From left: Jay and Laura Sanderson and Ellen and Richard Sandler attend the Valley Beth Shalom Harold M. Schulweis Humanitarian Award dinner. Jay Sanderson, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, chaired the event, which honored Richard Sandler with the Humanitarian Award. Photo courtesy of Valley Beth Shalom

Moving & Shaking: Valley Beth Shalom, American Friends of Hebrew University and more

Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) honored Richard Sandler with the Harold M. Schulweis Humanitarian Award at the Encino synagogue’s annual gala on May 7 at VBS, which drew approximately 300 attendees.

Sandler, son of founding VBS members Helen and Ray Sandler, “has been instrumental in the growth of the community,” according to a VBS statement. He previously served on the VBS board of directors. His current leadership positions include serving as executive vice president and trustee of the Milken Family Foundation; as board chairman at Milken Community Schools; and as chair of the board of trustees at the Jewish Federations of North America, an umbrella organization for Jewish Federations. He is a partner at the law firm Maron and Sandler.

Attendees included Sandler’s wife, Ellen; Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles CEO and President Jay Sanderson and his wife, Laura; Malkah Schulweis, widow of Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who was one of the best-known pulpit rabbis in America before he died in 2014; and VBS Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein.

The Harold M. Schulweis Humanitarian Award recognizes “an individual who transcends the ordinary and recognizes the highest level of social conscience,” a VBS statement said.

The event featured a Champagne welcome, the award reception and a dinner.

American Friends of Hebrew University (AFHU) Western Region Vice Chair Patricia Glaser (center) congratulates and thanks outgoing AFHU Vice President Renae Jacobs-Anson (left) and outgoing AFHU President Brindell Gottlieb for their dedication and leadership. Photo courtesy of American Friends of Hebrew University

The American Friends of Hebrew University (AFHU) Western Region held its Evening of Tribute at Brentwood Country Club on May 3 and honored outgoing regional President Brindell Gottlieb and outgoing regional Vice President Renae Jacobs-Anson.

Regional Vice Chair Mark Vidergau installed Mark Genender as the organization’s new regional president.

AFHU raises funds and awareness for The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Established in 1918, it is Israel’s second-oldest university.

Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg, among the the evening’s guest speakers, shared his perspective on “the important role of Hebrew University in Israel’s past, present and future,” according to an AFHU statement.

More than 130 people attended the event, including longtime donors and supporters Patricia Glaser, Bari and Steve Good, Shirley and Lou Gram, Hella and Chuck Hershon, Corie and Michael Koss, Ronda and Barry Lippman, and Janet and Marvin Jubas.

About 5,000 people turned out May 14 for the Great
Lag b’Omer Parade in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles. Photo by Yossi Percia​

About 5,000 people turned out May 14 for the Great Lag b’Omer Parade in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles.

“It showed unity from all walks of life,” said parade chairman Rabbi Mendel Duchman, spiritual leader of Kol Yakov Yehuda. “It was Mother’s Day. We had the local Orthodox community from Pico, the community from Hancock Park, and people who were still celebrating Israel.”

The street fair, rides, carnival games, live music, kosher food and more delighted those who turned out to Pico Boulevard, which was closed between Doheny Drive and Robertson Boulevard. Entertainers included children’s performer Uncle Moishy and Eli Marcus, a Crown Heights-based musician who fuses Chasidic soul melodies with influences from around the world.

Kol Yakov Yehuda and Chabad of California co-organized the event, which drew representatives from the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Fire Department. Sponsors included Meshuga Sushi, Chabad Century City and the Jewish Journal.

Among many leaders and families in the Orthodox community, the attendees included Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of Chabad of California, and Chabad of Century City Director Rabbi Tzemach Cunin.

“The unity that stands before us today — thousands of souls united — brings true joy to our rebbe,” Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin said. “As I look out to this crowd … we celebrate 50 years of spreading the mission of the rebbe on the West Coast.”

Father Cyril Gorgy (far right) leads a prayer ceremony at the conclusion of a symposium of the Genocide Coalition at Adat Ari El. Joining him are (from left), Steve Zimmer, Father Avedis Abovian, Kimthai Kuoch, Mike Brand, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Dydine Umunyana, Rev. Cecil Murray, Rabbi Pamela Frydman, Amy Friedman Cecil and City Councilman Paul Koretz. Photo by Ryan Torok

At a symposium of the Genocide Coalition at Adat Ari El in Valley Village on May 24, several speakers addressed the current state of genocide in the world and what can be done to stop it.

“We can’t fight genocide alone — that’s the message of tonight,” Amy Friedman Cecil, director of community engagement for Jewish World Watch, said to the diverse audience of about 100 people, which included Muslims, Jews and others. Drawing from the words of Pirkei Avot, she added: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Genocides discussed during the event ranged from one that began in 2003 in Darfur to the current torture and imprisonment of gay men in Chechnya allegedly ordered by the country’s Kremlin-backed leader. Speakers also discussed the genocides of Cambodia, Rwanda, the Holocaust and others.

Mike Brand, director of advocacy and programs for Jewish World Watch, discussed the current South Sudan conflict, a crisis with a “100 percent man-made famine” that has put more than 1 million people at risk of starvation.

Friedman Cecil said 65.3 million people, roughly the population of France, are displaced throughout the world. “The only way to stop genocide is to take preventable action before [the perpetrators] start,” she said.

Brand added that, unfortunately, “one thing the international community is horrible at is stopping genocide.”

Rt. Rev. Alexei Smith, a member of the spirituality commission of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, delivered the invocation. Other speakers included Paul Wilder, organizer of the event and the child of Holocaust survivors; Daniel Tamm, the Westside area representative for L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti; L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz; and Steve Zimmer, outgoing president of the L.A. Unified School District Board of Education.

Rev. Cecil Murray, a fellow at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, delivered closing remarks. Additional participating clergy included Father Cyril Gorgy of Holy Resurrection American Coptic Orthodox Church.

A video presentation featured messages from U.S. Reps. Judy Chu, Adam Schiff and Brad Sherman.

Jonathan Baruch, an Israel21c board member and the driving force behind the nonprofit website’s new online video network, 21see. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Baruch

The nonprofit website Israel21c launched an online video network, 21see, which will seek to highlight arts and culture from the Jewish state, at a May 10 event in West Hollywood.

It celebrated the launch by screening videos from the new network at Soto House, an exclusive penthouse club known for its Hollywood crowd.

The lights went dark in the plush screening room of the Soto House and upbeat music blared over the speakers as a promotion for “21see with Kathy Cohen,” one of the network’s inaugural series, came on the screen.

Yogi Roth, a college football analyst who hosts “We All Speak Ball” for the new video network, attended the launch. Between videos, Roth conducted an onstage interview with Sam Grundwerg, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles. Grundwerg shared that he had played in the Israel Football League — featured in “We All Speak Ball” — and even earned a spot in the league’s hall of fame.

He shared some advice he said he received from Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States and a fellow Israel Football League hall of famer: “The secret to being a successful Jewish athlete is to play with Jews.”

Television producer Jonathan Baruch, an Israel21c board member and the driving force behind the new video network, attended the launch, as did Israel21c President Amy Friedkin. The video website, Friedkin said, would hew to Israel21c’s goal of revealing a dimension of Israel not often seen in the mainstream media.

“This is what we do,” she said. “The culture and the exciting things in Israel — that’s our mission, to present it to the world.”

— Eitan Arom, Staff Writer

Moving & Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email

This article was edited June 1 to reflect the annual Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) gala was held at VBS, not the Skirball Cultural Center.

Orly Star Setareh (far right), a dance specialist, leads VBS students in dance at The Music Center. Photo courtesy of the Music Center.

Moving and Shaking: VBS students dance, ADL honors law enforcement, new leadership at LAMOTH

About 40 Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) Day School fifth-graders were among the 18,000 elementary school students who participated in the 47th annual Blue Ribbon Children’s Festival, a free arts education initiative held Feb. 28 at The Music Center in downtown Los Angeles.

Nancy Herbst, director of general studies at the day school, was among the adults accompanying the VBS students, who attended a performance by the Ailey II dance company in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion before they performed a synchronized dance inspired by Ailey II in The Music Center plaza.

Blue Ribbon is the self-described “premier women’s support organization of The Music Center.”

The Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Helene & Joseph Sherwood Prize for Combating Hate luncheon and awards ceremony was held March 14 at the Skirball Cultural Center.

The event honored law enforcement officials who have played a role in fighting hate in Southern California.

Among the honorees were Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Yadira Perez, who helped apprehend an arsonist responsible for setting a mosque ablaze in Coachella in December 2015, and Cindy Cipriani, senior management counsel and director of community outreach in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California, who “has dedicated her life’s work to advancing the values of unity and understanding with humility and compassion,” the ADL statement said.

Perez recalled her decision to pursue the arsonist after spotting him while off-duty: “At that point,” she said, “I felt the risk to public safety outweighed the risk of me catching him.”

LAPD and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigators and L.A. city attorneys, who were honored for their takedown of a white supremacist gang in the San Fernando Valley, come together with Joseph Sherwood (seated, front row) and his son, Howard (crouching, far right) at the Anti-Defamation League’s Helene & Joseph Sherwood Prize for Combating Hate luncheon and awards event.

LAPD and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigators and L.A. city attorneys, who were honored for their takedown of a white supremacist gang in the San Fernando Valley, come together with Joseph Sherwood (seated, front row) and his son, Howard (crouching, far right) at the Anti-Defamation League’s Helene & Joseph Sherwood Prize for Combating Hate luncheon and awards event.

The fire at the mosque was seen as a vengeful reaction to the killing of 14 people and wounding of 22 earlier that month at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino by perpetrators who claimed terrorist allegiances.

In addition, the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Division, its Orange County Resident Agency, the Orange County Intelligence Assessment Center and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California were honored as a group for thwarting “two Anaheim individuals planning to travel to Syria and fight for ISIS,” the ADL said. One of the individuals had planned to fly from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv to join terrorist fighters in the Middle East.

The event’s additional group honoree was the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ L.A. field division, the L.A. City Attorney’s Office and the Los Angeles Police Department’s Major Crimes Division, which were honored for removing a “stronghold of San Fernando Valley Peckerwoods, a white supremacist gang,” the ADL said.

The more than 250 attendees included Ayelet Feiman, an L.A. city attorney prosecutor who was honored with the Sherwood Prize in 2013 for her efforts on a case involving swastikas drawn in maple syrup outside the home of a Jewish family in Northridge; Joseph Sherwood and his son, Howard; ADL Regional Director Amanda Susskind; L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell and others.

The event also celebrated Joseph Sherwood’s 100th birthday, on March 12.

The Sherwood family launched the prize in 1996 as a way to bring attention to the positive contributions of law enforcement.

From left: Former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Michael Tuchin, Richard Pachulski and Patricia Glaser attend the American Friends of Hebrew University Torch of Learning Award Dinner, which honored Tuchin and Pachulski. Photo courtesy of AFHU.

From left: Former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Michael Tuchin, Richard Pachulski and Patricia Glaser attend the American Friends of Hebrew University Torch of Learning Award Dinner, which honored Tuchin and Pachulski. Photo courtesy of AFHU.

The March 1 American Friends of Hebrew University (AFHU) Harvey L. Silbert Torch of Learning Award Dinner at the Beverly Hilton honored Richard Pachulski, a corporate restructuring attorney, and Michael L. Tuchin, a founding member and co-manager of Klee, Tuchin, Bogdanoff & Stern.

Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, who often writes about events pertaining to Israel and has spoken out against President Donald Trump despite being a conservative, was the guest speaker. He discussed what makes America great, noting the disproportionate number of Nobel Prize winners who are Americans, many of whom are immigrants. Additionally, he said HU, with its diverse student population of Arab, secular and religious students, embodies what is best about Israel.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is described by an AFHU press release as “the honorees’ longtime friend,” presented Pachulski and Tuchin with their awards.

The event raised $1.2 million for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Faculty of Law.

Attendees included Patricia Glaser, event chair and the AFHU western region vice chair; Michael Karayanni, dean of the Hebrew University Faculty of Law; Richard Ziman, vice chairman of the AFHU board of directors; and Brindell Gottlieb, president of AFHU’s western region.

AFHU raises awareness of and support for Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

From left: Cedars-Sinai Dr. Shlomo Melmed, Isabelle Szneer and Cedars-Sinai Dr. Charles Simmons commemorate Szneer’s donation to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Photo courtesy of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

From left: Cedars-Sinai Dr. Shlomo Melmed, Isabelle Szneer and Cedars-Sinai Dr. Charles Simmons commemorate Szneer’s donation to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Photo courtesy of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

The family of the late Leopold Szneer, a German-Jewish Holocaust survivor and former Congregation Mogen David cantor, has provided a $250,000 gift to the Cedars-Sinai Pediatric Inflammatory Bowel Disease program.

A dedication and luncheon to celebrate the donation, given in Szneer’s memory and in the memory of the 1.5 million children who perished during the Holocaust, was held Jan. 17 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Szneer, who died in 2016, was imprisoned in Dachau during the Shoah, fled on the Kindertransport to Belgium in 1938 and experienced numerous challenges before immigrating to Los Angeles in the 1950s.

He went on to serve as a cantor, his longtime dream, at Congregation Mogen David in Pico-Robertson, for more than 20 years.

Isabelle Szneer, his wife since 1947 and also a Holocaust survivor, provided the gift in her husband’s memory. “He was a much loved man in the city,” she said.

Attendees at the event included Congregation Mogen David Rabbi Gabriel Elias; Dr. Shlomo Melmed, executive vice president of academic affairs at Cedars-Sinai; and Dr. Charles Simmons, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Cedars-Sinai.

Beth Kean

Beth Kean

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), which describes itself as the oldest survivor-founded Holocaust museum in the country, has named Beth Kean its executive director and Paul Nussbaum its president, according to a March 14 announcement.

Kean, who became the museum’s president in January 2016, had also been serving as interim executive director since November, following the departure of the museum’s previous executive director, Samara Hutman. Nussbaum previously served as the museum’s treasurer. Jamie Rosenblood, a current board member at LAMOTH and museum docent who has a background in finance, is succeeding Nussbaum in that role. 

Paul Nussbaum

Paul Nussbaum

The leadership transition is part of “an unprecedented five-year plan to expand [the museum’s] mission of teaching the dangers of genocide and promoting empathy, tolerance and understanding through history, shared knowledge, and personal experience,” the announcement says.

Kean, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, has been involved in various leadership roles on the museum’s board for more than a decade. Her husband, Jon, is a filmmaker whose work includes the documentary films “Swimming in Auschwitz” and “After Auschwitz.”

“The relevance and urgency of our mission has never been more critical than it is in today’s environment,” Kean said in the announcement. “We are creating a strategic plan that will ensure that we continue to provide free educational programming, opportunities for dialogue with Holocaust survivors, and substantially grow our audience while teaching them the relevance of becoming stewards of this important history.”

The museum expects to draw more than 60,000 visitors in 2017, an increase from the 48,000 visitors it had in 2016, according to the announcement.

In the announcement, Nussbaum, the son of Holocaust survivors, expressed optimism about the museum’s continued success.

“We’re aware that we’ve become one of the most cherished cultural assets not only in Los Angeles but in the country,” Nussbaum said. “Our intent now is to establish a roadmap to guide LAMOTH on its journey toward continued growth and awareness.”

From left: Rabbis Elie Spitz, Naomi Levy, Stewart Vogel and Reuven Taff — all of California — received honorary doctorates from Jewish Theological Seminary. Photo by Jewish Journal Staff.

From left: Rabbis Elie Spitz, Naomi Levy, Stewart Vogel and Reuven Taff — all of California — received honorary doctorates from Jewish Theological Seminary. Photo by Jewish Journal Staff.

During a March 2 ceremony at Sutton Place Synagogue in Manhattan, New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) awarded honorary doctorates of divinity degrees to 55 rabbis, including five California rabbis, all of whom are members of the Rabbinic Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis.

The honorees have served the Jewish community for 25 years or more, on the pulpit, in the classroom and elsewhere.

The local rabbis were Elie Spitz of Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin, who was ordained at JTS in 1988; Naomi Levy of Nashuva in Los Angeles, who was a member of the first class of women to attend JTS’s rabbinical school, in 1984; Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, who was ordained in 1988; Neal Scheindlin of Milken Community Schools in Los Angeles, who was ordained in 1986; and Reuven Taff of Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento, who studied at JTS and was ordained in 1988 at a seminary in Israel.

Levy gave remarks on behalf of those being honored.

— Jewish Journal Staff

CORRECTION – 3/28/17: The original version of this story misidentified Orly Star Setareh.

Ridesharing to retain the High Holy Days spirit

The High Holy Days are a time for prayer, relaxed introspection and focusing on peace and gratitude, but in a city known for its seemingly endless traffic, none of that comes easy.

To help congregants beat the busy streets of Los Angeles — and the equally congested parking lots of their shuls at this time of year — some local synagogues have turned to ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber.

Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), Temple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH), and Wilshire Boulevard Temple are among those that have arranged for members to receive discounts on rides during the High Holy Days.

“We want to be modern and go with the times and what our congregation is moving toward,” said Elana Vorspan, director of marketing and communications for VBS, a Conservative congregation in Encino.

Vorspan decided to team up with Uber with the help of a board member’s son who drives for the company. She worked with the ride service to create a special code for first-time Uber users to get up to $15 off their first ride using the company’s app; returning users can receive up to a $5 discount if they are one of the first 100 requests. 

With remodeling work going on at the synagogue and the handicap parking lot closed, the idea was to offer congregants a faster and more convenient option. 

“We are trying to meet the needs of people around us. We want to take that stress out of getting here,” Vorspan said. 

TIOH is attempting something similar with Lyft due to its location on Hollywood Boulevard in a neighborhood where traffic and parking can be particularly challenging. 

“It’s an experiment, first of all. We are parking-challenged,” said William Shpall, the Reform synagogue’s executive director. 

For each holy day, there is a special code for up to a $20 credit to use in order to get to and from the temple. 

“We have no preconceptions or illusions. If it works, it’s a great new model for us and if it’s not, we’ll go back to the drawing board,” Shpall said. “It’s socially responsible behavior and it’s to relieve parking pressure for our congregants.”

Both synagogues admit the model is a test to see if their congregants are drawn to not only the deal but the concept of the ridesharing service overall. 

Wilshire Boulevard Temple poked fun at parking troubles with a “Carpool Clergy-oke”

VBS asks members ‘where are you?’

In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve eat forbidden fruit off the Tree of Knowledge, become self-aware, and are suddenly conscious of their nudity. 

“Ayekah? Where are you?” God calls out to Adam after the world’s first humans hide out of embarrassment. 

Commentators have noted that God, being omniscient, knew exactly where Adam and Eve were hiding. His question was deeper: Where was the couple in connection to the world, now that they had lost their innocence?

The Conservative congregation Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), similarly, is asking people to go deep into themselves in its latest High Holy Days initiative, named “Ayekah.” 

“We took that as a question not just for Adam and Eve but for every single one of us. … We really wanted some folks to take a minute and check in with themselves,” said VBS Rabbi Noah Farkas, who is spearheading “Ayekah,” a multimedia initiative with the cooperation of colleagues and the input of VBS board members. 

The Encino synagogue’s initiative was launched Sept. 4 and includes a communal art exhibition; Torah learning sessions; daily emails with video messages; and shareable graphics for dissemination on social media.

Continuing up to Yom Kippur, (Oct. 11), “Ayekah” prompts people to reflect on six areas of their lives, one area per week. The subject matter involves personal inventories, relationships, giving levels, creative inputs, Jewish lives and openness to self and communal renewal.

The initiative is about more than introspection, though. 

Participants are encouraged to answer these questions on note cards available at the synagogue. The cards are shaped like the pin markers used on Google Maps — meant to be tied into the theme of “Where are you?” — and are being hung from yarn spun across a mural of mountains that recently was painted onto the wall of the congregation’s main hallway by Liat Cohen, marketing and communications manager at VBS. Another mural, which includes “Ayekah” in English and Hebrew, features a mountain range and a tower transmitting radio signals. 

“Over the course of the next six weeks, we hope to fill the wall with hundreds of these cards,” Farkas said. 

To the right of the murals and above them on the second floor, the exhibition also features the Jewish-themed work of artists Ellen Cantor, Will Deutsch, Hillel Smith, Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik and Doni Silver Simons. Anne Hromadka Greenwald is the curator. 

Additionally, 31 two-minute videos have been created for the project by the temple’s clergy and the day school’s director of Judaic studies, among others. Farkas said more than 5,000 people have signed up to receive the daily video messages. (Visit to sign up for the mailing list.) 

With the first week focusing on personal inventory, VBS Rabbi Ed Feinstein said in a video that the “Ayekah” question is the question.

“All of scripture, all of Jewish faith, is an answer to that question,” he said. “Where have you come from in your life? What are you doing with your life? Where are you going?” 

During Week Two — relationships — a shareable graphic was available that read, “It is not good for one to be alone. I will create someone to be your opposite to help you through life,” taken from Genesis 2:18.

Six banners hang from the ceiling of VBS, adjacent to the murals, with the names of each of the initiative’s six categories. The idea, Farkas said, is for congregants to walk underneath the banners during the High Holy Days, fill out note cards and experience an immersive environment. He expects more than 2,000 note cards — all written anonymously — will be posted by the end of the project. 

“We envision this as a postmodern Kotel,” he said. 

Some responses attached to the mural are lengthy and personal. Farkas recalled one in which a person said her husband had recently died and she was making an attempt to be closer to her children.

At least two came from people feeling “lost.” One person wrote “behind schedule” in response to a prompt about self-renewal. 

Not only VBS members are participating. Students at American Jewish University have been filling out note cards with self-reflections, Farkas said. 

Elana Vorspan, VBS director of marketing and communications, is among those who helped work on the project, and she said it has been suggested that “Ayekah” be followed up with a program centered around “Hineni” (Here I am). It would explore what being a member of the shul means, Vorspan said.

For now, however, the focus is on making the “Ayekah” initiative as successful as possible. And for that, VBS needs buy-in from the community, Farkas said.

“We live in a really busy world and I think that the world overwhelms us and we get distracted with the needs of everyday traffic, meetings, emails, for our families putting food on the table, getting kids to bed, maintaining social calendars, maintaining business calendars, traveling. They take up our life and we’re asking people not just to be reactive but to be proactive, to not live on accident but on purpose, to get to that spiritual place,” he said. “I think it begins with this question: ‘Where are you?’ ‘Where are you this year?’ ‘Where do you come from?’ ‘What part of the world shapes you and what part of you shapes the world you live in?’ ”

Jewish children’s choir combines the power of youth with the magic of music

It’s Sunday afternoon at the Workmen’s Circle in Pico-Robertson. A group of Orthodox women sit chatting in a back room, while, a few feet away, a father in blue jeans talks with a mother who is clearly not as traditional. In the large social hall, several dozen children — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and everything in between — sit rail-straight in their seats as Michelle Green Willner shows them some music. This is a rehearsal of the Jewish Community Children’s Choir, a pan-denominational group of children who come together each week to sing and learn about Jewish music.

For Green Willner, it’s a longtime dream that’s finally come to fruition. Growing up in Toronto, at what she describes as a “very singing shul,” Green Willner was fascinated by music from an early age. “I would come home and try and figure out the music that I was hearing at shul,” she said recently at her home in Los Angeles.

That love of music led her to pursue conducting as a student at the University of Toronto, and when she moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago, she dove into the Jewish music scene. Gigs conducting the Workmen’s Circle’s Yiddish choir, creating a children’s chimes choir at Yeshivat Yavneh, and writing and arranging numerous musical works brought her to the attention of Noreen Green, founder and director of the L.A. Jewish Symphony. 

“We’re not related at all! Everybody asks that question,” Green Willner said, laughing.

Green wanted Green Willner to meet with Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) Rabbi Harold Schulweis (z’l), who was interested in starting a Jewish children’s choir. Schulweis told Green Willner that “a community that sings together, stays together,” a quote she uses to this day to motivate her choir. The Schulweis Institute, a center for Jewish learning in the San Fernando Valley, provided an initial three-year grant, and in 2011, the Jewish Community Children’s Choir was born.

“We only had eight children our first rehearsal,” Green Willner said. “It’s taken off at the Workmen’s Circle.” Rehearsals regularly draw dozens of children, ages 8-13, from places as diverse as Harkham Hillel, VBS, Temple Israel of Hollywood, Sinai Temple and a host of yeshivot.

“I think everybody’s getting something out of this,” Green Willner said. “We’re all coming for the same reason, we’re all rooting for our children. We all want the best for our children. We want the best education. … No matter where they come from, they all want to learn Torah values, and they want their children to see it in action.”

Green Willner is proud of how the kids interact — children from vastly different backgrounds working together, having fun and singing with joy. She described sitting in the audience at one of the choir’s concerts and watching that synergy in action. “I was sitting behind the children … and they had done some prayers for the soldiers, and one Orthodox boy was sitting next to another boy and answered, ‘Amen,’ and I noticed the other boy look at him, smile and go, ‘Amen.’ ”

The children have performed at venues around the city, from synagogues to the Museum of Tolerance to Israel festivals. According to Green Willner, they’ve enjoyed a very warm reception.  

“One of the parents brought an older man to the rehearsal,” Green Willner recalled. “He was sitting on the side while we were practicing … and after we finished one of the pieces, he came over to me. … He was so overwhelmed, he took out his credit card and said, ‘Here, take whatever you need for the choir.’ I said to him, ‘No I can’t take your credit card, but would you do me the honor of, during the break, telling us a little about [yourself].’ ” It turns out the man, Leslie Klein, was a Holocaust survivor. 

“He told the children, and started in tears, of how listening to the kids singing reminded him of his sister, who sang in the choir before his sister and parents perished in the Holocaust,” Green Willner said.

The experience also has been moving for the children. “There’s one little girl in the choir who, after every concert, makes me little cards,” Green Willner said. “I get amazing emails from parents.”

She’s particularly proud when she sees children gain confidence through singing. Green Willner described another young girl, who “was so shy, she would not leave her mom’s side. Now she’s my strongest, loudest singer.”

Green Willner hopes that with more exposure, the choir will gain even more participants. “I’d love it to grow and grow and grow,” she said. “I’d love the level of music making to increase and be heightened.

“Their potential is phenomenal, and their ears are phenomenal. … I think it can become even more than it is. It’s brought me a lot of joy,” she continued. “I go in sometimes on Sunday, like we all do when we’re tired from the whole week … and I come out thinking, ‘What else can we do?’ ”

Family’s link to VBS is all relative

Sometimes the old adage really is true: The family that prays together stays together. The Braun family, whom Valley Beth Shalom is honoring at its June 7 “Living Our Legacy: Celebrating the Best of Valley Beth Shalom” ceremony, is a family whose relationship with VBS spans five generations.

Dick and Barbara Braun, 85 and 84 respectively, are the patriarch and matriarch of a family of doctors, lawyers, educators and amateur musicians. (Ethan Braun is a professional composer.)

There are many reasons VBS is honoring the Brauns, and not just because the family has been a member since Dick and Barbara joined in 1960 — although isn’t that a good enough reason? Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein, who is a personal friend of the third generation of Brauns — Dick and Barbara’s children, Jon, David, Robert and Sarah — pointed out that it is unusual for a West Coast synagogue to have a legacy family that stretches as far back as the Brauns. 

“When I lived on the East Coast and in the Midwest, you had multiple generations belonging to a synagogue, but it’s kind of unusual in California,” he said.

Dick and Barbara are members of the synagogue’s choir, and Dick also plays violin and viola. And all four of their children — all adults with children, and one grandchild — all play instruments, too. 

 “The whole family is very musical,” Sylvia Bernstein-Tregub, a VBS congregant, friend of the family and chair of the June 7 event, told the Journal recently. 

This is the second of two “Living Our Legacy” events at VBS; the first took place May 20, when the synagogue awarded former Congressman Henry Waxman its Harold M. Schulweis Humanitarian Award. That celebration, Feinstein told the Journal, was one of the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis’ final requests. 

The Brauns have used their love of music to give back to the congregation that is honoring them. Dick is the founding chairman of the Jewish Music Commission of Los Angeles, established in 1982 as an outgrowth of his longtime friendship with the late composer Aminadav Aloni. Jewish musicians in Southern California credit Dick for his ongoing support — emotional and financial — of Jewish-themed music programs. 

Additionally, many members of the family — from its second through fourth generations — have been part of the congregation’s leadership. Dick has sat on the VBS board for 40 years, and Barbara was involved with the inaugural class of the shul’s social services programming. David, a neonatologist, has also served on the board. David’s twin, Jon, is chairman of pathology and laboratory sciences at UCLA and is married to Dr. Lynn Gordon, an opthamologist who has served on the VBS board. David is currently vice president-elect of the shul. 

Finally, Dick and Barbara’s grandson, Nate, and Nate’s wife, Effie, are active in helping Rabbi Noah Farkas develop programing for young couples — recently married or dating. 

And 2-year-old Eli, Nate and Effie’s son and Dick and Barbara’s only great-grandson, (although Effie is currently expecting) attends Saturday morning services regularly. 

“It’s amazing,” Dick said during a phone interview from his home in Encino. “There is a sense of continuity.”

Dick and Barbara, both from Cleveland, met in Sunday school. Dick said he grew up in a liberal Orthodox home and that his father encouraged him to become a physician. After going to the same college as Barbara, Case Western Reserve University, and eventually moving to Los Angeles, Dick went on to become chief of surgery at Kaiser Permanente in Panorama City. Barbara was an elementary school teacher. After Dick’s father died, Dick’s late mother, Elizabeth, relocated from Ohio to California. She was involved with VBS at the time of her death, in 1981. 

The Brauns’ membership at the synagogue predates Schulweis’ joining the synagogue’s clergy in 1970, but Dick told the Journal that Schulweis’ arrival — and the impassioned, inspirational sermons the rabbi delivered — was a large part of what kept them involved. They became close to Schulweis and his family, spending many seders at the Schulweis home, which, Dick said, always blended the intellectual with the fun. 

Dick said his children went on to become close with the Feinsteins, and now his grandchildren are close with Farkas. 

“So, it’s sort of spun along, generation by generation,” he said.

The twins, David and Jon, as well as Robert, who is an attorney, live in Los Angeles with their spouses, Ellen, Lynn and Sandra, respectively. Jon and Lynn are the parents of Nate, Ethan and Adam; Eric and Elisabeth are the children of David and his deceased first wife, Sherri — Schulweis, incidentally, officiated at David’s marriage to his second wife, Ellen (VBS’ leadership estimates that Schulweis played a role in at least 20 of the family’s life-cycle events); Benjamin and Jonah are the children of Robert and Sandra; and Sophia and Gabriel — at 17, the youngest grandchild — are the children of Sarah and Shai. Sarah, a psychiatrist, and Shai live in Philadelphia.

The family will unite on June 7 for the event, which begins at 5:30 p.m. World-renowned flamenco musician Adam del Monte is scheduled to perform a piece titled “Symphony,” which will unfold over, appropriately, five movements.

For more information about the event, visit



This article has been corrected to reflect that David and Ellen Braun are married, and Jon and Dr. Lynn Gordon are married. The article also refered to the Brauns as “amateur musician,” however, Ethan Braun is a professional composer. Addditionally, the photo caption accompanying the article has been corrected to reflect that there are only three generations of Brauns depicted in the photograph, not four. And the reporter has made an addition to the story to note that Sarah Braun is a psychiatrist and that Dr. Lynn Gordon is an opthamologist. 

Parents Circle members united by universal love and pain

Robi Damelin didn’t know what to do when her 28-year-old son David was killed by Palestinian sniper fire in 2002 while serving in the Israel Defense Forces’ reserves.

“My whole life changed, [as did] my sense of priorities,” Damelin told a group at IKAR during Shabbat morning services on March 28. “Things so wonderful for me became irrelevant, and I started to search for something to do to prevent other families from experiencing this pain — and this is the ultimate pain.”

Seated next to her was someone who knows that same pain. Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, had a 10-year-old daughter, Abir, who was killed by an Israeli soldier’s rubber bullet in 2007.

The pair were in Los Angeles late last month as representatives of the 600-member Parents Circle-Families Forum (PCFF), a bridge-building organization of Israelis and Palestinians whose immediate family members have died as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Members regularly appear at synagogues, mosques, churches and elsewhere to discuss their work.

Damelin and Aramin appeared locally at IKAR, Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills and Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino with a message of empathy, reconciliation and forgiveness.

“I am not a Palestinian, I am not a Muslim, I am not an Arab. I am a human being,” Aramin said during the March 29 appearance at Temple Aliyah. “It is very easy to lose your humanity because you don’t want to see the other as a human being.”

Damelin and Bassam Aramin at Temple Aliyah, one of three local appearances.

The Parents Circle was founded in 1995 by an Orthodox man, Yitzhak Frankenthal, and several bereaved Israeli families. It held its first meeting in 1998 with a group of Palestinian families from Gaza, although, currently, members are not allowed to visit Gaza, Damelin said. 

“We can’t go to Gaza. I wish we could — the first Palestinians who joined the Parents Circle came from Gaza,” she explained. 

Still, in 2000, the organization expanded to include Palestinian families from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. 

Damelin, who came to Israel in 1967 from South Africa, said part of the group’s goal is to ensure that the conflict does not create more parents who are eligible to become members of the organization. 

Aramin, for his part, struggled in his life even before the death of his daughter. He said Israelis arrested him at the age of 17, when he was planning an attack on Israeli troops, and that he was tortured in prison. 

“It’s very difficult to keep your humanity and act as a human being [in prison],” he said. But, according to an online biography, he met an Israeli guard in prison and developed a relationship with him, proving dialogue was possible. 

At the March 30 meeting at VBS, Aramin said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s preoccupation with the past, specifically the Holocaust, isn’t helpful in reaching a peace agreement. 

“Netanyahu must mention five times a day the Holocaust,” he said.

Mireille Wolf, a self-described “hidden child” during the Holocaust who sat in the audience at Temple Aliyah, took issue with some of the remarks and said so during the Q-and-A portion. She said the speakers were placing too much blame for the conflict on the Israeli side and not focusing enough on incitement in Palestinian culture. 

“Reconciliation sounds very nice, but when you are reconciling, there are two sides, and one must take responsibility,” she said in an interview. “There will never be peace as long as there is institutionalized hatred in the schools, in the newspaper, by the Palestinian leaders.” 

Damelin argued for inclusion of perceived radicals, such as Israeli settlers living in the West Bank, in conversations about peace. 

“You cannot exclude people from the conversation,” Damelin said. “If you exclude the settlers, they will become more radical. They have to be part of the conversation.”

She acknowledged that dialogue is not always easy: “One of the worst parts is that people don’t want to listen.”

Damelin’s advice to the crowd at VBS was not to take strong pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian stances in response to the conflict. Instead, she suggested, people in the Diaspora should be “pro-solution” if they want to be helpful. Otherwise, they are “importing our conflict into your country.” The audience applauded. 

Each speaker spoke for approximately 15 minutes, then participated in a Q-and-A with the audience. 

IKAR congregant Eliana Kaya, a Woodland Hills resident, attended all three events. She told the Journal during an interview at Aliyah that she has been aware of the organization’s efforts for the past 15 years and is supportive of it. 

“I think it’s powerful work,” she said. “It’s spiritual work.”

Rabbi Joshua Hoffman of VBS moderated the evening at the Encino synagogue, and Rabbi Ron Stern of Stephen Wise Temple, one of the event sponsors, offered a few words connecting Passover and the message of the speakers. The Reform rabbi said holding onto one kind of narrative is enslaving and that it is important to open ears and hearts to new ones. 

“That’s the beginning of going from slavery to liberation,” he said.

Learning Leadership from Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, z’l

Much will have been written over the next few days about the massive contribution that Rabbi Harold Schulweis has made to Jewish life in our time. Yet as an observer, participant and shaper of Jewish life, I feel that there is still more than can be said. Permit me to focus on his qualities of leadership.

Schulweis is one of the very few rabbis who deftly combined local and national leadership. A pulpit rabbi usually has to tend to his/her flock and only “goes national” if he/she loses the drive and the interest to serve their own congregation, when they feel the local stifling and  the need a larger forum, greater exposure and new challenges.  Quite often, as the rabbi goes national, the congregation feels honored by his/ her celebrity but often ignored by their rabbi is not there for them. And there is a price to be paid within the community for national leadership. Rabbi Schulweis was rooted in his congregation and used his own community not only to serve the local Jewish community or even greater Los Angeles, but as an incubator for national concerns. What began at VBS went national because Schulweis was able to balance the local, national and international and have his community think big with him. Other rabbis would be wise to emulate him, to be inspired by what he has achieved.

Charismatic leadership, those who lead not only by the authority of their office but by the power of their personal presence usually have great difficulty in managing transitions to the next generation. Charismatic leaders do not want to leave the stage or to cede his/her commanding presence to someone else. They are often self absorbed and do not mentor a younger, successor generation. Joshua was Moses’s servant, not his peer. Not so, Rabbi Schulweis. VBS was fortunate to have a virtually seamless transition between Rabbis Schulweis and Rabbi Ed Feinstein, his successor. Thus for two generations the congregation will have had one of the best, if not the very best pulpit rabbi in America. The credit must go to both men:  not only did Rabbi Feinstein revere his master and mentor, but Rabbi Schulweis understood that his ultimate success would only be enhanced by a worthy, well-trained successor. Such was his wisdom and also his commitment to his own community. He was able to choose wisely, willing to cede the stage and ultimately to leave the stage.

Think of other charismatic Jewish leaders and their problems of transition, and you will only appreciate his accomplishment even more. In the United States, charismatic leadership is usually replaced by management. Witness Chabad, where the Rebbe left no successor and presumed that the institutions he established would carry on in his absence. Think of corporate transitions from the founding generation to their successors and think of other synagogues where the transitions have been tense and left congregations bereft of leadership.

Students of history do not like to speculate in what if, but I cannot resist the temptation.

Some 30 years ago, when the late chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary Gerson Cohen was felled by illness, there was a choice to be made as to who would lead the seminary and thus be the titular head of the Conservative Movement. Harold Schulweis’ name was bandied about. I am not sure that he wanted the job, at least not on the terms it might have been offered, but I am sure that he would have been considered the unsafe choice – too radical, too innovative, too divisive and not “conservative” enough. He would have had serious opposition from the religious right and also from the political right. Scholars would have felt that as a pulpit rabbi he was not scholarly enough to  satisfy the faculty, the the Cardinals of the movement. The Board of the Seminary made a “safe choice” in choosing one of the last distinguished “wissenschaft” scholar, committed to the historical study of Judaism who was bound to conserve what was important about the Conservative Movement and gently guide it into the future.

Sometimes the safe choice is not the wise choice and one can only imagine the multitude of innovative directions  Harold Schulweis might have taken the Conservative Movement were he as the pinnacle of its institutional leadership. I am certain that he enjoyed a better life at VBS than he would have at 3080 Broadway, but I am equally certain that the Conservative Movement traded safety for leadership and forfeited many opportunities.

Harold Schulweis was learned in the deepest sense of the term. He wrote important books not of technical scholarship but works that thought boldly and bravely about the Jewish future, the human future.

Harold Schulweis was an institutional builder who by his very leadership could transform the community and impact the world. Think of how be brought the intimacy of the Chavurah to VBS and how it made a large congregation into a place that felt like home. Think of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous which allowed the Jewish people to fulfill their moral obligation to those who risked their lives to rescue Jews and brought them dignity and comfort in their old age. Think of Jewish World Watch, which takes seriously the commitment “Never Again.”

Harold Schulweis was wise. I know many smart people, many highly intelligent and learned people, but far fewer who are wise.  Before I moved to Los Angeles when we were creating the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I sought his guidance as to what inscriptions should be written on the walls of the Hall of Remembrance. He thought deeply about the issue, about the Holocaust and its remembrance and about the Americans and citizens of the world who would visit that Museum. He vast erudition allowed him to explore Scripture and Talmud, but also Holocaust writings and poetry, and he was pastoral, thinking of what word could challenge and comfort, could appropriately remember the past yet set an agenda for the future. From our many conversations, whether brief or long, I came away feeling that I was not only with a learned man, but a wise one.

Harold Schulweis also had demonstrated how to balance the particular and the universal. He would serve his community and speak to the world. He understood Jewish concerns and universal concerns and his many institutional achievements demonstrate that he believed that Jewish tradition had the capacity, responsibility and authority to speak to the world.

A great man walked among us, a towering giant of his generation, and we are better for it. His presence was a blessing, so too, his memory.

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, ‘Rabbi of Rabbis’ and world-renowned Jewish leader, dies at 89

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, regarded as the most influential synagogue leader of his generation, died at his home after a long struggle with heart disease. He was 89.

Schulweis led the Conservative “>Jewish World Watch

[Do you have a photo or memory of Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis you'd like to share? Send an email here.]

“Harold Schulweis was  a public intellectual who redefined what it is to be a Jew, an author and passionate orator who met injustices and suffering with action,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein, his friend and successor as senior rabbi at VBS.

“He transformed his synagogue into a living laboratory of social activism and creative spiritual life, introducing innovations that became staples for Jewish congregations across North America,” Feinstein said.

Schulweis recognized the power of congregations to shape the lives of a generation of Jews isolated from community and alienated from their traditions. In 1970, he took the pulpit of VBS in the burgeoning San Fernando Valley. Under his leadership, the synagogue grew to become the largest Conservative congregation in the Western United States.

Responding to the loneliness and isolation of suburban life, Schulweis introduced synagogue-based “Chavurot” in 1971, gathering small groups of families to share religious life and family celebrations. His “para-rabbinic” initiative offered a revolutionary model of lay-professional synagogue leadership. Schulweis also launched a para-professional Counseling Center within VBS, offering psychological and family support to the synagogue members and the wider communities. Each of these innovations has been replicated in congregations nationwide.

[MORE: “>, in 1985 as a Jewish community response to hunger and poverty in America. Mazon asks Jewish families celebrating life cycle moments to dedicate 3 percent of the cost to the hungry who live among us.

In 2004, Schulweis delivered a sermon at VBS on the Jewish high holidays calling for a Jewish response to genocide. He challenged the congregation: 

“We took an oath, “Never again!” Was this vow to protect only Jews from the curse of genocide? God forbid that our children and grandchildren ask of us, ‘Where was the synagogue during Rwanda, when genocide took place and eight hundred thousand people were slaughtered in one hundred days?’”

Among those moved to answer the rabbi’s challenge was attorney Janice Kamenir-Reznik, who assumed the role of founding president of the Jewish World Watch (, now a coalition of Jewish organizations dedicated to raising awareness and mobilizing resources in response to the on-going genocide in Darfur, Congo, and around the world. JWW has grown into the largest anti-genocide grassroots organization in the world, a coalition of some 70 synagogues, churches, schools and other groups with some 30,000 to 40,000 donors.  Schulweis’ challenge, and Kamenir-Reznik’s friendship with the rabbi, “has transformed my life and has changed my philosophy of what it means to be a Jew,” she said. “Nothing I have done in my life has been more meaningful and has had a larger impact.”

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis and Sidney Orel from Valley Beth Shalom at a Jewish World Watch march.

Schulweis’ concern for genocide around the world, led him to reach out to the large Armenian population in his San Fernando Valley neighborhood. In 2005, the rabbi officiated with Archbishop Hovnan Derderian of the Armenian Church of North America at the first joint commemoration of the Jewish and Armenian Holocausts. He joined band members of the rock band, System of a Down, all of them children of survivors of the Armenian Holocaust, in an educational program affirming the common responsibilities of Jewish and Armenian youth to remember their collective experiences of genocide, and to act to prevent its reoccurrence.

Harold M. Schulweis was born in the Bronx in 1925, the son of a ferociously anti-religious editor of the Yiddish daily “Forverts.” As a child, Schulweis never set foot in a synagogue, but he grew up surrounded by Yiddish poets, nationalists, revolutionaries, and artists. At the age of 12, he happened upon a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. Attracted by the music he heard from the street, he slipped in and was enraptured. He began studying Talmud with his pious, Chasidic grandfather, eventually enrolling at Yeshiva College, from which he graduated in 1945. An ardent student of philosophy, he became a disciple of Mordecai Kaplan at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was ordained in 1950. At the same time he studied philosophy under Sidney Hook at New York University, receiving a masters degree in 1950 with the first English language thesis on Martin Buber’s philosophy. He subsequently completed a doctorate in theology at the Pacific School of Religion. Schulweis taught philosophy at City College of New York, and served pulpits in Parkchester, New York, and Oakland, California, before coming to Valley Beth Shalom.

Schulweis authored nine books and hundreds of articles in which he offered a unique interpretation of post-Holocaust Jewish theology. Schulweis’ “Theological humanism” is rooted in the Biblical conviction that the human being bears the divine image, and in philosopher Martin Buber’s concept of God revealed in deep human relationships. Schulweis imagined God not above us, but within and between human beings. Prayer and religious observance, Schulweis instructed, are not directed above as a plea for supernatural intervention, but within — as an inspiration to individual and communal reflection, commitment and moral action. Building on the theology developed in his doctoral writing, Schulweis advocated “predicate theology,” identifying those aspects of human activity which are “Godly.” “God,” he frequently argued, “is not believed, but behaved.” Conscience is the living nexus between the divine and the human in everyday life. The cultivation of conscience is the central function of religious life and religious education.

Diverse members of the Los Angeles Jewish community spoke of their deep sense of loss at the passing of Harold Schulweis.

Retired Los Angeles County Supervisor and longtime political heavyweight Zev Yaroslavsky remembered how, as a college student, he became the Los Angeles co-founder of the movement to pressure the Soviet Union into allowing refuseniks and other Jews to leave for Israel and other countries.

At the time, most Jewish establishment organizations looked askance at the efforts and tactics of the young protesters, but Schulweis backed them from the beginning.

The rabbi decided to talk to his congregation about the plight of Soviet Jewry, and Yaroslavsky went to hear him.

“It was like no other sermon I had heard before,” Yaroslavsky recalled. “Rabbi Schulweis didn’t preach at the congregation, but opened up a dialogue, a question-and-answer session with 700 people. I was blown away.”

When non-Jews ask Yaroslavsky about Schulweis, the former answers, “If the Jews had a pope, Rabbi Schulweis would be in the running.” Adding to the encomium, basketball fan Yaroslavsky continues, “He’s the John Wooden of rabbis. When he speaks, the most powerful, the most successful people hang on his words.

“His death is an incredible loss and he is leaving us a legacy that no one is likely to eclipse. We, who were touched by him, are the blessed ones,” Yaroslavsky said.

Scholar and peace activist Gerald Bubis knew Schulweis for more than six decades and stressed his enormous influence, through his writings and ideas, on the Conservative and Reform movements, as well as on rabbis and synagogues across the country.

Schulweis could spin out an idea and “through a process of osmotic absorption,” rabbis and laymen not only accepted the idea, but went about implementing it in their synagogues and institutions, Bubis said.

John Fishel, former president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, sought out Schulweis for advice when he arrived in this city in 1992 and, in turn, Schulweis drafted Fishel to serve on the board of Jewish World Watch.

“Harold always took on causes and projects others didn’t want to wade into,” Fishel said. “His knack was to recruit people of stature and then keep them focused on the job.”

Among the numerous awards and honors Schulweis was bestowed are the Israel Prime Minister’s Medal, United Synagogue Social Action Award, and Los Angeles County’s John Allen Buggs Humanitarian Award, as well as honorary doctorate degrees from the Hebrew Union College and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Schulweis is survived by his wife of 64 years, Malkah, his children Seth Schulweis of West Los Angeles, Ethan Schulweis of Beit Hashita, Israel, and Alisa (Peter) Reich of West Los Angeles, and 11 grandchildren.

The Schulweis Institute Library Online (“>Valley Beth Shalom“>Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.


Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis' sermons:

The Schulweis Institute Library Online (collections is a living repository for over 750 audio, video and document copies of Rabbi Schulweis' writings, sermons and teachings. 

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis' columns for the Jewish Journal:

Jewish Journal stories on Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis:

Moving and Shaking: VBS honors Vets, Bob Blumenfield loves Israel, Marilu Henner honored

Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) honored 200 veterans during a special pre-Memorial Day Shabbat service on May 24. The program spotlighted veterans of World War II, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and conflicts in between. 

Bea Cohen, 104, believed to be the oldest living female veteran of World War II in California — and perhaps the country — was among the honorees. She was born on Feb. 3, 1910, in Bucharest, Romania. After working for Douglas Aircraft Co. in Santa Monica, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) toward the end of 1942. Later, she enlisted in the new Women’s Army Corps (WAC), which, unlike WAAC, was part of the regular Army. Stationed overseas in Great Britain, she worked with top-secret mimeographed documents. 

Cohen, who became a bat mitzvah at age 100 at Culver City’s Temple Akiba, appeared in uniform and served as a guest speaker at the third annual event, which took place two days before Memorial Day and also paid tribute to American soldiers who liberated concentration camps in Europe.

“Now [Cohen] volunteers with the VA to the extent that she can. She said that men come in there with shoes and no socks. She started to cry,” Rabbi Ed Feinstein, who led services at the Conservative Encino synagogue, told the Journal. “At that moment I stood up and said, ‘We pledge 10,000 pairs of socks.’ ”

The VBS event — which was attended by some 700 people — included a blessing for the veterans and a singing of “God Bless America,” as well as an opportunity for all the veterans to introduce themselves, Feinstein said.

“How could you not say thank you to people like this,” he said. “I wanted kids to meet these people. I wanted kids to see what heroes look like.”

The program was created and organized by VBS congregant Harvey Keenan. Dignitaries in attendance included Paul Cohen, commander of Post 603 (San Fernando Valley) of the Jewish War Veterans (JWV) of the United States of America; Greg Lee, commander of the department of California for the organization; Art Sherman, leader of Wings Over Wendy’s, a veterans group that meets in the San Fernando Valley; and Mort Schecter, who was named Veteran of the Year by the Los Angeles County Department of Military and Veterans Affairs in 2012 — an award that went to Cohen the following year. 


From left: Larry Gold, Jacob Segal, Glenn Yago, Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, Consul General David Siegel, Councilmember Curren Price, Lee Wallach, Jacob Lipa and Mark Levinson at Los Angeles City Hall. Photo courtesy of the Office of Councilmember Blumenfield. 

Los Angeles City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield wasn’t joking when he declared his love of Israel at Los Angeles City Hall on May 23.

Am Yisra’el Chai,” the elected official said, joined by Israel Consul General in Los Angeles David Siegel, Israeli American Council (IAC) chairman Shawn Evenhaim, IAC board member Naty Saidoff and others during two presentations that underscored the robust partnership between Israel and Los Angeles.

During the first presentation, which took place on Friday morning, L.A. City Council considered a motion to create a cooperative task force between Los Angeles and Eilat. Its purpose would be to encourage mutually beneficial development between the two cities.

“The Los Angeles/Eilat Innovation and Cooperation Task Force builds on the 55-year-old sister-city relationship with Eilat and is designed to promote collaboration and advancement in technology investment, business development and research opportunities in clean technology, water resources, solar energy and environmental technologies throughout Los Angeles and the State of Israel,” according to a city council press release.

According to press material, the partnership would build on a two-way trade agreement that California and Israel signed on to together back in March. Blumenfield successfully “secured City Council support” for the task force’s creation, the statement states.

Representatives of Los Angeles City Council, the Israeli government and local community organization Israeli American Council schmooze at Los Angeles City Hall on May 23. Photo by Abraham Joseph Pal.

During the second presentation, Blumenfield presented an award to the IAC in recognition of the IAC’s May 18 Celebrate Israel festival. The Yom HaAtzmaut event drew a crowd of 15,000 people to Rancho Park and has become an annual tradition in West Los Angeles.

Last week, Evenhaim credited City Council with making the event, which required the participation of multiple city agencies, possible.

“I want to thank you for your support,” the IAC leader said.

Blumenfield was not the only council member to express his affinity for Israel last week. From his desk in the council chambers, L.A. City Councilman Jose Huizar called for a lasting friendship between Israel and Los Angeles.

“I think Los Angeles and Israel have a lot in common, and we have our future bound together as we move forward,” he said. 


Shalom Institute vice president Gil Breakman and his wife, Jennifer, join Shalom Institute executive director Bill Kaplan at the Shalom Institute’s boys cabin donor wall. Photo by David Starkopf

Feast on the Farm, an annual donor appreciation event at the Shalom Institute in Malibu, turned the spotlight on a host of honorees May 4.

Those people and organizations honored included: the JCC Development Corp.; the Real Estate Principals Organization of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, Mick Horwitz, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, Abby and Stephen Solomon, Andrea Spatz and Robert Wunderlich, Gosia and Adam Weiss, and an anonymous donor.

They were chosen because they assist Jewish groups and financially supported the renovation of the 75-year-old boys’ cabins and restrooms used by more than 500 campers every summer, as well as educational programs and retreats throughout the year.

“This renovation allows us to provide a better experience for our Camp JCA Shalom campers and for our year-round retreat participants and rental groups. It also increases our capacity during our summer camp and year-round for community organizations that use the Shalom Institute as their retreat center,” Bill Kaplan, Shalom Institute executive director, said in an email.

More than 100 donors attended the appreciation party for the Boys’ Side dedication, wine tasting, dinner and tours of the campgrounds. They were thanked for their help that enables scholarships for children to attend programs and facility improvements.

“Support is critical for Shalom Institute to continue to strive for excellence as a year-round experiential Jewish education center and Jewish overnight camp. We feel grateful for the support of all the organizations and individual donors who helped make our dream of renovating the boys’ side into a reality,” Kaplan said.

Shalom Institute is located at 34342 Mulholland Highway in Malibu and welcomes more than 25,000 people annually. 

— Michelle Chernack, Contributing Writer


Women’s Guild-Cedars Sinai honored actress, author and wellness advocate Marilu Henner with the Woman of the 21st Century Award during a April 22 luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Henner, who is the author of books on health and fitness, starred on the legendary sitcom “Taxi.” Her neurological condition, highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM), inspired the CBS drama “Unforgettable.”

The Cedars-Sinai group also honored author-producer Jackie Collins with the Trailblazer Award. She is a supporter of the Children’s Diabetes Foundation, among other causes.

Guild board member Gina Furth received the Evelyn Clayburgh Award in honor of her “leadership, service and dedication,” according to a Guild press release.

Annabelle Gurwitch, actress and author of “I See You Made an Effort: Compliments, Indignities and Survival stories From the Edge of 50,” served as the master of ceremonies. Attendees included actresses Jami Gertz (“Twister”) and Lori Loughlin (“Full House”).

The event also inducted the group’s new president, Hella Hershon. The organization describes itself as a “volunteer group dedicated to patient care.” 

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email

Homelessness in California: Homes in the city, not on the streets

The other day, I was taking my kindergarten daughter to school at our synagogue, Valley Beth Shalom (VBS). We passed a homeless man sleeping at the bus stop. She asked me if that man had a home, and I said no.  

California, which accounts for 12 percent of the United States population, is home to nearly 22 percent of the country’s homeless. More than half of all homeless Californians — 64 percent — are unsheltered, meaning they literally sleep on the streets, in parks, at bus stops and elsewhere. Fourteen percent of the homeless are veterans, and 20 percent are families. 

Here in Los Angeles, nearly 60,000 men, women and children live on the streets, many driven there by the high cost of housing. The average two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in this city rents for $1,523 per month, according to To afford that apartment, a family would need to earn $60,920 a year, if they are to spend one-third of their income on housing. That means a full-time wage earner would have to make $29.29 per hour, to afford rent — far more than many Angelenos earn. 

We at VBS have a proud tradition of helping the needy through our food bank and through relationships with shelters and service organizations. But we have come to believe we can’t solve this problem with aid alone, which is why our community now supports the California Homes and Jobs Act (SB 391), which has passed through the state Senate and is now under consideration in the assembly. 

Average incomes for truck drivers, social workers, childcare workers, most restaurant workers and construction workers can’t support that two-bedroom apartment, based on income data from the California Employment Development Department. To make ends meet, adults work multiple jobs, families double up with relatives, or scrimp and struggle to pay for living arrangements that they simply can’t afford. 

Lawmakers at the state, federal and local levels have proposed hikes to the minimum wage, in part to help working Americans make up for their reduced purchasing power. But even if the minimum wage were hiked to $15 an hour, as one Los Angeles city councilman has suggested, it would only bring a family halfway to affording that apartment.  And all it takes is one job loss, one medical problem, one car breakdown or needy relative to unravel a whole household budget, possibly landing that family on the street.
Meanwhile, the state’s commitment to building affordable housing has waned. Money from two housing bond measures has ended; local redevelopment agencies, which were required to allocate 20 percent of funds to affordable housing, were closed in the state’s budget crisis of 2012.

SB 391, which would institute a $75 recordation fee on real estate transactions other than the sale of property, is a good first step toward addressing the housing affordability crisis in California. It is expected to raise an average of $500 million annually that will be used to build or refurbish affordable housing statewide. By passing this bill, the state will also be able to leverage federal and private funds through matching, which will otherwise be lost. 

A wide array of business, labor and nonprofit organizations have recognized the urgency of this situation; the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the County Labor Federation, AARP and the United Way all support SB 391, as do veterans’ and children’s advocates.

We recognize it is not enough for our community to service the outcomes of injustice. We can never feed all those who are hungry; nor can we clothe all those who are naked. We must also move upstream, to the headwaters in which these injustices find their power. 

This bill — the only one being considered this year that could create new affordable housing options for thousands of Californians — specifically works with the population who rely most heavily on social services such as emergency rooms and emergency shelters. The funds raised will be used to help both working- and middle-class families, and will spur development of rapid rehousing initiatives, transitional and permanent rental units, and other housing options aimed at the homeless population. This is the latest and best effort of our legislators to create affordable housing that helps all Californians, including the homeless.  If this bill dies, then the hope for affordable housing dies in California. 

We urge you to learn more about SB 391. We’ve met with representatives from our congregation’s catchment area, and we encourage you to contact or schedule a meeting with your representatives to let them know that you are paying attention to this vote. A handful of Democrats in the assembly have not yet committed to voting for the bill, which needs a two-thirds majority to get to the governor’s desk.  

After passing that man asleep at the bus stop, my daughter asked me if we have to help him because once we were like him, poor and homeless, slaves in Egypt. “That is exactly why,” I said. 

We cannot let the parks and sidewalks of Los Angeles become the fleshpots of Egypt. It is not enough for us to provide meals at shelters or a word of comfort. We have an obligation to change the conditions of the market, with our mighty hands and our outstretched arms, in order to make it possible for hard-working people to live in our city.

Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom and founded Netiya, a faith-based network that advances urban agriculture in our synagogues, schools, and nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles.

Jewish community remembers Sid Caesar

Responding to today’s news about the passing of comedy legend Sid Caesar, Los Angeles community members praised the veteran comic’s ability to win over an audience.

“He was an awfully funny guy,” Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) said, “and an awfully incredible convener of funny guys.”

Feinstein was not the only VBS clergyman to have a soft spot for Caesar.

“He was a great artist – not just a comedian. He made comedy into the highest elevated art,” Cantor Herschel Fox told the Journal.

Fox recalled seeing Caesar perform at a 1996 Hanukkah event in Orange County, where Caesar wowed audiences with his still finely-tuned chops.

“He did improvisational things on the spot. I think he did a wider range of characters and directions than anybody in his time,” Fox said.

Caesar made an impression on stage and off. As seen in the documentary “Lunch,” he was a regular at Factor’s Famous Deli, where he and group of showbiz pals ate lunch every Wednesday.

Caesar, who was born to Jewish immigrants in Yonkers, was 91.

A knack for physicality, as opposed to wordiness, distinguished Caesar from the prototypical Jewish comic.

“It's especially sad to lose Caesar because he's less quotable than most of his fellow comedy gods,” Josh Lambert, academic director of Tent: Encounters with Jewish Culture, told the Journal. “Words can't do justice to the faces he pulled or the gibberish he spouted. 

“But he'll live on forever for those who know where to look: in the traces of Catskills shtick still echoing in contemporary sketch comedy, and in any big comedian who still sells a joke with every muscle in his body,” he said.

Meanwhile, other Caesar fans, including Rabbi David Wolpe, tweeted a shout-out to the funnyman who was known for classic TV shows, “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour.”

“Sad to hear of the passing of the great Sid Caesar. May his memory be a legacy of laughter and blessing,” the Sinai Temple leader said.

Sid was a warm, kind, sweet man who loved his lunch buddies. A true brotherhood,” factors co-owner suzee markowitz said.

Dybbuk debuts ‘Darkness and Light’

It’s well past 10 p.m. on a Wednesday evening, and the halls of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) are filled with the sounds of creativity. In one room of the Encino Conservative congregation, the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony winds down its rehearsal, packing up instruments as its musicians prepare, finally, to go home. 

Farther down the long corridor that traverses the center of the synagogue, in the temple’s social hall, a different kind of noise can be heard. Men and women chanting. The sounds of feet stomping. A cantor singing. The sounds of Theatre Dybbuk preparing for its newest piece, “Between Darkness and Light: Selichot,” which will premiere at VBS after Shabbat on Aug. 31.

When Aaron Henne, artistic director of Theatre Dybbuk, was approached by his friend, playwright Michael Halperin, about doing something at Halperin’s synagogue last year, he wasn’t sure what to expect. “This is an unusual and lucky collaboration,” Henne confided, as he wound down after the show’s first run-through. “It’s really been inspiring to see what a synagogue can be.”

After speaking with Halperin last year, Henne met with VBS’ senior rabbi, Ed Feinstein, who suggested that Theatre Dybbuk do a theatrical sermon during a Friday night service. So Henne put together “a 25-minute piece called ‘Vessels,’ ” which dealt with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and was performed in April on the 75th anniversary of the event. That piece brought in a crowd for the Friday night service, and, afterward, Feinstein suggested that maybe Henne and Theatre Dybbuk would like to do a larger piece at the synagogue. And thus, “Between Darkness and Light: Selichot” was born.

“Unlike most services, Selichot doesn’t have an exact, set order,” Henne explained. That flexibility made the service ripe for theatrical interpretation. 

“I use a process that is a development process. … We cast a show before a single word is written,” Henne said. “I write it, but we’re all having conversation about the topic and the structure.”

Although all of the actors in the piece are professionals from outside the VBS community, “both the cantor and the rabbi have been involved since the beginning of the piece and helped to influence its shape.” And the clergy team will be heavily involved in the performance.

The piece is a mixture of movement, gesture, monologues, chanting, music and prayer that serves to enhance the basic Selichot service, which is woven into the body of the piece. Themes of forgiveness, death and life resound. Sometimes the performers transition directly from theater to prayer, breaking out in the Shema, for instance. The cantors of VBS will chant during the piece, and the congregation will participate by praying along with them.

“The High Holy Days are a supremely existential time,” Henne explained, “and Selichot in some ways is the most existential part of that. Traditionally, the service takes place at midnight. You are literally caught between night and day, between death and life.”

The performance will take place in the chapel at VBS, and that has been an interesting and exciting change for Henne, who’s been working in professional theaters for years. “It’s kind of, in a fun way, a reminder of what theater can really be, which is people in a room. We don’t need 400 light cues and 200 sound cues; it’s about what we’re creating with our bodies and voices.”

And the project has even helped Henne get closer to his Jewish side. “It’s been interesting as an artist to re-engage with the notion of what ritual does,” he said. “We are here to connect you to your spirituality, to help you get in touch with who you are.”

For Feinstein, the choice to invite Theatre Dybbuk back to VBS was an easy one. “A thousand years ago or so, we rabbis threw the artists out of the synagogue. Artists, like prophets, are dangerous to a community’s stability. So we dismissed them. And we are poorer for that. We need to restore the creative artistic spirit that once animated synagogue life. We need to bring the artists home,” he said.

Theatre Dybbuk is part of a larger plan, he said. “VBS is working to create a home for the Jewish arts,” Feinstein said. “Not just a place for artists to be, but a real dialogue and collaboration between the artist and the community. We are hoping to continue our relationship with Theatre Dybbuk in future projects. And we are hoping to extend this collaboration into the visual arts, music, writing and other forms of creative expression.”

“Ritual is a form of theater. It is meant to move us emotionally, to inspire us, to teach us,” Feinstein explained. “The tragedy is that for some time, our ritual hasn’t been good theater.”

Henne, for now, is anxious to see how the new project will be received by the congregation and hopeful that it will have a profound effect on those who see it. “We don’t know what the morning’s going to bring,” he said. “We’re still in the middle of the night.” 

“Between Darkness and Light: Selichot” will be performed by Theatre Dybbuk on Aug. 31 at Valley Beth Shalom. Services begin at 7:30 p.m. Free. 

Cultivating Next Gen communities

It started with a cup of coffee.

About two years ago, Effie Braun and her husband, Nate, sat down with Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino to discuss an idea — VBSnextGen.

The rabbi’s idea was to create a community within VBS for couples under 40 — dating, engaged or married — who were entering a period in their lives where active participation and membership with a synagogue would soon become a serious option. For Effie Braun, 27, the prospect of joining a relatively small, tight-knit community within VBS’ large congregation of 1,500 member families was a big draw.

“I wanted to meet people that were more stable, not people going to clubs until 5 in the morning,” she said. 

Farkas, a 30-something rabbi in his sixth year at the synagogue, wanted to focus VBS’ young adult outreach on couples like the Brauns because, as he put it, “When you think you found a partner in life who you are pretty serious about, your life begins to become more stable. 

“It’s at that moment that you are open to more stable types of institutions, like synagogues,” he concluded.

While it’s no secret that synagogues implement young adult programs in part to increase the number of paying members down the line, VBS and many other local congregations aren’t interested in simply adding names to a membership list — they expect young adult participants to meaningfully contribute to programming and to pursue growth in their own religious lives.

Like many local synagogues, VBS has tiered pricing, with reduced membership fees for younger congregants. Its significantly discounted fee for VBSnextGen members is $250 for married couples, $125 for unmarried couples. But like a growing number of local synagogues’ young adult programs, VBSnextGen also is laser focused on creating Jews who, in Farkas’ words, are “producers of Judaism, and not just consumers of Judaism.”

When couples first join VBS, Farkas’ first “ask” is for them to attend a Shabbat dinner hosted by another young couple. VBSnextGen members host about three Shabbat dinners per month. The goal is not only to build a social and religious community, but, as Farkas said, “to take those training wheels off and start practicing Kiddush,” to the point where the first-time Shabbat dinner guests will eventually become hosts who can “train” new members on the to-do list of Shabbat dinner. 

“That is the turning point,” he said.

At IKAR, a nine-year-old independent congregation located in the Westside JCC, the turning point comes at the moment of sign-up, when new members have to make a “membership brit” (covenant) — a commitment to Torah learning, a commitment to helping grow the IKAR community and a commitment to tzedakah, charitable work. 

Each commitment has several options. Someone, for example, can attend one prayer service a week (Torah), welcome people on Shabbat (community growth) and serve meals in homeless shelters (tzedakah). Like VBS, IKAR has a reduced fee for younger members in addition to its expectation that members will actively grow in their Jewish involvement.

“We want to lower the barriers of entry but raise the bar for participation,” said Melissa Balaban, IKAR’s executive director. “When you come, we are going to ask stuff of you. And we are going to make you think, and we are going to challenge you.”

Caroline Engel, a 24-year-old who moved to Los Angeles from Pennsylvania in February, joined IKAR when she arrived. Engel, who sometimes reads Torah on Shabbat for the congregation and volunteers at social events, said that IKAR “challenges you to be involved and to give your spare time to help build that very strong community.”

About two miles away is Beth Jacob Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue with 675 member families that has, over the last two years, created a “young professionals” minyan, the crux of which is a weekly Shabbat morning service and a monthly Shabbat dinner that consistently draws more than 100 people. 

Daniel Schwartz, 28, who helped create the young professionals group with four other young adults shortly after he moved to Los Angeles, said that the impetus behind the minyan was twofold — bring more young Jews into the door and get as many as possible regularly involved in what Schwartz says is a close-knit young adult community.

“It can be going to events, it can be coming to minyan, it can be taking a leadership role in some of the volunteer events. Our expectation is just for people to be more involved,” Schwartz said.  

That involvement can even be something as simple as being a greeter at Shabbat dinners and chatting with new guests to make them feel welcome.

Nikki Fig, 22, a recent college graduate, attended her first Beth Jacob young professionals Shabbat dinner in March, about six months after moving to Los Angeles. 

Until that dinner, she said, breaking into the young adult Jewish scene was a grind. Now, Fig attends as many dinners as she can, participates in Shabbat morning services nearly on a weekly basis, and said that she met her closest group of friends in Los Angeles through Beth Jacob’s young professionals scene. 

She hopes to eventually become what every synagogue hopes its young adult programs produce — a new member. 

“They are showing me why I want to be Jewish, and ultimately that will translate,” Fig said. “When I do have a more stable position, of course I will become a member and hopefully give back.”

Shul counseling center costs little, does much for many

Even a rabbi needs a little help sometimes, which is why Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) was inspired decades ago to promote the creation of a counseling center run by temple volunteers.

“When I first came to this community, I realized that many of the problems that came to me were disguised. That is to say, the presenting problem appeared to be religious, but in fact it was emotional,” Schulweis said. “I recognized that I was one rabbi, that I could not possibly sustain that kind of a therapeutic relationship.

So he asked himself: If there are paralegals and paramedics, why not highly trained paraprofessional counselors who could offer confidential help? The answer took form as the VBS Counseling Center, established in 1973. It will be honored by the synagogue this weekend with the inaugural Harold M. Schulweis Humanitarian Award.

Also receiving the commendation on Sunday for their lifetime individual commitment to conscience and compassion will be congregants Elaine Berke, Faith Cookler and Janice Kamenir-Reznik.

The counseling center — secluded on the lower level of the Encino congregation with a separate entrance — currently has about 20 volunteers who meet with at least 40 Jewish and non-Jewish people from around the community every week, according to Charlotte Samuels, its clinical director.

Issues dealt with include depression, anger, grief, divorce, marriage counseling, unemployment, aging parents and more.  It operates on a “low fee/sliding scale” structure where people pay what they can, often between $15 and $50 per session.

For those lay volunteers who devote their time, this is no mere hobby. Samuels has been a counselor since the program’s inception, and she remembers the rigorous training that she and others had to go through over a period of two years.

“We had a reading list of required books. We had a supplementary reading list of recommended books. We went to class every week, Sunday morning, for three hours. We made visits to a great many of the mental health auxiliary facilities in the city and the Valley at that time,” she said. “For a six-month period, we paid for our own group therapy under the auspices of another psychiatrist,” learning how the process worked by participating in it.

Fourteen people completed the training as part of that initial cohort, and four continue to work for the center, Samuels said. The intensive curriculum was created by the late Dr. Arthur Sorosky, a VBS member and child psychiatrist who enlisted the help of many of his colleagues.

“He was a man who was really touched by the idea of training lay people from within the congregation,” Schulweis said.

For some, this training wasn’t the end.

“We were encouraged to go back to school if that’s what we wanted to do, and a number of us did and continued to volunteer going forward,” Samuels said.

She was one of them. Not a college graduate previously, Samuels was inspired to pursue higher education as a result of her involvement in the center. She studied her way through a master’s degree in counseling psychology before becoming licensed as a marriage and family therapist. She volunteered at the center for her training hours.

Now retired, Samuels said there is a special pleasure in helping the underserved who are attracted to the center — sometimes taking several bus lines to get there.

“They don’t come to us without having a great deal of pain. My empathy in helping them work through the pain and come out better able to deal with life, it’s humbling,” she said. “Private practice offers financial rewards. This offers a different kind of satisfaction even though you do the work in a similar kind of way.”

Schulweis, 87, said it always was his vision that the center cater to the entire community and people of all faiths, not just VBS congregants or Jews.

“This is my general understanding of Judaism: that it is called upon to serve the community,” he said. “My small role in this was to introduce from time to time some Jewish aspects of therapy. The idea behind it is that the synagogue has to become … a therapeutic, helping institution.”

As such, it might serve multiple roles for a multitude of peoples.

“The synagogue [isn’t] simply a place to pray for health but also a place in which people could have a shoulder to lean on and an intelligence to relate to,” Schulweis said. “It’s been remarkably successful.”

VBS Rabbi Ed Feinstein said that the synagogue of 1,600 families was one of the first — if not the first — Jewish congregations to offer such services, although there were pre-existing church models.

“We’re very proud of this, and we’re very grateful to the counselors who have given of themselves to do this,” he said. “The counseling center is an example of Rabbi Schulweis’ idea of a synagogue that must be bigger than its walls. … It’s about being a center of Judaism that reaches into the community and to the world to bring healing, to bring help.”

The center, which has served as a model for other organizations, has found its target audience, according to Sylvia Bernstein-Tregub, co-chair with Linda Volpert Gross of several celebratory events this weekend in conjunction with the awards.

It has served hundreds of people since its founding and offers something extra that people can’t easily find elsewhere, Bernstein-Tregub said.

“The fact that people reach out to a religious institution means that they are also looking for some spiritual component,” she said.

Gloria Siegel, who began volunteering at the center within the last year, said her experience dealing with others has improved her, too.

“In my helping other people, I’m growing at the same time,” she said.

She remembers one woman in particular whose improvement had a profound effect on her.

“She said to me at the end of one session: ‘You have given me the courage to believe in myself.’ And to hear that from anybody is such a tremendous gift,” Siegel said. “It doesn’t get more gratifying than that.”

VBS Reaches Out With Tunes and Tie-Dye

Jewish tunes, Grateful Dead-style tie-dyed T-shirts and rows of singing, swaying, arm-in-arm Jews gave a summer camp feel to Valley Beth Shalom’s (VBS) "25th Hour" event, which marked the end of the Valentine’s Day Shabbat.

Nearly 400 people came to the Conservative Encino synagogue’s festive but compact Feb. 14 outreach to the 90 percent of San Fernando Valley Jews not affiliated with a synagogue.

"We wanted to create the world’s most user-friendly, welcoming Jewish experience," said VBS Rabbi Ed Feinstein, who led young singles, middle-age parents and their kids in songs, stories and prayers in the shul’s Malkin Hall.

The "25th Hour" positions Shabbat’s final hour as a first hour for unaffiliated Jews looking for community. With two more such music-filled hours set for this spring, the targeted demographic — professional Jewish singles and couples — has given way to a Ventura Boulevard "25th" billboard near VBS, plus some free event advertising in Los Angeles Family Magazine. Feinstein’s largest out-of-pocket "25th Hour" expense were the musicians, notably Craig Taubman, who in 1998 joined Rabbi David Wolpe to create the popular monthly "Friday Night Live" singles gathering at the Conservative Sinai Temple in Westwood.

"I didn’t expect there to be this big a turnout," said David King, a young attorney who sat in one of the "25th Hour" back rows with his Valentine’s Day date.

After starting exactly at 5:05 p.m., the Saturday evening hour moved swiftly. Aside from the musicians and T-shirts, the cozy gathering was a stripped-down operation lacking the sweets, cookies and beverages common at shul events. It also avoided the formal, religious air of the prominent Conservative synagogue.

"Don’t go to the temple unless you’re a guest of that bar mitzvah," Feinstein jokingly said to his casually attired, early Saturday evening flock.

The hour focused on a podium hourglass, of which Feinstein said, "the grains of sand come through the hourglass and you don’t grab every one of them."

About 30 of the "25th Hour" revelers came from Beit T’Shuvah, the Jewish, faith-based addiction treatment facility in West Los Angeles. Joanna G., a 28-year-old recovering addict, arrived at the "25th Hour" in a Mercedes-Benz filled with three other Beit T’Shuvah women ready to party with Feinstein and Co., their sedan’s speakers blasting MC Hammer’s, "U Can’t Touch This." After a quick cigarette break, the quartet crossed over from the parking lot to the synagogue hall for the lively hour.

"It’s really nice to have fun and be spiritual in sobriety," Joanna G said. "I would celebrate Shabbat at camp and things, but never at home."

With some children in the aisles almost swimming in their tie-dyed shirts, Feinstein told the crowd that he recently noticed, and also disagreed with, a book on Eastern spirituality titled, "Wherever You Go, There You Are."

"Wherever you go is not where you are," Feinstein said. "I’ve been lots of places where I wasn’t, [such as] high school. Sometimes if you’re really blessed, somebody comes and turns your shoes around. We just want to turn your shoes around, so you might really learn."

Karen Sonnabend, a Jewish Community Center program director at the West Hills campus, said she appreciated the hour’s summer camp sentiment with people singing and swaying.

"What grabbed me was the energy and the lightheartedness," she said.

The hour ended with the Hebrew song, "Am Yisrael Chai."

For more information about the March 13 and May 8 "25th Hour" events, call (818) 530-4092.

Who Wrote the Torah?

If two Jews equal three opinions, what do you get when you mix five rabbis of various denominations to answer a topic as important as the origins of the Torah?

Answer: A rather heated discussion, to say the least.

Five Los Angeles rabbis dove into the topic "Who Wrote the Torah?" at a panel discussion held March 20 at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino. The event, sponsored by KOCHAV: The L.A. Jewish Living Network, drew an audience of about 300 people, and was based on readings from the similarly titled book "Who Wrote the Bible," by Richard Elliot Friedman.

The issue of biblical criticism has been hotly debated over the past few years, marked by archeological findings which question if and when events described in the Torah occurred. The discussion, raised in a very public way last year in a series of provocative sermonds by Rabbi David Wolpe, also comes at Passover time, when Jews are asked to remember events from the Torah and live as if we are experiencing them ourselves. For many in the community, it is a pleasant, if awkward, fiction; for others it is a reenactment of a literal truth. This divide in philosophy was one of the driving forces in the debate at VBS.

Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City took the most offense at Friedman’s book, which analyzes the Torah as the product of various authors over time, rather than a divinely inspired holy text. Muskin argued passionately against Friedman’s theories, railing against what he called his "sloppy methodology."

The panel discussion quickly moved from a critique of Friedman’s work to a debate between the rabbis of what each believed about the divinity of the Torah. Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple clearly stated that to accept the Torah as written directly by God via Moses is to accept many unacceptable practices. "If all the theology I had to believe in was Deuteronomy, which basically says that suffering comes from sin, I could not be a believing Jew," he said. "To me it is incredibly clear that it, the Torah, was written over time by various people."

Rabbi Mimi Wiesel, assistant dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism and moderator Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel and president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, tended to agree with Leder. But Rabbi Daniel Bouskila of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel tried to strike a balance: "I do believe there was a divine experience at Mt. Sinai; I do not believe the full five books were given at Sinai but in stages over the 40 years in the desert." Like Leder and Wiesel, Bouskila said the most important thing for every generation was "to seek out the divine" within the Torah.

"Who wrote the Bible is an essential question," Muskin said later in his concluding remarks. "If it was humans, that has one ramification, and if it is divine than it has another ramification. It becomes the definition of what you believe your Judaism is and what kind of Judaism you are going to observe."