Bending the rules

Bending the Taharah Rules By Rick Light


He was a boy of 19.  He had a full curly beard and brown hair that flowed in waves.  His father found him.  He had duck-taped a plastic bag over his head and inserted a propane hose.

Only two of us were available to perform the taharah, the first taharah for both of us in many months, although both of us were experienced in this holy ritual.  I was asked to lead.  When we arrived at the funeral home, right away things were unusual.  The father met us almost immediately and made two very specific requests: (1) that he (the father) be allowed to see his son prior to closing the casket, as he needed to see him differently than the horrid vision so compelling that met him when he found his son; and (2) that their son be buried in the street clothes provided, a strong demand of his wife.  No, they didn’t want tachrichim under the clothes.  And, no, they didn’t want the tachrichim laid on top of their son.

A rush of feelings overwhelmed me.  I could immediately relate to the father, who just lost his son and more than that, had found him and had that image burned into his memory like a hot brand.  And, of course, I wanted to help him in any way that I could.  Coupled with these feelings and deepening my concern were the strong feelings inside me that taharah has specific ideas on how things are to happen, and right away we were not “following the rules.”  On one hand we were supposed to be anonymous, the family and community were not supposed to know who participated in the taharah, and especially, the family was not to know us so as not to feel obligated to thank us.  So the fact that the father had approached us directly was already an assault on regularity.  Then there were the requests he made, which again were outside of the norm, and on the surface seemed extraordinary and something inappropriate to request; but upon a moment’s thought, it was obvious that these could be accommodated if we were just willing to not follow strict traditional practices.  Inside I felt overwhelmed with compassion for this father and family, torn between doing traditional practices and breaking tradition to meet the needs of this family.  In the end, through all of this, which lasted only moments, I remembered to ask myself, “whose death is this?”, and I was given a way to navigate these strong waves of emotion, and come to a clear resolution as to how respect both tradition and this family.

We promised to honor the father, the wife, and the son.

The taharah process was not difficult.  There were no medical devices to worry about, no bleeding to worry about, no bedsores, no open wounds, nada.  This was a healthy young man in his prime.  It was a bit tricky at times since there were only two of us, but it was manageable.

But the taharah itself was difficult. Very difficult.  This was a healthy young man in his prime.  He was the same age as my colleague’s son, and a decade younger than my son.  We both have children and could not easily accept this young man’s death.

In addition, it occurred to me that bending the rules (doing something other than what is Jewish tradition under the local minhag for taharah) to honor the family was certainly not new.  Yet, these requests seemed hard to do.

After some reflection, and with inner guidance, I thought of a respectful and meaningful way to make this work for the two of us on the taharah team, and for the family.

We proceeded to do a “normal” taharah on this young man, just the two of us.  We had to pour the taharah water twice as we had an unexpected break in the flow of water.  No worries, we just did it again.  When we finished drying him after the pouring of the water, it was the normal time to dress and casket the deceased.  But instead, we were to dress him in street clothes, and not the vernacular suit and tie, rather we were given an old shirt, colored underpants, jeans, fun socks, and shoes.  I halted.  The dressing is part of the liturgy, part of the midwifing of this holy soul.  So I could not just “dress him in street clothes.”

I remembered another taharah many years ago, in which a man’s wife requested that he be buried in a robe he had received when he was awarded an honorary degree.  We agreed to honor her request, and when the time came, we simply dressed him in the normal tachrichim, and afterwards had the funeral home personnel come in to cut the robe up the back and lay it over him like a blanket.  It worked beautifully.  But today we were not allowed to do that.

We looked for the first time at the clothes provided by the family.  The shirt had metal snaps.  Another rule to bend?  I thought of yet another taharah, years ago for a teenaged girl, where the father had requested that her favorite jacket be included in the casket; it had metal snaps and metal zippers not only up the front but also elsewhere on the jacket as part of its style, all of which I painfully removed preserving the integrity of the jacket before giving it to the team to place into the aron (a process that took over an hour).  This time, however, honor for the family required that I leave the shirt alone.  I wrestled with this for a bit and then decided it was simply OK, in fact it was more than OK, for kavod hameit dictated that it was required for us to honor this family and this youth by dressing him in this shirt.  The pants were simple black denim jeans with a belt (with a metal buckle).  Again, the same principles applied.  We laid the clothes aside until needed.

We prepared the aron as usual, with sovev in place and earth from Israel sprinkled inside.

Once the aron was ready, we didn’t just dress him in street clothes as requested.  Instead, we carefully laid each piece of tachrichim over his body where that piece belonged, and said the liturgy for that part of clothing, and then removed it and dressed him in his street clothes.  And so it went with each piece of the tachrichim, each piece with its liturgy followed by street clothes, everything but the head covering, which we left off until after the father had seen him.

Well, almost everything.  I just couldn’t put shoes on him.  Just didn’t seem right.  So we left his feet wearing his colorful fun socks.

Before casketing him, I carefully folded and laid the tachrichim into the sovev creating a bed upon which he would rest, with the tallit laid in waiting over these, to be wrapped around his shoulders. We laid him into the waiting sovev, wrapped his tallit around him and took him out to say goodbye to his father.

After the father had spent time with him, we brought the son back into the taharah room, where we tied the gartel of the tachrichim around his waist, being careful to make sure the knots were just right.  Then we tucked the removed tzitzit from his tallit into the gartel, placed the sherbloch over his eyes and mouth, and placed the head covering over his kippah.

We asked for forgiveness, closed the lid, read the remaining prayers and readings, and returned him to the waiting room with a candle on the casket over his head, where he stayed for only a few minutes before being whisked away for burial.

As we began to clean up, I felt numb.  We had completed our task, yet it was not over.  Something seemed unfinished.  We went through the process of finishing, but I felt both that we had done something very good here, and at the same time, I felt that something was truly out of harmony.  This death was simply wrong and we were unable to fix that.

After cleaning up and ending the taharah process as usual, we went to a local restaurant for a meal and some decompression.  Then it hit me how hard this had been for each of us.  Neither of us could express what we felt, nor how deeply it had impacted us.  But after an hour of sharing and just being together, we both felt almost whole again.

After getting home, and thinking about this, I realized that although I had thought our luncheon discussion had enabled me to process this taxing and unusual ritual experience, it became obvious as I began to write this story that I needed to write this, as I was still processing the deep emotional impact of that day.  And, yes, it was a blessing and a very humbling thing in which to participate.  But it was also a very hard thing to do, and it will take time to integrate.

I pray that he be guided on his new path, and that we be forgiven for our inadequacies.  I know I wasn’t up to my usual skill level, and, I although I felt that we did the best we could, we didn’t do it perfectly, we tried to do the right things under the circumstances, and still, still, I felt we didn’t do enough, we couldn’t do enough.  And, that emptiness remains…

Yet, how can one ever do enough for one so young and prime and beautiful?

May his memory be a blessing.

Rick Light has been teaching spiritual development in various ways for more than 30 years and has been studying and practicing meditation for more than 40 years. He is a leader in the community of those who prepare Jewish bodies for burial, has published four books in this regard, and for 18 years was President of a local Chevrah Kadisha he started in 1996. He is on the Board of Directors of Kavod v’Nichum, is a faculty member of the Gamliel Institute, and continues to lecture and raise awareness about Jewish death and burial practices at the local, state, and national levels.  For more information see richardalight.com.

Richard A Light

Rick Light

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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 5, Chevrah Kadisha: Ritual, Liturgy, & Practice (Other than Taharah & Shmirah), online, afternoons/evenings, in the Winter semester, starting roughly in January, 2018. This is the core course focusing on ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means (for everything other than Taharah and Shmirah, which are covered in course 2).

CLASS SESSIONS

The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).

Information on attending the course preview, the online orientation, and the course will be announced and sent to those registered. Register or contact us for more information.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or phone at 410-733-3700.

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Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to an informal online monthly session on the 3rd Wednedsays of most months. Each month, a different person will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly. The next scheduled session of the Gamliel Café is October 18th.

If you are interested in teaching for a session, you can contact us at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or info@jewish-funerals.org.

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Gamliel Graduate Courses

Graduates of the Gamliel Institute, and Gamliel students who have completed three or more Gamliel Institute courses should be on the lookout for information on a series of “Gamliel Graduate’ Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will be in groups of three sessions each quarter (three consecutive weeks), with different topics addressed in each series.  The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. We plan to begin this Fall, in October and November. The first series will be on Psalms. Registration will be required, and there will be a tuition charge of $72 for the three sessions. Heading this intiative is the dynamic duo of Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. Contact us –  register at www.jewish-funerals.org/gamreg/, or email info@jewish-funerals.org.

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DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Gracuates courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, both c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

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MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent a regular email link to the Expired And Inspired blog by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute, courses planned, and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

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SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

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At Camp Gilboa near Big Bear, younger campers can experience sessions as short as four nights. Photo courtesy of Camp Gilboa

Camp: Welcoming the youngest charges — and their nervous parents


Wondering if your child is ready for overnight camp?

A sure sign, according to Karen Alford, a sleepaway camp consultant, is that he or she has grown tired of day camp.

“At 9, you’ve probably been doing day camp for several years, and there’s just a natural progression to sleepaway camp,” she said.

Of course, Alford added, some kids aren’t ready until they’re older.

“You have to know your child and what they can handle,” she said, adding that “some parents with kids who have trouble separating find camp even more helpful at a younger age because it builds independence.”

Luckily, most Jewish summer camps pay close attention to easing their youngest kids into the sleepaway experience. From pre-camp meet-and-greets to special presents for first-time campers to the common availability of ultra-short sessions — from five to 11 days — camps are acutely aware of the need to gently transition their littlest and newest campers into the culture of overnight camp.

In addition to providing additional resources for the young newbies — and, of course, their anxious parents — many camps also hire additional staff and train them in some hand-holding.

Take Camp Judaea, a pluralist Jewish camp in North Carolina. It offers a Taste of Camp Judaea, an 11-day program for kids as young as 7. Unlike older campers who can “specialize” in certain activities, the youngest campers, called Rishonim, get to sample all of the camp activities, including zip-lining and horseback riding. The Taste program is available for kids until the fourth grade.

“To be honest, in some ways, it’s more for the parents than the campers,” said David Berlin, assistant director of Camp Judaea. “The parents tend to be more nervous. This is our way of hooking them into camp.”

The ratio of campers to counselors is lower for the Camp Judaea’s Rishonim campers, hovering around 3 to 1, as opposed to about 4 1/2 to 1 for the older kids.

To prepare the first-timers, Camp Judaea holds parlor meetings for new families, most of whom come from the southeastern U.S., Berlin said. New campers get to watch a video, hear about a typical day at camp and have their questions answered.

“It allows the families an opportunity to meet the staff before the summer begins,” Berlin said.

They also used to send first-timers a book about sleepaway camp — “Sami’s Sleepaway Summer,” by Jenny Meyerhoff — but it’s out of print. Berlin said the book was a great way to get young campers excited and have them learn what to expect; he’s looking for a replacement.

At Camp Gilboa, located near Big Bear and part of the progressive Zionist Habonim Dror movement, younger campers can experience sessions as short as four nights.

“We focus on easing them into camp,” said Executive Director Dalit Shlapobersky.

But because Habonim Dror offers year-round programming, kids can get involved before  starting camp, and therefore become acquainted with other Gilboa campers and counselors well ahead of time, she said. The camp also invites families to visit during the year for weekends and retreats.

Shlapobersky said campers typically start Gilboa at age 8.

“At that point they’ve already gone through quite a few separations — they’ve had to get used to a new community at preschool, and then a new one at kindergarten/elementary school,” she said. “These things are all about practice. The more time we practice doing something different, the more ready we are to take something new on.”

But Shlapobersky gives campers and families added support through the preparation process, including, beginning in May, weekly emails that focus on different aspects of camp — like what to expect on the first day of camp, what sort of communications there will be to and from camp and a glossary of camp lingo. New campers also receive introductory phone calls from counselors a couple of days before the session begins.

Additionally, Gilboa calls new parents to find out more about individual campers, making the camp more prepared for them when they arrive.

“For example, if we know they’re really into magic, we can have one of the counselors who loves magic tricks ready,” Shlapobersky said.

Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement, offers a seven-day Ta’am Ramah (Taste of Ramah) to children entering third grade.

Rabbi Ethan Linden, the camp’s director, said there’s a higher ratio of staff for the youngest kids.

“We’ll have 20 to 25 kids and 10 staff counselors, plus a group leader,” he said, adding that for older kids, there are typically 14 kids to four counselors per bunk.

“We usually have more experienced counselors for the little ones,” he said. “We know we have to hold their hands more.”

Linden said he’s found that most kids are ready to start camp between the ages of 8 and 10 — and agrees with other directors that parents are sometimes the last to be ready. But Ramah in the Berkshires pays extra attention to first-time campers regardless of age.

“We’re particularly sensitive to issues of homesickness and integration,” he said.

Linden said the camp employs staffers called “yoetzim” — people who are a little older, usually parents — who can get involved in tough situations. The camp also does “a lot of training on bunk dynamics, trying to make sure that no campers slip through the cracks,” he said.

“We work to find that one thing the kid loves to do and then use that to ease the transition,” he said.

At Camp Modin, a pluralistic sleepaway camp in Maine and the oldest Jewish camp in New England, the youngest campers are 8. Director Howard Salzberg said Modin used to have even younger campers, but found they weren’t quite ready for the experience.

While Modin doesn’t have extra-short sessions for first-timers — the shortest “regular” session is 3 1/2 weeks — counselors for younger kids are trained to give more personalized attention, Salzberg said.

“We don’t expect these kids to unpack their trunks or do their own laundry,” he said. “We recognize that these kids need extra help changing out of their wet bathing suits, that we need to make sure they’re showering, that they know how to open their soap in the shower, that they’re combing their hair.

“With older kids, it’s more about mentoring. For younger years, it’s more parenting.”

And in some ways, the younger kids are easier, Salzberg added.

“They present different challenges, but honestly, younger kids can be a lot easier than hormonally challenged teenagers,” he said, laughing.

At Modin, newbies are matched with returning campers in a “big brother, big sister” program — the older campers call the younger campers before the session starts, and at camp, they meet on opening day. The older group gives the younger charges a small gift, like a goody bag or a Modin bracelet.

Regardless of what age a child starts camp, the camp directors have noticed that first-born kids tend to start camp older, and slightly more nervous, than their younger siblings.

“Younger siblings have parents more prepared for the sleepaway camp experience, are often familiar with the campgrounds from visiting day,” Alford said. “Plus, they’ve seen how much fun their older siblings have at camp.”

Op-Ed: Risk aversion is risky business


“Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?” Robin Marantz Henig asked in The New York Times Magazine (“The Post-Adolescent, Pre-Adult, Not-Quite-Decided Life Stage,” Aug. 22). Lori Gottlieb urged reluctant single women to “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” in The Atlantic Monthly (March 2008), later a book. Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett advised revising priorities in “Creating a Life: What Every Woman Needs to Know About Having a Baby and a Career” (2002).

What provokes these personal questions and their subtext of alarm?

Successive studies show more Americans aged 25 to 34 are unmarried than married, Justin Wolfers reported in a New York Times Op-Ed (Oct. 13).

Postponements may reflect delays in assuming adulthood itself. In 1960, when parents of today’s young adults were young, 77 percent of American women and 65 percent of men younger than 30 accomplished five sociological milestones of adulthood—“completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child”—Henig writes. Today, fewer than half of women and one-third of men match that fully adult profile. Instead, American young adults go back to school, compete for unpaid internships, Teach for America or serve in the Peace Corps.

Delayed family formation has special resonance for American Jews and the communities in which they live, I found in my interview-based study of American Jewish leaders in their 20s and 30s funded by the Avi Chai foundation. A third of American Jewish women and more than half of men aged 25 to 34 are unmarried.

Marriage and children are “simply not talked about,” said a recently married social entrepreneur, who noted that “I will turn 33 this summer and I have a whole bunch of friends who still aren’t even dating the person they’re going to marry, let alone getting married.”

Even more startling: “We’re very afraid to talk about these issues with each other” because “people worry about seeming judgmental.”

My respondents were uneasy about giving up opportunities before defining one’s own path. A female rabbi in her 30s said people like her should “Pace yourself and get married when you’re ready,” cultivating “a great network of friends and to date and meet people, and to go hiking and backpacking and cook, and all these things that I enjoy.”

Many said adults should achieve self-understanding—colloquially “find themselves”—before committing to sustained relationships. A young male rabbi, like many in his cohort, said there is little or no “peer pressure to get married” in college, and we feel we have “permission to take some time to find out who we are before we lock ourselves into a life partner.”

Serious dating and marriage carried the connotation of narrowing options.

Many note the influence of education, occupational achievement, contraception, cohabitation and economic conditions. But fear of risking romantic mistakes also plays an important role. Gottlieb critiqued evaluating dates as commodities, demanding perfection, rather than giving people and relationships a chance.

In my interviews, single women in their 30s explained “deal breakers,” including prior marriage or young children. Singles revised lists of desirable qualities, so they wouldn’t “waste time” on individuals who don’t measure up.

Large networks of singles make singlehood normative. An artist in her late 30s criticized, “Everything in America is about choice. That’s what Americans are used to, whether it’s food or shul or online dating.”

In contrast, the artist said, “Israelis tend to gravitate towards forming families. It’s very important.”

Indeed, sociologist Sergio Della Pergola showed that hiloni (irreligious) Israelis say ideal family size is three to four children per family, and Israelis have one more child on average (2.7) than American families (1.7).

Many interviewees urged care in choosing life partners and parenthood. Some linked postponement to parental divorce. But others said delays also can generate disappointment, especially for women.

When men marry in their 30s and 40s, they often choose younger women (and sometimes non-Jewish women), leaving women their age with fewer choices.

Statistics since the 1980s show Jewish women with advanced degrees expect two or more children, but have fewer. Despite reproductive medicine and more single mothers by choice, later marriage or non-marriage is often correlated with unwanted infertility.

“Lord knows I would like nothing better than to have had children by this point,” said a 38-year old woman, “but I don’t.”

Mahon Hadar co-founder Rabbi Ethan Tucker provided perspective. In Israel studying for rabbinical ordination, he and his wife had their second child at age 31 and felt like “laggards” because others their age had three or four.

Back in New York, they found that “None of our friends even had one kid, and many were not married.” The typical “alpha” marriage story was marriage in the late 20s or early 30s followed by years of waiting before starting a family.

“If you wait until you have found yourself before you take on responsibilities,” he said, “you find a different self than if you have responsibilities.”

The lived Jewishness of young American Jews has been transformed by sweeping postponement of marriage and childbearing, which often delay Jewish connections, as well as personal goals.

However, this postponement is seldom researched or discussed. The issues are sensitive, but avoiding them helps no one. The willingness to open a conversation is yet another risk worth taking.

Sylvia Barack Fishman is chair of the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department at Brandeis University, where she is the Joseph and Esther Foster Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life and also co-director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. She is the author of seven books.

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.”

Extending the Birthright privilege


Sophie Ambrose grew up without religion on a hippie commune near Jerusalem, Ark. Her mother had rejected Judaism, her father had rejected his Christian background. Ambrose explored churches on her own as a teenager, took a world religions class in college, and as a graduate student in Kansas, began to seek out Hillel and the sparse local Jewish life. Then one day, looking for classes, she Googled “Judaism + college + students” and came upon the Taglit-Birthright Web site.

The offer of a free, 10-day trip to Israel, which the Jewish community has been gifting to 18- to 26-year-old Jews since 2000, changed the trajectory of Ambrose’s life.

The first stop on the Birthright trip Ambrose took during the winter of 2003-04 — straight from the airport — was Masada, the first-century mountaintop site high above the Judean Desert that serves as a symbol of Jewish heroism.

“Everyone was really cranky and tired, and they made us hike Masada, and I remember this moment I had, this moment of standing there and hearing this story of our ancestors being there before us,” said Ambrose, a doctoral student in speech pathology for deaf children, during a recent phone interview from her apartment in the Pico-Robertson area. “And I was looking out at this land, that in some way I was beginning to picture belonged to me, and there was this moment where I went from being not connected, to being connected.”

Birthright’s success in awakening a connection to Jewish heritage and Israel is unprecedented in American Jewish life. As the number of alumni continues to multiply, they are infusing new energy into American Jewry.

Ambrose is one of approximately 10,000 Birthright alumni living in Los Angeles. By the end of this summer, North America will be home to 191,000 Jewishly pumped Birthright alumni. Around 24,000 North Americans and another 4,000 Jews from around the world will have made the pilgrimage this summer alone, and 16,000 were placed on waiting lists and didn’t get to go this round. In addition, more than 13,000 North Americans went last winter.

If those numbers persist, within the next decade about half of all Jewish young adults will have been on a Birthright Israel trip, turning it into a rite of passage almost as common as a bar or bat mitzvah.

The question now facing the organizers of Birthright — and the rest of the Jewish community — is what to do with all those alumni.

Ambrose has become a veritable Birthright poster child — she has both taken and taught several classes in Judaism, returned to Israel twice, become involved in The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and other organizations, currently serves on the United Jewish Communities speakers bureau and now observes Shabbat and kosher laws and has even gotten her mother to go to High Holy Days services. But most Birthright alumni, though their attitudes change, need more of a push to make behavioral changes.

“The idea of Birthright was to create a spark in people who really needed a spark if they were to remain in some meaningful sense Jewish, and it has done that,” philanthropist Michael Steinhardt said in a phone interview. “But it’s just 10 days.”

Steinhardt, along with Charles and Andrea Bronfman, envisioned and began funding Birthright in 1999.

“I feel extraordinarily gratified that those 10 days have worked as well as they have for as many people as they have, and that Birthright has grown to the point where, frankly, it is the only new entity in the Jewish world that is really something that catches the imagination of anybody,” he said. “But again, 10 days is 10 days. The real challenge is taking that spark and igniting it.”

In the past year, Steinhardt has fueled the next chapter of Birthright with cash and an organizational structure in the form of a new program, Birthright NEXT, founded with a budget of about $8 million and aimed at keeping alumni connected and focused on creating a vibrant Jewish life.

But harnessing alumni energy for long-term behavioral changes — for their own benefit and for the Jewish community’s invigoration — is proving to be a more difficult goal than the formidable but circumscribed goal of changing lives in just 10 days.

We don’t need more gabfests on diversity


The details of the ugly dustup between a leading local Jewish philanthropist, Daphna Ziman, and the local African American head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Rev. Eric Lee, are still at issue. Ziman disseminated her account of the encounter in a widely distributed e-mail. She claimed that Lee gave a speech at a local fraternity function rife with anti-Semitic statements. Lee strenuously denied the charges, and no independent corroboration exists.

But what is of greater interest than what actually transpired at the Kappa Alpha Psi gathering is the response from the leadership of our community to Lee’s remarks and what that portends for intergroup relations in this city.

Predictably, the civil rights leadership of our communities seems to be responding to the incident just as they have in the past — with dialogue groups and resurrected “roundtables” aimed at convincing participants of the value of diversity and of our historic and present commonalities.

What ought to distinguish the response of today from those in the 1970s and 1990s is the context of our very changed society.

Society has caught up and passed well beyond dialogue groups and the need to justify and rationalize the value of diversity. Every major study conducted in this field has revealed an amazing attitude of acceptance of differences by today’s young people. As Morley Winograd and Michael Hais observe in their just-published book, “Millennial Makeover,” “the great diversity of the Millennial Generation [born between 1982 and 2003] and its experiences growing up in a multiracial society is reflected in their relatively color-blind attitudes on racial relations.”

The Pew Center concluded in its multiple surveys of millennials that “they are the most tolerant of any generation on social issues such as immigration, race and homosexuality.” One example documented by the Pew Center (dealing with a historically incendiary issue) found that that between 1987 and 2003, attitudes toward interracial dating among 18-25-year-olds underwent a sea change — those approving such activity rose from 56 percent to 89 percent. Those completely agreeing with interracial dating rose from 20 percent to 64 percent.

The data of a profound change in attitudes is incontestable and is manifested across racial and religious lines. The Reboot study of millennials, “OMG! How Generation Y is Redefining Faith in the iPod Era,” found that today’s youth are “fully integrated into diverse social networks. While previous generations often lived in homogenous religious communities, among Generation Y [born 1980-2000], only 7 percent of youth report that all their friends are the same religion as themselves. Even the most religious youth maintain diverse networks of peers.”

The study oversampled Jewish and black youth to confirm their findings.

Even the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) study of anti-Semitic attitudes indicates a decline in anti-Semitic attitudes among the African American population, historically among the most problematic cohort it surveys. Unfortunately, the ADL study does not disaggregate data for younger blacks and their attitudes.

If one believes the myriad studies that confirm the exceptionally positive trends of the new generation, how should one respond to the Lee incident? More dialogue groups that devolve into vehicles to preach to the converted seems to be what we have in store for us. The Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission and its friends will be busy singing the same old songs.

What ought to inform any actions that grow out of the Lee-Ziman incident is the profound change that has taken and is taking place around us. Young people today don’t need a “coalition” to talk about how to live together — they do it 24/7. Their world isn’t circumscribed by their faith, their race or their ethnicity.

Nor should we trudge out the old nostrums and activities and think that the Lees of the world will change their version of history or their attitudes — nor should we really care. They are not the future, and their historical notions are virtually irrelevant.

Our communities’ leadership has to absorb the reality that the next generation of open-minded young people sees diversity as a plus, not as a burden to be overcome. We need to offer them activities that confirm their positive outlook and involve them in doing, not talking, about things, much as Temple Israel’s Big Sunday program does — people working together as equals, improving our community for everyone. We don’t need more gabfests or sessions of self-flagellation.

Millennials believe that they live in an exciting time, two-thirds rate their lives as “excellent or pretty good,” let’s give them reason to confirm those positive attitudes.


David A. Lehrer is president and Joe R. Hicks vice president of Community Advocates Inc. (www.cai-la.org), a Los Angeles-based human relations organization headed by former mayor Richard J. Riordan.

‘Teenism’ gives young adults an undeserved rep


Teenagers. The word strikes fear into the hearts of most parents and adults. I bet you get shivers down your spine as you’re reading this. Though most teenagers are perceived as reckless, raucous, recalcitrant, rowdy and riotous, the truth is that for the most part, teenagers exercise a natural responsibility that is occasionally eclipsed by their more immature moments. It is because their wild outbursts draw more attention that they are blown out of proportion and overshadow the maturity that teenagers portray most of the time. While the adult perception of youthful rebellion may seem justified, it can be damaging and hurtful to those who pride themselves on being as mature as any adult.

Nowadays, biases against blacks or homosexuals are tiptoed around, while biases against teenagers are left unchecked, proliferating everywhere, because hardly anyone gets taken to court for discriminating against a teen. Since every adult has been a teen once in their lives, they believe they’ve had enough personal experience to speak about all teenagers, when really they are merely projecting their own past onto all teenagers. Parents who went wild in their youth will watch their children like a hawk, never trusting them, accusing them of being disrespectful not because of hard evidence, but because that’s how they were when they were young. Often young adults are given a blanket diagnosis of being stuck-up and caustic, anti-parent, anti-school, anti-everything. From parenting magazines to primetime television, teens are portrayed as a pack of self-centered ingrates who let their emotions run wild with abandon, and it’s time someone said something about it.

Are teenagers reckless? Of course. That is, some of the time. But in our modern world, applying ideas that are true “some of the time” to every case is no longer acceptable, even in as small a way as believing all teenagers are rebels.

Of course, other discriminations are much more pressing in nature. Racism has more dire consequences than believing that your teenager is hot-blooded, when he is not. But discriminations against teens still deserve attention because of the simple fact of how many people are being discriminated against. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are more than 20.2 million people in America aged 15 to 19, and they are 7 percent of the population. So be careful what statements you make, or what biases you might allow yourself to believe. Your ideas about teens will reflect greatly in your treatment of them, and the consequences of this (whether good or bad) could be much more far-reaching than you realize.

Almost as much as people falsely believe teenagers are terrible, people falsely believe that adolescence (and especially childhood) is the best time of a person’s life, when worries are few and far between. But this just isn’t true. In 1998, about a third of all victims of violent crime were ages 12 to 19, and almost half of all victims of violence were under age 25 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice). In addition, one in eight teenagers suffers from depression, and suicide is the third leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 24. (And, sadly, the sixth leading cause of death for people aged 5 to 14). As Bill Watterson (of “Calvin and Hobbes” fame) once said: “People who get nostalgic about childhood were obviously never children.”

Adolescents face almost all the same problems that adults do and engage in the same unhealthy quick fixes, but it is only young adults who must handle these things sans experience. Without the bedrock of age and wisdom to tread on, high schoolers are left to trail-blaze through their lives haplessly, like the first pioneers of the American West.

A massive leap has occurred in our modern world, far wider than generation gaps of old. The epidemic of multitaskism, the intensity of grade-amassing and the all-around increase in schoolwork has created a miasma of anxiety for the American student, making all previous generations of schooling look like cakewalks in comparison. Those who want to answer the clarion call of college must prepare themselves for an Olympic level of competitiveness. A few examples: Yale’s acceptance rate this year was 9 percent, down from 11 percent in 2006, while Stanford’s rate reached the lowest in it’s history at 9.5 percent. In addition, tuition for four-year colleges has gone up 35 percent in the past six years, making the fight for financial aid all the more arduous.

Obviously, there isn’t much we can do to alleviate this situation. It is the face of our modern reality, for better or for worse. But there is something that can be done.

As with a lot of things, the most helpful solution is a simple change of attitude. Life for teens will always be a little on the rough side, but perhaps treating them with less pigeon-holing and more empathy is all that’s need it to smooth it out.

Justin Morris is in the 10th grade at Shalhevet School and a columnist for the Boiling Point newspaper.

Speak Up!

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

Workmen’s Circle celebrates 100 years; Progressives fight for what’s Left


Workmen’s Circle Celebrates 100

It’s not every centenarian who can celebrate his birthday with full-throated songs and Yiddish jokes, but the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring did just that in marking its 100th anniversary year in California with high good humor, leavened with a bit of nostalgia.

Performers and speakers intermingled Yiddish with English at the centennial gala and awards celebration on Jan. 9 at the Skirball Cultural Center.

There were gags about davening parrots, a parody on health care debates to the tune of “California, Here I Come,” rousing songs by the Voices of Conscience and Mit Gezang choruses, a raft of standup routines and closing duets by Yale Strom and Elizabeth Schwartz.

Among the honorees were KPFK-FM’s “Access Unlimited” program on people with disabilities, and Ruth Judkowitz and Eric A. Gordon, “chairmentsh” and director, respectively, of the Workmen’s Circle Southern California district.

It was left to veteran actor Ed Asner, a Workmen’s Circle member himself, to honor the group’s history as a pioneer fighter for union, housing, health care and education rights. He concluded with a stemwinder lauding the politics of the left, a term rarely heard in polite conversation these days.

“What a pitiful society we have become in losing so many ideals of the left,” Asner said. “But these ideals of a community in which no one is excluded from the human family will never die. If they seem dead at times, they will be born again.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Push to Make Social Justice a Priority Righteous Indignation
And speaking of the left, the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), American Jewish World Service, Jewish Funds for Justice and other forward-looking organizations recently celebrated the new anthology, “Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice,” at the home of PJA President Daniel Sokatch.

Part call to action, part campaign initiative, the book and its authors want to reclaim the concept tikkun olam (repair the world) to include social justice, as well as social action. The highbrow team of Jewish activists, intellectuals, religious and lay leaders who contributed to the book are gearing up for a vigorous foray into campaign politics, hoping to make social justice a religious priority in the ’08 election.

On the Righteous Indignation Project Web site, co-editor Rabbi Or N. Rose recognizes that “in an era in which the religious right has monopolized the national morality debate, it is critical that religious progressives — Jews and others — articulate alternative visions of faith and public life.”

A formidable group of 70 or so crowded Sokatch’s Westwood home, sipping wine and talking politics at a salon-style gathering, where “small talk” was about changing the world. The implied paradigm shift is this: Feeding the hungry is nice and all, but more pressing is asking ourselves why people are starving to begin with.

“Community service is not enough. We need gemilut chasadim [acts of lovingkindness] and structural change,” said Margie Klein, co-editor, along with Rose and Jo Ellen Green Kaiser.

Rabbi Sharon Brous, who co-authored an essay with Sokatch, warmly introduced three contributors: Dr. Adam Rubin, Rabbi Elliot Dorff and Sokatch, who bandied caveats pertaining to the Iraq War, stem cell research and civil rights. Sokatch implored a turn toward restorative — not retributive — justice, so that all human beings are treated with dignity.

Talk was urgent, political and philosophical. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was quoted. The voice of social justice was heard, and the event concluded with Jewish prayer.

Before the soldiers of peace set out into the night, Klein asked the crowd to commit to three things: Read the book, get involved and, if you can, help fund the growing movement.

Maybe there’s hope for our broken world yet.

SCENE AND HEARD…

Alex Fullman
Going for the Gold: Alex Fullman (photo), 17-year-old student at Harvard-Westlake School, won four gold medals and two silver as a member of the U.S. swim team at the Pan American Maccabi games, which took place last month in Buenos Aires. He is the son of Sandra Kossacoff and Dr. Howard Fullman who, along with his brother, Casey Fullman, attended the December 2007 games.

Banking On Jobs: Apparently the Los Angeles banking industry has one of the highest turnover rates of any job market in the country. Enter Les Biller, former COO of Wells Fargo Bank and the Biller Family Foundation, who, along with a consortium of brand-name banks, created JVS Bankworks, a free career training program to prepare people for entry into the banking industry.

On Jan. 16, they held their graduation ceremony at the Expo Center. Thus far, retention rates are high: Over 80 percent of graduates get hired and 79 percent are still around to move up the ladder six months later. For more information, visit http://www.jvsla.org.

Margy Feldman
It’s a New Day: The state Assembly declared Jan. 14 Big Brothers Big Sisters Day in recognition of the organization’s positive impact on the lives of 10,000 children through its 26 statewide agencies. Margy Feldman, president of Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles and the 2008-2009 president of the California BBBS State Association, was present to receive the award.

Obituaries


Rabbi Wolli Kaelter, ‘A Rabbi’s Rabbi, a Mensch’s Mensch,’ Dies at 93

In a prayer for his ordination from the Hebrew Union College (HUC) in 1940, Wolfgang (Wolli) Kaelter wrote: “Grant us depth that we might understand, vision that we might see, and let us never become self-satisfied.”

Indeed, in his 93 years on this earth, his thirst for understanding and meaning never diminished; his ability to see, to fully encounter his congregants, family and friends never abated and he never rested on the laurels of his accomplishments. Indeed, he remained eager to learn, live and grow — never becoming self-satisfied.

The youngest of four children, Wolli was born in Danzig (now Gdansk) Poland) to Rabbi Robert and Feodora Kaelter. The world of his youth was destroyed yet he never despaired of the past, flourished in the present and was always thinking ahead. He was greatly influenced by his father (who died when Wolli was 11), his experiences in the German Jewish youth movement and his relationship with his teacher, Rabbi Leo Baeck. Baeck’s words, “The message is not the sermon…the man must be the message” are what guided his entire life and work. After studying for one year at the Hochshule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin, he and four other rabbinical students were invited by the president of the HUC, Julian Morgenstern, to study in Cincinnati. This courageous act in 1935 saved all five of their lives.

In 1953 he became the first director of Camp Saratoga, later Camp Swig, in Northern California. He had a deep commitment to the Jewish camping experience and believed that it was the best way to engage and inspire Jewish youth. A few years later, he became rabbi of Temple Israel in Long Beach where he served until his retirement from the active pulpit in 1979.

He was known as an innovator of worship, a creative programmer, a dynamic educator, a leader of interfaith activities, a gifted counselor, and an inspiring cantor. He believed that the rabbi should take the “p” out of preaching. For him, it was all about reaching, engaging and dialogue.

After his so-called retirement, he continued counseling, writing and officiating at life-cycle events. He had boundless energy and seemed to always be available for listening. Hundreds of people could tell their own personal “Wolli stories” about a man who was both so deeply reverent and irreverent at the same time.

For 25 years he taught practical rabbinics at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He inspired hundreds of students with his keen insights, his human understanding, his humor and his high standards. He wanted the students to develop their character, their vision and the principles that would guide them as rabbis.

He shared his thoughts on life, the rabbinate, relationships and death in his autobiography, “From Danzig: An American Rabbi’s Journey” (written with Gordon Cohn). At the core of his life was a continuous desire to find meaning – from the largest event, to the structure of a Hebrew word. Listening to classical music was his anchor, his source of inspiration. He shared more than six decades of his life with his wife, Sarah.

Integrity, intellectual curiosity, innovator, stubbornness, devotion to high standards and fiercely committed to making Jewish life relevant are what marked the life of this man who was both larger than life and also so profoundly human and humane. For me, for so many, he was our rabbi, our teacher, our colleague and our friend. His longevity on earth was not his real blessing; rather it was the quality of his life and his legacy that above all it is the “I-thou” relationship which makes life most meaningful.

He is survived by his children Judy (Ray) Nakelsky and Baruch (Donna) Kaelter; and six grandchildren.

I ended his eulogy by citing the words of the poet Ingersoll: “He added to the sum of human joy; and were everyone for whom he did some loving service to bring a blossom to his grave; he would sleep tonight beneath a wilderness of flowers.”

— Rabbi Lee Bycel is executive director, Western Region of American Jewish World Service

Bernice “Bunny” Diamant, Docent and L.A. Developer, Dies at 84

Bunny Diamant, cover girl on the Jewish Journal Mothers’ Day issue, May 10, 2002, was a native Jewish girl made good. She died Jan. 4 at 84.

She married her Dorsey High School sweetheart, A.C. Black, raised three daughters and helped in creating a very successful development/construction company responsible for many award-winning apartments, individual homes, marina properties; Deauville and Bar Harbor apartments and boat docks, as well as Wilshire San Vicente Plaza in Beverly Hills.

After her divorce in 1981, she became very active in the Jewish community volunteering, starting as a docent at the Skirball, then located near USC. She contributed in many ways, including the move to present location in 1996, as supervisor pro bono of Docent Development; and planning of the Noah’s Ark Park when it was still just a twinkle in the eyes of Skirball management. She was also president of University Women at what is now known as American Jewish University.

She met and married Dr. Emanuel Diamant in 1990 and they enjoyed each other’s companionship for the 17 years. They worked together and independently at the AJU and Skirball and were members of Temples Ner Tamid in Palos Verdes, where Manny was a founder, and Kehillat Ma-Arav in Santa Monica. She was an inspiration to everyone she met.

She is survived by her daughters Susan (David) Black-Feinstein, Diane (Earl) Quick and Belinda (Michael) Borden; six grandchildren; three great-granddaughters; nieces; nephews; cousins; and extended family.


Louis Bernard died Dec. 23 at 87. He is survived by his wife, Thelma; sons, David (Dorothy) and Jonathan (Marie); daughter, Michelle Mazur; and 21 grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Leon Blank died Dec. 23 at 99. He is survived by his daughter, Jeannie (Hal) Murray; son, Jonathan (Rochelle); seven grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and sister, Betty Loterstein. Mount Sinai

The Bloods, the Crips and the rabbi


In 1970, Abraham David Cooper was arrested by Washington police during a sit-in across from the Soviet embassy and put behind bars in a jammed holding cell. The then-20-year old Yeshiva College student came away from the experience with two important observations that may have changed his life:

  • First, that he didn’t like being in jail.
  • Second, that the established Jewish organizations had been missing in action in what Cooper considered the defining Jewish struggle of the time.

In the intervening 37 years, Cooper has made a point of being present in many of the world’s hot spots, and, at the same time, managed to stay out of prison. And during roughly the same time span, he has played a key role in creating one of the most activist Jewish organizations in the world, working outside the boundaries of the traditional organized community structure.

Ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, Cooper’s formal title today is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC). That curious academic rank is a holdover from his initial work with the SWC-affiliated Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, but it hardly defines his role and influence on this Jewish institution whose mission is to promote understanding among the world’s people.

Cooper, 57, is, in most respects, the alter ego of Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, and the 33-year-long relationship in which their interaction and division of labor are defined by a kind of shorthand telepathy, requiring no organizational chart or chain of command.

But if today the SWC is a worldwide presence — with seven offices at home and abroad, a landmark Museum of Tolerance, a reported 400,000 member families, high-profile donors and entr�(c)e to presidents and kings — a considerable share of the credit goes to Cooper.

While Hier is the ultimate decision maker and both men respond interchangeably, and instantly, to the endless real or perceived crises facing Israel and the Jewish people around the globe, Cooper does have specific areas of responsibility and expertise.

One is interfaith relations; another is the burgeoning area of cyberspace. Cooper testified before Congress as long as six years ago that the increasing sophistication of Internet propaganda by hate groups, white supremacists and Islamic extremists was exerting growing influence among younger people.

From his Pacific-oriented vantage point in Los Angeles, Cooper is the point man for relations with Japan, China and other Far Eastern nations, introducing Holocaust exhibits, exposing anti-Semitic literature, and establishing ties with political and religious leaders.

“Abe is the Wiesenthal Center’s ambassador to most of the world,” Hier said.

This “ambassador” also shows up in some unexpected places and situations.

Last year, for instance, Cooper was drafted as witness to a peace treaty signed by the so-called O.G.s (original gangster), the founding elders of the Bloods and the Crips, two of the most fearful rival gangs in South Los Angeles.

He was recruited for the assignment by Katy Haber, a London-born film producer, who has been working for many years with at-risk youth and the homeless in the African American community.

Haber had met Cooper while working as a docent at the Museum of Tolerance and had no doubt that he was the right man to win the confidence of the gang members.

“Who would be more appropriate than a man who works on conflict resolution with world leaders?” Haber asked rhetorically. “Besides, he is a man of deep intellect, extraordinary sensitivity, and one of the major humanitarians in our community.”

In the introductory meeting and after guiding the O.G.s through the Museum of Tolerance, Cooper complemented the broad lesson of mutual understanding with concrete specifics on community activism, finding jobs and how to deal with authorities.

Cooper said he has no particular formula or technique for bringing opposing sides to the table or bridging differences.

“Part of it is my background as a New Yorker, an American and a Jew, which has given me a certain quiet self-assurance,” he said. “Another part is the example set early on by my father.”

By way of contrast, Cooper was on the other side of the world last summer, on the Indonesian island of Bali. He was there as the organizer of the “Tolerance between Religions” conference, which brought together such unlikely participants as leading Muslim, Hindu and Jewish religious leaders, victims of the three faiths targeted by suicide bombers, and a Holocaust survivor.

In one speech, carried by Arab networks and worldwide, former president Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation in the world, upbraided Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his denial of the Holocaust.

Cooper’s organizing partner was C. Holland Taylor, CEO of the Libforall Foundation, which works with Muslim religious, educational, business and entertainment leaders to stem the spread of Islamic extremism.

After the Bali conference, Taylor and Cooper led a high-profile peace delegation from Indonesia, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel, on a weeklong mission to the Jewish state.

The experience impressed Taylor, who in a phone call from Indonesia described Cooper as “a brilliant strategist, who grasps immediately what can be done and who can juggle a dozen issues simultaneously.”

In the relationship between the Wiesenthal Center’s two top men, Cooper’s loyalty and admiration for Hier is unquestioned, but there is one easily noticed distinction between the two Orthodox rabbis.

As the Center’s clout has increased over the years, so has criticism of the institution within the general, and Orthodox, communities.

Complaints, mostly sotto voce, are aimed at the center’s alleged intrusions on the turfs of older community organizations, its political influence, the high salaries paid its top executives, violations of standards for nonprofit organizations, alarmist tactics and, in Israel, plans to build a $200 million Center for Human Dignity/Museum of Tolerance in the heart of Jerusalem.

In practically all these criticisms, the target is Hier, who is sometimes described, in awe, fear or derision, as a “New York street fighter.” By contrast, Cooper gets off unscathed.

Engaging young philanthropists — our approach


I have been asked to reflect on the challenge of engaging younger Jewish philanthropists in communal life. As a member of the next generation, I have
wrestled with this question for more than a decade.

Approximately five years ago, at the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, we created a division called 21/64 to focus on this very challenge.

“Engaging the next generation” used to signify the transference of leadership, like passing a baton from one generation to the next. Today, with the average life span increasing from 47 years old in 1900 to 78 years old in 2000, there are now four generations above the age of 21 in American society and four generations of adults who want to be engaged in Jewish life. Therefore, “engaging the next generation” actually means engaging multiple generations at once.

In the Jewish community, our institutions are often led by traditionalists — those born between 1925 and 1945 — whose worldviews were imprinted with World War II, the Depression and the Holocaust. In giving back, they have built many of the institutions that are pillars of our communities.

Baby boomers, born between 1945 and 1964, outnumber traditionalists and now represent the majority of our communal leadership. Their generational personalities were formed by the founding of the State of Israel; television brought the secular world into their Jewish homes.

Post-World War II economic opportunities led some to the suburbs, where they built synagogues and JCCs, while others contributed to the social movements of the ’60s. With these distinct experiences come divergent lenses into Jewish life.

Add to that picture the different life experiences and styles of philanthropy of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, and Generation Y, born between 1981 and 1999. No wonder we are struggling to understand and accommodate additional generations, making our communications and planning even more complex.

Through 21/64, I travel to different communities in North America consulting with families, foundations and federations about multigenerational philanthropy. My experiences across the United States and Canada — and affirmed by research — tell me my peers are self-confident about their Jewish identity, yet remain hungry for ways to connect.

I have started to comprehend that the question isn’t whether the next generation is prepared for its communal responsibilities. The question is whether the community is prepared for the next generation.

Some communities are just now realizing it is time to add more seats to their boards and allocation tables for members of Generation X. Those more forward-thinking communities that already have begun to engage the next generation are realizing that the very act of engagement actually changes the shape of those tables.

The post-baby boomer generations in America have grown up with access to opportunities across race, religion, class, sexual orientation and even global boundaries that previous generations did not have. Technology has become more than TV in the living room — it’s a way in which community is formed, connections made and communications conveyed.

The experiences these 20- and 30-somethings bring, the vocabulary and skills they draw on, the diverse social circles they move in, the questions they pose, all require a shift in the way our federations operate. Are we willing to adapt how we operate for the sake of who we want to engage?

If we endeavor to engage them on their terms and not just change the window dressing on what already exists, we will be planting the seeds of long-term relationships and our own Jewish future.

For example, this year I worked with a community that has made the engagement of 20- and 30-somethings a priority. However, when I asked what “engagement” meant to members of the community, I heard four different answers.

To a traditionalist, engagement meant creating an agency for young adults. To a baby boomer, engagement meant creating outreach activities for 20-somethings.

When I asked the Gen-Xers what they hoped engagement meant, they envisioned seats at an allocations table. For a Gen-Yer, engagement signified a meaningful experience of Jewish life having nothing to do with allocating dollars or attending social events.

Eventually this community committed to involving Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers in structuring allocation decisions that affected themselves and their peers. But more important, I would ask us all to consider how members of Gen X and Gen Y can help the whole federation system. In the 21st century, wouldn’t we want experts in 21st century management, technology and communications — those who grew up with it — to help lead?

This idea was reinforced for me recently at the Family Firm Institute annual conference, where I heard a lecture on adaptability in family firms. The session description read “long-term survival and success and continuity is fundamental to their purpose.” I couldn’t help but compare this take on multigenerational family businesses to Judaism and the Jewish people’s attempt at long-term survival.

John Ward, co-director of the Center for Family Enterprise at Northwestern University, found that those family firms that could balance the family’s traditional business with the innovative ideas of the next generation were the most adaptable and therefore the most likely to continue down the generations.

Ward emphasized that those families who seek their adult children’s understanding of today’s markets have a better chance at long-term survival than those who continue to do just what they have been doing. In fact, it is their ability to adapt, to hold the paradox between traditional practice and innovation, where the real creativity takes place and continuity is achieved.

Continuity is not merely repeating what we have been doing with traditionalists and baby boomers because that is who is leading now. If we can take the long view, reflect on our centuries of Jewish life, and from there hold the paradox between Jewish tradition and next generation innovation, we will be focusing on the right goal. If we can “go to the balcony,” as author William Ury offers, and see from our historical perspective that we are talking about the continuity of a people and not of an organizational model, we will be better prepared for our community’s long-term survival.

In the Jewish world, I have witnessed this approach among a group of 20- and 30-somethings who envisioned Slingshot and The Slingshot Fund. The founders, committed to Jewish tradition and their family legacies of philanthropy, seek to highlight and support ways in which the tradition is resonating with the next generation.

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What’s more enticing than a free trip to Israel? A free trip to Israel tailor-made for your interests.

Taglit-Birthright Israel, a partnership between the Israeli government, local Jewish communities, Jewish federations and philanthropists, offers free first-time trips to Israel for Jewish young adults between 18 and 26. But these days, trips for special interest groups like medical students, law students, business students, military cadets and even aspiring chefs are another way to entice Jewish young adults to visit Israel.

Between exploring the Kotel, the Negev and the Dead Sea, young professionals spend time with Israeli experts in their field and visit prominent facilities that relate to their interests.

“Going with a special interest group gives people a chance to meet people with similar interests and to connect with Israel and the things that they’re specifically interested in,” said Miri Pomerantz, program director of the Jewish Book Council in New York, which is co-sponsoring a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip for young professional journalists this summer. While exploring the Jewish homeland, the writers will meet with Israeli novelists, editors of The Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz and other Israeli professionals in the world of literature and journalism.

For more information on Taglit-Birthright Israel, visit www.birthrightisrael.com.

— Sharon Schatz Rosenthal

Run for Her: A new generation of awareness


You might think that getting up at 5 a.m. on a Sunday in November would be an impossible feat for a teenager, but when I arrived to volunteer at the second annual Run for Her 5K/3K Friendship Walk/Run for ovarian cancer awareness and research, I was surprised by the number of kids who came out for such a wonderful cause.

As the participants started arriving, there was such a sense of community. People of all ages came out in support of this cause, and the overall mood of the morning was inspiring. I was amazed at how a seemingly morbid topic could bring out so much joy in a large number of people.

Run for Her was started by a woman named Kelli Sargent as a graduate school project to honor her mother, Nanci, an ovarian cancer survivor. It is designed to raise money for ovarian cancer research, and is sponsored by Cedars-Sinai’s Women’s Cancer Research Institute in Los Angeles.

I volunteered to help that day, because I had never really heard of a fundraiser for ovarian cancer, and I wanted to learn more about the disease. Also, my mother works at Cedars. I knew that the No. 1 cancer affecting women is breast cancer, and I know that much has been accomplished in trying to find a cure. When I found out about Run for Her, and that it was geared toward a lesser-known women’s cancer, I wanted to help.

As soon as I arrived at the race, the volunteer supervisor sent me to staff the start/finish line. My job was to collect the bib tags off of every runner who wanted to be timed. I had to string them together in numerical order as they passed the finish line, and run them to the registration tent to be tallied.

When I was first given this job, I was intimidated because it has a lot of responsibility. But it was also comforting, because the other volunteers were just as enthusiastic and supportive as the runners themselves.

Being given such a significant task made me feel like I was really doing something crucial for the cause. When the race started I was even asked to hold the finish line tape for the first timed male and female runners to complete the race. As I stood there tightly holding one end of the banner, there was an amazing sense of anticipation and excitement when we were notified that the winner was coming.

The excitement didn’t end when the race was over, either. After the race, there was a party celebrating the runners and the Sargent family for all of their hard work and dedication. During the reception, the amount of money that the runners raised was announced. The final number was astounding, more than $300,000, and the total has reached more than $400,000 with additions afterward.

I was shocked that an event could bring in such a large sum of money in only its second year. It really gave me hope that more people would become aware of the threat that ovarian cancer causes to women. The number of kids and teenagers my age at the event also reassured me that we will make sure that even more awareness is raised in the future, so that one day we will have the tools we need to completely eradicate this disease.

For more information, visit at Jump start Summer at Winter Expo; More help picking a Jewish summer camp

Class Notes: Camp Ramah celebrates Golden Anniversary


About 800 people are expected at Camp Ramah in Ojai this weekend to celebrate 50 years of Conservative Jewish camping in Southern California.

All 14 of Camp Ramah’s past directors are being honored at the Dec. 3 gala, among them some of the top leaders of the Southern California Jewish community, and the late author Chaim Potok.

Rabbi Jacob Pressman, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, was co-director of the first pilot summer in 1955 with 62 campers, and Rabbi David Lieber, president emeritus of the University of Judaism, directed the first official summer in 1956. Today Ramah in Ojai serves about 1,300 kids in several sessions over the summer.

“Camp creates in our minds and hearts and souls an ideal memory of ourselves and an ideal memory of the Jewish community that gives people a sense of hope and a sense of what is possible in the Jewish community,” current director Rabbi Daniel Greyber said.

For Greyber, that explains why so many former campers and directors go on to become leaders in the Jewish community, and why many campers uphold their summers in Ojai as models of spirituality and community.

Rather than celebrate the anniversary at a rubber chicken dressy affair, Ramah invited alumni and community members to camp Dec. 3 for a day of swimming, sports, art and camp activities. A memorabilia exhibit will be on display, and the ceremony and luncheon will take place in the Gindi Chadar Ochel (dining hall) and on Ramah’s famed hill.

The year-long festivities began with several Shabbat reunions at local synagogues and a dinner in Manhattan. At camp this summer, veteran alumni joined current campers to spend the day and sing camp songs that haven’t changed.

Among the other honorees are: Miriam Wise, a founder and teacher at the University of Judaism who co-directed with Pressman in 1955; the late Walter Ackerman, who directed for 10 of the early years; Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz, rabbi emeritus of Sinai Temple who directed 1963-73; Alvin Mars, education director for the Jewish Centers Association who directed Ramah from 1978-84, then went on to the UJ and then to direct the Brandeis-Bardin Institute; Rabbi Edward Feinstein, rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino; and Brian Greene, director of Westside Jewish Community Center.

For information, call (310) 476-8571 or visit www.ramah.org.

Milken Students Grill Education Minister

Israel’s Minister of Education Yuli Tamir had her work cut out for her when she met with a group of 40 10th-graders at Milken Community High School Nov. 13.
The students, all of whom will spend four months in Israel starting in February, met with Tamir for a private Q-and-A following a general presentation to the ninth through 12th grades.

The students asked Tamir about the differences between American and Israeli teens, about funding university education, and about how the Israeli school system helps kids deal with the stress of living under the threat of suicide bombers, katyushas and kassam rockets.

But where they respectfully pressed Tamir — who has a doctorate in political philosophy from Oxford University — was on the issue of ethnic segregation in Israel’s public schools. The students, who had been briefed on some basic facts about the Israeli educational system prior to the speech, were deeply troubled by the separate schools for the religious, the non-religious and Israeli Arabs, and neighborhood schools that effectively segregate according to socioeconomic levels.

At least three students asked about the topic, unsatisfied with Tamir’s acknowledgement that indeed it was a problem, or by her assertion that Army acts as a great equalizer.

“It’s very difficult to undo what has been a basic fact of the Israeli educational system,” Tamir conceded. “We want the children of Israel to grow to respect the different ways of life and to understand that people live different lives. We want them to know we are all part of the structure of Israeli society.”

The 40 students are members of the Tiferet Israel Delegation, a new program that will take students to Israel from February to May. They will continue their Milken education at the Alexander Muss Institute for Education, where they will dorm, and do a special course in Jewish history, going out to the sites they learn about.

The heavily subsidized program replaces a program where 10th-graders would live with Israeli families for two months in the spring, and the hospitality would be reciprocated to an Israeli delegation at Milken.

The new program still pairs students with families, but is more structured and academically focused so students are well-supervised and up to speed when they come home.

In her talk to the school, Tamir discussed the importance of bringing American youth to Israel not just for their own benefit, but for the impact such exchanges have on Israeli kids.

“When our students have the opportunity to meet a delegation like the one you are sending, they find within themselves something they didn’t know was there — they find a hidden layer of their identity that with this encounter they have the ability to expose and to discuss and to reflect on.”

New Schools Chief Visits Kehillat Israel

New LAUSD Superintendent Admiral David Brewer attended family services at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades on Friday night, Nov. 17 — his first visit to a Los Angeles synagogue since he took over leadership of 1,130 schools serving 877,000 students.

Brewer spoke in the main sanctuary, and his speech was more inspirational than political as he wove in ideas of how he plans to work with communities and set high expectations.

“He’s very inspirational,” said Kehillat Israel member and LAUSD Board President Marlene Canter, who suggested Kehillat Israel when Brewer said he would like to visit faith communities in his first official week on the job. “His passion is for kids. He is doing this not because he needs the job, but because he cares so deeply about the kids.”

Following his talk in the main sanctuary, Brewer visited the youth service for 150 fourth- through sixth-graders. He talked to the kids about creating and sticking to goals, and had them pledge to read a book a week for the rest of their lives.

Teens, college students make their presence known


“Welcome to Los Angeles.”

“Welcome to the GA.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Moishe Houses’ provide post-Hillel hangout for 20-somethings


Say you’re a few years out of college, living with friends and working in a low-paying job for some do-good organization. You don’t go to synagogue, but you miss the camaraderie of your college Hillel, and you like to invite people over for Shabbat meals.

Imagine if someone was willing to pay you to keep doing it?
 
That’s what’s offered by Moishe House, a fast-growing network of subsidized homes for 20-something Jews committed to building Jewish community for themselves and their peers.
The project was launched less than a year ago by The Forest Foundation, a Santa Barbara-based philanthropy. The foundation’s executive director, David Cygielman, 25, says the goal was to give young activist Jews the financial freedom to focus on creative programming designed to reach other young, unaffiliated Jews.

To the people living in these houses, it’s a terrific gift.
 
“We were already having Shabbat dinners three or four times a month and then they came along and said, ‘We’re looking for people doing what you’re doing. Keep it up, and we’ll support you,'” said Jonathan Herzog, 29, who lives in the Seattle house with his sister Norah and two friends.
 
The project is a validation of these young Jews’ efforts to create a Jewish home for an age group they feel gets lost in the communal shuffle.
 
“After college there’s no more Hillel, and they don’t join the Jewish community until they have families,” Cygielman noted.
 
The first Moishe House opened last December in San Francisco. Seattle was next in February, joined quickly by houses in Boston and Los Angeles.
 
New ones are to open in October in Oakland, Washington, Uruguay and Nigeria, and the plan is to have 12 houses up and running by next year.
 
Except for the Nigerian house, which is a one-man outreach operation, they all follow the same formula: Three or four Jews in their 20s receive a rent subsidy of up to $2,500 a month, along with $500 for programming, and are expected to become a communal hub for young Jews by hosting Shabbat meals, card games, Yiddish lessons, film nights, book discussions, neighborhood clean-ups and other social, intellectual and civic-minded activities.
 
Residents say the formula works because it lets young people organize events they themselves would want to attend, rather than having something imposed from above by a synagogue or JCC.
In many ways, it’s the bayit of the 21st century. But unlike those communal Jewish homes of the 1970s and ’80s, which usually were sponsored by Zionist youth groups, residents of Moishe Houses don’t subscribe to a particular ideology.
 
The focus varies according to residents’ interests: The houses in Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco host a lot of poker parties and film nights, while the Boston house is more involved in social action.
 
Houses have great freedom, Cygielman says, so long as they meet the minimum requirements: hosting eight to 12 events a month, making weekly reports, maintaining a Web site and reaching out to young people. Funding can be withdrawn if a house doesn’t perform.
 
“I won’t tell them what’s a wrong program or a right program,” Cygielman said. “I don’t care, so long as they’re building community and lots of people are coming.”
 
Maia Ipp, 24, moved into the San Francisco house in June. She runs a women’s group and a cooking club that is working its way alphabetically through the world’s cuisines.
 
Her parents once lived in a bayit sponsored by Habonim, a Labor Zionist youth group, but Ipp prefers the Moishe House model.
 
“We’re not affiliated with a movement that has a belief system, which frees us to do new, fresh work and engage young adults in ways other movements and campus groups can’t,” she said.
 
One recent evening, the four young residents of the San Francisco house got together for their weekly meeting. They sat around the large table in the dining room, which opens onto a large patio they use for Shabbat dinners and holiday parties.
 
David Persyko, 25, started hanging out at the house soon after it opened.
 
“I found myself really attached to being part of a Jewish community again,” he said. “Some of my fondest memories growing up were from Camp Swig, and coming here, I felt that rush of support I hadn’t felt in 10 years.”
 
He moved in in June and now runs poker night, which draws a group of guys every three weeks to “vent about the women in our lives,” Persyko said.
 
Aaron Gilbert, 24, runs a book club. The books aren’t Jewish, but the participants are, and talking about the books leads to talking about other things.
 
“It’s really intimate. We hang out, catch up on each others’ lives,” he said.
 
The house holds a big Shabbat dinner once a month and sponsors a softball team called the Matzah Ballstars. But the events and programs are secondary to the real draw.
 
“At our core, we’re four people who live in a house and we’re inviting people over. That’s appealing to people like us. It’s not institutional,” said Isaac Zones, 24, national director of the Moishe House network and a founding member of the San Francisco house.
 
On a table in the corner is a silver-toned bust of Zones’ grandfather, a man who founded his business empire with money he won playing poker. Zones makes sure the statue is always there during games.
 
The Moishe House concept is still in its early stages, and some things need to be tweaked. For example, the Los Angeles and Seattle houses are trying to beef up their social action component, while the Boston house is being encouraged to offer more “fun events,” Cygielman said.
 
It’s all part of figuring out what constitutes a Jewish community, or even a Jewish event. Must it be something devoted purely to a Jewish ritual or Zionist goal? Or is it enough to bring together a bunch of Jewish people to shmooze and eat?

At-risk youth; Much more Mathout; Donkeys vs. Elephants — the beef goes on


Custody Battle
 
Wendy Jaffe’s cover story on divorce focused primarily on the custody battles while neglecting alternative forms of dispute resolution, such as mediation, which can lead to far more peaceful results (“Who Gets the Shul?” Oct. 6).
 
In my role as a divorce mediator, I have worked over the years with scores of Jewish couples who are separating or divorcing to help them negotiate issues concerning their Jewish life and the Jewish life of their children. Couples in mediation are able to reach agreement on synagogue membership, synagogue dues and religious school fees, b’nai mitzvah costs, the wording on b’nai mitzvah or wedding invitations, as well as how they will share time with their children for holy days and festivals.
 
Not only is mediation less expensive than litigation, but the process results in far less acrimony and battle. Divorce, while maintaining shalom bayit, is indeed possible.

Rabbi Jeffrey A. Marx
Sha’arei Am — The Santa Monica Synagogue

 
Maher Hathout
 
It would have been irresponsible to stand by when a man is honored, even though he uses anti-Israel, anti-Jewish propaganda and participates in rallies that support terrorist groups, as he did at the Federal Building on Aug 12, where he was a keynote speaker and participants chanted, “Long Live Hezbollah” (“Controversial Muslim Leader Gets Award,” Sept. 22).
 
Hathout never distanced himself from them, nor, after his nomination, did he try to reach out and allay our understandable concerns. Instead, he lashed out, labeling us “un-American” fringe groups that oppose free speech or dislike Muslims. Hathout is free to say whatever he likes, but this extremist, divisive rhetoric and behavior should not be any city’s model for human relations.
 
We were not alone. Only four out of 14 commissioners voted for Hathout, with five abstaining and four absent. Steven Windmueller, dean of Hebrew Union College and a 1995 Buggs [Award] honoree, returned his award, stating that the [County Human Relations] Commission’s selection of Hathout stained the legacy of the award’s namesake.
 
There has been no “pressure” on us from “Jews in high places,” and we have not backed down. As rhetoric about the Middle East continues to escalate, the endgame of our protests is to send a strong message about desirable standards of discourse for Los Angeles, to educate the public about extremist rhetoric and to raise questions about who is a “moderate Muslim.”
 
We succeeded. We hope that Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders everywhere were paying attention and will strive for balanced, informed discourse as the standard for people singled out for special recognition.
 
Roz Rothstein
Director, StandWithUs

 
At-Risk Youth
 
I would like to applaud The Jewish Journal and Julie Gruenbaum Fax for courageously highlighting Aish Tamid and other programs in Los Angeles that offer “troubled teenage boys a way to curb self-destructive behavior” (“Orthodox Youth Not Immune to High-Risk Lifestyles,” Sept. 29). The topic of troubled teens is one of the most pressing and concerning issues facing our city, and it is important to supplement the article with a few additional facts and comments.
 
Firstly, while the core services and programs provided by Aish Tamid are tailored for troubled teens, we have also witnessed that not only troubled teens regularly attend and participate, but that there is a craving for our services by many different types of students. It is correct that our programs have been designed and appeal to troubled teens and/or students who have tried or are using drugs, but most Aish Tamid students are not druggies, and it is important to clarify this important distinction for the sake of all of our student participants.
 
It is also significant to note that the issue of at-risk youths is not restricted to only the Orthodox community, but that it affects all teens and young adults in our city, irrespective of their religious upbringing.
 
The article began with the mention of an Orthodox boy who overdosed on drugs, but many of us recall reading a little more than a year ago about the unfortunate death of a Los Angeles boy who was raised in the local Conservative schools and synagogues of our city who also died from a drug overdose.
 
In fact, after being mentioned and quoted in your 2005 article, Aish Tamid received a flood of phone calls from parents and school principals within the Conservative and Reform movements who confirmed that their children and/or students where facing the exact same challenges that was attributed to only Orthodox students in your recent article.
 
It would be naive of us to conclude that only Orthodox students are challenged with religious expectations, community and family pressures, academic and educational obstacles, questions on personal relationships, uncertainties on professional career options and, of course, the immense social influences of sex, drugs, alcohol, gambling and other self-destructive habits.
 
These are the challenges of all teens and young adults, not just Orthodox, and the Aish Tamid programs and services, especially the Pardes/Plan B alternative high school program, have been designed to provide resources and support to all Los Angeles teens, young adults and their parents, irrespective of their religious affiliation.
 
Rabbi Avi Leibovic
Founder and Executive Director
Aish Tamid of Los Angeles

 
Politicized Reports
 
Joseph M. Lipner makes several interesting points in his op-ed (“Israel Should Probe Accusations of War Crimes,” Sept. 29), particularly on the subjective nature of terms such as “war crimes.”
 
Unfortunately, his piece is marred by incredible naiveté regarding human rights NGOs. Claims that Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International “appear to be acting with good motives” toward Israel, or that they can be expected aggressively to take the side of civilians in any military conflict are not grounded in reality. They reflect the halo effect these groups cultivate to escape accountability.
 
Research carried out by NGO Monitor shows a different story. Amnesty and HRW released highly politicized reports and statements throughout the war. Amnesty published a scathing 50-page report focusing entirely on Israel’s actions, while hundreds of rockets fell on Israeli civilians daily. HRW even denied Hezbollah used Lebanese civilians as human shields.

Orthodox youth not immune to high-risk lifestyles


A few weeks ago, Joel Bess gathered his group of 15 teenage boys and took them to the funeral of a 21-year-old who had died of an overdose. Like the teenagers, the youth who died was Orthodox and didn’t fit the yeshiva mold and wound up on a path of high-risk behavior.
After the funeral, Bess — the son of a prominent rabbi who spent his teenage years and beyond in a whirl of self-destruction — asked the boys to write their own epitaphs on pictures of blank tombstones.
 
“I wanted them to think about how people would remember them and what they would say about their lives,” said Bess, who is now 29, a father of three and has a strong relationship with his own father.
 
Bess knows how hard it is not to fit in, to fall and then to muster the strength to move toward health of body and soul.
 
“Almost all my friends ended up dead or in jail, and I’m trying to prevent that with these kids,” he said.
 
He has been meeting weekly with the boys for about nine months through Issues Anonymous, a group he helped found.
 

My son, the plumber. Amen.

 
On a hot abandoned Granada Hills playground surrounded by waves of wheat-colored brush, Rabbi Mayer Schmukler looks around and sees the future. Rather than the overgrown jungle gym and dusty rows of red Little Tikes cars at the site that once was the North Valley JCC, he sees a soccer field, a refurbished pool, maybe tennis courts behind the new dorm buildings.
 
Last year, Schmukler, a Chabad-trained rabbi, brought 15 boys to this eight-acre site to pilot JETS — Jewish Education Trade School. This year he’s got 35 boys praying, studying Torah and training to be carpenters, plumbers, chefs and elevator repairmen.
 
Schmukler is keenly aware that a Jewish vocational school faces some deeply ingrained prejudices.
 
“Everyone feels that if a Jewish kid has to become a plumber it’s a sad situation, that really he should be a lawyer or an accountant, or a rabbi,” Schmukler says.
 
But some kids aren’t cut out for academic rigor. Leaving them in a mismatched environment often leads them toward self-destructive paths to failure.
 
“We take kids that maybe have low self- esteem and show them they are good at something — or we make them good at something — and show them they can make it in this society,” said Schmukler with a smile that never leaves his eyes or his mouth, hidden though it is in his untamed beard.
 
JETS doesn’t take the most hard-core cases. Boys have to be drug-free for 12 months to get into the program, and there is mandatory drug testing every two weeks.
 
But some of his kids come from broken homes, or have emotional, learning or behavioral challenges. Most of them live on campus in classrooms converted into dorms.
 
JETS, an independent nonprofit, employs teachers, social workers, dorm counselors and a psychologist. Students get personal counseling, and classes in ethics and time management and organization as well as high-school equivalency preparatory classes.
 
It was the combination of industry and ethics that won Schmukler a California Regional Consortium for Engineering Advances in Technological Education grant and award from the National Science Foundation in May 2006.
 
Most of the trade classes are offered at College of the Canyons, an accredited community college in Santa Clarita that provides work force training.
 
Last year, the boys built a skateboarding ramp. This year, they’re building a house, from computer modeling to reading the blueprints to carpentry, plumbing, electricity and the finishings.
 
Some of the classes, such as cooking, take place at JETS. The school is building a state-of-the-art kosher kitchen, and hopes to open a kosher culinary school to the public.
On Shabbats when they stay in, boys prepare meals for each other. They have also taken trips to the Grand Canyon and Northern California.
 
Schmukler’s approach to discipline is to help the boys self-motivate. Smoking, for instance, is not prohibited. But boys can only smoke alone, and only in designated spots that might be a half-acre from the action. There is no wake up call in the morning — boys need alarm clocks to rouse themselves. Free time is scheduled up with classes in kickboxing or karate, and a whole set of bikes and the old JCC gym facilities are available to the guys.
 
Schmukler has bigger plans for the campus, and he is a strong fundraiser. He worked for years as the development director for Chabad’s Russian program, where he first set up teen centers in West Hollywood. JETS has an annual budget of about $1 million, and Schmukler works his connections well. He’s already raised $5 million for the purchase of the campus and got an adjacent parcel donated.
 
Schmukler is also giving space to the JCC for offices and some programming, and is working out further arrangements with them. He says he wants JETS to be a center for Jewish unity, especially because no one can forget the 1999 rampage by Buford O. Furrow, who wounded five people at this JCC and then killed postal worker Joseph Ileto.
 
“Because of that I really believe something positive has to come from here,” Schmukler says. “Judaism is positive, and if you open up with something positive, we’ve won.”
 
For more information, visit www.jetsschool.org or call (323) 228-5905.

 
— JGF

Issue Anonymous is one of several new programs that have emerged in the last few years to serve the Orthodox community, giving kids, their parents and local high schools more resources and options than have ever been available in Los Angeles.
 
At Issues Anonymous, the boys can express themselves freely — which they did on the blank tombstones.
 
“To our beloved son, we loved you and we wish we could have been there for you,” one of them wrote.
 
“He died on the road to recovery. He meant well and he tried hard. Had he lived longer he would have made some big differences. He will be missed by the select few that he touched.”
“We loved you, and we will miss you. You were a good friend, son and brother. You really were nice and smart.”
 
And then simply, “I hope I rest in peace.”
 
For these youths, the introspection and repentance of Yom Kippur is a full time, ongoing pursuit.
 
For nearly two decades, it has been an open secret in the Los Angeles Orthodox community that some kids are turned off by religious observance and high academic standards, and they end up turning to truancy, alcohol, unsafe sex or drugs.
 
Once on that path, many of the boys feel let down or pushed out by their schools, families or both. They feel hated by the community, and especially lost because they don’t feel they belong anywhere else. They call themselves screw-ups, and worse.
 
Some of them take a high school equivalency exam — or not — and get sent off to Israel or to yeshivas outside of Los Angeles. Some land in rehab, in jail, on the streets — or dead.
They are Sephardic, Ashekenazic and Persian. Their families are Chasidic and Modern Orthodox.
And to those who know them well, they are loveable boys who just need someone to believe in them.
 
“I think the community needs to embrace these kids with love,” says Debbie Fox, director of Jewish Family Service’s Aleinu Family Resource Center, who brought Bess in to start Issues Anonymous when four mothers approached her looking for help.
 
“I know that people are afraid that the kids will influence others. But that doesn’t mean we don’t create a place for them,” she said. “It means we need to look at how to balance things and how to do things safely and acknowledge that they are part of our community. We cannot sacrifice these kids — and they’re really beautiful kids.”
 
Los Angeles’ Orthodox community now offers some organized solutions for these boys — though none have been put forth for girls, even while most observers agree that, too, is needed.
 
The Jewish Educational Trade School (JETS), a vocational boarding school for boys who weren’t cut out for the academic rigor of yeshiva, started meeting last year at the North Valley Jewish Community Center. This year 35 boys spend part of each school day studying Torah and high school equivalency, and part of their day learning trades, such as elevator or air conditioning repair, or construction.
 
But JETS doesn’t take in the hard-core boys. Students have to have been drug-free for at least a year, and they are tested regularly.
 
Boys who are currently using drugs are welcome at Issues Anon and Aish Tamid, an organization Rabbi Avi Leibovic founded six years ago to provide a welcoming environment and support services.
 
Leibovic’s latest venture is Pardes/Plan B, a program that combines Torah study, outdoor adventure, counseling and high-school equivalency preparation. The program started in mid-September and, so far, the reports are positive.
 

Pardes: School, But Not
 
Pardes meets at Congregation Shaarei Tefila on Beverly Boulevard, where the boys pray every morning. Then they go out on a trip — hiking, bowling, boating — all the while imbibing bits of wisdom from their teacher, Rabbi Ari Guidry, and a social worker who has had years of experience with this population in New York.
 

“The rabbi is awesome,” says Aharon (boys names have been changed to protect their privacy). “He’s not like a typical rabbi. He knows how to treat us — like the humans that we are.”
Aharon has always been a good student and hopes to go to college; he is excited about the academic subjects being taught by End Result, an organization with great success in running classes in juvenile detention centers.
 

Aharon’s mother is glad he chose Pardes.
 

“Pardes is not going to be top-notch academic experience, but for me it is much more important that his soul is intact,” she said. “I believe that this year he can work on himself; he can set his own spiritual compass to know in which direction he needs to go to find true happiness in life.”
 

She is one of the mothers who approached Fox last year to start Issues Anon, after she realized that Aharon was doing drugs, taking the car out in the middle of the night when he was 14 or 15, and messing up in school.
 

“Anything I tried to do in terms of controlling him and where he was going and what he was doing didn’t work,” said Aharon’s mother, who also attends a parent support group offered by Aish Tamid.
 

Leibovic, a 33-year-old YULA graduate who can personally relate to what these kids are going through, was one of the first in Los Angeles to try to organize programs for this population. He started with post-high school young men and then expanded to the younger set.
 

Aish Tamid has Shabbat programs, career fairs, study groups and the popular Teen at the Bean, a weekly discussion and study session at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf on Beverly Boulevard.

 
Mostly, Leibovic, a father of six and a full-time attorney, has made himself and a growing staff of social workers and counselors available to the boys and their parents at all hours, giving individualized guidance about everything from rehab centers to family therapy to finding employment.
 

Leibovic is still trying to find funding for Pardes. Young men who have been through Aish Tamid programs donated a van worth $22,000. Pardes only has enrolled a half-dozen students.
Leibovic is hoping eventually to fill the van with 13 kids. He said he knows of about 10 kids in need who aren’t in any program, but are still holding out to get into one of the local yeshivas, which historically haven’t dealt well with these kids.
 

“There is no way that any one school can cater to all of the students we have in our community,” said Rabbi Avrohom Stulberger, dean of Valley Torah High School. “A school’s job is to be as broad as possible and needs to see themselves as embracing and accommodating as they can be. But as good as a school can be, there is no way we can do it all.”
 

While high school principals are grateful for programs like Pardes and JETS, they know there is work to do in making such programs acceptable to the boys and their families.
 

“I think there is still a stigma in the eyes of the children about going to these schools,” said Rabbi Dovid Landesman, principal of YULA. “We have to work on the psychology to make kids accept that these schools are more suited to their needs, because I really think both of these schools [Pardes and JETS] are a bracha to the community.”
 

Issues Anon: Steak and Free Expression
 

Yossi has managed to stay at YULA through his senior year, with an inclusion aid to help him through Attention Deficit Disorder. He started smoking marijuana at summer camp after 10th grade, and then he started popping his dad’s Atavan and Valium.
 

“I really messed up my whole 11th grade year, but I was on drugs so I didn’t care,” he says.
He fights with his father, but has a close relationship with his mother. She got him into rehab, which allowed him to stay in school. Yossi’s been clean 90 days.
 

He attributes much of his success to Issues Anon, the Jewish Family Service Wednesday night group that Joel Bess runs with social worker Howie Shapiro.
 

“This is the one thing I look forward to every week, and it’s really helped me a lot,” says Yossi, at a recent dinner at La Gondola.
 

The boys were there to celebrate milestones — some had just started school, some were chalking up months of sobriety, some were just happy to still be getting up in the morning. (All of them were grateful for the glistening heaps of ribs and giant sized steaks on their plates.)
 

Some of the boys wear kippahs and some don’t, some have spiky coifs or buzz cuts, and several of them sport large Jewish stars around their necks and pants sagging well below their hips.
Regular meetings start with the boys jotting down an issue, all of which are then read aloud, without revealing the source, and discussed. The guys give each other advice about how to get through their issues.

 
Tonight, many of them note their sobriety counts — a year and half, 90 days, two months — “and I better start feeling some of those changes promised,” one of them quips to Bess.
“I threw out all of my stuff two weeks ago,” another announces, to the applause of the group.
“Damn, you should have given it to me,” another jokes.

 
“My mom kicked me out again,” a boy says quietly.

“Cool! Are you sleeping at my house tonight?” his friend asks hopefully.

 
Behind the jokes, the cursing and goofing off, the kids are there for each other.
“If you see these kids sitting in the back of the classroom goofing off, you get one impression,” says Shapiro, the social worker. “But when you hear them talking about what they don’t get from their parents or how they fell through the cracks, it’s really amazing the depth with which they can describe what they are feeling and what they need. But the school administration and the parents don’t see that depth. They just see the GPA and the drug use.”

 
The kids in the group have become close friends and relate easily to Bess, who runs a division of an infomercial company and has a hip style the kids are comfortable with. They call him or knock on his door at all hours, and he welcomes them.

 
“I feel like I can do things now. Before I wasn’t able to do anything,” says Zev, who has been clean for a year and half and is being schooled at a private home in the valley.
Zev is one of many siblings from a Chasidic home. He has an abusive father and a supportive mother. When he was only 9 or 10 years old, he got his first taste of weed in shul on Simchat Torah.
 

He’s 15 now but looks a lot older, with a scraggly beard, big eyes that hold your gaze, and a quiet voice.
 
He is a leader — several boys say it was Zev who got them started on drugs. Now, at Issues Anon meetings, they turn to him for support in staying sober. And it was Zev who instituted the idea of starting each meeting with gratitude — going around and saying something positive about your week, or your life.
 
Tonight, Yossi is proud of 90 days sober. And like the other boys around the table, his goals are basic.

 
“I just don’t want to f*** up anymore,” Yossi says. “I want to get my life together and to be able to go through stuff without relapsing. I just want to be able to function like a normal person.”
 

www.aishtamid.org (323) 634-0505
www.jfsla.org/aleinu (323) 761-8816

Rabbi Carron brightens prisoners’ darkest days


Daniel, a blue-eyed 24-year-old who was a few credits shy of finishing his undergraduate degree at UCLA last spring, is now an inmate in unit 131 at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles.

When Rabbi Yossi Carron arrives for his meeting with Daniel — not his real name — an unseen guard in a concrete and black glass bunker releases the latch on the sliding steel door that connects the youth’s dorm pod to the unit’s deserted common area.

On the far side of a thick glass wall, other inmates sleep in their bunks or drift aimlessly beneath the harsh white lights overhead.

Daniel looks awkward in his pale green prison outfit. He has gained 20 pounds since he was convicted three months ago on a charge of dealing methamphetamine, and he’s clearly uncomfortable in his skin.

Carron wraps Daniel in a quick but firm embrace.

“How’s it going?” Carron asks with one hand on Daniel’s slumped shoulder and another on his cheek.

The pair settle into plastic chairs at the corner of a table decorated with a stenciled checker board. From his pants pocket Daniel pulls a small ziplock bag that holds a pencil stub and two sheets of paper covered front and back with Daniel’s dense, neat handwriting. With guidance from Carron, Daniel is working through the recovery movement’s Fourth Step: making a “fearless and searching” inventory of his life.

As Carron scans the sheets of paper, Daniel hunches forward, his elbows on his knees.

“I’ve really had to look at my relationships — friendships and sexual relationships — in this step,” Daniel says. “It’s kind of shocking to see how much I’ve needed other people to feel complete.”

Carron lays the sheets of paper on the table and gives Daniel his full attention.

“It’s still hard, though,” Daniel says, turning his gaze up to meet Carron’s. “I mean, none of my friends have come to see me.”

Carron leans toward Daniel.

“You’re an extraordinary guy, all by yourself,” he says. “I don’t show up for any other reason than I want to.”

Daniel blushes but doesn’t look away.

“Chances are a lot of these people are connected to the parts of your life you want to change,” Carron says. “Am I right?”

Daniel looks down at his hands and nods slowly.

Sitting up, Carron drums a finger on the pages to draw Daniel’s attention to his inventory.

“This is going to be the greatest Rosh Hashanah of your life,” Carron says, “because you’re sober and you’re not lying to yourself or anyone else.”
Daniel sits up and looks squarely at Carron. He takes a deep breath and says, “You make me feel very special.”

With any luck, Daniel will be spending Rosh Hashanah on the outside. It’s likely he’ll soon be making the transition from jail to the recovery program at Beit T’Shuva, a nonprofit that works with at-risk youth.

For the members of Carron’s patchwork prison shul who are still behind bars come next week, however, there will be a holiday Shabbat at Men’s Central Jail, across the street from Twin Towers. Most of the Jewish inmates who participate will be bussed in from one of the five additional jails Carron serves in Los Angeles County. Some of the 70-odd men in Carron’s shul will have to stay away, however, in lock-down or solitary. Others are considered too high-risk to move.
“We’ll have between 20 and 40, including volunteers,” Carron says. “All things considered, that’s a pretty good turnout.”

Carron, a former bandleader at the Beverly Hilton, might seem an unlikely host for such a party.

A decade ago, Yossi Carron was called Jeff. He was a successful 40-something musician with a daughter in grade school, plenty of money in the bank and a nagging sense that something was missing in his life.

“It was all good, but I just wasn’t having fun anymore,” Carron says over braised tofu at a Chinatown restaurant the day before his meeting with Daniel.

The lightbulb over Carron’s head began to flicker when he was asked to serve as the first cantor at the then newly formed Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood. The job was a good fit for Carron, who has an impressive voice to match his musicianship. Still, he’d never paid much attention to the flow of services before. But as he threw himself into his new role he began to realize he was feeling deeply fulfilled by the experience.

“I was sticking Post-Its in my siddur,” he says. “Pretty soon I needed to know more, so I started taking classes at Hebrew Union [College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR)].”

As he continued to follow the thread of his curiosity, Carron’s enthusiasm began to blossom into a calling.

One day Rabbi Denise Egger at Kol Ami told Carron, “You should be on the bimah.”
In May 2003, Yossi received his ordination from HUC-JIR.

“I thought I’d have a normal shul,” Carron says. “You know — with ladies organizing bake sales and that sort of thing.”

But not long after his ordination, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California offered Carron a part-time job as a chaplain in the Los Angeles County prison system. The task seemed thankless — the job’s responsibility covered three jails and two hospitals, but there was only enough money to pay for a chaplain’s services one day a week.

“It was frustrating for the person who had the job before me, and I could tell it was going to frustrate me,” Carron says. “But for some reason I wanted it, and I’m the kind of person who pushes to get what he wants. So finally the board came up with the funding for a second day, and then the job seemed do-able to me.”

Carron’s daughter was in high school by that time, and he didn’t want to have to uproot her to take a job somewhere else. So Carron said yes.

God Was With Us That Night in the Negev


Our bus driver Boris had been navigating the roads of the Negev for at least an hour when the whole bus suddenly shook, rattled and rolled. As we gazed out the window, we saw that Boris had left the road. All we saw was rock, dust and a little more rock. It took about two more hours of off-road driving for us to reach our destination for the night.

I stepped off the bus and asked our counselor, “Where is the bathroom?”
“Follow me and I will demonstrate,” she said. “Girls to those rocks on the left, boys to the right.” Enough said.

I had just arrived in Israel that week for a four-week tour with 34 other California teens in Group Three of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) summer Israel program. And we were about to spend three nights in the middle of the Negev Desert with nothing but food and sleeping bags — definitely a sight to see.

Not only did we do it, but so did 12 other NFTY groups in Israel this summer, and we would soon find out that the experience of sleeping on our ancestors’ land would set the tone for our whole trip.

We unloaded the materials from the bus including dishes, food supplies, sleeping bags and our own personal bags. Once dinner was made and served, our group began to gather for Maariv, the evening prayer service.

This was by far the most spiritual moment in my life. I gazed up at the stars as I chanted the V’Ahavta prayer with amazing new friends, standing around the same rocks that our people had wandered past thousands of years before. My eyes couldn’t help but tear up as we moved on to the Mi Chamocha, the song of freedom. At that moment I felt as though God truly was with us.

We ended the night with our usual closing circle, where we sang Hashkiveinu and the Shema, with the words: “Keep us safe throughout the night, until we wake with morning’s light.” But that night, I felt as though we didn’t even need to ask for safety, that this ground and these mountains would keep us safe.

As morning woke us with its light, we found ourselves at the beginning of a long day of hiking in the Negev and then swimming in Eilat.

On our last day camping out, Boris took us to a Bedouin tent. We were warmly welcomed and introduced to the interesting Bedouin culture. We experienced their music, cultural food and hospitality — especially when they invited us to use the tent’s bathrooms, equipped with actual showers. I would have to say that the next task might have been even harder then the previous day’s four-hour hike. This was the situation: four showers, 20 girls, 30 minutes.

That night I was in a Bedouin tent celebrating Shabbat like I never had done before. This was our third and final night sleeping on the ground of the Negev, so we were both excited and upset.

The next day we arrived at Kibbutz Yahel near Eilat. Our tour guide, Sivan, took us on a very short hike on the outskirts of the Kibbutz. As we all sat in a circle in the middle of two mountains — a lot like our accommodations for the past three nights — Ellie Klein, our madrich, shared some words that I will never forget. She told us that by successfully making it through this Negev experience, whether we knew it our not, we had already changed and grown.

This campout was our chance to be with the land of Israel, nothing else. Just the land with all of its components. Through the tasks that we had completed and the experiences we had, we had assured ourselves that we could do it again.

Ellie asked us to grab a rock and gather them all in a pile in the center of our circle. I found a rock and felt the firmness of it and dropped it in the center, feeling as though I had just left a piece of myself in the desert. Not only a piece of myself, but a newly grown, solid and firm me. The words she said about us and the natural land still echoes in my mind because I really felt that for those few days, I was at my true quintessential state — and so was the Land of Israel.

We left the rocks in a clump on the ground as we made our way back to Kibbutz Yahel. This experience was the start of a treasured summer traveling with the most incredible people. I was finding my true Jewish identity not only among the historical sights, but among the millions of rocks that make up Eretz Yisrael.

Daniella Kaufman is an 11th grader at New Community Jewish High School.

Class Notes


Get Packing
It was weeks before camp started, but on Sunday, June 11, Gear Up for Camp Day brought 1,700 people — including 500 campers and their families — to The Federation’s Camp Max Straus, run by Jewish Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Campers filled laundry bags with camp necessities — sunscreen, T-shirts, hats, socks, towels — most donated by local businesses. Federation staff and volunteers, as well as staff from Jewish Big Brothers/Big Sisters and Camp Max Straus, helped distribute the goods.

This was the first time the event was held at the nonsectarian overnight camp in Glendale, giving parents a chance to see where their kids would spend the summer. The day also featured carnival rides, live entertainment and food.

The Federation is helping 1,100 underprivileged kids go to camp this summer, including those who will attend Max Straus — which offers one- and two-week stays to at-risk youth from the L.A. area — and some Jewish children, mostly immigrants from Iran and Russia, who will attend Jewish camps on Federation scholarships.

For more information, call (323) 761-8320.

Arts in L.A. Gets a Push
Arts Education in L.A.-area public schools is getting a boost from the Jewish community, as the Jewish Community Foundation and The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation recently announced support for Los Angeles County’s Arts for All initiative. Adopted by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors in 2002, Arts for All seeks to restore arts education slashed with the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978.

The Jewish Community Foundation, in collaboration with the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, launched the Arts in Schools Giving Circle to try to raise $100,000 from individual donors by the end of 2006.

The Giving Circle hopes to provide matching grants to fund more than 150 arts residency programs serving approximately 4,000 K-12th grade students in 14 Los Angeles County public schools.

Seeded by a grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Giving Circle is the first opportunity for individual donors to participate in the Arts for All Pooled Fund, a consortium of foundations and corporations.

The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation announced a $100,000 gift to the Pooled Fund in May. Of this, $50,000 will support the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District’s plan over the next three years to hire an arts coordinator and to develop arts curriculum and arts education training for district teachers. The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation supports initiatives involving healthcare, access to college, Jewish programs in Los Angeles, and established a chair in Israel studies at UCLA.

For further information about the JCF Giving Circle, call program officer Amelia Xann at (323) 761-8714 or axann@jewishfoundationla.org. For information on the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, call (310) 449-4500. For information on Arts for All, visit www.lacountyarts.org.

Birthright Reaches 100,000
This month, the 100,000th 18- to 26-year-old will participate in a free, educational trip to Israel, thanks to Taglit-Birthright, a 6-year-old program supported by United Jewish Communities, the Israeli government and 14 philanthropists.

Internal research has shown that the program is meeting its goals of solidifying participant’s Jewish identity and connection to Israel, and has also generated more than $182 million in revenue for the Israeli economy.

But the program might be a victim of its own success: This summer, 15,000 applicants were turned away, when a record 25,000 youth applied for just 12,000 spots.

For information, call (888) 994-7723 or visit www.birthrightisrael.com.

Teens on the Beltway
Rabbi Morley Feinstein of University Synagogue in Brentwood accompanied the synagogue’s confirmation class to Washington D.C., to participate in the L’Taken Seminar of the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism last month.

The study and action program was attended by 250 students, who culminated the conference by meeting with congressional staffers to advocate on behalf of issues such as Darfur, immigration and the death penalty.

Also attending were teens from Temple Beth Torah of Ventura, Temple Beth Sholom of Santa Ana, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and Temple Israel of Hollywood.

 

Judaism Finds Its Niche in Great Outdoors


There are Jews hanging from mountaintops all over Colorado. Others are lighting Shabbat candles on sailboats or discovering their spirituality on the ski slopes.

These Jewish adventure enthusiasts not only make an effort to do the hobbies they love with other Jews, but they do so looking for religious or spiritual meaning. By combining their dual interests, this growing cadre of adrenaline seekers is building a new definition of what it means to do — or be — Jewish.

Take Rabbi Jamie Korngold.

When Korngold realized that the Reform Jews she was trying to reach in Boulder, Colo., were more interested in skiing than sitting in synagogue on Saturday mornings, she strapped on a pair of snow boots and headed up the mountain: “For 30 percent of us, synagogue life is working really well, but the other 70 percent, we need new ways of reaching those people.”

“There are so many people whose religion is the outdoors, who really experience their spirituality outside of the synagogue,” said Korngold, who has biked from New York to San Francisco and competed in a 100-mile trail run. “So what I do is say, ‘You’re going to be outdoors, you say it’s a spiritual experience. Let me show you how it’s Jewish.'”

Korngold’s Adventure Rabbi program challenges participants to discuss Torah passages, as well as Judaism’s relationship to nature, during mountain minyan hikes, backpacking treks through the desert and Rosh Hashanah retreats to a ranch in the Rockies. Her trips are so popular that Korngold said her main problem is finding enough guides to meet demand.

“Our Web site gets 200,000 hits a month,” she said. “Our e-mail list is larger than the local federation’s.”

Rabbi Howard Cohen, a Reconstructionist rabbi who runs the Vermont-based Burning Bush Adventures organization, also talks about the need to build bridges between Judaism and the outdoors.

“I know so many Jews who have essentially grown detached from the Jewish community because as they were growing up, they couldn’t get what they wanted from the Jewish world,” he said. “So they went outside of it. But Judaism doesn’t have to be a separate part of their lives.”

Cohen calls the stereotype of the unfit, nonathletic Jew “residual anti-Semitism,” noting that Jews long have been involved in heart-pumping activities like boxing and farming.

Cohen himself is proof of the Jewish athletic tradition. Before attending rabbinical school, he spent 10 years working for Outward Bound. Now he leads day school students, among others, on such expeditions. Before going, participants are sent Torah portions, as well as a list of questions, quotes and readings.

Cohen promotes discussion on these materials out in the woods and has students keep Shabbat and bake challah in the field. Being with students in this context changes his ability to relate to them, Cohen said.

“There are a lot of rabbis who ski or play golf and put their kippah in their back pocket,” he said. “But rabbis who take their congregants skiing, they have a different bond.”

Cohen admitted that rabbis who follow this path may not serve Jewish community “needs,” such as Shabbat services and bar mitzvah training, but he said they do provide some of the “wants” Jews have from their religion.

Rabbi Nachum Shifren, an Orthodox surfer who rides waves in a wetsuit and full beard, said the surfing lessons he offers in Los Angeles and Israel offer catharsis.

“It’s definitely a therapeutic thing,” Shifren said. “Once you’re hooked on all that power and might of the ocean, you’re just never going to be the same.”

Shifren is working on a new program to wean innercity youngsters off drugs and gang life through surfing. Cohen also is developing a program for troubled youth.

“We tend to think of religion as a place where you have to toe the line … but there’s room for rebellion in religion,” Cohen said, citing “iconoclastic rabble-rousers” in the Torah such as Abraham.

The Chicago-based Steppin’ Out Adventures uses this community-building effect as a vehicle for matchmaking, allowing Jewish singles to schmooze while biking in Ireland or climbing the Inca Trail in Peru.

Robin Richman, director and one of the co-founders of the organization, described the bonding that takes place as “amazing.”

“When you’re on an adventure you plan as best you can, but things happen. Those are the things that become jokes between you,” she said, citing a weekend getaway to Wisconsin, where, due to three straight days of rain, the group wound up eating lunch in their underwear.

“It definitely brought the trip close together very quickly,” she said with a laughed.

Richman’s method has produced results. Since it began in 1993, Steppin’ Out Adventures has led to 60 marriages, 34 babies and “a whole lot of friendships and business partners,” according to the group’s Web site.

For the 20 members of the Chesapeake Bay’s Sailing Chavurah, the marriage of the outdoors and Jewish life also has proved transformative.

“At first, we all thought we were the only one” who sailed and was Jewish, said Julien Hofberg, the group’s commodore. But over time, boats named Tikkun Olam and Miss Shue Goss found each other, as did a Holocaust survivor, an accomplished Orthodox racer and a half-dozen Reform and Conservative Jews from the region.

“Now we hold Havdalah services every Saturday; we have a Chanukah party,” Hofberg said. “We share our expertise … and watch out for each other.”

 

Class Notes


New Yeshiva Flying SCY High
Founding board members of the new Southern California Yeshiva High School (SCY High) for boys in La Jolla knew that with a history of failed yeshiva high schools in the area, they had to offer the community something new and innovative. So they, along with headmaster Kevin Cloud, developed a school that utilizes high-tech project-based learning to integrate all disciplines — from science to literature to Gemara.

The school, the only Orthodox boys high school in the San Diego area, attracted 17 boys in ninth and 10th grades last year, its first year of existence, and next year between 25 and 30 are expected to be enrolled in the ninth through 11th grades. One Los Angeles boy boarded with relatives, and next year several families are opening up their homes to students who want to board.

As a school starting from scratch, teachers were able to take novel approaches to study.

The ninth graders, for example, read Goethe’s “Faust,” then rewrote it as short film. They created sets — some using “South Park”-style puppets, some using stop-action dolls and action figures — set it to music, and filmed short movies. The 10th graders read Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” then rewrote a modernized version then studied and debated the moral implications of making Faustus Jewish.

“What you do in project-based learning is you take the ability the students have in one subject and you bring that enthusiasm into another subject,” Cloud said.

The students also get traditional instruction, but even there things tend to blend.

In Rabbi Moshe Adatto’s Gemara class, students had to present talmudic arguments in a PowerPoint flowchart. Each student is given a Dell laptop when they enter, and the school is wired for high-speed wireless Internet access.

To Adatto, who previously was a teacher at the Valley Kollel, it’s all part of making kids love school and love Judaism.

“We’re trying to create lifelong learners, and to me that has two components: They have to know how to learn, and they have to want to learn,” said Adatto, who organized Shabbatons and other events to build school spirit.

All but one student has reenrolled for next year, and an anonymous survey that all of the parents filled out brought back astonishing results for a Jewish school: No one — not one family — reported being anything less than satisfied.

For more information on SCY High School, contact (858) 658-0857 or visit www.scyhigh.org.

Follow the Fellows to Israel
Three Southern California teens were among 26 selected nationally to visit Israel on a five-week Bronfman Youth Fellowship this summer. Priscella Frank of Calabasas High School and Benjamin and Mitzi Steiner of Shalhevet were selected following a rigorous application process. They will participate in an intensive program of study and travel in Israel designed to develop leaders committed to Jewish unity.

The fellows participate in seminars and dialogues with diverse rabbinic faculty and spend a week with a group of Israeli peers who have been chosen through Amitei Bronfman, a parallel Israeli program. Bronfman Youth Fellows are asked to complete 40 hours of community service when they return home at the end of the summer.

3 Books = 31 Flavors
Students at Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy have another reason to pick up a good book — to satisfy their sweet tooth. As part of the Be a Star Reader program, elementary and middle school kids who read three books this spring were awarded a free ice cream cone at any Baskin-Robbins. Arna Schwartz, the school librarian, has run the Be a Star Reader program for several years, purchasing Baskin-Robbins gift certificates. This year, Robert Schwartz, who owns the Baskin-Robbins on Kinross Avenue in Westwood, offered to sponsor the program. Other Schools or youth organizations interested in participating in the Baskin-Robbins Reading Rewards Program can contact Robert Schwartz at (310) 208-8048.

To Bee or Not to Bee
More than 150 boys from Chabad schools across the world gathered in Los Angeles in April for a battle of wits on Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot. Cheder Menachem in Los Angeles was the host school of the chidon, or bee, which attracted 1,000 spectators to the finals held at Emerson Middle School. The girls’ competition was held the week before in New York. Local winners were Sender Labkowsky, first place, older division; Mendel Mishulovin, third place, older division; and Shmully Lezak, third place, younger division.

ADL Reaches 700,000 Students
As part of LAUSD’s Live Violence-Free Day, 35,000 teachers in the district were urged to use materials and activities they received from the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) A World of Difference Institute, impacting more than 700,000 K-12 students in one day. The activities and lesson plans were designed to assist educators in addressing issues of bias, discrimination, bullying and violence, and focused on empowering students to become agents of change on their campuses. For more information on ADL education programs, contact Jenny Betz at (310) 446-8000, ext. 233.

 

‘Wagging’: My Story as Gay Jewish Male


A couple of years ago, I heard about an oral history project for older gay men and women that resulted in a staged play. I didn’t see it, but when Bob Baker, the adapter-director, sent out the call for a new cast, I signed up.

We listened to each other’s stories, wrote up the most telling ones and turned remembered conversations into dialogue. After nine months, out came a play.

Everyone’s life is a book, a saga of depth, dreams, passion. The art is all in the telling. This is our story.

We performed “Wagging Tales: Stories From the Stonewall Generation” to three sold-out houses one weekend in February at Highways Performance Space. And we’re about to perform the show again.

Stonewall, for those not up on queer history, was the bar in Greenwich Village where, in 1969, drag queens and minority gay patrons revolted against yet another police raid and said, “enough!” From sexual liberation to AIDS to gay politics and so on, no other generation of gays or lesbians has quite the same perspective that we do.

Here are some of my stories:

When I became the director of the Workmen’s Circle in Southern California in 1995, we opened A Shenere Velt Gallery, which is now celebrating 10 years of Jewish and socially conscious art. A show I mounted in early 1996, while still in my six-month probation, presented photographs by Albert Winn, a gay man seriously ill with AIDS.

None of us knew whether Al would survive until the opening. But I considered it the special mitzvah (praiseworthy deed) I was uniquely positioned to provide. I was willing, in fact, to put my job on this line.

Older members might inform our board that they could not approve of Al’s photo studies of pill bottles in the form of a menorah. But no one complained.

Even better, that spring, the new AIDS treatments came in and saved his life. He’s a thriving artist today. I believe that his resilience to hold out for his “last show” kept him alive until that Shehecheyanu (blessing that thanks God for a long life) moment.

Here’s another: Our youth branch here in Los Angeles was the first in The Workmen’s Circle to endorse same-gender marriage. There were some who felt this was not an appropriate issue for us, but within a couple of years, it had become our national policy.

Like society in general, Judaism has always responded to changing times. We always need to hear the voice of the “outsider,” the “stranger” and the “other” to advance our sense of righteousness in the world.

Coming out is an ongoing process. As new people come into your life, it matters or it doesn’t that you’re gay, and you have to determine their need to know. At first, my 70- and 80-something doyennes of Yiddish socialism had daughters to fix me up with, but after a few months, that stopped. Funny, though, they never mentioned their gay son or nephew.

The story of my life as a gay man also is a Jewish tale. Today, in the bloom of our GLBT (Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender) movement, we have rabbis and others who hold leadership positions in myriad Jewish communal organizations, who reveal new paradigms of Jewish life. Our homosexuality is simply one more aspect of life to factor in.

With others, it might be their left-handedness, their disability, their shyness, their aptitude, their love for a non-Jew, their political orientation, their crisis of faith. Being gay is qualitatively different, however, because social pressure causes boys and girls, young men and women, to turn against themselves.

What comes up in our play so insistently is that for kids who are genetically wired to turn out gay — and a certain percentage always are — the signs are there early on. Removing shame and disgust from the social equation will make those kids, and all of us, a whole lot happier.

When my sexual thoughts and urgings started, I took note. A few early relationships with women ultimately gave way to the openly gay person I am now, since coming out definitively in 1971. My gayness exerts no less active a presence in my life than the next guy’s heterosexuality, with all his attendant affairs, relationships, marriages, children, divorces, alimonies, moves.

For me, gay liberation came more easily than for some. From my teen years on, I had already defined myself in opposition to the establishment — opposition to Christian hegemony, to banal popular culture, to racism, to war, to imperialism.

Gay oppression was another thing to protest. It became almost a habit. That also partly explains why I felt drawn more to Yiddish than to Hebrew.

Homosexuality is never really a private matter, as some of our liberal and tolerant friends demand. How can it be? The social structures and prejudices that continue to bring misery, depression and worse to our queer sisters and brothers must be changed as part of the work of tikkun olam (healing the world).

I think my gayness has been an asset to my work. I give my time — evenings, weekends, holidays — in ways that I simply would not be able to if I had a family. I love my work, and I know it needs my full dedication.

But mine is a very special marriage of personality to career. I am not suggesting that gay people can therefore be loaded down with extra work assignments.

One Sunday, as I drove to work for an afternoon program, I had this epiphany. Asking myself, “Why am I doing this? No weekends, little time to myself? No fun?” I suddenly realized that being director of the Workmen’s Circle right here, right now, is who I am in this life. It’s what I do. It’s my contribution to the world.

People say the best way to meet someone is just by going about your business, and if it’s beshert (ordained), they’ll turn up. I’m not big on bars and drinking, anyway. So this guy attended a gallery opening recently, and …well, another meise (tale), another time.

That’s part of my story. Come see our show to hear more. Just as importantly, listen to the voices around you.

“Wagging Tales: Stories From the Stonewall Generation” will be performed on May 13 at 8:30 p.m, May 14 at 2:30 p.m. (followed by a meet the cast), May 19 and May 20 at 8:30 p.m. at The Workmen’s Circle, 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. $10-$12.

Israel’s Teens Get Ironic ‘Inheritance’


“Inheriting the Holy Land: An American’s Search for Hope in the Middle East,” by Jennifer Miller (Ballantine Books, 2005).

Amos Oz has explored the subject in novels. Amos Elon has penned essays about it. Politicians as varied as Abba Eban, Mahmoud Abbas, Bill Clinton and even Ariel Sharon have tried to solve it. So, what can a 26-year-old Ivy League graduate add to the long and storied history of the region with the world’s most intractable political problem?

Plenty of inspiration, if we are to judge by Jennifer Miller’s new book, “Inheriting the Holy Land.”

Miller, who will be discussing and signing copies of her book at the Jewish Community Library on May 9, considers herself to be from a privileged background.

She contrasts the “level of seriousness” of the Middle Eastern youth she has met over the years to the relatively carefree existence she had growing up in a tony Washington, D.C., suburb and going to Brown University.

Even if she is to the manor born, Miller has done dogged and intrepid work in reporting on the Middle East through a unique lens — that of a graduate of the Seeds of Peace program, a cultural and political awareness “summer camp” uniting teenage Israelis, Palestinians and other kids from the region.

She exposes the paradoxes of these young adults, the Palestinian boys who criticize the United States, yet wear Coke and American flag shirts and implore her for U.S. visas; the Orthodox Israeli girl, who prays apart from the men in synagogue, yet dresses in a sexy outfit when she is outside; the Israeli army officer sitting next to his ostensible enemy, a Jordanian college student, while drinking tea in Washington.

Not surprisingly, there are parallels to these stories — religious Israeli and Palestinian girls seem to suffer a similar kind of oppression; an Israeli boy decorates his room with weapons (“rusted knives and tarnished bullet belts hang on the walls”), while a Gaza boy tells Miller that he trades bullets as if they were baseball cards.

Miller has subtitled her book, “An American’s Search for Hope in the Middle East,” and indeed she infuses the story with much optimism. But she says over the phone, “I don’t really believe in peace. The word, peace, the notion of peace, it’s an ideal. There’s never going to be harmony.”

Instead of peace, she looks for “pragmatic” steps, a future of cooperation on matters such as the region’s economy.

Her subjects, the Middle Eastern youth, have all lived together for a summer in Maine. While many Israelis in the Seeds program build a strong rapport with Arabs and vice versa, Miller avoids the cliché of suggesting that these relationships will last. She depicts the nascent friendship between Mohammad and Omri, a friendship that breaks off after the summer program ends.

Yet she points out that “it’s not so important whether they stay in touch.”What’s more important is that “they feel empowered for the first time.”

Sometimes, her book seems to reflect too much of a Generation Y mindset — Miller might have varied her metaphors; all of the references to J.R.R. Tolkien, Monty Python and “Star Wars” leave one wondering if today’s youth devote all their leisure time to fantasy epics.

However she spends her leisure time, Miller remains a dedicated journalist, braving trips to the Gaza Strip, where she interviews Palestinian security official Mohammad Dahlan, and almost gets stuck for the night; Ramallah, where she matches wits with and eats fresh vegetables off the finger tips of the late Yasser Arafat; and cafes in Jerusalem that a few days later are targeted by suicide bombers.

If she finds Arafat to be a charming liar, Miller portrays Ehud Barak, the former Israeli Prime Minister who was voted out of office after agreeing to vacate more than 90 percent of the West Bank, as a defiant and somewhat belligerent man. She also visits with the forgotten people, Israeli Arabs, who endure a kind of liminal, inferior status, accepted as neither full-fledged Israelis nor as Palestinians.

Although Miller says over the phone that the “vast majority of the people [in the Middle East] want to be productive citizens,” her book suggests that we can’t forget others like the man from Gaza, who claims to be a Shakespeare scholar yet utters the basest and oldest lies that “Zionists control the mass media all over the world.”

No wonder Miller admits that she used to be “confused” about the Middle East, even though her father was a U.S. State Department negotiator who tried to broker peace agreements between the Israelis and Palestinians at Oslo and Camp David. She decided to write “Inheriting the Holy Land” to make the whole situation “more accessible and engaging” to Americans, whom she views as her audience.

Her next book project, she says, is motivated “by a cross-country motorcycle ride with the Rolling Thunder Vietnam Veterans.”

She chuckles when asked if she is following in the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville, Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson. She says she wants to inspire the same level of civic engagement in young Americans that she saw in Middle Eastern youth.

“Freedom is ubiquitous for us,” she says. “We don’t always appreciate that it’s a scarce resource.”

Jennifer Miller reads and signs “Inheriting the Holy Land” on Tuesday, May 9, at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 761-8644.

 

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 Jewlicious.com, 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.

 

ADL Youth DREAM of Promoting Tolerance


At Claremont High School, there is a boy named Matthew Shepard — the same name as the Wyoming college student killed seven years ago in a brutal anti-gay hate crime. Senior Adam Primack often saw his schoolmate get teased, and he also witnessed students chant homophobic slurs during games against their rival school — an all-boys campus.

Rather than watch silently, however, Primack turned to the skills and insights he’s gained as part of DREAM Dialogue, a multiethnic group of teenagers brought together by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to learn to appreciate and respect people’s differences and to take action to promote tolerance.

DREAM is an acronym for Developing diverse, Respectful relationships, Empathy and Action with Meaning through dialogue. The program is a youth leadership project of the ADL’s World of Difference Institute, run by the ADL’s West Coast office.

About 40 teens take part in quarterly meetings, travel to leadership training retreats and design and execute social action projects to promote tolerance. Students have created a mural; a photo exhibition called, “Faces of L.A.,” and a book to facilitate discussion among elementary school children about bullying called, “What Would You Do?”

When Primack saw the homophobia in his own school, he knew what to do. He got permission from school administrators to show an interactive movie to Shepard’s class called “Hate Comes Home,” produced by ADL. The CD-ROM features a dramatization of events leading up to an anti-gay murder at a high school homecoming dance and asks students to go back and make different choices for the characters to try to prevent what happened.

Primack said the whole classroom became involved in the story, asking questions and making choices that determined whether the student would live or be killed. After that day, the teacher who had not taken steps to stop the students from teasing Claremont High’s Matthew Shepard wrote a letter of apology for being a bystander.

Participants say DREAM Dialogue gives them the strength to break through the isolation they feel in a culture where prejudice often goes unquestioned.

“There are so few people who have these ideas, so to meet them is amazing,” said Shirley Eshaghian, who took part in DREAM Dialogue from 2001 to 2005 and is now a UCLA freshman.

Aside from the local meetings, some students also travel to Washington, D.C., joining up with young people from other ADL chapters, visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and meeting with civil rights activists.

“It’s great to be with kids who are like you, who want to make a difference but wonder how one person can make a difference,” said Talia Savren, who went to the nation’s capital as a DREAM Dialogue member in 2000 and now helps facilitate younger students’ meetings. “There are a lot of young minds open to making the world a better place.”

On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, a group of about 30 participants gathered at the ADL’s local headquarters on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles. During an ice-breaker exercise, students were asked to cluster by race and then by ethnicity. One young woman, a multiracial blend of African American, British and Filipino, called out, “Human race.” All the others joined her.

Jenny Betz, the ADL staffer running the meeting, appeared a little bit exasperated — after all, the exercise was designed to explore self-conceptions about difference — but she was also a little proud.

Betz led a discussion exploring both the useful aspects of categorizing people by race and ethnicity — a way to define identity, heritage and historical connection — and the pitfalls, such as a way to unfairly exercise privilege.

Later in the afternoon, the students and some of their parents watched a one-man, nine-character play that traced the efforts of a Salvadoran American teenager to get a driver’s license. The actor donned different props to depict different characters, including a Polish-accented Statue of Liberty working as a DMV clerk — each conveying their views of immigrants and immigration.

Both before and after the play, a facilitator probed the students’ attitudes toward race and immigration, drawing out family histories of leaving the Ukraine, Eastern Europe, Ireland, Mexico and Iran for the United States. Throughout the day, the students expressed their views forthrightly, uninhibited about stating views that might be unpopular and open to others’ opinions.

The self-knowledge is a crucial pre-requisite to doing the work of spreading tolerance, program alumni say.

“We teach ourselves, then we teach others,” said Neda Farzan, an 18-year-old USC freshman. She was a DREAM Dialogue member four years ago and took part in the “Faces of L.A.” photo project. The images include tattooed white hipsters with guitars, visitors to Olvera Street, merchants in Little Ethiopia, homeless men in Venice and Orthodox children wearing kippot and tzitzit.

Farzan, whose family fled Iran, said DREAM Dialogue has helped her “value our diverse and free society, where people are encouraged to be individuals and cultural identities are preserved.”

“I grew up in Beverly Hills, which is such a bubble,” she said. “If you drive 10 minutes in any direction, you’re in a different world.”

 

Out of My Comfort Zone


Each morning at the Anti-Defamation League’s Grosfeld National Youth Leadership Mission in Washington, D.C., which took place in November, about 20 students crowded into a hotel room for student-led Shacharit, or morning prayers.

What was notable was that many of those students weren’t Jewish. Each student was nominated by their school, and then chosen after writing an essay and being interviewed.

Having never been to a Jewish prayer service before, the non-Jewish students wanted to see what it was like. The tradition fascinated many, and everyone could relate to the singing and dancing.

For me, as a student who grew up going to day schools, this conference with 109 other high school juniors was my first opportunity to interact extensively with non-Jewish students.

I was apprehensive at first. My tendency was to mingle with the other Jews. But this conference was about eliminating discrimination and hate in our schools and communities, and I knew it was necessary to leave my comfort zone to appreciate the diverse backgrounds of the people there. I would soon find out the most rewarding conversations I was to have would be with non-Jews.

When the delegates were broken up into small groups, I had the opportunity to discuss diversity, racism and tolerance with Jews and non-Jews alike. I sometimes discuss issues of hate and racism with my friends at Shalhevet, but generally we all derive our beliefs from Jewish understandings discussed at school. However, brainstorming the topics with non-Jews at the conference threw me into contact with points of view I was not used to.

For example, while they have varying stances on Israeli politics, everyone I have spoken with at Shalhevet is pro-Israel. They believe Israel should exist. Some at the ADL conference, however, disagreed with this viewpoint, and in this regard, I sometimes felt uncomfortable.

In one particular instance, a delegate explained that his sister had lived in Israel for a year and had returned with a predominately pro-Palestinian view of the situation. While I believed his claims were insufficiently supported, I lacked the knowledge to refute his remarks. Still, I was comforted in finding that just because he claimed to be pro-Palestinian did not mean he thought Israel shouldn’t exist.

Speakers brought in by the ADL described how they had made a difference by leading the fight against racism and hate in their communities. Between speakers, including civil rights leader and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), students took part in breakout sessions. There, we discussed how hate can manifest itself, and later on, how to fight it by joining school advocacy groups and lobbying politicians. On the last full day of the conference, we visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which helped to drive home the reality of what can happen when discrimination and racism go unchecked.

Although the programming was inspiring, the greatest highlights were not the planned events. Rather, they were the spontaneous ones created by students, such as the Shacharit services, which I organized, along with Alex, another Shalhevet student, and Justin, a public school student from New Orleans.

At our Shacharit services the first morning, Justin led the prayers with great kavanah (faith). His house had been flooded by Hurricane Katrina, forcing him to live temporarily in Georgia. Still, he plans on returning soon and maintains his tremendous faith in God.

I prayed for a better understanding of the people and points of view I was interacting with. The fact that non-Jews were present helped me realize that even if we had varying political and religious beliefs, we had all come to the conference for the same reason. Additionally, the services allowed me to reconnect with the comfort zone I was used to back home.

A constant battle within traditional Judaism is over the extent to which Jews should interact with the secular world. Every Jew has a personal degree of willingness to explore outside the religion. While we don’t want to assimilate, we must communicate with each other to better interact with our surrounding society.

The ever-growing contingent of non-Jews at our prayer services may not have understood the prayers, but they could relate to the singing and dancing, and the fact that they were experiencing something different. Just as they have explored our culture, we should attempt to explore theirs, while still maintaining our Judaism.

Benjamin Steiner is a junior at Shalhevet, where he serves on the Model UN and writes for The Boiling Point, the school newspaper.

Selling Judaism: Let’s Make It Harder


When it comes to marketing Judaism, especially to young adults, it is hard to imagine a program, innovation and –dare I say it — gimmick that has not been tried. I would like to suggest one.

Let’s make Judaism harder.

Really, I am serious.

This has nothing to do with theology and everything to do with human nature. I think, at least as far as Generation X is concerned, “user friendly” is killing us. From the time our children are small, we teach them that individual growth and accomplishment require consistency, discipline, obligation, resolve, patience and the willingness to experience short-term discomfort in exchange for long-term growth.

There is also another important requirement – sweat. The sweat can be physical, emotional, intellectual and even spiritual, but there has to be some real sweat.

We have taught them that all serious relationships and endeavors require these things. There are no exceptions.

Why should their relationship with Judaism be any different?

Our children have learned the lesson well. They simply do not trust or take seriously that which does not make serious demands on them. They seek serious challenges to define themselves. Yet, the overwhelming majority of our young people see the Judaism being marketed to them as profoundly counter-intuitive and not worthy of their time or their serious involvement.

Don’t ask me to cite statistics. You can come up with your studies. I can come up with mine. I ask you to do your own thinking. Look around your synagogue or temple on a plain vanilla Saturday morning, when there are no single events and no bar or bat mitzvahs being celebrated. How many single people do you see between the ages of 18 and 40?

When young adults want to grow, they seek out teachers and professionals whom they expect will make demands on them. I am talking about personal trainers, psychologists, dieticians, yoga teachers, martial arts instructors, etc.

All these people tell our young people: “You came here to grow, not to be entertained. Expect to sweat. Expect to be challenged. Expect to deal with discomfort and find within yourself the character and determination to work through it. You don’t get to choose the parts of what we do that you like. Suspend your disbelief, at least temporarily, and dive in. If you stick it out, however, you will be transformed.”

Not only are so many young people willing to do these things despite the initial discomfort, they actually welcome the challenge. They know that to be seriously formed, they have to be willing to place themselves between the hammer and the anvil.

With notable exceptions, the only people who resist approaching our youth in this manner are our rabbis. To be fair, our rabbis are constantly being reminded by boards of directors, funding groups and even their own rabbinic organizations not to do anything to make our young people uncomfortable. As a result, our youth seek that legitimate discomfort that is an intrinsic aspect of real growth somewhere else.

Let’s call this marketing model I just described as the “personal growth model.” Some Jewish groups use this model to great effect. Most of these are Orthodox outreach groups but not all.

Although the demographic is a bit younger, Camp Ramah has successfully associated the notion of Jewish practices, Jewish standards and, yes, Jewish discipline with a kind of positive sense of obligation and esprit de corps. In fact, Camp Ramah sells the idea of a structured, disciplined Judaism so well that parents are often surprised when returning children want to keep kosher and observe Shabbat.

Another great success is the day school movement. Day schools are able to create committed Jews, at least in part, because they successfully combine Judaism with discipline and standards of excellence. This results in a student’s relationship with Judaism that emphasizes the intuitive, resulting in legitimate self-esteem earned through serious effort. This relationship between the student and a disciplined Jewish life becomes an intrinsic part of the student’s self definition and continues indefinitely, even when formal education comes to an end.

Yet most Jewish groups and institutions avoid using the personal growth model, which emphasizes discipline and structure, because they believe it will alienate our young adults. (Could they possibly be any more alienated?) Instead, these groups and institutions use what I call “the hobby model.”

They market Judaism with programs that try to tell young Jewish singles that Judaism is entertaining, nonobligating, enjoyable and will never make them uncomfortable. Also, these Gen Xers are told that they don’t have to buy the whole package but, rather, can just choose to do whatever they find appealing.

I am not saying that those who use this marketing approach believe that Judaism is a hobby. I am saying that whether they realize it or not, this is how their selling approach is perceived.

A few months ago, Rabbi David Wolpe was quoted in The New York Jewish Week as having said, “Presenting a Judaism of joy is much more powerful to people than presenting a Judaism of defiant, rear-guard obligation.”

Surely Rabbi Wolpe is correct, but a proactive, disciplined, obligating Judaism through which we receive that unique joy associated with challenging our comfort level is the most powerful model yet. It is the model that resonates with every other important endeavor and relationship we have in our lives.

Seeking joy in a Jewish context, while reducing the importance of obligation, will likely produce nothing more than an epicurean joy at best. In our tradition, as with the modern self-help model, serious joy always comes with a plan and a purpose.

We are, for example, commanded to be joyful on the festivals. Not surprisingly, that plan almost always challenges our comfort level. The psalmist tells us, “Serve God joyfully.” The operative word is “serve.” Joy comes from service.

The other problem is that our idea of what is joyful is constantly changing. Remember the parent, teacher or boss we hated, only to look back on those people years later with the greatest respect, affection and admiration. Finding joy by seeking it or isolating it reminds me of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. By the time we get there, there is already somewhere else.

The best and brightest of our young people are not looking for excuses, shortcuts and obfuscation. They want clarity, a good reason and a plan.

Young people often relate to sports. Sports have rules. In sports, you have a goal. Progress and results are measurable. Mastery and excellence are achievable. Our common-sense experience of life as human beings and as Jews tells us we need to spend less time searching for spirituality and more time working at it.

There is an old expression: “You can like because, but only love in spite of.” When we try to engineer all of the “in spite ofs” out of Judaism, there is nothing left to love.

The week after my son Judah’s bar mitzvah, he began training in the martial arts. He chose to join a particularly difficult Okinawan style known for its tough testing requirements and serious challenges to a student’s mind and body. Promotions through the various colored belt ranks took about twice as long as they did in other schools. Last month he received his black belt the week before his 22nd birthday.

Some years back, in a moment of weakness and false fatherly pride, I reminded him that had he gone to another martial arts school, he would have had his black belt already. He gave me a puzzled look and said, “Dad, it’s not the destination, it’s the road.” His comment made me feel both ashamed and proud at the same time.

In most cases, being involved with those other roads is fine, but as regards a serious, intuitive, principled approach to Jewish life, we have, in large measure, denied our young people the experience of that road.

These wonderful young men and women are willing and able and more than capable of walking this road. It’s time for our rabbis and leaders to show them how to find it.

Rafael Guber is a professional genealogist, curator and author who divides his time between New York and Los Angeles. He is a featured expert on the PBS series “Ancestors” and co-creator of “Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves” at the Museum of Tolerance.

 

Where the Boys Aren’t


The Chanukah party for Adat Ari El’s junior United Synagogue Youth group had all the elements the seventh- and eighth-grade members had requested: latkes, a gift exchange and a fierce board game competition. Yet, said, Julee Snitzer, the synagogue’s youth activities director, of the 13 who participated — only two were male.

Her experience is not unusual. Many of the informal Jewish education activities geared to teens in the greater Los Angeles area — such as camps, synagogue youth groups, school clubs and Jewish community centers — draw more girls than boys. The ratio in formal Jewish activities, such as Jewish high school and religious school, appears to be more gender balanced.

“Looking at what’s happening locally and nationally, we’ve found that fewer teen boys enroll in informal Jewish activities than they did in previous years,” said Lori Harrison Port, senior associate director for planning and allocations at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

A survey done by her department showed that informal Jewish education programs generally attract 60 percent girls and 40 percent boys. The lack of participation among boys could lead to a weakening of their Jewish affiliation over time, some fear.

A special report analyzing results from the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-01 indicates that participation in camping and youth groups may impact Jewish identity as much as or more than attending up to six years of supplementary religious school. The impact is directly linked to the length of involvement in those youth-oriented activities.

Last fall, The Federation and the Bureau of Jewish Education hosted a conference for Jewish youth professionals to explore the issue and generate ideas for cultivating greater male involvement in informal Jewish activities. Held at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, the program was an outgrowth of the bureau’s Youth Professional Advisory Council, which facilitates sharing of ideas and resources for those serving Jewish teens.

Keynote speaker Bob Ditter, a Boston-based psychotherapist who consults nationally with camps and other youth-targeted agencies, shared insights about boys’ development and led attendees in discussing how to design their programming and marketing to attract boys.

“The central [element] in boys’ development is task and action. Boys want to feel that they’re good at something,” Ditter said. “Boys develop friendships through the stuff they do. Girls develop friendships and then go do stuff.”

Ditter said that boys engage in activities — such as tossing a ball or comparing video games — as a way to connect. He suggested that youth group leaders and counselors allow boys to do an activity first before expecting them to sit and talk.

He also urged group leaders to recognize that boys initiate connection through a challenge or dare. For example, Ditter witnessed a teen participant make a sarcastic comment to his counselor at a camp’s opening campfire. Rather than feeling threatened or insulted by such remarks, leaders “need to hear the invitation [to engage] rather than the challenge” he said.

“It’s a myth that adolescents distrust or don’t respect adults,” he added. “They’re hungry for meaningful connections to adults they respect and feel respected by.”

The group also discussed the underlying pressures that children of all ages face to compete and excel, whether that means getting into the right preschool or taking the most Advanced Placement courses.

“At social events, they just want to hang out,” Ditter said. “They need to depressurize.”

Looking at how these factors might affect marketing to teen boys, the conference participants agreed that programs — and their promotional materials — must reflect teens’ reality and clearly state the benefits of participation, such as providing community service hours or leadership opportunities.

Ellie Klein, Wilshire Boulevard Temple youth director, noted that many students are attracted to participate in the synagogue’s Wednesday night program, which consists of dinner, a recreational elective and a Jewish-themed seminar, because there is excellent tutoring available through the program’s supervised study room.

Wilshire Boulevard bucks the norm by attracting more boys than girls at its programs. Klein said she’s baffled by the male-to-female ratio, although it helps that eight of her 11 staff members are men and one of the synagogue’s rabbis, Dennis Eisner, is popular with the youngsters and actively recruits participants.

“I’m not selling basketball,” she said. “I’m selling community and connection.”

Temple Sinai’s Sinai High, an educational program for eighth through 12th-graders that draws from the synagogue’s religious school graduates, also boasts a good ratio between boys and girls. Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei, who oversees youth programs, said programming is specifically geared to attract boys. As an example, he noted a popular series of classes that examined Jewish values as evidenced in “The Simpsons.”

Schuldenfrei said the trend of females outnumbering males is not limited to the teen realm. Sinai’s ATID group for young professionals in their 20s and 30s struggles to attract a male audience. For Sukkot, ATID held a Sukkah Sports Night, offering a televised game and beer, as well as a holiday teaching under the sukkah, and was rewarded with more male participants than normal. Schuldenfrei said that programming “needs to speak to males, as well as females.”

This advice may apply throughout the age spectrum. “In liberal communities,” said Rabbi Karen Fox of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, “60 percent to 70 percent of people participating in adult education are women.”