Spirit and Chocolate Top Temple Emanuel Installation

There was chocolate and music last week when Sue Brucker was installed as president of Temple Emanuel’s board of directors at Shabbat Unplugged. Amid the singing and Shabbat rituals, Brucker was applauded for her talents as a leader, and her commitment and dedication to getting any job, no matter the task, accomplished.

The services were filled with those who enjoy the upbeat Shabbat melodies of singing and celebration Temple Emanuel has become famous for. Known as a “go-to person,” Brucker is always the first to achieve any goal, take on any task and commit to any cause. Brucker, along with her mother-in-law Rita Brucker, will be honored at the Women of Sheba Achievement luncheon later this month and is the immediate past president for the Beverly Hills High School PTSA. She also received the Humanitarian of the Year from Amie Karen Cancer Society. Her husband Barry is on the Beverly Hills City Council and was the former president of the Beverly Hills School Board.

Big Fun in Big Apple

Leaving Los Angeles and spending a month at Yeshiva University (YU) in New York this summer was a fun and rewarding experience for five Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles (YULA) students. The teens met and mingled with other Orthodox students in New York City, taking in the sights and enjoying the Big Apple. The five students, Michael Bank and Jesse Katz of Los Angeles, Marlon Schwarcz of Beverly Hills, Joel Shuchatowitz of Tarzana, and Netanel Zilberstein of Encino stayed in dormitories on YU’s Wilf Campus in Washington Heights.

Students spent mornings studying Jewish topics, and in the afternoons chose between “The World of Finance and Investment,” a practical experience establishing and analyzing a portfolio of investments and working with traders, financial planners and entrepreneurs; “Explorations in Genetics and Molecular Biology,” a laboratory experience introducing students to the theory and techniques of molecular biology; and political science/pre-law, which exposed students to politics and law through the lens of current issues and by taking trips and hearing from speakers around New York City.

The YULA students toured the area attractions, including a Broadway show; the Museum of Natural History; Six Flags Great Adventure; a Mets game; a double-decker bus tour; a visit to the World Trade Center site; and a tour of YU’s campuses.

“It was great to have an opportunity to feel the YU experience,” said Zilberstein, the first of his siblings to go to college.

He said spending the month at YU took some of the mystery out of the college experience: “You get to feel like you are a college student, taking real college classes.”

Students also spent several days in the Washington, D.C. area, visiting the Capitol building, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Spy Museum and spending Shabbat in Silver Spring, Md.

“Many of the students are interested in YU, but want to see more than they would if they just came for a tour,” explained Aliza Stareshefsky, program director.
For more information about next year’s program, e-mail summer@yu.edu.

Rabbi on Board

The Olympia Medical Center recently added Rabbi Karen L. Fox to its board of governors. The group is comprised of 15 community leaders and business executives, and recommends and implements hospital policy, promotes patient safety and performance improvement while helping provide quality patient care.
“We are honored to have someone with Rabbi Fox’s prominence join our board of governors,” board chairman Dr. Sharam Ravan said. “I know that she will be an asset to Olympia Medical Center as we grow to meet the needs of the community.”

Fox, who has served at Wilshire Boulevard Temple for nearly 20 years, graduated from UCLA in 1973. She earned a master’s degree in Hebrew letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and received her ordaination there in 1978. She earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology as well as a doctorate of divinity from Pepperdine University, and is a licensed marriage and family psychotherapist. She published a user-friendly guide to Jewish holidays title “Seasons for Celebration” and has authored numerous articles about women’s experiences and Jewish thought.

Kids Raise the ‘Roof’

The Children’s Civic Light Opera (CCLO), one of the Los Angeles area’s original and longest-established performing arts programs for youth, ages 7-17, celebrated its 19th year with a stellar production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Parents and friends shepped naches as 40 talented and dedicated kids rehearsed for eight weeks to present the Broadway-style production complete, with professional sets, costumes, sound, lighting and a live orchestra. Their show was a treat for theater-goers who sat awed by the kid’s spirited performances.

“‘Fiddler’ is a rare and beautiful gift,” CCLO’s founder and artistic director Diane Feldman Turen said. “It is an incredibly powerful piece of theater overflowing with an abundance of learning opportunities on multiple levels. Its universal themes allow us to address and examine the opposing forces that drive our lives and it’s wonderful that our ensemble can apply what they’re learning on the stage and off.”

The Final Frontier

Professor Ron Folman leads me down a few staircases of the science building of Ben Gurion University (BGU) in the southern Israeli city of Be’er Sheva to show me his million-dollar, state-of-the-art nanotech laboratory.

It feels like we’re descending to some basement bomb shelter of an old Israeli building. Actually, we are. Very recently, the laboratory was a bomb shelter. And despite the double doors leading to a white, clean room with an air-pressurized system to keep the expensive equipment immaculate, there is still a feel of the makeshift here, in the wall coverings, in the tiled ceilings, in the fact that it was formerly a bomb shelter before Folman came along.

“Building a lab was the condition for me to do my high-tech here,” said Folman, a scientist in his 40s who is darkly handsome in a 1970s professorial way. Sometimes it’s “frustrating,” added the head of the Atom Chip Laboratory, to make do with a lab that’s been improvised into a basement bomb shelter, “but in the big picture we’re doing more than science. We’re helping the Negev and making a difference. These are not just words for me.”

Those are not just words for many people, both the long-timers and newcomers who have made the Negev Desert their home, despite its temperature extremes, the scarcity of water, the limited economic opportunities and a location isolated from the nation’s cultural and population hubs — Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa — the regions where more than 90 percent of Israelis live.

Most mainstream Israelis are tired and cynical, skeptical about politics, idealism, religion and Zionism — the original mission of building a land of Israel. It’s the inevitable curse, perhaps, of living in modern cities obsessed with consumerism and rife with traffic and crime, where the government too often seems corrupt or ineffective. It’s also the curse of living in a Promised Land where so many promises have not been fulfilled, and where dreams of peace — or of conquest — seem interminably on hold.

From taxi drivers and store clerks to older grandmothers and early pioneers, so many lament the loss of that aboriginal Israeli culture, with its spirit, values – the very things that once made Israel so inspiring. Nowhere is it more popular than here to lament that “things were so much better long ago.”

But those drawn to the Negev are much more like the old chalutzim, the pioneers of the last century who built the country with their hands and minds, who wanted to forge a connection to the land and create a democratic, peaceful society. These new pioneers are modern-day settlers, but unlike those in the West Bank and Gaza, they are not necessarily ideologically and religiously motivated, intent on laying claim to the larger boundaries of a “Greater Israel” they view as biblically ordained.

These new settlers see the Negev — with 60 percent of Israel’s landmass but only housing 7 percent of its population — as Israel’s last frontier, and also as its future. These Negev settlers have one main goal: They want to make the desert bloom.

And most of them are connected to Ben Gurion University.

The University of Be’er Sheva was founded in 1969 on the dreams of David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, who retired in 1953 to Sde Boker, a kibbutz in the Negev, and urged Israelis to follow him. Although Ben Gurion came out of retirement again to eventually become prime minister, he never stopped hoping Israelis would settle the Negev. When he died, four years after the university was founded, the University of Be’er Sheva was renamed Ben Gurion University.

The Negev, Mark Twain wrote in his 1857 book, “Innocents Abroad,” “is a desolation that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action.” In the 1970s, it was only a bit better, the home to industrial factories, military bases and a “secret” nuclear reactor. Its inhabitants comprised mostly impoverished immigrants from Arab countries who were dumped in “Maabarot” transit camps and hastily developed cities in the 1950s and some hippies who had heeded Ben Gurion’s call. For the average Israeli and for foreign tourists then, the Negev, and Be’er Sheva in particular, were little more than way stations to the sunny beaches of Eilat, two hours south.

The hope was that a dynamic university would change all that.

And in the last 15 years, it has started to — under Avishay Braverman, the university’s president. Since the charismatic former World Bank economist came on board in 1990, BGU has tripled its student roster to 17,000, and has kept the university in the black — not an easy feat with government budget cuts of more than 20 percent. Braverman also scored an estimated $200 million bequest from Dr. Howard and Lottie Marcus, a Southern California family brought in by Philip Gomperts of the university’s American fundraising arm, which sponsored my trip to Israel.

For the last three years, the university has been the top student choice for Israeli undergraduates, with 1,000 applicants competing for every 75 slots.

Many of the people I spoke to — affiliated and unaffiliated with the university — attribute this popularity to the warm atmosphere at BGU, the accessibility of professors, the friendliness of students. Because of the university’s relative isolation, students spend more time involved in campus-related activities, unlike their counterparts in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

The region’s apartness and also its ongoing transformation unfold on the journey from Tel Aviv to Be’er Sheva. It’s only in the last half a decade that the train has even started to run on a frequent, regular schedule, more than 30 times a day. An upcoming, faster train is expected to cut down the commute from 70 to 40 minutes — making Be’er Sheva practically a commuter suburb.

Other changes and visions abound. One professor showed me a survey for creating golf courses on this arid land, a la Palm Springs. Another talked about improving the health and life expectancy of the Bedouin community and other health-related projects. One student talked about Ayalim, a student organization that plans to build student “towns” miles off campus to develop students’ connection to the land (see article on page 14). And other students are involved in spurring growth and improving the quality of life in the hardscrabble neighborhoods of Be’er Sheva, with their drab structures and working-class, underserved residents.

But most Negev pioneers agree that the great hope for the Negev’s future is high-tech. It’s the industry that has transformed much of Israel and created a new class of wealth in central Israel by bringing in investment and employment.

Folman is one of the technology messiahs. As he shows me around his bomb shelter-cum-laboratory, he points out the scarily expensive microscopes, and tries to explain his James Bondian field of cameras, the size of a particle of dust, that can enter the human body; of robots that can take X-rays; of experiments to desalinate water for less than $5 a gallon.

“What would that do for deserts, not just the Negev, but Third World countries with water shortages?” he asks.

Folman doesn’t spend as much time in the lab as he would like, because he often travels to Europe and America in search of joint ventures for a high-tech park planned for BGU. He recently visited the West Coast and, with Western U.S. Regional Director Philip Gomperts, met with executives of Silicon Valley and other California companies. They hope to persuade them to set up shop in the Negev. Gomperts contends that the future of fundraising, instead of focusing on collecting donations, will be all about building partnerships, hosting incubators, attracting research investment.

“Brain-oriented institutions like Stanford and Duke are the propellants for modern economic regions,” Gomperts said. “We believe BGU will do the same for the Negev.”

The most vocal proponent of such ideas is Braverman, BGU’s president.

“We are on the edge of transformation,” he said at the 35th annual board of governors meeting — a three-day gathering of BGU supporters from around the world. Braverman laid out plans for attracting research and high-tech to the region. “We believe we can do it all, because we have no choice.”

Shortly after his pitch, his friend, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, pledged that the government would give the university $30 million over the next five years.

“Israel is changing, and the Middle East is going to change. And the State of Israel will not be the same after the disengagement,” Olmert told the audience of about 100. “We will change the priorities of Israel. One of those changes is the focus on the Negev. Finally, after 50 years, the dream of Ben Gurion is about to be realized.”

The dreams of people like Ben Gurion and of Braverman are ostensibly about more than high-tech parks, foreign investment or white-collar employment. Nor is the goal to turn Be’er Sheva into Tel Aviv or New York, but to create a community, one that includes the more than 100,000 Bedouin, who require social and health-care improvements; and the region’s Jewish poor, many of whom arrived as refugees from Arab countries in the 1950s, from the former Soviet Union in the 1970s and from Ethiopia over the last two decades.

One initiative, the Community Action Unit, focuses on connecting the university to the local neighborhoods. There’s the leadership training program, which provides scholarships to 200 students from underprivileged communities, as well as the New Start program, which allows 150 adults from deprived backgrounds to complete their high school diplomas on campus. And the “Open Apartment” program houses BGU students in impoverished neighborhoods in return for 10 hours of community service a week.

BGU student Hilwan Zaron, an Ethiopian immigrant with coffee-smooth skin and big doe eyes, lives in Neighborhood D, one of the three underprivileged neighborhoods of Be’er Sheva where the open apartments are located. Zaron and her family came to Israel via Operation Moses, fleeing the Sudan, where she was born. She grew up with her seven siblings in Arad, 18 miles east of Be’er Sheva, primarily in an absorption center.

“I heard about this program and wanted to do it for economic reasons and because it is meaningful,” said the 23-year-old. “Because to be only in the dorms and the city doesn’t give me that.”

Zaron teaches, of all things, a hip-hop class to local kids. She says they show up early for her twice-a-week class, begging her to start a half hour early. One of her classes is held at a local disco.

“It’s given me so much,” she said. “This is all about social and community work. I was in an immigrant absorption center, and now I feel that I am giving back.”

That is how many who are at the university feel, even those who could have chosen more established universities, in bigger cities. Folman, for example, was offered a job at another top university in Israel, but Braverman convinced him to come to the Negev.

“What I can offer you that they cannot offer you is the challenge of the Negev,” Braverman told him. So Folman came. “I truly believe this is the only land reserve the Jewish people have,” he said, “and we have to fight for it.”


Learning to Breathe


For the last several years I have had a relationship with a man in prison, and I have seen how his soul has become anguished and diminished by sitting in that cell.

I met William after he was released from prison the first time, and I helped him get back on his feet. Now I write him words of comfort from the Psalms, from the Torah and from meditations that I have found to enhance an ailing spirit.

However, I have never been in prison and can barely imagine what it must be like. The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that the soul can be compared to a piece of coal. If even the smallest spark remains, it can be fanned into a large flame; but if the spark is extinguished, the coal’s life is over. In attempting to keep William hopeful, I have learned a great deal about the human will and the effect of enslavement on the soul. In that, William’s story relates to this week’s parsha.

After 400 years of slavery in Egypt, Moses is sent to redeem the people. “And Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel and they couldn’t hear Moses because of an impoverished spirit and difficult work” (Exodus 6:9). I have long been fascinated by this existential verse in the midst of the redemption drama. Rarely do we as readers get an insight into the inner life of an individual character in the Bible, let alone into the psyche of the nation as a whole. Rashi teaches that kotzer ruach, the “impoverished spirit,” refers to “anyone who is troubled; they have short wind and breathing, and are not able to take a deep breath.” Rashi creates this drash by relating the word for short (kotzer) and troubled/despair (maitzar). In addition, maitzar is the same root as the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim. When we are enslaved, our breath, our neshimah, is shallow and our soul, our neshamah, is unable to expand to its full potential.

Judaism offers us an exodus from our mental slavery, but many of us are too stuck in our ways to hear the call. We are begging for ways to make our lives more meaningful, richer in spirit, holier in essence. Yet, when I suggest Shabbat, prayer, tikkun olam, a life of mitzvot, the most common answer I hear is, “Sounds great rabbi, but I can’t. It is too different or too difficult. I don’t want to make changes that will make my life unfamiliar.”

This is our contemporary slavery — our Egypt is familiarity and complacency, and they are hard shackles to break. However, if we do not break them, our souls perish from lack of air and shortness of breath.

William’s incarceration is perhaps easier to understand than the spiritual enslavement I believe keeps the souls of many supposedly free people locked away. So many of us are living, without really knowing it, in our own Egypt. And the scariest part is that we do it voluntarily. Unlike my friend, William, whose imprisonment is an easily recognizable consequence of his actions, many of us have unwittingly allowed our souls to be shortened and our breath squelched in our pursuit of “happiness.” We are all slaves to something — time, work, bad habits, money, greed, insecurity, whatever. But our souls cannot survive without being nourished; and when they are not, it becomes almost impossible for us to realize that freedom, spiritual freedom, is attainable. The Israelites couldn’t hear Moses because their souls were buried and their breath, the source of life, had been shortened; likewise, we cannot hear the cry of our spirits because we are too busy and too afraid to truly listen to our own hearts.

In his comment on this verse, the Sfat Emet spells it out for us: hearing requires being empty of everything. How difficult this was for the enslaved Israelites, and how difficult for us; our inability to empty ourselves, to forget this world’s vanities, prevents our hearts from being empty and free to hear God’s word. This is why we mention the Exodus in the blessing after the Shema — we must remind ourselves daily to strive for freedom in order to hear, and to strive to hear in order to be free.

Every morning when I open my eyes, I say the words, “Elohai neshama shenatata bi tehorah hee” — “My God, the soul which you placed in me is pure.” This short meditation is what helps me to keep from drowning in my own slave mentality. I sent this message to William in my last letter; I reminded him that the Israelites, in their slavery, forgot to breathe and lost touch with their eternal, spiritual freedom. I prayed that he would keep breathing and expanding his soul so that when his physical freedom came, he could be ready to make the most of it. And that is my prayer for all of us, as a community, a nation and a universe. When redemption calls, may we have sufficient breath to answer.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center. His first book, “Seeking Holiness,” has just been published and is available at www.pjtc.net. He is a certified Jewish meditation instructor and a member of the Southern California Rabbinical Council of Americans for Peace Now.


Marlene Marks’ Spirit on the Web

Being treated for cancer is no one’s idea of fun. But a new Web site, www.chemochicks.com, is bringing moral support and an irreverent sense of humor to women undergoing chemotherapy. The colorful, breezy site gives female cancer patients a place to gripe, share inspiring stories and purchase products that will make life easier when their hair falls out and their self-esteem is nil.

Chemochicks.com is the brainchild of Jana Rosenblatt, a theatrical costumer and interior designer who has spent the past year fighting ovarian cancer. Much of the Chemo Chick product line comes from her own search for stylish headwraps and for eye makeup that will stay put on a hairless face.

“It’s amazing,” Rosenblatt said, “how expressionless you are without your eyebrows.”

The site also reflects Rosenblatt’s feisty spirit. When first facing chemotherapy, she dreamed up a fearless alter ego, Super Chemo Chick, who was tough enough to handle whatever might come. Now this personal coping mechanism helps empower others.

Rosenblatt’s founding partners in Five Chicks Unlimited are four local businesswomen who have been touched by cancer. They bring expertise in finance, product research, Web design and customer service to the site. But its guiding spirit is someone who did not live to see its launch: Marlene Adler Marks.

Rosenblatt had redecorated Marks’ Malibu home in 2000, shortly before The Jewish Journal’s longtime columnist and former managing editor was stricken with lung cancer. When Rosenblatt herself fell ill in June 2002, a visibly ailing Marks came to call. Marks’ courage in the face of her own mortality inspired Rosenblatt to battle back with similar grit. Two months after Marks’ death last September, the idea for chemochicks.com was hatched.

Another major morale boost came from Rosenblatt’s synagogue, Or Ami of Calabasas. Though she was relatively new to Southern California, members showered her with food baskets and friendly visits. Several, in fact, have joined the Chemo Chick team.

“I didn’t realize I was so much a part of any community, let alone a Jewish community,” Rosenblatt marveled.

Which shows that even a cancer diagnosis can lead to good things. “I like the person I am now better than the person I was before I got sick,” Rosenblatt said.

One Night for Israel

Maybe only seven nights of gifts would be enough for your family? The Israel Emergency Solidarity Fund (IESF) hopes so — they’d like you to save the eighth night for an Israeli family in need. It is easier than ever to bring a little Chanukah light into the holiday for Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers or victims of terror and their families. Instead of wrapping up one more PlayStation2 game, put a smile on a child’s face in Israel.

The new Toys for Chanukah campaign comes hot on the heels of IESF’s Rosh Hashana Honey campaign — when you, dear readers, sent honey for a sweet new year to Israeli victims of terror, IDF soldiers and friends and family in Israel.

Four different gift packages are available, from the $18 Soldiers’ Package to a $72 basket filled with latkes, sufganiot and other goodies. All the products are made in Israel, so when you give a Chanukah gift to an Israeli family, you give a gift to the Israeli economy as well. Packages include popular Israeli games and toys, like a Hebrew version of Monopoly, dreidel kits, and candies. When you send a gift through the Toys for Chanukah campaign, you can also send a personal note, letting an Israeli family know that the Jews of Los Angeles remember the spirit of the miracle of Chanukah

To order a Toys for Chanukah gift package, visit www.walk4israel.com or call (800) 672-8411.

Sense From Senselessness

What follows is an edited version of a speech that Judea Pearl, the father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, delivered upon accepting an award on his son’s behalf from the Los Angeles Press Club on June 22, 2002.

It is a great honor for me and Ruth to accept this award on behalf of our son, Danny.

I would like to share with you a few thoughts on how we can make sense of the tragedy that befell Danny, and whether anything good can possibly come out of it. I have been asking myself these questions a million times in the past few months and, frankly, the answers are not easy.

To be honest — the terrorists who killed Danny got everything they wanted. They embarrassed [Pakistan President Gen. Pervez] Musharraf, gained publicity, recruited more terrorists, inflicted pain and humiliation on the West and scared foreign journalists. They even managed to lure a greedy American weekly into publicizing their gruesome victory in vivid colors. So, on the surface, they seem to have won on all fronts — and this thought caused me great pain.

Fortunately, among the many letters that we have received, there were several that lifted my spirit and gave me a glimpse at what good may possibly come out of it. I would like to share them with you.

The first letter comes from a 23-year-old medical student in Torino, Italy. She tells me that she has written to the mayor of Torino and, to her surprise, the mayor’s office agreed that they should build a memorial for Danny in Torino. "Torino?" I asked. "Danny never set foot in Torino." Yes, she replied, but we are going to host the Winter Olympics four years from now, and who can better personify the spirit of humanity and international comradeship than Daniel Pearl?

It then dawned on me that they are not doing this for me, or for Danny — they are doing it for the people of Torino who evidently had difficulty finding a symbol for that abstract concept called "humanity," and needed to give the spirit of humanity a face and a body and a smile. And I understood then that, if Danny’s death can give humanity, or whatever is left of her, the banner that she needs to defend herself, then something good may come out of it.

The second letter was from a Jewish congregation in East Brunswick, N.J., asking my permission to name their religious school after Danny. "Religious school?" I asked. "Danny barely survived one year of Sunday school!"

But the rabbi insisted: "We want our children to have a model of what it means to be Jewish, and every mother that I speak to wants her son to be like Danny Pearl."

Again, I realized that he is not saying that to flatter me, but to serve the needs of those good mothers in East Brunswick. I realized then, that to fight anti-Semitism, Jewishness, too, is in need of a banner with a human face on it. And if, by pointing to Danny’s picture, the children of East Brunswick could lift their heads up high and say: "He is one of us, this is who we are," and if being "who we are" entails the pursuit of truth and friendship, then something good will come out of it.

The third letter, believe it or not, came from Alex [Block], informing me of the L.A. Press Club’s decision to establish this award in Danny’s memory. I immediately concluded that journalism too, especially the elusive notion of courage in journalism, needs a banner and a human role model. This was further reinforced by a letter from a Minneapolis lady who writes: "Hi there, my name is Jennifer, and I am going to become a journalist. For a very long time I was confused as to what I wanted to do with my life. When Daniel’s story began unfolding, I realized what passion and courage journalists like him have. I carry a picture of Daniel in my wallet to remind me of why I finally chose to become a journalist."

My goodness! I thought, if the picture of Danny can inspire young talents like Jennifer to become journalists and help reduce ignorance and hatred in this world, then something good already came out of it.

It is in this spirit that the Daniel Pearl Foundation was created. It is based on the simple premise that humanity is fighting a battle of survival, and that troops do not rally behind abstract concepts — they rally behind banners with real faces. I think of the foundation as an enterprise that creates partnerships for good causes, and lends Danny’s banner to help humanity win her battle of survival.

Your presence here, tonight, makes you a partner in this enterprise, and I feel confident that, with partners like you, I would be able to tell my grandson, Adam, some day: "You see, Junior. Your father’s banner helped us win that battle."

The Jewish Mambo King

Real estate entrepreneur Brad Gluckstein had a vision. Perhaps not as dramatic as one of those sightings of Mary Magdalene, but a vision nonetheless.

He was having lunch one day in 1995 at Brown’s Deli in the Miracle Mile area and saw an old Jack La Lanne health spa for lease. "I basically said, as a 35-year-old educated, married guy, how would I like to spend my time? I came up with something that was part nightclub, part restaurant, but evoked the spirit and vitality of being in Latin America."

By February 1998, that vision became a reality, and the Conga Room was born.

Word of the muy caliente salsa club and restaurant has since scorched a path along Wilshire Boulevard among devotees of Latin culture. Perhaps you’ve heard of some of the Conga Room’s 35 investors: Jimmy Smits? Paul Rodriguez? How about Sheila E. and Jennifer Lopez?

Getting the superstars on board was no easy matter in those early days, before the Latin explosion that catapulted Lopez to superstardom and made Ricky Martin a household name.

"It was a very humiliating process trying to sell concept with pigeons flying around the old Jack La Lanne club," Gluckstein, 40, told The Journal. "It was a vision that very few people could see."

But Gluckstein’s dogged determination convinced the manager of Tito Puente and Celia Cruz to come aboard, and the celebrity investors followed. Cruz headlined the club’s first shows, and since then, the Conga Room has showcased everyone in Latin, jazz and world music, from Pancho Sanchez to Yellowman.

What Gluckstein enjoys most about running the Conga Room is that "you deal with people; you get to influence their mood," he said, sounding not unlike a DJ who might spin records at the Toro Room, the Conga Room’s club-within-the-club that caters to hip-hop fans, while people salsa, mambo and cha-cha-cha to live bands in the main room.

La Boca, the Conga Room’s well-reviewed restaurant, brought in Asia de Cuba’s executive chef to bring Nuevo Latino authenticity to the cuisine. Gluckstein has done a stylish job capturing the Latin-flavored swank of the Trocadero and the Mocambo nightclubs that once defined the Sunset Strip.

Gluckstein’s parents, Robert and Rochelle Gluckstein, are fellow Conga Room investors, of whom, he said, "were not only instrumental in supporting my vision but it was their teachings that informed my philosophical underpinnings."

Sinai Temple members since 1946, the Glucksteins are very involved with causes, such as the Lupus Foundation and Stop Cancer. Robert Gluckstein was a founding board member of Beit T’Shuvah.

In a short time, Gluckstein has been able to use his club to bring communities together and facilitate philanthropy, raising millions for charities.

"It’s much more impactful for me personally to be involved with charities and politics on a visceral level, rather than just writing a check," he said.

Gluckstein, a longtime Jewish Federation supporter, has employed his experience in the Jewish and Latino worlds to develop a new program sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC).

"The goal is that they should work together for something for the civic good," said Michael Hirschfeld, JCRC’s director, of the collaboration that is set to start in the fall.

Gluckstein, a graduate of Beverly Hills High School, is a third-generation Angeleno, whose grandparents were of Russian and Polish descent. Gluckstein’s paternal grandfather, Joe Gluckstein, started a real estate portfolio in the old Ambassador district, which Gluckstein’s father, Robert, inherited and built up. After attending UC Berkeley, Brad Gluckstein formed Apex Realty, which continues to manage and enhance the portfolio started by his grandfather.

There was nothing calculated about Gluckstein’s "merengue segue" into starting the Conga Room.

"I didn’t get into the Conga Room because I love clubs," Gluckstein said. "I did it because I love Latin music."

At 30, he became entranced with Latin music and kicked off a personal journey that escalated from conga lessons to trips to South America to monthlong excursions in Cuba studying the roots of Afro-Cuban music.

Gluckstein even met his Romanian-born wife, Bianca, on Los Angeles’ salsa-dancing circuit. The Glucksteins have found less time and energy to step out and salsa these days, with their 8-month-old daughter, Sonya, to care for.

As for his other baby, the Conga Room, Gluckstein is proud that it matches his vision.

"We really are authentic," Gluckstein said. "It’s something Latinos really enjoy by virtue of the music we present. And it’s a safe harbor for people of other cultures."

If Gluckstein has gleaned anything from his exposure to Latin culture, it is pursuing one’s personal passions, and he is doing just that. His next venture is to take over the Hamburger Hamlet restaurant chain, a favorite family destination of his youth.

"The past five years have been the most dynamic five years of my life when you think that I got married, had a kid, started the Conga Room and became more philanthropically involved. It’s been an incredible journey so far. Tzedakah comes in many shapes and forms and the Conga Room has been a lightning rod. I truly have a vehicle to do service."

Soul Care

I recently visited a hospital patient, an elderly gentleman with a name, a gaze and a life story from the old country. His deterioration had advanced to the stage of inhibiting verbal communication, so he spoke to me instead through gestures, nods and stares. But slowly, we drew closer. We shared sorrow, distress and worry. Eventually, exhausted, he told me he wanted to get some rest. I recited the “Shema” for him, and he closed his eyes in fatigue.

When a person is sick, the medical profession cares for the body with medicines, surgeries, therapy and machines. But who cares for the soul? And how? Each one of us has witnessed illness. We’ve been tortured as we’ve watched illness or injury diminish the vitality of loved ones. We’ve sat by helplessly, wanting to help, bereft of miracles.

What tools of the spirit do we have to apply toward healing?

To this question, our tradition offers two types of answers.

First, we learn to take action — to aid the healing by attendance. We go to the sick person and sit at the bedside, offering the best get-well gift we have: presence. Jewish tradition calls this healing art bikkur cholim, visiting the sick. The rabbis of the Talmud discussed the life-giving power of human contact: “He who visits the sick causes him to live. But he who does not visit the sick causes him to die.” We intuitively understand this wisdom: physical life and death are not in our hands. But our decision to be present — or to be absent — might mean the difference between spiritual life and death, between hope and despair, between glimmers of light and shrouds of darkness for the one in the sickbed.

Bikkur cholim is so significant that scholars throughout the ages have written of it as a legal obligation, complete with dos and don’ts. Moses Maimonides, the great medieval codifier of Jewish law, outlined the details: for example, everyone, regardless of status, must visit the ill; visits should only begin after the third day of an illness and only in the middle part of the day; and the visitor should not sit in a place that forces the patient to adjust his or her head to view the visitor.

Why such careful, almost rigid details? Because we know the spiritual power of physical presence. And we want to make it positive, effective, healthy.

But there is another spiritual tool available to us: we learn to ask God for help. We seek healing through prayer. Instead of turning toward the patient, we turn to the Divine. The Psalms are filled with passionate, emotional models of prayer, words we might ourselves have spoken in our own moments of desperation: “My eyes deteriorate from this illness. I call to You, God, every day. I stretch out my hands to You (Psalms 88).” Prayer expresses pain; it voices our pleas for help. Prayer beseeches God for divine intervention, particularly when human intervention appears to be failing. We have all reached that point. We have turned not only outward, but also upward.

There is an afflicted and distressed sick woman in this week’s Torah portion. It is Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron. Her illness is terrible; it is debilitating, dangerous and terrifying. And Moses, in his shock and pain, offers us a third Jewish response when witnessing a sickness: he looks toward heaven and simply screams. Moses expresses himself in five simple words: “Please God, please heal her.” No long-term planning, no eloquent speeches, no philosophizing. He gives voice to his own distress. At that moment, Moses is us — the caregiver — in sickroom desperation, searching body and soul for a lifeline.

The Talmud tells of Rabbi Yochanan, who had magical, healing hands. He too was a caregiver. But when the rabbi himself became ill, his hands were of no help. “The prisoner,” the Talmud explains, “cannot free himself from prison.” As I learned in that hospital room and as we learn from Miriam and Moses, healing comes from extending our hands — and spirits — to each other and to God, and from asking for the healing hands of others in our own hours of need.

Exercising the Mind

As we enter the new millennium, fitness professionals are becoming more aware of the movement toward spiritual forms of exercise. Programs like Pilates, Yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, and body work are common in fitness clubs and community centers. To keep up with today’s stressful lifestyles, we must do more than increase our heart rates and pump iron to maintain maximum health. Mind and body fitness can facilitate this by achieving inner balance and harmony in mind, body and spirit.

One way to practice mind and body fitness is through meditation. Methods of meditation were used in ancient Judaic times by focusing on certain words or prayers. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan has written two books on Jewish meditation: "Jewish Meditation, a Practical Guide" and "Meditation and the Bible."

According to Kaplan, Judaism produced one of the more important systems of meditation. "There is also evidence that during the period when the Bible was written [until approximately 400 b.c.e.], meditation was practiced by a large proportion of the Israelite people," he maintains.

Today, meditation is becoming much more mainstream and has crossed religious barriers once associated with it. Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, founder and rabbi emeritus of Metivta, a center for contemplative Judaism, describes meditation as a "profound and demanding practice" which "clears the obstacles in our mind, to help us perceive the underlying realities, the divine."

Meditation produces a state of deep relaxation that has been known to reverse the stress process. Focus is key. By focusing on our breath or a mantra, we are able to quiet our minds and still our constant chatter. Meditation should be thought of as an exercise program. You would not run on the treadmill once a week and expect any results. The same is true of meditation. A regular meditation program of 10 minutes a day will produce psychological as well as physiological benefits.

The following is a basic meditation exercise for beginners:

Sit or lie in a comfortable position.

Close your eyes and relax.

Focus on your breath entering and leaving your body. (Place your hands on your abdomen; feel it expand and collapse with each breath).

At the exhalation, count each breath, from 1 to 10; repeat.

Repeat a phrase that has meaning to you. It could be a phrase from the Bible, such as Deuteronomy 4:15: "Take you, therefore, good heed of your souls." It could also be a single word, such as "Shema."

Continue the meditation for 10 to 20 minutes. If the mind begins to wander, calmly direct it back to the task.

The Oldest Diary

There is something otherworldly about the experience of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. It is perhaps the preeminent spiritual-cultural paradox in all of Jewish life. When girls and boys focus so intensely on this personal lifecycle event, each possesses a transcendent, timeless and eternal quality.

I was reminded of this recently as I was sitting in my study helping a young girl work on her speech a few weeks before her Bat Mitzvah. We began talking about her upcoming Bat Mitzvah and how it made her feel about being Jewish, how she might describe her own Jewish identity and her place in the history of the Jewish people.

In order to put into words exactly how she saw her relationship to the Torah and the passing down of Jewish tradition, she told me the following story: “Imagine that my parents and I decided to research our family history, and we discovered that my great-great-great-grandmother had lived her whole life in a small village in Russia. When we discovered that this same small village still exists today, we decided to take a trip to see where my great-great-great-grandmother lived.

“When we got there, it looked like it hadn’t changed in 200 years, and we began to explore the small, crowded streets. Suddenly, we stumbled upon the very house in which my great-great-great-grandmother had lived. When we knocked on the door, an old woman came and asked us what we wanted. We told her – through our interpreter, of course – that she was living in the exact same house that my great-great-great-grandmother had lived in and we were curious to see what it was like. She immediately invited all of us into her home.

“While my parents were busy talking to the woman, I walked in to explore another room. As I looked around, I noticed that one of the floor boards was loose, so I pulled it up and discovered a very, very, very old and dusty book. I grabbed the book and ran back in to show my parents. The woman who lived there took the book from me and began to read it.

“She told me that it seemed as if I had actually found my great-great-great-grandmother’s diary. Here were stories all about how she lived, what she thought about and what her dreams were for the future.”Imagine how incredibly excited I was to find this book. It was the most amazing thing I had ever owned, and I was thrilled to be able to read all about my own ancestor’s life. Who wouldn’t want to find a remarkable diary like that?”

“And Rabbi Reuben,” said the young girl, “that is how I feel about my Bat Mitzvah. When you hand the Torah from my grandparents to my parents and then me, it will be just like I’m getting the oldest family diary that has ever been found. Like I am saying to everyone, ‘This is now my story, too.'”

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses recites the final poem that he has written in his diary. He begins this poetic conclusion to the entire Torah by challenging us to recognize that the words and laws, commandments and ethical foundation of the Torah “isn’t a trifling thing for you, it is your very life.” Indeed, at this most sacred season of the Jewish year, our real challenge is to figure out each day how to make the precious inheritance which is our own Torah wisdom a meaningful part of our everyday lives. Then, says Moses, we will long endure on the earth, and the world will be a more sacred and holy place because we are in it.

Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist congregation of Pacific Palisades.

Rich in Spirit

There’s a Yiddish saying that goes: “I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich. Believe me, rich is better!” In the Midrash we read: “Nothing in the universe is worse than poverty; it is the most terrible of sufferings.” (Exodus Rabbah 31:14)

Los Angeles is a city that glitters with gold and at the same time is tarnished with dirt. The billboards up and down Sunset Boulevard with their perfect models wearing the latest fashion fall in sharp contrast with the homeless and hungry of our city.

In this week’s Torah portion our people actually live through a fall from wealth to poverty. In it we read that Joseph — Pharaoh’s right-hand man — is put in charge of preparing for seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of scarcity. Then “when the famine was over all the face of the earth, Joseph opened all the places that had food in them and sold the grain to the Egyptians.” (Genesis 41:56)

According to the Midrash, when the famine in Egypt devoured the land, the first to recognize it were the wealthy, not the poor. Why so? Because the poor easily become accustomed to a lack of food, clothing and material goods. They are unable to see disaster when it hits since their lives are regularly filled with turmoil. But the rich are used to fine food, private school education, a house overlooking the ocean and exotic vacations. The rich are the first to feel the loss of a job or a fall in the economy.

This contrast of rich and poor is highlighted in the “December Dilemma” many families experience during this Chanukah season. Our children look around and see department stores and commercials advertising the latest, greatest items and parents feel as though we need to compete with Christmas and give our children eight presents for the eight nights of Chanukah.

Whether we are rich, poor or most likely somewhere in between, we get swept up in the corrupting consumerism of Christmas. (Not what Christmas is truly about, but what it has become.) Ironically, Chanukah is actually about the rejection of the pagan world (in modern times read: December consumerism) and the fight to maintain our Jewish set of practices. Our ancestors fought a battle because Judah Maccabee and his courageous followers refused to reject their faith in God, their customs, and their religious traditions. They saw the Jews getting drawn into the negative attributes of the larger culture, and risked their lives to uphold our unique ways. By participating in December’s gift giving madness, we are disregarding Chanukah’s main message. Instead of reaping the best of the secular culture, we are teaching our children that material goods are Chanukah’s reward, rather than Chanukah’s main message: We are unique and different, and proud of it. We as Jews need not fall into the corrupting paganism of our time. We have wonderfully rich traditions that teach our values and vision for the future.

When I share this approach with my congregants, I urge them to consider how they can create a special Chanukah tradition in their home to take the place of presents. One tradition I grew up with was that every night of Chanukah my parents would play the same Chanukah record as we sang along and danced in front of the burning lights. Then we all went into the bedroom while my parents hid three pieces of Chanukah gelt, one for each child, in the living room. Each night we would play “hot and cold” and try and find the gelt. We all knew that our Christian, and many of our Jewish friends, received many presents, but after a few years the excitement and ritual of our tradition became more meaningful than my friends forgotten gifts.

Then one day on the first night of Chanukah, years later in my college dorm room, my Christian roommate asked me to suddenly leave the room. When I came back in she said, “OK, now it’s time for hot and cold.” I couldn’t believe it. A huge smile came to my face, and I knew that my parents had truly taught me the meaning of Chanukah. Presents come and go, but memories of a rich Jewish tradition remain forever.

Michelle Missaghieh is rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood.