LGBT Jews take pride in inclusiveness


Before he told members of his family, Nathan Looney told members of his synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), that he was transitioning from female to male. He says the encouragement he received is typical for members of this Pico Boulevard congregation.

“I see my family once in a while, but I see the people here once a week, sometimes more,” said Looney, who added that the synagogue gave him “perfect support.”

Looney was among more than 100 participants who attended Pride Shabbat at BCC, a Friday night kickoff to a weekend of activities celebrating the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

Marking the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a watershed moment in the LGBT rights movement, Pride festivities in Los Angeles included parties, a lesbian-led march, a festival and a Sunday afternoon parade along Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. In a year that has seen the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and President Barack Obama becoming the first president to support same-sex marriage, the LGBT communities had much to celebrate.

The Jewish community participated in LGBT events throughout the weekend with a combination of philanthropy and prayer as well as celebration.

In addition to Pride, BCC’s Friday night service also marked the 40th anniversary of its first Shabbat service. Congregants were invited to prepare short speeches to read from the bimah throughout the service to share memories, describing their personal journeys to spirituality as well as coming out to themselves and their communities. The congregants’ stories started with the earliest members of the congregation and continued toward the more recent.

Davi Cheng, a computer graphics designer who helped create the biblically themed stained glass windows in the sanctuary, first came to BCC in 1996 when her partner, Bracha, began keeping a more Jewish household. Cheng, a former BCC president, recalled how she celebrated her 17th anniversary with her partner at the synagogue.

“[Bracha] arranged to have ‘The Song of Songs’ sung to me during Friday night services. We were invited to light the Shabbat candles. What a powerful night that was — to be able to be who we are and celebrating publicly our anniversary. Just this act of sharing our love with the community was very affirming,” she said.

At Congregation Kol Ami, a congregation in West Hollywood, Rabbi Denise L. Eger and Cantor Mark Saltzman led Pride Shabbat services. Congregants also took part in a professional clothing drive for the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center’s Jeff Griffith Youth Center, which gives shelter and supplies to homeless LGBT youth as well as helping them obtain GEDs and vocational assistance.

“That is really what gay and lesbian pride is about,” said Eger, who served as a judge for the parade. “It is about creating an environment of total inclusion. Tolerance does not mean that anyone does anything. To really include means you go another step further.”

Celebration of diversity was also reflected in an interfaith service at the intersection of Santa Monica and La Cienega boulevards before the start of the Pride Parade on Sunday. The service included live music and was led by spiritual leaders from Kol Ami, BCC, Metropolitan Community Church Los Angeles (MCCLA), the International Buddhist Meditation Center and the Los Angeles Queer Interfaith Clergy Council.

The Rev. Neil Thomas of MCCLA worries that young people are leaving the church “because they are equating religion with bigotry and hatred.” He believes the interfaith service is important for dispelling the idea that God does not love gay people.

Victor Bumbalo of the Buddhist Meditation Center agreed. “Young people coming out think people of faith have turned their backs on them. Being LGBT should not stop someone from being spiritual,” he said.

While the mood throughout the weekend was supportive and optimistic, it was also acknowledged that there is still work to be done in obtaining civil rights for the LGBT community.

Eger stressed that the LGBT community will continue to exist in a state of second-class citizenship until the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Rabbi Lisa Edwards of BCC agreed.

“It was great to see that the president came out in support of gay marriage, but that same week, North Carolina passed the law banning it. … Minuses always come with pluses. It’s two steps forward and one step back, to put it in parade terms. But we’re still moving forward.”

Hundreds of missionaries targeting Jewish neighborhoods


Wednesday afternoon I answered my door in Pico Robertson to discover three young people, ranging from 18 to 22 years old. They wanted to talk to me about “Israel Restoration.” For a moment I thought they were talking about rebuilding Israeli forests. However, the moment I saw their literature, I knew they were Christian missionaries.

I welcomed them into my home and proceeded to give them a two-hour lesson about the spiritual beauty and integrity of Judaism. I also answered their questions, including who I thought Jesus was.

I left them with some things to ponder and they left me with a DVD Testimonial of their “boss,” Tom Cantor, and a Hebrew-English New Testament.

It turns out that Cantor is a multi-millionaire Jewish businessman who converted to and became part of the 70-million-strong evangelical Christian movement. He produced the DVD about his conversion to Christianity and hired 200 young Christians to spread the Gospel in Jewish neighborhoods including Encino, Westwood, Beverly Hills and Hancock Park.

My encounter was cordial and respectful; however, the average individual would not be as prepared as I was for such an encounter. I, in fact, would not mind having a face-to-face discussion with Tom Cantor himself, if for no other reason than to dispel the negative Jewish stereotypes on his DVD as well as some of his glaring theological mistakes.

There is a good chance you or your children will encounter missionaries. More than 85% of high school and college students report they have been approached. This may happen in person; however, the internet has become the more popular and effective arena for proselytizing, giving missionaries easy access into homes and dormitory rooms.

To prepare you for an encounter, whether in person or online, I have a few suggestions. Firstly, be aware that the best response may be to politely and firmly say, “No thank you.” If you do choose to engage in dialogue, don’t assume the missionaries are correct simply because you don’t have answers to their questions, and don’t feel pressured to give an answer on the spot. There are always two sides to every argument. If you apply good Critical Thinking skills you will take time to research your replies.

Secondly, turn to your rabbi for answers or visit the JewsForJudaism.org website, which has an extensive library and free literature for download.

Finally, be aware that many missionaries give away free Bibles that are replete with misleading and incorrect translations of the Hebrew original.

Unfortunately, 80% of today’s North American Jews are unable to read or understand Hebrew. An accurate and trustworthy English translation of the entire Jewish Scriptures is vital to making an informed study of Judaism, and now there is a new and important tool that meets this need.

ArtScroll Publications has released a new English translation of the complete Jewish Bible, and I was one of several consultants who fine-tuned the commentary notes, using my specific expertise to provide insights into passages that have frequently been distorted or mistranslated in non-Jewish Bibles. 

This new Bible, “The ArtScroll English Tanach,” is a wonderful resource for the English-speaking Jewish community, and especially for unaffiliated Jews and students. The easily accessible knowledge it contains will certainly prove to be a valuable asset for those using vital Critical Thinking skills to evaluate the often cleverly deceptive claims of missionaries.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz is the Founder of Jews for Judaism international. He can be reached at 310-556-3344 or {encode=”LA@JewsforJudaism.org” title=”LA@JewsforJudaism.org”}.

Tikkunfest brings much-needed TLC to Pico-Robertson [VIDEO]


Volunteers spent five hours uprooting dead trees and planting new ones; setting up herb planters in front of stores; repainting curbs, poles and fire hydrants; sweeping mulch and dirt off the sidewalks; and lugging heavy garbage bags in the predominantly Orthodox neighborhood of Pico-Robertson in West Los Angeles.

The Jewish community needs a clean Pico-Robertson, Rabbi Yonah Bookstein said during Tikkunfest, an Oct. 24 community service event organized by his group, Jewlicious.

“This is the thriving heart of much of the Jewish community, a place with shuls and schools and restaurants and stores,” he said. “It really needs some TLC.” 

Between 100 and 150 volunteers worked on projects along 10 blocks of Pico Boulevard, between Doheny Drive and La Cienega Boulevard, organizers said.

Most volunteers cited a similar reason for participating: a desire to give of themselves to something bigger than themselves.

“I wanted to come because it’s a great way to give back to the Jewish community, to give to the community in general,” said Samantha Eddahabi, a Santa Monica College student, who knelt close to the ground on Pico Boulevard with traffic whizzing by as she repainted a curb’s red zone. “It’s a major mitzvah.”

Rabbi David Bluman of Kadima Day School in West Hills said he came “to give back to the community, to do some tzedakah [charity]. I live in the neighborhood, and it’s time to clean it up.”

In addition to cleanup and repair, volunteers also assisted seniors and collected clothing and food for the needy.

Event sponsors included The Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles and City Council member Paul Koretz’s office.

Koretz, whose District 5 seat includes Pico-Robertson, dropped by to show support for the clean-up.

“The Pico-Robertson area, I think, sometimes looks a little run down and needs to be cleaned up. This will give it a shiny new face and it’ll also give folks in the community a chance to participate,” Koretz said. “Especially in this era where government services are being cut and the city’s budget is hundreds of millions of dollars short, I think the community stepping up and helping out is critically important.”

Story continues after the jump.

Noah Bleich, founder of L.A. Green Mile Project, an environmental group that partnered with Jewlicious, said that Tikkunfest shows how small community groups can organize service events with cooperation from businesses and the city — a bottom-up approach to social change.

Bleich said he wants to “turn Pico Boulevard, from La Cienega to Beverly Drive, [into] a green mile, where, ecologically outside and ecologically inside, community and businesses and government work together.”

After hours of work, the volunteers returned to the event staging site — a parking lot near Pico and Robertson boulevards — for a concert featuring the band Cousin Junebug and Jewish rapper Kosha Dillz.

Despite organizers’ best outreach efforts, they were not able to attract enough people to fulfill Tikkunfest’s ultimate goal, which was to have volunteers work approximately 18 blocks of Pico-Robertson, Bleich said.

Bookstein said volunteers planned to gather again Oct. 31 to continue beautifying the area, and that his group will continue to make planters available to businesses in the neighborhood. 

Volunteer Neda Zarabi said she participated for the sake of “tikkun olam, [to] repair the world,” adding that people should not mistake the concept as merely a cliché. “It’s one of the foundations of Judaism. You have to make it real to not be a cliché; that’s how you make it tangible.”

For more information, send an e-mail to {encode=”tikkunfest@gmail.com” title=”tikkunfest@gmail.com”}.

Rabbis’ Ethics Initiative Evokes Cheers, Criticism


Rabbis’ Ethics Initiative Evokes Cheers, Criticism

 

Errol Fine, owner of Pat’s Restaurant and Catering, places the fair treatment of his employees high on his list of business priorities. In fact, he hopes soon to put a sign in the window of his popular Pico Boulevard establishment telling his customers as much.

Pat’s could become one of the first local businesses to sign onto a new initiative calling for ethical labor practices in Jewish workplaces in Los Angeles. Launched early this month, Peulat Sachir (“the worker’s wage”) is the brainchild of a group of local Modern Orthodox rabbis hoping to renew Jewish commitment to upholding labor laws in the wake of several national scandals during the past year.

“This initiative will make our community holier and more ethical, and will raise the level of commitment to labor laws and to Jewish law,” said Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation. “It’s about putting the importance of complying with labor law on the radar of this religious community.”

Rabbis and attorneys involved in the movement are asking business owners to sign a statement pledging to treat employees according to state and federal labor laws. The “covenant” document, offered at no cost, focuses on six areas: minimum wage, overtime payment, workers compensation insurance, meal and rest periods, family and personal leave, and anti-discrimination policy.

Employers wishing to take part will agree to open their books to trained volunteers who will verify compliance with the laws in question. Business owners also will agree to undergo biannual site checks and attend seminars on employer obligations and employee rights.

In exchange, leaders of the initiative will encourage patronage of businesses involved and give them priority when choosing vendors for synagogue events.

Establishments with the Peulat Sachir pledge in their windows might also gain a competitive edge among consumers who care about labor issues, said Los Angeles labor attorney Craig Ackermann — the same way stores that promote a green image attract environmentally conscious shoppers.

The rabbis spearheading the movement — who also include Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of Kehillat Yavneh, Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City and Rabbi Steven Weil of Beth Jacob — are first targeting businesses in the Pico-Robertson area that they believe are already in compliance.

“For them, it will be a no-brainer,” Kanefsky said. “All they will be doing is receiving public acclamation for doing what they have always done. Businesses will have everything to gain and nothing to lose.”

A Jewish Issue?

But Peulat Sachir organizers are preparing for a wave of criticism nonetheless. Much of the debate over the initiative revolves around one question: Is labor ethics a Jewish issue?

Fine, the owner of Pat’s Restaurant and Catering, thinks it is.

“Rabbis should get involved in more than kashrut,” he said. “I think [the initiative] is important — the community would know that the businesses they support are cognizant of correct business practices.”

But businesses are mandated to uphold labor laws anyway, said Gagy Shagalow, owner of Munchies on Pico Boulevard. An initiative led by religious leaders would have no added benefit to the community, he said.

“This is up to the law — it’s not up to the rabbanim to get involved in legal issues,” Shagalow said. “Either you follow the law or you don’t. The state takes care of businesses that don’t follow the law. It’s not a Jewish issue.”

Muskin and the other rabbis involved disagree. They say Judaism should not be confined to the synagogue, and point out that traditional Jewish law extends to marketplace regulation.

Choshen Mishpat, a text that outlines business ethics, is a heavily studied section of halachah (Jewish law), Muskin said. Members of the Jewish community are required to obey the “laws of the land” (Choshen Mishpat, 369:11), and the Torah commands employers to pay workers promptly and accurately because their lives depend on it (Deuteronomy 24:15).

“We have an obligation, as Jews, to be a light unto the nations and to set an example of ethical and moral behavior in all walks of life,” Korobkin said. “We’re supposed to be as observant in our offices and our homes as we are in our synagogues. For an observant Jew, his observance should be manifest in the way that he runs his business — not just in whether or not he wears a kippah or eats kosher food.”

Restoring Communal Values

The initiative was conceived in October in response to allegations of routine worker mistreatment at the country’s largest kosher meatpacking plant last spring, and has taken on new significance since Wall Street money manager Bernard Madoff’s December arrest on charges of running a $50 billion investment fraud.

News of rampant labor violations at the AgriProcessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa — including more than 9,000 child labor charges and workers’ claims of long hours, shorted pay and sexual harassment — shook the community in the wake of a federal immigration raid on the plant last May. Former manager Sholom Rubashkin was arrested Oct. 30, 2008, on allegations of knowingly hiring undocumented workers and covering up their illegal status with false identification.

“There were a number of stories in the news where Jews were portrayed in a bad light that I felt we, as a community, needed to address,” Korobkin said.

As kosher consumers reeled, the rabbis sought to counter the bad press with an educational initiative to bring ethical standards back to the forefront of community consciousness.

Bringing on labor lawyers and lay business leaders to flesh out the plan, the group first pursued the idea of certifying that local businesses were in compliance with labor laws through a seal of approval. But a seal might imply that they were providing rabbinic supervision over businesses, the group felt, which they lacked the resources to do. Also, if the initiative grew beyond the Jewish community, the rabbis didn’t want restaurant patrons to confuse a certificate of kosher business practices with one of kosher food.

Settling on a covenant-style agreement instead, the rabbis decided they would ask employers to sign a voluntary statement of intent to uphold labor laws, which the group would back through spot checks of participating businesses.

The nonprofit Bema’aglei Tzedek launched a similar measure in Israel in 2004 that recognizes restaurants pledging to treat its cooks and servers by ethical labor standards. That program has now grown to more than 300 restaurants.

In Los Angeles, the rabbis felt starting small and locally would be an effective way to bring the lessons of AgriProcessors home.

“This would be something that people would literally see on a daily basis, and they would have to make choices on a daily basis,” Kanefsky said. “It’s very real and very immediate; it’s not in Iowa — it’s on Pico Boulevard.”

Not a Witch Hunt

Businesses that apply for the covenant and are found to be in violation of labor laws, however, won’t be penalized, the rabbis say.

“We are not here to condemn, or to single out, or to expose any businesses that are not in compliance,” Korobkin said. “We are just here to heap praise and promotion on businesses that are.”

Peulat Sachir representatives will be bound by a confidentiality clause in which they agree not to publicize what they find on-site, said Ackermann, the labor lawyer who helped craft the initiative. “[Employers] might be concerned about, ‘Are you going to hand this over to the labor commissioner?’ That’s not going to happen,” he said.

In some cases, he added, business owners might simply be unaware of certain labor laws — such as that workers in California are entitled to a 30-minute meal break on shifts longer than five hours, or that employees on the clock for more than eight hours must be paid 1 1/2 times their regular rate in overtime.

At businesses found to be lagging, owners might have to spend a bit more to shore up old policies. Employers who feel they can’t afford to make changes in the current economic climate won’t be forced to sign on, Korobkin said. “Any business that feels that it’s not economically feasible to sign onto the covenant won’t be pressured to do so.”

Still, Ackermann said, “labor laws are not voluntary to begin with” and businesses that disregard them leave themselves open to government investigation and penalties.

The initiative does not address the issue of undocumented workers, which Ackermann said is “too complicated, too controversial” for such a small group. But the wage and break laws outlined in the covenant apply to documented and undocumented workers alike.

Another concern is that businesses might see the initiative as an “unnecessary headache” that might be too intrusive or time-consuming. Site testers will visit each business twice a year to check a random sampling of employee records — a process that might take, at most, an hour or two, Ackermann said. The site testers will be labor lawyers and trained volunteers, similar to the mashgiachs who monitor the kosher status of restaurants.

Any business with employees is eligible for the covenant, including synagogues, schools, restaurants, supermarkets, medical practices and dry cleaners.

The ultimate goal is not to regulate businesses, Korobkin said, but rather to boost the profile of labor laws on the Jewish communal agenda: “Our whole objective is to raise awareness in the community that these things are important to Jews.”

For more information, call Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky at (310) 276-9269, or e-mail

Neighbors oppose Chabad expansion on Pico


Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, head of Chabad of California, has a dream — a block-long, five-story “village” on Pico Boulevard that would provide a girls day school and boarding school along with affordable, safe housing for Holocaust survivors and other elderly people and for teachers with large families.

On the ground floor, retail stores — such as “milchig” and “fleishig” commissaries, a pharmacy and a clothing store selling inexpensive, modest but fashionable clothing — would serve the residents as well as the community. Beneath the proposed almost 108,000 square-foot building, 80 feet in height, would be two levels of subterranean parking.

“It will make lives easier for people, including the people down the block,” Cunin said.

But for neighbors living in the vicinity of this one-block area on the north side of Pico Boulevard, bordered by Wetherly and Crest drives as well as a back alley, the project represents anything but a dream. They envision a nightmare — a structure too massive for the 28,000-square-foot parcel of land that they believe is certain to bring more noise, traffic and trash into an already congested area.

“I don’t want a monster built right behind my back yard. It destroys my privacy. It’s outrageous,” said Mike Rafi, who lives on Wetherly Drive, one house away from the alley behind the Chabad property.

The Master Use Permit Application that Chabad of California filed on Aug. 7, 2007, for property located from 9001 to 9041 W. Pico Blvd. calls for the four buildings currently occupying that block, which is owned by Chabad, to be demolished. The proposed mixed-use development complex would include seven retail stores on the ground level; a junior high school accommodating 225 girls and high school for 200 girls on the second floor; 25 dormitory rooms housing 100 girls on the third floor; and 31 residential condominiums, one to three bedrooms, on the third, fourth and fifth floors.



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Neighbors and community advocates brought their objections before the Land Use and Economic Development Committee of the South Robertson Neighborhoods Council at meetings held on Aug. 5 and Sept. 2. The neighborhood councils, created in 1999 by the new Los Angeles City Charter, serve as advisory bodies to city council members and the mayor but have no regulatory power.

Opponents focused on the scope of the project, claiming their point was illustrated by the number of variances that Chabad is seeking, including exemptions to zoning and building requirements stipulated by the Los Angeles Municipal Code and the West Los Angeles Community Plan.

These include Chabad’s request to build to a height of 80 feet instead of the mandated height of 45 feet. The organization is also asking for a floor-to-area ratio of 3.84 to 1 in lieu of the established 1.5 to 1, which pertains to the building’s total floor area in relation to lot size.

Additionally, Chabad wants approval to provide 71 parking spaces instead of the required 168 and also wants the mandated loading space to be waived.

Chabad attorney Benjamin Reznik, a partner at Jeffer, Mangels, Butler and Marmaro, maintained that the variances are necessary because of the limitations the commercial zones impose on a building’s square footage.

“L.A. was designed and built as a commuter city where all the major boulevards — Pico, Olympic — have shallow lots that don’t lend themselves to the ability to create a mixed-use village,” he said.

He added that the limitations concern traffic and that the impact, with students who are not allowed cars and with many elderly residents who don’t drive, will be controlled.

South Robertson Neighborhoods Council’s Land Use Committee members proposed that both sides appoint representatives to meet and attempt to work out some compromises regarding size. Meanwhile, because the project is currently undergoing review by the Los Angeles City Department of Planning, with the environmental impact report expected to be released in the next week or two, the committee also proposed sending a letter to City Planning stating its opposition to the requested variances.

The motion passed unanimously at the Sept. 10 South Robertson Neighborhoods Council board meeting, held at Hamilton High School’s cafeteria.

Four community members have been selected to participate in talks with Chabad, according to community advocate Lorrie Stone, and are waiting for the next step. Cunin also confirmed that Chabad staff members will take part.

Meanwhile, Stone expressed concern by many residents dating back to 2001, when Chabad’s variance requests were approved to build the pre-kindergarten through eighth grade Bais Chaya Mushka School in the block immediately west of the proposed project.

“The zoning code exists to give us livable neighborhoods,” Stone said, adding that Chabad is not enforcing conditions that were imposed on Bais Chaya Mushka.

“All drop off and pick up is supposed to be on school grounds, but parents are totally parking on neighborhood streets,” Stone said. “They bring snacks for their children and change diapers, leaving the trash and diapers on the sidewalks.”

Cunin has recently hired a full-time professional security guard to prevent any violations. At the same time, he suggested that the diapers could also be from a neighborhood daycare facility.

Attorney Joubin Nasseri, who has volunteered to serve on the mediation committee as a community member, hopes that the two visions — that of Chabad and that of the neighbors — can be resolved.

“The bottom line is that Chabad is going to build. The question is to what degree,” Nasseri said.