Let My Students Go


To celebrate Passover, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy preschoolers spent time in ancient Egypt.

Teachers and students transformed hallway bulletin boards into a colorful representation of the story of Passover. The journey begins with the pyramids, and then students pass through a parted Red Sea with thick tulle and crinkled tissue paper on either side — some gauze and cellophane even hang above. Life-size kindergartners silhouettes represent the Israelites dancing at the other end of the sea, coffee-stained butcher paper evokes the desert, and the trip ends in Jerusalem.

“[The artwork] makes the holiday come alive for the children, so that it’s just not just a flat learning experience,” said Cecelie Wizenfeld, the school’s early childhood director. “They’re a part of it.”

Wizenfeld is not alone in her efforts to find memorable ways of helping children connect with the holiday. While model seders, seder plate illustrations and handmade afikomen bags have become standard educational fare in the classroom, many Southland religious and day school teachers are finding that creative and unusual holiday projects make more of an impact.

Second-graders at Adat Ari El Day School will reenact the Exodus from Egypt as they embark on a two-hour journey around the school grounds. Head of School Lana Marcus will play the role of Moses, while sixth-grade students will dress up as taskmasters, following the children. Other journey highlights include the parting of the Red Sea (the sprinklers will come on), receiving “manna” from heaven (teachers will drop marshmallows from above) and finally, the arrival to the Promised Land (a grassy area on the property) and pitching tents, eating, singing and dancing in celebration. Afterward, teachers will lead a discussion about the journey.

By second grade, the children have a familiarity with the holiday, but “acting out the story of Passover makes the children think what [the Exodus] must have been like for the Israelis,” said Sari Goodman, the school’s general studies director.

Rather than focusing on the journey like the students at Adat Ari El, this year the kindergartners at the Brawerman Elementary School of Wilshire Boulevard Temple decided what material things they would bring on such a journey and, in turn, what they value. Each child decorated a “Passover backpack” and chose a few items from home to bring to Israel. In past years, these prized possessions have included teddy bears, prayer books, baseballs and pictures of family.

Rabbi Elissa Ben-Naim, who oversees the Judaic studies department, said that these activities allow the children to “enter into the text of the haggadah in a new way.”

The fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at Temple Isaiah’s religious school experienced yet another aspect of the Exodus when they attended a special weekend retreat at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu on April 15.

One of the weekend activities was a homelessness simulation in which students received “eviction notices” on their cabin doors. Students worked together to combat their plight and attempt to get back on their feet.

“We’re equating homelessness with the Exodus of the Jewish people,” said Lisa Greengard, the synagogue’s youth group director. Greengard hopes that this modern take on one of the key aspects of Passover will help children empathize with our ancestors and ultimately, make the holiday more meaningful.

Temple Israel of Hollywood’s fifth- and sixth-grade religious school students will indulge in a “chocolate seder” in which the regular items on the seder plate are replaced by their supposed chocolate equivalents. Roasted eggs are substituted with chocolate eggs. Instead of dipping parsley in salt water, the students will dip strawberries in chocolate sauce. Chocolate milk will replace wine. Trail mix with M&Ms is the new charoset.

Carrie Frank, a Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion rabbinical student who is interning at Temple Israel, adapted the chocolate seder — a concept typically aimed at college students — to make the experience more relevant to younger students. Her goal is to help the children move beyond the story of Passover and take in the core values of the holiday and the concept of enslavement.

By getting the kids’ attention with tasty treats, Frank hopes to touch on deeper issues. She replaces the 10 plagues with what she deems the “10 modern plagues,” so the seder will include more familiar issues like hunger, inequality and disrespect. When the youngsters sip their cups of chocolate milk, they will be reminded of the things for which they are thankful.

“With the kitsch thrown in, it allows you to sneak in some of the good stuff, like values,” Frank said. “And they will absorb that.”


‘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.”


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/sbarrett@bjela.org

Jewish Student Union


Shoshana Hirsh,

Director of Administration

(310) 229-9006/jsu@jsu.org

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/JTytell@unisyn.org

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 www.lausd.k12.ca.us/welcome.html 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.”


Talmudic Tax Write-Off


Few people are eager to pick fights with the IRS. Michael Sklar, now well into his second voluntary tax lawsuit, is definitely an exception.

Sklar is an Orthodox father with several children in Jewish day school. His courtroom quest: to establish religious school costs as tax deductions.

It all comes down to the Church of Scientology. The Scientologists struck a deal with the IRS that has allowed them to count the cost of their spiritual “auditing sessions” as tax deductions since 1993. The Tax Code OKs this practice for any religious expense paid in exchange for intangible spiritual benefits (for example, it also works for High Holiday seats, church pew rents, tithes, etc.).

Sklar goes further and claims that Jewish day school is no different from the Scientologists’ spiritual auditing sessions, and should also be tax-deductible.

“The idea is that everybody should have the same benefit,” said Jeffrey Zuckerman, Sklar’s attorney.

“You get 25, 30 people, you put them in a classroom and you have a guy get up and instruct them in the tenets of the Church of Scientology,” Zuckerman said. “That strikes me, in a jurisprudential sense, as indistinguishable from a teacher instructing 25 kids in Torah.”

But even if one does equate the two activities, there are still questions about the dangers of pushing government even deeper into religious life simply to establish equity with the Scientologists.

“The comfort level that the Jewish community has in this society in good measure stems from the separation of church and state,” said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, executive director of the American Jewish Committee in Los Angeles. “It’s certainly clear to me that the Sklars are looking for a loophole,” said Greenebaum.

Interestingly, in 2002, Sklar voiced similar fears in this publication. “As a Jew, I was terrified by what [was] going on,” he said about the Scientologists’ deal. “The current Tax Code amounts to state-sponsored religion, and Jews never fare well under those circumstances.”

But today he seems to have taken parity with the Scientologists as his main concern instead.

“[Even] if we went back to nobody being able to take [the deduction], that would not accomplish anything because then the government would have gotten away with discrimination for 10 years,” Sklar said last week.

Mayoral Election: 102 Days and Counting

Bob Hertzberg’s campaign is rapidly emerging as the assault troop of the Los Angeles mayoral race.

The most recent example: An online petition demanding that the mayor participate in a KNBC televised debate at the Museum of Tolerance on Dec. 2.

Hertzberg writes on his Web site: “Jimmy Hahn is continuing to avoid debating me and my fellow challengers. I don’t know about you, but I am deeply offended by the fact that he is continuing to hide behind press releases.”

“The fact that the mayor is running for re-election, and has raised a ton of money to run TV commercials, but is refusing to stand up and defend his record, we believe is an insult to the voters,” said Matt Szabo, spokesperson for Hertzberg.

Hertzberg’s petition had been electronically signed by 456 people as of Nov. 18.

“Apparently the mayor decided that defending his record would be more damaging than refusing to show,” Szabo said.

The mayor said he simply has a scheduling conflict.

“We actually asked them if they’d be willing to do the debate on another night, but obviously they were not willing,” said Julie Wong, spokesperson for the Hahn campaign.

The debate was originally scheduled for October, but organizer Scott Regberg said it was postponed to avoid distraction with the presidential campaign — and because the mayor asked for another date then, as well.

The mayor has committed to attending another debate later in the month. Expectedly, the Hertzberg campaign is challenging Hahn on choosing to attend the debate three days before Christmas.

“Mayor Hahn will be at the Dec. 21 debate which will be held at the League of Conservation Voters,” Wong said.

She added that this won’t be the last time for a meeting between the candidates by any means.

“I think we’ll have plenty of opportunities for the mayor and others in the race to talk about their vision for L.A,” she said.

Hotel Union Asks Guests to ‘Check Out’

The union representing hotel workers from nine major companies in Los Angeles asked the public to boycott their employers on Nov. 11.

UNITE HERE (formerly the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union), Local 11 has been engaged in a battle with the Millennium Biltmore, Westin Bonaventure, Hyatt Regency, Wilshire Grand, Regent Beverly Wilshire, Century Plaza Hotel & Spa, St. Regis, Hyatt West Hollywood and Sheraton Universal since last spring.

One of the central disputes between the union and management is the controversial two-year contract. The union wants to renegotiate in 2006, when many other hotel unions nationwide will also be in contract negotiations.

Joining together in 2006 would put them in a much stronger position to bargain for benefits with the multinational hotel chains, rather than negotiating city by city.

The hotels oppose a two-year deal, saying the dispute is local and nationwide union contracts should have nothing to do with it.

In the meantime, with no contract between the L.A. workers and hotels in force, management has suspended the free health care workers had been receiving and began charging a fee.

The long-running dispute is beginning to attract political attention.

City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) and state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) attended the Nov. 11 boycott announcement.

California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) has publicly called for a quick resolution, saying the clash could hurt the city’s economy.

Economy Project Crunches L.A. Numbers

Several weeks ago, a variety of newspapers published numbers from a recent report on the health of the Los Angeles economy. The report, called the LA Economy Project, was put together by the Milken Institute and the Economic Roundtable.

Their numbers showed that L.A. workers are at risk of being undereducated for the types of jobs that will be created here in the near future.

Problem is, the study wasn’t finished.

“It’s something that wasn’t supposed to happen for a while,” said Michael Klowden, executive director of the Milken Institute. “Part of the report is done. We’re finalizing the rest of it, but it was essentially incomplete information.”The partial information that was released indicated a huge gap between income levels for native English speakers compared to non-native English speaking immigrants. It showed that the majority of the working poor in the city are clustered around just a few low-paying industries like restaurants, construction and housekeeping.

Klowden said that the sections of the report on how to actually address this problem in terms of public policy are still unfinished. He added that matching the workforce numbers with business data hasn’t been done yet, either.

“The mayor’s office has really been interested in what our findings are,” said Klowden. Joy Chen, a former deputy mayor under Hahn, played a prominent role in the project. Klowden said that Hahn has publicly announced his plans to incorporate the LA Economy Project’s findings into his strategy for the city, and would like to have it “coordinated from their end.”

It’s unclear how exactly the statistics-laden numbers that were prematurely released reflected on Hahn when they made the rounds in the major newspapers. It’s also unclear whether the final report will be more favorable to Hahn or not.

But one thing is guaranteed: They will definitely be released in time for the mayoral election.


Up Front

Teen Artist�(tm)s Fairy Tale Comes True

Laguna Hills resident and artist, Alina Eydel, is etching a name for herself within the international art community with her imagery of fairy tale princesses, imaginary cat worlds and detailed costume designs. The 14-year-old�(tm)s work fetches an average of $1,500 apiece at galleries and art shows around the country.

“The paintings are visions of my own glamorized fantasies and self-indulgence,” Eydel said. “I put my own glimmer and shimmer into my ideas through my art. I really like details.”

Artists like Michael Parkes and Fernando Botero are current inspirations for Eydel. Her art is more directly influenced by architecture, people close to her and her animal friends, especially her cats.

“I have been through three stages of influence since I started painting seriously at age 7,” Eydel said. “Fairy tale worlds, me and my cat friends, and now embroidered costume design using beads and fabrics on canvas.”

Eydel is a Russian Jew who came to the United States with her parents, Igor, a graphic designer, and Svetlana, an interior designer, when she was 2. By age 4, her talent was evident to her parents, who both studied art in St. Petersburg. Their daughter sketched and doodled while watching them at work.

“Alina sold her first paintings at age 9,” her father said. “A woman from the Los Angeles area found her Web site and e-mailed us to buy one of the paintings. She ended up buying 10 of Alina�(tm)s paintings for $2,000.”

Her mother entered her daughter�(tm)s work in a Beverly Hills art show in 1999. The city�(tm)s mayor purchased one of her paintings, which he hung in his office.

Alina now sells an average of five paintings at each gallery exhibit or art show, recently selling one work for $11,000. Her paintings have been purchased by buyers from as far away as Japan.

For more information on Alina�(tm)s paintings, visit www.alinafineart.com. – Stefanee Freedman, Contributing Writer

Elcott Calls for Study of Jewish O.C.

Intrigued by the recent accomplishments of Orange County�(tm)s Jewish community, the relative youth of its leaders, and the unusual absence of enmity between local denominations, Shalom Elcott started work in the top post of the county�(tm)s most prominent Jewish fundraising organization last month.

Elcott, 44, who most recently worked as a philanthropy adviser in Los Angeles to private family foundations, brings with him a coveted Rolodex of contacts among big-league Jewish philanthropists. He served as the go-to guy who engineered major projects in Israel for the late Ted Arison, founder of Carnival Cruise Line. As president of Arison�(tm)s Tel Aviv foundation, Elcott in 2001 helped establish a group of the world�(tm)s 10 largest family foundations to share ideas on wielding philanthropy more effectively.

Although board members of the O.C. Jewish Federation demanded Elcott predict how much he could improve over last year�(tm)s $2.2 million campaign, his answer was a surprising one.

He asked for a year�(tm)s forbearance to conduct the first serious demographic study of the county�(tm)s Jewish community, a costly endeavor. “It�(tm)s something that will help all of us in targeting and branding our product,” said Elcott, who has developed marketing campaigns for other nonprofits.

A study will likely reveal distinct demographic pockets whose needs and interests should be canvassed, Elcott said. “I�(tm)d like to take a year to get the information, filter it and figure out how to use it,” he said.

Partnering with Israel and combating campus anti-Semitism, though, are issues already in Elcott�(tm)s game plan.

The completion in under four years of the $70 million Samueli Jewish campus in Irvine gives Elcott little breathing room. Stephen H. Hoffman, the retiring president of United Jewish Communities told him last month, “people are going to watch what Orange County does.”

“There can�(tm)t be any excuses,” Elcott said. “It�(tm)s a test and challenge to the community to go out and build something great.”

Elcott�(tm)s partner is Dr. Marc Miller, who succeeded Lou Weiss as president in June after serving for two years as the Federation�(tm)s campaign chairman. Miller said he and Elcott share a common community vision.

Elcott was selected by a search committee headed by board member Mel Lipson. He had the luxury of a long search as retiring executive, Bunnie Mauldin, announced her planned departure last fall. Even as Lipson was narrowing his list, though, the competition over candidates intensified with similar job openings in higher-profile communities such as San Francisco, Pittsburgh and San Diego.

Elcott and his wife, Robin, intend to relocate to the area with their 9-year-old son. – Andrea Adelson, Contributing Editor

Mothers Bridge Generation Gap

Joan Kaye knows from personal experience that during adolescence relationships between parents and daughters can turn frosty. Only at 16 did her own daughter “suddenly turn into a human being,” said Kaye, the director of the Bureau of Jewish Education.

To counter a teen culture that celebrates risky behavior, this month the bureau begins a program that celebrates girls�(tm) transition into womanhood, but with a Jewish spin. “It�(tm)s a Girl Thing,” is a yearlong pilot program for mothers and sixth-grade girls to deconstruct contemporary cultural norms while connecting to their own religious identity. By drawing on the traditional Rosh Chodesh celebrations of the new moon, instructor Leslie Dixon will lead monthly discussions on subjects such as friends, body image and sexuality, weaving in examples of Jewish heroines and Jewish rituals.

“We�(tm)re training young women that this is part of their history and identity,” said Dixon, of Laguna Hills, who has developed and taught innovative sex-education classes for families.

The experience can be transformative between parent and child, she said. “The bridge is lessened; something starts to shift.”

“If you get mothers and daughters communicating before adolescence, you have a good shot at continuing communication through high school,” explained Kaye, who faced surprising difficulty raising funds to underwrite the well-regarded program, introduced in 50 cities over the last two years.

“It�(tm)s not something people think is a major issue,” she said.

Among those convinced is Julie A. Lobel, a Newport Coast mother of five, including fifth-grade daughter, Jamie. She helped underwrite the program, as did the O.C. Community Foundation and Kolot: The Center for Jewish Women�(tm)s and Gender Studies.

Lobel observed her daughter�(tm)s riveted focus during a free-for-all discussion on sexuality led by Dixon, who worked as a school nurse at Tarbut V�(tm)Torah Community Day School.

“In that room without telephone and TV, alone with your daughter without any interruptions, it�(tm)s a challenge in itself,” Lobel said. Her hope is that girls grasp the spiritual side of growing into young adults.

“Some kids have the connection; you can�(tm)t force it,” she said. “We�(tm)re giving that gift to them, the path to tap into it.”

“It�(tm)s a Girl Thing” open house is Sept. 19, 2-4 p.m. at Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo. A $100 fee pays for the entire year. For more information, call (949) 435-3450.

Teeing Off for Tarbut V�(tm)Torah

Jill and Mark Stein, parents of an athletic senior enrolled at Tarbut V�(tm) Torah Community Day School, sympathize with parents besieged by unceasing monetary demands of their teenagers. Their own daughter, Ashley, obsessively attempts to pack three sports into every season, each generating a $190 athletic fee at the school.

To help defray the $70,000 budget of the school�(tm)s athletic department, the Steins organized a golf tournament, held the last two years at Tustin Ranch. This year, in the hope of luring golfers who covet access to one of the county�(tm)s private courses, the Oct. 4 Tarbut V�(tm)Torah third annual Golf tournament is shifting venues to the Coto de Caza Golf & Racquet Club. “This allows the general public an opportunity to play on a course they don�(tm)t normally get to,” said Jill Stein, herself a novice golfer.

Stein hopes for 140 golfers at the noon start, broken into foursomes around the club�(tm)s north course. Dinner and awards begin by 6 p.m.

“Generally golfers like to take it seriously and walk away with something,” she said. Trophies will be awarded in seven categories.

Profits only accrue through sponsorships, which Stein is still seeking.

Last year�(tm)s event raised $37,000. That, combined with student fees from upper graders that play in the 11 sports offered, leaves a shortfall of less than $4,000, coach Patrick Roberts said. He is hoping tournament proceeds this year will make the department entirely self-supporting.

The $220 cost per player includes two kosher meals and greens fees. $500 for tee sponsors; $100 for cart sponsors, and $800 for those who register as a foursome. For more information, call Doris Jacobson, (949) 509-9500, ext. 3007.

Hands-On High Holidays

“Once in a lifetime, you�(tm)re asked to do something like this,” said Heidi Kahn, of Irvine, an award-winning religious school teacher known for incorporating touch, taste and smell into her lesson plans.

Given free rein to devise a new program for preschoolers and their parents or grandparents, Kahn is bubbling with hands-on ideas to reanimate “freeze-dried Judaica.” The two-hour Congregation Eilat-a-Fun class begins Sept. 12 and is open to the entire community. It will be held Sunday afternoons once a month through June at Mission Viejo�(tm)s Congregation Eilat.

“I�(tm)m allowed to let my imagination go crazy,” said Kahn, who teaches at Eilat and Irvine�(tm)s University Synagogue. “Oh, it�(tm)s so delicious. I can�(tm)t wait to do this.”

While the typical religious school curriculum for the High Holidays might involve making round challahs and shofars, Kahn strives for even more innovative ways to present Jewish holidays. She is certain to fascinate preschoolers. Their jaded parents will be a tougher audience, she predicted

For example, Kahn�(tm)s Yom Kippur concept calls for a revised version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” where the main character must make an apology. The Rosh Hashanah curriculum includes a beekeeper with a sealed hive and the extraction of its contents.

“It�(tm)s going to be fabulous,” she promised.Eilat sponsored the class to harness Kahn�(tm)s creativity and to give young families a memorable Jewish experience at low cost, said Neal J. Linson, a synagogue board member.

“She is a jewel to the local community that has an imagination and love for Judaism that is visceral,” Linson said, describing Kahn as “10 pounds of sugar in a 5-pound sack.”

The class will be held 3-5 p.m. 2081 Hidalgo, Mission Viejo. $18 per family, per session. R.S.V.P. to (949) 854-4402 or heidikahn@cox.net.

Hebrew No Longer aForeign Concept

Orange County students can now go off-campus for school credits, thanks to a new language program offered at the Mission Viejo Chabad Center and Huntington Beach�(tm)s Hebrew Academy. Up to 10 foreign language credits, enough to satisfy annual state requirements for high school students, can be earned by those who enroll.

“The program provides an excellent opportunity for our teenage students to satisfy their foreign language needs while receiving a meaningful Jewish education,” said Hebrew Chai director, Rabbi Shmuel Marcus, of Cypress. “This program also offers college-style sessions along with electives and retreats.”

The course will include Hebrew reading and writing, modern and conversational Hebrew, biblical text study, prayer, electives, Shabbatons and trips. Hebrew Chai will run in three semester sessions, offering students two elective choices each semester. By enrolling in the off-campus language course, students can add an on-campus elective to their schedule.

“Students can choose a variety of topics that include kosher cooking, why stars like Madonna study kabbalah, secrets of the Talmud and many more exciting topics,” said Mission Viejo Chabad Director Bassie Marcus. “We want to create a social scene for the students while they are learning a new language outside their schools.”

The 10-credit course meets Sunday mornings and Tuesdays, 5:30-7:30 p.m.

The program is able to issue credits through the Hebrew Academy, accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). A staff member will monitor the program according to WASC�(tm)s standards and issue student transcripts, as the school does for transferring students.

Hebrew Chai will begin classes in both locations Sept. 12 and will accept later registering students, though for less credits. Enrollment is limited to 45 students. Two other instructors will joining Marcus in teaching; Hadas Zaetz, a California state accredited teacher from Israel, and Orange Coast College Hebrew professor, Rabbi Benzi Saydman.

“This program is nondenominational and open to any students that want to earn extra credit off campus,” Marcus said. With Mission Viejo as a model, other Chabad centers are considering similar for-credit courses, he said.

For more information on Hebrew Chai, contact Bassie or Rabbi Marcus at (949) 770-1270, or e-mail hebrewschool@cjc.occoxmail.com. – SF

A Day on the Bimah Changes Everything

My bar mitzvah took place in Queens, New York, in 1970. It was an unexpected and odd occasion, and I hadn’t thought about it in years. But now, 34 years later, I was once again in New York, and the subject of my bar mitzvah came up, as the ceremony itself first had, unexpectedly.

My new bride and I sat in a booth across from Charlotte, one of my oldest friends, in the Moonstruck Diner in Chelsea. We’d driven to town to introduce my wife to those who couldn’t make it our traditional Jewish wedding in Louisville, Ky.

Abruptly, Charlotte asked point-blank, as New Yorkers tend to do, what had prompted me to become observant. Throughout high school, college and our early careers, we two friends had been secular Jews, intellectually but not spiritually interested to our heritage. During the intervening years, our paths diverged. Eventually I began attending synagogue, and Charlotte remained secular.

She wanted to know, "Was it because you moved from New York, where you’re surrounded by Jewishness, to someplace you felt more isolated?"

Though there is some truth to her point — isolation in Nashville, and in Louisville later on, had definitely been part of the impulse to connect to my "roots" — I had to smile at the thought that one had to leave New York in order to discover Judaism.

As my wife and I toured the city, we passed synagogues, yeshivas and seminaries. Visiting my aunt and uncle in Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway, we were in the midst of a large Chasidic neighborhood. It was the eve of Tisha B’Av. Cafe signs proclaimed: "Have a good fast. We open 9 p.m. tomorrow." Even Murray’s Bagels, my favorite Chelsea breakfast spot, was certified kosher.

Seeing these many signs of Jewish observance made me recall the storefront synagogues in my own Rego Park neighborhood, and how, while I ran to class at Queens College one day during Sukkot, the Mitzvah Mobile had pulled up, music blaring like some bizarre Orthodox ice cream truck. A black-hatted Lubavitcher emerged, pressed a Lulav into my startled hands and walked me through the Sukkot mitzvah.

No, you didn’t have to leave New York to discover Jewish observance, but something had to plant the desire. In my case, it was my bar mitzvah.

"That’s the big secret that none of my family or my old friends knows, or would understand," I told her.

In 1969, as I approached bar mitzvah age, the ceremony wasn’t even a blip on my parents’ radar. Not only were they recently divorced and not getting along, but they were both uninterested in Jewish observance; perhaps they were even somewhat antagonistic toward it. Therefore, I knew next to nothing about Judaism. The eldest among my cousins, I had never been to a bar mitzvah, so I hadn’t even acquired "reception-envy," with which to pressure my folks into complying with tradition.

Upon hearing that my parents did not intend to make any Jewish coming-of-age plans for me, my maternal grandparents decreed that despite all my family’s mishegas, I was having a bar mitzvah. And that was that.

But the path from decree to Torah wasn’t that simple. What followed was an embarrassing time for a preteen, as I was taken first to the local Reform, then to the Conservative synagogue, only to be rejected by their rabbis because it was "too late" to train me.

If it was hard for my secular parents to swallow the idea of a bar mitzvah, I’m sure it was even harder for them to make an appointment at their last option — the Orthodox Rego Park Jewish Center. But they did, and Rabbi Gewirtz told them, "He’s a Jew, of course we’ll take him."

Thus began a strange period in my family’s history. Each Wednesday, the day designated by the New York City public school system for RI, or religious instruction, the secular Jackmans’ kid left school an hour early (Yes!), put on his tzitzit under his street clothes, and headed to an Orthodox shul to learn Hebrew writing and stumble through the Rashi reader.

On Sundays, I attended morning minyan and more classes, including accelerated haftarah chanting lessons held with a group of other late-starters.

I must confess I remember very little of this learning. However, what stuck with me all these years is the passion for Judaism that the men and women of the shul communicated to me. During Sunday prayers, the bearded men davened in what seemed to be holy rapture. One morning, a mortified congregant scolded me for trying to pronounce the ineffable name of God. I may not have known better at the time, but I didn’t have to be told twice.

And that passion is why, the day the Jackmans’ kid stood at the bimah to recite haftarah Bo in a beautiful piping soprano full of errors, with his female relatives separated from the men, and heartily congratulated anyway by the somewhat forbidding but tolerant men of the synagogue, he was heading inevitably toward Jewish observance.

The inevitable decision would not be made for many years, until I overcame ambivalences, inhibitions and other mental obstacles. But the impulse was created during that short half-year when I prepped for and achieved my bar mitzvah.

Reprinted courtesy of in the Jewish Federation of Louisville.

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

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.”

French Teens in L.A. Share Their Fears

From a distance, the 23 teens hanging out in the Adat Ari El courtyard in Valley Village look like American high school students on a break between classes. A thin, bespectacled boy in a sporty T-shirt sings along with the J.Lo and Ja Rule tune on his headphones, while a pretty girl spoons peanut butter out of a jar to share with her friends. A car pulls up at the front of the building and a petite girl in a floral tank top and low-rise jeans hops out and joins the group. Yet, her telltale greeting, a smooch on both cheeks and a hearty "bonjour!" distinguish these students from their American counterparts.

The teens are visiting Los Angeles on a three-week French Jewish exchange program called CAEJ (Centre Anglo European Jeunesse Juive/British European Center for Jewish Youth). While visiting places, such as Universal Studios, Dodger Stadium, Hurricane Harbor and the Museum of Tolerance, the students stay with Jewish families, practice their English and soak up Jewish American culture. But while searching for celebrities and bonding with new friends, the students can’t help but remember the anti-Semitic experiences they’ve had back in France.

When discussing his life in Rueil Malmaison, a Paris suburb, 16-year-old Oliver Dahan’s usually goofy antics disappear. "In France, you can’t wear a kippah if you don’t want to be hurt," he says. Dahan then recounts the story of some friends who dared to don their yarmulkes on the street. "The [Arab] people came to fight them and they had to run fast." Carole Teboul, 16, from Paris, says that she always hides her Star of David necklace under her shirt when she rides the subway or the bus at home. "Sometimes old men or old women will yell, ‘Kill all Jews!’ when I’m on the bus. They are very narrow-minded," she says.

Laura Schusselblum, 16, hails from the northern city of Strasbourg. "I live in the Jewish quarter of my town. A lot of synagogues have been burned. We have one or two Jewish cemeteries and they put graffiti on the tombstones. It’s like the intifada. It’s very hard to live," she says sadly.

Some of the students admitted they felt safer as Jews on the streets of Los Angeles. The teens link the violence against Jews with angry Arab activists. Most have negative associations with Muslims, although Schusselblum said that the few Muslim students at her school are "very nice." Jean Charles Aouizerate, the 23-year-old chaperone for the group, says, "It disturbs me that we talk about Arabs all the time. We put them all in the same bag and it doesn’t seem right."

Through CAEJ, the students are able to escape the religious hardship at home and experience Judaism in another part of the world. CAEJ was founded in 1966 by Charles Labiod, a Parisian Jew of Tunisian descent, who is an active member of the French Jewish community. Labiod is a member of the Consistoire Central de France, an umbrella organization that unites many synagogues countrywide. Labiod founded CAEJ when he learned that Jewish adolescents on foreign exchange programs were often placed with non-Jewish host families. Since then, he has organized programs for Jewish youth and families from France. Participants can travel to England, Israel, the Alps and Los Angeles.

In a recent visit to Los Angeles, Labiod addressed congregants at Adat Ari El about Judaism, France and Israel. "[President Jacques] Chirac likes the Jews in France," he said. "He is very proud and protective of the Jews. As for Israel, it’s like the crusades of South Africa. He believes Israel will just fade away and disappear." Labiod is clearly baffled that Chirac makes such a huge distinction between Israel and Jews at large.

The students concurred with Labiod’s assessment. While they say that their experiences with anti-Semitism are disturbing, many of them refuse to remain passive. During the government elections a few months back, Dahan remembers seeing graffiti around his town that said things like "Death to the Jews."

"When I see this stuff, I erase it or scratch it off," he says, "I’m not afraid of getting caught."

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.”

Torah, Technology and Tolerance

David Wilstein is among the breed of men who built and shaped the postwar Jewish community in Los Angeles. He migrated from the East Coast as a young man, made a great deal of money, and then poured much of his energy and business savvy into the welfare of the community as well as into the strengthening of Israel.

Last Sunday, 400 friends and colleagues gathered in Beverly Hills to laud the vision and philanthropy of David and Susan Wilstein. In turn, Wilstein conferred an award on the evening’s other honoree, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who responded with one of the more philo-Semitic speeches in recent memory.

Beneficiary of the black-tie event was the Jerusalem College of Technology, one of Israel’s lesser-known but most pragmatic academic institutions.

Founded 30 years ago, JCT currently turns some 800 students into high-tech computer engineers, applied scientists, and managers. The college’s graduates have helped transform Israel into a Middle East Silicon Valley; they serve in the armed forces; and they are integrating young Russian and Ethiopian immigrants into mainstream society.

As an integral part of their curriculum, students receive a strong religious education. After all, JCT’s motto is “Torah, Technology, Tolerance.”

This approach appealed immediately to Wilstein, who first visited the campus nine years ago and who went on to become regional chair of JCT’s American support organization.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in civil and structural engineering from his hometown school, the University of Pittsburgh, Wilstein headed for Los Angeles. In short order, he met his future wife and landed a job with the state Division of Highways.

“I was involved in building the Pasadena and Hollywood freeways and the four-level downtown interchange,” he said during an interview in his spacious Century City penthouse office.

The work was challenging, but so was his small paycheck. So he decided to get a contractor’s license and go into business for himself. Wilstein, who says, “I like to think ahead,” built the first condominiums in Beverly Hills and “almost had to give them away — people didn’t understand the concept.”

Over the years, he also built the first private medical center and hospital in the West as well as the first high-rise building in the Los Feliz area, battling neighboring homeowners all the way up to the Supreme Court.

In 1968, he founded the Realtech Group, a consortium of companies and partnerships that provides a full spectrum of real estate services, and focuses on the development of commercial office buildings. Some recent projects include the Maple Plaza in Beverly Hills and the World Savings Center in Brentwood.

With his business secure, Wilstein became more involved in community service, particularly with Israel Bonds, the University of Judaism, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and the Jewish Federation’s United Jewish Fund — as campaign chair.

He remains active in the UJF’s major gifts division. “Each year, I take 50 to 75 cards [of large donors] and close [the gift commitments] myself,” he said.

He also established the Wilstein Institute for Jewish Policy Studies as a bicoastal think tank, whose main activities are now centered in Boston.

In the early 1980s, he began investing in Israeli high-tech and biotech companies — then considered speculative ventures — as well as real estate in Tel Aviv. He also founded “The Nation,” a short-lived English-language daily in Israel.

In recent years, Wilstein, who defines his religious orientation as “Conservadox” and belongs to the traditional Congregation Mogen David, has become “fascinated” by Torah studies and the spiritual aspects of Judaism.

“I go to Israel two to three times a year to study at Aish HaTorah,” he said. “They teach me about Torah, and I teach them a little about business.”

When in Los Angeles, he continues his studies with local Aish HaTorah rabbis and at the University of Judaism.

Prominent in his office is a treadmill, on which the 71-year-old Wilstein exercises daily while working the phone or reading at the same time.

Wilstein and his wife are currently spearheading a $5 million campaign to erect a new school of engineering on the JCT campus, which will bear their names.

Another contribution has been the establishment of the JCT Wilstein Award for Achievements in Technology, which was conferred, for the first time, on Murdoch at last Sunday’s dinner.

Murdoch is the controversial chairman of The News Corp., which controls a vast international media and communications empire, as well as the Los Angeles Dodgers.