Young U.S. Jews feel closer to Israel, studies find

Young American Jews have closer ties to Israel than ever before, while Israelis who have moved to the United States are raising the Jewish consciousness of all Jews in the New World.

Such upbeat conclusions may run counter to more prevalent pessimistic pronouncements, but they are bolstered by three new research studies.

Results of these studies were presented by American academicians at the recent annual conference at UCLA of the Association for Israel Studies.

The meeting brought together some 300 scholars who participated in 80 panel discussions centering on Israel’s international relations, history, politics, law, economics, literature, film and other visual arts.

Most of the participants were from Israel and the United States, with a respectable number of professors from German, British, Chinese, Canadian, Dutch, Australian and Palestinian universities.

Matthew Boxer, a senior research associate at Brandeis University, set the hopeful tone in a session aptly titled “Young American Jews and Israel: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom.”

“The trajectory of relationship between young American Jews and Israel is one of growing strength,” Boxer proposed, even in the face of an array of negative factors.

“Despite the high rate of intermarriage, despite mismatches between liberal young American Jews and a more right-wing Israel government, despite the inadequacy of the Jewish education system, we are providing young American Jews with more and more opportunities to develop a personal connection with Israel,” Boxer said.

Taking the long view, he argued that past surveys show that young Jews have always felt less attached to Israel than their elders but draw closer as they age.

That “lifecycle effect” has held steady over the decades, barring “some external force with the power to effect generational change,” he said.

Just such an external force has been the Taglit-Birthright Israel program, which, since its inception in late 1999, has sent some 340,000 young Jews between the ages of 18 and 26, from 62 countries, on free 10-day organized trips to Israel. Among them were 240,000 young men and women from North America.

Citing a survey of Americans and Canadians who participated in three Taglit (Hebrew for “Discovery”) trips between 2010 and 2012, Boxer said that participants were three times more likely to affirm they were “very much connected to Israel” than nonparticipants.

The impact of the trips holds even in follow-up surveys conducted six to11 years after early participants returned, and a high percentage of Taglit alumni have gone on to become leaders of their AIPAC, Hillel and J Street campus chapters.

To those who argue that a 10-day program is too short and superficial to have a lasting impact, Boxer pointed out that the experience comes when participants “are at an age when they figure out who they are and what they believe in.”

Indeed, it is the emotional factor that ties young Americans to Israel, rather than purely intellectual, ideological or historic considerations, according to David L. Graizbord of the University of Arizona.

Graizbord, an associate professor at the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies, has been interviewing 22 young North American Jews (and plans to talk to 18 more), all of whom are self-declared Zionists or profess a close attachment to Israel.

Although warning that his study is in the embryonic stage, Graizbord cited 10 conclusions from his “snapshots” of Generation Y members as they explore their relationships to Israel.

Some of his key findings, not necessarily in order of importance, were:

Similar to Boxer’s study, Graizbord concluded that political leanings, biblical history or intellectual reasoning play hardly any role in developing a pro-Israel attitude.

The strongest bonds are emotional, he emphasized, fed by a sense of “the relative thickness and naturalness of Israeli Jewishness, as compared to the relative cultural thinness of Jewish life in North America, outside of Orthodox circles.”

While some tourists may be put off by the perceived brashness and prickliness of Israelis they meet, the impact is quite different for participants in Graizbord’s study.

One young American, who volunteered to work with Israelis in an immigration absorption camp in the Negev, put it this way: “I found myself really connecting with the Israelis,” he said. “I liked the openness of their society and their sense of humor … and the communal aspects of their lives.

“I thought, this is the kind of place I want to raise my family … I decided that some way, somehow, I’m going to make aliyah.”

Another student summed it up by noting that his Israeli contemporaries had “their heads on straight and they’re headed in a very specific direction.”

Although Jewish history, including the biblical era, does not seem to play much of a role in shaping young Americans’ attitude toward Israel, there is one aspect that does impact them, and that is the Holocaust.

When Graizbord asked his subjects, “Why should a nation-state of the Jews exist?” the answers always referenced the Shoah, he said.

As one young woman put it, “What I feel when I think of Judaism is just … that [Jews] are a small people and they were persecuted for so long, and they need a place to call home.”

Israeli expatriates in the United States exert an important influence in maintaining the “Jewishness” of the American Jewish community, according to history professor Marianne Sanua of the Jewish studies program at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

The actual number of Israelis who now make their home in the United States is a matter of never-ending dispute, with estimates ranging from 140,000 to close to 1 million.

Sanua puts the figure at between 500,000 and 550,000, if one includes native-born Israelis, Israelis born elsewhere in the Diaspora, spouses (often American-born), children and students or visitors who ignore visa limitations and continue to stay on in the United States.

Initially demeaned and scorned by the Israeli government and Jewish-American organizations as weaklings and traitors to the Zionist cause, the “yordim” are now generally accepted as a permanent and important “sub-ethnic American-Jewish immigrant group,” as the Florida academic put it.

Taking the lead in the United States in reaching out to the newcomers was Chabad, which has established 25 Chabad centers for Israelis over the past 30 years.

Among the first was the Los Angeles center, which serves more than 20,000 children and adults annually, according to Executive Director Rabbi Amitai Yemini.

The main concern shared by American-Jewish organizations, Israeli authorities and the expats themselves is to transmit their Jewish identity and connections to Israel to their children and future generations.

Sanua believes that this effort has been largely successful, in the process revitalizing the native-born American-Jewish community.

According to her research, the Israelis “speak Hebrew, they belong to synagogues and Jewish community centers, and 75 percent are married to other Jews,” a much higher rate than for American Jews.

By all other criteria, the expats are more “Jewish” than native-born Jews, including number of visits to Israel, sending their kids to Jewish schools, going to Jewish museums, attending Jewish cultural events and observing Jewish rituals.

In addition, it is estimated that one-third of the teachers and 20 to 40 percent of students in L.A. Jewish day schools are Israelis or children of Israelis.

“In many ways, when so many American Jews are being lost to assimilation and intermarriage, Israeli-Americans are seen as having a vital role to play in maintaining American-Jewish communal life,” Sanua concluded.

She cited Los Angeles as “the best example in creating Israeli-American organizations for children and youth” in the United States, with the local Israeli American Council (IAC, formerly the Israeli Leadership Council) setting the pace, Sanua said.

IAC’s three main missions are to support Israel, strengthen Jewish identity among young Israeli-Americans, and build connections between the Israeli-American and Jewish-American communities.

Other Israeli-oriented youth organizations in Los Angeles, many supported by the IAC, include the Tzofim (Scouts), B’nai Akiva youth movement, the MATI Israeli Cultural Center, and such educational institutions as the Ami School, Hebrew High School, Hebrew Discovery Center and Kadima Hebrew Academy.

San Diego offers an example of a small but innovative Israeli community; an Israeli Cultural Center was founded there in 2006, Sanua noted. Partly supported by the local Jewish Federation and the Israeli government, the center offers children of expats full-scale immersion programs in Hebrew, Israeli culture and Jewish identity.

The latest and perhaps most surprising development is the launching of Hebrew-language charter schools, which are state-funded but privately run by independent boards.

The first of the so-called Gamla schools opened in Hollywood, Fla., in 2007 as a nonsectarian, nonreligious institution. The concept has now spread to other Florida cities, as well as to Washington, D.C.; New York City; Los Angeles; and San Diego, Sanua said.

Adding another perspective was respondent Samuel Edelman, a former professor at California State University, Chico, and now executive director of the Center for Academic Engagement, affiliated with the Israel on Campus Coalition.

He emphasized that today’s Western Jews still retain their ethnic roots in the Middle East, despite a 2,000-year history in Europe and a 350-year experience in North America.

He posited that the emotional attachment to Israel by Diaspora Jews is largely fueled by their historic Middle Eastern identity.

However insightful the research papers and a Q-and-A session, the attitude of young American Jews was perhaps best expressed by a student interviewed for Graizbord’s project.

“I think it’s all about reality,” he quoted her in part. “The reality is, as of today, that there’s a State of Israel. The reality as of today is that there are also Palestinians.

“As of today, there’s a lot of internal strife, and my biggest concern is, I’m not going to focus on history. I’m not going to focus on ‘ifs,’ ‘ands’ or ‘what ifs?’ I’m going to focus on ‘OK, what is the current, realistic situation, and what do I do with it?’ Responsibility, that’s what it’s all about.”

Tigers’ Young returns to field, says he’s sorry for rant

Detroit Tigers outfielder Delmon Young apologized for his anti-Semitic rant and attack in New York following the lifting of his weeklong suspension.

During a pregame interview with reporters on May 5, Young apologized to his teammates, the Tigers organization, the victim’s family, Major League Baseball, friends, family and fans, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Saying he had a “lapse in judgment,” Young added that “I just want to let everybody know that I’m not anti-Semitic. I wasn’t raised that way, came from a good family, and we weren’t taught any of that, especially growing up in a diverse area.”

Young said the incident occurred because he had too much to drink and that he was enrolled in an alcohol treatment program.

He is facing a misdemeanor aggravated harassment hate crime charge stemming from the April 27 incident outside the Hilton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, where the Tigers were staying before the start of a series with the Yankees that night. Young is scheduled to appear in court in New York on May 29 and faces up to a year in jail if convicted. He had been suspended by Major League Baseball.

According to reports, a group of tourists staying at the hotel were approached by a panhandler wearing a yarmulke and Young yelled anti-Semitic epithets at the group. Young also reportedly shoved one of the men, who sustained minor injuries.

Rabbi Now Connects L.A.’s Young Jews

Rabbi Yonah Bookstein knows how to excite Jewish youth. He’s been the guiding light behind the annual Jewlicious Festivals in Long Beach, which bring together youth from all denominations to celebrate their spirituality with raucous concerts mixed with some serious learning; he’s been a highly popular campus rabbi at Cal State University Long Beach Hillel, and now, he’s just moved to Los Angeles to head up JconnectLA, which presents social events for young Jews. Bookstein (or Rabbi Yo, as he’s known to his followers) and his wife Rachel have also worked hard on behalf of Jews living in Poland. He talked with The Journal recently about what being a rabbi at JconnectLA means to him.

Jewish Journal: It’s no secret that JconnectLA is primarily a social organization. What’s a rabbi doing there?
Rabbi Yonah Bookstein: I am not a typical rabbi. I see myself available to any young Jew who doesn’t have a rabbi, whatever their denomination or background. I feel, personally, that we have a desire to connect with other Jews and to connect with Jewish things. I don’t mean bagels and lox, I mean something deeper than that. I see my role as helping Jewish people connect.

JJ: Why is JconnectLA important to the Los Angeles community?
YB: The statistics show that young Jews in Los Angeles are one of the most unaffiliated groups of young Jews in the country. In L.A. there are more than 10,000 people who have been on Birthright, and those are old statistics. You’re talking thousands of Jews in L.A., and most of them are not connected to a synagogue or to Jewish groups. Hopefully they have some Jewish friends, but I think that for young Jews to really fulfill themselves they can have a great time connecting with other Jews.

JJ: Why should people come to JconnectLA instead of going to synagogue?
YB: We aren’t trying to replace synagogues. We are trying to be a place where people can come together and expand their Jewish horizons socially and culturally. JconnectLA is a place where people who don’t have a home in the Jewish community are accepted and feel at home. The Jewish Federation has done a study where they invested thousands of dollars into trying to figure out how to keep the next generation of Jews Jewish. Before JconnectLA started, young Jews in L.A. didn’t have so many options of stuff to do, and they didn’t want to go to a synagogue for a mixer.

JJ: You have been working with young Jews for a number of years, first at a college campus and now with young professionals. How would you characterize the current generation?
YB: Young professionals in L.A. are looking for a meaningful Jewish experience, but on their own terms. Whereas, sometimes I felt college students would put being Jewish as maybe the last thing on their agenda, young professionals are looking back to see what’s in the Jewish community for them, and the unfortunate thing is that there’s not very much. They want to carve out something new for themselves — a customized Jewish identity.

JJ: You work with Jews at an age when most of them are dating or looking to marry. You and your wife have been open about the fact that you were shomer negiyah [halachically observant, including not touching] before you were married. How do you reconcile your Jewish values about dating with the reality of raging hormones?
YB: I want young Jews to meet, date, fall in love and get married.  My favorite part of my job is doing weddings. I don’t tell people what to do unless they ask me for advice. I am not going to tell somebody who grew up Reform, don’t hug and kiss. They are going to look at me like I’m from Mars. What I like about my background is that I didn’t grow up Orthodox.

JJ: I have read that your wife, Rachel, shocked students at Long Beach when she was candid answering questions about sex. What’s the best relationship advice you have for people in their 20s and 30s? 
YB: You know, it is interesting. When do people call rabbis? When someone dies or is getting married. Judaism is very sex positive, but also believes that sex is holy. To fulfill yourself sexually and to have a great sex life, you need to respect it. It is just like having self-respect. I see a lot of couples who are acting as husband and wife and haven’t really made a commitment to each other. When people have a commitment together they connect deeper and have a better intimate life.

JJ: What kind of impact do you hope JconnectLA has on the people involved? 
YB: We want to be a unifying force in the Jewish community. If I had a vision, it would be that every young Jew in L.A. is connected to something Jewish. You don’t have to leave your Jewish star at the door. You could live an exciting, fun life and live an exciting, fun Jewish life as well. They’re not a contradiction.

JJ: Is there anything else you want to add?
YB: My home is going to be open to people for events and Shabbat dinners. I am available 24/6 online through instant messaging, Facebook and my blogs. I look forward to connecting with as many young Jews as I can in Los Angeles. I’m really excited.

Younger Persians seeking greater role in community

Many of Los Angeles’ young Iranian Jews arrived in the United States as small children or were born here to immigrant parents.

Now young professionals in their 20s and 30s, they have fully embraced life in America and are championing greater political activity for the Iranian Jewish community in Southern California.

“For 30 years, our community has benefited from the opportunities of America, and now it’s time to give back and embrace our responsibilities as Jews and as Americans,” said Sam Yebri, 27, president of 30 Years After, a new, politically active nonprofit group. The organization was formed earlier this year by a group who wanted to make a contribution to the community but believed their voices were often ignored by the older leadership of local Iranian Jews.

“Our young members are not welcomed onto boards or committees, which are often governed by the same individuals for decades and which covet financial contributions over the creative energy and ideas of young leaders,” Yebri said.

As a result, the group set out to create new opportunities for social action.

This summer, 30 Years After was awarded $200,000 by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. 30 Years After’s planned activities include a communitywide conference titled, “The Iranian Jewish Community at a Crossroads,” which will take place on Sept. 14 at the Beverly Hills Hilton.

The conference will feature speakers from within the community, including Jimmy Delshad. Other speakers will include Rabbi David Wolpe, whose Sinai Temple has a large Iranian membership; Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks); Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and talk show host Dennis Prager. Topics will include life today in Iran and issues facing the Iranian Jewish communities in the United States and Israel.

30 Years After also plans to organize voter registration drives for the November election, host quarterly civic events and expand a pilot mentoring program for younger Iranian Jews, a project created in collaboration with Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters and Nessah Israel Synagogue.

Yebri and other 30 Years After members said they are also seeking greater political participation by local Iranian Jews in hopes of influencing local, state and national elected officials to address issues important to the Iranian Jewish community.

Over the past decades, nearly two dozen local Iranian Jewish groups have been involved with political awareness efforts, but no group until now has seriously pursued or organized communitywide political and civic activism.

Daryoush Dayan, newly elected chairman of the L.A.-based Iranian American Jewish Federation, acknowledged that the community’s leadership does not include the younger generation. He has pledged to resolve the issue.

“It is our hope that we will be able to preserve and combine the best aspects of our culture and moral values with those of the American Jewish community,” Dayan said. “However, this can only be realized to the extent we allow the younger generation to carry the leadership torch.”

Go West, young Torah-observant Jews!

The wait is finally over for members of Young Israel of Century City, who were eagerly anticipating the theme of the annual program “brochure,” which was kept secret until its publication last week.
It’s … Old West.
The Young Israel of Century Gazette is printed on antique-looking brown paper with sepia-toned photographs and illustrations, such as revolvers, spurs, snakes, lizards, playing cards, an animal skeleton and a pitched wagon (with the words “Torah to Go” written on the canopy). The main headline of the Gazette is “YICC Transforms the West! Read All About It,” shown with a grainy, blurred-edge photo of the Modern Orthodox shul, located on Pico Boulevard in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.
While many synagogues around the country offer adult education programs and brochures, Young Israel of Century City is one of the few to package it in a humorous, stylized brochure. Last year the brochure was designed as a National Geographic magazine. Past themes have included the National Enquirer, a museum tour, and “soul food,” featuring a diner design.
“We felt that if you package your program in a sophisticated fashion people will pay attention,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin, who instituted the catchy brochures in the first years of his arrival, some 22 years ago. Not only do congregants anticipate the unveiling of the brochure (at Kol Nidre), but Muskin gets requests nationwide from other rabbis who are inspired by his design and by his programming.

The brochure — created with Jeff Coen of JDC design — is just one component of the process, which takes hundreds of hours, beginning with planning speakers, guests and events one year in advance.
The coming year’s events range from the intellectual (Yaffa Eliach, a Holocaust scholar, and Gil Graff, a Jewish historian); spiritual (Rabbi Asher Zelig Weiss, a rosh yeshiva from Jerusalem, and Rabbi Yitzhak David Grossman, the “Disco Rabbi” who is chief rabbi of Migdal Ha’emek); political (AIPAC’s Jonathan S. Kessler, and Rep. Henry Waxman [D-Los Angeles]); cultural (author Hallie Lerman, cultural critic on returning to modesty Wendy Shalit and musician Rabbi Shmuel Brazil).
Why put so much effort into adult education?
“It says in the Talmud if you learn Torah from one person you haven’t learned Torah,” Muskin said. The programs “generate an intellectual and spiritual excitement.”
On the back page of the brochure is a photograph of the original founders of Young Israel of Century City standing in front of the first shul, which really does look like a log cabin, even though it was from the 1970s.
Which brings up the age-old question: Why is it called Young Israel of Century City when it’s clearly not located there?
“I asked the same question when I came,” Muskin said of his 1986 arrival as the first full-time rabbi, 10 years after the synagogue’s inception. It turned out that the name Young Israel of Los Angeles was already taken. Ditto for Young Israel of Beverly Hills (Young Israel of Century City is Beverly Hills adjacent, anyway).
“They decided on Century City because you can see the Century City towers from the synagogue,” Muskin said.

Arrested development: Young Jewish activists voluntarily go to jail in support of union rights

Sarah Leiber Church and Laura Podolsky had big plans for the evening of Sept. 28 — getting arrested.

They were part of a protest march that took place along Century Boulevard near Los Angeles International Airport aimed at hotels that allegedly have been preventing employees from unionizing. During the late afternoon, approximately 2,000 people marched down the major thoroughfare, cutting off traffic. In what has been called the largest act of civil disobedience in Los Angeles, more than 300 of those people later deliberately sat down in the street, were arrested and jailed for up to 24 hours.

Both Church and Podolsky say their Jewish heritage is an important motivation for their activism for labor rights.

“From a young age I learned there’s a really strong message [in Judaism] about the importance of standing up for justice, and the importance of being directly involved,” Podolsky said.

Both she and Church are members of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), a group dedicated to social justice in Los Angeles. Daniel Sokatch, executive director of PJA, estimates that the group had anywhere between 50 and 100 people present at the protest, and that about 10 of those were arrested.

One part of the PJA’s larger goal is to reexamine the meaning of “kosher” among the Jewish population of Los Angeles.

“We’re working to expand the definition of kosher for the Jewish community, to go beyond how food is prepared to how workers are treated in institutions,” said Jaime Rapaport, program director for PJA. For example, she said, “The LAX Hilton is not a kosher hotel. Their kitchen may be kosher, and they may serve kosher food, but the way they treat their workers is not kosher.”

Church, the PJA’s Bay Area program director, said the timing of the protest, during the holiest part of the year, added meaning to her participation.

“The time in the Jewish calendar was very important to me in making the decision to take the steps to risk arrest … it’s a time when you take stock of how you’ve treated people over the last year,” she said. “I can think of no better way to start off 5767 than by supporting hotel workers and hard-working immigrant families in their fight for dignity in the work place.”

The sentiment was echoed by many, including Rabbi Jason Van Leeuwen of B’nai Tikvah Congregation in Westchester,who presided over a blessing of the challah in front of the Westin Hotel — one of three blessings that took place: Christian, Muslim and Jewish. The challahs used were round, he said, “as a symbol for the cycle of the year, but also as a symbol of a message to the hotel management — what goes around comes around.”

Church said the religious service had been a highlight of the march.

“They said, ‘We give you bread for the journey,’ and passed out challahs to everyone. I remember hearing from some of the women later that the bread was just exactly what they needed, because they were feeling a little faint; they were feeling a little scared, frankly, and they said that having something to eat whether or not they were Jewish was really important to them.”

When the marching stopped, the sitting began. Those being arrested sat down on Century Boulevard — the main thoroughfare to LAX — where the police warned them that, unless they moved, they faced arrest. All wore matching shirts that read, “I am a human” in English and Spanish, echoing signs held at the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis. The 300 arrested offered no resistance as officers put them in plastic handcuffs.

En route to jail they sang songs.

“I wanted to lead songs in Hebrew and teach people, but it didn’t seem like the right environment,” Church said. “But we sang ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and we sang ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ in English and Spanish.”

Even as they were arresting the protesters, many police seemed supportive of the action.

“I was speaking to one of them who was taking my fingerprints,” Church said, “and he said, ‘You know, I think I support what you’re doing.’ I said, ‘You’re unionized, right?’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah, and if we weren’t I’d want you all to be out on the streets.'”

This was a first arrest for both Church and Podolsky.

“Jail is cold, dingy and boring,” Podolsky said. “But I would do it a lot more, if it were necessary in order to stand up for these issues.”

Other arrestees shared cells with prostitutes or drug dealers.

Both Church and Podolsky spent the night in jail in South Central, released at 3:30 and 6:30 a.m., respectively.

Van Leeuwen agreed that the action was in accordance with Jewish teachings.
“The Torah repeatedly tells us that we should love the stranger; that they should be subject to laws and rights we’re subject to,” he said.

Though tired from a long march and a night spent in jail, everyone seemed in good spirits by Friday, proud of what they had accomplished.

“It was an incredible experience, and it was also an uncomfortable experience
… it’s something that I look back on with pride,” Church said.
Said Podolsky, simply, “It’s a good way to be Jewish.”

Can MRI save lives?

In 2003, Leslie Berlin was training six days a week, two hours a day as a figure skater. Two years earlier, while taking lessons with her twin sister, she fell in love with the sport. At 37, she started entering competitions at an age when most professionals hang up their skates.

“It’s something I wanted to do at the amateur level,” said Berlin, a San Dimas resident who competes in her own age group. “I feel like when I’m skating I can do anything. It makes anything else seem easy.”
But Berlin’s life became anything but easy beginning in April of that year.
Her mother, Eleanor Tavris, who had survived a battle with stage-three breast cancer nine years earlier, was vigilant about monitoring the health of her three daughters. When a cancer seminar caught her attention, she invited Berlin to come along.

Tower Saint Johns Imaging:

S. Mark Taper Foundation Imaging Center:

City of Hope Department of Clinical Cancer Genetics:

Tower Hematology Oncology Medical Group:

Israel Cancer Research Fund Los Angeles

After listening to a presentation from a breast radiologist, Berlin began to worry that her annual mammogram and monthly self-exams might not be adequate enough to detect a tumor.
“I was concerned about my family history and that a percentage of malignancies are missed in mammograms,” she said.
She underwent genetic screening and was relieved when her test for a cancer-causing genetic abnormality common among Ashkenazi women came back negative. But Berlin still wasn’t convinced she was in the clear. She had been told she had dense breasts, which can obscure the detection of tumors in mammography and ultrasound screenings, and she wanted to be certain she was cancer-free.

Despite her family history of cancer, Berlin’s insurance company initially fought her request for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of her breasts. MRI scans are expensive, ranging from $1,000 to $6,000.
After she challenged the carrier’s decision and won approval for the procedure, Berlin scheduled her test in early April at Cedars-Sinai.
And, indeed, the MRI revealed an aggressive tumor growing inside of Berlin’s right breast.
For young, high-risk women like Leslie Berlin, vigilant cancer screening can sometimes mean the difference between a lumpectomy and the loss of one or both breasts to mastectomy. But research is revealing that mammogram screenings by themselves are not a guarantee of catching breast cancer.

No method of detection is 100 percent effective. Mammograms are thought to be about 80 percent effective in women 65 and older, but the reliability drops to 54 percent in women under 40, according to the American Cancer Society’s Guidelines for Breast Cancer Screening. Factor in dense breast tissue, which in itself is associated with a higher cancer risk, and the reliability of a mammogram drops further.

Breast cancer remains the second leading cause of death from cancer among American women, with lung cancer topping the list.
This year 213,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), and 25 percent of women will be diagnosed with the disease in their lifetime. The NCI puts the breast cancer risk at 60 percent to 80 percent for women of Ashkenazi heritage with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer who also test positive for either the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 gene mutations.

In addition, researchers believe there’s a strong likelihood of as-yet-undiscovered genetic risk factors in the Ashkenazi population that could play a role in breast and ovarian cancer.

Experts recommend that women in such high-risk categories begin mammograms at age 30 or younger and at shorter intervals (e.g., every six months) in order to catch breast cancer in its earliest stages. And MRI is increasingly being recommended as a complimentary screening tool, especially to find invasive tumors, said Dr. Arnold Vinstein of Tower Saint John’s Imaging in Santa Monica.
Whereas film and digital mammography uses X-rays to detect changes in the breast and signs abnormalities, MRI finds abnormal tissue by using magnetic fields to measure the reaction of hydrogen atoms in the body.
Recent studies have backed up the reliability of MRI, which has been shown to catch developing tumors that can be missed in traditional mammography. Its accuracy is generally considered to be 90 percent.

With more doctors recommending MRI scans, the S. Mark Taper Foundation Imaging Center at Cedars-Sinai has seen patient numbers jump from a couple every month to five per day over the last five years, said Dr. Rola Saouaf, chief of the center’s body and cardiovascular section.
Despite the substantially higher cost of MRI, women like Berlin say the peace of mind is worth the expense.

Without the scan, Berlin believes, “they never would have detected it. I had mammograms every year and it never showed up. My oncologist told me if I didn’t have it treated, I’d have had four years to live.”

Medical professionals began turning to MRI for breast cancer 10 years ago, and its use has blossomed in the last five years. In July 2004, a landmark study in the New England Journal of Medicine confirmed that MRI is more sensitive than mammography when it comes to detecting tumors in women with an inherited susceptibility to breast cancer.
Cedars-Sinai’s Saouaf said she was skeptical of the technology when she started at the hospital five years ago.
“I thought there would be too many false positives,” she said, “but I’ve picked up a lot of tumors.”
Saouaf said one of the drawbacks at first was that MRI couldn’t always distinguish between cancer and a benign condition, like fibrocystic breast disease. Now a staunch supporter, she said the technology is improving and the scans are increasingly able to determine such differences.
During the procedure, women lie chest down on a movable bed with their breasts inside two coil-lined cylinders, which emit the radiofrequencies. The bed slides into a tube at the center of a 7-by-7-foot cube, and as the machine prepares to scan it emits a noise many patients have described as a rapid hammering or thumping. Labs will often provide patients with personal stereos to help cut down on the noise, as well as sedatives for those who experience anxiety or claustrophobia.

Thirty Years of Carlebach Rock

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s musical legacy has taken many forms, from the
dozens of minyanim whose worship uses his music to the excellent recordings
made by his daughter, Neshama. But the most enduring and unexpected
offspring from Carlebach’s folkie neo-Chasidism is the number of jam bands
performing his music. If that seems incongruous, you only need to hear the
Moshav Band to realize how natural it really is.

Moshav Band, which was founded as a direct result of Carlebach’s influence,
just released its first English only album — “Misplaced.”

Reb Shlomo and a group of his followers had created a musical moshav in
Israel in 1977 in the hills between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, a community
called Moshav Meor Modi’im. Yehuda (vocals), Dovid (guitar), Meir (guitar,
mandolin) and Yosef Solomon (bass), the sons of one of the original members
of that community, are the core of the group, joined by drummer David
Swirsky. Like Inasense and Soulfarm, two other Carlebach-spawned jam bands,
they melded his musical influence with that of the rock groups they heard as
kids — most obviously, The Dead, Dylan, Neil Young — in a splendid blend
of sacred and secular.

The Moshav Band has long been one of the most popular of Jewish-oriented
rock groups, but sometime at the end of the millennium that distinction
ceased to satisfy the group. Perhaps the band had always intended to try
hurdling the wall that generally separates openly Jewish music from rest of
the entertainment world; for Christians that wall has been more of a
semipermeable membrane, as any country-music fan will tell you. Whatever
their motivation, in 2000 the band members relocated to Los Angeles to
launch their assault on rest of the pop/rock world.

“Higher and Higher: The Best of the Moshav Band,” which the Jewish Music
Group released earlier this year, is a canny attempt to straddle the gap
between the moshav and the mosh pit. The set has more English-language songs
than its previous recordings, and it is long on anthemic rockers like
“Waiting for the Calling” that would not be out of place on an album by U2
or Pearl Jam, two bands to which it bears more than a slight resemblance.
But even the straighthead rockers and love songs can be easily read as calls
to God, rather than your usual pop invocations of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’
roll. In truth, the bands it most resembles are ones that are firmly
grounded in the soil of a homeland and its political struggles, bands like
The Levellers or The Pogues (if you sobered them up).

In that respect, the Moshav Band’s heart and soul are still linked tightly
to the hills outside Jerusalem and, fittingly, to the musical and spiritual
legacy of Rabbi Carlebach.

George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week. His book, “Essential Torah,” will be published by Shocken Books in fall 2006.

Irreverent Stories You Haven’t Heard

“All your stories are the same,” a British girl in an MFA creative writing program tells the Jewish students in one of the short stories in Elisa Albert’s new collection, “How This Night Is Different” (Free Press, $18). “I just feel like I read the same stories over and over again from you guys. They’re great and all, but….”

The unspoken “but” is: Why are there so many young, hip Jews writing fiction that irreverently pokes fun at their heritage?

Albert, for example calls herself a “lobotomized Philip Roth writing chick lit” in the above MFA story, which, incidentally, is a fictional letter penned to Roth offering him the chance to impregnate her. But Albert, like other sardonic Jewish short story writers, is probably closer to the next millennium’s version of Roth and Woody Allen. Instead of portraying an overwrought Jewish mother and other now-familiar Jewish stereotypes, Albert uses Judaism as a setting for mostly secular characters to air their grievances with each other, or themselves.

Judaism here is a Yom Kippur meal, where one sibling has had an abortion and another has an eating disorder. It’s a bris, where the mother doesn’t want to give up her baby to the mohel (whom the uncle calls “Shaky McSnips”). It’s a themed bat mitzvah, where the aunt gets stoned in the bathroom with her niece’s friends while pondering the state of her own shaky marriage.

In short, these are stories about the next generation of Jews — Jews well-versed enough in their culture to throw around references to Camp Ramah and the search for chametz and Ba’al Teshuvas, but they are so comfortable with it that they have no problem tearing it apart.

“What the f– is your neshama?” Miri asks her best friend Rachel, watching her prepare to cut her hair off before her religious wedding.

The neshama — the one Rachel is saving in the story “So Long” — is the Jewish soul. And the soul of these 10 stories is that Jewish characters find, perhaps, a sense of identity in their Jewishness, but not necessarily any particular spiritual meaning.

“How This Night Is Different,” and other in-your-face expressions of Jewish culture like the popular Heeb magazine, is this generation’s attempt to connect to their heritage, and connect even while they mock.

If sometimes they go too far, if at times they offend, they still expect to be part of the cultural dialogue. As Debra, the convert looking for a shul in Lisbon in the story “When You Say You’re a Jew,” muses: “A Jew could do that, find a home anywhere in the world with other Jews. Wasn’t that the point of the entire freakin’ deal?”

Elisa Albert will be giving reading Sunday, July 23 at 2 p.m. at Dutton’s, 11975 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood; Tuesday, July 25 at 7:30 p.m. at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz; and Wednesday, July 26, at 7 p.m. at Borders Books and Music, 6510 Canoga Ave., Canoga Park. On Friday, June 28, at 7 p.m., she will be in Santa Monica as part of the ATID/Sinai Temple’s Shabbat at Home program for young professionals. To R.S.V.P., call (310) 481-3244.

7 Days in the Arts


Polka gets dotty at the Getty this evening with the last installment of the center’s Summer Sessions series. “21st Century Roots” offers “roots music for the new millennium,” in the form of three groups: Brave Combo, a polka ensemble that mixes music from Mexico, Germany and Japan; Golem, an edgy klezmer rock band; and moira smiley & VOCO, a band that mixes the dance songs of Eastern Europe with Appalachian tunes. International folk dance lessons are also offered.

5:45 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. (dance lessons). 6:30 p.m. (first music set). Free. Getty Center South Courtyard, Courtyard Stage and Garden Terrace, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-7300.


Can’t get enough of the man in tights? Head to the Museum of Television and Radio to see Superman as he appeared — in his many forms — on the small screen. For one final week the museum presents a selection of TV shows, including the 1950s “Adventures of Superman”; the steamier 1990s Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher affair, “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman”; today’s Superman for the teen and tween set, “Smallville”; the animated 1970s classic “Superfriends” and the newer “Justice League”; as well as the unaired 1961 pilot of “The Adventures of Superboy.”

Through July 30. Noon-5 p.m. (Wed.-Sun.). $5-$10 donations suggested. 465 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 786-1025.


Beat the summer heat with a refreshingly star-free film festival. Dances With Films enters its ninth year with a host of talent-filled films, sans celebs. Why no familiar faces? Festival co-founder Leslee Scallon explains, “The other festivals are busy programming mostly celebrity oriented films. It’s not that we’re dissing celebrities, we’re just giving films a chance to be seen that are getting squeezed out of the circuit.” Offer your support July 21-27.
$10 (per ticket), $125 (festival pass). Laemmle Fairfax Theatre, 7907 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 850-2929.


Young Artists International alights on Los Angeles for its ninth annual International Laureates Festival. The week of classical music concerts features iPalpiti, their orchestral ensemble of 26 musical masters ages 19-30, representing 26 countries. Tonight, a smaller affair at the Ford Theatre features Bassiona Amorosa, a virtuosi sextet of double-bassists from Munich.
July 23-30. Prices and locations vary. (310) 205-0511.


Love a Gershwin tune? Karen Benjamin and Alan Chapman explore George’s music in tonight’s installment of the Parlor Performances @ Steinway Hall Presents… “Songwriters and Their Songs” series. Hear some of his best-loved pieces, as well as the stories behind them.
8 p.m. $25. Steinway Hall, 12121 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 471-3979.

Thursday 27

Judi Lee Brandwein can’t get no satisfaction, but discusses it this one last night, for your amusement. “Fornicationally Challenged” is the 40-something divorc’e’s one-woman mature-audiences-only comic show. It returns tonight only for a local send-off before its opening at the New York International Fringe Festival.
8 p.m. $20. Santa Monica Playhouse Main Stage, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (310) 394-9779, ext. 1.


Ponder the art of Bonita Helmer in George Billis Gallery’s exhibition of her latest works. The moody, thought-provoking abstract acrylics focus on the interplays of fundamental elements, forcing the viewer to reconsider basic notions such as space and time.
Through Sept. 2. 2716 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 838-3685.

What Will Life Be Like in 2026?

In honor of The Jewish Journal’s 20th anniversary, yeLAdim asked some of our young readers at the May 7 Israel Independence Day Festival: What will you be doing in 20 years?

“I will run a restaurant with spaghetti and macaroni and cheese.”
— Hannah F., prekindergarten, B’nai Tikvah Nursery School

“Airplane pilot.”
— Preston, second-grader, Heschel

“I want to be a pharmacist when I grow up, so I can make lots of money and have a great life.”
— Gil M., sixth-grader, Millikan Middle School

“I want to be a basketball player in the NBA.”
— Aaron R., seventh-grader, Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies

“When I grow up I want be a pharmacist or a basketball player.”
— Avin M., sixth-grader, Millikan Middle School,

“A cop. I will help the world with bad things.”
— Emil R., fifth-grader,Brentwood Science Magnet

“I will be a professional chiropractor and married with a beautiful girl. I’ll live wealthy for 120 years.”
— Jonathon A., seventh-grader, Etz Jacob

“I’m going to be a rich person in a recording studio. I’m going to be really rich.”
— David A., ninth-grader, Tarbut V’Torah

“I’m going to be 34 years old.”
— David J., ninth-grader, Reseda High School

“An NBA basketball player.”
— Pedy F., ninth-grader, Tarbut V’Torah

“When I grow up I want to be an acting teacher, because it will help kids be able to do something with their time and it’s a fun thing that most people enjoy. Hopefully I will be a mom and get married.”
— Esther L., fifth-grader, Heschel

“I’ll be a Jewish doctor. I will help all ill and injured Jews. I’ll help my people stay alive. I’ll probably live near a shul. I don’t know. Hashem will show me the way.”
— Daniel V., seventh-grader, Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School

“A veterinarian because I love animals and taking care of them.”
— Shaiel G., fifth-grader, Heschel

“Hopefully living in Israel and helping the government. I will try to make it in as a governor or as a dance teacher. I want to be in the government helping out those in need. And I also want to be teaching the people the joy of dancing.”
— Josue V., eighth-grader, Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School

“I want to work with my dad at Al & Ed’s Autosound.”
— Lerone H., third-grader, Emek Hebrew Academy

“I think I will be teaching classes in a synagogue as a rabbi. I think I could also be a dancing teacher. I think I would be a teacher in Israel teaching people how to sing.”
— David G., seventh grader, Lindbergh Middle School

“An Olympic champion because I ice skate and I will win the gold medal. I try my best and I will love to win in 2026. I hope my future there is great.”
— Sarah W., fourth-grader, Nestle Avenue Elementary School

“Playing my GameBoy.”
— Liad C., prekindergarten, Kol Tikvah

“Playing dress up.”
— Shani C., prekindergarten, Kol Tikvah

“I would like to be a motorcycle policeman to protect the city.”
— Brian S., first-grader, Encino Elementary School

“I want to live in a big house with 100 dogs.”
— Brandon H., second-grader, Wilbur Avenue Elementary School

“I want to be a judge because I’ll have a lot of power. I want to be richer than Bill Gates.”
— Ron V., fourth-grader, Hancock Park Elementary School

“I want to be a lawyer because I like defending people.”
— Robert B., fourth-grader, Hancock Park Elementary School

“A fire medic (aka paramedic)”
— Lisa C., preschooler, Gan Bet

“Playing basketball on the Lakers.”
— Freddy C., kindergartner, Sinai Akiba Academy

“I will probably be a linguist 20 years from now. I want to also be a photographer and have a few other jobs. I want to help people and solve problems between countries. I want to live either in Israel or somewhere in Europe.
— Raj G., eighth-grader, Columbus Middle School

“I will want to live next to the ocean, be in the NBA and have a big house.”
— Esther S., fourth-grader, Kadima Hebrew Academy

Back in 1986…

  • The Space Shuttle Challenger explodes.
  • The U.S starts the first federal Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
  • Refurbished Statue of Liberty opens.
  • Millions take part in Hands Across America charity benefit.
  • Pope John Paul II visits the Synagogue of Rome.
  • Soviet Refusenik Nathan Sharansky is freed from prison.
  • Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wins the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • “Sarah, Plain and Tall” by Patricia MacLachlan receives the Newbery Prize for children’s literature.
  • “The Cosby Show” is No. 1 on TV, followed by “Family Ties,” “Cheers,” “Murder She Wrote” and “The Golden Girls.”
  • Actress Amanda Bynes is born in Thousand Oaks.
  • Actor Shia LaBeouf is born in Los Angeles.
  • Actor Ricky Ullman is born in Eilat, Israel.
  • “We Are the World,” by USA for Africa is named record and song of the year at the Grammys.
  • New York Mets win the World Series.
  • The Chicago Bears win the Super Bowl.
  • The Nintendo Entertainment System makes its debut.

Beware the Finkelstein Syndrome

In May of 2006, I witnessed the bizarre rantings of the author and Holocaust revisionist Norman Finkelstein at UC Irvine. This was the second time that I had the misfortune of sitting through his lecture, the first time was at Cal State Fullerton.

Finkelstein uses his identity as the child of Holocaust survivors to gain credibility, distorting history by omitting context and defaming well-respected figures for the purpose of promoting hatred against the State of Israel and minimizing the horrors of the Holocaust.

His lectures include predictable rants against Israel, promotion of conspiracy theories regarding the reason his own new book, “Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History” (University of California Press, 2005), was not reviewed and a strange continuous bashing of Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz for writing “The Case for Israel.” He spends an inordinate amount of time lecturing about Joan Peters’ book, “From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine,” and calls survivor Elie Wiesel the “clown in the Holocaust circus.”

How twisted is Finkelstein’s sense of human decency?

As the daughter of Holocaust survivors, I find Finkelstein beyond despicable. I believe he openly and methodically lies in order to promote his own anti-Israel agenda.

It is well known that some children of Holocaust survivors carry severe scars and wounds that actually manifest in peculiar psychological behavior. For two decades, I worked as a licensed family therapist, and I believe that some day soon there will be a formal psychological syndrome that would account for self-hating Jews like Norman Finkelstein. Perhaps the syndrome will even be named after him: The Finkelstein Syndrome.

It’s inconceivable to me that Finkelstein might achieve tenure at De Paul University in Chicago, where he presently teaches his bizarre theories. That he is an assistant professor there is, in my view, a badge of shame for De Paul.

His true occupation is as a member of a traveling circus, a freak show of anti-Semites who promote anti-Israel propaganda from campus to campus. He openly admits to having high regard for Hezbollah on his Web site, and he promotes the false notion that “scholars widely agree that Israel ethnically cleansed the Palestinian people in 1948.”

Even the historians that he quotes disagree with him. He denies the evidence that Arab leaders told Palestinian Arabs to leave Israel in 1948 so that the combined forces coming from Arab countries could exterminate the Jews, after which the Arabs who had lived in the region could return.

He denies the overwhelming evidence that this was the case, contained within periodicals and confirmed radio announcements at the time — among them The Near East Arabic Broadcasting Station, The New York Herald, London Economist, Time Magazine and Jordanian Daily Newspaper — that clearly reflected the push by Arab leaders to encourage the flight of their brethren for the purpose of the annihilation of the Jews and their reborn state. (A compiled list of critical quotes from reputable sources regarding this issue is available at

I cannot help but wonder why Finkelstein fails to mention that approximately 150,000 Palestinian Arabs chose to remain in Israel in 1948, becoming Arab Israelis with descendants and friends that now number over 1 million. Growing numbers of Arab Israeli citizens, with representation in Israel’s Knesset, do not match with his accusation of ethnic cleansing.

I once wrote a letter to Finkelstein, because I was frustrated after attending one of his deeply disturbing lectures. I asked him why he lied to well-meaning students during his lecture. I showed him the evidence that the flight of the Palestinian Arabs from Israel in 1948 was, in part, due to the war, and, in part, due to the clear calls from Arab countries.

I showed him evidence from credible sources. I asked him to refute them, but he did not in his reply. Instead, he told me to read his book, and he told me that our conversation was at an end.

As I sat watching Finkelstein this second time, I looked around the room at the eager 300 to 400 students who came to hear him speak. Many of them were already anti-Israel and enjoyed his presentation, because it supported and expanded their own prejudices. Others, however, had heard that a controversial speaker was coming and came in good faith with open minds.

I watched for three straight hours at UC Irvine as students were poisoned by the Finkelstein Syndrome. I walked away feeling saddened by the notion that young hearts and minds were affected by a man of such dubious scholarship and malicious intent.

What remedy do we have when a hateful propagandist and academic fraud like Finkelstein comes to town? As the national director of an organization that believes in free speech, the only power we have is to expose him as a failed scholar who lacks balance, as a man with an obsessive agenda and as a man who respects the likes of Hezbollah.

Maybe if these things about him become more widely known, the people who may have the misfortune of attending his future lectures will come for entertainment, rather than for education.

Roz Rothstein is national director of StandWithUs.


Rising Singing Star Pitches New Sound

Many young girls dream of a life on the stage, but few could have envisioned the career now enjoyed by Hila Plitmann, a Jerusalem-born soprano who these days makes her home in Studio City. Plitmann, 32, is not famous in the way that, say, sopranos like Renée Fleming, Deborah Voigt and Anna Netrebko are. She is not a star. But she is making a name for herself, and not by singing music by Puccini, Mozart, Strauss and Wagner.

Instead, Plitmann is building a career based largely on new music by composers like David Del Tredici, John Corigliano, Roger Reynolds and Esa-Pekka Salonen, the latter the longtime music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and something of a Plitmann champion. Indeed, Plitmann was one of two featured soloists in the premiere of Salonen’s “Wing on Wing,” written for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003 and dedicated to its architect, Frank Gehry.

That work — for orchestra, two sopranos and Gehry’s voice sampled on tape — has become something of a calling card for the soprano, who most recently sang it at Disney Hall on May 31. That concert came on the heels of another at Disney Hall on May 9, in which she participated in premieres of Unsuk Chin’s vibrant “Cantatrix Sopranica” and Reynolds’ sprawling, multidimensional “Illusion,” two works commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group.

On June 7, she’ll appear in a less likely space, at Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Encino, joining two other singers — mezzo-soprano Alma Mora Ponce and tenor Mark Saltzman, cantor at Congregation Kol Ami synagogue — for a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “From Jewish Folk Poetry” and a selection of Yiddish songs. (The trio gave the same program at the Jewish Community Center in La Jolla on May 24.) She’s doing this in part, out of friendship for Neal Brostoff, who is producing the concert and accompanying the singers.

Though Shostakovich, who died in 1975, used Russian translations of the poems for his song cycle, musicologist Joachim Braun restored the original Yiddish texts in the 1980s. And it’s that version Plitmann and her colleagues are singing.

“From Jewish Folk Poetry” doesn’t require Plitmann to enter the vocal stratosphere, but her ability to do so has served her well and marked her for distinction. A coloratura soprano with a silvery tone who seems utterly at ease projecting high notes, Plitmann says, “I was always a screamer.”

She describes her father, an academic, as having “a beautiful voice” and her mother as a classical music enthusiast, but neither was more than a hobbyist. Both remain in Israel, as do the singer’s sister and brother.

Early on, Plitmann was an ambivalent pianist, and though she sang in a youth choir, she gave it up for athletics, particularly gymnastics, dancing and running — something her needle-thin dancer’s body still attests to. But she missed singing and soon found herself taking private lessons and enrolling in a music high school.

Unable to find the advanced vocal training she needed in Israel, Plitmann, at her teacher’s urging, enrolled in New York’s Juilliard School, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. But talented singer or not, she still had an obligation to the Israel Defense Forces.

“I did my basic training for the Israeli army in the summers, during my second and third years at Juilliard,” she says. “I learned how to shoot Uzis and run around in the dirt. It was very bizarre.”

Juilliard is also where she met her husband, Eric Whitacre, a composer.

“He wouldn’t leave me alone, so I married him,” she says. They now have an 8-month-old son, Esh.

Whitacre is composing an opera for his wife. Titled, “Paradise Lost,” and described as “opera electronica” on Whitacre’s Web site, the work is an amalgam of styles, including, techno, rave and ambient. Plitmann likens the music to that of Bjork and the Postal Service (the band, not the letter carriers).

Often, classical artists come to appreciate the rigors of modern music once they mature, but not Plitmann. Her interest in the new dates back to her childhood. That youth chorus her mother sent her to emphasized contemporary Israeli music. At 14, she appeared in her first opera, singing the role of Flora, the bewitched little girl at the center of Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw.” And while still in high school, she sang Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” with the Israel Philharmonic.

Plitmann describes her specialization in new music as “an accident that turned into a choice,” noting that she likes “the challenge of learning something difficult, whatever the era,” yet singling out modern works for their “many dramatic elements.”

She says that audiences can’t be forced to love new music but insists that committed performances from artists like her can help sway them to be more open-minded.

“I find there’s more in contemporary music that can be used expressively than both musicians and audiences realize,” she says. “People think contemporary music is cold and intellectual, but that’s not always true.”

Plitmann is certainly no snob when it comes to music. Her personal interests extend to various forms of pop music, and even professionally, she makes choices that some might consider too populist. Her limited discography will soon include a song cycle to Bob Dylan texts called “Mr. Tambourine Man” by Corigliano, who won an Oscar for his score to the film, “The Red Violin.” And though she isn’t exactly getting star billing, Plitmann is the vocal soloist on Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to “The Da Vinci Code.”

She got the job through a close friend of her husband’s and made the recording in London, an experience she calls “amazing.” The lyrics, she says, are meant to mimic Latin, though no actual language is being sung. The soprano admits that the score is “not the most complex music,” yet it has another virtue: it sounds good.

“I love singing beautiful music,” Plitmann says.

The “Shostakovich at 100 Concert” will be held at 8 p.m. on June 7 at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For information, call (818) 788-6000 or visit

A Super ‘Schmooze’ Move

The unforgettable superheroes of comic strips became the stuff of endless Hollywood big-budget sequels. But more often than not, they began in the fevered imaginations of struggling young Jewish guys, whose wildest dreams could be hemmed in only by four panels and black ink.

“In June 1938, Superman appeared,” Michael Chabon writes in his 2000 novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay.” “He had been mailed to the offices of National Periodical Publications from Cleveland, by a couple of Jewish boys who had imbued him with the power of a hundred men, of a distant world, and of the full measure of their bespectacled adolescent hopefulness and desperation.”

It’s not an insurmountable leap from those days to these, from the pioneers like “Superman’s” Joe Shuster and Jerome Siegel to masters like Art Spiegelman, to the talented Jewish comic strip artists of today.

In that spirit, we premiere this week, “Schmooze or Lose,” our first, weekly serialized comic strip. Read more about the creators, writer Jake Novak and illustrator Michael Ciccotello at, and follow the further adventures of their very L.A. Jewish characters in this space each week.


Sweet Sixteen and Ready to Rise

Even though 16-year-old singer Liel Kolet was born on a kibbutz in northern Israel, she’d prefer to be called an international artist rather than an Israeli one. That largely explains why many of the younger generation of Israeli rock/pop buffs would know little about her. Nor is she routinely counted among the growing crop of Israeli pop princesses, such as Shiri Maimon, who also will be performing in Los Angeles later this month. She hasn’t released an album in Hebrew for wide distribution, and her English songs don’t get Israeli radio play.

And that’s just fine with Kolet. While the dark, curly-haired singer remains deeply connected to her Israeli roots — even while trotting the globe in America, Europe and Canada — she has her sights on the big leagues.

“From the start the idea was to build me as an international singer,” she said.

And there are parallels with her idol, Celine Dion. As young singers, both set their sights on international stardom with the backing of a dedicated manager (Kolet’s manager is Irit Ten-Hengel). Kolet, like Dion, has a clean and wholesome image, singing heartfelt songs about love, humanity and “the children.” On May 20, Kolet will represent Switzerland at the Eurovision singing contest, just as Dion, originally from Canada, did in 1988. The title of Kolet’s debut album is “Unison,” also the title of Dion’s hit debut.

“I’m not trying to be Celine Dion — we don’t have same kind of music — but what she achieved in her career and the steps she’s been through and what she represents are an example to me,” said Kolet in a very slight Israeli accent during a telephone interview. “She is an example of what an artist should be: She has an amazing voice and presence on stage that really touches to the heart of people. People come to hear her voice. That to me is what an artist is about.”

Kolet has a powerful voice and range, but Israeli-born female vocalists have notoriously failed to make a successful U.S. crossover. With the possible exception of Ofra Haza, another of Kolet’s favorites, Israeli divas usually fare better in Europe, which is generally more open to musical diversity.

Still, Ten-Hengel, Kolet’s international manager, left her prestigious career as a music executive at Sony Europe to focus solely on Kolet, because she has little doubt that Kolet will achieve her dreams.

“Mark my word: When she’s 18, she’s huge in America,” said Ten-Hengel. “She has the whole package — voice, personality, love for music, passion and angelic beauty.”

A select audience will judge for themselves when Kolet headlines the May 24 black-tie award dinner of the International Visitor’s Council. Music industry bigwigs are expected to be there for their own look, including Grammy-award winning producer David Foster, who has produced several of Dion’s hits. Ken Kragen, Kolet’s U.S.-based manager, is the dinner’s honoree for his production of humanitarian projects, including We Are the World and Hands Across America.

A veteran manager of such artists as Kenny Rogers, Lionel Richie, Olivia Newton John and the Bee Gees, Kragen came across Kolet two years ago when he saw a video of her performance at the 80th birthday celebration for former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. At the star- and diplomat-studded event, Kolet spontaneously called Bill Clinton to the stage to sing a duet with her of Lennon’s “Imagine.” It happened to be one of her best career moves.

“I realized this lady had amazing poise and ability and was a wonderful singer with an amazing voice,” Kragen said.

Two years ago, Kragen introduced the aspiring starlet to American music industry executives in Los Angeles.

With no major American record deals were in the offing, Kolet spent the last two years building up an impressive resume of performances in Europe, particularly in Germany, where she has won several awards. Her management believes that she’s now poised to conquer North America, making her upcoming visit to Los Angeles all the more significant.

“It’s not easy,” Kragen said. “The record industry today is much less inclined to sign new acts. The difference now is that there’s a track record in Europe.”

Kolet’s participation in charity events has put her onstage with artists such as Elton John, U2’s Bono and, most recently, Andrea Boccelli. She has developed a close working relationship with Klaus Meine of the legendary German rock band, the Scorpions, having performed with him last year in Israel.

Her first international album, “Unison,” is a potpourri of ethnic-tinged love ballads, upbeat pop songs and music with a “message”; it includes three duets with Meine. Their take on Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold” is the most Israeli song on the album, reflecting the Israeli pride she says she’ll always carry with her.

As Kolet put it: “Singing for peace and everything that I do and my charity events are because I grew-up in Israel.”

For more information on Liel Kolet, visit

A Young Violinist With a Lot of Pluck

Her name is Camilla Tsiperovich. But, growing up in Azerbaijan, there were times she wasn’t allowed to use it. As a 9-year-old violinist performing for world-renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, she was told to call herself Camilla Gadjieva. Her headmaster at the Azerbaijan Conservatory considered this a more suitable name, one that reflected the Muslim heritage of her country. While representing Azerbaijan in international music competitions and spending her first year of high school at the famed Moscow Conservatory, she always understood that “there was something wrong because you were Jewish.”

Tsiperovich no longer needs to hide who she is. A year ago, her talent was noticed by Anita Hirsh, whose work with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has given her a deep commitment to the Jews of the former Soviet Union. Hirsh, the widow of The Jewish Journal’s late publisher, Stanley Hirsh, sponsored Tsiperovich’s entrance into the Idyllwild Arts Academy. Now, at age 17, Tsiperovich is flourishing as a full-time student who divides her days between academic subjects and an intense focus on her chosen instrument.

Idyllwild Arts Academy, a boarding school nestled in the mountains above Palm Springs, is home to 270 high school students who are preparing for careers as artists, dancers, actors, filmmakers and musicians. The atmosphere is international, with about one-third of the student body hailing from Europe, Asia and Latin America. As an entering student with shaky English skills, Tsiperovich is enrolled in a basic course in English as a Second Language. She introduced herself to her classmates by saying, “I’m from Azerbaijan. None of you know where that is.”

The course has required her to write and speak often about the homeland she’s left behind. Todd Bucklin, the school’s ESL teacher, commends her for being frank and responsive: “It’s great having her strong presence in the class.”

He also admires her social progress. In her dormitory she’s been spotted watching Korean-language movies with her new Asian pals, reading the subtitles to understand what’s going on.

At Idyllwild, all academic classes are held in the morning, to leave afternoons free for lessons, rehearsals and practice sessions. Life is so busy that Tsiperovich finds time to practice her violin only five or six hours a day. Back home, her passion for the instrument led her to practice 12 hours daily. Such devotion had its downside: she was prone to developing injuries in her hands, wrists and feet.

Her family, though always supportive, is not especially musical. In fact, a career in music was completely Tsiperovich’s idea. She was only 3 when she saw a televised concert of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G and became obsessed with learning the violin. She began lessons before she turned 4, and it wasn’t long before she was winning competitions and presenting public recitals. She is also a gifted visual artist, who received her current instrument from an American oil company after it used one of her paintings in an advertising campaign.

Tsiperovich admits that in Azerbaijan it’s almost impossible to follow the rules of religious Judaism (her family’s tiny synagogue is now defunct). Nonetheless, she learned from an early age to respect Jewish tradition. She was active in her local chapter of the World Jewish Agency, also known as Sochnut, an organization that encourages Diaspora Jews to feel connected with the State of Israel. It was Sochnut that paved the way for her to participate in an Israeli music festival, where her violin performance won first prize. Because her stay in Israel coincided with her 13th birthday, she was able to celebrate an impromptu bat mitzvah in a local synagogue. Though her parents were far away, she was by no means lonely.

In Israel, Tsiperovich says in her careful, accented English, “I felt like I am at home. I felt so warm. People were so close to me.”

Now she’s learning to feel at home in the United States. She says Hirsh often acts as “my parent in America” and sees her during holidays. Hirsh took Tsiperovich to Utah over winter break for her first attempt at skiing. Still, it’s hard for her not to miss all that she has left behind. When her school took its spring break in late March, she flew to her home city of Baku, on the Caspian Sea, to reunite with her family for the first time in five months. As luck would have it, she was able to share in the festivities of her favorite holiday, Azerbaijan New Year.

Tsiperovich is determined to follow high school with four years at a major American music conservatory. Because her long-range goal is to forge a career as a soloist, it’s likely she won’t be spending many more New Years in her native land. The life of a professional musician can be heartbreakingly tough, but it offers one great reward.

“When you play music,” Tsiperovich says, “you feel really free.”


Jewlicious Conspiracy

In November 2004, I sat in Rabbi Yonah and Rachel Bookstein’s kitchen. They are a young couple with three children, and together they run the Cal State Long Beach University Hillel (he is spiritual adviser; she is program director).

Apple laptop on hand, Rabbi Bookstein talked of a dream about a conference for young Jews, where they could hang out and learn. No agendas, no gimmicks.

I jokingly labeled it a conspiracy. But with the collaboration of a Web journal, or “blog,” known as, the conference “Jewlicious @ The Beach” launched in April 2005.

Parents don’t understand why 300 young Jews packed the Long Beach Alpert JCC for the Jewlicious sequel on Feb. 17. We came for food and song, complete with banging on the tables and exuberant dancing wherever there was room. At the Sunday night concert, “Jewbilation,” you could see the look of shock on the older generation’s faces as we jammed to Hebrew heavy-metal songs by the Maccabees. This was not your mom’s “Oseh Shalom.”

Jewlicious included panels on everything from “Kabbalah and Madonna” to “Jews Who Protest.” There were workshops, musical jams and tons of food. It was attended by young Jews in the spotlight, such as writer Ruth Andrew Ellenson, editor of “Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt,” and Matisyahu, the Chasidic reggae superstar my dad refers to as “the hip-hop hoo-hoo.” But most of all, it was everything that the Booksteins hoped for: a celebration of being young and Jewish and alive.

What many people don’t realize is that a new Jewish youth culture is coming to the surface. For us, it’s old school meets new school-klezmer with a hip-hop beat (brought to “Jewbilation” by the amazing DJ So Called and Beyond the Pale).

We are of all ethnicities and levels of observance, and we include some in the process of conversion. Some young Jews have become more observant, much to the shock of less traditional parents. Orthodoxy is no longer old-fashioned, but a source of fascination.

We have faced anti-Semitism in all forms. At a women’s session, one girl told us that when she was in high school in Glendora, swastikas were carved into her desk and she was beaten up-twice. Anti-Israel activities on campuses these days often turn hateful against “Zionist Jews.” Many of us have been told to accept Jesus before we go to hell. Our response is Jewish pride.

We love eating, wine tasting, the beach, dancing, movies, fashion and long conversations. We’re activists, writers, musicians, artists, vegans, nonconformists, Shabbat-observers or just attracted to big noses. If you like being Jewish, you are an MOT, or Member of the Tribe.

And what do MOTs do? We rock out to Matisyahu and Israeli hip-hop. We wear shirts that say, “Eat me, I’m kosher.” We like poking fun at ourselves, with examples ranging from the movie, “The Hebrew Hammer,” to Rav Shmuel’s cutting jibes in his song, “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

We love Israel, although some of us are more willing to criticize its policies than others. We’re glued to our computers, and use them to connect to other Jews. We understand that there are many people in the world who still hate us, and in order to prevent them from bringing us down, we have to come together.

Sometimes it worries me that the pendulum will swing back. Yes, we have come very far in our Jewish youth culture, but for how long will the Los Angeles Times refer to Matisyahu as a Jesus-figure, as it did after the Ragga Muffins Festival in Long Beach? For how long will we be cool and not have to respond to the world outside?

Luckily, Jewlicious @ The Beach was my answer. Between musical jam sessions and henna tattoos , we had created something very important: a community, a safe haven where we could express who we are and learn. The Jewish youth culture was creating a home — a home we have desperately needed.

Judaism is changing as youth takes over the reins. It’s us taking our Judaism away from what others tell us it is and transforming it, letting it grow and making it into our own.

I guess it is a conspiracy after all.

Reina V. Slutske is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.


Simple Minds

I shared a ballroom last Saturday night with a group of people whose lives could easily inspire nothing more than pity. Like me, they were attending the annual gala of Etta Israel Center, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides outreach and services to developmentally disabled Jews and their families.

Etta Israel is one of those rare organizations that attracts support — and offers support — across denominational boundaries. So the lobby of the California Science Center, decked out for a private evening affair, was host to bearded, black-hatted rabbis and smooth-shaven, kippah-less types. There were women in cocktail dresses and women in fashionable shaidels. UCLA Hillel Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, whose politics veer left, ran into an old acquaintance, Rabbi Baruch Kupfer, executive director of Maimonides Academy of Los Angeles, and the two men joked about who was going to swing whom over to his side.

Also among these Jewish leaders and financial supporters of Etta Israel were dozens of the young adults and children whose named and unnamed challenges — cerebral palsy, autism, Down’s syndrome and others — are often used as reasons to exclude them from many things that society has to offer, like an education.

The Etta Israel Center runs programs to teach Judaism to developmentally challenged children and young adults, as well as group homes for adults (its third home will open in the Valley in June) and a popular summer day camp. It helps Jewish day schools meet the learning needs of all its students, and has trained thousands of teachers in how to help all children learn through its Schools Attuned programs.

One of the young women in its girls yeshiva program saw me taking notes and approached me.

“She wants to show you her writing,” said the educator I was speaking with. The young woman couldn’t form words, but offered me her notepad, on which she had written several rows of wavy lines. It was just lines — no words, no letters — but it was her writing. She beamed and blushed at once.

In another context, the moment could have inspired pity. But pity is cheap. Like guilt, it’s only useful as a tool to pick the locks on our hearts, to compel us to change, to act.

Surrounded by friends from her class, helped along by the educator and the people at Etta Israel — as well as by parents, like the dozens of committed ones in the room — the young woman struck me as confident and fortunate. She found herself embraced by people who wouldn’t settle for mere pity.

One of the evening’s honorees was Valerie Vanaman, an attorney whose relentless advocacy on behalf of special-needs education has improved the lives of thousands of children and their families.

“Every child is entitled to receive an appropriate educational program,” Vanaman said during her award acceptance speech. It is such a simple idea, but like most simple ideas, it takes people of great intellect to conceive it and men and women of iron will to implement it.

Conversely, the idea that people with mental, emotional or physical disabilities might be barred from partaking in a public or Jewish education is, no matter how cool and rational it may seem, the fruit of simple minds, and it takes no more ability than the slack acceptance of the status quo to realize it. Vanaman railed against challenges to opportunity and funding of special-needs students at the state level, and urged parents to contact their representatives and State Board of Education Superintendent Jack O’Connell to protest the decrease in services. “Lawyers can’t save the day,” she said. “Only parents can save the day.”

The other honoree was David Suissa, the founder of Suissa/Miller Advertising and publisher of Olam magazine. During his speech, Suissa recounted the story of Etta Israel, a teacher who, after retirement, took it upon herself to teach developmentally disabled children at Beth Jacob Congregation for 20 years. Her experiences led Dr. Michael Held to create a center in her name. Again, it was a simple idea: instead of offering pity, offer parity. Extend the beauty and benefits of Jewish learning to those most likely to be left behind. Focus teachers on the students’ abilities, working through — and around — their deficits.

The organization, which has largely focused on the Orthodox community, is looking to be of service to non-Orthodox day schools, as well. Held wants more schools to emulate the model of schools like the CSUN-affiliated CHIME Charter schools in Woodland Hills, where enrollment is 80 percent “typical” children and 20 percent special-needs children. Why can’t the Jewish community, he asked, support a Jewish high school following that model?

A simple, brilliant idea — waiting for people of iron will to make it a reality.

For more information, go to


Program Tries to Sell Youth on Negev

Endless stretches of sand and sky surround the teenagers as they tumble off buses in the Negev Desert.

“It’s really pretty here. It’s very different from the Ukraine,” said Larisa Protasova, 17, as she posed for a photo on the edge of a sand dune. A recent immigrant to Israel, it was her first time seeing the Negev.

Protasova was one of 16,000 young Israelis — including immigrants as well as soldiers, students and youth group members — who were brought to the Negev on day trips in December, part of a campaign to convince them to make their lives here one day.

The two-day event over Chanukah, dubbed “Light Up the Negev,” was organized by the Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (JNF) with the express purpose of “selling” the Negev to Israel’s youth.

The Negev represents about 60 percent of Israel’s landmass, but has only about 8 percent of the country’s inhabitants. After the Gaza Strip withdrawal and with pressure expected to build on Israel to uproot settlements in the West Bank as well, developing the Negev has become a priority for the government, which recently approved $3 billion toward building an infrastructure of jobs and communities in the region.

The JNF, meanwhile, has launched a $500 million campaign specifically for Negev development.

Israelis traditionally have shunned the region because of its remoteness from the rest of the country, the lack of jobs and the relative harshness of desert life. The vast majority of Israelis live in the center of the country, where the cost of living is much higher but opportunities for jobs are greater.

Officials hope the surge of investment will lure people south to fulfill the vision of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to “make the desert bloom” by transforming the Negev into a center of life and trade, not the periphery it has remained since the country was born.

Plans include the creation of a biotech park in Beersheba, new tourism projects and several ecologically minded villages to be built with environmentally friendly materials. Also being promoted are swaths of land to be sold as ranches.

Israeli officials hope that some 250,000 more people will move to the Negev.

“We must educate young Israelis and let them know what opportunities await them once they move there: affordable housing, open spaces, jobs, a sense of community and a place in history,” said Sharon Davidovich, who helped organize the event and formerly was a JNF shaliach in the United States.

Efrat Duvdevani, director of the recently formed Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee, said there is a rare consensus in the Jewish world around the need to develop the two regions.

“The Negev and Galilee are not politically controversial. It is something that unites people and brings everyone together, including the Jewish community abroad,” she said. “It has nothing that has to do with this party or that party but the history and, most importantly, the future of Israel.”

The Negev is home to some 140,000 Bedouin. Officials say the development plan will benefit them by bringing better education and housing, but some in the Bedouin community are opposed to the plan, fearing that additional building in the region will encroach on land they claim.

Over Chanukah, youth visited different sites throughout the Negev, including military bases, development towns and parks, learning about the region’s history and environment.

Some of the youth spent time painting houses and planting trees in the town of Yeruham, while others cleaned out a riverbed or helped build a bicycle trail in Mitzpeh Ramon.

One group of immigrant youth from the former Soviet Union visited Mitzpeh Gvulot, an experimental farm from the 1940s just outside Kibbutz Gvulot.

“Do you know where you are on the map?” asked their guide, a female soldier. The teenagers, all of them from the Tel Aviv area, shook their heads no and laughed.

The soldier showed them around mud buildings that a group of young pioneers built in 1943. One had served as a communal dining room, another as a bakery.

Arkadi Demianenko, 16, who immigrated to Israel from Ukraine in 2000, said the history was interesting, but he didn’t see his future in the Negev.

If even 10 percent of the 16,000 youth who came to the Negev on this trip decide to move there, the operation will have been a success, said David Ashkenazi who organized the event as JNF-Israel’s head of informal education.

He said the Negev life clearly wouldn’t appeal to everyone.

“It’s for them if they want a different kind of life — not the same kind of life they would live in the center of the country, but if they are looking for a more pioneering life,” Ashkenazi said.

That appealed to George Moscowski, 14, from the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon, who said the openness of the scenery drew him in.

“In the future I’d like to live in a free, open place that is not crowded. Maybe it will be green one day,” said Moscowski, who hopes to study computer programming.


Spectator – A Poet’s Slam-Dunk

Jewish summer camp introduces young Jews to many things — sports, arts and crafts, drama classes; Eitan Kadosh, a 1999 National Slam Poetry champion, “learned that sex isn’t always like pizza.”

He also learned how to entertain people, playing one of the brothers in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

But he realized that he “much preferred reading my own material,” he said.

In college, he wandered into an open-mike night at a coffeehouse and got a good response from the audience. From there, he began writing poetry. Possessing an infectious love for language, the 30-year-old Kadosh created his own major at Cal-Berkeley, graduating with a degree in spoken-word poetry and performance.

For many years after college, he toured the country, often performing at Hillels at various universities, as well as at non-Jewish venues. In more recent years, he has remained in Los Angeles, working on his master’s of fine arts at Cal State Long Beach and performing locally at clubs.

With a gift for diction, Kadosh explores the cultural absurdities and political hypocrisies of America, dedicating one spoken-word poem to SUVs, and another to the cheese at the heart of America.

He said that he has been influenced by the Beat poets, particularly the “cadences and rhythms of Ginsberg, each stanza as long as a breath.” Lawrence Ferlinghetti, he said, “sounded so good when read aloud.”

Kadosh wanted to “take the energy” of these Beats and “combine it with more technical precision and craft.”

Many of his poems do not have a Jewish theme to them, but his act, titled “Too Neurotic,” is unmistakably Jewish, not so much in its subversive humor, a humor that may recall George Carlin as much as Jewish comedians, as in his frenetic delivery, which is evocative of Gene Wilder’s nebbish Leo Bloom in the original “The Producers.”

Not unlike Bloom, who keeps repeating, “I’m wet, and I’m hysterical,” Kadosh in his piece, “Waiting for Isaac,” melts polar ice caps, sleeps in the gutter on street-sweeping day, eats nothing but Denny’s, then repeats with exasperation, “But it wasn’t enough.”

His refrain sounds like the antithesis of the Passover song “Dayenu,” even if he is not dealing with plagues. But in “Waiting for Isaac,” he probes the origin of Jewish progeny. For that, we will wait.

Eitan Kadosh performs “Too Neurotic” on Jan. 17 and 18, 8 p.m., at the Fountain Theater, 5060 Fountain Ave., (323) 663-1525.


Bonding Over Torah

On a recent Sunday morning, a group of bat mitzvah-age girls and their mothers sit together reading and discussing the story of Chana, who, wretched and weeping because she is childless, prays to God for a son.

“Pay particular attention to the verses describing how Chana prayed,” educator Marcie Meier tells the group.

These 11- to 13-year-old girls and their mothers are learning about Chana and other female role models in a Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar held at Congregation Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills. There, in the book-lined beit midrash, for six Sunday mornings, the mitzvot (commandments) and midot (characteristics) of these ancient women come alive through exploring English and Hebrew texts and engaging in arts-related projects such as calligraphy and singing.

Now in its third year, the seminar is one of the most popular offerings of Netivot, an independent Torah study center for women founded six years ago whose name is Hebrew for “pathways.” And it is unique in the Orthodox community, where bat mitzvah is neither routine nor ritualized and where organized bat mitzvah classes, for the most part, are nonexistent.

“The seminar is filling in a niche for those who want to make the experience more meaningful,” said Irine Schweitzer, founding president of Netivot.

Generally taught once a year, with 10 to 20 girls enrolled per class, the program affords mothers and daughters special time together. It also introduces the girls to peers from other schools, allowing them to view bat mitzvah as a more universal experience.

Additionally, Schweitzer says, the seminar provides the girls with a historical connection between them and the women who came before them and with the knowledge that they are carrying on an important legacy.

“We learn from Shmuel’s mom [Chana] that you whisper when you daven and say the words to yourself. I didn’t know that,” says Nava Bendik, 11, who is taking the class with her mother, Alisa.

Meier adds that you are supposed to pray with kavanah (intention) and that these laws refer specifically to the Shemoneh Esreh prayers or Amidah.

During this class, the girls also learn how to write words of prayer in calligraphy, with the help of artist Rae Shagalov.

“Talent sometimes comes from interest rather than strength,” Shagalov tells them, explaining that her enthusiasm for calligraphy was sparked when she wanted to copy Torah.

In addition to Chana, the girls and mothers learn about Sarah, Miriam, Devorah and Ruth, and take part in candle making, dancing, singing and learning about tikkun olam (healing the world). Also, one Thursday evening they visit the nonprofit organization Tomchei Shabbos, where coordinator Steve Berger gives a warehouse tour and puts them to work assembling boxes of Shabbat food for needy Jewish families.

And for the last class, the girls select and interview a female role model — usually a teacher, mother or another relative — and present the findings to the class.

“You’re supposed to learn before your bat mitzvah and that’s happening,” says Jessica Gittler, 11, who is participating with her mother, Naomi.

These girls are all planning to have a bat mitzvah, but what constitutes that rite of passage varies greatly in the diversity of the Orthodox community. Many girls do nothing or have a small party. Others write and present a d’var Torah in synagogues such as Young Israel of Century City or at a family celebration. And a few actually lead a service and chant Torah, an option at Shirat Chana, the women’s monthly prayer group at B’nai David-Judea Congregation.

“While girls pretty much universally have some kind of celebration, I think the piece of it that’s become more prominent in the last couple of decades is the learning they bring to it and the public role in sharing it,” says Luisa Latham, an educator and Netivot board member.

Bat mitzvah preparation is traditionally done one-on-one with a rebbetzin or teacher (boys in the Orthodox world also learn individually with a rabbi or teacher), but supplementary learning programs, such as Netivot’s Seminar, are beginning to appear.

At Young Israel of Century City, now in its second year, Ruchama Muskin, educator and wife of Rabbi Elazar Muskin, teaches a two-part bat mitzvah workshop on laws and responsibilities pertaining to women. She also incorporates hands-on projects such as baking challah.

The girls in Netivot’s Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar plan on doing some additional learning with a rebbetzin or teacher and on preparing a d’var Torah. They also intend to do a chesed (lovingkindness) project for their bat mitzvah. Nava Bendik, for example, with the help of family and friends, is knitting scarves and donating them to an Israeli orphanage. She hopes to collect 70.

Schweitzer believes that the mothers who themselves enjoy and seriously engage in learning are the ones encouraging their daughters to have more meaningful b’not mitzvah. She hopes to see even more movement in this direction.

But what is unusual in this program is the opportunity for mothers and daughters to learn jointly.

“This was not around in my time,” Marcie Meier says. “The idea of mothers and daughters studying together and taking life a little bit deeper is a welcome part of growing up today.”

And it’s not only the mothers who appreciate it.

“It’s really cool learning with my mom,” says Leanne Bral, 13, the daughter of Evana. “Sometimes she knows more than I do and sometimes I know more.”

For more information on Netivot and the Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar, visit or call (310) 226-6141.


Steven Firestein: Making Magic for Children


Steven Firestein thought he had it all. At 27, he owned a plush Encino home, drove a Cadillac and made a nice living as a real estate agent. Then he felt a bump on his scalp.

For months, Firestein ignored the growth, fearing he had cancer. By the time he went under the knife, the tumor had grown to the size of a golf ball. Although, it turned out to be benign, the cancer scare forced him to reassess his priorities. Firestein, who had met several children with cancer during his doctor visits, decided to devote his life to alleviating their pain and suffering.

“I wanted to do something for them,” Firestein said. “I felt like they got a bad deal. I was no saint, and I thought, ‘Why was I spared? Why did they get cancer?'”

In 1994, a year after his brush with mortality, Firestein founded a nonprofit that would eventually become the Kids Cancer Connection. A descendant of cosmetics magnate Max Factor — whose family has donated millions to local charities — he invested $10,000 to get the project going.

Firestein decided his L.A.-based organization’s first program would be to give hats and caps to young cancer patients who had lost their hair from chemotherapy, radiation and other treatments. To Firestein, the Magical Caps for Kids program resonated strongly with him; doctors had shaved his head before removing his benign tumor, leaving him feeling vulnerable and self-conscious. To date, Magical Caps has given away an estimated 40,000 caps across the nation.

“I think what he’s doing is terrific,” said Marcia Helton, a 59-year-old professional caregiver from Los Osos, Calif., who has assembled a group of girls called the Little Angels to knit hats, scarves and blankets for Kids Cancer Connection and other charities. The caps “make kids feel cared about. It’s also great for their families, because the families feel better when their kids feel better.”

Under Firestein’s direction, Kids Cancer Connection branched out into new areas. In the late ’90s, the charity began sponsoring field trips to Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm and other attractions. Firestein, wherever possible, used his networking abilities to procure free tickets, even tapping the California Travel & Tourism Commission for vouchers.

Later, he helped establish the Courageous Kid Recognition Award to recognize the bravery of children battling cancer. Recently, a young boy undergoing a bone marrow transplant received the award at the Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA, where he now seeks treatment. More than 2,000 kids around the country have won the award since the program began in 2003.

Firestein himself has been recognized for his efforts. In 1995, he won a National Volunteer Service Award from Volunteers of America. In November, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) took to the House floor to praise Firestein’s efforts.

Now a 40-year-old middle-school teacher in the Valley, Firestein still spends 20 hours a week on the Kids Cancer Connection, which has 300 volunteers nationally. Despite the time and financial demands, he has no regrets.

“I totally feel like I’m making a difference,” Firestein said.

Steven Firestein


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

Karen Gilman: What Makes Her Run?

Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen: Kindness Starts at Home

Moshe Salem: Giving a Voice to Israelis

David Karp: A Guide for Unity in Scouting

L.A. Enters the Season of Mitzvot

Christmas Day is the day of the year which some Jews often fill by doing some mitzvah volunteer work, then enjoying Chinese food and a movie. But that annual mitzvah-Chinese food-movie ritual is being put aside this Dec. 25 for Chanukah.

“Chanukah makes it a big deal because now Jews have something to do that day,” said Rachael Martin, program coordinator at Westwood’s Conservative shul, Sinai Temple.

This year, traditional Christmas Day volunteering is being spread out across December. The shul’s ATID young adult leadership group’s annual Dec. 25 Mitzvah Day is being merged with templewide volunteering on Dec. 18, the formal start of Sinai’s yearlong centennial anniversary.

The young leadership division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles visited the elderly at the Fairfax District’s Shalom Retirement Hotel on Dec. 11, with music by madrigal singers from Beverly Hills High School. A week earlier, Sinai hosted a holiday party for several hundred soldiers and their families at the California National Guard compound in Westwood.

The Reform Temple Israel of Hollywood still will host its annual Christmas Day dinner at the nearby Hollywood United Methodist Church. Like the last 21 Christmases, about 200 Temple Israel volunteers are expected to join another 250 nontemple volunteers to feed more than 1,500 people in need, as well as give out toys to kids and health-care products to adults.

In addition, Temple Israel member David Levinson, chair of the Jewish community’s annual “Big Sunday” spring day of volunteering, has been coordinating Christmas mitzvah work throughout December.

“We’ve been doing things all month, since Thanksgiving,” Levinson said. “We have about 30 projects of our own through New Year’s Day.”

Away from Southern California, the still-pressing needs of Hurricane Katrina victims are on the holiday wish list. Last month, Rabbi Steve Jacobs of the Reform synagogue, Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, visited Katrina victims still homeless in Houston.

“There’s so much that’s not being done about Katrina,” Jacobs said. “We have to have Chanukah and Christmas come together and not let the lights go out in these people’s lives.”

One Kol Tikvah congregant heeding that advice is Jacob Margolis, a 16-year-old student at El Camino High School. For three days this week, Jacobs planned to raise Katrina relief donations from his fellow students, partly by making his pitch at lunch over the public address system.

“Get on the PA, put on some music, talk to the people,” said Margolis, adding that his Katrina pitch would be heard, ironically, amid the student body’s Santa Claus picture-taking.

From last January’s Asian tsunami through September’s Katrina disaster, Jewish donations have been pouring into emergency relief funds. The downside of such altruism is that local nonprofits have been hurt.

“We kept hearing the same thing from the nonprofits,” Levinson said. “A lot of the nonprofits here are really hurting, and they could use help this year. A lot of the homeless here are still really suffering, partly because a lot of the funding for that has dried up. They’re not getting quite the donations that they used to.”

Before Chanukah begins, Sinai Temple’s Martin also will spend part of Christmas Day at the Salvation Army shelter in Echo Park.

“We don’t need volunteers [at that shelter] on Christmas,” she said. “But we need them every other day of the year.”

Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, said the “great confluence” of Christmas and Chanukah being so close to each other means Jews should do volunteer work on Dec. 25 before Chanukah starts later that day. Diamond and his family will spend Christmas at Pasadena’s Union Station, feeding the poor.

“The mitzvah we will do earlier in the day will enhance our Chanukah observance,” said Diamond, who then pointed out that Chanukah’s menorah-lighting is itself a mitzvah, prompting him to paraphrase a Talmudic precept: “One mitzvah leads to another mitzvah.”

For this holiday season, “there’s stuff to do all month long,” Levinson said. Some of that volunteer “stuff” being coordinated by Big Sunday includes:

  • Dec. 17 — The “big holiday party” for at-risk teens at the Aviva Center in Hollywood.
  • Dec. 18 — The ninth annual Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanzaa party at the Umoja apartment complex for previously homeless families in South Los Angeles.
  • Dec. 17 and Dec. 23-25 — Gift-wrapping and preparation for the Christmas Day party for the homeless at St. Michael and All Angels Church in Studio City.

See full roster of Big Sunday holiday activities at

The Lost Words

“Yitgadal v’yitkadash shmei.” Three words into Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, Yoni stumbled on an unfamiliar vowel. Then, again and again, as he continued reciting the traditional prayer at his mother’s funeral in Jerusalem, he twisted and mangled the words. He frowned in concentration and tried very hard, but the words would not take their proper shape. The life of a secular young man, even in Israel, contains little preparation for the rituals of a Jewish funeral.

I had come to the funeral for Yoni’s sake. He and my son had been best friends when they were in grade school. For me, Yoni was still that tousled-haired kid in the photo squinting into the sun as he stands next to his bike.

It was Yoni who had come to visit his mother one weekend but instead had found only her body. I wanted somehow to comfort this boy turned young man, whose mother had died so young. Instead, I found myself cringing at his tortured recitation.

Why did it matter? After all, religion was not important in Yoni’s home. His mother, an immigrant from the United States, never mastered Hebrew. She certainly didn’t know Aramaic, the main component of Kaddish and Yoni’s stumbling block.

Yoni’s father, a secular sabra, had no use for ritual. Yoni never had a bar mitzvah; possibly never set foot in a synagogue. There was no way he could have been prepared for this moment. And, perhaps, for his family that did not matter.

So why did it matter to me? This prayer that combines Hebrew and Aramaic speaks not of the dead but rather about the God who has created the world “according to his will.” It continues as a thesaurus of hosannas: “Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One.”

The language is light years from anything a secular young man in Israel might say or think. For a moment I thought that it might be time for a pop version, one that would roll easily off any Israeli tongue.

One thing I knew for certain: I want my own children to be able to recite the Kaddish without stumbling. That Friday at dinner I told them the story of the garbled prayer, hoping they would get the message without my having to come out and say, “Get it right!”

And it’s impossible to get it right without some practice.

They responded blithely, as if it was no concern of theirs.

“The dead person doesn’t care, anyway,” my youngest son scoffed.

Nevertheless, I sensed they’d gotten the message. But why was that so important? I have so little interest in praising, exalting and lauding any supreme being. And I know that the only afterlife is the memory we keep of the person who is gone. The body at the funeral is but an empty shell.

Perhaps what’s at issue is my own life: I’m a word person. For more than 20 years I’ve made my living by writing and editing. Getting the words right is what I labor to achieve, all day every day. It’s a struggle that often leaves me in despair.

But there’s more to it than that. In the face of the greatest anguish, words fail. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a compulsive sender of messages of sympathy to those far away who have lost someone dear, and I sense that those words give some comfort, if only the reminder that someone on the other side of the planet acknowledges the loss.

But what can one say to the mother of a toddler who has died of cancer; to the father of a youngster who has committed suicide; to the teenager whose father has been killed in a car accident? Words seem an intrusion, a violation of the mourner’s right to grieve undisturbed. Nor can even the most eloquent eulogy offer more than a moment’s balm.

It is here that the ancient formula stands in for mere words, since these can never encompass the loss. The repetition of the set phrases, whose literal meaning escapes most people, is a remedy where words fail. It is a recognition that no words, not even the most beautiful or the most caring, can undo what is done. It is a recognition that at times like these one should not have to seek the words. The mourner has a set role, and the participants have a supporting one, reciting one of the lines with the mourner and completing the prayer with a chorus of amen.

This is how it has been from generation to generation, through the chain of Jewish history. The Kaddish is a way of touching all the mourners who have been and all those who will be. It offers both a sense of community and a sense of continuity.

That’s why we have to get it right.

Esther Hecht is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem.


Juvenile Offenders Taste Teshuvah

The slightly built, 13-year-old Latino boy sitting in the Starbucks near downtown Los Angeles didn’t know much about teshuvah, the Jewish notion of repentance.

But it lies at the heart of L.A.’s Jewish Community Justice Project, and it kept this scared kid with the tremulous smile from a likely stint in juvenile boot camp for throwing rocks at a police car.

Instead of going before a judge, the boy was brought face-to-face with the policeman whose car he’d damaged, and in a two-hour meeting facilitated by two trained mediators, he had to tell the cop he was sorry.

Then he had to pledge to make restitution by working a set number of hours for his parents and a local gardening firm to pay $200 for a new car window.

“I felt nervous in that room,” the boy admitted. “I told him I was stupid, and not thinking about what I was doing at that moment. He was kind, he was a good person. He told me to thank my parents for raising me.”

It was the first time the boy had worked for money, and his mother said he was tempted to keep the first $50 he made.

“But I told him, ‘You have to take care of your responsibilities first,'” she said.

The Jewish Community Justice Project is a partner of the Centinela Valley Juvenile Diversion Project, which has been running a victim-offender restitution program in Los Angeles since 1992.

Four years ago, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles funded the joint project between Centinela and two L.A.-based Jewish groups, the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish recovery program.

According to the agreement, the PJA trains volunteers to mediate in cases forwarded by local law enforcement and juvenile courts. There currently are almost 60 Jewish volunteer mediators.

“The alliance with PJA has been so exciting because they’ve recruited motivated, dedicated volunteers,” said Steve Goldsmith, Centinela’s executive director. “The religious component, the education of teshuvah, really keeps the people motivated.”

The mediation project is based on the legal concept of restorative justice, according to which offenders must take personal responsibility for their crimes and make restitution directly to those they have offended.

Participants say it dovetails neatly with the Talmudic notion of teshuvah, which specifies that one must seek forgiveness from those one has wronged before asking God’s forgiveness, something Jews are meant to do every year between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“Part of teshuvah is attending to what one did, and turning to the person who was hurt or offended to see whether you can come back to an open relationship with that person and their family,” said Rabbi Richard Levy, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

Levy helped create the Jewish part of the curriculum — eight hours of Jewish text study on justice and forgiveness — for the volunteer training program.

Daniel Sokatch, director of the PJA, said he brought his organization into the program in 2002, when Los Angeles became the nation’s murder capital.

“We realized that most of the murders were in the 310 area code, home to most of the Jews who don’t live in the Valley,” Sokatch said.

The most affected neighborhoods weren’t those where many Jews live, Sokatch said, but “it’s still our city, and in the words of Jeremiah, you must work for the welfare of the city where you live and there find your own well-being.”

Cases involving murder aren’t eligible for mediation. Most of the what comes to Centinela involves petty theft, vandalism, bullying and similar crimes.

One of the hardest parts of the program is making sure that appropriate cases are referred to them. There were 45,000 youths arrested last year in Los Angeles, Goldsmith said, yet Centinela received only 600 to 700 referrals.

To address that problem, Sokatch said, the next volunteer training program in early 2006 will include a separate, less-intensive track for volunteers, who will learn how to schmooze intake cops, “visit them every week, bring doughnuts and coffee and review the docket with them” to ensure that fewer juvenile offenders slip through the cracks.

Jordan Susman, a former television writer and filmmaker, was in Sokatch’s first group of volunteer mediators.

“I felt that’s what a Jewish organization should do,” said Susman, who is now a third-year law student. “It appeals to my Jewish point of view. The juvenile justice system is beyond broken — once you’re in the system, you learn how to be a better criminal. This is about breaking that cycle.”

Keren Markuze, a documentary television writer, has mediated about a dozen cases since her training last year.

“Jewish law is very big on giving people chances,” she said. “Let’s do everything we can to make sure the punishment is appropriate, especially when we talk about children.”

Jewish law also takes intention into consideration when looking at crime, Markuze noted. She described one case she mediated in which a boy stole pants, a shirt and shoes from a department store.

During the mediation, the boy confessed in tears that his mother was laid off and couldn’t afford to buy him a new school uniform, and he was tired of being humiliated by the other kids at school for his clothes.

“That’s an issue of economic justice,” Markuze proclaimed. “Of course, he had to learn that stealing is not a solution, but for him to end up in the conventional justice system would have been tragic.”

Restorative justice programs exist in many cities around the world, according to several Web sites devoted to the topic. And it’s not about feeling sorry for kids — statistics show that such programs work.

According to the Center for Restorative Justice and Mediation at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, recidivism rates are lower following mediation than following traditional punishment. Approximately 80 percent of young offenders who participated in mediation complete their restitution to their victims, compared to just 58 percent of offenders who were ordered to do restitution by the courts, but who did not sit face-to-face with those they had wronged.

“When you go to court, you’re not sitting across from your victim, forced to look them in the eye and hear what they have to say to you,” Markuze said. “It’s very powerful.”

Susman said he has his young offenders “do the math” to figure out the number of jobs lost because of crimes like theirs every year in Los Angeles. When they realize it’s their parents and friends who are losing those jobs, it “really affects them,” he said.

In the L.A. mediation project, Goldsmith said, about 70 percent of juvenile offenders complete their restitution pledges. He pointed to a study done by California’s Supreme Court that found the re-arrest rate was half that of young criminals who did not go through mediation.

“It helps divert kids from the court system, and it actually shows a pretty good success rate of keeping kids out,” said Michael Nash, presiding judge of L.A. County Juvenile Court. “Not every kid needs to be brought into the court system if there’s another way they can be

held accountable, make restitution to the victim and develop a sense of responsibility.”

The mediators take away something from it as well. For Susman, who said he and his wife are “always looking for ways to incorporate more Judaism” into their lives, acting as a court mediator “is where my Judaism is expressed existentially through the actions I do.”

Markuze said she often “feels ambivalent” after a mediation, “because there’s so much more we as a society could be doing.”

Sometimes she feels the juveniles “aren’t really contrite.” But overall, she said, “I feel good I’ve given someone a chance to make amends.”

The next volunteer mediator training session will be held in the spring. For information, contact


The Circuit

Founder Farewell

Jonathan Jacoby, who helped found the Israel Policy Forum (IPF) in 1993, will move his primary residence from New York to Los Angeles in October and, shortly thereafter, step down as IPF’s executive director. Jacoby has been a leading participant in efforts to resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict for the past 20 years. The announcement was made, with “regret,” by Seymour D. Reich and Marvin Lender, president and board chair, respectively, of IPF, the organization that advocates an active American engagement in bringing about Israeli-Arab peace. It has its headquarters in New York and an office in Washington, D.C.

Reich and Lender have formed a committee to seek a new executive director and said Jacoby will continue to serve in that position until his replacement begins, at which time his IPF role on the West Coast will be determined.

A Sure Bet

More than 300 young Iranian Jewish professionals attended Eretz-SIAMAK’s second annual Casino Night held at its Tarzana cultural center on Saturday, July 23. Guests enjoyed the easy-going sounds of a live jazz band while gambling at the poker, craps and roulette tables. A portion of the evening’s proceeds was donated to Cure Autism Now, a national nonprofit organization seeking to find a cure for autism.

“We wanted to raise awareness and funds for autism research because it has really impacted the Jewish community but hasn’t received much attention” said Alan Fakheri, chair of the Eretz-SIAMAK Young Professionals Committee.

Federation Feast

South Bay women feasted on a generous serving of warmth and humor as well as a delicious lunch at The Federation’s South Bay Council annual Women’s Division fundraiser. The Heart and Spirit Event, held in May at the Depot Restaurant in Torrance and hosted by comedian chef extraordinaire Michael Shafer, raised more than $73,000.

Shafer’s performance was part cooking class, part stand-up comedy. Those who weren’t laughing too hard learned how to prepare a delicious, kosher Shabbat dinner. Event co-chairs Zvia Hempling and Iris Lee Knell were delighted with the ladies’ enjoyment of their day as well the overwhelming success of the fundraising effort.

“This was definitely among the South Bay Jewish community’s most successful events ever,” said Robin Franko, director of the South Bay Council. “I could not be more excited about the support, encouragement and dedication of our close-knit community.”

Beth Labelson, Suzan Waks and Leslie Werksman were recognized at the event for their generosity and each received the Lion of Judah pin, which is awarded to women who make a minimum gift of $5,000 to The Federation’s annual campaign.

For more information on South Bay programs, call (310) 375-0863 or visit — Julie M. Brown, Contributing Writer

Young Fighters

The young professionals of Los Angeles recently turned out to support the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Young Leader’s Committee annual Summer Soiree to reaffirm their commitment to leadership in their battle against hated and prejudice.

The party mood didn’t deter for one moment the seriousness of efforts to curtail the ever-present ravages of anti-Semitism and bigotry.

These young professionals believe in securing fair and just treatment for everyone and are shaping the future of this important effort through leadership roles in the agency’s many human relations, community service and civil rights programs.

They invite others to become involved as a donor, board member, committee volunteer or Salvin Leadership Institute participant. This annual fundraiser was designed to not only raise funds but awareness.

The evening featured food, dancing and an opportunity to win prizes and to name a martini.

All proceeds benefited the ADL’s fight against anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry.

For more information, call (310) 446-8000.

Briskin at the Beach

Entering the next chapter of its 83-year history, Temple Beth El and Center of San Pedro is excited to welcome Rabbi Charles Briskin as its new spiritual leader. He brings youthful energy and a passion for learning, worship, social justice and community building to Temple Beth El.

“Temple Beth El has a wonderful history and reputation,” Briskin said. “It is known to be a community of genuinely caring and friendly families, served by a solid group of devoted lay leaders and an excellent team of talented and well-established professionals.”

Briskin, his wife, Karen, and toddler son, Ezra, come to Temple Beth El from the San Francisco Bay area. There, Briskin served as the associate rabbi of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, where he worked with Rabbi Janet Marder, a national leader in the Reform movement.

Temple Beth El serves Reform Jews from the Beach Communities, Torrance, the Palos Verdes Peninsula and the Harbor Area in its two locations: the main synagogue building in San Pedro, and the Temple Beth El Peninsula Family Center in Torrance.

For more information on upcoming events to welcome Briskin, call (310) 833-2467.


Mensch Seeks Shayna Maideleh

The search is on for “a nice Jewish boy” — and no, this time it’s not your mother who’s looking.

A team of scouts is scouring the Diaspora for the ideal single Jewish man for a new Israeli reality television show. Once selected, the bachelor, who according to producers preferably will be good looking and “financially secure,” will come to Israel for the summer, when 15 young Israeli women will compete to capture his heart.

“We all grow up in Jewish houses and we know the dream of Jewish mothers is that their son finds a nice Jewish girl,” said Gadi Veinrib, a producer for the show, to be called — what else? — “A Nice Jewish Boy.”

The bachelor will be sent to Israel “to meet the nice Jewish love of his life,” he said.

The show’s producers will be holding casting calls for the show in New York, Los Angeles and a European city in the next few weeks. There may be teleconferences in Australia as well.

Producers are trying to get the word out via Jewish organizations.

Already they have been flooded by hundreds of queries from the United States, Europe, Australia and South Africa, many from Jewish women offering their brothers, friends and cousins for the job.

In Israel, there also has been a huge response from women hoping to be among the pool of bachelorettes. Scouts also are searching for female contestants at university campuses, clubs and bars. The show is also considering including Jewish women from abroad as contestants, said Veinrib, who was among the production team of the hit Israeli reality TV show “The Ambassador.”

The reality series is to take place over the course of three months. It will be set in a luxurious villa, complete with a pool and a lush garden, in central Israel. The young women will live there, and — as in the American ABC show “The Bachelor” — will be courted by the man on individual dates. Every week another bachelorette will be eliminated, and by the end of the show, producers hope, the man will have found his future mate.

The producers are looking for women in their early 20s to mid 30s and for men from their mid 20s to mid to late 30s. Interested? Send photos and a C.V. to the show at


Young Lobbyists


Congressional staff members heard cogent arguments on the topics of separation of church and state, women’s reproductive health and banning assault weapons from some singular constituents recently — the confirmation class members of University Synagogue in Brentwood. Led by Rabbi Morley Feinstein, the students — Alyssa Mannis, Sabrina Benun, Ben Marcus, Eric Rosenstein, Spencer Strasmore and Jack Eller — attended the L’Taken Seminar of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C., in February.

With 250 youth from around the country, the group learned about social justice issues, toured the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, visited Georgetown and reflected Reform Judaism’s positions in addresses they prepared for the staffs of California’s Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles). The Los Angeles group led the havdalah service at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial on the Washington Mall.

For more information on University Synagogue in Brentwood, call (310) 472-1255.

Shalhevet’s Street Fair

Shalhevet High School students are expecting about 2,000 people at a Sunday, April 10 Israel Street Fair, where musicians, artists and Judaica vendors will offer their goods in the Shalhevet parking lot at Fairfax Avenue north of Olympic Boulevard.

Students have worked tirelessly for months to get vendors, sponsorships, entertainment and security for the fair. The $3 admission and 15 percent of all vendor revenue will support Israeli victims of terror, according to student Zach Cutler, who with his Israel Action Committee co-chair Eliya Shachar, headed up the efforts.

Local dignitaries are expected, and kids will be busy with special art and storytelling booths, Krav Maga self-defense lessons and food from Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog, King David Grill and Delice Bakery.

“We want people to shop, eat, enjoy live Israeli music, and the best way to do that is to have an outdoor festival under the hot Israeli sun,” Cutler said.

The Israel Street Fair takes place, Sunday, April 10 (rain or shine), noon-4 p.m. at Shalhevet, 910 S. Fairfax Ave. Parking is on Fairfax and at Midway Hospital. For more information, call (310) 228-7939 or (310) 462-7201.

Big Money for Big Ideas

For teachers and schools who have been sitting on that great idea, now is the time to put it in on paper and send it to the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE). CAJE is inviting grant proposals for up to $10,000 for innovative educational programs for the 2005-2006 academic year. The grants are available for congregational schools, early childhood centers and day schools, and will be judged on the merit of idea, creativity, the number of people served and the depth of Jewish content.

Applications are due April 15. For more information go to or contact (212) 268-4210.

And the Winners Are….

Three women have been awarded the 2004 Simha and Sara Lainer Distinguished Educator Awards for Early Childhood Education: Delanie Maghen of Sinai Akiba Nursery School in Westwood, Barbara (Bobbie) Match of Temple Adat Elohim Preschool in Thousand Oaks and Jila Parhami of Temple Akiba Nursery School in West Los Angeles were singled out for their excellence in teaching preschool. The $2,500 award is part of the Sara and Simha Lainer Fund for Jewish Education, established in 1989 at the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), an agency of the Jewish Federation.

For more information contact the BJE at (323) 761-8605 or go to

Purim Fun Parents Can Learn, Too

It may be true that children don’t come with how-to manuals, but parenting classes can help.

Educator Simi Yellen focuses on creating discipline, dealing with sibling rivalry and instilling Torah and mitzvahs in her Positive Parenting classes at homes in Beverly Hills, the La Brea area and the Valley. Her class is part of the women’s learning division of Ashreinu, an Orthodox organization that reaches out to unaffiliated Jews.

When parents engage in constant power struggles with their young children, it sets up negative patterns that will last far beyond the time when they need help with eating, getting dressed and their homework, Yellen said.

“The goal of our class is to create a positive atmosphere in the home,” explained Yellen, who learned her methodology of positive parenting from Rebbetzin Sima Spetner, a mother of 13, while she was living in Jerusalem. “Parents and children should not be in conflict all the time. They should be working together.”

The main way parents can increase their children’s cooperation is to shower them with positive feedback when they are behaving, so they become internally motivated to want to do the right thing.

“We should give children lots of praise and attention when they are acting as we want them to act and very little attention when they are misbehaving,” Yellen said.

For more information on Positive Parenting call (323) 651-0177. — Jennifer Garmaise, Contributing Writer

You can reach Julie Gruenbaum Fax at or (213) 368-1661, ext. 206.


How to Get Jews on TV


In 1989, Richard Rosenstock created an ABC pilot based on the film, “The Flamingo Kid,” which was ostensibly set in the Jewish beach club scene of the 1950s and ’60s.

“I’d grown up among the Westchester County, N.Y., version of those clubs, so it was a chance to draw on autobiographical elements and to write what I knew,” said Rosenstock, now an Emmy-winning co-executive producer of Fox’s “Arrested Development.”

Yet when he tracked down the original script of the 1984 movie, he noted that the filmmakers had changed the hero’s name from Jeffrey Weiner to Jeffrey Willis and “had de-Jewed the material,” he said. “So I actually made the pilot even more Jewish than the movie, on purpose, because that bothered me.”

Rosenstock is one of six Jewish screenwriters who will appear on a panel to discuss how Judaism affects their work as part of The Jewish Screenwriter Speakers Series on March 29 and May 3 at B’nai David-Judea. Participants at the young professionals event, sponsored by The Jewish Journal, will include Michael Borkow (“Roseanne,” “Friends,” “Malcolm in the Middle”); Mike Sikowitz (“Friends,” “Veronica’s Closet”); Howard Gordon (“The X-Files,” “24”); David Sacks (“The Simpsons,” “Malcolm in the Middle”) and Michael Glouberman (“Third Rock from the Sun,” “Malcolm in the Middle”).

Sikowitz, for one, could call his connection “revenge of the Jewish nerd.” When the 38-year-old did stand-up comedy early in his career, he identified with Woody Allen.

“Allen was aware that he was a scrawny, bookish, horny young man, and I felt like, ‘yes, I’ve been the guy who just wishes he could get the beautiful girl, although she’s not looking at him,'” Sikowitz said. “I was drawn to his smart self-deprecation, and the ability to find not only the pain but the amusement of the situation.”

While writing for “Friends” in the mid-1990s, Sikowitz helped bring that sort of pain and humor to the character of Ross, whom he describes as a “shlimazel.”

Sikowitz cites an episode in which Ross (David Schwimmer), buys a monkey in an effort to appear mysterious and Mediterranean to potential dates, only to have the animal attack a pretty woman on the subway.

Sikowitz was part of the writers group that decided to label Ross Jewish in a holiday episode that opened with him picking the wax out of his menorah. While some observers have complained about a dearth of other Jewish details for Ross, Sikowitz said, “the series was a pop fantasy about attractive, funny people in their 20s hanging out, and I don’t think it had a responsibility to be any more than that.”

He is taking a similarly universal approach with his current pilot, “Grown Men,” based on the friendships and rivalries he experienced with buddies at the Jewish fraternity, Sigma Alpha Mu, at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The show will focus more on the fraternity behavior than the Jewishness,” he said.

Nevertheless, a central character, David Horowitz, is a member of the tribe and shares Sikowitz’s Woody Allenesque sensibility. When the character kvetches about being less successful than an old frat pal, it’s partly Sikowitz speaking.

“I’ve done fairly well in entertainment,” Sikowitz said, “yet when my buddy who I started out with invites me to his Malibu beach house, part of me goes, ‘Good for him,’ but there’s this sort of Dave Horowitz character part that goes, ‘Why shouldn’t I have this? I’ve worked hard, and if I had gotten this break instead of him, he’d be visiting me at my beach house.'”

If Sikowitz has been inspired by Woody Allen, Rosenstock looks more to Philip Roth. His penchant for Jewish subjects began, he said, when he viewed the movie version of Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus” upon its release in 1969. Based on Roth’s work about class warfare between nouveau riche and working-class Jews, the film “astounded” Rosenstock with material that felt so familiar to his own upper-middle-class Conservative Jewish childhood in Yonkers, N.Y.

Rosenstock was also influenced by a late 1960s zeitgeist in which Dustin Hoffman and Richard Benjamin were leading men, and in which Woody Allen and Paul Mazursky made commercial films with varying degrees of Jewish content.

“All this inspired me — that you can actually put overtly Jewish characters onscreen,” he said.

Rosenstock did just that when he created his own TV series in the 1990s; 1992’s “Flying Blind,” which he describes as “‘The Graduate’ meets ‘After Hours,'” tipped the hat to Roth with a protagonist named after “Columbus'” Neil Klugman.

Meanwhile, Gordon, a Reform Jew active at University Synagogue, waited four years to create the perfect “X-Files” episode based on the Frankenstinian Jewish legend of the Golem.

“It was an opportunity to delve into the mythology of a culture and a religion I identify with strongly,” he said. “It definitely meant more to me than my episode about an African melanin vampire.”

In his current job executive producing the real-time counter-terror drama, “24,” Gordon’s Judaism emerges, if more obliquely, in the dialectic tradition he brings to the characters. Points argued include whether torture is permissible under certain conditions, a thread that has helped make the show popular in Israel, Gordon said. A recent trip to the Jewish state has inspired him to consider introducing an Israeli character on the show, as well as to plan missions to Israel for people in the entertainment industry.

“I’m very interested in finding ways to communicate how wonderful that country is,” he said.

For Orthodox screenwriters, integrating religious observance with sitcom schedules has been a major issue. When Sacks got his first job after he began observing Shabbat in 1987, the producers essentially told him “either work on Shabbos or you’re fired,” he recalled.

His agent said he would not work in television again; eventually, the producers agreed to keep Sacks on the sitcom, but with a lesser salary and title.

The writer has since proved himself on shows such as “The Simpsons” and “Third Rock From the Sun.”

“Now before I accept a job I always discuss Shabbos,” he said. “These days I find people are not quite as concerned about whether you think the dead are going to be resurrected at the end of days. They want to know if you can solve the story problem at the act break.”

Sacks is now a consulting producer at “Malcolm in the Middle,” where three of 11 writers are observant Jews and a kosher lunch menu circulates in the writers room. Nevertheless, he said, he is not a “crusader for Judaism” at work but only in his private life. To this end, he teaches two classes at the Happy Minyan and is a founder of Jewish Impact Films, which aims to improve public relations for Jews and Israel by empowering novice filmmakers to produce positive films on these subjects.

He apparently has paved the way for other observant Jews in the sitcom world. Glouberman, for one, said Sacks indirectly helped him secure his first job, at “Third Rock,” a decade ago. At the time, Glouberman’s agent advised him to mention the Shabbat issue only after he had been hired: “So I called the showrunner and I was very anxious and I said, ‘I’ll work 24 hours a day, but I can’t work Shabbat or Jewish holidays,’ and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it, David Sacks worked on our pilot, and we loved him.'”

Today, Glouberman works with Sacks on “Malcolm,” about a quirky family with a genius middle child (Frankie Muniz) his three hooligan brothers, clueless dad and drill-sergeant mom. It’s the universal family, Glouberman said, but he was drawn to the show because the pilot read like someone had hidden a camera in his Orthodox childhood home. To write one episode, he drew on the time his parents accidentally left his brother standing in the corner all night long.

Although the show is rife with gross-out humor and sight gags, Glouberman believes it jibes with his Torah values. He points out that Malcolm’s parents actually love each other, unlike the bickering parents on shows such as Fox’s “Married… With Children,” and that “the children honor their mother and father, although not necessarily in classic terms.”

When the boys take on four clowns who have dissed their mother, for example, “She watches them with this proud smile on her face while they fight and knee clowns in the groin,” Glouberman said.

It may not be classic Torah, but it comes from a Jewish place. As Gordon put it, “My Judaism informs me so deeply it’s hard to unbraid my [writer’s] identity from my Jewish one.”

March 29 and May 3, 7:30 p.m. (cocktails), 8:30 p.m. (speakers). Free. B’nai David-Judea, 8906 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P. with the number of people in your party to


Listen to What the Machers Are Saying


Sounds like the Jewish people need to have their mouths washed out with soap. Not all the Jewish people, of course. But quite a few of them. At least quite a few of those in the category of macher.

It’s important you know what they’ve been saying, because they are those who lead us, who control the Jewish agenda, control the Jewish purse, who those outside the Jewish world look to as representing the Jewish world.

It’s important you know, because then maybe you’ll do what way too few Jews do these days — namely, get outraged. See what’s going on, what’s being done in your name and say something about it, do something about it.

Jews have a deserved rep for being contrary, for being argumentative, for being curmudgeonly. And yet, today, we all seem to have a bad case of Jewish politically correct fever.

Meaning, everyone is afraid to say anything that isn’t totally PC — meaning totally bland, meaning totally meaningless.

And because everyone is afraid to say anything about the powers that are, we are in the mess we are in, in terms of Jewish disunity, in terms of making Judaism attractive to young Jews, in terms of making Judaism relevant in the 21st century.

Which is why it’s so important you hear what some of our leaders have been saying lately.

To start, listen to the words of one Alon Pinkas. Until recently, Pinkas was Israel’s consul general in New York, the Jewish state’s representative to the largest Jewish community in the world.

For reasons I never understood, supporters of Israel thought this guy was great, loved seeing him on TV standing up for Israel. He frankly was never my cup of tea, and I said so in a column, for which, of course, I was criticized. One simply does not question who Israel sends to represent it.

In any case, after several years of serving in New York, here is what Pinkas said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post. He said that American Jews treat Israel like a “goddamn synagogue,” and that the behavior of American Jewish organizational officials reads like a chapter out of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

If a non-Jew had said that, the Jewish press releases would have been flying. But here were such vile remarks about American Jews being made by one of Israel’s highest-ranking diplomats, by the guy they sent to New York to be Israel’s guy.

Tells you a lot.

Next, we have two Israeli rabbis. One is Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, who is no less than Israel’s former Sephardic chief rabbi. He recently sent a pamphlet to thousands of synagogues in Israel declaring that the tsunami in Asia happened because of world support for Israel’s plans to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

Yes, a rabbi whose word is law to many Israelis said that God killed maybe 300,000 innocent people in the tsunamis, because Sharon plans to move settlers out of Gaza. And he backed that up by citing a passage in the Talmud.

Then there is Rabbi Dov Lior, chief rabbi of the Yesha Council, the umbrella group of all West Bank and Gaza settlers. What did this ultimate rabbinic authority tell those settlers to do about the Gaza withdrawal? Resist it to the death.

“Better to die than disengage,” he said. “To destroy the land and give over the Strip to the terrorists is against the Torah of Israel.”

Better to die than disengage. This is what the settlers have been told by their top rabbi. Jewish leadership in action.

Which brings us to Edgar Bronfman. Bronfman is president of the World Jewish Congress and has been for more than 20 years. The World Jewish Congress (WJC) is an important organization, because it is seen by many world governments as the place to go to talk to the Jewish people.

When it was led by Nahum Goldmann and then Philip Klutznick, the WJC was a great organization led by Jewish statesmen.

But any doubt about what kind of “leader” Bronfman is should be dispelled by a recent article in New York magazine.

Now this is all a bit complicated, but here goes. Isi Leibler is one of the most honorable men in Jewish life. Leader of Australia’s Jewish community, he has done much for Israel and the Jewish world. He is a true mensch and a true leader.

And for a long time, he was senior vice president of the World Jewish Congress. But then, Leibler discovered some serious financial hanky-panky going on at the World Jewish Congress involving bizarre bank transactions, stolen computer files, cover-ups, intimidation and millions of dollars. When he tried to uncover the wrongdoing and do something about it, Bronfman and his henchmen went into action.

They first smeared Leibler, calling him the ugliest of names. Then they made sure he was thrown out as vice president of the WJC.

The whole thing stunk to high heaven and offended many in the Jewish organizational world who knew Leibler to be a man of integrity and honor, and so stood up for him, and who joined in questioning WJC’s questionable accounting practices and secretive management style.

But instead of reconsidering its actions, and doing teshuvah, Bronfman’s WJC went ballistic.

Namely, Stephen Herbits, a Bronfman lackey who he just appointed as secretary general of the WJC, gave a profanity-laced interview to New York magazine, in which he torches any and all who dare to question Bronfman.

“As you talk to the leaders of other Jewish organizations, check their accomplishments against their governance. They’ve got perfect governance and no f—ing accomplishments.” He then goes on to accuse other Jewish organizations of illegal activities — such as misusing funds, lying to the government and offering bloated benefit packages — and threatens to expose them if they aren’t nice to Bronfman.

“They better be careful, because if they cause enough problems in the press … then you’ll see some real fireworks.”

Amazing. A Jewish official, representing the top man at the World Jewish Congress, besmirching Jewish organizations and doing it in a magazine read by a whole lot of non-Jews.

“I don’t remember another example of a spokesman for one Jewish organization making such mean-spirited, slash-and-burn comments about other organizations,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

He’s right. And it’s our own fault. Bronfman has been given a free ride by the Jewish world for decades, solely because he is worth billions and spends millions on Jewish causes, mostly on the World Jewish Congress.

And so, as king of the Jews, he figures he can do whatever and what the WJC does is nobody’s business, and if anyone dares to question it, even someone as noble as Leibler, it’s off with his head, and if other Jewish organizations come to Leibler’s defense or raise questions about how Bronfman operates, well, then it’s off with the gloves and on the record with New York magazine to say all Jewish organizations are crooked.

Ladies and gentlemen, all of the above is being done and said by those who are your leaders. Which is why maybe it’s time you stopped being so PC and started being very outraged.

Joseph Aaron is editor of Chicago Jewish News.