Myanmar’s lone synagogue honored by historical group

Myanmar’s only synagogue was recognized by a Yangon historical organization.

The Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, installed a blue heritage plaque Sunday given by the Yangon Heritage Trust. Only 11 other buildings in the city have received similar recognition, the Myanmar Times reported.

“The synagogue was part of a once-flourishing Jewish community in Yangon and a reminder that Yangon has always been, since its founding in the 1750s, home to people with connections across the world,” U Thant Myint-U, the trust’s founder, told the Times. “We have dozens of religious sites, belonging to all major religions, in downtown Yangon, and this is something to be proud of and celebrated.”

Built in the 1890s, when the Southeast Asian country was a British colony and called Burma, the synagogue is located in a busy commercial section downtown.

“I am very proud and very excited for this blue plaque,” said Sammy Samuels, whose family has for generations maintained the synagogue. “It does not just show the architectural significance, but also recognizes the dedication of families and individuals to preserve these buildings.”

In an article published May 11 in the Phoenix Jewish News, Samuels said the family’s commitment to maintaining the synagogue began with his great-grandfather.

“He had a strong attachment to the synagogue. He also was the head of the community at that time, so if he had left, the synagogue would have been closed,” Samuels told the newspaper. “Before he passed away, he made my father promise to keep the synagogue alive. I made a similar promise to my father, as well.”

According to the article, the country’s Jewish population peaked in the early 20th century with 2,500 people. The two-story synagogue is funded by proceeds from Samuels’ travel agency, Myanmar Shalom Travels, which leads tours of Myanmar, and by donations from visitors.

Approximately 40-50 tourists, most of them non-Jewish, visit the synagogue daily, according to Samuels.

Why join a synagogue?

Why join a temple? When a b’nai mitzvah or a funeral comes along, why not just “rent a rabbi”? After all, you save the dues and you “pay only for what you need.” The problem, of course, is that in this complex world, troubling news and a search to find meaning, “what we need” is a whole lot more than a once- or twice-a-year relationship can provide. 

In 2000, Robert Putnam lamented in “Bowling Alone” that Americans were becoming increasingly isolated in a society that no longer valued community. The data clearly show that we are moving away from community and increasingly into our own self-created bubbles. And in these bubbles we read and digest opinions that mostly agree with our own, without meaningful interchange and debate. Putnam’s metaphor for the devolution of communal participation was the plethora of bowling leagues in America in the 1950s and how they had disappeared over time, replaced by people bowling alone.

In 2013, the Pew Research Center reported that only 31 percent of people who identify as Jews are affiliated with a synagogue. And for those of us in positions of synagogue leadership, I can tell you that these numbers are not static. They are moving — the wrong way! Fewer and fewer people are maintaining memberships in synagogues nationwide.

One reason for abandoning the communal experience is that familiar institutions, be they bowling leagues or synagogues, were unable to keep up with the times and no longer offered meaningful experiences. We became trapped in institutions that were in an endless loop of repetition. Lost were creativity, flexibility and collective joy. 

In the 1990s, I delivered a High Holy Days sermon each year to a makeshift congregation composed of unaffiliated young Jews looking for a meaningful experience outside of the formal congregational structure. This group had concluded early on something that many of us would later discover — that the traditional model of a synagogue did not offer sufficient meaning and purpose to maintain its relevance and attractiveness to people striving for more.

Eventually, however, it became clear that to raise a family with Jewish values and a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves required commitment to a congregation. My wife and I found such a place in Stephen Wise Temple, with a rich menu of social justice activities, learning and celebration. Now I am president of that congregation, and I find myself explaining that it’s not about how much you use a temple, but how well you use what it offers and, importantly, how critical it is that we support the institution for the benefit of all those we serve.

I love Stephen Wise Temple, our spiritual home, but there is no shortage of other temple options in Los Angeles. To that congregation of the unaffiliated and others who have eschewed temple membership in the past, I urge you to “come home” to an ongoing, continuous relationship with your people. It is time to return to the greater Jewish community and acknowledge that to live a Jewish communal life is not an episodic experience. To learn and live Jewish values every day is to enhance one’s life.

Another disturbing extension of this “bowling alone” challenge to a vibrant and meaningful Jewish community is the “rent a rabbi” movement. Why not be tutored at home, learn a passable minimum and consummate the event with a big party? Parents are choosing b’nai mitzvah experiences devoid of interaction with other families engaged on the same journey; it’s all about me and not about us.

Don’t get me wrong — better to do something, anything, than not provide your child the singular experience of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah. But the “do-it-yourself” model takes a sacred rite of passage and turns it into “Jewish performance art.” It is devoid of context and community. My message to these young families is the same. Come home.

I can attest to the quality of the old, makeshift High Holy Days congregation, its warmth and sense of belonging. But like the carnival pulling into town each year, it picks up stakes, not to reveal itself again until the following autumn. I also have little doubt that the rabbis for hire produce an excellent “product.” But here’s the secret:  Synagogue life is changing. People are reading our ancient texts in ways that are life affirming and relevant to a world drowned in a cacophony of voices that increasingly are turning up the volume. People are working on meaningful social action projects that engage us with changing the city of L.A. and the world around us. One can find meaning and change the world in exciting ways through the strength of numbers.

It is not by accident that our people organized their communities into congregations. Through a congregation, one’s Jewish life experience is enhanced and expanded from an episodic relationship to a partnership with a community that is lasting and offers a rich menu of experiences throughout the year — experiences in personal development, education and in changing the world. But it is also enhanced by having clergy and a congregation to help when one is challenged by the vicissitudes of life. I had one of these moments when my father died, when my community was there to celebrate his life, just as it was there to celebrate happier events.

Within the context of a congregation, one can follow up on High Holy Days celebrations with adult education, Torah study, book clubs, visiting scholars and a variety of other activities. But one also benefits from celebrations throughout the year — dining together in a sukkah, dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah, studying into the evening on Shavuot, experiencing Havdalah by candlelight. 

Temples have evolved to be so much more than simply being there to mark the passage of the seasons and holidays. Valley Beth Shalom gave birth to Jewish World Watch, fighting genocide in Africa. Stephen Wise Temple gave birth to a network of three summer “Freedom Schools,” teaching literacy and providing enrichment for inner-city children, while providing meaningful volunteer experiences for more than 100 Jewish teens each summer. (Full disclosure: My wife is the executive director of this independent nonprofit.) And as our community struggles with the appropriate response to the Iran agreement, it is in synagogues — and not on Facebook or in endless email blasts — where a multitude of voices are heard and where contrary views are shared and debated, all with the sensitivity and shared compassion only face-to-face interactions can provide.

Perhaps it is time for the “nonjoiners” to rethink whether there might be greater meaning and greater support through a congregational experience. I understand there is a cost to membership, but most temples accommodate people at whatever level they can afford.

Perhaps now is a time when the idea of a more permanent relationship with our people might be a powerful addition to your life. Our temple stands for two principles that describe the mission of most temples, namely, making meaning and changing the world. We must resist the temptation to disconnect from others. The loss to the individual is profound. The emptiness of a rent-a-clergy experience, of a “go-it-alone” Jewish existence creates a disconnection from what has been for thousands of years the core Jewish experience, namely, community.

The holidays approach. The time to join with your people in new and exciting ways awaits. Don’t go through life alone, in a bubble, disconnected. Sure it can be fun to bowl alone, but how much more stimulating and exciting to bowl with friends, in community. So come home to a temple near you. Find meaning. Change the world. We have been here waiting for you. 

Glenn Sonnenberg, an attorney, is president of Latitude Real Estate Investors and president of Stephen Wise Temple. He sits on the boards of Bet Tzedek, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Para Los Ninos, USC Gould School of Law and Wise Freedom School Partners. He is passionate about creating an inviting Jewish communal life for our children and grandchildren.

Seder lessons for the High Holy Day services

For the greater part of the last decade, my wife Rachel and I have led communal Passover sedarim and services, as well as High Holy Days Services for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in Manhattan. The first seven years of leading services were geared towards unaffiliated young Jewish professionals in lower Manhattan under the auspices of the Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE).

Our inaugural High Holy Day Services were conducted in Manhattan’s iconic Puck Building. We had no idea what to expect. Through aggressive street marketing, parlor meetings and word-of-mouth advertising, more than 150 unaffiliated young Jewish professionals pre-registered to come and pray with us. In addition to the explanatory services, we held festive holiday meals that engendered a sense of warmth and community. For many, this was either their first Jewish experience in many years — or possibly their first Jewish experience ever.

During the subsequent years, our holiday services grew in both content and attendees, as did the necessary organizational resources. The greater number of young Jewish professionals being served demanded a greater investment on our part as far as time, energy and finances. It seemed that our efforts spurred greater attendance and in turn a greater opportunity to engage on an ongoing basis, to turn a once a year holiday into an ongoing connection of regular meaningful Jewish experiences.

We were beginning to form a community.

Our goal was to create a yearlong, ongoing and permanent community of young professionals connected through their common desire to develop their Jewish identity. We prayed together, shared apple martinis together, and discussed the meaning of teshuva, returning to ourselves and to Jewish tradition. Each year a healthy number of participants from the High Holy Day Service would return to pray with us on Shabbat, join our Shabbat table at home and became “core” members of our burgeoning community. They would identify this community as theirs, find relevance in the explanations and leave the services feeling inspired, recharged and energized. This smaller group would come not just once each year, but regularly, to our weekly classes, Shabbat dinners, volunteer programs, holiday parties and other programs.

Yet, the majority of the participants did not return to pray and many didn’t come back for other programs and events. These “High Holy Day Jews” experience some Jewish guilt or for a multitude of other reasons, only come to one service each year — and that’s it. They don’t want more Judaism in their lives. Once each year seems to be the maximum. Despite best efforts to lure them back more often, enticing home-cooked Shabbat invitations, personal emails or Facebook messages, they had made up their minds that neither I, nor the Jewish identity we were offering, would play a role in their lives beyond that once-per-year visit to synagogue.

Initially, this decision would pain me greatly and this low retention rate would cloud any personal feelings of success. Yet over time, as our community began to grow and our weekly classes, monthly Shabbat dinners, parties and retreat participant numbers remained steady, I became complacent with this reality. I turned a blind eye to it. My plate was full. Thank G-d. We certainly had a healthy flow of interested Jews.

As summer began to fade into autumn and High Holy Day planning began, my whole outlook had changed — I knew going into it that for many, no matter what we did or didn’t do, they were not coming back until the following Yom Kippur.

I had an epiphany, however, during a post-Passover conversation with my friend and colleague Steve Eisenberg, co-founder of Jewish International Connection of New York, on the past year. As had become our custom, we were sharing stories, comparing experiences and suggesting tweaks for future years, and then he said something that altered my entire perception of this challenge. He too faced a similar difficulty in his efforts. I learned that the issue wasn’t the apple martinis or the break-out sessions during the service — it was the holiday service experience itself.

Let’s face it, even though our service is engaging, explanatory,  and experiential, peppered with questions and interaction, it is still a prayer service.

It was then that I realized that the Passover Seder, filled with experience, relevance, joy, melodies, tradition, socialized through hands on ‘direct contact’, should inform our services. The Seder is able to touch people’s souls and speak to them in ways that many synagogue-based services never can.

That being said, there is a lot the Passover seder can teach a synagogue service. With the summer soon over and the Holy Days, lurking, Synagogues will soon be filling-up for Rosh Hashanah Services, Yizkor memorial and Kol Nidre night. Here is a Passover inspired checklist, is your High Holy Day Service Kosher for Passover?

1. Is it relevant? In the advertising industry, relevancy is everything. Before purchasing anything, a consumer asks himself, “Is this relevant to me?” Knowing this, advertisers then decide upon focal points in their advertising to connect their product to potential customers. The Passover seder experience is inherently more relevant to Jews of all walks of life than a synagogue service. For instance, the seder incorporates daily activities such as eating and discussion, in which everyone, regardless of affiliation or denomination, participates; it centers around the idea of freedom, a universal concept that most agree is a basic human right; and it provides a social atmosphere, which humans crave, where you are expected to make comments, meet your neighbors and learn about Judaism in a non-judgmental environment.

2. Is it interactive? Our Passover seder table is super-interactive. Overlooking the obvious regular interaction between food, wine and stimulating discussion, our table includes lots of “edutainment.” From the many costumes, role plays, games, marshmallow guns and decorations, the entire seder is interactive in every definition.

3. Is it user-friendly? Have you ever been to a seder that did not include step-by-step instructions? Instructions are key. The expert and the novice are both warmly welcomed and no one feels out of place. The instructions provided throughout the seder level the playing field, embracing all those around the table equally.

4. Lastly, is it modern? There is no secret sauce to Jewish continuity. Intermarriage, assimilation and apathy are rearing their ugly heads in many new areas. Yet, if the next generation is able to accept the Jewish traditions from the preceding generation, we will be able to maintain that tradition, which has remained intact through millennia. In order to keep young Jewish professionals, who often by necessity live fairly secular lives, interested in Judaism, one must understand the ways Judaism and secular culture have changed and find the best way to keep Jewish culture whole without impinging upon secular culture.

Passover and the High Holy Days are arguably the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays; however, the average Jew in the United States today has not been given the basic skill set necessary to access our tradition. Synagogues are there to provide access to our rich and living heritage, but synagogues must take that responsibility in stride and use all the tools in the arsenal to attract the next generation.

Rabbi Daniel Kraus in an orthodox rabbi, entrepreneur and marketer who uses his gift of innovation and creativity to reach and engage affiliated and unaffiliated Jews. Rabbi Kraus currently serves as a Rabbi and the Director of Community Education at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York. A native of Melbourne, Australia, Daniel has been living in New York for the last 10 years and has been heavily involved in a range of Jewish organizations. Together with his wife Rachel, Rabbi Daniel has built a vibrant community of previously unaffiliated young Jewish professionals in the midtown Manhattan area, with over 7,000 people from diverse backgrounds participating in their programs over 7 years. Follow him at @rabbidkraus.

Synagogues with predatory rabbis must protect their members, not their reputations

When I read the recent article in The New York Times detailing the accusations against Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt of the Riverdale Jewish Center, I was deeply saddened.

This is the synagogue and community where I grew up. My parents moved to Riverdale in the 1950s and are among the RJC’s founding members. Rosenblatt — like the synagogue’s four rabbis before him — played an important part in the life of my family. However, my focus is not the RJC or any one rabbi.

My concerns are with the institutions in which we place our trust — institutions that seem to ignore the simple fact that rabbis and teachers are human and subject to temptations and personal demons. We hold our leaders in high esteem, but our institutions fail to monitor them to ensure that their power is not being abused and that the esteem is merited.

Whispers, like those in Riverdale, have been present in dark corners of many communities over the years. Those whispers have been hushed by men and women who choose to protect the institution to the detriment of those it’s supposed to serve. This is what happened at Penn State, which ignored or mishandled numerous episodes over the years in which football coach Jerry Sandusky sexually abused children. Our leaders often demonstrate poor judgment, pretending that if they ignore the underlying problem or handle it quietly among themselves the behavior will stop and the problems disappear.

But today social media amplifies whispers. Victims hear the whispers of other victims, awareness grows, and what happens behind closed doors is exposed and headlined. I have seen this in my work at Jewish Women International — on college campuses, on football fields, even in the military. Victims are speaking out.

Our synagogues and rabbinical institutions need to wake up. Responding in secret or in an ad hoc manner — being reactive — does not work. This modus operandi inhibits response, discussion and community resolution. Secret “solutions” end up being neither secret nor solutions.

Instead, we repeatedly see the accused relying on his or her relationships with powerful supporters, and together they spread the fear of public revelation of scandal. Time and again, the message to the victims and communities is that only with silence can the institution be protected. That is another way of saying that those who are victimized are less important than the institution itself.

This past Shabbat I was at the RJC, down the street from where I grew up, visiting my parents, who still consider the RJC home. We went to shul there, we went to school there, we served on committees and boards, shared countless meals, danced and wept together. We felt safe at the RJC.

What a delusion. The very organizations — synagogues, community centers, schools — that should be protecting and nurturing constituents instead seek to protect reputations. But reputations worth protecting are not made by marginalizing victims.

The back-room, hush-hush solution is inappropriate, dangerous and unsustainable. We need policies and protocols for organizational responses to these situations.

Make no mistake about it: Despite all the vetting and background checks, creeps will attain leadership roles and use their power for their own ends. We need processes to examine rumors with speed, transparency and neutrality. We need guidelines that will reduce the risk of sexual harassment, abuse and assault by staff, lay leadership and volunteers, and we need a process for redress. This approach enables a neutral response free from the influence of wealthy donors, powerful members, colleagues or former interns.

Policies should reflect the character of the organization, but certainly some standard provisions should be included:

  1. Anyone who feels victimized or is aware of any misdeeds must be able to speak with someone who has no personal stake in the institution — for example, a social worker, therapist, lawyer or all of the above — on retainer to the institution.
  2. Any investigation must be done by a third party, not someone from within the institution.
  3. Rules for communication and confidentiality must be established and followed.
  4. All lay and professional leadership must be trained in the laws of mandated reporting.
  5. Educational and prevention programs should be made available to members.
  6. Relationships should be established and maintained with a local sexual-assault response agency and local law enforcement.

Institutions responsible for protecting and nurturing our communities must focus on protecting those who are in their charge rather than protecting those who are in charge.

(Deborah Rosenbloom is the vice president of programs & new initiatives at Jewish Women International.)

British PM pledges additional millions for security for Jewish schools, synagogues

British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged millions of dollars in new funds to Jewish schools and synagogues to be used for security.

Cameron, speaking Wednesday at the annual dinner of the Community Security Trust, Britain’s Jewish security watchdog group, pledged about $14.9 million in new money for security “this year and every year, for as long as necessary.”

The money is to pay for guards and other security measures for private Jewish schools and for synagogue security, as well as for a control center for the operations of the Community Security Trust.

Jewish state schools already receive about $3 million in funds for security.

Cameron in his speech praised the Jewish community for its “enormous” contribution to Britain, and vowed that his government would give “everything we have got” to protect Jews.

“If the Jewish community does not feel secure then our whole national fabric is diminished. It is not just about the enormous contribution you all make to our society — it is more profound than that. It is a measure of the vigor of our institutions and the health of our democracy that the Jewish community feels safe to live and flourish here,” he said.

“At a time when once again the Jewish communities of Europe feel vulnerable and when anti-Semitism is at record levels here in Britain I will not stand by,” Cameron added.

Cameron also congratulated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his reelection, saying, “With me you will always have a British prime minister whose belief in Israel is unbreakable and whose commitment to Israel’s security will always be rock solid.”

The Community Security Trust  reported last month that it had recorded 1,168 anti-Semitic incidents for 2014, the highest annual total ever and more than double the previous year.

Some 269,000 Jews live in Britain, making up 0.4 percent of the population.

An eye for synagogue photography: Louis Davidson

If you want to track down Louis Davidson, try the local synagogue. 

Of course, “local” in this case could mean anywhere from Hong Kong to Morocco, from the Ukraine to Hawaii — in any city other than Los Angeles or Tulsa, Okla., between which the retired architect-turned-photographer-historian divides his time when not traveling. 

On a midsummer evening in July, Davidson is in Sydney, Nova Scotia, along with his wife Ronnie. The reason? Why, because there’s a synagogue to photograph, of course!

“Yesterday we shot one in Halifax,” Davidson said, launching easily into a backstory about the structure. “There was another one in North Sydney until two years ago, when the congregation shrank away to nothing. Originally Jewish families came to Sydney. They were tailors and merchants, and Sydney was a major port because there were coal and iron mines nearby. This is a typical pattern that we have seen in other towns. You get important mineral deposits that bring in the population, and Jews come and settle to service the population as merchants. Once the minerals pay out and the towns dwindle, the Jews tend to move away.”  

Calgary, Canada

Left behind are synagogues of cultural and local historical significance, structures that Davidson feels are worth preserving, one shutter click at a time. Which is exactly what he is doing through his “Synagogues360” project, a photographic record of synagogues throughout the world. 

The website displays Davidson’s photos of more than 350 synagogues, an A-to-Z chronicle that takes site visitors from Adas Jeschurun in Stockholm to Zeizmariai in Lithuania. The latter is one of eight remaining wooden synagogues in Lithuania, a former Orthodox Ashkenazi synagogue that is no longer operational. In fact, the exterior makes it resemble a dilapidated barn. 

Davidson books journeys to houses of worship that are in some way architecturally or historically significant. He shoots both exterior shots and a series of moving 360-degree panoramas of the interior to take viewers on a virtual tour around the structure. A series of still shots from 30 synagogues will be on display at the Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts at UCLA’s Hillel, opening Oct. 23.

The exhibition is titled “It Started in Sighet” because that is, indeed, where Davidson’s project began: Romania — where the photographer and his wife were impressed by the gorgeous and crumbling old synagogues of Eastern Europe.

Brasov, Romania

“We thought we would preserve them photographically. Gosh, we should preserve all of Eastern Europe,” Davidson said. “And the project gradually got wider, and we had to choose which buildings to document. You can’t photograph them all.”

Maybe not, but if you’re Louis Davidson, you can get to a bunch of them. Davidson has photographed the world’s northernmost purpose synagogue (Trondheim in Norway), and the world’s most southern synagogue (Dunedin in New Zealand). His travels have taken him to Beth Sholom in Elkins Park, Penn., the only synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and to Paris’ Agoudas Hakehilos, one of the world’s few synagogues still in use designed in the art nouveau style. 

Beth Shalom, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania

The synagogue's interior

“They have to be special in some respect,” said Davidson, who estimates that he visits 40 synagogues each year. “It can be that they were designed by a great architect or are somehow historically significant. That’s how we sort them out. Interestingly, I spend far more time researching which ones to photograph and making the contacts.”

Finding the synagogues that fit his criteria is challenging enough. Gaining access and historical data is a different ballgame. Because many of the structures are located in places without large Jewish populations, Davidson goes into detective mode, Googling articles in local news archives and trying to track down names in phone directories. Calling the synagogues themselves can often lead to a dead end — many are either operating on a skeleton staff or are no longer operational. 

Those synagogues that do have a staff often have to submit Davidson’s request to their board of directors. The photographer estimates that four or five have refused permission. The Davidsons also travel with their dog, Harley Davidson, who Louis estimates has been inside more Jewish places of worship than any canine in history. 

“He has only been denied entrance twice,” Davidson said. 

Davidson spends about 90 minutes inside the building, taking panorama shots from multiple angles and then returning later to shoot the building’s exterior, often during the evening or when the natural light has changed. Using a customized Sony camera with a Leica lens, Davidson said he comes away with 400 shots of each synagogue. He’ll also typically spend at least 24 hours visiting the city, and an accompanying blog allows Davidson to give further historical detail of some of the featured synagogues.

The Synagogues360 project has turned Davidson into a historical resource. Site visitors frequently contact him seeking information about a given synagogue or asking to reproduce his photographs. For research and nonprofit requests for Jewish causes, Davidson grants permission to use his shots free of charge. If the intended use is for-profit, he charges a fee. Other site visitors contact Davidson’s website looking for information about a given temple and seeking practical information such as hours, directions or booking fees. 

“I got an inquiry from a party in New York who had been planning on having a bar mitzvah in Israel, but he decided to have it in Livorno, Italy, instead, and did I know how to get in contact with the synagogue,” Davidson said. “Well, yes, I did.” 

Samuel Gruber, president of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments, teaches classes in Jewish art and architecture and frequently sends his students to Davidson’s site for assignments and research.

“Louis shoots with great skills and with great technical virtuosity, and he allows us to enter the places, to study them and to consider them collectively, which most photographers don’t allow us to do,” Gruber said. “He’s doing a great service. I hope he does 600 synagogues.”

Not a bad goal, said Davidson, who has no plans to cut back on his travel. He has a trip planned to the southeastern United States and would like to pay more visits to southeast Asia. Davidson, who has assembled photobooks before, has been asked whether the synagogues could be the basis for a published volume. But he would rather be traveling and shooting than editing. 

Las Cruces, New Mexico

“I’m 73, and while I have the mobility and the ability, I want to concentrate on getting synagogues photographed,” he said. “So many of the synagogues we have photographed literally closed the week before we got there, or we got in just before they moved furniture. Or they’re turning to dust. I feel like it’s my mission get them photographed before they’re gone.”

“It Started in Sighet” opens Oct. 23 at the Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts at UCLA Hillel. The exhibition is part of a triple opening that also features “Eastern Parkway” photographs of the Lubavitcher Community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn by Mary Leipziger, and “Not Forgotten,” a series of collages of old retrieved photographs depicting Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish life in the Middle East and North Africa at the beginning and middle of the 20th century by Erella Teitler. Hedva Amrani will perform at the opening. She will be accompanied by her son, musician, composer and singer, Doron Danoff. 

This year, more Angelenos than ever get Passover aid from local agencies

This year, more than 1,000 Los Angeles families in need received food from organizations that provide assistance specifically for Passover.

During the weeks leading up to the first seder, on April 6, visitors to distribution sites set up by agencies, synagogues and organizations took home essentials for the holiday — wine, grape juice, matzah, gefilte fish, horseradish, eggs and more — so that they could have seders and kosher food for the eight days of the holiday.

Low-income families received assistance from Tomchei Shabbos, Global Kindness, Valley Beth Shalom, JFS/SOVA, the Israeli Leadership Council, the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) and elsewhere. Social workers from Jewish Family Service, a nonsectarian social service agency, referred many individuals and families in need to food-giving agencies. Tomchei Shabbos, which provides donations of kosher food to Los Angeles Orthodox families weekly, served additional families for Passover.

The majority of recipients this year were people who’ve lost their jobs in the recent recession, including, said Rabbi Yona Landau, executive director of Tomchei Shabbos,  “people who got sick and couldn’t work, people who were abandoned, women who were abandoned by their husbands and they have to care of the family themselves.

“There’s a lot of different cases,” Landau said. “If they didn’t get our food, they wouldn’t have any food.”

Others receiving food assistance for Passover included immigrant families of Persian, Israeli and Russian descent; seniors with disabilities; and some divorcees, all facing major financial challenges, according to Debbie Alden, a board member of Valley Beth Shalom’s Sisterhood and Nouriel Cohen, CFO of Global Kindness. Many of the recipients were formerly volunteers at these agencies and organizations — people who used to be middle-class — but are now reliant on charity.

“We had people who were donating to us a little bit, and now they are asking, which is really sad,” said Shahla Javdan, president of the IAJF.

Because of privacy concerns, no recipient families gave their names for interviews.

On the night of April 2, an elderly woman living in West Hollywood receiving a delivery from two volunteers in their 20s, told of her problems with sciatica. “Not well,” she replied to a volunteer who asked how she was doing as they brought the food into her home.

Tomchei Shabbos volunteers delivered some of the food for Passover to recipients’ homes. Some requested that the food be left at their doorsteps.

Other recipients parked at the curb at Pico Boulevard and Weatherly Drive, the site of the organization’s storefront, waited to receive the boxes filled with produce, which they loaded into the backseats of their minivans and the trunks of their sedans with the help of eager volunteers.

Tomchei boxes were marked with only families’ initials so as not to give away their identities. Valley Beth Shalom’s distributors employed a similar method for their food giveaway.

In the days leading up to Passover, people strapped for cash shopped at Pico-Robertson grocery stores Elat Market and Glatt Mart using food coupons from the IAJF. The stores cooperated with the IAJF, selling $25 and $50 coupons at a 25 percent discount to the IAJF, which then distributed the coupons to community members.

SOVA, a program of Jewish Family Service, differentiated Passover packages for Ashkenazi and Sephardic families. Ashkenazi families received gefilte fish and horseradish, while Sephardic families received rice and dates in addition to matzah ball soup mix, macaroons, eggs, walnuts and matzah.

“They will be able to do a nice seder with what they receive,” Fred Summers, director of operations at JFS/SOVA, said. “Some of the things will last longer than one night, [but] it will probably not be an eight-day supply.

The numbers of those in need might surprise some. JFS/SOVA provided for approximately 700 individuals and families for Passover, according to Summers. Tomchei Shabbos served around 600 families, estimated Landau. VBS distributed 124 boxes filled with Passover items, Global Kindness helped nearly 350 families, the Israeli Leadership Council provided assistance for more than 100 families, and the IAJF distributed between $30,000 and $50,000 in food coupons, Javdan said.

More families requested Passover food this year than in previous years, Javdan, Landau and Cohen all said, and the agencies couldn’t meet all the demand. Despite news reports that the economy is improving and new jobs are being created each month, Cohen said more people are in need this year than ever before. “Not only for Passover, but for other holidays also.”

Homeland Security in Chicago to beef up Jewish security

Agents from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are in Chicago to beef up security at Jewish institutions.

They arrived Sunday and are working through the Chicago Jewish federation, according to Paul Goldenberg, national director of the Secure Community Network (SCN), a security agency that is the product of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

On Wednesday, senior Homeland Security leadership will begin a series of conference calls with senior Jewish leaders across the country focusing on increased security concerns in the wake of last Friday’s bomb threat in which two packages of explosives mailed from Yemen and allegedly targeting Jewish institutions in Chicago were intercepted. One was intercepted at a FedEx way station in the United Arab Emirates, and one in London.

Hidden inside printer cartridges, the explosives were powerful enough to bring down a plane. Officials are still trying to determine the intended targets—the planes carrying the bombs or the institutions to which they were mailed.

SCN is “closely monitoring the situation,” said Goldenberg, who is in Chicago working with Homeland Security.

Synagogue movements team to raise awareness on Iran

Synagogue movements from across the denominational spectrum are jointly calling on American Jews to “make Iran a matter of the highest priority.”

Organizations representing the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements made their pronouncement in a joint statement issued Sept. 4. The statement also outlines “Eight Actions to Stop a Nuclear Iran”— including posting signage at synagogues and bringing up the issue in interfaith dialogue—and urges the U.S. government to increase “economic and diplomatic pressure” against the Iranian regime.

Jewish communal leaders say the statement is part of an effort modeled on the Soviet Jewry campaign to build widespread awareness inside and outside the Jewish community of the threat posed by Iran.

It comes a few days before 350 Jewish leaders are scheduled to visit Washington on Sept. 10 for the National Jewish Leadership Advocacy Day on Iran. Participants are scheduled to meet with members of Congress and administration officials to discuss measures that can be taken to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Signatories on the statement include congregational and rabbinical organizations affiliated with Reconstructionists (the Reconstructionist Jewish Reconstructionist Federation and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association), Reform (the Union for Reform Judaism and Central Conference of American Rabbis), Conservative (the Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), and Orthodox (the Orthodox Union, National Council of Young Israel and Rabbinical Council of America).

Bringing all four religious streams together on such a document “really demonstrates that on an issue of major substance and importance, we can speak with one voice,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, the executive vice president emeritus of the Rabbinical Assembly, who coordinated the statement.

Meyers was working through the Inter-Agency Task Force on Iran, a group led by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, United Jewish Communities and NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia.

Members of the task force agreed that a common statement on the Iran issue from the religious movements was necessary, Meyers said, adding that putting together the language was accomplished with little disagreement.

“There’s a concern” that this issue “gets lost with everything else going on” from other foreign policy hot spots to domestic issues such as health care and the economy, Meyers said. “We want to keep the issue of the danger of Iran in front of everybody.”

The statement stresses that the United States “must take the lead in increasing economic and diplomatic pressure on the Iranian regime at this time.” It expresses support for President Obama’s “diplomatic initiatives,” but also states that “for too long” the United States has “not taken action” and “not modeled forceful leadership to the rest of the world.”

Among the other eight suggested actions that individuals and Jewish institutions can take to “stop a nuclear Iran” are holding educational forums, contacting elected officials and writing letters to the editor to local publications.

Also on the list is a recommendation that synagogues and other institutions display signs on their property urging the prevention of a nuclear Iran, similar to signs that displayed the names of Soviet refuseniks in the 1970s and 1980s and, more recently, the Save Darfur signs at many shuls.

“We thought that would be helpful in keeping up an awareness level,” Meyers said.

The statement also urges rabbis and others who engage in interfaith dialogue to raise the issue with their partners.

Noting that much of the involvement in Iran activism until now has been concentrated at the leadership level of the community, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents, said that such action will make the issue more visible throughout both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities.

“We want to broaden the base of involvement,” Hoenlein said.

Synagogues Working to Be More Open to Gays


NEW YORK (JTA)—The newsletter sent out last month by Temple Israel of New Rochelle contained the usual sort of announcements, including a reminder about the synagogue’s upcoming Purim carnival, mazal tovs and condolences, and information about a social event at a local steakhouse.

But a small notice about a screening of the film “Hineini: Coming Out In a Jewish High School” reflected a quiet change at the Reform synagogue in suburban New York.

The screening is part of an overall push by Temple Israel to be more welcoming to gay and lesbian Jews. In recent months, the synagogue has edited its membership forms to accommodate diverse family structures, and it now advertises in the gay press and with gay advocacy groups. It also plans to train teachers to be sensitive to issues related to sexuality.

Prompted by the experience of a teenager in the community who was teased when he revealed his homosexuality, momentum built last year when the synagogue hired a new youth director who is openly gay.

“On some level, I kind of view myself as a poster child and that these kids and the adults need to see somebody in the community who fits the description,” said Barry Shainker, the youth director.

Shainker says that while changes are programmatic, the goal is to make such inclusiveness routine.

“Of course in some ways, our goal is to put ourselves out of a job,” he said. “In a few years this will be a no-brainer. What could be a 30-minute discussion at a board meeting becomes a 30-second vote in the future.”

Temple Israel is not alone: A recent conference in New York attracted a cadre of about 60 rabbis, educators and activists from across the denominational spectrum who shared “best practices” for becoming more welcoming to gay and lesbian Jews.

The conference, organized by Jewish Mosaic and the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, was part of the “Welcoming Synagogues Project,” which seeks to develop a model for inclusiveness to be implemented this summer by 10 pilot congregations.

“We’re trying to come up with a process that’s scalable,” said Joel Kushner, director of the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation. A similar program took place March 1-2 in Los Angeles.

“There isn’t going to be one size fits all,” he said.

Findings from the 2009 Synagogue Survey on Diversity and LGBT Inclusion, presented at the New York conference, underscored what Kushner described as a need for congregations to be more welcoming. The survey found that 73 percent of the 760 rabbis polled think their congregation is welcoming to gay and lesbian Jews, although only 33 percent of the 997 synagogues that responded offer programs aimed specifically at gays and lesbians.

The impetus for adopting a more welcoming approach comes from a critical mass of gay members or from policy questions such as the ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors, according to one of the study’s co-authors, Caryn Aviv.

“It has shifted people’s perceptions because they’re having personal interaction with gays and lesbians,” said Aviv, who co-authored the study with Steven Cohen.

To be sure, some synagogues have consciously welcomed sexually diverse Jews for years. For example, Temple Israel in Boston, a Reform congregation with 1,700 families, made such a decision based on what members believed was “right.”
“It was untenable to them that gay and lesbian Jews wouldn’t have a home,” Rabbi Stephanie Kolin said.

The synagogue is working with the Boston-based advocacy group Keshet to become a so-called “safe school,” meaning it will train teachers to address bias and promote gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender inclusion.

Temple Israel recently conducted a focus group with some of its LGBT members to find out what as a community the synagogue could improve. Last year the synagogue hosted a program on transgender and gender expression. In the past there was a LGBT chevra, or social group, and the synagogue sent dozens of people to rally at the Massachusetts State House in support of equal marriage.
“Acting publicly around justice issues is another way that we are proactively welcoming,” Kolin said.

At the conference in New York, representatives of other synagogues shared their “best practices.”

At Kolot Chayeinu, a progressive congregation in Park Slope, Brooklyn, b’nai mitzvah students discuss gender diversity in Jewish texts. Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta has adopted a “brit,” or contract, that stipulates the inclusive values of the community. Beth Simchat Torah, New York’s synagogue for GLBT Jews, has published a new prayer book in which the prayers for life-cycle events—including marriages and baby namings—are not printed in the conventional order, so as to promote the idea of diverse family life.

According to Debra Kolodny, the executive director of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, a critical part of being inclusive is to have leadership that reflects diversity in sexual orientation, and that LGBT perspectives are heard and integrated into teaching and services.

“So it’s just kind of normative,” she explained. “I think inclusion presumes that there is an ‘in group’ and ‘out group.’ ”

At Kehilla Community Synagogue, a Renewal congregation in Piedmont, Calif., the congregation’s inclusiveness was on display last summer when seven same-sex couples married in a group ceremony staged in reaction to the state’s Proposition 8.

Sandy Bredt, Kehilla’s executive director, said the ceremony “was kind of a marriage of our political and our spiritual values.”

For gay and lesbian Jews, having programs and sermons targeting them—combined with a generally welcoming attitude—make congregations more inclusive.

When Joseph Antenson was shopping for a synagogue several years ago, he sought a congregation that had obvious participation from gay and lesbian members and where there was no “separate but equal” status. His desire to hear a rabbi take a proactive stance from the bimah was part of his attraction to B’nai Jeshurun, a liberal synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

“It’s too easy to say, ‘Sure, we’re welcoming,’ but just don’t talk about it,” he said.

In general, Antenson noted with regret, the Jewish community has not been at the forefront of welcoming gays and lesbians into synagogue life.

Antenson, a lay leader and member of the marriage equality, membership and interfaith committees at B’nai Jeshurun, said that when he told fellow congregants about his partner, “I never got a reaction.”

Half of the members of the marriage equality chevra are straight and at B’nai Jeshurun, it is common to celebrate the anniversary of a gay couple, or to see a gay or lesbian couple celebrating an aufruf.

“It’s public evidence that we welcome gays and lesbians, and they are full members of the congregation,” Antenson said.

But according to Aaron Weininger, a second-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a change in cultural assumptions must accompany concrete actions.

“There are so many ways to engage the issues,” he said, citing films such as “Hineini” and programs like LGBT Shabbat dinners. “It is not ‘either-or,’ it’s ‘and.’ ”

While Weininger noted there is no “one size fits all” model, he said synagogues should be asking whether they are engaging all members of the community.

“Because LGBT Jews have been marginalized and alienated for so long, there does need to be a certain level of awareness,” he said. “The more messages our synagogues send that are pro-inclusion, the more younger people coming out and identifying as LGBT feel safe.”

Still, he and others noted, a shift in attitude in Conservative congregations is linked to the movement’s policies regarding gay rabbis and cantors.

Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minn., said his congregation was ahead of the curve and had been since the mid-1990s, when the synagogue was asked to participate in a gay marriage ceremony.

“I think that the Conservative movement in its official capacity sort of caught up to what we’ve been doing,” said Allen, who served on the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Human Sexuality in the early 1990s.

Allen said in lieu of programs targeting LGBT members, his congregation has adopted a welcoming mind-set.

“We didn’t make a special gay slot on our board,” he said.

Gay members serve on the board because they are involved and supportive of the synagogue.

“For many years, people did not feel they could talk about the core of who they were,” Allen said. “I think all we’ve done is open the door and allow people to walk in.”

Mosques and synagogues reach across divide

American Jews and Muslims, reaching beyond the Middle East conflict, are joining hands to battle prejudices within and against their communities.

Consider some of the signs:

  • Starting next week, 50 synagogues and 50 mosques throughout the United States and Canada will get together for three days of “twinning” and intensive discussions.
  • USC, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and an Islamic foundation have jointly established a Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement.
  • At UC Irvine, usually pictured as a hotbed of Muslim-Jewish antagonism, student leaders of both faiths recently returned from a two-week trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, with many preconceptions transformed into more complex and realistic views.

The transcontinental “Weekend of Twinning,” under the theme, “Confronting Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism Together,” will be held nationally Nov. 21-23, but Los Angeles will get a jump on the rest of the country. Next Monday evening, Nov. 17, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills will host the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City, with Rabbi Laura Geller welcoming mosque director Usman Madha.

Guest speakers will be two national leaders of the twinning project, Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and Dr. Muzammil H. Siddiqi, chairman of the Fiqh Council of North America, a body of Islamic legal scholars.

Although past attempts at Jewish-Muslim dialogues have been generally short-lived in the face of Mideast flare-ups, Geller is optimistic that the twinning project will have a long life.

“This marks the first time that mosques and synagogues are giving their full support, and we are in this for the long haul,” she said.

Madha of the King Fahd Mosque warned that linking Muslim and Jewish interests would be a hard, long process, but that the election of Barack Obama “proves that the unthinkable can happen if we set our minds to it.”

Guest speaker Siddiqi, who also heads the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove, said he was optimistic about the cooperative project and that it was widely supported by his members.

The twinning project got its start one year ago, when the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, headed by Schneier, an Orthodox rabbi, and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, invited 13 Jewish and 13 Muslim spiritual leaders to a meeting.

“Our goal was to enlist 25 synagogues and 25 mosques, but we ended up with double the number,” said Schneier, whose foundation has largely concentrated on Jewish-black relations.

“Both American Jews and Muslims are children of Abraham and citizens of the same country, and we share a common faith and destiny,” Schneier said.

“Of course, we cannot ignore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — it’s the elephant in the room — but I see the emergence of moderate, centrist Muslim voices, particularly in the United States, and we must do everything possible to encourage such voices,” he added.

Urging Jews to reclaim some of the passion they invested in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, Schneier said that a similar outreach to Muslims “can serve as a paradigm for Europe” and perhaps even for the Middle East.

During the Nov. 21-23 weekend, twinning sessions between mosques and synagogues, as well as Muslim and Jewish student groups on campuses, will stretch from Seattle to Atlanta, and from Mississauga, Ontario, to Carrolton, Texas.

Participating in the Southland will be Beth Shir Sholom in Santa Monica with the Islamic Center of Southern California, Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo with the Orange County Islamic Foundation and Muslim and Jewish student groups at USC and Chapman College in Orange.

The weekend meetings, which will be publicized nationally through public service announcements on CNN and a full-page ad in The New York Times, may be expected to become emotional on occasion. Indeed, guidelines for discussion leaders encourage “all participants to listen to one another in a courteous and respectful fashion, without interrupting or shouting down those with whom they disagree.”

As the concept of the twinning project evolved, Schneier turned for expert advice to the newly formed Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement.

The center is the first of its kind and was established through an agreement signed by the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, HUC-JIR and the education-oriented Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation.

The three partners, all located in the same neighborhood, had been working together for some time and have now decided to formalize their collaboration, said Reuven Firestone, professor of medieval Jewish and Islamic studies at HUC-JIR.

“There are some anti-Jewish attitudes in the Muslim world and some anti-Muslim attitudes in the Jewish world, but there is no inherent conflict between Judaism and Islam,” Firestone said. “We have much in common in our goals and aspirations.”

A respected author, Firestone has written books on “Introduction to Islam for Jews” and “Children of Abraham: Introduction to Judaism for Muslims.” Out this month is his latest publication, “Who Are the Chosen People? The Meaning of Chosenness in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”

Firestone and Dafer Dakhil, director of the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation, are the co-directors of the new center, with Hebah Farrag, a recent graduate of the American University in Cairo, as associate director.

The center’s first major project will be to compile a massive database on the key Jewish and Muslim religious texts for the general public. For instance, someone searching for an authoritative definition of “kosher” would also be referred to the Islamic equivalent, “halal.”

On a more popular level, the center is planning a film series on Jewish and Muslim topics, Farrag said.

Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation has provided a $50,000 start-up grant to the center, but Firestone worries about future financing.

Taking note that previous cooperative ventures between the two faiths have foundered on political and nationalistic differences, Firestone said, “We’re aware of these hurdles, but what would kill us is not trouble in the Middle East, but lack of funding. There are not a lot of Jews or Muslims who want to invest in what we are doing.”

Besides religious and academic efforts to bridge the Jewish-Muslim gap, there are also private initiatives.

One is the Levantine Cultural Center, founded seven years ago by Jordan Elgrably, an American Jew of Moroccan descent.

“We have weekly programs that draw Jews, Muslims, Christians and Bahai, and we have Arabs, Armenians, Turks — people from all over the Middle East and North Africa,” Elgrably said.

They are mostly young people, and what they have in common is a love of popular music and culture, explored, for instance, in a recent program on Heavy Metal Islam.

Elgrably estimates the Levantine Center’s e-mail list reaches some 5,000, and its core membership is around 500.

“I don’t buy into the concept of an upcoming ‘Clash of Civilizations,'” Elgrably said. “What we are aiming for is an “Alliance of Civilizations’. There is something like this in the air, and, in a small way, we are trying to create a safe place for it to develop.”

Students Learn Nuances on Interreligious Mideast Trip

The campus at UC Irvine has been pictured for years as a hotbed of hatred riven over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, making all the more remarkable the recent trip of a group of 15 Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze UCI students, who decided to go over there and see for themselves.

They spent two intensive weeks talking with Israelis and Palestinians, militants and peaceniks, government officials and falafel vendors, rabbis and imams, right-wing settlers and left-wing Tel Avivians, and came back with one overriding impression.

“Before we went, we had all the answers,” said one Muslim girl. “But the more we heard, the more confused we became.”

Isaac Yerushalmi, president of Anteaters for Israel (the anteater is the UCI mascot), had a similar take. “In the United States, you see everything in black and white. You don’t understand the complexity of the situation on the ground until you go there. There are a thousand different views,” he said.

“The land is so small, with more diverse opinions than I have ever encountered,” Paul McGuire said.

A Christian student observed, “Before I left, I thought all the settlers were crazy, right-wing Jews. But when we visited Ariel, I saw what they had built where there was nothing before. So maybe the settlements are not all bad.”

Before she left, Sally Moukkad’s parents warned her not to say anything against the government while she was in Israel. Once there, she found that “everybody says anything they want.”

It is one remarkable aspect of the project, called the Olive Tree Initiative, that it was conceived and organized by leaders and members of the Muslim Student Union and the Jewish Student Union, Society of Arab Students and Anteaters for Israel, as well as Hillel, Model United Nations, Middle East Studies Student Initiative, and simply interested students.

Just as noteworthy, everything was put together by the students, on their own, from holding weekly preparatory seminars for 18 months and raising $60,000 to cover expenses to lining up dozens of experts in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The UCI administration said it could not legally sponsor or underwrite the trip, but urged the students to “just go ahead and do it.”

Most of the participants were in their late teens to early 20s, with the exception of a major catalyst of the enterprise, a 29-year old doctoral student named Daniel Wehrenfennig, working with Katharine Keith, a graduate student in Middle East studies.

Wehrenfennig had both a professional and personal interest in the project. His study and research focus is on conflict resolution and citizen dialogues, and his laboratories are Northern Ireland and the Middle East.

He is also a German who had spent two months harvesting citrus fruits in Israel and is active in the Third Generation German-Israeli Dialogue. In addition, he wanted to rectify UCI’s negative image in the media.

In early September, the group flew to Tel Aviv with an itinerary so crammed and intensive that only a bunch of college students could have hacked it.

They met with students and professors, journalists, generals and government officials and participated in give-and-take discussions in West and East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Hebron, the Palestinian town of Qualqilyah, the Jewish settlement of Ariel, Nazareth, Tel Aviv and Jaffa.

Saturdays were free, so they went to the beach or sightseeing, toured the Dead Sea and Masada, studied the Bauhaus architecture of Tel Aviv and even squeezed in some shopping.

They learned about the Holocaust at Yad Vashem and prayed in synagogues, mosques and churches.

Two weeks ago, the travelers, including two advisers, reunited at the UCI Student Union and talked about their trip to a standing-room-only audience of some 500 students, who applauded each and every statement. Some questions from the audience were naïve (“I am not an Israeli or Palestinian. I am just a typical Southern California student — so why should I care?”) to the more perceptive (“How did the trip change any of your preconceptions?”).

Afterwards, a few student leaders were dragged out of a reception to talk to The Journal about the trip and about the mood and conflicts on campus.

“A few years ago, we had a pretty hateful situation here,” said Yerushalmi, the pro-Israel activist. “Now we feel quite comfortable as Jews, and no one is worried about his safety. It’s too bad that some outside people have tried to perpetuate the campus conflicts.”

Yerushalmi’s evaluation was seconded by Ali Malik of the Muslim Student Union and Amanda Naoufal, a former president of the Society of Arab Students.

For the future, the Olive Tree Initiative activists will continue to share the experiences and lessons of their trip with students at UCI and other campuses, at churches, synagogues and mosques, and at other forums.

“We are getting so many calls from other campuses that we are putting together a manual on our project for others to follow,” Wehrenfennig said.

For more information and a link to a video clip of the trip, visit

— TT

Your guide to Jewish Beijing

BEIJING (JTA)—Dror Poleg, an Israeli who has lived in Beijing for three years, says being Jewish is “easier in China than in Israel.”

“In Israel there is lots of politics, what school you go to, what yarmulke you wear,” Poleg says. “Here you can just be you.”

Beijing has had an organized Jewish community since China’s open-door policy of the late 1970s. The city’s Chabad-Lubavitch and liberal congregations cooperate well, notably on education.

And Jewish visitors coming to the Chinese capital for the Summer Olympics will find plenty of choices for davening on Friday night and Saturday morning.

While Judaism is not among the five world religions recognized by the Chinese government, foreigners are basically free to observe, as long as they are diligent about keeping in touch with authorities and registering any activities.

The lack of official recognition, however, does not put a damper on Jewish activities in Beijing.

Some 1,500 Jewish residents and a regular flow of Jewish tourists can pray at the liberal Kehillat Beijing and Chabad services at multiple locations.

Two New Yorkers established Kehillat. Roberta Lipson and Elyse Silverberg, both Long Islanders, met in Beijing in 1979 when a Chinese colleague told Silverberg there was “another Jewish girl just like you” across town, and handed her Lipson’s business card.

Lipson and Silverberg became friends and in 1981 founded Chindex International Inc., a successful health-care and medical equipment company now listed on the Nasdaq exchange.

For more than 25 years, they have lived with their families and practiced Judaism in China. The women hosted their first seder in 1980, with more than 25 guests at a Beijing hotel and matzah brought over from Taiwan.

Over the years they have organized regular Shabbat and holiday services, adult classes and a Hebrew school. By 2000, Kehillat Beijing had a home, a Torah and a core group of congregants. The egalitarian, lay-led community blends Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative beliefs and traditions.

So when Chabad Rabbi Shimon Freudlich came to Beijing in 2001, he understood that Chabad wasn’t the first outpost of Jewish life here. Still, he knew that Chabad could provide services that Kehillat did not.

“I came to Beijing because it was my dream always to come to a place where the Jewish infrastructure was limited and expand it, where there was no Jewish day school or kosher restaurant, and no mikvah, and to build it,” Freudlich says.

Many Beijing Jews now rely on Chabad for their religious needs.

Chabad’s Mei Tovah mikvah opened in 2006 with spa facilities and a Chinese-inspired design. It is used about 15 to 20 times a month and is a welcome convenience for women who otherwise would fly to Hong Kong or use a lake to fulfill the practice of family purity, or “taharat hamishpachah.”

Its Ganeinu day school for preschoolers and elementary-age students makes Beijing an attractive relocation option for some Jewish expats.

French native Gilles Perez says that when he was offered a job in Beijing, “the first thing I did was open the Jewish travel guide to find if there was a day school.”

If not, Perez says, he would not have come. His son Raphael attends the Chabad school.

Kehillat’s Hebrew school, Ahavat Yitzhak, uses the Ganeinu building and even shares some teachers. Twenty-six students and four recent bar/bat mitzvah teaching assistants attended Ahavat Yitzhak in the 2007-08 school year.

As an expat Jewish community nestled in a region with few native Jews, many children in Beijing’s Jewish community are of Chinese and Jewish backgrounds.

Chabad and Kehillah schools both have an open enrollment policy. Freudlich says the two schools will accept the same students.

“Anyone who considers themselves a member of the Jewish community can attend Ganeinu,” he says, “but they have to sign on the application a paragraph we write that states regardless of us accepting you to the school, it does not affirm your halachic Jewish status.”

Meanwhile, Chabad can teach prospective converts in China, but conversions cannot be performed in the country because of rules against proselytizing.

Chinese citizens, even those who come with a Jewish friend, may be turned away at the door from Chabad events.

Chabad’s Web site states, “All foreign-passport holders are welcome to join.”

In contrast, Kehillat Beijing members frequently bring Chinese friends to services without concern.
Some find the mere existence of such an active and diverse Jewish community in Beijing reason enough to participate regularly.

“The comfort I find in these weekly gatherings is astounding,” says Leo Lazar, 25, who is in Beijing on a six-month rotation for GE Healthcare. “Maybe it’s the sense of community, the sense of an adventurous—as opposed to a painstaking—Diaspora.”

Temple bingo — a gamble if it’s a good way to raise funds

The social hall at Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks undergoes a major transformation every Thursday night. Television monitors and a flashing scoreboard are mounted on the walls, and a sea of cafeteria-style tables cluttered with small computer monitors, game cards and good-luck charms take up most of the room.

The Thursday nightlife at this Conservative congregation is all about bingo.

“It’s an excellent fundraiser,” said Michael Roberts, an Etz Chaim board member and the synagogue’s former bingo trustee. “[The players] are noncongregants, and they enjoy bingo like you can’t believe.”

Typically associated with American Legion halls, Elks clubs and churches, the sedentary game that caters to seniors is not often associated with Jewish houses of worship. But a few synagogues across the Southland have offered weekly bingo nights as temple fundraisers for decades.

While some shuls embrace the idea of opening their doors to the local bingo crowd, others are adamantly opposed to the idea of the increasingly popular game because of its gambling stigma.

Bingo’s origins can be traced back to 16th century European lotteries, but its modern equivalent was inspired by a carnival game called Beano, which was adapted by New York salesman Edwin Lowe in 1929. When Lowe organized a game for his friends, one of the players is said to have become so excited that she yelled out “bingo” instead of “beano” and the name stuck.

While the game is frequently looked upon as a fundraising tool for religious and charitable organizations, the proliferation of Native American-run casinos over the last 20 years has enabled commercial bingo halls with higher stakes to spread out beyond the state of Nevada. The new generation of players seeking bigger jackpots now comes armed with special markers, called daubers, and other paraphernalia in bingo bags that double as seat cushions.

Television has taken notice of bingo’s boom. In March, cable channel GSN launched “Bingo America” with host Patrick Duffy, a successor to ABC’s 2007 “National Bingo Night,” in which two contestants compete to win up to $100,000, and viewers at home can play along to win money.

For many, bingo remains a social game. The roughly 150 players — mostly female and above retirement age — who file into Temple Etz Chaim each Thursday night find time spent at the synagogue is a opportunity to visit with friends and share the hope of winning big.

Etz Chaim’s bingo fundraiser has been run entirely by synagogue volunteers for the last 23 years, and it generates about $100,000 a year for the congregation, with all proceeds going toward the temple’s preschool and religious school.

Roberts sees bingo as a win-win situation for the congregation and the community.

“It’s a community service, in a way,” Roberts said. “We’re providing a service of running games and helping students.”

He added that the games also help the surrounding non-Jewish community get to know the congregants and the shul. “They realize that we’re nice people,” he said.

At the synagogue level, Etz Chaim says it also enjoys greater involvement from congregants, because many of its bingo volunteers go on to participate in other synagogue committees and events.

But at a time when many synagogues and Jewish agencies hold casino-themed fundraisers, not everyone thinks gambling and shuls mix.

“I’m very ambivalent about a synagogue providing a regular gambling opportunity, especially for the population that tends to frequent bingo,” said Rabbi Rick Brody of Temple Ami Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in West Covina that halted its own bingo fundraiser three years ago. “At least from what I was seeing, [the players are] people who, to one degree or another, are addicted and are focused on wining as much money as they can, and I don’t think that that is what a synagogue should be focusing on.”

Brody was relieved when his temple did away with its bingo program due to poor revenue and lack of volunteers. But even if profits were higher, the rabbi doesn’t “think it really helps the spiritual bottom line of what the congregation is supposed to be about.”

Brody is not alone. In fact, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference for American Rabbis adopted resolutions advising rabbis and shuls to discourage their congregants from using gambling as a fundraiser.

Rabbi Ted Riter of Temple Adat Elohim, a Reform congregation in Thousand Oaks, believes that a bingo fundraiser would conflict with his synagogue’s identity.

“Our vision of where we’re going and who we are is that we try to heal the world and open up paths for spirituality and draw community together,” Riter said. “Gambling doesn’t seem to fulfill any of those directions.”

A few Adat Elohim congregants, like Mitch Schwartz of Newbury Park, disagree.

“Why not get money out of the community at large if you can, instead of nickel-and-diming the congregation?” said Schwartz, a former Adat Elohim Brotherhood ways and means chair.

Schwartz said that if the temple adopted bingo, the shul wouldn’t have to raise membership dues on a yearly basis.

But without support from a core group of dedicated volunteers, many bingo fundraisers fail. Weekly volunteer positions include game sales, bankers, callers, game verifiers, food vendors and computer rental salesmen.

At Temple Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Whittier, bingo volunteers are broken up into four teams of eight people, each of whom rotates their services. Temple Etz Chaim relies on 15 people a week.

While it’s hard to argue with the monetary gain (Temple Beth Shalom also made close to $100,000 in a year), many people feel that bingo fundraisers do not add much to the shul community itself, besides the friendships forged between volunteers.

Among the synagogues interviewed, only Etz Chaim had one bingo player affiliate with the synagogue.

And even some congregants at Etz Chaim are not entirely comfortable with game. Over the years, Roberts said a few board members and other active shul members have questioned the validity of the fundraiser.

“We said if you can think of another way to make this much money, we’ll close bingo,” Roberts said. “No one’s ever come up with another way.”

For more information, visit Bingo America.

Briefs: CIA lifts lid on Israeli raid on Syrian reactor; Iranians raze Tehran shuls

CIA: Syria Could Have Made Two Nukes

Israel destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor that was nearly ready to produce two bombs, the CIA chief said.

Michael Hayden said Monday that the secret, unfinished reactor that the United States believes Israel bombed Sept. 6 in northeastern Syria eventually would have made fissile material for bombs.

“In the course of a year after they got full up, they would have produced enough plutonium for one or two weapons,” he told reporters.

Israel has refused to provide details on the target of the air strike, leaving the CIA to deliver an extensive briefing last week on indications that Syria was pursuing nuclear weapons with North Korean help. In an apparent reference to help from Israeli intelligence, Hayden said that CIA’s disclosures were “the result of a team effort.”

Some Israeli experts have questioned the wisdom of the CIA giving such an expansive account on the reactor because it could compromise intelligence assets in Syria. But Hayden indicated there was no breach of trust with Israel.

“One has to respect the origin of the information in terms of how it is used,” he said.

GOP Lawmakers Target Carter

Two Republican congressmen introduced legislation that would deny the Carter Center federal dollars.

U.S. Reps. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) and Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) introduced the Coordinated American Response to Extreme Radicals Act , or CARTER Act, last week in the wake of former President Jimmy Carter’s recent outreach to Hamas.

“America must speak with one voice against our terrorist enemies,” Knollenberg said in a statement. “It sends a fundamentally troubling message when an American dignitary is engaged in dialogue with terrorists. My legislation will make sure that taxpayer dollars are not being used to support discussions or negotiations with terrorist groups.”

The Zionist Organization of American praised the legislation.

Carter’s Atlanta-based center focuses mostly on international development. The former president met with Hamas officials against the advice of the Bush administration. He defended his meetings as his attempt to help bring an end to the violence on the Israel-Gaza Strip border.

Pollard: I Don’t Know Kadish

Jonathan Pollard says he does not know alleged spy Ben-Ami Kadish.

Kadish, 84, allegedly passed American military secrets to Israel during the same period as the former Navy intelligence analyst.

Esther Pollard, the wife of the convicted and jailed spy, said in an interview that the first her husband had heard of Kadish was when his arrest was announced last week.

Kadish, a former U.S. Army engineer, is accused of spying for Israel between 1979 and 1985, a period coinciding with Pollard’s activities. Kadish is also believed to have been run by the same Israeli agent.

“He said he did not know Kadish and asked me if this would embarrass Israel, even though this was an affair that had been known for years,” Esther Pollard told Ma’ariv.

She further downplayed speculation that the new affair could hurt Israel’s efforts to win clemency for Pollard, who is eligible for parole in 2015.

Observers believe the U.S. government will likely deny the request.

“It won’t take long for this to drop from the headlines,” she said. “There will always be people who want to interfere, but this must not obscure Israel’s goal, which is to rescue its agent from jail in a foreign country.”

Iranians Raze Seven Synagogues in Tehran

Seven synagogues in Tehran have been razed by local authorities to make way for residential skyscrapers and urban renovation, L.A. Iranian Jewish leaders report. The synagogues were located in the Oudlajan neighborhood of Iran’s capital, a former ghetto with a dwindling Jewish population.

“It is a Muslim-owned area that in the eyes of a neutral observer would justifiably require a major renovation,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation.

Oudlajan was the poverty-stricken site of Tehran’s Jewish ghetto nearly 100 years ago. After Iran’s Pahlavi monarchs gave Jews new freedoms more than 60 years ago, Tehran’s Jewish community gradually attained prosperity and left the area.

Kermanian downplayed the value of synagogues, saying that they were all but deserted.

“The synagogues there were mostly store fronts,” he said. “They were not the type of structures that would be considered significant historical monuments.”

While he believes the destruction of the synagogues was insensitive, Kermanian says he doubts anti-Semitism played a role.

Calls made to the Central Jewish Committee in Tehran for comment were not returned.

Tehran currently has 11 functioning synagogues, several Jewish schools and a Jewish library.

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Young Jews to Pledge Genocide Fight

Young Jews will pledge to fight all genocide during a Yom HaShoah gathering at Auschwitz. Some 10,000 participants in the annual March of the Living had planned to sign the pledge Thursday — Holocaust Remembrance Day — at the Nazi concentration camp in Poland.

The March of the Living Pledge commits each individual, the majority of whom are aged 16 to 22, “to fight every form of discrimination manifested against any religion, nationality or ethnic group.” It goes on to say, “After the Shoah the promise of ‘Never Again’ was proclaimed. We pledge to create a world where Never Again will become a reality for the Jewish People and, indeed, for all people. This is our solemn pledge to the Jewish People, to those who came before us, to those of our generation, and to those who will follow in future generations.”

The ceremony will be led by Brig. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, in recognition of Israel’s 60th anniversary. Following Thursday’s event, a global effort will attempt to enlist the support of the 150,000 March of the Living alumni to publicly state their condemnation of genocide past and present.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Survey says Reform rabbis don’t know what members want

Leaders of Reform synagogues don’t quite get their members, according to a new study by the movement.

The study shows a marked disconnect between what the leaders think their members are looking for and what the members say they actually want.

In general, the synagogue leaders seem to underestimate their members’ interest in Jewish practice and worship. And they overestimate the synagogue’s importance in the religious lives of their families.

The two-year study, to be released at the Reform movement’s upcoming biennial, suggests that synagogue leaders better focus more on building warm, welcoming communities if they want to have and hold their members.

Questions addressed by the study — Why do people join Reform congregations? Why do they leave? And what can synagogues do to make themselves into warm, welcoming communities? — will be a major focus of the 69th biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) set for Dec. 12-16 in San Diego.

A week ahead of the conference, 3,200 people had registered for what generally proves to be the largest national gathering of any Jewish stream. That includes a higher number of international delegates than usual, according to conference organizers, as well as a strong showing of high school and college students.

In addition to unveiling the survey on membership, highlights of the five-day biennial will include:

  • URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s announcement of a movement-wide initiative to increase the personal observance of Shabbat by Reform Jews;
  • The first large-scale use of Mishkan Tefilla, the movement’s long awaited new prayer book that has begun arriving in synagogues this past month. Copies will be given to every participant and it will be used at worship services during the biennial;
  • Release of three new URJ Press publications — “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary” and two books on men’s programming — as part of an exploration of gender differences kicked off by a two-day pre-conference symposium;
  • A closing-day plenary address by Ingrid Mattson, the president of the Islamic Society of North America — the same group Yoffie addressed over the summer.
    Of the many topics to be addressed at the biennial, the most popular are turning out to be those sessions on outreach and membership.

Conference organizers report that hundreds have signed up for workshops on those issues, as well as intermarriage and conversion — more than for any other topic, and significantly more than those who enrolled for workshops on those issues in previous years.

Movement leaders attribute the spike in interest to a generally positive response to Yoffie’s 2005 biennial initiative. In his Shabbat morning sermon that year, he urged Reform congregations to honor their non-Jewish members, to invite those non-Jewish members to convert and to focus on how to remake their congregations so members stay throughout their lifetime rather than quitting after their children become b’nai mitzvah.

Those initiatives “clearly resonated” among Reform Jews, said Kathy Kahn, the union’s director of outreach and membership.

Now the Reform movement has some data with which to frame its outreach and membership discussions.

The new membership study involved two years of phone interviews, online surveys, case studies and undercover visits by “mystery shoppers” to Reform services in four cities — Cleveland, Seattle, Springfield, Mass. and Boca Raton, Fla.

Results showed that current and former members of Reform synagogues mostly join for reasons of community, not for “services” provided.

“Congregations that work go out of their way to integrate new members, inviting them to Shabbat dinner rather than just putting them on committees,” said Emily Grotta, URJ’s communications director, who conducted many of the study’s phone interviews.

Grotta points to one Cleveland congregation that created small chavurot, or prayer fellowships, of members with similar interests, and successfully built a sense of community that permeated the larger congregation.

“You could hear it in people’s voices, the difference,” she said.

The survey found that synagogue leaders misunderstood members’ interest in spirituality and worship.

It included interviews with 910 former members of Reform congregations to find out why they joined and why they eventually left.

Whereas 50 percent said they joined because they wanted a place to worship, synagogue leaders thought worship was important to just 5 percent of those former members.

Synagogue leaders also overestimated the importance of their institutions in the religious lives of their members.

Fifty-eight percent of former members said they “were able to be Jewish without a congregation,” a factor that didn’t show up on the leadership’s radar. Also, 18 percent said they filled their Jewish needs “elsewhere,” again a factor the leadership failed to recognize.

That should serve “as a wake-up call to all the denominations,” Grotta said.

Interest in worship and spirituality is pronounced among newer as well as former members of Reform congregations, she said.

“What jumped out at us was the number of new people who join for worship, for spirituality, to learn how to become better Jews,” Grotta said. “The leaders didn’t get that at all.”

Money is also important, or rather the perceived value of what members get for their dues: 40 percent of former members of Reform congregations said they withdrew because membership was too expensive. Just 9 percent of the leadership thought cost was an issue.

Overall, the study shows that Reform Jews remain synagogue members if their congregation becomes their community, the place where their friends and family are.

Thirty-five percent of those who left Reform congregations said they “didn’t find community” at the synagogue, and 33 percent said it was because their “children didn’t connect” after they became b’nai mitzvah.

“If we don’t build a sense of community,” movement leaders warn in the study’s conclusion, then members of Reform congregations “will leave when they have received the services they want.”

State of Humanity Forum: ‘Darfur silence is lethal’

In opening the inaugural State of Humanity Forum, held Oct. 17 at Valley Beth Shalom, Marcy Rainey, VBS chair of Jewish World Watch (JWW), spoke of the atrocities in Darfur, proclaiming: “Silence is lethal, and meekness is inexcusable.”
Despite the brutality of the genocide, in which roving bands of the Arab terrorist group, known as Janjaweed, have taken the lives of 400,000 Darfurians and displaced roughly 2 million others, the theme of the evening was to acknowledge and honor the efforts of nonprofit organizations like

Partners in Creation

Roger Gottlieb makes the case in his book, “A Greener Faith,” that we are in need of an ecotheology — to view the Earth in a more divine and holy way. He writes that
we have so separated ourselves from nature we don’t actually feel our interconnectedness with it; rather, we value the Earth only for what we can take from it. In order to have a meaningful teshuvah from the sins of taking the Earth’s resources for granted, we need a positive outlook with forward vision and hope.

Jews, it can be argued, already have an ecotheology. The Torah is clear when it discusses our relationship to the Earth.

This week, in Genesis, we are told, “God took the first human being, Adam, and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work it and to watch it” (Genesis 2:15). Yet, a misinterpretation of an earlier verse has guided our human relationship to the Earth for too long. In the first chapter of the Torah, God says: “….Fill the Earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:27-28).

Dominion is too often read as “mastery over,” freedom to control and use at will, which easily leads to exploitation. However, there are many commentators who understand the word “dominion” as correlating to “uniqueness.” In this reading, humans have the unique responsibility to care for the Earth and its inhabitants. Rather than dominate, humans are called upon to make moral choices on behalf of the Earth, for we are the only creatures that God created with the capacity to reason and with the gift of free will; we alone have the capacity to destroy or protect the planet.

Gottlieb writes that we are not concerned by the signs of global warming, or in developing widespread renewable energy sources, or in how our progress has affected the planet’s ecosystem because we see ourselves as outside of nature, rather than integral to it. We substitute “environment” for “nature.”

Through semantics, nature has become an “issue,” something we can be involved in or not. Our sense of being unaffected by nature, as superior to nature, is a danger — indeed an idol — that the Torah warns us against. We must return to viewing ourselves as a part of nature.

Dr. Nathan Lewis, one of my congregants, a Caltech professor and expert in climate change, stated bluntly to me, “The next 10 years will determine what kind of planet we will live in; if we keep on this same path, we will leave our children a planet unlike the one we received.”

Lewis is most concerned about the irreversibility of our actions, even as he acknowledges that science cannot prove definitively what will happen. He argues that we shouldn’t be betting against the indicators that imply what can happen. Waiting to find out will be too late.

Many rabbinic texts detail our long tradition of ecotheology, explicitly supporting the idea that caring for the Earth is a distinctly religious imperative. Long before we started talking about fuel emissions, the rabbis of the Talmud prohibited inefficient use of fuels, saying: “Whoever covers an oil lamp [so that it burns less efficiently], transgresses the mitzvah of ba’al tashchit, do not destroy” (Shabbat 67a).

Long before recycling was the norm, the 16th century manual Sefer HaHinuch taught that “tzadikkim, righteous people, waste not even a mustard seed in this world; they use their strength to conserve everything possible.” These texts illustrate that our ancestors recognized our responsibility to nature, and that our actions must be directed by the holiness of mitzvot.

We created this problem, intentionally or unintentionally; we are responsible for fixing it.

Lewis told me that we get more energy from the sun in one hour than all the energy consumed in one year. Using God’s resources and our brains, we can solve the challenges we face.

California is poised to become the environmental leader in our country. And religious groups around the country are joining its efforts. The Reform movement has a nationwide campaign for “greening” its institutions. The Pacific Southwest Region of Conservative Judaism continues to back its Green Sanctuaries campaign, partnering with the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California is expanding that campaign to all synagogues that wish to participate.

We each can make a difference. I challenge us to try some, if not all, of the following:

  • Raise or lower the thermostat in your homes by two degrees;
  • Use compact fluorescent light bulbs in your home;
  • Carpool, walk or ride a bike once weekly;
  • Invest in fuel-efficient transportation;
  • Reduce waste and recycle seriously;
  • Visit the COEJL Web site for more information and ideas.

Every change has an impact. We are called by God to live in consort with the Earth, as God gave us the awesome responsibility to be partners in creation. Let us strive to live up to that divine gift. As Pirke Avot teaches, “It is not up to us to finish the work, but neither are we free to ever stop trying.”

Now more than ever, we need this attitude toward our Earth.

This d’var Torah is an adaptation of Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater’s Yom Kippur sermon. To read the sermon in its entirety, visit ” target=”_blank”>
Green Sanctuaries:

Go West, young Torah-observant Jews!

The wait is finally over for members of Young Israel of Century City, who were eagerly anticipating the theme of the annual program “brochure,” which was kept secret until its publication last week.
It’s … Old West.
The Young Israel of Century Gazette is printed on antique-looking brown paper with sepia-toned photographs and illustrations, such as revolvers, spurs, snakes, lizards, playing cards, an animal skeleton and a pitched wagon (with the words “Torah to Go” written on the canopy). The main headline of the Gazette is “YICC Transforms the West! Read All About It,” shown with a grainy, blurred-edge photo of the Modern Orthodox shul, located on Pico Boulevard in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.
While many synagogues around the country offer adult education programs and brochures, Young Israel of Century City is one of the few to package it in a humorous, stylized brochure. Last year the brochure was designed as a National Geographic magazine. Past themes have included the National Enquirer, a museum tour, and “soul food,” featuring a diner design.
“We felt that if you package your program in a sophisticated fashion people will pay attention,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin, who instituted the catchy brochures in the first years of his arrival, some 22 years ago. Not only do congregants anticipate the unveiling of the brochure (at Kol Nidre), but Muskin gets requests nationwide from other rabbis who are inspired by his design and by his programming.

The brochure — created with Jeff Coen of JDC design — is just one component of the process, which takes hundreds of hours, beginning with planning speakers, guests and events one year in advance.
The coming year’s events range from the intellectual (Yaffa Eliach, a Holocaust scholar, and Gil Graff, a Jewish historian); spiritual (Rabbi Asher Zelig Weiss, a rosh yeshiva from Jerusalem, and Rabbi Yitzhak David Grossman, the “Disco Rabbi” who is chief rabbi of Migdal Ha’emek); political (AIPAC’s Jonathan S. Kessler, and Rep. Henry Waxman [D-Los Angeles]); cultural (author Hallie Lerman, cultural critic on returning to modesty Wendy Shalit and musician Rabbi Shmuel Brazil).
Why put so much effort into adult education?
“It says in the Talmud if you learn Torah from one person you haven’t learned Torah,” Muskin said. The programs “generate an intellectual and spiritual excitement.”
On the back page of the brochure is a photograph of the original founders of Young Israel of Century City standing in front of the first shul, which really does look like a log cabin, even though it was from the 1970s.
Which brings up the age-old question: Why is it called Young Israel of Century City when it’s clearly not located there?
“I asked the same question when I came,” Muskin said of his 1986 arrival as the first full-time rabbi, 10 years after the synagogue’s inception. It turned out that the name Young Israel of Los Angeles was already taken. Ditto for Young Israel of Beverly Hills (Young Israel of Century City is Beverly Hills adjacent, anyway).
“They decided on Century City because you can see the Century City towers from the synagogue,” Muskin said.

Power of Vows

I have twins who are almost 5 years old. One of the things that my wife and I are trying to teach them is the power of words, both for the positive and the negative.

They are learning that words can inspire, motivate and excite a situation, as they discover new and innovative ways to talk to each other, to us as parents and to the people with whom they interact. They are also learning the harder lesson that words can just as easily hurt, insult and change a situation for the worse in just a matter of moments. It is a lesson that we all learn; yet, how we carry forth these critical childhood moments of language education and speech management can determine the kinds of lives we lead, and the kinds of interactions we have with one another.

Parshat Matot opens with a lesson in the power of words. God commands Moshe to speak to the leaders of the tribes, saying, “If a person makes a vow to Adonai or takes an oath imposing an obligation on him/herself, he/she shall not break that pledge; he/she must carry out all that has crossed his/her lips” (Numbers 30:3). I am leaving aside the sexist language of this parsha, where women cannot make vows, and am operating with the knowledge that we have moved past the ancient subjugation of women. Having said that, the power of the word is what matters here.

Our ancestors understood that when we make a vow, promising to give something to God, or take an oath regarding our own actions, this was the highest and most serious endeavor, as the power of speech is what separates us most critically from the animal world. “Baruch She’amar V’hayah Ha’olam, God spoke and the world came into being.”

In the first of his two important comments on this section of Torah, the Chatam Sofer, 19th century sage and scholar, teaches that “the entire Torah is dependent on this matter of vows, for it is the foundation of foundations, for if we don’t keep our word through the vows we make, then there is no foundation for our receiving Torah in the first place” (Iturei Torah).

How many of us say things that we don’t mean? How many of us use words or phrases like, “I swear…”or “I promise…”or “You have my word…” in a colloquial or trivial fashion? I catch myself doing that all the time. Our society has lost the power of our word and that is a detriment to our ethical composure. With all of the scandals that have rocked us, from Enron on down, we know that our capitalist nature has in some ways affected our ability to be honest; making the most money at any cost drives people to make false promises or lie about the situation. That is why Torah is so important and the cycle of our religious life is so necessary in today’s world; we must all work hard to ensure that we are all leading lives founded in truth, dedication to keeping our word and thinking before we speak.

In noticing that the Torah calls on Moshe to speak to the “heads of the tribes,” the Chatam Sofer says, “People in high public office are more often tempted to make promises that they cannot keep. Their behavior could lessen the respect others have for the spoken word.”

Our public figures, to a large extent, operate on saying things in order to keep power. While this is not true for all leaders, too many have been found guilty of lying, misrepresenting the facts, making empty promises and not keeping their word. Of all the terrible things happening in the world today, two stand out in this regard.

First, the war in Iraq — which has taken 2,500 American lives and tens thousands of Iraqi lives, and cost us our reputation in the world through Abu Ghraib — was based on false premises and lies. How can we trust a leader who lies in regard to the highest level of commitment, war and peace? The amount of misconception in this war, and in the whole “war on terror,” speaks volumes to what the Chatam Sofer was warning leaders against.

Second, the response to Hurricane Katrina. After failing to adequately respond to the crisis while it was happening, the federal government made promise after promise to the recovery and rebuilding of the devastated Gulfport region, only to renege or abandon most of those promises. Nearly a year after the hurricane, whole parts of the area still look like a war zone. There is no better illustration of false promises than what has not happened in New Orleans. Thankfully, religious groups, including our own Board of Rabbis of Southern California, and local synagogues have been partnering with other religious institutions to do our small part. But promises not kept are failing thousands of innocent and needy people.

As I try and teach my children to speak kindly and wisely, I am thankful for the words of the Torah and the comments of the Chatam Sofer, who guide me in offering a legacy of honesty and commitment to the value of integrity. May we all find ways to keep our word, imitating God, by whose word our entire existence was created.

City Officials Vow Justice for Vandalized Synagogue

City officials have vowed to aid a Persian congregation in Tarzana whose new synagogue was vandalized last Friday by an arson attack and anti-Semitic graffiti. Two days before the scheduled July 9 ceremonial moving of Beith David Education Center’s Torahs to its new facility, congregation leaders discovered the newly renovated building had been the target of what police are labeling a hate crime.

Damage to the building was limited to a charred oak door, estimated to amount to about $4,000 in replacement costs, enough to classify the crime as a felony.Despite the incident, the Sunday dedication went ahead as planned, but with the supportive presence of city leaders, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Councilmen Jack Weiss and Dennis Zine.

During the dedication ceremony, Zine told more than 300 congregants of his plan to introduce a motion in the City Council for a $50,000 reward, the maximum allowed under the city’s charter, to bring the arsonist to justice. He added that Villaraigosa had already guaranteed his signature.

The blaze was ignited on July 7 at 3 a.m., using a pile of discarded carpet scraps and cardboard boxes that had been moved directly beneath the shul’s oak rear door, according to Sgt. Jim Setzer of the LAPD’s West Valley Division. The flames were quickly extinguished by the synagogue’s fire-suppression system, which runs along the building’s eaves.

Anti-Semitic graffiti featuring a satanic symbol was found on a retaining wall of the building, as well as on a window that looks into a room where Kohanim have their hands and feet washed.

“I hope the people who have done it, they come to their senses,” said Parviz Hakimi, the synagogue’s vice president. He added that the initial damage estimate is enough to classify the crime as a felony.

LAPD detective Ray Morales said police were able to collect forensic evidence at the scene that could help investigators identify the arsonist.Beith David Education Center’s journey to its new location has been a long one. The synagogue purchased a former post office building for $1 million in 2002, but the City Council approval for the new structure turned into a two-year battle.

The Tarzana Property Owners Association said the Orthodox synagogue would require at least 150 parking spaces, claiming that members followed a Conservative style of worship and often drove to services. Synagogue representatives rejected the argument, saying that its congregants were Orthodox, regularly walk to the shul on Shabbat and do not need the parking.After the City Council approved the new Clark Street site in 2004, Beith David spent $1.2 million on renovations.

On Sunday, Villaraigosa joined other public officials carrying 10 Sephardic Torahs from the center’s original Reseda Boulevard location to the new building on Clark Street. The mayor took the half-mile Torah-laden walk in the intense heat of a midsummer Valley day in stride.

“What an honor it was, a kid from Boyle Heights, to carry the Torah all the way over here,” the mayor said. He said he’d been told by Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, “‘If you do this 100 more times, you’ll be a Jew.'”

At the Clark Street shul, Villaraigosa, Yaroslavsky, Councilmen Weiss and Zine, Simon Wiesenthal Center Associate Dean Abraham Cooper and Amanda Susskind, the Anti-Defamation League’s West Coast director, stood on the bimah as congregants engaged in celebratory ululation, threw candy and crowned the Sephardic Torah cases with lilies and other flowers.

“We are absolutely committed to finding whoever did this on Friday and bringing them to justice,” Villaraigosa said. “A shul represents more than just a place of prayer or worship. It represents a place where faith binds a community.”During a tour of the vandalism, the mayor noted how the perpetrator had used misspelling in the anti-Jewish graffiti.

“It shows the level of ignorance of the person who did this,” Villaraigosa told The Journal. — Adam Wills, Associate Editor

Attacks on Moscow Synagogues

Moscow’s five functioning synagogues have been repeated targets:

  • Dec. 30, 1993 — The old wooden building of the Marina Roscha Synagogue burned to the ground in what was considered an arson attack.
  • 1994 — A hand grenade was thrown at the window of the Bolshaya Bronnaya Synagogue.
  • October 1994 — An explosive device disguised as a beer can was found and defused in the courtyard of the Choral Synagogue.
  • August 1996 — An explosive device went off outside of the Marina Roscha Synagogue. No one was injured.
  • May 1998 — Two people were injured when an explosive device went off near the Marina Roscha Synagogue.
  • July 13, 1999 — A knife-wielding youth entered the Choral Synagogue and stabbed Jewish leader Leopold Kaimovsky several times.
  • July 25, 1999 — An explosive device containing 500 grams of TNT was found in the prayer hall of the Bolshaya Bronnaya Synagogue. It was successfully defused.
  • April 2003 — An explosive device was found and defused outside the Bolshaya Bronnaya Synagogue.


Intense Me’ah Gets High Marks

A Jewish adult education program is bearing fruit, according to a recent survey.

And now Me’ah — an intensive, two-year Jewish adult-education program marking its 10th year — is spreading from Boston across the country.

The name of the program, which means 100 in Hebrew, refers to the roughly 100 hours of study time participants spend over the two-year cycle.

Me’ah, which began in 1994 with 50 students in greater Boston, is also now being offered in Baltimore, Cleveland, Rhode Island, Florida, New Jersey and New York.

In separate conversations about Me’ah, its creators, David Gordis, president of Hebrew College, and Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, cite quality and location as the key to its success.

The program is held in neighborhood synagogues and Jewish community centers.

Gordis and Shrage are touting the results of a survey of Me’ah’s Boston-area graduates, who are moving into leadership positions in their Jewish communities.

Nearly two-thirds of graduates say the program had a major or moderate impact on their involvement in Jewish communal life. Close to half report increasing their charitable giving to synagogues and other Jewish causes.

“Adult education is up there with day schools [as far as] transformational opportunities,” Shrage said. “This is the right moment in Jewish history because there’s a huge longing for spirituality, community and a serious engagement with Judaism.”

Me’ah’s rigor and neutrality are appealing to a broad range of the American Jewish population, said Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. At the same time, he added, he would like to see a more sophisticated, outside, independent evaluation. The lack of such evaluations is a consistent issue with programs serving the American Jewish community, he said.

But Wertheimer applauded how Me’ah taps such resources as Jewish scholars for the benefit of the broader community as well as its transdenominational approach.

“The down side,” he said, “is that it may be too neutral and not sufficiently prescriptive to encourage involvement.”

Me’ah is one response to the controversial National Jewish Population Survey published in 1990, which alarmed the community about the long-term affects of assimilation.

“We were dealing with a population of people who by and large have been exposed to quality higher education and had become accustomed within their Jewish connections to be satisfied with mediocrity,” Gordis recalled.

Their prescription was a high-quality, academically rigorous curriculum taught by college-level professors during a two-year course of study using Jewish texts.

“We’re bringing the university to the synagogue,” said Richard Feczko, Me’ah’s national director. “It changes the relationship because it brings together elements of the Jewish community that normally don’t come together.”

Tuition runs about $1,200 for each student, about half of which is covered through subsidies from sponsoring Jewish federations.

If Me’ah’s approach sounds obvious now, there were nonetheless few offerings of this caliber when the program was launched, said Gordis and Shrage. Other adult Jewish learning either was episodic or was higher-level learning aimed at a small cadre of synagogue leaders.

“Me’ah begins the exploration at an extremely high level,” Shrage said. “You have the chance to change the zeitgeist.”

Terry Rosenberg heard Shrage’s motivational speech about Me’ah about nine years ago when her synagogue, Beth Elohim in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, was looking to revitalize its synagogue life.

“It was five minutes that changed my life,” Rosenberg said.

Shrage prodded the group, Rosenberg recalled vividly: “‘How come you have no problem if I asked you to distinguish between a Rembrandt and a Monet, but you’re not embarrassed that you don’t know about Rashi or Maimonides?'”

Rosenberg was so inspired that she organized a Me’ah class for Beth Elohim. In its first year, 1997, it attracted 50 members, who were divided into two classes.

“We realized that we wanted a Jewish identity which meant more than bagels and lox and High Holiday services,” she said.

Many of the Beth Elohim graduates now are active leaders in the synagogue. Rosenberg now co-chairs the organization’s committee on Jewish continuity and education, which is the funding source for Me’ah.

Richard Pzena could easily be the poster face for Me’ah: After he heard from a friend who works at Hebrew College that Me’ah might be expanding beyond the Boston area, he organized a group in his synagogue, Temple Sinai, in Summit, N.J.

“It struck a chord with a lot of people. You create bonds with your classmates and really learn on an academic level. Most of us went to Hebrew school, which was like pediatric Judaism,” he said.

Eighteen people enrolled in the first two-year class. By the time they held an open house for the second class, 25 people signed up.

Pzena, 46, who runs a small money management firm, caught the Me’ah bug. Post-Me’ah, he’s a member of his synagogue board, and sits on the investment committee of the United Jewish Appeal as well as Me’ah’s advisory board.

“If you look at our group of synagogue leaders, there’s a lot of overlap with Me’ah graduates,” Pzena said. “Some were already involved, but others had a desire to be involved and saw Me’ah as an entree.”

Synagogues Weigh Defibrillator Benefits

After spending the week visiting his family in Phoenix, 73-year-old Benjamin Boxerbaum stood at the airport ticket counter awaiting his flight home, when he suddenly collapsed. The paramedics were called, but Boxerbaum died soon after their arrival.

“Even though there’s a fire department at the airport, it took the paramedics more than 10 minutes to reach him,” said his daughter, Brenda Priddy.

She believes her father’s death resulted from sudden cardiac arrest, a condition that claims about 250,000 lives annually.

Priddy began to research the condition and learned that it is frequently caused by ventricular fibrillation, a disturbance in the heart’s rhythm. She also discovered that other airports kept portable defibrillators — devices that can shock a heart back into normal rhythm — on hand for just such occasions. Priddy began a public awareness campaign to place them in Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport and other public locations. Her son, Zach, even took up the cause and raised $2,500 to purchase a unit for the family’s synagogue as his bar mitzvah project.

In the five years since Priddy’s father passed away, portable defibrillators (also called automated external defibrillators) have become increasingly common in public venues. A federal Good Samaritan law protects those who purchase or use the defibrillators from liability, and recommends that the devices be placed in federal buildings. Given that synagogues, Jewish schools and cultural centers can draw hundreds or even thousands of visitors, some institutions are eagerly embracing this technology.

The Union for Reform Judaism discusses defibrillators on its Web site, and provides a series of steps for congregations to consider when setting up a program. The Orthodox Union recommends that all synagogues equip themselves with a portable defibrillator.

Rabbi Aaron Tendler of Shaarey Tzedek said several congregants have specifically asked him whether the synagogue has an automated external defibrillator, which it does. Tendler notes that his congregation includes elderly members with heart conditions, and says it gives him “a sense of confidence in knowing that [the device] is there.”

Some synagogues have been deterred by the $2,000 to $3,000 investment required to purchase such a device. To address this issue, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s (USCJ) business services department has partnered with a manufacturer to provide the devices and training at a discounted rate.

“We’re just beginning to market to congregations,” said Aliza Goland of the Conservative movement’s Pacific Southwest region.

Sinai Temple has two defibrillators, which were purchased before the USCJ program went into effect.

“With 1,000 people present every Saturday and children and staff here almost daily, we felt it was imperative to have one,” executive director Howard Lesner said.

When it comes to restoring heart rhythm after cardiac arrest, “time is of the essence,” said Dr. P.K. Shah, director of cardiology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “Each minute that goes by without the restoration of normal circulation equals a 10 percent chance of irreversible brain damage.”

Revival within four minutes gives the best chance of survival, and few resuscitation attempts succeed after 10 minutes have elapsed. Since it takes seven to eight minutes on average for emergency medical personnel to arrive, the devices enable trained bystanders to deliver defibrillation during the critical period before the paramedics arrive.

Portable defibrillators are designed for ease of use and prompt the user through each step. The user places pads on the victim’s chest. If the machine determines that a shock is needed, it prompts the user to press a button, which delivers the shock. The device will not deliver a shock if it is not needed.

A study published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine found that survival rates were twice as high in locations where participants were trained both in cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and defibrillator use rather than CPR alone. The researchers concluded that widespread implementation of public defibrillator programs could save between 2,000 and 4,000 lives each year.

However, to be included in the study, participating facilities needed to have the equivalent of at least 250 adults over the age of 50 present during waking hours (16 hours per day). Few Jewish institutions would reach such a threshold.

Out of 20 local Jewish institutions with sizable constituencies polled by The Jewish Journal, nine had a portable defibrillator on site: B’nai David-Judea, Leo Baeck Temple, the New Jewish Community Center at Milken, Shaarey Zedek, Sinai Temple, Stephen S. Wise Temple, Temple Beth Am, Valley Beth Shalom and Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Others said they were considering a portable defibrillator or planned to purchase one in the near future. Only one synagogue has had occasion to deploy its defibrillator. The patient survived, and the synagogue’s spokesperson was not certain whether or not shock needed to be administered.

Approximately 80 percent of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests occur not in public locations but in the home. Nevertheless, Cedars-Sinai’s Shah believes that the remaining 20 percent constitute a sufficient number to justify placing the devices in synagogues and other gathering places.

And Priddy, whose father suffered cardiac arrest at the Phoenix airport, believes they are a worthy investment. The devices, she said, can “give someone back their life and give families back their loved one.”


Close Calls, Tense Moments in Fire

Jeff and Liz Kramer and their three teenage sons could only watch and wait. The Oak Park residents paced the sidewalk in front of their home on Thursday morning, Sept. 29, watching as the head of the Topanga Canyon Fire crept along a ridge less than 800 yards away, consuming brush and sending up billows of smoke.

“We’ve been up all night watching it,” Liz Kramer said. “It started here at about 1 a.m.”

As the Ventura County Sheriff’s fire support helicopters doused flames with water assaults, the Kramers talked with neighbors about whether to evacuate.

“The firemen keep telling us we’re fine,” Liz Kramer said. “But our cars are loaded, and we’re ready to leave.”

While the Kramer home was spared and no other Jewish homes were known to have been lost, an iconic Jewish structure was damaged. In Simi Valley at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, the roof and a set of doors of the landmark House of the Book were damaged as a firestorm raged around the building, leaving the lush hillsides blackened and a pine forrest mostly destroyed. The intense heat also caused the synagogue’s Yizkor window to crack, but the concrete structure weathered the assault.

The Topanga Canyon Fire erupted in Chatsworth off of Topanga Canyon Boulevard at 1:47 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 28, amid high temperatures and dry Santa Ana wind conditions. By early this week, it had engulfed more than 24,000 acres, requiring the mobilization of 3,000 firefighters from throughout the state. Fire officials talked of imminent full containment, while also worrying about the onset of more Santa Ana winds. The estimated cost of the fire currently stands at $9.3 million, with the cause still under investigation.

The fire destroyed three single-family homes, three commercial buildings — including one at the Rocketdyne facility between Chatsworth and Simi Valley — seven out buildings, four RVs and 35 vehicles. The fire also damaged one residence and two commercial buildings. The blaze was one of at least three significant fires that broke out last week in the Los Angeles region.

Hundreds of families were evacuated from areas affected by the Topanga Canyon Fire, including Box Canyon, Lake Manor, Woolsey Canyon, Bell Canyon, West Hills, Hidden Hills, Mountain View Estates, Las Virgenes Canyon, Chesebro Canyon, Agoura Hills and Oak Park. Among the evacuees from these upscale hillside communities was “Curb Your Enthusiasm’s” Shelley Berman, who has lived in Bell Canyon since 1984.

Temple Aliyah President Marcy Howard told The Journal she evacuated her home in Mountain View, a gated community adjacent to Las Virgenes Canyon, at 4 a.m. that Thursday.

“When they tell you you’re going, nothing counts but getting your kids, your dogs and yourself [out]. You don’t know if you have five hours or five minutes,” she said.

Howard met friends at the Calabasas Commons and then ended up at Jerry’s Deli in Woodland Hills, where she said many displaced Jewish West Valley residents were congregating early Thursday morning. Howard opted to spend that night in a hotel, despite offers of shelter from numerous friends.

“Everyone has been so gracious and so lovely,” she said.

Around the Conejo and West San Fernando valleys, synagogues reported similar situations. “We had more people offering space than needed it,” said Rabbi Ted Riter of Temple Adat Elohim of Thousand Oaks.

The Conejo and West Valley have become a magnet for Jewish families in recent years, so there were bound to be scores of Jewish families affected by mandatory evacuation orders, not to mention the choking haze that hung over the region.

“We left at 3 a.m. [Thursday morning] and went to my mother-in-law’s in Thousand Oaks,” said Loury Silverman, an Oak Park resident who davened later that morning at Chabad of the Conejo.

At Brandeis-Bardin Institute, Executive Director Gary Brennglass had examined the House of the Book by that afternoon. “The exterior is OK, but the roof was damaged,” he said. “We also lost a lot of vegetation. But thank God our other buildings and bunks weren’t lost.”

While no synagogues in the Conejo or West Valley were damaged, area shuls still removed their Torahs as a precaution.

In Old Agoura, the proposed future site of Heschel West day school was unsinged. That project has long been challenged by the Old Agoura Homeowners Association, partly over concerns that it might make a wildfire evacuation more difficult.

Heschel West, at its temporary site in Agoura Hills, closed Thursday and Friday, as did the New Jewish Community Day School at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills and schools throughout the Las Virgenes Unified School District. In the Las Virgenes Canyon area, Mesivta, an Orthodox boarding school closed on Friday. Many synagogues also canceled Hebrew school classes, but most restarted this week.

Jewish leaders exhorted community organizations to find out what people’s needs were in the affected areas.

“We can make sure that synagogues that have been displaced because of the fire will have a space for the High Holidays,” said Carol Koransky, executive director of The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance.

Or Ami took up Koransky on her offer, Rabbi Paul Kipness said. His congregation usually meets at the Agoura Hills/Calabasas Community Center during the High Holidays, but the center had been requisitioned as a staging area for firefighters. Or Ami relocated its Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services to the JCC at Milken campus gymnasium in West Hills.

“We couldn’t be sure what was going to happen, and we were concerned about the smoke for the elderly and young,” Kipness said. “And if the fire started back up, we were going to be in trouble.”

Simi Valley’s B’nai Horin congregation also had its High Holidays services moved. It normally meets at the House of the Book, which currently is without power. The Brandeis-Bardin Institute relocated B’nai Horin’s Rosh Hashanah service to its Wapner Patio, with the hope of reopening the House of the Book in time for Yom Kippur.

“The fire got very close to [Brandeis-Bardin] on Friday, but the many fire departments were able to put it out,” said the institute’s Brennglass, who now has a new worry. Since the wildfire destroyed most of the mountain vegetation above the camp, the area will be highly susceptible to mudslides if heavy rains occur.

“What we’re more concerned with now is when it rains and getting mud flows,” he said.


Rhodesli Keep the Faith in L.A.

As a student at Cal State Northridge more than 30 years ago, Aron Hasson wrote a paper about the Sephardic synagogues of his ancestral homeland, the Greek island of Rhodes. His professor was so taken with Hasson’s research that it ended up in a history journal.

Hasson paid his first visit to Rhodes in 1975, after a stint in an Israeli kibbutz. In 1997, he returned with his teenage children. Standing in the 400-year-old Kahal Shalom Synagogue, where three of his grandparents had once worshipped, he realized that the tourists who gaped at the Judeo-Spanish wall plaques had no knowledge of Rhodes’ rich and complex Jewish history.

Hasson’s first response was to create a pamphlet, “The Jewish Quarter of Rhodes,” for distribution in Kahal Shalom. Next he turned the synagogue’s women’s prayer rooms into the Rhodes Jewish Museum, in which old photographs and artifacts document the thriving Jewish community of pre-World War II Rhodes, once some 4,000 strong. Now, through his nonprofit Rhodes Jewish Historical Foundation, the Westwood attorney works toward the restoration of other old synagogues and holy sites that can be called “Rhodesli” (or “pertaining to Rhodes”). Hasson has also sponsored the visit of an 800-year-old Sefer Torah — which had long ago been carried from Spain to Rhodes before ending up in Buenos Aires — to Sephardic synagogues across the United States. Although not a religious man, he feels great pride when other Rhodeslis acknowledge his efforts with a heartfelt “Kol Ha Kavod.”

Hasson’s obsession with Rhodes mirrors that of an earlier generation of Angelenos. Cousins Art Benveniste and Shirlee Peha, now both in their 70s, remember growing up in South Los Angeles when the area was a magnet for Jews from Rhodes. Their immigrant parents and relatives, all of whom left the island before World War II to improve their economic prospects, spoke Ladino (also known as Judeo-Spanish) in the home. They helped found the Sephardic Hebrew Center, a Ladera Heights congregation that merged in 1993 with Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, as a way of preserving Rhodesli religious practices. They also instituted the custom of group visits to Catalina Island, whose location resembles that of Rhodes in relationship to Turkey.

“It was natural to them to take a boat across the water to an island nearby,” Hasson said of the immigrants,

By the time Benveniste and Peha reached adulthood, members of the close-knit community were starting to scatter. The annual Catalina trips, which currently attract about 40 of the 900 Rhodeslis now living in the L.A. area, could not fully satisfy their desire to meet and mingle. Since then, they’ve inaugurated regular luncheon gatherings at a local restaurant, and their yearly picnics bring together 200 people representing several generations: on the menu are all-American hot dogs and hamburgers, along with more exotic treats. Benveniste, who also participates in a Ladino-speaking havurah, has made numerous sentimental journeys to Rhodes. His last visit came in 2002, when a group of 20 Rhodeslis traveled from Los Angeles for the dedication of a Holocaust memorial in Rhodes’ Square of the Martyred Jews.

If Benveniste and Peha represent an older generation of Rhodeslis, Rachelle Hasson stands for the future.

At 21, Aron Hasson’s daughter feels increasingly connected to her roots. Having inherited from her Rhodesli grandparents a love for baking, she takes pride in the flaky bourekas, boyos and masas de vinou (Passover wine cookies) that have her family begging for more. In school she elected to study Spanish, because “in the back of my mind I always wanted to learn the language of my ancestors.”

Now, at UCLA majoring in world arts and cultures, she has just returned from a junior year in Spain. She chose the University of Granada partly because it offered courses touching on the Sephardic tradition. Since she’s come home, she delights in chatting with her grandparents in Ladino and said one day she will be the keeper of their memories of Rhodes: “I feel it’s my duty to continue the tradition and keep it alive.”


Blaze Touches Off Tense Moments

Jeff and Liz Kramer and their three teenage sons could only watch and wait. The Sutton Valley residents paced the sidewalk in front of their home on Thursday morning, watching as the head of the Topanga Canyon Fire crept along a ridge less than 800 yards away, consuming brush and sending up billows of smoke.

“We’ve been up all night watching it,” Liz Kramer said. “It started here at about 1 a.m.”

As the Ventura County Sheriff’s fire support helicopters doused flames with water assaults, the Oak Park couple talked with neighbors about whether to evacuate.

“The firemen keep telling us we’re fine,” she said. “But our cars are loaded, and we’re ready to leave.”

While the Kramer home was spared and no other Jewish homes were known to have been lost, an iconic structure of Jewish Los Angeles was not so fortunate. In Simi Valley at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, sparks fell and ignited a fire on the roof of the landmark House of the Book. The building’s interior was not apparently harmed. A detailed damage assessment is pending.

The Topanga Canyon Fire erupted in Chatsworth off of Topanga Canyon Boulevard at 1:50 p.m. on Wednesday, amid high temperatures and dry Santa Ana wind conditions. By Friday, it had grown to engulf about 21,000 acres and required a multiagency firefighting force of 3,000 from Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties.

Fire crews had the fire 20 percent contained by Friday morning, shortly before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the affected area by air. The estimated cost of the fire currently stands at $2.8 million, with the cause of the blaze still under investigation.

Hundreds of families were evacuated from affected areas, which included Box Canyon, Lake Manor, Woolsey Canyon, Bell Canyon, West Hills, Hidden Hills, Mountain View Estates, Las Virgenes Canyon, Chesebro Canyon, Old Agoura, Agoura Hills and Oak Park. Among the evacuees from these upscale hillside communities was “Curb Your Enthusiasm’s” Shelley Berman, who has lived in Bell Canyon since 1984.

Temple Aliyah President Marcy Howard told The Journal she evacuated her home in Mountain View, a gated community adjacent to Las Virgenes Canyon, at 4 a.m. Thursday.

“When they tell you you’re going, nothing counts but getting your kids, your dogs and yourself [out]. You don’t know if you have five hours or five minutes,” she said.

Howard met friends at the Calabasas Commons and then ended up at Jerry’s Deli in Woodland Hills, where she said many displaced Jewish West Valley residents were congregating early Thursday morning. Howard opted to spend Thursday night in a hotel, despite offers of shelter from numerous friends.

“Everyone has been so gracious and so lovely,” she said.

Around the Conejo and West Valley, synagogues reported a similar situation. “So far we have more people offering space than need it,” said Rabbi Ted Riter of Temple Adat Elohim of Thousand Oaks.

The Conejo and West San Fernando valleys have become a magnet for Jewish families in recent years, so there were bound to be scores of Jewish families affected by the evacuation orders, not to mention the choking haze that hung over the region.

“We left at 3 a.m. [Thursday morning] and went to my mother-in-law’s in Thousand Oaks,” said Loury Silverman, an Oak Park resident who had just finished davening Thursday morning at Chabad of Conejo.

At Brandeis-Bardin Institute, Executive Director Gary Brennglass had examined the House of the Book by Thursday afternoon. “The exterior is OK, but the roof was damaged,” he said. “We also lost a lot of vegetation. But thank God our other buildings and bunks weren’t lost.”

No synagogues were damaged, but area shuls removed their Torahs as a precaution.

In Old Agoura, the proposed future site of Heschel West day school was unsigned. That project has long been challenged by the Old Agoura Homeowners Association, partly over concerns that it might make a wildfire evacuation more difficult.

All told, the fire damaged three single-family homes and destroyed one building at the Rocketdyne facility between Chatsworth and Simi Valley.

Heschel West, at its temporary site in Agoura Hills, closed Thursday and Friday, as did the New Jewish Community Day School at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills and schools throughout the Las Virgenes Unified School District. In the Las Virgenes Canyon area, Mestiva, an Orthodox boarding school closed on Friday.

Many synagogues also canceled Hebrew school classes, expecting to start again on Sunday or Monday, after the anticipated full containment of the fire over the weekend.

Jewish leaders exhorted community organizations to find out what people’s needs are in affected areas.

“We can make sure that synagogues that have been displaced because of the fire will have a space for High Holidays,” said Carol Koransky, executive director of The Valley Alliance.

Or Ami’s Rabbi Paul Kipness said his congregation usually meets at the Agoura Hills/Calabasas Community Center during the High Holidays. But with the center being used as a staging area for firefighter efforts, the synagogue’s High Holiday committee was already scouting out alternatives.

“They say it’ll be ours after Saturday, but who knows,” said Kipness, who has already rewritten his Rosh Hashanah morning sermon around the fire.

One group will need other quarters for sure. B’nai Horin of Simi Valley had scheduled High Holidays services at the House of the Book. The Brandeis-Bardin Institute hopes to house the group at a different meeting area on campus.

Many of the evacuated families have returned home, even as fire crews continue to keep an eye out for hot spots and areas where the fire could break through and threaten homes again.

The Rothsteins of Oak Park were among the families who had a close call. Sergiu Rothstein had left his home Thursday afternoon to get pizza for firefighters keeping watch over his neighborhood. A half hour later, flames blocked his return.

He stood on the center median of Thousand Oaks Boulevard in Oak Park, watching as fire lunged toward his hillside community only a few miles away.

“I was coming back, and the flames were shooting up 10 and 20 feet,” he said. “My family called me and said, “Don’t come back to the house.”

When reached by phone Friday morning, Rothstein said fire crews had saved his home.

“Everyone was wonderful,” he said.

Community Briefs

Officials Urge Calm, Caution

In the wake of an Al Qaeda threat against Los Angeles and a widespread power outage, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William Bratton assured the Jewish community last week that a strong and highly visible police presence will provide both security and peace of mind during the upcoming High Holidays.

“We will raise our visibility to an even higher level than in past years,” said Bratton during a news conference at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, attended by FBI, state and local officials.

Villaraigosa sought to buck up nervous Angelenos by declaring, “Los Angeles is as well prepared as any other city in the United States.” The mayor, who addressed the local Anglo and Hispanic media in English and Spanish, broke into Hebrew to wish the city’s 600,000 Jews a good year and a peaceful year.

John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, announced that a special $100,000 fund had been established to assist in security measures for smaller synagogues of 200 families or less during the High Holidays.

“Jewish institutions always feel a sense of heightened vulnerability,” said Fishel in a later interview. “This is for those [synagogues] that really have a sense of vulnerability. It was an important Jewish gesture.”

At the press conference, Fishel noted that his organization is taking the lead in establishing a Los Angeles Security Advisory Council for the Jewish community, as part of a broader national security program by 170 Jewish federations, coordinated by the umbrella United Jewish Communities.

The reassuring tone taken by the various officials sought to calm jitters triggered by three preceding events.

Just before the beginning of the late afternoon news conference, large parts of Los Angeles and some 2 million residents lost their electric power. Police went on tactical alert, but initial speculation about foul play was scotched when the power outage was traced to the chain reaction that followed the slicing of a power cable by utility workers.

The day before, on the fourth anniversary of Sept. 11, a supposed Al Qaeda spokesman who is a Southern California native released a videotape in Pakistan in which he threatened that Los Angeles and Melbourne were next on the organization’s hit list.

A week earlier, three American Muslim converts and a Pakistani were indicted for allegedly planning to attack two synagogues, the Israeli consulate and military targets in the Los Angeles area.

There was palpable relief when the power failure was traced to innocent causes, though it raised new issues about how cutting a power cable could so easily unplug much of Los Angeles. How much worse would a real emergency be? And despite Villaraigosa’s reassurances, the wake of Hurricane Katrina has left behind questions regarding the effectiveness of coordination between local and federal authorities.

Such questions are legitimate in the view of Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss who said, “The Feds keep stiffing us on [homeland security] funds.”

Los Angeles needs to strive for self-sufficiency in an emergency, Bratton told The Journal. In the first 24 hours following a disaster, he said, survival would depend largely on local resources and planning.

Before the news conference, public officials met privately with West Side Jewish leaders on security measures, and a similar meeting was held Wednesday in the San Fernando Valley. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Federation’s Katrina Fund Tops $1 Million

An event last weekend at the Westside Jewish Community Center raised $16,910 for victims of Hurricane Katrina. The money helped pushed fundraising totals by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles above $1 million.

More than 175 people attended the four-hour event, which included performances by the Moshav Band and comedian Avi Lieberman. There also was a silent auction whose offerings included auditions with casting directors.

The event was organized by Dan Witzling, the Federation’s “younger” staffers and by Lala and Moe’s, a startup group of young adults. Other sponsors included Young Israel of Century of City, the Mogen David, Beth Jacob and B’nei David Judea congregations, the Anti-Defamation League, Aish HaTorah and the Los Angeles Hillel Council.

Federation President John Fishel noted that the $1 million total hurricane donation is not likely to make “any significant dent in the overall needs, but I think it’s important to be seen as involved.” — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Holidays, Arrests Add to Terror Fears

When she looks out from the bimah, Rabbi Zoe Klein of Temple Isaiah sees mostly known faces, but occasionally there is the odd or unknown person who could be trouble.

For such an occasion, Temple Isaiah and other Southern California synagogues have installed panic button-style buzzers that summon shul guards, much like a bank teller’s silent alarm alerts police to a stickup. It is one of many security tools used when synagogues become very crowded, often with new faces, during the High Holidays.

Jewish community concerns over security have increased in recent months following the arrest and indictment of four men for allegedly planning attacks on local Jewish targets, including a synagogue and the Israeli consulate.

This case was the backdrop for a High Holidays security briefing held last week at the West Los Angeles headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). About 90 representatives from synagogues and Jewish institutions attended. Law enforcement officials said they knew of no specific upcoming threats and focused instead on prevention programs, such as Operation Archangel, a new, local multiagency anti-terrorism initiative.

“We can’t get to every one of the synagogues and each one of the churches,” LAPD Sgt. Jim Harpster, assigned to Archangel, told the gathering. “Anything that’s unusual, please report it. There hasn’t been an attack where somebody hasn’t seen something.”

Even without a specific threat, synagogue leaders must be alert to terrorism risks, while also keeping in mind longstanding threats arising from anti-Semitism. “California has perhaps the most active skinhead scene in the country,” ADL investigative researcher Joanna Mendelson said.

Synagogues are not taking the matter lightly. Last year, the American Jewish Committee’s Los Angeles office began work to set up an electronic early warning system linking local police and Jewish institutions. It’s called the Secure Community Alert Network, or SCAN. It’s operational in New York City, but hasn’t yet needed to be used.

In Los Angeles, “right now it’s sort of a work in progress,” said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, executive director of the L.A. office of the American Jewish Committee, which is providing funding. “It just hasn’t come forward as quickly as possible. Fortunately there hasn’t been a need in L.A.”

Many synagogues, like Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park, already have an internal form of such a system, by which someone on the bimah can press an emergency call button. The process adds one more necessary responsibility to the duties of rabbis and cantors.

“I see who walks through the door,” Klein said. “I see if someone’s reaching for their bag. Everyone in the congregation is facing forward. We’re the only ones facing them who can see what’s going on out there. It’s not just about having security at the door for who comes in, but having a method of communicating once services are under way.”

The task becomes trickier during the High Holidays as synagogues become crowded, often with new faces.

Whether the Homeland Security terror-threat level is at orange or yellow, security is a constant but quiet fact of life at Jewish institutions. In Bel Air, the University of Judaism merges its security efforts with neighbors Stephen S. Wise Temple across the street and the Casiano Bel Air Homeowners Association. Near Beverly Hills, the Wilshire Boulevard headquarters of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles uses large, potted sidewalk trees as decorous security barriers.

Further west down Wilshire is Westwood’s Sinai Temple, where throngs of smartly dressed Conservative Jews will crowd into the expanded sanctuary for the High Holidays. The shul normally is home to about 1,500 families but over the High Holidays it will host an expected 5,000 worshippers, who will require extra seats, extra parking and extra guards, whose cost is over and above Sinai’s estimated $300,000 annual security budget.

“On the High Holidays I pay another $37,000,” Sinai Executive Director Howard Lesner said. His extended security contingent will include plainclothes, off-duty police officers. About 14 months ago, Sinai installed new security cameras.

“It’s all digitalized now, all color,” Lesner said. “We have one of the most secure institutions. We reduced our entrances to one way driving in and one way walking in.”

But Lesner does not publicize all the particulars: “The greatest security is to not tell everybody what you’re doing.”


Lay Leaders Keep Synagogues Going

During the week, Dr. David Kolinsky practices family medicine in Pacific Grove, a sleepy Northern California coastal town. But on Saturday mornings he dons his tallit and leads Shabbat services for Congregation B’nai Torah, a Conservative congregation in neighboring Monterey.

Kolinksy serves as spiritual leader and president of B’nai Torah, which has been lay led since it broke off from a nearby Reform temple 13 years ago.

Visiting rabbis have passed through, but with just 24 dues-paying members, there’s no budget to hire even a student rabbi. The congregation also lacks a building — it rents a small room in a local church, where it stores its two Torah scrolls and where, every Saturday morning, the stalwarts wait to see whether a minyan will show up.

“Probably half our members are happy without a rabbi, and the rest would like one if we could afford it,” Kolinsky says. “Many synagogues have gone through a process of professionalization, where unless you do something of professional grade, you have no right to represent your community before God. Here, everyone does their best. If someone wants to try, the answer is always, come up and do it.”

Among U.S. congregations, B’nai Torah is still in a tiny minority: Most congregations from all streams have rabbis, unless they’re too small or isolated to attract one. Those that can’t afford full-time clergy usually hire visiting or student rabbis.

But the number of lay-led congregations is on the rise nationwide, movement leaders say. Much of that is due to economics — it’s expensive to hire rabbis and cantors, and many older congregations in economically depressed regions have dwindling memberships.

“It’s costing more and more each year to hire a rabbi, so congregations of 100 to 150 families are finding it harder,” says Jay Weiner, United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s director for Northern California and the Pacific Northwest.

Demographic change also creates congregations in new parts of the country, as young Jews move west and north, and their parents retire south. And some congregations consciously choose to forgo clergy; they just want to run their own show.

“By and large, the congregations that don’t have rabbis do it because they don’t have a choice,” said Rabbi Victor Appell, a small-congregation specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). “Because of their size or location, it’s a challenge to find a rabbi to serve them. But that puts them in the position of becoming self-reliant. If you asked many of them now whether they’d want a rabbi, I’m not sure they’d say yes.”

According to Jewish law, congregations don’t need rabbis. U.S. law requires clergy (or other state-sanctioned representatives) to officiate at a marriage, but other than that, any Jew — male in Orthodox circles, male or female in other congregations — can lead services, proclaim a bar or bat mitzvah, name a baby or run a funeral.

Still, most congregations choose to hire a professional.

“It’s the preferred course of action,” said Steven Huberman, director of regional and extension activities for the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism (USCJ). “Congregations do prefer professionally trained clergy. They look to them as pastor, spiritual stimulant, lifestyle catalyst — it’s difficult for lay leaders to do all that on a regular basis.”

Congregations also turn to rabbis to decide points of halachah, or Jewish law. Clergy can mediate between warring factions in a congregation, or decide delicate questions such as the role of interfaith families, or whether it’s time to take down or put up a mechitzah, which divides men and women at Orthodox services.

The number of lay-led congregations varies from movement to movement. Roughly speaking, the Reconstructionist movement has the highest percentage, the Orthodox Union has the least and the Reform and Conservative movements fall in the middle.

Rabbi Moshe Krupka, executive director of programming for the Orthodox Union, says “very few” of his 900-plus congregations operate without rabbis. They are mostly newly formed congregations that hire rabbis as soon as they can afford it.

“In the Orthodox world that puts a high premium on Torah, mitzvot and spiritual growth to have someone who will infuse the community with a sense of mission and scholarship; it willy-nilly becomes a necessity [to have a rabbi],” he said.

The highest percentage of lay-led congregations is in the Reconstructionist movement. Since its inception, the movement has emphasized the importance of empowering lay leadership and looks at rabbis more as educators and consultants than as pulpit heads.

Rabbi Shawn Zevit, director of outreach and external affiliations for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, says 30 to 40 of its 107 congregations operate without rabbis. Even so, he believes many of those congregations would hire rabbis if they could afford it. The Reconstructionist movement has also inherited some havurahs, or lay-led minyans, from the 1960s and ’70s, Zevit said, though most havurahs don’t affiliate with a movement.

Very few Conservative congregations function without rabbinic support, according to Huberman. He says the USCJ is unable to place rabbis in only about 5 percent of its 750 affiliated congregations.

The percentage is slightly higher in the Reform movement. Between 75 to 100 of the 900-plus congregations in the URJ don’t have full-time rabbis, according to Appell.

Size matters: Most lay-led congregations are very small, which in the Reform and Conservative movement generally means less than 150 members.

Place matters, too: Lay-led congregations are more numerous in regions with smaller Jewish populations, “more often in the South, sometimes in the Midwest,” Appell said.

Many of these congregations used to be larger and more prosperous. They were built in the late 19th or early 20th centuries by Jewish merchants and professionals who followed the general population shift westward. When the industries supporting these towns dried up, so did their Jewish communities. The children and grandchildren of the original settlers moved to cities with greater job opportunities, leaving behind tiny congregations maintained by a handful of elderly Jews.

“You have congregations dying out, entire towns that have disappeared,” said Rabbi Lawrence Jackofsky, director of the URJ’s Southwest Council. About one-quarter of the 82 congregations in his region are lay led, though most of them used to have rabbis. Jackofsky said some of his congregations can afford rabbis, but can’t find candidates willing to move to their isolated towns.

Reform and Conservative leaders say the much-publicized shortage of non-Orthodox rabbis doesn’t really factor into the equation.

“It’s mainly larger congregations looking for second rabbis who are affected” by the shortage, said Emily Grotta, marketing director for the URJ.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of USCJ, says there are actually enough Conservative rabbis being ordained to serve all the movement’s congregations, it’s simply that fewer are taking up pulpits.

The 90-year-old Conservative Congregation B’nai Isaac in Aberdeen, S.D., lost its last rabbi 30 years ago. With just three couples and a few single members left, they still manage to hold Friday night services — when Bea and Herschel Premack are in town.

Herschel Premack, who had his bar mitzvah in the synagogue in 1940, leads services for the congregation. When he and Bea go to California every winter, the shul shuts down.

The congregation, which held its last bat mitzvah 15 years ago, often thinks about closing down, but Bea Premack said B’nai Isaac serves an important educational role in the small Midwestern city.

“We’ve always had the synagogue open for Christian groups, so they can come and learn about Judaism,” she said.

Another kind of demographic change is creating new lay-led congregations, particularly in the fast-growing regions of the West and Pacific Northwest. As younger Jews pour into these areas looking for work and personal fulfillment, congregations are popping up.

Some of these are university towns that attract Jewish students and professors. Others are resort communities, or towns near computer jobs, research facilities or military bases.

“Sometimes enough people in these outlying areas get to know each other and realize there are enough Jews to organize a synagogue,” says Rabbi Alan Henkin, URJ’s Pacific Southwest director. Henkin estimates that one-third of his 85 congregations operate without full-time rabbis.

Then there’s the phenomenon of members splitting off from existing congregations to practice Judaism their own way. Weiner describes a lay-led Conservative congregation in Olympia, Wash., that broke away from its Reform parent congregation because some members wanted a kosher kitchen.

B’nai Torah, the congregation in Monterey, also split off from a local Reform temple to lead its own, Conservative services. Seven members who showed up one recent Shabbat say they prefer the nonhierarchical structure and personal involvement.

“We had a visitor who said he’d never been asked to come up to the Torah before because he doesn’t read Hebrew,” said Devorah Harris, who grew up Reform in Minnesota and led a women’s havurah in the San Francisco Bay Area before joining B’nai Torah four years ago. “We encourage everyone to come up. We help them.”

Change also occurs in the opposite direction: After four decades as a lay-led Reconstructionist congregation, Dor Hadash in Pittsburgh has just hired its first ordained rabbi, who will visit once a month.

Some lay-led congregations consciously decide not to hire clergy.

“I’m not sure I miss having a rabbi,” said Jackie Gish of Reform Congregation Hugat Haverim in Glendale, a lay-led group of 30 to 35 people that split off from its parent Reform temple five years ago. Most Hugat Haverim members are in their 50s or 60s with grown children, so there’s no religious school, just monthly Shabbat services.

Congregations like hers serve a purpose, Gish said. Some Jews don’t want to meet every Friday night. They don’t want to shell out a lot of money for religious school or feel the pressure of capital campaigns, but they still want the warmth and closeness of being part of a Jewish community.

Tolerance and a respect for diversity are required to keep lay-led congregations going, particularly in smaller towns where they often have to serve Jews with very different backgrounds and observance levels.

Weiner points to Conservative Congregation Emanuel in Reno. The congregation is egalitarian, but a mechitzah goes up for Shacharit services because the lay leader in charge comes from a more Orthodox background. The other members tolerate it.

“You have to admire lay leaders who keep these congregations going,” he said.


Historically Sacred L.A.

Robert Berger is a third-generation Angeleno who dares to do the unthinkable in Los Angeles.

He actually gets out of his car and studies old buildings.

Berger, an architectural photographer with Berger/Conser Architectural Photography, is interested in historic Los Angeles. Previously, he photographed all the old movie theaters and published them in a book: “The Last Remaining Seats: Movie Palaces of Tinseltown.”

He then turned his attention to historic buildings of a different kind: places of worship.

Over a three-year period, Berger visited 300 churches, synagogues, and temples in Los Angeles and photographed them. Some he discovered through research; others he found just by driving around. Often, when photographing the spaces, he started in early evening and worked until dawn. Berger judged 54 of the buildings to be the most historically and architecturally significant places of worship in Los Angeles, and he published those photographs in a book, “Sacred Spaces, Historic Houses of Worship in the City of Angels.” (Balcony Press, 2003). In August, Berger’s photographs will go on display at the Ruby Gallery at the Skirball Cultural Center.

“My family has been in Los Angeles for 100 years, but how often is it that you go to Vernon, Lincoln Heights or Boyle Heights?” said Berger, referring to his photographic expeditions. “It was fascinating — it gave me a great feel for the city.”

The elegant photographs of “Sacred Spaces,” and the accompanying text by architectural historian Alfred Willis, tell an interesting story of Los Angeles and the various demographic shifts that took place in the city over the last 150 years. For example, several of the churches photographed, such as Korean Philadelphia Presbyterian Church in Mid-Wilshire, or the Welsh Presbyterian Church downtown, were once synagogues. Other synagogues, like the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights, sit deserted and abandoned, as their congregations moved, and the neighborhood changed.

“People see my work and say ‘I have driven by that church many times, but I would never have thought about looking inside,'” Berger said. “I want people to get out of their cars and look at things they wouldn’t normally go to, and experience the street life and the history [of Los Angeles].”

“Sacred Spaces: Historic Houses of Worship in the City of Angels” is on display at the Ruby Gallery at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles from Aug. 11-Nov. 27. Free. For more information, call (310) 440-4500 or visit