Blaze Bernstein. Photo courtesy of Gideon Bernstein

Missing College Student’s Body Found in Orange County

UPDATE: The body of Blaze Bernstein was discovered Jan. 9 in Borrego Park in Lake Forest. His death is currently being investigated as a homicide and no suspects have been identified yet.


Blaze Bernstein, a 19-year-old  pre-med student at the University of Pennsylvania who returned home to Orange County for winter break, disappeared on Jan. 2. His sudden disappearance has shaken his family and the community.

His parents, Jeanne Pepper and Gideon Bernstein, immediately launched  a Facebook group called “Help Us Find Blaze Bernstein” hoping to find out what happened to their son and bring him home.

From what little they know, Blaze asked a high school friend late on the night of Jan. 2 to drive him to Borrego Park in Foothill Ranch to meet a third person. Blaze left the house without telling his parents and went with his friend to the park, located about five minutes away.

According to the friend, Blaze got out of the car around 11 p.m. while the friend went to use a restroom. When the friend returned, Blaze was gone and has not been seen since.

“Everyone has been so supportive — teachers, students, all the community.” — Gideon Bernstein

The friend sent text messages to Blaze but got no response. The friend then left the park but returned at 4 a.m. to look again.

Eventually, the location device on Bernstein’s phone, which he had borrowed from a relative, stopped functioning and the phone was turned off at 11:30 p.m.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department said it doesn’t suspect foul play, and that the friend is a witness, not a suspect.

Blaze’s parents told the Journal they are hopeful their son will return home.

“It’s surreal. We have been waiting for him to come in the door any minute now,” Gideon Bernstein said. “We are trying to do everything we can to get his picture out there and hope that someone recognizes him.”

Gideon Bernstein, who serves as the chairman of the board of the Jewish Community Foundation of Orange County, said the help the family has received from the community has been overwhelming.

“There is no downtime. We are constantly busy,” the father said. “Right now, we have people downstairs who are working on the Facebook page we opened for Blaze. Only late at night, when everyone leaves and we are alone in our room, we let ourselves break down and cry.”

“He left our house that night with no wallet, no money, no identification, no credit cards, no keys, no eyeglasses,” Jeanne Pepper said. “This is someone that needs to wear eyeglasses.”

Gideon Bernstein said he hadn’t noticed anything amiss with his son. “He recently became managing editor of the foodie magazine at the University of Pennsylvania, called Penn Appétit,” he said. “So, he was very excited about that. He was working on that over the winter break and showed us the magazine they just published, which he significantly contributed to.”

Blaze, he said, was planning to declare a major in psychology with a minor in chemistry and “pursuing it with a pre-med focus.”

“He was having a good time with us and in good spirits,” he said.

Blaze’s parents didn’t know their son was missing until the next morning, Jan. 3, when they realized he hadn’t slept in his room.

Two dozen reserve sheriff’s deputies conducted an extensive, three-day search around the the 2,500-acre park at Whiting Ranch but found no clues, said sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun.

During the search, Blazes parents also used camera-equipped drones to comb the area.

The couple’s other two children, 14 and 17, returned to school this week with the help of a therapist. “Everyone has been so supportive — teachers, students, all the community,” Gideon Bernstein said. “Some celebrities also picked up on the story and are trying to spread the word. Kobe Bryant highlighted us — Keyshawn Johnson, Jeremy Piven, the Housewives of Orange County and Matisyahu.”

Gideon Bernstein said he doesn’t want to speculate about what happened to his son.

“My message to Blaze is simply that we want him home, at all cost, and we don’t care why and what happened. We just want him home.”

Amid search in Israel for missing yeshiva student, prayer vigils in N.J.

Israel Police units continued to search the Jerusalem Forest area for a New Jersey yeshiva student who has been missing for four days.

Aaron Sofer, 23, of Lakewood, was last seen at noon Friday when he and a friend began climbing down a steep incline on a hiking trail. The friend called police several hours later and reported Sofer missing.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told Israeli media that police are pursuing all avenues in their investigation, including what he called “nationalistic motives,” which could refer to a terror attack.

Israeli media reported that police dogs found some of Sofer’s personal effects during the search.

In June, a Palestinian teen was abducted and then taken to the Jerusalem Forest, where he was knocked out and burned to death. The murder likely was a revenge attack for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens.

On Monday, New Jersey politicians called for more help from both the U.S. and Israeli governments in the search for Sofer, who is haredi Orthodox.

The FBI reportedly is involved in the search and the U.S. Embassy is being updated with developments, the Times of Israel reported, citing Sofer family spokesman Dov Hirth.

Sofer’s parents reportedly have arrived in Israel and called for the Israeli military to join the search.

The rescue organizations ZAKA and Ichud Hatzalah and a police canine unit searched for Sofer over Shabbat. Volunteers, mostly haredi, began searching on Saturday night and Sunday, according to Yeshiva World.

On Sunday, the search spread to include the Bayit Vegan, Hadassah and Ein Kerem neighborhoods overlooking the forest.

Prayer vigils have been held in Lakewood since the disappearance.

“It’s scary to think what possibly could be the ramifications,” Sofer’s neighbor Tzvi Meth told CBS New York. “Great fear is that he was accosted, he was taken away, kidnapped.”

Chabad center taking in Oklahomans displaced by deadly tornado

A Chabad center in Oklahoma City opened its building as a shelter for those displaced by a deadly tornado.

The Chabad Community Center of Southern Oklahoma also is collecting supplies for those left homeless by the tornado that tore through an Oklahoma City suburb on Monday afternoon, leaving at least 24 people dead, including several children, and injuring hundreds.

“While we feel the pain of others, we’re very thankful that we’re able to respond – to use all our energy and all our resources to let the community know we’re here to help,” Rabbi Ovadia Goldman, the Southern Oklahoma Chabad’s co-director, told

Goldman said he has received calls from individuals and organizations in New York, Ohio, Iowa, Illinois, California and abroad with offers to help with relief efforts.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a letter of condolence to President Obama on Tuesday morning in the wake of the tornado.

“On behalf of the Government and people of Israel, I offer our heartfelt condolences to you and to the people of the United States on the massive tornado that struck in Oklahoma and exacted such a horrific toll in human life,” Netanyahu wrote. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of this tragedy and their families at this difficult time.”

Rescuers search through rubble after a tornado struck Moore, Okla., on May 20. Photo by Gene Blevins/Reuters

Missing Israeli found in North Hollywood

Syril Zimand, a 28-year-old Israeli thought to be missing by his father, turned up in North Hollywood on Jan. 20,  approximately 25 days after the father, Henri Zimand, a philanthropist and entrepreneur who lives in Israel and Monaco, told the Jewish Journal and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) that he had lost track of his son’s whereabouts and was concerned for his safety.  Henri Zimand did not file an official police report with the LAPD.

The search for Syril concluded on Sunday, Jan 20, after an acquaintance spotted him in a North Hollywood restaurant, according to Henri Zimand.

The acquaintance, Henri Ziman wrote in an email, “decided to go and eat a hamburger with his wife; as they ate suddenly he says to his wife…‘Is this not Syril at the other end of the restaurant?’”

The man approached Syril, Henri wrote, and told him “The whole world is looking for you.” The man then helped Syril to call his father and a cousin who is in L.A.

Henri said the acquaintance had learned that Syril was missing from the Jewish Journal.

Syril lives in Herzliya and has served in the Israeli army; he came to Los Angeles in early November to write and sell screenplays and checked into USA Hostels in Hollywood on Nov. 10. He stayed at the hostel until Nov. 24, the maximum amount of days allowed. Sometime after leaving the hotel, he called Henri to say that he was fine, but he did not inform his father of his whereabouts. That was the last time the two made contact until Jan. 20.

Henri wrote in a Jan. 18 Facebook post that Syril had been missing for more than 40 days.

Henri wrote to the LAPD on Dec. 27 to ask for help, but never filed an official missing-persons report with the Los Angeles police.

Asher Ben Artzi, former chief superintendant of the Israeli National Police, assisted with the search, and Henri also contacted the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles about his missing son. In addition, Henri used Facebook to spread the word, and Syril’s cousin, Ronit Machlouf, posted missing-person flyers around Los Angeles.

On his trip to Los Angeles, Syril was traveling with two passports, one Israeli and the other from Belgium; he had a six-month visa attached to his Belgium passport, along with $1,500. By late-December, a cell phone he had been using during the first couple of weeks of his stay was no longer in service. Making the search more difficult for Henri, Syril was traveling without a credit card.

Syril Zimand, aspiring Israeli filmmaker, missing in Hollywood [UPDATE]

[UPDATE, Jan. 7:] According to Detective L. Saiza of the Los Angeles Police Department's missing-person unit, as of Jan. 7 Henri Zimand has not filed a missing-persons report with the LAPD about his son, Syril Zimand.  This despite the fact that Zimand has asked the LAPD, the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles and family living in Los Angeles to help find his son. 

[Jan. 3] In early November, Syril Zimand, 28 and an aspiring screenwriter, left Israel and came to Los Angeles with the goal of writing and selling his screenplays. He checked into a hostel in Hollywood on Nov. 10 and stayed there until Nov. 24.

Since that time, his whereabouts are unknown.

Henri Zimand, Syril’s father, said in a phone interview Thursday, Jan. 3, from Monaco, that he has been unsuccessfully trying to track down his son, who is not reachable by cell phone. Zimand said he has filed a report with law enforcement agencies as well as the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles, with no results.

“I’m a little bit surprised at the whole thing, because normally he would call, normally he would say, ‘Send me some money,’” said Zimand, a Monaco-based philanthropist who earned his fortunes in real estate and startup companies.

“But this time, he did not ask; he didn’t tell me he was moving from the hotel—the only thing I could hope for is he found somebody who is giving him lodging and food and he simply is not calling,” Zimand said. Zimand also said that they had not had any disagreements and he was unaware of anything that would cause his son not to call.

Zimand made available to The Journal emails from the Los Angeles Police Department and the California Department of Justice Missing and Unidentified Persons Unit saying they know nothing of Syril Zimand’s whereabouts.

An official at the Israeli Consulate also had no information. “We tried to locate him, but since the son never initiated contact with us, we didn't have any leads or information,” Danny Gadot, a spokesperson for consular affairs at the Consulate General of Israel Los Angeles said Thursday.

Zimand said he has hired a private detective who has checked homeless shelters and elsewhere, without success.

The last place Syril was seen was at USA Hostels in Hollywood, according to Zimand. Syril stayed at the hostel for 14 days, the maximum amount of days allowed for guests at the hostel. During his stay, he called his father—whom he’d been speaking with two or three times per week since arriving in Los Angeles on Nov. 8—and asked for money to pay for the hotel.

Sometime after Nov. 24, Zimand said, Syril called his father to say he’d received the money, $1,000, and that everything was fine. He did not tell his father that he was no longer staying at the hostel.  That was the last time the two made contact.

Zimand said he learned that Syril checked out of that hostel only when Henri Zimand’s sister visited the hotel during a trip to Los Angeles. She was told by the hostel that Syril was no longer staying there.

According to Henri, Syril has never gone missing prior to this incident.

Born in Monaco, Syril was raised and educated in Israel. He has traveled back-and-forth between Israel and Los Angeles several times over the past few years.

Syril, who lives in Herzliya and served in the Israeli army approximately 10 years ago, has been working toward a career in the film business. Two years ago, he studied briefly at the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles, his father said.

On this trip, Syril was traveling with two passports, one Israeli and the other from Belgium, He had a six-month visa attached to his Belgium passport, along with $1500.

Zimand said an LAPD detective had suggested that Syril might be using his multiple passports to travel nationally or internationally, however  Zimand said he believes his son is still in Los Angeles.

“His only interest was to sell scripts and write scripts, so that he can only do in Los Angeles,” he said. “That was his main goal.”

In addition to reaching out to law enforcement, Henri Zimand has used Facebook to spread the word about his missing son, who is traveling without a credit card and does not have a bank account in Los Angeles. Zimand said he is also currently working with Interpol to procure phone records for a cell phone Syril purchased in Los Angeles, but which is no longer accepting calls.

Ronit Machlouf, a cousin of Syril, lives in the San Fernando Valley and on Thursday began posting missing-person flyers around Los Angeles. In a phone interview, Machlouf said she spoke to Syril by phone a couple of weeks ago. He told her he was looking for a place to stay and that he would come by for Shabbat dinner as soon as he was settled.

“But I didn’t hear from him. And then when I tried to call him, the phone was disconnected. It sounds like something is wrong… he’s coming from a wealthy family, and they are very generous, and that’s the way Syril is. …I’m afraid that people are taking advantage of him,” Machlouf said.

Machlouf said she has spoken with with a local friend of Syril’s, who told Machlouf that Syril had asked him if he could stay with him but who told Syril that he didn’t have anywhere for him to sleep. He told her he never heard further from Syril.

The family is asking that if anyone has information on Syril’s whereabouts to call the Los Angeles Police Department’s missing-person unit at (213) 996-1800 or (877) 527-3247.

Missing Person

Israeli missing in Los Angeles

[UPDATE: Syril Zimand, aspiring Israeli filmmaker, missing in Hollywood]

The son of an Israeli businessman and philanthropist is believed by his father to be missing in Los Angeles.

Henri Zimand posted on Facebook on Jan 2 that his son, Syril Zimand, 28, has not been heard from for “several weeks.”

Zimand has been reaching out to people and organizations in Los Angeles to help with the search.

“If anyone should come across my son Syril in Los Angeles please advise me urgently,” Zimand wrote online.

Zimand added that his son, in the midst of a six-month trip in Los Angeles, was last seen at USA Hostels in Hollywood, located at Hollywood Boulevard and Schrader Boulevard. It was unusual for Syril to go several weeks without contacting him, Zimand wrote on Facebook.

Brigit Nickol, director of operations at USA Hostels, Inc. confirmed that Syril Zimand was a guest at USA Hostels in Hollywood, having stayed there from Nov. 10-24, the maximum amount of days allowed for guests at the hostel.  Nickol did not have any additional information regarding Zimand’s whereabouts, she said.

Zimand’s father, a resident of Monaco, did not respond immediately on Wednesday to the Journal’s attempts to contact him.  Via social media, he has asked that anyone who has information about his son call the Los Angeles Police Department’s missing-person unit at (213) 996-1800 or (877) 527-3247. The Journal will be updating this story as more information becomes available.


Missing Florida millionaire left tefillin on abandoned boat

Guma Aguiar, a Florida businessman and philanthropist who went missing in June, left his tefillin on his abandoned boat.

All of the life jackets also were accounted for, the Coast Guard reported, according to the Sun-Sentinel, after getting the records through a Freedom of Information Act request. His wedding ring and watch were left at home.

Aguiar, the CEO of Leor Energy who lived in Fort Lauderdale, left his home on June 19. His empty 31-foot boat washed ashore in Fort Lauderdale the following morning.

Aguiar's wife reportedly had asked for a divorce just before he left the house. Aguiar had a history of ill mental health, according to reports citing family members.
The disappearance remains an open missing persons case.

In 2009, Aguiar gave $8 million to the pro-aliyah group Nefesh B’Nefesh and $500,000 to March of the Living, which takes high school-aged Jews to Poland to see Holocaust sites. He also became a fixture of Israeli sports pages when he became the main sponsor of the Israeli Premier League soccer team Beitar Jerusalem.

While Aguiar, who has a Jewish mother, did not grow up with much of a Jewish background, he later returned to Judaism and has made large gifts to Jewish and Israeli causes. He made his fortune when he discovered huge natural gas reserves in Texas.

Missing U.S. tourist found dead in Israel

The body of an American tourist missing since last week was discovered near Beit Shean.

Herman Kuehn, 80, of Platte County, Mo., was separated from his group on May 26 while visiting antiquities sites in Beit Shean, in northern Israel. His body was discovered Tuesday in an industrial zone north of the city.

There were no signs of violence or foul play, according to Israeli news reports.

Kuehn and his wife, Mary, were in Israel for a tour through the St. Paul School of Theology. They are members of the Pine Ridge Presbyterian Church, according to a local Missouri television station.

Kuehn had suffered a head injury several years ago and sometimes became confused, the family told Israeli media. The family on Monday released a statement thanking people who had been praying for the return of their family patriarch.

A large-scale search was mounted over the weekend for the missing tourist.

Body of Brooklyn boy Leiby Kletzky found, suspect arrested

The dismembered body of an 8-year-old Brooklyn boy who disappeared while walking home from camp was found and a suspect was arrested in his murder.

The intensive hunt for Leiby Kletzky, the Chasidic boy who had been missing since Monday afternoon, ended early Wednesday morning with a grisly discovery by police in the Brooklyn apartment of Levi Aron.

During a raid of his apartment, Aron pointed police to his refrigerator, where they discovered some of Leiby’s remains and bloodied knives. Police found the rest of the dismembered body wrapped in black plastic bags inside a suitcase in a dumpster in a nearby Brooklyn neighborhood.

Police arrested the 35-year-old Aron, who they say made incriminating statements, at 2:40 a.m. Wednesday.

The boy disappeared after gaining his parents permission to walk halfway home for the first time from his day camp in the Chasidic stronghold of Borough Park; he was supposed to meet his parents seven blocks from the camp. His disappearance set off a massive search that included hundreds of volunteers and involved a huge mobilization of the area’s Orthodox community.

Leiby apparently became lost on his way to meet his parents, surveillance footage from various locations suggested. One video showed the boy waiting outside a dentist’s office. The dentist’s office provided police with the name and address of Aron, who had come to the office to pay a bill on Monday.

New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said at a news conference that police believe the boy asked Aron for directions and entered the suspect’s car. Police say they do not believe the boy knew the suspect.

The suspect, who also is Jewish, lived in an attic apartment in the adjacent Kensington neighborhood. He had worked as a deliveryman for a maintenance supply company. Aron has no previous police record in New York beyond a summons last year for public urination.

Kelly said there is no evidence that the boy was molested by the suspect, though police are investigating the possibility. The commissioner said the suspect told police that he panicked and killed the boy after becoming aware of the massive search effort.

Aron while living Tennessee for two years had worked as a security guard and been married. His arrest stunned his ex-wife.

“I am in shock. I am not believing this,” Debbie Kivel, 34, told the New York Post. “He loved children. He loved kids. My kids are now 13 and 10, but when we were married they were younger—and he loved them.”

Indiana University student still missing

Lauren Spierer, a sophomore at Indiana University, remains missing a week after disappearing on her way home from a sports bar.

Spierer’s case was featured June 11 on Fox’s “America’s Most Wanted.”

Spierer, 20, who is Jewish, has been missing since early on the morning of June 3. She was seen leaving an off-campus sports bar at 2 a.m. after spending the evening with friends. The bar is less than two blocks from her apartment in Bloomington.

Police reportedly have 10 “persons of interest” in the case, including her boyfriend and a male classmate. The classmate left the bar with Spierer and had a fight with other students outside her apartment building.

According to the roommate of the beaten-up classmate, Spierer accompanied the classmate home to a nearby apartment building following the encounter and then left. Spierer’s keys in a small coin purse were found in an alley next to her building.

Spierer’s parents, Robert and Charlene, flew to Bloomington from New York on June 4 to coordinate the search, which has included the campus, the town, and area woods and parks. Hundreds of volunteers have continued the search.

“Lauren is the light of our life, and our hearts are breaking,” Charlene Spierer said during a weekend news conference. “This is a continuous nightmare.”

Jewish college student missing in Indiana

Police, family and friends are searching for Lauren Spierer, a sophomore at Indiana University who is missing.

Spierer, 20, who is Jewish, has been missing since early on the morning of June 3, the Indiana Daily Student reported.

Fliers with the native New Yorker’s picture and information about her have been posted throughout Bloomington, the site of the university.

She was last seen leaving an off-campus sports bar less than two blocks from her apartment where she had spent the evening with friends, according to the student newspaper. She never made it to her apartment.

Spierer’s parents, Robert and Charlene Spierer, flew to Bloomington from New York on June 4 to coordinate the search, which has included the campus, the town and area woods and parks. Police said they had her cell phone and wallet, though it is not clear whether Spierer left them at the bar, according to the Daily Student.

A Facebook page, Lauren Spierer Missing, has been created. As of Monday morning it had nearly 1,700 friends.

Several Israelis still missing in New Zealand

Up to four Israelis who were in Christchurch, New Zealand at the time remain missing and are feared dead.

On Wednesday, Israel’s consul to New Zealand, Teddy Poplinger, said that his staff is working to contact all Israelis who were reported to be in the area of the quake when it struck on Tuesday.

“[T]here is a list of Israelis who have yet to make contact. We are more worried about three or four of them because they were last seen around town prior to the earthquake,” Poplinger told Israeli media Wednesday.

Israeli backpacker Ofer Mizrahi, 23, was among 75 confirmed killed in Tuesday’s earthquake, which measured 6.3 on the Richter scale and devastated the city of Christchurch. Some 300 people are still listed as missing and many are known to be trapped in buildings. The city’s Chabad center was destroyed in the quake.

Israel, which has hundreds of nationals trekking in New Zealand every year, offered to send food and medicine to help; Magen David Adom is assessing the possibility of sending rescue personnel. Israel’s Foreign Ministry said there were up to 150 Israelis in Christchurch at the time of the quake.

Prime Minister John Key, the son of a Jewish refugee who escaped Europe on the eve of the Holocaust, called the disaster the nation’s “darkest day.”

Local community refuses to forget 12 missing Persian Jews

12 missing Persian Jews: not forgotten

Nearly 300 members of the Iranian Jewish community and local Persian-language media gathered at the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills on Sept. 27 for an event sponsored by the Council of Iranian Jews to discuss the fate of 12 Persian Jews who were kidnapped by the Iranian secret police between 1994 and 1997 and have not been heard from since. Family members of the missing 12 Jews were on hand to express their frustration with lack of cooperation from the Iranian regime.

“I am sure my son is not lost; he’s alive and being held by the Iranian government and that regime must answer to where they are holding our youngsters!” said Elana Tehrani, whose 17-year-old son, Babak, was arrested by Iranian secret police when trying to flee Iran into Pakistan in 1994.

Those in attendance cried when photos of the missing 12 Jews were held up for the audience with their names and dates of abduction announced. An emotional recorded telephone message to the community from Orit Ravizadeh, one of the missing Jews’ wives living in Israel, was also played for the audience.

Speakers at the event included Nessah’s Rabbi David Shofet and the Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper. Persian Jewish activists George Haroonian, Bijan Khailli, Frank Nikbakht and Pooya Dayamin who spoke at the event said they have been active in trying to resolve the case of the missing 12 for the last six years.

Earlier this month, the kidnapped victim’s families filed suit against Iran’s former President Mohammad Khatami for implementing a policy of abduction and imprisonment of their loved ones.

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Smile, darn ya!

Operation Smile, a leading humanitarian and medical services organization dedicated to helping improve the health and lives of children and young adults worldwide, honored humanitarians Vanessa and Donald Trump Jr. and the Trump family; L.A. Clippers of present (Elton Brand) and past (Norm Nixon); and Abbott, the global health care company, at its fifth annual Operation Smile Gala Sept. 21 at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Among the prominent civic leaders in attendance were Milt Hinsch, Jerry and Vicki Moyers, Joe and Sue Kainz, Dennis Seider and dental innovator Dr. Bill Dorfmann, author of “Billion Dollar Smile, a Complete Guide to Your Smile Makeover.”

The evening, whose honorary chairs were Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his wife, Cindy, began with a VIP party, complete with goodies and piano accompaniment and culminated in a dinner and awards ceremony emceed by “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush. Guests were royally entertained by multi-Grammy Award-winner Christopher Cross and Debbie Allen’s Dance Academy.

Lladro, the renowned Spanish House of Porcelain, donated $150,000 to the cause and the evening included a surprise visit from Madelein Cordova Dubon, a 2-year-old girl from Honduras who was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate. Event co-chairs Roma Downey and Mark Burnett had recently participated in an Operation Smile medical mission in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where they met and bonded with Madelein.

Operation Smile was founded in 1982 by Dr. William P. Magee, a plastic surgeon, and his wife, Kathleen, a nurse and clinical social worker. It has provided free reconstructive surgery to more than 100,000 children and young adults with cleft lips, cleft palates, tumors and other birth defects in 32 countries around the world.

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Dr. Sarah Weddington, renowned winning attorney in one of the most famous cases in U.S. history, Roe v. Wade, spoke at the annual fundraiser for the Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project (WRRAP) recently. Opening her speech, she immediately expressed her deep sadness about learning of the death of her dear friend, colleague and fellow Texan, Ann Richards, former governor of the state of Texas.

“I had the privilege of knowing Ann since the early ’70s,” she told the large group of supporters who turned out for the event. “When it came to running for a political office, Ann was a guru and pioneer in the art of running for political office and winning. Her inspiration, courage and quick wit were element of her savvy personality. Ann Richards was a friend, mentor and role model for women.”

WRRAP raises money for low-income women of all ages, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds who are unable to pay for either emergency contraception or a safe and legal abortion. The event featured sumptuous hors d’oeuvres and a wine reception. Following Weddington’s speech and comments on the upcoming Proposition 85, which would prohibit abortions for California teens until 48 hours after their parents have been notified, there was a Q-and-A session.

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Actor’s Missing Dad Takes Center Stage

In his raw, autobiographical monologue, “Who Is Floyd Stearn?” actor Michael Raynor struts onstage with a swagger reminiscent of James Caan. Raynor, playing himself, jabs a finger at a faded photograph.

The photo was taken on 185th Street in Queens, on his grandmother’s lawn. In the photo, an athletic, brawny man embraces a 3-year-old. The man is Raynor’s father, Floyd Stearn. The smiling boy is young Michael, who clutches a toy banjo, his blond bangs peeking out from a cowboy hat.

Raynor tells the audience that, even at 40, he cannot discuss the photo; should anyone pressure him, he angrily departs.

“Every time I see the picture I cry,” he adds quietly. “That’s why I can’t look at it. I see the happiness in my face, and it scares me. I’m hoping it won’t go away.”

His father’s sudden departure at age 7 cost him much happiness for years, and this macho-yet-tender one-man show is Raynor’s attempt to re-connect with his father and to understand the man who abandoned him.

The 2004 off-Broadway success is among a slate of recent plays to explore dysfunctional Jewish families in crisis, notably Tony Kushner’s Broadway musical, “Caroline, or Change,” which had a run in Los Angeles late last year. Raynor’s piece is a “Rashomon”-style mystery, with the actor portraying himself at various ages, as well as his mother and grandparents, who offer conflicting theories about his late father.

Was Stearn a nice Jewish boy who loved his children, but was kowtowed by a hostile ex-wife and a domineering second spouse? Or was he a heartless deadbeat who sent Michael birthday cards with no return address signed by himself, his new wife and children?

Because his relatives were tight-lipped, all Raynor knew until five years ago was that Stearn had been a burly jock.

Of his penchant for Caan, he says: “I looked for my dad in tough Jew father figures in films, like Caan, Kirk Douglas and John Garfield. I emulated the qualities I imagined my father might have had.”

In fact, the actor arrives at an interview on the Westside with that Caan-esque saunter and the tough-but-senitive guy persona he projects onstage.

At 18, he said, he adopted his stepfather’s surname, because he had been more a father to Raynor than Stearn. But Stearn’s absence continued to wreak havoc in his life. In relationships, he says, he was “programmed to disconnect,” cutting off friends and girlfriends “to create perceived emotional safety.”

Because arguments over child support, in part, had kept his father from him, financial concerns haunted Raynor. Though he had played the leads in his Jewish summer camp plays, he did not initially pursue theater, because he worried that actors lived hand-to-mouth. Instead, he worked in the financial field, on the floor of the commodities market, until he finally accepted a role in an off-off Broadway play in his late 20s.

Also in his 20s, Raynor received a notice of disinheritance, stating that his father had died of bone cancer at 42.

“I went shopping and stocked up on food, because I knew I wasn’t going to be leaving the house for a while,” he recalls in the play. “I cried and fell asleep and cried and fell asleep for two days straight. And the worst part is, I thought I had finally forgotten him.”

The actor’s anguish apparently hits a nerve for some viewers. After seeing the show in 2002, radio’s Howard Stern wrote Raynor: “Not many men could openly confess before an audience the intense father hunger they had…. It’s very easy as a man to show anger, but a lot more difficult to tap into the longing and desire for a caring, loving father.”

Despite his father hunger, Raynor built a busy career, playing leads in independent films such as “The Waiting Game” and the HBO miniseries, “From the Earth to the Moon.” He continued to know almost nothing about Stearn — until he chanced to pick up his own cousin at a party eight years ago (he hadn’t seen her since she was a girl). Once recognition set in, she told him Stearn’s mother was alive and living in Florida.

On the “Moon” set in Orlando, Fla., six months later, Raynor finally mustered the courage to call his grandmother, whom he had not seen in a quarter century.

“I showed up on her doorstep on what happened to be her 87th birthday,” he recalls. “I felt like I was walking into a psychedelic flashback.”

The emotional visit turned out to be “more healing than 1,000 years of therapy,” he says. “I learned what I had previously kept from myself because it was too confusing: That my father had loved me, even though he left.”

Raynor discovered more by tracking down his half-siblings and convincing sometimes-reluctant relatives to conduct more than 50 hours of taped interviews. He decided to turn the material into a play, though the writing process was so painful it kept him up at night.

Yet performing the piece — and saying “Kaddish” for Stearn onstage — proved cathartic for Raynor, who is considering parenthood for the first time in his life.

“I was severed from my father, so what I do in the play is to resurrect him and reconnect with him, if only in spirit.”

“Stearn,” runs through Sept. 27 at the Pilot Light Theatre. (323) 960-4418.


Arts No Longer Plays Second Fiddle

More than 10 times during Rena Ahdut’s stay at Solomon Schechter overnight camp in Olympia, Wash., last summer, her mother made the long drive from Tacoma to bring her home for dance rehearsals.

“It was kind of hard to come and go all the time,” said Rena, 14, who dances ballet, tap and jazz 35 hours a week at the Dance Theater Northwest.

For Rena, missing weeks of dance rehearsal was unthinkable, but so was missing out on the quintessential Jewish youth experience of summer camp.

This summer, Rena hopes to have that conflict resolved for her for at least two weeks when she attends T’hila, a new program at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley that integrates a Jewish camping experience with an arts experience molded for young, talented artists who are as serious about their craft as Rena.

“If a child is incredibly talented as a Jewish artist, she can got to Interlochen [Center for the Arts in Michigan] or Tanglewood [Institute in Massachusetts], or she can go to Jewish camp, and her experience in terms of arts is not going to be at the same level, she will not be pushed and challenged in the same way,” said Shana Starobin, program director for T’hila. “We see the need in the Jewish community to create an opportunity for those kids who are really exceptional to explore their art in a Jewish context.”

The creation of actor/singer/songwriter Danny Maseng, T’hila will bring together a faculty of highly accomplished Jewish artists in drama, dance, visual arts, music and creative writing with high schoolers who want to make art a life pursuit.

Being dedicated to both the arts and Judaism poses enormous challenges are presented: Rena and her family, for example, decided to dance on Saturdays and to focus on kabbalat Shabbat on Friday nights.

“I haven’t been as involved in my synagogue as I wanted to, because I don’t have time,” Rena said. “I just want to be around Jewish kids in the summer, since I’m not really around them very often here.”

But with a $1,400 price tag for T’hila, which as a pilot program is 12 days at the end of August this year, Tovah Ahdut isn’t sure she’ll be able to send her daughter.

For families who pay for dance or drama or art lessons, along with Hebrew school or day school tuition and synagogue membership, costs become prohibitive. Limited scholarships are available for T’hila, which costs about the same as other arts camps and Jewish camps. About 15 kids have been accepted to the 40 slots available.

David Goodman, a 17-year-old writer and musician from Encinitas, Calif., who is attending T’hila this summer, looks forward to combining his Judaism with his art.

“No two things are more important to me than Judaism and the arts, and I haven’t had the opportunity to put those together and to focus on both those things as one unit,” he said.

At T’hila, which is Hebrew for Psalm, Jewish texts, for instance, might become the jumping-off point for artistic expression, and artistic expression will be framed in Jewish terms.

That kind of total integration separates T’hila from BIMA: The Berkshire Institute of Music and Arts in Massachusetts, a new program where about 40 Jewish high schoolers have already signed up for a summer of music, theater, dance, writing or visual arts instruction and Jewish learning at Williams College in Massachusetts.

While some aspects of the program will combine Judaism and the arts, “What we’re really looking for is to create opportunities for the two to intersect, but not necessarily to construct a synthesized experience,” said Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, executive director of BIMA, which is a joint project of the Gann Academy-The New Jewish High School of Greater Boston, where Lehmann is headmaster, and the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.

Both BIMA and T’hila are nondenominational and pluralistic; both will have kosher food and be respectful of Shabbat.

Maseng hopes that, by next summer, T’hila will have a full two sessions, and that the program becomes the cornerstone for an arts institute.

Brandeis is already working with a donor to build a year-round center for the arts on its property, where artists can gather for retreats, the community can come to learn and multidisciplinary performances can be produced.

“Brandeis was founded for young people to explore their Jewish identity in the beautiful setting that we have and to explore it through a number of different avenues,” said Helen Zukin, board chair at Brandeis. “Art, music, drama and dance were always important to the Brandeis experience and part of the mission since the beginning.”

Maseng sees a national Jewish art institute that focuses on participation, not passive viewing, as a way to remedy a problem in the perception of the arts in the Jewish community, where art is what happens between salad and dessert, he said.

And the place to start, he said, is with the youth.

“I’m not there to teach the kids to be religious or to tell them how to lead their lives, but I am here to impress upon them that they will never again look upon Judaism as irrelevant and Jewish art as trivial or having nothing to say to them in their lives or to teach them about their personal, current condition in life,” Maseng said. “And if we do that, that is a success.”

For more information on T’hila, call (805) 404-5209 or
visit For information on BIMA call (781) 642-6800 or
visit .

AMBER: The U.S. Moral Alert

At least once a week, we hear reports of missing children. Some are found alive and others, tragically, dead.

Some become names on the missing list and remain a mystery.

The heartbreak is great, and families never truly recover from the trauma. For years, we have been aware of this problem, and no real answers have been found.

Recently, we find a great number of children committing crimes of great magnitude — cruelty, impressive and unsurpassed. Imagine reading trial reports of youngsters beating their father to death with a bat.

It has also been suggested that a lot of missing children are really runaways, running from abusive parents and schools. The recent investigations and convictions have intensified the concern of all of us. To whom do we turn, and what are we to do?

It was in the fall of 2001 that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children launched the AMBER (America’s Missing Broadcast Emergency Response) plan nationwide. It is designed to assist cities and towns across the United States in creating their own emergency alert plan. It is now being adopted by more and more cities.

In February 2002, the Emergency Broadcast System adopted rules for missing children. It became a standard for alerting the public about missing children. This system follows support for the AMBER Alert initiated in October 2001.

The AMBER Alert is the missing child response program that notifies the public when children are kidnapped. There are 53 modified versions of the program, and 16 states have adopted statewide plans. Recent kidnappings in California and the recovery of missing children is attributed to the success of the AMBER Alert program.

I believe that this is a wonderful concept, and should be encouraged throughout the United States. It would accomplish a great deal. Most of all, it would save lives.

However, on the other hand, I strongly suggest a different kind of moral supplement to the AMBER Alert — a plan that alerts us to respond to the growing moral decay of our country.

Instead of the AMBER plan being a system to just find missing children, there should be a system that doesn’t let the child get lost in the first place. Perhaps the AMBER plan could also incorporate an "America’s Moral Broadcast Emergency Response."

When a responsible citizen sees a family member, an elected official or even a clergyman engaging in abusive behavior, he should have an emergency number to alert authorities who will intervene before an abduction or abusive behavior takes place.

There are times I wonder why we always glorify safe recovery, when we should be instituting preventive laws. The old saying of "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" can work in conjunction with the AMBER Alert. Instead of putting out fires, it is wiser to find the arsonist. With all our worries about terrorist attacks, we seem to be forgetting our own home-grown terrorists.

Maybe it is high time for all of us to make a personal AMBER Alert. We need to check the morality of our leaders in government, schools and religious institutions, and call an emergency response and rectify the wrongs and help those in need. If we did that, what a great world we would have.

Rabbi Eli Hecht is vice president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America and past president of the Rabbinical Council of California. He is the director of Chabad of South Bay in Lomita, which houses a synagogue, day school, nursery school and chaplaincy programs.

Levy Missing

Every morning as Rabbi Samuel Graudenz prays, he asks for the safe return of Chandra Ann Levy.

“I can only pray, though the signs are not good, that God will find her alive and well,” said the 85-year-old rabbi emeritus of Modesto’s Conservative Congregation Beth Shalom, where Levy’s parents are members.

Levy, a 24-year-old Jewish woman from Modesto, vanished suspiciously from Washington, D.C., earlier this month. A graduate student in public administration at the University of Southern California, she had just completed an internship with the federal Bureau of Prisons and was expected to return to Modesto May 9, in time for her graduation.

Graudenz, now retired and a resident at the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville, said he had prepared the dark, curly-haired Levy for her bat mitzvah and was “deeply shocked” by her disappearance. “I knew her as a fantastic student and a beautiful, conscientious girl,” he said.

Meanwhile, congregants at Beth Shalom have been aiding community efforts to find Levy, working with the Carole Sund-Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation, a Modesto-based group that helps families find loved ones. Soon after the disappearance, Robert and Susan Levy, Chandra’s parents, contacted the foundation.

Levy was last seen publicly on April 30 when she canceled her membership at the Washington Sports Club near her apartment in Dupont Circle. Because there is no evidence of a crime, police are pursuing the disappearance as a missing persons case, said D.C. police officer Tony O’Leary.

Family and friends made contributions to the Carole Sund-Carrington foundation, offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to Levy’s safe return. Contributors include Rep. Gary Condit (D-Modesto), who called Levy a “good friend” in a statement last week; the nature of their relationship is currently under investigation. Sen. Dianne Feinstein added another $5,000 to the fund last week.

Little is known about the missing woman’s religious beliefs and involvement. However, some Beth Shalom congregants, including Doreen Goldman, admit to “disagreeing strongly” with Susan Levy because she is “a Jew with a belief in Christ.” But that has not deterred Goldman and others from aiding the foundation and bringing attention to the family’s plight.

Graudenz also confirmed that Susan Levy had what she called some “strange beliefs,” but both he and Goldman were unsure if Chandra Levy shared those beliefs.

“She’s a very nice girl, but she’s also very hard to get close to,” Goldman said about the missing woman. “She didn’t really open up a lot.”

Susan and Robert Levy did not return phone calls as of press time, but both have appeared extensively on national television and spoken to several media sources.

Paul Gordon, the rabbi at Beth Shalom since August, said he has been in touch with synagogues and rabbis in the D.C. area, requesting that they assist in the distribution of information regarding Levy’s disappearance, “an important aspect in the search.”

A candlelight vigil held Saturday in Levy’s Washington neighborhood featured a D.C.-area rabbi, who said a prayer for the missing woman.

Levy’s friend Jennifer Baker, herself a former intern in Washington, described Levy as a “dynamic, enthusiastic and energetic” person who liked to shop and go to movies. She said Levy had hoped to enter the FBI or work in law enforcement.

“It is out of character for her to just disappear,” said Baker, “but I’m trying to stay positive and focused on bringing Chandra home.”