Dr. Carmen Puliafito

USC Puliafito scandal should be a teachable moment about addiction

The explosive Los Angeles Times investigation into allegations of drug use by former USC Keck School of Medicine Dean Dr. Carmen Puliafito has drawn outrage, shock and plenty of gossip. What it hasn’t created is what we as a society urgently need — a thoughtful conversation about addiction and substance abuse in our community.

Early last month, the Times reported that Puliafito was present in a hotel room when a young female companion overdosed. The doctor also appeared drunk on several public occasions and was caught on video using illegal drugs.

The responses to these revelations have zeroed in on the particular actions of USC administrators: Did they respond quickly enough? Did they try to hide the news from the public and press? Did their actions endanger the doctor’s patients?

But aside from these questions, this news presents us, at the very least, with a teaching moment, one that has eluded the controversy surrounding this otherwise esteemed institution.

Rather than simply criticizing Puliafito’s actions as “outrageous and disgusting behavior,” a more learned and enlightened analysis would lead to a discussion of the disease of addiction itself and the attitudes toward those caught up in it.

This is even more of an imperative when considering that this happened within the medical community, which, to its credit, finally has come around to recognizing addiction as a disease and not a moral failing. Indeed, with their easy access to drugs, medical professionals are far from immune from this disease. The National Institutes of Health reports that approximately 10 to 12 percent of physicians will develop a substance use disorder during their careers.

As with most diseases, addiction is progressive, chronic and ultimately deadly if untreated. This case is far from the first time a talented and productive person has been allowed to stumble and remain on their path as long as they are productive. This has happened time and again in the entertainment and sports industries, as well as in other fields. Ultimately, there will be a precipitous decline as the addiction takes over, many times resulting in the death of the afflicted person. We all have seen this happen countless times — and somehow seem surprised when it occurs.

That’s why the facts as presented in this case call out for a more reasoned and sympathetic examination. A highly gifted and valued member of the community evidently has fallen prey to the horror and ravages of this disease. Once revered and respected for his talents, Puliafito now is being shunned and shamed by those who are in a position to help him. Clearly, his behavior is fairly recent in origin and not indicative of his lifetime in the profession — and if it was long-term, and his superiors were unaware or chose to ignore it, shame on them.

Our first response, then, must be compassion, understanding and a resolve to confront this disease.

A foundation of our Jewish culture is the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world and making it a better place. It also means repairing the individual — mind, body and soul — thereby leading to a better world. This very public set of circumstances would have been a wonderful moment to reach out to this man (and all individuals similarly affected) with a helping hand. Offers of professional help and support would have gone a long way toward repairing both the individual and the institution itself. We have come a long way from simplistic platitudes of “Just Say No” and “Lock Them Up” in dealing with the complexities of this epidemic.

In the case of Puliafito, USC needs to do more than investigate its own internal response and punish the doctor. The university must express sympathy and extend help to the doctor and his family. It must recognize that this is an all-too-common, yet treatable, condition and offer the resources for treatment options, including hospitalization and follow-up care.

This high-profile case has everyone concerned and waiting to see USC’s response. It would be encouraging to others similarly afflicted to seek help if the university were seen as empathetic and accepting of addiction as an illness rather than a moral failing or crime. Such a response would invariably encourage others with a similar problem to seek professional help without having to lose employment, prestige, and academic and professional standing.

The scourge of addiction not only impacts the individual, but also the family. USC likes to present itself as a “family,” including all students, alumni, faculty and staff. The first order of a family is to look on its members with compassion and understanding — not contempt and disdain.

Daniel Brookman is an attorney with an office in Santa Monica. He has specialized in criminal defense for 45 years and is a recognized expert in defending crimes involving drug and alcohol use. 

Ed Elhaderi (middle) with high school classmates in Libya in 1967. Photos courtesy of Ed Elhaderi

From a culture of anti-Semitism to becoming a Jew

A Libyan’s nomadic journey of self-discovery and understanding

That hot afternoon seems like yesterday, but it was 50 years ago this month. I was 15 and living in Sabha, a small city in the Sahara Desert of southern Libya. An older cousin told me about the reports on Cairo Radio about the dire situation facing the Egyptian army.

“We’ve got to do something,” he said.

I didn’t fully understand the politics of what would come to be known as the Six-Day War, but I knew that what was happening was bad for us as Arabs and Muslims. All around me were other teenagers absorbing the tense mood and looking to vent their rage at the Jews.

I followed the crowd to the only Western-style establishment nearby, a bar. It was early afternoon and the place hadn’t opened yet. A few older boys broke down the door, and a crowd stormed in, breaking bottles and dumping alcohol onto the street outside.

Standing in a crowd, I joined the chants: “Death to the Jews!” “Drive the Jews into the sea!”

The truth is that I had never actually met a Jew. I grew up in a small nomadic village of 20 families, a collection of mud huts with palm-frond roofs that wouldn’t have looked much different 2,000 years earlier. Health care was so primitive that by the time I was a young boy, my parents had lost three children to illness.

Sunni Islam was the only way of life I knew. My preschool was in a mosque, where an imam taught us to read and write by drilling us with verses from the Quran. After that, our education was more secular — I went to mosque, going through the motions, but I was hardly devout. I never was exposed to any alternatives or avenues to question the life we had.

Our textbooks didn’t mention Israel, and people used the word Yahudi, Jew, only as an insult. The Jews had rejected the Prophet Muhammad, so they were considered to be condemned. The only Jews I saw were in Egyptian movies, in which they were portrayed as menacing, monstrous characters — hunched over and speaking with high-pitched nasal accents.

I did know Palestinian Arabs. My elementary school had once hired a young Palestinian as a teacher. Because he was Palestinian, the community welcomed him warmly and supported him generously.


Elhaderi receives the prestigious First Honor National Academic Award from Libyan Prime Minister Abdessalam Jalloud in 1974.

After high school, I went to the University of Tripoli, where I was neither politically active nor religiously observant. During my first year there, my father arrived to deliver tragic news: My mother had died. I channeled my grief into focusing on my studies, earning a place in the prestigious chemical engineering program.

Hoping for a career in the country’s burgeoning oil industry, I won a scholarship to study abroad in one of the top-ranked programs in my field, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Leaving behind my father and one younger brother, I set out for my first journey beyond Libya.

In Madison, I discovered a campus teeming with international students — Iranians, Nigerians, Europeans, Asians. Amid the activist ferment of the mid-1970s, each group freely and openly expressed its political and cultural identity.

I did that, too: When I moved into an office I shared with two other graduate students, I tacked up a large poster of Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization leader, wearing his iconic kaffiyeh and brandishing a semiautomatic rifle.

It was 1974, just two years after the murder of Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Olympic Games and the same year as the terrorist massacre in the Israeli town of Ma’alot. Half of the department’s faculty and perhaps a quarter of its students were Jewish, yet it didn’t strike me that my choice of décor might offend anyone. Many colleagues undoubtedly reacted by steering clear of me.

And then, for the first time, I began getting to know Jewish people. The encounters happened organically, in classrooms and the student union. Two Jewish professors in my department were kind and understanding. Over one leisurely summer, I spent time with a Jewish philosophy professor who engaged a group of us over beers in leisurely discussions about politics and life. I was struck by how they were just people — wonderful, decent, normal people. They defied every stereotype I had been fed while growing up in Libya.

The contrast was so striking that not only did I begin to reconsider my assumptions about Jews, but I also came to re-examine every aspect of my life. Gradually, I came to see how the black-and-white worldview I had grown up with didn’t jibe with reality.

The more experiences I had with Jews, the more I felt drawn to them. I even began thinking that I wanted to marry a Jewish person (although I didn’t have a particular one in mind). Perhaps that would help me to cleanse myself of the hateful mindset of my upbringing.


Elhaderi and his wife, Barbara, after he received his doctorate in chemical engineering from USC in 1982.

After three years in Madison, I transferred to USC. A few months after arriving in Los Angeles, I was practicing tennis at the Ambassador Hotel when I struck up a conversation with an attractive young woman named Barbara and suggested we volley. When I told her my background, she said, unprompted, “I just want you to know, I’m Jewish.”

We exchanged phone numbers, and a week later, I called her. It took a couple of weeks before we connected again, meeting to play tennis and dine on Mexican food. We got along well. Not long after that, I went out of town to take a break from my studies and returned to find a note from Barbara telling me she missed me.

Before long, she invited me to meet her parents. Barbara’s father had lived in Israel, serving as an officer in its War of Independence. And one of her sisters’ boyfriends was an Israeli who had served in the Israel Defense Forces.

I’m sure that when they learned that she was dating a Libyan named Abdulhafied (the name I had grown up with and still used), they thought Barbara had lost her mind.

Still, we grew closer. After a couple of months, we moved together into an apartment her parents owned in Koreatown. At first, the arrangement was one of convenience, but soon our lives became intertwined. Barbara lovingly helped me through my doctoral thesis and cared for me in ways no one had since my childhood.

She also welcomed me into her family’s life, and, despite our contrasting backgrounds, her parents accepted me with love. Barbara’s family wasn’t particularly observant — they celebrated only Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah and Passover.

In 1980, we married at their Fairfax District home. At that point, I didn’t consider myself a Muslim, but rather a spiritual searcher. Together, Barbara and I had explored a nondenominational church called Science of Mind. Our wedding ceremony blended elements of Judaism with some of our own personal touches.

By then, my relationship with my aging father, still back in Libya, was distant. I spoke to him only occasionally, and his question was always: “When are you coming back?” I chose not to share the news of my marriage.

As we settled into our life together, Barbara and I had only limited Jewish observances: Rosh Hashanah dinners, Chanukah gift exchanges, seders hosted by her parents. Together, we continued our spiritual search, occasionally joining a colleague of Barbara’s at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest.


Elhaderi’s father, Elsaidi, in front of his home in the Libyan village of Hatiet Bergen in 1979.

Eager to start a family, we struggled with infertility for many years. We were just days from adopting a baby when the birth mother had a last-minute change of heart. Then, just a week later, Barbara learned she was pregnant. Our daughter, Jessica, was born in 1991 and, two years later, we had a son, Jason.

Not long after that, my father died. We had spoken only occasionally since my last visit to Libya, in 1979. I had shared little about my new life with him, knowing it would have been nearly impossible for him to grasp the pluralism and openness I had come to cherish.

Surely he couldn’t have imagined the next step in my spiritual journey. When Jason turned 12, he announced that he wanted to have a bar mitzvah. We were living in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood and a neighbor, the Israeli-born wife of a rabbi, offered to teach him to read Hebrew and start some initial religious study.

He also began studying Judaism and his Torah portion with a Chabad rabbi at a shul not far from Barbara’s parents. I sat in on every class, slowly learning about Jewish prayer and customs, as Jason studied his haftarah and maftir. The more I absorbed, the more I felt drawn to Judaism.

On the day he became bar mitzvah, I stood on the bimah, filled with pride in my son and awe for the beauty of the service I could barely understand — and overflowing with emotions I could not fully explain.

The power of that day also made me start to ponder my own mortality. It pained me to realize that since I wasn’t Jewish, I could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery beside my beloved wife.

Not long after the bar mitzvah, I told Barbara that I wanted to convert to Judaism. A rabbi we knew directed us to American Jewish University’s Introduction to Judaism Program, and Barbara and I enrolled.

Our 18 months in the class felt like a second honeymoon: While I learned about Jewish history, Torah and Jewish rituals, I felt closer than ever to Barbara, and I fell in love with Judaism.


Ed Elhaderi and his wife, Barbara, celebrate his becoming a U.S. citizen in 1985.

When I met with my sponsoring rabbi, Perry Netter, then at Temple Beth Am, he asked only one question: “Why do you want to be Jewish?” Choked up with emotion, I couldn’t speak. I simply cried.

“OK,” he said, smiling. “You pass.”

Something else happened: The more I learned about Judaism, the more I saw parallels in my own upbringing in Libya. When I learned about the mezuzah, I remembered how in my childhood village, families posted palm fronds wrapped around verses from the Quran in their doorways. Words I learned from biblical Hebrew seemed to echo colloquial terms unique to the region of my youth.

Investigating, I learned that Jews had lived for thousands of years in Libya, including in my native region of Fezzan — although most left in 1948, and nearly all of those remaining fled just after the Six-Day War. My strong feeling was that I wasn’t so much discovering a new faith as uncovering a long-hidden part of myself, that perhaps some of my ancestors were Jews.

On the morning when I went before the beit din — the rabbinical court — to finalize my conversion, and plunged into the waters of the mikveh, I felt joy combined with a serenity that had eluded me for decades. I felt that I was returning to where I belonged.

Our family joined Temple Beth Am, where I felt increasingly at home, regularly attending on Shabbat and weekdays. At home, we shared weekly Shabbat dinners, at which I started offering each of my children a blessing.

I also engaged in regular Torah study and found particular resonance in Rabbi Akiva’s wisdom from Pirkei Avot: “Everything is foreseen, yet free choice is given.”

That essential tenet — that we can embrace God but decide our own fates — encapsulates much of what I hold dear about America and Judaism. I grew up like so many people in closed societies, knowing one way of life, having one set of beliefs, and taught to despise anything beyond that realm.


Ed Elhaderi (far right) at his son’s bar mitzvah in 2006 with (from left) daughter Jessica, in-laws Ellen and Bob Levin, son Jason and wife Barbara.

The best guidance for overcoming that kind of internal and external strife is another piece of advice from Pirkei Avot: “Who is wise? The one who learns from all people.”

My own learning came full circle in November 2012, when Barbara and I traveled to Israel. We landed in the late afternoon, and by the time we arrived at our Tel Aviv hotel, Barbara wanted to rest, but I felt energized, so I took a walk. Traversing the streets of Tel Aviv and Jaffa until midnight, I marveled at the variety of people I saw — young and old, from so many ethnic backgrounds. I was amazed by the sights and smells and how alive the city was.

Scanning the faces I passed on the street, I could not help but think back to my youth, to the hatred for Israel and Jews that had been fed to me.  As we traveled the country — Jerusalem, Safed, the Golan, Rehovot — Israel entered my bloodstream. I felt at home.

The trip deepened my connection to Israel and to being Jewish. In synagogue on Shabbat mornings, I began to take notice of a part of the service that I hadn’t thought much about: the prayer for the State of Israel.

Now I say it each week with full intention: “Bless the land with peace, and its inhabitants with lasting joy.”

Occasionally, as I say those words, I think back to my 15-year-old self, on that hot June afternoon on the streets of Sabha. And I say an extra prayer of gratitude to God for carrying me on this remarkable journey to myself.

ED ELHADERI is a real estate investor and developer who lives in West Los Angeles with his wife, daughter and son. He is writing a memoir about his journey from his Libyan childhood to his life as an active and committed American Jew. Tom Fields-Meyer is a Los Angeles author and editor who helps people tell their life stories in writing.

Doctors and nurses at a hospital in Idlib hold up a Save the Syrian Children banner after receiving medical supplies from Tamar and Philip Koosed in March. Photos courtesy of Philip Koosed

Couple devises DIY method of getting critical medical supplies into Syria

It was midday in China, early morning in Syria and dusk in Los Angeles — time for Philip and Tamar Koosed to get to work.

Each night in their San Fernando Valley home, they say goodnight to their children, Asher, 3, and Itzhak, 1, then turn to a do-it-yourself operation that is saving lives daily halfway around the world in Syria.

With no staff and virtually no overhead, they have stitched together a network of doctors, suppliers and shippers to send medical aid to the war-torn provinces of Idlib and Aleppo.

Working from a wish list provided by the doctors they work with, the Kooseds source the goods either from Chinese factories or in-kind donations from medical companies. In just more than a year, they have moved more than $20 million in medical supplies, working from their home office in Sherman Oaks.

The need is unrelenting. Now in its sixth year, the Syrian civil war has displaced some 12 million people and trapped hundreds of thousands more in war zones. Idlib and Aleppo have been the sites of intense bombing by the Syrian government, which uses munitions designed to maximize civilian casualties. Throughout the persistent conflict, humanitarian groups have faced a gamut of obstacles, from cities besieged and choked off by militants to a government that allegedly targets medical workers intentionally. 

“Our focus is extremely narrow,” Philip said. “How do we provide doctors with lifesaving medical supplies, medical equipment and save as many children as possible?”

The couple’s own children are a major motivation for their work.

“There’s not a time in which I see an image of a 3-year-old and I don’t see my own 3-year-old,” Philip said, sitting nex to Tamar in their living room, “or see a 1-year-old being pulled from the rubble and think, ‘That could be my own son.’ ”

“It’s so transparent that we’re just lucky,” Tamar added. “Like Asher and Itzhak were born to us — but they could have been born in Aleppo. It’s just pure luck.”

‘Two naïve Jews from the Valley’

Philip described their effort as “two naïve Jews from the Valley, trying to save the world in Syria.” The reality is more complex.

Philip, 34, grew up in the San Fernando Valley before co-founding what would become a multimillion-dollar supply-chain management firm while he was an undergraduate at USC. Tamar, 33, runs a consultancy that assesses the impact of social investments by nonprofits and businesses around the world. They didn’t know it at the start, but their skills and contacts were well-suited to saving lives.

From left: Philip and Tamar Koosed and their sons, Asher, 3, and Itzhak, 1.

By June 2016, the couple, who met at USC, had made donations to aid groups in increments of $50 or $100, sometimes more, but they remained largely aloof. “We actively chose to be numb,” Philip said. “I think you kind of have to do that to a certain extent to live.”

The onslaught of horrific images from Syria began to weigh on them. It became the subject of their bedtime conversations, night after night.

Philip and his business partner recently had sold their supply-chain management business for $30 million — though Philip still is the company’s president — and the couple was looking to make a onetime sizable donation and move on with their lives. But they were underwhelmed by their donation options.

“You see Doctors Without Borders, and you see the number of [medical] kits they’re able to send into those areas, it’s something like 800 kits they’re able to get in,” Tamar said. “You see that they’re having a really difficult time.”

With Philip’s manufacturing contacts and Tamar’s involvement with humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), they figured they could do better. They hatched a plan to reach out to doctors in Syria to assess their needs, then build a supply chain to meet them.

“Anybody else that would have come to me and said, ‘So, we’re starting to send medical supplies inside of Syria,’ I would have looked at them like they had three heads,” said Mike Brand, director of programs and advocacy for Jewish World Watch (JWW), an Encino-based anti-genocide organization.

Brand had worked with Tamar over the years and was impressed by Philip’s background. Unlike multinational humanitarian organizations, the couple had no red tape or bureaucratic delay to deal with.

“A lot of bigger NGOs don’t have the ability to find locals and just have them take care of stuff,” Brand said. “It’s just not how they operate.”

The couple got to work. By March, less than a year after they started, trucks rolled from Turkey into Syria bearing banners with the name of their fledgling organization, Save the Syrian Children, depositing medical supplies in hospitals across Idlib and Aleppo.

Call for support is answered

At first, most of the work for Tamar and Philip was vetting doctors and hospitals in Syria thoroughly to make sure they were who they said they were, and not the likes of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the jihadist group known as the Al-Nusra Front. “There are a lot of bad actors in Syria,” Philip said.

Finding doctors on the internet or through Tamar’s contacts, they cross-referenced each of their identities with sources inside and outside Syria.

Once they had vetted the doctors and assessed their needs, the next step was to build a supply chain from China to Syria. That was the easy part — building supply chains literally is Philip’s job. “It’s what I do every day and what I have done for the last 17 years,” he said.

For the first six or seven months, they didn’t think about how they were going to pay for the supplies they were shipping. By December, the goods were being loaded onto a 40-foot shipping container in Shanghai.

“The goods were about to ship, and we were like, ‘OK, we’re $100,000 on the hook, we better start talking to people about this,’ ” Tamar said. 

They put out the word, with Philip’s sisters helping on social media. They didn’t know what kind of response they would get.

“To a person, everyone said, ‘How can we help?’ ” Philip said. “I guess it shouldn’t have been surprising, but it was surprising.”

His network at Stephen Wise Temple proved to be of particular help. Philip had attended the day school there — it’s where he first met the co-founder of his supply-chain business — and his parents were longtime members of the temple.

At a synagogue event a few months after the Kooseds’ plan began to take shape, Philip and his father ran into Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback. Philip told Zweiback what he was working on.

“I was just really blown away,” the rabbi said.

The Kooseds were looking for a fiscal sponsor, a nonprofit organization that could accept tax-deductible donations on the couple’s behalf and channel the money into buying more supplies. In rabbinic school, Zweiback had started an organization called Kavod, whose purpose is to funnel money from donors to qualified charities. It was exactly what Tamar and Philip needed, sparing them precious time in obtaining nonprofit status.

“If they had to wait six or 12 months to do this, that would mean four shipments they couldn’t make,” Zweiback said. “And that would mean children that can’t have access to basic medical supplies.”

Zweiback helped the Kooseds put an appeal in the temple newsletter. Soon, word of their activism spread beyond the synagogue.

This month, JWW finalized a grant to allow the couple to ship a container of medical goods to Syria on its behalf.

“Nobody has called Syria a genocide per se yet, but it certainly has moved in the direction of the most horrific violence,” said Susan Freudenheim, JWW’s executive director. “We don’t want to take sides in this; we just want to help save lives.”

Though Freudenheim declined to provide the dollar amount of the grant, she said it was enough to fill a 40-foot container with supplies, slated to be filled and shipped in July. She said JWW was attracted to the project because of its low overhead, the cut-rate cost of goods Philip is able to acquire and the couple’s entrepreneurial spirit.

“We’re talking about the equivalent of a garage band,” Freudenheim said. “These people are very, very devoted to what they’re doing.”

The couple also reached out to their professional networks.

Sue Chen, CEO of Carson-based Nova Medical Products, heard about the couple’s work through an email they sent out to members of the Santa Monica Bay chapter of the Young Presidents’ Organization, a business networking group.

“I wrote them [back] at 2 o’clock in the morning because I just couldn’t wait,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep, and I was like, ‘I have to be involved.’ ”

Nova specializes in products that help people with physical challenges or disabilities maintain independence and mobility. In April, two containers donated by Nova left the port of Long Beach with canes, wheelchairs and crutches, along with thousands of items of clothing and canned food donated by the company’s employees. The shipment was expected to arrive this month.

“Thousands of people are dragging themselves around to get from point A to B to try to somehow go on with life, and I have products that are sitting here right now that could change their entire world,” Chen said. She told herself, “I’ve got to get this product over there as soon as possible.”

Working with ‘real heroes’

Tamar was born in a small city in Brazil, where much of her family still lives. She communicates with them through WhatsApp and Telegram — the same technology she uses to talk to doctors in Syria.

Each morning, after working well past midnight, the couple gets up with their kids at around 6:30 a.m.

“I wake up to messages from my family in Brazil and from doctors in Syria,” Tamar said.

Their long nights have begun to pay off for people in Syria. Their first shipment, distributed to 28 hospitals in Idlib and Aleppo, included 200,000 surgical masks, 800,000 pieces of gauze and 150,000 surgical blades.

Each step of the shipping and distribution, from crossing the Turkish border to ripping open boxes in hospitals, is documented carefully at the couple’s request. They also ask doctors to shoot video testimonials about the materials they receive.

“We hope that you continue to support us, as it is impossible for us to get medical supplies as we are trapped here in Idlib,” one doctor, who asked to remain unnamed for security reasons, said on video after receiving supplies from the first shipment.

After a gas attack in April that killed dozens of people, the Kooseds launched an emergency appeal and outfitted hospitals in the war zone with hazmat kits to keep doctors safe as they treated patients who might carry the residue of harmful chemicals.

Two Syrian children embrace in a memorial photograph. Photographs such as these sometimes circulate in Idlib and Aleppo after children die in gas or bomb attacks.

The requests have become more specific and complicated as doctors have grown to trust the couple, and vice versa. The Kooseds have shipped X-ray and electrocardiogram machines, costly medications and a cranial drill for neurosurgery.

Dr. Omar, a neurosurgeon in Idlib who asked that his surname not be used for security reasons, said in an email to the Journal, “The hospital I am working in now has received a lot of the lifesaving medical supplies. These supplies also have been delivered to about 30 hospitals in the area of Idlib province. Philip and I have been working on special orders for brain surgery and other special surgeries, as well.”

In total, the Kooseds have delivered five shipments, with another three en route and two more planned. They estimate their aid has amounted to more than $21 million worth of goods. But the couple still feels that their work is merely a footnote to the heroic daily efforts of the surgeons and other medical staff they work with in Syria.

“We’re trying to help real heroes on the ground and real victims,” Philip said. “That’s all we’re really doing and, I don’t know, it just doesn’t feel special. It’s something that anyone can do. The first step is just doing something.”

For more information on Save the Syrian Children, go to SavetheSyrianChildren.org

A smorgasbord of literary delights at L.A. Times book festival

Now the largest and one of the longest-running book events in the United States, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books opens for its 21st outing over the weekend of April 21-23 on the USC campus.

Once again, more than 150,000 book-lovers are expected to join hundreds of authors and performers for interviews, panel discussions, poetry readings, storytelling, musical performances, book-browsing, food and drink, and — always the real and irreplaceable draw — the opportunity to mingle with other ardent book-lovers.

The Festival of Books opens on the evening of April 21 with the presentation of the Los Angeles Times Book Awards, now in their 37th year and emceed this year by comedian, actor and writer Tig Notaro.

The recipient of the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement by a Western writer will be presented to novelist Thomas McGuane, whose books include “Ninety-two in the Shade,” “Driving on the Rim” and, most recently, “Crow Fair.”  (The award is named after my late father, who served as the daily book critic for the Times for more than 30 years, and I will be presenting the award to McGuane at the ceremony.)

Other winners will be announced at the prize ceremony, including the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, the Innovator’s Award and the newly established Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose.

At 10 a.m. on April 22, the USC Trojan Marching Band will kick off the festivities with a performance by the 300-member ensemble. At the same time, former L.A. Poet Laureate Luis J. Rodriguez, author of one of the classics of Los Angeles literature, “Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.,” will mount the Poetry Stage to read from his latest book of poetry, “Borrowed Bones.” The choice between a musical extravaganza and a soaring lyrical moment represents the remarkable diversity of the Festival of Books.

Celebrity participants, literary and otherwise, will include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (“Writings on the Wall”), Ron Kovic (“Born on the Fourth of July” and “Hurricane Street”), Cheech Marin (“Cheech Is Not My Real Name … But Don’t Call Me Chong!”), Margaret Atwood (“Hag-Seed: William Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ Retold”), Francine Prose (“Mister Monkey: A Novel”), Joyce Carol Oates (“Lives of the Twins” and “A Book of American Martyrs”), Bryan Cranston (“A Life in Parts”), Tippi Hedren (“Tippi: A Memoir”), MSNBC’s Chris Hayes (“A Colony in a Nation”) and conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt (“GOP 5.0: Republican Renewal Under President Obama”).

Local authors with national reach are well represented in the schedule of events, including T.C. Boyle (“The Terranauts”), T. Jefferson Parker (“Crazy Blood”), Mona Simpson (“Casebook: A Novel”), Leslie Klinger (“Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted,” co-edited by Laura Caldwell) and Susan Straight (“The Shipwreck Bed”).

The programming includes some surprising and illuminating moments. Rock star Dave Grohl is featured in conversation with his mother, Virginia Hanlon Grohl, about her new book, “From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars.” Best-selling author Lisa See (“The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane”), daughter of the late and beloved novelist Carolyn See, will be in conversation on a subject she knows well: “Everybody’s Got One: Fiction and Families.” And Leo Braudy, author of “Haunted: On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, Zombies, and Other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural Worlds,” is participating in a timely panel titled “What Are We So Afraid Of? The Role of Fear in Our Lives.”

Complete scheduling information and advance tickets for these and dozens of other events at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books are available at events.latimes.com/festivalofbooks.

JONATHAN KIRSCH, is book editor of the Jewish Journal, will moderate an April 22 panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on “Biography: The Artist as Muse,” featuring Ross King, Donna Seaman and Lawrence Weschler.

T-shirts with swastikas were sold at USC on Wednesday until the university had the vendor removed. Photos courtesy of Ilana Morgan Spiegel

Vendor found selling swastika t-shirts at USC

T-shirts emblazoned with swastikas that were being sold at USC by a vendor created a stir on campus the morning of Feb. 15 after a student discovered them at a central area of campus, near the Tommy Trojan statue.

A university official said the vendor was asked to leave as a result.

The shirts may have been referring to the historical significance of the symbol before its appropriation by the Nazis. One shirt featured the phrase, “To Hell with Hitler! I’ve been a Good Luck Sign Since the Beginning of Time” and different styles of swastikas appeared above the words “Buddhist,” “Greek,” “Christian” and more. The design featured the phrase, “Friends of the Swastika” as well as an image of a Jewish star with a swastika inside.

According to the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the swastika “was used at least 5,000 years before Adolf Hitler designed the Nazi flag. The word swastika comes from the Sanskrit svastika, which means ‘good fortune’ or ‘well-being.’ … To this day it is a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Odinism.”

That didn’t stop some on campus from expressing their dismay at the symbol’s appearance. Among the first to discover the T-shirts was USC student Ilana Spiegel, who notified campus officials. USC had a contract with the vendor, whose name was not immediately available to the Journal, she said.

Spiegel took to Facebook to express her dismay at the incident.

“I’m shaking as I write this,” she wrote in a post on Facebook around 11:30 a.m., accompanying a photograph of one of the shirts. “I was walking to class this morning and saw this T-shirt for sale at this vendor.”

Chabad of USC Executive Director Rabbi Dov Wagner also denounced the shirts. He said the swastika’s connections to Nazism can’t be ignored and therefore the shirts were inappropriate to to be sold on campus.


“I think some symbols can’t be reclaimed. If it’s something clearly provocative, and I believe whether that was the intention of the guy — the vendor — or not, the intention of such material is to offend and many students were commenting they were grandchildren of [Holocaust] survivors, etc., and it triggered a deep emotional response to see such material displayed openly on campus,” he said.

A statement from USC Hillel said the shirts “have no place on our campus.”

“These items are anti-Semitic and trivialize the Holocaust, an incredibly dark period in history in which more than six million Jews perished,” the Feb. 15 statement signed by Bailey London, executive director of USC Hillel, says. 

Eddie North-Hager, USC director of media relations, confirmed that the incident occurred: “A vendor was asked to leave because the items he was selling led to the vendor causing a disruption on campus. The merchandise the vendor was selling did not meet community standards, per USC guidelines for vendors who wish to sell goods and services on campus.”

North-Hager said the shirts were in violation of a USC campus policy that says, according to policy.usc.edu, “Approval for on campus sales will only be considered for those vendors whose products or services are not considered obscene as defined by community standards.”

Spiegel, 21, a junior who describes herself as a “mixed-race Jewish women,” characterized the instance as an exception to the rule in terms of what the campus atmosphere at USC is like.

“I feel like USC is supportive of the Jewish community … I’ve never felt unsafe on campus as a Jew before,” she said.

30 years and 30 big changes

In the Jewish Journal’s inaugural issue on Feb. 28, 1986, readers already could see it was not going to be their parents’ kind of Jewish newspaper. The Journal was different from its predecessor owned by the Jewish Federation, as well as the Orthodox-leaning B’nai B’rith Messenger and the crusading Jewish Heritage.

The new weekly, edited by Gene Lichtenstein, sent a message with its first cover story dedicated to anti-school busing and conservative Congresswoman Bobbi Fiedler, a former Los Angeles Unified School District board member. It was going to step outside the well-worn path of covering the status quo of Westside and Beverly Hills liberal politics, and broaden coverage to include a Jewish grassroots, right-leaning firebrand.

In the three decades since that edition, this broader approach — including news, features, opinions and eventually blogs from all points of L.A.’s Jewish communal compass — has been the newspaper’s guiding rule. Turning through old, bound volumes, with pages browned and edges foxed, the paper’s coverage presents a portrait of 30 years of change, growth and evolution within the local Jewish community. Here are 30 noteworthy topics and events that touched L.A. over the past 30 years, as reflected in the Journal’s pages.

1. Embracing LGBT Jews

Although a cover in 1986 announced the continuing conflict within Judaism over gay Jews, by 1998 a news feature detailed increased acceptance — and plans for the celebration of more than 25 years of the world’s first LGBT synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim. Getting over the shandah, the embarrassment, denominational Judaism began a serious conversation over transgender acceptance and rights, as reflected in another stirring cover story, this time in 2015.

2. King Juan Carlos Comes to L.A.

Almost half a millennium after the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, Spanish King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia visited Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel on Wilshire Boulevard to make peace on Oct. 1, 1987. “For the Sephardic Jews of Los Angeles, the gesture is one of historical dimension,” Rabbi Shelton J. Donnell wrote. The Journal went on to chart the growth of a large and vital Sephardic community in L.A.

3. Intermarriage: To Worry or Not to Worry?

Concerns about intermarriage go back all the way to the Torah. But when the 1997 L.A. Jewish Community Survey found the intermarriage rate among couples who were married in the five years ending in 1997 was 41 percent, well, it didn’t seem so bad to some people. That changed for many when the Pew Research Center reported in 2013 a rate of 58 percent nationwide — and 71 percent among non-Orthodox Jews.

4. The Rise of Iranian and Russian Jewish Immigrants

With the Iranian Jewish immigrant community at close to 17,000 by the late ’90s, we learned to love lavash, Persian cucumbers and late night simchas, while recognizing (if not understanding) Farsi in Pico Boulevard shop windows. As for immigrants from the former Soviet Union, more than 24,000 flocked to the area by the late ’80s. Apartment buildings in West Hollywood began to fill with Russian immigrant families, and Santa Monica Boulevard became dotted with Russian bakeries and storefront markets. Were they here to stay? Da.

5. A Growing Orthodoxy 

With all the new kosher restaurants on Pico and Ventura boulevards, it seemed clear by 2000 that the Orthodox community was booming. For the kosherly conscious, there was a clear increase in the availability of heckshered foods, as well as public displays of Yiddishkayt, such as Tu b’Shevat street fairs and car-mounted menorahs, and a massive influx of Orthodox families into previously WASP-y Hancock Park.

6. The New Israelis

Around town, we grew accustomed to hearing Ivrit spoken in restaurants, movie theater lines, folkdance spots like Café Danssa, and the Fairfax record store Hataklit (both now closed). By 2007, especially in the Valley, Israelis had “their own cafes, markets, dances and social and business networks,” according to a feature by Tom Tugend. Drawing that community together was the Israeli American Council, begun in 2006. The IAC fires up the largest L.A. Jewish gatherings of the year with the annual Celebrate Israel festival in Rancho Park.

7. Logging On for Love

The inaugural issue of the Journal chronicled the angst of making a Jewish match in a city expansive enough to be its own diaspora with “The Single Life” column. But that was old school. Jewish computer dating began here in the mid-1970s, and rebooted in 1997 with the founding of JDate by Joe and Nickie Shapira of Beverly Hills. Swiping right, in 2014, were Sean Rad and Justin Mateen, two of the Jewish founders of the dating app Tinder. But face-to-face love connections thrived at “Friday Night Live,” an innovative singles-oriented Sabbath service started in 1998 at Sinai Temple that drew up to 1,500 souls.

8. Oy, Did We Have Mail!

The first message on ARPANET, the predecessor to the internet, was sent by a UCLA team led by a Jewish professor, Leonard Kleinrock, in 1969, altering forever the way we give and gain news about our lives. Joining that widening stream, the Journal first went online in 1996, allowing it to cover breaking news, and eventually providing a means for readers to instantly comment, kvetch and post blogs. Now L.A. is home to numerous virtual Jewish sites, and every congregation and organization is a click away.

9. Women of valor and power

With the newly appointed director of Brandeis-Bardin Institute, Deborah Lipstadt, on the paper’s cover during its first year, the Journal set the tone for covering local Jewish women leaders making waves on a national scale. These have included rabbis such as Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, the first woman to lead a major metropolitan congregation; Naomi Levy, author and founder of Nashuva, and Sharon Brous, founder of IKAR.

10. Higher Ratings for Jewish Identity in Hollywood

30 Something

30 Something

gellersTV shows with clearly drawn Jewish characters such as “Thirtysomething,” “Seinfeld” and “Northern Exposure” reflected a growing hipness and ease of being Jewish. Los Angeles, with a large contingent of Jewish writers, producers, and showrunners, filled the culture with characters such as Monica and Ross Geller (“Friends”), Larry David (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Ari Gold (“Entourage”) and Howard Wolowitz (“The Big Bang Theory”), as well as cartoon characters Kyle Broflovski (“South Park”) and Krusty the Clown (“The Simpsons”). More recently, Maura Pfefferman (born “Morton”) of Amazon Prime’s “Transparent” gave us a transgender take on Jewish life.

11. The New Jewish Side of Town

In 2004, famed New York-based streetwear brand Supreme opened a large shop on Fairfax Avenue, just up the block from Canter’s deli, signaling a change to a traditionally Jewish neighborhood that was filling up with trendy skate clothing shops and galleries. As Fairfax turned full-hipster, younger observant Jews, especially those with families, were moving to Pico-Robertson, which was transforming into the Jewish side of town complete with new kosher restaurants, shuls and markets.

12. New museums to look forward — and back

The Torah commands Jews to “zachor,” to remember, and with the opening of the Museum of Tolerance in 1993, and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in Pan Pacific Park in 2010, we had two new places to look deeply into our painful past as a way to navigate the present. Looking to the future, the Zimmer Children’s Museum opened, helping to transmit and create Jewish memories for children and families. And in 1996, the Skirball Cultural Center opened in the Sepulveda Pass, connecting art and culture with Jewish vision and values.

13. Mazel Tov, It’s Mitzvah Day!

First held in 1999 as a project of Temple Israel of Hollywood, Mitzvah Day was an expression of tikkun olam as volunteers painted, repaired and renewed their city. Begun by TV, theater and movie writer David Levinson, the idea flowered into a community-wide event that drew thousands of participants, changing its name in 2003 to Big Sunday, eventually evolving into a weekend, and then in 2016, into a month of events, attracting up to 50,000 volunteers of all faiths.

14. The Day Rabin Died

Shot by a right-wing extremist while leaving a peace rally on Nov. 5, 1995, the assassination of the Israeli prime minister who negotiated the Oslo Accords — for which he shared the Nobel Peace Prize — reverberated throughout the community, sounding an ominous warning to leaders who wish not to learn war anymore. Some 10,000 people attended a massive memorial rally on a cordoned-off Wilshire Boulevard to mark the end of a man, and a dream.

15. ‘Fighting On’ at USC; Making UCLA Cool to Jews

usc-uclaIn the 1870s, Isaias W. Hellman, a German-Jewish businessman, banker and philanthropist was one of three men to donate the land for USC, which 100 years later was viewed as a home for WASP elitism. In 2002, a decade of increased inclusiveness at the school was reflected when Stanley Gold was appointed the university’s first Jewish chairman of the board of trustees. In 1972, UCLA was the first major American university to fund a Jewish newspaper, Ha’am, but by 2015 the school was getting headlines for a judicial board nominee being questioned over her Jewish background. In 2016, a student body president left the school alleging harassment by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. More hopefully, that same year, the school’s Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies and the Mapping Jewish L.A. project celebrated the history of Boyle Heights with an exhibition.

16. American Jewish University Goes Big

In 2007, the University of Judaism merged with the 1,500-acre Brandeis-Bardin Institute, marrying two 60-year-old L.A. Jewish institutions into the American Jewish University. And when big names came through town, from Bill Clinton to Bill Maher, a likely stop was a speaking engagement through the American Jewish University’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education, which drew thousands.

17. Got Kosher? Yup.

challah-gotkosherBeyond the opening of kosher Mexican and Thai restaurants, Los Angeles saw the rollout of multiple trucks selling kosher tacos and another truck selling kosher Montreal egg rolls. Add in Jeff’s Gourmet Sausage Factory — now offering concessions at home Dodgers games — and the pretzel challah of Got Kosher? There was bad news in 2013, though, when the Journal reported a  scandal at Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat market after a private investigator videotaped the owner allegedly bringing unsupervised animal products into his store.

18. The Dodgers Go Blue and White

Long after Sandy Koufax and fellow Jewish Dodgers brothers Larry and Norm Sherry, who both attended Fairfax High, put on Dodger blue, fellow members of the tribe Stan Kasten (president and part-owner) and Andrew Friedman (president of baseball operations) joined the team. And in 2000, the year they got Jewish slugger Shawn Green, the team began heavily promoting Jewish Community Day.

19. Harold Schulweis z’l

The issue of Dec. 18, 2014, marked the passing of Valley Beth Shalom Senior Rabbi Harold Schulweis at age 89, calling him “the rabbi of rabbis.” Arriving at his Valley pulpit in 1970, Rabbi Schulweis went on to pioneer synagogue-based chavurah, counseling centers, and outreach to interfaith, gay and lesbian Jews and converts. A superb thinker and orator, he insisted upon connecting the Jewish world with the larger community worldwide through foundations and outreach organizations like Jewish World Watch.

“Harold Schulweis is a rabbi,” said Rabbi Uri Herscher, founding president and CEO of the Skirball Cultural Center. “This is a little like saying a Rembrandt is a painting. Or a Stradivarius is a violin. … He has, as much as any rabbi in our time, given Judaism meaning, relevance and renewed purpose.”

20. The Rise of Mega-Synagogues AND Upstart Congregations

Large congregations such as Stephen Wise Temple, Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Temple Israel of Hollywood, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Leo Baeck Temple and Sinai Temple all thrived by doubling down on the full-service synagogue model.

At the same time, a 1982 guide to Jewish Los Angeles listed a few independent congregations, mostly Orthodox. In comparison, the 2016 Jewish Journal “City Guide” showed 16 independent, mostly nontraditional congregations, including Metivta, Open Temple, IKAR, Nashuva, Valley Outreach and Movable Minyan, taken together serving thousands of families. L.A.’s plethora of rabbinical seminaries — the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Conservative Movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordained its first class in 1999, and the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA (founded in 2000) — helped fuel their growth.

21. A Jewish Approach to…

As social awareness of issues like disabilities and addiction grew, so too did unique Jewish communal responses.  Beit T’Shuva, an innovative addiction treatment center, started 30 years ago and has grown to treat thousands.  And services for special needs greatly expanded to dozens of programs and organzations.

22. The First Intifada, 1987-1991

intifadaBesides the fact that no one knew it would be the first, the Journal did not know what to call it. It settled on, in 1987, the “hostility between the Palestinian youth and Israelis.” By 1989, a piece about the fear and hopelessness many were feeling in Israel, titled “Feeling helpless in the Intifada,” captured the anxiety of many Jewish Angelenos. The continuing conflict has led to the L.A. birth of Israel advocacy organizations like  StandWithUs and many, many rallies, op-eds and arguments.

23.  The Winning Campaigns of Jewish Candidates

For more than 50 years at the beginning of the 20th century, there was nary a Jewish city councilmember. That changed in 1953 with the election of 22-year-old Rosalind Wyman to the Fifth District seat, which includes the Westside and the Fairfax district. Now held by Paul Koretz, the seat has been Jewish ever since, with several who held the seat rising to higher office: Zev Yaroslavsky and Edmund D. Edelman to L.A. County Supervisor, and Michael Feuer to the State Assembly and position of L.A. City Attorney. Among numerous Jewish electeds, the highest profile is current Mayor Eric Garcetti.

24. The Fall and Revival of Jewish Centers

Disclosures of financial troubles and fiscal mismanagement within the former Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles in 2001 led to the closure of numerous centers, including Santa Monica’s Bay Cities JCC in 2002 and the Conejo Valley JCC in 2004. With pickets, posters and T-shirts, members of the Westside JCC rallied and eventually won independence, and the center in Silver Lake came back to booming life as well. A JCC continued in Long Beach and even though the JCC at Milken in West Hills closed in 2012 after Federation sold the property, the North Valley JCC was reborn as the Valley JCC in Woodland Hills.

25. Moving Westward and Beyond

The 1997 L.A. Jewish Community Survey was our statistical proof that we were moving westward, but the signs had long been there to read. New synagogues had opened in Simi Valley and the Conejo Valley, kosher markets and day schools too, and in 1997, Mount Sinai Memorial Park expanded to Simi Valley. By the new millennium, Jews were moving east as well — to Koreatown, Echo Park and downtown.

26. From Delis to Mainstream Dining

When Al Levy in 1886 first operated an Oyster Bar Pushcart, and later an Oyster House restaurant in downtown L.A., he was prying open the way for Jewish chefs and entrepreneurs to move into mainstream cuisine. Following in Levy’s footsteps, L.A. became home to the nation’s best family-owned delis, including Langer’s, Canter’s, Izzy’s, and Nate ’n Al.  Now, the city is home to chefs including Alma’s Ari Taymor, Mozza’s Nancy Silverton, Micah Wexler of Wexler’s Deli, and Jessica Koslow, owner of the always-hopping Sqirl, who made the cover of last year’s Passover issue.

27. A Local Legacy of “Schindler’s List”

A chance meeting in 1980 in a Beverly Hills leather shop between Australian author Thomas Keneally and the store’s owner, Leopold Page (Leopold Pfefferberg), who had survived the Holocaust due to Oskar Schindler, set in motion this movie, which won the Academy Award for best picture in 1994. Steven Spielberg directed the film, and at the Academy Award ceremony, he credited Page as the “catalyst for the film.” In 1994, Spielberg founded the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, dedicated to recording the video testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the Shoah.

28. Federation: From Umbrella to Innovation

The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles worked to transform itself from an umbrella group funding and coordinating Jewish social services and aid here and abroad to a social innovator in its own right. In 2010, the Journal covered the appointment of then-52-year-old Jay Sanderson as president, determined, he said, to “throw the doors open.” Since then, Federation has launched numerous projects aimed at drawing younger Jews, new leaders, the entertainment industry and unaffiliated Jews into communal life.

29. Saving Jewish Buildings

In a city that usually bulldozes and paves over its history, three acts serve as towering achievements in historical preservation. One was the rescue of the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights by Stephen Sass and the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California in 2000. Another was the purchase of the original home of Sinai Temple in the Pico Union neighborhood by singer-songwriter Craig Taubman in 2013. And a third was the $100 million restoration of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Koreatown. All serve not only the Jewish community, but local neighborhoods as well.

30. School Choice

In the early 1980s, if you wanted to attend a Los Angeles Jewish high school, there was only one choice: YULA, known as Yeshiva University of Los Angeles. By 1987, enrollment at the seven Jewish high schools in Los Angeles covered just 720 kids, about 100 of them in one non-Orthodox school, a predecessor to Milken Community High School. Today, more than 9,700 children attend 42 Jewish schools, with another 10,000 in supplementary Jewish schools, about 7,500 in early childhood programs, and thousands more in camps. Cost is still a concern, but online learning and other innovative programs offer opportunities to reach even more of the young generation — and keep Los Angeles Jewish life thriving for many, many years to come.

USC alum among Oakland warehouse fire victims

Jonathan Bernbaum, one of the 36 victims of the devastating Dec. 2 fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland, was a 2008 graduate of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

“He was great, he cared, he worked hard, he was opinionated and he was talented,” his former professor, Brenda Goodman, professor of practice of cinematic arts at the School of Cinematic Arts, said in a phone interview. “You can’t ask for better than that.”

Goodman was among those who attended a vigil for Bernbaum, 34, which took place at the USC campus on Dec. 5, according to a USC School of Cinematic Arts spokesperson. About 50 people attended.

Bernbaum was described as a secular Jew by a member of his family in the Northern California Jewish newspaper, j. “Like a lot of secular Jews, he embodied the more charming parts of Judaism: a reverence for learning and community,” the deceased’s brother, David Bernbaum, was quoted as saying in the paper. 

Bernbaum was buried Dec. 12 at Gan Yarok, the Jewish section of Fernwood Cemetery in Mill Valley, after a funeral held Dec. 11 at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, according to Berkeleyside, an independent news site. 

Raised in Berkeley, the USC alum has been portrayed in news articles since the time of the tragedy as a successful video jockey in the electronic music scene who focused on creating live video art for electronic music acts. He toured with the duo Knife Party and was reportedly creating live visuals for an act at the warehouse at the time of the fire.

“He was a real artist,” Goodman said.

Bernbaum’s family belongs to Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. His mother, Diane, is the former director of Berkeley Midrasha, a Jewish learning program for East Bay teenagers in eighth through 12th grades. She served there for more than 30 years, j. reported.

None of the family members could be reached immediately for comment.

Rabbi Jennifer Flam, executive director at Berkeley Midrasha, said the deceased’s family members are coping as best they can. “It’s day to day,” Flam, who succeeded Diane Bernbaum in 2014, according to j., said in a phone interview. 

In a Dec. 8 statement, Congregation Netivot Shalom Rabbi Menachem Creditor alerted his community to Bernbaum’s death. “It was with great sadness that we shared the loss of Jonathan Bernbaum, z”l, son of Diane and Ed Bernbaum and brother of David,” stated the rabbi, who could not be reached for further comment.

Doctor’s gift adds new flavor to USC art museum

USC Chabad House burglarized

Shortly after midnight on July 13, a burglar broke into the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center at USC, stealing thousands of dollars worth of valuables, including computers, t’filllin and more. 

Rabbi Dov Wagner, who runs the USC Chabad Center with his wife, Runya, said he is grateful for the outpouring of community support in the wake of the incident, which was captured on security cameras installed outside the Chabad house.

“The events are very unfortunate and sad, but really our students have been incredible, our alumni, parents are coming out with support and taking it personally, as if their own place…their own home… were invaded,” Wagner said in a phone interview on the morning of July 15.    

The USC Chabad Center served approximately 1,500 students during the 2015-2016 academic school year, Wagner said.

The male burglar, who can be seen on the video, appears to have acted alone. He made off with goods worth between $8,000 and $10,000, according to Wagner. 

The Los Angeles Police Department could not be reached immediately for comment. 

The Chabad center is located near the university’s fraternity row, at 2713 Severance St. Currently undergoing construction, the house was empty at the time of the robbery, though it normally functions as a residence for about seven USC students, Wagner said.

Chabad has released information to the public about the incident in the hope that someone will come forward with information about the robbery that could lead to the burglar’s arrest. No arrest had been made as of press time. 

In a phone interview, Wagner said he does not think the Chabad was targeted specifically.

The Chabad offers weekly Shabbat dinners, organizes holiday events and more. In the wake of the incident, Chabad is working with the Los Angeles Police Department’s Southwest Community Police Station, according to an email from a Chabad spokesperson.

Meanwhile, USC alumni, as well as parents of current students, have shown support for the Chabad by donating funds to the center. More than $3,000 has been raised, and there is currently a GoFundMe campaign where people can donate additional, tax-deductible funds to the nonprofit center.

According to Wagner, the burglar arrived at the house around midnight, broke into the residence—presumably through an open window, Wagner said—and remained inside until about 1:30 a.m.

“The guy opened every door and closet in the place,” Wagner said.

The burglar left the house temporarily, then returned with a Dodge Caliber around 5 a.m. Security camera footage captures him loading items from the house into the trunk of the vehicle. Footage also shows the burglar driving away from the house at approximately 5:30 a.m.

A couple of hours after the burglar left, at around 7:30 that morning, construction workers discovered that their tools had been stolen. Chabad reported the incident to police at approximately 9 a.m., Wagner said.

Larry Neinstein: An appreciation

If Dr. Lawrence S. Neinstein’s life had a theme song, it was “Forever Young.” At countless family and chavurah events celebrating important lifecycle moments, Larry would strap on his guitar and in that sweet, wonderful voice, lead us all in singing Bob Dylan’s hymn to youth. “May you always be courageous, stand upright and be strong and may you stay forever young.” How appropriate that the world’s leading expert in adolescent medicine – a man who dedicated his professional life to teaching about and treating young people – adopted “Forever Young” as the anthem of his extraordinary life.  The longtime director of the Engemann Student Health Center at the University of Southern California who also served as USC’s senior associate dean of  student affairs and head of the Division of College Health at the Keck School of Medicine died April 27 of cancer. He was 66.

My wife, Susie, and I met Larry and Debbie when David and Shira Milgrom-Elcott generously invited us to join their chavurah, a group of close friends who had grown up together in Los Angeles, studied together in Hebrew High, spent summers together at camp.  We all had little kids, we were all excited about infusing Jewish ritual with creativity. We were eager to share life’s journey together. We traveled together to Yosemite and Big Sur; we hiked mountains and beaches; we shared holidays and Shabbats and bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and, more recently, grandbaby namings. We became close and trusted friends, sharing our joys and our oys as life unfolded over the past 40 years.

Larry loved these times together, acting as our in-house chazzan (we lent him to Valley Beth Shalom for the High Holy Days), our Hollywood Bowl organizer, our travel agent. He handled our diverse needs with calm, measured and comforting skill, the soulful guide for our experiences. He understood the power of the family as the most important influence in our lives.

Just after the end of the Gulf War, Larry approached me with an idea: Nearly all American families gather on one day of the year: Thanksgiving. Why not create a family ritual for Thanksgiving modeled after the Passover seder, a way to elevate the holiday from gorging on turkey and football games? We called it “Freedom’s Feast: A Thanksgiving Seder,” and with the guidance of our colleague Lee Meyerhoff Hendler, it has been adopted by thousands of families across the United States, transforming Thanksgiving into a celebration of the many blessings we enjoy in this country.

“Freedom’s Feast” was only one of Larry’s unending stream of creative ideas. His charming children’s book “Zeide, Why Are You Wearing White Tennis Shoes on Yom Kippur?,” beautifully illustrated by Lorraine Bubar, has been enjoyed by thousands of families. Whenever Larry would call, I knew he had another great idea he was excited to explore. 

I will leave it to others to describe his groundbreaking contributions to adolescent medicine. Suffice it to say how proud we all were when the latest edition of his go-to handbook was titled “Neinstein’s Adolescent and Young Adult Health Care: A Practical Guide,” considered the “bible” of the field. As in Hollywood, when your name is above the title, it is the ultimate recognition of respect for your contribution, a legacy that will continue to enhance the lives of teenagers and young adults, not just at USC’s amazing Engemann Student Health Center, which Larry built, but throughout the world.

Larry approached his two battles with cancer armed with a scientist’s knowledge, a researcher’s curiosity, and the hope that fuels a doctor’s belief that disease can be defeated. Yes, he survived far longer than anyone could imagine. In his early 20s, in his first battle with cancer, he was told there was a 99 percent chance he would die within a year, but he was in the 1 percent. Then, in 2005, he was given a maximum of three more years, but survived more than a decade. He lived not only because of the dedication of his doctors, caregivers, and family, helped by his courageous will. In long, detailed emails to those closest to him, Larry shared with us his medical condition, complete with an ongoing recitation of numbers and markers and percentages. We marveled at how transparent and willing Larry was to share this most intimate information about his epic fight. Always the teacher, Larry had turned himself into a research project, wondering aloud about the efficacies of therapies, the side effects of experimental drugs, the promise of the newest generation of interventions. He planned a new book: “Surviving the Big C,” sharing his insights and discoveries. During a moving talk last year at USC, Larry said: “I’m a resilient kind of positive person. I’m not angry at the cancer. It’s just ‘one of those things,’ and I have to move on. I think that optimism has been very helpful.” Every email ended with the same basic message to us: “Optimism is the best weapon in the battle against cancer. Enjoy every moment you are given. Stand upright and be strong.”

Larry is survived by wife Debbie Barak Neinstein, three children Yael (Yossi), Aaron (Karen) and David, and five grandkids, as well as his brother Jack Neinstein. Each time he wrote those emails, he also thanked his beloved Debbie, his devoted kids, his adoring grandkids, and all of us who were blessed to know this sweet, lovely human being. In Talmud Shabbat 31a, Rava suggests questions we will be asked in heaven about how we lived our lives on earth. One of them is this: “tzipita li’shuah: did you hope for redemption?” The key word is “hope.” Did you live your life with hope in your heart? Larry Neinstein taught us that life is best lived in hope, not fear.

In our hearts, Larry, you will always be forever young.

Ron Wolfson is Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and author of “The Best Boy in the United States of America” (Jewish Lights).

Steven B. Sample, Former President of USC, 75

Steven B. Sample, who served as president of the University of Southern California for nearly two decades, died March 29 at 75.

Sample, who was Episcopalian, significantly strengthened USC’s image within the Jewish community, according to Steven J. Ross, co-director of the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life. Sample helped establish the institute, which provides USC students the opportunity to explore the Jewish role in the contemporary American landscape. 

He was also dedicated to interfaith relations. In 1996, he created the USC office of religious life and appointed Rabbi Susan Laemmle as the office’s dean. Laemmle was the first rabbi in the country to hold such a position.

His work extended to the Holocaust research sphere as well. In 2005, Steven Spielberg worked with Sample to turn the Shoah Foundation, an archive of Holocaust survivor testimony, over to USC, renaming it the USC Shoah Foundation  — The Institute for Visual History and Education. 

Born in St. Louis in 1940 and raised in Wilton, Conn., by a mother who was a civic activist and a father who was an electric motor company sales manager, Sample graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He met his future wife, Kathryn Brunkow, while in college. 

Trained as an electrical engineer, Sample served on the faculty at Purdue University and the University of Nebraska and served as president of the University at Buffalo before becoming USC’s 10th president in 1991. 

Among his accomplishments was growing USC’s endowment, developing the USC School of Cinematic Arts into one of the most prestigious film schools in the nation and more. Sample retired in 2010. No cause of death was released, according to the Los Angeles Times.

He is survived by his wife, Kathryn; daughters Michelle Sample Smith and Elizabeth Sample; and two grandchildren.

Solomon Wolf Golomb, USC professor, to receive top science-engineering honor

For recreation, Albert Einstein played the violin, while Solomon Wolf Golomb, an esteemed professor of engineering at USC, finds his relaxation in inventing mathematical games, such as “cheskers,” a hybrid of chess and checkers.

At work, he deals with advanced mathematical formulas that are incomprehensible to the layman but that find crucial applications in space and cellular communications, cryptography, missile guidance, radar, sonar and GPS.

For these and other contributions to mathematics and science, Golomb is being awarded the Benjamin Franklin Medal, which Einstein also received and whose lists of recipients are viewed as tip sheets to future Nobel Prize winners.

In one part of his research, Golomb’s work underlies the process called CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), which, for example, allows hundreds of thousands of cell phones in the same city to communicate at the same time.

Another of Golomb’s research areas is encryption, and he was asked during an interview whether his work might help in deciphering the seemingly unbreakable encrypted messages that some terrorists have been able to use to communicate with
one another.

Golomb said that his own research wasn’t applicable to that problem, but noted that some of the most advanced work in this field was being conducted in Israel, particularly at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

“In general, it is very difficult to break an encrypted message in real time, while it is being transmitted, but if the message can be recorded and then analyzed, we should be able to decipher it,” he said.

His own ties to Israel are close, Golomb said, and he has visited the country more than 30 times and speaks Hebrew fluently.

Golomb also serves on the International Board of Governors of the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, and locally and nationally is affiliated with the American Technion Society.

On the USC campus, he is a member of both Hillel and Chabad and supports closer ties between the two groups, which now include joint Erev Shabbat services twice a year.

The son and grandson of rabbis from Vilna, the capital of Lithuania, Golomb annually reads from the Torah at the campus High Holy Days services at Hillel.

Golomb was born in Baltimore, graduated from Johns Hopkins and Harvard universities, and subsequently became a leader in military and space communications at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

He joined the USC electrical engineering and mathematics faculties in 1963, where, at 83, he continues working. He holds the Andrew and Ema Viterbi Chair in the Viterbi School of Engineering, the latter endowed with a $52 million gift by the Italian-Jewish immigrant and co-founder of Qualcomm, Inc.

Golomb continues his keen interest in the games and puzzles of “recreational mathematics,” although some people, he notes, consider the term an oxymoron, arguing that no aspect of mathematics can be defined as “recreational.” Golomb, on the other hand, maintains, “All mathematics is recreational.”

The Franklin Medal will be conferred on the USC professor in April at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, founded in 1824 “to train artisans and mechanics in the fundamentals of science.”

According to its website, “The Franklin Institute, through its awards program, seeks to provide public recognition and encouragement of excellence in science and technology.”

Men’s Special Olympics basketball team wins big for Israel

Cheers and smiles lit up the hardwood floor as the Israeli Special Olympics men’s basketball team celebrated a 26-21 comeback win against Poland in a preliminary matchup on July 28.

A crowd of more than 30 family members and supporters stacked the baseline of a side court at USC’s Galen Center to fuel the Israelis’ energy during their first matchup. 

Nizan Shamis, the youngest member of his team, dropped a game-high 16 points and willed his team to victory over Poland. Facing a 17-15 fourth-quarter deficit, the team responded with an 11-0 run, 10 of which came at the hands of Shamis. 

“I understand the other team, how they play, and I started to take the game upon myself,” the 17-year-old said through a translator. 

Shamis also said that head coach Yoran Sasson instructed the team to work together, which enabled him to flourish offensively. 

“Coach told us to see one another,” Shamis explained. “Because of communication between the players, I can score so much.”

This was evident as many of Shamis’ buckets, in addition to a few of Nir Ben Varon’s six points, came on assists from inbound and fastbreak passes by teammates Eliyahu Somer and Aliyahu Levi.

Israel managed to withstand a late Polish rally and hung on for the five-point win.

Unselfish play was a big factor for the Israelis, as players like Ben Varon exhibited a team-first attitude.

“It’s not going to matter who is going to be first in scoring,” Ben Varon stated. “It’s a matter of the team.”

The Israelis displayed a strong defensive performance, led by anchor Shimon Pelah, who at 44 is the oldest member of the team. Pelah, who Sasson called the “neshamah” (soul) of the team, could be seen grabbing rebounds on both ends of the court and diving to the floor to snatch loose balls. He said that part of his success comes as a result of playing in Israel with “regular” players, meaning people without intellectual disabilities. 

“I play with regular players and they show me where to stand to get rebounds, so then I get rebounds,” Pelah said.

Sasson credited the team’s success to Pelah’s competitiveness and his contagious positive energy. 

“Shimon has a really good spirit,” he said. “He’s a real winner. Because of that we win.”

Israel’s menacing defense helped keep the team ahead through most of the first three quarters, until a swarm of Polish fans rushed into the gym and ignited their team.

However, Israeli fans countered. “Lo latet!” cried Shamis’ mother, translated as, “Don’t relent!” In unison, the crowd chanted, “El El Yisra’el!” to add to the intense atmosphere.

“The crowd was really great, the cheering was really great!” Pelah exclaimed, beaming with joy. “And because of them, we were able to focus on the game. We hear the crowd and we want to succeed.”

Sasson listed his tournament goals and said that they had been accomplished, at that point, through one game.

“We hope to bring kavod [honor] for Israel and specialness for the Jewish [people] and all the world,” he said.

Sasson’s players, who train twice a week, had mutual feelings about being a part of the Special Olympics.

“Our main goal is to represent Israel with respect,” Shamis said. “We have fun in the Special Olympics and this is great — really great.”

The 10-member squad, the largest team in the Israeli delegation, continued undefeated in the Men’s Division 6 competition, beating Portugal and Pakistan in round-robin play before defeating Pakistan for the gold medal on July 31.

Overall, the 40-member contingent from the Holy Land earned 13 gold, 12 silver and 15 bronze medals for a total of 40.

Holocaust lessons brought live to classrooms

“When you see injustice, stand up.” 

That’s the message Paula Lebovics wants her audiences to remember. On May 13, the 81-year-old survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp shared her story in person with three young students at USC, but their discussion went much further — it was streamed live to 4,000 middle and high school classrooms worldwide, with students and teachers posing questions on Twitter using the hashtag #PastIsPresent.

The hashtag refers to the title of the event, “Auschwitz: The Past Is Present.” Hosted by Hall Davidson of Discovery Education, the program included Lucia Wiedeman, 15, a freshman at El Segundo High School; Anna Hackel, 15, a freshman at Polytechnic School in Pasadena; and Gabe Hackel, 11, a sixth-grader at Polytechnic. The three students had traveled to Poland in January as part of a group of 25 teachers and 10 students. Also on the panel were Arkansas teacher Karen Wells and Kori Street, USC Shoah Foundation’s director of education.

The program was designed to introduce students who have never met a Holocaust survivor to do so virtually, and to see themselves in the stories being told. Lebovics was an 11-year-old inmate at Auschwitz when the camp was liberated by the Soviet army in 1945. She lost her father and sister at the camp, and vividly remembers the cold January day when the Soviets marched into the abandoned complex, with only traumatized children remaining. 

“They have to know,” Lebovics said of today’s youth, “because our generation is on its way out. The next generation won’t have any more survivors taking them anywhere or telling them their stories. And they have to know, so maybe by them knowing, they can help the world to maybe eradicate those kind of crimes that took place.”

Co-sponsored by the USC Shoah Foundation and Discovery Education, the program also took students on virtual tours of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland and the Warsaw Ghetto. It is part of Discovery Ed’s Virtual Field Trip series, which in the past has included online visits to an egg farm in Illinois and a NASA space research laboratory in Maryland.

“Auschwitz: The Past Is Present” also included footage from the commemoration ceremony of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, held Jan. 27 at Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Some of the older students in the group were allowed to attend because of the graphic nature of the atrocities. For Gabe Hackel, seeing even a few images from Auschwitz was frightening.

“It was intense. I know that was only just a glimpse of it, but I was still terrified of it, and I couldn’t imagine what it would actually be like for the actual people,” he said. 

Gabe said his most memorable stop on the Poland trip was the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw, where he saw that many gravestones are now crooked or falling over, and realized it’s because the people who would have cared for the graves were killed in the Holocaust. 

“Standing in the cold, it kind of transported me back in time, and I still couldn’t imagine the terror they must have gone through in the Holocaust,” he said. 

When Lebovics and the students visited the recently opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, they found an image of her at Auschwitz — a gaunt 11-year-old girl standing in a group of identically dressed children; the photograph was taken a few days after the camp was liberated.

Lucia Wiedeman said she felt a “gravitational pull” toward Lebovics as she watched her testimony, and agreed that visiting Auschwitz with her had added an entirely new dimension to their trip.

“It’s a whole different feeling when you know someone is with you and you know someone, and then just going there and not knowing anyone,” Lucia said. “It’s as if you were at a funeral, and you don’t know the person, and it’s still saddening. And when you know the person who died, then it demonstrates a whole different type of emotion.”

Anna Hackel added that she was especially moved to hear Lebovics describe the big family dinners she’d had before the Holocaust, when she would sing at the top of her lungs to compete with a younger brother for their family’s attention. Anna said she could relate, because her own younger brother, Gabe, is also very energetic.

“Before I met Paula, I got a chance to listen to her testimony on iWitness [the USC Shoah Foundation’s online video testimonials], and being able to put a face to a Holocaust survivor made everything so much more real than the facts that were just taught in school,” Anna said.

Speaking with survivors or listening to their testimonies online helps make the stories of the Holocaust come to life, the Shoah Foundation’s Street said.

“The interaction with a survivor helps students develop their curiosity, their questions, their dialogue capacities, but it also makes history human. It gives it a human face,” Street said. “And what we find is, whether it’s a connection with a survivor in person or a survivor on the screen through iWitness, we’re getting very similar results in terms of their developing respect, critical thinking and empathy.”

Among the questions sent in by students and teachers, some wanted to know how Wells would teach the Holocaust differently after the trip to Poland. Wells responded that she would teach students about their responsibility in a global society and incorporate more survivors’ testimonies into her lessons. She recalled telling Lebovics that she didn’t understand what she had gone through, and Lebovics responded that she didn’t have to, and that her responsibility as a teacher is to make sure students know to speak out against injustice. 

“Their responsibility is to stand up, because with knowing comes responsibility,” Wells said.

One middle-school teacher wrote in to ask about how the Holocaust compares to what’s happening today with the Middle East and the terror group ISIS. Street cautioned against comparing historic events to “things that are present, that are unfolding as we go.”

But, she said, one parallel between the Nazis and ISIS is their reimagining of ancient texts, religion and history to justify murder. Another is the use of hate to galvanize and scare their followers.

“When I listen to the testimonies at the USC Shoah Foundation, people like Paula remind me that hate isn’t something we should be cultivating,” Street said. 

Davidson gave Lebovics the final word in the broadcast, and her parting message to her international audience was: “Silence is not an option.”

The entire broadcast of “Auschwitz: Past Is Present” is available at

Conney Conference poses a question that may have no answer

Is there such a thing as Jewish art?

The 2015 Conney Conference will pose  and hope to answer that question during its three-day swan-dive into Jewish arts at USC, March 24-26. Programs include panel discussions, art exhibitions and performances by an array of artists tackling the topic.

Spoken-word poet Rick Lupert of poetrysuperhighway.com answered the question with a definitive: “Yes. Period.” Lupert will be performing with composer and song-leader Craig Taubman on the evening of March 25. “Jewish art must exist because people are creating Jewish art,” the poet said matter-of-factly; he will perform one of his poems, titled “Unrequited Potato,” about waking up to the smell of latkes in the morning — an undeniably Jewish poem.

Photographer Bill Aron also thinks the question is a no-brainer. “I do identify as a Jew, and most of my work is about Jewish communities,” he said. On March 26, Aron will discuss his book “New Beginnings: The Triumphs of 120 Cancer Survivors,” which chronicles 120 survivors readjusting to their “new” normal life, post-treatments (“Maybe I’m the 121st,” the artist said, also a survivor). What makes his book Jewish? “There’s certainly a moral involved in my work, a sense of tikkun olam,” he said.

Stacie Chaiken, who will perform her play “The Dig,” about an archaeologist coming to terms with her Jewish identity, on the last day of the conference, also mentioned tikkun olam, using art as a means to heal the world. But unlike Aron, Chaiken is undecided about whether Jewish art exists. “I’m really not sure, but it will be neat to hear how people position themselves in terms of Jewish identities as artists,” she said.

Professor Doug Rosenberg, director of the Conney Project on Jewish Arts at the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, founded the conference back in 2005 with this question in mind. Five conferences later, he isn’t any closer to coming up with an answer: “I don’t know if it’s possible to come up with a definitive answer. With each passing conference, the question becomes more layered and more nuanced,” he said.

Rosenberg was first inspired to ponder the issue in 1996, after attending the exhibition “Too Jewish?” at the Jewish Museum in New York. The show also was presented at the Hammer Museum at UCLA. 

“That was really the first time that there had been a collection of contemporary work which asked the question if art could be contemporary and Jewish at the same time,” Rosenberg said. So, in 2005, he organized a symposium, what would become the first Conney Conference, hosted by the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at UW-Madison. 

Ten years later, this is the fifth conference since its inception and the first time the conference is taking place outside of Madison. “We decided to take the show on the road,” Rosenberg said.

It also will be the first time UW-Madison alumni and Palm Desert retirees Marv and Babe Conney, whom the conference is named after, will be attending the event. Marv Conney said he’s excited to see the conference expand and evolve. “It’s really learning its potential,” he said, speaking of the conference as he would of a grandchild.

“We’re no spring chickens,” Conney said of himself and his wife, who haven’t been able to attend the previous conferences. Back in 1997, the Conneys approached the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies with a proposition: They wanted to endorse an arts program at UW-Madison. Conney said that since the college started offering the Conney Project on Jewish Arts, the enrollment in the program has been primarily composed of non-Jewish students. “I think it’s important, because it speaks to the universality of the subject,” he said.

Professor Ruth Weisberg, director of USC’s Initiative for Israeli Arts and Humanities, had attended a couple of conferences before ultimately initiating a conversation with Rosenberg about taking the conference to the next level. She knew that the Conneys hadn’t attended previous conferences due to geographical barriers, so that was an impetus for her to suggest a change of venue. Weisberg, representing USC, and Rosenberg, representing UW-Madison, eventually joined forces. “It’s very unusual for two major universities to co-sponsor an event like this,” Weisberg said.

In joining the project, Weisberg only had one request for Rosenberg: “That the theme be more Israeli than it usually is.” So, for the first time, the conference will address intertwined identities among Jewish, American and Israeli artists. “We’ve never really approached that question before,” Rosenberg admitted but said he’s excited to cover new ground and uncharted territory.

Weisberg first became interested in the topic of Israeli identity in art when she visited Israel “and asked artists to tell me about being an Israeli artist.” She was shocked when the artists, refusing to be pigeonholed as strictly “an Israeli artist,” referred to themselves as “international.” “I found it amusing, since their art had to do with boundaries, territories and land,” she continued. This made her think about an artist’s relationship to his/her cultural identity.

Keynote speakers Stanford professor Janice Ross and artist Andi Arnovitz also will join the conversation. Ross will lead a discussion titled “The Chasidic Swan,” investigating the role ballet plays in Israel, and American-Israeli Arnovitz, aside from exhibiting her work in a Jewish feminist exhibition, will speak about her entwined identities.

There may be no absolute answer to the question posed at the conference, but as the Conney Project celebrates its 10-year anniversary, it proves there are endless ways to approach the topic — and no harm in trying.

For more information on the Conney Conference, click here.

Giffords finds strength, direction in Judaism

Invoking a commitment to public service as an example of tikkun olam, or “repairing the world,” former astronaut and U.S. Navy Capt. Mark Kelly told a large, captivated audience at USC about the journey he and his wife, retired U.S. Rep. Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords (D-Ariz.), have been on since a 2011 assassination attempt on Giffords thrust them into the center of the gun-control movement.  

And Giffords, who has limited speaking ability, used the few words she offered to encourage the crowd: “I’m still fighting to make the world a better place, and you can, too. Get involved with your community. Be a leader, set an example. Be passionate, be courageous, be your best.”

Prior to representing Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, Giffords, who is Jewish through her father’s Lithuanian heritage, helmed her family’s automotive business and served in the state legislature. A moderate Democrat, Giffords pushed Congress to provide further protection for her state’s southern border and was a vocal supporter of the Affordable Care Act. 

Although Giffords spoke briefly on March 8 at the 14th annual Carmen and Louis Warschaw Distinguished Lecture Series, organized by The Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life at USC, she left most of the talking to her husband, Kelly, who is Catholic. A naval pilot during Operation Desert Storm who later joined NASA as a Space Shuttle pilot, he participated in and commanded numerous missions on Space Shuttles Endeavour and Discovery. 

“When Gabby entered Congress in 2007, I thought I had the risky job,” Kelly said during his remarks. “I had flown 39 combat missions. I had flown two flights into space already by that point in my career. But as it turned out, Gabby was the one who would nearly lose her life serving her country. And what happened that day would certainly become the biggest challenge — for both of us, I think, personal challenge — that we would ever face.”

During a public event at an Arizona supermarket in January 2011, Jared Loughner approached Giffords and shot her in the left side of her forehead with a 9 mm pistol, before opening fire on the attending crowd — ultimately killing six people and injuring 12 others. Giffords was left partially paralyzed, and with limited speaking ability. 

In a speech full of stories and personal parables on faith, fate and patience, Kelly recalled the two shocking phone calls he had with one of his wife’s aides in the moments after the shooting. Kelly and his daughters immediately flew to Arizona from Texas, where he had been training for a mission. 

Just three months after being shot in the head, Giffords traveled to Florida to watch Kelly take off on a mission to the International Space Station. Although Kelly had initially backed out of the mission after the shooting, his family encouraged him to go. It was his last trip to space, and the last for the Space Shuttle Endeavor.  

“My wife, Gabby, could not be there for the landing. She was there for the liftoff, but while I was in space she had to have her final brain surgery, and that was to replace the piece of skull — which is about the size of my hand — with a prosthetic,” Kelly said. 

“And if any of you guys were to come to our house in Tucson, one of the first things Gabby may do if you haven’t been there before is take you over to the freezer and pull out the blue Tupperware where she keeps the real skull. It’s pretty incredible,” he added. “But it shows you Gabby’s attitude about this, and the fact when bad things happen to good people, you can get past them. And it was Gabby’s strength that she drew from her Jewish values that allowed her to do this.”

In August 2011, Giffords returned to Congress for the first time to vote to raise the federal debt ceiling. Still feeble, she received a standing ovation from her colleagues. Giffords officially resigned from Congress in January 2012 to focus on her recovery. 

Just over a year later, as the country reeled from the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Giffords and Kelly founded Americans for Responsible Solutions, a nonprofit and super PAC. It advocates for gun reforms, such as requiring background checks at gun shows and making it easier for law enforcement to go after gun traffickers. However, both Giffords and Kelly remain strong supporters of the Second Amendment, and they are both gun owners, Kelly said. 

In April 2013, their organization helped bring a bipartisan bill to expand background checks to a vote in the Senate. It failed by six votes. A few days prior to speaking at USC, Giffords and Kelly returned to Congress to introduce a similar measure in the House, where they hope it will have a better chance of passing. 

Part of the problem, Kelly admitted in an interview with the Journal prior to his speech, is that members of both parties worry they may be targeted by gun rights advocates in their next election if they were to support such a measure. One of Americans for Responsible Solutions’ goals, Kelly said, “is to convince members of Congress that they can vote for this stuff and not lose their next election. The power of the gun lobby, while it’s significant, it’s not insurmountable.”

This work, Kelly said, gives purpose to the horrific events his family has experienced. 

“Before all of this happened to us, while Gabby and I are people of faith, especially Gabby with her Jewish faith, I wasn’t a big believer in fate. I just thought the world spins, and the clock ticks, and things did not happen for any particular reason,” Kelly said. Now, he added, he feels something like providence in events. 

Of course, gun reform is just one of the things that Giffords is working on at the moment. She’s focused on trying to repair herself as well.

“I’m working on lots of therapy — speech therapy, physical therapy and yoga, too,” she told the crowd. “But my spirit is as strong as ever.”

Kalman Levine: Born in Kansas City, transformed in L.A., murdered in Jerusalem

Rabbi Kalman Levine, born Cary Levine in Kansas City, Mo. on June 30, 1959, was murdered Tuesday morning in a terror attack at Kehillat Bnei Torah synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem. He was in the middle of the daily morning prayer service.

A man who in many ways came of age while living in Los Angeles as a young adult, Levine was killed by two young Palestinian men who also murdered three other worshippers and injured at least another 12 in the synagogue.

The assailants, Odai Abed Abu Jamal, 22, and Ghassan Muhammad Abu Jamal, 32, attacked their victims with a gun, knives and axes.  Both were killed in a subsequent shootout with police. Zidan Saif, an Israeli Druze policeman who engaged the two Palestinian attackers, was shot in the head and died of his wounds Tuesday evening in Jerusalem.

Levine leaves behind a wife, Chaya, who’s from Cleveland, and 10 children and five grandchildren. He was 55.

Shimon Kraft, Levine’s best friend from childhood, lives in Los Angeles and owns The Mitzvah Store. He shared memories of Levine just hours after he learned of the murder. He is also Levine’s former brother-in-law from Kraft’s previous marriage. He spoke about their lives growing up and how Levine, who was not raised Orthodox, was transformed when he spent six months at a kibbutz after high school and then moved to Los Angeles for college only to drop out after becoming engrossed in Torah study and inspired by an influential rabbi in North Hollywood.

Kraft described Levine as an exceedingly humble person, and while he was a serious learner devoted to increasing his knowledge of Judaism and Torah, he also had a sharp sense of humor and loved to joke around. Growing up in Kansas City, Kraft and Levine loved to watch the Kansas City Royals baseball team.

“We lived at Royals Stadium in the summer,” Kraft said. “We used to trade baseball cards.”

After Levine graduated from Kansas City’s Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in the late ’70s, he lived on a kibbutz in Israel for six months and then returned to the United States to enroll at a pre-dental program at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. Although he grew up in a Conservative Jewish family in Kansas City, Levine’s time in Israel led to a religious transformation that led him to become Sabbath and kosher observant.

Levine, after he came to Los Angeles, became very close with Rabbi Zvi Block, who established the first Los Angeles branch of Aish HaTorah—an international Orthodox educational group—in North Hollywood. Levine’s relationship with Block helped solidify the transformation that began in Israel, and Levine eventually decided to drop out of USC and pursue Torah study full-time.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, a discernibly heartbroken Block spoke warmly of his former student. “I became a father to all these children, to all these talmidim (students)—they are like my children,” Block said. “This is a huge loss for me. You’re talking about someone who was 18 or 19 when we first met.”

Levine was one of Block’s first five students at Aish HaTorah and the Los Angeles rabbi remembers Levine as one of the brightest young minds he ever encountered. “When you start off a program you are not sure if you are going to be successful. I feel I owe a lot of gratitude to the ones that helped me start, to the original students,” Block said.

The rabbi also said that he encouraged his small group of students to improve their knowledge of Judaism and Torah by moving to Israel to learn in an environment immersed in yeshiva students.

“My goal at the time was really to send people off to Israel,” Block said. “I thought that would be the best way for them to develop, to really pursue their Judaism to the fullest.”

While Kraft visited Levine in Los Angeles in 1977, the two decided to travel to Israel together to learn Torah. They attended two years of yeshiva before they returned to Los Angeles to attend a post-high school study program at Yeshiva University Los Angeles (YULA).

Kraft said that Levine decided to return to Israel again in the early 1980s—this time he never left. Over the years in Jerusalem, Levine built a family and continued pursuing the passion of his life—Torah. Kraft said Levine even organized a group of men who would get together for the sole purpose of self-improvement and strengthening character traits.

“He was truly great,” Kraft said. “He was so unusual, so special.” Block remembered Levine as being a great entertainer during weddings and goofing off during skits that he and others would put on for the festive Jewish holiday of Purim. “I remember him being extraordinarily talented at weddings and doing all sorts of shtick,” Block said.

On Monday night in Los Angeles, as Kraft was going to bed, he heard about the attack in Har Nof, but didn’t think more of it. On Tuesday morning though, Kraft’s son called from Baltimore and told him the news—his best friend had been murdered.

“He died in the beit midrash [synagogue], which is where he lived his whole life,” Kraft said. “It’s where he lived and died.”

Block, while on the phone, found two books of Jewish law that Levine once gave to him as a symbol of gratitude. Block recalled that Levine wrote a note in one. Eventually finding the note, Block read it aloud as he tried to hold back tears:

“Dear Rabbi Block, here is a small token of appreciation for sending me to Eretz Yisrael. If it wasn't for you it is very possible I would never have had the opportunity to learn Torah. Thank you for changing my life, Kalman Levine.”

Pro-Israel campus groups actively stand up for Israel

From last year’s boycott of Israeli academic institutions by the American Studies Association to protests at campuses across the country, it’s apparent that colleges are not the friendliest places for pro-Israeli students and advocates these days. 

Even before this summer’s violence erupted between Israel and Hamas, people scribbled hateful messages about the Jewish state last school year at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), according to senior Alex Beyzer. There’s also an active anti-Israel website run by a CSUN math professor, and efforts have been made to bring the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to campus. 

But these incidents and demonstrations of prejudice didn’t stop Beyzer from standing up for the country he loves. 

“A lot of people simply don’t know what’s going on outside of their little bubble in their college lives,” he said. “They’re very vulnerable to hearing some kind of outrageous claim that would spark biased emotions toward Israel. It’s important to be proactive and show that we’re a friendly, united group of people who are only trying to promote peace.”

Beyzer is the leader of Matadors for Israel, CSUN’s pro-Israel group that has six dedicated members. The students partner with StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy group, as well as Hillel and Chabad. They host movie screenings, put together seminars on the history of Israel and current events happening in the Middle East, and hold their own Yom HaAtzmaut celebration, where they give out free falafel and demonstrate their support for Israel. 

“Given what’s going on in the world with the anti-Israel bias and what’s going on in Europe, which is reminiscent of what was happening pre-Holocaust, it’s very important for us to be active, spread the word, and inform the public that Israel is not the evil state that people make it out to be,” Beyzer said.

In Westwood at UCLA, pro-Israel students can join Bruins for Israel, which is run by senior Eytan Davidovits and has around 300 members. Last school year, he and his group organized a West Coast Students Conference that brought together the boards of different pro-Israel student groups from college campuses throughout the state. They hope to make it an annual event, he said. 

UCLA has been a hotbed of controversy in recent months when it comes to Israel. In the spring, Students for Justice in Palestine was among the groups on campus that asked those running for student government to pledge not to go on trips to Israel sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Hasbara Fellowships. Ultimately, 18 of 30 candidates signed the pledge.

“There are so many groups focused on spreading Israel hatred that it’s important that there is a group to counter it,” Davidovits said. “We got signatures to say that the ethics pledge should not be tolerated.”

In February, UCLA’s student government also held a contentious, all-night debate on a divestment resolution, which ultimately failed. Davidovits expects that there might be even more issues this year because of the fighting between Israel and Hamas. 

“I think tensions are going to be heightened,” Davidovits said. “The campus climate after the divestment resolution last year was extremely hostile, and now I think it’s going to be even worse. I think they will desperately try to bring it in a much harsher form much sooner. We are preparing for that.”

Unlike its peers at UCLA and CSUN, USC’s pro-Israel group Trojans for Israel (TFI) hasn’t had such problems with pro-Palestinian organizations, according to president Judah Joseph, whose primary goals this school year include informing students about what’s happening in the Middle East. 

“I’m confident in TFI’s efforts on campus, because I believe campus leaders want to understand this conflict more fully. News coverage may have piqued their interest, and TFI aims to quench their thirst for knowledge,” Joseph said.

TFI partners with other student clubs on campus, and every semester it holds leadership dinners, where attendees can listen to speakers talk about the relationship between Israel and the United States and current events. 

Joseph said it’s crucial that his organization exists “in order to educate campus leaders and to encourage them to think critically. The USC campus leaders of today will become the CEOs, politicians and influential Americans of tomorrow. As such, it’s imperative that we help them to understand the issues facing Israel.”

Lizzie Stein, an Occidental College student, was inspired to support the Holy Land after visiting. 

“I went to Israel and studied abroad for a semester,” she said. “I absolutely fell in love with the country. I felt this was a home for me. I felt very attached to Israel, and I knew I wanted to get involved with Israel advocacy on campus.”

When she came back, she joined J Street U Occidental, a chapter of the liberal advocacy group that supports a two-state solution. This year, she is president of the club, which brings speakers to campus to discuss global politics and shows movies. Last fall, they created a campaign where students designed postcards saying they were in favor of a two-state solution. Afterward, the postcards were mailed to the local congressional office. 

Overall, Stein said, there hasn’t been any discrimination against J Street U Occidental. On campus, “There was one incident of a swastika being drawn on a whiteboard. That was taken care of quickly by the administration.” 

She said, however, that she has brought students together and “been able to have conversations and avoid the anti-Semitism.”

Stein said she was surprised to return to school recently and attend a Hillel dinner where the war in Gaza went unmentioned. 

“Over the summer, people were hearing a lot more about Israel and the conflict. There was not one mention of what happened [this summer] at [the] Hillel dinner, though.” 

Although the fighting has died down, Stein said that as the head of the club, she still has the desire to talk about it on campus and keep the conversation alive. Like her fellow pro-Israel leaders at the other schools, she wants her peers to be educated about current events in Israel. 

“People are going back to the status quo of not talking about it,” she said. “What happened in Gaza over the summer demonstrates an urgency. That old status quo is not sustainable, and we need to change course.”

USC Shoah Foundation announces center for genocide research

Establishment of a Center for Advanced Genocide Research at the University of Southern California (USC) was announced on April 25 by filmmaker Steven Spielberg, founder of the USC Shoah Foundation, and USC President C.L. Max Nikias, according to a press release.

The center’s primary goals will be to investigate the conditions leading to genocides and how to intervene in time to prevent such mass violence and slaughter.

Spielberg established the Shoah Foundation 20 years ago following release of his Oscar-winning movie, “Schindler’s List.”

The center’s three research areas will be resistance to genocide and mass violence; violence, emotion and behavioral change; and digital genocide studies.

“The USC Shoah Foundation has made tremendous progress during its first 20 years, but its work is far from finished,” Spielberg said in a press release prior to the announcement. “The Institute has collected and indexed nearly 52,000 testimonies and established educational programs, such as iWitness and Teaching with Testimony that bring people who experienced history into classrooms around the world.

“Now comes the next significant chapter, one that establishes the Institute as one of the leading academic centers of excellence for the study of the Holocaust and genocides. The potential is there for groundbreaking research.”

The trove of 52,000 testimonies deal primarily with the Holocaust, but also contains eyewitness accounts of the 1994 Rwandan Tutsi genocide and the 1937 Nanjing massacre, committed by Japanese forces in China. Material on the Armenian and Cambodian genocides will be added to the archives next year.

USC history professor Wolf Gruner will serve as director of the new center. Its first major conference, “Media, Memory and Technology: Exploring the Trajectories of ‘Schindler’s List’” will be held in November 2014 and co-sponsored with the USC Shoah Foundation.

Steven Spielberg announces new genocide research center at USC

A new Center for Advanced Genocide Research at the USC Shoah Foundation — announced today during a press conference at the University of Southern California — represents a milestone for the 20-year-old organization, according to filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg, who established the foundation, said during the event that the center would be a “beacon of hope” for “breaking the cycle that leads to mass violence.”

The center will be a semi-autonomous division of the USC Shoah Foundation where undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty members and late-career faculty — both at USC and elsewhere representing a variety of academic disciplines, from politics to literature — can independently research the trove of genocide source material that belongs to the foundation.

In addition to the more than 50,000 survivor testimonies housed at the USC Shoah Foundation, testimonies, documents and other pieces of evidence from mass atrocities in Rwanda are a part of the organization’s growing collection. This week, the organization received materials related to the Cambodian genocide, according to Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation.

Inspired by his experience making the acclaimed film “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg established the foundation in 1994. Prior to joining USC in 2006, it was known as the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Its goal was to gather testimonies from “survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust,” the foundation’s Web site states.

This year, the USC Shoah Foundation, housed in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, celebrates its 20th anniversary. The announcement was made just days before Yom HaShoah.  

While the new center is more or a less a consolidation of many already existing facets of the USC Shoah Foundation, the intention to focus on research — as opposed to gathering and making accessible education materials — marks a critical shift, Smith told the Journal.

“We have collected at the USC Shoah Foundation the worst part of a century of human civilization in the words of those who experienced genocide, and we want to create a long-term and sustainable way to explore what it means to go through genocide, to learn more deeply from a primary research perspective of what the cases and consequences of genocide are and to do it using the best scholarship we can find,” Smith said. “The reason for that is we are still learning what genocide is.”

Research at the center, which does not have its own physical facility as of yet, will focus on three areas: resistance to genocide and mass violence, violence, emotion and behavioral change and digital genocide studies.

Wolf Gruner, Shapell-Guerin chair in Jewish studies and history professor at USC, will serve as the inaugural director of the center.

Spielberg and Holocaust survivor Miri Becker introduced themselves. Photo by Ryan Torok

Those involved with the new center believe their research could potentially prevent genocide from happening again in the future.

“What we want to try to understand is what it is that enables individuals and groups to push back against the ideology of genocide when its emerging and what can we learn from those inhibitors, because if we can learn something about those it might tell us ways we can inhibit genocide more generally,” Smith said.

Other speakers at the press conference included USC President C.L. Max Nikias and Steve Kay, dean of USC Dornsife College. A panel followed Spielberg’s remarks, featuring Smith, Kay, Gruner and USC psychology and preventive medicine professor Beth Meyerowitz, who also serves as vice provost for faculty affairs.

Meyerowitz, among other things, discussed her experience pouring over survivor testimony, pointing to her surprise that many survivors take up the majority of their two- hour interviews discussing good deeds they were recipients of, as opposed to the horrors of the Shoah.

“We should be teaching people about those small kindnesses,” Meyerowitz said, prompting Spielberg, who was seated in the front row of the audience, to nod in agreement.

More than 100 people, including USC Shoah Foundation supporters and USC administrators, turned out for the press conference.

Janice Kamenir-Reznik, co-founder of Encino-based Jewish World Watch, a genocide-focused advocacy organization, whose Walk to End Genocide is scheduled for Sunday at Pan Pacific Park, was not at the event, but she expressed enthusiasm about the new center.

“The Center for Advanced Genocide Research is another step in the direction of creating a global culture which abhors genocide and stigmatizes its perpetrators,” she wrote in statement to the Journal. “The greater the number and depth of these types of public, respected, academic, well-funded institutes, the greater will be the attention of the world in turning its focus on combating the evils of genocide. … We at Jewish World Watch feel fortunate to have this mighty resource right here in our backyards.”

From right: USC Shoah Foundation Steven Spielberg; USC Shoah Foundation executive director Stephen Smith and USC Dornsife College dean Steve Kay. Photo by Gus Ruelas/USC.

Strategies that work for employers, employees

It’s not unusual for managers to take reports submitted by their employees and immediately assign a new one without ever engaging in constructive conversations regarding the work their employees do. 

Big mistake, according to Beverly Kaye, co-author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want.”

The book, co-authored with Julie Winkle Giulioni, explains the value in communicating with employees regarding the work they do in order to ensure they’re working to their full potential.

“We wanted to provide career solutions, summed up and simplified,” Kaye said of the book. Another of her works — written with Sharon Jordan-Evans and released earlier this year in its fifth edition — is the best-selling “Love ’Em or Lose ’Em: Getting Good People to Stay,” which also provides strategies on how to maintain employee engagement.

Kaye’s message is rooted in the importance of managers engaging in constructive communication with their employees, not only to aid the employee but to ensure that high-performing employees stay with the company and work at optimum levels. 

Kaye, 70, has spent much of her career studying the issue. While working on her doctorate in adult education at UCLA, she focused her thesis on career development in corporate America. She also did graduate work in organization development at the MIT Sloan School of Management and taught executive seminars at UCLA and USC. She’s been consulting in talent management for 35 years with her company Career Systems International.

The Los Angeles resident contends that time is of the essence, given that most employers claim they are too busy to engage in substantial work-related conversations with employees. But these conversations are essential, according to Kaye. “If employees feel overused, underused, misused or abused, they won’t stay,” she said. 

Short intervals involving just a moment’s conversation with employees here and there can help, Kaye suggests.

“Show an interest in the development of those who report to you,” Kaye said. “Ask them questions about their attraction to the kind of work they do.” 

She emphasized that there is value in this kind of career-oriented engagement for both employers and employees. 

“This helps you use them more effectively,” Kaye said. “Knowing which parts really interest them and which don’t helps to know how best to utilize their resources.”

It also helps a manager find a place of potential growth within a company for an employee, making it an attractive place to stay. In “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go,” the authors write, “A good manager can nearly always uncover ways to allow employees’ interests and goals to find a home supporting the organization’s needs. Good managers just seem to see opportunities where others do not.” 

The alternative isn’t pretty. According to Kaye, it costs upward of 200 percent of an employee’s salary to replace them. There can be other repercussions, too.

“A manager who wants his unit to produce at optimum level has to think about the cost of the loss — not only at the bottom line, but the effect of disengagement on the talent that remains,” Kaye said.

During her research, she discovered that money wasn’t one of the top three factors for why employees stayed at a job unless it was a job they didn’t enjoy. 

“Only then does money become the only sign that [they] are appreciated,” Kaye said.

Instead, according to “Love ’Em or Lose ’Em,” the most popular responses for those who stayed at an organization for “a while” were: exciting, challenging or meaningful work; supportive management/good boss; and being recognized, valued and respected.

Kaye defines two types of job disengagement that occur. One is when an employee is so uninspired that he quits; the other is when an employee wants to quit but stays and doesn’t give 100 percent. She considers the latter the worse of the two. 

“A manager who doesn’t show interest in their employees runs the risk of them being exceedingly disengaged and not bringing in their efforts to the work itself,” Kaye said.

This isn’t to say that managers have to do all the work in developing employees. Kaye emphasized that 70 percent of the responsibility lies in the hands of the workers. 

“The employees who go to their managers and expect them to do it all have it wrong,” she said. “Managers support your career, they are the sounding board. They don’t have to have all the answers, but they can point a person in the right direction to find answers.” 

That can include broadening the employee’s mentoring and networking options. In the book “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go,” she calls this “mentworking.” 

In the end, it all comes down to communication on both sides. Kaye said she’s discovered many employees who left their jobs in search of opportunities their current job wasn’t providing. The only problem? They never mentioned this to their managers, who often said they would have been willing to work on accommodating these needs. 

“Both sides need to say what they want and what they’re not getting instead of [holding it in]. I see that over and over again,” Kaye said. “Employees aren’t saying, ‘Promote me,’ they are saying, ‘I want to grow, I want to learn, and I want to be challenged.’ Managers need to ask questions with curiosity and then ask more questions; they will uncover talents they didn’t know their own organizations had.”

Moving and Shaking: Bet Tzedek gala, USHM LA dinner, Project Chicken Soup celebrates

The Bet Tzedek Legal Services annual gala drew a capacity crowd of 1,500 guests to the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel ballroom March 5 to celebrate its 40th anniversary and honor attorneys Bruce Ramer, Stanley Gold, five past Bet Tzedek leaders and other lawyers. 

The organization, whose fundraiser grossed more than $2.5 million, provides free legal services to the needy and has led the way nationally in litigating for Holocaust survivor rights and providing free legal services to those in need.

USC President C.L. Max Nikias introduced Ramer and Gold, saying they embodied the idea that “those who live by enduring values make lasting contributions.”

Former law partners at Gang, Tyre, Ramer and Brown (Gold is of counsel to the firm), the pair have been leaders in numerous philanthropies, including USC, American Jewish Committee, USC Shoah Foundation-The Institute for Visual History and Education, and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. They began their acceptance with some gentle back-and-forth ribbing, Gold admitting that after 40 years he has yet to sway his conservative friend to his liberal outlook.  

From left: Bet Tzedek former executive directors Mike Feuer, Terry B. Friedman, Luis Lainer, Mitch Kamin and David Lash received the Rose L. Schiff Commitment to Justice Award. Photo by John Dlugolecki.

“Each and every one of us who is fortunate enough to achieve a level of success in this society needs to use that success to help others less fortunate,” Gold, president and CEO of Shamrock Holdings, said.

“I’m proud to be a lawyer,” Ramer said. “I’m proud of this profession. The basis of freedom and democracy is the law. It’s incumbent on all of us to support Bet Tzedek as it provides the law to everyone.” 

The official program focused on the good works done by the organization and its honorees. Current Bet Tzedek president and CEO Sandor Samuels presented longtime Bet Tzedek attorney José “Joey” Alarcon with the Jack H. Skirball Community Justice Award, and Aaron Spiwak and Andrea Ambrose Lobato were honored with the Rebecca Nichols Emerging Leader Award, which honors the legacy of a Los Angeles attorney who died in 2012 at the age of 29.   

Longtime Bet Tzedek supporter Art Bilger presented the Rose L. Schiff Commitment to Justice Award to five past executive directors: attorney Luis Lainer, retired judge Terry B. Friedman, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, and attorneys David A. Lash and Mitch A. Kamin.

“Our lives have significance to God,” Jose Gomez,  archbishop of Los Angeles, said at the evening’s benediction. “What we do in this world matters. That’s what we are honoring here tonight.”

Bet Tzedek’s co-founder Rabbi Stan Levy; vice president and general counsel, Elissa Barrett; and chairman of the board of directors, Robert Schwartz; attended, as did Rabbis Sharon Brous, Laura Geller, Gary Greenbaum and William Cutter; Jewish Federation President and CEO Jay Sanderson; Milken Family Foundation Executive Vice President Richard Sandler and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Director of the School of Nonprofit Management Richard A. Siegel.

Kate Beckinsale presents the National Leadership Award to Sir Ben Kingsley during the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s 2014 Los Angeles Dinner. Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

Stars such as Kate Beckinsale, Morgan Freeman and Rosanna Arquette turned out to the Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 6 to honor Sir Ben Kingsley at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s 2014 Los Angeles Dinner: “What You Do Matters,” where Beckinsale presented Kingsley with the museum’s National Leadership Award.

The Oscar-winning actor received the award because of his support of the museum as well as his unforgettable portrayal of Holocaust victims such as Itzhak Stern in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” Simon Wiesenthal in HBO’s “Murderers Among Us” and Otto Frank in the ABC miniseries “Anne Frank: The Whole Story.” 

“[Kingsley’s] inspired storytelling has impacted how audiences across the globe understand the Holocaust and the responsibility to act,” said Lenny Rosenblatt, one of the dinner’s chairs along with his wife, Janet Rosenblatt.

Speakers also included the museum’s director, Sara J. Bloomfield, Rabbi David Wolpe and Arquette, another chair of the event along with her husband, Todd Morgan.

Actor Joe Mantegna, Martin Scorsese, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and Steven Spielberg lauded Kingsley in videotaped interviews: “Ben Kingsley is a mitzvah,” Spielberg said.

In his award acceptance speech, Kingsley described his meetings with Wiesenthal, said he carried a photograph of Anne Frank on the set of “Schindler’s List” and quoted his friend Wiesel: “Let us tell tales so as not to let the executioner have the last word.”

Proceeds from the event will support the museum’s national campaign to help keep Holocaust memory alive in the 21st century.

 — Naomi Pfefferman, Arts & Entertainment Editor

From left: Project Chicken Soup gala attendees Anna Ress, Fortunee Cohen and Tami Ruth are volunteers at the charity organization, which delivers nutritious kosher meals to the needy. Photo by Gary West Productions

Project Chicken Soup (PCS) celebrated its 25 years of service to the community with its annual awards brunch commemorating past achievements and acknowledging its supporters, including volunteers, donors, community organizations and others.

“We were honoring our community of support for the last 25 years,” PCS executive director Cathryn Friedman said of the March 2 event, which took place at Temple Beth Am, during an interview with the Journal. “So many names — it’s an extensive community of support. … It was pretty incredible.”

The program featured live music, PCS chefs showcasing their signature dishes and a multimedia presentation highlighting the charity organization’s history. Gay Men’s Chorus of  Los Angeles; Cantor Juval Porat of Beth Chayim Chadashim;
and PCS medical adviser Dr. Mike Katz participated.

A nonprofit organization, PCS prepares and delivers free, nutritious kosher meals to people living with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other illnesses. It prepares and gives meals to 125 clients two Sundays a month and operates with only one paid staff member.

PCS organized the brunch so that it can aid even more people. It hopes to raise $60,000, aiming to grow its clientele to
250 to 300 people every month, according to Friedman.

Sponsors of the lunch included Porat, Booh Schut; Mark Miller and Brett Trueman; Steven and Gail Friedman; Michael and Ellen Opell and Arthur and Mady Jablon.

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? E-mail ryant@jewishjournal.com

1950s ‘Cool,’ with a side of loss

Leo Braudy is a distinguished scholar at USC whose work focuses on the entertainment industry and other artifacts of popular culture.  His previous books range from “The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History” to “The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon.” But now he has cast his memory back to his own adolescence in Philadelphia in the 1950s with “Trying to Be Cool: Growing Up in the 1950s (Based on a True Story)” (Asahina & Wallace, $15). It is an affecting account of one young man’s ongoing effort to invent himself in an era when being cool was “the summum bonum of teenage aspiration.”

“The problem was first deciding what was cool and then imitating it with enough nuance of your own to make it seem at least partially unique,” Braudy explains. “One day you were safely within the sphere of family, where your role, like it or not, was clear. The next day you had left the realm of blithe boyhood in some murky dawn of self-consciousness.”

Ironically, the man who deconstructs movies for a living started watching them at a neighborhood theatre that he describes as “a minor teenage war zone, where the lights were never totally dimmed so the manager and his band of ushers could patrol the aisles looking for infractions of whatever personal moral code he was enforcing that evening.” As a result, Braudy reveals, “[t]here must be at least 10 or 12 movies from that period that I never saw to the end because I was kicked out.”

Precisely because Braudy is writing about the 1950s, a period of both moral and political repression in America, adolescent excess was something quite different than it is today.  “There was certainly a lot of necking going on, and some people even claimed to have had sex,” he concedes. There was a little drinking, but no dope.  The place where the envelope was pushed, he explains, was the dance floor: “Parents might get irritated at rock ’n’ roll music,” he observes, “but dancing drove them crazy.”  And some dances were more crazy-making than others: “The Hora you danced with your grandmother and your uncle Lenny,” he explains, but a circle dance called the Bug was so provocative that it was outright banned by “many of the more strait-laced synagogues.”

Like all memoirs, the author brings a measure of sentiment to his recollections. But what I admire most about “Trying to Be Cool” is Braudy’s ability to deconstruct the common experiences of adolescence in a way that reveals their inner meanings, as in his candid discourse on the truth or falsity of the proposition that “ugly girls put out.” He concludes that there “was little chance of actual sex in these situations, just an interminable succession of power struggles worked out in miniature.  One example: “In fact, even if the girl weren’t putting up a struggle, you had to pretend she was, as a sop to her self-esteem,” he writes. “Thus, I began to school myself in something like the male version of faking an orgasm.”

Along the way, Braudy recalls some facts of life that are wholly forgotten nowadays. Margarine, he points out, used to be “dead white like lard” because the dairy industry had lobbied for laws to ban the coloring of margarine to make it look like butter. “Between 1951 and 1955, when those laws were overturned, it was sold with a plastic capsule of orange-yellow coloring inside the packaging,” he writes. “Breaking the capsule, then squeezing and kneading the package to create margarine’s now familiar look, was my job.”

He also shatters a few carefully-tended myths.  Dick Clark and the teenagers who danced on his Philly-based show may have been famously clean-cut, but the show “had begun as a much funkier radio show, then called merely Bandstand, out of a dark studio in downtown Philadelphia, emceed by a beefy guy in a sharkskin suit and a 5-o’clock shadow named Bob Horn.”  When the show went national, “the gangstery Bob Horn disappeared via what in those days was called a ‘morals charge.’ But the truth seemed to be that Horn was just too jowly and old to compete with the chipmunky Clark as the bright face of teenage America.”

But Braudy does not shy away from the most intimate of revelations and, almost inevitably, the most affecting memories focus on the author’s father. “Whatever may seem embarrassing in these memoirs — my sexual preoccupations, my naïveté about the world and its ways — to say this saddens me the most: I saw my father’s myths about himself stripped of their plea of victimization, punctured and flattened like an old tire.”

Braudy makes the significant point that he was not a baby boomer.  “We were war babies, born into a world of scrap metal and bacon-fat drives, air-raid drills and fireside chats, the offspring of furloughs or fathers too old or too young to fight,” he explains. “We weren’t the boomer generation born into the new world as its birthright but as a group with more desperate strivings and a keener sense of the world we had lost.”  For this reason, “Trying to Be Cool” is not an exercise in nostalgia; rather, it is a kind of testimony: “My purpose is to bear witness,” he concludes, “to try to recapture the experience of growing up in a particular time and place that might otherwise vanish from memory.”  And he has been wholly successful in that effort.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book, “The Short Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris.”

Jewish Disability Awareness Month: Jews without Harvard

This is the time of year when the Golden Children of our tribe are being anointed by the nation’s finest colleges and universities. These kids have traveled a long road to glory — GPA, SAT, AP, interviews, essays, common apps.

For a full year, the only question they’ve heard from us adults was, “So, where are you going to college?” Within weeks, our kids will finally be able to answer with a single, solitary name: USC. UCLA. Wisconsin. Harvard. Dartmouth.

End of story, right?

Not quite.

The Jewish community is slowly waking up to the fact that not every 18-year-old will end up in a top-tier, four-year university. In fact, for a good percentage of our children, there really is no obvious place to go.

About 20 percent of the United States population has some disability. According to a report by the nonprofit organization RespectAbilityUSA, for many of these adults, those disabilities are a roadblock to higher education and job training. Some schools and communities have made great strides toward ameliorating this. Unfortunately, the Jewish community is not one of them.

“There is this unrealistic attitude that all our kids are going to Harvard,” Jay Ruderman, the head of the Ruderman Family Foundation, told me in a phone interview. “There’s a huge blind spot in the Jewish community when it comes to inclusion. If [Jewish leaders] themselves are not connected to a child through disability, they’re just missing it.”

Jo Ann Simons’ personal story is a good example. When her son, who has Down Syndrome, was in high school, he asked his mom when he was going to take the SAT. 

“I asked him, ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘You need them to get into college. You’ve included me in a regular high school, now I want to go to college.’ ”

Simons had found great support for her son in Jewish Community Center programs and Jewish camps. But when it came time for post-secondary options, the Jewish community offered nothing.

After a great deal of effort, her son was able to enroll in a special program at Cape Cod Community College.

Simons’ son is now 34. Simons herself is CEO of the Cardinal Cushing Centers in Hanover, Mass., a Catholic charity that is developing an inclusive community  where people of all abilities will live, work, play and learn together. In addition to providing housing for people with disabilities, the center is developing 37 workforce housing units.

“In the Jewish world, the options are limited,” Simons said. “We’re judging ourselves on how many of our kids got into Harvard and Stanford, and we forgot that that’s not everybody’s pathway to achievement. America has moved beyond the Jewish community.”

Ruderman thinks he knows why the Jewish world has lagged behind, and he wants to change it. Ruderman’s family foundation deeply focused on disability issues in the Jewish world. It is a key backer of February as Jewish Disability Awareness Month. Post-secondary education is among the issues next in his sights.

“It’s crucially important, because if people are going to compete in the marketplace, they need that education,” he told me. 

It’s the relentless emphasis on “Jewish continuity,” Ruderman said, that relegates disability issues to a lesser priority.

“Our Jewish community is obsessed with the future of our community. It’s all about continuity. Unfortunately, they look at people with disabilities, and they say, ‘You know, they’re not our future. We’ll ship them over to public schools. This is something we’re not going to invest in, because they’re not our future.’ That’s really sad on the face of it.”

“I blame my fellow philanthropists,” Ruderman continued. “They’re not stating it out loud, but I know what’s behind it: The future is young, upwardly mobile Jews.”

But, Ruderman said, focusing on inclusivity actually attracts the cream of the next generation as well.  

“If you want to attract people, you have to be inclusive, or people will be turned off,” he said. “The older generation doesn’t get that.   This is a civil rights issue. We’re trying to change the mindset.”

One bright spot — perhaps the only one — is at American Jewish University in Bel Air. An independent organization called Live Advance LA, part of The Help Group, has set up shop there, and through AJU’s College of Arts and Sciences offers adults ages 18-25 with a spectrum of disabilities college-level classes, academic support, guidance and tutoring. 

Can this program or similar ones expand and spread to other communities? 

It has to happen.

“What I would like to see is a willing partner,” said Ruderman.  

“If there is a Jewish institution interested in post-secondary education, we’re willing to put significant resources behind it. Money is not an obstacle. The money exists in the Jewish community. Inclusion is less expensive than segregation, and segregation leads to poverty.”

Celebrate all those Ivy League acceptances, by all means. But don’t forget the potential in all our children, all of them, in their way, golden.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Israel trip inspires art

In organizing a 12-day trip to Israel with a group of friends last May, USC Professor Ruth Weisberg made certain that her itinerary included historic sites, cultural events and meals in the homes of friends. She also blocked out at least four hours daily for her fellow travelers to draw, paint or sketch.

“We drew every day,” said Weisberg, director of the USC Initiative for Israeli Arts and Humanities. “It was not a trip for everyone. It was a trip for people who really wanted to work.”

This agenda came as no surprise to the tour-goers, as all are working professional artists who have taken similar trips with Weisberg before. Participants included Jan Langdon Handtmann, a mixed-media artist and designer whose works have been displayed around the world; Ellen Lee, an oil painter who has exhibited in China; Gayle Garner Roski, the watercolorist who endowed USC’s Roski School of Art and Design; Susie Gesundheit, an acclaimed painter and printmaker and her architect/photographer husband, Jaime. Weisberg herself is an internationally recognized artist and scholar with more than 80 solo exhibitions and 190 group exhibitions around the world. 

The product of the trip is on display at the USC Hillel Art Gallery through March 9, titled “Israel Through Our Eyes.” Jaime Gesundheit documented the trip via a series of photographs, which are also on display.

The works that came out of the trip were an assemblage of styles and themes, from the 4-by-8-foot mixed media collage “Conflict Resolution” to Susie Gesundheit’s series of monotypes reflecting on a Chassidic man in Jerusalem drinking from a cup. Roski turned her sketch book/travel journal into a series of water colors, which she bordered with designs from Armenian pottery that she encountered in the Mount Zion Hotel. 

Some of the territory and accompanying experiences were familiar to Weisberg, Roski and the Gesundheits, who all have been to Israel multiple times. The Gesundheits even visited family in the Holy Land during this trip. 

Lee and Handtmann, however, were visiting Israel for the first time. Since some of the participants are are not Jewish, Weisberg programed visits to important Christian sites that she had never seen, such as the Mount of Olives and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. 

In addition to providing plenty of inspiration for creativity, the multifaith elements of the itinerary led to emotional experiences. Lee, who viewed the trip as much as a pilgrimage as a work trip, marveled at the diversity of people she encountered in the Church of All Nations and was particularly overcome with emotion when she touched the Western Wall. 

“In the church, you could see Ethiopian Catholics next to Korean Protestants and they would all be praying and singing hymns. There would be a group of Greek Orthodox listening very intently to their spiritual leader,” recalled Lee. “Sometimes you had the feeling that, although we’re all so different and so diverse, if you looked a little bit underneath, there are similar sentiments that we all share.” 

The group spent a day at the renowned Jerusalem Print Workshop. Excursions out of Jerusalem took them to the coastal cities of Jaffa and Caesarea, where Weisberg was particularly struck by the ruins of Herod’s palace and pleasure grounds. 

“The sense of the passage of time is so powerful,” Weisberg said. “We sat up on a cliff at a restaurant overlooking these formations that I just assumed when I first glanced at them were rock formations. If it were the California coast, you would think rocks.  No! These are ancient walls built by Herod.”

During the designated work hours, the artists most often gravitated toward restaurants offering views from terraces, which they quickly commandeered. On one occasion, representatives from the Jewish National Fund tried to help stir the creative spirit by bringing the group into the Sataf forest on the western fringes of Jerusalem to a hill with a marvelous vista. The view was indeed panoramic … but artistically unsuitable.

“Everything is in the distance. It’s not a good place to draw,” Weisberg said. “They were shocked that we weren’t thrilled at their choice of place. We had to very quickly find another solution, which turned out to be a restaurant with a terrace, and we had a great day.”

Weisberg laughed at the memory: “The best laid plans sometimes get changed because you don’t know what it’s actually going to be like until you get there. You’re having an experience in real time and that’s part of the pleasure and a little bit part of the tension, especially if you’re leading a group.”

Back in the United States, the artists had an ideal exhibition space at USC Hillel, one of the few Hillels on an American college campus with a working art gallery, according to Bailey London, the Allen and Ruth Ziegler executive director of USC Hillel. Weisberg and Susie Gesundheit, who chairs the art gallery committee, have long associations with USC Hillel. When they approached newly appointed London about the “Israeli Through Our Eyes” exhibition, she jumped at the opportunity. 

So did the public. The exhibit’s opening reception on Jan. 26 with all of the artists drew 100 guests to the gallery. London estimates that about 10 percent of the student population at USC is Jewish, and the Hillel community often turns out in great force for art-related activities and programs.

“The subject of the exhibition is incredibly relevant,” she said. “This is an opportunity to bridge the art of USC artists with the Jewish students on campus. Some of these artists are not Jewish, but they responded to issues that are very dear to the heart of our Jewish students.”  

Erica Muhl, dean of the Roski School, knows all of the artists and was intrigued to see what they would produce.

“They’re all extraordinary and very different, and so I was really anxious to see how each one of them would portray not just the actual country and the actual locales that they visited, but their impression of it,” Muhl said. “I was kind of excited to vicariously visit Israel through these artists’ eyes.”

The artists returned from Israel with more than just art and fresh inspiration. Weisberg, who was scheduled to be part of a b’nai mitzvah upon her return, had hoped to find a tallit in Israel. Jaime Gesundheit guided her to a store in Jaffa where Weisberg found what she was looking for. When she went to pay for it, the storekeeper refused to take her money. Members of the group had purchased the tallit as a gift.

“So if you want a moving story, there it is,” Weisberg said. “I have a very beautiful tallit and every time I wear it, I think of this wonderful group of friends and fellow artists who kind of understood my spiritual journey. They all came to the b’nai mitzvah and it was very special.”

Food trucks: Have kosher, will travel

Finding space to move inside the tiny kitchen of The Kosher Palate food truck is tough, but that hasn’t stopped owner Michele Grant from using it to cook up plenty of creative meals for her menu.

“Who doesn’t like tater tots?” asked Grant recently, as she showed off one of her favorite dishes, Shakki Tots — tater tots with shakshuka and quail egg, which came with added zest when dipped in sumac.

As students from the University of Southern California (USC) stopped for lunch between classes on what was a rare rainy day, Grant gave samples to newbies who hadn’t yet tried her modern kosher cuisine.

“We love giving out noshes. It’s our thing,” Grant said as she handed out portions of her Portuguese kale stew. “We can’t be a Jewish truck without being able to give out noshes.” 

On this October day, just three miles northeast of The Kosher Palate’s parking spot at the corner of Jefferson Boulevard and Hoover Street on USC’s campus, sat what may be the only other full-time kosher food truck in Los Angeles, The Holy Grill, which opened up about three months ago.

Owned and operated by Adiel Nahmias, a 28-year-old native of Afula, Israel, and his partner, Dvir Botach, The Holy Grill’s truck — well, cart, really — was parked in the Fashion District on 15th Street between Los Angeles and Main streets, where it could cater to the Israeli and Persian Jews working downtown. Nahmias learned his trade as a chef in Israel and as a manager at Bibi’s Bakery and Café here in Los Angeles.

The most popular item among Nahmias’ patrons is the shawarma, but that’s not all that’s on his more traditional menu.

“The new schnitzel is doing — baruch Hashem — very good,” Nahmias said as he ran from the back of the cart, where he slices meat and vegetables, to the register at the front to take orders. Adjacent to the grill, Nahmias has set up seating and tables under a tent for patrons who want to take a bit of an extended lunch break.

The Holy Grill’s biggest costs are parking — for the location downtown and the nearby indoor overnight spot. Add in labor, food and the cost of kosher certification, and it’s no wonder that so few full-time kosher food-mobiles exist in Los Angeles. (Several have popped up in the past, only to fold later.)

At The Holy Grill, Nahmias’ day begins every morning around 7 a.m., when he drives to the Western Kosher market on Pico Boulevard to pick up fresh cuts of meat before opening for business at 9 a.m. When he and his four employees aren’t dealing with hungry customers, who usually come for an early afternoon lunch, they’re busy cleaning and preparing food. 

Although The Holy Grill (facebook.com/holygrillonwheels) closes every weekday at 5 p.m. (early for Shabbat), Nahmias said that on recent nights he has sometimes been out much later, scouting other possible locations that include Pico-Robertson and USC, and looking into purchasing additional carts. 

As for Grant — a former partner in the popular Grilled Cheese Truck — she’s brought her Kosher Palate truck (facebook.com/thekosherpalate) all over the city, debuting at the Celebrate Israel Festival in April in Rancho Park, and operating as far out as Tujunga, Chatsworth and West Covina. 

Sitting by a table about 30 feet from the truck, she excitedly described another unique menu item, the Mamalawach, which is malawach (a fried Yemini bread), with pepper steak, skhug (a Middle Eastern hot sauce), hummus with black-eyed peas, jachnun (a Yemenite Jewish pastry) and shaved tomato — all sautéed with honey and lemon pepper.

“If somebody tries our food, they are buying our food,” she said confidently.

The Kosher Palate started parking at USC in early October, setting up shop there every Tuesday (11 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and Wednesday (11 a.m. to 5 p.m.).  According to Grant, the USC Office of Religious Life has been instrumental in bringing The Kosher Palate to campus, encouraging its presence and even helping to pay for a parking spot in an effort to provide kosher alternatives.

 “It’s really exciting to have more kosher options by campus,” said senior Avital Shoomer, as she walked away with the Jacob’s Ladder, Grant’s spinoff of the hamburger — topped with tater tots, a fried onion ring and a quail egg. 

“It’s such a nice change from the classic burger,” she added. “I eat kosher meat only, so I’m usually a vegetarian when I eat at the campus center — so it’s really nice to have some meat options.”

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.”

USC-Shoah head named to genocide education chair

As the executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation-The Institute for Visual History and Education, Stephen Smith is known for his work preserving the memory of the Holocaust.

Now, the USC adjunct professor of religion is being given a platform to promote education about crimes against humanity on an even broader level. On Sept. 24, Smith was named the inaugural holder of the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) chair on genocide education. It was established in partnership by USC and UNESCO to promote research, training, information and documentation on genocide education and encourage collaboration among internationally recognized researchers and educators.

“I am a firm believer that education is the bedrock of our efforts to prevent genocide,” Smith said in a statement. “Through this partnership, USC and UNESCO are joining forces to develop the research networks and education programs essential to understand and limit genocide in future generations.”

Praising Smith’s and the Shoah Foundation’s awareness-building efforts, UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova said in a statement that she expects Smith to thrive as the program’s chair.

 “We anticipate that this new chair, placed under the leadership of Dr. Stephen Smith, will contribute to increased international cooperation on these matters by connecting with UNESCO’s network of university chairs and by supporting the activities of the organization in issues pertaining to the history of the Holocaust, genocide and to human rights,” she said.

Smith’s appointment is part of the UNITWIN (University Twinning and Network Scheme)/UNESCO Chairs Programme, which “enables chairs to serve as bridge builders between academia, civil society, local communities, research and policy-making,” according to a USC press release.

Established nearly 20 years ago, the USC Institute maintains an archive of nearly 52,000 video testimonies of Holocaust survivors and other witnesses from 57 countries and in 33 languages. Its collection also includes testimonies from eyewitnesses to genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia and Armenia.

Ron Diskin: Mapping defenses against HIV

The race to find a cure for AIDS, one of Earth’s most pressing epidemics for more than three decades now, is often more of a chaotic relay. Thousands of international scientists must constantly revise their own projects to keep up with findings from across all scientific disciplines — always collaborating toward a common good, yet also trying to stay one step ahead of the competition.

Israeli biologist Ron Diskin, 36, knows this cycle well. Still, he’s more of a team player than a superstar. Despite his status as a standout in the global AIDS research community for his investigation into the microscopic structure of the HIV virus — and, most recently, his revelations on the human body’s own natural HIV defense system — Diskin is hesitant to hype his individual results. 

“I know people want to hear about [a cure], but this is not my research,” said Diskin, sitting in his spacious new office at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. “My research is purely structural.”

The young scientist — who casually inhabits his swivel chair in a pair of khaki shorts, an orange T-shirt and a wide, geometric smile — said that applying his findings to the creation of a therapeutic agent will likely take years, although there are constant reminders that one is needed today.

The Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, with financial help from the Weizmann Institute, decided to fly Diskin out for a visit Oct. 10-16 for a whirlwind week of AIDS events and speaking opportunities. These include the annual AIDS Walk Los Angeles — in which Diskin will participate on Oct. 13 — as well as a town hall meeting at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and a series of more scholarly presentations at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, USC and UCLA.

Of the various paths that scientists are currently forging toward an HIV vaccine, Diskin’s research has provided some of the most stable footing, said Z. Hong Zhou, a UCLA professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics who invited Diskin to speak about his research at UCLA this month. 

Diskin was part of a U.S. team which recently identified a group of potent antibodies that grow naturally in some HIV patients after a few years of infection — proteins produced by the patients’ own immune systems to fight off the HIV virus. In 2012 and 2013, Diskin’s team published a series of groundbreaking papers showing that these exceptionally strong HIV antibodies, called “broadly neutralizing antibodies,” could be synthetically reproduced — and even strengthened — in the lab.

Unlike previously studied antibodies, Diskin’s new, more versatile antibodies proved effective against many different types of HIV, including those more prevalent in Africa and Asia, where the AIDS crisis is ugliest. They also stood up to sneaky mutations within the HIV virus over time.

In December 2012, Diskin’s team proved in a paper that these new antibodies could “effectively control HIV-1 replication in humanized mice, and should be re-examined as a therapeutic modality in HIV-1-infected individuals.”

UCLA’s Zhou praised Diskin’s contribution to the breakthrough. 

“What is very, very interesting about Ron’s research is that he’s working on the antibodies produced by human cells — a human mechanism of defense,” he said. “Knowing how the antibody [defends human cells] is very important, and Ron basically determined how the antibody binds” to the HIV virus.

The hope, according to Zhou, is that scientists will eventually use Diskin’s research to “design something — sort of a mimic of this kind of antibody — and perhaps use this designed antibody as a vaccine or another therapeutic agent to prevent HIV infection.”

David Siegel, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, said stateside visits from Israelis like Diskin are necessary to educate skeptical Americans about Israel’s more progressive side.

“It’s one way to help Israel academically and scientifically, and it’s also a much more proactive way of dealing with Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] issues on campus,” he said.

Much as Miss Israel Yityish Aynaw’s recent visit to L.A. drew interest from Ethiopian immigrants and other African descendants in the area — Aynaw was born in Ethiopia — Siegel said he is hoping the Diskin tour will highlight Israel’s social and scientific advancements, as opposed to its widely criticized activity in the Palestinian territories. 

In particular, Diskin’s speech at Kol Ami, an LGBT congregation, is expected to attract many interested members of the West Hollywood community, some of them not necessarily connected to Israel, but eager to hear about Diskin’s world-famous HIV research.

After growing up an outdoorsy kid in Jerusalem and receiving three degrees from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, including a doctorate in biochemistry, Diskin flew to the United States for his postdoctoral studies. He worked under Pamela Bjorkman at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, which has been ranked the world’s No. 1 research university for the last three years by Britain’s Times Higher Education magazine.

Diskin had been trained at Hebrew University in structural biology — specifically, in using a 3D imaging method called X-ray crystallography to examine structural differences within families of proteins. But when he came to work under Bjorkman at Caltech, she surprised him with an offer to work on a new project in her lab: HIV.

Initial results were promising. The Collaboration for AIDS Vaccine Discovery, a network of scientists, research entities and supporters working to turn myriad HIV research efforts into a tangible vaccine, recognized Diskin as a “Young/Early Career Investigator” in 2010.

During his first couple of years at Caltech, the Israeli biologist used X-ray crystallography to determine the structure of glycoprotein 120, or GP120, the notorious binding protein on the surface of the HIV virus, which allows it to latch onto and infect host cells. 

But the HIV research field was turned on its head in 2011, when Michel Nussenzweig, a scientist at Rockefeller University in New York City, discovered how to clone a whole new set of natural antibodies that were developing in some longtime HIV patients — much more aggressive and diverse than the antibodies that scientists had previously been trying to reproduce as therapies.

“The new [antibodies] were so superior to the old ones,” Diskin said. “It was a completely new story. All of a sudden, it sparked the optimism that some vaccine that will elicit those HIV antibodies will work.”

Nussenzweig’s lab reached out to Diskin and the Caltech team for a fateful pairing that would alter the global landscape of AIDS research.

“We were able to get some structural information about the antibodies, and that was interesting,” Diskin said. “But we did something else that was less expected: We had the structural information in our hands, and we realized that we could actually maybe improve the antibody. … That was the first time that had been done in the HIV field.”

Today, Nussenzweig’s and Bjorkman’s labs continue to collaborate on this mission. However, at the height of Diskin’s antibody research last year, the Weizmann Institute began courting the Israeli HIV prodigy back to the Holy Land. He’s now the hottest new addition to the institute’s structural biology department, where he’s opening a lesser-traveled inquiry into a family of deadly, tropical Arenaviruses — such as Lassa fever — currently plaguing millions in Africa and South America.

“I’m still working on HIV — I have open questions and I have things I will study,” he said. “But considering the major forces in the world, it could be very hard to compete on the very hot topics” in the HIV field.

So Diskin is going back to basics as he builds his own lab among the sleek modern buildings and leafy canopies of the Weizmann Institute, laying the groundwork to do what he does best: map the structure behind some of the world’s most deadly viruses.

High Holy Days: How campus rabbis sermonize

Jonathan Gordon didn’t grow up particularly observant. Until his bar mitzvah, he attended High Holy Days services with his parents, but once he turned 13 he stopped going — he felt unengaged.

That is until he started his undergraduate education at the University of Southern California, where he resumed attending High Holy Days services at the Chabad Jewish Student Center at USC. 

There, Gordon, who graduated in 2005, found more than just prayer. He found community, food and learning that he calls “readily digestible in today’s world.” 

Now 32 and an attorney living in West Hollywood, Gordon returns almost every year to the historic Victorian Chabad House just north of campus to spend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with the family of Rabbi Dov Wagner, his wife, Runya, and the dozens of Jewish USC students who come for the holidays.

For campus rabbis like Wagner, the secret to a successful High Holy Days service isn’t a great half-hour (or longer) sermon placed strategically right before or after the Torah reading. In fact, some stay far away from the sermon that so many Jewish college students remember sitting through as kids.

The key — and it’s not a new one — is finding the right mix between teaching and leading. For Bailey London, the executive director of Hillel at USC, the High Holy Days, if done well, can serve as an “entry point” into Jewish campus life for USC students.

“We are making ourselves as acceptable as possible to as many Jews as possible on campus,” said London, who added that Hillel will offer study sessions on High Holy Days afternoons for any students who wish to add some learning to the abundance of food, prayer and singing that Hillel will provide over the holidays.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, executive director of the Hillel at UCLA, said he tries to sprinkle ideas and clarifications throughout the services.

“I’m teaching people basic ideas in Judaism, and about the nature of prayer and the service,” he said.

In his early years at UCLA, the energetic, fast-speaking rabbi said he didn’t give any speeches at all on the High Holy Days.

“I didn’t think I had anything to say,” he remembered thinking.

Now, after carefully considering the topics he wants to discuss, he hands out texts to students to help supplement his teachings. On Rosh Hashanah, he likes to focus on a macro contemporary issue of importance for the Jewish people — feminism, Israel, and the compatibility of science and creation are three topics he has covered in the past. His remarks during the Kol Nidrei service tend to home in on a “more spiritual and personal” topic.

What’s important, he said, is that students leave with some piece of wisdom, not how they do it. That’s why Seidler-Feller also encourages people to bring any Jewish text with them — in case they don’t find prayer sufficiently engaging.

“If you already invested the time in coming to a service, you should get something out of it,” Seidler-Feller said. 

Zach Dorfman, 25, of Beverly Hills said he resumed attending High Holy Days services while he was a student at California State University, Northridge, where he attended the ones led by Chabad Rabbi Chaim Brook. Like Gordon, Dorfman found holiday services to be “very boring” when he was growing up. 

“I really had no connection and really had no patience,” he said, remembering his disconnect with services when he was a teenager. 

Dorfman’s favorite aspect of of how Brook leads services?

“Throughout the service, there are explanations of the prayers, why we say the things we say,” he said.

Brook, who was quick to say that he’s wary of “scaring” the students with sermons, likes to focus on a major theme in the five- to 10-minute speech he gives before Neilah, the concluding service of Yom Kippur.

“When I do speak by Neilah, in the times when I feel that the students are ready to listen, I always speak about the idea of dating Jewish,” Brook said. 

Neither Brook, Seidler-Feller nor Wagner write speeches or sermons for the High Holy Days. Some of them jot down notes or simply speak extemporaneously.

“Most people don’t want a 45-minute sermon,” Wagner said. “They want relevant, meaningful ideas — inspirational ideas and stories that relate to their lives.” Instead of the “45-minute sermon,” Wagner relates most of his ideas through brief, five-minute talks and Chasidic stories, peppered throughout the service.

The hope, Seidler-Feller said, is that the relatively long time spent with students on these sacred days will prove an ideal time for growth to begin.

“One of the things that I hope to accomplish and look forward to doing is planting a seed, so that some students and participants will come to study during the year.”