November 21, 2018

Moving & Shaking: Bet Tzedek Justice Ball, Movable Minyan Anniversary

Photo courtesy of Bet Tzedek.

Legal aid agency Bet Tzedek’s New Leadership Council held its 22nd annual Justice Ball on July 14 at Poppy in West Hollywood. The Justice Ball raises funds to support the work of Bet Tzedek, which provides free legal services for those in need.

A sign reading “Bet Tzedek Justice for All” was displayed on the wall of the packed nightclub as more than 700 young professionals danced the night away to the sounds of the electrofunk DJ duo Chromeo.

Attendees included Bet Tzedek President and CEO Jessie Kornberg, Vice President of External Affairs Allison Lee and Development Operations Coordinator Zoe Engel; 30 Years After President Sam Yebri; and JQ International Assistant Director Arya Marvazy.

Kim Chemerinsky and David Mark are co-chairs of the New Leadership Council, a volunteer group consisting of young professionals dedicated to supporting the work of Bet Tzedek.

The law firms of Alston & Bird and Seyfarth Shaw and Skadden, as well as Beach Point Capital Management, served as the evening’s top sponsors.

Based in Los Angeles, Bet Tzedek was founded in 1974 as an all-volunteer agency fighting for Holocaust victims. Today, the organization provides free legal services for low-income individuals and families in Los Angeles.

From left: Author Howard Kaplan, Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief David Suissa, writer/director Daniel Zelik Berk and L.A. Jewish Film Festival Director Hilary Helstein enjoyed the L.A. premiere of “Damascus Cover” at the Museum of Tolerance. Photo courtesy of the L.A. Jewish Film Festival.

The Los Angeles premiere of the film “Damascus Cover,” a political thriller, was held July 12 at the Museum of Tolerance.

The program featured Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa moderating a discussion with Daniel Zelik Berk, the film’s writer and director, and Howard Kaplan, author of the 1977 novel on which the film is based.

The event was organized by the Jewish Journal, the Museum of Tolerance and the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, whose director, Hilary Helstein, was in attendance.

Set in late 1989, at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, “Damascus Cover” follows a Mossad operative attempting to smuggle a Jewish chemical weapons scientist out of Syria. Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars in the film as Mossad operative Ari Ben-Zion. The film’s co-stars are the late John Hurt, who gave his final screen performance as Ben-Zion’s boss at the Israeli intelligence agency, and actress Olivia Thirlby, who plays an American photographer.

The film opened in theaters on July 20.

Gabrielle Birkner, co-founder and executive editor of Modern Loss, delivered the keynote lecture on Tisha B’av at Temple Beth Am. Photo courtesy of Twitter.

Members of Temple Beth Am, IKAR, B’nai David-Judea and Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills gathered on July 22 for prayer, learning and song in commemoration of Tisha b’Av, the Jewish holiday marking the destruction of the holy Temples in Jerusalem and other tragedies in Jewish history.

“We are creating a space first as a community and then inviting God into that place,” Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn of B’nai David-Judea said in her welcoming remarks. “The partnership between the Jewish people and God is what will bring that comfort.”

Thomas-Newborn introduced keynote speaker Gabrielle Birkner, co-founder and executive editor of Modern Loss, an online community and content platform geared to young adults living with loss.

After Birkner’s father and stepmother were murdered in a home invasion, she found that “grief found a way to make itself known,” she said.

“Jerusalem is a fitting metaphor for how to explain grief,” Birkner said in her speech. “When the worst has happened, we build communities of caring.”

The event included breakout sessions that focused on different aspects of grief, comfort and consolation. Matt Shapiro, interim associate rabbi at Temple Beth Am, spoke on “The Spirituality of Giving and Receiving Comfort.” Temple Beth Am Senior Rabbi Adam Kligfeld explored “The Deep Meaning of the Root ‘Nachem.’ ” And Sarah Bassin, associate rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, engaged her group in a discussion of grief stages, Jewish texts and personal stories in “Seven Weeks of Comfort: When Prophets Stop Chastising.”

In addition to the four participating synagogues, the Our House Grief Support Center was a sponsor of the event.

Esther D. Kustanowitz, Contributing Writer

Members of Movable Minyan celebrated the volunteer-led congregation’s 30th anniversary on July 15 at the Institute for Jewish Education. Photo by Edmon Rodman.

The Movable Minyan celebrated its 30th anniversary on July 15 at the Institute for Jewish Education, where the group meets for services.

Thirty people turned out to commemorate the occasion, including five who were present at the volunteer-led congregation’s inaugural Shabbat, on Dec. 19, 1987, in the living room of Edmon and Brenda Rodman.

“Over the years, we have laughed, prayed, celebrated and mourned together as a community, and we have become close friends,” Edmon told the Journal.

The event was titled “A Night of Lameds.”

Living up to its name, Movable Minyan, over the course of three decades, has met at 49 locations. It has held nearly 700 Shabbat meetings, given out 3,300 aliyot, raised more than $300,00 and davened for 28 high holy days. The anniversary celebration marked these accomplishments and more.

The self-described “small cooperative synagogue” convenes on the first and third Shabbat morning of every month for a participatory, musical service and Shabbat dairy potluck lunch and on the fourth Friday of each month.

From left: Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel of Chabad at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Chabad on Campus Executive Vice President Rabbi Yossy Gordon; Supreme Council of ZBT International President Norman Waas; ZBT Executive Director Laurence Bolotin and Rabbi Mendy Fellig of Chabad at University of Miami attended a gala honoring Chabad on Campus. Photo courtesy of Chabad on Campus.

Chabad on Campus International received the Richard J.H. Gottheil Award from the Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT) fraternity on July 14 at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles.

The Gottheil Award is presented to individuals and groups that have advanced human understanding among all people. The award is named for the late American scholar, Zionist and founder of ZBT, the world’s first Jewish college fraternity.

Chabad on Campus was named the winner of the award based on its work that gives Jewish students a place of belonging. Chabad on Campus engages college students in Jewish life and serves the needs of the campus community on a social, educational and spiritual level.

Chabad on Campus International Executive Vice President Rabbi Yossy Gordon, who accepted the award from Supreme Council of ZBT President Norman Waas, credited the work of the organization’s 264 campus centers.

“Chabad’s approach to living is about intellectual awareness,” Gordon said. “To make a decision based on an understanding, a clarity, and to be able to know the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, and inspire others to make a decision based on thinking rather than emotionally reacting.”

Attendees included Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel from the Chabad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Rabbi Mendy Fellig of the Chabad at the University of Miami in Florida and ZBT Executive Director Laurence Bolotin.

Moving & Shaking: Nazarians at CSUN, Pico Union Project’s Ultimate Shabbat, Bet Tzedek’s Justice Ball

Younes and Soraya Nazarian recently donated $17 million to Cal State Northridge’s Valley Performing Arts Center, to be renamed the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts. Photo courtesy of Cal State Northridge.

Los Angeles-based Iranian-Jewish philanthropists Younes and Soraya Nazarian have donated $17 million to Cal State Northridge (CSUN), prompting the renaming of the school’s Valley Performing Arts Center to the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts.

In a statement, CSUN President Dianne Harrison heralded the donation, one of the largest in the history of the state university system.

“The Nazarian family has made a profound and lasting impact on CSUN and the entire region,” Harrison said. “Younes and Soraya have ensured that we can continue to deliver the finest music, dance and theater events, engaging communities throughout Los Angeles and Southern California.”

The California State University Board of Trustees approved the renaming of the center, which houses a 1,700-seat theater. Established six years ago, the center will be known informally as “The Soraya.”

The Nazarians provided the donation through the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation, which promotes education and societal change by focusing on four areas of giving, including the “artistic realm,” the foundation website says.

“At CSUN, we found the perfect opportunity to impact the entire region by supporting two of our family’s most treasured values — education and the arts,” Younes Nazarian said. “My wife’s name, Soraya, means jewel, and this center is a jewel, as well. It is very fitting that her name will grace this building that is itself beautiful and contains such artistic beauty on its stage.”

The Nazarians’ support for CSUN dates back to 2014, when their son, David, a CSUN alumnus, provided a naming gift to the CSUN business college, now known as David Nazarian College of Business and Economics. In 2016, Younes and Soraya Nazarian donated 50 laptops for business students. They sponsored the 50th anniversary of the newly renamed business college, as well. Soraya, a renowned artist, also made and donated a sculpture that will be installed at the Nazarian College.

The Nazarians left Iran and moved to the United States in 1979 during the Islamic Revolution, settling in Beverly Hills. Younes is a businessman and investor.

— Clara Sandler, Contributing Writer

Aryell Cohen (left), trope specialist at Sinai Temple, embraces Craig Taubman, founder of the Pico Union Project. Photo by Linda Kasian Photography.

The inaugural Pico Union Project benefit, “Light Up the Night: The Ultimate Shabbat Table,” was held June 2 at its multifaith cultural center in Los Angeles.

Participants in the sold-out gathering, which functioned as both a community-building event and a fundraiser, according to Pico Union Project executive director Zach Lasker, included singer Shanee Zamir, Cantor Marcus Feldman and actor, writer and event emcee Stuart M. Robinson.

Exceeding its fundraising goal of $40,000, the evening kicked off with hors d’oeuvres in the parking lot, followed by a candle lighting, dinner and the entertainment program.

The 170 attendees at the benefit included Rabbi Deborah Schuldenfrei, DeLet Education Director at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and her husband, Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei, spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay; the Rev. Najuma Smith-Pollard, program manager of the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement; Rabbi Scott Westle, rabbi-in-residence at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School; and Edina Lekovic, public affairs consultant at the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

In 2013, singer-songwriter Craig Taubman founded the Pico Union Project in the former home of Sinai Temple. Looking ahead, Lasker said he’s excited about the spiritual programming that the organization aims to provide.

“We’re not looking to create a community where people show up and sit in the pews and enjoy — that’s lovely but not what we’re all about,” Lasker said. “We want people to feel they have a stake in creating a multifaith, multicultural community, where there is commitment to looking outside the bubble.”

Too Short performed at Bet Tzedek’s 21st annual Justice Ball on July 21. Photo courtesy of Bet Tzedek.

Dressed in a casual tracksuit and a slicked-back ponytail, pop artist Sia took the stage at West Hollywood hot spot Bootsy Bellows on July 20 at Bet Tzedek’s 21st annual Justice Ball. With the help of DJ Fred Matters, the singer played tracks ranging from Tupac Shakur’s classic “California Love” to DJ Khaled and Rihanna’s current chart-topper, “Wild Thoughts.”

Several guests emerged from the crowd of more than 700 attendees to partake in a dance-off in front of Sia’s DJ set.

Bet Tzedek, which means “House of Justice” in Hebrew, is a pro bono legal service in Los Angeles that assists low-income individuals with legal issues, including elder abuse, housing, consumer rights, transgender rights and reparations for Holocaust survivors. It was founded in 1974.

The organization’s annual Justice Ball brings together young professionals in the community to raise funds for the nonprofit. Past performers include Nelly, Travie McCoy and the Go-Go’s. This year’s Justice Ball raised over $225,000, event organizers said.

“For 21 years, the Justice Ball has brought together A-list talent with young leaders from L.A.’s law, finance, real estate, entertainment, tech and sales industries to benefit the work of Bet Tzedek,” said Jessie Kornberg, president and CEO of Bet Tzedek. “Our city’s most vulnerable communities are in need of access to free legal assistance now more than ever. The Justice Ball makes justice possible for countless Angelenos.”

Justice Ball guest Dana Palmer, a lawyer at McGuireWoods LLP, said he loves that his firm partners with Bet Tzedek because it provides a steady stream of pro bono work.

“[The Justice Ball] is a great event because we get to have fun while contributing to a good cause,” said guest Sarah Kim, an associate at McGuireWoods.

In addition to Sia’s appearance, guests enjoyed a video booth and DJ sets by rappers Too Short and Balthazar Getty.

The Justice Ball is produced by the Bet Tzedek New Leadership Council, a group of volunteers who do outreach and fund-raising for Bet Tzedek’s services among young professionals. The New Leadership Council’s co-chairs are Kim Chemerinsky, John Ly and David Mark.

— Gabriella Kamran, Contributing Writer

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills has hired Rabbi Educator Adam Lutz as director of its religious school and lifelong learning program, effective July 1.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Lutz is a former aerospace engineer who earned a bachelor of science degree in aerospace engineering at UC San Diego and a master’s in engineering at UCLA. After several years of working as an engineer in the U.S. Navy, he decided Judaism was his calling. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2016.

His previous experience in the Jewish community includes serving as information technology coordinator of Project Zug, which enables people to find an online chavruta (study partner) anywhere in the world, and helping to develop KabbalatTorah, an online platform for Jewish texts.

“Rabbi Lutz’s strong connection to Judaism and his extensive training in education will breathe new life into the existing education program,” said a release from the Reform congregation.

Lutz’s wife, Emma, is a cantor at Stephen Wise Temple, and his father, Barry, is the senior rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.

Participants in the Diller Teen Fellows summer program, including 22 teenagers from Los Angeles, come together after a day of volunteering with Leket Israel, Israel’s largest food bank. Photo courtesy of Leket Israel.

Participants in the Diller Teen Fellows summer program — including 22 teenagers from Los Angeles and 22 from Tel Aviv — recently volunteered with Leket Israel, the largest food bank in Israel.

Over the course of three weeks in Israel, the teenagers packed almost 5,300 pounds of tomatoes and carrots for people in need, which resulted in 600 needy families receiving assistance, according to a July 19 statement.

“It’s wonderful when schools come and get their hands dirty volunteering with Leket Israel,” Joseph Gitler, founder and chairman of the organization said in the statement. “Picking produce in the fields with Leket Israel’s flagship program, Project Leket, is a unique way for today’s youth to connect with the cause, the land and Israel overall. Showing the youth that they can make a true difference, even with limited time, is of utmost importance in empowering the future generation. We would be thrilled to welcome more visitors from Los Angeles on future visits to Israel.”

The annual program is known as the Diller Teen Follows’ Israel Summer Seminar. It began this year on July 2 and concluded 22 days later, and featured educational, service-oriented and community-building activities.

Manda Graizel, Los Angeles coordinator of the Diller Teen Fellows, accompanied the teenagers to Israel. She said they benefited from learning about the homelessness situation in Israel because they were able to draw parallels between the challenges facing the hungry there with the homelessness and hunger problems in Los Angeles.

The age range of participants was 15 to 17. They represented the gamut of Jewish involvement, Graizel said after arriving back from Israel.

The teens who do the Diller Teen Fellows program range from kids who haven’t done anything Jewish since second grade because they didn’t like Hebrew day school and stumbled onto our program, to kids in Orthodox day school, and everything in between,” Graizel said. “It is a truly pluralistic program and we pride ourselves on that.”

Established in San Francisco in 1997, the Diller Teen Fellows is a leadership program for Jewish teenagers from around the world. Each year, 600 10th- and 11th-graders are chosen to take part. To date, the initiative has graduated more than “3,400 alumni-leaders actively engaged in improving the future of their communities, Israel and the Jewish people,” according to the program website.

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Moving and Shaking: Bet Tzedek’s big night, IAC holds conference, interfaith tolerance celebrated

From left: Terry Friedman, chair of Bet Tzedek’s board of directors; Bet Tzedek President and CEO Jessie Kornberg; and Georgina and Alan Rothenberg at Bet Tzedek’s annual gala on Feb. 21. The Rothenbergs received the Luis Lainer Founder’s Award at the gala. Photo by Kim Silverstein, Silver Lining Photography.

Bet Tzedek Legal Services honored donors and employees with awards Feb. 21 at its annual gala dinner, which was attended by more than 1,200 people at the JW Marriott Los Angeles L.A. Live.

The organization helps low-income clients deal with a range of legal issues, from housing to elder abuse.

Prominent Los Angeles lawyer Alan Rothenberg and his wife, Georgina, received the Luis Lainer Founder’s Award. The Eisner Foundation, a nonprofit that invests in intergenerational programming, received the Rose L. Schiff Commitment to Justice Award. Bet Tzedek elder-fraud attorney Nicholas Levenhagen received the Jack H. Skirball Community Justice Award.

Most Rev. José H. Gomez, archbishop of Los Angeles, delivered the evening’s invocation.

Philanthropists Art and Dahlia Bilger, who donated $50,000 on the occasion of the gala, were among the dinner’s co-chairs, along with Mayor Eric Garcetti; retired California Chief Justice Ronald George and his wife, Barbara; and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Mickey Kantor and his wife, writer and former broadcast journalist Heidi Schulman.

Bet Tzedek reported that it raised more than $2.1 million from the dinner.

— Eitan Arom, Staff Writer

Rabba Yaffa Epstein led a salon-style, Purim-focused learning session on Feb. 24.  Photo by Esther Kustanowitz.

Rabba Yaffa Epstein led a salon-style, Purim-focused learning session on Feb. 24. Photo by Esther Kustanowitz.

Rabba Yaffa Epstein, director of strategic partnerships at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and a 2015 graduate of Yeshivat Maharat, led a salon-style, Purim-focused text study at the West Adams home of Abby Fifer Mandell, executive director of the Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab at USC’s Marshall School of Business, on Feb. 24.

Yeshivat Maharat is the self-described “first yeshiva to ordain women as Orthodox clergy.”

Over the course of two hours, participants at the gathering split up into pairs and examined texts from the megillah, the Mishnah and more. They discussed the importance of celebrating Purim in a communal setting and what distinguishes Purim from other Jewish holidays. Attendees included Jewish Journal Contributing Writer Esther Kustanowitz, organizer of the event; actress Mayim Bialik (“The Big Bang Theory”); Fifer Mandell’s husband, Avram Mandell, executive director and founder of Tzedek America; current Tzedek America fellows Gabe Melmed and Emily Heaps; Todd Shotz, founder and executive director of Hebrew Helpers; and consultant Wendy Jackler.

Cheese and wine were served to attendees, many of whom were affiliated with LimmudLA, a volunteer-led Jewish learning community, and the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, a leadership development program for Jewish communal professionals. Limmud Bay Area co-founder Mila Wichter was among the participants.

“The opportunity to sit around in someone’s living room and talk about what makes Purim different from all the other holidays provided a burst of energy at the end of a long day,” Kustanowitz said.

Approximately 400 Israeli-American students from across the country attended the Israeli American Council Mishelanu conference.  Photo courtesy of Israeli American Council.

Approximately 400 Israeli-American students from across the country attended the Israeli American Council Mishelanu conference. Photo courtesy of Israeli American Council.

Israeli American Council (IAC) Mishelanu held its third national conference Feb. 17-19 at the Sheraton Gateway Los Angeles Hotel.

Mishelanu, a college campus program, provides a home for Israeli-American students who explore their Israeli-American and Jewish identities through culture, language, heritage and a strong connection to Israel. The national network is present on 96 campuses.

About 400 Israeli-American students from across the country attended the conference. The students spent the weekend participating in breakout sessions on initiative-building, networking, policy and political organizing, strategic leadership, social media campaigning, Israeli-American media and Israeli music.

Speakers included entrepreneurs, business leaders and nonprofit professionals. Among them were Guy Katsovich and Yair Vardi, managing partners of Splash Ventures; Roy Dekel, CEO of SetSchedule; and Yotam Polizer, co-CEO at the humanitarian response organization IsraAID.

Also appearing were Israeli journalist Ben Dror Yemini; educator Neil Lazarus, an expert on the Middle East and Israeli politics; and Moti Kahana, the Israeli-American founder of Amaliah, an American organization aiding Syrian refugees.

IAC leaders in attendance were Chairman Adam Milstein, CEO Shoham Nicolet, Chairman Emeritus Shawn Evenhaim, board member Naty Saidoff and Los Angeles regional director Erez Goldman.

The program reaches nearly 1,000 students in 17 states.

“IAC Mishelanu students are our ‘secret sauce’ on campus,” Nicolet said in a statement. “They speak both ‘Israeli’ and ‘American’ and can serve as a unique bridge within the university’s student body, spreading love and passion for Israel.”

Manny Dahari, 23, a student at Yeshiva University and a Mishelanu student leader, was among those who attended the conference.

“I’ve attended all three Mishelanu conferences and it only gets bigger and better each year,” Dahari said. “This year’s conference was fantastic, as always. I believe the Israeli-American community is getting stronger and Mishelanu will only continue to grow around the country.”

— Mati Geula Cohen, Contributing Writer

ms-interfaith toleranceDuring the first Interfaith Tolerance Awards, Consul General of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles Nasimi Aghayev honored Pico Shul Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, Churches in Action founder Bishop Juan Carlos Mendez and King Fahad Mosque member Mahomed Akbar Khan in recognition of their efforts in promoting peace, tolerance and harmony among the three major religions.

The Feb. 21 event at the Museum of Tolerance also featured the screening of the documentary “Running From the Darkness.” Produced by J-Connect, an organization with which Bookstein is involved, and the One Wish Project, the film spotlights the 1992 Khojaly Massacre, when Armenian armed forces committed a mass murder of Azerbaijani civilians in the town of Khojaly. In 2015, Bookstein visited Baku, Azerbaijan’s largest city and home to a little-known community of mountain Jews.

About 200 people attended the awards event, including Liebe Geft, director of the Museum of Tolerance; Josh Kaplan, president of J-Connect; and Neuriel Shore, a Pico Shul congregant and senior campaign executive at the Jewish National Fund.

A live performance of Azerbaijani and European classical music followed the ceremony and screening.

ms-Hutman at Little TokyoSamara Hutman, director of Remember Us, an organization dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust, participated in a Feb. 18 forum at the Japanese American National Museum addressing the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066.

Signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942, Executive Order 9066 resulted in the forced incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans.

Hutman was on a panel that featured African-American, Japanese-American, Muslim and Latina speakers, including Norman Mineta, who served as President George W. Bush’s secretary of transportation; former Congressman Mike Honda; and Haru Kuromiya, a 90-year-old Japanese-American placed in an internment camp after Roosevelt’s executive order.

The event’s speakers drew parallels between the executive order of 1942 and President Donald Trump’s recent executive order, which, though ultimately blocked by the judicial branch of government, would have barred citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

Hutman and others stood before a banner-sized petition opposing “executive orders and laws that attack our civil and constitutional rights.” In addition, she read three poems, one by a child who was in the Terezin concentration camp during the Shoah and two by Japanese children placed into internment camps in the 1940s.

The event coincided with the opening of a new exhibition at the museum titled “Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066,” which runs until Aug. 13.

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email

To protect seniors, vote no on Measure S

A senior protests eviction at Westwood Horizon apartment complex

Los Angeles seniors live on the knife-edge of the worst housing crisis in the United States. Driven by scarcity, property owners and developers conspire to evict tenants and gentrify buildings one apartment at a time.

We are seeing this incremental attack have disastrous effects. Just late last year in Westwood, the Watermark corporation purchased the rent-controlled Vintage Westwood Horizons apartment building and began eviction proceedings against more than 100 residents, all older than 80 and most older than 90, in order to convert the building into a luxury assisted living facility.

[Opposing view: Measure S will fix system and support Jewish values]

These tenants have been desperately searching for comparable housing in the neighborhood and it simply does not exist. Now Bet Tzedek is fighting to keep these units in the system, and the fates of these tenants hang in the balance.

The scenes at this Westwood building are sadly all too common. Every year in Los Angeles, more than 100,000 people turn 65. As they move into retirement, their now-fixed incomes are set on a collision course with rising housing costs. And the single biggest threat to their health and safety is eviction.

For an 85-year-old disabled widow relying on Social Security and the dwindling proceeds of the sale of her home years earlier to pay for rent, prescriptions and meals, eviction from her apartment of 35 years is terrifying. In the best-case scenario, she will find another building in a less expensive neighborhood that will accept her. She’ll suffer the loss of her community, access to her regular doctor and current routine. But she’ll have a home.

Too often, however, even for a senior decades younger than the Westwood residents, this story ends in permanent housing distress, homelessness or worse. The stress of thinking about such a move wears on her health. The reality of the move itself may be more than she can bear. The 2016 Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority survey counted 3,752 homeless men and women older than 62 in Los Angeles County, a 10 percent increase from just one year earlier.

While elected officials and community allies work to prevent the Westwood evictions, one group attempted to insert itself into the story: the backers of Measure S, the initiative on the March 7 ballot in Los Angeles that would ban zoning changes and General Plan Amendments (GPAs) for two years and place severe permanent restrictions on the use of GPAs, sharply curtailing Los Angeles’ ability to build the housing it needs.

Don’t believe the rash of press releases, videos and emails attempting to link the two causes — Measure S wouldn’t stop Watermark from evicting seniors. On the contrary, it would result in many more evictions just like it. Property owners of all sorts will be even more incentivized to take advantage of low vacancies and limited development options, and push tenants out of low-income units in order to maximize profits. We see it already today. We’ll see more of it in a city where Measure S is law.

With new housing slowed or banned, landlords cash out by failing their building inspections and selling their property to developers. As affordable housing covenants expire, once-affordable apartments revert to market rate.

These scenarios are especially typical in gentrifying neighborhoods. In Highland Park, investors raised the rents at the Marmion Royal apartments, hoping to evict current tenants in favor of the neighborhood’s affluent arrivals, who have bid up single-family homes over the $1 million mark. If Measure S hampers new construction, investors will search for more Marmion Royals where they can freely raise the rent.

Boyle Heights, a community with a strong identity that generations of families call home, has seen the dismantling of hundreds of units of public housing, replaced by hundreds fewer dwelling units. This is a failure that should be laid at the steps of City Hall. Protecting existing housing stock is not enough — if the children of Boyle Heights’ current residents also are to have the chance to call it home, the neighborhood needs to build more affordable housing. That housing can be built only  using the zone changes and plan amendments that Measure S takes off the table.

We must envision a city where seniors on fixed incomes at the Vintage Westwood Horizons, tenants of the Marmion Royal, and the children of Boyle Heights can live without threat of displacement. Eviction need not be an inevitable byproduct of neighborhood change. New arrivals need not displace the vulnerable.

But public policy must both allow and encourage a diverse market. Only then will the homeless be able to get off the street. Only then will the quarter-million renters paying half their incomes in rent finally find some breathing room.

The status quo is broken. We must protect and expand our city’s affordable housing. We need to fight to hold slumlords — who would rather fail a building inspection and sell their property than continue to rent to low-income tenants — accountable. We need to keep affordable units available after affordability covenants expire. We need to invest resources into the development of more affordable housing through initiatives such as the successful Proposition HHH.

And the last thing we should do is put a stop to building more.

Jessie Kornberg is the President & CEO of Bet Tzedek, which provides free legal services for low-income individuals. Bet Tzedek is representing the Westwood Horizons residents in their eviction defense.

The shape of things to come: Jewish L.A. in 30 years

In commemoration of the Jewish Journal’s 30th anniversary, Jewish leaders discuss their hopes and predictions for the next 30 years of L.A. Jewish life.

Melissa Balaban

Executive director of IKAR

balabanMy greatest hope for the Jewish community in Los Angeles in the next 30 years is that we come together to rededicate ourselves to finding areas of commonality, rather than focusing on our divisions. We are at our best when we work toward common goals, using the wisdom of our tradition toward achieving a shared vision of the world. I would love to see an end to the divisiveness surrounding Israel, as we all work toward ensuring that Israel is a thriving Jewish, democratic and secure state, which reflects its highest Zionist ideals.

Rabbi Amy Bernstein

Kehillat Israel

When I spoke with KI congregants who have lived here for 30 years about what they hope the Jewish community will be like in the next 30 years, they said that they hope it will be a community that is warm, close, inclusive, vibrant, prosperous and safe. They hope that it will be a community that is socially engaged, as well as engaged with the larger community—where all factions get along, where there are no “others,” and where we can truly celebrate the diversity of the Los Angeles Jewish community.

Mayim Bialik

Actress and scientist

I cannot even imagine personally what 30 years from now will look like but I guess I would like to see Los Angeles Jews continue to be what I see as an example of the openness and the inquisitiveness and the beauty that Judaism really models and provide for us as a guide – I would hope that in 30 years no matter what happens politically or globally that L.A Jews continue to lead the way as part of a very significant and thriving community that we always have been.

Rabbi Yonah Bookstein

Pico Shul

Most of the growth in the community, as it has been for the past 10 years, is going to be within what is called the more traditional side of the equation on the spiritual, cultural and religious continuum. … I do have a fear that we will lose a substantial portion of millennial Jews to assimilation … but I also feel like we have the ability to do a lot to prevent that from happening. But it’s going to require a lot of dedication on the part of the community and to approach it with multiple means.

Rabbi Noah Farkas

Valley Beth Shalom

I wish day school tuition wasn’t a hindrance for people going to school.

Jesse Gabriel

Attorney and Jewish community leader

The energy, idealism, and optimism of young Jews is going to reinvigorate our communal institutions and enable us to be guided by our hopes rather than our fears. Their embrace of diversity, commitment to pluralism and inclusion, and willingness to move beyond past divisions will allow us to navigate the inevitable challenges and build a stronger and more deeply engaged community. We have much to be optimistic about!

Rabbi Emerita Laura Geller

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills


[I predict] there will be fewer synagogues because the current funding model will no longer work. … Instead of membership in a particular synagogue many people will join a “kehilla” which would be a collaboration of many different synagogues that would hire clergy and teachers. … The large and growing cohort of older Jews will create alternative housing arrangements, including new ways to age in place. … What I hope will also happen is that our community becomes more inclusive, welcoming all kinds of Jews, and that we will have learned to talk to each other about difficult issues with civility and respect, including what it means to love Israel, which has remained Jewish and democratic.

Arya Marvazy

Assistant director of JQ International

aryaMy sincere hope and prediction is that these next few decades will encompass a greater wave toward radical inclusion – embracing others and their unique differences, understanding that at our core, we are all carbon copies of one another. What we express and how we identify with respect to race, religion, sexual orientation and lifestyle will serve far less to divide us, and we will truly focus on those elements of our humanity that make us one gigantic global family.

Patricia Glaser

Attorney and Jewish community leader


Over the next 30 years, I expect the Jewish community to continue to make a substantial contribution to the culture, business and very fabric of Los Angeles. Within the Jewish community, I hope that there is a conscious effort to better understand each other; that a movement emerges to bring together the disparate views and various religious groupings within Judaism in order for an intrafaith dialogue to develop that helps all of us to better understand our community and each other. I hope that younger Jews learn to understand the significance of being a Jew in America and support the State of Israel and to understand that –  whether it is $50, $500, $500 – giving is not a choice; we all must give.

Brian Greene

Executive director of the Westside Jewish Community Center


My hope is that in 30 years – if not sooner – Jewish communal life in L.A. will be inclusive and collaborative. Cultural and denominational divisions between Jews will feel so “ancient.” Our strength will be our commitment to being a unified community that is open and welcoming to all.

Sam Grundwerg

Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles

Given the fact that the Jewish people make up only less than half of 1 percent of the world’s population, it is nothing short than a miracle that we are able to contribute to the world in so many ways, from lifesaving discoveries to high-tech innovation and medical advances. In the next 30 years, may we see Jewish L.A. become more unified, spreading that spirit and passion. When we work together as a community we grow together and we are able to better serve the incredible Los Angeles community. Just like Israel, L.A. is truly a melting pot, and provides us all an opportunity to build stronger bonds with the communities around us.

Aaron Henne

Artistic director of Theatre Dybbuk

Jewish L.A. will be the fertile soil from which provocative, challenging and adventurous artistic work from a Jewish perspective grows. We will be rich in diverse viewpoints, expressed through a variety of forms and techniques, colliding, collaborating, and contradicting each other.  We will dive deep into our Jewish narratives in order to then turn our gaze outward, engaging in the world in humane, empathetic, and mindful ways.

Samara Hutman

Executive director of Remember Us

Marie Kaufman

President emeritus of the Child Survivors of the Holocaust, Los Angeles


Our hope for them [this generation of young adults] and for all of us is that we honor all communities, that we remember our roots and how we all got here and bring that to our daily work, our lives and our community.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

B’nai David-Judea

kanefskyI hope that the next 30 years bring a more affordable cost of Jewish living to Los Angeles, so that the exodus of our children to other cities might slow down. I also hope that we make the effort to really listen to each other, and learn that right and left both love Israel, that traditional and liberal both love Judaism, and that in the long run, we will pay a bitter price for the momentary pleasure we receive from screaming at each other.

Jessie Kornberg

President and CEO of Bet Tzedek

jessica-kornberg-special-to-the-daily-journal-4At Bet Tzedek, as in so much of L.A.’s Jewish community, our identity has been indelibly shaped by our commitment to meet the needs of aging Holocaust survivors. Our identity for the next 30 years will similarly reflect how we respond to the needs of new populations seeking refuge in our city from violence, war, and persecution.

Kosha Dillz


kosha-dillzThe next 30 years of Jewish L.A. are quite vibrant. I predict that … more and more Jews from around the world will migrate to our beloved, sunny Los Angeles. Tech, music and film will continue to thrive and grow to the forefront of their respective industries. We will continue to be unapologetic in our support for Israel, yet continue to engage in our criticism to be better at it, and always engage in conversations with those most critical in an educational way.

Esther Kustanowitz

Jewish Journal contributing writer and editorial director at


I hope that Jewish L.A. will comprise and embody the best that both terms – “Jewish” and “L.A.” –  have to offer; that it will continue to be a bright example of creativity, innovation, diversity and community, and that the geography of this place continues to inspire and reflect the potential that we all have.

Shawn Landres

Co-founder of Jumpstart Labs, senior fellow at UCLA Luskin, and chair of the Los Angeles County Quality and Productivity Commission and the city of Santa Monica Social Services Commission

shawn-landresHere in Los Angeles, our continuing mandate will be to connect our core values with the aspirations and needs of our neighbors of all backgrounds and creeds, especially the most vulnerable. No doubt, individual Jewish Angelenos will continue to contribute across all sectors of our vibrant region. Our broader task is to deepen our  relationships – as a Jewish community and as stewards of Jewish tradition – with everyone in the L.A. mosaic. In 2017, too few Jewish communal leaders (and not only in Los Angeles) are willing to say “Black lives matter” or “Muslim and immigrant lives matter” without qualification or apology. Whether more of us can do so in 2047 – with whoever may need our solidarity – will define L.A. Jewry’s significance in this century.

Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz

Adat Shalom

I pray that our community plays a greater role in modeling how we can love Torah, love Israel, love one another and love our greater community without conflicting values.  

Adam Milstein

Philanthropist and Israeli American Council board chair

milsteinThe Israeli-American community will be an integral part of Jewish Los Angeles for the next three decades. It will serve as an important connector to the State of Israel, as a vibrant home for pro-Israel advocates, and as a source of strength for the broader Jewish community in our great city.

Moishe House Residents

Downtown Los Angeles

moishe-house-residentsMoishe House DTLA hopes the next 30 years will bring greater unity to the Jewish L.A. community, allowing our community to be a symbol of hope and acceptance for others in the L.A. area.

Ayana Morse

Executive Director of Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center

In 30 years, I see a Jewish L.A. that is a model for the best in local engagement, innovation and creativity. Let’s open our city’s metaphorical gates to each other and delight in the knowledge and mastery that emerges.

David N. Myers

Professor at UCLA



I think the next 30 years will bring an intensification of two noticeable trends in L.A. Jewish life: more drift away from institutional affiliation for the majority of L.A.’s Jews, and growing prominence and market share for the Orthodox population in town. In between, we may well see a blurring of the boundary between Reform and Conservative institutions. In this way, L.A. will be like the rest of the country, except more.

Sharon Nazarian

President of the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation

nazarianJewish L.A. will mirror our great city of Los Angeles, a city reflecting reflecting the richness of its immigrant communities. When we refer to the Jewish Community of Los Angeles, we will be referring not only to European Jews, but also Russian Jews, Persian Jews, Israeli Jews, Iraqi Jews, Syrian Jews, Argentine Jews, Mexican Jews, Ethiopian Jews. While we will continue to celebrate the strength of our cultural uniqueness, we will have consolidated our Jewishness and our cohesion as one community.

Julie Platt

Board chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

plattOver the next 30 years, The Jewish Federation will continue to be a convener for the Los Angeles Jewish community, bringing us together from every spiritual region and every geographic region, casting as wide a net as is necessary. Our Federation will continue to strategically impact this community, informed by our Jewish values and with clear and nimble focus and mission. We will always continue to work together to care for Jews in need, ensure the Jewish future and engage positively with our broader community.

Bruce Powell

Head of school at de Toledo High School

My hope and prediction for the Jewish future of Los Angeles in 2047 is simple: I believe that the thousands of students now in our Jewish day schools will become the leaders of our community and thereby create a vibrant and even more brilliant L.A. Jewish life and vision.

Jay Sanderson

President and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

As the president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, I live with every day with the question of where we will be over the next 30 years. We are focusing on looking at the greatest challenges and the greatest opportunities facing our community and the Jewish people. And the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity facing the Jewish people is how do we connect to the next generation of Jews? How do we connect to millennials? How do we make Judaism relevant, and how do we make the Jewish community open and accessible to all Jews?

Rabbi Lori Shapiro

The Open Temple

lori-shapiroWe are going through a Jewish renaissance in Los Angeles and these seeds will proliferate. Los Angeles will become a center of Jewish spiritual creativity and art, and our ritual practice will include film and new media. I predict that our spiritual communities will have not only rabbis on staff but universalist ministers as well as artists and media producers.

Rachel Sumekh

Founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger 

I predict that over the next 30 years, L.A. will see the peak of its burgeoning cultural renaissance and there will be a beautiful Jewish component to it –– and one thing I know won’t change is that, Persian Jews will hold the title for greatest Shabbat dinner parties.

Amanda Susskind

Anti-Defamation League regional director 

So for the next 30 years of Jewish L.A., my hope is that we will continue to work in coalition with other minority communities as the city continues to thrive as one of the major diverse communities in the world. But my fear is there will be so many issues to deal with around the world, from climate change to hate to nuclear proliferation, that we will have very, very big challenges to stand up to injustice, and that’s why I think the work of the ADL is going to be so critical, because we do build those coalitions and bridges to other communities.

Craig Taubman

Founder of the Pico Union Project

craigtaubman-2The future of the L.A. Jewish community will bring to us what we bring to it. Rabbi Harold Schulweis said it best: “Think ought. Not what is a Jew, but what ought a Jew to be?” This could be the anthem for our children who, unlike us or our parents, don’t determine their future on what was done in the past. They ought to be inspired by the City of Angels they live in, and like angels strive to be messengers of goodness, kindness, righteousness and beauty. This is the Jewish community I aspire to build.

Rabbi David Wolpe

Max Webb Senior Rabbi at Sinai Temple

Today we will play prophets
Tomorrow, we’ll be fools:
Who will and won’t belong?
We’re certain to be wrong.
Whose words will never fade?
Predict, and be betrayed.
Triumphs may bring tears
‘Lasting’ disappears.
Who knows in thirty years?

Sam Yebri

Attorney and Jewish community leader

When I think of the next 30 years of Jewish Los Angeles, I think of my own daughters and look at that question through their lens. What I hope for in Jewish Los Angeles is there to be a Jewish community that represents the best of our values as Iranian-American Jews – love of family, tradition, and of Israel – as well as the best of our American-Jewish experience –  a community that is progress-oriented and open-minded, that is engaged civically, Jewishly and philanthropically – and also that cares deeply about the greater community and the greater world.

Senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback

Stephen Wise Temple

Jewish life 30 years from now? Well, in addition to colonizing space, I have two words for you: rabbi robots. I’m joking, of course, that would be awful for me, personally. What I really see happening over the next 30 years is growth. I think our Los Angeles Jewish community, given its diversity and creativity, is going to grow, both in terms of the number of Jews engaged in Jewish life and in terms of how deeply they are engaging in Jewish life. Because actually now, more than ever before, people need meaning and purpose and that’s what Judaism offers. I’m very excited to be part of that story.

Funding for survivor services sees a big jump in 2015

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany — also known as the Claims Conference — is providing a $10.1 million increase in funding this year to California-based Holocaust survivors, according to a Claims Conference’s December press release. The money will fund home care and other services, the release said. 

Various local social services agencies, including Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS) and Bet Tzedek, a Los Angeles-based pro bono legal aid agency, will distribute the funds on behalf of the Claims Conference. Organizations in the East Bay, Long Beach, Orange County and elsewhere are receiving funds as well. 

Cally Clein, coordinator of Holocaust Survivor Services at Jewish Federation and Family Services Orange County, welcomed the announcement. She said home care is an important service for a survivor population, and not just because of their ages. Many survivors have behavior and psychological issues that make them reluctant to live in nursing homes, or they lack the support systems of family members from whom they are estranged, and therefore rely on services, she said. 

“It’s almost part of like [the German government] making good … trying to help them in a time now when cost of care is so very high that this affords them … some help to manage their daily needs,” Clein said. 

Experts estimate that the average age of a survivor in the United States is 82. According to remarks made last year by then-CEO of Bet Tzedek Sandor Samuels before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, about 100,000 survivors live in the United States, an estimated one-fourth of whom live at or below the poverty line.

The additional funds are a result of negotiations between the German government and the Claims Conference, which negotiates with the German government on behalf of Holocaust victims, provides grants to organizations that assist survivors, runs its own compensation programs and more, according to Julius Berman, Claims Conference board chairman. Founded in 1951, the Claims Conference provided $306 million in grants last year to agencies in 47 countries, according to its website. 

The new earmarked money from the Claims Conference will fund home-bathing, home-delivered meals, housekeeping, transportation and even dental care, home modifications and other medical equipment. Securing funds for home care from the German government and making those monies available to social service groups, Berman said, is an increasingly important part of what the Claims Conference does.

“[It] is becoming a major charge of the Claims Conference to come to the Germans and explain [the importance of home care for survivors] to them,” Berman said. 

JFS is a longtime grant recipient of the Claims Conference. This year, the organization is receiving $2 million more than it received last year, according to Vivian Sauer, JFS director of program development. She said the need for home care funds for survivors continues to increase.

“For the last several years, we have been experiencing a significant, almost exponential increase in demand for home care services by survivors who are getting older, more frail and have multiple health problems and need a lot more help in the house,” she said. “We, as well as other agencies nationally, have been seeing this trend, and the Claims Conference understands that and have been able to lobby the German government for a significant increase in home care funds.

“Hopefully we will be able to provide this year the necessary home care that survivors are needing,” she said. 

Lisa Hoffman, program director of Holocaust Services at Bet Tzedek, said the organization’s funding for 2015 has not been set yet, but that it received $30,000 from the Claims Conference last year and will put the funds toward legal assistance for survivors applying for reparations from the German government, and other forms of financial assistance. Bet Tzedek attorneys also are charged with assisting survivors in applying for Los Angeles County-sponsored home care services.  

In an email to the Journal, Nicholas Levenhagen, a staff attorney at Bet Tzedek, estimated that he has “worked on approximately 100 cases helping survivors to access needed health services.”

In Orange County, Clein expects her organization, which assists approximately 300 survivors, to receive an estimated $1 million for them and to assist an additional 12 to15 survivors who have been on the waiting list for services, she said. She stressed the importance of the nature of the assistance. 

“This is not a reparation payment,” Clein said. “This is financial assistance to Holocaust survivors who are in need of some care.”

Moving and shaking: Bet Tzedek, Beit T’Shuvah and Forbes

Halfway through Bet Tzedek’s annual dinner gala at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel on Jan. 22, Jessie Kornberg, the brand-new president and CEO of the nonprofit legal-aid organization, stepped onto the stage. As she approached the microphone, one member of Bet Tzedek’s new leadership council whispered ecstatically to a reporter:  “We love Jessie.”

Kornberg has been on the job only since December. This was her coming-out party, and she immediately owned the stage — bringing up with her about 45 of the 60 members of her staff — and as she started to speak, she spread her arms wide and announced to the 1,100-member crowd: “This is Bet Tzedek.”  Then she went on to tell of the anonymous clients whose homes the attorneys had saved, the Holocaust survivors whose legal claims they had garnered, the infirm whose care the lawyers had assured.

“You are not alone,” Kornberg told the affluent crowd, although she was actually addressing those clients whose many needs the organization sets out to alleviate. “We will fight for you,” she said. “We are the army at your back.”

First impressions are often the most lasting, and in those few words, Kornberg, with her giant smile and simple message, had the crowd in her hands and on its feet for a full minute of standing ovation. The evening raised more than $2.25 million for Bet Tzedek, including meeting the challenge, announced from the stage, of a matching gift of $250,000 from Art and Dahlia Bilger, according to David Bubis, Bet Tzedek vice president of development.

Former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was honored with the Rose L. Schiff Commitment to Justice Award for his extensive service to the community. Southern California Edison President Pedro Pizarro was awarded the Luis Lainer Founder’s Award for his longtime support of the organization. Board member and vice president of Millco Investments Samantha Millman received the Rebecca Nichols Emerging Leader Award, and Bet Tzedek attorney Erikson Albrecht was honored with the Jack H. Skirball Community Justice Award.

Also in attendance were last year’s Lainer awardee, philanthropist Stanley Gold, as well as Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles President and CEO Jay Sanderson. L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer and attorneys David Lash, Mitch Kamin and Sandy Samuels, all past Bet Tzedek presidents and CEOs, were also in attendance, along with California State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin, and law school deans Robert Rasmussen of USC and Rachel Moran of UCLA.

— Susan Freudenheim, Executive Editor

Beit T’Shuvah, a Culver City-based facility that treats patients suffering from addiction and also operates a full-service synagogue, honored Jon Esformes during Road to Redemption, the rehabilitation center’s 23rd annual gala. The Jan. 18 evening at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza drew 850 attendees and raised $1.6 million.

Esformes, who once suffered from alcoholism, was suicidal and homeless before undergoing treatment at Beit T’Shuvah, according to a Jan. 22 press release. Today, he is on the facility’s board and serves as the operating partner at Pacific Tomato Growers, a family-owned farming business in Florida that is one of the largest in the nation and that has fought to raise farmworker wages and improve farmers’ working conditions. (To learn more about Esformes’ work, watch a community screening of the film “Food Chains,” which features him, at Beit T’Shuvah on Feb. 8.)  

Above: Entertainers at Beit T’Shuvah’s gala included singer Shany Zamir and Beit T’Shuvah resident Ben Foster.

Below: Beit T’Shuvah graduates Asher and Rachel Ehrman fell in love during their treatment and are now happily married.
Photos by Justin Rosenberg, Creative Matters Agency

“He went from pushing shopping carts to filling the shopping carts of others,” Beit T’Shuvah founder and executive vice president Harriet Rossetto said of Esformes, as quoted by the press release. She leads Beit T’Shuvah with her husband, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, its head rabbi and CEO. 

The gala featured live entertainment — a musical performance by singer Shany Zamir and Beit T’Shuvah resident Ben Foster highlighted the event. Additional performers included Beit T’Shuvah Cantor Shira Fox and the Beit T’Shuvah Choir. Asher and Rachel Ehrman, who met and fell in love during their treatment and are now happily married, spoke about how Beit T’Shuvah has impacted their lives.

Co-chairs were Lise Applebaum, Meryl Kern and Janice Kamenir-Reznik

Milken Community School alums Mark Gurman (class of  2012) and Asher Vollmer (2008) were included in Forbes’ fourth annual 30 Under 30 list, which recognizes millennials making moves in consumer technology, finance, education and other fields. 

Mark Gurman, photo courtesy of Milken Community School

Already an accomplished journalist, Gurman was featured in Forbes’ crowded media section. He is currently the senior editor of 9to5Mac, one of the largest Apple product tracking sites. The 20-year-old began his ascent at the end of 2009, when he caught the eye of Seth Weintraub, the site’s founder, after locating several online references to Apple registering domains for tablet-related products and informing Apple news blogs about his discovery. This was all before the original iPad was announced and before Gurman’s junior year at Milken. Weintraub himself promptly hired Gurman as a 9to5Mac intern.

Asher Vollmer, photo courtesy of Milken Community School

Vollmer, 25, a graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ Interactive Media and Games Division, made the games category. He started as the “feel” engineer, dealing with controls, character movement and camera behavior for the game development studio thatgamecompany, but left in 2012 to pursue a more independent route. Shortly thereafter, his independent development team — consisting of himself, illustrator Greg Wohlwend and composer Jimmy Hinson — created “Threes!” a puzzle game in which the player moves numbered tiles to link multiples and addends of three. When there are no moves left on the grid, the tiles are counted for a final score. Vollmer collected an Apple Design Award last year when the tech giant named “Threes!” its best iPhone game of 2014. 

Vollmer also designed “Puzzlejuice,” a Tetris-inspired puzzle game, and “Close Castles,” an IOS strategy game played on a grid map in the same vein as the board game Risk. 

— Oren Peleg, Contributing Writer

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email

Iranian-American Jews in L.A. look to the future

Foreign conflict and human rights abuses were front and center in the minds of Los Angeles’ Iranian-Jewish community leaders who attended the 30 Years After 4th Biennial Civic Action Conference on Nov. 2. Panel discussions touched on tensions between Israel and Hamas, the threat of ISIS, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But it also focused on the heritage and accomplishments of the Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles, and its engagement with the community at large.

An impressive list of political figures spoke at the conference, which was held at the Skirball Cultural Center, evidence of the community’s growing political and economic power in the region. Yet the event’s theme, “In Praise of Service,” also hinted at the group’s ongoing effort to convince young Iranian Jews here to increase their involvement in philanthropy and civic action.

One of the lead speakers, L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin, is a longtime Jewish activist and served as a cantor for 20 years at Temple B'nai Emet; he now oversees the city’s payroll, audits, and financial reports and has worked to increase government transparency by posting all of the city’s purchases online. Galperin said apathy and low voter turnout are among the biggest challenges facing the city. “That is a great concern, because you can only sustain a democracy if people are engaged and involved,” he said.

“There is a great amount of vibrancy and culture that has been brought by the Iranian community,” Galperin added. “I personally am happy to see a lot of parents who are continuing to teach their kids Farsi, and continuing to experience a rich and amazing history and culture.”

Elissa Barrett, who has been serving as interim president and CEO of the nonprofit legal services firm Bet Tzedek said her own efforts on various social justice campaigns, from anti-Apartheid activism in South Africa to anti-racial discrimination legal battles in Detroit, have stemmed from her Jewish identity.

“The number of times in the Torah that it says, ‘help the stranger, for you were a stranger in the land of Egypt,’ all of these things feel to me like an exhortation, a mandate to do justice,” Barrett said. “To me, there’s nothing more central to Judaism than being actively engaged in the world around us.”

Rabbi David Shofet of the Nessah Cultural Center, a Beverly Hills synagogue with a large Iranian-Jewish congregation, argued that Iranians can learn from the waves of Syrian and Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants who preceeded them. “This community, our community, thank God, Baruch Hashem, in one generation, has succeeded economically, scientifically. Why should we always try to eat on the table of other people? Where are our independent institutions? Where are our schools? Where are our synagogues? Where are our colleges? This is the problem.”

David Siegel, the Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles, told the gathering that the Middle East is going through momentous and turbulent changes, and the alliance between Israel and the U.S. needs to be strengthened. “We need to defend ourselves, which we do very well. And we have to be vigilant, and we have to be creative and quick on our feet,” he said. “But more positively, Israel will continue to work with those countries, both above the table and below the table, who are either at peace with us, or are against these Islamic forces that are on the prowl, that are on the march.”

Siegel referred to the “bubble” of Beverly Hills and West L.A., where every home has a mezuzah on the door, and said the Iranian-Jewish community needs to reach out to Latinos and other immigrant communities in Los Angeles and embrace the commandment God gave to Abraham: lekh lekha, or go forth. “That means getting out of our chairs, getting out of the confines of our community and our comfort levels,” he said.

One panel continued the discussion about insularity within the Iranian-Jewish community of L.A., and offered a look toward the future. It’s been nearly 35 years since the Iranian Revolution brought a flood of Iranian Jews to Southern California. Meanwhile, Ashkenazi Jews have been established in L.A. for well over a century. The discussion circled around what lessons the more recent immigrants can learn from older Jewish communities, and whether the collectivist mentality of Iranian Jews is a benefit or a hindrance to its relationship with the outside world.

“There’s a tension between the stickiness of the Persian community to itself, and the Persian community’s integration into the larger community,” said Andrew Cushnir, executive vice president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, a primary funder of 30 Years After. “I don’t find that’s an unhealthy tension. I find it a great opportunity. It’s a tricky balance between collectively deciding what aspects of American and Persian culture we will take forward.”

“In my experience, Iranian Jews have more in common with Muslim Iranians than they do with Ashkenazi Jews,” said Gina Nahai, a novelist, Jewish Journal columnist and professor of creative writing at the University of Southern California. “We understand each other on many levels. I draw so much pride in my connection to that land and those people. A lot of our values come from our Iranian identity, not just our Jewish identity.”

Simon Etehad, an attorney and board member of Nessah Synagogue, expressed his concerns about assimilation and the discarding of traditions: “When 2050 rolls around, unfortunately for all of us, if we do not change our ways, we’ll neither be Iranian nor Jews. We’ll be Americans.” He lamented seeing more Halloween decorations than Sukkahs in front of the homes of Iranian Jewish families. “Our children need to learn Sukkot more than Halloween,” he said.

Journal contributing reporter and blogger Karmel Melamed sees the truth lying somewhere between optimism and despair. “We’re going to be OK,” he said. But he expressed some fear that financial success has become the primary focus of Iranian Jews in L.A. “We need strong moral leadership with the parents and with our community leaders, to stand up and say ‘this is not right, what’s going on with the business dealings and the financial dealings. This is not kosher. This is not how our community existed in Iran.’”

The event attracted some of the foremost political officials in Southern California, who spoke about the community’s growth and the importance of voicing support for Israel and against Iran’s nuclear efforts and human rights abuses.

“As you can tell, I’m neither Persian nor Jewish. Nobody’s perfect,” joked State Sen. Ted Lieu, the Democratic candidate running to replace Rep. Henry Waxman in the 33rd Congressional District. “Our national security is inextricably linked to the security of Israel. And the greatest threat to Israel is a nuclearized Iran,” Lieu said, to robust applause. “I’ll do everything I can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Lieu’s competition in the Congressional race, Republican candidate Elan Carr, also addressed Israel’s security and Iran’s uranium enrichment program. “In these urgent times, we need leaders in Congress who will represent our issues, at a time when it will soon be too late to fix the threats we all face,” he said. “I will be someone who will fight for the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

In an interview, Carr said 30 Years After is helping to mobilize a new political force in the region. The group, he said, “fulfills an important role because it engages the Persian-Jewish community in the American civic process. It’s crucial, because the community has not been as engaged to the level it could be. If they were, it’d be a game changer,” Carr said.

The event also paid tribute to outgoing Jewish political leaders, including termed-out L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Waxman, as well as former Rep. Howard Berman (D-Sherman Oaks), who was honored for having helped push sanctions on Iran through Congress.

Dariush Fakheri, past president of the Iranian-Jewish nonprofit Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana, worked closely with Yaroslavsky and Waxman in resettling refugees from Iran in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “I remember planeloads of Jews coming here, and they had nobody,” Fakheri said. “I went to see Zev when he was on the L.A. City Council, and he was remarkably generous in helping us.”

Yaroslavsky is a child of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants, and his leadership in the movement for Soviet Jewry is well documented. But he was also pivotal in helping Iranian Jewish refugees escape Iran. Yaroslavsky said he couldn’t help seeing a similarity between the two groups. “My parents left the Soviet Union to flee persecution, but I had plenty of relatives still there, and I couldn’t turn my back on them.”

Likewise, Yaroslavsky said in an interview, young Iranian Jews are motivated by the reasons their parents had for fleeing Iran.

“The first generation was focused on survival, on putting clothes on their kids’ backs. With 30 Years After, you see the second generation, who were either born here or came here at such a young age that they’re culturally American,” he said. “The second generation gets involved, is more successful, they have more stable lives, and they run for office.”

Seven years after 30 Years After was formed, Iranian Jews in L.A. have yet to see the election of one of their own to a national or statewide office. Yet the sheer number of elected officials who came and spoke at the conference, and the recent addition of the Maher Fellowship program, which trains young Iranian Jews in civic leadership, suggests that their political clout will continue to grow.

Bet Tzedek names Jessie Kornberg new CEO

About two years ago, Jessie Kornberg was litigating a trial for the law firm Bird Marella, and when it ended, all the attorneys were waiting to speak candidly with jurors about what they thought the lawyers did well and what they didn’t do well. Eight months pregnant, Kornberg could barely move, let alone bug jury members.

When she walked out of the courtroom, she was met by the entire jury. They were waiting for her, and they all wanted to know: was it a boy or a girl?

“They felt they understood who I was,” Kornberg, 32, said in an interview with the Journal. “That was a very good lesson about making yourself relatable, finding opportunities to help tell people who you are because that’s how people want to engage in our profession, in any profession.”

Those are lessons she aims to keep front and center now that she has been named the first female CEO of the legal services nonprofit Bet Tzedek. The announcement was formally made Oct. 28.

Founded in 1974, Bet Tzedek offers pro bono law services in matters involving consumer rights, elder law, housing, public benefits and workers’ rights to low-income, disabled and elderly people of all racial and religious backgrounds. The organization has a network of hundreds of attorneys across the country who offer legal help to Holocaust survivors.

Kornberg will run a staff of 60 lawyers and others who work everyday toward the fulfillment of Bet Tzedek’s motto, “Tzedek tzedek tirdof,” (“Justice, justice you shall pursue”) when she starts in December.

Kornberg expressed enthusiasm about taking on the Bet Tzedek post. One of her goals, she told the Journal, is to bring awareness about Bet Tzedek that is commensurate with how much the organization accomplishes.

“There is incredible work being done everyday here, real victories, huge cases, huge success, huge impact, and I want to broadcast that achievement to the press, to public partners, to private supporters, much, much more,” she said. “Spreading the message about what Bet Tzedek does is really important to me.”

Kornberg will be tasked with overseeing an annual budget of approximately $7 million and working with a board of directors that includes 70 people, many prominent attorneys, including Bet Tzedek co-founder Stan Levy, who told the Journal he expects Kornberg to be “phenomenal” in the new position.

Relatability will be essential for Kornberg as she takes the helm. The CEO is the face of the organization, charged with maintaining relationships with a wide range of individuals, groups and institutions, from Jewish community organizations to clients, pro bono lawyers, donors, foundations, state and city government officials and others, according to Mitchell Kamin, Bird Marella principal attorney and a former Bet Tzedek CEO.

Bet Tzedek conducted a national search for its new CEO, working with the consulting firm Johnston and Company. The process involved several months of whittling down candidates until the organization selected Kornberg, according to a spokesperson for the organization.

“I think that she is a really dynamic creative thinker, and she’s coming along at a time when that kind of vision is going to be incredibly valuable, and I just see a world of opportunity for her to bring her dynamism to this organization,” David Lash, a member of Bet Tzedek’s board of directors and one of the organization’s former CEOs, told the Journal in a phone interview.

As CEO, Kornberg’s responsibilities will include setting “the policy direction of the board, raising money [and] supervising the staff,” Kamin said. “I guess the way I always looked at the job is you are responsible for many different stakeholder groups and making sure the organization is serving those needs and responsible to them.”

Bet Tzedek counts 2,400 pro bono volunteers who contribute about 85,000 hours each year to deliver legal assistance to the poor, according to a press release. They will be under Kornberg’s leadership, as well.

Kornberg and Kamin met while the former, a graduate of Columbia University and of UCLA Law School, was working among the volunteer pro bono attorneys at Bet Tzedek. Kamin was impressed and recommended Kornberg for a position at Bird Marella, where she has been working since 2011.

During her time at Bird Marella, a boutique law agency that specializes in white-collar crime, Kornberg litigated six trials. Standing up in the courtroom provides a rush that she’ll miss, she said during an interview at the Bet Tzedek offices in Koreatown.

Raised in Palo Alto, Kornberg is the daughter of a mother poet and a father architect, and she has two younger siblings, Her grandfather was a “victim of anti-Semitism, as many Jews of his generation were,” she said.

“That colored his response to the civil rights movement. He was a staunch supporter of civil rights advocacy and made sure in St. Louis, post-desegregation, after Brown v. Board of Education, that his sons continued in public school when no other white children did,” she said. “Because he understood the insidious effect of racism, he had been on the receiving end of it … he would not participate in that going forward and … he would stand for something different, and I think about that, I think about that a lot.”

Another goal, she said, is to serve as a megaphone for a staff that, in the past, has come into conflict with management over compensation. Bet Tzedek employees formed a picket line in 2011 and again in 2013, over issues related to, respectively, their pay and to health care benefits. Kornberg said she looks forward to working with a unionized work force that she believes has resolved its issues with management.

“There is real alignment and collaboration between the union leadership, between staff management and the board. I’m not sure, as I talk to more and more people on the board and on the staff, that there’s ever been a time at Bet Tzedek where those stakeholders were so closely aligned,” she said. “There has been a real coming together in the last, I don’t know, three or four months, where the union and management have signed onto shared interests and are going to be moving forward, collectively, so I lucked out, because I played no role in that but I get all of the benefits.

“It is a very powerful thing. At a time when unions are really struggling … the union here at Bet Tzedek is embraced and working together with management on Bet Tzedek’s future success, so I feel very fortunate about that,” she said.

Her appointment continues a pattern of young leadership for the organization. With the exception of Kornberg’s immediate predecessor, Sandor Samuels — who resigned this past summer and was 58 years old when he was hired in 2010 — previous leaders have been in their 30s or even younger. Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, a former Bet Tzedek CEO, was in his late-20s when he was hired to head the nonprofit.   

Throughout her career, Kornberg has channeled her energies into advocating on behalf of women in the legal arena. This includes blogging about sexism in law school and about gender-based discrimination among the faculty at law schools. Her blogs appear on the website of Ms. JD, an online forum she founded that gives voice to women in the legal world. She also served as the nonprofit’s executive director and remains a board member emerita.

Married and the mother of 14-month-old named Asa — after African-American labor leader and social activist A. Philip Randolph — Kornberg was quoted in a 2012 New York Times article about how to achieve work-life balance. She told the reporter that she considered it a priority to help mothers in the workplace find time to juggle both worlds.

That was before she was a mom herself. Today, with Elissa Barrett as Bet Tzedek’s vice president and general counsel, Kornberg’s recent hiring means that women occupy the top two leadership roles at the organization. Barrett, who has been serving as interim CEO for the last few months, is anticipating a great work experience.

“She brings a great deal of energy and vision to the position,” Barrett said of Kornberg. “It’s a very positive development. Placing women in leadership is a progressive step for Bet Tzedek.”

Bet Tzedek president to resign

Bet Tzedek President and CEO Sandor Samuels has tendered his resignation, effective as soon as a successor is identified. In an April 14 press release provided to the Journal by the public interest law firm, Samuels said it is time for him to move on to the next stage in his life. 

“When I assumed my current position, I saw the opportunity to combine my passion for Bet Tzedek’s mission with my legal vocation. After leading the organization through these last three and a half years … I have accomplished much of what I had set out to do, and it is now the proper time for me to pursue other passions and interests. I am proud of my accomplishments during my tenure at Bet Tzedek,” Samuels wrote. 

His remarks appeared in a letter addressed to “colleagues and friends” that was included in the Bet Tzedek press release.

Samuels said that he is not sure what his next move will be. 

“Once a successor is chosen and my tenure at Bet Tzedek ends, I plan to take a little time off, have my other knee replacement surgery, and then see what the next chapter will bring,” the community leader and former financial industry legal expert said.

His involvement with Bet Tzedek, which provides free legal services to the disadvantaged, dates back to 1994. He had served as board member for about 15 years — including two years as board chair — prior to being hired as the CEO in 2010.

Known to his friends as Sandy, Samuels, who is in his early 60s, took the top job at Bet Tzedek following several years of consecutive fundraising growth at the organization. He had hoped to continue that streak while expanding the organization’s programming, as reported in a 2010 Jewish Journal article. 

Indeed, his time as president and CEO of Bet Tzedek bore much fruit, according to Robert Schwartz, chair of the organization’s board of directors. Samuels’ accomplishments included, according to Schwartz, fundraising “record amounts.” He spearheaded the 2012 relocation of Bet Tzedek’s offices from the Fairfax District to Koreatown and  oversaw the launch of its New Leadership Council, a young professionals cohort of the agency.

But his tenure was not without conflict. Twice, in 2011 and in 2013, tension-filled contract negotiations with unionized non-managerial employees erupted in picketing. The second picket addressed health care premiums. 

Schwartz said Samuels would be missed. 

“There are few people who hold Bet Tzedek and its best interests closer to heart than Sandy, so his decision to step down upon the selection of his successor no doubt came only after much thoughtful reflection and deliberation,” Schwartz said. 

The organization’s governance committee plans to conduct a search for a new leader, a process that will include releasing a “job description for the position and contact information for interested candidates,” according to the press release.

Prior to being tapped to head Bet Tzedek, Samuels was a senior executive and chief legal officer at Countrywide Financial Corp. and then moved over to Bank of America when it acquired Countrywide.

Moving and Shaking: Bet Tzedek gala, USHM LA dinner, Project Chicken Soup celebrates

The Bet Tzedek Legal Services annual gala drew a capacity crowd of 1,500 guests to the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel ballroom March 5 to celebrate its 40th anniversary and honor attorneys Bruce Ramer, Stanley Gold, five past Bet Tzedek leaders and other lawyers. 

The organization, whose fundraiser grossed more than $2.5 million, provides free legal services to the needy and has led the way nationally in litigating for Holocaust survivor rights and providing free legal services to those in need.

USC President C.L. Max Nikias introduced Ramer and Gold, saying they embodied the idea that “those who live by enduring values make lasting contributions.”

Former law partners at Gang, Tyre, Ramer and Brown (Gold is of counsel to the firm), the pair have been leaders in numerous philanthropies, including USC, American Jewish Committee, USC Shoah Foundation-The Institute for Visual History and Education, and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. They began their acceptance with some gentle back-and-forth ribbing, Gold admitting that after 40 years he has yet to sway his conservative friend to his liberal outlook.  

From left: Bet Tzedek former executive directors Mike Feuer, Terry B. Friedman, Luis Lainer, Mitch Kamin and David Lash received the Rose L. Schiff Commitment to Justice Award. Photo by John Dlugolecki.

“Each and every one of us who is fortunate enough to achieve a level of success in this society needs to use that success to help others less fortunate,” Gold, president and CEO of Shamrock Holdings, said.

“I’m proud to be a lawyer,” Ramer said. “I’m proud of this profession. The basis of freedom and democracy is the law. It’s incumbent on all of us to support Bet Tzedek as it provides the law to everyone.” 

The official program focused on the good works done by the organization and its honorees. Current Bet Tzedek president and CEO Sandor Samuels presented longtime Bet Tzedek attorney José “Joey” Alarcon with the Jack H. Skirball Community Justice Award, and Aaron Spiwak and Andrea Ambrose Lobato were honored with the Rebecca Nichols Emerging Leader Award, which honors the legacy of a Los Angeles attorney who died in 2012 at the age of 29.   

Longtime Bet Tzedek supporter Art Bilger presented the Rose L. Schiff Commitment to Justice Award to five past executive directors: attorney Luis Lainer, retired judge Terry B. Friedman, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, and attorneys David A. Lash and Mitch A. Kamin.

“Our lives have significance to God,” Jose Gomez,  archbishop of Los Angeles, said at the evening’s benediction. “What we do in this world matters. That’s what we are honoring here tonight.”

Bet Tzedek’s co-founder Rabbi Stan Levy; vice president and general counsel, Elissa Barrett; and chairman of the board of directors, Robert Schwartz; attended, as did Rabbis Sharon Brous, Laura Geller, Gary Greenbaum and William Cutter; Jewish Federation President and CEO Jay Sanderson; Milken Family Foundation Executive Vice President Richard Sandler and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Director of the School of Nonprofit Management Richard A. Siegel.

Kate Beckinsale presents the National Leadership Award to Sir Ben Kingsley during the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s 2014 Los Angeles Dinner. Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

Stars such as Kate Beckinsale, Morgan Freeman and Rosanna Arquette turned out to the Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 6 to honor Sir Ben Kingsley at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s 2014 Los Angeles Dinner: “What You Do Matters,” where Beckinsale presented Kingsley with the museum’s National Leadership Award.

The Oscar-winning actor received the award because of his support of the museum as well as his unforgettable portrayal of Holocaust victims such as Itzhak Stern in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” Simon Wiesenthal in HBO’s “Murderers Among Us” and Otto Frank in the ABC miniseries “Anne Frank: The Whole Story.” 

“[Kingsley’s] inspired storytelling has impacted how audiences across the globe understand the Holocaust and the responsibility to act,” said Lenny Rosenblatt, one of the dinner’s chairs along with his wife, Janet Rosenblatt.

Speakers also included the museum’s director, Sara J. Bloomfield, Rabbi David Wolpe and Arquette, another chair of the event along with her husband, Todd Morgan.

Actor Joe Mantegna, Martin Scorsese, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and Steven Spielberg lauded Kingsley in videotaped interviews: “Ben Kingsley is a mitzvah,” Spielberg said.

In his award acceptance speech, Kingsley described his meetings with Wiesenthal, said he carried a photograph of Anne Frank on the set of “Schindler’s List” and quoted his friend Wiesel: “Let us tell tales so as not to let the executioner have the last word.”

Proceeds from the event will support the museum’s national campaign to help keep Holocaust memory alive in the 21st century.

 — Naomi Pfefferman, Arts & Entertainment Editor

From left: Project Chicken Soup gala attendees Anna Ress, Fortunee Cohen and Tami Ruth are volunteers at the charity organization, which delivers nutritious kosher meals to the needy. Photo by Gary West Productions

Project Chicken Soup (PCS) celebrated its 25 years of service to the community with its annual awards brunch commemorating past achievements and acknowledging its supporters, including volunteers, donors, community organizations and others.

“We were honoring our community of support for the last 25 years,” PCS executive director Cathryn Friedman said of the March 2 event, which took place at Temple Beth Am, during an interview with the Journal. “So many names — it’s an extensive community of support. … It was pretty incredible.”

The program featured live music, PCS chefs showcasing their signature dishes and a multimedia presentation highlighting the charity organization’s history. Gay Men’s Chorus of  Los Angeles; Cantor Juval Porat of Beth Chayim Chadashim;
and PCS medical adviser Dr. Mike Katz participated.

A nonprofit organization, PCS prepares and delivers free, nutritious kosher meals to people living with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other illnesses. It prepares and gives meals to 125 clients two Sundays a month and operates with only one paid staff member.

PCS organized the brunch so that it can aid even more people. It hopes to raise $60,000, aiming to grow its clientele to
250 to 300 people every month, according to Friedman.

Sponsors of the lunch included Porat, Booh Schut; Mark Miller and Brett Trueman; Steven and Gail Friedman; Michael and Ellen Opell and Arthur and Mady Jablon.

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? E-mail

The Mensch List: Bearing witness to Russians’ Holocaust stories

For the past seven years, Leon Shkrab, 67, has volunteered every week at Bet Tzedek Legal Services, conducting intake interviews in Russian with Holocaust survivors who are applying for Holocaust reparations through the representation of lawyers at the pro bono law firm.

For Shkrab, nothing could be more important. 

“By letting them tell their stories, I am bearing witness to their suffering,” Shkrab, who worked as a paralegal but is now retired, said during an interview at Bet Tzedek headquarters in Los Angeles’ Koreatown.

Born in the former Soviet Union after the end of the Holocaust, Shkrab — known to his friends as Leo — did not personally witness the horrors of the Shoah, but as an attorney and a Jew he experienced anti-Semitism firsthand in his homeland. That knowledge, coupled with his language skills, make him perfect for interviewing Russian-speaking survivors during the claims process, according to Lisa Hoffman, Bet Tzedek’s Holocaust services program director. 

“I think the No. 1 thing that Leo brings to the culture of Bet Tzedek is a true commitment to serving the community and, in particular, serving Holocaust survivors from the former Soviet Union,” Hoffman said. “He is very dedicated to that community.”

The interviews Shkrab conducts at Bet Tzedek are just the first step for the survivors in the process of applying for reparations. The interview often takes several hours, during which Shkrab listens to the clients’ personal stories of the war — and of the ghetto, the concentration camps and, more often than not, the many family members who perished.

Sometimes a survivor’s conversation with Shkrab is the first time that the survivor has fully told the story of these horrors. The sessions can be very emotional, Shkrab said.

His commitment to this work dates back to his early life experiences, growing up under an oppressive Soviet regime that tried to limit his ability to practice law on behalf of Jews.

As a young attorney, during the mid-1970s, Shkrab provided legal counsel to congregants at a synagogue in Odessa, Ukraine — until Soviet anti-religion officials told him to stop — or face consequences. 

The police were purposely vague about what could happen to him, Shkrab said, and he was too afraid to ask them to elaborate.

Just the threat of trouble was enough to convince Shkrab that it was time for a change. In 1988, after spending a year in Italy, Shkrab, his wife and their daughter were able to obtain visas to immigrate to the United States with the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

The family settled in West Hollywood, and Shkrab took classes at Los Angeles City College, earned a paralegal degree and joined the workforce, splitting his time between a position as director of social programs at a local Chabad, where he helped Russian immigrants obtain American citizenship, and a legal-assistant job at a civil litigation firm. Eventually, the law firm hired him as a full-time paralegal. 

Seeking to keep busy since his retirement, he began lending his professional skills to Bet Tzedek in 2007. 

Shkrab works at Bet Tzedek at least once a week, always clocking in a full workday. He receives no pay. He also volunteers several days each week at the County of Los Angeles Department of Consumer Affairs as a legal counselor. Until 2010, he volunteered on a regular basis at Santa Monica Courthouse’s information department.

Of all of these efforts, Bet Tzedek is closest to his heart, he says, because he knows the people he encounters have endured tragedies he was lucky to avoid. And, most important, because with each encounter, they open up to share their stories with him.

A union’s Jewish connection

Bet Tzedek, a nonprofit that provides free legal services for poor people, is locked in a dispute with the union that represents most of its workers, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (or AFSCME). At issue is the amount of money employees contribute toward the cost of health care for themselves and their families. Bet Tzedek currently pays for nearly 99 percent of those costs — costs they say have tripled in the last five years. 

“That is not sustainable,” Bet Tzedek president Sandy Samuels said. “We’re trying to have a more realistic arrangement with our employees.”

The union has made counteroffers on a new one-year contract, but none of them addresses the health care issue. Although both sides say they are determined to resolve the impasse, AFSCME has already staged two protests outside the Wilshire Boulevard offices of Bet Tzedek. 

The disagreement has left some wondering: What exactly is a public-employee union, known for representing municipal workers, doing representing workers at a Jewish non-profit?

AFSCME is among the most powerful unions in the country. In the 2012 election cycle, it spent $64.7 million on political campaigns — more than any other union, corporation or individual, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

AFSCME’s Southern California locals, organized under AFSCME Council 36, represent, almost exclusively, public sector employees. The apparent outliers are Jewish nonprofit professionals, including both Bet Tzedek and workers at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, represented by Locals 946 and 800, respectively. 

The Council’s spokesperson, Erica Zeitlin, called this “coincidental.”

“There was nothing deliberate about the fact that we represent these Jewish nonprofits,” she said. “But there’s no reason why we shouldn’t.”

Of course, it is any union’s role, at times, to challenge an employer trying to balance the needs and costs of its employees with the level of service its donors and clients expect. 

“It’s challenging to have a union in a nonprofit organization,” said Jay Sanderson, president of the Federation, who said that most nonprofits are not unionized. “Unions were created to take care of employees, like those in the garment industry, where the hours were inhumane and pay was low, and management took advantage. That’s not the case in the nonprofit community.”

He added: “Oftentimes, it becomes an adversarial relationship.”

Judaism has long been a champion of organized labor. The Talmud takes care to place protections on laborers (even as it condones slavery), and commands  collective bargaining, binding mediation and even strikes. 

So it’s hardly a surprise that Jews have played an important role in union organizing in the United States. 

“In the early part of the 20th century, you’d find Jews active in forming unions,” said Steven F. Windmueller, Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Later in the century, and especially in Los Angeles, “You had a unionization of the Jewish professional community.”

Federation’s employees, for example, became organized in the 1960s. 

“I’m sure when it started, it started with good intentions,” Sanderson said. 

But some at Federation suggested that work rules set up by union-negotiated contracts have, perhaps inadvertently, made for an environment where excellence cannot be rewarded, because, as one employee who asked to remain unnamed claimed, “There’s no separate pot of money for merit increases, or increasing efficiency or effectiveness. It’s a matter of checking off what you’re supposed to do.”

AFSCME Local 800 also represents seven other Jewish nonprofits, including Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Silver Lake JCC and Jewish Vocational Services (JVS), whose CEO, Vivian Seigel, said her organization has a good relationship with its union. 

“JVS has always been a partner with labor,” Seigel said. “We want what’s best for our employees.” Although, she added, “It does make it a challenge, because our dollars are limited.”

Bet Tzedek’s employees were represented by AFSCME Local 800 until the 1990s, when they voted to break away and form their own independent union. In November 2012, they voted to rejoin AFSCME and its international federation, the AFL-CIO.

“After 20 years, we wanted to be part of the mainstream labor movement,” said Marc Bender, a lawyer for Bet Tzedek who serves as president of AFSCME Local 946. “We wanted to come in from the cold and get institutional support and solidarity from a big union.” Bender’s wife, Leslie Simon, was, at the time, the organizational director of AFSCME Council 36 (she’s since moved over to the entertainment union IATSE). Bender denies that his wife’s involvement has anything to do with the Bet Tzedek independent union’s return to the AFSCME fold. 

For the last 20 years or so, Bet Tzedek employees, though working for reduced wages as compared to for-profit law-office workers, have received a notably generous benefits package that includes coverage for dental, vision, a pension and life insurance, as well as an HMO health care plan that covers the employees’ entire family for which they have paid nothing, or very little.

Bet Tzedek’s total bill for that health care, according to its president, Samuels, has tripled over the last five years, and now the nonprofit pays almost $900,000 annually for its employees’ medical care — a very large bill for an organization whose overall annual budget is between $7 million and $8 million.

Bet Tzedek management said its revenue has failed to keep up with inflation as well as the skyrocketing health care costs, in large part due to the recession in recent years. 

Low interest rates have also hit Bet Tzedek’s bank account. Every state in the United States has what’s called an Interest on Lawyer Trust Account (or IOLTA). Lawyers are required to temporarily keep money from settlements in these trust accounts. The interest on the accounts is then collected by the state bar and distributed to various nonprofits, including Legal Aid and Bet Tzedek, which receives one of the highest allocations in California. Low interest rates in recent years have decimated the IOLTA fund — whereas in 2007 it doled out about $22 million, distributions have fallen to less than $5 million in 2013. That has cost Bet Tzedek hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. 

Bender, however, puts the blame on Bet Tzedek’s management for its financial woes. 

“I don’t think Bet Tzedek has done a very good job managing all these grants coming in,” he said. “They continue to expand without being able to maintain decent salary and health benefits for staff.”

On Oct. 1, the much-anticipated health insurance exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA, also known as Obamacare) are set to begin enrollment. One of the intended purposes of the law is to slow the precipitous rise in health care costs in this country, and to require health insurance for all Americans, or make them pay a penalty for not being covered, thereby increasing the number of healthy insured and lowering the overall cost to consumers. It’s unclear what effect the ACA will have on small businesses like Bet Tzedek that already provide health care plans for employees.

But given the recent rise in health care costs and uncertainty about the future, Bet Tzedek’s union is reluctant even to talk about giving up members’ virtually free coverage. 

“We’re still hopeful that we can get them to save money in other ways that do not involve these prohibitive health care raises,” Bender said. 

According to Bender, Bet Tzedek’s initial offer was to raise health care contributions for an individual from zero to $208 a month; for an employee with one dependent, the proposed increase was from $20 to $486 a month; and for entire families, the proposed increase was from $30 to $635 a month. If that had been agreed upon, employees with families would have paid an added $7,260 per year for coverage. 

 “I want Bet Tzedek to be a strong agency, an agency that does a lot of good in the world,” said Rabbi Jonathan Klein, executive director of CLUE-LA (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice), who took part in the protests. “But in order for it to do good outside, it has to treat its own house well.”

Bet Tzedek has come back with three subsequent proposals, the most recent of which, according to Bender, amounts to $128 per month for an individual, $318 per month for an employee plus one dependent, and $468 per month for an employee and his or her family. (Bet Tzedek’s General Counsel, Elissa Barrett, said the offer was more complex than Bender made it out to be).

“They have made some movement, and we appreciate that,” Bender said. His union has made a counteroffer: Cut worker salaries by 1 to 2 percent, and cut management salaries by 3 to 5 percent. But for Bet Tzedek, this doesn’t deal with the crux of the issue: skyrocketing health care costs. 

It’s a showdown not dissimilar to ones faced by AFSCME’s other members — public employees all over the country: What happens when powerful unions make demands that employers say they simply cannot afford?

Barrett put it this way: “The union leadership has told us that they would rather Bet Tzedek cut services than address the health care issue.”

Immigration bill: For nannies and caregivers, legal status isn’t enough

At 2 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, Amelia Barnachea waited in a copy shop in downtown Los Angeles, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “I’m exercising,” the diminutive Filipina-American home health aide explained, looking very spry for her 72 years. 

Barnachea, who officially retired years ago, had spent the previous 18 hours filling in for a friend who was responsible for an ailing white woman only a few years Barnachea’s senior. 

Barnachea said she’d been awake almost the entire time. 

“I had to feed her. The place was dirty, so I had to clean. I had to cook something for her to eat,” Barnachea said. “That’s the work of an aide.”

Domestic work is often fluid, and the treatment of workers varies depending on their bosses. But federal laws that grant basic protections to almost all other workers in the United States — minimum wage requirements, for instance, and laws governing overtime pay — don’t apply to elder-care workers like Barnachea. Some workers don’t even get a standard meal break.

“Right now, some of our members have to pull food out of their pockets and eat whenever they can,” said Aquilina Soriano, executive director of the Pilipino Workers Center of Southern California. “There are some employers who don’t want them to sit down even for a moment.”

[Related: The proposed reforms, rights and regulations]

On June 27, the U.S. Senate approved an immigration bill that would bring 11 million people living illegally in the United States out from the shadows; should it become law, the bill would grant provisional legalized status to millions of people, including hundreds of thousands of domestic workers, offering them a path to citizenship. Legalized status would also bring with it other concrete benefits, including the ability to visit family members abroad and to get a driver’s license.

Activists aren’t popping champagne yet, as it’s not clear whether the Republican-controlled House of Representatives will pass similar legislation and allow the Senate’s bill to take effect. What’s more, advocates for domestic workers’ rights are also acutely aware that even if the Senate bill were to become law, without additional changes to existing state laws and federal regulations newly legalized domestic workers could still find themselves stuck working in a shadow economy. 

“Should immigration reform be enacted into law, it will be a tremendously positive change in the lives of these people and for our country,” said Hadar Susskind, director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, who also runs the progressive Jewish group’s political action committee. “At the same time, home care workers who are here legally, or are citizens, face a huge array of challenges.” 

Rabbi Heather Miller, center, sounds a shofar at a 24-hour vigil that began on June 26, one day before the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

’The standards are basically not governed by law’

Bend the Arc was one of a number of Jewish groups actively lobbying for passage of the Senate version of comprehensive immigration reform. Others include the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which has devoted significant resources to organizing Jews behind immigration reform and published a handbook in 2012 titled “Immigration Reform: A Jewish Issue?” In it, AJC invokes economics, national security and demographic power politics to make the case that Jews should get behind reform. 

To persuade Jews to get involved with an issue that will mostly benefit non-Jews, the AJC brochure also leans heavily on the Jewish history of immigration to the United States and on biblical and talmudic texts. 

Yet while immigration reform advocates ask Jews to think about what today’s laws might have meant for their grandparents and great-grandparents a century ago, domestic workers’ rights advocates are asking Jews to consider what today’s laws mean for the people who clean their homes, care for their children and look out for their aging parents.

U.S. labor law doesn’t do much to protect domestic workers. Household employers are explicitly exempted from laws that apply in other workplaces, and where laws do exist they regularly go unheeded and unenforced. 

“The standards are basically not governed by law,” said Kevin Kish, director of the employment rights project for the legal aid nonprofit Bet Tzedek. “They’re governed by community standards.”

Over the years, Bet Tzedek has represented victims of the most egregious abuse — including one woman brought from Peru to Los Angeles by a professor as a housekeeper. The professor then confiscated her passport and forbade her from leaving the house, then beat her and threatened her family. When the worker made efforts to contact Bet Tzedek, her employer attempted to get her deported back to Peru. 

[Related: Modern slavery — Answering the cry]

Such stories of brutality toward domestic workers are rare, but the lesser abuses also add up: Those who work behind the closed doors of private homes typically earn low wages and rarely receive the benefits afforded other employees. They also work in environments that can be hazardous, and they must endure abuses of power with little recourse to act. 

These were the findings of the Center for Urban Economic Development (CUED) at the University of Illinois at Chicago in its 2012 survey of more than 2,000 nannies, housecleaners and caregivers in 14 cities across the United States. Thirty-five percent of workers reported working long hours with no breaks, nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of the workers surveyed reported being paid less than minimum wage ($8 an hour in California), and only 9 percent reported having a written contract with their employers. Nineteen percent of workers said they had been subjected to threats or verbal abuse on the job. 

Undocumented domestic workers, who made up 36 percent of the survey’s respondents, were markedly worse off than their counterparts. Median wages for those without legal status were found to be 17 percent lower than those of U.S. citizens employed in households.

The survey results suggest that even household employers who adhere to the models of common practice in their communities may in fact be breaking existing laws. 

Although there’s no way of documenting this, it’s commonly believed that the overwhelming majority of household employers — some estimate between 80 and 95 percent — do not pay taxes on wages paid to household employees. Indeed, fewer than 9 percent of the domestic workers surveyed by CUED in 2012 reported that their employers pay into Social Security on their behalf. 

And while current California law does not require that caregivers get breaks or overtime pay, some household employees — including housekeepers — are entitled to such benefits.

Nevertheless, Kish said, many employers ignore these laws as well. 

’These people, their lives depend upon this wage’

Lately, some Jewish communities have been devoting increased attention to this issue. Last month, Bet Tzedek’s Kish participated in a conversation with Rav Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea about what California law and Jewish law require of employers vis-à-vis their household employees. 

On some subjects — the prompt payment of wages, for instance — Jewish law is unambiguous. 

“These people, their lives depend upon this wage, and that’s why you have to be so particular — so machmir (stringent), really — about making sure that you’re paying people on time,” Kanefsky told a reporter, a few weeks after he covered the topic at a Shabbat afternoon program on June 1. 

This commandment can be traced back to a verse in Deuteronomy: “Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it.” Yet the 2012 survey found that 23 percent of household employees said they had been paid late on at least one occasion in the past year. Ten percent said that during that same period, they had been paid less than what they were owed — or nothing at all. 

Kanefsky also took on a more nuanced question: From the standpoint of halachah (Jewish law), when may an employer cancel an agreement to engage an employee’s services? 

The Talmud addresses this in terms of agricultural workers, but Kanefsky applied the biblical text to the present day. If a parent comes home early from work and wants to send the nanny home, Kanefsky told me that halachah requires the full day’s wages be paid to the worker. If a family goes on vacation and expects an employee to be available for them upon their return, they have “some degree of financial obligation” to that employee for the wages that would have been paid during that time. 

“The only circumstance under which the employer is not committed to pay the wage,” Kanefsky said, “is if, (a) what happened is a completely unpredictable ’act of God’ and the employer did everything in his or her power to ensure that the work would be there, and (b) that the person didn’t commence work.”

Interestingly, Kanefsky said that he and his congregants agreed in advance that they would not address questions of immigration. 

“At least for our first go-round, we felt that we wanted to talk about the issues that people would come and engage with and not with issues that they would be squirming in their seats about,” Kanefsky said. 

Nonetheless, Bet Tzedek’s Kish, who is not Jewish, said he was surprised by the high standard for behavior Kanefsky espoused to the 40 members of his congregation who attended the program in early June.  

When employers and domestic workers hash out their responsibilities to one another, Kish said, “A lot of the negotiation doesn’t refer to law or what’s written in the labor code. It’s, ’What do your friends do? What does your family do? What do people in your community do?’ “

’Be a mensch’

It’s not clear how many Jews are asking such questions at all. Rabbi Jonathan Rosenberg of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, the largest Orthodox synagogue in the San Fernando Valley, said that the questions his congregants ask about domestic workers are focused less on wages and more often concern questions about “what a non-Jewish worker inside the home is allowed to do with regard to matters of observance.” 

Rabbi Jonathan Bernhard of Adat Ari El, a Conservative synagogue in Valley Village, said he has been asked by congregants — infrequently — what Jewish tradition has to say about domestic employees. Most of the time, he said, they’re not asking about immigration issues, even if they are employing people who don’t have authorization to work in this country. 

Those who do come with questions, Bernhard said, mostly want to talk about wages and vacations, and, in his experience, most appear to “already know the answers” to the questions they’re asking.

“What I would say is, ’Look, be a mensch. Now we have to figure out what that looks like in this situation,’ ” he said. “But that’s really what they’re looking for. They want to be a mensch.”

Such rabbinic guidance may be sufficient for individual cases, but domestic workers and the activists working on their behalf are trying to broaden accountability among employers and inject more specificity into these kinds of discussions. The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, introduced by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), was developed with input from household employees and would grant certain basic rights to domestic workers that they don’t have at present. 

“Right now, nannies and caregivers do not have the right to overtime pay, do not have the right to meals and rest breaks,” Soriano of the Pilipino Workers Center said. “This creates the situation where they are working around the clock and being compensated very little.”

Soriano’s group is a member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), which has been advocating for bills of rights for domestic workers in a number of states, including California. Other Jewish and interfaith groups, including the L.A.-based Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, have gotten involved in these state-specific efforts, as well. 

NDWA, together with Bend the Arc and the New York-based Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, are members of the Caring Across Generations movement, which is pushing President Barack Obama to approve new regulations formulated by the Department of Labor that will extend minimum wage and overtime protections to home care workers. 

Photo by Dan Kacvinski

Ammiano’s bill, AB 241, would grant to California’s domestic workers these and a handful of other rights. On May 29, the California Assembly voted 45-25 to approve the bill; the State Senate’s Industrial and Labor Relations Committee also approved the bill in a hearing on the bill on June 26. 

It’s the second time the legislation is making its way through Sacramento; in 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, citing concerns about the “economic and human impact” of the bill on those who are cared for by domestic workers. 

Should the State Senate pass the bill and the governor sign it — and Carlos Alcala, Ammiano’s communications director, said it’s hard to predict which way Brown will go on this issue — California would join New York and Hawaii in adopting an explicit bill of rights for domestic workers. 

Each one of those bills has its own particular language and protections. The Hawaii law specifically protects breastfeeding employees against discrimination; the California bill introduced in the last legislative session granted workers permission to use the kitchen in the home “without charge or deduction from pay.”

“That would be a little problematic for us,” said Irving Lebovics, chair of the California branch of Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox advocacy organization. As written, the law looked as though it might have compelled Orthodox employers to allow employees to use their kosher kitchens. 

Language was added to the bill the first time around, Lebovics said, that exempted employers with specific food allergies or dietary restrictions from allowing their workers to use their kitchens. That language has been replicated in the current bill. 

As for the question of how non-Jewish workers should eat in kosher-observant households, Lebovics called it a “non-issue.” 

“We’ll go the extra mile to make sure they have what to eat,” he said. “If somebody wants something that’s not kosher, they’re free to eat it. Just not inside the house.”

But what some Orthodox Jews see as a non-issue appears to have been experienced by some domestic workers as an insult. 

One afternoon last month, I listened as a number of domestic workers, including some who have worked for Jewish families, spoke about their experiences. They all said they feel particularly vulnerable — either because they are not in this country legally or because they feared for their jobs and for future employment — and all asked that their names not be included in this article. One, who I’ll call L, recalled an unpleasant experience with the Jewish family that employed her mother in the 1990s. 

The mother in this family didn’t just prohibit L’s mother from eating non-kosher food in the house, but extended the ban into the backyard. L had been visiting her mother at the time, and she told me she remembered watching as her mother’s Jewish employer snatched food away from them, threw it across the backyard, and then forced L’s mother to go clean it up. 

Another woman told me that she had heard stories of domestic workers being forced by their kosher-observant Jewish employers to eat their lunches outside, or in the family’s garage.

Whether these anecdotes represent common practice among observant Jewish employers is impossible to ascertain, but Rabbi Nachman Abend, associate director at the Chabad of North Hollywood for the past seven years, said he hadn’t heard of any situations in which employees perceived kosher laws as insulting. 

“I would say most people respect religion, and most people, if you take the time to explain it to them, not only do they not take offense, but they appreciate it very much,” Abend said. 

’I almost cried. It had been so long since I had heard any words of appreciation.’

Abend’s own family employs a domestic worker — he and his wife have five children, including twin babies — and when he gets questions from members of his community, he offers guidance not so much from Jewish law but from his own practice. 

“I don’t know if they’re asking me as a Jewish legal authority or as a rabbi, friend and mentor,” Abend said. “I give general advice. So if somebody asks me if they should pay their nanny for July 4, or whatever national holiday is coming up, I say, ’I do.’ “

This question — how should a person treat his mother’s caregiver or her child’s nanny? — appears to be on the minds of many people these days, and on the minds of Jews, in particular. 

A parents group in a wealthy neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., has been conducting annual surveys of “nanny compensation” that cover everything from the range of hourly wages to whether “major Jewish holidays” are paid holidays for nannies. 

Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Association, a group started in 2010 by (mostly Jewish) employers of nannies, caregivers and housekeepers, issued guidelines to help other domestic employers foster “dignified and respectful working conditions” in their homes. 

So I asked Soriano, whose group represents more than 600 Filipina caregivers and other domestic employees, what advice she would give to domestic employers looking to be good bosses. First, Soriano urged employers to value their employee’s time, and to understand the power imbalance between employees and their employers. 

“Sometimes,” she continued, “when an employer is asking an employee to work, it’s not easy for the domestic worker to say no — even if they have other obligations at that time.”

Soriano went on: “It’s really about how they’re treated, as well. They’re not servants; they’re whole human beings, with families. If they’re being treated as if they’re not a whole person a lot of the time, I know from our members that really makes them feel bad.”

One of the domestic workers who spoke with me earlier this month, whom I’ll call S, said she had once quit a job she didn’t like, but it was only after her next employer thanked her for work she had done that she realized how unhappy she had been while working for her prior boss. 

“I almost cried,” S said. “It had been so long since I had heard any words of appreciation.”

Nothing in California’s proposed domestic worker’s bill of rights entitles a worker to receive thanks from her employer. But the bill would require employers to pay overtime and grant meal and rest breaks to all of their domestic employees. And while there’s no guarantee that  this new law will be followed any more widely than the existing ones, activists feel hopeful that the bill of rights could function as a starting point to educate domestic employers about how to treat their workers. 

Amelia Barnachea is working on the effort to pass the bill of rights in California. But just before she headed home for some (long-overdue) rest, she offered a philosophical explanation of what makes for a good working relationship. 

“If there is love and care [between an aide and her patient], you can work for a long time,” she said. “If there is none of those, just money, you can’t stay long. You cannot work for money alone.”

Preventing human trafficking: You can help. Here are some guidelines:

Be aware. Trafficking victims are everywhere, and they often exhibit characteristics similar to victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.  Physical indicators may include bruises and other evidence of beatings and assault, as well as untreated critical illnesses or sexually transmitted diseases.  Indicators of psychological distress may include poor dental health, depression and extreme anxiety. First responders should look for lack of personal possessions and numerous inconsistencies in personal history. 

Step up. If you see someone who needs help, call the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) at (888) 539-2373 or call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at (888) 373-7888.  Both are 24-hour hotlines.  You can also text INFO or HELP to BeFree (233733). 

Be informed. Consumers can make a difference. To find out more about the business practices of companies you buy from, go to or

Get involved. CAST and Bet Tzedek could not help nearly as many clients without the assistance of pro bono attorneys and other volunteers. To donate your time, go to ­ or

Letters to the Editor: Gordis, Brous, Fiscal Cliff

Seeking Balance

I think that the strongest refutation of Rabbi Daniel Gordis (“When Balance Becomes Betrayal,” Nov. 30) and also of David Suissa (“War and Bickering,” Nov. 30) came from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), who brilliantly used impressive intelligence gathering and precision bombing to minimize civilian casualties and thus avoided what most often happens with Israel in asymmetrical warfare — namely that Israel wins the military battle and loses the political war.

Ambassador Michael Oren represented Israel effectively in the international media by recognizing the humanity of the Palestinians and brutality of their leaders who used women and children, mosques and hospitals, as shields for their rockets and their fighting personnel. Had the IDF or the Israeli ambassador given in to Suissa’s absolutism or Gordis’ angst and anger, the outcome would have been far less impressive morally, politically and Jewishly.

We might be most wise to recall’s the Patriarch Isaac’s observation in the Torah that was read that week: “The Voice was the Voice of Jacob, the hands were the hands of Esau.” Even as we don the cloth of Esau, our voice — and our values — must be the voice of Jacob.

Michael Berenbaum
Los Angeles

Assuring Our Jewish Future

Avoiding the ‘Jewish Fiscal Cliff’ ” (Nov. 30) is an excellent examination of the fundraising and volunteer issues, problems and ideas facing the Jewish community today.  Congratulations to Mark Pearlman on a thoughtful and thorough look at questions we must all face. We would add only a couple of additional ideas.

Effective fundraising requires many arrows be carried in the fundraising quiver. A community with diverse interests and varied philanthropic organizations such as ours requires that we be prepared to appeal to those many different constituencies. The most important of those constituencies for whom we need an approach focused on their particular passions is the 20- and 30-somethings who represent our future. To establish them as generational leaders and givers, we need to provide two things:

The first: Service opportunities, the chance to roll up their sleeves and be involved in an intimate and focused way. General appeals based on our need to support Israel and our commandment to heal the world are wonderful, but with this generation we need to give them volunteer opportunities to exercise their passion and be active personally and in specific ways for specific causes that fulfill their particular passions.

The second: Be less insular. Most of our Jewish communal organizations serve Jews first but serve the larger community with open arms, believing it to be our duty to help the widow, orphan and stranger. Many young people today feel less connected to Jewish life because Jewish life is less connected to the larger community. We all need to embrace the notion that healing the world, tikkun olam, means embracing the world through a Jewish prism that brings healing to all. Tapping into the passion and commitment of young people means doing things a little differently than we have done in the past. Today we have to provide outlets for that passion and look at a world that grows flatter and more interconnected each day, giving younger donors the chance, through their Jewish passion, to help, through volunteer service, other communities in need.

David A. Lash, Former executive director, Bet Tzedek
Mitchell A. Kamin, Former president and CEO, Bet Tzedek



Last week, Mark Pearlman wrote an erudite proposal for minding the Jewish communal coffers. He asks how we can adequately fund an engaging and vibrant Jewish community. Eight causes are given for the fiscal deterioration of the community. Unfortunately, he missed entirely the main and intractable cause: not enough Jewish children.

To illustrate this case, please look at the weekly obituary pages of the Jewish Journal. It’s actually very much the same story each week; one that’s almost unnoticed, while it screams about our Jewish demographic crisis.

The Nov. 23 issue, for example, reported 30 Jewish deceased over the age of 70 with a total of 99 reported grandchildren. That’s 3.03 grandchildren per person. Remember, though, that the numbers surely include some Orthodox families, bringing up the grandchild total significantly. Now, those 99 not only represent one decedent’s grandchildren, but two grandparents. So the news is this: Jewish L.A. now seems to average about three grandchildren per Jewish couple.

What is the solution? The fact that this might sound crazy to most further reveals the problem, but there is like 3,400 years of experience with this: Let every Jew turn Saturday into Shabbat. Then, as surely as spring follows the winter, more babies and funding will follow, naturally. Simple. Right?

Gary Dalin
Former director, Jewish Federation, Metro Division

Bet Tzedek moves east

Ever since Bet Tzedek’s inception in 1974, the free legal-services firm has mostly been housed in the heavily Jewish Fairfax district, with additional offices in the San Fernando Valley and the Mid-Wilshire area. In August, it consolidated all three into a single headquarters in Koreatown and will officially celebrate the move this week.

There are many advantages to this change, according to Bet Tzedek officials. 

Its new, larger space at Wilshire Boulevard and Vermont Avenue will better serve the organization’s clients, said David Bubis, vice president for development at Bet Tzedek. In the past, when clients arrived with more than one legal problem, they often had to visit multiple Bet Tzedek sites. Now they can receive all the services in one place, which also allows Bet Tzedek to work more collaboratively.

The offices include intake offices, staff offices, a multipurpose room and a calling center. At the previous location, some employees worked out of closets. Bubis said the new larger space accommodates not just Bet Tzedek’s 70 staff members, but also the flood of attorneys, paralegals and students who volunteer at the organization. 

“It really is much more professional. It looks like a law firm now, which is the way it should look,” he said.

The move makes sense in terms of clients’ demographics, as well. When Bet Tzedek was founded in the 1970s, it exclusively served the elderly Jewish community, for which Fairfax was a hub. Now Bet Tzedek serves Jews and non-Jews.

The move came out of necessity. Bet Tzedek could not afford to enter into a new lease at its former site: The neighborhood’s rent has risen as Fairfax became trendier, Bubis said. Bet Tzedek has signed a 10-year lease for the new location, which includes the entire 13th floor as well as three-quarters of the 14th floor of a 22-story office building at 3250 Wilshire Blvd. 

David Wilstein, a leader in the Jewish community, owns the building, and was instrumental in convincing Bet Tzedek to make the move. 

The organization has come a long way since its founding, when a group of 18 friends came together to start it, each pledging $5 per month to pay for a storefront office on Fairfax Avenue.

“We’re all very happy in the new offices,” Bubis said.

Rebecca Catherine Nichols dies at 29

Rebecca Catherine Nichols, daughter of Merle N. Stern and James H. Nichols Jr., died on Oct. 5 at 29. 

Nichols graduated from La Canada High School in 2001 and from Yale cum laude with honors in political science in 2005. Before studying law at the University of California, Berkeley, she worked for two years for an NGO in Quito, Ecuador, which promoted good governance. At Berkeley, Nichols served as senior editor of the Berkeley Journal of International Law and worked with many public interest law clinics. She received her J.D. in 2010 and worked as an associate at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips in general civil litigation. She served on the New Leadership Council of Bet Tzedek and recently received the State Bar of California’s Wiley W. Manuel Certificate for Pro Bono Legal Services.  

Nichols is survived by her mother, Merle N. Stern; father, James H. Nichols Jr.; brother, David A. Nichols; aunt, Martha Simon; uncle, Mark Stern; and great-uncle, Peter Gluck. 

Her family and friends will always remember her devotion to them, her sense of adventure, her warmth, her charm, and the keen intelligence and zest she brought to all her activities.

Services were held on Oct. 14 at Mount Sinai Memorial Parks in Hollywood Hills.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Bet Tzedek Legal Services in memory of Rebecca Nichols.

Navigating the process of conservatorship

For a parent who has been caring for a child with special needs, it can be jarring to realize that at age 18, the child is considered a legal adult, whether or not he can sign his own name or understand the value of a dollar.

That means parents have no legal rights to communicate with doctors or principals on behalf of the child, can’t authorize a medical procedure, and the child is free to sign up for a credit card or a cell phone, or to get married.

To retain their rights, a parent needs to become the child’s conservator — a process that is both costly and daunting.

“Oftentimes it’s a shock to them. They’ve been caring for their children 24/7 since they were born, and now they don’t understand why they need permission to do that,” says Yolande Erickson, a conservatorship attorney with Bet Tzedek Legal Services. “It can be very frightening — someone is going to judge you and decide whether you are appropriate to continue caring for your child.”


PJA and JFSJ head Elissa Barrett moves to Bet Tzedek

Elissa Barrett is leaving Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish Funds for Justice (PJA and JFSJ) to become vice president and general counsel of Bet Tzedek.

It was difficult decision to depart from PJA and JFSJ, she said, where she served as chief of regional operations. But, “I believe the law is a crucial tool for social change work, and I’m excited to bring that perspective to my work at Bet Tzedek,” Barrett said. Prior to the 2011 merger between PJA and JFSJ, Barrett served as PJA’s executive director.

Bet Tzedek provides free legal services to Jews and non-Jews in Los Angeles. PJA and JFSJ’s mission is working for social justice.

During her tenure at PJA and JFSJ, Barrett led campaigns addressing hunger, domestic workers’ wages and immigrant rights. It was “wild, exciting and wonderful,” she said.

This will be Barrett’s second position with Bet Tzedek, where she previously served as Bet Tzedek’s pro-bono director.

“We’re delighted to welcome Elissa back to the Bet Tzedek family,” Sandor Samuels, president and CEO of Bet Tzedek, said. Barrett will be his “number-two person,” he said.

Barrett replaces Michelle Williams Court in the position of vice president and general counsel. Last year, Governor Brown appointed Court to become a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge.

Barrett starts at Bet Tzedek on March 12. PJA and JFSJ will likely do an external search for her replacement, she said.

Bet Tzedek Has a Ball With Rapper Nelly

Surrounded by dancing bodies, a 20-something took off his shirt and waved it around his head, bare-chested, simply following the instructions of hip-hop artist Nelly, the performer on stage. “It’s getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes,” Nelly sang, the lyrics from his 2002 hit song, “Hot in Herre.”

The performance took place at Bet Tzedek’s 15th annual Justice Ball, held on June 25.

“As Jews, we love hip hop,” said Serena Zeise, southwest regional director for J Street, who was at the event.

Bet Tzedek Legal Services, a pro bono law firm in Los Angeles that offers counsel to low-income, elderly and disabled clients — “bet tzedek” means “house of justice” in Hebrew — hosts the Justice Ball every year, attracting young professionals from the community and raising money for Bet Tzedek. The firm tackles consumer fraud, employment rights and Holocaust reparations, among other issues.

Organizers said the event raised approximately $300,000, in line with their fundraising goal. To date, Bet Tzedek has raised more than $4 million from tickets sold at the Justice Ball every year.

Approximately 2,500 people attended the Justice Ball, according to Amy Peckner, senior development officer at Bet Tzedek, including fresh-out-of-school lawyers and young staff from various nonprofits in the community.

Wearing sunglasses and bling and joined on stage by his brother, also a rapper, and a DJ, Nelly’s set list included “E.I.,” “County Grammar,” “Ride With Me” and his latest single, “Just a Dream” — a reminder of how many hit songs the Southern rapper has had since his debut album, “Country Grammar,” was released in 2000 and became a chart-topping crossover success, embraced by the pop world. He won a Grammy in 2003 and has sold millions of records.

The selection of Nelly as the event’s headliner continues Bet Tzedek’s streak of booking contemporary, nonreligious talent for its big, annual event.

“That’s what they’re into,” Peckner said of young professionals. “It’s not a matter [of] if someone is Jewish or not Jewish. We’re looking at people who reach a wider audience.” Previous years have featured such acts as Macy Gray, The Go-Go’s and DJ AM.

Seeking a pay increase, Bet Tzedek employees picket

On June 14, employees at Bet Tzedek, a Jewish legal-service organization, demonstrated in front of the organization’s office at 145 S. Fairfax Ave., calling for higher wages. Bet Tzedek — which means “House of Justice” in Hebrew — is a nonprofit that provides free legal services to Jews and non-Jews in Los Angeles.

The Bet Tzedek employees — lawyers, legal secretaries, paralegals and clerical workers — want pay increases of approximately 2 percent, according to Marc Bender, an attorney at Bet Tzedek and president of Bet Tzedek Legal Services Union, which has 54 members. 

“We’re not asking for the moon,” Bender said. “We feel that Bet Tzedek can afford that.” The employees’ health care and pensions are also at stake, but the dispute over the wage increase has been the focus of the dispute.

As of June 15, Bet Tzedek management had agreed to an approximately 1 percent raise for its employees, Bender said.

Bet Tzedek CEO and president Sandor Samuels, who has been negotiating directly with the firm’s employees on behalf of management, would not confirm the percentages but said the employees have asked for a higher pay increase than management can afford.

“We are trying to properly balance what our employees would like with our ability to make sure that we can raise the money to operate at this point,” Samuels said.

“I’m looking forward to both sides getting back to the negotiating table so we can this thing resolved.”

As with many nonprofits, the economic downturn has affected the Bet Tzedek employees’ pay. In 2009, their wages were reduced, but in January 2011 they were reinstated to the level that they were prior to the recession.

As of last week, Bet Tzedek employees were not considering striking and expressed hope that their demands will be met.

“We’re hoping the informational picket will break the log-jam,” Bender said of the action, which drew approximately half of Bet Tzedek’s union members.

The nonmanagerial employees of Bet Tzedek have not received raises since 2008. The employees receive different pay but are subject to the same contract terms. Negotiations began six months ago, after nonmanagement employees’ contracts expired in January. Since then, the negotiations have been ongoing.

Bet Tzedek taps corporate attorney, community leader as new CEO

Bet Tzedek named Sandor “Sandy” Samuels as its new president CEO, tapping the community leader and financial industry legal expert to head the Los Angeles-based Jewish public interest law firm that serves nearly 12,000 disadvantaged clients every year.

Samuels recently retired from a decades-long career in the corporate financial world. He served as senior executive and chief legal officer at Countrywide Financial Corporation and then moved over to Bank of America when it acquired Countrywide in 2008, focusing on helping people stay in their homes.

Samuels said he had been looking toward moving into public sector work, when Mitchell Kamin, who headed Bet Tzedek for seven years, announced last summer that he would be leaving in September.

“When this opportunity came my way, I just thought that this was really a dream come true, because I’m so excited about the mission of Bet Tzedek, and the need for our services is so great,” said Samuels, who has served on the Bet Tzedek board since 1994 and chaired the organization for two years.

Samuels, 58, who lives in Encino with his wife and has three grown children, is currently the president of Adat Ari El in Valley Village, and chaired the board of advisors of the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies from 2005-2008.

“What I have tried to do in my life is to do well in my professional life and do good in my community services,” Samuels said.

The job at Bet Tzedek is a blending of the two.

With a budget of $7 million, 70 staff and 1,600 volunteer attorneys and paralegals, Bet Tzedek offers free legal services in matters involving consumer rights, elder law, housing, public benefits and workers’ rights to low-income, disabled and elderly people of all racial and religious backgrounds. Bet Tzedek has a network of hundreds of attorneys across the country who offer legal help to Holocaust survivors.

Samuels inherits an organization on strong growth trajectory. Kamin grew the organization from a budget of $4 million and tripled Bet Tzedek’s endowment.

Samuels hopes to expand fundraising and programs. He says he foresees more work in the areas of elder care, as the population ages, and knows that the lingering downturn will continue to affect clients.

Samuels said his experience at Countrywide and Bank of America leaves him well positioned to tackle the ever-increasing flow of legal problems spawned by the economic downturn.

“I have spent the last couple years working closely with government officials and other institutions within the industry to try to work on solutions to help people stay in their homes. And I think given my experiences I am uniquely qualified to help our clients try to navigate through tough economic times,” Samuels said.

Holly J. Fujie, who led the Bet Tzedek board selection committee and is the incoming chair of the board, said Samuels was a natural choice.

“I think each one of our CEOs have brought us to a new level … and I believe Sandy is doing to do the same thing. I can’t say what that change is going to be and how that new level is going to show itself, but I think that Sandy not only is a consummate leader and fundraiser, but he also has a vision and we’re really excited by where that vision is going to take him and us.”

Tovah Feldshuh immortalizes life of young Shoah heroine in ‘Irena’s Vow’

In a small theater just off Lexington Avenue in New York City, a Southern California heroine comes to life. For 90 minutes, the wonders of great theater, personal strength, history and humanity combine in a play that transcends and empowers each.

“Irena’s Vow” is the story of Irena Gut Opdyke, a young Polish Catholic woman who took unimaginable risks and paid an unspeakable personal price to save the lives of 12 Jews by hiding them in the basement of the villa where she was virtually enslaved by a German major during World War II.

The teenage Irena also saved countless others by smuggling food and information to the nearby resistance, when she selflessly, courageously and, perhaps, almost inexplicably defied the Nazis. What she saw, what she experienced and what she endured are beyond comprehension. How this young girl stepped up, looked her own death in the eyes and triumphed, is a story that goes well beyond theater.

As depicted in the play, Opdyke emerges from the torture of her youth late in life. Living in Southern California, she decides to lift her emotional veil after hearing a Holocaust denier spill his venom. She believes she had to stand up again, and she tells her story to a new generation of children.

Opdyke’s tale is eloquent and powerful. She talks about forced labor, of escaping into the forest, of losing her family and of being raped and nearly killed. She describes the evil she saw by explaining its impact and cruelty. Her story of a baby being ripped from the arms of its mother, tossed into the air and shot as target practice is just one example of the horrors she witnessed and would never let be denied.

For those of us listening, there are few moments like that in our lives. For Opdyke, there were only a few moments not like that in her life. For its off-Broadway audience at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, the honesty and emotion is overwhelming.

It was one of the great honors of my life when, on behalf of Bet Tzedek, The House of Justice, I agreed to represent Opdyke in a suit brought to restore to her the disputed rights to her own remarkable life story. Together with a heroic pro bono effort from Carole Handler and Jeff Tidus, who gave us invaluable expertise as trial co-counsel, we gained far more than just another client. We learned a lesson about a lifetime of dignity. And we made a friend and found a hero, forever.

After the trial concluded, we helped Opdyke sell the rights to her story to Dan Gordon, an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter. He has turned her tale into compelling theater that is as personal and intimate as it is historic and powerful.

The 12 Jews in the basement are cleverly depicted through the eyes and words of three — a frightened young woman and a married couple. When the couple becomes pregnant, the dilemma it presents is one of life or death during the Holocaust. Issues of abortion, faith, safety, majority rule and hope are real and moving. The Nazi major is a beast of unspeakable magnitude, yet there is just enough of a hint of humanity that the decisions he ultimately makes are understandable, compassionate and repulsive, all at the same time.

The final message of the play, a plea from Irena for tolerance — for carrying forth after the last survivors and eyewitnesses are gone — is not a clichéd speech but instead a prayer from one woman, slight in stature, gigantic in character, coming from a personal will that after a stunning performance from acclaimed actress Tovah Feldshuh is full of reality and understatement.

Although she died in 2003, Opdyke comes alive on stage. Although her accent is not as thick as Opdyke’s and her halting English not as cumbersome, Feldshuh’s poetic license only brings the deceased more to life. She captures the humanity, vulnerability, naiveté and strength that defined Opdyke as no other. She also captures the will, despite seriously ill health, that pushed Opdyke to travel the world, visiting classrooms full of children dubious about listening to an old woman but soon to fall completely in love with her.

In the end, we are left to wonder why Opdyke risked everything. What would we risk to do the right thing? What would we risk to save a life? How far would we go to save a stranger? The play profoundly and subtly explores those difficult, universal questions. It’s hard to explain the answer. But for Opdyke, there seemed not even to be a question.

The play’s producers hope to raise enough money to take “Irena’s Vow” to Broadway. A sold-out eight-week run gives them hope. But if that means later taking the play on the road, visiting cities around the world as Opdyke did, then great theater and a personal story of strength will live on, teaching tolerance, just as she wanted.

David A. Lash is an attorney with the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers LLP in Los Angeles. While serving as the executive director of Bet Tzedek from 1994-2003, he and pro bono volunteers Carole Handler and Jeffrey Tidus represented Irena Gut Opdyke.

Daphna Ziman praised, Justice Ball raises big bucks for Bet Tzedek

Ziman Praised for Understanding

Back in April, Daphna Ziman set off a firestorm when she alleged that African American Rev. Eric P. Lee made anti-Semitic comments at an event in which she was being honored for charity work. In the ensuing months, national newspapers picked up the story (first reported in this paper); eventually the incident was chalked up to a misunderstanding, and Ziman and Lee publicly reconciled.

In praise of her effort to rekindle ties between the Jewish and African American communities, Ziman was recognized by the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding on July 22 at Brett Ratner’s Benedict Canyon abode, Hillhaven Lodge. The Hollywood playboy actually attended the benefit this year (last year’s absence was due to an on-location film shoot) and hosted a mélange of industry players for cocktails and appetizers by the pool.

The foundation, led by Hamptons rabbi Marc Schneier and chaired by music mogul Russell Simmons, promotes dialogue among different ethnic communities. Vicangelo Bulluck, director of the NAACP Hollywood Bureau, and Jay Faires, president of Lionsgate music were also honored at the L.A. event.

Even while certain members of each community suggest a diminishing relationship among blacks and Jews, the foundation’s ability to attract high-powered Hollywood to support its mission is proof that strong ties are still possible.

ACCESS to the Media

“It’s the wild west of journalism,” columnist Bill Boyarsky declared to a group of young professionals languishing on Judi and Roy Kaufmans’ leather couches one recent Sunday afternoon. Boyarsky, who also writes a monthly column and blog for The Journal, was referring to the changing landscape of print journalism, which has been in flux since the advent of new media. The topic served as the focus of American Jewish Committee’s ACCESS media forum on July 20.

Five reputable panelists representing print, radio, Internet and a public relations firm sat at the front of the room dishing their expertise. Joel Stein, a Los Angeles Times columnist and contributor to Time magazine, whose bio says he is “desperate for attention,” did his very best to crack jokes for an unmoved crowd.

Despite the panelists’ best efforts — good blogging tips, discussion about the future of journalism and the importance of community-building media organizations, — they couldn’t ward off the end-of-weekend blues.

From ‘Justice’ to ‘Glow’

Although the party itself leaves something to be desired, The Justice Ball still has powerful allure. The economic downturn felt throughout the country has only slightly affected Bet Tzedek’s second-largest fundraiser of the year. Geared toward young professional types and aspiring philanthropists, the annual event, held July 19 at West Hollywood’s The Lot, raised just under $500,000, close to their take at last year’s event.

Although there were fewer bodies this year, the clubby party attracted nearly 3,000 Angelenos who donned their dressy duds to check out the scene. With casino tables, outdoor karaoke, music by The Psychedelic Furs and VIP bars spread throughout the former Warner Bros. backlot, event patrons got their fun out of giving. Still, the evening’s biggest buzz circulated elsewhere, at Santa Monica’s outdoor art experience, “Glow,” which became the unofficial afterparty.

At the beach, thousands of people strolled through the sand from dusk to dawn in a maze of illuminated art installations inspired by the fabled grunion that spawn on the shore. Trippy music and a bright palette of colored lights attracted huge crowds to the all-night beach party, which had the combined vibe of Woodstock meets European discothèque. It was the proper ending to a Saturday night, one that did the whole evening a bit more justice.

Mitch Kamin (far left), president and CEO of Bet Tzedek, his wife Susan Genco (fourth from left), senior vice president business affairs, Warner Bros. Records, and friends enjoying The Justice Ball.

Demi Moore, Tony Blair, Mr. Mayor

Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher,Bruce Ramer
Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher wonder, “Will we be billed for this?” when they attend Bet Tzedek’s Annual Dinner Gala at the Hyatt Regency in Century City on Jan. 22. The Bet Tzedek supporter to their right is lawyer Bruce Ramer.

Israeli Consul General Jacob Dayan,Joseph Cedar,Uri Gavriel
Looks like the feud is over, as Israeli Consul General Jacob Dayan (a.k.a. “Yaki”) embraces former competitors, director Joseph Cedar of “Beaufort” and Israeli actor Uri Gavriel of “The Band’s Visit” at the 2008 Palm Springs International Film Festival, which honored Israel’s 60th on Jan. 6. The two aforementioned films were vying to represent Israel at the Oscars, but only “Beaufort” has been nominated for Best Foreign-Language Film.

In the back row (from left) Joseph Schnitzer, Adam Rokah, Maya Rosenman, Rose Lipner, Maya Sherer; front row (from left) Gaby Lazo, Miriam Berman, Batya Lazo, Nathaniel Sawdayi, Amitai Mandel,Hannah Urman
“American Idol,” watch out for “Junior Jewish American Ideal,” a competition where 11 young voices (ages 7-12) gathered at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles to belt out some Hebrew and Jewish tunes for their proud parents. In the back row (from left) Joseph Schnitzer, Adam Rokah, Maya Rosenman, Rose Lipner, Maya Sherer; front row (from left) Gaby Lazo, Miriam Berman, Batya Lazo, Nathaniel Sawdayi, Amitai Mandel and Hannah Urman.

(from left) Adi Nes, Rosette Varda Delug, Stephen S. Lash, Patricia Finkel, Maureen Cogan and James Snyder
American Friends of the Israel Museum hit the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Rodeo Room on Jan. 28 for the Annual West Coast Gala, which raised $500,000 for the art and archaeology museum in Israel. In attendance are (from left) Adi Nes, Rosette Varda Delug, Stephen S. Lash, Patricia Finkel, Maureen Cogan and James Snyder. Photo by Silvia Mautner

Richard Maize, Rochelle Maize, Amanda Maize
Richard, Rochelle and Amanda Maize proved philanthropy isn’t far from flipping burgers: the family served In-N-Out’s famous “double-double” burgers to the students at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services to kick off the new year in January.

Tony Blair
Tony Blair indicates his expectation for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at American Jewish University’s 2008 Public Lecture Series on Jan. 14 at the Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal CityWalk.Photo by Peter Halmagyi

(from left) Seth Brysk, Tony Cacciotti, Jerry Rothstein, Debbie and Naty Saidoff, Valerie Harper, Roz Rothstein, Mireille and Barry Wolfe, Esther Renzer
StandWithUs and American Jewish Committee kicked off their “Israel at 60” festivities on Jan.31 with a screening of “Golda’s Balcony,” a portrait of the nation’s esteemed female prime minister, played by Valerie Harper, at the Writer’s Guild Theatre. Standing on the balcony are (from left) Seth Brysk, Tony Cacciotti, Jerry Rothstein, Debbie and Naty Saidoff, Valerie Harper, Roz Rothstein, Mireille and Barry Wolfe and Esther Renzer. Photo by Daryl Temkin

(from left) Marina Waks, Marlene Kreitenberg, Lior Kaminetsky and his ensemble, Dr. Sheila Solar and Barbara Drotow
Music brought together supporters of The Foundation for Jewish Education on Feb. 3 for a fundraiser to send needy Jewish children to a two-week Jewish summer camp. Angels of music are (from left) Marina Waks, Marlene Kreitenberg, Lior Kaminetsky and his ensemble, Dr. Sheila Solar and Barbara Drotow. Photo by Orly Halevy

Joel Neustaedter
Joel Neustaedter is smiling wide because he just landed at Ben-Gurion Airport to make aliyah. A Nefesh B’Nefesh chartered flight transported Joel from Irvine to his new home in Jerusalem. Photo by Sasson Tiram

Bettina Kurowski, L. A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Ryan Yatman
It was a super Super Sunday, indeed! Bettina Kurowski, L. A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Ryan Yatman are a “super” good-lookin’ trio who hit the phones and helped raise $4,501,207 for Jewish causes worldwide. Mazal Tov and Todah Rabah!

Myna Herscher, Dennis Holt, Uri Herscher, Moshe Safdie
Though the times have a-changed, love for the icon remains the same: Myna Herscher, Dennis Holt, Uri Herscher and Skirball architect Moshe Safdie attended the opening of “Bob Dylan’s American Journey, 1956-1966,” organized by the Experience Music Project, at the Skirball Cultural Center on Feb. 5.

Holocaust survivors in L.A. are still struggling

Joshua “Joe” Knobler used to go salsa dancing three times a week. He used to play cards with the guys every day. Now, 88, with both his health and finances failing, he sits home all day in his drab one-room apartment in Valley Village watching television.

“Television is my life,” he said.

A Holocaust survivor who spent five years in Buchenwald, Knobler was married and divorced twice; both spouses are now deceased, and he is estranged from his children. He leaves his apartment door open all day, but no one stops by to say hello.

Knobler says he doesn’t have enough money each month to buy food, get his clothes cleaned or purchase more than a single $5 can of bug spray to fight the cockroaches infesting his apartment.

Knobler used to make a decent living as a tailor. His industrial Singer sewing machine sits in the corner of his one-room apartment, now overcrowded with a queen-size bed, a hospital bed, a dresser and a couch. He explains that the sewing machine is broken; he can’t afford a new needle.

He receives $939 in SSI (Supplemental Security Income) each month and pays $639 in rent. Of the $300 remaining, he spends $30 for the telephone, $60 for cable television and another $30 for medication, mostly for pain pills. He’s had two back surgeries, one only 10 months ago, and lives with debilitating chronic pain. He has $2.44 in the bank.

“I don’t get from nobody,” he said.

But that’s not exactly true; Knobler has been a Jewish Family Service (JFS) client for the past 10 years, part of the Survivors of the Holocaust Program. He receives eight hours a week in home care services, a monthly $100 Ralphs gift card and $50 a month in taxi vouchers. Additionally, a bag of groceries from SOVA is delivered to his apartment once a month.

Knobler, in fact, receives $2,500 a year in support services, an amount that has been capped for all indigent Holocaust survivors by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which provides $914,000 to JFS in Los Angeles annually to assist needy survivors.

But Knobler has actually received $5,300 in services already this year, thanks to two funds specifically earmarked for emergencies and other essentials for the estimated 3,000 poverty-stricken Holocaust survivors in Los Angeles.

For Knobler, these additional expenses included ambulance transportation (not reimbursed by Medi-Cal because of an unknown glitch in his citizenship papers filed in 1951, a problem being rectified by JFS) and new glasses.

One fund was created by Roz and Abner Goldstine, longtime JFS board members, who donated $250,000 after reading about the plight of Los Angeles’ 3,000 indigent Holocaust survivors in a story last year in The Jewish Journal.

The fund, donated through The Jewish Federation’s Premiere Philanthropy program, provides $50,000 a year, with the first year’s contribution matched by a grant from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.

With the Goldstine fund and with the ongoing $2 million Morgan Aging With Dignity Fund created six years ago by money manager and former Jewish Federation chair Todd Morgan, JFS is able to provide indigent survivors with additional home care hours (usually a weekly maximum of eight) and to cover such emergency expenses as utility bills, medications, transportation and other necessities.

“The need is great,” said JFS Associate Executive Director Susie Forer-Dehrey, adding that last year’s Jewish Journal article “shed light on how important it is to take care of survivors.”

In addition to the Goldstine’s gift, Forer-Dehrey noted that The Journal story triggered more than $20,000 in additional donations, much of it in small amounts, including one envelope with two crumbled dollar bills.

There are an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Holocaust survivors living in Los Angeles, according to Federation spokeswoman Deborah Dragon. Of these, 3,000 are determined to be financially needy, a figure based on a United Jewish Communities Report published December 2003, which found 25 percent of Holocaust victims in the United States living in poverty.

The Claims Conference defines needy as someone with income no more than 200 percent above the federal poverty level. In 2007, for a single person, that amounts to $20,420, with no more than $20,000 savings. For a couple, the amount is $27,380, with no more than $30,000 in savings.

And, perhaps surprisingly, the number of indigent survivors is increasing, more than six decades after the Holocaust.

“The whole population is living longer, and so are Holocaust survivors,” said Paula Fern, director of JFS’ Holocaust Survivor Program. Of the approximately 600 survivors that JFS is assisting, many are in their 80s and 90s, and five are more than 100 years old.

Fern explained that as they become older, they become frailer. As a result, they need more home care, which includes help with laundry, cleaning, bathing, grocery shopping, doctor visits and errands.

Also, according to Fern, survivors suffer from many more chronic illnesses than most elderly people, including heart disease, diabetes and asthma and breathing diseases. These are debilitating as well as costly, as they necessitate an average of 10 to 15 prescriptions monthly.

For survivors living on fixed incomes, these expenses add up. Plus, rents, as well as the cost of food, transportation and utilities, are increasing.

“There is a huge lack of affordable housing,” said Fern, who noted that there is great resistance among Holocaust survivors to enter assisted-living facilities, whose institutional settings, no matter how cheerful and home-like, trigger unpleasant memories.

While JFS helps survivors with their psychosocial needs, Bet Tzedek addresses their legal issues. It is, in fact, the only Jewish legal services agency that offers free assistance with reparations, pensions and other benefits from Germany and other European countries.

Currently, Bet Tzedek has about 750 open files in their Holocaust reparations program.

Holocaust survivor Rosalie Greenfield fills out claims for reparations from the Hungarian government
Holocaust survivor Rosalie Greenfield fills out claims for reparations from the Hungarian government during a summer 2006 clinic run by Bet Tzedek. Photo courtesy of Bet Tzedek

“Justice moves slowly,” said Wendy Marantz Levine, deputy director of litigation. She explained that some cases have been open 10, 12 and even 15 years and are still awaiting responses.

She paints for the animals

Feast With The Beasts

Safari attire adorned bodies this steamy summer night when The Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA) raised more than $1.2 million for wildlife conservation. Hosted by Emmy Award-winning actress Betty White, nearly 1,000 guests casually perused the park and visited with furry friends. “Animal walkabouts” allowed guests to get up close and personal with a diversity of creatures and participate in feedings of the zoo’s beautiful-but-beastly giraffes, tigers, bears and hippos. Nickelodeon executives were honored for creating the popular preschool show “Go, Diego, Go!” about children who engage in scientific thinking and investigative strategy to help animals in trouble.

Actor/comedian Albert Brooks and his wife Kimberly Brooks have recently become active in the organization, thanks to the encouragement of GLAZA trustee Angela Janklow, a sometime writer for Vanity Fair and currently in the employ of the Dolce & Gabbana company.

Kimberly Brooks’ hand-painted “Randa’s World,” a portrait of the zoo’s own rhinoceros, was donated to the live auction. Now that’s beastly-licious!

And Justice For All

This was not Cinderella’s ball. For one, there were more pedestrians than carriages — roughly 4,000 scenesters — and the red carpet was really a stairwell through the garage, but it opened onto the sprawling studioscape of The Lot in Hollywood. There was little couture but ample California chic; no classically contained Mozart but the shimmering riffs of The Violent Femmes; no celebrities but the sexiest press in town (Los Angeles magazine called it one of the “top ten coolest thing to do in July”). In other words, if you weren’t at The Justice Ball on July 28, where were you?

Those who attended can congratulate themselves on helping to raise more than half a million dollars for Bet Tzedek, “The House of Justice,” a brand-name nonprofit that provides free legal services to more than 10,000 Angelenos in need, regardless of their religious or ethnic background.

“It was spectacular,” Matthew Scelza, director of marketing and development said. “It’s grown into a full-blown festival — it’s not just a concert, there’s a karaoke lounge, a VIP section and casino tables and 3,000 people dancing in front of the stage.”

Many people danced so hard, their feet hurt. By the time the Violent Femmes finished singing their smash “Blister in the Sun,” piles of designer shoes had accumulated beside the dance floor, and although the pumpkin hour was set for 1 a.m., at that point guests were just getting started.

The Justice Ball is the second-largest fundraiser of the year for Bet Tzedek — their annual dinner gala in January trumping the ball as the primary giving event, yet this much hyped-and-headlined event is lucrative to the organization for other reasons. Not only does it fundraise a significant portion of their yearly operating costs, but it has become the premier means of gaining exposure with young, talented attorneys. Bet Tzedek is always on the lookout for new benevolent blood and this event has helped generate buzz for brand-building. Working there does not pay the starting salary a Harvard law-school grad could procure from a snazzy corporate firm, but accruing professional experience at a prestigious nonprofit is both unusual and distinguished. The ball also generates countless volunteers who dedicate themselves to continued involvement.

Of the almost $550,000 solicited thorough this event, approximately 40 percent will defray vendor costs for the event, primarily disbursed for use of the venue, band, non-kosher food and lighting. But not to worry — Scelza promises Bet Tzedek received “sweetheart deals” from contributing vendors and sponsors that significantly reduced the overall expense of an event many people are quite passionate in supporting. Hopefully next year, they’ll be able to afford a few pareve items for the buffet.

Scene and Heard …

  • Real-estate development king Jerry H. Snyder, best known for The Water Garden project in Santa Monica and The Crescent in Beverly Hills, was honored by the American Jewish Committee at a swanky Beverly Wilshire Hotel event with special guests Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and City Councilmember Tom LaBonge.
  • The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute thinks art is the most profound catalyst for social change and thus created a glossy 16-month planner featuring the work of 16 feminist artists, including Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro, as well as international rising stars, Swiss Israeli Ariane Littman-Cohen and Indian Jewish Siona Benjamin, artists who work in a variety of media (from corten steel sculpture and needlework to sprayed acrylic on canvas to public art made with recyclable materials). Beverly Naidus designed a quilt image for the cover titled, “Half-Jewish.” The calendar “Creating Art, Promoting Change: Works by Jewish Women” is available for purchase at or by calling (781) 736-8114.
  • What do forestry activist Tzeporah Berman and superstar Leonardo DiCaprio have in common? He’s the producer of a new documentary film featuring Berman, titled “The 11th Hour,” which screened Aug. 9 at the Harmony Gold Theatre in Hollywood. The film describes how Canadian forests are essential for staving off global warming; Berman, founder of ForestEthics, said Canada’s forests are major carbon storehouses that are threatened by Canada’s logging industry.

Sher Cohen’s Law & Order: Justice Unit

Don’t call Nancy Sher Cohen at home after 8:30 p.m. “One of two things is usually true,” the 54-year-old-litigator said. “Either I am asleep, because I am exhausted [from all the work], or I am out because I am working.”

For other, less-energetic people, an 8:30 nightly collapse from exhaustion would be an indication to slow down. But the lively and assiduous Cohen, a classic rock lover and breast cancer survivor, who has made her professional name representing, among other things, Holocaust survivors cheated out of life insurance money, chemical manufacturers and even the mortgage lender on the Twin Towers after Sept. 11, is impervious to such signals.

“She never really gets overwhelmed,” said Robert Cohen, Nancy’s husband, and a work-from-home screenwriter. “She is the poster child for multitasking. She finds time for everything, and she is a master at getting a lot of things done in a little period of time.”

For Cohen, shareholding partner at Heller Ehrman — a law firm of more than 750 attorneys with offices in 13 cities — and a indefatigable community activist who sits of the board of Bet Tzedek Legal Services, Congregation Valley Beth Shalom and the California Women’s Law Center, practicing law is a vocational expression of her Judaism. She finds in the law a similar process of exegesis to Torah study. Further, using the law to help the less fortunate, and the “make-peace-first” approach that Cohen brings to all her cases, she attributes to her Jewish background.

“I grew up in a Modern Orthodox congregation, where the study of Torah was very important,” said Cohen, speaking to The Journal from her downtown office. “What you do in the study of Torah is that you take a story or a commentary on that story, and try to gather from that a rule of law. Then, if you play with the story a little bit, and tweak a few facts, it changes the way you think about the rule.”

“Civil law is the same, but the story is from a previous case,” she said. “You tweak the facts and you change the law that you follow, and that changes the rules that you would apply. It’s a chance to understand nuance.”

Cohen, who is being honored at the Four Seasons on Oct. 30 by the American Jewish Congress with its 2005 Louis D. Brandeis Award, sees litigation as a way to solve problems.

“Sometimes you have to use the court system to do it, but I never try a case without trying to settle it first,” she said. “It’s a very Jewish thing to do. It is not about the fight, it is about the solution.”

But sometimes, fighting is the only solution. Currently Cohen is representing a group of Holocaust survivors who are suing European insurance companies who failed to pay out life insurance policies that their relatives had purchased before the war. The case, a class-action suit which has been going on now for eight years and could potentially be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, is a thorny one.

“Developing the facts is a real challenge — how do you find out from insurers whether or not your client had an insurance policy?” Cohen said. “[The insurance companies] say things like, ‘But you don’t have a copy of the policy or the death certificate’ — well, people didn’t bring their insurance policies when they were going to Auschwitz.”

Some of Cohen’s other cases are less sensational. On several occasions, Cohen has represented chemical manufacturers against Erin Brockovich-type lawsuits, where certain illnesses are blamed on a town’s proximity to a chemical plant.

“It does not offend my sense of justice at all,” Cohen said. “Many times these cases involve tragic illnesses, but I don’t have a problem representing a company who says that illness was not caused by something they did. Some things are just wrong. It is wrong that a child will get sick and die, but it doesn’t mean that it was caused by something, and it doesn’t mean that someone has to pay for it.”

While trying such cases can be challenging, it is in her personal life that Cohen faced the biggest trial of all. In 1997, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and spent nine months going through chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery. Throughout it all, she kept working. At the time she was managing partner at Heller Ehrman. She set up her office at home, and she also didn’t stop the community work she was doing as president of Bet Tzedek.

“People would see me in various states of hair,” she said, referring to the hair loss that is a side effect of the chemotherapy. “But I was never depressed. I always believed I would survive. I got tremendous support from home, and tremendous support from my law firm. The support I got from the community is something that I take with me every day.”

“She wouldn’t let anything interfere with the focus she had for Bet Tzedek, even though she was extremely engaged with many other important things in her life,” said David Lash, who was the executive director of the organization at the time Cohen was president.

“She was an incredible president,” Lash said. “We raised more money her year than we ever had in the past, we improved the staff and we took on new and exciting litigation [representing Holocaust survivors] that she prompted us into. She was a role model in that she tackled so many things successfully without regard for what normal people would consider to be serious restraints of time and effort.”

“She is a hero,” he continued. “That is the best way to describe it.”


The Nation and The World


Accessible Ark
On April 3, B’nai David-Judea synagogue dedicated its newly renovated building, the Rabbi Philip Schroit Sanctuary. Shirley Kotlar and family named the building in honor of Schroit, who died three years ago and was at the helm of the shul for nearly 50 years.
The addition of an elevator to the lower level social hall and a ramp to the bimah and the ark, made possible by the support of the Jewish Community Foundation, opened up sections of the 80-year-old building to the disabled. The project also moved the mechitza (divider) to the center of the room.
Peter and Janine Lowy, of Westfield Corporation, Inc., sponsored the beautification of the art deco façade and main sanctuary.
Much of the $2 million price tag went to updating the inside of the 24,500-square-foot building, which now has a modern fire safety and security system.
President Robert Blitzstein and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky recognized the professionals and shul members who made the project possible, presenting them with Hard Hat Awards. Architect Naomi Langer and general contractor Sam Shafer led the professional teams, while the lay effort was lead by Larry Gill, Jeffrey Rabin and Shep Rosenman. Mayor James Hahn also attended the event.

For the Duke
“American Classics: The Music, Movies and People We Love” was the theme of the John Wayne Cancer Institute Auxiliary’s 20th anniversary Odyssey Ball. Some 600 people attended the black-tie gala on April 9 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
KLAC 690 DJ Brad “Martini” Chambers hosted the ball, which featured dinner and dancing to the classic tunes of Art Deco and his Society Orchestra.
Attendees included former Wayne co-stars Harry Carey, Jr., Kim Darby and Chris Mitchum, as well as actors Kevin Dobson, Larry Hagman and Anne Jeffreys.
The keynote address at the event, which was co-chaired by John Wayne’s eldest grandchild Anita Swift and Hollace Brown, was given by Amy Smith, a current patient at the John Wayne Cancer Institute.
Patrick Wayne, the institute’s board chair, presented the Special Service Award, affectionately known as the “Duke,” to Diana and Robert W. Thom, supporters of the John Wayne Cancer Institute since its inception.
The John Wayne Cancer Institute was founded in 1981 and named for the actor, who died in 1979 from lung and stomach cancer.

Lieb Tees Off
Temple Beth El members and friends joined Rabbi David Lieb in a golf tournament and dinner on April 6 to begin the calendar of events planned to honor him as he begins his retirement at the end of July after 34 years of service.
The event was held at the Rolling Hills Country Club and organized by Dr. Myron and Susan Goldstein and Dr. Randall and Vicki Hulbert.
A special surprise appearance was made by Lieb’s former student Eric Rigler, world-renowned Scottish bagpiper, Celtic piper and recording artist.
A unique cake was prepared by Vicki Hulbert, owner of Bridal Sweets, in the shape of a golf green and giant golf ball.
The Women of Temple Beth El Sisterhood have also been busy planning an English Garden Tea in June to honor Lieb’s wife, Estelle.

‘Friends’ Indeed
On March 23, The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance held the Women’s Department annual luncheon, “It Takes a Woman.” More than 180 people gathered to honor Marta Kauffman, co-creator and executive producer of “Friends.” Kauffman gave an inspirational speech about her experience as a woman in a male-dominated industry, the importance of family and the role Judaism plays in her personal and professional success.

Make His Mark
On March 16, Mark T. Drooks , a partner at the Los Angeles firm of Bird, Marella, Boxer, Wolpert, Nessim, Drooks & Lincenberg, P.C., was appointed president of the Bet Tzedek board of directors for a one-year term.
For more than 30 years, Bet Tzedek has provided free legal services to low-income Los Angeles residents. Drooks has been a Bet Tzedek volunteer for more than 10 years and member of the board since l996.
“I am honored to serve as Bet Tzedek’s president,” Drooks said, “and I am fully committed to finding ways to expand our mission of providing free legal services to the neediest in our society. With anticipated cuts in health care benefits and an affordable housing crisis here in Los Angeles, the need for Bet Tzedek’s services is greater than ever.”
Drooks graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1981 and has authored numerous articles relating to business litigation.

Totally Tobin
Tobinworld, a nonprofit special-needs school, held its first fundraiser on March 26 at Shlomi Haziza’s art gallery in Sun Valley.
Tobinworld, established by Judy Weber in 1977, was initially funded by state and local school monies. Catering to students aged 5-22 with autism, emotional and developmental disabilities, the school that started out in a private home now boasts two locations in Northern and Southern California.
Israeli artist Haziza became involved with Tobinworld after Weber purchased several of his glass sculptures. After telling him about the state budget cuts to the school, Haziza donated the use of his gallery and his staff to establish the fundraising event, where vibrant ornaments hung from the ceiling, abstract art pieces and furniture lined the walls and Haziz’s trademark glass centerpieces were later auctioned off.
Entertainment included music provided by The Gear, City Sound and Codi Williams, who sang songs from the musical “Chicago.” After the buffet dinner, the audience was treated to fire dancers from Indra Yoga and Dance and a fashion show courtesy Judith Bodart Beylerian. — Emily Pauker, Contributing Writer