Anat Hoffman, local rabbis discuss impact of Western Wall compromise

At the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an Israeli government commission convened to consider how to be inclusive of more forms of Judaism at Jerusalem’s Western Wall — the Kotel — which has long been the domain of the Orthodox. The commission’s report represented, for many, a victory in the decades-long struggle for pluralism, as it recommends the creation of a new, egalitarian prayer plaza adjacent to the current Orthodox one. 

The issue of what pluralism at the Kotel means was the focus of “Separate, but Equal?” a panel event held March 9 at Temple Beth Am, featuring four rabbis from different denominations as well as Anat Hoffman, co-founder of Women of the Wall and executive director of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), and Israel Consul General David Siegel. It was the first in a new “Crucial Conversations” series, designed by the Jewish Journal to bring together the community for vital discussions addressing contemporary Jewish life and concerns. 

Jewish Journal Executive Editor Susan Freudenheim moderated the event, dedicating the conversation to the memory of Taylor Force, an American graduate student stabbed to death in Tel Aviv that week. 

Offering welcome remarks, Siegel noted that “compromises are never easy, never not messy, never perfect,” but urged Hoffman and the assembled to understand that “we are one people.” He charged the audience to “always be involved in what’s happening in Israel,” and to “never give up.”

“Our vision for the future is a big tent,” Siegel said, to make Israel a place “where every Jew feels at home.”

Hoffman, for many the main draw of the event for her frontline engagement on this issue over the decades, attributed progress on the issue in large part to American Jews. 

“You were willing to stand up and fight … in support of finding a solution for this problem,” Hoffman said. “There must be more than one way to be Jewish in Israel. Zionism is not a spectator sport. You are willing to roll up your sleeves and do something about it.” 

Lauding the decision as “a great achievement,” Hoffman admitted that implementation will be challenging. As an example, she reported two seemingly conflicting remarks by Netanyahu — that he was completely committed to the report and was also giving the rabbis three weeks to identify their reservations. “I can save Netanyahu the three weeks,” Hoffman said. “The words ‘gender equality,’ ‘pluralism’ and ‘egalitarianism’ — that’s the objection.”

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of the Sephardic Educational Center, visits Israel regularly, but admitted that he rarely goes to the Kotel, because “every time I go,” he said, “there’s always some kind of argument or division taking place.” He also challenged Hoffman, saying that the egalitarian area means that “you essentially were relegated to a corner, and told that’s where you can go. … I don’t understand how that’s a victory.” 

Bouskila shared a story about his hero, Sephardic chief rabbi, Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, who had gone to the Kotel to pray on the occasion of his inauguration. “There was no minyan,” Bouskila said. “He was not wearing a tallit, there were women walking right by him and there was no barrier, because that was what the Kotel always was. The Kotel HaMa’aravi (the Western Wall) was never a synagogue,” Bouskila said. “The Kotel should not be a place that reflects denominational divisions,” he said.

Rabbi Pini Dunner, senior rabbi of Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, shared his disappointing Kotel experiences and his realization that the Temple Mount — topped by the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock — is no longer the center of Jewish life. “I don’t think I’m ever going to go to the Kotel again. The Kotel is not the holiest site of Judaism,” he said. “It’s a symbol of our shame and disgrace.” 

“To me, this argument about who can daven where and how is like a divorced couple arguing over teacups,” Dunner said. “I just don’t get it. We should all be getting together and every single day, sit at the Kotel and sing kinot (songs mourning the destruction of Jerusalem). Because despite the fact of how fantastic it is that we have the Kotel and Jerusalem and the State of Israel, we’re not there yet, Mashiach hasn’t come. Let’s not treat it as a tourist site or a synagogue when it is a symbol of the fact that the geulah shleimah (full redemption) is not yet here.”

“There is more than one way to be a Jew,” said Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, “That’s ultimately what this conversation is about and what the struggle of the last 27 years is about.” 

“The Kotel should belong to all Jews,” Geller said. “It’s like the National Mall, but on steroids. No one has the right to tell me that my voice doesn’t belong there. Women ought not to be invisible.” 

Geller admitted that the agreement “is a compromise and no one is happy. We gave up so much. That’s the point. It’s not perfect but it is incredibly important. The level of recognition for non-Orthodox denominations is the story and we need to recognize that.”

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld of Temple Beth Am admitted that in rabbinical school, he didn’t feel the imperative to fight for equality at the Kotel. However, during his year in Israel, a Shavuot experience at the back of the Kotel plaza made clear to him that “I couldn’t be on the outside. … Even if I wouldn’t have claimed this place to wage this particular battle, my Jews were under attack, and I had to be with them.” 

Hoffman noted that the progress was because of American Jews representing “the most effective and large coalition in the history of the State of Israel about an issue of pluralism,” and she urged the crowd to stay involved. 

“If a quarter million Jews wrote the prime minister of Israel, ‘This is important to us, this is a beautiful, new idea, we’d like to have a choice’ — if we all said that loud enough, it will happen,” said Hoffman in her closing remarks. “I really believe it. So, may the best plaza win.”

After the event, audience member Sarah Gorney, 27, who works at Hulu and discovered the event on Facebook, took issue with comments by some of the rabbis that the Kotel doesn’t matter. 

“The fact is, it does matter. It’s an important symbol to many, it’s represented so much more and it’s from a place of privilege that you can minimize it,” she said, referring to the fact that men have had decades of greater access to the Kotel and could therefore more easily dismiss it. 

“As someone without equal right to the Kotel, what I see every time I’m there is the divider, of the men yelling at women and the homogenous population, because I’m a woman,” she said. 

The event was co-sponsored by the Journal and the panelists’ organizations and synagogues: the Israel Religious Action Center, the Israeli Consulate, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, the Sephardic Educational Center, Young Israel of North Beverly Hills and Temple Beth Am. 

A Shul Torn Apart

Judging from the row of strollers parked in the foyer, the faces young and old who came to hear the young rabbi at the pulpit and the number of classes and programs on the calendar, it was hard to know that Congregation Mogen David’s attempt to rejuvenate itself was about to go terribly wrong.

For years, members of Mogen David, a traditional synagogue on Pico Boulevard near Beverwil Drive, watched young Orthodox families trek down the hill past the brick building at the westernmost end of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood on their way to other synagogues. Lay leaders of Mogen David, which according to the shul’s executive director, Rabbi Gabriel Elias, had a dwindling membership of about 600 families — 80 percent of them older than 80 — knew that if they were to survive they would have to get those families in the front door.

So after much soul-searching and with a painful dose of pragmatism, the board decided four years ago to carve out separate men’s and women’s sections in the sanctuary, get rid of the microphones and start a search for a Modern Orthodox rabbi.

Within two years about 30 young families joined. In January 2002, the board awarded a two and a half-year contract to Rabbi Jonathan Muskat, a 30-year-old former attorney fresh out of Yeshiva University’s rabbinic seminary. Over the next year, Muskat filled the calendar with programs and the pews with another 20 young families, according to board members.

But it wasn’t long before tensions began to simmer and flare, eventually resulting in a conflagration between older members who felt pushed aside by power-hungry upstarts and young families who felt their efforts to build a vibrant congregation were being thwarted. Within 18 months the rabbi would be fired, the young families would leave in disgust and the longtime shul members would be left with a wounded institution miles behind its original starting line.

In an era when synagogues all over are trying to reinvent themselves to attract the throngs of Jews who are opting out of any regular form of observance, there is much to learn from Mogen David’s experience.

At the root of this particular conflict are issues that can entangle any congregation that makes the bold decision to change in order to survive. Can an institution transform its core beliefs and practices just by the vote of a board? What does it take for two generations with disparate value systems to really mesh? What kind of leader does it take? And what about the strong personalities in conflict that threaten to hijack the process?

Why Go Orthodox?

Before making the decision to alter the 75-year-old congregation’s long-standing direction — as a traditional congregation it had Orthodox-style services with mixed seating and microphones — for two years a long-range planning committee weighed the synagogue’s options, said board members Marilyn Gallup and Al Spivak, who was president at the time. The committee recommended to the board to make the shul Modern Orthodox and also hold a separate, mixed-seating High Holiday service to accommodate the vast majority of members, who primarily attended only on those days.

Still, some 200 members left the congregation. But the prospect of attracting young families offset the immediate loss. Financially, the shul was on solid footing, thanks to the late Rabbi Abram Maron, who during his 60-year leadership built Mogen David up to 1,800 families, according to Alias, and established an endowment reportedly in the millions. The shul also owns outright the building on Pico, which is estimated to be worth about $6 million.

Jeff Fishman, a 35-year-old-financial planner, started going to Mogen David in the summer of 2001, and about eight families soon followed. When Muskat was hired, the new members quickly built a strong rapport with him, acting as a team to attract more young families.

But within about six months of when Muskat was hired, Fishman said he began to hear diatribes against Muskat from some older board members.

Irwin Griggs, 66, a supporter of Muskat who was vice president of finances at the time, thinks the board jumped too quickly toward Orthodoxy.

"I think the biggest problem was that I’d say a majority on the board of governors really did not fully understand what going with a Modern Orthodox direction was," Griggs said. "They hired somebody who was a Modern Orthodox rabbi, and yet somehow they could not reconcile that to what their view of Modern Orthodoxy was."

Muskat, serving his first pulpit, got caught in the middle of a congregational identity crisis that even a veteran rabbi would have found difficult to navigate.

Gallup says the board was fully aware of what being Modern Orthodox entailed, but she alleges that Muskat was taking the shul to the right of other established Modern Orthodox congregations. Others dispute those claims, saying Muskat was learning to balance the halachic imperatives of Orthodoxy and the needs of a congregation in transition.

Muskat, who now lives in Israel with his wife and four children, declined comment for this story, as stipulated in his termination agreement with the congregation.

Gallup claims that Muskat focused too much on his mandate to attract younger members and neglected the long-standing members.

"There was never a polarization before age-wise or based on how observant one was, but now we had a polarization," Gallup said, referring to a rift between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox, between those who came every week and those who came only occasionally, between the young and the old.

Chuck Chazen, an 82-year-old past president of the shul, disagrees with that assessment.

"I didn’t feel any arrogance, and I didn’t feel that anybody was trying to take advantage of me or looking down on me," said Chazen, who noted that Muskat called him every Friday to wish him good Shabbat and also visited him in the hospital. "Some people were looking for it because they still harbored feelings about the mechitzah and maybe they were cultivating it in their own minds, but I didn’t have that feeling at all."

Ironically, many members and some board members of Mogen David are refugees of a similar situation at a shul just down the street. In the late 1980s, Rabbi Philip Schroit put a mechitzah in at B’nai David-Judea Congregation, which like Mogen David had been traditional. A significant portion of the membership left, and several rabbis passed through the pulpit until the congregation found a match that would lead to the success it enjoys today


Congregant vs. Congregant

When the board decided not to renew Muskat’s contract in May 2003, tensions exploded. Some of Muskat’s supporters mobilized to present a slate of nominees for the upcoming board elections in July, hoping to overturn the decision and keep Muskat beyond the end of his contract in August 2004.

There are conflicting accounts of exactly what happened at shul elections, but accusations fly in both directions about agressive campaigning, block voting and manipulating arcane bylaws to hoard the power of the 23-person board.

In the end, the slate of candidates proposed by the Muskat supporters was invalidated, and only five of the 11 candidates proposed by the board were elected. Later, the president reappointed two of the ousted candidates to the board.

"The majority of the people who were behind this attempt to take over the board had joined the congregation recently. They were people who had never done anything for the shul and had not supported it and suddenly came in and said, ‘here we are, we’re taking over,’" Gallup said. She described an encounter where a "one-year wonder" demanded a seat on the board, saying "we are the future, you are the past," which she said became something of mantra.

But Fishman said the new members were simply trying to keep a rabbi they loved and to gain a voice in the future of the shul. That effort was stymied by some board members blocking younger members from joining committees, Fishman said. The board also upped the number of years one had to be a member before becoming eligible to run for the board from three to five.

"Bylaws were changed to place them in a position where they continued to control every facet of the shul, where they were not in any way seeking any kind of inclusion in the everyday operation of the shul," Fishman said.

Griggs, who has since left Mogen David, said that the us-and-them picture is much fuzzier than Spivak and Gallup are painting it.

"The line should not be drawn as all young members were in favor and all of the longtime members were not, because there were many longtime members — some of them currently on the board — who were supportive of the rabbi and are still supportive of the rabbi," Griggs said. "I think Rabbi Muskat would have been one of the best rabbis in the community. He had the potential."

After the board elections in July, tensions elevated, with exchanges of harsh words and reports of vandalism.

Finally, in August, the board decided that the issue was ripping the shul apart. They voted to end Muskat’s tenure effective immediately, and to pay out the remaining year on his contract in full.

When Muskat was asked to leave, nearly all of the 60 young families, including the handful who had been there for as long as 10 years, left Mogen David.

"There is no desire on the part of anybody that used to be involved to go there anymore, because it is a closed book. The board is going to do what they are going to do," said one young member who did not want to be identified. "Why would I go there if there is nobody for me to socialize with, nobody for my kids to play with? And now we are being accused of trying to destroy the shul. Somebody takes a sledgehammer to where you live and accuses you of leaving your house," he said.

A Cautionary Tale

The saga of high expectations and mistrust is not surprising to experts in congregational life.

"The recognition that a congregation needs to change is a wonderful thing. The problem is that you can’t just expect it to happen without very, very, very careful tending," said Speed Leas, who for 25 years was a congregational consultant for the Alban Institute, a Maryland-based research and consulting organization for congregational life. "If you choose to change and are successful, success brings its own set of problems."

Leas, now a professor at the Pacific School of Religion at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, was not involved in the Mogen David case, but said that the story fits the timeline and progression he has seen at both the Protestant and Jewish congregations he has shepherded through change.

"It takes quite a period of time — about four to five years — for a congregation in transition to settle in," Leas said. "There’s the beginning phase, that I think is appropriately called the ‘honeymoon phase’ of working hard to try to get along. Then there is always an awkward phase, which might occur within a year or two, where your run into some kind of significant challenge, and partly that is testing to see whether the relationship is going to be an authentic one as well as asking ‘how are we going to have to change and adjust to each other.’ It is the degree to which they can handle well that challenging time that is going to have to do with whether or not they can make it through this and stay together."

Leas, who has seen many false starts in situations like this, is currently helping another Los Angeles synagogue make the transition after a longtime rabbi retired, to acclimate to a young rabbi from the East Coast.

"We are thinking about every possibility we can to help the congregation adapt to the new style of the rabbi and the rabbi adapt to the style of the congregation. We are developing strategies for helping people understand and be comfortable with new things and to respond to things we didn’t even think would be new," Leas said.

"We need to do it in a very conscious way, to recognize that we’re are going to have these feelings and we’re going to have these painful experiences and they need to get talked about. That’s the No. 1 thing," Leas said.

The Future of Mogen David

Gallup said the shul just wants to move on. It plans to keep the mechitzah and eventually hire another Orthodox rabbi.

But Leas cautions that as is the case in any relationship that has gone bad, time is necessary.

"First, there needs to be a period for grieving, a time of just being quiet and of not attending to the work of recovery, but just letting what has happened be there and experiencing it and talking about it. And then, after a significant period of time — six months to a year — to begin to think about longer range planning: ‘what will we do now, where do we want to go, what resources do we have and how can those be better utilized to reinvigorate our organization?’" he said.

For his part, Elias, who has been the executive director at Mogen David for 10 years and is now the interim rabbi, is ready to steer the synagogue back on course.

"The bitterness that this caused is unfortunate, and it should go away," Elias said. "We need to move forward for the sake of the community, the sake of this synagogue and the sake of everyone involved."

UJ Students SupportIsrael, Mixed on Iraq

“President Bush has the best interests of the United Statesand the world at heart … if push comes to shove, I would fight with theAmerican Army,” said Jacob Proud, a 20-year old freshman in bioethics at theUniversity of Judaism (UJ).

“I question the real motives for this war… I want mycountry and Israel to be as just and righteous as possible,” observed MarkGoodman, 26, a second-year student in the UJ’s Ziegler School of RabbinicStudies. The opinions, expressed in separate interviews during the first weekof the war in Iraq, illustrate an obvious and a more subtle point.

For one, not all students think alike, not even in auniversity whose students are, by self-selection, dedicated to Judaism.Secondly, even within the UJ, undergraduates and rabbinical students sitlargely on opposite sides of the fence.

It’s risky to jump to big conclusions from a very smallsample of interviews, and the perspectives might have been different amongstudents at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion or anOrthodox yeshiva, and most certainly at a secular institution like UCLA.

But thanks to the diversity of backgrounds in the UJundergraduate college, which is nondenominational, the viewpoints of itsstudents seem to represent sizable Jewish constituencies.

The Jewish Journal held a roundtable discussion with fourundergraduates. Besides Proud, they were Michael B. Salonius, 29, a senior inJewish philosophy; Samuel Sternberg, 19, a freshman in international business;and Rachel N. Tobin, 21, a senior in political science.

The students’ support for the war, though varying in fervorand rationale, was striking and reflected, they said, the overwhelmingattitudes among UJ’s 124 undergraduates.

Salonius, the oldest, most bearded and most reflective ofthe group, would have liked “a more complex and nuanced explanation [of Bush’sdecision]. But at the core,” he added, “this is a clash of civilizations and Ihope our values will win.”

Sternberg, whose backpack sports a “Anti-Zionism Is Anti-Jewishness”sticker felt that “the situation would fester” if action had been delayed.While acknowledging that his generation had no clear picture what it meant tobe in combat, he would be ready to serve in the armed forces, if drafted.

Rachel Tobin perceived no gender gap in war support betweenmen and women. She said that she would be willing to join a demonstration toback the troops, but worried about “the many unknowns” and admitted to acertain “hypocrisy” in counseling her brother against Army enlistment, if itcame to that.

All four concurred as to their strong personal and emotionalattachment to Israel and expressed deep concern for the fate of the JewishState. On balance, they hoped that the American action would ultimately benefitIsrael. The anti-war peace movement generally earned the undergraduates’contempt.

“The peace movement has been hijacked,” Salonius said.”There is no place for a Jew who supports Israel.”

Rabbinical student Goodman and his first-year schoolmateDanya Ruttenberg, 28, represented a sharp difference in tone and attitude.

“I’m afraid this war will do a lot of damage and might leavethe Middle East in worse shape than before,” Ruttenberg said. “We must hold ourgovernment accountable for its actions and make certain that it sets up aviable structure for life in the area after the war.”

Goodman felt that, “It is easier to be a ‘patriot’ and justback the government … but this war is not necessarily justified and manyother countries are questioning our real motives.”

Both students estimated some two-thirds of the 67 rabbinicalstudents shared their general reservations about the war. The differencesbetween undergraduates and rabbinical students seem to run deeper than justtheir perspectives on the war.

“There’s a lack of support for Israel in the rabbinicalschool,” charged Sternberg, and his viewpoint was seconded in even strongerlanguage by a graduate student in management, whom we encountered at theuniversity library.

Indeed, much of the campus apparently looks at therabbinical students as both leftist and elitist, a perception seen assimplistic by Ruttenberg and Goodman.

“I am strongly pro-Israel, but being critical of itsgovernment is not being anti-Israeli,” Ruttenberg said. “It is not black and white,the world works in shades of gray.”

However, she added with a smile, “This is the left coast andpeople who come to study here tend to be unconventional.”

Goodman, who will leave in the summer for the required yearof study in Israel, emphasized that, “I have a deep love for Israel. I havemany close friends there and I am terribly concerned for their safety.”

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the rabbinical school,questioned both the extent and validity of the impressions of his studentscited by others.

“This has been a pro-Zionist school from the beginning,” hesaid.

“Our rabbinical students took the lead in putting up anIsraeli flag on campus. We currently have 13 students in Israel, they’re theones who are putting their bodies on the line.”

As for the perception that the rabbinical students are”elitist,” Artson recalled, “When I was studying at Harvard, the graduatestudents didn’t mingle with the undergraduates.

 It’s not a matter of looking down at anyone, but there is abig differences in age here and you hang out with the people in your ownprogram.”  

The Final Push

In the final days before the Nov. 5 election, secession supporters are facing a tough battle. The latest public opinion poll shows Valley voters backing Measure F, which would create a separate city, by a narrow margin.

A Los Angeles Times Poll earlier this month found only 42 percent of likely Valley voters in favor of secession. However, a more recent study by Survey USA for KABC-TV found Valley cityhood supported by 58 percent of likely voters in the Valley and 40 percent citywide.

In the past five months since the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) gave its approval to a ballot measure on San Fernando Valley secession, a war of words has been waged between Los Angeles City Hall and secession proponents such as Valley VOTE. Although the polls indicate a likely victory for those in favor of keeping Los Angeles in one piece, the outcome still appears uncertain, according to some observers.

Part of the unusual nature of the secession vote has been the necessity for candidates for office in the proposed Valley city to also promote the split from the city, without which there can be no offices to fill. A group of candidates running in planned Valley council districts formed the organization United Valley Candidates (UVC) to pool resources and ideas for promoting the breakaway effort. Many commented on the difficulties involved in running dual campaigns for office and secession, especially when it was their first bid for elected office. In addition, for Jewish candidates there has been the problem of overcoming the organized Jewish community’s vocal opposition to Measure F.

A group of prominent local rabbis has taken out newspaper ads — including in The Jewish Journal — urging Jewish community members to vote no on secession. Also, the American Jewish Committee recently came out against secession.

In the nonpartisan Valley mayoral race, a Jewish Republican, 48-year-old Assemblyman Keith Richman of Northridge, appears to be the front-runner. He has endorsements from the Daily News and Assemblyman Dario Frommer, giving him a slight edge over his nearest competitor, realtor Mel Wilson.

The Democrat-backed Wilson, 49, is a former professional football player, who has served on the Los Angeles Fire Commission and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board. Other mayoral candidates include Marc Strassman, 54, an Internet consultant from Valley Village, and Leonard Shapiro, an 83-year-old newspaper columnist.

A high percentage of those seeking spots on the proposed Valley city council are Jewish. Of this group, Scott Svonkin is running the most conventional campaign. The chief of staff for Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) has received a number of endorsements, even from vocal opponents of secession, such as the county Democratic Party.

Aided by a $103,000 war chest, Svonkin has billboards placed throughout the proposed 14th District, which includes Studio City and parts of Sherman Oaks and Valley Village. In addition, he has sent out mailers and aired television ads that emphasize his experience but make little mention of secession.

Other candidates with less funds have sought creative ways to get their names before the public. Stephanie Spikell, also running for the 14th District seat, enlisted the help of her father, Hy Spikell, and five of his friends at the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda to make calls to likely voters in the district.

Fellow council hopeful and UVC member Frank Sheftel, running in the 12th District, has been reaching out to seniors in the final weeks of the campaign, handing out fliers and promotional ballpoint pens at the Jewish Family Service’s Valley Storefront in North Hollywood.

Sheftel reported an encounter with one elderly woman whose experience, he said, typified older residents in the area. “She lives in a seniors apartment complex with 200 people, and they don’t have a polling place, so they all vote absentee,” he said. “She said she had gotten mailers from Jewish organizations saying to vote against it [secession] and she did.”

Sheftel echoed the sentiments of other Jewish candidates when he expressed his dismay at the organized Jewish community’s response to Valley secession.

However, Sheftel said he was not going to lose hope. “This is a David vs. Goliath situation, and as I recall, David came out on top,” he said half-jokingly. “It’s not unprecedented that this could happen.”

“People are not buying what the mayor is putting out,” Sheftel said. “Larry Levine [founder of One Los Angeles, which opposes secession] likes to call the whole thing a ‘scheme.’ It is so offensive but typical of the language [the opposition] is using. Things are getting ugly and going to get uglier.”

Similar complaints can also be heard on the opposition side, with people like former Congresswoman Bobbi Fiedler pointing out the folly of secessionists demonizing Mayor James Hahn.

“The biggest mistake made by leaders of the secession movement has been to attack the mayor,” Fiedler said. “Even if secession passes, the Valley is going to be heavily dependent on city services for at least a year, and to attack the mayor instead of talking positively about what they will do themselves is just bad politics.”

Secession foes have continued running their now-familiar roulette-wheel TV ads, depicting secession as “a gamble we can’t afford,” along with similar radio ads ending with the tag line, “The devil is in the details.”

Many Valley residents interviewed by The Journal said that despite the battle waged by One Los Angeles and other unity groups, they planned to vote for the breakaway effort, even if they didn’t fully understand all the ramifications.

“Richard Katz makes some impressive arguments,” noted one woman after attending a debate between the pro-secession Katz and former members of the Los Angeles City Council held Oct. 13 by The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance’s Jewish Community Relations Committee.

The fact that people are making up their minds based on one debate they attended or one candidate who knocked on their door worries Fiedler. The former congresswoman, a Republican who served from 1981 to 1987, was a longtime proponent of secession and even worked with Valley VOTE up until a few months ago.

However, she said the LAFCO report outlining the financial and legislative impacts of secession changed her mind. Now she is actively supporting the opposition, even giving a speech against secession at a seniors fair promoted by Hahn.

“It’s going to be a disaster for the Valley,” Fiedler said. “The public doesn’t understand the scope of what secession means.”

“The fact that it will be a municipal city instead of a charter city means that a whole host of laws passed by the City of Los Angeles will not be provided in the new city — things like term limits, a living wage, provisions for a city ethics commission and all other commissions, with the exception of a planning commission,” she said. “We won’t even be able to vote for the city attorney or the city controller, because they will be appointed positions.”

On a positive note, Fiedler said, whether or not secession passes, the movement has brought to light the very real problems within the San Fernando Valley that need to be addressed. On that score, at least, both sides agree.

“There’s going to be a lot of cleanup afterwards, no matter what happens either way,” Sheftel said. “It’s not over on Nov. 5, not by any means.”

The Mideast Comes to L.A.

I suppose there has always been a division between Jews who are affiliated and those who are not. Two separate worlds. The first wears the definition with pride: The Jewish Community. The second by default or distrust or indifference, or maybe choice, seems to be cast adrift, at least from fellow Jews who make up the “community.” Now, with the crisis in the Middle East heating up, with American foreign policy suddenly thrust into the very center of the action, with Europe turning against Israel and European crowds singling out Jews, the question arises: Will the two groups come together, accept a common Jewish identity? On the basis of partial evidence, I would say, not in Los Angeles. Or, at least, not yet.

A group of us gathered to celebrate a friend’s 51st birthday last weekend. It was a warm mix of people in the arts and in television, Jewish, but largely unaffiliated. In the midst of birthday laughter, one of the women turned to me and asked hesitantly what I thought of Ariel Sharon. Suddenly, all conversation at the table stopped.

I don’t like what he’s doing, I replied. There was a visible sigh of relief, a relaxing of tension as men and women, almost released, began to talk about the conflict in the Mideast. They were troubled. They didn’t like what Sharon was doing, hated the military incursions and the destruction that followed in their wake.

But they didn’t like or trust Arafat either. They were pro-Israel, but not in favor of its present policies — and felt at a loss because they saw absolutely no solution in sight. That evening, a more focused and diverse crowd turned out for a discussion sponsored by PEN (the national writer’s organization). The room was packed, with an overflow crowd spilling outside. The guest speaker at this somewhat hurriedly planned gathering was Robert Fiske, a journalist who has reported on the Middle East for the London Independent for more than 20 years. He had just flown in from Bethlehem. Over the years, Fiske has covered the fighting between the Russians and Afghanistan, reported from Iraq and Iran, been on the scene in Lebanon in 1982. He had also interviewed Osama bin Laden on three different occasions, the last time in 1997.

Given his experience and the fact that he had just arrived from the war zone, I was surprised that relatively few affiliated Jews were present. No one from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; no rabbis; nor any organizational or community leaders. Perhaps they knew Fiske would be critical of Israel. He loathes Sharon, dating back to the 1982 debacle. But he has only scorn for Arafat and the members of the PLO around him. Still, his point of view — that Israel’s military policy could not succeed; that a political solution was needed; that that solution could only be brokered by the U.S.; and that George Bush’s approach was simplistic and Colin Powell’s was hypocritical (why did he fly over the rubble and destruction wrought by the latest suicide bomber in Jerusalem and not visit the stench and shattered ruins of Jenin?) — was not what Jewish leaders wanted to hear. However, the audience — Jews (unaffiliated), Muslims and Latinos, but mostly white Americans — applauded him enthusiastically.

Of course it is the affiliated Jews in Los Angeles who organize and come out loyally for demonstrations in support of Israel and who respond vocally with anger and alarm at each day’s events. More than a half-dozen rallies have already marked the month of April, and this coming Sunday, linked to the annual Israeli Festival, the city’s largest celebratory demonstration is scheduled to take place. The Federation says 35,000 are expected.

Not surprisingly, the synagogues have united behind Israel. One particular service at Sinai Temple, the largest Conservative synagogue in the city, seemed to capture the feeling of connectedness that America’s affiliated Jews feel for Israel. The temple’s rabbi, David Wolpe, spoke to his congregants about those Israelis who were in need because of the suicide bombings. What can we do? he asked, for help them we must. Within 25 minutes, he had received pledges of $700,000 from the entire congregation, including children. That sum was matched by Magbit, a Persian Jewish philanthropic group (about half of Sinai Temple’s congregation consists of Iranian Jews).

Some of this is misleading. As Rob Eshman, editor-in-chief of The Jewish Journal pointed out in an editorial, the numbers at the rallies are small, given Los Angeles’ 520,000-plus Jews. Hollywood’s Jews, for example, have largely been silent. And not everyone in Los Angeles’ affiliated community agrees that uncritical support is best.

The Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), along with Peace Now and UCLA’s Hillel, held a town meeting several weeks ago to question Israel’s policies. Two observant Jews, Professor David Myers, a historian and the former director of UCLA’s Jewish studies program, and Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, an Traditional rabbi and head of UCLA’s Hillel, were leaders at the meeting and helped set its tone. Myers characterized his position as one of being deeply torn, almost paralyzed, and desperately looking for a way to find a voice: A voice that would be loyal to Israel, but at the same time, deeply unhappy at the path it was taking. And deeply critical as well, of the Jewish leaders in America, who once again, he said, were appealing to the primal fears of Jewish Americans. A follow-up town hall meeting is set for April 26.

According to PJA Staff Director Daniel Sokatch, there are many Jews in Los Angeles, affiliated and unaffiliated, who are committed to Israel, who feel they are part of the Jewish community, but without a voice, and without leaders who reflect their doubts and views. Endorsing a bankrupt policy does not necessarily demonstrate loyalty to Israel and/or its interests, explained one Jewish critic. When I asked about his identity, he smiled. Unaffiliated, of course.