Masa Israel broadens study-abroad options

Many college students have romantic notions of studying abroad in places like Italy or France, but Aaron White found himself at Tel Aviv University thanks to Masa Israel Journey, a program that connects young Jewish adults with study-abroad, internship and volunteer opportunities in Israel.   

“I got to see how another culture lives and witness firsthand the complicated and sometimes quixotic attempts at politics that define Israel and its neighbors,” said White, who grew up near Palm Springs and now works for a think tank in Oakland. 

These days, though, students are flocking to the Holy Land out of more than an interest in the central role it has played in Jewish culture, history and current events. Yonatan Barkan, director of academic affairs for Masa Israel Journey, sees the nation’s rise as a global hotbed for technological, medical and scientific innovation as being the next draw for young adults ages 18-30. “Israel today is a crossroads of professional, academic and personal opportunities,” he said. “Israel [has much to offer] undergraduate students, grad students and young professionals who want to leverage its business culture and booming tech scene in order to get experience they can’t get anywhere else.”

Within the past year, Masa Israel (

Auschwitz’s volunteer prisoner

The long-lost story of Capt. Witold Pilecki and his heroic actions during World War II is finally coming to light. Pilecki, a Polish army officer, volunteered to enter Auschwitz as a prisoner to gather information about life inside the concentration camp. He wrote the first intelligence report on Auschwitz with the hope of shocking the world into action, but, sadly, his efforts did little to sway the U.S. and Britain to liberate the camp, and, until 1989, details of his courageous exploits and fate were suppressed by the Polish communist regime.

To honor his efforts, Hillel at UCLA is hosting a multimedia performance March 1 of Pilecki’s reports. Marek Probosz, a visiting assistant professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, will enact select passages, and photo projections will help bring the story to life.

“When you put all the 007 stories together, Pilecki was still the best 007,” Probosz said, referring to fictional British Secret Service agent James Bond’s code number. “A shining example of heroism that transcends religion, race and time.”

Pilecki’s most comprehensive report on Auschwitz, written in 1945 and kept secret for nearly 50 years, was published in English for the first time in 2012 as “The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery.” 

“It’s one of the most amazing stories to come out of World War II,” said Terry Tegnazian, co-founder of Aquila Polonica, the book’s publisher. “His experience that he’s written down gives the details and a view of what went on in Auschwitz even in the years before it became a death camp for the Jews. In ’40 and ’41, it was primarily a camp for Polish political prisoners and anybody the Germans thought capable of resisting them.”

In September of 1940, Pilecki walked into a German Nazi street roundup in Warsaw to get himself arrested and sent to Auschwitz. The 39-year-old officer had volunteered for a secret mission for the Polish Underground to smuggle out intelligence about the new German concentration camp, and to organize inmate resistance with the goal of helping the Allies liberate the camp from the inside. 

“The game which I was now playing in Auschwitz was dangerous,” Pilecki wrote. “This sentence does not really convey the reality; in fact, I had gone far beyond what people in the real world would consider dangerous.”

That is perhaps the understatement of the century. Pilecki documented the brutality of the Nazi officers, who created games out of torturing and killing prisoners in scenes of savage perversion. Hospitals were packed with three bodies per bed and were overrun with typhus-infected lice. Doctors performed sterilization experiments on male and female inmates. Inmates were gassed by the thousands and buried in mass graves.

While we’re generally familiar with the horrors of Auschwitz, it’s the details and characters that drive home the constant terror of life in the camp. The scenes unfold mercilessly in the factory of death, and Pilecki narrates the industrialized slaughter with clear and concise language. 

The document was written as a strictly factual intelligence report rather than a memoir. The author focused on describing the events around him, not their emotional impact. As Pilecki writes in the introduction to his report, “[My friends] have told me: ‘The more you stick to the bare facts without any kind of commentary, the more valuable it all will be.’ Well, here I go … but we were not made out of wood, let alone stone, though it sometimes seemed as if even a stone would have broken out in a sweat.”

His clandestine intelligence reports from the camp, beginning in March 1941, were forwarded via the Polish resistance to the British government in London. They were among the first pieces of eyewitness evidence of what was going on at Auschwitz. But the British authorities thought his tales of Nazi atrocities at Auschwitz (2 million people killed in the first three years, 3 million in the next two years) were grossly exaggerated, and refused to provide air support to help the inmates escape.

In the foreword to “The Auschwitz Volunteer,” Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Poland’s current chief rabbi, wrote, “If heeded, Pilecki’s early warnings might have changed the course of history.”

After nearly three years of starvation, disease and brutality, Pilecki accomplished his mission before escaping in April 1943. After he was assigned to a night shift at a camp bakery outside the fence, he and two comrades overpowered a guard and escaped, taking with them documents stolen from the officers. In 1944, Pilecki fought in the Warsaw Uprising to liberate Warsaw from Nazi Germany.

In a sad and tragic twist, Pilecki was captured by the postwar Polish communist regime, tortured, given a show trial, executed as a traitor and Western spy in 1948 and erased from Polish history until the collapse of communism in 1989. His final words before his execution were “Long live free Poland.”

Pilecki’s story has become better known in the past decade, in part because of the 2006 Polish film “The Death of Captain Pilecki,” starring Probosz. The film was made in just 10 days on a shoestring budget but has received critical acclaim and numerous awards. The actor-filmmaker has since accompanied screenings of the film and spoken about Pilecki’s life at movie theaters, universities and Holocaust museums worldwide. 

“I’ve travelled with this movie around the world for the last 10 years,” Probosz said. “It never stops. There’s such a need for true heroes, not propaganda, not the fictional Batman or superhero, but the real people who were altruists, who were idealists, who really put their life at stake and were ready to sacrifice their own life, believing that that makes sense, that there’s a mission to it, that in the future someone benefits from that sacrifice.”

Probosz also has a personal connection to the Holocaust. His grandfather, Polish poet laureate Jerzy Probosz, was murdered as a prisoner in the Dachau concentration camp in Germany in 1942. He was a self-taught intellectual, playwright, essayist and political activist. “I see through his words how idealistic he was, and what kind of a man of vision he was,” Probosz said. “So even though I never met my grandfather, I feel a very strong, intimate connection with him.”

Growing up with the awareness of his grandfather’s legacy also helped Probosz embody Pilecki on film and stage. Now, as an actor and educator, Probosz tries to pass his subject’s values on to others. “He did better me as a human being,” Probosz said of Pilecki. “I’ll go to my grave with him and his ideals.”

You can hear Marek Probosz read from Witold Pilecki’s reports in “The Auschwitz Volunteer” at Hillel at UCLA, 574 Hilgard Ave. in Los Angeles, March 1 from 4-6 p.m. More information is at

Voluntouring in Israel

Going on holiday can mean relaxing or sightseeing, tasting new foods or learning firsthand about new cultures. A growing segment of vacationers, however, goes abroad to work for free.

Voluntourism — volunteering and tourism — has been cited as one of the fastest-growing sectors of worldwide tourism. Israel, a top destination for myriad reasons — from historical to cultural, biblical to religious — is proving to be a leading location for voluntourists as well.

People of just about any age can farm, perform dentistry, respond to emergency calls, serve in the army, work in animal or environmental conservation, pick fruit on a kibbutz or make a person in need smile.

“Volunteers can make a difference even if they come for an hour,” said Deena Fiedler, spokeswoman for the national food bank Leket Israel. “They’re in our fields or in our packing warehouse; they’re preparing sandwiches, rescuing surplus food. They’re making a difference. We couldn’t do what we do without the volunteers.”

Leket relied on more than 50,000 volunteers in 2013 to help glean fields, rescue leftover food and redistribute it. Many were visitors from overseas.

In a 2012 report, 35 percent of adults said they would like to try a holiday involving a voluntourism component.

Do something good

The main premise of voluntourism is to travel while helping a cause. It also offers out-of-towners a personal feel for the place they’re visiting.

“It’s a nice way to get to know where you are,” Fiedler said. “When you’re in the field, you’re with an eighth-grader from Ashkelon or a group from a high-tech company on a bonding day. I don’t think you’d get that experience if you were a regular traveler. And I think that’s why a lot of people do it.”

The time-honored option of volunteering on a kibbutz for a few months is still a tradition that’s very much alive, as is the “wwoofing”(experience of working the land in Israel as part of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms or Willing Workers on Organic Farms). But today there are dozens of organizations in Israel — and hundreds around the globe — offering short volunteering projects that can be included in a one- or two-week holiday.

At the Pantry Packers facility in Jerusalem, tourists 8 and older don gloves, aprons and caps in order to fill bags of rice, beans and other commodities for food baskets destined for needy families.

Tourists are sure to find inspiration at Yad Sarah — the largest national volunteer organization in Israel. Voluntourists in Israel for at least three months are welcome to help aid the disabled and elderly.

An experience for you, too

Voluntouring can also include professional exchanges. Licensed dentists from many countries come to treat underprivileged Jerusalem children through Dental Volunteers for Israel (DVI).

“The experience of providing dental treatment to children in need is very rewarding,” said Dr. Karen Walters of Texas, who has returned five times to volunteer at DVI’s Trudi Birger Dental Clinic.

“The feeling you get from relieving a child’s dental pain and restoring their teeth so they can smile again is so satisfying. When my colleagues ask me why I go to Israel and ‘work,’ I can only reply, ‘Why not?’ The children of Jerusalem need this wonderful clinic, and I am proud to be a part of it.”

Aliza Solomon of DVI said interest in the program is high.

“The experience of volunteering gives them something you can’t get any other way. Quite a few dentists tell us that [treating underprivileged children] was their way of going back to why they went into dentistry in the first place,” Solomon said.  

Another popular voluntourism opportunity is Magen David Adom (MDA), Israel’s national emergency and blood service agency. Participants in the MDA Overseas Volunteer Program get hands-on experience in CPR, bandaging and dealing with mass casualties. They leave as certified first responders. MDA also has shorter tourist mini courses in first aid and CPR.

Environmentalists and socially conscious tourists have a whole range of eco-tourism options in Israel, too.

Project Bird Box is an educational wildlife nonprofit that works with farmers and schools. Volunteers are always needed to build bird boxes for natural pest control. GoEco matches volunteers with wildlife and desert conservation programs in locations such as the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, Nazareth and the Negev desert.

“I hope that when people come to Israel with GoEco, they learn that Israelis are not only focused on the political situation, but they’re also focused on sustaining the land that is so holy and dear to so many people,” a volunteer coordinator said. 

Want to voluntour?

If you want to voluntour but don’t know where or how to go about it, there are organizations in Israel that can help.

Ruach Tova (“Good Spirit”) is an umbrella organization for prospective volunteers, matching them up with programs in education, health, the environment, animal welfare and more. 

The Israel Volunteer Center also helps tourists find a suitable place for their services. 

Sar-El is another national volunteering project, offering opportunities to help in military warehouses with tasks such as packing equipment or fixing uniforms. 

The Mensch List 2013

Last month, for our eighth-annual mensch list, we again invited all of you to submit your nominations of extraordinary volunteers, and again the outpouring of suggestions of amazing people was overwhelming. We faced this enormous response only to wonder, once again, how to choose from, among others, a Holocaust survivor who makes an annual trek with teens to the Birkenau concentration camp to ensure they know the story; an Iranian-born woman who created an emergency fund for those in need in her community; an Israeli who matches up his fellow countrymen to business contacts and a high schooler who resells designer bags to help African refugees. (And those are just three who made the cut.)

This list could have been much longer — what we offer here is just a sampling of the extraordinary people who give so much to make the world a better place. If your nominees were not included this time, please remember, we’d love to see those names, and more, again next year. We are inspired by all of these stories and highlight this list of mensches each year to motivate us all to live up to their example.

The Mensch List

Eldad Hagar, Dogged devotion

Sidonia Lax, A survivor marches with the living

Jaleh Naim, A passion for helping struggling Iranian-Americans

Jacob Segal, The matchmaker

Stephen M. Levine, A magical ability to conjure up fun

Maya Steinberg, She has tzedakah in the bag

Leslye Adelman, Feeding body and soul

Armin Szatmary, Person of the Book

Leon Shkrab, Bearing witness to Russians’ Holocaust stories

Wendy Colman Levin, The way home

Dorothy Gould, former Hadassah Beverly Hills president and volunteer, dies at 89

Dorothy Gould, a former Hadassah Beverly Hills chapter president and dedicated volunteer, died on Feb. 18. She was 89.

Born in Chicago, Ill., in 1923, the youngest child of Max and Sarah Stein, Gould grew up in Ventura, where she attended Ventura College and worked as a legal secretary for the Ventura County District Attorney. 

In October 1947, she married Joseph “Joe” Gould, founder of Gould & Co. Transportation and later Hollywood National Bank. Gould dedicated her time to charitable organizations, serving as a past president of Hadassah’s Beverly Hills chapter, as a board member of the Julia Ann Singer Center and as a board member and former sisterhood president of Temple Israel of Hollywood. She was also involved with March of Dimes, United Way and the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

Gould is predeceased by her husband. She is survived by sons David (Deborah Chankin) Gould and Marc (Cyndi Goldman, z”l) Gould; grandchildren Sarah (Yonah Schmeidler) Chankin-Gould and Rabbi D’ror (Cantor David Berger) Chankin-Gould; and great-grandchildren Matan Berger-Gould and Yona Chankin-Gould.

A funeral was held at Mount Sinai Memorial Park in Los Angeles on Feb. 22. Contributions in her memory should be sent to the Beverly Hills chapter of Hadassah and United Way

A feast for Mollie Pier

In 1989, Mollie Pier co-founded Project Chicken Soup (PCS), a nonprofit organization that makes and delivers free kosher food to Angelenos living with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other serious illnesses. Today, at 92, she still volunteers, spending eight hours a month in the kitchen and calling recipients when their meals are ready.

On Nov. 11, Pier was honored at Temple Beth Am by Project Chicken Soup for her efforts over the past 23 years. The event featured food from Jewish chefs around Los Angeles as well as speeches from Pier’s colleagues, a silent auction and performances from the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, Cantor Magda Fishman of Temple Beth Am, Cantor Juval Porat of Beth Chayim Chadashim and pianist David Silverstein. 

Of her honoring, Pier said, “It’s just overwhelming. I can’t believe this is me; I don’t think I deserve what everybody else thinks I do. It’s just breathtaking.”

More than 1,500 volunteers work for PCS each year, helping to serve as many as 30,000 meals. Every month, 125 clients each receive 20 meals, and the organization plans to double that number once fundraising goals are reached. 

“Most of our clients are low income, and many are food insecure,” said Cathryn Friedman, executive director. “There is evidence regarding the importance of appropriate nutrition for people living with HIV/AIDS and the role it plays in delaying [or] preventing the progression to late-stage disease. For people with cancer or other serious illnesses, an inability to acquire [or] prepare food results in food insecurity and negative health consequences. PCS services contribute to improved health status.”

Food at the event included all the traditional Jewish dishes, with a modern twist. Alex Reznik, formerly executive chef at the now-shuttered kosher steak house La Seine, served pickled herring and smoked whitefish, and Akasha Richmond, who owns AKASHA, made kale Caesar salad with olive oil croutons and parmesan. Susan Feniger of Street provided chilled Asian noodles with deviled egg and sriracha sauce. 

“Molly’s been the driver of some work that literally needed to be done,” Feniger said. “She’s made a strong statement certainly for all of us. We’re in the hospitality business, and we try to give back. To be here to support her is critical.”

Another guest chef, The Foundry on Melrose’s Eric Greenspan, who defeated Bobby Flay on “Iron Chef America,” made potato and apple kugel with garlic horseradish crust. “We spend so much time in an insular world in our kitchens,” he said. “It’s important every once in a while to poke your head out and take a look at the world around you and make sure that you’re a part of it. ‘Try to do a mitzvah a day,’ is what my dad always said, so this is definitely one of them.”

Joanne Feldman, a volunteer with PCS for five years who owns Mr. Pickles Kosher Catering, said she is proud of the work that the group has done. “We have been blessed to have somebody as wonderful as Mollie Pier being a part of the glue that holds this organization together,” she said. “She does it with such love and heart, and it’s amazing.”

Ronna Sundy, events coordinator at Temple Beth Am, said she and her family were given help by PCS when they needed it. 

“My adopted daughter’s father died of AIDS, and the family was fed through PCS,” she said. “They fed us during shivah, and it was a wonderful thing. What Project Chicken Soup has done for the community and for everyone is also part of Temple Beth Am’s being. We give back and want to help everyone. Mollie is volunteering, still, at 92 years old. I would only like to follow in her footsteps.”

Pier co-founded PCS not only to help the sick, but for personal reasons as well. Her son Nathaniel, a doctor who treated AIDS patients, came out as gay in the late 1970s. In 1989, he died of the disease, and she wanted his legacy to live on.

At the event, Pier said that was happening. “I think he’d be proud of me, as I was of him. I have a very spiritual feeling that he helped so many people with his medical knowledge.”

For recipes, visit

Celebrating Sukkot, remembering Africa

There’s a certain bittersweetness to the festival of Sukkot. On the one hand, it’s z’man simchateinu, the season of our rejoicing: In ancient Israel, it marked the end of the harvest season, the time when the storehouses were full of sustenance for the coming agricultural year, the time of thanksgiving. We celebrate that today with wonderful meals for friends and family in our own sukkahs — a time of warmth, conviviality, plenty.

On the other hand, the end of Sukkot is (in Israel as well as right here in Southern California) also the end of the dry season. For our ancestors, as they made their way back from the Temple in Jerusalem to their villages and farms, there must have been an undercurrent of anxiety as well, an anxiety no different from the one that haunts farmers today in the drought-stricken regions of this country. Would enough rain fall in the coming winter, so that there would be a harvest next year as well?

Thinking about the ambivalence as we approach the final days of Sukkot reminded me of a conversation I had in August.

I was one of 17 American rabbis from across the denominations to travel with an American Jewish World Service (AJWS) delegation to a very, very poor part of Ghana — Sankor, a village on the coast that was rife with child trafficking; for as little as $50, poverty-stricken parents have sold their children to work as slaves on fishing boats on Lake Volta.

But Sankor is also the site of Challenging Heights (CH). A long-term recipient of AJWS’ support, CH was created by a former child slave, James Kofi Annan, to save other children from his fate. The organization rescues trafficked children, rehabilitates them in a special center, counsels and works with the parents, and helps to set the family on their economic feet through microloans and support. Most of all, CH is focused on the children’s education, so that they, and other poor children from Sankor, will have the tools to overcome poverty in the future.

A week before I left on that AJWS Rabbis’ Delegation to Challenging Heights, this is what I packed in my duffel bag:

work clothes (required)

a wide-brimmed hat and wide-mouthed water bottle (required)

a long-sleeved blouse and long skirt (urged by AJWS for visits with traditional villagers)

a mosquito net (absolutely required!)

sunscreen (required)

and — at the last minute, just in case,  I — who have always regarded myself as super-healthy and quite hardy — stuffed in bottles/jars/tubes of ibuprofen, anti-itch cream, anti-diarrheal medication, acid controller, Beanaid, and — you never know — protein bars, fruit and nut bars, energy bars, and … hmm … a few of those newfangled bags of tuna — which in ordinary circumstances I’d never buy.

Even more than those ordinarily never-used over-the-counter medications I brought, it was my urge to pack extra food that betrayed the anxiety I felt about this Ghana trip. In such a poor country, in such a bare-bones place, would there be enough to eat?

So we rabbis arrived at Challenging Heights, both to build and, truly, to be “rebuilt”: to work on construction projects at CH in the mornings and to learn in the afternoons — about CH, as well as the connections among issues of poverty, hunger and human rights abuses around the world, issues inextricable from our own consumption habits as Americans and our country’s foreign aid and food policies. Who suffered when we Westerners did not buy only Fair Trade commodities? What was the human cost of our not holding multinational corporations accountable
for the labor conditions and wages paid to their workers in poor countries? How did our Farm Bill affect faraway small farms in Africa and Asia?

How much and what did we Americans —among the most affluent people on the planet — actually need?

One day, as we wrapped up our construction project and washed our hands in preparation for lunch, a young girl named Juliette asked one of the rabbis where he was going now.

“To eat lunch,” he said.

“May you have food tomorrow,” she responded softly.

Juliette’s words echoed in our ears throughout the rest of our stay. Perhaps it was the overwhelming gratitude we felt for our own sense of plenty; perhaps it was the humility we felt in the presence of these profoundly modest people who were dedicating all their energy to healing the terrible wounds of their society. Perhaps it was a new understanding of “need.”

I began to pay more and more attention to the beauty of the food made for us by Charles Quansah, the cook at Challenging Heights. Although he had a modest budget and a limited array of local ingredients, he succeeded in preparing the most delicious, expertly spiced, vegetarian versions of traditional Ghanaian meals. How foolish and fearful bringing all those bars and bags of tuna felt.

I asked Mr. Quansah for his recipes, determined to bring home the tastes of Challenging Heights.

Sukkot, a time of thanksgiving for our harvest and our full storehouses, a time when we share meals with friends and family in our fragile sukkahs, a time when we rejoice in plenty and yet remember the reality of scarcity, seems to me the perfect time to include the foods of a culture far away from us geographically but with so much to teach us spiritually.

May we savor these recipes I brought back from Challenging Heights and Ghana today, and may we, and all the peoples of the world, have food tomorrow as well.

Preserving volunteerism in Israel

“Ask Israelis who have never seen a kibbutz before in their lives and who know nothing about the movement,” remarks Aya Sagi, director of the Volunteer Department at the Kibbutz Movement Program Center. “They at least know about the volunteers and are nostalgic.” 

Sagi’s observation sheds light on the influence of kibbutz volunteers on Israeli culture, their inspiring legacy worldwide, and the current financial and political challenges affecting this unique institution.

Kibbutzim are small, multi-generational, agricultural communities characterized by collective ownership and management of resources as well as a cooperative lifestyle. The first kibbutz, Degania, was settled in 1910 by pioneering Zionists. The movement eventually grew to include 273 separate communities scattered throughout Israel and has played an integral role in defining the country’s borders throughout a turbulent century of confrontation and war.

When the kibbutz volunteer program was initiated in the aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967, the country opened its doors to an influx of travelers from around the world. Young men and women came to explore Israel’s rich history, experience a pioneer lifestyle and share in the communal work ethic of the kibbutzim. Volunteers, who were often not Jewish, brought with them diverse cultural practices as well as an eagerness to be a part of Israel’s democratic and social experiment. Many volunteers married Israelis, or became so attached to the land and their work that they immigrated and achieved kibbutz membership. Today, they are some of the movement’s most devoted supporters and are helping to modernize and develop a “renewed kibbutz model” that will redefine and strengthen kibbutzim for the future.

Shaun Deakin, a kibbutz volunteer who arrived in Israel in 1974 and later immigrated and settled at Kibbutz Dorot, recalls his inspiration to leave England and volunteer. “I was impressed by the labor politics of Tony Benn back home, whose worker cooperatives shared ideology with kibbutzim. Volunteering was an opportunity to meet folks from around the world and taught me the value of hard work,” he tells

Throughout the 1970s the number of volunteers who came to work on kibbutzim steadily increased, eventually amounting to 12,000 annually. Volunteers worked in agriculture and at kibbutz factories, managed livestock, were educators and caretakers of the elderly, and performed many other industrial and civil tasks. During the 1980s, however, many kibbutzim began to struggle financially, and the tide of volunteers was quickly stemmed as individual kibbutzim went bankrupt or were privatized.

Although volunteers continued to offer a cheap source of labor, the kibbutz movement at that time suffered from poor management and the absence of a unified ideology.  Attracting foreign laborers and promoting a cultural exchange became a low priority. Additionally, the chaos of the Intifadas after 1987 contributed to a sharp decrease in volunteerism throughout the ensuing decades, reaching a nadir in 2001, when only 100 volunteers arrived in Israel to work.

Despite these dispiriting statistics, the program ultimately survived. In recent years, participation has gradually recovered. “Volunteers are still the cheapest form of labor, ” the Kibbutz Program Center’s Sagi tells, reiterating the principle reason for the program’s resilience.

Furthermore, volunteering continues to be a cheap way for foreigners to travel and experience Israel. On average, participants pay only $610 to register and arrange for a three-month visa, room and board, and health insurance. While on assignment, volunteers earn a small stipend of 500 shekels or more, based on the local costs of living. Volunteers who wish to stay longer can easily renew their visa and healthcare for an additional $80, and can stay in Israel for a maximum of nine months. “Volunteers are great for the youngsters living on a kibbutz,” Deakin adds to the list of benefits. “They open up a typically closed society and enable personal diplomacy.”

The program is a system in which everyone wins. Nevertheless, it has been difficult to rebuild the volunteer presence to the levels achieved in the 70s. This is primarily because of new immigration and work-status restrictions imposed by the government and reluctance on the part of many kibbutzim to reengage the program.  “In the past, things were more open,” Sagi laments. New regulations initiated in 2010 limit the age of volunteers to 35 or below, require volunteers to pay for the program prior to arriving in Israel, and shorten the time they are allowed to stay in the country.

Sometimes it is hard to place volunteers on kibbutzim. Only 10 percent of Israel’s kibbutzim are now participating in the program, and according to Deakin, volunteers may be cheap, but they are not always the ideal work force. “It’s a question of commitment,” he says. “Only occasionally do volunteers really work.” When Deakin attempted to restart Kibbutz Dorot’s volunteer program in 2009, he began by accepting many volunteers but has gradually discontinued his involvement with the program. Teaching a new staff to perform agricultural work every three months was a tedious process and a drain on resources.

Deakin is not disappointed that his initiative to restart volunteerism was stymied. He recognizes that volunteers were not a pragmatic solution to Kibbutz Dorot’s specific labor needs. This is the challenge that Sagi faces on a daily basis. How does she extend the volunteer program internally, despite financial realities, and kibbutz employers’ desire to hire consistent and experienced workforces? Additionally, she must keep program costs down so that volunteering remains an attractive opportunity abroad.

When asked how the Kibbutz Program Center is adapting to better accommodate the needs of kibbutzim and the interests of volunteers, Sagi is optimistic. She cites initiatives like the improved website, providing a clear and inviting synopsis of the volunteer experience, and the sponsored monthly field trips in Israel that volunteers are guaranteed as part of their contract.

There are 16 countries now housing kibbutz program offices and volunteer recruitment centers. Though reinvigorating volunteerism in Israel has proven difficult, both Sagi and Deakin recognize the essential value of this foreign exchange.

“Volunteers return home with completely different perspectives of Israel and talk positively about their experiences,” Sagi says.

Calif.’s oldest female vet, 102, reaches out with compassion

This Memorial Day, World War II Veteran Bea Abrams Cohen will be attending ceremonies at Los Angeles National Cemetery, paying tribute to all the men and women who have died fighting while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. But for this 102-year-old resident of Los Angeles, who is certainly California’s oldest female veteran — and possibly the oldest nationwide — it’s the living veterans, especially those who are suffering or in need, who have garnered most of her attention these past seven decades. “I want them to be treated with dignity and compassion,” Cohen said recently.

She backs up her words with actions. Last winter, walking into the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center, Cohen saw veterans going sockless. She promptly requested that all guests at her 102nd birthday party, celebrated by more than 150 people at the Radisson Hotel Los Angeles Airport on Feb. 21, bring new white socks to donate to the veterans. She collected more than 700 pairs.

Cohen knows firsthand the toll war can take on a family. She was born Shayna Bayla Hershcovi on Feb. 3, 1910, in Bucharest, Romania, the third child of Joseph and Matilda Hershcovi. She never knew her father; he died a soldier in the Romanian army when she was 3.

Her widowed mother, a seamstress, moved the family to the village of Buhusi. There, she agreed to an arranged marriage with Hyman Abrams, who had moved from Buhusi to Fort Worth, Texas, in 1890, and who had become a widower when his wife died after the birth of their ninth child. “He knew no American woman would agree to take care of nine children,” Cohen said. Abrams sent money, and the family prepared to leave.

But soon after, Bea and her family heard unusual noises and ran outside to see airplanes — a strange and wondrous sight — flying very low across the sky. Cohen waved at one of the pilots. “He had a mustache,” she said. She believes the planes were headed to bomb a nearby factory. It was 1914 and the beginning of World War I. The family’s departure to America was delayed.

Finally, they arrived in Fort Worth, in 1920, with Cohen, her sister and mother dressed in red wool coats with lamb collars and buttons specially tailored by her mother. Cohen adjusted to her new, large family and enrolled in both public and Hebrew school. She was confirmed and also graduated high school.

Bea’s military service photo.

In 1929, following one of Abrams’ older daughters, Cohen, her mother,  Hyman Abrams and one brother relocated to Los Angeles, living off West Adams Street, near a kosher chicken shop and a few blocks from Beth Jacob Congregation. The rest of the children eventually joined them. Cohen attended school to learn shorthand and bookkeeping. After a short stint at the May Co., she worked at Adele’s Sportswear. Hyman Abrams, whom Cohen called Papa, died in 1939.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Cohen was on a movie date at the Pantages Theatre, located downtown, when, after 10 minutes, the screen went dark, the lights went up and a voice announced, “We’re at war. Go home.” Cohen was stunned.

Soon after, she returned to school to learn riveting, and she subsequently was hired by Douglas Aircraft Co. in Santa Monica, working the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift. “We never knew what kinds of planes we were working on. It was top secret,” she said.

But Cohen wanted to do more to pay back America. She joined the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) toward the end of 1942, at age 32, turning down a 5-cents-an-hour raise offered by Douglas Aircraft. After completing basic training in Des Moines, Iowa, Cohen was stationed in Utah and Colorado. 

She then enlisted in the new Women’s Army Corps (WAC), which, unlike WAAC, was part of the regular Army. She was stationed overseas at Elveden Hall, 90 miles from London, and there, as Pfc. Abrams, she worked with top-secret mimeographed documents. Soon after she arrived, she again heard planes flying overhead. She went outside to see the sky full of American bombers heading to Normandy, France, for D-Day.

Cohen returned home on Sept. 28, 1945. In early November, she met Ray Cohen, who had been a Marine gunnery sergeant and was imprisoned on Corregidor Island in the Philippines for more than three years. They married on Jan. 28, 1946, and had two daughters, Janice and Susan.

Cohen joined a group for former prisoners of war with her husband. Also, in 1955, she joined the Jewish War Veterans and became chairwoman for child welfare, where she worked with the United Cerebral Palsy-Spastic Children’s Foundation for 35 years, including initiating annual visits to Disneyland for the children.

Cohen became legally blind in 1990, and her husband died in 2003, but neither tribulation slowed her pace or her passion.

Today, Cohen continues to attend monthly POW meetings for family members and volunteers most Wednesdays at the Veterans Home of West Los Angeles during bingo games. She also has an active Jewish life, becoming a bat mitzvah at age 100 at Culver City’s Temple Akiba and attending Shabbat services there several times a month. She also prepares a seder every year, doing most of the cooking herself.

In addition to collecting new white socks, Cohen, after seeing amputee veterans sitting uncovered in their wheelchairs, began collecting lap robes — knit, crocheted or quilted 50-by-50-inch blankets. “I need some, if anybody wants to make a donation,” she said during an interview. In fact, whenever she goes to a doctor’s appointment or a meeting at the VA, she always brings a lap robe or two and some new socks. And she always finds grateful recipients.

Cohen will also be participating in a new gardening group to be held at the Veterans Home of West Los Angeles, bringing gladiolus and hydrangea cuttings from her yard.

And as if that’s not enough, this veteran who took upholstery classes off and on from 1961 to 2011 and who proudly displays her self-upholstered chairs and sofa in her Westchester home, is looking for a location and funding for an upholstery class for returning or unemployed veterans who want to learn a trade.

“Never forget our veterans,” Cohen told a reporter. “They are our heroes.”

To donate socks or lap robes or for more information, contact:

Sock donations:
West Los Angeles VA Hospital
Clothing Room – Bldg. 500, Room 0441
11301 Wilshire Blvd.

Los Angeles, CA 90073
310.478.3711, ext. 43535

Lap robe donations:
Jeanne Bonfilio
Public Information Officer
California Department of Veterans Affairs
11500 Nimitz Ave.
Los Angeles, CA  90049

She’s found a world of volunteerism

Izzie Levinson, 16, grew up in a family that is devoted to community service:  Her father, David Levinson, is the founder of Big Sunday, an extensive regional volunteer program that grew out of a Mitzvah Day project; her mother is a highly accomplished TV writer who left that work to become a drama and writing teacher in an urban high school; and her older sister and brother are both active volunteers. But it’s important to Izzie to do more than follow in their footsteps.

She wants to demonstrate her ability to choose her own projects. That’s why she traveled to Senegal, Africa, last summer through the Putney Student Travel program, where she lived in a village of about 600 and worked on a construction project, shoveling dirt to make bricks.

“I think this summer … was probably the big turning point for me,” the Oakwood School 11th-grader said of finding her own voice as an activist. “It was probably the best experience of my entire life.”

Levinson also works with the Oakwood School Chiapas Project, which connects students at her school with the indigenous people of Chiapas, a region in Mexico, whose women have formed cooperatives to produce handmade goods, including clothing and purses. The Chiapan women send their handiwork to Los Angeles, and the students in the Oakwood Chiapas Project sell them through special events, then send the earnings back to the cooperatives in Chiapas.

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For Levinson, it’s an easy sell. “The clothes are incredibly nice,” she said.

And as if all that weren’t enough, she recently started volunteering for Reading Partners, tutoring at a school in Leimert Park. She also participates in video-conferencing chats with Afghan high-school students and experts in global affairs through the Global Nomads Group, a nonprofit that creates interactive educational programs, and she helps organize ARTribe, an annual art show of works by high-schoolers that raises funds for medical and prenatal care in Nepal and Vietnam.

Because part of the ARTribe gig is asking adults for donations, Levinson has gained a lot of experience in talking to adults.

“I think, for teenagers, there’s sort of this, not awkwardness, but apprehension, about addressing adults in a really straightforward way … that was just a really important life skill to learn,” she said.

It’s common for chronic volunteers to say that they get more back than they give. And that holds true for Levinson, who said she’s found that volunteering has helped her in many ways, including putting her in contact with people whom she otherwise would not have met and increasing her awareness of the world’s diversity.

Levinson might be trying to forge a path different from the one her father took, and she admits she hasn’t read his book, “Everyone Helps, Everyone Wins,” a self-help guide to volunteerism — “I have read snippets of it,” she said, laughing — but she sounds more like him than she realizes. She had high expectations for how she would help in Senegal, but she found, once there, that her work wasn’t having as big an effect as she had hoped. Rather than letting this bring her down, she realized, as her father says, that when it comes to volunteering, it’s less about the “what” and more about the “how.”

“One of the most important aspects of community service is the feeling of doing it together,” she said. “This feeling of, regardless of what your background is or where you come from, everybody can participate and everyone can form their own community that doesn’t discriminate and is incredibly accepting. And where everyone can gain something from one another.”

Remember Us project means they’ll never be forgotten

There was a moment while preparing for her bat mitzvah when Rebecca Hutman feared the occasion would not live up to its importance. She wasn’t settled at a shul, and the experience was feeling kind of rote. That’s when her mother, Samara Hutman, suggested Rebecca join the Remember Us Holocaust B’nai Mitzvah Project, which would send her the name of a child who perished in the Holocaust that she could recite out loud at her bat mitzvah.

“It was the first thing that felt tangibly important,” Rebecca said.

Rebecca had found her hook — a way of honoring another Jewish child, Victoria Farhi, who never had the chance to read Torah because she died in the French Vel’ d’Hiv roundup. Plus, the two girls had something in common: They both were born in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly, where Hutman spent the first seven months of her life while her father, production designer Jon Hutman, was working on the Hollywood movie “French Kiss.”

“I could relate to this young girl who was frozen in time and feel the immediacy at this one point of my life as I was passing the benchmark at which she ceased to live,” Rebecca said.

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She spoke about Farhi in her d’var Torah, and, in lieu of gifts, requested donations to genocide prevention programs. Along with her own $2,000 in savings, Rebecca split the funds between Jewish World Watch and American Jewish World Service.

But something still wasn’t right.

“I felt like I had taken on this obligation, and it couldn’t end with my bat mitzvah — because when you say you’re taking on somebody’s life, that’s not a one-night event.”

Then something unexpected happened. After mother and daughter returned from a visit to Washington, D.C., where Samara’s father-in-law had been appointed to the national board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, they learned that Rebecca’s school, Harvard-Westlake, was seeking parent volunteers to coordinate a Yom HaShoah tribute. Samara leaped onboard, and, modeling from the b’nai mitzvah project, stuffed 250 bags with the names of perished Jewish children and yahrzeit candles to distribute at the event. At the secular school’s event, they ran out of bags.

Soon after, thanks to her friendship with the b’nai mitzvah project’s founder, Gesher Calmenson, Samara was appointed to the inaugural national board of Remember Us, and she immediately started dreaming of what they could do next.

“My whole life, I wondered who I would have been in the Holocaust,” Samara said. Would I have been a brave, righteous person? Or would I have been so terrified that I would have hidden? This was a way to approach the subject with attributes that I would wish to have.”

Samara recruited four local women and their daughters to help dream up ways they could expand Remember Us.

“Here we were working on Holocaust memory, remembering children who had perished, but their peers who had survived were living all around us,” Samara said.

The group created the intergenerational Righteous Conversation Project, pairing teens with local Holocaust survivors. The idea is for the survivors to share their stories with the young, who then become “vessels of memory.”

Their first event was held at Harvard-Westlake last February, during which three pairs of teens and survivors appeared on stage in conversation. The model has since been repeated at IKAR and Pacifica Christian High School in Santa Monica. In June, the teens and survivors convened for a weeklong workshop about modern injustices. By its end, they had produced one program focused on acceptance of gay families and another on ethical consumerism, which they then “gifted” to both Jewish and secular organizations (the former went to Hebrew Union College’s Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at USC and to the San Francisco-based group Colage, for people with an LGBT parent; the latter to the Orthodox social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek and the product-review Web site

Samara now serves as the paid executive director of Remember Us, the umbrella group for both the B’nai Mitzvah and Righteous Conversation projects. And although the organization has received nearly $22,000 in donations, they’ve got plans for expansion and have three grant proposals in process.

But something else is changing: Rebecca is approaching high school graduation and will soon leave home. Working together has been both “beautiful and stressful,” Samara said.

“If we fight about anything, it’s this,” Rebecca added, “because we’re both so passionate about it. We don’t fight about trivial things — and this isn’t trivial.”

“You know,” her mother chimed in, “I was talking to a Jewish donor about this, and he said, ‘Why do you do this?’ and I said, ‘To me, these survivors are living Torah.’ ”

Study: Young Jews volunteer, but don’t connect it to Judaism

Most young Jews do some kind of volunteer service, but few do it through Jewish agencies or connect it to Jewish values.

Poverty, the environment, education and illiteracy are the areas that draw most young Jewish volunteers, with Israel-related work at the bottom of the list.

These are among the findings of a new study on Jewish young adult volunteerism commissioned by Repair the World, a national organization that promotes service as a defining element of Jewish life and learning.

“This is an idealistic, civically engaged population, and there are a lot of things to be done to deepen their involvement and connect it to Jewish values and the Jewish community,” said Jon Rosenberg, CEO of Repair the World.

The study, which surveyed some 2,000 Jews aged 18 to 35, could provide guidance to Jewish organizations seeking ways to involve young Jews in Jewish volunteer service, and for those that run service projects outside the Jewish community but wish to strengthen awareness of the work’s Jewish elements.

Respondents to the study, titled “Volunteering + Values: A Repair the World Report on Jewish Young Adults,” were drawn from a list of more than 300,000 applicants to the Birthright Israel program and a national online research panel. Forty-five percent of those contacted responded.

The study, conducted by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and Gerstein/Agne Strategic Communications, found a very high level of volunteerism among its demographic. About 70 percent said they have volunteered in some capacity during the past year; 31 percent said they volunteer every few months; and 29 percent volunteer at least once a month, with 10 percent engaging in volunteer work weekly or more often. More than one-fifth have taken part in an intensive service project of one to 12 weeks, such as an alternative college break project.

Those who defined themselves as Orthodox had the highest volunteer rate (86 percent), with 77 percent of Reform, 66 percent of Conservative and 63 percent of those identifying as “Just Jewish” reporting some level of volunteer activity.

About 22 percent said they had volunteered through a Jewish organization, with 56 percent of the Orthodox respondents saying they did so.

The study showed that young Jewish volunteers are motivated by universalist values; “making a difference in people’s lives” was cited as the most important motivating factor.

About 78 percent of respondents said it did not matter whether the organization for which they volunteer is Jewish or non-Jewish, while 27 percent said their volunteer work was related to Jewish values.

Rosenberg opined that many young Jews do not volunteer through Jewish organizations because they don’t always know about the opportunities, and also because of the misperception that Jewish groups serve narrowly parochial interests.

Fern Chertok of the Cohen Center, the lead researcher on the study, said getting more young Jews to see the connection between their volunteer work and Jewish values is important, particularly for those who are not religiously observant.

“It allows them to see the work as a Jewish act,” she said.

The study showed a high correlation between one’s level of Jewish education and future volunteer work, as well as how clearly one views his or her service as being in line with Jewish values.

“The more service learning is incorporated into Jewish education, the more that connection will be made,” Rosenberg said.

Jonathan Woocher, chief ideas officer of the Jewish Education Service of North America, said that “There are too many people who come away from their Jewish education with the sense that ‘doing Jewish’ is about doing particular rituals in particular places, and if these are not attractive to them, they may not see a Jewish connection to their volunteer work.”

Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, which runs projects in the Third World in which participants also learn about the Jewish values underlying their work, said Jews are interested in Jewish service learning, but the community needs to provide more opportunities. Jewish organizations, she noted, don’t ask for volunteers often enough.

The study provided material that Jewish organizations could use to develop more volunteer opportunities that correspond to the actual interests of younger Jews.

While just 1 percent of survey respondents reported doing Israel-related volunteer work, 9 percent said they would like to perform such work. And while 13 percent already volunteer in the field of education and literacy, mainly tutoring or mentoring, 37 percent said they would be interested in such service.

“If you can interest more young Jews who want to volunteer with quality programs in the Jewish community,” Messinger told JTA, “they’ll get a deeper sense of their Jewish identity and will feel further invested in their Jewish community.”

Federation adds service to Super Sunday

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is asking community members to give time and elbow grease in addition to what’s in their pockets.

On Super Sunday, Feb. 13, the day traditionally set aside for a volunteer-staffed phone-a-thon to kick off Federation’s annual campaign, Federation is organizing a day of volunteering, offering options to help beautify Los Angeles, feed the hungry or train for longer-term community service projects.

Federation expects about 500 volunteers for the day, some of them participating in service projects, some making solicitation phone calls and some doing both.

“The idea is you spend two hours working in the community, and then two hours on the telephone, and you can say to the people you’re calling, ‘I just spent two hours giving out food at SOVA or cleaning up this school,’ ” Federation President Jay Sanderson said. “It will give the calls more meaning and make Super Sunday more community driven.”

Last year, Super Sunday raised $4.5 million.

The new component comes as part of the Federation’s centennial year celebrations. Super Sunday will be followed by four other service days throughout the year.

Online registration closes Friday, Feb. 11, and slots for some projects are already filled.

Volunteers on Super Sunday will prepare food for people with HIV/AIDS through Project Chicken Soup, help makeover the Hillel at Cal State University, Northridge, beautify a public elementary school, assemble school supplies for needy families served by Tomchei Shabbos and sort food donations at Jewish Family Service’s SOVA food pantry.

Space is still available at a family art project, where parents and kids will help create a quilt to be sent to a disadvantaged school in Jerusalem and at a tour of the Mount Zion Cemetery in East Los Angeles, where many founders of the L.A. Jewish community are buried. A community service fair at the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills will highlight year-round service opportunities, and training will be offered to become a KOREH L.A. literacy tutor for disadvantaged kids.

To sign up, visit

Holocaust archives volunteer arrested for document theft

A volunteer at a private Holocaust archives in Texas was arrested for stealing documents and selling them online.

Mansal Denton, 20, was a volunteer for a year-and-a-half at the Mazal Holocaust Library in San Antonio of the largest privately held Holocaust archives in the world, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Retired Mexico City businessman Harry Mazal, 73, owns the archives. He reportedly spent $1 million collecting the documents.

While scanning documents to post on the archive’s website, Denton allegedly stole the documents. In December, Mazal found some of the missing documents for sale by Denton on line. 

Denton continued to return to the archives until last week. He was arrested Wednesday and charged with second-degree felony theft.

Among the items Denton is believed to have stolen, the Chronicle reported, were a handwritten letter by Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler, a diary kept by Himmler’s daughter and documents related to the Nuremberg War Crimes trials.

Rahm Emanuel is a fighting policy wonk with a Jewish soul

Political insight, killer in a fight, Yiddishkayt — it’s an inseparable package when it comes to Rahm Emanuel, say those who know President-elect Barack Obama’s pick to be the next White House chief of staff.

Since his days as a fundraiser and then a “political adviser” — read: enforcer — for President Bill Clinton, Emanuel has earned notoriety as a no-holds-barred politico. Accept the good with the bad because it’s of a piece, said Steve Rabinowitz, who worked with Emanuel in the Clinton White House.

“He can be a ‘mamzer,’ but he’s our mamzer,” said Rabinowitz, using the Yiddish term for “bastard,” speaking both as a Democrat and a Jew. “Sometimes that’s what you need.”

The apocrypha is legendary, if somewhat hard to pin down: Jabbing a knife into a table screaming “Dead!” as colleagues shout out the names of political enemies, sending a dead fish to a rival, screaming at friends and enemies alike for no good reason.

Even his allies acknowledge that Emanuel, 48, can be on edge at times.

“He’s not running for Miss Congeniality, ever,” said U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who has known Emanuel since they worked at Illinois Public Action, a public interest group, in the early 1980s. “He is relentless; he doesn’t give up, but in a strategic way. He’s good at figuring out other people’s self-interest and negotiating in a way that comes out in his favor.”

Emanuel, an Illinois congressman who boasts strong ties to his local Jewish community and the Jewish state, also can be seen as embodying Obama’s stated commitment to Israeli security and diplomacy: During the first Iraq War, Emanuel flew to Israel as a volunteer to help maintain military vehicles. Two years later, he was an aide to Clinton, helping to push along the newly launched Oslo process.

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Ari, Rahm recalled, “beat the crap out of him” — not because of the bike, not to protect his brother, “but because of what he said about black kids.”

Rahm defended his brother in terms he might have applied to himself: “Where others see fierceness, I see loyalty. Where others see intensity, I see passion.”

In general, Emanuel is fiercely loyal to his family, and they were a consideration in his hesitation to take work he’s always dreamed of having — he waited two days to say yes. Obama, in his statement announcing the pick, recognized the pain it would cause Emanuel’s wife, Amy, and “their children, Zach, Ilana and Leah.”

Emanuel, born to an Israeli doctor who married a local woman after he moved to Chicago in the mid-1950s, speaks Hebrew and fondly recalls summering each year in Israel as a child — including just after the 1967 Six-Day War. He attends Anshe Sholom, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Chicago, and sends his children to Jewish day school.

His rabbi, Asher Lopatin, recalls Emanuel approaching him just before Rosh Hashanah this year, telling him that an effort to put together a bailout package for the hard-hit stock market before the holiday had failed and asking whether it was permissible to take conference calls on the holiday in order to salvage the bill.

“I asked, ‘Is it as serious as people say it is?'” the rabbi recalled. “He said, ‘Without this bill there could be a meltdown of the financial system.'”

Lopatin considered the effect such a failure would have on children and the poor.

“I felt it was a case of pikuach nefesh, the commandment that places the saving of life above all other commandments,” Lopatin said, and gave Emanuel the OK.

The somberness of the request couldn’t quell Emanuel’s acerbic wit. Lopatin recalled Emanuel’s teasing, wondering whether the status of the rabbi’s 401(k) investments wasn’t also behind the heksher.

“He kibitzed with me about that,” the rabbi said.

Emanuel repeated the story, to raucous laughter, in caucus meetings on the Hill — an example of how he will skid in the same sentence from Judaism to a liberal commitment to social reforms to hard-nosed politics, Schakowsky said.

“There’s barely a caucus meeting where he doesn’t make some reference to being Jewish, often in a humorous way,” she said.

But his Jewishness does more than inform his sense of humor, Emanuel’s rabbi said.

“He has a very deep commitment and feel for Yiddishkayt,” Lopatin said, “and it’s a Yiddishkayt that’s about tikkun olam, having a positive effect on the world.”

An unexpected family in Netanya

During the summer before my senior year in high school, I wanted to get involved in a meaningful program that would change my life and the lives of others. After researching my options, I decided to volunteer at Bet Elazraki, an extraordinary foster home for children in Netanya, Israel that needed additional counselors during the summer.

Upon my arrival I met Yehuda Kohen, the home’s director. I could immediately see the special qualities that motivated Kohen to dedicate the past 20 years of his life to giving children who come from broken homes the opportunity to overcome their disadvantages and live successful lives.

Despite the rumors and warnings, I strongly believed I could not only handle but also enjoy the opportunity to contribute to the lives of younger girls. However, when I received my first assignment as a counselor for the 10- to 12-year- olds, I felt less like a counselor and more like an outsider drowning in a sea of more than 200 children, all in desperate need of attention.

I admit, at first I did not exactly know how I would win their trust, especially since they seemed more inclined to seek out their Hebrew-speaking, year-round counselors than their American summer counselors. At the same time, I desperately wanted them to feel comfortable and safe with me and accept me into their “family.” I realized it would take time, just as it does for any relationship.

For the first time in my life, I embraced the responsibility for people other than myself. I catered to my girls’ needs from the time they woke up until they went to sleep. I focused on finding a way to reach them and prove my trustworthiness. When I introduced myself, my mind focused on one question: “How am I going to bond with these adorable girls?” They came from broken homes and had experienced horrors I could not even begin to fathom. To complicate matters further, they only spoke Hebrew, and my academics had not prepared me for the stress of recalling a second language while also relating in the ways these girls needed.

As days passed, I slowly found ways to break down some of the barriers. I listened (which improved my Hebrew) and studied their individual situations in order to determine the best way to show them, by listening and then offering feedback, that I could empathize with them. I ensured that they knew they could depend on me at all times. We connected as they told me stories about their past and why they live at Bet Elazraki rather than with their own families.

One day, as I waited for the bus to take me to Jerusalem on a Friday morning, I watched all the children board buses to visit family members for the weekend. I asked a head counselor named Shira what happens to the children who can’t go to their parents’ home. Shira told me about a 9-year-old girl named Sara who did not want to go home. She told Shira that when she went home two weeks ago to visit her family, her mother told her that she didn’t want to see her again and didn’t want to take care of her.

It was so difficult for me to imagine that this sweet loveable child was unwanted. How could Sara’s parents be so cruel?

From that moment on, I decided to give Sara as much love and comfort as I could while I was there. I knew I could never replace her mother, but I wanted her to realize that she was special, she was wanted and she was loved. During the time I was there, we went on a number of different outings. I made sure that I paid special attention to her in an effort to make feel wanted and important.

When I left Bet Elazraki, I left behind Sara and some very special girls, along with a significant piece of myself. On the last day, Yehuda Kohen arranged a goodbye party for all the American counselors; there was not a dry eye in the room. The party crystallized my entire summer experience. Throughout the summer, I considered how I learned so much from this experience, but I had no idea how I impacted these young lives. Watching the children cry, clinging to us and begging us not to leave, I realized the power of selfless giving, an experience I had not discovered before this volunteer opportunity.

On my plane ride home I pondered how, in such a short period of time, I evolved from being a total stranger to 200 children to becoming part of a family I didn’t even know existed. While my family back home differs in so many ways from the one I joined in Israel, I recognized that in the end, we’re all family because we depend on each other for emotional support.

Lauren Weintraub is a senior at YULA Girls School.

Speak Up!Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the November issue is Oct. 15; deadline for the December issue is Nov. 15. Send submissions to

Project Chicken Soup brings comfort by the bowl

The food is superb! You can taste the love and care.

I want to thank you for providing me with a beacon for my faith in good people.

I do so love the joy, peace and happiness your organization brings to my life. Thank you.

The notes are short, direct and never signed. They come from all over Los Angeles, from the South Los Angeles tenements to the San Fernando Valley suburbs. Their authors differ in age, ethnicity and religion, but have at least one thing in common: They all live with HIV/AIDS.

Their gratitude is directed at Project Chicken Soup, an L.A.-based nonprofit whose volunteers gather twice a month to cook nutritious, kosher meals and deliver them, free of charge, to the doors of clients across the city. The organization’s goal is to provide nechama, or comfort, to those in need.

“When you are diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, you often withdraw within yourself, and sometimes your family and friends might have a negative reaction to you,” said Paul Chitlik, president of Los Angeles Jewish AIDS Services/Project Chicken Soup. “What we do is we show that they are still part of the Jewish community by delivering kosher food that might remind them of their families in a better time. What Jew doesn’t feel comfort when having a bowl of chicken soup?”

For those whose families live too far away to care for them, he added, the group’s door-to-door service also offers a welcome chance for human contact.

As several clients testify, the nourishment volunteers deliver is more than stomach-deep: Your services feed my soul with love as well as keep me from hunger.

The experience is just as rewarding for the volunteers themselves, many said, some of whom have returned faithfully every other Sunday, year after year.

Among the 40 to 45 volunteers who typically show up each session are retired grandparents, high school students from places like Harvard-Westlake and Campbell Hall and college students from UCLA, which once sent their entire women’s volleyball team to lend a hand in the kitchen. Synagogue groups and b’nai mitzvah boys and girls work side by side with charity-minded locals of all races and creeds, who just want to help.

“Cooking food for people is the most direct form of community service you can do,” Chitlik said. “You cook, that day it gets to the house — still warm — and people eat it. You provide something that people need and that they will use right away. It’s very satisfying.”

That’s how Century City resident Eve Lasensky feels, who, at 89, has been cooking with Project Chicken Soup twice a month for the past 15 years.

Lasensky doesn’t know anyone with HIV/AIDS, but she wanted to contribute to the cause in a more hands-on way than by simply donating money.

“It’s such a rewarding thing to do,” she said. “It’s all wholesome food, and it’s all done with such love. Everybody there does it because they really want to be there. It makes my day.”

Clients have noticed the enthusiasm of people like Lasensky:

I’m so glad that there are wonderful volunteers like you. You are a Godsend!

The idea for Project Chicken Soup first began to simmer in 1989, when a group of volunteers calling themselves Nechama started to prepare and distribute baskets of kosher food to people living with HIV/AIDS in Los Angeles. Chitlik, who has been with the nonprofit in different capacities for the last decade, said the group formed to fill a need in the community — organizations like Project Angel Food and Meals on Wheels weren’t delivering kosher fare.

“We saw that there was a gap there, because there was a significant number of Jewish people with HIV or AIDS,” he said. “We saw a hole in services, and we were the only ones who filled that.”

Still the only regional provider of kosher meals to the HIV/AIDS community, Project Chicken Soup now gathers at the Hirsh Family Kosher Kitchen on Fairfax Avenue and cooks for about 120 clients per session, with a waiting list to boot. Last year, the group involved more than 1,200 volunteers who spent over 10,500 hours preparing and delivering nearly 8,000 meals.

Recipients don’t have to be Jewish to qualify for meal deliveries, which usually include three complete entrées, two 32-ounce containers of soup (one always being the requisite chicken soup), two vegetable side dishes, fresh fruit, a breakfast package and a week’s supply of nutritional supplements.

Special holiday menus also feature seasonal treats. On Purim, volunteers bake hamantaschen. For Passover, they kosher the kitchen and deliver gefilte fish.

The group’s pervasive emphasis on comfort — both physical and spiritual — has seemingly struck a chord. Some clients write in to voice their appreciation for a service they can’t do for themselves: I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciated receiving my first delivery last Sunday. The food was really great and since I have little energy and failing health, it was a real treat.

Others write to share personal victories: I am in a much better position now both with health and finances and I’ve decided to leave the program. I cannot thank you enough for your warmth and dedication.

There is no way of knowing exactly how many Jews in Los Angeles live with HIV/AIDS, Chitlik said, since the county doesn’t keep track of religious information. But he noted that the Jewish community in recent years has taken steps to be more inclusive to this population.

“I think the community has opened its arms to help people come back,” he said. “At first, 20 or 30 years ago when the epidemic started, there were a lot of taboos around it. But now, almost everybody in the community has been touched by it — you know somebody who died, something like that. It’s been personalized.”

Project Chicken Soup has been recognized for its role in promoting “food as medicine” for people living with a life-threatening illness. Last summer, the group was chosen from 45 organizations nominated by members of Congress to receive the national 2007 Victory Against Hunger Award. Project Chicken Soup was nominated by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles).

The living dream

Artillery rounds launch from Nahal Sorek, an Israeli army base southwest of Jerusalem. The shells land with a series of distant, muted thuds. The artillery brigade, Amud Haesh, named for the torch of fire that carried Moses and the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 years, is practicing for a possible engagement in the north with Hezbollah or Syria.

However, Nahal Sorek, where I am stationed for two weeks, is much closer to the Gaza Strip. I have come here as a volunteer, leaving the pleasures of domesticity in Los Angeles to experience life in the Israeli army.

When I was first told that I would be in the Ashkelon area, I was excited at the prospect of being near the action, where my assistance would truly benefit the Israelis, but I knew that I could not mention this to my wife, Barbara, or to my parents. They would worry; so I did not give them any details on the geography of the camp.

As it turns out, Nahal Sorek is sufficiently far from Gaza that no Qassam rockets have ever landed here, though they have landed in Ashkelon and, of course, in Sderot, which receives daily rocket fire.

I signed up for Sar-El, an international program affiliated with the U.S.-based group, Volunteers for Israel, through which participants from all over the world travel to Israel to help out the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for up to three weeks. I spent the first three days of the program stuffing night-vision goggles and extra uniforms into duffel bags at a supply depot. Apparently, during the war two summers ago against Hezbollah, the Israeli soldiers lacked this equipment.

As I chat with one of the other volunteers, an F-16 flies overhead. Gordon Gibson, a Canadian, tells me that he recruited 47 members of his Evangelical church in Camrose, Alberta, to visit Israel a year or so ago. Gordon and his fellow congregants paid for the visit by building several houses in Alberta and selling them. In that previous trip, Gordon got married under a chuppah in a Bedouin tent on Pentecost.

While many of the volunteers in the program , like Gordon, have previously visited Israel for sightseeing, weddings or bar mitzvahs, we are now here to give back to the Jewish state, to show our appreciation through our sweat.

The base is spartan. There are no showerheads or curtains, no locks on the bathroom stalls, no napkins or spoons in the mess hall and no chairs in the barracks, where we sleep three to a room on cots without pillows. Each room, a prefab unit a bit larger than a jail cell, is made of what appears to be plasterboard, and the walls are quite thin.

The nine rooms are arranged like a horseshoe around a common area strewn with sand, a reflection of the base’s proximity to the Negev Desert. In this courtyard of sorts, covered by a canvas tent, we have a tank of water and plastic chairs, where we assemble for meetings before every meal and evening activity. We also have a small clubhouse with a coffee maker and a satellite TV that does not work.

In front of the barracks are an Israeli flag and four flags for the brigade, a black-and-red shield adorned with three artillery shells and a pair of exploding orange sparks. The crude rendering of the bursts reminds one of a cloud in a “Batman” episode with the caption, “Pow!” The illustration gives the flag somewhat of a comical air.

But there is nothing comical about the epaulets we have earned after our third day and now wear on our army uniforms. The epaulets are blue ribbons inscribed with Hebrew words, written in white, that read, “Meetnadev [or volunteer] Sar-El.”

The madrichot, the program’s den mothers, Yaara Benbenishty and Techiya (pronounced Tree-a) Granot, two young women who have spent time in the United States and speak English like Americans, say we deserve our epaulets for our hard work and dedication over the past few days.

I am pleased that I’ve passed the first test, something I failed to do on a similar trip in 1990, when I enrolled in Marva, the equivalent of two months of basic training in the army for non-Israelis. At that time, though I finished first in a sprint up a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee and did more pullups than all but one other member of my unit, I was battling a deep depression. When I injured my knee, I left the program midsession.

I recall that King David, the greatest of all Jewish warriors, also may have suffered from depression, even of a psychotic variety. As he wrote in Psalm 41, “All that hate me whisper together against me: Against me do they devise my hurt. An evil disease, say they, cleaveth fast unto him.”

While my life cannot match the sublimity of David’s, I have wanted to atone for my past failure. I tried to sign up again for Marva, but an Israeli official in New York told me that the program is only for people up to the age of 28, not 42-year-olds like me.

He recommended Sar-El, a program with no age limitation. I got the application for Volunteers for Israel, had an interview with a local liaison, paid an $80 fee and prepared for my journey.

The clearest sign that I am handling Sar-El is that I am getting up each day at 6 a.m., instead of noon, as is my normal habit.

My olive-green IDF uniform has a tear on the side, and my shirt pockets bulge with sunglasses, a disposable camera and a notepad, but I feel crisp, well-rested and strong. I am the youngest man in my program. The vast majority of the other volunteers are retired, and nearly all the men have served in the military.

My roommate, Dave Trageser, is a Vietnam veteran. A non-Jew and Green Party member, he wears a Red Sox cap and has a Jewish girlfriend in Tel Aviv.

Briefs: DREAM Act passage pushed, City clears Holocaust Museum hurdle, but one more remains

DREAM Act Passage Pushed

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) joined last week in a mock graduation to urge Congress to pass the DREAM Act, which would enable the estimated 50,000 undocumented students who graduate high school each year to enter college and earn citizenship.

“Abraham was the prototype of an immigrant. More accurately, he can be viewed as the first successful immigrant,” Seth Brysk, executive director of AJC’s Los Angeles office, said at the protest in downtown Los Angeles. “We must give students the opportunity to complete their education, regardless of their immigration status, to pursue higher education, to obtain legal status and to contribute to American society.”

The DREAM Act — short for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors — has been included in two immigration reform bills but not passed into law. Currently, undocumented students face greater challenges in getting financial aid for college and in-state tuition, as well as uncertain career opportunities. The DREAM Act would allow those who immigrated more than five years ago or when they were 15 or younger to work toward citizenship upon graduating high school; a requirement would be two years of college or military service.

— Brad A. Greenberg, Senior Writer

City Clears Holocaust Museum Hurdle, One More Remains

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust is a big step closer to being able to start building its permanent home at Pan Pacific Park.

Four months after the L.A. City Council unanimously approved a 50-year lease for the museum, the paperwork was finally signed in late October. The only hitch is that the city is still waiting to take over title of the state-owned park. But the city and state reached an agreement on the acre of the park where the museum is scheduled to break ground next Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Rememberance Day).

David Michaelson, chief assistant city attorney, said escrow should close by the end of November. The city paid in the ballpark of $30,000 for the title transfer and continues to negotiate regarding the remaining 30-plus acres of the municipally operated park.

— BG

Gillerman Sees Hope for Peace Talks

Daniel Gillerman was rejected by UCLA when he tried to enroll some decades ago, but he finally made it last week when he spoke as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Addressing some 300 students under the auspices of the increasingly active Bruins for Israel, Gillerman had bad news and good news.

On the pessimistic side, Gillerman warned that if the current turmoil in Pakistan degenerates into a takeover of the nation by Islamic extremists, “Israel will face a lethal danger and existential threat.”

Add to that Iran’s development of nuclear technology and weapons, and the cumulative dangers threaten not only Israel and the West, but the Arab world, as well.

“I believe that most Muslims want peace and that Islam as a religion is being held hostage by militant radicals,” he said. “Much of the Muslim world is beginning to wake up to that threat.”

On the brighter side, Gillerman held out some qualified hope for the U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference, due to convene in Annapolis later this month.

“The chances for a convergence of minds have never been better,” he said. “Washington wants results, [Mideast peace envoy] Tony Blair wants results, and Israel, the Palestinians and the Muslim world are ready.”

But to advance the hoped-for results, the Palestinians’ hand must be strengthened through what Gillerman described as his LBL formula — legitimacy, business and leadership.

“The Arab world must give legitimacy to the Palestinian leadership, the international community must boost the Palestinians’ business and economy through a Marshall Plan, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas must be strengthened in his leadership role,” Gillerman said.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Shul Organizes Holiday Volunteer Program

Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve and Day can be a lonely time for the elderly, the poor and others at institutions because of short staffing, so Young Israel of Century City has started “Tain Yad” (“lend a hand” in Hebrew), a three-day volunteer effort for Jews to reach out to the community at large. Sponsored by the synagogue and City Councilman Jack Weiss’ office, Tain Yad was the idea of a board member, who suggested it to Rabbi Elazar Muskin. The rabbi asked his 17-year-old daughter Dina to helm it.

Tain Yad has room for some 230 volunteers for one- and two-and-a-half-hour slots at 11 different institutions on the three holidays. (Thanksgiving slots run from 10 a.m to 4 p.m., so there’s still time to prepare the meal.) Volunteers can visit the elderly at hospitals, convalescent homes and nursing homes, drive food on Project Angel Food routes, help at a county fair for the Midnight Mission, paint houses for Hands for Hope or clean up public areas for L.A. Family Housing.

“One of the major ideas in this project is that the non-frum community has given back to L.A. institutions, but the Orthodox community does not participate normally in Big Sunday and the like,” said Dina, referring to Mitzvah Days and other projects that non-Orthodox synagogues organize to help the greater Los Angeles community. “It’s really important for our Orthodox community to get involved also.”

A mandatory training session will be held Wednesday night, Nov. 21, for all volunteers. To sign up, visit

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

From the San Diego fires — a burning question

What would you do if you had 10 minutes to get out of your home, not knowing whether it will still be there tomorrow? What would you take? What would you leave? What is truly indispensable?

These are the questions that too many of my fellow San Diegans have faced in the last few days as fires ravage homes all over San Diego County. Members of our shul, families from our day school, my husband’s colleagues — many have been displaced, forced to grab their loved ones, pets and the few things they can’t bear to live without. This is not a case of the media making the situation sound worse than it is; it’s bad and it’s close to home.

We live in La Jolla, which means “The Jewel.” Our community is little more than a stone’s throw from one of the prettiest pieces of coastline in the entire county and boasts the best weather, too. We have a lovely shul with more than 280 families, a spa-like mikvah and an eruv on the way. This past Shabbat, as we do every week, we enjoyed our shul kiddush al fresco, socializing around the towering Torrey pine tree that defines our shul’s courtyard. We could not have predicted that such a short time later, our blue skies would turn toxic, the crisp ocean breezes replaced with menacing winds and our Torrey pine and its courtyard laden with ash.

Thankfully, our normally idyllic coastal enclave seems to be out the path of the fire — at least for now. But as the communities immediately to the north and to the east of us were steadily evacuated, my husband and I were increasingly concerned: What if we were next? What if a call comes in the middle of the night asking us — telling us — to leave? We had to take stock of our things. I was surprised that the closets of clothes did not seem that important, nor the plasma TV, and not the kitchen appliances that I use faithfully each week preparing for Shabbat. We packed one bag for our family of six, with pajamas and a change of clothes and basic toiletries. I put on the jewelry I cared about the most, not for their monetary value but because they were gifts from my husband and my late Papa, the grandfather who died in the spring.

Suddenly, I remembered the box in the attic that I call my “archives,” a collection of writings from childhood through college. That box holds treasures like rhyming Mother’s Day poems, the essay my tough high school English teacher blessed with the “much-coveted but rarely bestowed” A-plus and the clipping from my college Jewish newspaper that proudly wore my byline. For the first time ever, I needed to pull my ketubah out of its safe place. We would need the kids’ special blankets and a few toys. My husband began to upload all of our pictures, grateful that our children’s adventures are digitally preserved and easy to transport. Laptop, yes; book collection, no. Wedding album, yes. But what about yearbooks? Take the tefilin, the tallit. Hurry up and wait. We are lucky to have this be merely an exercise for now; not like the friend who spent the night with us after being evacuated. I cannot imagine doing all of this with fire in my backyard.

There are good things about going through this. You read the e-mail from the old high school classmate from St. Louis who remembered you lived in San Diego. You catch up with the friends who moved to Florida last year. You reassure your family in Canada, New York, Los Angeles. You hug your husband and children tighter and know that they really are what matters. You pray.

You see amazing things from your community. Our rabbi’s oldest daughter is getting married in two days. With 600 people expected for an outdoor chuppah, I started to panic for the rabbi’s family. But the rabbi and rebbetzin, and even the bride, are amazingly calm. They are filled with faith that the skies will clear, the guests will arrive, and everything will be OK, so I am filled with confidence that the simcha will be truly that — a joyful occasion.

With school cancelled and outdoor play outlawed, the parents of the community and educators are banding together to keep the children from going stir-crazy. On Monday, almost a dozen families spent the day at the shul, where we played musical chairs and learned about the parsha and fire safety. Today, the school’s gym teacher came to the shul to run indoor games. We will spend tomorrow doing activities at the day school, and on Thursday a local movie theater will open early so we can screen a DVD for the kids in a safe, air-conditioned place. There is a feeling of achdut, or togetherness, that sweetens the otherwise stifling air.

Donations from all over the county are pouring in to help our fellow San Diegans. So many Jewish families, from the observant to the secular, have opened their homes to displaced friends. Our shul, like so many others, has collected diapers, food and bedding to help. Like the story of Abraham’s tent in the Torah Portion Lech Lecha, so many have displayed lovingkindness, selflessness and a warmly welcoming attitude. To illustrate the point, one report speculated there were more volunteers than evacuees at Qualcomm Stadium, the largest of the evacuation centers for the more than 500,000 displaced San Diegans. That’s a lot of volunteers.

Watching the footage of uncontained fires blazing just 10 miles or so from our home, I was struck that the parsha details the destruction of Sodom, a city divinely destroyed because of its denizens’ petty cruelty and refusal to be welcoming to guests. Like Sodom, our beautiful city is facing a raging enemy that refuses to go without exacting a heavy toll.

But unlike Sodom, the extraordinary actions of hundreds of thousands of San Diegans who reached out to help have surely proved that this amazing city is worth saving. We pray that the winds will change — both literally and figuratively — and we look forward to dancing at the rabbi’s daughter’s wedding, our bags unpacked again.

Jessica Levine Kupferberg was born and raised in Los Angeles. A recovering lawyer, she resides in La Jolla with her husband and their four children.

Club Kung Fu teaches special kids lots more than skill

It was Monday, Jan. 8, the day of the college football national championship game, which I was eager to watch, since it was my favorite sport. But the game also fell on the day of the opening of Club Kung Fu at The Friendship Circle. I was a volunteer in the program.

What should I do? Watch the big game or fulfill my commitment? I realized that there were more important things in life than football, and this was one of them.

Club Kung Fu is a martial arts program for Jewish special-needs children ages 9-15 that is designed to improve self-discipline, self-esteem and physical fitness. Right now, about eight boys meet weekly, but the program is expanding, thanks to a Cutting Edge grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles.

It all started when I met Rabbi Michy RavNoy, executive director of The Friendship Circle, an organization set up to pair volunteers with special-needs children. My family and I became very involved because my Uncle Brian (of blessed memory) had been a special-needs child who could have benefited from the program. Since volunteering has always been highly valued in my family and since I love sports, this program was a natural fit for me.

The students in the club have disabilities that aren’t visible from the outside but do exist, making their lives hard in many ways. They have autism, severe learning disabilities or behavioral challenges. Most of them lack social skills and are very lonely.

Even with these disabilities, they all have a good chance of functioning well in society with some additional assistance and support. This program gives these kids the opportunity to socialize and interact with others, while learning important self-defense skills.

Furthermore, with some Torah lessons from Rabbi Michy during class, their Jewish pride is strengthened. They are making friends while strengthening themselves both physically and emotionally. Since the participants are often targets of bullying, it is perfect because they also learn how to protect themselves.

The children are upbeat, learning the art of kung fu and having tons of fun doing it. Jack Huang, the leader, is not only a great teacher but a great guy. Although he is not Jewish, he seems to be attuned to Judaism.

He once said to Rabbi Michy, “I’m sure God says somewhere [in the Bible] that if you help yourself, God will help you.” He understands these kids and relates well to them. He can be serious and funny at the same time. He is well respected.

Along with two other volunteers, I act as a personal assistant to Huang. Together we help the participants master the moves that Huang teaches by helping them practice kicks, punches and blocks.

It is unfortunate that for most of these kids, this is the only time in the week they get out and interact with others, besides at school. They definitely take advantage of it. The impact of the program is huge, and I can clearly see the changes in them. At the beginning they were all very shy, but now they come into class noisy and ready to learn and have fun.

One student in particular, Michael, started off extremely shy. He would hardly interact with anyone and preferred to play video games at home all day. But as time went on, he started to come to each class with a huge smile on his face.

He has gone from being the quietest to the loudest and most enthusiastic. He is comfortable being around both the assistants and his other classmates and, in addition, is constantly cracking hilarious jokes.

One boy, Akiva, started out as a student but soon, instead of being assisted, started to assist others. I have watched him mature greatly. He now works so well with the other students that they have begun to look up to him, which has been great for his self-esteem. He is so committed to the class that one time, when his parents were going out of town, he insisted that they make sure that he could get a ride to Club Kung Fu.

This program means so much to me. I love seeing these kids grow up and improve their social skills, and I feel good about being a part of their development. It is amazing to watch them work hard and, with pride, receive their first belts. I, too, had the added satisfaction of earning my own belt.

I will always have opportunities to watch football, but watching these special-needs children integrate into society is far more satisfying.

Nathan Sobol is a 10th-grader at Hamilton High School Academy of Music.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the December issue is Nov. 15; deadline for the January issue is Dec. 15. Send submissions to

Shelter shock uncovers strong personal foundation

Brian had just finished lunch when he popped the question: “Do we get dinner too?” He was almost holding his breath. I smiled, nodded and watched his eyes widen in elated disbelief. Lunch and dinner! I felt both shocked and sheltered by his question.

I had never met anyone who couldn’t afford food before.

It was my first lunch at Camp Harmony, a free, five-day camp that has opened its doors every year for the past 19 summers to approximately 250 poor and homeless kids who are referred by case workers and employees from homeless shelters. Sponsored by the independent nonprofit United in Harmony (

A shelter of surprises changed everything

When I first arrived at the homeless shelter, I was scared. I didn’t know what to expect, and I had to admit to myself that I had never really been out of my element. But I was open to the new experience — and completely unaware of how the day would turn out.

I was visiting the Ocean Park Community Center (OPCC), a stepping-stone shelter in Santa Monica that gives homeless women a chance to get back on their feet through training, support and guidance.

A group of us had come with our local Pacific Palisades Chabad rabbi, Elli Baitelman, and Rabbi Mendel Cohen of the Chabad Mobile Kitchen, an organization that provides meals, love, compassion, toys and whatever might be needed to the needy, homeless, elderly Holocaust survivors and anyone else who needs a helping hand. They have a catering truck, and they call it “sharing the warmth.”

We joined the trip to the shelter so that we could serve the homeless women a hot, home-cooked meal and maybe a conversation and friendly smile. When we arrived at the OPCC, we were impressed with the clean, new facility and walked upstairs to meet the ladies.

We started serving, and, at first, we were happy simply to be providing them with hot food. When everyone had filled their plates, the volunteers sat down at the tables and began to strike up conversations with the women. I felt uncomfortable at first, but was stirred on by my little brother, who was very open to the idea and quite a hit as the youngest — and, OK, maybe cutest — member of our contingent.

I took a seat to the right of a tall woman with an edgy personality who was both intellectual and polite. Her eyes reflected a sad wisdom as if she had seen too much pain. When I asked her what had brought her to this place in her life, it seemed as if nobody had ever really bothered to ask her this sort of question for a long time, since she was so eager to chat. She answered that she had been in college but dropped out because her husband wanted to spend more time with her and for her to raise a family. She told me that he had verbally and physically abused her for years until she conjured up the courage to leave him.

She had no money for college and no job opportunities, so she found herself out on the streets, a person with a hunger for an education but who was thrust into the wrong circumstances.

“That’s why I always tell young girls like you to stay in school and work hard,” she advised. “An education is always the most important thing.”

To my left was an African American woman with an expressive smile and an easygoing manner. I asked her to tell me about herself, and she seemed so joyful just because somebody was curious. She informed me that she has a master’s degree and used to work at a mental health hospital as a nurse! I was shocked because I always believed the stereotype that homeless people were mentally unstable and therefore couldn’t get a job.

These women completely proved me wrong. This inspiringly graceful woman with eloquent speech was let go merely because the hospital downsized and was forced to fire over half of the workers. Later in the discussion, she emphasized how glad she was to be able to meet all of us and tell her story, because she didn’t want us to believe the falsity that all homeless people are mentally ill or lazy.

At the table next to me sat a woman who was knitting a beautiful sweater and quietly humming a pleasant tune. Across from her sat two ladies engaged in deep conversation about how the system of foster care could change for the better.

The OPCC shelter is made up of perceptive and insightful people who, in most cases, simply fell into the wrong situation and found themselves lost in a sometimes-merciless world. Well, we were there not just to dish up a good meal, but to offer our compassion and treat these people as friends. To see how much our coming to visit meant to them was a real treat and a gratifying experience for me, as well for the other volunteers. It warmed me every time one of them thanked us for coming or told us how good it felt to talk to average citizens as average citizens.

This experience totally changed my point of view, because these people were not who I expected them to be. I expected them to be uneducated, uncaring and unkempt, when in reality they are smart, empathetic and just like you and me.

They are mothers, daughters, sisters and friends. Next time I see these people on the streets, I’ll look at them instead of through them. They taught me to be grateful for everything that I have, and that it can all change before there’s time to appreciate it.

Ariel Cohen is a ninth-grader at The Archer School for Girls.

Speak Up!
Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the July issue is June 15; deadline for the August issue is July 15. Send submissions to

Students translate charity lessons into action

For most kids, time off from school means hitting the beaches or other fun-filled attraction. For 17-year-old Neta Batscha, spring break sent her to the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast to assist with Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

Under the auspices of Milken Community High School’s YOZMA social action leadership initiative, the 11th-grader and more than 100 of her classmates spent four days clearing away debris in parts of Natchez, Miss., and in New Orleans, which was still reeling from the hurricane’s destruction. She also built homes with Habitat for Humanity, and, with money raised by her Milken peers, replenished provisions at food shelters unable to meet the ongoing need for assistance.

“It made everyone feel good about themselves, that we can make a difference,” Batscha said. “In my school, we’re taught to give back, even when we’re younger. We’re taught not to be selfish. In Judaism, it’s important for everyone.”

More and more, Jewish kids are taking the lessons they’ve learned about tikkun olam, Judaism’s spin on community service, and translating it into action. Through school-based programs like YOZMA, b’nai mitzvah service projects or simply their own initiative, children are finding creative ways to channel their interests and desire to help others into unique, personal contributions to those less fortunate. In so doing, they are building a reservoir of critical skills and laying the groundwork for a lifetime of compassion and civic responsibility in the Jewish tradition.

“Doing mitzvot and tikkun olam are in everything we do in Judaism, in every book we read,” said Daniel Gold, director of the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education’s (BJE) Sulam Center for Jewish Service Learning. When children perform charitable acts, Gold added, they connect teachings from God with the work they do on earth, and to their own identities.

Josh Lappen’s work on behalf of Jews in Ethiopia has played a formulative role in the development of his Jewish awareness. Since the age of 5, Josh, now 12, has been fundraising under the auspices of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), a nonprofit group that helps Jews survive in Ethiopia and reach Israel.

He accompanies his grandparents, active NACOEJ members, to local festivals where they sell Ethiopian handcrafts, and he recently began his own initiative selling cookies at his Hebrew school.

“My work gets me involved in the community. I almost feel like I’m getting to know them,” said Josh, who has studied the history of Ethiopian Jews and occasionally speaks with groups to raise awareness of the challenges they face. While he has never seen the fruits of his labor firsthand, Josh feels a deep connection with Ethiopian Jews and is planning to participate in NACOEJ’s bar mitzvah twinning program with an Ethiopian boy in Israel next year.

Realizing tikkun olam as a central pillar of Jewish practice, synagogues throughout the country require children to perform service projects before becoming b’nai mitzvah, sensitizing them to their growing responsibilities toward others as they approach adulthood. In many cases, these projects have been the inspiration for ongoing philanthropic endeavors.

Clara Clymer had intended to donate books to a neighborhood school for her bat mitzvah project. Instead, on the advice of Hebrew school staff at Leo Baeck Temple, she decided to become a tutor for KOREH L.A., The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ youth literacy program. The 12-year-old from Brentwood now meets once a week with a first-grade student, helping to strengthen her reading and comprehension skills. And while Clara was only required to fulfill five hours of service, her satisfaction knowing that she is making a difference in someone’s life has been all the encouragement she needs to continue as a KOREH L.A. volunteer for the foreseeable future.

“If everybody helps somebody who needs help, it makes it a nicer place to live,” she said.

In addition to the religious benefits, studies show that children who volunteer have higher self-esteem than those who do not, are happier and feel empowered by the knowledge that they are bringing about positive change, BJE’s Gold said. On the academic side, they consistently demonstrate higher test scores and rates of school attendance. Community service also helps children develop good work habits and job skills, such as leadership, planning and organization.

“Kids who participate in community service must determine what they want to achieve and figure out creative ways of meeting their goals,” said Sande Hart, who facilitates youth volunteer workshops for the Orange County BJE.

Hart saw proof of this when her son, Matt, organized “Shoot Away Cancer,” a basketball tournament to raise funds for pediatric cancer research at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, as his bar mitzvah project three years ago. Matt secured support from a local basketball league and brought together 180 elementary- to high school-age students for a day of three-on-three play in Santa Ana. While teams paid a $30 registration fee, most of the $7,200 Matt raised came from raffled gift certificates and donations he solicited from local businesses and attractions.

Now 15, Matt continues to volunteer to help those in need. For the past five years, he has been traveling to Mexico where he spends time with orphaned children and helps build houses for homeless families on behalf of the Irvine-based Corazon de Vida Foundation.

“Volunteering gives you a warm feeling that you’re dong something right,” the Rancho Santa Margarita High School sophomore said. “It has changed me as a person. If more kids would go out and do this, I think the world would be a lot better.”

Betty Neymark: Second Career From a Second Language

Betty Neymark

Barri Evins

Alex Baum

Betty Neymark

Eve Marcus

Fran Rosenfield

Marilyn Harran

Noah Bleich

Rebecca Levinson

Yehoram Uziel

Yoram Hassid

“Why isn’t Temple Judea doing something like this?” Betty Neymark’s daughter, Nancy, asked her more than 19 years ago, referring to an English as a second language program at a nearby church. That was all the push Neymark needed.

She and her daughter, along with friend and reading specialist Evelyn Stecher, promptly began a program at their Reform synagogue in Tarzana.

On the first day of registration in January 1990, Neymark thought no one would show up. Instead, she encountered a line of people stretching past the Temple’s driveway. Fifty students registered, and Temple Judea’s all-volunteer ESL program was born.

Today that program boasts 150 students, 25 volunteer teachers and five administrators, including Neymark. While her daughter has begun a new career and Stecher has moved away, Neymark remains.

“I just love it. I meet wonderful people. It enhances my life,” said Neymark, who previously worked as a human resources administrator in two school districts.

Those “wonderful people” include the students, primarily from the former Soviet Union, Iran and South America. Most are 50 or older, and they are both Jewish and not. Many are new immigrants. A few have lived here as long as 20 years.

Neymark also has great affection for the teachers, who range in age from 21 to 89. Only two are new this year, and 18 of them have been with program 10 years or more.

The classes are small, with four to seven students. They meet for two hours twice a week, from September to June. In addition to English, students learn about American culture.

“Students come in with no English and then are able to function in society and make their lives better,” said Neymark, noting that many go on to become citizens and to vote.

Temple Judea provides the classroom space. The program is free; students pay only for their textbooks. Donations and a corporate grant cover other expenses.

“I call myself a coordinator,” said Neymark, a 47-year temple member who won’t reveal her age. She registers new students, evaluating their English proficiency and placing them in one of six homogeneous classes, ranging from beginning to conversational English. She also arranges for new teachers to receive 12 hours of training each fall.

Additionally, she publishes a newsletter twice a year for the teachers, holds two faculty meetings a year and organizes the annual faculty party.

Neymark is reluctant to take credit for program’s accomplishments.

“It runs itself,” she said, emphasizing that it’s a team effort. She also refers to her husband, who does all her computer work, as her “secret weapon.”

Hilda Fogelson, a retired Los Angeles Unified School District teacher who has taught in the program for 16 years, said, “Betty is very organized and very professional. That’s why the program is so successful.”

Neymark feels a responsibility to continue to support Temple Judea and the Jewish community.

“I’m not going to fade away any sooner than I have to,” she said.

Eve Marcus: Soul of the Food Pantry

Eve Marcus

Barri Evins

Alex Baum

Betty Neymark

Eve Marcus

Fran Rosenfield

Marilyn Harran

Noah Bleich

Rebecca Levinson

Yehoram Uziel

Yoram Hassid

Eve Marcus asks that people not call her on Saturday. Mostly they comply.

Otherwise, as volunteer director of the North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry, she is on call and in command of a staff of 150 volunteers and an operation that currently provides emergency food for more than 30,000 people a year.

Marcus, 70, first became involved in the fall of 1984, when she read a newspaper advertisement seeking volunteers for the Food Pantry, which had been founded more than a year earlier as a result of the Valley Interfaith Council’s Task Force on Community Emergency Needs and in response to the 1982-83 recession.

“I could do that,” thought Marcus, a Studio City homemaker and mother of three girls. She began working Mondays at the First Christian Church of North Hollywood, packing bags, interviewing clients and pitching in wherever needed.
And she has been doing that ever since.

Early on, Marcus was asked to serve as Monday captain. She has continued in that capacity while also taking on the responsibility of volunteer director four years ago.

As director, she runs the monthly board meetings; oversees staffing, donations and grants, and fields myriad phone calls. She also coordinates volunteers for the yearly National Association of Letter Carriers Food Drive and organizes the Food Pantry’s annual Interfaith Service of Thanksgiving.

But to the other volunteers, she encompasses much more.

“Eve is the soul of the Food Pantry. She just knows that people cannot be hungry and we need to do whatever is necessary,” said Joy Grau, a member of St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church in Studio City and a 15-year volunteer.

The North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry was founded in 1983 by five women from two synagogues (Temple Beth Hillel and Adat Ari El) and three churches. It is now a coalition of 10 congregations in the East San Fernando Valley.

“We ask people to come once a month but we never turn anyone away,” Marcus said. These days the largest segments of their clientele, mostly from the East San Fernando Valley, are the homeless and the elderly. There are also some “rare but heartbreaking” instances of those who fit both categories.

For Marcus, the benefits of her work are the lasting friendships she has made over the years and the discovery of hidden abilities, like public speaking. She credits her cardiologist husband with handling the computer work.

The worst problem is the aging of the volunteers, who now range from late 50s to early 90s and who often can’t do the heavy lifting that’s required. Recruiting new volunteers, with so many people working in full-time jobs, is difficult.

Marcus attributes her upbringing with drawing her to volunteer work. She was raised in a modest household in Brooklyn where, although imprinted by the tragedies of World War II, she somehow always felt fortunate.

“I had good parents, food and love,” she said. “I want other people to enjoy some of the comforts I do.”

Rebecca Levinson: Born to Be a Volunteer

Rebecca Levinson

Barri Evins

Alex Baum

Betty Neymark

Eve Marcus

Fran Rosenfield

Marilyn Harran

Noah Bleich

Rebecca Levinson

Yehoram Uziel

Yoram Hassid

Rebecca Levinson grew up always doing things for the community.

“This is what you do,” the 17-year-old junior at North Hollywood’s Oakwood School, said matter of factly.

Just recently Levinson, who goes by Becca, joined PEP/LA, the Peer Education Project of Los Angeles dealing with HIV/AIDS. She has been trained to lead informal discussions with other teenagers on ways to avoid risk-taking sexual behaviors. Already Levinson has spoken at Children of the Night, an organization dedicated to helping child prostitutes.

In addition, for a second year, Levinson is mentoring Francisco, currently a fifth-grader at North Hollywood’s Monlux Elementary School. She meets with him weekly, tutoring him in whatever subjects he needs help.

“He is super-duper cute and obsessed with magnets,” Levinson said.

And last summer she spent a month in El Salvador through Putney Student Travel Global Awareness in Action program. She traveled with 15 other teenagers to San Salvador, where the group learned about the country’s history as well as immigration, globalization and other issues.

They then traveled Santa Marta, a small town on the Honduras border, where they lived in a communal home and assisted the local residents. Levinson, who chose to look into economy and gender issues, worked in a women’s bakery every day, baking bread and talking with the workers. Additionally, she did some AIDS outreach education.

“It was a great experience,” she said. “It taught me how one country’s decisions affect the world.”

Volunteering is in her blood. Her father, David Levinson, is the founder of Big Sunday, which began in 1999 as Temple Israel of Hollywood’s Mitzvah Day and evolved into an annual citywide day of volunteering, now co-sponsored by the mayor. Last year’s event had 30,000 volunteer participants.

This past Big Sunday, Rebecca Levinson manned the clothing market at the Figueroa Street School carnival, which was actually a schoolwide fair and community service day coordinated her mother, Ellie Herman. Levinson’s job was procuring and selling clothes for a minimal amount.

“It was more stressful than I thought it would be,” she said. “Only about five people spoke English.”
While Levinson’s activities seem disparate, she explained the connection.

“They are all interactive. It is necessary for both people to gain something,” she said.

An exception, however, is the American Cancer Society Relay for Life event she organized last year at Walter Reed Middle School.

“A lot of people in my family have had cancer, and I felt an obligation,” she explained. She will facilitate the event again this year, hoping to broaden the turnout.

Levinson’s other major interest is drawing, which she hopes to combine with her passion for social justice. “There are a lot of different ways to communicate with people that interest me,” she said.

As for her future, she wants to become fluent in Spanish. She’s also developed an interest in economics as well as international relations after her summer in El Salvador.

“We’ve been dragging the kids along ever since they can remember, whether to nursing homes to sing or to furnish apartments for the homeless,” David Levinson said. “But Rebecca has found her own path and knows where she can be most useful.”

Yehoram Uziel: A Lifeline to Mexico

Yehoram Uziel

Barri Evins

Alex Baum

Betty Neymark

Eve Marcus

Fran Rosenfield

Marilyn Harran

Noah Bleich

Rebecca Levinson

Yehoram Uziel

Yoram Hassid

Yehoram Uziel, 56, began volunteering right after he finished serving in the Israeli army as a tank corps officer. First he worked nights at the suicide hotline service, then he moved to the family services center in Haifa.
“I learned volunteering is something that adds to your self-esteem; it’s not just donating — it’s something that benefits you,” he said.

So when he was sent by his high-tech company to America in 1989, it was only natural that he would begin to search for more volunteer opportunities. An experienced pilot, Uziel, 56, began working for various medical aid organizations, flying needy sick people, as well as medical equipment and doctors around the country.

Some 10 years ago, he began devoting his efforts exclusively to The Flying Samaritans, a volunteer medical aid organization that assists clinics in Mexico. In addition to flying personnel and equipment there, he stayed over on weekends to help out. “Once I get there,” he says, “I do everything that doesn’t require a medical license and requires a good pair of hands — fixing handles, overhauling generators, repairing equipment, installing dental chair, roofing, putting in air conditioning, fixing the water supplies and pumps.”

“Sometimes,” he said, “I’ll go play with the kids.”

Last year, when The Flying Samaritans became beset by internal politics, Uziel, who now owns his own business and who is also trained as a mediator, stepped in to resolve the conflict — and found himself nominated president. Now he’s focused on integrating new technology for the “Sams” so they can schedule their 2,500 volunteers at the 20 clinics in Mexico, improving services provided to the Mexicans by conducting a marketing survey and boosting the spirits of the volunteers.

“We want to make sure the service we give is worthwhile to the people that get the service, and, more importantly, when you ask so many volunteers to donate their time and money, you better make sure that they feel valuable.

Otherwise they get worn out,” he said. “It’s really important that volunteers can come back and not say they just threw money at some altruistic cause.”

Uziel, who is married to Rhoda Weisman Uziel and has two children from a previous marriage, was raised a secular Jew in Ramat Gan, Israel. His outlook on life was shaped by his great uncle — the chief rabbi of Israel.

“When my father was ordered to go to World War II, he went to his uncle to get a blessing. The uncle said: ‘I know you’re not going to keep kosher, and I know you’re going to drive on Shabbat, I know you’re not going to follow the etiquette, but there’s one thing I want you to remember: You’re always a Jew.'”

Volunteering one weekend a month in Mexico gives his life perspective.

“I go to Mexico and come back — and no matter how much it costs me it’s better than sitting on a shrink’s couch and whining about how terrible things are,” he said. “We’re lucky. We have a good life. We have so many options — cultural, financial. And when you see what they live through, you get perspective, you appreciate what you have.”

Taking responsibility

Social Justice seems to be the central theme that pervades just about any Jewish periodical. Open any issue of The Jewish Journal, for instance, and you will see all sorts of articles and editorials related to tikkun olam, acts of charity and kindness that help to repair or perfect the world.

I have been raised in a traditional Jewish home. I have attended Hillel Hebrew Academy and YULA, both religious Jewish institutions that have taught me what it means to be a Jew. Perhaps one of the most profound quotes I learned is from the Talmud, Tractate Shavuot, 39:A, where it states: “Kol Yisrael areiveim zeh b’zeh.” The rabbis are reaching out to me with an important message: mutual responsibility and accountability — the notion that every Jew is responsible for each other. This very notion, however, has haunted me for so long. While I recognized the need for responsibility and accountability, I have also been taught that talk is cheap.

A recent study from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles shows that 22 percent of all Jewish households in greater Los Angeles were found to be living in poverty — earning less than $25,000. I can learn all day long about being a good Jew, about those suffering in my own community and all over the world, from Los Angeles to Darfur. But what can I do about it — a 15-year-old living in Los Angeles?

I am proud to volunteer my services weekly for Tomchei Shabbos, an organization that delivers boxes of food — challahs, chicken, eggs, milk and other items — to 200 families every Thursday night and before every holiday. Tomchei Shabbos receives donations from the community to help meet the needs of so many local hungry and needy people. Many of the recipients are from homes where the supporting parent may have just died, gotten sick, lost his or her job or suffered some other catastrophe.

Along with dozens of other teens and members of local synagogues, I volunteer to pack and discreetly deliver the boxes of food every week. Tomchei Shabbos has given me the opportunity to not just sit and learn about my value system in a classroom environment. No longer do I have to hear about suffering and pain and have to sit idle. I can do something about it. I can experience charity. I can experience social justice. I can experience kindness. I can do all this by active participation.

I feel so much more connected, now than ever before, to my Judaism. I can now fully understand what the ancient rabbis of the Talmud meant by their message of caring for one another — for mutual responsibility and accountability. I know that this experience will help me grow as an involved Jew, with a lifelong commitment to social justice, charity and kindness.

Jonathan Shainberg is a junior at YULA High School in Los Angeles.

The this essay was written for the Service Learning awards given out by the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Sulam Center for Jewish Service Learning (

Teens, college students make their presence known

“Welcome to Los Angeles.”

“Welcome to the GA.”

Erika Levy and Alie Kussin-Shoptaw, seniors at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, easily spotted in their bright orange volunteer vests, stood by the escalators at the Los Angeles Convention Center, greeting arriving United Jewish Communities General Assembly (GA) attendees and directing them to meeting rooms, halls and hospitality suites.

“We have to be like Abraham and reach out and greet everyone, even if it’s a little uncomfortable for us,” said Kussin-Shoptaw.

The girls, both 17, were part of a cadre of teen volunteers brought together by Sulam, the Center for Jewish Service Learning, part of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE). The group included 15 students from New Community Jewish High School, 20 from Shalhevet High School, 11 from the Jewish Student Union (JSU) and 20 from United Synagogue Youth.

The students, already committed to the Jewish community, learned about the mitzvah of greeting, instructed by Phil Liff-Grieff, BJE associate executive director, and Dan Gold, director of Sulam, before being dispatched for a three-hour volunteer shift. Afterward, they were free to attend sessions, visit the marketplace or hang out in the teen volunteer lounge.

“These kids think it’s so cool to be part of this,” Gold said.

For those students from the JSU, an organization that provides ways for Jewish teens in public high schools to become more Jewishly involved, the GA was an extension of a leadership weekend held on Friday and Saturday.

“This is a great opportunity to learn for ourselves, as well as help others,” said Mike Ghalchi, 17, a senior at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills and president of the school’s JSU chapter. He added it was particularly valuable, because “going to public school, we’re not exposed to religion every day.”

For 20 members of United Synagogue Youth (USY) from Los Angeles-area chapters, the GA was also the culmination of a long regional leadership weekend at Camp Ramah.

These young people, many of whom had stayed up till 4 a.m., traveled from Ojai on Sunday morning in time for the opening plenary session, where, among other speakers, they heard speeches by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, as well as Karnit Goldwasser, wife of captured soldier Ehud Goldwasser.

“This supports everything they’re doing in USY,” said Merrill Alpert, director of youth activities for USY’s Pacific Southwest Region. “These kids are our future Jewish leaders.”

While Sulam targeted those who will ideally work in the Jewish community, Do the Write Thing hosted a group of 30 college students and recent graduates who will possibly be reporting on the Jewish community.

“We introduce them to the concept that Jewish journalism is a profession,” said Leni Reiss, former managing editor of the Phoenix Jewish News and American Jewish Press Association (AJPA) liaison for 16 of the program’s 17 years. “Here they get a sense of the living, breathing, organized Jewish world.”

Through this program, which is cosponsored by The Jewish Agency, the Hagshama department of the World Zionist Organization and AJPA, students attended workshops, including one on “Covering Israel in the American Jewish Press.”

Additionally this year, for first time, they were given assignments, asked to fan out into different sessions each day and bring back quotations for the GA Daily, distributed to attendees. They are also expected to write an article about the GA for their school or community paper.

For Ayli Meyer, 21, a University of Judaism student from Houston, the GA is an opportunity to gain some real-life experience. She serves as editor of the school newspaper, the Casiano Chronicle, but, she said, “there are not enough journalism classes at school.”

Another participant, Erin Kelley, 23, a Reno resident who attends Truckee Meadows Community College, is hoping to make aliyah in a year.

“I want to combine my knowledge of Israel and my writing skills,” she said.
Elon Shore, the Hagshama Mid-Atlantic regional director, believes that having Israel as a central theme helps these young people connect with the Jewish community. He referred to studies demonstrating that an Israel experience is effective at connecting young adults to Judaism.

Students also respond very well to social concerns, according to Jeff Rubin, Hillel’s associate vice president for communications, citing a Hillel report.

This year, new to the GA, Hillel sponsored Just for a Day, a day of social action where 300 Jewish students from universities across the United States and Canada, who had come for entire GA conference, joined together on Sunday with another 700 college students, mostly from Southern California.

Just for a Day encompassed projects sponsored by six different organizations. These ranged from Project Angel Food, where students delivered hot meals to home-bound patients with AIDS, to Jewish World Watch, where, at Congregation B’nai David-Judea, students learned about advocating for Darfur. At all locations, students were joined by local celebrities, including “West Wing” actor Josh Malina and comedian David Brenner.

At the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, located downtown, more than 100 students helped unpack cartons of donated canned and packaged foods and sorted them for Thanksgiving distribution.

“I think a lot of people look at college students as lazy,” said Nicole Landa, a USC junior. “As you can see here, students really do care.”

From the University of Arizona in Tucson, 60 students piled into vans after the school’s homecoming Saturday night and drove nine hours to participate in Just for a Day, according to U of A student Michelle Miller.

Half the group worked at the Midnight Mission on Skid Row, distributing hygiene packs that they had preassembled, and on Skid Row. The other half worked at the Downtown Women’s Center.

Then, after attending a concert that evening at the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood, where Guster, an alternative rock band, and The LeeVees, a Jewish holiday music band, entertained Hillel participants, they climbed back into their vans for the nine-hour return trip.

According to Hillel President Wayne Firestone, volunteer days such as this are effective ways to unite Jewish students across the denominational spectrum to work together under the banner of tikkun olam (healing the world).

“We feel that everywhere we go we should leave our mark,” he said.