Class Notes: Camp Ramah celebrates Golden Anniversary

About 800 people are expected at Camp Ramah in Ojai this weekend to celebrate 50 years of Conservative Jewish camping in Southern California.

All 14 of Camp Ramah’s past directors are being honored at the Dec. 3 gala, among them some of the top leaders of the Southern California Jewish community, and the late author Chaim Potok.

Rabbi Jacob Pressman, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, was co-director of the first pilot summer in 1955 with 62 campers, and Rabbi David Lieber, president emeritus of the University of Judaism, directed the first official summer in 1956. Today Ramah in Ojai serves about 1,300 kids in several sessions over the summer.

“Camp creates in our minds and hearts and souls an ideal memory of ourselves and an ideal memory of the Jewish community that gives people a sense of hope and a sense of what is possible in the Jewish community,” current director Rabbi Daniel Greyber said.

For Greyber, that explains why so many former campers and directors go on to become leaders in the Jewish community, and why many campers uphold their summers in Ojai as models of spirituality and community.

Rather than celebrate the anniversary at a rubber chicken dressy affair, Ramah invited alumni and community members to camp Dec. 3 for a day of swimming, sports, art and camp activities. A memorabilia exhibit will be on display, and the ceremony and luncheon will take place in the Gindi Chadar Ochel (dining hall) and on Ramah’s famed hill.

The year-long festivities began with several Shabbat reunions at local synagogues and a dinner in Manhattan. At camp this summer, veteran alumni joined current campers to spend the day and sing camp songs that haven’t changed.

Among the other honorees are: Miriam Wise, a founder and teacher at the University of Judaism who co-directed with Pressman in 1955; the late Walter Ackerman, who directed for 10 of the early years; Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz, rabbi emeritus of Sinai Temple who directed 1963-73; Alvin Mars, education director for the Jewish Centers Association who directed Ramah from 1978-84, then went on to the UJ and then to direct the Brandeis-Bardin Institute; Rabbi Edward Feinstein, rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino; and Brian Greene, director of Westside Jewish Community Center.

For information, call (310) 476-8571 or visit

Milken Students Grill Education Minister

Israel’s Minister of Education Yuli Tamir had her work cut out for her when she met with a group of 40 10th-graders at Milken Community High School Nov. 13.
The students, all of whom will spend four months in Israel starting in February, met with Tamir for a private Q-and-A following a general presentation to the ninth through 12th grades.

The students asked Tamir about the differences between American and Israeli teens, about funding university education, and about how the Israeli school system helps kids deal with the stress of living under the threat of suicide bombers, katyushas and kassam rockets.

But where they respectfully pressed Tamir — who has a doctorate in political philosophy from Oxford University — was on the issue of ethnic segregation in Israel’s public schools. The students, who had been briefed on some basic facts about the Israeli educational system prior to the speech, were deeply troubled by the separate schools for the religious, the non-religious and Israeli Arabs, and neighborhood schools that effectively segregate according to socioeconomic levels.

At least three students asked about the topic, unsatisfied with Tamir’s acknowledgement that indeed it was a problem, or by her assertion that Army acts as a great equalizer.

“It’s very difficult to undo what has been a basic fact of the Israeli educational system,” Tamir conceded. “We want the children of Israel to grow to respect the different ways of life and to understand that people live different lives. We want them to know we are all part of the structure of Israeli society.”

The 40 students are members of the Tiferet Israel Delegation, a new program that will take students to Israel from February to May. They will continue their Milken education at the Alexander Muss Institute for Education, where they will dorm, and do a special course in Jewish history, going out to the sites they learn about.

The heavily subsidized program replaces a program where 10th-graders would live with Israeli families for two months in the spring, and the hospitality would be reciprocated to an Israeli delegation at Milken.

The new program still pairs students with families, but is more structured and academically focused so students are well-supervised and up to speed when they come home.

In her talk to the school, Tamir discussed the importance of bringing American youth to Israel not just for their own benefit, but for the impact such exchanges have on Israeli kids.

“When our students have the opportunity to meet a delegation like the one you are sending, they find within themselves something they didn’t know was there — they find a hidden layer of their identity that with this encounter they have the ability to expose and to discuss and to reflect on.”

New Schools Chief Visits Kehillat Israel

New LAUSD Superintendent Admiral David Brewer attended family services at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades on Friday night, Nov. 17 — his first visit to a Los Angeles synagogue since he took over leadership of 1,130 schools serving 877,000 students.

Brewer spoke in the main sanctuary, and his speech was more inspirational than political as he wove in ideas of how he plans to work with communities and set high expectations.

“He’s very inspirational,” said Kehillat Israel member and LAUSD Board President Marlene Canter, who suggested Kehillat Israel when Brewer said he would like to visit faith communities in his first official week on the job. “His passion is for kids. He is doing this not because he needs the job, but because he cares so deeply about the kids.”

Following his talk in the main sanctuary, Brewer visited the youth service for 150 fourth- through sixth-graders. He talked to the kids about creating and sticking to goals, and had them pledge to read a book a week for the rest of their lives.

Jamie McCourt Proves She’s an Artful Dodger President

Bougainvillea and vines curl around a pergola at the Bel Air Hotel’s outdoor patio restaurant, a lunch spot for Westside powerbrokers. It’s 10:30 a.m., and powerbrokers are scarce at this hour, except for Jamie McCourt, vice chairman and president of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who is seated under a canopy at a private table. She smiles when asked what humanitarian work she and her husband, Frank, have done to earn the Scopus Award, an honor from the American Friends of Hebrew University, which they will receive in a ceremony at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in December.

“You don’t think saving the Dodgers is enough?” she quips.

Indeed, she is right, for the Dodgers, a legendary name in professional sports, a franchise once associated with excellence on the playing field, stability in the front office and a commitment to progressive causes, most notably the breaking of baseball’s so-called color barrier, fell on hard times during the Rupert Murdoch era.

Perhaps the beginning of the Dodgers’ decline dates back farther, to that moment in 1987 when longtime Dodger executive Al Campanis, given multiple opportunities by Ted Koppel to atone for his ignorance, nonetheless continued to deny the leadership qualities of African Americans on “Nightline.”

The Dodgers went on to win the World Series in 1988, but the architect of that team, Fred Claire, another longtime company man who had replaced Campanis as general manager, later made a number of unpopular trades, such as dispatching young pitching phenomenon Pedro Martinez for the forgettable Delino DeShields. Claire and manager Bill Russell were ultimately fired by Murdoch, whose cable apparatchiks inaugurated their tenure by trading slugger Mike Piazza, a future Hall of Famer, for five players who do not play any longer for the Dodgers.

Since 2004, when the McCourts purchased the team from News Corp, the Dodgers have had a mixed record. They won their division that first year, though they lost in the first round of the playoffs. By the next year, they had parted with clubhouse leader Paul LoDuca, most valuable player runner-up Adrian Beltre and local hero Shawn Green, three players who were critical to the team’s first win in a playoff game since 1988.

After a dismal season last year, which culminated in the firing of neophyte GM Paul DePodesta, the severing of ties with manager Jim Tracy and the hiring of their respective replacements, Ned Colletti and Grady Little, the team has rebounded surprisingly well. Although Eric Gagne, who is out for the season, is the only player who has been with the ball club for as many as three years, the Dodgers have jelled better than might have been expected.

Colletti spent an active winter acquiring a strong group of veterans, including Rafael Furcal, Kenny Lofton and comeback player of the year candidate Nomar Garciaparra, who have combined with some productive rookies and holdovers like Jeff Kent and J.D. Drew to lead the team to a spot near the top of the National League West Division.

So, Jamie McCourt, an attractive, petite woman with blond hair and an easy smile, has every right to argue that in resurrecting the Dodgers she and her husband have performed a public service worthy of the Scopus Award.

McCourt, who as president of the Dodgers handles much of the club’s business side, as opposed to its baseball operations, once attended the Mount Scopus campus of Hebew University. A native of Baltimore, from the same neighborhood as filmmaker Barry Levinson, she is Jewish and has raised her four sons as Jews.
On this midmorning at the Bel Air Hotel, she wears a brown suede jacket over a white top, sporty attire that gives one the impression that she has just come from working out. In fact, she swims every day and typically climbs the stairs at Dodger Stadium instead of taking the elevator.

She may be remarkably slim, like one of the social X-rays in Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” but she is also athletic and looks like she might have been a coxswain on the college crew team. That is befitting a woman whose husband, Frank, rowed crew at Georgetown, where they met.

Like Levinson’s characters in his Baltimore-set movies, she speaks with a spirited yet soft voice, but she doesn’t accentuate her double O’s as Danny DeVito did when pronouncing words like “food” in Levinson’s “Tin Men.” Despite her Baltimore lineage, she says she has not seen “Diner,” Levinson’s iconic film about her hometown, because she feared that Levinson “wouldn’t get the diner right.”

McCourt’s father, an appliance discount king, worked near that diner, and she fears that her own memory and her father’s experiences have not been honored accurately.

She has, however, picked up on her father’s sloganeering, which included the priceless couplet, “Jack, you know, will save you dough.” She utters one-liners almost effortlessly.

When Danish pastries are brought to the table, McCourt cracks, “It’s all health food.”

When she recounts her first trip to Israel, in which she traveled around the country for several months on a bus, a mode of travel she abhors, she says, “That cured me of touring.”

When asked about her avid swimming regimen, she says, “There’s no talking to me if I haven’t gone swimming.”

If she is quick with a quip, she is no “screaming meanie,” as L.A. Times sports columnist T.J. Simers refers to her.

“I never scream,” she says. “If you want to pick a nickname, at least pick one that’s true.”

Especially during the McCourts’ first year of ownership, the Times sports section for the most part depicted Jamie and Frank McCourt, the latter known by Simers as the parking lot attendant, as carpetbaggers who have little interest in or knowledge of Los Angeles, social climbers who lack the financial resources to run the team and public relations novices. More recently, Times columnist Bill Plaschke expressed mock distaste for their smooching in public.

Although McCourt and her husband have indeed kissed in public, the rest of the charges don’t appear so valid.

On the issue of funding, Jamie McCourt says that no solo purchaser in the history of Major League Baseball has spent as much money by himself in purchasing a team as her husband did in buying the Dodgers. Unlike Yankee honcho George Steinbrenner and owners of other teams, the McCourts purchased the Dodgers without partners, she says, a statement that is not completely accurate, in that News Corp was a “minor, noncontrolling partner” at the outset of the deal, according to the Boston Globe.

While the purchase price, anywhere from $421 million to $431 million based on reports, may be higher than that paid by any one individual for a baseball team, the McCourts borrowed heavily in order to finance the acquisition. The structure of the deal, in which the McCourts put up their South Boston real estate property as collateral and assumed significant debt, including a loan of more than $100 million from News Corp, led some to speculate that they were arbitrageurs looking to game the market and sell the property after a year or so.

Though such speculation may have been unfounded, there was no denying that the deal was highly leveraged. No less than Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor and authority on baseball economics, has stated that Major League Baseball likely waived its debt percentage rule for the McCourts. That rule would have required the McCourts to have at least a 50 percent equity stake in the team at the time of purchase.

Now, more than two years after the purchase, the financing seems more sound. Earlier this year, the McCourts sold News Corp the family’s prized 24-acre waterfront property in the Seaport District of Boston. That sale reportedly satisfied all of their financial obligations to Murdoch’s company.

This past winter, the team also invested roughly $45 million, according to McCourt, in renovating the stadium, putting in new seats and restoring the original color palette to the famed venue that the New Yorker’s Roger Angell once called the “pastel conch.” The Dodgers also acquired numerous free agents during the off season to boost its payroll to a competitive level.

Nor have the McCourts shied away from personal expenditures. They purchased a home and the adjacent property in pricey Holmby Hills and send their youngest of four sons to the elite Harvard-Westlake private school.

In short, they do not look like they are on the verge of bankruptcy or about to leave town, particularly since McCourt says she loves Los Angeles and all its diversity: “There are so many immigrant populations. It’s sort of the way New York must have been once. It’s a place of opportunity. Every day you wake up, it’s ‘today’s the day I’m going to succeed.'”

Oozing optimism, McCourt and her husband have taken a leadership role in Los Angeles and in the Jewish community, joining the Temple of the Arts, where they were recently named founding members, as well as many civic organizations like the Leadership Council of the Literacy Network of Greater Los Angeles.

She cares deeply about literacy and education, holding a bachelor’s from Georgetown, a law degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. She also studied at Hebrew University for a semester of law school and at the Sorbonne while she was in college.
“Education is the great equalizer,” she says. “Everyone should have a fair shot.”

With the Dodgers’ Dream Foundation, she has helped award college scholarships named after Jackie Robinson to minority youth.

She has also reached out to women in the community. The highest ranking woman in Major League Baseball, McCourt says that women comprise 40 percent of the Dodgers’ fan base. “The female consumer,” she says, ruminating for a moment, “is critical.”

To tap into that critical base, the team has created the Dodgers WIN (Women’s Initiative & Network). Last year, the team held four events for women in the community. This year, there will be 11 events, McCourt says, where women and teenage girls can learn about the game and receive baseball clinics from players and coaches on the Dodgers.

She says that second baseman Kent, often characterized by the media as being gruff, is “an ardent supporter of our women’s initiative.” She adds, “If you have 150 women between 18 and 34 gawking at you, who could complain?”

Despite such good cheer, not all women have enjoyed a welcome in baseball. One woman in the Dodgers front office, Kim Ng, a vice president and assistant GM, was insulted a few years ago by Bill Singer, a former Dodger pitcher who was at the time a broadcaster for the New York Mets. More recently, a San Diego Padres employee was criticized by Keith Hernandez, also a Met broadcaster and a former National League MVP, for being in the dugout.

If the atmosphere for women in baseball remains less than optimal, McCourt still sees opportunity for prospective distaff employees. She has added several women to the Dodgers payroll, including chief financial officer Cristine Hurley and Camille Johnston, head of communications.

“You don’t have to just be a statistician,” she says.

You can even be an owner like McCourt, who wanted to write her thesis at MIT on buying a ball club or a new ballpark. With Wall Street the craze at the time, she had to settle for writing about “naked short selling,” but her interest in baseball goes back to her childhood, when she played shortstop in games in her neighborhood: “I’d come home when I was 7 years old and announce that I was buying a baseball team and a camp.”

Of course, that mirrors her husband’s interest. Frank McCourt’s grandfather owned a piece of the Boston Braves. As Jamie McCourt says, a love of baseball is “in his blood,” all of which runs counter to the skepticism of some critics who said that the McCourts, with their real estate background, would raze Dodger Stadium and build condos.

While the McCourts are showing that they care for baseball and Los Angeles, Boston has not completely left them.

Jamie McCourt says that she has to leave for lunch. Who is she meeting? Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who is in town and whom she knew back in Beantown.

When asked if it’s a fundraiser for 2008, she flashes a smile that suggests more than she’s telling, and then she strolls out of the posh surroundings for her next engagement.

A Line Drive Down Jewish History

“Judaism’s Encounter With American Sports,” by Jeffrey Gurock (Indiana University Press, $29.95).

In an oft-repeated anecdote dating back to the early 1910s, Rabbi Solomon Schechter, head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, told Louis Finkelstein, then a young rabbinical student, “Remember, unless you play baseball, you will never get to be a rabbi in America.”

Finkelstein went on to have an illustrious career, eventually heading the seminary, and never learned much about American sports. But Schechter’s advice reflected a sensibility that knowledge of sports would help rabbis relate to young congregants, that sprinkling sermons with sports metaphors would engage their parents.

Yeshiva University professor Jeffrey Gurock tells this story in his new book, “Judaism’s Encounter With American Sports.” This is not the usual book about Jews and sports — it’s not an album of Jewish sports figures and their accomplishments. Gurock, a historian and avid sportsman, uses sports as a lens for viewing American Jewish history. He shows how athletics have played out in Jewish life — how, through sports, generations of immigrants and their descendants became acculturated, accepted into the mainstream and even embraced.

“The right to play on a team — what did we say as kids, the chance to be ‘chosen in’ — is among the surest signs of an individual’s or group’s acceptance in a society,” Gurock writes.

He also chronicles how sports have been a source of conflict between generations and between religious and secular values. With its own obligations, rules, traditions and sacred time, sports, as Gurock explains, can be seen as a competing religion. Since the game clock is often out of sync with the clock and calendar of Jewish life, some have feared that interest and participation in athletics could lead to religious nonobservance.

“The athleticism valued in the world of sports was not honored in the 19th century shtetl. Reverence and concern for the head, for the intellect, far more than the cultivation of the body, was where these Jews’ emphasis lay,” he writes.

On the Lower East Side where many immigrants settled, clashes arose between parents and youth, who learned the values of sports and physical fitness in settlement houses and also honed their skills on the streets. The older generation’s attitude toward the gym, as the author quotes Irving Howe, was “suspicion of the physical, fear of hurt, anxiety over the sheer ‘pointlessness’ of play: All this went deep into the recesses of the Jewish psyche.”

Gurock goes on to describe how rabbis and Jewish leaders sought to attract Jews to religious institutions by creating gym facilities within — “shuls with pools.” The hope was that “those who initially came to a shul’s gym to play might be convinced to repair to its sanctuary to pray.” Questions then arose about how synagogues and community centers would deal with the use of their facilities on Shabbat.

In an interview, Gurock, a New York City-area resident, says that this is a book he has been thinking about for almost his entire adult life and spent the last five years working on. His passion for the subject is clear.

Gurock is a good storyteller, and within these pages he unfolds many true tales that may be surprising for readers. Sports metaphors come up often in his prose; when he describes two Orthodox worlds clashing, he speaks of one contingent as retreating to a clearly marked sideline.

“They could build it, but almost no one came,” he writes of efforts in 1897 to establish a new rabbinical school.

He writes extensively about yeshiva high school basketball, and how issues were resolved about which schools had teams, who they played against and how religious studies and sports activities coexisted.

The author or editor of 13 previous books, Gurock describes the introduction of cheerleaders to the yeshiva basketball scene in 1951 (the first squad, at Ramaz, wore longish skirts, which by 1954 had gotten shorter) and their ultimate disbanding by all the schools by 1991. The cheerleaders’ role in Gurock’s narrative has less to do with their gymnastic prowess and original songs, than questions of modesty and differing outlooks among the leaders of Orthodox day schools.

He analyzes more recent sports stories like the basketball career of Tamir Goodman, the Baltimore yeshiva basketball player who was recruited in 1999 to play on a college team with the understanding that he would not play ball on Shabbat; and the 1996 decision of the Metropolitan Yeshiva High School League (the name had been changed from “Jewish” to “Yeshiva”) to refuse to allow the Conservative Schechter schools to play in their league.

The book also has autobiographical threads. Gurock has been an athlete all his life, playing a variety of sports as a kid. At City College, he played on the lacrosse team.

When I tried to reach him at home one evening, he was coaching basketball at Yeshiva University. In fact, he has served there as assistant men’s basketball coach for the last 25 years. Whenever he visits other universities to lecture, he tries to also go to basketball practice and meet the coaches. These days he’s a runner, and although he spent Marathon Sunday this year giving a talk in Syracuse, he has run the New York City Marathon 12 times. Having just turned 56, he figures that since age 40 he has run 23,000 miles. In two years, when he expects to reach 25,000 miles — the distance around the world — he’s planning a big celebration, inviting all his running partners.

“Like most highly dedicated sports people of my generation, I value competition to the core of my being and am blessed, as a middle-aged man, to be battling still for playing position,” he writes.

Sports are in his genes: His father, Jack Gurock, was an amateur wrestler who — fearing his immigrant parents’ disapproval of the sport — adopted the name Jack Austin for his competitions. A photo of him along with his 1936 wrestling team at the 92nd Street Y appears on the book jacket. As an adult, the author’s father played handball and softball. His mother was proud of her claim that as a girl in the Bronx, she played handball with Hank Greenberg.

For Gurock, playing sports brings him close to God.

“My marathon experience has a certain spiritual dimension,” he says. “When you run a marathon, you are testing yourself, your own personal limits, your ability to run 26 miles. You need something to motivate you. To feel that God is pushing you along makes me feel closer to the Almighty.”

He adds, “Before every marathon, I say a prayer that God should be with me.”


Homeboys on Home Plate

There are myriad jokes about Jews in sports. In the 1980 movie "Airplane," a passenger asks for something light to read. The stewardess offers her a pamphlet on Jewish athletes.

Peter and Joachim Horvitz, the father-and-son team whose recent compendium, "The Big Book of Jewish Baseball: An Illustrated Encyclopedia and Anecdotal History," sets out to prove that there has been a wealth of Jews who have made significant contributions to our national pastime.

The book opens with the biographies of 146 former major-leaguers and includes their connections to Judaism, places of birth, athletic history and lifetime statistics. Following the biographies are 10 chapters on topics including Jewish minor-leaguers, umpires, Olympic players and scandal scoundrels. The book winds down with an extensive collection of short stories, including the interesting factoid that Baltimore’s Camden Yards has a minyan on hand for prayer sessions. The encyclopedia concludes with the biographies of Jewish players in the major leagues today.

Unfortunately, the title does not accurately reflect the content of the book. It is too thin to be big, has too few action photographs to be considered illustrated (it is mostly a collection of baseball cards) and has an insufficient number of stories to qualify as anecdotal. Anyone looking for more than trivial baseball trivia might want to pass on this book, which should be treated as background reading and not as an in-depth resource.

For those true fans of trivia, this book delivers. Did you know that Mose Solomon hit 49 home runs in 1923 in the Southwest League? If you consider tidbits such as this interesting, be forewarned that you will have to dig through endless paragraphs of statistics and personal history to find them (or you can just read them on the back cover, like I did, and save yourself the $20).

The book did contain a few nuggets of knowledge that I eagerly took away with me: Rod Carew will never be Jewish (no matter how many times Adam Sandler includes him in his "Chanukah Song"). Hank Greenberg felt that he was spitting against Hitler every time he hit a ball out of the park. A wealthy and influential Jewish New Yorker, Arnold Rothstein (who readers may recognize from "The Great Gatsby" as Meyer Wolfsheim), was instrumental in rigging the 1919 World Series. H.Y. Muchnick, a member of the Boston City Council, insisted that the Red Sox try out black athletes including Jackie Robinson, who ended up joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Sam Jethroe, the Boston Brave who died on June 18.

This was a somnambulant book about exciting Jewish baseball players. As Mel "Voice of the Yankees" Allen may have said, "How ’bout that!"