June 26, 2019

Rabbi Sherre Hirsch: AJU’s New Chief Innovation Officer

Rabbi Sherre Hirsch; Photo courtesy of AJU.

It seems there is nothing Rabbi Sherre Hirsch can’t do when it comes to shaping the Jewish community. She was a pulpit rabbi at Sinai Temple, is a published author, a leading public intellectual and, as Hillel International’s senior rabbinical scholar, has made the wellness of college students a priority.

On Aug. 1, Hirsch will take on the role of chief innovation officer at American Jewish University (AJU). She has been tasked with reimagining Jewish education, outreach and engagement for AJU’s two campuses, rabbinical school, and community and public educational programs. She also will provide leadership for AJU’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education, which offers classes, lectures, author events and concerts.

In an interview with the Journal, Hirsch said the AJU offer simply was one she couldn’t pass up.

“There is so much potential and so much possibility, and I really just thought there was something magical that could happen,” she said. “I first told [AJU] no, because I was so happy with Hillel and we were developing HillelWell (Hillel’s initiative to educate and normalize mental health in and around the Jewish community), but [the AJU offer] just kept me up at night.”

Hirsch said she is ready to start thinking about how to put AJU on the map not just as a religious institution but also as an academic institution, and to find new ways to approach college and programming. 

“We are thrilled to bring Rabbi Hirsch onto our senior leadership team to help drive AJU’s development of a new paradigm for education that meets the needs of our rapidly evolving community in Los Angeles and beyond,” AJU President Jeffrey Herbst said in a statement. “At a time when people are increasingly searching for spirituality and educational options beyond traditional institutions, AJU is uniquely positioned to deliver a new model for programming that engages and enlightens communities locally, nationally and globally — both inside and outside of the Jewish world. Rabbi Hirsch’s extraordinary experience, wisdom and insight will be invaluable in developing this new model.”

“I think the first thing I’m going to do is listen and understand how we can take [AJU’s] history and move it to modern things. I want to understand literally the holiness of this place.” — Rabbi Sherre Hirsch

Hirsch’s expertise spans more three decades. She told the Journal her first 10 years were working as a pulpit rabbi, her second 10 years consisted of bringing the Jewish perspective into media and television, and her next 10 years will be in organizational leadership. 

“I think the first thing I’m going to do is listen and understand how we can take [AJU’s] history and move it to modern things,” she said. “I want to understand literally the holiness of this place. I want to see where the need is. I want to really look at problems and possibilities and fill them.”

Hirsch added she is excited to change the way people look at education and find new ways to collaborate with entrepreneurs in Silicon Beach.

“I think we can be something at the forefront and we can be leaders for other institutions,” she said. “I‘m really looking forward to understanding what we can bring in for the next generation — really [striving] to help develop young people into the Jews we want them to be, serving the next Jewish world.”

Rabbi Sherre Hirsch Becomes American Jewish University’s Chief Innovation Officer

American Jewish University (AJU) announced on June 4 that former Sinai Temple Rabbi Sherre Hirsch will become its new chief innovation officer.

Hirsch is tasked with reimagining Jewish education, outreach and engagement for AJU’s two campuses, rabbinical school, and community and public educational programs. She will also provide leadership for AJU’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education, which offers classes, lectures, author events and concerts.

“We are thrilled to bring Rabbi Hirsch onto our senior leadership team to help drive AJU’s development of a new paradigm for education that meets the needs of our rapidly evolving community in Los Angeles and beyond,” Dr. Jeffrey Herbst, president of American Jewish University, said in a statement. “At a time when people are increasingly searching for spirituality and educational options beyond traditional institutions, AJU is uniquely positioned to deliver a new model for programming that engages and enlightens communities locally, nationally, and globally – both inside and outside of the Jewish world. Rabbi Hirsch’s extraordinary experience, wisdom, and insight will be invaluable in developing this new model.”

Rabbi Sherre Hirsch; Photo courtesy of AJU

Hirsch brings an assortment of experience to AJU as a pulpit rabbi, a senior executive at national Jewish institutions, a published author, and a leading public intellectual who has provided commentary on spirituality and religion on national media platforms. As senior rabbinic scholar at Hillel International, Hirsch created and developed Hillelwell, an initiative for Hillels worldwide to educate and normalize mental health in and around the Jewish community.

“I am honored to return to my alma mater, American Jewish University, as it charts an exciting new course to tackle the greatest challenges facing the Jewish community and the world,” Hirsch said in a statement. “My career has been focused around cultivating disruptive innovation that can advance the great project of Jewish peoplehood. I look forward to continuing this work at AJU, where there is a unique opportunity to leverage Jewish innovation and values to empower Jews and non-Jews alike.”

Three Rabbis Discuss Politics on the Pulpit

IKAR’s Rabbi Sharon Brous, Young Israel of Century City’s Rabbi Elazar Muskin and Temple Israel of Hollywood’s Rabbi John Rosove.

Should rabbis wade into the political fray with their congregants?

That was the burning question at an April 10 forum at the American Jewish University (AJU) titled, “Politics on the Pulpit: Is There A Line and Where Do You Draw It?” 

The event was put on by Community Advocates, Inc.(CAI) and Jews United for Democracy and Justice (JUDJ). This event, co-presented by AJU was the 8th in the Community Conversations Series jointly founded by CAI and JUDJ.

Close to 400 people attended the event to hear IKAR’s Rabbi Sharon Brous, Young Israel of Century City’s Rabbi Elazar Muskin and Temple Israel of Hollywood’s Rabbi John Rosove.

Despite the fact that they spanned the political spectrum, with Muskin and Rosove taking the center-right and -left, respectively, and Brous representing the progressive viewpoint, the conversation — moderated by AJU’s Rabbi Elliot Dorff — remained civil. The rabbis also found much to agree on. They agreed on so much, at one point Muskin joked, “I thought we were going to argue.”

Which is not to say there weren’t points of dissension. Muskin was adamant that politics has no place on the pulpit, insisting that the bimah was “sacrosanct.” If you want to know his political opinion, he said, come to his study. The law, he said, teaches that scholars should “increase the peace, not preach positions that would divide.” 

Brous noted, “progressive rabbis talk a lot to progressive rabbis and Orthodox rabbis talk to Orthodox rabbis and rarely do the two meet.” She said she was glad to have a chance to change that. Her job, she said, is “not to unify [my community] but to teach them to love each other and sometimes, when we love each other, we disagree, fiercely, about important matters.”  

At IKAR, she continued, “We teach Torah. And we talk about core Jewish values of human dignity … particularly when the world’s on fire. We treat each other with love, with patience, with kindness and compassion — even more so than before. As the world gets crueler and uglier, it’s up to us to be even kinder and even more decent and more truthful.” 

Rosove said it is important to make a distinction between politics and partisanship. “[At Temple Israel] we don’t invite candidates to speak on the pulpit unless they’re in debate. The synagogue is not the place for that.” 

Quoting Rabbi Jill Jacobs (executive director of T’ruah, a rabbinical group focused on human rights), Rosove added, “The Torah is political because it lays out a vision for a just, civil society. … It is political because a liberation struggle stands at its core. It is political because it demands that those with more wealth take responsibility for those with less. It is political because it forbids those with more power from taking advantage of those with less.” 

“Immigration is not only an American issue, but a Jewish issue and it belongs everywhere. It belongs on the pulpit; it belongs in the beit midrash. It is a moral issue.” 

— Rabbi John Rosove 

On three issues, the rabbis were all more or less in agreement: education, Israel and immigration. 

They all said they believe that government should stay out of funding private schools. “I want my children to be educated Judaically,” Muskin said, “but that’s my pocketbook.” Brous, whose three children attend day schools, said she and her husband wrestled with the choice, in part because day school gives children a stilted view of the world and also because private religious education proliferated in America in response to Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that ended racial segregation in schools. 

“Religious Jews have always sought out ways to provide religious, private education for their children,” Brous said, “but most private schools are built on a foundation of white supremacy.  That’s really a part of this conversation we can’t ignore.”

On the issue of Israel, Rosove said, “Israel has to remain democratic, pluralistic and Jewish.” The only way that can happen, he added, is through a two-state solution, but he was worried that the possibility might be slipping away. 

Brous said she is “aching for the State of Israel, which was built on such profound aspirations,” but worried that Israel is “essentially at war with itself.” She said she does not believe that Israel’s safety and security should keep it from “affirming and honoring the dignity of every single person” who lives there and in the Palestinian territories.  

Muskin said he will “never apologize for talking about Israel,” noting that it is the only country in the region with free, democratic elections and “we should all take pride in that.” 

On immigration, Rosove quoted Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” poem mounted on the inside of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” “This is a value we need to teach our children,” Rosove said. “It’s not only an American issue, but a Jewish issue and it belongs everywhere. It belongs on the pulpit; it belongs in the beit midrash. It is a moral issue.” 

Muskin said he feels sympathy for new immigrants, but the issue is illegality. “You can’t violate the law,” he said.

 Brous responded, saying it’s hard to legally emigrate from Central America and cited the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. “They had a land where the streets were paved with gold and they did not want to share it,” Brous said. “Any visitor that would come into their land would be subjected to incredible acts of cruelty to deter them from crossing the border.” She wondered how anyone could read that story and “not think it applies to what’s happening right now.” 

An audience member yelled out, “Are you running for office? Stick to the subject.” Brous responded, “We can’t shy away from discussing the issues.” The two other rabbis came to her defense, with Muskin saying, “Peace doesn’t mean uniformity. The debate has to be there.”

What’s Happening: ‘30 Strangers,’ Love Shabbat, YULA’s ‘Orphans’


“Dinner for 30 Strangers”
Join the Chai Center for “Dinner for 30 Strangers,” a four-course Shabbat meal in an elegant setting, with an opportunity to meet and connect religiously with Jewish singles ages 21–39. Rabbi Mendel Schwartz and his rebbetzin, Esther, host the evening in their Hancock Park home. Between courses, they entertain and teach while introducing Chassidic melodies, followed by rounds of “Stump the Rabbi and the Rebbetzin.” 7–10:30 p.m. Free. $100 sponsorship. RSVP required. Address provided upon RSVP. If sold out, email adrianne@chaicenter.org to be placed on a waiting list.  

“Let My People Come”
Enjoy food and storytelling and explore the Passover themes of redemption and freedom at the Skirball Cultural Center in partnership with Miry’s List. Rabbi Sarah Bassin begins the “Let My People Come” evening, defining the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger, in particular, today’s refugees. Guests are served a Syrian dinner prepared by a recently arrived refugee family while KCRW host Evan Kleiman moderates a discussion with chefs about their escapes from danger. 6:30 p.m. $45 members, $55 general admission, $90 host. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd. (310) 440-4500.  

“Shabbat in the Park”
Families with children ages 6 and younger are invited to attend Sinai Temple’s “Shabbat in the Park,” offering a breezy and fun introduction to Shabbat. Music, play areas and the open spaces of Holmby Park highlight the Friday evening gathering. Families are encouraged to bring their own dairy picnic dinner. 5:45–7:15 p.m. Free. Holmby Park, 601 Club View Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 474-1518.

Adam Milstein
Israeli-American philanthropist and community leader Adam Milstein addresses the Republican Jewish Alliance’s San Fernando Valley chapter about the hate threatening American Jews today. Milstein, a native of Haifa, Israel, and chair of the Israeli-American Council, argues that anti-Zionism is anti-American. Buffet lunch served. Noon–1:30 p.m. $30 members, $40 general, $45 at the door. Credit card or check only. Braemar Country Club, 4001 Reseda Blvd., Tarzana. 

“Friday Night Unplugged”
Rabbi Mendel Simons and an acapella group offer a Friday night experience for Jewish professionals ages 21–39 at Beverly Hills Synagogue. The evening opens with a scotch-and-sushi cocktail hour and includes a mindful, musical and meditative Kabbalat Shabbat. Evening attire. 6–9 p.m. 6:30 p.m., bar opens. $15. Beverly Hills Synagogue, 9261 Alden Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 692-4190.

“Love Shabbat”
Celebrate the most important person in your life in a quiet setting during “Love Shabbat Unplugged,” featuring the soft string melodies by the JAC Trio and readings of memorable love poetry. Participants also may wish to receive a special anniversary blessing. 8–9:30 p.m. Free. Temple Emanuel, Corwin Family Sanctuary, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. (310) 288-3737.

Laurie Levenson

Jewish Legal Opinions
Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson appears as the Shabbat scholar-in-residence for three days at Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge. A 30-year member of the Loyola faculty, Levenson specializes in ethical advocacy and is often quoted by news media for her legal insights. Levenson’s topics are “Seeing the American Media Through Jewish Eyes,” “Seeing the American Legal System Through Jewish Eyes” and “Jewish Identity and the Separation of Church and State.” Friday, 6 p.m. Shabbat services and 7:15 p.m. dinner, with Levenson’s presentation to follow. 9 a.m. Shabbat morning service, with Levenson speaking at lunch. 9 a.m. Sunday breakfast with Levenson to follow. $15 Shabbat dinner, free Shabbat lunch but reservations recommended, $8 Sunday breakfast. Temple Ramat Zion, 17655 Devonshire St., Northridge. (818) 360-1881.


Bob Woodward

Bob Woodward at AJU
Nearly a half-century after his investigations into the Watergate scandal made him a celebrity journalist, Bob Woodward, associate editor at The Washington Post, sits for a conversation with Jeffrey Herbst, president of American Jewish University. They talk about the inner workings of government and the media, and the role of leadership. Woodward has won or shared two Pulitzer Prizes, starting with his coverage of Watergate, and 13 of the 19 books he has written or co-authored have been #1 best-sellers. 9:30 a.m. Tickets $55 and $75. A VIP breakfast with Woodward at 8:30 a.m. is $150. American Jewish University, Gindi Auditorium, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 440-1572.

Mark Schiff
A funny thing happens to comedian Mark Schiff on his way to Temple Ner Simcha, which he talks about when he headlines “The Simcha Series: A Celebration of Jewish Arts.” 7–8:30 p.m. Free. Temple Ner Simcha, 880 Hampshire Road, Westlake Village. (818) 851-0030.

Camp Alonim Open House
Two months before the end of the school year, Camp Alonim and Gan Alonim hold an open house followed by a campuswide “Sunday in the Park” event, featuring horseback riding, archery and arts and crafts. Kosher food for sale. Noon–4 p.m. Camp Alonim tours, 12:15 p.m., 12:45 p.m., 1:15 p.m. and 1:45 p.m. Gan Alonim tours, 12:15 p.m., 1 p.m. and 1:45 p.m. Brandeis-Bardin Campus of American Jewish University, 1101 Peppertree Lane, Simi Valley. (877) 225-6646.

“Walk to End Genocide”
Jewish World Watch’s seventh annual “Conejo Valley Walk to End Genocide,” a 5K walk and rally, assembles at Temple Etz Chaim. Catering to children as well as adults, the event offers a Red Hands Campaign, arts and crafts, and a free hate-speech workshop, while drawing attention to specific violent areas around the world. 12:30–2:30 p.m. $30, ages 23-and-older; $18, ages 5–22; free for children ages 4 and younger. Temple Etz Chaim, 1080 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks. Jewish World Watch: (818) 501-1836.


Adam Milstein

Milstein and Berenbaum
Israeli-American leader Adam Milstein argues “Anti-Semitism Is Not Only a Jewish Problem — It’s An American One, Too: Discussing Unique Strategies to Fight Back,” with Michael Berenbaum, director of American Jewish University’s Sigi Ziering Institute. 7:30 p.m. $10. American Jewish University Familian Campus, Gindi Auditorium, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310)  440-1572.


“Politics on the Pulpit”
Three prominent rabbis debate their distinct views during “Politics on the Pulpit.” Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of American Jewish University and a professor of philosophy at AJU’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, moderates a panel featuring IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous, Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City and Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood. They examine the role of the rabbi in discussing headline-making issues that may have profound moral implications. 7:30 p.m. $10. American Jewish University, Gindi Auditorium, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 440-1572.

Chief Rabbi of Uganda
Chief Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, leader of the Abayudaya (People of Judah) community, an estimated 1,500 Jews in Uganda, talks about how interfaith initiatives have improved the lives of Jews and non-Jews alike, brought a measure of peace, and tamped down anti-Semitism. Sizomu received ordination from American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 2008. After his lecture, he delivers a musical performance. 7 p.m. Free. Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd. (310) 652-7353. RSVP at lmandelbaum@tbalaorg.


‘Orphans’ at Yula
“Orphans,” a play about two adult brothers who are orphaned during childhood and pursue lives of crime, opens at YULA Boys High School for three performances. Written by Lyle Kessler, “Orphans” debuted in 1983 and was praised by the Los Angeles Times for conveying the message that “we all need each other.” April 11: 7:30 p.m. April 14: 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets $10–$180.  YULA Boys High School, 9760 Pico Blvd. (310) 203-3180. .

Threats to the Future of Judaism
David Suissa, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal, discusses “What Is the Biggest Threat to the Future of Judaism?” at an event organized by The Executives of the Los Angeles Jewish Home. 7 p.m., wine and dessert reception. 7:30 p.m. program. Members $25 pre-registered, $30 at the door. General admission, $30 pre-registered, $35 at the door. El Caballero Country Club, 18300 Tarzana Drive, Tarzana. (818) 774-3332.

Have an event coming up? Send your information two weeks prior to the event to ryant@jewishjournal.com for consideration. For groups staging an event that requires an RSVP, please submit details about the event the week before the RSVP deadline.

Screening at AJU, Foodies, Grief and Loss Event

From left: Miriam Prum Hess, Nancy Spielberg, Roberta Grossman, Caroline Cohen, Michael Berenbaum, Laura-Beth Sholkoff, Stephen Sass and Gil Graff attended a special screening of Holocaust documentary “Who Will Write our History” at American Jewish University. Photo courtesy of American Jewish University

Nearly 400 people gathered in the Gindi Auditorium at American Jewish University (AJU) on March 24 for the screening and discussion of the documentary film “Who Will Write Our History.” 

The 2018 documentary from director Roberta Grossman tells the story of how, in November 1940, days after the Nazis sealed 450,000 Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, a secret group led by historian Emanuel Ringelblum and known by the code name Oyneg Shabes vowed to defeat Nazi lies and propaganda with pen and paper. They risked everything so that their archive would survive, even if they did not. 

In her introduction for the program, Laura-Beth Sholkoff, interim director at the Whizin Center for Continuing Education at American Jewish University, said that as the daughter of a child survivor of the Holocaust and the mother of a past March of the Living participant, it was especially moving for her to participate in the evening.

The post-screening discussion included Grossman, who also wrote and produced the film; its executive producer Nancy Spielberg; and Michael Berenbaum, an AJU professor of Jewish studies and director of AJU’s Sigi Ziering Institute.

AJU partnered with Builders of Jewish Education and the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California to host the event.

From left: Author Amelia Saltsman (“The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen”), author Beth Ricanati (“Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challahs”) and chef and restaurateur Susan Feniger before their panel, “Jewish Women Foodies: Tradition & Innovation,” on March 10. Photo courtesy of Jewish Women’s Theatre

The “Jewish Women Foodies: Tradition & Innovation” program on March 10, organized by The Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT) group, drew a strong turnout that filled the room at The Braid in Santa Monica. The mid-morning event treated attendees to a light brunch, after which there was plenty of food for thought. 

Beth Ricanati, author of “Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challahs,” kicked off the program with a challah-making demonstration. As she combined ingredients, Ricanati shared her story as well as what she learned when she started baking challah every week. Challah-baking, she said, taught her the power of ritual, community and food as medicine.

After Ricanati’s demonstration, she was joined on stage by cookbook authors Amelia Saltsman (“The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen”) and chef and restaurateur Susan Feniger of Border Grill to share their connections with and love of food. Among the topics, Saltsman talked about shopping for and cooking with locally grown produce, and Feniger shared her journey from chef to restaurateur. JWT advisory council member Maureen Rubin moderated the panel. 

“We are thrilled that so many of our members of our JWT community are attending our ‘Sunday Morning at the Braid’ events,” Rubin said in an interview. “Our panelists for Jewish Women Foodies cooked up some real treats for our audience and [their] backstories [were] entertaining and inspirational.”
— Debra Eckerling, Contributing Writer

At a benefit for Temple Israel of Hollywood, writer and composer Ryan Langer performed his “mourning songs,” 15-second original tunes he posted daily for a year on Instagram after the murder of his father.
Photo by Ella Hovsepian

About 100 people gathered in the backyard of a private home in Hancock Park on March 27 for an evening of storytelling on the topic of loss. The event, a benefit for Temple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH), featured stories and music on the subject by writers and actors.

The event was co-hosted by Jessica Queller, author of the loss memoir “Pretty Is What Changes” and executive producer of the TV series “Supergirl,” and Gabrielle Birkner, co-author of “Modern Loss.”

Actors Kate Burton (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal”), Willie Garson (“Hawaii Five-O,” “White Collar,” “Sex and the City”), actor-singer-writer Daniel Beaty, actor-writer Jon Sklaroff, writer-director David Bar Katz, writer-producer Emily Ziff Griffin and writer-comedian Dani Klein Modisett shared personal stories of loss. 

Writer and composer Ryan Langer performed a few of his “mourning songs,” 15-second original tunes he posted daily for a year on his Instagram account after the murder of his father. 

“Every morning,” Langer said, “I would get up, down some coffee, head to the baby grand in the living room, pull out a Post-it note, and crack my knuckles to create a 15-second song about whatever was on my mind,” Langer told the attendees. “It was a way to stay creative and ‘take time for myself,’ as all the books and professionals advised.”

Langer noted that others expected a year to be enough time for him to move on. “But nothing special happens between day 365 and 366,” he said. “In Year One, there are a lot of grief-related logistics. In Year Two, there’s a lot of … grief, and without the cushions that were set up for you that first year.”

Birkner, the author and co-host, said: “There’s power in people sharing their loss stories — in ways that are candid and vulnerable and aren’t afraid to incorporate humor — and there’s power in bearing witness to those stories. Grief is something that every human has experienced or will experience, but it can still feel like such a lonely road. Talking about it openly helps. It connects us to one another. It builds community.”

TIOH Rabbi Jocee Hudson added: “It is clear that folks are looking for opportunities to share and connect around experiences of loss and grief. We believe that experiences like this can be fostered in a warm, communal environment filled with storytelling, good food, laughter and tears.”
— Esther D. Kustanowitz, Contributing Writer

From left: Beit T’Shuvah’s Rueben S., Susan Krevoy, Barbara Tell and Pat Gage ran for recovery during the recent L.A. Marathon. Photo courtesy of Beit T’Shuvah

Beit T’Shuvah’s Running 4 Recovery team took to the streets on March 24 as a featured charity in the Los Angeles Marathon. More than 24,000 people participated in the iconic 26.2-mile race, which began at Dodger Stadium and ended near the Santa Monica Pier. 

“[The marathon] is the ultimate community builder, and the Beit T’Shuvah community was out in full force to cheer on the runners as they made their way ‘from the stadium to the sea,’ ” a Beit T’Shuvah statement said.

The Beit T’Shuvah team had 51 members, including 36 residents and 15 community partners comprised of staff, board members and friends, including Pat Gage, a former Beit T’Shuvah board member and longtime supporter.

“One day at a time, one step at a time; goals can be reached, whether it’s a marathon or recovery,” Gage said. “We are all in it together.”

The Running 4 Recovery team raised $116,000 and received donations from approximately 1,500 people. The funds raised from the marathon will help Beit T’Shuvah’s recovery program and provide scholarship support for the program’s residents who need financial assistance to subsidize their treatment.

Students from Pressman Academy and IsIah Academy joining together for a day of learning and fun. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Chaim Tureff

About 100 students from Pressman Academy and IsIah Academy participated in a day of activities to build bridges between Muslims and Jews. 

The jam-packed day of activities March 28 kicked off with a praying circle leading to baking bread, participating in the ancient ritual of council and learning about the partnership between Muslims and Jews in Morocco during the Holocaust. 

The students also got to play games together and write a song with Jewish indie pop band Distant Cousins that they then performed at the end of the day. Rabbi Chaim Tureff of Pressman Academy said, “it was a truly memorable day.”

Want to be in Movers & Shakers? Send us your highlights, events, honors and simchas. Email ryant@jewishjournal.com.

Jewish, Christian and Muslim Panelists Discuss the Role of Religion in American Politics

From left: Reinhard Krauss, Rabbi Adam Greenwald, Rev. Jonathan Chute and Aziza Hasan discussed religion and politics at American Jewish University. Photo by Laura-Beth Sholkoff, American Jewish University's Whizin Center for Continuing Education

“We are here to learn something about the distinctive insights and perhaps the helpful wisdom that Judaism, Christianity and Islam can bring to this crucial conversation of religion and politics based on the long history of each of these religious traditions.”

This is how Reinhard Krauss, executive director of the Academy for Judaic, Christian and Islamic Studies, introduced a panel discussion on March 27 held at the American Jewish University campus.

The event was part of the speaker series, “Let’s Talk About Religion,” which features interreligious conversations that highlight the similarities and differences between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Krauss served as the moderator on a panel titled “God in the Voting Booth? The Role of Religion in American Politics.” The event drew around 40 people and the panel featured Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of AJU’s Miller Introduction to Judaism Program; Jonathan Chute, senior pastor at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church and Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. 

 Hasan said religion and politics have always intermingled, noting how America’s first president, George Washington, addressed a synagogue about religious freedom and how former Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) was sworn in to the U.S. House on Thomas Jefferson’s Koran.

Greenwald said the sacred texts of the three monotheistic faiths do not prescribe policy positions. “So I believe one can be motivated by good religion and be a Democrat and one can be motivated by good religion and be a Republican,” he said. “The question is, are they both responding to the call of religion to be aware of the social ills?”

While religion has been used as a tool to oppress, Chute said the most sustainable religions are those that ask people to look inward. 

“I believe one can be motivated by good religion and be a Democrat and one can be motivated by good religion and be a Republican. The question is, are they both responding to the call of religion to be aware of the social ills?” — Rabbi Adam Greenwald

“I tend to feel that a healthy religious impulse is one that is more critical and actually more specifically self-critical and one of the differences between what I think of as a healthy religious expression and something that is more reflective of a cult is its capacity for self-criticism,” Chute said. 

Each speaker spoke about the importance of people of various political beliefs listening to one another. Hassan said she was struck by a recent article in USA Today that said an increasing amount of people feel like their way of life is being threatened by America becoming more diverse.

“If people are feeling like their values, their way of life is going to be threatened because minorities are taking over, we better start listening really quickly,” she said. 

She added she was heartened that following the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, people of diverse political beliefs came together for a vigil at the Federal Building in Westwood.“We all got to grieve that night,” she said.

Similarly, Greenwald said that the same groups that turned out to support each other after the Tree of Life shooting came out to express solidarity following the recent shootings at the mosques in New Zealand.

Greenwald connected ideas about religion and civic life to the Passover story, including how Egypt is a place of constriction. The journey to the Promised Land is a “tough one and the only way to make it is together,” he said.

Chute spoke about the Johnson Amendment, a provision in the U.S. tax code that prohibits nonprofit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. 

“I’m comfortable working not to violate that,” he said.

While Greenwald said it is inappropriate for a rabbi to advise others on how to vote, he is comfortable sharing his opinions on the issues of the day. He added it is natural for elected officials to share how their religious beliefs inform their political positions, noting religion is how they bring their “full selves” to their work.

While the speakers said religion is a force for good in political and civil life, Krauss said religion was not always aligned with causes including the Civil Rights movement and figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr.

During the Q-and-A, an audience member asked about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who has made anti-Israel statements on Twitter. Hasan, who was raised in Jordan by a Christian-American mother and a Muslim-Palestinian father, denounced the rise of “anti-Jewish sentiment.” She said the controversy surrounding Omar’s anti-Israel statements has furthered her education about the many forms of anti-Semitism.

“I can see tropes I was blind to before and it’s been a journey,” Hasan Said.

When an audience member said that clergy who use their pulpits to express political positions bothered him, Chute agreed. “I try to preach in a way that invites people to ask their own questions and to wrestle with things that I think are substantive and important,” Chute said, “but I really seek to avoid proscription and partisan pronouncement.”

What’s Happening: ‘Persian Shabbat,’ Ben-Gurion Film and Purim


Cantor Phil Baron

T’Marim Sephardic Shabbat
Spend Friday night with Valley Beth Shalom artist-in-residence Asher Levy and Cantor Phil Baron. They perform historic music evoking Sephardic musical traditions from Turkey, Iran, Spain, Morocco, Syria, Egypt, Greece and Yemen. The final T’marim Sephardic Shabbat in this three-part series is May 31. 6 p.m. mezze (Sephardic appetizers), 6:30 p.m. Shabbat service. Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 788-6000.

“The Changing Face of American White Supremacy”
Joanna Mendelson, senior investigative researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, is the guest speaker at Adat Ari El’s “678 Shabbat.” Mendelson explores the state of hate, the recent uptick in anti-Semitism and the newest trends in the white supremacy movement. 6 p.m. services. 7 p.m. dinner, 8 p.m. program. $18. RSVP required. Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 766-9426.

“Hairspray Purim!”
The story of Esther is retold to the music of “Hairspray!” So don your favorite ’60s gear and your best drag or wig and join Kol Ami’s “1960s Shushan” Purim celebration. Rabbis Denise Eger and Max Chaiken, Kol Ami’s studio band and community members lead the festivities. The evening begins with a Persian-themed dinner at 6 p.m. 7:30 p.m., services and show. Free; $18, dinner.  Congregation Kol Ami, 1200 N. La Brea Ave., West Hollywood. (323) 606-0996.

Jackie Rafii

“Persian Shabbat”
Coinciding with the week of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, Shomrei Torah Synagogue Cantorial Soloist Jackie Rafii, guitarist Daniel Raijman, violinist Jenni Asher and percussionist Ava Nahas celebrate “Persian Shabbat Around the World,” an evening of music, prayer, story and food. Persian cuisine, including gheymeh beef stew, traditional gondi balls and vegetarian ghormeh sabzi, is served. 6 p.m. services. Free. 7:15 p.m. dinner. $30 adult members, $15 kids. $36 general adults, $18 kids. Shomrei Torah Synagogue, 7353 Valley Circle Blvd., West Hills. (818) 854-7650.

Purim at Nessah
A weekend-long Purim celebration at Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills features two presentations by Rabbi Isaac Bakhshi. On Friday night, he discusses “Three Kinds of Love.” On Saturday during lunch, he discusses “The 3 A’s: Attention, Appreciation and Affection.” Friday 8:30-11:30 p.m. Saturday 1:15-4:30 p.m. $36 Friday night dinner, $20 children younger than 11. $26 Saturday lunch, $18 children younger than 11. Nessah Synagogue, 142 S. Rexford Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 273-2400.

“Dancing With Our Souls”
“Dancing with Our Souls,” Lev Eisha’s annual three-day women’s weekend event in the Santa Monica Mountains, features four workshops, dancing, songs, hiking, entertainment and friendship. This retreat is intended for women to explore their souls through mind and body connection. A community of Jewish women who welcome all, Lev Eisha’s Shabbat getaway is led by Rabbi Toba August and cantorial soloist Cindy Paley. Robin Winston teaches Israeli dancing and Cantor Melanie Fine performs her one-woman show, “Jewish Hidden Figures.” Leslie Geffen leads a Sunday morning photo walk. Through March 24. Various prices. Holy Spirit Retreat Center, 4316 Lanai Road, Encino. (760) 861-4791. For more information, click on the link above.

“The Purim League”
Take me out to the Purim league, take me out to the crowd. The sports-themed Kol Tikvah Purim party, “The Purim League,” features a costume parade where partygoers wear their favorite sports team gear, cheer outfit or even their own sports uniform. The evening also includes a family Shabbat service, led by Kol Tikvah clergy and the temple band Kolplay, a Megillah reading and shpiel. Enjoy a free dinner with RSVP and other activities and entertainment. All ages are invited. Please bring a new or gently used sports equipment to donate to L.A. Family Housing. 5:30-8:30 p.m. Free. Kol Tikvah, 20400 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 348-0670.


“Purim World”
Those who want to have fun won’t want to miss Adat Ari El’s Purim party, featuring face painting, carnival games, magic shows, DJ, inflatables and a special concert by Beat Buds. 11 a.m.-3 pm. $36-$45. Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 766-9426.

“David Ben-Gurion: Epilogue”

“Ben-Gurion, Epilogue”
In 1968, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father, was 82 years old and living in the desert when he sat down for an introspective, soul-searching interview. The footage is the basis of “David Ben-Gurion, Epilogue,” which screens as part of Sephardic Temple’s free Sunday movie screenings series. Refreshments served. 5 p.m. Free. Sephardic Temple, 10500 Wilshire Blvd. (310) 475-7000.

Temple Judea Purim Carnival
The big rides are back at Temple Judea’s Purim Carnival, featuring rides traditionally found at carnivals, from a towering Ferris wheel to a bouncy house. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. $50 ride wristbands, $1 tickets. Temple Judea, 5429 Lindley Ave., Tarzana. (818) 758-3800.

“Doing Business in America”
The Jewish role in American life is spotlighted during “Doing Business in America: A Jewish History.” A panel features Hasia Diner, a professor of American Jewish history at New York University; Jonathan Karp, associate professor in the departments of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University in New York; and Matthew Garcia, professor and chair of Latin America, Latino and Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College. A Q-and-A follows. 4-5:30 p.m. Free. Doheny Memorial Library, 3550 Trousdale Parkway, USC campus. (213) 740-4305.

“Chassidim, Yiddishists, Socialists”
Shmuel Gonzales, aka the Barrio Boychik, leads a 3 1/2-mile walking tour of historical Jewish religious and Yiddish cultural sites of L.A.’s Eastside. The tour visits Congregation Ohel Moshe, the Soto Street Shul of the first Chasidic rebbe to settle in Los Angeles; old labor and leftist political bases of Yiddishists in the hills of City Terrace; and other Jewish sites. Noon-3 p.m. $20. Meet at the Breed Street Shul, 247 N. Breed St., Los Angeles. For more information, email shmuel.gonzales@outlook.com.


“Jewish Community Sing”
A community that sings together, stays together. During a free community concert at Sinai Temple, people of all ages take a journey through Israeli melodies and folk songs and sing, schmooze and learn what makes the music so beautiful. Led by composer, conductor and educator Michelle Green Willner, the participatory gathering features accompaniment by Chris Haller on bass guitar, Jeffrey Silverman on piano and Scott Breadman on drums. 8-9:30 p.m. Free. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-1518.


“God in the Voting Booth?”
Three experts convene at American Jewish University to debate religion’s role in American politics. The speakers are Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of AJU’s Introduction to Judaism program; the Rev. Jonathan Chute of Rolling Hills United Methodist Church; and Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. Reinhard Krauss, executive director of the Academy for Judaic, Christian and Islamic Studies, moderates. 7:30 p.m. $10. American Jewish University, Shapiro Synagogue, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 440-1572.


“Doing Justice”
Two of America’s leading legal personalities — Jeffrey Toobin, a CNN legal analyst and New Yorker writer; and Preet Bharara, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York — appear in conversation. Bharara made national news when President Donald Trump fired him shortly after his inauguration because he refused to resign. He has also charged managers and employees engaged in fraud related to Holocaust reparations. He discusses his new book, “Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law,” with Toobin. 7:30 pm. $42 general admission, includes book. Robert Frost Auditorium, 4401 Elenda St., Culver City. (310) 443-9925.

Third Fire Starts in Simi Valley Area, AJU Safe

The Peak Fire, a third fire in the Los Angeles area is forcing people in their cars to turn around, driving the opposite direction on the 118 freeway.

The California Highway Patrol has shut down the 118 in the area and Metrolink has shut down its service between Simi Valley and Chatsworth.

According to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, an immediate evacuation was ordered in the unincorporated L.A. County areas of Box Canyon and Lake Manor.

The fire has blazed at least 20 acres of land and is currently contained at 105 acres.

So far the American Jewish University Brandeis-Bardin campus is safe. Vice President, Enrollment Management & Marketing Joanna Gerber told the Journal that, “Our campus and everyone on it, including staff and livestock, are currently safe and accounted for.”

“We are currently monitoring the situation very closely and in constant contact with our partners in emergency services/law enforcement. We have not been asked to evacuate at this time and will closely follow any instructions from local law enforcement should that situation change,” Gerber said.

CBS L.A. also said that Ventura County fire officials initially named the Peak Fire the Rocky Fire, because they incorrectly reported that it had broken out near Rocky Peak.

This story will be updated.

UPDATE: This story was updated at 12:30 p.m. to describe the growth of the fire.

AJU Halts Incoming Undergraduate Admissions

American Jewish University (AJU) announced Friday afternoon its decision to pause undergraduate admissions as they are changing how they look at the current undergraduate curriculum.

AJU will also establish a working group to explore and design upcoming academic initiatives that will fit the diversity of the Los Angeles location and the university’s ethical and moral foundations.

The decision means the university will no longer recruit for the upcoming school year and is not accepting applications at this time. There is no timeline set for when enrollment will start back up.

“Our students come first, and we have notified them of these plans,” Jeffrey Herbst, president of AJU since summer 2018, said. “Over the next few days we will be holding open forums to address the questions they have and have appointed an academic affairs liaison to provide ongoing support for these students.”

The university, which opened in 1947, also plans to cease recruiting for its undergraduate program effective immediately, but assures the current undergraduate enrolled classes, roughly 70 students, that will continue to be able to complete their education.

AJU’s board of trustees met earlier this week to review and approve the plan. There will be no faculty layoffs associated with this action.

The university also wants the community to know that no other divisions within the school will be affected by this change. Those departments include the Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies, Graduate Center for Jewish Education and the Graduate School of Nonprofit Management.

“A vibrant 21st-century university is an entity that provides educational and cultural resources to a wide range of individuals in the communities it serves on a year-round basis,” Herbst said. “While undergraduate education is a core element for most universities, it is not the only element.”

Herbst said he hopes the new changes provide “unique academic and cultural” experiences to its young-adult demographic.

“As an educator, the chance to devise a new undergraduate program from a blank page is a once-in-a-career opportunity,” Herbst said. “My colleagues and I are excited about the prospect of developing a cutting-edge program … and we view this opportunity as a unique chance for a university to fully engage in fresh thinking regarding undergraduate education.”

The Jewish Journal will provide updates as we get them.

Rabbi Strear to Leave AJU

Screenshot from Facebook.

After spending 23 years at American Jewish University (AJU), Rabbi Jay Strear is leaving the university to become president and CEO of JEWISHcolorado.

JEWISHcolorado announced the move in a press release on May 4, stating that Strear will be returning to his roots in Denver, the place he grew up.

“Rabbi Strear brings the skills, experience and background we’ve been looking for in JEWISHcolorado’s next CEO,” Diana Zeff Anderson, the board chair of JEWISHcolorado, said in a statement. “He is a dedicated Jewish community professional who is passionate and excited about his work. He leads with kindness, and brings his wealth of Jewish knowledge, as well as his rich experience in fundraising and management, to everything he does.”

Strear wrote in his letter of acceptance, “I take great pride in my long record of loyalty and integrity, an unwavering commitment to ethical leadership, and a deeply felt sense of connection with, and historical ties to, the Denver Jewish Community. I am humbled to partner with you and JEWISHcolorado in honoring its history, while leading the community into its dynamic future.”

Strear had served in various positions at AJU, mainly working of the board of directors to secure gift and work on mergers and acquisitions.

Robert Wexler to step down as AJU president

Robert Wexler. Photo courtesy of AJU.

After 25 years as president of American Jewish University (AJU) and its predecessor, the University of Judaism, Robert Wexler will step down at the end of the academic year.

“Leading such a remarkable institution for so long has been a great honor,” Wexler wrote in a Sept. 12 email to the Journal. “I truly appreciate the dedication of the men and women on the AJU staff and faculty, all of whom mean so much to me. It is they who have made AJU a major force in American Jewish life.”

Wexler’s involvement with the university began when he was 17 and an undergraduate student at the Bel Air campus, which was known as the University of Judaism until 2007, when it merged with the Brandeis-Bardin Institute. After his ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1978, he returned as the assistant dean of students, ascending to the presidency in 1992.

Under his stewardship, the university opened the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 1996 and merged with Brandeis-Bardin. He is credited with overseeing numerous campus construction projects and growing the university’s endowment from $5 million to more than $100 million.

Announcing Wexler’s departure on Sept. 12, AJU said in a press release it would soon begin to seek his replacement.

“American Jewish University has achieved a position of significant influence in the Jewish community and beyond,” Virginia Maas, chair of the AJU’s board of directors, said in the statement. “We hope to continue this record of achievement by conducting a nationwide search to identify a successor who will build on Dr. Wexler’s legacy of expansion and institutional growth.”



In L.A., Reb Mimi found herself, her soul family and a way home

Reb Mimi Feigelson. Screenshot from JDOV

In July of 2001, Reb Mimi Feigelson boarded a plane at Ben Gurion Airport bound for Los Angeles, where a full-time job at a university awaited her.

Rather than bless her good fortune — after all, she had no doctorate and hadn’t been searching for an academic position when the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at what is now known as the American Jewish University (AJU) offered her a job — she cried out to God, wondering why God had chosen to banish her from Israel, which she called home since moving there with her family when she was 8 years old.

When we sat down to talk in August, days before she would move back home, she wondered no more.

“Sixteen years ago there was no possibility that was clear to the eye that I could live my life in Yerushslayim as an Orthodox rav,” she said. “I found that the Divine Mother picked me up out of Yerushalayim and transferred me to Los Angeles. L.A. was an incubator that gave me the ability to grow into the rabbi that I am today. The students that chose to walk with me, to challenge me, to trust me, to pray and cry and laugh and learn with me, they are those who helped me grow into being who I am, and prepared me for going home. Being in Los Angeles has given me the strength to live as who I am without apology.”

Reb Mimi (as she is universally known) was ordained by the Chasidic Reb Shlomo Carlebach in the early 1990s, a fact she kept hidden for many years because the Orthodox world was not ready to consider a woman rabbi, let alone a deeply spiritual Chasidic rebbe. She was “outed” as a rabbi in 2001, and found that Jerusalem’s rigid religious and social structure had no place for her.

So Reb Mimi signed a two-year contract to become the mashpiah ruchanit, the spiritual guide, at the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordained its first class of rabbis just a few years before she got there.

But she always knew her stay in Los Angeles was temporary — she kept her watch on Israel time for 16 years — and in July she signed a contract with the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem, which educates Israeli Masorti (Conservative) rabbis. She is now the mashpiah ruchanit at Schechter, the same position she held at Ziegler.

At Schecther, she has everything she needs: A beit midrash (study hall) to call home, a steady flow of students, inspiring colleagues and a Jerusalem address. Still, leaving Los Angeles was harder than she imagined it would be when she arrived.

During her sojourn in Los Angeles, Reb Mimi ushered more than 150 souls into the rabbinate, and inspired hundreds of other students and friends (myself included) whom she met at AJU, the Happy Minyan, B’nai David-Judea Congregation, on the streets and in the shops of Pico-Robertson, and in her many stints teaching around the city and throughout the country.

In addition to her classes and formal and informal counseling for Ziegler students and alumni, Reb Mimi held study sessions in her beit midrash in her Beverly Hills apartment, where tchotchkes and books and her joyous collection of jewelry and scarves exploded from every surface. Her Shabbat tisches filled Friday nights or the waning hours of Shabbat with nigunim (melodies), Chasidic tales and novel interpretations of Torah.

Reb Mimi brought something that Los Angeles didn’t even know it craved: Spirituality that is as substantial as it is ethereal, as academically and intellectually sound as it is soul-touching, embodied by a woman who defied every definition and convention we had all thought we needed — about what words we use to refer to God, about the logic of denominational divides, about what constitutes a family, about how many rings can fit on one person’s hands. (Each ring is connected to a person or event in her life, so why should she leave any off?)

Intellectuals, even skeptics, were drawn to Reb Mimi’s uncompromising intellect and her insightful interpretations of the texts, and found themselves drawn into the aura of meta-meaning she created; those who already had a soulful bent grew to understand that spirituality not based on wisdom and understanding can be vacuous.

With her kaleidoscopic couture and her ability to instantly cut beneath the surface, Reb Mimi drew people in and created deep connections. She now considers Los Angeles a true home, and she has people here she considers family in as literal a sense as possible.

A small cadre of Reb Mimi’s students became her soul children: They use her name as part of their own when called to the Torah; she has been present at the birth of their children; and the Shabbat blessings she offers them each Friday — in person or via Skype — is the most sacred moment of her week. Inspired by a Chasidic tale, she even started a savings account for her soul children, so tangible and real is the connection.

She has a soul brother she buried here, and she sat shivah for him, and now she is eternally connected to the land of Southern California.

Reb Mimi is grateful that God opened up a way for her to influence such a large segment of world Jewry. The fact that it is in North America and not Israel, and that it came through the Conservative movement and not her birth denomination of Orthodoxy, is both painful and irrelevant.

“It is painful that my denomination of origin cannot embrace the Torah I have to offer,” she said. “And at the same time, I answer to God. And I live well with myself answering to God. God’s world is so much greater than these denominations.”

Being in America, she said, challenged her and changed her.

She cried out to God, wondering why God had chosen to banish her from Israel, which she called home since moving there with her family when she was 8 years old.

“It has changed my Torah and my personal life. It has challenged my world of axioms, sometimes demanded of me to question my beliefs,” she said.

In many ways, she became a different person while she was here.

She shed 130 pounds, had long-needed double knee replacement surgery, and went from having long hair to a buzz cut (with one long, thin braid she never cuts).

She spent six years on a doctoral dissertation at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion that explores Jewish funeral rituals and how people can reclaim their own funerals as the last chapter in a life, and not the first chapter of death.

In her formal bio, she now goes by Rabbi Dr. Reb Mimi Feigelson — able to proudly embrace and advertise all the disparate parts of herself.

“I have learned to honor the gifts that God has given me and honor that path I have been asked to take. And that means I am learning in my life to create harmony of all my pieces,” she said.

Being in Los Angeles gave her a chance to re-examine the model of her brokenness: She shifted from thinking that the scattered shards of her soul needed to be collected, and instead realized they needed to be planted, like seeds.

And she can do that because, in Los Angeles, she found partners for her journey.

“Being here gave me a sense of being less alone. I used to say that I knew God loved me by virtue of the teachers I have. My life changed when I said I knew God loved me by virtue of the students I have. And that happened here, in Los Angeles,” she said.

The Orthodox world, and Jerusalem, have changed along with her. In the past decade, Orthodox women trained to answer halachic questions have gained acceptance, and women ordained as clergy are just getting a foothold in the Orthodox world.

Still, Reb Mimi remains a breed of her own: Her interest is in nourishing souls and saving lives, within a framework of traditional texts and halachic observance, but she is not one to offer verdicts on legal minutiae. So she knows her path will still be her own, and she is OK with that.
She is, finally, done apologizing for who she is.

“Jerusalem is still a hard city,” she said. “There is a way in which Jerusalem is still a city without compassion. But my dream to come home as I am is actually going to be fulfilled.”

Julie Gruenbaum Fax is a Los Angeles-based journalist who ghostwrites memoirs and autobiographies.

Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din celebrates 500 conversions

Temple Israel of Hollywood’s Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, conversion candidate Jackie Lara, and sponsoring rabbi/dayan Rabbi Heather Miller of Beth Chayim Chadashim. Photo by Esther Kustanowitz

For Liz Davenport, it was ladies at the mikvah. For Susan Brownstein, it was reading library books to her kids. For Jackie Lara, it was the community spirit she felt among Jews.

These were among the inspirations cited by the recent converts — or, as they’re often known, Jews by Choice — who gathered with community leaders on Aug. 6 at the Skirball Cultural Center to celebrate a milestone: 500 conversions performed by the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din. The Bet Din is the only program in Southern California that brings together Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform and transdenominational rabbis to cooperate in the conversion process.

Calling the converts’ devotion to their new faith “inspirational,” Rabbi Richard Levy, a co-founder of the Bet Din along with Rabbi Elliot Dorff, said, “You are here, here we all are,

500 Jews by Choice, whether it’s yours or God’s — a remarkable number. Because the belief that God is one is the backbone of our work, let us affirm that together.” With that, he led the audience in the Shema.

Levy and Dorff were honored at the event.

The program is named for the late Sandra Caplan, who grew up Catholic before developing an interest in Judaism and converting in 1980 through the University of Judaism, now American Jewish University (AJU). It was her deathbed wish that her husband, George Caplan, continue to support conversion-related programs.

Bet Din co-founder Rabbi Elliot Dorff (left), event MC and Bet Din Board of Governors member Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh; bottom row, Bet Din co-founder Rabbi Richard Levy (left)and Bet Din benefactor George Caplan.

After prospective converts complete their studies, they must be evaluated by a Bet Din — a rabbinic court of three rabbi-judges. Most succeed, although Bet Din Executive Director Muriel Dance recalled two candidates who were told they needed more preparation. But, she said, “the goal is not to turn people away.”

The Skirball event drew a mix of Jews by Choice, the Bet Din’s rabbi-judges and board members, sponsoring rabbis who advise and teach prospective converts, and other supporters of the Caplan program.

Among the rabbis in attendance were Heather Miller and Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim; Jonathan Kupetz of Temple Beth Israel in Pomona; Stephen Einstein, founding rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley; and Michelle Missaghieh of Temple Israel of Hollywood, who also served as the program’s master of ceremonies.

Members of the Orthodox community were not represented at the event because they have not participated in the program so far.  Levy, the immediate past director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College’s Los Angeles campus, said some Orthodox rabbis were pressured not to join the transdenominational Bet Din, but Dorff said he would welcome Orthodox interest.

Dorff, rector and philosophy professor at American Jewish University, said the Bet Din does “not disparage any other program for conversion. Frankly, we need Jews: the Jewish community is facing a major demographic problem,” he said, pointing to a low reproductive rate among Jews and a high rate of interfaith marriage, in which only about 20 percent of the children are raised as Jews. “Conversions to Judaism are one way to increase our numbers, and so I am in favor of any program that encourages that and does it in a serious way.”

Liz Davenport, Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din conversion candidate. Photo by Esther Kustanowitz.

In any case, Dorf added, the transdenominational component of the Caplan Bet Din is one of its distinctive qualities.

“People who convert can thus rightfully say that they are converting to Judaism and the Jewish community as a whole and not just to a particular denomination or segment of the Jewish community,” he said.

Davenport, who converted under the sponsorship of Rabbi Jonathan Kupetz at Temple Beth Israel in Pomona, spoke passionately about the ladies of the mikvah who oversaw her ritual immersion, calling them “precious…they made that day heavenly, like floating on a cloud.”

Brownstein said she had agreed with her Jewish husband to raise their children Jewish, but at first she didn’t convert. As their children grew, she learned about Jewish traditions by reading to them books from the PJ Library program.

“By observing the holidays and rituals, I realized I was committed,” she said. “We have a Jewish family, but I hadn’t done all the paperwork yet.” She subsequently converted through the Caplan program.

“The strength of Judaism is in its stories,” she said, “and the most important part is to try to see every day as a blessing.”

Lara, who was raised “loosely Catholic” and is an educator at Planned Parenthood, said, “We all have a story.” In her journey, she said, she found “a sense of comfort and love just being with y’all. I always asked questions and you were happy to respond.”

She further said that she had “embarked alone” on her search for Judaism, in which she found a sense of agency in her faith, and was drawn to the concept that “one wrestles with God.” She also spoke about having been driven by tikkun olam (fixing the world), “doing mitzvot that we as Jews understand.”

In an interview with the Journal before the Skirball event, conversion candidate Mei-Ling Hubbard said that she was an “atheist as a kid but with a deeper sense of spirituality.” As a biracial woman, she said, “I have never felt at home anywhere; I don’t fit in with white or Chinese people.” But she had a lot of Jewish friends and would joke that “I was looking for a Jewish guy so I could convert … then why don’t I just do it?”

Her conversion, she said, “felt like a homecoming in a sense. For the first time, I have entry to a group that I feel a part of and feel at home with. I am a Jew and that’s a powerful thing, to belong in a way I never felt before. My identity is different now in a more inclusive way.”

Dean Sprague, the actual 500th convert, was unable to attend the event but in an interview described what being a new Jew felt like.

“There’s a big emphasis on getting you to be more mindful and aware of things, whether it’s the seasons of the year, changes to prayers, food you eat — how you eat and prepare it — you’re not taking things for granted,” Sprague said. “It’s not separating yourself from the physical world, rather it’s an opportunity to elevate the physical world into something spiritual and better. Make a blessing, follow the specific rules — taking everyday, normal, mundane activities and giving them a sense of spirituality.”

For all its success in minting new Jews, the Caplan program still faces challenges. Dorff said he wanted more rabbis to participate as judges, and that raising the funds for their $25,000-a-year budget can be a challenge for the nonprofit organization.

In her closing remarks, Missaghieh urged attendees to refer interested potential conversion candidates to the Caplan program and to visit the website at www.scbetdin.us for ways to support the Bet Din and its Jews by Choice.

Calendar: March 17-23, 2017

Scene from "Settlers" premiering March 17 at the Laemmle Theaters.



This documentary by Shimon Dotan offers a provocative look at the controversial Israeli settlement movement. Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and West Bank during the Six-Day War. The hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have moved into the West Bank have made reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians much more complex. “The Settlers” examines residents ranging from opportunistic families seeking less costly living conditions to Western-style hippies, messianic religious extremists to idealistic farmers, settler “patriarchs” to new converts. Israeli intellectuals, politicians and academicians weigh in on the issues. Laemmle’s Monica Film Center, 1332 Second St., Santa Monica. (310) 394-9744. laemmle.com.


The Young Jewish Professionals of Los Angeles presents an opportunity to connect with a diverse group of 100 career-minded peers while enjoying a four-course meal and open bar. Hosted by Mendel and Rachey Simons. 6:30 p.m. $60; tickets available at eventbrite.com; no tickets at the door. Shefa Melrose, 7275 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. yjplosangeles.com.



The JFed Players Community Theater Ensemble presents “Curtains,” the final collaboration between Kander and Ebb, creators of “Cabaret” and “Chicago.” Set in 1959, this clever musical features murder, music, mystery, comedy and romance. 8 p.m.  $25; discounts available. Tickets available at jewishsgpv.org. Through March 26 on select dates. The Clarke Center, 401 Rolyn Place, Arcadia. (626) 445-0810. jewishsgpv.org.



The Conejo Valley Chapter of the Brandeis National Committee presents “Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction.” Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman will discuss in detail the case of serial killer Lonnie Franklin, known as the Grim Sleeper, who was charged with the murder of 10 women from 1985 to 2007. This well-publicized trial concluded in May 2016. 1 p.m. $20; $22 at the door. RSVP to Jessie: jbrra@aol.com or Frona: kidzathart@aol.com. Temple Etz Chaim, 1080 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks. templeetzchaim.org.


Join Young Adults of Los Angeles’ post-undergrads (ages 22-26) for a 90-minute introductory course on the Israeli self-defense techniques of krav maga. 1:30 p.m. $10; ticket sales close at noon March 17; no tickets available at the door. Krav Maga Worldwide, 11400 Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. yala.org/kravmaga.


Greek poet and Holocaust survivor Iossif Ventura is one of the last members of the Jewish community in Crete. Ventura survived World War II as a child in hiding and has used poetry to transform his trauma into words. He has published six books of poetry and his works have been translated into six languages. 3 p.m. Free. RSVP to Michael@lamoth.org. Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, 100 S. The Grove Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 651-3704. lamoth.org.


cal-korzenComedian Annie Korzen returns to the Whizin Center stage. Q-and-A to follow. 5 p.m. $25. American Jewish University, Familian Campus, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-1572. wcce.aju.edu.


Leading cantors from across Los Angeles will perform in a concert to benefit the next generation of Southern California cantors. Proceeds from the Cantors Benefit Concert will fund scholarships for cantorial students at the Miller School of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. Featured cantors include  Nathan Lam, Marcus Feldman, Lisa Peicott, Don Gurney, Seth Ettinger, Phil Baron, Hillary Chorny, Judy Dubin Aranoff, Ira S. Bigeleisen and Alexander Berkovich. 7 p.m. Tickets start at $25. Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 766-9426. wp.adatariel.org/cantors-benefit-concert.



Join Temple Menorah and the Islamic Center of the South Bay for a Women’s Freedom Seder. Learn how the Exodus is understood in different faiths and how that message teaches the value of freedom. Come with your focus on unity, tolerance and respect for all faiths and people, and to promote freedom. 7 p.m. $25. Temple Menorah, 1101 Camino Real, Redondo Beach. (310) 316-8444. templemenorah.org.


cal-snyderTimothy Snyder, the Bird White Housum Professor of History at Yale, is an expert on 20th-century European history. Snyder warns us that in the 1920s and ’30s, many European democracies didn’t believe their countries ever could succumb to Nazism, facism or communism. He wrote a practical handbook called “On Tyranny,” a guide to knowing the signs of authoritarianism. “On Tyranny” provides 20 tips on preserving our freedom. Snyder will be in conversation with Jonathan Kirsch, author, attorney and the book editor of the Jewish Journal. 7:30 p.m. $20. Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. writersblocpresents.com.



Enjoy an evening of original student theater based on the life stories of four Holocaust survivors. The performance is the culmination of an eight-week collaborative project between the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and Santa Monica High School’s theater department. The students in Santa Monica’s acting class participated in the museum’s “Voices of History” theater workshop, learning about the Holocaust, interviewing survivors and working with mentors to write, direct and stage the event. 7 p.m. Suggested donation: $10; $5 for students. Santa Monica High School, 601 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. (323) 651-3704. lamoth.org.



Presented by the Whizin Center and University Women: Coffee & Conversation, author Susan Silverman will discuss her book “Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World.” Silverman, the older sister of irreverent comic Sarah Silverman, grew up with parents who were atheists. She shocked everyone when she became a rabbi and moved to Israel. The author will discuss her funny and moving memoir about her unique family that will resonate with anyone who has struggled to find a place in the world and to understand the significance of that place. Silverman will be joined by Jewish Journal columnist Danielle Berrin. 7:30 p.m. Free. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. aju.edu.


Israeli television icon Assi Azar will give a motivational presentation in Hebrew. 8 p.m. $25. IAC Shepher Community Center, 6530 Winnetka Ave., Woodland Hills. (818) 451-1179. iacshephercenter.org.


Young professionals in every field are invited to the annual Emet After Party, featuring an appearance by honoree Albert Z. Praw. Emet, which means “truth” in Hebrew, is an active community of Jewish attorneys and other legal professionals in their 20s and 30s. 9 p.m. $30; $40 at the door; free with the purchase of ticket to the Legal Division Dinner. Business attire. The Beverly Wilshire Hotel, 9500 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. yala.org/emetafterparty

Stepping back, stepping forward

King Ahasuerus & Queen Esther in Apocrypha. Photo from Wikipedia.

Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10)

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, taught that God’s most powerful influence comes not through acting in the world, but rather through conscious and deliberate refraining from acting. He beautifully illustrates this concept with reference to one of life’s quieter, but no less amazing, miracles: teaching a child to take his first steps.

About the time that a small child begins to stand on his own, a caring parent will lean down and beckon, “Come to me.” The child will take a tentative, wobbly step toward his smiling mother. And then, the mother will do something profoundly frustrating: She will back away, creating more distance for the child to traverse.

At first there is confusion, even anger, on the face of the toddler. But, eventually, the distance coaxes him to take one more step, and then another. As the mother makes space, the child learns to walk. It is by pulling back, not swooping in, the Baal Shem Tov taught, that God and we create new realities.

The confluence of this week’s parsha, Tetzaveh, and the holiday of Purim, which begins at sunset after Shabbat, is a study in stepping back and leaving space for something new to emerge. Tetzaveh is the only parsha of the latter four books of the Torah that doesn’t mention Moses. Purim’s central text, the Book of Esther, is the only volume of the Bible that doesn’t mention God. Both the parsha and the Megillah defy expectations with the conspicuous absence of ubiquitous characters, inviting us to lean in and listen more closely, to step into the seemingly empty space to discover new and exciting possibilities.

Parashat Tetzaveh describes the ordination ritual for Aaron and his sons to the priesthood, the process of bringing human beings into the direct service of God. There can only be one Moses, but, over the course of Jewish history, hundreds of priests would be ordained to carry out their sacred tasks, and after the destruction of the Temple, thousands more rabbis would carry on the chain of ordination.

During this brief moment in which Moses steps aside, we learn that there are other ways to enter into the service of the Holy One aside from being called as a prophet. In Moses’ absence, we are invited to re-imagine our own role in the Jewish story, to envision ourselves as potential leaders and vessels of holiness.

Purim similarly invites us to consider our own power. In previous stories of deliverance from mighty enemies, our triumph always came directly from the hand of God. It was God who split the sea for the escaping Israelite slaves, and stopped the sun in the sky over Joshua’s armies, and protected Daniel in the lion’s den. The story of Esther is the first time we come face to face with the potential of annihilation and don’t have God at hand to save the day.

The Purim story is the most relatable of biblical tales for a world in which God doesn’t appear to sort out all our problems, in which we are called to faith in ourselves and our own abilities to do extraordinary things.

Instead, our salvation comes through human courage, the willingness of Esther to put her life on the line to speak her truth. In that way, the Purim story is the most relatable of biblical tales for a world in which God doesn’t appear to sort out all our problems, in which we are called to faith in ourselves and our own abilities to do extraordinary things.

By taking a step back in the twin stories that define this liturgical week, Moses and God invite us to take a step forward and discover our own capacity to act. A parent who never learns to give their child space will never equip them with the ability to survive and to thrive on their own.

Moses is mortal, and he will not cross over into the Promised Land with us, so we’ll need to be able to appoint a chain of leaders who will guide us into our new chapter. And even God can’t be with us every step of the way either, booming instructions, blessings and warnings.

Today we walk on our own, a path laid out by Moses our teacher, on a path toward God our parent. Like children learning to walk, we still stumble and fall sometimes, but as we come to trust our own legs, what a joy it is to learn to carry ourselves forward, with confidence in ourselves to set forth into the world.

Rabbi Adam Greenwald is director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (intro.aju.edu) and a lecturer at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.

Calendar: March 3-9, 2017

Maya Avraham. Photo courtesy of YouTube.



Join Reboot and Open Temple for an “Unplugged Party” in celebration of Reboot’s National Day of Unplugging. Your phone will be checked at the door. Step off the grid to listen to live music, play board games, visit the analog photo booth, and more. Event dedicated to the late Levi Felix, founder of Digital Detox and Camp Grounded; $3 of each ticket will be donated to Camp Grounded in his memory. 21 and older. 7 p.m. $18; tickets available at eventbrite.com. Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice. nationaldayofunplugging.com.


Honor a group of 10 young Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers visiting Los Angeles who have been wounded in combat. Food, drinks and an open-bar after-party with a DJ spinning until midnight. All proceeds go to Lev Chayal’s program for wounded IDF soldiers. Black-tie attire. 8 p.m. VIP reception; 9 p.m. cocktails and buffet. $180 for individual reservations; $100 for young professionals ages 21 to 35. Tickets available at eventbrite.com. Venue TBA. levchayal.com.



A chartered bus will take riders alongside the Metro Gold Line into the San Gabriel Valley on a tour that will focus on the area’s unique Jewish heritage and its contemporary community life. Wear comfortable walking shoes — the tour includes two miles on foot. Instructors include Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California since 1989, and Jeremy Sunderland, who is on the board of directors for the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. Space is limited. Lunch on your own. 9 a.m. $58. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 476-9777. wcce.aju.edu.


The ninth annual Nefesh B’Nefesh Israel Aliyah Fair offers the opportunity to gather aliyah information under one roof. Professionals will discuss financial planning and budgeting, choosing a community, building a strategic job search plan, navigating the health care system, buying or renting a home in Israel, and more. 10 a.m. for retirees and empty nesters; noon for students and young professionals. Free. Shalhevet High School, 910 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. nbn.org.


cal-hign-noon“High Noon” is more than a Western; it is also a story about the Hollywood blacklist. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Frankel will discuss his book about  screenwriter Carl Foreman, producer Stanley Kramer, director Fred Zinnemann and actor Gary Cooper, and how their creative partnership was influenced — and crushed — by political repression and agendas. Book signing to follow presentation. 2 p.m. $14; $10 for students and seniors; $6 for children; free for members. Autry Museum of the American West, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles.


The Los Angeles Balalaika Orchestra presents its 22nd annual concert, featuring the voice of Mark Goldenberg, cantor at Young Israel of Century City. 3 p.m. $35-$45. Herbert Zipper Hall, 200 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (626) 483-2731. balalaikala.com.


Elana Stein Hain, director of leadership education at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, will discuss the core values of some of the “tribes” that compose Israel today, and how a divided people build a shared society. Part of the Synagogue Collaborative Lecture Series. 4 p.m. $20. (Post-lecture dinner and discussion extra; RSVP only.) Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. shalomhartman.org/LAcollaborative.


“Labscapes” presents vivid images from the mysterious and usually unseen wonders that exist under the powerful lenses of the microscopes of some of the world’s most renowned researchers at Technion — Israel Institute of Technology. A special presentation by students will be followed by the grand opening. RSVP requested: jose@ats.org or (310) 254-9899. 5 p.m. presentation; 6 p.m. reception and exhibit. Through March 27. Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. ats.org/labscapes.


Before joining The Idan Raichel Project, Maya Avraham was a widely sought-after backup singer for Israeli superstars such as Eyal Golan, Sarit Hadad and Shlomi Shabat. She will sing some of The Idan Raichel Project’s greatest hits as well as her own songs. 7 p.m. Tickets start at $35. Gindi Auditorium at American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 476-9777. wcce.aju.edu.


This panel discussion features Vince Brook of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television; David Isaacs, TV scriptwriter, producer and Emmy winner; Shaina Hammerman, Jewish film, literature, religion and cultural historian; Josh Moss, visiting assistant professor of film and media studies at UC Santa Barbara; and Ross Melnick, associate professor of film and media studies at UCSB. 6:15 p.m. dessert reception; 7 p.m. panel. Free. RSVP by March 3 at wbtla.org/shtetl or (424) 208-8932. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Irmas Campus, 11661 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 388-2401.



Learn how to use Google Earth and Google Maps to gather information about where your ancestors lived, and how to educate yourself and meet other like-minded individuals (and perhaps relatives) using Google’s social media. Mary Kathryn Kozy, who has been researching her family history for more than 35 years, will speak at this meeting of the Jewish Genealogy Society of the Conejo Valley and Ventura County. 7 p.m. Free. Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E. Hillcrest, Thousand Oaks. (818) 889-6616. jgscv.org.



cal-elon-goldComedian, writer and actor Elon Gold kicks off the Purim weekend with a night of comedy, drinks and a DJ. Also featuring Alex Edelman. 8 p.m. $40. Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (888) 645-5006. sabanconcerts.com.


Explore the ethical and religious implications of the Holocaust at this event. Wine and cheese reception will be followed by a multimedia program and discussion about the Polish underground’s mission that sent officer Witold Polecki into Auschwitz to gain intelligence and build resistance among the prisoners. 7:30 p.m. $8. Burton Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-1572. wcce.aju.edu.

Check it out: A new Jewish library for L.A.

The Burton Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University (AJU) in Bel Air opened its doors Sept. 25, printing out library cards at its circulation desk for the public for the very first time and welcoming dozens of children, parents and grandparents for an open house.

The nearly 2,000-square-foot space on the university’s Familian campus — complete with a charming kids reading corner, plush seating and ample table workspace — shares a structure already occupied by the Bel and Jack M. Ostrow Academic Library. An open-air courtyard separates the libraries, which share a catalog of over 110,000 print volumes, DVDs and audiobooks, from the administration building for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. 

Four years ago, a parking lot was there — zero libraries. Now there are two. 

“We are now an official library,” Lisa Silverman, the Sperber Library’s director, said at the open house, grinning, seasonal shofar pendants dangling from her ears. 

Silverman previously was director at the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library, serving for 19 years. She has been with the Sperber Library for over a year now, preparing for its launch. The opportunity to be a part of this new venture was too enticing to pass up, she said. 

“The unique opportunity to be able to open a Jewish library in the 21st century when the general direction of Jewish libraries hasn’t been positive and many have closed is very exciting to me. It’s the reason I left Sinai,” Silverman said. “It really gives me a chance to make my mark offering modern Jewish programming, leading book clubs and hosting authors. I came here because I want to start something.” 

The Sperber Library aims to fill a void in Los Angeles’ Jewish community. When the Jewish Community Library, located in The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ building, closed in 2009, the second largest Jewish city in the United States was left without a major Jewish community library. The Slavin Children’s Library, located in the same building, suffered the same fate in 2013, making way for the expansion of the Zimmer Children’s Museum.

Several thousand books from the old Jewish Community Library are now in the Ostrow Library. Most of the Slavin Children’s Library collection now resides in the children’s section of the Sperber Library, making up about 80 percent of its children’s books, Silverman said.

Prior to Sept. 25, members of the public not enrolled at AJU could check out works at the Ostrow Library. Despite the fact that it was an academic library, Silverman estimates that there were nearly 1,500 non-enrolled community members in the system, cementing her view that there is a demand for a Jewish community library with modern Jewish works. 

“Now those people will be switching loyalties and coming to my side,” she said. “The numbers showed that people wanted to use the library, but they couldn’t always find the newer, more popular stuff. [The Ostrow Library] also didn’t have a children’s collection.”

Now the Sperber Library — funded by a gift from Charlene Sperber, widow of Burton Sperber, who founded ValleyCrest Landscape Cos., the Calabasas-based landscape services company behind projects such as the gardens at the Getty Center and the rooftop community garden at Walt Disney Concert Hall — has an extensive children’s collection. Silverman will also attempt to maintain a collection of Jewish-themed or penned volumes with works published no earlier than 2000. Exceptions will include classics by the likes of literary heavyweights such as Philip Roth or Isaac Bashevis Singer. 

Most of the contemporary adult books in the Sperber Library are from the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library, which two years ago shifted its focus to serving the temple’s day school and reduced its adult collection. Silverman, who was still at Sinai during that restructuring, helped facilitate the transferring and purchasing of many books from Sinai to AJU. 

Varied programming in the space will be the driving force behind Silverman’s attempt to shape the library into a cultural and social hub. Film screenings, lectures, book clubs, game room days, children’s book readings, Jewish origami workshops and readings with local authors highlight event programming already scheduled. 

The recent open house featured free entertainment that included live music, magicians, arts and crafts, BARK (Beach Animals Reading with Kids) therapy dogs and a documentary film screening.  

Robert Wexler, president of AJU, who was at the event, said he is convinced that the new library’s location, straddling the divide between Los Angeles’ Westside and Valley Jewish communities, makes it a convenient destination for two of the city’s most Jewish neighborhoods. He’s looking forward to witnessing the library’s impending impact on those surrounding areas.

“The mission of the institution is to engage Jewish life at all different phases of life. The Sperber Library helps us fulfill our commitment to serving the overall Jewish community and provide Jewish programming and learning,” Wexler said. 

Educational programming like “Grandparents Circle,” an ongoing discussion forum that the new library will host for grandparents to speak on raising their grandchildren with Jewish values, already has attracted the notice of open house attendees like Barbara Sampson, 80, a member of nearby Stephen Wise Temple. 

“My granddaughter has a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. I want to make sure as her grandmother I can do whatever I can to expose her to all I know about Judaism,” she said. “Everything I know, like traditions and values, I want her to know. I think this new library, with the children’s programming and all, will be great for helping me connect more with my granddaughter on Jewish values.” 

Rabbi Gary Oren, AJU vice president and dean of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education, also feels that a built-in advantage the new library has is its affiliation with a university as opposed to a synagogue. 

“A university setting is familiar to most Jews as a place to come in, explore and work. The barrier a synagogue might put up for some people is definitely not up here,” Oren said. 

Since it began to take shape over the summer, Oren has also witnessed the new library’s benefits to students and staff alike at AJU.  

“There are exciting opportunities for crossover between community, faculty and students there,” Oren said. “We had a screening of a Holocaust documentary in the space and were able to bring in a graduate student to lecture to the public after the screening, which was certainly an exciting opportunity for the student. Also, I’ve seen staff take lunch breaks there to just sit comfortably and read. It’s just a nice place to be in.” 

Though Oren acknowledged that difficulties might lie ahead to maintain the public’s interest, he affirmed his belief that the Sperber Library is here to stay. 

“We know the challenges we face, competing with the internet and how accessible information is today. However, we’re committed to having the space open and available to the public. We will keep it up to date. We feel that it’s necessary and provides a service to the community and we’ll make sure that happens,” he said. “Books and Jews go together.”

Making Judaism radiate with color

Hillel Smith believes art has the power to transform Judaism, and he hopes his latest creation — a 25-foot-tall mural in Pico-Robertson featuring text from ha-Motzi — can prove it. 

“I mostly connect to the sense of tradition and heritage,” he said. “I think that comes through in the work I do and utilization of brachot (blessings). I’m updating it. I’m starting with this very firm foundation and building from there.”

The Los Angeles-based artist recently completed a new mural on the back wall facing the parking lot of Bibi’s Bakery and Café, on Pico Boulevard between Crest Drive and Livonia Avenue. The vibrant piece depicts Hebrew text accompanied by some wheat sheafs that also are symbolic representations of challah.

Smith, 31, said he chose to paint the Hebrew letters because he’s always “coming up with a new way to test the boundaries of visual Judaica and contemporary Jewish design. I’m trying to make something that’s bright, bold and engaging, and has, at its core, real Jewish content.” 

American Jewish University’s Institute for Jewish Creativity commissioned Smith’s mural through its WORD: Artist Grant, the Bruce Geller Memorial prize, that grants $500 to $2,000 to L.A. artists producing works inspired by Jewish text. Smith received $1,500.

The Bibi’s piece, finished Sept. 2, isn’t Smith’s first Jewish mural in Southern California. In 2013, he made a spray-painted mural on a handball court at Camp Ramah in California, located in Ojai. In Hebrew, it says, “U-k’ne lecha haver,” which means “acquire for yourself a friend,” and it contains an image of an outstretched hand. 

 At the Orthodox synagogue Westwood Kehilla on Santa Monica Boulevard, he created a mural last year called “Simchat Torah,” which means “the joy of Torah.” It depicts men, women and children dancing around with both a Sephardic and Ashkenazi Torah. 

And last year, Smith worked with Tel Aviv-based artist Itamar Paloge on a mural for the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center. It is of a giant orange-and-blue Hebrew letter alef. Asylum Arts and the NextGen Engagement Initiative of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles funded the project.

Smith grew up in Pico-Robertson, attending Gindi Maimonides Academy and Shalhevet High School, along with B’nai David-Judea Congregation. When he was a child, he said he noticed that there wasn’t much diversity in the Jewish art he saw. 

“One thing that’s always bothered me is that a lot of Jewish art is just of Hassidim on bicycles and really lovely watercolors of Jerusalem,” he said. “That’s kind of it. It blew my mind when I discovered the Jewish artists from earlier in the 20th century. They were at the forefront of their own artistic movements and made work in Hebrew.” 

After graduating from Shalhevet, Smith studied art at the University of Pennsylvania. He became interested in Hebrew typography and creating colorful illustrations, paintings and installations. 

Over the years, his work has taken him to Jerusalem — home to two of his murals — as well as Venice, Italy, where he had the opportunity to make three images for the new, illustrated Venice Haggadah. The book is to be released in 2017. 

Smith also has a blog (hillelsmith.tumblr.com) featuring something called “Parsha Posters,” which visually explores learnings from the weekly Torah portions. They are concert-style posters that feature “the crux of the story and a typographic illustration based off it,” he said. For example, for Parashat Re’eh, he made interpretive illustrations of the beasts Jews are allowed to eat, which include an ox, sheep, goat and antelope. The poster is called, “What’s for dinner.”

In all of Smith’s work, he uses vivid colors that jump off the page — or wall. 


Teens turn CEO for a week to learn about Israel and tech

Ten startups recently took the stage at American Jewish University (AJU) to pitch their ideas for how to implement Israeli water technology in the United States at an event hosted by the Israeli-American Council (IAC).

Within the supercharged, high-tech world of Los Angeles, it would have been a perfectly unremarkable event — except that many of these entrepreneurs were not far removed from their bar and bat mitzvahs.

The June 30 Demo Day showcase, coming on the heels of a five-day boot camp, was the culmination of the first year of a new IAC youth program called Eitanim, a leadership seminar series that took place in seven U.S. cities, including Los Angeles. The youth series grew out of Mishelanu, the IAC’s college outreach wing.

“We got the notion that we need to meet those kids earlier,” said Tali Brauman, IAC’s director of NextGen Engagement.

Starting in February, Eitanim engaged 120 high school students from across the country in monthly, three-hour, project-based learning sessions that cover entrepreneurship topics such as branding and gamification. 

Then, on June 26, just more than 100 youngsters — about half were participants in the monthly seminars, while others were recruited by word of mouth — gathered at AJU’s hilltop campus overlooking the 405 Freeway for a “hackathon,” where they were divided into 10-person teams that acted as “mini-startups,” Brauman said.

Each team designated a CEO and developed a product to pitch at the Thursday evening event to a panel of judges — Israeli tech entrepreneurs who also acted as mentors throughout the hackathon. The teenagers stayed in the AJU dorms for the duration of the five-day program.

The products they came up with included an app to measure water flow from household appliances, a video game where players use Israeli technologies to bring a parched society back from the brink, and a website that shows farmers how much they could save by switching to drip irrigation.

One startup, an e-commerce site for water-saving gizmos, went so far as to offer the audience (mostly parents) a stake in its company: 8 percent at $250,000, valuing their company at just over $3 million.

The four winning teams will present their products at the IAC’s September conference in Washington, D.C., to an audience of about 2,500. They were the doomsday game, the water usage app, a social platform for sharing water-saving tips and a website to connect water innovators with investors.

“Some of the presentations here could really raise a lot of money in Silicon Valley,” said Amir Shevat, one of the mentors and the Israeli-born director of developer relations at the messaging company Slack.

Shoham Nicolet, a co-founder of the IAC and its current CEO, concurred. “Some of the companies here, if you look at real life, are companies that really could make millions,” he said.

Before the pitch event, high school students roamed the campus, nervously preparing for their presentations by delivering pitches to the air in front of them. Others gathered in circles to shake their limbs and spout nonsense words — a technique they learned during the boot camp for dispelling stage fright. 

Once onstage, they were all well-manicured professionalism, standing in neat semicircles around a projector screen.

“The connection of Israeli chutzpah and American proficiency creates a really great combination,” said Shevat, who traveled from the Bay Area and stayed in the AJU dorms to participate in the program.

The IAC’s mission is to unite the Israeli and American Jewish cultures, using Israeli Americans as a “living bridge” between the two communities. The students who took part in the program were selected to be a mix of second-generation Israeli Americans and non-Israeli American Jews.

Eitanim was launched in response to what Nicolet called “a growing gap between young Jewish Americans and the State of Israel,” which he described as a “huge threat” to both.

Nicolet said the program was inspired by a summer youth camp he attended in 1992 in Israel that tasked youngsters with developing water solutions to the drought that plagued the country at the time. He said that experience “changed my life” by helping him to develop “soft skills” such as organizational communication.  

The Eitanim course was designed around a learning-by-doing model: “Instead of teaching them about Israel, give them a task to teach about Israel,” he explained.

It got its name from Nicolet’s commander in the Tzanhanim (paratroopers) division of the Israeli military, Maj. Eitan Belachsan, who was killed during the Israeli invasion of Southern Lebanon in 1999. Nicolet said he hopes the teenagers will carry away Belachsan’s legacy of “ultimate giving.”

Pnina Tofler, a 13-year-old from Los Angeles, said she was nervous upon learning on the first day of the conference that she would be the CEO of her group.

“I found this news extremely daunting,” the ninth-grader told the audience of the prospect of managing a group of kids, some of whom were older than her.

Soon, though, she was put at ease.

“Then the second day came, and I had an epiphany. I realized my group actually knew what they were doing,” she said. After that, she said, “The rest of this conference was a breeze.”

“We formed lasting friendships and bonds and had the experience of a lifetime,” she said. “I hope that the IAC continues this program and I can see you all next year.”

As for their tech careers, Yarden Efraim, a 17-year-old from New Jersey, was confident that the boot camp was just a beginning.

“This isn’t the end,” he said at the Demo Day. “The past few days were just a taste.”

Celebrating Aristides de Sousa Mendes, diplomat and Holocaust hero, who saved 10,000 Jews

Los Angeles Jews will celebrate the life and moral courage of a devout Catholic beginning Jan. 22, with the world premiere of an oratorio, an exhibition, film screenings and a memorial service.

The honoree is the late diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who in 1940, while serving as Portugal’s consul general in Bordeaux, France, saved the lives of some 10,000 Jewish refugees by issuing entry visas to his country.

He did so in defiance of his government and paid for his humanitarian disobedience by losing his position and standing and dying in poverty.

Descendants of some of these Jews, and of 20,000 non-Jews saved my Sousa Mendes, will be among those in attendance at a series of special events organized by the Sousa Mendes Foundation and coordinated with the observance of International Holocaust Memorial Day.

On Jan.  24 at 3 p.m., American Jewish University will host the world premiere of the oratorio “Circular 14: The Apotheosis of Aristides,” composed by Neely Bruce and produced by Marilyn Ziering.

“Circular 14” refers to an order issued by Portuguese wartime dictator Antonio Salazar to deny visas to all refugees seeking to escape Nazi-occupied Europe by way of Portugal.

The concert will feature artists from Los Angeles Opera, with actor Michael Gill of TV’s “House of Cards” as narrator.

“Aristides de Sousa Mendes was one of the genuine heroes of the Holocaust, a diplomat whose deeds made all the difference between life and death,” noted Michael Berenbaum, director of the AJU’s Sigi Ziering Institute. “A musical presentation of the man provides us with a brilliant tool to understand human decency and to celebrate a man who acted with nobility and moral clarity.”

In parallel, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) in Pacific Park is presenting the exhibition “Visas to Freedom: Aristides de Sousa Mendes and the Refugees of World War II,” opening Jan. 22 and continuing through March 1. Admission is free.

The exhibition emphasizes Sousa Mendes’ time in California. He served as Portugal’s consul general in San Francisco in the 1920s, and some of his children were born or settled in the state.

LAMOTH will also host screenings of two films on Jan. 23, starting with “With God Against Man” at 11 a.m.  The title refers to the diplomat’s statement when punished by his government: “I would rather stand with God against man than with man against God.”

“Disobedience: The Sousa Mendes Story” will screen at the museum at 2 p.m. Tickets for each of the screenings are $5 and are available at the door.

In addition, LAMOTH will host an evening memorial service and reception on Jan. 23. Among the speakers will be Sebastian Mendes, a grandson of the diplomat; Lissy Jarvik, who received a life-saving visa in 1940, and LAMOTH executive director Samara Hutman. The event is by invitation only.

Sousa Mendes died in 1954, and, 12 years later, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem named him as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations,” said Olivia Mattis, president of the foundation bearing the diplomat’s name. Twelve members of her paternal family were saved through Sousa Mendes’ intercession.

In 2013, descendants of the original visa recipients made a pilgrimage to Sousa Mendes’ hometown in Portugal. In an article on the visit, the ” target=”_blank”>www.tiny.cc/smf.

Jerusalem and L.A. join forces for Biennale

When the Jewish Artists Initiative, the Los Angeles-based arts collective chaired by Ruth Weisberg, decided to participate in the 2015 Jerusalem Biennale, Georgia Freedman-Harvey knew she’d be accumulating a lot of frequent-flier miles. Along with co-curator Anne Hromadka, she has created an exhibition titled “7,567mi,” a reference to the distance between Los Angeles and Jerusalem. Although the cities may be far apart geographically, the art in “7,567mi” shows they have a lot more in common than might be first assumed.

Speaking on the phone after returning from an international odyssey during which she was delayed on the East Coast, turning an already-long flight from Europe into a marathon, Freedman-Harvey was nevertheless excited to talk about the Biennale. “We were picked as one of the two North American entries in the Jerusalem Biennale … in part, because we were proposing this sort of unusual exhibition strategy of not just in Jerusalem but also in L.A., and having this East-West connection,” she said.

The exhibition’s East-West partnership exists not only between Jerusalem and Los Angeles, but also within the city of Los Angeles. American Jewish University (AJU), where Freedman-Harvey regularly curates, is one host site, while Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and USC Hillel, where Hromadka curates, are also host sites. 

“It’s an interesting collaboration because we come together and we bring all of our artists to the table, and we see who’s going to be the best fit,” Freedman-Harvey said. “In this case, Anne and I literally co-curated all four locations.”

Hromadka and Freedman-Harvey made all the decisions about the exhibition together, from which artists to showcase to where their work would be displayed. And they worked together at each site to stage the work. “Anything we had to do, we did entirely as a team,” Freedman-Harvey said.

“7,567mi” features the work of 39 artists from the Los Angeles area. Included among them are familiar names in the L.A. art world such as Weisberg, Bill Aron, Carol Goldmark, Soraya Sarah Nazarian and Carol Es. The works in the exhibition include photography, sculpture and paintings. Some artists chose to depict desert landscapes; others take a more literal look at the land, depicting, for example, a map; and some artists have depicted work so abstract it might be difficult at first glance to find the Israeli connection. 

One of the things that intrigued Freedman-Harvey about the show was the opportunity to reach a wide variety of audiences within the city. “USC Hillel, we know that’s much more of a student audience. … AJU, we have the most outside community that comes in. HUC has really more of the graduate [audience], conferences.” 

Josh Feldman, AJU’s consultant for arts and culture, is happy to have the Biennale work on display in the school. “In a moment of great political turmoil, there is an entirely different narrative happening in Israel,” Feldman said. “Tel Aviv specifically, but Jerusalem as well, has such a vibrancy of artists and creators making contemporary work.

“The gallery is very strategically placed in the university so that students every day are walking by this space,” Feldman said. “The doors are open during all of [the] university hours. We hope professors will take advantage and bring their students in.

“There are many ways we think about sanctuaries and holy spaces in Jewish life,” Feldman said while looking around AJU’s gallery. “This is a holy space as well. It’s a place for ideas and for us to grapple with the dilemmas of our day.”

On Dec. 13, AJU will host a panel discussion with Freedman-Harvey, Hromadka and many of the artists whose works appear in the exhibition. “We really see it as a real gathering to reflect on that East-West connection,” Freedman-Harvey said.

“On the 13th, we’ll show the video of everything in Los Angeles and all the pieces in Israel,” Freedman-Harvey said. She hopes many people will take the time to visit all three sites in L.A. “It’s all about connection, and I think Dec. 13 will really be sort of a culminating thing to bring that connection together and really celebrate that we were able to be a part of the Biennale.”

“7,567mi” is on display at USC Hillel through Dec. 5; at AJU through Dec. 20; and at HUC-JIR through Dec. 31. The curator and artists’ panel will be held at AJU from 3 to 5 p.m. Dec. 13. For more information, click here.

News reports revive AJU environmental debate

Nuclear expert Dan Hirsch made a promise in 1979 that would drag him into a three-decade fight he didn’t ask for, a fight that has since drawn in Boeing, an alphabet soup of regulators and, most recently, American Jewish University (AJU).

Hirsch’s students at UCLA had dug up some files detailing a partial nuclear meltdown in the Simi Hills in 1959 at a site bordering the 3,000-acre Jewish retreat known as the Brandeis-Bardin Campus. Hirsch immediately took the files to KNBC. 

When the story ran in 1979, a Thousand Oaks woman called Hirsch asking him to help, saying she believed the accident had caused her child’s leukemia. He promised he would.

“One tries to live up to promises,” Hirsch told the Jewish Journal in an interview. “But who ever could have conceived that it would have been a third of a century?”

Hirsch unwittingly lobbed an environmental hot potato that has been passed around ever since. In recent weeks, a new, yearlong investigation by KNBC4 has brought to the surface some once-confidential details, raising new hackles and painting AJU into an uncomfortable corner. (Four segments have aired thus far, all of which remain available on the station’s website, nbclosangeles.com.)

In response to the investigation, AJU announced to community members on Nov. 18 a new round of environmental tests it hopes will “reconfirm the safety of the property.”

AJU merged with the Brandeis-Bardin Campus northwest of Los Angeles in 2007, and with it inherited the site’s environmental baggage: The campus is adjacent to the Santa Susana Field Lab, an out-of-commission nuclear and rocket-testing site now owned by Boeing. On the north flank, closest to the Brandeis-Bardin Campus, is a tract called “Area IV,” where an experimental sodium reactor partially melted down in 1959.

That environmental disaster was just the beginning of the site’s woes.

Every time KNBC airs a segment, the reporter, Joel Grover, reveals disquieting details that raise alarm among the scores of Jewish Angelenos who have spent time at the retreat, which includes Camp Alonim. The report has included descriptions of the Santa Susana Field Lab’s nuclear burn pits, poisoned groundwater and radioactive gas released into the breeze.

The latest KNBC segment, which ran Nov. 19, revealed that the institute’s founder, Shlomo Bardin, called the sheriff in 1957 about sludge from the field lab that had ended up in a stream that bisects the educational campus. 

AJU has responded to the recent reports by saying the NBC4 I-Team is spinning tall tales, “relying on innuendo, partial information and speculation rather than evidence and facts.”

In a Nov. 21 statement to the Jewish Journal, AJU wrote, “Testing has consistently found the property to be safe — and nothing presented in recent news reports leads to a contrary conclusion.” (For the full text, click here.)

NBC4’s Joel Grover points to the site of the Santa Susana Field Lab from Sage Ranch Park in Simi Valley.

The statement adds that AJU is committed to transparency, and that “our entire staff takes our stewardship responsibilities very seriously.”

Previously, the TV station’s report charged the university with withholding information from its stakeholders — one segment in the KNBC series was titled “Camp Cover-Up.”

Now, documents uncovered by reporters Grover and Matthew Glasser are pushing AJU to reckon quite publicly with the land’s past, most prominently, its settlement agreement in a 1996 lawsuit BBI filed in federal court against Boeing. The results of that settlement remained confidential until KNBC obtained a copy.

In a related complaint uncovered by KNBC, BBI’s lawyers wrote that hazardous material produced at the field lab had “seeped into, and come to be located in the soil and groundwater of the real property.”

The settlement agreement BBI signed shortly after filing the lawsuit, published by KNBC, includes a sweepingly restrictive release of liability that curtails AJU’s current legal options. 

Jennifer Shaw, who witnessed the Santa Susana rocket tests from the balcony of her Simi Valley home in the 1980s, said that she tried to access the case files, but was told by the court they were sealed.

“Whoever Joel Grover got his stuff from has broken open a whole new area for this story,” she said.

For the parents and grandparents whose children are alumni of the camp or retreats on the property, the deluge of new documents is confusing at best, and, for some, a cause for concern.

KNBC reported that the Jewish youth program Diller Teen Fellows has cancelled a planned retreat at BBI following the reports. A representative of the program declined to comment.

When the first segment of the story aired in September, stakeholders at Milken Community Schools wondered if they should relocate retreats that traditionally have taken place at BBI. The school recently announced it ultimately decided to stick with the site, and a Dec. 4-5 Shabbaton is slated to take place there. 

The question was never about whether the site is safe, Milken Head of School Gary Weisserman said. He takes AJU at its word. But administrators admitted some parents might react negatively.

“We undoubtedly will have a couple of families who will decide not to send their child [to the Shabbaton], but that’s a choice that they’re making,” Weisserman said.

Parents can find some scientific justification on either side.

Hal Morgenstern, a University of Michigan epidemiologist who has studied cancer rates in the area around the field lab site, said his conclusions have been used by both sides: those seeking to prove the field lab was harmless, and those who doubt it.

The elevated cancer rates he found are provocative but circumstantial, he said.

Those who claim the land is safe read scientific studies on the topic as inconclusive, at worst. 

“All the evidence says, ‘Hey, you can relax about this,’ ” said Abraham Weitzberg, a nuclear engineer and former Santa Susana Field Lab official.

Weitzberg heads an organization called the Santa Susana Field Lab Community Advisory Group that generally vouches for the site’s safety. He also has papered the local press, including the Jewish Journal, with letters to that effect.

The debate has also rekindled the passions and rancor of both sides.

Weitzberg also maintains that Hirsch, the nuclear activist, is a puppeteer who has run a three-decade environmental witch-hunt. Hirsch, for his part, says Weitzberg is a Boeing mouthpiece, a claim Weitzberg finds ridiculous. 

Meanwhile, KNBC's Grover said on air that they will “stay with this story a long time.”

NBC investigation reopens contamination question at SoCal Jewish camp

For years, Victoria Tashman didn’t think much of the sonic booms coming from the Santa Susana Field Lab, just uphill from a storied Jewish retreat and campus not far from her Woodland Hills home.

“It was just part of growing up,” she said.

But in 2004, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, her father mentioned it might be related to the site in Simi Valley. And when she caught wind of a yearlong KNBC investigation into the potential contamination, which aired this week, she forwarded it to her whole family.

Now, she’s wondering if her mother’s and mother-in-law’s cancers were also related to the site.

[ESHMAN: Brandeis Bardin needs to be transparent about contamination]

The three-part investigation unearthed a trove of documents indicating that Brandeis-Bardin Institute (BBI), which includes Camp Alonim, was scarred by nuclear and other contamination from the neighboring facility, now owned by Boeing.

“People were exposed; there’s no doubt about that,” Yoram Cohen, a UCLA researcher who studied the site, said during the Nov. 9 broadcast.

The investigation found that rocket tests and “burn pits” for nuclear waste, among other potential contaminants, may have resulted in toxic exposure for the camp. American Jewish University (AJU), which since 2007 has owned and operated the campus, has denied to both KNBC and the Jewish Journal that the thousands of children who attended the camp have been in danger from contamination.

A Nov. 10 email message from AJU president Robert Wexler sent to families affiliated with the campus called the KNBC story “deeply flawed and entirely misleading.”

But an internal report initiated by Brandeis in 1997, obtained by KNBC, indicated that the “property is contaminated, at both the surface and subsurface, with radiological and chemical contaminants.”

“I was reassured over and over the land was safe and that there was no need for me to see any of the materials,” Rabbi Lee Bycel, who directed the Institute from 2000 to 2003, told the Journal. Bycel said in the KNBC report that he would not have taken the job at BBI if he had known the extent of the contamination.

Located just south of the 118 Freeway, the Brandeis-Bardin Campus encompasses nearly 3,000 acres of mess halls, bunks, prayer centers and recreation facilities, including horse stables, a swimming pool and tennis courts. Its website states that it is the “largest parcel of land owned by a Jewish institution outside the State of Israel.”

The site’s perils came to the fore in 1959 when a nuclear reactor experienced a partial meltdown. Workers told the network they were instructed to open the exhaust stacks, allowing radioactive gas to waft toward surrounding areas.

For years afterward, Rocketdyne, the company that operated the site at the time, conducted rocket tests that emitted known contaminants.

In 1997, Brandeis reached a confidential $3.2 million settlement with Boeing, obtained by KNBC, with the aerospace company agreeing to buy a portion of the adjacent land in exchange for Brandeis waiving its right to all future lawsuits over the contamination. AJU did not confirm whether the details of the settlement, as reported by KNBC, are accurate.  

The Jewish Journal attempted an investigation into the contamination three years ago, but according to Journal editor-in-chief  and publisher Rob Eshman, was unable to find enough evidence to produce a satisfactory story (see Eshman’s column, p. 6).  

“We simply lacked the resources and expertise to pursue the story,” Eshman said. “KNBC fielded a team of Emmy-winning reporters and scientific consultants over a period of one year, and Joel Grover and his team are to be commended.” 

AJU continues to assert that the facility is safe and that it has done regular testing of the property.  

Throughout the Journal’s 2012 investigation, AJU refused to release results of tests it said prove that fact. After repeated requests by KNBC, AJU released a number of test results, but not all. 

Both AJU and KNBC are posting numerous documents related to the Brandeis-Bardin property on their websites.

“Based on an exhaustive records review and the conclusion of scientific experts, we found no cause for concern about the health and safety of the campers, staff or other visitors — past or present,” the AJU wrote in a Nov. 5 letter to KNBC. “Current testing confirms the safety of our property.”

But some members of the Brandeis-Bardin community aren’t so sure.

“Everyone is just guessing at this point,” said Robert Cohen, who spent several summers on the campus in the late 1960s and sent his three sons to Camp Alonim. “The only way to know for sure is to do an epidemiological study of the health of all the campers.”

At the age of 21, Cohen’s son Daniel was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Robert Cohen believes the cancer was a result of his son’s romps around the Alonim campus, where the boys’ bunks are just downhill from the field lab.

“Whenever there were heavy rains, the creek became a river, and mud from the hillside would be washed down,” the elder Cohen told the Jewish Journal. “I’m not a scientist, but that always bothered me.”

Bycel, BBI’s former director, stressed that he has the campus’ best interests at heart when he asks for a full accounting of the contamination.

“That’s what Brandeis taught us to do; that’s being loyal to the Jewish community,” he said. “You only question when you care.”


For the Record (11/10/2015): Victoria Tashman's childhood home was corrected to reflect that she lived in Woodland Hills, not Simi Valley.  And her mother-in-law had cancer, not her brother-in-law.

The year of the creative in Jewish education

This week, countless young children in Jewish schools of all varieties will bring home familiar handmade crafts for the Jewish New Year: paper towel tube shofarot, “stained glass” honey dishes made of plastic bowls and colored with markers, and decorated “Shanah Tovah” cards. Many busy parents will not lift their gaze to look at these crafts as they respond on autopilot, “Oh, that’s beautiful,” as they do to most art projects their children make in school.

We need a whole new way of thinking about creative learning in Jewish education. These crafts are intended to engage young learners in holiday themes, in making their own symbols that they will hold dear. But without creative engagement with ideas, not just materials, they may be making their own shofar or honey dish, but without achieving deep understanding or a new perspective or interpretation of their own.

Focusing on creativity is a disruptive and uncomfortable notion for many schools. In his groundbreaking new book about the need for school change, “Creative Schools,” Ken Robinson dispels the myth that creativity is simply “about having off-the-wall ideas and letting your imagination run free.” Creativity, Robinson argues, also involves developing a critical, discerning mind and requires drafting, crafting and refining. Creativity is defined as the process of having original ideas that have value. Creativity is not a euphemism for frivolity or meaningless play. Creativity happens through intentional play and the application of imagination. It is a natural part of learning and living.

Another myth about creativity is that it can’t be taught. In my experience, that is only true if the school refuses to teach it.

The question is: Who is prepared to teach creativity? 

Dream Lab is a creativity think tank and pedagogy test kitchen at the Graduate Center for Jewish Education of American Jewish University, which is poised to answer this question. Los Angeles has an untapped mine of natural resources to attend to the task of teaching through creativity: one of the most creative Jewish populations concentrated in one city. There are Jewish creatives and artists who specialize in music, visual art, theater, digital media, cooking, movement and more who are currently freelancing in teaching roles as occasional workshop providers. They have much to offer, and we should take their potential contribution as a serious opportunity to revitalize Jewish life against the landscape of a particularly creative moment in secular culture.

Dream Lab’s theory of change is that if artists and creatives play a more central role in facilitating authentic learning — and by authentic learning I mean accessing, interpreting, applying and making meaning of ideas and concepts — then perhaps Jewish education could achieve radically different outcomes. Learners will turn to Jewish tools for confronting questions and problem solving. By widening the possibilities of Jewish expression beyond basic writing and discussion modes, Jewish learning will become Jewish thriving.  

This fall, seven creatives will begin a yearlong Dream Lab fellowship at American Jewish University to explore how to redefine the form and function of a Jewish educator as a facilitator of creativity, interpretation and personal Jewish expression. They will meet monthly to delve into Jewish ideas and texts about life’s ultimate questions, study pedagogy and human development, and incubate new creative methodologies of facilitating learning through creative processes.

As a result of the fellowship, the creatives will acquire the teaching and planning skills to implement high-quality creative Jewish learning experiences that are more Judaically rich and designed with a deeper understanding of and attention to the needs of learners. They will be co-planning new lessons, courses and curricula to bring to supplementary schools, day schools, youth groups and camps. Within a year, they will be sowing the seeds for a field of creative Jewish education, disseminating their teaching tools, and recruiting and mentoring additional artists who may be curious about Jewish teaching and learning.

Although some traditionalists might worry that introducing creative process into Jewish learning might disrupt the delicate continuity of cultural inheritance from one generation to the next, our history suggests the opposite can be true. As the pre-eminent expert on the American-Jewish experience, Jonathan Sarna, has argued, “Continuity may depend on discontinuity.” The greatest gift Jewish education can give our children is not simply a pre-packaged tradition, but a variety of tools to engage in creative dialogue with the tradition so that they may revitalize Jewish culture, practice and community throughout their lives.

By next Rosh Hashanah, the Dream Lab faculty and fellows hope to provoke a process of real creative interpretation and production among young Jews and partner with educators to rethink how to integrate arts into their curriculum. Often on the margins of Jewish life, Jewish artists are stepping into the core to redefine teaching and learning. Let this be the year of the creative in Jewish life. 

Miriam Heller Stern is dean of the Graduate Center for Jewish Education at American Jewish University.

Q&A with Ron Wolfson

Ron Wolfson, the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University, has long been at the forefront of reinventing and sustaining synagogue life. His emphasis on what he calls “Relational Judaism,” stressing personal connections over programing, has influenced congregations throughout the United States. He talks here about what he believes is working and what gives him hope for the future of synagogue congregations.

Jewish Journal: Now that we’re 15 years into the millennium, what practices from Synagogue 2000/3000 — your continuing project to work with a variety of communities to revitalize synagogue life — seem to have the most resonance?

Ron Wolfson: Three things: First, our call to transform the ambience of welcome — you cannot find a synagogue that does not say it is “warm and welcoming.” Second, there is much more variety in the kinds of worship experiences offered; and third, we are beginning to see the paradigm shift from synagogues of programs to synagogues embracing what I called in my book “Relational Judaism,” meaning putting relationships first. 

We also raised the question, “Why doesn’t everyone love synagogues?” I share some honest and humorous answers in my new book, “The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses” (Jewish Lights, 2015).

JJ: In the past, you’ve emphasized the need for community interaction that’s not just virtual, and yet our world seems to be becoming even more Internet-Twitter-Instagram dependent. Do you have any hope of changing that in the next generation?

RW: There is no doubting the impact of the Internet and social media. I can easily get all the Jewish information I want with a click of the mouse. I can get my kid bar mitzvah prep online. I can even watch any number of streaming synagogue services. So, the value offer of a synagogue has to be much deeper than the usual transaction — I pay you dues, you give me a religious school for the kids, High Holy Days seats and a rabbi. 

Yes, I can find a kind of community on Facebook, but I still believe many crave a face-to-face sacred community of relationships with people who care about you and will be there for you — in person — in good times and bad. A relational congregation offers something else: a place for spiritual discovery. Where I can find meaning: what’s it all about?  Purpose: what am I to do with my skills and talents? Belonging: where everyone knows my story. And blessing: where I celebrate the life-cycle moments of my life. 

JJ: As you travel, speaking to synagogues across the country, what do you think is the biggest challenge to traditional synagogue membership?

RW: Financial sustainability. Some smaller and midsize synagogues have moved to voluntary contributions, sensing that money is a significant obstacle to membership, especially among some Gen-Xers and millennials. The congregations that have succeeded with this are not simply saying, “Pay what you want.” They have had healthy and transparent conversations about the culture of money.

A second challenge is the need to be upfront and unapologetic about the mission of a synagogue — to bring people into a relationship with Judaism and with God, to enhance what my rabbi, Harold M. Schulweis, his memory and teaching is a constant blessing, called the godliness in each of us. Synagogues should be unafraid to say, “We can change your life.” 

JJ: Do you think that in the next decade there will be radical changes in the landscape of synagogues? In the next 50 years?

RW: Since my book “Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community” (Jewish Lights) was published in 2013, many synagogue boards and leadership groups have begun to embrace the 12 principles of engagement I identified from six case studies of organizations that understand it’s all about relationships, including Chabad. 

Major congregations have changed the way new members are embraced and current members are engaged in the life of the community. Rabbis and cantors are redoubling their efforts to meet their people, often outside the walls of the synagogue. 

Twenty years ago, synagogues created program director positions; today, some are hiring relationship directors. If this trend continues, we will see synagogues where there are more focused strategies for building relationships between the congregational staff and members; between members and other members in a variety of affinity groups; and between members and Judaism itself. The goal is to enable everyone to find their place in the congregational community, some point of connection that is so rewarding that they wouldn’t think of dropping out after their youngest child’s bar or bat mitzvah. 

In 50 years? Well, synagogues have been a bedrock institution of the Jewish community for a long time, and I certainly hope they will continue to be.

JJ: What gives you hope for the future of the Jewish community?

RW: “Hope” — “Hatikvah” — is the anthem of our people. But, there is a thin line between hope and fear. We have plenty of angst right now, for good reasons. And yet, as the new year dawns, I think it’s important to remember the extraordinary progress of the American-Jewish community in the past 100 years. My Russian immigrant grandfather came to Omaha, Neb., in the early 20th century with nothing but hopes and dreams. He cherished the opportunity he found there to build a family, a business and a community in his adopted country. He called me — and called me to be — the “best boy” I could be in his beloved United States of America. I, along with other Jewish baby boomers, was born into a generation “between” — between the dark shadows of the Holocaust and the bright brilliance of the heroic founding of the Jewish homeland in Israel.  We have been fully shaped by America. 

While some of our ancestors taught us, “Schwer zu sein ein Yid” — “It’s hard to be a Jew” — as it certainly was in the Russia of my grandparents and the Europe of my in-laws — it is not in the United States of America. Here in this blessed country, here in this land of freedom and choice, we have sought to craft a unique American Judaism, reinventing old traditions in new ways, a joyous Judaism of inspiration and spiritual uplift. My hope for the future rests on my ability to say to my children and grandchildren not, “It’s easy to be a Jew”; rather I want to say to them: “It’s wonderful to be a Jew,” for Judaism can lead you to a life of meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing. If they believe and embrace that for themselves and their children and grandchildren, the future of the Jewish community in the United States of America will be very bright, indeed.

Ron Wolfson’s new book is “The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses” (Jewish Lights). He will be telling his stories at AJU at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 27. Excerpts at


Soraya Nazarian, AJU and the fine art of philanthropy

Soraya Nazarian has been taking sculpting classes at American Jewish University (AJU) for more than 20 years. She started sculpting at AJU in the late 1980s, and since then has become one of the most renowned Jewish artists in the world. 

Thanks in part to the resources of AJU, she has ascended to the top of her profession. Earlier this month, she decided to repay the institution.

On July 13, AJU announced that the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation had presented it with a gift of $1 million to AJU to create the Soraya Sarah Nazarian Program in Fine Arts, which will operate under the umbrella of AJU’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education. The funds also will go toward constructing the Soraya Sarah Nazarian Fine Arts Pavilion on AJU’s Bel Air campus. 

“I have sincerely enjoyed the opportunity to take fine-arts classes, such as sculpture, at American Jewish University,” Nazarian said in a statement. “I am pleased to be able to give back to the community that has provided me with so much opportunity to learn and grow.”

Joanna Gerber, vice president for marketing and communication at AJU, said Nazarian’s endowment will create substantial improvements to the school’s fine-arts curriculum. 

“The fine-arts program has always been a really popular and well-intentioned program,” Gerber said. “So to receive this gift is a huge honor because it allows us to continue the work in a meaningful way. We’ll be able to expand our programs and continue with existing programs.”

The Nazarian family has helped advance Jewish culture and fine-arts programs at other universities in the past. In 2005, UCLA used a $5 million donation from the Nazarian Family Foundation to create the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. In 2004, the family gave $1 million to USC to establish the Nazarian Pavilion in the Edward L. Doheny Jr. Memorial Library. 

Officials said AJU will use the gift primarily to address two distinct needs. An estimated 25 percent of the funds will be dedicated to refurbishing and redesigning the campus, including creating an archway in front of the Nazarian Pavilion. A timeline for these construction projects has not yet been established. The other 75 percent of the gift will go toward funding coursework, maintaining resources and facilities, and expanding the program into new disciplines. 

Nazarian’s sculptures are primarily made out of marble and are displayed in Los Angeles and Israel, including at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Haifa. She also displays her work at regular student shows at AJU. Her sensibility ranges from abstract to impressionistic, and her most prominent themes include her heritage, her identity and the natural world. 

Rabbi Gary Oren, vice president and dean of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education, said Nazarian’s sculptures are the result of intense commitment to her vision.

“Soraya is very dedicated to her craft, and the pieces that I have seen are magnificent,” Oren said. “They come out of her soul, they are powerful and extremely well done.”

Robert Wexler, AJU president, said the donation will help carry on a rich tradition of fine-arts education at the institution. When it was founded in 1947 as the University of Judaism, the curriculum was guided by scholar Mordecai Kaplan’s belief that there should be several different entry points into Jewish scholarship, instead of only traditional rabbinical study. 

“He understood that Jews are going to connect to Jewish life in many ways, including the arts, and when the university was founded, its fine-arts program was one-of-a-kind,” Wexler said. “This new emphasis is to try and re-create that connection with the arts, which we consider to be so important.”

Bringing music to AJU

“Once upon a time there was a legacy of producing original pieces in all the different arts, and for whatever reason, we’d strayed from that,” said Rabbi Gary Oren, dean of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education at American Jewish University (AJU), on a recent afternoon.  

The hilltop university’s Gindi Auditorium has been filled in recent years with famous speakers and thoughtful debate, but less frequently with high art. Officials hope the creation of a choir and collaboration with the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony (LAJS) will offer a breath of renewed artistic life. 

For Noreen Green, LAJS director and conductor, the decision to approach AJU last year with the idea of linking up and starting a choir was an easy one. She had just finished a 20-year run working at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, where the symphony had performed frequently over the years, and wanted a new place for LAJS to stage a yearly concert.  

“We experimented last year with the ‘Classics to Klezmer’ concert, and it was really successful,” Green said. “The musicians love [it], and I love conducting on the stage — acoustically, it’s the best.”

The appeal of the Gindi was partly based on its sound, but history had a role, too. 

“There were so many people doing music out here — of course, [composer] Max Helfman. Part of my mission has been to kind of re-establish that excitement that was here as far as performing classical Jewish music,” Green said. 

Josh Feldman, AJU’s new director of the Institute for Jewish Creativity, is excited about the possibility of realizing the Gindi’s full artistic potential. 

“We’re in a process of rebuilding, and the choir and the symphony are both great examples of that. It’s a gradual process,” he said. “We’re looking to bring high-quality examples of both explicitly Jewish arts and culture, and culture [in general] to that space. More broadly, we’re hoping over the next 15 years to become one of the leading destinations for Jewish arts and culture in the country, and the Gindi is central to that vision.

“Arts and culture is for everyone, and I can’t think of better institutions than choirs or symphonies under great leadership that meet that sort of utility, where everyone can be a part of this, either by singing or playing, or to be listeners,” he continued.

For Green, her work at AJU requires her to wear two hats: one as the director of the independent LAJS, and another as the director of the university’s choir, an official program of the Whizin Institute. 

“Being the choir director is like being a mom. You’ve got to nurture them, and you’ve got to get them to do what you want them to do,” Green said, laughing. “It’s a different relationship with the choir and with the orchestra. I love both.”

The choir performed as recently as March 29, and the LAJS’ big spring concert will take place April 12 at 7 p.m. The concert will consist of three pieces, feature local composers Russell Steinberg and Sharon Farber, and run approximately 90 minutes.  The evening will be rounded out with a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Halil.”

Steinberg’s work, “Canopy of Peace,” was commissioned by the Schulweis Institute and weaves in text written by the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who died this past December. It’s a particularly personal piece for Green. 

“Rabbi Schulweis was one of my dear, dear mentors … There’s a real big hole in my heart since he passed away,” she said. “The performance is a couple of days before what would have been his 90th birthday.”

Farber’s piece is based on a poem called “Only a Book.” According to Green, “It basically describes the journey of the Jewish people and how they survived throughout the ages with only ‘The Book,’ the Bible.”

As for Bernstein’s “Halil,” she called it the most modern-sounding of the bunch. She’s particularly excited to have Israeli flutist Itay Lantner with the symphony to play in the flute-heavy piece.

For Green, the works are linked by some essential questions about art: What is the inspiration to write music? Is it text? Is it something that happens? Where does it come from?  

In her mind, all three pieces feature unique viewpoints on the subject. “It’s not just entertainment, you also learn something,” she said. “And you feel like you’ve come away with some knowledge about music, about Judaism.”

Or, as Feldman suggested, about life and the human experience. 

“For many of us, in our hardest or most joyous moments, it is a piece of music or a piece of art that explains for us … what that experience is in its vastness in a way that words can’t even begin to do,” he said. “Every time we put on the radio, we are a listener, and that makes us more than just a participant — we’re an active part of a community and dialogue.” 

If Feldman has his way, this will be the start of a long and fruitful relationship between LAJS and AJU. 

“AJU has a long legacy of arts and culture from its very beginning. There’s a strong belief that culture is a continued investment,” he said. “I heard a great rabbi say — Rabbi Sharon Brous — that if you can’t pray, you should sing. I think that there is a holiness to arts and culture.”

Michael Berenbaum Q&A: ‘I thought we would have done better’

On March 16, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C., will honor Michael Berenbaum with the museum’s National Leadership Award at a dinner in Los Angeles themed “What You Do Matters.”  Berenbaum, currently director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust at the American Jewish University (AJU) and a frequent contributor to the Journal, oversaw the creation of the USHMM from 1988 to 1993, serving as its project director and as director of the U.S. Holocaust Research Institute. In advance of the honor, Berenbaum reflected upon his own work as well as his challenges in continuing the fight against anti-Semitism in the world today.

Jewish Journal: You’re being honored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum at a time when talk of anti-Semitism seems more heated than ever. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speech to Congress sounded the alarm, as if the next Holocaust is around the corner. Do you feel that kind of talk is warranted?

Michael Berenbaum: About a dozen years ago, I convened a conference at the AJU and published its proceedings in a book titled “Not Your Father’s Antisemitism” because I was disturbed by all the ill-informed talk of 2003 being 1933, 1939 or even 1942. I feel that those who refight the last battle lose sight of the current battle and do not understand our contemporary situation.

To say it is not 1933 or 1939 is not to say that the situation is not serious, concerning or disturbing; it is merely to reiterate the obvious — we are different, and the world is different.

How are we different? There is a dramatic imbalance between the way Jews perceive themselves and the ways we are perceived by others. We have become an empowered people. Israel is a regional military superpower and a significant economic power in a world of knowledge-based economies. And Jews in the United States are dramatically more powerful than we were a generation or two generations ago. We are perceived as Goliath, yet we perceive ourselves as David. We are perceived in Israel as the oppressor and not the oppressed. And yet we see ourselves as oppressed. Goliath does not generate much sympathy, but it is hard to view the Jews today as David with a slingshot.

To illustrate the change, there is much talk of an Iranian attack on Israel, for such an attack has been threatened. And yet, if one had to bet on a scenario of which is more likely — will Iran attack Israel, or Israel attack Iranian nuclear installations? — which way would one bet? The very fact that this issue can be raised shows how dramatically the Jewish condition has changed.

And the world is different: Hitler ruled 22 countries. Anti-Semitism was the province of those with the power to impose their will on the Jews. Today, anti-Semitism is opposed by Europe’s governments, and their leadership is speaking out — witness the behavior of the president and prime minister of France and the prime minister of Denmark. The anti-Semitism expressed in these countries is the product of alienated radical Islamic minorities, joined by some on the left who are anti-Israel. Yet they cannot strike an alliance with the right, because the right is anti-immigrant. Thus we do not face wall-to-wall, state-sponsored or state-endorsed, state-condoned anti-Semitism.

Arab and radical Islamic anti-Semitism is another matter, but there, too, it is rather different than what drove the Holocaust because these anti-Semites lack the capacity to achieve their goal, and the politics of rage has generated more Muslim-on-Muslim violence than anti-Jewish violence.

JJ: Do you feel your ongoing work of explaining the Holocaust has helped in ensuring “Never Again”? 

MB: Frankly, I am ashamed to live in the world that we are bequeathing to our children. I thought we would have done better. My generation has known many triumphs. I was part of the civil rights movement. We defeated segregation and apartheid in our society. We achieved a modicum of voters’ rights and civil rights for African-Americans — indeed for all Americans.

I was a volunteer in the Six-Day War and experienced what was a joyous victory, seemingly a transformation of Jewish destiny “from Auschwitz to Jerusalem” in one generation. I participated in the anti-Vietnam War movement that forced President Lyndon Johnson not to seek re-election and that helped end an awful war. I traveled to the Soviet Union and, along with many activists and committed Jews of my generation, helped Soviet Jews free themselves and one another. I repeatedly traveled behind the Iron Curtain and witnessed the peaceful revolution that destroyed communism from within. I was in Europe when the Berlin Wall came down. And I witnessed, albeit from afar, the second miracle of the late 20th century — the demise of apartheid and the transformation of a white racist regime in South Africa without violence.

And yet genocide persists — in Cambodia, Biafra, Rwanda, Yugoslavia and Darfur, genocide has taken new forms. Violence is pervasive, and the politics of rage endures.

It is also not clear in hindsight whether Israel ever won the Six-Day War or whether that battle continues to this day. It is not clear whether the great victory and the great unity that we experienced then, that that victory may actually have divided the Jewish people and threated the future of the Jewish democratic state and the essence of Jewish values.

JJ: Do you find yourself discouraged?

MB: I find myself repeating the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, z”l, these days: “I am an optimist against my better judgment.” And the words that Adlai Stevenson used to eulogize Eleanor Roosevelt: “She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness.” If we become discouraged, if we despair, we will turn the world over to the forces that hate and rage.

JJ: We’ve seen the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement gain momentum on college campuses, including at UCLA — most recently, an outstanding Jewish student almost didn’t get appointed to a student judicial post, apparently because being Jewish seemed a conflict of interest until a school official intervened. Was that anti-Semitism, and what do you make of the situation on college campuses today?

MB: BDS is an effort to delegitimize Israel, and some of its proponents cannot contain their anger from morphing into overt, direct anti-Semitism. It is also, in part, a fraud. Because if its proponents were serious about BDS, they would give up their cell phones and iPads; they would cease using Intel chips and Microsoft Windows; they would cease using drip irrigation and water desalinization; they would avoid vaccinating their children against diseases or performing hypersensitive medical procedures that save lives. I understand opposition to Israeli policies in the West Bank, but Israel is hardly the most offending of countries in the world today, and BDS singles out Israel for special condemnation, ignoring fully the many magnificent contributions that it makes to the world today and to the very quality of our lives.  

JJ: When you started this work, did you envision a more peaceful world today?

MB: I have a dream that the study of the Holocaust will become irrelevant; that one will look back at the museum in Washington and say, “Look how absurd it is that 20th-century humanity treated one another with racism and lethal anti-Semitism. Imagine that they thought that state-sponsored annihilation of a people merely because they were of a different religion was a reasonable policy, that human rights could be so violated and human dignity so trampled upon, that cultural achievement, technological acumen and scientific knowledge could be divorced from respect for human right and reverence for human decency.” 

Would that we lived in such a world, but we do not.

JJ: So, what role does the USHMM play in this conversation, and how effective can any museum — even a really good one — be in combating entrenched ideas?

MB: I am enormously proud of the museum, now visited by more than 40 million people and teaching people from all walks of life — judges and policemen, Army cadets and Naval midshipmen, governmental leaders of so many nations, to ordinary — extraordinary — school children, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists and of so many other faiths — teaching them the basic history of the Holocaust and its implications. I am proud of its work to sensitize people to ongoing and impending genocides. I am honored to have played a role in its conception and its creation and in the launching of its archives and academic endeavors. It cannot be blamed for the crises of our world today, and yet it must continue its efforts. 

Washington and the United States would be less without those efforts. Yet, we still can neither be satisfied nor complacent.

JJ: Have anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism merged?

MB: How do we distinguish between legitimate criticism of the policies of the State of Israel and anti-Semitism? Natan Sharansky has suggested three ways: delegitimation, double standards, demonization.

If we move from criticism of Israeli policies to the notion that Israel has no right to exist, we move over the line to anti-Semitism.

If we judge Israel by one standard and the rest of the world by another, then we are perilously close to, if not already, anti-Semitic.

If we move from the notion that Jews or Israelis do bad to the notion that Jews or Israelis are the source of all or most evil, or are inherently evil, then we have crossed the line into anti-Semitism.

For many, anti-Zionism is an easy way to proclaim, “I am not an anti-Semite, even though I fundamentally oppose the way that many Jews have chosen to live their future and to lay stake in the future of the State of Israel.”

I am currently teaching a course on the history of Zionism and the tension in the various schools of Zionist thought and about the thinking of its major thinkers and actors. I oppose some schools of Zionism. I think they are disastrous to the Jewish future or anathema to Jewish historical values, yet I remain a Zionist, though not uncritical of Israel’s achievements and not without an understanding of its failures.

On a deep level, we Jews face a paradox that is at the core of the Zionist experience. We learned from the Holocaust that powerlessness invites victimization; therefore we have sought power, and yet however much power we have achieved, it has not ended our sense of vulnerability.

Zionism promised that the Jews would become independent, and yet Jews became independent precisely as the world became interdependent, so however much we imagine that we can act alone, we live in a dramatically interdependent world. 

Zionism also imagined that the Jews could become a normal people, a nation like other nations — dull, boring, tranquil, marginal, ignored and ignorable. We are not that people and perhaps can never be. 

JJ: So, where do you find hope for a brighter future?

MB: We have to find it in ourselves and in one another, in the resources of our tradition and the best aspirations of our people. 

L.A. rabbi says mikveh at AJU is secure, calls Freundel scandal a ‘unique case’

In the wake of a scandal in which a Washington, D.C. Orthodox rabbi was arrested on Tuesday, Oct. 14, for allegedly spying on women undressing at a mikveh connected to his synagogue, Rabbi Richard A. Flom, a Los Angeles authority on the mikveh [ritual bathhouse] and a member of the Rabbinical Assembly executive committee, said the mikveh at American Jewish University [AJU], a community resource of the Rabbinical Assembly, is secure enough that people who use it for conversion, taharat hamishpacha [family purity] and other reasons, need not worry about someone illicitly watching them while they undress and immerse themselves in the mikveh pool.

[Related: Rabbi Barry Freundel arrested, charged with voyeurism]

Flom spoke to the Journal after the arrest of Rabbi Barry Freundel, 62, who has denied allegations filed Wednesday, Oct. 15, that he recorded at least six women showering at the mikveh at his synagogue. Freundel pleaded not guilty to a charge of voyeurism, a misdemeanor and was released without bond. Freundel “allegedly placed a hidden camera and recorder … inside…the changing-preparation area,” the website Failed Messiah reported, saying that he reportedly hid the recording device inside a digital clock.

During a phone interview on Oct. 15, L.A.’s Rabbi Flom addressed Freundel’s actions. “We don’t see how anything like that would be possible, or why anyone would want to do it.”

“We don’t want anyone to be turned off from utilizing this [the AJU mikveh] or any other mikveh because of these allegations. It’s probably a unique case that this story is about. At least I hope so,” Flom said.

“We don’t think anything like that could happen here, because we have multiple supervisors here, checking everything,” he added.

Freundel’s actions occurred at the Georgetown-based modern Orthodox community, Kesher Israel Congregation, where Freundel is the spiritual leader. The synagogue has posted a statement on its website that strongly denounces Freundel’s behavior.

“This is a painful moment for Kesher Israel Congregation and the entire Jewish community,” the statement from the synagogue’s board of directors reads.

Flom, a leader in the Conservative movement – the Rabbinical Assembly is the denomination’s rabbinical arm – said mikvaot are a place where women and men willingly undress fully under the assumption that no one is watching, and he therefore described Freundel’s alleged actions as “unfortunate.”

Flom did not want to speak further about Freundel out of respect for Lashon harah [gossip] laws.

“I have to tell you in all honesty I suspect there have been questions about this kind of thing for decades in regards to mikvaot,” Flom said.The utilization of it is a private and personal experience and people are vulnerable when they do it. Anybody who takes their clothes off and goes into a pool is vulnerable to the extent that they have taken their clothes off and are in a pool and not in their home – they are someplace else.”

The mikveh at AJU is one of several in Los Angeles. Others include the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles on Pico Boulevard and Chabad of Brentwood’s Brentwood Mikvah for women.

Moving and Shaking: Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem recently bestowed multiple honors on people with connections to the Los Angeles area. 

Patricia Glaser, a member of the university’s international board of governors, received an honorary doctorate on June 8 in Jerusalem. The Malibu resident also was honored for her contribution as a university benefactor in a separate ceremony the following day.

Glaser is a pre-eminent business trial attorney and the chair of the litigation department at Century City-based law firm Glaser Weil.

Daniel I. Schlessinger, president of American Friends of The Hebrew University (AFHU), said in a press release that Glaser’s “generosity and sense of Jewish communal spirit are immense.”

Additionally, Israel advocate and donor Mark Vidergauz received an honorary fellowship from the university on June 9 during the school’s international board of governor’s meeting in Jerusalem. Vidergauz is the founder and CEO of the Los Angeles-based investment bank Sage Group and a member of the Hebrew University international board of governors. 

An AFHU press release indicated that Vidergauz’s “tireless support for Israel” earned him the spotlight.

Haim and Cheryl Saban and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev President Rivka Carmi. Photo by Dani Machlis

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) presented Holocaust historian Saul Friedlander with an honorary doctoral degree during the 44th annual board of governors meeting in Beer-Sheva, Israel, last month.

During the May 20 ceremony, BGU president Rivka Carmi said Friedlander is “one of the foremost researchers of the history of the Holocaust for his notable contribution in elucidating the enigma of the Jewish people’s survival in our age,” according to an American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev press release. 

Per the press release, Friedlander — the inaugural holder of the 1939 Club Chair in Holocaust Studies at UCLA, a 1999 MacArthur Fellow and 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner — expressed hope that his work on the Holocaust will have a lasting impact. 

“My dream that people will take from my work is the direction leading to compassion, understanding the suffering of others, and the will to live peacefully with others,” the honoree said in accepting the honor.

During the same event, BGU recognized social activist, philanthropist and psychologist Cheryl Saban with an honorary doctoral degree. Saban, who is married to Haim Saban, is an author and president of the Saban Family Foundation.

“My ability to give is going to continue for the rest of my life, but I really think that when one person is giving, it’s like putting a stone in a pond,” Saban said, according to a press release. “It’s a ripple that continues out. It’s infectious — it’s actually contagious in a good way. 

In conferring the honorary degree, Carmi praised the honoree’s contributions to the community and called her “a woman of vision.”

Also recognized with an honorary doctoral degree was Long Beach philanthropist James M. Breslauer, who was recognized for “personally spearheading the development of and funding for Israel’s new cyber technology center, CyberSpark, at the new Advanced Technologies Park, in Beer-Sheva,” the press release stated.

American Jewish University president Robert Wexler and Los Angeles Jewish Home CEO-President Molly Forrest. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Jewish Home

American Jewish University (AJU) President Robert Wexler presented Los Angeles Jewish Home CEO-President Molly Forrest with an honorary degree during AJU’s commencement ceremony on May 18.

Wexler highlighted the important role Forrest, as the leader of a nationally renowned provider of senior health care services, has played in bolstering the L.A. Jewish community. 

“Molly, the work you have done on behalf of our community is nothing short of remarkable. Step by step, you have made our local Jewish Home a model for communities around the country, both through your creative planning and your careful management,” Wexler said, according to a press release.

In accepting the degree, Forrest said, “I am incredibly touched and honored to receive this doctorate degree and thank the AJU for it. rI share the success of today with gratitude to many donors, staff, colleagues, volunteers and board members who give so much to make the Jewish Home what it is.”

Front row (from left): Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami, former L.A. City Clerk June Lagmay, homeless-youth advocate Carlos Sosa, and community leaders Elaine Harley and Mignon Moore.

Back row (from left): Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim, City Controller Ron Galperin, NBA player Jason Collins, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, former Councilmember Bill Rosendahl, Councilmember Mike Bonin and Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell. 

Los Angeles’ LGBT Heritage Month kickoff celebration honored equality activists in the community on May 30 at City Hall.

This year’s honorees included NBA athlete Jason Collins, former L.A. City Clerk June Lagmay, homeless-youth advocate Carlos Sosa, Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Rabbi Denise Eger, and community leaders Mignon Moore and Elaine Harley.

The City Council gave a presentation about the activists and advocates, explaining the work they’ve done to more than 250 people in attendance. Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Controller Ron Galperin, Councilmember Mike Bonin and Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell participated in the ceremony, which was followed by a reception in the City Hall forecourt.

“LGBT heritage month is our opportunity every year to recognize the integral role of the LGBT community in our life and culture here in Los Angeles,” Galperin said.

Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood has advanced equality over her 26-year career. 

“It was a very significant event,” Eger said in a phone interview. “I think part of it has to do with the instrumental way the Jewish community has modeled learning to be tolerant, accepting and ultimately inclusive. And I think that is a huge issue. It wasn’t always inclusive. Now in the Jewish community in L.A., in particular, it still struggles, but even in the Orthodox communities, conversation is happening.”

Eger has worked with members of the government and City Council to address LGBT acceptance in Los Angeles and the world as a whole. Galperin called her and Edwards “two of our community’s most inspiring leaders — for their advocacy, scholarship and commitment to equality.”

“We’ve played a role in the Jewish community for that conversation to happen and for teaching other big traditions how to be inclusive,” Eger said. “We learn to work across color lines and ethnicity lines. It’s a model for the greater world.”

— Michelle Chernack, Contributing Writer

State Assembly candidates Jacqui Irwin and Rob McCoy participated in a dialogue at the New Shul of the Conejo on March 29. The New Shul’s Rabbi Michael Barclay moderated. Photo courtesy of the New Shul of the Conejo

Two candidates for the 44th State Assembly District — Democrat Jacqui Irwin and Republican Rob McCoy — participated in a debate on May 29 at the New Shul of the Conejo.

During the dialogue, which included an hour of debate and a meet-and-greet with audience members, the candidates discussed economic growth, education and their commitment to serving the community, according to Rabbi Michael Barclay. The district includes southern Ventura County.

Both candidates received enough votes in the June 3 primary election to advance to the general election in November. A third candidate, Republican Mario de la Piedra, did not take part in the debate.

The debate took place at the Center for Spiritual Living in Westlake Village, where the synagogue currently holds services. Barclay said there was a strong turnout for the event, with attendees filling half the sanctuary.

Since its founding 3 1/2 years ago, the New Shul has worked to establish a dialogue on spiritual, social and political issues relevant to the Jewish community. Last year, the synagogue invited three Jewish leaders from different denominations to discuss the community’s response to same-sex marriage. Barclay said these kinds of events create opportunities for Jews to become more educated on issues that affect them.

“I think it’s important for us to recognize that, in order for us to say we’re spiritual people, we have to be active people as well,” he said.

— Nuria Mathog, Contributing Writer 

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com