The art of healing


The piece of art is heartbreaking: Under gray skies filled with drops of rain stands a single tombstone. Under that, the artist has written in bright red, “Death now looking for Me.”

It is the work of a fourth-grader.

By way of explanation, the student, whose real name is not identified, writes: “I live close to school where it’s not safe to play in my neighborhood. … My 6-year-old sister was shot and killed when she was playing in the front yard. I get scared sometimes and really miss her. Also, last year my uncle went to jail and I miss him too. It seems like things don’t get better around my house.”

Pieces of art created by students in the Share and Care program. Art images courtesy of Cedars-Sinai Psychological Trauma Center’s Share and Care program

And yet, somehow, drawing pictures about it all — something the student has done as part of a program known as Share and Care — helps.

“In Share and Care,” the pupil writes, “I drew a picture of my sister and my uncle and other things that made me sad, but I also drew what helps me feel better when I’m having a lonely day.” 

This student isn’t alone. About 27,000 local schoolchildren have been helped by Share and Care since it began 35 years ago. Based at Cedars-Sinai, its roots date back to 1981, when Suzanne Silverstein and the late Gladys Wesson-Strickland were working at the medical center’s department of psychiatry.

One day, Wesson-Strickland approached her colleague with a concern: Two of her grandsons (the children of current Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson and preschoolers at the time) had a schoolmate who was shot dead by his father. The boy’s mother had been shot and killed, too, and the rest of the class was having difficulty coping with the event. 

“We should go to the school and work with the parents and the teachers and the kids,” Silverstein remembers saying. 

And so they did. 

In the early days of the program — then known as the Center for Psychological Trauma — Silverstein and other counselors worked only with children who had experienced trauma related to violence. That changed after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which had an official death toll of 57 and injured more than 8,700. Silverstein was asked to put together a program to help school children in the Valley cope with the aftereffects of the quake. 

It was from there that the program began to diversify in the needs it addressed. By 1996, the eight-week art therapy program had expanded to 12 weeks and was dubbed “Share and Care” by some students at Canterbury Avenue Elementary School in Arleta. Today, the program helps young people deal with trauma related to violence, grief, bullying, anger management, divorce, homelessness, foster care and the incarceration of family members. 

But why use art as a form of therapy?

“Kids don’t always understand their feelings,” explained Silverstein, the program’s founding director. “Some kids, it’s really hard for them to talk. But they all know how to draw. So it’s a different way to communicate with people. They can then look at what they draw and talk about it.” 

For example, counselors from the program visited an elementary school after 9/11 and asked them what their thoughts were on the event. One student drew the image of a boy standing next to a building, both at the same height. 

“I wish I was a giant,” the boy who drew the image had said, “so I could squash bin Laden.”

“Art is a natural expression for elementary students,” said Krishna Smith, the principal of Loyola Village Elementary School. “It allows them to tell their stories, and the therapy helps teach them coping skills at a young age.” 

The art itself becomes reflections of the person in therapy — child or adult — so they can better understand their experiences, according to Madoka Urhausen, a supervisor and coordinator of school-based mental health programs at The Guidance Center in Long Beach. Similar to Share and Care, The Guidance Center has art therapy programs in 20 schools in the Long Beach Unified School District. 

“The use of art therapy is more empowering,” Urhausen told the Journal. “People come to the ‘aha’ moment on their own instead of the therapist telling them what their problem is.”

Through Share and Care, run today under the auspices of Cedars-Sinai’s Psychological Trauma Center, a high school student named Janelle said she was able to find other students in a situation similar to hers — her mother and brother are in jail — and who identify with her feelings. She went from failing her classes to wanting to do well in school and become an artist. 

“Now, I have shared my story in group. … I thank my group for believing in me,” Janelle wrote. “I have friends and my counselor believes in me. My homeroom teacher said I am blossoming into an amazing young woman.”

Emma Kaplan, 12, has been through the program twice — once to help her deal with the death of her uncle, and the second time because she was fighting a lot with her brother. Both times, drawing her feelings and then talking about them helped her deal with them better, she told the Journal. And even though she still sometimes fights with her brother, it’s not as bad. 

Teachers refer students in need to 13 program counselors who are stationed at the schools during the academic year. Therapy sessions take place in small groups during school hours, twice a week for 12 weeks. At the end of the 12 weeks, students can avail themselves of additional services if it is determined that the students need more time to heal. 

Although the Share and Care program may be geared toward elementary and middle school children (and sometimes high schoolers), the Psychological Trauma Center also has programs for parents and teachers. 

Silverstein recommends that parents speak to their children about a traumatic event as it happens because “you know your own kids and you can talk to them and explain it in a way that they could understand.” 

The teacher training program focuses on helping teachers identify students in need of counseling and helpful techniques that can be used in classrooms to help students deal with traumatic events.

Funded entirely by Cedars-Sinai — officials declined to say how much is spent on the program — the programs offered by the Psychological Trauma Center are free to schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District. The Share and Care program is currently active in 28 schools, with 33 schools on the waiting list.

The center celebrated its 35th anniversary May 30 with a dinner and exhibition of 33 pieces of art done by students who have gone through the program over the years. The youngest was by a 4-year-old.

“People are much more impacted by violence now than they were ever impacted before,” Silverstein told the Journal. “If you don’t start with the kids and you don’t start early on, you’ll never make a dent in what’s going on. So I’m hoping the little bit that we’re doing here will start to prevent that.”

Kerry on the couch


We now join U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry lying on the couch in his therapist’s office:

Therapist: “When did you get back from Jerusalem?”

Kerry: “Hmm, I’m not sure. I ran out of Ambien on the trip so I’m a little sleep-deprived right now. But I think it was this morning.”

Therapist: “You take Ambien?”

Kerry: “You kidding? How else could I survive all these trips I’m making to Israel? This was my fifth one there since March. I think I beat Kissinger’s record from 1973.”

Therapist: “Why do you keep going there?”

Kerry: “Have you been talking to my wife? She’s always asking me that. I keep going to Israel because I want to go down in history. Not go down in history, but go down in history.”

Therapist: “What do you mean?”

Kerry: “Ever since I took this job, all the smart people have been telling me to stay away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That it’s a snake pit — an impossible mission. That the Middle East is burning and there are other places that need my attention a lot more.”

Therapist: “Are they right?”

Kerry: “Maybe, but I don’t really care. I want to do what all my predecessors failed to do.”

Therapist: “Tell me about that.”

Kerry: “I want to do great things. I want to be better than everyone else. Like we’ve talked about before, I was never popular with the girls in high school. I was kind of awkward and gawky. So I compensated by doing a lot of things.”

Therapist: “Like what?”

Kerry: “You know, I would just work harder than everyone else. Chess club. Tennis. Debating club. Fencing. Wrestling. No challenge was too big for me. That’s the way it’s been my whole life — Vietnam, the Senate, the White House.”

Therapist: “But you lost the White House.”

Kerry: “Please don’t remind me.”

Therapist: “That’s what I’m here for.  How did it make you feel?”

Kerry: “You sure you want to get into this?”

Therapist: “Of course, it’s important. This is how we’ll get some real work done.”

Kerry: “Well, the loss killed me. I came this close to the top of the mountain. This close to being numero uno in the world. And I lost to a cowboy — to the big man on campus. It brought me back to my high school days … when I had to claw my way to compete with the cool guys.”

Therapist: “Tell me more about that.”

Kerry: “I crashed. I felt as if everything I had accomplished up until then was for naught. As if I’d been transported right back to high school, to being that awkward and gawky kid trying desperately to be popular.”

Therapist: “How did you deal with it?”

Kerry: “I put on an act. I pretended I was OK, even with my wife and kids. But inside, I was dying.”

Therapist: “How long did it last?”

Kerry: “Right up until I was chosen to be secretary of state earlier this year. That’s when I started getting out of my funk. Now I can get back that mountain I lost.”

Therapist: “What do you mean?”

Kerry: “Look, even though I lost the White House, I have a chance now to win the Nobel Peace Prize. There’s nothing cooler in the world. Nothing more popular! I will work harder than ever to win it.”

Therapist: “But what if you don’t?”

Kerry: “Failure is not an option.”

Therapist: “John, I don’t want to see you crash again. You need to feel OK inside so that the external losses won’t devastate you.”

Kerry: “The only way I will feel OK inside is if I win. And I know I can do it. I just know it. People are telling me that I’m banging my head against a wall — that despite all these trips and meetings, neither side is budging an inch. But I will wear them down, you’ll see.”

Therapist: “Why do you think you can succeed?”

Kerry: “Here’s something you don’t know, doc. In international diplomacy, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the holy grail. It doesn’t matter that thousands of people are being murdered all around there. All the eyes of the world are on the Jews and the Palestinians.”

Therapist: “So, what will you do?”

Kerry: “Look, the world is so obsessed with this conflict that they gave that terrorist Arafat a Nobel prize just for taking meetings! Now, if I can only get Bibi and Abbas in the same room, I really think I have a shot at the big prize. I’m only slightly exaggerating.”

Therapist: “Seriously? But what if you fail even at that?”

Kerry: “I’ll do what I always do — I’ll work even harder! I told you: Failure is not an option.”

Therapist: “OK, John. I’ll see you at our next session. Get some rest.” 

Cheryl Cohen Greene: Sex Surrogate


Cheryl Cohen Greene has spent the last 40 years making her living having sex with people, but she’s not a prostitute. Greene is one of a small number of specialists in the United States known as sex surrogates, whose job it is to help clients with sexual anxieties become more comfortable with their bodies and their sexuality, even if that means sleeping with them. And while that sounds like a fascinating enough story in and of itself, it’s Greene’s interaction with one patient in particular, Mark O’Brien, a brilliant author crippled by polio, that has catapulted her to fame through her portrayal by Helen Hunt, nominated for the supporting-actress Oscar, in “The Sessions.”

“It’s all about shame and guilt,” said Greene, speaking by phone from her home, her Boston accent thick as ever, even after decades out West. “Most of us do not feel a very deep level of comfort with who we are.” 

That’s where Greene comes in. “What I try to help them do is stay in the moment, in their body, feeling the sensations, being able to relax and communicate,” she said of her work with her nearly 1,000 past clients. “What they need to do is stop trying to be what they think other people expect, and learn about themselves enough to be able to present who they are in as natural a way as possible.”

Even in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area, where Greene has done most of her work, it hasn’t always been easy. People have hurled insults like, “You’re nothing but a prostitute using another name,” and even questioned whether what Greene does causes more harm than good to her clients. Through it all, Greene has shrugged off the criticism, knowing that her work is righteous and has helped countless men live more fulfilling lives.

Cheryl Cohen Greene.  Photo by Photo by Dave Allocax

A friend of Greene’s once came up with an analogy that she loves to share. He said that going to a prostitute is like visiting a restaurant. “You look at the menu, you see what they’re serving, and you choose. They prepare it, they hope you love it and you want to come back and refer a friend.” Going to a sex surrogate is like going to cooking school. “You get the recipes, you get the ingredients, and you learn how to mix it and make the dish, and then you go out into the world and you share that with other people. You don’t keep going back to cooking class.”

That’s the ultimate goal for Greene when it comes to her clients — independence. As is noted in “The Sessions,” a surrogate is supposed to have only six sessions with a client; after that, the client is expected to head out into the world. “That’s the goal of this therapy: Can a person transfer what they’ve done with me to another relationship?”

Even among Greene’s hundreds of clients though, O’Brien was a special case. “Ten percent of the people I’ve worked with have been disabled people physically … noticeably disabled. The rest of us are disabled in our sexuality just by living in this culture,” Greene said. When O’Brien came to her, he was nearly 40 and had never had sex with a woman. He and Greene began a process that is lovingly presented in “The Sessions,” to help him learn to appreciate his own body and sexuality.

“In the movie, Mark and I fall in love, or there’s a tenderness that develops,” Greene said. “It did develop, but it didn’t develop quite the same way.” And though Greene noted several inaccuracies in the film, they didn’t seem to bother her. In fact, in some cases, she found the use of “poetic license” ended up impressing her. “Mark and I became friends, and when I ended therapy, I didn’t walk away from him the way it happens in the movie. I always cry when I see that scene, it’s just so touching, but it isn’t the way it ended.”

One scene that Greene noted as accurate was a scene in which Helen Hunt holds up a mirror for John Hawkes, who practically channels O’Brien, so that he can see his body for the first time since childhood. The scene is juxtaposed with one of Greene going into the mikveh to convert to Judaism.  The conversion is one of the more powerful scenes in the film, and, according to Greene, “It’s actually real,” though she notes that, in real life, “I was pregnant when I got into the mikveh — eight months pregnant. I had a 3-year-old daughter, and she went into the mikveh with me. And I wish Rhea Perlman had been there. The woman who was there was scary.”

Greene spent time with Hunt to prepare her for the role. “I met with her at a raw-foods restaurant in Santa Monica, and I had never had raw food. I’d had salads, but I didn’t know … it was fabulous,” Greene said, laughing.  “She was just so real with me, no pretense. She’s a marvelous person.”

Greene even went to Hunt’s mansion to show her how to do the sensitive touch that Greene used on O’Brien. Her client for the demonstration? Hunt’s partner, the writer/producer Matthew Carnahan. “If Helen wins [the Oscar], I would be ecstatic,” Greene said.  “If she doesn’t win, I’m still so honored.”

Greene also met with the film’s writer and director, Ben Lewin, when the project was in its infancy.  Lewin, who grew up in Australia and was stricken with polio himself as a child, first learned about O’Brien and Greene through the magic of Google, of all things. “I still believe that electricity is produced by monkeys running inside barrels, but the Internet certainly changed my life in this respect,” Lewin said, speaking by phone. 

Prior to working on “The Sessions,” Lewin, who’d once had a busy career, hadn’t been able to find work for nearly a decade. He kept busy by selling high-end watches, among other things, though as he points out, chuckling, “I wasn’t out of it. I wasn’t getting any work.”  

Now riding high on the success of “The Sessions,” Lewin, who seems remarkably humble, commented that “there is a kind of pleasure in being reinvented. My agent kept telling me, ‘Oh, before you were Ben Lewin; now you’re BEN LEWIN.’ ”

Writer/director Ben Lewin on the set of “The Sessions.” Photo by Sarah M. Golonka

According to Greene, Lewin was unsure of what to expect when he met with her. “He said, ‘I don’t know what I expected you to be. I thought for a while maybe you were somebody who had a thing for having sex with disabled men.’ ”

Lewin says that Greene’s help was invaluable to making the film. “After meeting her, I really began to see the film as a relationship movie, and more of a two-hander than a biopic,” he said. Meeting Greene also helped in another way. Lewin had brought along a friend from Australia with him to meet Greene, and after their meeting, the man opened his checkbook and wrote a check for 20 percent of the film’s budget. “He was the audience, and there was an audience for this unusual story. So meeting Cheryl was a threshold event.”

For Greene, the attention is wonderful, but she knows that her interaction with O’Brien was just one part of a very interesting life. She’s recently published a book called “An Intimate Life: Sex, Love, and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner” that deals with her relationship with O’Brien but also delves into her interactions with many of the other clients she’s helped over the years.

If there’s one message Greene thinks people can take away from her work with O’Brien, it’s that “there is somebody out there for everybody. It’s just whether they pass like ships in the night or they come together and they meet. The meeting is what I pray for them to have, and Mark got it, and that was beautiful.”

No more tears of a clown


A man walks into a shrink’s office and says he wants to commit suicide.

“What you need is a good belly laugh,” the shrink says. “Go across the street to the circus. There’s a clown there who makes everybody laugh.”

“Doc, I’ve been to the circus across the street,” the man says. “I’m the clown who makes everybody laugh.”

The above is just a story, but it explains the reasoning behind what might initially seem an unlikely program recently unveiled at the Laugh Factory on Sunset Boulevard: free on-site therapy for comedians. The idea was born out of the deaths of two comedians — Greg Giraldo, who died in September 2010 of a prescription-drug overdose, and Richard Jeni, who committed suicide in 2007.

“Greg Giraldo hit me really hard,” said Jamie Masada, owner of the Laugh Factory. “Most of the comedians go on the stage, they make a thousand people laugh and at the same time, you see them behind the scenes — they’re bleeding, they’re in pain.

“It’s painful for me to see it,” Masada added.

It’s appropriate, perhaps, that the troubled-clown story is printed onto a painting that hangs in the office on the top floor of the Laugh Factory, where Tom Cohn, a psychotherapist, and Ildiko Tabori, a psychologist, meet with comedians.

Four nights each week, comedians can come in (they call in advance to schedule appointments) to sit down one-on-one with Tabori or Cohn, on a red antique sofa that comedy icon Groucho Marx once gave Masada.

Approximately 80 comedians have seen the therapists since Masada started the program in February.

“They’re coming in and talking about the issues that brought them to this place,” Tabori said. “This is a program that probably needed to occur for quite some time. They’re unloading.

“Their lives are so up and down. You’re getting onstage; you’re getting offstage; you’re going to another show; you’re traveling.”

Comedian Marc Schiff, who writes for the humor blog Jewlarious, said he’s optimistic about the potential for therapy at the Laugh Factory.

“I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “I think it’s a very nice thing that Jamie and the group are doing.”

But he also cautioned that therapy is only effective when it is approached with commitment; comedians will have to continue to go.

Schiff performs regularly at the Laugh Factory but hasn’t had a session with either of the therapists.

“When he starts shock therapy, then I’ll go,” Schiff joked.

Likewise, it will take a lot to get comedian Richard Lewis, co-star of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” to get on the sofa at the Laugh Factory.

“Being [on] Groucho’s couch could be a hex,” Lewis said, adding that he has been undergoing psychotherapy for 40 years. “And,” he said, with “the money I spent, I could be living in a villa in Rome, but instead I learned that I’m going to die screwed up.”

Skepticism aside, Lewis said that therapy has helped him with sobriety and in finding happiness.

Or “bouts of happiness is more like it,” he said.

Comedian Paul Rodriguez, a Laugh Factory regular, recently went to sessions with therapists at the club, his first time seeing a therapist.

“I saw enough of ‘The Sopranos’ to know how to conduct myself,” he said.

Rodriguez admitted he was initially reluctant (“You can have this conversation with your mom”), but that his session opened him up. In fact, he spoke with the therapist about how he is trying to come to terms with getting older while working in an industry that practically shuns anybody over 30.

But that’s just “between you and I and whoever’s reading this,” he said.

Rodriguez believes comedians have more problems than noncomedians — “normal people,” he called them — and Tabori agreed, kind of.

“I think there’s sadness across the board, but there is a higher predisposition of depression — and, to a lesser extent, bipolar disorder — in comedians,” Tabori said.

Tabori and Cohn work nights at the club, two nights a week each, while they continue running their own practices. They’re having to adjust to the new experience of treating comedians, finding that it can be hard not to laugh at what the comedians say during sessions and to keep them focused on their issues rather than, say, enjoying their talent.

“I like comedy a lot. … I like to laugh at their jokes,” Cohn said. “So when they use that as a mechanism, I think it’s something for me personally to be aware of, that it can be used to distract, can be used to deflect, and can be used to just, you know, ‘Let’s pass the hour, let’s not talk about the real issue, and let me get out of here.’ ”

The free therapy service at the Laugh Factory joins a list of ongoing charity programs initiated by Masada, including free Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, free annual High Holy Days services and a yearly comedy camp for underprivileged kids. 

“I think it’s part of our [Jewish] tradition,” Masada said of why he offers these services. He grew up in Israel before coming to Los Angeles at age 14, and he opened the Laugh Factory in 1979, at the age of 16.

The charity services at the club are a way for Masada to repay a community that has helped him. He opened the club with a loan from Hollywood writer and producer Neal Israel, and Richard Pryor, one of the first comics to perform at his club, gave Masada money for rent instead of taking a payment for his performance.

Helping others is just a way of life, Masada said. “Most of us, as [a] Jewish tribe, we all try to help other people,” Masada said. “This is part of [what’s] engraved in you from the time you are a kid. To do mitzvah, to help other people.”

In Israel, cutting edge help for visually impaired kids


Strolling among the young children playing on ELIYA’s vibrant and colorful campus in Petah Tikva, just outside Tel Aviv, feels, for an instant, like a visit to any well-run preschool. But ELIYA is that and more — a preschool for blind and visually impaired children designed to assist their growth and development through programs ranging from classroom teaching to hydrotherapy.

ELIYA (pronounced eh-LEE-yah), the acronym for The Israeli Association for the Advancement of Blind and Visually Impaired Children, serves more than 100 children, infants to mid-teens, through its various programs. The organization’s three branches, located in Petah Tikva, Jerusalem and Be’er Sheva, offer mommy-and-me classes and a daily preschool program for children (ages 1-3), while ELIYA’s summer camps and retreats bring blind or visually impaired older children together with family, friends and volunteers.

At ELIYA’s main branch in Petah Tikva, coordinator of resource development Orly Layzer pointed out features that reflect the careful consideration behind every aspect of the schools’ approach. For example, the color scheme — white and red — offers a contrast, which children with partial vision can discern and use to orient themselves. Classroom floors are divided into three tactile parts — wood, carpet and rubber — so children can use their sense of touch to find their way around the classroom. The same principle applies to the playground, where a little boy was able to keep his toy truck within the bounds of a gravel area by pulling back whenever he encountered a surface that felt foreign.

The hydrotherapy center provides another means for the children to work on their sense of orientation and comfort in new environments. ELIYA also provides rehabilitative horseback riding, offering blind and visually impaired children an enjoyable way to improve their navigational abilities and develop steadiness and balance.

ELIYA’s chadar choshech (dark room), helps pinpoint what, if any, vision a child has. Computers, glow-in-the-dark stars and even disco balls become the sole source of light in the room, allowing teachers and therapists to track a child’s eyesight. Then, having identified the limits of the field of vision, staff can help a child maximize abilities. Teacher-child ratios are at most 1-to-2, and ELIYA individualizes its program for each child.

This degree of specialization is what ELIYA executive director Michael Segal considers key to accomplishing ELIYA’s goals. “We want to help children with visual impairments to become more independent people…. It’s a different concept for philanthropy — a philanthropy of excellence,” he said.

Segal uses a Hebrew phrase, mitztainut lo miskainut (which roughly translates as “excellence not pity”), to express ELIYA’s mission. The organization also works hard to accommodate a diverse religious population. The Jerusalem branch, for instance, serves Orthodox and secular Jews as well as Muslims and Christians, and tries to provide for the needs and observances of each.

Segal began volunteering for ELIYA in 1984, in response to an advertisement he saw in a local Israeli newspaper. His involvement grew, and in 1991 he took on the role of executive director, his current post. Segal has never taken a salary for his ELIYA work, and in 2005 he received the President’s Award for Volunteerism. But he humbly deflects questions about this choice. “I wanted to continue the work, and I was able to…. I grew up with the notion of wanting to do for the community,” he said.

ELIYA hopes soon to have an interactive Web site where parents and the general public can access information about the blind and visually impaired.

Another special program is ELIYA’s summer camp for visually impaired children. Some attendees (ages 5-13) are past graduates of ELIYA’s preschool program, but others come from different parts of the country. Together with volunteers, they participate in a full range of regular camp activities — arts and crafts, sports, cooking, nature trips and music.

Segal told a story of one graduate whom he met on an air force base years after he’d left the school. Despite his visual impairment, this graduate now held an extremely sensitive job in the army. It felt wonderful, egal said, to see the young man had carved out a rewarding niche for himself.

ELIYA-USA will honor Maury and Lisa Friedman with its 2008 Visionary Award on Nov. 9 at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Cancer survivor brings art, courage to other patients


Judi Kaufman has trouble remembering numbers. So the two-time brain cancer survivor, who is now living with her third tumor, assigns colors to numbers to help keep them straight.

The system is simple and intuitive: zero is white, 13 is black. Eighteen — chai — is red.

“Red is the color of courage,” said Kaufman, 64. “Life takes courage.”

If Kaufman’s courage ever falters, few could tell from her brisk schedule of activities. She’s a member of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Board of Governors. A one-time recipe tester for Bon Appétit magazine, she holds kosher cooking classes for adults and children. And she gives the bulk of her time and energy to Art of the Brain, a nonprofit she founded in 2000 to help fellow brain cancer patients navigate the disease’s often-profound physical and mental effects — through art.

“People who have brain cancer oftentimes turn to art to feel better,” Kaufman said at her Beverly Hills home on a recent afternoon. “They learn to stop judging their work. Any kind of art can help, whether it’s music, writing, filmmaking, painting. We are always trying to help patients find their own artistic talent.”

Kaufman began writing poetry to counter feelings of despair following her diagnosis in 1997. Since then, she has composed enough material for four books. Proceeds from the sale of her books help fund Art of the Brain, which through galas and partnership events has so far raised more than $3 million for cancer research at UCLA.

As the organization gears up for its ninth annual fundraising gala at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall on Oct. 4, Kaufman hopes Art of the Brain can reach out to more cancer patients in need of comfort and hope.

“Brain cancer is the most lonely cancer,” she said. “It affects the way you act and feel. You think, ‘Should I go out and be seen like this, or stay inside?’ It’s easy to just stay inside.”

That’s a decision Kaufman still wrestles with. She sometimes turns down lunch dates with friends because her speech, which was damaged by her two surgeries, often comes out slurred and normal conversation takes as much energy as “running around the block.”

But Kaufman said her personal struggles are what make other people with brain cancer — many of them lonely and misunderstood — able to relate to her.

“Unless you walk this trip, you don’t really know what people are going through,” she said. “You don’t have much left after brain cancer. I felt I was only half a wife, half a woman. One of the premises of Art of the Brain is to restore peoples’ self-esteem.”

The organization is built on a system of 20 volunteer “illness mentors” who visit with cancer patients and their families and offer both physical and emotional support. These volunteers, affectionately called “Brain Buddies,” aid with everything from meal preparation to explaining the nuances of the disease. They also help patients cope with anger and depression by encouraging them to pick up, for example, a paintbrush or a pen.

When Kaufman first started sketching out poems in 1997, she found she had a lot to say that she wasn’t able to tell family members or friends.

“I tried not to burden other people with my depression, so it came out in my writing,” she recalled. “That was how I survived. I learned to take layers off — to become more truthful. I lost all my inhibitions.”

Kaufman’s poetry deals with cancer and sex, social acceptance and forced limitations. Her humor, which she freely deems “cockeyed,” can be jarring, as when she compares her tumor to an unconventional pregnancy. Her sadness and strength are palpable in her 2007 book “Do You Want Your Brain to Hurt Now or Later?” as she dwells on the value of flaws:

Perfection is not about real human beings.
Perfection is a cartoon, without the humor.
Perfection cuts away the core of caring.
Perfection is a hidden illness.

Writing was a catharsis for Kaufman, whose initial misdiagnosis almost cost her her life.

For two years, Kaufman had chalked up her recurrent headaches to menopause. When the headaches eventually turned to seizures, her husband, Roy, rushed her to the emergency room. Doctors there told her she’d had a stroke and sent her home with no medication.

“Seizures are often a symptom of strokes; that’s why brain cancer is often misdiagnosed as a stroke,” she said. “They told me, ‘Go home, rest.’ But I still felt that something was wrong.”

Kaufman went to UCLA’s Neuro-Oncology department for a second opinion, where she was properly diagnosed and booked for emergency brain surgery.

“They said, ‘The good news is you didn’t have a stroke. The bad news is you have a brain tumor the size of a golf ball,'” she recalled.

After her surgery, Kaufman sought a meaningful way to thank Dr. Timothy Cloughesy, director of the UCLA Neuro-Oncology Program. She wanted to create a support system for other brain cancer survivors, stripped of their professional skills, deprived of basic mental functions and plunged into an uncertain new lifestyle marked by fear and self-doubt.

Kaufman and Cloughesy founded Art of the Brain based on Cloughesy’s observation that the creative process had helped many of his patients find release and hope on the often-steep hike to recovery.

“We want to give people back a sense of purpose in life,” said Kaufman, who dealt with her own feelings of loss after having to abandon a successful career as an entrepreneur and business owner.

A Pasadena native, Kaufman got her degree in home economics from CSUN, and went on to work for the Southern California Gas Company giving home cooking demonstrations. She tested recipes for the newly founded Bon Appétit magazine in the early 1970s, and in 1977 — after a “wild vision” — established a mail-order confection company Grand Chocolate Pizza in her own kitchen.

After she and her husband adopted and raised two daughters — Jennifer and Suzy — Kaufman gave a series of cooking classes she called “Building Bridges by Breaking Bread,” based on the notion that sharing food fosters friendships.

Perhaps most devastating to Kaufman, when her brain cancer returned in 2003, was being deprived of her ability to cook.

Kaufman couldn’t speak or walk after her second surgery. She lost her senses of taste and smell for two years. She lost her ability to comprehend numbers permanently.

“I wasn’t able to cook because I couldn’t measure,” she said. “But then I said, ‘Oh, forget the measuring.’ Now, I just feel the art of it.”

Recently, Kaufman began giving cooking classes again, and can often be found in her stainless steel kitchen baking mandelbrot. She calls the jagged scar on her scalp, usually hidden beneath a heap of honey-blonde hair, “my badge of courage.”

Having cancer has emboldened Kaufman in other ways, too — after her first surgery in 1999, she traveled to Israel for the first time.

“I wanted to learn more about my roots,” said the 30-year AJC member, who is active on both the Los Angeles chapter board and the national Board of Governors. “When I think about hope, which can be a little shaky, I go to the Torah to learn lessons about motherhood, belief, family struggles, life and death.”

Kaufman’s tumor is inoperable, and she doesn’t know how much time she has left. But in late August, she got to experience a milestone she didn’t expect: becoming a grandmother.

“I never thought I’d live to see this,” she said of her grandson, Garrett. “I feel like I’m in God’s hands right now. I have been reborn twice, after my first and second surgeries. Now there is a third new life — my grandchild. What more could I ask for?”

To learn more about the cooking classes, call Judi Kaufman at (310) 858-7787. Kaufman’s poetry books can be found online. Art of the Brain’s ninth annual gala takes place Oct. 4, 6:30 p.m. at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall. For more information, call (310) 825-5074 or visit

Cancer gives musician a new song


This time, Charlie Lustman hadn’t come to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for medical tests or to endure another round of chemotherapy. Despite having lost three-quarters of his jawbone, Lustman had come to celebrate, to inspire — and to sing.

Lustman was at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute’s Cancer Survivors Day program to officially launch “Made Me Nuclear,” the album he wrote, arranged, produced and performed. The 12-song compilation chronicles his cancer odyssey, from receiving the diagnosis to experiencing chemotherapy-induced forgetfulness to feeling grateful to those who supported him along the way. The songs range from poignant ballads contemplating mortality to the humorous title song about being injected with a radioactive substance for a diagnostic imaging procedure: “Yes they put me through the scans/Now I’m a subatomic man/I’m a human mobile phone….”

“This is the first ever pop album about cancer,” said Lustman, 43, who decided to create “Made Me Nuclear” a year to the day after receiving his diagnosis. “There is no other album which directly speaks to the cancer experience.”

Lustman completed the album on March 1 — exactly two years after being diagnosed. Next month, he will begin performing a theatrical adaptation of “Made Me Nuclear” at the Santa Monica Playhouse. The one-man show combines songs with dramatizations of Lustman’s experience. He hopes to tour nationally beginning next year.

Lustman’s cancer odyssey began when he noticed a small bump on his gum. His dentist couldn’t identify it, nor could his periodontist, who ordered a biopsy just to be safe.

The bump turned out to be osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Lustman’s specific form of the disease is diagnosed in only about 30 people a year nationwide, according to Dr. Charles Forscher, Lustman’s oncologist and medical director of the Sarcoma Center at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute.

“I’m an extremely lucky man. Statistically, I’m supposed to have won Super Lotto three times before getting this,” Lustman said. “I turned the statistic into something positive and realized that my whole purpose … was to make a difference in the world and help other people affected by this disease or other hardship. I just had to go through a two-year journey through cancer to come out on the other side.”

The journey included surgery at UCLA’s Head and Neck Institute, which entailed the removal of half of his jaw. After the surgery, Lustman and his wife, Ri, who was pregnant with the couple’s second child, had to wait 10 days for tests to reveal whether all the cancer had been eliminated. It hadn’t, so Lustman underwent a second surgery. The couple endured another 10-day waiting period, and this time the results were clear.

Lustman then returned to Cedars-Sinai for a year of supplemental chemotherapy to destroy any remaining cancer cells. He had timed the chemo sessions around his wife’s due date, but the baby arrived five weeks early. So Lustman went from having chemo in the hospital’s basement to the third floor Labor and Delivery to witness the birth of his daughter, Gita.

After he completed chemotherapy, Lustman received a prosthetic mouth piece, which enables him to speak and sing.

A Santa Monica resident, Lustman grew up in Beverly Hills. He graduated from the Berklee College of Music in Boston with a degree in television and film scoring. After writing commercial music in New York, he spent multiyear stints in Denmark performing and writing songs for Scandinavian artists.

In 1998, Lustman purchased and renovated the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax Avenue, which he operated until 2006. He had begun work on “Shaya,” an album about his young son, and was planning to sell the theater in order to focus on his musical career. Cancer expedited the process.

“When you get that kind of diagnosis, you realize you might not have a lot of time on the planet,” he said.

The son of a Holocaust survivor, Lustman drew parallels between his own experience and his father’s.

“When I got my head shaved at the beginning, I felt my father in the camp,” he said. “And when I couldn’t eat anything solid for three months because they had removed most of my upper jaw … I felt what it was like to just have soup… All the pain and all the suffering that my family endured watching me suffer…. It was a very deep suffering that I had never experienced before.”

But here at the July 31st Cancer Survivors Day celebration, the suffering seems like a distant memory.

Dressed in white tennis shoes, white pants and a white shirt emblazoned with his album’s purple nucleus logo, Lustman addressed the audience gathered at Cedars-Sinai — some currently battling cancer and others who have completed treatment. “The [time] here has changed me into something different — something better.”

For more information about Charlie Lustman’s album or performances, visit www.mademenuclear.com

Life lessons from the trenches of cancer survival


On my neck there’s a large, upside-down L-shaped scar. One leg of the L runs from my right shoulder blade upward to just below my right ear; the other leg takes a 90-degree turn, following the jaw line to my chin. The right side of my neck — the inside of the L — looks as if it’s had glands, cartilage and muscle scooped out, leaving a tough, bumpy, uneven cavity. After the surgery, a friend joked that I should put Silly Putty on my neck.

No Silly Putty, no cosmetic surgery. My neck has remained exactly as it was after the operation. It’s a souvenir of squamous cell carcinoma — cancer — which started in the right tonsil and metastasized to the lymph nodes, diagnosed and treated 15 years ago.

The day I was told that I had throat cancer, I was furious. There was no logic to it. I’d never smoked, didn’t drink, hadn’t eaten red meat in more than 25 years. So why me?

There was only one way to deal with my fury. I went out and had a real hot dog with sauerkraut. Much better than those meat-free — and taste-free — soy dogs I’d eaten for so long. With each bite, I looked up at the heavens and shook my fist: There! Take that!

In fact, it’s that semidefiant attitude that helped me get through the punishing treatment: massive amounts of throat radiation followed by a radical neck dissection.

Bernie Siegel — the oncologist whose tapes I’d listen to in the car while going back and forth to the hospital — says that one should be a “good-bad patient”: question everything and demand honesty and clear explanations from health-care professionals.

But, Siegel stresses, once you decide on a treatment, stick with it.

Here’s something that helped me: Although I was optimistic, I didn’t see treatment as an attempt to “beat” cancer. Right from the beginning I thought of cancer as my teacher, an experience I was going to learn from.

What did I learn? For one thing, when you accept help from others — which was hard for me — it not only makes you feel better, it also makes the person helping you feel better. When I started treatment, my older son, Rafi, was just finishing his freshman year at an Ivy League school. He took a year off to help me. He didn’t think of it this way at the time, but when he looks back on it now, he says that he cherishes that year.

After I was diagnosed, I was called and visited by many well-meaning people who suggested alternative treatments: from special diets to fasting to massive doses of vitamins. I listened politely and then plunged full bore into the most up-to-date medical treatment available. Oh, I used some unconventional techniques to complement treatment, but not as a substitute for Western medicine.

While going through radiation treatment, I meditated every day. This involved breath control and visualization until I’d reach a state of self-hypnosis. While in a trance, I’d imagine a kind of Pac-Man figure entering my body and eating my cancer cells.

Did it help? Who knows? It felt good, and that’s what counts. Meditation — or prayer or yoga — certainly can’t hurt, so long as it’s not used in place of standard treatment.

While you’re going through treatment, be easy on yourself. If you want to be alone, then be alone. If you don’t want to talk to anyone, then don’t. Recognize your limits, and don’t let anyone talk you out of them. If, however, you want to interact with family and friends, then by all means do so. And when you’re tired, kick them out. Be strict about this.

The medical facility where I received treatment is one of the most prestigious in the world, but some staff members had a lousy bedside manner. One resident — I thought of him as Dr. Worst-Case-Scenario — would always give me his gloomiest predictions.

I never let it affect me. The way I look at it, the job of any medical facility is to provide the most skilled, cutting-edge treatment, and that’s it. But that’s more than enough. If you need happy talk and hand-holding, that’s what family and friends are for.

How can you find the right medical center for you? Ask others in your area who have gone through similar treatment. Talk to your family physician. Consult magazines that rate hospitals and treatment centers. One source is the annual issue of U.S. News & World Report that lists each medical specialty and ranks facilities throughout the country. You can access last year’s rankings via its Web site or at your local library.

Some years back, Norman Cousins wrote about the healing power of laughter. It worked for me. Forget subtle humor. You want the fall-on-the-floor-bust-a-gut-roaring kind: early Woody Allen movies or Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. There are times, though, when other types of movies work, too. During the worst moment of treatment, my pain was eased by watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers glide across the dance floor.

Make no mistake: Cancer — and its treatment — can be horrendous. I wasn’t able to eat, I had no energy. Every day I was faced with my own mortality. But that helped me put priorities in place: seize the day and all that.

Once I recuperated from treatment, I made my own bucket list. After having lived what I felt had been a self-indulgent life, I was now determined to try something different. So I worked for the Shoah Foundation, which assures that Holocaust survivors’ testimonies become a permanent record.

I joined groups that explore life; reconnected with friends and family; published many articles — and a book — on topics close to my heart; volunteered as a writing coach for inner-city kids. And I’ve been a mentor for others going through cancer treatment, sharing what I learned, trying to make a difficult journey a little easier.

Nowadays when I look at my neck — at the scar, bumps and cavities — I feel nothing but gratitude: It’s a reminder of the treatment that saved my life.

And it’s a reminder that having gotten cancer in the first place also saved my life.

Group Therapy


Excerpt from an Israeli TV show “Ktzarim”: some troubled people meet for group therapy. In Hebrew with English subtitles.

Bad therapy by troubled shrink is revealing TV


“In Treatment,” a new HBO drama series, showcases therapist Paul Weston (played by Gabriel Byrne), treating a different client every day of the week and culminating in his seeking out supervision for himself with his ex-supervisor after an eight-year hiatus.

The drama, debuting Jan. 28, is scheduled daily over nine weeks. It reveals how what unfolds for the therapist, as well as the patient, in each therapy session can cause a therapist to seek help for himself. The series, co-executive produced by Noa Tishby, who brought it to HBO, is based upon an Israeli version with a similar premise that took that country by storm last year.

As a psychotherapist, when I heard of a new TV series featuring therapy sessions, I was intrigued and hopeful. I had fantasies that finally the world would learn the truth about what therapy really is and what therapists really do.

Therapists, like Jews, are a beleaguered group. We and our profession are not well understood — “therapy is for crazy people, and I am not crazy” is what I often hear. One client told me recently, “I know you are going to make me talk about what I do not want.”

Therapists are accused of being shrinks, of always putting all the blame on the “proverbial mother” and, of course, of being “Freudian” and seeing sexual underpinnings for all psychological problems. But, most importantly, what therapists hear most is, “How can you help someone by just talking to them?”

Well at last, I thought, a series that will reveal the power of the “talking cure.”

On the other hand, for therapists, news of a new TV series about therapy is akin to Jews hearing news on CNN about Israel. The first question we Jews ask ourselves is, “Is it good for the Jews?” The first question I began to wonder about as I sat down to watch some of the episodes sent to me by HBO is, “Is this series going to be good for therapists?”

In real therapy, drama comes from a slow, laborious, repetitive process of restructuring the mind. The work consists of making meaning of not-yet-understood reactions and behaviors, and of returning over and over again to feelings and thoughts that are re-experienced in a different light.

New information comes out over time, as trust grows and the patient achieves greater clarity. Resistance is subtle, usually unconscious. This kind of process should not make great television.

Well, having watched the first few weeks of this series, I would have to say “In Treatment” does make great television, and it is good for therapists, but it’s not what you might think.

The series kicks off with Laura, a beautiful young doctor who has just been given an ultimatum by her live-in boyfriend: “Either marry me, or we are through.”

Loathing her boyfriend and the pressure he puts on her, she comments about him to Weston, “Don’t you know that men are the new women? They want marriage, kids, a house.” She certainly does not sound like she wants that.

What she does want is her therapist, and she reveals to Weston that she is in love with him. He looks stricken, fumbles, acts surprised, asks her to elaborate and the drama goes from there.

As a viewer, I was captivated by the dialogue, glued to my seat with my heart racing. But, as a therapist, I realized that what we had just been served was our first taste of what makes this series a riveting and compelling drama — a series of therapy sessions livened up by the fireworks that come out of a whole list of ethical and professional boundary violations.

As therapists, we are bound by an ethical code that compels us to think carefully through such issues as how much dependence do we foster in our clients, when do our own personal issues interfere with what is “best for the client,” how much personal information to share with a client and when do we bend rules for a client?

In every episode, Weston gets caught in his own confusion as to what is professional or ethical conduct, and he allows his patients to question his rules and to push him into making judgment calls that mess up both his personal and professional life.

In the episodes with Laura, Weston gets caught in one of the issues most tantalizing to nonprofessionals, as well as one of the most challenging and delicate issues for therapists: an erotic transference, or the client falling in love with the therapist. In the therapeutic process, transference occurs when a patient assigns to the therapist feelings and attitudes that were originally associated with important figures in the past.

Sometimes transference is positive, and the therapist feels that the patient adores him. Sometimes it is negative, and he becomes the object of scorn, loathing and blame. Sometimes it is erotic, and the patient feels that he or she has found their true love, the one who really loves them, cares for them, wants them and needs them.

The patient cannot tell the difference between erotic transference and falling in love. To the patient, the love feels just as tender, just as special, just as all-consuming. It demands gratification. But, to the therapist, the erotic transference is an indication of the patient’s need to act out the past, rather than remember, examine, understand and find in it a way to find love in a healthy, fulfilling relationship outside of therapy.

Weston is not able help Laura uncover what lies behind her need to fall in love with him, because he has some ambivalent feelings toward her. Unable to face and own up to his real feelings, he unconsciously crosses the boundaries of ethical standards and professional conduct. We see it as he looks tenderly at Laura, as he lovingly drapes a shawl over her shoulders, as he holds her hand, as he steadies her when she gets up and appears to be wobbly.

Based on his behavior and reaction to her professed love, it is hard to believe that he was truly surprised to know that she has been in love with him for so long. It is much more likely that he has been picking up nonverbal messages from her for months in their weekly sessions but has not been willing to admit that he was falling in love with her as well.

TV: Tishby gives Israeli drama American ‘Treatment’


When Noa Tishby moved from Tel Aviv to Los Angeles, it was to make it as an actress. Two years later, she’s now a history-making producer, spearheading the first original Israeli TV drama series to be picked up by an American network.

HBO has already ordered a full season of an American version of the hit Israeli show “In Treatment” — “BeTipul” in Hebrew — a half-hour drama about a therapist and his patients. The U.S. version stars Gabriel Byrne as a calm pillar of stability with his patients, who turns angry and insecure with his own therapist, played by Dianne Wiest.

Though production is already complete on the series, HBO has yet to set an airdate — a spokesperson said the debut should be early 2008.

Actor/producer Mark Wahlberg (HBO’s “Entourage”) serves as executive producer; writer/director Rodrigo Garcia (HBO’s “Carnivale” and “Big Love”) as executive producer and showrunner; and Tishby serves as co-executive producer. Completing the cast are Josh Charles, Embeth Davidtz, Mia Wasikowska, Melissa George and Blair Underwood.

While Israeli pop culture has been making increasing inroads into the United States — this year alone, filmmakers Gal Uchovsky and Eytan Fox have released their latest effort “The Bubble” in the United States, and stateside tours were planned by musicians Ivri Lider, Idan Reichel and author Etgar Keret — the television industry has remained elusive. But in a business wrought with false promises and dead-ends, the speed and ease at which “In Treatment” made it to the United States and Tishby went from actress to groundbreaker can only be described as charmed.

The journey began in November 2005, when Tishby returned to Tel Aviv for her niece’s bat mitzvah and “In Treatment” was the talk of the town.

“It was the most brilliant concept for a TV show I’d heard in my life,” said an exuberant Tishby in a mastered American accent. “It was a nightly soap, with no flashbacks, background stories or guest stars. Everything happens in the therapy room, which creates an intense environment. It’s one of the most voyeuristic things I’d ever seen. Anyone who’s ever been to therapy — that’s the way it really is. I just knew it should be seen in America.”

Tishby, already a famous actress and singer in Israel, snagged the mobile number of the show’s creator, Haggai Levi, through her Israeli agent.

“I’m calling about your show — but it’s not what you think it is,” she blurted, quickly allaying his concern she was pitching herself as an actress. (Levi is also an executive producer on the HBO show.)

By sheer luck, Tishby had just signed with Leverage Management, the same firm that represents Wahlberg and “Entourage,” a biting satire of fame and movie industry. Last summer, Leverage took a subtitled version to HBO, which ordered an initial five episodes, before green-lighting another 40.

“None of this could have happened without [Leverage founder] Stephen Levinson,” Tishby said. “He has such an incredible vision and championed it all the way. It is so amazing that he trusted me. I had just started working with him, so I wasn’t sure how all of this would go down. But it’s been like working with your friends. It’s really about the art and making great television, and that’s why the relationship is so powerful.”

It remains to be seen whether HBO will air the 45 episodes five nights a week for nine weeks, as they appeared on the Israeli digital cable channel, Hot. In that presentation, the therapist would counsel a different patient — one couple, a teenage girl, one woman, and one man — in subsequent episodes for the first four nights of the week. On the fifth, the psychiatrist would see his own therapist, unveiling a very different side of himself.

While keeping mum on how the show has been tweaked for American viewers, Tishby allows that the storylines and emotions are similar.

“People are people, no matter where they are. Their pain, anger, love and dilemmas are the same,” she said.

Ironically, Tishby — who has appeared in the Dreamworks film “The Island” and U.S. TV shows like “CSI: Miami” and “Nip/Tuck” — will not perform on the HBO series. But her newfound producer status and conduit to the Israeli creative community may help Israel’s TV industry become an incubator to larger markets.

“I think this particular program will show the world that Israel can be a provider of art, and not just be about technology and war,” she said.


The Journal covered Tishby’s early Hollywood dreams in this

Film: Opposites attract — and seek therapy — in ‘Ira & Abby’


Jennifer Westfeldt is gracious, even humble, in accepting the compliment that starts this interview. She has been told that a recent essay on cineastes — “Jewish Humor, After Woody” — called her “the most intriguing candidate to forge a career of intelligent, dialogue-driven films about the comic possibilities of modern relationships.”

In other words, she may be the next Woody Allen.

And “Ira and Abby,” the romantic comedy she wrote, executive produced and stars in, may be, well, reminiscent of “Annie Hall.” It’s about a neurotic, heavily analyzed Jewish young Manhattanite (Chris Messina) who falls in love with a spacey, sexy, emotionally vulnerable and thoroughly non-Jewish health club worker (Westfeldt). They marry, which is only the beginning of their relationship difficulties.

The film debuts theatrically Sept. 14, after winning the Audience Award at last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival. Westfeldt previously starred in and wrote with Heather Juergensen the film, “Kissing Jessica Stein.”

On television, the 36-year-old Jewish-raised, Yale-educated actress stars in the sitcom, “Notes From the Underbelly.” On Broadway, she recently was nominated for a Tony Award for her work in a revival of “Wonderful Town.”

But while she is gracious, she isn’t quite buying the Allen comparisons just yet.

“Some of his early romantic comedies are among my favorites,” Westfeldt says of Allen, “along with ‘The Apartment’ by Billy Wilder. So when it came time to write, my natural voice was as a romantic comedy writer.

“But I identify myself as an actor primarily,” she explains. “Both of my films have come out of my attempt to control the type of role I can play and want to explore as an artist. At the same time, I don’t feel tremendously confident as a writer.”

Besides, she points out, “Ira and Abby” isn’t specifically Jewish. Not only is the word “Jewish” never uttered or discussed, but Ira’s last name — Black — is somewhat ambiguous. His cultural identity is more inferred by his milieu and personality traits than by anything overt in the screenplay.

“This is maybe where the Woody Allen question comes in,” Westfeldt says. “The film is set in the New York cultural climate of the classic overthinker. And that is something familiar to me in my life in Manhattan. I certainly have a lot of smarty-pants friends. They are so inside their heads they can be overwhelmed by their own brains and sometimes get paralyzed thinking through every last possibility.”

Westfeldt’s familiarity with that world began with her mother and stepfather, both Jewish and therapists working in Connecticut but with many Manhattan family and professional connections. Her father, a non-Jewish electrical engineer, left when Westfeldt was 3 and lives in Colorado. Growing up, she visited him every Christmas.

In “Ira and Abby,” Westfeldt pays tribute to her mother and stepfather and their world in two ways. Ira’s parents are both therapists. And among the bevy of other therapists and professionals in the film — everyone seems to be in therapy — are ones with names like Dr. Morris Saperstein (Jason Alexander), Dr. Rosenblum, Dr. Goldberg, Dr. Friedman, Dr. Goldman and Dr. Silverburg.

“Obviously, I’m poking fun,” Westfeldt confesses. “But there are a lot of therapists in my world through my mom and stepdad, and I also have friends who see therapists and analysts. I’m sure there are a zillion therapists in New York who aren’t Jewish, but based on the people in my world, that’s a cultural comic riff.”

In the film, Ira’s parents (Judith Light and Robert Klein) are also borderline burnouts — he, a pessimist with a mordant wit, and at one point utters, “We’re old and mean and very tired.” And both have had affairs that have hurt the other.

Westfeldt is quick to emphasize they are nothing like her own mother and stepfather. But there is one dialogue line that is taken from her mother. When Ira is despondent, talking to his mom on the phone, she asks with alarm if he’s thinking of suicide. (He isn’t.)

“That’s one thing that came from my mom and from growing up with a therapist as a parent,” she says. “They’re so used to dealing with people in crisis and suicidal teens. They’ve worked in psychiatric institutes and schools for troubled teens and handled some pretty unbelievable things.

“So when I had the ups and downs of being a teenager, her reaction would be, ‘Are you suicidal? Should I call a hospital?’ It’s an overreaction based on the kind of things they deal with everyday,” she says.

The institution of marriage doesn’t come off especially well in “Ira and Abby.” Though the film’s titular characters try it, they struggle with it. So do the film’s secondary characters.

Westfeldt, it turns out, has severe doubts about marriage’s viability. She and her boyfriend of more than nine years, actor Jon Hamm (AMC’s “Mad Men”), live together in a house with a dog but so far have stayed unmarried.

“I’m a child of divorce,” she says. “There’s a crazy amount of divorce on my father’s side, the non-Jewish side. Almost everyone in my dad’s nuclear family has been married three times, including my dad.

“And the year I wrote this movie, I went to nine weddings, while four of my closest friends got a divorce in their late 20s,” she continues. “It’s always interested me that statistically, we’ve failed as a society with this institution, and yet nothing has evolved in the way we approach our wedding vows and ceremonies.

“If anything, it’s just as sacred and idealized as ever, and people say the same things at their second wedding as at the first with no trace of irony,” Westfeldt notes. “Could we find some more honest, if not as romantic, paradigm for coming together as a couple? I feel like it’s worth some debate.”

Dealing With Schmutz


The other day, a remarkable neighbor named Dennis Brown was telling me about a Chasidic kid who had rebelled against his parents and his religious lifestyle and gotten into drugs. After a couple of rough years, he got professional help, sobered up and started reconnecting with his observant upbringing. He was even enjoying going to shul on Shabbat. But there was a little detail that drove his parents nuts.

The kid wore pleated pants.

For the parents, it wasn’t very “chassidishe” to wear pleated plants. They saw it as a sign of secular fashion. Not a good omen. So when they met with Dennis to discuss the boy’s progress, they brought up the pleated pants.

Dennis went ballistic.

When Dennis goes ballistic, he has to tell you he’s going ballistic, because you can’t tell from his body language. Nothing changes on this man’s face. It’s sculpted in granite.

Still, when he told me the story of the pleated pants, you could see the emotion smoldering beneath the surface. He had spent many long hours working with the kid. He had helped turn his life around. He was counting his blessings. Meanwhile, the parents were sitting there kvetching about pleated pants. How could they be so blind?

This notion of blindness is a common theme in the life of Dennis, a Chasidic Jew and professional counselor in his early 60s who runs the state-certified Ness Counseling Center in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Dennis deals with what he calls “the schmutz of life” on a daily basis — physical and sexual abuse, drugs, marital and family problems, wife beating, pleated pants.

As I sat with him in his office right off La Cienega Boulevard, with the famous gaze of the Lubavitcher Rebbe hovering above us from a picture on the wall, he kept going back to the theme of blindness.

“People see what they want to see”, he said. “The parents [of the Chasidic kid] were blind to the pain that got him into drugs in the first place, and when he started to get out of it, they were blind to his progress. They could only see the pleated pants.”

Although the Ness Center caters to everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike, the majority of their cases are with Orthodox Jews — perhaps, as he says, because the Orthodox prefer to deal with one of their own, especially when highly sensitive subjects are involved.

Dennis is not naive. He understands his insular Orthodox community. There’s always a good reason to sweep the schmutz under the carpet: It’s a desecration of God’s name for a Jew wearing a yarmulke to do something immoral or criminal; it puts an indelible stain on the community; it can ostracize a family and make it hard for their children to find a good mate. He’s heard it all.

And what happens when all hell breaks loose? When a woman has taken one too many blows? Or when a kid is about to overdose?

Well, that’s usually when they call Dennis — when much of the damage has already been done.

That’s why Dennis rails against blindness. He sees a greater shame in hiding the schmutz than in confronting it early and honestly. He tells victims of abuse not to wait until it gets unbearable. He wants to see people before the pain gets too deep.

Strangely, as I listened to Dennis talk about the vile stuff he’s seen in his 30 years of working in the field, I didn’t sense in him any feeling of Jewish or communal shame. For this ultra-Orthodox Jew with a long white beard, when it comes to human behavior, there is no Jew or non-Jew, no Orthodox or non-Orthodox. There are only humans. He doesn’t see a black hat or a yarmulke or a wig. He sees a kid who’s misunderstood. A wife who’s overwhelmed. Parents who don’t get it. A man with a sickness. A woman who needs immediate protection.

He sees pain and sickness, before he sees religion and shame.

His forthrightness hasn’t always endeared him to the Orthodox community. A few years ago, when an Orthodox rabbi was convicted of child abuse and had spent time in jail, a group of Orthodox rabbis and leaders got together to raise funds to help the convicted rabbi leave town. When they contacted Dennis for help, he told them what they didn’t want to hear: They should use the money to get the convicted rabbi professional help, not to help him take his sickness somewhere else.

In other words, he wanted them to open their eyes and see the real problem: a Jewish man with a sickness and potential future victims, rather than a community with a black eye.

The man ended up leaving town.

The notion of sickness as applied to human behavior is not a popular one in Torah-observant circles. Abusive and aberrant behavior is usually seen as a failure of character. If you follow the Torah, you should never have to use drugs or abuse anyone. When someone cracks — when human reality trumps Torah observance — the instinct is not to deal with the problem, but to circle the wagons and defend the honor of the community.

Dennis is encouraged that emerging groups like Aleinu and Aish Tamid, with the support of many Orthodox rabbis, are trying to deal honestly with the “dark side of life,” which no part of the Jewish world is immune to, even the Torah observant.

When I ask him if it’s better for the image of the Orthodox community, in the long run, to deal honestly and openly with their troubled elements, I see a hint of impatience in his granite face. Clearly, this man has little time to ponder notions like “long term” and “image.”

There’s a woman on the phone waiting to speak to him and, apparently, she’s quite agitated.

Let’s hope she’s not calling about pleated pants.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Men: the ill topic of choice


It happens to the smartest and most beautiful of women. Enter Ms. X. We run into each other four years after we were friends in college and decide to meet for dinner.

Ms. X is skinnier now, wears a lot more makeup and is no longer all about T-shirts and jeans. She is high-style and her breasts are way bigger than I remember.

I order a burger, and she orders a salad. I order a drink, and she abstains due to a recent discovery of what alcohol does to her.

Ms. X and I get to talking. Her eyes are heavy; they look a little pained, a little tired. She is all clinical in her language, minimal in what she has to say and often refers to her many therapist friends who allow her to speak and speak and speak without an end in sight.

She also pulls the age-old trick of a depressive. The “you know, people like you and me” trick, where she refers to her neurosis and then to you, bringing you down into her deep, dark cave with her.

What happened to Ms. X? Life. What does she claim happened? Men.

Men are the scapegoat for lost and neurotic twentysomethings. Men and women and the dating scene really are the ill topic of choice for so many of my otherwise smart friends.

This is not to say that I haven’t been plagued by obsession as aversion from existential crises. I’ve been Ms. X beforethe eyes, the eating habits, the aversion to all toxins.

I was there, too, terrified about my futureterrified, really, about my pastand all I could do was obsess interminably about the boy I loved. I may even be there again one day.

This “love” can be another word for insanity, compartmentalization of self and the neurotic anxiety of any generation. Further, it gives us someone else to blamefor everything.

This is what happens: Issues of God, of death, of life, of marriage and career are so overwhelming that we 20-something genius people fall in love with the worst person possible or grow tirelessly obsessed with the dating scene. We fall in love or cry over not falling in love and then tumble so deep into that lair of emotion, revolving completely around our desirability, that we are blind to the things we actually once cared about.

And we grow, suddenly, very, very boring as all we are capable of speaking about is the boyfriend/girlfriend, the ex-boyfriend/ex-girlfriend or the potential boyfriend/girlfriend who just won’t rear his or her God-given head. Rather than attempt to learn how to live with and to love ourselves, rather than discuss the taboo topics of the horrors your 20s throw at you, we hunt for someone else to be our mirror, to do the dirty work of self-discovery for us.

Ms. X, when she got to talking, had found a passion. It wasn’t music or art. It wasn’t ideas or fashion. No. This woman’s passion was the man who did not love her.

I sound mean. I sound harsh. But this syndrome once swallowed me, and now that I am panting on shore, thanking God I survived, it is swallowing my woman friends left and right. Is it a life-cycle imperative to lose yourself in love before finding yourself?

I want to yell to all my crying female friends who are so sure that “a man will fix it all.” “It” being a deep well of loneliness, lack of self- and world-knowledge and confusion over what to do with this world/self/country. “It” being “I don’t know what to do with my life,” or “I don’t know what to do about my depression,” or maybe, “I don’t know what to do about George Bush.”

I don’t know either. All I do know is that a man won’t make it all better. Not without a lota whole lotof personal work on my end.

We need a new language, one of the 21st century that will allow people in their 20s to articulate their anxiety not as neurosis, particularly about the conundrum of finding love in the eyes of another, but as intellectualism. We need the permission in our friendship relationships to speak of what is truly wrongor right, for that matterrather than using dating as life-defining conversation filler.

Someone needs to start throwing you-just-made-it-through-an-enormous-life-crisis parties or he’s-out-of-your-hair-and-you-can-be-with-yourself-again parties, instead of just engagement parties. Sobriety parties,
never-had-an-addiction-to-begin-with parties, I-finally-found-a-passion-in-life parties, I-survived-a-year-on-my-own parties.

Congratulations need to be doled out where they are truly due.

Film: Talmudic tradition translates into ‘Treatment’


In another life, Oren Rudavsky might have been a psychoanalyst. “I often think of it as my alternate career, he said.

In this life, Rudavsky has forged a successful career as a New York City-based filmmaker known for award-winning documentaries about Jewish life, including the 2004 “Hiding and Seeking,” which explored faith and tolerance through the lens of an Orthodox Jewish family’s emotionally charged trip to Poland. In his latest film, “The Treatment,” he takes on a subject that has long been a source of fascination.

“I’ve often said that therapy and psychoanalysis are Jewish arts and not just because there happens to be a disproportionate number of Jewish therapists,” said Rudavksy, speaking by phone from New York. “Jews like to torture themselves, and in the way of the Talmudic tradition, they like to analyze. In some people’s worlds, rabbis have been replaced by psychoanalysts.”

Having been a patient of both psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, Rudavsky put his personal experiences to good cinematic use. Adapted by screenwriter Daniel Housman from Daniel Menaker’s 1998 novel, “The Treatment” tells the story of idealistic and neurotic high school teacher Jake Singer (Chris Eigeman), who has a tormented relationship with his Freudian analyst Dr. Ernesto Morales (Ian Holm) and an angst-ridden love affair with a beautiful and wealthy widow Allegra Marshall (Famke Janssen). Though a romantic comedy, the film can also be viewed as a meditation on the patient-therapist relationship.

“I’ve tried to portray how psychoanalysis really works,” Rudavsky said. “The way you sit in the waiting room, how you’re late or not late, greeted or not greeted. How the therapist sits down and waits for you to say something. All this is part of the essence of the film.”

So is the larger-than-life character of Dr. Morales.

“You don’t know if he’s an angel or a devil,” said screenwriter Housman. “He embodies our fascination and our sometimes mixed feelings about psychoanalysis and therapy in general.”

“The Treatment” also marks Rudavksy’s narrative film debut, and the director concedes that the experience was “harder” than making a documentary. “The details have to be right in a fiction film in ways that don’t matter in documentaries,” he said. “But I take tremendous satisfaction from making both kinds of films.”

The son of a rabbi, Rudavsky grew up in Newton, Mass. As a teenager, “when life got complicated,” he became entranced with foreign films by directors like Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. “I loved those films that dealt with big issues, where people were baring their souls,” he said.

Rudavsky believes that all of his films are ultimately vehicles “to connect to something personal and intimate. I want to tell stories that matter to other people’s lives,” he adds. “And the kind of stories where you learn more about the world.”

“The Treatment” opens today in Los Angeles.

L.A. Gafni Event Canceled


Revelations about sexual misconduct have led to the cancellation of an upcoming local event featuring prominent Rabbi Mordechai Gafni.

Gafni had been scheduled for a public talk at Stephen S. Wise Temple on June 9. Over the past two years, since being appointed to the Wisdom Chair in September 2004, Gafni has returned every few months to the Bel Air shul, where he’s had a loyal following.

Last week, four women in Israel — students and staff members at Tel Aviv’s Bayit Chadash, the Jewish renewal center that Gafni co-founded — filed complaints of sexual misconduct with Israeli police. In a public letter, Gafni, 46, admitted to being “sick” and promised to seek therapy. Leaders of Bayit Chadash immediately dismissed him.

Gafni was appointed to the Wisdom Chair at Stephen S. Wise two years ago — despite anecdotal allegations that he had a history of sexual misconduct. The temple’s senior rabbi this week issued a short statement denouncing Gafni.

“It is with a deep sense of shock and disappointment that I have learned of the sexual misconduct that has led to Rabbi Mordechai Gafni’s dismissal from Bayit Chadash,” senior Rabbi Eli Herscher said in a written statement responding to an inquiry from The Journal. “His actions, including vast deception, are indefensible.”

Herscher declined further comment, but the temple canceled Gafni’s June participation in a public conversation with commentator Dennis Prager.

Before being appointed to the Wisdom Chair, Gafni had been a regular scholar-in-residence at the 3,000-family Reform synagogue since 2002. His lectures and sermons attracted thousands.

Congregant Alan Finkelstein said he remembers Gafni’s 2003 Rosh Hashanah sermon as, “my finest moment in shul. He involved the crowd, He helped you connect with the person next to you. It was one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard.”

Finkelstein said he was moved to go back to hear Gafni on several other occasions.

But Gafni’s popularity was undermined by persistent rumors that he had, in the past, manipulated women into sexual relationships. In October 2004, The Jewish Journal reprinted a Jewish Week article exploring allegations that Gafni had inappropriate sexual contact with students when he was 19.

Attendance reportedly decreased at Gafni’s events following the publication of the article.

At the time, Herscher said he had discussed the rumors with Gafni and, after investigating them on his own, found them baseless. Herscher was in good company defending Gafni, as some of the country’s top Jewish thinkers, of all denominations, called Gafni a remarkable teacher who was the target of a malevolent campaign. Herscher also decried Jewish newspapers for printing lashon harah (malicious gossip).

“Rabbi Gafni coming to teach here makes a deeply important Jewish statement – that if rumors and allegations and innuendo are allowed to destroy someone who only wants to teach, Jewishly, that is tragic,” Herscher said in October 2004.

This week, Hersher’s sympathies lay elsewhere.

“I pray that all who have been misled and hurt by him — first and foremost the women he has harmed — will soon recover,” Herscher wrote.

 

Rabbi’s Focus on Family a Little Fuzzy


The first episode of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s “Shalom in the House,” which aired April 10 on the TLC network, was a fast-paced account of five days the rabbi spent with a family in Philadelphia. Beatrice Romero, a single mother raising three teenage daughters and a 7-year-old son, sent the rabbi a tape asking for his help in bringing some peace to her home.

We see segments of the family’s prior life, with the children beating each other up and the mother absent from the picture or ineffective in making them stop. We are told that Luis, the father, had an 18-month affair, and the couple’s 17-year marriage ended about two years ago. Luis admitted to the affair when confronted by his 16-year-old daughter.

To complicate matters, one of the other daughters has begun a secret sexual relationship with her boyfriend, despite being forbidden by her mother to date until she is 18.

Boteach enters the picture on a mission, although we are not sure from the outset what it is. He introduces himself as having counseled thousands of families and being the author of a best-selling book on family life. As he drives to Philadelphia, he tells us that his own parents divorced when he was 8. “I was devastated, and at that early age, vowed I will make a difference.”

He might have chosen to become a family therapist or a child-focused therapist. Instead, he is a rabbi with a deep desire to fix problems. He reminds us that he practices what he preaches, since he has eight children of his own.

If he were a therapist, he would begin his work with this family by taking a thorough account of their history. He would want to know about the mother’s own experiences as a child, her parenting style, the kind of discipline she uses, how effective it is, what kind of relationship she has with each of the children, what is special and unique about each child and what kind of marriage she had prior to her divorce, as well as the current custody arrangements and the current relationships between the children and their father.

Boteach does not ask these questions. He makes his diagnosis immediately. He decides that the main reason the children are assaulting each other is because of their parents’ divorce.

“Without dad, Luis, the Romero family is losing its way,” he says. His solution is equally straightforward: “Divorce is a tragedy, and if we can save them from going through this torture, we must,” he tells the parents.

His mission is now clear: Boteach is going to get the parents back together and help them work as a team to parent their children. No, not as in the traditional help a therapist might offer divorced parents, such as assistance in understanding that they need to find a way to communicate with each other, because their children still need them to be effective parents. Instead, he focuses on actually getting the two back together as husband and wife, so that they can both be there to parent their children.

How does Boteach try to achieve his goal?

He does not rely on the therapeutic process, in which the person in therapy comes to understand his or her own feelings, obstacles and baggage, thereby finding renewed energy and motivation to change behavior. Boteach’s approach consists of using persuasion, gentle pressure, guilt, rabbinic wisdom and his ability to coach a basketball game.

Rabbinic wisdom is dispensed freely. When Beatrice expresses her frustration at not knowing how to stop the children from arguing and fighting, Boteach tells her that her daughters, who should be giving off softness and nurturing energy, are instead behaving like boys in the locker room — something he claims they learned from her, because she has been distant and withdrawn from Luis.

When Luis expresses disappointment that his daughter is having sex with her boyfriend, Boteach comes down hard on him: “A girl at 16 needs a man to tell her she is special. Your daughter needs a father now, not a boyfriend. You need to be a father to her and a husband and protect your daughter. You need to tell her she is special.”

Apparently, Luis also needs to know that it’s not Beatrice’s job to lay down the law in the home.

“Luis,” he says, “it is your job to lay down the law. Don’t be weak. Do the right thing.”

Later, Boteach addresses the audience, telling us that most men who have affairs are not thinking.

“If Luis can be a man, a dedicated, monogamous, loving husband, maybe I can bring this family back together.” he says.

To bring everyone together, Boteach says he needs to do something really different. He does this by bringing the family onto a basketball court, and as a “good coach” — as he refers to himself — he makes the mother and father play on one team and the children on the other. His goal, he says in an aside to viewers, is to make the parents work together in hopes that they will stop bickering and begin enjoying each other’s company.

He tries the same tactic again later, upping the ante. The family is going to engage in another activity — cleaning out the basement. This time, the rabbi informs us, “divorce is only a necessity if you can’t fix the situation.”

Before the family meets, he has a t?te-?-t?te with Beatrice. In the conversation, he uses guilt to make her give him another chance, telling her Luis still loves her. He has a similar conversation with Luis, in which he tells him, “The secret to life is that you can do whatever you want. If you want her back, and are sincere, you can make it happen.”

Then, as the family cleans out the basement, with Luis intentionally made the leader of the project, “even though he does not live there,” Boteach pipes in suggestions through a remote walkie-talkie, suggesting to Luis to get a drink for his wife and telling Beatrice to thank him for it. The family activity is topped off with Boteach telling everyone how much they need to respect Luis for doing something so selfless.

Based on the shots of the family taken two months after the episode, everyone seems to be doing better.

So, what exactly happened?

I am not sure, but it seems that the rabbi’s conservative, traditional values were well received and echoed by the values of the family. We are not told what the family’s religious affiliation is, but the girls appeared to be dressed in parochial school uniforms. Capitalizing on their religious values, Boteach was able to sermonize to them about right and wrong, to hold up traditional roles for men and women as an ideal and to make the family members believe that they had made a mistake that could be corrected.

In the second episode, airing Monday, April 17, Boteach relies on the same rabbinical wisdom, pop psychology and common sense to fix the problem of the Maxwell family, who requested help disciplining their 3-year-old only son, Zackary. We see Zack running down the street toward the curb, throwing temper tantrums. We see the child refusing to listen to his mother, brush his teeth or sleep in his own bed.

The parents, Greg and LynnSue have not slept alone together for most of the year, and Greg has a hobby of videotaping Zack’s every move and then posting the clips on a Web page, which gets hundreds of hits a day.

Boteach summarizes Zack’s problems as “a simple problem of discipline. Zack simply has too much control, and the parents need to sleep together in the same bed, without Zack there.”

So far, Boteach’s thoughts, though simplistic, and formed without much more information than what viewers have been given, seem to be on the right track.

To remedy the situation, he tells the parents that it is their job to set the rules, that 3-year-olds do not understand the concept of boundaries in an intelligent way and that children need their parents to set down the law. Having witnessed the parents struggling with Zack during bedtime, we can accept the notion that Zack feels he is the boss and needs some clear guidelines, with consistency and follow-through, all of which seems to be missing at the Maxwell home.

What becomes excruciatingly painful to watch are the couple’s attempt to keep Zack sleeping in his bed, having been told that it will only take two or three attempts over a couple of nights before Zack will comply.

I became furious watching Greg and LynnSue change Zack’s routines cold turkey, leaving him feeling helpless, lost and angry.

Boteach focuses only on fixing the problem, without regard to the complicated issues that come up for parents in setting limits, withstanding their children’s cries and being firm but gentle. He ignores the important process of helping parents set realistic expectations. When their new routine fails, he is taken aback by their displeasure with him.

The last telling and painful segment revolves around a video Greg shot of Zack having a temper tantrum. Zack was throwing around his trains and was given a warning to stop or lose the privilege of playing with them. Zack continues to throw the trains, and the parents gather up the whole set and put it away.

Greg takes out the camera to record Zack’s reaction. Zack becomes enraged, partly about losing his trains but also about being filmed, and he tells his father to stop. Greg ignores him.

When Boteach discusses this clip, he focuses on the problem of letting Zack express this much rage, which he believes needs to be “reigned in.” As a good Chasidic rabbi, he is following the dictum of “having anger is likened to serving idols.” By telling the parents that they simply need to find a way to control the temper tantrum, he not only loses their attention, but he also offers nothing to help the next time.

The rabbi shrugs off their disconnect, blaming the father for being insecure, fearful of being ordinary and resistant to his message. His parting words to the father are to forget about the camera and Web site, to focus on the family and the precious moments one has with them and not go after big bucks and fame. The father’s look has a mixture of frustration and thoughtfulness. Boteach is happy.

I was not.

As a religious Jew, Boteach’s sermons have a somewhat familiar, comfortable tinge. But, as a therapist, his mission and his methods grate on my professional ethics, my psyche and my nerves.

It is almost excruciatingly painful to see him in the first episode impose his own agenda on a family and through guilt, coerce them into making promises to him; telling them that he has the cure for all their ills, and finally committing one of the cardinal sins of working with children of divorce: asking the children in a suggestive way if they would like to have their parents back together.

It is equally enraging in the second episode to see Boteach “play therapist,” assuring the family he knows what he is doing and then watching them feel inadequate, let down and humiliated at their failure.

But, the most insightful piece for me, as a therapist, was to see how Boteach’s deep-seated painful feelings surrounding his own parents’ divorce remain with him — unprocessed and unconscious — and his deep-seated wish to have had someone walk into his home and do what every child of divorce dreams of: bring the parents back together, continue to live on in the present and be the driving force for one’s life work.

I also now can sleep better, knowing that therapists really do offer people something very different than clergy, co-workers, relatives, friends and colleagues.

Irine Schweitzer, a licensed clinical social worker, has a private practice in Sherman Oaks.

Hineni


I expected to be dealing with an empty nest when my daughter started college. I projected my availability to friends who had yielded my attention during my childrearing years. I dragged writing projects onto my computer’s desktop to await the plane ride from NYU to the rest of my life. Instead, the levees broke in my hometown. I spent the next three months as a relief worker with the Red Cross and the New Orleans Jewish agencies in service to those displaced and/or traumatized by Katrina.

I expected to be dealing with the aftermath of Katrina when I returned to Los Angeles. I imagined myself as an advocate for the restoration of New Orleans, recounting the environmental deterioration, government malfunction, and dire future the hurricane signaled. Instead I was diagnosed with cancer. I now spend Mondays in a lounge chair, with an IV flooding my body with toxic, life-giving chemicals and much of the rest of the time in my bedroom reacting to their impact.

Despite the broken lives and landscapes and the mountains of debris, my time in the South brought personal healing. I am a writer and a psychotherapist. I spent the last 30 years mapping the territory of grief and redemption, a journey begun with wounds obtained in New Orleans. It felt that my personal and professional curricula had been a training program anticipating just this disaster. Indeed, I found that each day, despite tears and fatigue, my experience graced me with the ability to say, ” Hineni” (I am here) to the tasks to which I was called.

In Mississippi, I counseled shelter residents, dished out food, filled out relief forms and orchestrated art therapy for child evacuees. In New Orleans, I led Rosh Hashanah services for a congregation ranging from the barely affiliated to members of Chabad. In Baton Rouge, I led Shabbat services and taught religious school and adult education for those impacted by the disaster. I assisted Jewish Family Service with clinical and administrative work, hosted luncheons for displaced elders and helped with grant-writing and other projects.

Shortly after Katrina, I awaited what was called “deployment” to the place where I would do my Red Cross duty. I chuckled because in the last years “deployment” has had, for this rabbinic student, a spiritual meaning. Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, says that we are deployed at birth, sent forth like arrows, to walk in God’s ways and make the world holy. There seemed a connection between my deployments, both in the Red Cross and the mystical sense. In both cases, personal will was superseded by a greater will. I wanted to go to Gulfport, but I needed to await my assignment, determined by the greater need and not my own desire. This is also the spiritual task: to quash the desires that keep us from “walking in God’s ways,” aligning ourselves with God’s will. In both cases, spiritually and professionally, I am challenged to choose paths not determined by the needs of my ego, but by the needs of the place — hamakom. In this case, the place was the Gulf South, but HaMakom is also a name of God. In connecting deployments and HaMakoms, I made my commitment to hineni.

Was I prepared to say hineni, the word that Abraham and Moses said when they answered God’s call? Hineni’s literal meaning is an unequivocal acceptance of what is asked. It also implies a faith that I came to understand more deeply in the Red Cross shelters in Mississippi, where I met people who had waited out the storm and its 30-foot waves on their rooftops and in trees. Their homes reduced to straw, they were living in a room with a 150 others. But there were two phrases I heard from person after person: “This is God’s will” and “I am blessed.” Liberal Jews don’t speak this way. I had to translate.

At first I thought that by saying, “This is God’s will,” they were saying “God did this to me,” implying a God that doles out punishment and reward with a direct hand. This doesn’t work for me. I have seen too many bad things happen to good people.

After tragedy, people want desperately to make sense of what happened. It can be unbearable to live with the discomfort that the workings of the universe are a mystery. But we learn to make peace with the fact that we will never have answers for life’s biggest questions and we accustom ourselves to an ambiguous universe, embracing what lies ahead, without being tormented by the past.

“It’s God’s will,” doesn’t mean “God singled me out and did this to me.” It means, “What will I do with what I have?” Saying “It’s God’s will,” we accept and move on. To say “I am blessed” in the midst of catastrophe implies a commitment to go forward without the torture of second-guessing and self-blame. We choose hope instead of despair. We say ” hineni.”

And now, as I sit, not on the bimahs of congregations to whom I had hoped to bring messages of Katrina, but on the chemo-couch, I am again challenged to say ” hineni.” If I could say it in Mississippi, I have to say it here.

Anne Brener, author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourners’ Path through Grief to Healing” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2002), is an L.A. psychotherapist and spiritual director. She is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and on the faculty of The Academy for Jewish Religion.

 

Botox Treatments Aid Stroke Survivors


Until recently, significant recovery from the physical and mental losses inflicted by a stroke was thought to be limited to a matter of months following injury to the brain, using conventional physical and occupational therapy. Now patients supplementing this with novel treatments, including an innovative use of Botox and a variation on old-fashioned plaster casts, are demonstrating that aggressive long-term therapy can increase the likelihood of complete recovery after a stroke.

One such patient is art curator Meg Perlman, who not too long ago spontaneously applauded at a jazz concert, clapping her hands together for the first time in 19 months. This was another small triumph in her major recovery from a stroke that had initially paralyzed her left side.

Caused by a clot or a ruptured blood vessel in the brain, stroke is the leading cause of severe disability today. In the United States alone there are now some 5.4 million stroke survivors, with nearly one in three suffering from permanent disabilities.

“When I went to medical school, the prevailing view was that you lose nerve cells and that’s it, you’re not going to get better. We know now that’s not true. The brain is plastic. It can remodel itself,” said Dr. Steven Flanagan, associate professor of rehabilitation medicine at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and the neurophysiatrist treating Perlman.

One recent study showed that therapy could benefit patients who had suffered a stroke more than a decade earlier.

“It’s not something magical that happens in the brain and everyone will recover,” he warns, “but the brain has a greater capacity to recoup from injury than we thought in the past.”

Dr. Steven R. Levine, professor of neurology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, admits that medicine “still doesn’t know the underlying mechanisms in different phases of stroke recovery.”

Such understanding would make it possible to individualize treatments for most effective results. On the horizon, experiments in mice and some early human trials show promise for enhancing stroke rehab with stem cells, growth hormone, amphetamines, even Viagra.

“Not everyone will improve,” Levine said, “but you never say never and you never take away hope from people.”

Anatomy of a Recovery

Stricken at the young age of 53, physically fit and intellectually active, Perlman has been a prime candidate for total recovery. She’s come a long way since her stroke in August 2003 while vacationing in the south of France. When she awoke on what should have been another day in paradise, she was semiparalyzed and confused. Her husband, author Doug Garr, immediately understood what had happened.

“Her left side was immobile. The left side of her face was frozen,” he recalled. “I recognized it as a stroke because I had seen my father have a stroke two weeks before he died.”

Perlman spent two weeks in intensive care at one of France’s leading teaching hospitals, then was transferred to Mount Sinai’s brain injury rehabilitation unit for another six weeks. There, days filled with physical and occupational therapy helped her reprogram her nervous system to regain control over posture and movement on her left side, and to relearn vital everyday tasks.

Better known for cosmetic enhancement, Botox injections immobilize key muscles in stricken arms or legs, allowing physical therapy and exercise to extend range of motion and flexibility. Effects wear off, so the Botox is reinjected every three months for a year or more. In Perlman’s case, it was the second dose that allowed her left hand to flex out enough to applaud at a concert, after successful attempts during therapy sessions at home.

With research in rehabilitative medicine generally underfunded, doctors don’t have data from large clinical trials to properly assess new treatments. Often patients proceed by trial-and-error, sampling therapies from the exotic to the high-tech; Perlman has had mixed results with acupuncture and with an electrical muscle stimulation device called a NeuroMove.

Then again, low-tech plaster of Paris has proven extremely effective. Called “serial casting,” a monthslong treatment involves stretching affected muscles with a series of plaster casts on an arm or leg for weeks at a time, followed by physical therapy to secure gains in flexibility. Perlman’s latest leg cast had just come off when she was able to stretch the toes on her left foot out and wear a shoe.

By all her therapists’ accounts, Perlman has shown exceptional resolve in fighting the fatigue, discomfort and frustration that are part of stroke recovery.

She has also had to battle the severe depression that a stroke leaves in its wake.

Flanagan observes that depression should be treated early and aggressively in stroke patients.

“We know that happy patients do better in rehab than sad patients,” he says. “We have to help them get the most out of their time in therapy.”

Fuller recovery from stroke takes a loyal, experienced team of therapists. With them, Perlman still keeps up a rigorous schedule of five physical therapy and two occupational therapy sessions a week at home.

“I expect to be 100 percent back,” she said. “I won’t stop until I am.”

She’s thankful for her “wonderful personal team,” including the friends and clients who rallied to her side after she was stricken.

Also appreciated: an occasional boost from strangers.

“I was walking to a restaurant with my cane. A short, Russian-looking man came up to me and said: ‘Did you have a stroke?’ I said ‘yes.’ He jumped up in the air and said: ‘So did I and look at me!'”

Steve Ditlea writes for the New York Daily News.

Home Pampering Easy as 1, 2, Ahhhhh


No one deserves a spa experience more than you do. Just picture it — warm tubs scented with essential oils, invigorating body scrubs, refreshing botanical blend face masks smoothed on in soothing circular massaging motions and misty showers with luscious gels.

Sound divine? You bet. Millions of people are embracing the spa experience — taking what was formerly an exclusive pleasure of the rich and famous and turning it into a health and wellness phenomenon.

Millions of spa-goers must be on to something. But why limit all that good stuff to the precious times you can book at a spa? Why not have a spa experience whenever you choose?

It’s easier than you think to have sensual and sensational spa experiences in your own home, on your own time.

Create an Inviting Environment for the Senses

“The first step is to create an environment for your spa experience,” said Susan Kirsch, owner of Kirsch Cosmetic Clinic and Spa in Toronto, Canada. “Remember to incorporate all of your senses.”

Since water is an important part of most treatments, the bathroom is a good place to create your home spa, Kirsch said. All it takes is a little imagination.

A really simple way to transform any regular bathroom, she said, is to soften the lights.

“Have a dimmer installed on the light switch,” Kirsch said. “Just dim the lights and light some candles to turn an everyday bathroom into something that looks a bit more special.”

If a warm, bubbling bath is your idea of heaven, consider having a hot tub installed in your backyard, on your deck or inside your house. Currently, more than 5 million households now own a hot tub and by the end of this year, roughly 400,000 Americans are expected to purchase a hot tub for their homes, according to a recent study by the National Spa and Pool Institute in Alexandria, Va.

“Some people think a hot tub is a luxury item. I think it’s a necessity,” Andrea Martone said. “And my husband and daughters feel the same way. It’s much better to relax and de-stress in a hot tub after dinner than to sit in front of the television set. Sometimes we use it together. We light candles and chat. And sometimes I use it by myself — to meditate or just go to another place in my mind.”

Prices on hot tubs, according to the National Spa and Pool Institute, range from between $2,500 to more than $10,000 (plus installation costs). The average price is about $5,500.

Just as certain sounds can unsettle us, other sounds can help us achieve a sense of calm. Kirsch likes to use music that’s soothing and relaxing at her spa and during her at-home spa treatments — “something that’s appropriate for a healing environment,” she said.

She says she often plays the music of singer Enya.

“Choose whatever works for you,” she said.

For Martone, it’s the splashing sounds of water.

“I’ve got little waterfall fountains all over my house,” Martone said. “They bring a sense of calm to whatever room they’re in. My daughter even has one in her room for doing homework.”

Martone is a New York City publicist and co-founder of Spa-Daze, a company that provides professional spa treatments and services for groups of four or more in the setting of your choice — including your home.

Martone also suggests burning essential oils to set a relaxing tone for an at-home spa experience. She recommends using a 50/50 mix of your favorite essential oils and water for a scent that’s noticeable but not overpowering.

“Different scents can help create different moods,” she said. “For example, lavender is very calming to the senses and nice to burn at night before going to sleep. And oils like eucalyptus and peppermint are soothing — especially if you’re ill — and can help you breathe easier.”

Choose Your Products

If you are a spa devotee, you may already be one step closer to recreating your spa experience at home. Many spas sell the products they use in their treatments — facial masks, exfoliates, bath and shower gels, lotions and more. At Kirsch Cosmetic Clinic and Spa, staff members will custom mix body scrubs and other beauty potions for guests. So if you’ve had a particularly divine professional treatment, buy the product to use at home. You can conjure up your fond memory of that experience as relaxation therapy.

When shopping for new products for your home spa, buy in small quantities — especially if you have sensitive skin, said Carrie Pierce of Ecco Bella Botanicals of Wayne, N.J. Ecco Bella, which means “behold beauty” in Italian, is a line of natural, gentle-to-the-skin cosmetics and skin care products that use medicinal-grade essential oils.

“It’s important to have the luxury of trying a new product or scent without making a huge and perhaps costly commitment,” she said.

For that reason, Ecco Bella offers smaller, lower-priced “try me” sizes of their scented bath and shower gels, lotions, parfums and fizz therapy bath marbles.

It’s important to find scents formulated to enhance the experience you’re trying to create in your home spa, Pierce said.

Then revel in them. For example, lemon verbena has a reputation as a mood-lifting, feel-good scent. And vanilla reputedly has an aphrodisiac-like effect on men — “second only to the scent of pumpkin pie,” Pierce said.

“Layering your selected scent by using a gel, lotion — maybe spraying a little parfum on your pillow — is a luxurious way to take care of yourself and to take your spa experience with you,” she said.

Formulate a Plan

Don’t try to do too much all at once, Kirsch advised.

“Remember, your primary goal is to feel relaxed and pampered,” she said.

For a simple and luxurious home spa experience Kirsch recommends the following head-to-toe regime.

You can begin one of two ways — either by covering your head with a towel and lightly steaming your face over a basin filled with boiling water or by gently swabbing your face with a warm, damp towel.

“Your choice,” Kirsch said. “If you want to go the simple route, the warm, damp towel works just fine.”

The next step is to exfoliate — or slough off — dead skin cells.

“The skin has a natural turnover of cells. When you exfoliate, you just help that natural process along,” Kirsch said.

When choosing a product, remember exfoliates generally come in two forms — gel and grain.

“The gel form is less invasive and may be good to start out with,” Kirsch said.

Apply in circular massaging motions with your fingertips. Leave the exfoliate on until it feels tacky and almost dry. Then slough it off with the flat part of your fingers. Rinse with water.

Next, apply a mask in the same circular massaging motions.

“It’s important to choose one that’s formulated for your skin type,” Kirsch said. For example, if your skin is dry, you’ll want to use a hydrating mask.

While the mask does it’s magic, draw a warm bath.

“Put a drop or two of essential oils in the water,” Kirsch said. “Soak for a while in the bath, then exfoliate with a body scrub. Try using a loofah mitt and massage in circular motions.”

Then rinse and be careful getting out of the tub since it will be slippery. Apply a moisturizing body lotion.

It’s important to wait 48 hours after shaving or waxing before using a body scrub and don’t use it on any areas that have cuts or nicks.

Remove your mask by rinsing with lukewarm water. Apply a moisturizer using circular massaging motions — and don’t forget your neck.

Use pumice to smooth away hard or rough spots and calluses on your toes, heels and the bottoms of your feet. Apply a moisturizer.

“Give your regular moisturizer an enriching boost by breaking open a Vitamin E capsule and mixing it into the lotion,” Kirsch said.

The final step in your at home spa experience, Kirsch said, is to climb into your bed, nestle under the comfy covers and listen to music for a while.

“You should feel totally rejuvenated and stress free,” she said.

And if for some reason you don’t, you can try again — and again — until you get the hang of it. In this case, there’s absolutely no harm in trying.

“These lovely things you can do at home for yourself can really elevate the quality of your life,” Pierce said. “They can make a woman feel sexy, cherished, valued, calm and better able to cope. They allow you to embrace yourself.”

Beth Gilbert is a New York-based writer.

Elliott Gould Thrives as Work in Progress


Elliott Gould appeared for our interview at the Chabad House near UCLA, his venue of choice, wearing a baseball cap over his unruly salt-and-pepper locks, an open-necked shirt and glasses.

That’s quite a change from the three-piece, pin-striped suit and neatly combed hair he sports as Rufus Van Aldin, the fabulously wealthy American oil magnate in Agatha Christie’s thriller, “The Mystery of the Blue Train.”

The episode, one in the British television series on the adventures of that canny Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot (David Suchet), will air Sunday, Feb. 12, on the Biography Channel at 9 p.m. and again at 1 a.m.

The 67-year-old actor obviously enjoyed the role and the locations in Nice and London.

“The British have always been very supportive of me,” he said, a feeling that goes back to 1963, when he starred in the London production of the musical, “On the Town.”

For the West End stage run, Gould brought along his new bride, the rising young singer Barbra Streisand, and he later spoke frankly of their relationship, which has since filled reams of tabloid columns.

Elliott Goldstein grew up in a two-and-a-half room apartment in a section of Brooklyn populated by Jews, Syrians and Italians, the only child of a garment industry production manager and his wife. Both parents were born in the United States, but his grandparents emigrated from Russia, the Ukraine and Poland.

Gould has total recall of his childhood, a mixed blessing, at best.

“My parents didn’t know how to love each other, and that devastated me,” he reminisced. “I’ve been in shock and denial of this most of my life, and as a boy, I was repressed, inhibited and very withdrawn.”

On Passovers, the Goldstein family visited Uncle Louie, and young Elliott got to ask the Four Questions. The future actor found it “stressful to get it right. I was very sensitive and insecure.”

In 1944, when Elliott was 6, his father was drafted into the Army, became a sharpshooter but broke his ankle just before he was to be shipped overseas. It was a lucky break, since most of his unit was wiped out in the Battle of the Bulge later that year.

Encouraged by his doting mother, Elliott auditioned for a “country-style” TV show, got a part and was told by the producer, “‘From now on your name is Gould,’ and I just accepted it.”

His stage career accelerated at age 12, when he made his debut as a tap dancer at the Palace, and at the same time, he started studying for his bar mitzvah at a Hebrew school. “On my first test, I cheated and got a 100,” he recalled.

At 18, he made it onto the Broadway stage in the chorus line of “Irma La Douce” and supplemented his meager earnings by selling vacuum cleaners, running a hotel elevator and working as a plumber’s helper.

His first breakthrough came as the lead in “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” the same musical that first brought Streisand to public attention. The two young Jewish actors struck up a romance and married within the year.

The marriage proved difficult almost from the beginning. As his wife rocketed to superstardom, Gould, despite his promising performance in “Wholesale,” had trouble advancing his career.

Snide columnists took delight in referring to Gould as “Mr. Streisand” and in chronicling his real and alleged frustrations, depressions, therapy sessions and nervous breakdowns. Even the birth of their son, Jason Gould, in 1966, couldn’t reverse the downward trajectory of the couple’s marriage, and they were divorced in 1971. Gould also has two children with Jennifer Bogart, whom he married twice, divorced once and from whom he is now separated.

It became obvious during our long interview that Gould’s feelings about his marriage to Streisand are still acute and mixed. Again and again, he interrupted our conversation on other topics to break in with comments, such as:

“It is not true that I was traumatized because Barbra’s career went up and mine didn’t.”

“Barbra and I will always be connected through our son, Jason, but we only communicate when necessary.”

“Life is a challenging and painful journey. Barbra was part of it, and our love has not been destroyed.”

“Barbra will always love me.”

As his marriage gradually unraveled, Gould’s professional fortunes took a sudden turn upward. The breakthrough came in his role as Ted in the 1969 movie, “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” about two sexually liberated but confused couples, which the ’60s generation adopted as the iconic reflection of itself.

Gould, who was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance, was at the time described by The New York Times as “Tall, curly-haired, more homely than handsome, laid back, unconventional, sensitive and unabashedly Jewish.”

Over the following four years, Gould seemed to be everywhere on movie and television screens, and his photo graced the cover of Time magazine as “the star for an uptight age.” He was especially popular among young adults, who identified closely with the often-neurotic anti-hero he depicted.

He scored again as Trapper John in Robert Altman’s black comedy, “M*A*S*H,” and as private eye Philip Marlowe in “The Long Goodbye.”

Then, in the mid-70s, what had been the hottest property in Hollywood went cold. Gould continued to act in movies and television but mostly in forgettable productions and roles.

In the 1990s, he began to regain his reputation as a character actor through frequent appearances on the phenomenally successful TV series, “Friends,” and in the past few years he has been lauded for his movie roles in “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Ocean’s Twelve.”

He remains as unabashedly Jewish as ever, though in his own way.

“I feel connected by the branches of the Jewish family tree,” he observed. “I belong every place where there is one of us…. Not only do I not deny my Judaism, but I am aware how unorthodox and unconventional I have been.”

Although “conditioned to question everything, the concept of faith seems right to me, and I have found my faith,” he added.

At 67, Gould considers himself “still a work in progress,” but he seems to have found a measure of equilibrium in a life during which “I never had problems with drugs, but I’ve had problems with reality.”

He lives in an apartment with a picture of Sigmund Freud on the wall and is re-reading the works of Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud.

“I have nothing more to prove,” he said in concluding our interview. “I now look on myself as a happy and healthy grandfather.”

 

The Fastest Therapy in the West


First there was speed dating. Now, there’s speed healing.

Welcome to The Ten Minute Method, a new form of condensed counseling offered by a Chatsworth therapist that promises to be both fast and affordable at $18 a session.

You may be thinking: 10 minutes? That’s just long enough to rearrange the throw pillows on the couch, pick at your cuticles as you fixate on a poorly framed Matisse print and hear, “We have to end now,” as your shrink eyes the clock on the end table. Not so, according to Richard Posalski, a licensed clinical social worker and marriage, family and child counselor who invented The Ten Minute Method.

“When people know they only have ten minutes, they’re prepared to crystallize what’s going on with them in a straightforward manner,” says Posalski. “In conventional therapy, roughly 75 percent of the time can be just venting and never getting to the problem.”

After 30 years in the business — Posalski was a social worker for the Jewish Big Brothers of Los Angeles and a member of the field faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion before going into private practice — he says less “clutter and confusion” helps him use his intuition to get “right to the heart of the matter.” The therapist describes his counseling style as “Jewish pragmatic.”

So far, he’s conducted about 80 10-minute sessions and has helped patients with a wide range of problems, from one woman’s question about how to handle her sister’s holiday visit, to a mom’s inability to let go of anger at her son’s little league coach. Sessions, both in person and over the phone, deal with “everyday” issues, the type of concerns people are always approaching Posalski with at parties, as in: “This dip is great. By the way, have you ever treated anyone deathly afraid of flying?” Being approached at social events only reminds the counselor that most people have at least one question they’d love to ask a professional.

“There are all kinds of people that want help but would never get into therapy. Either it’s too time-consuming or too expensive, or maybe for the average person, the notion of having their psyche probed is a deterrent,” he explains.

If the idea of a 10-minute therapy session calls to mind those massage therapists who set up chairs at holiday office parties or in front of the health food store, that’s no coincidence. In fact, that’s how the counselor got the idea, watching a masseur set up his chair in the lobby of a local bed and breakfast. He thought, with limited time and resources wouldn’t a talk be as good as a rub?

“I just want to help people feel better,” he says. “And you don’t have to feel crazy to take advantage of a therapist.”

Posalski’s Web site is www.The10minutemethod.com. He can be reached for appointments at (818) 773-9988.

 

‘Thin’ Exposes Hefty Secrets and Lies


Alisa, a 30-year-old Jewish divorcee, consumed 200 calories most days. But every few weeks, she repeatedly binged on gargantuan amounts of junk food, then purged by vomiting, swallowing diuretics and Ipecac. After several days, the mother of two usually landed in the hospital.

“I remember at one point thinking … ‘This is the one thing I want so badly, to be thin. So if it takes dying to get there, so be it,'” she says.

Alisa is one of several severely ill eating disorder patients profiled in “Thin,” the film debut of renowned photojournalist Lauren Greenfield. The raw documentary also profiles Polly, who slit her wrists after eating two slices of pizza; Brittany, a goth teenager determined to lose 40 pounds, and Shelly, who was force fed through a surgically implanted stomach tube for five years. Handheld cameras follow their rocky physical and emotional journeys at the Renfrew residential treatment center in south Florida.

The movie joins an expanding body of work on female dietary obsessions, including the PBS documentary, “Dying to be Thin”; Eve Ensler’s play, “The Good Body,” and Greenfield’s own 2002 book and exhibit, “Girl Culture.”

Her documentary focuses less on the complex causes of eating disorders than the Herculean task of recovery for patients who use food the way addicts use drugs. Polly, a shy psychiatric nurse, weighs in at 84 pounds, but blissfully talks about the days when she sucked food out of her feeding tube with a syringe. Brittany reminisces about the “chew and spit” game she used to play with her mother: “We’d buy bags and bags of candy and just chew it and spit it out. We just thought of it as a good time.”

During 10 intense weeks at the center, Greenfield learned that while societal pressures often trigger eating disorders, they are actually mental illnesses with grim statistics. Anorexia is the deadliest of all psychiatric disorders, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry, with mortality rates of up to 20 percent. No statistics exist on Jewish women, but experts say they may be particularly vulnerable, in part, due to more zaftig body types and the drive to look all-American (i.e. svelte).

All seriously ill patients are tough to treat: “Secrets and lies are a big part of eating disorders, because you have to hide your habits from friends and family,” Greenfield explains from her Venice, studio. “At Renfrew, women would clandestinely jog in place in the shower, or conceal weights in their clothing to cheat the scale.”

The center’s rules, therefore, are strict. When Polly arrives at the clinic, staff members promptly search her luggage and whisk away “contraband” such as cigarettes and prescription drugs. In another scene, the usually feisty Polly is obliged to eat a cupcake for her birthday, which she consumes slowly and with disgust. Afterward, she cries bitterly.

Alisa also appears pained when required to sketch a silhouette of herself, which she draws as an obese figure — though after a month at Renfrew she is healthily trim, with an uncanny resemblance to Natalie Portman. She traces her eating disorder to age 7, when her pediatrician declared her fat and she was placed on a 1,000 calorie per day diet.

On camera, she does not discuss how her Reform background fueled her disease, but she answered e-mailed questions through Greenfield.

“Alisa believes that Jews are a proud people; they are very concerned about self-image and there is a strong emphasis on education and money,” the director says. “She thinks that makes for more of a need to overachieve and be perfect, which can drive an eating disorder. So her sense is that being Jewish contributed a lot to her [illness].”

The filmmaker, who is also Jewish, relates to her subjects because she was once obsessed with the scale. At 12, she began physically comparing herself to the other girls at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu and went on to become a chronic teenage dieter. At Harvard University, she “went on a crash diet and lost 26 pounds, in the process gaining so much confidence that I threw myself into my first serious relationship,” she says.

Eventually Greenfield — named one of 25 top photographers by American Photo magazine — dedicated much of her career to chronicling how the Barbie-doll culture scars women. But her 2002 book only touched upon the life-threatening topic of eating disorders, save for several pictures snapped at Renfrew. The artist remained haunted by one of a gaunt patient standing backwards on a scale so as not to see her weight gain.

In June 2004, Greenfield returned to Renfrew with cinematographer Amanda Micheli to further explore the subject, this time in a cinema verite-style film. But she found that earning patients’ trust proved difficult.

After many setbacks, Greenfield won them over by showing she would turn the camera off whenever she was asked to do so. Polly made the request while on a suicide watch, but changed her mind after the director spent the night talking with her. She allowed Greenfield to shoot her purging her breakfast the next morning, an act that is almost always done in secret and is forbidden at the center.

Alisa also purges on camera, but expresses a moment of hope during one group therapy session.

“For a fleeting moment I imagined a better life,” she says. “And maybe — pun intended — I can taste recovery.”

“Thin” will screen at the Sundance festival Jan. 19-29 and on HBO this fall.

 

Agencies Join to Aid Special-Needs Kids


Sally Weber never felt so alone.

Nearly three decades ago, she learned her daughter had a severe language disorder that hindered her development. Besides dealing with the shock of having a child with special needs, Weber found little solace in the local Jewish community that had hitherto had given her so much joy.

At the time, Southland temples and institutions offered no Jewish camps, day schools or programming for special-needs children and their families. In Jewish circles, as in society at large, children with developmental disorders such as autism, Asperger’s syndrome and cerebral palsy were often seen as burdens to bear, rather than as joys to celebrate.

“I was completely isolated,” said Weber, now director of Jewish Family Service’s Jewish Community Programs. “There was no place to go as a parent.”

Thanks to her and two other Jewish communal professionals with special-needs children of their own, local Jewish families grappling with similar issues now have somewhere to turn for help.

In November, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles brought together seven other agencies, including, the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles, the Jewish Free Loan Association and Etta Israel Center, to create Hamercaz, a central resource for Jewish families raising special-needs children under 22.

The brainchild of Weber and Michelle Wolf, The Federation’s assistant director of planning and allocations — whose 11-year-old son has cerebral palsy — Hamercaz, or the center, offers a variety of services through its partner agencies, ranging from interest-free loans for diagnostic testing to support groups for overwhelmed parents to Shabbat dinners for children with special needs.

“Before the creation of Hamercaz, a person would have to make several phone calls or talk to friends of friends of friends to get what they needed,” said Wolf, who along with Weber, works part time on the Hamercaz project. “Now, you can get it all in one place.”

To access available services, parents can call the toll-free number, (866) 287-8030, and discuss their situation with Hamercaz’s program coordinator Amy Bryman. A licensed social worker, Bryman makes referrals to partner and other service agencies and later follows up with a phone call. In the program’s first six weeks, she received 30 calls from parents.

“It makes me feel good to see parents getting help with their newly diagnosed children,” said Bryman, the mother of a 6-year-old son with autism.

Some of the partner agencies and the services offered include:

  • Jewish Free Loan offers interest-free loans up to $10,000 to help finance diagnostic tests, therapy and treatment for children with autism and other special needs.
  • Jewish Family Service has a program that sends trained volunteers into the homes of families with special-needs children to perform any number of tasks, including taking children to the park to give parents a respite.
  • The Bureau of Jewish Education refers parents to Jewish schools that can accommodate their children’s needs. The bureau also holds lectures throughout the year addressing such topics as autism and how to get proper diagnostic testing.
  • The appearance of Hamercaz comes at a time when autism and other developmental disorders appear on the rise. Locally, an estimated 6,000 Jewish families in greater Los Angeles have children with developmental or severe learning disabilities, according to Jewish groups. Nationally, one in 166 newborns has autism, the Autism Society of America said. Based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and other government agencies, autism is growing at a rate of 10 percent to 17 percent a year, the Autism Society added.

Autism is a complex developmental disability that affects the normal functioning of the brain. People with autism typically have problems with verbal communication, social interaction and play activities.

Hamercaz got its start with the help of a $48,700 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. That money has allowed the center to hire Bryman for 15 hours a week and has also paid for a media campaign.

Support from Rabbi Mark Diamond has also helped get the word out. The executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California recently sent letters out to the group’s 270 member rabbis, encouraging them to promote Hamercaz to their congregations.

“Sadly, for too many years, families were told, ‘Your child can’t get a Jewish education. Sorry, your child can’t go to a Jewish day school,'” said Diamond, who has worked with children with special needs for more than 25 years. “I think it’s a sacred mandate of the Jewish community to take care of our own, and that means taking care of each and every one of our children.”

On April 2, The Federation will host a fair for Jewish parents of children with special needs at the New Jewish Community Center at Milken in West Hills from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Representatives of all partner agencies will be in attendance. For more information on the event or Hamercaz, contact Michelle Wolf at MWolf@JewishLA.org.

 

Unmarried Counseling


My neurosis is like a Ferrari. I can go from 0 to 60 in under four seconds.

One second, I’m nervous I may have said the wrong thing in a meeting; the next I’m convinced that the best way to deal with how horribly I’ve botched the situation is to toss myself off the Staten Island Ferry like Spalding Gray and be done with the whole mess.

Because of my superior emotional acceleration, I can’t take my mind to just any mechanic; I need someone good. And I need regularly scheduled maintenance and premium fuel. But to put the brakes on this metaphor and get to the point: I love therapy.

I’ve been to a baby-faced cognitive behavior specialist on New York’s Upper East Side (where they keep all the best therapists and where a Jew with a few problems can feel at home), a Buddhist in San Francisco got me through my early 20s without any felonies or lasting venereal diseases or suicide attempts. I’ve been to a “science of mind” practitioner in the Hollywood Hills who only takes referrals and once taught me how to buy a used car. I even went to a child psychologist when I was 8 and saw my cousin nearly drown. She was pulled out of the pool and revived, but I was traumatized. Thus began my trips to Lucy, a kindly older woman with a vaguely European accent who let me play with blocks and listened to me yammer. When it comes to head shrinking, I say, if you need it, go early and often.

Yet only now, after countless billable hours of therapy and multiple broken relationships, have I finally combined my two interests — men and mental health. Consider me officially “in couples counseling.”

That’s right, I’m not married, I’ve never been married, and yet I’m forking over $100 a week to sit on a nice woman’s worn leather couch in Tarzana and see if my relationship can be fixed.

I’ve only been twice but I’m already a fan. I’m not sure it’s going to patch up this particular relationship, but if it’s going to end, why not orchestrate a mature, gentle, thoughtful exit that doesn’t involve tossing someone’s belongings on the lawn and saying “good day.”

The truth is there are only so many perfectly good guys I can dispense with the second they bother me, annoy me, bore me, aggravate me or hurt me. I’m already on my zillionth serious relationship in life. Yeah, yeah, my parents had a scorched-earth divorce and historic custody battle, but if I want to figure out how to have some sort of “life partner,” I better get over it and figure out how to sustain the bad times without bailing. Because as it turns out, there will always be bad times, especially for me.

“You’re going to have these problems no matter what relationship you’re in,” said our new therapist, one of my best ever.

I suspected this, but she was so matter-of-fact about it, as if she were saying something as obvious as “the magazines in the waiting room are three months old.”

She also told us that when we fight, he’s a 12-year-old and I’m a 5-year-old, so it’s no wonder I feel bullied and he seems juvenile. This may shed some light on the fights we have, where he snaps at me and I cry for a couple hours, but the damage may be irreversible. When I sat next to him on the couch, I experienced the kind of rage that makes you light-headed, like you’re going to faint, or punch a wall, or roll your eyes right out of your head.

She zeroed right in on the problem, which is part of the spooky magic of therapy: “You’re confused. You don’t know how much is too much to put up with, what pain is from the past and has nothing to do with him.”

Isn’t this always the question? When is it time to go?

In my case, the answer has always been to run at the first sign of distress. I leave men, I leave jobs and I leave cities. I take my hand out of the fire before it burns, because that’s all I know. Now I have to figure out what happens if I leave it there.

“He isn’t a bad guy or I would tell you to leave and we’d have a separation discussion,” said the therapist, legs crossed, leaning back in her chair. “He just has terrible communication skills.”

After our first therapy session, we drove home feeling relieved, hopeful. Less than an hour later, we had a petty fight when he snapped at me for asking him twice whether he wanted a roll with dinner. There went the fantasy of the quick fix. Pass the butter and a whole new helping of resentment.

It’s normal for things to get worse right before they get better, according to the shrink. Of course, things also get worse right before you break up.

Teresa Strasser (www.teresastrasser.com) is an Emmy Award- and Los Angeles Press Club-winning writer. She will be appearing at the University of Judaism as part of “The Gender Smackdown” on Sunday, Dec. 4. For information or to R.S.V.P., call (310) 476-9777, ext. 473.

 

Kabbalah and the Modern Shrink


“Connecting to God, Ancient Kabbalah and Modern Psychology” by Rabbi Abner Weiss (Bell Tower Books, $24).

It was Rabbi Abner Weiss, in psychologist mode, who “Jerry” went to see after his wife, “Sandy,” found him in bed with another woman. Although Jerry and Sandy seemed like the perfect couple, they lacked intimacy, and Jerry had developed a nasty habit of risky promiscuity. Sandy wanted a divorce.

Weiss’ diagnosis?

“Jerry suffered from grossly distorted chesed/gevurah [lovingkindness/power] balance…. Like his gevurah, his chesed had also been transformed by the … kelipot of the nefesh [evil shards of the animal soul].”

Although it is an atypical psychological assessment, Weiss insists that it is a curative one.

Since the early 1990s, Weiss, former rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation and current rabbi at the Westwood Village Synagogue, has been using kabbalistic tools in his psychology practice. Recently, he published “Connecting to God, Ancient Kabbalah and Modern Psychology,” a book that asserts the congruity of the two disciplines.

“The American Psychological Association started publishing serious books on the spiritual experience in the early 1990s, and part of this trend was to look at the mystical experience that psychologists called ‘transpersonal,'” Weiss said. “But all the new transpersonal psychologists used Buddhist or Hindu systems. I began to wonder why nobody had looked at Kabbalah. In Kabbalah, I found this full-fledged, psychological system, fully developed, but buried in Aramaic texts.”

Weiss found that by using the 10 Kabbalistic Sefirot (divine filters/vessels for divine energy) as behavioral tools, he was able to help many patients have breakthroughs, and find their way out of paralyzing and dysfunctional behaviors.

These sefirot are arranged in four groups in what is known as the etz ha chayim (tree of life), and they form a paradigm that encompasses not only the divine but human behavior and experience. Above all, there is keter (crown), which is the repository of Divine will, and below all, as a foundation, there is malchut, sovereignty or the Divine presence. Then comes chochmah (wisdom), binah (understanding) and data (knowledge) — the cognitive component of sefirot. The next three — chesed, gevurah, and tiferet (splendor), are the emotive sefirot. Netzach (victory), hod (empathy) and yesod (foundation) are the interpersonal sefirot.

In his professional practice, Weiss “started with the thesis that you are born with your energy system in balance, but your influences growing up throw them out of balance,” he said. “I would use kabbalistic meditations, self forgiveness and forgiveness of others [to help people] become unstuck. It is only when you become unblocked, and when you can let go and reclaim your authenticity, that you can begin to grow personally and spiritually.”

In “Connecting to God,” Weiss delineates his interest in Kabbalah, explaining its evolution, and some central tenets of kabbalistic belief, such as the makeup of the soul, and how Kabbalah understands God as “being.” In his exegesis, he does not name or credit the Kabbalah Centre on Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles, but he does give de-facto kudos to those who have helped to popularize Kabbalah.

In his elucidation of the sefirot, he explains how different energy imbalances can produce destructive behavioral patterns. As exemplars, he uses real-life examples of the patients he has treated and their [kabbalistic] diagnoses and corrective therapies. He also clarifies how, once a person’s issues are resolved, Judaism and its mitzvot can be a tool for spiritual growth. The book is peppered with lengthy guided meditations. And for added assistance, an accompanying CD is available.

In several ways, the book is a personal one. Not only does Weiss give an account of the development of his interest in the subject, he also explains how these Kabbalistic tools helped him through a personal crisis — the discovery of long-buried family secrets about his father’s chicanery.

“As a prominent spiritual leader … [I] was terrified of being unmasked as an insecure, self-doubting individual, from a less than perfect family,” he writes.

In his own therapy, Weiss wrote a letter to his father, detailing his terrible failures as a parent. Since he did not know where his father was buried (he had disappeared before Weiss was born), Weiss read the letter to a picture he had of his father.

“The experience was cathartic. I wept as I read,” he writes. Weiss also “reparented his inner child,” by cuddling a pillow that he imagined was himself as a little boy.

“My tears began to flow as I acknowledged the boy’s pain, loneliness, and fears, and reassured him that I loved him,” he writes.

“It’s the idea of the wounded healer,” Weiss said. “I use my own recovery as a model for other people’s recovery.”

While the book is an exposition of ancient Jewish concepts, Weiss is careful to use current scientific literature and studies to bolster what he presents. The book does not shy from controversial ideas. In several places, Weiss promotes past-life regressions — that is, going under hypnosis to discover who you were in a previous life, as a tool for self-understanding.

On Oct. 9, at 5:45 p.m., Rabbi Abner Weiss will be speaking at the Academy for Jewish Religion/California, 11827 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 398-0820.

Holiday Frivolity for Young at Heart


 

Offering the chance to parade in costume as Queen Esther or King Ahasuerus, shake groggers at the mention of Haman’s name and feast on hamantaschen, Purim is the perfect holiday — for our kids’ grandparents and great-grandparents.

At every age, we must be connected to life’s fun side, and Purim, the boisterous and tumultuous holiday that begins this year at sundown on March 24 and celebrates the triumph of the Jews in ancient Persia over enemies determined to destroy them, gives us that opportunity.

But far more than the kids, today’s elders — many of whom are contending with the death of a spouse, poor health, loneliness and dwindling finances — need the frivolity that Purim brings. Of the 35 million Americans who are 65 and older, up to 7 million suffer from some form of depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. That age group also claims the nation’s highest suicide rate, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

“Laughter is the best medicine,” said Faye Sharabi, activity director for Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles’ Valley Storefront, an adult day health-care center in North Hollywood. For the entire month leading up to Purim, Sharabi provides a variety of fun-filled activities, all part of the five-day-a-week program of physical and occupational therapy and socialization for the Storefront’s elderly, physically disabled and/or memory-impaired clients, who range in age from 40 to 99.

“The megillah is a fascinating story that is not just for kids,” said Sharabi, who stresses Queen Esther’s positive outlook and ability to inspire the Jewish people. She arranges a Queen Esther “makeover” for the female participants as well as a beauty pageant, with everyone designated a queen.

“When you’re elderly, you’re still beautiful,” she said.

The highlight, however, is Purim morning, when the king and queen, selected by lottery beforehand, are crowned and feted with flowers, a fiddler playing Jewish songs and a parade.

In addition, costumed second-graders from nearby Adat Ari El Day School come to sing, dance and share hamantaschen that they baked the previous day. They also bring sequins, feathers and other art materials to help the revelers make Mardi Gras-style masks.

“The older people love the kids,” said second-grade teacher Soli Friedman. “They see that the kids care about them and that they are not left alone.”

Other older adults are less interested in intergenerational activities.

“We have too much fun ourselves,” says Paula Fern, director of the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles’ Pico-Robertson Storefront and Holocaust Survivors Program.

Her group is Café Europa, a social and support group for Holocaust survivors that was founded in 1987 by social worker Dr. Flo Kinsler, which has spread to other U.S. cities.

In Los Angeles, Café Europa’s Purim celebration, funded by the Claims Conference, is expected to draw approximately 150 survivors. Fern explains that the March 22 event is a party, a catered luncheon with singing in a variety of languages, dancing and feasting. Many of the members, who observe a range of religious practices, attend Megillah readings and carnivals with their families.

For some survivors, the festivities provide an opportunity to recall memories of a happy Jewish childhood in prewar Europe.

Eva David, who grew up in Transylvania, remembers her mother covering every available surface of their house with freshly baked cakes.

“Mother would put each cake in a cloth napkin, and we would take them to the neighbors,” she said. “What a memory. The whole street was filled with Jewish children carrying cakes.”

But other survivors remember that they were being rounded up into ghettoes or concentration camps or were hiding, fleeing or living under false identities when they should have been celebrating Jewish holidays.

John Gordon, born in Budapest, Hungary, and president of Los Angeles’ branch of Child Survivors of the Holocaust, was only 2 when restrictions against the Jews were enacted. His family’s Purim celebration, fresh cookies and a Megillah reading, was confined to their home.

So Café Europa’s parties — “as many as we have funding for,” Fern says — help compensate for survivors’ lost childhoods.

But for all older adults, Purim, the holiday that celebrates the survival of the Jewish people, provides an opportunity to reflect, to recapture childhood memories and to create new ones.

“It’s fascinating that Purim, which is so easily dismissed as a holiday for young children, becomes actually a serious adult-oriented holiday,” said Elon Sunshine, rabbi-in-residence at Heschel Day School.

And a serious time for fun.

 

Justice or Character Assassination?


Rabbi Michael Mayersohn feels betrayed by his own professional association that provided "a loaded gun" to an accuser, who wielded it to take aim at his reputation.

Last month, what Mayersohn described as "a private torment" became a public embarrassment when a charge of sexual misconduct against him was divulged to a wire service by his accuser. The former congregant, Chavah Stevens-Hogue, also revealed a pending disciplinary decision against Mayersohn by the Reform movement’s rabbinical arm. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) story appeared June 15.

Ultimately, the board of trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) on June 20 upheld its earlier reprimand, Mayersohn said, overriding the more severe censure recommended by the conference’s ethics and appeals committee.

Only the most egregious offenses that warrant expulsion and suspension are routinely disclosed in the conference’s newsletter.

Mayersohn, 51, said that Stevens-Hogue’s complaint is fiction and that even the most lenient professional reprimand is unjustified. Stevens-Hogue, 44, of Huntington Beach, is equally adamant that her allegation of "sexual boundary violations" has merit and criticizes the rabbinical association for showing favoritism to its members by failing to follow its own guidelines.

"After soul-searching, I had to put privacy aside," said Stevens-Hogue, explaining she took her accusations public only after the CCAR’s board tossed out the harsher punishment imposed by the ethics and appeals committee, which handles such charges. "I thought that was a fair and reasonable decision," she said of censure, which would require Mayersohn to undergo psychological testing, therapy and counseling for teshuvah (repentance).

The painful case reveals the vulnerability of clergy to character assassination as well as the difficulty for lay people in challenging a religious entity that keeps its decisions secret.

If the phone calls Mayersohn has received are an indication, his predicament is not uncommon. He has received a half-dozen sympathy calls from colleagues around the country who also described defending themselves against complaints they say were unjustified. In at least one other instance where a CCAR reprimand was issued, the colleague told Mayersohn the reproof was taken to pacify the complainant and resolve the issue. Under the Reform code of ethics, a reprimand is the least serious form of punishment and takes the form of a private letter to the rabbi and complainant involved.

"That suggests the pattern is when in doubt the CCAR issues reprimands," said Mayersohn, who contends Reform ethics policies need revision. "Don’t put a loaded gun in the hand of a complainant. The policy inadvertently betrays rabbis by informing the complainant of a reprimand. The complainant is a free agent; while they don’t want the complainant to go to the press, it must happen."

He is unwilling to file suit against Stevens-Hogue for libel.

Rabbi Paul Menitoff, the group’s executive vice president, defended the way the rabbinic conference handles complaints about members.

"Complaints are addressed extremely seriously," he said. "There are people who go through this and feel the resolution is too strict or not strict enough." Although he lacked statistics about the outcomes of ethics complaints or appeals of the ethics panel’s decisions, Menitoff said recent appeals were "mixed" and did not solely agree with the appellant.

Stevens-Hogue denies her intention in going public is to damage Mayersohn’s reputation. She felt compelled to raise an alarm because "he’s in pastoral counseling without supervision; to warn the public, the Jewish community, that there’s an issue out there. People need to know.

"I’m not doing this for me," said Stevens-Hogue, who might have brought suit against the temple, a recourse she chose not to pursue. "I feel like he will do it again. I expected the CCAR to keep the rabbinate safe."

The issue stems from a May 2002 complaint made by Stevens-Hogue, who alleged that Mayersohn made sexual advances during a closed-door marital counseling session when he served as rabbi of Westminster’s Temple Beth David. After 13 years, he unexpectedly quit the pulpit in February 2003, a resignation he says is unrelated to Stevens-Hogue’s complaint. He has resumed work, mostly teaching, but also providing pastoral counseling.

The counseling incident took place in December 1999, Mayersohn said, citing his own correspondence, dated Feb. 26, 2000, which suggests she "misunderstood" his expressions of concern and the nature of their relationship.

"I did the things you are supposed to do," Mayersohn said, describing reporting the assertions to the temple’s executive committee, the Reform movement’s congregational arm and to the chair of the rabbinical ethics committee in 2000, two years before Stevens-Hogue filed a formal complaint.

"This is a man’s life, career and reputation that is on the line," said Melanie Alkov, a Beth David trustee. "I must come to his defense."

"I applaud Rabbi Mayersohn for standing up for his rights — for appealing the reprimand that was injudiciously extended to him and I pray that my faith in Rabbi Mayersohn’s integrity will prevail," Alkov wrote in a letter to The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, which ran the JTA story in its June 18 edition.

Another defender is Joan Kaye, director of O.C.’s Bureau of Jewish Education. She hired Mayersohn to head up a new initiative that begins in September. The Jewish Academy of Growth and Learning will award certificates of recognition to students of communitywide adult education courses. Mayersohn’s principal role is as its student guidance counselor. Kaye’s confidence in him remains unshaken.

"Nothing has changed in the last two years," she said.

Stevens-Hogue, who changed her name to Chavah from Lori at a ceremony a year after joining Beth David, chose a Conservative conversion to ensure that her daughter would be accepted by most American Jews when it comes time to marry. She left the congregation and now sporadically attends services at Long Beach’s Orthodox Shul by the Shore, where her daughter attends Hebrew school.

"They have very strict rules about rabbis touching congregants," said Stevens-Hogue, whose husband of 12 years did not convert. "I’m still going through spiritual issues because of what happened."

She questions the fairness and probity of the CCAR’s ethics guidelines, which were adopted in June 2003. The ethics’ panel made its decision to censure Mayersohn that August. The board came to a different decision last December. Under the code, the board, before deciding on a complaint, is supposed to allow both the person making the complaint and the rabbi involved to make their case. In this instance, only Mayersohn was invited beforehand.

"They violated their own process," said Stevens-Hogue, who was permitted a 10-minute appeal by speakerphone on June 20. Earlier, CCAR’s president, Rabbi Janet Marder, of Los Altos, apologized, saying the board wasn’t "up to speed on the guidelines." Marder did not return phone calls seeking comment.

"When a religious body investigates its own members, they have to be scrupulous to avoid bias," Stevens-Hogue said. "This clearly shows bias."

She contends the CCAR’s board should look to how other religious denominations handle sexual misconduct allegations, including investigating the existence of similar allegations within the congregation. A seven-month investigation, which included rabbis and a lawyer on the investigative team, did not probe that far, she said.

Mayersohn, who has a CCAR pension fund, said he remains an "unhappy" CCAR member.

Rabbis’ Tact Puts Sex Victims First


David Schwartz, who pleaded no contest last year to charges associated with child molestation at an Orthodox summer camp, has been released from a yearlong stay at a residential treatment facility and is now living in the Pico-Robertson area. Rabbinic and mental health professionals are taking steps to help the victims and their families, as well as the community at large, feel safe and protected from a man who allegedly sexually brutalized and psychologically tormented 4-year-old boys at a Culver City camp for the arts in summer 2002.

Despite his plea, outside of courtroom proceedings Schwartz has maintained his innocence. His wife Nitzah, a preschool teacher at Yeshivat Yavneh in Hancock Park (where Schwartz himself used to teach), has stood by him throughout, saying to rabbis and others that there is no way the father of her children could have committed the lewd acts attributed to him.

While some rabbis who know the family have quietly supported Schwartz and his family, many prominent rabbis and community leaders have been strident and outspoken in their support for the victims — an indication that the Orthodox community has overcome its historic hush-hush approach to abuse. Taking its lead from Jewish Family Service’s Aleinu Family Resource Center, a group of rabbis has attended hearings, counseled the victims and inserted itself into the case.

Several high-profile cases in recent years — both locally and nationally — have helped foster a newfound willingness among rabbis to work with mental health professionals not only to handle crises, but to take proactive measures as well.

"The families see us there and the community knows we’re there, and I think that it’s an important factor for them to know we are not just going to sweep this under the rug," said Rabbi Berish Goldenberg, chair of the Rabbinical Council of California’s (RCC) Family Commission and a member of Aleinu’s Halachic Advisory Board — groups that often collaborate and have overlapping membership.

In a plea bargain reached in January 2003, Schwartz pleaded no contest to one count of committing lewd acts with a minor under 14. Eight other charges were dismissed, and Schwartz received a six-year suspended prison sentence and one year in a treatment facility, and is now on probation for an additional four years. He must undergo another year of therapy, cannot work as a teacher or with children and must register as a sex offender for life.

Upon Schwartz’s release in late January this year, Superior Court Judge Katherine Mader at the Airport Courthouse ordered Schwartz to stay out of an area roughly encompassing the Pico-Robertson and south Westwood neighborhoods. Schwartz, his wife and their three young children reportedly live just east of Robertson Boulevard, one of the boundaries, but have been ordered by the court to move east of La Cienega Boulevard. In addition, Schwartz must stay 100 yards away from a list of synagogues and schools where some of his victims may attend.

In a letter filed with the court March 2, RCC’s Goldenberg and Rabbi Avrohom Union recommended the judge also prohibit Schwartz from attending any synagogue where children are present and only allow him to attend synagogues populated mostly by senior citizens. They also asked that Schwartz be ordered stay away from all schools and be prohibited from using the mikvah (ritual bath). Mader rejected those recommendations.

"The court has commented that the victims need to step back and let the man lead his life," said Vicki Podberesky, Schwartz’s attorney. "The court put on restrictions it feels are appropriate and the DA thought those restrictions were appropriate."

Podberesky said that while she can’t comment on the Schwartz case, in general the criminal justice system is imperfect and innocent people do get convicted. "Sex offense can carry a life sentence and people make decisions many times about how to handle their case based on the fact that they want to ensure that they will see their family again," she said.

The rabbis say their job is not to retry the case, but to accept Schwartz’s plea and treat him as a sex offender. The RCC, together with the Halachic Advisory Board, oversees a beit din (rabbinic court) to deal with such issues. Schwartz has been invited to sit down with the beit din.

Goldenberg, who is also principal of Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn Toras Emes, said that the beit din’s aim is not to penalize Schwartz, but to protect the community and to work with Schwartz to help rehabilitate him — perhaps help him find a job and a synagogue.

"In one sense we want to be harsh and tough and make him understand that he is going to be monitored," Goldenberg said. "On the other hand we are here to help and we are willing to come to an agreement. If we can tell the victims’ families that he is going to follow what he is supposed to do and be where he is supposed to be, we can help make things better for him and his family."

The most likely scenario, many acknowledge, is that Schwartz will leave town, which he can do with proper permission from the court. Jewish sex offenders have been known to resettle in Israel or other Jewish communities.

Such was the case with Rabbi Mordechai Yomtov, who divorced his wife and left Los Angeles soon after he was released from prison about a year ago. In February 2002, Yomtov pleaded guilty to two counts of committing continuous sexual abuse on a minor and one count of lewd act on a minor at Chabad’s Cheder Menachem. He was in prison for a year and his whereabouts are currently unknown.

While both Schwartz and his victims would likely be happier with him out of Los Angeles, the beit din acknowledges its responsibility to keep tabs on him. "There is no question that theoretically the ideal situation would be for him to leave town, assuming he could be monitored," said Rabbi Shalom Tendler, a member of the Halachic Advisory Board. "It would be entirely wrong and irresponsible for us to just push our problem on somebody else."

The Halachic Advisory Board has taken a strong stand on issues of abuse. Aside from working directly with Aleinu Director Debbie Fox to respond to crisis situations, the board helped draft and implement guidelines for schools and camps to prevent, recognize and deal with situations of abuse.

Those guidelines have set a national standard in the Orthodox community, and have since been modified and adopted by schools throughout the country.

"That is the beauty of our community — the rabbonim and JFS and Aleinu work together on crises and we provide advocacy and support from a spiritual as well as a mental health model," Fox said.

The victims’ families will need that support, now that Schwartz is back in the neighborhood. One mother of a victim said her son had been doing better but is now having nightmares and acting out again.

She plans to take him to the Culver City Police Department, where detectives have been helpful all along, so they can explain to him how Schwartz is free but the child will still be safe.

"He’s always been so worried about other kids getting hurt, so the police made him a special junior detective," the mother said. "Now they’ll give him one more badge and promote him."

For more information on Jewish Family Service’s Aleinu Family Resource Center, call (323) 761-8816.

Circle of Friends


Every Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., Alysson Beckman and Julie Pinchak go to Victoria Maddis’ house to hang out and play. What makes this situation unique is that Alysson and Julie are both 16-year-old high school students, while Victoria is a 7-year-old girl with a neurological disorder. They have been brought together by The Friendship Circle of the Conejo Valley, a new outreach effort designed to enrich the lives of Jewish children with special needs and their families.

The Friendship Circle and its Friends at Home program pairs local teenagers with families of special-needs kids in order to provide a social outlet for disabled children and support for their often over-extended parents. The Agoura-based Conejo Friendship Circle is modeled after the flagship program in Detroit, which was founded in 1994 by Rabbi Levi and Bassi Shemtov of the Lubavitch Foundation, a branch of Chabad-Lubavitch. The Conejo Friendship Circle was launched by its director, Rabbi Yisroel Levine, and assistant directors Chanie Malamud and Devorah L. Rodal in April 2002. The program is administered by Chabad of the Conejo, and currently boasts 100 teen volunteers and 50 families with special- needs children, ages 4 to 13.

The teenagers who volunteer their time learn the value of giving through the experience of making a difference in a child’s life.

Michelle Levy, a 17-year-old student at Oak Park High School, learned about the organization from a friend at Los Angeles Hebrew High. Levy, who works with a 6-year-old autistic child, said that “although at times it can be difficult, it’s about having fun and being open,” and said that the reward she reaps from being involved always “masks” the difficulty for her.

“I’ve told others to get involved,” she said. “It’s a help for the family to have a little bit of time, and it is so good for us because it’s really special to connect with someone you wouldn’t otherwise know. It’s amazing.”

What makes The Friendship Circle unique is that the one-on-one contact between the child and the teen volunteers takes place in the environment the children are most comfortable in: their own home. Families interested in enrolling in the program are interviewed and evaluated by the directors and a speech pathologist.

The Friendship Circle addresses many types of special needs, ranging from autism and blindness to ADHD and bipolar disorder. Rodal stressed that this program is “truly open to anyone who feels that they need a friend.”

Teen volunteers are carefully screened, selected and trained to work with the children, and are then paired with a second volunteer and a special needs child in the program. The volunteers visit with the child once a week for an hour. Their role is to play and interact with the child, while giving the parents a much-needed respite. They can bake cookies, play games, read books or do almost anything the child wants.

“This program is wonderful,” said Robin Felton, a Calabasas mom whose 6-and-a-half-year-old son Jonah is autistic. “This is the only time that’s really just for fun. Jonah’s life is so therapeutic, and everyone has an agenda related to an IEP [school] goal. His therapy is all adult driven. These girls [from the Friendship Circle] come every Sunday afternoon, and they are completely focused on Jonah and what he wants. It’s not babysitting, it’s not respite, it’s just a gift.”

Felton said that the rest of the family also benefits from this program. Hilary Srole and Sami Wellerstien make an extra effort to share their attention with Jonah’s two brothers, ages 9 and 4.

Erica and Matthew Kane’s family has been with Conejo’s Friendship Circle since its inception. Like many of the children in the program, Kane’s daughter Abby, 6, is autistic; Abby has a 20-month-old brother and an 8-year-old sister.

“Kids thrive on the continuity” Erica Kane said. “We are paired up with two wonderful high school seniors. They come every Sunday, and the kids really look forward to it. The girls are very devoted, and the kids are all very bonded to them. They jump rope, play in the yard, play with Play-Doh … it’s very healthy for them.”

Rodal explained that teen volunteers must provide references as well as copies of past report cards and an explanation of why they are interested in volunteering in The Friendship Circle. All teens attend an hour and a half training session run by the directors, a speech pathologist, a family liaison and a parent of a special-needs child. There may also be additional training provided for a particularly difficult situation, as in the case of a child currently in the program who is blind, autistic and developmentally delayed. In the future, Jewish Family Service will provide this training, and is currently working to make the sessions more interactive.

Rodal and Malamud always accompany the teens on their first visit to their assigned family, and follow up regularly with both the families and the teens. In addition, each teen is responsible to report back to Rodal and Malamud via e-mail (or standard mail) postcard after each visit.

Becoming a member of the Friendship Circle’s Volunteer Club is yet another benefit for the teens. It is a place for the teenagers to come together, discuss their experiences, and just have a good time.

“They help others, but they also have a lot of fun,” Rodal said.

“I want these children to feel like they have someone to lean on when I come to visit them,” said Andrea Kramer, another 15-year-old Friendship Circle volunteer who attends Milken Community High School. “Seeing a child feeling good will boost up their life as well as mine. I want to know that a child is feeling even a tiny bit better because of me.”

To learn more about the Friendship Circle, visit the
program’s Web site at