You can go home again


On Fridays, the children would line up, all glittery pink shoes and Ninja Turtle T-shirts, and hike up a steep driveway from the preschool yard to the temple sanctuary. They walked single file or in pairs, one teacher in the lead and another bringing up the rear, each holding one end of a rope. The kids, 3 and 4 years old, gripped the length of the rope with their little hands stained with watercolor paint and Play-Doh dye. You could hear them singing Shabbat songs as they walked, and later, as they poured into the aisles and climbed onto the chairs in the temple and tried to sit still for a whole 20 minutes. By noon, when parents went to take them home, they were spent and tousled, excited but worn out by the morning's exploits. In their backpacks, they carried small challahs they had baked for that evening's dinner. 

The last time I looked, my own kids were putting their little challahs next to a store-bought one in our dining room. That was 15 years ago. Yet I can hardly drive past their old school these days without seeing them and their little friends, loved and cared for and blessed with that unspoken compact between fate and its children — that they will be eternally young, forever standing on solid ground, thriving and triumphant and able, should they ever need at the end of a long, hard morning, to go back to the quiet safety of home. 

That's what the rope is for, what constitutes a major difference between Western and more traditional cultures: past elementary school in this country, the rope becomes the umbilical cord that must be severed in the interest of parents and child; past voting age, it becomes a noose that'll kill you if you put up with it for more than four hours on Thanksgiving. In our neck of the woods, the rope may choke you if you let it. But if used sparingly, it can be the lifeline that's always there, right below the water's surface, in case you feel you're drowning. 

I saw that rope again last Friday night at the famed and fabled “Jewish rehab” clinic Beit T'Shuvah, on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles. You don't have to be a patient or a family member to belong to the synagogue, or to attend Friday services, which is one reason I, and many others, were there that night. The other reason, I suspect because I experienced it that night, is that something extraordinary and transformative happens here every week. 

There is, to begin with, the range of characters you find here, and that you'd never see under one roof at a traditional shul. An African-American family sits in the front row, next to an Ashkenazi doctor and his wife, between a young, pretty, school teacher and a tall, tanned man in $3,000 crocodile cowboy boots. There's the six-piece jazz band that accompanies the slender young cantor, and the clinic's senior rabbi and spiritual director, Mark Borovitz, known affectionately as Rabbi Mark, whose personal story — ex-con saved by faith — he doesn't let you forget. 

And there is, to the great credit of the clinic's founder and director, Harriet Rossetto, the intentional shedding of pomp and circumstance, of the theatrical staging of board members and major donors on the bimah and the endless speeches by distinguished gentlemen in suits that is so common at more established synagogues. To my personal relief, there's also the condensed length — two hours instead of the usual four at traditional synagogues, the absence of a why-not-say-it-a-dozen-times-if-only-once-will-do? mentality that will have you recite the same few verses extolling the almighty's goodness and generosity until you forget what you're saying. 

Mostly, though, there's the word itself — teshuvah — and the very astonishing way in which it is realized here. In Judaism, teshuvah represents the process of confession and atonement and the eventual purification of the soul, the kind of thing we hope for around the High Holy Days, and, I dare say, rarely achieve. That is the mission and purpose of the center, its patients and staff. But it's the word's literal meaning — return — that rings especially true here.  

The minimum age for being admitted to Beit T'Shuvah is 18. Many of the patients are not much older than that. They are beautiful, brilliant creatures at the brink of adulthood, radiant with youth and promise. Just the other day, they were singing Shabbat songs and baking challah to take home to their parents. Some time between the moment they walked out of that first synagogue and into this one, they let go of the rope that had kept them on one path with most other kids their age. But now they're back, and the only thing they seem to have lost between that day and this is the sense of invulnerability, the illusion, perhaps, that they will never need a lifeline, never lose their way in the beaming, dazzling light of youth. 

Could anyone have seen, had they examined the palms of those little hands lined with sand and streaked with markers 20 years ago, the road these children would travel thereafter? Is that why they made those small, hard challahs? To leave a trail of breadcrumbs in case they went too far into the woods? 

It's not true, what they say about going home. In some places at least, for some fortunate people, you can go home again. On Shabbat, they even give you a challah in this home. It's larger than what the kids made in preschool and considerably more palatable — as good a reason as any to attend the service.


Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC whose column appears monthly in The Journal. She can be reached at ginabnahai.com.

Power of the Prez; In the wake of war; Children work for a cure


Power of the Prez

Century City attorney and Iranian Jewish activist H. David Nahai was elected president of the Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commission on Sept. 21. The five-person commission unanimously elected Nahai who was originally appointed to the board that overseas the city’s water and power service by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa last September.

“For me it’s a great honor and a significant opportunity because there is so much more the DWP can do, such as renewable energy, finding new water sources, and doing outreach,” Nahai said.

This new position is significant in that Nahai becomes one of only two Iranian Jews currently serving in local government in Southern California, a rare achievement for the Iranian Jewish community which had never been involved in political office in Iran. Indeed, Nahai is no novice when it comes to environmental issues as he practices environmental law and is chairman of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. In January 2005, Nahai was reappointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for an unprecedented third term on the Water Quality Control that overseas water quality in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. In addition, he currently serves as vice chairman of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission.

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

In the wake of war

Knesset member Arieh Eldad paid a rare visit to Los Angeles last week and spoke about current challenges facing Israel after the war against Hezbollah.
Eldad, a member of the Israeli Knesset Ethics Committee, served as the chief medical officer for the Israel Defense Forces (brigadier general, retired). He headed the plastic surgery and burns unit at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem.

While at Beverly Hills City Hall, Eldad met briefly with Mayor Steve Webb and Vice Mayor Jimmy Delshad and later with Soraya Nazarian of Hadassah International Outreach. He explained about the treatment of burn victims of homicide bombings in Jerusalem. The professor is planning to visit the L.A. area again in December.

Children work for a cure

The Cure FD Foundation held a Sunday Morning of Fun event Sept. 17 to benefit children living with Familial Dysautonomia (FD). The event included a special showing of the “The Sound of Music” and featured free popcorn, raffle prizes, a live auction and brunch items for sale. All proceeds went to fast forward research to save hundreds of children with FD.

Charity Becomes Them

Creative Arts Temple volunteers celebrated Rosh Hashanah by distributing food to the needy on the Jewish New Year. More than 2,500 men, women and children enjoyed a dinner donated by L.A. caterer Joann Roth-Oseary and received blankets, socks, diapers and other necessities as part of the celebration. Celebrities who participated included: Stanley Kamel, Monty Hall, Joe Bologna and Dick Van Patten.

Mazel to Merkel

Herman Merkel, an L.A. resident for 26 years and a former chairman of Our Parents Home in Johannesburg, South Africa, was honored for years of devoted service to the Jewish Home for the Aging (JHA). A donation in his honor will fund a major renovation of the JHA lounge, which was named for Merkel at a ceremony on July 11.

Merkel, 89, was deeply committed to serving Our Parents Home for more than 10 years. As a member of the board, he lent his expertise as a civil engineer and was known for the time he spent getting to know its residents. As chairman from 1975-1979, Merkel was a daily visitor at JHA, ensuring that it operated smoothly at all times. The ceremony at Our Parents Home was attended by Merkel’s granddaughter, Karen Berelowitz, of Washington, D.C, family members living in Johannesburg, JHA residents and Johannesburg Jewish community leaders.

Two to Cheer For

Democrats for Israel (DFI) gathered at its annual garden party recently to honor Rep. Adam Schiff and state Insurance Commissioner and lieutenant governor candidate John Garamendi. They used the opportunity to pay tribute to the 33 members of California’s Democratic congressional delegation who supported Israel’s right to defend itself against Hezbollah, Iran and Syria by voting for a pair of resolutions expressing solidarity with Israel and demanding the return of three kidnapped Israeli soldiers.

Schiff was selected for his staunch support of Israel in Congress, and Garamendi was picked due to his tireless work to ensure that European insurance companies honor their commitments to Holocaust survivors.

The well-attended event reiterated Schiff’s belief for the need for the United States to support Israel and commended the strong support of House and Senate Democrats for Israel’s right to defend itself.

DFI President Andrew Lachman praised the two honorees, saying, “We are thrilled that Congressman Schiff and Insurance Commissioner Garamendi accepted these awards and spoke before us today.”

Other elected officials and candidates who attended the Garden Party included Assemblymen Paul Koretz and Lloyd Levine; Los Angeles City Councilmembers Jack Weiss and Wendy Greuel; Democratic Assembly nominees Mike Feuer, Julia Brownley and Anthony Portantino, and Democratic Board of Equalization candidate Judy Chu.