Valley congregation debuts Russian-language program


Congregation Beth Meier will debut a religious school program in Russian for children ages 6 to 8 at its Studio City campus starting Sept. 9. Citing a limited number of local Russian-language programs for elementary students, Rabbi Aaron Benson said the Sunday morning classes at the Conservative synagogue will help students build their Russian-language skills while learning about Judaism and Jewish culture.

The Russian-language class will mirror the English- and Hebrew-language Jewish studies classes at Beth Meier, with “Jewish studies taught in Russian, with the topics presented used as a means by which [students] would improve their [Russian] vocabulary and grammar skills,” Benson said.

Educator Anastasia Smirnova will teach the new class.

“We know families who have expressed that the options for their children to continue the study of the Russian language formally become fewer and fewer as their kids get past preschool age — and certainly to be able to do so in a Jewish environment there are hardly any programs like that at all,” Benson said.

Of Beth Meier’s approximately 100 member families, about a dozen are Russian-speaking, according to Benson, who hopes the new program will appeal to the Russian Jewish communities of the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood and elsewhere.

Demographer Pini Herman, research coordinator for the 1997 L.A. Jewish population survey, said that there were 24,500 Jews from Russia and the Former Soviet Union in Los Angeles at the time of the survey. However, he estimates that number is likely lower today.

“I would imagine that it is smaller now as it was an aging population probably with a rather modest birthrate,” Herman said.

If the Beth Meier program takes off, Benson hopes to add a class for 9- to 10-year-olds in 2013.

“We’re very interested to hear feedback and suggestions, and really make the program something that will be a meaningful addition to Jewish life in Los Angeles,” he said.

For more information, call (818) 769-0515 or visit bethmeier.org.

Susan Shelley: Berman-Sherman’s Republican Jewish opponent


Earlier this month, when the Los Angeles Daily News announced its endorsements in the San Fernando Valley’s 30th District Congressional race, the newspaper tapped two Jewish candidates — but not the same two candidates whom voters have been hearing so much about.

Along with its endorsement of Rep. Howard Berman of Van Nuys — who is, thanks to redistricting, facing off against another Democratic incumbent, Rep. Brad Sherman — the paper also endorsed Susan Shelley, a first-time Republican candidate.

Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one in the 30th District, and with three Republicans on the ticket, the Daily News called Shelley “a long shot” in the so-called June 5 primary, which will allow all voters, regardless of party, to vote for any candidate, regardless of party affiliation.

Still, the editorial board called Shelley “exactly the type of GOP candidate California needs.”

“Like many Californians,” the endorsement said, “she’s conservative where it counts (on fiscal policy and personal liberty issues) and liberal about social policy (she’s pro-choice, for example).”

“I don’t think the government should control your body; I do not think the government should be in your bedroom,” Shelley said in a recent interview with The Journal. She described her views on such subjects as “socially libertarian, socially ‘leave-us-alone.’ ”

While she is as much a fiscal conservative as any in the Tea Party caucus, Shelley’s support for marriage equality for same-sex couples and her pro-choice stance have placed her on a collision course with some of the more established forces in the Republican Party.

In March, the Los Angeles County Republican Party endorsed another candidate, Mark Reed, a businessman and actor who unsuccessfully ran against Sherman in 2010. California no longer holds party-based primaries, and Shelley believes that endorsement was made, in part, because of her moderate social views.

But even if that’s what pushed the Republican Party away, Shelley believes her mix of political positions will win her fans among Jewish voters in the Valley.

When it comes to Israel, a country Shelley has not visited, she stands staunchly against anyone who would minimize the Iranian threat to the Jewish state.

“I’m sensitive to the fact that bad things can happen,” Shelley said, “and they happen to the Jews first, more often than not.”

A writer and former game-show producer, Shelley is the creator of the “tidbits” word puzzle. Many newspapers that used to carry the puzzle, including the Los Angeles Times’ now-defunct Valley edition, have since stopped; still, she creates a new puzzle each week for distribution on her Web site.

Born in Chicago, Shelley moved to the Valley with her family while she was in high school. A reliable Republican voter since 1980, Shelley, who declined to state her age, was actually a registered Democrat for most of her adult life.

“We were Jewish, Chicago, registered Democrats,” Shelley said. “In California, there wasn’t much going on in the Republican Party, so if you wanted to pick a candidate for Senate or the House, the primary to vote in was the Democratic primary.”

In 2008, that changed.

“The Democratic Party was going too far left for me; I couldn’t stand it anymore,” she said, sitting in a large room at Los Angeles Mission College set up for a candidate debate later that afternoon. “The talk about health care being a right instead of a commodity that has to be paid for bothered me. I’m a liberty person, and I believe in freedom.”

Shelley admits to having minimal political experience in her stump speeches. In 2010, she volunteered as communications director for Republican David Benning, who in 2010 narrowly missed the chance to challenge Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) when he finished second in the Republican primary. In August 2011, when Benning decided not to run again this year, Shelley jumped into the 30th District race.

Deciding to run for Congress was easy; getting validation as a viable candidate turned out to be somewhat more difficult for Shelley.

When Shelley learned she would not be included in a candidates debate sponsored by this newspaper last February, an event that included Sherman, Berman and Reed, she filed a formal complaint with the Internal Revenue Service against The Jewish Journal’s parent company, TRIBE Media Corp., alleging that by excluding her, the company was acting to advance Berman’s candidacy and thereby overstepping the limitations placed on nonprofit publishers.

“I did not feel that there was any valid reason to include [Reed] and exclude me,” Shelley said. “I felt it was probably because a Jewish woman perhaps could be seen as an attractive alternative to the incumbents by the Jewish community.”

When he spoke of the decision to the Los Angeles Times in early February, Rob Eshman, The Journal’s publisher and editor-in-chief, listed a number of criteria — including fundraising numbers, having a campaign organization and having been included in polls — that Shelley and another candidate had failed to meet in order to qualify for the debate.

“We have limited resources, and people have limited time,” Eshman told the Times at the time. “You want to include people who have a shot. … You can’t [have a viable campaign] with just a Web site. It really does cost money.”

Data released since then suggest Shelley continues to be a very long shot.

In March, all seven of the candidates running in the June 5 primary — including Shelley — were included in a poll conducted by the Sherman campaign. Shelley polled at 5 percent — behind Reed, who polled at 12 percent, but one point ahead of Navraj Singh, a Republican candidate who has already made two unsuccessful congressional bids, losing to Sherman in 2008 and to Reed in the Republican primary in 2010.

According to documents obtained from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in April, Shelley’s campaign, at the time she filed her complaint with the IRS, had spent just $227, on campaign buttons. She also had loaned her campaign about $200, about half of which was spent on expenses associated with her campaign’s Web site.

The FEC documents also show that as of March 31, the largest single donation Shelley’s campaign has received is $1,659 in “in-kind legal services” from attorney Mark Bernsley, covering his time spent preparing Shelley’s complaint.

Nevertheless, since February, Shelley has been included in every debate held for candidates running in the 30th District, and she spends her days reaching out to voters, mostly at meetings with different groups around the district. She spends much more time talking about her fiscal conservatism than about her social libertarianism.

“In this race, which has two Democratic incumbents who think the same way about almost everything, someone should be in the race to make the conservative argument for the economic policies that will bring back growth,” Shelley said.

The centerpiece of her economic argument is a flat tax — and at 5 percent, her flat tax is significantly lower than ones proposed by many Republicans over the years, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry (who proposed a 20 percent flat tax) and Herman Cain (whose “9-9-9 plan” included a 9 percent flat income tax).

Like many flat-tax proponents, Shelley says her proposal may not necessarily result in less revenue coming into the federal government, thanks to a broader tax base. But she acknowledged she doesn’t actually know what the budgetary impacts of her proposal might be, and Shelley’s 26-page e-book outlining the flat tax, “Uncle Sam’s Nickel,” includes very few numbers.

“It’s not a budget document, obviously,” Shelley said. “It’s an idea: What would you, personally, do if you knew tomorrow you could keep 95 percent of the money you made doing it?”

Shelley was not specific about where she would cut government spending, instead she proposed remaking the federal government piece by piece, from the “essential workers” upward.

Because, to prepare for the possibility of a government shutdown, all federal government departments are required to keep lists of which workers are essential, Shelley said she would like to ask each department to submit that list to Congress and then make the case to lawmakers for any funding over and above those “essentials.”

“Then the elected representatives of the people of the United States can decide if we still need that,” Shelley said.

From Valley to Vegas, Phillip Wells is remembered


It was Patrick Hoffman’s first time in a gay bar, and he was terrified. Until he met Phillip Wells.

Wells was tending bar at the Rainbow Club West in Knoxville, Tenn., that night some 10 years ago, and he flashed Hoffman his signature oversized smile.

“I wasn’t old enough to drink, so I walked up to the bar and ordered a soda. And Phil said, ‘This is your first time here, isn’t it?’ And he introduced himself and he had that big grin. He just had a way of making everyone feel welcome,” Hoffman said.

Last fall, Wells, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, was gunned down while tending another bar, this time at The Garage in Las Vegas, in the early-morning hours of Nov. 14. Tracy Kauffman, Wells’ ex-boyfriend, was arrested hours after the incident for allegedly unloading two clips into Wells.

Kauffman was scheduled to appear at an arraignment in a lower court in Clark County, Nev., on March 20 and expected to enter a plea, according to the Clark County district attorney’s office. Kauffman’s attorney, a public defender, could not be reached for comment.

On March 16 — what would have been Wells’ 37th birthday — Wells’ mother and stepfather and an army of friends dedicated a bench and tree in Wells’ memory at Sunset Breeze park in Las Vegas.

Wells’ friends also a threw a “Night of 1,000 Dollys” show at the Escape Lounge in Las Vegas in Well’s memory, encouraging everyone to come dressed in something Dolly Parton, the object of Wells’ obsession.

“He was very passionate about anything that he loved,” said Jeremy Logan, one of many friends from Knoxville who flew to Los Angeles for the funeral at Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills in November. Wells was buried in a prayer shawl and a pink yarmulke, and his friends placed a Dolly Parton blanket in the grave.

Sandra Kaplan, Wells’ mother, who lives in West Hills, saved some of Wells’ Dolly Parton memorabilia, along with his telescope, his photo albums and a daily gratitude journal Wells had been keeping since he was a child. She found on his dresser a small chai necklace he got when he was 8 years old.

Kaplan still can’t believe she refers to her only child in the past tense.

She keeps her home filled with images of her son. Directly over her television, a photo of him looks down on her, his smile dominating the frame. A magazine article from 2011 hangs on a nearby wall, featuring Wells in the “Sexiest Gay Vegas” awards, his muscles bulging from his T-shirt.

A large painted portrait of him as a 3-year-old, with blond curls and an angelic smile, dominates a sunlit wall with a view of the Valley.

Wells was a challenging child and teen, according to his mother. His father left when Wells was an infant, and Kaplan’s second husband, Stuart Wells, adopted Phillip but also became estranged after they divorced. Kaplan raised Phillip alone for most of his elementary- and middle-school years, and she struggled to get him to go to school, though he was clearly very bright. He didn’t have a bar mitzvah, she said, because getting him to Hebrew school would have been impossible.

When Sandra married Larry Kaplan in 1990, Phil and Larry developed a strong relationship. Wells told Larry he was gay when he was 14, before he came out to his mother. Sandra said she and Larry were always unconditionally supportive of Phil.

“I wasn’t surprised when he came out. I was happy he told us so he could be open about it,” she said.

Still, Wells had a tough time in high school, and after he graduated, he moved to West Hollywood, going through a series of jobs and eventually learning to be a graphic artist. But he found that being a bartender allowed him to become immersed in the gay community, and he was good at it because he loved people so much.

“He always shook hands [with] a customer if he had not served them before, and typically went around to the perimeter and exterior to build a rapport with them,” Guy Sheets, owner of The Garage, told Las Vegas Night Beat, a monthly publication. “If I were a patron, that would make me feel so at home and at ease.”

Wells met Tracy Kauffman at the XYZ bar in Knoxville, where Kauffman was part owner. Kauffman hired Wells as a bartender, and the two start dating. Kauffman was 14 years older, and the two had a fraught relationship from the start, according to Kaplan.

A December 2009 letter to Wells from the Knoxville Police Department indicates that Wells may have been a victim of domestic violence. They had complex financial and employment arrangements. The two never lived together, but Kaplan says that Wells tried to get out of the relationship several times and Kauffman kept him entangled.

Hoffman said he and Wells had to hide their own relationship out of fear of Kauffman.

Wells left Tennessee in 2010 to make a fresh start in Las Vegas, where he and his three dogs moved in to his uncle’s house.

Kauffman allegedly flew from Knoxville to Las Vegas a week before the shooting. According to a police report, when Kauffman began shooting, Wells ran from the bar to a back storage room. He was shot four times in the front of his body, and around 15 times in the back and back of his head.

The group Impositive.org, which helps people who are HIV positive, spearheaded a successful fundraising drive to pay for Wells’ funeral expenses.

Kaplan said she is attending support groups and private therapy paid for by a victims of crime group, but each day is difficult for her. She hopes to raise enough funds to dedicate a bench and tree in Wells’ memory at a park in Knoxville by his next birthday.

“I’m still crying all the time. I’m doing the best I can, but he was my only son,” she said.

Wells’ friends lament the light that was lost.

“I didn’t think there was anyone who could ever bring themselves to hurt Phil, because everyone loved him,” Hoffman said. “He was a pillar of our community. I know that sounds cheesy, but he was. He was a constant — you knew that wherever he was, that was a good place to be.”

Milken JCC to close in June


The JCC at Milken in West Hills announced this week that it will shut its doors permanently as of June 30. The 42-year-old center will also close its Early Childhood Center, which has 80 preschoolers, on June 15.

In a Feb. 1 e-mail, Milken JCC chair Steven V. Rheuban announced that the board was abandoning its search for a new location following the sale of the building that houses the center.

“It is with a heavy heart that we must tell you all that after an exhaustive and in depth search for a new home, without success, the Board of Directors of The JCC at Milken has had to make a most difficult decision,” Rheuban wrote.

The JCC at Milken survived the wave of Jewish community center closures that began in 2002, in part, because its property, Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus, was owned by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles rather than the centers’ parent organization, Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles. While the center struggled with debt and a loss of membership, its leadership was able to strike a deal with Federation in 2009 to remain on the campus.

A deal between New Community Jewish High School and The Federation to purchase the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus for an undisclosed amount was confirmed last October, following nearly a year of negotiations. The high school is expecting to relocate to the renovated property from its current home on the property of Shomrei Torah Synagogue in September 2013.

The West Hills center had been hoping to permanently move its Early Childhood Center to a new location, and temporarily move its senior services to a different site in June while the New Community Jewish High School began reconstruction at the Milken campus.

The JCC at Milken’s closure follows that of the Valley Cities JCC, a 50-year-old institution that shut its doors in June 2009, less than a year after moving from its longtime Sherman Oaks site to one in Van Nuys. North Valley Jewish Community Center, which continues to offer programming at various locations despite losing its Granada Hills property during the centers crisis, would be the only Jewish community center left in the San Fernando Valley. 

In addition to its preschool and senior programming, the JCC at Milken is home to arts and fitness programs, after-school programs, sports and summer camps, and Team Los Angeles, an award-winning team that competes in the JCC Maccabi Games.

In his letter, Rheuban wrote that the center’s board and staff would be compiling a list to help its members find similar programs within the Jewish community.

Related:

Tribe Calendar November 2011


Saturday, November 5

YAD Havdalah Hike
End Shabbat on a natural note with a Havdalah ceremony and schmooze at the summit of Mission Canyon’s Inspiration Point after a moderate four-mile hike. Bring water, a flashlight or headlamp, and dress for hiking. Sponsored by the Santa Barbara Jewish Federation Young Adult Division. 4:30-7 p.m. 4 p.m. carpool from Bronfman Family Jewish Community Center, 524 Chapala St., Santa Barbara. Free. RSVP to (805) 957-1115, ext. 107. ” title=”artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu”>artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.

Sunday, November 6

Mitzvah Day
Jews across the Valley join together for a common goal — to give back to the community. Mitzvah Day represents an opportunity for the entire family to help others through serving meals, gathering toys, donating blood, learning CPR, knitting blankets for babies, reading to children and more. Sponsored by The Jewish Federation Valley Alliance in partnership with local Jewish institutions. Contact your local synagogue or any Jewish social service agency to learn what community service projects are happening near you. For more information, call (818) 464-3203, visit ” title=”jewishto.org”>jewishto.org.

Monday, November 7

“How to Begin Your Genealogy”
Cover the basics of family documents, time lines, tracking records and family photos, interviewing techniques, newspaper research and more in honor of International Jewish Genealogy Month. Seasoned genealogists will share tips and tricks of the trade. 7-9 p.m. Free. Sponsored by the Jewish Genealogical Society of Conejo Valley and Ventura County. Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. (818) 889-6616. ” title=”conejoplayers.org”>conejoplayers.org.

Saturday, November 12

“Jews Gone Wild”
See which one of tonight’s stand-up comedians might follow in the hilarious footsteps of Don Rickles, Jerry Seinfeld or Rita Rudner during “Jews Gone Wild,” part of “Ventura Comedy Festival 2011 — Laughter by the Sea.” 7 p.m. $15 (21 and older; two-drink minimum). The Greek at the Harbor, 1583 Spinnaker Drive, Suite 101, Ventura. (805) 644-1500. ” title=”jewishsantabarbara.org”>jewishsantabarbara.org.

Tuesday, November 15

“Norway and the Holocaust”
Irene Levin Berman, who escaped from Norway to Sweden with her family during the Holocaust, speaks about her memoir, “We Are Going to Pick Potatoes,” and discusses how the Holocaust affected Norway and its Jewish families. Sponsored by the Scandinavian American Cultural and Historical Foundation and the CLU History Department. 7 p.m. Free. California Lutheran University, Overton Hall (Regent Avenue and Memorial Parkway), Thousand Oaks. (805) 241-1051. ” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ hspace = ‘8’ align = ‘left’>Marc Cohn
Go “Walking in Memphis” with the soulful sounds of Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Marc Cohn. We dare you not to sing along with Cohn’s signature song about a spiritual awakening in the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll. 6 p.m. (doors open), 9 p.m. (show). $38 (younger than 18 must be accompanied by a paying adult). The Canyon Club, 28912 Roadside Drive, Agoura Hills. (818) 879-5016.
” title=”congregationbnaiemet.org”>congregationbnaiemet.org.

Monday, November 21

Haverim B’nai B’rith of the Conejo Valley
Enjoy an evening of Broadway tunes, folk songs and more with musician and singer Michael Cladis. Open to new members, couples and singles, especially baby boomers. 7:30 p.m. (general meeting), 8 p.m. (program), 9 p.m. (refreshments and schmoozing). Free. Sponsored by Haverim B’nai B’rith of the Conejo Valley. Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. RSVP to (805) 529-9297.

Obama’s numbers could swing 30th district race


Rep. Brad Sherman doesn’t intend to follow Rep. Henry Waxman’s advice to give up his San Fernando Valley congressional race against Rep. Howard Berman.

Instead, he has hired a high-profile campaign manager, Parke Skelton, who has worked for many Democrats, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Skelton e-mailed me the following: “Brad Sherman is running for re-election in the district that he lives in and where he represents the majority of the residents. He has a long history of effective leadership in this community and is proud to be supported by hundreds of local leaders from throughout the West San Fernando Valley.” That echoes what Sherman said last month: “I will run and am confident of winning.”

The contest for the 30th congressional seat will be one of the most-watched congressional races in the nation. Two well-known and successful Democratic Jewish candidates are opposing each other. In addition, there’s the President Barack Obama factor. His popularity is dropping in California. Will the candidates try to avoid being associated with him?

Another wild- -card factor is that the election will be run under new rules. Democrats, Republicans and independents will be on the same ballot. The top two finishers in the June primary will run against each other in the November 2012 general election. The primary and the runoff are expected to cost between $12 million and $13 million.

The state reapportionment commission created the district after giving Berman’s present Valley district a Latino majority. The commission then placed both Berman and Sherman in the 30th.

Trying to avoid such an expensive and uncertain race, Waxman, the veteran Westside congressman, feels the district should go to Berman, who is a friend and longtime colleague. “If we have this race between two Jewish Democrats, it is not because of Howard, it is because Brad chooses it,” Waxman said.

He’s proposed a solution: In Waxman’s view, Sherman should pull out of the race and run in a new Ventura County congressional district, which has no incumbent. That district would be more challenging to a Democrat than the 30th. It is 42 percent Democratic and 35 percent Republican — a margin that makes the seat winnable for the GOP. Gov. Jerry Brown lost the somewhat conservative area by 1 percent when he was elected in 2010. President Obama won the area in double digits in 2008, long before his current popularity decline.

Waxman conceded that the 30th “is not a great Democratic district,” but Sherman “has enough money to win it.”

Waxman called me to object to my analysis that it would be “suicidal” for Sherman to make that choice. “Why is it suicidal for a guy with $4 million [Waxman’s estimate of Sherman’s campaign funds]?” Waxman asked. “He could do himself a favor, he could do the Jewish community a favor, and keep himself in Congress without this unnecessary battle.”

Obama’s level of popularity will be an important factor in the 30th District race.

The Sept. 14 Field Poll showed that 46 percent of registered California voters approved of the way he is doing the job, while 44 percent disapprove. That’s an 8 percent drop from a Field Survey last June. His job approval rating is declining even among Democrats, dropping from 79 percent in June to 69 percent this month. In Los Angeles County, the decline was 9 percent, from 63 percent to 54 percent.

Polling figures on Obama for the 30th District aren’t available. But the West San Fernando Valley district tends to be more conservative than the East Valley and parts of the county across the Santa Monica Mountains. In addition, both Berman and Sherman may have to deal with the skepticism toward Obama that is prevalent among many Jewish voters, a substantial part of the district.

That skepticism was a force in the New York upset by Republican Bob Turner in the recent contest for the New York City seat vacated by Rep. Anthony Weiner. Turner’s victory coincided with a drop in Obama’s popularity in New York. The district is heavily Democratic.

As noted by Jewish Journal reporter Jonah Lowenfeld, there are differences in the way Berman and Sherman talk about the president. For example, when Obama gave his jobs speech on Sept. 8, Berman said he was “pleased to see President Obama take a definitive step tonight towards bringing this gridlock to an end and finally jump-starting efforts to get the economy moving again.” Berman added that he would soon introduce two separate jobs bills and exhorted the Republican majority to allow jobs legislation to pass.

Sherman was somewhat critical. “We need a bolder spending program over the next two years to get us out of this recession,” Sherman said. He called the president’s plan for job creation “good but insufficient,” and said it must be “paired with an even bolder program to reduce the deficit over the next 10 years.”

These are mild differences, but as Lowenfeld wrote in his jewishjournal.com Berman v. Sherman blog, “subtle doesn’t mean inconsequential.”

Watching this unfold is a Republican candidate, Susan Shelley, a novelist who is also Jewish. Rather than appearing only on a Republican ballot, as was the law in the past, Shelley and other Republicans will share the same ballot with Berman, Sherman and other Democrats.

She said in an e-mail, “Voter anger over President Obama’s Mideast policy, combined with frustration over the economy, could lead many Democrats to cross party lines and vote for a socially moderate Republican.”

Unlikely, perhaps. But whoever thought a Republican would replace Anthony Weiner in New York City?

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

I Miss Us


Here are my complaints about the annual Israel Independence Day Festival:

The falafel makers use too much breadcrumb filler. There’s never enough shade near the main stage, where the music is always too loud, anyway. The audience never pays attention to the honored speakers, who themselves never say a single memorable thing. 

I’m not done. The festival, which in recent years has been held in Woodley Park in Van Nuys, used to be free.  Then admission was $5; last year it was $8.  Parking was free, though is it really “parking” if you have to walk a half hour to the gate through dust storms kicked up by traffic jams of honking SUVs?

And then there was this: Standing at the Jewish Journal booth, I heard many curious or friendly or appreciative comments. Then, inevitably, an irate reader who had saved up a year’s worth of slights, arguments and gotchas would march up to unload every complaint in an endless verbal assault. Standing at the Journal booth was like being in a rhetorical dunk tank. I never knew when a button I pushed in a column six months ago would send me gasping for air in someone’s bottomless harangue.  

But my single biggest complaint about the 63nd annual Israel Independence Day Festival is this: They canceled it.

That’s right. For the first time in more than 20 years, the Jewish community is not gathering to party for Israel this year. No other event in the year comes close to bringing together the sheer number of L.A. Jews that the Israel Independence Day Festival brought out — in some years, close to 35,000.

According to an article by Julie Gruenbaum Fax in The Journal of April 15, it was funding cuts that forced organizer Yoram Gutman to cancel this year’s festival, which was scheduled for this Sunday, May 15.

Due to budget constraints, the City of Los Angeles decided the festival needed to cover the $43,000 tab for police, fire and traffic services, which the city once picked up. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles opted not to contribute the $20,000 it had in years past. The Israel Leadership Council, a can-do group of major Israeli-born philanthropists, ceased its partnership with Gutman in 2009 over disagreements on the festival’s future direction.

So the festival — with its three stages of music, its kiddie attractions, its rows of falafel, kebab and knish vendors, its 250 booths representing every Jewish organization from Americans for Peace Now to Friends of Likud, its merchants selling everything from Yemenite mezuzot to sexy “Sababa” T-shirts, its random headlining Israeli star, and those skydivers who leap from 12,000 feet and form a Jewish star overhead while thousands of Jewish parents below thank God that’s not one of their kids — won’t be there to complain about.

And, I will miss it. Like that sage Joni Mitchell said, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”  

Inevitably, after the parking and the security pat-down and my shift-taking abuse at the Jewish Journal booth, I would buy a slightly overpriced, bready falafel and stroll around, meeting Jews I would otherwise rarely get to see. For years now — ever since the festival moved from Rancho Park — the attendees haven’t really reflected all of L.A. Jewry. Brentwood, Bel Air, Venice, Silver Lake didn’t really represent. Hillcrest Country Club didn’t exactly have a booth. And because the festival usually coincided with the city-wide mitzvah day, Big Sunday, thousands of Jews were otherwise engaged.

But that still left Orthodox families with multiple strollers; Persian Jews setting up barbecues, perfuming the air with sizzling koubideh; thousands of newer Israeli immigrants hungry for a dose of Hebrew; and Sheriff Lee Baca.

Can anything replace the festival? One morning this week, Rabbi Chaim Cunin e-mailed me to announce that Chabad will hold a Lag b’Omer Unity Parade on May 22 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Pico Boulevard,  between Doheny and Robertson. 

“The event has taken on added significance in light of the recent canceling of the Woodley Park festival,” Cunin wrote, “especially when Jewish unity and pride are more important than ever.”

I’m sure it will be a great success. Cunin, one of 13 children, can get 7,000 people just from his immediate family. And anyone who can convince me to lay tefillin in front of 400 passengers on El Al Flight 5 to Tel Aviv, as Cunin did last month, can certainly pull off any other miracle.

The Unity Parade will suffice this year, but we need more. An Israel Independence Day Festival is a singular opportunity for us to come together as one community. With better organization, better leadership and more funding, a true community-wide event could come back, much bigger and better. We need it. At a time when Israel is facing growing delegitimization, a very public, very festive show of support is more important than ever. It is not an evening event — bring the kids!  It’s not a fundraiser, mission or banquet — affordable to all!  It’s not a parade — stay, shmooze, check out what the community has to offer, in all its mind-bending diversity. And it’s not just Jewish — a great festival can bring people out from across the entire city to show their support.

So, to those with the vision and wherewithal to organize next year’s big event, I make this vow: No complaints.

Annual Israel festival at Woodley Park canceled


Camp Obama vs. Shavuot: The Third Story


Hundreds of young people gathered to become a part of Camp Obama for intensive three-day weekend retreats throughout the months of July and August of 2007. Several of the retreats were led by Marshall Ganz, a Harvard professor of sociology, and son of a rabbi and World War II Army chaplain).

Although these weekends were associated with a political campaign, for Ganz the objective of the experience was not simply to develop political organizing skills for volunteers but to “put into words why you’re called, and why we’ve been called, to change the way the world works.”

These are fairly lofty ideals upon which to spend such considerable campaign dollars and time, especially considering that in the summer of 2007, Obama was still a long shot for candidacy, let alone the presidency.

What is most fascinating, however, is how Ganz and Camp Obama accomplished their goal of inspiring these mostly young and new voters to fulfill the camp’s goal, which was to mobilize a political campaign with an injection of emotion and renewed faith.

The central experience of the retreats was to inspire hope and activism through stories. Not stories of the past—not biblical stories, history or even mythology—but each participant’s own story.

Each person at Camp Obama was invited to share three stories: the story of self (their personal story); the story of us (their story of being part of the collective); and the story of now (what they see in the world that needs healing).

No matter where each of us stands on the political spectrum, we can all appreciate the wisdom of Camp Obama’s approach to developing invested, motivated and committed campaign organizers. After all, seeing the world through our stories and how our personal experiences interweave with the world’s story is very inspirational. More than that, however, it is very spiritual. And, by the way, it is very Jewish.

Take the Jewish calendar, for example. There are three pillars upon which the Jewish calendar stands, each originating from the Torah. One is the fall holidays of Tishrei: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. The second is the spring holiday of Passover. And the third is Shavuot, falling seven weeks after Passover, at the start of summer. Each of these seasonal pillars tells a story that colors and animates the Jewish spirit.

The Jewish Story of Self. The first story is that of the Tishrei holidays, including the High Holidays. These holidays represent Judaism’s story of the self—the spiritual self. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur’s intensive concentration on personal, spiritual development through self-reflection and prayer is the Jewish practice that addresses the narrative of our personal hurts and hopes. Even Sukkot, which emphasizes the transitory nature of our existence by forcing us to leave the luxury of our homes and enter huts, expands upon the self-reflective process of the High Holidays. In fact, the rabbinic tradition identifies Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh and last day of Sukkot, as the final day of the “judgment” begun on Rosh Hashanah.

The Jewish Story of Us. The second story is one with which most Jews are familiar, the story of Passover. The Exodus from Egypt is the story of Jewish nationhood; it is the point at which Jews acquire their political and religious identity beyond being mere objects of slavery. And it is the collective story of both the individual Jew and the many others one knows as family and friends around the world. Thus, the “Jewish story of us” ensures that the “story of self” does not end in narcissism but is linked to the larger narrative and makeup of the community.

The Jewish Story of Now. The third story is the story of the revelation of God at Sinai and the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people, which is celebrated on the festival of Shavuot. Shavuot tells the “Jewish story of now” because it is precisely about revealing God’s will to humanity. Indeed, the Jewish conception of revelation, especially in modern times, is described by the continual synthesis of our conscience—today’s conscience—with Torah values. This is Judaism’s primary approach to identifying which hurts demand healing and which hopes should be pursued. In this way, the Torah manifests itself as a way of addressing the pains and maladies in the world and in ourselves, every day of every generation—in other words: now.

The wisdom of Camp Obama’s approach parallels the millennia-old wisdom of the Jewish tradition’s approach to engaging in a meaningful quest for hope and activism. Both approaches invite us to “put into words why you’re called, and why we’ve been called, to change the way the world works.”

When we understand Judaism through the prism of all three of these stories, told and retold throughout the Jewish year, we discover that being a Jew means being continually invited to tell our stories and to participate in healing the world’s hurts and pursuing its hopes. We also discover that being a Jew means being a valued part of a people and tradition that have always exemplified activism, faith and relentless hope.

Paul Steinberg is a rabbi and educator at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., and the author of the “Celebrating the Jewish Year” series; visit http://www.jewishpub.org for more information.

Tel Aviv Grill Comes to Encino


Itzik Hagadol knows how to “open up a table,” as they say in Israel.

The restaurateur, whose real name is Itzik Luzon, has a reputation in Tel Aviv for lavishing his guests in Middle Eastern style — serving up an abundance of food that includes heaping platefuls of salads. After 14 years of booming business in Yaffo, Luzon has brought his popular restaurant, Shipudei Itzik Hagadol (Big Itzik’s Skewers), to the Encino Commons with help from his son, Amos, and their business partner Michael Fainman. Itzik Hagadol Grill opened its doors to a parking lot thronged with people on March 3.

The restaurant begins with an Israeli variation on the American buffet, which Luzon learned while working for years at Shipudei Tzipora in Bat Yam. Patrons are charged $9 each for an unlimited array of more than 20 colorful Middle Eastern salads — including grilled eggplant, pickled carrots, chopped liver, hummus, Israeli salad, Turkish salad, sautéed mushrooms and roasted potatoes — as well as falafel and laffa, a Middle Eastern flatbread served straight from a taboon oven.

Most grill items are a la carte, ranging in price from $18 to $24 for two skewers of locally procured meats like turkey shishlik, lamb, veal sweetbreads or chicken thighs; two skewers of foie gras will set diners back $60. (For the adventurous eater, there’s chicken hearts and turkey testicles.)

Other grilled entrées include filet mignon, lamb chops and Chilean sea bass.

While not kosher, Itzik Hagadol only serves meat from animals considered kosher according to Jewish law.

Karen Marcus ate at Itzik two nights in a row last week. The native Angeleno, a self-described foodie, had been to the flagship restaurant several times and was excited when an announcement about the grill’s opening went up on the Encino shopping square’s marquee in January.

“It’s even better than Israel,” she said, between bites of grilled portobello mushrooms, which she said tasted like a vegetarian version of filet mignon. “The food is equally as excellent but the ambiance is better; it’s spacier, newer, more upscale.”

“We’re famous all over the world,” said Itzik Luzon, who estimates that his Yaffo restaurant serves about 1,000 customers a day.

He added that many of his American customers pay a visit each time they travel to Israel — some having come for eight or more years.

“A customer said to me the other night, ‘The Israeli tourism office will sue you. You’re causing the tourism to Israel to go down because you opened up here,’” Fainman said.

The restaurant is enjoying significant buzz in the L.A. Israeli community, whose dining choices have been increasing in recent years with the addition of Shalvata Cafe in Encino and Aroma Bakery & Cafe and Hummus Bar & Grill in Tarzana. However, Amos, Luzon’s son, says Itzik Hagadol is not likely to be a rival since it serves different dining needs.
“I think there’s room for everyone to do well here,” he said. “That’s the beauty of America.”

Amos Luzon, 32, grew up working at his father’s Yaffo restaurant from the age of 15, doing everything from washing dishes to repairing electrical appliances. He and his family moved to the San Fernando Valley several months ago to run the new restaurant with Fainman. Once the business is on its feet, Amos said his father plans to return to Israel with the chefs and laffa specialist who were brought from Israel to train the Encino kitchen staff.

“We built our reputation in Israel on shefa [abundance], quality and the best hospitality,” he said. “And we’re going to duplicate that here.”

Itzik Hagadol Grill, 17201 Ventura Blvd., Encino (818) 784-4080. Open Saturday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight.

Friendship and freedom at Adat Chaverim


“What does it mean to be free and why is freedom so important?” was Karlo Silbiger’s first question to some 20 kids ranging from 3 years to early teens.

The youth and their parents were meeting on a recent Sunday morning to check out the offerings of Adat Chaverim (Community of Friends), especially its school and bar/bat mitzvah programs.

Adat Chaverim is a small congregation of secular, Humanistic Jews, whose brochure proposes that “reason rather than faith is the source of truth, and human intelligence and experience are capable of guiding our lives.”

Eight years after its was founded in the San Fernando Valley, Adat Chaverim is spreading its wings in concerted effort to attract like-minded Westsiders and broaden its services and educational programs.

The key to the congregation’s expansion from some 40 current families is its move to the American Jewish University (AJU), formerly the University of Judaism, on the exact border between the Valley and the Los Angeles basin.

The group attending the school orientation session consisted of young professional couples, averaging three kids apiece, just the kind of demographic for which any synagogue would give away half its building fund.

Mitchell and Susan Saltzman of Century City brought their three boys, ages 3, 7 and 10. The older kids had previously attended a Reform synagogue’s preschool and liked it.

But, said Mitchell Saltzman, “A friend told us that his children were getting a great education at Adat Chaverim, so we thought we’d check it out.”

John and Mara Glassner of Encino came with their three young daughters and said they hoped to find a Sunday school in line with their “skeptical” outlook.

Also working in Adat Chaverim’s favor are the much lower membership and school fees, as compared to almost all other synagogues.

To keep the youngest kids happy, education director Silbiger passed out crayons and coloring sheets, recounting the story of Moses and the Exodus, though the dialogue deviated somewhat from the biblical version. Moses tells the pre-liberated Israelites, “God said if you don’t like something, you can change it through collective action.”

Also innovative is the congregation’s bar/bat mitzvah program, which requires 13 preparatory projects.

These include writing reports on the work of two Jewish community organizations; attending services of the four main Jewish denominations; 15 hours of community work; planning and preparing a Jewish holiday meal; reading a Torah portion and explaining its cultural background; and writing a story using some Yiddish and Ladino words.

By the way, what does it mean to be free?

According to the bright and alert youngsters, it means that “Nobody can boss you around,” “You can go where you want to go.” “You have a sense of responsibility,” and “You can believe in what you want to believe.”

This year’s High Holy Day services at AJU’s Berman Chapel will be led on Rosh Hashanah by Harvard University Chaplain Greg Epstein. There will also be services on Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur. A Tashlich ceremony is set for 11 a.m. on Oct. 5 at Los Encinos State Historic Park in Encino. For more information, call (818) 346-5152.

Survivor, rabbi recall horror of Metrolink train crash


Richard Slavett normally takes the 4:36 p.m. Metrolink train from Glendale to his home in Thousand Oaks, but last Friday his daughter-in-law was flying in from the East Coast and he decided to go home early.

Slavett, 69, owner of the Glendale Tire Co. of Glendale, caught the 3:45 p.m. train instead, took an aisle seat at the rear of the train, and fell fast asleep.

The next thing he knew he was lying face down at the front of the compartment following a horrific crash between his Metrolink train and a freight train, which killed 26 people and injured 138.

Next to him were two bodies, one bleeding profusely. Slavett painfully crawled to retrieve his briefcase, and a lunchbox holding the day’s cash receipts.

“It was like a scene from a disaster movie,” he said.

Agonizingly, Slavett crawled to the exit, until two men carried him to a nearby boulder. An hour later he was taken to the triage area and there LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and County Sheriff Lee Baca, who both know Slavett, came over to comfort him.

Three hours later he was transferred to Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Woodland Hills. Miraculously, he had no broken bones, but suffered an excruciatingly painful torn groin.

Despite the pain, Slavett managed to attend a dinner Monday evening, marking his installation as lieutenant governor of the California Kiwanis.

Now slowly recovering, the father of three and grandfather of six said, in a voice chocked with emotion, “I got to get well fast so I can go back to singing in the choir at Or Ami [in Calabasas].”

Rabbi Leonard Muroff was driving to his home in Agoura Hills after conducting services at Temple Ner Tamid in Downey, when he heard that families of those thought to have been on the train were told to assemble at Chatsworth High School and wait for news.

As a full-time chaplain with Vitas Innovative Hospice Care, he immediately changed course and headed for the high school.

The place was jammed with families and friends, some standing in stunned silence, others close to hysteria, alongside aid workers from the fire department, sheriff’s office, Red Cross, and the mayor’s crisis team, headed by Jeff Zimmerman.

Working alongside a Protestant and Buddhist chaplain, Muroff worked to pinpoint the locations of the injured, scattered throughout some 20 hospitals, from Simi Valley to the USC-County Hospital.

Muroff encountered some Jewish families, although the faith of the affected families made no difference to the three chaplains.

Around midnight, officials of the Coroner’s office received a list of those who had died in the crash and began to notify the waiting relatives.

What do you say to the bereaved in such a moment, Muroff was asked.

“There are no magic words,” he answered, “no easy phrases like ‘he has gone to a better place’ or ‘God will embrace her’.”

“All you can do is let them cry it out, say that you are with them, that they are not alone.”

Muroff pulled a 17-hour shift, interrupted only by morning prayers at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills. He returned to the high school bearing 13 bagles with cream cheese, supplied by the temple.

Muroff, 48, is a native of Toronto and has been a hospice chaplain for two years, previously with the Jewish Homes for the Aging.

There have been many emotional and agonizing moments during that time, he said, but nothing had been as intensive as the 17 hours at Chatsworth High.

Wine, Women, Song


As the daylight hours dwindle down to a precious few, and hurricanes, fires and floods give the distinct feeling that the world is indeed coming to an end, let’s turn our thoughts to two of the things that make so many Jews so happy: wine and Hawaii.

That’s where Judd and Holly Finkelstein come in. The Journal sat with the young couple over coffee at downtown’s Angelique Café, and tried to keep track of their interests and projects.

Judd’s parents, Art and Bunnie, have been making wine in Napa Valley for 25 years, first creating the Whitehall Lane label, then Judd’s Hill. After training as a journalist, that same Judd recognized maybe there’s a reason people dream of retiring to the place he grew up, and he moved back to join the family business.

The family has numerous ties to Los Angeles, and Judd met Holly, a former program officer for the Steven Spielberg Righteous Persons Foundation, on a 2003 visit here.

Now the two form the center of a Jewish-winemaking-experimental-entrepreneurial-Hawaiian music-making community in Napa.

Along with expanding and marketing the critically acclaimed Judd Hill line, the two are marketing Napa Valley Custom MicroCrush. Customers pay to make their own wines, selecting grapes and overseeing the process from picking to labeling.

“Crushing grapes is nasty, grungy work,” Judd said. “It’s barely pleasant.”

MicroCrush customers can have others do this part, but otherwise, for about $20 per bottle, make their oenophiliac dreams come true. The idea sounds prime for a nonprofit group to use as a fundraiser — anyone for a case of ’06 Jewish Family Service Pinot Noir?

When not promoting wine, Holly and Judd perform in a Hawaiian lounge band they created, The Maikai Gents, featuring the Mysterious Miss Mauna Loa. Holly, a trained hula dancer (a.k.a. Miss Mauna Loa), and Judd, an expert on the ukelele, perform at clubs, parties and the rare bar mitzvah in the wine country.

Their new CD, “Wiki Wiki Grog Shop,” will take you back — to somewhere between Kapalua and Trader Vics.

These days, that’s a good place to be.

For more information, visit www.juddshill.com.

 

Small Shul With a Big Heart


When comedic actor Larry Miller and his wife first went to Studio City’s Congregation Beth Meier 11 years ago, the very small shul’s Tomb of Rachel architecture was less inspiring than watching elderly Rabbi Meier Schimmel toss one back at L’ Chaim time.

“He pours himself a blast of vodka and — boom — knocks it back!” Miller said. “That always impressed me as a real emblem of his joy of life.”

Since opening in December 1958, Congregation Beth Meier has been a quiet, unassuming little staple of Jewish life near the corner of Moorpark Street and Colfax Avenue. The shul — its name honors not Schimmel, but Mishnah writer Rabbi Meier Ba’al Ha’Ness — has about 150 families. While Beth Meier’s exterior replicates the Tomb of Rachel, its brown, wooden interior intentionally was designed to resemble the Little Brown Church in the Valley, the Sherman Oaks church where Ronald and Nancy Reagan were married. Only on the High Holidays was Beth Meier’s cozy sanctuary traded for the larger Studio City Theater on Ventura Boulevard, now a Bookstar.

“I felt that the smaller synagogue is more spiritual than the big one,” the rabbi said.

Now 88, Schimmel doesn’t toss back vodka like he once did, but he’s still in the game, reciting opening and closing prayers at Shabbat services, and slowly handing over the reigns to Rabbi Aaron Benson, who came to Beth Meier in 2003.

The Modern Orthodox rabbi’s Traditional-Conservative congregation has been rare among Los Angeles synagogues; it never has had a building fund, does not ask potential members for personal financial information and has been run by the same rabbi since it opened in December 1958.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Studio City was home to young, assimilated families who attended synagogues on Laurel Canyon’s other side, such as Temple Israel of Hollywood or Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

“They were Reform and they were not advertising their Jewishness,” said daughter Selma Schimmel. “There was only one girl in the synagogue whose house I could eat at.”

When Congregation Beth Meier was still new, its Star of David was stolen and a swatiska was painted on one of its white walls. Rather than quickly paint over the Nazi symbol, Schimmel left the swatiska up for a week — to be seen by all, he said, to “let my neighbors feel what’s happening here.”

Later, holes from a BB gun shot into the shul’s 12 stained glass windows prompted Schimmel to make the repaired glass bulletproof, while still portraying the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

“It wasn’t like the synagogue was welcomed with open arms,” said Selma Schimmel, who also added that the Studio City Chamber of Commerce recently held its monthly mixer in Beth Meier’s meeting hall.

Schimmel turned down a request to sing a prayer in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” because he was too busy with Beth Meier commitments. When Miller was asked if skipping such an opportunity was a mistake for the rabbi, the actor said, “The core truth of a different way to live is that he didn’t miss out; there was nothing to miss out on. For him, each morning’s prayer is the richest moment in the world. So he wasn’t turning something down; he’s giving something greater.”

He is rare among Americans because he has stayed in one job for over four decades. Rebbitzen Rochelle Schimmel, who spent 40 years running the 125-student Beth Meier School across the street, died in 1981 (“For me, she never died,” said the rabbi). Now, Schimmel lives with his older daughter, Debby Bitticks, in Encino, surrounded by photos of his four granddaughters and six (soon to be seven) great-grandchildren.

He also is one the last of the pre-Holocaust generation of European-trained rabbis, a Frankfurt rabbi’s son who fled Germany in 1938, first eyeing America from the Queen Mary’s deck and, once here, becoming an Army chaplain.

Despite his theological pedigree, Schimmel embraces various definitions of family; when an elderly, childless couple’s parrot died, Schimmel bent Torah law and officiated at a little parrot funeral service, thus honoring the child-like affection the couple had for the bird.

Schimmel also wrote the, “Brotherhood Prayer” for his congregation. It sums up the small shul’s appeal to Jews and some non-Jews. The prayer reads, in part, “Father, I would open my heart even wider so that your love may flow through me to bless all whose lives I touch.”

Valley’s Toras HaShem Seeks to Lure City Jews Over the Hill


It’s Thursday night at Toras HaShem, an outreach yeshiva in North
Hollywood and some 40 people are here to hear Rabbi Zvi Block’s weekly Torah
portion sermon. Tonight the class includes college-age women wearing long
skirts; a number of septuagenarians; a middle-aged man, who is becoming
Orthodox, and his wife, who is converting to Judaism; and a young mother whose
little girl spends the class drawing pictures on a notepad.

The men and women are seated in separate rows, and everyone
is following along in an English-translated Chumash. Block, a New Yorker,
delivers his talk on the weekly portion with great enthusiasm: he sits down, he
gets up, he walks around the room, he digs with his thumb to emphasize his
points, he modulates his voice, he peppers his argument with telling anecdotes;
he moves the story so briskly through the text that by the end of the 75
minutes, the entire parsha has been explicated.

Block’s scholarship and liveliness have garnered him quite a
following in the Valley. While the city boasts a number of institutions that
seek to familiarize the unaffiliated with Orthodox Judaism (i.e., Aish HaTorah,
Jewish Learning Exchange and the Jewish Awareness Movement), the Valley has
Toras HaShem, which is its only non- Chabad Orthodox outreach organization (the
Valley Kollel offers some outreach classes, but it is primarily a locus for
those already learned.) Although there are some city people who make the trek
across Coldwater Canyon to attend their classes, Toras HaShem is virtually
unknown in the city, which is something that Block hopes to change.

So these days, Block is trying a different sort of outreach.
He wants to reach out to affiliated Jews in the city so that they know more
about the thriving community in the Valley, and he is doing so by organizing a
citywide concert with Shalsheles, the highest-selling Orthodox singing quartet
in the country by Jewish music standards. Block hopes to sell out some 1,700
seats, which would raise $100,000 to benefit Israeli victims of terror, and it
would also raise awareness among city Jews of the classes and services offered
by his institution, and perhaps lure a few of them away from the plethora of
options in the city, to try out life — or maybe just some classes — in the
Valley.

“I think people in the city don’t realize to what extent the
Valley community has grown,” Block told The Journal. “People consider the
Valley as a third choice [to live in], after Pico-Robertson and Hancock Park,
and they are making a big mistake. People in the city don’t realize that the
Valley has between 800 and 1,000 shomer Shabbos families. In our area alone
there are a dozen shuls.”

Block has lived in the Valley since 1977, when he came to
start a Los Angeles branch of Aish HaTorah, then only a Jerusalem outreach
yeshiva. In 1991, the building burnt down in an arson attack (the reason for
the fire is still unknown), and Aish began concentrating its efforts in the
city. Not one to give up, Block, who was also working as the founding rabbi of
the Orthodox Beth Din of the Valley and as the principal of West Valley Hebrew
Academy, collected $1 million in funds to build a building for his own outreach
Yeshiva, and, in 1995, he opened Toras HaShem on Chandler Boulevard in North
Hollywood, in a new building that could accommodate more than 200 students.

Toras HaShem caters to people who have no prior knowledge of
Judaism, and it intends to foster individualist, religious expression in its
students. “We produced kids who were Chasidic-leaning, and we produced kids who
were Zionistic-leaning,” Block said.

The yeshiva encourages its students to go to Israel, Block
said. “We believe very strongly in a powerfully assertive Israel, and so this
concert fits right in,” he said. “It is really an effort to galvanize the city
of Los Angeles on our behalf, and on behalf of Israel.”

The Shalsheles Concert will take place at 7:30 p.m., Feb. 16 at the Scottish Rite Theatre, 4357 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets
are available at the 613 Mitzvah Store, House of David and Brenco Judaica. For
more information on the concert, call (818) 581-7505. For information on Toras
HaShem, call (818) 980-6934.  

Better Future Tied to Secession


For decades, hard-working, committed citizens have been struggling to break the Valley free from remote politicians and uncaring bureaucrats, whose interests are focused on downtown interests with downtown influence. If we are successful, Valley independence will provide a more representative and more accountable government for all Los Angeles residents.

Declines in public safety, after-school programs, health care, education, transportation and the loss of middle-class jobs have contributed to the Valley’s sinking quality of life. Valley leaders have been trying in vain to get the attention of the downtown interests for many of these local problems.

Throughout the East San Fernando Valley, there are unpaved and unlighted streets. Crime throughout Los Angeles is increasing and murders in the Valley have increased 80 percent. In the northwest Valley’s Devonshire Division, as few as nine police cars patrol at night, with only 14 cars covering the peak activity periods.

Valley residents know that some areas of Los Angeles have nearly twice as many officers assigned to them per thousand residents. This inadequate deployment explains why police response times to emergency calls in the Valley are 18 percent slower than in the City of Los Angeles as a whole. Indeed, in many neighboring cities, police response times to emergency calls are nearly half those experienced in the Valley.

Roads and public safety are not the only examples of misplaced priorities and bureaucratic bloat. The Local Agency Formation Commission report proving the financial health of an independent Valley city and the remaining part of Los Angeles confirms that the city currently spends $1,350 per resident per year, about $250 more than the average amount spent by Phoenix, San Diego and other cities the size of the proposed Valley city.

That extra $250 per person a year is bureaucratic fat that could be eliminated with a modest amount of municipal belt-tightening. Such fiscal discipline would save about $350 million for the Valley city and could save $575 million for the remaining part of Los Angeles.

Numerous academic studies prove that budget bloat is merely a function of government size. Economists call it "diseconomies of scale." By reducing the size of government agencies, they become more efficient and better spend their resources to meet local needs.

This would be especially true if the new Valley city adopts a small, locally accountable borough system as part of its municipal charter. But if the downtown interests defeat Valley independence, there will be no real fiscal reform for any part of the city. They will see the defeat of Valley independence as validation of business as usual.

Until just recently, our voices have been drowned out by the din of continuing controversy and neglect of misplaced priorities. After ignoring the Valley’s needs for years, the downtown power brokers have finally realized that we’re serious about making real change. So, finally, they’re telling us what they think we want to hear. They’re making us promises, saying anything they can to keep us from leaving.

Now, the downtown interests are spreading fear and sowing doubt. Their focus is on generating fear — telling us "the sky is falling" — protecting their bureaucracies, maintaining their own power and preserving the status quo. But we know better. They can’t make up for decades of neglect with a few months of political rhetoric. We can see through their smoke and mirrors.

We know that a new San Fernando Valley city will work financially and be more efficient and effective than the sprawling megalopolis of Los Angeles. And we know we can put in place a local government that will be more responsive and accountable to the people of the San Fernando Valley. We know that there will be better opportunities for public participation in two smaller cities.

When Los Angeles voters take the time to study the Valley independence issue, they will find solid evidence that Valley independence provides opportunities for a better future in both the Valley and the rest of Los Angeles. About 40 percent of the Valley’s population is Latino, giving Latino leaders an unparalleled opportunity to represent their community, develop their skills and move up the political ladder.

For residents in the remaining parts of Los Angeles, Valley independence would allow elected officials to focus on settling the persistent turmoil and meeting the many needs of a growing population. With Valley leaders taking care of Valley problems, there will be more time, energy and resources to address the crime, transportation, economic development, environmental and quality-of-life issues that continue to plague the rest of Los Angeles.

Valley independence is all about accountability, local control, self-determination and opportunity for a better future for all Los Angeles residents and their families. Jewish voters understand these important principles.

All Los Angeles residents deserve a government that’s accountable, a government that’s efficient, a government that’s responsive to their needs and supports a better quality of life. Valley independence is the catalyst for that overdue change.

Loss for Jews if Secession Wins


The question has been posed to me frequently over the past several months: Is Valley secession "good for the Jews?"

Truthfully, it’s a difficult question to answer. Other current matters are easier to address. Is President Bush good for the Jews? Prime Minister Ariel Sharon certainly thinks so. Are the Dodgers good for the Jews? Shawn Green’s 42 home runs certainly say so.

But secession? Does it really matter for the Jews of Los Angeles whether they live in one city of 3.35 million people or two cities of 2 million and 1.35 million each?

Really, secession isn’t good for anyone. Moreover, because the promotion of division and the identification (rather than the repair) of fissures within our society is inconsistent with my understanding of the bulk of modern Jewish political practice in Los Angeles, my strong suspicion is that secession runs counter to mainstream Jewish political values.

It may be a fact that no community in Los Angeles would find itself more divided and have its political influence more diluted by secession than the Jewish community would. The Jewish community now has a more extensive presence than ever both south and north of Mulholland Drive.

Because the Jewish community is strongly represented in some Westside and Valley neighborhoods, splitting the city could divide and diminish the political heft of the Jewish community — heft that came not by accident but as the result of decades of efforts by my predecessors.

Although I understand the frustrations that are at the root of the secession debate, breaking up the City of Los Angeles is not the answer. I believe that Jewish and non-Jewish communities alike are stronger together. United, we can focus our efforts to strengthen our communities, address common problems and make Los Angeles a better place to live for everyone.

Representing people in both the Valley and Westside (and, for that matter, Hollywood, too, to give all breakup proposals equal time) gives me a unique perspective on the issue. My district spans the hillsides, including Valley Village, Sherman Oaks and Encino in the Valley, and the Fairfax-Beverly-Melrose district, Cheviot Hills, Beverlywood, Westwood, Carthay Circle, Century City and Palms on the Westside.

With very few exceptions, I know that the concerns of families on either side of the hill are the same. All want safe neighborhoods, good schools, clean water and air and less traffic. These are the concerns that my constituents share with me, and as a member of the City Council, I work every day to address them.

My Jewish constituents, in particular, have far more in common than not regardless of where they live. Recognizing that Holy Days can change priorities for city services, I have directed city departments to increase police patrols, relax parking or adjust crosswalks to ensure that congregations can safely assemble. These provisions are equally important on Pico and Chandler boulevards, and by representing both neighborhoods, I ensure that they are delivered.

On a larger scale, Jewish values, such as equality, fairness, family and community, would not be well-served in a divided city, particularly because the laws that protect them would expire after a transition period in the new Valley city.

From the beginning, the Jewish community has been stronger united than we are apart. Granted, there are differences among us and tensions that we will resolve in time. As a whole, our strength is in our union and building on the success we have had in Los Angeles.

With strong and growing temples to nurture spirituality, successful schools to teach young children and university students, powerful institutions to advocate for change and elected leaders who understand and share Jewish values, the Jewish community has done well in Los Angeles.

As a community, we have developed outstanding leaders to represent our interests. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, former Supervisor Ed Edelman and many current and former members of Congress, including Howard Berman, Henry Waxman, Jane Harman, Brad Sherman, Mel Levine and Tony Beilenson (and numerous other officeholders as well) built their careers by improving life in the Jewish and non-Jewish communities they represented. They have proven their dedication to serving the people of Los Angeles and their willingness to collaborate to solve problems.

It is unacceptable for a segment of the city to feel unfairly treated or ignored by their government. Some Valley residents’ frustration with city government has fueled the campaign for secession, and these problems and concerns must be addressed.

Still, the vast array of our shared interests and values must be prioritized to forge a long-term solution to conflicts. Rather than let the fewer issues that separate us justify breaking apart the city, we should unite as a community, with the genuine engagement of city government committed to addressing the underlying issues that fueled the secession debate.

From my experience in City Hall and working side by side with members of all communities, I know that we have a better chance for improvements for our families and communities if we work together rather than break apart.

Valley Secession: Better for Jews?


For the Jewish community, like the rest of Los Angeles, the issue of Valley secession boils down to one key question: Will we be better off after secession than we are now?

Some officials predict that secession would actually make very little difference to the Jewish community. In terms of services, secession of the Valley and Hollywood would have only a minimal effect, according to Jewish Federation representatives. Miriam Prum Hess, vice president of planning and allocations for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said that of all the agencies only Jewish Family Service would be significantly impacted.

The bulk of the Federation’s funding for 2001 — a total of $39.6 million — came from state and federal sources; only $12 million was derived from local sources, primarily from Los Angeles County. Of city and county funds combined, Jewish Family Service received the largest portion, about $1.7 million.

Jewish Family Service representatives declined to comment on the possible ramifications for the agency, but Jack Mayer, executive director of the Jewish Federation Valley Alliance, said even if secession were to pass, The Federation and its agencies would find a way to continue their funding.

"We’re a service delivery organization, so we would work with whatever government structures are appropriate," Mayer said. "The organization of the Jewish community is not dependent on the organization of the City of Los Angeles.

"We work with elected officials throughout the area and would continue to have strong and positive relationships with elected officials, no matter how they are organized. Even in the Valley Alliance we work with a number of different cities: Calabasas, Burbank, all the way to Thousand Oaks. We’re not limited in that sense," he said.

Most community leaders agree that the Valley secession’s primary impact on the Jewish community would be more psychological and political than financial. Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, has spent the past year participating in a special task force of the Council of Religious Leaders (CRL) exploring the moral issues surrounding secession. He said it doesn’t take a genius to see that secession will not be helpful to the Jewish community.

"I happen to live in the Valley and work in the city and get to travel all around, and this is a very big issue," Diamond said. "It is already hard for people in the Conejo and San Fernando valleys to feel a part of the greater Jewish community. This is part of life in Los Angeles, that we do not seem as unified as the Jewish communities of Chicago or Detroit or Baltimore.

"It troubles me because there’s an intrinsic bond between Jews all over the world and if a Jew living in the San Fernando Valley doesn’t feel a connection to a Jew living in Hancock Park, let alone Argentina, we’ve got real problems," he said.

Diamond said there are some positive effects of raising the issue of secession.

"In our seminars, studies and investigation over the past year [the task force has] learned there are a lot of disenfranchised people out there and to bring that to the fore is very important," he said. "First, people feel they do not have the access to decision making in their community. Second, some people have the erroneous belief that this is a bunch of rich, white people wanting to break away from the poor city, and that is not true. One of our most enlightening days was a tour we took of Pacoima and parts of Van Nuys, where we saw there were real areas of need in the Valley."

Rabbi Alan Henkin, director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, who along with Diamond is serving on the CRL task force, said another factor to consider in examining secession is its effects on relationships between Jews and other minorities on both sides of the hill.

"Politically, secession would dilute the power of the Jewish community both in their representation in the city and in the Valley. It would really impel the Jewish community to form broader coalitions with a variety of groups," Henkin said.

The need to establish such coalitions could make for an interesting shift in the political landscape, said Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at California State University Fullerton who specializes in racial and ethnic politics.

"The Jewish community is like the Latino community geographically, in that they both straddle the north-south divide with the Latinos on the Eastside and in the East Valley and the Jews on the Westside and in the southwest Valley," Sonenshein explained. "Not everyone is divided that way; the African American community, for example, is not. But Latinos and Jews are likely to be the pivotal voters in how the decision is made."

Sonenshein said what may also be at stake is the broader role Jews have played in government in Los Angeles.

"Even during the Riordan period, the Jewish community remained very active at City Hall and still is today," he said. "But if we actually had secession carry through, it would have a whole different dynamic."

Longtime Los Angeles City Council Member Ruth Galanter has had to fend off two secession attempts in her district, one in Venice and one in Westchester. She said that if people in the Jewish community are committed to improving their relationships with non-Jews, they are better off working as a cohesive whole.

"To the extent that anti-Semitism exists, it doesn’t make sense to be separate," noted Galanter. "It’s better to be part of one large community and reach across the greater Los Angeles community to build relationships."

Galanter also said that if the Jewish community wants a more representative government, secession is not necessarily the way to go.

"There is a rhetorical bandwagon out there crying that the government [in the City of Los Angeles] is not responsive, but that is not necessarily true. Council members spend all day long responding to things in their district," she said. "The danger in the kind of rhetoric I’m hearing is that it just obscures the issue of learning to be close to [the representatives] who can fix things in your neighborhood."

But former Assemblyman Richard Katz, a secession supporter, disagrees.

"If we have more districts representing fewer people, those areas that are more Jewish might have better representation because we have always had a disproportionate number of Jewish people on the City Council," he said.

Overall, it is difficult to predict the effect of secession on the Jewish community of Los Angeles. In many ways, the current situation in Los Angeles reflects the split within our community itself, between those in the city and those in the Valley areas. As embodied in The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Valley Alliance, that "split" has been successful only to the extent both sides recognize that they are on the same team.

"I think it strengthens the community to have people from different parts of the community with different perspectives," said Mayer. "The Federation weaves us together."

Were the city of Los Angeles to discover a similar common denominator, perhaps secession would be unnecessary. But the polls paint a different picture: the latest numbers from a Los Angeles Times survey this month show 55 percent of Valley residents in favor of secession and other areas of the city almost evenly split on secession. Clearly, many Valley residents do feel that they would be better off as an independent city.

In the next article in this series, The Journal will explore whether the Jewish community’s feelings reflect those of Los Angeles overall.

Valley Community Resources


According to The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, 43 percent of the total estimated Jewish population of the greater Los Angeles area live in the San Fernando, Conejo, Simi, Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys.

The following is a partial list of Jewish organizations, schools and synagogues in Valley cities with already developed, and growing, Jewish communities. For more information on Jewish activity in a particular city, call The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance or a local synagogue.

(Please note that some of the synagogues listed may also offer Jewish schooling.)


AGOURA/AGOURA HILLS

Agencies/Organizations

Conejo Valley JCC
5004 Lewis Road
(818) 865-6663

Schools

Heschel-West
27400 West Canwood St.
(818) 368-5781

Synagogues

Chabad of Conejo (O)
30345 Canwood St.
(818) 991-0991

Chabad of Oak Park (O)
28708 Timberlane St.
(818) 991-0991

Congregation Or Ami (RI)
28025 Dorothy Dr., No. 105
(818) 880-6818

Temple Beth Haverim (C)
5142 Clareton Dr., No. 160
(818) 991-7111

GRANADA HILLS

Agencies/Organizations

North Valley JCC
16601 Rinaldi St.
(818) 360-2211

Synagogues

Temple Beth Torah (R)
16651 Rinaldi Street
(818) 831-0835

ENCINO

Agencies/Organizations

Hadassah – Western Region
17609 Ventura Blvd., No. 302
(818) 788-1604

Synagogues

Chabad of Encino (O)
4915 Hayvenhurst Ave.
(818) 784-9986

Temple Ner Maarav (C)
17730 Magnolia Blvd.
(818) 345-7833

Valley Beth Shalom (C)
15739 Ventura Blvd.
(818) 788-6000

NORTH HOLLYWOOD

Schools

Emek Hebrew Academy
12732 Chandler Blvd.
(818) 980-0155

Valley Torah High School (Boys)
12003 Riverside Dr.
(818) 984-1805

Valley Torah High School (Girls)
12326 Riverside Dr.
(818) 762-6611

Synagogues

Adat Ari El (C)
12020 Burbank Blvd.
(818) 766-9426

Adat Yeshurun (O)
12405 Sylvan St.
(818) 766-4682

Bais Medresh Ohr Simcha (O)
12430 Oxnard St.
(818) 760-2189

Chabad of North Hollywood (O)
13079 Chandler Blvd.
(818) 989-9539

Em Habanim Sephardic Cong. (O)
5850 Laurel Canyon Blvd.
(818) 762-7779

Shaarey Hahayim Congregation (S)
12500 Emelita St.

Shaarey Zedek (O)
12800 Chandler Blvd.
(818) 763-0560

Valley Mishkan Israel Cong. (O)
6254 Beeman Ave.
(818) 769-8043

Yad Avraham (O)
12428 Burbank Blvd.
(818) 766-6736

NORTHRIDGE

Agencies/Organizations

Hillel at Cal State Northridge
17729 Plummer St.
(818) 886-5101

Schools

Abraham Heschel Day School
17701 Devonshire St.
(818) 368-5781

Synagogues

Chabad of Northridge (O)
17142 Devonshire St.
(818) 368-3937

Temple Ahavat Shalom (R)
18200 Rinaldi Place
(818) 360-2258

Temple Ramat Zion (C)
17655 Devonshire St.
(818) 360-1881

Young Israel of Northridge (O)
17511 Devonshire St.
(818) 368-2221

RESEDA

Synagogues

Eretz Cultural Center (I)
6170 Wilbur Avenue
(818) 342-9303

SHERMAN OAKS

Agencies/Organizations

Southern California Council for Soviet Jews
P.O. Box 1542
(818) 769-8862

Synagogues

Beth Midrash Mishkan Israel (S)
13312 Burbank Blvd.
(818) 901-1598

Chabad of Sherman Oaks (O)
14960 Ventura Blvd.
(818) 789-0850

Congregation Beth Meier (CI)
11725 Moorpark St.
(818) 769-0515

Congregation Beth Ohr (In)
12355 Moorpark St.
(818) 773-3663

Temple B?nai Hayim (C)
4302 Van Nuys Blvd.
(818) 788-4664

TARZANA

Synagogues

Chabad of Tarzana (O)
18181 Burbank Blvd.
(818) 758-1818

Havurat Olam (Re)
14209 Chandler Blvd.
(818) 345-2983

Sephardic Cohen Synagogue (O)
18547 Ventura Blvd.
(818) 705-4557

Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf (R)
5429 Lindley Ave.
(818) 363-5580

Temple Judea (R)
5429 Lindley Ave.
(818) 758-3800

THOUSAND OAKS

Agencies/Organizations

Conejo Valley Counseling Office
100 East Thousand Oaks Blvd., No. 110
(805) 379-2273

Synagogues

Temple Adat Elohim (R)
2420 East Hillcrest Drive
(805) 497-7101

Temple Etz Chaim (C)
1080 East Janss Road
(805) 497-6891

VALLEY VILLAGE

Synagogues
Beis Midrash Toras Hashem (O)
12422 Chandler Blvd.
(818) 980-6934

Ohr HaTorah (R)
12410 Burbank Blvd., No. 103
(818) 769-8223

Temple Beth Hillel (R)
12326 Riverside Dr.
(818) 763-9148


VAN NUYS

Agencies/Organizations

Jewish Communal Retirees Association of Los Angeles
13834 Califa St.
(818) 786-3687

Valley Cities JCC
13164 Burbank Blvd.
(818) 786-6310

WEST HILLS

Agencies/Organizations

Chaverim – Jewish Programs for the Disabled
22622 Vanowen St.
(818) 884-1092

Habonim Dror Youth Organization
22622 Vanowen St.
(818) 464-3224

JCC Teen Services/Maccabi Games
22622 Vanowen St.
(818) 464-3277

The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance
Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus
22622 Vanowen St.
(818) 587-3200

San Fernando Valley Counseling Center
22622 Vanowen St.
(818) 464-3333

West Valley JCC
22622 Vanowen St.
(818) 587-3300

Synagogues

Shomrei Torah Synagogue (C)
7353 Valley Circle Blvd.
(818) 346-0811

Temple Solael (R)
6601 Valley Circle Blvd.
(818) 348-3885

Valley Outreach Synagogue (RI)
P.O. Box 4717
(818) 348-4867

WOODLAND HILLS

Synagogues

Beit Hamidrash of Woodland Hills (O)
5850 Fallbrook Ave.
(818) 712-0365

Kol Tikvah (R)
20400 Ventura Blvd.
(818) 348-0670

Makom Ohr Shalom (JR)
P.O. Box 1066
(310) 479-0559

Temple Aliyah (C)
6025 Valley Circle Blvd.
(818) 346-3545

Replacing a Legend


This month sees the official retirement of a Valley legend. Rabbi Eli Schochet of Shomrei Torah will step down after nearly 40 years at the pulpit. Still available for “life-cycle events,” the synagogue’s new rabbi emeritus will be essentially withdrawing from his very public position.

Schochet’s accomplishments are matched by few rabbis in his field. Beginning as the spiritual leader of Beth Kodesh in Canoga Park in 1960 and remaining with that congregation all his professional life, he saw it through a stormy merger with Temple Beth Ami in 1994 to become head of Shomrei Torah. He is an adjunct professor in rabbinical literature at the University of Judaism and the author of six books, the most recent of which examines the early roots of the Chassidic movement. Seeing the need for a Jewish day school in the West San Fernando Valley, the rabbi and his wife, Penina, founded the Kadima Hebrew Academy in Woodland Hills. Schochet has held a number of leadership positions in the Jewish community over the years, including president of the Western States Region of the Rabbinical Assembly.

“He’s going to be deeply missed,” said Judy Krigsman, Shomrei Torah’s executive director and a longtime congregant. “He is a rabbi of rabbis, very profound and, yet, very down-to-earth. He’s the kind of person who can quote from many sources and be esoteric, yet he’ll always ask you about your family and know their names. It is unique to have someone who is very scholarly and also very sensitive to others.”

Large shoes to fill, indeed.

Shomrei Torah’s board of directors believes it has found the perfect fit. Rabbi Richard Camras, although yet to build a portfolio as impressive as his predecessor’s, possesses the same charismatic qualities as his former teacher: a low-key yet intense authority, an easy connection with people and an absorbing love of Torah.

Valley High


Weaving together the threads of music, youth activities and social action, the eighth annual Valley Jewish Festival will take place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday, June 6. This year’s festival, which organizers call the largest event of its kind on the West Coast, finds a new home on the campus of Cal State Northridge.

To carry out this year’s theme, “The Tapestry of Jewish Life,” festival coordinator Lori Klein asked the nearly 100 participating synagogues and organizations to each come up with interactive booths that reflect what Judaism and Jewish life means to them.

“We wanted them to show participants how they fit into and contribute to the larger tapestry of Jewish life in Los Angeles,” Klein said.

Among the more creative booths: Pierce and Valley College Hillel will do a computerized search on the origins of visitors’ first names; the Jewish asthma center will do lung testing (a measure sure to produce interesting results in the smoggy North Valley); and the folks from Making Marriage Work plan to put up a chuppah display.

The move from Pierce College to the larger CSUN campus has enabled festival organizers to make several longed-for changes this year. The popular Children’s Park has been expanded to include free arts and crafts booths designed around the “Tapestry of Jewish Life” theme. Kids will be able to make kiddush cups, candlesticks for Shabbat, flower pots and picture frames as mementos of the day. Hungry festival-goers can choose from a dozen different booths that feature kosher and glatt kosher cuisine.

The newest addition to the festival is the “Teen Scene” area for middle- and high-school students. Thanks to a $10,000 grant from the Valley Alliance, youth-group members from United Synagogue Youth, the National Federation of Temple Youth, B’nai B’rith Youth Organization and local Jewish Community Centers have designed an area to appeal to teens; Israeli dancing, a Velcro wall, a spinning gyro and hands-on organizational booths are among the attractions. Save Ferris, one of the hottest bands in the local music scene today, will perform.

“It’s a great chance to catch up with people you haven’t seen in awhile and meet new people,” said Jeff Kaplan, director of teen services for the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles.

A partnership of The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, local synagogues, community organizations and corporate sponsors, the biennial celebration of Valley Jewish life began in 1986 as the Exodus Festival, dedicated to raising awareness and funds on behalf of Soviet Jewry. The festival continues its theme of social action this year with the emphasis on the war in Kosovo. A special Valley Jewish Festival “passport” (which looks like a backstage concert pass) will be available for $5, with proceeds going toward Kosovo refugee relief efforts. At a 2 p.m. ceremony, which will feature the Children of the World Choir, awards will be given to several organizations, including the Joint Distribution Committee, Valley Interfaith Council Crop Walk, American Jewish World Services, B’nai B’rith, Women’s American ORT and the American Jewish Committee, by the Jewish Community Relations Committee and the Valley Alliance.

In addition, representatives from city and state government will present the Vlashi family, recently rescued from Kosovo with the help of Jewish organizations, with certificates officially welcoming them to the Los Angeles area.

“We’re honored to be recognizing the humanitarian efforts of four local synagogues and the host families who are providing housing and other support for the Kosovo refugees,” said Scott Svonkin, JCRC chair. “We’re happy to be able to bring everyone together — elected officials, rescue organizations — to celebrate this deed of loving kindness.”

The Valley


Camp Chesed in Woodland Hills provides a unique experience for disabled kids

A Special Summer

By Wendy J. Madnick, Valley Editor

Counselor Joshua Hay, left, and camper Cory Lefkowski enjoy the sights at Disneyland.

Six-year-old Cory Lefkowski has multiple health problems, including epilepsy and cerebral palsy; he is also learning disabled and attends special education classes during the year. Under ordinary circumstances, his summer would be a long and isolated one. But thanks to the willpower of some extraordinary people, Cory has spent the first week of the last three summers at a camp geared to improving the lives of Jewish children with disabilities.

The Hay family — father Jaque, mother Judy, daughter Jalena and sons Joshua and Jonathan — created Camp Chesed-Camp Dora Hauser in 1995 to give developmentally and physically disabled children the opportunity to have the same kind of summer fun as other Jewish kids. For the past two summers, the West Valley Jewish Community Center has hosted the one-week event, which this year ran June 22- 26 for the 29 campers and their 54 counselors (two or three assigned to each camper). The camp is held free of charge, an amazing boon to parents often stretched to the limit financially, and this year included an overnight trip to Disneyland.

Cory’s mother, Marby Lefkowski, said her son looks forward to Camp Chesed all year long. The camp presented the first opportunity for Cory to participate in arts and crafts and go on field trips with other kids. Lefkowski underscored the importance of such social activities for the differently abled.

“These children often have low self-esteem because they do not play with other (non-challenged) children,” she said. “But here they are able to participate. It gives them a fuller life and makes them feel like they are a part of the world.”

Hay estimated that about 80 percent of the campers were returnees; for others, like Riley Weinstein, 6, and her twin sister, Taylor, this was their first camping experience. Riley was born with a congenital brain stem malformation known as a cavernous angioma, which caused three strokes and resulted in 15 surgeries, totaling more than $1 million. Riley is the only known survivor of this type of abnormality. She can speak clearly but cannot move most facial muscles to show expression; at camp she needed full-time assistance with walking, swimming and meals.

Riley’s mother, Teri Weinstein, echoed several other parents when she expressed how grateful she was for the opportunity to send her daughter to camp.

“We all exhaust so much money on caring for our kids, so the fact that this is a gift is a true mitzvah ” she said.

Weinstein was also happy she could keep her two daughters together for the summer.

“Normally when I talk to Riley about going to special needs classes she gets scared [to be away from her sister], but she’s not afraid here. It’s good for Taylor, too, because she can see she’s not the only child with a ‘special’ sibling.”

Parents of disabled children form a unique network within the Jewish community. Usually they meet through special needs classes, but occasionally they make contact through synagogue programs at places like Stephen S. Wise on Mulholland and Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village. The latter runs the Moses Program (named for the famous prophet, who was said to have had a speech problem) to encourage the full participation of adults and children with disabilities in synagogue life.

Most of the counselors at the camp attend the Hay kids’ alma mater, the Valley Torah Center in North Hollywood. None of the counselors think it is particularly remarkable to give up a week out of their summer to care for these mostly younger, sometimes challenging children. In fact, the counselors said they get far more from the experience than they give.

“You gain a certain perspective from working with these kids,” said Robert Cordas, 19. “They have so many problems, but their attitude is so happy, they just glow. It really makes you count your blessings.”

Hay contacted Arnie Sohinki, associate executive director of the West Valley JCC, last year about hosting the camp for summer 1997. The community center provides the camp with facilities, including the auditorium and access to the swimming pool.

“We juggle our schedule around the camp because it’s worth it, not only because of the people we’re helping but because it is important for our membership to be exposed to this part of our community,” Sohinki said.

Sohinki’s office overlooks the grounds where the children spent most of their day, and he commented on how lucky he felt to have such a view.

“It’s so wonderful to see the look on the counselors’ faces as they’re helping the children, and the look on the children’s faces from all the fun they’re having.”

For more information or to participate in next summer’s Camp Chesed-Camp Dora Hauser, call (818) 349-3932.


Painting for Peace

Students at Valley Beth Shalom Hebrew School commemorated Israel’s birthday with more than just a party. Sixty graduating students at VBS worked for eight months on a 15 x 40-foot outdoor mural to express their love for Israel and peace. The mural contains the portraits of five of Israel’s founding giants, Theodore Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, David Ben Yehuda, Golda Meir, and David Ben-Gurion. The faces, surrounded by 50 doves, envelope a map of Israel with the words of the Hatikvah.

The mural, dedicated to the memory of Israelis who lost their loves to terrorist activity, instilled within the students a veneration for Israel’s heroes, said Yafa Saghian, VBS art director. Especially in a day and age where violence is unduly prevalent, VBS wanted students to creatively honor peaceful and heroic actions. Even in 20 years from now, students will be able to visit the wall and reconnect to the achievements of Israel and the achievements of their youth.– Orit Arfa

Cantor Fox Trots In

Bringing the taste of Jerusalem — with a touch of summer camp and a hint of Southern California — to West Hills, Joel Fox will begin as new pulpit cantor at Shomrei Torah Synagogue at the end of this month.

Fox, whose latest post was in La Jolla, was lead baritone at the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem and served as a member of the Army Rabbinical Choir for the Israel Defense Forces, where he served.

He has studied music and chazzanut in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and was head of the music at Camp Ramah in Massachusetts. Cantor Fox will join Rabbi Eli Schochet, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson and Cantor Emeritus Avrum Schwartz at Shomrei Torah. — Julie Gruenbaum Fax