June 26, 2019

All the World’s a Stage

Naomi Rubin, 18
High School: Summit View
College: Cal State Northridge

In March 2018, Naomi Rubin finally got the call she’d been waiting for since fourth grade, when she first discovered acting. She still remembers exactly what she was doing in her family’s Van Nuys home. “I was doing homework and my parents just came into my room and told me the good news,” she told the Journal. “I just went back to doing my homework, but I was smiling internally.”

The good news? The casting department from the acclaimed Netflix show “Atypical” wanted to cast Rubin in its second season. It was the type of opportunity she was never sure would come her way. “It’s so hard to work in this business while you’re a student,” she said. “Plus, it’s just really competitive.”

Rubin also is autistic — but she doesn’t view autism as an obstacle in her acting career. After struggling with confidence issues in her younger years, she now views her autism as an advantage.

“I felt like I was labeled a lot growing up, but I’ve broken through that barrier. I don’t see [autism] as a barrier anymore,” she said. “I see it as a door to creativity. I feel emotion more intensely. That goes for empathy, which is a key part of acting and something that people often think that people on the spectrum don’t really have. I also have a great memory, which helps a lot with memorizing lines.”

Rubin doesn’t describe herself as particularly observant, but her foray into acting began in the halls of Jewish day school and on the grounds of Jewish summer camp. It started with school plays at Adat Ari El’s Early Childhood Center in Valley Village and talent shows at Camp Ramah in Ojai during summers.

“From a young age, I got to explore my Jewish identity through story and through art.” 

“From a young age, I got to explore my Jewish identity through story and through art,” she said. “Those places gave me chances to be onstage.”

Now, she’s a graduating senior at Summit View, a special-needs high school in the Valley. Balancing her studies and acting professionally has been a challenge. She shot a third-season episode of “Atypical” in April, was cast as the lead in a Disney Channel pilot that didn’t get picked up, and just performed in a musical at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. However, fitting in on a professional set was easy. 

“Instantly, I felt like I belonged there on set,” Rubin said. “It was like a dream come true. It was so surreal.”

Rubin plans to take a gap year to keep auditioning and working with her agent to secure more professional work before eventually studying theater at Cal State Northridge. As she prepares to take the plunge into full-time acting, chief among her goals is inspiring others like her.

“I think it’s really important that people on the spectrum see themselves on screen,” she said. “We really need more of that representation. I hope we get more of that in the future. I’ve also played people who aren’t on the spectrum. It’s really interesting to see the differences between the two, and I also want people who are on the spectrum to see that they’re able to do anything. I see autism as a sort of a superpower.”

Keep on reading about our 2019 Outstanding Seniors here.

‘Inherited Memories’ Exhibition Transforms Holocaust Stories

Installation of works by Shula Singer Arbel, Dwora Fried and Malka Nedivi at “Inherited Memories.” Photo by Joshua White

Local artists Shula Singer Arbel, Dwora Fried and Malka Nedivi have very different styles and employ different mediums, but their inspiration for their work is the same. As the daughters of Holocaust survivors, they channel the experiences and trauma of the past to create art that’s relevant in today’s troubled times. In advance of their combined exhibition, “Inherited Memories,” the women shared their stories with the Journal.

Arbel was born in Israel to a Chasidic, Yiddish-speaking mother who survived Auschwitz, and a father who spent the war in the Russian army. She grew up in Los Angeles, hearing about the horrors that haunted her parents. Not surprisingly, she felt an immediate bond with Fried and Nedivi. 

“We shared our stories of growing up with ‘broken’ mothers,” Arbel said. “We found many commonalities, although our upbringing was very different. … I felt our collective voices would create a powerful and emotional exhibition. I feel it is my duty and my legacy to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. In today’s political climate, it is more important than ever.”

Arbel’s paintings are based on photographs from the displaced-persons camp where her parents met. “In spite of the tremendous loss and unimaginable suffering they experienced, this was a time of great hope and optimism for the future, which is why I chose to make art about this little-known period of history,” she said.

Arbel used a limited palette of acrylic paints and described her style as “a fusion of representational, figurative, abstract and dreamlike imagery. My figures are faceless to create a more universal narrative, allowing the viewers to inject their own memories and stories into the painting.”

Although she grew up in a traditional, Zionist, kosher home, had a Jewish education and attended Camp Ramah, Arbel didn’t start expressing Judaism in her art until three years ago. Today, she continues to follow Jewish traditions in raising her family and often visits Israel. “But I’m much less religious than when I was growing up in my parents’ home,” she said. “I feel much freer now to choose what is meaningful to me.”

Fried is the daughter of a Viennese father who moved to Israel before World War II and a Polish mother who survived Plaszow, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. She uses her art to express what it was like to grow up Jewish, lesbian and the child of Holocaust survivors in post-war Vienna. “As a child, I was always preoccupied about what I would pack in my
little suitcase if we had to suddenly leave,” she said. “Or who of the neighbors in our building would hide me.” 

“I hope the exhibition sheds light on the fact that trauma is passed down generationally.” 

— Shula Singer Arbel

A photographer, collage artist and now an assemblage artist, Fried creates mixed-media tableaux in glass-fronted wooden boxes that “recreate the feeling of what it was like growing up. That feeling of impending doom, not belonging, being an outsider. I inherited a sense of isolation, displacement and an appreciation for the surreal. For this exhibit, I created house-like boxes … what I imagine those abandoned homes were like, what
immigrants felt like in a strange land, what the survivors dreamt about the places
they left behind.”

Nedivi, an only child, was born in Rehovot, Israel, to parents who survived Bergen-Belsen. She grew up with the ghosts of the Holocaust always present. “This felt like a big, black hole that was part of our life all around us,” she said. “It was always there but no one talked about it. I was always escaping to my friends’ homes to get away from the pain I felt at home.”

Her mother became a hoarder and today, Nedivi uses fabric, papers and junk in the collages she creates. “The same things my mom was hoarding,” she said. “I also find myself sewing in my art a lot, and she was a seamstress. I am more and more becoming my mom and I am finally so proud of it — and her. Her soul is always with me in my studio. I feel that my mom is proud of me and that all of our family members that perished in the war are sitting in the Garden of Eden, proud that I am presenting them and their memory.”

The three artists are excited about exhibiting their work together. 

“When I first saw Malka’s sculptures in an exhibit, I recognized the figures: They looked like my family members,” Fried said. “Shula’s paintings, based on old family photographs, could have been taken from one of my family albums. We were meant to have a show together. I am always surprised by visitors’ reactions to my work. I hope they recognize themselves and their own fragility in the world we live in.”

“If viewers feel something, then I have done my job as an artist,” Arbel said. “If I can evoke emotion, connect memories with a viewer, elicit some thought or self-reflection, then I am satisfied. I hope the exhibition sheds light on the fact that trauma is passed down generationally.”

“This exhibition is very important to me because I think it is so important not to forget our history,” Nedivi said. “If we do not learn about it and remember the ones that perished, history might repeat itself. I also feel that I have a strong need to make this art to try to understand my parents better. I think the art explains what words cannot say.”

“Inherited Memories” runs May 18-26 at the Castelli Art Space, 5428 Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. The artists will participate in a discussion at 3 p.m. May 26.

A Sister’s Sudden Death, Then a Cavernous Void

Peter and Susan Himmelman as children. Photo courtesy of Peter Himmelman

My sister Susie, her husband, Peter, and two of their kids had been driving home from Camp Ramah in 2002 in their Toyota minivan. It was visitor’s day up in scenic Conover, Wis.; they’d driven up to see Michelle, Susie’s oldest. I don’t know what went on at camp that afternoon. I never asked. Maybe some skit with a Jewish theme, someone playing a guitar, the sound of young people singing Oasis covers accompanied by an acoustic guitar near a lake. … I don’t know exactly what happened at the site of the accident either. Here’s what I see in my mind’s eye based on what little I was told:

An elderly woman driving a Cadillac down a two lane highway, trees on either side; a “Barney” DVD playing in the minivan, Christian radio in the Caddy. The woman’s eyelids slowly slipping down over tired, old eyes, a dream of a firstborn son from long ago, hands letting go of the wheel, slipping to knees covered by a rayon dress from Walmart, and then an awful crash.

Susie had spoken some words to Peter and her girls from the overturned minivan before she died. Perhaps she said goodbye, I’m not sure. I never asked. Susie was trapped in the wreckage as the rest of her family was taken to a nearby hospital and treated for injuries. Susie had bled too much internally before first responders could extricate her with the Jaws of Life.

Somehow, I always knew she’d be the first of my siblings to die. I used to think it would be breast cancer. I used to imagine all of us suffering — her suffering, just like we did with my dad. Susie was never strongly rooted in the world. I don’t say this as a criticism of her; it’s not a comment about weakness, not at all. She wasn’t the least bit weak. You see, if there were a criticism, I’d direct it toward God. He didn’t make her well enough. You could see right through Susie’s skin. It was like the animal part of her, the very stuff of her was too thin. It was like the shock of suddenly seeing naked flesh through a tear in a blouse — that’s how easily you could see her spirit. She seemed vulnerable too, like something more than human, or something too kind to be human. Like I said, I don’t think God made her very well.

My brother Paul and my mom saw Susie covered with blood on a gurney in the hospital. She was DOA. I don’t know what else they saw. I never asked. By the way, if you ever accidentally kill someone in a car accident, I suggest you study this letter we got from the woman responsible for Susie’s death. It’s good.

“I cannot find adequate words to express my sorrow for the loss of your mother. We lost our youngest son Vernon at the age of seventeen shortly before his high school graduation in a gun accident. I only share this with you to let you know that I have some idea of the horrible pain and loss you are going through.

“I wish your mother’s life would have been spared and mine taken instead. I live with that anguish every day. I would never intentionally hurt anyone. I simply do not know what happened the day of the accident. I will continue to ask for God’s forgiveness and ask him to watch over you and your family.

“I pray that only good things happen to you. I hope that someday you will find it in your heart to forgive me. I’m truly sorry for your loss and pain.”

There are already plates of food piling up on the counter in my mom’s kitchen before the funeral. They hold mostly these items:

Bagels, lox, dill pickles, Spanish olives stuffed with pimentos, pickled herring, whitefish, gefilte fish, red and white horseradish, red onions, cut fruit, rye bread, blintzes, banana bread (some with chocolate chips, some with walnuts) and several kinds of cream cheese.

What strikes me as odd is how these foods, present in every Ashkenazic Jewish house of mourning, are the same foods (down to the Spanish olives and the whitefish) that you’ll find at every joyous celebration, every bris and every baby naming. They are neither foods of joy nor of sorrow but ethnic foods that declare, at times of profound change, that we are a people connected to a tradition and a past. We are the people of the unwavering Rock — the Rock of Israel and neither the deepest tragedy nor the most intoxicating happiness can wrest us from our past or our destiny.

Some friends of mine come to sit with me, and I don’t feel particularly sad. It’s as if the ‘I’ of me has gone away.

I put three pieces of gefilte fish on a paper plate, slather them in blood red horseradish and wolf them down.

A sign reads: “CAUTION! Refrigeration Room. There are chemicals present which are known to the state of Minnesota to cause birth defects.”

Peter Himmelman; Photo courtesy of Peter Himmelman/AJ Martinson

I’m sitting on a musty couch in the basement of Hodroff & Sons Mortuary listening to the low growl of the massive refrigerator’s compressor switching on and off. A month from today, my younger sister Susie would be turning 41 had she not died three days ago. I’m reading psalms as tradition dictates, within feet of her body as it cools behind a huge metal door. Some friends of mine come to sit with me, and I don’t feel particularly sad. It’s as if the ‘I’ of me has gone away. The person with my face and my name, the person sitting in for me will talk and make some wry comments until I return.

After an hour or so, my friends leave and I feel an urgent sense of obligation, a need to clean something or serve food to someone. But no one’s here; it’s just me, Susie’s body, and that hovering spirit of hers that used to peek out from her too-thin skin. I feel like I should open the metal door and sit in the cold beside her corpse, maybe hold her hand, speak some soothing words but I’m afraid, afraid to sit next to the dead. Afraid to see and to confirm what needs no confirmation. Instead, I sit on the couch bemoaning both my loss and my lack of bravery.

The next morning at the funeral, I can’t cry. I float through the service at a remove, watching as Susie’s daughters, bruised and bandaged from the accident, are led into a black Lincoln and driven to the cemetery. At Susie’s open grave, the bereaved are enjoined to complete the burial ritual by shoveling dirt on the casket. It’s a mitzvah and it’s better than letting the cemetery workers finish the job with just a few clattering scoopfuls from the Caterpillar earth mover.

It’s my turn to take the shovel and, although I haven’t slept in days, I feel suddenly strong. I climb to the top of the dirt pile, kick the blade of the shovel with my boot heel and drop the dry soil over the top of the casket. I can hear birds taking to flight over the crosstown highway and I feel the sun on my neck and shoulders.
I imagine I am covering my sister with a warm blanket, tucking her into bed one last time, as though this final act might atone for all the times I failed her.

And finally, I start to sob. The tears, which hadn’t come until now, are precious to me. I listen to the thump of each rocky clod of earth as they land on her casket. I think about rhythm and drums, history, and the missing face of God. I feel unfettered, mystic. I am light and my movements are exquisitely primitive.

Suddenly, as I’m shoveling, a hand gently touches my shoulder. It’s the rabbi from Congregation Beth Emet, and loud enough for everyone to hear, he stage-whispers, “Peter, why don’t you give someone else a chance?” It’s a solemn moment and yet, I can’t help wanting to raise the shovel high above my head and come down hard with the blunt edge on the rabbi’s neck. Instead, I step away from the grave and give the shovel to another mourner.

There are people who have been made wise through grief and time. They learned through their painful lessons, the value of silence. For others, the allure of a performance is just too powerful. I look back at the rabbi from Temple Beth Emet and smile as I see him, away off in the distance. But now, out among the throng of mourners, I see my mother’s best friend, Carolyn. Carolyn is one of the wisest people I know. Her husband, Burton, died a few years ago and immediately after his funeral, at the shivah house to be precise, her 25-year-old son, Marty, dropped dead of a brain aneurism.

My mom got a call from Carolyn the day it happened. “Beverly,” she said, “Martin died.” “No, Carolyn, my mom said with real solemnity and real pity, “Marty didn’t die, it was Burton.” But my mom was wrong, Marty did die, on the day of his own father’s funeral. Trust me, this woman, Carolyn, has mastered the art of being there without ever having to say a word.

Two months after Susie’s funeral, I’m back in Minneapolis and I’m sitting with my mother in her kitchen. She tells me there’s a dead muskrat in the pond at the edge of her lawn. “What should I do?” she asks.

I walk down to the pond as she waits inside. From a distance, the pond looks like a putting green, the algae so thick it’s become a carpet on the surface of the water from too much fertilizer sluicing off the lawns encircling the faux lakefront. Just under a sweeping elm, I see what at first looked like a large gray-black stone. It turns out to be a muskrat that had died face down in the shallow water. All that is exposed is its huge, smooth backside.

Normally, I don’t do muskrat removal. Normally, I’d call a professional but things are far from normal. As I look back from the pond at my mother standing in front of a large picture window, two troubling questions arise: Exactly what is the essential difference between me and the guys you call to haul away the stinking carcass of a rotting muskrat, and why is it assumed that I’d have to call on one of them to do the job? Maybe, it’s my mother’s intense sadness or maybe it was having recently been in Israel (where Jewish men aren’t entirely feminized) that compels me to march back through the evergreen hedges, back through the yard to grab a three-pronged hoe and a snow shovel off the pegboard on the wall of her garage.

At the pond, I don’t flinch as the hoe bites into the rib cage of the muskrat with a dull watery sound. I drag the bulk of it and the entrails that have mixed with the gurgling algae toward me. Then I lift the entire mess with the snow shovel into a double-thick garbage bag. I’m struck by how truly free of sin I feel at just the moment I twist the top shut with the red cord. I see my mother. She’s standing in her living room. Standing alone. Watching me from her large picture window.

Susie’s car crash wasn’t my first encounter with death. It was however, another jarring reminder of this stark — yet hardly noticed fact — we are here, and then we are gone.

Yisgadol v’yitkadosh …

Peter Himmelman is a Grammy- and Emmy-nominated singer-songwriter and rock ‘n’ roll performer. He is also the founder of Big Muse, a company that helps organizations leverage the power of their people’s innate creativity. 

Philanthropist Jake Farber Dies at 94

Jake Farber

Jake Joseph Farber, whose unstinting support and dedication to a wide range of Jewish and Israeli causes earned him — along with his wife, Janet — the sobriquet “Tzedaka Heroes,” died March 24. He was 94.

Jake Farber was born Dec. 19, 1924, in Los Angeles, into a poor Orthodox family and raised in Boyle Heights. His father died when the boy was 8, and his mother worked as a seamstress to support Jake and his younger sister.

Later, as a successful businessman, Farber would recall “I know what it means not to have anything. So I was hoping for the day that I would be able to help someone else.”

During World War II, he was drafted into the U.S. Army a few days after his graduation from Roosevelt High School. Upon his discharge, he enrolled at USC under the GI Bill and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting.

He married Janet Alpert in 1950 and soon started working in her father’s scrap metal business, Alpert & Alpert Iron and Metal.

Together with his brother-in-law, Raymond Alpert, Farber grew the company to become one of the premier metal and recycling businesses in the nation.

As his wealth and position in the community grew, Farber dedicated himself to a large number of Jewish causes, always in partnership with Janet.

The couple was an active and generous supporter of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Camp Ramah, American Jewish University, Adat Ari El Synagogue, Jewish Home for the Aging, Builders of Jewish Education, de Toledo High School, AIPAC and the Pico-Union Project, among others.

In addition to its concern for domestic organizations, the Farbers were ardent supporters of Israel and Israeli causes and traveled to the Jewish state more than 50 times.

In 1948, as the birth of the Jewish state was nearing reality, the couple went from door to door in their neighborhood to raise funds for the emerging nation’s support. “If I saw a mezuzah on the front door, we knocked on it,” Janet Farber recalled.

Among the Israeli projects that benefited from the Farbers’ involvement was the Yemin Orde Youth Village for at-risk young people, and at its 2017 banquet, the Farbers were lauded for their nearly 70 years of sharing a passion for Israel.

“Their generosity, leadership and dedication have helped to build a strong and cohesive community in Los Angeles and a secure State of Israel for today and generations to come,” the scroll read.

On another occasion, at the 2013 gala of the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education, the Farbers were the honorees and were praised for embodying the Jewish concept of “le-dor-va-dor” — for all generations — through their deep ties to the Jewish community and Israel.”

The Farbers passed on their values to their three children. Son Howard is a member of the de Toledo High School community; daughter Rochelle Cohen currently serves on the board of the Federation; and daughter Nadine Lavender is active in Koreh L.A., a children’s literacy program.

In addition to his wife and children, he is survived by eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Grandson Max Farber, observed, “My grandparents exemplify what it is to take an active role in one’s education, that is, to seek out education, rather than let it find me.”

Services for Jake Joseph Farber were held at the Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a donation to any of the causes and organizations which he supported.

Heading Back to Camp… to Get Married

Jeremiah Levine and Rachel Light. Photo by Jimi Dava

When Rachel Light and Jeremiah Levine were planning their wedding for March of this year, there was no question about where they would tie the knot: Camp Ramah in Ojai. 

Light, 39, and Levine, 37, met at IKAR on Simchat Torah in 2015. However, it was Light’s parents who first met Levine, at an IKAR Shabbaton at Camp Ramah in 2014, and felt he was the perfect match for their daughter. So it was only fitting that their wedding took place at camp.

“We decided the greatest place we could imagine getting married would be at camp,” Light told the Journal. “Anyone who’s looking for an opportunity for their friends and family to come together and actually be together, camp takes the destination wedding to an extreme.”

Their celebratory weekend with 350 of their closest family and friends began with Shabbat services on Friday night. Following Shabbat morning services, the couple held a nonsense Olympics after lunch. “People competed to decide whether our last names would be Light-Levine or Levine-Light,” Light said. Light-Levine won.

“The nonsense Olympics people were dressed in crazy costumes,” she added. “A friend built a human foosball setup. There was a big kickball tournament. It was perfectly hilarious when one of my friends turned to me and said, ‘Is it OK if I show up to the wedding rehearsal dressed like a unicorn?’ Magic like that only happens at camp.”

“Anyone who’s looking for an opportunity for their friends and family to come together and actually be together, camp takes the destination wedding to an extreme.”

— Rachel Light

On Friday and Saturday night, guests slept in the camp’s bunks or at nearby hotels.

“Seeing my adult friends staying in a bunk together and loving it more than they ever could have imagined was a life-changing experience,” Light said. “I constantly feel like I have a competitive advantage in life because I went to summer camp. I feel like it taught me so much and it really helped me develop my identity. To be able to offer that experience to people, no matter what age they are is incredibly special.”

Camp also allowed the couple to navigate their families’ religious requirements, allowing everyone to be within walking distance on Shabbat. Light said it was amazing to see their friends put away their phones for the 24-hour Shabbat period. “I don’t think any of them had ever done that before,” she said.

On Saturday night, there was a talent show at the outdoor amphitheater. By the time the actual wedding took place on Sunday, everyone had developed an incredible bond.

“We renamed all of the buildings at camp so they all had meaning to us,” Light said. “The outdoor amphitheater where we got married we called Dodger Stadium. My husband had always dreamed of getting married at Dodger Stadium.” 

Rachel Light at her Camp Ramah wedding. Photo by Ryan Jesena @ Lush Photography

For the wedding itself, the couple brought their own flowers. “We purchased these oversized gigantic roses that people came down the aisle with and later became the centerpieces on all of the tables,” Light said. 

The camp catered all the food and was responsible for much of the support and organization. And guests also pitched in.

“We had friends who ran the nonsense Olympics and other friends who organized the talent show,” Light said. “I’m lucky to have multiple rabbis in my family (IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous is Light’s sister-in-law) who helped out with the services. It basically became a really big group effort of love to help plan it.”

She added that since their wedding, “We’ve been hearing nonstop from people that it was one of the best weekends of their life, which you don’t expect other people to say about your wedding.”

If someone is thinking about a camp destination wedding, Light said they should consider what kind of experience they are looking to create. “And if they are kids at heart, it’s a no-brainer.” 

Read more from the 2018 Chuppah Edition here. 

Returning Home: Pico Union Project Bears Fruit in Central L.A.

Taubman in front of PUP

For musician Craig Taubman, eclecticism has always been the name of the game.

For more than 15 years, Taubman led the popular Friday Night Live service at Sinai Temple with Rabbi David Wolpe. His independent label and music production company, Craig ’N Co., has put on interfaith concerts including Faith Jam and Let My People Sing. He has published the annual High Holy Days collection “Jewels of Elul,” featuring spiritual wisdom by faith leaders, thought leaders and celebrities.

His latest venture, launched in 2013, is the nonprofit Pico Union Project (PUP), which is redefining what it means to be a faith-based organization. PUP is a hub of artistic, spiritual and social service programming operating in the oldest remaining synagogue in Los Angeles. The Greek revival structure is located at 1153 Valencia St, on the corner of 12th Street, just west of the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.

According to its website, the PUP “is dedicated to the Jewish principle to ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ It elevates this teaching into practice in a historic building by bringing diverse cultures together.”

On a recent afternoon at the PUP, the scent of fresh vegetables fills the air of the two-story building and light pours through the stained-glass windows. On the first floor in the main sanctuary space, there’s a flurry of activity as fresh produce, including apples, cantaloupe, zucchini and asparagus, is packed by volunteers from the Westside and Valley and then donated to neighborhood families. On a stage at the end of the room, a world music band is performing high-energy grooves, banging away on bongo drums and providing an appropriately kinetic beat to the activities. Upstairs, in a conference room, children are doing yoga, stretching their bodies in downward-facing dogs and warrior poses. 

“This is community,” Taubman, 60, says. “It’s service to the community and of the community.” 

Taubman performing during Shabbat Table, a program of the Pico Union Project. Photo by Linda Kasian

PUP evokes a time when the Jews were based in the downtown and Boyle Heights areas. Sinai Temple, then known as Sinai Congregation, commissioned the construction of the building in 1909. The congregation remained there until 1925 when, following the westward migration of Jews in Los Angeles, the community moved to the mid-Wilshire district, just east of Hancock Park. It then relocated to its current home in Westwood in 1960. 

In 1926, the Welsh Presbyterian Church bought the building, leaving the Stars of David in the stained glass windows intact. In the wake of dwindling membership, the church put the building up for sale in 2013.

At the time, Taubman was not looking to get into the property-owning business. The Jewish Historical Society of Southern California (JHSSC), which conducts tours of historic Jewish landmarks, pushed Taubman to buy the building because of Taubman’s personal and professional history at Sinai Temple.

“ ‘You’re Mr. Sinai to me, you’re the guy who can get stuff done,’ ” Taubman recalled JHSSC founder Steve Sass telling him. “‘Why don’t you check it out?’ I was in the heat of Friday Night Live and community activism and I was the crazy guy who would run with it.” 

Buying the church in 2013 for an undisclosed amount represented a milestone for Taubman, who began his career writing commercial jingles and children’s music for the Disney Channel and eventually became a central figure in the non-Orthodox community in Los Angeles.

“I’m — what’s the expression? Post-denominational,” he said. “I’m a chameleon. Wherever I am, I feel comfortable.”

Taubman grew up on the Westside in a Conservative household, with Camp Ramah and United Synagogue Youth forming his identity. His first job, at the age of 15, was as the music teacher at Sinai Temple, where he also had his bar mitzvah.

“I’m definitely a product of the Conservative movement,” he said.

He recalled riding his bike from his family’s home in Brentwood to the Westwood congregation, where he taught 100 kids in the mitzvah choir. “I had my guitar and I left it in the music room at Sinai Temple, because I couldn’t ride my bike with a guitar on my back,” he said.

“Taubman’s work has not come without challenges. For one, the Pico-Union neighborhood is not a likely place for a Jewish organization in Los Angeles.”

He attended UCLA, then studied in Israel for three years at Hebrew University. While there, he performed for then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, collaborated with other Israeli entertainers and met David Broza, whose music inspired Taubman. He went on to build a reputation as a prolific Jewish songwriter, making Jewish music more accessible for day schools, camps and synagogues.

“He really crafted his own work,” Taubman’s wife, Louise, said. “He came up with good ideas. People believed him.” 

Similar to his inventive approach to Jewish music, Taubman has brought innovative thinking to the PUP. In addition to Vida Sana, which is Spanish for “Healthy Lifestyle” and is the PUP’s bimonthly farmers market feeding people in the community, the PUP hosts weekly Arabic classes organized by the Markaz, a Middle Eastern arts center; stages concerts by Jewish and spiritual musicians; and operates the Sanctuary@Pico Union, which holds High Holy Day services.

Those who volunteer at the PUP and attend services at the Sanctuary@Pico Union connect to Judaism through social justice and music, and are drawn to Taubman’s personality. 

“He is Mr. Gregarious,” television writer and producer Norman Lear said in a phone interview. “I’ve never seen anyone more gregarious and more tuned into life. It’s remarkable what he does there [at the PUP].”

Kathy Finn, the secretary-treasurer of United Food and Commercial Workers 770, met Taubman years ago when he worked with her special needs son, Quinn Lohmann, on a musical project. She said the PUP appeals to her because of its focus on Tikkun Olam.

“I’m not a religious person and I don’t believe in God,” Finn said. “The thing that kept me connected to Judaism is the social justice aspect of it.”

Sanctuary@Pico Union is a beneficiary of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, which provides grants to Jewish organizations and projects in the community.  In 2016, the program received a $200,000 grant from the foundation.

“I’m — what’s the expression? Post-denominational. I’m a chameleon. Wherever I am, I feel comfortable.” ­
— Craig Taubman

Although Taubman said grant dollars have been fundamental for running the PUP, he also has sought alternative funding sources. Sid the Cat, a concert booker, has been holding concerts featuring secular bands at Taubman’s venue — not necessarily in line with the mission of the PUP to be a religious organization committed to promoting the idea of “Love your neighbor as yourself” — but enabling Taubman to do the programming that furthers his vision of promoting inclusivity through song, story, food, art and prayer.

Lear, known for the TV shows “All in the Family” and “One Day at a Time,” was among the approximately 400 people who attended High Holy Day services at the Sanctuary@Pico Union last month. 

“When we speak about the brotherhood of man, love thy neighbor, all those ways of putting it, what is better than walking into a place of worship and seeing all kinds of people there, whether they be Asians, African-Americans, South Americans, Latinas or Jews?” Lear said. “Everybody’s there. You can’t make that representation better.” 

Taubman’s work has not come without challenges. For one, the Pico-Union neighborhood is not a likely place for a Jewish organization in Los Angeles. According to the L.A. Times “Mapping L.A.” project, more than 85 percent of the approximately 42,000 people in the surrounding area is Latino. Education levels are low — fewer than 7 percent of residents ages 25 and older have a four-year degree, and median incomes average under $27,000 per household.

After launching the PUP, Taubman said he struggled to connect with the people of the area. He held poorly attended arts and yoga classes before realizing he didn’t know how to bridge the gap between him and his new neighbors. The turning point came three years ago during a Thanksgiving food drive. The PUP provided more than 500 turkeys to people in the community. 

“‘Ooh, now there are people,’” Taubman said, recalling the turkey drive. “It ends up that the food was the bait. Food was the calling card but it was then an invitation to do all the other stuff.”

Vida Sana is the manifestation of Taubman’s realization that food unites people. Last month’s Vida Sana kicked off with a demonstration led by Seeds of Hope, a food justice organization and a ministry of the Episcopal Church. 

Stephanie Hansma, a member of Oasis L.A., a Pentecostal community that rents the PUP space for services every Friday and Sunday, sat in the pews as Steve Trapasso and Erica Nieves, program coordinator and assistant program coordinator at Seeds of Hope, led a bilingual presentation on how to prepare a healthy summer salad. As Trapasso explained how folic acid in the arugula has benefits for pregnant women and how the vitamin A in tomatoes keeps the eyes lubricated, Hansma told the Journal she valued the opportunity to learn how to lead a healthier and more nutritious life. 

“When we speak about the brotherhood of man, love thy neighbor, all those ways of putting it, what is better than walking into a place of worship and seeing all kinds of people there, whether they be Asians, African-Americans, South Americans, Latinas or Jews.” — Norman Lear

“The church is beautiful to come to and visit if you have a couple of hours to entertain,” she said.

Seeds of Hope, which also provides the produce to the PUP for its Vida Sana farmers market, is one expression of interfaith action at the PUP. Rev. Nathaniel Katz, associate rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills, chairs the board at the PUP. 

Katz, 38, who is Jewish on his father’s side, said he has found an unlikely second spiritual home at the PUP. 

“For the first time in my life, I can be an Episcopal priest but also tie my work here into my Jewish heritage,” he said. “I can’t think of any other places where that’s possible, but it can be here. To me, this is what religious life in L.A. looks like.” 

Multifaith organization Pico Union Project, operating in the oldest synagogue building in Los Angeles, is located at 1153 Valencia Street, on the corner of 12th Street, just west of the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Pico Union Project

As the day progressed, the light through the stained glass windows began to dim and the crowds thinned out. The stacks of produce that had been piled on tables alongside the wooden pews had dwindled, along with the bags of new and donated kitchen supplies the PUP collected as part of a High Holy Day kitchen drive. 

Taubman, dressed in cargo shorts, had spent much of the drive walking his dog, Theo (named for the late actor Theodore Bikel), around the room, chatting with people and making sure everything was running smoothly. 

Now he sits in one of the pews, taking a breath.

“[The PUP] represents everything I love,” Taubman says. “It represents the Jewish community. It represents tradition. It represents hope. It represents the Jewish commitment to Tikkun Olam and being an active and participatory member of a community.”

At Camp Ramah, Inclusion is a Mission

Elana Naftalin-Kelman has directed the Tikvah program for children with special needs at Camp Ramah of California for a dozen years. She consults with Jewish organizations, encouraging and teaching them how to be more inclusive of special needs youngsters and their families. She is the co-founder of Edah, a Jewish after-school program in Berkeley, where she lives with her husband and their three sons.

Jewish Journal: What is the biggest challenge you face?

Elana Naftalin-Kelman: The challenge does not come at camp but in my interactions with the rest of the Jewish community, and as I talk to new potential campers and participants. I try to help them understand we are an inclusive Jewish community. For many families, it is a new feeling, to be included in the Jewish community.

JJ: What dynamic brought about the new feeling of inclusion?

ENK: This has changed in the last five years. Many (families with special needs children) have not been able to find a home in the Jewish community, whether for a Shabbat service or in a Jewish school. For that reason, Camp Ramah has become their Jewish home where they feel included as a family.

Inclusion seems scarier on the outside than it actually is.

JJ: What has changed in the last five years?

ENK: Awareness in the Jewish community is growing. Professionals are more aware of the variety of needs. Jews in general are realizing our community includes lots of different types of people with a variety of needs. Awareness has a long way to go, but we are better off than we once were.

JJ: Can the attitude change be traced to an increase in the number of special needs children?

ENK: I am not sure whether there are more children with disabilities. But more children are being diagnosed than before. Awareness has grown also because people are noticing a segment of the community has not been served.

JJ: How did the awareness develop and evolve?

ENK: It happens in some communities because parents are making noise. In other places, it is because the kids want it. And because professionals come in, look around and see kids with disabilities not being served. Camp Ramah is one of the pioneers. We have been serving kids with special needs for more than 30 years.

JJ: How has the majority population at Camp Ramah responded?

ENK: It definitely has been an evolution. I tell people that the work we do with our campers and young adults with disabilities is really important — but almost more important is the impact on our typical campers. So a whole generation of campers, my own (three sons) included, are growing up understanding that people with disabilities are part of their Jewish community in a real way that they do not see in their real world.

JJ: Over your 12 years at Camp Ramah and three years in Jewish special education, what have you learned new about special needs children?

ENK: Inclusion seems scarier on the outside than it actually is. The most important word is “yes,” and then to figure out how to make it work. Do not be scared by the challenges in front of you. Seek the help and advice when you need to figure out how to support different types of kids differently. The basis is: Everybody deserves a place in our community. Camp Ramah has done that.

JJ: Have you developed a philosophy or policy to assure that each camper receives maximum opportunities and benefits?

ENK: My philosophy is: I always try to say yes. At Camp Ramah, we try to individualize programs that benefit each type of camper who comes through our door. I meet individually with families. I talk to parents. I meet with teachers and educators to figure how we could we make camp successful for all different types of kids. I work with typical campers, too, to see how we can make camp successful for them.

Moving & Shaking: Camp Ramah Celebrates ‘Miracle’ of Surviving Fires

Top row, from left: Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) President Mark Berns, BJE honoree Keren Dunn, BJE gala co-chair Rena Slomovic, BJE honoree Bennett Spiegel and BJE Executive Director Gil Graff. Bottom row, from left: gala co-chair Jennifer Elad, honorees Jerry and Jean Friedman and gala co-chair Jill Lasker. Photo courtesy of Builders of Jewish Education

The Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) culminated its 80th anniversary celebration with its 2018 gala on Jan. 16 at Sinai Temple’s Barad Hall.

The event honored Jean and Jerry Friedman, who served on the BJE board from 1982–2004, and Bennett Spiegel, who has served on the board for 16 years, for their “decades of service to Jewish education and the community,” according to the BJE website. Keren Dunn, another board member, was recognized with BJE’s prestigious Young Leadership Award.

“We believe BJE is so important, because through its programs, it facilitates both formal and informal Jewish education,” the Friedmans said in a joint statement. “That combination is the best way to preserve Jewish community.”

Spiegel expressed his respect for the “the mission of BJE to enhance the quality of, increase access to, and encourage participation in Jewish education in Los Angeles.”

Dunn’s children have participated in BJE programming. She credited the organization with giving her son “exposure to hands-on community service and tying the experience to Jewish teachings.”

Rena Slomovic, Jill Lasker and Jennifer Elad co-chaired the event. Mark Goldenberg served as the emcee. Additional attendees included BJE President Mark Berns and BJE Executive Director Gil Graff.

Established in 1937, BJE describes itself as “an independent nonprofit serving the greater Los Angeles area. BJE provides programs and activities that connect families and children to a broad range of Jewish educational opportunities.”  The organization facilitates, among other things, teen experiential education, including the BJE March of the Living program, which sends delegations of Jewish teens to Poland and Israel.

“This is the 80th anniversary celebration of BJE and I am honored to play a role in that celebration,” Dunn said, “as BJE focuses on the past and future dedication of Jewish education in Los Angeles.”

Camp Ramah Executive Director Joe Menashe dedicated a sign to the firefighters who fought off the recent Thomas Fire, a disaster that prompted Ramah to remove its Torahs for safekeeping. Photo courtesy of Camp Ramah

Camp Ramah in Ojai celebrated the return of its five Torahs on Jan. 7 after they were removed for safekeeping during the recent Ventura County wildfire.

Though it wasn’t directly affected by the fire, the Conservative summer camp had a mandatory evacuation on Dec. 7.

Exactly one month later, more than 300 volunteers gathered to fill sandbags, write thank-you notes and bake cookies for firefighters, reshelve siddurim and plant trees.

“From the Ramah Beit Knesset, where we returned the Torah, we went to the area where the firefighters fought off the fire,” said Ramah Associate Director Ariella Moss Peterseil. “We dedicated a sign to them and their bravery and courage, which will remain on our campgrounds and remind us of this personal Hanukkah miracle we had in that place. It truly was the best of Ramah and Judaism: Being able to acknowledge what we are grateful for, with a Jewish ritual, and then launching into action.”

Executive Director Rabbi Joe Menashe shared a story about how a tree that has a sign that reads “ze hashar lashem tzadikim yavo uv” (This is the gate of the Lord, and the righteous shall pass through it) was only slightly burned, and that the camp had many “righteous people” in the firefighters and first responders who saved the camp.

Board chair Andrew I. Spitzer called the celebration a “true and sacred partnership between man and God.”

Virginia Isaad, Contributing Writer

From left: TELACU President and CEO Michael Lizarraga, songwriter Melissa Manchester, journalist and television host Jackeline Cacho, U.S. Congressman Juan Vargas and Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg attended the fifth annual Fiesta Shalom. Photo by Michal Mivzari

Jewish and Hispanic community leaders gathered on Jan. 14 at Tomayo Restaurant and Art Gallery in East Los Angeles for the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles’ fifth annual Fiesta Shalom celebration.

Consul General Sam Grundwerg, whose office has long been concerned with strengthening Jewish-Latino relations, hosted the festive evening along with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and TELACU President and CEO Michael Lizarraga.

The event honored U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas (D-San Diego) and Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter Melissa Manchester for their visionary leadership and roles as inspirational figures in their respective fields.

Jackeline Cacho, Emmy Award-winning journalist and television host, emceed the evening event, during which several members of Congress spoke, including Vargas and Reps. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) and Grace Napolitano (D-Norwalk). Together, they discussed the multitude of similarities, shared values and shared interests between both communities and their vast areas of cooperation.

“The family values, beliefs and rich cultures that the Latino community upholds align with the values that the Israeli people hold dear,” Grundwerg said. “In the last century, we witnessed the great and abiding friendship between the Jewish people and Spanish-speaking peoples.”

The event featured a kosher-style dinner and music performed by the salsa band Orquesta Tabaco y Ron. More than 200 guests danced, networked and celebrated the strong bonds between the communities in the United States, and the desire to maintain their distinctive and diverse cultural identities working in solidarity and support of each other.

Ayala Or-El, Contributing Writer

Members of the third cohort of the The First 36 Project, which supports parents of children ages 0-3, attended a reception held at the headquarters of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

A reception was held on Jan. 18 at the headquarters of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles for its The First 36 Project.

“The First 36 Project is a groundbreaking program that connects families with Jewish community and helps them put cutting-edge development research directly into practice, precisely when experts say it matters most — from the start,” a Federation statement said. “Developed by the Simms/Mann Institute, Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, The First 36 Project provides Parent and Me facilitators at our Jewish Early Childhood Centers with an exclusive professional development opportunity designed to enhance their knowledge and amplify their ability to support parents of children ages 0–3.”

The dessert reception featured remarks by Federation CEO Jay Sanderson, BJE Associate Director Phil Liff-Grieff, and Victoria Simms, a nationally recognized child development specialist and the president of the Simms/Mann Family Foundation.

The evening event also marked the graduation of the second cohort of The First 36 Project and welcomed the third group to the program. Participants of the second cohort included, among others, Emily Glickman of Leo Baeck Temple, Wise School’s Nicole Mevorak, Debbie Myman and Jenna Pitson, and Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Molly Mills. Other participating schools include Yeshiva Aharon Yaakov-Ohr Eliyahu, Harkham Hillel Academy and Valley Beth Shalom.

The first cohort launched in 2015-2016.

B’nai David-Judea honored (from left) Rae and Shep Drazin, Emil and Lola Sassover and Andres Terech and Nikki Sieger at its annual gala dinner. Photo courtesy of B’nai David-Judea

The B’nai David-Judea (BDJ) annual dinner on Jan. 15 honored Lola and Emil Sassover, Rae and Shep Drazin, and Nikki Sieger and Andres Terech.

The Sassovers received the Tiferet David award in recognition of “a lifetime of commitment to the Jewish community.” The Drazins, Migdal David honorees, “were honored for their commitment to men and women’s tefilah and Torah study.” Sieger and Terech, who received the Chasdei David award, “were honored for their commitment to service for the BDJ community, including organizing the Purim Mishloach Manot every year and leading the once-a-month BDJ East Minyan,” said a statement provided by BDJ executive director Adynna Swarz.

Approximately 275 people attended the event, which was held at Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills and coincided with Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Among the highlights of the evening was when the Sassovers’ grandchildren read excerpts from the couple’s newly published memoir,  “From Dust to Dawn, Rebuilding Our Lives After the Holocaust,” which was authored by former Jewish Journal senior writer Julie Fax.

Ramah camp in the Rockies evacuated due to early morning fire

Photo courtesy of Camp Ramah of the Rockies facebook page.

Camp Ramah in the Rockies was evacuated after a fire destroyed the building housing the camp kitchen, dining hall and administrative offices.

No one was hurt in the blaze at the Colorado Jewish camp, which started at 2 a.m. Monday and spread to some nearby trees. The camp’s executive director, Rabbi Eliav Bock, noted the damages in a message posted on Facebook.

Local firefighters quickly brought the fire under control, according to the newspaper. The cause has yet to be determined.

The campers and staff were relocated to a field far from the fire, where they played games and sang while under close supervision, according to the post. After sunrise, they boarded buses and drove under police escort from the camp near Bailey, Colorado to a synagogue in Denver, about 90 minutes away. Volunteers there provided them with food.

There were about 130 campers in the area when the fire broke out, the Denver Post reported.

“The immediate implementation of emergency protocols resulted in a calm and quick camp evacuation,” the statement said. “Camp leaders also retrieved Torah scrolls and other important items, and all animals were released to safe areas away from the fire.”

The JCC Ranch Camp in Elbert, Colorado, whose summer season ended this week, offered Ramah the use of their site for the remainder of the summer session, according to Ramah’s Facebook page. “We plan to relocate our entire camp community there by tomorrow evening,” the update said Monday evening. “We will be bringing our own kitchen staff, hospitality staff, and most importantly our own incredible program team and counselors, who are already busy coordinating with JCC Ranch Camp to plan activities such as archery, mountain biking, hiking, and sports.”
Money and passports belonging to campers and staff were stored in fireproof safes on the second floor of the building that burned down, but cell phones and other electronics were kept in a locked closet in the same building and were lost in the fire, the camp said.

Ethiopian Jews take aliyah quest to Camp Ramah

Gezahegn Dereve and Demoz Deboch have dreamed of making aliyah to Israel from Ethiopia for almost their entire lives.

As children, the young men moved with their families from rural villages to an Israeli government-sponsored Jewish compound in the Ethiopian city of Gondar, leaving behind everything they owned. They and thousands of other Ethiopians who claim Jewish lineage saw the journey as a first step toward making aliyah. 

Now, years later, having grown up immersed in Judaism, studying at a Jewish school, learning to speak Hebrew, reading the Torah and honoring Jewish traditions, Dereve and Deboch are still waiting to go to the Holy Land. On Aug. 14, the young men stood before dozens of teenagers and staff at Camp Ramah in Ojai to ask them to help put pressure on the Israeli government to allow them to fulfill their dream.

“We believe that our homeland is Israel,” Deboch, 24, said. “We believe we are brothers. We are from one ancestor — we came from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

“It is time to return to our country,” Dereve, 21, added. “We came here to make it soon, and to ask for help from you.”

Dereve and Deboch’s stop at Camp Ramah, a Conservative Jewish summer camp located about 80 miles north of Los Angeles, was part of a monthlong speaking tour organized by a group of American Jewish leaders and rabbis sympathetic to the plight of some 9,000 Ethiopian Jews waiting for aliyah in transit camps in Gondar and the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. These Jews, known as the Falash Mura, a pejorative Ethiopian term that means “outsider,” profess to come from a long line of Jews, although some of their ancestors converted to Christianity in the 18th and 19th centuries, often because of persecution and economic duress.  

Over the past 30 years, tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews have immigrated into Israel, including thousands of Falash Mura, with the help of the Israeli government. In 2013, the Jewish Agency announced the end of Ethhiopian aliyah, saying that Israel had finally “closed the circle” on returning these Jews to their ancestral homeland.

The 9,000 Falash Mura still living in Gondar and Addis Ababa, many of whom have relatives in Israel, did not qualify as Jewish under the country’s Law of Return. That law requires at least one Jewish grandparent and does not accept people who converted to another religion in the past. However, in November of last year, under mounting pressure, the Israeli government agreed to allow the remaining 9,000 Ethiopian Jews to immigrate.

That immigration has yet to happen. In February, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the state didn’t have the $1 billion it needed to absorb the remaining Falash Mura into Israeli society. A later agreement to bring some of the Falash Mura to Israel starting in June has stalled.

The delay is “devastating” for the Falash Mura, said David Elcott, a professor at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service, who helped organize Dereve and Deboch’s visit to the United States.

“These guys both have siblings in Israel, aunts and uncles in Israel, cousins in Israel, nephews and nieces in Israel that they have not seen in 15 years,” Elcott said. “The idea that we would consciously and knowingly tear families apart is unconscionable just on a humanitarian basis.”

So far, Devere and Deboch have visited Jewish leaders, summer camps, rabbis and other members of the Jewish community in New York, Florida, Washington, D.C., and now Southern California. They spent three days at Camp Ramah, where they shared meals and participated in services, as well as speaking directly to about 500 campers. 

They are asking American Jews to put pressure on the Israeli government to speed up the immigration of the Falash Mura by signing an online petition. More than 600 people have signed the petition, accessible through the Facebook page titled “Return to Zion — Completing the Exodus of the Ethiopian Jews.”

Dereve told the Journal he has enjoyed meeting American Jews and is happy to be able to share his people’s story. But he also feels angry that he has to go to such lengths to achieve what he considers a birthright.

“We think and hope that the situation now will change and we will do aliyah and move to Israel,” he said, speaking in Hebrew through a translator. “But I think to myself, why are we asking for help all the time? Why can’t we just be like any other Jews? … We have to come all the way to America and talk about it and ask for help.”

The two men told the Journal their lives in Ethiopia are forever on hold as they wait to go to Israel. They said their community also is terrified by current ethnic strife in Ethiopia, and they worry that Jews — already ostracized by Christians and Muslims — will become targets. 

Both men said when they move to Israel, they intend to join the Israeli army. Deboch, currently a university student in Ethiopia, dreams of becoming an ambassador. Devere’s goal is to be a doctor.

Rabbi Joe Menashe, Camp Ramah’s executive director, said his decision to have the Ethiopians visit the summer camp was not an official endorsement of their request for support. However, Menashe said he believed campers would learn from the speakers about the broader Jewish community and the role of the State of Israel.

“At Camp Ramah, we believe in the State of Israel, we believe in the Jewish people, we believe in Jewish values, and this is something that touches all of those, and expands and exposes our kids to a real living, breathing part of the Jewish people,” he said. “We’re not just teaching about a subject in school, but we’re teaching about something that shapes who we are and the trajectory of lives.”

Some of the campers said they had already heard about the plight of the Ethiopian Jews, while others said it was their first time. Many marveled that the men had come from such a faraway place to visit.

Camper Aliza Abusch-Magder, 15, of Atlanta, said she was deeply touched by the men’s story and felt heartbroken that they have not been able to go to Israel.

“I thought it was really incredible. I mean, Israel is somewhere that was created as a safe haven for Jews and yet the Jews who need the safety and the love of the community the most aren’t getting it,” she said. It’s “really upsetting because it’s not how I like to picture Israel.”

Bradley Gerber, 15, of West Hills, said he was impressed with Dereve and Deboch and intended to sign their petition.

“I think it’s incredible that people from halfway across the world have such a passion to go to Israel,” he said. “I wish them the best of luck.”

Dancing ‘til the end of music

When I was in my late teens, I listened to the second side of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album, pretty much every day for three weeks in a forest about an hour north of Montreal. I was living in a tent with other Jewish wannabe hippies at Camp Bnai Brith, and the camp leaders allowed us to have a turn table outside our tent, where we could spin our vinyls at will.

It’s hard to imagine living my life without the second side of Abbey Road.

On my way to visit my son at Camp Ramah the other day, I played it in my car, a few times over. Every note is like an old friend. You have to hear the whole side to get the full effect. The songs flow in and out of each other. Happy and silly mixes with deep and lyrical. There’s always a delightful surprise around the corner. No matter how often I hear it, it’s like opening a whole bunch of amazing Chanukah gifts in one sitting.

If you ever told me I would never hear Abbey Road again, I think I would sit shivah.

I feel that way about a lot of music– I can’t imagine my life without this or that piece of music. As much as I love art in all forms, music gets me like nothing else. I’m not sure I can even explain it. Maybe that’s why music reaches me so deeply—because I can’t explain it. If I could, then I would control it, own it, understand it, file it away.

There is no “controlling” music. When I hear music I love, all I can do is surrender. Hearing the band Beirut play “Nantes” makes me forget the Middle East or when I have to pick up my kids. An old Elton John ballad like “Sixty Years On” makes me count the seconds until John sings “Margarita plays guitar, plays it just for me.”

Great songs offer delights within delights. The instrumental opening of “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones increases the pulse to dangerous levels. Carlos Santana’s guitar on “Samaba Pa Ti” sounds like a voice crying. Lyrics can also offer deep pleasure. When I hear the singer-poet Leonard Cohen sing, “Dance me ‘til the end of love,” I’m in awe that someone could string those words together: Aren’t you supposed to dance with someone, and until the end of time?

A Chassidic niggun around a Shabbat table— chanting with no words—can send my soul spinning as much as a blues song from B.B. King. One of my favorite albums is an old CD of a Sephardic chazzan singing Askenazic melodies with a Sephardic twist. It’s so unifying that if enough people played it simultaneously, the Messiah might show up.

When I met Michael Jackson at his ranch many years ago, and we started talking about melodies, he asked me what my favorite melody was. I couldn’t lie. I told him it was a Sephardic melody we sing only during the High Holidays, to commemorate the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. I sang it to him. Whoever wrote that melody a few centuries ago in Morocco is probably related to Paul McCartney.

Music has such a hold on me that I have found it extremely difficult to boycott Roger Waters, the world’s most vocal promoter of boycotts against Israel. I hate his anti-Israel stance, but I’m crazy about his band, Pink Floyd. I grew up on “Dark Side of the Moon.” When I hear the opening of “Wish you were here,” I’m transported to some other planet where everyone is a poet. What can a diehard Zionist do in front of such sublime perfection? Maybe my quiet revenge is that every time I hear Hatikva, I can’t imagine a more beautiful national anthem.

Music doesn’t only own souls, it owns time. It owns memories. I hear “La Vida Loca” from Coldplay and I’m now in the summer of 2011 picking up my daughter Eva from surf camp and taking her for frozen yogurt at Penguins. I hear “Ma Cherie Amore” from Stevie Wonder and I’m in the summer of 1973 in a blue Rambler driving down to the Jersey shore with my family, with my father telling us how much he loves the song.

It’s true that some music plays better at certain times. You won’t impress anyone by playing a dark, moody Leonard Cohen song on a sunny spring afternoon. That stuff plays better under the stars, just like the greatest moonlight song ever written, “Moondance,” by Van Morrison. For some odd reason, I used to blast that song when I would drive alone at night with my oldest daughter Tova when she was an infant. We would open the windows and make loud sounds. What was I thinking? Music makes you do weird things.

I’ve had some passionate love affairs with certain singers, John Lennon among them. I remember where I was the day he was shot in December 1980. I was getting coffee in the kitchen of an advertising agency in Montreal where I was working. One memory I have is how the head of the company, an older gentleman, was baffled by the incredibly intense reaction from his employees. No one could talk about anything else. We were walking around, shell-shocked. John Lennon and his music owned us.

It’s a sign of how single-minded I could get when it comes to music that, in grieving Lennon’s passing, I couldn’t help thinking: How many “Hey Judes” and “Instant Karmas” and “Imagines” are now buried with him?

Music often intrudes in my professional life, as when I speak and write about the challenge of attracting the new generation to the ancient Jewish tradition. Well, guess what I have found can make all the difference in enhancing the Jewish experience? That’s right, music. Melodies. Chanting. Communal singing. Whether it’s the old-school charm of a magnificent cantor or the Woodstock vibe of a spiritual community, it’s music, as Don McLean told us in “American Pie,” that can save our mortal souls.

I better stop now, before I get too carried away explaining my love for music.

Ramah camps a bright spot for Conservative movement, but 9 of 10 kids don’t go

The sky is clearing after a damp morning at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, and kids are emerging from their cluttered bunks.

An impromptu Frisbee game breaks out on the lawn, while down by the lake a counselor prepares the water trampoline and surf kayaks. On the other side of the 200-acre expanse, a staffer tests the high ropes obstacle course. Nearby, a group of teenagers is shooting hoops at the covered basketball courts, where industrial fans turn the sultry air.

There’s something else going on at this camp, Ramahniks say, though it may not be as visible: inculcation of Jewish values. Every day begins with prayer, Hebrew suffuses the camp vernacular, counselors sprinkle discussions of Jewish ethics into nearly every activity and Friday night is many campers’ favorite time of the week.

“It’s a Conservative Jewish utopia,” said counselor Deborah Pollack, 21. “You can get Jewish values on the sports field, doing art. We can all find our access points here. I really grew all my passion for Judaism here.”

By nearly all accounts, the Ramah network of Conservative Jewish summer camps is one of the brightest spots in the Conservative movement, which has seen notable declines in affiliationcongregational membership and the fiscal health of its central institutions over the last two decades.

Counselors and alumni alike describe their Ramah experiences as among the most formative of their childhoods, if not the primary influence on their Jewish identity, and Ramah draws campers from across the denominational spectrum, from Orthodox to unaffiliated. Three new Ramah camps have opened since 1997, and a fourth will be added this summer.

It’s not hard to see why campers and counselors love Ramah: As at other summer camps, it’s a home away from home where kids get to hang out with their friends all the time and have fun.

For Ramahniks, 50 percent of whom attend public schools, it’s also a place where young Jews can revel in their Jewish identity without feeling like outsiders, and where doing Jewish is seen as cool. That sensation is not always easy to come by at synagogue or Hebrew school.

More than 750 campers and 300 counselors went to Camp Ramah in the Berkshires in the summer of 2015. (Uriel Heilman)More than 750 campers and 300 counselors went to Camp Ramah in the Berkshires in the summer of 2015. 

“Here you’re allowed to explore whatever type of Judaism you’re comfortable with,” said Sam Teitelbaum, 23, who has been going to Ramah in the Berkshires for 14 summers. “Hebrew school can only do so much. Camp has had a huge impact on my life. Everything I know about Judaism has come from camp. I met my girlfriend at camp.”

Studies long have pointed to Jewish summer camp as one of the most effective ways to excite young people about Jewish life and identity, and there’s been an explosion of new Jewish summer camps over the past few years as faith in the efficacy of summer camps has taken hold in the Jewish organizational world. (“Camp Works” was the title of a much-circulated 2011 study commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Camp on the long-term impact of Jewish overnight camp.)

What makes Ramah distinct, say its fans, is that it’s a place to cultivate and celebrate a brand of Judaism that is serious, yet pluralistic and joyful – the hallmarks of what the Conservative movement aspires to be.

“It’s a community infused with Conservative Jewish doctrine — from kashrut to Shabbat to daily prayer,” said Jason Miller, a Conservative rabbi and entrepreneur in Detroit who worked for three summers at Ramah while in rabbinical school. “The magic of the Camp Ramah experience is that it’s a 24/7 shtetl of Jewish life. It gives the children and staff a four- or eight-week taste of what that type of Jewish living is all about.”

Rabbi Mitch Cohen, national director of Ramah, says the camps have become a magnet for parents looking to give their kids a strong Jewish identity.

“This is a place where we live Judaism 24/7,” Cohen told JTA. “We’re not the only camps that do it well, but many camps are just camps for Jews with only a few Jewish programs. At Ramah, Jewish education is part of the fabric of camp life.”

Ramah, which operates as a subsidiary of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s flagship academic institution, now has nine overnight camps and four day camps in the United States and Canada — including the new Camp Ramah in Northern California due to open this summer.

The waterfront at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires includes a wide variety of inflatable toys and surf kayaks. (Uriel Heilman)The waterfront at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires includes a wide variety of inflatable toys and surf kayaks.

In all, that’s about 10,000 campers and staff per year, according to Cohen. Still, he pointed out, that figure is only 6-7 percent of camp-age kids in the Conservative movement.

“Our biggest failure is that we don’t grow faster,” Cohen said, noting that not a single new Ramah sleepaway camp opened between 1964 and 1997.

Over the past 20 years, Ramah has added overnight camps in Georgia (Ramah Darom in 1997), Colorado (Ramah in the Rockies in 2010) and California. A new Ramah day camp opened last summer in the Washington, D.C., area.

“There’s plenty of market share out there for us to grow in,” Cohen said.

Yet some alumni say that while Ramah is doing a great job, the Conservative movement should support alternative camps that can appeal to the 90 percent of Conservative kids not going to Ramah because of the perception that it’s too religious.

According to Cohen, there are more modern Orthodox kids at Ramah than children from liberal or unaffiliated Jewish families: About 70 percent of Ramah campers come from Conservative synagogues, 15-20 percent from modern Orthodox homes, 8 percent from unaffiliated families, and 5 percent from the Reform or Reconstructionist movements.

“Ramah was designed as a leadership camp for the intellectual leadership of the Conservative movement,” said one Ramah alumnus who asked to remain anonymous. “But the Conservative movement’s problem is not so much a lack of leadership as a lack of followership. For the vast majority of Conservative Jews, Ramah is way too Jewy. Where are the Conservative movement camps for them?”

Cohen acknowledged that many Conservative-affiliated families think of Ramah in this way, yet he said those who “take the time to get to know the real Ramah find our Jewish and religious programming very accessible.” Among the other reasons Conservative families don’t send their kids to Ramah is the cost (about$9,000 for a full summer at Ramah in the Berkshires) and the myriad other summer options out there, Cohen said.

Yet in many Conservative communities, Ramah is presented as the only option. Some Conservative synagogues won’t allow representatives of camps other than Ramah to recruit there.

“I grew up with a rabbi who said from the bimah: If you don’t send your child to Ramah, you were doing something wrong,” said Jeremy Fine, a rabbi in Minnesota.

Meanwhile, Ramah is trying to export its magic formula to the rest of the movement. Several years ago the network launched the Ramah Service Corps fellowship, a program for Ramah alumni to try to bring Ramah’s spirit and style to local communities and synagogues throughout the year. The Ramah alumni association,Reshet Ramah, is similarly committed.

“We no longer look at ourselves as just a camp,” said the longtime director of Ramah in the Berkshires, Rabbi Paul Resnick. “We’re a community-building enterprise.”

How Jewish architect William Krisel built a desert oasis

Thousands of residential and commercial buildings designed by modernist architect William Krisel can be found throughout Southern California. His postwar housing developments, cooperative apartment complexes and resorts stretch from the San Fernando Valley to Orange County to the Coachella Valley.

Among the buildings Krisel designed over the course of his 60-year career are Hebrew Union College at USC (1969), Camp Hess Kramer (1967), Camp Ramah (1969) and Beth Israel School in San Diego (1960). He also worked with prominent Los Angeles architect Welton Becket  on the 1955 Mount Sinai Hospital on Beverly Boulevard, now Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, which was damaged by the 1994 Northridge earthquake and subsequently demolished.

Krisel built, by his own estimate, 40,000 individual housing units, including 2,500 tract homes in Palm Springs alone. His signature style includes post-and-beam construction, open floor plans in which the living room, dining room and kitchen flow together, large glass windows, vaulted ceilings and butterfly roofs.

During Modernism Week in Palm Springs, continuing through Feb. 21, fans of midcentury architecture are paying tribute to this prolific man, including the dedication of a street named in his honor, “William Krisel Way,” a fitting recognition of his work introducing “desert modernism” to Palm Springs. Krisel, now 91, planned to participate in the events.

The festival also includes a launch event for an illustrated 224-page book, “William Krisel’s Palm Springs: The Language of Modernism,” recently published by Gibbs Smith. The book is the first major monograph chronicling Krisel’s work and architectural philosophy. It includes architectural drawings, renderings and photographs, with essays that draw heavily from his personal papers as well as the extensive archives of the Getty Research Institute. The book is edited by Heidi Creighton, a midcentury modern enthusiast who, in 2012, purchased a 1957 Palm Springs home designed by Krisel, and by Chris Menrad, a real estate agent and founding board member of the Palm Springs Modern Committee, who also lives in a Krisel-designed home.

Krisel was born in Shanghai in 1924 to a wealthy Jewish family. His father, Alexander Krisel, handled regional distribution for major movie studios, and such luminaries as Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin were all guests of the Krisels in Shanghai. He moved with his parents to Beverly Hills in 1937, designed his own architectural course while attending Beverly Hills High School and went on to USC. His studies were interrupted by World War II, during which he served in China as a military interpreter. After his service, he returned to USC, graduating with honors in 1949.

Before and after the war, Krisel worked part time for modern architects Paul László and Victor Gruen, both Jewish émigrés. Assisting them in the design of homes and retail spaces gave him practical knowledge and inspiration that proved valuable when he founded his own architectural firm.

“I learned how an architect runs his office, his relationship to his employees and how to deal with diverse clients,” Krisel said in an interview with the Journal. “Prior to that I was only a student. By working for Paul and Victor, I was exposed to the real world of being an architect.”

While working for Gruen, Krisel also met Dan Saxon Palmer, with whom he would form a long-lasting partnership in 1949. Palmer was born Dan Weissinger in Hungary in 1920 (one of his sons, Geoffrey Palmer, is a prolific Los Angeles developer). During the mid- to late 1950s, Krisel and Palmer won national awards for their designs. Writing for the Los Angeles Times, architectural historian Esther McCoy described how the firm “has helped give distinction to the tract house.”

Krisel also became known for taking interest in the smallest details of his homes, including interior design, built-in furniture, paint colors, cupboard handle designs, light switch placement and more. A licensed landscape architect, Krisel also paid close attention to a building’s relationship with its environment.

“My philosophy was that the architect was in total control and therefore was responsible for the design and decisions that go into completing a project,” Krisel said. “No detail is too small for sincere consideration.”

Early in their careers, Krisel and Palmer began working with developers George Alexander and his son Robert, owners of the Alexander Construction Company. Their first modern tract together was the Corbin Palms neighborhood in Woodland Hills, built from 1953 toa 1955, originally with 287 homes. Before long, large communities of Krisel-designed homes were built in San Diego, Las Vegas, Florida, Texas and Arizona.

“They took on one of the great problems of modernism, which was to create good, decent contemporary housing that was affordable for the masses,” postwar architectural historian Alan Hess told the Times. “Palmer and Krisel did it, and on a large scale and keeping the inherent qualities of modernism. … Other architects would not deal with the realities of budgets, materials, clients’ demands, the financing that was required in the nitty-gritty of real-world housing development.”

Creighton said Krisel found inspiration in the budget limitations that the Alexanders imposed on the Palm Springs homes.

“He had quite a remarkable relationship with the Alexander family and the construction company, and they really trusted him, and there were a lot of restrictions, particularly with the tract homes,” Creighton said. “And the greater the restrictions — time-wise, material-wise — the more creative he became, the more inventive he became. The more complex the problem was to solve, the more excited he was.”

The Alexanders tapped Krisel’s firm to design Ocotillo Lodge in Palm Springs in 1955. It became a favorite desert hangout for Hollywood stars and was once owned by Gene Autry. It features a curved central structure, panoramic views of the mountains and a keyhole-shaped swimming pool. They also designed the Alexander Estate in 1960, originally dubbed “The House of Tomorrow,” which became Elvis Presley’s honeymoon hideaway. The house consists of three stories in four concentric circles and no square rooms. Krisel and Palmer went on to build more than 2,500 homes in Palm Springs. The homes were rediscovered by midcentury modern fans in the 1990s, during a resurgence of interest in midcentury architecture.

Krisel’s partnership with Palmer dissolved in 1966. Krisel established a solo practice, and then in 1969 formed a new partnership with Israeli architect Abraham Shapiro. They shifted their focus to high-rise commercial and residential design and construction. Their projects include the Ocean Avenue Towers in Santa Monica and Coronado Shores in San Diego.

From 1980 onward, Krisel acted as a consultant for housing and forensic architecture. He’s become active in restoring many of his homes and the landscapes around them.

The role of the architect has changed since Krisel began practicing more than six decades ago, Creighton said.

“He feels like the architect has been relegated to just another small work role. They don’t have a signature to the place. They’re part of the process but they don’t control the show,” she said. “And I think he would not be happy under those conditions today.”

A list of events related to William Krisel at Modernism Week in Palm Springs, which continues through Feb. 21, is available at modernismweek.com

This article was made possible with support from California Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Beyond philanthropy: A Q&A with Julie Platt

Julie Platt is one of Los Angeles’ most devoted Jewish communal leaders and philanthropists. For the past two years, she has served as general campaign chair for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. She is also a past board chair of Camp Ramah, led the advisory board of directors for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and serves on the board of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. For the past 36 years, Platt has been married to film and theater producer Marc Platt, whom she met as a freshman at their alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. They have five children, ages 16 to 32, and an active family foundation. On a recent morning, Platt sat down in her Westwood living room to talk about her plans for Federation when she takes over as board chair in January. “It’s not the sexiest place to be a volunteer,” she said, “so you’re doing it out of purity of purpose. And the kind of people that are attracted to that work are my kind of people.” 

Jewish Journal: You grew up in Wichita, Kan., in a very small Jewish community. What was that like?

Julie Platt: On a great day, we were 1,000 people. In my high school graduating class of 671 students, I was the only Jew. But I actually think that when you are from a small town, the necessity to stand up and be counted is even stronger. … I felt from the beginning that if we Jews didn’t look out for the Jewish community, there wasn’t anybody else to step up. It wasn’t out of a sense of peril; it was a feeling of “l’dor v’dor,” that I was a link in the chain.

JJ: What does being Jewish mean to you?

JP: I think Judaism makes sense. I think we got it right, of what people need. We need a roadmap. And, honestly, the best example I can think of are the laws of mourning. They’re so helpful. Holidays and Shabbat and rituals are, for me, an opportunity to gather as family. And that’s the most precious time for me. 

JJ: You have chosen to go beyond traditional philanthropy to play an enormous volunteer role in the Los Angeles Jewish community. Why was that important to you?

JP: [My parents] imparted to me that you have to be supportive of the community in which you live, which they both were, in a very big way. My father was the chairman of the board of education and actually integrated the school system in Wichita, which was a very big deal. So I understood the obligation to be involved civically in your community, but transcending it all was this complete responsibility to the Jewish people. I have this memory of when we all went on vacation in 1967; I was 10, and the ’67 war hit while we were on vacation. None of us ever left the room. The six of us stayed and watched television for the entire duration of the Six-Day War. I remember being terrified. 

JJ: What was your most formative Jewish experience?

JP: Camp Ramah. It changed my life. I remember no place feeling more at home as a Jew than surrounded by that environment. For me, it was like Disneyland, because I didn’t have any Jewish kids around me in Wichita, so to go and make Jewish friends all summer long was just indescribable. I counted the minutes [during the school year] till it was time to go back.

JJ: As a kid, what did you dream of being when you grew up?

JP: Honestly? I only wanted to be a mother. The dream for my life was to be a mother. Second to being a mother was finding the right husband — so I could be a mother. 

JJ: But as the daughter of very active parents — your father was an oil and gas producer and your mother was civically involved — was it rebellious not to pursue a career?

JP: I wanted to be a mother, not a stay-at-home mother. I just wanted to be a parent. That was the No. 1. Simultaneous to that, I thought about joining my father’s business, but Wichita didn’t seem where I would want to spend my life, particularly after I met Marc, who was clearly going to be in the entertainment world. But I did go into corporate banking; I had a deep love of business and of math, and wanted to use that. I went into corporate banking right out of college at University of Pennsylvania. 

JJ: Of the many Jewish institutions you’re involved with, why do you choose to devote most of your time to Federation?

JP: I do believe in it as the central convener of the Los Angeles Jewish community. What has always impressed me is that it is an organization willing to look at itself, to make sure it is on the right path. And it’s not afraid to stumble or refocus or redirect until we get it right. It’s not what people think it is.

JJ: You think Federation is misunderstood?

JP: I think people think it’s a behemoth, that it’s a black hole where you don’t know where your money is going, where we’re blindly writing checks to agencies and that we have no handle on a vision or strategy. And that’s just incorrect. We’re not a black hole. We’re not an umbrella. We’re a convener that works really carefully with partners to take care of this community in every way that we can. And if that means creating something new, we’ll do that. If it means supporting something existing, we’ll do that. And if it simply means getting out of the way because someone else is doing it better, we’ll do that. 

JJ: What has been your biggest challenge there?

JP: Not being able to successfully bring along all the people that I wish I could. And I’d say, most specifically, many people in the entertainment community. That’s sort of my chief goal as chair.

JJ: I’m so glad you brought that up! You’re married to the big-deal producer of Broadway’s “Wicked,” the “Legally Blonde” film franchise and, most recently, Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies.” So you’ve had an insider’s view of Hollywood for many years. What’s your take on why Hollywood Jews are not more active in Jewish communal life or more publicly supportive of Israel?

JP: I want to be careful, because I want to be successful with this group. I do think that the entertainment community gets a bad rap. There are more [entertainment] people who care about the Jewish people than the community thinks, but there is an enormous amount of people in entertainment whom we haven’t brought along yet. And that is my mission. Marc and I have had several small gatherings in our home, and when given the opportunity to explain our work, and speak to people one-on-one, [we have found] there is a Jewish responsibility [in Hollywood], and there is a Jewish soul. It’s rarely tapped into in the world in which they live, and I have to find the way to tap into it. One by one, I’m willing to take on the challenge. 

A pawsitive impact

Alex Michaels will tell you that his dog, Frisco, is no ordinary household pet.

As a trained therapy and service dog, the 2 1/2-year-old poodle is a primary comfort-giver and companion to Alex’s mom, Marlene Michaels, who is fighting stage 4 lung cancer. He stays by her side during the day when Alex; his older brother, Stephen; and his dad, Randy, are out. Frisco patiently accompanies Marlene to all her doctor appointments and the hospital for treatments. And he is a source of love and emotional support to the entire Michaels family as they struggle to cope with Marlene’s illness.

So when Alex, 13, of Westlake Village, considered what to do for his mitzvah project this year, he and his parents knew they wanted to help other families experience the joy that Frisco has given them. Alex, who celebrated his bar mitzvah on March 28 at Camp Ramah in Ojai, set up an online campaign to raise $5,000 to help pay the cost of training a service or therapy dog for other families. As of May 6, he’d raised more than half of his goal.

“I want to raise money to help more people,” said Alex, who attends the Conservative Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills. “I hope it’ll make them feel happy.”

His own family first thought about looking for a service dog for themselves in late 2012, shortly after Marlene was diagnosed. Randy said the family felt that having a dog would provide some relief from the constant focus on his wife’s cancer. 

A friend put them in touch with Jill Breitner, a service and therapy dog trainer who until recently was based in the Los Angeles area and now lives in Northern California. Breitner said she knew of a puppy that would be perfect for them, and the family arranged to meet her and Frisco at a park in Encino.

“It was love at first sight,” Randy said. “He really took not only to the boys but also was so warm and loving toward Marlene, which is a really good sign for a service dog.”

Over the next few months, Breitner trained Frisco, who lived with a breeder. By April 2013, Frisco was ready to begin life in his new home. Marlene said she was worried at first that having both a dog and children in the house would be too chaotic, but Frisco soon proved to be an uplifting and well-behaved member of the family.

“It’s like having a little friend. It’s like mental comfort,” said Marlene, who explained Frisco wears a service dog jacket that allows him to go everywhere with her, including medical facilities. “Wherever I go, he just comes with me. … He keeps me company, and he’s just very easy.” 

When it came time to begin his mitzvah project, Alex had a plan. He called his fundraising campaign “Pi for Pets”  (youcaring.com/piforpets) because, as he writes on his campaign page: “my birthday is 3.14, I love my Frisco to infinity and WHO DOESN’T LOVE PIE!!!!!”

Randy said the family has already identified one person in need and is working with the cancer treatment center City of Hope in Duarte to find others. He said the full cost of training a service dog can range between $5,000 and $10,000, so it won’t be possible to pay the full amount, but Alex plans to help offset about $750 for each family, depending on need. 

Breitner said she was impressed when Alex first talked about doing the project, which she said he did soon after his family got Frisco.

“I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what an incredible thing for an 11-year-old to think about doing,’ ” she said. “I think it’s awesome; I think it’s incredible. It’s a testament to the family in how they’ve raised this little munchkin who’s turning into being a wonderful young man.”

Breitner said the definition of service dogs has expanded greatly since the days when they were used primarily as visual aids for the blind. Today, service dogs are used to help people who have various disabilities, and they can perform tasks such as helping people open doors, pick things up, press buttons and carry groceries. Therapy dogs, which are different from service dogs, provide comfort and cheer to people with cancer and other illnesses, she said. Frisco is trained as both a therapy and a service dog, although he is being used as a therapy dog.

Randy said his family is excited to introduce more families to the benefits of having a well-trained service or therapy dog.

“I don’t think we ever imagined [Frisco] would make as much of an impact as he has on our lives,” he said. “It’s just really important for us to raise awareness for service animals to be trained properly and matched up with the right family.”

Summer camp for all

Like many children and teenagers, Michael Rosenbaum of Los Feliz sees going to summer camp as a highlight of his year.

He relishes the outdoor activities, cooking classes, swimming, dancing and games at Camp Ramah in Ojai. He enjoys connecting with his Jewish heritage through daily celebrations and songs, and he especially loves seeing his camp friends from previous years. And, since last summer, the 18-year-old has been thrilled at the opportunity to work at the camp as a cooking teacher’s assistant.

Rosenbaum’s trajectory from camp participant to camp helper is typical of many teenagers as they reach adulthood, but for him, the transition is particularly auspicious. Rosenbaum has Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that makes it difficult for him to participate in many of the activities other children at summer camp take for granted. Yet, according to his mother, Rony Rosenbaum, he has been able to take part fully, thanks to Camp Ramah’s programs for special needs youth.

“It’s really one of the most incredible programs that you can possibly imagine for these kids,” she said. “The kids are not just integrated into everything that the whole rest of the camp does, they’re rock stars. Kids in the rest of the camp actually fight to be their buddies.”

Camp Ramah (ramah.org) runs an umbrella initiative called Tikvah for children and youth with special needs, under which three programs are available: Ohr Lanu, a weeklong family camp in early June for special needs children, their parents and siblings; Amitzim, where special needs children ages 11 to 17 participate alongside regular attendees in Camp Ramah; and Ezra, a seven-week vocational training program for young adults. The goal is to make summer camp something that youth of all abilities can enjoy, and where they can find a welcome place as members of the Jewish community, Tikvah director Elana Naftalin-Kelman said. About 80 children with a wide range of disabilities attend the programs each year, mostly from the Los Angeles area, she said. 

The Ezra vocational program takes the participation of special needs teenagers and young adults to a new level. The program grew out of recognition at Camp Ramah that there needed to be opportunities for young people with disabilities to continue their camp experience after they turned 18, even though they are unable to become counselors, Naftalin-Kelman said.

Under the Ezra program, youth ages 17 to 23 live at the camp in Ojai and are given jobs, either within the camp or at businesses in town. Tasks at the camp include setting up and clearing tables in the dining hall, helping staff run the sports programs, working in the mail and supply rooms or running the staff store, where they make smoothies and sandwiches. Jobs in Ojai have included work at the local library, a grocery store, a senior living facility and an animal shelter.

In addition, participants receive daily life-skills lessons to help them become more independent, such as cooking healthy meals, setting up a bank account and using public transportation. Three times a week, they attend classes on Jewish holidays, keeping kosher, what it means to be a Jewish adult and other aspects of Jewish life.

Naftalin-Kelman said the experience helps them develop independence, self-confidence and a sense of belonging. She said many families have struggled to find acceptance in the communities they live in because of their child’s disability and often do not belong to a synagogue. 

“These families are more often than not feeling like they’ve been rejected from the Jewish community,” she said. “Camp Ramah is their Jewish community.”

That’s not the case for Rosenbaum, an Ezra program participant who is keenly devout and involved at Temple Israel of Hollywood, his mother said. 

“The Jewish aspect of Ramah is key to how much he loves it there,” she said. “[Jewish traditions] are really, really important to him, and for that reason it’s really important to us.”

Rosenbaum said he’s looking forward to attending Camp Ramah again this summer. The reason is simple: “It’s my favorite place.”

New Jewish dating app keeps the campfire burning

For many Jews, nothing cooks up piping-hot nostalgia quite like reminiscing about summer camp. Adults who recall those times may think back to pounding on tables during birkat (grace after meals), intense and often heated Maccabiah competitions or “color wars” and musical theater performances. 

For some, that list might include memories of meeting that special someone. For the rest, it might not be too late, thanks to some help from the Internet. 

RamahDate, a specialized online dating platform that Camp Ramah and matchmaking powerhouse JDate are working on together, will launch in May. It will give alumni of the Conservative Camp Ramah movement — campers and staff — the opportunity to mingle online and possibly even quiet the kvetching of frustrated Jewish mothers. 

Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, the National Ramah Commission’s national director, told the Journal that parents of Ramah alums have been adamant for years that the experience of camp shouldn’t stop after camp. 

“Mothers and fathers have been asking me for the last seven or eight years, ‘My son or daughter didn’t meet anyone at camp, so why can’t there be some sort of online dating?’ ” Cohen said. 

But many did meet spouses through camp, a shared experience that creates a powerful bond. Cohen claims that Ramah can identify at least 700 such couples — and more than 300 Ramah marriages are registered on ramahmarriages.org, complete with touching stories of how the couples met.  With others undoubtedly uncounted, Cohen said he firmly believes there are well over a thousand couples who met at Ramah. 

Lauren Ross, a 41-year-old social worker at a Denver public school, met her husband, David, a piano teacher, while staffing together at Camp Ramah in Ojai in the early ’90s. They eventually got married on the picturesque Ojai camp and now have two children together. 

“David and I have a lot of similarities because of the camp experience,” Ross said. “It’s definitely something that came up.”

Sarah Shulman, the education director at Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge and newly appointed camp director at the soon-to-be Camp Ramah in Northern California, met her husband, Nate, while staffing together at Ramah Outdoor Adventure in Colorado five years ago. 

“It’s not always easy to find people who share common values and interests and that are also Jewish,” Shulman said. “It wasn’t always easy to meet people who wanted to spend their summers like I did. When I met Nate, I was baffled and in awe of how much we had in common. I just thought, ‘He’s a teacher who’s Jewish with incredible outdoor adventure skills. This guy exists?’ I heard about people getting married based on Ramah. It wasn’t until I became one of those people that I understood how that really happens.” 

Marriages that originated in camps long have been a source of pride for Ramah leadership. Campgrounds are covered with plaques inscribed with the names of couples who met at camp and who often have their wedding ceremonies there. And while there’s long been interest by some in creating an online meeting place to give adults an opportunity to engage with other alums who share their core values, the question for people like Cohen was: Would people actually use it? Not to mention, initial research indicated that implementing such a site would cost the nonprofit National Ramah Commission $150,000. 

Things started to move ahead after the formation of Reshet Ramah, the camp’s alumni network that took shape in 2012, thanks in large part to $1.8 million in grants from the Avi Chai Foundation and the Maimonides Fund. The newly formed organization set out to strengthen and connect an alumni network of 200,000 and initiate a variety of new programs based in Jewish engagement for adults of all ages. According to Cohen, Reshet Ramah estimated there to be a subset of 15,000 singles under the age of 40 among its network. 

Cohen and his cohorts at the New York-based National Ramah Commission had previously worried that online dating and its reputation would scare off users. But now, JDate reports that half of married Jewish couples meet online; all involved agreed that this hurdle had been cleared and that the only hurdle remaining was financing the project. 

Laura Belinfante, National Ramah Commission’s program marketing manager, saw working with JDate as a no-brainer.

“It’s a reputable, proven model. I knew it would be great for us to have the JDate name behind the project and that it would help make our product more reputable,” she said. “Once we got on the phone and they became aware of how many alumni we had and that they’d have direct marketing to those people, from their end, it was just like, ‘OK, great.’ ” 

According to Belinfante, the partnership with JDate will alleviate much of the upfront financial burden. Its engineers, project management and customer service teams will be the ones essentially creating the service. 

Ramah users will simply subscribe to JDate and provide their Ramah background with such pieces of information as camp attended and years at camp. Then, Ramah users will receive a badge that will be featured on their profile. They then have the option to interact with all of JDate’s 750,000 active users or only with fellow Ramah badge holders. It will operate like any other online dating filter service.

“We felt that it was important to make the registration process distinguished from the JDate process. Other than that, it’s the same. We wanted to stand out and make alumni feel like it was a little different,” Belinfante said. 

Sarah Koppel Smith, a 26-year-old geriatric social worker in New York who met her husband at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, is excited about the possibilities. Smith believes in the mystique of the Ramah romance and points to values that were largely learned and honed at Ramah as the foundation of her relationship. 

“It’s more than just a camp. It’s a way of life,” she said. “I think it’s something really special to be with someone who also went to Ramah. I’m really excited for my single friends! I hope it works!”

Negotiations with JDate also resulted in an agreement to donate 70 percent of Ramah users’ initial subscription fees to camp scholarships. 

“We want to make this appealing to alumni. They can get a service and can be donating to an organization they obviously care about through that service,” Belinfante said. “They’re able to contribute in a meaningful way.” 

As the May launch date approaches, Belinfante and her colleagues at the National Ramah Commission are working diligently with JDate to get the website up and running and are planning launch parties in at least four Israeli and North American cities, Los Angeles likely being one of them. 

Rabbi Joe Menashe, the executive director of Camp Ramah in Ojai, expressed to the Journal his admiration for Ramah’s forward thinking and commitment to its vast network of alumni. 

“The Ramah movement now welcomes over 10,000 campers and staff a summer, and why should we limit the potential to find our beshert to only one camp limited by one’s year?” Menashe said. “We’d be ignoring our mission if we did not take advantage of technology to facilitate [campers’ and alumni’s] connection more easily and naturally around the world.”

CORRECTION 2/5/15: This article originally stated that Ramah users would have to provide the names of their camp counselors in order to subscribe.

Moving and Shaking: ADL and Shalom Institute galas plus Bruce Whizin honored

Approximately 900 people turned out for the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Centennial Gala on Dec. 10, which was held at the Beverly Hilton hotel. 

“The event raised nearly $1.4 million to support ADL efforts to combat anti-Semitism and bigotry of all kinds,” said a statement by the ADL, which was founded in 1913. 

It also honored several community members, including Barbara and Thomas Leanse and George David Kieffer — “for their excellence in their professional fields and community leadership,” the ADL statement said.

Speakers included Los Angles World Airports Police Chief Patrick Gannon, who was part of the official response team to the recent deadly shooting at LAX; UCLA student Sunny Singh, a participant in ADL’s campus leaders mission; Detective Chris Keeling of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department; and high school teacher Katherine Friedman, who has taught ADL’s Holocaust education curriculum to her students.

Additionally, UC Irvine School of Law dean Erwin Chemerinsky attended, presenting the Jurisprudence Award to Kieffer, a partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips and member of the Board of Regents of the University of California. Meanwhile, the Leanses received the Humanitarian Award, in recognition of their philanthropic efforts.

“It is incumbent on all of us to help when we can,” said Thomas Leanse, senior executive vice president, chief legal officer and secretary of the Macerich Co., a real-estate company based in Santa Monica. Barbara Leanse is staff director of Cedars-Sinai’s volunteer services.

Other attendees included ADL National Director Abraham Foxman. The event was emceed by actor Mark Feuerstein and included musical entertainment from the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles.

The Shalom Institute’s 2013 gala, which took place on Dec. 5, honored Camp JCA Shalom alumni Jennifer Rheuban, Barri Worth Girvan and Jacob Knobel. More than 300 people turned out for the event, which was held at the Peterson Automotive Museum, in the Miracle Mile.

Camp JCA Shalom, a sleep-away camp in Malibu, is Shalom Institute’s “biggest and most known program,” according to shalominstitute.com.

The event shed light on the honorees’ various accomplishments. Rheuban, an institute board member, created Adult Color Wars, which raises money for camp scholarships; Worth Girvan is the director of government affairs and community engagement programs for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and is a former staff member in the L.A. mayor’s office; and Knobel, a software engineer and entrepreneur, has supported Shalom Institute’s technological infrastructure. 

Rheuban received the Trailblazers Award. Worth Girvan and Knobel both received the Emerging Young Leaders Award.

Camp Ramah in California celebrated board member Bruce Whizin on Nov. 17 at Sinai Temple.

“Everybody in this room deserves to be up here,” said Whizin, a philanthropist in the Jewish community who has supported Camp Ramah for many years.

The Westwood fundraiser for the Conservative movement’s summer camp in Ojai drew more than 360 attendees, including clergy who once worked or camped there. Among them were Rabbis Ed Feinstein (Valley Beth Shalom), Sharon Brous (IKAR) and David Wolpe (Sinai Temple). The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles president Jay Sanderson also attended the event.

Ramah-California Executive Director Rabbi Joe Menashe called the event a “multigenerational celebration of Camp Ramah.”

Moving and Shaking acknowledges accomplishments by members of the local Jewish community, including people who start new jobs, leave jobs, win awards and more, as well as local events that featured leaders from the Jewish and Israeli communities. Got a tip? E-mail it to ryant@jewishjournal.com.

The value of summer camp

In 2007, my three daughters asked me if they could go to summer camp along with their school  friends. For the previous several years, I had always said no. It was far, it was costly. And summer was the only time I had vacation from work, and I wanted to spend that time with my children. I said I would think about it.  

That day at work I stopped in to see one of my colleagues and told her of my dilemma. She asked me if I had ever attended a Jewish summer camp as a child. I told her I had never been to a camp of any kind. She went on to explain what camp had meant to her growing up, and following her bat mitzvah, she said, it was the only thing that kept her involved in her religion, temple and Jewish community. I decided that there would be no harm in sending my kids for one summer, and we would get back to our normal summer plans the following year.  

What I did not realize then was that camp would indeed change their lives, and our days of long family summer vacations were over. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make once I realized the impact camp would have on their confidence and development over the next five years.  

My girls have all graduated from Camp Ramah, the eldest having just finished her second summer as a camp counselor, my two younger girls pining for their turns to become counselors as well. They have taken away from camp several important life lessons from their camp experience. The first is the importance of committing themselves to service within our Jewish community, in spite of living and going to school in a secular environment. My girls have participated in the Friendship Circle, working with Jewish children with special needs. They have been teaching assistants in our Talmud Torah Program, as well as active members of United Synagogue Youth. Most of their volunteer activities are within our Jewish community, and I believe this stems from the concept of tikkun olam, healing the world, which was emphasized and modeled so strongly at summer camp. My girls always told me that a big part of camp was learning the importance of the passing down of tradition, and providing others with the experiences they were privileged to have themselves.  

My girls learned that all Jewish kids do not come from middle-class, two-parent families. At camp they became friends with kids from varying backgrounds who had family problems including divorce, illness, financial stressors and mental-health issues. They met kids being raised by grandparents and kids who had been in foster care. They roomed with kids who were very wealthy and others who were financially challenged.  Everyone was treated equally, and most shared openly. When we had our own family stressors, camp became a safe haven for my girls and a place they could talk to friends and counselors, and receive unconditional love, support, understanding and plenty of healthy advice. In the last year my girls were at camp, our financial situation had drastically changed and we were unable to afford the expense. I explained our financial situation when I applied for financial aid. I was asked what I needed for them to attend and was granted that amount. I will always be grateful for the generosity shown to me and our family during our own time of need.

Each summer when I picked my kids up from camp I observed a maturity that had developed over the course of the month. When they came home to their own neighborhood and school, they were able to make good decisions for themselves in terms of who they chose as their friends and what they chose as their entertainment. I have never had to worry about what my girls were doing on a Friday or Saturday night when they were out with their friends. The foundation they received from home was the same as they received at camp. Camp prepared them for the many temptations faced by our teens. Their sense of right and wrong, moral and not, can be credited as much to camp as what we have tried to instill as parents.  

Jewish summer camp has made my children better people. There are only so many life lessons that a parent can impart. To experience goodness, kindness, learning and a commitment to Judaism, all on a grassy knoll and under tall pine trees, is more than I could have ever wished.  

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is holding its first Tour de Summer Camps on Oct. 27. This community-wide cycling event is raising funds for Jewish summer camp scholarships, in support of Federation’s ongoing work ensuring our Jewish future. Riders can choose from one of three scenic routes of 36, 62 or 100 miles. To sign up, make a donation, become a sponsor or volunteer, visit TourdeSummerCamps.org.

Outstanding Graduate: Rose Bern — A passionate voice

Rose Bern isn’t afraid to fight for her values.

The 17-year-old, who recently graduated from Shalhevet High School and lives in Westwood, has strong convictions when it comes to feminism, justice and fairness. 

In the ninth grade, she gave a passionate speech at her school about women serving as rabbis. She sits on the Fairness Committee, where she and her peers hear cases between two students or a teacher and a student and decide upon a verdict. One day, she might even decide to be a prosecuting attorney and “serve justice to people who deserve it,” she said. “There are certain issues that really get me pumped up.”

Her former music appreciation teacher and journalism advisor Joelle Keene has noticed Bern’s enthusiasm about different causes.

“She's a firecracker,” she said. “She has a tremendous amount of passion, personality, drive and a sense of outrage too.”

Keene said that at Shalhevet, Bern’s candid nature made her stand out amongst the other students.

“She gets fired up about the way things ought to be,” she said. “At the town hall meetings at school, where they present a moral dilemma about school policy, news or the dress code, she'll feel more strongly about it than most of the kids.”

No doubt this tremendous energy has served Bern well in other areas of her life as well, whether through the award-winning writing she did for Shalhevet’s newspaper, The Boiling Point; her acting in numerous drama productions; or her passionate work on the debate team. She even wrote three one-act plays that were produced.

Somehow, she still finds time to be a babysitter every other Shabbat at her shul, the Westwood Village Synagogue, and work as a counselor at Camp Ramah in California.

In 2014, she’ll attend New York University (NYU). But before she goes to the East Coast, she’s taking a yearlong trip to Israel, where she plans to live on multiple kibbutzim and travel the country.

“I really wanted a year to decompress, and I think this is the prime opportunity to do this,” she said. “Once you go to college you don't have much time to explore the world.”

Though Bern said she doesn’t know what she’ll major in at NYU or what kind of career she will end up choosing, she’s interested in the fields of law and psychology.

“I took Advanced Placement psychology this year, and it was the most fascinating thing in the world,” she said. “[Learning about] the way people behave and why they behave that way, [as well as about] their inner consciousness really struck me.”

What’s most important to Bern is making sure that she is content with whatever she chooses to do. 

“I want to make sure that at the end of my life, I did everything I could,” she said. “I want to be able to look back and say I did it all because I wanted to, and I didn’t let outside circumstances, like money, [dictate my life]. I just want to be happy.”

Outstanding Graduate: Michael Sacks — Leading the way

As a key leader in a number of organizations at Sierra Canyon School in Chatsworth, it’s hard to imagine that Michael Sacks ever felt left out. After all, the 18-year-old senior is student body president, chapter co-founder and co-president of Future Business Leaders of America, team captain of the speech and debate and mock trial clubs, and business director and opinion editor of the school paper, The Trailblazer. 

And yet …

“As an observant Jewish student at a secular school, I often felt as if I was the ‘odd one out’ for keeping kosher, observing Shabbat or missing school on Jewish holidays,” he said. 

The answer for Sacks was United Synagogue Youth (USY), the Jewish youth group associated with the Conservative movement for which he now is international president.

“USY provided me with a community of empowerment, one that truly allowed me to become comfortable with my Judaism and with myself,” said Sacks, a former regional vice president and president and international board member.

As president, he travels to the East Coast a few times per year to help set up conferences and communicate with the organization’s leadership. Sacks also serves as representative of six states in the West, including Hawaii, making sure “all operations on a youth level are continuing on a day-to-day basis.”

His personal initiatives at the organization involve connecting USY alumni with present members. Sacks said he is creating an alumni college database of former USY members to help prospective college students navigate the application process. And for two years, he has worked on USY Speaks, which he said “reaches out to every single congregation that has a USY chapter in the country, urging the congregational leadership to afford a past or present USYer [a chance] to speak about his or her experience in USY.” 

[Next Grad: Sepora Makabeh]

Along with his work at USY, the Calabasas resident attended Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, a Jewish summer camp in New York, where he was a counselor-in-training for children with special needs. 

An accomplished student, Sacks will attend Harvard in the fall. When he’s older, Sacks wants to work for an institution like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. “I always thought those were cool,” he said.

In addition to his keen interest in government, Sacks is passionate about social issues. He is the chapter president of the Human Rights Watch Student Task Force at his school, where he sets up speeches, conducts informational sessions and leads social action campaigns. In 2011, he founded Bridging the Gap, a club that brings in speakers to talk about the Middle East conflict. 

Sacks said his ultimate goal in life involves making an impact on the world that extends far beyond the confines of Southern California. “I realize that I have been blessed with opportunity at every step of the way,” he said, “and I hope to make the best of those opportunities.”

Rabbi explores grief in new memoir, ‘Faith Unravels’

With “Faith Unravels: A Rabbi’s Struggle With Grief and God,” Rabbi Daniel Greyber, former executive director of Camp Ramah in California, has written a memoir that explores the unique grieving process of a clergyman.

“How can I provide consolation when I myself need comfort?” Greyber writes midway through the book, after the death of his best friend.

The friend is Joel Shickman, who served as Ramah’s rosh musika (head of music) during the summers of 2005 and 2006. Shickman died at the age of 37 as the result of a rare form of leukemia. At the time, he was still in rabbinical school. With his death, he left behind a wife and three children.

In the book, which was released in September, Greyber tells the story of how he and Shickman and their families became close; how Shickman unexpectedly became sick and then underwent treatment, seesawing between infections and recoveries; how Shickman lost to the cancer after an 11-month battle and how this affected Greyber.

Now serving as rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in Durham, N.C., Greyber will be back in Los Angeles to discuss his book on Jan. 27 at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills.

“Faith Unravels” also follows Greyber tending to another wound. As he writes in the opening chapter, titled “Jay,” it is a story of Greyber’s best friend from high school and college roommate, Jay Rosen, who died in 1996 — also of leukemia. At the time, Greyber was too young to process the loss. 

Shickman’s death roused the rabbi’s memories of Rosen.

“I was confronting questions about the death of a friend that had not been resolved from many years before,” Greyber told the Journal.

Throughout the book, Greyber’s memories of Shickman and Rosen interweave. On Nov. 17, 2007, the day Shickman dies, Greyber walks out of the hospital and remembers when Rosen, during their days at Northwestern University, turned to him and said, “The big bad wolf is back” — a reference to the leukemia he had fought since childhood.

Greyber hired Shickman in 2005, who moved from Dallas to Los Angeles to attend rabbinical school, for the position at Ramah. In the book’s third chapter, “Joel,” Greyber describes his first impression of Shickman.

“Joel wears a tie-dyed shirt and carries a guitar most places … he is a mensch, a kind and humble person.”

Shickman died on a Shabbat morning. Greyber said that the next day, during a sleepless night in a hotel, he began writing about how it felt to be with Shickman when he died, and that was the beginning of the book.  

 “I needed to tell my story. I needed to talk about my own experience, my own crisis of faith, and how it was that — how this impacted me,” Greyber said. “It was not easy.”

Greyber found that his faith, his usual source of comfort when things got complicated, did not offer answers in his grief. Jewish tradition, filled with guidance for mourning blood relatives — the Mourner’s Kaddish and the act of sitting shivah are reserved for the biological family — does instruct us on how to mourn a friend. Friends are prescribed to the role of comforters, there to support the deceased’s family.

“How do we acknowledge the loss that is experienced by friends of those who have passed away? … There’s virtually no literature about it, both in terms of Jewish mourning practices and most other faiths,” Greyber said.

Greyber said in writing “Faith Unravels,” he wanted to create something to fill the void.

Initially hesitant to presume to include tips for mourners, Greyber changed his mind when his friend, actress Mayim Bialik, read an early draft. Bialik wrote the book’s foreword, and she told Greyber she wanted his practical advice on the subject.

As a result, the book’s appendix became a “Reluctant Guide” for mourners.

Greyber is 41, a husband and the father of three children, and he spends an early section in the book sharing how he became a rabbi, inspired first by being part of the 1993 United States World Maccabiah team, at 21, being surrounded by thousands of young Jewish athletes. At 26, he enrolled at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University).

He graduated in 2002, and spent the next eight years leading Camp Ramah, which mixes recreational activities with Jewish learning.

After Ramah, Greyber spent a year in Israel as a fellow at the Mandel Leadership Institute, which provides support and tools for mid-career professionals in Jewish education and communal leadership. And when he returned to the States, in 2011, he moved to North Carolina to serve full time as the leader of a Conservative congregation of 330 families at Beth El.

This summer, Greyber will return to the U.S. Maccabiah team, as its official rabbi. In that role he will lead commemorative services at Yad Vashem and the Western Wall as well as preside over an adult bar and bat mitzvah ceremony for athletes who have never had that rite of passage.

His goal, Greyber said, is to “help people figure out what their story is.”

Moshava returns to Los Angeles

It really bothered Jonathan Gerber, a 30-year-old financial adviser and resident of Pico-Robertson, that there was no Modern Orthodox sleep-away camp in Los Angeles. Ever since the Zionist youth group Bnei Akiva discontinued its Moshava Los Angeles camp in the mid-1990s, local kids had been forced to head East for a similar summer overnight experience.   

“Each summer, there’s a planeload of 48 students going to the East Coast,” Gerber said. 

And that’s not all. Hundreds of Orthodox kids are thought to leave Southern California for sleep-away camp every summer. Many Orthodox kids also attend the Conservative Camp Ramah in Ojai.

Gerber believed that a local option that matched the Modern Orthodox observance families practiced at home would give more kids a chance to have a summer experience that studies have shown can strongly impact Jewish identity.

So during a conversation in May with Ari Moss, his friend and then-president of the Shalom Institute in Malibu, Gerber floated the idea of borrowing the institute’s 220-acre campground and retreat facility for a two-week Modern Orthodox camp.   

His dream finally will take shape this summer in the form of Moshava Malibu (moshavamalibu.org), where officials hope to attract 150 boys and girls Aug. 11-25. Tuition is $2,000, with a special early-bird rate of $1,800 available until Jan. 1. Applicants must currently be in grades 3-9.

It helped that the nondenominational Shalom Institute, which hosts the Big Jewish Tent events as well as its own camp and retreats, was interested in engaging the Modern Orthodox community. 

Gerber next reached out to Bnei Akiva — which runs camps and programs throughout North America and Israel and has a strong presence in Los Angeles — and offered it the opportunity to bring a Moshava camp back to Los Angeles. 

Moshava — a moshav is a cooperative agricultural settlement in the State of Israel — has become synonymous in the Modern Orthodox community with popular sleep-away camps that promote religious Zionism, aliyah (immigration to Israel) and outdoor experiences. 

Another draw of Moshava is the emphasis on youth leadership, according to Shimi Baras, shaliach (emissary) for Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles. 

“This is the only place where programs are run by high school kids. There’s no professional staff,” he said. “There’s a lot of independence … high-schoolers are the counselors; a lot of them later get management and leadership positions and say they learned the leadership in Bnei Akiva.”

Until now, other Moshava camps, such as Wild Rose in Wisconsin or Camp Stone in Pennsylvania, have benefited from the leadership provided by Los Angeles youths. 

Rabbi Kenny Pollack, an L.A. native and Moshava veteran who was hired to be the director of Moshava Malibu, said the approach to camping is experiential.

“In terms of a sleep-away camp, it’s very unique in that you’re running a tochnit — a program — that’s Zionistic and experiential in education. We’re not going to offer Torah out of a book. … Instead of learning about olive oil and grape juice, we’ll be making it.” 

The camp also will feature traditional summer activities — swimming, archery, hiking, organic farming, a ropes course and other outdoor fun. 

While this first session will run for two weeks, the camp hopes to expand eventually. 

“Ultimately, within the next five years, the goal would be to have a full summer program — two four-week sessions — and a week-long winter camp,” Gerber said.

And while a full summer session might require Moshava Malibu to get its own space, Gerber hopes to continue the model of leveraging the current infrastructure.  

“This is a great model of combining three teams: the Shalom Institute, which has the actual facility; Bnei Akiva of North America, which is providing registration services and programming and hiring of staff; and then Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles,” which is doing recruitment and helping in other ways.

Baras also hopes that the camp will help position Los Angeles as a West Coast Bnei Akiva center. In the last year or two, he has reached out to Jewish communities in the West like San Francisco, Denver and even Mexico for Shabbatons and retreats, and he is stepping up his outreach in advance of Moshava Malibu registration. 

The stakes are high for Gerber, who sees camping as an effective, low-cost tool to keep young Jews impassioned and connected. 

“Take a look at the Ramah community, which is keeping Conservative youth so impassioned,” he said.

Besides providing an enriching camp experience, the directors hope to transform the L.A. landscape with committed, leadership-oriented young Jews. Pollack predicted that down the road, having a Moshava camp here could increase the number of homegrown Jewish educators at local day schools.

The L.A. camp director, who lives and works as a teacher in Cleveland during the school year, called Moshava, “a camp incubator of educators.” He said that many of his fellow teachers in Cleveland went through the Moshava camps and were trained early to become leaders and educators.  

“We are all products, and that model is where L.A. could be,” he said.

Finding their place [VIDEO]

Lauren Levine is settling in with a group of friends apartment to watch “American Idol,” when a look of panic comes over her face. She rummages around, finds her keys and darts out.

“I left the hair thing on,” she says when she returns, breathless, from her own apartment downstairs. “I was straightening Jasmine’s hair before we came up here, and I forgot to turn it off. Wow. That was close.”

Levine has wide blue eyes accentuated with sparkly eye shadow, and her voice is spiced with a sense of interested wonder. She wants to be a cosmetologist — she’s taken some classes — but for now she is just happy to be living on her own, and working the front desk at a gym in Century City.

Levine’s developmental delays are less obvious than those of her roommate, Jasmine Banayan, who has Down syndrome. Banayan is gregarious and warm and asserts herself as something of a leader among the dozen or so friends who live in a cluster of apartments in Westwood.

The group gets together every night to hang out at one or another of their homes, or to go out to dinner, and, on Friday nights, the five Jewish members of the group are regulars at Shabbat dinner and services at nearby UCLA Hillel.

All are participants in a parent-led experiment in independent living for adults with developmental or cognitive disabilities.

Today’s 20-somethings with disabilities have grown up at the vanguard of a successful mainstreaming model, and they and their parents now are determined to continue to break the mold, to live adult lives with high expectations, in keeping with the ideal that not only is there a place for them within mainstream society, but that they can contribute in meaningful and enriching ways.

While the impetus for change exists, needed funds won’t necessarily follow. Government budget cuts are endangering existing programs, and start-up costs for new programs can be prohibitive.

Story continues after the video.