Alan Dershowitz retiring from Harvard Law School

Alan Dershowitz, one of the country’s most prominent lawyers and a passionate advocate for Israel, is retiring from Harvard Law School.

Dershowitz, 75, who is known for taking on high-profile and often unpopular causes and clients, has taught at Harvard Law for half a century. His retirement becomes official at the end of the week.

At a conference in Israel, he said last week, according to the Boston Globe, “Yeah, I’m really retiring. … My retirement consists of reducing my schedule down to only about 10 things at any given time.”

In 1967, he became the youngest full professor in the school’s history. An expert in criminal and constitutional law, Dershowitz has served on the defense team of celebrities including O.J. Simpson and Claus von Bulow, and more recently Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

Dershowitz, a Brooklyn native who has written and spoken often on his Orthodox Jewish upbringing and education, has used his prominence to defend Israel over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Among his harshest critics is Noam Chomsky, the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist with whom he has had a long-running public feud over Israel.

In 2006, Dershowitz publicly challenged former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, for the views he expressed in his book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” calling the book biased.

While “proud to be Jewish and engaged with Israel’s future,” Dershowitz also assisted Palestinian students when they sought inclusion of the Palestinian flag in a campus display, Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow told JTA.

Minow described Dershowitz as a devoted teacher of 50 years.

“We look forward to his continuing vibrancy, wit, and wisdom,” she said in an email to JTA.

A ritual to honor wisdom

For many women, the transition from actively engaged 50-year-old to septuagenarian retiree is daunting. Not only are there the unpleasant physical changes of menopause, but there is the emotional challenge of watching children move away and begin their own families, while being left with the uneasy task of facing mortality.

Yet at age 60 or 70, women still have many years, if not decades, ahead of them to pursue new careers, hobbies and educational endeavors. What was missing for many was a way to celebrate this Jewishly.

Then, in 1986, the late Savina Teubal, a Los Angeles woman who was 60 at the time, created the simchat chochmah (“joy of wisdom”), a ritual that celebrates wisdom and what lies ahead in a woman’s life. In an article Teubal wrote that was included in the 1992 anthology “Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality,” she explained how she created the ritual as a way to celebrate the transition into the next stage of life. 

“I created a ceremony, a rite of passage from adult to elder, to establish my presence in the community as a functional and useful human being,” she wrote. “The ritual also served some personal needs: that of facing my mortality, for instance … I felt that a crone ceremony filled a significant need in our society.”

In the nearly three decades since Teubal created this ritual, women in the Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements of Judaism have chosen to celebrate a simchat chochmah at the beginning of either their seventh or eighth decade of life, reclaiming their importance in society as holders of wisdom and productive members of the community. 

Although there is no standard way to celebrate, many women base their ceremonies on Teubal’s blueprint. One common feature is the presence of the song, “L’chi Lach,” at some point during the festivities, as well as shared personal reflections on life from each of the participants.

Part of the preparation for the ceremony involves religious study. Women celebrating their simchat chochma often choose to focus on the stories of strong, older women in the Torah, and use that as a jumping-off point for reflecting on their own lives as mature women in a Jewish context.

Among those who have had the ritual is Nancy Federman of Westlake Village. On June 8, she and three of her closest friends — Frima Telerant, Patty Kaye and Judy Maller — celebrated their simchat chochmah together at First Neighborhood Community Center in Westlake Village, a venue that comfortably held all 200 guests and had plenty of outdoor space for dining, dancing and shmoozing after the service.

“We wanted to do something special to mark our 70th birthdays with a Jewish ritual, with each of us doing something new that we had never done before, like wearing a kippah or tallit, or reading Torah aloud in public,” Federman said.

After a service that consisted of prayers, blessings, Torah readings and shared personal reflections from each woman, there was a ceremony that involved activities such as tree planting, singing, traditional dancing and, of course, lots of delicious food. The women also gathered six barrels worth of nonperishable food items to donate to Jewish Family Service’s SOVA Community Food and Resource Program. 

The entire planning process, from start to finish, took two years, but it was worth it, according to Federman.

“To me personally,” she said, “the simchat chochmah was an opportunity to celebrate not only a significant birthday, but also to share my strong Jewish identity with family and friends, and reaffirm my faith and the mitzvot I perform. And it did just that.”

The women all met each other between 20 and 40 years ago, through a mix of religious studies courses and well-timed introductions via mutual friends.

“We realized a while ago we were the same age, born in 1943,” said Kaye, also of Westlake Village. “We celebrated our 60th and 65th birthdays with a getaway trip, but wanted to do something very special for our 70th.  We also wanted to do something Jewish. Because we are close friends, we felt that we would enjoy planning and holding this wonderful event together.”

Federman was aware of the ceremony, and shared the idea with the other women. They then watched “Timbrels and Torahs,” a 2000 film about the ritual, and started planning in earnest from there.

During the ceremony, each of the women shared their reflections with family and friends in a different way.

“I used ideas of community, transition and friendship,” Kaye said. “I spoke of my mother, who at 101, was present. I also stressed how extended family and good friends have influenced my life, and how I hopefully will continue to learn from all of them.”

Maller, who lives in Encino, spoke about a specific Shabbat experience that she and her husband had in Lublin, Poland.

“We had Sabbath services in a popular restaurant in the old city. There was a klezmer band that was rocking, and the place was packed with Polish people stamping their feet and clapping to Yiddish and Hebrew music and participating in a Jewish service. I thought of those people struggling to become Jews again in a place like Poland. This celebration was a turning point in my life,” she said.

Telerant of Westwood talked about the women who had the greatest influence on her life — her mother, mother-in-law, friends and daughters — and how they, and Judaism, taught her how to navigate the difficult intricacies of the world and the relationships within it. 

“I hope that the traditions and values of Judaism which have enriched my life are embedded in my children and that they will teach them to theirs. Living Jewishly has given shape and meaning to my life and to theirs,” she said. “Whatever the future brings, I know that I will be able to deal with the challenges ahead because of my faith, my traditions, my family and my friends.” 

Wayne Firestone stepping down as CEO of Hillel

After seven years as the chief executive at Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, Wayne Firestone will be stepping down from his post in June 2013.

Firestone, who has worked at Hillel for more than a decade and served as its CEO since 2005, spent Thursday and Friday informing the organization’s top board leaders and staffers about his decision to resign as the head of the international campus organization. He took over Hillel after the much-heralded tenure of Richard Joel, who left to become president of Yeshiva University.

“The organization is poised to grow to a new scale, in order to accommodate the rapid growth in student participation in the United States that we have driven over the past several years (from 33 percent to 45 percent student involvement from 2005 to 2012, according to a formal study),” Firestone said in a statement to Hillel leaders and staff. “This effort will require strong senior leadership and new financial resources.”

Firestone said he is not sure what he will do next but that he wishes to remain active in Jewish affairs.

In recent years, Firestone has pushed for more programming aimed at Jewish students who don't venture into their campus Hillel buildings, with an emphasis on peer-to-peer outreach, and organizing and supporting activities at other venues.

Firestone’s tenure coincided with the rise of the pro-Palestinian campaign to get universities to divest from Israel and paint its government as an apartheid regime. Arguing that exposure to Israel and Israelis is the most effective response to efforts to demonize the Jewish state, Firestone has attempted to position Hillel as an unapologetic defender of Israel’s democratic character and of Israel's vital importance to the Jewish people. At the same time, he has argued for the need to provide students with space to engage in open and critical dialogue about Israel and Israeli policies, and warned that today’s students would reject efforts to indoctrinate them on how to think about Middle East issues.

Thomas Blumberg, chairman of Hillel's board of directors, praised Firestone’s support for innovative programs, but he said that this moment is an appropriate time for transition.

“By every measure, the innovative peer-to-peer approach he championed has resulted in higher student involvement with Hillel than we have seen in decades, and in many more students seeking to deepen their Jewish identity and skills,” Blumberg said in a statement. “Wayne led Hillel during a period of extraordinary innovation. Now that much of that innovation has borne fruit, we will — following the roadmap in our recently passed five-year strategic plan — move to a phase of bringing the new engagement approaches to more campuses and students and deepening them where they have already succeeded.”

Edgar Bronfman, a one of Hillel’s leading philanthropic supporters, was also quoted as praising Firestone.

“He has led nothing less than a historic transformation,” Bronfman was quoted as saying in the Hillel statement.

Yaroslavsky reflects on decision to leave politics

In an interview with The Journal on Thursday, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said that he hasn’t spent much time yet thinking specifically about what he’s going to devote his time and energy to after he leaves public office at the end of his term in 2014, but he said he will continue to work in the areas that have been priorities for him—especially helping to address the needs of the homeless and providing healthcare to those who cannot afford insurance.

Yaroslavsky, 63, had announced on his Web site Thursday morning that he will not enter next year’s Los Angeles mayoral race, despite having entertained the possibility for many months. He wrote that he will leave politics altogether once his term with the L.A. County Board of Supervisors ends in 2014.

“I have no doubt that, with my expertise and experience, I could help transform L.A.’s fortunes. In the end, however, it is this very length of service that has tipped the scales for me,” Yaroslavsky wrote.

He described the decision as “one of the most difficult … of my political life.”

Yaroslavsky was first elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1975, at age 26, after being a prominent advocate for the cause of Soviet Jewry. When his current term ends, he will have been in public office for almost 40 years. Yaroslavsky said his plans are to “move on to the other things I’ve longed to do outside the political arena.”

[Related: Video: Yaroslavsky goes out for the count ]

Yaroslavsky said he also planned to write and teach in a part-time capacity, and said he hoped to continue his work overseas monitoring elections and working to advance democratization.

The L.A. native also said he will not be leaving Los Angeles.

“I’m not moving away,” Yaroslavsky said, “I’m going to stay involved in issues that I care about in this city.”

This isn’t the first time that Yaroslavsky has declined to run for mayor after being suggested as a potential candidate, and he had been considering a run to succeed L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa over at least the past two years. He was considered by many to be a serious contender, though he never officially announced a mayoral bid.

A Center for the Study of Los Angeles poll released in April showed Yaroslavsky ranking alongside the two official frontrunner candidates, Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti and Controller Wendy Gruel. City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who also is running, was ranked fourth.

An outpouring of praise for Yaroslavsky Thursday, including from those candidates, prompted the County Supervisor to joke that “the praise has been so incredibly effusive that I was reconsidering my decision, and I was going to claim their endorsements.”

In making his announcement on his blog, however, Yaroslavsky was definitive and serious.

“Simply put, it’s time for a new generation of leaders to emerge and guide this region into the future,” he wrote.

Praise for Yaroslavsky came from an intergenerational group of elected officials and community leaders.

“As a councilman and supervisor of Los Angeles, he has a remarkable legacy,” Rep. Henry Waxman said in an interview Thursday, “and it’s a been an honor to work with him on issues such as public health, transportation and veteran’s issues.”

Waxman first met Yaroslavsky when the latter was leading California Students for Soviet Jewry as a student at UCLA.

“He was a voice of conscience for these people who wanted to live a life of freedom in the United States or go to Israel,” Waxman, who has represented West Los Angeles in Congress since 1975, said.

California Assemblyman Mike Feuer, who succeeded Yaroslavsky on the L.A. City Council, called him “an extraordinary public servant,” citing Yaroslavsky’s work on behalf of “seniors, kids, public health, the environment, transportation and more.”

“He’s made an indelible mark on L.A., and it continues to be a privilege to work closely with him,” Feuer said.

The current representative of the fifth council district, Councilman Paul Koretz, was a student when Yaroslavsky first ran for city council in 1975.

“He had a virtually unfunded campaign,” said Koretz, who worked on Yaroslavsky’s campaign over that summer. He was expected to finish “fourth or worse,” Koretz said, but Yaroslavsky managed a narrow second-place finish in the primary, thanks to community support and the willingness to walk door-to-door to meet voters.

“Then it just took on a life of his own,” Koretz said of the 1975 campaign.

Koretz said he was “very disappointed” Yaroslavsky won’t be running for mayor.

“I think he’s probably the best budgeter in L.A. County in any elected office,” Koretz said, “and I think he would’ve been exactly what the City of Los Angeles needs from the next mayor right now.”

“He’s among the most honest, smart and dedicated public servants I’ve ever come across,” Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Isarel of Hollywood, said of Yaroslavsky, “and hopefully something big will be named in his honor to recall to the minds and hearts of Angelenos that this was a politician of integrity and a public servant of great import.”

“I will miss him in public office,” added Rosove, who called Yaroslavsky a friend., “But I’m sure that he will continue to do great works, because that’s the nature of his heart and mind and soul.”

Yaroslavsky wouldn’t say whether he will endorse any of the other mayoral candidates, making the point that whoever wins will have to deal with what he called the “mess” of the city’s budget.

“Part of having to deal with it is going to be saying ‘no’ to the people who supported them in the election,” Yaroslavsky said, adding that a “bold candidate” might demonstrate during the campaign the capacity to disappoint both business interests and union interests.

Yaroslavsky called all the candidates “good people,” but said he wasn’t hopeful about any of them taking such a potentially unpopular step.

“People aren’t going to want to alienate constituencies,” he said.

Yaroslavsky was born in Boyle Heights and has lived in the Fairfax district since he was a boy. He has long been a strong advocate for Jewish causes, and for Israel, and said he would continue to stay involved in the Jewish community.

“It’s my home,” he said. “It’s who I am.”

Yaroslavsky acknowledged that, as he prepares to step out of politics, there are far fewer Jews holding public office today than in years past, and it’s less clear who in the coming generation of Jewish leaders might take his place.

Compared to the seven Jews serving on the City Council when Yaroslavsky left in 1994, today only three council members are Jewish – Perry, Koretz, and Mitchell Englander.

Yaroslavsky said he hasn’t really analyzed the reasons for the “diminution of Jewish communal interest in the political arena,” but expressed confidence that Jews working in the business, entertainment and nonprofit sectors will step up to take his mantel as future public officials.

Though he confessed that there are some things he will not miss about being in public office, Yaroslavsky called those things “trivial.”

“I’m blessed that I get to get up every morning and do what I love to do,” he said. “I’m just smart enough to know that I don’t think I’d love it as much for 50 years as I’ve loved it for 40 years.”

There’s no business like shul business

” target=”_blank”>”V’shamru,” which he composed in 1967 as part of a play he put on in rabbinical school, is sung around the world. For many, his version — “V’shamru, v’ne-ei Yisra-e-el, e-e-et ha-Sha-a-a-bbat” — is the version.

Despite his renown, Rothblum is humble.

“He practices the Jewish concept of tzim-tzum,” musician Craig Taubman said. “It’s the ability to make himself smaller. When you lead with that model, you create an opportunity for other people to shine.”

In 2001, Rothblum introduced an alternative monthly service featuring Taubman, a member of the congregation. Hundreds now flock to the service, called “One Shabbat Morning,” which involves nontraditional elements like acting out the Torah portion and a band jamming on drums and electric guitars.

Those who know Rothblum call him “Moshe” or “Rabbi.” Boni Gellis, Rothblum’s assistant of nearly 11 years, calls him “my rabbi.”

“I like to call him ‘Boss,'” said Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard, who, after 10 years at Adat Ari El, will take Rothblum’s place as senior rabbi. Rothblum has taught Bernhard many lessons over the years, including how to interact with a congregation and preserve tradition.

Rothblum, married for 36 years, with two sons, has also shown his protégé how to balance synagogue and family life.

“He has a very gentle touch,” said Bernhard, 40. “It’s not like he tries to pound these lessons into me. It’s been more by offering up words of wisdom.”

People can relate to Rothblum, said Steve Getzug, 46, who has been a congregant at Adat Ari El for about 14 years and has served on the board.

“There’re the Rabbi Schulweises of the world who are sort of on a different plane. … They’re inspirational, but half of what they say may elude you,” Getzug said. “What I like about the rabbi is that he appeals to me in language that I can understand.”