), perhaps it wouldn’t have been necessary to patrol the streets at 3 a.m., as Rodriguez did, maintaining peace treaties between gangs.

It’s especially with early intervention that Rodriguez seeks help from the Jewish community.

"I think it’s important that people recognize that there’s a role for everyone to play," he said. "When Rabbi Alan Freehling was appointed to the Commission on Human Relations for the city of Los Angeles, he reached out to me."

After becoming the executive director of the commission, Freehling said, "One of the first people I met with was Rodriguez. I found him to be highly dedicated to ridding the city of gang violence."

"I believe the ties between [Communities in Schools] and the Jewish community would be most important because it would show another aspect of tikkun olam [heal the world]" Freehling said. "There needs to be an educational or economic alternative [to gangs], and that can only be offered by people in the business community who are ready to employ these young people."

Insofar as education, Rodriguez said, "some of my discussions in the Jewish community have been about bringing in mentor-tutors [for the youngsters]. Illiteracy is a huge problem."

"Most people live in a community where they don’t experience gang violence," Deputy Chief Berman said. "They don’t have a gun stuffed in their face and somebody saying, ‘Give me your wallet.’ They don’t have loved ones who are cut down in the street."

"We’re trying to raise the awareness of people who live in communities where they don’t have gang members hanging out, that this is partially their problem, too, and they need to help," Berman continued.

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky recently helped Communities in Schools acquire a new facility in Pacoima that will help connect young people with employment and academic assistance, to push them off the road to violence.

"We’re already lining up the mentor-tutors to tie to it," Rodriguez said.

Both Rodriguez and Arias explained that mentors receive 10 hours of training through either UCLA or California State University Northridge.

"We’re not going to put you in a situation where you’re not prepared," Arias said. "And secondly, we truly believe this, I’ve been at this for 30 years: Love transcends all. When kids see that there are adults who are emotionally invested in their welfare, there’s a bonding that takes place that transcends ethnicity, religion, any of that."

A Mother’s Reward

Normally, a parent might agonize over her teen’s decision to defer her freshman year of college. But when my 18-year-old daughter Lauren left recently on a flight to Israel — deferring her first year at college for yet a second time — I was thrilled.

As a young couple, my husband Mark and I, like so many of our generation, began to live as more observant Jews. We wanted more than anything for our two daughters to benefit from the richness of a lifestyle that includes the warmth of community, commitment to tradition, and strong Jewish values.

My daughters attended Jewish day schools that provided academic excellence but lacked the joyousness for which I had hoped. By high school’s end, Lauren was a Torah-observant girl who looked longingly at the secular world’s definition of fun.

I started thinking that it would be a mistake to send her straight to college. Despite her initial protests, we presented Lauren with the "opportunity" to devote a year of religious study at a seminary of her choosing in Israel. We hoped that the warm blanket of Israel would strengthen her spiritual connection to her people and help her find greater happiness in her traditions. She chose Michlelet Esther, a seminary known for warmth, but a "hands-off" approach to religious "coercion."

The summer before she left was filled with angst. Lauren was reluctant and scared, my in-laws told me I was crazy and my husband and I were plagued with safety concerns. How would we survive our fears?

Almost immediately I began an ongoing correspondence with her spiritual advisers — two gifted rabbis talented at appeasing nervous long-distance parents, and able to relate to their student’s reluctant beginnings.

My daughter felt so lost during her first few weeks in Jerusalem. She was distressed that she could jog through surrounding observant neighborhoods only if dressed modestly in a skirt. She found more comfort in the familiarity of beaches, malls and restaurants. I lobbied intensively in my e-mails to her rabbis so that my daughter could progress beyond the modern attractions of Israel to find ecstasy in her spiritual growth. Quietly, without fanfare, the magic that is Michlelet Esther took hold. Friendships developed, mentors emerged and the learning jumped off the page into real life examples of Torah-observant joy.

When my family and I visited her that January, I saw a self-assured young woman, maneuvering easily through the streets of Jerusalem, chatting confidently with shopkeepers and taxi drivers and hosting her friends for get-togethers in our rented apartment. There was so much hugging, kissing, crying and laughing during that visit I had little chance to scrutinize my daughter’s progress. Still, I witnessed enough to know that Lauren had grown a lot on the inside.

"Mommy, you were so right about coming to Israel," she said before we returned to Los Angeles. Breathing easier now and confident that the Israel opportunity was being fulfilled, I set about making arrangements for her freshman year in college.

However, my daughter surprised us with her decision to return to Israel for a second year of study. In explaining this she was levelheaded and controlled, clearly sure that her year’s discovery deserved more exploration. I was proud of this decision, but others were not so sanguine.

My very even-tempered husband greeted this news with stunned silence. Her sister urged her to come to her senses. My relatives expressed concerned opposition. Even the observant friends who I expected to share my happiness seemed tentative. They offered sympathetic looks, assuming that I was distressed by this unexpected development. Implicit in those worried looks was the query: When is she going to get down to business and get her college degree?

What’s the rush, I wondered? Time spent in Israel and her college education are not mutually exclusive. I consider this experience an investment in her soul. My daughter is not deferring her education, but continuing the learning and the spiritual growth, which will bring her happiness and guidance for a lifetime. Lauren has said that the highlight of her year in Israel was feeling "comfortable in her own skin" and she just wants time to continue the journey that brought her to that place.

This first year in Israel brought incredible changes. Lauren now has a distinctive inner glow and there is a special quality to her demeanor as she incorporates prayer, ritual and continued learning into her day, along with generally more appreciation for her family. This next year will solidify the groundwork that Michlelet Esther laid, by breathing more joy into her observance, answering the questions that confront her and helping her deal with the challenges that will surely be in her future.

Last year, I tearfully asked my daughter’s high school principal if I was doing the right thing.

"You will see, you will be rewarded," she said.

As we saw Lauren off for this second odyssey, we gave each other our signature bear hug and kisses on both cheeks (so we won’t be lopsided) and she said to me, "Mommy, I love you, thank you so much for this opportunity to return Israel."

With that statement I can assure you, I am richer than any lottery winner.

Phyllis Folb is principal of The Phylmar Group, Inc, a public relations firm specializing in arts, education and nonprofit organizations. She is also a member of the Westwood Kehilla Synagogue.

Jews in South Need Rabbis’ Resources

For Jewish life in the Deep South to overcome the twin
plagues of attrition and assimilation, American Jewish culture must change,
argues Macy Hart, executive director of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute for
Southern Jewish Life.

Rabbinical seminaries, large congregations and established
Jewish communities with rabbis and other Jewish professionals must “think
outside the box” and offer resources to Jews with fewer opportunities, he said.

As he works to improve cultural, educational and religious
offerings to Jews in 12 Southern states, Hart is asking national rabbinic
leaders to be generous with their resources in the short term, in hopes of
making long-term gains.

Specifically, he urges:

The posting of newly ordained rabbis, not as assistants in
large urban congregations but “in small clusters of congregations that we call
geographic coalitions,” Hart said. The novice rabbis would receive competitive
salaries and reduce their student loans for each year served in a geographic
coalition. Just as important, Hart contends, these rabbis “would touch Jewish
life in a way a third or fourth assistant rabbi in a large congregation
somewhere doesn’t often get the opportunity to do.”

Enlist senior rabbis and large congregations to stop hiring
newly ordained rabbis as assistants. If more kids in outlying areas are exposed
to rabbis, Hart contends, all Jews will benefit. “Invariably some kid is going
to grow up and be a rabbi because he was exposed to one of these rabbis,” he
said. And when the rabbis do go to work at big-city congregations, they will
come with experience, Hart adds.

Develop partnerships between large urban congregations and
smaller congregations in outlying areas, akin to the linkages between Diaspora
and Israeli communities. “How hard would it be twice a year for a rabbi from a
large congregation to go to two or three communities and be a Jewish presence?”
Hart asked.

Hart just might get a sympathetic ear for his partnership
proposal. Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United
Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, calls such linkages “a great idea.

“Those kinds of things can be helpful. There have been in
our movement a number of congregations that have been helpful in that way and
have said, ‘We’ll provide a rabbi to go visit some smaller congregations,'”
Epstein said. “Some of them have let their assistant or associate do those
kinds of things.”

As in the Reform movement, the Conservative seminaries “send
rabbinic students in their last few years to visit some of these smaller
congregations and provide help on a weekend basis — not only to lead services,
but to work with religious schools on Sunday morning, to provide adult
education on Saturday night,” Epstein said.

But Epstein is less receptive to Hart’s other proposals.

“I’m not certain that I would argue that the small
congregation is better training,” he said. “If the mentor is right, it may be
helpful for many rabbis to learn from someone who is a good mentor in a large

Large congregations need two full-time rabbis, he adds.
Epstein’s solution, then, is “to produce more rabbis.”

Epstein’s counterpart at the Reform movement’s Union of
American Hebrew Congregations, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, was not available for

Though Jews in the South, and in small communities
throughout North America, comprise less than one-sixth of the Jewish
population, they deserve an infusion of communal resources, Hart said.

“We say every Jewish life counts. We say, ‘Klal Yisrael,'”
or all Jews are a people, Hart said. “We’re trying to save people in Europe,
Argentina, elsewhere in the world. Why wouldn’t we want to save Jews here?”

Hart’s idea of Jewish outreach is to “put some dollars back
in the small communities,” where many urban Jews were born and raised, attended
religious school and began their Jewish lives.

“For us simple country folk,” he said, “it’s just common
sense.” Â

Backstage Beshert

When USC freshman Cynthia Gross asked professional director Anthony Barnao to mentor her new L’Chaim Theatre Ensemble, he was blunt.

"If you’re interested in doing theater because you love it, call me back," he said. "If you’re interested in doing theater to get discovered for a TV show, don’t."

Gross gave him the right answer.

This weekend, L’Chaim, a multicultural company that espouses Jewish values, unites with Barnao’s acclaimed Blue Sphere Alliance to present the ironically titled "The Wetback" at Hollywood’s Lex Theatre. Directed by Barnao, the production stars members of both ensembles and tells of a migrant worker unjustly accused of murder. "The play explores the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger," Gross said.

The week she arrived at USC, Gross, once a precocious child actress, vowed to start her own professionally affiliated company. Her first stop was the campus Hillel. "When I was 13, I had to make the decision between doing a big theater production and having a bat mitzvah," lamented Gross, who chose the former. "In college, I hoped to combine my Judaism with theater."

Hillel soon agreed to offer start-up funds and house the group, and numerous students responded to the flyers that Gross, as artistic director, posted all over campus. Before long, she and two student collaborators (one Asian American, one Latino) were wading through script submissions. They had already selected "The Wetback," by Jewish author Myla Lichtman-Fields, when Blue Sphere agreed to offer hands-on training.

Between late-night rehearsals last week, Gross was working to establish an apprenticeship program with Blue Sphere that may become the first accredited undergraduate program of its kind. "Our goal will be to do plays by Jewish authors or with themes relevant to the Jewish community," she said.

For tickets to the April 27, 28 and 29 shows, call (818) 906-0675.