Philanthropy project puts teens in charge


Solly Hess, West Coast regional director of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), was looking for ways to get Jewish teenagers motivated about charitable giving last summer. With the help of Brandon Lurie, a YULA Boys student and NCSY regional board member, he came up with a project that would eventually make an impact on youth as well as the local Jewish community: the Teen Philanthropy Movement.

“People today have this [mistaken] impression of teens being apathetic,” Hess said.

A mere eight months since the project’s inception, students are celebrating the success of their charitable efforts, contributing $5,000 to four charities and connecting with the larger Jewish community in the process.

“The Jewish community really took notice of this project. They’re looking to the future now and are waiting to see what the next step of the project is,” Hess said.

To begin the Teen Philanthropy Movement, Hess and Lurie divided the 23-member student board into seven groups, with each group assigned the task of researching seven charitable organizations. The program was divided into a trimester schedule with three core stages: research, Torah and the finale.

The Dorothy Phillips Michaud Charitable Trust granted the Teen Philanthropy Movement $5,000, and Lurie said each group had to do in-depth research to decide which charities would need and benefit most from the money.

“In these troublesome economic times, many self-funded Jewish organizations have lost their thunder and are barely functioning with the money they have,” Lurie said. “That’s where we come in.”

The seven groups, which consisted of boys and girls from various local high schools, including Milken, YULA, Shalhevet and Hamilton, as well as SCY (Southern California Yeshiva) High and Torah High School of San Diego, all started off with an initial selection of seven charities each. The groups then met monthly, presented their charities to the larger student board and whittled their pools down to a single beneficiary agency. The finalists were known as the Chosen 7.

The second phase incorporated Torah learning. Students met with rabbis and other community leaders to learn about the role of tzedekah (charitable giving).

“The students built real relationships with their community representatives over the course of the program, while learning from them about philanthropy through the Torah in the process,” Hess said.

During the final trimester, the students learned firsthand about their chosen charities by visiting and volunteering with the organizations. Representatives from the charities also taught the seven groups about Jewish perspectives on philanthropy.

On Feb. 29, after three months of garnering a wealth of knowledge and experience, the students pitched their favorite charities to a panel of four judges, each active in
the Jewish business community — Leslie Kessler, Steve Bram, Rhoda Weisman and Joel Levine — at Young Israel of Century City during what Lurie called Decision Day.

“It was an unbelievable night,” Lurie said.

After the presentations, the judges were stumped.

In the end, the judges decided to split the $5,000 evenly among four charities: Camp Chesed, Shoes That Fit, San Diego Community G’mach and The Hero Project Holocaust Education Reach-Out.

One of most touching moments for the group came when one of the winning charities, Shoes That Fit, a Claremont-based charity that donates shoes to children, wrote a letter of thanks to the Teen Philanthropy Movement: “Because of this project, more children will attend school in comfort and with dignity, wearing shoes that fit. Our mission of providing new shoes to children in need for school would not be possible without the generous support of people like you.”

Hess says NCSY is looking to expand the Teen Philanthropy Movement.

“We want to get more high schools on board for next year’s project and eventually spread it out to the Bay Area,” he said. “A big boost to the project is Esther Feder, who has become chair of the Movement. As an experienced fundraiser and former chair of [the] Shalhevet High School [board], she’s going to be a real force in propelling the project to new levels of success.”

Hess added that it didn’t take much effort to sell Teen Philanthropy Movement to the teens, and he credits Lurie with helping to motivate them.

“Brandon Lurie has a passion for philanthropy,” Hess said. “Once I got his help, the rest of the team followed under his leadership. And we didn’t have to push the teams; they were motivated by their own desire to give back.”

Adelsons give $5 million matching grant to Birthright


Philanthropists Sheldon and Miriam Adelson are giving a $5 million matching grant to Taglit-Birthright Israel.

The grant, which was announced Monday, aims to encourage new donors by doubling their gifts in an ongoing attempt to transition from large philanthropic to grass-roots funding.

Since 2007, the Adelsons have donated more than $100 million to the organization, which sends young Jewish adults aged 18 to 26 on free 10-day trips to Israel.

Earlier this year, the Israeli government announced a three-year commitment of $100 million in matching funds for Birthright.

A 15-year plan for Israel


At its 60th anniversary, Israel needs a new vision that not only will guide its priorities and inform its actions, but also will be relevant to the lives of all Israelis.

This is why the ISRAEL 15 Vision, a Reut Institute plan that calls for Israel to become one of the 15 most developed nations within 15 years, is so compelling. It requires improving the quality of life of all citizens.

Quality of life is a very elusive issue. Its definition changes by geography. The quality of life of a religious and spiritual person is different from that of a secular businessperson.

Notwithstanding, quality of life is also visible and tangible. For example, anyone can tell that the average quality of life in countries like Canada or Australia is higher than in Greece or Spain. Furthermore, although income per capita is an important factor determining life, other public goods such as health, education, employment and social cohesion play a critical role as well.

Israel’s growth of recent years can be intoxicating. However, we often tend to forget that the world economy has experienced significant growth as well in recent years. Hence, impressive rates of growth notwithstanding, Israel didn’t succeed in leapfrogging — catching up with the leading nations of the world.

In contrast, during the first 20 years of the state, Israel’s economy bounced upwards. Israel doubled its well-being relative to the United States, starting with an average income of 30 percent of the U.S. average and reaching 60 percent by the early 1970s. Since then, however, Israel has not been able to bridge the gaps with the richer countries while countries such as Ireland, Singapore and South Korea have made leaps ahead.

The importance of closing the gaps with the richest nations stems from the mobility of people, technology and investment. As these highly mobile resources “choose” which country to go to, nations compete for them. Success in this fierce battle is essential for the future of any country, but is critical for the survival of Israel.

Israel suffers from the largest gap between the level of talent of its population and the quality of life offered its residents. Israel is ranked 28th in the world in quality of life, yet our population is among the most educated and technologically savvy in the world. Indeed, Israel is a leading exporter of talent, with one of the highest levels of brain drain among developed nations.

Becoming one of the 15 leading nations — roughly at the level of Holland, Singapore or New Zealand — requires leapfrogging our socioeconomic performance and growing at an annual pace of 7 percent to 8 percent for at least 10 years. This is a national challenge that will require widespread mobilization of the key sectors of society.

The phenomenon of leapfrogging is different than growth. While the world has established a recipe for stability and growth in the form of a set of accepted principles known as the Washington Consensus, which primarily calls for fiscal and monetary discipline and privatization, there is no such recipe for leapfrogging. In other words, each country charts its own path.

However, the common denominator among the countries that have leaped ahead has been their agenda. They all established an ambitious vision, identified growth engines and exhausted them, benchmarked their performance to other countries, improved the capacity of their government to make decisions and implement them, enhanced collaboration among key sectors of society and invested in human capital.

In addition, nations that leaped ahead contained their unique challenge and tapped into their individual potential. For example, Singapore understood that it was located at a junction between East and West and therefore developed the world’s leading airport, seaport and airline, while Ireland tapped the benefits of its inclusion into the European Union.

We also know that leapfrog happens as a consequence of a combination between top-down leadership by the government and bottom-up mobilization of the key sectors of society. Hence, on the one hand, reforming Israeli governance is key since it is significantly underperforming compared to our business sector.

At the same time, we have to find ways to harness mayors and local governments, businesspeople, philanthropists, nonprofits and world Jewry to the ISRAEL 15 Vision and create the space that allows them to make contributions, as well.

Finally, growth and development have to turn into a national obsession. We have had such passions in the past: greening the desert, redeeming the land or immigration absorption. The challenge for the ISRAEL 15 Vision is to become a household phrase and a framework that inspires for action.

The ISRAEL 15 Vision might be ambitious but it is attainable. Israel already is a world leader in key areas such as research and development, human capital or technology. We have outperformed expectations in the past. There is no reason we cannot do it again.

Gidi Grinstein is the founder and president of the Reut Institute. This article is based on a speech he gave at the 2008 Herzliya Conference.

Local students go to lobby in D.C., seniors party at ‘senior prom’


Local Students Lobby at the Capitol

A group of University Synagogue religious school students paid a springtime visit to Washington, D.C., where they lobbied senior staff members of Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), as well as Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles). The class of confirmands was led by Rabbi Morley Feinstein and rabbinic intern Joel Simonds, who accompanied the students as they learned about Judaism and social justice issues and visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

WAIPAC Waxes Political for Young Leaders

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Belmont residents Morty Jacobs and Thelma Lichtenfeld at their “senior prom” with USC students Stewart Mouritzen, Maddie Littrell and Emon Yazli

Senior prom isn’t only for high school students — in fact, University of Southern California students organized an April 13 “senior” prom for residents at Belmont Village, an assisted-living community in Hollywood, where spunky seniors proved they still have hot moves on the dance floor. Morty Jacobs emerged as this party’s prom king when the longtime pianist and conductor, who accompanied George Burns for many years, enraptured students and seniors with his prodigious musical talent.

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Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger lauds the generosity of Cheryl and Haim Saban at The Saban Free Clinic

To honor the contribution of Cheryl and Haim Saban’s $10 million endowment for The Los Angeles Free Clinic, the affordable health care facility has been renamed The Saban Free Clinic. To add some icing to the honor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger along with some of Los Angeles’ top officials, including County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and former Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad, attended the April 21 ceremony to fete the philanthropists. For more than 40 years, the clinic has provided low-cost, quality health care for underserved families throughout Los Angeles.

Million-dollar night for ADL


Awash in diamonds, dresses and lapels, wealthy and fashionable philanthropists worked their weight in gold: in just one night, $1 million was raised for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which inspired 850 guests with the creed, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Although the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel ballroom glittered with the promise of the American dream during the Dec. 1 celebration, Erwin Chemerinsky, newly appointed dean of UC Irvine’s Donald Bren School of Law, sobered the crowd with the message that fundamentalism crumbles freedom, and if we want to sustain the concept of liberty, we need the ADL “now more than ever.”

“I was told a speech should be funny and uplifting. I have failed at that tonight,” Chemerinsky said. “I have no doubt that when historians look back at the last quarter century, they will say the most important development has been the worldwide rise of fundamentalism,” which he acknowledged in Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

He warned that the wall separating church and state is becoming too porous, that evangelical Christians are talking about “the rapture” in mainstream circles and said, “When government becomes enmeshed with religion, this country could become inhospitable to Jews.”

Leave it to the ADL to inspire the inspired to rally to the cause once again. You already give big? Give more. Like board members George and Ruth Moss or the evening’s honorees, Fred and Lenore Kayne, who set ADL records with their annual gifts and received the Humanitarian Award.

There’s also Allen and Suzanne Lawrence and Jurisprudence and Justice Award honorees Marshall and Marlene Grossman, who clock in with assets and activism. All these people contribute significantly because they believe that the work ADL does is always relevant, always necessary.

And the strength of this crowd showed: ADL National Director Abraham Foxman shared a table with new-to-L.A. Israeli Consul General Jacob Dayan. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) made the rounds and met Argentine Consul General Jorge Lapsenson and his wife, Rosa Matzkin.

Not that the evening lacked humor: Emcee Elon Gold did an Al Gore impersonation, and when Marshall Grossman took the podium to accept his honor, he cracked, “This is much more organized than the chaos you see at the Chabad telethon” — of which he is also a staunch supporter.

With ADL’s focus securing fair treatment for all citizens of the world, Grossman brought it home with an anecdote about the once racially exclusive Jonathan Club, a private social retreat in downtown Los Angeles, where Jews, blacks and Latinos were prohibited membership until the 1970s. Following the ADL’s involvement, including drawn-out negotiations and a court battle, the club no longer considers race, creed or color as conditions for membership.

For an organization like the ADL, there are always triumphs, as Grossman reminded everyone, and always more work to be done, as Chemerinsky urged. Parties like this one may be reason to dust off gowns and don locked-up jewels, dine among friends and feel darned grateful that you can give, give, give, but it’s also a moment to reflect: The problem is big, the consequences are real and every million raised has a million people that need it. It’s nice to be part of a community that cares.


(From left) Former UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale, Robin Gerber Carnesale, event co-chairs Ges and Seth Gerber.


Erwin Chemerinsky

A Big Giver


Anyone who cares about the future of Jewish life in Los Angeles eventually explodes in frustration over the community’s inability to tap its own enormous wealth.

On one hand, we see Jewish gazillionaires pour the vast majority of their donations into non-Jewish institutions. Just 6 percent of Jewish megadonors give to Jewish causes, according to the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco.

On the other hand, we see the huge communal need — indigent Holocaust survivors, developmentally challenged children, families struggling with day school and camp bills, underpaid Jewish educators, programs and facilities that fail to attract and inspire the next generation. Don’t get me started.

In Los Angeles, where by my count 26 individuals on the Los Angeles Business Journal’s 2006 list of the “50 Richest Angelenos” are Jewish — 26! — it’s enough to make you scream, or cry.

That’s why this week’s news of a merger between the University of Judaism and Brandeis-Bardin Institute should resonate even beyond the substantial number of stakeholders in both those institutions. The people and process behind it demonstrate that, given the right leadership, our institutions are capable of the kind of bold moves, backed by what the Wall Street types call solid fundamentals, that are irresistible to the mega donors.

Megadonors like Peter Lowy.

Lowy, 48, is group managing director of Westfield Holding, the largest publicly-held real estate company in the world. You know his well-serifed “W” beckoning you from afar to the Westfield shopping centers in Century City, Woodland Hills, Sherman Oaks — among some 120 others worldwide.

He also has served as chairman of the board of the University of Judaism during its merger negotiations with the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, forming a new institution of great resources, talent, property and promise — the American Jewish University.

Three years ago I met Lowy in his office overlooking Brentwood and the Santa Monica mountains. He had just been named chairman of the board of the University of Judaism. My biggest question was why a young, dynamic guy would want to take the chairmanship of an institution whose finances were known to be troubled and whose profile was less than world class.

Simple, Lowy explained to me. He believed in the mission of the University of Judaism to reach out to all Jews, regardless of affiliation or denomination.

“The UJ needs to be viewed as a community institution,” he told me. “We need to be able to give these benefits to the Orthodox community, the Reform community, the Conservative community and the Reconstructionist community. We need to change the mindset of the community. It’s a very difficult job to do.”

Step one for Lowy was getting the UJ on firm financial footing. The problem, he said, was that too many Jewish institutions don’t perform at the standards of well-run for-profit companies. He refinanced the university’s debt, halving the interest rate. He taught people to stay within a budget. Within a short time, more money was coming in than going out.

Fast-forward three years, and I’m back in Lowy’s office, hearing him explain how the Brandeis merger came about. The UJ’s solid grounding gave it the confidence and competence to pursue an idea Lowy knew in his gut was important. “Looking ahead 10, 15 years,” he said, “I wondered where the UJ was going to physically grow.”

He also knew the deal was fraught with financial, bureaucratic and emotional obstacles. And he relished it.

Lowy learned to step up to the plate from his father Frank, a Hungarian Jew who survived the Holocaust and arrived in Palestine in 1945. Frank Lowy fought as a Golani commando in the War of Independence, then moved to Australia, where he built shopping centers. Lowy, a Sydney native, worked in investment banking in London and New York before coming to Los Angeles 17 years ago. Over that time he has overseen Westfield’s regional growth from 6 centers in California to 59.

He brought this same business style to his oversight of the UJ-BBI union: “This was basically M&A,” a UJ board member said of Lowy’s expertise in mergers and acquisitions, “and that’s what Peter does.”

What Lowy doesn’t do is dither. “There’s this Jewish tendency to process, until you can actually see an idea just die on the floor, just discuss it to death,” UJ President Rabbi Robert Wexler told me. That’s not Lowy’s style. “These deals have a lifespan,” Lowy said. “They’re there and then they’re gone. What will you know in six months that you don’t know now?

“To achieve the impossible, you need to start the process and try.”

Lowy met his counterpart in Linda Gross, the chair of Brandeis-Bardin: a sharp, youthful businesswoman not wedded to the status quo. Behind every merger, goes the Wall Street wisdom, there’s really an acquisition. But Lowy said that wasn’t the case with Gross across from him. “It wasn’t a desperation move on Brandeis’ part,” he said. “She was quite good on the other side of the table.”

And in little more than six months, the deal was done. A lot of Jewish institutions can’t change a light bulb that fast.

Last Thursday night, at a banquet at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, the UJ celebrated its 60th anniversary by honoring Lowy. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was there, and President Bill Clinton and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sent their best by video.

But what could have been yet another exercise in warm salmon and cold speeches turned out to be refreshingly moving and honest. Janine Lowy introduced her husband as a man devoted to his four children, to the Jewish community, to civic involvement and, somehow, amid it all, to “finding the time to run a small business.”

Janine Lowy, an experienced lawyer herself, also noted her husband’s other considerable quality: his charm. Indeed, nearing 50, Lowy has most of the hair he left his 20s with. He has blue eyes, an athletic build and a disarming amount of laid-back Aussie ease for a man on that L.A. Business Journal list.When it was Lowy’s turn to speak, after a moving tribute to his wife, he showed the charm — and brashness.

The King of Hearts; Celebrating diversity


All About Atidim

“As Henry VIII told each of his six wives, ‘I won’t keep you long’,” promised Dan Gillerman, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, as he addressed some 300 guests at the Skirball Cultural Center.

The Nov. 16 occasion was a benefit for Atidim, an innovative Israeli project to assure an education for promising youngsters from the country’s poorer development towns and thus help close the social and economic gap between Israel’s haves and have-nots.

Gillerman assured his audience that the recent battles against Hezbollah in Lebanon had been a success and had changed the rules in the Mideast diplomatic game.

Joining the ambassador on the speaker’s rostrum were Rabbi Eli Hirscher, Skirball founder Uri Hirscher, Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch, and Israeli industrialist Eitan Wertheimer.

The only disappointment was the no-show of megabillionaire Warren Buffet, who called in sick.

Metuka Benjamin, co-organizer of the event with Anette and A. Stuart Rubin, received a standing ovation, as did two Atidim-aided graduates, one from Ethiopia, the other from Russia.

Conversation at the Circuit’s table was enlivened by Rochelle Ginsburg, principal of the Stephen S. Wise Temple elementary school, and her physician husband Eli.

As master of ceremonies, actor Michael Burstyn kept the action moving and concluded the evening on a high note by leading guests in singing “Jerusalem of Gold.”

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

King of Hearts

Larry King and his friends showed the world their determination to provide health care to all no matter what their economic circumstances when the Larry King Cardiac Foundation hosted “An Evening with Larry King and Friends” at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. It was a feast for the eyes and the palate and the heart and there was something for everyone as King and wife Shawn Southwick-King hosted the gala, entertaining the group with playful banter and true stories and incidents in their life.

“Entertainment Tonight”‘s adorable Mary Hart acted as emcee, bringing a whole lotta smiles and sunshine to the proceedings that honored Los Angeles’ own “movie star” mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, Eva (the men couldn’t get their eyes off her) Longoria, beloved and uber-generous philanthropists Alfred and Claude Mann, and renowned cardiologist Dr. Enrique Ostrzega. Athlete extraordinaire Lance Armstrong was on-hand to present the Corazones Unidos (United Hearts) award to Longoria, who thanked Armstrong for being there for her and acknowledged her deep admiration for him as someone who has triumphed in the face of personal adversity.

Three fortunate families bid $15,000 a piece for a personal portrait done by legendary American artist Peter Max.

The event featured entertainment by Il Divo, and raised more than $700,000 in funds to support the partnership forged earlier this year between the LAC+USC Healthcare Network, COPE Health Solutions, the Los Angeles County division of the American Heart Association and the Larry King Cardiac Foundation.

A Woman of Valor

It was a nonstop kvellfest when civic leader Rita Brucker received the Coastal Cities “Volunteer of the Year” award by the American Cancer Society. Brucker was recognized for her 35 years of outstanding service as one of the founding architects for the “Reach to Recovery” program helping breast cancer survivors. Proud son Barry Brucker, Beverly Hills City Council member, who attended the event with his wife, Sue and father, Charlie, stated, “I was amazed at the number of breast cancer survivors who credited my mother for being an integral part in their survival … it was very emotional and we are very proud.”

Celebrating Diversity

The evening was as diversified as its cause Nov. 19 at the star-studded black tie Multicultural Motion Picture Association’s (MMPA)14th Annual Diversity Awards — “Celebrating Diversity – Creativity and Talent That Shine.” The event, honoring artists for their exceptional achievements in film and television, benefited The Multicultural Motion Picture Association’s Educational and Development Scholarship Fund, that helps talented and dedicated students, and upcoming filmmakers, seeking entry into the film and television professions.

Jarvee E. Hutcherson, executive producer of the 14th Annual Diversity Awards and president of MMPA, said, “We are very pleased to honor a very select talented group of artists every year at The Diversity Awards, each of whom our organization feels have broadened the creative landscape in the film and television industry through their visionary work. With this year’s theme … we are recognizing the foundation laid by both artistic leaders and the emerging depth of dedicated young artists, behind and in front of the camera, who are bringing to this industry, a vision and talent indicative of only greater things to come in the future.”

MMPA’s Educational Scholarship Fund provides financial assistance and technical support to young filmmakers bringing diverse stories to the screen.

All’s Well

Three women were honored at The Wellness Community of West Los Angeles’ annual Friends of Wellness luncheon at the Skirball Cultural Center.

The women, Judy Bernstein, Shirley Blitz and Lynda Levy have given of their time, their hearts and their spirit to helping fulfill the mission of The Wellness Community.

“Their efforts have helped bring hope and support to countless people with cancer,” said Ellen Silver, executive director of The Wellness Community -West Los Angeles,
More than 265 people attended the event that featured a heartwarming presentation from cancer survivor and Wellness Center participant Karen Sabatini and a presentation with authors Carolyn and Lisa See.
For more information about The Wellness Community-West Los Angeles, visit www.twc-wla.org.

50 Nifty Jewish Groups


Do the words “innovative” and “Jewish groups” seem like oxymorons? Not to the publishers of “Slingshot,” a new guidebook to the “50 most innovative Jewish groups in North America,” published by a division of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.

“Slingshot,” which is expected to be published annually, aims to showcase meaningful but often cash-strapped programs to philanthropists who can help fund them, with the goal of revitalizing North American Jewry.

After assembling recommendations from Jewish philanthropists, 25 foundation professionals who fund Jewish programs chose the final 50 groups based on their performance in innovation, impact, leadership and efficiency.

Slingshot’s supporters say backing the 50 groups is smart because these groups are already remaking the Jewish community.

“This is the low-risk, high-reward investment,” Jeffrey Solomon, the president of the Bronfman Philanthropies, said at a recent launch party in a crowded lounge on New York’s Lower East Side.

The organization that collected the most recommendations among the “innovative 50” is the American Jewish World Service. The group, which focuses on long-term economic projects in the developing world, has been at the forefront of aiding victims of the December 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia.

According to the “Slingshot” preface, the challenges that American Jews face in 2005 stem from assimilation. Because Jews are not externally compelled to live Jewish lives, they must inspire each other internally to feel connected to the Jewish community.

Many of the guidebook’s picks are programs that blend Judaism with American culture and society, allowing participants to nurture each side of their American Jewish identities.

Some of the L.A.-based organizations that made it to the list include MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger; IKAR, a Jewish spiritual community that engages in the pursuit of social justice; and The Progressive Jewish Alliance, an organization dedicated to working for social and economic justice.

For a complete list, visit

100 Lessons


While studying for rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University in the late ’70s, I was at the main study hall dedication where the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik spoke, honoring the great philanthropist, Joseph Gruss, who underwrote the project.

On that occasion, Rabbi Soloveitchik discussed the role of the baal ha-bayit, the Jewish layman, in Jewish history. Rabbi Soloveitchik stated his belief “that our miraculous survival throughout the millennia … is due not only to the rabbinic scholars, but also [to] the Jewish baal ha-bayit [who] enabled us to survive because of his discipline, intelligence and readiness to suffer.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik suggested three characteristic traits that marked the baal ha-bayit: first, a commitment to the Jewish people in its totality; second, a pragmatic mind capable of making decisions and third, a sensitive heart.

As I sat listening to his marvelous description, I wondered if I would ever meet someone who possessed all of these qualities and was truly an amazing baal ha-bayit?

Well indeed I did. It all happened in Palm Springs 18 years ago. It was during Passover and I was invited to lecture at the Kosher Tours Passover program at the Desert Princess Hotel. I was to speak right after dinner on the topic, “Vegetarianism and Judaism.” When I agreed to accept this invitation, I had no idea that right before my lecture a big barbecue was going to be held, featuring steaks, ribs, hot dogs and every other culinary meat delight possible. When I witnessed this massive carnivorous feast that I am certain hadn’t been eaten in the desert since the Exodus from Egypt, I suggested to the program director that we cancel the lecture on vegetarianism. It was simply inappropriate and I was sure no one would attend.

The director insisted that I ignore the setting and that I lecture as planned.

“Don’t worry, people will come,” he told me.

I was right and he was wrong. The audience was sparse. Vegetables simply aren’t able to wage a successful war against good ribs.

Sitting in the front row, however, was a lovely elderly couple. At the time I had no idea who they were. As I spoke, both husband and wife absorbed every word and when it came time for questions, they asked excellent and insightful ones. The wife buttressed her comments with extensive quotes from the Bible and rabbinic literature, all from memory, while the husband added pragmatic contemporary comments. It was right then and there that my friendship with Simha Lainer and his wife, Sara, may she rest in peace, began.

Every time we would talk they insisted that we speak Hebrew. It dawned on me that it was their way of connecting our present discussion with Jewish history. We would discuss questions on the Bible and issues pertaining to Jewish law. But what always fascinated me was their total immersion in communal life. They knew every concern facing the Jewish community — both locally and internationally. Their scope was amazing and their command of the issues was always impressive.

Over the years I have carefully listened to Simha Lainer, for he has taught me the proverbial “100 lessons.” A successful businessman, Lainer loves telling me how blessed he is. His perception of his blessings, however, is what makes him the true baal ha-bayit.

He says, “God has blessed me with three gifts. He has given me good health, good wealth and the desire to share my wealth with others.”

Indeed, he shares his largesse generously. One of the leading philanthropists in our community, Lainer is among the foremost donors to Jewish education in Los Angeles, and he distributes his monies in a most unusual fashion. He doesn’t care if the educational institution is Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or just plain Jewish. What counts is Jewish education and that is what he supports.

Jewish unity isn’t some slogan for Lainer. Rather, it is a description of the way he lives his life. Perhaps that is why rabbis of every denomination are represented on the banquet committee honoring Lainer’s 100th birthday.

As the community salutes Lainer on his special birthday, I recall Rabbi Soloveitchik’s salutation in honor of Gruss. He said, “Whenever I met him, I was reminded, spontaneously, of the outstanding baalei batim of Jewish history. The name of Moses Montefiore comes to my mind … and Amschel Mayer Rothschild.”

Indeed, we can say that Simha Lainer continues to excel in that tradition and is our outstanding baal ha-bayit.


Elazar Muskin is rabbi at Young Israel of Century City.