Poll: What DWP can learn from LAPD

A new Pat Brown Institute/Cal State Los Angeles poll of 501 registered voters in L.A. asked for opinions on two important city departments: the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Department of Water and Power (DWP). 

For decades, the LAPD has been a critical factor in city politics and government, often dividing the L.A. community right down the middle on racial, ethnic and ideological grounds. Earlier this year, the DWP, long a quiet powerhouse in city politics, became a key factor in Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s defeat of Wendy Greuel, his opponent in the mayoral race, when her support by the DWP union led to charges that she was too subject to union influence.

In some ways, the new poll suggests public attitudes toward the two departments are mirror images of one another. 

Over the last half century, the LAPD has gone from being the most admired institution in the city, in the 1950s, to a divisive force admired by conservatives and criticized by minority communities and liberals, and whose actions helped spur two massive civil disorders, in 1965 and 1992, to its current status as a more community-oriented, well-liked institution. 

By contrast, the DWP operated generally out of the public eye. Its core critics today are among the more conservative voters. But as a result of those criticisms, the DWP is now facing an unprecedented degree of public scrutiny.

The LAPD registers majority approval in the poll, by a 64 to 30 percent margin. But even after years of reform and greater emphasis on community outreach, minority communities still report less-favorable opinions than whites. Roughly a quarter of African-Americans (23 percent) and Latinos (25 percent) strongly disapproved, compared to 10 percent among whites. Overall, 15 percent strongly disapproved.

Those under the age of 45 were more than twice as likely (23 percent) as those 45 and older to strongly disapprove of the department, and renters (21 percent) strongly disapproved more than homeowners (10 percent). In other words, even a more broadly popular police department still has work to do with some sectors of the community. But certainly compared to the profound polarization that once marked the LAPD’s standing in the city, things have vastly improved and the department is going in the right direction.

A smaller majority of voters approve of the work of the DWP (55 to 38 percent) than of the LAPD, and roughly a quarter of voters strongly disapprove of the department. Those voters who strongly disapproved of the DWP were most likely to be residents of the San Fernando Valley, to identify as conservative (37 percent), to be white (30 percent) and to be homeowners (33 percent, compared to 23 percent for renters). 

 For these voters, the DWP appears to represent what they don’t like about city government. Seventy-eight percent of those voters who strongly disapproved of the DWP endorsed the view that government protects special interests “instead of people like me.”  

Unlike the LAPD, with its central role in Los Angeles political debates, the DWP has not entirely come into focus for Los Angeles voters. Future opinion could go either way. For the police department, majority popularity with minority dissent turned into majority opposition, when the department’s actions continued unchecked and the wider community came to see what was wrong. It was reform, often resisted by the department and its allies, that laid the groundwork for the department’s current popularity.

 The first challenge for Garcetti as mayor was the negotiation of a new contract with DWP’s employees.  The intense negotiations were heavily covered by local media. But about three quarters of registered voters polled said they did not know enough about those negotiations to have an opinion of the mayor’s handling of the situation. Los Angeles City Hall issues can sometimes take a long time to reach public awareness.

But the DWP cannot take comfort in the limited public attention thus far, or the fact that only a quarter of the voters expressed strong opposition. There is likely to be considerable debate over department transparency, its “work rules” and other issues, with vigorous attention from the mayor, City Council, the controller and the media.

If these explorations turn up damaging information and if reforms are not made, a negative image could solidify and spread well beyond the core group of voters who are already critical. That is certainly what happened to the LAPD decades ago. However, if the city government can successfully reform the practices that have frustrated accountability, there is room for positive views of the department to flower. The lesson of the LAPD for the DWP is that reform, however painful, has a reward at the end — the positive regard of the voters.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at California State University, Los Angeles, is also director of the PBI/CSULA Poll.

City School accepting applications

The City School, a new public charter school in the South Robertson neighborhood, has opened applications for the upcoming school year. Located on Robertson Boulevard several blocks south of Pico, the campus is open to sixth- and seventh-grade students only, and it plans to expand to grades six through 12.

Curriculum will focus on writing, debate and civics and will emphasize student involvement in the greater community. The school plans to keep classes small relative to other public schools, initially admitting only 120 students.

Most classes will be smaller than average public schools. Rebecca George, one of the City School’s founders and a board member, said that classes will have an 18:1 students-to-teacher ratio in writing classes and a 24:1 ratio in other classes.

George said much of the curriculum will be experiential, following a problem-based model, in which students learn subjects such as math and science through real-world applications.

“It’s important to engage our young learners with their surroundings,” George said.

The City School will offer Hebrew language courses, along with other foreign languages, through a blended-learning program in which students learn through a traditional teacher as well as with computer programs. George said parents requested Hebrew courses.

On March 7, LAUSD officially approved the City School’s charter to open middle school. The school plans to add an eighth grade for the 2013-2014 school year and an additional grade each year until it develops a full high school. The campus plans to hold an open house Aug. 23 and is still accepting applications for the school year beginning Aug. 27.

Sheri Werner, who has done extensive work in bullying prevention, will serve as the school’s founding principal. Werner served 15 years as head of school for Foundations School Community in Van Nuys, a constructivist-based K-8 program she helped found.

“The City School is committed to instilling in its students civic responsibility while engaging them in a democratic school environment,” Werner wrote in a welcome letter. “Our commitment to overall excellence demands that we support our students to internalize the value of academic achievement while also acknowledging and focusing on learning as it relates to social and emotional growth.”

For more information about the City School, visit citycharterschool.org.

Maarat Ayin: Eduardo Saverin’s decision to renounce his U.S. citizenship

By now everyone has heard that Eduardo Saverin, one of the co-founders of Facebook, filed legal papers in September 2011 to formally renounce his American citizenship. Brazilian by birth, Saverin became an American citizen in 1998. Born in Sao Paulo, Saverin’s father was, according to press accounts, a wealthy Jewish industrialist with varied interests in clothing, shipping, real estate and commercial exports.

Many of the press reports are focused on the financial implications of this move. Jim Cramer, appearing on “Meet the Press” last weekend, called the Facebook IPO a total fiasco, “one of the worst-handled things I’ve ever seen” because the stock only climbed just over 0.6 percent in its opening. Others disagreed, arguing that the successful launch of a stock that is now just starting to be publicly traded is not determined by how much the stock rises in the first few days but by how it does over the long term. As a rabbi, I am not equipped to discuss the pros and cons of what constitutes a successful IPO.

What I am qualified to comment on is how we should act in various given situations. Religion is not just something that we should do in synagogue. It is not even something that we should do primarily in our homes. Rather, Judaism should guide us in our actions every moment of every day. This is a difficult concept to implement, especially for Reform Jews such as myself who do not see the halachah as binding. Without rules that we need to follow, how are we to put this concept into practice?

Much of our ethical teachings may seem visionary and inspiring, but frequently are theoretical and not easy to apply in many of the situations that we are most likely to face. The historical precedents that we can draw upon are also not always helpful because the historical circumstances that our ancestors faced — even as recently as 50 years ago — were in such a different context that they seem antiquarian.

That is why Saverin’s decision to renounce his U.S. citizenship is an opportunity to look at how we might — and perhaps should — behave under a given set of circumstances. Granted, we are unlikely to face this particular set of circumstances. Saverin was one of the four co-founders of Facebook along with Mark Zuckerberg, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes. Although he owns slightly less than 5 percent of Facebook, his net worth is still about $2 billion. But while we are not likely to be in his exact financial situation, the principle involved is universally applicable.

What loyalty do we, as Jews, owe to our country? Saverin — full name Eduardo Luiz Saverin — was not born in the United States. In the 1990s, again according to press accounts, Saverin’s family discovered that their son Eduardo was on a list of potential kidnapping victims. During this period, gangs throughout Central and South America were kidnapping the children of rich families for ransom. The Saverins, not wishing to risk their son’s life, moved to Miami. Shortly thereafter, Saverin became an American citizen.

It may be necessary to remind ourselves that the concept of giving citizenship to Jews is a relatively new idea. In the Renaissance period, Jews were forced to live in a particular area, which was called a ghetto. The term was originally used in Venice to describe where the Jews were forced to live in that city. Jews in various parts of Europe were not granted citizenship and were only allowed to reside in a given city or region on the agreement of the local nobility. This agreement could, however be rescinded at any moment, and it was, with Jews being expelled from England in 1290, France in 1306 and again in 1394, and various other localities with depressing regularity.

In 1781, Christian Wilhelm von Dohm, a German political writer who was influenced by Moses Mendelsson, wrote a three-volume work titled, “On the Civil Improvement of the Jews,” which argued for Jewish political and civil rights on humanitarian grounds. This began a debate, which sometimes became quite bitter, over whether the Jews deserved to be emancipated. In 1791, France became the first Western nation to emancipate its Jews. When Napoleon conquered other European countries, he brought emancipation with him, literally breaking down ghetto walls.

Unfortunately, when France withdrew, this new legal status was withdrawn as well. Central European Jews had to struggle for many decades to try to achieve the civil and political status that we take for granted today. Which brings us back to the admittedly unusual case of Eduardo Luiz Saverin. A Jewish boy from a foreign country, he arrives in our country to escape physical threats and the possibility of being murdered. He attends a top, private school in South Florida and is accepted into Harvard University, one of the finest institutions of higher learning in the United States.

After studying and working in our country for a number of years as a citizen, he makes a fortune and, according to press reports, moves to Singapore in 2009. Two years later, he files the papers to renounce his U.S. citizenship. Possibly his accountant advised him to do so. Maybe he felt that since he was not living in the United States anyway, holding American citizenship was a financial liability that would not serve his interests. Is he not free to act in his own best interests, financial or otherwise?

I would argue that while he is capable of doing so, renouncing his U.S. citizenship is contrary to his obligations as an American Jew. We need to be loyal to our country and we also need to give the appearance of being loyal to our country. While it is wonderful that anti-Semitism has declined to such low levels that identifiable Jews can do terrible things without generating any discernible hostility toward us a group, that does not excuse us from our obligation to be loyal citizens to the country that we are either born in or that we embrace. Saverin voluntarily accepted our citizenship, and he should not abandon it just because it is convenient to do so.

While we Jews tend to be rather cosmopolitan, meaning that we feel at home in many different parts of the world, we need to balance that characteristic with a rooted loyalty to our host country. Taking and returning citizenships like greeting cards is, at the very least, a form of maarat ayim — the appearance of impropriety. This concept, infrequently mentioned outside of Orthodox circles, is the concept that we should avoid doing things that may look like we are doing something wrong, whether or not we are actually doing something wrong.

When Mark Cuban Tweets that “This pisses me off: Just in Time For A Facebook IPO Tax Break, Eduardo Saverin Renounces U.S. Citizenship,” Ilyse Hogue titles her commentary on this issue “Lessons in Disloyalty,” and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) calls it “outrageous,” Saverin should have realized this is a step that is not good for his personal reputation and not good for the potential influence that it may have on others, particularly young people. As Jews, we have an obligation to try to set a good example. This means not only trying not to do bad things but also trying to avoid doing things that might be perceived that way.

Facebook IPO: Good for the Jews?

If the Talmud were written today, would it look like Facebook?

First, the rabbis of the Mishnaic period post a Jewish legal rule. Then, Talmudic sages weigh in with their comments, all pithy and lacking punctuation. Almost immediately, the comments grow far longer than the original post. Eventually, outside links to the Shulchan Aruch and Maimonides’ compendium of Jewish law appear on the right side.

It may sound too cute by half, but if you look closely, the Talmud and Facebook actually share similar layout.

They also share a few basic ideas about commentary and community. The Talmud enabled scholars who lived in different times and different places to argue with each other, creating a virtual community. Facebook allows people who live in different places and may not know each other to do the same.

“Every piece of information that’s offered opens up the opportunity for commentary, for amplification—whether it’s a link from The New York Times or something that happened to you at the Israeli Interior Ministry or an idea that you simply want to express.” said Esther Kustanowitz, a Jewish social media expert who works part time for the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “And Facebook doesn’t just amplify the message, it expands the conversation.”

On the eve of Facebook’s initial public offering, scheduled for Friday, Jews—like everyone else—are still figuring out how Facebook can serve their personal or professional needs.

What started out in a college dorm room in 2003 as a way for Harvard students to rate women’s comparative “hotness” (it was then called Facemash.com) has morphed into a medium for more than 900 million people worldwide to communicate with each other, rally support or opposition, publicize news, make money, flirt and fulminate in ways both profound and mundane about the million and one things happening at any given moment.

For a few in the Jewish community, Facebook’s IPO raises the $64,000 question—or in this case, the $64 billion question—of how much of that newly created wealth will go to Jewish causes. The jury’s still out on whether Facebook’s Jewish creator, Mark Zuckerberg, will turn into a major Jewish giver following the IPO, when the just-turned 28-year-old figures to become one of the richest people in the world.

But the real story of Facebook’s impact on the Jewish world ultimately is likely to be more about the ways it is prompting Jews to change the way they think, behave, organize, and even mourn and celebrate than it will be about Zuckerberg’s tzedakah.

Facebook helped thousands of Israelis coordinate last summer’s socioeconomic protests, the biggest in Israel’s history. The site helped J Street turn from a fledgling, little-known upstart into a broad-based, left-wing alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Most Jewish community institutions, however, haven’t yet figured out how to maximize the potential of Facebook, according to Lisa Colton, president of Darim Online, a Virginia-based company that helps Jewish organizations adapt to the digital age.

Partly, Colton says, that’s because Facebook is inherently threatening to institutions.

“Facebook is about people more than it is about institutions. It supports individuals connecting with and learning from each other,” she said. “It’s a wonderful way for individuals to circumvent institutions.”

Facebook enables Jews to construct communities organized around areas of interest rather than geography, religious denomination or institution.

When Hindy Poupko Galena and her husband, Seth, began using Facebook to update friends and family about their year-old daughter’s fight against a rare bone marrow disease, a community of sympathizers quickly emerged that included thousands of people who had never met the toddler, Ayelet.

Strangers reached out to the Galenas—members of the Modern Orthodox community on Manhattan’s Upper West Side—not just with messages but with care packages.

“It allowed people to connect with what was going on on a very deep and real level,” Hindy said. “So many people came out of the woodwork and emailed me and said, ‘I had a sick kid and never told anyone about it, but I now feel that I can tell people about it.’ ”

Even now, months after Ayelet’s death in January at age 2, the Facebook-based community, which they call Ayelet Nation, serves as a source of sympathy for the Galenas.

“For a girl who only lived two years, it’s very comforting to know that people know her name, and I think that was only possible because of Facebook,” Hindy said.

Whereas many Jewish institutions define their community by who’s inside and who’s out—synagogues, JCCs and the Israeli Rabbinate, to name just a few—Facebook offers an opportunity for Jewish community with no bounds.

“It can take Jewish leaders off their pedestals and get them to interact with real people and real life in a multidimensional way,” said William Daroff, the director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America who has more than 3,000 “friends” on the social networking website. “And it’s not just about the Jewish world, but a place for us to talk about our kids and our dogs and the games we like to play and who we really are.”

As Facebook evolves, the Jewish communities it enables will change, too.

“I think it really is analogous to having phone lines, which later enabled faxes and early Internet,” Colton said. “With Facebook, it’s not about what we see and use today, it’s about what its foundations and widespread adoption make possible in the future.”

(Follow the author on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/people/Uriel-Heilman/714706314.)

Tel Aviv seeks approval to run buses on Shabbat

The Tel Aviv City Council approved a resolution to allow public transportation to run on Shabbat.

The measure was approved Monday evening by a vote of 13-7.

The Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality must now seek a permit from the Israeli Transportation Ministry, but the ministry said in a statement that “There is a decades-old status quo regarding operation of public transportation on Shabbat, and the Transportation Ministry does not intend to violate it.”

If the ministry rejects the request, the resolution provides for the creation of an independent transportation service.

In general, public transportation does not operate on the Sabbath in Israel, except in Haifa and Eilat on a limited basis. It is part of the “status quo,” a doctrine that regulates the public relationship between the religious and secular positions in Israel.

In a public letter released Tuesday morning addressed to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who supports the measure, Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau called for the decision to be reversed.

“This is a severe blow to the holiness of the Shabbat, which is a remnant of Creation, a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt, a day of rest for every worker and a day of spiritual ascension and the unity of the family,” Lau said in the letter.

In an interview on Israel Radio, Lau said that Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv, pledged that Shabbat would be publicly observed in the “first Hebrew city” and that the decision harms the status quo.

Public Reactions Are Strong to A Personal Journey

Los Angeles photographer Naomi Solomon capped off her informal summer presentation series “Settlers: A Photographic Journey of the Life and Disengagement of the Jews Living in Gaza” at Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills last week, drawing more than 150 people.

Her evocative slide-show was a culmination of her personal explorations of life in Judea, Samaria and Gaza that began with her initial visit in 2002 to the mixed secular-religious Judean outpost, Ma’aleh Rechavam, and continued through the Gaza disengagement of August 2005.

After months of post-production since her return to Los Angeles, Solomon created a show of 100 select photos, which she has presented largely to Orthodox synagogues in the L.A. area. However, she says her mission to portray the diversity, humanity and culture of settlers and settlement life through her photographs is far from complete.

“My focus now is to branch out of local synagogues,” Solomon told the Jewish Journal in a telephone interview.

Predicting a particularly strong anti-Zionist sentiment on campuses this year, she plans to secure speaking engagements at universities, as well as at Reform and Conservative synagogues. Synagogues of all streams, however, have sometimes been reluctant to host her, as they fear that her presentation is too “political,” a fear that Solomon attributes, in part, to her provocative title.

While in her presentation Solomon makes clear her stance against unilateral withdrawals, she asserts that her aim is to “share her experience” rather than her political opinions.

“My goal is to unravel a human story within a political tornado,” she said.
Her photographs range from romantic scenes of settlers building homes, tilling land, playing guitar and surfing on the Gaza coast, to the more emotion-packed scenes of settlers protesting and soldiers evacuating settlers and demolishing their homes.

Solomon cannot say with any certainty that the recent war in Lebanon has drawn more interest in her work, although she believes her presentation is already changing perceptions. At the end of the recent show at Nessah, which climaxed with the image of the gates of Gaza closing, many congregants were tearful and the hall was silent. She related that on several occasions audience members came up to her afterward and retracted their support for the disengagement.

Preschool Project Strives to Educate All

King Solomon was known to have coined the expression, “Educate the child accordingly so that when he grows old, he will not leave.” In other words, take advantage of the child’s education as soon as possible.

In modern times, this admonition certainly applies to preschool, and it’s something that my day care school, the Bilowit Learning Center, based in the Lomita-Torrance area, has always taken as a mission.

It’s why we were one of 600 preschools to apply for funding from Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP), a new nonprofit that seeks to establish or to advance affordable high quality prekindergarten education to public and private schools in Los Angeles County. LAUP’s goal is to make preschool universally accessible to every 4-year-old in Los Angeles County. With money from Proposition 10, LAUP funds and expands preschool programs.

Bilowit Learning Center was one of the lucky first 100 schools selected last spring in a countywide lottery as a LAUP school, receiving more than $100,000 in funding.

That good fortune was just the beginning of a process. With the LAUP funding, we hired a new special educator to direct our program, added two new teachers and redesigned the preschool classes with new activity centers.

We then advertised “Preschool for Free — How Can It be?” and left our number to call. Children were admitted on a sliding scale, so that all who were interested could attend. Who would believe that in a few months, the number of preschoolers attending our school would double to more than 40, thanks to the LAUP program?

Through this process, parents of children from all nationalities and ethnic backgrounds had the opportunity to see a Jewish school for the first time, often meeting a rabbi for the first time or learning from peers why some people wear yarmulkes. They saw that, yes, people with different religions, beliefs and backgrounds can get along, working side by side. All this in a safe and sound environment. Prejudices disappear and children learn trust.

In accordance with LAUP guidelines and our desire to provide an opportunity for children of all backgrounds to learn together, we provide secular education to the preschoolers for the half-day program. For the Jewish preschoolers, we offer an additional hour for Jewish studies.

My hope is that the transition from a preschool with such an environment will help children assimilate positively, by helping them live American ideals. We may be different, but we are all the same.

Everything starts with education. If we educate the very young in their most impressionable years, we may succeed in making progress toward the many challenges that lie before us. After all, it is much easier to plant a tree correctly than to reshape it in its maturity.

As the LAUP program increases, the great mosaic is drawn, each child adding beauty and trust. You should visit a LAUP preschool program and see the miracles it performs.

Rabbi Eli Hecht is vice president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America and past-president of the Rabbinical Council of California. He is the director of Chabad of South Bay in Lomita, which houses a synagogue, day school, nursery school and chaplaincy programs.


You’re Fired!

From the beginning, even before it was famous, “The Apprentice,” Donald Trump’s reality TV show, had piqued my interest — but not enough

to make a standing engagement with my TV set whenever it was on.

But then one Friday night I had Shabbat dinner with a few friends, and it turned out that one of the women there, a friend of a friend, was working on some reality programs. I said that I’d never want to be on any reality show, “Except maybe ‘The Apprentice,'” I conceded. As a businessman and entrepreneur, I thought I could make it through the process.

“There’s actually going to be a casting call in a few days,” she said.

Immediately I began to picture myself on The Donald’s show and, of course, winning the apprenticeship. Hey — I’m no supermodel, but I’m not a bad-looking guy. And I’m as smart, aggressive and ambitious as anyone else who’s been on the show. I’ve got all the qualities it takes to win the prize.

There was only one little issue. Should I wear my yarmulke to the interview?

As a traditionally observant Jew that toes the line between the Conservative and Orthodox world, I have a strong sense of Jewish identity. Not only do I wear my yarmulke in public and for business, but I also proudly wear my chosen Zionistic declaration of Israeli citizenship and volunteering in the Israel Defense Forces on my sleeve.

I didn’t always dress this way. When I first started my business, I was choosy about when I decided to wear my yarmulke. Because of anti-Semitism, I didn’t want to risk losing a client. I figured that if all I had to do was remove my yarmulke, I’d do it to get a client. (People of color don’t have it as easy as yarmulke-wearing white men: I can take off my kippah, but they can’t change their appearance).

Then one day I had met with a very successful Orthodox businessman who wore a black yarmulke and sported a long beard. He said he had never taken off his yarmulke for any business reason.

“If you believe in your identity, you don’t want to do business with people that don’t respect your religion and culture,” he said.

I haven’t taken it off since (except to shower and sleep).

I didn’t know what to do for “The Apprentice.” Wearing a kippah in New York business is one thing, but wearing it to get on national television is completely another.

I started filling out the application at midnight the night before interviews, and arrived at NBC at around 4 a.m. There were already 337 people there before me. But I was lucky later when there were even more behind me. On that line, we were all equal. We all believed that we had a shot at the title — or at least getting through the door. We stood outside in the freezing wind. I was bundled up, hat and all.

Five hours later, when I got inside, I took off my hat and revealed my secret: I wore my yarmulke. Why? Because I decided that my only chance to shine, to stand out from the hundreds of others, was to show off how different and diverse I was. Out of 16 people — eight men and eight women — surely not everyone could look exactly the same.

For the interview, they sat 12 people around a table and had them face the casting director. During introductions, I told everyone that I was a Web developer and ran a Judaica store over the Internet (www.judaicastore.com). Then the casting director suggested a topic of conversation.

The theory was that if you can rise above the others with intelligent thoughts and could express yourself clearly and speak well, they would notice you as good material for the show. As most of my colleagues and friends will admit, I certainly have this skill. I, along with one or two other people, dominated the conversation at the interview. After five minutes, the interview was over and they thanked us all for coming.

I never heard from them again.

Did my yarmulke matter in the end? I think so. Maybe they just didn’t like me –although I can’t imagine that. I think that national network television is not ready for an observant yarmulke-wearing Jew from New York. I’m not sure that the show wants someone so strongly identified with the Jewish community, Israel and all of its current politics — even if that person were “fired!”

Maybe I shouldn’t have worn the yarmulke. But I’m glad I did. Now I have my own version of reality.

Raphi Salem, CEO and president of SalemGlobal Internet, lives in Manhattan.

Our Cross to Bear?

At first blush it seemed an odd thing for an observant Jew to do: Slogging my way through morning rush-hour traffic to get downtown to demonstrate against the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ decision to remove a small cross from the county seal.

And yet, I felt compelled to be there. The supervisors had already capitulated, in a 3-2 vote, to a threat by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to sue the county over the cross. Surprised by the public outcry, the supervisors called for another vote to consider a so-called “compromise” with the ACLU in which the cross on the seal — just one of a dozen various symbols of the region’s history — would be replaced by a mission. But as one clever observer noted, a mission without a cross just looks like a Taco Bell.

For years the actions of the ACLU have infuriated me. Their reflexively leftist positions have accomplished the exact opposite of what their name suggests: Instead of promoting civil liberties, they have hampered them at every opportunity, particularly by trying to eradicate symbols of Judaism and Christianity from public life and, by extension, have stifled free expression. Their successful bullying tactics have so cowed public officials that they simply fold when the ACLU comes complaining. In fact, the ACLU first targeted the city of Redlands, whose city seal also has a cross, and now bureaucrats there are busily taking black marker to the crosses until they can redesign the seal. Things must be pretty slow at the ACLU if this is all they can come up with as a threat to our national civil liberties.

By the way, the Los Angeles County seal also includes the pagan goddess Pomona, goddess of gardens and fruit trees, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem for the ACLU. Their animus is toward Christianity and Judaism, and it is as limitless as it is hypocritical. While they are now busily checking for crosses on county seals (and the cross on the Los Angeles County seal is so small they probably needed a magnifying glass to see it), they are only selectively bothered by Christian symbols. In 1995 they represented — are you ready? — the Ku Klux Klan, who were denied the right to erect a 6-foot cross in front of the Ohio Capitol State building. This bastion of “free speech” and civil liberties took up the Klansmens’ case (Capitol Square Review Board vs. Pinette), rejecting Ohio’s argument that allowing the display violated the separation of church and state. According to the ACLU, a tiny cross on a county seal representing part of the county’s history is intolerable, but an enormous cross put up by virulently racist Klansmen in front of a state capitol building is an expression of free speech. Got it?

Many of the demonstrators, led by radio talk show host Dennis Prager, argued that by eliminating the cross from the seal, the supervisors were rewriting history — a hallmark of totalitarian regimes. Like it or not, Los Angeles was founded by the Rev. Junipero Serra as a mission, making Christianity a central element in the county’s early history. For a group claiming to stand for free speech and civil liberties, eviscerating the truth of our history is unconscionable.

Most people understand the danger inherent in rewriting history. That’s why the 1,000-plus demonstrators at the Hall of Supervisors were multiracial, multiethnic and religiously diverse. (Of course, one would not know that from the coverage in the Los Angeles Times, which chose to include a photo making the gathered crowd look like a good ol’ boy come-to-Jesus meeting. The photo was so misleading and out of context that the Times ran a correction the following day.) I was pleased to find some of my religious friends among the crowd, including David Altschuler, who took his 10th-grade daughter out of school for the occasion. Like me, David came to show non-Jews that “many Jews appreciate the freedom that Christians in this country have granted to us.” Many people who noticed his kippah came up and thanked him for coming.

I probably would not have come to value the importance of this issue had I not studied with Rabbi Daniel Lapin, founder and president of Toward Tradition and formerly the rabbi of the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice. For nearly 20 years, he has been a lone voice in the wilderness, arguing that it is the uniquely tolerant brand of Christianity practiced here that has given Jews the kind of freedom unprecedented anywhere in the Diaspora. On Jewish participation in the fight to save the cross on the seal, Lapin said, “Seldom have Jews appealed to the Christian community in vain when we needed help with issues important to us, such as supporting Soviet Jewish immigration or fighting domestic anti-Semitism. This is a chance for the organized Jewish community to return the favor.”

If anyone would have told me in my early adulthood that I’d become a defender of the cross, so to speak, I would have been as incredulous as if they’d also predicted I’d one day vote Republican. But people change. Sometimes, people become open to new ideas, even previously foreign ideas. The cross on the county seal is small, but the fight to preserve it is very, very big. I demonstrated not only to preserve the truth of our history, but also because I’ve had enough of the tyranny of the ACLU. This time, they’re after crosses. Can anybody doubt that next time it will be a Star of David?

Judy Gruen is an award-winning humorist and columnist for Religion News
Service. More of her columns can be found at www.judygruen.com.

East Meets West

About six months ago, Gregory Rodriguez, a contributingeditor to the Los Angeles Times opinion section, phoned his friend, Rabbi GaryGreenebaum, West Coast regional director of the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee). Rodriguez had attended events purported to promote intellectualfellowship among diverse Angelenos, but had found them not-so-diverse. “There’sa lot of lip service paid to crossing barriers in this city, but manygatherings are organized around political or ethnic lines,” Rodriguez said.

To mix things up a bit, the two friends went on to launch aprogram, co-presented by the Los Angeles Public Library. The series, Zócalo,which means “public square” in Spanish, will gather Eastsiders and Westsidersfor private discussions and public lectures on crucial civic issues. It kicksoff at the downtown Central Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium on April 9 at 7p.m., when the Economist’s Washington correspondent Adrian Wooldridge,co-author of “The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea,” willdescribe his take on the corporation as “an engine that can work for the publicgood as well as ill,” Greenebaum said.

Four more speakers through July will include the preeminentAfrican American essayist Debra Dickerson and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, theOscar-nominated director of “Amores Perros.”

The series joins a burgeoning trend of L.A. programs devotedto the intellectual life, from Lunchtime Art Talks at the UCLA Hammer Museum tothe literary salon Beyond Baroque.

“But we don’t want to be labeled a salon,” Rodriguez said.”We want to create a nonpartisan, multiethnic place in a city that has fewneutral, welcoming places.”

Like Zócalo, its conveners represent East and West LosAngeles. Rodriguez, 36, is a Mexican American who lives in a Northeastneighborhood, Hermon, near Highland Park. Greenebaum, who is in his 50s,promotes intergroup relations through the regional office of the AJCommittee,located in West L.A. The two men met when Rodriguez interviewed Greenebaum fora piece that touched on Latino-Jewish relations several years ago.

They’re hoping Zócalo — sponsored by groups as varied as TheJewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and Citibank — will introduce Angelenoswho wouldn’t normally meet. “A group devoted to fostering fellowship and newideas will be a powerful contribution to the new L.A.,” Rodriguez said. 

For information about Zócalo events, which will be broadcastover KPCC 89.3 FM, call (213) 228-7025.

Lecture Stirs Anger

A public lecture by a visiting scholar on the UCLA campususually doesn’t make much of a ripple, but nearly all of the 1,800 seats inRoyce Hall were taken and the atmosphere was electric when professor Edward W.Said stepped up to the lectern.

The sponsoring Burkle Center for International Studies hadbeen forced to move the Feb. 20 event from a smaller venue, and inside RoyceHall, groups of students worked their cell phones in Hebrew and Arabic. At theentrance, Bruins for Israel, StandWithUs, the Spartacus Youth Club and the BlueTriangle Network passed out competing pamphlets.

Said has impeccable academic credentials as a graduate of Princetonand Harvard universities, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and the author of 20 scholarly books translated into 35 languages.

Although his reputation as an ardent advocate of Palestinianand Arab causes had preceded the Jerusalem-born scholar, some members of theuniversity community and the public had come hoping for a sober and rationalpresentation on the complexities of the Middle East.

Most were quickly disabused of that hope, none more so thana number of the most dedicated Jewish advocates of reconciliation andco-existence with the Palestinians. After a heated shouting match with Said, soardent a peacenik as Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller of UCLA Hillel subsequentlylabeled the Columbia professor as “a fraud.”

Said, who served as a member of the Palestinian NationalCouncil from 1977-1991, set the tone by declaring that Israel’s treatment ofPalestinians is currently the world’s most visible case of human rights abuses.

“The denial of human rights by Israel cannot be accepted onany grounds,” whether based on divine guidance or past Jewish suffering, hedeclared.

While agreeing that Palestinian suicide bombings were”terrible,” Said quickly put the onus on the Israeli bulldozing of homes,helicopter missile attacks and strip searches of civilians.

Warming to his subject and accompanied by enthusiasticapplause by a good part of the audience, Said said that any human rightsviolations charged to Saddam Hussein were also applicable to Israel.

Describing some of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’spronouncements as “thuggish balderdash,” Said said that Israel, which hadenjoyed a reputation as a progressive society in its early years, “now had theimage of an aggressor.”

Said, acknowledging his own partisanship as a Palestinian,said he saw little chance of a modus vivendi between the Palestinian “David”and the Israeli “Goliath,” at least until Israeli leaders expressed theircontrition for the alleged crimes against the Palestinian people.

“Neither side is blessed with a [Nelson] Mandela or a[former South African president F.W.] de Klerk,” Said said.

Toward the end of his 75-minute talk, Said softened hisrhetoric by citing his friendship with Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim,which has led to the creation of an Arab-Israeli youth orchestra.

The mellower mood vanished with the first question, whichwas posed by Seidler-Feller.

Charging that Said had painted a black- and-white picture ofthe world, Seidler-Feller pointed to a number of misstatements by the speaker,and, amidst raucous catcalls from the audience, challenged Said to sign a jointstatement advocating Israel’s return to the pre-1967 boundaries, a jointcapital in Jerusalem and settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem.

Said would have none of it. He denounced Seidler-Feller’s”tirade of falsehoods,” and as a victim of the propaganda, which, Said claimed,is the only thing sustaining Israel, besides the support of the United States.

Seidler-Feller was still in an angry mood the following day.”Said appears as a sophisticated, urbane, reasonable academic, but he is reallya belligerent naysayer,” Seidler-Feller observed. “That is why he is a fraud.”

“He is so encumbered by memory, that he is stuck,” theHillel rabbi added. “He is totally dependent on his sense of victimhood. WeJews have used this approach at times, too, but in order to reach any kind ofagreement, we must both go beyond that.”

Seidler-Feller also expressed his disappointment that, inhis talk, Said had “created an atmosphere which empowered the audience to behostile.”

Dr. David N. Myers, a UCLA history professor and formerdirector of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, who has frequently spoken outagainst the Israeli occupation policies, also expressed his disappointment.

Myers described Said as “a tragic figure, a man ofremarkable intelligence, charisma and oratorical skill, who chose to ignore thecomplex dynamics of the conflict and instead recited the stale platitudes ofPalestinian rejectionism.”

Dr. Sam Aroni, another UCLA professor and a longtimeadvocate of a two-state solution, said he left Royce Hall deeply depressed atthe apparent impossibility of dialogue between the Israeli and Palestiniansides.

“Unfortunately, Said used emotional, rather than rationalarguments,” Aroni said.

One exception to the negative reaction among Jewish doveswas that of philanthropist and political activist Stanley Sheinbaum, one of themost veteran and prominent members of the peace movement.

“Said’s points were generally valid, but Israelis andAmerican Jews don’t have the patience or tolerance to deal with them,” he said.

While there may be some disagreements about certain facts,Sheinbaum said, the main point is that “the Palestinians consider themselves underoccupation, and the question is whether Israelis understand that.”

At the request of the Burkle Center, Sheinbaum hosted areception for Said at his home after the talk. Approximately 60-70 guestscontinued to debate the issues, generating ” a little heat,” Sheinbaum said. Hehas since received four to five pieces of hate mail, Sheinbaum added.

Professor Geoffrey Garrett, director of the Burkle Center,announced that the next forum speaker will be Martin Indyk, former U.S.ambassador to Israel, and that he was finalizing plans for the appearance ofKing Abdullah II of Jordan.

The associate director of the Burkle Center, politicalscientist Steven Spiegel, who was unable to attend the Said lecture, said thatSaid’s appearance was in keeping with the UCLA mission of presenting a varietyof views.

“However, by the end of the forum series, the other sidewill be more than amply represented,” Spiegel said.  

The Faces Behind Fairfax

Ask Boris Dralyuk about his student days at Fairfax High School and the impish young man with startlingly blue eyes will mockingly compare himself to one of the great anti-heroes of literature. “I know about the experiences of Saul Bellow’s Augie March and the little Jewish kids growing up in tough urban areas, but Los Angeles is not one of those places. There is very little in common between the Lower East Side and Los Angeles. It’s not a battle to grow up here. It is not a struggle.”

While he may not have to brave New York winters in Los Angeles, Dralyuk has seen a fair amount of struggle in his time. He came from Odessa, Russia, in 1991 with his mother, Anna Glazer, while his father went to Israel where he eventually died of heart failure brought on by alcoholism.

Dralyuk’s experience at Fairfax was especially unique, as he was selected to be one of 12 students profiled in the PBS documentary series “Senior Year.” David Zeiger, the creator of the series, and a Fairfax alumnus himself, chose Dralyuk less because of the student’s Judaism than because he was an immigrant.

“It was very important for us to follow a really smart, driven kid in public school,” Zeiger said.

“He had come from Russia and it was kind of interesting to me that he had picked up English and become an intellectual with tremendous range,” Zeiger explained. “Boris reflected a big reality. My agenda in ‘Senior Year,’ was to show public school in a positive light in the diversity it provides its students, and Fairfax is one of the most diverse places in the country. You can’t have that diversity of kids outside of a public school situation. It’s a real strength of Fairfax.”

The students were followed by filmmakers who were USC and UCLA graduate students and not too far removed from their subjects ages.

Zeiger came back to his alma matter for the 1999-2000 school year to see what had changed in the neighborhood. While Zeiger found that the classic dramas of adolescence have remained the same, the background against which those dramas are played out against has changed dramatically. When Zeiger graduated in 1967, he estimates the school was 98 percent middle-class Jews. “I think we had two African American students in the entire place.” Now only 13 percent of Fairfax’s 2,700 students are classified as white, non-Hispanic — nearly 90 percent of whom are Eastern European Jewish immigrants, like Dralyuk.

Dr. Carolee Bouge, Fairfax’s dean of students said, “In the ’60s, it was mostly white and the most diversity we had were the two Jewish populations — Ashkenazic and Sephardic. Now the school is really a microcosm of the world picture. We have over 62 countries represented at the school, and 35 languages spoken.”

So how did a school in the traditional heart of Jewish Los Angeles come to only have Jewish students who were immigrants? The flight of Jewish students from Los Angeles public schools has stepped up dramatically in the 1990s with 70 percent of Jewishly identified children in the Fairfax district attending private schools, both Jewish and non-Jewish. According to Bruce Phillips, a professor of sociology at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, “When L.A. High was destroyed in the 1971 earthquake, they shipped those kids over to Fairfax. No one was prepared for the influx, and that began to contribute to the decline of Fairfax as a neighborhood school.”

Seniors from Fairfax still excel, with two students attending Harvard from the graduating class last year, 22 going to UCLA, 15 to Berkeley and three to USC, according to Kay Ochi, the school’s college advisor. Thirty percent of the students do attend four-year colleges, and 55 percent attend two-year colleges. However, over 15 percent of the senior class still does not graduate.

The diversity of student accomplishments is perhaps a reflection of the various socio-economic groups the school pulls from, and may explain why a school that sends its graduates to the top universities in the country also qualifies as a Title 1 school.

Bouge tells stories of Korean children brought over by their parents and left alone to live in rented rooms in the district to give them an American education. “These kids obviously need a lot of support from their school,” Bouge said. If anything, the diversity of students and their academic accomplishments might be testimonial to how vivid the American dream is for many immigrants.

Dralyuk was able to navigate the tricky twists and turns at Fairfax and not only survive, but thrive. Currently a sophomore at UCLA where he is studying Russian Literature, Dralyuk clearly cherished his time at Fairfax. “What I took away from Fairfax was the value of having so many people coexisting together without becoming homogenous, and even celebrating their diversity by teaching one another who they really are.”

“Senior Year” airs every Friday night at 10 p.m. on
KCET. The series will be preempted March 1, 8 and 15, but returns Friday, March
22. For more information, visit the Web site at www.pbs.org/senioryear .