Repair the World volunteers assist with food preparation at Masbia Soup Kitchen in Brooklyn. Photo by Alli Lesovoy

Millennials discovering Jewish identity through social justice work

As a college student, Jake Max assumed he would work in banking or consulting after graduation. That was the path favored by many of his classmates.

But after experiencing the 2016 presidential campaign during his senior year at Emory University in Atlanta, Max was spurred to action and decided to apply for a yearlong social justice fellowship.

“I just saw how stratified the country was and how divisive the issues were, and I did not think we were headed in a good direction,” the 23-year-old said.

Max spent the next 12 months volunteering at food pantries and soup kitchens across Brooklyn, N.Y., working as a soccer coach for disadvantaged kids and attending events by various nonprofit organizations.

He says doing a fellowship with the Jewish social justice group Repair the World has helped him gain a new perspective — he no longer can imagine taking a job that would be about “making rich people richer.” But the Baltimore native also found a connection to something else: Judaism, from whose religious practices he had been alienated for almost a decade.

“I’d become almost anti-religious because I hadn’t found a place like Repair the World,” said Max, who attended a Conservative day school through eighth grade.

“Repair the World is the perfect space for how I view religion. Going and doing Shacharit every morning, that just had no meaning to me,” he said, referring to the daily morning prayer. “Keeping kosher had no meaning to me. But this social justice community, bringing people together, that means something to me. That’s something that I’m passionate about.”

Max is one of Repair the World NYC’s nine full-time fellows in New York City, who volunteer and live together above the group’s headquarters, referred to as “the workshop,” in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Fellows focus their volunteer work either on hunger relief or education, and organize events for the larger public, including Shabbat dinners with a social justice theme and happy hours, as well as volunteering opportunities.

Max isn’t alone in how he connects good works with his Jewish identity. The idea of giving back and improving society is an important part of Jewish-American identity, said Aaron Hahn Tapper, the founding director of the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.

Though different terms — such as service learning, social justice and tikkun olam — have gained favor at different times to describe work done by groups such as Repair the World, “these ideas have been pretty central to Jewish-American identities for some time, for decades,” Tapper said.

What’s different are the expanding opportunities for doing this within a Jewish framework, said Rabbi Sid Schwarz, the author of the book “Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World.”

“For a lot of people in previous generations, their involvement —  whether it was the labor movement or the civil rights movement or the women’s movement or the environmental movement — they were acting on values they might have learned as Jews, but they didn’t identify in any way as Jews,” Schwarz said. “What’s new is that now you have all these organizations that didn’t exist 30 or 40 years ago where young Jews can do this work and get reaffirmed in their Jewish identity.”

Repair the World’s social justice focus attracts many millennial Jews who don’t necessarily feel drawn to the ritual practices of Judaism, said Cindy Greenberg, executive director of Repair the World NYC, which launched in the fall of 2015.

“For some young people, they’re not interested in being in a Jewish community that’s grounded in religious practice,” she said.

“For many young people, what makes Judaism so exciting is that it helps them address the big questions in life of ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is my responsibility to my neighbor and my responsibility for the world?’ So we empower the fellows to create a Jewish community that’s grounded in service and in values of justice and in real action in their community,” Greenberg said.

She added that others are looking to complement their current religious practice.

To be sure, Repair the World events contain plenty of connections to Jewish tradition. All volunteer events feature a “Jewish lens” component in which participants learn how Jewish traditions relate to the issue at hand, such as food insecurity, affordable housing and racial justice.

Despite the Jewish focus, Repair the World attracts a diverse group of participants: About 40 percent of those attending events in New York are not Jewish, Greenberg said.

For some Jewish participants, the group serves a need that historically has been filled by more traditional institutions.

Andrew Fretwell, a 32-year-old client executive at IBM, attends Repair the World events about once a month and serves on the group’s advisory board. The New Jersey native, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife, has not yet “found the right synagogue,” but says his involvement with the social justice group gives him some of the same benefits he would get from being a shul member.

“The closest I have to that is Repair the World — a regular point of contact with a community of other Jewish millennials and their friends who are like-minded, and we have a shared set of experiences that we continue to build on together,” he said.

In some ways, Fretwell finds the approach used by Repair the World preferable to ones used in traditional Jewish settings.

“Jewish millennials, the message that we’ve been getting through so many different programs and avenues is asking us to receive something, to receive our identity. They want us to be recipients of loving Israel or of understanding Jewish tradition,” he said.

Such an approach “lacks the boldness to actually ask of these same Jews, ‘What are you doing for the world?’ That’s exactly what Repair the World does,” Fretwell said.

Repair the World decided to make Brooklyn its New York base after conducting research that showed it was the fastest-growing Jewish community in the city but that millennial non-Orthodox Jews there remained underserved by Jewish groups, Greenberg said. Engagement has nearly doubled since the New York launch about two years ago, from 5,500 participants attending events in its first 12 months of operation to 9,100 this academic year.

“It’s beyond what we could have imagined. We’re meeting a real need in the community,” Greenberg said. “I think that a Jewish community that’s hyper-inclusive and that’s grounded in service is a very compelling community for young Jews.”

Repair the World NYC receives most of its funding from grants made to the national group by Jewish foundations such as the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Jim Joseph Foundation and the William Davidson Foundation, Greenberg said. It also recently received a grant from the local Brooklyn Community Foundation.

“It’s not a Jewish foundation. It’s a foundation that’s really about supporting those in need in Crown Heights, so for me it was a real affirmation of the community valuing the work that we’re doing here,” Greenberg said of the recent grant.

Jhena Vigrass, 23, applied to the Repair the World fellowship because she wanted to do social justice work, specifically with a focus on the environment. As a food justice fellow, she volunteers at urban farms in Brooklyn, helping with the farming work as well as recruiting volunteers.

Though Vigrass grew up attending Hebrew school through the end of high school, she was not involved in Jewish life during her studies at the University of Michigan. Becoming a Repair the World fellow changed that.

“I didn’t really have a connection with other Jews. I wasn’t used to having Jewish friends or going to Friday night services and knowing people in that room and feeling comfortable in that space,” she said.

Vigrass now attends Shabbat services once or twice a month at different synagogues or minyans in Brooklyn. “I feel much more connected to [the Jewish community] than I did before starting the program,” she said.

For Max, Repair the World serves as an alternative to religious Judaism — and the answer to the question of how to reach unengaged young Jews.

“It’s just way more progressive; it’s a more modern approach,” he said. “I think the way I was raised has become archaic.

“All of these Jewish organizations — synagogues, nonprofits — they keep talking about how it’s so difficult to reach our generation, and I think the real answer is you have to reach them where they are and they gotta change the tune of the song they’re singing if they really want to hit people.”

Sharing experience in Israel

The after-school homework help program at the Mercaz Kagan community center in Katamon Tet, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Jerusalem, buzzes with activity, thanks in part to the Skilled Volunteers for Israel program. 

Launched in 2011, the program matches experienced North American Jewish professionals with meaningful skilled volunteer opportunities in Israel. Most participants are active people older than 50. 

Marla Gamoran, 58, created the program ( after discovering that the vast majority of Israel-based volunteer programs are for the 30-and-younger set. 

Marla Gamoran created Skilled Volunteers for Israel four years ago after discovering the paucity of volunteer opportunities in Israel for older people.

“It was 2009, and I wanted to spend a lot of time in Israel because I had more flexibility in my life and career,” Gamoran said during a visit to the community center. 

But when the longtime workforce developer, who lives in Manhattan, N.Y., searched for opportunities online, all she found was a program for dentists and Sar-El, a national project for volunteers for Israel. 

“I was perplexed at the limited options for people my age,” Gamoran said. “I realized that I represented a demographic, a niche within the North American Jewish community of older adult professionals looking for a skilled volunteer experience in Israel.” 

When Gamoran floated the idea of a volunteer program for older people with the Jewish Agency and other bodies offering volunteer programs, “They said this is a great idea but that they were focusing on younger adults as a means of promoting Jewish continuity and aliyah. That’s understandable,” she said. 

Hoping to start her own program, Gamoran participated in the 2010 PresenTense Global Institute for entrepreneurs. The vast majority of the participants were in their 20s and 30s. 

Since going live a year later, Skilled Volunteers for Israel has completed more than 150 placements for more than 125 volunteers (some are repeaters). Some utilized their expertise while others opted to try something new, in a variety of sectors. 

Volunteer opportunities include working in a multicultural preschool; tutoring English; leading drama, music, art or sports workshops; or assisting children with special needs. Social action volunteers may work with Israel’s African refugees and asylum seekers or advance religious pluralism and women’s rights.

Those with a marketing or communications background can advise Israeli organizations about how to develop their social media and branding strategies and develop materials for website and donor communications. Other opportunities include working in an adult rehabilitation center, a club for the memory-impaired, community gardening, and painting and maintaining educational institutions. 

There are also options for custom placement based on a volunteer’s specific interests and skills. 

“One of our volunteers, a psychology professor, developed a psycho-social course and trained 10 leaders in the refugee community how to identify the signs of anger, depression and alcohol abuse, and how to refer them for help,” Gamoran said. 

Another volunteer helped a Tel Aviv nonprofit develop a marketing tool kit, while a third — an art curator specializing in Japanese art — researched the background of a collection of Japanese woodcuts for a Ramat Gan museum. 

Some volunteers choose Hebrew-speaking venues in order to improve their proficiency in the language while others prefer an English-speaking environment. Although having even some basic Hebrew is useful, especially when working with children, many positions require no Hebrew, Gamoran said. 

Participants can serve via two “portals.” The first enables individuals, most of them older than 50, to volunteer 15 to 20 hours per week for three to four weeks, leaving them with a lot of free time. The cost is $250, not including airfare and accommodations. 

The second, a work-study program, enables participants to spend half of the day volunteering and half of the day studying at the Conservative Yeshiva of the Conservative/Masorti Movement in Jerusalem. That program attracts people of all ages and costs $850 for three weeks, not including airfare and accommodations.

At the Mercaz Kagan community center, Ellen French, a semi-retired Manhattanite, taught English to a 9-year-old student, a girl from Katamon Tet. Pointing to the girl’s head — and then her nose and mouth — she asked the girl if she knew the English words for these body parts. 

“Ellen makes learning fun,” the third-grader said when asked if she enjoyed learning English, a mandatory subject in public schools. “I know the colors in English.” 

Judith Bar-Zemer, director of the after-school program, said the children and volunteers benefit from these interactions. 

“The children learn English but they teach the volunteers some Hebrew, too. And the children learn about giving back and not just receiving.” 

French said the program, which required her to rent an apartment and take a bus to the center, has added a new dimension to her frequent trips to Israel. 

“Most of us have been here a number of times and we’ve done the tourist thing,” she said. 

Some of the kids French tutors have never before received one-on-one help.

“Knowing we’ve come all this way to spend time with them makes them feel special,” she said. “It’s good to make a difference.”

Fred Zaidman: Feeding others is his emotional sustenance

“Can you get any breakfast burritos?”
Fred Zaidman, who had recently added helping the homeless to his list of volunteer passions, went into action, soon securing a commitment from Bristol Farms for 75 burritos for a breakfast for the homeless that The City School, a charter middle school, was sponsoring on Thanksgiving morning. On the day itself, Zaidman chatted with the guests and distributed Target gift cards and movie tickets that he had purchased with his own money. Afterward, he drove around the Fairfax Avenue/Venice Boulevard area seeking out homeless men and women and handing them hamburgers, which he had also bought — and, when those ran out, he gave each person a couple of dollars.
Zaidman, 60, a partner in a commercial lighting business and a property manager, began volunteering in earnest around 2000. He was driving from his home to that of his parents, Holocaust survivors whom he was caring for, and he stopped off at the Robertson Recreation Center to play basketball for some much-needed exercise. But he found no program there, only a few kids in tattered clothing doing a few drills. “I decided to do something about it,” he recalled. He raised $1,000 from area businesses, and he and the newly hired recreation center director purchased some new jerseys and shorts. Coaches and referees were recruited, and soon 40 to 50 underserved kids began showing up regularly for Saturday morning basketball games, as did Zaidman, who brought snacks and assisted. The program expanded when Zaidman contacted the Los Angeles Clippers, who launched a Junior Clippers program for 5- to 15-year-olds, which they continued for five years. Zaidman also sponsored kids for gymnastics classes, which he helped initiate, and piano classes. In 2002, Zaidman was named Los Angeles Volunteer of the Year for Council District 5. 
Zaidman remains active with the rec center. “It’s been the biggest blessing in my life,” he said. Over the years, he’s formed important relationships with the kids, advising them, pushing them to stay in school or pursue their talents, and even officiating at their weddings and, occasionally, funerals. “He’s always been there for them,” said Nicole Griffin, a former rec center director. “It’s genuine caring.”   
For five years, ending in 2009, Zaidman mentored members of the Hamilton High School football team. Since then, he’s been a supporter of the Santa Monica College football team, attending home games and encouraging the players. Before practices, whenever possible, he brings fruit, vegetables and bagels — donated or purchased — for the players. “A lot of these kids are going to school starving,” he said. 
Additionally, since 1999, Zaidman has donated platelets every two weeks at the Cedars-Sinai Blood Donor Services facility. He has bagged food at SOVA West since 2005 and is currently volunteering three days a week. He also assists his aunt, Miriam Ickowicz, a Holocaust survivor, and has adopted several other survivors who are like mishpachah, he said. He visits them regularly and takes them to doctor appointments and social activities.
Zaidman attributes his desire to help others to his survivor parents, Renate and Wolf Zaidman, who both died in 2012, and to his grandparents, aunts and uncle who perished in Auschwitz. “They are my inspiration,” he said. 

Tikkun Olam: Retired, but not from good deeds

Retirement hasn’t stopped Sharon Mayer from working, and she’s not alone. The Sherman Oaks resident is part of a growing number of seniors out in force to volunteer with the regularity of a job. 

Nationally, the numbers are significant: The Corporation for National and Community Service in Washington, D.C., predicted in a 2007 report that the number of volunteers 65 and older would jump from almost 9 million at the time to more than 13 million in 2020, according to United States Census data.

In the case of Mayer, she has volunteered every Tuesday for the past six years at Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles’ (JFS) SOVA Community Food Resource Program in Van Nuys, applying her skills as a former social worker to help serve her community. 

SOVA provides free groceries and support services to more than 12,000 people each month. Mayer got involved after a career that involved working in Child Protective Services, health care policy, and as chief field deputy to Mike Feuer, L.A.’s current city attorney, who was a councilman at the time.

“I was looking for something that could use some of my own skills and that was really giving directly to people in need,” she said during a recent interview in SOVA’s Valley food pantry in Van Nuys. 

After retiring, she sat in on a meeting with JFS and Feuer, at that time a member of the state Assembly. 

“I was just kind of sitting there and I went, ‘Oh, wait a minute. I can do that.’ It just seemed to call my name,” she said.

JFS has 800 volunteers overall, 60 percent of whom are baby boomers, and that number has been on the rise, according to Sherri Kadovitz, community outreach/volunteer coordinator. 

Other local organizations have seen a large baby boomer turnout as well. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles found that 75 percent of volunteers responding to a 2012-2013 survey for its children’s literacy program, KOREH L.A., were over 50, according to Barri Worth Girvan, director of community engagement programs and government affairs for Federation.

David Levinson, founder and executive director of Big Sunday, said many boomers started volunteering with their kids years ago and now are continuing on their own.

“We’ve always had a lot of baby boomer volunteers,” he said. “Now, with [their kids] growing up, many of the baby boomers have a bit more time on their hands to volunteer and help. It’s a nice time and age to give back.”

The Corporation for National and Community Service’s study explained things another way. It found that the propensity to volunteer rises with increases in education, and that the baby boomer generation is more highly educated and has had more opportunities than previous generations.

Margaret L. Avineri, JFS director of integrated clinical and community services, said the boomer generation is particularly drawn to volunteering because “they are at an age where they have a lot to give and they still have a lot of energy, and are looking for a way to connect with the community.”

And JFS is trying to strengthen that bond. Two years ago, it received a three-year grant from the California Community Foundation related to Farsi-speaking immigrants in the baby boomer generation.

“We’ve worked to involve them in the nonprofit world and trained a large number of them,” Avineri said. “Now they can go out and communicate with other Farsi speakers and help them.” 

Mayer, a grandmother of six who also volunteers twice a month at the downtown Central Library leading art and architecture tours, has found that most of her fellow volunteers at the SOVA pantry in Van Nuys are of her generation: “It’s the same crew. It’s really nice because you come in and you see the same people and we share, what’re your kids doing, that kind of stuff.” 

They’re drawn by the difference they can make in the lives of hungry people.

“I think what’s really special about SOVA is that we’re not just a food bank. We have other agencies that come in here and see our clients,” Mayer said after meeting with a first-time client. “For example, the gentleman I just spoke with looks like he will be eligible for Medi-Cal and food stamps. So I can take him over, he signs up and he’ll see somebody today who can actually take that application without him going to the welfare department.”

Mayer uses her past as a social worker to help her with her current position at SOVA at the resource center. 

“We basically are kind of the first person that somebody will see when they come to SOVA for the first time. So we’ll take down their information and we basically explain to them how SOVA works — how many times they can come a month, the different resources that we have as an agency.”

Retirees such as Mayer take the work they do for JFS seriously, Avineri said.

“People treat it like a job, an obligation. We know we can count on them,” she said. “What’s most remarkable is the level of commitment. Once you’ve been exposed to the work, you can’t just do it one time. Sharon is extremely giving and lovely in every way, and certainly committed. Our programs would not survive without volunteers like her.” 

She added: “People cannot say enough how much this work adds to their quality of life. The idea of tikkun olam is real for our volunteers.” 

Mayer said her work at SOVA has had its ups and downs, but has always been worth it.

“The rewarding part of the work is to actually see the relief on people’s faces when I tell them, ‘I’m getting some information from you and then you’re going to get food. This is it.’ 

“One of the most difficult things is to see people who are really embarrassed by coming in and how difficult it is for them,” Mayer continued. “I think it’s our role to alleviate that and to let them know that there but for the grace of God go any of us, and that this is a place that will help.”

Volunteer network aids Holocaust funds program

Bet Tzedek video shows a similar effort in 2006

A network of volunteers from many of the nation’s leading law firms, recruited through a Los Angeles initiative, is helping to write what appears to be the last chapter in the long and contentious history of reparations to Holocaust victims.

The windup comes none too soon for the estimated 50,000 to 75,000 remaining eligible survivors around the world, most now in their 80s and 90s.

Credit for this development goes to pressure applied by American organizations and legislators, as well as some energetic red tape-cutting by the present German government.

The ghetto work reparations program applies to a little-known class of Jews who worked in the Nazi-run ghettos of Eastern Europe on a “voluntary” or “at-will” basis.

Such “volunteers” were compensated by meager payments or an extra loaf of bread and may have had little actual choice if they wanted to survive, but they were differentiated from “forced laborers.”

Their work might range from cleaning German barracks, digging in peat bogs or removing maggot-infested corpses after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was crushed. Many of the workers were later deported to concentration camps and perished in the Holocaust.

When the new program was announced, survivors in Los Angeles turned, as usual, to Bet Tzedek, the House of Justice, for advice and help in navigating through the bureaucratic channels.

Now one of the country’s premier public-interest law centers, Bet Tzedek was founded in 1974 and assists many thousands of low-income, disabled and elderly clients, regardless of race or religion.

With long experience aiding Holocaust survivors, Bet Tzedek was already familiar with the ghetto work program but realized that there were many other cities in the United States without such expertise.

Two men of widely disparate backgrounds got together to spread the word and set up a national training course for pro-bono lawyers and social service agencies, such as the Jewish Family Service.

One is Volker Schmidt, a German lawyer in charge of Holocaust-related services at Bet Tzedek, and the other is Stanley Levy, a senior attorney with the law firm of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, as well as an ordained rabbi.

With the active support of his firm, Levy now spends half of his working time as national coordinator for a network of 40-50 major law firms in 20 cities to provide professional advice to survivors.

This kind of pro-bono arrangement by law firms is quite common, Levy said, adding, “Whatever you hear about lawyers, the indicator of a first-rate law firm nowadays is the extent of its community service.”

Levy is getting ready to distribute 500 copies of a one-hour training DVD conceived by Schmidt to explain the forms and background information required of applicants.

The German government will make a one-time payout of 2,000 euros, now equivalent to $3,000, to each former ghetto worker. This may not be a munificent sum, but it carries both symbolic value as an acknowledgment of responsibility and material value to many survivors.

“More than 25 percent of survivors exist below the poverty line,” said Schmidt. “Every morning, on my way to work, I pass a food pantry and see some of them lined up. That’s shameful.”

Of the 50,000 (according to German figures) to 75,000 (say American experts) worldwide survivors who qualify for ghetto work reparations, about half are estimated to live in Israel.

In the United States, the figure is about 20,000, with half living in New York and 5,000 to 6,000 in Los Angeles.

Many eligible survivors are reluctant to apply for the reparations, saying that they have been denied their claims so many times in the past that they don’t want to go through all the forms and traumatic memories again, Schmidt noted.

The original ghetto work reparation program started in 2002 and was administered by the Social Security offices of the various German provinces. It turned into a bureaucratic nightmare, in which responses were delayed by years and 92 percent of applications were denied.

After protests by the New York-based Claims Conference, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), Bet Tzedek and others, a new German administration transferred responsibility to the federal Finance Ministry and eased eligibility rules.

Instead of having to provide nonexistent documentation of their wartime histories, survivors need only file a statement confirming their ghetto work and must not have received payments under a different reparations program.

“There is no deadline for filing claims, but since reparations are paid only to living survivors, not their heirs, the real deadlines are their advanced ages,” Schmidt observed.

Schmidt has filed 460 applications since January, of which 36 have been approved with zero denials, and he has just been notified that inhabitants of the wartime Shanghai ghetto, though it was not under direct German control, are also eligible under the program.

At 42, Schmidt has had dual legal careers in Germany and California, including stints at the German Supreme Court and in the Crescent City district attorney’s office in northern California.

After private practice in Los Angeles, specializing in immigration and European law, he joined Bet Tzedek last October.

Schmidt, who was born well after the Nazi era, said he wasn’t trying to atone for the crimes of an earlier German generation in his present work. However, he added, “as long as there is one survivor alive and in need, the chapter has not been closed.”

Big Sunday looks good in green

Environmentalism may be trendy, but expensive hybrid cars and solar paneling aren’t the only ways of being fashionably green.

Big Sunday, an annual citywide volunteer community service event scheduled for May 3-4, is adding a Green Sunday option, which groups together environmental projects like tree planting, beach cleanup and switching area businesses from incandescent light bulbs to fluorescent.

“In the past two years, we’ve found that people were just really anxious to do environmental projects,” Big Sunday Executive Director David Levinson said.

Big Sunday began in 1999 as Temple Israel of Hollywood’s Mitzvah Day, an event that initially drew 300 volunteers to 17 projects. Last year a supersized Big Sunday drew 50,000 participants and 250 projects over two days.

While Big Sunday has regularly featured green programming and worked with such varied environmental groups as Heal the Bay and the California Native Plant Society, this year marks the first time the environmental track has been specifically highlighted.

Green Sunday has scheduled more than 50 eco-friendly projects, including “e-cycling” drives to give old computers and electronics to those in need, cleaning up the L.A. River with the Pacific American Volunteer Organization and refurbishing burned-out areas of Griffith Park.

The goal is to “help as many nonprofits as we can and get more people involved in the community,” said Dave Cooper, Green Sunday manager.

Another project, a bike collection, encourages Angelenos to ride bikes more frequently or at least provide others with that option. Levinson said this could have a great effect on reducing carbon emissions, if successful.

Big Sunday is also taking its green talk seriously by increasing the steps the organization takes to reduce its own carbon footprint. Behind the scenes, the nonprofit is printing fewer flyers and brochures and moving away from Styrofoam products. Participants are encouraged to carpool or ride public transportation. In some cases, event organizers will even arrange for busing to the larger projects.

While the group hasn’t quantified the overall carbon impact of the two-day event, organizers expect that its green efforts this year will demonstrate a reduced impact compared with activities in 2007.

Attendance for Big Sunday’s events vary, but organizers are hoping to see a turnout of at least 5,000 for Green Sunday. If Green Sunday is anywhere near as successful as hoped, Levinson said he would like to see the event as a Big Sunday spinoff on a separate day.

“It’d be cool if it did. The sky’s the limit,” he said.

For more information about Big Sunday, visit

Mensches: Our third annual salute to big-hearted Angelenos

“It is hard to convey the special sense of respect, dignity and approbation that can be conveyed by calling someone ‘a real mensch,'” writes Leo Rosten in “The Joys of Yiddish.”

The Yiddish word infuses the basic German denotation — “person” — with an almost indefinable connotation. A mensch is a person who is upright, honorable, decent, as Rosten writes, a person to admire and emulate.

So, why not just call such people saints or angels?

Because, as the stories below will demonstrate, these people have no such airs. They are people, like you, like us, who in the course of schedules no less hectic and demanding than our own, manage to reach out and help others, make the world a better place, day in and day out. They are doing what we all should, and what we all can do, despite the fact that most of us don’t. They are just people — menschen, to use the proper Yiddish plural — who understand the power and possibility of what just one person can do.

So, we are delighted to introduce you to The Journal’s third annual List of Top Ten L.A. Mensches.

We received a far greater number of worthy nominations than could make this list, but these all stood out — in many different ways.

Thank you to all our mensches and to all who offered up names. Maybe next year we’ll all be candidates for the list….

Samantha Weiner: Caring for People in Need

by Jane Ulman, Contributing Editor

Every other Wednesday after school, Samantha Weiner changes into navy blue scrubs and travels 35 miles from her home to the Westminster Free Clinic in Thousand Oaks. There, from 5 p.m. until often 11 p.m., this Milken Community High School senior volunteers as a student intern for the nonprofit clinic, which provides primary care for about 60 working poor and homeless people from a space in the United Methodist Church. And she’s been doing this since she was a freshman.

Weiner, 17, works one-on-one with the patients, taking medical histories and documenting their complaints, checking vital signs and presenting the information to the doctor. Initially she began working at the clinic because she thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to give back. But she said that her many experiences — from assisting a homeless man with a severely infected finger to helping stabilize a diabetic patient who now leads “a healthy and happy life” — have focused her on a future as a general practitioner.

Weiner is one of 72 high school interns who volunteer at the clinic, half of them from low-income families themselves. All of the kids are treated as part of the medical team, receiving extensive training and ongoing education from the volunteer doctors and nurses.

“Samantha stands out because she takes her work so seriously,” said Lisa Safaeinili, Westminster Free Clinic’s executive director. “She is kind and compassionate to all the people and makes them feel really cared about.”

But that’s not all that Weiner does to give back. She is on the advanced leadership track of Yozma, Milken Community High School’s social action club. Last year she helped raise $1,400 for Heifer International, a nonprofit aiming to end world hunger. This year, inspired by a Ramah Seminar trip to the Nazi concentration camps in Poland, she is serving as section leader of Yozma’s Darfur advocacy group, educating middle school students about Darfur and helping make backpack tags for an educational project that provides schoolchildren in Darfur with backpacks filled with books, school supplies, clothing and other necessities.

Weiner credits her family with teaching her the importance of tikkun olam. Together, among other activities, they all participate in Mitzvah Days and serve Thanksgiving meals at local shelters. She also acknowledges Heschel Day School, Milken and Camp Ramah for helping mold her community-service conscience.

But there’s time for school activities, too. She’s team captain and middle blocker for Milken’s varsity volleyball team, though she is currently recovering from ACL knee surgery for an injury she recently sustained in the third round of the California Interscholastic Federation’s volleyball championship.

In the future, she said, she would like to volunteer for Doctors Without Borders or set up health centers similar to the Westminster Free Clinic in other communities.

“This might sound corny,” she said, “but there’s no greater feeling than knowing I’ve made a difference to a person in need.”

Neal Shapiro: Conscience of the Shul

by Jane Ulman, Contributing EditorWhen Neal Shapiro was just 8, growing up surrounded by desert in Phoenix, Ariz., he saw his first Jacques Cousteau television special and was immediately smitten with the ocean, vowing to devote his life to protecting it.

He pursued his dream by earning a bachelor’s degree in marine biology at UC Santa Barbara and a master’s degree in marine policy at the University of Maryland. After graduation, Shapiro spent a decade with The Jacques Cousteau Society. More recently, for the past eight years he has worked for the city of Santa Monica’s Environmental Programs Division, overseeing water conservation and urban runoff management programs.

As an adult, Shapiro has also became increasingly Judaically observant, transitioning from Reform to Modern Orthodox after graduate school, and along the way he has melded his ecological passions with Judaic principles, expanding his environmental activities into his private life, as well.

For Tu B’Shevat in 2000, and again in 2001, Shapiro spearheaded B’nai David-Judea Congregation’s community tree planting, helping to beautify and provide shade along Pico Boulevard with nearly 100 Chinese flame trees. He continues to co-organize annual plantings, and this year, like last, is also helping facilitate plantings in private homes’ parkways, between the curb and sidewalk.

Shapiro’s efforts extend indoors, too. Since last spring, he has promoted reusable Kiddush kits, but though he has sold about a dozen, he said, only two or three congregants regularly use them. “I’m trying to change behavior,” he admitted.

Be careful what you ask for

“The Secret” is on everybody’s lips. Oprah, Ellen, Larry. Who am I, then, to say it’s drivel? *

So I put the Law of Attraction to a test. Actually, I did this unknowingly, years ago, well before The Secret was a ka-ching in Rhonda Byrne’s metaphysical cash register.

I volunteered for Big Sunday, an annual citywide day in May of community service, a chance to put tikkun olam into practice. Big Sunday makes you feel good, earns you a colorful T-shirt, and is an excellent way to meet men.

Sure, working at battered women’s shelters or knitting booties for preemies might sound appealing, but … well … as long as I was volunteering … why not do something more male-friendly?

My proclamation to the Universe: I will meet single, hetero men. I found a downright macho project, helping to clean a stretch of the L.A. River. Surely the universe was listening.

And the Law of Attraction worked! The Universe did provide. Men, that is. Dozens and dozens of men. Little men. Cub Scouts. Adorable, hard-working, young. Not one of these Cub Scouts (nor their very married troop-leader fathers, wedding rings glinting in the sun) was my beshert.

My Stated Desire was simply not specific enough. When you send a thought into the universe, be precise. I’d give the universe another chance.

“I will meet an age-appropriate single hetero man of wit and intelligence,” I declared.

And this year the universe provided! Rick appeared. Good looking. My age exactly. Lean, muscular, a terrific smile. Articulate. Definitely hetero. And covered with prison tattoos, homeless, a junkie on parole for murder.

Is “living by your wits” the same thing as “witty”?

My Big Sunday assignment: interview a homeless person and write a biography; what did I expect? Organizer Katherine Butts Warwick offered a chance to “put a human face on homelessness.” She told us that, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, roughly one-third of homeless adults have served in the Armed Forces. On any given day, as many as 200,000 veterans (male and female) live on the streets or in shelters, and perhaps twice as many experience homelessness at some point during the course of a year. There are now more homeless Vietnam veterans than Vietnam dead. I was shocked.

Rick wasn’t a vet — in fact, though he had desperately wanted to serve in the Armed Forces, his record of violence, gangs and prison prevented him from ever being accepted as a soldier. Rick spent 19 of his 50 years in prison. He now dreams of getting his GED, entering detox, having a permanent roof over his head and landing an office job (he learned to type in prison).

But Rick is upset at the lack of support he’s gotten after so many years behind bars.

“When you get out on parole, they don’t help you at all. They throw you out on Skid Row. What society fails to understand,” he says, “is that the system gives us a two- or three-year sentence, maybe 10, but, sooner or later, we’re going to come back. They think, OK, he’s put away, we’re safe,’ but they’re forgetting that the same person is going to come out again — without receiving any kind of social help, any kind of psychiatric help. It’s dangerous.”

Dangerous for Rick. Dangerous for society. Eye-opening for me.

I was looking for a date, a relationship. Instead, Rick made me grateful for the roof over my head and the support system of friends and family that I have in my life. Next year, I’ll be more specific still with the universe. In the meantime, I’ve learned that spending time volunteering fills up a spare evening and makes me feel better about myself than playing the dating game, L.A.-style. And tikkun olam trumps “The Secret” any day of the week.

Diane Saltzberg lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at

* Editor's note: If "The Secret" isn't drivel, we sure got it wrong in this cover story by Amy Klein!

It’s not camp, but it’ll do

Camp Hess Kramer broke my young and fertile heart. It was an instance of pubescent love that evolved into unrequited passion. For eight years, I frolicked in the crisp Malibu breeze, danced maniacally to Israeli folk songs and celebrated the Sabbath each Friday at dusk. It was eight summers of sheer, unadulterated bliss. Camp was where I discovered my Jewish identity, and it supplied me with religious pride and a newfound zest for Jewish culture. It was a safe haven and a supportive community. Camp comprised my heart and soul.

This summer, Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps — Camp Hess Kramer among them — instituted a gap year for students going into 11th grade, encouraging students to go to Israel, a common practice among Jewish summer camps.

A summer without camp? The thought was incomprehensible. I had my life ahead to travel and explore the world, yet only childhood for camp. Soon, I would be inundated with the stresses of being an adult, and it felt as if I was being forced away from my youth. I wanted to be in Malibu; I wanted to be a Jewish camper.

With a stance adamantly against the gap year, I argued with everyone in hopes of changing the program. Camp administrators, directors, counselors, campers, anyone who would lend a listening ear would be the victims of my anti-gap-year tirade. But, regardless of my presumptuous hopes, it was to no avail. I was banished from my second home, and my secure identity as a Jew was seemingly obliterated.

I stood at a crossroads, faced with two options, either go to Israel and contradict my initial stand, or just find other summer plans. My inherently obstinate nature would not permit me to choose the former, although I knew the trip ultimately would have been an unforgettable experience. So this summer, I set out on a quest to regain my Jewish sense of self.

I reluctantly joined the workforce. I found a job working as an editorial intern/reporter at the Beverly Hills Courier, and I was initially hesitant. It was my first job, and I was now to be treated like an adult. The daily grind, incessant traffic, 9 to 5 — could I handle it?

My worries dissipated the moment I entered the door. I was writing, earning bylines, and relaying information to a vast readership. I loved my topics, the work environment, the fresh smell of the paper off of the printing press every Friday.

But unbeknownst to me, through my job I was continually performing an act of kindness and righteousness. Each week, as I obtained information and then got it published for those who did not have the same resources, I was performing a good deed, a mitzvah. As acts of justice are imperative in being classified as “a good Jewish person,” I was not solely writing for the betterment of the community, but for myself. As the summer continued, my words inscribed on sheets of paper became symbolic of my progress as a Jewish person.

I worked at the Courier three days a week and also volunteered each Thursday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. I made my weekly trek up to cardiology in my volunteer uniform and assisted the nurses in the department, whether by answering telephones or organizing medical charts. In my hours at the hospital, I gradually became closer to my Jewish enlightenment. I saw that an act of kindness as simple as a smile can improve someone’s day, and I truly felt like a more righteous being when I observed the wonders of the nurses and doctors.

At camp I didn’t really have an opportunity to help those less fortunate, even in the sense of health. Now, I could actually visualize the affects of my deeds and the joy they brought. My heart was steadily increasing with joy, and I could feel the outcome of repairing the world, one act at a time.

My Fridays were devoted to Bet Tzedek, a nonprofit organization that provides less fortunate Los Angeles residents with legal aid. Bet Tzedek, or “House of Justice” in Hebrew, warmed my heart while stimulating my left-brain. A brilliant staff has selflessly abandoned the inflated salaries of corporate law firms in order to help those who are less fortunate. While so much of Los Angeles dwells on monetary income, the best payment that Bet Tzedek receives is the joy of their clients.

Initially, I questioned whether I would ever regain my Jewish identity without Camp Hess Kramer. Yet, through my own path, I discovered that it does not take a camp or a synagogue to classify oneself as an observant Jew. My work this summer has empowered me to feel like a stronger Jewish person than ever. I hadn’t really lost my Jewish identity — I had just failed to recognize it.

Shayna Freisleben is a junior at Harvard-Westlake.

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 September issue is Aug. 15; Deadline for the October issue is Sept. 15. Send submissions to

Helping the Congo, person by person

Gila Garaway says that the vision for her organization, Moriah Africa, came to her as she was lying in a hospital bed in Nigeria in 2001.

“I was there consulting on a water project, and I broke my back in a truck accident,” the American-born Israeli from the community of Poriah near Tiberias recalled. “While lying there facing the reality that I might possibly never walk again, I saw the moment of truth of what I really wanted to do in life. I wanted to go back to the Congo and build ties between those countries and Israel.”

Garaway recovered from her injury and, as soon as she could, founded Moriah Africa to do just that. In the ensuing years, she has responded to the challenges and diverse, profound needs of Africa in general, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in particular. Among the achievements of the one-woman organization have been organizing visits of young Israeli volunteers to Burundi to hold summer camps for children, linking an Israeli orthopedic surgeon with a Congolese medical training facility, and networking a variety of African business- men and women with economic partners in Israel, Europe and the United States.

In 1994, the nation of Rwanda suffered what has become known as one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century — a genocide that cost the lives of more than 1 million of its citizens. The majority population of Hutu tribesmen attempted to destroy all trace of the minority Tutsis. A Tutsi-led army ultimately managed to take control of the country, but not before the vast majority of Tutsi had been slaughtered. More than 1 million Hutus fled to refugee camps and when they returned in 1996, a difficult truce was put in place as the two peoples attempted to rebuild their lives.

For the entire Great Lakes region of Central Africa in general, it was a time of crisis, destabilization and change: for Rwanda it was a time of resettlement and massive movements of peoples. For Burundi it was a time of ongoing rebel conflict and instability. For Zaire it was upheaval and a time of release from the many years of oppressive nondevelopment rule of Mobutu Sese Seko: the birth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a time unfortunately followed by intertribal conflict and extended war. This is where Garaway and her husband, Noah, came into the picture.

“My husband and I began working in Rwanda back in 1996 at the end of the genocide. I was working as an evaluation consultant and he as the head of a relief organization. It had nothing to do with being Israeli or part of the Israeli government, we just had the right skill sets, and the willingness to travel,” she said.

The couple returned to Israel later in the year, but in 1997, they were invited to a conference to celebrate the newly established Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“We were both going to go, but in the end I didn’t for various personal reasons. The plane crashed in the Haut Plateau of South Kivu, DRC and my husband was killed along with a number of African leaders,” Garaway explained.

“I probably wouldn’t have continued working there — there are so many problems, African issues that are complex and need to be worked out on their own — but I stayed in touch with a number of the African widows from the crash, and on a loose basis began to go back and forth doing consultant work.”

But it was the 2001 truck accident in Nigeria that got Garaway focused on the mission of helping the people of the Congo in a more personal manner.

“I call it people building people. It’s all about reaching out and helping people with initiatives that will help them realize their visions. So ultimately, it’s their vision, and not me saying what they need,” she said.

Garaway’s fledgling organization received funding by whom she calls “a few blessed individuals” and in the last five years has worked in various projects, mostly in Rwanda and Burundi. The summer camp trip this year was one of the biggest endeavors, and according to its coordinator, social worker Hadas Smith, one of the most satisfying.

“Through Gila, I learned about Burundi, and I recruited the Israeli students while she dealt with the African side of things,” Smith said. “We had a group of 10 volunteers — Jewish, Arab and three Europeans who have been living in Israel a long time. Many of them come from special ed or social work backgrounds.”

She first traveled to the place she calls “one of the saddest countries in the world” three years ago as a newly graduated student. She spent six months there volunteering in an orphanage, an experience she found indescribable.

“When we came back this summer with the group, the people there already knew me, they trusted me. We could accomplish more in a week than we did in six months before.

“After spending a week at the orphanage, we went to the capital and worked with children at camps. At first it was around 600, but by the time the word got out, it grew to 2,000 by the end. We had five local students working with us — and it didn’t matter if we were Jew, Arab, black or white; we were one team,” she said.

According to Garaway, the cumulative effect of the summer camp and the various other projects Moriah Africa has undertaken is having a small, positive effect on life in the area.

“We’ve done everything from working with absolutely illiterate, profoundly rural women, helping them to pull their lives together, to working with trainers of organizations in order to train them to be able to work with the population.

“We’ve also been involved with specific projects: We brought over an orthopedic surgeon who did three weeks of surgery in the Congo last summer. He invited a Congolese surgeon to come back to Israel to undergo two months of training at Poriah Hospital,” she said. “We also brought two Congolese babies with heart defects over to Israel for surgery through the Save a Child’s Heart organization.”

Students remind General Assembly they’ve got a lot to give, too

In 1969, a group of college students staged a protest at the premiere gathering of the organized Jewish community, demanding more say and more attention to issues that mattered to them — such as Soviet Jewry, Jewish identity and culture. They also wanted a younger voice to be heard within Jewish power structures.
The demonstrations and vocal disruptions at the Boston General Assembly — an annual gathering of federation and other communal leaders — lead to the formation of the North American Jewish Students Appeal, which was funded by federations until 1995.
Ever since then, students have been a part of the GA, which this year is taking place at the Los Angeles Convention Center Nov. 12-15.
As it has for many years, Hillel — the international student organization that is supported in part by federations — will host 300 student delegates, many of them leaders on their campuses.
The students, who registered at a reduced rate, will participate in regular conference sessions and a Monday night program of film and interactive activities that will expose students to new approaches to building Jewish communities.
But Hillel is trying something new to expose even more students to the organized Jewish community — and to demonstrate to the community that students care.
On Sunday, Nov. 12, 1,000 college students from Southern California schools and from universities across the country, including GA participants, will be deployed across Los Angeles to do social justice work. They will lend a hand at more than 20 community service projects, such as the Beit T’Shuvah rehab residence, the Venice Family Clinic, the Midnight Mission and Heal the Bay. The program, called “Just for a Day,” will end with an exclusive concert by GUSTER and the LeeVees at the Henry Fonda Theater.

“We know that community service and social justice are the best ways of engaging students, so by doing that in conjunction with the GA we are letting the students know about the larger Jewish community,” said David Levy, director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council.

About 30 students are also participating through a journalism track called Do the Write Thing, sponsored by World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Press Association.

Student journalists get access to high-level politicians, publishers and editors, and this year will focus on Israel’s image in the media.
Many of the issues that faced students in 1969 still linger today — how to make the established community understand the desire for culture and identity, for spirituality, to get the oldsters to listen to the younger generation’s concerns.

And with today’s wired movers communicating and connecting in entirely different ways, cross-generational interface becomes even more challenging.

“This is a qualitatively different generation,” Levy said. “The whole way we organize is not the way they organize, and the pressures that used to be on students are not the same as they are now.”

Student identity has become more complex, as a generation raised by multitaskers comes of age.
“Students have multiple identities and multiple parts of their identities — like windows open on a computer screen. They have multiple windows open at one time — Israel, spirituality, social justice, being a sorority member. We need to give them an opportunity to connect through whichever window happens to be open at that moment, and working within one window can lead to others and strengthens them all,” Levy said.
That multipronged identity, and the desire for real-life community, carries through to college graduates as well, as young 20- and 30-somethings try to integrate into the Jewish community.
“The age of wine and cheese is over,” said Rhoda Weisman, director of Professional Leadership Project, which inspires and mentors young people for work in the Jewish community. “They are looking for a deep connection to the Jewish people — a meaningful connection. There is a search for spiritual depth and intellectual depth, and a very great need for community among them.”
About 100 competitively selected leaders in their 20s and 30s are part of Weisman’s Live Network, which every few weeks brings participants together at five regional hubs for seminars in leadership skills, Jewish content, case studies and personal development. The first cohort will soon begin year two, which will entail working with each other and experienced mentors to develop and follow through on a project.

At the GA, 10 participants in the Professional Leadership Project will be teamed up with seasoned Jewish communal leaders.
“The purpose is for them is to shadow some of the influential leaders, professional and volunteer, to learn about the inside workings of the Jewish community and to make connections for the future,” Weisman said.

The young leaders will also be filming a documentary, interviewing people of all ages at the GA about how the next generation of leaders can affect the community, and what sort of changes they can or should make. The film will be posted on the Web.

Mostly, Weisman hopes their presence will have an impact — both by allowing established leaders to dialogue with the up-and-comings, and by helping participants learn about existing organizations and structures to see where they can contribute.
“You can’t change things unless you already know what is happening,” Weisman said.
At the same time, she encourages the young leaders to integrate themselves into the existing community.
“Whether it’s by working with an established organization or creating a new one, you have to be connected to the greater Jewish community,” Weisman said.

For information, go to, or

New Year brings new hope to inmates

Daniel, a 24-year-old UCLA student, has gotten under my skin. I met him a month ago when I followed Rabbi Yossi Carron on his rounds through Men’s Central Jail
and Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles. Daniel had a few more days to serve on the six-month sentence he received after his was convicted of dealing methamphetamine to some of his fellow Bruins — most likely, his release date would fall just before or just after Rosh Hashanah.

When I learned Daniel would be celebrating his last day in jail during the New Year’s service Carron organized for his prison shul, I asked to tag along.
In a hallway at Men’s Central on a Tuesday afternoon, Carron and three rabbinical students are maneuvering a pair of rickety carts loaded with prayer books and a Rosh Hashanah feast past a prisoner-painted mural that depicts a SWAT team, guns raised, staring down passersby.

At one point, several packages of pita bread slide off the top of one of the loads. At the rear of the convoy, where a Torah scroll on loan from a Sephardic temple nestles under a tallit, someone makes a joke about Uzzah — the poor guy in 2 Samuel, chapter 6, who meets with God’s wrath when he touches the Ark to keep it from bouncing off an ox cart.

Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, is onhand, along with half a dozen volunteers. As the afternoon sun slants through broken windowpanes 20 feet above the concrete floor, this small group of Jews lays tablecloths and arranges flowers to transform a disused prison dining hall into sacred space.

Simon — his name, like those of other inmates, has been changed to protect his identity — is one of the first inmates to arrive. Now 30, he has lived on the streets or in jail since he was 15. His arms are inked with menacing skulls and demons, but the most affecting tattoo is a single teardrop on his left cheek — a memento he got when his time behind bars passed the five-year mark.

“I get out again in 33 days,” he says, adding that his first stop will be a drug treatment center in Torrance. “This time I’m staying out.”

Eventually the room holds about 20 inmates from Men’s Central and from Twin Towers Correctional Facility across the street.

“You have more rabbis and rabbis-to-be in this room than you’ll ever see again in your life,” Carron tells the men in his prison shul. “Mingle and make use of them.”

The soft buzz of friendly conversation fills the hall.

I manage to get in a few words with Daniel, who looks quietly jubilant.
“Man, this feels so good,” he tells me. “This is like the perfect way to end this experience. I’ve learned so much. It sounds strange, but I’m actually kind of grateful.”

At another table, Gary, an inmate whose hard years are etched onto a face that resembles a walnut, has recognized Pauline Lederer, a wheelchair-bound but sharp-witted nonagenarian who has been volunteering in Los Angeles County jails since the 1930s.

“I first met Pauline in 1983!” Gary exclaims.

After her conversation with Gary, Pauline says, “Things aren’t going well for him. Spending so much time in here is bad for the soul. It’s very sad, but I hope this helps.”

Soon Carron asks everyone to take a seat so that service can begin. Over the next hour, he weaves prayers recalling the Israelites’ liberation from bondage in Egypt with the traditional Rosh Hashana liturgy. Noam Raucher delivers a homily about how his experience shadowing Carron has shaped his understanding of teshuvah, and Alison Abrams opens the rosewood ark to read a passage from the Torah.

At the end of the service, Michael Chusid, a veteran of last year’s Rosh Hashanah celebration at Men’s Central, blows the shofar.

“Every generation has to overcome terrible suffering,” Carron says later, after the last of the roasted chicken and apple tart has disappeared. “What we’re doing on Rosh Hashanah is redeeming that holy spark within us, which is what happened when we crossed the Red Sea. It also points toward the freedom that I hope each of these guys will experience in some way in the New Year.”

Carron’s hope reminds me of Daniel, who’s marking the New Year and his newfound freedom by returning to a life that will be completely the same and totally different from the life he knew six months ago. Really, each day is like that — each day is the beginning of a new year. That’s easy to say, but hard to accept. In my own life, I’m starting to realize that, for now, it’s enough to move through each day as if I accepted it.

So whenever you happen to be reading this, Shana Tova.

For more on Rabbi Carron’s work, see

10 Ideas For Creating Meaningful Volunteer Assignments

Any organization’s program and operational decisions should stem from the philosophy, beliefs and vision that are its reasons for being in the first place. These basic values, however, are often assumed, yet rarely articulated.

It is a worthwhile exercise to identify the values about volunteering in your organization. This helps executives, frontline employees and volunteers themselves think about why volunteers are involved at all. It also helps to create meaningful volunteer assignments, providing a framework for staff and volunteers to work together.

Discussing values about volunteering also puts civic engagement into a broader social context. It’s easy to get so caught up in the daily how-tos of managing a volunteer program that we lose sight of the fact that volunteering is bigger than our one setting, or even this one point in time.

1. Participation by citizens is vital to making democratic communities work

Participatory democracy is based on the value that it is a good thing for citizens to participate in running their communities and in making sure that things happen the way they want. This is the heart of volunteerism and is why, in a free society, volunteering is a right, not a privilege. (This is not to be confused with the parallel right of any agency or individual to refuse the services of a prospective volunteer.)

Volunteering generates a sense of ownership. People who get involved feel connected to others and affected by the outcome of their “sweat equity.” It’s the complete opposite of the attitude “that doesn’t concern me.”

2. Volunteers are more than free labor

First, volunteers are not “free.” There are costs to an agency for their support and tools, as well as out-of-pocket expenses incurred by the individuals donating time.

Most important, when placed in the right positions, volunteers bring a value-added component that actually changes or is lost when a paid employee does the same work. For example, legislators and funders are more receptive to the advocacy of someone not on the organization’s payroll — the perception of credibility that comes from lack of self-interest.

Similarly, some clients, such as children or probationers, may feel that paid workers see them as “just someone on their caseload,” while a volunteer is a “friend.”

The point is not that volunteers are better than employees. It’s that sometimes their status as volunteers can provide a useful difference. Therefore, volunteers can be vital to an organization and an asset even aside from the financial concerns of staffing.

3. Equal respect is due to work that is volunteered and work that is paid

Regardless of the perceptions just discussed, the value of work is determined by its intrinsic quality and impact. Work done by employees does not automatically have a higher value than that done by volunteers (and is also not of lesser value). The contributions of paid and volunteer workers are compatible, collaborative, and integrated.

Even more important, the skills and dedication of the person doing the work are not determined by the presence or absence of a paycheck. There are extraordinary volunteers and extraordinary employees. The potential for excellence always exists.

4. Volunteer involvement is a balance of three sets of rights: those of the client/recipient; those of the volunteer; and those of the agency

Despite wrangling over employee and volunteer points of view, each situation defines which perspective takes precedence. In most cases, the bottom line should be what is best for the recipient of service. But there are also agency and other long-term considerations. The key is not to presuppose that one perspective always outweighs the others.

5. Volunteers, as citizens of a free society, have the right to be mavericks

The way that genuine social change occurs is that a few pioneering volunteers are willing to be ostracized (even jailed) for their actions. While an agency has the right to refuse a placement to a volunteer, that individual has the right to continue to pursue the cause or issue as a private citizen. In fact, that’s exactly what leads to the founding of new organizations and institutions, changes in the law, and even changes in cultural mores (just consider how MADD transformed attitudes about drinking and driving).

This right to see things differently also raises an ethical consideration in how we develop assignments for volunteers within our agencies. Do we expect to keep volunteers always “under control?”

6. Volunteering is a neutral act — a strategy for getting things done

Volunteering is not inherently on the side of the angels, nor is it an end unto itself. It is a means to accomplishing a goal and is done by people on both sides of an issue. Volunteering is a method that allows people to stand up for their beliefs.

7. The best volunteering is an exchange in which the giver and the recipient both benefit

Volunteering should not be confused with charity or noblesse oblige — those who have so much, give to those who have so little. Because volunteering puts the time donor directly into the service delivered, the impact of the activity reverberates back to the volunteer in ways much more complex than writing a donation check. Further, when volunteers also benefit from their service, they have even more motivation to do a good job, which means better service to the recipient, and an upward spiral of reinforcement.

8. Volunteering empowers the people who do it

Volunteering empowers volunteers, both personally and politically. On the personal level, volunteering contributes to individual growth, self-esteem, sense of control, and ability to make a contribution to society. At the community level, the collective action of volunteers who share a commitment to a cause is extremely powerful — real clout for real change.

9. Volunteering is an equalizer

When people volunteer, it is often more important who they are as human beings than what they are on their resumes. In a volunteer role, people can rise to the level of their abilities regardless of their formal qualifications: teenagers can do adult-level work, those with life experience can contribute to client service without a master’s degree, etc. Similarly, when running in a fundraising marathon, the corporate CEO and the school custodian are indistinguishable, as are all members of a nonprofit board of directors who share the legal and fiduciary responsibilities of this position whether they are employed in professional capacities or represent grassroots perspectives.

10. Volunteering is inherently optimistic and future-oriented

No one gives time to a cause they feel will fail. In fact, the whole rationale for volunteering is to assure the success of a cause. So, while people may take a paying job that is relatively meaningless if the salary is enticing, the reward for volunteered service is accomplishment.

This also means that people volunteer with a vision of the future, often in hopes of a better future in which a problem or disease will be conquered, communities will be safe and inclusive, and the world will be in harmony. This may sound terribly mushy (which may be why such a value is not expressed every day), but it is ultimately true.

Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, a training, publishing and consulting firm specializing in volunteerism. Her Web site is

Drive Sends Love, ‘Gratitude’ to Troops

As Carolyn Blashek knows only too well, good things come in small packages. The founder and motivating force behind Operation Gratitude, a nonprofit organization that sends care packages to American troops overseas, Blashek serves as an inspiring testimony to one woman’s dedication to provide faith and hope to lonely soldiers.

Blashek is a Jewish mother in Encino who, like most Americans, was horrified by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. However, her reaction was slightly different than that of the average Jewish mother — she tried to enlist in the military. She soon discovered that, at 46, she exceeded the age limit of 35, and “as a civilian there were very few opportunities to show your support to the military.” She began volunteering at a dilapidated military lounge at LAX, until one day in March 2003 (the outset of the war with Iraq), a heart-wrenching talk with a despondent soldier inspired her to create a system to show soldiers that she cared.

“I’m going back to a war zone,” she recalls him saying. “I just buried my mother, my wife left me and my child died as an infant. I have no one in my life. For the first time I don’t think I’ll make it back, but it really wouldn’t matter because no one would even care.”

Blashek was devastated as she realized that many of the soldiers are fighting in foreign countries without support systems.

“What gives someone the strength to survive when bullets are flying?” she wondered. “The belief that someone cares about you.”

She decided to express her compassion by sending food, entertainment, and personal letters in packages.

“The Jewish mother in me had this need to communicate concern and love and appreciation,” she said with a little laugh. “It’s that sense of nurturing… the Jewish mother element.”

Primarily through word of mouth, the project snowballed. What began three years ago as a humble living room project financed and organized by her alone exploded into an organization that coordinates donation drives for packages across the country.

“Now I’ve sent over 111,000 packages in three years,” she said.

After Operation Gratitude’s third annual Patriotic Drive, which is to take place at the end of this month, she hopes to reach 150,000.

Blashek vividly recalls an emotional encounter she had with Kayitz Finley — the son of her local rabbi, Mordecai Finley of Congregation Ohr HaTorah — to whom she sent packages while he served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both a soldier serving in a distant land and a member of her local community, he became her inspiration. “The first most emotional experience I had through all this was when he came home and he and I got to meet in person for the first time,” she said. “It was at a Saturday morning service. We saw each other, threw our arms around each other and couldn’t stop hugging. Neither of us could get any words out. We both just kept saying ‘thank you’ to each other. It was very powerful.”

Operation Gratitude’s Third Annual Patriotic Drive continues at the California Army National Guard Armory, 17330 Victory Blvd, Van Nuys on June 17-18. Items requested for donation can be found on the website

Karen Gilman: What Makes Her Run?


To try to figure out all the volunteer projects social worker Karen Gilman is involved in — and where she finds the time to do them all — is to sift through a complex maze of stories of individuals who need help, or organizations that need help, or a volunteer staff that needs organization, or funds or whatever she can give.

For her job, Gilman is a social worker, who deals with parents of developmentally disabled children ranging in age up to 3.

“Some of my work-work interferes with my volunteer work,” she joked.

That volunteer work is vast. She served as the sisterhood president of Temple Israel of Hollywood and currently co-chairs its AIDS lunch project, which distributes food once a month. Gilman is also social action chair for the Western Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, which presents the women’s positions on legislative policy.

She also works with Shane’s Inspiration, a nonprofit group that creates handicapped-accessible playgrounds around Los Angeles, and serves on the Special Olympics Mini Meet committee, as well as Fiesta Familiar, a yearly training program for parents of children with disabilities.

There’s more — like volunteering at her temple gift shop and working with the day school children on volunteer projects — but the real questions are: How does she do it? How does she not get burned out?

By way of an answer, she tells stories of second-graders who donated money anonymously so a poor person could celebrate Purim, the school lunch lady who called her to find out what to do for a severely lactose-intolerant child on pizza day and the parents who advocate for their children and “turn their pain in something for their families. That keeps us going,” she said, although even the mere question of what motivates her is curious to her.

“Once in a while, someone will do something out of the kindness of their hearts for someone else,” she said. “When you’re able to pull together the research and make something happen for someone, and they can utilize the resources, it’s gratifying.”

That’s Gilman’s main motivation. She was raised by socially conscious and politically active parents and grandparents in Chicago.

“They set the stage that this was the right thing to do,” she said.

“She doesn’t seek the limelight,” said Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood. “She really does it modestly. She just cares a lot — she knows she has the ability, and she knows a mitzvah and how to do it.”

That’s why the temple decided to surprise her by honoring her — only her — last year.

“They really shouldn’t have done it,” Gilman said, more embarrassed than upset. “Everyone works together on all these projects, and no one person is more deserving than another for praise. The highest form of giving charity is doing so anonymously, so it’s not really good to draw attention to oneself in one’s charitable work.”

For Gilman, volunteering is a team effort, one that requires motivating others to join her: “They are doing something good together with their friends, you get to spend a great time together with your community and it will make you feel good. People love giving anonymously and selflessly. Usually, Jewish people are easy to convince. They usually understand the concept of charity pretty well.”

Karen Gilman


Avi Leibovic: Guardian Angel of the Streets

Jack and Katy Saror: Help Knows No Age

Joyce Rabinowitz: A Type Like No Other

Saul Kroll: Healing Hand at Cedars-Sinai

Jennifer Chadorchi: The Hunger to Help

Steven Firestein: Making Magic for Children

Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen: Kindness Starts at Home

Moshe Salem: Giving a Voice to Israelis

David Karp: A Guide for Unity in Scouting


Friends in Deed

On Feb. 17, David Nathanson hosted a silent auction at his L.A. home for more than 100 young executives – and special guest 5th District L.A City Councilman Jack Weiss – to benefit nonprofit Yemin Orde Youth Village in Israel.

Located just south of Haifa, the 500 children who call Yemin Orde home come from 22 different countries. These immigrant, disadvantaged and refugee children, who have experienced trauma of one form or another, are defined as at-risk youth, and the Village provides them with a home, high-quality care and an education.

“Yemin Orde never closes and we never turn a child away who has nowhere else to go,” said Dr. Chaim Peri, director of Yemin Orde Youth Village, during his two-day visit. “Support from the Los Angeles community will help us to continue our care, and support our alumni.”

“It’s very clear that Angelenos are interested in learning more about the incredible work of the Yemin Orde Youth Village,” Weiss said. “Yemin Orde is turning at-risk youth into productive members of Israeli society. It’s an organization worthy of support, and a model for Los Angeles to study.”

High Hopes

As trumpeters heralded the moment, City of Hope supporters entered the sleek new Betty and Irwin Helford Clinical Research Center in Duarte on Feb. 13. The futuristic hospital replaces a building constructed back in 1937.

“As we open the doors of this magnificent facility, we recognize that we are metaphorically and literally opening the doors to the next century of this institution’s existence and its service to humanity,” said Dr. Theodore G. Krontiris, executive vice president of medical and scientific affairs.

Completed just weeks earlier, the 347,000-square-foot center is slated for patient occupancy this spring and incorporates innovative features to meet the needs of patients with compromised immune systems.

Honorees Irwin and Betty Helford were recognized for providing a $36 million gift that fueled development of the $200 million center.

“We’re very proud to be part of City of Hope, and grateful to have the ability to do this,” said Irwin Helford, chairman emeritus of Viking Office Products. He said he viewed the gift not only as a contribution, but also as an investment in the people of City of Hope, and recounted many acts of kindness and generosity he witnessed by hospital staff over the years. – Nancy Sokoler Steiner, Contributing Writer

A Humbled Humanitarian

In accepting the Ambassador of Humanity Award from Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, former President Bill Clinton described the refusal of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration in 1939 to admit 900 Jewish refugees aboard the German ship, St. Louis, as “one of the darkest chapters in United States history.”

Clinton, who addressed a star-studded audience of some 750 on Feb. 17, also apologized and asked forgiveness for his failure to intervene in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which 1 million victims were slaughtered during a three-month period.

Established by Spielberg following the global success of his film, “Schindler’s List,” the foundation is currently processing the last of nearly 52,000 videotaped testimonies of Holocaust survivors and witnesses.

In his brief and thoughtful address, Clinton explored his longstanding concern with the roots of human hatred, thanking his grandparents for “growing up to despise racism” in a small, segregated Southern town.

One of the country’s most accomplished politicians himself, Clinton ascribed the cause of ethnic hatreds mainly to power-hungry politicians indoctrinating their followers with “the fear of the other.”

“How can we survive in a global society in which we have to have enemies?” he asked.

Clinton paid special tribute to assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as “A man I loved as much as anyone I know.”

The annual event, was held on the Universal Studios backlot under a huge tent, occasionally shaken by gusts of rain and wind.

Actor Tom Cruise served as master of ceremonies and such Hollywood stars as John Travolta, Sharon Stone and Scarlett Johansson were in attendance.

Stand-up comic Robin Williams, in one of his patented multiaccented monologues, welcomed the fashionably dressed guests to “Temple Beth Prada” and assured them that the dinner had been prepared under dietary laws separating milchig (dairy), fleishig (meat) and sushidik ingredients. – Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Diamonds Are Forever

Jim and Laura Maslon and Shirley and Edgar Phillips received Lifetime of Service Awards at the Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) 75th anniversary diamond-studded gala on Jan. 29 in front of 400 guests at the Loews Santa Monica Hotel.

The Maslons began their volunteer life together at the Venice Art Walk and Jim Maslon is a former president of JVS. Laura Maslon serves on the JVS Marketing Committee as well as the board of the Contemporary Art Council at LACMA, and the executive committee of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Edgar Phillips has been a board member of JVS since the 1970s and is co-founder of the JVS Jewish Community Scholarship fund. Shirley Phillips is devoted to The Helping Hand that runs the nonprofit gift shop at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

The gala event, hosted by Monty Hall, was attended by local elected officials and longtime agency supporters City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo; mayoral candidate and former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg; City Councilman Jack Weiss; L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and his wife Barbara; Jewish Federation President Harriet Hochman; and Michelle Kleinert, deputy director of community affairs for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“We believe that putting people to work and assisting them to have meaningful careers is the key to achieving our core mission,” said JVS CEO Vivian Seigel.

Beyond Rebbitzen

Women rabbis from Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and Arizona gathered on Feb. 24 at the University of Judaism’s (UJ) Gindi Auditorium in Bel Air to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Conservative movement’s first ordained female rabbi.

As part of the celebration, “Women in the Rabbinate” was the topic of this year’s Torah Fund Study Day, held by the Torah Fund Campaign for the Pacific Southwest Branch of Women’s League for Conservative Judaism.

The day, which focused on what the coming decades hold for women as they make their voices heard, included a panel discussion with Rabbi Leslie Alexander, community chaplain for the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley; Rabbi Sherre Zwelling Hirsch of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles; and Rabbi Sally Olins of Temple B’nai Hayim in Sherman Oaks. Gail Labovitz, Talmudic scholar and assistant professor of rabbinic studies at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the UJ, was the keynote speaker.

The day began with greetings from UJ President Robert Wexler and

Ziegler School Dean Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson.

Real Treasures

Elsewhere on the UJ front: On Feb. 22, the University Women of the UJ presented a check for $30,000 to UJ President, Robert Wexler. The proceeds, raised from sales at the Treasures of Judaica Gift Shop at the UJ, are part of the group’s annual grants allocations program, which supports student scholarships.

After the event, four UJ students discussed their scholarly goals: second-year Gershom Sizoumu, spiritual leader of the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda; first-year Gary Buchler, who has led more than 150 college-age students on their first visit to Israel; first-year Penina Podwol, who graduated cum laude from UCLA and is the daughter of a Chicago-area Conservative rabbi; and fourth-year Michael Werbow, who has worked with Jewish youth programs around the country.

Jewry’s Myopic Plan

The call for “Jewish continuity” sounded by American Jewish communal leaders more than a decade ago as an antidote to rising intermarriage rates and other signs of weakening identity has spawned a veritable industry aimed at making American Jews more Jewish. There has been an ever-more impressive array of endeavors to promote day schools, send kids to Israel, transform synagogues and bolster adult Jewish learning, to name just a few.

No one has ever doubted the formidable organizational prowess of American Jewry. But it would be too bad if the lesson we take from this decade of effort is reduced to the simple formula of the more Jewish exposure and experience, the merrier.

From here it’s far too easy to fall into an all-or-nothing mode about the future of Jewish life. Doing more — that is seeking to deepen and enrich the Jewish experience of American Jews — threatens to devolve into a message to do only Jewish, as if this were truly a communal goal of American Jews. This would be a great danger for an American Jewish community that dearly needs to find an animating vision for the 21st century.

It’s amazing how myopic things have gotten. The trends that get routinely tracked about American Jewish life — about volunteering and charitable giving, choices about schooling, the long list of religious behaviors and cultural practices — tell only part of the story. They are used to signal a person’s Jewish commitments, but if used exclusively, they end up being insular.

Is it really a communal goal to have “all Jewish friends,” as news reports about the correlates of strong Jewish identity typically imply? While this may be one feature of living in an environment where Jewishness is taken seriously, the religion of your friends says nothing about the values and beliefs you hold dear. A person can just as easily go shopping or chill out in front of the television with one’s Jewish buddies as with non-Jewish pals.

The overly simplified approach to counting the Jewish blessings threatens to dumb down the profound challenges of being Jewish in America. What we need most is a picture of how people connect the multiple aspects of themselves — being a Jew, being an American, being a human being. Our ideal should be to create a community that is particular without being parochial.

In their quest to strengthen the identity of American Jewry, communal leaders would do well to study what visual artists call negative space. In painting or drawing, the space around the object is just as important as the object itself. A good artist strives for a balance between the positive space, the object and the negative space around it, the background. The art is in the interplay between the two, rather than in over-attending to one aspect over the other.

There are two orientations about Jewish identity today in America: The rejectionist, zero-sum view that either you reject America in order to remain exclusively Jewish or else you disappear into America through assimilation, and the view that these two aspects of identity can be truly integrated together.

The zero-sum view of identity, which forces American Jews to choose between religious life and partaking more broadly of the world, is exemplified today by charedim on one end of the spectrum and the completely assimilated on the other. The integrated view of identity, by contrast, is shared by a wider spectrum of American Jews who are engaged as both Jews and Americans — and who might even see the two aspects as enhancing each other. At the very least, they see them as compatible.

Such is the case with a jaunty, baseball-loving rabbi I know, who explains his penchant for tuning into televised games on Shabbat, while otherwise shunning the tube on the seventh day, with the following logic: “There are nine months of the year for God and three for baseball!”

The question before us is what does the rabbi’s adjustment of his Shabbat observance during the baseball season reveal about the challenges of being Jewish in America?

No doubt some communal arbiters will express outrage at the tradeoff, finding scandalous the idea that a rabbi allows baseball to trump his normally television-free Shabbat observance. They will deem him to be inconsistent and will impugn his motives, arguing that he is being religious merely when it’s convenient.

But they would, unfortunately, be offering too myopic a reading of the rabbi’s story, one that assumes being a good Jew is a bit like maintaining an all-Jewish, all-of-the-time way of life. Consider what this story shows about the person as a whole. There are two essential parts of his being: his Jewish religious self and his passionate identity as a Red Sox fan — that ever-suffering baseball team being more aligned to the Jewish soul than any other.

His Red Sox allegiance goes far in explaining his acute need to tune in live and in color. He doesn’t forego Shabbat in the summer months; rather, he splices these into a single whole and avoids a life broadcast on two different channels.

Perhaps he even says a regular blessing for his team and his tribe.

Bethamie Horowitz, a social psychologist, is research director for the Mandel Foundation. Copyright 2004 (c) The Forward

Center Aids Iranians in Need of Help

After only a few months in Los Angeles, Shirley N., a 30-year-old Jewish immigrant from Iran, almost returned to her homeland because of financial difficulties.

"I was down, I was broke, I didn’t have anyone here, and I was also worried about my family in Iran," Shirley said. "I would have probably gone back to Iran if it weren’t for all the miraculous help of these ladies and SIAMAK."

"These ladies" Shirely refers to are Manigh Youabian and Manizheh Yomtoubian, co-director for the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center’s charity outreach.

With a substantial number of affluent and financially successful Persian Jews living in Southern California, it might be hard to believe there are some who live below the poverty line. Yet Youabian and Manizheh and their volunteers encounter this all-too-sad reality every day.

"We help them because no one else does, and we offer them what they cannot receive from welfare; or some don’t have any documents in this country but are hungry," said Youabian, who has been volunteering for the past 14 years. Co-director Yomtoubian has volunteered for the last 14 months, and together they help provide food, home furnishings, clothing, transportation, financial assistance and even temporary housing to approximately 100 Persian Jewish families living in poverty in Los Angeles.

The organization provided Shirley with food, clothing, rent money and even a used car to get around, and it also recently granted her a full college scholarship because of her high grades.

"If I wanted to say what they’ve have done for me, it’s beyond words," said Shirley, who is now a student at Santa Monica College and works part-time at Starbucks. "They’ve helped me financially and emotionally. I don’t have anyone here; they’ve basically been my family."

Originally working with the Iranian American Jewish Association of Southern California (SIAMAK) — one of the oldest Iranian Jewish organizations in the city, which in February merged with the Eretz Cultural Center in Tarzana — the group has taken up the monumental task of providing support to Iranian Jews just barely getting by in Los Angeles. With their primary goal to feed hungry Jews locally, the new Eretz-SIAMAK organization subsidizes food expenses for needy families by giving them $50 to $100 worth of coupons per month — depending on their income — help from other organizations and assistance from people in their households, Yomtoubian said.

Food coupons are used by many struggling families at Glatt Mart and F&Y Kosher Market in West Los Angeles and at Q-Market in Van Nuys, all kosher markets that have entered into contracts with Eretz-SIAMAK to assist those in need. On a daily basis, the organization is bombarded with desperate phone calls for help from locals who have discovered by word of mouth or by the organization’s monthly magazine, Iranian Jewish Chronicle (Chashm Andaaz), of the group’s charitable efforts, said Lili Kahen, a volunteer of nine-years.

"People call me at the office here or even at home asking for help because they’ve lost their job and beg us for one more bag of rice or gallon of oil," Kahen said.

Youabian, who often makes personal deliveries to some of the families’ homes, said the organization not only helps local Persian Jews in need but also new Iranian Jewish immigrants struggling to make ends meet in Los Angeles.

"A lot of [Persian Jews] who come here from Iran or Israel have absolutely nothing — no clothes, no furniture — and we give them those basic things they need to get by," Youabian said.

For many recipients, it’s more than just financial support from the organization: it’s the emotional bonds forged.

Elisa P., a 14-year-old resident of the San Fernando Valley, said that Yomtoubian "is so amazing — not only did she help me get a lawyer for my green card and gave me food coupons, but she’s been like a mother figure to me." She said she shares a special relationship with Yomtoubian, who has become a second mother to her after her own mother died in Israel five years ago and her father has been in a coma in an Israeli hospital.

"She really cares about me, let’s me into her life, gives me confidence in myself, and that makes me feel special that there’s someone who cares," said Elisa, who currently lives with her 75-year-old grandfather.

The two women’s charitable work has also motivated younger Jews to volunteer their time locally.

"After I found out that there are Jews in L.A. who don’t have food for Shabbat dinner, I was heartbroken," said Eman Esmailzadeh, a 21-year-old Brentwood resident. "It was very simple for me to give back to the community and this was the best way possible." He and six other college and high school Jewish students have volunteered to deliver food parcels to families in need of food on Shabbat throughout the city.

Dariush Fakheri, co-founder of Eretz-SIAMAK, said besides helping poor Iranian Jews locally, his organization has, on numerous occasions, come to the aid of non-Jews by handing out food parcels to the homeless downtown and even donating medicine to Bosnian Muslims during the recent Balkans War.

Having cooperated with the Hope Foundation, Torat Hayim, the Iranian Jewish Federation and SOVA, Yomtoubian said Eretz-SIAMAK would like to collaborate with other local Jewish groups who are aiding poor Jewish families.

Volunteers said their greatest challenge has been overcoming the lack of resources to help everyone who has approached them for help.

"The most difficult part is when we have to put a limit on the help we can offer because we just don’t have the money every time to help everyone," Youabian said.

And There Was Music

At Sinai Akiba Academy recently, Bryna Vener vigorously conducted close to 100 first- through-eighth-graders in a passionate rendition of "Hava Nagila" as students danced in their seats. If the atmosphere was celebratory, it was because the assembly was a dress rehearsal for the orchestra’s 25th anniversary concert and alumni reunion June 10, when graduates will return to fete Vener and her remarkable group.

"What Bryna is doing is so important because she’s built perhaps the oldest and largest orchestra of that age level of Jewish children, anywhere," said Russell Steinberg, director of the Stephen Wise Music Academy.

"When she began, Proposition 13 had created a big void in music education in the public schools, which is only now starting to come back," said Sinai music teacher Adam Lerman. "So it was unique for these children to have an orchestra to go to."

The charismatic Vener, a conservatory-educated violinist, founded the orchestra when she herself became a casualty of Proposition 13 after teaching public school music for more than a decade.

When she enrolled her daughter, Dvora, at Sinai in 1979, she approached Rabbi Laurence Scheindlin with an idea: "I said, ‘If you let me do this on a volunteer basis, I promise you a Chanukah concert in two months," she recalled. "After the concert, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and the rabbi said, ‘Good. Now you can play for Purim?’"

Since then, the group has grown from 18 to almost 100 students — including a more accomplished group of chamber players — all of whom study privately as a condition of joining the program. At several yearly concerts, they play Jewish and Israeli music and "easy classics," such as Rossini’s "William Tell Overture"; they’ve also performed for the Israeli president, at Disneyland and for the opening of downtown’s Central Library.

At the recent assembly, 20-year-old alumnus Jeremy Stern, who just finished his Israeli army service, said he thought of the orchestra when he performed " with his yeshiva band.

While other students have gone on to become professional musicians, "that’s not why we teach music," Vener said. "We do it so students will become more sensitive, so they will learn to recognize beauty and develop a team spirit."

The 59-year-old Vener herself radiates that spirit: "This orchestra has been her passion for 25 years," said teaching assistant Sheri Caine-Marks, whose children are orchestra alumni. "She just exudes that energy."

For information about the 7 p.m. concert at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, 4401 W. 8th St., Los Angeles, call (323) 525-0146.

Rewriting Lives

David Levinson, 44, has written for television, theater and feature films. He and his wife Ellen Herman, also a television writer, have crafted a good life from an unforgiving business, with a home in Hancock Park and three growing children, who, he informed me over lunch this week, are wonderful.

Levinson’s play, "The Great Wall," ran at the Coast Playhouse last year. It was about a Brentwood man who must decide whether to accept $5 million to kill a nameless Chinese peasant. "It was really about the moral and spiritual crisis of a rich guy in L.A.," he said.

Of course, compared to a Chinese peasant, compared to many people in this city, we are all rich guys in Los Angeles, and we all face the moral and spiritual question of what is our responsibility to those less fortunate.

I’ve always believed there are several layers of self-interest involved in this question. Helping those around us improves the quality of the city we call home. If you aren’t sure whether it’s better to live in a city where most people are well-educated and well-housed, get on the 405 and drive three hours south. Beyond that, helping others satisfies a part of us that no amount of spa treatment, shopping trips or dinners at Bastide (as if) can slake.

Levinson, 44, knows this well. He was already on the social action committee of Temple Israel of Hollywood when the synagogue, inspired by a similar program held by L.A. Works, decided to launch a Mitzvah Day in 1999. At first it was similar to the dozens of other similar events held by events and agencies, both Jewish and not, in town. Then Levinson received a call from a nun at Covenant House, a home for at-risk youth, near Hollywood. "She said, ‘Our kids really want to help, they really want to volunteer,’" Levinson recounted. "That changed everything."

Soon street-tough former drug addicts were working side by side with temple volunteers to raise money for a scholarship program in Tijuana. "Everybody started working together and it changed the tone of the whole group," Levinson said.

From then on, Levinson and the Mitzvah Day steering committee changed the model of the event to one of partnership. It wasn’t enough for a minister of a South L.A. church to invite volunteers in for a day of assistance. Levinson, who chairs the event, and his 12 steering committee members, made sure lay leaders at these churches and groups wanted to be involved as well. "I thought if we did it we should do it in cooperation with others," he said. "Going in and having the haves helping the have-nots felt uncomfortable. It was a question of dignity."

"David totally figured it out," said David Lehrer, director of Community Advocates, Inc., which works with groups throughout the city and has joined Levinson in his mission. "Charity has to be a two-way street so it doesn’t have that patronizing smell to it."

The first Mitzvah Day attracted 10 nonprofit groups and a few dozen volunteers. Last year 70 groups and some 2,500 volunteers served about 100 different nonprofits. This year the day is expected to attract 3,500 people. L.A. Works, which has been doing volunteer days for 10 years, attracts between 1,000-4,000 people. But Mitzvah Day’s numbers are even more impressive when you understand who Levinson has brought into the fold.

Through a combination of word of mouth and old-fashioned cold calling, word of the successful day spread throughout that network of nonprofits and schools that provide the woof to commerce’s warp here. Private schools — Windward, Oakwood, Curtis Malborough and others — came aboard. The Archdiocese brought in Catholic high schools from Long Beach to Oxnard. The Girl Scouts, the Red Cross, Jewish Family Service and the Los Angeles chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution joined in, among others. "That a Jewish organization is doing that kind of outreach is very significant," L.A. Works Co-Chair Donna Bojarsky said.

Many Jewish organizations hold Mitzvah Days or similar events to encourage their members to volunteer their time in the greater Los Angeles community. Temple Israel’s has become the largest, in the process merging with those of other synagogues’, from Beth Chaim Chadashim (BCC), a largely gay and lesbian congregation, to Orthodox shuls and schools like Shalhevet, YULA, Beth Jacob and B’nai David Judea.

Thus, Levinson found himself in the position of watching volunteers from BCC, B’nai David and Mothers of East L.A. working together at the Soto Street Children’s Center in Boyle Heights. Only in L.A.

Levinson, urged on by some private schools who needed reassurance that the day is nondenominational and nonpolitical, changed Mitzvah Day’s name to Big Sunday last year.

Otherwise, the day’s fundamentals remain constant. Volunteers are asked to pay nothing. Even a $15 Big Sunday T-shirt may be more than a low-income volunteer could afford. Underwriters and sponsors, including Temple Israel, provide for the $50,000 annual budget.

Every skill is put to use. Make-up artists provide makeovers to homeless women hunting for jobs. Set designers and landscape artists remake children’s centers, actors read stories at literacy centers, knitters help a group called Stitches From the Heart crochet blankets and caps for premature and needy babies across the country. Levinson has noticed it is easy to find among the synagogues involved lawyers and doctors, but harder to find good carpenters. "If people have none of these talents, we throw parties so all they have to do is come and be friendly," he said. "If they can’t be friendly, they can give blood." Sign up is simple, too. You go to, pick a project off a menu and register.

This Friday, Feb. 6, Temple Israel of Hollywood is honoring Levinson at an unusual temple fundraiser. "David is a unique prophetic spirit in our community," Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel said. "He loves people and he loves Los Angeles." Admittance to the event is free. Monies will be raised through the sale of sponsorships and a tribute books.

The temple expects hundreds of church congregants and social service workers from across Los Angeles to attend.

Chun-Yen Chen will be there. She is executive director of the Asian Pacific Women’s Center (APWC), a transitional housing program for victims of domestic violence. Three years ago, Levinson called her and asked what Big Sunday could do to help. The knock on events like Big Sunday is that they are one-off experiences, providing a short spurt of feel-good but hardly changing anyone’s lives. Chen disagreed. Levinson and other Big Sunday volunteers have kept in touch with APWC all year, helping whenever they can. "Every time we have a need we call David," Chen said. "He has a lot of people we can share with. He has been a blessing."

As a writer in Hollywood, Levinson said, he has known from indignities: calls not returned, projects stalled, dreams fallen short. But instead of seeking refuge in whining and moaning, he has found an outlet that provides dignity, instant gratification, and helps other people’s dreams come true. "In the entertainment business peoples’ dignity is often compromised and their status is always changing," he said. "I knew standing at the pulpit at a gospel church in South Central addressing the congregation about Mitzvah Day my life had taken a turn I never expected. But we all live in L.A., and we want to make this city better." And, he might add, ourselves along with it.

A Jewish Diet

The Tu B’Shevat seder, with its many fruit and nuts, challenges us to reconsider our usual diets, and the recommended Jewish diet. While the FDA recommends a diet high in grains, rich in nutrients and low in saturated fats, Judaism recommends a diet high in holiness, rich in consciousness and connection, and low in selfishness. These four factors guide not only a Jewish diet, but also a Jewish life.

As Jews, we’re commanded to strive for holiness in every facet of our lives. One ritual and spiritual practice that helps us infuse holiness into our daily life, is offering blessings. Offering a bracha or a blessing with mindful consciousness — known in Hebrew as kavanah — helps us transform apparently mundane acts into moments rich with spiritual potential. Saying a blessing before and after each meal ensures that we stop to appreciate our food and its Ultimate Source. In our tradition, eating without blessings to thank God is like stealing from the Source of Life, while robbing ourselves of spiritual awareness. Judaism tells us a proper diet should include healthy portions of holiness — ideally beginning and ending each meal with blessings.

A second key ingredient in a Jewish diet is consciousness. Maintaining a traditional Jewish diet requires a high degree of consciousness in order to follow the ritual guidelines of kashrut commonly described as keeping kosher. The word kosher, which means ritually fit, can apply to a wide range of subjects from the food we eat to the wedding rings we may wear. In the dietary realm, the core ideas of kashrut are defined in the Bible. While the biblical Garden of Eden narrative clearly defines a vegetarian diet as ideal, our Noah narrative highlights the human lust for blood and meat. In Judaism meat eating can be seen as a concession to human blood lust, which was allowed, but highly regulated through ancient cultic ritual and the practice of kashrut.

As we know, the biblical traditions of kashrut include definitions, prohibitions and guidelines for treating animals. Kosher land animals have cloven hoofs and chew their cud (thus cows and most herbivores can be kosher, but pigs and all carnivores are treif, or un-kosher). Kosher fowl essentially include all birds except birds of prey. Kosher marine life must have fins and scales and may not be scavengers. According to kashrut, meat and dairy products may not be mixed, and traditional kosher homes have separate dishes, silverware, cookware and utensils for meat and dairy products.

While kashrut allows the slaughter and consumption of animals for food, it demands that the animals be treated with respect. Judaism requires the schochet (ritual slaughterer) to perform his duties consciously minimizing pain and maximizing reverence for life and the Life Source.

A third dish in the Jewish diet is connection. Our foods connect us symbolically to the teaching of our tradition, and sociologically to our heritage. This is best reflected in the Passover meal, or seder. Tradition teaches us that in this ritual meal, bitter horseradish represents the bitterness of slavery and saltwater reminds us of the tears of bondage, while fresh spring herbs symbolize the promise of hope. Through the Passover meal, food helps us symbolically reenact the journey from slavery to freedom. Similarly, the oily latkes and sufganiyot of Chanukah, remind us of the remarkable events surrounding the rededication of the oil lamps that burned in the ancient Temple.

A Jewish diet also connects people through a program of communal meals. One of the joys of the Sabbath is joining friends and family for a celebratory meal — by tradition this should be the best meal of the week. Every life-cycle event — bris, baby namings, b’nai mitvah, weddings and funerals — is accompanied by a communal meal. These meals and the food we often serve, connect us not only to our family, but to our particular familial heritage.

Our tradition demands that our diet be not only high in holiness and rich in consciousness and connection but also low in selfishness. We are commanded to share our bread with the hungry, even to feed our animals before we feed ourselves. At every Passover seder, we’re expected to call out to all who may pass, all who are hungry, let them come and eat. We strive to make providing food to the hungry a regular part of our Jewish practice, contributing to food pantries and volunteering at soup kitchens.

Mazon is a Hebrew word that means food. It is also an international Jewish organization that urges us to donate 3 percent of the cost of a celebration (such as a wedding or bar mitzvah party) to help feed the hungry the world over. Our blessing after meals includes the phrase "Chazan et hakol," praising God for providing food for all who live. We realize we must be partners with God to realize this promise.

As we know, there is enough food to sustain all who live on this planet if only we’ll be partners with God in the distribution of our resources — learning to share our abundant blessings with those in need. At times, in our world full of hunger, poverty and suffering, the blessings of holiness, compassion, connection and selflessness may seem distant ideals. The Source of Life and Sustenance, which we sometimes call God, may seem distant when we see the eyes of a hungry child.

Leo Baeck, a great rabbi who was sent to concentration camps by the Nazis, was once asked where God was during the Holocaust. His answer? Every time one prisoner helped another to drag a heavy wagon or shared one hard crust of bread with another starving inmate, God was there in the helping and sharing.

May we who are blessed with abundance, be blessed also with the strength, will and conviction to share what we have.

This is the foundation of a Jewish spiritual diet.

Sheryl Nosan-Blank is rabbi at Temple Beth Torah of the San Fernando Valley.

Mel Levine to Chair

Former U.S. Rep. Mel Levine has been tapped as chair of the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC), a move that some observers said they hoped would restore the luster of the embattled agency.

Levine, a Democrat who served in the House of Representatives for 10 years and in the state Assembly for five, said his political experience will help him reach out to leaders in Washington and Sacramento to win their support for local Jewish agencies. He also said his background has taught him the importance of coalition building with other groups, a skill that should serve him well in his new position.

"I do bring one broad presumption to the position," he said. "It’s that the Jewish community has a stake in the broader community, and it is important to forge and maintain credible and enduring relationships with leaders of other ethnic groups in Southern California."

As for specifics, the still boyish-looking 60-year-old Levine said he would hold off on setting priorities until after conferring with JCRC and other community leaders.

JCRC executive board member Barbara Yaroslavsky said she thought Levine’s appointment would inject energy into the agency. His leadership should "restore JCRC’s position at the local, state and national political scene," she said.

Carol Koransky, who’s temporarily heading JCRC, said she expected Levine’s high-profile involvement to generate excitement in the community and attract new volunteers.

Founded 60 years ago, the JCRC, an agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, seeks to serve as the voice of the local Jewish community, speaking out on governmental policy and advocating for Israel and world Jewry. It also seeks to deepen ties with different ethnic and religious groups in the broader Los Angeles community.

Levine’s appointment comes at a time when the JCRC continues to reel from the unexpected layoff of Michael Hirschfeld as executive director and The Federation’s decision to eliminate his position as a full-time, stand-alone job. During his 24 years with the agency, Hirschfeld won plaudits for his work, including co-founding KOREH L.A., a literacy program for children.

Federation President John Fishel has said he took the move solely because of budget considerations and that JCRC remained a priority. However, several critics said they thought Fishel’s action reflected a diminished emphasis on community relations. Koransky, also The Federation’s senior vice president of policy, planning and community development, has assumed Hirschfeld’s duties.

Nationally, JCRCs have seen their influence wane as organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and other groups have increasingly promoted tolerance and interethnic cooperation. Federations’ relatively flat fundraising has added to the woes of JCRCs, which have found themselves competing for a shrinking pool of dollars.

Jay Tcath, chair of the National Association of JCRC Directors, said he thinks Levine’s selection as local JCRC chair is a welcome sign of the L.A. Federation’s newfound commitment to community relations. "It is my understanding that the intention of The Federation is to strengthen the JCRC, and this seems to be one very positive sign of moving in that direction," he said.

Among the country’s 120 JCRCs, Levine appears to be the only former congressman serving as agency chair, Tcath added.

Levine said he joined the JCRC at the behest of new Federation Chair Harriet Hochman, who told him the agency would play a central role in her administration. Although Levine has not been active in Federation activities for years, he said he is no stranger to JCRC. Levine said he wanted the chance "to carry on a family commitment."

His father, Sid, served as a permanent vice chair of JCRC and brought Levine to JCRC meetings during his college days at UC Berkeley. As a graduate student at Princeton and later a law school student at Harvard, Levine met frequently with former JCRC Director Joe Roos when visiting home. Roos influenced him greatly, teaching him the importance of building relationships with other ethnic communities and of pursuing a focused political agenda, Levine said.

Levine, who ran unsuccessfully in 1992 for the U.S. Senate, said he has not ruled out running for elective office in the future. As JCRC chair, he said he would work to ensure that the agency remains nonpartisan, although he plans to continue to provide advice to his friends in politics when they seek it.

Hirschfeld, the former JCRC executive director, said Levine’s stature, contacts and track record should make him effective at raising money for The Federation and its agencies and at reaching out to other communities in Los Angeles.

"He’s an absolute perfect choice," Hirschfeld said.

Indiscreet in the IDF

I recently joined some 30 volunteers from a dozen countries as part of Sar-El Volunteers For Israel to work with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). As a Christian Zionist on his third visit to Israel this year, I was mostly united in purpose with the others who came at the outset of the war against Iraq.

For my first weekend, while most of the others headed for Tel Aviv, I went up to Jerusalem. When we returned on Sunday, I told my volunteer friends about my weekend: the story of my lost passport, my visit to the Temple Mount and my patriotic plans while in the Old City.

When I was in Jerusalem, a security guard asked me for my passport, but I must have lost it on a crowded street. They then asked me if I had a weapon inside my guitar case, and asked me to open it. (When telling this story to the other volunteers, I quipped, “If I did have a gun, I’d like to shoot Yasser Arafat with it.”)

I told the soldiers why Americans appreciate and support Israel. They were grateful, and let me through.

When I was meandering through the dark streets of Old Jerusalem, I inadvertently came upon an entrance to the Temple Mount right in front of the Dome of the Rock. Dressed like a tourist, I thought to get as close as possible. As I approached the quiet steps, neither the two policemen to my left nor the guard at the door seemed to stir, so I ascended to the door. The guard spoke in Arabic; when I said, “I only speak English,” he told me I had to go back. I was content to have been one step from the Temple Mount and seen the Dome of the Rock so close. The Arab policemen never moved from their seats, and no one asked to see my passport. I then went to the Kotel.

Then I told my friends that I had brought a few American flag stickers. I only had four of them, each half the size of a postcard. Muslims in Israel have burned American flags and openly showed support for Saddam Hussein, so I hoped to offer a symbolic gesture on lampposts near the north gate. But these areas were crowded, and I did not have an opportunity to apply a sticker. Furthermore, while walking among the Arabs, I developed a deep sense of how they are their own worst enemy, and decided not to do it.

When I arrived back on the base, I let them know that my passport was probably stolen. I was brought to a tightly secure military compound in Tel Aviv to talk to the commander.

“You have been planting American flags in East Jerusalem?” he asked me.

I told him I had a few stickers.

“Stickers?” He was surprised, but continued, “I understand that you tried to get onto the Temple Mount,” and “Didn’t you say that you wish you had a gun so you could shoot Yasser Arafat?” and “Mr. Griffin, what involvement did you have with the police in Jerusalem?” and “What happened to your passport?” and “Did the police take your passport?” and “Were you arrested?”

Then the commander delivered a beautiful oratory, beginning with, “We greatly appreciate the courage and dedication of anyone coming to help the State of Israel at this time,” and ended with, “You represent the Israel Defense Forces every minute you are in this program.”

I was in shock. I could clearly see how I had been indiscreet by discussing these things in public. I realized that I did compromise the integrity of the unit, that military concerns are very different from civilian interests. Unlike politics, nothing is a game — especially during wartime. I understood the commander was responsible for something bigger than my problem.

The next morning, another officer asked me how I lost my passport and if I had been arrested. He then told me, “Regrettably, you have crossed some red lines, so we must dismiss you from the program.”

I deeply regretted if I brought any disgrace to those responsible for me in the Sar-El program, and that I was disqualified to work alongside the IDF.

As I prepared to leave, I also regretted that I never saw the flag go up on the base. During the week that I had been there, the flagpole was waiting for repairs. But on my last afternoon, the army was testing the restored flagpole. I caught a glimpse of the soaring Magen David, and I gave a shout of joy.

The next morning, I left to Jerusalem, on the beginning of a great weekend and personal journey.

It’s not hard to appreciate being alive in Israel.

About my passport: Miraculously, it was found and brought to the U.S. Consulate.

Dutch Griffin is a CAD/CAM programmer and attends Calvary Chapel in Southern California.

Freda Sandrich

Back in Hollywood’s Golden Age, a radio host asked directorMark Sandrich who, in his opinion, was the most alluring woman in Hollywood.”That’s easy,” said Sandrich, who directed such stars as Ginger Rogers andClaudette Colbert. “My wife, Freda.”

Freda Sandrich died Feb. 25 at the age of 103, and to theend, she was easily one of the most alluring women those who knew her wouldever meet.

Early in her long life, Freda, born Freda Wirtschafter in1899 in Trenton, N.J., was wife to her famous husband, Mark, and mother to hersons, Mark Jr. and Jay. The son of a rabbi, Mark Sandrich drew on hisbackground in engineering to become a pioneering director of movie musicals,including “Top Hat,” “Holiday Inn” and “Shall We Dance?” The Sandrich home in Beverly Hills was a haimish gathering place for Hollywood royalty: the Bennys, the Gershwins,the Astaires and Irving Berlin, to whom Freda remained close throughout hislife.

Mark died suddenly of a heart attack in 1945, at the age of45, and Freda’s world shattered. She would never remarry, and would alwaysrefer to Mark as “my husband,” as if carrying on a long-distance relationship,across time and death.

Yet the source of Freda’s allure was not her past, but howshe made people feel in her presence. She was warm and engaging, curious andsupportive. Everyone she met was a dear, every project they cared about wasmarvelous and everyone they cared for was wonderful. And she meant it; a womanwho had suffered much loss in her own life valued above all the presence ofothers. Whatever compliment you paid Freda was returned with, “That means somuch coming from someone as wonderful as you.”

She ate regularly at Fromin’s Deli in Santa Monica(mushroom-barley soup and a half a turkey sandwich, may you, too, live to 103),and all the servers invariably found a reason to stop by her table for a doseof Freda’s love and attention. She lit up to see you (and if you wereaccompanied by a small child, even more so), and instantly engaged friends andstrangers alike with her kindness, humor and intellect.

There was a memorial service for Freda last Sunday inWestwood, and it was clear that for this disparate group of people she was amatriarch — the matriarch of a family brought together solely by the force ofher affection.

She extended that affection to those far-less fortunate,helping at soup kitchens and volunteering for the AIDS charity Tuesday’s Childas recently as this year.

Freda must have led a glamorous life in Hollywood, marriedto one of its leading filmmakers. Her son, Jay, went on to become a renownedtelevision director; her late son, Mark Jr., wrote a Broadway hit; and hergranddaughter, Cathy Sandrich Gelfond, is a top casting director, but Fredanever traded in the stories of the good old days. Name-dropping and Hollywoodgossip were alien to Freda — she revered mensches, not movies.

And it was always clear that she reserved her greatest lovefor her husband. Imagine Freda’s joy now — her daughter-in-law, Linda Sandrich,said at the memorial service — as she is finally reunited with him. Mark Sandrichoffers a hand to Freda, and she hears the words she has been longing to hear,”Shall we dance?”

She is survived by son, Jay; five grandchildren; and fivegreat-grandchildren.

Ask Wendy

Loose Lips Sink Schools

Dear Wendy,

I have spent hundreds of hours volunteering at my children’s
school and I am an active member of the parent council. My kids love the school
and would hate to leave, but there seems to be a problem with loose lips. After
discussing my daughter’s personal problem with one of her teachers, I learned
that this teacher had told another student — who then told others — about the
conversation. In a separate incident I approached the principal about a
suspicion my daughter had concerning her music teacher. The principal then
talked this over with the music teacher, indicating who had lodged the
complaint. Should I change schools?

Surrounded By Blabbermouths

Dear Surrounded ,

There are indeed loose lips around and they include those on
your own face. In the first case, the teacher clearly betrayed your confidence.
However, the teacher would have been in no such position had you not betrayed
your daughter’s confidence in the first place. Did you ask her permission
before entering into this discussion with her teacher? As for the second
incident, the McCarthy era is over; if you lodge a complaint against a teacher,
he must be permitted to defend himself. It may indeed be time for you to change
schools: Volunteer your hundreds of hours elsewhere and create a clearer line
between your life and your children’s. They, however, should remain where they
are happy — which is to say exactly where they are.

Money for Parents?

Dear Wendy,

My parents asked me to buy them a condominium in a swank
building. I can afford to do so (even though the amount is not pocket change to
me) but I turned them down. My parents have saved up all of their lives and
have put aside a sizable nest egg, and have the financial wherewithal to
purchase the apartment for themselves. Since I said no, I sense a distance
between us. I would help my parents if they needed food, clothing and shelter
even if I could not afford it, but last time I read the Ten Commandments it
didn’t mention that children are responsible for purchasing their parents a
condo in an exclusive high rise.

Daughter in Doubt

Dear Daughter,

Parenting isn’t an investment any canny broker would make:
it requires massive outlays, with no guaranteed returns. And at best, the
returns are intangible ones. Which is to say there is no obligation to buy your
parents a condo. There is an obligation to pay dividends in love and attention.
A gift certificate for regular visits to the condo your parents buy themselves
sounds about right to me.

My Kid Saw Me Lie

Dear Wendy,

Last week my 4-year-old caught me in a white lie. She
overheard me tell my sister-in-law that one of my children was sick and that we
would be unable to attend the family dinner. My husband finds get-togethers
with his family so stressful that I was doing him a favor by bowing out of the
dinner without hurting anyone’s feelings. I saved my husband, but I raised a
lot of questions for my daughter. Now what?

Pinocchio Mom

Dear Pinocchio,

I know there are many people who believe that lying of any
kind — even a smallish white lie — is unacceptable. I don’t happen to stand on
that side of the fence. Depending on how old your child is, I suggest you now
tell her as much of the truth as you feel she is able to understand. She isn’t
too young to hear that people sometimes beg off of invitations, even if she is
too young to hear that people sometimes beg off of invitations issued by their
own families. In the future, best not to use your own children as part of any
lie you may spin.

Should Mom Move?

Dear Wendy,

My ailing mother-in-law lives on the opposite coast from her
daughter, two grandchildren and me. We have been encouraging her for many years
to come live near us so that we can be together and she can enjoy her
grandchildren. She does not have close friends or established support systems
where she now lives. But despite our repeated efforts we have yet to make any
headway. How can we help her to make this transition? 

Long Distance In-Law

Dear Long Distance,

You want to be close to your ailing mother-in-law and want
your children to enjoy her company while she can still enjoy theirs. I have the
perfect solution: You and your family should move cross-country to be closer to
her. Some people might think that a major move — particularly in one’s old age
— would be difficult and disruptive, and would read your mother-in-law’s lack
of headway as a clear message. But not you. Since you don’t seem to think a
move is too much to ask — and since you do have youth on your side — you
relocate. If you are not prepared to call the movers, it may be time to accept
that long-distance phone calls are as close as you’re going to get to daily contact
with your mother-in-law.

Jewish Prescription For Health Care Ills

Is our national health care system beyond cure? Rabbi David
Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Dr.
Alexandra M. Levine, medical director of the USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer
Center and Hospital, believe that the Jewish community can take a role in
advancing remedies for our nation’s health care ills.

The two will share their perspectives during Caring for Our
Nation: Jews and America’s Health Care Crisis presentation on Sunday, Jan. 19,
sponsored by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Kalsman
Institute on Judaism and Health and USC’s Casden Institute for the Study of the
Jewish Role in American Life.

Saperstein, who represents the national Reform Jewish
movement to Congress and the Bush administration, was elected as the first
chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that was
created by Congress. An attorney and the co-author of “Jewish Dimensions of
Social Justice: Tough Moral Choices of Our Time” (UAHC, 1999), Saperstein spoke
with The Journal about health care challenges facing our country and the Jewish
response to this issue.

Jewish Journal: How is health care a Jewish issue?

David Saperstein: Jewish values mandate that every society
has a decent health care system and that access to health care is a fundamental
right of all people. This is also a Jewish issue to the extent that a
disproportionate number of people involved in health care provision are Jewish.

Additionally, it has an impact because the Jewish community
has the oldest median age of any community in America. This impacts Jewish
social service agencies that are funded by our federations and private
charities that administer to the needs of our community. Issues like Medicare
reform, prescription drugs, long-term disability, Alzheimers — these are all
problems that disproportionately affect the Jewish community.

I would add that there are issues of concern relating to
bioethics, genetic research and cloning. [The Reform Action Committee is]
playing a very active role working on legislation that will prevent genetic
discrimination and insure privacy of genetic information. This issue is
especially important for the Jewish community, given that we display specific
genetic tendencies.

JJ: How would you characterize the nation’s health crisis?

DS: We are the wealthiest nation in the world, with the best
doctors, best hospitals and best medical care for those who can afford it. Yet
of all the developed countries in the world, we have the highest number of
people who are uninsured and the highest per capita cost for providing medical

This has created a crisis that affects nearly every aspect
of our society. Our country has an enormous stake in trying to significantly
improve the health care system.

JJ: With such challenges as spiraling health care costs,
nursing shortages, growing numbers of uninsured and aging baby boomers, how do
we begin to address this seemingly vast and complex issue?

DS: There are two different approaches. One is to create a
universal health care system, either along the lines of a single-payer system
or a mix of different kinds of funding approaches akin to the Clinton proposal.

The  second is to do it incrementally, which would likely
begin by building on successful parts of Medicare, Medicaid and SCHIP [State
Children’s Health Insurance Program], which provides coverage for 3.5 million
children who otherwise would have slipped through the cracks….

Whether an incremental or universal approach is taken, the
most important thing is to begin to take steps to address the problem, rather
than continuing to turn a blind eye toward it.

JJ: Here in Los Angeles, the county faces an estimated $700
million deficit. We are seeing closures of county clinics, emergency rooms and
hospitals and an uninsured rate of 31 percent. How does Los Angeles stand in
relation to the rest of the nation?

DS: The problems of Los Angeles are a microcosm of the
problems nationwide. While the national uninsured rate is lower than that in
Los Angeles, it is still unconscionably high. There are currently 41 million
uninsured in the United States.

The hospital and ER [emergency room] closures are due to a
number of factors. First, you can’t provide basic health care for the uninsured
in emergency rooms without significantly straining and overwhelming the
capacity of hospitals to function…. So addressing primary health care and
providing basic health care to the uninsured outside the hospital structure
remains a central challenge.

In addition, we need a coordinated program between the
federal government and the state government to begin to put resources into
inner-city hospitals. Finally, we need to deal with the macro issues. Because
if the entire system is strained, the most vulnerable components — such as
urban centers — will feel it first and most extensively.

JJ: What can we as individuals and as Jews be doing to
improve the situation?

DS: Our synagogues can strengthen their bikur cholim
[visiting the sick] programs to support the people in our communities who are

And while we’re strengthening the volunteer segment of our
work, we need to be dealing with policy issues. The Jewish community has a long
history of playing the lead role in coalitions that have helped transform
America into a fairer, more compassionate society….

The Jewish community needs to be at the forefront of efforts
to develop sensible health care reform that can address these challenges. I’m
hopeful this conference will generate some consensus regarding things that our
community can do to play a lead role in moving the process of reform along.

The free program will be held Jan. 19 from 3-5 p.m. at Stephen S. Wise Temple, 15500 Stephen S. Wise Drive, Los Angeles.  For more
information,  call (213) 740-3405.

Model Volunteer

In many ways, 26-year-old Deborah Jennings is typical of the young volunteers at the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) in the Fairfax district. She’s a passionate, college-educated individual who volunteers four to eight hours each week for Talkline, a counseling hotline developed by the NCJW’s Women Helping Women Committee. But she’s not Jewish.

Born and raised in Chicago, Jennings received her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Calvin College, a small liberal-arts school in Grand Rapids, Mich., affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church. Jennings followed up with a stint as a youth counselor and programs director at a Chicago church.

So how did Jennings wind up volunteering at a Jewish organization? In October 1999, Jennings had just moved with her husband, a movie sound editor, from Chicago to Los Angeles. With no job waiting, she answered a classified ad for Women Helping Women, which did not mention its parent organization — NCJW.

"I didn’t really know until I got into it that it was a Jewish organization," said Jennings, who is now the Talkline shift leader on Thursday nights. "It took a little getting used to."

"It’s a different faith, but the same moral principles apply," she pointed out, "a commitment to helping others, reaching out. And there’s great support within the organization. I feel very appreciated among the volunteers."

As a Talkline volunteer, Jennings counsels callers — Jewish and not — who phone in with domestic violence, relationship and financial issues. Not all of those seeking help are women; many men have phoned as well.

Jennings said that there are times when the emotions of her work affect her.

"Sometimes you’re on the verge of tears," Jennings said. "Other times really judgmental. When talking to a caller, you really have to suspend your own beliefs and emotions. We call it ‘putting it in a bubble.’"

The rewards of her volunteering have carried Jennings far beyond her NCJW work. Soon after training began, she landed a job at Hathaway Children and Family Services (a facility similar to Vista Del Mar) as a youth counselor. Her NCJW training — which began with a 54-hour course over two months — provided her with skills that gave her an edge over other Hathaway rookies.

"I already knew what they were talking about, and I could draw on my experience," Jennings said. "That makes me feel good. Also in my own life, if my friend has a problem, I can help her as well."

Despite her transition to Hathaway and her enrollment at Cal State Northridge — where she is pursuing her master’s in counseling — Jennings said that she will remain at Talkline. "I have no plans to quit," she said.

"She’s really a dynamic young woman," Lori Karny, director of Women Helping Women, said of Jennings. "I’m really proud of her."

Some might be surprised to learn that Jennings is not so unusual — in fact, there are many non-Jewish volunteers at NCJW.

"We have men who are not Jewish, too," the director said. "People are very attracted to the work and what we do and the mission of improving our community, and they want to find a place where they are comfortable. Some might ask, ‘Do I have to be Jewish to be involved?’ initially, but then they feel very welcome."

So what will volunteers following in Jennings’ footsteps find at NCJW?

"Opportunities," said Karny. "Working on the Talkline, fielding those calls. It’s very enriching to learn about the community you live in and ways that you can help." And Karny added that the only requirements to join are "a desire to help and a willingness to learn."

For more information about volunteering at the National Council of Jewish Women, call (877) 655-3807.

Holiday Spirit All Year Long

The High Holy Days are always a special time of year, not in a warm and fuzzy way, but in a meaningful, introspective manner, a time when our awareness of how we treat others – in addition to how we treat ourselves – is heightened. This is the time of year when we take stock of the year that passed; when we pick our conscience apart and work harder to find new methods of self-improvement for the year to come. As 5760 pulls out of the station and the bright lights of the oncoming 5761 approach the platform, here are some opportunities to explore your sense of humanity and compassion by getting involved and helping others who might be less fortunate than you.

SOVA Kosher Food Pantry

“Certainly the holidays are a time to get more motivated, to get involved,” says Tamar Gelb, director of SOVA Kosher Food Pantry, which relies on volunteers all year long to distribute food packages to the needy.

At SOVA, volunteers will work out of one of three locations – Beverly/Fairfax, West Los Angeles, and Tarzana – on four-hour shifts. They can choose from two types of jobs: working in intake, which involves interviewing and finding clients, filling out food order slips, and other paper-work; or in the stock room, sorting out food, stocking shelves and breaking down bulk items received. Both are important roles, Gelb says.

What makes SOVA a unique place to volunteer, she adds, is that “it’s a very hands-on, very personal type of volunteering. They see the client come in and go out with some food, so it’s very first-person.”Gelb also would like to see more people turn to their local synagogues and Jewish organizations in the year to come. “They all need volunteers,” she says.

SOVA Metro
7563 1/2 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles 90036; (323) 932-1658
Open Mon. & Wed. 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-12 noon
SOVA Valley
6072 1/2 Reseda Blvd., Tarzana 91356 (818) 342-1320
Open Wed. 10-2 p.m., Fri. 10-noon, Sun. 10:30 a.m.-noon

11310 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles 90025 (310) 473-6350
Open Mon. & Wed. 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Fri. 10 a.m.-1:30 p.m.

SOVA accommodates kosher, vegetarian and diabetic requirements.


Believe it or not, you don’t have to be established and well-off to give back to your community. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles holds leadership development programs through its ACCESS young adult program, which involves both couples and singles ages 25-40 in meaningful volunteering experiences. Recent community-minded undertakings organized by ACCESS include repainting Ohr Eliyahu Day School and delivering food to people living with HIV/AIDS through Project Chicken Soup. ACCESS holds plenty of social functions, too. For more information, call (310) 689-3650, write to, or visit and hit the ACCESS link.

Jewish Family Service

Linda Weigel, program manager of Jewish Family Service’s senior nutrition program, says that volunteers are needed for the organization’s various charitable outlets, including Hirsh Family Kosher Kitchen on Fairfax Avenue. Help is needed in the area of serving and/or home delivering meals.For more information on available shifts, call (323) 937-5843.


Free High Holiday services are available for students at area Hillel locations, including Cal State Northridge, Claremont Colleges, Pierce and Valley Colleges, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara and USC. USC Hillel program director Matt Davidson says that his chapter’s social action group – SC Tzedek – welcomes donations of food or clothing, which will be earmarked for various charitable institutions. For more information, contact Matt Davidson at (213) 747-9135.

Jewish Big Brothers

Jewish Big Brothers (JBB) enlists male volunteers to act as surrogate siblings for children 6-18 years old coming from fatherless homes. JBB also offers a disabilities program matching disabled chidren with similarly disabled Big Brothers, and it sponsors Camp Max Straus, a residential camp for children ages 7-12 who are struggling with emotional or social interaction problems. The camp is open to children of all races and denominations.

For more information on getting involved with JBB programs, write or visit It’ll have a new phone number once The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is settled back at 6505 Wilshire Blvd.

Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging

Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda needs volunteers to help residents with recreational activities, assist with arts and crafts, read books and letters and provide companionship.For more information, call Linda Spitz at (818) 757-4442.

Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE)Programs for Russian-speaking Jews

The BJE’s Russian language division is planning a full holiday schedule that will include a lecture by former refusenik Shimon Grilius, a Shabbat celebration at Chabad’s Russian Center, and a havdalah and dessert function at the Westside Jewish Community Center.

Alla Feldman, the Russian-language division’s director, needs volunteers for the Russian Center portion, as well as for the havdalah event. She adds that her department is always look-ing for people to tutor Russian children in English and Hebrew. People can also lend their time and energy to upcoming Shabbat services and weekend retreats.

To volunteer in any capacity, contact Alla Feldman, (323) 761-8618. Newly arrived Russian immigrants seeking free High Holiday tickets can also call at this number.

Up Front

Dr. Susan Marilyn Block is a nice Jewish girl, who talks about sex on late-night cable TV.

From Esther to… Dr. Suzy?

She dresses up in lingerie that redefines the concept of negative space. She leers at the camera, uses various erotic, um, implements to demonstrate the paths to fulfillment, and generally strives to make callers to her late-night cable access TV show feel that if it feels good and it doesn’t hurt anyone, sex is OK.

If the 40-year-old Dr. Susan Marilyn Block pushes sexual expression with the same single-minded determination of a Jewish parent pushing a bowl of cold borscht, it’s not a coincidence. Block, it may surprise no one to know, is a nice Jewish girl from a dedicated Conservative Jewish upbringing.

Raised in Philadelphia, bat mitzvahed and confirmed at Temple Har Zion, she credits Rabbi Gerald Wolpe and Rabbi Ivan Caine of Society Hill Synagogue with inspiring her to convey serious topics theatrically, and to think critically. Her “Dr. Susan Block Show,” which has inspired an Internet site (, a book (“The Ten Commandments of Pleasure”) and two HBO specials, combines elements of both. As Block, who has her doctorate in philosophy, vamps suggestively, she answers callers’ questions on sexual issues.

The show is not for the delicate, but it can be entertaining and occasionally insightful. On Purim, she retold the story of Queen Esther, though with a decidedly NC-17 twist.

Indeed, Block places herself in a long line of (she says) sensually expressive Jewish women, from Miriam to Esther, from Dr. Ruth to Naomi Wolf. The message? “We can do bad things, but sex in itself is not bad,” she told Up Front.

Block’s first HBO special generated some of the network’s highest ratings. Her second, “Radio Sex TV-2,” will air on HBO on Friday, July 25, at midnight.

Book Soup

Project Chicken Soup volunteers prepare food at Hirsh Family Kitchen in the Fairfax area.Volunteers for Los Angeles Jewish AIDS Services’ Project Chicken Soup have always delivered more than noodle soup to people living with AIDS; they’ve provided healthy kosher meals, over-the-counter medication, household and personal hygiene supplies and holiday items and greetings. Now, thanks to a brainstorm of Abigail Yasgur, the new director of the Jewish Federation Council’s Jewish Community Library, paperback books and, soon, videos will be part of the care package.

“I’m very interested in reaching populations that otherwise can’t get to the library,” Yasgur told Up Front.

Volunteers have already delivered the first of their twice-monthly shipments of paperbacks, which are tied with purple ribbons that sport a message inviting recipients to contact the library directly for specific literary requests. Rabbi Rafael Goldstein, director of Los Angeles Jewish AIDS Services, a program of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, said that he was thrilled with the idea of delivering books and videos to those with AIDS.

“Most of our clients can’t afford to buy paperbacks,” he said. “A lot of people end up not being able to do much with their time except sit around.”

The library had only a small supply of paperbacks to send out last Sunday and is hoping to replenish and expand its supply with fresh donations of books and videos — Jewish content and authors welcome but not necessary.

To make a donation, call the library at (213) 852-3272. To volunteer to cook or deliver meals, contact Los Angeles Jewish AIDS Services at (213) 653-8313 or via e-mail at — Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer

Operation Moses on the Big Screen

Israel’s rescue of Ethiopian Jews may be coming soon to a theater near you, courtesy of producer Jerry Bruckheimer.The rescue and airlift to Israel of some 10,000 Ethiopian Jews will be the focus of a major motion picture, but with a Hollywood twist.

In the “fact-based” movie, provisionally titled “Falasha,” the hero is an actual New York stockbroker who says that he was approached by the Mossad while vacationing in Israel and asked to set up a Club Med resort in the Sudan.

The stockbroker, whose name is being kept secret “for fear of reprisals,” claims that he did as he was bid. While the Club Med catered to tourists during the day, at night, its workers infiltrated an internment camp holding Ethiopian Jews and whisked them away.

The stockbroker outlined his adventures in a 15-page “pitch” — as the Hollywood idiom has it — which concluded with the claim that over a 10-year period, the Club Med in the Sudan served as the conduit for 10,000 Ethiopian Jews on their way to Israel.

(The figure resembles the number of Jews airlifted to Israel, via the Sudan, during the 1984-85 Operation Moses.)

The pitch, to be expanded into a book by the stockbroker, hit pay dirt immediately. Both Universal Studios and 20th Century Fox bid for the rights but were beaten out by Jerry Bruckheimer, an independent production company associated with the Walt Disney Company.

The price tag for the story was in the low- to mid-six figures.

“Falasha” has already been dubbed a contemporary “Schindler’s List,” but Chad Oman, the Bruckheimer executive vice president in charge of the movie project, denied, in a phone interview, that he was influenced by the success of the Steven Spielberg film.

“There are many stories of people who suffer and are helped by others willing to risk their lives,” said Oman. “What attracted us to ‘Falasha’ was a strong story line with a strong hero.”

Oman said that there was nothing unusual in green-lighting an expensive movie on the strength of a short pitch.

“It happens all the time — what you need is a strong story and a strong character,” he said.

Oman said that he was at least a year away from the start of filming, and, at this point, no budget, director or cast has been set. He hopes, however, to shoot as close to the story’s actual locale as possible.

“Right now, I am trying to find the best screenwriter available,” Oman said.

Bruckheimer produced the now-showing action-thriller “Con Air,” and his past successes include “Crimson Tide.” Two upcoming films are “Enemy of the State,” with Will Smith, and “Armageddon,” with Bruce Willis. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor