Jewish campus organizations offer students support after UCLA murder-suicide causes campus lockdown


In the wake of an apparent murder-suicide that claimed two lives on Wednesday at UCLA, the UCLA Jewish campus organization Hillel at UCLA is offering counseling to UCLA students in need of assistance.

“[We will] find out where students are at,” Hillel at UCLA Executive Director Rabbi Aaron Lerner said in an interview at his office Wednesday. “I don’t want to put anything on them and say they must be traumatized, but there’s also the possibility this brings out real stuff, real trauma.”

Hillel, which serves approximately 1,500 students on campus, went into lockdown in response to the incident, as did all of the buildings on the sprawling West Los Angeles campus.

“Our job is to be there for them,” Lerner said of the students served by Hillel.

The shooting occurred at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Boelter Hall. The shooter and one victim died in the incident, according to the UCLA newsroom’s webpage.

Chabad of UCLA is also making itself available to students in need of support.

“Just please know that we are here for you and whatever emotional, mental, or spiritual needs you may have, whether it may be counseling, discussing the event, venting, praying or just being together and hearing the words of encouragement,” a statement at chabaducla.com reads.

IKAR’s Rabbi Sharon Brous was participating in a meeting at Hillel at UCLA at the time of the incident. In an interview Wednesday afternoon, she denounced the epidemic of gun violence in this country.

“There’s really no place we’re safe from gun violence in this country,” Brous said.

Life at the UCLA campus appeared to return to normal by around 12:45 p.m. Students were walking on campus, discussing the day’s events and boarding buses at the intersection of Hilgard and Westholme avenues, across the street from the Hillel at UCLA campus and more.

Jen Pierre, graduate student, was among those walking on campus after the conclusion of the lockdown.

“We heard an active shooter was at the engineering building; we went into lockdown,” Pierre said. “I’m thankful I’m still alive,” Damien, a musicology student who asked to go by his first name only, told the Journal outside of the university’s law school building.

Congressman Ted Lieu (D-Los Angeles) was among local elected officials to respond to today’s tragedy.

“My thoughts and prayers – and those of my entire staff – are with those affected by today’s tragic events at UCLA,” Lieu said in a statement. “My office stands ready to assist in any way.”

Hillel’s triple art exhibition is a celebration through creation


The start of the new school year inevitably means a series of artistic journeys for visitors to Hillel at UCLA. So it goes for the fall quarter, when Hillel’s annual Triple Art Exhibition takes visitors inside the mind and around the world.

At locations throughout Hillel’s Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts, guests experience the metaphysical landscapes of Judith Liebe, scenes of Eastern European life from the camera of Yale Strom and Ann Krasner’s depictions of visionary Jewish artists of Russian descent who changed the world. 

The Triple Art Exhibition is not a theme exhibition, but the common denominator among these very different artists is not difficult to pinpoint, according to Hillel’s artistic director Perla Karney.

“All three of them have gone on a Jewish journey as artists,” said Karney, who recruited them to display at Hillel. “They explore the Jewish identity, which is reflected in their art.”

“From the very beginning of the Jewish tradition, we recognize and record God affirming what’s good for us,” Rabbi Aaron Lerner, Hillel’s executive director, said at the exhibition opening. “Judaism embraces things like sexuality and food and art. What I see that is similar in all three of these exhibits tonight is that there’s an embrace of life.”

Gathering at Hillel for the exhibition’s opening, Strom, Liebe and Krasner gave presentations and discussed elements of their work. Liebe and Krasner are based in Los Angeles and Strom lives in San Diego, where he is an artist-in-residence in the Jewish Studies Program at San Diego State University. 

To assemble “Fragments,” Strom drew from his archive of photographs taken of Jewish life in Eastern Europe during the last 30 years. A klezmer musician, writer, playwright, filmmaker and photographer, Strom initially traveled throughout Eastern Europe in search of music. What he found were Jewish communities reminiscent of prewar shtetl life, prompting him to record what life had been like for Jewish communities and what it became after the Berlin Wall came down. The black-and-white images shot in the 1980s look like they captured community life of a far earlier time. 

“I wanted to meet survivors,” said Strom, whose works were previously displayed at the Anne Frank Center in Manhattan. “This was more than people just singing or playing me a tune. All the variances of life and culture somehow survived the Holocaust and Stalinist years. That really opened my eyes and imagination.” 

When he first went to the former Eastern bloc and visited small communities, Strom discovered he possessed a unique item that facilitated his research: his violin. Residents would notice the violin and, given that Strom  had shlepped it all the way from America, ask him to play a tune. And he obliged.

“So I’d start to play, and they’d sing or they’d get an instrument or call other people and start to tell stories,” Strom recalled, “and I would eventually put the violin down and start to take pictures.” 

Liebe, another well-traveled artist and the daughter of a filmmaker and an actress, grew up in Germany and studied in Munich and Paris. The striking images in her exhibition “Far Away” line the staircase of the Dortort Center. Carrying titles such as “Desire” and “Utopia,” the works celebrate the artist’s sense of security.

“Growing up in Germany, I have not experienced safety at all times,” Liebe said. “The world around us is in turmoil, and peace seems far away. It is my strong desire through my art to remind us of the magnitude of this world and the peacefulness that is contained within it.” 

In “Jewish Visionaries in the Arts,” Krasner’s bustling cityscapes, elongated stick-like bodies and brash colors celebrate the accomplishments of immigrant artists such as Marc Chagall, George Gershwin and Mark Rothko. Those artists were able to reach great heights for the same reasons that Krasner could — because they had talent and because their new homeland received them with open arms. 

Krasner’s 25 works include depictions of friends and family members as well as celebrated thinkers and artists. Many of the collage-like works include lengthy quotations from the subjects on their philosophies about life and art. 

“America was open to outsiders, and with its incredible growth of new competitive industries, Jewish immigrants were ready to jump in,” said Krasner, who came to California from Russia 27 years ago. “Their talent was more important than who they were at that time. All of this created amazing opportunities for Jewish immigrants to succeed.”

Krasner, who has degrees in mathematics and computer science, noted with some irony that she had never painted until her husband gave her a brush and canvas for her 30th birthday. Four months later, she was winning competitions and exhibiting around the world. 

Her work also examines immigrants pushing their children to achieve great heights. Krasner can relate. Her 15-year-old son, Benjamin, who performed at the opening, is an accomplished pianist who has already won several international competitions and studies at CSU Northridge. 

The Triple Art Exhibition is on display through the end of December at Hillel at UCLA, 574 Hilgard Ave. For more information, visit uclahillel.org.

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block: BDS ‘isn’t going to be sustained on this campus’


Evidence of the concern within UCLA’s Jewish community stemming from recent events on campus could be seen on March 16 by UCLA Chancellor Gene Block’s visitors that day.

Just before an interview with the Jewish Journal that morning, Block met with Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Hillel at UCLA’s longtime and outgoing executive director. Then, not long after, the chancellor met with Judea Pearl, a renowned UCLA computer science professor and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, who is also an outspoken critic of the UCLA’s Center For Near Eastern Studies and an occasional ” target=”_blank”>November passage of a student government resolution to endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as it pertains to Israel; and, in February, ” target=”_blank”>incident with the posters around campus [

With pro-Israel groups all but absent, UCLA student government endorses divestment


UPDATE, 3:00 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 19: UCLA Chancellor Gene Block released a statement, which reads in part: “UCLA and the UCLA Foundation share the Board of Regents conviction that divestment decisions should not hold any one organization or country to a different standard than any other. The Board of Regents does not support divestment in companies that engage in business with Israel and UCLA agrees with that position.”


Some students held up posters, others wore t-shirts with pro-divestment slogans and most of the 400 UCLA undergraduates present repeatedly snapped their fingers along in near-unanimous agreement as they packed an auditorium on campus Tuesday night to hear – in the school's second public hearing in 2014 – their student government debate passage of a symbolic resolution that would call on school administrators to divest university funds from American companies that do business in the Israeli-controlled West Bank.

And unlike in the previous attempt in February, which failed by two votes, the student government voted this time for divestment by a decisive 8-2 margin, adding UCLA to a small but growing list of universities where the elected, representative undergraduate body endorsed the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to weaken Israel and promote the Palestinian cause via economic pressure.

Supporters of the resolution, who comprised nearly 100 percent of the audience, saw the move as a protest against American economic support of what they view as Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.

And prompted by a new strategy enacted by some of UCLA’s Jewish student groups, including Hillel at UCLA, Bruins for Israel and J-Street U, supporters of Israel effectively boycotted the hearing in an attempt to discredit and delegitimize UCLA’s strengthening pro-BDS movement. Only about 10 student representatives and members from those three organizations sat together during the hearing. While none of them participated in the public comment period that would have given the floor to dozens of divestment opponents in two-minute intervals, four of them made their case against divestment to the student government during a scripted 15-minute speech.

“We are not going to have our community sit through however long a session of bullying and hate speech,” said Tammy Rubin in an interview before the hearing began. Rubin is the president emeritus of Hillel at UCLA. She said that unlike last year, Hillel at UCLA, Bruins for Israel and J-Street U will now use the time not spent on opposing symbolic divestment resolutions to “reinvest in our community.”

“We’re not not fighting it [divestment],” Rubin said. “We are just fighting it strategically in a different way.”

Gil Bar-Or, president of the UCLA branch of J-Street U, described an approach that would differ markedly from that of last year’s pro-Israel community, which passionately and publicly opposed divestment actions in a climate of toxic relations between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students.

“We are trying to present an approach that’s creating positive things for both people that are involved in the conflict and not alienating anybody,” Bar-Or said. “In order to promote one community’s interests you do not have to trample on the other community’s interests.” In place of rallying against the divestment resolution, Hillel at UCLA, Bruins for Israel, and J-Street U hosted an alternate off-site meeting with about 125 pro-Israel students, where they discussed the thinking behind the new tactics and how Jewish UCLA students can strengthen their community.

At Tuesday evening’s hearing, while dozens of divestment supporters from a broad spectrum of various ethnic, national, religious and gender student groups took the podium during the hour they were granted for public comment, not a single pro-Israel student took the podium, even as the few present divestment opponents brought forward a list of 2,000 students who signed a statement opposing divestment.

And while the public comments coming from the pro-divestment side covered an enormously wide array of political grievances—from exploitative capitalism and U.S. drone strikes to discriminatory gender bathroom rules at UCLA and Chicano feminists—each settled on a similar opinion: UCLA should divest from American companies doing business in parts of Israel. Virtually every public comment was met with a sea of approving snaps and the occasional holler.

Some of the commenters included Arab-American UCLA students who described the plight of friends and relatives who live in the Gaza Strip, and two Palestinian students studying at UCLA—but who were not present—recorded an interview that divestment supporters played on a large projector.

During February’s vote, with no time limit and with members of the public permitted to submit public comments, the hearing went until dawn before the student government voted 7-5 against divestment. This year, though, security guards manned every door, only current UCLA students and approved media were allowed inside, and the student government ensured that the evening would end relatively early—this time officials voted just before midnight.

Just before the vote, when it was already clear that the student government would endorse divestment, Avinoam Baral, an Israeli native and the government’s president, emotionally lambasted divestment supporters, accusing them of targeting Jews and Israelis while purporting to be concerned about human rights in general.

“[The resolution] says this language that it’s not meant to target you, but there’s a difference between intention and action and if our intention is to divest from all countries violating human rights and the actual effect is to only divest from Israel, the only Jewish state in the world, it’s hard for me to take it any other way,” Baral said. “It’s hard for me to not feel targeted.” After Baral concluded, student government representatives voted, and as their votes were tallied, the auditorium erupted in applause. About 20 minutes later, around one hundred divestment supporters gathered outdoors and chanted slogans such as, “Free, free Palestine.”

Just moments after the vote, Amber Latif, a UCLA sophomore and member of the campus branch of Students for Justice in Palestine, was pleased with her side's victory but “unnerved” by Avinoam Baral’s vocal opposition.

“I’m trying to think if there’s anything that we could’ve done to make the Jewish community feel less targeted by this,” Latif said. “But I feel like we did everything to the best of our powers.”

The small and hugely outnumbered pro-Israel group of students that came all sat together and provided some lonely snaps in response to comments by Baral and the other representative who opposed the resolution. Those interviewed reaffirmed their support of the Jewish community’s decision to sit out the divestment vote, but still appeared visibly upset after the council resoundingly endorsed it.

Natalie Charney, the student board president for Hillel at UCLA, led the alternate off-site meeting and, while disturbed by what she saw at the divestment hearing, expressed no regret at Jewish groups’ decisions to avoid it.

“We don’t validate this conversation, not in a space where people are able to spew hatred and anti-Semitism,” Charney said. “We didn’t subject Jewish students, pro-Israel students, to the hate that is in this room.”

Omer Hit, the vice president of Bruins for Israel, said he’s concerned that UCLA may now be perceived as “not a good place for an entire Jewish community.”

“I am thankful that we did not have to bring our entire community to sit through that,” he said. “That would’ve been heartbreaking. Look at it now—it’s already heartbreaking for the six of us that came.”

“I know that this is all a PR thing,” Hit added. “I’m afraid that they were able to dominate that.”

Waxman honored at UCLA Hillel


Dignitaries, students and Jewish community members gathered on Nov. 10 at Hillel at UCLA to celebrate the legacy of U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and the 40 years he has spent representing the area.

“Why do we here all love Congressman Henry Waxman?” his successor, Congressman-elect Ted Lieu, asked the audience during the event. “The reason we love him isn’t just because he fought for our issues and he was right. It [is] because he was effective.”

As Waxman, a giant whose name is synonymous with Southland Democratic politics, completes his final months representing of California’s 33rd District, voices across the broader political landscape have been reflecting on the importance of his political legacy. 

“His retirement is drawing more attention than any congressional retirement that I can recall, because of his historical record,” Burt Margolin, a lobbyist and former assemblyman who spent seven years as Waxman’s chief of staff, told the Journal. There hasn’t been another lawmaker in the last 50 years who has accomplished more on behalf of progressive values than Henry Waxman.”

Waxman attributed his success, in part, to a compatibility between Jewish and American values. First elected to Congress in 1974 as one of the so-called “Watergate babies,” Waxman made his reputation sponsoring legislation unpopular with many of his colleagues. In particular, Waxman’s career-long efforts to improve the quality and accessibility of health care and to enact stronger environmental protections are now considered ahead of their time. 

“I was elected to Congress by constituents who, I felt, wanted me to go there and be a leader on national and international issues,” Waxman told the audience. “We were in Israel when [Egyptian leader Anwar] Sadat came to speak at the Knesset. We were in Israel when the Ethiopians were brought in. I remember being in Israel when we were struggling to get Jews out of the Soviet Union and it looked like it would never happen.”

Drawing a comparison between Waxman’s career and Moses’ leading of the Israelites across the desert, Hillel at UCLA’s executive director, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, called the politician “the man of 40, our very own Moses.” He added that Waxman “carried the biblical legacy as he led the battle against the seemingly divine corporate forces that endangered our health and enveloped us with this smoky deceit.”

Of the many bills related to health care Waxman had an essential role in passing are laws improving the quality of infant formula, incentivizing pharmaceutical companies to develop and market drugs to treat rare diseases, facilitating the sale of less-expensive generic drugs, authorizing the Food and Drug Administration to require nutrition labeling on foods, and allocating money for treating people with HIV and AIDS. 

Waxman also aggressively pursued improvements to the Clean Air Act during his time in Congress. More recently, Waxman played a prominent role in passing the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Throughout his four decades on Capitol Hill, Waxman was known as a tough negotiator and an ideologically consistent legislator. “This guy had a sense of discipline and a tenacity, and I think in some ways — most important of all — he was a legislator who could not be intimidated,” said former U.S. Rep. Howard Berman, a close friend of Waxman’s from their days as students at UCLA.

Former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, a Republican from Wyoming, once famously described Waxman as “tougher than a boiled owl.” As chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Waxman aggressively pursued investigations of the tobacco industry, Major League baseball and Wall Street, among many others. 

“He was never afraid to lose,” Margolin said. “Henry liked nothing more than taking on issues knowing that he had only a small chance of prevailing in the short view. He always fought with the long view — the sense that we might not win this year, but that two years, four years or six years down the road, we can prevail.”

Unwilling to allow his relative inexperience to be an excuse for not acting, Waxman early in his career challenged the seniority system entrenched in House committee politics. 

The UCLA Hillel event was also a
fundraiser for the establishment of the Henry Waxman Fellowship for Jewish Leaders at Hillel at UCLA. The fellowship, which will be awarded to 10 students per year, is intended “to prepare students for a career in public service and train them to emulate the organizing and political styles of Henry Waxman,” Seidler-Feller said.  

The nine-month fellowship will allow Jewish students to meet weekly with local leaders inside and outside of the Jewish community, and to take on greater leadership roles in Hillel and in UCLA more broadly. The fellowship, Seidler-Feller stressed, is shaped in Waxman’s image.

“I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that Henry the lawmaker embodies the classic Jewish-American impulse to establish a model society in our American homeland,” he said. “He has displayed the divine chutzpah to take on the giants and to defeat them … in the name of tzedek umishpat, of justice and righteousness.”

Controversies roil UCLA, Berkeley campuses


“Leaked emails reveal partnership between Hillel, PR firm,” read the headline on a story that made the front page of Wednesday’s Daily Bruin, the lively UCLA student newspaper.

The plotline for this story may seem a bit arcane for those not up-to-date on campus politics, but the central protagonist is Rabbi Aaron Lerner of UCLA Hillel. His focus, in his own words, is on “community organizing and reaching students on the periphery of Jewish life at UCLA.”

Earlier this year, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and Students for Justice in Palestine asked the UCLA undergraduate student council to pressure the University of California administration into divesting from any companies that “profit from the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.”

The motion was narrowly rejected, but it is expected to resurface in the near future.

To prepare for such a likelihood, Lerner sought advice from various contacts, including the 30 Point Strategies public relations firm. The main conclusions reached in an exchange of emails was to portray BDS advocates as unrepresentative of student sentiment, to focus on the large majority of UCLA’s 42,000 undergraduate and graduate students who know next to nothing about Israel, and try to hold media coverage about the whole controversy to a minimum.

The email exchanges between Lerner and the public relations firm were hacked and published Oct. 27 on the website of

Hillel guidelines scrutinized


Hillel International CEO and president Eric Fingerhut has called for a review of how his organization’s national guidelines will be applied to Hillels on college campuses around the country.

“The guidelines were passed in 2010. Frankly, not a lot of work was done on how to explore how they would be applied on campus. … They haven’t been updated or modernized. They are getting all this attention, now, for the first time they have been called into question,” Fingerhut said during a Jan. 12 panel discussion at UCLA titled “Through the Looking Glass: A Glimpse Into the Future of Jewish Life on Campus and Beyond.”

Fingerhut was referring to a December 2013 resolution passed by Swarthmore College’s Hillel chapter that rejected Hillel International guidelines. Those policies state, in part, “Hillel will not partner with, house or host organizations, groups or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice: Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders.” 

Hillels on college campuses receive resources from Hillel International, but they function as autonomous organizations. The Hillel at UCLA, for instance, is an independent nonprofit. 

Hillel International’s response to the Swarthmore decision — namely, that the school Hillel’s “position is not acceptable” — has sparked a debate about whether Hillels on college campuses are inclusive enough when the topic is Israel. Fingerhut insisted that the organization remains welcoming of many perspectives on Israel, including those of JStreet University, the campus affiliate of J Street, a pro-Israel group that advocates an end to Israeli settlements.

Other participants on the panel, which took place at the Hillel at UCLA’s Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life, included Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University. A leading historian on modern Jewry and the Holocaust, Lipstadt earned additional notoriety by winning a libel case in an English court against Holocaust denier David Irving.

Former University of California President Mark Yudof also participated on the panel. The moderator was David Myers, who teaches Jewish history and is the Robert N. Burr Department Chair of the UCLA history department.

Controversies surrounding Hillel were not the only topic that the speakers addressed during the gathering, which lasted approximately 45 minutes and attracted an audience of about 200 people. Panelists also debated the implications of the Pew Research Center’s recent survey, “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” whose findings about Jewish affiliation being on the decline have some worrying that the end is nigh. 

Despite the study’s finding that fewer Jews than ever are reporting being “Jewish by observance,” Lipstadt said she prefers to look at the study’s finding that shows that 90 percent of those surveyed consider themselves proud to be Jewish. 

“I think what the Pew study is saying … is that there are now more and more ways, multifaceted ways, of doing and being Jewish. Different avenues and entry points into being Jewish,” she said. “I think the study is reminding us of that.”

Yudof agreed, saying that while the Pew report illustrates challenges for the Jewish community — such as the high incidence of intermarriage — American Jews have always had many issues with which to wrestle.

“I think sometimes we idealize our past,” he said. 

The future, on the other hand, was close by. Elyssa Schlossberg, 21, a UCLA psychobiology major and member of the campus Hillel’s student executive board, was seated at one of the dozens of banquet-style tables at the event. 

Schlossberg said that Hillel’s weekly Shabbat dinners — including some that are followed by hip-hop concerts at the AEPi house — are among the activities that have drawn her to Hillel. She called the organization a “close-knit community.”

Additional speakers included Zev Yaroslavsky, a UCLA alumnus and  member of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors; Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, executive director at Hillel at UCLA; Dorothy Salkin, a member of the Hillel at UCLA board of directors and board of trustees; and Tammy Rubin, student chair at Hillel at UCLA.

Their speeches, along with the panel, wrapped up a daylong program at the Hillel that marked the rededication of the center’s Jerusalem Stone Wall, which was erected years ago in memory of Salkin’s parents, Morris and Celia Kahn Aberman. It also celebrated the campus’ new Capital Donor Wall. 

It was an event that, more than anything, marked how far the Hillel at UCLA has come since its building at the Westwood Village-adjacent address on Hilgard Avenue opened in 2002, according to Rachael Petru Horowitz, UCLA Hillel director of development.

The 22,000-square-foot facility serves as a community building, providing recreational and study space for the university’s approximately 4,000 Jews. It even has its own Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on the ground floor. Horowitz called the Hillel campus a “permanent fixture of the Jewish community and  the Westwood community.”

Letters to the Editor: Hillel serves up diverse buffet and Orthodoxy dividing the community


Hillel Buffet Serves Up a Diverse Menu

Hillel at UCLA enjoys a good relationship with the local Chabad (“Sharing the Next Gen — Hillel and Chabad on Campus,” Oct. 25). The unconditional love they exhibit is indeed laudable, and it is true that Chabad’s free Friday night dinners influenced us to also offer our dinners for free. 

However, the recent cover story in the Jewish Journal comparing Hillel and Chabad on campus missed the essential differences between the organizations, their missions, and their measures of success.

Hillel provides a buffet of Jewish choices that range from the intensely religious to the Jewishly worldly. Our philosophy is: “Come to Hillel to taste all the Jewish delights.”

Do you want Torah and Talmud study? We have that. Do you want tikkun olam? We have that. Do you want Reform, Conservative and Orthodox prayer services? We have those, too. Do you want to learn about Jewish culture? Jewish history? Heschel? Soloveitchik? Freud? Einstein? Maimonides? We have them, as well.

Do you want Holocaust education? Israel advocacy? Leadership training? Jewish art exhibits? Conferences on important Jewish issues? Or how about just hanging out at our Coffee Bean to mingle with other Jews? We offer all of that, as well as social justice projects such as “Challah for Hunger,” “Swipes-for-the-Homeless” and building medical clinics in Northern Uganda.

This is not a Judaism that downplays tradition. To the contrary, our beit midrash pulsates with the rhythms of Jewish learning, and, with our glatt kosher cafeteria and daily minyanim, Hillel at UCLA has become home to the largest Orthodox campus community west of the Mississippi.

The point is this: Hillel at UCLA offers a broad, Big Tent Judaism that no one else offers. 

For the Jewish Journal to suggest that we are being influenced and even “changed” by a Jewish group whose programs and approach are completely different is not just unfair to us, it’s also unfair to our friends at Chabad.

Yes, we respect all methods of Jewish outreach, and, at the same time, we believe that our pluralistic, Jewish buffet offers the best hope of attracting Jewish students from across the spectrum.

This substantive pluralism is what distinguishes Hillel from other Jewish organizations, and it is our holistic formula for sustaining and growing a Jewish future. 

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Executive Director, UCLA Hillel and Rabbi Aaron Lerner, Senior Jewish Educator, UCLA Hillel


Orthodoxy Putting a Wedge Between Jews

It’s not a contest (“Why Orthodox Is Growing,” Oct. 25). Nobody “wins” when the overall number of Jews who practice and adhere to their religion is diminished. The Orthodox can easily “win the battle but lose the war” if they become so marginalized and exclusive that the rest of Jews fade away. Unless Orthodoxy exerts efforts to bridge the gap, it will find that there are a million Orthodox Jews in the United States and nobody who views them as “co-religionists” or “brothers” and that is a real small and totally insignificant minority except in Boro[ough] Park, Williamsburg and a few other minor American shtetlach.

Charles Hoffman via jewishjournal.com

Dennis Prager makes a number of thoughtful explanations for the group of Orthodox Judaism, but his connection of Orthodoxy and right-wing Conservatism is not one of them. Orthodox Jews can be found across the political spectrum. Here in Los Angeles, Orthodox Jewish men and women are challenging traditional approaches by infusing their Jewish life with more liberal approaches. By doing so, they have not undermined Orthodoxy or diminished their love for Israel. Just the opposite — their Ahavat Israel of Orthodox Jews or the left of the political spectrum has grown without any signs of the cynicism Prager associates with liberal Jews.

Elie Shapiro, North Hollywood

Dennis Prager responds: Elie Shapiro conflates liberalism in politics (“Orthodox Jews can be found across the political spectrum”) with liberalism within Judaism (“Orthodox Jewish men and women are challenging traditional approaches by infusing their Jewish life with more liberal approaches”). They have little to do with one another.
I, for example, welcome a more liberal approach to halachah. But the notion that Orthodox Judaism and leftism have much, if anything, in common is unsustainable. And since Mr. Shapiro did not cite any examples, I don’t know what left-wing positions he is referring to. Is Orthodoxy for redefining marriage as the left is? Is Orthodoxy anti-Israel, as most of the left here and in Europe is? Does Orthodoxy believe that people are basically good? Does it morally agree with abortion on demand?

There is a reason that the vast majority of Orthodox Jews are conservative. The reason is Orthodox Judaism.


correction

An article on Hillels and Chabad (“Sharing the Next Gen,” Oct. 25) suggests that a “fundraising partnership” exists between Hillel at UCLA and the UCLA Foundation. In fact, there is no formal relationship or partnership between Hillel at UCLA and the UCLA Foundation.

Sophie Zeidman Hamburger, survivor, 94


Sophie Zeidman Hamburger, 94, of Los Angeles passed away at home Oct. 10th with her family by her side. A Holocaust survivor, Sophie inspired many people with both her courage and her warmth.

Sophie was born in Bedzin, Poland, in 1919 and was trained as a tailor before World War II broke out. In 1944, she was deported to Auschwitz, where she worked in a munitions factory until she was sent on a death march shortly before the camp was liberated in January, 1945.  She escaped and managed to survive the last months of the War in hiding. When she returned to her hometown after the War, she found only devastation and incomprehensible loss. 

We first met Sophie when she was ninety-two years old. She was part of UCLA’s “Bearing Witness” program and a class organized around Holocaust testimony.  The program is a collaboration between the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, Hillel at UCLA, the Jewish Family Service’s Café Europa (an organization focused on support and community for survivors), and the LA Museum of the Holocaust. It provides a unique opportunity for university-age students to recognize the value of eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust and participate in the effort to document the life experiences of Holocaust survivors.  

The shining smile on Sophie’s face created a bond that made us feel like family. Every Wednesday Sophie would greet us and recount her story.  We knew that the listeners were not just those of us present in the room with her, but all the future generations who would have the chance to learn about her story. She was a beautiful, articulate, and inspiring woman who we are grateful to have known. Sophie cared deeply about creating bonds between generations, between the past and the present, for the sake of a better future. In the hospital, she said to her son, “I guess I won’t be able to do UCLA’s [Bearing Witness] program this year.”  She was deeply committed to meeting students, telling her story, and inspiring hope through education, outreach, and an ethic of respect. 

Her story can be heard at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust as part of the museum’s audio guides. The story was recorded by UCLA undergraduate students in 2012 who interviewed her and documented her life journey.  Her story is a testament not only to survival but also the indelible compassion of the human spirit.  This is the gift she left with all of us who were lucky enough to meet her and to everyone who is fortunate to hear her story. 

Sophie Zeidman Hamburger was a member of Temple Beth Israel. She is survived by three children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Funeral services were held Oct. 13 at Mt. Sinai Hollywood Hills.

Sharing the next gen: How Chabad is changing Hillel — and reshaping campus life


Shabbat dinner tells one part of the story.

When Alon Kashanian, a UCLA senior, wants a “very big social atmosphere” on erev Shabbat, he goes to Hillel’s grand, Jerusalem-stone-adorned, 25,000-square-foot Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life on Hilgard Avenue in Westwood. He socializes with friends and mingles with some of the 100 to 200 students — the number can vary widely — who come for services and Friday night dinner.

On a recent Friday, well over 100 students passed through Hillel’s doors. The night started with two prayer services: A Reform service — held in the center’s large yet cozy recreation room — included guitars and Craig Taubman melodies. A second, smaller, Orthodox service, held upstairs in Hillel’s beit midrash, drew around 20 people, this one with non-instrumental singing. Both services were student-led, with Hillel’s longtime executive director, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, present at the traditional service and also speaking briefly at dinner.

During the week, the rec room could have been transplanted from a JCC. In “The Shack” on a recent weekday, games of pingpong were ongoing as students worked at their laptops or chatted with friends. Between classes, Hillel is a comfortable place for a good number of UCLA’s approximately 4,000 Jewish students (and even some non-Jewish students) to take a break and to study. 

Just before Shabbat dinner began, the students received a set of instructions from a Hillel staff member as to where to go to eat; it all felt like a casual but well-organized Shabbaton, with five to 10 round tables set for dinner in several different rooms, each table seating about 10 students.

Kiddush began with a few students standing up on chairs and singing “Shalom Aleichem to the tune of “We Will Rock You.” Nearly everyone quickly joined in, clapping and slapping their thighs to the beat. After hand washing and ha-Motzi, soup, chicken and rice, potatoes and salad were served buffet style. 

Chatting with some freshmen who were attending their first Shabbat at college, one got the sense that, at least at UCLA, Hillel was the go-to place for newcomers looking for Shabbat dinner.

Chabad Shabbat

On weeks when Kashanian wants a more spiritual, less social Friday evening, he said he opts for Chabad.

Walking across UCLA’s campus to the small and unassuming Chabad townhouse on Midvale Avenue, the atmosphere could not be more different from that of Hillel. 

The dining room was lit with the soft glow of electric candelabra lamps and adorned with pictures of the Chabad-Lubavitcher Rebbe — the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The smell of fresh-baked challah and soup wafted through the air. 

Run by Rabbi Dovid Gurevich and his wife, Elisa, UCLA’s Chabad house doubles as the Gureviches’ home, and as Shabbat dinner entered the second course, the well-dressed Gurevich children could be seen playing with one another and mingling with the guests. On this night, more than 50 students filled every inch of the dining room, some spilling over into the small living room. 

The food, home-cooked by the rebbetzin, included baked gefilte fish, terra chip salad, tomato tarts, barbecued chicken, roasted potatoes and more — not bad considering the cramped kitchen in which Elisa Gurevich, with the help of a few students, prepared it all. 

“It’s what you would expect at your grandma’s Shabbat dinner,” Kashanian said.

This particular Shabbat came just after the release of a Pew survey of American Jewry, which reported a decline in involvement among young Jews, so Rabbi Gurevich’s question of the night to each student was: “What aspect of Judaism do you most identify with?” 

Some said unity, some said food, a non-Jewish student at the dinner said that the weekly gathering of Jews for Shabbat stands out in her mind. 

Unlike at Hillel, Chabad’s Shabbat dinners often stretch late into the night, even until midnight. After dinner and dessert, a few dozen students hung around to help clean up, and then stayed to chat, relaxing on the couch and, of course, eating the remaining pecan brownies and peanut-butter crunch.

While most of the students there on this evening were not observant, their presence offered them a front-row view not only of Orthodox family life, but also of the inner workings of Chabad’s rapidly growing campus movement. The first Chabad campus center was established at UCLA in 1969, but it is in recent years, since 2000, that the campus movement’s expansion, both locally and nationally, has been transforming Jewish life on campuses that had been Hillel-centric for much of the 20th century. 

From free Shabbat dinners to a grass-roots, decentralized fundraising strategy, Chabad’s tactics on the 200 campuses it serves full time have impacted Jewish life on campus, including how Hillel reaches out to Jewish students. 

If Hillel used to be the primary — often the only — option for organized campus Judaism, its standing now is somewhat less dominant. Whereas on some campuses, like UCLA, Hillel has maintained its lead role, at others, including the University of Southern California (USC), it now more or less shares that leading spot with Chabad. 

New kid on the block: USC Chabad

Students participating on USC Hillel’s Birthright trip in June 2012 get ready to cool down on a hike in Har Meiron, in northern Israel. Photo by Alison Levine

Los Angeles has three local full-time Hillels — at UCLA, USC and California State University, Northridge (CSUN), each run with annual budgets of at least $250,000. By contrast, the only Chabad to have cracked the quarter-million mark is at USC, run by Rabbi Dov Wagner and his wife, Runya, where the annual budget recently hit $360,000. 

Indeed, the expansion of USC’s Chabad mirrors the national growth of Chabad’s campus movement. In 2000, when two shluchim (emissaries) approached Susan Laemmle, USC’s then-dean of religious life, about the creation of a USC Chabad house, initially she had some reservations.

“Hillel was the umbrella, the big umbrella,” Laemmle said. “And all the Jewish stuff fit under Hillel.” 

Indeed, by the time the Wagners came to USC in 2000, Chabad had established houses on only 35 campuses throughout the country, less than one per year since its campus debut in Los Angeles 31 years before. 

But that was about to change. Today, the Brooklyn-based international Chabad arm of the group’s campus movement serves nearly 400 American colleges and universities, with 200 of those campuses having permanent Chabad student centers.

“It became clear to me that just as there were multiple Christian groups, it was conceivable that there would be multiple Jewish groups,” Laemmle said. Observing the new Jewish campus landscape, she continued, “was a breakthrough, really, in terms of my thinking.”

In 2006, Rabbi Chaim Brook and his wife, Raizel, moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to open a Chabad house at CSUN. One year later, Rabbi Eli Levitansky and his wife, Mirel, opened another at Santa Monica College (SMC).

Hillel’s dominance dates to the second half of the 20th century, when the organization became the “anchor of Jewish student life” on campus, said Jonathan Jacoby, senior vice president for Programs for Jewish Life at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

CSUN student Daniel Sigal wraps tefillin at a Sinai Scholars field trip two years ago, as Rabbi Chaim Brook of Chabad finds a prayer in the siddur. Photo courtesy of Chabad of CSUN

In L.A., from the early 1940s until the turn of the millennium, Hillel student centers had footholds at UCLA (1941),  USC  (1949) and Los Angeles Valley College (1957). 

But due to Chabad’s ascent, as well as the addition of even more alternatives, like the Jewish Awareness Movement (JAM), students now have options, said David Harris, the campus activities coordinator at Federation. “You are looking at a multitude of entry points into Jewish campus life,” Harris said. “In earlier years, there were really only one or two.”

JAM, a local campus group that has a presence at four Southern California campuses (including UCLA and USC), was founded in 1996. While not nearly as large as Hillel or Chabad, it offers students weekly learning, Shabbat dinners, challah baking, and trips to Israel and London. 

Seidler-Feller, UCLA Hillel’s director, has been a staple at Hillel since 1975, drawn initially to the Hillel movement for, as he put it, its “ideological commitment to pluralism.”  

Seidler-Feller’s case for Judaism to the assimilated Jews, who are the “overwhelming number of Jews in America today and on the campus in particular,” is that “you can be open, involved, and integrated into American and Jewish society on the whole, and retain a significant [Jewish] identity, practice [and] commitment,” he said. 

“When I started, one felt that there was a residue of Jewish commitment and knowledge that was present among certain sectors of the student community,” Seidler-Feller said during one of two interviews at his Hillel office, which is lined with a seemingly endless number of books. “There has been a very noticeable decline in the [last] 20 years, as far as that’s concerned.”

Michael Jeser, who led USC’s Hillel from 2009 to June of this year, said that today’s young Jews often don’t want to get involved. “The overwhelming majority of Jewish students don’t affiliate to anything,” said Jeser, who was recently named executive director of Jewish World Watch.

To attract those Jews, USC Hillel molds some of its programming around activities that don’t, at least on the surface, appear Jewish, such as Trojan Hoops for Justice, a basketball tournament to raise money for programs for under-privileged children.

Rabbi Heath Watenmaker — who grew up in Reseda, graduated USC in 2002 and received a master’s degree there in social work in 2006 — was a regular at Hillel and an occasional guest at Chabad, becoming close with Rabbi Wagner. 

In 2011, Watenmaker became the Reform outreach-initiative rabbi at the Hillel at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Speaking by phone, he pointed out that a key difference between Chabad and Hillel is that while Chabad focuses on offering Jewish programs, Hillel offers programs for Jews, not all of which have a religiously Jewish theme. 

Watenmaker remembers attending a USC Hillel masquerade ball for Purim where there was no reading of the Book of Esther — which every Chabad house in the world reads on Purim.

“It was a chance to go out with other Jews, even if there wasn’t something overtly Jewish about it,” Watenmaker said. 

And while Shabbat dinner, tefillin wrapping and menorah lighting are key activities at a campus Chabad house, Jeser said Hillel’s programming will “reflect the identity of the majority of the Jewish students,” usually not so tied to observance. 

Contrasting outreach strategies

Josh Faskowitz, a 21-year-old senior at USC, grew up Reform, participated in NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) and became involved with Hillel after going on a Birthright trip to Israel in 2011.

“I needed some way to slow down the monotony of college,” Faskowitz said. “I worked with the rabbinic intern at Hillel, and we talked about how to instill Judaism in my routine.” Faskowitz decided to learn how to cook a Shabbat meal every week.

“That was kind of my religious opening,” Faskowitz said, pointing to the way Hillel engages today’s Jewish students through a process it calls “relationship-based engagement.” A Hillel intern helped Faskowitz find a meaningful Jewish routine through making Shabbat dinners, and Faskowitz, on his own, shared the dinners he prepared with his friends.

Shoshanna Pro, a senior at CSUN and a volunteer for Hillel 818 (a collaborative Hillel that covers programming at CSUN, as well as at Pierce College in Woodland Hills and L.A. Valley College in Valley Glen), said that, in her experience, Hillel’s focus on developing leadership qualities is so emphasized that many times “the staff will not step in” if a student-led program is falling short of expectations. 

At Chabad, by contrast, it is the rabbi and rebbetzin who run most programs. And in the event of a faltering student-run program, the Chabad husband-wife team will usually step in to help, as their goal is always to run successful programs. 

A program at Chabad can be something as seemingly minor as setting up a table on campus with brownies and informational fliers (student volunteers lead much of the campus “tabling”), to wrapping tefillin with Jewish men chancing to walk by. 

During an on-campus interview with Rabbi Brook of Chabad at CSUN, the rabbi frequently stopped the conversation to chat with Jewish students walking by. To the male students, he added, “Would you like to wrap tefillin?” 

Almost every student accepted Brook’s request and put on the arm and head tefillin right in the middle of the busy campus thoroughfare, saying prayers, then unwrapping and continuing on with their day.

According to Chabad tradition, any mitzvah is an experience “that remains forever in the person’s life,” said Chabad of Santa Monica College’s Rabbi Levitansky. “Chabad feels that when you do a mitzvah, it’s not just a mitzvah that you did and then it’s gone.” 

During Sukkot at USC, Rebbetzin Wagner involved students in baking brownies and making chicken soup, while the rabbi, his seven children and some student volunteers manned the sukkah during the day, attracting dozens of students in to shake the lulav and etrog — as well as to snack and chat. 

“If somebody has a positive Jewish experience, which can literally be just one single mitzvah done in a sukkah,” Wagner said, “that already, in itself, is a positive accomplishment. And we see that as fulfilling our mission here.”

While Chabad’s mitzvah-based version of Jewish kiruv (outreach) is based on its own unique brand of Chasidism, Hillel’s form of outreach does not “represent any dogmas,” according to Seidler-Feller, and will often mold its flavor of Judaism to the student body of a particular campus

For example, because UCLA has significantly more Orthodox Jewish students than either USC or CSUN, the Hillel in Westwood offers a traditional Friday night service in addition to its Reform one. Not so at USC, where there simply is not the demand for a separate Orthodox service at Hillel.

Chabad, meanwhile, is fiercely consistent in its messaging on any campus or other site. Shabbat services are traditional Orthodox and follow the customs of Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the father of contemporary kabbalah.  

And while Chabad defines a Jew according to Jewish law (someone born to a Jewish mother), the movement will still welcome students who identify as Jewish even if not Jewish by law. Hillel, meanwhile, as part of its outreach, will purposely engage those brought up in interfaith families. While Jeser said that USC Hillel’s “strategies have to reflect” the high number of Jews of interfaith families at USC, that reality would not liberalize or otherwise change how Chabad reaches out. It would likely further motivate shluchim to increase their efforts.

Student demographics at Chabad

Even though Chabad’s philosophy is traditional, the affiliations of many, if not most, of the students who attend Chabad closely resemble the range of observance of modern-day Jewish students on college campuses across America — from observant to, more often, not at all. Despite the reality of these demographics, Chabad on Campus spokesman Motti Seligson said by phone from Brooklyn the perception remains that Chabad is primarily for Orthodox students.

“Some people may perceive Chabad as being only for Orthodox Jews,” Seligson said. “If you walk into any Chabad house on campus, that perception quickly evaporates when you see who’s actually there.”

Wagner estimated that just 5 to 10 percent of regular attendees at the Chabad of USC identify as Orthodox. Brook said that among Jewish students at CSUN, he interacts the least with Orthodox ones, perhaps because most of them live at home and would not be on campus for Shabbat.

For a handful of non-observant or unaffiliated students, Chabad serves as the steppingstone to an observant lifestyle. Ellen Watkins, a UCLA senior from San Francisco, was raised, aside from Jewish summer camp, as a secular Jew. As a freshman, she said she tried out UCLA’s Jewish gamut (Hillel, Chabad and JAM), eventually settling with what the Gureviches were offering and even becoming Chabad’s student board co-president in her junior year.

Marketing, outreach and cooperation

The immersion of Chabad emissaries in environments that aren’t natural hubs for religiosity or spirituality walks in line with the group’s core philosophy that it is the Jewish people’s mission to make the world a holier place. Tabling on campus, inviting a secular Jew to Shabbat dinner, working with fraternities and sororities that have significant Jewish populations — these are all a direct outgrowth of the movement’s philosophy of immersion in American society.

This, in fact, may be the deepest similarity between Chabad and Hillel: While the two organizations have very different outlooks on Judaism, both see college campuses as key to the future of American Judaism.

Sisters in the Sigma AEPi colony at CSUN learn how to bake challah last year at Chabad. Photo courtesy of Chabad of CSUN

At USC, the Wagners have engaged extensively with the two Jewish fraternities there, Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) and Sigma Alpha Mu (Sammy). USC has no official Jewish sororities.

From challah baking, to Greek Shabbats, to “stump the rabbi” sessions, Rabbi Wagner says engaging in Greek culture is a natural way to reach large numbers of Jews. “If you’re able to reach into a couple of students, you’ve got access not only to that student [and] maybe a couple of their friends, but to the group as a whole,” Wagner said.

One luxury at USC, a private university, is the access offered by the school’s Office of Religious Life to engage incoming freshmen. Every year, the office gives both Hillel and Chabad the list of accepted applicants who checked off “Jewish” as their religion. 

Of course, as Wagner points out, working with a college bureaucracy is not always easy: “The university is like the government. There are a million different offices, and each one is to some extent independent of [the others].” 

“You have to develop a relationship with the office of admissions, and a relationship with the office of religious life, and a relationship with the office of alumni programming, and a relationship with the financial office.”

Discussing what is perhaps the most cooperative local Hillel-Chabad relationship, Bailey London, USC Hillel’s executive director, said that Hillel and Chabad work closely every year to plan Shabbat 500 — which, as the name suggests, is a Shabbat dinner for 500 Jews, held under a massive tent outside the Chabad house.

This past August, after Fresh Fest — a two-day annual retreat for Jewish freshmen held in August at American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus in Simi Valley — London said that Hillel invited the students to a welcome barbecue at Chabad.

As Chabad grows, Hillel adapts

Judith Alban, acting executive director at Hillel 818, pointed to two major changes Hillel has adapted to in the past generation. One is an evolution of how Jewish students want to be engaged. Whereas in the past, students may have been willing to work the phones to raise money for Hillel, today’s students “don’t want to sit on the phone asking people for money,” Alban said during an interview in her Hillel 818 office adjacent to the CSUN campus.

“They like to see the actual fruits of their labor,” she said. “We can get a lot of students to come out and paint a school. That’s just the way this generation is.”

The second change that Hillel has adapted to is one that was actually spurred by campus Chabad houses — free Shabbat dinners, a core principle for Chabad. After all, a family inviting people over for Shabbat dinner would likely not ask them for an upfront payment. Whereas many Hillels used to charge students for Shabbat dinner (even if only $5 or $10), competition from Chabad helped change that. 

Students who don’t lean toward Hillel or Chabad were often enticed by Chabad’s free Shabbat dinners. So, Alban said, “in order to compete,” Hillel had to adapt.

“It was like [free-]market enterprise,” she said. “Hillel had to start doing what Chabad did.”

The competition also offers a challenge for both Chabad and Hillel — if students are used to getting everything for free, how will they understand that those programs rely on funds raised by others?

“My biggest fear is that students have an expectation that everything in the Jewish world will be free,” said Josh Fried, Hillel 818’s program director. “They don’t understand that they are going to have to pay it forward and donate.”

UCLA seniors at Dockweiler Beach in 2012 for a Hillel event. Photo courtesy of Hillel at UCLA

Rabbi Gurevich at Chabad of UCLA echoed a similar sentiment during an interview in his Westwood office. “People have kind of gotten used to, in a way, some handouts — Birthright, free trips,” Gurevich said. “It’s hard to stimulate someone to get excited about something unless there’s some kind of giveaway.” 

Parents, Gurevich said, tend to donate on behalf of their children only while the kids are in college. As for the alumni, “It takes a while for them to make their way in the world,” to the point where they feel they can give back.

Gurevich also pointed to a Chabad program known as Sinai Scholars — which offers a $350 stipend to students who come to study — as one drawback of what he says is, overall, a wonderful program. “I’m ambivalent about it because it might create these expectations,” Gurevich said. “It’s the question people ask about Birthright: Are you giving too many free things to people?”

But, as with offering free Shabbat dinners, Gurevich and Chabad on Campus see the stipend as a way to get otherwise unmotivated students to commit to hours of Torah study.

“The bottom line is that the benefits outweigh the particular detriment, because we see that people become a lot more involved and a lot more engaged,” Gurevich said. The Sinai Scholars program is now offered on 77 campuses nationally, according to Chabad spokesman Seligson.

In contrast, at UCLA Hillel, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and his wife, Sharona, have been working for almost a decade as part of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC). Offering one-on-one learning with students as well as group classes on Jewish topics, Kaplan said that he has never offered a cash stipend.

“Our general position is never to pay for learning,” Kaplan said. “We found that we haven’t needed to do it in order to have a crowd.” 

He added, however, that he and Sharona do offer other incentives, such as a free lunch or dinner, or having a running tab at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, allowing students who learn with JLIC to get a cup of coffee or a snack on the house. “The bottom line is an incentive is an incentive,” Kaplan said.

UCLA student Eli Mordechai wrapping tefillin on campus with Rabbi Dovid Gurevich of Chabad. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Dovid Gurevich

Hillel and The Jewish Federation

Hillel’s dominance on college campuses was long reflected in Federation’s relationship with the Los Angeles Hillel Council (LAHC), a now-defunct organization that helped finance local Hillels, in large part through Federation support.

Federation’s Harris, in an e-mail to the Journal, described the past Federation-LAHC funding stream as a “lump sum” to LAHC, which was then “divided up among its member units.” 

Until about three years ago, every dime of Federation’s campus funding went to LAHC and, by proxy, to local Hillels. Between 2008 and 2010, all of Federation’s combined $2.7 million in campus funding went to LAHC.

LAHC’s dissolution about three years ago forced the Hillels under its purview to become independent 501(c)(3)s, which also coincided with a major upcoming change in how Federation will distribute grants to all Jewish organizations for all programs under the aegis of its Ensuring the Jewish Future department, including those on campus.

Because Federation plans to shift to a program-based grant process, beginning in the 2014-15 academic year, Hillel, like Chabad, may have to rely more and more on local, grass-roots, relationship-based fundraising.

Previously, Federation’s Jacoby said, the official view was, “We have a historic relationship with this organization [Hillel]; therefore we will give it money.” Now, he said, Federation has “no predisposition whatsoever for, or against, any organization.” 

In 2010, Federation began to encourage more Jewish campus groups — including Chabad and JAM — to apply for program grants. 

Since then, Federation has given about
$2.3 million directly to local Hillels and $386,000 to other Jewish campus groups, $28,000 of which went to Chabad of USC for program grants, Harris wrote in his e-mail. Federation’s gradual shift away from a Hillel-only funding approach is a reflection, at least in part, of “the myriad of ways a Jewish student in today’s world can get engaged in Jewish life on campus,” Harris wrote.

Once Federation’s grant-based funding is in full effect, money that used to cover operating costs at local Hillels will soon only be distributed in the form of grants for specific programs, which Hillel as well as other Jewish groups will have to apply for. 

For UCLA Hillel, which has its own fundraising team, a fundraising partnership with UCLA, and relies on core Federation grants for only 7 percent of its annual budget, losing those core grants may not have a tremendously adverse impact. 

But, as Seidler-Feller said, “Every organization is reliant on a core budget, and this new approach undercuts or seemingly undercuts that core budget, or part of it.” He added, though, that a grant-based process may have an upside. “It also means there’s a push for excellence,” he said. “You have to earn the grant.”

For Hillel 818, which has relied extensively on Federation for many years, adapting to a new landscape — by tapping into relationships with parents, alumni and community members — may be a struggle. 

Rabbi Dov Wagner and students enjoy food at Chabad of USC’s falafel fiesta night in January 2012. Photo  courtesy of Chabad of USC

“It’s a very tough transition,” Alban said. “We are going to the community and telling them how we are struggling. I just think sometimes the parents don’t really think about it,” she said. “They just think, ‘Oh, the Jewish community funds you.’ ”

At Chabad, the primary fundraiser generally is just one person — the rabbi. Seed money from major donors and small annual grants from Chabad on Campus are not uncommon, but on a year-to-year basis, Brook at CSUN, for example, is almost entirely responsible for raising his $200,000 annual budget.

Chabad operates on something approaching a franchise model — each Chabad house can use the Chabad brand and can pay for the rights to a standard Chabad on campus Web site. But each Chabad house is entirely responsible for its own operations.

“It’s a yearly struggle,” said Chabad of SMC’s Levitansky. “But I think it creates an element of constant motivation. You are the king or the queen on the chessboard, which creates a much greater desire to get toward
your goal.”

A model for the future

As Jewish campus life in Los Angeles continues to adjust to having twice as many options on campus, some Chabads and Hillels are learning how to share the playground. 

At USC and CSUN, the two organizations already often work together when they can. 

“It’s healthy to have us both here,” Hillel 818’s Alban said. “It really is.” 

One benefit of having a Chabad rabbi right down the street, according to Alban, is that when it comes to questions of Jewish law, she knows whom to call.

“We had a student who wanted to get her apartment kashered, and so we called [Rabbi Brook],” she said.

At UCLA, some students don’t see competition: “They are interconnected,” said David Chernobylsky, a 19-year-old UCLA junior. “When you start meeting people through the other, you become more ingrained in the entire Jewish community.”

“It’s just good for the Jews,” Brook said with a smile, as he walked back to the CSUN Chabad house after spending a few hours on campus. “There’s enough work for both of us.”

And, as Seidler-Feller bluntly put it, there’s so much room for growth with Jewish college students that neither group can call itself king.

Seidler-Feller may be leading one of the most successful Hillel centers on any campus. But still, he emphasized, “Anyone who thinks one organization controls the campus is hallucinating.”

Seeking consolation


How does an irreligious Jew find consolation at a religious service?

Seeking such consolation, I attended the Hillel at UCLA High Holy Days services conducted by Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller. I don’t often go to services, but in February our oldest daughter, Robin, died, and I felt drawn there.

Rabbi Seidler-Feller — people simply call him Chaim — is a comforting presence, at least to me. I have attended a few High Holy Days services at UCLA Hillel in the past and have interviewed the rabbi for my column in the Jewish Journal. He has a scholarly yet freewheeling mind, an ability to explain our religion to skeptics like me and to welcome us into the flock, even for a brief time. He has an understated sense of humor that appeals to me, and he is a warm and approachable man.

I went alone on Rosh Hashanah. Nancy, my wife, is an abstainer. My late father once asked her why she didn’t go to temple. “Dad,” she said, “I don’t believe in it.” 

“Believe in it,” he replied. “Why, nobody believes in it.” In his mind, it was simply his duty to go. 

As the services went on around me, I was thinking of Robin. Images of our family life flashed through my mind, mostly the good times we had, but also the tough ones experienced by Robin, her sister, Jennifer, Nancy and me, a mental slide show of the Boyarsky family story.

Another family — a dysfunctional one — was the subject of the Torah reading and of Rabbi Seidler-Feller’s words to the congregation. It was the family headed by Abraham, including his wife, Sarah, and her maid, Hagar. As is well known, Sarah, unable to conceive, persuaded Abraham to father a child with Hagar, who gave birth to a boy named Ishmael. After his birth, Sarah conceived and gave birth to Isaac. The two mothers did not get along. Sarah, feeling Ishmael was a bad influence on Isaac, persuaded Abraham to send mother and son away. He complied, but after their banishment, they had a harrowing experience in the desert until an angel of God appeared to save them. God promised that Ishmael would lead a great nation. Isaac, too, was chosen to lead a great nation, and the conflict continues to this day: Isaac’s Jews versus Ishmael’s Arabs. 

Rabbi Seidler-Feller, I am sure, had told this story and commented on it countless times. Yet, in his telling, it was fresh, dealing as it does with the insoluble issues of relationships with God, with husbands, wives, siblings and, as it eventually turned out, among Arabs and Jews, although the rabbi did not dwell on this point.

With so many angles of the story to consider, I lost myself thinking about it, not paying much attention to the service. What was wrong with Abraham? How could he kick out Hagar? Of course, what could you expect from a man who later was about to sacrifice Isaac on God’s command until God rescinded the terrible order? I wondered how that defense — God told me to do it — would stand up in a trial in the Criminal Courts Building.

In early afternoon, we approached the time for the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish, and my thoughts returned to Robin. By the time of the prayer, the congregation had thinned out. I looked around at others saying the Kaddish, wondering whom they had lost, what they were thinking about and whether they were as sad as me. Not entirely sad, however. I smiled, thinking of how the witty Robin, although appreciating the fact that she was loved and being remembered, would have had some ironic comments about the event.

On Yom Kippur, I again went to services at Hillel, this time with my cousin Rhona Singer. She is as irreligious as me. We enjoy going together, because it brings back memories of growing up in Oakland with our large family and of old friends and religious school at Temple Beth Abraham, where my mother was the principal. 

I understand the solemnity of the day, but I find it difficult to repent for the many sins listed in the Al Chet recited by the congregation, even though Rabbi Seidler-Feller explained it didn’t mean we had committed them all. We were repenting for Jewish community members who had committed them.

One sin always stops me — “For the sin which we have committed before You by scoffing.” Scoffing is what I have done for a living throughout my career. Scoffing is central to my character. I couldn’t very well repent that.

During the Yizkor service, Robin’s name was among those recited by the rabbi. Rhona touched my arm in sympathy. 

I left Hillel consoled, helped by a rabbi who makes a place for the religious and the scoffers. Feeling welcome there, I was free to let my mind roam through thoughts of family, including the daughter we’ve lost. Over the years, we’ve had more happy moments than sad, and I’m thankful for that.


Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

Academy for Jewish Religion moves to Koreatown


For the first time since the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA (AJR-CA), was founded 13 years ago, the pluralistic institution that trains rabbis, cantors and chaplains has its own space. The school moved from Westwood into the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles earlier this month.

“It just seemed like the right place, the right time, and that’s why we moved. And everyone is very excited about it,” said Tamar Frankiel, president of the transdenominational seminary.

With the move, AJR-CA has joined Bet Tzedek Legal Services and the Jewish Journal in an office building at 3250 Wilshire Blvd., near Vermont Avenue. The 6,500-square-foot space, which includes six classrooms, eight administrative offices, a library and a faculty lounge, is adjacent to a large outdoor terrace area shared by the building’s tenants.

Several factors prompted the move from Westwood, where the school outgrew the campus it had been sharing on the property of the Hillel at UCLA. The incoming AJR-CA class is 40 percent larger than the 2013 graduating class, Frankiel said.  

While Koreatown is not exactly thought of as a conventionally Jewish area, times are changing: an increasing number of Jews are living and praying in and around Koreatown, including with the recent reopening of the renovated Wilshire Boulevard Temple. 

None of this has been lost on Frankiel. 

“We like to think that we’re moving to an urban neighborhood, a neighborhood growing in terms of Jewish institutions and accessible to different Jewish populations,” she said.

Unfortunately, some among the school’s 65 students will have a longer commute than before, Frankiel said. But there’s always public transportation — the location is near the Wilshire-Vermont subway stop and several bus stops. 

Frankiel believes the positives outweigh the negatives.

“Everyone who has been there has been like, ‘Wow! This is so great.’ So I feel wonderful about it, and so does everyone who has come to see the space.”

The Mensch List: Bearing witness at UCLA


When author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel was recently asked if he feared future generations might forget the Holocaust once the last surviving witnesses had perished, he answered that he had quelled his anxiety over this problem with a simple dictum: “To listen to a witness,” he said, “is to become one.” 

UCLA junior, Ashton Rosin is a living embodiment of that ideal. Quite literally, she is the director of UCLA Hillel’s Bearing Witness program, a two-month weekly workshop pairing students with Holocaust survivors for intimate discussion and reflection. Through her first workshop last year, Rosin found a friend in survivor Eva Brettler. But Rosin also wanted to go further and decided to bring the searing stories and historical significance illuminated in the workshop to a broader UCLA audience. The following spring, she inaugurated the university’s first-ever Yom HaShoah Week with a series of events addressing the Holocaust. She organized a film screening, panel discussion and a mid-campus Holocaust vigil to make the work more visible to the university’s non-Jewish population, and she personally reached out to disability-advocacy groups, the LGBT community and other organizations on campus for whom the notion of struggle and suffering would resonate.

“We really wanted to break out of the Jewish bubble,” Rosin said. “The Holocaust is not only about a specific group being targeted. It’s about the human condition.”

Story continues after the video.

Just 20, Rosin already has a history of delving into some of the most profound and complicated problems a human being can face. In high school, she was among 10 students selected by the Jacobs International Teen Leadership Institute (JITLI) to spend a summer traveling through Israel with 10 Israeli Jews and 20 Israeli Arabs on what she described as a “peace program focused on dialogue.” The program had such an impact on her that the following year she became a JITLI counselor, helping to lead other, younger participants through the intense and sometimes thorny experience of meeting neighbors they might also consider adversaries. All the dialogue made a difference, she said.

“It is some form of progress, putting a face to that ‘other’ we like to talk about,” Rosin said. “At the end of the day, I am Jewish, but the widening of my perspective kind of puts me in the devil’s advocate position nowadays. In political discussions, I’m the one who tends to bring up this notion that you can’t just displace people on the other side, that they’re real people with real lives.”

The depth of Rosin’s empathy may be tied to the fact that she has endured considerable suffering herself. At 10, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an incurable gastrointestinal autoimmune disease that forced her out of school for a year. Today, she still lives with chronic pain, goes to the doctor “all the time,” visits the hospital at least once or twice a week and maintains a strict gluten-free, fiber-free diet. 

“It’s something that’s a part of my life every day,” she said. “Pain is a constant thing; my sense of normal. But if you looked at me from the outside, you’d never know something was going on on the inside. So I gained a greater understanding for human struggle, and what’s behind closed doors. And I’ve always thought to tap into what people are really going through because, for me, people don’t really understand unless they delve in.”

“Everybody has a story,” Rosin said. She is their witness. 

Jewish theater: From Yiddish to multiculturalism


What defines “Jewish” theater?  David Chack, a playwright and president of the Association for Jewish Theatre, promises that question will be among the subjects examined at the association’s upcoming conference, Feb. 5-8 at the Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts at Hillel at UCLA.

“The theme of this year’s conference is ‘Reflecting and Shaping a Shifting World,’ and I also think the definition is shifting. There was a time when, if you said ‘Jewish theater’ to people, all they thought of was Yiddish theater. That’s not true anymore.”

Chack maintains that one of the shifts in Jewish theater is its movement toward multiculturalism, just as Jews in this country are a mixture of cultures.

“They’re not all from East European Jewish backgrounds anymore. They’re Mexican Jews and Mexicans who’ve converted to Judaism, and there’s Asian-American Jews, etc., and you see it reflected in the artists who are doing theater and film and television today, and you see it in the lives of the people around us. That’s where, I think, Jewish theater is going.”

In keeping with that perspective, the keynote speaker will be Richard Montoya of Culture Clash, the mostly Latino performance troupe known for political and social satire.

“Richard Montoya thinks of his background as being kind of crypto-Jewish from a Spanish-Jewish background,” Chack said, “who came to the Southwest of America and to Mexico, and hid their Jewish roots. He created ‘Palestine, New Mexico’ about that and did a kind of cultural investigation that was also about his own identity, about the identity of the people around him.” 

In a 2009 interview in The Journal, Montoya was quoted as saying, “I’d like to try to answer some questions so my children will know that their great-great-grandfather might be from Damascus, but your great-great-grandmother may have lit Shabbat candles on Friday night.”

For his part, Chack, who is also a producer, curator and educator, has a theater project in Chicago, called ShPIeL — Performing Identity, dedicated to presenting what he calls identity-based work, which might include productions with an African-American, Asian or Latino core; gender-based or transsexual productions; and, of course, plays with a Jewish core.

He maintains that there are theatrical works with strong Jewish underpinnings, even if they don’t appear overtly Jewish, citing Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Death of a Salesman,” as one example.

“Many people have said ‘Death of a Salesman’ not only reflects Miller’s own parents and background growing up in Brooklyn, but also, in fact, was intended to show the Wandering Jew in the same way that Willy Loman (the main character) is like a wandering and traveling salesman.”

Just as there are many variations of Jewish theater, the international membership of the 32-year-old association is varied and wide-ranging, with writers, performers, producers, directors and theater companies — and also many non-Jewish members.

This year’s conference offers a potpourri of activities, including an evening of solo performances and a presentation of readings excerpted from the works of member playwrights. Both evenings will be followed by “Insomniac’s Delight,” a late-night cabaret of “music, monologues and mischief,” produced by Frank Entertainment, which is also staging a pre-conference variety show on Saturday night, Feb. 4, that is open to the public.

Other highlights include a luncheon on Feb. 5, honoring actor Ed Asner as “an artist who exemplifies the highest aims of the Association for Jewish Theatre and the theme of this conference.” A panel on “Comedy and Drama of Ethical Values in Jewish Theatre” follows and will include Naomi Pfefferman, The Journal’s arts and entertainment editor.

Feb. 7 will be spent entirely at USC, where activities have been co-organized by solo performer-writer Stacie Chaiken, a faculty member at the university’s School of Theatre.

“We’re going to look at how artists and arts institutions interact with catastrophic content,” Chaiken explained. “The Holocaust is huge, and there are other targeted mass murders or genocides. And, on some level, and this is not to diminish anything, anytime we address [a] personal story or witness [a] catastrophe — it could include sexual violation, it could include terrible, violent loss of any kind. We have to sort thorough the material of those things to find out what is worth bringing to an audience.”

The program will include a short performance piece by Chaiken, a talk by USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith on “The Art of Witness” and a panel of artists who employ first-person testimony and historical content as the raw material for their work.

After a kosher box lunch, another panel will talk about “pushing the envelope with new and unexpected work.”

“This is all about theater being activist,” Chaiken said, “about theater and theater artists regaining the kind of musculature that it takes to address real things in the world.”

She continued, “I believe you need to be willing to go into the fray.”

Playwright Wendy Graf, who served on the conference programming committee, agrees.

“The work I’ve been doing in the last couple of years has been slightly off the traditional Jewish theater radar. It hasn’t been ‘Brooklyn Boy,’ it hasn’t been Neil Simon, and that’s not putting those down, but it’s been about 21st century Jews or issues that are controversial in the Jewish community — Israel and the Middle East and Muslims, and all that.”

Graf helped put together a panel on “New Directions in Jewish Performance.”

“One issue I’ll be addressing has to do with stepping out of the Jewish theater community to have my work produced, because some traditional Jewish theater companies find it offensive and provocative.”

That was the case with the 2010 production of Graf’s play “Behind the Gates,” which dealt with the misogyny and spousal abuse she found to be widespread among the ultra-Orthodox Charedi men in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim.

“I had been told that we shouldn’t say anything bad about Jews at all, whether it’s deserved or not deserved, or we shouldn’t say anything bad about Israel at all: ‘The world hates Israel enough as it is, so why stoke the fires of anti-Semitism?’ I’m willing to ask hard questions, and I think that is a new direction in Jewish theater.” 

Graf stressed that despite the institutional resistance, the play got tremendous support from Jewish audiences, as well as from the Israeli community. 

“Controversy sells. We were wishing that they would picket in front of the theater during ‘Behind the Gates.’  What better thing could you get than that?” 

She concluded: “Have a little more trust in people, in the audiences. They’re smart, and they want to be provoked. They want to think; they want to go across the street when the play is over and have a glass of wine and argue. So, if you have a season of three shows, take a chance with one of them.” 

For more information on the conference, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.

Association for Jewish Theatre Conference
Sun., Feb. 5 – Wed., Feb. 8
UCLA Hillel – 574 Hilgard Avenue Los Angeles, CA 90024
Tues. Feb.7 – all day at USC campus and the Shoah Foundation
For more information and complete schedule: http://afjt.com/conference/ or virtualelayne@gmail.com 

New UC president keeps kosher, loves Israel


The new president of the University of California’s 10 campuses and 220,000 students keeps a kosher home, lectures on Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed” as intellectual stimulation and spends Yom Kippur at the synagogue.

It might not be enough.

“The higher I rise in the administration, the more difficult it is to do all my atoning in one day,” Mark Yudof observes.

He is also an unabashed supporter of Israel, where he is spending the week of June 30-July 7 as co-leader of a high-powered group of American university presidents and chancellors.

Barely a week on the job, and facing a bruising budget battle, Yudof took time out for a wide-ranging interview, a good part focusing on the writings of Moses Maimonides, the great medieval philosopher and biblical interpreter.

After holding the top job at the University of Texas, and before that at the University of Minnesota, Yudof, 63, arrived in California, “with 19 sets of dishes,” to take the helm of the world’s leading public research university and its $18 billion operating budget.

He came as “an energizer, outgoing, who at meetings rarely lets a moment pass without a quip,” a Texas newspaper reported.

Yudof’s self-description adds to the picture.

“I am what I am. I have my weird sense of humor and I’m proud of it. What I’ve found works best for me is transparency, being direct and being honest,” he said.

As president, a Jew and veteran law professor, widely recognized as an authority on constitutional law and freedom of expression, Yudof faces one problem widely reported in the media.

Over the past five years, Jewish students and spokespersons have repeatedly charged that the administration on the UC Irvine campus, now headed by Chancellor Michael Drake, has failed to protect Jewish students against hate speech and intimidation by invited outside speakers and Muslim student groups.

Yudof said he was aware of the hate speech charges, adding that for him, “It is an excruciating conflict when people demean everything that Judaism stands for. Some of these speakers and what they say drive me to distraction, and I hate it,” noting that he had encountered anti-Semitism as a youth and on a couple of occasions in his academic career.

“On the other hand,” he added, “I teach constitutional law, and I have a deep commitment to the First Amendment, which has served us well over time. How do you reconcile that as a Jewish man? It is horrendously difficult.”

As co-leader of the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange trip to Israel, Yudof, even before he became UC president, had invited Drake to be part of the group, and thinks the experience will be beneficial for both of them.

At the same time, Yudof warmly defended Drake.

“I’ve had several conversations with the chancellor, and he has a great heart and enormous sympathy for the Jewish people,” he said. “He is a mensch. Because I take anti-Semitism so personally, I think I can give him some good advice.”

Yudof said he will discuss the issue when he addresses the Hadassah National Convention in Los Angeles on July 14.

Yudof faces somewhat the same conflict between his official duties and personal feelings in handling the problem of UC students who want to study in Israel for a year.

imageThe university’s official Education Abroad Program in Israel was suspended in 2002, following a U.S. State Department’s travel warning for the area.

Although UC has recently come up with some roundabout alternatives, these are cumbersome and make it difficult to assure academic credit for the Israeli courses.

After Yudof returned from an Israel trip last summer, he urged Hillel students at the University of Texas to study in the Jewish state, so his personal sentiments are clear.

Questioned on this issue, Yudof quickly agreed that Israel is a safe place and put the responsibility for the problem on Washington.

“I had the same difficulty at the University of Minnesota,” he said. “We need to talk seriously with the State Department and get officials to revise the rules.”

Yudof was born in Philadelphia, the son of an electrician. Despite his long academic career, he has never quite lost his taste for the blue-collar lifestyle, which includes frequent meals at pancake diners.

“I’m always looking for the perfect pancake,” he said.

His forebears on both sides came to America from Ukraine in the 1890s and over the generations went from Orthodox to atheism to Conservative Judaism.

“I’m much more religious than my grandfather,” he said.

Yudof joined the flagship campus of the University of Texas at Austin in 1971 as assistant professor of law, rising over the following 26 years to full professor and dean.

After a five-year stint as University of Minnesota president, Yudof returned to Texas in 2002, this time as chancellor of the multicampus system.

He credits his wife Judy (the couple has two adult children) with intensifying his Jewish observance and connection, inside and outside the house.

She is the immediate past international president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, representing 760 synagogues, the first woman to hold the post in the organization’s 93-year history.

When she assumed the presidency, she bluntly told reporters, “I didn’t decide to run because I’m a woman, but because I have the leadership skills.”

She currently serves on the council of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and on the international board of Hillel.

“Judy went to Israel quite often, and I went along as the bozo on her arm,” Yudof recalled. “About 20 years ago, Judy said she didn’t feel right about not keeping kosher at home, so we made the change. I’ve had no problem with it except for all those dishes when we move.”

Outside the home, Yudof eats nonkosher food, except for pork.

Briefs: A bright future for Hillel; At-risk teens see Shoah art; Weiss incident wrap-up


Hillel Sees Bright Future

The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life rolled out its big guns last week for lunch with some 70 major local supporters and the message was upbeat.

During a panel report and discussion at UCLA’s Yitzhak Rabin Center, national and international leaders gave a quick survey of Hillel activities at 513 campuses in the United States and Canada, foundations in Israel, Latin America and the former Soviet Union, and affiliates in the United Kingdom and Australia.

Here are some lively sound bites from the panelists:

Edgar M. Bronfman, chairman of the Hillel board of governors, megaphilanthropist and author of the recently published “Hope, Not Fear”: “The most difficult job is to keep the Jewish community together in a free society.”

On intermarriage: “It’s a chance to bring in others. We should welcome everyone into Abraham’s tent.”

“I feel much more hopeful about the Jewish future now than I did a few years ago.”

Adam Bronfman, hip son of Edgar and vice chair of Hillel’s board of directors: “I like the idea that at Queens College in New York, we have Muslim students come over to Hillel to play Ping-Pong.”

Wayne Firestone, national president: “We need a larger Hillel presence at universities in Europe. More American Jewish students study there than in Israel.”

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of UCLA Hillel, who interrupted his sabbatical leave to participate: “When I started working for Hillel in the 1970s, we had an image problem. We had to fight the N-word — nebbish.”

On his vision of the future: “We can’t have a future if we are always fighting the past. Jews are not put in the world just to fight anti-Semitism.”

“UCLA Hillel functions as a regional center. Everyone knows, this is the place to hang.”

Alex Glass, UCLA sophomore (female) and Hillel intern: “I went to Brazil on a Hillel-sponsored aid project and I was amazed. We had 220 students for Shabbat.”

For more information about Hillel, go to www.hillelhebrew.org.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

At-Risk Teens View Holocaust Art

Los Angeles artist Mark Strickland is taking his murals inspired by a trip to Dachau concentration camp to a nonprofit learning center in Pasadena that helps at-risk youths stay and succeed in school. The exhibition continues through June.

The title piece, “Indomitable Spirit,” was created after Strickland’s visit to Dachau last year. “I remember being visibly shaken by seeing the gas chambers next to the church, where some people still feel the vestiges of human suffering,” Strickland said. Using passages from Elie Wiesel’s “Night” throughout the 21′ x 10′ mural, Strickland illuminates the effects of cultural turmoil on the enduring human spirit and its ability to rise above tortured surroundings.

For this exhibit at Learning Works!, Strickland developed four murals that raise awareness on the difficult choices faced by the teens such as those who go to Learning Works! programs.

The show is open by appointment only through June 1 at Learning Works!, 90 N. Daisy Ave., Pasadena. Call (626) 564-9890 to schedule an appointment and for information visit www.markstricklandart.com.

Yom HaShoah Program Honors Mother of 100

Sixth-through eighth-graders at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy performed an original play inspired by the life of Lena Kuchler Silberman in honor of Yom HaShoah. After surviving the war, Silberman rescued 100 Jewish war orphans in Poland in 1945. She managed to get them false IDs to emigrate to Israel, then raised these children on a kibbutz.

The students performed for other classes as well as parents and community members in the evening, and students also viewed “My One Hundred Children,” a film about Silberman.

Councilman Weiss Office Defaced by Anti-Semitic Attack

When two employees for Los Angeles Councilman Jack Weiss arrived at his Sherman Oaks office Thursday morning, they were greeted by yellow caution tape, three swastikas and a minimanifesto.

“Our Policy: We have no time to listen to Jewish American children!!! If you don’t believe us, just try talking to us,” the letter, which like the swastikas and a second note was glued to a door, began. “We’ll have a homoerotic cop feeling up your Jewish ass in no time!!! Hail Weiss!! Mein Fuhrer”

As detectives were preparing to leave the scene, they spotted Adonis A. Irwin, 32, who fit the suspect description given by a neighbor. Irwin, who had previous contact with Weiss’ office and Los Angeles police, was arrested.

He was charged this week with vandalism, posting a swastika on private property and committing a hate crime, and faces up to three years in jail and $11,000 in fines. Irwin’s bail was increased from $40,000 to $175,000 and he was referred for a mental evaluation.

Weiss — a Jewish councilman for a predominantly Jewish district that includes the Valley Hills, Westwood and the Fairfax District — learned of the vandalism while attending a morning meeting at the Israeli consulate. He said in an afternoon press conference that “neither my staff nor I will be intimidated.”

According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents declined in California by about 17 percent from 2005 to 2006 but remain “disturbingly high.”

— Brad A. Greenberg, Staff Writer

Art Exhibit Links Trojans, Bruins


Divided between the USC and UCLA campuses, the latest art exhibition by the Jewish Artist Initiative (JAI), titled, “Makor/Source,” taps into the wellspring of Jewish life.

How fitting that Ruth Weisberg, USC dean of fine arts, would include her water-themed, mixed-media drawing, “Bound for Nowhere.” As a succession of hunched-over immigrant Jews board a boat headed back to Europe, the vessel, with its portholes and cables strewn like seaweed, appears to be a submarine. It is as if these passengers, who carry their belongings, ascend a gangway into an underwater graveyard.

Alternately, Weisberg, whose drawing features a muted brown or ocher color scheme, suggests that the immigrants may be “undergoing a sea change,” a salutary transmutation as they board the ship. She notes that the Jews in the drawing, though denied a visa to Palestine, ultimately may have been admitted to Israel after the country’s founding, the makor or source of a whole new chapter in the history of the Jewish people.

Barbara Drucker, UCLA art department chair, also contributed a work to the show, “Breadbox Stack No. 1,” in which seven bread boxes are tiered into a ramshackle, yet sturdy, tower. Is it a Tower of Babel surging at peril toward the heavens? Or is it, as Drucker proposes, an image both of life, as symbolized by the bread, and death, since modern-day Greeks use such boxes to store bones?

Drucker works from instinct. She did not set out to create something with a Jewish theme, but the bread boxes date from the 1920s and ’30s and recall the heyday of immigrant and first-generation Jews living in neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and the Lower East Side, yet another seminal moment in Jewish history.

JAI, which Weisberg calls the “brainchild” of the Jewish Community Foundation and USC’s Casden Institute, was formed, she said, to “act as a galvanizing force” for bringing Jewish culture to the community.

“Makor/Source” marks the first time that the Hillels of the two universities have collaborated on an exhibition. Roughly 20 local artists submitted works to the show, including collages, paintings and photographs.

Because the exhibition is based on a study of Jewish text, one of the most salient pieces is Joyce Dallal’s “Promises Made in a Language I Don’t Understand,” an ink-jet print of pieces of paper bunched into a ball. The image of crumpled paper might or might not refer to the Hebrew Bible. It’s hard to say, so indecipherable are the runes, yet the scraps, involuted as they are, do resemble a Torah being unscrolled.

Even if Hebrew, like all Indo-European tongues, comes from an original source, the endless permutations can create language barriers that are palpable, if less severe to the artist than humanity’s failings or God’s.

“Makor/Source” is at USC Hillel, 3300 S. Hoover St., (213) 747-9135, ext. 14. Opening reception is Sunday, Jan. 22, 3-5 p.m. “Makor/Source” is also at UCLA Hillel, 574 Hilgard Ave., (310) 208-3081. Both exhibits run through March 3.

Community Divided Over Hillel Rabbi


The UCLA Hillel rabbi who allegedly lost his temper and kicked a freelance journalist who called him a derogatory name could be required to undergo anger management training, counseling or worse for his reported actions.

On Dec. 1, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller and Rachel Neuwirth will meet separately with a city attorney hearing officer in Los Angeles to try to sort through the facts of his reported physical assault on her. Afterward, the hearing officer will mete out the appropriate punishment to Seidler-Feller, if merited, said Eric Moses, the city attorney’s director of public relations. It is possible the hearing officer could recommend that criminal charges be brought against Seidler-Feller.

Robert Esensten, Neuwirth’s lawyer, said that’s exactly what he wants. The city attorney has so far opted not to pursue them because witnesses have given conflicting testimony, making it difficult to obtain a jury conviction, Moses said.

Esensten said that Neuwirth has suffered emotionally and physically from the alleged attack, including bruising and soreness throughout her body. She plans to file a civil suit soon, he said, although he would not say when.

At the hearing, Seidler-Feller’s attorney Donald Etra said he would propose that "both sides shake hands and make peace." Etra also said Seidler-Feller was "sorry that there was an incident and that anybody took offense."

Etra said Seidler-Feller does not want to have Neuwirth prosecuted for having committed a hate crime by calling the rabbi a kapo. (Kapo is a pejorative term for the Jews who collaborated with Nazis in concentration camps during World War II.)

Legal experts question whether such an act meets the definition of a hate crime. The only police report filed to date involves Seidler-Feller’s alleged actions, Moses said.

"This is simply spin trying to divert the attention away from the batterer, aggressor and wrongdoer," Esensten said. "You don’t need to go to the yeshiva to know that men don’t hit women."

This affair has divided the community, primarily along partisan lines. Many dovish Jews critical of the Sharon government have come to the rabbi’s defense and point to his long service in the community. Jews more distrustful of the Arab world and the value of interfaith dialogue promoted by Seidler-Feller have called for his ouster. Either way, "the debate has become about ideology, which it shouldn’t be," said Dr. Steven Teitelbaum, president of the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) Pacific Southwest Region.

His colleague, Gary Ratner, said he thinks Hillel should demand Seidler-Feller’s resignation or fire him. He also said the left’s relative silence has troubled him.

"What you have are liberal people who I know have been at the forefront of defending women’s rights, gay rights, anybody’s rights, who abhor violence, but are defending someone who committed violence against women," said Ratner, AJCongress’ western region executive director.

Etra intimated that those criticizing the rabbi have done so for political purposes and seem to have an agenda to "blow a minor incident out of proportion," Etra said. "I don’t know if it’s Ms. Neuwirth or someone else."

Neuwirth’s attorney called that a complete distortion and has nothing to do with politics.

Seidler-Feller allegedly attacked reporter Neuwirth on Oct. 21, when the two encountered each other outside UCLA’s Royce Hall after an Alan Dershowitz speech. The pair started arguing after Neuwirth overheard the rabbi inviting a group of protesting pro-Palestinian activists to a Hillel-sponsored event featuring Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian representative for Jerusalem. Nusseibeh has been accused of advising Saddam Hussein to launch Scud missiles toward Israel’s population centers to kill the maximum number of civilians.

In the midst of Seidler-Feller and Neuwirth’s heated exchange, Seidler-Feller allegedly grabbed the mother of two and former player on the Israeli national basketball team. Then he allegedly pushed and kicked Neuwirth. Whether she called him a kapo before or after the reported assault is also in dispute.

After four onlookers separated them, Seidler-Feller tried to charge Neuwirth, said Ross Neihaus, the president of Bruins for Israel, the pro-Israel student group at UCLA, who said he helped restrain the rabbi.

Neihaus told The Journal that the rabbi has been under pressure in recent years because of attacks on his political views and the challenge of raising millions for Hillel’s new building. Neihaus said he respects the rabbi, but thinks Seidler-Feller should voluntarily take up to a one-year sabbatical and issue a public apology for his actions.

"I’m concerned that Jewish students thinking about being involved in Hillel will attach a [stigma] to it and shy away because of the negative publicity," Neihaus said.

In the aftermath of the altercation, UCLA Hillel students last week held a special session on Thursday, Nov. 6. Emily Kane, co-president of the university’s Hillel student board, said reactions have been mixed. She called Seidler-Feller an important player in the Jewish community. Still, his alleged actions have disappointed her.

"I’m very surprised. He’s a peacenik from way back," Kane said.

In a written statement, Hillel’s interim President Avraham Infeld said the group is monitoring the situation closely and expected to put all questions to rest after an upcoming city attorney’s hearing.

Rabbi Robert Gan, president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, said his organization has historically not taken positions on such matters. He said has a deep respect for Seidler-Feller and what he’s accomplished at UCLA’s Hillel over the years.

"He’s a prominent, responsible, principled, committed, dynamic rabbi and has been for years," Gan said. "There’s no more decent person in this community. You have to take that into consideration in terms of whatever might have happened."

Rabbi Simeon Kolko, a former Hillel rabbi at Penn State and the Rochester Institute of Technology, said Jewish law permits the use of physical force only if a person’s well-being or life is endangered. Based on those talmudic tenets, there exists no justification for Seidler-Feller’s alleged actions, he said.

Kolko, now the rabbi at Beth Israel Temple Center in Warren, Ohio, said Seidler-Feller has blackened the Jewish community’s reputation. "He has not only brought shame to himself, suffering to another person but also disrepute to Judaism and the Hillel movement."

While Jeff Rubin, Hillel’s director of communications in Washington, D.C., would not comment on the situation, he did say that he is unaware of any Hillel rabbi physically attacking someone. Hillel has more than 450 chapters in North America.

The last time a rabbi publicly came to blows with someone was in Palm Beach, Fla. in November 1999. During a contentious Temple Emanu-El executive board meeting, famous Soviet Refusenik and charismatic Conservative Rabbi Leonid Feldman punched congregational President Stephen Levin. The next morning, Feldman apologized to all, and stayed at the synagogue for another four months before voluntarily resigning in order not to tear the community apart, he told The Journal.

Feldman’s situation is different from Seidler-Feller’s, he said, refusing to comment directly on the case. Feldman said it differed because it involved a congregational president "who made my life miserable," and "there was never any call for me to resign," he said.

Feldman took a position at another synagogue, Temple Emanu-El in Miami Beach, where he has tripled synagogue membership, he said. In the process of landing his new job, he received a three-year suspension (which ended in August) from the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly for bypassing the organization’s placement service. The suspension was unrelated to the fight, he said.

Here in Los Angeles on the other sunny coast, many in the community are calling for forgiveness, citing Seidler-Feller’s commitment to tolerance, interfaith dialogue and fundraising.

UCLA Hillel board member David Lehrer said Seidler-Feller’s commitment to Judaism and educating young people is unparalleled. He said the rabbi had made a mistake but that it should be put in perspective.

This is not the first time that Seidler-Feller has had run-ins with his political opponents.

In March at an event sponsored by StandWithUs — a pro-Israel grass-roots organization that has locked horns with Seidler-Feller — two of the group’s supporters said that Seidler-Feller yelled at the speakers during the question-and-answer session, demanding to know whether they supported the two-state solution. StandWithUs consultant Roberta Seid, one of the panelists, said she told Seidler-Feller that they weren’t there to discuss the issue, adding that she thought Israel has been unfairly vilified. Seid said that Seidler-Feller stormed out of the room before an audience of 100.

"I was very taken aback. I didn’t know why he was being so hostile," said Seid, a self-described Clinton Democrat who said she favors the two-state solution.

Another StandWithUs supporter, Bracha Friedman, said that two years ago when Seidler-Feller showed up to one of StandWithUs’ inaugural meetings in Beverly Hills, he interrupted speakers, telling them to "shush" and told them that they were wrong, Friedman said. He behaved so boorishly he was asked to leave, she said. Before he leaving, Friedman said she saw Seidler-Feller and another man pushing.

Seidler-Feller, at the advice of his lawyer, declined to comment. His attorney, Etra, said he had no knowledge about his client’s alleged blowups. Seidler-Feller is passionate about his job, religion and mission, Etra said.

David Suissa, one of the rabbi’s supporters who tried to negotiate a rapprochement between the two parties, said that the rabbi is an emotional man who rarely shies away from a heated debate.

"If somebody pushes his buttons, he’ll get upset and confront them verbally," said Suissa, the founder and editor of Olam Magazine.

Suissa believes that perhaps some good can come out this affair. He said he hoped the brouhaha would lead Jews to learn how to disagree with one another more respectfully. The community has become too polarized and lost civility, he said. Perhaps this tragedy might lead people to avoid crossing "the red lines," he added.

Dr. Sheldon Wolf, a professor at UCLA Medical School, has given money to StandWithUs and considers himself politically conservative in the Israeli-Palestinian debate. Still, he considers himself one of Seidler-Feller’s strongest supporters and thinks those calling for the rabbi’s ouster are misguided.

Wolf and his wife have attended Seidler-Feller’s services at Hillel for eight years and audited two of the undergraduate courses he teaches at UCLA. He said the rabbi’s tireless work to build good relation’s between the campus’ Jews and Muslims has done more than simply generate goodwill.

"I think the lack of violence at the UCLA campus, first between blacks and Jews and now between Muslims and Jews, is largely a result of his efforts," Wolf said. "The guy’s almost saintly in his goodness."

Cool Jews on Campus


College can be a time for Jewish students to further explore their Judaism — religiously, socially and politically. The following is a compilation of resources available to Jewish students and a summary of what these groups are doing on campus.

UCLA

UCLA is the largest college campus in Los Angeles, with a Jewish population of about 3,000 students, constituting 7 percent of the student body. The largest Jewish group at UCLA is Hillel, which offers a range of student activity from Shabbat services to political advocacy and social action.

UCLA’S Hillel has been in existence for more than 65 years. This year, Hillel is expanding greatly and has hired many new leaders in order to cater to the very diverse Jewish population on campus and in anticipation of Hillel’s move to a new building, the Hillel Center for Jewish Student Life.

Uri and Julie Goldstein, new to Hillel, will become religious leaders, organizing programs and leading services for Orthodox students on campus, in addition to the programs led by Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Hillel director.

This year, Hillel at UCLA has become one of only eight Tzedek campuses, meaning it has been given a $10,000 grant to get involved in the entire community of Los Angeles through social action and community service. Tzedek had its kickoff fair this month, when organizations from around the city came to educate students and help them become politically aware.

“Our goal is to transform Hillel into a social service and political advocacy center on campus,” said Rabbi Mychal Rosenbaum, Hillel’s associate director for Jewish student life.

Hillel at UCLA is also the umbrella organization for many student-led groups on campus, including Bruins for Israel, which will be educating other students about Israel and combating anti-Zionist sentiment on campus. Bruins for Israel is currently planning a weeklong campaign called Pro-Israel week, to provide information about Israel’s history.

University of Southern California

There are about 1,500 Jewish undergrads at USC, representing between 8 and 10 percent of the undergraduate student body. Hillel at USC serves as the only Jewish group on campus, having incorporated all other groups into it a few years ago. Services there are led by Rabbi Jonathan Klein. Hillel sponsors 13 student groups in a roundtable, each chaired by someone on the Hillel student board. These groups include ones for students interested in theater, a capella singing, social action and Jewish films. There is a group for freshmen; for Persian students; a Greek group for Jews within the Greek system; a pro-Israel advocacy group, the progressive Jewish Student Alliance, and groups for Reform, Conservative and Orthodox students.

A week after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., USC Hillel was part of an interfaith service held in the middle of campus. Jewish students at the service raised over $1,600 for relief funds.

The Israel advocacy group, which is associated with AIPAC, is working to educate students about Israel and help them become more politically aware. “Students are not educated enough to combat anti-Israel sentiment,” said Matt Davidson, associate director. “We need to educate students and become more proactive, as opposed to reactive.”

CSUN

At CSUN, 8 percent of the student body, or 3,500 students, are Jewish. CSUN’s main Jewish group is Hillel. This year CSUN’s Hillel has become a Hamagshimim (fulfillment) organization, meaning it has received funding from Hadassah for the purpose of Israel programming. With this money, Hillel sponsors a monthly Israel culture night and has begun a student political advocacy group called SIPAC, or Student Israeli Public Affairs Committee, which is attempting to raise the political awareness on CSUN’s traditionally apolitical campus. SIPAC recently held a forum on the Sept. 11 attacks and how they affect Israel.

CSUN Hillel also offers Shabbat dinner and services, led by Rabbi Jordan Goldson, at least three times a month, and maintains a Rosh Chodesh group and a group for freshmen.

Los Angeles 5758Making the Tough Sell


There was noquestion: Of the three rabbis sitting up on the dais at UCLA Hillel,Rabbi Shlomo Riskin had the toughest sell. After all, audiences whocome to hear panels on pluralism usually bristle at Orthodoxy’sseeming exclusivity.

But, true to self, Riskin didn’t let theanticipation of a hostile reaction stop him. After his colleaguesfinished their presentations, Riskin took the mike out of its holder,stood up and positioned himself to win the audience over with apassion that animated each of his stories, jokes, and subtle yetpowerful points.

But, as those familiar with his accomplishmentsknow, Riskin is used to the tough sell — and used to winning. He isa master builder, and, usually, before anyone can blink at hissometimes controversial notions, he has created yet anotherinstitution in which his philosophy can become a living, breathingJudaism.

On a recent trip to Los Angeles from Efrat, theWest Bank city just outside of Jerusalem that he helped found and nowleads, Riskin sat down to talk about his latest ideas, squeezing aquick interview into a packed schedule of speaking engagements andprivate fund-raising meetings.

At the top of his list is the first women’s hesderyeshiva — a joint program of army duty and Torah study, parallel tomen’s programs. Fifty women have already signed on, demonstrating tothe “Israeli public at large that Torah-committed people are ready toaccept every challenge that the State of Israel has to offer,” saysRiskin, 57.

The hesder program at the new $8 million campus inthe Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem is one of several cutting-edgeprograms of Ohr Torah Stone, Riskin’s 2,000-student educationalempire that includes a women’s division with an accrediteduniversity, a program for foreign students and advanced Torahscholarship, plus a men’s division with yeshivot and rabbinicprograms.

Over the past seven years, Midreshet Lindenbaum,the women’s division, has trained more than 50 women to be advocatesin rabbinic courts, a presence aimed at alleviating some of theantagonism women often face in a court, or beit din, where alldivorces in Israel are adjudicated.

The advocates are especially useful for cases ofagunah, where a husband denies his wife a Jewish divorce contract oruses it as a tool of extortion.

Riskin, an engaging speaker and convincingspokesman, has also developed a legal center and hot line, staffed bythe advocates, and has helped in establishing a beit din to dealexclusively with agunah cases.

Riskin says the advocates are a good example ofhow a quiet revolution is changing the halachic community. When theprogram began, rabbinic support seemed a long way off.

“But the rabbis made a complete turnabout,” saysRiskin, his round face breaking into a smile. “Chief Rabbi Lau cameto our graduation last June. We have close to 50 graduates who areaccepted by every religious court in the country.”

Riskin is hoping that the same gradual acceptancewill come to the poskot, or female halachic authorities, he is nowtraining at Midreshet Lindenbaum.

The women will issue halachic responses aboutShabbat, kashrut and, most importantly, issues of family ritualpurity.

“In the interest of modesty, having women beingthe first one to make the decision on intimate women questions is, Ithink, a most important advance,” says Riskin, who is married and hasfour children.

While many see his policies, especially on women,putting him on the leftmost wing of Orthodoxy, Riskin says he feelsunique but not unrepresentative.

“I think the Judaism I am talking about — whichis uncompromising halachic Judaism, but within halacha gives a greatdeal of room for women to express themselves religiously, for dignityof human rights — my sense is that this is very much indemand.”

He points out that his past innovations are nowmainstream, such as teaching women advanced Talmud, which hepioneered in the late 1960s at Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York(which he founded and led for more than 20 years).

Still, he often hears, “If only more Orthodoxrabbis were like you.” Following his plea for dialogue and mutualrespect, that is what he heard from University of Judaism ProvostRabbi Elliot Dorff, who accompanied Riskin and Rabbi Richard Levy,president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of AmericanRabbis, on the UCLA Hillel panel, which discussed pluralism andIsrael’s conversion.

The rabbis offered different interpretations ofhow far Israel had come in accepting the recommendations of theNeeman Commission, which proposed establishing learning centers whererabbis from all the major denominations would teach potentialconverts, but where Orthodox rabbis would perform the actualritual.

While Levy and Dorff both seemed pessimistic,since the chief rabbinate had not endorsed the institution, Riskinfinds significance in the fact that the rabbinate did not dismiss theinstitution and has even said it would accept the converts.

Riskin says the idea is “brilliant” because itshows the movements can learn and teach together while stillmaintaining one standard of who is a Jew.

“We can disagree about certain details about theShabbat and festivals and rituals, you can be Orthodox, Conservative,Reform, Reconstructionist or secular, but my child can still marryyours.”

That is no small detail, Riskin told the raptaudience in a deliberately hushed tone. “That expresses the fact thatwhat unites us is far more significant than that which dividesus.”


L.A. 5758 Briefs

Ten For Chai

Usually whenthe Chai Center packs a banquet hall, it’s for a seder, High Holidayservices, or some other Jewish celebration open to “any Jew thatmoves.” But when people jam into the hall this weekend, they will becelebrating the Chai Center itself, and its quirky, lovable leaders,Olivia and Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzy” Schwartz. It’s the tenthanniversary for the outreach center with a sense of humor, a love ofJudaism and a bold creativity that adds a stroke of neon to L.A.’sJewish landscape.

Sunday, March 29. Call (213) 937-3911 forbanquet information, or (310) 391-7995 for Chai Center activities.— Julie Gruenbaum Fax,Religion Editor

Do Unto Others

On ShabbatHaGadol, the Saturday before Passover, people are usually preoccupiedwith their own needs. Rabbis throughout the city and the country willbe reminding congregants about the needs of others, and how thoseneeds are met by Jewish Family Service.

“As we approach Passover we need to think aboutpeople who are on the outside looking to find a way in,” says SallyWeber, director of Jewish Community Programs for JFS.

About a dozen L.A. synagogues will host speakersfrom JFS, while many others will distribute literature.

Shabbat HaGadol, April 3-4. For moreinformation, call JFS at (213) 761-8800.— J.G. F.

Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, above, and his wifeOlivia (not pictured) will be honored for their work bringing Judaismto “any Jew that moves.” Left, a community action worker for JewishFamily Service’s Alcohol and Drug Program, a program helping peoplesuffering from addiction and their families in the Jewishcommunity.


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Fitting Together


At the conclusion of the weekend, participantstook their puzzle piece name tags and together assembled a poster.Photos by Nancy Steiner

 

For Jewish young adults in Los Angeles, connectingwith Judaism can be a puzzling experience. So it seemed appropriatethat the 145 participants of ACCESS’s annual Shabbaton weekend atCamp Ramah received name tags in the form of puzzle pieces.

ACCESS is the young-adult program of the JewishFederation of Greater Los Angeles, and the March 13-15 Shabbatonweekend retreat drew a record number of participants, who were eagerto make connections, both social and spiritual.

An ACCESS member for about four years, Iparticularly enjoy this annual opportunity to gain new insights aboutJudaism and spend a leisurely weekend with good friends. Many otherparticipants were longtime ACCESS members who, like me, wereShabbaton veterans. There were also several newcomers to the group,and, for some, this was their first taste of the Federation’sprogram.

Sayan Gomel, 28, recently moved to Los Angeles andcame “to get more involved with the community and my religion.”Describing himself as more “cultural” than “religious,” Gomel saw theShabbaton as a chance to meet “people you have more in commonwith.”

Although the majority of ACCESS members aresingle, there were at least nine couples on our weekend, many of whomhad met through the Federation. But while people were undoubtedlykeeping an eye out for their beshert, the focus was more onfriendship and community.

This was the third Shabbaton for Jodee Mora, whodescribes herself as on the more “seasoned” end of ACCESS’s 25-to-40age continuum. “It’s like having a big sleep-over party with all yourfriends,” says Mora, who came for “the chance to be with greatfriends in a beautiful, tranquil environment, learn more aboutreligion and…unwind from regular responsibilities.”

The theme of the program was “Why Be Jewish?” andif we learned anything during the weekend, it was that the answer isas unique and individual as each participant.

Our program began with song-filled Friday-nightservices, followed by a traditional Shabbat dinner. Then we gatheredto hear keynote speaker Carol Levy, executive director of theAmerican Jewish Congress. Levy’s boisterous address alternatedbetween serious and comic as she exhorted her listeners to translatethe spirit we demonstrated on the weekend into community action. Sheasked participants to break into small discussion groups and sharetheir positive Jewish experiences. During a second presentation onSaturday, Levy described Judaism as “endless struggle, endless joyand endless oy,” and advised us that being a mensch is “a lifetimeendeavor.”

At Saturday-morning services, everyone got achance to have an aliyah, based upon which theme from the Torahportion most resonated with them. Services were followed by workshops(from which we chose two) on spirituality, tzedakah, Jewish holidays,the movements within Judaism, and crafts. Renee Firestone, aHolocaust survivor, and John Crites, a Jew-by-choice, also offeredworkshops. I opted for the spirituality session, where Rabbi GordonBernat-Kunin taught us about Buber’s “I-it” and “I-you” definitionsof relationships. Later, my inner child played at the arts and craftsworkshop, where we created etched-glass kiddush cups.

After Havdalah, the mood turned from serious tosilly as we broke into groups and were assigned to incorporate aJewish life-cycle event and a random object into a skit or song. Mygroup put together a jingle combining marriage with a remote control,while the group that got shiva and a toilet seat faced a tougher testand rose (actually, sunk) to the challenge.

Sunday afternoon arrived more quickly than wewould have liked. But as Shabbaton Co-Chair Craig Miller observed,the program had provided a new, “positive Jewish experience” thatparticipants could add to those they had shared at the beginning ofthe weekend.

At theconclusion of the program, participants took their puzzle piece nametags and together assembled a “1998 ACCESS Shabbaton” poster. Forthat moment, all the pieces fell into place. And with luck, each ofus gained something from our weekend experience that would make usfeel just a little more connected when we returned home.

For more information about the Federation’s ACCESSprogram, call (213) 761-8130.

Rebuilding a Family’s Past

In her latest memoir, Helen Epsteinrecounts the stories of grandparents she never knew

By Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer

Until she entered a concentration camp, FrancesEpstein hardly knew that she was a Jew. The same cannot be said ofher daughter, Helen Epstein, who thinks of herself as being “in aconstant state of teshuvah [return]” to Judaism.

Epstein was in Los Angeles earlier this month totalk about her recently published book, “Where She Came From: ADaughter’s Search for Her Mother’s History,” an absorbing memoir thatrebuilds her family’s destroyed and nearly forgotten past.

Epstein, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., with her husbandand two preteen sons, believes that she is the first in her familysince her great-grandmother, Therese Sachsel, who can walk to shulfrom her home. Though she calls herself “semi-observant,” even thatis a far cry from the life her mother led as an assimilated Jew inPrague during the 1920s and 1930s. Epstein had always hoped to writea story about her mother and her mother’s mother, Pepi, a skilledseamstress who was killed during the Holocaust. Epstein’s 1979 book,”Children of the Holocaust,” had made her a kind of icon among thesons and daughters of survivors. But, she said during an interview,”no one was dying to have a book about my grandmother.”

The book had taken a back seat to other projectsuntil Frances died suddenly from a brain aneurysm in 1989; she was69. For Epstein, then 42, the eldest of Frances’ three children andher only daughter, the loss was made more unbearable by her mother’srequest that no “Kaddish” be said, no rabbi be in attendance, and herremains be cremated. Epstein and her brothers didn’t even sitshiva.

“It placed a great burden on us,” she said duringa discussion with members and guests of Second Generation of LosAngeles. “We had no way of mourning.”

It was then that Epstein decided not to wait foran assignment — which might never come — and to write the book shehad dreamed of writing for many years. It was a project that tookabout eight years and spanned thousands of miles, as Epstein pursuedher grandmother’s story, from the archives of the research library atnearby Harvard University to the State Central Archive in Prague. Hersearch was bolstered by her fluency in Czech, which she learned as achild.

Epstein believes that her book is part of agrowing interest in genealogy among Jewish baby boomers. “We’re atthe age where we want to tell our children about our parents, and ourparents are dying.” As she has traveled around the country, promotingher book, Epstein said, she has come across
many Jews in their 30s,40s and 50s who are using the Internet to search for long-lostrelatives scattered throughout the world. “What’s so exciting aboutthe Internet is that when you get on it in Los Angeles, you arelikely to start conversations with someone in Poland…. It hasreally revolutionized the whole field of rebuilding families andreconnecting.”

As for her own search, Epstein did it theold-fashioned way. “I wouldn’t have had a book if I’d done it theelectronic way,” she said. “What my book depends on is stories.”These were dramatic stories that often came directly from her mother:the great-grandmother who committed suicide at 44, leaving behindthree young children; the grandmother, Pepi, raised as an orphan, whobecame a dressmaker in Prague at age 15. “These are things I couldnot have gotten off the Internet,” Epstein said.

While writing “Children of the Holocaust” was aliberating experience because she discovered a sense of kinship withother children of survivors, writing “Where She Came From” was purepleasure, Epstein said. “I never had a sense of family. Everyone wasdead when I was born. I really feel, in this book, I createdgrandparents for myself. That was an extremely rewardingexperience.”

Helen Epstein and her parents, Frances andKurt, top. Photos from “Where She CameFrom: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s History.”


UCLA Hillel’s New Home

Launched quietly by million-dollar donations fromthree of the most recognizable names in Jewish life, the campaign toerect and furnish a new home for UCLA’s Hillel Center is about to gopublic.

The Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Lifewill rise on the site of the YWCA building, directly across from theUCLA Faculty Center on Hilgard Avenue.

The $8.5 million drive to build and endow the newHillel Center began some 18 months ago with unpublicized gifts of $1million each from former MCA/Universal Chairman Lew Wasserman, StevenSpielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation, and Edgar M. Bronfman,president of the World Jewish Congress and international chairman ofHillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

Add another $500,000 from entertainment executiveHaim Saban and a total of $1.5 million in smaller gifts, and thecampaign is more than half way home, said Janice Kamenir-Resnik, whoheads the campaign.

Bronfman was recently in Los Angeles to press theflesh and exhort large-scale would-be donors. He joined one smalldinner, at which attendance was limited to potential million-dollargivers.

The timetable for the new 18,000-square-footbuilding, replacing the present 45-year old, unattractive andover-crowded facility, calls for ground-breaking in eight months anda construction period of 18 months.

The present YWCA building, which is 75 years oldand cannot meet seismic and safety standards, will be torn down, saidKamenir-Resnik, whose current involvement started when she met herfuture husband at a UCLA Hillel function.

Formal announcement of the Rabin Center plans isdue on May 14 at a tribute dinner marking Chaim Seidler-Feller’s 25years as a Hillel rabbi. Public fund raising is to kick into highgear in September. — TomTugend, Contributing Editor

 

Left to right, Rabbi Richard Levy, EdgarBronfman, Herb Glaser and Dean Ambrose discuss the new UCLA HillelCenter home.

 

Community Briefs

Exchanging Gifts, Goodwill

Aviva Lebovitz (l) and Fredi Rembaum (r) with PressmanAcademy students holding Purim packets from Israelistudents

The celebration of Purim took on a newinternational dimension for the children of Beth Am PressmanAcademy.

Pressman Academy (grades K through 8) is one offour Los Angeles day schools (Emek Hebrew Academy, Abraham JoshuaHeschel Community Day School and Milken Community High School are theothers) that have been twinned with schools in Israel through the newLos Angeles-Tel Aviv Partnership. Since fall, the Pressman kids havebeen writing to pen pals at Magen School in suburban Tel Aviv. Aspart of the ongoing relationship in which educators from the twoschools will exchange faculty members and curriculum ideas, adelegation from Magen was due to come to Los Angeles in lateFebruary. Fear of a second Gulf War scuttled the trip, but thePressman student body, under the leadership of Principal AvivaLebovitz, found a tangible way to send Purim greetings to theircounterparts at Magen.

The 280 Pressman students made individualmishloah manotbaskets, enclosed personal postcards, then added candy and othergoodies. The load, which filled two huge suitcases, was schlepped toIsrael by Beth Am Rabbi Joel Rembaum and his wife, Fredi, who happensto be the Jewish Federation’s director of Israel and overseasrelationships and a prime mover in the twin-school program. TheRembaums, in Israel to welcome a new grandson, met with parents fromthe Magen School and were given another huge suitcase of mishloahmanot packets to take back to the Pressman kids.

At a school assembly, the packets were distributedto enthusiastic children, who greeted the unexpected gifts with achorus of “Toda Rabah” [thank you very much].

Future plans for the two schools include a jointbilingual newsletter to be published over the Internet. SaysLebovitz, “One of our goals is to create a sense of community betweenus and them — a feeling that we are connected.” — Beverly Gray, Contributing Writer

UJ Conference on Israel

Beginning on Sunday, March 29, the University ofJudaism will hold the symposium “Exile/Diaspora/Homeland: In theFiftieth Year of the State of Israel.” For the nominal charge of $60,the public is invited to attend the various panels, dinners andfestivities that make up the conference, which is being held underauspices of the Western Jewish Studies Association and runs throughTuesday, March 31.

For conference information, call Dr. Aryeh Cohen,chair of the UJ Jewish studies department, or Dr. Miriyam Glazer,chair of the literature department: (310) 476-9777, ext. 262 or ext.206. — B.G.

As an added attraction, Monday evening, March30, will be devoted to a performance of music, voice and dance,billed as “The Sephardic Soul of Flamenco.” The Del Monte familyincorporates into its repertoire centuries-old Gypsy traditions ofCentral and Eastern Europe as well as the musical legacy of theMediterranean Jewish peoples. This performance is free to those whohave registered for the conference; all others can purchase separatetickets for $15.

Music of Youth

A unique concert, featuring 12 talented studentmusicians from BJE-affiliated schools and youth programs, will beheld on Wednesday night, March 25, at the Westside Jewish CommunityCenter. The musicians, who will perform solo pieces by Bach,Beethoven, Vivaldi, Mozart and Chopin, were chosen through a citywidecompetiti
on.

It’s all part of the Liana Cohen Music Festival,established two years ago by the Cohen family to perpetuate thememory of their daughter. An accomplished pianist, she was killed bya drunken driver. Admission is free. Further information is availablefrom the BJE’s Dr. David Ackerman at (213) 761-8606. — B.G.

L.A. Holocaust Museum Moves

A page from 1943 autographalbum of Betty Koboshka Gerard. The album is part of the HolocaustMuseum’s personal memorabilia collection.

The Martyrs Memorial and Museum of the Holocaust,long tucked away in obscurity inside the walls of the JewishFederation Building, is changing its name and moving to a new, moreaccessible location. Its most frequent moniker, the Los AngelesMuseum of the Holocaust, will now be its official name, with MartyrsMemorial as a secondary title.

This spring, it will relocate to 6006 WilshireBlvd. on Museum Row, between the Petersen Automotive Museum and theMuseum of Miniatures, and across the street from the Los AngelesCounty Museum of Art. Sharing space at the new site will be theJewish Community Library and the Jewish Historical Society. All threeinstitutions were displaced last fall when the Federation moved tonew temporary quarters nearby.

Sometimes confused with the better-known Museum ofTolerance, the museum is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.A department of the Federation, the institution was founded primarilyby survivors as both a museum and memorial. Its mission has been bothto educate the public about the Holocaust and commemorate those whoperished. “We deal with one subject: what happened between 1933 and1945 in Europe and North Africa,” said Marsha Reines Josephy, themuseum’s acting director and curator.

Using a stark, photodocumentary approach, themuseum offers a glimpse into the lives of European and North AfricanJews prior to and during World War II through photographs, documents,personal memorabilia and rare artifacts. Much of the material hasbeen donated by Los Angeles-area Jews, and families come frequentlyto view their own personal history, Josephy said.

In addition to its collection, the museum hasvideo stations that offer survivor accounts and historical footage.It also provides speakers to schools; serves as a resource forresearchers, teachers, and film and video documentarians; and offerspublic events.

Even after the Federation moves from its temporaryheadquarters at 5700 Wilshire Blvd., the hope is that the museum willremain where it is.

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust willreopen in its new location later this spring. It is seekingsuggestions on ways to celebrate its 20th anniversary. To convey yourideas or for more information on current programs, call MuseumCoordinator Masha Loen at (213) 761-8170.— Ruth Stroud,Staff Writer

Etta Israel Center Online

The Etta Israel Center has been awarded a $150,000grant by the Covenant Foundation to create a new Internet site topromote Jewish education for the disabled and to help Jewish studentsand their families find their way through the special-educationmaze.

The Internet site will feature professionallymonitored articles, bulletin boards, chat groups, resources andsearchable databases. Disabled students and their support groups willbe able to share knowledge, experience, frustrations and successes;school administrators and special-education teachers will be able tointeract and improve the delivery of special education.

World-renowned scientist Dr. Michael Samet willlend his technical skills to creating and developing the new site.Dr. Samet created the Multimedia Computer Learning Center at theMuseum of Tolerance and designed an automobile Internet site that wonthe 1997 Webby for the World’s Best Money Site.

For more information, call (310) 285-0909. — Staff Report

Talking Up Tourism

Israeli tourism officialsfocused on selling Israel as a vital travel destination to anaudience of travel industry professionals.

In commemoration of Israel’s 50th anniversary, theIsrael Government Tourist Office threw a gala banquet at the BeverlyHilton during the height of Purim last week. The combination tradeshow/dinner/entertainment event, targeted at a travel-industryaudience, focused on selling Israel as a vital traveldestination.

Echoing the festive Purim holiday, the jubileeshow offered a balance of food and fun, kicking off with a trade-showreception that included representatives from airlines (El Al, TowerAir), travel agencies (World Express, Hadar Travel & Tours), andtour package groups (Carmel, Prestige).

Among the guests ushered into the banquet room forthe official program were Shimon Stein, legal adviser to PrimeMinister Binyamin Netanyahu, and Ari Rappaport, head of Israel’s50th-anniversary committee. With the aid of pie charts and tourismtrailers, host Oren Drori, director of the Israeli Government TouristOffice, gave a brief lecture on selling Israel’s image and handlingquestions of security.

“There are two kinds of Israel,” Drori said,half-joking. “Israel, my country, and the CNN Israel.” He furtheremphasized PR concerns by turning the tables on stereotypes, pointingout Israel’s perception of Los Angeles as a city under siege bygangs, and suggesting that the most dangerous part of an Angeleno’strip to Israel is the ride from home to LAX.

Entertainment accompanied the chicken and saladbuffet in the form of comedian Eitan Lev, who riffed on Israelitourists, mimicking Hebrew as spoken by the French, Germans and otherforeigners. Afterward, the sizable crowd was treated to an energeticperformance of Israeli folk dancing. –Michael Aushenker, Community Editor