Faith, Responsibility Top OU Convention


In his keynote address at the Orthodox Union West Coast Torah Convention last weekend, Judge Daniel Butler told the crowd of 300 the harrowing tale of the difficult but celebrated life of his son, Mikey.

“Mikey’s sign-off line was ‘Day by glorious day,’ said Butler, describing how Mikey spent his truncated life in and out of the hospital, coughing up phlegm in his lungs from cystic fibrosis.

Before he died earlier this year, at age 24, from lung transplant complications, Mikey graduated from Yeshiva University, where he was vice president of the student body. He was also a counselor at Camp HASC (a New York camp for children with special needs), a drummer in a band — and his story inspired hundreds of Orthodox communities across the United States to pray and do good deeds in his merit.

“We have been very, very lucky,” Butler said in his speech, referring to his family. The Butlers, who live in Pittsburgh, have four other children, two of whom have Fragile X Autism.

Butler’s speech — and his message of hope, faith in God and recognizing the silver lining in even the darkest clouds — brought much of the audience to tears and set the stage for the weekend convention, whose theme was “God’s Role in Our World: Our Role in God’s World.”

The convention is the Orthodox Union’s (OU) largest West Coast event. It draws together rabbis and lay people from all the Orthodox synagogues in the greater Los Angeles area. By bringing speakers from other Orthodox communities in the United States and abroad, the convention connects the Los Angeles community to the greater Orthodox world.

This year, 15 scholars from Israel and throughout the United States came to Los Angeles to speak, and 16 local synagogues hosted scholar-in-residence programs last Shabbat in conjunction with the convention. Organizers estimated that more than 1,000 people participated in convention-related activities, which included a dinner, book signing and 19 workshops on issues pertaining to the future of the Orthodox community.

The convention workshops tackled issues pertinent to the challenges of observing Jewish law in a modern world, such as questions about genetic engineering and cosmetic surgery. They also addressed some of the growing concerns in the Orthodox community, such as the role that the Diaspora community needs to play in Israel’s affairs, the importance of secular education and the increasing number of divorces in the community.

The convention theme was chosen as a response to a number of tragedies in the Orthodox community, including the deaths of a high school student and two young adults, said Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, the OU’s West Coast director.

“There has been tragedy in our community, and it caused a lot of people to question their own faith,” Kalinsky said. “We wanted the theme to reflect something more positive, so here is Judge Butler, whose son’s illness has been a challenging dimension for him and his wife to deal with on a daily basis, but he has always been a model of emunah [faith].”

While Butler talked about his personal journey to faith and acceptance, the other workshops took a more global view of current issues.

In the session “Is the Diaspora Doing What It Should for Israel?” Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Teaneck, N.J., argued that Jews living outside of Israel are obligated to have a strong interest in Israel’s affairs for reasons that include an obligation to help other Jews and because combating terror in Israel will also help combat terror in the United States.

On the domestic front, in the matchmaking-related workshop “If Shidduchim Are Made in Heaven Why Are There So Many Divorces?” Rabbi Daniel Alter, from the East Denver Orthodox Synagogue, argued that our current understanding of beshert — a soul mate handpicked by God — often causes people to have unrealistic expectations of marriage. Many believe that perfection is divinely ordained, and anything falling short does not need to be tolerated.

“We need better support services and training in the community [to assist married couples with their relationships],” Alter said.

“We always try to have a mixture at our conventions of Torah Lishmah — Torah at a high level [of study] — and also the practical kinds of questions of what people think about on a regular basis,” said Stephen J. Savitsky, OU president.

“I go [to the convention] for two reasons — educational and informational,” said Rabbi Harry Greenspan of Young Israel of Beverly Hills, one of the convention’s participating synagogues. “Educationally, there are some quite significant rabbinical authorities who come to these things, and they generally have very informative panels by very prominent professionals in their field. In my eyes, this is an opportunity for the Los Angeles community to connect with the big people in New York community.”


Look Who’s Talking

Spiritualists, Dead Sea scholars and psychoanalysts are but a sampling of the varied menu of Jewish speakers that are to make scheduled appearances in Orange County over the next few months.

One of the better known but controversial figures is Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, speaking Oct. 3 and 4 at Tustin’s Congregation B’nai Israel. Reb Zalman, as he’s known, is a Chabad renegade who founded the Jewish Renewal movement in the 1960s. Its tenets are a contemporary take on the central teachings from Hasidism and Jewish mysticism.

The area is awash in opportunities for intellectual enrichment, such as:

  • One-time events like "Dinner with a Scholar," a fundraiser Nov. 9 for the Bureau of Jewish Education where the nine-scholar menu ranges from psychoanalysis to Uganda. Or Larry Schiffman, a Dead Sea Scrolls expert, in residence Nov. 7-8 at Yorba Linda’s North County Chabad Center.
  • Academia-length commitments, such as the Bureau of Jewish Education’s new offering, an October-May exploration of Talmud and Midrash in "Scholars and Sages," or Chabad’s Jewish Learning Institute, which offers three eight-week classes over nine months. Its first is Talmudic ethics.
  • The ever expanding portfolio of the O.C. Community Scholar Program, which continues to lure high-profile authorities on Jewish topics.

"It’s gone from a one-month program to a gap-filler," said the program’s chairman, Arie Katz, a Newport Beach attorney. "I’m not trying to supplant anyone by bringing programs that are controversial or otherwise not offered. It’s meant to challenge people, to take people out of their comfort zone."

Land of a Thousand Titles

Jonathan Foer’s award-winning book, “Everything Is Illuminated,” is a fictionalized road trip to a Ukrainian shtetl, mirroring the young author’s own family history quest. Crime fiction writer Rochelle Krich, the Orthodox daughter of Holocaust survivors, is starting a new series with the release of “Blues in the Night.” Howard Blum, a former New York Times reporter, chronicles the clandestine World War II exploits of the British army’s Jewish Brigade Group in “The Brigade.”

This trio, along with five other visiting authors and several nationally known speakers, will share their stories and sign books in a series of O.C. events Nov. 7-24. Hundreds of autograph-hungry readers are expected at the fourth annual Jewish book festival, organized by Orange County’s Jewish Community Center.

Similar festivals are scheduled in 70 other communities in the month prior to Chanukah, which begins Nov. 29. The New York-based Jewish Book Council sponsors November’s declaration as “Jewish Book Month.” Together, the events will ring up nearly $3 million in direct and ancillary sales of books with Jewish content or written by Jewish authors, according to estimates by publishers, said Carolyn Starman Hessel, the council’s executive director. “There’s been a renaissance in Jewish literacy,” she said, reflected in the success of local festivals, the survival of niche Jewish publishers such as Vermont-based Jewish Lights and the growth of synagogue book clubs.

Yet outside the nation’s two largest Jewish population centers of New York and Los Angeles, book stores carry few selections on Jewish topics. Some festivals stock 4,000 titles, becoming a rare opportunity to see and touch the breadth of modern Jewish literature. Even the book-filled Judaica stores in Los Angeles — which will not officially hold a book festival this year — cater largely to the Orthodox community.

“The JCC brings in titles I can’t take in, like politics,” said Julie Ghodsi, who with her husband, Shahrokh, in 1990 started Costa Mesa’s Golden Dreidle, which can boast of the county’s largest Jewish book collection. Her stock is weighted towards cooking, children, travel, the Holocaust and introductory Judaism.

“I have limited space and people come to me for life-cycle books,” she said.

Even in retail-rich Orange County, the Jewish inventory is slim at a mainstream shop such as B. Dalton Bookseller in Laguna Hills’ mall. Of one aisle devoted to religion, the Jewish section takes three shelves, an anemic 100 individual titles.

At the JCC? A smorgasbord of over 1,000 titles will be offered in a conference room stripped of its tables and sofas and transformed into an all-Jewish book bazaar by event coordinator Donna Van Slyke and an army of 50 volunteers. Bookshelves temporarily emptied and heisted from every office at the Jewish campus will be refilled by genre. Merchandizing expertise is coming from the staff of Waldenbooks in Mission Viejo, which is serving as the JCC’s temporary book distributor.

Among the book groupings will be children’s, fiction, nonfiction, humor and cooking. New this year is a section devoted to contemporary Israeli authors, whose work is mostly in Hebrew. Two well-read, Israeli-born locals, Ivy Dashti and Yaffi Sevy, will describe the books at a Nov. 14 event provided by Steimatzky, an Israeli bookseller with franchise stores a Tarzana and Beverly Hills.

“It’s a wonderful environment to bring the community together,” said Hessel, who thinks that festival events often appeal to Jews who avoid synagogue. “‘I can’t go.’ ‘I won’t know what to do.’ You never hear that about a book fair.”

In fact, the festival includes some atypical events that are a reflection of the local Jewish community’s willingness to cross-collaborate. In addition to mostly evening appearances by authors, the line-up includes a single performance of “Shylock,” a one-man play by Mark Leiren-Young about art and political correctness; and a debate between ideological opposites, Michael Lerner and Dennis Prager. The latter events are sponsored by the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League and the Community Scholar Program, respectively.

The independent book council plays a considerable behind-the-scenes role in raising awareness for Jewish authors. The group sponsors the National Jewish Book Awards, presented annually to the authors of the best works in 14 categories. And since 1999, the council has also eased the lives of local event organizers by gathering authors to an annual beauty-pageant conference where festival planners size up potential candidates. Van Slyke selected from 50 authors willing to travel west.

As a measure of Jewish book festival influence on an individual author’s sales, last year’s appearances prompted a fourth printing by publisher Simon & Schuster of Samuel G. Freedman’s “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry,” Hessel said. Freedman, a Columbia University professor, trekked to nearly 30 cities.

“I can easily sell 300 copies if the author is speaking,” she said.

The festival is not a moneymaker for the JCC, which will receive about 10 percent of the proceeds, said David Ho, Waldenbook’s district manager. He expects sales of $20,000, or about 50 percent of the merchandise stocked.

Authors submit to a jampacked monthlong schedule touring the country. The various festivals split their expenses, a bookkeeping tangle administered by the council. This year, Blum gets the mileage prize, visiting 32 cities in four weeks, including stops in Orange County and an appearance at the San Gabriel-Pomona Valley Jewish book festival.

The JCC’s “store” will also take to the road to accommodate author appearances at the venues of sponsoring synagogues. Tickets to individual events vary and some are likely to be sold out.

Book Festival

Except where noted, author events take place at 7:30 p.m. at Orange County’s Jewish Community Center, 250 E. Baker St., Costa Mesa. Ticket prices to individual events vary.

Nov. 7 Jonathan Safron Foer, noon.

Nov. 7 Dennis Prager vs. Rabbi Michael

Lerner, debate, Newport Beach’s

Temple Bat Yahm

Nov. 10 Rabbi Harold Kushner, Tustin’s

Congregation B’nai Israel

Nov. 10 Sheila Kaufman, private home,

11 a.m.

Nov. 11 Robin Glasser, 9:30 a.m.

Nov. 12 Sharon Boorstin

Nov. 14 Israeli lit lovers: Ivy Dashti and

Yaffi Sevy

Nov. 16 Vivian Wayne

Nov. 18Mark Leiren-Young’s play, “Shylock”

Nov. 20 Rochelle Krich

Nov. 21 Howard Blum

Nov. 24 Leonard Nimoy

Israel Bolsters Local GOP Support

While the Bush administration’s strong support for Israel might not yet be paying off dividends in the Middle East, the stance has certainly been a boon for local Jewish Republicans.

Since its start in November 2000, two months after the second Palestinian intifada began, the Republican Jewish Coalition of Los Angeles (RJCLA) has attracted more than 400 paid members, making it the Republican Jewish Coalition’s (RJC) largest and most powerful local chapter nationwide. Its monthly meetings at the Skirball Cultural Center have been known to draw hundreds, as influential speakers and local conservative candidates come seeking Jewish support.

"The growth is based [in part] on the Republican Party’s strong support for Israel and the leadership of President Bush," said RJCLA President Bruce Bialosky, who also serves as Southern California chair of RJC, the Washington, D.C.-based organization that took Bush on his first trip to Israel in 1998.

"To Bush it’s a simple act of morality. He understands who the good guys and the bad guys are, and he’s on the right team."

Support for the Jewish state from the president and the Republican-controlled House, especially when contrasted against lackluster support for Israel from the left, has managed to make traditionally liberal Los Angeles fertile ground for a blossoming conservatism among Jews.

The increased interest has pushed the grass-roots organization to expand. The group hired Scott Gluck, 32, as its executive director in March and opened a field office in West Los Angeles. Until recently, most people found out about RJCLA through word-of-mouth or advertising in The Jewish Journal.

"The more that people see the members and see what we’re doing, the more people join," Bialosky said.

On Tuesday, the group hosted a town hall meeting with Adam Goldman, Bush’s liaison to the American Jewish community, at Stephen S. Wise Temple that drew more than 700 people.

At the Israel Festival in April, the group collected more than 200 names for their mailing list and even ran out of voter registration forms.

"There are a lot more Jewish Republicans than people think there are, even in the voting numbers," Bialosky said.

Luntz Research, a Republican-oriented polling company, found a reexamination of Bush and the Republican Party among Jewish voters since the 2000 election. The survey, released Dec. 3, found that 48 percent would consider voting for Bush in 2004. Only 23 percent of those surveyed had voted for him in 2000.

Among Jewish collegians, that number may be even higher.

"At least 50 percent of Jews under the age of 30 voted for George W. Bush in the last election," said Bialosky, referring to results from a Zogby poll following the 2000 election.

With an increase in anti-Israel rallies and protests on colleges campuses, RJCLA is recognizing the need to play a greater role supporting Jewish students.

"Our goal is to have a Jewish Republican chapter in each of the major universities here in Los Angeles. The key to the future of this organization is going to be the younger people," Gluck said.

Orthodox Jews constitute another bloc of interest to RJCLA. The organization, which has a number of members who attend Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills, recently held a few meetings with the observant community.

"They told us that the ones who aren’t Republican already just haven’t reregistered," Bialosky said.

RJCLA’s support base is spread throughout Southern California — from the San Fernando Valley to the South Bay — so organizers have found that monthly meetings at the Skirball Cultural Center work best for its membership. The group is diverse: from teens to septuagenarians; secular to Orthodox; Ashekenazim, Mizrahim and Sephardim — all are represented.

RJCLA has built up interest with an impressive list of speakers: former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon, Proposition 209 proponent Ward Connerly and terrorism expert Steve Emerson. Dennis Prager spoke at the organization’s Chanukah celebration about why Jews should be Republican. Bialosky is hoping to attract more White House speakers like Goldman in the near future.

For participants, the group events are a coming-out party of sorts.

Zina Lovitch, 48, came to the United States from Russia in 1978 and is proud to be a Republican. A member of RJCLA for more than one year, Lovitch said she’s been impressed with the number of candidates who make appearances at the monthly meetings and the diverse points of view brought up there.

"Thank God it’s here," she said. "Thank God we’re out of the closet."

"The one expression people say when they come to a meeting for the first time is ‘I thought I was the only one,’" Gluck said.

Perry Zuckerman, 44, came to the May RJCLA meeting for the first time seeking to meet people with similar political views and said that the party’s stand on Israel also had an impact.

"The Republican support for Israel has certainly been welcome," said Zuckerman, who complained of a growing anti-Israel sentiment among the extreme left. "I feel like this is more of a home now."

Dr. Reed Wilson, RJCLA’s activity chair, had been involved with The Jewish Federation’s Super Sunday campaign and was head of the group’s medical division, but felt that the values espoused by Jewish organizations were not representative of his opinions.

"If you said you were a Republican and Jewish in Jewish circles you were shunned or looked at as if something was genetically wrong with you." he said.

Through RJCLA, Wilson has met with local and national leaders, like John Ashcroft, experiences that he describes as "critical." With the guidance of people like RJCLA’s Vice President Joel Strom, Simon’s state volunteer chair, Wilson has also taken on a more active role in politics and is currently leading the Jewish outreach for the Simon campaign.

"Jewish ideals and goals need to be represented, no matter which party is in power," Wilson said.

Participation with RJCLA leadership has also borne fruit for Connie Friedman, RJCLA’s board secretary, who jumped into the fray this election cycle and is challenging Jewish Democrat Lloyd Levine for Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg’s 40th District seat.

The Los Angeles chapter’s success is now serving as inspiration for the creation of other local chapters, which now total 17.

Prior to the creation of RJCLA, there were 13 local chapters nationwide, many of which were organized around the efforts of one person, and their activities had waned.

Orange County, started in 1996, was one such chapter. The success of RJCLA sparked new interest, and the group has reorganized with the help of Bialosky and Gluck. Based in one of California’s most conservative counties, the Orange County chapter will celebrate its rebirth with a June 12 kickoff.

"From being a Washington-based group, [RJC is] now becoming a national group with regional satellites around the nation. Now when they’re doing it, they’re doing it on our format," Bialosky said.

"It’s really been a role model for us. The success of what we’ve been doing in Los Angeles has reinforced what we’re doing nationally," RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks said. "If we can go into Los Angeles, which has notoriously been Democratic, and have the kind of success we have, that shows we can do this on a larger level."

For more information about RJCLA, visit or call (310) 271-7429.