Circuit


 

Fine Thing for Feinstein

Rabbi Morley Feinstein, senior rabbi of University Synagogue in Brentwood, and Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, at the General Assembly (GA) of the United Jewish Communities. Feinstein, executive committee member of the Board of Rabbis, received the Rabbinic Award of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The Stem Cell Circuit

For one week in late January, Hadassah Southern California hosted Benjamin Reubinoff, senior physician with the obstetrics/gynecology department and director of the Hadassah Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Center at the Goldyne Savad Institute of Gene Therapy, Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem.

Recently, in what is considered to be a major medical breakthrough, Reubinoff and his research team succeeded in showing that human embryonic stem cells can improve the functioning of a laboratory rat with Parkinson’s disease. This is the first time that the potential ability of transplanted human embryonic stem cells has been demonstrated in an animal model with Parkinson’s disease.

It was a whirlwind week for Reubinoff: On Jan. 23, he was the keynote speaker at the “Healthy Women, Healthy Lives” Conference at the Long Beach Jewish Community Center; on Jan. 24, he spoke at the Women of Distinction Dinner at Le Vallauris; on Jan. 25, 160 women turned up to hear him speak at a health seminar at the Annenberg Center at the Eisenhower Medical Center; and later that night he spoke at San Diego’s Chai Society event at the Burham Institute. Two days later, Reubinoff gave a lecture to the faculty and deans at UC Santa Barbara, and last, but not least, he spoke in Encino at the Northern Area Chai Society event.

A Visit from The Rebbe

Emek Hebrew Academy Teichman Family Torah Center had some very holy guests recently. On Feb. 7, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Halberstam, the Sanz-Klausenberg Rebbe, visited the school. Halberstam is one of the most renowned Chasidic leaders alive today.

Sol Teichman, the school’s board chair, welcomed Halberstam to Emek. Teichman has a very personal connection to the Rebbe, as he survived the Holocaust with Halberstam’s father, the late Grand Rabbi Yekusiel Yehuda Halberstam, who founded Kiryat Sanz in Netanya, Israel.

On Feb. 6, an audience of 200 gathered at the school to hear Torah scholar Rabbi Yissocher Frand speak about “Gevurah – Strength, Legacy from the Past, Hope for the Future.”

In Memory of Hindy

One year ago, on Feb. 10, 2004, Hindy Cohen, a student at Bais Yaakov of Los Angeles, died at the age of 17. She was known for her staunch faith and for the joy she felt in life.

Since her death, her parents, Baruch and Adina Cohen, have set up the Hindy Cohen Memorial Fund at Bais Yaakov. In the short time since its inception, the fund has dedicated the Bais Yaakov Yoman Calendar, which is given out to every student. It has also set up an annual award given to a Bais Yaakov graduating senior who has shown exemplary character traits. The fund also sponsored this year’s Halleli Song and Dance Festival, dedicated the Yom Iyun Day of Study at Bais Yaakov, and set up a weekly mussar (self-improvement from Jewish texts) class for seniors.

On Feb. 13, in connection with Hindy Cohen’s first yahrzeit, the Hindy Cohen Memorial Fund dedicated “Hindy’s Sefer Torah.” The Torah procession began at noon at the shul that Hindy Cohen prayed in for most of her life, Congregation Bais Yehuda on La Brea Boulevard. Hindy’s parents and the rest of the crowd then escorted the Torah to its new home at Bais Yaakov on Beverly Boulevard.

A Dance for Barbara

On Nov. 6, United Hostesses’ Charity held its 62nd annual dinner dance at the Regent Beverly Wilshire. The event honored Barbara Factor Bentley, the immediate past chair of the Board of the Directors at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and featured a performance by singer/pianist Michael Feinstein.

Baby Love

One sure way to stop those winter blues is to help people less fortunate than yourself. In January, the American Jewish Congress sent several packages of handmade baby clothing, blankets and teddy bears to needy families in Israel. Each item sent was lovingly crafted by Stitches from the Heart, a Santa Monica-based organization whose volunteers knit garments and toys from donated yarn, which are then distributed to needy people.

In Israel, Yad Letinok, a Jerusalem-based charity that helps needy families with young children, distributed the items.

 

Has the State Got a Proposition for You!


The wind grows colder, the days shorter and a 165-page, gray book of propositions arrives in everybody’s mailbox. Welcome to the election season — for Californians.

In national politics, California has been mostly ignored by both presidential candidates as a foregone conclusion. There is hardly a single close congressional race in the state. Between war in Iraq, violence in Israel and the swing states to the East, California is not on the agenda in Washington.

But to California voters, the one-inch-thick volume of propositions is a huge chance to reshape state government. Jewish leaders and activists are staking out their positions on a few of the 16 ballot initiatives.

Prop. 71, in particular, enjoys more open Jewish support than any other measure on the ballot this fall. It would authorize the state to sell $3 billion of bonds to finance research on embryonic stem cells, which could possibly help provide cures for such chronic diseases as diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer.

Jewish support for Prop. 71 includes Rabbi Janet Marder, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism; Rabbi David Ellenson, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion president; Hadassah; the Women’s Zionist Organization of America; and others.

“Jewish tradition strongly encourages scientific research, including the use of stem cells, to find new cures for diseases,” wrote the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which also supports Prop. 71, in its proposition policy statement. “If such cures were found, millions of lives could be saved, and health-care costs could be cut by billions of dollars.”

After pressure from religious conservatives several years ago, President Bush imposed strict limits on embryonic stem-cell research that uses federal dollars, requiring all work to be done on only a handful of existing cell lines and with only a trickle of funds. That prompted Californians to collect over a million signatures to put Prop. 71 on the ballot.

But interest must be paid on bonds, and the $3 billion Prop. 71 bonds could actually end up costing about $6 billion.

“I am a very strong supporter of stem-cell research, but I don’t think that issuing a $3 billion general obligation bond is a fiscally responsible measure at this point in time,” said Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Granada Hills).

Supporters say that making California the world’s leader in stem-cell research would create jobs and tax revenue.

In other financial matters, Proposition 1A would greatly limit state power over local property taxes and force Sacramento to reimburse local governments anytime it imposes a new rule or regulation.

“If we funded state government properly, we wouldn’t have to guarantee this funding, but when budgets are in bad shape [the state] steals from local government,” said Howard Welinsky, former head of the Jewish Community Relations Committee and a longtime Democratic activist.

“Imagine yourself as the mayor of a city,” Welinsky said. “You don’t know on July 1 what your revenue is until the state finishes its budget deliberations — and sometimes they wait until August to figure this out. So how are you going to manage your resources?”

Welinsky called the state budget “woefully underfunded” due to low taxes (held over from the boom years of the 1990s) that Republicans have refused to raise.

Though Republicans say that Democrats’ runaway spending is actually to blame for the state’s budget problems, both parties are supporting Prop. 1A’s ban on the state’s grab of local funds. Some opposition to Prop. 1A has questioned whether local government spends money more responsibly than the state.

Several of the propositions on the ballot are directly related to California’s faltering health-care system. Prop. 63 would impose a 1 percent surcharge on state income taxes for those earning more than $1 million a year. That money would go directly to county mental health services.

Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), former head of the Jewish Community Relations Committee in Sacramento, is one of Prop. 63’s biggest supporters. He’s called it an opportunity to fix the broken promise California made to its counties in the 1960s, when the state emptied its mental health hospitals.

But why tax only the very wealthy?

“In a perfect word, or even a better world, this is not the way to fund government,” Steinberg told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Opponents say depending on such a narrow tax base to fund partly effective programs is too risky. But supporters point to the hundreds of thousands of Californians who are either homeless or in prison today, because they could not get the mental health services they needed.

Another health-care measure, Prop. 67 would add a 3 percent surcharge on telephone use — both land line and cellular — mainly to reimburse California hospitals for the care they provide to poor patients.

About 70 hospitals have closed in California over the past decade, including six in Los Angeles County, partly due to uninsured patients needing expensive emergency care.

“If a nearby emergency room closes, the extra time it takes for an ambulance to travel to a more remote facility could literally mean the difference between life and death,” the Progressive Jewish Alliance wrote.

Richman opposes Prop. 67, calling it a Band-Aid solution. “Half the hospitals in the state of California are losing money because of uncompensated care,” he said. “I think it’s critical that we address the fundamental issue of the uninsured.”

Richman, for his part, is most passionate about supporting Prop. 62, the “modified blanket” primary. It would change California’s electoral system so that only the top two vote-getters from a district in any election — House of Representatives, Assembly, State Senate, etc. — could run in the general election.

After a primary election, each party is currently guaranteed a spot for its own top vote-getter in the general election. Prop. 62 would change that by putting the emphasis on the top two candidates, regardless of party. That means a Democrat could run against another Democrat in the general election or a Republican against a Republican.

“It will result in representatives in both Sacramento and Washington who are more moderate and will work to solve problems with common sense solutions,” Richman told The Journal, adding that the power of the parties today pushes candidates to the ideological extremes.

However, opponents of Prop. 62 claim that it will simply allow independently wealthy candidates to buy political power. Under the current system, challenging an incumbent for either federal or state office is difficult, even with a slew of money, because there are so many other candidates that split the vote.

Under Prop. 62, though, a wealthy challenger who manages to place second in the primary would have no other competition to worry about except the incumbent and could bring all his money to bear in the run-up to the general election. Groups such as Common Cause oppose it, along with both major parties.

Other propositions on the ballot include Prop. 66, which would limit the “three strikes” law to violent crimes; Prop. 64, which would restrict lawyers’ abilities to sue corporations; and Props, 68 and 70, the Native American gambling initiatives.

“It’s always hard to say what’s a Jewish issue,” Welinsky said.

This November, California Jews can decide for themselves.

Proposition 71 will be among the issues discussed at “A Jewish Perspective on Stem Cell Research,” with leading rabbis and doctors, Oct. 19 at Temple Beth Am. Free. For more information, call (310) 652-7353.

Your Letters


Federation Pension

Reading the article, “Federation Faces Underfunded Pension,” in your July 30 issue, I found it to be needlessly alarmist and selective in providing facts on a highly complex subject. Most disturbing is the inaccurate lead. The Federation is absolutely not directing funds away from social services to fund its pension.

Pension policy within The Federation system is guided by professional actuarial opinions. The Jewish Federation is fortunate to have a lay retirement committee made up of experienced volunteers, including those who are well-versed in investments, actuarial science and pension plan management.

The article presents a misleading picture by comparing the L.A. experience to the plans at other selected federations. Comparing the financing of defined-benefit plans to defined-contribution plans is like comparing apples to oranges

For example, the Atlanta plan covers 60 employees. Boston has not had a defined-benefit plan since 1992. Even those federations with defined-benefit plans represented in the article and charts cover only direct federation employees and in smaller Jewish communities. On the other hand, the L.A. plan covers almost 1,000 current members, of which less than 20 percent are Federation employees. Many of the non-Federation employees’ salaries are funded by third-party sources, including public funding, not through the United Jewish Fund.

Federation and its affiliated agencies are well aware of the need for cost control. This is reflected in our annual balanced budget. By the same token, we all offer human services. High-quality human service programs are a function of recruiting and maintaining quality personnel. Personnel costs normally reflect 80 percent of the costs at human service agencies.

Using limited community resources allowed the community to avoid further reductions in program staff and to ensure that the best and brightest staff remained during the horrible recession of 1992-1993. No organization was ever forced to close services or avoid expansion of their programs to their participation in The Federation pension plan. It is a major distortion to suggest this.

Obviously, no one disagrees that it is urgent to examine the future philosophy and benefit structure of the pension plan. That is why Federation, on behalf of itself and its agencies, has put a proposal on the table in negotiations with the union to move to a defined-contribution plan for new employees.

I wonder if The Journal did more to confuse the public on a tremendously complex issue through its selective reporting and innuendo in the article.

John Fishel, President The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

Faith and Folly

I am a physician and a clinical professor of pediatrics at Loma Linda University who, like Rob Eshman, maintains a firm belief in the merits of stem cell research (“Faith and Folly,” July 30).

Stem cell research will continue regardless of President Bush’s current position, since the companies involved are multinational and research will be conducted abroad until the issue is sorted out in the United States. Some will move their labs to locations where they can carry out this most-needed research.

The United States is not the only country involved in this area. Validated discoveries, which translate into new cures, will be available to the world.

The research will get done. But even if that was not the case, is this the most pressing issue before us today?

I was also an elected delegate to the 2000 Democratic National Convention, but since Sept. 11, I am relieved that my opinion was not persuasive.

I believe the war on terror is the most important issue facing our country today.

I disagree with Eshman’s statement that, with regard to Israel, “most Jews would be hard-pressed to find a lot of light between the president’s position and John Kerry’s.”

Bush has a proven record of action, denying the so-called “right of return,” supporting the isolation of Yasser Arafat, supporting Israel’s right of self-defense, etc.

Politicians can say anything and not be held accountable for broken promises. Kerry — who feels so strongly about appeasing France, the European Union and the United Nations, who refuse to support Israel and sanction only Israel in a world full of corruption and inhumanity — cannot be relied upon to defend Israel to the degree that the Bush administration has demonstrated.

There was no mention of Israel in Kerry’s speech at the Democratic Convention.

Dr. Charles J. Hyman, Redlands

Contrary to Rob Eshman’s argument, stem cell research will not be the key deciding factor for the Jewish vote in the upcoming election. It would serve the readers well to be informed that stem cell research is still in its infancy.

President Bush is the first president to provide the federal funds for it, while at the same time limiting such funding, pending review of the relevant issues involved.

Dr. Ron Saldra, Founding Member Beverly Hills Jewish Republicans

Clarification

Our cover story “Rebirth in Russia”(Aug. 6), neglected to state that the writer’s trip was sponsored by Chabad, whose activities were largely the subject of the story as well. The Journal’s policy is to always disclose such relationships. We regret the omission.

Jewish Law Favors Stem Cell Research


Even as Ron Reagan makes a case for stem cell research at the Democratic National Convention, Californians may take matters into their own hands. In November, the state ballot will include a 10-year bond issue, which would generate $3 billion for stem cell research. If it passes, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative would make the Golden State the golden goose of publicly funded stem cell research, generating approximately $295 million annually for stem cell research. This figure dwarfs by 10 times the $24.8 million spent by the federal government on human embryonic stem cell research last fiscal year.

While voters may still be deliberating the merits of stem cell research, authorities of halacha (Jewish law) are in favor of the technology, within certain limits. While not necessarily agreeing on their rationale, the Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movements have all released statements endorsing stem cell research, and have made their positions known to President Bush.

If the major denominations within Judaism can agree on this issue, why are others around the nation up in arms? Because stem cell research raises questions about how life is defined and when it begins. Although stem cells are found in the body at all stages of development, the ones that seem to be most promising for research purposes are those extracted from embryos (fertilized egg cells) only a few days old. Most embryonic stem cell research is performed on excess embryos created in Petri dishes for couples undergoing in-vitro fertilization. These preimplanted embryos [also referred to as pre-embryos] would otherwise remain frozen or be discarded.

In the laboratory, embryonic stem cells are able to replicate rapidly to create a "line" of cells uniquely capable of developing into any kind of cell in the human body. These cells provide enormous potential for treating and possibly curing a host of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, diabetes, spinal cord injury, heart disease and cancer. The catch: extracting the stem cells destroys the embryo.

"While the saving of life is paramount in the rabbinic legal code, and most laws can be violated to achieve this goal, the prohibition of homicide is one notable exception," wrote Rabbi Edward Reichman, an assistant professor and physician at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine of Yeshiva University, in The Forward. "The crucial question then is this: Is the fertilized egg considered human life, such that destroying it in order to harvest its stem cells is tantamount to homicide?"

Reichman said that according to most contemporary rabbinic authorities, although one may violate the Sabbath in order to save a fetus in-utero, one may not violate the Sabbath to preserve a pre-embryo. "And since, as the Sabbath test shows, the pre-embryo does not have the status of even potential life, it may be concluded that its use for medical research, with the potential to aid in the cure of widespread human suffering, is not only permitted but laudatory," he writes. "One should treat the pre-embryo with respect, and not wantonly destroy it. It is human tissue. But it is not human life."

"The farther back you go in pregnancy, the lower the [legal] status of the fetus," notes Rabbi Mark E. Washofsky, professor of rabbinics at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the chair of the committee that composed the Reform Movement’s Responsum on Human Stem Cell Research. At the same time, he says, "There is a moral issue here: The treatment of a human organism at this earliest stage requires at least some consideration on our part, otherwise you can’t call the human organism sacred in some meaningful way."

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism, says that in Jewish tradition, embryos less than 40 days old are considered as "mere water," and do not have full status as a human life. Further, the cluster of cells from which stem cells are extracted cannot be considered a human being because these cells are incapable of developing outside the womb.

Dorff, who wrote the Conservative Movement’s Responsum on stem cell research, said the potential for saving lives takes precedence over a cluster of cells that have no potential to develop into a person.

"While we still have respect for the materials out of which life may ultimately come, the question is: Respect for what purpose? And how do you express that respect? Not at the cost of saving people’s lives," he said

To those who believe endeavors such as stem cell research cross the line into God’s realm, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a professor of Jewish Law at Loyola Law School, disagrees.

"The idea that we have no right tinkering with God’s work is fundamentally anti-Jewish," said Adlerstein, the Orthodox rabbi. "There are things that God fully expects mankind to do. One of those things is to use the wisdom and the tools that he gave us to expand the far reaches of the universe."

He said that finding the answers to previously undiscovered questions such as how life originates "doesn’t diminish our belief in God," he says. "On the contrary, it increases it."

Rabbi Dr. Avraham Steinberg, director of the Center for Medical Ethics at Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem, expressed a similar sentiment in correspondence with Dorff. He wrote: "These wondrous genetic discoveries can strengthen one’s faith in the Creator of the world because where there are laws of nature, there is a Creator. It is a confirmation of the biblical verse (Psalms 104:24) "How abundant are your works, O Lord, with wisdom you made them all."

In the case of stem cell research, scientists hope to learn how an organism develops from a single cell and how healthy cells replace damaged cells. This knowledge holds potential for repairing or replacing damaged organs, as well as for testing safety and effectiveness of new drugs without harm to human subjects. Preliminary research in mice and other animals has demonstrated that healthy cells transplanted into a diseased heart can regenerate heart tissue. Other studies are exploring whether human embryonic stem cells can form insulin-producing cells that eventually could be used in therapy for diabetics.

"I think stem cell research is the most promising line of medical research since antibiotics," Dorff said.

In 2001, Bush ordered that the federal government fund only embryonic stem cell research performed on the limited number of existing stem cell lines, precluding federal funding for research involving production of new stem cells or research on those produced overseas. (Private research on embryonic stem cells is not presently affected.) Under pressure from critics, on July 14, the National Institutes of Health announced that it would create a bank to distribute existing stem cells, but critics say this doesn’t go far enough.

"The government should not only allow stem cell research, they should fund it generously," Dorff said.

But while Jewish leaders endorse federal funding for stem cell research, they also urge that it be performed with stringent guidelines and controls, and for therapeutic purposes only. Selecting traits to create "designer babies," for example, would be unacceptable.

"For every step God gives us of greater control over the physical parts of man, we had better be sure we have a firmer handle on the nonphysical part of man — on the neshama — on the soul," Adlerstein said. "God gave man intelligence to be able to create things."

At the same time, as "moral gatekeepers, Jews are there to remind the world that not every combination that you can produce should be produced," he added.

Save the Date: Rabbi Elliot Dorff will be the keynote speaker at "A Jewish Perspective on Stem Cell Research," a forum hosted by Temple Beth Am on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 7:30 pm.

Jewish Law Favors Stem Cell Research


Even as Ron Reagan makes a case for stem cell research at the Democratic National Convention, Californians may take matters into their own hands. In November, the state ballot will include a 10-year bond issue, which would generate $3 billion for stem cell research. If it passes, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative would make the Golden State the golden goose of publicly funded stem cell research, generating approximately $295 million annually for stem cell research. This figure dwarfs by 10 times the $24.8 million spent by the federal government on human embryonic stem cell research last fiscal year.

While voters may still be deliberating the merits of stem cell research, authorities of halacha (Jewish law) are in favor of the technology, within certain limits. While not necessarily agreeing on their rationale, the Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movements have all released statements endorsing stem cell research, and have made their positions known to President Bush.

If the major denominations within Judaism can agree on this issue, why are others around the nation up in arms? Because stem cell research raises questions about how life is defined and when it begins. Although stem cells are found in the body at all stages of development, the ones that seem to be most promising for research purposes are those extracted from embryos (fertilized egg cells) only a few days old. Most embryonic stem cell research is performed on excess embryos created in Petri dishes for couples undergoing in-vitro fertilization. These preimplanted embryos (also referred to as pre-embryos) would otherwise remain frozen or be discarded.

In the laboratory, embryonic stem cells are able to replicate rapidly to create a "line" of cells uniquely capable of developing into any kind of cell in the human body. These cells provide enormous potential for treating and possibly curing a host of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, diabetes, spinal cord injury, heart disease and cancer. The catch: extracting the stem cells destroys the embryo.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism, says that in Jewish tradition, embryos less than 40 days old are considered as "mere water," and do not have full status as a human life. Further, the cluster of cells from which stem cells are extracted cannot be considered a human being because these cells are incapable of developing outside the womb.

Dorff, who wrote the Conservative Movement’s Responsum on stem cell research, said the potential for saving lives takes precedence over a cluster of cells that have no potential to develop into a person.

"While we still have respect for the materials out of which life may ultimately come, the question is: Respect for what purpose? And how do you express that respect? Not at the cost of saving people’s lives," he said

To those who believe endeavors such as stem cell research cross the line into God’s realm, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a professor of Jewish law at Loyola Law School, disagrees.

"The idea that we have no right tinkering with God’s work is fundamentally anti-Jewish," said Adlerstein, an Orthodox rabbi. "There are things that God fully expects mankind to do. One of those things is to use the wisdom and the tools that he gave us to expand the far reaches of the universe."

In the case of stem cell research, scientists hope to learn how an organism develops from a single cell and how healthy cells replace damaged cells. This knowledge holds potential for repairing or replacing damaged organs, as well as for testing safety and effectiveness of new drugs without harm to human subjects. Preliminary research in mice and other animals has demonstrated that healthy cells transplanted into a diseased heart can regenerate heart tissue. Other studies are exploring whether human embryonic stem cells can form insulin-producing cells that eventually could be used in therapy for diabetics.

In 2001, Bush ordered that the federal government fund only embryonic stem cell research performed on the limited number of existing stem cell lines, precluding federal funding for research involving production of new stem cells or research on those produced overseas. (Private research on embryonic stem cells is not presently affected.) Under pressure from critics, the National Institutes of Health announced on July 14 that it would create a bank to distribute existing stem cells, but critics say this doesn’t go far enough.

"The government should not only allow stem cell research, they should fund it generously," Dorff said.

But while Jewish leaders endorse federal funding for stem cell research, they also urge that it be performed with stringent guidelines and controls, and for therapeutic purposes only. Selecting traits to create "designer babies," for example, would be unacceptable.

"For every step God gives us of greater control over the physical parts of man, we had better be sure we have a firmer handle on the nonphysical part of man — on the neshama — on the soul," Adlerstein said. "God gave man intelligence to be able to create things."

At the same time, as "moral gatekeepers, Jews are there to remind the world that not every combination that you can produce should be produced," he added.

+