After top-down transformation, Hillel 818 shows signs of growth


When David Katz, the new executive director of Hillel 818 — the organization that serves Jewish students on three San Fernando Valley campuses — was being courted away last year from his position leading Hillel at the University of Pittsburgh, he wasn’t exactly given the most attractive hard sell. He recalls being told the following by Hillel International’s leadership:

“This Hillel has a quarter of the staff size that you’re used to, maybe a third of the budget that you’re used to and the potential to reach three times as many students as you’re used to.”

Nevertheless, Katz, 34, accepted the challenge, which also meant coming into a Hillel with a new board after an upheaval led by its primary funding source, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

“This is a Hillel that has the potential to engage 6,000 students throughout all the different campuses that we serve,” Katz said during a recent interview at Hillel 818’s Northridge headquarters. He was referring to Cal State Northridge (CSUN), as well as two community colleges, Pierce College and Los Angeles Valley College, all of which are under Hillel 818’s umbrella. “We want to be able to prove that we can engage alumni, engage community members and eventually start building an endowment.”

Katz’s arrival in April followed a de facto takeover and reorganization in late 2014 by L.A. Federation, led by President and CEO Jay Sanderson, who told the Journal a year ago that Hillel 818’s leadership was mismanaged, unable to support itself financially, and not reaching enough Jewish students. “For many, many, many years, those students did not get adequate support,” Sanderson told the Journal in 2015. “There’s not one person who can tell you that that was an effectively run Hillel.”

Sanderson said in a recent interview that he thinks the organization is now on track. “Now there’s a strong board with a strong board chair [Howard Grobstein],” he said. “Eighty percent of the board is new people who are connected and committed to the campus.” Katz said there’s also a minimum board contribution for each member of $2,500 a year.

While Hillel 818 remains heavily dependent on Federation, Katz said it is on a path toward financial self-sustainability. Its annual budget has increased 54 percent, from $278,000 in 2014-15 to $430,000 in 2015-16, with just under half of this year’s funding from Federation — $214,000 —  whereas Federation previously funded two-thirds of Hillel 818’s budget.

It’s also reaching more students. Hillel’s goal at the start of the 2015-16 school year, Katz said, was to interact with 900 individual Jewish students during this academic year; it finished the first semester reaching 464 individuals. He estimates that last year, Hillel 818 reached only 300 individual students in the entire academic year.

In addition, Katz said, last year Hillel 818 offered only one Shabbat dinner per month. It now opens its door for Friday night dinner every two weeks, including a Kabbalat Shabbat service beforehand, attracting about 30 to 40 students each time. Another priority of Hillel 818 under Katz’s leadership has been to increase its students’ representation on Birthright trips to Israel. He said in the year before he came, in April 2015, Hillel 818 sent only three students on Birthright, a number that increased to 15 over winter break. He hopes to see 30 more go on the summer trips.

Another of Katz’s goals is to increase the percentage of non-Federation funding sources and to expand Hillel 818’s footprint beyond its CSUN core, increasing engagement at Pierce, where Hillel 818 already has some presence, and making an impact at L.A. Valley College, which he said Hillel 818 has barely touched for three years. One of Hillel 818’s three staffers will be on the Pierce campus once a week, and Katz said he and his team are “still figuring out how we best meet and serve the needs of L.A. Valley College.”

The Federation-led reorganization didn’t come without its share of controversy. It started in September 2014, when Sanderson told the then-standing board that it needed to dissolve itself or else Federation would cut off its funding, effectively crippling the organization. One month earlier, executive director Judy Alban had resigned after learning that her grant requests to Federation were being denied because Federation disapproved of her having been promoted from the interim director post just a few months earlier. So a new director had to be found as well.

Jody Myers, CSUN professor of religious studies and coordinator of the Jewish Studies Interdisciplinary Program and one of the few prior board members to remain after the transition, said she disapproved of Federation’s tactics at the time of the reorganization, and she believes Federation’s reduced funding under Alban and its dissolution of the board hurt Jewish students on campus who would have benefited from a vibrant Hillel in the 2014-15 year.

“Once they fired Judy … I was considering not being on the board, but my board members said, ‘No, you have to be there,’ ” Myers said.

She acknowledges improvements at Hillel 818 since Katz took over and that Federation has ramped up its funding, but for Myers, that still doesn’t justify the process. “Things are very positive. I’m very happy with how David is functioning,” she said. “The fact that he’s working out well now does not justify the manner in which it was done.”

Jonathan Goldenberg, a CSUN junior, Hillel intern and head of CSUN Students for Israel, believes the reorganization and leadership change last year directly improved the pro-Israel group’s effectiveness.

“I kind of got to experience the change in leadership that happened firsthand,” Goldenberg said. “I went from being on my own to having a full staff to help me and the board plan events.”

He said Katz “has really brought life back to a Hillel that used to seem as if it wouldn’t [have] any potential.

“I’ve seen an incredible improvement both just in how Hillel itself functions and also how David really works with the various student groups that are under Hillel’s banner,” Goldenberg said.

This is not to understate, however, the long road to self-sustainability that Hillel 818 is just beginning. One sign of its ongoing dependency on Federation is that the more than $200,000 Federation gave to Hillel 818 for the 2015-16 school year is not grant-based funding, but “core” funding that’s not attached to specific programs — a rarity for Federation.

“Hillel 818, right now, is not self-sustaining and we have to help it get there,” Sanderson said, explaining the exception. “We’re invested in making sure this Hillel is the focal point of Jewish life on these three campuses, and to do that we have to provide, during this transition period, core support to make that happen.”

Sanderson said there’s no “formal timeline” for when he expects Hillel 818 to be financially self-sustaining — which would involve a mix of fundraising from its board, alumni, grants and parents of current students. He said he expects the process could take about three years:

“They started from way below sea level. The board they had before was not helping them raise money. We’re very, very happy. Everything we wanted to happen is happening, and our expectations so far have been exceeded.” 

An international flamenco fiesta comes to VPAC


When flamenco star Leilah Broukhim performs at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) in Northridge with Jose Porcel’s famed dance company, Compania Flamenca, on Nov. 20, flamenco fans around the Southland will be clamoring to see the pair together for the first time.  

Broukhim grew up in an Iranian-Jewish family in New York, but Spain was always in her blood — her father’s family is one of only a few Iranian families that actually trace their lineage to that part of the world, she said. So, in some ways, it was no surprise that Broukhim, who has studied ballet, tap and jazz dance, said flamenco “took me by storm” when she first discovered it while at Columbia University. 

She had originally enrolled in college to study film, but decided to move to Spain for a year to learn flamenco. As Broukhim recalled it, “One year kind of turned into 15 years. Definitely not my plan, but I can’t really imagine my life any other way.”

The dancer said flamenco is about much more than body movement or music.

“In order to be part … of this art form … you have to be part of the subculture,” Broukhim said. That was something she pursued while living in Madrid, a city dotted with tablaos — pubs where flamenco performances are held — drawing in locals and tourists from around the world. Flamenco performers, even from other parts of Spain, flock to Madrid for its flamenco scene.

According to Broukhim, flamenco has unique challenges as a dance form.  

“Flamenco is live, and there are specific rhythms … we all follow, but a lot of it is based on improvisation,” she said. It relies on a real sharing of energy among the dancers, singers and instrumentalists who perform together. 

An outsider at first, Broukhim said she was eventually welcomed into the Spanish flamenco community. 

She also has had contact with the Jewish community in Spain, particularly through an organization called Centro Sefarad-Israel, which promotes Jewish culture in the country. Broukhim has been working with the organization since 2007, and it even helped her as she developed a special show, “Dejando Huellas” (Traces), which explores her Sephardic and Iranian heritage. The show, which she has performed throughout Europe and in New York City, “fuses flamenco with Sephardic music and Persian music,” she said, adding that she would like to bring it to Los Angeles one day.

Broukhim’s visit to Southern California was arranged after she received an email about a year ago from Thor Steingraber, VPAC executive director, complimenting her on her work. He indicated that Porcel had been booked to perform and asked her “whether I’d be interested in performing as a guest artist in the show,” Broukhim said.

“I said, ‘Yes, if Jose and his people are up for it, I think it’s a great idea,’ ” continued Broukhim, who knew of Porcel’s reputation but had never worked with him. Porcel agreed, and soon Broukhim found herself partnered with his company.

“He was very generous in wanting to include me in the show,” she said. “We had a couple of rehearsals in Madrid before they went on tour. … The numbers are fantastic, and the dancers are amazing.”

Broukhim will be doing two solo numbers as part of the performance.

“One is a traditional solea … that is a very solemn and slow flamenco … rhythm,” she explained. “In the second half … I’m doing a shorter number called a tangos, which is also a traditional flamenco palo [rhythm], and a little more festive and lively, a little more playful.” 

At the end of the show, Broukhim will dance with some of Porcel’s company in a fin de fiesta, a traditional flamenco encore.

While in town, Broukhim also will be teaching dance classes at CSU Northridge, as well as a flamenco master class for more advanced flamenco students at the MKM Cultural Arts Center in North Hollywood. She’ll also perform in a more intimate show at the Odyssey Theatre on Nov. 22 as part of the “Forever Flamenco” series, which is produced by the Fountain Theatre. 

For tickets and more information about Leilah Broukhim and Compania Flamenca Jose Porcel at the Valley Performing Arts Center, visit the VPAC website.

Songs in the key of Nero


It may be hard to believe there was a time when George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” now a durable fixture of the American and international concert repertory, was thought of as suspect — an unclassifiable mix of concert music and jazz whose popularity seemed offensive to highbrow audiences. 

Pianist and conductor Peter Nero can relate. Classically trained in pop and jazz, Nero is something of a hybrid, and record companies had a hard time marketing his irrepressibly inventive, technically fluent and unpredictable playing.

“Today I’d be called a ‘crossover artist,’ ” Nero, 81, said recently from his home in Philadelphia. “But in 1961, RCA Victor [now RCA Records] didn’t know what to do with me, so they started by changing my name from Bernard Nierow to Peter Nero.”

Gershwin’s immortal “Rhapsody” caps off Nero’s upcoming concert at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) in Northridge on Nov. 14. Called “Peter Nero: Gershwin in Hollywood,” the program is actually in two parts, with “Gershwin on Broadway” kicking off the program’s first half. The show also features Michael Barnett, Nero’s principal bass player for nearly 30 years, and vocalist Katherine Strohmaier. 

The Hollywood half of the program includes Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” composed, with lyrics by his brother Ira, for the 1937 film “Shall We Dance.” That score represents Gershwin’s sole Academy Award for best original song. Most of the Hollywood-era songs, including “A Foggy Day” from 1937’s “A Damsel in Distress,” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” another classic from “Shall We Dance,” appeared posthumously — George Gershwin died in July 1937 at age 38.

Nero’s immersion in Gershwin’s work deepened with “Rhapsody in Blue.” Nero was 17 when he appeared on national television performing “Rhapsody” with Paul Whiteman, the bandleader who commissioned the piece in 1924. 

“Gershwin was ahead of his time,” Nero said. “He synthesized classical and jazz and took it a step further. No matter how many times I play that piece, I marvel at the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic structure he conceived.”

Nero, who won a Grammy for best new artist in 1961, went on to record some 70 albums, including the hit “Summer of ’42.” His many television appearances included guest spots on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”

Early on, Nero was one of the most respected of Gershwin interpreters. In 1972, he won an Emmy for the NBC special “S’Wonderful, S’Marvelous, S’Gershwin.” Classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz used to attend his concerts and the two quickly became good friends. 

Thor Steingraber, VPAC executive director, said Nero — who was founding music director and conductor of the Philly Pops orchestra for many years — is one of the most decorated figures in the history of the popular American  songbook. “He’s walking history, with an encyclopedic mind,” Steingraber said.

Indeed, Nero has worked with luminaries including Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Mathis, Elton John and Rod Stewart. 

Born Bernard Nierow in Brooklyn, N.Y., to a Ukrainian-Jewish father who was a social worker and a Sephardic-Jewish mother who taught Spanish and French in New York City high schools, Nero said his interest in jazz was looked down upon at home.

“My mother wanted me to become a classical pianist,” said Nero, who, as a 13-year-old, won a scholarship to the Juilliard School preparatory division. “But I was a rebel. When I thought she wasn’t listening, I started messing around with a tune on the radio called ‘Bumble Boogie.’ It was ‘Flight of
the Bumblebee’ played in boogie-woogie fashion. It was a hit record. In those days, you could have a No. 1 hit on piano.” 

After four years at Juilliard prep and the High School of Music and Art, Nero began to get gigs while  attending Brooklyn College. “I grew up in the clubs,” he said. “In 1957, I played an eight-week gig in the lounge of the Tropicana in Las Vegas. Then they extended it, so I took an apartment and did my college work there.” 

Nero wound up playing the Tropicana for two years while earning his bachelor’s degree in music. He was 23 years old.

“We were part of the casino, and nobody listened,” he said. “People sat with their backs to us, watching the celebrities walk by … It was a great place to experiment.”

Nero’s teachers and mentors include Abram Chasins, the late concert pianist, lecturer and music director of WQXR (the radio station owned for many years by The New York Times), and Chasins’ wife, pianist Constance Keene, who took Nero on as a student for five years. Chasins, who actually knew Gershwin, wrote of the composer’s “incredible ease, joyous spontaneity and originality at the piano.” 

The same can be said of Nero’s striking improvisational technique. “I started improvising when I was 12,” he said, “and decided I’m going to do my own thing. I’ve always kept my chops in shape, so I can execute the ideas that appear in my head.”

“Baruch,” Nero’s Hebrew name, means “blessed.” And Nero’s hands are still blessedly nimble, while his mind remains sharp. “I do the crosswords,” Nero said, by way of explanation. “Eighty is the new 60.” 

But he’s been noticing that his posture at the piano isn’t what it used to be. “My teachers [Chasins and Keene] watched Horowitz at the piano, and they taught me his perfect weight transfer for hands and keys by using the body. But as I get older, I’m starting to hunch over the instrument,” he said. “It’s what nature does to the body.”

As conductor of the Philly Pops orchestra, Nero would talk to the audience, a tradition he’ll continue for his upcoming VPAC gig. Nero said he also will be available after the concert for a meet-and-greet. 

“I learned from Victor Borge how to engage an audience,” he  said. “I can talk and conduct at the same time.”

As Nero jumped back and forth during the conversation from one era to another, he could be hard to keep up with. One moment, he recalled his teacher, famed Swedish conductor Sixten Ehrling; in another, he turned to affectionate memories of his friend and mentor Henry Mancini. 

Given Nero’s long history in the world of classical, pop and jazz music, one might wonder why there is no memoir from the ebullient pianist, conductor and raconteur.

“You wanna write it?” Nero asked, in a brash Brooklyn accent. “Every time I get started telling one story, I think of another. Besides, I would have to tell the truth, and that could get me into trouble.”

Swastika wrapping paper or Rorschach test?


Let’s play a game. Can you find the swastikas in the picture above?

Don’t worry if it took a few minutes to find them – they can be hard to spot in the midst of the wrapping paper’s intricate design.

Today Walgreens announced that is removing all rolls of this wrapping paper from its shelves nationwide after a woman from the Northridge community of Los Angeles complained Sunday about the swastikas in the design.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes, I had no idea what to do,”  Cheryl Shapiro, the distressed shopper told L.A.’s NBC News affiliate.  “I came home and spoke to my rabbi. He couldn’t believe it.”

Shapiro’s experience brings up a larger issue: how close to a swastika should something look to be considered offensive?

The wrapping paper is only the latest in a series of swastika products spotted on the market in recent years. In October, Sears apologized profusely for selling a ring with a swastika on it in its “men’s punk rock style” jewelry collection. In 2013, a clothing line called “Spiritual Punx” began putting colorful swastikas (that look, oddly enough, like donuts) on clothing, stickers, and accessories.  In 2007, Zara was caught selling a handbag that featured four green swastikas next to an array of flowers.

The swastika dates back thousands of years, well before Hitler’s rise to power. In fact, before the late 19th century, the symbol was primarily associated with the cultures of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, in which it represented good luck or well-being. By the start of the 20th century, the swastika could be seen throughout Europe, not just in Germany. Today it is still seen on temples in places like India and Indonesia.

Of course, in any modern Western context, the swastika is inextricably associated with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. However, is the geometry of the Walgreens wrapping paper in the same category as  the Sears “punk rock” ring? After all, the hooked cross, while iconic, is a simple enough design to accidentally replicate if one is drawing enough lines and right angles.

We can only assume that, after this mishap, Walgreen’s will be extra careful in scrutinizing its products to assure they do not offend. Which is certainly more than we can say for this Brazilian homeowner whose outdoor swimming pool features a large — and unmistakably intentional — swastika.

Idan Raichel: Music with meaning


For Israeli superstar Idan Raichel, sometimes it’s not the musical notes that matter most; it’s what happens in between.

Such is the case when a Jewish singer-songwriter teams up with a Muslim guitarist — in this case, Vieux Farka Touré, from the West African country of Mali.

“What is important for us, between the jams, when we are talking, is to create a dialogue, to create a bridge, between different cultures,” Raichel said in an email interview while on tour. “Because I can think one thing, and Farka can think another thing, and maybe a friend of Farka from Mali can think a third opinion. So what is really important is not the opinions itself but the ability to create a dialogue in times when sometimes the leaders, the political leaders, are failing, even on this.”

Touré agreed that dialogue is key to overcoming differences, saying in a Web video: “He comes from Israel, he’s Jewish. I come from Mali, I’m Muslim. It shows at a certain point there are no real differences between people.”

The duo and the rest of their band, who together comprise The Touré-Raichel Collective, will appear Nov. 7 at the Valley Performing Arts Center at California State University, Northridge, (CSUN) in support of their recently released album, “The Paris Session” (Cumbancha), a follow-up to the group’s 2012 debut, “The Tel Aviv Session.”

While the album’s press materials describe it as apolitical, Raichel, 37, said he hopes listeners take as much inspiration from an Israeli Jew working closely with a Muslim as Raichel did from the process of working with Touré.

The professional relationship between the two began with a serendipitous meeting at an airport in Berlin in 2008. It helped that Raichel was already a fan of the music of Touré’s father, Ali Farka Touré. (The latest album features a cover of one of the elder Touré’s songs, “Diaraby.”) There was immediate chemistry, which resulted in the album that was recorded in Tel Aviv.

The plan was to record the follow-up in Mali, but “logistics, cost and security” prevented that from happening, according to press materials. The artists met in France instead and recorded the album over the course of three days in a studio outside of Paris. An array of musicians, including Israeli trumpeter Niv Toar and Malian singer Seckouba Diabate, appear on the 14-track album.

Highlights abound. Toar, who studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and was granted a musician’s status in the Israel Defense Forces that allowed him to hone his craft and tour at the same time as serving, appears on the album opener, “From End to End.” Touré’s trippy acoustic guitar-plucking gives way to Toar’s jazzy blows — the African bush meets Miles Davis. Around the one-minute mark, Raichel joins in with warm piano playing.

The only song on the album with an English title, “From End to End,” gives way to another all-instrumental track, “Tidhar.” Clickity-clack percussion blends with an urgent-sounding guitar riff from Touré that propels the song forward and gives it rapid momentum. Again, Raichel shows off his piano skills.

Raichel lends his voice to “Hodu” (Hebrew for “give praise”), the album’s third track, offering Hebrew lyrics and fuzzy, meditative vocals. These are complemented by Touré, singing in Songhai.

The pair’s collaboration is the latest in a string of successful career moves by Raichel encouraging multicultural understanding. Over the course of a more than decade-long career, Raichel, a vocalist and pianist, has become something of a musical sensation in Israel. He is known for incorporating Ethiopian sounds into his music and for featuring vocals in multiple languages, including Hebrew and Arabic.

In 2002, the then-dreadlocked performer released the song “Bo’ee” (Come With Me). (Raichel cut his trademark locks about a year ago and now rocks a shaved head that he often covers in a towering head-wrap.) The song, which Raichel recorded under the name The Idan Raichel Project, received airplay on Israeli radio. The Idan Raichel Project had its first hit, and, one month later, released its eponymous debut album.

Raichel began performing in the United States and reaching out to American fans in 2005. He has done shows throughout the U.S., Mexico, Ethiopia and Europe and performed at the Nobel Peace Prize awards ceremony in Oslo, Norway, in 2012.

Most recently, Raichel joined Palestinian singer Ali Amir-Kanoon and Grammy-winning singer Alicia Keys on Sept. 27 for a performance that featured the trio performing Keys’ latest single, the hopeful anthem “We Are Here,” at the 2014 Global Citizen Festival in New York’s Central Park.

“Let’s talk about Gaza / Let’s talk about, let’s talk about Israel / Cause right now it is real … / Our souls are brought together, so we can love each other / Brother / We are here.”

Raichel said he believes the song sent a message that society needs to hear, that it “opened people’s minds and hearts to their neighbors around the world.”

The Israeli megastar doesn’t limit his activities to music. The performer is a supporter of the charity Save a Child’s Heart, an Israeli-based organization that offers free open-heart surgery on children from developing countries, including Gaza and the West Bank. It also trains doctors from across the globe to perform life-saving surgeries.

Despite his success, Raichel said he is still grappling with the challenges of playing in the U.S. where his songs aren’t as well known as in his homeland. He has played in Los Angeles before, including at the Israeli American Council’s Celebrate Israel festival last May, and he expressed great admiration for the local music scene.

“L.A. is a musical center, one of the biggest in the world and one of the most important in the world,” he said. “Also, the audience is very open-minded to sounds and music from different parts of the world.

“The main difference [between playing in Los Angeles and performing in Tel Aviv] is that in Israel, when I’m playing, the songs are considered to be hits. When I’m playing outside of Israel, it’s more of an authentic sound, and people would define it not as mainstream music but as world music, and I really appreciate that people are taking an afternoon, an evening, [hiring] a babysitter, taking their lady or taking their man and coming to experience and give music from different parts of the world a chance.”

For more information about the upcoming Touré-Raichel Collective performance at the Valley Performing Arts Center at CSUN, visit http://www.valleyperformingartscenter.org/calendar/the-toure-raichel-collective/

Measure R2: Synagogues, museums, transit supporters unite to step on the gas!


What unites more Angelenos than a Los Angeles Kings Stanley Cup victory? Distaste for the 405 Freeway. The Sepulveda Pass, in particular, which has undergone a massive construction project in recent years, still retains the ability to turn into a parking lot at any hour of the day. And yet numerous major institutions line the path of and rely upon this thoroughfare between the Westside of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. 

Now some of those institutions, including Leo Baeck Temple, the Getty Museum, California State University, Northridge, and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) have made an unlikely alliance, banding together in support of a radical mass transit overhaul of the trek through the hills.

In an unprecedented show of solidarity, representatives of these institutions and dozens of others from across Los Angeles County gathered on June 8 at the Marvin Braude San Fernando Valley Constituent Service Center in Van Nuys to discuss how to move forward to significantly expand public transportation in the region. Co-officiating the Sunday afternoon meeting — and pledging his own support — was Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. 

“We’ve all had it with the impossibility of traveling from place to place in this town,” Rabbi Ken Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple said in the day’s introductory remarks. “We are ready — and hungry — for change.”

That change could take the form of a 2016 ballot measure to raise funds for light rail projects in all corners of the county, including a much-championed line that would travel through the Sepulveda Pass and down to LAX. The proposed initiative, nicknamed Measure R2, would build on the work of 2008’s Measure R to plug gaps in L.A.’s existing mass transit system. 

But the point of the June 8 meeting was not only to review the elements of the proposal. The group’s ultimate goal was loftier: to rally stakeholders to address the economic and social setbacks L.A. could continue to suffer unless its diverse constituents learn to work — and speak — together. 

“In order to bring the kind of growth and change to our county that we want and need, we have to begin by understanding and investing in one another,” Chasen said. “This is the start of that conversation.”

Actually, it was a continuation. The seeds for this collaboration were planted four years ago, when Leo Baeck, with help from Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, co-director of Just Congregations — a social justice initiative of the Reform movement — began the process of community organizing. A team of leaders spearheaded a “listening campaign” in which members of the congregation participated in some 300 conversations, during which they “really listened hard to what matters to people, what fires them up, what they care about deeply,” Kolin said. 

One major topic that emerged was the economy, specifically job creation. At the same time, mobility was on the minds of many Leo Baeck members, and for good reason — situated in a cleft of the Sepulveda Pass, the synagogue abuts the notoriously congested 405 Freeway, where ongoing construction has kept some worshippers from reaching the location on time for years. “On a Friday evening, when worship starts, it’s a very difficult place to get to,” Chasen said. 

Some congregants talked about how hard it is to drive to synagogue. Others living in the neighborhood said they had experienced difficulty reaching loved ones in the hospital because of traffic. One told a story about missing a crucial job interview despite leaving in plenty of time, because it took him two hours to inch from the Valley to the Westside. 

“Our quality of life is destroyed by this lack of adequate infrastructure,” said Rabbi Rachel Timoner of Leo Baeck. “Because we haven’t been able to get our act together as a county, some parents can’t see their own children before they go to bed.”

Their answer: Build a train. In 2012, Leo Baeck, a member of the broad-based organizing network OneLA-IAF, began reaching out to other congregations to drum up support for the idea. Project leaders also learned that the transportation-focused nonprofit Move LA already was drafting a light rail proposal and suggested a partnership. 

With the mayoral race underway, Leo Baeck invited the candidates to a town hall-style forum to talk about the personal toll of L.A.’s famous gridlock. The candidates returned to the synagogue in February 2013 for a follow-up discussion. About 1,000 attendees from institutions across L.A. packed the room. There, Leo Baeck and OneLA-IAF organizers asked for commitments from each of the candidates: If elected mayor, would you meet with us within your first 100 days in office? Would you collaborate with us on transportation issues? Would you co-convene a meeting to hear stakeholders’ desires to get ahead?

On all counts, Garcetti has so far upheld his “yes.” Leo Baeck leaders have met with the mayor’s office monthly since late last year, hashing out a strategy to build support for Measure R2. Based on that strategy, Leo Baeck and OneLA-IAF have met with dozens of stakeholders up and down the 405 corridor to hear their traffic concerns and ask for their backing. “They all, 100 percent, said, ‘We agree — this is a gigantic unmet need in our city and county, and we need to do something about it,’ ” Timoner said. 

As for the mayor’s pledge to co-convene a meeting, that day arrived June 8. 

More than 100 people representing L.A. County businesses, schools, faith communities, government councils and labor organizations filled the meeting room, with several marveling that they had never partnered on an issue before. “It is truly rare that all of these corners of Los Angeles come together for any purpose,” Chasen said, calling the event “a grand opportunity.”

Participating institutions included UCLA, Mattel Inc., Los Angeles World Airports, Milken Community Schools, and more than a dozen churches and synagogues, including Temple Judea, Temple Isaiah and Temple Beth Am. Attendees came from the San Fernando Valley, the San Gabriel Valley, South Los Angeles, the South Bay, the Gateway Cities and the Westside.

The 405 corridor is “a crucial piece of the transit puzzle that we all need to work together to solve in order to make this region what it can be,” said Leo Baeck and OneLA-IAF member Eric Stockel. “Traffic is a barrier to jobs, to careers, to economic growth, to protecting the environment, to community and to fulfilled lives. It is, in the end, a barrier to justice.”

Luz de la Cruz, a congregant of Mary Immaculate Catholic Church in Pacoima, described how her daily bus commute to Westwood could sometimes take 3 1/2 hours, depriving her of meaningful time with her four children. 

Garcetti said he appreciated the chance to hear personal stories illustrating “the human impact of the billions of dollars and the millions of hours we lose every single year because of our inability to solve this problem.”

In a moment of levity, he also quipped, “As a Jew, it’s great to see so many Jews talking about traffic — probably the most since the Exodus.”

Garcetti’s presence wasn’t just symbolic; the L.A. mayor serves as incoming vice chair of the board of directors that governs the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which ultimately will decide if Measure R2 makes it onto the 2016 ballot. He also has the power to appoint three new MTA members, whose views could influence the decision. 

Denny Zane, executive director of Move LA, believes the measure has a fighting chance. The proposal calls for a half-cent sales tax that would raise about $90 billion over 45 years for a transit plan that Zane called a “congestion buster.” Among dozens of projects, the measure could fund an extension of the Crenshaw Line to Hollywood, an extension of the Red Line to Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport, the conversion of the Orange Line to light rail, and a rail line from Sylmar in the north San Fernando Valley to LAX — including a tunnel through the Sepulveda Pass that could also hold toll roads and rapid buses. The plan would create tens of thousands of jobs and apprenticeships.

Nothing is set in stone, Zane said. The current proposal is just a framework for people to “kick around and learn from and modify and tell us what they think,” he explained. “It’s a serious proposal, but it’s a discussion piece. We’re pretty confident that the categories and levels of funding involved are realistic.” The measure would require two-thirds of the vote to pass, so months of deliberations over language and funding lie ahead. 

Meanwhile, Zane said, Leo Baeck and OneLA-IAF have been crucial partners. “We have a lot of fun and a good dialogue,” he said. “They’re effective and energetic. They pull together important meetings — they’re always working.”

Jewish leadership on the issue of transportation might come as a surprise to some. “Who would think that the Jews would build a train?” mused Kolin. “But it’s deeply in our values.”

“The Torah teaches us to love the stranger,” Timoner added. “This is about connecting us to one another — relating to each other face to face instead of bumper to bumper.”

For the next nine months, stakeholders will do outreach in their communities, holding forums to educate members of the public about the boons of a more comprehensive mass transit system. Next spring, the group hopes to reconvene with a clearer list of priorities for the county transportation map. 

There are still concerns to resolve. MTA board member John Fasana cautioned that county residents might have to “open our minds” about nontraditional methods of financing, such as congestion pricing. And some residents worried that unless affordable housing is built near transit stops, they could be priced out of their neighborhoods. “The rent is going to increase, and this is already a poor community,” said Rosy Cruz, a member of St. Agnes Parish, near USC. “If these big things are coming up, we’re going to get displaced.” 

On June 20, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a state budget that could funnel nearly $1 billion into affordable housing over the next six years, potentially alleviating some of these fears. 

Organizers are hopeful that the county can reach a consensus. “We want to be able to speak with one voice,” Timoner said. “Our main goal is that when this measure is written, it’s written in a transparent and democratic way with the voices of the people
included.”

Sharing the next gen: How Chabad is changing Hillel — and reshaping campus life


Shabbat dinner tells one part of the story.

When Alon Kashanian, a UCLA senior, wants a “very big social atmosphere” on erev Shabbat, he goes to Hillel’s grand, Jerusalem-stone-adorned, 25,000-square-foot Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life on Hilgard Avenue in Westwood. He socializes with friends and mingles with some of the 100 to 200 students — the number can vary widely — who come for services and Friday night dinner.

On a recent Friday, well over 100 students passed through Hillel’s doors. The night started with two prayer services: A Reform service — held in the center’s large yet cozy recreation room — included guitars and Craig Taubman melodies. A second, smaller, Orthodox service, held upstairs in Hillel’s beit midrash, drew around 20 people, this one with non-instrumental singing. Both services were student-led, with Hillel’s longtime executive director, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, present at the traditional service and also speaking briefly at dinner.

During the week, the rec room could have been transplanted from a JCC. In “The Shack” on a recent weekday, games of pingpong were ongoing as students worked at their laptops or chatted with friends. Between classes, Hillel is a comfortable place for a good number of UCLA’s approximately 4,000 Jewish students (and even some non-Jewish students) to take a break and to study. 

Just before Shabbat dinner began, the students received a set of instructions from a Hillel staff member as to where to go to eat; it all felt like a casual but well-organized Shabbaton, with five to 10 round tables set for dinner in several different rooms, each table seating about 10 students.

Kiddush began with a few students standing up on chairs and singing “Shalom Aleichem to the tune of “We Will Rock You.” Nearly everyone quickly joined in, clapping and slapping their thighs to the beat. After hand washing and ha-Motzi, soup, chicken and rice, potatoes and salad were served buffet style. 

Chatting with some freshmen who were attending their first Shabbat at college, one got the sense that, at least at UCLA, Hillel was the go-to place for newcomers looking for Shabbat dinner.

Chabad Shabbat

On weeks when Kashanian wants a more spiritual, less social Friday evening, he said he opts for Chabad.

Walking across UCLA’s campus to the small and unassuming Chabad townhouse on Midvale Avenue, the atmosphere could not be more different from that of Hillel. 

The dining room was lit with the soft glow of electric candelabra lamps and adorned with pictures of the Chabad-Lubavitcher Rebbe — the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The smell of fresh-baked challah and soup wafted through the air. 

Run by Rabbi Dovid Gurevich and his wife, Elisa, UCLA’s Chabad house doubles as the Gureviches’ home, and as Shabbat dinner entered the second course, the well-dressed Gurevich children could be seen playing with one another and mingling with the guests. On this night, more than 50 students filled every inch of the dining room, some spilling over into the small living room. 

The food, home-cooked by the rebbetzin, included baked gefilte fish, terra chip salad, tomato tarts, barbecued chicken, roasted potatoes and more — not bad considering the cramped kitchen in which Elisa Gurevich, with the help of a few students, prepared it all. 

“It’s what you would expect at your grandma’s Shabbat dinner,” Kashanian said.

This particular Shabbat came just after the release of a Pew survey of American Jewry, which reported a decline in involvement among young Jews, so Rabbi Gurevich’s question of the night to each student was: “What aspect of Judaism do you most identify with?” 

Some said unity, some said food, a non-Jewish student at the dinner said that the weekly gathering of Jews for Shabbat stands out in her mind. 

Unlike at Hillel, Chabad’s Shabbat dinners often stretch late into the night, even until midnight. After dinner and dessert, a few dozen students hung around to help clean up, and then stayed to chat, relaxing on the couch and, of course, eating the remaining pecan brownies and peanut-butter crunch.

While most of the students there on this evening were not observant, their presence offered them a front-row view not only of Orthodox family life, but also of the inner workings of Chabad’s rapidly growing campus movement. The first Chabad campus center was established at UCLA in 1969, but it is in recent years, since 2000, that the campus movement’s expansion, both locally and nationally, has been transforming Jewish life on campuses that had been Hillel-centric for much of the 20th century. 

From free Shabbat dinners to a grass-roots, decentralized fundraising strategy, Chabad’s tactics on the 200 campuses it serves full time have impacted Jewish life on campus, including how Hillel reaches out to Jewish students. 

If Hillel used to be the primary — often the only — option for organized campus Judaism, its standing now is somewhat less dominant. Whereas on some campuses, like UCLA, Hillel has maintained its lead role, at others, including the University of Southern California (USC), it now more or less shares that leading spot with Chabad. 

New kid on the block: USC Chabad

Students participating on USC Hillel’s Birthright trip in June 2012 get ready to cool down on a hike in Har Meiron, in northern Israel. Photo by Alison Levine

Los Angeles has three local full-time Hillels — at UCLA, USC and California State University, Northridge (CSUN), each run with annual budgets of at least $250,000. By contrast, the only Chabad to have cracked the quarter-million mark is at USC, run by Rabbi Dov Wagner and his wife, Runya, where the annual budget recently hit $360,000. 

Indeed, the expansion of USC’s Chabad mirrors the national growth of Chabad’s campus movement. In 2000, when two shluchim (emissaries) approached Susan Laemmle, USC’s then-dean of religious life, about the creation of a USC Chabad house, initially she had some reservations.

“Hillel was the umbrella, the big umbrella,” Laemmle said. “And all the Jewish stuff fit under Hillel.” 

Indeed, by the time the Wagners came to USC in 2000, Chabad had established houses on only 35 campuses throughout the country, less than one per year since its campus debut in Los Angeles 31 years before. 

But that was about to change. Today, the Brooklyn-based international Chabad arm of the group’s campus movement serves nearly 400 American colleges and universities, with 200 of those campuses having permanent Chabad student centers.

“It became clear to me that just as there were multiple Christian groups, it was conceivable that there would be multiple Jewish groups,” Laemmle said. Observing the new Jewish campus landscape, she continued, “was a breakthrough, really, in terms of my thinking.”

In 2006, Rabbi Chaim Brook and his wife, Raizel, moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to open a Chabad house at CSUN. One year later, Rabbi Eli Levitansky and his wife, Mirel, opened another at Santa Monica College (SMC).

Hillel’s dominance dates to the second half of the 20th century, when the organization became the “anchor of Jewish student life” on campus, said Jonathan Jacoby, senior vice president for Programs for Jewish Life at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

CSUN student Daniel Sigal wraps tefillin at a Sinai Scholars field trip two years ago, as Rabbi Chaim Brook of Chabad finds a prayer in the siddur. Photo courtesy of Chabad of CSUN

In L.A., from the early 1940s until the turn of the millennium, Hillel student centers had footholds at UCLA (1941),  USC  (1949) and Los Angeles Valley College (1957). 

But due to Chabad’s ascent, as well as the addition of even more alternatives, like the Jewish Awareness Movement (JAM), students now have options, said David Harris, the campus activities coordinator at Federation. “You are looking at a multitude of entry points into Jewish campus life,” Harris said. “In earlier years, there were really only one or two.”

JAM, a local campus group that has a presence at four Southern California campuses (including UCLA and USC), was founded in 1996. While not nearly as large as Hillel or Chabad, it offers students weekly learning, Shabbat dinners, challah baking, and trips to Israel and London. 

Seidler-Feller, UCLA Hillel’s director, has been a staple at Hillel since 1975, drawn initially to the Hillel movement for, as he put it, its “ideological commitment to pluralism.”  

Seidler-Feller’s case for Judaism to the assimilated Jews, who are the “overwhelming number of Jews in America today and on the campus in particular,” is that “you can be open, involved, and integrated into American and Jewish society on the whole, and retain a significant [Jewish] identity, practice [and] commitment,” he said. 

“When I started, one felt that there was a residue of Jewish commitment and knowledge that was present among certain sectors of the student community,” Seidler-Feller said during one of two interviews at his Hillel office, which is lined with a seemingly endless number of books. “There has been a very noticeable decline in the [last] 20 years, as far as that’s concerned.”

Michael Jeser, who led USC’s Hillel from 2009 to June of this year, said that today’s young Jews often don’t want to get involved. “The overwhelming majority of Jewish students don’t affiliate to anything,” said Jeser, who was recently named executive director of Jewish World Watch.

To attract those Jews, USC Hillel molds some of its programming around activities that don’t, at least on the surface, appear Jewish, such as Trojan Hoops for Justice, a basketball tournament to raise money for programs for under-privileged children.

Rabbi Heath Watenmaker — who grew up in Reseda, graduated USC in 2002 and received a master’s degree there in social work in 2006 — was a regular at Hillel and an occasional guest at Chabad, becoming close with Rabbi Wagner. 

In 2011, Watenmaker became the Reform outreach-initiative rabbi at the Hillel at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Speaking by phone, he pointed out that a key difference between Chabad and Hillel is that while Chabad focuses on offering Jewish programs, Hillel offers programs for Jews, not all of which have a religiously Jewish theme. 

Watenmaker remembers attending a USC Hillel masquerade ball for Purim where there was no reading of the Book of Esther — which every Chabad house in the world reads on Purim.

“It was a chance to go out with other Jews, even if there wasn’t something overtly Jewish about it,” Watenmaker said. 

And while Shabbat dinner, tefillin wrapping and menorah lighting are key activities at a campus Chabad house, Jeser said Hillel’s programming will “reflect the identity of the majority of the Jewish students,” usually not so tied to observance. 

Contrasting outreach strategies

Josh Faskowitz, a 21-year-old senior at USC, grew up Reform, participated in NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) and became involved with Hillel after going on a Birthright trip to Israel in 2011.

“I needed some way to slow down the monotony of college,” Faskowitz said. “I worked with the rabbinic intern at Hillel, and we talked about how to instill Judaism in my routine.” Faskowitz decided to learn how to cook a Shabbat meal every week.

“That was kind of my religious opening,” Faskowitz said, pointing to the way Hillel engages today’s Jewish students through a process it calls “relationship-based engagement.” A Hillel intern helped Faskowitz find a meaningful Jewish routine through making Shabbat dinners, and Faskowitz, on his own, shared the dinners he prepared with his friends.

Shoshanna Pro, a senior at CSUN and a volunteer for Hillel 818 (a collaborative Hillel that covers programming at CSUN, as well as at Pierce College in Woodland Hills and L.A. Valley College in Valley Glen), said that, in her experience, Hillel’s focus on developing leadership qualities is so emphasized that many times “the staff will not step in” if a student-led program is falling short of expectations. 

At Chabad, by contrast, it is the rabbi and rebbetzin who run most programs. And in the event of a faltering student-run program, the Chabad husband-wife team will usually step in to help, as their goal is always to run successful programs. 

A program at Chabad can be something as seemingly minor as setting up a table on campus with brownies and informational fliers (student volunteers lead much of the campus “tabling”), to wrapping tefillin with Jewish men chancing to walk by. 

During an on-campus interview with Rabbi Brook of Chabad at CSUN, the rabbi frequently stopped the conversation to chat with Jewish students walking by. To the male students, he added, “Would you like to wrap tefillin?” 

Almost every student accepted Brook’s request and put on the arm and head tefillin right in the middle of the busy campus thoroughfare, saying prayers, then unwrapping and continuing on with their day.

According to Chabad tradition, any mitzvah is an experience “that remains forever in the person’s life,” said Chabad of Santa Monica College’s Rabbi Levitansky. “Chabad feels that when you do a mitzvah, it’s not just a mitzvah that you did and then it’s gone.” 

During Sukkot at USC, Rebbetzin Wagner involved students in baking brownies and making chicken soup, while the rabbi, his seven children and some student volunteers manned the sukkah during the day, attracting dozens of students in to shake the lulav and etrog — as well as to snack and chat. 

“If somebody has a positive Jewish experience, which can literally be just one single mitzvah done in a sukkah,” Wagner said, “that already, in itself, is a positive accomplishment. And we see that as fulfilling our mission here.”

While Chabad’s mitzvah-based version of Jewish kiruv (outreach) is based on its own unique brand of Chasidism, Hillel’s form of outreach does not “represent any dogmas,” according to Seidler-Feller, and will often mold its flavor of Judaism to the student body of a particular campus

For example, because UCLA has significantly more Orthodox Jewish students than either USC or CSUN, the Hillel in Westwood offers a traditional Friday night service in addition to its Reform one. Not so at USC, where there simply is not the demand for a separate Orthodox service at Hillel.

Chabad, meanwhile, is fiercely consistent in its messaging on any campus or other site. Shabbat services are traditional Orthodox and follow the customs of Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the father of contemporary kabbalah.  

And while Chabad defines a Jew according to Jewish law (someone born to a Jewish mother), the movement will still welcome students who identify as Jewish even if not Jewish by law. Hillel, meanwhile, as part of its outreach, will purposely engage those brought up in interfaith families. While Jeser said that USC Hillel’s “strategies have to reflect” the high number of Jews of interfaith families at USC, that reality would not liberalize or otherwise change how Chabad reaches out. It would likely further motivate shluchim to increase their efforts.

Student demographics at Chabad

Even though Chabad’s philosophy is traditional, the affiliations of many, if not most, of the students who attend Chabad closely resemble the range of observance of modern-day Jewish students on college campuses across America — from observant to, more often, not at all. Despite the reality of these demographics, Chabad on Campus spokesman Motti Seligson said by phone from Brooklyn the perception remains that Chabad is primarily for Orthodox students.

“Some people may perceive Chabad as being only for Orthodox Jews,” Seligson said. “If you walk into any Chabad house on campus, that perception quickly evaporates when you see who’s actually there.”

Wagner estimated that just 5 to 10 percent of regular attendees at the Chabad of USC identify as Orthodox. Brook said that among Jewish students at CSUN, he interacts the least with Orthodox ones, perhaps because most of them live at home and would not be on campus for Shabbat.

For a handful of non-observant or unaffiliated students, Chabad serves as the steppingstone to an observant lifestyle. Ellen Watkins, a UCLA senior from San Francisco, was raised, aside from Jewish summer camp, as a secular Jew. As a freshman, she said she tried out UCLA’s Jewish gamut (Hillel, Chabad and JAM), eventually settling with what the Gureviches were offering and even becoming Chabad’s student board co-president in her junior year.

Marketing, outreach and cooperation

The immersion of Chabad emissaries in environments that aren’t natural hubs for religiosity or spirituality walks in line with the group’s core philosophy that it is the Jewish people’s mission to make the world a holier place. Tabling on campus, inviting a secular Jew to Shabbat dinner, working with fraternities and sororities that have significant Jewish populations — these are all a direct outgrowth of the movement’s philosophy of immersion in American society.

This, in fact, may be the deepest similarity between Chabad and Hillel: While the two organizations have very different outlooks on Judaism, both see college campuses as key to the future of American Judaism.

Sisters in the Sigma AEPi colony at CSUN learn how to bake challah last year at Chabad. Photo courtesy of Chabad of CSUN

At USC, the Wagners have engaged extensively with the two Jewish fraternities there, Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) and Sigma Alpha Mu (Sammy). USC has no official Jewish sororities.

From challah baking, to Greek Shabbats, to “stump the rabbi” sessions, Rabbi Wagner says engaging in Greek culture is a natural way to reach large numbers of Jews. “If you’re able to reach into a couple of students, you’ve got access not only to that student [and] maybe a couple of their friends, but to the group as a whole,” Wagner said.

One luxury at USC, a private university, is the access offered by the school’s Office of Religious Life to engage incoming freshmen. Every year, the office gives both Hillel and Chabad the list of accepted applicants who checked off “Jewish” as their religion. 

Of course, as Wagner points out, working with a college bureaucracy is not always easy: “The university is like the government. There are a million different offices, and each one is to some extent independent of [the others].” 

“You have to develop a relationship with the office of admissions, and a relationship with the office of religious life, and a relationship with the office of alumni programming, and a relationship with the financial office.”

Discussing what is perhaps the most cooperative local Hillel-Chabad relationship, Bailey London, USC Hillel’s executive director, said that Hillel and Chabad work closely every year to plan Shabbat 500 — which, as the name suggests, is a Shabbat dinner for 500 Jews, held under a massive tent outside the Chabad house.

This past August, after Fresh Fest — a two-day annual retreat for Jewish freshmen held in August at American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus in Simi Valley — London said that Hillel invited the students to a welcome barbecue at Chabad.

As Chabad grows, Hillel adapts

Judith Alban, acting executive director at Hillel 818, pointed to two major changes Hillel has adapted to in the past generation. One is an evolution of how Jewish students want to be engaged. Whereas in the past, students may have been willing to work the phones to raise money for Hillel, today’s students “don’t want to sit on the phone asking people for money,” Alban said during an interview in her Hillel 818 office adjacent to the CSUN campus.

“They like to see the actual fruits of their labor,” she said. “We can get a lot of students to come out and paint a school. That’s just the way this generation is.”

The second change that Hillel has adapted to is one that was actually spurred by campus Chabad houses — free Shabbat dinners, a core principle for Chabad. After all, a family inviting people over for Shabbat dinner would likely not ask them for an upfront payment. Whereas many Hillels used to charge students for Shabbat dinner (even if only $5 or $10), competition from Chabad helped change that. 

Students who don’t lean toward Hillel or Chabad were often enticed by Chabad’s free Shabbat dinners. So, Alban said, “in order to compete,” Hillel had to adapt.

“It was like [free-]market enterprise,” she said. “Hillel had to start doing what Chabad did.”

The competition also offers a challenge for both Chabad and Hillel — if students are used to getting everything for free, how will they understand that those programs rely on funds raised by others?

“My biggest fear is that students have an expectation that everything in the Jewish world will be free,” said Josh Fried, Hillel 818’s program director. “They don’t understand that they are going to have to pay it forward and donate.”

UCLA seniors at Dockweiler Beach in 2012 for a Hillel event. Photo courtesy of Hillel at UCLA

Rabbi Gurevich at Chabad of UCLA echoed a similar sentiment during an interview in his Westwood office. “People have kind of gotten used to, in a way, some handouts — Birthright, free trips,” Gurevich said. “It’s hard to stimulate someone to get excited about something unless there’s some kind of giveaway.” 

Parents, Gurevich said, tend to donate on behalf of their children only while the kids are in college. As for the alumni, “It takes a while for them to make their way in the world,” to the point where they feel they can give back.

Gurevich also pointed to a Chabad program known as Sinai Scholars — which offers a $350 stipend to students who come to study — as one drawback of what he says is, overall, a wonderful program. “I’m ambivalent about it because it might create these expectations,” Gurevich said. “It’s the question people ask about Birthright: Are you giving too many free things to people?”

But, as with offering free Shabbat dinners, Gurevich and Chabad on Campus see the stipend as a way to get otherwise unmotivated students to commit to hours of Torah study.

“The bottom line is that the benefits outweigh the particular detriment, because we see that people become a lot more involved and a lot more engaged,” Gurevich said. The Sinai Scholars program is now offered on 77 campuses nationally, according to Chabad spokesman Seligson.

In contrast, at UCLA Hillel, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and his wife, Sharona, have been working for almost a decade as part of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC). Offering one-on-one learning with students as well as group classes on Jewish topics, Kaplan said that he has never offered a cash stipend.

“Our general position is never to pay for learning,” Kaplan said. “We found that we haven’t needed to do it in order to have a crowd.” 

He added, however, that he and Sharona do offer other incentives, such as a free lunch or dinner, or having a running tab at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, allowing students who learn with JLIC to get a cup of coffee or a snack on the house. “The bottom line is an incentive is an incentive,” Kaplan said.

UCLA student Eli Mordechai wrapping tefillin on campus with Rabbi Dovid Gurevich of Chabad. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Dovid Gurevich

Hillel and The Jewish Federation

Hillel’s dominance on college campuses was long reflected in Federation’s relationship with the Los Angeles Hillel Council (LAHC), a now-defunct organization that helped finance local Hillels, in large part through Federation support.

Federation’s Harris, in an e-mail to the Journal, described the past Federation-LAHC funding stream as a “lump sum” to LAHC, which was then “divided up among its member units.” 

Until about three years ago, every dime of Federation’s campus funding went to LAHC and, by proxy, to local Hillels. Between 2008 and 2010, all of Federation’s combined $2.7 million in campus funding went to LAHC.

LAHC’s dissolution about three years ago forced the Hillels under its purview to become independent 501(c)(3)s, which also coincided with a major upcoming change in how Federation will distribute grants to all Jewish organizations for all programs under the aegis of its Ensuring the Jewish Future department, including those on campus.

Because Federation plans to shift to a program-based grant process, beginning in the 2014-15 academic year, Hillel, like Chabad, may have to rely more and more on local, grass-roots, relationship-based fundraising.

Previously, Federation’s Jacoby said, the official view was, “We have a historic relationship with this organization [Hillel]; therefore we will give it money.” Now, he said, Federation has “no predisposition whatsoever for, or against, any organization.” 

In 2010, Federation began to encourage more Jewish campus groups — including Chabad and JAM — to apply for program grants. 

Since then, Federation has given about
$2.3 million directly to local Hillels and $386,000 to other Jewish campus groups, $28,000 of which went to Chabad of USC for program grants, Harris wrote in his e-mail. Federation’s gradual shift away from a Hillel-only funding approach is a reflection, at least in part, of “the myriad of ways a Jewish student in today’s world can get engaged in Jewish life on campus,” Harris wrote.

Once Federation’s grant-based funding is in full effect, money that used to cover operating costs at local Hillels will soon only be distributed in the form of grants for specific programs, which Hillel as well as other Jewish groups will have to apply for. 

For UCLA Hillel, which has its own fundraising team, a fundraising partnership with UCLA, and relies on core Federation grants for only 7 percent of its annual budget, losing those core grants may not have a tremendously adverse impact. 

But, as Seidler-Feller said, “Every organization is reliant on a core budget, and this new approach undercuts or seemingly undercuts that core budget, or part of it.” He added, though, that a grant-based process may have an upside. “It also means there’s a push for excellence,” he said. “You have to earn the grant.”

For Hillel 818, which has relied extensively on Federation for many years, adapting to a new landscape — by tapping into relationships with parents, alumni and community members — may be a struggle. 

Rabbi Dov Wagner and students enjoy food at Chabad of USC’s falafel fiesta night in January 2012. Photo  courtesy of Chabad of USC

“It’s a very tough transition,” Alban said. “We are going to the community and telling them how we are struggling. I just think sometimes the parents don’t really think about it,” she said. “They just think, ‘Oh, the Jewish community funds you.’ ”

At Chabad, the primary fundraiser generally is just one person — the rabbi. Seed money from major donors and small annual grants from Chabad on Campus are not uncommon, but on a year-to-year basis, Brook at CSUN, for example, is almost entirely responsible for raising his $200,000 annual budget.

Chabad operates on something approaching a franchise model — each Chabad house can use the Chabad brand and can pay for the rights to a standard Chabad on campus Web site. But each Chabad house is entirely responsible for its own operations.

“It’s a yearly struggle,” said Chabad of SMC’s Levitansky. “But I think it creates an element of constant motivation. You are the king or the queen on the chessboard, which creates a much greater desire to get toward
your goal.”

A model for the future

As Jewish campus life in Los Angeles continues to adjust to having twice as many options on campus, some Chabads and Hillels are learning how to share the playground. 

At USC and CSUN, the two organizations already often work together when they can. 

“It’s healthy to have us both here,” Hillel 818’s Alban said. “It really is.” 

One benefit of having a Chabad rabbi right down the street, according to Alban, is that when it comes to questions of Jewish law, she knows whom to call.

“We had a student who wanted to get her apartment kashered, and so we called [Rabbi Brook],” she said.

At UCLA, some students don’t see competition: “They are interconnected,” said David Chernobylsky, a 19-year-old UCLA junior. “When you start meeting people through the other, you become more ingrained in the entire Jewish community.”

“It’s just good for the Jews,” Brook said with a smile, as he walked back to the CSUN Chabad house after spending a few hours on campus. “There’s enough work for both of us.”

And, as Seidler-Feller bluntly put it, there’s so much room for growth with Jewish college students that neither group can call itself king.

Seidler-Feller may be leading one of the most successful Hillel centers on any campus. But still, he emphasized, “Anyone who thinks one organization controls the campus is hallucinating.”

Murder victim related to temple founder


A Porter Ranch woman, who authorities said was shot and killed early Friday morning when a domestic dispute escalated, was the daughter of a founding member of Temple Ahavat Shalom (TAS) in Northridge, according to a family member of the deceased.

The victim — identified as Risa Suggs, 52, by the L.A. County Department of Coroner — was allegedly shot by her boyfriend in the residential area near Kenya Street and Baton Rouge Avenue.

Police found Suggs' body lying in the middle of the street, across from her home at the 19200 block of Kenya, according to the L.A. Daily News.

Suggs had three children and five grandchildren, said Cheri Cheney, a congregant of TAS and Suggs’ cousin.

“I know she will be greatly missed by her family, her children, grandchildren and extended family,” Cheney said. Suggs’ late father, Lindley Berry, helped found the Reform congregation TAS.

Suggs’ name was not released publicly until Sunday, when the Daily News reported that the office of the L.A. County Department of Coroner identified Suggs as the victim.

Police were alerted to the situation after neighbors phoned the authorities to report fighting at Suggs’ home. Police arrived on the scene at around 12:30 a.m. The suspect and a Los Angeles Police SWAT team engaged in a nearly five-hour standoff before the suspect finally surrendered, according to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).

The alleged shooter was arrested on suspicion of murder at approximately 5 a.m. His name was not available at the time this story was published.

The inciting fight between Suggs and her boyfriend was related to the couple “breaking up,” Cheney said. She said she did not have additional information about the cause of the dispute.

Anne Frank’s stepsister speaks at USC and CSUN


Her modesty, gracefulness and soft voice don’t suggest it, but Eva Schloss’ encounter with darkness has instilled in her a determination to tell the world her story.

A childhood friend and, posthumously, a stepsister of Anne Frank, Schloss, now 84, recounted her Holocaust experience to two packed auditoriums locally. The events — on Jan. 22 at USC’s Bovard Auditorium and on Jan. 23 at Cal State Northridge’s University Student Union — drew about 1,600 people and were organized by the Chabad Centers at the presenting schools. They were the final events of Schloss’ two-week California speaking tour.

Born Eva Geiringer in 1929, Schloss remembers her birthplace, Vienna, as a beautiful city, and life there with her parents, brother Heinz and extended family as very happy.

But everything quickly changed in 1938.

“It was a great shock for us when the Austrians embraced Hitler,” Schloss told the crowd at USC.

“I was 9 years old when, after school, I wanted to play with my best friend, who was Catholic, and I went to her house, and then the mother saw me. She slammed the door in my face and said, ‘We don’t want to see you ever again.’ ”

Hurt and sensing that things were not right, Eva asked her mother what was happening.

“Being a Jew will now be very, very difficult,” her mother told her.

Luckily for Eva’s family, her father had business connections in Holland, which allowed him to obtain a visa to work there. The rest of the family, though, could only make it to Belgium, not receiving permission to settle in Amsterdam until February 1940. 

It was in Amsterdam that Eva met Anne Frank, whom she remembers as a talkative girl whose eyes lit up when she heard Eva had an older brother.

“She was a big, big chatterbox,” Schloss said lovingly, in her distinct Austrian accent. “At school, she was called ‘Mrs. Quack Quack’ because she never could be quiet.” 

Schloss described herself as a sporty girl not interested in school, and Anne (“Anna”) as more interested in clothing and fashion. But they became friends, and Eva soon met Anne’s father, Otto, who would marry Eva’s mother years after the war.

When it became clear in 1942 that the Nazis had no intention of allowing Jews to live in Amsterdam, Eva’s father decided that the family had to go into hiding. Eva and her mother would hide in one apartment, and Heinz and his father would hide in another, with the intention of reducing the risk of all four being caught.

Schloss described the “immense boredom” she experienced during her two years of hiding with her mother in various homes.

“Imagine to be two years together with somebody,” Schloss said. “After a few days, we [had] talked about everything there was to talk about.”

Eva’s mother gave her a book to read and tried to teach her different things, but, like most teenagers, Eva “didn’t want to listen” to her mother.

In May 1944, when the Nazis stormed the Amsterdam apartment where Eva and her mother were hiding, they pretended they weren’t Jews, hoping for a miracle. But the Nazis had come looking specifically for them. They brought mother and daughter to an SS station in Amsterdam and beat Eva. She discovered that they also had caught her brother and father.

The same day, Eva and her entire family were then loaded into a packed cattle car whose destination was Auschwitz.

That was Eva’s 15th birthday.

When Rabbi Dov Wagner — who moderated the USC event — asked Schloss what her father’s final words were at the Auschwitz platform, she said that her father blessed her and told her, “God will protect you.”

Eva had already survived nine hellish months at Auschwitz-Birkenau when, one morning in 1945, she awoke to a quiet camp, empty of the usual shouting.

“We saw at the gate a huge creature, all this hair and fur and icicles on him,” Schloss told a captivated audience. “At first we thought it was a bear. But when we looked closer, we realized that it was a huge Russian soldier.”

The soldier was a lone advance scout but was followed by the Russian army, who cooked for the starving inmates cabbage soup with greasy meat, which Schloss remembers as delicious but also dangerous. Some of the prisoners couldn’t digest the food and died.

“We were really obsessed with food, but we realized we needed to be very, very careful with what we eat.”

Eva soon was reunited with her mother, who also survived Auschwitz, but she never again saw her father or brother, who were murdered at the Mauthausen death camp just days before American forces arrived.

Several months after the end of the war, Eva and her mother returned to Holland and met Otto Frank, who had learned he’d lost his entire family in the Holocaust. Schloss said that once Otto learned of their deaths, he felt he no longer had anything to live for.

Schloss’ deep love and admiration for her brother was evident whenever she spoke about him. She said Heinz was a talented artist and musician, and that he had mentioned hiding paintings under the floorboards of his Amsterdam hideout. Eva returned with her mother to the house where Heinz and her father were caught. They found the paintings, which Schloss brought with her to both of her Los Angeles events.

Around the same time, a broken Otto Frank came to see Eva and her mother. Schloss described her introduction to what has become one of the most famous books in human history:

“He came again with a little parcel under his arm, and he opened it very carefully, and he said, ‘I want to show you something.’ It was Anna’s diary.”

The Mensch List: Two-person army for their autistic son


Just try asking Connie and Harvey Lapin to recap 44 years as parent activists in the world of autism. In hyperactive tag-team, the couple bursts forth with stories and ideas, only to interrupt themselves and one another with still more anecdotes, ideas and accomplishments.

In the end, through laughter and tears, they manage to produce a coherent story of the tireless chutzpah, visionary courage and what they call serendipity, but is probably more about persistence, that helped them change the landscape, locally and nationally, for people with autism.

Harvey, 75, and Connie, 73, both grew up in Detroit. The second of their three sons, Shawn, was born in 1968 and was diagnosed with autism in 1970. Shawn is mostly nonverbal, and when he was younger was prone to violent and self-destructive behavior. He now lives in his own apartment with 24-hour help.

In 1970, there were no services for Shawn, and autism was misunderstood as childhood schizophrenia, often blamed on a frigid mother (Connie melts with warmth), and was treated with what today would be called abuse. The Lapins were told Shawn was incapable of feeling love or attachment and that the state had no obligation to educate him.

The Lapins had no intention of standing for any of that.

Story continues after the video.