Making Judaism radiate with color
Hillel Smith believes art has the power to transform Judaism, and he hopes his latest creation — a 25-foot-tall mural in Pico-Robertson featuring text from ha-Motzi — can prove it.
“I mostly connect to the sense of tradition and heritage,” he said. “I think that comes through in the work I do and utilization of brachot (blessings). I’m updating it. I’m starting with this very firm foundation and building from there.”
The Los Angeles-based artist recently completed a new mural on the back wall facing the parking lot of Bibi’s Bakery and Café, on Pico Boulevard between Crest Drive and Livonia Avenue. The vibrant piece depicts Hebrew text accompanied by some wheat sheafs that also are symbolic representations of challah.
Smith, 31, said he chose to paint the Hebrew letters because he’s always “coming up with a new way to test the boundaries of visual Judaica and contemporary Jewish design. I’m trying to make something that’s bright, bold and engaging, and has, at its core, real Jewish content.”
American Jewish University’s Institute for Jewish Creativity commissioned Smith’s mural through its WORD: Artist Grant, the Bruce Geller Memorial prize, that grants $500 to $2,000 to L.A. artists producing works inspired by Jewish text. Smith received $1,500.
The Bibi’s piece, finished Sept. 2, isn’t Smith’s first Jewish mural in Southern California. In 2013, he made a spray-painted mural on a handball court at Camp Ramah in California, located in Ojai. In Hebrew, it says, “U-k’ne lecha haver,” which means “acquire for yourself a friend,” and it contains an image of an outstretched hand.
At the Orthodox synagogue Westwood Kehilla on Santa Monica Boulevard, he created a mural last year called “Simchat Torah,” which means “the joy of Torah.” It depicts men, women and children dancing around with both a Sephardic and Ashkenazi Torah.
And last year, Smith worked with Tel Aviv-based artist Itamar Paloge on a mural for the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center. It is of a giant orange-and-blue Hebrew letter alef. Asylum Arts and the NextGen Engagement Initiative of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles funded the project.
Smith grew up in Pico-Robertson, attending Gindi Maimonides Academy and Shalhevet High School, along with B’nai David-Judea Congregation. When he was a child, he said he noticed that there wasn’t much diversity in the Jewish art he saw.
“One thing that’s always bothered me is that a lot of Jewish art is just of Hassidim on bicycles and really lovely watercolors of Jerusalem,” he said. “That’s kind of it. It blew my mind when I discovered the Jewish artists from earlier in the 20th century. They were at the forefront of their own artistic movements and made work in Hebrew.”
After graduating from Shalhevet, Smith studied art at the University of Pennsylvania. He became interested in Hebrew typography and creating colorful illustrations, paintings and installations.
Over the years, his work has taken him to Jerusalem — home to two of his murals — as well as Venice, Italy, where he had the opportunity to make three images for the new, illustrated Venice Haggadah. The book is to be released in 2017.
Smith also has a blog (hillelsmith.tumblr.com) featuring something called “Parsha Posters,” which visually explores learnings from the weekly Torah portions. They are concert-style posters that feature “the crux of the story and a typographic illustration based off it,” he said. For example, for Parashat Re’eh, he made interpretive illustrations of the beasts Jews are allowed to eat, which include an ox, sheep, goat and antelope. The poster is called, “What’s for dinner.”
In all of Smith’s work, he uses vivid colors that jump off the page — or wall.
The Samurai of Pico-Robertson
Sandwiched in between two Jewish eateries on Pico Boulevard is the unassuming Rokah Karate studio — a one-story, plain white storefront with a large window that permits passersby to observe class from the sidewalk.
The modest nature of the establishment belies its importance, and few outside who come and go would guess that the white-robed, black-belted man teaching inside is a world-class champion martial artist.
Israeli-born sensei Avi Rokah, 55, is a world champion (1994) and five-time U.S. champion (1990, 1991, 1992, 1994, 2000) in traditional karate, according to his website (rokahkarate.com), but the walls of his studio are glaringly empty. The only thing adorning the walls — actually, resting on the floor, propped up against a wall opposite some paneled mirrors — is a picture of his late mentor, grandmaster Hidetaka Nishiyama.
“When he was 80, I still couldn’t beat him,” Rokah said.
A seventh-degree black belt, Rokah has a chiseled jawline that could cut bread, but his normally tight-lipped smile ruptures into one that reveals his teeth when remembering Nishiyama, his first teacher in Los Angeles and the founder of the International Traditional Karate Federation.
Born in Tokyo in 1928, Nishiyama, who died in 2008, was one of the most respected practitioners and teachers of traditional karate in the world. In 1961, after being invited to teach in the United States, he moved to Los Angeles and opened his own dojo in downtown Los Angeles, which he operated for nearly 50 years.
Raised in Ramat Gan, Rokah began karate lessons at age 14. He rode two buses daily from the suburbs into the heart of Tel Aviv for class. A wiry kid, he was intrigued by the possibilities karate affords someone lacking brute strength, as well as by the mystique surrounding the art form.
“Karate was this thing with a lot of mystery. I knew there was a lot of history and that many generations have practiced it,” he said. “I liked the idea that it was about being skillful rather than strong. Karate is intelligence and less power winning over more power.”
After his service in the Israeli army, Rokah moved to Los Angeles at age 21 with a plan to stay for six months and train with one of the grandmasters he’d heard about back in Israel. He looked up the Karate Federation in the Yellow Pages, visited in person and asked for Nishiyama. Much to his surprise, a secretary introduced him to the legend on the spot. Minutes later, Rokah was in the back of Nishiyama’s car on the way to his dojo.
“I trained with him for five or six hours a day, staying every night until midnight, going into extreme detail with him,” Rokah said. “After six months, I realized I had just scratched the surface.”
Rokah ended up staying well beyond the six months and made Los Angeles his permanent home. He and his wife, Ruth, have four children and run their dojo together. During those first six months, a time Rokah looks back on fondly, he credits Nishiyama with helping him understand the significance of anticipation, a key to mastering karate.
“Wayne Gretzky wasn’t necessarily the most athletic guy out there, but what made him so great was he could see three or four plays ahead. In karate, you’re systematically learning how to develop that skill,” Rokah said. “If you’re a good listener and you have a good teacher, you’ll be good.”
Rokah, who started his dojo in 1982, told the Journal that other young Israelis soon followed him to Los Angeles, where they too received world-class training. Some of them returned to Israel to teach, helping to improve the quality of karate in the country.
Rokah continues to coach and teach worldwide — including, he said, serving as the coach of America’s national traditional karate team — and attendance at seminars can often reach into the hundreds as students crowd rooms to pick his brain.
“Sometimes, he’s in a room here with 20 kids,” his wife said. “Other times, he’s in Poland surrounded by 300 black belts.”
Here in Los Angeles, Rokah’s pedigree has attracted the likes of Oscar-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix to the studio. His students are young and old, constituting a wide range of experience levels, and his wife estimates that on any given night, roughly 80 percent of the children in class are local Orthodox Jews.
Josh Klugman, a devoted student of Rokah’s for the past eight years, said he appreciates Rokah’s modest approach.
“He refuses to be flashy or kitschy. Instead, he is teaching his students how to create a potentially devastating amount of power regardless of strength or size,” Klugman said.
Rokah’s wife, who teaches most of the children’s classes, agreed that humility is part of his philosophy.
“He’s old school. No big pictures or trophies. He’s not into promoting himself,” she said.
Now, with his own competitive career behind him, Rokah enjoys coaching and teaching as a way to keep improving. A physiology and kinesiology enthusiast, Rokah is borderline obsessed with how physical intention informs actions. The idea he preaches is that, in karate, your physical intention must harmonize with your physical movement.
“I love teaching. It’s another way to get better,” Rokah said. “This is something you can still be excited about when you’re 70 or 80. You can always get better, as it’s about quality of movement, following intention.”
Rokah is mum about going back to the competitive world of karate. He smiles and hints there’s a possibility, but he really is content with teaching and coaching for now. That said, he explained, one can excel in karate for many years.
“In exhibitions, I still fight European champions half my age and win,” Rokah said. “I fight differently now. I enjoy winning. I don’t like to lose.”
To Klugman, his mentor’s journey — from Tel Aviv to Pico Robertson — mirrors that of great men of rabbinic study.
“Sensei is like a lifelong talmudic scholar who, having received the oral tradition from his master, is never done learning.”
Jewish children’s choir combines the power of youth with the magic of music
It’s Sunday afternoon at the Workmen’s Circle in Pico-Robertson. A group of Orthodox women sit chatting in a back room, while, a few feet away, a father in blue jeans talks with a mother who is clearly not as traditional. In the large social hall, several dozen children — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and everything in between — sit rail-straight in their seats as Michelle Green Willner shows them some music. This is a rehearsal of the Jewish Community Children’s Choir, a pan-denominational group of children who come together each week to sing and learn about Jewish music.
For Green Willner, it’s a longtime dream that’s finally come to fruition. Growing up in Toronto, at what she describes as a “very singing shul,” Green Willner was fascinated by music from an early age. “I would come home and try and figure out the music that I was hearing at shul,” she said recently at her home in Los Angeles.
That love of music led her to pursue conducting as a student at the University of Toronto, and when she moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago, she dove into the Jewish music scene. Gigs conducting the Workmen’s Circle’s Yiddish choir, creating a children’s chimes choir at Yeshivat Yavneh, and writing and arranging numerous musical works brought her to the attention of Noreen Green, founder and director of the L.A. Jewish Symphony.
“We’re not related at all! Everybody asks that question,” Green Willner said, laughing.
Green wanted Green Willner to meet with Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) Rabbi Harold Schulweis (z’l), who was interested in starting a Jewish children’s choir. Schulweis told Green Willner that “a community that sings together, stays together,” a quote she uses to this day to motivate her choir. The Schulweis Institute, a center for Jewish learning in the San Fernando Valley, provided an initial three-year grant, and in 2011, the Jewish Community Children’s Choir was born.
“We only had eight children our first rehearsal,” Green Willner said. “It’s taken off at the Workmen’s Circle.” Rehearsals regularly draw dozens of children, ages 8-13, from places as diverse as Harkham Hillel, VBS, Temple Israel of Hollywood, Sinai Temple and a host of yeshivot.
“I think everybody’s getting something out of this,” Green Willner said. “We’re all coming for the same reason, we’re all rooting for our children. We all want the best for our children. We want the best education. … No matter where they come from, they all want to learn Torah values, and they want their children to see it in action.”
Green Willner is proud of how the kids interact — children from vastly different backgrounds working together, having fun and singing with joy. She described sitting in the audience at one of the choir’s concerts and watching that synergy in action. “I was sitting behind the children … and they had done some prayers for the soldiers, and one Orthodox boy was sitting next to another boy and answered, ‘Amen,’ and I noticed the other boy look at him, smile and go, ‘Amen.’ ”
The children have performed at venues around the city, from synagogues to the Museum of Tolerance to Israel festivals. According to Green Willner, they’ve enjoyed a very warm reception.
“One of the parents brought an older man to the rehearsal,” Green Willner recalled. “He was sitting on the side while we were practicing … and after we finished one of the pieces, he came over to me. … He was so overwhelmed, he took out his credit card and said, ‘Here, take whatever you need for the choir.’ I said to him, ‘No I can’t take your credit card, but would you do me the honor of, during the break, telling us a little about [yourself].’ ” It turns out the man, Leslie Klein, was a Holocaust survivor.
“He told the children, and started in tears, of how listening to the kids singing reminded him of his sister, who sang in the choir before his sister and parents perished in the Holocaust,” Green Willner said.
The experience also has been moving for the children. “There’s one little girl in the choir who, after every concert, makes me little cards,” Green Willner said. “I get amazing emails from parents.”
She’s particularly proud when she sees children gain confidence through singing. Green Willner described another young girl, who “was so shy, she would not leave her mom’s side. Now she’s my strongest, loudest singer.”
Green Willner hopes that with more exposure, the choir will gain even more participants. “I’d love it to grow and grow and grow,” she said. “I’d love the level of music making to increase and be heightened.
“Their potential is phenomenal, and their ears are phenomenal. … I think it can become even more than it is. It’s brought me a lot of joy,” she continued. “I go in sometimes on Sunday, like we all do when we’re tired from the whole week … and I come out thinking, ‘What else can we do?’ ”
New home for Yeshivat Ohr Chanoch
In response to a growing student body and insufficient facilities, Yeshivat Ohr Chanoch has purchased a $3 million building in Pico-Robertson.
The Orthodox Sephardic high school, which currently shares a space with B’nai David-Judea Congregation on West Pico Boulevard, enrolls 27 students in grades eight through 12. In the spring of 2016, it will be moving to the new site at 1540 S. Robertson Blvd.
Henry Manoucheri, founder and CEO of the real estate investment firm Universe Holdings, has a son at the school and led the school’s fundraising drive, along with the school’s administration and building committee. He said he raised more than half the necessary funds.
“The facility the students are in now is subpar and old and isn’t really a setting for a school,” he said. “A brand-new, modern facility with a nice space for classrooms and a beit midrash will give the kids a good identity.”
Yeshivat Ohr Chanoch’s new location, just a short walk from the current one, will be outfitted with up-to-date technology and resources, according to Joshua Shapiro, vice principal of secular studies. There will be projectors built into the walls and ceilings, interactive white boards and modern computer labs.
Because there also will be a beit midrash (house of study), Shapiro said the school “will be a center for the Sephardic community.”
“It’ll be a place where there will be Shabbatons and community events. It should be a hub for the community and not just a high school. In our current building, we are not able to do that, but it’s the goal in our new one,” he said.
Shapiro expects there will be a 20 percent increase in enrollment and that students will thrive in the space.
“We felt we could better meet the needs of the students and have a really beautiful building, which should help enrich the learning atmosphere,” he said. “It’s very important anywhere but especially in a school. The kids will feel good about the building and about coming to school.”
Yeshivat Ohr Chanoch, which was the first Chofetz Chaim yeshiva high school on the West Coast and one of 20 in the nation, started in 2011. The schools focus on Torah subjects — such as the biblical commentator Rashi, Tosafot (medieval commentaries on the Talmud), halachah (Jewish law) and hashkafa (outlook) — and teach the students mussar (a Jewish system for personal growth), middot (values) and self-improvement. They also offer secular studies in the form of a college preparatory program.
In terms of extracurricular activities, they take students on Shabbatonim; bring in guest rabbis and learned Torah scholars; and hold hikes, flag football games and barbecues. In the summer, they host a camp called Camp Ruach Chanoch for boys in sixth through ninth grade that features go-kart racing, trips to Six Flags, night fishing and horseback riding in Griffith Park.
“Every boy who is there smiles and is very happy,” Manoucheri said. “The students get a lot of love and attention, and there is no negative reinforcement. The rabbis are loving and caring, and the students get a tremendous amount of attention because the student-to-staff ratio is very low.”
Yeshivat Ohr Chanoch has seven secular studies teachers for subjects such as algebra, biology, chemistry, medieval Jewish history and physical education, as well as three rabbis who teach religious studies. There are two deans and a vice principal on the administrative side. The school was accredited this past spring by the Accrediting Commission for Schools, Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
Shuli Taban, the parent of a student at Yeshivat Ohr Chanoch, has high hopes for the new building.
“I think it’s great that they will have a place to call home,” she said. “The new location will be more conducive to learning for the boys in the school.
“It’s nice to have a place of their own. They take a lot of pride in their school as it is. Now there will be a feeling of, this is our school, these are our rabbonim [rabbis], these are our friends, and this is our building. We are not just tenants. It’ll only make the school better.”
Desperately seeking Sukkot supplies on Pico-Robertson
Yeshiva boys don’t sell lemonade; they sell etrogs.
“Etrog! Get your etrog!” a pre-pubescent voice shouted as I ventured down Pico Boulevard on Oct. 5, when sidewalks became home to an etrog bidding war that would make Sotheby’s cower in shame. I’ve bartered at shuks in Jerusalem and wrangled for turquoise in Bangkok, but I’d never haggled for etrogs in Pico-Robertson.
During the four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, yeshiva boys set up booths in the famously Jewish neighborhood, displaying their lulav and etrog merchandise. Starting at $40 a pop, etrog prices skyrocketed, depending on shape and texture.
“This one’s a beauty,” said Ari Ohayon, 13, while showing off an $80 etrog. Ari was selling etrogs — and had found customers for about three by noon — while his brother Gad, 8, manned the lulavs. (He hadn’t sold any yet but was hopeful.)
Itai Esudri poses with Yeshivat Ohr Chanoch’s most expensive etrogs, priced at $100 and $120.
What makes a good etrog?
“No blemishes and a short pitom [tiny growth at the end]” Ari said. The young etrog expert recommended a short pitom because if it breaks, the etrog loses all value.
Another vendor, all of 15 years old, outside of Elat Market on West Pico Boulevard, pointed to a different kind of etrog.
“Yemanim [Yemenite Jews] only like the green ones,” he said.
Then he picked up an etrog featuring a girdel, an indent in the citron’s midsection, and said, “And Chabad buys these.”
So, basically, there’s an etrog for everyone.
One of the powerhouse etrog vendors on Pico was Yeshivat Ohr Chanoch, which had four booths stationed at different locations on the street. Itai Esudri, a teacher and mentor at the yeshiva, said he woke up at 6 a.m. to set up booths, whose locations he had already mapped out.
But the locations are acquired on a first-come, first-served basis, and Esudri’s students missed out on a prime location in front of Livonia Glatt Market when they arrived just a few minutes late. Five rival booths — including one manned by a 12-year-old boy — were already set up in front of the market’s sliding doors, and Yeshivat Ohr Chanoch was forced to settle for a spot down the block.
“It’s a real business,” Esudri said.
In fact, Esudri knew a rabbi from Israel who would fly to Canada during Sukkot to build customized sukkot for people. “He’d come and make 20 grand, then fly back,” Esudri said. That money funded his temple during the year.
Students working for Yeshivat Ohr Chanoch made commission off of every etrog they sold. Because the base price was $40, any etrog priced over that amount meant extra money for the student. Both the student and the yeshiva benefited from purchases, Esudri said, but the point wasn’t all about profit.
“These kids come together to raise money for the yeshiva. I told the guys, if you’re in it for the money, it’s not worth it.”
Of course, etrogs weren’t the only commodities available on Pico Boulevard the day after Yom Kippur. Beginning at 10 a.m., Lisa Lautman was at the corner of Pico and La Peer Drive — standing in sweltering heat, slathered in sunscreen — selling bundles of palm. Her photographer brother, Shimmy, operates a schach (sukkah roof covering) business during the Sukkot season.
Lisa Lautman stands at the corner of Pico and La Peer selling schach, bundles of palm.
Selling schach is the Jewish version of hawking Christmas trees. Cars would stop at the corner and someone would roll down their windows and holler: “How much for your schach?”
“Forty-five for a bundle of 10!” Lautman responded. Then the bidding tango commenced.
Local resident Yehuda Cohen bought a lulav from a vendor after working into the wee hours of the night to build his sukkah. He said he started building his temporary structure after Yom Kippur’s Neilah service and continued until 1 a.m.
And on this Sunday, he strapped his newly acquired lulav onto his backpack, mounted his bike and cycled back home to finish the sukkah he started the night before. The lulav waved behind him, looking like a samurai sword.
Something about Sukkot ignites the entrepreneurial spirit within people.
Metro Glatt restaurant used its parking lot to sell sukkot, and Nagilla Center Gifts and Hardware advertised certified kosher bamboo at its shop. Fliers were taped to walls and stapled to utility poles throughout the neighborhood, promoting professional custom sukkot-builders with a plea: “Do you need a sukka built without the backbreaking labor involved?”
And business only promised to heat up.
“Sunday’s the slow day,” Esudri said.
Usually, the hustle comes Tuesday and Wednesday, when last-minute shoppers descend on Pico Boulevard to get all their Sukkot essentials.
“It’s a zoo,” Esudri said.
But because Sunday was slow, most booths closed up shop around 3 p.m.
At the end of the day, Gad Ohayon, the young lulav vendor, was running down the street with a cart full of unsold goods. As he passed, he shouted out, “I sold four!” with an ecstatic smile and continued down Pico Boulevard, gloating and over the moon.
Painting love over hate on vandalized Workmen’s Circle mural
An organization that fosters Jewish identity has attempted to turn a recent act of vandalism into an opportunity for bridge-building between Jews and Muslims.
Last weekend, the SoCal Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle added the Arabic word “Salaam” — and its Hebrew and English equivalents, “Shalom” and “Peace,” to a vandalized mural that covers its home in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.
The organization’s addition to its 1998 mural is a response to incidents that took place on Feb. 6. That’s when vandals spray-painted the words “Free Palestine!!!!” onto the mural. Hours later, another set of vandals responded, in turn, by turning the word “Free” into an expletive.
The graffiti remained until its recent removal by the City of Los Angeles Board of Public Works Office. An ongoing investigation by police has not identified any suspects.
[Related: Graffiti at Workmen’s Circle]
In the wake of the incidents, Workmen’s Circle denounced the vandals in a public statement. Its district committee voted to make the addition to the mural out of the belief that the best way to respond to acts of hate is with compassion.
Eric Gordon, a district committee member, said, “It often does take an extreme act, a catastrophe, an accident, to awaken you to needs you didn’t think you had before. … What are we going to do? Respond to an act of hate by saying “F— Palestine” on the mural? So, we’re trying to be responsive.
“We agree with ‘Free Palestine.’ It’s not the best way to express it. We are sorry and angry that they chose that way to express it, but they do have a point,” he said.
The wall-sized mural itself — titled “A shenere un besere velt” (a Yiddish phrase meaning “A more beautiful and better world”) — depicts cultural, biblical and historical imagery. The imagery includes a menorah, Israelites wandering in the desert, a young girl waving Israeli and American flags, and more.
SoCal Arbeter Ring/Workmen's Circle summoned muralist Eliseo Silva (below) to make an addition to its mural. Photo by Ryan Torok.
For the addition, the group summoned the mural’s original artist, Eliseo Silva. A non-Jewish, Filipino muralist and Los Angeles resident, Silva worked all weekend long on the mural, painting the new words onto three leaves. He also painted an olive tree.
It’s a minor addition to a mural extending the length of a 60-foot wall, but Gordon said the images send a message to the community that the only sensible way to respond to incitement is by being open to dialogue.
It also represents a reunion between Silva and Gordon, who conceived of the mural when he took over the organization in 1995.
“It doesn’t seem like a long time ago,” Silva said of when Gordon first commissioned him to work on the mural 16 years ago.
On March 15, wearing an apron and gesturing with fingertips covered in paint, Silva said he’s changed more than the mural.
“I think I’ve probably gained 70 pounds,” he said. “Eric looks the same. He hasn’t changed.”
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks spends a weekend in L.A. envisioning the Jewish future
Swiping his finger to the left, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s now-former chief rabbi, and arguably the world’s most prominent religious Jewish leader, was looking for a text he felt might show how Orthodox Jews can spread a Jewish message to the Western world.
He wasn’t leafing through the Talmud, and he didn’t have in mind a specific passage from the Torah. He wasn’t even looking for a Jewish text.
He was browsing his iPad, and after a few seconds lost in his app collection, he finally found what he was looking for.
“The Waste Land” — a poem by T.S. Eliot, an American-born Englishman widely regarded as among the 20th century’s most influential literary figures.
“Hang on,” Sacks said, as he prepared me for the pinnacle of the app, a specially filmed performance by actress Fiona Shaw. “This is magic. This is the masterpiece.”
Shaw’s voice — that of the Petunia Dursley character from the “Harry Potter” series — emerged majestically from the speaker: “The Waste Land. The burial of the dead.”
This is how Orthodox Jews might learn from and teach religious texts?
Sacks put his beloved iPad down and looked at me, ready to clarify.
“Can you imagine having a siddur [prayer book] where you’ve got the text,” he said, “You’ve got the translation, you press one button [and] you get the commentaries?” Then added, “You press another button, and you get half a dozen shiurim [lessons] on that paragraph.”
It was Sacks at his most dynamic, blending Western poetry with ancient tradition, rabbinic commentaries with one of Silicon Valley’s proudest inventions.
I was sitting with the former chief rabbi, his wife, Elaine, and his assistant at a table in the lobby of the Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel in Beverly Hills. It was the morning of Feb. 23, and I was still absorbing the past four days, during which I had followed Sacks, the unofficial spokesman for Modern Orthodox Jewry, around Los Angeles.
From Feb. 20 to Feb. 23, he gave 11 lectures to Los Angeles’ Orthodox community, all but one in the Orthodox Pico-Robertson neighborhood, as part of a weekend sponsored by Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, a local Modern Orthodox school.
[Related: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, left, met with students at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, including Eli Isaacs and Sarina Finn, both eighth-graders and student council presidents at the school. Photo by David Miller
Speaking everyone’s language
Sacks knows how to keep the tone light.
His first public appearance in Los Angeles was on Feb. 20 at Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, joining talk-show host Michael Medved and the head of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Steven Weil, for a panel discussion in front of 300 people.
As at every event he spoke at during the weekend, he did not shy away from people who sought his attention. Dozens from the audience introduced themselves and wanted to speak with him.
Like any good rabbi, he started with a joke. He recounted how, upon his appointment as Britain’s chief rabbi at just 43, someone asked him, “Aren’t you a little young for the job?”
His response: “Don’t worry, in this job I’ll age rapidly.”
His audience that evening was predominantly parents and grandparents, so his leadership message to them was about communal religious leadership. “Make friends with Jews who are less religious than you are — and by lifting them, you yourself will be lifted.”
His speech followed a performance by the Shabbaton Choir, a British choral group that has traveled around the world with the rabbi. As he took the microphone, he expressed his gratitude to the choir and then asked the crowd to give them another round of applause. In fact, during a musical event on Feb. 22 at Congregation Mogen David, he joined the choir in song.
On Feb. 21, Sacks was at the Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy for three consecutive addresses. He spoke first to grade-school students, then to local political, educational and religious leaders, and, finally, to teens from local Orthodox high schools.
With the children, most of whom may not appreciate for years to come who they were meeting, the rabbi did not change his message; he simply tweaked his delivery and tone.
“Your young [class] presidents are going to be presidents of the United States one day,” Sacks said as he walked through the aisle that separated the boys from the girls, making eye contact with the young children. “Get to know them now, because one day they are going to be very big stars — and so are all of you.”
A few minutes later, upstairs, Sacks led a roundtable discussion with a diverse group of Los Angeles’ political, educational and religious leaders, that notably included a woman rabbi — Rabbi Deborah Silver of Adat Ari El Synagogue — as well as a Christian clergymember — Monsignor John Moretta of Resurrection Catholic Church, illustrating that although Sacks predominantly speaks to Orthodox groups when speaking to Jewish audiences, he does not wish to restrict himself to that relatively small enclave.
It was, for him, an opportunity to impart a few ideas to the people — Jewish, Christian, secular — who will help shape the next generation of leaders.
More than 20 people were in the room, and when each said his or her name and position, he looked at them warmly and acknowledged their presence.
“Each one of you is engaged in God’s work,” he said. “The purpose of education is to allow people to achieve their full dignity in the image and likeness of God.”
Sacks stressed teaching kids how to teach, relating a conversation that he’d had with his late father when he was only 5 years old.
Walking home from Shabbat services with his father one day, the young boy asked his father to explain certain prayers and Jewish practices. Sacks’ father, who’d dropped out of school at 14 to help support his family, answered:
“Jonathan, I didn’t have an education, so I can’t answer your question. But one day you will have the education I didn’t have. And when that happens, you will teach me the answers to those questions.”
By the time he took the podium Saturday morning for his Shabbat address at Beth Jacob Congregation, the largest Orthodox synagogue in the Western United States, nearly 800 people filled the main sanctuary. It was so packed that, so as to not violate fire code, the synagogue had to turn away throngs of people who had hoped to hear the former chief rabbi.
As he prepared to speak, the anticipation inside was palpable.
Standing sideways, with his right arm propped on the podium, Sacks glanced toward Beth Jacob’s Senior Rabbi Kalman Topp, then toward the congregation, and said with a smile, “I am going to try very hard to deliver a good speech. Do you know why? Your rabbi promised me that if I do, he will give me a lollipop.”
The room immediately relaxed as Sacks began to explore his main passion, and something he hadn’t yet spoken of at much length during this visit — the deeper messages hidden in the stories of the Torah.
The week’s portion was Vayakhel. On the surface, the text speaks in detail about the Israelites’ construction of the mishkan, the Tabernacle, a portable holy place the Jews built as they wandered in the desert where they could properly worship God.
It’s a very technical, detailed Torah portion, and Sacks related that in one of his learning sessions with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, he had pointed out that while God needed only a few verses in Genesis to create the entire universe, the Torah dedicated five entire portions to the construction of the Tabernacle. Why?
Because, he said, until the Jewish people were given a task to build, a project that called for unity and purpose, they could not possibly lead.
Now 65, Sacks is a London native, but has known America well since the summer of 1968, when, while studying philosophy as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, he came to the United States to meet as many prominent rabbis as he could. With a $100 unlimited Greyhound pass, he traveled from New York to Los Angeles to stay with his now-late aunt in Beverly Hills.
Based on the recommendations of many rabbis he met, the young Sacks was most eager to meet Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the now-late leader of the Chasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement — who was viewed as religious Judaism’s ambassador until his death in 1994.
That encounter, he’s often said, set him on the path to becoming the leader of two synagogues, the director of the rabbinic faculty at Jews’ College (now the London School of Jewish Studies) and, perhaps just as formative, a philosophy scholar and a lecturer at several secular British universities, including Manchester and Essex.
Beyond the texts, Sacks demonstrated during his speeches here and in our interview his deep knowledge of non-Jewish philosophy and history — Plato, Aristotle, Darwin, Tocqueville, Locke, Churchill — as well as popular culture.
Aaron Sorkin’s screenwriting in “The West Wing” was “genius,” he told me, and “Gravity” is an “extraordinary film” that demonstrates the existential need for faith.
Bridging Judaism with society
In his 22-year term as chief rabbi, Sacks was far more than a leader for British Orthodox Jewry and the 62-member synagogues, all Orthodox, of the United Hebrew Congregations. He became the bridge between Orthodoxy and British society, publishing 25 books in 24 years, several of which could just as well have been written for non-Jews.
Like many leaders, though, Sacks could never please everyone, on either side of him. Agudath Israel of America, a leadership organization of ultra-Orthodox Jews, criticized Sacks following his July 2013 retirement dinner, in which he critiqued what he sees as a trend toward increased insularity within the Orthodox world.
It was a message he repeated in Los Angeles. “There are Jews moving very far away from social engagement, turning inwards,” Sacks told me, choosing his words very carefully. The implication, though, was clear — much of the ultra-Orthodox world is not spreading the Jewish message to the outside world, and that has led to the growth of what he called “aggressively secularized tendencies.”
For the British Jews more liberal than he, Sacks was perceived as beholden to his country’s Charedi community during his tenure. He did not, for example, attend the funeral of prominent British Reform Rabbi Hugo Gryn, and he never attended Limmud, the largest annual interdenominational Jewish education event, now held worldwide and which got its start in London.
In 2012, Sacks signed his name to a joint response from Britain’s rabbinical court to the government, opposing same-sex marriage. In response, 26 prominent British Jews wrote an open letter criticizing Sacks for trying to “influence how the generality of the population leads its life”— somewhat ironic because influencing society, and not just the Jewish community, is one of his main goals.
And yet, even as he openly admires some of Nietzsche’s work, he also has written groundbreaking commentaries on four Orthodox prayer books, for Shabbat, Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. According to his office, he’s currently working on ones for Sukkot and Shavuot.
And although as chief rabbi, Sacks did not speak on behalf of Britain’s Reform, Conservative or Charedi movements, from a marketing perspective he might as well have been, for British society viewed him as the Jewish spokesman.
As he became Great Britain’s de facto Jewish ambassador, a Sacks brand developed — a polished look for television appearances, a royal-sounding voice for radio broadcasts, a scholarly tone for books and op-eds, and an ability to condense his message into sound bites while rarely making news for saying the wrong thing.
Although he shies away from attracting controversy, Sacks will be outspoken when he feels he must. At a BBC-sponsored debate, Sacks told Dawkins that the beginning of Chapter 2 in the atheist’s book, “The God Delusion,” is a “profoundly anti-Semitic passage.”
In Britain, Sacks was viewed as the face of British Jewry by two groups of people — his natural followers, the Modern Orthodox, and also the politicians and media. His acceptance into the House of Lords as Baron Sacks of Aldgate, and his regular broadcasts and documentaries on BBC, helped inject Torah ideas into the British conversation.
In America, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour recently interviewed Sacks about Jewish assimilation, the Israeli-Arab conflict, anti-Semitism, the Vatican, Iran and Ariel Sharon — topics with which every Jewish community in the United States has grappled in recent months.
He is quickly climbing to the top of the American media’s speed dial list for interviews on all things Jewish — if he isn’t already there.
During his talk at YINBH, he told a story about one of his core goals — to reach Jews who don’t attend synagogue regularly (which includes 76 percent of American Jewry), teach Jewish things to non-Jews.
So Sacks decided that, as chief rabbi, he would broadcast regularly on BBC Radio. Yes, its audience is overwhelmingly non-Jewish, but, all the better.
“A Jewish guy comes to his office one morning, and the non-Jewish guy who has the office next to him says to him, ‘You know, I heard your chief rabbi on the radio this morning. He’s quite good,’ ” Sacks said at YINBH. “I turned a whole of non-Jewish Britain into an outreach organization for the sake of Judaism!”
The Orthodox ascent?
Sacks’ prediction of an Orthodox ascent in America stems from the October report by the Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” which says that the Orthodox community’s relatively high birth rate and low, or nonexistent, rate of intermarriage could give it a comparative demographic advantage, over time, to both the Conservative and Reform movements.
“It has become really clear that Orthodoxy is the only element of the Jewish people in America that’s growing,” Sacks said. Based on Modern Orthodoxy’s current position in American Jewry, Sacks’ prediction sounds a bit, well, optimistic.
According to the Pew survey, only 11 percent of Jews in America identify as Orthodox, and only 3 percent as Modern Orthodox. In other words, Sacks is predicting that a minority within a sliver of American Judaism may hold, within 25 years, the mantle of influence.
A second Pew analysis, however, shows that Orthodoxy is gaining ground on Conservative and Reform Jewry — very quickly. Twenty-seven percent of Jews younger than 18 live in Orthodox homes, and as sociologist Steven M. Cohen told the Forward in November, “Every year, the Orthodox population has been adding 5,000 Jews,” while the non-Orthodox has been losing 10,000.
Therefore, Sacks calls upon the Orthodox movement to prepare as if it will soon inherit American Judaism’s mantle, so that its members will know how to lead on a mass scale and not just in yeshivas or at Shabbat morning sermons.
“The non-Orthodox Jewish world always had a strong sense of tikkun olam [repairing the world],” Sacks told me. “What I’ve tried to show is we in the Orthodox world can have that sense as well.”
“We’ve got a technical glitch”
Mesopotamian cuneiform, Chinese ideograms, Linear B — Sacks was more philosopher than rabbi as he delivered a short keynote address at Harkham Hillel’s gala at the Universal City Hilton, offering a call to Orthodoxy’s leadership to use technology to reach as wide an audience as possible, and to make learning more interesting for Jewish children.
Today, he said, we are living through an information revolution, inaugurated by “Steve Jobs [coming] down the mountain with the two tablets, the iPad and the iPad Mini.”
In fact, he related, on the morning the iPad was released, Jan. 27, 2010, Sacks walked into his London office and told one of his assistants, “This is the game changer.”
When sitting with me, Sacks asked if I could wait a moment as he showed off some of his favorite Jewish iPad apps. “I hear God knocking at our door saying, ‘Use Me. Use this gift that I have given you to spread My message,’ ” Sacks said
“Let’s have a look at this week’s parsha [Torah portion],” he said as he played with an app that serves as a type of Wikipedia for Jewish texts. “Touch that, here are the mefarshim [Torah commentaries].”
And then, Orthodoxy’s challenge stared us in the face.
The app froze.
“We’ve got a technical glitch,” Sacks said humorously, referring to his app — or was he speaking about the Orthodox movement?
“It took a long time for Orthodox Jews to be able to develop the techniques and the skills,” Sacks said. “We just haven’t had enough time, to be honest with you, to develop the real resources for the Web and the iPad.”
And beyond creating operational iPad apps, Sacks wants Orthodox Jews to act more like, well, him — using mass media to communicate.
Of course, in America, the decentralized nature of Judaism — there is no chief rabbi — makes it difficult for any one person to spread his religious ideology. That’s why Sacks believes observant Jews should work with Hollywood.
“I would so love to see a film not just about how Jews died, but how Jews live, and I’m afraid I haven’t seen enough of those,” Sacks said, a message that recurred in several of his Los Angeles appearances.
Speaking at YINBH, he even let the audience in on one of his script ideas — a film on the life of Jewish philanthropist Anne Heyman — and said, only half-jokingly, that he would love to see someone in the room help turn his idea into a film.
Less power, more influence
As he adjusts to a career in which he no longer has the power of chief rabbi, he seems to believe his new role may allow him more influence.
Perhaps that is why issues of leadership seem to make its way into most of his work these days.
Every week, Jews across the world receive an e-mail from his office titled “Covenant & Conversation” containing his weekly essay on the Torah, written in English but also translated into Hebrew and Portuguese.
In it, he weaves together biblical narrative with a historical, philosophical and scientific framework — Oxford meets Yeshiva University. This year, he decided, each essay will center around one theme — leadership.
In Britain, Sacks showed that to influence a society, leaders must work with the followers they are given, and not compromise on core principles for the sake of adding fans.
In America, he suggested that a window of opportunity is opening up — a window that will allow America’s Modern Orthodox movement to inject Torah values into mainstream American culture, as he has tried to do in Britain.
And whether the predicted Orthodox ascent comes to pass, and whether Sacks’ insistence on preparation for leadership pays off, he is giving something to American Orthodox Jewry, something that perhaps no one else can deliver quite as well — a clear, passionate and hopeful 25-year advance warning.
Countergraffiti on already-defaced Workmen’s Circle wall
A new, expletive graffiti covering the words “Free Palestine!!!!” that had defaced a mural at the headquarters of Yiddish organization Workmen’s Circle, was discovered on the building on Friday morning, Feb. 7.
“F— Palestine!!!!” now appears on the on the building, which is located on Robertson Boulevard. Hershl Hartman, a member of the Workmen’s Circle district committee, said Friday that this new defacement proves “that there are idiots on both sides [of the Israeli-Palestinian debate].”
“Steps would be taken soon” to clean the mural, which appears on the south-facing wall of the building, Hartman said.
The defacement of the mural at 1525 S. Robertson Blvd. in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood was discovered on Feb. 6, with block letters covering the length of the wall-sized image.
The painted image itself – titled, ”A shenere un besere velt,” according to the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles (a Yiddish phrase meaning, “A more beautiful and better world) – depicts cultural, biblical and historical imagery. The imagery includes a menorah, Israelites wandering in the desert, a young girl waving Israeli and American flags, and more.
Hartman said he will convene with the group’s leadership to figure out how to respond to the latest incident, which he called “extremism.”
The organization reported the first incident on Feb. 6 to the LAPD’s graffiti hotline of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). The organization expects the LAPD to respond within a “few days,” Hartman said.
While no suspects have been identified, Ruth Judkowitz, chair of the Los Angeles affiliate of Workmen’s Circle, released a statement on Feb. 6 inviting a dialogue with the vandal(s).
“We invite those responsible for the slogan-painting to meet with us to discuss far more effective ways of encouraging progress toward a lasting peace between the Israeli and Palestinian states and their peoples,” she said.
‘Free Palestine’ graffiti defaces Pico-Robertson mural
UPDATE #2: Painting love over hate on vandalized mural
A mural on the south side of the Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle Southern California campus at 1525 S. Robertson Blvd was defaced with graffiti that reads “Free Palestine!!!!”
It was not immediately clear when the graffiti was spray-painted onto the building, as phones at the center were not answered on Thursday morning, Jan. 6, the day the Journal learned about the vandalism.
The wall-sized mural itslef – titled, ”A shenere un besere velt,” according to the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles (a Yiddish phrase meaning, “A more beautiful and better world) – depicts cultural, biblical and historical imagery. The imagery includes a menorah, Israelites wandering in the desert, a young girl waving Israeli and American flags, and more.
Artist Elisio Art Silva completed the mural in 1998, according to the conservancy organization.
Photos obtained by the Journal on Thursday morning by a Pico-Robertson resident who was driving by and spotted the defaced building show the graffiti spaning nearly the entire length of the building, which, according to the conservancy group, measures 60-feet-long and 15-feet-high.
Robert Adler-Peckerar, executive director of the L.A.-based organization Yiddishkayt, which is a frequent collaborator with the national office and local branch of Workmen’s Circle, said the message of the graffiti reflects an ignorance about the mission of the victimized group. He described Workmen's Circle as being historically committed to ideas of “social progress, equality, human rights, civil rights and the general pursuit of human dignity,” which includes promoting a “progressive, peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said.
“I feel like this [the graffiti] indicates something much more about thoughtlessness than about an actual commitment to a free Palestine,” Adler-Peckerar said in an interview. “And a tremendous amount of cultural illiteracy [on the vandal(s)’ part].”
Workmen’s Circle, an educational organization that celebrates Yiddish culture, emphasizes the Jewish connection to social justice and more, has evolved over the years since its founding in 1900 by what it describes on its website as a group of “progressive-minded Jews.”
During its early years, the organization fought on behalf of Eastern-European Jewish immigrants in the United States–whose primary language was often Yiddish—on matters related to labor practices, health insurance, burial costs and more.
As the needs of the American-Jewish community changed, so too did workmen’s circle. Today, the organization, which maintains a national office in New York and operates in at least six other cities, including Los Angeles, runs schools, a camp, adult education classes, a learning center and more.
The venue of the Los Angeles branch, the target of the graffiti, offers programs on “Secular Jewishness;” “Yiddish Language;” “Art and Music;” and “Social Justice.”
After-school kosher kitchen nourishes body and soul
It was Stephanie Levi’s first time with her two sons enjoying an early dinner at the new after-school kosher kitchen in Pico-Robertson. She plans on coming back for more.
“It’s really helpful to fit it into the routine after school,” said Levi, whose children go to school around the corner from the kitchen, which is located at Tiferet Teman, a Sephardic synagogue on Pico Boulevard.
Created to serve children of families experiencing financial hardship, the kitchen, which opened on Aug. 26, serves free, hot meals to any Jewish children who come, and to the parents, siblings or guardians who bring them. The kitchen is open from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and offerings include schnitzel, meatballs, chicken, potatoes, matzah ball soup, tilapia and pastries.
“We are happy to accept anybody from a Jewish family,” said Ifat Shlomi, one of the kitchen’s lead organizers. “Whoever needs it can come and enjoy the food.”
The kitchen was opened by Shlomi, Sharon On of Bazilikum Catering and Rabbi Moshe Yazdi, who lives in Jerusalem and runs two similar kitchens in Israel. He also leads American Friends of Amude Hashalom, a nonprofit group based in Los Angeles that serves those in need in the Jewish community.
On a recent Thursday, about 15 parents and children filtered into the synagogue to fill their plates with food. They sat down to eat dinner as a family, and even played with the dozens of toys that the kitchen provides.
One of Levi’s children, Yosef, came over from playing with his brother to shyly discuss his food of choice on his inaugural visit to the kitchen: “the soup.”
The food is prepared daily by On, the caterer, just around the corner at Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy. She cooks food for about 400 children daily for school lunches, and now also for the roughly 30 children that have shown up most days at Tiferet Teman.
“I want to come up to 100 kids every day and give them homemade food and fresh food,” On said.
One mother, who asked that her name not be used, said that the new kosher kitchen saves her significant time every day preparing dinner for her six children.
“I work in the morning, and then I go to pick up my kids, so you don’t have a chance to prepare the dinner,” she said.
Another mother, who also asked that her name not be used, said that her youngest daughter prefers the taste of the food at Tiferet Teman to the food at home.
“She eats very good [here]. At home she doesn’t,” the mother said. “I’m a single mother, and it’s a lot of help.”
Yazdi, speaking over the phone from Israel, said he envisions this project eventually extending beyond only providing meals, including providing things like cookware and clothing to those who need.
“It doesn’t end with the food,” Yazdi said. “We see these kids as our own kids. We want to take care of them from A to Z.”
Scroll of a Lifetime
“Imagine your congregation gathered to witness the first strokes of the Scribe’s quill on new parchment… Feeling a real connection to the shape of the letters, the texture of the parchment, the concentration of the Scribe, holding his quill, preparing to write the name of G-d.”
This is how my friend Rav Shmuel Miller, who passed away suddenly last week during Rosh Hashanah, described on his Web site his lifelong passion for enscribing Hebrew letters on holy scrolls.
He devoted much of his working life to the shape of these letters, the texture of parchment, the holding of a quill, with the concentration of a man always prepared to write the name of the Creator.
I first met Rav Miller when I moved to Pico-Robertson about seven years ago. I had just started writing my column, so I was making the rounds of the different shuls and rabbis of the neighborhood. I had heard from my French buddies about this unusual French-speaking rabbi (his friends affectionately called him “R’bbe Shmuel”), who had a little shul in his backyard.
As I got to know him better, I started to understand why he was so unusual.
For one thing, he looked like he came from another century. He had a glorious, regal look about him. He was tall and always stood up straight, ready to greet you properly. His eyes were dark and soulful, but with a mischievous sparkle. He wore his beard perfectly trimmed, framing a face ready at any moment to light up in laughter.
At home, he often dressed in jelabas and baboushes, much the way I remember my grandfather dressed in Casablanca.
As I wrote in 2007, Rav Miller would have looked right at home on the set of “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Although he was an expert in Hebrew letters, he had a lifelong fascination with Arabic and became an expert in that language as well.
His interest in Arabic, he once told me, started because he wanted to study the writings of Maimonides in his original text. This is what I wrote at the time:
“He says this [knowing Arabic] gave him a deeper, ‘more palpable’ understanding of Jewish ideas. For example, the word in Arabic that Maimonides uses for the Hebrew daat (knowledge) is eidrak, which refers to a knowledge that you ‘apprehend’ or ‘take in.’ It is a union between the modrak, the one who understands, and the modrik, the one who is understood.
“Whereas the Hebrew daat denotes something external and impersonal, the Arab eidrak defines a knowledge that is more personal and contemplative, one that ultimately becomes part of you.”
Ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, Rav Miller was an intellectual who seemed to know a lot about everything. When he gave classes at my house about the philosopher Emanuel Levinas, he would weave in sources from the Talmud, the Midrash and the prophets, as well as the Zohar.
For years, he was my go-to person for anything Jewish. We would meet early mornings at a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf on Wilshire Boulevard, and I would pepper him with questions on a subject I was writing about. Usually, before I would finish my question, his face would light up with a big “Ah!,” as if to suggest he had a few surprises in store for me.
He also loved music.
On Tuesday nights, a group of hipsters would gather in his home for a kind of spiritual Middle Eastern jam session.
“We would sit in a circle and chant Tehilim until gravity no longer had any effect on us,” is how my friend Maimon Chocron, who played the bendir (north African snare hand drum) during the sessions, described it.
He had a small but intense following. He didn’t get much press, nor did he seek it. His home and shul became a gathering place for the eclectic Jews of Pico-Robertson.
For all the bohemia that surrounded him, there was a precision to everything Rav Miller did. Although there were stretches in his life where he experienced hardships, both personally and financially, his dignity never suffered. His thoughts and movements were always refined and meticulous, just as when he held his quill to shape letters on holy scrolls.
These scrolls are now read in countless synagogues on Shabbat, every time a Torah is opened. The letters in those scrolls are his personal legacy to our community.
His life itself, you might say, was a like a holy scroll. It had the Old-World texture of parchment, the sharpness of brilliant ink, and the permanence of great ideas.
In his distinguished, regal way, he spent a lifetime preparing to meet God.
LINK East serves a growing Pico-Robertson
The eastward expansion of Pico-Robertson’s Orthodox community hit a new milestone recently with the Aug. 24 opening of LINK East, a satellite branch of LINK, the Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel.
A kollel is a place where rabbinic scholars study among themselves and teach people in the community. At this point, though, LINK East is starting off as a Shabbat-only synagogue.
Its location inside the yeshiva Mesivta Birkas Yitzchok on the corner of West Pico and South Crescent Heights boulevards puts it in the middle of the up-and-coming Faircrest Heights neighborhood, where many observant Jews from Pico-Robertson have moved over the last few years to take advantage of lower property values.
The original LINK, founded by Rabbi Asher Brander in 2002, is at 1453 S. Robertson Blvd. Previously, it was located at Westwood Kehilla, where Brander was also the rabbi.
Brander said he has been planning LINK East for about two years, when he predicted Faircrest Heights would become a hot spot for Orthodox Jews. In a previous interview, Brander said that when he moved to Pico-Robertson in the early ’90s, the border of the Orthodox community was much farther west than it is now. Today, many Jews are moving east, past La Cienega Boulevard, into the Faircrest Heights neighborhood.
“That’s where the Jews are coming,” Brander told the Journal.
About 45 men and 25 women came to Aug. 24 Shabbat morning services, which were held inside the yeshiva’s study hall. That was followed by a lunch at the home of Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, a 30-year-old Los Angeles native who recently moved back from Israel with his wife and three daughters to become LINK’s associate rosh kollel (head of kollel) and to lead LINK East.
Since he arrived in July, Shoff said that he has been developing relationships with Jewish families in Faircrest Heights. He hopes that in addition to it being a Shabbat location for neighborhood residents, LINK East may attract families living in the eastern parts of Pico-Robertson willing to make what is about a 10- to 15-minute walk.
“This is just a little farther out in the neighborhood,” Shoff said. “It’s not far away.”
Prior to LINK East’s opening, Chabad of South La Cienega (SOLA) was the only synagogue that was within short walking distance for families in Faircrest Heights who observe Shabbat. That synagogue, led by Rabbi Avraham Zajac, began with about 10 families when it opened nearly six years ago. Zajac said that it now has around 100.
Reflective of the growth of SOLA and the Jewish community in Faircrest Heights, Zajac is spearheading an $8 million to $10 million expansion, which would include the construction of a communal mikveh, a Chabad synagogue, a Sephardic synagogue and a Jewish Montessori preschool. Zajac wrote in an e-mail to the Journal that SOLA recently purchased a 12,000-square-foot property for $2.4 million as part of the expansion project. The property is at 1450 S. La Cienega, a few blocks north of the existing location.
Shoff said that for now, his goal is to establish LINK East as a “warm, vibrant [and] exciting” Shabbat location. He said that LINK East will have Friday night and Saturday morning Shabbat services every week, along with a Kiddush lunch.
Although both Shoff and Brander hope that Jewish growth in Faircrest Heights will warrant LINK East becoming a full-time weekday synagogue eventually, Shoff’s immediate focus is on making Shabbat as engaging as possible.
“If we can produce something that’s beautiful and meaningful,” Shoff said, “then I think that ultimately the numbers will come.”
Bachelors’ Shabbat downtown
The trek to Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles was not exactly my normal pre-Shabbat routine. Living in Pico-Robertson, the most noticeable sound I hear on the streets and sidewalks as Friday night approaches isn’t typically car engines — it’s silence.
And yet here I was, trying to survive a thoroughly unenjoyable drive down the 10 Freeway in the middle of rush hour, followed by a frustrating exchange with the attendant at a Spring Street parking lot. Walking the next 300 yards to Rabbi Moshe and Rivky Greenwald’s Chabad house — apartment, actually — I realized that the streets of downtown are not the most serene place to welcome the day of rest.
Bars, jewelry shops, restaurants and convenience stores surrounded me on all sides. The sound of car engines and horns, and the smell of car exhaust and open trashcans filled the air.
But as I walked into the lobby of the Haas Building on West Seventh Street, downtown suddenly disappeared. The lobby and stairwells were silent, and as I walked past Chabad’s studio synagogue on the second floor, and up to the Greenwalds’ third-floor double loft, I heard a familiar Shabbat sound: quiet.
Still, it was clear from the moment I walked into Greenwald’s apartment that this was no typical Chabad Shabbat. Missing were the sounds of children laughing or babies crying that often characterize Friday night dinners in a Chabad family’s home. Ditto for the smell of freshly baked challah that, seemingly, only a rebbetzin knows how to bake. (The absence of Greenwald’s wife, who was in Brooklyn with their three children, explained both.)
Instead, when I walked in, Greenwald and his friend Howard Dolin were standing by the counter, chatting about current events. Pre-Shabbat snacks sat next to them — Melba toast on the left, herring on the right and a bottle of vodka in the middle.
Greenwald is a tall, somewhat imposing man, who wore the standard Orthodox Shabbat uniform of black slacks with a neatly pressed white button-down shirt. The Long Beach native saw me and said in a semi-Brooklyn accent, “Welcome to bachelors’ Shabbat.”
It could have been the prep to any frat party — a few guys standing around, talking about sports, friends, life, whatever, and waiting for the guests to arrive. The difference was that this was Chabad of Downtown, and we were still preparing for the holy, uplifting and relaxing experience that Shabbat is designed to provide. The table was set and the food was prepared. All we were missing were the other bachelors.
When the Greenwalds opened Chabad of Downtown in 2007, they chose the Haas Building as their oasis in a sea of urban noise. On the second floor sits a studio apartment that the couple convincingly turned into what is a beautiful, and very small, synagogue.
The flooring is a smooth dark-colored laminate wood. The ark is huge — so huge that one wonders how difficult it must have been to lug the 9-foot-tall, 5-foot-wide, three-Torah storage unit into the room. There are no pews or fixed benches. All the chairs are portable, with the men’s section on the far side (by the window looking out toward an oversized sign for Carl’s Jr.), and the women’s section a few feet from the entrance. Greenwald said that, if necessary, he could fit about 100 people into the room.
Upstairs, on one side of the Greenwalds’ double loft are a kitchen, living area and dining area. On the other side are two bedrooms and a play corner for the children that can’t be more than 20 square feet. With tiled floors, brick and cement walls, stainless steel appliances and a downtown bustling three stories below, Greenwald’s apartment is a picture of contemporary living.
The Greenwalds’ Chabad is the only synagogue that provides Shabbat and holiday services for the 3,000 Jews — many of whom are Hispanic — that Greenwald estimates live downtown. During the week, Greenwald ventures through the city, visiting some of the tens of thousands of Jews who work downtown every day. Greenwald helps people wrap tefillin, delivers mezuzahs to Jewish businesses and gives Torah classes in the Chabad house and people’s offices.
But when the Sabbath bride arrives, he can always be found right here — at home. Whether he’s cracking jokes from “South Park” or discussing two of his great loves — cigars and the Los Angeles Kings — his guests, as I experienced on Shabbat, seem to be able to relate to him as not just a rabbi and mentor, but also as a friend.
Dinner conversation was not your typical Shabbat fare. One guest during my visit, Dolin, is a former Hells Angels member in the San Fernando Valley who talked about his career in construction and his journey toward becoming an observant Jew.
Another, Buck Mossey, is an LAPD detective in Hollywood who was able to enjoy a rare Friday night off. The stories he shared that night — from his recent arrest of a murder suspect to his interactions with the late rogue ex-cop Christopher Dorner, whom authorities say killed four people — were, for lack of a better word, meshugge.
On my right and sitting across from me were two Mexican Jews in their 20s, and a young, bearded hipster-looking, non-Jewish guy, who, by the looks of his winter hat and suspenders, could have just walked in from an Arctic fishing expedition.
Sitting in as rebbetzins for the evening were two good friends and regulars at Chabad, Ram Bilgrai and Shuky Lapid. The two Israeli men, fantastic and humorously quarrelsome, served us herb-seasoned gefilte fish, chicken soup, Israeli salad, Moroccan chicken and spicy meatballs.
Even as we ate, the bright lights, moving cars and homeless people on the sidewalk outside the window were constant reminders of the city surrounding Greenwald’s peaceful island.
Of course, this was, as Greenwald reminded me a few times, not a typical Shabbat downtown. Not only were his wife and children away, but summer crowds tend to run small. While a previous community Shabbat attracted nearly 100 people and had to be held in the basement of the apartment complex, there were only about 10 guests for this dinner.
The conversation on this Friday night didn’t often turn to Judaism or Torah as talk powered on late into the night — until 2 a.m. This downtown bachelors’ Shabbat may not have been traditional, but that didn’t make it feel any less uplifting.
Childhood abuse victims name Mendel Tevel as alleged abuser
Sitting with his back hunched, his wife by his side and a kippah on his head, a 23-year-old bearded Orthodox man nervously told a gathering of parents at a private residence near Pico-Robertson that a young man named Mendel Tevel had sexually abused him when he was 14. Tevel now lives in Los Angeles and is believed to have worked in recent months at JEM, a Jewish youth center in Beverly Hills.
The alleged victim did not tell the group his name and demanded that all cell phones be placed in a separate room — and although he told the Journal his full name, because of the sensitivity of the subject he asked that it be withheld from this story. This was his first public accounting of his alleged abuse, talking to about 40 community members on the evening of Aug. 5. As people trickled into the home of David and Etty Abehsera, he began his story:
When he was a 14-year-old student — in around 2004 — at the since-closed Shterns Yeshiva in upstate New York, Tevel, then a mentor at the school, initiated what was at first a friendly relationship with the speaker. Tevel, who is now about 30, was around 21 years old at the time.
At first, the man alleged, Tevel offered simply to be the student’s exercise partner. But eventually, he said, Tevel came up with extreme ways to motivate him to work out harder, including repeatedly whipping him with a metal coat hanger, which he said lacerated his skin and caused bleeding.
He claimed that as the relationship grew, Tevel would crawl into bed with him at night, inappropriately massage him, and rub his clothed body against the boy’s. He claimed Tevel also bent him over and spanked him when he refused to immerse himself in what was sometimes a very cold outdoor mikveh (ritual bath). These incidents occurred multiple times, the speaker said.
“He wasn’t exactly trying to hide the fact that he had an erection at the time,” the alleged victim told the gathering, describing his incidents with Tevel in the mikveh.
“I was a very naïve 14-year-old, but something just didn’t feel right, so I cut off ties with him.”
Because these acts occurred in New York, where the statute of limitations for charging someone with sexual abuse expires when the victim turns 23, the State of New York would not be able to press charges against Tevel based on this man’s testimony alone. The man said he currently lives in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights but on the night he spoke he was in Los Angeles on vacation.
Following this accounting, three more people alleging to be victims of Tevel shared their stories with the Journal via telephone from Brooklyn, where Tevel was born and raised, and where he lived before he moved to Los Angeles in 2012. All of the alleged victims interviewed by phone, when asked, told the Journal they do not know personally any other people who say they’ve been abused by Tevel. The instances described by those who spoke with the Journal took place as early as around 1995 and as recently as around 2004.
Tevel himself did not respond to multiple phone calls to his personal cell phone, nor to voicemails, text messages and e-mails from the Journal over several days. Searches of both civil and criminal public records did not reveal any convictions, or any closed or pending charges against Tevel in either New York or California.
Two local residents, both of whom asked that their names not be made public, identified Tevel as recently working at the JEM Center. One said that Tevel and his wife, Bracha, were directing JEM’s Hebrew High School Program as recently as one month ago. On the Web site jewishcommunitywatch.org, Tevel is labeled as the “counselor/director of JEM center.”
Another person confirmed seeing Tevel at a farbrengen (a Chasidic celebratory gathering) on Monday, Dec. 3, 2012, at JEM. The gathering included both adults and children.
On the morning of Aug. 13, just before press time, Rabbi Hertzel Illulian, director and founder of the JEM Center, answered one of many phone calls made by the Journal to him over a period of three days. Illulian said he was not able to immediately comment because he was dealing with a recent death in the community.
Illulian’s daughter, Bracha, married Tevel in 2012. Bracha also did not respond to multiple attempts to reach her.
The accounts from the four alleged victims who spoke with the Journal provided vivid details of both sexual and physical abuse. Two of the alleged cases occurred in Brooklyn, N.Y. The other two occurred at Machane Menachem, a since-closed Chabad-Lubavitch sleepaway camp in Lackawaxen, Penn., where two former staff members have confirmed that Tevel worked in 2001.
All four of the alleged victims currently live in Brooklyn, and each asked that their names not be made public.
One alleged victim, now 25, who spoke to the Journal on the phone from Brooklyn, described an incident indicating that Tevel’s abuse might have begun at a very early age. The 25-year-old said that when he was 6 or 7 years old, his family lived near Tevel’s family in Brooklyn.
The alleged victim said that Tevel, then 11 or 12, would go to the basement of his home multiple times per week with him, lock the door, tie him down, remove some or all of his clothing, and whip him (he does not remember with what).
“One thing I do remember very clearly is that it was very painful, and saying ‘Ow’ a lot of times,” the 25-year-old told the Journal.
“I had just a T-shirt on and socks,” he continued. “Of course, pants and any sort of underwear, that was gone.” He said that this continued for several months.
The alleged victim, who was raised an observant Jew, said he has since attended therapy for years, on and off. It was not until he was 19 or 20 that he opened up to his therapist about the incidents. He said that he is no longer particularly observant.
A third alleged victim said that when he was 11, likely in 2001, he was a camper at Machane Menachem. Now 23, he said that Tevel, who was likely about 18 at the time, was a counselor at the camp, and worked closely with the campers.
“I was on my [bunk’s] front porch and he called me to the side of the pool,” the alleged victim said during a phone interview with the Journal. “He started smacking me on my bum with a pingpong paddle.”
He said that although “he didn’t make much of it in the beginning,” when Tevel began smacking him harder and tried to pull down his pants, he asked Tevel, “What are you doing?” Tevel’s response, according to the alleged victim, was that he “brushed the whole thing off.” No further incidents followed.
A fourth alleged victim who spoke with the Journal is currently 21 years old. He said that when he was about 9 and Tevel was about 18, he was a first-time camper at Machane Menachem. One day, he alleged, Tevel brought him into a sports equipment room.
As another person watched the door, the 21-year-old man claimed, Tevel bent him over his lap and smacked him on the rear with a pingpong paddle. He then pulled down his bathing suit and continued smacking him.
This alleged victim, who is also no longer observant, said that when he grew up, he would become very anxious when he would occasionally see Tevel walking in the streets of Crown Heights.
According to Pennsylvania law, both of the alleged victims from the sleepaway camp would be able to press charges, should they choose to do so, until they turn 50.
Allegations of sexual abuse by Tevel first became public in October 2012, when Meyer Seewald, the New York-based 24-year-old founder of Jewish Community Watch (JCW), posted about him on the Web site’s “Wall Of Shame,” after multiple alleged victims came to Seewald to accuse Tevel of sexual abuse.
JCW, which regularly publicizes information about suspected sexual abusers within the Jewish community — mostly in Crown Heights, where Seewald lives — currently lists 40 people on its Wall Of Shame. The Journal confirmed that neither Seewald nor JCW has ever been sued for libel or defamation regarding its publicizing of accused abusers.
That review process includes personal interviews with multiple alleged victims and what appears to be a thorough investigation process. Following that, JCW will only post a suspect if its board unanimously agrees that the person is a child predator. JCW has a database of about 200 suspected predators that it is still investigating.
In one instance, JCW posted the name and a photo of a man, Daniel Granovetter, on its Web site after he was mistakenly charged by New York authorities with abuse when a student accused him, only to later retract the accusation.
The authorities dropped the charges, and JCW removed Granovetter from its Web site, but the damage to his reputation had been done.
In June, though, Granovetter penned an op-ed on chabadinfo.com commending JCW for its work, saying that Seewald should continue to post the names of people charged with abuse in order to protect children who could become victims in the time between the arrest and possible conviction.
Seewald claimed to have spoken with at least four more people alleging to have been victims of Tevel, but none of them would speak with the Journal.
Refusal to go public with sexual abuse accusations, Seewald believes, is a common problem in the Orthodox community.
Seewald, who was at the Aug. 5 gathering, said that in his two years of running JCW and speaking with hundreds of victims, not one had ever told his or her story publicly to so many people.
Ben Forer, a local Orthodox Jew who is also a district attorney for Los Angeles County, wrote a public letter praising JCW’s “impeccable review process before exposing any predators.” (In speaking with the Journal, Forer said he was speaking only as a concerned community member, and not in any way on behalf of the district attorney’s office.) Rabbi Avraham Zajac, a local Orthodox rabbi, also said he respects JCW’s process. “I trust the methodology of Jewish Community Watch,” Zajac said. “The biggest thing is keeping our children safe.”
Forer was at the Aug. 5 gathering; he said that from his experience, “people don’t want to believe” allegations of sexual abuse.
“Families come out in support, in every community, in support of the predator, no matter what the evidence is,” said Forer, who currently specializes in technology-related crimes but has previously prosecuted sexual abuse cases.
In 2012, not long after Tevel’s arrival in Los Angeles, a local Orthodox Jew, Danny Fishman, briefly met Tevel on Shabbat morning at a local synagogue. Fishman said he did not know at the time about the allegations against Tevel.
“I met him,” Fishman told the Journal. “He came across as personable and charming.”
Tevel has also been known to occasionally attend other synagogues in Hancock Park and Pico-Robertson.
A statement posted late last week on JEM’s Web site addressing the recent controversy surrounding Tevel did not mention him or any of the specific allegations against him, but stated that “JEM Center wishes to reassure the community that every precaution has been taken to resolve the concerns and bring this matter to a closure.”
The statement continued: “The local authorities have been contacted and are thoroughly investigating all issues that have been raised (and if needed action will be taken).”
JEM has surveillance cameras in all areas of its building, the statement continued, and no rooms or offices in the building are allowed to be locked.
Lt. Lincoln Hoshino of the Beverly Hills Police Department confirmed on Aug. 13 that it is conducting an investigation involving the JEM Center. He declined to say whether Tevel is involved in the investigation.
Toward the end of the alleged victim’s account on Aug. 5, the former Shterns Yeshiva student explained why he came forward.
“It actually did take a lot for me to come out here and speak,” he said. But when he heard that Tevel is working around children in Los Angeles, he felt he had an obligation to do something.
“He [Tevel] has damaged a lot of people,” the man alleged. “He cannot be around schools; he cannot be around the community.”
With anger in his voice, he expressed his frustration with what he sees as the Orthodox community’s preference to not bring such cases into public light.
“Keeping it close-knit is not going to help,” the alleged victim asserted, his voice rising. “Keeping it close-knit is what the Jewish community has done for years.”
If you have concerns about possible instances of abuse in your community, you can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tipsters’ names will be treated with confidentiality, as requested.
In Orthodox Community, Offensive Billboard Taken Down
A Jewish group convinced Van Wagner Communications to remove a suggestive billboard showing a mostly naked woman that was an advertisement for XO energy drink. The ad had been displayed on the 2000 block of South La Cienega Boulevard, a neighborhood frequented by many observant Jewish families — from Pico-Robertson, Faircrest Heights, and Beverly Hills — near to the I-10 freeway.
An email sent to the Hillygram community listserv on July 19 reported that on July 16, “The largest Orthodox Jewish community on the West Coast was horrified to see a completely inappropriate pretzus [sexually improper] photograph posted across a billboard in the center of the Jewish community.”
Yehuda Nourollah, the assistant rabbi of Bait Aaron, a Sephardic Orthdox outreach organization, called the billboard something that would belong on a cover of Playboy magazine. “It’s not a model for what we want our kids to see,” Nourollah told the Journal.
After seeing the billboard, Nourollah and his brother, Akiva, contacted some members of the Orthodox Jewish community to gauge whether pushing to remove the advertisement was something that the community would support.
With the assurance of community backing, they contacted the office of Van Wagner Communications, which owns the billboard in question.
Nourollah said he eventually reached John Massoni, Van Wagner’s executive vice president of operations, and explained why the Orthodox community objected to the image. Nourollah said that he informed Massoni that he had the support of about 15 community synagogues.
Van Wagner removed the billboard on July 17, the following day.
“They were very, very good about it,” Yehuda Neurollah said. “The Jewish community is very grateful to them.”
Massoni did not immediately return a telephone call from the Journal.
Akiva Nourollah added that Bait Aaron is considering a push to remove other billboards near Jewish communities in Los Angeles that many in the Orthodox community find inappropriate. One example he cited is the billboard for the upcoming movie, “We’re the Millers,” which shows four people, with the labels of “Stripper, Virgin, Runaway, and Drug Dealer.”
Akiva Nourollah said that when he was driving in the car with his son and another young boy, the latter asked him, “What’s a virgin? What’s a gambler?”
Moshe Nourallah, father to Akiva and Yehuda, and who serves as Bait Aaron's rabbi, said that the XO energy drink billboard “tipped the scale,” in terms of inappropriate advertising.
“We feel our responsibility is not just giving classes,” Moshe Nourallah said. “Things in our society, that are not going well, we also have to take care of.”
Tikkun olam lunches nourish those in need
For 13-year-old Odelia Safadel, serving lunch to Pico-Robertson’s poor and homeless puts things in perspective.
“Sometimes, I think to myself, ‘Oh, there’s nothing to eat. I want a new phone, I want this.’ But then when I come here, I see that these people — they are actually in desperate need,” she said, standing next to a buffet table filled with meatballs, rice and other filling dishes for the dozens of hungry people who came to B’nai David-Judea Congregation’s most recent tikkun olam — repairing the world — lunch.
At this particular meal, on a Wednesday afternoon, about 60 people filtered into two separate rooms at the Pico Boulevard Orthodox synagogue — Jews, non-Jews, blacks, Russians, mothers with babies, and people just looking for a meal and some spiritual inspiration from B’nai David’s rabbi, Yosef Kanefsky.
Odelia, a seventh-grader at Yeshivat Yavneh in Hancock Park, was one of several girls who came to serve food to the lunch’s attendees.
The tikkun olam lunches, which are held seven times per year, were inspired by congregant David Nimmer. As Nimmer tells it, at a Sukkot lunch at least 10 years ago, a rabbinic intern at the synagogue was teaching attendees a text that covered the concept of a sukkat shalom, a welcoming sukkah.
“What do I, God, want of you [the Jewish people]?” Nimmer recalled learning. “To feed the hungry, visit the sick, clothe the poor.”
When he heard that, Nimmer knew that learning tzedakah was not enough. He had to give tzedakah.
“Let’s not just learn about it in this beautiful setting of Torah study,” he remembered saying. “Let’s implement it.”
And that’s precisely what Nimmer and Kanefsky did. The first version of the tikkun olam lunch was during Sukkot of that year. But it wasn’t a lunch; it was a breakfast. And unlike the recent lunch, 60 people didn’t come — only one did.
“The first lunch literally had one semi-homeless person,” Nimmer said. “And he wasn’t terribly homeless, either. He was a very high-functioning guy.”
But since that first meal, the tikkun olam lunch has grown rapidly, so rapidly that there are now two separate meals at each lunch, one for Russian speakers who populate the neighborhood and one for others. Every lunch, before and sometimes after the meal, Kanefsky hands out $15 gift cards for Ralphs grocery store to guests.
Hurrying between the upstairs lunch — for English speakers — and the downstairs lunch — for Russian speakers — Kanefsky described how B’nai David has created a home for those in need, even if it’s only for several hours per year.
“A sukkat shalom is a sukkah that everyone is welcome to come into, and everyone feels at home, and everyone feels part of the community.”
The Russian lunch, held in B’nai David’s large banquet hall, included a local resident stopping in to play guitar for the guests and an introduction by a representative of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles explaining how people at the lunch can use the organization’s resources. Everything was translated into Russian by a volunteer, Gary Reznik.
One 76-year-old Russian woman said that she has been coming to the tikkun olam lunches for seven years. She described them as something “close to the heart,” whether she sat next to friends or just tikkun olam acquaintances.
“The food is great here, the music is great here, and the holiness of this place …” her voice trailed off.
Upstairs, about 40 people were sitting around multiple tables, eating, chatting and singing “Sweet Home Alabama” as a B’nai David congregant led the song on guitar. When that tune ended, some of the participants — the non-Jewish ones, it turned out — began an alternate version of the same song: “Sweet Home Israel.”
“Sweet home Israel, Lord I’m coming home to you,” sang many of the guests. The most passionate singers, in fact, seemed to be devout Christians who belong to local churches. For 46-year-old Shana Gudger, this was her first lunch at B’nai David. After finishing her meal, she said that she felt good coming to a synagogue for some food and feeling welcomed. Her church, like her, is struggling financially.
“Honestly, we need to have this in our congregation,” Gudger said. “It was just good to come to another place — a different denomination — and see that they still accept us.”
Over the past decade, Kanefsky has come in touch with hundreds of people who are homeless or at least in serious financial distress, and he has developed personal bonds with many of them. That, he said, makes it tough to see people who are able to stand on their own for a few months return to a tikkun olam lunch, again in need.
“Over the many years, I’ve seen people whose lives have gotten dramatically better,” Kanefsky said. “Then six months later or a year later, they are kind of back where they started.”
As tragic as this is, it does give Kanefsky a chance to build a sort of community.
“The civic and religious obligation that we have is to extend assistance and friendship to the poor people who are in our community,” Kanefsky said. “Those people include many who are Jews and includes people who are not Jews.”
Back downstairs at the Russian lunch, a homeless Jew in his 20s, Andrew, who would only give his first name, said a prayer in Hebrew. Later, he made his way upstairs and explained that this was his first lunch. He intends to come back.
“It means love and togetherness,” he said. “It was beautiful.
Parade, day of unity mark Lag B’Omer
Two major community events marked the relatively minor holiday of Lag B’Omer on April 28, bringing some bombast — and thousands of people — to local celebrations.
In Pico-Robertson, Pico Boulevard was transformed into a pedestrian’s paradise for Jews from across Southern California while Thousand Oaks welcomed people for a Jewish Day of Unity.
“The Great Parade” on Pico restricted the road to foot, bike and (lots of) stroller traffic between Doheny Drive and Livonia Avenue, organized by Rabbi Chaim Cunin’s Chabad of California along with more than a dozen other Chabads, the Jewish Journal and its parent company, TRIBE Media Corp.
Festivities kicked off at 10:30 a.m. with musical performances by Israeli artist and former “Les Misérables” Broadway performer Dudu Fisher, Sam Glaser, shofar musical artist David Zasloff and the Cheder Menachem Boys Choir.
Until late evening, Pico became a Jewish summer carnival, with families streaming in and out and clowns dancing in the streets. The sound of games filled the air, along with the smell of kosher eats.
Jonathan Abesera, who rode with two of his children on the Chabad SOLA (South La Cienega) parade float, said it felt like putting on a huge Jewish party in the center of Los Angeles.
“Look at this. It’s beautiful to see how we closed off the street,” Abesera said. “All the other people who are not even involved, who are not even Jewish — how impressed they are.”
The parade, which resembled a slice of kosher Mardi Gras in Pico-Robertson, featured bagpipes, 9/11 tribute cars, “Trinidad drummers” and even the inauguration of the world’s first “Mitzvah Cable Car,” a restored San Francisco cable car purchased by the Chabad of San Francisco and trucked into Los Angeles the night before the festival.
In Thousand Oaks, Chabad leaders from the Conejo Valley and Ventura County focused on ways to get the larger Jewish community to celebrate the holiday together.
“Two months ago, some of the Chabad centers around the Conejo Valley and Ventura County got to talking and discussed how in the past we all did our own events for Lag B’Omer in local parks,” explained Rabbi Dov Muchnik, who with his wife Racheli, serves as co-director of the Chabad of Oxnard. “However, because the theme of Lag B’Omer is Jewish unity, we realized this was the perfect occasion for all of our communities to get together.
The result was the first Jewish Day of Unity, held at Thousand Oaks High School, where people gathered to commemorate the 33rd day after Passover, which some say marks the end of an ancient plague and the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
“This event is not specifically Chabad,” said Devorah Heidingsfeld, an event organizer and co-director of Chabad of Moorpark. “Instead, we removed all the labels and made it just about Jews as a greater extended family.”
The Day of Unity, whose highlights included performances by the band Moshav and Chazzan Pablo Duek of Temple Etz Chaim, offered everything from a children’s choir and orchestra to fire jugglers. There was other typical festival fare, too: rides, food and vendors for products and services ranging from self-defense classes to international tour organizers.
Sylvia Wildfire, a Conejo resident since 1997, said the event made her proud to be part of the area’s Jewish community.
“The one thing I love is looking around and seeing so many people here,” she said. “This is amazing, to see different branches of the community coming out, supporting each other and interacting.”
Event co-organizer Auna Simon engaged children in arts and crafts, designing cards for Israeli soldiers to show their support for their efforts on behalf of protecting Israel.
As 5-year-old Michael Beck put his finishing touches on his portrait of an Israeli soldier, his mother, Miri Beck, said, “It is amazing to see so many people coming together to relax and enjoy the day as well as connect.”
For L.A. investigator, exposing kosher meat fraud was a ‘mitzvah’
A semi-automatic weapon sits propped beside the front door of the ranch-style home that Eric Agaki shares with his wife, a couple of goats, some chickens and a horse. Only it’s not the real thing.
“That’s an air gun for raccoons,” Agaki says. “For intruders I’ve got other things.”
Agaki, 41, is particularly concerned with home security, and with good reason. A private investigator for the past 10 years, Agaki has put murderers in jail and staked out hundreds of spouses suspected of extramarital affairs.
Most recently, he exposed the unkosher business practices of the Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market, one of this city's largest purveyors of kosher meats.
Days before Passover, Agaki showed a group of Los Angeles rabbis the video he shot of Michael Engelman, Doheny's owner, loading boxes of meat into the trunk of an SUV in a McDonald’s parking lot. A second video showed Engelman at his store in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, where a worker carried the boxes inside. The mashgiach, or rabbinic overseer, was nowhere in sight.
As a result of Agaki’s seven-month investigation, the Rabbinic Council of California revoked Doheny Market’s kosher certification on March 24. The following day, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched an investigation. Within a week, Engelman sold his shop to businessman Shlomo Rechnitz.
All of this happened because of Agaki, though the investigator has not been paid a dime.
“I decided to do it as a mitzvah,” he says.
Born in Israel to Persian Jewish parents, Agaki moved to L.A. at age 12. He never served in the Israeli army, but he has more than a decade of training in the Israeli hand-to-hand combat method known as Krav Maga. His height may not intimidate, but his thick torso and massive biceps would be enough to ward off many threats. As would the Kahr CW9 handgun he carries at all times.
“I’m licensed to carry an exposed gun,” he says, pulling back his shirt to reveal a silver 9mm pistol tucked into a brown leather holster.
In his decade of private investigation, Agaki has never had to use the handgun. Nor has he had to use the collection of shotguns, hunting rifles and Civil War-era reproduction pistols that he keeps in a refrigerator-sized safe in his bedroom. He uses the four wood-handled pistols for Civil War reenactments, which he participates in once a year at an event billed as the largest annual Civil War battle reenactment west of the Mississippi.
For fun, he also collects knives and swords. A glass case filled with Samurai blades sits near the mezuzah at the entrance to his living room.
In September, a group of rabbis approached him with a host of rumors that Engelman was up to no good. Agaki clocked more than 150 hours of work on the case.
“Just the hours I put in, without all the research, is close to $20,000,” he says.
Agaki started his firm, Hover View Investigations, after graduating at the top of his class from the Nick Harris Detective Academy in Van Nuys. It was a dream deferred. He had enrolled at the academy right after high school, but had to drop out when he couldn’t afford the tuition.
Eventually he opened a candy store in Westwood Village. Later Agaki worked as a dental technician, then as a helicopter pilot. Finally a girlfriend encouraged him to return to his original passion.
Twelve years after he first enrolled, Agaki was back at the Harris academy. Within two weeks he convinced an instructor to put him on a case with the school’s affiliated agency. The case involved a husband who suspected his wife of drug abuse.
He followed the woman all day and photographed her hiding bags of cocaine in the trunk of her car.
“I’m very good at keeping myself hidden when I follow you by car,” Agaki says. In P.I. lingo, the skill is known as “rolling surveillance.”
Not long after, Agaki was hired by another firm to track a suspected cheating husband who routinely drove between 80 and 120 miles per hour on the freeway. Where other private investigators had failed, Agaki was able to track him 76 miles from Thousand Oaks, in the San Fernando Valley, to Riverside County, where the suspect parked at a nudist colony in Corona.
After sweet-talking a secretary, Agaki managed to slide into the nudist colony in under an hour — a process that normally takes weeks.
“To be a good P.I., you have to have good hand-eye coordination, be a good driver, be some kind of an actor and be a good videographer,” Agaki says. “You also need to know people and be able to profile them.”
For all of his successes as a P.I., Agaki says it is the Doheny case of which he is most proud.
“I’ve put a murderer behind bars,” he says. “But this had an impact on a lot of people.”
New Doheny Meats owner explains his purchase of scandal-ridden store
Shlomo Rechnitz, a prominent local businessman and philanthropist, has purchased Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market, the scandal-plagued kosher meat retailer and distributor.
Rechnitz, who co-founded TwinMed, a large medical supply firm, and owns a number of other businesses, purchased the store and its distribution arm for an undisclosed sum from its former owner, Mike Engelman.
The sale closed late in the day on Sunday, March 31, just one week after its former kosher certifier, the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), revoked the store’s certification and hours before the beginning of a two-day holy period celebrating the end of Passover.
Starting on March 25, the day after the revocation, rabbis from the RCC reached out to Rechnitz, urging him to buy Doheny, and in an interview with The Jewish Journal on April 3, Rechnitz said he initially considered making the purchase as “a favor to the community.”
“Before I came out with the announcement that I was going to purchase [Doheny],” Rechnitz said, “there were already stores calling up different distributors, even being quoted prices 35 to 40 percent higher than their current prices.”
Doheny is believed to supply as much as 50 percent of the kosher meat and poultry in Los Angeles; its disappearance would have significantly reduced competition in the marketplace, which, Rechnitz said, “would have destroyed the kosher market in Los Angeles.”
RCC President Rabbi Meyer H. May said Wednesday morning that he was one of those who personally urged Rechnitz to buy Doheny Meats, and he was cheered by news of the sale.
“It’s really extraordinary,” May said. “He’s going to preserve the richness of the meat supply and preserve the price structure for consumers.”
Rechnitz was involved in the response to the Doheny scandal from its earliest hours. He was one of a handful of non-rabbis who attended a hastily organized meeting on Sunday, March 24, when Engelman spoke to the RCC’s leadership and rabbis from synagogues around the Pico-Robertson neighborhood about what he had done at his store.
Engelman, who had owned the shop for 28 years, was videotaped by a private investigator last month bringing unidentified products into his store at a time when its rabbinic overseer was absent. Engelman did not return repeated calls requesting comment, and has not spoken on the record since the scandal began.
At the March 24 meeting, Engelman reportedly told Rechnitz, May, and the other laypeople and rabbis present, that he had, on two or three occasions, brought unsupervised meat into the store.
According to multiple people who attended the meeting, Engelman claimed all the meat he had brought to Doheny was kosher, but he admitted some was not up to the RCC’s higher “glatt kosher” standard. Glatt kosher meat is more expensive than kosher meat, which itself carries a higher price tag than equivalent non-kosher products.
Rechnitz said that he believes Engelman with “99 percent” confidence.
Rechnitz did add a caveat. “You can’t rely on someone like me, who got my information from someone who unfortunately has made mistakes, who wasn’t always as truthful as he should have been,” Rechnitz said.
Over the course of a week of negotiations, Rechnitz spent between eight and 10 hours with Engelman; he said he does not believe Engelman brought the unsupervised products into Doheny to respond to specific customers’ requests, as some have suggested.
Rechnitz said Engelman himself couldn’t fully explain why he brought the unsupervised meat into the store, but Rechnitz speculated that it may have been due to anger Engelman felt towards his main supplier, Agri Star, the large kosher meat processor based in Postville, Iowa. In 2009, Agri Star bought the Postville plant from the bankrupt Rubashkin-owned firm AgriProcessors, which had been shut down in the aftermath of the largest immigration raid in American history.
Money may not have been the motivating factor, Rechnitz said, “because it wasn’t that much of a difference, based on the quantity.”
In the private investigator’s video, a Doheny employee was seen unloading eight boxes from Engelman’s SUV and bringing them into the store. Based on additional videos received from the investigator, the May said the RCC estimates Engelman brought a total of approximately 1,200 pounds of animal products into the store over the weeks he was under surveillance.
Although Rechnitz’s initial reason to purchase Doheny was to maintain competing distributors for the city’s kosher-observant community, over the course of the week of negotiations he became a bit more optimistic about the business prospects for the company.
“I didn’t have time to send in a forensic accounting team,” he said, but Engelman told him that Doheny’s gross sales on the retail and distribution sides added up to approximately $8 million a year.
That said, Rechnitz said he hopes to remain a mostly silent investor in Doheny, and won’t aim to build its market share at the expense of other distributors.
Engelman won’t have any role in the business – Rechnitz said the agreement required the former owner to make a “complete” break, and included a non-compete clause – but the rest of the operation should remain mostly the same.
The RCC will once again certify Doheny’s retail and distribution operations, the name will remain the same and every current employee, Rechnitz said, has been offered his job.
The store, which is currently closed, could reopen as early as next Monday; Rechnitz said that the store, the utensils and dishes used there were being kashered — ritually cleansed — “just in case there was non-kosher meat being used.”
Rechnitz is currently Doheny’s sole owner; he said he is in negotiations with another investor who might buy into the business. The deal with Engelman included a non-disclosure agreement about the price, Rechnitz said, but he described the negotiations as “amicable” and described the final selling price as “sizable,” but not as big as it might have been prior to the scandal.
“It definitely came at a major discount due to the fact of what [Engelman] did, or what he tried to get away with,” Rechnitz said. “He definitely was not rewarded for his actions.”
Rechnitz has experience working with organizations at times of crisis. In his role as CEO of one of his companies, Brius Management Co., which manages multiple nursing homes across California, Rechnitz told a reporter in 2011 that his company looked mostly for “distressed facilities.”
In his philanthropic work, Rechnitz has also come to the aid of embattled organizations. Last year, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Rechnitz donated $1 million to an organization that supports Jewish day schools in the New York area. In 2011, Rechnitz donated $5 million to the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, which was struggling under millions in debt following the death of its chief rabbi and fundraiser. That same year, Rechnitz also helped save Chabad of California’s headquarters from foreclosure.
But Rechnitz is also known for charitable giving of a very different sort. Every Saturday night, Jews line up outside his family’s home. Until six months ago, those who came walked away with checks; now they leave with gift cards to one of two kosher markets in the area near Fairfax and La Brea.
Rechnitz announced his purchase of Doheny at his synagogue on Sunday evening, March 31, just hours after the deal closed. He said the reaction there was muted – “It was kind of almost expected,” Rechnitz said, adding that his goal in making the announcement was to change the conversations that observant Jews in Los Angeles were bound to have over the two days that followed, the last two days of Passover, during which work and the use of any electronics is prohibited.
“I wanted to stave off two days of people creating rumors and completely defaming the place,” Rechnitz said.
In that regard, Rechnitz appears to have succeeded already. Just hours after Passover ended on Tuesday, April 2, after sundown, at least one person had reported the news in a comment on Facebook.
Doheny Meats owner said to be involved in previous kosher controversy
Thirty years ago, in 1983, Rabbi Pinchas Gruman, an esteemed scholar of Jewish texts who also holds a doctorate in philosophy, was the chair of the Rabbinical Council of California’s (RCC) committee dedicated to enforcing Jewish dietary law at establishments under its supervision.
On November 3 of that year, acting on a tip, Gruman, who still lives in Los Angeles today, drove to Orange County to visit a kosher retailer, Los Alamitos Kosher Meats and Poultry, where he found kosher meat and poultry in the freezer placed alongside some non-kosher animal products.
In an interview this week, on March 31, Gruman alleged that the person who opened the freezer for him was Mike Engelman, who today is the owner of Doheny Glatt Kosher Meats in Los Angeles. Last week, the RCC withdrew its kosher certification from Doheny after being shown video footage of Engelman and his employees, on multiple occasions, bringing hundreds of pounds of unsupervised products into Doheny Meat’s Pico-Robertson retail and distribution outlet.
Unlike the current scandal, which was sparked by film shot by a private investigator and involves boxes whose contents may have been kosher, Gruman said the situation at Los Alamitos Kosher in the 1980s was rather straightforward.
“I’m telling you, he [Engelman] was caught with trayf [non-Kosher] packages, a goyishe [non-Jewish] company,” Gruman said. “I did not do any detective work as I did in other stores. This was, you walked in, he opened up the refrigerator, you opened up the freezer, you pulled it out. It was no difficult clandestine work on my part.”
Gruman, now 82, is not certain of the name of which brand of non-kosher products he saw that day, nor could he recall whether they were poultry or beef. And Gruman was also uncertain whether Engelman was a part-owner of the store or merely an employee.
An article that appeared on the front page of the Orange County Register on Nov. 11, 1983, does not mention Engelman, but describes another individual, Elya Kleinman, as “one of the market’s owners.”
But Gruman said he remembers Engelman, who declined to comment for this article on the advice of his attorney, as the only person he met during the inspection.
Others also said they remember seeing Engelman at the Los Alamitos store, as well.
Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, who served as director of the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, Calif., from 1971 until 1989, said he believes Engelman was a partner in the shop.
“I’d seen him in the store, so I know that he had a role,” Schusterman said in an interview on March 31. “
By the end of November 1983, the Los Alamitos store was sold to another owner. About two years later, Engelman purchased Doheny Meats on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles.
Rabbi Meyer H. May, the RCC’s current president, a post he has held for more than 13 years, said that neither he nor Rabbi Avrohom Union, who has been the RCC’s rabbinic administrator since 1990, knew about the Los Alamitos incident prior to being informed about it by a reporter. May said he is surprised that the RCC, after finding non-kosher products at the Los Alamitos store, allowed a person involved in the running or ownership of that store to take on another RCC-certified kosher establishment.
“It’s hard to imagine that anyone would get two strikes,” May said.
On March 24, the RCC issued a statement to the community saying that all meat bought from Doheny before the store’s certification was revoked at 3 p.m. that day could be considered kosher. In reaching that decision, May and more than half a dozen other local Orthodox rabbis on the board relied on a concept in Jewish law that allows a mostly kosher set of objects to be considered entirely kosher.
(The timing of the revelation – the eve of Passover – and the fact that the boxes seen in the video being brought through Doheny’s doors had originally come from a strictly kosher slaughterhouse, may have helped shaped that decision. According to attendees present at the meeting on March 24, when the decision was made, Engelman personally spoke to the rabbis, and asserted that all the meat he brought into his shop was kosher, albeit not to the RCC’s higher “glatt kosher” standard.)
But back in the 1980s, after Gruman found non-kosher animal products in the Los Alamitos freezer, community leaders instructed Jews to cleanse their kitchens and cooking utensils.
“We had a kosher-in,” Schusterman recalled. “We had a large vat and we went through a koshering process for many of these people. It was a very unpleasant event.”
Schusterman remembers his reaction, three or four years after the incident at Los Alamitos, to hearing news of Engelman’s purchasing Doheny.
“When I found out that Moishe Engelman has a role, in some manner, in kosher meat, it astounded me, because the type of violation is not just a financial violation,” Schusterman said. “It is a religious violation.
“That that person can be rehabilitated,” he continued, “I don’t believe, in halacha [Jewish law], that there is a rehabilitation for him.”
Gruman himself, as chair of the committee on kosher law, was involved in authorizing the RCC to continue certifying Doheny when Engelman purchased the shop 28 years ago. The RCC’s policy at the time, Gruman said, was to allow an individual whose business had had its certification removed to get back into the good graces of the council by handing over total control to an on-site kosher supervisor.
That supervisor, known as a mashgiach tmidi, is charged with overseeing all operations at the store and is given the only key to the door, so that he is the first to arrive and the last to leave.
“It was under the total supervision of RCC, with the mashgiach, with a key and all that,” Gruman recalled. “The idea was generally to promulgate responsible kashrut in the community, and he [Engelman] fit the picture.”
Gruman also said that the fact that Engelman had not been the sole owner of the Los Alamitos market – and may not have had any ownership stake at all – could have impacted the RCC’s decision to certify Doheny under Engelman’s ownership as kosher.
May said he understood why the RCC decided in 1985 to act as the certifiers of Doheny, when Engelman bought the store. He also said that leading rabbis involved in the kosher industry place great faith in the system of constant supervision.
“When I spoke to [Rabbi] Menachem Genack [about Doheny],” May said, referring to the CEO of the Orthodox Union’s respected kosher operation, “he said, ‘You had a mashgiach tmidi, what else could you do?’”
Nevertheless, May said that even though he believes the primary blame should fall on Engelman, he believes the RCC is responsible for a “monumental failure” in their supervision. Engelman appears to have been given a second chance decades ago, but May said there will surely not be a third, no matter what “bells and whistles” might be put in place.
“I can’t trust him, and I wouldn’t trust him,” May said. “It’s done. And now that I know about Los Alamitos, it’s nauseating.”
Pico-Robertson’s Orthodox head east
Three years ago, when Edo Cohen’s observant friend moved several blocks away from the center of Pico-Robertson’s Orthodox community to an area east of La Cienega Boulevard, he remembers thinking, “I can’t believe he moved there.”
Now, Cohen, his wife Merav and their two daughters have joined the increasing number of observant Jews who are heading in the same direction — east, past the far reaches of the area traditionally considered Pico-Robertson to an adjacent, up-and-coming community known as Faircrest Heights that extends beyond the other side of La Cienega Boulevard.
At the time Cohen’s friend moved, the region bordering Pico-Robertson and Faircrest Heights, also known as the Pico-Fairfax corridor, was not known as an ideal location. Commercially, it was — and still is — a mixture of down-market retailers, medical marijuana stores and auto mechanic shops.
Residentially, though, the neighborhood is becoming an attractive spot for middle-class families. There are Spanish Colonials, one-story homes with front and back yards and ample street parking.
“It’s a little bit more quiet,” Cohen said, comparing the area around his residence on Point View Street to his former home in Pico-Robertson. And, Cohen added, “You get more bang for your buck.”
Whereas Pico-Robertson offers a middle-class environment with upper-class property values, homes less than 2 miles to the east offer similar living at a lower cost. This contrast appears to be the primary ingredient drawing observant Jews east.
But how far are observant families willing to move? As one goes east of La Cienega, the number of synagogues within reasonable walking distance, particularly for families with children, dwindles with each block.
That’s where Chabad of South La Cienega (SOLA) has found a market. Five-and-a-half years ago, Rabbi Avraham Zajac and his wife, Stery, opened SOLA, capitalizing on what they saw as an unfulfilled demand for a synagogue that could serve families who wanted to move east as well as those who already had settled there.
After a recent Shacharit morning prayer service at SOLA’s location on La Cienega Boulevard, between Pickford and Airdrome streets, Zajac sat down and spoke about his congregation, which he estimates has grown from 10 families to 100 families in under six years.
“Simply moving out just a little bit gives people the best of both worlds,” Zajac said. “On one hand, you move here — more affordable. On the other hand, you can still feel part of the greater Pico-Robertson Jewish community.”
Reflective of the increasing Jewish market, SOLA has plans for a $8 million expansion, which would include the construction of two mikvehs, a Chabad synagogue, a Sephardic synagogue and a Jewish Montessori preschool.
SOLA, though, won’t long remain the only option for Jews in east Pico-Robertson and Faircrest Heights. Later this year, a new synagogue affiliated with LINK, the Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel, is expected to open in the area.
LINK, a synagogue and kollel (a place where rabbinic scholars study among themselves and teach people in the community), has an existing location on the corner of Robertson Boulevard and Saturn Street. While its founder, Rabbi Asher Brander, hasn’t yet announced an exact location for the new, additional shul, he told the Journal that it will be near Pico and Crescent Heights boulevards.
The proliferation of Jewish families and synagogues farther and farther east is not entirely out of the blue. Rather, it’s only the latest chapter in the neighborhood’s decades-long evolution.
Walking down Pico, with its medley of kosher grocers, delis, Judaica shops and synagogues, it’s difficult to imagine a time, not so long ago, when a yarmulke sighting would have turned heads. The observant Jewish community of Pico-Robertson has been developing since the 1980s, but not until the 1990s did it become the go-to location for Orthodox Jews in the city.
According to Brander, the area east of Shenandoah Street — just a couple of blocks from the intersection of Pico and Robertson — “could have been Texas” when he moved to the neighborhood in the early ’90s.
Rabbi Aaron Parry grew up in Pico-Robertson in the 1950s, lived there until the 1990s and now lives in the La Brea neighborhood. He said that one “would need a microscope to see a Jew walking on the street” for most of the time that he lived there.
“It was like a whole different world,” Parry said.
Now there are an estimated 30 kosher restaurants — including Chinese, Italian and Mexican — as well as bakeries and even parve ice cream shops. There are multiple Jewish schools, and on Shabbat mornings, the sounds of prayers and Torah readings can be heard up and down Pico, from at least Sherbourne to Doheny drives.
Over the last several years, economics and migration into Pico-Robertson has expanded the observant community’s borders — particularly its eastern one. Twelve Jewish restaurants, bakeries, markets and synagogues sit between the 4 1/2 blocks separating Shenandoah and La Cienega, which is currently the eastern boundary for kosher food establishments on Pico.
“Pico-Robertson has always been the landing strip” for new, particularly young, Jews moving to L.A., said demographer Pini Herman, who also writes a blog for the Journal.
Migration from other cities and states may be one part of Pico-Robertson’s expansion, but as real estate broker Peyman Karami explained, plenty of families who already live in the 90035 ZIP code are picking up and moving a couple of minutes east.
“Going far east from this side — from Robertson — makes the property value lower, and obviously the community is [expanding],” said Karami, whose company, Broker L.A., is located on Shenandoah.
He told the story of a recent client, a rabbi, who bought a house east of La Cienega “just because of the affordability.” To meet the rabbi’s budget, the broker said, “We had to go far east.”
Jerry Hsieh, who with his wife owns Jerry & Rachel Hsieh Realtors, echoed a similar sentiment. The Hsiehs have covered the Pico-Fairfax corridor for about seven years, during which time, Hsieh says, it has become a go-to spot for Jewish families, many of whom purchase older properties at lower prices and then renovate them.
“Every single month I drive through,” Hsieh said in a phone interview. “And a new home is being remodeled.”
Real estate analyst Tim Ellis recently classified Faircrest Heights as the third hottest neighborhood in the nation on Redfin.com, a national online real estate brokerage, behind Highland Park in Los Angeles and Mira Mesa in San Diego. Compared to 2012, Ellis wrote that home listings in Faircrest Heights are down 63 percent, prices are up 29 percent and the number of sales is up 17 percent.
The increasing home prices remind demographer and Herman’s Journal co-blogger Bruce A. Phillips, of what happened to Pico-Robertson decades ago. That’s when rising property values priced out many lower-income renters and persuaded some long-time homeowners to sell and cash out, in effect gentrifying the area.
“It’s the same phenomenon happening,” Phillips said, comparing the Pico-Fairfax corridor with the early stages of Pico-Robertson’s transformation into an observant Jewish community. “I think people there are selling and taking the cash.”
It’s important to remember though, according to Herman, that the corridor’s growth has a lot to do with the drop in property values and in families’ incomes caused by the 2008 recession.
“If the recession keeps on going,” Herman said, the expansion of Pico-Robertson farther and farther east “might be a successful phenomenon.” But if the economy picks up and raises families’ incomes with it, he said that the Jews who moved east might want to return to the pricier real estate of Pico-Robertson.
Although Herman predicts that the “outlying areas of Orthodoxy are going to recede back into the core areas,” he sees a chance that the new observant community in the Faircrest Heights area is there to stay.
“You might get a viable community.”
Doheny Kosher scandal: What took RCC so long? [UPDATED]
[UPDATE, MARCH 28] Rabbi Yakov Vann, the RCC's director of Kashrut Services, said in an email to The Journal on Thursday that the RCC is reviewing “all aspects of its protocols” and considering “all information relating to what took place at Doheny Meats.” Vann said the RCC will release a full statement on Friday.
[MARCH 27] The Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) abruptly revoked its certification from Doheny Glatt Kosher Meats on March 24, but the RCC, Los Angeles’s leading kosher oversight agency, had first heard about the distributor’s suspicious practices years earlier.
Eric Agaki, an investigator who had been independently monitoring Doheny’s warehouse on Pico Boulevard and another location in the San Fernando Valley for the past six months, told KTLA on Sunday that he had discovered the company was selling meat as Glatt Kosher that had not been certified as such.
In an interview with The Jewish Journal on Wednesday, Agaki said that so far, he could only prove the 53-year-old company had been selling its customers meat that was kosher, but not “glatt kosher,” a higher standard.
But Agaki said that he doubted the meat allegedly repackaged and sold by Doheny was kosher by any standard.
“We think that they were packed with treyf, just regular meat,” Agaki said.
Agaki captured video and physical evidence that he said showed Doheny’s owner was reusing boxes from Agri Star Meat and Poultry, a glatt kosher meat processor, packing them with non-glatt kosher-certified meat, and then resealing them with fraudulent tape and labels that said “Aaron’s Best,” an Agri Star brand.
The investigator’s findings were first reported by KTLA on March 24, the day the RCC revoked Doheny’s certification. But Daryl Schwartz, the owner of Kosher Club, a retailer and distributor of kosher meats that closed its doors on Pico in 2011 after more than 20 years in business, told The Journal that he had known years earlier about everything Agaki later found.
Schwartz also said that, as early as 2010, he reported seeing the empty boxes, fraudulent labels and fraudulent tape to Rabbi Nissim Davidi, the RCC’s kashrut administrator.
“It was numerous times over the years,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz said he got the same response each time.
“He [Davidi] said, ‘I’ll look into it,’” Schwartz said.
Whether Davidi or anyone in the RCC investigated the suspicious practices Doheny is not yet known.
The RCC’s office is closed until April 4, when Passover ends; attempts to reach multiple RCC staff members by phone and email on Wednesday evening after sundown were unsuccessful.
Doheny’s owner, Michael Engelman, has owned and operated a retail shop in the neighborhood of Pico-Robertson “for over 30 years,” according to the company’s Web site. Everything about that store, from its white enamel refrigerated display case to the white butcher paper in which cuts of meat came wrapped, lent Doheny an upscale ambience absent from other glatt kosher butchers in the neighborhood.
That feeling, coupled with the belief that the meat sold by Doheny was both kosher and organic, may have helped retail customers justify paying Engelman’s premium prices, and helped Doheny become the premier retailer to kosher consumers in this densely populated Jewish neighborhood.
All of that changed on the evening of Sunday March 24 when the RCC, and many Orthodox synagogues in the neighborhood, sent out emails announcing that the RCC had, as of 3 p.m. that day, “removed its kosher supervision, for cause, from Doheny Kosher Meats.”
“The community Rabbis,” the email continued, “upon consultation with a nationally recognized halachic authority, have determined that any meat and poultry purchased at Doheny Kosher Meats through today (until 3pm), is permitted to be eaten and can be enjoyed on Yom Tov.”
Doheny’s retail sales were only part of Engelman’s business. As one of just a handful of distributors of kosher meat in Los Angeles, Doheny’s list of commercial clients stretched from the city to the Valley and reportedly included caterers who worked in the area’s finest hotels, high-end long-term residential facilities as well as other kosher-certified retailers.
“When I shut down the Kosher Club,” Schwartz said, “Doheny started selling to the Beverly Hilton.”
“From me, they [the Beverly Hilton] were buying Rubashkin,” Schwartz continued, referring to the former owners of the glatt kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, which was shut down following an immigration raid in 2008. “From Doheny,” Schwartz said, “your guess is as good as mine.”
Hershey Friedman, the CEO of Agri Star, which now owns and operates the Postville plant, told YeshivaWorldNews in a statement on Monday that the allegations against Doheny were “very disturbing and inexcusable.”
“Agristar had no knowledge of this alleged misuse of its labels, and should these allegations prove to be true, Agristar will discontinue any further relationship with this customer,” Friedman’s statement continued.
“Agristar prides itself in its relentless pursuit of the highest standards of kashrus,” Friedman’s statement continued, “and will use all means at its disposal to prevent a reoccurrence of this unfortunate and illegal behavior.”
Among his findings, Agaki said, are about “5,000 stickers,” labeling the contents as produced and packed by Agri Star. Agaki said he obtained those stickers on Sunday from a relative of Engelman’s outside a non-RCC certified meat distributor located in Reseda.
Agaki also said he obtained the printing plates used to make those fraudulent labels from that same individual.
Whether Engelman and Doheny in fact did anything illegal remains to be seen. An employee at Doheny’s retail shop told The Journal on Monday that Engelman would speak to the allegations after the Passover holiday. Agaki, meanwhile, said that he had conveyed his findings to the United States Department of Agriculture.
The evidence uncovered by Agaki’s investigation appears to have led the RCC to revoke Doheny’s certification, but according to the 41-year-old, Israeli-born private investigator, it was conducted without the knowledge or cooperation of the kosher certification agency.
“It’s a mitzvah,” Agaki said, explaining that while he usually charges $125-per-hour for his services, he had spent about 150 hours since August 2012, working on this investigation on an unpaid basis.
“My client,” he added, “is upstairs.”
The Mensch List: Putting Sunday sports in play
Nowhere in the Torah does it say: “And on the seventh day, God played soccer.” Which is too bad for observant Jewish youths who would love to take advantage of the many local sports leagues that play on Saturdays.
Fortunately, there are Dr. Matthew Lefferman and Eric Weissman. These two members of the Modern Orthodox congregation B’nai David-Judea in Pico-Robertson have worked tirelessly to ensure the presence of Sunday sports games locally.
“People are delighted to know that there is an opportunity for their kids to participate in athletic opportunities and still practice their Judaism as they want to,” said Weissman, 38, a father of two.
The pair have taken a three-pronged approach. Both men coach with the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), which already had Sunday games. Lefferman, who coaches two teams, has acted as an unofficial liaison to help recruit Sunday players, coaches and referees.
They also lobbied Beverly Hills Little League to create a Sunday division, then helped structure and run it. Now they sit on its board.
In order to further expand opportunities for Jewish youths, they formed the nonprofit Maccabee Athletic Club (MAC) a year ago. It started with a club soccer team and this year is expanding to basketball and flag football.
Story continues after the video.
Moshava returns to Los Angeles
It really bothered Jonathan Gerber, a 30-year-old financial adviser and resident of Pico-Robertson, that there was no Modern Orthodox sleep-away camp in Los Angeles. Ever since the Zionist youth group Bnei Akiva discontinued its Moshava Los Angeles camp in the mid-1990s, local kids had been forced to head East for a similar summer overnight experience.
“Each summer, there’s a planeload of 48 students going to the East Coast,” Gerber said.
And that’s not all. Hundreds of Orthodox kids are thought to leave Southern California for sleep-away camp every summer. Many Orthodox kids also attend the Conservative Camp Ramah in Ojai.
Gerber believed that a local option that matched the Modern Orthodox observance families practiced at home would give more kids a chance to have a summer experience that studies have shown can strongly impact Jewish identity.
So during a conversation in May with Ari Moss, his friend and then-president of the Shalom Institute in Malibu, Gerber floated the idea of borrowing the institute’s 220-acre campground and retreat facility for a two-week Modern Orthodox camp.
His dream finally will take shape this summer in the form of Moshava Malibu (moshavamalibu.org), where officials hope to attract 150 boys and girls Aug. 11-25. Tuition is $2,000, with a special early-bird rate of $1,800 available until Jan. 1. Applicants must currently be in grades 3-9.
It helped that the nondenominational Shalom Institute, which hosts the Big Jewish Tent events as well as its own camp and retreats, was interested in engaging the Modern Orthodox community.
Gerber next reached out to Bnei Akiva — which runs camps and programs throughout North America and Israel and has a strong presence in Los Angeles — and offered it the opportunity to bring a Moshava camp back to Los Angeles.
Moshava — a moshav is a cooperative agricultural settlement in the State of Israel — has become synonymous in the Modern Orthodox community with popular sleep-away camps that promote religious Zionism, aliyah (immigration to Israel) and outdoor experiences.
Another draw of Moshava is the emphasis on youth leadership, according to Shimi Baras, shaliach (emissary) for Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles.
“This is the only place where programs are run by high school kids. There’s no professional staff,” he said. “There’s a lot of independence … high-schoolers are the counselors; a lot of them later get management and leadership positions and say they learned the leadership in Bnei Akiva.”
Until now, other Moshava camps, such as Wild Rose in Wisconsin or Camp Stone in Pennsylvania, have benefited from the leadership provided by Los Angeles youths.
Rabbi Kenny Pollack, an L.A. native and Moshava veteran who was hired to be the director of Moshava Malibu, said the approach to camping is experiential.
“In terms of a sleep-away camp, it’s very unique in that you’re running a tochnit — a program — that’s Zionistic and experiential in education. We’re not going to offer Torah out of a book. … Instead of learning about olive oil and grape juice, we’ll be making it.”
The camp also will feature traditional summer activities — swimming, archery, hiking, organic farming, a ropes course and other outdoor fun.
While this first session will run for two weeks, the camp hopes to expand eventually.
“Ultimately, within the next five years, the goal would be to have a full summer program — two four-week sessions — and a week-long winter camp,” Gerber said.
And while a full summer session might require Moshava Malibu to get its own space, Gerber hopes to continue the model of leveraging the current infrastructure.
“This is a great model of combining three teams: the Shalom Institute, which has the actual facility; Bnei Akiva of North America, which is providing registration services and programming and hiring of staff; and then Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles,” which is doing recruitment and helping in other ways.
Baras also hopes that the camp will help position Los Angeles as a West Coast Bnei Akiva center. In the last year or two, he has reached out to Jewish communities in the West like San Francisco, Denver and even Mexico for Shabbatons and retreats, and he is stepping up his outreach in advance of Moshava Malibu registration.
The stakes are high for Gerber, who sees camping as an effective, low-cost tool to keep young Jews impassioned and connected.
“Take a look at the Ramah community, which is keeping Conservative youth so impassioned,” he said.
Besides providing an enriching camp experience, the directors hope to transform the L.A. landscape with committed, leadership-oriented young Jews. Pollack predicted that down the road, having a Moshava camp here could increase the number of homegrown Jewish educators at local day schools.
The L.A. camp director, who lives and works as a teacher in Cleveland during the school year, called Moshava, “a camp incubator of educators.” He said that many of his fellow teachers in Cleveland went through the Moshava camps and were trained early to become leaders and educators.
“We are all products, and that model is where L.A. could be,” he said.
General Assembly: Three Jews in Baltimore
If you’ve ever been to one of those giant auto shows where hundreds of gleaming new car models are lavishly displayed in a convention hall the size of Montana, you’ve got an idea of what it felt like last Sunday morning when I entered the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly (commonly known as the “GA”), which is being held this year at the Baltimore Convention Center.
The scores of booths laid out in giant rows are what the organizers call The GA Marketplace, a modern-day shuk of Jewish causes where advocates seduce you with free chocolate or other goodies so that you’ll hear about some new village they’re building in Africa, or some new Web site that will “revolutionize” Jewish education, or some new movement that will attract the “new generation.”
Not all causes in the shuk are revolutionary. Many booths promote venerable institutions like the “Joint” (JDC) or Hillel, various marketing vendors or even book publishers (yes, they still have those). But regardless of the causes, the larger-than-life quality of the assembly gives the enterprise a certain grandeur and headiness.
You feel this headiness when you attend the GA’s many conferences, which are spread out over three days and attract top speakers from the Jewish world.
You can tell from their titles that the conferences deal only with the big stuff: “Words of Hate, Words of Hope: When External Events Shape Jewish Identity,” “Can the Jewish World Leverage Israeli Expertise in the Developing World,” “Legacy Versus Innovation: A False Dichotomy” and “Connecting the Dots in the Global Jewish Network,” among many others.
While I certainly enjoyed the conferences, I have to say that what stuck with me the most — besides the fact that I collected a briefcase full of business cards and brochures — was my Sunday encounter in the shuk with three Jews.
These are not the kind of Jews I might bump into in my Pico-Robertson neighborhood.
One was a Karaite Jew, the other a Humanistic Jew and the third a leader of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews.
I had heard of Karaite Jews, but I had never met one. So, when I saw a Karaite banner over one of the booths, I didn’t need any chocolate to draw me in. The lady behind the booth seemed amused by all my questions.
“We’re Jews, just like you,” she kept saying.
Well, yes and no. Karaite Jews are a lot more rebellious than I am.
As it says in one of their brochures, “Karaism accepts the Jewish Bible as the word of God and as the sole religious authority,” while rejecting “human additions to the Torah such as the Rabbinic Oral Law.”
In other words, Karaite Jews reject what is generally considered the most important interpretive text of Judaism: the Talmud. That’s one reason, for example, why they allow cheeseburgers and don’t light Shabbat candles.
They believe that theirs is “the original form of Judaism commanded by God” and that “every Jew has the obligation to study the Torah and decide for him/herself the correct interpretation of God’s commandments.”
After my encounter with Jews who reject our talmudic Sages, I discovered Jews who reject God Himself: Humanistic Jews. (Seriously, how much can a tolerant Jew from Pico-Robertson take?)
Actually, Humanistic Jews do have a sort of deity: His name is Darwin. They don’t go for all that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth …” biblical stuff. They’re the Big Bang Jews, and their big bang is peoplehood.
Language is important to them. Humanistic Jews don’t “pray” in “synagogues.” They celebrate in their congregations. And what they celebrate is the story of the Jewish people and the continuation of that story and culture. They just leave God out of the picture.
By the time I met the leader of a Jewish LGBT rights group, I think I was relieved to meet a Jew who rejected neither God nor the Talmud.
Idit Klein is the executive director of Keshet, a group “working for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in Jewish life.”
She didn’t flinch when I told her I wasn’t raised to be very accepting of things like a man becoming a woman, or vice versa, but she did say, “Let’s sit down and talk.”
We spent a good hour in one of the more honest and difficult conversations I’ve had in a while. This is a very delicate area, especially for a Jew raised in the Orthodox tradition, but her sensitivity and decency in the way she expressed herself (“full acceptance strengthens the core of a community”) is what moved me.
The truth is, it’s only when I meet Jews who are very different than I am — whether religiously, politically or culturally — that my love of “Big Tent Judaism” is really tested.
To pass this test, I have to be at my best — my most curious, my most open and my most honest. How ironic that encountering sharply different Jews can bring out the best in me.
Maybe it’s because it puts me in touch with one of the deepest things we can have in common: simple human decency.
It’s not the Talmud, it’s not God, and it’s not the big stuff you hear in conferences about the Jewish future, but it’s something.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at email@example.com
JFS announces program, staffing cuts
Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS) announced layoffs in some areas and expansion in other areas of its operation Oct. 16, saying it was looking to position JFS for success as it responds to shifts in how programs are funded.
“JFS must evolve to help ensure the safety, health and well-being of the vulnerable clients we serve is protected in a sustainable way,” said Paul S. Castro, CEO of JFS. “In this time of transition, JFS has reduced administrative costs and staffing, increased fundraising efforts and is pursuing new service models where funding is stronger and more certain.”
JFS serves about 100,000 clients of all backgrounds a year and has a budget of about $30 million.
Sixteen managerial, administrative and union staffers received layoff notices, and another eight employees were offered reduced hours, which will save JFS around $800,000 annually. The cuts will reduce, but not eliminate, programs for the homeless, for seniors at the Valley Storefront as well as counseling and social work services for the Orthodox.
“Each of these areas represent a vulnerability for the organization, and have a history of not meeting their bottom line. The agency has always absorbed those losses, and now we’re looking at a point in time where it doesn’t make sense for us to do that,” Castro said.
The squeeze comes both from instability in local, state and federal funding, as well as sluggish fundraising and donors making gifts to specific programs, Castro said.
At the same time, JFS is expanding in areas that are receiving increased government funding, specifically health care and mental health. Some of the laid-off staff will be offered positions for new programs in those areas.
Both the Valley Storefront in North Hollywood and the Pico-Robertson Storefront will cut hours and services, effective Nov. 16. Valley Storefront’s Senior Center director care was laid off, and it will lose one day a week of senior programming. Other services, including the daily meal program, will remain at five days a week.
Pico-Robertson will have some of its counseling programs cut to three days a week. Aleinu Family Resource Center, which serves the Orthodox community, was reduced from five to three days a week, and its director, Debbie Fox, was let go. Management of Aleinu will be distributed among other layers of administrators, Castro said. The client base will still have access to social workers on the off days through SOVA Community Food and Resource Program, which runs out of Pico-Robertson and has counselors on site.
The senior programs at Pico-Robertson and senior programs at four other sites have government contracts and will continue to operate five days a week. The newly reduced Valley Storefront senior program does not receive state funding and is entirely dependent on private donors.
Gramercy Place, a family homeless shelter that JFS has operated for 25 years, will be converted into a domestic violence shelter. Castro said that homeless services are primarily funded by federal dollars, which has become a shaky source of funding. Government funding for domestic violence is more stable, and JFS has more expertise and infrastructure in the area of domestic violence than in homelessness.
In areas of growth, JFS recently announced a two-year, $3.6 million contract, through the Affordable Care Act, which will bring together hospitals, mental-health professionals and care facilities under JFS leadership to provide community-based services to reduce unnecessary re-hospitalizations among seniors.
Two other new programs will assist the frail elderly and disabled in integrating into California’s new managed care system and in receiving home-based services to avoid institutionalization. County funding will help JFS expand mental health services for the Farsi-speaking community.
All of these, Castro said, are areas that seem, for now, to have stable funding, unlike the areas that were cut.
“These are staffers who have been part of the JFS family for quite a long time. Throughout the agency, people are watchful in terms of what this means. We would love to give assurance that this will never happen again, that this will be the fix. What we are clear on is that we can say that we will keep our eye on what trends look like,” Castro said.
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:
Putting the brakes on runaway shopping carts
On a recent Friday afternoon, Mariz Mosseri went shopping for groceries, as she does on most Fridays. She trolled the aisles of Elat Market and Glatt Mart, Pico-Robertson’s two largest kosher supermarkets, which sit side-by-side on Pico Boulevard.
Mosseri bought meat, vegetables, sliced bread and other necessities for Shabbat, and when she finished at the checkout, she pushed her black-metal shopping cart, brimming with plastic bags, out into the street and continued with it down the alley that runs behind the markets, and then turned onto Wooster Street.
After speaking to this reporter, she headed home with her cartful of goods. Twenty minutes later, the cart was sitting empty in the driveway in front of her apartment.
“They have a truck, they pick it up,” Mosseri explained.
These days, Mosseri’s actions are standard practice in the neighborhood.
But talk to the grocers, who typically spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars each month retrieving carts from around the neighborhood, and also shell out even more to replace dozens that go missing each year, and you’ll learn that they wish they could find a way, perhaps using technology, to keep those same carts from leaving their stores’ premises at all.
These stores face a problem that larger groceries do not — parking is seriously limited in their lots. So they’ve tolerated the practice of people walking off with the carts — and paid dearly — to accommodate their customers.
In May, the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance sponsored by Councilman Tony Cardenas mandating that no new stores will operate the way these stores do. The ordinance requires that all newly built and significantly remodeled stores with six or more shopping carts implement a retention system to keep them on site, and a spokesperson from Cardenas’ office said the city plans to study whether and how to expand the law to include existing stores as well. Such a plan could force the Pico-Robertson markets to change their shopping-cart usage policy.
For now, however, well-dressed people pushing shopping carts up and down sidewalks, and leaving those carts on the streets, are as common a sight in this densely populated and very Jewish neighborhood as the temporary booths that will pop up on lawns when Sukkot arrives in October.
The carts get picked up quickly, so what in other neighborhoods might immediately become unwelcome urban blight, in Pico-Robertson is more likely a potential hazard to a parked car’s paint job.
What for regular customers at the four major kosher grocery stores in Pico-Robertson is a welcome convenience is, for the owners, one more cost of doing business. New shopping carts go for about $100 apiece, and the owners know what the current “release and retrieve” system is costing them.
“This is the biggest problem we have in the store,” said Kevin Novin, who has managed Elat Market since it opened more than 25 years ago. He estimated that over that time he has spent more than $1 million for carts, and that he spends about $100,000 a year just on cart retrieval.
The owners of the other supermarkets in the heart of the neighborhood — Glatt Mart, Livonia Glatt Market just a few blocks to the west, and Pico Glatt Mart, which is about a mile away — told much the same story.
“I’m supposed to have 40 [carts], but every six months, I usually have to purchase 20 more,” said Farzad Kohanzadeh, owner of the 2,300-square-foot Livonia Glatt Market.
The missing carts often don’t turn up — Kohanzadeh said he once saw an unfamiliar truck come through the neighborhood late at night, picking up carts off the street, never to return.
But when missing carts do reappear, it can be in very unlikely locations.
“We have people who call us from the Hollywood Hills, ‘Come and pick up your shopping cart,’ ” Glatt Mart owner Meir Davidpour said. “We had one by Dodger Stadium.”
For now, the “one-way rental” of a store’s shopping cart has proved popular among customers, so much so that all four of the stores have hired an independent contractor to retrieve the carts from around the neighborhood, at a cost of $2 a cart.
On a Tuesday afternoon, a beat-up truck pulled up to the driveway of Elat Market laden with carts collected from driveways, alleyways and doorways, as well as sidewalks, front lawns and street curbs. The carts sat on the truck’s wide, low flatbed, held in place by a mixture of straps and chains.
The driver pulled the carts off the back of the truck, one by one.
“Twelve,” he called out to Mordechai when all the yellow-handled carts were on the pavement.
Mordechai, who gave only his first name, manages the market’s loading dock (which doubles as rear entrance) on a part-time basis; he made a note on a sheet of paper, and the truck, which also unloaded a couple of Glatt Mart’s red-and-black carts, turned back into the street, away from Glatt Mart, to continue its rounds.
All the stores’ regulars know about the cart-collecting truck.
Mermell Nicholas, 93, travels by bus from his apartment in Beverly Hills to shop at the kosher markets twice a week. On a Tuesday afternoon, he was sitting on a bench near a bus stop at the intersection of Pico and Robertson. Next to him was a Glatt Mart cart with a few bags inside.
He said he’d seen the cart-collecting truck the previous week, and said that watching the workers lift the heavy steel carts onto the truck’s flatbed was “amazing.”
“You push it down, the back wheels, and the front end flies up,” Nicholas said.
Of course, not everybody likes the truck — or the carts it collects.
“The only time we have peace is Friday afternoon, Saturday, and Sunday morning. Other than that, you park your car at your own risk,” said Lisbeth Caiaffa, who has lived three doors down from the Elat Market parking lot since 2003. “It’s a war zone during the week.”
Spotting a reporter taking notes, a few neighbors stopped for a moment in front of Caiaffa’s lawn.
“They’ve hit my car,” a broad-shouldered man wearing a baseball cap said, before continuing down Wooster. “Those trucks are wide.”
But if the trucks and the carts are an annoyance to some, the biggest complaints from the neighbors relate to parking. Caiaffa expressed frustration at having to compete for street parking with the customers from Elat Market and Glatt Mart.
Some will even park a cart in the street, “as a strategy to block off a parking space,” Caiaffa said.
She is just as annoyed with customers who idle in their cars in the middle of the street, waiting to make the turn into the Elat or Glatt parking lots.
“The LAPD needs to come down here and start ticketing people for blocking the street,” said Brooks Thomas, who lives on Wooster.
Paul Neuman, director of communications for Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz, who represents the district, said that some neighbors have contacted the office.
“There have been some constituent calls and comments, but they have lessened a bit as of late,” Neuman said, adding that the markets had increased their staffing of their parking lots recently.
The new city ordinance doesn’t apply to existing stores — although the city has instructed its planning department to conduct a study on how to apply the requirement to keep carts on grocery properties. And, if that requirement were implemented, it could require the owners of the Pico-Robertson markets to hire additional staff to escort every shopping cart that went out their doors, no matter whether the customer wanted assistance or not.
The stores already do some of this, to varying degrees. Moreover, in addition to paying the independent cart collector for his services, the groceries’ owners also periodically instruct their staff to pick up any carts left outside in the area immediately surrounding their stores.
But the other “containment systems” — physical barriers and electronic wheel-locking mechanisms — aren’t options for these grocers.
For one, all four stores have parking lots that are not immediately adjacent to their buildings, which means customers must cross city-owned or private property — streets and alleys, for example — so erecting a physical barrier to prevent the carts from leaving the stores would also cut off customer access to the parking lot. Furthermore, according to Elat Market’s Novin and Glatt Mart’s Davidpour, the city will not allow the grocery store owners to install the electronic perimeters that are necessary to run a wheel-locking system that would cross those city-owned sidewalks or alleys.
And as for the truck that currently trolls the streets in Pico-Robertson, that wouldn’t satisfy the new ordinance as written.
“That’s not a containment system. That’s a retrieval system,” said Tom Rothmann of the Los Angeles City Planning Department. “The point is to not let them go off the site.”
Rothmann said that the future for Pico-Robertson shoppers might look something like other cities, where folding carts — “granny wagons” — are sold at the register “for a nominal fee.”
“People in New York walk more than half a block with their groceries,” he said.
“We would love to set up barriers,” Glatt Mart’s Davidpour said. He and his co-owners also own Cambridge Farms, a kosher grocery store in Valley Village, and there they use a wheel-locking system for the store and its adjacent lot, Davidpour said.
“We have about 300 shopping carts and we haven’t lost a single one in the last four years,” Davidpour said.
According to a leading manufacturer of cart-retention systems, what Los Angeles won’t allow has already been done in other cities in California, including Sacramento, San Francisco and Long Beach.
“It’s a matter of what the particular design calls for — where the perimeter stopping point is to be placed — and what are the city’s proclivities,” John French, the founder and CEO of Carttronics, said. His San Diego-based company has installed 3,000 cart retention systems in 35 counties. “In the case of L.A., I would think that they would be willing to be accommodating.”
In the meantime, many customers appear to be doing what they can to make sure that the carts don’t go missing. One Friday afternoon, I saw a woman heading toward Pico Glatt Mart pick up a cart on her way to the store and push it down the block, into the store.
And it turned out that Mermell Nicholas, the 93-year-old on the bench at the neighborhood’s eponymous intersection, wasn’t waiting for the bus that stops on the south side of Pico. He got up, took his bags out of the shopping cart and carried them across the street to the stop for the bus that heads north on Robertson.
Nicholas explained that pushing the cart across Pico would make it more difficult for the cart to make it back to the store.
But was it really necessary to take the cart down the block in the first place?
Nicholas — who was carrying 20 pounds of fruit and vegetables, not to mention eggs, soup mix, and some other items — put it this way.
“Every bit helps.”
L.A.’s French Jews react to Toulouse killings
French Jews in Southern California reacted with sadness and disgust, but not surprise, to the shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, that left three children and one teacher dead.
“In France you are scared – you cannot even wear a kippah on the street,” said Francky Perez, who moved with his wife from Paris to Los Angeles three years ago to allow their children, now 6 and 7, to express their Judaism in a safe environment. “Even if what happened in Toulouse turns out not to be anti-Semitism, you cannot pretend that hate doesn’t exist in France. It’s a reality.”
At press time Tuesday, the gunman remained at large. On Monday, a man on a motorcycle opened fire as students and parents were entering Ozar Hatorah at the start of the day, then chased students into the school as he continued shooting. Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 30, and his two sons, Gavriel, 3, and Aryeh, 6, were killed. The school’s principal, Rabbi Yaacov Monsonego, saw his 7-year-old daughter Miriam killed in front of him. A 17-year-old boy is in critical condition.
The area in southwestern France remains under heavy security.
“We’re all absolutely shocked. A tragedy like this shows the worst of human nature, if we can still talk about human nature in this case,” said David Martinon, France’s consul general in Los Angeles.
French investigators have linked the shooting at the 200-student school to two shootings in the area last week that killed three soldiers and left another critically injured. The soldiers were of North African and Caribbean descent.
Tiny shul faces eviction threat
“I call it a hub, like the airlines, Mikhael Maimon said. “When people want help, they come through our doors. And when people want to help others, they come here.” Maimon is director of Kollel Rashbi Ari shul in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. The shul got its start when the artist Chaim Mekel used the space as a studio, then slowly became a place of worship as Mekel studied kabbalah and Torah in his free time. Kollel Rashbi Ari thus began as a nondenominational center. As an interviewer speaks to Maimon, people wander in from the street, wanting a hot meal or needing to borrow Maimon’s cell phone.
Nine months ago, Maimon became director of the 15-year-old shul. Located in a tiny space, just 700 square feet, it includes a mikveh for men, as well as a table for studying and a kitchen that produces food for the hungry any time of day.
“We are for the people and about the people,” Maimon said. With its mission as a “center for spiritual and material sustenance,” Kollel Rashbi Ari holds a daily minyan and serves more than 200 people at a weekly Shabbat dinner. The food is donated by caterers, and the shul is run by donations and volunteers.
In addition to feeding the hungry, the center helps find housing for the homeless. However, despite their best efforts, financial problems persist. The building that houses the shul is leased from the MCM Property Management Co., and MCM has threatened eviction multiple times, because, Maimon admits, “We don’t pay the rent really ever on time, but we always pay.” Kollel Rashbi Ari pays $2,100 a month for the space, which includes utilities, but it often pays up to three weeks late. They were given a three-day eviction notice just before Rosh Hashanah last fall, and were served with a 30-day notice after that.
Kollel Rashbi Ari reached an understanding with the management company, who, Maimon said, agreed that it wasn’t “a good idea to close down a shul,” and it has so far been allowed to remain open.
“So, we were going to have a fresh start and sign a new lease. See, it was a Rosh Hashanah miracle.” The rent has been paid through January, but not yet for February and March, but there have been no recent eviction notices posted on the door. The problem is, Maimon said, the writ of execution remains open with the sheriff’s department, which means the management company can “merely push the button, and the sheriff will show up and evict us.” MCM Property Management declined to comment for this article.
Maimon said that paying the rent on time isn’t always possible. “We don’t always have the money on time, and we have to take care of the people who walk in the door as well. But, hopefully there will be a large donation coming through that will take care of all of our financial troubles. We just need to be allowed to stay long enough for that to happen.”