Q&A with Rhoda Weisman — Jewish woman on top

Rhoda Weisman, executive director of the Professional Leaders Project, which is designed to engender and support a new generation of leaders in the Jewish community, talks about why the Jewish establishment needs to change, why young leaders are just as crucial as big donors and what it’s like to be a woman at the top.

Jewish Journal: Working in a Jewish organization doesn’t sound like a sexy job. Why should people want to go into Jewish communal work?

Rhoda Weisman: I think I have the sexiest job. Because sexy jobs are jobs that provide you with a lot of room to be creative moving toward a real sense of purpose and meaning.

JJ: Jewish institutions seem to be inordinately focused on engaging young people. Why is it important to cultivate young Jewish leaders?

RW: I don’t think that we as a larger community have been successful in creating a very strong pipeline connecting the baby boomers to Gen X and Gen Y. There’s never been a time when leaders in their 20s and 30s have been as equipped for leadership as now: Many of them have come from homes of privilege where they’ve been able to advance themselves in a whole number of areas. So, you have people in their 20s that have the same skills and talents etc., as people my age and in their 40s.

JJ: What do Jewish organizations need to do to entice young people?

RW: The power structure has to be changed. The old model is autocratic, and the new model has to become decentralized and democratic so that the next gen that comes in will have the same say as people who have been there for a while.

JJ: But it seems that the Jewish establishment is resistant to allowing young leaders the same kind of power that big donors have.

RW: They need to learn from the boomer generation of parenting — to look at younger talent as partners and provide them power to make decisions.

JJ: Being of the baby boomer generation yourself, do you ever feel inadequate compared to young ‘talent’?

RW: Not only do I never feel that way — there’s not a day that I’m not excited about growing people’s potential. The future of American Jewish life depends on being able to grow this potential that can carry on the 3,000-year-old Jewish story in new ways.

JJ: What’s the biggest problem facing the Jewish communal world?

RW: A lack of courage and a lack of leadership. But also, the inability to look at oneself and be self-reflective. When an organization is not effective, either change it or let it go out of business. We are at a very crucial point in which the next 20 or 30 years will determine the quality of Jewish life in America over the next century. And the biggest problem is a fear of busting out of the old model.

JJ: You seem to be an unconventional thinker. What does it take to think outside the box?

RW: I never think that something’s not possible. Anything can be moved; anything can be changed. But if something really doesn’t work, than I stop, put it to bed, and move on. I believe in excellence, and there’s no excuse for anything less — Jews in America are used to that.

JJ: Why does philanthropist Michael Steinhardt trust you with his money?

RW: He trusts me because I deeply care about him; he’s not a conduit for his money, he’s a partner. We’re true partners. And, because I have the courage to stand up for what I believe in, in a world where oftentimes women don’t and men do.

JJ: You have a reputation for being intimidating and intense. Why do you think people describe you this way?

RW: To create organizations that are successful, it takes time, a commitment to excellence, motivating individuals, hard work and tenacity. When these traits are attributed to men, they are called driven, visionary, a real leader. When these traits are attributed to women, they are often referred to as intimidating, aggressive, intense, tough.

I’m intimidating because I’ll press for people doing their very best, even when it’s not comfortable. And I’ll live with the fact that people don’t like me sometimes.

JJ: What is it like to be a woman at the top?

RW: It’s a lot of fun! One of the reasons that I’m at this place is that I don’t think about it that much. It’s not been a burning issue for me. It didn’t even occur to me that I didn’t have a place at the table. I felt that I had a responsibility to add to the conversation.

JJ: Is there still a glass ceiling?

RW: Yes. I don’t believe one sex or another should be dominant. Gender balance in positions of power is what creates a healthy community. But there’s a dark side — I don’t know how to say that my back is black and blue from the women that I thought were going to help me. People take out their jealousies on you.

JJ: How would you describe your leadership style?

RW: Leading younger Jews is a tremendous responsibility, and I think what we do is very holy work. I believe that I have someone that I’m constantly reporting to. I’m a deeply God-driven person.

For me the most exciting part about anything I’ve done in all of my work is opening doors and getting as many people into these conversations impacted, inspired, longing to lead, wanting to make the Jewish community a thousand times better than it is.

Out of Context

About a year before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a major reform of California’s disastrous workers’ comp system, the same basic reforms were fought and eventually killed by elected Democrats trying to protect lawyers who gamed our broken system but gave heavily to Democratic campaign coffers.

You never read that story, I will bet, because most California media have tacitly agreed on a shallow storyline that does not include detailing how the forces against reform have proved so effective.

The media have failed in a core duty: to explain the roots of bad public policy, thus promoting intelligent civic discourse and enabling the corrective tendencies of democracy. Now, most media continue to engage in context-free coverage of a 75-page thicket of compromises that may or may not bring billions of dollars in savings.

Before, few journalists did the legwork to regularly compare foolish California practices to several forward-thinking states, where costs are far lower and the truly injured get better coverage. With reform, the media laziness continues. For example, news reports offer so little context you wouldn’t know that some reforms are unlikely to survive legal challenges mounted by workers’ comp attorneys who enjoy sympathetic California courts that have regularly watered down reform.

Such details distract from the storyline: The governor won; we’ll save billions.

Lack of context can be seen in how the media went gaga over the new "health network" rule. The rule requires an allegedly injured worker to use a doctor from a network selected by the company. California workers currently engage in the worst "doctor shopping" in the nation, often seeking physicians who over-treat injuries and let them stay off the job for months. Had excitable journalists picked up a phone, they might have learned that studies of states using such networks show fairly modest savings.

California may indeed save billions from the entire reform package, but only if Schwarzenegger puts his formidable chess skills to work by thinking three steps ahead of the anti-reformers already preparing to file lawsuits against reform, and only if the governor cleans up huge new loopholes and complexities that threaten serious savings.

The media has largely ignored the fact that smaller businesses — the economic engine in the Golden State — under reform must become experts wise to loopholes. Unless Schwarzenegger corrects this bias, smaller firms could suffer tremendously.

With California losing companies to Texas and other inexpensive states, that’s news.

Take the new $10,000 medical care "limit" for workers, who under reform are now free to immediately seek care before their claim is approved by the employer.

"Whenever you put a dollar limit, it’s a message that this is how much the bill can be run up to," says North Carolina’s James Moore, a nationwide workers’ comp consultant. "That’s why most states limit it to $2,000 or $2,500."

But California’s Legislature, in a compromise with union and Democrats’ demands, chose $10,000. Says Moore: "You can even get a surgery before you get a ruling on whether you qualify."

For years, too many California workers gamed the system. Unions, which saw phony paid disabilities as akin to free vacation, vociferously fought to protect such perks.

Now, workers can burn through $10,000. Trial lawyers are drooling. A lucrative new courtroom front opens for them once companies get a peek at huge medical bills and refuse to pay.

"This $10,000 provision needs to be re-legislated, it’s that bad," Moore says. "The smaller companies are going to be lost. They won’t know what hit them."

To get blindsided by these new complexities, a company needn’t be tiny — just too small to employ a fancy risk management division that tracks all this confusion.

Howard Barmazel is president of Northridge Mills, a garment factory in San Fernando. He’s respected in the Jewish community from which he hails, as well as in the Latino community from which he draws many workers, because he offers good compensation and makes it his mission to promote home ownership among his workers.

His philosophy produces high-quality products from a highly motivated workforce. Barmazel survived when other garment manufacturers proved unable to compete against foreign competitors.

Yet despite having few injuries, Barmazel more than $25,000 per week in premiums for his 400 workers. This year he slashed overtime because the fewer hours his workers put in, the cheaper the premiums. He prays for major workers’ comp reform. He doesn’t want to close. It’s a perverse and maddening situation. Barmazel could easily keep his crews working overtime to meet orders, and the crews would love the work.

"My insurance agent is a really savvy guy and we can’t figure out the reforms — and boy we’ve tried," Barmazel says. "I still think Schwarzenegger is a knight on a white horse, but he’s going to have to fight every angle to make this work. All businesses in California are struggling with this thing, and I have no idea what the future holds. That’s just really bad for me and my employees."

And Barmazel is a pro-active employer with brains. Thousands aren’t.

Schwarzenegger needs to fix the loopholes and vagueness that could turn reform into a courtroom bonanza. Much can be repaired via tight regulations that simplify unnecessary complexities and precisely spell out rules.

The governor just fired the bureaucrat who wrote ineffective regulations under Gray Davis and Pete Wilson. Little surprise when few California media failed to report the firing. The story was too subtle for many media, even though it spoke volumes. By replacing a deadwood bureaucrat with a leading attorney in civil and governmental law, Schwarzenegger is acknowledging he ended up with a compromise he must fight to clean up via regulation.

If the governor can do that, California may yet see the billions of dollars in savings that many journalists, addicted to shallow reporting, imply is a sure thing.

Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist and can be reached at

Moonves: No Sympathy for Hitler

President and CEO of CBS Television Leslie Moonves came in
for a good deal of flak last year following news that the network was planning
to make a two-part miniseries from British history professor Ian Kershaw’s
book, “Hitler: 1889-l936: Hubris” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), which
covers the prewar life and times of the Führer.

Some Jewish leaders worried that a too- sympathetic
portrayal of the early life of the man responsible for the murder of 6 million Jews would feed into today’s current wave of anti-Semitism
and that a prime-time portrait of the youthful Hitler might paint him as a
misunderstood youth rather than an evil madman to millions of young viewers
with scant knowledge of Hitler’s terrible legacy.

This month, CBS, along with the producers, Alliance
Atlantic, began shooting the miniseries in Prague and might air the show as
early as the May sweeps. Scottish actor Robert Carlyle — best known for “The
Full Monty” and “Trainspotting” — plays Adolf Hitler, while Stockard Channing
(first lady Abby Bartlet on “The West Wing”) portrays his mother. The cast also
includes Julianna Margulies, Peter O’Toole, Liev Schreiber and Matthew Modine.

The Jewish Journal read an early script — which CBS now says
has been totally junked in favor of a completely new version by Jewish
playwright-screenwriter John Pielmeier (“Agnes of God”). Pielmeier has drawn
upon other books, periodicals and archival material for the new version.

The Journal recently spoke to Moonves about the new face of

Jewish Journal: You’ve said there’s more incident in the new
script. Do you mean more action?

Leslie Moonves: I wouldn’t say more action. There are more
things involved in Hitler’s personal life that may not have been in the Kershaw
book. In no way do I want to put down Mr. Kershaw, who clearly is a genius and
a wonderful writer. But sometimes, when you’re sticking to one work and dealing
with a historical figure it’s often good to have a variety of sources.

JJ: Where does this version begin and end?

LM: There are a very few scenes dealing with his childhood
to try to get the flavor that this is an odd young man from the time he was a
little boy. He was an outsider. He was a strange fellow. By and large, most of
the movie begins with him as an unemployed artist in Vienna, trying to get into
art school, living in poverty, being homeless and his exploits in World War I.
And from there, that’s where the bulk of the movie takes place.

JJ: Where do the first two hours end?

LM: I can’t recollect the first two-hour ending. Clearly the
whole thing ends when Hitler has taken over total power of the country in 1938
on the eve of World War II. We will also be showing a postscript. That’s very
important. Once again, we do take some of the comments we’ve received very
seriously. And one comment I took to heart: if you are showing the rise to
power — and part of why we’re doing this is that everybody knows how the story
ended but few people know how it began — some people said, “Well you’re not
showing the atrocities that this man committed. And you may be giving an
incorrect impression of him.” So it’s important to know where this led seven or
eight years later.

JJ: How will you do this?

LM: We’re not 100 percent sure. It may be with
documentary-style footage.

JJ: Will you run public service announcements during the

LM: Throughout the show, and in the preceding weeks.

JJ: We heard CBS is making a donation to a Holocaust

LM: Yes, to the Shoah Foundation or something like that.
It’s not quite pinned down yet.

JJ: Who’s going to buy ad space for this movie?

LM: You don’t sell it the way you sell anything else. It’s
got to be a careful sale. People have to realize that this is an important
piece that is going to be done with quality, class and sensitivity. We haven’t
yet begun to approach the people. I think it will be easier once we have
something to show them.

JJ: Many critics worried that Hitler as the protagonist of
the story has to be shown as a human being. But by doing that you automatically
make him sympathetic.

LM: In no way, shape or form is this man in this film a
sympathetic figure. He is a monster. And it’s how he got to be that way. At no
point do you feel sympathy for this man and just say, “Oh, I understand, I feel
bad this is why he did what he did.” That emotion should never occur.

JJ: What made you chose Robert Carlyle?

LM: It was very funny, when his name first came up. He was
very charming in the “The Full Monty,” but this is Adolf Hitler.

Then I saw pieces of him in “Trainspotting.” I saw “Angela’s
Ashes,” then I saw a British film, where he played a cold-blooded killer. And
it was chilling. And when I saw that side of him I said, he can do this. And it
was who the producers supported right from the beginning.

JJ: Has Rabbi Harvey Fields from Wilshire Boulevard Temple
vetted the script?

LM: He read the first two hours and gave us extensive notes.
Those notes have been incorporated into some of the changes and he’s reading
the second part as we speak. He’s an unofficial friend in court, but once
again, certainly he’s amongst the most widely respected religious leaders in
ours or any community.

JJ: Did you agree with the criticism of the first script?

LM: When we were receiving the criticism, we didn’t like the
first script. It was dreadful. And the fact that it was being passed around we
felt was blatantly unfair.

JJ: Wasn’t your own wife opposed to the project?

LM: I don’t want to talk about my personal situation. There
has been a lot of discussions with friends and relatives. It certainly is a
lightning rod for a lot of people.

JJ: Did you lose family members in the Holocaust?

LM: I lost many relatives on both sides of the family. My
grandparents are both from Poland and they lost a number of siblings and
cousins, a great many family members during the Holocaust. They escaped from
Poland before the war began. But there were some who did not escape.

JJ: Have you seen early footage of the movie?

LM: I’ve seen a very little bit of it — some very
preliminary dailies.

JJ: How’s it looking?

LM: So far so good … you never like to comment until
things are put together. Once again there’s a director who I’ve worked with
before, who I have great trust and faith in and a script that is a lot more —
very solid certainly. I’m very pleased with the quality of the cast.

JJ: Have you seen the movie “Max?”

LM: Yes. I don’t want to give any criticism. I thought it
was a very, very interesting movie. I thought John Cusack was terrific. I
thought it shined certainly some light on what we were doing and certainly on
the subject matter. I did think it was a decent film.

JJ: May we read the new shooting script?

LM: No. No.

JJ: Can we visit the set in Prague?

LM: That might be possible. I really want your readers to
know that this is something we are not treating lightly. It’s one of the most
important projects we’ve been involved in and we are trying to do it with great
care and great thought.

Settling In

It’s the obvious first topic of conversation, and Paul Castro has no problem addressing it. As the newly minted executive director of Jewish Family Service of Greater Los Angeles (JFS), Castro now runs a Jewish social outreach organization – and yet he is neither Jewish nor holds a degree in social work.”It was more of a challenge for the organization than for me,” Castro told The Journal. “I’ve never really not felt part of the family at JFS. The fact that I’ve not been Jewish has not been an issue in the day-to-day operations or in my interactions with people.”

What Castro did possess, however, was nearly two decades of experience serving in various capacities at the citywide, nonprofit JFS network, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles that provides a wide array of counseling services and programs for people wrestling with addiction, abuse, domestic problems, disabilities and illness; experience that included working with both people in need and with members of the Jewish community. A nonsectarian organization that primarily serves Jewish clientele but also assists other minorities, JFS currently operates on a $21 million annual budget, approximately 10 percent coming from The Federation and the rest mostly from public sources on the city, state and federal level.

“I have a great deal of faith in his ability to contribute toward the future success of the agency,” said Sandra King, JFS’s exiting executive director, in July on the cusp of her retirement.

A Latino of Mexican descent, Castro grew up in Los Angeles and now resides in Long Beach, where he lives with his wife and three children. And though Castro came to JFS in 1980 without social work training, he graduated from Loyola Marymount University and holds a law degree.

Castro, who originally came on board as a financial administrator on JFS’s Multi-Purpose Senior Service Program, proved to be a quick study who learned the mechanics of the nonprofit’s social services. There was a brief period in the 48-year-old administrator’s career when he left JFS – from 1984-86 – to pursue opportunities in the Pacific Northwest. But eventually King lured Castro back in an executive administration position, where, until the early 1990s, Castro worked as director of finances and administration, later becoming the agency’s associate executive director. As second in charge under King, Castro took on broader responsibilities, helping develop long-term programs.

Castro said that he has long marveled at the Jewish community’s ability to raise funds effectively in support of its charities.

“Other ethnic communities that are always chasing dollars external to the community, they are defined by someone external to the community,” said Castro. “For better or for worse, the discussion happens in the Jewish community and is implemented by the Jewish community – that was very intriguing.”

In fact, Castro found the idea so intriguing that he went about replicating it within his own community in 1991, creating the United Latino Fund. Established primarily for health and human services, the United Latino Fund awards grants to nonprofit organizations and, like the United Way, employees of the city, county and state can make donations directly from their paychecks.

Following the 1992 riots, Castro became active in Latino-Jewish relations, organizing community discussions with Steven Windmueller, then head of the Jewish Community Relations Committee and now director of the School of Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.”There was a lot of dialogue with Blacks and Asians,” said Castro, “but there hadn’t been any meaningful across-the-board discussions between Latinos and Jews.”

Members of the Latino community met with Westside Jews on issues such as education and the environment. To a certain degree, Castro believes that community dialogue has improved somewhat since the more ominous days of the riots and the anti-illegal immigrant bill Proposition 187.

“I think the communication is better,” said Castro. “Our neighborhoods, in some ways, are not as segregated as before, and we are seeing a growing Latino middle class as well.”

Castro finds some overlap between the Latino and the Jewish cultures: “Both are very proud; deep commitments to roots and a real sense of family and community are a mainstay of both groups.”

“We live in a highly multicultural city,” continued Castro, “where the predominant community is Hispanic. That’s why they should work closer together. At a certain point, it’s not about what the Jewish community is doing about it, what the Latino community is doing about it, but what our community is going to do about it.”

Jonathan Brandler, president of JFS, was on the search committee that appointed Castro to his current position. Brandler cited Castro’s “knowledge of the agency and also knowledge of our mission” as foremost among Castro’s criteria.

“He’s someone who works well with our staff and our funding sources,” said Brandler. “He enables them to succeed and lets them take credit for his accomplishments, and he has excellent relations with our funding sources. He also is very sensitive with the needs of our clients.”

“There seems to be a seamless transition,” said Dena Schechter, who is also on the JFS board. “Our ability to move forward depended on not having any upheaval in the agency. He has the continuity and the vision that he’s developed over the years at the agency. In terms of his sensibility to social issues, he’s really responsive.” Schechter described Castro as “brilliant, bright, self-effacing – he’s a really special man.”

“He knows this agency better than anybody else,” said Martin Kozberg, past president of JFS. “He’s a proven leader and has done an outstanding job. In the months that he’s been there, he’s proved it to me. I consider him a leader and a friend.”

Like his peers on JFS’s board of directors, Brandler is very pleased with Castro’s commitment in the aftermath of King’s retirement. Said Brandler, “He had a hard act to follow, and he’s living up to it.””Sandra and I are very different people, said Castro. “We kind of evolved different styles. I learned a lot from Sandra in terms of just her ability to have the capacity to lead the organization and cutting edge in lots of arenas, as well as being responsive to the needs of clients. One of the first things I did was create two associate director positions, occupied by Vivian Sauer and Susie Ford Day.”

Continued Castro, “My appointment was really out of the box. To hire someone who is not Jewish and not coming from a social services background, I think a lot of credit has to go to the board, who recognized my potential but also who we are as an agency. This doesn’t happen in many communities.”

With Castro’s new power comes great responsibility. Back in June, JFS absorbed the previously autonomous Jewish Family Service of Santa Monica. And the outreach organization has also expanded its services to Conejo Valley, to meet the needs of a growing Jewish population in that area. Castro also wants to develop more children’s services and shelters helping battered women.

“We’re moving forward, because I’m on several committees where I see the drive is fantastic,” said Schechter. “Paul has the ability to be a consensus builder, especially with government funders. He has made real connections for us. He certainly gets the agency, and we get the benefits.”

A Beacon of Hope

Carlanna is a young woman who was paralyzed in a car accident in high school. She is now a producer with the “Judge Judy” show. Alex is a qualified doctor from the Ukraine who cannot work in his profession here. He is now a highly successful radiology technician. Irene was a newly divorced mother on welfare in the depths of despair. She is now a fundraiser working on the corporate level and providing services and support to single mothers.

These are among the hundreds of success stories generated each year by Jewish Vocational Services (JVS), examples of people overcoming great obstacles to achieve career growth in order to support themselves and their families. JVS is a beacon of hope in the greater Los Angeles area for those who are looking for work or career advancement.

A not-for-profit organization founded in 1931, JVS offers high-quality programs to individuals, businesses and agencies related to job seeking, career planning, skills assessment, training and retraining. It helps people find work and redirect their careers. It has developed a strong network between employers and employees and has assisted multimillion-dollar firms in finding qualified employees.

Vivian Seigel, executive vice president and CEO of JVS, says the mission of the group is “to do whatever it takes to help people build, enhance or change their careers. Our clients are as diverse as L.A., from newly arrived refugees and immigrants looking for their first jobs in the U.S. to clients with disabilities who are trying to determine if they can go back to work, to a welfare recipient transitioning from welfare to work, to a high level CEO who’s just been laid off from his or her company or who is a product of mergers and acquisitions.”

At least 25 percent of the 6,000-plus clients JVS serves are African-American or Latino. “We are a big believer in bringing our services out to the community,” Seigel states.

JVS runs employment services for the city of West Hollywood and has staff at Santa Monica College, three Urban League sites and at an East L.A. Lockheed location as well. It also has staff at high schools such as Fairfax, Monroe, and West Side Opportunity Center.

JVS has a staff of certified vocational evaluators and rehabilitation counselors. Its multilingual staff of 69 can do assessments in English, Spanish, Russian, Armenian, Yiddish, Farsi, Vietnamese, French and American Sign Language. “We think that if we have a service that we offer well,” Seigel says, “we should be sharing that service with anyone who can use it, and vice versa.”

Seigel cites client assessment as one area of JVS strength. “That’s the ability to assess someone’s strengths and weaknesses and make employment recommendations,” she explains. JVS runs the assessment labs at the Urban League sites and staffs the career resource centers at the East L.A. One Stop.

A One Stop “is a comprehensive center funded by either the city or the county providing employment and training services,” explains Angie Cooper, director of workforce development for JVS.

Cooper oversees the organizations that Workforce Investment Act contracts with, groups like the Urban League and East L.A. One Stop. At the centers, Cooper says, “we have evaluators who administer vocational tests to determine someone’s basic skill levels. Our evaluators make people feel comfortable. They know that most of these clients may not have been in school for years.”

JVS offers a wide variety of programs that instill hope in those who are seeking to restructure and rebuild their lives. It offers a Jewish 12-step program that includes career development and employment assistance for people who have been through the penal system, the majority of whom have had substance abuse problems. The program, offered in collaboration with Gateways Hospital, is called Beit T’Shuvah (House of Return).

JVS also helps refugees from the former Soviet Union receive customized training in fields expected to grow rapidly during the next decade. These students receive English as a Second Language instruction. JVS gives employment services to residents of the Sydney M. Irmas Traditional Living Center, a North Hollywood shelter. JVS’ employment center, located at the shelter, helped more than 240 residents conduct their job search efforts this year and prepare for reentry to the workforce.

The organization also helps high school students who want to pursue higher education obtain scholarships to supplement financial aid packages, and it works with the State Department of Rehabilitation to deal with people who have disabilities, including mental health issues, physical disabilities, and visual and hearing impairments.

JVS aids senior workers cope with age bias through the Seniors Achieving Generational Equity (SAGE) support group. SAGE members are eligible to strengthen their technology skills at SkillsPlus!, a JVS computer training center.”Whether it be a substance abuse center that we partner with,” Seigel explains, “or a homeless shelter or a domestic violence center, we know that in order to break the recidivism cycle, you have to be able to come in and help people become self-sufficient. And you have to give them the tools to do that while they have a roof over their head and food in their stomach.”

Traveling Salesman

Gerald “Jerry” C. Lasensky describes himself as the Jewish community’s traveling salesman, road warrior and itinerant emissary.

For a more formal title, Lasensky, whose round face and white beard lend him a touch of the leprechaun, is the Western regional director of the United Jewish Communities Network of Independent Communities.Not for him the glittering black-tie fundraisers in Los Angeles or New York, studded with Hollywood celebrities and addressed by an Israeli prime minister or an American vice president.

Rather, his job is to make the rounds of small Western towns and cities with too few Jewish inhabitants to warrant an organized, professional federation structure. He makes sure, for instance, that the few dozen Jews in Victorville, Calif. don’t fall off organized American Jewry’s radar screen or miss the opportunity to contribute their monetary share to the common good in Israel and the Diaspora.

No old-time circuit-riding rabbi or Jewish peddler came close to covering Lasensky’s territory. He makes the rounds of 50 nonfederated communities in the 13 Western states, and his beat extends from Texas to Hawaii, and north to Alaska.

He recalls one memorable trip, which took him from Puerto Rico to Santa Fe, N.M., to Los Angeles and on to Honolulu. In a normal year, Lasensky figures, he logs more than 100,000 air and road miles.

Jewish populations in the towns on Lasensky’s circuit range from less than 100 to 5,000, and the attitudes he encounters toward Jewish identity and communal responsibility vary widely.

In some places, their small numbers draw the Jews close together into a kind of shtetl bond, with a concomitant responsibility for each other’s welfare. Lasensky cites one small Texas town, in which 14 out of 16 Jewish families contribute to the annual fund drive.

In other towns, the lack of Jewish partners and social bonds results in an unusually high intermarriage rate, even by American standards.

“The main product I’m selling is Jewish continuity by fostering Jewish identity,” declares Lasensky. “First comes the friendraising, then the fundraising.”

He sees his task as a two-way street, encouraging Jews in the hinterlands to support organized American Jewry and vice versa.

For instance, when fires recently ravaged the area around Los Alamos, N.M., Lasensky figured out the loss to Jewish families and institutions and then lobbied for assistance from big city federations.

Appropriately, the future emissary to small-town America was born 61 years ago in Sioux City, Iowa, then home to 1,500 Jews, where his Russian immigrant father worked as a cattle dealer. On a rough calculation, Lasensky figures he has raised, directly and indirectly, some $500 million for Jewish causes.Lasensky, the constant traveler, yoked to his cell phone and laptop computer, cherishes his close family ties. He and his wife Dorothy have three adult children and look forward to grandparenthood next February.

His persistence in pursuing his goals can be gauged by an incident a few years ago. At the time, he was in Honolulu attending the annual meeting of the Jewish Federation of Hawaii when he read that President Clinton was coming for a private vacation, following his 1996 reelection.

The Sunday federation dinner in a hotel was well under way when someone reported that Clinton and his entourage were standing in a nearby hallway.

Lasensky dashed out and somehow managed to get close enough to invite Clinton to break bread with a group of Hawaiian Jews. “Bring ’em over,” responded Clinton, and then cordially shook hands and chatted with every one of the 64 guests.

“You’ve got to be prepared at all times,” concludes Lasensky. “You never know who you’re going to meet next.”

We Jews are eJews

If you can read this, you can Web surf. That’s the conclusion of a recent survey conducted by Mediamark Research, Inc., for the Joseph Jacobs Organization’s Jewish Publications Network. The survey found that people who read Jewish newspapers (that’s you, now) are more likely than not to own a computer and surf the Web. Here’s the facts:By the way, you can read this same story online at our Web site: www. jewishjournal.com.

colorPercentage of American adults who own a computer: 44.5

colorPercentage of people who read a Jewish publication and own a computer: 69

colorPercentage of people who read their local Jewish publication who own a computer: 73

colorPercentage of American adults who have used the Internet within the past month: 34

colorPercentage of people who read a Jewish publication who have used the Internet within the past month: 61

Channeling Success

“I’ve been pushing this rock uphill for 10 years, and I won’t stop until I reach the top,” says Jay Sanderson.

The “rock” Sanderson is edging upward is the Jewish Television Network, and it’s been grunt work most of the way.

Founded in 1981 with a minuscule $75,000-a-year budget, JTN was barely breathing when the former commercial film writer and producer took over a decade ago.

Since then, the annual budget has risen to $1 million to cover production of some 300 hours of programming. While some of Sanderson’s ambitious goals — such as a 24-hour national Jewish cable network — remain elusive, JTN’s year-end report reflects solid achievements and promising prospects.

  • In Los Angeles, 10 different JTN programs air weekly over all local cable systems during nightly (except Friday) one-hour time slots.

  • JTN has expanded from its home base, and selected programs can now be seen in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, South Florida, the Bay Area, San Diego and Washington.

  • In a recent major breakthrough, JTN has leaped beyond its cable confines by signing a deal with Public Broadcasting Service stations, including KCET in Los Angeles and KOCE in Orange County, to air some of its programs.

  • JTN is launching a number of new programs, including “Jewish Celebrity Profiles,” hosted by veteran writer-producer Saul Turteltaub; “New Jewish Cuisine,” a gourmet kosher cooking series with chef Jeff Nathan; and “The 92nd Street Y Presents,” with shows originating at the famous New York cultural and community center.