A new approach to Jewish mothering

My teenage son would not be excited about my writing this at his desk, or my being in his room at all. But he started high school last week and I can’t believe it.

Ours is not an empty nest, but I know how soon it will become one, and I just wanted to sit with his stuff around me. I’m lying about that last part. There is no way I could long for my son’s “stuff” because it’s everywhere: the sneakers, the headphones, the endless stream of water glasses he fills to the top with ice, sips and abandons.

No, I am sitting in his room because I am hoping to be inspired. I am sitting in the exact spot where my desk used to be before we ripped out my office to put in his private lair — I mean bedroom. I did a lot of writing in this small corner of our house over the past decade, including a book about the need for laughter in marriage.

Dumb, dumb, shortsighted, dumb.

It’s not that we don’t need to laugh in marriage; we most definitely do, but a mere few years later I see now I was focused on the wrong family dynamic. The relationship you really need to pull out the clown car for is the one with your teenager.

I first heard the phrase “family dynamic” in a therapist’s office in Connecticut, circa 1975. I remember all four members of my family squeezing onto a couch across from an ancient-looking woman, probably 40, dressed in soft separates and nodding a lot. We had just moved from New York City, a decision only my father was happy about. I was still young enough to roll with it, but my mother, a native New Yorker like the one Donna Summer was singing about in her top-40 hit, was eating scrambled rage and toast for breakfast, and my sister was in the middle of her 13th year, already hit by the hormonal wrecking ball of being a teenager.

That was, I have no doubt now, the straw that broke the Klein camel’s back.

To date, our family dynamic is healthy enough without an outside ringleader, mostly because we find laughing together as therapeutic as my mother found spending her Saturdays at Loehmann’s. The unit is fine, but as the school year kicks off, I’m the one who’s feeling meshugge. Not just because I can’t stop the march of time, but also because I can’t seem to find the line between concerned parent and overbearing Jewish mother, a cliché I am deathly afraid of becoming. If you’ve seen any Woody Allen movie made before he married his girlfriend’s daughter, you would be too. He always features at least one loud, nagging, unattractive Jewish mother who is eating something greasy while telling her children to “stand up straight,” “do something about the pimples” and “marry rich.” In fact, I go out of my way to behave quite the opposite as a mother: I proudly aspire to be  “underbearing,”

The boys are back in school this week, which means I am privy to a lot more parenting conversations that I often feel I have to slowly back away from for fear of exposing my laissez-faire style.

“What do you mean you don’t read your son’s texts after he goes to bed?” one of the moms I know from temple asked me recently.

“I mean I don’t read my son’s texts when he goes to bed.”

“But … but … ” she looked at me like there was a burning bush in my house that I was ignoring.

“I’m not going to walk in his room and grab his phone after he’s asleep,” I added.

“Walk in his room? You let him keep his phone in his room at night?” another one chimed in.  “Haven’t you seen ‘Screenagers’ ”?

“Um … no. And yes. He keeps it in a charger by his window.”

“I’ll bet he does,” the first one said.

“What kind of a Jewish mother are you?” No. 2 added, tossing her highlighted hair back and laughing.

“A lame one, I guess,” I said, half-jokingly while heading to my car, breaking a non-peri-menopausal sweat.

Will my fear of becoming a Jewish cliché be my son’s undoing? Leaving him vulnerable to cyberpredators? To a debilitating lack of sleep as he scrolls endlessly in the wee hours of the night? To a stream of naked selfies from girls that he forwards to his friends — and then gets caught and arrested for trafficking in child porn?

I suddenly found myself looking back fondly to a simpler time when being a Jewish mother meant worrying that your precious child was going to get sick from snot-nosed kids on the bus, or that he didn’t get enough lox on his bagel. Or praying to God silently — sometimes not so silently — for him to find a nice Jewish girl to marry.

That’s how I ended up at his desk, you know, to write, of course. And, perhaps, to take a more “CSI: Teenager” approach to my Jewish mothering.

The cast of “Dog Sees God” (from left): Zoe D’Andrea, Charlotte Weinman, Judy Durkin, Gabriel Nunag, Chandler David, James Sanger, Joey Maya Safchik and Corey Fogelmanis. Photo by Erin Flannery

Teens put new twist on adult-themed ‘Dog Sees God’

Last November, Joey Maya Safchik, 18, a senior at Charter High School of the Arts in Van Nuys, gathered some of her closest theater friends in the living room of her Tarzana home.

They sat on the floor, ate popcorn and read through one of Safchik’s favorite plays, “Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead.” Bert Royal’s racy dramedy, which ran Off-Broadway in New York a decade ago, finds Charles Schulz’s Peanuts gang in the halls of high school dealing with sex, drugs, suicide, bullying and LGBTQ issues.

Safchik knew the play was good but, after studying productions on YouTube, she also knew that much older actors typically played the teen roles. After the reading, she sensed that her young cast could pull it off onstage.

“We just thought, let’s do it as a play,” Safchick recalled recently at a Sherman Oaks cafe.

Seated beside her, 30-year-old Jonah Platt, a West Hollywood-based actor and older brother of Tony Award-winning Ben Platt, beamed like a proud parent.

“That’s the cutest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said, hearing Safchik recount the reading for the first time.

Soon after the living room session, Safchik and three close friends created Worst First Kiss Productions, a socially conscious theater company run by teens for teens. They acquired the rights to put on Royal’s play, raised $3,000 and staged a few performances over a February weekend at the Blank Theatre in Hollywood.

Half of the funds came from a Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles program called “The Teen Innovation Awards,” which supports teen ventures that educate and enrich the Jewish community. The program also connects participants with adult mentors like Platt.

After getting paired with Safchick as her mentor, Platt came to the final performance in February and said he saw potential.

“I got to see everything these kids were bringing to it, but I also got to see everything that wasn’t there yet,” Platt said. “I knew exactly what to do. That really meant digging deeper into the subtext, the character relationships and the individual arcs of the show.”

Platt, who previously played Fiyero in “Wicked” on Broadway, agreed to direct the teenagers, replacing the original director. The transition went smoothly, said Safchick, who plays the character based on Sally, Charlie Brown’s sister, in the production.

As rehearsals with Platt began, he instantly breathed new life into the work, said James Sanger, 19, an Oakwood School alum who plays Beethoven, based on the piano-playing “Peanuts” character Schroeder.

“The more we did this play and the more we worked with Jonah, we found more and more places that could get better,” Sanger said.

The young people’s production company staged six sold-out performances during a two-week run in June as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival.

“We had to turn people away, and I even had to boot my mom out of one,” Safchik said. “She’d already seen it several times, though.”

Coming off the success of that run, the group has scheduled additional shows at the Blank Theatre on July 15, 16, 22 and 23. Worst First Kiss Productions has been donating 15 percent of ticket proceeds to the Genders & Sexuality Alliance Network — formerly the Gay-Straight Alliance. So far, the company has raised $800.

A central storyline of the play is the Charlie Brown character’s questioning and exploration of his sexuality. Safchik believes that performing the play with a cast of teenagers, some of whom are gay or bisexual, can help bring into the open certain topics that are taboo for their age group.

“Part of our company’s initial mission was to choose works that are socially relevant and that we can easily connect to issues that teens face on an everyday basis — and that we see our friends struggle with, especially in school,” she said. “This play really focuses on LGBTQ tolerance and inclusion. I think putting this onstage will really help to remove the stigma of some of these issues. It helps to have young people like us playing the roles too.”

The play is normally performed by older actors in their mid- to late 20s. In fact, Royal, the playwright, has discouraged younger actors from attempting the raunchy, adult-themed material since it premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2004.

At Platt’s invitation, Royal attended one of the June performances and said he was impressed.

“Seeing your beautiful production of the play yesterday made me realize that — in the right hands — this play SHOULD be performed by younger actors,” he said in an email to Platt. “Granted, IF they are as insightful and nuanced and talented as your lot are.”

“I was crying in a restaurant when I read it,” said Safchik, who plans to study journalism at Northwestern University this fall. “I printed it out.”

“Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead” will be performed beginning July 15 at the Blank Theatre. For more information, visit  http://wfkdogseesgod.brownpapertickets.com.


What sex in the Book of Ruth can teach today’s teens

As Jews, we tend to pride ourselves on our tradition’s values and how we pass them on to future generations; values such as education, tzedakahloving the stranger, pursuing justice and tikkun olam, “repair of the world.” But if you were to start a conversation today with a teenager, would you be ready to articulate Jewish values related to dating and sexuality?

Several such values can be gleaned straight from the Book of Ruth customarily read during the holiday of Shavuot, which begins this year on the evening of June 11Best known for its embrace of Ruth as a convert to Judaism and its emphasis on loving-kindness, the Book of Ruth also includes interactions that have a potentially sexual cast to them. It is a text that names what it sees rather than sugarcoats.

For example, here we read about Boaz, a wealthy kinsman of Ruth’s destitute, widowed mother-in-law, Naomi. Boaz invites Ruth, along with other young women, to collect unharvested produce in his fields. He tells Ruth that he has instructed his men not to molest her. Naomi, hearing later that day about Ruth’s gleaning in Boaz’s fields, admits her relief that young men from another field won’t be touching her daughter-in-law.

Later Naomi counsels Ruth to make herself as attractive as possible, to seek out Boaz after his dinner, and to “uncover his feet and lie down.” Boaz was a sexual hero to our ancestors — one who manages to restrain himself for the sake of the dignity and welfare of another. When Ruth identifies herself that night, she calls Boaz her redeemer — someone who can save her, legally, from continued widowhood. But he points out there is an even closer relative in the town, whom he goes to look for as soon as day breaks. We can also infer that nothing of a sexual nature happens between them because of what we know about Boaz from the start: He considers everyone created in the image of God.

This basic Jewish value, in turn, can lead us to Judaism’s view of the potential sacredness of all relationships, including sexual ones. As Rabbi Paul Yedwab teaches in “Sex in the Texts,” his guide for Jewish teenagers, “In our sexual activities, we need to retain our human character – indeed our divine imprint.”

Finding a potential for divine connection in sexual encounters does not make Jewish tradition averse to sex and sexuality; it encourages sexual pleasure. But the Jewish context is bigger than two consenting adults in a bed. It includes remembering in whose image we are created, that we are God’s partners in improving and sanctifying life, and that freedom and responsibility are both essential for authentic relationships that help both partners grow.

Jewish teens, living in a complex world full of competing values, need to hear that the more they are able to connect sex to love and love to respect, the more deeply satisfied and whole both they and their partners will feel. Jewish Women International recently produced “Dating Abuse: Tools for Talking to Teens,” an online video course for parents and teens about healthy relationships, prevention of abuse and proven interventions.

The curriculum notes that teens, especially girls, are “bombarded with the glorification of idealized, romantic, obsessive love” and that many boys are “inundated with hyper-sexualized messages reducing relationships to degrading sex, glorifying control of women’s bodies, and promoting violence.” But it also reminds parents and other trusted adults that they can counteract these influences by sharing their own values with their children.

Although the Book of Ruth is an ancient text told in only four chapters, it can be a source of Jewish values for teens entering the world of dating today. These include the importance of giving actions their right names; for instance, naming any form of coerced or non-consensual sexual activity as abuse. Another is that every human act, even one that seems instinctive and often depicted as a purely physical transaction, deserves the dignity that comes from our being God’s partners. A third is that sex is potentially holy and not something innately shameful.

Of course, the story of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz has much to teach everyone about healthy relationships. JWI’s holiday guide, “Rethinking Shavuot: Women, Relationships, and Jewish Texts” (available as a free download), provides excerpts from the Book of Ruth along with contemporary commentaries and conversation starters, especially for college-age students and adults at all stages of life.

As the Jewish world prepares to celebrate revelation at Shavuot, may we all continue to learn and teach enduring Jewish values that continue to be revealed to us through our conversations with and about our texts.

Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum is a member of JWI’s Clergy Task Force on Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community.

3 teens charged for allegedly throwing rock at kippah wearer in N.Y.

Three teens are being charged with hate crimes after allegedly throwing a rock at a kippah-wearing Jewish man in New York and threatening to kill him.

The teens threw the rock at the Staten Island man a few blocks from an Orthodox synagogue in the borough on Sunday evening, then surrounded and threatened to beat and kill him, the Staten Island Advance reported. They also made derogatory references to his yarmulke, a head covering worn by observant Jewish men.

The man, a doctor, escaped unharmed and the called the police.

Among those arrested was Kareen Cook, 17, of Staten Island, who was charged with aggravated harassment as a hate crime, menacing as a hate crime and criminal possession of a weapon, according to the Advance. Police said he was carrying a knife.

The two others arrested, both 15, are being tried as juveniles; their names were not released.

What’s wrong with March of the Living?

The evening before we visited Auschwitz, over pizza with a group of young people in Oswiecim, the town on whose outskirts lies that infamous symbol, one of my students approached me with tears in her eyes.

Tears are hardly uncommon to visitors of sites of mass death. But for this student — a participant in a weeklong trip to Auschwitz undertaken as part of a course on Holocaust history and literature that I teach at Baruch College in New York City — the trip marked her first time on a plane, her first time in a foreign country, and her first time experiencing an academic setting that didn’t involve a laptop and a classroom located at a busy Manhattan intersection.

Unable or unwilling to bridge these two worlds — a crossing of time and space that seven decades after the war’s end enables a group of American students to casually dine with European counterparts at the edge of history’s most notorious killing center — she felt lost, detached from all that was familiar and unsure of what lay ahead.

Students on our trip were a diverse group, self-identifying as Latina, Jamaican, Polish, Israeli, Moroccan, Mexican and American, among others. By day we toured sites essential to a historical understanding of the Holocaust. In the evening we discussed readings connected to the places we had visited. Some students shared their own journals, which joined Primo Levi and Ruth Kluger as texts for analysis and reflection.

The great advantage of looking at the Holocaust in this way is that it eliminates the notion that this history belongs more to one person than another. This democratic take on the Holocaust makes the experience meaningful, even transformative, for everyone.

Typical Jewish teen tours hold themselves to a poorer standard. Confined to Jewish youth, the trips eliminate the diversity of voices essential to ensure that the imperative of remembrance is broadly observed. Aimed principally at Jewish identity building through the Holocaust, they offer a limited rendering of history, narrow in reach.

Trips like the March of the Living, which completed its 27th iteration in Budapest on Sunday, fail the objective of Holocaust remembrance itself through sheer simplification, making the genocide of European Jewry a subject to be explored among friends rather than the profound wrestling with history and its consequences that it could be. As a former participant in the march, I find its goals around Israel and Jewish identitylaudable. But the very fact that it even has such goals makes it doctrinaire by nature rather than inquiring.

In a diverse intellectual environment like our trip, it is the questions, not the answers, that define the approach. And by sharing the richness of their own varied backgrounds and perspectives, my students discovered that the unavailability of easy answers to the questions posed by the Holocaust is important — essential even — to their learning.

It’s not a comfortable place to be. Learning to live with ambivalence is a hard lesson for undergraduates, but an essential one. After we returned home, one student approached me about the final paper he was struggling to write. The sheer enormity of our trip was proving paralytic. He felt powerless trying to confine his thoughts and analysis in a tidy little paper — a reaction that in itself might be the most important lesson learned.

It may never be possible to fully imagine or understand this history, and doing so surely grows more elusive with time. But by actively studying, analyzing, visiting, speaking and thinking about the Holocaust, by refusing to make a trip to Auschwitz easy or comfortable by fully embracing the intellectual challenge it presents, may be the best way to best remember.

(Jessica Lang is an associate professor of English at Baruch College and the Newman director of the college’s Wasserman Jewish Studies Center.)

Gifted diaspora teens

Growing up in Los Angeles, Asaf Shasha, then 16, had everything a teenager could want: a loving family, good friends and a comfortable home. 

Still, Shasha couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to life than the fancy gadgets prized by the kids at his Jewish day school.   

“Life was becoming very materialistic. Everyone was starting to get their license and cars,” Shasha, now 18 and a high school graduate, recalled recently. “It was a movie life where you were judged by how much you have, how expensive your car is. I didn’t want to get into that. I didn’t want to become that.”

After discussing the issue with his Israeli-born parents, Shasha made a big decision: to finish high school in Israel.

He enrolled in the Naale program (aka the Elite Academy), which in the past 20 years has offered more than 13,000 mature, gifted Diaspora youths a fully subsidized three-year high school experience at one of 26 religious, secular or traditional Israeli boarding schools.

Although fluent in Hebrew, Shasha wanted to be with other teens from English-speaking countries (10 percent hail from the United States, 60 percent from the former Soviet Union and the rest from other nations), so he chose to live and study at the Mosenson Boarding School, on the grounds of the Mosenson Youth Village in Hod Hasharon, whose campus also hosts English-speaking students from other programs.  

The goal of the program “is to connect the students to Israel, to underscore the value of Israel to the Jewish people,” Chaim Meyers, the program’s coordinator at Mosenson, explained during an interview at the leafy campus. 

Roughly 80 percent of Naale students remain in Israel through high school graduation; of these, about 85 percent decide to live in Israel for at least another three years, often in an army uniform or advanced yeshiva program. Of the 15 percent who return to their home countries following graduation, roughly half move back to Israel within a year. 

Regardless of which school they choose, Naale students receive free tuition, room and board, medical insurance, a phone budget to speak to their parents, trips and a one-way ticket to Israel from the Ministry of Education. 

The staff — program coordinators, teachers, counselors, house parents — keep an eagle eye on the teens, virtually all of them living away from home for the first time.   

During their first year in Israel, the students study Hebrew 20 hours a week, in addition to 20 hours of regular coursework, much of which is taught in easy Hebrew.  

“By 11th grade, their second year, they’re studying in Hebrew,” said Ofer Dahan, Naale’s director of development for the Western world. “Everyone studies toward their matriculation and [the academy has] a 93 percent success rate — the highest in Israel.”

The 60 percent of applicants who are accepted to the program must first undergo tests and interviews to gauge their maturity level and their ability to be in a group setting and live away from home. Knowing some Hebrew is helpful but not a prerequisite. 

Once in Israel, students whose families do not live in the country are provided with a host family, where they often spend Shabbat and holidays. 

Floren Avraham’s parents sent her to Israel on the Naale program believing they would join her in a few months. But it took the New Yorkers nearly three years to sell their house and make aliyah (her father is a returning Israeli). 

Taking a seat on the campus’ central lawn, Avraham said she “loved living at home” but that moving on her own to Israel “made me much more independent, more confident, more open. It was an amazing experience, and, looking back, I can’t believe I did it.” 

Avraham’s adjustment was softened by the fact that her grandmother lives just a short walk from the school; her uncle teaches there. 

Unlike Avraham, Kareen Haim decided to move to Israel more out of a sense of adventure than anything else. Her Israeli-born parents are still in Los Angeles, “But they hope to move back to Israel in a few years,” she said. 

“I wanted a change. I went to a fancy school, and I was looking for something more down to earth.  People were snobby and looked down on people like me who aren’t rich.”

Since moving to Israel — which she had visited but didn’t particularly like — Haim has found the people “are a lot warmer than they are in America. And although she has many Israel-based aunts, uncles and cousins, Haim said, “My friends here at Naale have become my family because we rely on each other.” 

Although she calls enrolling in the program the “right decision,” Haim said she wouldn’t have minded a bit more privacy. 

“It’s like living in a small neighborhood where everyone knows everything about you — what you’re eating, what you’re wearing, how late you’re sleeping.” 

The positive side is that “the counselors really care about us; they call us a lot to make sure we’re OK,” Haim said.  

The students emphasized that the decision to attend Israeli boarding school shouldn’t be taken lightly, even by the roughly 50 percent of students who hail from a home with at least one Israeli parent.  

“The adjustment was very, very hard in the beginning, and at some points I wanted to go back home to my parents,” Shasha said of the homesickness he felt. “But thanks to all the support I received from the staff and my parents, and after seeing how happy the 11th- and 12th-graders were, after two months I felt at home.”    

While Dahan said that few if any parents encourage their children to apply to Naale solely to save the cost of a day school education, the fact that the program is free to participants makes boarding school in Israel a viable option.   

Avi Toledano, who oversees Naale at the Education Ministry, said the ministry invests so much into the program because it makes overseas students excited about Israel. 

“The hope is that after the kids come, the family will follow,” Toledano said.

StandWithUs launching new Israel advocacy training for teenagers

The pro-Israel education and advocacy group StandWithUs is launching a new program to help train 48 teenagers from around the U.S. as proactive leaders on their future college campuses.

While StandWithUs has been working with high school students since its founding in 2001, particularly helping them with classroom presentations, the new StandWithUs-MZ Teens Internship Program will break new ground by taking an individualized approach to “teach them a variety of themes and give them a lot of support for their own current activities, and help them do a project that will elevate not only their own knowledge but other people around them now, while they’re in high school,” StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein said in an exclusive interview with JNS.org.

The 48 participating students—a number that StandWithUS hopes will grow to hundreds—will be broken into three groups of 16, each of which will have a mentor. The MZ Foundation, which is funding the program through a “significant grant,” was interested in Israel advocacy training for high school students in particular.

“[MZ believes] that in preparing the students better for the challenges they’re going to face in college, the smart way to go is to give them that kind of support earlier, and StandWithUs feels the same way,” Rothstein told JNS.org.

Rothstein said high school students face anti-Semitic challenges “not as clearly and overtly” as college students do, but need to prepare for what college holds in store—and for how they might be able to educate others. In that sense, the new program’s goal is to “help students understand the importance of running proactive activities on their campuses,” she said.

The program, she added, will help students grasp “how rich it is to be able to engage with something that’s important to them anyway, whether they’re going to be facing a challenge or just wanting to educate their campus community.”

“They will be able to participate in a high-profile project that will make Israel’s image clearer to the world, [by broadening understanding of] Israel’s gifts to the world, Israel’s high tech—whatever it is that the kids will choose, they will have had an opportunity to begin educating now,” she said.

The program includes two three-day, all-expenses-paid conferences—one in September, and one in the spring—as well as year-round mentoring for the students and a gift certificate of $1,000 toward a trip to Israel for the two most successful interns. Teenagers interested in applying should email MiriK@standwithus.com.

Israel’s whiz kids

Mickey Haslavsky of Holon is only 18, but he’s already on his second startup.

“When I began my first startup at 16, I thought I was the only one creating Web sites at this age, but I was amazed to discover a huge community between [the ages of] 10 and 18 around the world, and I know of about 10 startups by Israelis my age,” Haslavsky said.

By invitation of Israeli high-tech godfather Yossi Vardi, Haslavsky recently gave a TEDx Youth@Holon presentation, “Teenage Nation,” about how he founded an online youth magazine.

One thousand people registered the day Haslavsky launched his second site, Machbesa (Laundry), this past spring. It’s a viral scheme for racking up genuine “Likes” on Facebook, pluses in Google Plus and views on YouTube.

“I want to bring the system to Brazil next because it has 51 million Facebook users and it’s spreading all the time,” said Haslavsky, who needs to find someone to run his enterprises come November, when he gets drafted for military service.

That shouldn’t be hard, as he is at the older end of the spectrum of Israeli teens helming a surprising number of high-tech ventures.

Mickey Haslavsky, 18, presenting at TEDx Youth@Holon.

Tal Hoffman of Haifa says Israel’s designation as the “Startup Nation” has encouraged young business developers. “Israel’s entrepreneur community is really big among my age,” said the 15-year-old founder of Itimdi, a not-yet-launched site where teens can meet and interact based on their interests.

Another 15-year-old, Gal Harth of Herzliya, was interviewed at TechCrunch Disrupt last year in San Francisco about his Doweet Web site (motto: “So, what do you want to do?”), described as “a fun and easy way to create activities with your friends.”

Harth said he founded Doweet with his pal Nir Ohayon in reaction to all their friends playing Xbox and PlayStation instead of engaging in social and physical activities. “This is a way to get together easily to go to the gym, go swimming, play soccer. It’s an app that links everyone in one spot.”

Harth and Ohayon got initial funding from Israel’s Rhodium, the first venture capital firm they approached.

“My passion is startups,” Harth said. “My passion is to change the world.”

Nurturing whiz kids

Enterprising Israeli teenagers have plenty of role models. Gil Schwed, founder of Israel’s Check Point Software Technologies and one of the world’s youngest billionaires, is a prime example. Schwed was taking computer courses at the Hebrew University before graduating high school. Drawing on experience gained in the Israel Defense Forces’ Unit 8200 intelligence corps, he invented the modern firewall at just 26.

Many up-and-coming entrepreneurs are eager to follow the same path, knowing that their military service can pave the way to successful careers. It’s no coincidence that many Israeli startups are co-founded by former army buddies.

However, programs to recruit high school students for high-tech military units focus on top achievers and tend to miss a considerable number of kids whose tech abilities far surpass their grades. Finding and cultivating these diamonds-in-the-rough has become a priority for StartupSeeds, a 1,300-member community for entrepreneurial Israeli teens founded in 2007 as a private philanthropy-supported project of the MadaTech-Israel National Museum of Science in Haifa.

One of its original members, Ido Tal, created a wildly popular Flash video game at the age of 14, but — perhaps because of his addiction to video games, he said — wasn’t exactly a model student. Likewise, Haslavsky, whose math teacher once told Haslavsky’s mother that the boy wasn’t going to amount to anything.

“From our research, nobody is dealing with this population of kids,” StartupSeeds Director Saar Cohen said. The organization is hoping to fill that gap by reaching out to parents of teens who show a talent for coding, Web design, video editing, animation, social media, security and other needed skills.

Through contacts in the military and academia, StartupSeeds brings these teens out from under the radar for the benefit of themselves and their country. “Everybody wants their kid in a special unit because if you get in, you’re set for life.”

This is just one of the organization’s programs devised to nurture and encourage Israeli whiz kids, with support from Israel’s high-tech industry and academia. In 2008, StartupSeeds was invited to lead a panel on entrepreneurial youth at the prestigious Israeli Presidential Conference.

“StartupSeeds promotes excellence, entrepreneurship and innovation among technological youth,” Cohen said. “We believe in strengthening their existing strengths by giving them tools and a platform for them to reach their potential. We help them make connections through an online community as well as physical forums.”

Every two weeks, StartupSeeds hosts meetings and lectures along with social activities. There are periodic regional conventions and field trips to army units and high-tech industries. Members get access to events such as TEDx, groups such as MIT Forum and competitions such as BigGeek, a live broadcast from the Microsoft R&D Center in Herzliya where four teams of techies scramble to develop a working application within 24 hours.

What is special about Israel that seems to encourage what Cohen calls a technological youth phenomenon?

“Everything here happens fast,” Cohen said. “Kids are encouraged from an early age to think on their feet, ask questions, be curious and not be afraid to try anything. The high-tech industry and the startup industry in Israel are very strong, and they take great pride in that, so it’s contagious. The army helps, too, because a large percentage of those in high-tech startups went to these special tech units.”

Boys and girls together

StartupSeeds, as well as Israel’s military, academic and industrial leaders, are eager to get more girls into the high-tech mix.

“Research shows there’s an early age at which kids decide what to go into, and everyone wants to get girls to choose technological fields,” Cohen said. “We recently decided to target this audience by starting an all-girls forum, offering meetings with female leaders in industry, to see if we can create a community. Our goal is to get to 30 percent girls [in our membership]. We think they are out there, and we are approaching them at the perfect age.”

For now, most teen entrepreneurs are boys, including recent immigrants such as Ben Lang, 18, who co-founded the Innovation Israel community for startups, entrepreneurs and investors; and, most recently, Mapped in Israel, a Web site pinpointing Israel’s many startups.

In March, Lang and three young colleagues ran a successful Hackathon Israel event, sponsored by Carmel Ventures and ROI Community; their stated vision was “to share the incredible high-tech scene in Israel with the entire world.”

“Because Israel is so small, it’s easy to create a startup and give life to an idea,” Haslavsky said. “In the media you see every day how startups sell their companies for millions of dollars, and that also encourages us. Every young entrepreneur wants to be a CEO. I think Israel is amazing in this field.”

Letters to the Editor: Milk, languages, kindergarten, breakfast, philanthropy

More on Milk

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is restirring a tempest in a glass of milk (“How Kosher Is Your Milk,” June 22). This issue was addressed in great detail in the fall 2007 issue of the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society in the article “The Kashrut of Commercially Sold Milk” by Rabbi Michoel Zylberman. The conclusion of the article:

“In the contemporary situation, there appears to be no credible evidence that a majority of dairy cows harbor adhesions. It is, however, quite likely that a prevalent minority (mi’ut hamatzui) of cows have terefot, such that more than 1.6% of milk that gets mixed together comes from such cows. To date, while a few individuals have stopped drinking commercially sold milk, major kashrut organizations have endorsed the continued consumption of milk, following the implication in Shulchan Aruch that we may assume that every individual cow comes from the majority of cows that are kosher, even if such an assumption contradicts a statistical reality.”

Rabbi Israel Hirsch
Valley Village

A Lesson in Languages

In your June 22 issue’s Letter From Egypt by Al-Qotb (“Egypt’s Election: An Argument Without Resolution”), you identified Al-Qotb (“The Writer”) as a pseudonym for The Jewish Journal’s Egyptian correspondent. Al-Qotb (correctly Al-Kotb or Al-Kootb) means “The Books,” and the Arabic name for anyone who writes is Al-Kaatb or Al-Kaateb, depending on one’s dialect. The proper letter (binyan in Hebrew) to use in this instance is “K-T-B” not “Q-T-B”. There is no equivalence in the English language nor in modern Hebrew for the Arabic letter “Q.” The best illustration would be in pronouncing the Hebrew letter “kaf” gutturally as in the case of the letter “khaf.” Quick pronunciation illustration is in the name of the leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and ’60s, Sayyid Qutb — Qutb could mean pole or region, as in the North Pole or the South Pole, but Kutb signifies books.

Ed Elhaderi
Los Angeles

Kindergartens of Hate

Micah Halpern’s piece is profoundly disturbing (“Finishing School,” June 22). It states that Arab children in Gaza and the West Bank are taught to hate Jews and to aspire only to slaughter them as a duty of their Islamic faith. This despite 20 years of a “peace process” that earned Nobel Peace Prizes for its originators. I suppose the indoctrination of Jew-hatred, not to mention the suicide bombings, rockets and turning children into murderous robots described by Halpern only proves, as then-President Clinton said in late 2000, that “the peace process hasn’t gone far enough.”

Chaim Sisman
Los Angeles

Synagogue Breakfast

Last week’s calendar section mentioned a dog-walking tour for June 24. It did not mention the 20th anniversary breakfast of Congregation Bais Naftoli honoring Zvi Hollander and Dr. A. Richard Grossman. At this breakfast, not only will the Israeli and Hungarian consuls general attend, but also two members of Congress, Sheriff Lee Baca, Supervisor Mike Antonovich, the city attorney and controller, four members of the City Council and two members of the state Assembly.

Why does the canine event take precedence?

Andrew Friedman
Congregation Bais Naftoli

Editor’s note: The Jewish Journal calendar desk did not receive notice about the Congregation Bais Naftoli breakfast. Please send all event notifications at least three weeks in advance to calendar@jewishjournal.com

Philanthropic Teens

It came as no surprise to me that a cross-section of community schools participated in National Conference of Synagogue Youth’s (NCSY) philanthropy project (“Philanthropy Project Puts Teens in Charge,” June 8). NCSY has been breaking down barriers to Jewish involvement for quite some time with creative programs geared to young people from all spheres. 

My wife, Sara, and I [spent] a magical Shabbat with NCSYers at their regional Shabbaton in Woodland Hills recently. The diversity of the participants was amazing. There were kids from public schools, Jewish schools, Yachad for special needs, all singing, clapping, standing on chairs with a thunderous spirit that was inspirational and meaningful.

The philanthropy project was a good chance to bring to light the creativity NCSY displays in reaching out to all kids with the goal of bringing them closer to Judaism.

Ron Solomon
Executive Director
American Friends of Bar-Ilan University, Western Region

An article on a project exploring Los Angeles history (“UCLA Mapping Project Goes Back to the Future,” June 22) did not mention that the “Mapping Jewish L.A.” display of the digital project at the Autry National Center of the American West will be part of the larger exhibition “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic,” scheduled to open at the museum in May 2013.

Temple B’nai Hayim’s Rabbi Beryl Padorr is not retiring (“Ner Maarav to Merge With Ramat Zion,” June 15).

Teens arrested for implementing gender segregation on buses

Police arrested two secular Jewish teenagers hired to implement gender segregation on Jerusalem buses.

The teens, aged 16 and 17, reportedly stood at a bus stop near the Dung Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem on Monday and used a megaphone to call for women to board the buses leaving from the Western Wall through the back door.

They said they were hired by two haredi Orthodox men and were paid nearly $7 an hour for their efforts. Two haredi Orthodox men were later arrested by police, according to The Jerusalem Post.

Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that while enforced gender segregation on public buses is illegal, voluntary gender segregation is permissible on public bus routes.

On Monday, the number of people visiting the Western Wall was higher than usual due to the Passover holiday.

Parents can help raise Jewish children even once they’re away at college

American Jews are known for the emphasis they place on academic success.

Jewish professors populate America’s universities, and, respectively, Jewish doctors, lawyers and politicians help fill the nation’s hospitals, law firms and legislatures. At the core of this success are generations of American Jewish parents who have encouraged their children to focus, work hard and succeed from kindergarten through college and graduate school.

College in particular is a formative time for students’ Jewish identities.

In a widely publicized essay written in 1968 for the journal Judaism, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg wrote, “By and large, college is a disaster area for Judaism, Jewish loyalty, and Jewish identity.”

More recently, in a 2006 study for the Avi Chai Foundation, Brandeis University researchers found that, “In the soup of the college experience, Jewish students are making religious choices, and these are often decisions to do less, not more.”

Similar sentiments can be expressed about college students’ connections to Israel, though that is another matter.

No magic bullet exists to quickly and cheaply reverse this phenomenon. But parents can play a vital role in helping students—their children—maintain a connection to Judaism by setting an example of Jewish involvement and by partnering with the agencies that bring Jewish life directly to young people.

A Jewish parent’s relationship with a child is so sacred that it is codified in the Ten Commandments, requiring children to respect their mothers and fathers. But just as it is the children’s duty to respect their parents, so, too, is it the parents’ responsibility to raise their children.

Jewish education works best when it reinforces deep, rooted values established by parents.

Ideally, parents should begin educating their children at birth; however, they can begin at any age, and even after the children are off at college. In today’s hyperconnected world, students studying at schools across the country are just a phone call or a video chat away. Using technology, parents can model Jewish living from home while still allowing their children the space to grow up.

Before children head off to college, parents often engage their children in various coming-of-age discussions. Parents must have a similar conversation about Jewish values and observances—a discussion in which they articulate expectations and hopes that too often are left unsaid. Of course, such a conversation carries more weight when parents “walk the walk” by serving as role models of Jewish living.

Parents can also support their college students by sending them care packages associated with Jewish holidays and themes. Some synagogues already do this, but when these gifts come from home, they carry that much more intergenerational meaning and educational value.

Universities have evolved to become more inclusive in the services they offer to students—whether from a psychological or career counselor, a resident adviser or even a campus rabbi. Instead of only supervising a university’s kosher food or facilitating prayer services, campus Jewish groups have broadened their reach to serve as much of the Jewish student community as possible. Far from being a place of refuge for a few committed Jewish students, these organizations have developed programs to reach out to all those seeking meaning in their Judaism.

The challenge is to reach all Jewish students—not just those who are already inclined to participate. The goal must be to show Jews of all stripes and backgrounds that within Judaism’s incredible depth and breadth is something –more than just something, even—that could interest them.

If parents want their children to have a close connection with Jewish life on campus, they should connect with the campus Jewish mentors who are there 24/7 for students. Just as parents support their children’s secular education, it is imperative that parents also support their children’s Jewish education at college by providing financial support to Jewish organizations there. This will also help to create a culture of Jewish involvement from the home to the campus.

These ideas, when delivered to young people with a bit of space and a lot of love, can resonate during college and long after.

(Rabbi Hershey Novack is the director of the Chabad on Campus – Rohr Center for Jewish Life at Washington University in St. Louis.)

Five California teens win Diller tikkun olam awards

Five California teenagers won Diller Teen Tikkun Olam awards for their innovative social action projects.

Each will receive an honorarium of $36,000, meant to support the project or the recipient’s future education.

The winners are Gabriel Ferrick, 16, of Santa Rosa, for his campaign supporting young Darfur refugees; Lisa Gurtin,17, of La Jolla, who raises money to bring clean water to impoverished Third World families; Naftali Moed, 16, of Pacifica, for his high school community garden; Casey Robbins,17, of Carmichael, who sends textbooks to schools in Liberia; and Daniel Sobajian,17, of Los Angeles, for organizing donations of school and art supplies to local public schools. 

This year’s winners were selected from 125 nominated projects, each the work of a Jewish teenager in the state.

“There is no doubt that this year’s honorees see how much our world needs help,” said Bay Area philanthropist Helen Diller, president of the Helen Diller Family Foundation, which sponsors the awards. “With creative and committed solutions, they are tackling global issues of access to education, availability of natural resources and distribution of sorely needed humanitarian aid—with every step they truly do repair the world.”

Anorexia and the new values of courtship

The New York Times article last week about the explosion of anorexia and eating disorders in the orthodox community highlights a tragedy that has long been buried. About four years ago I published a column about an eighteen-year-old girl my daughter knew at seminary in Jerusalem who died of anorexia. The seminary denied it was the cause and cited some other illness, even though the girls at the seminary watched her wasting away with the administration seemingly oblivious.

The tragedy is not only the danger posed to religious girls with eating disorders but rather the growth of corrupt values in the orthodox community. The New York Times highlighted how matchmakers are calling about girls and asking what dress size they and their mothers are. What does this have to do with Jewish values? Sure, a man has to be attracted to a woman. But the narrow definition of the body as the only ingredient of attraction is a betrayal of the traditional Jewish definition of feminine beauty.

Time was when a Jewish woman’s comeliness was determined holistically and was based on five key components: her body, her mind, her heart, her piety, and her personality. Now, it’s been reduced to her dress size. Stick-thin scarecrow-like features are the foremost determinant of attractiveness.

To be sure, being overweight is not healthy. But women who focus only on their bodies to the exclusion of their souls are equally unhealthy. And religious men who have practiced Judaism their whole lives but are blind to a woman’s righteousness and virtue, focusing exclusively on her form to the exclusion of her substance, are even more unhealthy.

The crisis in orthodoxy today is the practice of Jewish ritual to the exclusion of Jewish values. And in no area is this more evident then in the increasingly shallow dating values that are betraying our community. King Solomon’s ode to the ‘Eishes Chayil -Wife of Excellence’ that we chant every Friday night risks becoming an empty refrain, with men paying lip service to its central proclamation that ‘physical beauty is misleading, but a woman who fears G-d is truly to be praised.’

I would never have thought we orthodox Jews would arrive at a stage where our young men of marriageable have become so one-dimensional that their superficiality and pickiness would begin to literally kill our young women. That their mothers – women themselves – are colluding in this corruption by calling up to ask a girl’s dress size in the same breath as asking what her level of Torah observance is doubly tragic.

The New York Times article also cited the immense pressure that orthodox women feel to marry at a very young age and how they feel themselves to be failures if they are in their mid-twenties and not yet married with a few children.

I have long advocated marrying young – for orthodox and secular alike – because it allows a couple to grow up together and solidify their union with life’s formative experiences. But this has to be balanced against the desire of the orthodox community to see their young women educated and using their minds and not just their wombs. It’s a beautiful thing to see orthodox Jewish seminaries for women bursting at the seams. Jewish women today are being exposed to the great texts of Judaism, from Talmud and Midrash to Halakha and Chassidus. Stern and Touro are graduating orthodox girls with degrees in international relations and public relations, proficient in the sciences and mathematics.

Secular Jews have long dismissed the orthodox attitude toward women as demeaning and misogynistic. They argue that we treat our girls as baby-making machines who belong in the kitchen. But the highly educated orthodox Jewish woman gives the lie to these malicious accusations. Should we be so stupid as to prove them right by making women feel so much pressure to be married by the age of twenty that failure to do itself constitutes failure? Is it not our responsibility to demonstrate that a woman can maximize her fullest intellectual potential alongside having a family and that she need not choose between them.

I am, thank G-d, the proud father of nine children. People often ask me how I have time to do my professional work with a large family. I answer them that only in the modern world have we created this false notion that family is an impediment to achievement. Queen Victoria had nine children but ruled the largest land empire in the history of the world. Rose Kennedy, an accomplished woman in her own right, had nine children and is the matriarch of the greatest political dynasty in American history. The list goes on.

I want my daughters to marry young and to marry virtuous men. I shudder at the idea that after raising them to embody the virtue of the Jewish matriarchs they should meet orthodox Jewish suitors obsessed with their external beauty to the exclusion of their inner G-dly commitment. And if that’s the case, could I not have found that in the secular world?

I have spent my life critiquing the secular culture’s attitudes toward the feminine, especially in my book ‘Hating Women,’ where I decry a culture that has reduced women to the libidinous man’s plaything. But we in the orthodox community dare not make our own mistake of reducing our women to pretty baby-making mannequins. Our women must possess, and be appreciated for, intellectual and spiritual substance.

Sure, family in Jewish life is the most important thing. And dating recreationally for ten years – as is common in secular society – is scant preparation for the life-long commitment of marriage. I am a counselor to secular singles who suffer the effects of the recreational dating culture. They often experience the pain and heartache of going in and out of relationships and the numbing affects of sexuality practiced as a hookup.

Orthodox Jewish life is meant to offer a radical alternative, one where romance is valued and sexuality, reserved for the sanctity of marriage, is practiced as the highest expression of human intimacy. But viewing women as either the orthodox male’s frum Barbie, whose foremost responsibility is not learning Torah and practicing mitzvos but going on the treadmill and pumping iron, or seeing a woman’s education as inconsequential and making her feel old and discarded if she is not married by twenty-three, is hardly an attractive alternative.

Shmuley Boteach, ‘America’s Rabbi,’ is one of the world’s leading relationship experts and the recipient of the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. Among his 25 books are such classics as ‘Kosher Sex,’ ‘Judaism for Everyone,’ and, most recently, ‘Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.’ Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

Milken JCC seeks to reopen pool, Chai Lifeline makes wishes come true

Milken JCC Seeking Bids to Reopen Pool

More than 300 people attending the annual candle-lighting and Chanukah celebration at the JCC at Milken on Dec. 22 witnessed what many consider an extra miracle: the announcement that the JCC is seeking bids on the work necessary to reopen its Olympic-size pool.

In addition to restoring the pool, the showers will be rebuilt and the health and fitness center relocated and revamped.

In making the announcement, Steve Rheuban, JCC board chair, said he expects the pool to be completed by June in time for the summer camp program.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles closed the pool on April 25, 2007, in response to a $250,000 JCC deficit. It offered a one-time $350,000 allocation in return for the JCC giving up its right to be the major tenant on the Bernard Milken Community Campus in West Hills. The JCC rejected the offer and continued to work toward rebuilding its programs and membership, one-third of whom left when the pool closed.

The JCC hired Paul Frishman, a 22-year veteran of the Jewish community center movement, to serve as executive director, in September 2008.

Hanna Livni, former Early Childhood Center director at Kadima Hebrew Academy, will take over as the JCC’s early childhood education director on Jan. 12.

“I’m overjoyed,” said Earl Lewis, 80, a JCC member for more than 18 years who used to swim a mile a day, three to five times a week. “I think this will breathe new life into the center, and I think most of the members we lost will come back.”

Previous stories:

— Jane Ulman, Senior Editor

Chai Lifeline Makes Wishes Come True

As Chanukah wish lists go, this one was formidable. The teenage girl wanted Ugg boots, a Juicy sweatsuit and tickets for “Wicked.”

But when Randi Grossman and Esther Magna read it over, they were determined to get the girl what she wanted. She was, after all, going through psychologically and physically harrowing treatment for brain cancer.

Magna is a volunteer and Grossman executive director at Chai Lifeline West Coast Sohacheski Family Center, which provides auxiliary services for families of children with life-threatening or life-altering conditions. For the past five years, its Chanukah Angels program has solicited wish lists from sick children and their siblings — anything from “Star Wars” Legos to Strawberry Shortcake pajamas to new bedding to iPods — and Chai Lifeline finds donors to fulfill those wishes.

Grossman’s office becomes a warehouse as the gifts collect, until a volunteer shuttle delivers them for Chanukah.

Magna, a parent at Sinai Akiba Academy who spearheads the Chanukah Angels project, wasn’t worried about finding someone to fulfill the teenage girl’s list. She has taken the program from just a handful of angels to nearly a hundred this year, mostly by word of mouth in the Sinai community.

And sure enough, at a PTA meeting for the Sinai preschool, Magna announced that she was looking for more angels. A woman stepped up and offered to participate — at a level that was more than enough to cover the boots, sweatsuit and theater tickets.

Magna said that she has never had trouble finding volunteers — even a 104-year-old member at Sinai stepped forward. While the donors never meet the patients because of privacy concerns, the family receives a profile of the child, along with the wish list, and often goes to great lengths not only to procure the specific items on the list but to package them in a personalized way. One family glued jewels all over each pink-wrapped gift so it would look like a treasure for the recipient — a little girl with lymphoma.

That kind of effort and connection is what donors say makes the project so meaningful for them.

“I want them to associate this time of year with getting together with our cousins and our havurah and doing Chanukah together — we have gelt, and dreidels, and we give a gift to a Chai Lifeline child. That is the connection I want them to make,” said Magna, who has two small children.

And it gives her something, as well.

“It’s my way of coping with the blessings in my life. I feel so appreciative for my children, that the only way I can deal with my appreciation is by helping Chai Lifeline.”

For more information on Chai Lifeline, visit http://www.chailifeline.org.

— Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Senior Writer

Immigration From Teens’ Point of View

In September, Talma Shultz, a program associate with Facing History and Ourselves, along with photojournalist Rick Nahmias, invited 11th-grade history classes at Carson High School and New Tech High School to create a photography exhibition about immigration.

The result, “The Way We See It: L.A. Teens on Immigration,” is on view at the Skirball Cultural Center through Jan. 25. Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit with an extensive program of Holocaust education, focuses on teaching students about the connection between history and today’s choices.

Sixteen teams produced one photo each, and a blog documents the immigrant experiences and the student’s interaction with their subjects. Eight students also participated in a community conversation about immigration with National Public Radio host Scott Simon.

The students’ inspiration came from their own families and neighbors. For example, Dane Ferrari-Esas and Gizelle Claudio chose to focus on Claudio’s father for their photo, titled, “Forgotten Service,” which shows a trash bag being handed off and tells the story of a man who served his country in the Navy for 20 years, supporting his family in order to bring them to the United States from the Philippines. After his retirement from the Navy, he tried to find work but was rejected every time due to a lack of experience. He now works as a trash collector.

“It’s a privilege to be able to work with the students at Carson and New Tech High School … and to really see how the students are developing your own stories,” Shultz told the students. “It’s really a privilege to watch you grow in that area.”

— Aldrin Carreon, Contributing Writer

Photo exhibition reveals challenges, dreams of teen immigrants

Arsim Mustafa, a 14-year-old boy who immigrated with his parents from Kosovo to the United States, is leaning against a paint-spattered wall, arms loosely crossed as they rest on the oversized T-shirt he is wearing. He looks like any American teen, wearing baggy pants and high-top sneakers, his boyish face framed by close-cropped dark hair, his gaze meeting the camera with apparent equanimity.

But when documentary photographer Barbara Beirne asked him about his homeland, he told her how scared he had been before he came to America.

“In my country, it was always war. I saw people dying. I saw people without arms, eyes, hands — without heads,” Mustafa said. “We finally got away, but I was upset.”

On a winter day, just four months after arriving from Ukraine, a 15-year-old girl stood beneath low-hanging gray clouds on a deserted stretch of Coney Island Beach, amusement park rides visible far behind her. Engulfed in winter garb, holding a scarf to her neck against the wind, her eyes are fixed on a point in the distance over the ocean. She told Beirne that she missed “Ukraine and nature,” where everyone in her village worked in the fields, then picked and ate apples together.

“Is it true that you can’t pick apples from trees here?” she asked.

These teens’ impressions of their homelands — from Mustafa’s wartime horrors to the young Ukrainian woman’s pastoral idyll — are just two examples of the wide-ranging sentiments expressed by 59 teens included in the exhibition, “Becoming American: Teenagers and Immigration,” opening Oct. 17 at the Skirball Cultural Center. Organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), “Becoming American” premiered March 10, 2007, at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum and will travel to various venues around the country through 2011. The teenagers’ stories, as told through their own words, appear alongside Beirne’s evocative photographic portraits, drawing viewers into a maelstrom of the teens’ hopes, fears and dreams as they face a new life in a foreign land.

Beirne, who studied photography with Philip Perkis and Robert Mapplethorpe, has amassed an impressive body of work over the past 25 years. She has worked in India, Nepal and Ecuador; has documented the lives of children in war-torn Belfast, Ireland, and has had a prior exhibition, “Serving Home and Community: The Women of Appalachia,” tour the United States from 1999-2003, also through SITES.

Beirne first became interested in teenage immigrants while on a magazine assignment in her home state of New Jersey in 1999. More than 3,000 Kosovar Albanians had been brought to the United States in a humanitarian response to the crisis in Kosovo; hundreds of them were housed at Fort Dix, N.J., awaiting resettlement assistance. Visiting them weekly, Beirne discovered that of the refugees, it was the teenagers who were the most willing — excited, even — to talk to the news media.

” title=”www.skirball.org”>www.skirball.org.

All photos by Barbara Beirne

One more time with nachas — gift that keeps on giving

Our boys have surprised us by some of the choices they have made, and while we might not have made the same choices for them, we are proud of their growing commitment to living wholly, and holy, Jewish lives.

Anyone who has planned a bar mitzvah can easily recall the stress of preparing for that milestone, not only for the boy who is constantly reminded to practice his parsha, but also for the mom who is usually behind the scenes, negotiating with the caterer, revising guest lists and hoping the balloons don’t drop too early in the evening. As a mom who has gone through her own case of pre- and post-bar mitzvah stress disorder three times, I hope to offer some comfort and reassurance that after all these efforts and antacids, the bar mitzvah anniversaries are a piece of cake.

That’s right, I said anniversaries. Don’t panic: These do not involve any ostentatious table centerpieces, party favors or the cha-cha slide. They only require an annual reprisal of the role of Torah reader, while the parents sit back and kvell. It only took a small bit of encouragement by my husband to convince each of our sons to agree to do this. Why not get our money’s worth out of all those lessons, after all? For us, this practice has made the original bar mitzvah an unexpected gift that keeps on giving.

Our sons are now 16, 18 and 20, and watching them step up to the bimah for their annual readings has given us major infusions of good old-fashioned Yiddishe nachas. Each year, we watch them stand a little taller, more confident in who they are, more firmly rooted as young men in the Jewish community. We are awed by their continued growth physically, spiritually and emotionally. And frankly, some years we are simply relieved that we have survived another year of their adolescence.

In our experience, the minute a boy becomes a bar mitzvah, he grows faster than bamboo. The growth seems unstoppable, even frightening. This makes the first anniversary, at 14, the most physically striking. Each boy required a much larger suit and impossibly larger shoes. Their faces were also losing any residual boyish plumpness. And none of us worried about a potentially embarrassing high note cracking through the baritone that had in one year settled in for the long run.

More than that, these anniversaries allow us to sit back and mark our sons’ personal achievements, as we quietly reflect on their singular paths to adulthood. While we have sent them to Orthodox Jewish schools for their entire lives, they have each made it clear that they are individuals and will make their own choices about the way in which they will manifest Jewish values in their own lives. Like all kids, they’re a little bit like Frank Sinatra, insisting they do it “my way.”

And like nearly all parents, we’ve endured the confusion, commotion and occasional turbulence of the teen years. We’ve worried about them, argued with them, lost sleep over them. We easily remember our own teen years and the aggravation we caused our parents, although our kids don’t seem to believe us when we tell them that we were once teenagers, too. (How could anyone remember such ancient history, like before the Internet was invented?) Despite their skepticism, we really do understand that they need to carve their own paths in life. Our job is to keep loving them, encouraging them and even disciplining them, while praying that they will find a comfortable and purposeful place in the world. We pray that they will hold our values dear, even if their adolescent psyches are wired to fight us from time to time.

Our boys have surprised us by some of the choices they have made, and while we might not have made the same choices for them, we are proud of their growing commitment to living wholly, and holy, Jewish lives. We do not alone take credit for this. Each has benefited from caring, committed and wise teachers who have helped them see the enduring truth of Judaism in a way that kids sometimes need to get from someone not named “Mom” or “Dad.”

Too often, the bar or bat mitzvah seems an end point or culmination of Jewish education. This is a profound loss, because teens absolutely must find ways to feel independent and distinct from their parents. Too often, they can get in trouble during that search, and this is exactly the time when they need to have their essential Jewish values anchored in place through ongoing involvement with Jewish education, values and community life.

We know we’ve been blessed with kids who have chosen to make Jewish values their own. In fact, because my husband and I came to Jewish observance only as young adults, our kids are light years ahead of us in Jewish knowledge. (Sometimes, I need to ask for translations during dinner discussions. Alas, my public high school didn’t offer Aramaic as a foreign language.) And I know our special anniversary “celebrations” won’t last forever, since kids have this maddening habit of growing up and moving away. So I have to savor these opportunities while I can, watching my young men stand up and lead the congregation, while I sit back and smile in gratitude and wonder.

Judy Gruen’s latest book is “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement.” Read more of her work at www.judygruen.com.

Local teens to compete for gold at Maccabi Games

At the same time Southland Jewish Olympians like Jason Lezak and Dara Torres medaled in Beijing, the next generation of local athletes was preparing to compete in events of their own.

More than 200 teens with Maccabi teams from the Westside Jewish Community Center, Milken JCC in West Hills and Alpert JCC in Long Beach will join an additional 300 athletes in Detroit to compete in 25 Olympic-style tournaments Aug. 17-22.

The JCC Maccabi Games, held each summer at several locations around the United States, will feature 14 sports categories, including track and field, swimming and tennis. The athletes, ages 13 to 16, will share the field with teens from Canada, Great Britain, Hungary, Israel, Mexico and Venezuela.

While students hope to medal in their respective events, the games also emphasize charitable programming, as well as the importance of teamwork and building strong Jewish identities.

For many adults, including Milken’s girls basketball coach Bruce Lang, these games demonstrate something beyond athletics. Maccabi shows that there’s more to being a Jewish teen after becoming bar or bat mitzvah, Lang said.

“There is a misconception — a lot of people think it’s just a sporting event,” he said. “That’s 40 to 50 percent. The rest is doing what kids want to do: They want to socialize with other kids. They want to play rock music…. This is a wonderful program that keeps kids in touch with their heritage and their culture. Not all kids get it.”

Lang said one player who gets it is Danielle Bush, one of two returning players who took silver medals last year. He said that Danielle uses the games to quench her desire for more Jewish knowledge, asking questions of coaches, athletes and Israelis.

“That was rare,” he said.

During recent team meetings at the Westside and Milken JCCs, parents and teens talked with coaches about what to expect at the games.

For several parents, the concern was how much or little access they’ll have to their children in Detroit. An information packet given out at the Westside meeting revealed several nights devoted to youth-only activities — no parents allowed.

Lang, who has coached at 16 Maccabi Games, said he understands the plight of parents who travel to Detroit and want to spend as much time as possible with their youngsters.

“For the week that they are gone, they are not your children,” he said. “They are my children.”

For the Westside girls basketball team, the meeting meant receiving their uniforms and bag. When 15-year-old guard Shoshanna Seidenfeld saw the matching cardinal-and-gold and blue-and-white jackets, shirts and tops, she shrieked.

“I love these! They are so cool,” she said. “We didn’t have jackets and bags [on other teams], so I feel I’m part of something bigger.”

The Maccabi games were first established in the United States to act as a feeder to the World Maccabiah Games in Israel, with the first North American Youth Maccabi Games taking place in 1982 in Memphis.

Three cities hosted the JCC Maccabi Games this year, including San Diego, Aug. 3-8, and Akron, Ohio, Aug. 10-15.

Given Los Angeles’ proximity to San Diego — and rising travel costs — it left some wondering why the Southland teams are going to Detroit.

Alan Goldberg, vice president of the JCC Association’s Mandel Center for Excellence in Leadership and Management, said several factors, including when school begins, what sports the teams are competing in and where the contingent requests to go determines which team plays in which city.

“It’s a very complex process,” Goldberg said.

Detroit will welcome 60 athletes participating in basketball, soccer, swimming and tennis from Team Westside.

“We’ve gone from zero to a full-fledged program in three years,” said Brian Greene, Westside JCC’s executive director.

But the numbers at Westside JCC and Long Beach JCC, which have less than two dozen athletes this year, are a far cry from Milken’s 140 athletes in baseball, softball, basketball, track and field, tennis and table tennis.

Snejana Evans, Milken’s Team L.A. organizer, said the West Hills center will have the largest delegation in Detroit. It’s likely the team will bring some medals back to Los Angeles.

Lang said the success of his team, which did not win medals on only two occasions, is renowned. During the 2005 games in San Antonio, he recalled, the crowd rooted for the Israeli squad, shouting, “Beat L.A.”

He said there’s nothing like being on the receiving end of such a cheer.

The painful truth about teen mouth piercing

A pierced tongue may be the height of cool in some teen circles, but a new study by Israeli researchers suggests that skin piercings in the mouth may lead to an increased risk of oral health problems and even tooth loss.

The researchers from the School of Dental Medicine at Tel Aviv University (TAU), found that about 15 percent to 20 percent of teens with oral piercings are at high risk of both tooth fractures and gum disease. The resulting tooth fractures, combined with periodontal problems, can lead to anterior (front) tooth loss later in life.

High rates of fractures due to piercings are not found in other age groups, and cases of severe periodontal damage in teens without oral piercings are also rare, says Dr. Liran Levin, a dentist from TAU’s Department of Oral Rehabilitation, who conducted the study with partners Israeli army dentists Dr. Yehuda Zadik and Dr. Tal Becker.

Today, 10 percent of all New York teenagers have some kind of oral piercings, compared to about 20 percent in Israel and 3.4 percent in Finland.

Levin and his team carried out their initial study on 400 young adults aged 18-19. A review by Levin and Zadik, published in the American Dental Journal late last year, is the first and largest of its kind to document the risks and complications of oral piercings, drawing on research from multiple centers in America and across the world.

“There are short-term complications to piercings in low percentages of teens, and in rare cases a piercing to the oral cavity can cause death,” Levin said. “Swelling and inflammation of the area can cause edema, which disturbs the respiratory tract.”

He also warns that the most common concerns — tooth fracture and periodontal complications — are long-term, and can even lead in rare cases to death.

“There is a repeated trauma to the area of the gum,” Levin said. “You can see these young men and women playing with the piercing on their tongue or lip. This act prolongs the trauma to the mouth and in many cases is a precursor to anterior tooth loss.”

The study was based in Israel, and researchers questioned teens with piercings and without, asking them about their oral health, knowledge of risk factors associated with piercings, and about their piercing history, before conducting the clinical oral exams.

Ironically, Levin noted, the youngsters who opted for oral piercing were very concerned about body image, but seemed to be unaware of the future risks such piercings can cause.

According to Zadik, the best advice a parent can give a teen who wants a mouth piercing is to tell them to avoid it altogether. If your teen is insistent, however, then he warns that it is essential that piercing tools are disposable, and that all other equipment is cleaned in an on-site autoclave to help reduce infection.

After the procedure, he says the area should be rinsed regularly with a chloroxidine-based mouthwash for two weeks. And don’t play with the piercing, he warns. It should be cleaned regularly, and dental check-ups performed regularly. — Israel21c Staff

Jewish identity defined — a la Facebook

Ora Weinbach is not satisfied with merely calling herself a Jew. Instead, the recent high school graduate strives to put the za za zoo back into her religious observance by being an “impassioned Jew” — a term she uses to define herself on Facebook.

As opposed to the generic “Jewish — Orthodox” listed under the majority of her friends’ profiles, she has created an entirely new category to express the fervor of her faith.

“Selecting Orthodox Judaism from a dropdown list, after Jehovah’s Witness and Jain, just didn’t seem as ‘ Wear it proud!’ as it should,” Weinbach said.

Facebook has become far more than a social network; it is a virtual social necessity.

Providing a do-it-yourself outlet for people to express their likes, dislikes and even their faith, the interactive platform allows users around the world to join together — whether on the newly available Facebook chat or in myriad groups that cater to almost any interest. The Jewish community, in particular, has created a haven for itself on this booming network, claiming hundreds of groups, applications and pieces of Jewish flair.

Beyond providing aesthetically appealing odds and ends for all its Jewish participants, Facebook — unlike MySpace or Friendster — hands over the reigns to developers by allowing them to create their own add-on applications.

Rabbi Moshe Plotkin, the head of the Chabad house at the State University of New York at New Paltz, is the creator of the popular Jewish Dates 2.0, which displays the current Hebrew date and a user’s Hebrew birthday. The application, like JewMeter and Jewish Gifts, is intended as a fun tool to help reinforce Jewish identity.

“I wanted to use every medium to bring Jewish culture closer to their father in Heaven,” Plotkin said.

Putting hundreds of hours into creating various “jewpplications,” developers like Plotkin are ensuring that Facebook is a means of inspiration, rather than just a tool for finding old friends and staying in touch.

Facebook groups can be found for almost any interest, and the selection for Jews extends from the serious, “We Are Still Here (Holocaust Memorial),” to the humorous, “I am a Victim of a Jewish Mother.”

For Zoe Jurkowski, a sophomore at YULA Girls High School and a member of several Jewish Facebook groups, the platform represents more than just sharing pictures and connecting with friends.

“When some show that they are proud of their religion, others are suddenly inspired to embrace it despite some social stigmas that might influence them not to,” she said.

Facebook has also become an asset for community organizers, such as Rabbi Effie Goldberg, the regional director of West Coast National Conference of Synagogue Youth. He uses Facebook as an opportunity to reach out to new members in a comfortable atmosphere where both he and his NCSY-ers can communicate about everything from upcoming events to the underlying goals of his organization.

“I have found through my experience in using Facebook and dealing with teenagers, that teens will go to the nth degree to express their Judaism,” he said. “Whether with a Hebrew letter or the Hebrew date on their page, each profile has a connection to their religious view. Teenagers want to stay together as a strong Jewish network.”


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Color puts Holocaust in new dimension

When Monise Neumann, the incredible director of the March of the Living, came to my school to recruit students for the trip to Polish concentration camps and then Israel, I listened respectfully, picked up a paper and stuffed it in the deepest corner of my backpack.

At the time, I thought, “I have been in Jewish day school my whole life. I have read Holocaust books, seen Holocaust movies and heard Holocaust survivors speak. I get it. If anyone should go, it should be all the non-Jews, so they can see what they did to us.”

A few weeks later, I was sorting through my desk when I came across the crumpled application. As I skimmed the first page, the word “photo” caught my attention. A friend who went on the trip last year told me of a particular photo at Auschwitz. This photo was just another picture on the wall, until one of the survivors pointed to a certain gaunt child and said, “That’s me.”

As I sat there reflecting, I realized the time had come for me to step up and become a firsthand witness. The survivors would not be around much longer, so it was now or never. I chose now.

Months later, I stood inside one of the most feared camps the Nazis had constructed, Auschwitz-Birkenau. We stood in a group and listened to some of the survivors tell stories. We then divided up into smaller groups to walk around the camp.

The leader of our small group told us many history book-type facts that for me went in one ear and out the other. I was concentrating on the camp. However, one of the last things he said stopped me in my tracks. He said, “Remember guys, the Holocaust didn’t happen in black and white, it happened in full Technicolor.” Oh.

Every picture, every movie, every book I had seen had been in black and white. I now imagined them in color.

A few days before, I had seen a black-and-white picture of women standing at attention inside Auschwitz-Birkenau. But now I knew. Those dresses hadn’t all been a dirty gray. They had been red and green and yellow. Those eyes weren’t really black but blue or green or brown. And that sky hadn’t been gray, it had been blue, maybe the same color of the sky today in front of dark woody barracks surrounded by bright yellow flowers. All enclosed by gray, lifeless barbed wire.

So here was the truth. The Holocaust did not happen in a different dimension. It happened in my world, in a sleepy town you might expect to see on a postcard. Here, on the spot that I was standing, 1.1 million of my people had been slaughtered. Horrifying doesn’t begin to describe it.

That day we, the Los Angeles delegation sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education, an agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau along with 10,000 other people from 40 different countries. Some chose to march in silence, others in wild exuberance. I tried both and found that it didn’t matter.

The simple fact that we were all there, transforming a march that had foreshadowed death into a march that celebrated life, was enough. And not only did we march into Birkenau; we marched out. More than 60 years after the Holocaust, it was obvious who had won.

Exactly one week after our march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, we stood outside the Old City of Jerusalem, preparing for another march. But this was not a march of mourning, remembrance, defiance. This was a march of celebration.

More than 6,000 of the 10,000 people from Poland had continued with us to Israel, and on Israel’s 60th anniversary we marched through the streets of Jerusalem. Everyone was singing and dancing to their favorite Israeli tunes. People held flags and conga-lined through the group. One of my friends was even thrown several feet in the air by some overexcited New Jersey boys.

One week before, we ended our march at one of the darkest places in Jewish history. That day, we ended our march in the heart of Jerusalem at the Western Wall.

One week we walked through a place of despair. The next week we stood in front of the symbol of hope. I had felt horror, pain, humor, despair, wonder, joy and now as I stared at the wall, I felt pride. Pride in how my people rose above the cruelty of the world and built for themselves this haven in our spiritual homeland.

I thought of the survivors, the heroes of our journey who traveled with us and woke painful memories so that we would become the next link in the chain of remembrance. And as I sat there reflecting, I made a promise — I will never forget.

Andrea Gero graduated from New Community Jewish High School last week.

Teens, fasting and fainting

The minutes of Yom Kippur are ticking off the clock. Your knees are weak from standing for all of the Neilah service and your stomach begins to growl — you’ve been fasting all day and your body wants food, needs food. You tell yourself, “I can go without food another hour. I always feel faint when I fast, and, besides, the gates of repentance are closing.”

But next thing you know, you’re hard on the floor, stiff as a board with several doctors above you, one checking your pulse, one feeling your forehead, one telling you to wake up, wake up.

That’s what happened last Yom Kippur to Yael Rabin, now a sophomore at Shalhevet, who fainted half an hour into a 90-minute Neilah at Congregation B’nai David-Judea. She was feeling fine until suddenly she felt dizzy, blacked out and then woke up on the floor like it had all been a dream — except that she was in throbbing pain all over her body.

“When I woke up, it was like someone had hit me with a wooden board several times,” Yael said. Witnesses said she fell straight down and hit the floor so hard that services were stopped for several minutes.

Numerous doctors surrounded her and paramedics were called, and Yael and her family ended the holiday in the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

“It was really hard the first few days” of recovery, Yael said. “There was so much pain everywhere, especially my neck.”

Yael suffered from whiplash and a mild concussion. She couldn’t walk and had to wear a neck brace for more than a week after. She couldn’t play sports or participate in PE for the next few months.

Yael didn’t feel any symptoms until it was too late, but if she had, she would have had Jewish law on her side in breaking her fast.

“In Yael’s case, the fainting should have been avoided by breaking her fast because of the long-term health consequences that resulted when she didn’t,” said Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Bnai David-Judea, where two congregants fainted on Yom Kippur last year. Kanefsky advises at first eating small amounts that don’t technically count as eating in Jewish law — less than a cheekful of liquid and a kezayit (about the size of a cracker) every eight minutes. If that does not help, then one should fully break the fast.

From a medical standpoint, it turns out that the particular circumstances of Neilah, the closing service of Yom Kippur, add up to a kind of formula for fainting. According to Dr. Laurel Schramm, Yael’s doctor and a pediatrician in Beverly Hills, dehydration coupled with extensive standing makes fainting all the more likely.

When teenagers faint it’s usually because they’re dehydrated, Schramm explained. Fasting contributes to dehydration, meaning that the body doesn’t have enough fluid to send oxygen to the brain. A decrease in blood to the brain can cause loss of consciousness, or fainting.

Standing still for a long time makes matters worse by putting stress on the legs, causing blood to stay there and away from your head, she explained.

“When you’re standing still, gravity pulls the blood down, and there’s no muscle movement in your legs, no massaging the blood back up your body,” said Schramm, who is Orthodox and fasts on Yom Kippur herself.

Coming at the culmination of a fast that started before sunset the night before, Neilah is the final, parting, pleading prayer when many Jews feel more connected to God than possibly any other time of the year. Maybe that intensity leads to fainting, too.

While shortening Neilah or abolishing fasting might seem like tempting solutions, that might ruin the emotional and spiritual impact of the day.

“Were it not for the fasting,” Kanefsky said, “people wouldn’t take the day half as seriously as they do. There would be no aura and sense of urgency around the day that exists now.”

But, Kanefsky said, it is unnecessary to stand throughout Neilah while the ark is open.

“A common misconception is that standing is required when the Ark is open,” Kanefsky explained. “In fact, one only has to stand when the Torah is moving, for example, when the Torah is being lifted after Torah reading.”

Kanefsky usually announces this before Neilah every year, and he makes clear that anyone who feels that his health is in danger should eat the minimum quantities and can still feel he is following the law.

But if those things don’t help, it’s important to stay aware of the symptoms. If you suddenly feel cold and sweaty, or if you get dizzy and think you may faint, you should lie down immediately on the floor and raise your feet above your head, Schramm said.

Yael plans on fasting again this year, but she has a new awareness.

“If you feel sick, listen to what your body is telling you,” she said. “God doesn’t want you to get hurt.”

Louis Keene is a senior at Shalhevet and on the staff of the Boiling Point, where this article first appeared.

Teens and philanthropy are a MATCH

Survivor. No, not the television show, as I wish were the case. A young Jewish woman and personal friend, Amy Farber, is a real survivor who was diagnosed with LAM (short for the fatal lung disease lymphangioleiomyomatosis) a few years ago, when she was 35.

I met Amy Farber last year at my high school. She delivered an impassioned speech in which she revealed that there was no cure or treatment for her terminal disease.

Amy and I had a lot in common, as we grew up in the same community. Her plight made me realize the importance of what the rabbis have been telling me about for years: tikkun olam, my responsibility to help repair the world, and that even as one person, I can make a difference.

I felt compelled to help this brilliant and vibrant Jewish woman in her quest to stay alive. I just could not ignore her desperate need. I figured my best opportunity to raise awareness to the public, as well as funds to support her cause, was through my synagogue’s MATCH program.

I am a member of the board of directors of MATCH: Money and Teenagers Creating Hope, a teen philanthropy foundation of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, made up of high school students. MATCH was started through an anonymous gift of $250,000, with slightly more than $10,000 of interest generated per year. By studying Jewish traditions surrounding tzedakah, meeting with philanthropists, learning how to research nonprofit organizations, making site visits, and meeting with representatives from organizations, our board chooses how that $10,000 should be donated. It is a hands-on experience of philanthropy that helps us prepare for a life-long commitment to tzedakah and tikkun olam.

I researched the LAM Treatment Alliance (LTA), an organization Amy founded to raise awareness and money to find a cure for LAM, and presented my findings to my board. Our board decided to allocate $2,000 to further her efforts.

Amy had just completed a doctorate and had been looking forward to starting a family when her ailment struck. The doctor offered no help other than vitamins. Amy found the lack of assistance to be outrageous. She decided to take action against this rare disease. LAM affects thousands of women, typically in their childbearing years, as their healthy lung tissue is destroyed by cysts that ultimately suffocate them. To this day, many patients remain undiagnosed.

Amy assembled a team of Nobel Prize-caliber scholars and inspired them to move on an extraordinary fast track to seek both a treatment and cure for LAM. The LTA and its advisory board consists of members representing Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to name a few. LTA has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and on “The Charlie Rose Show” and now receives global support. Since Amy founded LTA, it has raised nearly $1 million for research and awareness of this disease.

Doctors are optimistic about discovering a cure, but regrettably it may be too late for Amy.

The good news is that while LTA is researching for a cure for LAM, scientists are finding valuable insight into the treatment of breast cancer, prostate cancer, melanoma, lung cancer and diabetes.

Amy has helped establish a goal for people to help others in need of survival. Thanks to my experience with MATCH, I’ve learned that both philanthropists and survivors benefit from acts of charity.

For more information on Amy Farber and LAM, visit ” target=”_blank”>http://www.tebh.org/social_justice/index.php’match. And check out julief@jewishjournal.com.

Wanna drink? Think again!

This Purim will be the first test of a new teen anti-drinking campaign adopted by Los Angeles’ Orthodox rabbis after a Simchat Torah debacle in which more than 100 teens were seen drinking publicly or intoxicated.

The plan was adopted Nov. 14 at a meeting convened by Jewish Family Service’s Aleinu Family Resource Center, which was attended by, among others, heads of school of Shalhevet, YULA and Valley Torah — all Orthodox high schools — and rabbis of synagogues in the Pico-Robertson area, Hancock Park and the Valley.

“There were around 100 to 150 teens drinking [on Simchat Torah], so we were concerned about the fact of adults giving that kind of alcohol to kids,” said Debbie Fox, director of Aleinu, which provides counseling and educational services to the Orthodox community.

Rabbis at the November meeting agreed to ask the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), an Orthodox umbrella organization, to ask its members to designate shuls as “dry” — meaning alcohol-free — or “monitored,” meaning the shul would assign someone to make sure that no minors were served. They also reached a consensus to promote more knowledge about the dangers of teen drinking and addiction.

Recognizing alcohol’s long-standing presence in Jewish custom, tradition and culture — especially on Purim, when drinking is a mitzvah — and hearing from some rabbis that it would be impossible to have shuls go completely dry, Aleinu has tried to work directly with the shuls and parents to take responsibility for their teens.

While Aleinu and the RCC did not publish a list of dry and monitored shuls in time for Purim, last month Fox, with RCC cooperation, sent a letter and informational brochure to 85 rabbis, asking each shul to decide what its status would be on Purim, and to speak to their congregations about staying sober.

The Orthodox Union also sent out a letter urging rabbis to ask parents to carefully monitor their children, since drinks in shul are often cited as starting points for kids who later become addicts.

Many rabbis spoke to their congregations on Aleinu’s Feb. 3 “Shabbat of Awareness.” Two days before that event, about 45 rabbis came to The Jewish Federation to listen to an addiction specialist and watch a video in which recovering Orthodox teens explained factors that influenced their drinking and drug habits.

The same video was shown to the 130 parents who attended similar presentations Feb. 18 at Shaare Tefila and Beth Jacob. Also, in recent weeks flyers, posters and e-mails have circulated pleading: “This Purim, Don’t Get Carried Away.”

“These programs should help parents communicate with kids about the impact of drinking,” Fox said. “Our previous experience shows there are hardly ever conversations between parents and children about drinking.”

Shalhevet students who were out last erev Simchat Torah said that students from many different schools — including some from out of the area — were seen in the Pico area under the influence of alcohol. Two had to be taken to the hospital by paramedics, one of whom had her stomach pumped, witnesses said.

“This has been a problem every year,” said Rabbi Avi Greene, Shalhevet’s head of Judaic studies. “This year, certain events just made it impossible to keep the problem quiet.”

According to several witnesses, including students and rabbis from various schools interviewed by The Boiling Point, Shalhevet’s newspaper, teens were able to obtain drinks at several shuls in the Pico-Robertson area. They said alcohol might also have come from the teenagers’ homes.

“Walking down Pico Boulevard, I could barely take a few steps without hearing someone say or do something stupid because they were under the influence of alcohol,” Shalhevet junior Gaby Grossman said.

Perhaps the annual Purim party of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) will be able to distract teenagers from their alcoholic inclination. This year’s party, at Congregation Mogen David on Pico Boulevard, advertises itself as “alcohol-free” and includes all-night security, responsible staff and a packed schedule of activities. NCSY will also keep the Rubin Teen Drop-in Center on Pico near Roxbury Drive open all night as an alcohol-free safe zone.

“We definitely emphasized the absence of alcohol from this year’s event more than usual,” NCSY Vice President of Outreach Stephanie Aziz, a Shalhevet junior, said. “We recognized the goal to keep incidents like this from happening, and we’re going to do whatever it takes to make sure teens have a fun, safe event on these holidays.”

Some students thought Aleinu’s outreach effort represented a stepping-stone toward overall progress.

“I’m in favor of educational programs because they help develop a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong,” Shalhevet junior Jennifer Reiz said. “At the same time, teenagers tend to learn more from their own mistakes and experiences.”

Others questioned whether the plans would succeed.

Educational programs “probably won’t help,” junior Meir Chodakiewitz said, “because when we see adults drink, it seems more OK for us. We drink to feel older.”

Sophomore Jonathan Cohen, who said he saw alcohol being served at as many as five synagogues Simchat Torah night, said designating shuls dry or monitored might slow kids’ drinking a little, “but most kids will still find a way around it.”

Still, most realized that something must be changed, because the current problem is, as one student put it, “intolerable.”

“It’s about time for change,” Shalhevet senior Jonah Braun said. “The debacle of Simchat Torah was a shame to the Jewish community as a whole.”

Louis Keene is a junior at Shalhevet and Torah editor of The Boiling Point, where a version of this article first appeared.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the April issue is March 15; Deadline for the May issue is April 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Everybody’s kosher surfin’, surfin’ USA

Joe Veroba had a vision of starting a kosher surf camp for Orthodox teens, to teach them the beauty of surfing and of Judaism.

A native of Long Island, he lived for surfing and for Judaism, and he traveled the world — Hawaii, Costa Rica, France — surfing the amateur circuit, but he didn’t attempt to become a professional because he was observant.

A few months after he made aliyah, in 2000, he was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer and, four years later, died at age 35.

Veroba had a close friend and fellow surfer, Ari Shoshtain, with whom he had dreamt up the kosher surf camp idea, and after Veroba died, Shoshtain decided it was finally time to realize that goal in his friend’s memory.

Last summer, Shoshtain, 34, started JoeV Surf Camp, a five-week sleep-away camp that includes both Torah study and a spiritual approach to surfing. In the first summer, 11 high school boys attended, surfing in Santa Monica and living and studying Torah daily in Pico Robertson.

This summer, JoeV Surf Camp will expand to include a girls’ program, though their activities will remain separate from the boys activities. Shostain hopes to enroll between 10 and 15 ninth through twelfth grade boys and the same number of girls.

A typical day at JoeV Surf Camp begins with morning prayers, then campers move to the morning surf session, which includes a land and water lesson provided by a Santa Monica-certified instructor (one instructor per four campers). Then it’s afternoon prayers with rabbis, kosher lunch and an afternoon sports activity and study session.

After dinner and evening prayers, the kids have a chance to go out for evening activities. During the nine days — the period of mourning for the Temple’s Destruction, when swimming is prohibited — the kids will go hiking in Yosemite.

“When you’re out in the water, when you see the sunrise or sunset, and when you see how small you are in comparison to the massive water, and the current and waves, it humbles you,” Shoshtain said. “Everything in nature connects you to spirituality, if it’s done properly.”

“The Torah talks about how a person has to keep himself fit and healthy; a person who exercises will feel better,” he said.

JoeV Surf Camp is not the only nature/adventure summer camp aimed at Orthodox teens; there’s also Teva Adventure, which offers outdoor hiking and travel adventures every summer (“Explore what nature has to teach us about Judaism and what Judaism has to teach us about nature,” the Web site reads.) And Camp Kanfei Nesharim has two programs for Orthodox teens; one to New Zealand, Hawaii, Australia and California; the other to Chile, Argentina and Costa Rica.

These summer adventure programs are not the first to offer sports activities to Orthodox kids — most summer sleep-away camps do. But they are new in that they are aimed at the Modern Orthodox teenager who wants something more than the standard two-month away-from-home experience in the mountains, with a little more adventure than that offered by traditional teen tours of the United States and Israel.

Observance and Torah study is at the root of all these programs.

“There’s no reason you can’t mix tradition with extreme sports,” Shoshtain said. “Kids need to be occupied. Torah is a great way, but a lot of kids are not into the standard way of learning and teaching. If you use those activities to show them the spiritual end of it, I definitely think it will bring balance to everything they’re doing.”

Torah adventure camps are a way to provide secular activities to children who often come from sheltered environments, closed off from the rest of the world.

“In this day and age, a lot of the outside world has crept into the Orthodox community, and there’s a higher demand to counter it.”

The way to counter it is through learning Torah, he said, but you have to pique kids’ interest, not just explore Ancient Babylon.

“When you mix Judaism with other activities, with things that are fun and cool, and you are able to do that in a kosher way, it shows them you can be frum, learn, surf, have a good time,” Shoshtain said.

That’s what Joe Veroba believed: “Be confident with your heritage and be strong with Judaism.”

For more information, visit joevsurfcamp.com/home.html



Peers give Orthodox teens lesson in drug use and abuse

“We were a group of kids who were dying inside, but we didn’t know it. We just thought we were a lost cause.”

With these words, Koby, a teenage yeshiva drug user, sets the level of earnestness and intensity on a new video that he and four of his friends produced under the auspices of Aleinu Family Resource Center, the Orthodox Davening Under the Influencearm of Jewish Family Service, an agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The video will be the centerpiece of “Davening Under the Influence,” a program of Aleinu workshops for parents and educators on Feb. 18 that will feature Dr. Joshua Lamm, medical director of an Orthodox adolescent addictions center in New York. The workshop will delve into parenting issues and is meant for all parents, not only parents of children who are already at risk.

Aleinu is focusing on drug use and high-risk behavior among teens this year through workshops and Shabbat of Awareness, which in the past has stirred community understanding on topics such as sexual abuse and Internet issues. Alcohol abuse also came up this year because of incidents involving 150 yeshiva kids who drank excessively this past Simchat Torah.

For many years, at-risk behavior and drug use among yeshiva high school students has been an open secret, but only in recent years have kids and their families had anywhere to turn.

While most of the efforts so far have focused on boys, the problem is prevalent among yeshiva girls as well.

Aish Tamid, an independent organization that runs classes, support services and social outlets for hundreds of teens, opened its doors about seven years ago under the leadership of Rabbi Avi Leibovic, an attorney and product of local yeshivas.

In the last few years, Aleinu has also ramped up its activity in this area. The organization holds seminars in local yeshiva high schools to talk to students and faculty about drug use. Fourteen middle and high schools have signed on to Aleinu’s mandatory drug policy, which outlines when and how yeshivas should refer a student for drug-use assessment, while remaining supportive and nonpunitive, and what paths of treatment, if any, might be recommended. Failure to comply with the recommendations — or distributing or selling drugs — could result in expulsion from school.

Last year, Aleinu started Issues Anonymous, where about 25 high school-age boys who have abused drugs or alcohol and are now committed to sobriety meet to support each other, hang out and work through the issues that led to their high-risk behavior.

As part of their healing process, the boys produced this video, which will be aired at the workshops Feb. 18 and will be available for other educational programs.

“This is not about placing blame…. This is about taking responsibility, to raise awareness in the Jewish community,” the boys begin in the video, each one adding another thought to the sentence. “We know that we can’t make this never happen again, but if we could just help prevent one beating, one less alcoholic binge, one more good day at school, one less drunk driver, one less overdose to prevent more cases of ending up here,” they say, as the scene flashes to a cemetery.

The video is dedicated to the memory of Yitzchak Meir Mermelstein, a young man who died of a drug overdose.

“What they are saying is see us, look at us, interact with us, care about us — see what it is like to be on the inside of us,” said Aleinu director Debbie Fox.

It is a video that every parent should see, because the issues the boys bring up are hauntingly universal.

One boy speaks of never feeling satisfied with what he had, though his parents gave him everything. Another talks of something as simple as not being able to keep up during davening, of always feeling different. School was never fun, one boy says.

A third says he had a vibrant and close-knit extended family, but his parents were clueless. And yet another talks of never getting along with his parents, while another says his father beat him.

With remarkable candor and self-awareness — and with the blessings of their parents — five boys share how and why they descended into drug abuse.

One boy shared shots with every cousin and uncle at his bar mitzvah.

A 9-year-old was handed a joint on Simchat Torah. Jewish summer camp was a good place for another boy to get hooked. Many of these kids have become sophisticated at “pharming,” scavenging prescription drugs at home and at friends’ homes. They talk of praying and studying Torah while high.

“We have a lot of alcohol out in the open in my house — vodka, whiskey and scotch — because my parents never thought that would be me. They trusted me,” one says.

They urge parents to be vigilant about their kids’ behavior — if they are sleeping too much, locking themselves in their rooms or experiencing mood swings. Always know with whom your kids are hanging out, they warn.

They urge parents to talk nicely to their kids, to have real conversations and to be proud of even small accomplishments. And they urge kids who are struggling not to push away the help.

They have some harsh words for teachers and rabbis, as well.

“The rabbis never noticed when you were depressed or on drugs or using or suicidal, but they noticed when you weren’t wearing a kippah. Rabbis can’t help me now,” one of the boys says.

Fox says the video is being released in two versions — one for parents and one for rabbis. The one for parents does not include some of the harshest indictments of the rabbis, because Fox wanted the rabbis to be open to receiving the message without feeling they were under public attack.

A group of Los Angeles rabbis was overwhelmingly receptive to the video when it was shown at a luncheon a few weeks ago.

Troubled teens turn to Teen Line and its Leader

Every night for the last 27 years, teenagers who need to talk have been able to find an understanding ear at Teen Line, a confidential phone hotline staffed by highly trained teenage volunteer listeners.

The calls reflect every manner of teen suffering and angst, from mundane worries about dating and friendships to life-threatening encounters with drugs, suicide, eating disorders and child abuse.

Although the voice at the other end of the phone is always that of a young person, the driving force behind Teen Line is Elaine Leader, a 79-year-old great-grandmother with a British accent and a propensity for hats and oversized costume jewelry.

As the co-founder and executive director of Teen Line, the London-born Leader, who holds a doctorate from the California Institute for Clinical Social Work, knows more about Los Angeles’ teenagers than most. For nearly three decades, Leader has established herself as a tireless champion for Teen Line and the often-voiceless population it serves.

“When I see somebody in pain, I feel like I must reach out to help,” Leader said.

She can recite the suicides of dozens of young people in Los Angeles as if she knew them all. She helps train school counselors and police officers alike in dealing with young people in crisis. She can tell you which drugs are in vogue at which high schools, and why there is an apparent epidemic of young people cutting themselves.

The organization’s youthful army of listeners must complete a rigorous 60-hour training program, and they work under the constant supervision of mental health professionals. But the essence of Teen Line is the unwavering belief that teenagers will talk with each other more honestly and comfortably than they will with adults.

Last year Teen Line’s high school-aged volunteers handled 6,666 phone calls and 1,750 e-mails, for a total of 8,416 teen-to-teen contacts. The Cedars-Sinai-affiliated group’s volunteers made 215 educational presentations to schools and organizations in 2006, reaching some 36,000 young people.

In the early years, and to some extent today, the listeners were predominantly culled from privileged backgrounds and attended high schools on the Westside. Although there are exceptions, those kids have always tended to be the ones with the time — and the reliable means of transportation — to devote so many volunteer hours to the cause.

In addition to its Westside offices, a new Teen Line call center in Reseda, which opened last spring, is likely to increase the diversity of Teen Line’s volunteers, and Leader hopes it will also help the organization provide more specific referrals to callers from the Valley. A third call center in Riverside is also in the works, Leader said.

“We are expanding because teens from all over want to be involved,” Leader said. “They want to be able to take calls.”

In addition to Teen Line, Leader runs a successful private practice in adolescent psychotherapy and group therapy from her Beverlywood home. And many Teen Line volunteers are Leader’s own patients; they say talking to others about their experiences helps them to heal.

Leader is particularly passionate in her advocacy for gay, lesbian and transgender teenagers, whom she will insistently remind you are three to four times more likely to attempt or commit suicide than straight teens.

Alyn Libman was one of them. A 22-year-old transgender man, Libman says he became suicidal because of the harassment and abuse he suffered in middle school and high school.

As a 13-year-old, before Libman told anyone else about his struggles, he called Teen Line. He had seen the brochures in his middle school guidance counselor’s office. “The first time I called I hung up, and the second time I ended up talking to someone for about an hour,” Libman said. “I spoke to someone named Michael. I told him, I think I’m gay, and I’m just afraid to come out. I told him I was contemplating suicide.”

“He just listened. It was very helpful. It was someone I could talk to, and they weren’t judging me,” recalled Libman, now an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. “It was very legitimizing.”

After a failed suicide attempt in ninth grade, Libman met Leader by chance at a conference for gay youth. He told her about having called Teen Line, and she recruited him to speak at outreach programs about gay and lesbian teens.

“It really touched my heart to know that an adult, an older adult, thought the lives of teenagers and youths were important,” Libman said.

“You look at her and you think about this proper British grandmother, and you can’t imagine the kinds of people she helps, and the people whose rights she stands up for,” Libman said. “She’s a very safe person to talk to. You just want to hug her and cry.”

Leader says she’s had gay friends for decades — longer than most people her age have known anyone who was out about being gay. “I was a socialist when I was in high school during the war,” she recalled. “I was always for the underdog, and the gay people were the underdog.”

Having spent her own adolescence during World War II, with the family split between New York and London, Leader says she identifies completely with the unsettled feelings common among teenagers.

Leader attributes her relentless drive to help people to the philanthropic example her father set for her in the years before World War II. “I think some of this comes from my father,” Leader says one evening in the Teen Line call center, in a rare display of personal emotion.

An early Zionist, her father worked behind the scenes from London in the late 1930s to help establish a Jewish state in Palestine. A self-made businessman, he convinced a non-Jewish friend with a big estate outside of London to harbor young Jewish men from Germany and Austria, where they would train for the Hagganah, the underground Army that would eventually win Israel’s independence.

“He took these young men out to this country estate. I was 8 or 9 years old. I remember seeing them marching up and down with broomsticks, training for the Hagganah,” she said. “There were 50 or 60 of them, and he had saved their lives.”

Students translate charity lessons into action

For most kids, time off from school means hitting the beaches or other fun-filled attraction. For 17-year-old Neta Batscha, spring break sent her to the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast to assist with Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

Under the auspices of Milken Community High School’s YOZMA social action leadership initiative, the 11th-grader and more than 100 of her classmates spent four days clearing away debris in parts of Natchez, Miss., and in New Orleans, which was still reeling from the hurricane’s destruction. She also built homes with Habitat for Humanity, and, with money raised by her Milken peers, replenished provisions at food shelters unable to meet the ongoing need for assistance.

“It made everyone feel good about themselves, that we can make a difference,” Batscha said. “In my school, we’re taught to give back, even when we’re younger. We’re taught not to be selfish. In Judaism, it’s important for everyone.”

More and more, Jewish kids are taking the lessons they’ve learned about tikkun olam, Judaism’s spin on community service, and translating it into action. Through school-based programs like YOZMA, b’nai mitzvah service projects or simply their own initiative, children are finding creative ways to channel their interests and desire to help others into unique, personal contributions to those less fortunate. In so doing, they are building a reservoir of critical skills and laying the groundwork for a lifetime of compassion and civic responsibility in the Jewish tradition.

“Doing mitzvot and tikkun olam are in everything we do in Judaism, in every book we read,” said Daniel Gold, director of the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education’s (BJE) Sulam Center for Jewish Service Learning. When children perform charitable acts, Gold added, they connect teachings from God with the work they do on earth, and to their own identities.

Josh Lappen’s work on behalf of Jews in Ethiopia has played a formulative role in the development of his Jewish awareness. Since the age of 5, Josh, now 12, has been fundraising under the auspices of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), a nonprofit group that helps Jews survive in Ethiopia and reach Israel.

He accompanies his grandparents, active NACOEJ members, to local festivals where they sell Ethiopian handcrafts, and he recently began his own initiative selling cookies at his Hebrew school.

“My work gets me involved in the community. I almost feel like I’m getting to know them,” said Josh, who has studied the history of Ethiopian Jews and occasionally speaks with groups to raise awareness of the challenges they face. While he has never seen the fruits of his labor firsthand, Josh feels a deep connection with Ethiopian Jews and is planning to participate in NACOEJ’s bar mitzvah twinning program with an Ethiopian boy in Israel next year.

Realizing tikkun olam as a central pillar of Jewish practice, synagogues throughout the country require children to perform service projects before becoming b’nai mitzvah, sensitizing them to their growing responsibilities toward others as they approach adulthood. In many cases, these projects have been the inspiration for ongoing philanthropic endeavors.

Clara Clymer had intended to donate books to a neighborhood school for her bat mitzvah project. Instead, on the advice of Hebrew school staff at Leo Baeck Temple, she decided to become a tutor for KOREH L.A., The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ youth literacy program. The 12-year-old from Brentwood now meets once a week with a first-grade student, helping to strengthen her reading and comprehension skills. And while Clara was only required to fulfill five hours of service, her satisfaction knowing that she is making a difference in someone’s life has been all the encouragement she needs to continue as a KOREH L.A. volunteer for the foreseeable future.

“If everybody helps somebody who needs help, it makes it a nicer place to live,” she said.

In addition to the religious benefits, studies show that children who volunteer have higher self-esteem than those who do not, are happier and feel empowered by the knowledge that they are bringing about positive change, BJE’s Gold said. On the academic side, they consistently demonstrate higher test scores and rates of school attendance. Community service also helps children develop good work habits and job skills, such as leadership, planning and organization.

“Kids who participate in community service must determine what they want to achieve and figure out creative ways of meeting their goals,” said Sande Hart, who facilitates youth volunteer workshops for the Orange County BJE.

Hart saw proof of this when her son, Matt, organized “Shoot Away Cancer,” a basketball tournament to raise funds for pediatric cancer research at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, as his bar mitzvah project three years ago. Matt secured support from a local basketball league and brought together 180 elementary- to high school-age students for a day of three-on-three play in Santa Ana. While teams paid a $30 registration fee, most of the $7,200 Matt raised came from raffled gift certificates and donations he solicited from local businesses and attractions.

Now 15, Matt continues to volunteer to help those in need. For the past five years, he has been traveling to Mexico where he spends time with orphaned children and helps build houses for homeless families on behalf of the Irvine-based Corazon de Vida Foundation.

“Volunteering gives you a warm feeling that you’re dong something right,” the Rancho Santa Margarita High School sophomore said. “It has changed me as a person. If more kids would go out and do this, I think the world would be a lot better.”

A night at the homeless shelter

545 San Pedro Street is an address I will never forget.

It is the Union Rescue Mission downtown, inhabited by homeless individuals that reside in their designated corners on Skid Row. My school, Milken Community High School, offered a community service experience for 21 students, and I found myself at the Union Rescue Mission.

During my three-day trip, I had the occasion to sleep in the mission, take a tour, speak with the residents, and serve and prepare food.
The Mission is a recovery center for drug and alcohol addicts, battered women and children. The facility utilizes the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, which encourages people to develop a relationship with God. It teaches individuals to change their beliefs, attitudes and choices. My own beliefs and attitudes were also changed as a result of this experience.

As I searched the dining room holding my tray, I spotted an older African American woman and joined her. I was struck by how focused she was on eating every bite of her meal.

“Hi, I’m Jackie, how are you doing today?”

She told me about her day but was more interested in finding out about me. I told her about my school, my favorite classes and my hobbies. I realized how many opportunities I take for granted. As soon as I mentioned sports, her eyes lit up and she was filled with enthusiasm. She told me about her family, her life and how she had always enjoyed school. She told her stories about sports and how she had received a volleyball scholarship.

Sadly, she chose the wrong path and as a result, her life became unmanageable. She became consumed with drug addiction and self-destructive behaviors. She abandoned her 5-year-old daughter for fear that she would have the same horrible life. I was speechless. The silence grew uncomfortable as I nervously began rambling on about my computer classes to fill the void. I knew at the end of our visit that this woman would remain in my memory bank forever. I realized that each choice we make impacts our future and our relationships with others.

During mealtime we had the opportunity to connect with someone outside of ourselves, sharing our stories and listening to others. I never fully understood how important the concept of a meal was. I realized that mealtime offered much needed support to those who suffered. It had the power to create a connection between people who were polar opposites. It gave me the opportunity to step into the shoes of someone I never would have met.

The next morning, I spotted my new friend as I got ready to return to my usual lifestyle. Little did she know what a lasting impression she had made. My views on those less fortunate had been changed forever.

My life-changing experience at the mission taught me that everyone is a diamond in the rough.

Jackie Greenspan graduated from Milken Community High School last year.

The this essay was written for the Service Learning awards given out by the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Sulam Center for Jewish Service Learning (julief@jewishjournal.com.

Trading in happy meals for real happiness

Living a life of dual identity is no simple task. On one hand, my peers and I are told to live up to the expectations of being Modern Orthodox teens, but on the other side of the spectrum we are tempted by the culture of the secular world on an everyday basis.

How then is it remotely possible to balance the blaring secular world with the scholarly teachings of our forefathers that have existed for thousands of generations? Easy.

Through the eyes of a child, the secular world clearly clashes with the classically Jewish one. From birth, I was raised in a Modern Orthodox home, and I attended a school that was comprised of non-Jewish children. I was exposed to the numerous differences between my sheltered Jewish world and the secular world around me.

In school, I was filled with envy knowing that my favorite battery-operated FisherPrice toys were put away during the Sabbath when all my secular friends used their electric-operated toys with abandon. I asked my mother with bewilderment why the other children were so “lucky”? They could eat McDonald’s Happy Meals while I was strictly forbidden to enjoy such delights.

What did not occur to me was that I was the lucky child.

To the norm of society, Judaism is looked upon as a religion that in essence deprives you of things associated with the secular world. For instance, observant Jews do not dine at certain restaurants, wear clothes that might be the latest trend or do even something as basic as eat bread during Passover.

However in reality, one must look at Judaism and realize what our spectacular religion has to offer. Our culture is enriched with crucial morals and ethics that, when integrated into a person’s life, have the capacity to elevate us to an entirely different level of consciousness. Numerous biblical characters that appear in our text serve as exemplary role models with angelic qualities.

One of the most crucial gifts I’ve received is the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. This moral concept appears throughout our daily routines, and without our Judaic teachings one can be horrifically mislead. In a way, these practices end up being like a GPS guiding us and protecting us.

In the book of Leviticus, we are called a “treasured nation,” proving how special we really are. Judaism has a full heritage of the most intellectual people known to mankind. We are so fortunate to be associated with such a religion.

To stress this point even further, we must look at all the prayers in our siddur. Every day we are given the opportunity to converse with God, the Master of the World. This is an opportunity that should not be taken lightly, for in essence we can open our heart to God and let our lips overflow with any prayer or desire we might posses.

Now that I understand what Judaism really has to offer, I can step back and appreciate all the special aspects of the secular world and see that there aren’t any contradictions — that the hand of God is in everything. For example, the advances of medicine are essentially God giving us a cure, not merely great ideas from some doctor. The first man to walk on the moon also came directly from our Creator — as did the moon itself!

Nine years later I still look back at my 6-year-old self and smile.

Maybe playing with electric toys on Shabbos and eating Happy Meals is great, but once I figured out what Judaism was about, I think I had it better.

Rocky Salomon is a 10th grader at YULA.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the December issue is Nov. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Shoah lessons drive curriculum

The Holocaust will play a major role in educating teens at a new Green Dot charter school in Exposition Park. The entire staff of the Animo Jackie Robinson High School — seven teachers and two principals — has been trained to teach a curriculum by Facing History and Ourselves, a Boston-based organization that uses the Holocaust to help kids understand the impact of moral choices they make daily.

“In making our school a Facing History high school, we are saying ‘what if we could really shape all the curricular components with this vision? What would happen with kids from the inner city who are really struggling with moral choices, and who often have no idea what it means to have remorse for your actions?'” said assistant principal Kristen Botello.

The school has written a four-year curriculum that integrates the Facing History approach through several disciplines, including English, history, science, art and community service. Animo Jackie Robinson is the first school in Los Angeles to adopt Facing History as an underlying educational philosophy.

The school opened this year with 147 kids in ninth grade; 18 of them are African American and the rest are Latino. Grades will be added over the next three years until there are 600 ninth- to 12th-graders, and all teachers hired will be trained by Facing History.

“I believe the thought processes that result from Facing History affect the kids not only in terms of learning the content of the Holocaust, but in looking at human behavior and the specific, personal events where individuals had to make choices, and how individual choices impact history,” Botello said.

Botello taught English at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights for 14 years, 11 of them using the Facing History curriculum. She says she can always spot kids who had Facing History teachers.

“You can just see it in the way they behave, the way they treat each other and the tolerance levels they have for people who are different, not just in terms of race or ethnicity, but in terms of disabilities or challenges,” she said.
The Jackie Robinson educators were among 30 LAUSD teachers who participated in Facing History’s five-day September institute called “Holocaust and Human Behavior,” held at Mount St. Mary’s College Doheny Campus.

Around 1,500 teachers in Los Angeles have been trained by Facing History.
For information, visit www.facinghistory.org or www.greendot.org.

A helping foot
As they have been for the past 14 years, about 250 kids and families will lend their feet to AIDS Walk Los Angeles Oct. 15 as part of Kids Who Care, a team made up of kids from more than a dozen schools, including Stephen S. Wise Day School and Milken Community High School.
Last year, Kids Who Care raised $65,000, placing it fifth among the top AIDS Walk fundraisers, most of them corporations.

The team was founded with 25 walkers in 1992 by then-8-year-old Leo Beckerman, a Stephen S. Wise member. Since then, Stephen S. Wise families have raised more than $500,000 for AIDS Walk Los Angeles, now in its 22nd year.
The money funds direct services, prevention education and advocacy on behalf of people living with HIV/AIDS in Los Angeles County.
There are approximately 55,000 people living with HIV in Los Angeles County, and there are 1,500-2,000 new infections each year.

For information visit www.WiseLA.org or www.aidswalk.net/losangeles.

Family dinners = better grades + better behavior
First ladies Maria Shriver and Corina Villaraigosa helped kick off Family Day at Thomas Starr King Middle School near Griffith Park Sept. 25. The Safeway Foundation launched a $2 million public service campaign to encourage families to eat dinner together.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University founded Family Day in 2001 — and this year 600 cities participated. A CASA study found that compared to kids who have fewer than three family dinners per week, children and teens who have frequent family dinners are at 70 percent lower risk for substance abuse; half as likely to try cigarettes or marijuana; one-third less likely to try alcohol; and almost 40 percent likelier to say future drug use will never happen. The report also found that teens who have frequent family dinners are likelier to get better grades in school.

For information visit www.safeway.com or www.casafamilyday.org.

The next step for girls: Israel
The Orthodox Union’s (OU) Machon Maayan one-year program in Israel opened with its first class of 39 women, many of whom have scant Judaic studies background.
The post high-school seminary in Beit Shemesh — a half hour from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — attracts girls who graduate from the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the OU’s outreach youth movement, and want to continue in their Jewish studies.
“Where we stop, programs like Machon Maayan continue,” said Rabbi Steven Burg, National Director of NCSY, who was formerly the movement’s West Coast director.
For more information go to www.machonmaayan.org.