Beverly Hilton developer goes to voters with new plan

Beny Alagem wants to make a deal with Beverly Hills voters.

In 2008, the Beverly Hilton developer proposed a plan to redevelop the Hilton property into a sprawling complex, with a 12-story triangular Waldorf Astoria pointing into westbound traffic on Wilshire Boulevard accompanied by two luxury condominium towers, one eight stories, the other 18. 

The only problem: Beverly Hills building code allows a maximum height of 45 feet and three stories for commercial properties.

Despite this, the Beverly Hills City Council voted to allow the construction to proceed, but citizens banded together to offer a referendum to block it. The referendum lost by just 129 votes — less than 1 percent.

Now, Alagem wants to tweak his plan, and he’s returning to the same voters who nearly thwarted him eight years ago.

“This time, we said, ‘Let the voters decide,’ ” Alagem told the Jewish Journal. “ ‘Let’s go to the residents of the city and let’s ask them if they agree with me or not.’ ”

In March, two residents sponsored a ballot initiative to allow Alagem to scrap the smaller, eight-story residential tower and instead add another eight stories to the taller, 18-story high-rise, which would be built set back from Wilshire Boulevard. Where the shorter tower would have gone, a 1.7-acre green space, open to the public, would replace it.

Soon after the new plan went public, the Hilton rolled out well-funded signature-gathering and advertising campaigns. Twitter ads and television commercials illustrate a proposed lush park with a fountain populated by spiffily dressed visitors. On May 2, the campaign submitted enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. 

But, as in 2008, some Beverly Hills residents are none too eager to allow the developer, an Israeli American who immigrated in 1975, to raise the roof on the Beverly Hills skyline.

“This is not Legoland — it’s not like you get a certain number of blocks and you can distribute them however you want,” Mayor John Mirisch said in an interview at his office in City Hall. “That’s not how it works.”

Mirisch first objects to the initiative on the basis that it attempts to skirt the normal process for permitting construction. It would bypass a close review by City Hall and the public, he said. 

New construction projects that stretch code limits typically go before the city’s planning commission, the architectural commission and City Council. 

The mayor, a film executive, said Alagem’s decision to go directly to voters proves “there is absolutely not a level playing field” when it comes to development: Builders with enough money to throw into an election can attempt to buy special treatment.

“There is a basic question of fairness,” he said.

Alagem said these accusations miss the mark, as his project is not a new one. Before the first iteration was approved in 2008, it went through 19 public hearings and three years of review.

“This is totally misinformation,” he said of the mayor’s argument. “It’s pretty simple to analyze: Do I want open space … or I don’t want it.”

The proposed ballot initiative has raised some of the same hackles as the 2008 proposal.

“It’s another Beny Alagem sham — just like the last one,” said Larry Larson, an attorney and a longtime opponent of upward development in Beverly Hills.

Both Larson and Mirisch are committed to the idea of Beverly Hills as a low-rise community. In separate interviews, each mentioned the “village-like atmosphere” of the wealthy enclave. Most residents, they said, prefer the city’s current human scale to the towering height of other parts of Los Angeles.

In 2008, Larson spearheaded a residents group that pushed the anti-development initiative.

After it failed, he led an effort to uncover phony votes. Along with volunteers and one paid employee, he painstakingly reviewed election records and knocked on doors to investigate whether there had been double voting. He said he found 569 instances of illegal votes.

Larson brought his case to the Los Angeles District Attorney Public Integrity Division. The DA’s office confirmed it received the complaint, but said in an email that it “closed the case after a thorough review determined there was insufficient evidence to file any charges.” Larson can’t connect the Hilton to the alleged false votes.

However, no one argues whether the hotel operated vigorously within the law to defeat the measure, spending $4.67 million on the opposition campaign.

Alagem declined to say how much the Hilton has spent so far on this election. But he made no secret of the fact that he stands to profit on the development, whether or not voters approve his ballot initiative in November.

Building upward in a low-rise city would provide unparalleled views and likely increase sales prices on upper-floor condos. In addition, the developer said the new plan would create a more desirable space for Hilton guests and make them more likely to return.

“Of course we hope that [the new plan] will create better revenue, even for the Beverly Hilton, which in turn is more revenue for the city of Beverly Hills,” he said.

The Hilton currently pays more than $22 million to the city in taxes each year, not counting what Alagem has paid for permits.

“The residents are our partners for life,” Alagem said. “Every dollar that we bring into the hotel, the residents get 15 cents out of it.”

By this argument, too, Larson is unmoved.

“We don’t need the money,” he said. “We don’t need to prostitute ourselves and allow overdevelopment to make a few extra dollars.”

Larson questioned even the premise of the ballot measure that residents would benefit in the form of a public park. 

He pointed out that the initiative doesn’t require Alagem to deed the land to the city or offer an easement on the open space, and suggested the developer seeks to build there in the future, despite the fact that the initiative would mandate that the garden “shall generally be open to the public.” 

Residents are by no means united in opposition to the project.

Martin Geimer, a realtor who served on the Beverly Hills Recreation and Parks Commission for six years, said the initiative would address residents’ complaints that the city lacks open green space.

“All we ever heard was we’re under-parked, under-green space, and wish we had more,” he said of his time on the commission.

For the longtime Beverly Hills resident, who lives in the shadow of Century City near Beverly Hills High School, the additional height on the condo tower is a non-issue.

“After about two weeks, nobody will hardly notice it,” he said.

Speaking in the conference room at the Century City office of Alagem Capital Partners, yards away from the Hilton, the hotelier dismissed complaints that the 26-story tower would alter the Beverly Hills skyline.

Dominating one of the conference room windows, a nearby 40-story residential skyscraper is nearing completion just across the Los Angeles border, in Century City. Nearly double the height of Alagem’s proposed tower, he argues it negates concerns about changing the low-rise character of Beverly Hills.

Linda Briskman, a former city councilwoman who sponsored the current Hilton initiative, echoed that sentiment.

“I’m not afraid of height,” she said. “They’re already entitled to build 18 stories. Unless you’re just standing there looking straight up, you have no sense of how high it is, anyway.”

Nor is she swayed by the argument that the initiative subverts the normal planning process. Even if Alagem went to City Hall with the altered plan, residents would likely have opposed it with the same tactics as in 2008, she said.

“[The plan] would have been thrown into a referendum, anyway,” she said. “To be honest with you, why not cut to the chase?” 

Knesset passes bill requiring referendum to cede land within Israel

Israeli voters must approve any surrender of sovereign Israeli territory under a bill passed by the Knesset.

The referendum measure approved Thursday becomes part of the country’s Basic Law, which makes it difficult to change or legislate around, and requires an absolute Knesset majority of 61 to be overturned. The Jewish Home party sponsored the bill, which was approved on its third reading by a vote of 68 to 0.

Under the referendum law, any government decision to cede land within Israel; eastern Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel in 1967; or the Golan Heights, annexed in 1981, would require the public’s approval via a referendum before it could be carried out, according to Haaretz. The law does not apply to withdrawals from the West Bank, which was never annexed. If more than 80 lawmakers support a treaty that gives up land, it can be ratified without a referendum.

The idea of land swaps in which Israel would trade land from within its pre-1967 territory in exchange for West Bank settlements has been proposed in previous Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Opposition parties boycotted the vote after the government coalition limited debate on the bill as well as two other controversial measures: the Governance Act, which was passed Tuesday and raises the election threshold to 3.25 percent from 2 percent, and the military draft bill, which was passed the following day and removes most exemptions for haredi Orthodox yeshiva students to serve in the military.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke in the Knesset plenum in advance of the vote.

“A decision on a diplomatic agreement must be acceptable to the public,” Netanyahu said, adding that a public vote “is the only thing that will preserve the domestic peace among us.”

The Knesset passed a referendum law in 2010, but it faced being overturned by the Supreme Court.

Netanyahu says he would put peace deal to referendum

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday he would put any peace deal with the Palestinians to a referendum, raising expectations that direct negotiations might soon resume following a two-year stalemate.

It was the second time in just three days that Netanyahu has publicly mentioned the possibility of holding a nationwide vote on an eventual accord and came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Israeli politicians in Washington to discuss talks.

“If we get to a peace agreement with the Palestinians, I'd like to bring it to a referendum, and I'd like to talk to you about your experiences with that,” Netanyahu said as he met Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter.

Switzerland regularly holds referendum on a broad range of issues. Israel, by contrast, has never held a referendum in its 65-year history, and previous peace treaties with Arab neighbors Egypt and Jordan were approved by parliament.

Netanyahu leads a center-right coalition that includes supporters of the settlement movement, many of whom are fiercely opposed to the idea of allowing the Palestinians an independent state on land seized by Israel in the 1967 war.

By pledging to put any deal to a referendum, Netanyahu could be hoping to avert any immediate far-right backlash to a decision to talk land-for-peace with the Palestinians, promising that the Israeli people would have the final word.

“There is a very serious effort under way to get talks to resume,” said a senior Israeli official who declined to be named. “People are devoting a lot of time and effort to this. It is possible and it is doable.”


U.S. President Barack Obama came to Jerusalem in March and his secretary of state has visited the region three times in little over six weeks. Kerry was due to see Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni later on Thursday in Washington.

Livni has been designated by Netanyahu to be his chief peace negotiator. She was traveling with one of the prime minister's top officials and confidants, Yitzhak Molcho.

Direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in 2010 over the issue of continued Jewish settlement building on 1967 land. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says he will not return to the table until there is a construction freeze. Israel says there should be no pre-conditions.

Unexpectedly highlighting the issue of referendum has fueled hopes that the impasse might soon be overcome. However, there was little sign that the core questions dividing the two sides, including the status of Jerusalem, were any nearer resolution.

“No one thinks we are near a historic agreement. But any historic agreement will need national legitimacy,” the Israeli official said.

The Palestinians have also said that they would hold a referendum on an eventual accord, with no guarantees that their diverse electorate, including the far-flung refugee population, would accept the likely compromises needed to seal a deal.

Israel passed a law in 2010 for a referendum to approve any handover of East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights, territory captured in the 1967 war and which it has annexed.

Moves are under way in parliament to expand that law to include the West Bank, which has not been annexed.

Editing by Crispian Balmer

Religious “No!” to Proposition 8

“My Christian friends say homosexuality is a sin. Isn’t Judaism based on the same Old Testament bible?  How does our synagogue welcome homosexuals with acceptance and equality?”
I was substituting for our rabbi in our 10th grade confirmation class.  Homosexuality is not a curriculum subject.  The student asking the question, though, obviously struggled with conflicting messages.
On the one hand, Leviticus says when a man lies with another man like a woman, it is an abomination and they shall be put to death.  On the other hand, the Union of Reform Judaism, the denomination in which our synagogue affiliates, officially responded in 1989 to “gay rights’ as a civil rights issue and wrote a policy of inclusion statement.  
Included in the statement was a specific reference to “gay” and “lesbian” Jews, inviting them directly to become future prospective temple members and potential Reform denomination leaders.  The direct invitation indicated Reform Judaism was officially extending acceptance and equality to previously excluded Jews.  How could Union leaders pass a resolution that contradicts the Torah?  The question is easy to answer.
Reform Jews often do not read the bible literally.  In the Torah (the first five biblical books) the death penalty is mentioned as punishment for a number of crimes no one would implement today.   In Deuteronomy, the ‘wayward and defiant son’ (the teen boy disrespecting parents) should receive capitol punishment.  In Numbers, the Sabbath violator should also lose his life. In these two cases, no one argues the punishment fits the crime.  Why disregard or re-interpret the bible in these instances but take literally the sin of two men engaging in homosexual activity?  
The Torah is a holy document. It is not, though, a perfect work.  Reform Jews believe the sacred books in our literary cannon were written not by God but by people.   In other words, biblical and rabbinic authors may have been divinely inspired but they were still fallible human beings.  The written word, therefore, always reflects human imperfection.  The context of time a text was written should always be taken into consideration. 
Child sacrifices, animal cruelty, and inhumane slavery were inherent features of the pagan cult. In biblical times, it’s easy to understand how our Israelite ancestors strived to disassociate themselves from nations that performed horrific cultic practices.  It is easy, in establishing an ethical monotheistic covenant, to understand how our biblical ancestors could over-state their condemnation of particular pagan behaviors.
Rabbi Bradley Artson, a friend and mentor, is Dean of the Rabbinic School at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.  When Bradley Artson was a student studying to become a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary, he did an interesting academic project. 
He looked up every reference he could find to homosexual activity mentioned in ancient Greek and Latin writers.  Every citation he found described an encounter between males where one party, the master, physically abused another, the slave.  Rabbi Artson could not find a single example where one partner was not subservient to the other.
“Homosexual relationships today,” Rabbi Artson says, “should not be compared to the ancient world.  I know too many homosexual individuals, including close friends and relatives, who are committed to one another in loving long-term monogamous relationships.  I know too many same-sex couples that are loving parents raising good descent ethical children. Who’s to say their family relationships are less sanctified in the eyes of God than mine is with my wife and our children?”
“We are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.” Reform Jews frequently look to this popular refrain as guidance when making important ethical decisions.
On the one hand, by standing on our ancestors’ shoulders, Reform Jews know we have roots to the past that help place in proper context our visions of the future. On the other, by standing on past shoulders, we can see further and clearer in their horizon’s future than previous generations could imagine.
Proposition 8 is California ballot initiative that legally restricts marriage to only a relationship between a man and a woman, depriving gays and lesbians a state mandated constitutional civil right.  In opposing this ballot-measure, I know I am optimistically standing on firm religious ground. 

Elliot Fein, a graduate of the American Jewish University and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is Education Director at Temple Beth David in Westminster, California. 

Rabbis on anti-gay marriage Prop 8: Yes, no, maybe

“Prop. 8 is presently the most crucial battle of the culture war here.” — Penny Harrington, legislative director, Concerned Women for America in California

The arguments and epithets surrounding state Prop. 8 are rising in volume and intensity as the Nov. 4 election draws near, so it may be useful to quote its exact wording.


  • Changes the California constitution to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry in California.
  • Provides that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.

Jewish advocates on both sides have joined the controversy with customary vigor. Emulating the brevity of the initiative itself, the lineup for the rabbinical and congregational leaders of the main denominations, and most of their adherents, comes down to:

Orthodox: support Prop. 8, marriage only between a man and a woman.

Reform, Reconstructionist: oppose Prop. 8, marriage for all.

Conservative: No official stand.

This equation may be somewhat simplistic, but in general on the left and right of the denominational spectrum the lines are sharply drawn, with little room for mavericks or closet dissenters.

Repeated inquiries by The Journal failed to yield any Orthodox rabbi willing to declare his opposition to Prop. 8 or any Reform rabbi supporting the ballot measure.

However, there was some “crossover,” according to Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, who polled the 290 members of his organization on their views.

Of the 120 responding, 112 (or 93 percent) voted against the proposition, six voted for, and two abstained. However, these results are not entirely conclusive, partly because only 41 percent of the membership responded, and because only six congregational Orthodox rabbis have chosen to affiliate with the organization.

However, leading spokesmen for all denominations, and supportive lay groups, discussed their views with The Journal.


Rabbi JJ Rabinowich, California director of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel, noted that “marriage between a man and a woman has been fundamental to the Jewish people for thousands of years. We also agree with the many studies showing that children flourish best when raised by a mother and father.”

A more detailed argument for supporting Prop. 8 was put forward by Daniel Korobkin, one of the city’s most visible Orthodox rabbis and one of three signatories of the official statement by the centrist Orthodox Union as its West Coast director for community and synagogue services.

The statement endorses Prop. 8 and notes that “One of G-d’s first acts is to join Adam and Eve in marriage and to command them to build a family.”

It adds, “We know the threat to people of faith and houses of worship is real and under way…. Religious institutions and people face charges of bigotry and could be denied government funding and more if same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land.”

Speaking in his capacity as “a community rabbi in Hancock Park,” Korobkin cited both biblical and contemporary reasons for his views.

While the Torah’s strictures against homosexual relations are well known, he said, talmudic literature goes beyond this injunction by warning that a society that endorses such a relationship endangers itself, which is a greater sin than the act itself.

“If we permit same-sex marriage today, why not incestual marriage tomorrow, or bestial marriage after that?” he asked.

Korobkin also expressed fears that defeat of Prop. 8 would endanger the right of religious adoption agencies to refuse adoptions to gay couples or compel schools to teach that all forms of marriage are equally viable.

He estimated that about 90 percent of Orthodox congregants agreed with his views, but that some might vote against Prop. 8 anyhow because they feared a breach in state-church separation or were uneasy about the overwhelming role of evangelical Christians in the pro-Prop. 8 campaign.

However, Korobkin emphasized, “We have tremendous empathy for gay people and what we stand for is not hate speech, nor are we prompted by malice. Some of our people are gay, though not overtly. When they come to us for guidance, we are extremely sympathetic.”


Neither the rabbinical nor the congregational arms of the Conservative movement are taking a stand on Prop. 8, according to Rabbi Richard Flom, president of the regional Rabbinical Assembly, and Joel Baker, regional executive director of the United Synagogue.

One reason may be the general reluctance of Conservative congregations to take political stands, given the wide ideological spread among its members, Baker suggested.

Many of his congregants, said Flom of Burbank Temple Emanu El, are trying to strike a balance between support for the civil rights of gays and “personal halachic [Jewish law] concerns.”

Flom himself recently gave a sermon opposing Prop. 8, partly based on his reservations about whether the state has any right to become involved in this issue.

“If I were a betting man, I would wager that the bulk of our members would oppose Prop. 8,” Flom said.

Indeed some of the most respected names in the Conservative rabbinate have publicly come out for the marriage rights of same-sex couples.

Rabbis Harold Schulweis and Edward Feinstein, both of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, can be seen and heard on YouTube strongly advocating the defeat of Prop. 8 (

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at American Jewish University, is one of the most eloquent voices opposing Prop. 8.

Positioning same-sex marriage as a civil rights and equality issue, Dorff said, “We Jews have benefited greatly from the Enlightenment; it would be ironic, it would be mean, if we now came out against a minority within a minority.

“Marriage means that two people take responsibility for each other and their biological or adopted children, and society has a vested interest in that,” Dorff added.

Despite the official neutrality of the main Conservative organizations, Dorff believes that “an overwhelming majority” of Conservative rabbis and congregants will oppose Prop. 8.


Reform rabbis and congregants constitute the most vigorous segment of the Jewish community in fighting Prop. 8, supported by the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League and National Council of Jewish Women.

Rabbi Linda Bertenthal, a regional director for the Union for Reform Judaism, cited her organization’s resolution, which describes marriage as “a basic human right and an individual personal choice.”

The statement adds, “the state should not interfere with same-gender couples who choose to marry and share freely and equally in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of civil marriage.”

Taking an active part in the campaign is Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, whose members are reaching out to voters through phone banks and collaboration with interfaith groups.

Eger was the first member of the clergy to officiate at a same-gender marriage in California on June 16 of this year, immediately after the State Supreme Court legalized such marriages by overturning a voter-approved 2000 initiative and statute to ban them.

Also heavily involved are such groups as the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at Hebrew Union College and Jews for Marriage Equality.

Psychologist Joel Kushner, director of the institute, observed that opposition to Prop. 8 is in line with the “Jewish heritage of justice,” while clearly not forcing any objecting rabbi to officiate at same-sex marriages.

Jews for Marriage Equality was founded by Steve Krantz, who retired after a notable career as a computer engineer to become a defender of the rights of one of his two sons, who is gay.

Krantz said he has compiled a list of 220 names, which include the majority of California rabbis, who went on record in opposing Prop. 8.

His goal now is to reach unaffiliated “gustatory” Jews through large ads in the primary Jewish weeklies in Los Angeles and San Francisco, working in partnership with the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

If Prop. 8 wins, he said, his organization will continue its work, but if the ballot measure loses, “we’ll have a big party.”

Striking an individual stance, separate from his collegial pro and con advocates, is Rabbi Daniel Bouskila of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. He was one of the two abstainers when the Board of Rabbis voted overwhelmingly to oppose Prop. 8.

“I felt that it violated the board’s ethical code to take a stance on a political matter,” he said.

Personally, he asserted, he would never officiate at a same-sex or interfaith marriage.

“I think my congregation would have a feeling of discomfort if its rabbi participated in such a ceremony,” Bouskila said. “In Sephardic tradition, we believe that religion is religion and politics is politics.”

As the saying has it, as goes California, so goes the nation, and the outcome of the Prop. 8 battle is being monitored across the country.

It is expected that the two sides of the issue will together spend a total of $40 million on their campaigns, the most for a social issue proposition, with contributions flowing in from some 10,000 people in 50 states.

The “No on Prop. 8” campaign has announced $100,000 contributions each from filmmaker Steven Spielberg, Richard Haas of the Levi Strauss dynasty and actor Brad Pitt.

Same-sex marriage is likely to remain a hot-button issue in the presidential race, with Prop. 8 backers looking to Sen. John McCain for ideological support, and opponents to Sen. Barack Obama.

On Thursday, Oct. 16, The Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee will present a nonpartisan forum on critical ballot issues. It’s at 7 p.m. in The Jewish Federation Goldsmith Center, Sanders Board Room, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For security reasons, R.S.V.P. by Oct. 13 to (323) 761-8145 or e-mail

Big Bay Area Jewish turnout for gay weddings

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA)—Three years ago, Sharon Papo and Amber Weiss stood under a chupah in a Santa Cruz redwood grove and recited their vows before 100 relatives and friends.

They stomped on a glass, stood nose to nose wrapped in a tallit and sipped from a kiddush cup—Jewish rituals that sealed them forever. But to the government, their union was invisible.

That changed this week in San Francisco when they added one word—lawfully—that was absent from their original vows.

“Amber, my bashert, my beloved,” Papo said to Weiss inside San Francisco City Hall. “… I take you to be my lawfully wedded wife.”

Just hours before, Papo and Weiss had taken their ivory-beaded chiffon wedding gowns out of the closet of their Berkeley home, hopped on local transit and walked into City Hall to exchange vows once more.

This time they had legal recognition.

On May 15, the California Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision that all citizens have a constitutional right to marry. Consequently, the court said in its sweeping ruling, the state cannot prohibit gay and lesbian couples from legally marrying.

Papo, 29, and Weiss, 31, married June 17, the first day same-sex marriages were legally sanctioned by the state.

Hundreds of same-sex couples across the state legally married that day, including 152 at San Francisco City Hall.

Jews representing numerous organizations set up a chupah, made from a rainbow-striped tallit, near the steps of City Hall. Volunteers passed out plates of marble cake frosted with the phrase “Mazel Tov,” and invited couples to partake in the rituals of circling one another and breaking a glass. A klezmer band inspired many rounds of the song “Siman Tov U’ Mazel Tov.”

“It’s so nice to see our community celebrate around such positive energy,” said Lisa Finkelstein, the director of the LGBT Alliance in San Francisco.

Journalists followed Papo and Weiss like a bridal party, capturing the historic moment. About 30 photographers surrounded them in the City Hall rotunda, their camera shutters clicking so furiously that witnesses could barely hear the vows.

The women’s eyes glistened during the ceremony. Only when officiant Mariposa Bernstein said what they had never heard before—“By the power vested in me by the state of California”—did the joyous couple let tears dampen their faces.

For many couples married that day, the ceremony was not the first time they had pledged to love each other in sickness and in health, till death do they part.

Weiss and Papo, for instance, married in 2005 in Santa Cruz, with Rabbis Lavey Derby of Tiburon’s Congregation Kol Shofar and Paula Marcus of Aptos’ Temple Beth El co-officiating.

“In our hearts, we’re married,” Papo said. “But now we’re married in the eyes of the state, and that means the world to us.”

Craig Persiko and Geoff Benjamin, both of San Francisco, spent a year planning a traditional Jewish ceremony, which they held in May 2000 at Buena Vista Park in this city, five years after first meeting through mutual friends in Chicago.

They married again one year later in Vermont, and a third time in 2004, when state Assemblyman Mark Leno married the couple at San Francisco City Hall while they held their then-7-month-old daughter, Serafina.

“As far as my relationship, I don’t feel any different,” Persiko said back in 2004, “but on a political level, it feels really empowering.”

The couple performed their vows for a fourth time Saturday in their backyard in conjunction with a joint birthday party for their son and daughter. Cakes for both occasions sweetened the afternoon.

Rabbi Mychal Copeland and Kirsti Copeland were married eight years ago by two rabbinic students on the New Jersey campus of Princeton University. The Jewish wedding was “a very powerful experience and awakened our friends and family to the permanency of our relationship,” Rabbi Copeland said, but “it meant nothing at all in the civic sense.

Since their wedding, they have become mothers and wed a second time at San Francisco City Hall.

On June 18, the couple celebrated their marriage with a third wedding ceremony at the San Mateo County Courthouse. Not wanting to overshadow their original vows, it was a civil ceremony.

“We already sanctified our union through the eyes of our religious tradition,” said Rabbi Copeland, who works at the Stanford University Hillel. “It makes me realize the irony that in some of our communities, Judaism was ahead of this country’s legal system by decades.”

Finkelstein said at San Francisco City Hall, she was proud to see representation from Congregations Sha’ar Zahav and Emanu-El, the San Francisco-based Jewish community federation and the East Bay federation, Jewish Community Relations Council, the Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish Mosaic.

Near the chupah outside City Hall, “Energy 92.7” had set up a tent to broadcast live, interviewing “just married” couples and offering champagne flutes of sparkling cider.

Each time a couple walked outside—marriage licenses proudly raised in the air—the crowd erupted in applause. Supporters banged on drums and waved rainbow banners.

Members of the First Unitarian Church gave away nearly 400 cupcakes. Wedding photographers and pastry chefs passed out fliers and heart-shaped chocolates to advertise their services. A Mission Kids preschool class snaked through the crowd wearing green T-shirts. Their teacher, Abigail Sawyer, said she wanted to inspire “support for equality from a young age.”

Same-sex couples from around the country flocked to the Golden State this week, since unlike Massachusetts, marriage licenses were granted to California residents and nonresidents alike.

Mike Silverman and Dave Greenbaum traveled from Lawrence, Kan., to wed in San Francisco. They were married nine years ago at an Omaha, Neb., synagogue, an occasion that inspired them to scour Jewish wedding books and design a ceremony with “the right kavanah,” intention.

On June 17, they wed inside City Hall, one wearing a Hillel T-shirt from the University of Kansas. They then circled one another under the chupah outside.

“While the civil recognition was important, for me as a Conservative Jew it was real when I said the Shehechiyanu and properly acknowledged the source of this immense and profound blessing,” Greenbaum said.

Will Kansas recognize the Silverman-Greenbaum marriage when the couple returns to their home state?

“I’ll hold out for the Moshiach first,” Greenbaum joked.

The issue of gay marriage has been moving through the California courts since 2004, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom issued the order to grant licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

The state Legislature twice approved bills giving same-sex couples the right to marry, but they were vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In preparation for the marriage rush, San Francisco and other counties deputized numerous volunteer marriage commissioners.

Jared Scherer, 34, signed up and on June 17 officiated at the marriage of his friends Tyler Barrick and Spencer Jones during an emotional ceremony. Scherer looked official in a black gown, which he last wore during his commencement at Brandeis University.

“It was absolutely incredible, a true honor,” said Scherer, who is Jewish, about presiding over the marriage of his non-Jewish friends. “I felt really lucky to be able to help move the cause forward.”

“The cause” could hit a brick wall in November when a ballot initiative—if approved by a majority of voters—would define marriage as “valid and recognized” only between a man and a woman.

In light of this vulnerability, Karen Erlichman, the Bay Area director of Jewish Mosaic, a national LGBT nonprofit, says it is especially important for individuals and organizations to show support for marriage equality.

Two of the 14 couples in the Supreme Court case are interfaith Jewish couples: Diane Sabin and Jewelle Gomez live in San Francisco; Robin Tyler and Diane Olson reside in Los Angeles and were the first couple married June 16 at the Los Angeles County Courthouse in Beverly Hills.

The 14 couples were represented by several legal nonprofits, including the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Vanessa Eismann, a lawyer and a member of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, worked on the case through the center.

Eismann said it was a professional privilege and a deeply personal pursuit. She and her partner, Cate Whiting, were married by a Los Angeles rabbi in 2005.

The absence of legality didn’t temper their joy, Eismann said, but since both are lawyers, the couple knew that “regardless of how lavish a ceremony you have, you’re only legally married when the license is signed.”

The 33-year-old San Franciscan gave birth to a baby boy in April, and the couple say they want their son to grow up knowing his parents are married. Eismann said that was a shared sentiment among many of the plaintiffs.

“Often the desire to marry isn’t just for the couples themselves but out of a desire for their children to be treated equally under the law,” she said.

Eismann and Whiting will take their marriage certificate with them to Los Angeles, so the rabbi who signed their ketubah, or Jewish marriage certificate, finally can sign their legal marriage license as well.

“This battle isn’t over,” Eismann said. “Unfortunately, our rights are being put up for a popular vote.”

Jewish couples are fighting for marriage equality in numerous ways.

Kathy Levinson and Naomi Fine of Palo Alto are choosing not to marry this summer. Instead, they will donate the money they would have spent on a formal wedding ceremony to organizations campaigning for marriage equality.

Papo and Weiss have asked friends and relatives in lieu of wedding gifts to “make a contribution to fight this hate bill,” suggesting that donations go to Marriage Equality USA or Equality California.

They have also decided to be as public as possible with their sexual orientation. Papo casually mentions her relationship to everyone she encounters—the clerk at Office Max, the salesman at the shoe store. Likewise, Weiss always introduces Papo as her wife.

“It makes it personal,” Weiss said. “It’s harder to vote against the civil rights of someone you know.”

Sharon’s Knesset Win Could Be a Loss

Tuesday, Oct. 26 may well go down as one of the more important, and bizarre, dates in the annals of Israeli politics.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won a resounding victory in the Knesset for his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, but the vote ended with his Likud Party in tatters and on the verge of splitting in two, with Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leading the rebels.

The upshot is that although Sharon secured Knesset approval for his plan, which includes the dismantling of 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank, it’s not at all clear whether he will have the political clout to see it through. Backed by the opposition Labor and Yahad parties and opposed by almost half of the Knesset faction of his own Likud Party, Sharon mustered 67 votes for his disengagement plan, with 45 against and seven abstentions.

Tuesday’s vote does not authorize the actual removal of any settlements. The withdrawal is to be carried out in stages beginning next year, with Cabinet approval necessary before each move.

Still, Sharon had hoped that such a clear margin of victory in the Knesset would squelch demands for a national referendum on the withdrawal and open up new coalition-building possibilities.

But Netanyahu’s move against Sharon means that his government could soon fall, and instead of moving ahead smoothly toward disengagement, Israel could find itself caught up in a stormy election.

For four hours before the vote, Netanyahu and three other leading Likud ministers — Limor Livnat, Yisrael Katz and Danny Naveh — closeted themselves in a Jerusalem hotel, working on a proposal to condition their support in Tuesday’s Knesset vote on a commitment by Sharon to hold a national referendum on disengagement. Sharon rejected the demand out of hand, even refusing to meet the four ministers before the vote. He argues that referendum advocates simply are looking for a way to delay the disengagement plan indefinitely, and accused them of planning a putsch against him.

Things came to a head in the last hour before the vote. The National Religious Party (NRP), which is part of Sharon’s government but which opposes disengagement, served the prime minister with an ultimatum: Hold a referendum or else. NRP Cabinet minister Zevulun Orlev said the party had received rabbinical approval to remain in Sharon’s coalition until the end of its term in November 2006, even if the referendum goes against them. But if Sharon refuses to hold a referendum, Orlev warned, the party will leave the coalition within two weeks.

Then, immediately after the vote, Netanyahu dropped his bombshell: Unless Sharon agrees within 14 days to hold a referendum, he, Livnat, Katz and Naveh will leave the coalition as well.

What that means is that if Sharon doesn’t buckle — and so far there are no signs that he will — the Likud will split in two, with Netanyahu and Sharon on opposing sides.

Sharon finds himself left with three possible choices: Build a new coalition or parliamentary pact with Labor and the left; agree to hold a referendum; or push for early elections. None of the choices is easy. To get a majority coalition with Labor and the left, Sharon would need the support of at least 17 of Likud’s 40 legislators — and it’s not clear he can count on that many.

Agreeing to hold a referendum would be a monumental reversal and would leave Sharon severely weakened. And early elections would be a major gamble that he well might lose.

Sharon is unlikely to agree to the referendum demand. His most likely game plan will be to try to formalize the support of Labor and the left and keep going as prime minister as long as he can, betting that his opponents in the Likud and parties further to the right won’t force elections because they, too, fear losing their Knesset seats.

In case it does come to an election with a split Likud, Sharon may try to take his portion of the party into an electoral alliance with Labor and the centrist Shinui Party. Advocates of this potential scenario — called the “Big Bang” of Israeli politics — argue that it would create a centrist alignment more accurately reflecting the will of the Israeli electorate than does the current political arrangement.

The game plan of Netanyahu, a former prime minister himself, likely will be to force Sharon into an election, hoping to depose him as Likud leader in the run up. Then, running at the head of the Likud, Netanyahu would hope to defeat any centrist alliance and win power as the head of a right-leaning government.

What actually happens in the showdown between Sharon and Netanyahu will depend initially on how many Likud legislators each of them is able to control. The more that are loyal to Netanyahu, the quicker the election scenario is likely to come about.

In his speech presenting his plan to the Knesset on Monday, Sharon seemed to recognize that his own links with the right, once close, were over, and that his political future will depend on ties with the center-left. Uncharacteristically, Sharon lashed out at the settlers, accusing them of a deluded “messianism” that was hurting Israeli national interests. In an equally surprising departure, he made a point of expressing regret for Palestinian suffering.

But more than anything, journalists in the Knesset on Monday were struck by Sharon’s determination. He told them he would not bring the disengagement plan to the Knesset again, and that Tuesday’s approval was all he needed. He declared that he had no intention of resigning, holding a referendum or sparking new elections. And he said he was absolutely determined to carry out the disengagement plan to the letter.

Still, pundits are not convinced that Sharon will be able to pull it off. Writing in the Yediot Achronot newspaper, political analyst Shimon Shiffer maintained that “the general assessment among the politicians was that the evacuation of the settlements will not happen: Either because Sharon will have to go to early elections, or because Benjamin Netanyahu will force Sharon to accept a referendum that will delay the evacuation indefinitely.”

After his big Knesset success, Sharon will probably bank on a deal with Labor that keeps his coalition going. The next few weeks will tell whether this is a realistic proposition.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

Fate of Sharon, Gaza May Hang on Vote

With opposition mounting among settlers and in his own Likud Party, Ariel Sharon’s political future and the fate of his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank may be decided in the Knesset next week.

The Israeli prime minister hopes to win a decisive majority in the Oct. 26 vote on his disengagement plan, laying to rest the debate over its legitimacy and blocking growing pressure for a nationwide referendum. But a victory is not a foregone conclusion, and if he loses, it’s difficult to see how Sharon can continue as prime minister.

On the face of it, Sharon would seem to be assured of a comfortable majority. As things stand, he can count on a total of 65-69 votes in the 120-member Knesset: 20-25 votes in Likud, 21 from Labor, 15 from Shinui, six from Yahad and two from breakaway legislators.

Of the remaining 51-55 Knesset members, up to 35, including as many as 20 Likud rebels, seem set to vote against. Another 21 legislators, including 16 from fervently Orthodox parties eyeing spots in a future Sharon coalition, are likely to abstain.

If those figures hold up, Sharon will silence calls for a referendum, open up coalition-building possibilities and secure both his own political future and the road to disengagement.

But there’s a catch: A majority in the Likud’s Knesset faction is trying to foist a referendum on Sharon. If they succeed, the Oct. 26 Knesset vote, rather than being a defining moment for disengagement, will be reduced to a virtually irrelevant sideshow. The final decision on whether to go ahead with the disengagement plan effectively will have been removed from the Knesset and handed to the people.

Sharon sees the referendum idea as a ruse to delay implementation of the disengagement plan. He argues that having been elected prime minister, he has a mandate to conduct Israeli policy as he sees fit. Referendum advocates know it would take months if not years to legislate the ballot and will try to use the legislative process to delay disengagement indefinitely, Sharon says.

But Likud pressure for a referendum is welling up. Among the party heavyweights in favor are Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Education Minister Limor Livnat.

After meeting settler leaders over the weekend, Livnat declared that a referendum was necessary to prevent a serious split in Israeli society — even, “God forbid, a civil war.” Livnat is proposing that the Knesset vote go ahead as scheduled but with a rider that makes it meaningless: That it be contingent on the results of a future referendum.

The mounting pressure led to a Likud faction meeting Monday in which the referendum issue topped the agenda. Most of the faction, even some of Sharon’s supporters, backed the idea.

Some Likud legislators may condition their Knesset vote on a commitment from Sharon to hold a referendum. If he won’t budge, and if enough Likud legislators vote against, Sharon conceivably could lose the crucial ballot.

In the run-up to the Knesset vote, the settlers will make a supreme effort to convince Likud legislators to insist on a referendum and refuse to vote for disengagement unless Sharon gives way. Whichever way it turns out, they argue, a referendum will help them cool tempers among the settler population; it also will make it easier to persuade Orthodox soldiers to obey orders to evacuate settlers, despite a recent rabbinical ruling that they should refuse to do so.

Another factor that could upset Sharon’s calculations is the state budget. A budget vote is scheduled for the week after the disengagement ballot.

Labor and other opposition parties that support Sharon on disengagement oppose his economic policies and are certain to nix the budget. If the Likud rebels add their votes against, the budget won’t pass.

That could set off a process leading to elections next spring, before disengagement begins. According to Israeli law, failure to pass the budget by next April automatically will trigger an election.

That would delay implementation of the disengagement plan but also might cost some of the rebels their Knesset seats — a prospect that might give them cold feet.

Sharon could still press for a Knesset vote not linked to any referendum commitment. But even if he wins and even if he manages to pass the budget, his opponents are not going to melt away.

Sharon therefore could give way and agree to a referendum-linked Knesset vote — but that could stymie his disengagement plan and leave him weakened and without credibility. Worst of all, he could lose the Knesset vote and find himself staring into a political abyss.

What makes Sharon’s position especially poignant is the fact that it’s his own Likud faction that is threatening to bring him down. The fate of disengagement, then, could hinge on whether Sharon can outmaneuver the rebels within his own party.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

Pullout Plan Sparks Clash on Legitimacy

As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon powers ahead with plans for disengagement from the Gaza Strip, charges are flying between proponents and naysayers determined to gain monopolies on legitimacy, each side accusing the other of trampling democratic norms.

The settlers claim Sharon does not have a popular majority for his plan and accuse him of "behaving like a dictator." Sharon retorts that the settler claims are a deliberate ploy to justify undemocratic, violent resistance.

To settle the legitimacy question and take the sting out of the settler campaign, some pundits and politicians are suggesting a national referendum on the evacuation issue.

Sharon says no. He argues that these proposals are a ruse to hold up, and ultimately sink, his plan, which also includes evacuating some West Bank settlements.

The arguments over legitimacy and the referendum proposal will almost certainly dominate public discourse in Israel in the coming months.

In a front-page editorial, Amnon Dankner, editor of the mass circulation Ma’ariv newspaper, compared the current situation with that in the months leading up to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin nine years ago. Dankner implied that Rabin had ridden roughshod over democratic norms and so provoked the settlers’ anger and violence that led to his assassination, and that Sharon was now doing the same thing.

The Rabin government, Dankner wrote, had only achieved a majority for the Oslo accords by "buying" the vote of right-wing Knesset member Alex Goldfarb, making him a deputy minister and providing him with the Mitsubishi sedan that came with the position. This, wrote Dankner, was "democracy only in name, not in spirit, not true democracy." And, he continued, "it’s obvious how this pushed the settlers into a corner, and how it lit the fires of incitement and murder."

Now, according to Dankner, Sharon is doing something similar: He has ignored party votes against his plan and fired right-wing ministers simply to obtain a Cabinet majority for it.

"The prime minister," Dankner wrote, "is pushing the disengagement plan with a blunt, crude and ugly trampling of democratic values and majority decision," and, like Rabin, would be partly to blame for the consequences.

In Dankner’s view, the way to avoid this would be to reinforce the legitimacy of the prime minister’s policy by holding a national referendum — a vote he is virtually certain to win. Although Dankner was criticized for implying that Rabin was largely to blame for his own assassination, several pundits and politicians agreed with his demand for a referendum.

The most outspoken of them was Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He argued that the Gaza pullout plan is tearing the nation apart, and that a referendum would help reduce tension and preserve unity.

He proposed expedited Knesset passage of a referendum law, which would be required to even hold a referendum. Then should a referendum be held, he supports putting just one simple question to the voters: "Are you for or against the gradual evacuation process approved by the government?"

But as simple as it seems, Netanyahu’s proposal highlights the complexity of the issue. He speaks of expedited passage of a referendum law, but legal experts say it could take months, if not years.

First, there is the general question of what circumstances could lead to invocation of a referendum. Then, there is the matter of the referendum question. Sharon would never accept Netanyahu’s formulation; the prime minister wants to carry out the evacuation process in one fell swoop, rather than in stages.

Moreover, legislators could haggle for months over whether the referendum would need a simple majority or a plurality of 60 percent or more. Opponents of Sharon’s plan could delay things further by challenging the legislation to create a referendum in the courts.

Sharon’s allies suspect that Netanyahu’s proposal is merely intended to embarrass the prime minister by putting him in a no-win situation. If he accepts Netanyahu’s proposal, passing the legislation will take so long it will sink the evacuation plan; if he doesn’t, he will appear undemocratic, afraid to put his plan to the nation for approval.

Sharon confidant, Ehud Olmert, argues that the very raising of the referendum idea by Netanyahu implies that Sharon’s evacuation plan does not have full legitimacy and requires the further imprimatur of the people. But, says Olmert, Israel’s trade and industry minister, all the prime minister needs in accordance with the Israeli system is approval from the Cabinet and the Knesset — and he is assured of the support of both.

Sharon says the referendum proposal is a transparent attempt by his opponents to gain time. His confidants go further. They say the settlers are bandying the referendum idea about, knowing full well that Sharon will reject it, in an effort to delegitimize the evacuation process and legitimize the use of force against it.

Tough right-wing statements and actions suggest swelling undercurrents of violence. Netanyahu’s father, Bentzion, along with other family members, recently signed a petition describing the planned evacuation as a "crime against humanity" and urging soldiers "to listen to the voice of their national and human conscience" and refuse to carry out evacuation orders.

Netanyahu’s brother-in-law, Hagi Ben Artzi, a settler, noted that "only the Nazis had transferred Jews" and intimated that there would be violent and even armed opposition.

Baruch Marzel, a former member of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane’s now-banned Kach organization, has set up a new radical right-wing group called the Jewish National Front, dedicated to resisting evacuation.

Another former Kach member, Rabbi Yosef Dahan, has said that, if asked, he would be willing to carry out a "Pulsa da-Nura," a religious curse condemning Sharon to death. Extremists performed Pulsa da-Nura ceremonies against Rabin in the weeks leading up to his assassination in 1995.

In this volatile situation, settler leaders admit to playing a canny double game. On the one hand, they are trying to win the hearts and minds of mainstream Israelis just in case there is a referendum. To this end, they are consciously toning down settler rhetoric.

At a huge settler demonstration in Jerusalem Sept. 12, they took pains to silence extremists and take down banners that went too far. But at the same time, they admit to turning the flames of incipient violence "on and off" and allowing the threat of civil war to hover uneasily in the air.

As the showdown over evacuation approaches, both the prime minister and the settlers are acting within brittle parameters of legitimacy and perceived legitimacy and resorting to on-the-edge brinkmanship. In both cases, it is a dangerous game that could get out of hand.

One Voice Gets Alexander’s Vote

For Jason Alexander, best known as Jerry Seinfeld’s hapless sidekick, George Costanza, a grass-roots peace initiative to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace is more than just “yadda yadda yadda.”

Alexander visited Israel this week to help launch One Voice, a project that hopes to empower people on both sides of the conflict through a public, electronic referendum.

As of Tuesday, Israelis and Palestinians will be able to cast ballots that allow them to present their positions on the key issues of the conflict. From their answers, a synthesized peace proposal will be crafted and then presented to leaders on both sides.

Alexander said the idea spoke to him because it held the promise of tapping into the majority on both sides who do want peace.

“The vision was so specific, so well-worked out about how to reconnect the sort of silent majority who have been silenced by the violence and get them reinvigorated and reinvested,” he said.

Speaking Tuesday at a news conference in Petach Tikva, Alexander predicted that he would be able to bring his children to Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah without fear within a year.

Alexander first heard about One Voice from its main organizers during a meeting at the home of fellow actors Danny Devito and Rhea Perlman last year. Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, who are on the organization’s U.S. advisory board, were also at the meeting.

Organizers are planning to bring other celebrities to Israel to help promote the project and have established an entertainment council to help mobilize actors, writers, producers, directors and others to back it. Among entertainment industry members who have signed on in support of the idea are Ed Norton and Mili Avital.

While in the region, Alexander is planning to meet Israeli actors and members of the entertainment community in Tel Aviv and their Palestinian counterparts in Ramallah.

Daniel Lubetsky, a U.S. businessman, leads One Voice together with its Middle East director, Mohammed Darawshe, an Israeli Arab long involved in coexistence efforts. Lubetsky said the project is different than other recent alternative peace plans, because the plan’s specifics come from the grass-roots.

“We’re essentially a democratic process, where we are going straight to the people and asking them to express themselves,” Lubetsky said.

Participants in the poll will vote either by Internet at the site,, or via remote control on television sets, telephone, newspapers or voting booths. The organizers say results would then be tabulated by a computer system donated by IBM to the project. Those results would then be used to produce a consensus-style mandate that organizers say would accurately reflect the will of Israelis and Palestinians.

The referendum asks voters to comment on a series of proposals, including a two-state solution, the possibility of setting the 1967 borders as final borders and the evacuation of most Jewish settlements as part of a peace deal.

After Alexander toured Israel in 1991 at the end of the first Gulf War, “Israel went from absolute zero in my life to something I really became concerned with and passionate about,” he said.

The actor said Jews in Hollywood seem to be reluctant to speak out on the subject of Israel. Some, he said, think they will immediately be seen as choosing the Israeli side because they are Jewish if they say anything. Others, he said, priding themselves as leftists, choose to overtly side with the Palestinians.

“In both cases I guarantee you that most of them do not understand the history or nature of this conflict,” Alexander said. “American secular Jews distance themselves from Israel; I was just as guilty before I came here.”

Part of what draws him to Israel, Alexander said, is what he described as the passionate involvement of Israelis in their country. He said he misses seeing that involvement in the United States and that his character, George, was void of it altogether.

“George would not know Israel was on the map,” Alexander said. “George and his cohorts were the most supremely selfish people in the history of television, and anything that did not happen in their apartment and diner was outside of their field of experience. So the best you could get was he’d come here and try to recruit a ballplayer for the Yankees.”