September 22, 2018

Holy Days in the Hospital

Last December, I was a “guest” at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for a week that felt like an eternity. Every day I prayed that I would be well enough to go home and every day brought new problems. It was impossible to keep the dark thoughts at bay.

One of the most important things that kept my spirits buoyed was a visit from Senior Rabbi and Director of the Spiritual Care Department Jason Weiner, along with one of the other Jewish chaplains. They came with little prayer cards, get well wishes, and they helped allay my fears.

It was an absolute blessing at a time when I was feeling incredibly vulnerable. So how much more vulnerable must someone feel to be in the hospital during the High Holy Days — a time when we are supposed to confront our mortality? I reached out to Rabbi Weiner to ask.

“It’s a very difficult time for people, it’s a lonely time,” Weiner said. “It’s a time when they want to be with their families or want to be in the synagogue.”

At this time of year in particular, Weiner said there are so many conflicting emotions for patients, “especially on Yom Kippur, when there’s so much talk about the Book of Life and the Book of Death. Often an existential crisis comes up and patients wonder if it’s a bad omen if they’re starting their year in the hospital.”

“Often an existential crisis comes up and patients wonder if it’s a bad omen if they’re starting their year in the hospital.”
— Rabbi Jason Weiner

 

Weiner said his job is to listen to patients “and let them articulate their fears and provide support and compassion.”

Patients sometimes ask him, “Does this mean I’m likely to die this year because I’m in the hospital over the High Holy Days?”

Weiner said, “I tell them ‘There’s no Torah source that says that.’ I’m more likely to say, ‘Why is that on your mind right now?’ and then explore it with them and help them through it.”

Weiner and his staff do a lot to help make the holidays special for patients. Sometimes they reserve rooms and have entire families come in for Rosh Hashanah dinners. The hospital’s kitchen prepares a special kosher meal and hands out apples and honey and sweet cake. There are pre-recorded High Holy Days services that patients can watch on the television from their beds, and the chaplains will blow the shofar in every room where patients request it.

“We try to give the patients extra TLC and talk about the holidays,” Weiner said.

For those who are well enough to leave their rooms, they can attend services. While the hospital has on average 180-200 Jewish patients over the holidays, services have to be moved from the chapel to the Harvey Morse Auditorium because close to 600 people attend.

“The services are geared for the patients,” Weiner said. “They sit in the front row and we have their nurses with them. But we also have a lot of [Jewish] staff who are working attend, as well as past patients and even people who live in the neighborhood.”

Weiner leads the services himself with Cantor Jordan Gorfinkel, and the hospital has its own machzor in Hebrew, Hebrew transliteration, English and English commentary. The services are truncated. “We call it a learning service,” Weiner said. “There are full Torah readings and a full shofar blowing, but for the prayers, we skip around a bit.” On Yom Kippur afternoon, however, there are full services.

“We try to [hold services] in a way that Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated will all feel comfortable,” Weiner said.

The full Neilah service at the end of Yom Kippur is something Weiner cherishes. “There are so many tears because people are literally praying for their lives.” He recalled a particularly moving moment when he saw two women hugging and crying. “One said, ‘I was praying for your husband,’ and the other said, ‘I was praying for your son.’ It was so profound,” Weiner said. “And really meaningful.”

Calendar: September 25 – October 5

Sasha Abramsky

TUES. | OCT 3

REACHING ACROSS THE DIVIDE

How can our differences make us stronger? Hear what Reform Rabbi Joel Nickerson of Temple Isaiah, Orthodox Rabbi Jason Weiner of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the program’s moderator, Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, have to say as they discuss how Jews can use the differences in their practices and beliefs to strengthen the American Jewish community. 6:30 p.m. Free. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 481-3340. sinaitemple.org/events.

SINAI TEMPLE TEEN CENTER’S PARENT INFO NIGHT

The Sinai Temple Teen Center is a community of Jewish teenagers who get together for activities such as weekend retreats, leadership training days and religious experiences. Parents can learn what its multitude of events and programming has to offer Jewish teens. 7 p.m.  Free. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-1518. sinaitemple.org.    

IAC REAL ESTATE NETWORK

Four real estate experts will discuss what the Los Angeles market will look like in 10 years at the Israeli American Council Real Estate Network event “Forward Snapshot of LA.” Panelists include Dan Rosenfeld, developer and president of Acanthus LLC; Rick Cole, Santa Monica city manger; Manjeet Ranu, senior executive officer of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority; and moderator Gail Goldberg, executive director of the Urban Land Institute. The event also will include a special opening presentation by Joslyn Treece from the LA 2028 Olympic committee. The event includes food, networking and an open bar. 7 p.m.; 8 p.m. program. $50. IAC Shepher Community Center, 6530 Winnetka Ave., Woodland Hills. israeliamerican.org/laforward.

THURS. | OCT. 5

“ABOVE THE DROWNING SEA”

Longtime “Law & Order” showrunner and head writer René Balcer channels his talents toward a different kind of drama: “Above the Drowning Sea,” a feature-length documentary about the escape of European Jews to Shanghai as World War II loomed. Panel conversation follows screening. 6 p.m. Free. USC’s Wallis Annenberg Hall Auditorium, 3630 Watt Way, Los Angeles. abovethedrowningsea.com

SASHA ABRAMSKY

Sasha Abramsky will discuss and sign “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.” In his book, Abramsky digs into what he says is America’s most dangerous epidemic: irrational fear. He takes readers on a dramatic journey through a divided nation, delivering an eye-opening analysis of our misconceptions about risk and threats. Abramsky shows that how we calculate risk and deal with fear can teach us a great deal about ourselves and can expose our culture’s deeply rooted racism, classism and xenophobia. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. booksoup.com.

Charity reaches out to families grieving stillborn or neonatal death

The Shainbergs’ memory box for their first son, who was stillborn in 2015. Photo by Cyndi Bemel

By the time Maytal Shainberg got home from the hospital, her baby’s room had been cleared out, the crib disassembled and the toys returned. Every sign of the firstborn son she had carried for 39 weeks — who emerged without a heartbeat — was gone.

But the pain didn’t go away, and neither did the diaper coupons that continued to arrive in the mail. While such tragedy is not unheard of, Maytal and her husband, David, found many members in their Orthodox community ill-prepared to respond. Orthodox Jewish law, it turns out, offers little ritual direction when it comes to mourning in such circumstances.

And so, in many ways, when it came to coping with their loss, the Shainbergs were on their own — socially, religiously and logistically. “We had to invent the process for ourselves,” David said recently over lunch with Maytal in their Beverlywood home. “That shouldn’t be the case.”

In December 2015, six months after their baby was stillborn, the couple launched Forever My Angel (forevermyangel.org), a charity that springs into action when a local Jewish family of any denomination experiences a stillbirth or a neonatal death. The organization primarily provides practical help, such as coordinating meal trains, running errands and dismantling baby furniture. Its website includes advice for offering appropriate condolences. (Don’t start with “At least,” it says.)

“It’s logistical support for people who want to grieve,” Maytal said, “and partly a Hail Mary to the community, [that] we need to start thinking about this differently and treating these people differently, and not making everyone feel like this is something that should be swept under the rug or be embarrassed about. Because it’s life.”

Although Judaism has a robust tradition when it comes to mourning the death of an immediate family member, the same practices are not required when an infant does not live 30 days after birth — the age at which a child becomes viable according to halachah, or Jewish law. So in the case of a stillbirth, for example, relatives need not tear clothing, sit shivah, or say Kaddish.

But there’s no rule forbidding those things, either, which places the situation in a gray area.

“You can certainly mourn but there are no rituals required for it,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City and president of the Rabbinical Council of America. “The halachah’s perspective is, let’s move on. Life didn’t happen here — let’s move on and try to create another life, if you will, that will be viable.”

That perspective, David Shainberg said, dates to a time when the infant mortality rate was significantly higher, women played a more domestic role in the household and Jewish populations often faced existential threats. “That’s been the M.O. for hundreds of years: push forward and get through it as fast as possible, wipe it under the rug” and try to conceive again, he said. “The world is different now, and I don’t know that halachah has evolved in this regard.”

Rabbi Abner Weiss of Westwood Village Synagogue said the community often fails these families. But he said that the halachah’s job is to establish only a minimum legal set of parameters for grieving.

“It doesn’t legislate for a maximum set of emotion,” Weiss said, adding “there’s no reason that one cannot observe ritually or express ritually one’s feeling.”

A lack of prescribed practices for Orthodox families, on the other hand, could be helpful for those who don’t want to dwell on a pregnancy with an unsuccessful outcome. “What’s required is a sense of balance,” Weiss said. “A necessity to express the grief and a balance so that they’re able to go on in a healthy way.”

For Maytal, that means lighting a candle in memory of her son every Friday night. Still, the Shainbergs said that without a halachic framework to guide the community, people who would support a family after a stillbirth don’t know whether or how to step in.

Looking up resources in the wake of their own tragedy, the Shainbergs said they found numerous support groups. But there had been a void when it came to logistical services that helped them live day to day.

“The charity was a response to what I felt like I needed,” Maytal said. “What I really need is someone to return the baby gift I just got. Or someone to go to Whole Foods to get milk because I want coffee and I don’t have any more milk, and I can’t bring myself to get in the car and drive right now.”

As such, everything provided by the charity and its website is geared toward acts of service and easing some of the everyday stresses grieving families face, Forever My Angel aims to enable them to focus on the act of mourning. The charity helps families across the spectrum of Jewish religious affiliation.

To that effect, Forever My Angel volunteers baby-sit, walk dogs, mop floors and drive carpools. The organization, which relies on donations from the Shainbergs’ friends and family, also can offer financial coverage for the hospital stay and funeral. The website explains what a mother should expect physically in the aftermath. And advice about the proper way to offer condolences is designed to protect a suffering couple from further agony.

Maytal and David Shainberg — with their 1-year-old son, Isaiah. Photo by Cyndi Bemel

There also are concrete suggestions for the hospital stay: Transfer out of the labor and delivery unit; ask the hospital for a memory box; spend time with the baby; consider choosing a name for him or her. (The Shainbergs named their firstborn but keep it private.)

Rabbi Jason Weiner, head chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said he is consulted on a case of stillbirth or fetal demise about once every six weeks and said reactions vary. Sometimes, he said, a husband and wife will respond differently. “I don’t give blanket or cookie-cutter advice,” he said. “It depends on the situation. And it also depends on their questions. My goal with a patient is to learn about what it’s like to be them at that moment.”

Forever My Angel can put grieving couples in touch with others who actually do know the feeling. By building a network of Jewish families who have experienced a pregnancy with an unsuccessful outcome, the charity has at its disposal a chorus of voices that show it’s OK to talk about what happened.

Upon receiving a referral from hospital chaplains or through word of mouth, David said, “it’s pencils down at work” for the couple, who run the charity by themselves in addition to their day jobs. David, 35, works in private equity, and Maytal, 30, works in financial technology. The couple reaches out personally to each couple, offering first empathy, then assistance.

Lemor Greer was nearly 42 weeks pregnant in May 2016 when her firstborn son lost his heartbeat. Forever My Angel organized a meal train, covered the baby’s funeral, and paid for a year of therapy, and the Shainbergs visited the Greers on the Greers’ first day back from the hospital.

“It’s such a big help that they take away all of those tasks and leave you with to deal with the emotional stuff, which is really what you should be exerting your energy on,” said Shuki Greer, Lemor’s husband.

The support group has made it possible for the Shainbergs to help Jewish families beyond their volunteer network. They have provided contacts to families in New York and Israel.

“We want to pull back this veneer of embarrassment and secrecy,” David said. “You shouldn’t have to pretend it doesn’t exist and try to face as few people in the Jewish community as possible until you get pregnant again.”

Maytal has since given birth to her second child, Isaiah, who recently celebrated his first birthday. She currently is pregnant with a third child. Mother’s Day is still hard for her, she said. So is Yizkor, the memorial service that she is not required to attend.

“There should be two kids running [around] out there,” she said. “It’s a constant reminder. We’re second-time parents but having first-time experiences. I feel like this should be easier. I feel like we’ll feel this way forever.” 

Moving and Shaking: Jewish Community Day at Dodger Stadium, JCFLA supports Jewish innovation

Wearing a yarmulke, tzitzit and a Sandy Koufax jersey, Rabbi Jason Weiner, senior rabbi and manager of the spiritual care department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, threw the ceremonial first pitch during Jewish Community Day at Dodger Stadium on Aug. 28 to Joc Pederson, a Jewish team member of the Dodgers. 

Weiner, 38, who pitched in college, admitted to being nervous prior to taking the mound, in an interview with the Journal.

“I didn’t sleep the night before. I was nervous. I don’t normally get nervous about things like this but everyone was talking to me about it beforehand: ‘It’s a big deal, you have to throw a strike.’ Joc, when he caught it, he called it ‘strike,’ ” said Weiner, who played ball for Cal State Monterey Bay.

A Modern Orthodox rabbi, Weiner said that in college he left the team after his coach made his membership contingent on practicing or playing on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.

He wasn’t the only rabbi on the field before the Dodgers took on the Chicago Cubs, a game Los Angeles would win 1-0. The home team also honored U.S. Army National Guard 1st lieutenant and Rabbi David Becker as the military hero of the Sunday afternoon game. 

Rabbi Brad Artson (third from left), dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, attended Jewish Community Day with his wife, Elana, and two children, Shira and Jacob. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Brad Artson

Cedars-Sinai, an official sponsor of the Dodgers, turned out approximately 40 attendees to the game. Additional congregations and Jewish organizations at the ballpark included IKAR, Congregation Kol Ami and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ YALA (Young Adults of Los Angeles). Highlights included free T-shirts with “Dodgers” written in Hebrew, Jeff’s Gourmet Sausage Factory kosher hot dogs, and more. 

The line for hot dogs at Jeff’s was already long during the first inning, as the owner, Jeff Rohatiner, and a small staff of employees worked hard to prepare standard kosher hot dogs, kosher jalapeño dogs and kosher Italian sausage dogs. 

“I think this is great to have the opportunity to show solidarity and enjoy the game,” Young Israel of Century City congregant Betsy Tabacznik said while standing in line for a hot dog with her grandsons, Yaakov, 11, and Zev, 10.


The Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (JCFLA) has awarded $2.3 million to 12 “new Jewish initiatives focused on innovation,” according to an Aug. 16 press release by the foundation, a charitable assets manager and grant-making organization. 

“The 2016 Cutting Edge Grant recipients — the 11th annual class awarded by The Foundation — exemplify creative, unique problem-solving necessary for a vibrant, engaged and caring Jewish Los Angeles,” Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles President and CEO Marvin Schotland said in a statement.

The two largest grants given this year — $250,000 apiece — will fund the Aleph Institute’s Project Tikvah, which addresses incarceration among young adults struggling with mental illness and addiction, and “Connections to Care: Interoperability Platform,” a central hub to manage patient care at the Los Angeles Jewish Home.

Molly Forrest, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Jewish Home, said in a statement: “We are grateful to The Foundation for supporting our efforts to care for more frail seniors in our community. The awarding of the Cutting Edge Grant will enable us to develop the tools necessary to provide coordinated, comprehensive, quality care for vulnerable and at-risk seniors.”

Moving Traditions will receive $200,000 to pilot a b’nai mitzvah program, and the Union for Reform Judaism will receive $100,000 for its 6 Points Sports Academy California.

Other grant recipients this year are Builders of Jewish Education, Honeymoon Israel, the Israeli-American Council, Jerusalem U, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Jewish Women’s Theatre, Pico Union Project, and Reboot in partnership with IKAR. The grants are distributed over a multiyear period.


Amir Naiberg is now serving as associate vice chancellor for research at UCLA. Photo courtesy of UCLA

Amir Naiberg has been named UCLA’s associate vice chancellor for research, as well as president and CEO of Westwood Technology Transfer, a nonprofit company controlled by UCLA that protects discoveries made by UCLA researchers. He leads the Office of Intellectual Property and Industry Sponsored Research at UCLA.

Naiberg, who joined UCLA on Aug. 3, co-founded the Israel Technology Transfer Organization in 2004. He previously worked for five years as general counsel and 10 years as CEO of Yeda Research and Development Company, the technology transfer company of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

He holds law degrees from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Connecticut School of Law.


Fred Toczek, president of the board at Shalhevet High School

Fred Toczek has been named president of the board at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles.

Toczek, an entertainment lawyer whose son, Jacob, graduated from Shalhevet this past year and whose daughter, Sadie, is a Shalhevet sophomore has served on the Modern Orthodox high school’s board for six years.

“I have seen what the school has done, and continues to do, for my children and for so many others, and look forward to my tenure as president,” he said in an Aug. 24 letter to “Shalhevet Family and Friends.” 

He succeeds Larry Gill.


Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com.

Moving and shaking: Chabad telethon and Rabbi Jason Weiner

Minutes before joining Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of Chabad West Coast, and fellow Hollywood star Jon Voight in front of TV cameras to make a pitch on behalf of the international Chasidic movement, Elliott Gould enjoyed a moment of calm.

“It’s a privilege, and it’s also a blessing,” Gould, wearing a suit and a fedora, said of his participation in the Chabad Telethon while sitting in a swivel chair in the dressing room of West Los Angeles TV studio KSCI.

This year’s installment — the 35th annual — aired live Sept. 6 from 5 to 11 p.m. and raised about $3 million for Chabad West Coast programs, Cunin said. That’s similar to past years, he added, but not enough to satisfy the great need that exists in the community. 

With headquarters adjacent to UCLA, Chabad West Coast’s programs include hundreds of Chabad synagogue branches throughout the West Coast, a Los Angeles-based drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, and an organization called Friendship Circle that serves children living with special needs. The telethon also supports Chabad education centers, summer camps and more, according to its website.

From left: Chabad Telethon co-chair Marshall Grossman and Voight turned out for the event. Photo by Ryan Torok

“They combine traditional good work with social services in a way that no other organization I know of does. So I’ll always be here to support them,” L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz said after he had finished wrapping tefillin with Cunin in the dressing room before appearing on-air.

Many people came together to work on this year’s telethon, including show producer Michael Levin; Chabad of Glendale and the Foothill Communities Rabbi Simcha Backman; and radio personality and Journal columnist Dennis Prager, who co-hosted the event with attorney and telethon co-chair Marshall Grossman, who donated $36,000 during the event. Leslie Grossman, his daughter and an actress, joined in with others to help, as well.

The event also paid tribute to the late Hollywood producer Jerry Weintraub, who died in July and was a major supporter of Chabad.

“Jerry and I came together at the Chabad Telethon,” Voight told the Journal. “He was a very strong supporter of Chabad, somebody Rabbi Cunin and Marshall [Grossman] could count on.” 

As for his own interest in participating every year, Voight said, “We’re trying to help people out here. I’m not Jewish, but I have great love for Judaism and the Jewish people.” 

Throughout the evening, a tote board decorated with the famous image of a dancing rabbi displayed the evening’s ever-increasing fundraising total. A few feet away, about a half-dozen local volunteers fielded calls from donors. 

“Hello, good evening, and thank you for calling the Chabad Telethon,” community member Debra Borodinsky said, holding a phone to her ear and reading from a script that sat before her. “How may I help you?”

The annual event blends interviews with people who have been helped by the organization, appearances by joyous, dancing Chabad rabbis and musical performances. To cut down on costs, much of the footage at this year’s telethon incorporated footage from earlier telethons.

As for the fundraising total, Cunin, as he packed up the tote board at the end of the night, said he’s never satisfied. “I can spend far more money than anyone can ever give. That’s how great the need is on the streets.” 


Rabbi Jason Weiner has been named the rabbi of the Beverlywood shul Congregation Knesset Israel. He will serve part time, as the shul only holds services on Shabbat and holidays. He succeeds Rabbi Dovid Bressman.

Rabbi Jason Weiner

Weiner, who begins his new job during the High Holy Days, will continue in his current position as senior rabbi and manager of spiritual care at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Knesset Israel Vice President Adam Hyman said in an email. 

“We are elated to have Rabbi Weiner with us because he is warm, wonderful, intelligent and funny,” Knesset Israel President Rabbi Avraham Schefres said in a statement. “Rabbi Weiner has the ability and fortitude to take Knesset Israel to the next chapter of the shul as a dynamic modern Orthodox shul.” 

Hyman said the hiring represents a great match: “It is a perfect shidduch.”

Weiner, for his part, said he is excited about taking on the position. “I have been incredibly impressed with the genuine warmth, friendliness and love of Torah among the Knesset members, and am excited to begin spending Shabbat and holidays with them,” he said in a statement. 

Weiner received his ordination in 2006 at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York City, after which he started at Cedars-Sinai as the Jewish chaplain. He served as assistant rabbi of Young Israel of Century City from 2006 to 2009. 

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com

‘Brain Death’ conference aims to educate about the disputed definition

When is dead really dead? And when the answer and criteria for this question are in dispute, who decides? The doctor, the family, a religious authority, a court judge, or federal and state laws?

In the past year, a number of high-profile cases have stirred public interest in this issue, as well as renewed attention among health professionals, legal experts, philosophers and spiritual leaders.

Special concerns have been raised within Orthodox communities in the United States and Israel, as well as by spokespersons for interest groups —including African-Americans and Holocaust survivors, among others.

Until some 50 years ago, the verification of a death was fairly straightforward — the patient had stopped breathing and the heart and lungs were no longer functioning.

Then, around the middle of the last century, a number of technological and medical advances came together to complicate the determination. These breakthroughs included ventilators that replace lung function and machines that can circulate a body’s blood without heart function or any other sign of life.

Most recently, neurological research and tests have allowed physicians to diagnose whether a patient’s brain has stopped functioning, even while a machine keeps the heart beating.

Such developments are confronting professionals and families with new problems and decisions, which will be addressed by a group of experts on Jan. 18 at Loyola Marymount University.

The public is invited to attend the presentations and panel discussions, titled “Brain Death: Facilitating Family/Hospital Dialogue About Death By Neurological Criteria.”

In advance of the discussion, the Journal interviewed three Jewish participants in the conference about their perspectives and experiences.

Dr. Paul Schneider, a bioethicist with the Veterans Affairs Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, convenes the session as president of the Southern California Bioethics Committee Consortium, which was founded 12 years ago by Dr. Neil S. Wenger of UCLA.

“While we have pretty much nailed down how to diagnose brain death, there remain in our fractured society ethical and philosophical questions on how to proceed in a responsible way,” Schneider said.

Just how complex it can be to follow the “responsible way” was noted by Wenger, professor of medicine at UCLA as well as chair of the Ronald Reagan-UCLA Medical Center Bioethics Committee.

Wenger sees one purpose of the Sunday session as advising hospital staffs on how to help families deal with end-of-life decisions.

He illustrated the agony often accompanying such decisions in the case of one Orthodox family, in which the husband was diagnosed as completely brain dead. The man’s wife sought rabbinical advice, which she took to mean that her husband’s brain was alive and that he would recover quickly. On that basis, she refused to have her husband declared dead and taken off the ventilator.

California law prescribes that, in such a case, a hospital has to make a “reasonable accommodation” to the family’s wishes. However, Wenger observed, “If families keep a dead person on machines, we’re not helping the next-of-kin in dealing with their grieving.”

Rabbi Jason Weiner is the senior rabbi and manager of the Spiritual Care Department at Cedars-Sinai. In that capacity, Weiner serves as facilitator and “translator” between hospital staff and the patient’s families when it comes to end-of-life decisions. In such situations, the dialogue can become extremely confrontational, with some patients’ families denouncing the attending doctors as “murderers.”

“I believe it is my job to see that the family’s religious beliefs are accommodated in a reasonable way,” Weiner said. “But ultimately, at some point, the hospital’s medical staff may have to override the family’s objections.”

In Israel, such issues have led to heated confrontations between doctors and rabbis in the past, though eventually Israel’s Chief Rabbinate accepted brain death as one criterion for the end of human life.

Still, most Orthodox Jews, in Israel and the Diaspora, do not accept this ruling, Weiner said. Their objections are generally based “on rabbinical understanding of talmudic stories about declaring death, and talmudic and later rulings that provide principles about how to define death.”

These principles, Weiner added “are challenging to apply to modern technology, but great rabbis are able to show how the classical principles laid out in the Talmud are relevant today.”

In addition, he noted, Holocaust survivors, and many of their children, are sometimes skeptical of any medical judgments, perhaps based on the horrendous Nazi experiments on concentration camp inmates.

The “Brain Death” conference will take place Jan.18 at 8 a.m. in the Ahmanson Auditorium. Parking is free. The attendance fee is $20 and audience members will be able to pose questions following the presentations.

Exodus at (Cedars-)Sinai

In 2003, when John T. Lange was hired as curator of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s vast contemporary art collection, one of his first tasks was to take inventory of the items in the collection’s storage room.

Rummaging through a stack high up on a shelf, Lange came across something heavy that looked nothing like any of the other artworks owned by Cedars-Sinai. 

“They were just these big stone blocks,” Lange said during a recent interview. “I pulled them down, I said, ‘What is this?’ ”

Those big stone blocks, Lange realized after doing some research and asking around at the hospital, were from the filming of Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” the 1956 classic movie starring Charlton Heston as Moses. As it happens, Lange’s find of the tablets in storage is reminiscent of another film classic, the final scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” in which the U.S. government has squirreled away the Ark of the Covenant in a massive warehouse amid thousands of other presumably less impressive items.

The story at Cedars-Sinai, though, is real. The red granite for the tablets was actually mined from the Sinai Peninsula, where much of the movie was filmed in October 1954. Which part of the movie these tablets were used in is not known, but, given that each one weighs 50 pounds, it was definitely not the scene where Moses lifted them above his head as he prepared to smash them. 

DeMille brought a few pairs of tablets back to Los Angeles, and he and his wife, Constance Adams DeMille, decided to donate a set to one of their favorite charities, Mount Sinai Hospital, which opened in 1955 on Beverly Boulevard and merged in 1961 with Cedars of Lebanon to form Cedars-Sinai. A Cedars-Sinai spokesperson was able to identify 1961 as the latest possible year in which the gift was made, as there’s a picture from then of the DeMilles with the tablets at the hospital. Meanwhile, a woman contacted in the Cecil B. DeMille Foundation’s Burbank office also did not know precisely when the family made the donation.

For decades, the tablets were proudly displayed atop Mount Sinai’s main building — after the merger, the building was renovated and then reopened in 1976 as the Schuman Building. In 1994, when the Northridge earthquake caused extensive damage to Cedars-Sinai, including to the Schuman Building, that building was demolished and replaced by the Saperstein Critical Care Tower. 

The tablets weren’t damaged in the quake, but they were removed from display and put into “temporary” storage with other “transitional” art, Lange said — and they still are considered a valuable part of Cedars-Sinai’s collection. Lange said the hospital plans to put them on display again, possibly within the next few years.

Rabbi Jason Weiner, senior rabbi and manager of the hospital’s spiritual care department, stood by as Lange removed a light protective cardboard packaging that covered the tablets. Weiner pointed out that the inscription carved into the stone tablets is not written in the Hebrew alphabet Jews today would recognize — DeMille ensured that the tablets were engraved using ancient Hebrew script, also known as Paleo-Hebrew, which bears little resemblance to modern Hebrew. 

Tracing the words of each commandment with his finger, Weiner pointed out that DeMille actually made a mistake in the engraving: In biblical literature, each of the two sides lists five of the commandments. 

DeMille’s tablets, though, show the first four commandments on the first tablet and the remaining six commandments on the second. Honest mistake? Not enough room? Weiner doesn’t know.

The other unknown is precisely what the pair is worth. “It’s one of those things where you just kind of say it’s priceless,” Lange said when asked. He also wouldn’t disclose the value of Cedars-Sinai’s entire art collection, even though it was appraised within the last few years. He did say, though, that he thinks it rivals some of the major museum collections in Los Angeles County. 

Although DeMille’s gift to Cedars-Sinai may not possess quite as much holiness as the actual Ten Commandments, Weiner certainly appreciates the historical intrigue the tablets add to his workplace. 

“Just like everyone always jokes that the Ten Commandments and the menorah [from the Temple] are in the basement of the Vatican, so this is in the basement of Cedars-Sinai — it’s also a holy place,” Weiner said, pausing for a moment before finishing his thought: “I’m joking.”

A Chaplain’s calling: ‘It drew me in’

For Rabbi Jason Weiner, his one-year chaplaincy internship at Beth Israel Medical Center New York’s Lower East Side was a not-so-pleasant requirement while he was a rabbinic student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

“I didn’t feel like I had any impact. I didn’t feel like I could really help people,” said Weiner, who is now senior rabbi and manager of spiritual care at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

The feeling changed in 2007, when Weiner, who was serving as assistant rabbi at Young Israel of Century City, was asked to fill in part time at Cedars-Sinai because the hospital’s longtime chaplain, Rabbi Levi Meier, had fallen ill. 

“I quickly began to build confidence in the impact a chaplain could have in people’s lives. I began to realize how appreciative people were, and how fulfilling it was, and how much I was learning and growing. I felt like I was on the front lines of life and death. The intensity of that really drew me in,” he said.

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