At summer camps and trauma centers, Beersheba students facing rockets with locals

During Israel’s conflict with Hamas in 2009, Eli Nachmani, already using a wheelchair, injured his leg when a rocket hit this southern Israeli city.

In the last clash in 2012, Nachmani sustained a head injury when the blast from a rocket knocked him out of his wheelchair.

The nearest bomb shelter is 50 yards from his house, and he can’t cover the distance on his own in the seconds between the sounding of the air-raid siren and the impact of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip.

Calls to Israel’s Welfare Ministry and the Beersheba municipality have gone unanswered. His only help is Noa Pney-Gil, a 24-year-old education major from the nearby Ben-Gurion University.

“I thank her, thank her, thank her from the bottom of my heart,” Nachmani said. “We should have many more like her.”

Fortunately, there are.

After Israel’s latest round of fighting with Hamas in Gaza broke out last week, Pney-Gil joined hundreds of Ben-Gurion University student volunteers who stayed in the conflict zone past the end of the school year to assist city residents in need.

The volunteers have helped out in hospitals, delivered supplies to the homebound elderly and disabled, and assisted with post-trauma care.

“When you go home, you understand people need help here and are waiting,” said Pney-Gil, a Tel Aviv native who considers herself a Beersheba-ite. “I want to be connected to the place I live. I won’t escape to Tel Aviv every time there’s a problem. I’ll deal with the problem here.”

The size of the volunteer corps is a testament to the success of university efforts to inculcate a culture of community involvement and serve as a catalyst for the city’s improvement. Some scholarships are tied to the number of hours students volunteer with underprivileged residents. The university provides discounted housing to students willing to live in Beersheba’s rundown city center.

Tami Ivgi Hadad, 32, a doctoral student researching nonprofits, began volunteering as an undergraduate in exchange for a scholarship. Over time she came to realize she really enjoyed it.

Today, Ivgi Hadad coordinates city volunteers during emergencies in addition to her studies. In a municipal building near the university earlier this week, she alternated between phone calls and typing on her laptop. Of her 250 volunteers Sunday, 200 were Ben-Gurion students.

“During routine times, you see a lot of adults volunteering, and young people don’t find free time,” she said. “But when there aren’t work or classes, they come out. They have this kind of adrenaline. Adults have gone through things in life. They don’t come out quickly under fire.”

Missiles overhead Sunday morning didn’t faze Dafna Kandelman, a first-year medical student volunteering as a counselor at an impromptu day camp for children of the local hospital’s staff.

Israeli law compels hospital workers to stay on the job in times of emergency, but it poses a child care dilemma for employees since many day camps have been canceled because of the missile threat. So medical students set up and run a camp for some 250 children of hospital workers.

At 10:45 a.m., the kids were having a late breakfast in the bomb shelter when a missile siren blared. Kandelman and other volunteers rushed to gather campers playing outside, only to find that many of them already were filing into the shelter.

Growing up in southern Israel, a major target for rocket attacks from Gaza, the kids knew the protocol. Kandelman found it harder to adapt.

“You can’t get used to it,” she said. “You [say], ‘OK, there’s a siren, let’s go to a stairwell, let’s go to a reinforced room.’ Most of the day it’s OK. Then you let your guard down and it comes out of nowhere. It catches you off guard every time. That’s the hard thing.”

While Israel suffered its first death in the conflict on Tuesday, some Beersheba residents have been treated for shock from missile strikes. At a temporary treatment center for trauma victims, student volunteers handle administration and engage the patients in preliminary conversation before professional social workers and psychologists treat them. Students are responsible as well for helping to move patients to a shelter when a siren goes off.

“They can run and hit a wall, fall down the stairs,” said Moshe Levy, 27, a physiology student volunteering at the trauma center. “They’re already in a sensitive situation, so any alarm puts them off balance.”

Helping out during the conflict comes naturally to medical students because the medical school’s students’ association places a high priority on volunteering all year round, said Nadav Zillcha, the association’s chairman.

Zillcha, 30, with graying hair and a firm expression, was skipping one day of a rotation at another hospital to organize volunteers. He said helping out during the conflict prepares medical students for the gravity of saving people’s lives.

“There’s a need here,” Zillcha said, adding, “We need to realize that now.”


Rabbi Freehling’s pet project

Daylong synagogue attendance is rare among most Reform Jews. It’s even rarer for their dogs.

For almost 12 years, Lucy traveled each day to University Synagogue in Brentwood with her owner, Rabbi Allen I. Freehling, then the synagogue’s senior rabbi. The golden retriever mix soon became one of the most popular members of the Reform congregation.

“The kids coming in for Hebrew school used to arrive early, come to the rabbi’s study, and hope that they would be the ones to take Lucy for a walk before going to class,” Freehling recalled. “She was delighted to spend the whole day in my office. If there wasn’t someone to pay attention to her, she would usually just sleep under my desk.”

Freehling, now the executive director of the City’s Human Relations Commission, found Lucy at a city-run animal shelter in the San Fernando Valley. Through a series of community workshops he is helping to facilitate for Los Angeles Animal Services, Freehling is urging other local residents to seek pets from city shelters, too.

L.A. Animal Services has been sponsoring its “Humane L.A.” workshops — a series of 11 free, public panel discussions — every other week since August to educate Angelenos about what they can do to help make the city a “no-kill” haven. The workshops, which will continue through mid-December, focus on different facets of the agency’s “no-kill equation,” such as low-cost spay and neuter, rescue groups, foster care and adoption programs. Common-sense factors like these, the agency believes, can, in time, reduce the number of unwanted animals euthanized at city shelters.

“We do have a responsibility in terms of taking good care of the animals that are a part of our population,” said Freehling, who is sharing the role of facilitator with three other members of the Human Relations Commission. “Spay and neuter has to become something that is accepted by everyone, because the only way to curtail the population of animals is if they are not reproducing on a regular basis. For people who wish to have animals, for them to consider adopting as opposed to purchasing would also be a step.”

The senior rabbi at University Synagogue for 30 years, Freehling and his wife, Lori, adopted Lucy with social interaction in mind.

“Not wanting to leave Lucy home by herself, we purposely found an animal that would be good with adults and children,” he said. “An animal is a marvelous provider of comfort. That was the role that she played at the synagogue. Being greeted by her was, more often than not, a comforting experience.”

Lucy eventually died of cancer, and the Freehlings adopted Pearl, a black lab and pit bull mix, from an animal rescuer in Riverside. Pearl hasn’t had the same opportunity to follow Freehling to work since he was appointed to the commission in 2002.

“Here at City Hall it’s less likely that someone would bring an animal to the office on a regular basis,” he said.

Asked if it’s possible to make Los Angeles a no-kill city, the Chicago native does not hesitate before saying, “Yes.” But profound changes must first occur in the local population’s attitude toward its four-legged neighbors.

“I hope people will begin to understand what a no-kill city is all about and what our responsibilities are as part of that community, and not simply leave it up to a particular department within the city to solve the problem by euthanizing an extraordinary number of animals,” Freehling said. “It’s something we’re all in together.”

For dates and locations of the remaining “Humane L.A.” workshops, visit


The Power of Yiddish

The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring honored Yiddish translator Hershl Hartman Nov. 7 at its annual awards banquet and silent auction, held at the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) union headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard.

“Yiddish is the language that embodies the very soul of secular Jewishness,” said Hartman to the 115 people in attendance. Hartman pointed to studies showing that world Jewry’s birthrate will increase heavily among young, Yiddish-speaking Chasidic families: “Young Chasidim who opt for modernity know well enough that it [Yiddish] is available to them.”

Hartman accepted the Workmen’s Circle’s Yiddishkayt Award and Los Angeles City Councilman Martin Ludlow accepted the Melvin S. and Erma B. Sands Memorial Award for Human Rights. Children’s radio show host Ruthie Buell received the group’s Member of the Year award, partly for her work playing guitar on picket lines during last winter’s supermarket strike.

Kirsten Cowan, assistant to the director of the Workmen’s Circle’s Southern California District, articulated the slight sense of depression at the leftist banquet held five days after President Bush’s re-election.

“Yes, the election was very depressing,” she told the crowd. “It just kind of re-energized our organization.”

Also attending were Jay Greenstein, a field deputy for West Hollywood’s Democratic Assemblyman Paul Koretz, and UTLA union representative Steve Klein.

“I do so many sort of left-leaning comedy benefits,” said comedienne and MC Jackie Wollner, who enjoyed entertaining at the event. – David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Puah Plants a Seed

Attention infertile couples: Don’t give up hope. At least that’s the message offered by representatives of the Israel-based Machon Puah (Puah Institute) who visited Los Angeles recently to lay the groundwork for branch of the institution here. Machon Puah – named after the biblical midwife who kept Jewish babies alive even after Pharaoh commanded they be killed – is an organization that offers free counseling services to couples to let them know about all the halachically approved fertility treatments available to them. They also offer a supervisory service for couples undergoing IVF treatment.

On Oct. 23, Rabbi Gideon Weitzman, the head of the English-speaking division of Machon Puah, spoke at Congregation Beth Jacob on “Jewish Law and Cutting-Edge Reproductive Medicine,” and on Oct. 30, Rabbi Menachem Burstein, the head of the Puah Institute, gave a lecture at Young Israel of Century City on “Be Fruitful and Multiply – A Modern Medical Perspective.”

In addition, the rabbis visited IVF clinics and met with medical specialists in anticipation of establishing fertility supervision services in Los Angeles.

For additional information, e-mail, or visit

Spicers Save Lives

Ann Spicer spent her youth in Nazi concentration camps, where it was only the rapidly advancing Russian army that saved her from a Mengele-imposed death sentence. Her husband, Ed, was also incarcerated in the Lvov concentration camp, but he escaped four times – and the last time he managed to join the partisans fighting in the forests of his native Poland.

After the war, the Spicers moved to America, with only $5 in their pockets given to them by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Now they live in Studio City, but they haven’t stopped helping their Jewish brethren all over the world.

In August 2003, Ed saw a news report of a suicide bombing in Israel, and was amazed at the quick response of the Magen David Adom ambulances. He and his wife decided that they were going to help save lives in Israel by donating an ambulance of their own.

In September of this year, the Spicers traveled to Israel to dedicate their own American Red Magen David for Israel (ARMDI) ambulance, which they presented to the people of Israel in memory of their relatives who perished in the Holocaust.

“You either have to fight for a country in a war or you have to work to save lives,” Ed Spicer said. “Well, I’m too old to fight, so I’m doing the next best thing.”

Visit to Vienna

Rabbi Marvin Hier, left, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, recently traveled to Vienna to meet with his organization’s namesake, famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Hier briefed Wiesenthal on the progress of the Frank Gehry-designed Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, scheduled to be completed in 2007. Queen Elizabeth recently knighted Wiesenthal, who will celebrate his 96th birthday in December, for his “lifetime of service to humanity.”


On Sept. 8, Moshe and Hannah Shram hosted a cocktail party at their home to benefit the Israel Humanitarian Foundation (IHF). The 50 guests watched a video highlighting five of the 130 projects that the IHF supports in Israel, and learned more about the projects from Shelly Levy, IHF’s Western region director.

The IHF is the premier link between donor-directed American Jewish philanthropy and the unmet needs of medical, educational, humanitarian, geriatric and social service projects in Israel. It supports organizations that cannot afford to have a presence in America, and rely on IHF funds to operate.

For more information call (310) 445-8801.

Dreams Fulfilled

The Fulfillment Fund, the largest donor of scholarships to Los Angeles students and one of the largest local mentor programs, held its “Stars 2004” gala on Oct. 13 at the Beverly Hilton. The event, which honored Amy Pascal, chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group and vice chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment, raised $2.5 million. The event attracted some megawattage stars, including actor Will Smith, who presented Pascal with her award, and comedian Sinbad, who was the evening’s master of ceremonies.

Shelter of Warmth

On Sept. 29, Jewish Family Service’s Family Violence Project (FVP) received 50 quilts designed by children and adults from Camp Ramah’s Tikvah Program, which helps Jewish teens and young adults with special needs. The quilts, which campers designed by creating art on textile squares, will be used in FVP’s two shelters for victims of domestic violence.

Camper-artists Neda Rasmi and Max Kotonikov; the Tikvah Program’s Tara Reisbaum, and Cheryl Davidson, the project coordinator, presented the quilts to Kitty Glass, community outreach coordinator for the FVP, in a special sukkah ceremony at JFS’s Freda Mohr Center in the Fairfax District.

The date, which fell during Sukkot, and the venue, were specially chosen because as the sukkah provides spiritual shelter to the Jewish people, so will the quilts provide physical and emotional shelter to the victims of domestic violence.

USY Flies!

United Synagogue Youth (USY), the high school affiliate of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, recently gathered 65 of the country’s top young Jewish leaders and sent them off to Israel on USY’s Nativ College Leadership Program. Seven of the students came from Los Angeles: Tammy Farkas and Benjamin Braun, from Temple Beth Am; Danny Fleischer and Julie Hanna, from Temple Eilat in Mission Viejo; Arya Donner from Valley Beth Shalom; Lauren Klein from Adat Ari El; and Tanya Spiegel from Beth Shalom in Corona.

The students, who left in September, will be in Israel for nine months, where they will study, tour, volunteer and learn new leadership techniques.

For more information, call (212) 553-7800, ext. 2321 or e-mail

A Jolly Good Fellow

Sometimes rabbis need reinforcements, too. Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal (STAR) recently started a fellowship program – Professional Education for Excellence in Rabbis (PEER), which combines practical knowledge with ongoing mentoring to build a bridge between the spiritual and secular components of rabbinic training. The process of being chosen for a PEER fellow is a highly competitive one, and it is open to congregational rabbis who are two to five years past their ordination. In September, Rabbi Daniel Moskovitz of Temple Judea was chosen as a 2004-2005 PEER Fellow. The program will help Moskovitz acquire essential management skills, identify his personal vision for a successful rabbinate and develop a road map toward creating a vibrant community.