Jewish student journalists to convene in L.A.


Jewish high school journalists from around the country will meet in Los Angeles later this month at the Jewish Scholastic Press Association’s (JSPA) inaugural convention and Shabbaton.

The convention, which will be held Oct. 24-27 at B’nai David-Judea Congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, will feature lectures and workshops that cover issues such as Jewish journalism ethics, Israel coverage in the college press, freedom of the press in religious high schools, copyright law, photojournalism, layout techniques and more.

“The JSPA wants to improve high school newspapers and Web sites [and] wants to improve journalism education in Jewish schools,” said JSPA founding director Joelle Keene, who is also the faculty adviser for Shalhevet high school’s award-winning newspaper, The Boiling Point. The conference will be co-sponsored by Shalhevet, a Modern Orthodox school, and the American Jewish Press Association.

Among the featured speakers at the conference will be Jennifer Medina, a New York Times reporter who will speak at a session titled “Life as a Modern Orthodox Journalist at The New York Times.” 

The event’s keynote will be given by Dana Erlich, Israeli consul for culture, media and public diplomacy in Los Angeles. Speaking Oct. 24 at a private home in Beverlywood, Erlich will answer questions from the students and offer ideas for how Jewish journalists can cover life in Israel.

Students coming from other cities — as of now, San Francisco and New York — will be hosted by local families. On Friday night, Oct. 25, attendees will have Shabbat dinner at B’nai David and listen to an address on journalism ethics by Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of the Jewish Week of New York.

For more information about the Jewish Scholastic Press Association’s convention and Shabbaton, e-mail Joelle Keene at j.keene@shalhevet.org.

Outstanding Graduate: Ruth Maouda — Putting the pieces together


Much has been written about the world’s heroes — big and small — but sometimes making a major difference in someone’s life doesn’t take a single word. 

Consider the example of Ruth Maouda, a sterling senior at YULA Girls High School who volunteers for Etta Israel Center, an organization for teens and adults with special needs.

“When she worked at camp, she worked with a young man who is nonverbal and in a wheelchair,” Leah Schachter, who directs the organization’s summer camp, wrote in an e-mail. “When the Jewish music program started, she grabbed the wheelchair and started to dance with him, so that he would feel a part of the program, too. The smile on his face was the obvious answer … he absolutely loved it!”

The child of Israeli parents, Maouda views life with a level of maturity that is well beyond her years. Not only has she managed to maintain a stellar GPA on a demanding honors track, but Maouda approaches each small part of life as a building block of her whole existence — and this is what has allowed her to tackle so much more.

“My favorite motto comes from my mother: You never approach a puzzle all at once, but you start little by little, through all the bits of sky that seem to mismatch and [the] blur of colors that don’t seem to fit anywhere perfectly. You sort out one bit at a time, until the picture is complete.” 

With that in mind, Maouda has spent her high school years experiencing as much of life as possible. A member of the varsity tennis and soccer teams for four years, she served as co-captain of both. She also is a pianist who is co-head of the YULA Girls Ensemble. And she’s been involved in numerous groups, including the school’s genocide awareness club, its American Israel Public Affairs Committee group and a school community awareness organization. 

[Next Grad: Gabe Freeman]

Outside of school, Maouda has been extremely involved in Etta Israel. She helps organize Shabbaton throughout the year, and during the summer she lends a hand at its day camp.

“Etta Israel is the most amazing program I have ever been involved in, so much so that I find it hard to discontinue my involvement after three years. The counselors and campers and participants are like a family,” she said. “I feel like I’m making a difference in not only the participants’ lives, but in my life as well.”

Maouda wraps up every week at Shenandoah Elementary School in a program called SCATCH (Shenandoah Caring Adults Teaching Children How) designed to partner elementary school kids from bad neighborhoods with high school students for help with homework and company until their parents can pick them up from school. 

“The goal,” Maouda said, “is essentially to keep them off the streets.”

The 17-year-old may have a lot to be proud of, but she understands that she is just starting to step over the threshold into adulthood, and that there’s still a lot to learn about the world and herself as she prepares to enter Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women in New York, where she may pursue her interests in creative writing and psychology.

“I’m most scared of the fact that I will be doing a lot of things on my own and away from my parents, my No. 1 supporters,” Maouda said. “However, I feel that now that the rest of the world is acknowledging me as I enter adulthood, I can come to accept myself as an adult, too, and start to truly find what it is that I’m able to share as a functioning part of society.”

Jewish conversion 101


Conversion to Judaism is not easy. It requires a change in beliefs, actions and lifestyle. It involves extensive study, practice, a leap of faith, a shift in perception and some sacrifice. However, for those who feel it’s the right decision, it can be an exciting and rewarding experience. 

Before stepping into the mikveh — the ritual of immersion in water that is the culmination of the conversion process — prospective converts to Judaism must choose a movement, which will determine what kind of observance they want to follow and how they want to live their life as a Jew. 

“It’s cliché, but it’s true that converts make the very best Jews, because they are people that have chosen to be Jewish,” said Rabbi Adam Greenwald, executive director of the Louis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (AJU). “It wasn’t an accident of birth.”

Most prospective Jews by Choice go through a Reform, Conservative or Orthodox conversion, and the rules vary for each. Anyone considering conversion must find a sponsoring rabbi as the first step, then participate in a period of study, which might mean organized classes or individual study with a rabbi or tutor. Who guides the convert will determine which beit din — a rabbinical court consisting of three rabbis — is the best one to complete the conversion. 

AJU offers an 18-week course for those considering conversion — as well as anyone wanting to learn more about the faith — that takes place at venues throughout Los Angeles. Students at AJU’s program learn about Jewish values, traditions and history, including Conservative traditions and observance. The Reconstructionist and Reform movements also approve these classes.

In addition to the classes, a Holocaust survivor speaks to the students. All candidates learn to read prayers in Hebrew and participate in a Shabbaton and in a scavenger hunt at Whole Foods for kosher products. Since the program got its start in 1986, more than 4,000 participants have converted to Judaism, Greenwald said. 

Although Greenwald does not himself give approval for prospective converts to go before the beit din, he said he meets with all of his students and helps them to connect with a sponsoring rabbi: “It’s a great challenge to give a person the tools and information that they need in only a few months to be able to feel genuinely a part of the Jewish community,” he said. 

“It’s cliché, but it’s true that converts make the very best Jews, because they are people that have chosen to be Jewish.” — Rabbi Adam Greenwald, executive director of the Louis and Judith Miller, Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (AJU)

Rabbi Neal Weinberg, the former director of the AJU program, has led Judaism by Choice, another educational offering for those wishing to convert, since 2009. Weinberg’s classes include about 300 students each year and cover Jewish history, holidays, rituals, Zionism and the Torah. Classes, which instruct students for a Conservative conversion (see sidebar for more on Weinberg’s Judaism by Choice program), are offered either once or twice per week, for an average of three months. 

Since most students have busy lives, Weinberg acknowledged, he said he tries to make his classes entertaining. He demonstrates a brit milah (ritual circumcision) using a Cabbage Patch doll, holds a mock wedding with a chuppah (wedding canopy) and goes over the prayers. His classes are offered at synagogues in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Venice and the San Fernando Valley. “Anybody can take the program,” said Miri Weinberg, the rabbi’s wife, who helps run Judaism by Choice. “We don’t turn anyone away.”

The Weinbergs’ program includes Shabbat dinners and holiday-themed events for both current students and program graduates. He said that he expects students wishing to convert to attend synagogue consistently and keep a level of kosher. “I think there has to be a certain behavior,” Neal said. “I’d rather I be the one [teaching them] than having them go through the beit din and not passing. That could be painful. I’m a coach that prepares people for it.”

Most of the time, the participants in the Judaism by Choice classes undergo either a Conservative conversion or go before the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, a pluralistic beit din that is endorsed by Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis. 

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) also offers an 18-week Introduction to Judaism course for prospective converts. This class, too, covers lifecycle events, history, holidays, prayer, Israel and theology. Many of the URJ’s candidates end up going through the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, as well.

Rabbi Sabine Meyer, director of the URJ’s conversion program, said about 15 classes per year are offered throughout Los Angeles, all of them both rigorous and comprehensive. “Reform conversion is not conversion light. We do not convert people to Reform Judaism. We convert them to Judaism,” she said.

URJ has offered its introduction class for more than three decades, and Meyer has seen classes where up to 80 percent of the people have continued on to convert, but she emphasized that the class is not meant just for prospective Jews by Choice. “It’s for anybody who is interested in learning more about Judaism and the important tools that they need [to practice], if that’s what they want to do.”

Candidates for conversion in Los Angeles who would like to connect to a more traditional lifestyle can also prepare to go before an Orthodox beit din. The requirements for an Orthodox conversion typically require that the candidate observe kosher laws both inside and outside of the home, live within an Orthodox community, observe the Sabbath and study with a tutor. 

Rabbi Avrohom Union, the rabbinic administrator of the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), which features an Orthodox beit din, said candidates must be sincere and “want to be part of the [Orthodox] community and adopt that lifestyle. We look to see that people approach this with a certain maturity and a solid [reason as to] why they want to do this.”

Applicants accepted to the RCC’s program are assigned a private tutor, and a candidate should expect to spend 18 to 24 months studying and participating fully in Jewish life before the process of conversion is complete, Union said. The most important aspect of the conversion, he said, is establishing oneself in a community. “Orthodox Jewish life tends to revolve around Shabbat. We want people working with us to be a part of that community. We don’t want them to feel different from someone who was born Jewish.”

Since entering into an Orthodox lifestyle can be a huge change for most candidates, Union said that he and the rabbis on his beit din “want people to get personal attention. For someone to make a transition from gentile to Orthodox Jew is a significant transition, and it’s not like a university course, where you simply learn the material, take the test and pass. It’s a process of personal growth.”

Any candidate who chooses to convert — whether through an Orthodox, Reform or Conservative program — should know their goals and understand the process as they enter into it. They also need to realize that being immersed in the mikveh is not the culmination of the learning — it’s just the beginning. 

“Becoming a Jew is not an event,” Miri Weinberg said. “It’s a process.”

Shabbaton examines health care, from beginning to end of life


People spend more on medical care in the last six months of their lives than they spend the entire rest of their lives — this is just one reason end-of-life care is so divisive, said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, American Jewish University’s rector and its Sol & Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy.

Dorff will discusses the economics of such care during “Judaism and Health Care: Beginnings and Endings,” a Shabbaton organized by Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, Temple Beth Am, OneLA and Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary.

The Shabbaton begins March 23 at Temple Emanuel, where Dorff will discuss “Final Blessings: Jewish Perspectives on End of Life Decisions,” and continues at Temple Beth Am on March 24 with a broader discussion about health care.

On Friday, Dorff will explain how the Obama administration’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will help reduce the amount of money that’s spent on end-of-life care — under the new plan, the uninsured will have insurance and can see physicians sooner rather than later. Consequently, diseases will be caught in earlier stages.

“Everybody will have insurance, so people will be able to see doctors at the beginning of their illnesses, and decisions will be made that make a lot of sense,” Dorff said.

The Shabbaton will promote advance directives — legal instructions given by individuals on what kind of medical treatment they want at the end of their lives.

“I think what’s helpful about them is that they are very clear,” said Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel. “But the most important thing is that the family understand what they want — stick with your family and [make sure] you really talk about it.”

Families who are struggling with decisions about a loved one’s end-of-life care often turn to their rabbis for guidance. When a patient is terminally ill, questions arise: What should be done when a treatment or surgery might cure a patient but also might hasten her death? If there is no cure for a patient’s illness, should he be put on a feeding tube? Should a patient in cardiac arrest be resuscitated even though it will leave her in a vegetative state?

“What really matters is that people put their wishes in writing, so however they feel about these issues, that is what is carried out at the end,” said Rabbi Susan Leider, associate rabbi at Temple Beth Am.

Saturday’s programming at Temple Beth Am includes broader conversations about health care, including Dorff’s “In the Beginning: Jewish Perspectives on Beginning of Life Decisions” and a discussion on “Judaism and Wellness: Building Community” by Michelle Prince, director of the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Because of the difficulty of these topics, the synagogue is the perfect place to talk about them, Geller said. “There’s no better place for this conversation than within a synagogue.”

Briefs


 

OU Reaches Out to Deaf Community

The Orthodox Union’s deaf outreach came to Long Beach for a Shabbaton gathering of the deaf and their families, a small event that meant a lot to the often-isolated Orthodox deaf community.

“There wasn’t a big turnout, but I think that it’s really necessary; when you have a deaf child who’s Jewish, there’s a smaller population,” said Jo Cooperman, who drove up from San Diego County with her 3-year-old deaf son, Jadyn Avram. “He always comes back really, really happy from these things. It has a wonderful effect on his self-esteem and his identification with Jews, with deaf Jews.”

Long Beach’s Congregation Lubavitch hosted about 30 deaf adults and children and their families at the OU’s Jan. 7-8 “Our Way” Shabbaton. Long Beach attorney Allen Sragow, who put up about 10 “Our Way” attendees at his house, sponsored the small Orthodox Union agency’s fourth annual Southern California gathering. Organizers said last weekend’s heavy rain cut into the attendance level.

“It’s always a fresh perspective for me to see the Jewish deaf, how they’ve come to understand their interaction with Jewish life,” said Jan Moore, a North Hollywood optometrist who has two deaf sons. His teenage daughter, who can hear, came to Long Beach with two of her Valley Torah High School classmates so the trio could support deaf children and their hearing siblings.

Flying into Los Angeles to lead the “Our Way” Shabbaton was Rabbi Eliezer Lederfeind, who is not deaf, but is the son of deaf parents and lives in Brooklyn with his own six children – including deaf daughters Lida, 13, and Toby, 18. Both have cochlear implants allowing them to hear.

Lida Lederfeind told The Journal in a telephone interview, “I feel like I’m part of everything.”

Every two months, Lida’s father travels to Orthodox deaf enclaves around the country to conduct an “Our Way” Shabbaton.

“More and more deaf youth are Orthodox. They should be able to mainstream in a shul,” said Lederfeind, who oversaw the “Our Way” group’s spirited – and at times humorous – deaf dialogue about Israel in the Lubavitch shul’s small study.

When Lederfeind asked what was the sign language gesture to describe the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, someone jokingly responded: “It’s a sign that you can’t use in public.” – David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Israel ‘Line of Fire’ Program Comes to UJ

An armed Israeli attack helicopter spots a Palestinian ambulance on the road below. Aware that such ambulances have been used to transport terrorists and weapons, the pilot checks with his ground controller whether to strafe and destroy the vehicle. Pilot and controller talk back and forth, weighing whether the ambulance is more likely to carry weapons or sick people. When the vehicle finally pulls up to a hospital, they decide to give it the benefit of the doubt and call off the attack.

The dramatic, real-life incident, with actual footage of the chase taken from the cockpit, will be a highlight of the Jan. 20 event, titled “Air Force in the Line of Fire.”

Israeli and American helicopter fighter pilots will discuss the moral choices facing them during combat missions in the airspace above Israel and Iraq.

Panelists will also speak about the dangers and fears of combat, new weaponry, Israeli-American military cooperation and the future of the Israeli air force. A Q-and-A period will follow.

Speakers will include reserve Maj. Gen. Nehemia Dagan, founder of Israel’s attack helicopter strike forces; two other veteran Israeli combat pilots; and Col. Bill Morris of the Pentagon, former assault helicopter commander in the 101st Airborne Division.

The event, in English, will start at 7:30 p.m. at the University of Judaism, sponsored by the Council of the Israeli Community (CIC) and 12 other local organizations. The CIC is a support organization for the State of Israel and the estimated 100,000 Israelis living in the Los Angeles area, said Chaim Linder, the group’s first vice president.

General tickets for the Jan. 20 event are $10 (CIC members) and $12 (general); reserved seats, $25; reception with the pilots and one reserved seat, $50.

For reservations and information, call (818) 342-7241. – Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Court: NVJCC Familes Can Sue Gun Companies

Three families, whose children were shot in the 1999 attack on the North Valley Jewish Community Center (NVJCC), can pursue their lawsuit against the companies that made the weapons used in the shooting spree.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 10 let stand a ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that the suit could go to trial and declined to hear an appeal for dismissal by two gun manufacturers and two distributors.

The suit grew out of the Aug. 10, 1999, attack by Buford O. Furrow, Jr., a self-avowed anti-Semite and white supremacist on the NVJCC in Granada Hills, which left three teenagers, one adult and three children wounded.

Lead plaintiff in the suit is the mother of Joseph S. Ileto, a Filipino-American postal carrier, who was killed by Furrow the same day in a separate attack.

Last May in San Francisco, the full 26-member appeals court, in a split decision, confirmed that the case could be tried. At the time, Donna Finkelstein, whose then 16-year-old daughter Mindy suffered two gunshot wounds to her leg, told The Journal, “I am so elated that we are finally moving forward.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by Alan Stepakoff and Loren Lieb, whose then 6-year-old son, Joshua Stepakoff, was also shot in the leg.

Also participating in the suit are Eleanor and Charles Kadish, whose son Benjamin, then 5, was the most seriously injured, with gunshots to his stomach and legs.

Among the large cache of weapons found in Furrow’s car were an Austrian-made Glock 9-mm handgun and a 9-mm rifle, made by North China Industries, both manufacturers are defendants in the suit.

In filing the original suit more than four years ago, attorney Joshua Horwitz of the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence said that Furrow, a convicted felon with a history of mental instability, should not have been allowed to build an arsenal of assault-style weapons.

“It is not enough to let guns go out of your factory door and say, ‘Sorry, we don’t know where they’re headed,'”Horwitz said.

The case will now return to the U.S. district court in Los Angeles for trial.

Congressional legislation which would have barred lawsuits targeting the gun industry failed last spring. – TT

 

Fresh Young Minds


Teenagers clustered in small groups playing hackeysack,
shooting grapes into each others’ mouths, sitting in corners snarfing copious
amounts of candy — and occasionally pondering the meaning of God.

The National Council of Synagogue Youth’s (NCSY) Lord of the
Regionals Shabbaton weekend was what camp would be like if camp took place in a
four-star hotel. Some 400 teenagers from the West Coast gathered — actually,
nearly overran — the Renaissance Los Angeles Hotel near LAX Dec. 19-22 to bond
with Jewish high schoolers from around the region.

On this rainy, winter weekend, the ninth- through
12th-graders from Jewish and public schools in large Jewish cities such as
Seattle, and smaller ones such as El Paso, Texas (with five religious
families), came together to contemplate God: Who is God? Why does God do what
he does? How can people come to believe in God?

While the weekend aspired to get the students to know more
about God, there was no slog of learning the Talmud or Bible. Picture Jesus,
Moses and Buddha on an island — well, they weren’t really there, but NCSY
advisers (what they call the counselors) put on a skits — like one about of the
three religious leaders — to enable to think more deeply about Judaism and
their involvement with it.

The youth arm of the Orthodox Union, NCSY aims to inspire
kids to want to become more religious, and — like many kiruv organizations,
they do this through social encounters. While NCSY primarily caters to modern
Orthodox teens, there are also some non-Orthodox kids who join, too. NCSY’s
West Coast region — which includes California, Arizona, Washington State, Vancouver
and El Paso, Texas — is the largest region in the country.

The recent weekend on was the largest Shabbaton the
organization ever had, according to organizer Rabbi Steven Burg, the NCSY’s
West Coast regional director. “The next closest one only had 300 kids,” he
said.

For some, the weekend presented an opportunity to network
among religious teens. “I am a freshman in college at University of Northern Arizona,
and I haven’t seen another kippah besides my own in the past 4-5 months,” said
Levy Cohn, 19, from Phoenix. “So it’s great to be in the place where it is not
only normal to wear a kippah, but it’s cool to wear a kippah.”

A big draw was — what else? — the chance to meet members of
the opposite sex, but many found themselves entranced by the “inspirational”
program, which included a hypnotist, a mystery trip, multimedia presentations
and lots of heartfelt singing, where the students raised their voices and
closed their eyes and banged on the table in rhythm  to the music.

“The highlight of the weekend for me was definitely the
singing,” said Simona Fried, who attends Torah High Schools San Diego, a small
day school of some 40 students. “It is such a great experience, and it is so
uplifting to see the voices go as one.”

None of the rigid strictness of high school for these
weekenders — an anything-goes atmosphere reigned: At sessions, or discussion
groups, which were sandwiched throughout Shabbat between prayers and meals, the
students were encouraged to get things off their chest and air gripes that they
might have with religion. At one session on prayer, Zac from Vancouver asked,
“Does God accept prayers that are said sarcastically?”

Sarah from Shalhevet complained that at her school they are
forced to pray for the Messiah, which she doesn’t want. “That’s called shoving
religion down someone’s throat,” she said.

Another girl suggested that set times for prayers were
counterproductive, because, “I have to daven when I’m not in the mood, and my
prayers are rushed and meaningless.”

Advisers, as par for the NCSY model, didn’t react to the
teens’ statements, and didn’t come out with the pat answers one might receive
in school.

“Do you know that Eminem song from the movie ‘8 Mile’?”
asked Rabbi Yudi Hochheiser, an NCSY adviser who credits the organization with
helping him get through his own troubles in high school. “‘The moment you own
it/You never want to let it go.’ Well, the moment you have a chance to pray,
you never want to let it go. When we pray, we build up a relationship with God,
so that when we come to him and say ‘I kind of need a favor,’ God says, ‘No
problem —  you’re my friend.”

The emotional element of the Shabbaton was as strong as the
intellectual one — if not stronger. Speeches were compiled of inspirational
stories about people whose lives were profoundly  changed  by something or
other, and who believed in God despite the odds. “I will never forget what I
saw in Poland last summer, when my life changed forever,” said Yitz Novak, a YULA
high school senior and the president of West Coast NCSY, who spoke at the
ebbing ceremony towards the end of Shabbat. Standing on a table, surrounded by
hundreds of peers, Novak spoke passionately, circling the table he was standing
on, using his hands to emphasize the points he was making. “No, it was not the
crematoria or the entrances to the ghetto sewers that most moved me, but an old
man in the Cracow synagogue called Mr. Stern, who still cries for the brother
he lost on the death march.”

Throughout the Shabbaton, the energy was high: in the midst
of praying, NCSYers danced through the aisles of the makeshift synagogue and,
in the evenings, teenagers wrapped their arms around each other, singing Hebrew
ballads with their eyes closed. At the havdalah service — which took an hour
and a half — the hotel ballroom turned into a giant kumsitz-cum-disco, with 400
teenagers swaying languorously to the music until an up-tempo number had them
jumping in the air and screaming.

NCSY is famous for its sentimentality — many adults can
recall passing the candle around while sharing religious stories — and the tone
often hits home with wide-eyed teenagers looking for a cause. But more than the
sentimental, what many enjoy is the fun.

“I have been to the Shabbatons before and I really love
them,” said Shirit Stern, who attends St. Mary’s Academy in Portland Ore.
“Everywhere they say it is cool to be Jewish, but at NCSY, they know it.”

For more information on NCSY programs,
visit www.ou.org/ncsy
.

Sephardic Survival


“Survivor” as inspiration for Jewish programming?

It seems strange that the divisive show where deceit, backstabbing and empty promises are de rigueur would serve as the inspiration for a Shabbaton that stresses the importance of religious and cultural continuity. Yet Sephardic Tradition and Recreation (STAR) has seized on this pop culture phenomenon and infused it with a positive spin.

STARvivor 2, STAR’s follow-up to its popular STARvivor Shabbaton, is set for Dec. 7-9 at Gindling Hilltop Camp in Malibu. The first STARvivor, held last April in Malibu, separated 20 teens into three tribes — Issachar, Levi and Judah — complete with their own tribal banners. After Shabbat, the tribes squared off in timed, Jewish-themed competitions: in one, the tribes squeezed juice from grapes into a cup and then recited the “Kiddush,” while another had them build a makeshift home in order to affix a mezuzah.

“You’re basically competing with MTV,” said STAR Media Director Abraham Raphael, 29, who developed the Shabbaton idea. “You want to make sure that whatever you do is going to be sophisticated and exciting.”

Locally, there have been few, if any, events geared toward Sephardic youth outside of synagogues. As a result, many Sephardic teens end up choosing between assimilation or participation in an established system of programs steeped in Ashkenazic traditions.

While there has never been a formal Sephardic population study in Los Angeles, rough estimates by Sephardic organizations place the number somewhere between 75,000 and 150,000, and most agree that the population is dwindling.

“You see a desperation among parents who want to get their kids involved,” Raphael said.

It’s this growing assimilation and loss of Sephardic culture that prompted philanthropist Hyman Jebb Levy to found STAR in 1998. The organization reaches out to students, from elementary to senior high school, with year-round social and recreational programming that emphasizes Sephardic community involvement, the preservation of traditions, and a pride and love for Israel.

“We try to incorporate something in the ritualistic aspect of Judaism, always in the Sephardic minhag [custom],” said Rabbi Brad Schachter, 31, STAR’s executive director. “Whatever it may be, this is how the Sephardim do it.”

Taking another cue from “Survivor,” campers were also videotaped during competitions and at tribal council, where each tribe selected one person to give an impromptu speech about Jewish survival. The resulting footage fueled parents’ demand for a second STARvivor.

“When people saw what we did, they said ‘I want my kids on that. I didn’t realize it was going to be that good.’ Now it’s on to round two,” Raphael said.

During next week’s STARvivor 2, the campers will be separated into four tribes — Simon, Levi, Judah and Issachar — and face all new competitions.

Thankfully, the similarities between the Shabbaton and the television series end when it comes to food. STARvivor 2 will serve authentic kosher Sephardic cuisine, whereas “Survivor” contestants have had to consume such Third World delicacies as grubs, rats and cow’s blood.

STARvivor also differs from other Shabbatons in that it has set a cap at 40 students.

“If you have too many kids it becomes impersonal,” Schachter said.

Danit Namvar, 14, said STAR won over both her and her friends during the Shabbaton by giving the campers a voice.

“At other camps they lecture you, but with STARvivor we get to do fun activities and talk about issues. The people who didn’t go heard how much fun it was, and now they want to go,” Namvar said.

Schachter, who is Ashkenazi, said he welcomes the opportunity to reach out to kids and is more than comfortable working with Sephardim. During a seven-year stint in Israel, Schachter spent four years living in the Old City, where he often sought out Sephardic minyanim.

“Even though I’m not a Sephardi, I feel very connected to their heritage, their history and their passion for Judaism,” said Schachter.

“As far as the customs, I’m learning more and more every day,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to get across, teaching [Sephardi] their own customs that unfortunately have been lost over the generations.”

Despite STAR’s plethora of entertaining activities, it isn’t always fun and games. In March 2000, Levy’s daughter passed away following a battle with cancer. STAR took 30 Talmud Torah students from Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood to visit with Levy as he sat shiva. The sight of the students brought tears to Levy’s eyes.

“We brought them in, and they saw the Sephardic traditions of mourning,” Schachter said. “This was an opportunity to teach them.”

For more information about STARvivor 2, call (818)
782-7359, or visit www.lastar.org .

Honor Bestowed


Joel Grishaver, everybody’s favorite hip Jewish uncle, had been up half the night, schmoozing with a rabbi’s son who was visiting from England. So when Grishaver answered the phone at 6:30 a.m., he was hardly prepared for the voice that said, “You and I have a date for lunch in Washington on Sept. 15. You’ve just won the Covenant Award.”

Once the words sank in, Grishaver realized that he’d been given a high honor. The Covenant Foundation, a national group dedicated to the betterment of Jewish education, hands out three awards annually to community leaders, synagogue educators and others who have made a significant impact.

Grishaver thinks he qualified primarily because of the 25 weekends a year he spends on the road, presenting seminars and Shabbatons. In such unlikely outposts as Odessa, Texas, Altoona, Pa., and Fargo, N.D., Grishaver has brought his own puckish slant on Jewish values and the joys of Jewish study to learners of all ages.

The Covenant Award is more than a fancy plaque. Grishaver will receive what he calls “a nice chunk of change”: a $20,000 cash award. In addition, a check for $5,000 goes to the institution with which each winner is affiliated; since Grishaver has long been a freelancer, he plans to combine this sum with $5,000 of his personal award and create a special endowment. He’ll dip into this fund for annual scholarships, enabling the teens who contribute to his weekly electronic newsletters, Bim Bam and C.Ha, to make trips to Israel and spend their summers at Jewish camps.

Grishaver created Bim Bam (for high school students) and C.Ha (geared toward youngsters in grades five through seven) to give young people the opportunity to debate Jewish topics with their peers. Thanks to the Internet, the newsletters allow youngsters from across North America to exchange views with their counterparts elsewhere. (There have been participants from Israel, France, New Zealand and even Cuba.)

Recently, in C.Ha, a battle has raged over a newly issued Superman comic book, which features the Warsaw Ghetto uprising but makes no mention of Jews. Meanwhile, Bim Bam readers have been mulling over a new Midwestern fad: ID bracelets with the initials WWJD, which stand for “What would Jesus do?”

Though both newsletters also feature staff-written essays and a summary of the weekly Torah portion, their focus is always on what Grishaver calls “the kind of things real Jewish kids talk about in real life.”

Teens who want to join the debate are welcome to e-mail Grishaver at gris@torahaura.com.

Fitting Together


At the conclusion of the weekend, participantstook their puzzle piece name tags and together assembled a poster.Photos by Nancy Steiner

 

For Jewish young adults in Los Angeles, connectingwith Judaism can be a puzzling experience. So it seemed appropriatethat the 145 participants of ACCESS’s annual Shabbaton weekend atCamp Ramah received name tags in the form of puzzle pieces.

ACCESS is the young-adult program of the JewishFederation of Greater Los Angeles, and the March 13-15 Shabbatonweekend retreat drew a record number of participants, who were eagerto make connections, both social and spiritual.

An ACCESS member for about four years, Iparticularly enjoy this annual opportunity to gain new insights aboutJudaism and spend a leisurely weekend with good friends. Many otherparticipants were longtime ACCESS members who, like me, wereShabbaton veterans. There were also several newcomers to the group,and, for some, this was their first taste of the Federation’sprogram.

Sayan Gomel, 28, recently moved to Los Angeles andcame “to get more involved with the community and my religion.”Describing himself as more “cultural” than “religious,” Gomel saw theShabbaton as a chance to meet “people you have more in commonwith.”

Although the majority of ACCESS members aresingle, there were at least nine couples on our weekend, many of whomhad met through the Federation. But while people were undoubtedlykeeping an eye out for their beshert, the focus was more onfriendship and community.

This was the third Shabbaton for Jodee Mora, whodescribes herself as on the more “seasoned” end of ACCESS’s 25-to-40age continuum. “It’s like having a big sleep-over party with all yourfriends,” says Mora, who came for “the chance to be with greatfriends in a beautiful, tranquil environment, learn more aboutreligion and…unwind from regular responsibilities.”

The theme of the program was “Why Be Jewish?” andif we learned anything during the weekend, it was that the answer isas unique and individual as each participant.

Our program began with song-filled Friday-nightservices, followed by a traditional Shabbat dinner. Then we gatheredto hear keynote speaker Carol Levy, executive director of theAmerican Jewish Congress. Levy’s boisterous address alternatedbetween serious and comic as she exhorted her listeners to translatethe spirit we demonstrated on the weekend into community action. Sheasked participants to break into small discussion groups and sharetheir positive Jewish experiences. During a second presentation onSaturday, Levy described Judaism as “endless struggle, endless joyand endless oy,” and advised us that being a mensch is “a lifetimeendeavor.”

At Saturday-morning services, everyone got achance to have an aliyah, based upon which theme from the Torahportion most resonated with them. Services were followed by workshops(from which we chose two) on spirituality, tzedakah, Jewish holidays,the movements within Judaism, and crafts. Renee Firestone, aHolocaust survivor, and John Crites, a Jew-by-choice, also offeredworkshops. I opted for the spirituality session, where Rabbi GordonBernat-Kunin taught us about Buber’s “I-it” and “I-you” definitionsof relationships. Later, my inner child played at the arts and craftsworkshop, where we created etched-glass kiddush cups.

After Havdalah, the mood turned from serious tosilly as we broke into groups and were assigned to incorporate aJewish life-cycle event and a random object into a skit or song. Mygroup put together a jingle combining marriage with a remote control,while the group that got shiva and a toilet seat faced a tougher testand rose (actually, sunk) to the challenge.

Sunday afternoon arrived more quickly than wewould have liked. But as Shabbaton Co-Chair Craig Miller observed,the program had provided a new, “positive Jewish experience” thatparticipants could add to those they had shared at the beginning ofthe weekend.

At theconclusion of the program, participants took their puzzle piece nametags and together assembled a “1998 ACCESS Shabbaton” poster. Forthat moment, all the pieces fell into place. And with luck, each ofus gained something from our weekend experience that would make usfeel just a little more connected when we returned home.

For more information about the Federation’s ACCESSprogram, call (213) 761-8130.

Rebuilding a Family’s Past

In her latest memoir, Helen Epsteinrecounts the stories of grandparents she never knew

By Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer

Until she entered a concentration camp, FrancesEpstein hardly knew that she was a Jew. The same cannot be said ofher daughter, Helen Epstein, who thinks of herself as being “in aconstant state of teshuvah [return]” to Judaism.

Epstein was in Los Angeles earlier this month totalk about her recently published book, “Where She Came From: ADaughter’s Search for Her Mother’s History,” an absorbing memoir thatrebuilds her family’s destroyed and nearly forgotten past.

Epstein, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., with her husbandand two preteen sons, believes that she is the first in her familysince her great-grandmother, Therese Sachsel, who can walk to shulfrom her home. Though she calls herself “semi-observant,” even thatis a far cry from the life her mother led as an assimilated Jew inPrague during the 1920s and 1930s. Epstein had always hoped to writea story about her mother and her mother’s mother, Pepi, a skilledseamstress who was killed during the Holocaust. Epstein’s 1979 book,”Children of the Holocaust,” had made her a kind of icon among thesons and daughters of survivors. But, she said during an interview,”no one was dying to have a book about my grandmother.”

The book had taken a back seat to other projectsuntil Frances died suddenly from a brain aneurysm in 1989; she was69. For Epstein, then 42, the eldest of Frances’ three children andher only daughter, the loss was made more unbearable by her mother’srequest that no “Kaddish” be said, no rabbi be in attendance, and herremains be cremated. Epstein and her brothers didn’t even sitshiva.

“It placed a great burden on us,” she said duringa discussion with members and guests of Second Generation of LosAngeles. “We had no way of mourning.”

It was then that Epstein decided not to wait foran assignment — which might never come — and to write the book shehad dreamed of writing for many years. It was a project that tookabout eight years and spanned thousands of miles, as Epstein pursuedher grandmother’s story, from the archives of the research library atnearby Harvard University to the State Central Archive in Prague. Hersearch was bolstered by her fluency in Czech, which she learned as achild.

Epstein believes that her book is part of agrowing interest in genealogy among Jewish baby boomers. “We’re atthe age where we want to tell our children about our parents, and ourparents are dying.” As she has traveled around the country, promotingher book, Epstein said, she has come across
many Jews in their 30s,40s and 50s who are using the Internet to search for long-lostrelatives scattered throughout the world. “What’s so exciting aboutthe Internet is that when you get on it in Los Angeles, you arelikely to start conversations with someone in Poland…. It hasreally revolutionized the whole field of rebuilding families andreconnecting.”

As for her own search, Epstein did it theold-fashioned way. “I wouldn’t have had a book if I’d done it theelectronic way,” she said. “What my book depends on is stories.”These were dramatic stories that often came directly from her mother:the great-grandmother who committed suicide at 44, leaving behindthree young children; the grandmother, Pepi, raised as an orphan, whobecame a dressmaker in Prague at age 15. “These are things I couldnot have gotten off the Internet,” Epstein said.

While writing “Children of the Holocaust” was aliberating experience because she discovered a sense of kinship withother children of survivors, writing “Where She Came From” was purepleasure, Epstein said. “I never had a sense of family. Everyone wasdead when I was born. I really feel, in this book, I createdgrandparents for myself. That was an extremely rewardingexperience.”

Helen Epstein and her parents, Frances andKurt, top. Photos from “Where She CameFrom: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s History.”


UCLA Hillel’s New Home

Launched quietly by million-dollar donations fromthree of the most recognizable names in Jewish life, the campaign toerect and furnish a new home for UCLA’s Hillel Center is about to gopublic.

The Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Lifewill rise on the site of the YWCA building, directly across from theUCLA Faculty Center on Hilgard Avenue.

The $8.5 million drive to build and endow the newHillel Center began some 18 months ago with unpublicized gifts of $1million each from former MCA/Universal Chairman Lew Wasserman, StevenSpielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation, and Edgar M. Bronfman,president of the World Jewish Congress and international chairman ofHillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

Add another $500,000 from entertainment executiveHaim Saban and a total of $1.5 million in smaller gifts, and thecampaign is more than half way home, said Janice Kamenir-Resnik, whoheads the campaign.

Bronfman was recently in Los Angeles to press theflesh and exhort large-scale would-be donors. He joined one smalldinner, at which attendance was limited to potential million-dollargivers.

The timetable for the new 18,000-square-footbuilding, replacing the present 45-year old, unattractive andover-crowded facility, calls for ground-breaking in eight months anda construction period of 18 months.

The present YWCA building, which is 75 years oldand cannot meet seismic and safety standards, will be torn down, saidKamenir-Resnik, whose current involvement started when she met herfuture husband at a UCLA Hillel function.

Formal announcement of the Rabin Center plans isdue on May 14 at a tribute dinner marking Chaim Seidler-Feller’s 25years as a Hillel rabbi. Public fund raising is to kick into highgear in September. — TomTugend, Contributing Editor

 

Left to right, Rabbi Richard Levy, EdgarBronfman, Herb Glaser and Dean Ambrose discuss the new UCLA HillelCenter home.

 

Community Briefs

Exchanging Gifts, Goodwill

Aviva Lebovitz (l) and Fredi Rembaum (r) with PressmanAcademy students holding Purim packets from Israelistudents

The celebration of Purim took on a newinternational dimension for the children of Beth Am PressmanAcademy.

Pressman Academy (grades K through 8) is one offour Los Angeles day schools (Emek Hebrew Academy, Abraham JoshuaHeschel Community Day School and Milken Community High School are theothers) that have been twinned with schools in Israel through the newLos Angeles-Tel Aviv Partnership. Since fall, the Pressman kids havebeen writing to pen pals at Magen School in suburban Tel Aviv. Aspart of the ongoing relationship in which educators from the twoschools will exchange faculty members and curriculum ideas, adelegation from Magen was due to come to Los Angeles in lateFebruary. Fear of a second Gulf War scuttled the trip, but thePressman student body, under the leadership of Principal AvivaLebovitz, found a tangible way to send Purim greetings to theircounterparts at Magen.

The 280 Pressman students made individualmishloah manotbaskets, enclosed personal postcards, then added candy and othergoodies. The load, which filled two huge suitcases, was schlepped toIsrael by Beth Am Rabbi Joel Rembaum and his wife, Fredi, who happensto be the Jewish Federation’s director of Israel and overseasrelationships and a prime mover in the twin-school program. TheRembaums, in Israel to welcome a new grandson, met with parents fromthe Magen School and were given another huge suitcase of mishloahmanot packets to take back to the Pressman kids.

At a school assembly, the packets were distributedto enthusiastic children, who greeted the unexpected gifts with achorus of “Toda Rabah” [thank you very much].

Future plans for the two schools include a jointbilingual newsletter to be published over the Internet. SaysLebovitz, “One of our goals is to create a sense of community betweenus and them — a feeling that we are connected.” — Beverly Gray, Contributing Writer

UJ Conference on Israel

Beginning on Sunday, March 29, the University ofJudaism will hold the symposium “Exile/Diaspora/Homeland: In theFiftieth Year of the State of Israel.” For the nominal charge of $60,the public is invited to attend the various panels, dinners andfestivities that make up the conference, which is being held underauspices of the Western Jewish Studies Association and runs throughTuesday, March 31.

For conference information, call Dr. Aryeh Cohen,chair of the UJ Jewish studies department, or Dr. Miriyam Glazer,chair of the literature department: (310) 476-9777, ext. 262 or ext.206. — B.G.

As an added attraction, Monday evening, March30, will be devoted to a performance of music, voice and dance,billed as “The Sephardic Soul of Flamenco.” The Del Monte familyincorporates into its repertoire centuries-old Gypsy traditions ofCentral and Eastern Europe as well as the musical legacy of theMediterranean Jewish peoples. This performance is free to those whohave registered for the conference; all others can purchase separatetickets for $15.

Music of Youth

A unique concert, featuring 12 talented studentmusicians from BJE-affiliated schools and youth programs, will beheld on Wednesday night, March 25, at the Westside Jewish CommunityCenter. The musicians, who will perform solo pieces by Bach,Beethoven, Vivaldi, Mozart and Chopin, were chosen through a citywidecompetiti
on.

It’s all part of the Liana Cohen Music Festival,established two years ago by the Cohen family to perpetuate thememory of their daughter. An accomplished pianist, she was killed bya drunken driver. Admission is free. Further information is availablefrom the BJE’s Dr. David Ackerman at (213) 761-8606. — B.G.

L.A. Holocaust Museum Moves

A page from 1943 autographalbum of Betty Koboshka Gerard. The album is part of the HolocaustMuseum’s personal memorabilia collection.

The Martyrs Memorial and Museum of the Holocaust,long tucked away in obscurity inside the walls of the JewishFederation Building, is changing its name and moving to a new, moreaccessible location. Its most frequent moniker, the Los AngelesMuseum of the Holocaust, will now be its official name, with MartyrsMemorial as a secondary title.

This spring, it will relocate to 6006 WilshireBlvd. on Museum Row, between the Petersen Automotive Museum and theMuseum of Miniatures, and across the street from the Los AngelesCounty Museum of Art. Sharing space at the new site will be theJewish Community Library and the Jewish Historical Society. All threeinstitutions were displaced last fall when the Federation moved tonew temporary quarters nearby.

Sometimes confused with the better-known Museum ofTolerance, the museum is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.A department of the Federation, the institution was founded primarilyby survivors as both a museum and memorial. Its mission has been bothto educate the public about the Holocaust and commemorate those whoperished. “We deal with one subject: what happened between 1933 and1945 in Europe and North Africa,” said Marsha Reines Josephy, themuseum’s acting director and curator.

Using a stark, photodocumentary approach, themuseum offers a glimpse into the lives of European and North AfricanJews prior to and during World War II through photographs, documents,personal memorabilia and rare artifacts. Much of the material hasbeen donated by Los Angeles-area Jews, and families come frequentlyto view their own personal history, Josephy said.

In addition to its collection, the museum hasvideo stations that offer survivor accounts and historical footage.It also provides speakers to schools; serves as a resource forresearchers, teachers, and film and video documentarians; and offerspublic events.

Even after the Federation moves from its temporaryheadquarters at 5700 Wilshire Blvd., the hope is that the museum willremain where it is.

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust willreopen in its new location later this spring. It is seekingsuggestions on ways to celebrate its 20th anniversary. To convey yourideas or for more information on current programs, call MuseumCoordinator Masha Loen at (213) 761-8170.— Ruth Stroud,Staff Writer

Etta Israel Center Online

The Etta Israel Center has been awarded a $150,000grant by the Covenant Foundation to create a new Internet site topromote Jewish education for the disabled and to help Jewish studentsand their families find their way through the special-educationmaze.

The Internet site will feature professionallymonitored articles, bulletin boards, chat groups, resources andsearchable databases. Disabled students and their support groups willbe able to share knowledge, experience, frustrations and successes;school administrators and special-education teachers will be able tointeract and improve the delivery of special education.

World-renowned scientist Dr. Michael Samet willlend his technical skills to creating and developing the new site.Dr. Samet created the Multimedia Computer Learning Center at theMuseum of Tolerance and designed an automobile Internet site that wonthe 1997 Webby for the World’s Best Money Site.

For more information, call (310) 285-0909. — Staff Report

Talking Up Tourism

Israeli tourism officialsfocused on selling Israel as a vital travel destination to anaudience of travel industry professionals.

In commemoration of Israel’s 50th anniversary, theIsrael Government Tourist Office threw a gala banquet at the BeverlyHilton during the height of Purim last week. The combination tradeshow/dinner/entertainment event, targeted at a travel-industryaudience, focused on selling Israel as a vital traveldestination.

Echoing the festive Purim holiday, the jubileeshow offered a balance of food and fun, kicking off with a trade-showreception that included representatives from airlines (El Al, TowerAir), travel agencies (World Express, Hadar Travel & Tours), andtour package groups (Carmel, Prestige).

Among the guests ushered into the banquet room forthe official program were Shimon Stein, legal adviser to PrimeMinister Binyamin Netanyahu, and Ari Rappaport, head of Israel’s50th-anniversary committee. With the aid of pie charts and tourismtrailers, host Oren Drori, director of the Israeli Government TouristOffice, gave a brief lecture on selling Israel’s image and handlingquestions of security.

“There are two kinds of Israel,” Drori said,half-joking. “Israel, my country, and the CNN Israel.” He furtheremphasized PR concerns by turning the tables on stereotypes, pointingout Israel’s perception of Los Angeles as a city under siege bygangs, and suggesting that the most dangerous part of an Angeleno’strip to Israel is the ride from home to LAX.

Entertainment accompanied the chicken and saladbuffet in the form of comedian Eitan Lev, who riffed on Israelitourists, mimicking Hebrew as spoken by the French, Germans and otherforeigners. Afterward, the sizable crowd was treated to an energeticperformance of Israeli folk dancing. –Michael Aushenker, Community Editor