Christmas a time for tikkun olam

While some teenagers hit the slopes or the beach over their winter break, dozens of high-schoolers from across the continent recalled the Jewish value of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and traveled to Los Angeles to perform volunteer work instead.

From Dec. 22 to 27, more than 60 attendees of Camp Tel Yehudah, a teen leadership summer camp in Barryville, N.Y., run by the Zionist youth movement Young Judaea, visited to help the homeless, the hungry and children in need. Participants came from the United States and Canada. 

“It’s really amazing to see these teens come together in such a short time and create these really intense and long-lasting bonds,” said Jamie Maxner, assistant director of the camp, who started the alternative winter break program in 2007. 

“They’re sharing this interesting and intense experience of volunteering, diving into the community and being face to face with issues they haven’t necessarily confronted in their normal lives. You hear words like ‘life- changing.’ It’s awesome to witness it and be on the sidelines.”

Throughout the week, volunteers visited four sites: the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, the Midnight Mission, Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles and People Assisting the Homeless (PATH). They helped sort through food, served hot meals and assisted staff from the different organizations. 

On Christmas Eve, while half of the group gave out food at the Midnight Mission in downtown Los Angeles, the rest decorated a Santa’s workshop area there, hanging ornaments and wrapping boxes. Thousands of toys were donated by companies for distribution to disadvantaged children on Christmas Day. Each child could pick four gifts and then enjoy a hot holiday meal with his or her family.  

Daniel Gomez, an East Los Angeles resident who has been eating at Midnight Mission for a few months, was planning to pick up a present for his nephew at the toy drive. 

“It helps,” he said, enjoying a hot meal. “It’s exciting. It’s Christmastime and the holidays, and everyone likes to celebrate.”

Ryan Navales, public affairs coordinator at the Midnight Mission, said that what the Young Judaea teens accomplished during the holidays is beneficial to both them and his organization. 

“With kids, you begin to instill in them service and a real sense of purpose when [they do this] work, and that’s a lasting gift for them, as well as for us.”

Josh Papernic, a junior at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, cleared out food that had gone bad at the food bank and served lunch at the Midnight Mission, where he also washed down the tables in the dining hall on Christmas Eve. He said that the concept of tikkun olam inspired him, and that he chose to take part because “I’m trying to help out and have a good time and, hopefully, make someone else’s day.”

Next year, he’d like to volunteer again, especially in a personal setting where he can interact with people. “The experience [has] really been eye-opening, and I’m getting exposed to a part of Los Angeles I wouldn’t normally be exposed to. It’s really humbling,” he said.

Another volunteer was Ben Greenberg, a junior at Palisades Charter High School. He said that, at the L.A. Regional Food Bank, he and his peers sorted food and threw away unacceptable items.

This year’s winter break visit to Los Angeles was the first since the program began. Last year, participants made the trek to Brooklyn and Staten Island in New York to clean up after Hurricane Sandy, and before that, they aided the Navajo Nation. This time around, while students worked in Los Angeles, another group of Young Judaea’s campers visited New Orleans — another site of previous programming — and worked with residents affected by Hurricane Katrina in the Ninth Ward. 

While in Southern California, volunteers stayed at Gindling Hilltop Camp in Malibu and on Christmas, in between different projects, they enjoyed a pizza dinner, a scavenger hunt in Hollywood and a Starline bus tour of the city.

Rebecca Tauber, a student at Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania, said she signed on to the alternative winter break because “it seemed like a really amazing opportunity to do service, especially around the holidays. 

“A lot of people associate it with being a joyous time, but it’s really stressful for impoverished people,” she said. “It’s a great way to give back, especially this time of year.”

Without shelter on Pico Boulevard

It’s a Wednesday in September. Brad Baker stands in front of Elat Market on Pico Boulevard, holding out his baseball cap. People exit the supermarket, pushing shopping carts and carrying bags with groceries. Some look at Baker. Some don’t. For Baker, this is just another day. 

One of the many homeless in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Pico-Robertson, Baker has been living in the area for four years. I met him while trying to find out how many homeless people can be found in the neighborhood on a typical weekday. Through a series of interviews with rabbis, I’d learned there are many destitute people who come to the community to ask for help. I wanted to see for myself. 

Perhaps no holiday highlights the plight of the Pico-Robertson homeless like Sukkot, which begins at sundown on Sept. 30. Sukkot recalls a time when the Jewish nation wandered in the desert — a homeless people. The fragility of our temporary shelters on this holiday reminds us of those who find little or no shelter all year long.

I’d heard about Frank, homeless, in his 50s and well-known in Pico-Robertson, from Rav Yosef Kanefsky, leader of Congregation B’nai David-Judea. Frank is Catholic, Italian and originally from Boston. He is, Kanefsky said, “a very religious person.” 

Rabbi Chaim Tureff, Judaic Studies teacher and Rav Beit Sefer at Pressman Academy, also knows Frank well. Tureff and Frank often run into one another at B’nai David, where Tureff davens in the mornings. “He’ll ask me to drive him on my way to work” — to the Kabbalah center or Beth Jacob [Congregation], where he hopes to collect money, Tureff said.

Frank shares “quite generously … and he loves Jews — absolutely loves Jews. … He says it all the time, [how] he loves the Jewish people, [how] Jewish people help him, are nice to him, support him. Just loves the Jewish people. Thinks we’re very generous,” Kanefsky said.

But Frank is “the product of a broken home and a violent father,” Kanefsky said, and the rabbi has urged Frank to obtain government assistance — to no avail. 

Joel — whose Hebrew name is “Yoel” — has been in the community for more than nine years.  

“Joel will sleep anywhere, [spending] many, many nights in a little entryway — a side entryway to the shul,” Kanefsky said. 

But he has not been around lately, Tureff said. “The police moved him, and he’s been out of the neighborhood for a number of months.” 

Kanefsky tries to help Joel. “When [Joel] was around, I tried as best I could to make sure he had money for food … [but he’s] severely, severely schizophrenic … tragically, deeply paranoid … [so there are] very few foods he eats because of the paranoia.”

Despite their best efforts, Kanefsky and Tureff failed to convince Joel to enter the government’s mental health system, which people have to enter voluntarily unless they are deemed an immediate danger to themselves. “Which he has never been deemed,” Kanefsky said. 

Like Frank, Joel is likable, Kanefsky said. He is “very smart” and has a “tremendously good grasp on events and history.” 

There are also stories of people whose names I was asked not to use. One woman, middle-aged and with a history of more than 20 years in Pico-Robertson, can be seen walking up and down Pico Boulevard every day, and she has found there a community that cares for her, according to a rabbi of an Orthodox shul in Pico-Robertson who also asked that he and his shul be kept anonymous.

In fact, a fund made up of contributions from “Orthodox synagogues in this neighborhood” pays for her rent for her apartment, the rabbi said. A restaurant owner in Pico-Robertson — who also asked to remain anonymous — said she keeps an open account for her at the restaurant.

She didn’t always rely on this type of assistance. She was a single woman, a “functioning member of society” and “active member in the community,” the rabbi said. About 15 years ago, she disappeared. When she returned several years later, she did not “function like she used to.”

Yehuda is another person who comes up during discussions about the homeless in Pico-Robertson. He’s a younger man, in his 30s, who tries to help others, Tureff said, adding, “He would always ask for money to try to get hotel rooms to help out people in the community.”

Like Baker, all of these people are both part of the tight-knit Pico-Robertson community and apart from the community; they are both visible and invisible. 

Baker was happy to share his story. He has been in the community for 35 years, he said. Before he was homeless, he lived in apartments on Saturn Street, and then later on Wooster Street. He’s had several jobs, including as first-call driver for a mortuary and as a plumber. He also has suffered multiple injuries while working, once injuring his hand and later shattering his spine. He became addicted to pain medication.

When his mother got sick with cancer, about four years ago, Baker suffered what he called a “breakdown.” He began drinking, sometimes mixing alcohol with pain pills. After police caught him with Vicodin, he served three years in prison. 

Kanefsky gives Baker $15 each month for medication. Baker also receives $5 weekly from B’nai David, Kanefsky’s shul.

Baker sleeps in Pico-Robertson, often in the parking lot behind Kollel Rashbi Ari on Pico. Mikhail Maimon, chairman of the kollel, said Baker often drops by for meals on Shabbat — when the kollel offers free meals — and he uses the shower in the center’s bathroom and washes his clothes in the building’s washer and dryer. 

Less known but equally visible in the community are two elderly Persian men who walk up and down Pico every day selling costume jewelry, prayer books, children’s toys, socks and Judaica trinkets. They speak Farsi  and minimal English, and through translators I attempted to interview one of them, twice, but he declined and would not allow his picture to be taken. They push shopping carts filled with merchandise, which they try to sell to pedestrians and people eating on patios at restaurants. They sometimes bother the customers, knocking on the windows of the restaurants to get customers’ attention. This is an everyday occurrence at Pat’s Restaurant on Pico, said Errol Fine, owner of Pat’s. Fine said he has mixed feelings about it. “It’s our patrons that sometimes get a little annoyed about it … [but] I think everybody is understanding.”

When I finished speaking with Baker, it was approximately 7 p.m. and getting dark outside. I walked some more, beginning at the intersection of Pico Boulevard and Beverly Drive and continuing to the intersection of Pico and Robertson boulevards — a distance of more than 15 blocks — and along the way I saw six more people who appeared homeless.

These people walk around the neighborhood during the day, but neither community rabbis nor area homelessness agencies know how many actually sleep in the district. 

A census conducted in 2011 by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority — an independent agency that coordinates and manages federal, state, county and city funds for programs providing shelter, housing and services to the homeless — revealed that 51,340 people in Los Angles County either live in a place not meant for human habitation — such as cars, parks and sidewalks — or in an emergency shelter or transitional housing. In Los Angeles County supervisorial District 3 — a large geographical area that includes the Pico-Robertson area — the census found 8,048 homeless people. In the Los Angeles City Council District 5 — which also includes the Pico-Robertson area — the census found 689 homeless people.

“There’s certainly a homeless population” in Pico-Robertson, said Jeremy Sidell, a spokesperson for the social services agency People Assisting the Homeless (PATH). Run by Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles’ (JFS-LA) SOVA Community Food and Resource Program, the Pico-Robertson-area food pantry served 102 individual homeless clients this year, according to Nancy Volpert, director of public policy at JFS-LA. But SOVA does not keep track of where these clients sleep.

On Sept. 5, at one of B’nai David-Judea’s programs that takes place approximately every six weeks, more than 100 elderly and middle-aged men and women came to the synagogue for a free lunch and to receive $15 Ralphs gift cards. On this day, Kanefsky handed out approximately 120 Ralphs cards. Afterward, the synagogue served cholent, pasta, salad, challah, vegetables and desserts. 

Other shuls in Pico-Robertson see as many as a dozen people each day who come to their doors to ask for charity.  

Pico-Robertson’s Lubavitch Bais Bezalel has an “open-door policy” for people in need, said the shul’s leader, Rabbi Binyomin Lisbon. “A whole, full array of people, an eclectic group — locals, people from out of town and everybody in between” — visit the synagogue between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., coming in and asking for tzedakah during services and between services, Lisbon said.

“They make the rounds,” often making “eye contact” with congregants to gauge whether it is a good time to ask for tzedakah. Many congregants “have money sitting on the table, either coins or bills,” Lisbon said. Doing this means, “Don’t disturb my prayer, [but] take one and have a happy day,” Lisbon said.

Lisbon is happy to help. “If the good Lord is sending us people that are indeed needy and we’re in a position to [help] … [we try] to help as much as we can,” he said. 

Anshe Emes, another Orthodox shul in the neighborhood, has a similar situation: “There are people who come in and ask for tzedakah, every week in my synagogue — quote-unquote regulars,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Summers. He collects tzedakah money from his congregants and distributes that money to the visitors, before or after morning prayers, or before or after evening prayers.

Summers downplays the help he provides. “I don’t think I’m any different than any other rabbi — just the opposite — my synagogue is smaller, so maybe I do less. I’m sure these other rabbis do a lot, and the community does a lot, and it would be nice if we could do more,” he said.

At B’nai David, each person may come to request money only once a week — but the system is informal, with volunteers handing out the funds collected from congregants. 

It is not only through the synagogues that the needy can find help; neighborhood restaurants also step up. Jeff Rohatiner, owner of Jeff’s Gourmet Sausage Factory, allows visitors to come into his restaurant to eat one free meal per week and to use the rest rooms. The goal is to help somebody who is homeless feel like a “normal person,” Rohatiner said.

Pico-Robertson-based social service agencies offer assistance, as well. SOVA’s
Pico-Robertson storefront provides groceries; the organization Tomchei Shabbos on Pico provides packages of Shabbat food to the homes of needy families (they require an address, and the food needs to be cooked). The family-run Global Kindness also distributes clothes, food, money for rent and other forms of help.

Young Israel of Century City, on Pico, maintains a different policy than some of the other congregations in dealings with tzedakah collectors. The synagogue’s leader, Rabbi Elazar Muskin, said that a few years ago, the synagogue became overwhelmed by people “who go from shul to shul [and] who’ve made this into a racket. They were disrupting the davening. It was becoming impossible,” Muskin said.

Up to 20 people were coming “daily, weekly,” in groups, to the synagogue. Congregants were being “hounded by these guys. They weren’t being left alone. … You couldn’t just walk into the shul and daven. They were there in the hallway and wouldn’t let you go,” Muskin said.

“That’s when it got out of hand. We just told them that they can’t come into the building,” Muskin said.

The synagogue now makes donations to people who have letters saying they’ve been certified by the West Coast Va Ad Hachesed, an agency that interviews a person seeking tzedakah and determines if that person truly needs assistance. Additionally, if a rabbi in the community, or a colleague, vouches for someone, Young Israel will help that person — even if he or she is uncertified, Muskin said. 

“We take care of those who are honestly in need with tremendous generosity,” Muskin said.

The challenge for rabbis and community members is how to seek a balance between giving and declining to give. Kanefsky said imposing rules — such as not allowing people to sleep inside the synagogue and requiring people to pre-register in order to become eligible for a Ralphs gift card — helps achieve that balance. 

“Things aren’t perfect, but things are far more predictable and organized both for us and the recipients,” Kanefsky said.

The rabbi said he also gets to know who he is helping, and said he doesn’t give to someone he doesn’t know anything about. “I don’t help anyone without knowing their name, knowing a little bit of their story. … It humanizes and dignifies the process,” he said.

PATH recommends this type of “one-to-one interaction.” It is, Sidell said, “very unusual, very rare for someone who is experiencing homelessness.” 

There was complete agreement among all the rabbis that Judaism obligates Jews to give tzedakah to the less fortunate. Lisbon highlighted the notion, taught by the ancient sages, that the world stands on three legs: Torah, service and acts of kindness. The notion that God makes everyone in His image also motivates Kanefsky, he said.

“I know that sounds trite, to see the image of God in everybody, [but] that is the key to everything,” he said, “to talk with people, to interact with people, to have patience with people for the image of God that they are.”

More stories for Sukkot: 

New book tries to keep Orthodox, well, Orthodox

“Off the Derech: Why Observant Jews Leave Judaism; How to Respond to the Challenge,” by Faranak Margolese (Devora, 2005).

Several years ago, I received an online questionnaire asking things like: “If you had to attribute your not being observant to one thing, what would it be?” and “Did you ever feel rejected because you were not observant enough?” Now my answers, as well as those of 465 other Orthodox rebels, are the subject of the book, “Off the Derech.”

Written by Faranak Margolese, a Los Angeles native and graduate of Yeshiva of Los Angeles Girls High School who now lives in Jerusalem, the book seeks to explain why some Jews who grow up in observant homes and attend Orthodox schools drop halachic observance later in life. By understanding this phenomenon, she believes Orthodox communities and individuals could more effectively remedy it.

But this book is not aimed at people who went off the derech, which in Hebrew means “path.” Instead, it’s intended for those seeking to ensure Orthodox continuity. Throughout the book, Margolese does not treat those who went “off the derech” with disdain or disapproval; rather, she turns her critical focus to certain behaviors and attitudes of Orthodox people, which can turn younger generations off to Torah Judaism.

Nonetheless, her book has earned her praise from leading Orthodox rabbis for outlining an integral path of honest introspection for Orthodox communities, making the book a fitting read for the High Holidays.

Margolese conceived of the idea for the book when she began to notice that many of her friends who grew up in religious homes were no longer observant. Margolese describes a period in which she herself experienced her share of doubts, which resulted in lapses in her observance of Shabbat and kashrut.

Eventually, she resolved the emotional and intellectual conflicts she had with Torah Judaism and has fully committed herself to the Orthodox way of life. Her own experience contributes to the sensitivity with which she tackles the subject.

In an extremely lucid and logical style, Margolese makes a praiseworthy attempt not to oversimplify the reasons why people of different Orthodox shades abandon observance, which she defines loosely as the halachic observance of Shabbat and kashrut. Often, a complex series of factors and experiences trigger defection.

One main reason, she argues, is negative emotional associations young Orthodox Jews develop toward Judaism as a result of hurtful encounters with Orthodox people. These include parents who make children feel rejected for failing in religious observance, teachers who call students “wicked” or “dirty” for dabbling with secular ideas or behaviors, or any Orthodox Jews, particularly rabbis and educators, who are overly judgmental or nitpicky regarding the minutiae of Jewish laws at the expense of kindness and understanding.

Margolese separates emotional and intellectual issues and explains that emotional dissatisfaction is more an influential motivator than intellectual issues with Judaism. In fact, a majority of her respondents affirmed that they still believe in the Divine origins of the Torah. Nevertheless, she found rabbis and teachers often turn their students off to Torah Judaism and rabbinic authority by downplaying their sincere quest to understand God, Torah and reasons for observing mitzvot, (commandments).

Margolese offers several remedies, which put the burden of change on potential role models. Prescriptions include: parents not dogmatically enforcing religious observance at the expense of their child’s emotional well-being and sense of security; parents and educators grounding their emphasis on maintaining observance with the humanitarian purpose, inspiring vision and rational context underlying mitzvot, and practitioners not shying away from questions posed by intellectually curious Orthodox Jews.

By turning culpability to observant people, educators and communities, Margolese successfully removes blame from the ideal Orthodox system she portrays. If only the practitioners were the models of the best of Orthodoxy fulfilled — open, spiritual, psychologically perceptive and halachic — then fewer people might leave the fold.

In keeping with her loyalty to Orthodoxy, Margolese does not devote separate discussion to a popular reason why some people leave Orthodox Judaism: Orthodox Judaism, no matter how it is taught or presented, entails too many restrictions, many of which could be unfulfilling and stifling, both in thought and day-to-day practice.

It is only natural that Margolese defend the belief system and lifestyle she is ultimately advocating, but her remedies will probably not apply to those who have questioned the basic tenets of Orthodoxy and found them wanting.