Cancer gives musician a new song


This time, Charlie Lustman hadn’t come to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for medical tests or to endure another round of chemotherapy. Despite having lost three-quarters of his jawbone, Lustman had come to celebrate, to inspire — and to sing.

Lustman was at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute’s Cancer Survivors Day program to officially launch “Made Me Nuclear,” the album he wrote, arranged, produced and performed. The 12-song compilation chronicles his cancer odyssey, from receiving the diagnosis to experiencing chemotherapy-induced forgetfulness to feeling grateful to those who supported him along the way. The songs range from poignant ballads contemplating mortality to the humorous title song about being injected with a radioactive substance for a diagnostic imaging procedure: “Yes they put me through the scans/Now I’m a subatomic man/I’m a human mobile phone….”

“This is the first ever pop album about cancer,” said Lustman, 43, who decided to create “Made Me Nuclear” a year to the day after receiving his diagnosis. “There is no other album which directly speaks to the cancer experience.”

Lustman completed the album on March 1 — exactly two years after being diagnosed. Next month, he will begin performing a theatrical adaptation of “Made Me Nuclear” at the Santa Monica Playhouse. The one-man show combines songs with dramatizations of Lustman’s experience. He hopes to tour nationally beginning next year.

Lustman’s cancer odyssey began when he noticed a small bump on his gum. His dentist couldn’t identify it, nor could his periodontist, who ordered a biopsy just to be safe.

The bump turned out to be osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Lustman’s specific form of the disease is diagnosed in only about 30 people a year nationwide, according to Dr. Charles Forscher, Lustman’s oncologist and medical director of the Sarcoma Center at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute.

“I’m an extremely lucky man. Statistically, I’m supposed to have won Super Lotto three times before getting this,” Lustman said. “I turned the statistic into something positive and realized that my whole purpose … was to make a difference in the world and help other people affected by this disease or other hardship. I just had to go through a two-year journey through cancer to come out on the other side.”

The journey included surgery at UCLA’s Head and Neck Institute, which entailed the removal of half of his jaw. After the surgery, Lustman and his wife, Ri, who was pregnant with the couple’s second child, had to wait 10 days for tests to reveal whether all the cancer had been eliminated. It hadn’t, so Lustman underwent a second surgery. The couple endured another 10-day waiting period, and this time the results were clear.

Lustman then returned to Cedars-Sinai for a year of supplemental chemotherapy to destroy any remaining cancer cells. He had timed the chemo sessions around his wife’s due date, but the baby arrived five weeks early. So Lustman went from having chemo in the hospital’s basement to the third floor Labor and Delivery to witness the birth of his daughter, Gita.

After he completed chemotherapy, Lustman received a prosthetic mouth piece, which enables him to speak and sing.

A Santa Monica resident, Lustman grew up in Beverly Hills. He graduated from the Berklee College of Music in Boston with a degree in television and film scoring. After writing commercial music in New York, he spent multiyear stints in Denmark performing and writing songs for Scandinavian artists.

In 1998, Lustman purchased and renovated the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax Avenue, which he operated until 2006. He had begun work on “Shaya,” an album about his young son, and was planning to sell the theater in order to focus on his musical career. Cancer expedited the process.

“When you get that kind of diagnosis, you realize you might not have a lot of time on the planet,” he said.

The son of a Holocaust survivor, Lustman drew parallels between his own experience and his father’s.

“When I got my head shaved at the beginning, I felt my father in the camp,” he said. “And when I couldn’t eat anything solid for three months because they had removed most of my upper jaw … I felt what it was like to just have soup… All the pain and all the suffering that my family endured watching me suffer…. It was a very deep suffering that I had never experienced before.”

But here at the July 31st Cancer Survivors Day celebration, the suffering seems like a distant memory.

Dressed in white tennis shoes, white pants and a white shirt emblazoned with his album’s purple nucleus logo, Lustman addressed the audience gathered at Cedars-Sinai — some currently battling cancer and others who have completed treatment. “The [time] here has changed me into something different — something better.”

For more information about Charlie Lustman’s album or performances, visit www.mademenuclear.com

Hyler begins to heal


Talent Manager and producer Joan Hyler is on the slow road to recovery. After a devastating accident that nearly killed her last Friday Aug. 15, Hyler has undergone multiple surgeries to assess and repair damage to her organs, arms and legs. After being struck by a car on the Pacific Coast Highway, Hyler sustained severe injuries, which reportedly included a collapsed lung, internal bleeding and broken legs. There was initial concern that Hyler might not survive the weekend.

But doctors became optimistic on Tuesday, after a CAT scan revealed that brain swelling was minimal. When Hyler responded positively to a reduction in her sedation level, it was determined she could undergo surgeries to repair her legs.

Following a successful surgery last Friday morning, doctors are increasingly optimistic that Hyler is responding well to treatment.

Yesterday morning, Hyler underwent a six-hour surgery during which doctors attempted to repair a badly broken right leg by inserting a pin in her tibia bone. During that same surgery, they also inserted a screw in her left ankle. Doctors had planned to repair damage to her right upper-arm, but decided to delay further procedures and allow Hyler to rest. Hyler has since been taken off of sedation, but continues to receive a morphine drip for pain.

Her progress will be closely monitored throughout the weekend.

Hyler is a prominent player in both Hollywood and the Jewish community. A former vice president of William Morris Agency, she once represented clients Bob Dylan, Madonna and Andy Warhol. Today, Hyler is a prominent talent manager and producer, representing A-list actors, including Oscar-winner Diane Lane.

Hyler has also exhibited a steadfast commitment to the Jewish community and its causes. As president of Women in Film, Hyler created the Morning Star Commission, an organization founded by Hadassah to promote more diverse portrayals of women in media and entertainment. She also co-created the Jewish Image Awards, which celebrates outstanding portrayals of Jewish heritage in film and television.

After it was reported that Hyler went through 40 units of blood last weekend following her accident, friends and colleagues in both the Entertainment and Jewish communities began organizing blood drives on her behalf. Endeavor Talent Agency held an in-house blood drive last Wednesday, where 82 people contributed 61 units of blood. IKAR, a spiritual community in which Hyler is involved, is also encouraging people to donate blood tomorrow, Aug. 24 (see details below).

The latest report on UCLA’s carepages:

Last Friday night was the lowest of all low points. Since that point we have measured time in 12 hour and 24 hour increments. This is going to be a long difficult struggle. Still, at this point, one week later, we have made only progress, with no emergencies and no setbacks.

Joan rested comfortably during the night. She tolerated the surgery well. The swelling in her face has greatly decreased. At various times she has appeared to recognize familiar voices and has started to fleetingly open her eyes in response. They had suspended feeding her [intravenously] while she was waiting for the surgery; that feeding is now resumed.

The third part of yesterday’s surgery—the part that was not completed—the insertion of a plate and screws to repair the humerus—is now scheduled for this coming Friday.

The action for today is for Joan to undergo an MRI and a C-T scan. The ICU is prepping her for these even as this is being written. Joan had been in a support collar from the beginning and they are now thinking of removing it, hence the MRI, to see if they can proceed. Relative to the C-T scan, Joan had suffered a substantial impact to the head, and while there was no fracture, there had been an internal bleed. The C-T scan will give us an up to date picture of where we are on this front.

 

IKAR blood drive:

Sunday August 24

9 a.m.-Noon

Children’s Hospital

4650 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles

Donate anytime:

UCLA Medical Center

757 Westwood Plaza, Los Angeles

(310) 825-9111

What, Meryl Worry?


In the new movie “Prime,” Meryl Streep is wearing a lavender button-down shirt, a red shawl draped comfortably around her broad shoulders and a brown hairdo that manages to have bangs, wings and flips all going at the same time. But somehow it’s the double strand of big red beads dangling around her neck like a loose noose that manages to convey the high state of suffering — boy does she suffa — of a guilt-ridden, guilt-giving Jewish mother.

That’s right, 56-year-old actor extraordinaire Streep of “Out of Africa,” “Sophie’s Choice,” “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Postcards From the Edge,” “Angels in America,”etc. and 13 Academy Award nominations fame has taken on the comi-tragic role of a Jewish mother.

And oy! what a Jewish mother she is. Streep plays Lisa Metzger, M.S., C.S.W., an Upper West Side therapist who loves too much: She loves patients like Rafi Gardet (Uma Thurman); her eldest son, David Bloomberg (Bryan Greenberg); and her religion (Judaism). When Lisa discovers that her 37-year-old patient has been dating her 23-year-old son, she is beset by a professional concern that is the classic stuff of comedic conflict: Should she continue to treat this patient and how? But her character also is more deeply plagued by a concern that is tragedy for her: Her son is dating a woman who is not Jewish.

To be sure, interfaith dating is not the only theme or conflict in the film. “Prime” is a New York-based romantic riff on love and what happens when obstacles are placed in the way — obstacles like age, family, religion or the fact that your therapist is the mother of the man you’re in love with (a situation that’s probably less likely to happen in real life than in the movies).

But at its core “Prime,” which opens this Friday in theaters, is also a movie about the not very cinematic subject of religion — and the threat of intermarriage.

“I thought it was really unusual to have a script that had as one of its central dilemmas the question of faith,” Streep said. “That’s just amazing. That’s not edgy at all, but it’s something people contend with.”

It is a subject that writer/director Ben Younger (“Boiler Room”) contends with personally: He was raised Modern Orthodox in Brooklyn and Staten Island. While the 33-year-old New Yorker is no longer part of that community he still feels emotionally connected to it.

“I think it’s important for all people to be open,” Younger said. “It’s that exclusionary nature of religion that I do have a problem with.”

If it’s true that artists make a statement in their work — consider Jewish artists like Chaim Potok, Philip Roth, Woody Allen — then perhaps “Prime” is Younger’s way of sending a message in a bottle to the Jewish community.

Consider this heart-to-heart conversation between the characters David and his mother Lisa (Streep, at this point, is wearing a khaki-ish floral shirt and a thick rope of olive bead strands secured by red stones).

Lisa: “So you’re still planning on marrying someone Jewish.”

David: “Ye-e-s. Sure. OK?”

Lisa: “But then I don’t understand why you need to go down this road. You may end up getting hurt for nothing, or worse — hurting her. Don’t you value your culture and your history?”

David: “Mom, it’s not one or the other, Mom.”

Like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” the struggles in “Prime” are probably applicable to any insular ethnic or religious group in America. But with intermarriage, the stakes are especially high for Jews.

“Once a Jew intermarries, he or she as an individual remains Jewish, of course, but the likelihood of that person having any Jewish descendants is close to nil,” concludes a self-published study on intermarriage called “Will Your Grandchildren Be Jewish?”

Once Jews understand the cost of intermarriage ramifications, said Antony Gordon, a co-author of the study, “most decide that they do not want to be the person who breaks the link in the chain that spans about 110 generations back to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.”

The National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) 2000-1 indicates that intermarriage held steady overall at 47 percent from 1995 to 2000, and has increased 4 percent from 1990. Of all Jews currently wed, the 2000 NJPS study found, one-third are intermarried.

Experts note some statistical flaws in the more recent data, but it has nonetheless sparked debate over intermarriage: Everyone agrees that it’s a problem, but how big a problem — or priority for Jewish funding and programming — is it? And more importantly, what is the best way to deal with intermarriage?

Rabbi Kalman Packouz at Aish Hatorah in Florida, takes a direct approach to the problem. Packouz is the author of “How to Stop an Intermarriage: A Guide to Preventing a Broken Heart” (Feldheim, 1984) a book for “Jewish parents who want their child to marry a Jew but don’t know how to articulate it,” Packouz said. His book provides a 10-part questionnaire for interfaith couples considering marriage, covering topics such as personal, financial and religious compatibility as well as “Latent Anti-Semitism” and “Conversion” and “What is the Likelihood of Divorce?” The extensive 159-question survey asks sensible queries such as “Do you think that your potential spouse might be painting an unrealistic picture of him or herself and that you might be marrying an illusion?” There also are blatantly loaded questions: “Do you or your potential spouse think it is wrong to aid in the destruction of an endangered species? How do you feel about aiding in the destruction of the Jewish people?” In that light, even a question about data can become tilted toward a viewpoint: “Are you aware of the higher rate of divorce amongst intermarried couples?”

The point, Packouz said, is that, statistically, intermarriages have a higher rate of failure. And that is just the type of tactic that Streep’s fictional character takes talking to her son. Lisa tells her son: “If you’re smart enough to know that it makes sense to marry someone from the same background — and it does, any of the studies will show you that in as far as the divorce rates go, then you should be smart enough to know not to start something where nothing can come of it. You’re only going to make a mess.”

David, like many kids who were raised with some Jewish tradition in a primarily American culture, is outraged at his mother’s sudden springing of her “Fiddler on the Roof” issues at him.

Packouz offers a line of argument for parents who are accused of suddenly bringing up their Jewish values. He said that a parent should tell a child who is considering intermarrying: “Right now I understand what I really believe. I thought about golf and stock, and how you did in college, but I never really thought about how important it is to be Jewish. I go twice or once a year to services, but now I realize that it really matters to me. It’s who I am in life.”

In the film, David does not come from an extremely assimilated family — in fact, he is trying to break out of their bourgeoisie mores, such as trying be in an artist rather than the standard professional — and he calls his mother out on the double-standard of her Jewish vs. American values.

David: “You’re a therapist, you would never tell that to a patient.”

Lisa: “Not true, not true, I encourage patients to have relationships within their respective faiths. It’s easier. I encourage them to go to mosque or church or whatever. I think religion is paramount in a person’s life.”

David: “OK, yes. But encouraging them is not discouraging them. And I know that you draw the line there. Would you tell your patient not to date someone that they don’t think they’re going to marry?”

Lisa: “Oh quit asking me what I tell my patients. They’re not my children.”

Therein lies the dilemma. Parents teach their children to love everyone equally, to not discriminate, to help the poor, heal the sick, defend the weak — but only date within the faith?

“We can have all sorts of rules in the world, but when it’s our own children the rules go out the window,” Streep said. “You know, what’s objectively best is different from what’s subjectively understood to be the best for your own kids.”

In real life, of course, Streep is not Jewish, and she does not believe in marrying within the faith: “I believe in diversity. And mixing up the DNA — I think it’s very good. I believe in making a mess in life. And as for my daughter’s husband I have one demand: He better be nice!”

Even so, Streep did not find it difficult to play Lisa.

“I wanted her to be kind of momish, roundish,” Streep said. “We picked clothes that were a little bit too tight so that everything looks lumpish. She’s nicely groomed and everything but she doesn’t care about the style label and I’m sure she goes to Loehman’s and tries to get a bargain. She spends a lot of money on her jewelry basically [because] they don’t make clothes for women her age, her size, her style — that’s not what fashion is about anymore, so you sort of compensate with interesting necklaces.”

Streep said her character has a universality beyond Judaism: “At base we all feel the same things: You want to protect your kid. You want them to move out, but you want them to come around all the time — I mean you’re very conflicted as a parent and it goes forever.”

But Streep also understands her character’s concern about intermarriage: “When you marry outside of your religion, you set up a whole different bunch of difficulties and challenges.”

Within Judaism itself, the perspective on intermarriage varies depending on the denomination.

In the old days, parents sat shiva for a child who intermarried. Not much has changed, in spirit, in the Orthodox world.

“[Intermarriage] is absolutely discouraged,” said Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin, the West Coast Orthodox Union’s director of Community and Synagogue Services.

At the other end of the spectrum, while Reform rabbis don’t encourage intermarriage, they do perform the wedding ceremonies and invite non-Jewish partners into their religious communities.

In the middle, as usual, the Conservative movement forbids its rabbis from performing an intermarriage, but more Conservative congregations are taking steps to be inclusive to non-Jewish spouses.

But here’s the funny thing about fighting intermarriage with facts and figures, the threat of excommunication or community approbation: It doesn’t necessarily work.

“The general evidence seems to be that nothing that any movement does or nothing that any part of the [Reform] movement does affects the mixed marriage rate,” said Rabbi Richard Levy, the director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “What I think is happening is that Jews are so integrated in the population … much of the sense of difference between Jews and non-Jews has been polished away.”

It’s the flip side of Jews’ comfort in America; there is no isolating ghetto or shtetl — and Jews are mixing with and marrying their non-Jewish neighbors.

“People are doing it. And in huge numbers. And have resisted all of our efforts to beat them down with demographics,” said Rabbi Dan Shevitz, of the Conservative Mishkon Tephilo synagogue in Venice. “Very few people date or make choices for marriage on what’s best for the Jewish people. If they find someone they think is their soul mate, very few people are willing to give that up for the sake of Jewish demographics. Some are, and I think that’s great.”

Shevitz believes in the Conservative position that Jews should marry Jews, but the facts on the ground dictate flexibility toward outsiders.

“It’s important for us not to tell people that non-Jews are dangerous and ‘other’ or alien, and that we need to stay away from them,” he said. “The notion of making our children afraid of non-Jews is counter-productive and is not working and is false.”

At this stage, he added, Jews need to be promoting the concept of Jewish families.

“It’s neither racist or sinful or illiberal [to be] in favor of continuing our community. But that shouldn’t translate into a fear and hatred of the other. And traditionally it has…. We have a good product — if we can articulate it clearly and proudly.”

Perhaps that is the message — or one message — that filmmaker Younger is trying to get across in “Prime.” Although only a movie, and only one 33-year-old’s religious and artistic take, perhaps such pop-culture works are a better indicator of the cultural zeitgeist than proclamations from on high.

Like Conservative Rabbi Shevitz, Younger believes that the Jewish community — the religious community — needs to be more open to the “other” in the world, when it comes to the arts and when it comes to dating as well.

“If Judaism is so wonderful — and it is — then why close yourself off?” said the tall New York hipster. “Anyone who knows me knows it’s so ingrained, I am Jewish through and throughout, and it’s how I am, so why not share that with someone else?”

Younger could have been quoting the David character when he said, “If it’s as good as we say it is, why is it threatening to speak to someone who isn’t Jewish?”

It is a great religion; it is a great way of life. It touches on your daily life in a way that I haven’t seen any other religion — so why this fear?” Younger said. “Why immediately close off someone from your world? Maybe they’ll love it, too.”

“Prime” (www.primemovie.net) opens in theaters Friday, Oct. 28.

 

Can Universal Care Cure State’s Ills?


Retired cardiologist Dr. Robert Peck remembers the 40-year-old uninsured patient who was admitted to the emergency room of a local hospital with severe chest pains. The patient was stabilized, but required further treatment. Since he had no insurance, he was to be transferred to one of the county hospitals that serve the uninsured. But the patient died while awaiting transfer.

Another patient, who did have insurance, was awaiting tests after being stabilized for chest pains.

"The gatekeeper for that HMO … not a cardiologist … decided that this man didn’t need an angiogram or even to be in a hospital," Peck recounted. "And so he sent him home."

Three months later, the patient returned to hospital with chest pains and died in the ER.

Peck’s examples and a litany of statistics clearly demonstrate the failure of California’s health care system: Of the nation’s 43 million uninsured Americans, 6.5 million are Californians. That equates to roughly one of every five state residents. Within the last decade, 15 percent of the state’s emergency rooms have closed due to skyrocketing costs. Nationally, Health insurance premiums rose almost 14 percent last year alone.

State Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles) believes she has a cure for the health system’s ills. Kuehl authored SB 921, a bill that would establish a single health plan for every resident in California. Under the proposed single-payer universal health care system, individuals would choose their own health care provider and everyone would be entitled to the same benefits. But instead of being paid by insurance companies or individuals, providers would be reimbursed by the state. The state fund would be financed by a tax on employers and individuals, who would no longer pay insurance company premiums, co-payments or deductibles. Medicare, Medi-Cal and other public monies spent on health care would be rolled into the fund.

"Our health care system in California is very fragmented and grossly ineffective. There is more than enough money to provide every Californian with benefit-rich health coverage without spending any more money," said Kuehl, speaking March 18 at an event hosted by Zay Gezunt, The Jewish Coalition for Healthcare for All, sponsored by the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, Progressive Jewish Alliance, The Sholem Community, Health Care for All, Jewish Labor Committee, The National Council of Jewish Women — Los Angeles, The Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health HUC-JIR, Kehillat Israel, Society for Humanistic Judaism — Los Angeles, Jewish Reconstructionist Federation and Leo Baeck Temple.

"We spend about $150 billion per year on health care in California…. No new spending would be required to cover everyone if we get administrative costs down," Kuehl said.

Kuehl’s office estimates that there are more than 10,000 health benefit plans in California. And a study by Harvard researchers, reported in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that administrative costs acounted for 31 percent of health care expenditures in the United States.

Proponents of SB 921 say consolidation of administrative costs alone would save an estimated $14 billion in the plan’s first year. They also project a savings of $4 billion in prescription drug and durable medical equipment costs, which would be generated by the state’s bulk purchasing power. Further savings are anticipated from a decrease in emergency room visits, which would be curtailed once uninsured individuals had access to preventive care.

Kuehl points out that other countries with universal health care systems have better health outcomes. For example, the United States is ranked 37th in health outcomes and consumer satisfaction by the World Health Organization, despite spending more than $4,000 per person — more than any other nation — on health care annually. No. 1 ranked France spends about half that amount.

"This approach has some real legs," said presenter E. Richard Brown, director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, speaking at the health care forum. He believes the bill represents "the opportunity to make some real change in this state and set a model for the United States."

Not everyone agrees.

"To someone who hasn’t been in health care or administered health care programs, it sounds attractive, but I’ve never yet seen a case where the government can run any health care service successfully," said Dr. Joel Strom, a dentist and the president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition. "After years of participating in the paper-filled and heavily regulated state-run Denti-Cal program, I elected to deliver free care to some patients rather than continue in the heavily regulated program. When you have a program that’s paid for by the government, they’ll go back to taxpayers all the time.

"The promise of unlimited health care for everyone just cannot be kept," added Strom, who sees insurance reform as a preferable option.

In the meantime, the Legislature has passed SB 2, a bill phasing in requirements for employers with more than 50 employees to provide health insurance or pay into a fund to finance it. However, a November ballot initiative seeks to repeal the new law before it has a chance to go into effect.

Kuehl’s bill faces a formidable set of obstacles, including the requirement of a two-thirds vote for passage. It has a natural opponent in the health insurance industry, which is well-financed to fight the bill. In addition, Anthony Wright, executive director of advocacy group Health Access, notes that the notion of a tax could prove problematic. "Even though people will save money … opponents of health reform will demonize it as a tax increase," he said.

While experts on both sides agree it is unlikely that the bill will pass this year, supporters remain optimistic.

As Kuehl staffer Emily Gold told The Journal, "It will pass. It’s just a matter of when…. Its time is coming."

It’s a Full Plate in Nourishing the Sick


Bob S. insists that his mother back in Virginia made the best chicken soup ever, but he’s willing to admit the homemade version delivered to his Van Nuys apartment is a close second.

The delivery is part of the mission of Project Chicken Soup, an all-volunteer group that cooks, packages and personally delivers kosher meals twice a month to patients living with HIV and AIDS. It might be a chicken breast or a casserole, along with the soup, salad, fruit, dessert or even a protein drink.

Bob, who’s 61 and lives alone, said the food is crucial for him, but it goes deeper than that. “If it wasn’t for Project Chicken Soup, there wouldn’t be a connection to the Jewish community for some of us, and I wouldn’t be cooking for myself,” he said. “I don’t have the energy or the interest or the desire to eat.”

For Project Chicken Soup President Rod Barn, whose client list has grown steadily from 20 in the early ’90s to more than 100, the task of meeting a growing demand when charitable donations and grants are harder to secure is a never ending challenge.

“So far, we haven’t had to turn anyone away, and we don’t want to,” Barn said. “A lot of our clients say when they get our food, it reminds them of better times. They smell the chicken soup, and it brings them love and warmth, and that’s what we’re about.”

It’s a similar story elsewhere, from small programs to large, as medical advances mean more people are living better and longer with AIDS and HIV. Whether it’s Project Chicken Soup; Aids Service Foundation (ASF) Orange County, with its 1,500 clients; St. Vincent’s Meals on Wheels, which serves 50 to 75 HIV and AIDS patients a day out of 1,650 clients; or Project Angel Food, which cooks and delivers 1,200 meals daily, they have to do more with less.

Larry Kuzela of ASF Orange County said this “has always been a struggle and continues to be. We’ve never had a waiting list, and we’ve never turned anyone away, but we have a reserve fund, and we’ve had to dig into our reserves.” Sister Alice Marie of St. Vincent’s was only half joking when she said, “I pray a lot” to make sure there is enough money.

At Project Angel Food, considered a model for this type of service nationally, Executive Director John Gile said, “We’ve added 800 new clients in 2002 alone, yet we have over 20,000 donors, with the average gift being $38. We always seem to get the gift when we need it most.”

“Since we’re based in Hollywood, we have strong support and generosity from the entertainment industry, which this year alone will help us raise a half-million dollars,” he continued. “We’re proud to say that if you call Project Angel Food today, you get a meal tomorrow”

On the other side of the table, groups that give grants and funding to AIDS service providers would like to do more, but they also must compete for donations. For example, MAZON, A Jewish Response to Hunger, which receives the majority of its donations from individuals, plans to give away approximately $3.4 million to 250 organizations nationwide in this fiscal year. Project Angel Food and Project Chicken Soup, which is under the umbrella of Jewish Family Service, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, are among the grant recipients.

Grants Director Mia Johnson said, “The sense or urgency is not as strong as it was in the ’80s and ’90s, so it’s a challenge for these organizations to make sure people understand their ongoing needs and the evolution of those needs”

The nutritionally balanced meals that are provided can literally make the difference between life and death for those struggling to stay healthy, and that’s why Steven F. of Santa Monica, said of Project Angel Food’s work: “It’s very crucial. Every day, I think of it as a gift. It is something I look forward to, and it provides me with good, cooked food that I wouldn’t and couldn’t do for

myself.”

For more information about Project Chicken Soup, call
(323) 655-5330 or visit “>www.angelfood.org; for MAZON, call (310)
442-0020 or visit

Cedars-Sinai Ministers to Spiritual Needs


"A woman came into my office yesterday needing to make a decision about the amputation of her husband’s leg," said Rabbi Levi Meier, the chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. "It was a very difficult case, because her husband cannot give proper, informed consent, because his mind is not functioning anymore.

"Then I had another woman who wanted to know about code vs. no code," the Orthodox rabbi continued. "’Code’ means to try to resuscitate. Her husband is on life-support system, and the doctors were pressuring her to make a decision about whether they should code him or not. I helped her understand the Jewish medical ethics involved, and to make a decision."

It’s all in a day’s work for Meier, who has served as the Jewish chaplain at Cedars-Sinai since 1978. (There is also a Catholic chaplain who serves Christian needs.)

With over 50 percent of the beds in the 905-bed hospital occupied by Jewish patients at any given time, Meier finds himself administering pastoral care to patients who are terminally ill, have presurgery anxiety or depression or need to deal with family dynamics that have changed with the encroachment of debilitating illness. He also helps doctors cope with a job that finds them getting up close and personal with death on a regular basis.

"The main aspect of my counseling is from a spiritual perspective. I use [the same techniques] psychologists and psychiatrists use, but I look at the spirit, where people can feel their relationship with God personally, not in a cognitive sense, but in a personal sense," said Meier, the father of four, who holds a doctorate in gerontology and is a licensed psychologist. "Because when you feel God in a personal way, you become a different person."

In his role as chaplain, Meier has found many ways to bring God to Cedars-Sinai. The rabbi has organized Jewish medical ethics conferences and synagogue services for Shabbat and the Jewish holidays. He has produced closed-circuit religious television programs for the patients. Meier also teaches a Torah class at the hospital every Thursday, which is open to patients, doctors, staff and members of the board of directors and board of governors.

During his tenure, the rabbi has overseen the establishment of a kosher kitchen that can service kosher patients with special dietary requirements, (such as low-sodium needs). And working with Sharon and Herb Glazer, he has seen that mezuzot were placed on every door of the hospital, including patients’ rooms.

Meier also confers with the medical center’s board of directors and board of governors about how they can best live up to the facility’s motto: "And be a blessing," a verse taken from Genesis.

"’And be a blessing’ means taking care of poor people, no matter what culture, ethnicity or religious faith they have," Meier said. "Taking care of indigent patients of all religions is central to Judaism, and that is why the ambulatory care center (a walk-in clinic that has a sliding fee scale for low-income patients) is a central part of the hospital."

Under the same program, Cedars-Sinai also operates traveling coaches that take doctors and other health-care workers into low-income communities that are underserved medically, making it convenient and affordable for families to receive quality medical attention.

Meier recently parlayed his experiences at Cedars-Sinai into a book titled, "Seven Heavens: Inspirational Stories to Elevate Your Soul." The book is about a fictional patient named Jonathan, a scientist who worked on the human genome project. Jonathan finds himself facing mortality, and feels the need to bare his soul to Meier.

This story line is secondary to the messages that Meier wants to bring out in the book, that life is a series of moments, and each is moment is perpetually sacred. The book talks frankly and openly about death, and helps readers come to terms with the inevitable.

"I say vidui [the Hebrew confession for those facing imminent mortality] with people a few times a week," Meier said. "And what that has done to me is it has helped me prioritize what is important in life. Sometimes people will have an argument about the color of furniture, should it be blue or purple, or things like that. And while it is nice to have good colors, there is a larger picture."

Meier said every story that he tells in the book is true, although identifying details were changed. "My main character, Jonathan, is an M.D. Ph.D. A lot of the people around here are M.D. Ph.Ds, and they have a sense of certainty about themselves and about life, until something happens to them, and then they begin to look at their soul.

"That is what this book is about, what I call, ‘The Soul Project.’ What I am trying to do is to combine the human genome project that they are doing with the human soul project that I am doing. I want to make people aware of how their soul is affecting their health."

"Seven Heavens: Inspirational Stories to Elevate Your Soul" (Devora Publishing, $24.95) is available in bookstores. To reach Rabbi Levi Meier at Cedars-Sinai, call (310) 423-5238