(February 19-March 20)
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There’s a study that shows that lab rats don’t get as stressed from being shocked as they do from not knowing when the shocks will come. Put that rat on a regular shocking schedule, and it doesn’t freak out. How does this apply to the human Pisces? Some of your anxiety right now comes from a simple lack of knowledge. Get more information. The more you know, the less you will suffer from the fear of how and when that shock will arrive. This week, make a special effort to befriend casual business contacts. A stream of new work may be coming your way, and you never know whose friendship will yield rewards.
(March 21-April 20)
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That whole “pay it forward” thing is pretty easy, as far as good deeds go. If someone is prompt, warm or even excellent in a service they provide, it’s all about referrals. Your generosity will come back to you. Aries employees may face a heavy workload this week to due the absence or illness of a co-worker. Still, if you start a project this week, it’s likely to come to fruition. Here’s the bad news: Mercury turns retrograde until March 25. That means details regarding travel, mail and technology may become frustrating. What’s an Aries to do? Back up all computer files and dip into your reserves of patience.
(April 21-May 20)
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Business and pleasure – two great tastes that don’t always taste great together – may combine this week as someone from your social circle introduces a business proposition. The catch is that dastardly “hidden agenda” friends can have. You can’t play “hide and seek” with someone else’s agenda, but you can gently suggest that all parties show their cards and express their real desires. If you have any important messages to send, do so before Thursday. Be certain to be very clear in your communications; that funny, sarcastic e-mail that sounds hilarious in your head may be misunderstood.
(May 21 – June 20)
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Information you are getting this week is just a lot of blah blah blah until you confirm and clarify what you are hearing. Someone may be using verbal skills to manipulate your mind. Here’s where you throw down with your research skills and separate fact from fictions. Unattached Gemini may want to attend a social function with work colleagues. While it may not be the best idea for you to “dip your quill in the company ink,” don’t rule out the possibility of a co-worker bringing along a cute and appropriate-to-date friend.
(June 21-July 20)
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Intuition has many faces. Sometimes it’s a gut feeling, or a voice whispering in your head (not the kind that happens when you forget your meds), or a nagging thought. Sometimes, intuition is just a flash. However it shows itself, this is not the week to second-guess it but to act on it. Whatever feels right is right. It’s that simple. In career matters, this is a week to embrace the old cliché about “it’s not what you know but who you know.” Information gathered privately from inside sources will help you make bold moves in your career. Who do you press for information? It’s gut check time.
(July 21 – August 21)
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Money may not be the root of all evil, but it is certainly the root of many a trivial argument. This week, you may find yourself at odds with a personal or professional partner about just how the cash is getting doled out. Fortunately, when it comes to dealing with banks, creditors or outstanding debts, this is an excellent week for these kinds of financial dealings. Also, this week may find you daydreaming more than usual. One second you’re getting on the freeway, the next, you’re already at your exit and have no idea how you got there. Harness your daydreams; they are filled with creative ideas. And try not to get too lost.
(August 22-September 22)
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Any Virgo who is studying, learning or composing simply must have privacy. Annoying roommates? Get away from them, sling the laptop in a bag and get to a coffee shop. If the family is around, hole away in a separate room for a couple of hours and get the alone time you need to focus. As for your emotional life, think of it this way. Why do athletes stretch before a big game or event? So they don’t break. Flexibility is key to your emotional health this week. Bend, stretch and don’t jump into an emotional situation ice cold. You don’t want to pull a mental hamstring and end up on the injured list.
(September 23-October 22)
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Going to the gym and starting a fancy new workout regime in January is for suckers; that’s when everyone is trying to act on their secular New Year’s resolutions and the line for the treadmill is worse than the IKEA checkout line on a Saturday afternoon. Good thing for Libra, now is the time to start a routine with the stars supporting your efforts. Normally indecisive Libra may have a more difficult time making decisions. Should you have the mint chip or the rocky road? It all seems so critical and hard to maneuver. Just remember, all the flavors taste good – not to mention giving you extra encouragement to stick to your new workout plan.
(October 23-November 22)
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Welcome to a cosmic carnival of amusements. This week will be a delight for the senses, some cotton candy, a few rides and lots of pinball in your brain. There’s nothing to do but enjoy the frenetic energy and all the bright lights and colors. Oh, there is one thing to do: start up a romantic affair. If you’re in a relationship, this is a good time to win her a stuffed animal or buy him a stupid t-shirt. Basically, anyone you love or would like to love into your world, invite them to your carnival and show them a good time. If it’s unexpected or bizarre, embrace it.
(November 23-December 20)
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Watch out for savvy salespeople. You know the type; they tell you to get the timing belt changed when you just needed an oil change. They encourage you to buy the foundation primer when all you needed was the $10 makeup sponge. You may be especially susceptible to buying things you don’t need. Do not be “upsold.” This is also a good time to watch your money in other ways. Keep your purse on your lap instead of on the floor and keep your wallet safe. You may have big, inspiring dreams filled with metaphors and ideas. Keep a journal by the bed and write them down.
(December 21-January 19)
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Don’t dismiss the oldsters in your world. Someone with far more experience than you do may have wisdom to impart this week. When it comes to work, you may have been coasting and it’s time to roll up your sleeves and dig into it. Are you working as hard as you can, or breezing out at exactly 5 p.m. after a solid half hour of checking e-mails and reshuffling papers? If you leave late and get to work early, your superiors will notice. What’s more, you want get that icky feeling that comes from wasting time on someone else’s dollar.
Aquarius (Jan. 20-Feb. 18)
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Tuesday is the day if you are planning a small celebration for a loved one. I don’t mean a gigantic surprise party with a piñata or girl jumping out of a cake. If it just means ordering a pizza and renting a favorite movie, make it happen. Take care of the little details so a special person in your life can feel valued. As for the rest of week, you will feel more comfortable and aligned if you make sure you household chores are complete. Wash those last couple of dishes, take in the dry cleaning, wash the bath mat and all will be slightly better with the world.
Neighborhood Unitarian Church
Foreign Siblings Return for Torah Study
After spending the summer at Lishma, an intensive yeshiva-style program for young adults at Camp Ramah in Ojai, sisters Olga and Anna Dramchuk expected to be teaching Torah to fellow university students at Hillel in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Instead, they’re back in Los Angeles in search of more Jewish life and learning.
“Lishma was one of the best experiences we ever had as Jews, but it was only the beginning,” said Anna Dramchuk, 18.
Derived from the Hebrew phrase Torah lishma, or Torah studied for its own sake, Lishma was co-founded in 1999 by Rabbi Daniel Greyber, executive director of Camp Ramah, and is co-sponsored by the camp and the University of Judaism’s (UJ) Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies. Last summer, 13 students took part in the fully funded four-week program.
“People who come to Lishma have a spiritual hunger,” Greyber said.
That includes the Dramchuk sisters, who along with Anna Dramchuk’s friend Irina Kononova, 19, also from Novosibirsk, were the first foreign students to take part in the program. Lisham has graduated a total of 80 students, a quarter of whom are involved in rabbinic studies or other Jewish learning.
“The assumption is that if you’re spending 24 hours a day, seven days a week studying Torah and living in a Jewish environment, it should change you as a person,” Greyber said.
But for the Dramchuks, the change was so dramatic that, after returning to Novosibirsk on July 19, they felt they could no longer stay.
“I was crying every day. When I woke up in the morning, the tears were alive,” said Olga Dramchuk, 20.
“I never had such a feeling before, the feeling that I’m in the wrong place,” Anna Dramchuk added.
They tried to do Shabbat at home, but it wasn’t the same, and they had no place to socialize with other Jews. The Hillel, where for the last two and a half years they had taught twice-weekly programs for the elderly, called Beit Midrash, celebrating holidays and sharing reflections from the Torah, was closed for the summer.
They had planned to start a second Beit Midrash program for university students and to continue their own education. Olga Dramchuk was to start her fourth year at the Siberian Independent University, where she was studying linguistics. Anna Dramchuk was to begin her second year at the Novosibirsk State Academy of Economics and Management, with the goal of pursuing a diplomatic career.
But they felt another destiny calling them. And so, after debating whether to go to Israel or return to the United States, they procured a visa and money for tickets and, with their parents’ blessing, returned to Los Angeles on Aug. 13. “We felt like someone, or some supernatural power, was helping us because we did everything so quickly,” Anna Dramchuk said.
But now they are doing everything themselves. Olga Dramchuk is living on her own and working. She hopes eventually to attend the UJ and especially wants to learn more Hebrew.
And Anna Dramchuk has married a young man she met last summer, Truman Weatherly, whose grandmother is Jewish and who is interested in learning more about Judaism. She plans to work and to return to school, ideally to the UJ. In the meantime, she is looking for a volunteer job that involves Jewish teenagers.
Their friend Irina, meanwhile, also took a detour. In September, following a love of music, she auditioned for “Superstar KZ,”, a Kazakhstan version of “American Idol,” where she was one of 18 contestants selected to participate. She credits her Lishma experience with helping her realize this passion and giving her the courage to pursue it. “Right now I hope my dream of being a singer will come true, but I will always live my Jewish life,” she wrote from Russia.
The Dramchuk sisters grew up in Kazakhstan, where they had some exposure to Jewish traditions through their father and grandmother, who observed Shabbat and holidays. Four years ago, the family moved to Novosibirsk, though their grandmother remained in Kazakhstan.
In Novosibirsk, with its Jewish community of 20,000, the young women discovered what Olga Dramchuk calls “a second family.” Their Jewish life centered on the Hillel organization, which in Russia is communal, attracting students from a variety of universities as well as a contingent of elderly.
But the Lishma program changed their perceptions. Coming from Novosibirsk, where many Jews are not really religious and there’s no place for women to learn Torah, they were immersed for the first time in a vibrant, cohesive, egalitarian and observant Jewish community. They lived, prayed, studied and socialized with other Lishma students — from Texas, Minnesota, Washington, Colorado and California — and staff. They also interacted on a daily basis with the Camp Ramah campers and administrators.
“What happens at camp is so magical and so beautiful. The question is, how do you recreate it?” asked Greyber, who is not actively recruiting foreign students for next summer’s Lishma program. He has, however, been invited to a conference in Lithuania to discuss a possible partnership between Camp Ramah and the Lithuanian Jewish community.
And for these young women, it’s not only the experience at camp but also the experience in America that is both magical and beautiful. And while they search for answers, concentrating on working and seeking to continue their Jewish studies, Novosibirsk remains deep in their hearts.
Anna Dramchuk, after establishing herself and earning enough money, hopes to return with her husband and help build something in the Jewish community, which lacks funds as well as knowledgeable and interested Jews.
“It’s my natural place,” she said.
And Olga Dramchuk dreams of creating a Lishma-like program in Los Angeles for young Jewish adults from the former Soviet Union to study and explore Jewish life. “I want them to be able to feel what I feel,” she said. “You never know what life will bring. Look how drastically our lives changed in this one year.”
For more information about Lishma, visit www.ramah.org/lishma.html or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Teens Gear up for Bicycle Tzedakah
Kabbalist Theory of Everything
“Derech Hashem — The Way of God” by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Feldheim, 1997).
Quietly studying a page of the Talmud on a crowded plane, the great Orthodox teacher and thinker Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was interrupted by a passenger in the next seat.
“Pardon me. What is that you are studying?” the man asked.
Soloveitchik explained the nature of the Talmud, and that he was a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University.
The man was incredulous. “Do you mean that people spend their entire lives thinking about religion?” he asked. “Why, I thought that all of religion could be succinctly summarized as ‘Do unto others what you would have them do unto you’!”
Soloveitchik resisted the temptation to put the fellow in his place. Instead, he inquired about his co-traveler’s profession. Pulling himself up proudly in his seat, the man responded: “Now I,” he said, with lots of stress on that first-person singular, “am an astrophysicist.”
After pondering that for a moment, Soloveitchik retorted, “Strange. Do you mean there are people who spend their entire lives studying distant galaxies? I thought it could all be summed up simply: ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star….'”
Reductionist views of just about anything usually come up lacking. On the other hand, an abundance of information can be a burden, not a blessing. Most of us shunt factoids into our brains the same way we relocate things to the garage. The more stuff we throw in, the worse the clutter gets. We wind up with intellectual chaos, not clarity. What we need, says the author of “Derech Hashem,” is a framework within which to store ideas in a way that makes sense. In a tightly reasoned, trim volume, he set out to give us the “Organized Living” of Jewish life: a single-volume philosophy of Judaism that covers both theory and everyday practice.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto died at the age of 39, or just shy of the age some people believe is appropriate to begin studying kabbalah. In his short lifetime, he became not only one of the most important contributors to kabbalistic thought, but authored perhaps the most popular and enduring work on Jewish ethical and character development, Mesilat Yesharim (The Path of the Just).
Luzzatto systematically addresses many of the questions serious Jews entertain, and many they have not thought of. Why did a perfect God create the world if it couldn’t get Him anything He didn’t already have? Goodness is part of His nature. He created a world in order to bestow the greatest good, which lies within Him. The recipient — man — would labor in this world to slowly change his essential self so he would be able to encounter this good in the next world.
What is the role of the Jewish people? God first offered His wisdom multiple times to a world in which there was no distinction between Jew and non-Jew. Rebuffed as many times as He attempted, He nurtured the offspring of a single righteous Abraham so they would carry His message long enough to eventually bring it to the rest of the world, and eventually produce the Perfected Community.
What is the importance of the soul? Not as the vital force, not as the residence of our memories and aspirations, and not even as the source of our intellect. Instead, he describes it as a kind of interface with the Higher Worlds — so constructed as to allow us to have a direct impact upon them.
Why does God place such a high premium on Torah study? He wished to create one avenue of connection to Him that maximizes the spiritual charge a human being can process.
What happens in the afterlife? (Read. I won’t spoil this one with a summary.)
Above all, “Derech Hashem” makes the case for what may very well have been the single most important idea in sustaining Jewish life through centuries of persecution: the huge value of every mitzvah performed by each ordinary individual. “It is one of the fundamentals of our faith that when an individual performs any good deed, he elevates not only himself, but the entire cosmos.”
In “Derech Hashem,” he shows how and why. This message alone, if properly understood, could prevent the defection of thousands of young Jews coveting the spiritual significance they are convinced exists only in Eastern disciplines.
“Derech Hashem” is kabbalah at its best. Like so many other authentic masters of kabbalah, Luzzatto found a way to distill the esoteric for consumption by the ordinary. We who live in a time (and a city) in which so much ersatz kabbalah abounds have an added incentive to inoculate ourselves against the phony by studying the real.
A word of warning: The author wrote for an audience that fully accepted his opening premises about God and Revelation. He tries to explain to the believer, not to convince the agnostic. For those who feel connected to the God of Israel and are looking for a new way to fit all the pieces together — especially one that stresses the inner spirituality of it all — there is no more important work than “Derech Hashem.”
“Derech Hashem” is abailable at 613 The Mitzvah Store or www.feldheim.com.
Hungarian Novelist Takes Manhattan
A Mother’s Reward
Normally, a parent might agonize over her teen’s decision to defer her freshman year of college. But when my 18-year-old daughter Lauren left recently on a flight to Israel — deferring her first year at college for yet a second time — I was thrilled.
As a young couple, my husband Mark and I, like so many of our generation, began to live as more observant Jews. We wanted more than anything for our two daughters to benefit from the richness of a lifestyle that includes the warmth of community, commitment to tradition, and strong Jewish values.
My daughters attended Jewish day schools that provided academic excellence but lacked the joyousness for which I had hoped. By high school’s end, Lauren was a Torah-observant girl who looked longingly at the secular world’s definition of fun.
I started thinking that it would be a mistake to send her straight to college. Despite her initial protests, we presented Lauren with the "opportunity" to devote a year of religious study at a seminary of her choosing in Israel. We hoped that the warm blanket of Israel would strengthen her spiritual connection to her people and help her find greater happiness in her traditions. She chose Michlelet Esther, a seminary known for warmth, but a "hands-off" approach to religious "coercion."
The summer before she left was filled with angst. Lauren was reluctant and scared, my in-laws told me I was crazy and my husband and I were plagued with safety concerns. How would we survive our fears?
Almost immediately I began an ongoing correspondence with her spiritual advisers — two gifted rabbis talented at appeasing nervous long-distance parents, and able to relate to their student’s reluctant beginnings.
My daughter felt so lost during her first few weeks in Jerusalem. She was distressed that she could jog through surrounding observant neighborhoods only if dressed modestly in a skirt. She found more comfort in the familiarity of beaches, malls and restaurants. I lobbied intensively in my e-mails to her rabbis so that my daughter could progress beyond the modern attractions of Israel to find ecstasy in her spiritual growth. Quietly, without fanfare, the magic that is Michlelet Esther took hold. Friendships developed, mentors emerged and the learning jumped off the page into real life examples of Torah-observant joy.
When my family and I visited her that January, I saw a self-assured young woman, maneuvering easily through the streets of Jerusalem, chatting confidently with shopkeepers and taxi drivers and hosting her friends for get-togethers in our rented apartment. There was so much hugging, kissing, crying and laughing during that visit I had little chance to scrutinize my daughter’s progress. Still, I witnessed enough to know that Lauren had grown a lot on the inside.
"Mommy, you were so right about coming to Israel," she said before we returned to Los Angeles. Breathing easier now and confident that the Israel opportunity was being fulfilled, I set about making arrangements for her freshman year in college.
However, my daughter surprised us with her decision to return to Israel for a second year of study. In explaining this she was levelheaded and controlled, clearly sure that her year’s discovery deserved more exploration. I was proud of this decision, but others were not so sanguine.
My very even-tempered husband greeted this news with stunned silence. Her sister urged her to come to her senses. My relatives expressed concerned opposition. Even the observant friends who I expected to share my happiness seemed tentative. They offered sympathetic looks, assuming that I was distressed by this unexpected development. Implicit in those worried looks was the query: When is she going to get down to business and get her college degree?
What’s the rush, I wondered? Time spent in Israel and her college education are not mutually exclusive. I consider this experience an investment in her soul. My daughter is not deferring her education, but continuing the learning and the spiritual growth, which will bring her happiness and guidance for a lifetime. Lauren has said that the highlight of her year in Israel was feeling "comfortable in her own skin" and she just wants time to continue the journey that brought her to that place.
This first year in Israel brought incredible changes. Lauren now has a distinctive inner glow and there is a special quality to her demeanor as she incorporates prayer, ritual and continued learning into her day, along with generally more appreciation for her family. This next year will solidify the groundwork that Michlelet Esther laid, by breathing more joy into her observance, answering the questions that confront her and helping her deal with the challenges that will surely be in her future.
Last year, I tearfully asked my daughter’s high school principal if I was doing the right thing.
"You will see, you will be rewarded," she said.
As we saw Lauren off for this second odyssey, we gave each other our signature bear hug and kisses on both cheeks (so we won’t be lopsided) and she said to me, "Mommy, I love you, thank you so much for this opportunity to return Israel."
With that statement I can assure you, I am richer than any lottery winner.
Phyllis Folb is principal of The Phylmar Group, Inc, a public relations firm specializing in arts, education and nonprofit organizations. She is also a member of the Westwood Kehilla Synagogue.
Cancer and Secrets
A Superhero Dreams
When friendly strangers find out I’m a convert to Judaism, they want to know why.
And I’ve learned to be ready.
I have two stories: One is
respectable, and one involves comic books and video games.
The first is the one I bring out for casual conversations, for puzzled strangers and for grandparents. It fits in a neat little box, and people nod their heads in an understanding way when I’m talking, so it must make sense.
It goes like this: I asked my best friend (not a Jew) about Judaism, and he recommended I read Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin’s “Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism.”
I did. With a few more books under my belt, I signed up for an Introduction to Judaism class at Temple Beth Sholom; it happened to be the shul closest to my old apartment.
I called the front desk at Temple Beth Sholom and said I wanted to talk to a rabbi about converting. That’s how I met Rabbi Shelton J. Donnell. He said he didn’t turn people away from Judaism, because he knew how wonderful it was for him. He expected me to study, to experience the ritual and to bring Judaism into my life. I said I was game.
Donnell and I looked at the prayer service and talked about what the prayers meant to me. He encouraged me to look at Shabbat and what I could include or exclude to make the day holy. Most important, he helped turn my book learning into emotion and communion with God.
“How do you feel?” he would ask after I described things I’d done. That’s how Judaism traveled from my brain to those places in my stomach and heart that make me cry and laugh.
I explained my interest in Judaism to my parents — an atheist and an agnostic — and they both thought it sounded like a good idea for me.
After more than a year of study, I converted. There was a beit din with Donnell and Rabbis Stephen Einstein and Heidi Cohen to determine my seriousness about conversion. I went to Tarzana for a ritual circumcision (I was already circumcised). Finally, I went to the ritual bath at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Some guy saw me dunk naked (he was a rabbinic student making sure I did it right). And when everyone had left the room I got out of the mikvah and said the “Shehecheyanu” privately. I knew I was a Jew. I hadn’t believed in God, and now I did.
So, that’s the story I’d tell you if I met you on the street. But if we crossed the street to a coffee shop, and the subject stayed on Judaism, well, I might come clean: I converted to Judaism because of superheroes and video games.
When I was a kid, I read comic books (OK, I still do). I wanted fantastic powers to use for good deeds.
Sadly, it was no dice on being Superman, cape flapping in the breeze, rescuing innocents from scowling super villains. Like all of you, I am left with the more mundane abilities of humankind: smiles to make someone feel better, an ear to listen when someone needs to talk, a hand to help others, and a heart and a voice to thank God.
The rabbis knew the power of those little things in life and what a difference they could make. They had rules for putting on a happy face, helping the less fortunate and blessing God for every beautiful thing in the world (and there so many).
Then, about the time I read that Prager and Telushkin book, I was playing a video game called “Morrowind.” In it, I played a freed slave brought to an island kingdom to perform work for the king, but the most amazing thing to me was a bit of a side quest: joining the native religion. I performed pilgrimages to holy sites and brought food to the poor and healing potions to the sick. Doing good for good’s sake triggered that childhood yearning in me that said “Life is for doing good and being good, in big ways and little ways.”
I had always tried to be good and compassionate, but I realized I wanted a path to lead a good life, and Judaism provided the right one for me. There’s where the story ends. Well, really, it doesn’t end at all. I’m a Jew now, trying to be a better Jew and bring more good to the world. I even dream of being a rabbi someday. That’s about as super heroic as I’ll get.
I also know that if you let your tallit blow in the breeze, it makes for a great cape.
Brendan Howard lives in Anaheim and is an editor for a video trade magazine.
Academy for Adult Jewish Studies to Open
For the Kids
Ready, Steady, GJ
In our Torah we have reached Parshat Mishpatim. The Israelites have just been given the Ten Commandments, and now God spends a whole portion giving them laws that they will have to observe when they reach the Land of Israel.
It can take a long time to study something new: six to 12 months to prepare for a bar/bat mitzvah, four or more years to complete college, and even longer to learn about a new country. So even though they won’t get there for another 39 years, God is getting the Israelites ready.
Keep it Clean
Every day is Earth Day! Jews are always thinking of ways to protect our Earth and keep her clean. Sam Avishay from Castlebay Lane Elementary School took Third Place in the Grade 4-5 Division in this year’s LADWP Environmental Student Poster Contest. Along with the award, Sam also took home a $200 savings bond.
Here is what Sam Avishay, of Northridge, has to say about our relationship with the Earth: “If we continue to litter, cut down trees, and pollute our air and water it will reduce the quality of our life and we are also hurting nature, animals, and all living things. We live in a beautiful place and it is our job to protect and keep it clean and i think our generation needs to do a much better job of that.”
Sam has drawn a crest that is divided into four sections. Can you tell me what he has drawn?
Send in your answer to email@example.com for a gift certificate to Baskin-Robbins.
Welcome to Avi’s Jerusalem Restaurant
His food is great, but his menu, like his eggs, is all scrambled. Unscramble the names of the foods so that you can order:
For the Kids
Chabad to Make L.A. a Yeshiva City
On Waring Avenue, west of La Brea Avenue, Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad is undergoing a $5 million expansion. Under construction is 35,000 square feet of dormitories and study rooms, including a light and airy beis midrash (study hall) that will double as a synagogue.
The yeshiva — the largest and oldest on the West Coast — currently accommodates about 80 male students at the high school level and another 60 in a three-year post-high school program, in which students study Torah more than 12 hours a day. Most of the students are from California, but the school receives and turns down scores of requests from out-of-state students who want to study there. Once renovations are complete, the yeshiva is expected to double its student capacity.
In a city like Los Angeles, where the Orthodox community grows exponentially each year, Ohr Elchonon’s success as an institution of learning should be de rigueur. It is expected that young Orthodox men will spend at least one year after high school bolstering their Jewish knowledge by intensely studying Torah in a yeshiva.
Many of those further to the right eschew secular colleges and following a centuries-old tradition, spending all their years after high school — until marriage — studying Talmud in a yeshiva. Given Los Angeles’ population, it would seem that yeshivas should thrive in the city.
While Los Angeles has a good number of kollels (full-time yeshivas for married men), which draw from throughout the United States, the Chabad yeshiva is the only one in the city that has taken off.
The respected yeshiva world remains centered on the East Coast, where institutions like Ner Yisroel in Baltimore or Beth Medrash in Lakewood, N.J., are overflowing with hundreds of students and have achieved international reputations for their Torah scholarship.
In Los Angeles, both Yeshiva Gedola and Valley Torah’s Ner Aryeh program have in the past few years instituted post-high school learning. Both are ultra-Orthodox boys high schools and both have instituted these programs to provide role models for the younger students, however, neither program has achieved any renown in the Torah world.
"I don’t know if [those places] will be able to duplicate what they have on the East Coast, because initially, those places [in the East] developed around a personality," said Rabbi Yaakov Krause, principal of Yeshiva Rav Isaacsohn Toras Emes. "People basically traveled there to sit at the feet of great sages like Rabbi Kotler in Lakewood, and once they were established, other people aspired to go there, because they want to be part of where the action is.
"Los Angeles is late in becoming a city of Torah, and we have fine talmudic scholars here and teachers and heads of high schools, but in terms of the elderly sages who are sitting at the heads of schools that they have back East, we don’t have that yet here," he explained.
Krause thinks that it is unlikely that a Los Angeles post-high school program would attract many local students. "Frankly speaking, for the boys of Los Angeles, once they have been through 12 years of school here, they like to spread their wings and have the Israel yeshiva experience or go to the Ivy League yeshivas back East," he said.
Others think that Los Angeles is not the right locale for a serious yeshiva, because it is an innately materialistic city.
"Los Angeles is too warm and cuddly and cozy and materialistic, and people want their sons away from the glitter of our comfortable L.A. life and in an atmosphere that is a little more spiritually oriented," said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of Project Next Step, who has had five sons attend yeshivas on the East Coast or in Israel. "I think one of the reasons the [non-Chabad] community has been reluctant to have a yeshiva here is because the goals that we have for our kids in learning is such that they require a sea change in atmosphere. You can’t really grow in learning if you are being coddled at home."
However, Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad has managed to thrive in Los Angeles on the strength of its reputation. Fifty years ago, Rabbi Simcha Wasserman, son of the famous pre-World War II Talmudic scholar Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, opened the Yeshiva as a West Coast version of Lakewood.
The yeshiva never attracted a large number of students. In 1977, rather than close it, he handed over control to Chabad on the stipulation that the yeshiva stay in the building it was in and continue to bear his father’s name. Chabad appointed Rabbi Ezra Schochet to be the rosh yeshiva (spritual head of the school) and imported a number of students from New York to liven up the atmosphere. As a result, the yeshiva started to grow.
"Rabbi Shochet is dynamic and known throughout the world for his scholarship; he was considered the No. 1 student in whatever yeshiva he went to," said Rabbi Mendel Spalter, the school’s administrator. "Once we bought him out here, it was never a question that he was going to be able to attract students."
In order to keep the students from finding life in Los Angeles too attractive, Ohr Elchonon has very strict rules about what the students are allowed to do. Classes start at 7 a.m. and finish at 10 p.m.
The school has a strict dress code of a white shirt and dark suit, and the boys can’t have anything that might distract them from their studies, like newspapers, radios, televisions, videos or DVDs. They are also not allowed to go to theaters or eat in restaurants, unless they are with family members.
Ohr Elchonon provides its graduates with a state-accredited bachelor of rabbinic studies, but it does not offer rabbinic ordination. The students are expected to learn the Torah lishmah (for its own sake). Most of its graduates seek rabbinic ordination from other institutions and go on to take rabbinical or other positions of communal service. Currently, 47 alumni of the yeshiva are serving in rabbinical positions in California.
"The basic philosophy of the yeshiva is to give every student the essence of Judaism," Schochet said. "They should know what it is about. The only way you can learn what Judaism is about is by learning the Torah."
No Local Plans to Quench ‘Passion’
Q & A With Dr. Peretz Lavie
Dr. Peretz Lavie has spent his career studying sleep and sleep disorders. The fifth-generation Israeli is head of the Technion Sleep Laboratory, which has hosted more sleep patients than any other laboratory in the world.
"We’ve had about 60,000 patients who have slept with us," he joked.
Lavie’s most recent book, "Restless Nights: Understanding Snoring and Sleep Apnea" (Yale University Press), examines the history of sleep apnea and provides advice for people suffering from this potentially life-threatening sleep disorder.
Sleep apnea is characterized by brief interruptions in breathing during sleep. Each apnea, Greek for "want of breath," can last a minute or longer and can occur as often as 20 to 30 times per hour. According the National Institutes of Health, as many as 18 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea. Risk factors include being male, overweight and over 40, snoring loudly and genetic predisposition. Untreated, the disorder can lead to cardiovascular disease.
The Journal sat down with professor Lavie during the Los Angeles stop of his American Society for Technion-sponsored tour of the United States to talk about sleep apnea and how the intifada has impacted people’s sleep.
Jewish Journal: What have you seen in the way of sleep problems since the situation began in Israel?
Peretz Lavie: If you ask people in Israel now if they sleep better or worse, probably people will say worse. But when you measure it or study it, it’s not so bad.
We studied sleep during the Gulf War when Scuds hit Israel almost nightly with objective recordings at patients’ homes and we didn’t find any effect on sleep. When we do a survey and ask people how they sleep, there was an increase in the complaints about insomnia of about three or fourfold.
JJ: What about the quality of sleep?
PL: The quality of sleep wasn’t so bad. This is true for many, many studies of what we call post-traumatic stress disorder. There is a vast disparity between how they perceive their sleep and what we find in the laboratory when you measure it objectively.
We studied people during the worst night of the Scud missile attacks on Israel. There were three missiles that fell during that night, so you could see in our recordings the time that the missile fell, the patient woke up and 10 minutes later the patient was asleep like nothing happened. That’s it.
What led me to this were studies done in London during the Blitzkrieg, how people slept in underground subway stations. No problem whatsoever. It was so easy to sleep under these conditions, but nobody believes it’s possible.
JJ: What led you to study sleep apnea?
PL: Sleep apnea is both fascinating and a very prevalent phenomenon. One in 10 men have a little bit of apnea, which is clinically significant. Sleep apnea is turning out to be one of the major risk factors for a variety of cardiovascular diseases — hypertension, myocardial infarction, arterial sclerosis, strokes. Ninety percent of the patients we see are sleep apneic.
JJ: What are the primary causes and what are the cures?
PL: Sleep apnea is a very widespread phenomenon. We do not really know what is the specific cause of sleep apnea. We know that there are several risk factors that predispose an individual to sleep apnea, and I talk about most of them in the book. Upper-body obesity, for instance, is one of the big risk factors.
The patients, when they come to us, they are not aware that they stop breathing. They are only aware of the consequences — fatigue, tiredness, etc.
It has to do with the control of the muscles of the upper airway, with the distribution of fatty tissue around the neck and it is more prevalent in men than women.
One treatment for sleep apnea is CPAP — continuous positive air pressure. It is [a device] that pushes air through the nostrils in order to keep the airway open. The problem is that compliance is 50 percent.
The other treatments are surgery — uvula-palatal pharyngoplasty, a laser removal of the uvula — and a dental device that pushes the lower jaw forward leaving a space at the back of the throat for air.
JJ: What are the warning symptoms to look for?
PL: One high-risk population is children. The second high-risk population is the obese. So the obese, as young as possible, must be studied and treated. The third group is people who develop hypertension at 23-35 for no particular reason.
JJ: Is snoring always an indication?
PL: If you are continuously snoring, you don’t have sleep apnea. Snoring of a sleep apnea patient is intermittent. The wife usually describes that her husband stops snoring for 30 seconds and she kicks him to see if he’s still alive. This is sleep apnea.
JJ: What’s next for you?
PL: We are working now on mortality. One of the findings is if you’re past the age of 60 and you have sleep apnea, you don’t have any risk of dying. I’m following patients who are 89 years old with 60 apneas per hour who don’t have any risk of dying [from sleep apnea].
JJ: What’s the difference?
PL: This is what we’re studying. What is the mechanism that allows certain individuals to live with this? We believe there are mechanisms that allow some individuals to overcome the cardiovascular results of sleep apnea.
The other issue is what happens when you start treatment at the age of 30, not with CPAP but with lipid-lowering drugs, antioxidants and vitamins.
We’re trying to understand the molecular mechanism that translates the change in oxygen to arteriosclerosis. We started working on it seven years ago and we’ve made huge progress.
JJ: Can you foresee a drug treatment?
PL: Oh, yes. I would recommend to any sleep apnea patient to be on a lipid-lowering drug even if his lipid profile is within normal levels. We’ve found lipid peroxidation in sleep apnea patients free of any cardiovascular disease, which is the backbone of the arteriosclerotic process. Free radicals attack the lipids, so if there are more lipids, there’s more substance to attack. It’s an inflammatory process. These molecules form clots, and when a clot comes to the coronary artery [and blocks blood flow] you have a heart attack.
Once you understand the process, you know how to intervene. So one of the conclusions we’ve come to is lower your lipids as much as possible.
Is There a ‘Docta’ in the House?
Pencils Ready? Let the Stress Begin
After working with two private tutors last fall, Aliza J. Sokolow took the SAT college entrance exam in January. Devastated by her test results, the Milken Community High School junior studied on her own and took the test again in April.
"My scores went up insanely and I was beyond happy with them," said the 17-year-old, who is now a senior. So, why is Sokolow taking the college entrance exam a third time this month?
"I could still do better," said the Advanced Placement (AP) student from Encino, who is also a competitive swimmer, editor of the school paper, a student government member and founder of the student judiciary committee.
Sokolow is just one of many Southland juniors and seniors who are taking and retaking the SAT in the coming months. While college entrance exam anxiety is traditionally a societywide phenomenon in the United States, some argue that Jewish day school students face bigger challenges than the average high school student. In addition to the pressure to get good grades, take AP classes and participate in a range of extracurricular activities, day school students must deal with the added stress of completing both secular subjects and a Judaic studies curriculum.
"With a dual curriculum, the course load is very heavy and the SAT doesn’t help," said Dr. Jerry Friedman, Shalhevet High School president and educational consultant. Seeing his students become withdrawn and anxiety-ridden during exam time both worries and saddens the administrator.
"I understand the rationale. With grade inflation, the colleges really have to do something to get a fair estimate of how the kids really do," Friedman said. "If there was a way to mitigate the problem, I’d look forward to a solution."
In the meantime, the SAT I: Reasoning Test, a multiple-choice exam consisting of a verbal and math section, continues to be the standard, although some colleges also accept the equally feared ACTs. The SAT, which has been around for 77 years, is administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and sponsored by the College Board, a nonprofit educational association in New York. While the SAT I has been modified many times since its inception, the most recent changes came in 1994 when antonyms were eliminated, the verbal section focused more on reading, nonmultiple-choice questions appeared on the math section and calculators were permitted. Beginning March 2005, the SAT I will undergo more changes, including the addition of an essay section. Some schools also require students to take the SAT II: Subject Tests, 22 different tests offered in literature, history, mathematics, science and foreign languages. All tests are offered seven times a year.
Wendy Mogel, a local clinical psychologist, parent educator and school consultant said that parent pressure is a key component in causing SAT stress.
"[Kids] are so worried about disappointing their parents," Mogel said. "They feel their parents’ mood, marriage and faith in God relies on their SAT score."
Unfortunately, this anxiety can have an adverse effect and cause bright students to either give up or perform poorly.
"[The parents’] intentions are good," Mogel said. "[They] want their children to have every opportunity. It’s just backfiring."
Havva Eisenbaum, a Westside SAT tutor who has worked with a number of day school students, has also experienced a fair share of parental nagging.
"I had parents who were livid if their kid didn’t see an improvement over the last two weeks [of tutoring]," she said. "They’d want me to give their kids more homework."
On the other hand, Eisenbaum said that many of her students put the pressure on themselves.
Some educators speculate that the push for Jewish students to succeed is a historical phenomenon.
"From way back, education was always so important in our culture," Friedman said. "I think that’s how the Jews survived."
But even some of the most highly motivated students feel the constant focus on academic success prevents kids from living in the now.
"Growing up in a private school, there’s always been a lot of pressure and you’re forced to grow up too early," said Chana Ickowitz, a junior at Milken. "From early on, people are talking about far into the future. We had college counseling back in 10th grade."
There’s no denying that many high-performing private schools often achieve status through high college test scores. With 90 percent of its senior class applying to four-year universities, 15 percent of whom are applying to Ivy League schools, Tamar Gelb, a college guidance counselor at Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles insists that the school itself puts little pressure on the students.
"The test pressure is a societal thing," Gelb said. "I don’t think it’s school based."
Adding to the stress is the seemingly endless supply of SAT preparation courses and private tutors.
"The competition is so intense that what used to be considered a terrific score is now considered competitive," said Fedora Nick, an attorney and managing director of the National Bar Review (NBR), which offers NBR for the SAT. The company, which has prepared California Bar Exam graduates for 20 years, hopes to take advantage of the cutthroat SAT arena by creating a niche market.
"We’re looking to focus on the elite high school students, many of whom attend the Jewish high schools," Nick said.
Renee Spurge, the assistant college counselor at Milken estimates that 80-90 percent of students take some kind of SAT preparation class outside of school.
Still, not every Jewish high school student will be a basket case come exam time.
"My standardized test scores are never that great," said Becky Dab, a junior at Shalhevet, who is currently considering a career in athletic training and plans to take the SAT in April.
"Basically, she’ll do how she does," said John Dab, Becky’s father. "We want her to do the best she can and we’ll probably try to get her some coaching or training. Her school performance hasn’t been such that she’s going to a top-tier school. We know our child and what’s appropriate for her."
Preparing to retake the test this month, Miri Cypers, a senior at Milken, is also relatively calm.
"I’ve been working hard for a long time to prepare for the test, but I’m not nervous about taking it," the 17-year-old said.
Meanwhile, Sokolow, who said she is "aiming high" in terms of college choices, continues to thrive on her self-induced pressure and the high expectations of her competitive school environment.
"One thing about the SAT that gets me down is that it doesn’t measure your intelligence," Sokolow said. "It’s [about] learning how to take a test. I’d much rather go to a school that looks at me as a person and not a number."
Giving Adult Students Credit They Deserve
Why I Voted For Arnold
First a disclaimer: I have never met Arnold Schwarzenegger, have never spoken to him, was never contacted by his political people, no one ever asked me to support him, or offered me money to do so. I supported him because I respect him and because I am convinced that he will be good for California. In fact, if I may brag just a little, I started predicting that he would be the next governor of California many months ago, when only a few hard-line nuts seriously considered that a recall could be successful. I didn’t think/hope that Gray Davis would be recalled. I just was sure that Arnold would run and win the next race.
I knew a lot less about him at that time than I do now but one thing was clear: Arnold Schwarzenegger is a winner. Always has been and always will be. And he won on Tuesday by continuing to use his abilities, his intellect and his will. The fact that he has a world-class body and looks doesn’t hurt, but I am convinced that a man with his mind, energy and drive could be confined to a wheelchair and still be a success.
Arnold came to America in 1968. He was 21 years old — no money, no English, no education, no wealthy parents or friends to help him. And look at him now: a multimillionaire businessman, a movie superstar, married into American aristocracy, practically unlimited White House access by both Democrats and Republicans. He will be the governor of a state with a population four times that of his native Austria. Not too shabby, right?
Yes, when he arrived in the United States he already had a reputation as an up-and-coming bodybuilder, but obviously he had much more. After all, there are probably hundreds of bodybuilding champions and all they have are wonderful memories of past triumphs.
The Los Angeles Times, to put it mildly, is not overly sympathetic to Arnold. Its lengthy Schwarzenegger biography disdainfully noted, in an uppity sneer, that he had amassed a hodgepodge of credits in the 1970s by taking classes at Santa Monica college and UCLA extension classes. Excuuuse me? Is this something to be sneered at? He had the discipline and the will to workout hour after hour each day, tried out — successfully — for small parts in B-movies where his part had to be overdubbed in English and he still found time to study and amass enough credits to eventually get a degree in international business and economics from the University of Wisconsin in just one year. Many years later he was awarded an honorary doctorate by his alma mater.
Arnold never looked back — he concentrated on looking ahead, achieving and succeeding. He became a very successful real estate investor, a brilliant businessman, a philanthropist who gives many millions to charity and pays many millions in taxes every year. No, he didn’t graduate from Yale or Harvard, and maybe that is a good thing when you consider some of their graduates.
The media persist in portraying him as a muscle-bound ignoramus, a show business shell with little substance. The media is wrong. Julia Roberts has been quoted as saying that, “Republican can be found in a dictionary between ‘repulsive’ and ‘reptile.'”
I can’t picture Arnold ever saying that a Democrat is between “despicable” and “disgusting.” He has more class — and brains.
A few weeks ago I was surfing the channels and came across an interview of a local state senator on Fox News. I didn’t even hear the question that was asked, just the answer: “Do you really think that at a time when our budget deficit is $8 billion, that I should worry about an insignificant $10 million?”
Insignificant $10 million? And the reporter took it in stride. This is Sacramento’s attitude to your dollars at work. Schwarzenegger had to work for every dollar he made. His attitude is different, and his abilities impressive.
I’ve long thought so, and now, it seems, millions of California voters agree.
Si Frumkin is chairman of the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews.
The Self-Imposed Death of Institutional Judaism
Ariel Avrech died of complications from severe pulmonary fibrosis on July 1. He was 22.
“He was incredibly learned,” said Avrech’s father, Emmy-winning screenwriter Robert Avrech (“The Devil’s Arithmetic”). “I always learned from him. Our roles were reversed. He was also very funny and had a very dry, ironic sense of humor.”
A Pico-Robertson resident, Avrech was in dire need of a living lobar lung transplant. Unfortunately, a worldwide organ search, facilitated by Jewish Healthcare Foundation Avraham Moshe & Yehudis Bikur Cholim, was unsuccessful.
Avrech’s first brush with a life-threatening disease came at age 14, when he endured massive chemotherapy to eradicate a brain tumor. In early 2002, the Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles graduate was walking up a hill at Baltimore’s Ner Yisroel campus, where he was continuing his studies, when he experienced difficulty breathing. By May 2002, doctors learned that the chemotherapy that conquered his cancer left him with severe pulmonary fibrosis.
Avrech’s condition worsened in the last year. In recent months, he could only breathe with the assistance of an oxygen tank. He also took steroids to stabilize his condition, which deteriorated drastically by April, when he was not emitting enough carbon dioxide. Avrech spent his last three months hospitalized on a respirator in intensive care.
“He was never confronted with the fact that there was no hope,” said Avrech’s mother, Karen Avrech. “He lapsed into unconsciousness.”
“He really suffered horribly in the last few months,” she continued, “but he never complained. He always maintained that he would make the best of what had happened to him. He was very hopeful and very grateful to his parents and to his doctors.”
Karen noted that her son had a passion for many subjects: physics, cosmology, cooking, history, literature and, especially, politics. Avrech enjoyed listening to KABC radio personality Larry Elder, who visited Avrech at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in May.
Most of all, Avrech was deeply committed to his faith and his community.
“One of the remarkable things about Ariel was that he was able to bridge the boundaries that normally separate the religious community,” Robert said. “Ariel was very close with the Orthodox, but also close with the modern Orthodox.”
In November, Avrech told The Journal that he maintained a positive mental state by studying Torah with a study partner.
“When I go for a day without it, I feel like I’m not living a real life,” he said.
Services for Avrech were held at Young Israel of Century City. Avrech is survived by his parents, Robert and Karen; and sisters, Leda and Aliza.
The Avrech family has formed the Ariel Avrech Foundation. Donations in his memory should be made out to “G’mach Fund Young Israel Century City.” For more information, contact (310) 273-6954. For information on organ donation, visit Halachic Organ Donor Society at www.hods.org .
Seminaries Issue New Crop of Rabbis
Los Angeles’ three rabbinical schools will present the Jewish community with 26 freshly minted rabbis this month as the seminaries hold their ordination ceremonies.
The University of Judaism (UJ) will ordain seven men and three women as Conservative rabbis Monday night at Sinai Temple. Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) will award smicha to 13 ordinees on May 25 at Wilshire Boulevard Temple; the same day, the Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR) will ordain its first three rabbis at the Skirball Cultural Center.
The nondenominational, Mar Vista-based AJR, a spinoff from an older seminary in New York, began holding classes in early 2000. Its rabbinical and cantorial programs cater to students already established in careers.
Two of its first ordinees, Tsipora Gabai and Miriam Lefkovits-Hamrell, are longtime Jewish educators who were born and raised in Israel. The third, Alicia Fleissig Magal, has held executive positions in Jewish communal organizations, including a tenure as program director of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills.
To encourage students to pursue careers as rabbis and cantors, AJR clusters its classes on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays. A number of students commute weekly from out of town.
"The flying wasn’t fun, but once I got there it was wonderful," said Gabai, who lives in the Bay Area and works as head of Jewish studies and assistant director of Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito. "The school is small enough so you get to know everyone."
The youngest of AJR’s three ordinees at age 45, Gabai was reared in an Orthodox Moroccan family and believes she might be the first Moroccan woman to become a rabbi. Her ultimate goal is to establish an egalitarian Moroccan synagogue in the Bay Area.
Magal had already begun studying for ordination through the Jewish Renewal movement when she began at AJR and will receive smicha from that movement in August. However, the Renewal program is largely one of independent study, and, Magal said, "I wanted the classroom, too; I really craved that kind of chevruta [partnership] learning."
Having worked and worshipped in all the Jewish denominations, she treasures the maturity and diversity of AJR’s students and faculty.
"We each bring life experience and experience in the Jewish community," Magal, who will lead a small Renewal congregation in Chicago, told The Journal. "Very animated discussion in every class; we don’t just listen."
AJR’s dean of students, Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, said the school’s first rabbinical graduates "will make unique contributions to the Jewish community as visionaries and as people who have a commitment to bring out the unique talents of those whom they encounter."
The nine women and four men becoming Reform rabbis in HUC-JIR’s second class of Los Angeles ordinees represent a sharp turn from last year’s group. While only two of 2002’s eight ordinees went directly into pulpits, 11 of this year’s class are joining or remaining on congregational staffs or plan to do so.
The pull of congregational work is easily explained, said Michael Lotker, a former physicist who will remain at Congregation Ner Ami in Camarillo, a small congregation he served as a student: "To paraphrase Willie Sutton, that’s where the Jews are."
Three of HUC-JIR’s ordinees are 50 and older, all longtime Angelenos who were drawn into Jewish life after different careers.
Yossi Carron, a single father of a teenage daughter, was an orchestra leader with a successful career playing private parties when a new congregation asked him to become its cantorial soloist in 1992. Over several years, he learned more and more of the liturgy, but, he told The Journal, "I didn’t know enough to really explain what was going on, where the prayers came from and how they fit into theology."
He enrolled at HUC-JIR with the thought of possibly earning a master’s degree in Hebrew letters.
"Six months later, my business was closed, my house was sold and [my daughter] Jenny and I were off to live in Jerusalem for what would become two extraordinary years," Carron said.
Balancing classes, fatherhood, and "as many jobs as I could piece together," he managed to pull off a change of life’s course that’s "in a class all its own."
"I’m probably the age of most of the other students’ parents," said Suzanne Singer, a former producer of documentary films who will move to the Bay Area with her actor-husband to become assistant rabbi at Temple Sinai in Oakland. Singer, too, is looking forward to congregational work.
"I really enjoy being creative with the liturgy and leading services," she said.
One HUC-JIR ordinee veering from the congregational path for now is Sarah Schechter, who became a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force Reserve last year and, upon ordination, will be the Air Force’s first female rabbi. Schechter, who attended college in Japan and worked for several Japanese institutions, plans to be an active duty chaplain in the near future.
"It’s a more diverse class in terms of ages, in terms of experiences before they came here," said Rabbi Richard Levy, dean of HUC-JIR’s rabbinical school. "They have worked very hard to celebrate the value of their diversity."
At UJ’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which will ordain its fourth group of rabbis this year, the rabbinate is all in the family. The 10 graduating rabbis include one married couple, one engaged couple and three students married to rabbis or rabbinical students from other seminaries.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School, told The Journal that the 2003 class is unusually cohesive.
"I’ve never seen a group that’s so caring about each other and the people they work with," he said. Most of the new ordinees will go into pulpits or jobs in Jewish education.
Ordinee Joshua Hoffman, who will join Valley Beth Shalom in Encino as an assistant rabbi, appreciated the depth of text study UJ offers.
"The most remarkable aspect of the study at UJ is the commitment to the relevance of the texts that we study," he said. "When we finish a text, we really think about how we’re going to take it our into the world."
For Joshua Katzan, who taught at Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple for several years and will move on to a congregational job in Denver, the education in pastoral counseling was especially meaningful.
"That’s a unique area of rabbinical education that’s as important as the text study," he said.
Whether the road to the rabbinate is a straight line from adolescence or a late turn in a winding path, ordination is an emotional moment. Katzan, who harbored fantasies of being a rock star during his Milken years, said, "I’m mystified, blown away and very, very excited."
"I pursued a dream I had since I was a kid," AJR’s Gabai said.
"It was always the right decision," Carron mused. "No matter what bumps there were during these years, I awakened early every morning and was always so excited to be up. I was doing something incredible, and I didn’t want to miss anything."
The University of Judaism will hold its ordination ceremony on Monday, May 19, at 7 p.m. at Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd. For more information, call (310) 476-9777.
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s ordination will take place Sunday, May 25, 10 a.m., at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 3663 Wilshire Blvd. For more information, call (213) 749-3424.
The Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., will host the ordination for the Academy for Jewish Religion on Sunday, May 25, at 2 p.m. For more information, call (310) 398-0820.
Fire Attacks Target Two Encino Shuls
How Ready Are We?
"For bioterrorism, we’re about as prepared as we are for snow," said City Councilman Jack Weiss, who has spent a year working with security experts and local officials to figure out what Los Angeles needs to do to prepare for and prevent terrorist attacks. The report of the results of that investigation, released Oct. 10, runs 59 pages long. "There is a ton to do," Weiss said.
On Sunday, Nov. 24, at Sinai Temple in Westwood, the public is invited to a panel discussion featuring terrorism security experts. The meeting, sponsored by the American Committee for Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, aims to address local preparations for one of the scarier possibilities — a biological attack.
Among the panelists who will discuss our preparedness is Dr. Peter Estacio, a senior scientist at the University of California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, on assignment with the Washington, D.C.-based Office of Public Health Preparedness of the proposed Homeland Security Department. On a national level, "we’re certainly more prepared than we were. Los Angeles is more prepared than most areas," Estacio said, but "it is also more a target." He expressed concern about a biological attack on a particular industry of importance to both Los Angeles and the Jewish community. "The movie industry is an icon of American life," Estacio said, "and it happens to have a large percentage Jewish contribution, much as Wall Street."
Estacio also acknowledged the local Jewish community’s relatively strong efforts to educate itself and improve preparations in case of terrorist attacks, with outreach to security officials and discussions like the one planned for Nov. 24. "The Jewish community recognizes that it has often been the target of these kinds of actions. That translates into a sense of civic duty," he said. "That is not a paranoia, it’s an appropriate response."
A long list of further appropriate responses to the threat of bioterrorism that city and other local officials might take are suggested by Weiss’ plan. The recommendations range from improved surveillance to detect an attack, to emergency worker safety protocols and volunteer response coordination.
So far, however, Weiss said Los Angeles security officials have not done nearly enough to prepare. "They have focused on tabletop issues — they sit at a table and flip through a binder," he said. "What you will see in a crisis is a lot of improvising," just as Weiss remembers occurring here on Sept. 11, 2001. He described the efforts to improve planning and response so far as "some agency heads in the region who have met sporadically to deal with the issue."
Bioterrorism preparation in particular, and Los Angeles’ health care system in general, are issues of particular concern to local residents. On Nov. 5, more than 73 percent of Los Angeles County voters opted to raise their own property taxes to partially fund full-service hospitals through Measure B. A portion of those tax dollars will be set aside for biological or chemical attack response.
Dr. Jonathan Fielding, Los Angeles County’s director of public health, said the county Health Department is now studying the issue of how Measure B money will be implemented for bioterrorism preparations.
Critics of Los Angeles’ preparations to date, like Weiss, say the work done so far — "we have purchased some equipment for our first responders, and taken steps to secure the airport" — is not nearly enough. Weiss credits County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky for his efforts to improve the health system, and said he believes Police Chief William Bratton has shown an active interest in terrorism preparedness.
But he worries that officials are "relying on bureaucracies to provide us with a wish list," he said. "We need a different strategy, we need to look at missions and needs." Weiss also worries about the possibility that part of the city might need to be evacuated: "If an attack occurs at 3:30 p.m. on a Friday, Los Angeles is already gridlocked."
Official preparedness alone will not be enough in case of a chemical or biological attack — residents need information on what they must do to protect themselves. We need to provide and disseminate easily understandable information," Weiss said. "That’s not cost intensive, but it is highly effective. In Israel, there is a populace that knows exactly what to do in an emergency. We’ll never get to that level in Los Angeles, but I think we ought to try."
For more information on Los Angeles’ bioterrorism
preparedness, visit labt.org. For reservations to attend the panel discussion on
Sunday, Nov. 24, at Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., fax (310) 788-2824 or
‘Boy’ Puts a New Twist on an Old Rite
Religion Blossoms for Bialik
Mayim Bialik’s nickname on campus is “Super Jew.” The down-to-earth 26-year-old who starred for five years in the hit sitcom “Blossom” has ceased acting, focusing her attention instead on Judaism.
She is currently studying neuroscience for her graduate degree at a prestigious Southern California university, which she declined to name. As an undergraduate, the actress majored in neuroscience and minored in Hebrew and Jewish studies.
Bialik, who relishes Hebrew grammar, said, “I love to learn about the history of a language, and how it became the voice of a new generation in Israel.”
Her devotion to Israel extends outside the classroom. “Every aspect of my life centers around Judaism and Israel,” she said. “Israel is my home. I kiss the ground when I am there.”
Unfortunately, Bialik said, aggressive anti-Israel groups fill the campus. She often finds herself defending Zionism and Israel to peers. “It is important to open communication with them,” Bialik said.
The former actress is active in Hillel, where she began a Rosh Chodesh group. Bialik also regularly writes for the Hillel newspaper on campus, in which she discusses Judaism and feminism. Recently, with a friend, Bialik redesigned the siddur used for Hillel services. She is also a Hebrew teacher at a Hebrew school in Beverly Hills.
In addition, Bialik is the musical director for the Hillel a capella group. However, she is modest about her talents. Whenever anyone compliments Bialik on her “perfect-pitched” voice, she blushes and says, “You should tell my grandfather. My grandfather is the one with the voice. He has the voice of an angel.”
Bialik is very close to her grandparents.
“My background has always humbled me. My grandparents were European immigrants who escaped the Holocaust. My mother’s mom arrived in America on the last boat from the Czech-Hungary border. Her family didn’t make it. My mother’s father and my father’s mother also escaped from Poland.”
Bialik didn’t go the way of many childhood stars, some overdosing on drugs, some in rehab, others never quite recapturing their glamorous youth. After impressing audiences in the 1988 film, “Beaches,” starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey, Bialik was offered the title role in “Blossom.” The sitcom, which ran from 1991 to 1995, centered on the title character’s everyday challenges of growing up.
Looking back on the five years of the show, Bialik said, “Blossom was a wonderful experience for me. People often come up to me and really feel that they know me, because I was in their living room for a long time. I certainly would not be the same person I am today without the show.”
At the show’s completion, Bialik chose to take a different path in life: education.
“My parents were both teachers, and education was always significant in my family,” Bialik said. “When I decided to go to college, I wanted to be completely immersed in it. I wanted to experience what life was like without the distractions of show business.”
Bialik said her parents strongly believed in Jewish education and sent her to Hebrew school at Temple Israel of Hollywood as soon as she turned 4. She also attended camps Hilltop and Hess Kramer, where her love for Judaism deepened.
Although Bialik’s mother raised her family Reform, Bialik now considers herself Conservative.
Many members of Bialik’s family made aliyah to Israel, and Bialik visits Israel every two years. When she visited Israel this past June for a cousin’s wedding, things were different.
“We didn’t do anything. It is not the Israel that I want my kids to experience,” she said. “But it felt really good just being there, going to the supermarket, buying stamps.”
“I feel obligated to support my homeland both emotionally and financially,” she said. “So, I run tzedakah programs, donate trees to Israel, raise money for Israel.
Despite her busy schedule, Bialik tries to find “at least one moment in a day where I can stop and look in awe at the creations of God. Every day, I try to appreciate the universe, science, nature and the human capacity for compassion.”
Bialik, who has been dating her boyfriend for six years, hints that she will marry her “significant other” within the next couple of years.
The former actress is proud of all of her work for Israel and her love for Judaism, but she admits to a fault.
“You know,” she said with a chuckle, “I hate gefilte fish. I don’t have the Jewish fish gene. People always laugh that that is the most un-Jewish thing about me.”
Waking Up With Giselle
Creating a Sacred Space
In 1978, when I first applied to college, I didn’t know what I wanted to study as an undergraduate. I left the space blank on the college application form where I was supposed to indicate an intended major. Someone in the admissions office, based on my grade point average and my achievement test scores, took the liberty and placed me in a major called leisure studies.
At that time, there was a prominent belief that people would soon be working fewer hours each week due to technological advancements. Machine and computers would soon do much of the work that people were doing. As a result, the five-day work week would lessen to four or perhaps three days. What were we supposed to do with all of that free time? By majoring in leisure studies, I would be qualified to help assist people fill that time gap in their lives.
For many people today, the opposite has happened. Work has become even more of an obsession. As a result of technology, and a variety of other factors, many of us spend more hours per week at work, not less. Consequently, we often find ourselves with less time to devote to the things that are truly important in life. Many people on their deathbed express regrets about the life they lived. Many of the regrets people express deal with not spending enough time with family, friends and those that they loved. Rarely does a person express regrets about not spending enough time at work.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish theologian and civil rights activist, in his book "The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man," writes about two realms to human existence: space and time.
Under the category of space, a number of key words come to mind: property, material objects, money, status, prestige and power. In the realm of space, we try to acquire more and more of these items. We often do this by eliminating or controlling the elements of nature.
Under the category of time, other words come to mind: sacred moments, prayer, reflection, meditation, nature, history, acts of kindness and tikkun olam, meaningful human relationships. In the realm of time, we become aware and at one with the awe and wonder of nature and creation. We recognize and celebrate key transitional moments in our lives. We learn and commemorate history. We engage with other human beings, in what Jewish philosopher Martin Buber calls "I-Thou" relationships. We perform acts of kindness, care and compassion. In the realm of time, we try to create sacred moments in our lives.
In the contemporary world in which we live, our natural inclination is to sacrifice more and more of our time in order to acquire more and more space. What we should do, in order to live a more meaningful spiritual life, according to Heschel, is the opposite. We should sacrifice more of our space in order to elevate and sanctify time.
I would contend that this message from Heschel’s "The Sabbath" speaks to the hearts and minds of many people today just as strongly as it spoke to the generation that first read this classic literary work over 50 years ago when the book was first published. Work (and what we obtain through work) can easily become, if we are not careful, the idol that we worship in our lives.
Heschel’s message in "The Sabbath" also has something important to say about the longevity of Judaism and the Jewish people. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed close to 2,000 years ago. For most of the past two millennia, Jews have not had a country that they could call their own. The Greeks, the Romans and many other civilizations in history (civilizations that had had vast amounts of territory, that had expanding empires, that possessed huge military might, that built grand monuments and edifices) have come and gone. The Jews have remained.
To Heschel, Judaism and the Jewish people have survived, continued and prospered because of an emphasis — an emphasis in Judaism as a way of life that places the importance of time over space. The Sabbath, where we attempt to retreat from the world of space, and try to create a temporary palace in time (as Heschel puts it) is an embodiment, the ideal that we can strive for of this principle.
In Exodus, the building of the Mishkan, a portable sanctuary that accompanied the Israelites on their journey from Mt. Sinai through the Promised Land, is described in exhaustive detail.
In the middle of the Mishkan, in the holiest part of the sanctuary, stood an ark. In this ark was housed not an idol or an icon, not a monarch or a priest, but originally the decalogue, the two stone tablets of the Covenant that had written on them the Ten Commandments. Later in our history, an entire Torah scroll came to occupy residence in this sacred space.
Access to God in Judaism is gained not by worshipping idols that represent the pantheon of gods, nor by worshipping particular human beings who were viewed as gods or as intermediaries to the gods. God, in Judaism, is one. The Torah and its commandments represent access to the one God.
When we read, study and interpret Torah, and when we attempt to live a life of Torah by applying its lessons to our lives and by observing its commandments, we have an opportunity as Jews to establish a relationship with God. We have an opportunity to come to know the Divine in our lives.
Paganism was the religion and way of life of the ancient world. There was a great seductive lure to engage in the pagan cult. There was often material benefit and physical security showing allegiance to the pantheon of gods.
In building the Mishkan, our ancestors attempted to reject paganism, to assert their belief in the God of Israel, and to live a life in covenant with that belief. A generation of former slaves seems to take that covenant very seriously. According to the Torah, they gave "willingly and generously" from their meager possessions in order to build the Mishkan.
Stylistically, the Torah emphasizes the importance of what the Mishkan represented by the manner in which it describes its construction. In the very beginning of the Torah, in the Book of Genesis, it takes 32 verses to describe God creating the world. In the Exodus, it takes 64 verses to describe the construction, by human hands, of the Mishkan.
The Mishkan had a nickname. It was also called in Hebrew, hechal, which means in English "a palace." Heschel describes the Sabbath in his book as a "temporary palace in time." In calling Shabbat a palace, I can not help but think that Heschel is making, in his mind, a connection between these two great Jewish institutions. That there is a connection between the Mishkan and what it represented to our ancestors, and the Sabbath and what it can represent to us today.
When a 30-something British financial investment manager took a few years off to study Jewish texts in Israel, he was struck by the differences between the financial and Jewish communal worlds.
“In the private sector, at the moment, committed young people with good ideas can find backing relatively easily, while in the Jewish world I see tremendous idealism and great creative thinking, but often tremendous obstacles to getting projects under way,” Nigel Savage said.
With funds from the Nash Family Foundation, Savage created Hazon, a fledgling New York-based organization that cultivates new Jewish projects, particularly ones that may have difficulty attracting funding from traditional sources.
Among the first projects: a cross-country bike ride to promote interest in Judaism and the environment, and a program to train female Torah scribes.
Savage wants Hazon, which means “vision” in Hebrew, to serve as a “venture-capital house for Jewish ideas.”
“Twentysomethings with a great idea don’t walk into Goldman Sachs, which isn’t really organized to help them,” he explained. “They go into a venture-capital house which nurtures them along the beginnings of their project and then, as it were, hands them over to Goldman Sachs when they’re at a different stage of organizational development.”
It’s the Jewish version of the venture philanthropy trend that is shaping the American nonprofit scene.
Applying the principles and techniques that have made Internet startups and other new companies so successful in recent years, a handful of foundations and young, affluent Jews are using money and know-how gained from the business world to create new Jewish initiatives.
They are placing special emphasis on empowering young people, whether as philanthropists, activists or beneficiaries of the new programs.
Martin Kaminer, 33, a New Yorker who heads an Internet distance-learning company, is working with the Jewish Education Service of North America and the United Jewish Communities to create a Manhattan incubator for people starting new projects benefiting the Jewish community.
Similarly, Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Walter and Elise Haas Foundation are joining forces to launch a national fellows program that will provide mentoring, support and $30,000 stipends for eight “social entrepreneur” Jews in their 20’s and 30’s.
The new efforts are even changing the language of philanthropy. Donors are called “partners,” grants are “investments” and the goal is not charity, but “social return.” But the differences are more than semantic: The new philanthropists are emphasizing training and mentorship just as much as dollars. And they are not afraid to take risks.
“This is an experiment,” said Kaminer, describing his incubator project, which will provide office space, computers, mentoring and training workshops to six people for two-year stints.
“By the time they emerge, some projects will be self-sufficient, some will be part of other organizations and some won’t work out.”
Brian Gaines, executive director of The Joshua Ventura fellowship program and himself a former Ben & Jerry’s franchise owner, echoed that approach.
“If even one out of the eight becomes the next Makor or the next great program that connects with people in some way, then I think we would have been successful,” he said, referring to a recently opened Manhattan cultural center that serves unaffiliated young Jews and is funded primarily by mega-donor Michael Steinhardt.
“Some people may say at the end, ‘My idea isn’t going to work, but I’m going to take what I learned here and apply it to B’nai B’rith or some other existing organization and make a difference there,’ ” Gaines said. “It’s about empowering people.”
The venture-philanthropy style differs dramatically from the more cautious and deliberative centralized Jewish federation approach of allocating campaign funds to established agencies and implementing new projects only after appointing task forces to study the situation.
“No committees were involved. This is not the result of a study calling for new organizations,” said Kaminer, of his incubator. “We’re learning as we go along.”
Nonetheless, many of the new projects enjoy close relationships with federations. The incubator falls under the auspices of UJC and JESNA, two national Jewish organizations funded primarily by the federation system, and Kaminer is hoping participants learn from — and are able to influence — their hosts.
“If you’re in the incubator because you have an idea for a fantastic program about college-age kids, I want you to figure out who on the UJC floor controls the money for that and get their attention,” he said.
A handful of federations are creating their own venture philanthropy groups.
In 1998, the United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Washington formed the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund, a group of 35 people — primarily local business executives in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s — who each invested $10,000 toward new projects. The beneficiaries of the first funding cycle — in the areas of Jewish renaissance, social services and overseas needs — will be announced in the coming weeks.
One of the founding partners, 38-year-old Melanie Sturm, described the funds raised as “risk capital” and the potential beneficiaries as “new and innovative projects that would be more risky but could have more impact” than existing programs funded through the federation.
“Younger people want to be more involved in directing their giving,” explained Sturm, an investment banker who says she — and many of the other partners — are newcomers to the federation world. “We thought this would be a response to that and an interesting experiment.”
Despite resistance from the “old guard,” who were fearful that the effort would undermine the federation’s annual campaign, Sturm said the project has attracted many people who had never made large gifts to federations before. As a safeguard of sorts, partners are required to contribute at least $5,000 to the annual campaign in addition to the $10,000 investment.
UJA-Federation of New York recently launched a similar venture philanthropy fund, and a number of federations around the country are talking about starting them.
But some worry that venture philanthropy’s focus on what’s new and different — while attractive to young donors — could endanger existing agencies whose services are essential, albeit not glamorous.
“Creating new programs is intriguing and it’s interesting, but then somebody has to pay for turning on the lights in the synagogue and for hiring the professionals at the JCC,” said Gary Tobin, the president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research and author of a recent study on Jewish family foundations.
Joel Carp, the senior vice president of Chicago’s federation, agreed, but said that it is possible to persuade donors to support nuts-and-bolts services, too.
“I suspect that for some people the thought of only participating in keeping Jewish communal services going — paying bills for stuff that’s very basic — is not seen as dramatic or sexy,” he said. “But I spend a lot of time taking donors and prospective donors to see the services we provide and it’s extremely rare when you put donors in front of the people who we take care of that they’re not deeply touched by what they see.”
According to Washington’s Sturm, venture philanthropy will not replace federation campaigns that “are the best at raising low-risk money for sustaining basic needs and services.”
“Federations, if they are smart, will try to adapt and do both,” Sturm said.