Number of Israeli poor drops slightly


The number of poor in Israel dropped last year to its lowest levels since 2003, but one-third of Israeli children are living below the poverty line, according to a new report.

The National Insurance Institute’s 2010 poverty report shows that some 433,300 Israeli households, comprised of 1,733,400 individuals, are living below the poverty line. Some 837,000 of them are children.

In 2010, some 19.8 percent of Israeli families lived in poverty, compared to 20.5 percent in 2009, according to the report. Poverty in Israel is at its lowest level since 2003.

The percentage of working families living below the poverty line increased from 49 percent in 2009 to 50.6 percent in 2010.

Thousands of Israeli demonstrated over the summer calling for social justice and more economic equality. A government panel was established to respond to the protests.

The panel, known as the Trajtenberg committee, recommended expanding social welfare spending by $8 billion over five years.

“At the outset, my government set for itself the goal of reducing social gaps and the number of poor in Israel,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said following the report’s release. “A main way to reduce gaps and lower the cost-of-living is to participate in the financing of children’s education, provide equal opportunities in education and personally invest in students. Implementing the Trajtenberg committee recommendations, as well as instituting a negative income tax, increasing participation in the labor force and continuing to lower unemployment will further improve the situation for weaker populations in Israel.”

Netanyahu unveils plan to combat housing crunch


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unveiled sweeping housing reforms in Israel.

Netanyahu convened a news conference with his finance and construction ministers Tuesday to announce a plan under which Israel will provide low-rent housing for students and the poor, ease regulations on land and realty sales, and improve public transportation from cities to their periphery.

The prime minister said the “huge changes” stemming from the plan, called “Residence in Reach,” would start going into effect next week, ahead of the Knesset’s summer recess.

“The housing crisis in Israel is a real crisis,” he said in comments carried live on television and radio. “It is not something that somebody is fabricating nor something that is artificial. It is a real problem and anybody with eyes in his head and empathy in his heart understands that this is a problem.”

According to the findings of a newspaper survey, Netanyahu’s popularity has been sapped by escalating Israeli demonstrations against the high cost of living.

The Haaretz poll published Tuesday found that 32 percent of Israelis are satisfied with the prime minister, while 54 are not—an almost exact reversal of data from a May survey cited by the liberal newspaper when Netanyahu was riding high from the standing ovations he received after addressing the U.S. Congress about his vision for peace in the Middle East.

National priorities have since shifted to economic woes, with doctors going on strike for better wages and conditions and hundreds of young people camping out in tents and staging street demonstrations to demand lower property prices.

L.A.’s Top Ten Mensches — big hearted Angelenos


“It is hard to convey the special sense of respect, dignity and approbation that can be conveyed by calling someone ‘a real mensch,'” writes Leo Rosten in “The Joys of Yiddish.”

The Yiddish word infuses the basic German denotation — “person” — with an almost indefinable connotation. A mensch is a person who is upright, honorable, decent, as Rosten writes, a person to admire and emulate.

Boy, could we use some now.

As the last pieces of 2008 crash down around us, there is ample evidence that mensch-hood (more properly, menschlikayt) is in short supply, at least judging by headlines. Worse, the Bernard Madoff scandal revealed a disturbing tendency to hide chicanery under the guise of do-goodery. Madoff, his middlemen and some charitable boards were doing good while doing wrong — either out of evil, in Madoff’s case, or, at best perhaps, just out of gullibility and incompetence.

So we look to The Journal’s fourth annual Top Ten Mensches list to brighten our spirits and boost our hopes for a better year. As the stories here demonstrate, these are people who in the course of lives no less hectic and demanding than our own, facing temptations no less alluring than those we all confront, manage to reach out and help others, making the world a better place, day in and day out.

The Jewish Journal created this list as a response to all those lists extolling fame, money, power and hot-ness. We honor these special ten because they are just people — menschen, to use the proper Yiddish plural — who understand the power and possibility of what just one person can do to help others.

Thank you to all our mensches, and to all who offered up names for consideration. Maybe next year we’ll all be candidates for the list….

Gabriel Halimi: Partying For a Cause

It was a stuttering problem that turned Gabriel Halimi into a mensch.

“I had a really bad stutter when I was kid,” the now 27-year-old recalled recently. “My therapist said I needed to speak up in class and try to get myself to talk more, and then I started falling into leadership activities because it forced me to talk.”

Dressed in a pink shirt and a brown blazer, Halimi looks much like the young professionals he now helps lead in the 4-year-old Beverly Hills-based nonprofit, Society of Young Philanthropists (SYP).

By day, Halimi works at ACG, a real estate consulting firm. But he recently passed the California Bar exam and said he hopes to be practicing as an attorney by February.

In addition to working full time and attending Loyola Law School, Halimi is one of 25 young professionals who helped found SYP and is currently serving as one of its board members. The philosophy behind SYP, Halimi said, is simple.

“We wanted to do well in our work,” he said. “We wanted to party, and we wanted to do something bigger than ourselves, and that’s kinda where SYP was born.”

Halimi grew up in Los Angeles, attending Temple Emanuel Community Day School before eventually transferring to Beverly Hills public schools. But Halimi said it wasn’t until college that his Jewish roots really took hold.

At UC Santa Barbara, Halimi joined the Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, and became immersed in its world of partying and doing good.

“He was really seen as a leader even among his peers,” said Elishia Shokrian Bolour, a childhood friend who, along with Halimi, helped found SYP.

However, Halimi insists that working with SYP has demanded little self-sacrifice. Throughout the year, SYP holds events — big, bold, boisterous events — and rather than have all the money go to the DJ, the club or the liquor, the majority of the proceeds (about 70 percent) goes to charity.

“We just kinda wanted to get people to think in more philanthropic terms,” Halimi said. “If you’re going to be doing this anyway [partying], you might as well be doing it for a good cause.”

On May 14, 2005, Halimi and his friends launched SYP’s first event by pulling all their resources together and throwing a huge bash in Beverly Hills.

Approximately 500 young Angelenos — mostly ages 18-30 — raised close to $70, 000 for three Jewish organizations: IMA Foundation, which is dedicated to disaster relief in Israel; the educational foundation Magbit, which helps those in Israel gain a higher education; and Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish drug rehabilitation center in Culver City.

Halimi said his favorite SYP cause so far, however, has been one that doesn’t directly involve the Jewish community: Darfur.

“It was just so beautiful,” Halimi said, referring to the $45,000 SYP donated to American Jewish World Service’s relief work in Darfur. “We could see beyond ourselves and recognize that there are a lot of people out there that could use our help.”
“It goes to the principle of tikkun olam,” healing the world, he said.

SYP is not a Jewish organization, although most of those involved have grown up within the Jewish community, and the nonprofit does not make any outright political statements.

“We don’t want to take any kind of political stance that might alienate someone,” he said.

The organization chooses the causes it supports democratically, allowing every member to have a say in the direction of the nonprofit.

In addition to SYP, Halimi is involved in 30 Years After, a nonprofit dedicated to uniting the Iranian American Jewish community, and the Lev Foundation, which promotes balanced, responsible living and is named in honor of Daniel Levian, a recent victim of a drunk driving accident.

When asked, Halimi said he doesn’t consider himself a mensch — he’s not worthy, he claimed — but he offered up this definition of one: “Someone who can see past themselves.”

But just ask Rhoda Weisman, executive director of the Professional Leaders Project, an organization dedicated to developing the next generation of Jewish leaders. She said, “In all honesty, if you were to ask me what a definition of a mensch is, I would name you Gabe.”

— Lilly Fowler, Contributing Writer

Kim Krowne: ‘Hakuna Matata’Means Bringing Hope to Tanzanian Kids

Kim Krowne thought she’d be attending medical school. Instead, the 24-year-old Northridge native, a graduate of Sierra Canyon and Milken Community High School, spent most of 2007 and 2008 in Tanzania, improving the lives of orphaned children and many villagers. She’s been home for the past several months and plans to return to Africa in January.

ALTTEXTOnce a “total planner,” Krowne’s current philosophy of life is more hakuna matata — “there’s no problem” in Swahili, a language she speaks fluently. “Obviously, this was not my plan. But I love it. There’s so much work to be done,” she said.

The focus of her passion is the Matumaini Child Care Center, a small three-room building in the village of Rau that houses 20 children, ages 6 to 15. Krowne discovered it in the fall of 2006 while taking a year off after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where she fulfilled her premed requirements while majoring in the sociology and anthropology of health, concentrating on Africa.

At that time, the nongovernmental, nonreligious and nonprofit Matumaini Center cared for eight children whose parents had either died of HIV/AIDS, were alcoholic or couldn’t afford their care. Newly opened, it desperately needed funds for food and school fees, less than $20 annually per student. Krowne immediately e-mailed family and friends and raised $1,000.

She came home in March 2007 knowing she would return. Her last week there, she had met Michelle Kowalczyk, 27 and a nurse, and asked her to look after the kids, who then numbered 20. Kowalczyk also became enamored.

The following December, Krowne and Kowalczyk together formed a nonprofit, Knock Foundation (www.knockfoundation.org), to help solicit donations and grants. They also signed a five-year contract with Matumaini (meaning hope in Swahili) to fund the nonprofit and become decision-making partners.

When they returned to Tanzania they facilitated a host of improvements, including providing the children with nutritious meals, medical and dental care and school uniforms and supplies and paying salaries to the orphanage workers.

They also had bunk beds built in the rooms, upgraded the latrines, improved the general cleanliness and constructed a chicken coop on the property.

Their reach extends as well to the greater community in Rau and nearby villages, with the goal of making families more self-sufficient. One such effort, dubbed the Piggery Project, has provided 50 families with supplies needed to build a pig hut, as well as two pigs to raise. The families will keep some of the proceeds from the sale of the pigs and reinvest the remainder. They hope to expand the project.

They have also renovated a government medical clinic and dispensary in Shimbwe, the only health facility available to serve thousands of people in the Kilimanjaro region. In addition to repairing the clinic’s roof and painting its rooms, they purchased laboratory materials and medications.

Plus, they organized a two-day life skills and HIV/AIDS seminar in conjunction with a local NGO that was attended by 100 women and children. It will become a yearly event.

To date, Krowne and Kowalczyk have raised about $85,000 and need an additional $35,000 for 2009 to sustain the current projects. They would also like to construct a new building for Matumaini, start another orphanage and help provide secondary and university education for the children, among other dreams.

Kowalczyk marvels at Krowne’s ability to transcend barriers. “Kim has been able to reach people who otherwise would have been untouched,” she said. “We’ll be doing this for the rest of our lives.”

To make a donation or for more information, visit www.knockfoundation.org, call (818) 831-6075 or e-mail kim@knockfoundation.org.

— Jane Ulman, Contributing Editor

Food prices squeeze Israel’s needy


TEL AVIV (JTA) – It’s mid-afternoon and Michael Dahan is buying food for his first meal of the day. With rising food prices compounding his already dire economic situation, it has become his habit to skip meals, he admits.

“What can I do?” the unemployed 49-year-old says with a shrug, holding the small carton of milk he has just bought at a grocery store in the rundown Shapira neighborhood of south Tel Aviv. “I hardly have anything to get by on once I’ve paid rent and utilities.”

A block away, on a sidewalk strewn with cigarette butts and plastic bags, Maria Arnov, 28, an immigrant from Latvia and mother of two, says food prices have changed the way she shops. Arnov goes to the store less often and cuts corners wherever she can, like buying cheaper frozen meat and not buying the type of rice her family favors because its price has doubled in the past three months.

Israel, like many parts of the world, has seen food staples such as meat, rice and vegetables rise significantly. Its poor, already struggling to make ends meet, have been hardest hit—along with the nonprofit groups that serve them.

Although it is rare for Israelis to go hungry, food insecurity is a growing problem in their nation as traditional social safety nets fall short and nearly a quarter of Israeli families find themselves subsisting on less nutritious diets than before.

Many of the nonprofit groups that deliver food to the needy say they have been reeling from the one-two punch of rising prices and a sinking dollar.

In Israel, groups that rely in large part on funds raised in the United States have been forced by the dollar’s plunge to cut back on services, sometimes reducing the number of families they serve by as much as 40 percent.

In Beersheva, the social assistance group Beit Moriah has had to reduce the number of food packages it delivers to families every month to 200, down from 500 last year.

At From the Heart, an organization in Rishon LeZion that runs a food distribution project called Lev Chesed, volunteers are overwhelmed by requests they cannot meet.

“We have several hundred people on our waiting lists, but it’s not financially possible to help them,” said Ronen Ziv, the director of the group, which provides food packages to 700 families per week. “We have no government assistance.”

With budgets becoming leaner, government officials for the first time are pushing to develop a policy to combat food insecurity. The first-ever interministerial report on the subject was completed recently, and legislation is pending in the Knesset for a new council on food security to be created to develop coordinated policies to tackle the problem.

The ministerial report, which is pending Cabinet approval, recommends increasing annual state funding for nutrition and food insecurity to $10 million to $15 million from the current $1 million.

“There needs to be an appropriate range of government responses, from funding food assistance programs, to reducing state Value Added Tax on staple foods, to ensuring that having basic foods is seen as a right for all Israelis,” said Batya Kallus, the director of the Forum to Address Food Insecurity and Poverty in Israel.

The forum, which conducts research, engineered the establishment of Leket, Israel’s first national food bank.

Established last year, Leket is based on the model of U.S. community food banks. It attempts to coordinate and streamline the efforts of many nonprofit food agencies. In the past decade the number of such groups has grown to about 400, which collectively distribute some 20,000 tons of food per year.

“What we have been seeing in purchasing food to be donated is that people are paying a huge range of prices, from rock bottom to retail,” Kallus said. “We have tried to make sense of that by creating a central purchasing division where organizations can come to Leket and we offer them a wide basket of foods they can purchase that we offer at the lowest possible prices.”

In a 2003 study on food insecurity in Israel commissioned by Leket from the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, researchers found that some 22 percent of Israelis are unable to provide for their basic nutritional needs on a daily basis.

A father of eight in Jerusalem whose family has slipped into poverty after emigrating from the United States many years ago says he lives with food insecurity every day.

“When there is food we are happy, when there isn’t we are not,” said the man, who asked not to be identified. “It’s not a matter of decision-making. When there’s just no money, there is no food.”

He says there are days when the family goes without food.

Ido Nachum, a spokesman for Israel’s welfare ministry, says he hopes the interministerial report’s recommendations will be adopted, including increased state investment and oversight of nonprofits, the establishment of the national council on food insecurity, expanding a hot lunch program for schoolchildren and ensuring government subsidies for those who cannot afford to feed their families adequately.

Far from the corridors of national decision-making, Dahan, the unemployed man in south Tel Aviv, shuffles away with his small bag of provisions, hoping for better days.

AUDIO: Iranian American Jews — reaching out to poor and homeless in the city


Local Iranian American Jews are reaching out to the poor and homeless in the city of Los Angeles

” title=”Iranian American Jews”>Iranian American Jews blog.

Yes on Measure H: a measure of humanity


Has anyone else noticed that the only difference between your local Starbucks and your local homeless shelter is the shelter has a faster turnover?

Every Starbucks I visit these days, from Koreatown to Santa Monica, has its own homeless population. Calling these men and women transients is actually wishful thinking. They come for the coffee and stay for the restroom and heating.

I don’t blame them, or Starbucks; I blame us. In a city of enormous wealth, we’ve allowed enormous numbers of poor and disabled men, women and children to fend for themselves. With 40,000 people asleep on the streets or in cars each night, Los Angeles has the largest homeless population of any city in the country.

At the same time, the homeless have become about as hip a cause as Sacheen Littlefeather. Sure your bar or bat mitzvah kid may throw a few dollars their way for a social action project, but obviously that’s a few billion short.

According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) survey, there are 88,000 homeless residents in L.A. County on any given day, and only 17,000 available beds.

Our government officials, prompted in no small part by a series of excellent stories by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, have sought to crack down on downtown’s Skid Row. But I was there last week, and it’s hard to see that the actual denizens got the message. The LAHSA survey found that there are 5,700 shelter beds for the row’s 20,000 “residents.” You can take people off the sidewalks, but where are you going to put them?

So now comes Measure H on the Nov. 7 ballot, which seeks to alleviate the symptoms of homelessness and address some of the root causes.

What’s interesting about Measure H is that it offers no single simple solution. About half the people on skid row are the chronic homeless — people who have mental or other disabilities, or addictions. But the others, according to LAHSA Commissioner Douglas Mirrell, are people who have fallen on hard times and simply can’t find their way into affordable housing in Los Angeles’ tight and pricey market. Mirrell said he still can’t forget visiting one shelter downtown and seeing people lining up for beds “wearing suits and carrying briefcases. They were working minimum-wage jobs as clerks and secretaries.” Any humane approach seeks to add more beds and services on Skid Row while enabling the working poor to get a foothold in Los Angeles’ skyrocketing housing market.

Measure H would enable the city to issue $1 billion in bonds to provide about 10,000 new homes and rental units over 10 years. These funds would be placed in the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and divvied so that $250 million would help working families buy their first home, $350 million would help build rental housing affordable to low-income working families, $250 million would build housing for homeless people, and $150 million would to be allocated for rental or homeless housing based on future needs.

The city administrative analyst reported that Measure H would cost the owner of a home with an assessed value of $500,000 another $73 a year for 30 years. The measure’s supporters include Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Police Chief Bill Bratton, the Rev. Gregory Boyle and the Progressive Jewish Alliance, as well as for-profit and nonprofit builders and developers who would, of course, get some of those home- and apartment-building funds. (Developers provided most of the money for the measure’s recent television ad campaign.)

The organized opposition is a smaller group that includes Jon Coupal, president of Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, and Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association. They’ve raised concerns that another bureaucracy may not act efficiently to get the monies where they’re needed. Opponents also claim that there are existing programs to help homebuyers and that Measure H is a payday for developers and builders.

Well, sure, but Jimmy Carter can’t do everything. Yes, somebody will make some profit in the course of providing more places for people to live. But in a city where even a postwar fixer-upper near Balboa Park will set you back $1 million, government has to play a role. Nearly 90 percent of those who live in Los Angeles can’t afford to buy a home here.

“We built affordable housing downtown, near the Harbor Freeway and Wilshire,” said Thomas Safran, a large manager and developer of affordable housing. “We had 2,700 applications for 73 places. The market never has solved this problem, never will.”

Safran, a Measure H supporter, has worked all sides of the housing market — starting his career in the Johnson administration at HUD, founding his own successful company, and volunteering for Menorah Housing, which builds low-income units around the city. He points out that people who decry taxpayer subsidies receive one every time they write off their mortgage interest. Measure H asks people to give back a little of the money they save on mortgage interest.

“Look,” he said, “I’m no great fan of super liberal Democratic policies, but the government and private sectors need to work together on this. It may not solve the problem completely, but the first step is the first step.”Or, I suppose, we can always hope they build more Starbucks.

And don’t forget to vote Nov. 7.

Jewish Poor Fear Stigma of Poverty


For Albert Osher, life was good. The co-owner of a Fairfax antique store that registered annual sales of $100,000, he enjoyed romantic dinners with his live-in girlfriend, theater and movies. To prepare for his impending retirement, the now-78-year-old New York native stashed away more than $100,000 in savings, a cushion that gave him a strong sense of financial security.

Like Osher, Linda (not her real name) lived well. Growing up on the Westside in a million-dollar home, the closest she ever came to poverty was when her Jewish youth group visited the occasional soup kitchen or homeless shelter.

After graduating from a University of California campus, Linda headed east to Washington, D.C., where she transformed herself from a political junkie into a political player. Between 1987 and 1993, she held several high-ranking positions on the staffs of prominent Democratic representatives and senators. Returning to Southern California to live closer to her family, Linda eventually parlayed her political skills into a local lobbying career.

On the surface, Osher and Linda would seem to make good poster children for ambitious, bright, successful Southland Jews. Dig a bit deeper, though, and the picture is less pretty. For different reasons, Osher and Linda found themselves in dire financial straits that threatened to plunge them into abject poverty.

That they both managed to pull themselves from the abyss in no way mitigates the real, albeit often-hidden, phenomena of Jewish poverty. A recent report by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles found that nearly one in five local Jews, or 104,000 out of 520,000, earns less than $25,000 a year, with 7 percent living beneath the poverty line. Los Angeles’ high cost of living makes it especially difficult on poor Jews, who often go without health insurance and are reluctant to ask for assistance.

“There’s a sense of shame and of not letting your peers know about your situation,” said Miriam Prum Hess, The Federation’s vice president for planning and allocations. “There’s a desire to make everything look OK. As a community, our challenge is to preserve people’s dignity and make it safe for them to receive needed services.”

Osher’s downward spiral began in the mid-1990s, when his live-in partner of nearly three decades, Sybil Kerns, fell ill. Wracked with diabetes, anemia and finally Alzheimer’s, she needed expensive in-home care and medicines only partially covered by insurance. To help out, Osher dipped into his savings and sold off Kerns’ antique doll collection for $30,000. Her care proved so costly, though, that he ended up going through all the money by the time Kerns died in 1999.

After her death, Osher found himself emotionally and financially spent. Nearly penniless, the proud entrepreneur took to eating free meals at friends’ and family’s homes and hitting them up for loans. Some nights, he said, he went to bed hungry.

To save what little money he had, Osher vacated the two-bedroom house he had rented with Kerns and moved into a small Fairfax apartment. His Social Security and disability checks bought some food but were not enough to cover the rent. His landlord soon evicted him.

Having exhausted his inner circle’s good will, Osher found himself on the streets. For an entire week, Osher, then in his 70s, spent his nights crisscrossing town on a bus, boarding at Melrose and getting off an hour and a half later at Santa Monica Beach. He would turn around and make the round-trip again and again and again.

“When you’re sitting alone on the bus or walking down the street late at night, you feel all alone,” Osher said. “It’s a terrible feeling.”

These days, he lives safely and securely at Villa Poinsettia in Hollywood, an assisted-living home that he discovered through a friend. Osher volunteers at the Freda Mohr Multipurpose Center five days a week, greeting folks as they drop by and helping them read.

His monthly Social Security and disability checks cover room and board and leave him with $100 in pocket money. However, Osher rarely spends much of it on himself. Perhaps remembering what it’s like to have nothing, he said he gives away what little he has.

“If a couple of people need a couple of bucks, I share it with them,” he said.

The story of 39-year-old Linda is less dramatic but no less illuminating about how quickly a person can lose their financial bearings.

So sure of her marketability was Linda that she had no reservations about quitting her well-paying lobbying job in late 2000, because of a personality conflict with a superior. With $5,000 in the bank, a strong resume and a Rolodex full of contacts, she jumped on a plane and vacationed in China. Linda figured it would take no more than two months to find new full-time work.

It took nearly three years.

As the U.S. economy struggled, so, too, did Linda. Her confidence gave way to concern which morphed into worry. Although she had no trouble landing interviews for government and other positions, she was unable to nail down a job. Employers, she said, had piles of resumes on their desks from qualified people just like her who desperately needed a job.

When she ran out of money, Linda took on a slew of part-time work. She tutored students in English and Hebrew, coached children’s sports, baby-sat cats and dogs and helped write and edit a college guide for overseas students.

Linda eventually cobbled together enough work to earn about $27,000 a year. Still, she had no sick leave, paid vacation or health insurance. Linda stopped eating out and bought everything on sale — when she could afford it. She had to drop out of synagogue, because she couldn’t afford the dues. In an ill-advised attempt to curtail spending, she took to skipping her prescription drugs.

Financially, Linda barely got by, living paycheck to paycheck. Then a crisis nearly bankrupted her.

In spring 2003, Linda felt an acute internal pain. Despite her intense discomfort, she put off visiting a doctor for several hours, because she had no health insurance.

Finally, she broke down and went to the emergency room. After three hours of tests, doctors ruled out appendicitis but could not identify her problem. As if that wasn’t reason enough to worry, they also handed her a $600 bill.

Linda, with nowhere to turn, asked her father for the money. Although relieved to pay off her debt, she said she experienced a certain amount of humiliation having to ask him for money in her late 30s.

She realizes she was lucky. Some poor people have no one to bail them out, and if her condition necessitated surgery, she could have slipped tens of thousands of dollars into debt.

Recently, Linda found a new job with benefits. She works in the admissions office of a Los Angeles college. Looking back, she still can’t believe that someone as educated and hard-working as she is ended up as part of the working poor.

“I have a good job, a 401(k). I guess I shoud feel happy,” Linda said. “But in the back of my mind, I’m a little worried. I kind of feel like I should run out to the UCLA job board and write down leads, just in case.”

Agencies’ Funding Cuts Hurts Assistance for Southland Poor


Like their clients, several local Jewish agencies that serve the poor are struggling mightily.

Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) and other Jewish nonprofits have recently lost millions in government funding at a time when demand for their services has skyrocketed. That has strained their ability to care for the indigent and threatens the health of existing programs.

To cite but a few examples, about 1,000 Jews a month visit the SOVA food bank for free groceries, double the number of just two years ago. And the Jewish Free Loan Association reported that loans for emergency shelter, food and other basic necessities have more than doubled in the past three years.

The extent of the situation is underlined by a recent study by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The report found that one in five Southland Jews, or 104,000 of 520,000, earns less than $25,000 annually, with 7 percent living below the poverty line.

The study also concluded that local Jews have a harder time eking out a living than their counterparts in most other U.S. cities. Los Angeles ranks only behind San Francisco and New York as the nation’s most expensive city. The report said an ostensibly middle-class family of two working adults and three school-age children must earn nearly $80,000 to cover living and Jewish community expenses, which include religious school, two weeks of day camp and one month of residential camp.

In reaction to the worrisome trends, The Federation has redoubled its efforts to fund programs for the indigent. The Jewish philanthropic group has boosted its funding this year for antipoverty initiatives to $5.4 million. That’s a $600,000 increase over last year, said Miriam Prum Hess, vice president for planning and allocations.

Among the recipients of The Federation’s additional largesse are Bet Tzedek Legal Services, which received $50,000 to maintain its present attorney staffing levels, and Jewish Family Service (JFS), which got more than $18,000 for a program that helps mostly Jewish immigrants become citizens and continue to qualify for government assistance.

Despite the Federation’s best efforts, the situation for the area’s poor appears to have worsened. Government cutbacks have forced JVS and other Jewish nonprofits to eliminate programs or layoff workers. Unfortunately, Prum Hess said, The Federation’s increased funding alone cannot replace lost county, state and federal funding.

A costly wish list of Federation anti-poverty programs, including more low-income housing and improving job placement for the working poor, remains largely unfunded, although the organization plans to target donors to support individual programs.

“This has become a priority issue across the board,” said Michelle Wolf, Federation assistant director of planning and allocations. “So much more remains to be done to make sure that Jewish families have the basic necessities of life as well as entree into the Jewish community and its institutions.”

Compounding matters, Jewish charities of all stripes have had increasing difficulty competing with mainstream charities for community dollars. In many instances, donations have remained flat or risen only negligibly in the past five years.

“I think a lot of Jewish donors think of themselves as American donors, which is one of the reasons why money doesn’t always go to Jewish causes,” said Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

This year, JVS has lost nearly $1 million in government dollars, almost 20 percent of its total budget, said Vivian Seigel, agency chief executive. Although JVS has increased fundraising by about $400,000, the government cutbacks have forced the organization to make painful choices, she said.

By year’s end, JVS might have to eliminate a program that helps Jewish immigrants from Iran and the former Soviet Union acculturate to life in the United States. As recently as two years ago, the program offered English lessons, job training and employment leads to 1,000 impoverished Jews annually. However, Los Angeles County has since cut funding by half to $400,000 and could soon stop all contributions, Seigel said.

A much lauded JVS program that trained immigrants and refugees to become certified nurse assistants (CNAs) has fallen victim to the budget ax. Although JVS hopes to resurrect the nurses’ program by partnering with a community college, it has yet to do so. That has left scores of would-be CNAs deeply disappointed — and figuring out how to break the cycle of poverty.

“This is pulling the rug out from under some of the most vulnerable,” Seigel said. “The cuts are absolutely devastating. At a time when the need is great, the resources continue to shrink. It’s truly a struggle to be responsive to the needs of the community.”

Like JVS, JFS has had to take painful decisions. Although JFS’ overall funding has remained flat, increased health-care, liability insurance and pension costs have strained its finances, said Paul Castro, agency executive director.

Last year, JFS eliminated the equivalent of seven positions and had to scale back counseling and other programs that serve some of the region’s most vulnerable people. Because of the cuts, the agency can no longer offer seminars at Conejo Valley synagogues on such subjects as treating depression or caring for aging parents. In addition, waiting times to see therapists increased at some Westside locations because of the cuts

JFS also faces a shortfall of up to $125,000 next year for an agency homeless shelter that houses 57 people in 15 apartments in the mid-Wilshire District. If JFS fails to raise that money by next summer, Castro said, the agency might reduce such client services as counseling or in-house child care.

On the bright side, JFS has so far escaped the massive cutbacks in government funding that have beset other nonprofits. But with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger promising to close the state’s budget deficit without raising taxes, Castro worries that his agency’s luck might run out.

“We haven’t got a clear indication of what his budget is going to be, but we’re nervous,” he said. “We’re always nervous.”

Human Atonement or Animal Cruelty?


Early morning on the day before Yom Kippur, groups of Jews will be gathering to hold squawking chickens by the feet and twirl them over their head while chanting a prayer. After the twirling, the chickens will be ritually slaughtered and given to the poor.

Kaparos, literally atonements, which has been performed in Los Angeles at the Santa Monica Chabad House and at Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad, is one of the strangest-looking customs in Jewish liturgy. It is done to inspire repentance and to impress upon its adherents the seriousness of Yom Kippur. However, the practice has inspired the ire of animal rights groups, who consider it cruel to the chickens, and many are urging that Jews who practice this custom do so using money instead, which is an acceptable substitute.

Kaparos is not a mitzvah but a post-talmudic minhag (Jewish custom). It originated sometime during the middle ages. The idea was that since the Hebrew word for man (gever) and rooster were the same, a man’s sins — and his punishments — could be symbolically transferred to the rooster, in the same way that during the times of the Temple, people bought animal sacrifices as penance for their sins. Therefore, while slinging the chicken during kaparos, the person chants, "This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This chicken shall go to its death, and I shall proceed to a good, long life and peace."

Today, some people perform kaparos by swinging a bag of money over their head and then donate that money to charity.

Yet, kaparos is not a substitute for repentance, and it should not be assumed that someone could achieve penance and absolution by having a chicken take the rap for all their transgressions.

"The chicken does not replace me," said Rabbi Shneur Zalman Schmukler, a shochet (ritual slaughterer) who arranges kaparos with chickens at Yeshivat Ohr Elchonon Chabad. "The chicken is an innocent chicken. The chicken will not take the sin away from me, but what the chicken does is impress upon me, that what is happening to the chicken [should be] happening to me and this will arouse in me feelings of teshuvah [repentance]. Watching the chicken get slaughtered awakens you to the physical gravity of Yom Kippur."

Schmukler said that using chickens for kaparos is a deep and mystical kabbalistic custom, that combines the maximizes the forces of chesed (lovingkindness) in the world.

"Early morning is a time when God’s middos hachesed [kind attributes] shine, and the reason we slaughter the chicken is to oppress the powers of gevurah [restrictions]," he said. "Blood is a symbol of anger, because when you are angry the blood goes to your face, and when we take the blood out a chicken, we make a tikkun [spiritual correction] and sweeten the energies of the world. This is what kaparos is on a spiritual level."

But animal rights activist feel that kaparos produces particularly sour physical energy. Los Angeles kaparos locales are often the site of protests and demonstrations against the way the chickens are handled. These activists say that the chickens are cooped up in cages that are too small, without enough air or water, and that chickens are often harmed before they are slaughtered in the general chaotic atmosphere of the kaparos ceremony.

"Typically, we get a whole lot of letters [protesting kaparos] from grass-roots animal-rights groups at this time of year," said Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Los Angeles (SPCA), a law-enforcement organization. "The theory is if you swing the chickens around, then you can use the chickens to eat. But if the swinging around causes them injury and suffering, then they are no longer qualified for kosher slaughter…. People have found suffering chickens with their necks broken but still alive. We wish that it would stop. While we are constantly assured that they are swung gently, it doesn’t preclude accidents."

Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns (UPC), a Virginia- based organization that, according to their Web site, is "dedicated to the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl," said that her organization has been lobbying the SPCA and rabbis for years to intervene and require some basic humane treatment of kaparos birds.

"It is great if people choose a compassionate alternative, and instead of twirling a chicken they toss up a coin instead," said Matt Prescott, campaign coordinator for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

But Schmukler says that the really proper way to do kaparos is with chickens, and that the protesters are wasting their time.

"People slaughter and eat chickens all over the city," he said. "What is the difference [between us and them]? They should go to packing houses and demonstrate there."

Kaparos with chickens will take place at Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad, 7215 Waring Ave., Los Angeles, on Sunday, Oct. 5, 6 a.m.-noon. For more information, call (323) 937-3763.

Food Poverty Grows in Israel


When, not so long ago, the director of an Israeli nonprofit organization noticed that an employee would appear at work every Sunday morning so fatigued that he could barely function, he issued him a stern warning to "stop partying so hard on Saturday nights."

The gaunt-looking employee burst into tears, explaining that he had not eaten since Thursday afternoon, when he received his last hot meal of the week at work.

That sad tale is one of the stories that got Laurie Heller, the Israeli representative of the Baron De Hirsch Fund, to establish a new group to investigate and address the rising hunger and poverty in the Jewish State as the economy has fallen.

The Forum to Address Food Insecurity and Poverty in Israel brings together a number of groups to help match philanthropists with soup kitchens and other organizations that feed those in need.

The sponsoring groups include federations and foundations investing money in Israeli nongovernment organizations; the Brookdale Institute, which is the research arm of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; and Israeli government organizations. The forum is funded primarily by the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, the San Francisco Jewish Federation and the Rochlin Family Foundation.

The forum’s mission is to "make funding opportunities for many philanthropists to find their place in the range of solutions for food insecurity," said Heller, the group’s co-chair.

Using available research, the forum will determine "which problems are not being addressed by existing programs, where we need to put our emphasis collectively, where people can channel funding," she said.

To that end, the Brookdale Institute began a national survey in March to ascertain nutrition habits among Israelis. The study focused on three factors: food consumption in the general population — quantity, variety and types of food consumed; the nutritional components consumed, including both calories and various nutrients; and household difficulty in accessing adequate and appropriate food due to economic constraints.

The Brookdale survey interviewed Israelis age 22 and up in a national telephone survey of 1,490 households between March and May of this year.

The study examined the impact of hunger on focused groups of veteran Israeli families, immigrant families and Arab families, and within those groups, on children, the elderly, single-parent families and families with large numbers of children.

Although the results of the survey have not yet been released, some conclusions were leaked from the Ministry of Health and the report has been discussed around the country.

Consequently, the director of the Brookdale Institute, Jack Habib, issued a three-page summary of the findings.

"With the worsening of the economic crisis during the past two years," the summary states, "food poverty has again become an issue." Food poverty is defined as severe food shortages that lead to malnutrition, requiring emergency medical treatment.

"There is enough food, but 22 percent of the population doesn’t have enough money to purchase it on a regular basis," Heller said.

The Brookdale study found that while there are more than 125 organizations addressing the problem of food poverty through food distribution, such as canned food drives and recycling food, such as leftovers from restaurants, there is virtually no coordination or shared information between the organizations dealing with the problem.

Heller’s new organization seeks to coordinate the efforts of each organization and also sponsor new laws that will encourage organizations to help.

For example, the forum wants to introduce the equivalent of the United States’ Good Samaritan Law, which protects institutions from lawsuits in the event that people get sick from donated food.

Cheri Fox, who is co-chair of the forum, executive director of the Fox Family Foundation and co-chair of the Jewish Funders Network, emphasizes that she, Habib and Heller are not trying to provide an alternative to the government’s response to hunger, but working to enhance it.

"The study was done with a team of researchers from the Ministry of Health and in partnership with National Insurance and Social Welfare," Habib said. "We now have fairly intensive discussions with government ministries with the hope that they will move to develop more effective responses to the situation."

The effectiveness of these responses, said Heller and Fox, is an urgent matter.

"In school-age children," Heller explained, "malnutrition lowers IQ by 10 points."

"When malnourishment is found in the 0-5 age group," Fox added, it "can create severe, irreversible problems in physical and intellectual development."

As such, she notes, Israel is beginning to see "enormous gaps between rich and poor."

Whereas the gap used to be 10 points out of 100 on standardized tests, it is now 20 points.

"The impact of the economic crisis in this country is long-term," Heller argues. "We are losing another generation to poverty."

Cuban Jews’ Plight Sparks Drive to Help


Tourist Cuba is a bit like a time-machine ride through a Cold War theme park. Vintage Detroit autos rumble past charming Havana hotels refurbished to their pre-revolutionary glory. Posters for featured movies at a film festival keep company with ones that blare slogans like, "La Revolucion Siempre," or the revolution always.

Yet, when Roe Gruber and her daughter took a Havana apartment for a month last summer, the Tustin residents were able to escape the tourist cocoon. They learned new skills, like coping with Third World shortages by offering bribes for tomatoes and theater tickets.

Along the way, they were warmly welcomed by an anemic population of 1,300 Jews, who after 40 years only recently have been permitted to resuscitate religious practices without risk of political stigma.

In a nation of 11 million, where a physician earns $25 a month and government-owned housing is left to decay, among the worst off are elderly Jews, most of them refugees from Nazi oppression and without surviving relatives for outside support. They scrape by in crumbling apartments on $3-a-month pensions and ration cards for food and clothing.

Such privations ignited a passion in Gruber, whose parents were Holocaust survivors. "Any of those women could have been my grandma," she said.

Like Dina Nudelfunden, 78, who prizes the 1953 Coldspot refrigerator in her kitchen, equipped with a one-burner stove. She spends two hours each day commuting for a hot meal served at her Orthodox synagogue, one of five in Havana.

She was overjoyed when Gruber and her daughter, Daniella, delivered a sackful of groceries and $10. "You would have thought I gave her gold," Gruber said.

Or Eva Nissembaum, 78, who shares two cinderblock rooms with three brothers. One is Maximo, 69, a victim of childhood polio, who cannot leave the apartment because his wheelchair is broken.

Since her first venture to Cuba three years ago, Gruber, by trade a travel agent who specializes in exotic locations, has organized a tzedakah (charity) project that is unusual on several counts.

Aid for religious, humanitarian or educational purposes is permitted into Cuba for nonprofit groups that apply for a federally sanctioned license. Gruber established the Sephardic Friendship Committee, so-named assuming the origin of Cuba’s Jews — wrongly as it turned out, since many of Cuba’s Jews immigrated from Ashkenazic countries.

Advertising lures fellow travelers who are each expected to schlep 20 pounds in donated food, clothing and medical supplies that Gruber collects. Some are also persuaded that they have acquired disabilities requiring the need of a wheelchair. Miraculously, they always leave Cuba cured and are forced to jettison their wheelchairs — a precious commodity in a nation where food is rationed and medicine is scarce.

After a 1998 papal visit to Cuba, Fidel Castro lifted the ban on organized religion imposed when he seized power in 1959. Soon after, details emerged about a quiet exodus to Israel of 400 Cuban Jews underway since 1995. Israel’s Jewish Agency made a deal with Castro for silence, in return for obstacle-free emigration, the report said.

Before the revolution, Cuba’s Jewish population was 15,000, supporting five synagogues, three Jewish elementary schools and a network of cultural, social and Zionist groups. The Balkan wars of 1910 had brought a steady stream of Jewish exiles from Turkey. Impoverished Polish and Romanian Jews arrived after World War I. And a third wave of immigrants fled Europe in the 1930s.

In Castro’s Cuba, though, the tide of emigres reversed direction. Havana’s largest synagogue fell into disrepair, its ceiling missing tiles and birds flying through broken windows.

Today, 150 younger, middle-class families flock to the repaired sanctuary of the Reform synagogue, which doubles as a Jewish Community Center and pharmacy, all known as the Patronato. In the absence of a rabbi, Dr. Jose Miller, a retired surgeon, is its leader.

A photo on its wall shows Miller posing with Castro, who attended a 1998 Chanukah party at Miller’s invitation. Visiting rabbis perform conversions of the many non-Jewish spouses, giving the tropical Diaspora a multiethnic mix.

"They had not been allowed to be Jewish openly. Now, they are really excited about it," Gruber said. "It’s not taken for granted."

Last June, she informally started a Cuba fund drive at her Conservative synagogue, Tustin’s Congregation B’nai Israel, and her daughter’s school, Irvine’s Tarbut V’Torah. Her goal was $3,600, enough to double the annual income for each of 30 elderly Jews.

"That’s not what happened," she said. "It was amazing."

Gruber ended up with $6,000 and is now considering how to expand the committee’s support beyond food staples to assist the elderly with home repairs. She returned to Cuba last month to meet with Miller, who plays a role in distributing charity.

Gruber and her 15-year-old daughter took a fourth-floor walk-up apartment while enrolled at the University of Havana in an intensive Spanish-language course. Gruber wanted to see the Jewish community from the inside.

At Havana’s 400-bed Children’s Hospital, she found quality medical care provided by well-educated staff, but a shortage of medicine and equipment. Dr. Sylvia Leone begged her for syringes. On the streets, women would approach Gruber, rubbing their forearms, a signal they were seeking soap.

Cuba is currency starved. After losing an estimated $5.8 billion a year in subsidies from its chief benefactor, the former Soviet Union, Cuba’s economic plight grew worse last year because of the worldwide decline in tourism. Clothing rations for each citizen were cut from three articles to none this year. Desperate for dollars, the Cuban government is restoring portions of Havana to lure tourists and loosening rules on foreign charity efforts.

Several other United States-based groups also are intent on aiding Cuban Jews. The Berkeley-based Cuba-America Jewish Mission started as a Hadassah membership drive in 1994 and has returned 14 times since, said June Safran, its executive director. "I saw that I could do some good," she said.

The Cuban Jewish Relief Project of B’nai B’rith’s Center for Public Policy in Philadelphia estimates it has shipped $3 million in supplies to Cuba over three years. At least six U.S. synagogues have Cuban projects.

However, some in the Cuban exile community are ambivalent about aid, viewing it as perpetuating a government they oppose.

"One thing we don’t advocate is starving," said Dennis K. Hays, a former U.S. ambassador and executive vice president of the Cuban American National Foundation, the oldest and largest exile community.

"Well-meaning individuals get pulled into the regime’s orbit," Hays said. "With some effort you can get it into the hands of the people."

Hays warned that charitable groups should be suspicious of having to rely on an "official interlocutor."

"Our position is we support efforts that help Cuban people," Hays said. "If they are going down and working independently, we would be supportive."

Gruber returned to the United States with a fresh perspective. In the supermarket, the produce manager wondered why she remained rooted in front of a heap of tomatoes.

"It makes you realize there’s an imbalance," she said. "We have too much, and they have too little."

A ‘Caring Heart’ for Israel’s Forgotten


In the grim underground parking lot of the Rishon LeZion shopping mall in central Israel, hundreds of men and women of all ages are nervously sitting, standing restlessly or milling around, their faces weary, their eyes expectant. Judging from the range of skin tones, clothing styles and head-coverings, there’s an ethnic and religious cross section of the whole state here: Jews of dozens of countries of origin and religious backgrounds, Muslims and Christians.

In one corner, a 60-something woman named Aliza, who came from Ukraine eight years ago and lives in Bat Yam today, efficiently sorts and folds massive heaps of donated clothes. In another corner, Shoshana, who travels here by bus from Tel Aviv every week to volunteer and whose husband and teenage son are narcomenim (drug addicts), is helping to organize parcels of food. Children run around the scattered chairs playing.

It’s a Thursday at Pitchon Lev — Hebrew for The Caring Heart — an organization that helps feed and clothe Israel’s poor. It’s here, in the cavernous underground beneath the shoppers above, that a portion of Israel’s expanding underclass gathers to receive food, clothing, bags of diapers and basic household supplies that they’d otherwise be without.

More than 100,000 people a year are helped by the Pitchon Lev centers in Rishon LeZion and in Carmel, in the north. Thousands of volunteers make sure that no person leaves without crucial supplies and no child goes unfed.

The political and security crises of Israel grab national and international headlines, but the severe social crisis of burgeoning poverty rates rarely receives the attention it deserves.

The unemployment figure hovers at 14 percent and is rising. To worsen matters, said Dr. Shlomo Swirski of the ADVA Policy Institute, the proposed new national budget — called the Economic Defensive Shield — places an even greater burden on those Israelis whose "income falls in the six lowest income brackets."

Among those in the lowest brackets are single mothers, the handicapped and the elderly. Already, 1 million of Israel’s 6 million people live below the poverty line, and 600,000 children go undernourished each day, according to ADVA.

"Each one of these children is an entire world," said Nissim Zioni, the head of Pitchon Lev. Zioni left his successful radio broadcasting career in 1998 to establish the nonprofit organization after discovering responses to his radio appeals for food and clothing for the poor snowballed.

So many social workers called in requesting help for their clients, and so much produce, clothing and household supplies were donated in response to Zioni’s radio appeals, that he decided to devote himself to combating poverty full time.

Today the organization has a paid staff of 17 and thousands of volunteers, many of whom, like Shoshana, believe that they are "giving back to Pitchon Lev" for "all they have received." Five IDF units, supermarket chains, student unions and youth groups, as well as television and sports celebrities, volunteer their help. As a result of its organizational skills, Pitchon Lev received $475,000 in donations, but managed to distribute over $2.6 million worth of goods.

Zioni, who is at once soft-spoken, charismatic and passionate about his cause, expressed an unwavering determination to maintain the dignity of the needy. Pitchon Lev’s grocery and general goods shops have appealing displays, and the organization charges minimal fees for the food parcels and clothing it distributes.

With a steering committee of leading figures in commerce, communications and education, Zioni plans to establish Pitchon Lev College. It will offer single mothers, street youths and adults basic educational courses, as well as classes aimed at improving their life-organizational skills.

Zioni’s goal is to empower Israel’s needy to break free from the poverty and dependency cycle. He also wants to move from the parking lot and create Pitchon Lev House, which will serve as the national base of operations, a drop-in center and a theater for street youth.

In the works is a Pitchon Lev response to reports that the Ministry of Education expects 400,000 youngsters to start the school year without textbooks and workbooks, as well as other school supplies, because their parents can’t afford to buy them. Though the ministry has created a $1.9 million emergency fund, Pitchon Lev recognized that that allocation won’t meet the needs. In response, it has launched Sefer L’Kol Yeled v’ Yaldah (A Book for Every Boy and Girl).

"To rob a child of a chance to learn is to crush a world," Zioni said.

Donations to Pitchon Lev are fully tax deductible and can be made payable to S.P.E.F. Israel Endowmenet Funds Inc., 317 Madison Ave., Suite 607, New York, N.Y. 10017, (212) 599-1260.

Explaining the Argentine Enigma


Several years ago, economist and sociologist Paul Samuelson proposed dividing the world into four categories: the rich countries, the poor countries, Japan and Argentina. Everyone knows the state of rich countries and poor countries. However, no one understands why Japan is doing so well and Argentina so badly.

These days, experts around the world are biting their nails trying to find an explanation for the Argentine enigma. At the beginning of the 20th century, Argentina was the seventh-richest country in the world. It was considered the breadbasket of the world. And so it remained until a decade after World War II. For European emigrants seeking a better future, it scarcely mattered if the boat they were boarding was headed for New York or Buenos Aires. Both were golden paths toward hope, freedom and growth.

The Argentine Jewish community began to organize itself at the end of the 19th century. The French philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch invested a great deal of money to support the resettlement of persecuted Jews in Argentina’s rich agricultural regions. An Argentine version of the Jewish cowboy was born, the Jewish gaucho. The writer Alberto Gerchunoff immortalized them in a book of admirable literary breadth bearing this very title. It was published nearly a century ago, in 1910. Even Theodor Herzl, in his seminal work "The Jewish State," mentioned Argentina as a possible homeland for the Jewish people.

The Argentine Jewish community grew rapidly and became the largest and most vibrant in Latin America. When Israeli sociologist Arie Tartakower visited the country in the 1950s, he was impressed by the dynamism of the community’s institutional life and the vigor of its educational system. He said it constituted the best Jewish communal model in the entire Diaspora. Jews were involved in science, law, art and the media. First-generation Argentine Jews became national figures. Jewish poets, composers and singers contributed to Argentine culture, even enriching the tango.

Politically, Jews imported their ideological trends from pre-Holocaust Europe. They began to participate in Jewish and non-Jewish institutions, in synagogues and in secular organizations. In the middle of the 20th century, Argentine Jewry’s Zionist ideals were evidenced by the community’s strong support during the crises weathered by Israel and the Jewish people. The participation was massive, honest and generous.

This healthy Jewish climate was nevertheless confronted with a latent anti-Semitism. The wonders of integration were sullied by the first pogrom in the Americas, which took place in 1919 during Argentina’s so-called "tragic week." However, the fear that those deadly events would repeat themselves did not weaken the resolve of Argentina’s Jews to continue developing their communal life and pursuing their integration into Argentine society.

The Perón presidency was an ambivalent period for Argentine Jewry. On the one hand, Juan Perón guaranteed Jewish rights and established a friendly relationship with Israel. On the other hand, his administration was complacent toward Nazi war criminals. The rightist nationalism that accompanied Perónism began to create problems in the 1960s, after an Israeli commando team captured Adolf Eichmann. The military dictatorships, especially the last one, were decidedly cruel toward Jews. And there are still pockets of ignorant and dangerous fanatics who from time to time desecrate cemeteries and who may have contributed to the bombings of the Israeli embassy in 1992 and the AMIA Jewish community center in 1994.

Through history, one can see a parallel between the fate of Argentina and the fate of its Jews. Until the middle of the 20th century, Argentineans were a successful and optimistic people. In the second half of the 20th century, however, a decadence set in, slowly at first and then quickening. Argentina collapsed because of authoritarianism and corruption. The Jewish community was no more the model touted by Arie Tartakower. The educational system, which every year reached new milestones, started to decay. Economic problems, which were never seen as an obstacle, started to weigh heavily. And some unthinkable developments took place, most notably an atmosphere of suspicion regarding the loyalty and honesty of our communal leaders, which was very worrisome and disillusioning.

Until about three years ago, Argentine emigration was motivated exclusively by politics. Persecution at the hand of the dictatorships prompted thousands of scientists, artists, educators, journalists and even students to flee. The sad reality of the new emigration is that it is not due to politics, but to the economic situation. For the first time, Argentineans are abandoning this land because there is no work, not even food.

Some sort of cycle is coming to a close. A century ago, despair prompted massive emigration from the Old World to Argentina. Now despair is causing massive emigration, this time from Argentina.

The change is reflected in Argentine aliya, the emigration of Argentine Jews to Israel. In the past Argentine aliya was undertaken for idealistic reasons. Tens of thousands of Jews filled kibbutzim and Israeli towns to contribute to the national resurrection effort. But now they do it because they don’t see any future here for themselves and their children.

The reasons for this general decadence are difficult to discern. Several months ago, I published a book whose title could be interpreted as a joke, "The Atrocious Charm of Being Argentine." Contrary to the fears of my publisher, the book was a hit and has remained on top of the best-seller list since its publication. The people, far from being annoyed by it, are reading and discussing it with passion. It is good news to see that we Argentineans are leaving behind us our old and odious arrogance. We want clear diagnoses in order to find the right remedy.

Argentina’s difficulties can be overcome if the corruption and transgression are not protected by immunity. Illegality is the worst evil in a society that respects the law.

Jews suffer, like other Argentineans, from the "corralito," the limits imposed on money withdrawals from banks. The country is going through one of its worst crises, fueled by the severe economic depression. But if there is international comprehension and if the decaying trends can be progressively reversed, Argentina will wake up. Its "hardware" — natural and human resources — are intact. What is missing is the "software," the management.

And this holds true for all Argentineans — including the Jews.


Marcos Aguinis is an Argentine writer and commentator. He is the author of eight novels, including "The Saga of the Marrano," available in Spanish and Hebrew. This article is reprinted with permission of The Forward.

The Honeymoon is Over


Nine months after Ehud Barak took office as “everybody’s prime minister,” the honeymoon is over — with his voters, coalition allies and Arab partners in the quest for peace. It is too early to write him off, but the Labor leader can no longer rely on loyalty or goodwill to see him through.

On the domestic front, he shows no sign of delivering to the neglected, mainly Sephardi, citizens in the rundown development towns and city slums to whom he promised jobs and a fair share of the national cake. Unemployment is still running in double figures in these backwaters. Firms are still closing unprofitable textile factories. The old women in overcrowded hospitals, a potent symbol in Barak’s election campaign, are still sleeping in the corridors.

To the dismay of Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, who tried to persuade him to reactivate Labor’s social agenda, the prime minister and the Treasury conservatives are relying on a “peace dividend” to stimulate the economy. In the best Reagan-Thatcher mode, they put their faith in a trickle-down effect. The rich will get richer, the poor will be a little less poor. But not yet.

Barak is not, as some of his detractors would have us believe, a Bibi Netanyahu clone. For starters, most Israelis still credit him with genuinely seeking peace and a readiness to pay a heavy price for it. But Barak is starting to suffer from the Bibi syndrome.

The professional politicians, whom he treated with ill-concealed contempt when he was forming his administration, are rubbing their hands. His junior coalition parties are flexing their muscles. The heads of three of them — Shas, the National Religious Party and Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael B’aliya — have signed an opposition Likud draft bill, which would block any compromise with the Palestinians over Jerusalem. So has Roni Milo of the Center party. Sharansky and the NRP’s Yitzhak Levy are also campaigning against withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

At the beginning of this week, Shas’ back-benchers voted against the prime minister on a Likud no-confidence motion. Ostensibly, they were warning Barak not to tamper with Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem. In fact, they were protesting because leftist Meretz Education Minister Yossi Sarid has refused to give his Shas deputy minister, Meshulam Nahari, any work to do.

With an aura of success and the peace process moving forward, Barak could stifle many of these challenges. His trouble is that peace is floundering on every front. The much-decorated ex-chief of staff set targets and timetables for the Syrians, Palestinians and Lebanese. He thought that if he tempted them enough, they would let him write the script. It hasn’t worked that way. They have their own agendas, and they are rigorously pursuing them.

Syrian President Hafez Assad is sticking to his maximalist demand. Israel, he insists, must withdraw not just from the Golan plateau, but to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. And he is making it more difficult for Barak to sell a deal to the Israeli public — by forbidding his diplomats to shake Israeli hands, by accusing Israel of behaving like Nazis, by hinting that peace would be no more than a staging post toward the ultimate Arab goal of destroying the Zionist state.

For their part, the Palestinians are declining to accept whatever slices of the West Bank Barak deigns to give them under the delayed Oslo accords. They want areas closer to Jerusalem. They want to be consulted. They want to bargain. Otherwise, they won’t play ball — and the security services are already warning of renewed Palestinian violence.

This week, Yasser Arafat publicly accused Barak of being no better than Netanyahu. The Palestinian leader is reported to have told Miguel Moratinos, the European Union’s roving Middle East troubleshooter: “Barak tried and failed to assassinate me three times when he was serving in the Israel Defense Forces. Now he is trying to kill me by means of my own people. He is humiliating me and trying to coerce me into accepting his surrender terms.”

In Lebanon, bombing civilian power stations has boomeranged. The Hezbollah guerrillas are still shooting Israeli soldiers (though they have been deterred, for now, from firing Katyusha rockets at civilian communities in Northern Israel). But Beirut has exploited the air strikes to rally the Arab world — and much of the West — against Israel. The escalation has provoked a crisis between Barak and President Hosni Mubarak, who flew to Lebanon for the first visit there by an Egyptian leader in half a century.

Barak is keeping his nerve. He is setting new deadlines, working to revive negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians. He still promises to “bring the boys home” from Lebanon by July. But he is looking more and more like the boy on the burning deck.

Israeli commentators are uniformly gloomy. The nearest to an optimist this week was Hemi Shalev, who suggested in Ma’ariv that “Arab public opinion discerns in its gut that the peace process is coming of age, and that the time for decisions is approaching.” On this reading, Shalev dubbed it, “The storm before the calm.”

The alternative, he might have added, would not be a return to the old bromide of no-peace, no-war.

L.A.’s Ultimate Power Broker


Eli Broad (left) is the primary moving force behind thefinancing of the downtown Disney Concert Hall designed by architectFrank Gehry, lining up corporations to drop megabucks into theproject..

For most of this century, Los Angeles has been a city of twoelites — one predominately WASPish, the other predominately Jewish.Although they occasionally collaborated on projects such as the MusicCenter, the two worlds remained largely separate and indifferent toeach other, living in a ruling-class version of institutionalapartheid.

But to Eli Broad, a native of New York and a University ofMichigan product who came here 35 years ago, neither Los Angeles northe Jewish community can any longer afford such a division. TheSunAmerica president and CEO thinks it is great that Jews arebuilding new schools, museums and other institutions, but he wonderswhat they’ll be worth if the city around them collapses intolong-term decay.

“There are many people who have gotten wealthy, who are Jewish,but don’t think of themselves as part of anything else,” Broad says.”Some members of the community just seem to want to stick bythemselves. For some, it’s fashionable to be negative about thecity.”

But Eli Broad is anything but negative about Los Angeles. Althoughclearly a member of the Westside elite, Broad has emerged as perhapsthe first Jew in this century to stand as the city’s leading businessvoice. As the primary moving force behind the financing of thedowntown Disney Concert Hall, he has been, along with Mayor RichardRiordan, the key player who’s helping persuade many largecorporations — including Times Mirror, Arco, Ralphs/Food for Less,Wells Fargo and, most recently, the Walt Disney Company — to dropmegabucks into the project.

“Eli Broad is a huge leader who does more than any organization,”says one longtime aide to Riordan, who counts Broad among hispersonal friends and advisers. “Without him, the Disney Hall wouldnever be anything but a parking lot.”

In many ways, it might have been tempting for Broad and others inthe heavily Jewish Westside business community to allow downtowncontinue to go to the dogs. Broadly speaking, Jews fared far betterthan the WASPs in the last recession. As Cal State Northridgedemographers James Allen and Eugene Turner point out in theirrecently published study, “The Ethnic Quilt,” Jews are vastlyoverrepresented in the entertainment and business service fields,which were relatively unscathed in the early 1990s and have thrivedever since. In contrast, the aerospace industry, which was wallopedduring the recession and is now only holding its own, boasts,according to Allen and Turner’s research, a notableoverrepresentation of white Protestants.

The same pattern can be seen in the economic geography where theJewish-dominated Westside has also vastly outperformed the old WASPstrongholds downtown. With entertainment leading the economicrecovery, the Westside now boasts a third more office space thandowntown. The prestige business addresses in Los Angeles — measuredboth by rental rates and fashionability — are predominately inBeverly Hills, along Ventura Boulevard, Century City, West LosAngeles and Santa Monica while the big empty blocks remain in andaround downtown. Today, according to the Los Angeles BusinessJournal, three of Los Angeles’ zip codes with the highestconcentrations of households with more than $500,000 in assets are inBrentwood, Pacific Palisades and Beverly Hills, which are also amongthe most Jewish.

Yet this success, Broad notes, also has brought with it perils.Many affluent Jews who work in these glitzy areas don’t even considerthemselves Angelenos; they see themselves as citizens of theWestside. And with the growth of these centers and emergence of anincreasingly well-developed Jewish education system, there is ampleincentive to turn our back on downtown, the increasingly ThirdWorld-minded City Council and the bumbling Los Angeles Unified SchoolDistrict bureaucracy, and instead simply further feather our ownnest.

But such disdain would also be a repudiation of our own rich andcomplex history here in Los Angeles, a history that too few Jews areeven aware of. Although its future will be as an increasinglyLatino-Asian-dominated metropolis, Los Angeles has, perhaps more thanany city in the nation, been largely shaped by Jewish influence.

In the rough and heady pioneer days of Los Angeles, Jews were atthe city’s commercial epicenter. The Hellman family virtuallyinvented banking in Los Angeles, at one time controlling both theFarmers and Merchants Bank and Wells Fargo in San Francisco. Anotherlandsman, Karspare Cohn, founded the Union Bank, which, for decades,stood as the city’s premier middle-market bank.

Jews also operated at the highest levels of the political andsocial leadership. Members of the Jewish Newmark clan served duringthe 19th century variously as city attorney, city councilman andcounty supervisor.

“Anti-Semitism was virtually unknown in 19th-century California,even in the most exclusive circles,” says Kevin Starr, California’spremier historian. “The Bohemian Club in San Francisco and theCalifornia Club in Los Angeles each had prominent Jews among theirfounding memberships.”

It was only early in this century, Starr notes, with the massiveinflux of largely Midwestern WASPs to the city, that the bacillus ofelite anti-Semitism common in older cities began to infect LosAngeles. Soon, even prominent Jewish families found themselvesmarginalized and barred from the leading clubs and bestneighborhoods. The treatment of the more ethnically distinctivenewcomers from Eastern Europe — including the founders of the movieindustry — was, if anything, even more dismissive. Having nurturedLos Angeles in its pioneer days and created its most glamorousindustry, Jews remained politically marginalized; not a single memberof the community sat on the City Council for more than a half centurybefore the election of Rosalind Weiner in 1953.

As late as the 1970s, says Broad, Jews still did not rank highinside the city’s corporate power structure (with the notableexception of MCA’s Lew Wasserman), even if they dominated the garmentas well as the entertainment industry and controlled much of the mostvaluable Westside real estate.

“When I got there, the giants were the Ahmansons, Mark Taper, EdCarter, Asa Call, and you had the energy companies — ThortonBradshaw at Arco, Unocal. It was all downtown, WASPy and they sat onall the boards,” says Broad.

Yet Broad does not harbor any resentments for these largelyAnglo-Saxon entrepreneurs, largely because their “pioneering spirit”not only built great companies but created much of the basicinfrastructure of our city — the freeway system, the ports, theairport and the County Museum. The problem, as he sees it, is that,by the 1980s, many of these pioneers were retired or dead. Many oftheir scions removed themselves from civic involvement, preferringoften to relocate to the less ethnically diverse and contentiousValhallas of rural Northern California or the Pacific Northwest.

In addition, many of the companies they started were eventuallyabsorbed by other entities or taken over by placeless professionalmanagers, for whom Los Angeles was nothing more than an anonymoussubdivision by the Pacific. The disappearance of onetime downtownpowerhouses such as Security Pacific Bank, First Interstate and theBroadway Department Stores — precisely the corporations that mighthave funded such an enterprise — further weakened the elite.

“Those banks were the glue of this community,” says DennisStanfill, the former president of 20th Century Fox and one of the fewHollywood figures close to the old downtown establishment. “When youlost all those firms — and I have seen it over the last 32 years –you suddenly found there were no leaders. They were gone.”

For art collector Broad, who once bought a Roy Lichtensteinpainting for $2.5 million on his American Express card, the failureof the old elite to raise money for the downtown Disney Concert Hall– much beyond
the $50 million endowment provided by Walt Disney’swidow, Lillian — epitomized this growing “void” in the powerstructure. As Los Angeles’ economy stumbled badly in the early 1990s,the outlook for this new cultural icon grew bleaker as more and morebusiness fled downtown for the Westside, Orange County, the SanFernando Valley or out of the region completely.

To a large extent, Broad’s own career casts him an unlikely saviorfor downtown. As co-founder of Kaufman and Broad, the area’s largesthome builder, he helped construct the sprawling suburbs that hasteneddowntown’s decline. More recently, he has built his CenturyCity-based financial service company, SunAmerica, into a major power– in the 1990s, its market value has risen from $184 million to morethan $8 billion — and a linchpin of the resurgent Westside economy.

Yet, as an Angeleno, Broad believes that the city must have somesort of unifying core. Downtown may never regain its status as theregion’s leading commercial center — both the Westside and arguablyeven Irvine seem destined to surpass it — but it does remain thehistoric hub, the common touchstone for the city. “No great city inthe world exists without a symbolic center,” Broad says. “It’s likethe Eiffel Tower or the Sydney Opera House.”

To Broad, the Disney Concert Hall could become that signaturepiece for Los Angeles. “The success in building the hall is thedefining point for Los Angeles’ new leadership; it’s a newbeginning,” he says. “It’s a sign that the city is culturally cominginto its own.”

But it’s more than that. Disney Concert Hall — along with suchother ambitious building projects throughout the city, from theSkirball Cultural Center and the Getty Center in West Los Angeles tothe new sports arena and cathedral downtown — reflects a metropolisthat not only is recovering from the traumas of the recent past butis beginning to map out a new future that is quintessentially LosAngeles in its brashness and ambition.

But this time, Jews such as Eli Broad will not be merelyspectators, outsiders or incidental beneficiaries, but will be amongthe leaders and architects, just as they were when this city waslittle more than an obscure pueblo on the outer fringes of theAmerican continent.

Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at the Pepperdine Institute forPublic Policy, is currently researching a report on the futureleadership in Southern California, in conjunction with the La JollaInstitute.

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