February 28, 2020

B’nai Horin Celebrates 50 Years

The second night of Passover was particularly special this year for members of B’nai Horin (Children of Freedom), who gathered for a seder that celebrated their community’s 50th anniversary.

Held at the Olympic Collection in West Los Angeles, the March 31 event featured live music and a presentation that compared biblical and current events: Moses protesting to Pharaoh about the “police brutality against the Hebrews,” the 16 Palestinians killed by Israeli troops at a protest on the Gaza Strip border, and African American Stephon Clark shot eight times in the back by Sacramento police.

During the seder, B’nai Horin founder and civil rights attorney Rabbi Stan Levy said many of the issues addressed when the community first met in 1968 remain today. “Nothing much has changed,” he said.

The hagaddah he created this year focused on refugees. “Our ancestors were impoverished, persecuted Syrian refugees,” Levy said. “The word ‘Hebrew’ means ‘nomad.’ And the Torah has more laws protecting the rights of immigrants and refugees than any other system of law.”

B’nai Horin got its start when “a dozen attorneys, social workers and others involved in the civil rights movement gathered in the basement of Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles to hold [that first] seder,” B’nai Horin’s co-Rabbi Laura Owens told the Journal. “They examined civil rights issues of the day through the lens of Passover.

Rabbi Stan Levy.

“The seder proved so impactful,” Owens said, “that those involved felt that it shouldn’t be a one-time thing. They started gathering for holidays and learning, sharing and growing, and invited others.”

Eventually, they decided to keep the energy and ideas flowing by forming a congregation consisting of like-minded individuals.

“The Torah has more laws protecting the rights of immigrants and refugees than any other system of law.” — Rabbi Stan Levy

And much like the Jews who wandered in the desert for 40 years following the Exodus, B’nai Horin has moved throughout Los Angeles, without a permanent physical space to call home.

During its first 25 years, services were held at The House of the Book at Brandeis-Bardin in Simi Valley.

“It was one of the original synagogues without walls,” Owens said. “The notion being that we are wandering Jews, we are nomads, we make our home where we can.”

It’s also why B’nai Horin doesn’t have a board of directors or mandatory dues. All contributions are on a “can do” basis. B’nai mitzvot have been held at the Riddick Youth Center in Rancho Park since the early 2000s, and Shabbat services have been held there for the last two years. Prior to that, Shabbat services were held in members’ homes, while High Holy Days services have been held in the sanctuary at American Jewish University and at other locations.

B’nai Horin, is a member of ALEPH (the Alliance of Jewish Renewal), and its services are somewhat eclectic, combining “the socially progressive values of egalitarianism, the joy of Hasidism, [and] the informed do-it-yourself spirit of the havurah,” according to its website. Or, as Owens explains it: “In many congregations, they do the Hebrew first, then the English. We like to do the English first, so that when they get to the prayer, they know what it is and what they’re going for.”

It’s difficult to pin down how many members B’nai Horin has, Owens said, because, “We don’t make anyone join; we’re more invitational and welcoming.”

At this year’s seder, one of its longtime members, 77-year-old Holocaust survivor Eva Nathanson, spoke movingly about surviving World War II.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, she was barely 4 years old when her parents tried to shield her from what was happening. Cutting out yellow “Juden” stars, she was told it was an “art project.” Her family being pushed into trucks bound for concentration camps was merely “playing hide and seek.”

Nathanson spent 2½ years hidden under a hole cut in a living room floor and was moved to multiple hiding places throughout the war. She was eventually discovered and taken to the Danube River with other Jews, where she witnessed people pleading for their lives, tied two-by-two, being shot and pushed into the river.  Miraculously, she survived but lost almost all of her family in the Holocaust.

Eva Nathanson. Photo from http://survivingtheholocaust.us/.

She left Hungary in 1956 following the revolution and settled with what was left of her family in Los Angeles in 1957. She went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in business psychology and an MBA in organizational management and human resource management. Today, she is a mother and grandmother and a cancer care worker at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Owens credited Rabbi Levy with the strength and depth of the B’Nai Horin community that has drawn Nathanson and other members.

“He excels at making Judaism deeply meaningful,” she said, “helping so many to view the teachings of the Torah as being directed personally to them.”

Mark Miller is a humorist who has performed stand-up comedy on TV and written for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and various sitcoms. His first book, a collection of humor essays on dating and romance, is “500 Dates: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Online Dating Wars.”