Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, and former L.A. Mayor and current California gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa meet in Los Angeles. They had a private conversation about Israel and other topics. Photo courtesy of Congregation Mogen David Rabbi Yehuda Moses

Moving & Shaking: Top Israeli Sephardic Rabbi Visits L.A.; Tribute Paid to Leonard Cohen


Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, visited Los Angeles from Nov. 21-26 and met with many community members and leaders, including former L.A. mayor and current gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa.

During a meeting in the rabbi’s hotel room, Villaraigosa, who is running in the 2018 California gubernatorial race, asked the Hebrew-speaking rabbi for a blessing. The two leaders also discussed pluralism issues facing Israel in light of the Reform movement’s efforts to create a mixed prayer space at the Western Wall.

“It was a very interesting conversation,” Congregation Mogen David Rabbi Yehuda Moses said. “I was in the room. I thought it would be a two-minute conversation. It was a 15-minute conversation.”

Yosef’s trip was coordinated by Moses, who received rabbinic ordination from Yosef’s late father, former chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel Ovadia Yosef. It was the first time Yosef visited Los Angeles since his appointment in 2013.

The chief rabbi, author of books on Jewish law important to the Sephardic and Mizrahi communities, also met with Chabad of California Rabbi Baruch Shlomo Cunin; Rabbi David Zargari of Torat Hayim; Nessah Congregation Chief Rabbi David Shofet; and Rabbi Netanel Louie of the Eretz Cultural Center.

Yosef also spoke to about 700 representatives of the Sephardic community at the Eretz Cultural Center in Tarzana. “He strengthened the whole community,”
Moses said.

From left: Limmud FSU co-founders Sandra Cahn and Chaim Chesler, Israeli Minister Ofir Akunis and singer Mike Burstyn at the event “Leonard Cohen and Judaism” at Hillel at UCLA. Photo by Eli Mandelbaum

A Nov. 14 event at Hillel at UCLA lauded the late singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and his Jewish roots. “Leonard Cohen and Judaism” was hosted by the organization Limmud FSU and included speeches touting Cohen’s legacy and the singing of his hit song “Hallelujah” by actor-singer Mike Burstyn.

Cohen died on Nov. 7, 2016, in his Los Angeles home at the age of 82.

Limmud FSU, an organization dedicated to connecting Jews from the former Soviet Union with their roots, hosted the event in part because of Cohen’s Eastern European heritage. Chaim Chessler, the organization’s founder, pointed out that Cohen’s mother and paternal grandfather were from the region.

The event included a rendition of “Promise,” an unreleased song by Cohen that was performed by local musician Willie Aron, who co-produced it.

“When the world is false, I won’t say it’s true,” Aron sang. “When the darkness comes, I’ll be there with you.”

Speeches addressed Cohen’s connection with Judaism and the liturgical roots in many of his lyrics.

Cohen taught that “in order for us to be whole, we have to realize the shadow, the darkness, and not hide from it,” said Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, president of the Academy for Jewish Religion California, a transdenominational seminary that shares a building with Hillel.

Ofir Akunis, a Likud member of the Knesset and Israeli minister of science, technology and space, also spoke at the event, calling Cohen “one of the greatest artists of all time” and applauding his “tight connections to the Jewish people.” Akunis referenced Cohen’s 1973 trip to Israel to perform for soldiers during the Yom Kippur War as a sign of the artist’s connection with the Jewish state.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director emeritus of Hillel at UCLA, praised Cohen’s ability to combine Judaism and universalism. “Cohen translated Judaism through music,” he said, “and ask any musician, music transcends boundaries. … He was our rebbe.”

Eitan Arom, Senior Writer

Zane Buzby (right), founder of the Survivor Mitzvah Project, was honored Nov. 27 by the Mensch International Foundation, founded by Steven Geiger. Photo courtesy of the Mensch International Foundation

The Mensch International Foundation honored four community members with the Mensch Award on Nov. 27 at Sinai Temple.

The honorees were Michael Berenbaum, professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University; Zane Buzby, founder of the Survivor Mitzvah Project; former Sinai Temple Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz, who served there for 47 years; and Meir Fenigstein, president and founder of the Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles.

“The first award I received was the Silver Angel Award, 37 years ago,” Berenbaum said. “I told my mother about it and she said, ‘I already know you are an angel, but now you should try to be a mensch.’ And here I am today, a real mensch.”

Steven Geiger established the foundation 15 years ago in Hungary, where he was born. The organization’s goal is to raise money to support Holocaust survivors in need and to combat anti-Semitism and stereotyping through education.

Geiger has named many well-known figures as recipients of the Mensch Award, including former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau and former president of Israel Yitzhak Navon.

Actress Frances Fisher introduced Buzby, an actress, film director and philanthropist who then screened a short video documenting the harsh conditions facing Holocaust survivors living in
Eastern Europe.

“I founded the Survivor Mitzvah Project to change their lives, but they are the ones who changed mine,” she said.

Dershowitz was born in Czechoslovakia in 1928 and fled the country with his family 33 days before the Nazi invasion. The family settled in New York City. Dershowitz, who also served as a chaplain in the Southern California prison system for many years, said the award actually “belongs to my parents, who were the real mensches.”

Fenigstein was moved to tears as he recalled his parents, both of whom were Holocaust survivors. “Their love and support gave me the energy to follow
my passion, and I’m here because of them,” he said. “They would have been very proud of me if they saw me
here today.”

The event commemorated the 70th anniversary of United Nations Resolution 181, which was passed by the U.N. General Assembly on Nov. 29, 1947, and called for the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states.

A panel discussion about the U.N. resolution followed the award ceremony. The speakers were Berenbaum, UCLA professor Judea Pearl, Chapman University law professor Michael Bazyler and Rabbi Moshe Kushman.

Ayala Or-El, Contributing Writer

From left: Jewish National Fund (JNF) L.A. board members Barak Lurie and Doug Williams attend the annual JNF breakfast, which they co-chaired. Photo courtesy of Jewish National Fund

More than 1,000 invited guests attended the sold-out 12th annual Jewish National Fund (JNF) Los Angeles Breakfast for Israel on Nov. 28 at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills.

Guest speakers included author and radio commentator Larry Elder and Chemi Shalev, senior columnist and U.S. analyst for the Israeli Haaretz newspaper. The topic was “Media Bias & Israel.” More than 60 table captains and partner organizations helped to bring a cross section of
civic and Jewish community members to the event.

Additional participants in the program included Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg and event co-chairs Douglas Williams and Barak Lurie.

JNF is a nonprofit organization focused on alleviating Israel’s water shortage, promoting education, maintaining more than 250,000 acres of forest in Israel,
and more.

Roman Catholic Priest Father Patrick Desbois (left), author of “The Holocaust by Bullets,” appeared in conversation with Heritage Retreats’ Rabbi Mordechai Kreitenberg. Photo courtesy of Miller Ink

Humanitarian and Roman Catholic priest Father Patrick Desbois appeared in conversation with Heritage Retreats’ Rabbi Mordechai Kreitenberg and philanthropist Mitchell Julis at the Museum of Tolerance’s Peltz Theater on Nov. 7.

Desbois, president of Yahad-In Unum, an organization dedicated to identifying and commemorating sites of Jewish mass executions in Eastern Europe during World War II, shared his experiences documenting genocides and educating for their prevention.

“It is a big challenge to be a believer in God while living with open eyes, but it is part of that belief to cry out,” said Desbois, author of “The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews.” “Searching for these victims who are waiting to be found is an act of faith.”

The panel opened with a video introducing Desbois’ work and contextualizing its importance in light of contemporary anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. A Q-and-A session with the audience followed the discussion.

Heritage Retreats, which provides young Jewish adults with an opportunity to engage with Judaism in outdoor wilderness settings, organized the event.

The group plans to lead trips to Poland, where participants will visit the massacre sites identified by Desbois and meet witnesses whom he has interviewed near Krakow.

Zhenya Gershman’s painting “Lift” is on exhibit at UCLA Hillel. Photo by Zhenya Gershman

Artist Zhenya Gershman adds dose of ‘Awe’ to UCLA Hillel


As congregants climb the stairs to reach High Holy Days services at UCLA Hillel, they will be surrounded by far more than empty walls. 

Hard to miss will be a towering 11-foot-tall canvas, an oil painting depicting an ethereal, cupped pair of hands adorning the wall just outside the sanctuary.

“That’s exactly the idea,” said Zhenya Gershman, the Russian-born artist responsible for the work and its placement. Standing before the piece, titled “Lift,” she giddily descended a few steps then strode back up, arms open wide. 

“They will be greeted by God’s hands,” she said.

“Lift,” along with 10 other larger-than-life pieces, make up her latest collection, aptly called “Days of Awe,” a reference to the 10-day period beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. “Days of Awe” will be on display through December at the Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts at UCLA Hillel’s Hilgard Avenue home. It will be prominently featured in and around the third-floor sanctuary, which doubles as an art gallery, during the High Holy Days services led by the congregation’s rabbi, Aaron Lerner.

The works are mostly varied portraits of Gershman’s often-used model Mark Snyder — the back of his head, a magnified profile, or just his hands in “Lift.” They toy with neutral grays and Rembrandt-inspired plays of light that help bring out a water-like translucency. She also used ceramic tools normally meant for clay to carve into layers of paint. One of the effects is providing the skin with realism; even the fingerprints have distinctive raised lines. It’s a technique she discovered by accident.

“With art, you’re either on cloud nine or you want to die. There’s nothing in between,” she said. “I was having a bad day. It’s subconscious. I saw this tool and grabbed it and, in my agony, I just slashed. It removed the paint that was there and it revealed some of the layers underneath. It created this dimensionality and sculptural texture that I had never seen anywhere in other people’s art or in my art. I couldn’t stop. I was like a kid in a candy store.”

Gershman said she hopes the works inspire introspection within viewers.

“These paintings were made as an amplification of this meditative process. They are helping you, in my mind, and the way that I intended for them to be viewed, to facilitate you finding your humanity, your stability and your core,” she said. 

Perla Karney, the Dortort Center’s artistic director, said holding Conservative High Holy Days services with massive displays of artwork is certainly a first. She had the idea when she met Gershman at an art fair several months ago. She said she was moved by a striking portrait of a pensive Snyder.

“He looked otherworldly and was staring at me,” Karney said. “I took down [Gershman’s] contact information and, I suppose, the rest is history.”

Karney, who admitted to being a longtime fan, commissioned Gershman to put together a solo exhibition for the Dortort Center meant to coincide with the High Holy Days. Upon seeing the results, she said she and Lerner felt strongly that the collection would heighten the message of services, not detract from it.

“I find that Zhenya’s art conveys the human condition in a deeply spiritual, mystical way,” she said. “It is therefore so fitting to show her exhibit ‘Days of Awe’ during the High Holy Days at Hillel. Her art is a meditation on life and its profound mystery, something we can never fully understand but stand in awe of.”

Born in Moscow, the internationally renowned artist held her first solo exhibition in St. Petersburg at age 14 and was hailed as a prodigy in her native Soviet Union. Gershman, who now lives in Brentwood, immigrated to the United States as a teenager in 1991. She’s widely known for her portraiture work, which is housed in public and private collections around the world. The Grammy MusiCares Foundation selected Gershman to create portraits of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan; her portrait of Sting is part of the permanent collection of the Arte Al Limite Museum in Santiago, Chile.

Gershman said that her latest solo exhibition is one of her most meaningful.

While growing up, Gershman and her family faced daunting anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, unable to openly practice Judaism. She wore a Star of David necklace underneath her clothes but never learned much in the form of Jewish customs or traditions. Her inclusion in Lerner’s services, in a way, brings everything full circle.

“I’m very spiritual and I feel my Jewish roots that were forbidden deep within me. But services and prayers were always foreign to me,” she said. “That was cut down from the roots of my family. It’s very meaningful to now create a work that will participate in a ritual. It’s not a Bible illustration, and it’s not meant to be prayed to. But it is for raising spiritual awareness.”

Gershman has never attended High Holy Days services. This Rosh Hashanah at UCLA’s Hillel will be her first.

“For me to know that 500 people will be facing the ark framed by my artwork on either side, and everyone will be experiencing the Torah through my work, I can’t even describe how that makes me feel,” she said, becoming emotional. “For me, art is a way to communicate with people and, in this, their most intimate state of prayer and meditation, with my art used to heighten and communicate the experience — that’s paradise. I’ll probably be a ghost in the back just crying.”

The official “Days of Awe” opening is Oct. 26, and is free and open to the public. n

Waking life: Triple Art at UCLA a celebration through creation


The start of the new school year inevitably means a series of artistic journeys for visitors to UCLA Hillel. 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 between these very different artists is not difficult to pinpoint, according to Hillel’s artistic director Perla Karney, who, with this exhibition, has displayed the works of 85 professional artists and hung more than 600 pieces of art by students in 12 years.

“All three of them have gone on a Jewish journey as artists,” said Karney, who followed the careers of the three artists and subsequently 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, added. “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 he had schlepped it all the way from America, ask Strom 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 like 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 Cal State 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.

Reframing the BDS debate at UCLA


We, the pro-Israel and Jewish student leaders of UCLA are extremely proud of our Jewish and pro-Israel student community. We stand strongly in support of Israel and against the BDS movement that is trying to delegitimize the Jewish state.

Over the past few weeks a small group of students leveraged last year’s student government election results to ensure that their anti-Israel efforts would dominate the agenda. This came to fruition Nov. 18 when they passed a symbolic resolution recommending that the University of California divest from companies that do business with Israel.

We are, of course, disappointed that eight members of our undergraduate population of nearly 30,000 students chose to vote in favor of Tuesday night’s resolution. Their decision was irresponsible because they purport to speak for the entire undergraduate community.

The reality here at UCLA is that a majority of students reject this resolution and reject the use of our student government to further special-interest, non-student issues, such as attacking the Jewish homeland. Meanwhile, the primary student concern, the UC tuition crisis, rages on.

In a mere four days, we collected signatures from nearly 2,000 undergraduate allies here who are united against a student government council that prioritizes international politics over real student issues. 

We learned from our experience fighting BDS last year that a student government vote to divest from Israel is predetermined by campus group coalitions long before the night of the hearing. Talking points don’t matter in this context, only coalitions. This year’s dominant coalition happens to be pro-divestment, and student majorities, feedback, and talking points fall on deaf ears.

We refused to be a validating party to a  student government  forum that puts Israel on trial. We, the leaders of the Jewish and pro-Israel community at UCLA, vehemently voiced our strong objections. We also agreed as a community that we would not unnecessarily dignify, legitimize or extend a biased and flawed hearing. This was not giving up. It was attacking from a different means.

Yes, we lobbied council extensively in advance of the vote. And we ensured that all the arguments which would have been given at public comment were presented. We invested hundreds of hours in fighting, just as we did last year. But we also we offered a fresh, innovative approach. 

We staged an alternative meeting on the night of the vote, one designed to uplift rather than tear down. We held a memorial for the most recent Israeli victims of terror and engaged in a productive community discussion about how to positively address the situation in the Middle East without attacking another community. We are proud that our efforts reframed the conversation while simultaneously denying these bigoted anti-Israel activists any additional undue attention.

Hillel at UCLA is and has continuously been a bedrock of support for Jewish students in all aspects of life, especially in empowering students. They help us cultivate vibrant Jewish life on campus, and trust us as we choose how to respond to attacks on our community. Their approach guides us and respects us as young adults, and they are engaging thousands of Millennials on campus because they focus on student empowerment. 

As a result, Pro-Israel and Jewish life at UCLA is strong, vibrant, and student led. We continue to lead events for all students that highlight Israel as a vibrant democracy in the Middle East, while we also grapple with the complexities of the conflict. Our ask of you as a Community is this: Guide us, support us, trust us, and invest in us as we continue to pilot the Jewish future.

Signed:

Natalie Charney, Hillel at UCLA Student Board President

Eytan Davidovits, President, Bruins for Israel

Omer Hit, Vice President, Bruins for Israel

Gil Bar-Or, President, J Street U

Tammy Rubin, President Emeritus, Hillel at UCLA


Natalie Charney is student board president of Hillel at UCLA; Eytan Davidovits is president of Bruins for Israel; Omer Hit is vice president of Bruins for Israel; Gil Bar-Or is president of J Street U; and Tammy Rubin is president emeritus of Hillel at UCLA.

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.”

Jewish genetic testing offered


Tammy Rubin wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of getting blood drawn by a phlebotomist. At least there was apple juice — and the prospect of life-changing knowledge — afterward.

The UCLA junior was sitting at a table outside of the campus’ Kerckhoff Hall on April 9, where the Los Angeles Jewish Genetic Disease Prevention Project and Progenity lab offered genetic screenings for both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews.

“It was so easy, so fun — well, less fun about the shot stuff — but all the phlebotomists were there cheering you on,” Rubin said. 

The event was in coordination with Hillel at UCLA and GeneTestNow (genetestnow.com), an organization encouraging Jews to undergo genetic screening before starting a family. The latter is an initiative of the Doris Factor Endowment Fund of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles and supported in part by TRIBE Media Corp., parent company of the Jewish Journal. 

The same event was held a day earlier at Hillel at USC. Together, the two-day project attracted nearly 100 people, according to one of Progenity’s project leaders. Participants will receive their test results — offered for $25 to those with insurance — after a few weeks.

Through tests like these, people can learn which genetic diseases they carry, even though they do not show its traits or symptoms. Because most Jewish genetic diseases are recessive, both parents need to be a carrier for a disease to impact the health of a child.

The discomfort of getting blood drawn, Rubin said, was more than worth it when considering the risks of not knowing whether she has the recessive genes carried by many Jews. 

For Ashkenazim with roots in Central and Eastern Europe, that could mean one of 19 genetic diseases. Not just high-profile ones like Tay-Sachs disease, but also lesser-known illnesses like nemaline myopathy, a muscle disorder, and Canavan disease, a progressive, fatal neurological disease.

Debby Hirshman, a consultant who traveled from New York to help organize the events, recalled meeting a Jewish couple in Atlanta who were tragically impacted by not having a genetic test done that was comprehensive enough. 

The couple’s first child was a healthy boy, but their second child, a daughter, reached few, if any, of her milestones by the time she was 4. A blood test revealed that she has mucolipidosis type IV (ML4), a neurological disorder, which, in this case, Hirshman said, will cause the girl to go blind at the age of 10 and prevent her from ever talking. Neither spouse knew they were carriers of the disease because one was tested for only four diseases and the other checked just eight. 

Awareness about some genetic disorders within the Ashkenazic community is widespread, but Hirshman said that when she spoke with Los Angeles rabbis before arranging the local events, each one indicated a willingness to publicize the testing as long as it included common genetic diseases within the Persian, Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish communities.

Traditionally, Hirshman said, the barrier to getting people in the door for these tests is not hesitation at getting blood drawn or fear of hearing potentially negative news — it has been the cost. To address that, participants with insurance only had to pay $25 — a fraction of the normal cost of such comprehensive genetic testing procedures, which can easily run more than $1,000.

That was possible because the lab Progenity agreed to absorb the risk of insurance companies not paying the full bill, according to two local women who spearheaded these events, Heidi Bendetson and Stacy Sharf.

The testing process at both USC and UCLA was so quick, most people could be in and out in less than 30 minutes — unless, of course, they wanted to stick around to enjoy additional cookies and juice, and chat with the Progenity staff, who were more than happy to schmooze between consultations.

After signing in and registering, every participant was given the opportunity to interact with a Progenity genetic counselor, who explained the basics of recessive genes and why participants shouldn’t be disheartened if they are carriers. Modern techniques such as in vitro fertilization can help reduce the risk of two carriers having a child with a particular disease.

Following the counseling session, the unpleasant part — drawing blood — generally took less than a minute.

Shawn Feldman, who spoke with the Journal shortly before giving blood, said that any discomfort he has from getting tested is far outweighed by the knowledge that he will soon have.

“It’s not really fun for me,” said Feldman, a first-year pharmacy graduate student. “But I see it as a very, very small and transient price to pay for such a great benefit to so many people.”

The next Jewish genetic testing event in Los Angeles will be held at Wilshire Boulevard Temple on May 13, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. For more information, visit this article at jewishjournal.com.

Diversity is good for Jewish college students


In case you haven’t heard, Orthodox Judaism has pretty much taken over Jewish life on U.S. college campuses. I say this not because I’m smug and happy about it, but as a wake-up call to the Conservative and Reform branches to get their acts together.

If diversity is good for the Jews, then it’s even more important for college students.

College life is the ideal time for students to experiment and search for their own truths. If they’re exposed to a diverse religious menu, they’ll be more likely to find their personal Jewish path.

Unfortunately, they’re not finding much religious diversity these days.

According to a report last week in The Jewish Week by Sam Cohen, a senior at New York University, the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism have virtually abandoned their outreach efforts on campus. As he writes, “Last month the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism drove the penultimate nail into the coffin of KOACH, its college-programming branch, by announcing it would end the program unless supporters raised $130,000 by the end of the year.”

As if that weren’t bad enough, Cohen adds that “KOACH lasted three years longer than its Reform companion Kesher, which the URJ [Union for Reform Judaism] closed down after a similar stretch of inadequate funding and underwhelming impact.”

Meanwhile, Cohen notes how Orthodox outreach efforts are thriving: “The Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus program (JLIC), which places young Orthodox rabbis and their wives to live full-time on college campuses, has grown to include 15 locations. Chabad on Campus continues to expand rapidly with a $28.8 million budget (equal to the URJ’s entire annual budget), and other Orthodox outreach programs (such as 21-campus Meor, with a budget of $5.7 million) have grown as well.”

He laments that “what’s at stake here is not merely denominational pride. It’s the future of non-Orthodox Judaism in this country.”

I think it’s worse than that: What’s at stake is the future of Judaism itself — or at least its vitality.

As Cohen reminds us, “Going to college is the single most common factor for American Jews — 85 percent of all college-age Jews in the U.S. are in college. Every year, 100,000 Jews begin their freshman year, and 100,000 graduate and begin making decisions about the Jewish life they want to live and the family they want to raise.”

So, if we don’t engage this hugely influential group in a rich and diverse way, what kind of future will Judaism have in this country? Sure, if it were up to me, every Jew on the planet would observe the Sabbath and eat kosher. But an “Orthodox-only” model is a fantasy. That’s not the world we live in. The new generation must make its own decisions on what Jewish connection they will have, if any.

The Orthodox, God bless them, are making their pitch. But what about the non-Orthodox?

In my view, they’re too consumed with labels and self-definition. And even when they’re not, they use labels like “egalitarian” or “non-denominational.”

For my money, there’s only one label worth its salt in Jewish outreach: Passionate Judaism.

I don’t care if it’s a Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Chasidic, Orthodox, post-denominational or Sephardic experience. Just make it passionate.

Passionate could mean Chabad’s “unconditional love” approach, or a Carlebach minyan’s “ecstatic joy” experience or creating your own lively “medley minyan.” It could also mean offering passionate engagement with Jewish texts, Jewish history and Jewish culture. In other words, passionate means that whatever style of Judaism you practice, make it pulsate with passion and excitement.

Labels like “Reform” or “Conservative” don’t convey passion. You don’t think of passion when you think of “reforming” or “conserving.” The Orthodox label is not as much of a problem, because people assume that the more observant you are, the more passionate you are.

That’s why the non-Orthodox “spiritual communities” and independent minyanim that have sprung up in recent years don’t label themselves as Reform or Conservative. It’s no longer about the label. It’s about the experience.

Religious diversity on campuses is a must, but it’s not enough. If Jewish organizations want to make a lasting impact with today’s Jewish college students — whose hearts and minds are more loyal to their careers and their iPhone screens than to their religious tradition — they will need to offer a lot more than Judaism Lite or Judaism Friendly.

They’ll need to offer Judaism Deep, Judaism Spiritual and Judaism Never Boring.

I’ve sat on the board of UCLA Hillel for years, and the challenge of attracting students to Jewish life is consistently at the top of our agenda. The programs that work best always seem to have a passionate and pluralistic flavor — such as our Friday Night Unity Shabbats and our Challah for Hunger baking sessions.

We need many more such efforts. I’d love to see the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism team up to launch a campus movement with the simplest of labels — as simple as “The Jewish Center” — and offer a vibrant Judaism that Jewish students will want to keep for life.

Passion doesn’t belong to the Orthodox. For Judaism to thrive in America, we need every branch to show intensity and enthusiasm for the Jewish practice of its choice.

That will make it a lot easier for young Jews to choose that label called Judaism.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Academy of Jewish Religion offers alternate path to rabbinate for 16 new grads


This year in Los Angeles, the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Region ordained 16 new rabbis. The Conservative Movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies ordained 10. And the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR, CA) ordained 11.

Never heard of the AJR, CA? You’re not alone. Just six years old, it remains unknown to many in the Jewish community, though its impact is growing rapidly.

Currently housed in the UCLA Hillel building in Westwood, this new alternative-minded trans-denominational rabbinical school began in 2001 as the West Coast branch of the New York-based Academy for Jewish Religion. Within a year, AJR, CA became an independent entity, and since ordaining its first three rabbis in 2003, each year’s class has increased. With this year’s 11 newly minted rabbis, the school’s graduating class has for the first time approached those of the more established seminaries.

Several factors make AJR, CA an attractive option to students interested in joining the rabbinate. First is its trans-denominational approach. Not affiliated with the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist movements, AJR’s instructors nevertheless hail from all of those backgrounds.

The school was founded to “extract the strength in each [denomination and] to try to build bridges between them,” said Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, Dean of the Rabbinical School and Chaplaincy Programs. (The school also has a Cantorial Program).

Gottlieb was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi and has led both Orthodox and Conservative congregations; he said AJR, CA also places a strong emphasis on spirituality, drawing from chassidic, mussar (psycho-ethics) and kabbalistic texts.

Another of the school’s strong attractions is its effort to accommodate students who have other professional obligations. Classes meet only three days a week — Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays — which allows students to continue to work and to more easily balance family life with studies. A year in Israel, mandatory at the Reform and Conservative seminaries, is an option, but not a requirement. And while other denominations are seeing greater numbers of students coming to rabbinical school later in life, a whopping 70 percent of those attending AJR, CA’s five-year program have already pursued another career.

This year’s graduating class includes a psychiatrist, a former entertainment lawyer, a publishing industry executive and a drug and alcohol addiction counselor, as well as Jewish community professionals.

Dr. Bennett Blum, the psychiatrist, became disillusioned with Judaism as a teen. Growing up in Phoenix, he attended a Jewish day school where he “received a good education from really obnoxious people,” he said. Blum’s family lacked the wealth of the other families, and he was frequently reminded that he didn’t belong.

After day school, Blum had little to do with organized Judaism until he enrolled in medical school. There he met a woman raised in an Orthodox home who began to draw him back to Judaism. They have been married 17 years.

Blum went on to specialize in two psychiatric fields that brought him into the legal system — geriatric (dealing with elders) and forensic (involving crime investigation). He is a nationally sought expert on manipulation and abuse and has provided testimony on the abuse of elders to the Senate Commerce Committee.

Blum developed a tool to assess whether an individual can be considered competent — to manage his own affairs, for example, or to stand trial — that is now used both in the United States and abroad. He testified to the United Nation’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia regarding the competence of accused war criminal General Pavle Strugar.

Blum’s Jewish journey was propelled when he was asked by the U.S. Attorney’s office to testify in a case involving a rabbi accused of molestation. The rabbi claimed his background and Torah training meant he couldn’t have committed the act. Blum was asked to refute the argument with Jewish sources.

“I was paid to relearn Talmud,” said Blum, who poured through ancient and modern rabbinic rulings. “It re-sparked my interest.”

Blum was living in Los Angeles at the time, and took some classes at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), which further whetted his appetite. He even applied to the rabbinical school there, but was not able to attend full-time.

When he returned to Arizona, Blum assumed he would have to give up the idea of enrolling in rabbinical school. But his rabbi told him about AJR, which accommodates part-time attendance.

Blum enrolled and commuted from Phoenix to class each week, where students “were studying and asking deep and profound questions.”

Now he is bringing religious wisdom to his secular world. He has published a paper describing ancient rabbinic views on deceptive and manipulative practices, which has been presented to the legal community “as food for thought in elder abuse cases.” The paper has been so well received that attorneys, social service personnel and others throughout the country are “using Talmudic perspective for formulating their arguments,” Blum said.

And applying secular knowledge to the Jewish community, Blum plans to create a training program to help Jewish professionals recognize and deal with issues relating to elder abuse. He would like to see a specialized group established to serve as a resource to clergy.

For Julia Watts Belser, who was not born Jewish, the path to ordination began in her teens. Although she was brought up without any religious observance, she craved a spiritual life and began exploring Judaism as a teenager. She later enrolled in a Unitarian Universalist seminary, in part because it was “open to people of all faith traditions.”

By the time she graduated, Watts Belser, who had already undergone Renewal and Conservative conversions, knew she wanted to go to rabbinical school.

“I had fallen in love with Judaism as an intellectual tradition and as a place of my life’s work,” she said. “I wanted to teach the tradition and bring my creativity and sense of social justice into my work.”

Rabbi to Undergo Anger Management


The UCLA Hillel rabbi who allegedly lost his temper and
assaulted a freelance journalist who called him a derogatory name has agreed to
a recommendation that he undergo 36 hours of anger management and pen a letter
of apology to his reported victim.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller has also said he will place
himself on paid administrative leave from UCLA Hillel, while an independent
attorney appointed by that organization’s national office investigates the Oct.
21 event. It is not known how long the inquiry will last.

Seidler-Feller agreed on Dec. 23 to the recommendations,
which were made a week earlier by a Los Angeles city attorney hearing officer
who had heard the case.

Eric Moses, spokesperson for the city attorney’s office,
said Seidler-Feller would take the anger management courses through Pacific
Educational Services (PES) and would cover the $450 course fee himself. PES
will notify the city attorney’s office upon Seidler-Feller’s completion of the
course.

Donald Etra, Seidler-Feller’s attorney, said the rabbi had
accepted the recommendations because it was “the expedient way of resolving the
case.” He said Seidler-Feller would only apologize for “the fact that there was
an incident.”

Etra went on to say that Seidler-Feller was the aggrieved
party in this case.

“She [Rachel Neuwirth] called him names, she physically
stuck her hand in his face,” Etra said. “The evidence at the hearing was that
he did not do anything to offend her.”

As of press time, the rabbi could not be reached for
comment.

Moses said an apology had to be heartfelt and genuine,
although he offered no specific guidelines. Neuwirth said she would only accept
an apology in which the rabbi showed true contrition.

“I can’t get over this,” she said. “I relive this all the
time. I never in my life thought a rabbi would behave in such a violent
manner.”

Neuwirth filed a civil suit on Nov. 20 against Seidler-Feller,
UCLA Hillel, Los Angeles Hillel Council and Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish
Campus Life seeking undisclosed damages for battery, intentional infliction of
emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress and negligent
retention. Seidler-Feller and the local and national Hillels have until late
January to respond.

Neuwirth’s attorney, Robert Esensten, said the hearing officer’s
recommendations bolster the civil suit. However, Etra said that the suit had no
merit, especially since the city attorney’s office  decided not to pursue
criminal charges against Seidler-Feller.

Rabbi Mark Diamond, the executive vice president of the
Board of Rabbis of Southern California, said he hoped the dispute could be
settled in a beit din (Jewish court of law) or through mediation or arbitration
rather than in court.

“Rabbi Seidler-Feller has shown a genuine desire to do the
appropriate teshuvah [repentance],” he said. “I very much hope and pray we can
resolve the issues and tone down the rhetoric.”

Neuwirth said she is not open to resolving the case in a beit
din.

Gary Ratner, executive vice president of the American Jewish
Congress, Western Region, said Seidler-Feller’s actions should permanently
disqualify him from working with college students.

“Who’s to say he is not going to blow up again at some later
date?” he asked.

But Emily Kane, co-president of UCLA Hillel’s student board,
said Seidler-Feller meant much to them.

“Chaim is a huge part of UCLA Hillel,” she said. “This is
just a temporary thing.”  

Open Door


UCLA Hillel recently held one of its first gay-themed programs in years. But with the initiator of the program about to depart, the effort to reach out to gay students may lose steam.

The program, Trembling Before God, presented a panel of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis to explore Judaism and homosexuality, drawing an audience of about 80 students and community members.

While UCLA Hillel’s programs generally target specific groups of Jews, such as Persians or Russians, or Jews in fraternities or sororities, the gay community has often been left out.

“UCLA has quite an active gay and lesbian group, and a lot of the students there are Jewish. But [they] feel ostracized from the Jewish community for reasons that aren’t really appropriate and ideas that aren’t really Jewish,” said Roee Ruttenberg, the UCLA graduate who put the program together.

Ruttenberg, who has worked part time at Hillel since he graduated last year, is planning to leave for graduate school next year.

“It’s not that Hillel [at UCLA] is not supportive, it’s just that there’s no active outreach,” said Ronni L. Sanlo, director of UCLA’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) Campus Resource Center.

Panelist Rabbi Benay Lappe, one of the Conservative movement’s first openly lesbian rabbis, said: “Too many LGBT Jews pass a synagogue and say, ‘That’s not my place … because God says I’m not OK.’ That’s simply not true.”

Orthodox Rabbi David Rue, senior justice of the Los Angeles Beis Din (rabbinic court) delineated an approach more tolerant than the standard Orthodox one. “It doesn’t matter which commandments someone violates. It is viewed, as far as Orthodoxy, in the same way: There’s no such thing as a person that doesn’t violate at least some of them sometimes,” he said. “The way Jews relate to someone that is homosexual should be no different from the way they relate to anyone else.”

UCLA Hillel’s director, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, told the audience, “Hillel is obligated to make all Jewish students feel comfortable … and take them seriously, in spite of the fact that they have made some choices that are challenging to normative Judaism.”

student Melanie Henderson said, “Rabbi Chaim really seems to want to be okay with us GLBT Jews. He was uncomfortable, but honest enough to do it publicly.” Reform Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Los Angeles’ Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), the world’s oldest gay and lesbian synagogue, and Conservative Rabbi J.B. Sacks-Rosen of Congregation Shaarei Torah in Arcadia also appeared on the panel.

After attending the event, UCLA sophomore Adam Levy said he was “definitely more inclined to participate” in Hillel, because he felt welcome as a gay man and a Jew who is not very observant. “Jews know what it’s like to be on the outside,” he said. “It’s important for Judaism to understand the frustration of the closet.”

Since Ruttenberg is leaving, it’s too early to tell if UCLA Hillel will build on its momentum; its new LGBT group is little more than an e-mail list. Next year, nevertheless, UCLA Hillel will add a seat on its student board for an LGBT community liaison.

“Of course we want to do more such programs, but some of it will depend on who’s working here,” Seidler-Feller said.

At USC, despite a rich history of programming with the LGBT community, Hillel also faces a similar leadership vacuum, and for the first time in several years it did not sponsor its annual “Queer Seder” during Passover this spring.

“I’m definitely not giving up,” said Rabbi Jonathan Klein, USC Hillel director, who has met with other campus leaders to stimulate LGBT programming. “I think it’s really important that we have it here.”

“Trembling Before God,” a new documentary about gay Orthodox Jews, will screen on Los Angeles July 19 this summer at Outfest, (323) 960-0636.

UCLA Hillel Hosts Muslim-Jewish Series


On April 2, UCLA Hillel opened a spring forum titled “Muslim-Jewish Relations: Harmony and Discord Throughout History” examining relations between Muslims and Jews from the founding of Islam to the contemporary era.

Co-sponsored by a variety of organizations, including Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, ACCESS, Muslim Public Affairs Council and Americans for Peace Now, the five-week series features discussions between academics from UCLA and other local and national universities.

The four remaining sessions are:

Mon., April 16
The Arab-Jewish Symbiosis: Myth & Reality
Dr. David Nirenberg, professor of history, John
Hopkins University
Dr. Teofilo Ruiz, professor of history, UCLA.

Mon., April 30
Under the Hijab and Behind the Mechitzah:
Women in Islam and Judaism
Dr. Doreen Seidler-Feller, clinical psychologist
Dr. Nayereh Tohidi, assistant professor of women’s studies, CSUN

Mon., May 7
Zionism and Palestinian Nationalism: A Tale of
Two Narratives
Dr. Adam Rubin, assistant professor, Hebrew
Union College
Dr. Najwa Al-Qattan, assistant professor, Loyola
Marymount University

Mon., May 21
The Current Conflict and the Future of the
Children of Abraham
Dr. Rashid Khalidi, professor of Middle East
history, University of Chicago
Dr. Steven Spiegel, professor of political science,
UCLA

All lectures will take place at UCLA Hillel, 900 Hilgard Avenue, first floor, beginning at 7:30 p.m. $12 per lecture; $50 series. Free for full-time students with current ID. For more information, please call (310) 208-3081, extension 240.

+