College Students Find High Holidays’ Place in Higher Learning

The High Holidays are here. With them comes a new school year, whereupon many recent graduates of Jewish high schools will face the challenges for the first time that can accompany being an observant Jew in an academic environment that runs on the Christian calendar.

Gone are the days when observant Jewish students suffered for their absences from class or exams on the High Holidays or Passover. The California Education Code fully protects students’ rights to observe religious holidays free of academic penalty.

But the fact remains that academic life at nonsectarian universities may not have become much easier for young Jews who want to observe, because there are still indirect effects of such absences.

At top schools, such as USC and UCLA, observant Jewish students are finding that the penalty to be paid is all in the details.

Some students say that although professors are understanding about Yom Kippur, and despite the fact that Rosh Hashanah falls on the weekend this year, time they spend in shul could set them back because of assignments that are due the day after the holidays or even on Yom Kippur itself.

“I am worried because I am an architecture major, and there are deadlines, and it’s fast paced so I just have to be ahead of game constantly,” said Yoav Weiss, who just entered his freshman year at USC.

Although most universities have support staff available to aid students dealing with religious issues — at Hillel, the Office of Religious Life or University Chaplain’s office — most can only help deal with the major scheduling conflicts, like those that involve rescheduling an exam that falls on a holiday.
Rabbi Susan Laemmle, dean of the Office of Religious Life at USC, admitted that she couldn’t come to the aid of students over the myriad little conflicts that affect them.

For example, some professors offer four midterms and throw out each student’s lowest exam score in the calculation of the students’ final grades — but if they inadvertently choose to give an exam on a Jewish holiday, thereby making that exam the student’s lowest, the student likely has no recourse. In circumstances like this, the Office of Religious Life can do little to help, according to Laemmle.

“Sometimes Jews have to work a little harder, and that’s OK,” said Laemmle, who said she tries not to show Jewish students any favor in her role at the school.
Observing Shabbat weekly may be the greatest challenge of all, however, at universities where honors programs or intensive, fast-track programs demand extra time on Fridays and weekends. Some students said they have encountered professors who cannot comprehend why they cannot stay late on a Friday night, or e-mail them on Saturday.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director at UCLA Hillel, was skeptical of the notion that there is a “problem” for young Jews who want to observe Shabbat or holidays at universities. He thinks students should look at the positive aspects of the modern university, which allows them to miss class so that they can affirm their Judaism.

“You’re dealing with a system that attempts to create the best possible climate for someone who wants to be Jewish and who wants to observe,” he said. “So, I’m trying to understand why someone would want to make out of that an issue. On the contrary, one would want to enterprise. Look at the opportunity you have.”
Seidler-Feller emphasized that the university is the place where students learn to prioritize their commitments with confidence.

“You go out into the world, and you know that you’re in a law job, and it’s tough … and then they say they want you to work on such and such a day, and you have to have the inner strength and self-confidence and integrity,” he added. “So when do you start learning this? At a university, where the downside is minimal.”

Not surprisingly, observant Jewish students who have already experienced the fork in the road that a nonsectarian education can present tend to be more relaxed about dealing with it in college.

David Goldenberg, a recent graduate of La Jolla High School, just began school at UCLA. He’s already made up his mind about when he’ll miss class and when he won’t and put on a relaxed front.

“It’s only a few days a year,” he said. “It’s not a big deal.”

Power of Vows

I have twins who are almost 5 years old. One of the things that my wife and I are trying to teach them is the power of words, both for the positive and the negative.

They are learning that words can inspire, motivate and excite a situation, as they discover new and innovative ways to talk to each other, to us as parents and to the people with whom they interact. They are also learning the harder lesson that words can just as easily hurt, insult and change a situation for the worse in just a matter of moments. It is a lesson that we all learn; yet, how we carry forth these critical childhood moments of language education and speech management can determine the kinds of lives we lead, and the kinds of interactions we have with one another.

Parshat Matot opens with a lesson in the power of words. God commands Moshe to speak to the leaders of the tribes, saying, “If a person makes a vow to Adonai or takes an oath imposing an obligation on him/herself, he/she shall not break that pledge; he/she must carry out all that has crossed his/her lips” (Numbers 30:3). I am leaving aside the sexist language of this parsha, where women cannot make vows, and am operating with the knowledge that we have moved past the ancient subjugation of women. Having said that, the power of the word is what matters here.

Our ancestors understood that when we make a vow, promising to give something to God, or take an oath regarding our own actions, this was the highest and most serious endeavor, as the power of speech is what separates us most critically from the animal world. “Baruch She’amar V’hayah Ha’olam, God spoke and the world came into being.”

In the first of his two important comments on this section of Torah, the Chatam Sofer, 19th century sage and scholar, teaches that “the entire Torah is dependent on this matter of vows, for it is the foundation of foundations, for if we don’t keep our word through the vows we make, then there is no foundation for our receiving Torah in the first place” (Iturei Torah).

How many of us say things that we don’t mean? How many of us use words or phrases like, “I swear…”or “I promise…”or “You have my word…” in a colloquial or trivial fashion? I catch myself doing that all the time. Our society has lost the power of our word and that is a detriment to our ethical composure. With all of the scandals that have rocked us, from Enron on down, we know that our capitalist nature has in some ways affected our ability to be honest; making the most money at any cost drives people to make false promises or lie about the situation. That is why Torah is so important and the cycle of our religious life is so necessary in today’s world; we must all work hard to ensure that we are all leading lives founded in truth, dedication to keeping our word and thinking before we speak.

In noticing that the Torah calls on Moshe to speak to the “heads of the tribes,” the Chatam Sofer says, “People in high public office are more often tempted to make promises that they cannot keep. Their behavior could lessen the respect others have for the spoken word.”

Our public figures, to a large extent, operate on saying things in order to keep power. While this is not true for all leaders, too many have been found guilty of lying, misrepresenting the facts, making empty promises and not keeping their word. Of all the terrible things happening in the world today, two stand out in this regard.

First, the war in Iraq — which has taken 2,500 American lives and tens thousands of Iraqi lives, and cost us our reputation in the world through Abu Ghraib — was based on false premises and lies. How can we trust a leader who lies in regard to the highest level of commitment, war and peace? The amount of misconception in this war, and in the whole “war on terror,” speaks volumes to what the Chatam Sofer was warning leaders against.

Second, the response to Hurricane Katrina. After failing to adequately respond to the crisis while it was happening, the federal government made promise after promise to the recovery and rebuilding of the devastated Gulfport region, only to renege or abandon most of those promises. Nearly a year after the hurricane, whole parts of the area still look like a war zone. There is no better illustration of false promises than what has not happened in New Orleans. Thankfully, religious groups, including our own Board of Rabbis of Southern California, and local synagogues have been partnering with other religious institutions to do our small part. But promises not kept are failing thousands of innocent and needy people.

As I try and teach my children to speak kindly and wisely, I am thankful for the words of the Torah and the comments of the Chatam Sofer, who guide me in offering a legacy of honesty and commitment to the value of integrity. May we all find ways to keep our word, imitating God, by whose word our entire existence was created.

Taking — and Giving — Stock

Move over fountain pens. If the Blue and White Fund has its way, the trend in bar and bat mitzvah gift giving might be instruments of the financial kind.

The Blue and White Fund is a diversified U.S. mutual fund that exclusively invests in Israeli companies traded on the NASDAQ, New York, Amex and Tel Aviv stock exchanges. The fund is offering free $18 mutual fund certificates to every American bar or bat mitzvah. Friends and relatives are encouraged to buy gifts of stock in the fund, as well.

The only condition of the free offer: Each teen must have proof that he or she has attained a religious rite of passage.

Shlomo Eplboim, the fund’s founder and CEO, launched the project two years ago, hoping that receiving a portion of the Israeli mutual funds would spur young teens to a lifelong interest in Israeli investment.

“I guarantee that giving the fund is better than giving Kiddush cups,” Eplboim said, adding that the next generation “does not believe in charity” as much as it believes in “innovation and brainpower.”

To date, the fund has distributed more than 450 free certificates, and that number is expected to increase. Eplboim said more than 1,000 requests were received in 2005 — following the group’s new promotional partnership with the Jewish National Fund’s (JNF) bar and bat mitzvah project, which encourages families to use familiar JNF tree certificates as simcha invitations or thank-you notes.

“For every child that approaches the Blue and White Fund for a share, we plant a tree for them as a gift. Conversely, bar mitzvah-age kids learn about the Blue and White Fund by participating in the JNF’s bar/bat mitzvah simcha program,” said Rona Rodrig, JNF director of product and campaign development. “Investment and charity for Israel go hand-in-hand.”

Eplboim believes that teens who follow their Blue and White Fund investments will “learn about investing in the backbone of Israeli companies, which is incredible.” By introducing teens to Israeli investing at a young age, Eplboim hopes these same youngsters will be more likely to become investors — hopefully in Israel — as adults.

“That is exactly what happened to me,” said Stuart Peskin, principal for State Street Global Advisors. Peskin said receiving seven shares of Coca-Cola stock on his seventh birthday made a “huge impact” on his chosen career path.

Yet, some of today’s teens are more skeptical.

Jake Seltman, 12, a seventh-grader, said that if he were to receive the fund as a gift, he would consider further investment in Israel only “if the fund really works.”

Josh Mangel, another middle school student, is already a savvy investor.

“Two years ago … I saw Yahoo growing really fast, almost $3 [per share] in a week,” he said. “I bought the stock and made a lot of money. If I saw that [Blue and White] mutual fund grow, I’d invest in an [Israeli] company.”

Adult skeptics worry about the stability of Israeli investments following years of heightened Middle East terrorism.

Tom Glaser, president of the American Israel Chamber of Commerce’s Southeast region, said that while terrorism has “had an impact on the Israeli economy, many companies survived intact. Israel is second only to the United States in high-tech startups, and [these companies] are strongly supported by venture capital from Israel and all over the world.”

Glaser said many Israeli companies are grounded in “real, innovative technology … some of the most ‘disruptive’ [cutting edge] technology anyone has ever done. Israel has the most companies traded on NASDAQ besides the United States and Canada…. It is a true phenomenon.”

Eplboim and his partners also believe that there’s a discrepancy between the media’s portrayal of Israel and the growth potential of Israeli companies. He sees no danger in the country’s geopolitical situation, because “Israel has been dealing with this for 56 years.”

“The biggest asset Israel has is its education,” said Eplboim, citing statistics that Israel leads the world with the largest number of university graduates per capita, ranks third globally in the number of patents issued and spends 7 percent of its gross domestic product on education, despite the political turmoil that receives so much media attention.

Although the Blue and White Fund is exclusively invested in Israeli goods in order to support Israel, the free funds are not exclusively limited to Jewish teens. Any child who can supply proof of a religious ceremony (a copy of an invitation or letter from a religious official) is eligible; young Christians who celebrate their first communion or confirmation can also receive a free $18 fund investment.

To register your bar or bat mitzvah for a free shares of the Blue and White Fund, call (877) 4BW-FUND or visit ” target=”_blank”>


So Much to Learn, So Little Time

Gina Gross would like to attend Jewish adult-education classes, but at the moment, she has a hard time even talking about how much she’d like it. The Beverly Hills licensing consultant briefly puts down the phone and turns lovingly to her 7-year-old daughter: “Dani, buzz off!”

Dani runs off to play with her 5-year-old sister, Sydney, which gives Gross a few minutes to discuss adult education, but not nearly enough leeway to pursue it.

“My kids are too little,” said Gross, who adds that her Reform congregation, Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park, “does a really good job of marketing adult education during the High Holidays. And every year I hope I’m gonna do it. And I never do it. Kids. Work. Everything else.”

There are thousands of adults in similar straits throughout Southern California.

“We are blessed in Los Angeles with a plethora of adult learning opportunities,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. “Synagogues offer literally hundreds of courses for adults as do many other fine institutions.”

“Having said that,” the Conservative rabbi added, “I wouldn’t even hazard a guess to how few Jewish adults are actually involved in ongoing Jewish learning. I fear the number is relatively small. People need to avail themselves of these programs.”

There are no comprehensive statistics on how many adults attend classes related to Judaism, or even whether these classes are attracting increasing or shrinking numbers. But synagogues and local universities continue to list impressive offerings, relying on their own learned staffers and rabbis, talented community members and a broader Jewish community rich with resources and scholars.

At Westwood’s Conservative Sinai Temple, Rabbi David Wolpe’s Torah study classes attract an average of 100 people every Thursday morning at 8:15 a.m.

“That’s huge,” said Sinai program coordinator Rachel Martin.

Lunch-and-learn events at Sinai regularly attract about 80 people.

“Anything on mysticism is really popular,” Martin said. “It’s more of the touchy-feely stuff that’s really popular.”

Over the years, said Reform Rabbi Steve Jacobs of Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, congregants have shown tremendous interest in “learning about lifecycles, and in adult [b’nai] mitzvah classes.”

Courses on Israel peaked in the 1970s and ’80s, Jacobs said, but now interfaith courses and classes on Jewish cooking are on the upswing.

But who has the time? Attorney Josh Wayser and his life partner have three young children in Beverlywood and are members of both Temple Isaiah and the gay/lesbian Reform synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim, in Pico-Robertson.

“If you have young children, it’s almost impossible to do adult education,” said Wayser, a national board member with the Union of Reform Judaism.

“The problem is you’re choosing between spending time with children or enriching yourself,” he said. “They don’t want to hear that you’re going off to adult education at night or on the weekend. I have to spend time way from home because of work, and I volunteer in the Jewish community. Everything personal comes last.”

Not that he hasn’t tried: “It was very enjoyable, but it was on a Saturday. On Saturday there are birthday parties and all these things that you have to do.”

Orthodox Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein said that deepening one’s knowledge of Judaism should not be considered an option, nor buried near the bottom of the to-do list.

“I hate to be blunt about it, but the Orthodox have an advantage that the heterodox movements do not, and that’s the concept of mitzvah — mitzvah in the real sense of commandment rather than in good deeds,” said Adlerstein, who does extensive teaching and directs Project Next Step at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “The mandate to study Torah is one of the most important of all of the 613 commandments in the Torah.”

For Orthodox Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, “the barometer of success can’t be how many people come. It’s how good the program is,” he said.

Muskin has mixed traditional Torah study with offerings such as scholar-in-residence programs. “Our approach is what the Talmud says,” he said. “If you only learn Torah from one person, you haven’t learned Torah.”

And, he added, there’s no seasonal slowdown: “We don’t only run a series that lasts for six weeks or five weeks. There are regular classes, day in, day out.”

One new option is the Internet and sites such as or, which are Orthodox in orientation.

Diamon of the Board of Rabbis said these sites will never replace people-to-people encounters.

“Internet learning is great,” he said. “But nothing replaces sitting down with another individual or a group of individuals and studying together face-to-face and in person. That’s classic Jewish learning.”

For Kol Tikvah’s Jacobs, Jewish learning also is about more than history, scholarship, religious tradition and ritual. It’s about a cleaned-up Santa Monica Bay, too, and fair rental housing rates for migrant farm workers in Oxnard onion fields.

“Learning Torah for the sake of Torah does not complete the act of what it is to be a Jew,” he said. “It’s a combination of action and learning. It’s what you do in terms of tikkun olam and tikkun hanefesh, the repair of the soul’ You must act, and you must do, and you must learn.”

Orthodoxy Has Chance to Reshape Role

A window has opened to the Orthodox community. We are being invited to help reshape the social dynamics of the American

Jewish community. With courage and vision, we need to act on this opportunity by understanding the important changes that have occurred over the last decades and rethinking the way we engage the broader Jewish community.

Never before in the history of U.S. Judaism has there been openness to Orthodoxy as sincere and real as that which we see today. I am not referring to openness in terms of individual Jews embracing Orthodoxy. For many practical and philosophical reasons, such individuals will always be relatively few. Rather, I am referring to the openness of non-Orthodox and interdenominational institutions to learning from the experiences and insights of their Orthodox brethren.

To wit, numerous hallmarks of Orthodox life have been adopted by other movements. Conservative and Reform day schools are growing in number and size. We are seeing broad adoption of the more participatory and Chasidic worship style. Non-Orthodox women’s groups have discovered the mikvah’a (ritual bath) use as a form of spirituality, and the new hip name for adult education institutes outside of Orthodoxy is kollel.

This phenomenon presents the Orthodox community with an unprecedented chance to engage with and contribute to the wider community in far-reaching and significant ways. But it is one that we can seize only by moving beyond our traditional parameters regulating interdenominational contacts, which have long since outlived their purpose and usefulness.

Today, Orthodox rabbis have practically disappeared from interdenominational boards of rabbis. In some communities, the Orthodox Rabbinical Council actually forbids its members from joining interdenominational boards.

Interdenominational study groups or even social action groups are practically unheard of. The vast majority of Orthodox synagogues would never consider having a joint Simchat Torah celebration, Shavuot night learning program or a Tisha b’Av ceremony with a non-Orthodox congregation.

Historically, there is strong precedence for such reticence about interdenominational involvements. In 1954, even Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik strongly discouraged Orthodox rabbis from pursuing matters of “spiritual religious interest” with non-Orthodox rabbis, while in 1956, an influential declaration signed by a dozen outstanding Orthodox luminaries, including Rabbi Moses Feinstein, prohibited membership in interdenominational groups.

But it is at the peril of American Judaism that we ignore the vital and fundamental differences between the 1950s and today. The concern that drove the rulings of 50 years ago is no longer relevant. The 1950s and ’60s were years of enormous struggle for American Orthodoxy, as children of Orthodox parents continued to leave Orthodox life in great numbers, and the culture militated hard against Orthodox Jews retaining their traditional observance.

The attraction of Conservative and Reform Judaism was very great in these circumstances. What Soloveitchik called an ideological battle, with the future of Orthodoxy at stake, was being waged against non-Orthodox movements. In this context, we can readily understand how any activity or association that implied Orthodoxy’s recognition of Conservative or Reform rabbis as peers would have signaled to the Orthodox community that all denominational options were equally acceptable.

In Soloveitchik’s words, “Too much harmony and peace can cause confusion of the minds and will erase outwardly the boundaries between Orthodoxy and other movements.”

Today, however, the Orthodox community has become a stable — indeed growing — presence successfully retaining its youth. The ideological battle is, for all intents and purposes, over.

Additionally, even as denominational lines continue to exist within the Jewish community, the only line that is thick and red divides those who ignore rising Jewish apathy and those ready to combat it. In the 1950s and indeed into the 1970s, intermarriage was statistically negligible. Today, standing as it does at nearly 50 percent, intermarriage is the greatest threat to the entire Jewish community.

Indifference toward one’s Jewish identity, the frequent precursor of intermarriage, is widespread among America’s Jews, as is evidenced by the paltry rates of synagogue affiliation that turn up in study after study. Anyone willing to fight for Jewish survival is a de facto ally.

Several years ago, I joined with non-Orthodox colleagues in creating a retreat program for our synagogue’s teenagers. One retreat was dedicated to the theme of interdating and intermarriage. The discussions were passionate and serious, and the openness to sharing and listening was breathtaking. The Orthodox teens made a palpable impact on their peers, and all it took was the courage to engage.

The window is open, and it may represent our last, best chance to effectively counter the trends that have been eroding both the quality and quantity of Jewish religious life in the United States.

The only question facing us is whether we help each other through by sharing resources, ideas and comradeship or hobble through by withholding spiritual capital in the name of an ideological battle that effectively ended a generation ago.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi of the B’nai David-Judea Congregation and the president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis. This column appears courtesy of


Christian Right is Wrong — and Dangerous

In 1994, we sounded an alarm. In our book, “The Religious Right: The Assault on Tolerance and Pluralism in America,” we said that “an exclusionist religious movement in this country has attempted to restore what it perceives as the ruins of a Christian nation by more closely seeking to unite its version of Christianity with state power.”

Alas, our call was not well heeded, and we are beginning to see some of the consequences of what we identified.

As a result, today we face a better financed, more sophisticated, coordinated, unified, energized and organized coalition of groups in opposition to our policy positions on church-state separation than ever before. Their goal is to implement their Christian worldview. To Christianize America. To save us!

Who are the major players? They include Focus on the Family, Alliance Defense Fund, The American Family Association and the Family Research Council. They and other groups have established new organizations and church-based networks, and built infrastructures throughout the country designed not just to promote traditional “Christian values,” but to actively pursue that restoration of a Christian nation.

To quote D. James Kennedy, one of the most important and influential of today’s evangelical leaders: “Our job is to reclaim America for Christ, whatever the cost. We are to exercise godly dominion and influence over our neighborhoods, our schools, our government, our literature and arts, our sports arenas, our entertainment media, our news media, our scientific endeavors — in short, over every aspect and institution of human society.”

Make no mistake: We are facing an emerging Christian Right leadership that intends to “Christianize” all aspects of American life, from the halls of government to the libraries, to the movies, to recording studios, to the playing fields and locker rooms of professional, collegiate and amateur sports, from the military to “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

In 2002, leaders from 10 conservative Christian organizations formed the Arlington Group, an alliance of more than 50 of the most prominent conservative Christian leaders and organizations. Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation described it this way: “For the first time, virtually all of the social issues groups are singing off the same sheet of music … when we are working together, we are a mighty force that can’t be ignored.”

Just take a look at their Web sites, where they document in considerable detail an agenda on a wide range of issues: judicial nominations, same-sex marriage, and faith-based issues — and an agenda that, let us be clear, goes well beyond legitimate engagement in controversial social and political issues to a fundamental usurpation of all that America represents:

  • “Most importantly, the court victories are vital steps to keep doors open for the spread of the gospel and reclaim the legal system for Jesus Christ.” — The Alliance Defense Fund
  • The American Family Association, “believes that God has communicated absolute truth to man through the Bible, and that all men everywhere at all times are subject to the authority of God’s word. Therefore, culture based on biblical truth best serves the well-being of our country.”
  • “Christians can be loyal to liberal democracy as long as rights are carefully controlled by a dominant culture that directs them to the true hierarchy of ends.” — Family Research Council.
  • “The enemies of morality will not stop and will not back off. The Left cannot and will not change … no matter how many God-fearing and God-honoring women and men are elected and appointed to public office, until the hearts of the people change, we will not turn around this culture and restore our biblical foundations.” — James Dobson’s Focus on the Family.

As offensive as these comments are, we need to understand that the Jewish community is not the prime target of this movement. Indeed, Jews are often singled out for engagement and support based on their interpretation of biblical revelation and prophecy. Yet, if this “Dominionism,” as its proponents call it, is successful, we may become its major victim.

Let me also be very clear about what we are not talking about.

First, I do not believe that this is a malignant assault; it is not motivated by animus, and certainly not by anti-Semitism. Our opponents’ beliefs are sincerely held. Yes, some Southern Baptists want to convert us while we are alive, and Mormons want to convert us when we are dead. We may find that strange, even discomforting, but that is their right of belief.

My evangelical friends remind me that what we are dealing with is a principle of faith. And they are right. To bear witness, to share, to proselytize, is not a choice for evangelical Christians. It is a fundamental principle of their belief. So when you challenge it, you do it carefully, delicately, respectfully.

But we cannot tolerate an attempt to subvert that right of belief and practice by those who say that their job is “to reclaim America for Christ.”

The stakes for the Jewish community could not be higher, but our community is not united on this issue. Indeed, we are a lot less united than we were 15 years ago.

On one hand, there is an extreme element in the community that believes it is unsafe to confront Christianity. We heard it, read it, saw it in the Mel Gibson debate. There are also those who say that because evangelicals are friends of Israel: “Don’t fight them”; “don’t make them angry”; “don’t upset them.”

There are those who argue, “What’s wrong with faith-based government funding? It can bring money to our community, to our religious institutions and it can provide safety and security for synagogues; it can provide funds for Jewish education.”

Some Jewish agencies call us and say, “Lower your tone, because there is an opportunity to obtain funds for Jewish family services in ways that weren’t available before.”

These are serious considerations for our constituency and we need to engage them.

As we watched the election of 2004, and we are now getting glimpses into elections of 2006 and 2008, we are beginning to see the candidates – some declared, some not declared — beginning to move on these issues in a direction that is not in our direction.

Abraham H. Foxman is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. This commentary was excerpted from his recent remarks to the organization’s National Commission Meeting.


Panel Rejects Texts Over Religious Bias

In a surprise move, an advisory body to the California Board of Education rejected a sixth-grade history program that Hindu and Jewish groups blasted as biased, erroneous and culturally derogatory.

During a two-day late September hearing before the state’s Curriculum Development and Supplemental Materials Commission, Jewish critics lambasted the Oxford University Press textbook and related materials for subjecting early Jewish history to a more rigid standard of proof than Christian or Muslim history, for including stories that have traditionally fomented anti-Semitism and for misstating key concepts of Judaism, presenting it as a religion of reward and punishment, rather than one of social justice and morality.

The rejection was a major upset for the prestigious publishing company, which for the first time was trying to enter the lucrative California market for kindergarten through eighth-grade teaching materials. California is the nation’s largest textbook purchaser, and often sets the tone for what is adopted by other states.

David Gershwin of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles laid out for the commissioners Oxford’s depiction of the Exodus. Not only, he said, does the Oxford text note that there is no historical record of the Exodus — a caveat not included in descriptions of the seminal religious events of other faiths — it incorrectly states that the story is important to Jews mainly as a way to set themselves off from other people.

When Jewish groups asked Oxford to change that passage to reflect the importance of the Exodus as a story of national and personal liberation, they were rebuffed.

“It is difficult for us to comprehend why the beliefs of other religions are presented without critical comment, while the essential event of Judaism is subjected to a historical analysis that can only be described as disdainful and highly subjective,” Gershwin testified.

One Hindu speaker pointed to a chapter called, “Where’s the Beef?” and said it offended him to have his faith presented “in the manner of an outdated television ad.”

Following the public criticism, 14 commissioners voted last Friday against adopting the Oxford materials, and one commissioner abstained. Their rejection came as a surprise, because a special review committee had recommended its adoption to the commission.

California has mandated the study of religion since 1987. Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism are studied in sixth grade, and Islam is covered in seventh grade.

Oxford is one of 12 publishers whose programs were being considered for adoption by the state. Approval of materials means school districts can use state money to purchase them. The Curriculum Commission rejected the programs of two other publishers, as well, but those had not been recommended by the review committee, which said they did not meet state standards.

The state Board of Education will make its final decisions on all the programs Nov. 3.

Although Jewish groups picked out Oxford’s materials as the most egregious, none of the publishers escaped criticism.

Jackie Berman, educational consultant of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), and policy analyst Susan Mogull spent the last few months poring over the offerings of all the programs vying for the California market.

Speaking for the JCRC’s new Institute for Curriculum Services project, they sent extensive reviews of the proposed materials to state commissioners in late August. Their reviews said that “many of the texts contain narrations of the Crucifixion that blame or clearly implicate the Jews, presentations of the parable of the Good Samaritan that identify uncaring passers-by as Jews and Paul as a persecutor of Christians when he was the Jewish Saul — all have been used throughout history as a means of implanting anti-Semitism in young minds.”

Berman said that while other publishers “worked well with us” to resolve issues of concern to the Jewish community, the Oxford team did not.

In a Sept. 27 memo to the Curriculum Commission, Oxford criticized the Institute for Curriculum Services’ concerns as “an apologetic defence of Judaism” and said the Jewish group was “not looking for historical objectivity but a religious agenda.”

The Oxford response stated it “is not relevant” to bring up how the Good Samaritan parable may have been used by anti-Semites throughout history. “Many religious texts in all traditions have been used to justify bad behavior,” the memo said.

However, Anne Eisenberg of the National Council of Jewish Women told commissioners, “Teaching religion to sixth- and seventh-graders is a high-stakes challenge. Jew hatred still exists and, in some places, thrives. This is a book that millions of children could potentially read.”

In addition to rejecting the Oxford text, the Curriculum Commission passed a motion requiring publishers to make changes requested by the Institute for Curriculum Services before their programs can be adopted by the state board in November.

After the hearing, Oxford representatives said they had “misunderstood” the public comment procedure, and are eager to work with Jewish and Hindu groups to make changes before November, when they plan to resubmit their program to the California board.

“We will be reaching out to the Jewish and Hindu organizations that brought up specific issues in our text, so they’ll feel comfortable withdrawing their objections,” said Casper Grathwohl of the reference division publisher of Oxford University Press.

The “Where’s the Beef?” chapter heading was intended “to grab readers’ attention,” said Amanda Podany, a co-author of one of the Oxford sixth-grade textbooks. “No offense was intended,” she said, and the heading will “certainly” be changed.

Both she and Grathwohl said that the Oxford series devotes more space to Judaism than the other course programs under consideration. This both indicates their serious interest in the topic, and provides more to criticize, they said.


The Circuit

Boxer Praises FOUNDATION

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) recently recognized Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in Washington, D.C., by bestowing on it the Boxer Excellence in Education Award.

“I am pleased to present my Excellence in Education Award to the Shoah Foundation,” Boxer said. “The Shoah Foundation has done an outstanding job of educating people about the tragedy of the Holocaust. Through the use of video testimony, they are teaching the next generation about the importance of working for justice and tolerance around the world.”

Accepting the award, Shoah Foundation President and CEO Douglas Greenberg said, “We are pleased and honored to receive this award. Sen. Boxer’s dedication to fostering social justice and cross-cultural understanding among Californians and all Americans, strengthens and reaffirms the mission of the Shoah Foundation. Her recognition — through this award — of the potential of education to defeat prejudice, intolerance and bigotry helps us face the task ahead with renewed confidence.”

The Shoah Foundation was established in 1994 by Spielberg to tape and preserve video testimonies of Holocaust survivors and witnesses. After recording almost 52,000 video testimonies in 56 countries and 32 languages, the Shoah Foundation’s mission today is to overcome prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry — and the suffering they cause — through the educational use of the foundation’s testimonies.

Hadassah Happenings

Andrea Silagi of Encino was elected to her first term as a national vice president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, at the organization’s 91st annual convention, which just concluded in Washington, D.C. She will also serve as the chair of foundations.

Also elected were: June Walker, of Rockaway, N.J., to her third term as the 23rd national president of Hadassah; Ruth B. Hurwitz, as national treasurer, and Mona Wood, as national secretary, both of Baltimore, Md.

Some 1,500 Hadassah members from 37 states held 150 meetings with their local congressional representatives, both in the House and Senate to discuss Hadassah’s positions on foreign aid for Israel, stem cell research and genetic discrimination and the Iran Freedom Support Act.

This year’s Henrietta Szold Award, Hadassah’s highest honor, was awarded to a husband-and-wife team: Daniel C. Kurtzer, U.S. ambassador to Israel, and his wife, Sheila Kurtzer. In awarding them this honor, former Hadassah National President Bonnie Lipton announced that Hadassah was establishing an annual scholarship for Young Judaea’s Year Course in the Kurtzers’ name.

For complete information about Hadassah, visit

Programming award

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) has announced that B’nai Tikvah Congregation of Westchester has been selected to receive the Solomon Schechter Award for Excellence in Synagogue Programming. This award is presented to congregations affiliated with the United Synagogue that have distinguished themselves during the preceding two years in aspects of congregational life.

Ileene Morris was honored for her work with Hazak, whose chapters were developed to successfully reach out to the senior population.

“Ileene is a blessing. Her hard work and devotion are appreciated by all members of the congregation, especially the seniors it benefits,” Rabbi Jason van Leeuwen said.

The award will be presented in a ceremony at the USCJ International Biennial Convention to be held at the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston, Mass., from Dec. 4-8.

Social Justice for All

Eighteen Reform Jews from across North America traveled to Israel to participate in 10 days’ worth of social justice service learning as part of Tzevet Mitzvot: Israel Mitzvah Corps. Sponsored by the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, the July 3-14 trip engaged participants with hands-on projects, study and discussion with religious and political leaders and the hospitality of Israeli Reform Jews.

“As Reform Jews, we are driven by our vision of a world redeemed by justice, mercy and peace, and our role in making that a reality,” said Evelyn Laser Shlensky, leader of the mission and immediate past chair of the URJ Commission on Social Action.

Participants worked on a variety of projects throughout the land of Israel. In Tel Aviv, they explored the plight of Israel’s foreign workers at the Workers’ Hotline; in Jaffa, they learned about the realms in which the Israeli Reform Movement is involved in social action and awareness; outside Jerusalem, they discussed the ramifications of Israel’s security fence with members of Rabbis for Human Rights, and inside the capital, they met with a member of the Knesset to talk about social justice and visited Yad Lakashish Project, a multifaceted workshop for senior citizens and the disabled.


‘Reimagining’ Earns Educator Accolades


David Ellenson had made a mistake, and he knew Sara Lee could help.

Months ago he had declined an invitation to apply for the position of president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). Now, at the 11th hour, he had changed his mind.

“That’s not a problem,” Lee told Ellenson, who in 2001 would become the eighth president of the Reform movement’s 125-year-old rabbinical school. “Just tell the committee you’ve reimagined yourself.”

Reimagining — and finding just the right words and approach to do it — is one of things that has made Lee, who has been the director of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles for 25 years, one of the most well-respected educational leaders in the Jewish world. On Feb. 21 in Jerusalem, Lee was awarded Pras Hanasi, Israel’s President’s Prize, overseen by the Jewish Agency and awarded by President Moshe Katsav to four educators.

This award, along with her 1999 honorary doctorate from the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and the prestigious Rothberg Prize from Hebrew University in 1997, puts Lee up there with a pantheon of 20th and 21st century educators and leaders who have impacted a wide swath of the Jewish community.

“People around the world recognize that Sara has elevated the standards of Jewish education to a new high,” Ellenson said. “She has such a combination of good sense and insight, as well as care and compassion for individuals and concern for the institution itself, that she’s just an unparalleled font of wisdom.”

With what students and colleagues call an iron fist and a velvet glove, Lee has been at the vanguard of the return to knowledge-based Judaism, refocusing attention on education as a lifelong family and congregational endeavor.

“She both anticipated many of the trends [toward traditionalism] in the Reform movement, and simultaneously through her work has really fostered many of them,” Ellenson said.

On a recent winter day, back home between tightly scheduled trips to New York, Florida and two visits to Israel, Lee was clearly at home walking through the halls of HUC-JIR at the USC campus, where, Diet Coke in hand, she headed toward a quiet basement classroom to reflect on a career that is still going strong. A grandmother of four, she carries her age like an elder politician whose vision continues to be about the future, not about past accomplishments.

“I’ve pushed the envelope on what Jewish education ought to be and what a Jewish educator ought to be, and I’ve pushed it pretty heavily,” she said. “You can’t change Jewish identity or Jewish community, but you can change the culture of an institution, and institution by institution get the community to think differently and feel differently about Jewish learning.”

One of her main lines of attack over the last few decades has been Hebrew schools and congregational education.

“The fact is that supplementary religious schools make no sense in an institutional culture that does not celebrate Jewish learning,” she said. “Why would any kid think it was worthwhile if Jewish learning is not something adults are doing?”

Lee helped formalize this integrated approach to Jewish learning in the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE), which was founded more than 10 years ago and is now a national program.

She has been at the forefront of the trend toward day school education in the liberal community and founded and co-directs, along with Sister Mary C. Boys, the Catholic-Jewish Colloquium. The two recently traveled to Auschwitz and are writing a book about the experience.

Lee grew up in Boston and was educated in its rigorous Latin school system. She attended Radcliffe in the 1950s, where the women were assured that as the best and brightest nothing was beyond their reach. As a teenager she became involved in Young Judea, a Zionist youth group, and took a year off from Radcliffe to live in Israel.

“That was a very toughening experience,” she said of that year, which cemented her commitment to Israel. “You came to believe that nothing is impossible, that you shouldn’t accept the status quo because there is always something better.”

That determination would serve her well when her husband, a physician, died suddenly when Lee was in her early 40s, leaving her with two teenagers and a 7-year-old.

She enrolled in a master’s program at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education, where in her second year she was asked to intern and was hired there when she graduated.

In 1979, she was offered the school’s director position, despite the fact that she did not have ordination or a doctorate degree.

Lee keeps photos of all her graduating classes up on the wall above her desk, so that when alumni call, which they often do, she can immediately pinpoint the face. Students and colleagues alike speak of Lee’s penchant for asking probing questions and her ability to analyze a situation and focus on a solution.

“Sara sets incredibly high standards for herself. She lets you know what the ideal is, but you never feel like you are coming up short alone,” said Isa Aron, professor of education at the Rhea Hirsch School and senior consultant for the ECE.

Lee received a good dose of that kind of recognition when the Alumni Association of Rhea Hirsch School of Education honored her in December, where 120 alumni and colleagues attended in her honor. That, she said, was more meaningful than any other accolade she’s received.

“That is really what it is all about,” Lee said, “that people think that I have this impact on the field to help raise people’s vision and expectation of what a Jewish educator ought to be.”


Ner Tamid Opens Link to Jewish Past


At Congregation Ner Tamid, most members can trace their ancestors back to Eastern Europe and the late 1800s.

Few are aware that 1654 was one of the most significant years in Jewish history — the year that 23 Jews fled the Portuguese Inquisition when they boarded the St. Charles bound for North America. This tiny group stepped onto the shores of New Amsterdam (New York) with the dream that the budding democracy in the new land would end their history of expulsion from countries around the globe.

Rabbi Jerry Danzig of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay (CNT) had a vision of a museum inside the synagogue that would trace the history of Jews in America from 1654 to the present. He, along with his dedicated committee, made that vision a reality in January, when the museum officially opened with a dinner and celebration attended by more than 100 people. From timelines, maps and posters to antique tools, cigar molds and famous original signatures, the exhibit is fascinating, enlightening and inspiring. The displays cover an array of topics that include early immigration, intolerance, trades, humanity and famous Jews in politics, the military, entertainment and sports.

The overriding theme is that Jews had a significant impact on the formation of our young country. Danzig said that it is no accident that Emma Lazarus, a Hebrew scholar and translator, wrote the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, nor that the words embossed on the Liberty Bell come from the Torah. For Danzig, the most important parts of the exhibit are those that demonstrate how Jewish individuals, such as Lazarus; Samuel Gompers, the father of America’s labor unions, and Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine who refused to profit from it or allow it to be patented, changed the character of America.

“Our museum is a panorama of 350 years of Jewish life in America,” Danzig said. “Since the Exodus from Egypt, Jewish life thrives in freedom and the beneficiaries have been the countries in which they resided. We are proud to display the contributions Jews have made over 350 years to the evolution of the American civilization, its politics, literature, science, music, art, education, philosophy. This museum has given our students, as well as many non-Jewish individuals and groups, a new appreciation of our history, contributions and achievements.”

The volunteers who worked with Danzig caught his enthusiasm for the project. They raised nearly $10,000 in donations and gathered many of the pictures, artifacts and visuals from CNT members.

“It was the most unique experience,” said Ellen November, curator of the exhibit. “Creating the displays and studying all the material and artifacts expanded my depth of knowledge of modern-day Jews and about the history of Jewish immigration. It made me even more aware of how much Jews embody the American spirit.”

Danzig has organized numerous events to mark “Celebrate 350.” These events encourage participation by the religious school students, the congregation and the community at large. Since the museum opened, docents have led students, church groups and libraries through the exhibit.

On Sunday, Feb. 20, at 7:30 p.m., CNT will host a program on “What Do We Owe Peter Stuyvesant? 350 Years of Jewish Life in America.” Professor Mark Dollinger, director of the Jewish studies department at San Francisco State University, will address the issues of Jews and federal politics, social welfare reform and Jewish education and identity.

The public is welcome to take a self-guided tour Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Guided tours can be arranged by calling the synagogu. at (310) 377-6986. The address is 5721 Crestridge Road, Rancho Palos Verdes.


Reach Out and Touch Faith


When Elizabeth Cobrin goes to Israel this winter break with Birthright Israel, she and her friends have devised a plan to find each other when participants in all the different Birthright trips get together.

They are going to sing their camp songs really, really loudly, until they hear each other and can sing together.

Remembering the songs won’t be hard, since Cobrin will spend a week before she goes to Israel in Winter Camp at JCA Shalom in Malibu, her summer home for five years.

Cobrin, a freshman at CSUN, says that her experience at camp, from camper to counselor, has been central to her Jewish identity, and that it stays with her year-round.

“Now that I am a counselor and I’m teaching kids about Judaism and can influence them, it is an even more central part of camp for me,” Cobrin said.

For many kids and counselors who attend Jewish summer camps, these winter months bring a Diasporic separation from a source of spiritual and social life. Camp gives a 21st century context to Judaism, cements Jewish identity and perhaps, most importantly, introduces children to lifelong friends, colleagues and even future spouses.

E-mail, instant messaging and weekend cell phone minutes now play the role that stationery and stamps used to in sustaining relationships. Many camps hold weekend reunions or winter camps, and, of course, some campers return together as counselors to continue spending summers on the same hallowed grounds.

The trick seems to be to weave the threads of camp life into the cloth of daily existence. Jill Zuckerman Powell, director of admissions at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, has no trouble keeping in touch with her friends from Camp Alonim at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley more than 30 years ago.

“I’m related to them!” she laughs, explaining that her husband, brother-in-law, pediatrician and veterinarian are all camp pals. “I see them all the time, so it’s easy to stay in touch.”

Jewish camps are known to be one of the best tools of a Jewish education, with their emphasis on multidimensional teaching of values, Hebrew language, culture and religious customs. Young Judaea, a Zionistic youth organization with six camps across the United States, reports in a 1998 survey that 59 percent of alumni light Shabbat candles as compared to 20 percent of the whole Jewish community polled in a 1990 National Jewish Population Study.

The Limud Report, a research project conducted by an independent firm concerned with Jewish life at summer camps, found that 85 percent of Jewish camps conduct Friday night services and that campers cite it as the No. 1 source of spiritual and personal satisfaction in the camp experience. Many recall the magical feeling of standing with the entire camp dressed in white for Shabbat, and walking hand in hand to Friday night services.

For Cobrin, Shabbat services are the most powerful factor in building unity among campers.

“My favorite Jewish activity is Havdalah,” she said. “I think that after such a busy week, it is nice to get the whole camp together in one place…. Knowing that [it] could be the first time all week all the age groups are together and participating in the same program.”

A former camper notes that whether or not you enjoy services, you are there with everyone else with the single purpose of honoring Shabbat.

But it might be the informal weaving of Judaism into day-to-day activities that provides camp’s most powerful impact. Powell points to Alonim’s dancing, music and games that all have elements of Jewish culture. In this way, the construction of kids’ Jewish identity is not even conscious. It is not until they have time to think about all they have learned in the week or the summer that they notice the change in themselves.

“All my identity as a Jew is through camp. Hebrew school and Sunday school were negative experiences for me, as I think they are for many kids,” Powell said.

She met her husband at camp, has sent her two daughters to camp and recommends the experience for every child.

“I wanted to give my children that love,” Powell said, emphasizing camp’s pivotal role in fostering attachment to a Jewish heritage.

She has a tradition that started when taking her 8-year-old daughter to camp:

“You turn off the radio when you get there. It’s almost a spiritual experience, driving down the road to camp.”

And it is that experience that lives on throughout the year. Even in the darkness of winter, campers reach to reconnect with spiritual roots that lie dormant, knowing that the warmth of summer, though a few months away, never really recedes.


Ending the Post-Bar Mitzvah Exodus

On a recent gloomy Sunday afternoon in L.A. Family Housing’s recreation room, 13-year-old Julia Harreschou laughs with 5-year-old Lara as they take turns drawing on a Magna Doodle. At another table covered with beads, paint and other art supplies, Juliana Klein, 14, helps 4-year-old Carmen decorate a small wooden cutout house. Across the hall, a group of boys bobs for apples, while outside, until the rain descends, other kids play football.

This is Keeping Kids Company, a community service project in which 15 teenagers participating in the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE)’s Netivim program brighten Sunday afternoons for children living in this North Hollywood transitional housing center.

“The teens are not only helping the kids, but they are also learning Jewish values,” said Dan Gold, coordinator of Netivim’s Institute of Jewish Service, who engages them for the last half-hour in a discussion on homelessness and Judaism’s position on the dignity of permanent housing.

In its third year, Netivim is one of several new or revamped programs begun by Los Angeles-area synagogues and Jewish organizations to help stem the tide of teenagers severing their Jewish connections after they celebrate their bar or bat mitzvahs.

Educators are hoping the lure of free food, the opportunity to spend time with friends, provocative programming that breaks out of the behind-the-desk model and the strong presence of clergy will entice kids to continue well into their teenage years.

“The Jewish community has traditionally looked at bar and bat mitzvah as an endpoint. Rather we should say that bar and bat mitzvah is a very important lifecycle event along the pathway of our children’s Jewish education,” says Morley Feinstein, senior rabbi at University Synagogue in Brentwood.

But it’s a tough battle. According to the 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey, of the 29,300 Jewish 13- to 17-year-olds living in Los Angeles, only 3,700 currently attend Jewish day school and another 4,100 attend religious school. And while other teens might be involved in informal education, including youth groups and summer camps, for which no accurate numbers are available, educators estimate at least 20,000 unaffiliated Jewish teenagers live in the Los Angeles area.

Judaism is often a low priority for teens who are already overburdened and overextended with homework, extracurricular activities such as sports, drama and music lessons and a full social life. The focus, for many, is building the college resume rather than building Jewish connections.

Plus, the parents of those teenagers, many of whom are uncomfortable themselves with Judaism, don’t force the issue, according to Lisa Greengard, youth and camp director at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles and a member of BJE’s Youth Professional Advisory Council. “Parents actively tell me that this is a battle not worth fighting,” she says.

But Jewish educators are not ready to give up a fight that has the potential to determine the teens’ Jewish future.

While 43 percent of those with no Jewish education intermarry, the rate drops to 29 percent for those who attend even a one-day-a-week program, according to the National Jewish Population Study 2000-01. In the same survey, there was a direct correspondence between the number of years a person spent in a Jewish educational setting, and the strength of their Jewish identity — attachment to Israel, having Jewish friends, observing rituals, marrying Jews.

Many of the re-envisioned programs to get teens to stay in the fold have been successful.

At University Synagogue, Feinstein and Religious School Director Janice Tytell have retooled the confirmation and post-confirmation Monday Night Program for eighth- through 12th-graders. After a pizza dinner, the eighth- through 10th-grade students attend back-to-back minicourses, choosing, among others, “Theology and Spirituality,” “Do Jews Believe in Heaven and Hell?” or “Hot Topics: School Violence,” led by the synagogue’s cantor and rabbis.

Eleventh- and 12th-graders meet with clinical psychologist Richard Weintraub, where, while sitting casually on beanbags, they discuss life, death, sex, drugs, school and parents.

“The class becomes its own community, both magical and mystical,” said Weintraub, who also teaches at Temple Judea in Tarzana.

And while he doesn’t “hit them over the head with the Jewish stuff,” he does weave in stories from the Talmud, from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s books and from his own Orthodox background.

At Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus in West Los Angeles, more than 100 eighth- through 12th-graders show up every week for the Wednesday Night Program, developed three years ago by Rabbi Dennis Eisner and full-time youth professional Ellie Klein. After a pizza dinner, the teens participate in a one-hour elective, such as art, dance or improv. Tutoring and study hall are also available.

During the second hour, the students attend three- or four-week seminars on topics such as “Sex in the Text,” “Who Wants to Marry a Teenage Jew?” and “Cult and Culture.”

For 12th-grader Jenna Berger, Wednesday night is the highlight of her week.

“I rely on this night of peace, of Judaism, of fun and of friends,” she said.

For Rabbi Sally Olins of Temple B’nai Hayim in Sherman Oaks, “It’s about making them a second home. And it begins with the rabbi.”

Olins has a 90 percent post-bar mitzvah retention rate for her four-year confirmation program, beginning in seventh grade, with all classes taught by her and Cantor Mark Gomberg,

Once a month, the fourth-year class spends a Tuesday evening with Olins, eating pizza and viewing an episode of “Desperate Housewives,” trying to figure out how many times the characters break one of the Ten Commandments (they watched “Friends” before it went off the air).

“Four years is the maximum,” said Michelle Sharaf, 15, “but I hope we keep going.”Olins credits much of her success to personally knowing all the kids: “I’ve baby-named practically every child who’s having a bar or bat mitzvah.”

She also incorporates Jewish material in a way that is relevant to her students.

“I think it’s a big mistake to think you can teach them Talmud — and I’m sorry to say this because I’m a big lover of Talmud — but the moment I offer them something about themselves, I have a winner.”

Some educators worry that community service projects and less-structured post-confirmation classes are not as effective in transmitting information as traditional models, but Greengard strongly disagrees.

“There’s huge misunderstanding about informal education,” she said. “Those kids are actively learning about Judaism; they just don’t realize it.”

Outside the synagogues, other Jewish organizations are reaching out to teens in the community. BJE’s Netivim offers three pathways for involvement, including the Institute for Jewish Leadership and the Institute for Jewish Culture and Values. But the most popular is the Institute for Jewish Service, which gives teens credit for community service they perform on their own in addition to organizing an array of community service activities, with reflection and Jewish learning incorporated into each one.

“We don’t tell the kids what to believe,” coordinator Gold says, “but we do tell them to follow their Jewish hearts.”

Last year, 240 kids participated in Netivim. This year, Stacey Barrett BJE director of youth education services, expects the number to more than double, with about half those kids unaffiliated with formal education programs. “Our goal is move the teens from a one-shot community service project to a full-year program.”

Another organization, Jewish Student Union (JSU), was founded two years ago by Rabbi Steve Burg to reach out to unaffiliated teens in the public schools. JSU, whose clubs meet weekly for lunch in high school classrooms, is strongly connected to the West Coast National Conference of Synagogue Youth, an Orthodox organization, but is open to all denominations and, in fact, even attracts some non-Jewish students.

On a recent Wednesday at Van Nuys High School, adviser Devorah Lunger greeted the JSU members with boxes of extra-large pizzas. They sang the Hebrew alphabet song, learned new Hebrew letters, planned a holiday party and heard a synopsis of the week’s parsha.

“I came because I was curious,” explained Brandon Baker, 16. “It feels good getting back into my religion.”

Currently JSU has 15 clubs, and Shoshana Hirsch, director of administration, estimates that JSU touches at least 1,000 teens a year.

“The hope is that after being exposed to the vast number of opportunities available to them in the Jewish community, they may get more actively involved,” she said.

That’s the goal for all these programs. It’s also a worthy one. The Search Institute, an independent nonprofit research and training organization in Minneapolis, has found that an hour or more per week spent in a religious institution is one of the developmental assets that help foster “healthy, caring and responsible” adolescents.

And the right combination of food and friends, positive role modeling and compelling, though often subtle, Jewish content might be what it takes to get teens in the door.

As Emily Sufrin, 14, of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, said, “These programs let you know that Judaism is part of who you are in everyday life.”

Mitzvah Programs


(Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles)

Stacey Barrett

Director of Youth Education Services

(323) 761-8605/

Jewish Student Union

Shoshana Hirsh,

Director of Administration

(310) 229-9006/

Confirmation Program

Temple B’nai Hayim

Rabbi Sally Olins

(818) 788-4661

Wednesday Night Program

Wilshire Boulevard Temple

Rabbi Dennis Eisner

Ellie Klein

Director of Youth Programs

(213) 388-2401

Post B’nai Mitzvah Continuing


University Synagogue

Janice Tytell,

Religious School Principal

(310) 472-1255/

Where Will a Teen’s Schooling Continue?


When Amy Cohen graduated from Adat Ari El’s day school in 2003, her family faced a decision: Where would she continue her education?

While eighth-graders at Orthodox day schools generally continue on to Jewish high schools, graduates of Conservative, Reform or community day schools matriculate to any number of school settings, including Jewish, public, magnet and private secular.

At this time of the year, parents and students face the task of setting priorities and examining realities that will determine where a Jewish teen’s education will continue.

As the Cohens discussed options, “It became clear that she didn’t want to continue in a religious setting,” recalled Amy’s father, Dennis Cohen. “She wanted to sample the wider world.”

The Studio City family briefly considered public school for Amy, but decided that she would be better served in a private school that could offer small classes and individualized attention. Amy was accepted into Pacific Hills, a private school in West Hollywood. Cohen says his daughter enjoyed the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of the student body and quickly adjusted to her new setting.

Similarly, Cohen’s son, Geoffrey, now 18, left Adat Ari El after fifth grade to attend the gifted program at Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood. There, Cohen said, his son enjoyed “getting lost in the crowd and having a bigger social circle.”

Although Cohen said he would have been happy to send his children to a Jewish high school, he did not object to their preferences.

“You try to lay the foundation for their Jewish observances at home … and you hope it takes root,” he said. “Eventually, they’re going to go into the secular world.”

Although neither of his children is continuing with formal Jewish education, Cohen said that their synagogue remains a central part of the family’s life.

It’s difficult to determine the exact number of families like the Cohens who are choosing to leave the Jewish day school world after the elementary years. Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles, said that one might conclude that fewer students are making the transition from Jewish elementary schools to Jewish high schools, given that last fall there were 685 eighth-graders in day school, and only 621 entering high school students this fall. That number also includes some who enter Jewish high school after attending a secular middle school.

At the same time, Jewish high school enrollment is substantially higher today than five years ago. According to Graff, there were 502 ninth-graders enrolled in Jewish high schools in 1999, compared to the 621 today.

With annual private high school tuition averaging from $18,000 to the mid-20s, the option is beyond the means of many families.

Debbie Gliksman sent her three children to Pressman Academy at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles. But when it came time for her eldest child, Lianna, to start high school, “our options were limited,” she said. Gliksman would have liked to send her daughter to Milken Community High School, but “it’s a very, very expensive proposition to send three kids there,” she said.

Instead, her daughter enrolled this fall in the humanities magnet program at Hamilton High, her local school.

“There’s a big difference [between private and public],” Gliksman said.

She and other parents recommend that families who may want to send their children to a magnet school begin accruing points as early as possible. (For more information about points, visit and click on “FAQs” under the “Discover LAUSD” tab.)

For other families, only a Jewish high school will do. In June, Maureen Goldberg’s son, Joshua, will graduate from Abraham Heschel Day School in Northridge. Goldberg said her family had been “struggling for the last couple of years” over the issue of where he should go next.

Several weeks ago, she said the family “came to an epiphany” while attending an open house for a secular private school they were considering. The school had put out an extensive buffet, and as Goldberg approached the tables and saw the ham and cheese.

“My heart sank,” she said.

She turned to her son and said, “I don’t think I can go back.” And he responded, “I don’t think I can, either, mom.”

“It crystallized for us that we weren’t ready to give up the Judaic experience,” said Goldberg, who added that she considered it even more important for adolescents than younger children to learn Jewish values. “He might get that at a secular school, but I know he’ll get it at Milken.”

Goldberg also said she was disappointed that although 75 percent of her son’s class went on to private schools, only three chose to go to a Jewish one.

Like many other parents sending their children to private school, Goldberg said the family had to sacrifice to afford the steep tuition.

“I’d rather live in the smallest house in the worst neighborhood and send my kid to a private Jewish day school, than live in the largest house and go to public school,” she said. “The sacrifice is worth it. I have a really menschy, kind kid, and he got a lot of that from Heschel.”


December Dilemma: Distorting Chanukah


At Temple Beth Hillel, Mark Singer teaches his third-grade Hebrew school class about Chanukah using all the usual props: he lights a menorah, spins a dreidel and throws a doughnut and latke party.

However, considering that anywhere from 25 to 100 percent of his students come from mixed marriages, one thing he does not emphasize too strongly is that the real message of the Maccabean victory is a staunchly anti-assimilationist one. Instead, Singer adamantly informs his class that Chanukah celebrations should not be blended with celebrations of that other holiday of the same season.

“I think that [Chanukah bushes, etc.] demeans both holidays and detracts from both holidays,” said Singer, who has been teaching Hebrew school for 35 years.

Welcome to Chanukah and the December Dilemma. In Hebrew schools all over Los Angeles — and in temple discussion groups for intermarrieds on how to survive the holiday season — Chanukah is taught as a ritually dense Jewish substitute for Christmas that needs to elbow its way into some December shelf space, rather than a holiday that commemorates a group of Jews fighting against the forces of Hellenistic secularism to remain an insular, Torah-committed community.

It is ironic that Chanukah and its accompanying symbols — the menorah, dreidel and latke — are the most recognizable Jewish icons in America today, yet the holiday’s meaning is distorted by nuance to accommodate an audience where secularism is de rigueur.

It is not that Chanukah is denuded of its religious significance — if anything, in these Hebrew schools, Chanukah is taught as a religious holiday where practice and ritual are of paramount importance, but the deeper meaning of the holiday, while not censored, is glossed over.

“We teach how to observe the holiday, and we teach about the stories and the song, and the other issues [of anti-assimilation] are separate from that,” said Rabbi Morley Feinstein of University Synagogue, who runs a Coffee and Conversation group for interfaith families and families where the partners have different degrees of observance. “Sometimes those issues come up, but they are best dealt with in a one-on-one private moment, because no family situation is exactly like any other.”

“My impression is that the anti-assimilation message has been ‘translated’ into a contemporary American message,” said Dr. David Ackerman, director of educational services for the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles. “Certainly, the [non-Orthodox] movements have clearly staked out a position that says you can be Jewish, participate in a full, religious and ritual life and still enjoy the benefits of a modern American identity.”

“I think schools in which there are high percentages of intermarriage focus on the importance of heritage, while acknowledging — even if doing so tacitly — the possibility of dual cultural membership [American and Jewish],” Ackerman continued. “While it sort of sidesteps the issue of a household with two religious faiths, it’s a way to talk about Chanukah that can be ‘heard’ by constituents.”

Unlike other Jewish holidays, such as Sukkot, Pesach or Shavuot for which there is no non-Jewish counterpart, Chanukah now has to acknowledge its splashier Christian contemporary.

“We make a big distinction between Christmas and Chanukah, and we suggest to our families that Chanukah is for Jews and Christmas is for Christians,” said Rabbi Bruce Raff, education director at Temple Judea, which has 1,100 children in its Hebrew school.

Thus, in many of the schools and the discussion groups for intermarried couples, the question becomes how can we celebrate Chanukah in a society where Christmas prevails.

Arlene Chernow, regional director of outreach and synagogue community for the Union of Reform Judaism, runs discussion groups with interfaith families on navigating the December Dilemma. Chernow said she advises people on where they can purchase Chanukah cookie cutters so that they can transfer their Christmas cookie recipe into Chanukah cookies. She also helps them battle their way through the thorny question of whether to wrap presents in Christmas or Chanukah wrapping paper.

“I suggest that the most important thing is that if you want grandparents to give presents in Chanukah paper, then it is really important to explain to the grandparents that this is what you would like,” Chernow said. “They need to talk to their parents and their partner’s parents and work it out so that nobody is offended, and figure it out so that it doesn’t become an issue. I don’t want wrapping presents to become hurtful.”

Chernow said that she counsels people on how to use Chanukah to create “warm, happy, family time.”

“People feel inadequate, because they don’t know what to do, and they don’t know the story themselves,” Chernow said. “I think the way to help parents make it meaningful is to let them know how to celebrate, how to play dreidl, how to light the menorah. I don’t think the idea [of anti-assimilation] really becomes an issue.”

A recently released survey conducted by shows that the emphasis on ritual could be paying off. In a survey of 199 interfaith families, 99 percent of them lit the menorah in their home, whereas only 53 percent had a decorated Christmas tree. In addition, approximately 65 percent of the respondents said their Chanukah celebrations were more religious than secular, whereas 75 percent said their Christmas celebrations were more secular than religious.

But the point of Chanukah is that Jews should not be living in a society where there is a dilemma — in other words, Chanukah is about being so sure about one’s heritage that the other holiday is just a green blip on the horizon and not a force to be reckoned with.

“There are certain contradictions that aren’t going to pan out,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, Project Next Step director. “I don’t think people should stop trying, and anything that leads to positive effect to children in Judaism is going to pay off, but there comes a point where you have so changed the essential message of Chanukah that it no longer resembles the original thing. It does disturb me quite a bit that the price we have paid in America of trying to popularize Chanukah comes at the cost of its original message.”


Israel Seminar Gives Teachers Refresher

When it came to modern Israel, Ziva London found herself living in the past. Having immigrated to the United States 23 years ago, the Jewish-day-school teacher recently realized that her concept of the Holy Land reflected the Israel she knew there as a citizen more than two decades ago. Talking to fellow Israeli teachers at B’nai Shalom Day School in Greensboro, N.C., London discovered that she wasn’t alone.

“We didn’t have the resources and knowledge of how Israel has been changing according to the international arena,” said London on a break between sessions at an Israel teacher education workshop at the University of Judaism (UJ).

Ziva and her colleagues were not the only educators wanting an educational update or a refresher course so that they could effectively teach students about the Jewish homeland. Seventy teachers from 13 states, Great Britain and Canada gathered Aug. 1-6 for the Pre-Collegiate Teacher Education Workshop on the History, Culture and Politics of Modern Israel, a seminar conducted by Emory University’s Institute for the Study of Modern Israel and hosted by the UJ.

With a decline in tourism since the re-emergence of suicide bombings in key Israeli cities in 2001, fewer American Jews are visiting Israel. With less exposure to the realities of Israeli society, many Jewish educators feel that their knowledge of modern Israel is either limited or passé.

“A lot of people have antiquated ideas about Israel,” said Dr. Nadav Morag, the UJ’s director of the Center for Israel Studies and chair of the political science department. “This is not the Israel of the kibbutz and people dancing in the fields, which is what a lot of Americans have images of today. Every 10 years it’s a different country.”

Between changes in the role of the Israeli army, exports focusing on high-tech products rather than agriculture and the influx of Russian immigrants, keeping one’s finger on the pulse of the ever-changing country can seem like a full-time job.

In addition, many American Jews are baffled by the idea of some Israelis’ secular, national Jewish identities. Others don’t comprehend Israel’s parliamentary government compared to the presidential government in the United States.

Pat Glascom, a workshop participant and an Israel studies teacher at Congregation Keneseth Israel in Allentown, Penn., was relieved to get some clarity on the differences between American and Israeli democracies.

“With the American presidential election approaching, I plan to have my students make a comparative study of the two democracies,” said the religious-school teacher.

For educators who are up to date on Israel, many still struggle with the task of trying to instill within students a connection to the Jewish state.

Rebecca Zimmerman, the educational director of Contra Midrasha in Walnut Creek, was baffled when two of her teenage students failed to understand her desire to visit Israel.

“I tried every angle I could think of,” said Zimmerman, of her struggle to explain possible motivations. “An emotional connection to the state of Israel, a political fascination, historical importance, religious, a spiritual homeland or even a simple cultural connection to other Jews. No matter what I said, they would not sway from their thought that Israel was not important.”

The UJ workshop focused on how to overcome such obstacles.

While some Jewish teachers struggle with student apathy, others must tactfully facilitate in-class political debates involving Israel.

Matan Agam, a senior at Milken Community High School, said that political discussions occasionally arise in his history, Hebrew and Jewish law classes.

“If there’s a bombing or something drastic, teachers open it up to discussion among students and they’ll moderate,” Agam said. “The opinions vary greatly among students and we usually get good points from both sides.”

In light of last summer’s front-page Los Angeles Times story about a former Shalhevet faulty member exposing his seventh-grade class to Palestinian points of view, some students feel their Jewish school are too rigid when it comes to Israeli politics.

“The school claims to be really open-minded, but when it comes to Israel, they’re not,” Shalhevet senior Becky Dab said. “They try to make it seem like everyone else is wrong and what the Israelis are doing is right.”

Her father, Jon Dab, is satisfied with the school’s position.

“We’re extremely supportive of Israel, so we don’t perceive anything [at Shalhevet] as being untoward as far as viewpoints being expressed.”

As the topic of Israel in the Jewish community seems to trigger black-and-white thinking, another obstacle is American Jews’ tendency to view Israel in an idealistic light.

“A lot of American Jews put Israel on a pedestal,” said Nadav, emphasizing the need for American to think of the country as “a normal society. If they build Israel up as an example of perfection, they’ll be disappointed when they find out it’s not perfect.”

For more information on the institute, visit .

Two Educators Earn Honors

Barry Koff, who integrates technology and art into his religious school lesson plans, is a recipient of this year’s Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.

Joanne Mercer, retiring director of education at Newport Beach’s Temple Bat Yahm, suggested Koff be considered for national recognition by the Jewish Education Service of North America and the local Bureau of Jewish Education.

Another winner from Orange County this year is Limor Barkol, a Hebrew teacher at Morasha Jewish Day School in Rancho Santa Margarita and Westminster’s Temple Beth David.

"I have had the fortune of studying with many of Orange County’s wealth of rabbis and educators, including my mentor, Rabbi Bernie King," Koff said, referring to the rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’a lot. "King says that ‘everyone we meet is our teacher,’ so I suppose I come by my Jewish knowledge through my family, friends and strangers."

Koff earned a state teaching credential and completed a master’s degree in Jewish education through Chicago’s Spertus College. Yet his first career as an on-air radio broadcaster comes through in his classroom. During three years at Bat Yaym, Koff encouraged use of student-made video documentaries about Jewish genealogy and music videos about historic Jewish personalities.

"I try to bring whatever creativity I can to allow students to express themselves and their Jewish identity," Koff said.

His assignment is seventh-grade Judaic studies and middle-schoolers preparing to become confirmands.

He previously served as education director at Shir Ha-Ma’a lot, where he started, wrote and produced full-length Jewish-themed musicals for the Not Ready for Orthodox Players children’s theater.

Koff, 46, and his wife, Ann, live in Dana Point with 10-year-old twins, Jonathan and Shoshana. Koff currently is a full-time home-school teacher for his children.

The award recognizes 50 outstanding Jewish educators annually. They each receive $2,500 toward funding professional development.

Koff intends to use the prize money for a summer study program in Israel.

Shuls, Day Schools Push for Security Aid

Should synagogues and Jewish day schools get federal tax dollars to help them beef up security to meet the rising terror threat?

That debate is playing out in congressional offices in Washington and communal boardrooms in New York as lawmakers begin work on a measure that would provide up to $100 million to help vulnerable nonprofit organizations cope with the expensive quest for security.

The issue raises thorny church-state and practical concerns. In addition, it represents a huge public relations challenge for the Jewish organizations that played a major role in the bill’s introduction.

The threat is real, and the money is needed, but it will take more than need to convince Congress, beset by budget woes that may leave many priorities underfunded, to sign on the dotted line.

For Jewish institutions, the threat is obvious. They are among the soft targets that U.S. intelligence officials say are on Al Qaeda’s hit list. In case anybody needed reminding, the apparent arson at a Montreal school punctuated the point.

As the war in Iraq gets messier and Islamic rage grows, there are indications that other terror groups could get in on the act, directing their demented armies of martyrs to U.S. cities. At the top of the list is Hezbollah, which has already demonstrated a willingness to go beyond the Middle East in seeking Jewish targets.

Jewish leaders face a staggering financial burden as anxious communities across the country struggle to meet the security challenge. With federal homeland security funding soaring, Washington was the obvious place to look. But that effort quickly produced the inevitable church-state debate.

Some Jewish groups worried that providing government payments to overtly religious groups like churches and synagogues would set a precedent that advocates of religious school funding would drive through with a truck. Strict church-state separationists also worried that funding for security upgrades would be challenged in court, providing a particularly unfavorable test case that could make it easier for a divided Supreme Court to rule in favor of direct funding for religious groups.

It’s one thing to bar funds for parochial school education, another to bar the money needed to protect houses of worship against suicide bombings. An unfavorable decision by the high court could transform the church-state debate in America, the separationists worried.

The separation issue was mostly solved when Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) worked out a compromise that would require the Department of Homeland Security to deal directly with contractors, so that no funds would go directly to religious groups. But the Senate bill was disrupted when a lead GOP sponsor, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kans.), balked at the church-state compromise.

Harder to deal with are some of the political and public relations issues.

For all the increase in homeland security funding, there are growing concerns that basic services, including first responders like police, fire and rescue departments, are still woefully underfunded.

Congress is facing mushrooming deficits exacerbated by the tremendous costs of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; overall, the level of funding for homeland security has not come near the level of pious rhetoric coming from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. There is growing conflict over how that money is allocated, as well, including disputes over the relative shares going to big cities and smaller communities.

How will the public react if Jewish day schools get money for closed-circuit cameras and additional police protection, while local fire departments complain that they still don’t have the money to buy hazardous materials suits and radiation detectors?

That isn’t to say that helping those institutions is inappropriate. But the fight for federal money for synagogues and other religious institutions will be difficult and fraught with complications. To avoid them, Jewish leaders will have to be at the forefront of efforts to expand the overall homeland security pie.

A homeland security drive that is seen as strictly self-serving will fail, both legislatively and in terms of community relations. If Jewish leaders want money for schools and synagogues, they’ll also have to be prominent in the fight for more money for local first responders.

Regardless of the outcome in Congress, Jewish institutions are going to have to do a much better job raising money through philanthropic channels. Assuming the $100 million is approved, hundreds of synagogues, Jewish centers and schools are likely to apply — and thousands of other vulnerable nonprofits, religious and nonreligious. In the end, the payout to each successful applicant is likely to be relatively small.

The hard question for Jewish leaders is this: Will those small sums justify the public perception of a prosperous Jewish community going to the federal government with palms extended, when police and fire departments say they are on a starvation diet?

But the stakes in the security race are enormous; it would be reckless for Jewish leaders to turn away from the possibility of even modest federal contributions to the effort.

It’s a tricky balancing act; to keep from falling, Jewish leaders will have to be smart, proactive and sensitive to the needs of the nation, not just a vulnerable Jewish community.

In Search of My Sephardic Ancestors

“Last Century of a Sephardic Community: The Jews of Monastir, 1839-1943,” by Mark Cohen (Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, $34.95).

Some months ago, I saw a Jewish homeless man near my New York apartment. He was wearing a yarmulke and muttering Hebrew words, and I think I saw a tattered prayer book in his shopping cart. Perhaps, I thought, the Upper West Side has officially become a Jewish town.

I have always been drawn to study Jewish towns and communities, a fascination that spurred me, professionally, toward the Yiddish culture of my paternal family. To my thinking, a real Jewish town — like prewar Vilna or Warsaw or even the turn-of-the-century Lower East Side — was one in which everyone was Jewish: not just the doctors and the lawyers, but the grocers, the firemen, even the prostitutes and homeless.

It seemed to me that in those truly Jewish towns in Eastern Europe — unlike the Diaspora neighborhoods of today, most of which are held together by strict religious observance — you could be whatever kind of person you wanted to be, with whatever beliefs, either political or religious, and still feel like a Jew, like you were part of a community. I longed for such a place, a place with streets that smell like challah on Friday afternoon, while children swim in local pools on Saturday — a home base on which to keep one toe while I explored the world with the rest of my body.

Over the last few years, my attention turned to Monastir, the Ottoman Empire town of my Sephardic maternal grandparents, in what is now Macedonia. Before my parents and I became more observant and joined the Orthodox Ashkenazic synagogue near our house, we regularly attended a Sephardic synagogue co-founded by Monastirlis who, like my grandparents, had immigrated to America in the early 1900s.

Though all its Jews had long since emigrated or been killed in the Holocaust, perhaps Monastir had once been this Jewish town of my dreams; if so, maybe I could salvage its legacy. I could find other Monastirli descendants, and we could revive the traditions and sing the songs. I could even learn Ladino.

Aside from one dated, rather shallow history, I found very little published about the town. There were no tomes with extensive footnotes, no museum exhibits, no university chairs endowed for the study of Ottoman Jewry. Most importantly, at least to me, there was no Irving Howe of Balkan Sephardim, no one thinker so dedicated to — and supported in — his studies that he could place the disintegration of this culture in context, help me understand the loss I felt for a village I had never seen.

I toyed with the idea of writing a book on Monastir myself, but the task seemed daunting: Given the political chaos that has defined the region for the last century, providing the reader with a clear historical context would be a formidable challenge for a journalist; government records were sure to be near inscrutable, and what individual testimony one could garner would likely come from disparate, far-flung sources.

I was deterred, but, thankfully, Mark Cohen, a journalist from California with the same idea, was not. His newly released “Last Century of a Sephardic Community: The Jews of Monastir, 1839-1943,” published by the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, is an important addition to the study of Sephardic Jews and an essential building block in what I hope is the burgeoning field of Balkan Jewish studies.

The book is focused on the period between 1839 and 1943, the last years of a Jewish community ensconced in the Ottoman village since the Spanish Inquisition. Cohen is at his most evocative in his depiction of Jewish life, and it is in these details that the frequent stiffness of his prose fades away.

We learn how the 3,000 Monastirlis in the mid-1800s chose to live in a walled, self-contained residential district called a mahalle, which circled a great courtyard. Since virtually no one had indoor kitchens, the courtyard, which featured communal ovens in which the women would cook, served as “a house extension and host to domestic life.”

Yet this closeness came at a price. “With everyone exposed to the eyes and judgments of their neighbors, people were sure to conform to social norms,” including regular synagogue attendance and holiday observance. The Jewish quarter even had berurei averot, wardens who patrolled the area to suppress religious transgressions.

“Sephardic culture was intertwined with and inseparable from Jewish religious practice,” Cohen writes. In fact, children were named according to the different roles they played in supporting these twin heritages — girls were given Spanish names like Allegra, Palomba or Vida, while boys received biblical names like Abraham, Isaac and David. In line with this, boys were offered formal religious education through a Talmud Torah school, while girls were taught to master a wide range of Sephardic folklore genres; through folklore, mothers instructed their daughters in Jewish values, faith in God, even love and sex.

Cohen has gathered many of the unique Monastirli folklore and ballads in a separate index and has extensively detailed various rites of passage rituals — even down to the final one. When a Monastirli turned 60, a death shroud was made for him by the community; after a complex process, which included rinsing it in Monastir’s Dragor River, a ceremony was held in his honor. Cohen writes:

“It is here, in confrontation with death, that the power of traditional life shows itself. Tradition supported people during life’s most anxious and terrifying moments. It brought the community to the aid of an individual, orchestrating the enactment of ideals when a person was weak; celebrating with a 15-year-old girl who had just become a mother; feasting with a person preparing for death.”

A series of fires changed the course of the community’s history. In 1863, in less than two hours, 190 homes in the Jewish quarter — more than 90 percent of the total — burned down, leaving nearly 3,000 people homeless. All six synagogues, every house of study and the Talmud Torah school were ruined. The tragedy set the stage for one of the most intriguing twists in the town’s history.

The chief rabbi of Monastir appealed to Sir Moses Montefiore of London (portrayed in the book as a sort of Ron Lauder for 19th century Ottomans). As Cohen notes, the rabbi had excellent timing. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, led by Montefiore, had recently been lambasted by London’s Jewish Chronicle for ignoring the appeals of poor Jewish communities in Sana, Yemen and the Greek Ionian islands. Montefiore, sensing an opportunity to redeem himself, took it upon himself to help the small town.

Yet, there was a catch: Montefiore insisted the money be spent on humanitarian relief; believing that Ottoman Jewry needed to “modernize,” he and the other London Jews refused to help the devastated community rebuild its synagogues or its religious school.

With the authority of the rabbis thus undermined, Jews began to move to other areas in Monastir and, more importantly, their entire educational system was revolutionized. Beginning in 1863, a French-language alliance-style school was established — formally severing the Monastirlis’ ties with traditional religious life and its institutions. Some Jewish children even joined Christian missionary schools. The period from 1880 to 1903 was a time of incredible growth for the Jewish community, which reached its historical population peak of 11,000.

Yet as a backdrop to this assimilation and growth was the ethnic fighting that would plague the region for a century, with Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and even Romania all laying claim to the region at one point or another. Monastir would change hands repeatedly, as four centuries under Ottoman rule came to an end.

During the first decade of the 20th century, the Monastir region suffered ethnic conflict, a cholera epidemic and a decline in food production. It was at this time that massive emigration began, and the Monastirlis “experienced the greatest dislocation since Spanish expulsion.” Many left for South America, particularly Chile, as well as North America, where they founded communities in New York City, Rochester, N.Y., and Indianapolis.

Those who stayed endured one world war after another, as they say. A Zionist youth movement emerged between the two wars, inspiring a good number of Monastirlis to immigrate to Israel.

But the story of the unlucky ones is, unfortunately, all too familiar to us from the well-documented stories of their Ashkenazic brethren: On April 9, 1941, Monastir came under Nazi control; Jewish shops were looted; a ghetto was created (in the area of the old Jewish quarter) and yellow stars were pinned to lapels. In March 1943, the Jews of Monastir were shipped to Skopje and then to Treblinka. “None of the Monastirlis who were sent to Treblinka survived,” Cohen writes.

Cohen has done an impressive job, and no library — certainly no center of Jewish studies — would be complete without this book. But as I finished it, I felt disappointed. I found myself wishing for a fuller epilogue, a chapter in which this seemingly kindred spirit would point the way forward from the sad tale unearthed by his research.

Instead, bits and pieces of Balkan history began to fall in my lap. I found out about a Web site chronicling the genealogy of all the Monastirli families run by Elie Cassorla of Austin, Texas (, and Stephen Schwartz wrote in about the efforts of Muhamed Nezirovic, a Bosnian Muslim and leading expert on his country’s Sephardim.

And I was sent a CD of music by Sarah Aroeste, a Ladino singer. Aroeste — whose relatives founded the only Monastirli synagogue to survive World War II, the Kal de los Monastirlis in Salonika — has picked up on the romanceros, or ballads, of her Sephardic culture and is bringing them to the world music stage.

All of these people are writing their own stories about the Balkans, struggling to deal with a piece of history, and they need more knowledgeable voices — academic, communal, perhaps even rabbinic — for support, and the opportunity to understand their own lost world, just as the descendants of the thriving Ashkenazic culture of Eastern Europe have come to understand theirs.

As it turned out, Monastir was never the Jewish town of my dreams. Mothers passing on folklore to their daughters is quaint, but less so when it is in place of formal education for girls, and those religious police are not for me. But perhaps Vilna and Warsaw weren’t as I imagine them either; perhaps no community, not even the Upper West Side, could fulfill my needs. Maybe those needs are antithetical to communal life.

Regardless, Monastir is no longer a Jewish town — of any kind. There are no Jewish homeless anymore; in fact, as of 2002, there was only one Jew, 68-year-old Mois Benjakoz, who escaped the deportation to Treblinka because his mother had married a Turk. It seems to me oddly important that Cohen wrote this book when he did, before Benjakoz died, extinguishing the last ember of a nearly forgotten Jewish community.

His example should open the door, quickly, to more research into the Jewish communities of the Balkans, because, as Cohen notes poignantly, “being dead [is] not nearly so bad as being dead and forgotten.”

In honor of Women’s History Month, Cohen will discuss
women in Sephardic folktales on Tuesday, March 23 at 7 p.m. at the Jewish
Community Library of Los Angeles. Admission is free, but reservations are
required. To R.S.V.P. or for more information, call (323) 761-8644 or send
e-mail to .

Reprinted with permission of the Forward

Alana Newhouse is the arts and letters editor at The Forward.

All-Female Plays Fill Niche for Frum

At Chabad’s Bais Chana High School on Pico Boulevard, a number of girls are sitting around a table with director Robin Garbose, reading through a new scene of "Portraits in Faith," their upcoming original musical. In the scene, a gold-digging wife tells her hapless husband that he no longer has any claim to his fortune and that she is going to use his money to party. The husband is Jewish, the wife is not, and her non-Jewishness infuses her with a particularly nasty streak of anti-Semitic superiority. It’s a meaty scene, and though the girls are reading the lines for the first time, they are handling them with aplomb. The wife’s malicious insults become more delightfully sinister in the reading, whereas the husband becomes the lame coward who gets weaker with every word.

On a dramatic level, the musical is a multigenerational historical drama that takes place in mid-19th-century Germany, and is replete with marital discord, class conflict and religious struggles. It highlights the dissonance between the Orthodox and the Reform. On an educational level, the play is a vehicle for the girls to become more self-confident and use their talents for performing arts in an environment that remains faithful to halachah. In keeping with the laws of Kol Isha, which prohibit a woman from singing in front of men for reasons of modesty, and tznius (general modesty) the play will be performed to audiences of women only. And the play itself is not just a drama — it’s a story with a moral. At the end of it, the audience is meant to appreciate the courage and dedication of Jewish women in keeping Torah alive through the ages and feel inspired about the beauty and the holiness of the mitzvah of going to the mikvah (ritual bath).

Garbose expects that at least 1,000 women will come out to see the play when it is performed on March 3, but judging from past audiences at other all-girl productions, that estimate seems conservative. In February, Bnos Esther, a small Chasidic girls’ high school on Beverly Boulevard, put on an all-girl production called "Simply Not The Same." The theme of the play was the importance of Torah, and more than 1,000 women showed up to see it over two nights, a large number considering that Bnos Esther only has 50 girls in the entire high school. Last year Bais Yaakov High School performed their biennial "Halleli" — an all-girl song, dance and drama fest — and drew an audience of 4,000 women over two nights.

The reason for the great turnouts is clear. The plays cater to women and girls in the ultra-Orthodox community who restrict the amount of popular culture that they let into their lives, because of what they see as its irreligious and immodest content. Nevertheless, these women still want to be entertained, but they just don’t want to compromise their religious principals in doing so.

"Most of the people who come to these things do not go to outside entertainment," said Chaya Shamie, the co-curricular director at Bais Yaakov and the producer of "Halleli." "This is an opportunity for them to go to an all-women’s performance that is done in a Torah fashion, that follows all the [halachic] guidelines."

"These plays are the only shows that I would take my daughters to, because as innocent as so many things seem, there are many hidden cultural messages in the popular entertainment out there," said a mother of two girls from the Fairfax area. "I want my daughters’ culture to be a Torah culture. It’s very empowering for them because they see themselves up there in a few years."

For "Portraits in Faith," Garbose’s husband, Levi, adapted a novel by Marcus Lehman, a 19th-century German writer who is something of a John Grisham of the Orthodox world. His books typically are plot-driven, hard-to-put-down novels that are infused with messages of faith. For the songs of the musical, Levi wrote original lyrics to Chasidic nigunim (wordless melodies). For the set design, Garbose plans on new visual possibilities using interesting lighting and some carefully chosen set pieces that will evoke the atmosphere of a different era and country without blowing the minimal budget that Bais Chana set aside for the play. All the girls in the school are involved in the play in some way, either as actresses, prop designers, costume makers, ticket sellers or stage managers.

"Things like Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl make a very compelling argument for all-women’s productions," she said. "What happens when you have a production that is for women only is that it takes the whole sexual component out of it. It’s incredibly empowering."

"Portraits in Faith" will be performed on March 3 at the Scottish Rite Theatre, 4357 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles at 7:30 p.m. For tickets call (310) 278-8995 ext. 405.

Education Briefs

Breathing New Life Into ReformCurriculum

For the first time in nearly 20 years, the Reform movement has introduced a new religious school curriculum. This fall, several religious schools around Los Angeles have incorporated Levels 3 and 4 of the CHAI: Learning for Jewish Life program, which consists of materials appropriate for third- and fourth-graders, and can also be adapted for different age levels. Earlier levels were made available last year.

The new program is a product of the New York-based Union of American Hebrew Congregations (the umbrella organization for the Reform movement) and is designed so that synagogues can incorporate it into already existing curricula. About 10 percent of Reform congregations around the country are currently using some part of the new materials, which include both a Judaica program and a Hebrew program.

Congregations using the new materials include Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles, Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, Sha’arei Am in Santa Monica, Temple Beth Torah in Granada Hills and Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes. — Sharon Schatz Rosenthal, Education Writer

USY Quintet Learns Leadership inIsrael

Five lucky Los Angeles high school graduates hopped a plane to the Holy Land on Sept. 8 to participate in United Synagogue Youth’s Nativ College Leadership Program in Israel. Among the 51 students accepted into the national program were Aaren Alpert (Valley Beth Shalom in Encino), Lena Silver (Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes), Ari Taff (from Valley Beth Shalom), Jennifer Lorch (Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills) and Elisheva Netter (Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles). The Southland natives will spend the next nine months studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, touring the country, volunteering and learning leadership techniques. — SSR

JNF Provides Water, WaterEverywhere

Jewish students around the country and in Israel are making a splash at their local bodies of water. Jewish National Fund has received a grant from the U.S. Forest Service to provide hundreds of water-monitoring kits to Jewish schools in both the United States and Israel so that students can participate in World Water Monitoring Day, an effort to educate the public about the importance of water.

From Sept. 18-Oct. 18, students will visit designated streams, rivers, lakes and coastal areas to test for dissolved oxygen, pH, turbidity/clarity and temperature. Students will then enter their findings into a global database. Both World Water Monitoring Day and Shemini Atzeret, a water holiday where Jews in Israel and around the world pray for rain for the coming harvest, will both be celebrated on Oct. 18. Incidentally, the date also marks the 30th anniversary of the American Clean Water Act.

Local schools participating in World Water Monitoring Day include Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School and Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles. — SSR

Sunday ‘Nights’ Alright for Outreach

Craig Taubman has a knack for inventing Jewish pop culture.

In 1998, he co-created “Friday Night Live” (FNL), the ebullient, musically driven young adult Shabbat service that’s been snatched up by synagogues around the country. Since then, “FNL” has become part of the vernacular and was written up in Richard Flory’s book, “Gen X Religion” (Routledge, 2000).

But Taubman, an intensely upbeat singer-songwriter-producer, wasn’t content to stop there. This Sunday, he’s unveiling his new program to draw the young and unaffiliated: “Mulholland Nights,” a summer concert series at the University of Judaism (UJ), featuring hip, young Jewish artists. The June 22 lineup includes Lisa Loeb, guitarist-chanteuse; Gabriel Mann, a singer-songwriter-pianist reminiscent of Peter Gabriel; and Billy Jonas, an iconoclastic folk artist who performs on found objects.

The goal is to draw 22- to 39-year-olds who are so removed from the community they may not even have heard of “FNL.”

“‘Mulholland Nights’ is intrinsically Jewish on the inside, but not overtly Jewish on the outside, because otherwise this demographic won’t come,” Taubman, 45, said. “It’s not because they’re anti-Jewish; it’s because Judaism isn’t even on their radar. And since it’s not part of their vocabulary, we’re using a language and personalities they can relate to.”

In three concerts this summer, each “personality” will banter about his or her religious background between songs.

During a recent phone interview, Loeb — whose perky, retro-’60s look contrasts with her wistful folk-pop — said she’d recount how the culturally Jewish emphasis her parents placed on the arts encouraged her to become a performer. Loeb, 35, will also explain that Judaism continues to affect her songwriting in her tendency “to be very analytical, to ask questions and overquestion.”

Mann, 30, descended from three generations of Orthodox cantors, said he’d discuss how chazzanut influences his moody, intense work.

“When my father sings, it’s filled with passion, like he means every word, and the same thing happens when I’m on stage with my ‘congregation,’ the audience,” said Mann, a San Antonio native. The same fervor infuses his edgy lyrics: “I have a strong, internal ‘cheese’ monitor,” he said.

If “Mulholland Nights” proves successful, it’s because Taubman has something of a track record. Five years after he and Rabbi David Wolpe launched “FNL” to connect Generation X Jews to their faith (and to Jewish mates), the monthly Sinai service has become the largest Jewish singles event on the West Coast. In October, Taubman produced Hallelu, a Jewish concert at Universal Amphitheatre that sold nearly 5,000 tickets.

When observers noted that far more 40-somethings than 20-somethings had attended, Taubman decided to create a concert series especially for the elusive young adult set. The result is “Mulholland Nights,” designed to draw people who feel more comfortable in a nightclub than a synagogue.

His efforts reflect a national trend: “Years ago, people began doing ‘Jewish things’ earlier because they married and had kids younger which was the primary attraction for joining a synagogue,” Taubman said. “Because organizations no longer have that to fall back on, everyone is trying to find new and creative ways to reach out to this group.”

One such person is Gady Levy, dean of the department of continuing education at the UJ, who’s been working to increase the young adult turnout at UJ programs. Thus he was receptive when Taubman asked him to host “Mulholland Nights” and to put up a portion of its estimated $80,000 budget, along with other sponsors.

“Our goal is not to make money, but to bring new young people into the UJ and hopefully to see what else we are doing,” Levy said.

To draw a wide cross-section of Jewish Angelenos, Taubman hired a club-savvy 26-year-old to blanket L.A. hotspots with flyers. He’s also booked Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi artists — including legendary Israeli folk-rocker David Broza and the Middle Eastern quartet Divahn, voted 2001 best new band by the Austin Chronicle

Reggae artist Elan, an observant Jew who once fronted Bob Marley’s former band, The Wailers, will perform at the July 20 concert.

“I don’t blatantly talk about Hashem in my lyrics; it’s more cryptic,” Elan, 27, said. “Sometimes you think I’m talking about my wife, but it’s really about Hashem.”

Taubman will also take the subtle approach to introduce “Nights” patrons to the Jewish community. Rather than making speeches, he’ll prominently place pamphlets advertising “FNL”: “I want Mulholland Nights to be another Jewish point of entry for young people,” he said. “If we hit them once, twice, three times, there’s a better chance they’ll view this as not just another pickup event they do on the side, but that they do Jewish things.”

For more information about the concert series, call(310) 440-1246 or visit .

Opening a Window

Thousands of Israeli students are learning what it means to
be good Jews. To help Israeli teenagers better understand Jewish values and the
foundations upon which their religion is built, six secular Tel Aviv-area high
schools have injected their curriculum with a dash of Torah, Talmud and other
classical rabbinic texts. The goal: to help pupils find meaning in ancient
texts that could help shape their actions in the present.

The three-year-old program, partly underwritten by an annual
$50,000 grant by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, has become so
popular that schools throughout Israel have expressed interest in it, said
David Zisenwine, a professor of Jewish studies at Tel Aviv University and the
father of the program.

And why should Jews at public schools in the Holy Land need
to study such things as the meaning and history of Bar Mitzvah? Zisenwine said
that without such training children risk losing their identity, the glue that
holds the Jewish State together.

“In Israel, as in America, we’ve seen students moving
farther away from their roots,” Zisenwine said. “We’ve created a Jewish
nationalism, but we’ve left behind, in many cases, Jewish values.”

To Zisenwine, Israeli students reading classical Jewish
texts is akin to young Americans perusing the Federalist Papers. In both
instances, they gain a window into their societies, and, by extension, into
themselves, he said.

Aryeh Barnea, principal at Herzlia Hebrew Gymnasium in Tel
Aviv, said students receiving the training at his school feel more connected to
their roots.

“In Israeli society, we’re seeing a lot of ignorance and a
weakening of the emotional linkage to Judaism and to Jews in the Diaspora,” he
said. “It is our educational obligation to reinforce Jewish identity in our
youth. We don’t trust the media, friends and the Internet to do it for us.”

Students in the program receive at least one hour of formal
Jewish education per week from seventh grade on. The school’s regular teaching
staff, not rabbis, oversee the classes, which have so far educated an estimated
12,000 students.

About three-quarters of Israeli schools are nonreligious,
giving most students little or no exposure to rabbinical literature. Classic
Jewish texts, such as the Bible, are studied in historical and literary, rather
than religious context, Zisenwine said.

Herzlia seventh-grader Ben Peleg said the bar mitzvah course
has taught him the importance of human rights. “We’ve learned that everyone is
equal, that it doesn’t matter whether he’s a king or slave, rich or poor,” the
12-year-old said.

Peleg’s teacher, Avivit Ronat, said her goal is to connect
the Jewish religion and human values. In the bar mitzvah class, for instance,
she teaches her students how the human rights codified by the Israeli
Declaration of Independence mesh with values embodied by being a bar mitzvah.

Isca Mayo, an 11th-grader who also attends Herzlia, said a
course she took two years ago about values and Jewish holidays encouraged her
to behave less selfishly. She used to play the piano at all hours without any
regard to her neighbors, but she now practices only in the late afternoon.

“With all this Western culture around me, I didn’t
understand the importance of Judaism and Jewish values in my life,” the
16-year-old said. “Now, I see how they apply.”  

Giving to the Future

Financial wizard Michael Steinhardt is blunt in assessing
the future of North American Jewry.

The next generation is “mostly Jewish ignoramuses,”
Steinhardt said. “We haven’t convinced the general Jewish population of the
value of a Jewish education.”

Steinhardt’s bleak assessment was aimed not at Jews in
general, but at a select group: those who have donated at least $100,000 — and
as much as several million — to Jewish day schools.

There are only 1,800 such major supporters of the country’s
approximately 700 Jewish day schools, however, and that, Steinhardt said, is
“not enough.”

“We need to double that number,” he said.

Steinhardt was addressing the third annual Donor Assembly of
the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) held in Century City
from Feb. 2-4, the day school advocacy group he launched five years ago.

For the first time, those big donors mingled with Jewish
communal and day school professionals in a leadership assembly of more than 600
people, aiming to hammer out a national strategy to promote Jewish day schools.

The gathering comes at a time when many day schools, viewed
as solid foundations for lifelong Jewish identity, are strapped for funds. And
many who want to attend cannot afford the high cost of a Jewish education.

Some 200,000 children attend Jewish day schools in this
country, 79 percent of them Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox.

Among the top goals of the philanthropists was finding new
sources of money.

To bolster their advocacy effort, PEJE offered the initial
findings of a survey of 177 of those big day school supporters. They also
released the results of interviews with 65 other donors, potential donors and
day school experts.

The survey, conducted in October and November by TDC
Research of Boston, found that among current donors, 49 percent give to day
schools because they see them as vehicles to “ensure Jewish continuity” and 13
percent were motivated to give because they had a personal connection, such as
a child or grandchild in day school.

But among donors, nondonors and experts, the study found
that: 81 percent believe that day schools ensure continuity; 78 percent
supported day schools because of the Jews’ “collective future”; 75 percent
backed day schools because they “foster communities of committed Jews.”

Of those who responded, 97 percent also gave money to their
synagogue; 92 percent aided their local federation; 73 percent helped some kind
of Israel-focused program and 59 percent backed their local Jewish Community

The donors surveyed hailed from 29 states and Canada; were
usually parents or grandparents of day school students and were sat on day
school boards.

One such donor at the conference was Claire Ellman of La
Jolla, whose three children attended the San Diego Jewish Academy, a
pluralistic, 700-student school with students from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Ellman has just helped the school raise $33 million toward a
new building, the largest single effort to date in the city’s Jewish community.

Born in South Africa, Ellman said her grandfather started Cape
Town’s first Jewish day school and infused her with a love for Jewish

But she believes not all donors support education for the
same reasons.

“A lot of people are going to give to Jewish education
because they feel so strongly about continuity,” she said, “but also because of
a guilt complex” that they personally failed to teach their children Jewish

The study did not reach that conclusion, though it did find
that 10 percent of donors said the most important reason to back Jewish day
schools was to teach Jewish knowledge.

Ellman, who is also vice chair of the Continental Council
for Jewish Day School Education, a program of the United Jewish Communities and
the Jewish Education Service of North America — works to build ties among the
day schools, Jewish federations, religious institutions and the general
community — welcomed the donor study.

“The study is critical, because for the first time we’ve
asked donors and nondonors why they do or don’t fund Jewish education.”

Many of those who don’t support Jewish schools said they
either were not aware of them or found them too parochial, the study found.

But the study also recommends against trying to win this
group over.

Instead, it recommends spreading the word to “neutral” Jews
who may not have any personal ties to the school, but who believe education
helps ensure a thriving Jewish community.

Meanwhile, Steinhardt pointed to statistics showing that
only 20 percent of philanthropy by North American Jews goes to Jewish causes,
down from 50 percent 50 years ago.

“What we lack is a sense of priority,” he said.

But Michael Rosenzweig, a board member of the New Atlanta
Jewish Community High School, said the fact that there are so few donors to
Jewish day schools is both good and bad news when it comes to doubling their

“The good news” is that doubling their numbers is easy to
do, he said. “The bad news is, it’s easy to do because it’s so small.”

Students Spread Light in Ukraine

Osik Akselrud got a little help from his friends in staging a recent workshop designed to teach students to teach others about the history and traditions of Chanukah.

That’s because the head of the Hillel office responsible for Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova was able to use, as instructors and assistants, students who’d already completed the first two installments of the program.

"We had two instructors from Hillel in Israel, as well as the Hillel students who’d gone through the first and second generations of seminars — and they know everything," he said. "I say, ‘Hey, you guys have become professional Jews.’"

About 140 students took part in the weeklong workshop that wrapped up Nov. 10.

They came by train to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev from cities across the country — Lvov, Odessa, Kharkov, Simferopol and Sevastopol — as well as from Minsk, Belarus, and Kishinev, Moldova. And it’s to those regional Hillel centers they’ll return to pass along what they’ve learned to their fellow Hillel members and then out to Jews in communities across the three countries.

Speaking at Kiev’s Sunflower Community Center after the seminar, Akselrud said such education is sorely needed. He said that despite the efforts of the past decade, following the break up of the Soviet Union, more time is required to make up for the 70 years of suppression that succeeded in alienating most Jews from their culture and religion.

"Only about 15 percent of Jews are involved in Jewish community programs," he said. "Sunflower has about 400 or 500 regular visitors, but there are between 80,000 and 100,000 Jews living in Kiev."

Hillel is banking on a combination of education and outreach to increase those numbers. It is using a hands-on approach to education to get the message across.

The Chanukah seminar opened in a traditional way, with a song performed by instructors from each regional Hillel office. That was followed by presentations by the regional groups — through songs, dances or performances.

First-time participants were taught the Chanukah and Israeli songs that would be sung together throughout the week. The following days followed a similar pattern — a combination of learning and fun.

"Our seminars are not only religious but also holiday-oriented for people who’ve lost their traditions," said Yulia Belilovska, the seminar’s coordinator. "The idea is to provide the education and, after that, if some want to go to synagogue, they can."

In a novel approach to learning about Chanukah, Hillel also arranged public relations and advertising training for the students. Belilovska explained that the idea was to get the students thinking about imaginative ways to present the meaning and traditions of Chanukah and how to attract community members to attend workshops on the topic. Half the group focused on video presentations, and the other half on dramatic presentations.

"One group presented a commercial containing ‘positive and negative PR,’" Belilovska said. "One girl explained that candles should be lit during Chanukah because they’re beautiful, amazing, a miracle and a good tradition, while one boy countered by saying, ‘Yes, but on Chanukah there are a lot of house fires.’" The positive argument won the day.

Dennis Bainkovsky said he felt like a winner, too. The 21-year-old economics student at the International Solomon University in Kiev was attending his third Chanukah seminar but serving as an instructor for the first time. He said he enjoyed the opportunity to teach others who’d taught him previously.

"The most important part of the seminar for me was acting as a madrich. I felt like a leader," he said, using the Hebrew word for guide or counselor. "I was helping teach some students who’d taught me at other seminars in the past — and while that was difficult, I was ready, and it worked out well."

His schoolmate at Solomon University, 19-year-old Yevgenia Soloviyova, was also attending her third Chanukah seminar. But her experience of Chanukah goes well beyond that, since she also grew up as an active Jew in her native city of Khmelnitski.

She said she enjoyed the opportunity to share her knowledge with the approximately 70 percent of the seminar participants who were learning the details of Chanukah for the first time. She said it was interesting to compare and contrast the styles and attitudes of various Hillel members.

"The Hillel organizations are a little different and have different feelings of spirit," she said. "For example, the group from Kishinev seemed to be a little more religious," while in "Kiev, we have our own place and maybe consider ourselves to be a little more independent."

But with completion of the seminar, it will be up to the participants to pass on what they’ve learned. That is done with workshops within their regional Hillel organizations. Then with the start of Chanukah, they fan out to communities in their regions and beyond.

Members of the Kiev Hillel, for instance, will travel to Hesed community centers around the region, including the city of Zhitomir, before heading farther west to major centers like Ivano-Frankivsk.

"It can be challenging when you’ve got a mixed group of older people and children and have to find a way to keep them all interested and entertained," Soloviyova said. "But sometimes, it’s great where there are older people who remember what Chanukah was like during their childhood and want to tell you about it."

Soloviyova said enlightenment can also work both ways — as was the case when Kiev Hillel traveled to the western border city of Uzhgorod last year.

"We met a group of younger people who were telling us that life wasn’t very interesting for them, because they didn’t know what kinds of things they could do together in their community," she said. "So, of course, we told them all about what we do in Hillel and the programs we’re involved in."

It is just such interaction, education and growth that Akselrud said the Chanukah seminar was designed to encourage. He said that makes the efforts and the $20,000 cost of the initiative — funded in part by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — worth it.

"For me, the most important part of the seminar was that I saw many, many new faces," he said. "And that means more students involved in Jewish life — and more potential."

Shifting Gears

"It’s not someone else’s problem. It’s our problem." The problem Devorah Shubowitz is talking about: poverty.

Over the summer, Shubowitz worked with Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) to study the Jewish working poor in Los Angeles.

Through CLUE, more than 400 religious leaders throughout Los Angeles County have already helped hundreds of workers unionize for better wages, and helped refugees threatened with deportation to become citizens. Now the efforts of CLUE, and the Jewish interns who worked with the organization this summer, are focused on extending those successes, bringing awareness of the working poor to congregations throughout Los Angeles.

Shubowitz came to CLUE from New York, where she teaches at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, a center for women’s advanced study of classical Jewish texts. Mark Goodman and Jennifer Flam, rabbinical students at the University of Judaism, also worked with CLUE over the summer. In addition to studying the problem of the Jewish working poor in Los Angeles, their summer internship included helping organize Santa Monica residents of all faiths to support a living wage initiative for hotel workers, and reviving the "Sanctuary" movement of the 1980s.

With inspiration from the prophets (Goodman likes to quote from Jeremiah because, "All he ever talked about was ‘We must have done something wrong and you haven’t been good to other people,’") the Jewish interns at CLUE worked all summer with clergy and lay leaders of all faiths in support of social action. "It was a summer internship," Flam said, "but it’s a life’s work."

The big project for CLUE these days is on the November ballot in Santa Monica. Measure JJ, the Living Wage initiative, would increase wages for as many as 2,000 hotel workers in Santa Monica’s coastal tourist zone. In the wake of a Labor Day project called "Labor in the Pulpit," in which CLUE-affiliated clergy delivered sermons on the issue, the group plans to hold a get-out-the vote kickoff event on Sept. 22, featuring a performance by folk group Peter, Paul and Mary at Santa Monica City Hall. "CLUE is a bridge between both sides," Flam said, "We’re not bound to the unions, and there are ethical business owners who work with us."

For workers who have been lost their jobs for their unionizing or living wage efforts, CLUE is reviving the Sanctuary program, first used in the 1980s when thousands of workers were threatened with deportation, often back to repressive regimes. CLUE encourages clergy and congregations to publicly support the fired workers. "Even though people are not losing their lives this time, they are losing their livelihoods," Flam said of the program.

One of the biggest problems the CLUE interns faced in trying to bring Jewish congregations into the fight for economic justice was in presenting the working poor as a "Jewish" problem. Working with the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, CLUE’s executive director, and local rabbis including Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Sholom and Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillat Israel, CLUE’s interns supplemented their organizing efforts with a study of poverty among Jews in Los Angeles. They found that, "Poverty among working people also plagues the Jewish community here," Goodman said. And the solution requires more than money.

"The Jewish response to poverty has been more about giving than creating societal change," Shubowitz said. "The problem won’t be alleviated by giving people food."

To support that societal change, Shubowitz, Goodman and Flam undertook a study of Jewish working poor in Los Angeles. Starting with figures provided by a Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles study, they interviewed Jewish workers, counselors at Jewish Vocational Service of Los Angeles and local rabbis. They found Jewish workers, primarily immigrants from the Former Soviet Union or Israel, who worked solely for tips, or below the minimum wage, without any type of health insurance, even after years at the same jobs — the same conditions that non-Jewish low-wage workers face. "Our purpose has been to demonstrate the connection between Jewish poverty and poverty at large," Shubowitz said, "We have the same problems — immigration, lack of organization to fight this problem. It’s important the Jewish community get connected with other communities doing this work."

"At least 13 percent of Jews in the Los Angeles area make below $10,000 a year," said Flam, citing the Federation study, "When we

This year, the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, which has treated more than 500 victims of terrorist attacks, including those from the Passover massacre in Netanya, received $250,000 toward its intensive care trauma unit. Sheba Medical Center received $135,000 toward a portable ultrasound system. And Natal, an Israeli trauma center, received $200,000. All the funds came from L.A. Jews.

Over this past year, during which some of the most insidious and relentless suicide bombings in Israel’s history have occurred, these Israeli institutions, as well as dozens of others, have received — and will continue to receive — millions of dollars in emergency funds, thanks to Los Angeles’ Jewish community.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, through its Jews in Crisis (JIC) campaign, funneled emergency funding to Israel within a short window of time. A roster of emergency agencies and trauma centers, mostly based in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, have received millions of dollars earmarked toward everything from hospitals to children’s education and bomb-sniffing dogs.

"Our goal was to raise $10 million for Israel as part of our share of the $300 million campaign nationwide [sponsored by United Jewish Committee of North America, the umbrella agency for all Jewish federations]," Herb Gelfand, chairman of Los Angeles’ successful JIC campaign, told The Journal. "We also wanted to raise $2 million for Argentina. We’ve raised $18 million. We’re over the national goal [by $8 million]."

In just a few months, The Federation’s JIC was able to bring together a windfall of contributions raised from the community, Federation-sponsored events and a plethora of parlor meetings — fundraising receptions held at the private homes of affluent Jewish individuals. But with the year winding down, The Federation is now shifting gears in its fundraising goals.

"It isn’t over," Gelfand said. "We’ll continue to raise [JIC] money, mainly through direct solicitations, but we’re moving into the end of the regular campaign, and we’re careful not to interfere with that, because the regular campaign feeds into The Federation’s core services and our constituents here and in Israel."

Ed Robin, who, along with Stanley Gold, is co-chair of the Israel and Overseas Committee at The Federation and is in charge of the JIC’s allocations process, said that JIC and the annual campaign are related.

"The general campaign funds the main social services — the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency," Robin said. "The needs we tried to fund with JIC were specifically toward the crisis."

The JIC’s success owes much to the parlor meetings, which became a galvanizing local phenomenon, particularly after the March 27 Passover massacre. Gelfand estimated that about half of JIC’s total came from parlor meetings.

"Contributors were very eager to do something," Robin said. "The JIC [through parlor meetings] gave them a tangible outlet to express their concern."

Gelfand credited The Federation’s Annette Shapiro and Fredi Rembaum for organizing the meetings. But a key element to JIC’s efficiency, organizers said, was The Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, unique to Los Angeles’ Federation, which lent the campaign its focus and cohesiveness.

The long-running partnership — a network of collaborations with Israeli scientists, schools and human service agencies, which until February was directed in Los Angeles by Rembaum — was able to identify Israel’s needs and rally JIC’s efforts by April, rather than June, when most federations organized their JIC campaigns.

In addition to parlor meetings, The Federation sponsored missions to Israel to generate awareness of JIC and its efforts, such as the early June entourage during which The Federation presented contributions to various agencies, singles missions and a late summer mission that sent actor-comedian Larry Miller and others to visit campers at the Jaffa Institute for the Advancement of Children.

Los Angeles’ humanitarian efforts, consolidated by The Federation through JIC, have provided substantial financial support for continuation of programs. The efforts represented an important statement of solidarity, according to spokespersons at the beneficiary agencies in Israel.

"The gift has been like receiving a dose of oxygen, because it will enable us to purchase essential equipment that we immediately need," said Talia Zaks, deputy executive director of ZAKA. She said the $87,000 that was received will go toward the volunteer-staffed organization, which provides first aid and collects body parts for proper Jewish burial after every terrorist attack. "This money will help us save as many lives as possible," she said.

The Jaffa Institute, which shelters underprivileged children, has worked with The Federation before. JIC raised $50,000 to help the institute build a security fence to prevent terrorists from penetrating its Beit Shemesh campus.

"My immediate reaction," said Dr. David Portowicz, Jaffa Institute’s chairman, "was that I could sleep better at night knowing that the 300 children in my charge are not exposed to the risk of a terrorist attack."

Akiva Holtzer, spokesman for Bikur Cholim Hospital, a public facility in Jerusalem, said that its $25,000 gift will go toward trauma center equipment.

"We appreciate the fact that Jewish people worldwide think about us and want to help us," Holtzer said. "The fund will help us provide better services."

"This was the largest gift we’ve received from any federation in North America," said Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, Natal director of development, of its $200,000 grant. "We were overwhelmed by the generosity of Los Angeles Jewry, and very encouraged by the effort made by the delegation of L.A Jews who visited us in June."

"The [JIC] campaign is providing direct support to nongovernmental agencies that are working directly with individuals," said Marty Karp, The Federation’s senior vice president for Israel and Overseas, who is based in Israel. "It is not only providing cash support to help individuals return to good health from physical injuries and psychological anguish, but is also helping those that support them."

Gelfand noted that this year’s general campaign, stimulated by JIC, is on the verge of being the strongest since 1990. "If things go where we expect it to go," Gelfand said, "we’ll raise $45 million in the general campaign, in addition to a $19 million Jews In Crisis campaign."

This would be an improvement over recent years, when the slowing of the economy and the dot-com crash affected The Federation’s fundraising, Gelfand added.

But with the success of this year’s emergency relief effort, will there be a need for a JIC campaign next year?

"It depends on what happens in Israel," Gelfand said. "About 50 of us are going to Israel in October, when we’ll get a better idea. Of course, there will always be a need. But let’s hope that the next six months will bring a relative calm.

"The community has responded extremely well and very generously, as it always does," he added.

Against the Stream

It’s 10 a.m. on Shabbat at The Kabbalah Centre on Robertson Boulevard and the crowds are starting to converge in anticipation of the Torah reading.

Hundreds are milling about. People are dressed in all white outfits, the place is filling up. There’s a casual, relaxed atmosphere in the place, as the crowd takes their seats at pews adorned with song books, which contain a pamphlet declaring that "Death is an illusion" and promising that "Our enthusiasm, combined with our deep conviction, helps to accelerate the process of ending death, forever."

"If you come Shabbat, there is standing-room only," said Rafi Feig, a board member at the center. "It is literally packed."

The Kabbalah Centre is growing, with more than 1,000 people walking through the doors every week to attend classes and services — making it one of the most popular Jewish institutions in Los Angeles. With an aversion to any publicity, save that generated by itself, the center has managed this growth even while being ostracized from the mainstream Jewish community — or perhaps because of it.

Kabbalah, meaning "that which is received," is the mystical study of the hidden aspects of Judaism that is traditionally only taught to men over the age of 40 who have otherwise mastered the more mainstream Jewish texts, such as the Talmud and the Mishnah. Kabbalah is said to be so powerful, that only those individuals deemed worthy enough are allowed to learn it.

The Kabbalah Centre asserts that it is bringing kabbalah to the masses, a practice that, throughout the ages, has been long derided by rabbis who thought that the teachings of kabbalah were too explosive to be shared with ordinary people, and should be kept in the hands of a select number of mystics.

But the controversy in the community over The Kabbalah Centre’s practices lie not with the problem that the center is teaching a secret discipline to the masses, but that what it’s teaching is anything but kabbalah. Critics say that the center promotes "scanning" the Zohar (the main kabbalistic text written over 4,000 years ago by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai) rather than actually learning it, and the new age philosophy they teach has little to do with either Judaism or authentic kabbalah.

"From my own perspective, I think that what they are offering is a lot of nonsense," said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of Project Next Step at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "I have taken the time to read some of their materials. I found them to be a mixture of two elements: things that are downright wrong, and things that are right but have nothing to do with kabbalah."

Regardless of whether the center’s teachings conform to traditional definition of kabbalah, they have managed to stake a strong foothold in the community, despite the arms-length distance between mainstream organizations and the center. For example, there is no Kabbalah Centre rabbi on the Southern California Board of Rabbis. The Kabbalah Centre is not currently involved in raising funds for Israel, an activity common in most Jewish institutions in Los Angeles. Neither the center itself nor its affiliate school, the Kabbalah Children’s Academy (KCA), are listed on The Jewish Federation’s community resource Web page,, which lists all the other synagogues, temples, Jewish day schools and community institutions in Los Angeles. (A spokesperson for The Federation had "no comment" when asked why The Kabbalah Centre was not listed.)

"The Kabbalah Centre is not included in the running of the community," Adlerstein said. "I don’t know of any organization in town that includes them in their mailing or their advisories, and I think that The Kabbalah Centre has tried very hard to ensure that it will not become part of the mainstream Jewish community," Adlerstein said. "They tell their people that the only real place that you can get the truth about Judaism and kabbalah is in their own ranks. That is why they set up their own institutions and schools — you won’t find people from The Kabbalah Centre moving to other schools or other synagogues, which is what you will find in any other mainstream Jewish organization," he added.

Billy Phillips, a teacher and director of communications at The Kabbalah Centre, denied that the center has deliberately tried to ostracize itself from the community, insisting that the opposite was true, and that the community tried to distance itself from it. "We made attempts to make inroads into the community, and we have been rebuked every time," he said. "We have been denied access to the community, and it has been going on for 10 years."

Phillips said that he was unaware that the center was not listed on The Federation Web page, but said the center would love to be listed, and he also said he was unaware of any Kabbalah Centre effort to join the Board of Rabbis. And as for Israel, Phillips said that they are not raising money, but they are "trying to raise spiritual light, protection and blessings for the people in Israel through the power of the Zohar."

However, Phillips confirmed one of Adlerstein’s criticism, namely, that the center bills itself as the only place where you can find authentic kabbalah. "No other synagogue teaches Torah to the masses in a way that reveals the kabbalistic light inherent in the text, besides The Kabbalah Centre," Phillips told The Journal.

In an e-mail accompanying a Kabbalah Centre Torah insight, Phillips wrote, "Here is an example of a simple kabbalistic insight into a Torah portion that no synagogue in the world would know, if they did not open up the holy Zohar and spend years studying it."

Rabbi Benzion Kravitz, of Jews For Judaism, said that is simply not true.

"Chabad teaches kabbalah to the masses — the whole Chasidic movement was created to take kabbalah and teach it in a way that the masses can benefit. Nobody taught more spiritual concepts to the masses then the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. But that [the center’s belief that only they teach the truth] is part of a cult mindset, where you discredit all your opposition," he said.

"By saying that they are only place that teaches true kabbalah, they are, in essence, discouraging people from going to other synagogues — and from being part of the rest of the community," Kravitz said.

Phillips countered that The Kabbalah Centre "is not God’s police" and people can go where they want.

Even without the positive press or community endorsements, the center has attracted a celebrity clientele that includes Madonna, Roseanne, Sandra Bernhard and even well-known community philanthropists.

A longtime observer of the center, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that the ostracism of the center actually helps it attract people. "In some ways it adds to their prestige," she said. "It puts them in good company, because they say they are not an organized religion. The Kabbalah Centre will use the fact that they have been denounced as a point to their credit, because they will tell their congregants that they are doing what other groups have refused to do."

In fact, so many people are turning out for doses of Zohar scanning and red-string-around-your-wrist-spirituality, that the center has practically outgrown its current premises on Robertson Boulevard. "Right now, because of the space we have, we are very limited," Feig said. "We need to grow, but it is an issue because growing takes a lot of money."

Calling the center "the only synagogue in town that does not charge membership," Feig told The Journal that it funds itself through donations and the sale of books and tapes published by the center, such as "How the Heavens Heal" by Karen Berg, wife of Rabbi Yehuda Berg, the center’s founder, as well as through courses.

The classes at the center are taught by volunteers, many of whom were students of Rav Phillip Berg, the founder of The Kabbalah Centre. In some cases, in exchange for pedagogy, the center supports the teachers, giving them food and board at The Kabbalah Centre itself.

But the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre is a global presence as well as a local one. As the home of Berg, Los Angeles has become the headquarters for all Kabbalah Centre activities around the world. It is the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre — or more specifically, Berg and his five-member board — who decide whether it is necessary to open up other centers in countries as remote as Australia or Rwanda. Today, there are some 23 Kabbalah Centres around the world and 60 satellite centers.

It is also from Los Angeles that decisions are made to tackle global problems in a kabbalistic way. "A few years ago, the Rav decided that we need to send 3,600 sets of Zohars to Iran for a certain energy," Feig said. "Iran at the time was a very negative place for the whole world, and the Rav believed that if we put a lot of Zohars over there it would make it easier."

The Kabbalah Centre also recently ran ads in Palestinian newspapers, reminding Palestinians that we should all treat each other with human dignity.

"Our mission is to create harmony," Phillips said. "We would love to build bridges and dialogues between those in the community who want to."

On the home front, The Kabbalah Centre last August bought a property on La Cienega Boulevard just south of Olympic Boulevard, the future site of the new building for the Kabbalah Children’s Academy (KCA), its elementary school. Currently the school is adjacent to the center, and has 80 students from preschool to fifth grade. Feig expects that the new building, which he estimates will cost anywhere from $5 million to $10 million, will be able to accommodate 400 students.

According to its administrators, KCA is a yeshiva like any other. "The only difference is on the emphasis," said Rabbi Arye Weiner, KCA’s Torah studies rabbi. "Here we emphasize spiritual concepts. Not lofty concepts, but things like sharing and loving your neighbor as yourself."

Inside the school, pictures of Berg and kabbalists Rabbis Yehuda Zvi Brandwein and Yehuda Ashlag adorn the walls. Alongside the usual ABC and Alef Bet posters are student projects that look at transforming negative qualities into positive ones — from anger to love, and the like.

Like most traditional yeshivot, the school teaches Chumash with Rashi, Mishnah and Gemara (Talmud). Boys are expected to wear kippot and tzizit, girls are expected to wear skirts. Unlike most yeshivot, the KCA starts to teach the Zohar in fourth grade. The school also offers afterschool programs in "Spirituality for Kids" and "Mind Games."

Yet, there are other distinctions between the KCA and the other yeshivot in town. Unlike other yeshivot, KCA will not accept Jewish studies teachers who have only studied at The Kabbalah Centre. "We would not take a [Jewish studies] teacher from The Kabbalah Centre if he didn’t have a yeshiva education," said Weiner, who himself studied in the Lakewood and Mir yeshivot, both ultra-Orthodox institutions.

More controversially, unlike any other Yeshiva or religious school in Los Angeles, KCA accepts non-Jewish children as students. "We are not looking to recruit non-Jewish students," said Solomon, "but if the student comes, it is not for us to turn them away."

So do the non-Jewish students go home and give divrei Torah to their parents?

"Yes," says Weiner. "It is all about sharing the ohr [light]," he said.

Off to School

At his aufruf, Shana Kramer’s oldest son stood up in front of all his rebbes at Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore and said, "It would be impossible for me to thank everyone that I have to thank for bringing me to this point, but there is someone I have to thank publicly because she stood there and cried every time I left the house to go back to yeshiva." He was talking about his mother, and the experience of sending her son away for high school, was, as Kramer, 52, put it, "Like taking my heart out of me and stomping on it."

Hyperbole aside, Kramer’s experiences as a mother who sent her children away to high school are echoed by many parents in Los Angeles’ religious community. According to Rabbi Yaakov Krause, the principal of Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn Torath Emeth Academy, the largest ultra-Orthodox elementary school in Los Angeles, every year at least 15 percent of Torath Emeth parents will send their boys to out-of-town yeshivot for high school. A few years back, it was as many as 40 percent, and even though today more parents are opting to keep their children in Los Angeles for high school, there is still a significant number of students who leave the community to seek Torah learning in other places.

Members of the Orthodox community are quick to point out that the phenomenon of sending children away is an old Jewish tradition. "In the Bible, Isaac and Rebecca sent young Jacob away to learn for many years," said Rabbi Dr. David Fox, a clinical psychologist. "In the Diaspora, for hundreds of years in Ashkenazic and Sephardic countries, where many towns did not have schools and institutions, the parents had to send their children away." Fox, who is on the graduate faculty of USC and is involved in rabbinic education and service, has parents consult him on the issue of sending their children away nearly 30 times a year.

The reasons for sending children away are varied. Many parents want their children to attend their own alma maters. "We chose Ner Israel because my husband is an alumnus, and we knew many of the staff members," Kramer said.

Moreover, in the ultra-Orthodox world, there is a certain cachet attached to large rabbinic academies outside of Los Angeles — places like the Ner Israel Rabbinical College of Baltimore — and both parents and students want the prestige and the learning that is associated with those yeshivot. "Most of the time the desire to travel far is fostered by the student himself, who has his eye on a particular type of study," Fox said. "In the secular world, a child is motivated to get into Harvard, Yale or MIT. In the religious world, you will have a child who is attracted to a particular style of yeshiva or seminary."

While attending the Harvard of yeshivot is a draw, many parents also feel that the schools in Los Angeles — places like Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles or the Calabasas Yeshiva — will not provide their boys with the yeshiva education experience that they need. Parents want their boys to have the experience of total immersion in Torah study, away from the luxuries and pampering of Los Angeles. "There is a degree of camaraderie and academic intensity that dormitory life in an out-of-town yeshiva or seminary can afford the young man which the home setting or local school does not always provide," Fox said.

"I think that people really want their boys to have the experience of living away from home in a yeshiva where there are no distractions," Kramer said. "For example, there might be a television in the home that the parents are carefully monitoring, but they want their boys to have a purely spiritual time, and to get away from the daily newspaper. If they really want them to have a total immersion, then a local yeshiva will not fit the bill."

Others think that although the yeshivas in Los Angeles are fine institutions, they do not have what it takes to keep the students in town. "What we need is a rosh yeshiva who has a proven track record with a national reputation that will be able to retain and to draw boys to a beit midrash [house of study]. That is what our goal is," said Benny Westreich.

Westreich, 49, is a lawyer, and although he and his wife chose not to send their boys away to yeshiva, he has been working for several years to try and attract what he calls a world-class rosh yeshiva to Los Angeles. "We do have a really terrible balance of trade, because we export really successful boys to high schools [out of town]," he said. "We have zero coming in, and we have a heck of a lot going out."

Rabbi Eliezer Gross, the principal of Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, believes that there is no real reason to send boys out of town to yeshiva. "I don’t think there is a difference in the quality of education that the boys receive," Gross told The Journal.

For the boys themselves, being sent out of town can be a maturing, stimulating, but often difficult experience, more so when they are sent away at a younger age. They often become homesick, and have trouble adjusting to life in the dormitories. For this reason Fox recommends that if parents have any doubt about the child’s maturity, they should keep him home as long as possible.

"I certainly do get consultative phone calls with regard to some Los Angeles students who are living in dormitories out of town," he said. "I get called by the principal or the dean saying that they are concerned about the way a youngster is developing. But in the past few years, many of the yeshivas have taken onto the staff a mental health consultant to oversee the curriculum and to help homesick or anxious youngsters adjust to the atmosphere. And, it is not as if we are talking about a Charles Dickens situation."

Elliot Mandelbaum, 18, is someone who believed that the Torah pastures were greener elsewhere. He left Yeshiva University High School Los Angeles (YULA) in 11th grade against his parents’ better wishes to study in Yeshiva Toras Moshe in Jerusalem. He was already in the highest shiur (class) at YULA, and he was ready for more intense studies.

"I felt that of the yeshivas that I was looking at for the way I wanted to go, this was the best one. In Israel, I am away from everything, with less distractions, and it is easier to learn," he said in a phone interview from Jerusalem.

Mandelbaum has a rigorous schedule in the yeshiva. The school requires him to learn 10 hours day, but in practice, he studies for 12 1/2 hours a day, often not leaving until after midnight.

But he suffers none of the anxieties that might plague other young yeshiva students, and he has no regrets about the choice he made to leave Los Angeles. "I am very happy with the decision I made to attend this yeshiva," he said. "I think it was the best decision."

Teaching Teachers

Aviva Kadosh, who serves the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles (BJE) as a specialist in religious schools and Hebrew-language programs, has been an educator for 34 years. But the Moreinu program has introduced her to "the most interesting group of people I have ever taught."

Moreinu, which translates as "our teachers," is the BJE’s creative attempt to deal with an acute shortage of religious school instructors. The 18-month program, funded by major grants from the Jewish Community Foundation and the Amado Foundation, gives participants intensive training in both Judaica and pedagogical skills. Once they receive their certificates in 2002, they should be welcome additions to the teaching staffs at local synagogues.

The 12 prospective teachers who responded last fall to the BJE’s ads and flyers are a diverse bunch. Their ranks include a realtor, a photographer, an animator and a consultant at UCLA’s department of biomathematics, all of whom are willing to make time in their professional lives to teach religious school in the afternoons and on Sundays.

Some — who have attended day schools or studied in Israel — are looking to acquire teaching skills to go along with their Judaic learning. For Debbie Tibor, a longtime special education teacher, Moreinu is a good way to explore special education services within Jewish classrooms, while also filling the gaps in her own knowledge.

When Tibor lost her father in 1998, she began attending religious services regularly, but was frustrated by all she didn’t know about her tradition. As she wrote in her application essay, "I am very excited about the possibility of going through Moreinu. Not only will I be trained with the tools I need to provide a service within the Jewish community, but I will also have the opportunity to continue my Judaic education."

Moreinu participants meet almost every Sunday during the school year, rotating between the classrooms of five Conservative and Reform congregations. They engage in text study with rabbis, and meet with principals who explain practical teaching strategies, like how to gear lessons to students of different age levels.

Pamela Kong, an office manager, expresses delight in the range of speakers who’ve addressed the group thus far: "We’re learning from their styles almost by osmosis." Kadosh attests that the speakers have all responded warmly to these enthusiastic learners, who "soak up knowledge like sponges."

On a recent Sunday morning at Congregation Tifereth Jacob of Manhattan Beach, the Moreinu group focused on the upcoming holiday of Purim. Rabbi Mark Hyman led a session on Megillat Esther, pinpointing issues of identity that might seem pertinent in today’s religious school classrooms.

In discussing Esther and Mordechai’s policy of hiding their Jewishness from outsiders, Hyman predicted that some older students might make the connection that "they’re just like us." Hyman drew a parallel between Esther’s concealment of her Jewish roots at the Persian court and the students’ own reluctance to "wear their Jewishness on their sleeve" by displaying a kippah or other Jewish symbol in public.

He then asked the students to briefly consider the kind of moment that prompts an assimilated Jew to stand with his people. The shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, someone suggested, and the rest of the group nodded in agreement.

Next, veteran religious school principal Debi Rowe shifted the focus to teaching methods, using the Purim story as a starting point. Dividing the group into chevruta (or traditional "study buddy" pairs), she asked them to address "holes" in the story by inventing their own midrash. This exercise led to a discussion of the risks involved with teaching children Megillat Esther, which after all seems to endorse both intermarriage and the wholesale slaughter of Haman’s kin by the triumphant Jews. Rowe’s question — "Do we skip or gloss over risky stuff?" — elicited the recognition that it’s vital for a new teacher to understand each synagogue’s policy on such matters.

The Moreinu schedule contains one more session at Tifereth Jacob, at which Rowe will concentrate intensively on how to draw up lesson plans. She warned the students in advance that a formal plan is rarely followed to the letter. Frequently, at the end of a class session, it serves as "an indicator of where we’ve deviated." Nonetheless, Rowe insisted, the digression often turns out to be far more useful than the original plan on which the teacher has expended so much labor.

Another facet of the Moreinu program is the pairing of the teachers-to-be with experienced instructors like Tifereth Jacob’s Craig Fenter and Jane Golub. These mentor-teachers, who receive modest compensation, attend six sessions. There they analyze effective teaching methods, discovering the theory behind the classroom skills which have come to many of them purely by instinc t. Right now the Moreinu participants are making plans to observe in their mentors’ classes. Soon they themselves will be asked to take over a lesson.

Most new religious school instructors are thrust into their jobs without training. Craig Fenter appreciates the fact that, in sponsoring Moreinu, the BJE is taking steps to go beyond this sink-or-swim mentality. As he puts it, "It’s very community oriented… very cool." Jane Golub, is a key staff member at Torah Aura Productions, hadn’t planned to sign on as a mentor. But "Debi Rowe is my good friend, and I see how difficult it is for her to get good teachers. I see it as my responsibility to help get new teachers out into the world."

The Moreinu participants feel a similar sense of mission. Their screening interviews made clear to Aviva Kadosh that they were not simply looking for new career directions. Instead, "their motivation is they want to give something to the Jewish community. That was very clear to me."

Participant Jeff Gornbein, who holds a doctorate in the field of public health, was inspired to join Moreinu after volunteering in the religious school of his home synagogue, Mishkon Tephilo. Gornbein says with great conviction, "A city is saved by its parents and teachers."

Finding Middle Ground

First comes love, then comes marriage. But when baby makes three, an interfaith couple has to face hard decisions about their child’s religious upbringing. Arlene Chernow, who for 16 years has headed the outreach department for the Pacific Southwest Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, believes it’s vital for parents to commit to a single religious identity for the entire family. If the interfaith family rejoices in Shabbat and other Jewish holidays, their youngster will not be perturbed by the fact that some relatives wrap holiday gifts in red and green, and celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. If, from the start, the child knows he or she lives in a Jewish household, Hebrew school can be a strong and positive experience.

Unfortunately, says Chernow, “we see more and more children coming into classrooms not knowing who they are religiously.” In some cases, non-Jewish spouses are resentful of the religious school obligation, fearing the loss of their own religious identity as their youngsters are schooled in Jewish tradition. At times, a child’s enrollment in Hebrew school sparks a tug of war between two parents who can’t articulate to one another their own feelings about their religious inheritance. If parents divorce, the situation intensifies.

Chernow feelingly describes one small boy who was brought to temple religious school weekly by his non-Jewish dad, then went home with his Jewish mother. At first, the child dealt with the turmoil in his home life by disrupting the classroom, making everyone miserable. Finally, he settled on his own private solution. Once he arrived at school, he would duck under his desk for 10 minutes, speaking to no one. Then he’d emerge, saying, “I’m Jewish now.”

When Chernow meets with Jewish religious school educators, she stresses their crucial role in making an interfaith family feel part of the congregation. One challenge for a teacher is reassuring interfaith children that they are truly welcome in the classroom, no matter what non-Jewish customs and attitudes may persist at home. These children often ask tough questions, because they’re covertly seeking to establish the fact that they’re truly Jewish. For Chernow, the three key strategies are “support, respect, refocus.” If, during a lesson on Chanukah, a little girl asks why daddy has a Christmas tree, the teacher should support the girl as a valued member of the class, encourage respect for each family’s individual choices, and — for the benefit of the rest of the students — refocus the discussion on dreidels and Maccabees.
When a child hops into the car after Hebrew school, excitedly displaying an ornament for the sukkah, it’s only natural for his non-Jewish parent to feel intimidated by this unfamiliar holiday. Chernow points out that parents who want to share in their children’s excitement can turn out to be a hidden asset in the classroom. She has met many non-Jewish mothers, in particular, who strongly desire a religious identity for their family. Once they gain a basic knowledge of Jewish practice, they sometimes become the teacher’s best friend.

Such is the case of Patty Lombard, the mother of two daughters at Temple Israel of Hollywood. Though herself a Catholic, Lombard has spearheaded the writing of a parents’ guide called “Celebrations.” This looseleaf notebook — which includes background on each major Jewish holiday along with vocabulary, activities, recipes, songs and blessings — was presented to every preschool family when school began in September. The purpose, Lombard says, is to “try to give parents enough information that they can enjoy celebrating with their child.”

Chernow insists that parent education is the key to turning an interfaith family into a family engaged in raising happily Jewish children. She says, “I really see a child’s Jewish education as something that has an impact on the whole family. The more that a temple and school can do to educate the parent while they’re educating the children, the stronger the child’s identity will be.”

Gordis, Alexander Leave UJ for Posts in Israel

Dr. Robert Wexler, president of the University of Judaism, has good reason to believe that the spirit of Zionism is alive at the institution.

Recently, two prominent school administrators, Dr. Hanan Alexander, vice president of academic affairs, and Rabbi Daniel Gordis, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, announced that they are leaving their posts to assume comparable positions in Israel.

Alexander will become a professor of education at the University of Haifa, where he has previously taught while on sabbatical. Gordis will direct the Mandel Foundation’s Jerusalem Fellows program, which examines Jewish education and public policy as to ensure Jewish continuity both in Israel and the Diaspora. Gordis and his wife and three children are currently in Jerusalem, where he’s on sabbatical at the Mandel Foundation. Both UJ leaders will begin their new positions in the fall of 1999.

Wexler’s search for their successors has already begun.

Alexander and Gordis long have been principal architects of the UJ’s academic and religious design. As the school’s chief academic officer, Alexander, who began his career there in 1983 as a junior faculty member in education, has advanced UJ’s academic reputation and standing in the community by broadening its curriculum and scope.

“Since Alexander had such a defining influence on the curriculum and academic character of the UJ, he will be greatly missed,” said Richard Scaffidi, dean of admissions and financial aid. “Still, I think we can look at this change as an opportunity to take stock and restructure academic programs and build upon his fine work.”

Gordis, an educator and administrator at the UJ for 13 years, is best known for launching the 4-year-old Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies, the only Conservative seminary on the West Coast. Author of “God Was Not in the Fire,” a book that responds to the apathy toward Judaism of assimilated Jews, Gordis has shaped the spiritual direction of Ziegler, aiming to teach rabbis-to-be how to energize, enrich and add meaning to Jewish life in America.

Gordis’ resignation has aroused a wide range of emotions from Ziegler students, who looked to the dean as a guiding spirit and personal mentor. Gordis, who hails from a line of prominent Conservative rabbis, has not only influenced Ziegler’s vision and curriculum but has worked to secure the school’s reputation as a sturdy breeding ground for future Jewish leaders. Gordis believes that the school will continue to strive and excel despite his move.

“I will watch its progress with a small amount of pride and a tremendous amount of joy,” Gordis told the rabbinical students at an informal address last week.

The future dean may affect the religious orientation and philosophy of Ziegler. The seminary will continue its commitment to Conservative Judaism, said Gordis, but which shade of the movement may depend on his replacement.

“In the meantime,” wrote Wexler, in a letter to the UJ staff that announced Gordis’ resignation, “I am considering a new policy for the administrators at the UJ: No more sabbatical leaves in Israel! It’s just too dangerous.”