Super Bowl With the Homeless


Two weeks ago, I received a crazy call.

“We’re putting together a Super Bowl Party for the Homeless. Last year’s video went viral, so now we’re expanding. Can you host the L.A. party?”

The caller was Meir Kay, a social media personality with more than 1 million followers, known for his infectious positivity. In his first viral video, he danced around New York City high-fiving people who were hailing cabs.

I have a million followers, too, but at Accidental Talmudist I’m on a mission to increase the peace by sharing Jewish wisdom with all people. In a video that caught Meir’s eye, I brought two Chasidic musicians downtown on Christmas night to see what would happen. We ended up jamming with a homeless guy named Antonio. Later, we passed the hat for him online and raised more than $600.

At Beth Am, I found that some of the maybes had actually showed up.

Meir told me we’d need a venue, food, a big-screen TV, dignity kits, volunteers, a film crew and homeless guests.

“Meir, this is a great idea. You should’ve called me a month ago.”

“Dude! Last year, I pulled it together in 24 hours!”

Respect. That video was pretty good. The New England Patriots even reposted it.

“How many homeless guys did you have?”

“Six.”

“It looked way busier than that.”

“Yeah, I brought them to a party at a bar. But a bar isn’t a good idea for these guys. Plus, the owner doesn’t want them back.”

I bet. So we had two weeks to pull it off. Walking away was obviously the right move. My soul said stay.

I called Rabbi Adam Kligfeld at Temple Beth Am. He agreed on the spot, and so did his staff. Lia Mandelbaum, director of programming, Shawn Gatewood, director of facilities, and all their personnel brought a problem-solving attitude.

So we had a venue. Then Dovid Leider of Leider’s Catering donated food for 50. Boom! This thing was coming together. My wife, Nina, recruited volunteers. Chasids from Hancock Park, whole families from Temple Beth Am, and non-Jews from our Facebook audience all got into the spirit.

Two days before the game, my cameraman bailed because of a family emergency. Then, Marty Markovits appeared, a documentarian with a great eye.

Sunday dawned.

“Hi! Would you like to attend a Super Bowl Party and have a great meal?”

The first invitee said yes. She spends her days by the 7-Eleven next door to the synagogue and was thrilled to go inside. The next 10 people we approached, however, all said no. They wanted to be left alone. Then a few maybes. I called Nina.

The diversity among homeless people is immense. Some wouldn’t attract a second glance at Coffee Bean. Others are alarmingly challenged regarding mental health and hygiene. Nina found two of the latter and drove them to the synagogue, God bless her.

I headed downtown. We found an encampment of eight. They told us to scram, but one fellow, Michael, said, “Hell, yeah, me and my wife are coming!” That convinced the others. I summoned a Lyft van.

At Beth Am, I found that some of the maybes had showed up. Our Lyft group became the boisterous nucleus of two dozen guests, plus an equal number of volunteers.

I’m a Giants fan, so I was rooting for the Eagles to beat the Patriots. This became the general consensus. Spirits rose. Plates were piled high with tasty wings and pastrami.

Real conversations were happening all around the room. I learned Ed was a 10-year veteran of the Air Force. Uncle Ray was just rooting for a good game.

When the Eagles scored, we erupted in “Yaaahs!” and high-fived like old pals, and we groaned every time the Patriots made a good play. In the end, we brought it home: an Eagles victory for the faithful!

The real triumph, however, came from Brandon after I shared Torah with him.

“Who is strong? One who controls himself. I like that. I’m in a halfway house now, getting it together. I don’t trust no one but God to help me, but I would like to volunteer for this temple. Mow the lawn or whatever. Thank you for doing a great thing for us.”


Salvador Litvak shares his love of Judaism with a million followers every day at
accidentaltalmudist.org.

People attend the lighting ceremony of Europe’s largest Hanukkah menorah at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

‘Hanukkah Monologues’ Spotlights Personal Stories


This Hanukkah, Joel and Fran Grossman shared the story of a food-related miracle, but in their case, it wasn’t a cruse of pure oil — it was tuna noodle casserole.

The couple’s “food of love” started simply as something kosher that Joel could prepare and Fran could eat, and evolved into a pathway back to observant Jewish life for Joel.

“Thirty-nine years later, I know that the tuna noodle casserole sparked something in me that I didn’t even know I was missing,” Joel said as part of a Dec. 10 storytelling event at Temple Beth Am.

The evening, known as “The Hanukkah Monologues,” featured eight stories on the theme of heroism, light and miracles. Each story represented one of the candles in the hanukkiah, the Hanukkah menorah.

Written and performed by community members of all ages, the stories were workshopped by the event’s director, Stuart K. Robinson, who also wrote and directed “Freedom Song,” a Beit T’shuvah play juxtaposing stories of addiction, rehab and recovery with the Passover theme of freedom and redemption. The venue, Robertson Art Space, was packed to capacity with 120 audience members.

“The intention of ‘The Hanukkah Monologues’ was to bring to light some of the personal, yet also universally relatable, stories that exist within our community,” said Lia Mandelbaum, Temple Beth Am’s director of programming and engagement, and also one of the storytellers. “Sharing and receiving each other’s genuine and sometimes vulnerable life experiences can be such a powerful platform for creating connection, empowerment and transformation.”

The evening featured eight stories on the theme of heroism, light and miracles.

Mandelbaum identified storytellers of various backgrounds and ages, choosing people who would be open to the “process of self-discovery, growth and teamwork.” Over the course of a month, the storytellers prepared; feedback from the others challenged them to shape and focus the tales for clarity and impact.

All but one of the stories were about family, with many focusing on children’s relationships with their fathers. Father-and-daughter duo Rabbi Chaim and Adina Singer-Frankes alternated telling sections of their stories, about how each of them and their respective dads relate to the Holocaust as historical and personal Jewish event. Negin Yamini, who grew up in Iran, Pakistan, Austria, Israel and the United States, shared her complicated family history in which her parents’ bitter custody battle kept her separated from her father for much of her life.

Some stories featured experiences that the storytellers had as children. Rachel Duboff, Pressman Academy’s library assistant, talked about how the butterfly effect of her not getting her dream job as a camp counselor led to the amazing experiences that occurred thereafter. Mary Kohav, vice president of community engagement programs at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, provided a window into her childhood and the Coleman cooler that accompanied her family on trips, including one to Disney World that never happened due to a threat against her Persian family. And Jonah Reinis, a seventh-grader at Pressman Academy, told a story about falling into the ocean in Sweden when he was 6.

Other storytellers told tales of their parents’ perseverance and strength. Mandelbaum talked about how, after her mother crashed her bicycle after getting a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, “the first thing she said after she stood back up was, ‘It’s enough. I refuse to let this disease win, to define my life. I will take back control, and I will have a great life.’ Twenty years later, she still says the same thing.”

And Avi Peretz, executive vice president of Temple Beth Am, noted that finding out how his late father had worked to bring over the rest of his Moroccan family from North Africa to their home in Canada made him regret not having appreciated him at a younger age.

“Perhaps the lesson is that all around us are people that may be doing extraordinary things, right under our noses,” he said. “Maybe we’re the ones doing those things. … Maybe we also need to look a little harder because the extraordinary — maybe even the miraculous — may be right in front of us. Perhaps that’s part of the message, and part of the miracle, of Hanukkah.”

Jewish diversity on exhibit at Temple Beth Am global fair


At a time when many Americans feel separated from others by race, religion or ethnic background, Temple Beth Am staged a one-day exhibit that reminded some people how connected they actually are. Drawing on the temple’s own diverse membership, the “Global Jewish Fair” held earlier this month was an exploration of diverse Jewish tastes, smells and sounds from around the world and across the years.

Lia Mandelbaum, Beth Am’s director of programming and engagement and a co-organizer of the event, said she saw the fair as challenging what she called “Ashkenormativity,” the mainstream belief that most Jews are white European descendants who like to “eat kugel.” The exhibit focused on the look and feel of Jewish ritual objects and family keepsakes from countries such as Iran, Poland and Ghana, as well as the United States — all to support the goal of “shedding light on the diversity that exists” within the Jewish community, Mandelbaum said.

“People were hesitant at first to give their ritual objects,” said Lisa Clumeck, co-organizer of the event and director of the synagogue’s religious school. “They weren’t certain what they would be used for, how it was going to be displayed and who was going to see and watch it,” she said. But “once Lia talked to them about it, they were more willing to allow us to use it.”

Among the 20 exhibits demonstrating diversity in the Jewish community were an ornately decorated silver flower vase, hand-made in Iran by a Jewish artist, and a multicolored, sewn challah cover, made by Jews from the House of Israel community in western Ghana.

The vase, shared by Dafna and Scott Taryle, has been in the Taryle family for four generations. It depicts a bearded character from the Book of Esther, King Ahasuerus and several smaller figures. Scott Taryle said they represent the story of what happened after the king’s death, that the king’s doctors “are at the funeral,” and because their hands are shown open, they “could not have saved him.”

The Ghanaian challah cover with the Hebrew word “Shabbat” sewn into its center was shared by Tyson Roberts, who said it was a reminder of his visits to Sefwi Wiawso, a mountainous region of about 140,000 people, where several hundred of them practice Judaism.

Roberts said the challah cover recalls his experiences of sharing a Friday night dinner with a House of Israel family, attending Shabbat services Saturday morning, and later celebrating Havdalah “with fragrant flowers and Coca-Cola.”

Also on display was a Torah scroll more than 500 years old, one of the oldest in Los Angeles, according to the accompanying text. Originally from Spain, it found its way to the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights, where Rabbi Harry Silverstein, one of Beth Am’s rabbi emeriti, had grown up, and where his father, Oshege Zilberstein, had been a rabbi. Given to the temple by Silverstein, the scroll was displayed in a case made of silver and wood known as a tik.

Other objects, decidedly of Ashkenazic origin, symbolized generational connections often found in Jewish homes.

On loan from Miriam Cantor was an image of the family menorah painted by her mother, alongside photos of Cantor family members with the menorah — a grouping that told the story of the menorah and family passing together through time.

Hanging in Cantor’s home, the painting also serves as a reminder of her mother’s artistic skills. “She wasn’t like the other moms,” she said.

A frayed hardbound book written in Hebrew, Polish and English, with the Hebrew title “Haggadah Shel Pesach,” also told a story of family continuity. According to its owner, Esther Silon, the book was given to her husband Adam’s great grandfather in Poland in 1932. With colorful illustrations of rabbis sitting in the biblical city of Bnei Brak and of the characters in “Had Gadya,” it was used at Passover seders by Adam’s grandfather for many years and passed on to later generations, still in use by Silon’s family.

“It’s a family treasure,” she said, turning the pages, which through seder stains reflected generations of use and served as a reminder of life in the Polish Jewish community before the Holocaust.

An oval, gold-framed family portrait from a century ago told another tale of determination. On loan from the temple receptionist, Sharon Webb, the black-and-white photo had an arrow-shaped Post-it Note, pointing to a little boy in the photo’s center and marked, “Sharon’s daddy.”

“It’s my father’s family,” said Webb, who keeps the photo on her dining room buffet. In 1906, her grandfather, Israel Rosen, had come to New York from Vishnivets, now a town in western Ukraine. After working and saving, he bought passage tickets so his wife and children could join him. Upon arrival, one of the children had ringworm, “and they were all sent back,” said Webb. After saving eight years for a second trip, they finally made it, landing in Philadelphia, where her father, David Rosen, was born in 1915.

“My dad died at 35 years of age,” said Webb. “Having the portrait makes me feel that they are with me.” 

Conservative and Orthodox shuls share in aid to refugees


Tyson Roberts bent over a heap of boxes filled with the debris of everyday life — clothing, kitchen supplies, coat hangers; in short, everything one might need to start a new life — all piled into a corner of a downstairs lobby at Temple Beth Am on La Cienega Boulevard.

“This is way more stuff than I thought we’d get,” Roberts said, as he lifted one of the boxes onto a plastic kitchen cart.

A few boxes at a time, the pile made its way up an elevator, out to the parking lot and into the back of a U-Haul truck. 

The next day, Roberts drove the supplies to San Diego to donate them to the Jewish Family Service (JFS) there, a nonprofit that assists refugees on the last leg of their long journey by finding and furnishing homes for them.

For months, local synagogues have looked for ways to respond to a global refugee crisis that has displaced unprecedented millions in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. After the crisis exploded into headlines and onto television screens last September, the Conservative synagogue formed an ad hoc refugee task force to explore how it could help.

“From the very beginning, we said we’d rather do things right than do things quick,” said Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Temple Beth Am’s senior rabbi.

After presentations from HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit organization, and other refugee support organizations, the synagogue determined that contributing supplies to JFS San Diego was the best way to directly help refugees in Southern California. To amplify its effort, it partnered with B’nai David-Judea Congregation, a nearby Modern Orthodox synagogue on West Pico Boulevard.

Beginning in early July, both synagogues put out a call from the pulpit and in synagogue bulletins for a laundry list of items, starting with school supplies and encompassing items ranging from mops to toothpaste, all needing to be in new or like-new condition.

As the sun set on Aug. 9, Roberts, a political science lecturer at UC Irvine, pulled the 15-foot rental truck into the Temple Beth Am parking lot to collect the items stored there. 

As the truck sat in the lot, Casey Stern, a Temple Beth Am member for more than a decade, pulled in her car with a last-minute delivery: several bags full of tastefully chosen men’s apparel. Her brother, a stylist, gave her the clothing, “so everything is very fashionable,” she said.

“I made sure not to bring any junky stuff,” she said, adding, “They’re going to be starting all over again.”

With the truck about halfway full, Mark Rothman, a B’nai David-Judea member, got behind the wheel to make collection stops at the second synagogue as well as a few house calls. By nightfall, the 300 cubic feet of storage space was full to bursting.

The following morning, Roberts made the drop-off at the San Diego nonprofit on the way to visit his mother and sister, who live nearby. JFS San Diego was able to begin putting the donations to use as soon as that evening, installing a dining set in an apartment where a Syrian family had recently settled.

JFS San Diego is on the ground floor of an international effort to resettle refugees from around the world, with an emphasis, at present, on families from Syria, Burma and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At a rate of about 30 a month, it picks up refugees from the airport, helps them apply for government services and employment and finds them housing.

And, as part of the resettlement process, it stocks their new homes with the panoply of necessary conveniences to lead a normal life from Day One. The week of the Los Angeles shipment, it helped resettle 13 families in San Diego.

The refugee issue has long held purchase in the minds of Jews around the world, who, until late last century, were often forced to cross national borders with little or nothing to their names. (For instance, JFS San Diego was originally founded as a refugee support organization for Jews displaced by World War I who showed up at the Mexican-American border.)

So, when the global refugee crisis became front-page news, “It was something near and dear to us,” said Rabbi Pamela Frydman, a B’nai David-Judea congregant who contributed to the L.A. collection effort.

“It’s near, because San Diego is just a short truck ride away, and it’s dear because as a Jewish congregation, we all have families who have fled persecution,” she said.

Frydman, who was an educator and social justice activist in San Francisco before moving to Los Angeles in May, said the refugee issue is personally important to her because her parents lost more than 100 relatives in the Holocaust.

She said the commandment in Leviticus not to stand idly by while others are persecuted applies today to places such as the Congo, where nearly 6 million have lost their lives to sectarian conflict since 1994 with little global attention.

“When we say we lost 6 million — they [also] lost 6 million, and barely anybody knows about it,” she said.

A Shavuot all-nighter at Temple Beth Am


Charlie Carnow showed up at Temple Beth Am on June 11 with big plans. A paper in his pocket listed all the synagogues he wanted to visit on Shavuot: Beth Am, B’nai David-Judea and LINK Kollel & Shul.

But, midway through the evening, he gave up on his temple-hopping ambitions and decided to stay put at Beth Am, which, like numerous area congregations, held an all-night learning session in celebration of the holiday that marks the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The importance of attending the program, “The Torah of Me: How Do You Receive Torah,” was simple, said Carnow, a member of IKAR.

“It’s escaping the world of work, and devoting yourself to Torah,” he said.

The Shavuot experience at Beth Am began with afternoon prayer, followed by a light dinner. It continued with an opening session at 9 p.m., “Torah Through Our Multiple Intelligences,” featuring songwriter Craig Taubman, sans guitar, leading attendees in song.

Taubman also discussed current events, specifically the broadcast of the Muhammad Ali memorial that had aired the previous day. He read aloud some of the criticism that had been lobbed at Rabbi Michael Lerner, a progressive rabbi who protested the Vietnam War with Ali and whose remarks at the memorial denounced the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

“I was more critical of the criticism of him, than his actual remarks,” Taubman said in an interview after the holiday. “I don’t have to agree with his remarks, but I do have to agree with the right for him to speak his Torah, and that’s what Shavuot is about, that if everybody receives Torah, then everybody should have the right to speak their Torah and not be edited or chastised for having a point of view that’s not yours.”

Other speakers at the kickoff session included Rabbi Aryeh Cohen of the American Jewish University Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and his wife, Andrea Hodos, part-time program director at NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, along with Dan Messinger, owner of Bibi’s Bakery & Cafe in Pico-Robertson, who spoke about operating the cafe and how it affords him the opportunity to interact with Jews of all backgrounds.

Breakout sessions followed, and around midnight, about 25 people gathered in the Temple Beth Am Pressman Academy Lainer Library to discuss how to make God more prevalent at Jewish summer camp. Camp Ramah in California staff members Dani Kohanzadeh and Ami Fields-Meyer led the session, during which attendees grappled with quotes about God from the likes of Martin Buber and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Outside the library, attendees munched on brownies, fruit and vegetables and filled their cups with caffeinated drinks. They also indulged in cheesecake — like learning, it is customary to eat dairy foods on Shavuot.

While adults enjoyed the intellectual stimulation that was occurring on the upper floors of the congregation’s campus, students of Pressman Academy, the synagogue’s elementary and middle school, had a different kind of experience on the lower floors: a sleepover party.

Supervised by Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman, director of youth learning and engagement at Beth Am, pajama-clad kids wandered around the hallways or played table tennis and foosball in the campus recreational room. (Hoffman managed to find some time to dedicate himself to pursue learning, sitting in the back of the room during one session with his head buried in a book.)

Without question, some of the students could have used the caffeine available upstairs. “I’m so tired right now,” one Pressman student told a friend while walking like a zombie down a hallway.

The helpful reply: “Go to sleep.”

Marjorie Pressman, rebbetzin and philanthropist, 94


Marjorie Pressman, a notable communal leader and rebbetzin par excellence of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, where her husband, Rabbi Jacob Pressman, served as rabbi from 1950-1985, died at home April 4 after a period of declining health. She was 94.

It is a stereotype of generations past that behind every successful man stood a smart woman, but no matter how prominent a role her husband took in the Los Angeles Jewish community, Marjorie Pressman was not behind him, but at his side.

They were “quite a team” is how two congregants described them, each using the same words with the same emphasis. Pressman was a force of nature. She was a counselor and protector, defender and advocate — not only for her husband, but also for the causes they both embraced.

[ARCHIVE – Marjorie Pressman: ‘I created my own role’]

It was said of women of her generation that they married what they would have wanted to become. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Pressman would have succeeded in whatever she tried to become, and I do not know if the rabbinate was her calling — as it was her husband’s — but when she took on the role of rebbetzin, she became its personification. She was involved in every aspect of synagogue life, as well as in the larger Jewish community.

Pressman was a prolific fundraiser, even into her late 80s; she was active in support of Israel, throwing her still-enormous energy into activities on behalf of the Sheba Medical Center in Israel. She would call donors large and small, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. She was persuasive, even demanding at times. Her pitch was always compelling.

[READ — Rabbi Adam Kligfeld's eulogy]

Pressman was responsible for bringing Israel Expo to Los Angeles in the heyday of American Jewry’s infatuation with the Jewish state after the Six-Day War in 1967. She pioneered art shows and celebrations of Israel, and her commitment never waned. Philanthropist Marilyn Ziering, who worked with Pressman on many philanthropic efforts, said Pressman never asked anyone to do any task that she would not do herself. Nothing was too menial, no task too difficult. When she was involved, she gave her efforts her full heart and soul — and commanded the same from those who worked with her.

Former Beth Am President Dvorah Colker recalled Pressman’s exquisite taste. She was a skilled photographer and an indefatigable chronicler. She was also a hard taskmaster and never accepted second-rate work from herself or anyone else. She assembled a vast collection of images and historical recollections of her family’s personal life and communal efforts. In honor of the 70th anniversary of her marriage to Rabbi Pressman, she compiled a joint autobiography of their life achievements, including the family they had raised together, the friends they had made and nurtured, the celebrities they had known, the institutions they had jointly built, the journeys they had taken, the values they upheld, and the wisdom they together put into work that is at once beautiful and majestic. It is an autobiography that is also a communal history and an ethical will.

Pressman often recounted how, unlike other rabbis and rebbetzins of her generation, she and her “Rabbi Jack” were close friends with their congregants. They socialized with congregants and traveled with them, not just to Israel and sacred sites, but also on vacation and in informal outings, and never feared that such friendships would diminish the rabbi’s stature. Indeed, their friendships only deepened the respect with which they were held, and enhanced their effectiveness in the congregation. The two were so natural in who they were that the closer you got to them, the greater the respect.

Born Marjorie Steinberg in Philadelphia, began her romance with her future husband in a youth group in an inner-city Philadelphia congregation also named Temple Beth Am, and it never ended. Friends marveled that the couple never quarreled and almost always agreed; it was as if the two had truly become one, each powerful in his or her own right, but ever more formidable together. Together with his wife, Rabbi Jack Pressman served his community as an institution-builder — from Camp Ramah in Ojai, to the then-University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), from the Brandeis Camp Institute — now the Brandeis-Bardin Institute — to raising money for Israel bonds. If it needed to be built or launched, Rabbi Jack and Margie Pressman were at the forefront to make it happen.

The past years had been difficult for Marjorie, who experienced the painful loss of a daughter-in-law and, later, the couple’s son, Joel Pressman, who was a renowned drama teacher at Beverly Hills High School. And then there was her husband’s slow and relentless decline until his death on Oct. 1, 2015, at 95.

Her funeral was scheduled to be held Wednesday at Temple Beth Am, the synagogue she built with her husband, followed by interment at Eden Memorial in the family plot, surrounded by her husband, parents and in-laws. Marjorie and Rabbi Jacob Pressman were only children, so their parents followed them to Los Angeles to be with their children, and her father was deeply engaged, as well, in Temple Beth Am congregation’s religious activities.

Pressman is survived by her daughter, Judith; son Rabbi Daniel Pressman, rabbi emeritus of Beth David Congregation in Saratoga, Calif.; five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren (the latest twins were born just weeks ago). She also leaves behind a grateful congregation and community.

We will not know the likes of Marjorie Pressman again soon. She was an original.


Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute, a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University and a congregant at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.

Anat Hoffman, local rabbis discuss impact of Western Wall compromise


At the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an Israeli government commission convened to consider how to be inclusive of more forms of Judaism at Jerusalem’s Western Wall — the Kotel — which has long been the domain of the Orthodox. The commission’s report represented, for many, a victory in the decades-long struggle for pluralism, as it recommends the creation of a new, egalitarian prayer plaza adjacent to the current Orthodox one. 

The issue of what pluralism at the Kotel means was the focus of “Separate, but Equal?” a panel event held March 9 at Temple Beth Am, featuring four rabbis from different denominations as well as Anat Hoffman, co-founder of Women of the Wall and executive director of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), and Israel Consul General David Siegel. It was the first in a new “Crucial Conversations” series, designed by the Jewish Journal to bring together the community for vital discussions addressing contemporary Jewish life and concerns. 

Jewish Journal Executive Editor Susan Freudenheim moderated the event, dedicating the conversation to the memory of Taylor Force, an American graduate student stabbed to death in Tel Aviv that week. 

Offering welcome remarks, Siegel noted that “compromises are never easy, never not messy, never perfect,” but urged Hoffman and the assembled to understand that “we are one people.” He charged the audience to “always be involved in what’s happening in Israel,” and to “never give up.”

“Our vision for the future is a big tent,” Siegel said, to make Israel a place “where every Jew feels at home.”

Hoffman, for many the main draw of the event for her frontline engagement on this issue over the decades, attributed progress on the issue in large part to American Jews. 

“You were willing to stand up and fight … in support of finding a solution for this problem,” Hoffman said. “There must be more than one way to be Jewish in Israel. Zionism is not a spectator sport. You are willing to roll up your sleeves and do something about it.” 

Lauding the decision as “a great achievement,” Hoffman admitted that implementation will be challenging. As an example, she reported two seemingly conflicting remarks by Netanyahu — that he was completely committed to the report and was also giving the rabbis three weeks to identify their reservations. “I can save Netanyahu the three weeks,” Hoffman said. “The words ‘gender equality,’ ‘pluralism’ and ‘egalitarianism’ — that’s the objection.”

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of the Sephardic Educational Center, visits Israel regularly, but admitted that he rarely goes to the Kotel, because “every time I go,” he said, “there’s always some kind of argument or division taking place.” He also challenged Hoffman, saying that the egalitarian area means that “you essentially were relegated to a corner, and told that’s where you can go. … I don’t understand how that’s a victory.” 

Bouskila shared a story about his hero, Sephardic chief rabbi, Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, who had gone to the Kotel to pray on the occasion of his inauguration. “There was no minyan,” Bouskila said. “He was not wearing a tallit, there were women walking right by him and there was no barrier, because that was what the Kotel always was. The Kotel HaMa’aravi (the Western Wall) was never a synagogue,” Bouskila said. “The Kotel should not be a place that reflects denominational divisions,” he said.

Rabbi Pini Dunner, senior rabbi of Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, shared his disappointing Kotel experiences and his realization that the Temple Mount — topped by the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock — is no longer the center of Jewish life. “I don’t think I’m ever going to go to the Kotel again. The Kotel is not the holiest site of Judaism,” he said. “It’s a symbol of our shame and disgrace.” 

“To me, this argument about who can daven where and how is like a divorced couple arguing over teacups,” Dunner said. “I just don’t get it. We should all be getting together and every single day, sit at the Kotel and sing kinot (songs mourning the destruction of Jerusalem). Because despite the fact of how fantastic it is that we have the Kotel and Jerusalem and the State of Israel, we’re not there yet, Mashiach hasn’t come. Let’s not treat it as a tourist site or a synagogue when it is a symbol of the fact that the geulah shleimah (full redemption) is not yet here.”

“There is more than one way to be a Jew,” said Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, “That’s ultimately what this conversation is about and what the struggle of the last 27 years is about.” 

“The Kotel should belong to all Jews,” Geller said. “It’s like the National Mall, but on steroids. No one has the right to tell me that my voice doesn’t belong there. Women ought not to be invisible.” 

Geller admitted that the agreement “is a compromise and no one is happy. We gave up so much. That’s the point. It’s not perfect but it is incredibly important. The level of recognition for non-Orthodox denominations is the story and we need to recognize that.”

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld of Temple Beth Am admitted that in rabbinical school, he didn’t feel the imperative to fight for equality at the Kotel. However, during his year in Israel, a Shavuot experience at the back of the Kotel plaza made clear to him that “I couldn’t be on the outside. … Even if I wouldn’t have claimed this place to wage this particular battle, my Jews were under attack, and I had to be with them.” 

Hoffman noted that the progress was because of American Jews representing “the most effective and large coalition in the history of the State of Israel about an issue of pluralism,” and she urged the crowd to stay involved. 

“If a quarter million Jews wrote the prime minister of Israel, ‘This is important to us, this is a beautiful, new idea, we’d like to have a choice’ — if we all said that loud enough, it will happen,” said Hoffman in her closing remarks. “I really believe it. So, may the best plaza win.”

After the event, audience member Sarah Gorney, 27, who works at Hulu and discovered the event on Facebook, took issue with comments by some of the rabbis that the Kotel doesn’t matter. 

“The fact is, it does matter. It’s an important symbol to many, it’s represented so much more and it’s from a place of privilege that you can minimize it,” she said, referring to the fact that men have had decades of greater access to the Kotel and could therefore more easily dismiss it. 

“As someone without equal right to the Kotel, what I see every time I’m there is the divider, of the men yelling at women and the homogenous population, because I’m a woman,” she said. 

The event was co-sponsored by the Journal and the panelists’ organizations and synagogues: the Israel Religious Action Center, the Israeli Consulate, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, the Sephardic Educational Center, Young Israel of North Beverly Hills and Temple Beth Am. 

Rabbi Jacob Pressman: New Year wishes


Last Sunday morning, every seat was filled in Temple Beth Am’s main sanctuary for the funeral of Rabbi Jacob Pressman. Rabbi Pressman, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am for 35 years, community leader and civil rights activist, died peacefully at his home on Oct. 1. Rabbi Pressman was instrumental in founding and/or building not only Beth Am, but also the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), Camp Ramah, Brandeis-Bardin Institute, Los Angeles Hebrew High, Israel Bonds in Los Angeles, Sinai Akiba Academy and Pressman Academy. “There is no Los Angeles Jewish community as we know it without Jack Pressman,” Beth Am Rabbi Adam Kligfeld said. Mourners also heard from Pressman’s daughter, Judith, his wife, Marjorie, Rabbi Harry Silverstein and Pressman’s son, Rabbi Daniel Pressman.

Rabbi Daniel Pressman said that when his prolific and voluble father asked him who will be delivering his eulogy, the son replied, “I will, Dad.” The senior Pressman paused, then asked, “Do you want me to write it?”

To conclude the eulogy, Daniel Pressman indeed read aloud a New Year’s blessing his father wrote, which the Journal reprints below.


In the new year, may you discover that your home is built on solid rock able to withstand hurricanes, floods, mudslides, earthquakes, wildfires, escalating insurance rates and repossession. 

May it be free of mold, mildew and mice, and safe from termites, rug mites, mosquito bites and family fights.

If you have trouble hearing, may you give in and get a hearing aid. If you have trouble seeing, may you get respectable spectacles. If you cannot drive, may you cultivate friends who do. If you cannot chew, may you acquire designer dentures. If you cannot smell, may you take frequent showers.

May your cardiologist hear no murmur, your dentist see no cavity, your dermatologist see no melanoma, your ophthalmologist see no cataract, and your proctologist tell you, “It looks beautiful.”

May your computer never freeze, your automobile never overheat, your garbage disposal never clog, your refrigerator never melt down, your pipes never spring a leak, your air conditioner never quit even on the hottest day of the year, and your neighbor’s gardener’s roaring leaf-blower break down.

May you be able to decipher your electric, telephone, department store and credit card bills, your income tax forms, Medicare medicine plans and the extra-fine print at the bottom of everything stating they didn’t mean what is written at the top of the contract.

May you solve the mystery of getting from here to there despite coagulated traffic, and may you do so without having to declare bankruptcy at the gasoline pump.

May your children take a liking to you, and your grandchildren call you even when they don’t want money, and your great-grandchildren teach you how to use your computer.

May our brethren of the State of Israel be safe from her hostile neighbors and her enemies in the United Nations, so that she may survive and thrive and be a light unto all nations.

May all 7 billion people everywhere in the world learn to love the people everywhere else in the world so that we can survive the 21st century without blowing up the world.

And should you ever feel alone and unloved, may you know that you are never alone, for God is with you, in you, and loves you, and so do I.

May the Messiah come this year, and if he does not, may you live as if she has, and may you be blessed with the happiest, healthiest, sweetest and most peaceful year of your life.

Shanah Tovah u’m’tukah

Rabbi Jacob Pressman, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am, dies at 95


Rabbi Jacob Pressman, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am for 35 years, community leader and civil rights activist, died peacefully at his home on Thursday morning, Oct. 1.

Funeral services will be held  Sunday, Oct. 4 at 10:30 a.m. at Temple Beth Am, 1039 S, La  Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles (parking is limited at the Temple, alternate parking is available at the Beverly Hills Tennis Courts, corner Olympic and La Cienega blvds.)

Interment will follow promptly at 1 p.m. at Eden Memorial Park Cemetery, 11500 Sepulveda Blvd., Mission Hills

Due to the holidays, shiva will not begin until Wednesday, Oct. 7. For times and locations, check the Temple website at www.tbala.org.

[Jewish community reflects on Rabbi Jacob Pressman]

An Appreciation

by Michael Berenbaum

The Los Angeles Jewish Community has lost a giant: Rabbi Jacob Pressman.

In the circles I frequent as a university professor and a scholar, I know many men and women who are smart; far fewer, who are wise. And Rabbi Jack was a wise man.

His role in the Los Angeles community was historic.

Born in Philadelphia in October 1919, he was raised at Temple Beth Am of Philadelphia, whose rabbi took a great interest in the young Jack Pressman and brought him in to teach Hebrew School and to run youth services. He was paid very modestly for his services but it was the time of the Great Depression, when every dime was worth its weight in gold. Through this, too, young Jack’s interest in the rabbinate was born, as was his interest in a certain young woman two years his junior, Marjorie Steinberg, who would become his wife by the time of his death of more than 70 years. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Pressman entered the Jewish Theological Seminary just as World War II began, and his rabbinic training was accelerated as the United States military needed chaplains, and the American rabbinate needed rabbis desperately, as young rabbis were going off to fight with their congregants. While still a student, Pressman served as rabbi of Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens, New York, whose own Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser was in the army. Pressman was instrumental in the design of the synagogue building, a massive structure on Queens Boulevard. And he took particular interest in the Ark, which was designed by noted artist and political satirist Arthur Syk. Although Pressman was offered prestigious positions on the East Coast, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Chancellor Louis Finkelstein advised the young rabbi to “Go West.” Los Angeles, he said, would soon join New York and Palestine – pre-State Israel – as one of the three great centers for Jewish life. Pressman said he never regretted heeding Finkelstein’s characteristically sagacious advice.

Pressman served as assistant to Rabbi Jacob Cohen at Sinai Temple, and then, in 1950, took over a small congregation then known as the Olympic Jewish Center and turned it into Temple Beth Am; under Pressman’s leadership, Beth Am grew to become one of the region’s most prominent Conservative Congregations, with more than 1,300 families. Together with his wife, Marjorie – and they were always a team — Pressman served his community as an institution-builder. From Camp Ramah to the then University of Judaism, from Brandeis – now Brandeis Bardin – to Israel Bonds, if it needed to be built or to be launched, Rabbi Jack and Margie Pressman were at the forefront to help build it.

Pressman was the first registrar of the University of Judaism, he was a founder of Camp Ramah, he helped recruit Shlomo Bardin to come out to the institution that now bears his name, and for years Temple Beth Am, certainly not the wealthiest of congregations in the United States, nevertheless ran the largest annual campaign for Israel Bonds in the country. Pressman helped found Los Angeles Hebrew High, Sinai-Akiba Academy and the Temple Beth Am Day School that now bears his name. He had foresight: he founded a non-Orthodox Jewish High School on L.A.’s West Side – the Herzl School – which could not be sustained, but the need he saw then, still remains.

The late Walter Ackerman, longtime director of Camp Ramah said that not only did Pressman become personally involved in these projects, but he also engaged his “ba’albatim, to expand their horizons, enlarge their reach.” They remained his congregants, but they also became his friends. Yet he never neglected his congregation.

Rabbi Perry Netter recalled that when he interviewed for an internship at Temple Beth Am, he was wary of Rabbi Pressman’s reputation, his association with Hollywood and his sense of showmanship. So he asked Rabbi Pressman, “How do you spend your average day?” Pressman took out his appointment book, and went through every appointment, recited by heart the circumstances of each of the congregants with whom he had met, remembering each bar mitzvah boy and bat mitzvah girl, every bride and groom. Netter was wowed, and went away knowing it would be an honor to intern with this man. Rabbi Pressman may have known the rich and famous, but he also took pride in the men and women in his own congregation.

He was also a communal leader. On a national level, in the 1960s, Pressman helped to create the Save Soviet Jewry movement that brought the plight of Soviet Jewry to the attention of the American public and helped create the program that eventually enabled tens of thousands of Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel.

And, as a supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, in 1965 he joined a group of 293 Southern Californians who walked with Martin Luther King, Jr. across the bridge to the State Capitol building in Montgomery. With so many whites in the “March,” and so much national attention, Gov. Bull Connor could not fully unleash his troops.

In July of 1985, Pressman assumed the title of rabbi emeritus, as he relinquished the reins of spiritual leadership of Temple Beth Am to Rabbi Joel Rembaum. Thus began three decades of continuing community service, including two years as executive director of the local Israel Bonds office in the late 1980s. He remained involved in the affairs of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, serving as chair of its board of governors, among other activities.

Known for his brilliant oratory and penetrating wit, Pressman welcomed the 21st century by embarking on a number of writing projects. In 2002 he published a collection of his sermons on the seminal historical moments of the 20th century, titled “Dear Friends.” He also served as a regular columnist for the Beverly Hills Courier. He also was an entertainer who could put on quite a show, singing and playing the Piano. Some of Hollywood’s great would join him. Jayne Meadows and Steve Allen were friends, and Steve played at his birthday bashes. Marilyn and Monte Hall were not only congregants, but devoted friends.

When Pressman retired, Temple Beth Am named its award winning day school in his honor: The Rabbi Jacob Pressman Day School. For many years, Pressman would say, wistfully: “I served the Beth Am community for more than 60 years, and what did I get? A bunch of kids running around town wearing my name on their dirty shirts.”

“He’s talking about my kids” I thought, my kids and grandkids. “This has got to stop. Don’t get mad, get even,” I vowed.

I waited. And then one day I struck. Pressman had come to the synagogue having just recovered from an illness, and I was the speaker in the Library Minyan that Shabbat morning. I acknowledged his presence and then said. “I know your complaints, Rabbi, but last week I attended a basketball game: Maimonides versus Pressman. Not bad company Maimonides/Pressman in the same breath. My kids call Maimonides Maimo, but Pressman, they call Pressman. My daughter played Hillel the next night Hillel/Pressman, also not bad company. I asked the students who was Maimonides? Few knew that Maimonides and the Rambam were the same, but our kids all know who Rabbi Pressman was!” Enough said, we never heard the complaint again.

My family became close to the Pressmans over the past 18 years; we shared Passover together and holiday dinners. We sought their guidance; we enjoyed their company and we attended many events when Rabbi Jack would get up to speak. In recent last years, he became increasingly frail, he walked with great difficulty, but once you put him in front of a microphone, 20 years came off his age. He became robust again, his voice strong. His wit and his wisdom intact.

Each Rosh Hashanah we attended the large congregational service at Temple Beth Am on the first night, which is not our style, if only to hear his poetic blessing. This year, for the first time in more 65 years, Rabbi Pressman was not there to bless us. Alas, the verdict was sealed, and he did not make it through Sukkot, though he struggled to attend synagogue on Yom Kippur. For decades, even after retirement, at each graduation and gala dinner of the Pressman Academy his words were inspiring, his considerable talent, even when diminished but slightly by age, most manifest.

Los Angeles has lost a Rabbis’ rabbi and a valiant leader. He leaves behind many students and congregants, many of whom still regard him as their rabbi and as a caring friend. He leaves behind a loving family: his wife, Marjorie, his children, Rabbi Daniel Pressman, Rabbi Emeritus of Beth David Congregation in Saratoga, Calif.; and Judy Pressman, who lives in Israel. His son Joel Pressman predeceased him. Plus five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Tribute donations in Rabbi Pressman’s memory are being accepted by Temple Beth Am and by the Rabbi Jacob Pressman Scholarship Fund of the Pressman Academy. Donations, indicating the preferred recipient, can be made online at www.tbala.org/tribute or by mailing to Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90035. For additional information, phone executive director Sheryl Goldman at (310) 652-7354, ext. 223.

Temple collaboration sparks new approach to religious school


With “Midrash Manicures” among their new course offerings, a few Conservative religious schools are hoping to counter student apathy and stem the tide of declining enrollment. The class is part of a new approach developed by the Jewish Learning Community Network (JLCN), a partnership of three Conservative synagogues — Adat Ari El, Shomrei Torah Synagogue (STS) and Temple Beth Am — which recently completed the first year of its new curriculum for kindergarten through seventh grade. 

The network began after Adrianne Pasternak, then director of education at STS in West Hills, became one of 12 recipients of the 2014 PresenTenseLA’s Social Entrepreneur Fellowship from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The program provides mentors and resources supporting innovative Jewish ventures in education, social action, environment, philanthropy and the arts.

Although many Conservative synagogues were reforming their religious schools, Pasternak’s vision was different: She proposed working as a collaborative team with other synagogue educators. She reached out to two colleagues whose work she respected — Johannah Sohn (at the time, director of the Jewish Learning Community at Adat Ari El) and Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman (director of youth learning and engagement at Temple Beth Am). She asked them to join her in reinventing the traditional religious school model. Their objective was to create a community that was larger than just one synagogue and to move away from passive learning through books by immersing students in the experience of Judaism. 

“When kids come at 4 o’clock after a full day of school and they are expected to learn about Judaism and a second language — that really they have no connection to — you are setting them up for failure,” said Pasternak, who is now director of the Jewish  Learning Community at STS. “Our goal is to provide more real-time learning and less classroom learning. One day, I put a bunch of teens in my car and went to the shivah for a religious school teacher’s father. You can learn some things in the classroom, but it’s not the same as experiencing it. … Judaism is all experience and ritual.”

At the core of the network is an experiential, ability-level-based Hebrew language curriculum that is taught through a series of hands-on cooperative games and puzzles. Before students can move to the next level, they have to create a game that teaches someone else what they’ve learned. This gives teachers an easy way to assess a student’s understanding of the material, and it supports JLCN’s goal of creating a community where kids understand that everyone has something to teach others and something to learn from others. 

“We are active, and it’s easy to pay attention when you are doing something that is fun — like learning a parasha by drawing on canvas or making a play and pretending to be God or Jacob,” student Eliana Sarrow said of her religious school at STS.

Students in mixed-age groups also engage in cooperative Jewish Learning Lab electives. Teachers and volunteers staff an assortment of classes — including cooking, building with Legos, dancing and art — that teach Jewish life, ritual and Torah in “out of the box” ways. When studying midrash or a parasha, students manicure their nails with images of biblical narratives by using nail-art decals and various nail polish colors. Another popular lab involves students studying Jewish proverbs, then breaking up into small groups and using their interpretations to create a claymation movie, which is later shown to the congregation. 

Pasternak created a fifth-grade curriculum for teaching lifecycle events that follows stuffed bears through life — starting with a baby shower, birth, bar and bat mitzvahs, and ending with marriage. The students first study the traditional rituals and then participate in creative activities. For example, when learning about the ketubah, they are taught calligraphy by a volunteer artist. They also write about how they should treat and take care of themselves, and how they hope to be treated when they marry. The students make up stories about how the bears met, sew wedding dresses for them and build a chuppah. 

The original mandate of the JLCN was that each of the three sites would follow the same curriculum and then come together as a network for retreats and Sunday programming. After reviewing research, tapping into personal experiences and offering adult workshops at their synagogues, the educators determined that two of the most important factors in creating positive Jewish identity were Jewish camps and youth groups. “Consequently, this year, JLCN incorporated two weekend retreats at Camp Ramah in Ojai and five Sundays at American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley,” said Sohn, who is now head of school at Adat Ari El. 

This first year of the JLCN involved some trial and error. The educators had to figure out how to merge their individual talents of creativity, organization and spirituality into the combination that worked best together. And the religious schools were not all on the same schedule — two met twice a week and one met once a week — which complicated the planning. “Next year, the learning labs will be based on grade level, in response to parents’ comments that their children didn’t form strong bonds with their peers because there were too many activities in the multiage groups,” Pasternak said.

There were other issues, too. “It was challenging for students from Beth Am to travel for many hours on a bus for a day of camp activities in Simi Valley while for the others, it was just a short car ride. There will be fewer camp days next year in order to add some local excursions, including a tour of local Jewish historical sites, kayaking and community service, such as volunteering at Heal the Bay and food banks,” Sohn said. 

The educators also will incorporate some flexibility into the previously uniform curriculum so they can adapt it to the needs of their own school’s students. “This past year was much more successful than anything else, but it would be irresponsible not to make changes where we needed to change,” Pasternak said.  

The JLCN is thinking big, and the educators plan to continue honing their religious school model so more synagogues can adopt it in the future.

“The puzzle is finding a way to connect the students personally and to make sure that they want to be there,” Sohn said. “We aren’t competing with other religious schools. We are competing with every other aspect of the student’s life. We have to be much more engaging and important, otherwise they are going to go to karate instead.”

Sermons slammed to celebrate Sinai


Becoming ourselves is a process. We learn what our family or friends find funny or valuable, and shape our identities accordingly, either to conform to, or in opposition to those norms and expectations. Teachers help us acquire skills, the basics of contemporary education, text analysis and interpretation. If we are lucky, our teachers don’t just teach at us, but learn with us, validating our instincts toward personal interpretation and endorsing multiple possible readings instead of just one definitive one. 
 
But for many who might never have felt free, or qualified, to interpret holy texts, Torah study remains daunting, incompatible with our hectic daily pace, or inconsistent with the personal convictions that guide our actions. Some of us have been lucky enough to find Limmud events, in Los Angeles and around the world, which position diversity of voices as a primary value. But the contemporary celebration of Shavuot is the one that most brings us the chance to see the text through our own eyes, and to share those visions with the community, as I saw last month, at Temple Beth Am’s all-night study program, or Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which featured a “Sermon Slam.”
 
The night included eight different perspectives (including one from this writer) on two short texts. Each of us wrote and delivered an original 3-5 minute “sermon” in the “story slam” style known to those who frequent “The Moth,” or other storytelling and performance nights. 
 
The night wasn’t just about the eight voices – it was about providing the entire assembly with access to the texts that were under our microscope. Outgoing Ziegeler School Dean Rabbi Aaron Alexander (only two weeks before he and his family relocated to Washington D.C. for a position at Adas Israel) taught the texts to the entire audience, giving them the background to understand the performers. 
 
So what happens when eight Jews stop being polite about text study and start being real? They interpret from their own education, influences, politics, passions and sensitivities, taking something uniform and transforming it entirely. 
 
WATCH: Esther Kustanowitz: “Brokenness” a Shavuot sermon slam
 
 
Rachel Salston, a soferet (scribe for Jewish texts) and a rabbinical student, shared her perspective on broken Torah as an opportunity to fix it. “Moshe Rabbenu was also Moshe Sofrenu. Celebrating the brokenness in revelation. I get to help just like he did.”
 
Michael Salonius, Clinical Chaplain for the Wounded Warrior project, took a different approach, calling upon his ancestors to “release me from Jacob’s sin…and the outcome of his deceit,” and invoking the rebellious spirit of Resh Lakish, the rabbi – and former bandit – who had been quoted in the text we’d been given. “Only the outliers know the cruelty of the crowd,” he said. 
Josh Warshawsky, artist-in-residence at Temple Beth Am and Pressman Academy and a rabbinical student, spoke of music’s power in piecing together broken fragments: “Song heals… Song enables us to open ourselves up to the melody of another. To infinitely feel their note by note and match it to our own.” 
 
The Sermon Slam ended with musician Nachum Peterseil teaching a song, then participants moved forward into the rest of the program, with offerings that continued the evening’s commitment to different perspectives.
 
It is this diversity of voices, the application of modern and creative formats to long-held beliefs and ancient stories that annually renews my interest in these texts. I am lucky enough to have had a solid Jewish education, but traditional programs of text study don’t stir my soul: while rabbis can inspire, it’s the insights of my peers, colleagues and strangers – now granted access to text and given a pulpit for interpretation – that invigorate my connection to tradition.
 
Such events reinforce what we’ve always been told, that all Jewish souls (including those born into non-Jewish families) were present at Sinai, and that the Torah belongs to all of us. We try to find our modern selves in ancient texts, narratives and characters, to imagine our emotional responses to things we’ll never experience, and to use our contemporary experiences to increase our understanding of our past. 
 
“We will do and we will listen,” the Jews promised at the base of Mount Sinai. Many interpretations say that this speaks of extreme faith, to promise to do something even before you’re told what it is. But my reading is a little different: na’aseh, we will actively engage in the text, making it our own, and “nishma,” as others offer their wisdom, we will also listen.

Sotloff lauded at Florida service as journalist committed to truth


Nearly 1,000 people including relatives, friends and prominent Florida politicians attended a memorial service on Friday for Steven Sotloff, who was killed by Islamic State militants, recalling him as a journalist committed to revealing the truth.

“I'm so proud of my son for living his dream,” Sotloff's mother, Shirley, told those in attendance at the Jewish Temple Beth Am.

“Most people live a lifetime and never find fulfillment,” she added, remembering her 31-year-old son as inquisitive and outgoing as a child.

The Islamic State released a video on Tuesday showing the killing of Sotloff, the second American journalist it has beheaded in its confrontation with the United States over American air strikes in Iraq on the militant group's forces.

“I have lost my son and my best friend, but I know his passing will change the world,” said Sotloff's father, Arthur, making his first public remarks since his son's death.

Speakers at the two-hour memorial service recalled Sotloff as a man who displayed empathy and courage. As a freelance reporter, he wrote about the hardships faced by average people caught up in Middle East conflicts, said his mourners, remembering his passion for exposing the truth.

Sotloff was kidnapped in Syria in August 2013 after he drove across the border from Turkey.

“Steven was committed to truth and revealing it,” said U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, speaking to the crowd. “He has revealed the true nature of evil in the world today.”

Rubio sat alongside Florida Governor Rick Scott, a fellow Republican, as well as Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist during the ceremony.

Sotloff first fell in love with the Middle East during trips and school in Israel, where he eventually became a citizen, according to friends and family. He spoke Arabic and traveled the region writing for magazines including Time and Foreign Policy.

Others shed light on Sotloff's more rambunctious side. Chris Castle recalled taking a shot of tequila with Sotloff after receiving his approval to marry the journalist's sister.

His uncle and godfather, Lou Bleiman, described a time he ran away from Valley Forge Military Academy and called for a ride from a telephone booth. “Steven had to march up and down in the rain and he didn't like it,” he said.

Dozens of cousins and other friends echoed a prepared statement released by the family earlier this week, calling Sotloff torn between his comfortable life in the United States and the Arab world.

Editing by Letitia Stein and Will Dunham

Community Seder round-up


Discover the eternal meaning of the haggadah and enjoy a seder complete with hand-baked matzah, wine/grape juice and your favorite traditional meal at Chabad of Simi Valley. RSVP by April 9. Suggested donation ($30 adult, $18 child). April 14. 7:30 p.m. 4464 Alamo St., Simi Valley. (805) 577-0573.


Join Chabad of Beverly Hills for its traditional Pesach seder. No one will be turned away due to lack of funds. RSVP by April 7. $50 (adult), $26 (child), $126 (family). April 14. 7:30 p.m. 409 N. Foothill Road, Beverly Hills. (310) 859-3948. 


Traditional seders on the first two nights of Passover at Hillel at UCLA will be interactive celebrations incorporating the recitation of the haggadah, a festive holiday meal, study and song. They will be led by Rabbi Aryeh and Sharona Kaplan. (A liberal seder on April 14 will take place at 6:30 p.m., led by Rabbi Aaron Lerner and student seder captains.)  Students, parents and community members from all backgrounds are welcome. April 14 and 15. 8 p.m. $54 (adults), $36 (UCLA students), $27 (children 3-6). 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-3081. 


Rabbi Zachary Shapiro and Cantor Lonee Frailich celebrate another engaging and memorable seder at Temple Akiba. RSVP by April 7. Space is limited. April 15. 6 p.m. $70 (adult members), $80 (adult non-members), $20 (children 12 and under). 5249 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City. (310) 398-5783.


Married? Single? Lots of kids? No kids? This seder at Temple Beth Am is for everyone! April 15. 7:15 p.m. $50 (members), $55 (non-members), $25 (children 4-12), $10 (children 2-3). 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 652-7354, ext. 217.


Imagine jumping inside the haggadah and experiencing the seder from the inside out. This is “2nd Night: Not Your Zayde’s Seder” at Temple Judea. Have an adventure you could never have if you stayed at home. April 15. 5 p.m. $45 (members), $60 (non-members),  $25-$35 (children 12 and under). 5429 Lindley Ave., Tarzana. (818) 758-3800.


Jar, the highly acclaimed restaurant by chef Suzanne Tracht, plans a special Passover dinner designed to bring families and friends together. This multicultural seder offers an opportunity to meet three teens visiting from Israel and listen to their experiences with Ultimate Peace, a groundbreaking program that unites Jewish and Arab youth using the sport of Ultimate Frisbee. Tracht, who was a 2009 contestant on “Top Chef Masters,”  features a four-course dinner that merges her family’s holiday traditions with the flavors of Jar’s modern chophouse style. $130 (adults), $55 (ages 12 and under). April 15. 5:30 p.m. Jar, 8225 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 655-6566.


The National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles (NCJW/LA) invites you to its annual women’s seder, “Experience the Seder Through the Eyes of Women,” with Cantor Mimi Haselkorn. Men are welcome. Space is limited. RSVP by April 8. $40 (members), $50 (non-members). April 17. 6 p.m. NCJW/LA Council House, 543 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 852-8512. 

Helping the poor on Purim


It was Purim, and the people of Skid Row were rushing Shari and Maya Rosenman’s minivan at Seventh Street and Gladys Avenue.

Maya Rosenman, a student at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Massachusetts who was home on spring break, scrambled to provide bags full of supplies to the dozens and dozens of people grabbing at the piles stacked in the van’s trunk. Meanwhile, her mother sat at the wheel, ready to help the pair make a quick getaway if the situation became threatening — which, arguably, it already had.

“I was sort of expecting it, but it was also overwhelming,” said Maya Rosenman, 17.  “Although I wasn’t scared, I was thinking the whole time, if I need to get out of here, which way am I going to move?”

Her mother said there was a lot packed into a short amount of time.

“Maya and I were both moved by the whole experience, and it felt like something I should be doing more regularly,” she said.

The mother and daughter from B’nai David-Judea Congregation (BDJ) were among some 15 people — including congregants from BDJ, Temple Beth Am and Temple Isaiah — who handed out about 350 bags on March 16 to the needy of Skid Row, Santa Monica and Venice Beach as part of the Purim obligation of matanot la’evyonim (gifts to the poor). The bags were filled with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, granola bars, first-aid kits, toiletries, socks, tissues and more. 

The activity was part of Operation PB&J, a program that was started by a non-Jewish organization known as The Giving Spirit, and which BDJ member Albert Cohen brought to the congregation several years ago. 


College student Maya Rosenman delivers a bag of food and supplies to a homeless person on Skid Row.

Every year for Purim, BDJ and the other congregations do their own programming that provides a serious contrast to the merriment of the holiday by venturing out into the L.A. streets and handing out food and supplies to the poverty-stricken.

“Isn’t that what Judaism is all about?” Cohen told the Journal. “It’s about as important as anything you can do.

“Sunday morning really demonstrates how serious the homeless problem is in Los Angeles,” he said.

As a Rambam interpretation of the laws of the Megillah, the text read on Purim, says, “It is better for a person to increase in the gifts of the poor than increase in his festival meal.”

Cohen and the others weren’t the only ones to take the Rambam at his word. In a separate project on Sunday, Shtibl Minyan of Pico-Robertson sent volunteers to distribute food and supplies in Santa Monica and elsewhere.

Connection more than skin deep


Jamaican Everlyn Hunter is used to standing out in a synagogue.

“I am used to being one of the few blacks in white settings, so I’m not having a new experience being black in a Jewish community necessarily,” said Hunter, a board member at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), a Reform synagogue on West Pico Boulevard.

Carlton Williams, an African-American member of Temple Beth Am, agrees that skin color is not an overriding factor in his connection to the Jewish community.

“I feel more of an interaction from value to value, as opposed to skin color to skin color,” said Williams, 46. “There’s a diversity of Judaism, and I don’t consider Judaism as one color, because I’ve seen multiple ethnicities of Judaism.”

A Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews conducted from Feb. 20 to June 13, 2013, found that 2 percent of the approximately 6.7 million Jews in the United States are black. And although the survey includes a broad definition of “Jewish,” from being born Jewish to non-Jewish people with a Jewish affinity, high Jewish intermarriage rates and adoption levels suggest that the number of racially diverse Jews, including blacks, is significant and climbing.

“Certainly conversion is one way, and the extent to which 50 percent of Jews intermarry,” said Diane Tobin, the founder and director of Be’chol Lashon, a Jewish research and community-building initiative. She added that Jews also adopt — often transracially — at twice the standard rate.

However, the number of black Jews in Los Angeles is still comparatively very low.

“The smallest group I have that ever converts are black,” said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, the rabbinic director of Judaism by Choice, an organization that offers classes on Judaism for those considering conversion, explaining that approximately 10 of his 300 students a year are black.

“The black community is so connected to Christianity, and so if a black person leaves and becomes Jewish, there are very few other black Jews that they connect with, so it takes, I think, a lot of courage for a black person to consider Judaism,” Weinberg said.

Indeed, Lisa Bellamy, 33, who is mixed race and converted to Judaism last August, recalls how before converting, Jews asked her why she would want to add on another reason to be discriminated against as someone who is already a minority.

“In all honesty, I didn’t feel I had the choice,” Bellamy said. “Growing up mixed, I did have issues with feeling out of place and not truly accepted by either race. It wasn’t until I converted and got more involved in my Judaism that I truly felt I was home.”

Indeed, with the coming of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 20, Bellamy points to Jews’ and blacks’ common history: “We have a long history of both being oppressed and with discrimination, and in the civil rights movement a lot of Jews helped out with that. There’s a natural camaraderie and empathy for the Jewish people with the black community,” she said.

BCC member Hunter was raised Seventh-day Adventist but converted three years ago. During her conversion process, she discovered she had Syrian-Jewish family on her maternal side, who had migrated in the 19th century to Jamaica, where Hunter was born and raised until she moved to the United States with her family at age 14. For reasons unknown, her grandmother had raised her mother Seventh-day Adventist, keeping the family’s Jewish heritage secret.

Hunter rejected the church as a child and first connected to Judaism in college through her observant Jewish girlfriend, with whom she kept a Jewish household. However, Hunter later lost touch with Judaism, then reconnected only when she moved six years ago to Los Angeles, where Jewish friends and mentors she met led her to explore the religion further.

“I was looking for a spiritual community, a religious connection,” she said. “Pretty important people in my life were Jewish, and practicing Jews.”

Hunter was attracted to the Jewish idea of tikkun olam as well as the value for education in the community, and she identified with Judaism’s “nomadic history.” Ultimately, converting to Judaism was “less a conscious analytical choice than it was something that felt right.”

Like Hunter, Williams — who had belonged to a Methodist church with his family, then converted along with his wife and three kids in 2010 — pursued Judaism partly due to his encounters with Jews. When he visited a social services agency during the recession, the person who helped him was wearing a kippah.

“I felt a lot of tzedakah from the [Jewish] community,” Williams, 47, said. “We just kept seeing people in kippahs helping us out. As we were being helped and getting ourselves back together, it kept getting back to this Jewishness.”

He recalled thinking, “Maybe there’s a people I belong to that I don’t know about.”

Hunter said she has experienced some tension between her black and Jewish identity. She recalled one incident when she received negative treatment from a gay African-American group with whom she was campaigning for marriage equality when she revealed she was Jewish.

“Within the Jewish community I have encountered prejudice, and within the black community here I have encountered prejudice against Jews as well,” she said.

Bellamy, who attends services at the progressive, egalitarian community IKAR,  first connected to Judaism when she reconnected at 18 with her maternal, white Jewish relatives, with whom she would celebrate the High Holy Days.

“All of a sudden, I had this big huge Jewish family that I always craved and wanted,” Bellamy said. “That was the first time I really started to relate to Judaism and feel accepted.”

All three interviewed for this story said they feel accepted by the Jewish communities they’re part of.

“I went to the Kotel — that was an incredibly, incredibly moving moment … but the [tune to] Ma’ariv Aravim is something that stays with me all the time,” said Hunter. “It’s something that I feel that’s always a profoundly emotional moment for me whenever I hear that.”

Part of the attraction to Judaism is also the Passover story, a story that ties Williams to his African-American roots, as well. 

“My favorite holiday is Passover, as I can identify with the Exodus experience of transitioning from a slave to a free-thinking man.”

Reform Biennial reveals movement’s strengths, challenges


At the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Biennial conference last week, Erev Shabbat offered a study in contrasts that perfectly illustrated the movement’s promise — and its problems.

Just before 6 p.m., as the sun sank into San Diego Bay, nearly 5,000 conference attendees from around the country poured into the San Diego Convention Center for Kabbalat Shabbat. From the back of the hall, a sea of heads sat quietly facing the bimah, where four clergy from Boston’s Temple Beth Elohim were leading the service. Tightly scripted, the worship was abridged, musically mellifluous and mellow. Then, at around the halfway point, a lively rendition of the Mi Chamocha sparked a sudden surge in the audience. People rushed into the aisles, eager to dance. 

It was a moment of inspired worship. And it was about to transform the sterile air of the convention center into a raucous parting of the Red Sea, when — the prayer leaders ended the song. 

Fast-forward three hours to the late-night “song session,” a Biennial favorite. Led by a star-studded cast of Jewish musicians — including Josh Nelson, Doug Cotler, Julie Silver, Beth Schafer and Leo Baeck’s Rabbi Ken Chasen rockin’ the keyboard — it looked like the Jewish version of a Rolling Stones concert. It was a wild, uninhibited scene: thousands of people, arms in the air, jumping up and down, chanting, clapping, dancing horahs. Young and old, rabbi and congregant, lay leader and camp counselor all clustering together as transliterated Hebrew lyrics flashed on three giant screens and live tweets with the hashtag #Biennial13 practically shouted spiritual ecstasy into the digital beyond. 

“This is why I love being a Reform Jew,” Karen Sobel, a Jewish educator from Temple Beth Am in Miami, leaned over and said to me (full disclosure: I grew up at Beth Am). That’s when I turned toward her and asked, “Why doesn’t the prayer service look like this?”

These two Biennial events captured the strengths and weaknesses of the Reform movement as it tries to reinvent itself for the 21st century. On the one hand, last week’s five-day fest of community building, learning and forward thinking showcased the best the movement has to offer: creativity, flexibility, spirituality and soul. But, at the same time, difficult realities like the hard math of the Pew poll, which earlier this year revealed steep declines in membership — or simply, institutional blindness to spontaneity during prayer — reveal deeper anxieties about breaking script. Both poles were on full display last week at what has become one of the largest Jewish religious gatherings in North America, and highlighted that both this movement and much of American Judaism are at a crossroads.

“Synagogue Judaism as a whole is facing a challenge,” Leo Baeck Temple’s Rabbi Chasen said during an interview. “Younger generations are somewhat affiliation averse. Millennials are more skeptical of membership organizations and are not necessarily given to a lot of the institutional staples that synagogue life is about.”

Judging by this Biennial, the URJ appears willing to confront this challenge by catering to a diverse palette of tastes and interests. Attendees were treated to an ample “buffet” of learning sessions, as Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills’ Rabbi Laura Geller described it, from a four-hour seminar on Mussar, to “The Torah of Pluralism” and “Harnessing the Power of Social Media.” Speakers came from near and far, including Israel’s top brass: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (by video); rising star Knesset Member Ruth Calderon; Women of the Wall superhero Anat Hoffman, who heads the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center; and Modern Orthodox educator Rabbi Donniel Hartman, who flew in to accept an award on behalf of his late father, Rabbi David Hartman. 

“There’s an awful lot of inspiration that takes place here,” Chasen added, explaining why 38 of his congregants had accompanied him to San Diego. “The [URJ] does a very good job of bringing in everything from agitators to inspirers. This is a place where you can hear from the greatest rabbis, and also from Julian Bond.”

Bond, the former NAACP chairman, was one of many headliners, including New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, who spoke about food justice, and American Jewish World Service president Ruth Messinger. For the first time in its history, the URJ invited non-Reform participants to the conference, among them L.A.’s Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, an independent, progressive congregation, who spoke on the future of synagogues. 

 The inclusion of more outside voices was seen by some within the movement as a risky move (and according to one insider, “unbelievably debated”), but it proved the movement is willing to engage in the “big tent” Judaism they preach, welcoming independent communities as partners rather than alienating them as rivals.  

Radical inclusion was the theme of the day. In his 16-page, hour-plus state-of-the-union address Thursday night, Rabbi Rick Jacobs propounded a policy of “audacious hospitality,” echoing the movement’s longtime raison d’être

Bereisheit bara Elohim,” Jacobs said. 

“In the beginning, God didn’t create synagogues or rabbis or denominations or even Jewish people. No, God created a wondrous universe teeming with beauty, complexity and possibility.”

But the notion of audacious hospitality is nothing new. As far back as the 1970s, when intermarriage was considered a curse word to most American Jews, the URJ led the way in welcoming the stranger by embracing interfaith families and Jews by Choice. Also in the 1970s, the movement became the first to ordain women rabbis, with the Conservative movement following suit a decade later. And in March 2000, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the organizing body of Reform rabbis in North America and Canada, became the first major religious group to officially sanction gay marriage. 

This time, Jacobs again singled out interfaith families, adding in people with disabilities as deserving of better treatment. “Being ‘against’ intermarriage is like being ‘against’ gravity,” he said. “You can say it all you want, but it’s a fact of life.” Indeed, the Pew study found that half of those who identify as Reform Jews are married to a non-Jewish spouse.

On that point, Jacobs was quick to point out a biblical precedent with Moses: The most important leader in Jewish history, he reminded, was “a Hebrew child, raised by Egyptians who married a non-Jewish woman of color.”

The movement’s aim at broadening its reach is admirable, but the Pew study tests the notion that inclusion can sustain Reform Judaism.

“The Reform movement needs to remember that no matter how much programming you have, some people just won’t walk through that door,” said Rabbi Elka Abramson, president of the Wexner Foundation, in a plenary panel on the implications of the Pew results.

Abramson pointed out that the movement’s ideological obsession with being a “big tent” will not solve all of its problems. “Bigger doesn’t mean better,” she said. “If the Pew study tells us anything, it’s that we’re in the era of radical risk.”

But, she warned, “If we change the way our congregations function, there’s a loss for those of us who love the way things are.”

One longtime URJ board member I spoke to, who requested anonymity, said he is doubtful that the promises made at the Biennial will come to pass. 

“I call it the Obama Syndrome,” he said of Jacobs’ address. “You tell a viable story, and you deliver crap. You sell hope but deliver sand.” 

Dara Frimmer, associate rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, is more optimistic. “I heard that the Reform movement is in a position to be the most influential group of people and institutions to help shape the next generation of Jews,” she said of Jacobs’ speech. Frimmer came to San Diego with more than 20 congregants and 10 temple staff, adding that their “enthusiasm for Reform Judaism and for Temple Isaiah skyrocket as a result of the [Biennial] environment.” 

Whatever challenges the movement faces nationally, Frimmer said her congregation is thriving: “We are overwhelmed with people in their 20s and 30s,” she said. “We are full. Are we the exception? I don’t know, because I have peers who are also actually in synagogues that are thriving.”

 But from his perch, Jacobs said he sees the movement approaching a “dramatic juncture.” 

“You can’t have your eyes open and look at what’s going on in Jewish life if you don’t have deep concern — I do,” he said during an interview. “But I like to channel worry into constructive, productive action. The people who sit around and worry, ‘Why don’t young people care about being Jewish?’ — I don’t want to spend five minutes thinking about that. I interact everyday with people who do care, and I think our job is to help them discover how we could all care more.”  

Israeli Rabbi Donniel Hartman pointed to the Biennial itself as demonstrating great promise and possibility: “Five thousand people came. Is the cup half-full or half-empty?” he asked. “Something meaningful and important is happening here. Why because something isn’t everything does it mean it’s not enough?”

“We’re a people who live by Dayenu,” Hartman added. “That’s our national anthem. Five thousand came. They care about their synagogues; they care about Judaism; they care about their religious life.”

Joel Pressman, cantor and performing arts teacher, dies at 63


Joel Pressman, a cantor and longtime performing arts teacher at Beverly Hills High School, died on Nov. 18. He was 63.

In mid-September, Pressman, son of Jacob Pressman, rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Am, and Marjorie Pressman, announced in a Facebook video that he was dying of abdominal cancer. In late September, more than 300 people met with Pressman to honor him at Will Rogers Park in Beverly Hills. Read more about the event and about Pressman’s life below.


Unafraid of death, cantor offers a philosophical love fest

On a brilliantly sunny Sunday in late September, Joel Pressman, an esteemed cantor and a venerated former performing arts teacher at Beverly Hills High School, wearing a black T-shirt that proclaimed “I’m not dead yet,” walked slowly with a cane into Will Rogers Memorial Park in Beverly Hills.

“Let’s everybody have a love-in,” the 63-year-old musician told the dozens of students, alumni, parents, colleagues and friends who’d gathered in his honor, as they whooped and applauded.

In mid-September, Pressman, son of Jacob Pressman, rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Am, announced in a Facebook video that he is dying of cancer; his doctors have told him he has about two more months to live. Since then, the outpouring of love and support has been so great that Pressman looked forward to the park gathering in order to exchange goodbyes and thank yous with everyone who had touched his life during the 38 years he worked at the school. In his video, he emphasized that he didn’t want people “to cry, to focus on what they had lost,” but rather “on what they have gained.”

Read more.

Unafraid of death, cantor offers a philosophical love fest


On a brilliantly sunny Sunday in late September, Joel Pressman, an esteemed cantor and a venerated former performing arts teacher at Beverly Hills High School, wearing a black T-shirt that proclaimed “I’m not dead yet,” walked slowly with a cane into Will Rogers Memorial Park in Beverly Hills. 

“Let’s everybody have a love-in,” the 63-year-old musician told the dozens of students, alumni, parents, colleagues and friends who’d gathered in his honor, as they whooped and applauded.

In mid-September, Pressman, son of Jacob Pressman, rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Am, announced in a Facebook video that he is dying of cancer; his doctors have told him he has about two more months to live. Since then, the outpouring of love and support has been so great that Pressman looked forward to the park gathering in order to exchange goodbyes and thank yous with everyone who had touched his life during the 38 years he worked at the school. In his video, he emphasized that he didn’t want people “to cry, to focus on what they had lost,” but rather “on what they have gained.” 

And so, while there was the occasional tear at the gathering, much more abundant over the course of five-and-a-half hours were the heartfelt hugs and the conversation, which often turned to reminiscences as more than 300 fans mobbed Pressman like he was a rock star, waiting in line for up to 30 minutes to greet him.

When Pressman spoke with Susan Grayson, his own former classmate at Beverly High, he recalled how, as the youngest student ever to be admitted into the school’s prestigious Madrigals choir, he would sit on the older singers’ laps when they traveled to gigs in a Volkswagen bug.

Pressman regaled others with stories of singing Verdi’s “Requiem” with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl recently — his final concert. 

Madrigals member Arielle Harris, 17, described him as “inspiring, passionate, extremely individualistic and very conscientious,” while Laura Namerow Moss, a student from the 1970s, thanked Pressman for teaching her that singing is about “much more than just having a pretty voice.”

 “It was love at first sight,” she remembered of first meeting the teacher and choir director in 1978. “He was irreverent and sarcastic, creative and funny. He would sing in falsetto for the sopranos on his tiptoes.”

Another alumnus took Pressman aside to tell him that she might well have committed suicide during her troubled high school years had it not been for his influence. In fact, a recent cover story in the Beverly Hills Weekly spotlighted Pressman’s impact on the lives of his students. 

During Beverly High’s annual holiday concerts, Pressman would invite alumni on stage to sing along with the carol “Still, Still, Still,” and at one point in the afternoon, he gathered current and former students to conduct the song one last time. 

The morning following the gathering, Pressman — again decked out in his “I’m Not Dead Yet” T-shirt — sat with a reporter to talk about his life and impending death in his Los Angeles home, where an organ and a harmonium shared space with an array of Judaica. 

“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t doing music,” the baritone said. “I grew up at Temple Beth Am, and there was music all the time in the junior congregation, and also at Camp Ramah.” As a youth, Pressman sang in the High Holy Days choir and, at 16, was approached to serve as cantor at the synagogue’s Erev Rosh Hashanah services. “I said no,” he recalled. “I wasn’t a cantor, and my Hebrew wasn’t that good.” But then he studied the music, and, he said, the others on the bimah “dragged me through the service. … I always thought the cantor’s job was to create a religious experience for the congregation, and I took that responsibility very seriously.” 

Pressman went on to serve for two decades as a High Holy Days cantor at Beth Am, mostly at auxiliary services, then as a cantorial soloist for Wilshire Boulevard Temple. He also edited several pieces for the Sacred Jewish Choral Music series. On occasion at Beth Am, he would preside over services with his father, who is now 94: “My dad loves to sing, and sometimes he would drown me out,” Pressman said. “He’d lean into the microphone and sing a harmony, while I was trying to lead the congregation with a melody, so we spoke about it — and I lost,” he said with a laugh.

All the while, Pressman was making a career for himself in classical music: From USC, he earned a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance and a master’s in choral conducting. He also placed in the regional finals of the New York Metropolitan Opera auditions, and, early in his career, he sang in church choirs around Los Angeles.

Over the years, he also sang with conductors such as Robert Shaw and Roger Wagner and in the original cast of “Gigi” on Broadway; performed at Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; and served as a soloist with the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony and other groups. 

“Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’ was a big, hot tune for me, and I did a lot of Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ ” he said.

When Pressman landed his teaching job at Beverly Hills High, while in his mid-20s, not everyone initially welcomed him at the school. “Two of the drama department people wrote letters to the local papers saying they were ashamed that this young upstart had been hired and would probably destroy the department,” he said. “But excellence is the best revenge.”

A favorite highlight for Pressman was the time his Madrigals performed at a festival at Lincoln Center about 15 years ago, when a renowned educator said to Pressman, “High school students aren’t supposed to be this musical. How did you do it?” 

“I was kvelling,” Pressman recalled. 

He became much more than a teacher to many of his students. Judi Domroy, 38 and now a close friend of Pressman’s, described how he loaned her money for singing lessons when she was short on funds in high school, telling her she had talent and was worth it. Moreover, he attended her college recitals and offered her emotional support during her divorce and upon the death of her mother. Domroy, in turn, has been there to help Pressman, both before and after she learned of his illness.

The symptoms began, two-and-a-half years ago, when the baritone experienced stomach problems and doctors prescribed medicine for acid reflux for a year. The next diagnosis was of sluggish gut, when doctors “basically sent me home to die,” he said. “[It] was horrible. No solid food went into my system for seven weeks; everything got thrown up.”

It wasn’t until he arrived at Kaiser Permanente Sunset hospital in late 2011 that a scan revealed a 2-centimeter tumor blocking his small intestine; doctors at the time told him he had about two years to live. A surgery followed, but the rare cancer eventually spread throughout his abdomen, requiring another operation to remove half of his stomach and portions of other organs. 

His initial response was “tears, fear, confusion and frustration,” he said. “I’ve always been a person that people came to and said, ‘Fix my problem,’ and I always tried and often could, but I couldn’t fix this. And everything about my case was unusual; everything was a dead end.”

But then he remembered how his sister-in-law told him, as she was dying of cancer, that she didn’t worry about things over which she had no control. And he recalled how, at 15, he used to drive his father around on Sundays to a bris, a wedding, a funeral, or to a hospital visit. 

“I got to watch a rabbi in action, and a number of times I heard him say that when [confronted] with life and death, you should choose life,” he said. “And I learned that death was a natural part of life.”

Pressman told these stories and more when he made an inspired, impromptu speech on Yom Kippur at Creative Arts Temple, where he had officiated on High Holy Days the two previous years. 

“I’m dying of cancer,” he told the congregation.” “[Or rather], living with cancer.

“I have a wonderful friend strapped to my side,” he added, pulling up his shirt to reveal a device that pumps painkillers into his system. “When I start to feel bad, I just push the button and soar off to a happy land.

“I do not fear death,” he continued, “nor should you; you should rejoice in the people in your life, in every good thing you’ve ever done. Choosing life means choosing to live every moment we are given, and if it’s six minutes, we make it a really good six minutes, and if it’s 60 years, you make it a great 60 years.”

Creative Arts Temple’s Rabbi Jerry Cutler recalled the speech as the most remarkable he had ever witnessed at the synagogue — “a truly profound moment.” While congregants were dismayed by Pressman’s gaunt appearance, he said, they were also “enthused by his humor and the strength of his voice.”

Jan Perry, a former city councilwoman who now runs Los Angeles’ economic and workforce development department, said Pressman’s speech was “breathtaking. I was lifted up and broken down and lifted up, all at the same time.”

During the interview, Pressman said that while he does not fear death, he does fear “the indignities of dying; I don’t want to submit my family to that.” Now under hospice care, the divorced father of two was planning a trip to Kauai with his son and daughter, “just to be outside and look at the ocean and be with my children. I want to snorkel, to float over a sea turtle and just see where it goes. And then I’ll return home and hope it goes quickly,” he said.

He is also making a point of going out of his way to express gratitude for the goodness he sees in people. As he told the congregation on Yom Kippur: “I’ve been ending my little speeches with simply, ‘I love you.’ I don’t even know all of you, but why wouldn’t I love you? You’re wonderful people.”

Moving and Shaking: Andi Murez wins big at Maccabiah Games, Tour de Summer Camps registration opens


From left: Maccabiah standout Andi Murez (Photo by Norbert Von Der Groeben, Stanford Athletics) and her Maccabiah Games trophy.

Andi Murez, 21, a swimmer from Venice Beach competing in her second Maccabiah Games this year, was named Most Outstanding Athlete out of all the women who competed during the 19th annual international athletic Jewish event.

Murez, one of Maccabi USA’s standout athletes, collected seven medals in the pool this year — five golds and two silvers. She won nine medals in her first Maccabiah, in 2009, and completed four years of collegiate swimming at Stanford University this year. 


Josh Warshawsky, Temple Beth Am’s new artist-in-residence. Photo courtesy of Temple Beth Am.

Former LimmudLA Executive Director Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman and musician-singer-songwriter Josh Warshawsky became the newest additions to the staff at Temple Beth Am last month.

Hoffman and Warshawsky were hired on as the Conservative synagogue’s first-ever director of youth learning and engagement and as its artist-in-residence, respectively.

The new staff members reflect a new strategy on the part of the congregation, according to Sheryl Goldman, executive director of Temple Beth Am.

“We are trying to be creative in the way we approach education and engagement synagogue-wide. Education and engagement, and also music,” Goldman said.

Temple Beth Am also has appointed Rabbi Emeritus Joel Rembaum to serve as its interim head of school of Pressman Academy, following last month’s departure of Rabbi Mitchel Malkus from the position. 


Bryan Berkett, Tour de Summer Camps co chair. Photo by Dan Kacvinski.

Registration opened last week for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ inaugural Tour de Summer Camps, a community cycling event to raise funds for Jewish summer camp scholarships

“Through our Tour de Summer Camps event, we are raising funds that will make this transformative experience affordable for even more families in our community, while increasing awareness of the significant impact of Jewish camping,” said Jay Sanderson, Federation president and CEO.

The event will take place on Oct. 27 at Camp Alonim on the Brandeis-Bardin Campus of the American Jewish University. The registration deadline is Oct. 7. Camps that will benefit include Camp Akiba, Camp Alonim, Camp Gilboa, Camp Hess Kramer, Camp JCA Shalom, Camp Ramah, Gindling Hilltop Camp, Kibbutz Max Straus and Moshava Malibu.

Among those planning to ride is Bryan Berkett, Tour de Summer Camps co-chair and 2010 Journal mensch, who is cycling a 100-mile route as a member of the Federation’s Young Leadership Division team. 

“I hope you will join me raising money, getting in shape and having a great time,” Berkett said in an e-mail that went out to the community.

The hope is to raise $500,000 for camp scholarships, and as of July 31, 100 individuals had signed up to participate, according to Berkett. Participants can opt for 100, 62, 36 or 18-mile rides.

The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation is serving as the event’s biggest sponsor. Other sponsors include Debbie and Mark Attanasio, Julie and Marc Platt, and the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation. For more information, visit tourdesummercamps.kintera.org. 


Dr. Benedick Fraass Photo courtesy of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

The American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM) has awarded Dr. Benedick Fraass, vice chair for research and professor and director of medical physics at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the William D. Coolidge Award, in recognition of his career achievements in medical physics.

 “The William D. Coolidge Award credits those whose innovation and creativity have revolutionized the field of medical physics — an award only suited for a prestigious leader like Dr. Fraass,” said Steven Piantadosi,  director of the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute at Cedars.

The William Coolidge Award is the highest honor given out by the AAPM, a scientific and professional organization.


Hamilton High graduate Annie Rimmon. Photo courtesy of Ron Rimmon.

Annie Rimmon, a 2013 graduate of Hamilton High School Humanities Magnet and a counselor and assistant song leader at Gindling Hilltop Camp in Malibu, was recently awarded the UCLA Stamps Family Charitable Foundation Scholarship (SFCFC).

The SFCFC program recognizes “the very top of UCLA’s highly selective and academically accomplished freshman applicant pool,” according to the UCLA Scholarship Resource Center.


Moving and Shaking acknowledges accomplishments by members of the local Jewish community, including people who start new jobs, leave jobs, win awards and more, as well as local events that featured leaders from the Jewish and Israeli communities. Got a tip? E-mail it to ryant@jewishjournal.com.

A Torah falls, a shul bonds


There was a crack and a gasp and then a murmur that traveled in a wave back through the rows of seats at Temple Beth Am’s Library Minyan on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

The Torah scroll that had just been placed back in the ark had toppled headfirst to the ground, landing on and cracking one of its top spindles before someone could snatch the scroll and stand it upright again. 

The Torah scroll is the most revered physical object in Jewish life, and it is never supposed to touch the ground.

“It is considered a communal trauma when a Torah scroll falls to the ground,” Rabbi Adam Kligfeld wrote in an e-mail to the entire congregation after the holiday. “To see the object to which we ascribe the most holiness, and the symbol that is so central to Jewish life and tradition, fall to the ground is not a small thing.”

Kligfeld, senior rabbi at the 1,000-member Conservative synagogue on the Westside, was himself at an overflow service across the street at the time of the mishap, but frazzled worshippers brought him the news after services, looking for guidance on how to respond.

Traditionally, anyone who sees a Torah scroll fall engages in 40 days of sunrise-to-sunset fasting, corresponding to the days Moses was on Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. 

Even though most of the 250 people in the room didn’t actually see the scroll fall, and though the parchment itself reportedly did not hit the floor, and even though the fasting is a custom, but not a law, and giving tzedakah (charity) is also considered a tikkun (remedy), Kligfeld wrote that he wanted his congregation to engage in a meaningful, communal sacrifice. 

“It is a recognition that, even in an accidental situation, there is a tear in the fabric of the community that must be fixed,” he wrote.  

Kligfeld asked congregants each to sign up for one day of fasting on 40 designated days between Sukkot and Chanukah.

Within less than an hour of the e-mail going out, Temple Beth Am members — both those who were in the Library Minyan at the time and those who were not even in the building — filled all 40 days, and not long after, most days, including Thanksgiving, had multiple fasters.

“Rabbi Kligfeld tapped into not so much a sense of shock, but an urge and a need on the part of the kahal [community] to commit ourselves body and soul into a project in a deeper way than one would merely by donating money,” said Scott Taryle, the lay head of the Library Minyan, which does not have a rabbi. 

The scroll already has been repaired and was safely in the ark for Yom Kippur services.

Why all the fuss about something that is, after all, simply a physical object?

“The Torah is who we are and everything we are as a people. Without the Torah, we aren’t anything,” said Judith Weinstock, a minyan member who had a clear view of the mishap from her front-row seat. 

The Torah is the closest we come to tangible holiness, said Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh of Temple Israel of Hollywood. Missaghieh said she is still traumatized by her memory of an incident some years ago, when a Torah scroll fell to the ground as she was handing it off to a parent during services for third- to sixth-graders.

“Jews don’t make objects holy because God doesn’t have a body or a face, and God is beyond physical description. The only thing that can compare to the holiness of God is the Torah. And when it is dropped, it’s like the breath comes out of you. I’m not saying the Torah is God, but it our closest representation of holiness that is physical on earth,” Missaghieh said.

Kligfeld said he considered the question of whether revering a physical object so strongly bordered on idol worship, but he recognized that the power of certain symbols is undeniable — as much in the visceral reaction to a flag raised in pride, or a flag trampled or burned, as for the Torah, he said.

The handling of a Torah is prescripted by Jewish law and custom. The Torah is cloaked in fine cloth, and adorned in silver. When the ark housing it is opened, or when the Torah is carried through the congregation, all stand and reach out a hand or a clothing fringe to place a kiss on the mantle. The parchment may not be touched by hands, and of course, extra care is taken when the Torah is lifted.

In fact, the overhead lift during services — hagbah — is when those up on the bimah are most vigilant about preventing a fall.

But at the Library Minyan, the Torah fell at an unexpected moment. 

Rabbi Mitch Malkus, head of school for Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy, had just handed the Torah to the gabbai, who helps run services, to place it back in the ark alongside another Torah. But as the second Torah was being placed in, the first one toppled out, and the gabbai reached out to break the fall. Malkus said the back panel of the ark had been replaced with a white panel for the High Holy Days — the Torahs, too, were cloaked in all white — and it is possible that the diagonal on which the scroll rests was a bit different than usual. 

The accident was over in a split second, and with everyone standing and the bimah raised only a few steps, only a few people saw it happen. But Malkus said services were not the same afterward.

“It happened, and then the energy went out of the room. It just deflated,” he said. 

Malkus, who was coordinating services that day, explained to the congregants what had happened and that Kligfeld would address the situation after the holiday. 

Kligfeld said that after consulting texts and teachers, he crafted a response he hoped would be a powerful bonding opportunity for the community, and would offer a prolonged time during which to contemplate the significance of the Torah. After the 40 days of fasting, he plans to convene a congregational gathering to study the laws of Sefer Torah. 

“A time in the congregation where the Torah became vulnerable will end up being a time when the Torah becomes central,” Kligfeld said.

Long, winding road brings new cantor to Temple Beth Am


“Let me show you the dogs,” Cantor Magda Fishman says as she excitedly pulls out her iPhone and scrolls through photos until she comes upon a candid shot of two gorgeous poodles. The dogs are not Fishman’s, but her enthusiasm in sharing the image is emblematic of her style. Her energy is evident from the moment you meet her — her mind races at a mile a minute, jumping from thoughts about Israel to Broadway musicals, to the mini-fridge she gleefully reveals hidden inside a cabinet in her new office.

But if any of this leads you to believe that Fishman is something of a lightweight, you’d be wrong. The same woman who jokes easily about her view of the ever-changing billboard outside her window is also a deeply soulful, thoughtful Jew with a beautiful voice who hopes to do justice to her predecessors as she assumes her pulpit at Los Angeles’ Temple Beth Am. 

Born in a hardscrabble area of Jaffa, Israel, Fishman knew from an early age that she was destined for a life connected to music. Her family was not particularly religious, though, she says, “Shabbat candles were there every Friday evening.”

As a child, she studied at Tel Aviv’s Ironi Alef arts school, acting, singing and playing the trumpet. Her talent led her to a stint with the Tel Aviv-Yafo Youth Orchestra, and eventually, once she’d turned 18, to a place in the Israel Defense Forces Orchestra.

Though she’s now known for her singing, Fishman originally tried to take a different path in the army orchestra. “I actually auditioned for trumpet,” she says.  After her audition was over, she hung around and “started singing ‘My Funny Valentine.’ ” The accompanist working at the audition called the conductor over.  Hearing her sing, the conductor told Fishman she could still play trumpet, but she’d be singing as well.

Fishman toured with the orchestra, relishing the opportunity to have some of the talented young composers in the army arrange songs especially for her. That time in the army orchestra is something that still sticks with her today. “I went up to Ramah,” she said of the summer camp in Ojai, “and there was a girl there who does exactly what I did, and some of the songs she sings were the arrangements that were written for me.” Fishman marvels at the smallness of the Jewish world.

Once her military service was done, she was lucky enough to be able to join the Tel Aviv-Broadway Musical Theatre Project, which gave her a chance to travel to New York. While there, she auditioned at the Manhattan School of Music and was later accepted. Fishman was unsure of what to do, but her grandfather, a musician himself, encouraged her to pursue her dreams. The only problem was, she had no way to pay for the schooling.

It was at this point that one of what Fishman calls her many “angels” stepped in. The late Janice Levin, a prominent philanthropist and friend of Israel who had seen Fishman perform and had taken a liking to her, offered to pay Fishman’s tuition. With no more excuses left, Fishman departed for America.

Arriving in the States with scant funds, Fishman worried about how she’d manage to survive in an expensive city like New York. “I remember calling my grandmother and saying, ‘I think I have enough money for 10 days of sandwiches.’ ”

But Fishman found herself uplifted by the kindness of strangers again, a pattern in her life. Host families invited her to stay with them. And it was with one such host family on Long Island that this mostly secular Israeli first discovered Reform Judaism. Growing up in Israel, she had only been exposed to the Orthodox Judaism of her grandfather, which had left her feeling isolated, as she had to sit up in the balcony, separated from him. For Fishman, the services here were something of a revelation, but her turn toward the chazzanut — the Jewish equivalent of classical music — was still to come.

Cantor Magda Fishman performs at the America-Israel Cultural Foundation’s 71st Annual Gala in 2010

After living in New York for a few months, Fishman received an invitation to breakfast at the home of Mary Rodgers, the daughter of famed composer Richard Rodgers, and a composer and author in her own right of such hits as “Once Upon a Mattress” and “Freaky Friday.” Fishman laughs as she recalls their first encounter. “I was wearing this velvet suit for breakfast, because I was so excited.” Despite being slightly overdressed, Fishman wowed Rodgers and her family enough that they invited her to live in their guest room as she sang and studied to be a Broadway star.

Soon however, Fishman found that just singing wasn’t sufficiently fulfilling, and with Rodgers’ blessing, she took a break from music to study acting and dance. Which is when the Israeli consulate, having kept track of Fishman’s progress in New York, began to pull her back in, asking her to sing “Hatikvah” at numerous functions. Around the same time, Fishman got a gig as a cantorial soloist at Sutton Place Synagogue. Suddenly, her Jewish identity and her musical identity were beginning to merge.

Transitioning to singing in the synagogue wasn’t hard, musically, for Fishman. “I read music, so it was not that hard to learn it.” However, the experience of connecting to God through her music was a big change. “I needed for a while to get used to the prayer mode. I feel like I’m in another sphere when I am praying, but still connected to the people around me;  like we are on this journey together and we are there to connect our souls.”

Fishman was introduced to Cantor Henry Rosenblum, then dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) cantorial school, a man Fishman calls one of her “greatest mentors.” Rosenblum saw the potential in Fishman and encouraged her to try studying to become a cantor. Fishman accepted the challenge and plunged ahead.

“I had to get used to it. It was a process,” she says of her time at JTS.  But through the guidance of Rosenblum, who was let go by JTS in a 2010 “restructuring” despite his popularity among the students, Fishman grew into her own as a cantor.

Fishman gravitates to a modern style of cantorial singing, but she still acknowledges that “because it’s where we come from … you build on your history, always.” Her voice betrays more than a hint of her Broadway past — she is dramatic and bold, but she also has a soulful punch that calls to mind a singer like Neshama Carlebach. 

She is also inspired by more folk-influenced artists. “I looked up to the late Debbie Friedman, who had light in her eyes,” she says, brimming with joy as she launches into “Oseh Shalom.” “I love singing;  I live singing.”

It was Fishman’s passion and energy that first caught the eye of Beth Am Senior Rabbi Adam Kligfeld. “Cantor Fishman blew into the room like a musical energy tornado,” says Kligfeld of their first meeting. “We knew instantly that it was something special.”

Kligfeld says he sees a new future for Beth Am and its nearly 1,000 member families with Fishman’s arrival. “Temple Beth Am should be a center for Jewish music on the West Coast,” he says. And congregants appear to share his rosy outlook. “I’m seeing it in my fundraising,” says Kligfeld, who hopes that Fishman will help “make Friday night a phenomenon here.”

For her part, Fishman is thrilled to be in Los Angeles. She drove cross-country with her husband, Zarin, an information technology specialist whom she originally met on JDate in New York. “Cue the commercial,” she jokes. As native Israelis, they’ve already taken a liking to L.A.’s weather and its beaches.

As for what she hopes to do at Beth Am, Fishman hopes that the community will “be a home that people feel happy to come to.” She says she already feels like it’s her home. “I love the people I work with. I step into the building, and I know that I have friends.”

Most of all, Fishman hopes to “pay it forward,” doing proud all of the angels who helped her along in life.  If early results are any indication, she’s well on her way to living up to their legacy.

The following video is Temple Beth Am promotional campaign.

A pioneering minyan celebrates double chai birthday


Back in 1971, a group of young married rabbinical school graduates with small children requested a meeting with Rabbi Jacob Pressman of Temple Beth Am. Many of them had just moved back to Los Angeles after graduating the Jewish Theological Seminary, and they were looking for a meaningful prayer experience. Not only that, their children were being shushed for being disruptive in the main sanctuary.

Pressman proposed creating a separate, “parallel” service for the young Jewish professionals and took the concept back to his board, who did not like the idea at all. One man pointed his finger at Pressman and warned, “Rabbi you are going to create another shul that’s going to grow up and leave.”

Temple Beth Am library
In fact, the board member was half right. Pressman and the group did create another entity, what has become known as “The Library Minyan,” named for the downstairs library where the 15 families began to meet weekly to pray. Members organized and participated in all parts of the service (especially the weekly sermon), discussed all aspects of Judaism and debated the increasingly complex issues of the changing times. But even as the group grew — eventually eclipsing the main sanctuary in attendance — it stayed at Beth Am. In fact, it became a draw for new members, some of whom went on to serve on the synagogue’s board and who are now among the top Jewish professional leaders in and beyond Los Angeles.

Thirty-six years later, the Library Minyan, with its opportunities for engagement and intellectual rigor is seen as having helped to start a revolution — empowering lay leaders in the essential structure of spiritual leadership. It has become a model for many Conservative and Reform congregations seeking to create alternatives both within and outside the fold of conventional synagogue structure, and has allowed individual congregations to morph it into new and ever-changing incarnations.

This weekend, the Library Minyan will celebrate its double-chai anniversary (two times “life”) with a Shabbaton Nov. 2-4 that will remember the past but also look toward the future.

So, what does the future hold for the Library Minyan and its members? Will they continue to be a creative influence on Judaism? Or is it time for them to step aside and let other younger people establishing new and innovative communities of their own take over? Has the revolution ended?


Not that the Library Minyan set out to be revolutionary. “We were looking for a place where we could daven,” said Rabbi Stuart Kelman, who worked at United Synagogue Youth, Camp Ramah and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion before leaving town in 1984 to work in Jewish education in Northern California.

“Since most of us were knowledgeable, we could create a service that was more informal, more intimate, more participatory. I think this minyan was an evolution and not a revolution,” Kelman said.

Pressman, for example, helped found Camp Ramah and American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) and got the hotels in town to have kosher kitchens. Under his stewardship, Beth Am grew from 218 families in the 1950s to 1,300 by the 1970s. He recognized the need for something new: “It was unreasonable we could serve all these people,” he said, so he gave the green light to the group, which was soon to include Rabbi Eliott Dorff (now rector of American Jewish University), professor Steven L. Spiegel (now UCLA’s director of the Middle East Regional Security Program) and Rabbi Joel Rembaum.

“I wish I could call it an immediate success, but it was not,” Pressman said. “There was scarcely a minyan” in the early years. Not that that mattered to its attendees, who were happy to have a mixed-seating, lay-led, traditional prayer group where members read from the Torah, delivered parsha sermons and held weekly potluck lunches. They also debated issues: first, whether women could read Torah (they could by the mid-1970s) and then whether women could lead prayers and be counted as a minyan (they could by the early ’80s).

“In the late ’70s all these people started coming,” recalled Dorff, who joined two months after the start, in April 1971, and is now considered one of the driving forces behind its egalitarian spirit. The minyan is filled with rabbis — more than a dozen — but has no one rabbi. “There were more and more people who wanted this kind of service.”

There was another attraction: “Word came out that the Library Minyan was a good place to meet the opposite sex,” Pressman said.

The group relocated a few times, first into the youth building adjacent to the shul, and then to the old chapel (today it’s in a newly renovated chapel).

“The minyan also acquired a certain star appeal, with members such as the Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, the scholar of mysticism Jonathan Omer-Man, and the historian of ideas David Ellenson, a Reform rabbi who grappled with Modern Orthodox theology in his doctoral dissertation,” as described in a chapter devoted to the history of the Library Minyan by Samuel Freedman in his seminal book, “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry,” published in 2000).

Freedman pointed out that the participants were “products of the Jewish counterculture, committed to applying the New Left’s ideal of participatory democracy to religious practice. Yet they did not throw out all convention: Ninety percent of services were in Hebrew, and most members were Sabbath observant.”

Other forces were also at work: In 1985, Pressman retired and handed Beth Am’s senior rabbi mantle over to Rembaum, one of the original members of the Library Minyan, which was now considerably larger, with about 130 individuals on a Shabbat morning, Rembaum said.

The complaints continued: “Why don’t you bring those people in?” some of the same Beth Am members now complained to the new rabbi.

“I’m one of them,” Rembaum replied.

How one Boston synagogue met the challenge of the cantor’s sexual abuse


As an attorney representing several victims of sexually predatory Catholic priests, Mark Itzkowitz has witnessed the church’s pedophilia scandal from an almost too-close-for-comfort vantage point.

“Some of the details are absolutely horrifying,” said Itzkowitz, 49, who lives in the Boston area. “I’ve seen things that have made my blood run cold.”

Not long ago, Itzkowitz’s life took a surreal turn when he found himself confronting clergy sexual abuse from a different perspective: The problem had come home to roost in his own synagogue.

Robert Shapiro, the esteemed, longtime cantor of Temple Beth Am, a Conservative synagogue in Randolph, Mass., was accused of repeatedly molesting a mentally challenged congregant, a woman in her late 20s and early 30s when the incidents allegedly occurred between 2001 and 2003.

When the news broke in early February 2003, Beth Am was within days of again renewing the then-70-year-old Shapiro’s contract.

“The people in the synagogue would have followed him to the ends of the earth,” Itzkowitz said. “He had been there longer than the rabbi — more than 20 years.”

Once the shock of the disclosure wore off, Beth Am leaders regrouped and tried to figure out how to manage the situation. That involved not only ensuring that criminal, civil and moral justice would prevail but also preventing the congregation from disintegrating.

In-house guidelines were nonexistent. And attempts to find advice from officials at the Conservative movement’s headquarters were unsuccessful, according to both Itzkowitz, the synagogue board’s attorney, and its rabbi, Loel Weiss.

While Jewish morality is founded on the Torah and other sacred texts, “synagogues aren’t Coca-Cola or IBM churning out specific policies and procedures on right and wrong,” Weiss said. “There is a certain expectation that in a religious institution, people will act properly. But what could have been written on a piece of paper? My mind doesn’t think in those terms.”

Weiss said the little practical information he found that helped guide him through “this hell,” as he put it, was contained in a book about a suburban New Jersey congregation whose rabbi had become involved in a major crime.

“It confirmed my instincts that we needed to give people in the congregation a chance to share their sadness,” Weiss said. “Remember that even before the allegations had been confirmed, people were basically sitting shiva for a longtime cantor who was in many cases a friend of theirs.”

The task faced by Beth Am was daunting: While the case was being investigated internally — and by the police — the rights of the alleged perpetrator and the victim and her family had to be preserved. Meanwhile, the congregation had to be protected. So Shapiro was suspended with pay pending completion of the police investigation.

That probe ultimately revealed that the victim had been assaulted at the synagogue, at Shapiro’s home, in his pool, in a car and elsewhere. Shapiro was allowed to be alone with the woman because he was a trusted friend of her family, who eventually sued Shapiro, as well as Beth Am, Weiss and the former congregation president.

The latter three defendants were dismissed from the suit after the judge determined they could not have known that Shapiro posed a risk, according to news accounts.
Regarding damage control at Beth Am, Itzkowitz said he resolved to do the opposite of what the Catholic Church had done when its priests became embroiled in controversy.

Rather than circling the wagons, stonewalling and failing to acknowledge the community’s anguish, Beth Am officials would be forthcoming, compassionate and responsive, he said.

Since Shapiro had privately tutored many bar and bat mitzvah students, several parents were concerned that their children might also have been victimized. Synagogue representatives were able to assuage their fears, however, noting that there was no evidence of other incidents involving the cantor — at Beth Am or elsewhere.

“This was not a case where somebody passed the buck to us,” Weiss said.

Shapiro originally was charged with seven counts of rape, but as part of a deal with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty in September 2005 to 14 counts of indecent assault and battery on a mentally retarded person. He was sentenced to one year of house arrest and 10 years probation.

Last year, a civil court jury ordered Shapiro to pay $5.2 million to the victim and $750,000 to her parents — an award that will total $8.4 million, including interest, according to the lawyer representing the victim and her family.

“If there is such a thing as a victory in this case,” Itzkowitz said, it is that Beth Am remained intact.

The 400-family synagogue lost no congregants during the ordeal, except the victim and her family.

“And until they come back,” Itzkowitz added, “we haven’t really won.”

An attorney representing the family did not respond to a JTA request for comment, and an attorney representing Shapiro said his client would not comment.

In the wake of the incident, the synagogue has instituted a policy aimed at preventing another one. Beth Am clergy are now prohibited from being alone in the synagogue with any individual, child or adult.

“It’s good in theory,” Weiss said, “but it doesn’t work from a practical standpoint.”

That is one of the many lessons — practical, moral and spiritual — that have been learned in the wake of the Shapiro case.

Weiss and Itzkowitz came away with a renewed sense of affection and admiration for the Beth Am community, which they said responded with courage, restraint and cohesiveness.

But because of his vocation, Itzkowitz encountered the ordeal from a unique perspective. As an attorney, he had already seen his share of lives ruined and houses of worship shattered by sexually predatory clergymen.

And as a result, he offered this sobering advice to any congregation: “Don’t think it can’t happen to you.”

Q & A With Yuval Rotem


Consul General — now Ambassador — Yuval Rotem arrived as a 39-year-old career diplomat in Los Angeles in September 1999, with his wife, Miri, and their three children. He will return to Jerusalem Aug. 16, leaving behind hundreds of friends who consider him one of the most popular and effective envoys to have represented his country in Southern California, the Southwestern United States and Hawaii. The Jewish Journal met with Rotem in his office for a farewell interview.

Jewish Journal: What will you miss most about Los Angeles?

Yuval Rotem: Our monthly shopping trip to Costco — there’s nothing more American. I’ll miss the games at Staples Center. That’s the only place I turned off my cell phone to get completely away from everything. Also, taking the car and the family and going from Santa Monica to downtown, to see all the changes of faces and signs. And, of course, the weather.

JJ: How has your five-year stay affected you personally?

YR: I am returning to Israel as a better Jew. I represent the typical secular Israeli, and I was transformed by the flourishing Jewish life here. To pray with Jews in Maui, to buy at a kosher market in Salt Lake City, to see the number of synagogues in Las Vegas go from four in 1980 to 30 now, that’s a whole new horizon.

I have learned about Judaism through the eyes of my kids, who studied at Temple Beth Am. I realize now that we need more of a Jewish curriculum in Israeli schools, but at the same time there has to be more about Israel in Jewish education here. When you see the crisis on college campuses, to some degree that represents a failure to teach young Jews about Middle East history and Israel and to take pride in their heritage.

JJ: What were your goals when you came here and did you carry them out?

YR: When I arrived in 1999, we seemed to be on the road to peace with our neighbors, and I felt that in our relationship with American Jews, we needed a new sense of purpose, a new agenda. But the following year, with the intifada, we were back to the old, crisis-driven agenda. I found The Jewish Federation and its president, John Fishel, very sensitive and understanding to the sudden change of agendas.

JJ: If and when peace comes, what would be the "new" agenda?

YR: Israel and the Diaspora always come together in time of crisis, but perhaps with peace, we can have a less emotional, a more rational approach, focusing on the social fabric and economy of Israel. I think there should be an unofficial task force of American Jews and Israelis of my generation to lay out the new guidelines. But we Israelis are so overwhelmed by crises that the initiative has to come from your side.

JJ: How would you evaluate the Jewish community here. Is it cohesive?

YR: I would hardly use he word "cohesive." You have all the different ethnic tribes and tons of organizations. It’s quite a challenge to the leadership to overcome the divisions and come up with a common agenda.

Overall, though, in time of crisis, The Federation here, unlike federations in many other places, always rose to the occasion. L.A. was the only place where the consulate and Federation worked together to stage a mass public rally in 2001 along Wilshire Boulevard in support of Israel.

JJ: Who are the key leaders in the Jewish community, the ones you would call first if you needed advice or help?

YR: Don’t put me on the spot. I’ll say that I have a list of about 100 people, and it’s not that much different from the one you put together for The Jewish Journal some years ago. This is a very diverse community, which is wonderful, but in the end, Aish HaTorah and Peace Now need to know that we have the same goal to pursue.

JJ: You tried very hard to enlist the Hollywood community to visit Israel during the last few years. How did it work out?

YR: That’s been a definite disappointment. In 2001 and 2002, when there was no tourism, the economy was down and Israelis felt isolated. In that moment of truth, only a very few in Hollywood were willing to extend their hand to Israel. We went from agency to agency and from studio to studio with little success.

JJ: Why wouldn’t they come?

YR: It was partially fear of terrorism, and in general, people in Hollywood try to shy away from conflict. We didn’t ask for propagandists, just some humanitarian gestures, a message of comfort, as Christopher Reeve did during his visit.

But after two years of hard work, some doors are opening, and I hope that in the next few months, more celebrities in the arts and sports will come over and also that Hollywood will again shoot movies in Israel.

JJ: What was your worst moment here?

YR: That was July 4, 2002, the day the El Al counter at LAX was attacked, with two people killed. I said then, and say now, that rather than bring the conflict of the Middle East to Los Angeles, we need to bring the spirit of L.A. to the Middle East.

JJ: What development during your tenure surprised you the most?

YR: The emergence of the Iranian Jews, some 30,000 very committed Jews, as important players in the general Jewish community. I think their participation in pro-Israel causes helped their integration into the Jewish community.

On the other hand, I am surprised that I still meet quite a few American Jews who ask how Israel can accept a Palestinian state. By now, Israel has internalized that fact, it’s basically a fait accompli. Overall, American Jews at all levels need to be more updated and aware of the changes and realities in Israeli life.

JJ: What accomplishment gave you the most satisfaction?

YR: The close relationship we have forged with the Latino community since 1999. Early on, I started going to the Eastside, to Latino events and meetings. It’s a two-way street. We can’t expect Latinos to share our concern about the Golan Heights, if we don’t understand their concern about immigration laws. We have added a special liaison for Latino relations at the consulate, and I think the entire Jewish community has benefited from our effort.

JJ: What did you and your family miss most about being away from Israel?

YR: The sense of brotherhood and togetherness that bonds Israelis. You can’t find that in any other place.

JJ: Quite a number of community leaders asked Jerusalem to extend your stay in L.A. What happened?

YR: I appreciate the efforts of all the people who petitioned the foreign minister, and I’m a little sad that it didn’t work out. But I served as chief of staff to Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu when they were foreign ministers, so I know the rules and how things work.

JJ: What are your future career plans?

YR: I’ll be reporting to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, and the general rule is that a returning diplomat stays in Israel for two to four years before being sent abroad again. I’m on a so-called "fast track" in the Foreign Ministry, and that makes it a little harder to find the appropriate position for me.

I may accept a different government-oriented post, and I can’t rule out taking a leave of absence and working in the private sector for a while. The political situation changes all the time in Israel, and, as we say, the only predictable thing in Israel is the unpredictable.

JJ: Any final words?

YR: When you see Los Angeles, you see the whole world, and if you don’t like L.A., you just don’t like the world. I am really going to miss it.

Japanese Youngsters Sing Shalom


When Temple Beth Am of Los Angeles extended a konnichi wa during Saturday services to its Japanese visitors, they answered “Shabbat shalom.”

Small Hands, a group of Japanese goodwill ambassadors, ages 12-18, offered a cultural exchange on its July 26 visit. The Conservative synagogue was one of several spots on Small Hands’ July 23-26 Southern California tour under the auspices of the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles.

The teen group, formed in 1997 by the Holocaust Education Center of Japan, has dedicated itself to learning about the horrors of the Holocaust and gleaning from it a cross-cultural message of peace, which it promotes.

Dressed in traditional kimonos, the 15-member Small Hands group performed before a packed sanctuary a medley of traditional Japanese songs — “Twinkling Stars,” “Fireflies” and “Ocean” — before performing enthusiastic versions of “Havenu Sholom Alechem,” “David Melech Israel” and “Oseh Shalom” in Hebrew. After, seven female members performed a native sakura (“cherry blossoms”) dance.

The Rev. Makoto Otsuka, director general of Japan’s Holocaust Education Center, founded the museum, which focuses on the 1.5 million children murdered by the Nazis. He believes that this aspect of the Holocaust is a window into the Shoah for today’s children.

He told The Journal that his inspiration was a chance 1971 encounter in Israel with Anne Frank’s father, whom he met while performing in with a Christian choir. Since opening its doors in June 1995, the Holocaust Education Center — located in Fukuyama, just outside Hiroshima — has had 60,000 visitors. Otsuka said that reaching beyond Japan’s 2,000 Jews — through schoolchildren — is his museum’s goal.

Otsuka’s daughter, Masami, translated for Small Hands members Kanami Kanbara and Michinobu Iwamoto, both 16. Kanbara said that Small Hands fits nicely with her ambition to learn languages and work with other cultures. Iwamoto spoke highly of his first tour of California. His personal highlight — without hesitation — Disneyland.

Other stops on Small Hands’ itinerary included: the Museum of Tolerance; Camp Alonim; the Jewish Home for the Aging; a meeting with Imperial Toys founder/Holocaust survivor Fred Kort; and a San Diego visit with university lecturer/Holocaust survivor Dr. John Stoessinger, who is one of the thousands of Jews saved in World War II by Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul-general in Nazi-occupied Lithuania.

For information on the Holocaust Education Center, visit www.urban.ne.jp/home/hecjpn .

What Do You Tell the Kids?


So what do you say to children when hate explodes in our world, taking with it thousands of lives?

That is what educators at Pressman Academy at Temple Beth Am dealt with Tuesday, after they made an early morning decision to keep the Westside Conservative day school open, even as other Jewish day schools across Los Angeles canceled classes for the day.

“Once we were confident about security, we decided it was better to have the kids together and doing something than to have them at home, just watching TV and getting more and more nervous about what happened, and not really being able to respond,” said Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, education director at Pressman. “We could give them a place and framework to talk about this that was safe and nurturing and supportive.”

Many classes began late, as parents, apparently wavering over whether to send their children to school, brought students in later then usual. By midday, the upper grades had about 90 percent attendance, while the preschool was at about 50 percent. About 85 percent of the school’s 400 kids in early childhood through eighth grade came for the day.

The decision about what to tell the students varied from grade to grade, using the developmental stages of the students and the questions they asked as prompts for where to carry the discussion.

Malkus instructed the teachers to answer the kids’ questions and to let discussions on the issue eat into class time.

For all the grades from kindergarten on up, the day began with special prayers.

“Our message to all of them was that when sad things or terrible things happen, there are ways to respond, and one way Jews respond is with special prayers,” Malkus said.

In the younger grades, that meant singing “Oseh Shalom,” asking God to bring peace and hope. In third through eighth grade, students recited the prayer for the government of the United States, portions of the Yizkor memorial prayer and the blessing of “Baruch Dayan Emet,” blessed is the Judge of truth, traditionally said upon hearing of someone’s death. They ended prayers with a “Kaddish.”

“Everybody is entitled to be sad, and together we can deal with it better than individually,” said Aliza Liran, Judaic Studies principal. “Praying together is a great way to take off the burden.” Uppermost on the minds of sixth- through eighth-graders seemed the concrete and factual details. As Malkus and Rabbi Joel Rembaum, spiritual leader of Beth Am and headmaster of the school, shared news they had heard, the students were eager to have rumors that had been circulating confirmed or dispelled.

“I heard there were probably 50,000 people killed,” one boy offered.

“Is it true they are planning attacks on all the major cities?” a girl asked.

Students wanted to know whether flying would be safe again, if Los Angeles were a target.

Some wanted to determine what connection the tragedy had to Jews and Israel, and one student simply wanted to know if school would be open the next day.

Rembaum and Marcus did their best to confirm only the known details, which were still sketchy Tuesday afternoon. They encouraged students to listen to the news carefully but not to jump to conclusions or believe all the rumors they heard.

Rembaum tried to open up the discussion at another level. “Is there anything else about this bothering you?” he asked the 50 or so students gathered in the synagogue’s chapel. “Are there any moral issues you want to ask about?”

One girl raised her hand. “How did they hijack all those planes?” she asked.

The existential and theological questions apparently would be left for another time. Malkus said interest in such concrete information is in keeping with the developmental expectations for these ages.

Still, he acknowledged, “We felt it was important to have a communal gathering, but most of the work is done in the classroom.”

In Amy Ament’s sixth-grade class, after a long discussion of the logistics of the events, students came to the bigger questions.

The class discussed how God could let this happen, and why people thought it was OK to kill themselves and other people.

After talking about the tragedy for part of the class, Marlynn Dorff tried to steer her seventh-grade students toward their regular Mishna lesson.

Midway through, a boy raised his hand. Would the people who did this go to heaven? he wanted to know.

Dorff said they would come back to his important question at the end of the lesson, at which point they discussed the Jewish concept of the afterlife.

While some classes were sidetracked by the days’ events, many lessons seemed to be proceeding as usual for the second week of school, especially in the younger grades. A first-grade teacher drew a row of alefs on the board, and sixth-grade students went into a round robin to check each other’s homework. A necessary dose of normalcy seemed to be in order.

Teachers knew the questions would come soon — yet how do you explain the hate?

“You can’t talk about hate, because then you lose hope, and what we need to teach them is about hope,” said Andy Polsky, elementary school principal at Pressman. “So we say today is a sad day, today is a difficult day. It’s a hard day to be a human being today, but we hope tomorrow will be better,” he said.

“They have to see things are going to be better, otherwise what’s in it for them to make the world a better place?”

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