A chai roller rakes in the chips in Gardena and Vegas
Except for the Victorian-style chandeliers, Hustler Casino in Gardena looks like an oversized neighborhood card room, with its round indoor arena filled with dozens of poker and blackjack tables. Several hundred people fill the room at any hour of the day, all of them playing cards, or waiting to get a seat. There are no looky-loos.
Those who come to Hustler are there to gamble, at whatever level they choose, from Easy Poker in a glass-encased room in the middle of the floor to games that run into the many thousands of dollars.
In spite of its name, Hustler Casino does not feature busty, scantily clad women. Employees dress conservatively, and those who come here to gamble don’t even notice them. The gamblers here are a varied lot, all ages and races, many of them risking paychecks or pensions. But there are also some high rollers. Some very high rollers.
At the farthest reaches of the casino is the main table. And, one day last fall, sitting there, facing the room, was one of the highest rollers of them all: publisher Larry Flynt, best known for his Hustler magazine and stores, whose early struggles were portrayed in the movie “The People vs. Larry Flynt.” Flynt owns the casino, so he’s king of this table, and he likes to compete with some of the world’s best poker players. To Flynt’s right is Phil Ivey, known to television viewers as the “Tiger Woods of poker,” a brilliant, relentless player who pounces on weakness as if he were indeed a tiger going after wounded prey.
Across from Flynt, sitting with his back to the room, is Barry Greenstein, a man in his early 50s, whose beard, receding hairline, deep-set eyes, and slim frame give him a serious aura. Greenstein is also a poker superstar. And yet … he seems out of place at this casino, as if he were a middle-aged yeshiva bocher who has suddenly found himself in an alien, sinful environment. Perhaps to distance himself from his surroundings, he maintains the unemotional, detached air of a researcher studying the native habits of big-time poker players.
Greenstein is a passionate student of the game, a man who’s made a lifelong study of poker and has written a book about it, “Ace on the River” (Last Knight Publishing Co., 2005), aimed at professionals, or would-be ones.
He’s well-educated and articulate, and he’s also generous, having given millions to charities: $1.5 million to Children, Inc., which provides food, medicine and clothing to needy children in 21 countries, including the United States; plus another $1.5 million to a dozen other worthy beneficiaries, including the high school he attended in Chicago.
Because of all this, he represents the transition that poker has been making from smoky, disreputable card rooms to glittery tournaments showcased on ESPN and other national TV networks.
And like more than a few of the big names of the poker world, Greenstein is Jewish. Actually, he says that he’s “of Jewish heritage” and is aware of the traditions, but that he doesn’t “practice the religion.” Still, he acknowledges that “the morals and ethics of Judaism are a part of me.” Is his giving so much to the needy an example of that?
“It’s a mitzvah,” he said. “It makes me happy to have the opportunity to do the right thing.”
Greenstein is not the only Jew at poker’s highest levels. There’s Mike “The Mouth” Matusow, who wears a chai necklace and is known for his nonstop chatter and emotional outbursts. And Eli Elezra, an Israeli.
“When Eli plays poker,” Greenstein notes on his Federation may face lawsuit over fundraiser Prizant’s firing
Quick Passover trivia: How many times does the name “Moses” appear in the haggadah?
The answer is none, not once. The man who stood up to Pharoah and led us across the Red Sea out of Egypt doesn’t even get a mention. And you thought “Brokeback Mountain” got robbed.
The standard explanation for this is that the rabbis who compiled the haggadah didn’t want to make an idol out of the prophet. We are to read the story of our freedom and deliverance as a sign of the covenant between the people of Israel and God, or, if you like, between our own addictions and enslavements and our struggle for enlightenment.
In any case, Moses has left the building, and we are obliged to imagine how a great Jewish leader would look and act.
An understanding of Moses, after all, would help us understand how a person confronts the challenges of leadership. But there are ways to approach that subject. And that’s why I went to Pat’s last Friday night.
The upscale kosher restaurant on the corner of Pico and Doheny — it’s Mortons for the glatt set — hosted a dinner for LiveNetworks, a yearlong intensive workshop in professional leadership for Jewish 20-somethings from around the country.
Los Angeles hosted the national kickoff for LiveNetworks last weekend, bringing together about 75 of the program’s 87 participants. Hailing from five regional “hubs,” the participants will meet about six times throughout the year in their hub location. In the process, they’ll meet with local leaders and philanthropists, attend seminars and receive individual coaching and mentoring.
It’s an impressive lot, chosen from about 300 applicants for their professional and academic achievement and their charitable involvement.
The young adults sitting around our table seemed to have this in common: They were curious or even passionate about Jewish life, and their Jewishness has imbued them with a desire to get more involved, but they were unsure what to do about it.
“I never imagined I’d be doing what I’m doing,” Shira Landau told me.
Landau, an L.A. native, is assistant religious school director at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades. She said she has found developing curriculum and working with intensely involved, professional parents rewarding, and she applied to LiveNetworks to learn new skills and meet peers who are similarly enthused.
She’s among the half of participants already involved in professional Jewish life.
The other half are nonprofessional Jews, potential future lay leaders, with varying degrees of Jewish exposure.
Rachel Cohen, the daughter of a mixed marriage, had her Judaism awakened on her first birthright trip to Israel seven years ago. The trip changed her life: She switched majors from business to international relations, eventually getting a job with a U.N. ambassador and throwing herself into Jewish life.
Joshua Atkins, a studio game design director for Microsoft in Seattle, said he “came on a hunch.” Although he had little Jewish background or education, he had begun looking for ways to get involved in philanthropy, and friends suggested he sign up. A program tailored to his age group made sense to him.
“This is a generation that understands things move very fast,” he told me, speaking like a true video game designer. “They aren’t going to be satisfied just watching.”
Atkins took in the evening’s program — a quick, funny talk on making a difference from comedy writer Bruce Vilanch, and an energetic interactive Torah study with Rabbi Steve Greenberg — and by the end of the evening was warming up to the idea he’d made the right choice.
This leadership exercise, to be sure, involves a certain amount of latter-day kowtowing to Generation Y or Z or whatever it is. Previous generations, including mine, had to get inspired without this sort of recruitment-style outreach.
Back when I first wanted to explore Israel, I visited the crusty youth program adviser at his dim cubicle at the old Federation building. He handed me some dated brochures for programs, and when I asked him the best way to get to Israel, his endearing reply was, “I’m not a travel agent.”
Now, setting the hook in their eager young gums has become the new obsession of the uber-philanthropists and Jewish organizations. There is big money behind LiveNetworks: Michael Steinhardt (ID’ed in the information packet as a “demibillionaire), Detroit Pistons co-owner William Davidson and the Shusterman and Applebaum family foundations. Similar largesse has helped underwrite Reboot; the magazine Heeb; birthright; and other attempts to catch and keep these young’uns.
It’s The Old Mensch and the Sea, where crusty, dying Jewish organizations fish desperately for the elusive life force that will land them a rebirth in the 21st century.
But while older studies, like the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey, showed a large number of these younger Jews don’t attend synagogue or remain active in Jewish life, a slew of new studies prove the opposite. An up-and-coming generation is proud of its Jewish identity and culturally creative, JTA correspondent Sue Fishkoff writes. (See article on page 16.) It’s “coming up with new methods of religious expression and feels part of a global community linked by Jewish Web sites and blogs.”
Dining with this precious young cohort, I tended to believe the new studies. These Jews are not all that different from their older counterparts. They are not a different species after all, just a new generation.
This generation has the Internet to help educate and organize and connect to one another. At the same time, they have inherited a model of communal hierarchy and given that, being a new generation, they will challenge or even discard.
As Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion professor Steven Windmueller has written: “If the first ‘revolution’ launched the current Jewish Federation model 100 years ago, the second is now seeking to construct an alternative enterprise.”
L.A. law student Gabriel Halimi said he and his friends wanted to raise money for Jewish causes but found mainstream Jewish organizations “too inflexible.” So he helped found the Society for Young Philanthropists, which now raises and distributes thousands of dollars to worthy causes.
Today’s Halimi could have been any one of the young lions of Los Angeles Jewish philanthropy circa 1950. In other words, I suspect these new “revolutionary” approaches are differences in technology and style, not substance. What I saw and heard at Pat’s restaurant last Friday was passion, communication, a willingness to confront established power and a strong sense that the Jewish people have something to offer one another and the world.
Which, when you think of it, would be a good description of Moses.
… And We Wouldn’t Mind $100 Million
Lakers’ basketball star Kobe Bryant “wouldn’t mind being Jewish.”
Bryant, who is Catholic, reportedly told a handful of reporters in Boston last month that, “I wouldn’t mind. Really.”
Well, why not? It’s fine by us.
The topic arose during a good-natured exchange with reporters during the Lakers’ late March appearance for a game in Boston. Of the game, the Los Angeles Times reported that Bryant scored 43 points, including the Lakers’ last 14, on 18-for-39 shooting in a 105-97 victory over the Celtics at TD Banknorth Garden. All this after a fan had foolishly taunted Bryant when seeing him at a local movie theater.
But the Times completely missed the Jewish angle, which was first reported in the Jerusalem Post.
A television reporter had asked on camera about the dearth of professional Jewish athletes.
“Not too many Jews in professional sports? Hmmm,” Bryant said. “That sounds kind of weird to me. Who did your research?”
Reeling from Bryant’s caustic tone, the TV reporter changed the topic to MVP talk.
A Jewish journalist from The Boston Globe, however, returned to the subject.
“We are very good at squash,” she insisted, adding “there were three hockey players at my college who were Jewish.”
“How ’bout that? All on one team,” Bryant said.
“The Red Sox have four Jews including [general manager] Theo Epstein,” another Jewish reporter added.
“What the hell? Who was doing your research?” Bryant asked the TV reporter “semifacetiously,” as the Post put it. “Put the camera back on, man. This guy is false man. This guy is lyin’.”
The inevitable recitation followed as reporters volunteered names: Dolph Schayes (Bryant threw in Dolph’s son Danny) and Jon Scheyer, a top Duke University recruit for next year….
“You’re getting shot down all over the place right now, buddy,” Bryant said. “It ain’t lookin’ too good for you at all.”
Sandy Koufax. Hank Greenberg.
“Oh it ain’t lookin’ too good for you at all,” he continued.
According to www.jewsinsports.org (Is there a mormonsinsports.org or a shiitesinsports.org?): There are no Jews currently in the NBA, but 24 in the National Football League, 18 in Major League Baseball and seven in the National Hockey League.
Bryant could claim the mantle as the highest-profile athlete to convert to Judaism. Baseball great Rod Carew married a Jewish woman and raised his children Jewish, but never actually joined the tribe.
Bryant, however, dispelled the notion of displacing Schayes as the greatest Jewish basketball player. “I don’t know if I’m converting, but if I do, you can definitely add another athlete to the pool,” he said.
The Fastest Therapy in the West
First there was speed dating. Now, there’s speed healing.
Welcome to The Ten Minute Method, a new form of condensed counseling offered by a Chatsworth therapist that promises to be both fast and affordable at $18 a session.
You may be thinking: 10 minutes? That’s just long enough to rearrange the throw pillows on the couch, pick at your cuticles as you fixate on a poorly framed Matisse print and hear, “We have to end now,” as your shrink eyes the clock on the end table. Not so, according to Richard Posalski, a licensed clinical social worker and marriage, family and child counselor who invented The Ten Minute Method.
“When people know they only have ten minutes, they’re prepared to crystallize what’s going on with them in a straightforward manner,” says Posalski. “In conventional therapy, roughly 75 percent of the time can be just venting and never getting to the problem.”
After 30 years in the business — Posalski was a social worker for the Jewish Big Brothers of Los Angeles and a member of the field faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion before going into private practice — he says less “clutter and confusion” helps him use his intuition to get “right to the heart of the matter.” The therapist describes his counseling style as “Jewish pragmatic.”
So far, he’s conducted about 80 10-minute sessions and has helped patients with a wide range of problems, from one woman’s question about how to handle her sister’s holiday visit, to a mom’s inability to let go of anger at her son’s little league coach. Sessions, both in person and over the phone, deal with “everyday” issues, the type of concerns people are always approaching Posalski with at parties, as in: “This dip is great. By the way, have you ever treated anyone deathly afraid of flying?” Being approached at social events only reminds the counselor that most people have at least one question they’d love to ask a professional.
“There are all kinds of people that want help but would never get into therapy. Either it’s too time-consuming or too expensive, or maybe for the average person, the notion of having their psyche probed is a deterrent,” he explains.
If the idea of a 10-minute therapy session calls to mind those massage therapists who set up chairs at holiday office parties or in front of the health food store, that’s no coincidence. In fact, that’s how the counselor got the idea, watching a masseur set up his chair in the lobby of a local bed and breakfast. He thought, with limited time and resources wouldn’t a talk be as good as a rub?
“I just want to help people feel better,” he says. “And you don’t have to feel crazy to take advantage of a therapist.”
Posalski’s Web site is www.The10minutemethod.com. He can be reached for appointments at (818) 773-9988.
Face It: Judaism Is Not Hip
This Rosh Hashanah I am praying to escape the tyranny of hip. Hip is infiltrating Jewish life like a migrating plume of acrid smoke meandering its way through our collective body and soul.
I know hip well. I know its insidious nature. I have seen its effect and its damage. I was surrounded by hip. I was taken in by hip. I yearned for hip. I searched for hip. I saw people’s lives and identities consumed by hip. Twenty years of my professional life were spent in the palaces of hip.
I was an advertising agency copywriter and creative director. I was trained to be one of the manufacturers of hip. I would sit in offices and create hip, and then watch all those people lust after the creations. I reveled in hip.
And then one day, it all came crashing down.
There was no earth-shattering event. It was just a moment of realization.
In the ad biz, you win awards for creating hip images. That’s all hip is. An image. A fleeting image. You can’t really describe hip. You can’t put your finger on what it is. What’s hip today is not hip tomorrow. You often here people say, “She’s the hippest person around.”
What does that mean? Nothing.
Absolutely nothing. When I happily left the ad agency business, I used to tell people, “It’s the ultimate liberation. I no longer have to direct my energies into the shallow, ridiculous waters of hip.”
I found salvation from hip in the Jewish world. It was a world of content. Meaning. Real connections to people, the earth, the heavens. It gave me roots into the universe in a way hip could never do.
It was such a refreshing departure from where I had been that I was determined to bring my professional skills into the Jewish world — as well as into other nonprofit organizations.
For years, it allowed me to escape even hearing the word “hip.” Then, hip began to seep out into a few Jewish crevices and corners.
Today, hip is everywhere in the Jewish organizational world. Federations want to be hip. Hillels want to be hip. Israel wants to be hip. Chabad wants to be hip. Aish HaTorah wants to be hip. Synagogues want to be hip. Day schools want to be hip. Jewish publications want to be hip. And the Jewish foundation world is clamoring to create and fund hip.
It used to be that Hollywood was going to be the magic bullet that would save the Jewish organizational world. Now Hollywood has been replaced by hip. At least Hollywood was concrete. It meant a person. Spielberg. Streisand. Seinfeld. But can someone please define or concretize hip?
What is this all about? If Judaism’s image — its brand — has become tarnished, is hip going to save it? Is this the point to which we involved Jews have arrived?
Hip is powerful. As a marketer of Jewish life, I am watching our leaders grapple and bow down to its power.
I am not denying that we have a problem in Jewish life with the products we offer and the images we create. Most are lackluster at best.
But if we think that hip is the solution, we are demeaning the essence of Judaism. We are trivializing its soul. We are convoluting Judaism as much as “haimish” has convoluted it for the past few generations.
Haimish was always an excuse for not being professional. As long as the organization was haimish, it believed it had fulfilled its mission.
Much the same mistake is happening with hip. If the organization is hip, if the offering is perceived as hip, then today the organization believes it is fulfilling its mission.
Hip is not about meaning. Hip is not about depth. Hip is not about the soul. Hip is not about connection to human beings and the world.
Hip is about shallow. Hip is about self-absorption. Hip is about today, this minute. Hip is not about the past and it is certainly not about the future.
This Rosh Hashanah, Jewish organizations need to realize that Judaism is not hip. It’s never going to be hip. It is not supposed to be hip. Judaism has too much depth to ever be hip. Judaism must be perceived as the antidote to hip. The products Judaism offers must be the escape from shallow hip. They must be the refuge, the other road, the real thing.
If we believe that the Jewish masses are looking for hip, there are plenty of places they can fill that need. They can go to the Gap. Now, that’s hip.
During the coming High Holidays, grant us justice and kindness. V’hoshiyainu — save us … from the tyranny of hip.
Gary Wexler is the owner of Passion Marketing for Issues and Causes based in Los Angeles.
Do you remember what it’s like to be in your 20s?
You’ve just finished college, or maybe you’ve had an entry-level job or two, or maybe you’ve put off entering "the real world" for another couple of years by going into grad school and into unbearable debt. You’re wondering what it all means and how exactly you fit in the picture. You’re unsure about almost every single thing and yet you are interested in all of it just the same.
As I sat on a small stage at the Universal Studios Hilton Hotel on Tuesday looking at the anxious, inquisitive faces of a few dozen 20-somethings who were here at this particular hour to find out about career options in the Jewish community, all the heady uncertainty of that decade came back to me in a rush. The panel was part of a three-day conference called Professional Leadership Project: 20-Something Think Tank and CareerBreak, which brought together 145 21-29 year olds from around the country to figure out the needs of the future Jewish community. Although the participants were brought here to be studied, their concerns for their own career paths were so palpable I could recall that time quite clearly.
OK, maybe it wasn’t so long ago that I left my 20s, but it certainly seems like a quite some time has passed since I was fresh out of college, facing a world spread out frighteningly in front of me, with a million opportunities and only one possible direction that I alone could decide to take.
"I’m listening to all of you talk about the paths you’ve taken to become Jewish professionals, and I’m wondering right now if I’m doing the right thing, if I’m in the right job," a participant from the audience said to the panel: Matthew Grossman (B’nai B’rith Youth Organization executive director), Michelle Kleinert (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s deputy director of community affairs), Craig Taubman (musician, composer, producer) and me. We, along with four others on a concurrent panel in another room, were meant to serve as young(ish) examples of Jewish professionals — people who have chosen to make their careers serving the Jewish community in one way or another. Sponsored by William M. Davidson, the Charles and Lynn Shusterman Family Foundation, Michael Steinhardt/Jewish Life Network, Eugene and Marcia Applebaum and Robert Aronson, the Aug. 22-24 conference may sound like many other well-funded, well-intended and well-attended ho-hum Jewish "renewal" programs, but in reality there was something different in the air, something that I would call the "winds of change" if I weren’t afraid of sounding like… an eager 20-something or an aging hippie.
Here’s the thing: As I sat on stage answering questions and giving advice about what it’s like to work in the Jewish community, based on having been in it for more than 10 years, I thought, when I was their age, I never had something like this.
When I was coming of age who was interested in what I thought? Who, besides my parents and friends, cared about my ideas? And I — like most whippersnappers — had puh-lenty of ideas. But who wanted to listen? Who was interested in how I could contribute meaningfully to the world, to the Jewish community, to anything at all? More importantly, who cared about what I wanted to change about the world, society and the Jewish community?
When I graduated college and tried to find myself, all I got — after hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on Jewish education, summer camp, seminars, leadership programs etc. — was to be told what was expected of me. To be told how I should fit in to the world around me, to be told what there was, take it or leave it. I went to lectures, programs, seminars, you name it, and there were plenty of people who were willing to tell me the way to lead my life, but it seemed like no one was really interested in anything I had to say. And why should they be? The world wasn’t created for me, it wasn’t stopping or changing just because I was about to participate in it and, sadly, it felt like the only way that there would be room for me is if I’d play by whatever and whosever rules were there. That’s life, right?
Ah, but maybe — and I don’t know, it’s just a thought sparked by this conference — maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.
PLP gathered 146 people — only about a third are already working in the Jewish community — in order to ask them what they think, to find out what they need in order to be involved in Jewish life, what they want to get from being Jewishly involved and how existing Jewish life could change (change!) in order to accommodate them. To attract them. To keep them. To retain them. To get these bright, talented, creative, young people who are just beginning their lives, to begin them in the Jewish community. Not at a computer start-up or law firm or theater company or secular nonprofit, but here in the Jewish community.
Here, in the Jewish community — you know, the one that always complains about "Brain Drain," about losing its best and its brightest, about the "graying" of Jewish community organizations, the Jewish community in which all institutions try and try and try to make themselves "relevant" and "meaningful" so that they can attract the next generation.
This generation, the one sitting right in front of me.
This "think tank" has gathered a few of that next generation here in order to survey them, and analyze them so that PLP can come up with the answers from the grass-roots. It’s the Howard Dean of Jewish programming: instead of established institutions providing top-down stop-gap solutions to the core issues facing the Jewish community, the think tank plans to glean information from the very focus group it is trying to attract. Results will be compiled, studied and published. The question is, of course, what will they find? And will anybody listen?
"Maybe it’s not fair of me to abandon [Jewish community work] because I was having a hard time," Rachel Hochheiser told me privately after our group discussion. Hochheiser, 26, had left her job at Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life after three years because she felt "frustrated and burnt out," in her words, although they’re words I hear all the time from Jewish professionals. Hochheiser is currently getting her MBA in St. Louis, and now, after the emotional highs of the conference — of discussing Jewish issues pertaining to spirituality, history, current events, leadership and contribution — she was troubled: Should she work in the business world that she was being trained for, or go back to the Jewish world she loved but ultimately left?
"There is no career path in the Jewish community; there is no next step," she explained. When Jewish organizations worry about attracting the next generation, they lament the fact that their even within their own ranks, the primary color is gray. Hochheiser talks about it from the other end of the spectrum, from working inside Jewish organizations. "There is something for 25-year-olds, maybe 27-year-olds, and also for 45-year-olds," she said about jobs within Jewish organizations. She worried "what was going to happen when I turn 30? There’s just no middle ground."
The interesting thing about Hochheiser — and many other participants — was that money plays little part in deciding whether to become a Jewish professional.
"Money doesn’t matter, it’s just a certain threshold," Seattle resident Josh Miller said.
Many participants said they were willing to start at low salaries as long as there was promise for growth, because they believed the trade-off would be doing something they loved and believed in.
"I realize how much I care, how much I hope to continue working in the Jewish community," Hochheiser said.
Still, she and others have other concerns: Is there a level of professionalism in Jewish life that you can find in the outside world? Are there people who are open to new ideas?
At 30, Miller is at the end of the decade under examination, and he is confident in his career: post-MBA, he is now the director of Jconnect in Seattle (www.jconnectseattle.org), what he described as a nonprofit for social, religious and cultural activities for — guess who? — 20-somethings.
Why 20? What is it that is so important about this newly defined target group? (Most marketing groups are 18-24 and 25-34, and here, some of the 27- and 28-year-olds felt like they were in a different category than 21- and 22-year-olds.)
"I think we need some sort of 20-something successor to teen youth groups and Hillel," said Jason Brzoska, a 24-year-old from Albany who works at MyJewishLearning.com.
"There is no obvious path for someone who wants to remain involved Jewishly," he said, pointing out that men’s clubs, sisterhoods, all those things were for people who are older and/or in a more settled phase of life.
Times are a changin’. It used to be that after high school and college people got married — especially in the family-oriented Jewish community. Then they joined synagogues, had babies, sent them to Jewish schools, Jewish camps and even conferences. Today, as anyone who’s ever seen one episode of "Seinfeld" or "Friends" can attest, most people get married later. And while people in the Jewish community tend to get married at a somewhat younger age than the general population, it’s unusual to get married at 22. Or 23. Or 24 or even 25.
One way that the organized community has dealt with the changing times is to try push Jewish singles events: Get young Jews married to other Jews, the thinking goes, and then they’ll start having babies and families and be ready for the organized life of the Jewish community — in other words, for the men’s clubs, the sisterhoods, the federations and everything that already exists. That philosophy works, to an extent. New innovations like JDate and SpeedDating have been successful.
But successful at what? Preventing intermarriage, creating new Jewish families, finding someone’s soul mate, for sure. But is it a solution for creating Jewish leaders? For involving passionate post-college students who aren’t ready for marriage, but seem to be yearning for something else?
"Some sort of youth group for 20-somethings is what we need to remain connected to the Jewish world," Brzoska said. "Too many people get lost."
Most of the participants were far from lost, though. They were more like lit matches looking for the right hearth to light their fires. I met Yotam Hod, a 26-year-old public school teacher who had already worked for two years in the Peace Corps, and was just searching for any way to gain entry into working for his own community — maybe with Palestinian and Israeli kids, maybe first going back to graduate school in Jewish studies (alumni from various grad schools with Jewish programming also led a session).
There was Tamar Auber, who runs a nonprofit soup kitchen/food pantry/intervention center in Brooklyn that services 5,000 people. She’s only 26 and already feeling overwhelmed, but here, at the conference, found so many participants who want to volunteer. The conference also pushed volunteerism and philanthropy as ways to get involved Jewishly if you weren’t going to make it your career.
There was Rachel Cohen, who works for an ambassador at the United Nations and wants to improve the image of the Jewish people and Israel there.
And then there were a few people unsatisfied with their experience.
"I felt I missed out on the entire purpose I was coming for — I was trying to figure out how to get [other] 20-somethings involved that aren’t involved," said a 23-year-old Chicagoan, who preferred not to give his name.
"This think tank is not for blank slates," Rhoda Weisman, the executive director of PLP, said at the closing session of the conference, an open-mike evaluation session. "This is specifically for people who have strong Jewish passions, to be involved in something like this."
Questionnaires were filled out, the microphone was passed around, people said what they loved, what they didn’t love, what they’re going to do, what they hope to do.
Weisman previously worked for 10 years as chief creative officer for Hillel and much of this project is borne out of her experience in working closely with college students and within the Jewish organizational world. At 46, She is one of those "middle ground" professionals, and perhaps it is in this place that she can bring the fire of the youth to the hearth that is the staid Jewish organizational life.
"Initially our thoughts are that this could be the forerunner of an institution that will attract first-class people to the Jewish communal world and will incentivize them through fellowships, will mentor them, will keep them together throughout their careers, through various approaches," Michael Steinhardt told me from a lounge chair in the hotel lobby, where we were interrupted by dozens of conference participants who wanted to hang out with him. Steinhardt is one of the other impetuses behind this unprecedented project. As the founder of Birthright, the program that has sent thousands of 20-somethings on free trips to Israel, Steinhardt is used to defying the norm. Back then, he said, "they" said Birthright couldn’t be done, and now "it’s a transformative milestone of Jewish identity."
Will PLP be the next Birthright? Both Weisman and Steinhardt insist that the think tank part of the project is a one-time deal intended to produce an actionable study. But PLP as an organization is now incorporating into non-profit status to continue working with 20-somethings, providing fellowships and career guidance. PLP leaders are hoping what will turn into a continuing national program is CareerBreak — a mentoring program. After the three day conference, 25 participants will "shadow" Los Angeles Jewish professionals to get a taste of working life. Mentors include Jewish Federation President John Fishel, Progressive Jewish Alliance Executive Director Daniel Sokatch, Zimmer Museum Director Esther Netter and Pressman Academy Education Director Rabbi Mitchel Malkus.
"We don’t realize how difficult it is to get in [to Jewish life,] said Rabbi Ron Wolfson, University of Judaism’s vice president and dean of its Fingerhut School of Education, who is also serving as a CareerBreak mentor.
All mentors are being paid for their time, "because people need to know that Jewish professionals’ time and expertise is valuable too," Weisman said.
Full disclosure: the payment part came as news to me, as I had volunteered long ago to become a mentor. My mentee’s name is Lauren Leonardi, a writer who has spent the last five years in Savannah, Ga., and has recently moved back to N.Y. She feels deeply connected to Judaism, but is not sure how to incorporate it into her work.
"Why should I work at a Jewish newspaper?" she asked me. "Why should I work in Jewish life at all?" she said — and this was at the end of PLP on Tuesday night, before CareerBreak began. I’ll have been with her on Wednesday and Thursday, taking her with me to put together this newspaper. I don’t know how I’ll answer the questions — if I can even answer the questions — or if I’ll be a good mentor. Twenty-somethings aren’t the only ones with questions.
The Jewish immigrant from South Africa had lived the American dream since he arrived in the United States 14 years ago.
Juggling import-export and computer consulting jobs, the 42-year-old Culver City resident had earned an average of $125,000 per year, enough to send his two young children to private Jewish school and support his wife. Life was good, with lots of meals out, family outings to Knott’s Berry Farm and plenty of company for Shabbat meals.
But like many members of the middle class, the busy professional — who declined to give his name for this article — suffered a major financial blow as the economy faltered. Over a year ago, an import-export firm for which he subcontracted failed to pay him a $65,000 commission.
Suddenly, his financial security evaporated, and he quickly fell behind in his children’s tuition payments. His marriage grew strained. Nights were sometimes sleepless.
When the Jewish school recently barred his 13-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son from attending classes until he brought the account current, the proud father did something he never imagined himself doing: He turned to charity. Borrowing $15,000 from family members abroad and $5,000 from the Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA), a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, he paid off most of the school debt and re-enrolled his children.
"The need for my kids to be happy and to protect their little world outweighed any shame and distress I felt," he said. "Still, asking for money was gut wrenching."
With the stock market limping, unemployment mounting and the economy softening, many Jews who benefited from the go-go ’90s have suddenly found themselves hurting. For some, private school tuition, temple fees, bar mitzvahs, along with the need to keep up with the Cohens, has made their situation even worse.
For the poor, tough times have forced many down a rung or two on the economic ladder. With rents skyrocketing and salaries stagnating, some families have been forced to pile into one-bedroom apartments or illegal converted garages.
For the well-off, adjusting to the new and ugly reality has been less dramatic but still painful. Vacationing overseas and purchasing luxury items have been deferred. Neiman Marcus is out; Target is in.
That the rich should weather a tough economy better than indigent immigrants or senior citizens living on a fixed-income is no surprise. However, the turbulent economy appears to have hit the middle class and lower-middle class harder than expected. Several charitable Jewish groups like JFLA have noticed an upsurge in demand for services, not just from the poor, but from struggling professionals as well.
Once high-flying computer programmers, travel agents and small business owners are increasingly applying for free groceries, career counseling and interest-free loans as their jobs and incomes have dried up in the post-Sept. 11 environment.
Although no recent statistical data exists on Los Angeles County’s Jewish poor, a 1997 survey conducted for The Federation by demographer Pini Herman for found that 9.4 percent of Jews in the region earned less than $10,000 per year (the survey area covered about 95 percent of the county). Jewish poverty rates may have declined slightly since then, because some of the elderly have died. But the weak economy has undoubtedly plunged thousands of Jews into poverty, including unemployed and underemployed professionals, Herman said.
"We’re seeing more two-parent working families and others who never expected to need services from the community," said Leslie Friedman, director of the SOVA Food Pantry Program. "Many people are finding they can no longer stretch their incomes."
Overcome with embarrassment, the middle-class poor show up to SOVA in shock, stunned that they must seek a handout, she said.
SOVA, which gives clients a four-day supply of groceries every month, served 19,834 people in the first eight months of the year, 1,300 more than in the same period in 2000, Friedman said.
Claudia Finkel, COO of Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), a beneficiary agency of The Federation, said the number of people dropping by its offices for job training and leads has skyrocketed by 50 percent over the past year. Among those anxious to find work are recent college graduates unable to break into the job market and elderly retirees who have seen their retirement savings decimated by their plunging stock portfolios, she said.
So many laid-off young professionals and those with newly minted master’s degrees need help landing a decent position that JVS just inaugurated a program, FasTrak, tailored to meet their needs.
Since the beginning of September, the nonprofit has offered three three-hour seminars on subjects ranging from networking, goal setting and the need to "self-brand," Finkel said. The FasTrak gatherings have proved so popular, that JVS plans to roll out a new series early next year.
For now, many recent grads and jobless professionals under 30 are moving back in with mom and dad or taking positions in low-paying fields in which they have little or no interest.
"They were promised a golden ring with an MBA or a law degree, and they haven’t gotten one," Finkel said. "I think there’s a state of shock."
Shana Portigal would agree. The 27-year-old just earned an MBA from Tulane University with a concentration in marketing. With $75,000 in school debt, she hoped to land a high-paying brand-management job to pay off her loans.
Returning to the Southland after graduating in May, she moved in with her mother and sister to save money and soon began hunting for work. Despite her degree and past experience as a marketing director at a radio station, Portigal said she generated few good leads. To get an edge, she went to several networking events and a FasTrak seminar.
Frustrated, she eventually took an administrative job at a major studio for about half of what she expected to earn, although she hopes eventually to parlay that into a marketing position.
"If I would have known it would be so hard to find a job, I would have put off going to graduate school," she said.
For nearly 100 years, the Jewish Free Loan Association of Los Angeles (JFLA) has been making interest-free loans to those in need in accordance with biblical pronouncements. But with donations off by nearly $900,000 compared to last year and demand up, the nonprofit, nonsectarian organization recently had to suspend graduate school and some business loans until next year — the first time JFLA ever took such drastic action, said Mark Meltzer, the group’s CEO.
Already, about a dozen graduate students have been turned away. Before suspending loans, the outfit slashed them from a maximum of $5,000 per person to $3,000 earlier this year .
If JFLA’s fundraising doesn’t pick up in the next few months, that could translate into fewer or smaller loans going forward, Meltzer said. Also, the association might have to layoff at least one of its 10 employees early next year.
As requests for emergency loans for rent and food continue to mount, Meltzer worries that the economic outlook for many middle-class and less fortunate Jews could darken.
"We’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg," he said.
From where Phillip Liff-Grieff sits — literally — the Jewish community is looking better all the time.
Liff-Grieff is executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, and his office in Covina is at ground zero of a sprawling Jewish population. To his west lie the cities of Pasadena, La Cañada, Downey, Arcadia, Whittier, La Mirada and Azusa. To his east grow Claremont, Pomona, Diamond Bar, Ontario and — yes — Rancho Cucamonga.
Long gone are the days when those names served as little more than the butt of a Jack Benny joke. As Southern California continues to sprawl, and urbanites escape the Westside and young professionals seek their dream of a good job and a $200,000 five-bedroom home in Chino Hills, the San Gabriel Valley/Pomona region is expanding into a unique Jewish area of its own.
The community will come together to celebrate this growth in its annual festival, on Sunday, May 18, from noon to 4 p.m., at Covina Park in Covina. Between 1,000 and 2,000 people are expected to attend the event, which will feature an art show and sale, entertainment, children’s activities and plenty of food.
That number may be a small percentage of the actual Jewish population. Although no recent demographic statistics exist, Liff-Grieff estimates that between 35,000 and 40,000 Jews live in his federation’s 1,200-square-mile region, an area the size of Rhode Island.
Job opportunities and affordable housing are the primary reasons Jews move to the area, said Liff-Grieff, and the population is largely professional, with numerous young families. A large percentage of educators and students live near the universities at Pasadena, Pomona and Claremont.
The mix, according to Rabbi Avi Levine of Temple Beth Israel in Pomona, is wide-ranging, with Jews of all different levels of knowledge, background and commitment. The region has 13 synagogues, two Chabad centers, two Jewish day schools and two preschools. What it doesn’t have, he said, is a visible Jewish presence.
“It’s more like Berkeley or San Francisco in that sense,” said Levine, who served, for several years, as a rabbi in Berkeley. “There’s no Jewish neighborhoods.”
Community Jewish activists say that the lack of an identifiable Jewish presence is the greatest challenge to community building.
“L.A. has signposts and landmarks, a sense of having other Jews around you,” said Liff-Grieff. “That really is lacking here.”
The only kosher restaurant, he said, is Noah’s Bagels. Jews who observe the laws of kashrut make regular trips into Los Angeles for supplies. The Jewish institutions that help promote a sense of Jewish belonging — museums, memorials, even community centers — are all lacking in the region. The Jewish population itself is far-flung. Levine estimates that there are not more than one or two other Jewish children in his children’s public-school classes.
(The irony doesn’t escape Liff-Grieff that, despite the currently limited Jewish presence, many parts of the region, such as Montebello and Downey, were actually created by Jewish developers, and Ontario was once home to huge chicken ranches operated by Eastern European social Zionists.)
As in many other primarily non-Jewish areas, synagogues then take on a critical and wide-ranging role. “Jewish life is hard to find,” said Brenda Rosenfeld, a GAIN program administrator who lives in Chino Hills. “So we have to create it ourselves.” Rosenfeld, who moved to the area from the San Fernando Valley 25 years ago, is active at Beth Israel, which now has 425 families. The synagogue has a full calendar of event programming, and is planning a summer camp as well.
The depth of synagogue life extends from the west, where the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, under the leadership of Rabbi Gilbert Kollin, has long been a mainstay, to Chino Hills, where a nascent chavurah found itself facing off against the religious right last holiday season.
Creating a larger sense of Jewish communal life, beyond the synagogue, remains a challenge, said Liff-Grieff, but not one unfamiliar even to big-city federations. The 3-year-old San Gabriel/Pomona Federation, which split off from the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, has used focus groups and marketing research to zero in on the needs of its constituents. Several tacks seem to be working:
* The 6,000 Federation donors now receive their own newsletter, The Jewish Community News, instead of The Jewish Journal. The News focuses only on local personalities and events. “No offense to The Journal,” said Federation president Douglas Graff, “but that was the biggest single thing in establishing our own identity.”
* The San Gabriel/Pomona Federation is organizing large events and gatherings to bring the community together. Along with the May 18 festival, it will hold the Celebration of Jewish Learning on June 1 at the Duarte Performing Arts Center to honor all graduates of Jewish learning programs. Plans are also underway for a “CyberFest,” sometime in October, to introduce residents to Jewish computer software and Internet resources; a mission to Israel this summer; and even a communal basketball tournament. Liff-Grieff said that he also plans to launch a web site for the community. “The need to connect is a core need, as important as Jewish education,” he said.
* The Federation has created or helped support an array of other outreach services to meet the needs of a variety of Jews; among these programs are the Jewish Con-nection — a Jewish singles network chaired by Steven Fuhrman of Alhambra — and a van service that takes senior citizens on field trips to places of Jewish interest. “People may tend to feel very isolated as Jews living outside L.A.,” said Jonathan Flaum, the San Gabriel/Pomona Federation’s program director. “Our job is to bring them together.”
An Israeli dance troupe performs at last year’s Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys annual festival in Covina.
Coming together has also helped in the rare times the community has faced anti-Semitism. Last August, neo-Nazis distributed anti-Semitic literature to schools and neighborhoods in Claremont, La Verne, Diamond Bar and Upland. Churches and synagogues quickly joined together to put out a “Zero Tolerance for Hate” statement, and the city of Claremont established a Human Relations Committee, under the chairmanship of local communal leader Dr. Jack Schecter.
Of greater concern, said Graff, is the religious right, which is seeking political footholds in some areas of the region. Last December, a struggle erupted in Chino Hills over the planned presentation of an overtly Christian religious Christmas pageant at a public elementary school. When some in the Jewish community protested, they drew the anger of many parents and several school board members affiliated with the religious right. The Chino Hills Chavurah’s compromise proposal to fund an off-campus performance was rejected. Eventually, the pageant was staged in April.
But such occurrences are rare, and the Jewish community continues to thrive. Enrollment in Jewish day schools is increasing. The Atid Day School in West Covina has 80 students, and Chaim Weizmann Day School in Pasadena boasts 110, up from the 60 when Graff, vice treasurer of an international engineering firm, first moved to the area 20 years ago.
And there is little cause to think that the reasons Jews have been drawn to the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys will disappear any time soon: the quieter pace, the safer streets, the smaller scale.
“It’s got to do with the quality of life,” said Graff. “We love it here.”
The Jewish Symphony performs at the 1995 festival.
Koufax, Knishes and Kids
By Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer
Abraham, Moses and Sarah will be there. So will Sandy Koufax and Mark Spitz. The ancient biblical figures and modern-day sports heroes — in costume, of course — will be among the multitude of attractions at the Valley Jewish Festival, on June 1, at Los Angeles Pierce College in Woodland Hills.
The festival, a project of the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, is billed by its organizers as the largest outdoor Jewish gathering west of Chicago. Held every other year since the mid-1980s, the daylong food-, activity- and entertainment-packed fest attracted about 38,000 the last time it was held, in 1995.
“From Orthodox to Reform, from liberal to conservative, you name it, there’s going to be something appealing here for every Jewish person,” said Dan Shuster, who is chairing the event for the third time.
In keeping with this year’s theme of “Tradition,” exhibitors and vendors have been asked to create booths with cultural or historic significance. In addition to gawking at their favorite biblical and sports heroes, festival-goers will be able to learn about the origins of Hebrew names at one booth, learn how to braid challah at another and get a lesson on tzedakah at still another. Close to 200 nonprofit organizations will be on hand, including synagogues, Jewish day schools and camps, and a wide spectrum of Jewish community service- and social-action agencies.
Other attractions include:
* A two-acre children’s park that’s so extensive, it will require the services of about 200 volunteers to run it during the course of the day. Among the features will be carnival rides, arts and crafts, educational exhibits and a 23-foot-high rock, down which older children will be able to rappel (under close supervision, of course).
* A full schedule of entertainment sponsored by Hollywood’s famed Comedy Store, with a potpourri of Jewish comics doing their stand-up schtick between musical acts. Musical offerings will include Chicago’s nine-piece Maxwell Street Klezmer Band and the Israeli rock band ESTA, among others. Kids won’t be shortchanged in the entertainment department either: Musical, dance, martial arts and theatrical performances will be on tap at the children’s stage in the children’s park.
* A Jewish event without food, glorious food? Not a chance. From knishes to kugel, Chinese noodles to sushi, food booths will offer an abundance of international noshables — all kosher, natch.
* Learning sessions, led by a number of prominent Jewish teachers, including Rabbi Steven Jacobs and Cantor Caren Glasser of Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah and Rabbi Judith HaLevy of Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue.
The event, costly and complicated to stage, takes about a year to plan and prepare, said festival director Susan Bender, who has overseen the production of the past four festivals with the help of chairperson Shuster and a loyal group of about 30 community volunteers. “It’s like a family,” she said. “We really have a great time doing this.”
The festival, which began with the initial purpose of raising consciousness about the plight of Soviet Jews, has grown and changed over the years. Its main purpose now, Bender said, “is strictly community outreach,” with no fund-raising component, although an admission fee ($5 for adults, $2 for seniors and children aged 2 or older) is charged. By bringing together Jews of all ethnic and religious backgrounds, from an area stretching from Santa Barbara to Orange County, the festival promotes unity and solidarity, Bender said. “With everything that goes on in Los Angeles and the world, it’s important to have everyone get together for one day for pure celebration,” she said.
The festival’s corporate support has been growing as well, with more than half its $130,000 budget coming from sponsors this year. The list includes: Coca-Cola, Target, Health Net, Kaiser Permanente, Gelson’s Markets, Republic Bank, Mizrahi Bank, Summit Hotel, Western Bagel, the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Business Journal, the Department of Water and Power, L.A. Parent and TO Printing. With additional support from the Federation and gate fees, Bender said the hope is that the festival will break even this year.
For more information on the Valley Jewish Festival, call (818) 587-3205.