Some of the wreckage wrought by Hurricane Irma on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin on Sept. 6. Photo by Lionel Chamoiseau/AFP/Getty Images

Hurricane Irma was no match for this mikveh on St. Martin


It was 5 a.m. Wednesday and Hurricane Irma was pounding the tiny Caribbean island of Saint Martin. Rabbi Moishe Chanowitz and his wife, Chana, the Chabad movement’s emissaries there, gathered their five children and hunkered down in an unlikely place: a mikveh.

According to the Chanowitzes, as told on Chabad.org, the ritual bath helped save their lives.

The storm killed at least eight people on St. Martin and a councilman told Reuters that 95 percent of the 34-square-mile island was destroyed. Irma’s winds reached around 180 miles per hour and decimated trees and homes, flinging cars around in its wake.

Even though the Chanowitzes’ Chabad center building was sturdy and built into the side of a mountain, the storm had them rightly terrified. By 4 a.m. Wednesday, the front door of the building had flown off.

“You could hear it; you feel the pressure in your ears,” Moishe Chanowitz said. “I thought the windows would explode at any moment.”

With more wallboards flying away, the Chanowitzes fled to the center of the building and into the mikveh. It’s still under construction but crucially has an outer wall and a door. The family pushed a commercial freezer in front of the door.

The door of the Chabad center in Saint Martin blew off when Hurricane Irma passed through. (Chabad.org/News)

“We have hurricane-proof doors and windows; it’s not like we weren’t prepared,” Chanowitz said. “But this was off the charts. The mikveh saved us.”

Around 10 a.m., the family and hundreds of neighbors finally ventured out into the disheveled landscape. Most had similar stories. One friend told the Chanowitzes he survived by hiding in a closet.

For now, the Chanowitzes, along with the rest of Saint Martin, are left without electricity.

“The damage is unimaginable,” Chanowitz said. “But we’re going to rebuild.”

The Chasidic Chabad movement is known for its outreach around the world and has emissaries in nearly 100 countries.

Here comes the groom-ing!


Step aside, brides — those indulgent pre-wedding salon, spa and grooming gatherings are no longer exclusively your domain! Grooms, it’s your turn for a luxurious pre-wedding makeover and grooming session. To ensure you’ll look tip-top in your tux and tie, we’ve consulted local experts, uncovered trends and looked at personal products designed to tame any testosterone-fueled challenge on the big day.

Ask an expert

According to veteran stylist-to-the-stars Allen Edwards (based at A.T. Tramp in Beverly Hills and Decarra Salon in Woodland Hills), good grooming habits should be established long before the wedding day.  

“I recommend men come into the salon more often for hair care, and they should not be afraid to spend more money on a good haircut,” Edwards said. “Although men have a tendency to buy inexpensive shampoo, I recommend they buy a good moisturizing shampoo and condition their hair at least once a week. The three best hair products for men are Imperial, Paul Mitchell and Crew.”

Edwards also recommends men get facials and get into the habit of using a moisturizer every morning. And, just as women turn to magazines for inspiration, he said men can benefit from the same practice, buying magazines such as GQ to review haircut and facial hair trends.  

“Don’t get stuck wearing the same haircut your whole life,” Edwards said.

“Beards are very popular now, and I suggest keeping the beard very cropped.

“On the wedding day, men should keep their hair clean and short, and if they have a beard, it should be groomed a little shorter.”

Smooth operators

In the last two decades, men’s grooming products have gone from utilitarian to upscale, while pop culture and general health trends have made masculine pomades, creams, gels and designer shaves more palatable for even the manliest of guys. 

While many women dream about the kiss on the big day, nothing can spoil her moment quicker than getting her face scratched. Newport Beach entrepreneur Michael Finfrock realized this just three weeks into dating his girlfriend. With his female friends weighing in on the scratchy subject, and with heavy body and facial hair being a part of his genetic makeup, Finfrock was prompted to develop Soft Goat ($11.99 at ” target=”_blank”>amazon.com and ” target=”_blank”>jessyjudaica.com, a Toronto-based custom kippot maker and Jewish event planner with clients in L.A. and San Diego. “Others invite close family and friends to share in the mikveh with stories, blessings and food or drink,” she added.

Indeed, Judith Golden, who oversees activity at the American Rabbinical Assembly Mikveh at American Jewish University, said she has noticed a significant uptick in the number of grooms opting to take the plunge in a more meaningful way. She estimates the number has increased by 50 percent since she began working there 10 years ago. 

“It’s fabulous to see more men doing this,” Golden said. “The mikveh is a metaphor for a new beginning, and is one of the best things you and your future wife can do before you marry. When both partners do the mikveh, they are setting an intention for the life they will live together and the journey they will be taking beyond the wedding day.” 

Mikvah Society of L.A. assures users it is ‘safe and secure’ following voyeurism scandal in D.C.


The scandal surrounding the Washington D.C. rabbi who was arrested and charged for allegedly secretly filming women while they were using a mikveh dressing room has prompted assurances from the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles that its own mikveh “continues to be a safe and secure environment.”

The statement appeared in an Oct. 28 letter that local modern Orthodox synagogues are distributing on behalf of the mikveh society.

“The dedicated individuals who are involved in our Mikvah are motivated to ensure a sanctified place for performing the Mitzvah of Taharat ha-Mishpacha (family purity) and facilitating conversions,” the letter reads. “As a community Mikvah, we are not affiliated with any particular shul or rabbi, and are guided by the Rabbinic Board of the Mikvah for halachic standard setting and consultation.” The letter is signed by Vivian Lurie, Mikvah Society of Los Angeles president.

Rabbi Barry Freundel of the Washington D.C.-based congregation Kesher Israel was arrested on Oct. 14 and has been charged with six counts of voyeurism. 

The Rabbinic Council of America (RCA) also directly addressed Freundel’s actions, including by naming Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation to a commission to review the practices of conversions in the Orthodox community.  The commission includes women who have converted, as well as rabbis and others. 

The RCA-appointed commission “will review its … conversion process and suggest safeguards against possible abuses,” a press release from the RCA sent on Oct. 29 says.

The RCA, a membership organization for Orthodox rabbis, suspended Freundel’s membership shortly after his arrest.

Topp was also one of several L.A. Orthodox rabbis in an Oct. 22 meeting with Lurie that was called to discuss the implications of Freundel’s arrest for Los Angeles area mikveh facilities.

Together the group addressed concerns community members might have about privacy, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, leader of Congregation B’nai-David Judea, said in a phone interview.

“The meeting went very, very well … basically, it was three rabbis and the leaders of the mikvah, who are all women, and we talked about what kind of things that are presently part of the mikvah protocol, what kind of things could be changed, tightened up, in order to reassure women,” Kanefsky said.

Topp could not be reached immediately for comment.

Meanwhile, Lurie told the Journal that the Los Angeles mikveh underwent a security sweep on Oct. 29: an independent security firm searched for any devices, such as hidden cameras, in the Pico-Robertson mikvah.

“Everything was perfectly clear, they didn’t find anything, so we are good to go,” Lurie said in a phone interview. “The point is to keep it that way.”

Orthodox yeshiva leader arguing for greater privacy in women’s conversions


In the wake of voyeurism allegations against a prominent Orthodox rabbi, the head of an Orthodox yeshiva for women is arguing that male rabbis need not be present for a female convert’s ritual immersion.

Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat in New York, is preparing a teshuvah, or Jewish legal opinion, saying that Jewish law does not require a male rabbi to be in the room of the ritual bath, or even for the door to be ajar, to witness the immersion of a female convert. Fox expects to publish the teshuvah within the next week through Yeshivat Maharat, which focuses on training and ordaining women as Orthodox clergy.

The issue of privacy for female converts has taken on new urgency in the wake of allegations that Rabbi Barry Freundel, a high-profile Washington rabbi, used hidden cameras to watch female conversion candidates as they immersed themselves in the mikvah.

Fox said that he and others at Yeshivat Maharat would also push to give highly trained women a greater role in preparing and shepherding women through the conversion process rather than leaving such preparation as the sole province of male rabbis.

While steering clear of the specific allegations against Freundel, Fox said that the accusations in the case highlight the unequal power dynamic between men and women in many areas of Jewish ritual and the potential for abuse raised by those imbalances.

“A power hierarchy exists,” Fox told JTA. “Our goal is to shift that hierarchy.”

Officials from Yeshivat Maharat and its sister institution Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a seminary to ordain male rabbis, will host a community meeting on Thursday to discuss “protecting sacred spaces, clergy boundaries and rabbinic authority.”

L.A. Rabbis seeking to reassure mikveh users of facilities’ privacy


In the wake of a scandal in which a Washington, D.C., Modern Orthodox rabbi was arrested for allegedly spying on women undressing before immersing in a mikveh connected to his synagogue, Los Angeles-area rabbis are calling the situation a “unique case” and taking steps to put the users of local ritual bathhouses at ease. In Los Angeles, Rabbi Richard A. Flom, an authority on the mikveh and a member of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly executive committee, said the mikveh at American Jewish University (AJU) is secure enough that people who use it for conversion, monthly rituals of cleansing, and personal reaffirmations before weddings and other important occasions need not worry about someone illicitly watching them while they undress and immerse themselves in the pool. 

“We don’t want anyone to be turned off from utilizing [the AJU mikveh] or any other mikveh because of these allegations. It’s probably a unique case that this story is about. At least, I hope so,” Flom said during a phone interview on Oct. 15. “We don’t think anything like that could happen here, because we have multiple supervisors here checking everything.” 

Rabbi Barry Freundel, 62, leader of the Modern Orthodox Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., was arrested on Oct. 14. He has denied allegations, filed a day later, that he video-recorded at least six women showering at his synagogue’s mikveh. Freundel pleaded not guilty to six counts of voyeurism, a misdemeanor, and was released without bond. Freundel “allegedly placed a hidden camera and recorder … inside … the changing-preparation area,” according to the website Failed Messiah, which reported that the rabbi allegedly hid the recording device inside a digital clock. 

During an emergency meeting convened on Shemini Atzeret, Oct. 15, one day after the rabbi’s arrest, Freundel was quickly suspended by the Rabbinic Council of America (RCA), where he had served on the executive committee. “If he is found guilty, this is a terrible, despicable act, and he needs real help,” Rabbi Elazar Muskin, national vice president of the RCA and spiritual leader of Young Israel of Century City, told the Journal during a phone interview. 

On Oct. 20, the RCA announced that it would uphold conversions performed by Freundel prior to his arrest, announcing that the Beth Din of America had concluded that the conversions remain “halachically valid” and “prior converts remain Jewish in all respects.” In Israel, the Chief Rabbinate also said on Oct. 21 that it would continue to recognize all past conversions performed by Freundel. 

Kesher Israel Congregation has posted a statement on its website that strongly denounces Freundel’s behavior. “This is a painful moment for Kesher Israel Congregation and the entire Jewish community,” the statement from the synagogue’s board of directors reads. 

Flom said mikvaot are a place where women and men willingly undress fully, under the assumption that no one is watching, and he described Freundel’s alleged actions as “unfortunate.” Flom did not want to speak further about Freundel out of respect for lashon harah, Jewish gossip laws. 

Still, he said, “I have to tell you, in all honesty, I suspect there have been questions about this kind of thing for decades in regard to mikvaot. The utilization of it is a private and personal experience, and people are vulnerable when they do it.” 

The mikveh at AJU is one of several in Los Angeles. Others include the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles on Pico Boulevard and Chabad of Brentwood’s mikveh for women. The facilities, generally speaking, serve women following their menstrual periods; male and female converts; and others. 

In the wake of last week’s news-making arrest, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, leader of the Modern Orthodox B’nai David-Judea Congregation in L.A., as well as leaders of the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles, have engaged in talks about delivering a message to the community that would reinforce that the mikveh is a safe space, despite what has taken place on the East Coast. 

Kanefsky, whose congregation includes members who use the mikveh at the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles, denounced Freundel’s actions, saying, “This was simply the same kind of abuse of power and surrender to the most base tendencies that we see in religious figures, in political figures, in all kinds of situations.” 

Kanefsky also urged those following the aftermath of Freundel’s arrest to focus less on the rabbi and more on his alleged victims. 

Women comprise the entire staff at the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles, a “community mikveh,” and thus does not belong to any synagogue, Vivian Lurie, president of the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles, said during a phone interview on Oct. 20. 

“We are scheduled to have a meeting this  week with the area rabbis to decide what kind of reassurances we can give to the community,” Lurie said. “We happen to be having a scholar in the field coming in a few weeks, and it will probably be incorporated into the seminars that will be available. 

“The whole concept of using the mikveh is in and of itself a privacy one. That’s why the story is so shocking and undermining. The whole concept is you do this mitzvah completely in privacy and it’s not anybody’s business. That’s why the intrusive nature of this breach is so upsetting,” she said. 

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, who leads the Orthodox Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, believes more needs to be done to safeguard the privacy of converts. The rabbi published a blog, headlined “Rabbis, Scandal, Voyeurism — and Protecting Converts to Judaism From Abuse,” Oct. 16 in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. 

“Clearly we are not doing enough to prevent oppression and demonstrate our love towards converts. That needs to change immediately,” Fink wrote. 

Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, spiritual leader of the Pico Shul, a traditional community that draws large numbers of young professionals to its weekly Saturday morning services, denounced Freundel’s alleged actions. The Los Angeles Orthodox rabbi described the mikveh as “a sacred place where women and those entering for conversion should feel very safe and protected. To have that sacred space violated is not just a criminal misdemeanor, it is a crime against Judaism’s most important communal institution.” 

The mikveh is such an important part of Jewish tradition that Jewish law requires a Jewish community to build a mikveh even before it builds a school or a synagogue. “In the eyes of Jewish law, a group of Jewish families living together do not attain the status of a community if they do not have a communal mikveh,” Chabad. org states. 

“The mikveh,” Kanefsky said, “is the lynchpin of marital intimacy within the Orthodox community, and because marital intimacy is sacred and holy, therefore the mikveh is holy.” 

The meeting between Mikvah Society of Los Angeles leaders and several Los Angeles Modern Orthodox rabbis, including Muskin, Kanefsky and Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation, was scheduled to take  place on Oct. 22, after this newspaper’s press time.

Converts say Freundel’s abuse of power extended beyond mikvah peeping


CORRECTION: This version corrects the date of Mandel's conversion. It took place eight months after her “practice dunk,” not a year and eight months later. The correction appears in paragraph 10


When Rabbi Barry Freundel asked Bethany Mandel to take a “really long shower” before a “practice dunk” in the mikvah prior to her formal conversion to Judaism, the whole request seemed a bit odd, she says.

For one thing, Freundel instructed her to skip the pre-mikvah checklist, which includes things like cleaning out one’s navel, trimming nails, and getting rid of excess hair and skin. For another, she had never heard of practice dunking.

But Mandel eventually bought the rabbi’s explanation: that women performing the ritual for the first time at their actual conversions might in their nervousness and confusion turn around and mistakenly expose themselves to the three rabbis present. Mandel said she, like other women who took practice dunks, actually found the trial run helpful.

But that was before last week when Freundel, a prominent Orthodox leader and rabbi at Washington’s Kesher Israel synagogue, was arrested for allegedly installing a clock radio with a hidden camera in the mikvah’s shower room. He is believed to have clandestinely filmed women showering and undressing before their practice dunks and the monthly immersions that married Orthodox women perform following menstruation.

Freundel has been charged with six counts of misdemeanor voyeurism and suspended without pay from his job.

Looking back, Mandel says, elements of the experience were deeply suspect.

“At first I was like, this was weird, but when he was waiting in the waiting room I thought this is just me being paranoid,” Mandel said. Now, she says, “It makes me ill.”

Peeping was not the only form of abuse that converts said they experienced at Freundel’s hands. The rabbi also demanded that conversion candidates perform clerical duties on his behalf and donate money to the Washington Beit Din, or rabbinical court. These candidates, practically all of them women, would organize his files, open his mail, pay his bills, take dictation and respond to emails on his behalf.

Many felt they had no recourse but to comply with Freundel’s requests.

“My entire conversion was doing office work for him and teaching myself,” said a Maryland resident who converted in 2012 after two years of working with Freundel and spoke with JTA on the condition of anonymity. “I was so desperate to convert and move on with my life that I was willing to play along.”

Mandel, too, had no idea when her conversion would be complete. After her practice dunk in October 2010, it took another eight months for Freundel to green-light her actual conversion.

“You’d meet with him and he’d at some point arbitrarily decide that you were ready to go to the beit din,” Mandel said. “There was no clear outline or timeline or requirements. I didn’t go to classes or study.”

The peeping Tom revelations, while the most extraordinary of the allegations against Freundel, have helped pull back the curtain on what may be a far more common problem in the Orthodox world: the abuse of prospective converts by the rabbis who convert them. In Freundel’s case, the rabbi allegedly abused his power both for sexual and non-sexual purposes.

The Rabbinical Council of America, which rebuked Freundel two years ago for misusing conversion candidates for clerical work, says it is reviewing its procedures to better safeguard against such exploitation.

For the women whose privacy was violated by Freundel’s alleged actions, the revelations have been shocking — but in retrospect, they said, not out of character with a man many deemed “creepy.”

One female candidate for conversion who declined to be identified for fear that her 2012 conversion could be challenged said Freundel made her ride with him to Towson University near Baltimore, where Freundel taught in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, to do secretarial work. The woman, who was single at the time, said the rides were uncomfortable and the work was onerous, particularly because she worked nights and needed her days free to catch up on sleep.

But she didn’t dare say no to Freundel because he held the prerogative to declare her ready for conversion.

“When you’re going through conversion, you don’t know the timeline of when you’re going to finish — there’s so much power being wielded over you, and in the interim you’re in limbo,” she said. “You can’t move, you can’t switch jobs to another location, because you have to live in the community where you’re converting. I felt a great sense of desperation to get the process over as fast as possible.”

She said Freundel made comments that struck her as strange and inappropriate.

“He made a lot of comments that didn’t sit right for me about my appearance, about how attractive he thought I was, about whether guys were pursuing me, about my clothing,” she recalled. “I found it quite uncomfortable to be around him for long periods of time alone.”

Mandel said her own conversion process was terribly disjointed even though Freundel was part of the committee that established conversion policies and standards for the Rabbinical Council of America. Freundel was also known for being an advocate of opening up certain leadership roles in Orthodoxy to women, such as synagogue presidencies.

The RCA, which suspended Freundel’s membership following his Oct. 14 arrest, says it has appointed a committee to review its entire conversion system to determine if and where changes are needed to prevent rabbinic abuse. The organization, which serves as the main rabbinical association for centrist Orthodox rabbis in the United States, also said it would appoint women to serve as ombudsmen for every rabbinical conversion court in the country to “receive any concerns of female candidates to conversion.”

Rabbi Mark Dratch, the RCA’s executive vice president, said in an interview that it’s difficult for the RCA to police its members closely.

“Because they are scattered throughout the country, we don’t have a lot of hands-on oversight,” he said.

The appointment of female ombudsmen, Dratch said, is meant to address this problem.

“We wanted to create all kinds of opportunities for potential converts to feel safe to share their discomforts and concerns,” he said. “We want to support a healthy conversion process.”

Critics say the RCA is not up to the task, as demonstrated by its failure to identify Freundel’s alleged misdeeds despite at least two prior complaints against him. One was about using prospective converts for clerical tasks and soliciting the beit din donations, as well as maintaining a joint bank account with a conversion candidate. In the other, Freundel was accused of sharing a sleeper compartment on an overnight train with a woman who was not his wife.

The RCA says it appointed a committee to investigate the first complaint and concluded that while the behavior was inappropriate, there was no malicious intent. Dratch says Freundel asked many congregants, not just converts, for clerical help and donations, and the joint checking account was intended to help a prospective convert. Freundel was reprimanded and agreed to stop.

As to the train incident, the RCA says Freundel was confronted and provided a “reasonable explanation,” and there was no evidence of inappropriate behavior, but did not elaborate.

“A delegation was sent to Washington to speak with Freundel,” Dratch recalled. “They came back with a recommendation that didn’t rise to a level where he had to be dismissed.”

Among those tasked by the RCA and its affiliated Beth Din of America with investigating Freundel were two attorneys who now lead major Jewish organizations: Allen Fagin, now the chief professional at the Orthodox Union, and Eric Goldstein, now CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York. Goldstein declined to comment to JTA; a representative for Fagin said he was unavailable for comment.

A rabbinic critic interviewed by JTA said the RCA’s approach to Freundel was “totally incompetent.”

“The organization should have seen a red flag and they didn’t,” said the critic, who declined to be named because he said he did not want to be a distraction. “This is a story of a Jewish institution missing the warning signs because they answer to nobody.”

The critic compared the RCA’s handling of the Freundel allegations to the failure by Yeshiva University to reign in the inappropriate behavior of Rabbi George Finkelstein, a teacher and administrator at Y.U.’s high school for boys who over the course of three decades allegedly wrestled and hugged boys inappropriately, and the failure of the Orthodox Union to put a stop to the abuse of minors by Rabbi Baruch Lanner, who was exposed by reports in The New York Jewish Week and eventually was convicted in 2002 of two counts of child sexual abuse.

Freundel, 62, has pleaded not guilty to the six charges of misdemeanor voyeurism. His attorney, Jeffrey Harris of the Washington firm Rubin, Winston, Diercks, Harris & Cooke L.L.P., did not return a call seeking comment. Freundel’s next court date is Nov. 12.

The RCA and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel have affirmed that all the conversions Freundel oversaw prior to his arrest remain valid.

Elanit Jakabovics, Kesher Israel’s board president, declined to be interviewed for this story. But the address she delivered to her congregation on Oct. 15, on the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, a day after Freundel’s arrest, wasposted on the synagogue’s website.

“There are no words to describe the shock, devastation, and heartbreak we are all feeling at this moment,” she said. “Our trust has been violated. Mikvah is an intensely sacred, private ritual space. It is also supposed to be a sanctuary — a space of inviolable intimacy and privacy, where we go to cleanse ourselves and reckon with ourselves and our aspirations to a right Jewish life. But these sacred spaces — our shul and our mikvah — have now been tarnished. Our inviolability has been violated. I am a woman; I know it could have been me.”

David Barak, a Kesher Israel congregant and former president of the mikvah, said Freundel long had been a polarizing figure even within the congregation. But Barak, who converted under Freundel in 1998 and teaches a practical Judaism class for converts, was one of Freundel’s defenders.

“Nobody came to me afterward and said hey, the rabbi’s being weird,” Barak said. “But clearly there was a whole world I didn’t see.”

He says the synagogue is handling the scandal well, noting that the Simchat Torah holiday last week was one of the synagogue’s most spirited ever.

“I think the sense at the shul is we were here before the rabbi and we will be here after the rabbi,” Barak said.

Left dripping at the mikveh


What is your most powerful Jewish memory? Your bubbe’s creased hands as she covered her eyes before the flickering Shabbat candles? The sharp bite of maror and the sweet taste of grape juice at your parents’ seder table? Your first kiss at summer camp?

These moments form indelible memories that shape our identities in profound and lasting ways. No matter how far we drift from the synagogue or the Shabbat table, the rhythms of Jewish life continue to be familiar to us. If pressed, we can still mouth the Hebrew words we learned when we were young, or we catch ourselves humming our favorite Hebrew tunes in the shower. We look in the mirror and we see the eyes of our parents and our grandparents looking back at us.

But, for the few thousand adults who convert to Judaism each year, this foundation of memories and scaffold of associations wasn’t built in their early years. Powerful memories are not the stuff of 18-week courses or “Judaism for Dummies” books; these experiences take time, often years, to become part of a new and vital identity. Too often, our Jewish community leaves these brand-new Jews dripping at the mikveh, with little or no clue how to actually “do Jewish.”

We are great at preparing people for conversion. Los Angeles has robust community- and synagogue-based programs — including the one I lead at American Jewish University — that offer candidates months of in-depth learning and spiritual coaching, forming a deep investment in their individual growth. But we fall short in providing the ongoing support necessary to help these new members of the tribe navigate the long and sometimes arduous process of integration into the Jewish community. Instead, they are often offered little more than a handshake as they are handed their documents and given a blessing. Many of them have no clue what to do next.

It is a tragic fact that for some Jews by Choice, the most Jewishly they will ever live is in the lead-up to the mikveh, not during the balance of their lives as actual Jews. This is a particular risk for those who convert without having a Jewish partner. In other words, this most committed group — men and women who are joining the Jewish People purely out of love for Judaism — are the most vulnerable to isolation and loneliness. It is not uncommon for such people to ultimately lose the spark that brought them to Judaism to begin with.

Of course, this is a vexing issue in many arenas of Jewish life. Families cry together about the value of Torah and tradition while standing on the bimah at their children’s bat and bar mitzvahs, after which they never show their faces in shul again. Teenagers pray and sing with enthusiasm that verges on ferocity at United Synagogue Youth and BBYO conventions, only to leave for college, where they will never set foot in Hillel. Alumni of Birthright Israel come home from their transformative 10-day experience, do one Google search for “how to make aliyah,” and then settle right back into their previously scheduled lives.

Our greatest challenge as a community is no longer in creating powerful, life-changing experiences for our people. We have already succeeded in creating extraordinary camps, schools, shuls, Israel programs and introduction-to-Judaism classes. Our greatest challenge is to help people carry these experiences into their daily lives, to nurture their spark even when they are not actively in the midst of an immersive, curated experience.

This is not to say that we haven’t been trying. At the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program, we launched “INTRO 2.0,” a cohort of alumni that meets monthly for activities ranging from visits to Jewish museums, to holiday picnics, to interactive learning with major Jewish scholars. Other programs and synagogues offer similar experiences, including Shabbat meals or special learners’ services. However, these programs always have been somewhat on the margins rather than where they belong: at the heart of our work toward Jewish continuity.

We need a real communal investment in resources and programs to help brand-new Jews translate their passion into action. We need mentoring programs, a universal policy of complementary synagogue memberships, ongoing learning opportunities and affordable Israel experiences for those whose connection with Eretz Yisra’el is not inborn. 

In the wake of last year’s Pew Research Center report and the increased panic over the Jewish future, this should be a central concern of the entire Jewish community. When we leave a new convert dripping at the mikveh, we squander one of our most precious resources, one of the keys to growing a robust Jewish population.

Chances are your Jewish identity took a lot longer than 18 weeks to form. We must come together to support our new Jews for the long haul. They have chosen to cast their lot with us. We must remember that our lot is tied up with theirs.


Rabbi Adam Greenwald is the director of the Louis & Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University, the largest preparatory program for those considering conversion to Judaism in North America. This year, Greenwald was named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis” by the Jewish Daily Forward. 

Childhood abuse victims name Mendel Tevel as alleged abuser


Sitting with his back hunched, his wife by his side and a kippah on his head, a 23-year-old bearded Orthodox man nervously told a gathering of parents at a private residence near Pico-Robertson that a young man named Mendel Tevel had sexually abused him when he was 14. Tevel now lives in Los Angeles and is believed to have worked in recent months at JEM, a Jewish youth center in Beverly Hills.

The alleged victim did not tell the group his name and demanded that all cell phones be placed in a separate room — and although he told the Journal his full name, because of the sensitivity of the subject he asked that it be withheld from this story. This was his first public accounting of his alleged abuse, talking to about 40 community members on the evening of Aug. 5. As people trickled into the home of David and Etty Abehsera, he began his story:

When he was a 14-year-old student — in around 2004 — at the since-closed Shterns Yeshiva in upstate New York, Tevel, then a mentor at the school, initiated what was at first a friendly relationship with the speaker. Tevel, who is now about 30, was around 21 years old at the time.

At first, the man alleged, Tevel offered simply to be the student’s exercise partner. But eventually, he said, Tevel came up with extreme ways to motivate him to work out harder, including repeatedly whipping him with a metal coat hanger, which he said lacerated his skin and caused bleeding.

He claimed that as the relationship grew, Tevel would crawl into bed with him at night, inappropriately massage him, and rub his clothed body against the boy’s. He claimed Tevel also bent him over and spanked him when he refused to immerse himself in what was sometimes a very cold outdoor mikveh (ritual bath). These incidents occurred multiple times, the speaker said.

“He wasn’t exactly trying to hide the fact that he had an erection at the time,” the alleged victim told the gathering, describing his incidents with Tevel in the mikveh.

“I was a very naïve 14-year-old, but something just didn’t feel right, so I cut off ties with him.”

Because these acts occurred in New York, where the statute of limitations for charging someone with sexual abuse expires when the victim turns 23, the State of New York would not be able to press charges against Tevel based on this man’s testimony alone. The man said he currently lives in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights but on the night he spoke he was in Los Angeles on vacation.

Following this accounting, three more people alleging to be victims of Tevel shared their stories with the Journal via telephone from Brooklyn, where Tevel was born and raised, and where he lived before he moved to Los Angeles in 2012. All of the alleged victims interviewed by phone, when asked, told the Journal they do not know personally any other people who say they’ve been abused by Tevel. The instances described by those who spoke with the Journal took place as early as around 1995 and as recently as around 2004.

Tevel himself did not respond to multiple phone calls to his personal cell phone, nor to voicemails, text messages and e-mails from the Journal over several days. Searches of both civil and criminal public records did not reveal any convictions, or any closed or pending charges against Tevel in either New York or California.

Two local residents, both of whom asked that their names not be made public, identified Tevel as recently working at the JEM Center. One said that Tevel and his wife, Bracha, were directing JEM’s Hebrew High School Program as recently as one month ago. On the Web site jewishcommunitywatch.org, Tevel is labeled as the “counselor/director of JEM center.”

Another person confirmed seeing Tevel at a farbrengen (a Chasidic celebratory gathering) on Monday, Dec. 3, 2012, at JEM. The gathering included both adults and children. 

On the morning of Aug. 13, just before press time, Rabbi Hertzel Illulian, director and founder of the JEM Center, answered one of many phone calls made by the Journal to him over a period of three days. Illulian said he was not able to immediately comment because he was dealing with a recent death in the community. 

Illulian’s daughter, Bracha, married Tevel in 2012. Bracha also did not respond to multiple attempts to reach her.

The accounts from the four alleged victims who spoke with the Journal provided vivid details of both sexual and physical abuse. Two of the alleged cases occurred in Brooklyn, N.Y. The other two occurred at Machane Menachem, a since-closed Chabad-Lubavitch sleepaway camp in Lackawaxen, Penn., where two former staff members have confirmed that Tevel worked in 2001. 

All four of the alleged victims currently live in Brooklyn, and each asked that their names not be made public.

One alleged victim, now 25, who spoke to the Journal on the phone from Brooklyn, described an incident indicating that Tevel’s abuse might have begun at a very early age. The 25-year-old said that when he was 6 or 7 years old, his family lived near Tevel’s family in Brooklyn.

The alleged victim said that Tevel, then 11 or 12, would go to the basement of his home multiple times per week with him, lock the door, tie him down, remove some or all of his clothing, and whip him (he does not remember with what).

“One thing I do remember very clearly is that it was very painful, and saying ‘Ow’ a lot of times,” the 25-year-old told the Journal.

“I had just a T-shirt on and socks,” he continued. “Of course, pants and any sort of underwear, that was gone.” He said that this continued for several months.

The alleged victim, who was raised an observant Jew, said he has since attended therapy for years, on and off. It was not until he was 19 or 20 that he opened up to his therapist about the incidents. He said that he is no longer particularly observant. 

A third alleged victim said that when he was 11, likely in 2001, he was a camper at Machane Menachem. Now 23, he said that Tevel, who was likely about 18 at the time, was a counselor at the camp, and worked closely with the campers.

“I was on my [bunk’s] front porch and he called me to the side of the pool,” the alleged victim said during a phone interview with the Journal. “He started smacking me on my bum with a pingpong paddle.”

He said that although “he didn’t make much of it in the beginning,” when Tevel began smacking him harder and tried to pull down his pants, he asked Tevel, “What are you doing?” Tevel’s response, according to the alleged victim, was that he “brushed the whole thing off.” No further incidents followed. 

A fourth alleged victim who spoke with the Journal is currently 21 years old. He said that when he was about 9 and Tevel was about 18, he was a first-time camper at Machane Menachem. One day, he alleged, Tevel brought him into a sports equipment room. 

As another person watched the door, the 21-year-old man claimed, Tevel bent him over his lap and smacked him on the rear with a pingpong paddle. He then pulled down his bathing suit and continued smacking him.

This alleged victim, who is also no longer observant, said that when he grew up, he would become very anxious when he would occasionally see Tevel walking in the streets of Crown Heights.

According to Pennsylvania law, both of the alleged victims from the sleepaway camp would be able to press charges, should they choose to do so, until they turn 50.

Allegations of sexual abuse by Tevel first became public in October 2012, when Meyer Seewald, the New York-based 24-year-old founder of Jewish Community Watch (JCW), posted about him on the Web site’s “Wall Of Shame,” after multiple alleged victims came to Seewald to accuse Tevel of sexual abuse.

JCW, which regularly publicizes information about suspected sexual abusers within the Jewish community — mostly in Crown Heights, where Seewald lives — currently lists 40 people on its Wall Of Shame. The Journal confirmed that neither Seewald nor JCW has ever been sued for libel or defamation regarding its publicizing of accused abusers. 

That review process includes personal interviews with multiple alleged victims and what appears to be a thorough investigation process. Following that, JCW will only post a suspect if its board unanimously agrees that the person is a child predator. JCW has a database of about 200 suspected predators that it is still investigating.

In one instance, JCW posted the name and a photo of a man, Daniel Granovetter, on its Web site after he was mistakenly charged by New York authorities with abuse when a student accused him, only to later retract the accusation. 

The authorities dropped the charges, and JCW removed Granovetter from its Web site, but the damage to his reputation had been done. 

In June, though, Granovetter penned an op-ed on chabadinfo.com commending JCW for its work, saying that Seewald should continue to post the names of people charged with abuse in order to protect children who could become victims in the time between the arrest and possible conviction.

Seewald claimed to have spoken with at least four more people alleging to have been victims of Tevel, but none of them would speak with the Journal. 

Refusal to go public with sexual abuse accusations, Seewald believes, is a common problem in the Orthodox community.

Seewald, who was at the Aug. 5 gathering, said that in his two years of running JCW and speaking with hundreds of victims, not one had ever told his or her story publicly to so many people.

Ben Forer, a local Orthodox Jew who is also a district attorney for Los Angeles County, wrote a public letter praising JCW’s “impeccable review process before exposing any predators.” (In speaking with the Journal, Forer said he was speaking only as a concerned community member, and not in any way on behalf of the district attorney’s office.) Rabbi Avraham Zajac, a local Orthodox rabbi, also said he respects JCW’s process. “I trust the methodology of Jewish Community Watch,” Zajac said. “The biggest thing is keeping our children safe.”

Forer was at the Aug. 5 gathering; he said that from his experience, “people don’t want to believe” allegations of sexual abuse.

“Families come out in support, in every community, in support of the predator, no matter what the evidence is,” said Forer, who currently specializes in technology-related crimes but has previously prosecuted sexual abuse cases.

In 2012, not long after Tevel’s arrival in Los Angeles, a local Orthodox Jew, Danny Fishman, briefly met Tevel on Shabbat morning at a local synagogue. Fishman said he did not know at the time about the allegations against Tevel. 

“I met him,” Fishman told the Journal. “He came across as personable and charming.”

Tevel has also been known to occasionally attend other synagogues in Hancock Park and Pico-Robertson.

A statement posted late last week on JEM’s Web site addressing the recent controversy surrounding Tevel did not mention him or any of the specific allegations against him, but stated that “JEM Center wishes to reassure the community that every precaution has been taken to resolve the concerns and bring this matter to a closure.”

The statement continued: “The local authorities have been contacted and are thoroughly investigating all issues that have been raised (and if needed action will be taken).”

JEM has surveillance cameras in all areas of its building, the statement continued, and no rooms or offices in the building are allowed to be locked.

Lt. Lincoln Hoshino of the Beverly Hills Police Department confirmed on Aug. 13 that it is conducting an investigation involving the JEM Center. He declined to say whether Tevel is involved in the investigation. 

Toward the end of the alleged victim’s account on Aug. 5, the former Shterns Yeshiva student explained why he came forward.

“It actually did take a lot for me to come out here and speak,” he said. But when he heard that Tevel is working around children in Los Angeles, he felt he had an obligation to do something.

“He [Tevel] has damaged a lot of people,” the man alleged. “He cannot be around schools; he cannot be around the community.”

With anger in his voice, he expressed his frustration with what he sees as the Orthodox community’s preference to not bring such cases into public light.

“Keeping it close-knit is not going to help,” the alleged victim asserted, his voice rising. “Keeping it close-knit is what the Jewish community has done for years.”

If you have concerns about possible instances of abuse in your community, you can e-mail us at abusetips@jewishjournal.com. Tipsters’ names will be treated with confidentiality, as requested.

Israel’s mikvahs open to non-Orthodox conversions, official clarifies


Clarifying existing policy, the office of Israel’s deputy religious services minister said Israel’s state-sponsored mikvahs are open for use for Conservative and Reform conversions.

Wednesday’s announcement, said a spokesperson for Eli Ben Dahan, does not change existing policy. The spokesperson said that some mikvahs, or ritual baths, had blocked Conservative and Reform Jews from entering,  but that because the mikvahs are public spaces, any Jew is allowed to use them for any purpose.

“It’s a public space, so it’s open to any Jew regardless of the movement,” she said. “This is an issue of equality.”

The spokesperson emphasized that the  announcement did not amount to recognition of non-Orthodox conversion. Ben Dahan is a member of the Modern Orthodox Jewish Home party, which is opposed to state recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish movements.

The chairman of Jewish Home, Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett, unveiled reforms of Israel’s religious services earlier this week aimed at streamlining the state’s religious institutions.  The reforms shrink the number of Israeli regional religious councils, allow couples to be married by any Orthodox rabbi in the state and change the criteria by which religious council heads are chosen, including adding more women to the process.

Jewish conversion 101


Conversion to Judaism is not easy. It requires a change in beliefs, actions and lifestyle. It involves extensive study, practice, a leap of faith, a shift in perception and some sacrifice. However, for those who feel it’s the right decision, it can be an exciting and rewarding experience. 

Before stepping into the mikveh — the ritual of immersion in water that is the culmination of the conversion process — prospective converts to Judaism must choose a movement, which will determine what kind of observance they want to follow and how they want to live their life as a Jew. 

“It’s cliché, but it’s true that converts make the very best Jews, because they are people that have chosen to be Jewish,” said Rabbi Adam Greenwald, executive director of the Louis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (AJU). “It wasn’t an accident of birth.”

Most prospective Jews by Choice go through a Reform, Conservative or Orthodox conversion, and the rules vary for each. Anyone considering conversion must find a sponsoring rabbi as the first step, then participate in a period of study, which might mean organized classes or individual study with a rabbi or tutor. Who guides the convert will determine which beit din — a rabbinical court consisting of three rabbis — is the best one to complete the conversion. 

AJU offers an 18-week course for those considering conversion — as well as anyone wanting to learn more about the faith — that takes place at venues throughout Los Angeles. Students at AJU’s program learn about Jewish values, traditions and history, including Conservative traditions and observance. The Reconstructionist and Reform movements also approve these classes.

In addition to the classes, a Holocaust survivor speaks to the students. All candidates learn to read prayers in Hebrew and participate in a Shabbaton and in a scavenger hunt at Whole Foods for kosher products. Since the program got its start in 1986, more than 4,000 participants have converted to Judaism, Greenwald said. 

Although Greenwald does not himself give approval for prospective converts to go before the beit din, he said he meets with all of his students and helps them to connect with a sponsoring rabbi: “It’s a great challenge to give a person the tools and information that they need in only a few months to be able to feel genuinely a part of the Jewish community,” he said. 

“It’s cliché, but it’s true that converts make the very best Jews, because they are people that have chosen to be Jewish.” — Rabbi Adam Greenwald, executive director of the Louis and Judith Miller, Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (AJU)

Rabbi Neal Weinberg, the former director of the AJU program, has led Judaism by Choice, another educational offering for those wishing to convert, since 2009. Weinberg’s classes include about 300 students each year and cover Jewish history, holidays, rituals, Zionism and the Torah. Classes, which instruct students for a Conservative conversion (see sidebar for more on Weinberg’s Judaism by Choice program), are offered either once or twice per week, for an average of three months. 

Since most students have busy lives, Weinberg acknowledged, he said he tries to make his classes entertaining. He demonstrates a brit milah (ritual circumcision) using a Cabbage Patch doll, holds a mock wedding with a chuppah (wedding canopy) and goes over the prayers. His classes are offered at synagogues in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Venice and the San Fernando Valley. “Anybody can take the program,” said Miri Weinberg, the rabbi’s wife, who helps run Judaism by Choice. “We don’t turn anyone away.”

The Weinbergs’ program includes Shabbat dinners and holiday-themed events for both current students and program graduates. He said that he expects students wishing to convert to attend synagogue consistently and keep a level of kosher. “I think there has to be a certain behavior,” Neal said. “I’d rather I be the one [teaching them] than having them go through the beit din and not passing. That could be painful. I’m a coach that prepares people for it.”

Most of the time, the participants in the Judaism by Choice classes undergo either a Conservative conversion or go before the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, a pluralistic beit din that is endorsed by Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis. 

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) also offers an 18-week Introduction to Judaism course for prospective converts. This class, too, covers lifecycle events, history, holidays, prayer, Israel and theology. Many of the URJ’s candidates end up going through the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, as well.

Rabbi Sabine Meyer, director of the URJ’s conversion program, said about 15 classes per year are offered throughout Los Angeles, all of them both rigorous and comprehensive. “Reform conversion is not conversion light. We do not convert people to Reform Judaism. We convert them to Judaism,” she said.

URJ has offered its introduction class for more than three decades, and Meyer has seen classes where up to 80 percent of the people have continued on to convert, but she emphasized that the class is not meant just for prospective Jews by Choice. “It’s for anybody who is interested in learning more about Judaism and the important tools that they need [to practice], if that’s what they want to do.”

Candidates for conversion in Los Angeles who would like to connect to a more traditional lifestyle can also prepare to go before an Orthodox beit din. The requirements for an Orthodox conversion typically require that the candidate observe kosher laws both inside and outside of the home, live within an Orthodox community, observe the Sabbath and study with a tutor. 

Rabbi Avrohom Union, the rabbinic administrator of the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), which features an Orthodox beit din, said candidates must be sincere and “want to be part of the [Orthodox] community and adopt that lifestyle. We look to see that people approach this with a certain maturity and a solid [reason as to] why they want to do this.”

Applicants accepted to the RCC’s program are assigned a private tutor, and a candidate should expect to spend 18 to 24 months studying and participating fully in Jewish life before the process of conversion is complete, Union said. The most important aspect of the conversion, he said, is establishing oneself in a community. “Orthodox Jewish life tends to revolve around Shabbat. We want people working with us to be a part of that community. We don’t want them to feel different from someone who was born Jewish.”

Since entering into an Orthodox lifestyle can be a huge change for most candidates, Union said that he and the rabbis on his beit din “want people to get personal attention. For someone to make a transition from gentile to Orthodox Jew is a significant transition, and it’s not like a university course, where you simply learn the material, take the test and pass. It’s a process of personal growth.”

Any candidate who chooses to convert — whether through an Orthodox, Reform or Conservative program — should know their goals and understand the process as they enter into it. They also need to realize that being immersed in the mikveh is not the culmination of the learning — it’s just the beginning. 

“Becoming a Jew is not an event,” Miri Weinberg said. “It’s a process.”

An example to her children


Fourteen years ago, Catherine and Bruce Penso’s oldest daughter, Leah, was ready to become a bat mitzvah. But before her big day, Leah told her parents that she wanted to go to the mikveh and formally convert. 

Catherine and her younger daughter, Rebecca, decided to join Leah in the ritual. 

Catherine, a native of San Francisco who now lives in Westchester, holds a master’s in social work and volunteers with a variety of charities as well as for her synagogue. She grew up Catholic, but started questioning those beliefs when she was in college. Then she met her Jewish husband-to-be. 

“Because the foundations of Catholicism are built on Judaism, it wasn’t hard for me to incorporate the aspects of the religion into my life,” she said. “It would have been a lot harder for Bruce to accept Catholicism. I’ve never felt that strong relationship with Jesus Christ that some Catholics and Christians do. It was a gradual moving away from Catholicism and moving toward Judaism.”

Before Catherine married Bruce, she took an Introduction to Judaism class at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), as well as a Jewish holiday workshop class when she was a newlywed. The couple both decided to raise their children within the Jewish religion. Prior to the conversion, Catherine and Bruce were already members of Temple Akiba and committed to raising their children — Leah, then 12, Rebecca, 5, and Daniel, 10 — in a Jewish home. All of the kids had attended nursery and religious school at Akiba. 

“The conversion was a formalization of what I’d been living, but it seemed finalized,” Catherine said. “It was very special to do it with my daughters, and it made it that much more meaningful.”

Because Catherine had taken courses and was already living a Jewish life, all that remained for conversion was to step into the mikveh and to meet with the beit din (Jewish court of law). She converted through the Conservative movement. 

Bruce had never pressured her to convert, but Catherine remembers that his sister had, at one point, brought up the fact that his daughters wouldn’t be considered Jewish by some people. 

“She had actually suggested [to convert] to my daughter, because in the future if she met someone who was more religious, [he or she] might not recognize her Judaism,” Catherine said. 

“At first I was kind of insulted because they were raised Jewish, but Judaism is through the mother, so there was a sense of formalizing it and having it recognized by other Jews and other sects.”

Although Catherine’s parents died before the conversion, Catherine said they had been very accepting. Her mother, she said, had a hard time with the fact that the babies weren’t going to be baptized, but her father said he was just happy that she had religion in her life. 

In the 14 years since her conversion, Catherine has become increasingly involved at Akiba, and spends upward of 25 hours per week devoted to volunteering. She chairs the mitzvah day committee, planning how the congregation devotes a special day to tikkun olam (repairing the world). The Jewish principle of giving back and being the best person one can be resonates with her: “I just try to be mindful of being a good person with the work that I do,” she said. “I try to live my life as an example to my children. I try to be kind to people and speak well of people.”

Catherine and Bruce’s children also continue to lead Jewish lives as well. Leah is the most active: She teaches religious school, and next summer she plans to run the synagogue’s youth group and direct its resident camp.

Being a member of Akiba for the past 30 years has reinforced the Penso family’s — and Catherine’s — love of Judaism. 

“There’s a real community,” she said. “I never feel alone. A lot of that has to do with the temple I belong to. It really feels like a home away from home. I’ve made some wonderful friends. I just know that Judaism is something I believe in. It’s something I want to be a part of.”

Finding Judaism through music


For Chris Hardin, converting to Judaism was a family affair. 

In November 1994, Hardin, then 38, stepped into the mikveh. That day, his daughter and wife did the same. 

Hardin’s conversion process began when he met his future wife, Jennifer, on a cruise ship. He was directing the music, and she was one of the singers. They were both Lutheran, but she told him that she had the desire to be Jewish. 

After the birth of their daughter, Calah, Hardin started attending classes at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) out of support for Jennifer. He admired how the rabbis would allow questioning, unlike the pastors with whom he grew up. “I had no intention of converting, but by the second class I was hooked,” he said. “Judaism is not just a religion. It’s a way of life.”

As a child, Hardin went to church and Bible study every Sunday. After his parents divorced when he was 11, church was no longer a regular event. “I fell away from any kind of organized religion,” he said. “But I never left my feelings and thoughts about God.”

When he decided to convert, Hardin chose to be a member of the Conservative movement. Orthodoxy was full of practices that he and Jennifer did not wish to partake of, and Reform wasn’t enough for them. After going to more than a dozen shuls, they settled on Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, where they’ve been members for 18 years. He’s also the music director. “Every time I write some new music for our synagogue, I learn more about Judaism, and I absolutely love it,” he said. “It’s made me a better person.”

By the time Hardin was Jewish, his mom had already passed away. His dad, a music director for Lutheran churches, said that if it made his son happy to practice a different religion, then he was fine with it. The only member of his family who had a huge issue with the conversion was his younger sister, an Evangelical Christian. “She didn’t speak to me for a few months,” he said. “She thought I was going to burn in hell because I didn’t accept Jesus as my savior. Then her priest said we were going to the same place, but we were just taking different paths. Now we’re tighter than I am with my other sisters, because she and I are the only ones with any observance at all.”

Today, Hardin brings Judaism into his family’s life by keeping a kosher home, learning Hebrew, observing all the holidays, and playing music at shul most Friday nights and Saturday mornings. It took him eight years to balance Shabbat and his work schedule, but he is now able to enjoy his day of rest. Calah, who is 20, was the president of United Synagogue Youth at her high school, and Hardin’s 15-year-old son, Benjamin, is now active in the same organization. 

Much of Hardin’s enthusiasm for Judaism can be attributed to Valley Beth Shalom and the community he’s been a part of there for nearly two decades. “In shul, you want your kids to have freedom and fun,” he said. “All the people in shul, I trust with my kids. You don’t find that in very many places. We have a community that’s helped us raised our kids.”

Hardin continued, “The community is unbelievable. My wife just lost her mom, and we got phone calls and e-mails from people. Everyone was coming up to me at shul asking what they could do. I’ve watched it with other deaths. Even if people in the community don’t know you, they come to you and support you and let you know they’re here for you.”

The only regret Hardin has about his conversion, he said, is that he didn’t do it sooner. “Judaism is the best-kept secret in the world. It makes one happy. But I’m an eternal optimist. I’ve seen people who are not so optimistic, who don’t even know why they came to shul but leave feeling uplifted, and that is beautiful. It’s a wonderful thing, and I wish more people could find it.”

Angelenos raise money for mikveh, $1 million for Israeli school


Money for a Mikvah

Though demure in their dress, the women of the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles were not as modest with their checkbooks during an “Evening of Auction and Ambiance,” a Nov. 2 fundraiser for the maintenance of Mikvah Esther located on Pico Boulevard. Assembled on the tennis court of a sprawling Beverly Hills estate, nearly 200 women bid on donated auction items as diverse as home-delivered challah (valued at “priceless”) and Botox treatment (valued at $800).

“The laws of family purity are the basic foundation for the Jewish family home,” said Liz Steinlauf, a Mikvah Society founding member whose father, a Holocaust survivor, began a movement toward building a community mikvah in the 1950s.

The warm apple crumble helped sweeten appetites for bidding, while conversation oscillated from family updates to the election (“I’m from Iran — I know a snake when I see one,” a woman who declined to be named, said of Barack Obama).

The enthusiastic bidding was a tribute to the seriousness with which Jewish women regard the mikvah ritual, one of the three cornerstone mitzvot (along with lighting Shabbat candles and separating challah) commanded specifically of Jewish women.

“A man uses the mikvah by custom. We use the mikvah by commandment,” said Miriam Fishman, who sits on the education committee of the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles.

The Jewish laws of niddah (“to be separated”) prohibit sexual relations between husband and wife from the onset of a woman’s menstruation until seven days after its end. Although the ritual is required only of married women, its observance impacts the whole family, Fishman explained.

“The entire family benefits from the purity of relations between a woman and her husband — from the children who are born from those relations and from the discipline and respect established between husband and wife — a family is one neshama,” she said.

Mikvah Esther was established in 1973 out of a geographic need for a community mikvah in the Pico-Robertson area. Until then, the only local mikvah was located on Fairfax, which made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a woman to attend on Shabbat. When the Pico mikvah opened its doors 35 years ago, 80 women visited monthly; today, after $500,000 in recent renovations, almost 1,000 women spend their mikvah night on Pico Boulevard each month. At $26 a visit, the mikvah is open every night of the year except Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur, when Jewish law prohibits marital relations.

Since the renovations, which modernized the mikvah and made it more like a spa, the cost of upkeep has increased.

“Mikvahs should be beautiful,” said Sandi Reiss, a former Mikvah Society of Los Angeles president. “A woman should look forward to going without dread.”

Which is why part of the renovation included luxurious additions, like 12 private dressing rooms.

As much as these women enjoy the act of going to the mikvah, it represents more than just a ritual bath. Observing the family purity laws enriches their marital relationships.

“For two weeks of the month, if you have a fight, you literally can’t ‘kiss and make up,'” Fishman said. “You can’t sweep your problems under the rug with passion — you have to talk.”

But be not fooled — it is also about the art of sexual attraction. Apparently, the Torah knows the secret to keeping things hot.

“The Torah views sexual attraction as beautiful and desirable and frequent,” Fishman said about sexual indulgence within a holy context. The practice of restraining from sex every month “keeps you sensitive to holding hands.”

For more information about the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles, call (310) 550-4511.

Iranian Jews Raise $1 Million for Israeli Agricultural School

Friends of Alliance Israélite in Southern California, a newly formed nonprofit, drew 350 Iranian Jews to the Beverly Hills home of Jacqueline and Isaac Moradi on Oct. 19. The evening raised funds for Mikveh Israel, the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU) agricultural school located on a tract of land southeast of Tel Aviv.

Between 1898 and 1979, the AIU provided secular and Jewish education to Jews living throughout Iran, an effort that indirectly resulted in Iranian Jews gaining wealth and leaving their ghettos. Gity Barkhordar, one of the event’s organizers, said ticket sales and fundraising efforts at the event together raised $1 million for Mikveh Israel, which will fund renovation projects.

The Friends of Alliance Israélite in Southern California was co-founded by members of the affluent Merage family, who like other Iranian American Jews have been enthusiastic about returning the generosity the AIU showed their community more than 100 years ago.

“There is one simple question: What would have happened to me if my father had not gotten a chance to get at an education at the Alliance?” said David Merage, the event’s co-chair. “I wish I could go back to the founders of Alliance and say thank you.”

During the past several years the Merage family has been active in various Jewish philanthropic groups in the United States and in Israel’s Negev region.

Also at hand was French Jewish philanthropist Hubert Leven, whose great-grandfather, Narcisse, along with six other French Jews, helped establish AIU schools throughout Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East for Sephardic Jews. In addition to the Jewish Journal’s columnist David Suissa speaking at the gathering, a video message of support was also played from Israeli Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz.

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

ALTTEXT

Left to right: Pari Rahban, Katherine Merage and David Merage. Photo by Karmel Melamed

New South Bay mikvah puts the ritz in the ritual bath


Women living in the Beach Cities need no longer travel to Long Beach, Lomita or the Pico-Robertson area to experience the tranquility of a mikvah.

Mikvah Mei Menachem, a $350,000, 1,100-square-foot ritual bath facility set in north Redondo Beach on the expansive campus of Jewish Community Center-Chabad of the Beach Cities, brings an opulent mikvah option to the South Bay area. Organizers began taking reservations for the first time this week, offering the community a luxury setting with architectural flourishes more typical of a day spa.

The north Redondo mikvah, the third ritual bath for the South Bay/Long Beach area, is the crown jewel of Chabad on Vail Avenue, one of the South Bay’s largest synagogues.

“In Judaism, a mikvah is one of the foundations of a synagogue. Before you build anything, Jewish education and a mikvah are the two most important things,” said Rabbi Yossi Mintz, the synagogue’s senior rabbi.

Mintz and his wife, Sara, first envisioned the ritual bath in December 2006 as an opportunity to bring greater Jewish observance to the cozy coastal neighborhood. But as the project progressed, the lavish design of the mikvah financially stretched the shul.

As costs for materials began creeping up over the past year, the project almost doubled from an original estimate of $180,000 to $350,000, including $50,000 for glass tiles.

“Tiles went up crazy,” Mintz said. “Originally it was $16 a foot when we were picking it. When we bought it [six months later], it was $24.”

Despite the increases, the couple felt it was critical not to compromise on their vision.

“The beautiful, materialist world is not opposed to tradition. It’s just the opposite; we have to embrace the materialistic world and uplift it,” he said. “Rather than reject it, embrace the beauty. Why should Judaism be ugly? Have beautiful homes, beautiful sukkahs and beautiful shuls.”

Mintz says that if he had the means he would have continued to build, but the synagogue currently owes about $100,000 on the mikvah.

“There’s only a certain amount of debt you can go into,” he said.

The mikvah’s gated entrance is set far enough away from the synagogue’s main entrance that it’s still possible to ensure client privacy. Flowers and ferns line newly paved steps that descend to what was once the basement of the 6,700-square-foot synagogue.

Female guests — this mikvah is not for use by men — are greeted by warm earth tones in a reception area that leads to three private bathrooms, which feature engraved mirrors, vessel sinks and embroidered bathrobes and towels.

The slight trickle of a decorative wall fountain is enough to cut the silence in the white circular mikvah room. Red blossoms, frozen in freefall behind glass, serve as a reminder of the natural world that provides the glass-tiled mikvah with its water.

A mikvah is a small pool that must contain, at least in part, water that never has touched metal, including rainwater and snowmelt. Visiting a mikvah is considered a mitzvah for both men and women, especially before marriage, after conversion and before major holidays, like Yom Kippur. But the mikvah is most commonly associated with Orthodox and Conservative women who follow Jewish laws concerning niddah (family purity) and want ritual purity after menstruation or childbirth.

“Mikvah is about transitioning from one stage in your life to another,” said Sara Mintz, who will be one of about five women who will serve as the mikvah lady. “From single to married. From having your period to being available to your husband. From wanting to be Jewish to becoming Jewish.”

There are about 20 mikvot in Southern California, including Mikvah Chaya V’sarah Leah in Long Beach and Mikvas Chana in Lomita. The majority of ritual baths are run by Orthodox synagogues, and all but a few are intended exclusively for women, including north Redondo’s mikvah.

It’s yet to be seen how many women will use Mikvah Mei Menachem, which has a suggested donation policy of $25. Current Jewish population numbers are not available, but the 1997 L.A. Jewish Population Survey found 9,100 Jews in the Beach Cities area with no significant Orthodox population at that time.

Sara Mintz says she hopes women will find the mikvah an escape from the outside world.

“Women in general are so busy, and I want them to be able to stop what they’re doing, and come and enjoy,” she said. “I want them to get into that right frame of mind. Women are the foundation of the home, and I want them to really feel that.”

She feels the investment is worth the expense, because it will help women who have never used a mikvah to see how beautiful the experience can be. She is hopeful that the spa-like experience will nourish a craving for spirituality.

“I want them to feel like this is a special place for them,” she said. “For people who have never used a mikvah before, I want them to see how beautiful the mitzvah of mikvah is.”

For more information or to make an appointment, call (310) 265-3868.

Annapolis, Chanukah, Jerusalem, Not So Weird


Annapolis and Jerusalem

Last month, Rob Eshman wrote, “Many of us are willing to let half of Jerusalem go so that the idea of Jerusalem can be saved” (“Annapolis and Chanukah,” Nov. 30). I’d like to respond with two points:

First, if, God forbid, East Jerusalem were handed over to the Palestinians, it wouldn’t be “ideas” they’d be firing onto the homes and institutions of West Jerusalem.

Second, no portion of Israel, especially Jerusalem, is the sole possession of the prime minister, to be traded for even a legitimate promise of peace. The state may be sovereign, but the land upon which the Israeli government presides is unique and distinct from any other parcel of land on earth.

Jerusalem belongs to all Jews, everywhere: those of us who pray every day for its safety, teenagers visiting for the first time through Taglit-birthright israel, grandparents who buy Israel Bonds for their grandchildren, Israel Defense Forces soldiers who fought to protect and reunify the city and their families and friends who grieved when they paid the ultimate price.

Although we’ve been scattered around the world for the past 2,000 years, our hearts were always in Jerusalem. Seeing the city divided now would break our hearts.

Daniel Iltis
Los Angeles

I want to thank Rob Eshman for his insightful and honest piece about Annapolis. I am heartened that the parties met and that the Arab world seems ready to move in the direction of making peace with Israel. The hard work is yet to come.

And it is so true that the story of Chanukah, the spiritual side, which the rabbis highlighted through the haftarah of Zecharia, can inform us in how we go forward in this new round of talks. We must all be truthful, hopeful and courageous of spirit in our desire for peace.

Jerusalem can be shared, as it is already, and the holy sites will be open to all people.

The naysayers are out in force, but I am choosing to stand with those who believe in hope and a future of peace. The realities will be hard to swallow, but with a healthy dose of spirituality, a belief that tomorrow can be different from today, we can be the generation that makes peace a reality. Not by might but by spirit.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater
Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center,
Brit Tzedek V’Shalom National Secretary

‘New Kind of Mikveh’

There are many beautifully designed mikvehs throughout California (“New Kind of Mikveh Washes Off Ritual’s Negative Image,” Dec. 7). This new trend started some 30 years ago with the Long Beach Mikveh. Its establishment was prompted by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Since then, mikvehs have taken on a new approach to design and sensitivity to femininity. For instance, the recently constructed mikveh in Agoura is a prime example of this trend.

In our community of Yorba Linda, the Orange County mikveh is slated to open in just a few weeks. The mikveh was constructed with great attention to detail. It is a haven of holiness and purity. Many in the community will benefit from it.

For more on mikvehs around the community, visit www.mikvah.org.

Rabbi David Eliezrie
North County Chabad Center

‘Wandering Minyan’

I must confess that it was with special delight and pleasure I read David Suissa’s Pearl Harbor Day column titled, “Wandering Minyan” (Dec. 7).

There are three reasons I was thrilled by your explication. First, the dynamic writing style offered a cerebral joy associated with pleasure of experiencing fine craftsmanship. Secondly and more importantly I shared an experience with Young Israel of Santa Monica, and your words were true and familiar. What reverberated deeply was your prophetic call to act as a true guardian and trustee of community assets, to act benevolently and righteously, to act as a brother to a brother.

My encounter with this little congregation was similar to yours. My wife and I sauntered into the Levin Center and encountered an eclectic group, unified in their respect and warmth toward guests and each other.

I wish I could share your optimism that with a new voice in The Federation, there can be exhibited a breath of kindness to engage Young Israel.

I ask all like-minded folk, especially Young Israel congregants, to make a small amendment to their annual gifts to The Federation. Make their checks payable to Young Israel of Santa Monica Rent Trust (Negotiable when Young Israel resumes residency at the Levin Center).

If enough dollars are earmarked for Young Israel of Santa Monica, The Federation will yield to economy, if not brotherhood.

David [Suissa] keep up the good work in keeping our community leaders accountable and humane.

David Stauber
Santa Monica

Kabbalah

If Phillip Berg, founder of the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles, is “trying to keep young Jews from cults,” then why is he discouraging them from taking pride in their Judaism (“Not So Weird,” Dec. 7)?

In his review of Jody Myers’ book and his own visit to the centre, Rob Eshman states that the Kabbalah Centre denies that it is Jewish (except when doing so would benefit its coffers). He also explains how centre regulars abhor the idea of converting to Judaism or even using the term Jewish.

If the centre and its adherents are so ashamed of being Jewish or being associated with something Jewish, then why did they steal the name of an ancient Jewish practice? Is it any wonder that the centre rubs many Jews the wrong way?

Real Jews take pride in their Judaism. They don’t try to appeal to the masses or blend in with non-Jews, and they certainly don’t try to coddle spoiled movie stars and pop singers like Madonna, who are made sick by the very idea of being Jewish.

New kind of mikveh washes off ritual’s negative image


“I’m pretty much your classic disaffected Gen-X kind of gal. I have too many shoes, I work too hard, I’m cynical, I’m broke. So when it came time for me to immerse before my wedding, I figured I’d bring some friends, we’d hang out, I’d get wet, we’d go eat, and that would be the end of it.”

That’s hardly the end of it for “the bride,” a character in “The Mikveh Monologues,” a play about the experience of immersing in the Jewish ritual bath that will be performed Dec. 17 at the Wadsworth Theatre as a fundraiser for the establishment of a new, nondenominational mikveh in Los Angeles.

The bride, along with the bat mitzvah girl, the convert, the father and son and the recovering cancer patient, among others, all tell their stories on stage in a show that follows the format created by Eve Ensler for her play “The Vagina Monologues.” But this time, instead of rhapsodizing about a once-shameful and hidden part of women’s bodies, they enthuse about an experience little-known among most Jews today, save the very observant — the mikveh.

For the last two centuries the ritual bath has been used most commonly by women for purification, so they can resume marital relations following their menstrual flow. A mikveh, which requires a body of natural water that often has been channeled into a man-made structure to serve a religious community, is also used by brides, for conversion rituals and, occasionally, by men before major holidays. But it is the association with women’s menstrual cycle and the perceived antiquated laws of niddah (marital purity) that have given the mikveh a bad rap in modern times.

“For a lot of people, the mikveh’s been associated with a lot of negatives — the second-class status of women, the denigration of women’s bodies,” says the play’s co-author, Anita Diamant. Premiering in 2005, the play was created as a means of fundraising for Mayyim Hayyim, a state-of-the-art nondenominational mikveh opened in 2004 in the largely Jewish community of Newton, Mass., near Boston. Diamant, best known as the author of “The Red Tent,” founded that mikveh, which has spawned a movement for alternative ritual baths nationwide, including one that is planned to open in 2010 in Los Angeles.

Not to mention that many mikvehs, which are generally supported by small communities and private donations, tend to be small, dingy places with dank reception rooms and stern supervisors (known as “the mikveh lady”) who oversee the correctness of the immersion and proclaim it kosher. In other words, the entire experience can be somewhat unpleasant — especially for converts, for whom this is a mandatory part of their entry into Judaism.

In the last decade, however, the notion of what a mikveh might represent has begun to change. Along with many other ritual practices that involve strict rulings on women’s participation — such as reading from the Torah or the megillah — many feminist-minded people have been rethinking how they might reclaim their practice in new ways. This includes a wide swath of non-Orthodox Jews who have begun to observe the laws of ritual purity and many others who are using immersion for non-traditional uses: to mark personal transitions, much like the myriad characters in “The Mikveh Monologues.”

The play tells the stories of real-life people, some of the 3,800 who have immersed at Mayyim Hayyim.

With the renaissance of interest in the mikveh, it was only a matter of time before someone would want to rethink the physical structure of the bath itself. And like many revolutions, this one started with one dreamer: Diamant, whose best-selling novel about Jacob’s daughter, Dina, popularized the genre of Jewish historical fiction.

While Diamant was writing her novel, she was also working on “Choosing a Jewish Life,” a book about converting to Judaism. In the process, she went to the only mikveh in the Boston area open to non-Orthodox Jews — and which was only available to them on Mondays from 9-11 a.m.

“It was not built to welcome people to Judaism,” Diamant said. “I felt increasingly that we were not performing the warm welcome we owed people coming to Judaism.”

She imagined a mikveh that would be warm and welcoming and open to the entire community for different uses.

“I want a mikveh. Not my own, personal mikveh in the backyard, but a community mikveh that I can call my own,” Diamant wrote in “Living Waters,” a column that was later reprinted in her book, “Pitching My Tent”:

“I want a mikveh where converts will linger at the mirror, before and after the blessings of immersions that symbolically transform them from not-Jewish to Jewish. In my mikveh, there will be gracious room for song and blessings, for hugs and champagne, for gifts of books and candles. My mikveh will provide liberal time and space for savoring beginnings. Brides and grooms (gay and straight) will come, separately, in preparation for marriage. Setting aside the lists, and plans, and the rush, each will read a poem or a psalm …”

She describes a holy place for use on holidays and celebrations, to mark sad times and transitions, where women could “find new ways to celebrate all the unheralded passages of their bodies as they see fit,” and men could also make use of it. An educator would replace the mikveh lady, and tours would be given to b’nai mitzvah students and prospective converts and delegations from around the world. “

I want a mikveh that is as nourishing as the rain, inspiring as the ocean, sweet as childhood swims in the pond…. And when you surface, the one word on your wet lips is Ahh. Or perhaps Ahh-men.”

The mikveh she describes was eventually realized in the Mayyim Hayyim facility she set in motion. To get it built, though, Diamant talked about her idea to anyone who would listen, and Barry Schrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, essentially told her, “You’re going to have it to it yourself,” Diamant recalled.