Trio Spearheads New Bid to Save JCC

At the downtown YMCA on Saturday mornings, parents
congregate at poolside tables to gossip, kibitz and trade jokes, while their
children take swimming lessons. For the adults, these hour-long sessions
represent nothing less than a much-needed respite from the grind of the work

Janie Schulman, Jenny Isaacson and Barry Jacobson are not
like the other mothers and fathers. While their children learn the
breaststroke, the trio — an attorney, public relations specialist and
businessman, respectively — huddle together at the Y, plotting ways to save the
beleaguered Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center (JCC). They discuss
strategy, talk marketing and try to buoy each other’s spirits as the JCC they
have worked so hard to rebuild could be sold to an outside party by the property’s
owner, the financially troubled Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles
(JCCGLA). The threesome fret that Silverlake could one day soon end up as a
strip mall or some other soulless venture denuded of any Jewishness if it
changes hands.

To prevent that from happening, the Silverlake three have
just submitted a $2.1 million offer to purchase the center. JCCGLA, which
rejected an earlier $1.8 million offer, will give careful consideration to the
new bid, Executive Vice President Nina Lieberman Giladi said. JCCGLA officials
said they have received several offers in the $2.4 million range, but might
accept a discounted offer from Silverlake supporters, provided they offer
acceptable terms.

For Silverlake President Schulman and activist board members
Isaacson and Jacobson, nothing less is at stake than preserving an important
piece of Judaica that has helped create a sense of community among Jews in
Silverlake, Echo Park and Los Feliz. That’s why from the moment JCCGLA first
threatened to shutter Silverlake two and a half years ago amid a budget crisis,
they led the movement to stave off the JCC’s death sentence.

Not only did they succeed, but Silverlake has seen its
preschool enrollment boom. The center is the area’s only profitable JCC,
despite receiving not a penny from its former biggest benefactor, The Jewish
Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

“I am not a religious person, but the Silverlake JCC has
helped my family and me stay in touch with our Jewish history, tradition and
culture,” said Isaacson, whose son just graduated and whose daughter attends
the center’s preschool. “Silverlake embodies the concept of tikkun olam, or
repairing the world, an important principle I hope to instill in my children.”

Silverlake’s success notwithstanding, JCCGLA, an
organization entrusted with aiding and abetting local JCCs, put the center up
for sale in January partly to help pay off the $2.2 million it owes The
Federation. The Jewish philanthropic organization has a $550,000 loan on the

For its part, Federation officials praise Silverlake for
bringing Jewish programs to an underserved community. Still, the organization
has so far refused to help save the center by buying it outright and
transferring ownership to Silverlake supporters or by forgiving enough JCCGLA
debt to make a sale unnecessary. The Federation has also turned down or ignored
specific ideas floated by Silverlake supporters, including requests to cosign a
loan, Schulman said.

“The Federation and JCCGLA have offered little beyond
platitudes and have utterly failed to respond to written and oral requests to
commit to our survival,” Schulman said.

John Fishel, Federation president, said his organization has
helped Silverlake on several occasions, including making $50,000 available two
years ago for emergencies. He said he would gladly sit down with JCCGLA and
Silverlake executives to find an acceptable resolution to the crisis, adding
that The Federation is willing “to be flexible in all sorts of ways.”

With time running out, Schulman, Isaacson and Jacobson said
they have had to ratchet up the pressure lately to save the center.

On March 23, they organized a demonstration with 150
preschoolers, parents and concerned community members in front of The
Federation building at 6505 Wilshire Blvd. Clad in orange shirts with “Shalom”
emblazoned on the front, the group carried signs, sang Jewish songs and chanted
slogans such as, “Let my people stay!” Jacobson, who oversees the center’s
security and keeps the grounds spotless, exhorted protesters to shout louder to
make their voices heard by Federation executives upstairs.

Public relations maven Isaacson succeeded in getting the
event covered by such mainstream media outlets as NBC, Fox News, KCBS and the
Los Angeles Times. Against that backdrop, Schulman succeeded in convincing
JCCGLA to hold off selling Silverlake until center supporters could cobble
together their own offer by the end of last week (March 26).

“I take my hat off to them for pushing so hard to bring this
to a positive solution both for their kids and the other kids at Silverlake,”
Fishel said.

If nothing else, Schulman, Isaacson and Jacobson have shown
pit bull-like tenacity in their efforts. They each devote at least 20 hours a
week to the cause, spending much of their time on three-way phone calls and
answering one another’s e-mails. “I’ve divorced my family to do this,” quipped
Schulman, a partner specializing in labor law at Morrison & Foerster LLP.

She has done a lot, JCC supporters said. Schulman helped
incorporate Silverlake and has served as the point person in negotiations with
The Federation and JCCGLA.

When she heard in October 2001 that Silverlake was going to
close in six weeks, she landed a 5 p.m. meeting that same day at Fishel’s
office. Cradling her 4-month-old son, Max, in her arms, she spoke to him about
the center’s importance to the community.

The next day, Fishel and JCCGLA executives went to
Silverlake to confer with supporters. The Federation and JCCGLA later committed
to keeping it open until at least the end of that school year.

“It would have been very difficult to hold things together
without Janie’s knowledge and leadership,” Silverlake board member Shelly
Freiberg said.

For Schulman, the child of Holocaust survivors, the JCC has
made it easy for her to keep her Jewish heritage alive, despite having married
out of the faith, she said. Schulman remembers her parents “kvelling” as they
listened to their granddaughter, Emma, recite the Chanukah blessing over the
candles two years ago, a prayer she had learned at the JCC.

Like Schulman, Jacobson has made a mark at Silverlake.
During hot summer days, he has spearheaded cleanup efforts. In winter, he has
braved the pouring rain to patch holes in the aging center’s roof. Drawing on
his knowledge of business, he renegotiated contracts with security firms,
janitorial services and phone providers after Silverlake became independent,
saving the center thousands, Schulman said.

The 48-year-old entrepreneur said the center has served as
more than a place where his son and daughter received a strong Jewish
education. It has strengthened his family’s connection to Judaism. Jacobson
said he attributed his two children’s strong Jewish identity and his son’s
desire to have a bar mitzvah to their positive experiences at Silverlake.

“Without JCCs, there will be a generation lost to their own
Jewish culture and heritage,” he said. “This is what shortsighted [leaders] at
JCCGLA and The Federation miss. You can’t make business-only decisions when it
comes to culture and community.”  

A ‘Final’ Decision Courts Trouble

A religious court ruled in favor of Chabad of California late last month, awarding it ownership of Marina del Rey properties contested by the Living Judaism Center (LJC), but the ruling has only exacerbated the battle between the two organizations.

The crux of the highly charged dispute centers on which of two rulings — one backing Chabad of California and the other in favor of LJC — is the final one that should be recognized under halacha.

Last January, LJC, known at the time as Chabad of the Marina, filed a civil lawsuit against the Chabad of California in Los Angeles County Superior Court after it tried to break away from Chabad of California. Chabad of the Marina claimed all funds and property.

The Superior Court ordered the case transferred to a beit din (religious court) on July 3 after both sides agreed that the beit din’s arbitration, to be conducted by five rabbis, would be binding and could not be appealed. Approval of the religious tribunal’s decision by the Superior Court would then formalize the action under state law. The Superior Court is expected to act by Feb. 11, 2003

In its Nov. 27 ruling, the beit din said that the transfer of Chabad properties to a non-Chabad entity constituted "a very grave offense and a betrayal of that which is sacred to us." The religious court decided that LJC must transfer ownership of all acquired Chabad properties to Chabad of California, return all funds raised via the use of the name Chabad and pay Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin and Chabad of California $230,000 in legal fees.

However, many in the Chabad community and elsewhere believe that the beit din’s ruling is invalid, because it had issued an earlier ruling on Oct. 23 in favor of LJC. Chabad of California, however, says that no ruling was made prior to the one on Nov. 27.

According to the halachic laws of beit din, once a decision has been issued it cannot be reversed, which means that if for some reason the Oct. 23 decision were to be found valid, the Nov. 27 decision would not be binding.

At this point however, there appears to be no action on the dispute over which is the final decision, with the exception of opinions issued by a religious court and rabbi in Israel, neither of which have any legal standing in the matter, unless the LJC can convince the superior court that they have greater halachic validity than the Nov. 27 decision. As the case stands now, if Chabad of California files the Nov. 27 decision with Superior Court as expected, it will legally take over the properties, which it plans to use to serve the Marina del Rey community.

The disputed Oct. 23 ruling, which took the opposite position, said that properties in question should be transferred to Chabad of the Marina (now known as the Living Judaism Center). It also said that Rabbi Shmulik Naparstek, who was fired as shliach (Chabad emissary) in Marina del Rey, should have a 30-day probation period in which he would remain as shliach and present a claim to the beit din over his dismissal.

Cunin, the head Chabad shliach in California, fired Naparstek in January and claimed ownership of the properties owned by Chabad of the Marina. Chabad of the Marina subsequently changed its corporate name to the Living Judaism Center and filed a complaint against Chabad of California in Superior Court. It alleged wrongful termination of Naparstek and challenged the attempted takeover, claiming LJC had raised a majority of its own funds.

In March, Chabad of California filed a countercomplaint against the center, alleging that Naparstek had conducted unauthorized Chabad activities on Chabad premises and had knowingly violated Cunin’s policy prohibiting banquets at which men and women sit together.

For many in the Chabad community, the dispute has wider implications. Some believe that the issue of Cunin versus Naparstek is evidence of Cunin’s alleged abuse of power in the Chabad community. Others think that Cunin’s actions were well within the rights that the head shliach has over his employees.

Chabad members on both sides of the issue who were contacted by The Journal for comment requested that their names not be used.

Some of those supporting Cunin said they feared a victory for Naparstek could call into question the authority of head shliachs in the more than 50 countries where Chabad is established.

A petition supporting Naparstek and the Oct. 23 judgment is being circulated on the Internet by a group calling itself the Vaad Shel Shluchim L’Maan Ha’Emes VeHasholom (the Emissaries’ Committee for Truth and Peace) and has been signed by emissaries in eight states.

The petition says: "To remain silent in the face of such practice is to lend it validity and G-d forbid, license to be repeated. It is certainly incumbent upon us to speak out when it becomes apparent that the integrity of this [beit din] process is being compromised and/or manipulated."

The wheels for the controversial beit din decision were set in motion last July when the Superior Court approved and ordered both parties to settle their dispute in a beit din, whose decision would be binding and could not appealed.

The beit din chosen was made up of five rabbis. Two were chosen by Cunin: Rabbi Moshe Bogomilsky from New York and Rabbi Yehuda Leib Shapira of Florida. Two were chosen by Naparstek: Rabbi Mordechai Shmuel Ashkenazi from Kfar Chabad and Rabbi Yitzchak Yehuda Yaroslavsky from Nachalat Har Chabad, both of Israel. One neutral rabbi was chosen by both sides: Rabbi David Moshe Lieberman from Belgium. The arbitration proceedings were held in Miami in October.

According to a letter written by Ashkenazi and Yaroslavsky, which was addressed to the three other beit din rabbis and widely disseminated in the Chabad community, a final decision on the case favoring LJC was reached Oct. 23.

"The final decision was written in the rabbis’ handwriting," the letter stated. "And we all signed it without waiting for it to be printed to avoid the onset of pressure, and after a judgment is written and signed, it cannot be changed…."

"After we unanimously agreed, wrote and signed," the letter continued, "Rabbis Bogomilsky and Shapira took the handwritten signed document and said that it was in order to hand it over to the sofer dayan [legal scribe] so as to add the standard introduction that is written at the opening of a psak din [judgment], to type it and translate it into English…."

"When the parties entered before us for the last time," the letter went on to say, "Rabbi Bogomilsky began speaking and said that the beit din had reached a decision regarding the dispute and announced before the parties the second half of the psak din."

The parties involved then reportedly waited for the Oct. 23 decision to be typed and distributed. In the meantime, however, the other three rabbis (Bogomilsky, Shapira and Lieberman) allegedly decided on a new ruling.

In their letter, Ashkenazi and Yaroslavsky reportedly stated that the three rabbis told them that they had "changed [their] minds." Ashkenazi and Yaroslavsky wrote, "We have considered in depth your [rabbis’] request to change the written version and have decided that the law, which forbids changing, applies to this situation. And also, we found no substantive reason to change that which was agreed and signed upon and thereby make a mockery of the beit din in the eyes of the Jewish nation."

Bogomilsky and Shapira did not return calls from The Jewish Journal for comment on the disputed ruling or letter.

Marshall Grossman is the attorney for Cunin and Chabad of California, and was assisted in the proceedings by associate Seth Gerber. Grossman told The Journal that the Oct. 23 document was not the final decision.

"What the LJC is attempting to do is look back at various preliminary discussions among members of the beit din and say at some point in time, members of the beit din had been looking at various results different to the ultimate decision [on Nov. 27]," Grossman said. "The only decision that counts is the final decision, and that decision is a victory for Chabad of California on every point."

After the Nov. 27 ruling was issued, Rabbi Tzvi Weinman, the rabbinic lawyer acting on behalf of the LJC, filed a case in the Jerusalem Regional Rabbinical Court against the beit din rabbis, alleging that the changed judgment has no validity.

On Dec. 2, the Jerusalem court issued a decision "prohibiting the defendants and the parties to the arbitration from making any use of the decision of 27 November, including submitting it to the civil court for approval, and for it to be given the force of a civil court judgment."

Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, the former chief rabbi of Israel, also issued an opinion, writing a letter to Ashkenazi and Yaroslavsky. In the letter he said "the document of 27 November has no validity according to the Shulhan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law] and is worthless."

Neither the Israeli religious court nor ex-chief rabbi’s opinions have any standing in the California case. But the LJC claims that according to halacha, these opinions need to be dealt with. The LJC is now waiting for the summons from the Jerusalem court to be responded to by Chabad, although it is not clear how this action will be enforced. In the meantime, Chabad reportedly is waiting for the Nov. 27 ruling to be approved in Superior Court.

Grossman, commenting on the Jerusalem pronouncements, said they are of no consequence. "It is regrettable and hypocritical," he said, "that the LJC went searching for a rabbi here and there who would express an opinion on the merits of this dispute, without hearing any of the evidence or testimony."

Chabad community members interviewed by The Journal under the condition that they would not be named, believe that the struggle between Cunin and Naparstek is more about Cunin exercising his power. They said they see Cunin’s actions ultimately hurting Chabad. However, others said that Cunin was well within his rights, and while the dispute is upsetting, it is an anomaly for the movement and would not tarnish Chabad’s reputation in California.

Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, the director of the Chai Center, a nonprofit outreach organization, and a former Chabad shliach, said that if Chabad of California in ignored the Jerusalem court, it "is going to move Chabad further out of mainstream. If they ignore it, it means they don’t care about the entire Orthodox Jewish world, including Israel, and that makes Chabad a mockery."

Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, who worked as a shliach for 18 years before he also resigned because of what he said was "duress" from Cunin, believes the Nov. 27 decision would hurt the institution of shlichus upon which Chabad outreach is based.

Schusterman, who directed the Hebrew Academy of Orange County, said, "It would not portend well for the spirit of shlichus, because shlichus is a movement driven by idealism. When it deteriorates to an exercise of power, when might for its own sake prevails, the soul of shlichus becomes extinguished,"

Grossman denied that Cunin has abused his power. "It is not unusual to find a few detractors who are motivated, whether by jealousy or their own failures, with respect to any person with a position of responsibility," he said. "You can find anyone to make a similar comment about any leading rabbis in this community in any branch of Judaism, Reform, Conservative or Orthodox."

Reinventing Hollywood

There was a telling moment, midway through the Sept. 7 press conference announcing the CBS-Viacom megamerger, when one of the unmentionables of American entertainment peeked through the veils for an instant. It came when a reporter asked CBS President Mel Karmazin why he wanted this merger. His reply: “This is the deal I’ve wanted to make, I think, from the time I was bar mitzvahed.”

The reporters laughed nervously. Nobody commented afterward. Nobody would have brought it up if Karmazin hadn’t. It’s one of those inside jokes you don’t usually tell in public.

Americans consider it downright rude to talk publicly about Jewish ownership in the media. Marlon Brando mentioned it two years ago on “Larry King Live” and nearly got lynched. Three years earlier, journalist William Cash caused an international uproar with a scathing article in the British newsweekly the Spectator, also about Jewish influence in Hollywood. It’s just not something you discuss in conventional society.

But Karmazin isn’t conventional. The son of a New York cabdriver, he was a fast-talking ad salesman who built his own radio network, Infinity Broadcasting, best known as the home of shock-jocks Howard Stern and Don Imus. CBS bought Infinity in 1996. Two years later, Karmazin took over CBS.

In an industry dominated by corporate suits, Karmazin is a throwback to an older era of seat-of-the-pants, shoot-from-the-hip Jewish media entrepreneurs. “He’s always refreshingly straightforward about who he is,” says a friend. “He doesn’t make a big deal of his Jewishness, but he’s right out there with it.”

How Jewish is that? It’s hard to find out. Your correspondent sought an interview the Friday after the merger, but was told Karmazin left early for Rosh Hashanah.

Karmazin’s new boss, Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone, is cut from similar cloth. Son of a nightclub owner (his father changed the family name from Rothstein), he built a chain of movie theaters and, in 1987, took over Viacom, an also-ran cable and syndication company. He’s turned it into one of the biggest forces in Hollywood, acquiring Paramount Pictures, MTV and much more. But he never joined the Tinseltown set. He won’t even move out of his hometown, Boston, where he’s a major donor to the local Jewish federation.

The CBS-Viacom marriage is the biggest media merger in history. It combines two Hollywood giants to form America’s second-biggest media company. It’s also a historic milestone in the long, complicated relationship between Hollywood and the Jews. They’re coming back to Hollywood’s boardrooms after a lengthy exile.

Jewish media ownership is a sturdy myth, but only partly true. Yes, Jews “invented Hollywood.” Thomas Edison invented the motion-picture camera, but it remained a novelty item. A generation of immigrant Jewish entrepreneurs — Sam Goldwyn, Jack and Harry Warner, Louis B. Mayer and others — built a multibillion-dollar dream factory around it. A later generation of Jewish entrepreneurs created the broadcast networks: William Paley’s CBS, David Sarnoff’s NBC and Leonard Goldenson’s ABC.

But those Jews died years ago. The Hollywood lampooned by Cash in 1994 was no longer owned by Jews. It had been taken over by public corporations with little Jewish leadership. In the course of the 1980s, Columbia Pictures was bought by Sony Corp., Universal by Matsushita, 20th Century-Fox by Rupert Murdoch’s Australian-based News Corp., NBC by General Electric and ABC by Capital Cities Corp.

The only exceptions were Warner Bros., bought in 1969 by Jewish parking-lot mogul Steve Ross, and CBS, bought in 1985 by hotelier-philanthropist Laurence Tisch. Tisch bailed out in 1995, selling CBS to Westinghouse after a decade’s missteps.

By then, though, the pendulum was swinging back.

In 1990, Steve Ross merged his Warner Communications with Time Inc. to create Time Warner, the world’s biggest media company. Ross died two years later and was succeeded as chairman by a little-known Time Inc. executive Gerald Levin, who had once considered a rabbinic career.

Levin represents a new breed of media mogul. Technically, he’s not a mogul at all, since he doesn’t own the company he manages. But he’s so powerful and so well-paid that the management-ownership distinction fades.

Levin isn’t the first of the breed. First was Michael Eisner, chairman of Walt Disney Co. Eisner was hired by Disney — the only Hollywood studio actually founded by a non-Jew — in 1985, when Walt’s children lost the company in a hostile takeover. The new owner, Walt’s nephew Roy, had been forced out of the family business after Walt’s death in 1966. He returned with a largely Jewish management team — a rich irony at a company long regarded as anti-Semitic.

Levin and Eisner run a new type of entertainment company. Each combines movies, television (Disney acquired ABC in 1995), cable, records, theme parks, books and magazines into a single company, for annual revenues topping $20 billion. Boosters say the mix creates “synergy,” meaning the parts reinforce each other. Critics fear that they’ll become monopolies, stifling creativity and integrity.

Either way, they’re the wave of the future. Today, just five mega-companies dominate American entertainment. Biggest is Time Warner. Close behind are Disney and the new Viacom-CBS. Fourth, with half the others’ revenues, is Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Fifth is Universal, bought from Matsushita in 1997 by the Bronfman family’s Seagram Corp.

Those five — Time Warner, Disney, Viacom-CBS, News Corp. and Universal — rule the entertainment world in a way the old Hollywood studio chiefs never dreamed of. And, after all the deals and buyouts, four of the five are run by Jews. We’re back where we started, bigger than ever.

Does it matter? It does if you’re an anti-Semitic conspiracy nut. Louis Farrakhan thinks a Jewish committee meets in New York each year to decide what movies will get made. He’s wrong.

Most outside observers say the Jewishness of Hollywood’s Jews is meaningless. They’re wrong too.

There was a Jewishness in the dreams spun by the old Jewish media moguls, of a world of opportunity and possibility where everyone was equal. Just the sort of America a Jewish immigrant might hope for.

The new Jewish moguls dream similar dreams. But their identities are more secure and their empires are shakier, and they rarely let their beliefs show.

It’s no accident that Murdoch, the only non-Jew in the group, is also the only political conservative. He’s also the only one who risks company money to promote his beliefs. The others spend most of their time making deals.

Too bad Murdoch wasn’t bar mitzvahed.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.