Chef Ofir Arbel and Eitan Oram

Hummus chef brings Acre to Tarzana [VIDEO]


Ofir Arbel, the head chef at Hummus Bar and Grill, has a few fond memories involving hummus from his time growing up in Israel. When he and his teenage buddies would finish up a night of partying at 4 or 5 a.m., they’d often head to a hummus restaurant to eat until the booze was all soaked up and they were ready to sleep away the morning.

In general though, “I almost didn’t touch hummus,” said during a recent interview. In his Ashkenazi family, it just wasn’t a staple.

 

That all changed when he immigrated to the San Fernando Valley and took over the kitchens at a Tarzana hummus joint that’s become a cultural institution for the Los Angeles Israeli American community and beyond. Now, it’s hummus every morning, and on nights and weekends: Arbel tastes each batch to assure quality.

On May 2, Arbel will be interviewed on stage at Leammle’s Town Center in Encino after a screening of “Hummus! The Movie,” a film that follows the lives and journeys of several hummus restaurateurs in Israel. He’ll be joined by Mitch Julis, one of the movie’s producers, with Jewish Journal staff writer Eitan Arom moderating.

During a recent visit with a reporter and videographer from the Journal, Arbel produced plate after plate of every manner of hummus, salad and meat dish.

There was hummus with ground beef, hummus with mushrooms and hummus with whole garbanzo beans; there was creamy chopped liver, a Turkish bell pepper salad, two kinds of baba ghanoush, corn salad and more; and of course, there was red wine to wash it all down.

When this reporter protested he couldn’t possibly eat another bite, Arbel countered, “It’s really insulting — you have to try a main dish,” as if three types of hummus and about a dozen salads didn’t constitute a main dish.

Ofir summoned three plates of meat skewers, which to everybody’s surprise were quickly consumed. By the time the kanafe was finished, a desert based on shredded filo dough, the entire company was ready for a good, long nap.

Hummus Bar and Grill is located on 18743 Ventura Boulevard in Tarzana and is open daily from 11 a.m. to 12 a.m., and till 1 a.m. on Saturdays.

For more information on the film screening and interview, visit lajfilmfest.org.

Jewish education for a two-figure tuition


Late one recent afternoon in Beverlywood, a first-grader named Ben was learning about the story of the golden calf. Not happy about what he was hearing, Ben asked his teacher, incredulously: “They made a new god?!”

Across the hall, eight fourth-graders were learning the Purim story, calling out as many characters as they could from the Megillah. One boy, Yagel, who wore a kippah and tzitzit, excitedly yelled out names in a perfect Israeli accent while correcting his fellow students’ “mis-annunciations.”

These scenes are noteworthy because they didn’t take place at any Sunday school, day school or yeshiva. They took place at Nagel Jewish Academy, a  daily after-school Orthodox program, which officials believe offers a solution to the problem of expensive tuition for private Jewish education.

Unlike a traditional day school, Nagel Jewish Academy, which has three locations, operates two hours a day Monday through Thursday, after public schools let out. It focuses exclusively on Jewish and Hebrew education and costs only $25 per month, per child, for supplies and snacks provided by the school. Its budget this year is $400,000, a 166 percent increase from the 2014-15 budget of $150,000, which was financed almost entirely by founder Levi Nagel. 

Nagel said he has wanted for years to create an academy serving Jewish children who attend public schools. He says thousands of Jewish parents who want to send their children to Jewish schools don’t, and that high tuitions have other negative impacts on Jewish families, particularly Orthodox ones. 

“Families have been shrinking. People are having much [fewer] kids now than they used to because of the cost of tuition,” Nagel said in a recent interview at Shiloh’s restaurant in Pico-Robertson. 

Betty Winn, director of the Center for Excellence in Day School Education at Builders of Jewish Education (BJE), said annual K-8 tuition for the 37 private schools in L.A. within the BJE network range from $6,000 to $34,700, with a median tuition of $20,185. She also pointed out, though, that over half of families receive financial aid.

“So many of our schools really have extended the amount of need-based assistance that they give … so I think some of the families that are choosing other avenues may not have even explored the day school options,” she said. “I’m sure some have, but I’m also sure some haven’t.”

Nagel, 36, who is married and lives in the Hancock Park/La Brea area, knows all about the expense of Jewish education from personal experience. The financial manager — who was named No. 2 by business website On Wall Street in its 2015 list of top 40 advisers under 40 — pays $80,000 in annual tuition for his four young children to attend Jewish day school.

He opened Nagel Academy’s first location in September 2014 at the property owned by Chabad of Beverlywood. It has since expanded to two more locations — in Beverly Hills and Tarzana — serving a total of 265 students. They come from families with different levels of religious observance and range in age from 5 to 12 and grades kindergarten through sixth.

Nagel’s goal is for his schools’ students to be as well-versed in Judaism as students at any of the local Orthodox day schools. Its curriculum includes written and spoken Hebrew, the Jewish prayer book, the annual holidays and the weekly Torah portion. He said Nagel Academy is “still a little behind,” but argues that the two hours a day of Jewish studies students get at his schools isn’t much less than the proportion of each day spent on Jewish studies at day schools, where each day is split between Jewish and secular studies, not to mention things like lunch and physical education. 

At the school’s Tarzana location, which is provided rent-free by the Beith David Educational Center & Synagogue, more than 40 students were split up and learning in four different classes one recent afternoon. The class with fifth- and sixth-graders was learning in the synagogue’s spacious beit midrash, with five girls and one boy seated at a long table while the teacher walked her students through the Hebrew alphabet and vocabulary.

“Not only can I read this, I understand what it means!” exclaimed Eden, an 11-year-old girl whose sister, Lea, is in fourth grade and also attends Nagel Academy. 

Shlomo, an 11-year-old student in fifth grade, told the Journal that he attends Wilbur Avenue Elementary School during the day. He briefly tried another Hebrew school before his parents found Nagel Academy, which has helped him learn to read and write Hebrew words as long as four letters (so far). 

Elsewhere, a group of kindergarteners and first-graders were making their own tzedakah boxes and the second- and third-graders were playing a game of trivia about tzedakah (the theme of the week) and kashrut. 

“When do we give tzedakah?” the teacher asked one team.

After deliberating as a group, Team Tzedakah gave the correct answer: Jews traditionally make a donation every day before the morning prayer service.

In the main entrance hall of Beith David, Mahnaz Danyan, a Jewish woman from Iran, waited for school to let out at 4 p.m. Two of her children just enrolled at Nagel Academy. During the day, Melody, 11, attends Gaspar De Portola Middle School in Tarzana, and Michael, 9, goes to Nestle Elementary School.

“They need to know they’re Jewish. We were looking … everywhere, so we found out here are Hebrew classes,” Danyan said. “[Jewish day] school is perfect, but it’s expensive for us, so here is better.”

Yulia Edelshtein, who lives in Pico-Robertson with her husband and two children, enrolled her son Eli, 7, in Nagel Academy’s Beverlywood location when it opened in 2014; her daughter Ziona, 6, followed in kindergarten this year. During the day, both of them attend Canfield Elementary, a public school in Pico-Robertson with relatively high numbers of religious Jews. 

Edelshtein described herself and her Israeli husband as a “traditional, observant” family that observes Shabbat and keeps kosher. She said they would send their kids to Jewish day schools if they could afford it.

“We’re a young family and still building ourselves, so it would’ve been impossible for us to go to a private school,” Edelshtein said. “I really feel like it’s the best of both worlds — and I really love Canfield — to give the kids a secular education and a Hebrew education, and I feel that Nagel makes this possible.”

For parents like Lisa Arnold, Nagel Academy’s appeal isn’t just its affordability. The Beverlywood mother of three said that two of her children, Noah, 10, and Shaine, 8, have learning needs that local Jewish day schools haven’t been able to meet. So, for general education, her kids go to charter schools, and they use Nagel Academy for their Jewish education.

“What’s so unusual about it is the excitement and the joy for learning that’s showing itself,” Arnold said. “It’s not associated with school. It’s almost like a preferred activity if you’d drop your kid off at karate or dance.”

Is it possible that Nagel Academy could lead to an exodus of students from private Jewish schools to public alternatives? Nagel and the school’s head educational consultant, Rabbi Leibel Korf, said the answer is a resounding “no” and that it was never the intent. 

“The naysayers, before we started … they were saying, ‘Hey you’re going to take kids out of private schools and move [them] to public school,’ ” Nagel said. “The fact is every one of the kids came from public school. We didn’t take [them] from private school.”

Nagel cited one example in particular that he feels shows Nagel Academy is helping families that simply can’t afford private school, rather than giving parents an excuse to save money on tuition they’re already paying.  

“What was [a] little sad was the majority of the women dropping off their kids [at the Beverlywood site] are so religious that they cover their hair. But their kids did not know the Aleph Bet or know how to read Hebrew,” Nagel said, an indication, he feels, that their children only attend public school during the day because there’s no other option. 

Korf, who runs the Chabad of Greater Los Feliz, where Nagel attended before he moved in 2005, said the school exists because it’s needed. 

“The reality is so many children are not getting Jewish education because of the fact that people who would [otherwise] send [their children] to Jewish schools are not sending them. This is the fact,” Korf said during a recent interview at the school’s Beverlywood location. “We’re not creating an alternative for Jewish schools. We’re [responding to] a fact.”

That said, Korf suggested that nothing can completely substitute for a Jewish day school education, which is what his four kids receive at Cheder Menachem and Bais Chaya Mushka, which are Chabad boys and girls schools, respectively. 

“I’ll take the shirt and pants off me and I’ll sell my house and I’ll live in a small apartment,” Korf told the Journal. “You can’t send your kids to a public school and not jeopardize basic Jewish observances.”

Students at Nagel Academy in Beverly Hills. 

For their part, Nagel and his wife, Chaiky, send their four kids, ages 4 to 11, to Maimonides Academy. And while he said he’d rather send his kids to public school and Nagel Academy — and use the difference to sponsor more Jewish students at Nagel Academy — his wife insisted on private school.

“It’s a waste of money … but my wife has the final say,” Nagel said. 

Nagel Academy’s main expense is its teachers. Right now, there is only one full-time employee, and all of the 15 Orthodox teachers work on a part-time basis. Nagel approximates that one student costs about $1,250 per year, and he said he is working furiously to raise enough money to open three more locations for the 2016-17 academic year — in Westwood, Santa Monica and another in the San Fernando Valley.

He’s been pitching Nagel Academy to major local donors with the goal of each one sponsoring at least 100 kids a year. Nagel said philanthropist and entrepreneur Frank Menlo recently came on board, and businessmen and philanthropists Sam Nazarian and Shlomo Rechnitz have made pledges.

One way Nagel Academy keeps costs down is having a very low ceiling for rent expenses. The only location where it pays a usage fee is the Beverlywood location, which Nagel Academy Director Chana Leah Margolis said is “super-minimal rent.” Nagel added that, going forward, a condition of using any facility is that it’s provided rent-free.

“There are millions of square feet of empty Jewish real estate during those hours,” Nagel said, referring to the time of day Nagel Academy is operating. “So if it’s a community that needs it, they have to invite us in and give us a location for free. What we’re doing is paying for the teachers.”

He thinks Nagel Academy could grow to 1,000 to 2,000 students per year with enough word of mouth and enough fundraising, and he’s already talking about future locations in Brentwood, Los Feliz and even more throughout the Valley.

“We should, at a minimum, provide enough space for a thousand kids,” Nagel said. “We have the obligation to make it available.” 

Up to their ankles in rubble


Cathy Carpenter, 61, remembers waking up to massive shaking the morning of the Northridge earthquake. In her family’s home in Tarzana, almost all of the kitchen cabinets were flung off the walls, and the aftershock blew out the windows and broke the ceiling beams that supported the house’s second story.

“Our house was kind of like a movie set where the front of the house was pretty fine, but the entire back half had really been destroyed,” she said. “We were in rubble almost up to our ankles in most of the house. It was awful and very scary.”

The family stayed in their house for a few weeks, but finally moved out when they realized that the second story would shake when the front door was slammed.

However, the real nightmare had only begun as Carpenter’s family had to rent a home for almost a year after the earthquake. Because demand was so high, they struggled to find contractors and replace broken household items.

“When every house is damaged, it’s not so easy to get contractors or sinks or plumbing — everything was on back order,” she said. “So that was very hard on everybody, hard on our kids.”

They only received $5,000 for property damage from FEMA, but because they had earthquake insurance, their private insurance company ultimately paid them the house’s full value of $300,000.

Carpenter recalled that neighbors “really took care of each other” and that a newly married couple hosted a big block party in the days after the earthquake.

“Everyone brought out all the food they had in their refrigerators, because it would all go bad,” she said. “And we just sat out there and commiserated because of how awful it was.”

The family house, which they still live in, is now reconstructed, “like a fortress,” she said. Every wall is built with structural reinforcements, and the furniture is bolted to the walls.

However, the memory of the tremors is hard to forget.

“Everywhere I went, when I felt shaking I would be transported back to that morning,” she said. “The shaking was so violent and it lasted a very long time.”

Temple Judea event aims to clarify Health Care Act


When Diane Vanette, a leader of the social justice coalition OneLA and member of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, appeared Oct. 13 on the bimah at Temple Judea in Tarzana and proclaimed, “We are committed to health care for everyone in Los Angeles County,” there was no question that she meant it.

The proof? An audience filled overwhelmingly not with Jews but Hispanics, some of them undocumented, wanting to learn about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).

Organized by OneLA, the event featured lectures, workshops and PowerPoint presentations that aimed to educate a crowd of Angelenos who have been largely ignorant of how the specifics of the law — otherwise known as ACA or Obamacare — will work. 

According to Miriam Hernandez, manager of the Latino Health Promoters Program at the Providence Center for Community Health Improvement and one of about 300 people to attend the Sunday afternoon event, many people in the Hispanic community are unaware of what ACA means for them. For instance, among the undocumented community, there is the question of whether the mandate affects them.

ACA’s provisions, which have been going into effect on a rolling basis since 2010, include the expansion of Medicaid; the establishment of health insurance exchanges, in which consumers can shop for and compare prices of different insurance providers; and an individual mandate that makes it illegal to not be insured. On Oct. 1, the state- and federally run health insurance marketplaces, including Covered California, opened for business.

Hispanics with vague legal statuses are “very confused” about their health care and are asking themselves, “ ‘If I don’t have documents, is it mandatory to enroll or not?’ ” Hernandez said in an interview. (The answer, she added, is no.)

With all the confusion, part of Hernandez’s job is to learn as much as she can about ACA, so that she can pass on this information to others. This was why she attended the event at Temple Judea.

“For me, it’s very important to know about ACA and to provide this information to our health promoters and for our health promoters to provide this information to our community,” she said. 

The good news is that Hispanics “want to have health care,” she said. “They are worried about their health, and they are more educated than before.” 

The Spanish-only speakers in the audience, who made up the majority, wore headphones to listen to translations as the English-speaking activists and leaders spoke during the first portion of the two-hour event. Many came from the San Gabriel Valley, San Fernando Valley, South Los Angeles and metro Los Angeles areas.

Serving different ethnic and religious communities all across Los Angeles, OneLA (onela-iaf.org) comprises more than 60 congregations and other groups, including Temple Judea, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, Temple Isaiah and Leo Baeck Temple. It has helped more than 3,000 individuals living in L.A. County sign up for public health programs under ACA, according to Ellen Israel, a board member at Temple Judea and leader with OneLA.

With more than 2 million people uninsured in L.A. County, OneLA has been working to make sure that Angelenos are aware of their options under ACA and take full advantage. 

“You need to present opportunities for education and opportunities for enrollment,” Israel said.

In a display of the interfaith spirit of the event, Israel co-chaired the event with fellow OneLA activist Carmen Cruz, a parishioner at Mary Immaculate Catholic Church in Pacoima.

Additional speakers included L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; Herb Schultz, regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Robert Ross, president and CEO of The California Endowment; and Dana Howard, media and public affairs representative at Covered California. 

Yaroslavsky, who has long been a bridge between the politically progressive community and Jewish causes, spoke favorably of the progress that has already been made in the county under Obamacare. He estimated that 300,000 individuals here now have health insurance as a result.

Temple Judea’s Rabbi Joshua Aaronson provided spiritual reflections, connecting universal health care to religious values.

“There is no faith tradition that doesn’t support the right of everyone to have health care,” Aaronson said.

Rabbi Rachel Timoner of Leo Baeck and Rabbi Dara Frimmer of Temple Isaiah participated in the event, as well. 

OneLA leaders acknowledged that ACA is far from perfect, and not only because the law excludes undocumented immigrants from coverage. As has been widely reported in the media, the Web sites for the health insurance exchanges are full of glitches and unanswered questions.

But they also said it is a step in the right direction.

“This is just the beginning,” Israel said. “More work needs to be done.”

The work by OneLA to educate people and sign them up for health care will continue through November and up until Dec. 15, which is the final day for people to enroll in insurance through Covered California if they want their new plans to go into effect by Jan. 1. 

On Nov. 3, an event focused on Covered California will take place at Temple Emanuel,  and on Dec. 8, Leo Baeck will host an event to inform people about their health care options.

Israel Festival brings L.A. a taste of Tel Aviv


Eden Bennun craved a taste of Israel. Growing up in Kfar Saba and Rishon LeZion as a child gave her a love of Israel’s smells, sounds and foods.

That’s why she made her way to the Celebrate Israel Festival at Rancho Park along with about 10,000 other Angelenos (down from approximately 15,000 last year on a very busy day in Los Angeles). The April 21 event was hosted by the Israeli American Council (IAC), formerly the Israeli Leadership Council (ILC).

“I wish I could record the smell,” Bennun said, standing next to a food booth occupied by Hummus Bar & Grill, a restaurant in Tarzana.

Thousands of people walking around in Hebrew-lettered T-shirts, shorts and sunglasses, helped create a scene reminiscent of a beautiful day along the Tel Aviv beaches, but it was the aroma of Mediterranean eats that stuck with many.

[SLIDESHOW: Celebrate Israel Festival’s 'Top Jews of L.A.']

From the standard fare of shawarma and falafel to Jerusalem bagels with za’atar (dried herbs mixed with sesame seeds), the festival offered a range of Middle Eastern treats. An area called Café Tel Aviv provided dozens of options, including local kosher favorites Mexikosher, Toast Café and even a stand from Sadaf, the Mediterranean gourmet food company.

The sounds of Celebrate Israel, like the food, brought the Holy Land to Los Angeles for a day. Israeli pop and rock music blared from speakers until Mashina, a popular Israeli rock band that drew many late visitors to the event, took the stage around 6 p.m.

Thousands of people packed in near the main stage, where they listened to the American and Israeli national anthems and speeches by some of the event organizers and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. A sea of miniature Israeli flags emerged in the crowd as Mashina took the stage; the band’s performance was even streamed live over FMIL radio, a worldwide Hebrew-language radio station.

Anthem

Attendees at Sunday's Celebrate Israel Festival stand for the Israeli national anthem. Photo by Korey Johnson

Due to smaller crowds in the celebration’s initial hours, several thousand early birds were able to enjoy Israel without having to wait in line.

Person after person described how the food and environment reminded them of Israel, whether as their childhood home or as their religious and relaxation destination. Galia Dhari, an Israeli who now lives in Valley Village, said that coming to Rancho Park made her feel a part of her native land — for a day.

“It feels like a little bit of home,” Dhari said. “It makes me miss Israel more, but it gives me a little feeling of home.”

Bringing Israelis “home” — even briefly — and bringing Israel to Americans, was the whole point of the event, according to festival chairman Naty Saidoff. Saidoff and his wife, Debbie, were the presenting sponsors of the event.

“When we see the red, white and blue, and then blue and white, fluttering in the wind, we know this is all what it is about,” Saidoff said in a speech to the audience. “We brought you Israel — art, culture, agriculture, the past and the future.”

 

Attendees

Thousands of people stand in preparation for a musical performance from Mashina, a popular Israeli rock band. Photo by Abraham Joseph Pal

Jason Ramin, a native Angeleno, visited Israel for the first time 12 years ago. The sense that he was connected to almost everyone at the festival through that experience was what made it special for him.

“Last week I was at Coachella, and I didn’t feel like I was as connected to every random person in that setting [as] I am today,” Ramin said.

The musical variety and energy at Celebrate Israel didn’t quite match that of Coachella, which hosted 180,000 people over two weekends, but there was no lack of things to do. Kids could enjoy a puppy petting zoo, a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, other rides and even physical training activities with “Israeli Scouts” (Tzofim).

In addition to the remarkable variety of foods, there were picnic tables of adults playing backgammon (shesh besh). Adults and kids could take part in a drum circle in the respite of the shade; it was a sunny 80 degrees in the afternoon. There were dozens of vendors as well.

Timan Khoubian, who was born in Iran and now lives in Los Angeles, came to Celebrate Israel to join L.A.’s Jewish community in celebrating the Jewish state, and also to enjoy some Israeli food himself.

“It’s a part of my identity,” Khoubian said, holding pita filled with chicken shawarma. “It’s a reminder [that] I’m a part of a bigger community.”

Nadav Tzabari, whose permanent home is in Israel, traveled to the festival from San Francisco. For Tzabari, it was an important symbol of unity for thousands of Jews in Los Angeles — Israeli and American — to come together.

“I want the Jewish people outside of Israel actually to feel proud of who they are and of Israel,” Tzabari said. “It’s a safe place for them.”

A season of change


Lunch in the small, red-tiled Paprika Grill in Tarzana, with its short, kosher Mediterranean menu, seems like a simple proposition. But everything looks and smells so good: shwarma, shakshouka, sabich, pargiot and three kinds of crispy schnitzel. Although owner-chef Tommy Marudi was previously a chef at Aroma Bakery and Café — which has one of the biggest, most overwhelming menus in town — he is doing something different here at Paprika, making big changes in his cooking and in his life, and they begin with the small, well-edited menu choices.

Marudi knows that these Mediterranean favorites can be done well if they are freshly made, carefully spiced and artfully presented, and the selected items are what he is going to stick to for the moment. On Fridays, there is a selection of prepared foods on display to take out. On Saturdays, he is closed all day, at least until the sun sets a little earlier.

One clue to what makes Paprika Grill different from other local restaurants serving Israeli food is that the ubiquitous television is tuned to the food channel instead of soccer. Marudi, 28, is the cook, greeter, manager and owner, and he is always there. Slim and intense with wide blue eyes and dark hair, he could easily be a guitar player in a local band, another L.A. hopeful in a dark T-shirt and camouflage pants, but, in fact, the young man already has seven years of serious cooking experience behind him.

Marudi has big American dreams, but they’re grounded in the reality of his experience in the kitchen. He is rightly proud that Paprika Grill already has been recognized by Los Angeles Magazine as serving the best Israeli breakfast in town. Astute food chronicler Linda Burum writes, “The brightly spiced mix of fresh tomatoes, onions, and chiles known as shakshouka is cooked down to a bold stew in which eggs gently simmer. At Paprika Grill a primo house-baked baguette sops up the yolk-enriched sauce.”

For lunch, Marudi recommends the pargiot, spicy bite-sized pieces of dark meat chicken, chopped and grilled Jerusalem style, with caramelized onions, lemon, garlic and parsley. It is presented with two kinds of cabbage salad — one bright purple and creamy, one green and sharp; crisp Israeli salad; creamy, house-made hummus; and a soft, pillowy,  hot pita. It took Marudi a while to find the right pita, one that resembled the pitas he ate in Israel. The source he finally found here is also an Israeli transplant, also just starting out, and he makes the pitas on machines he brought directly from Israel.

Marudi was born in California, but grew up in Tel Aviv. As a teenager, he worked as a dishwasher in his uncle’s Tel Aviv restaurant, learning to cook from the man who Marudi says is still the best chef he knows. Returning to Los Angeles at 21, he got a job as a cook at Aroma, the locus of Israeli activity in the Valley, and helped develop the big, photo-heavy menu. He discovered as he worked that he had a gift for invention and presentation, which he now puts to use on catering jobs, finding ways to reinvent skewers and make sabich sandwiches into smaller, more sophisticated bites. 

Working at Aroma was an invaluable learning experience, but the demanding work schedule took its toll on him. Marudi missed the rhythms and practices of his religious family back home. This past summer, he left Aroma to open his own kosher place. Now, in addition to managing the kitchen, he is also learning “front of the room” (eight tables, six seats at the counter) customer relations and financial management. This winter, he will be marrying a fellow Aroma alum, and in the late summer he will become a father.

On the verge of starting his own home and family, the ambitious young restaurateur seems to be changing everything in his life at once, but he is doing so carefully and thoughtfully, the way he arranges food on a plate. Being closed Friday night and all day Saturday is tough for business, not to mention the rabbi’s prohibition on having the place redecorated during the holidays, but Marudi trusts that in addition to his hard work and innovation, somebody is watching over his venture and it will lead to a good way of life for himself, his new family and his delighted customers.

As with many good things, Paprika Grill can be a little hard to find. The restaurant’s name was not yet on the mini-mall marquee when I visited, and the banner hanging at the entrance had been flipped up by the wind. But drive slowly as you approach the corner of Corbin Avenue and Ventura Boulevard and follow the delicious aroma to the door. 

Paprika Grill
19657 1/2
Ventura Blvd., Tarzana
(818) 344-1687
paprikagrill.net

Torah Study on Aisle Two


A 28-year-old struggling writer walked up to a checkout counter at Whole Foods in Tarzana. “What aisle is the Torah study on?” he asked.

“Oh, you mean the class with the rabbi? That’s in the back near the nuts,” the woman at the register said.

She wasn’t being pejorative — the Torah study really is in the back near the bulk bins of nuts and trail mix. I should know. I’m the nut teaching Torah in a market on Wednesdays.

In my 20-plus years as a Jewish educator, I never thought I would be teaching Torah in a supermarket. But then again, I am pretty sure that the two dozen or so students who regularly participate in the class never thought they would be studying Jewish text every week, let alone doing so surrounded by organic produce and herbal supplements.

It is an eclectic group of students that continues to grow with each passing week. In addition to the 28-year-old writer, who is not Jewish and joined our group after a few weeks of listening on the periphery, we have a group of 40-something moms who attend after yoga or in the midst of their shopping. There are a few out-of-work men and women who thought lunch and conversation were a good way to fill their now-empty schedules. We are blessed to have at least six grandmothers who add wisdom and perspective to our discussions. We are Jews and non-Jews; members of our congregation, Temple Judea; members of other congregations; the unaffiliated; twice-a-year Jews; minyan makers; lifetime adult learners and first-timers.

There is nothing new in what we are doing. The biblical book of Nehemiah records the return of the Israelites from Babylonian exile in 537 BCE. Among them was Ezra the Scribe, a scholar and leader whose knowledge of Torah was equal to that of Moses. Ezra saw that while the people had returned from Babylon and rebuilt the Temple, they were not making time for Judaism in their lives. They were busy with the pressures of the day — just as we are. And so Ezra had a revolutionary idea. If they wouldn’t come to the Temple, he would bring the Temple to them. And thus began the twice-weekly practices of reading the Torah on Mondays and Thursdays that continues in synagogues to this day.

Why those days? Because those were the market days, when the most people were gathered in the town square, transacting business, meeting, greeting and creating community. Ezra saw this as an opportunity, indeed a mitzvah — a sacred duty to bring Torah to the people. He began to read and teach the Torah and people gathered around to listen. Invariably they would discuss and engage with one another and with the sacred text and it would leave an imprint on their lives. They began to see the world, even if just for that afternoon, through the lens of the Jewish narrative. That perspective informed their business dealings, broadened their worldview, and deepened their relationships with each other and the Holy. It did this in large part because Torah and its teaching met them where they were, physically and spiritually, and were thus immediately relevant to their lives.

Public-space Judaism is a growing trend in North American Judaism. Eva Stern, director of training at the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), says her organization has been promoting the concept for the past seven years. She cites numerous examples of rabbis conducting Talmud study in gyms and civic centers, congregations setting up tables at farmers’ markets during Passover and Chanukah to demonstrate cooking techniques and conduct holiday tastings. Early childhood educators also lead children’s book readings in bookstores and on playgrounds.

“The concept of location can be a barrier to engagement in Jewish life,” Stern said. “Those on the inside don’t often see the barrier that a synagogue building, or walls covered in Hebrew words or lined with Jewish books, can be to someone making that initial step into Jewish learning. Public-space Judaism is meant to be just that a first step along a journey to deeper Jewish knowledge and engagement.”

This is the very idea behind the Torah study at Whole Foods. It’s a way to engage students of Torah where they are, by moving outside the walls of the synagogue and into the routine of their daily lives.

Like most rabbis, I have tried everything short of standing on my head to get people into my shul for prayer or study — certainly many come, and some do so regularly. Still many don’t or won’t, and then there are those who don’t even know it’s an option. I felt an obligation to go to them. And so for 45 minutes every Wednesday, the back tables of Whole Foods Tarzana become our beit knesset, our gathering place.

The students come each week because they have made new friends and connections among a diverse group gathered for a similar purpose. They come each week because the Jewish narrative of Torah gives insight and perspective to their lives. They come each week because it’s easy to drop in.

So the next time you are in the market for community, for connection, for deeper meaning and Jewish learning, stop by Whole Foods in Tarzana. If that’s too far or the time is inconvenient, shop around. With the growing trend of public-space Judaism, you’re bound to find a study group. Indeed, if the movement is successful, we may very well find you.

Dan Moskovitz is a rabbi at Temple Judea (templejudea.com), a Reform congregation in Tarzana.

Terrifying journey marks escape of widow and children


“When I think of the frightening journey I had to take to illegally flee Iran, chills still run down my spine,” said Fahrokh Askari, a 60-something Iranian Jewish grandmother now living in Tarzana.

Her escape from Iran by foot and van through the deserts and mountains into Pakistan is similar to the experiences many local Iranian Jews endured when they fled Iran during the 1980s and 1990s. However, Askari’s stands out for the fact that she was a widow accompanied by three of her children and two other Jewish children when she made her escape, which was dependent on smugglers who left her terrified throughout the entire journey.

The motivation for the escape was triggered at the start of the Iranian revolution, when her husband, Manuchair, a civil engineer specializing in highway construction, was fired from his Ministry of Transportation job because he was Jewish. The leaders of the radical Islamic government in Iran accused him of aiding the shah’s regime by helping to build massive highways and bridges in the country and prosecuted him for two to three years in the newly formed revolutionary courts.

“They tried to imprison him or execute him by searching for some infraction of his, but because he had a clean record of excellent performance, they couldn’t do anything,” Fahrokh Askari said in a recent interview.

Her husband was later asked to return to his post because no one else was qualified to fill it. Manuchair Askari returned temporarily, but as a result of being mistreated by his superiors, he was forced to accept early retirement at age 45. Government officials then prohibited the private sector from employing him in his professional capacity because he was Jewish.

The entire Askari family also was placed on the official government list of people who could not leave the country or even the city of Shiraz, where they resided.

“My husband eventually went into a deep depression because he couldn’t work as a civil engineer, and his private business ventures also failed,” Askari said. “He developed a severe form of diabetes, then later developed cancer and, at the age of 53, died in 1989.”

One year after her husband’s death, Fahrokh Askari found herself a widow with only limited funds, no other family members to help her and no means of supporting herself. She decided to flee Iran and sought the help of smugglers who had helped her brother escape a year before.

In October 1991, she paid the equivalent of $6,000 to a smuggler, and with her three children — two daughters, 10 and 16, and a son 15 — as well as her cousin’s 15-year-old son, she left their home and traveled to the Iranian city of Zahedan, near the Pakistani border. The smugglers had with them a another Jewish boy who was also to be taken across the border.

“We were supposed to meet our smuggler in the middle of the desert road, and all the while the cab driver was telling us horror stories of how the local smugglers in the area were brutal.” Askari said. “This made us even more terrified.”

While they were in the cab, her son saw the smugglers on the side of the road and demanded the cab driver stop immediately, but he refused because he was frightened himself. Eventually, the smugglers arrived with their van, into which they loaded Ashkari and the children. They drove off into the rocky desert to avoid police checkpoints on the main road.

“We finally stopped. We got out and all held hands as we walked on foot,” the widow said. “I can still remember the chattering noise of my children’s teeth during that walk. I also remember our guide telling us every so often to lay down on the ground.”

Askari and the five children were taken to a poorly lit house with two rooms and told to sleep on the floor for the night, before their border crossing the next day into Pakistan.

She said she and the children were surrounded by an all-male group of smugglers that night, and she feared that one of them would harm her children.

“It was one of the longest nights in my life. They kept telling me to go to sleep, but I just could not, because I had young girls with me. Then one of the smugglers came into the room and fell asleep at the entrance,” Askari said.

At daybreak, the lead guide left to obtain a van on the Pakistani side of the border. He left Askari and the children with his relatives, who loaded the group into another van.

They traveled through the wilderness and across dry riverbeds to avoid police checkpoints on the main road. Their van stopped periodically, and the guides gave the driver directions on where to go until they finally crossed a deserted portion of the border into Pakistan.

When the van finally stopped in a desert area inside Pakistan, the smugglers left Askari and the children there alone, promising that their main guide would pick them up later in the day.

“They left us all alone in the middle of the desert with only some fruit and a little water — it was a very hot day, and there was no shade,” she remembered, still feeling the terror.

“I just didn’t know what was going to happen, and the kids were getting restless and fighting with one another — we were all alone for seven to eight hours in the middle of nowhere,” she said.

Finally, their original guide picked them up, and they were taken to a series of safe houses in the small, lawless villages along the Pakistani border, which were populated by smugglers and criminals. At every home, she said her heart sank with mind-numbing fear that one of the criminals in the homes might at anytime harm her or the children.

“In one home, one large and tall man, the height of an NBA basketball player, entered the room drunk with a bottle of whiskey in one hand, a cigarette in the other one hand, and he sat next to me,” she said. “He was drinking the whiskey like it was water, offering it to me, and I was terrified that this drunk ogre would try to do something crazy to me or my kids.”

The smugglers were having difficulty transporting the family, because fighting had broken out between the tribal groups in the city of Queta, making travel very dangerous. Nevertheless, her guides managed to get the family to Queta and then onto a train to Karachi, where she was to meet members of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) for help.

Since the mid-1980s HIAS had been stationed in Pakistan, helping Jewish refugees who escaped Iran. After three months in Pakistan and several months in Vienna, Askari immigrated with her children to the United States, where she received asylum.

She said she still considers her escape from Iran a miracle.

“It was a horrible, horrible experience. Every moment was full of fear that I just cannot describe to you, and I had young children with me, too,” Askari said. “We had no clue where we were going. We sat in a van in the middle of the desert for long hours, and they could have done anything they wanted to do us — but fortunately nothing bad happened to us.”

Briefs: Journalist: West Is losing ‘War of Ideas;’ Daniel Pipes comes to Pepperdine


Journalist: West Is Losing War of Ideas

The conflict between the West and terrorist Islam is not about terrorism, land or economic grievances but about fundamental ideas — and the West is losing.

So posits Melanie Phillips, a feisty British journalist, who backed up her thesis in an hour of rapid-fire arguments and examples at UCLA on Monday.

Phillips is the author of “Londonistan,” a book that has triggered heated discussions in her native country by indicting the alleged blindness and fecklessness of British society in the face of an increasingly hostile Islam at home and abroad.

Under the banner of “multiculturalism,” academe, the church and the media have transformed the meaning of the term from a decent respect for all cultures to the politically correct rule that the minority is always right and the majority always wrong, Phillips said.

In Britain, Europe and the United States, conventional thinking now has it that no religious or social demand by an aggrieved Muslim population can be refused because they are the victims of oppression.

“This is the dialogue of the demented,” she declared.

While most Muslims are not terrorists or direct supporters of terrorism, even those mislabeled as “moderates” believe that the Jews dominate the West, that the West wants to destroy Islam, and therefore Jews, as “a metaphysical evil,” are to blame for the Islamic world’s problems, she said.The West, including Israel, has not recognized that Islam wants ultimately to establish a medieval caliphate, and is “ceding the battleground of ideas,” Phillips warned. “We’re on a cliff and going over the edge.”

During an extended question-and-answer period, only one person, Hillel Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, suggested a more conciliatory approach toward Islam.

The rest of the audience of some 70 students and faculty seemed supportive of Phillips’ arguments. There were no hostile questioners, as those who might have been were likely occupied with the simultaneous opening of Islamic Awareness Week on campus — whose main lectures carried such titles as “Qur’an (Koran): The True Message of Jesus” and “Muhammad: The Inheritor of the Judeo-Christian Tradition.”

Sponsoring Phillips’ appearance were Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a national pro-Israel organization that has just formed a UCLA chapter, the UCLA Political Science department and the activist group StandWithUs.

Phillips also spoke in the evening at the Wilshire Theater, at a public event sponsored by the American Freedom Alliance and the Temple of the Air, part of her national tour with stops in New York, Detroit and Atlanta.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Islamists’ Critic Comes to Pepperdine

Middle East expert Daniel Pipes, who is among most prominent scholars to have warned of the growing threat of radical Islam to the West before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a lightening rod for criticism among some Muslim groups, is spending the spring semester at Pepperdine University in Malibu as a visiting professor. Pipes, who received his doctorate from Harvard, is teaching a graduate seminar on Islam and politics.

The founder and director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank that publishes Middle East Quarterly, Pipes has won supporters for his warnings of possible dangers emanating from the Muslim world. Some Muslim groups have characterized him as intolerant.

“Over the years, Pipes has exhibited a troubling bigotry toward Muslims and Islam,” said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights group. “He perceives Islam, and not just extremism, as a threat.”

Pipes said CAIR is a radical organization that “lies.” He rejects the notion that he is anti-Islam.

Through his writings and speeches, Pipes has waged a multi-pronged campaign against “Islamists,” whom he argues want to subvert democracy and impose Islamic law on their respective societies.

“My effort is to try and isolate them,” Pipes said, “and convince politicians, the media, the academy and other institutions that this is an outlook that should be spurned, shunned.”

— Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

Wiesenthal Center Adds Persian-Language Information

Following an Iranian government-sponsored conference late last year questioning the existence of the Holocaust, local Iranian Jewish activists have provided a Persian-language translation of 36 questions and answers regarding the Holocaust for the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Web site (www.wiesenthal.com/36questionsinfarsi). Iranian Jewish activist George Haroonian provided the translation, directed at Iranians surfing the site for facts about the Shoah.

“This is important because we not only need to counter the propaganda and lies being spread by the Iranian government about the Holocaust, the Jewish people and Israel, but we also need to present younger Iranians with the truth,” Haroonian said, adding that he hopes the translations will encourage other Web sites to repost the information for those who do not understand English.

Haroonian’s Council of Iranian Jews collaborated with the Wiesenthal Center last year by inviting Persian-language media outlets based in Los Angeles to visit the Museum of Tolerance to learn about the Holocaust.

In the last two years, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly denied the Nazi genocide and called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.”

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Web Archive Brings Voices of Past to Present

Want to listen in on conversations with the late Bella Abzug, George Burns and Abba Eban? Want to watch a video of the historic Freedom Sunday Rally for Soviet Jewry in 1987, when 250,000 Jews from around the country gathered in support of their Russian brethren? Want to listen to a broadcast of a Jewish religious service conducted by American GIs on liberated German soil?

Thanks to the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) new archival Web site (www.ajcarchives.org), you now can with only a few clicks of a computer mouse.

Betty Neymark: Second Career From a Second Language


Betty Neymark

Barri Evins

Alex Baum

Betty Neymark

Eve Marcus

Fran Rosenfield

Marilyn Harran

Noah Bleich

Rebecca Levinson

Yehoram Uziel

Yoram Hassid

“Why isn’t Temple Judea doing something like this?” Betty Neymark’s daughter, Nancy, asked her more than 19 years ago, referring to an English as a second language program at a nearby church. That was all the push Neymark needed.

She and her daughter, along with friend and reading specialist Evelyn Stecher, promptly began a program at their Reform synagogue in Tarzana.

On the first day of registration in January 1990, Neymark thought no one would show up. Instead, she encountered a line of people stretching past the Temple’s driveway. Fifty students registered, and Temple Judea’s all-volunteer ESL program was born.

Today that program boasts 150 students, 25 volunteer teachers and five administrators, including Neymark. While her daughter has begun a new career and Stecher has moved away, Neymark remains.

“I just love it. I meet wonderful people. It enhances my life,” said Neymark, who previously worked as a human resources administrator in two school districts.

Those “wonderful people” include the students, primarily from the former Soviet Union, Iran and South America. Most are 50 or older, and they are both Jewish and not. Many are new immigrants. A few have lived here as long as 20 years.

Neymark also has great affection for the teachers, who range in age from 21 to 89. Only two are new this year, and 18 of them have been with program 10 years or more.

The classes are small, with four to seven students. They meet for two hours twice a week, from September to June. In addition to English, students learn about American culture.

“Students come in with no English and then are able to function in society and make their lives better,” said Neymark, noting that many go on to become citizens and to vote.

Temple Judea provides the classroom space. The program is free; students pay only for their textbooks. Donations and a corporate grant cover other expenses.

“I call myself a coordinator,” said Neymark, a 47-year temple member who won’t reveal her age. She registers new students, evaluating their English proficiency and placing them in one of six homogeneous classes, ranging from beginning to conversational English. She also arranges for new teachers to receive 12 hours of training each fall.

Additionally, she publishes a newsletter twice a year for the teachers, holds two faculty meetings a year and organizes the annual faculty party.

Neymark is reluctant to take credit for program’s accomplishments.

“It runs itself,” she said, emphasizing that it’s a team effort. She also refers to her husband, who does all her computer work, as her “secret weapon.”

Hilda Fogelson, a retired Los Angeles Unified School District teacher who has taught in the program for 16 years, said, “Betty is very organized and very professional. That’s why the program is so successful.”

Neymark feels a responsibility to continue to support Temple Judea and the Jewish community.

“I’m not going to fade away any sooner than I have to,” she said.

Mayor Carries Torah to <br>Vandalized Tarzana Synagogue


On Sunday, in the intense heat of a mid-summer day, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, carried a Sephardic Torah for one-half mile along city streets in Tarzana to a new Persian synagogue that had been the victim of an anti-Semitic attack just two days earlier. Police are still investigating the arson attempt, which burned a rear door of Beith David Education Center on Clark Street, as well as anti-Jewish graffiti left at the scene, as a hate crime.

Villaraigosa was joined in the procession and the celebration of the new facility’s opening by L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, City Councilmen Jack Weiss and Dennis Zine, Simon Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean Abraham Cooper and Anti-Defamation League’s West Coast Director Amanda Susskind, as well as more than 300 congregants. The group carried 10 Torahs from the center’s original Reseda Boulevard location to the new building on Clark Street. The politicians and Cooper helped carry the Torahs along Reseda and Ventura boulevards in triple-digit temperatures.

RELATED STORIES


* Beith
David Ceremony:
Photo Essay by Adam Wills

* Arsonist
Attacks Persian Synagogue in Tarzana

Friday, July 7, 2006

“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 Yaroslavsky, “‘If you do this 100 more times, you’ll be a Jew.'”

At the Clark Street shul, public officials took their places on the bimah as congregants engaged in celebratory ululation, throwing candy and crowning the Torah cases with lilies and other flowers.

In his address to the congregation, Villaraigosa referred to a call he’d made to the mayor of Sderot on Thursday, which was interrupted by a Kassam rocket attack, to call attention to how innocent Jews are still targets of hate, regardless of where they are in the world.

“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.”

Zine, whom Beith David vice president Parviz Hakimi referred to as the shul’s own godfather for his strong support of the congregation during its two-year battle with local residence over parking issues, announced he would introduce a motion in the City Council to post a reward of $50,000 to find the arsonist.

“Our mayor has told me he would sign that motion,” Zine said. “We need to bring this person or individuals to justice. We will not tolerate that in the city of Los Angeles.”

During a tour of the synagogue’s damage, the mayor noted how the perpetrator had misspelled the anti-Jewish graffiti.

“It shows the level of ignorance of the person who did this,” Villaraigosa told The Journal.

 

Farmar Trades Bruin Blue for Laker Purple


What could be better? Los Angeles’s own Jewish Jordan — Jordan Farmar — is here to stay.

The Los Angeles Lakers has drafted Farmar, who made headlines as a sophomore point guard at UCLA, in the first round and as the No. 26 overall pick. Thus, though the Bruin bear must wave his paw goodbye to Farmar, L.A. fans can rejoice in the up-and-comer’s continued presence here.

The 19-year-old Farmar is a native Angeleno; he grew up in Van Nuys and graduated from Taft High School, where, as a senior, he averaged 27 points per game and became a Valley superstar by leading the school to its first Los Angeles City title. As a freshman at UCLA, he averaged 13.2 points and 5.3 assists and earned the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honor. In his sophomore year Farmar averaged 13.5 points and 5.1 assists, led the Bruins to their NCAA championship game against the Florida Gators and was named a first-team All Pac-10 performer.

A self-described non-religious Jew, Farmar told The Journal’s Carin Davis in a prior interview that he is proud of his Jewish heritage. His mother and stepfather, Melinda and Yehuda Kolani, raised him in a Jewish home, and his upbringing was complemented by both a bar mitzvah at Temple Judea in Tarzana and trips to Israel. Farmar’s biological father, Damon Farmar, a former minor league baseball player, is not Jewish.

Farmar stands a natural leader at 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds and has been extensively covered in the Daily Bruin since before his entrance into “>Farmar told The Journal in March. “To always have some people behind you is a great thing. It helps you out defensively, with intensity, and gives you that extra edge.”

Arsonist Attacks Persian Synagogue in Tarzana


Police have labeled as an arson-related hate crime a fire ignited early
Friday at the rear door of a yet-to-open Persian synagogue in Tarzana.
Investigators found anti-Semitic graffiti at the scene, as well as a
burnt door and trash.

The attack came two days before the grand opening of Beith David Education Center’s new building. Congregants are scheduled to carry Torahs from the shul’s original location nearby at Reseda Boulevard to the new home in the
18600 block of Clark Street
on Sunday, July 9.

Parviz Hakimi
“I hope the people who have done it, they come to their senses,” said Parviz Hakimi, the synagogue’s vice president, who hopes those responsible will turn themselves in.

The blaze was started at 3 a.m. using a pile of discarded carpet scraps and cardboard boxes that had been moved to directly beneath the oak front 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. Damage was limited to the door.

Hakimi said the initial damage estimate is $4,000, enough to classify the crime as a felony.

Anti-Semitic graffiti was found on a retaining wall of the building as well as on a window that looks into a room where Kohanim wash their hands and feet.

A joint House of Worship Task Force that includes detectives from the LAPD’s criminal conspiracy section, L.A. Fire Department investigators, as well as FBI and ATF officials were first on the scene after a congregant living nearby called police at 6:30 a.m. Officials are still investigating and currently have no suspects.

Because construction has not been completed at Beith David, the building is presently without a security camera system. However, LAPD detective Ray Morales said police were able to collect forensic evidence at the scene that could help investigators identify the arsonist.

Following an inquiry by the mayor’s office and City Councilman Dennis Zine, the LAPD reported that patrols of the area will be stepped up in advance of the new shul’s Sunday ceremony.

“I’m horrified to see this, especially because this is my community. It’s a very sad day,” said Fortuna Ippoliti, area director of neighborhood and community services for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

“It’s probably some misguided kids,” Tarzana Neighborhood Council President Leonard Shaffer said as he looked over the scene. “It’s really ridiculous.”

The attack comes three years after a string of arsons in a nearby area targeted The Iranian Synagogue, Da’at Torah Educational Center, as well as the Conservative shul Valley Beth Shalom. There have also been attacks on the nearby First Presbyterian Church of Encino and the Baha’i Faith Community Center. Farshid Tehrani, an Iranian Jewish immigrant allegedly suffering from depression, was arrested in connection with those crimes in May 2003.

Beith David Education Center’s journey to the new location has been a long one. After a years-long battle over parking that has kept the congregation in its Reseda Boulevard location, Hakimi says nothing will stop the congregation from moving to Clark Street.

The synagogue purchased the former post-office building for $1 million in 2002, but L.A. City Council approval for the new structure turned into a two-year battle. The Tarzana Property Owners Association claimed the Orthodox synagogue would require at least 150 parking spaces, claiming that members followed a more 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.

Following City Council approval of the Clark Street site in 2004, the Beith David congregation has devoted the last year and a half and has spent a $1.2 million on renovation of the building in advance of its grand opening. Beith David has limited the advertising of the Sunday event to Radio Iran 670 AM, a local Iranian newspaper and word-of-mouth among congregants.

Like Shaffer, Beith David Vice President Hakimi believes the targeting of his synagogue was likely a hate-crime by youths and not a targeted attack related to the City Council battle or animosity toward Persians.

“This is an isolated situation, and it doesn’t reflect on the community that we live in. That is my hope,” Hakimi said. “But it’s a very sad incident.”

 

Principal for a Day, Lesson for a Lifetime


 

This Wednesday dawns as another tough, typical grind for the principal of the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies (SOCES). There’s the 7:15 a.m. arrival and the 10 p.m. departure. Then there’s the picket line set up by half the teaching staff. And later, the little problem of not having eye washes in science classrooms in case experiments go dangerously wrong.

It’s a lot more than Kenn Phillips could have bargained for when he accepted this gig as principal. Lucky for him, he doesn’t have to come back tomorrow.

That’s because Phillips isn’t the real principal, but merely principal for a day. Phillips is among more than 200 professionals who arranged to shadow principals as part of a Los Angeles Unified School District effort to create alliances between businesses and schools. Phillips is getting an early start with his mid-March stint. Nearly all of the other short-timers are serving on Tuesday, March 29.

At the Center for Enriched Studies, the Principal-for-a-Day ritual has a distinctly Jewish cast. Phillips, a 46-year-old businessman, is Jewish, and so is the actual principal, 56-year-old Robert Weinberg. SOCES, as the school is called, has a sizable contingent of Jewish students, an estimated 20 percent. He considers character education, often expressed through religious traditions, to be at the core of developing responsible young adults. His sign-off after announcements wishes students a good day and reminds them “character counts.”

SOCES, in Tarzana, is not a district trouble spot by any measure. Its test scores are among Los Angeles’ best; its students almost universally attend college. But that doesn’t make the principal’s job easy, as Phillips learns.

Not that Weinberg is complaining. He’s entirely immersed in his role.

“Most people, when they come to this school,” Weinberg says, “find it’s a magical kind of place.”

OK, it’s not so magical to find 35 teachers picketing, but they’re not mad at the principal, only upset over several years without pay raises. And the cause of the 10 p.m. departure is a concert, a special event that Weinberg is pleased lose sleep for. As for the eye washes — Weinberg can handle that, too. By day’s end, he decides to spend grant money to buy them. He’s got plenty of other potential uses for those funds, but safety, he concludes, has to come first.

Phillips’ visit quickly becomes an exchange of ideas, a sharing of experiences. Phillips has shadowed a principal seven times: “It’s important that I understand what Bob, the teachers and students are thinking, because when I meet with people at a very high level, they don’t know the pulse of what’s going on,” said Phillips, a director at the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley.

So, at 10:15 a.m., when Weinberg grabs his walkie-talkie and heads outside, Phillips, mobile phone strapped to his belt, follows. Phillips is dressed smartly, sleekly, in a business suit and gleaming blue tie. Weinberg, by contrast, is large — 6-foot-8 — and more rumpled. He’s known for occasionally dressing up as “Bob the Builder.”

Weinberg leans against a railing at the center of campus, while teachers and many of the school’s 1,750 students stream by. SOCES is known for a student body that ranges in age from 10 to 18. Little girls, dressed in pink, snack on bagels, while a high school couple walks past with arms draped around one another. A teenage boy sitting on a bench plays guitar.

“What are we doing?” Phillips asks.

“We’re doing supervision,” Weinberg answers. “If kids want to talk to me, they have access.”

“Hey, Mr. Weinberg,” says a redheaded sprout. “Have a peanut M&M. I bought them, so you could have one.”

Weinberg obliges.

The bell sounds and students dart in every direction. Weinberg stays in place, issuing tardy slips.

But he’s not just giving a demonstration in school administration. He wants to hear Phillips’ ideas on education. Businesses need students with better communication and teamwork skills, Phillips says, and with a stronger commitment to ethics. During part of the day, he will share these beliefs with a class of high schoolers.

Weinberg leads Phillips down a hallway, explaining that advanced students can take classes at Pierce College in Woodland Hills.

“Have you thought about adding a bungalow here, so that instead of kids going to Pierce, you’d have [the instructors] come here?” Phillips asks.

“No, but that’d be great,” Weinberg says.

As they walk through an outdoor cafeteria, Phillips asks, “Do you have an active PTA?”

Weinberg, in his fifth year here, says the school has no PTA at all, but he’d like to establish one.

“If you need help, I’ll see if we can make that work for you,” Phillips says.

He explains that a president of the association sits on his company’s board.

The two step into an auditorium blaring with music, where orchestra students rehearse for the evening’s concert. Weinberg points out how he renovated the place with contributions from corporate sponsors.

When it’s time for the two to part, Weinberg lumbers through one door to “do supervision,” while Phillips glides through a different one to return to his world of business.

Before he leaves, Phillips asked: “If you had all the money in the world, what would you do?”

Weinberg says he would reduce class sizes, add more time to the school year and get every teacher to believe that any student can learn.

If Phillips and his corporate associates could help accomplish those things, he’d be welcome to stand in as principal any day.

 

Off the Bimah: A Concerted Effort


With her slender figure, long, shining strawberry-blonde hair and big hazel eyes, Alison Wissot looks more like a stage ingénue than most people’s conceptions of a cantor — not surprising, since that’s what she was 10 years ago.

Wissot’s cantorial career is off to a brilliant start: Less than three years after graduating from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Sacred Music in New York, she is filling the largest Reform cantorial pulpit in the San Fernando Valley, the 1,300-household Temple Judea in Tarzana and West Hills.

But the girl who loves to sing pop music and theater pieces is only a step away from the bimah, and Wissot, a regular on the local Jewish concert scene, is preparing for two events during the next few weeks.

The first, an annual fundraiser for Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park this Saturday, features Wissot, Cantor Patti Linsky of Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge and Temple Isaiah’s Cantor Evan Kent singing music of the 1970s, in a program called, “What I Did for Love.”

The other, on March 21 at the Museum of the American West in Griffith Park, has Wissot on a roster with four other vocalists. In that concert, which celebrates Women’s History Month in March and the imminence of Passover and features selections by female composers, the performers will “weave the stories of the songs through Pesach,” said Ari Perelmuter, cantor at Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach and music director for the event.

There’s been a proliferation of cantorial concerts in greater Los Angeles and other American Jewish population centers during the past eight to 10 years, an increase that seems to correlate with the increase of congregational singing in synagogue worship and the decline of the cantor’s role as the main supplier of music in the service.

“Jewish music has become so much less ‘performative’ that we as performers need to get opportunities to perform somewhere else,” Wissot told The Journal.

Not that she thinks that’s a bad thing.

“I think it’s great that congregations are doing more singing,” Wissot said. “I think it’s equally great that we have an opportunity as cantors to find the things that fulfill us as performers off the bimah.

“Those of us who are doing these concerts, I think, tend to be more fulfilled in our jobs,” she continued. “If you’re a singer, you have to sing, and if you don’t get a chance to sing, you’re gonna feel as if part of you has been cut off. But if you get to express this incredible wealth of Jewish music and other kinds of music as a singer off the bimah … then you get to come to shul and really pray.”

Wissot, 32, a native Angeleno who grew up at Stephen S. Wise Temple, began her career as an actress in London, where she spent part of her final year of college. Returning stateside, she appeared in off-Broadway plays and regional theater, playing such roles as Eva Peron in “Evita” and Lily in “The Secret Garden.”

But Wissot burned out on life in the theater after only a couple of years.

“I loved theater, and I wasn’t burned out on the craft of theater,” she said. “I sort of flashed forward to my 30s and having done a lot of regional theater and not having done Broadway or having done a Broadway role and not gotten another one in a couple of years, and then what would I be doing?”

That revelation helped bring her to the cantorate.

“I want to make a difference in people’s lives, and I want to know that I’m making a difference,” Wissot said. “Part of my being able to do it again and again is looking into somebody’s eyes and knowing … that something I did mattered.”

Wissot, whose repertoire stretches from traditional chazzanut to songs sung by pop artists such as Celine Dion, said she’ll continue to concertize throughout her career.

“Concerts, no matter how much work has to go into preparing for them, put me on a high,” she said. “That high can last six months, a year. Concerts are like taking care of yourself, and it’s a great way to take care of yourself, because other people love to listen. Then once you do that, you feel full. The well has been filled, and other people can draw from that well for the next year or so because you have something to give again.”

For Herschel Fox, a generation older, participation in cantorial concerts is just as joyous an experience, but their success represents more of a loss to synagogue music.

Since his arrival as cantor at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino in 1981, Fox has produced yearly concerts, in recent years featuring some of the most prominent names among traditional cantors from around the world.

This Sunday night, VBS will host a concert that includes Alberto Mizrahi, the Chicago cantor often billed as “the Jewish Pavarotti,” and Benjamin Warschawski of Boca Raton, Fla., a 28-year-old tenor who, Fox told The Journal, is potentially another Richard Tucker or Jan Peerce: an established cantor who will make the transition to opera. Fox and his wife, Judy, cantor of the Synagogue for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles, will also perform.

Fox’s concerts, in which most of the music comes from the traditional cantorial repertoire, leavened with opera arias and American and Yiddish theater songs, play to houses packed with the same fans who sell out halls for touring programs like “The Three Jewish Tenors.”

“I think it’s partly nostalgia,” he said. “The Europeans who come say, ‘Oy, I heard it when I was a child in Europe.’ But for many American Jews who did not grow up with it, they’ve come to realize that it is a phenomenal musical treasure of the Jewish people, and they love it. It’s as exciting as opera — in some ways more exciting, because the guy puts his heart into it and he can improvise within the piece.”

But the same people who love to hear chazzanut in concert, Fox said, aren’t looking for it in their synagogues and aren’t getting it. “Sadly, in the traditional synagogues, you hear less and less world-class cantorial music,” he said.

Fox attributes the decline to several factors. In Orthodox synagogues, he said, congregants want to speed through the liturgy, and cantorial singing takes time. Only a fraction of Orthodox shuls hire cantors any more, Fox added.

In the Conservative movement, he said, many small congregations can’t afford cantors, depending on the rabbi and laypeople to lead the chanting. Large synagogues have cantors, but on a typical Shabbat morning, there’s a bar or bat mitzvah in the main sanctuary, attended by people who aren’t especially interested in hearing the cantor hold forth, with perhaps an alternative minyan in another room, led by laypeople who can daven correctly and efficiently but are usually not equipped to scale the heights of the cantorial repertoire.

Fox, 58, was born in Uzbekistan, the child of Polish refugees who brought him to Winnipeg, Canada, at age 4. He learned his craft the old way, as one of a group of boys gathered around the cantor in his Orthodox shul; at 25 he moved to New York and studied privately with a leading teacher of chazzanut.

Now, he says, “the atmosphere of chazzanut, that European atmosphere which I grew up with in Winnipeg, does not even exist any longer in Winnipeg.”

Still, Fox doesn’t brood about the decline of chazzanut. He’s had a parallel career in Yiddish-flavored cabaret since he was 13, playing synagogues, clubs, resorts and cruise ships, solo and with his wife.

“Always a challenge for me: new audience, you meet with the band an hour before the show to put together the show,” he said. “I’ve been very lucky to have a dual career as a cantor and as an entertainer. I love both.”

Fox knows, after all, that there’s an audience for that old-time chazzones; he’s known it since his first all-cantorial concert in 1996 packed 1,300 people into VBS and turned away another 350 at the door.

“They’re not hearing it in shul, so at a concert, they went bananas,” he said, “and they go bananas year after year.”

Temple Isaiah’s fundraiser, “What I Did for Love,” will begin at 6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21, at the UCLA Faculty Club. Advance tickets required: call (310) 277-2772.

“And the Cantors Sing!” will take place Sunday, Feb. 22, 7 p.m., at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For information, call (818) 530-4091.

“Scenes of Worship: A Musical Celebration of Passover”
is scheduled Sunday, March 21, 6:30 p.m., at the Museum of the American West,
4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles. For reservations, call TicketWeb at
(866) 468-3399 or visit www.ticketweb.com .

Alzheimer’s Home


Imagine you are 90 years old and the world you once knew, even your own home, feels like a frightening and unfamiliar place. Sometimes you find it hard to recognize even your closest family members. You don’t understand why people get angry when you wander away or when you cannot finish a sentence. You may be fit physically, but psychologically you are at a loss — and so are your family and friends.

Imagine you move to a small, lovely village. There are strangers there, but they are gentle and caring. There are places to walk, and no one gets angry if you get a little lost. They just calmly lead you back to where you need to be. When you are in the mood, there is plenty to do, but no one gets angry when you just want to sit. Best of all, your family doesn’t seem so worried anymore.

This scenario is the aim of the new Goldenberg-Ziman Special Care Center located at the Jewish Home for the Aging’s Eisenberg Campus in Tarzana. The project began after the destruction of the campus’ Pavilion Building in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. After years of fighting with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the agency and the home reached a settlement for $750,000. The remaining funds for the $13 million facility were donated by supporters, including Paul Goldenberg, Ruth Ziegler and Richard and Daphna Ziman.

“We wanted to create something that was about living, not about waiting to die,” Daphna Ziman said at the facility’s dedication held April 14.

The differences between the Goldenberg-Ziman center and an ordinary hospital for dementia patients are apparent from the moment one walks in. The lobby is circular and designed to appear like that of a fine hotel. Hallways branching out from the lobby lead to little “neighborhoods.” The facility can hold up to 96 patients and is already fully booked, according to Jewish Home for the Aging CEO Molly Forrest.

Forrest said the home’s staff and board of directors used the years between the earthquake and building the new facility to study ways to make the center a showcase for the care and treatment of Alzheimer’s patients.

“A lot of the research talked about the need to develop within these types of structures a town central,” Forrest explained, walking through the lobby on a recent tour of the facility. “The resident can come out of their room to a smaller, family area or cluster and then follow a pathway down to the town central, where we have a restaurant, a gift shop, a petit cafe where you can get a nosh and the nursing station, which is really intended to resemble a concierge desk.”

The lobby also contains a player piano. The cafe, which doubles as a volunteer office, will have a deli case with muffins and tea or coffee available and a stand for newspapers and magazines outside.

“Some people might say, ‘Isn’t that silly?'” Forrest said. “But a lot of what people with dementia do is to do what feels normal, even though they cannot participate.

“My mother carried a book every place, even though she could no longer follow a story enough to read, because in the past, she always carried a book in her purse. If I were a gentleman with Alzheimer’s, it might feel very normal to pick up a newspaper and tuck it under my arm and then go have a little cup of tea or a bite to eat and sit and watch people go by. That’s what we want to give them an opportunity to do,” she said.

The gift shop will maintain a lost and found (dementia patients frequently misplace their belongings), plus baskets with items like shampoos and little soaps and toothbrushes so patients can “shop.” A menu is posted outside the dining room to give the feel of a fine restaurant, and all the food, like that served in the Jewish Home’s other dining halls, is kosher.

Designers and staff spent a great deal of time on what Forrest calls “way-finding measures.” The three clustered areas of rooms each have their own distinct color scheme and themes: one has kind of an ice cream-social feel to it, another one will feature music and musical instruments and the third will have a library theme. Forrest said the home is one of the first facilities in California to adopt the neighborhood cluster concept.

Initially, some features appear unusual. In the center of each cluster area is a box that will be filled with stuffed animals, scarves, hats and jewelry, “so if residents want to rummage in the box and put something on or take something and wander away, it’s OK,” Forrest said. “By having them in each area, we allow the residents to do something that feels like a normal activity. I mean, how many times a day do you pick up something from one room and carry it to another?”

The box can also double as a toy box for children coming to visit grandparents and great-grandparents. “If children come, it’s a place for them to play dress-up or be entertained. It encourages families to take ownership of the space,” she said.

Along the same lines, each cluster also contains a family room and a kitchenette, where visiting family members and friends can prepare snacks.

The residents’ rooms are spacious and combine hospital beds and safety railings with hotel-style armoires and paintings, kind of a combination Sheraton and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The most striking feature of the rooms is the large picture window, which Forrest said was necessary to offset “sundowning,” a state of increased agitation, activity and violent behavior that occurs late in the day and affects many dementia patients. Increased light, particularly natural light, is thought to help decrease the more severe symptoms associated with sundowning.

The attention to detail carries over to the exterior, where walkways weave through gardens and gazebos, providing yet another path for “wanderers.” A unit on the second floor of the facility will serve as a respite center for the community. Relatives and other caregivers who need a break or must go out of town can call and reserve a room for their loved one for a few days. The second floor also maintains a unit dedicated to “end of life” patients, so residents of the home can spend their final days in comfortable surroundings, with accommodations for loved ones (such as chairs that fold out into single beds).

With the number of Alzheimer’s patients increasing (current estimates show about 4 million people in the United States suffer from the disease and other dementia disorders), the need for specialized facilities such as the care center is on the rise. However, Forrest said that only a very small number — about one-sixth of Alzheimer’s patients — will ever need the level of care provided at the facility.

Forrest “But if having a family living room here means that a family member will come and stay for an hour instead of doing that famous ‘I stopped by to visit mom,’ which is ‘I kissed her on the cheek, felt bad about how she was just sitting there and then I left,’ [then] I will be very, very happy.”

Deaf Synagogue Relocates


Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf (TBS) has a new home. The congregation, which for 35 years was located in Arleta, is now renting space at Temple Judea in Tarzana.

The congregation had been under pressure for several years to sell its Arleta property and finally had a buyer but no new site, according to temple administrator Jan Seeley. Then Rabbi Bruce Raff, Judea’s religious school director — who has also been serving as spiritual leader for TBS — stepped in with an offer from Judea’s senior rabbi, Don Goor, to use the synagogue’s library for its services.

Seeley said the final service at TBS’ old location was an emotional experience, with congregants sharing stories and memories of the synagogue’s rich history.

“The hardest part was going into an unknown and giving up our own place,” Seeley said. “We were one of the few independent deaf synagogues in the United States, so that was a real loss for our members. But after they saw the place and met with the people at Judea, they began to get really excited and embraced this move.”

More than half of TBS’ 130 members live in the San Fernando Valley area, according to Seeley, who hopes through the new location to be able to offer more and varied activities for both older and younger congregants. TBS will share an interpreted Shabbat service once a month with its host synagogue and plans to offer classes in sign language for Temple Judea members, in order to improve communication between the two groups.

“One of the nice things about this arrangement is that there are TBS members who are hard of hearing as well as hearing members of deaf families who miss the music, and Temple Judea has a wonderful cantor,” Seeley said. “It’s just one of the ways we will be able to fulfill more needs.”


Multimedia Seder

Community seders can be especially challenging for deaf people who must juggle reading and looking to an interpreter.

In what is sure to become a model program, the Jewish Deaf Community Center (JDCC) — with grants from Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation and the Ruth and Allen Ziegler Foundation — will once again use multimedia technology to bridge this synchronization gap at their Sixth Annual Community Seder. Large video screens, placed at opposite ends of the hall, will broadcast passage readings karaoke-style so that everyone can follow along.

The Sixth Annual Community Seder will be held at Burbank Temple Emanu El on Wed., April 19. For more information, call (818) 845-9934 (TTY), (818) 845-9935 (voice); or send e-mail to jdccnews@aol.com. — Adam Wills, Associate Editor