January 19, 2019

Let’s Welcome the Stranger and Have Children – A Poem for Parsha Vayeira (Aliyah 1)

Please let a little water be taken, and bathe your feet,
and recline under the tree.

This is how everyone should greet the stranger –
With offers of water and comfort.

With fingers pointing to a place to rest.
Not with suspicion or deceit.

Not with a fear of the other.
Take my hand, whoever you are.

What can I fill you up with?
My pillows are your pillows.

This tent yours to come and go
as you please.

And Abraham said [to Sarah] “Hasten three seah of meal
[and] fine flour; knead and make cakes.”

In these days where the idea of patriarchy
stings like an ancient wasp

I can’t imagine telling my wife to
get to the baking after strangers

showed up at the door. Strangers
who I begged to come in

Strangers who I knew needed
fresh cake.

I like the old ways, the weight of tradition
is like a magnet to the past.

But I’ll make my own cake…as soon as I
figure out what a seah is.

And to the cattle did Abraham run, and he took a calf,
tender and good, and he gave it to the youth,

Finally! The youth are getting
the cattle they deserve!

And it happened so quick, I mean
Abraham ran to the cattle
like it was Pamplona and he

wanted to get them going.
Cows…running to the youth

hoping to get milked, hoping
they can stop all this running.

I will surely return to you at this time next year, and behold,
your wife Sarah will have a son…And Sarah laughed

That wasn’t the reaction I had when
Addie told me she was pregnant.

(That’s not an announcement,
I’m referring to ten years ago.)

I stared at the note. The only
thing that was in the empty box –

I had taken off the bow.
I’d removed the tissue paper.

It was confusingly not gift season.
You’ll get your present in nine months

it said. I didn’t laugh. I was speechless
for nine months. Eventually,

I built a crib, I sold off the futon,
I cancelled the trip to Japan.

I didn’t laugh or say anything.
No reaction, or any of my

famous words, could have changed
this eventuality.

God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Widows, Orphans, and Strangers at the Border

“You will not undermine the justice due to a stranger or an orphan and you will not seize the widow’s garment as collateral.” Deuteronomy, 24:17

“Fathers and mothers have been humiliated among you, strangers have been cheated in your midst, orphans and widows have been wronged among you.” Ezekiel 22:7

“There is no greater or more glorious joy than bringing joy to the heart of the poor, the orphans, the widows and the strangers.” Maimonides, Hilchot Magila v’Hanukah, 2:17

On June 11, U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions ordered immigration judges to cease granting asylum in the United States to fugitives from domestic abuse and gang violence. This act should shock the conscience of every American, but for Jews it is a particular outrage.

Why does our Torah, echoed by our prophets and sages, exhort us repeatedly to care for the orphan, widow, and stranger and warn of catastrophes for those who ignore the call? In the patriarchal society of the ancient Hebrews, widows, orphans, and strangers were people without protection. They were socially naked, vulnerable, and, according to Jewish values, owed the community’s help.

Vulnerability is no shame in Judaism. We are all “the weak.” We are temporary, puncturable, fleshy creatures, puny even by mammalian standards. We are not made, as tigers are, to hunt alone. We are made to form communities, to speak, and to care. Our founding story of slavery and redemption reminds us of that mutual dependence and obligation which offers whatever glory humans can attain.

Women and children who live in countries where domestic abuse and violence are not taken seriously by authorities and where everyone but the most privileged is subject to impressment by brutal gangs are “members of a particular social group” with a “well-founded fear of persecution.” The Geneva Convention of 1951 and U.S. law allow such people to find asylum here.

Yet, when such families present themselves at the border of our country, they have been pulled apart. Children are yanked out of their parents’ arms and forced into detention without explanation, often by people who cannot communicate in the child’s language. They are kept away from parents for months at a time, inflicting trauma that will reshape their brains and wound their hearts for a lifetime. This has been happened to all border-crossers and asylum-seekers since May when Attorney General Sessions declared a “zero tolerance” policy for every person who is caught or who presents themselves without documents at our borders. Previously, such families could remain together until the parents could make their case in court. This brutality does not reflect ‘how things have always been,’ it is a terrible new policy of the current administration.

Now Attorney General Sessions has said that women who have been beaten, raped, mutilated, or threatened with death by domestic partners and been routinely ignored by authorities in their birth countries don’t count as persecuted people who need our help. He has said that teens who have been threatened with torture, including sexual violence, if they themselves do not aid the perpetrators of such violence cannot count on us either.

We American Jews cannot allow this to stand. The fugitives from patriarchal violence who arrive at our borders are the widows, orphans, and strangers of our day. They are precisely the people we are commanded to help—those who, because of their position in society, are denied the political means to defend themselves where they are. We whose ancestors found sanctuary here are obliged to be the welcoming neighbors for whom those ancestors prayed.

There is much we can do. We can support a bill introduced by our state’s Senator Diane Feinstein, the Keep Families Together Bill along with the Help Separated Children Act (S2937) and S2468, which provides free counsel for children in immigration court. We can call and write the office of the U.S. Attorney General. Every day. We can march today with Families Belong Together.

We learn in Gittin 61a that, “The Rabbis taught, we support the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, and visit the non-Jewish sick with Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, because of the ways of peace.” We also act on behalf of the widow, orphan, and stranger, no matter where they are from.


Gal Gadot on being a Mom

Gal Gadot cuddles with her daughter Alma, now 6, in an Instagram photo. Said Gadot: “How to be a mom in 2017: Make sure your children’s academic, emotional, psychological, mental, spiritual, physical, nutritional and social needs are met while being careful not to overstimulate, understimulate, improperly medicate, helicopter or neglect them. … How to be a mom in literally every generation before ours: Feed them sometimes.”

Your child’s Jewish identity can flourish in Los Angeles

Photo courtesy of PJ Library

Last month, my wife and I were blessed with our third child. When we welcomed our first child home from Cedars-Sinai four years ago, my wife and I looked at each other and asked, “Now what?”

I remember that apprehensive moment distinctly. We spoke about our hope of raising kind, well-adjusted children who felt the same connection to Judaism and the Jewish people that we did. But, there is no training manual for parenting in general, let alone for how to raise a Jewish child in ritzy, 21st century Los Angeles.

Fortunately, like many new parents, we received a great deal of solicited and unsolicited advice. The best advice introduced us to the numerous opportunities for young parents in Los Angeles to weave our new child (and ourselves) into the fabric of our Jewish community.

PJ Library

This is a no-brainer and should be on every new parent’s to-do list. Each month, PJ Library sends free Jewish books to more than 500,000 families with children ages 6 months through 8 years old. There is no catch. The books celebrate Jewish values, culture and tradition. My daughters have adored each book, especially the ones about Jewish holidays. “Good Night Israel,” a variation on the classic “Goodnight Moon,” is my personal favorite. It is refreshing to see children eagerly greet the mail carrier in hopes of receiving a new book from PJ Library. Watching children choose a physical book over screen time is a modern miracle of Maccabean proportion. Nes gadol, indeed. pjlibrary.org

Zimmer Children’s Museum

Photo courtesy of Zimmer Children’s Museum

Fortunately for us, the best children’s museum in Los Angeles happens to be a Jewish museum, located in the same building as the offices of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The Zimmer not only provides a beautiful interactive space for quality learning and play, it does so through Jewish themes. An annual membership, starting at $109, includes free admission for two adults and all of their children and grandchildren, plus discounts for the Zimmer’s terrific camps and classes. The museum is also a popular place to host a birthday party for your child. zimmermuseum.org

Jewish education

These days, it seems, parents start thinking about their children’s schools — how to get accepted and how to pay for them — even before conception. In Los Angeles, only one-third of the estimated 60,000 school-age Jewish children attend Jewish day schools or religious schools. Yet, countless formal and informal Jewish educational opportunities and resources exist here. A decade ago, Builders of Jewish Education launched jKidLA, a website and concierge service that provides information and helps assess Jewish educational options based on a family’s specific needs and preferences — from Parent and Me classes to preschool and early education. After my wife and I made the commitment to send our kids to Jewish day school, jKidLA helped us navigate the multitude of options. jkidla.com

Finding a Jewish community

Becoming a parent for the first time is a major inflection point in one’s life. It often enhances the desire to be part of a larger community, especially one with other first-time parents and children. This transitional period is an ideal time to “shul shop” for the right congregation or synagogue where you can put down roots, and to explore a local Jewish Community Center, if you are lucky enough to live near one.

Membership rates are more forgiving at this stage in our lives, too. A synagogue, congregation or JCC will invariably offer Tot Shabbats for young children and special gatherings for young families. In addition, studies show that Jewish summer and family camps have a high impact on fostering a child’s Jewish identity. To that end, the Jewish Community Foundation recently awarded a significant Cutting Edge Grant to the Federation’s Family Camp Pilot to create more meaningful camping experiences for families with small children. My wife and I have also benefited from Jewish parenting classes, including a fun, informative series offered by GoSephardic, geared toward new parents. Finally, hands-down, the best resource to learn about Jewish life in Los Angeles is the Jewish Journal. The invaluable print and online publication contains everything Jewish that’s fit to print each week. jewishjournal.com

Shabbat as a ‘palace in time’

It is often said that “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” This was true for my family and for most Persian-Jewish families. Growing up, I always found Shabbat dinner special. Regardless of observance level and whatever else was going on in our lives, our extended family knew that a lively evening with three or four generations and great food awaited us every Friday night. Ask any Persian Jew and he or she will extol the virtues of a family Shabbat dinner. Spending Shabbats and Jewish holidays with family are memories that will endure for a lifetime and instill in your child a passion to continue the tradition. In these uber-wired, underconnected times, the Friday night dinner tradition is being adopted far and wide across cultures as a way to bring families closer. If not already a part of your practice, consider treating Friday night Shabbat dinner, in the words of the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, like a “palace in time.”

Lead by example

Finally, channeling Mark Twain, the reports of the communal demise of millennials and GenXers has been greatly exaggerated. Americans in their 20s, 30s and 40s — and certainly such Jews in Los Angeles — care about issues greater than themselves and are increasingly willing to put their time and money where their mouth is.

I find my own community work not only personally rewarding but a valuable opportunity to involve my children and weave the value of tikkun olam into their lives. I take my children to as many events and service opportunities as possible, such as packaging meals for needy Jews with Tomchei Shabbos, and hosting as many meetings and events at our home as feasible.

We cannot take for granted that our children will care about the Jewish community simply because we do. The next generation’s connection to Israel is no exception.

Studies show that children learn far more by watching what we do than by listening to what we say, especially when we try to teach empathy and gratitude. When it is not possible to include them, I explain to my toddlers: “Daddy won’t be home tonight to put you to bed because he is working on a mitzvah or tzedakah project.”

We cannot take for granted that our children will care about the Jewish community simply because we do. The next generation’s connection to Israel is no exception. I take my children to the annual Celebrate Israel Festival, join them at their school’s annual Independence Day activities, and read them books and share stories about the Jewish homeland.

If the issues you care most about extend beyond the Jewish community, consider engaging in that philanthropy or activism from a Jewish perspective. Whether you care passionately about criminal justice reform or climate change, cancer research or children with special needs, there is a Jewish organization in Los Angeles working effectively on it.

Sam Yebri is a board member of the Jewish Community Foundation, Builders of Jewish Education and 30 Years After.

More Children Need Homework Help Than Ever Before

There are so many reasons why children may need homework help. Sometimes a child simply does not understand the assignment or the lessons. In other cases, the kid simply misses work because of not setting aside enough time for the homework. There are also personal problems that can appear, like a divorce that heavily weighs on the child. Although a student never had homework problems in the past, he/she may encounter this at a later point in time.

Who Will Help?

Unfortunately, homework help is a necessity for a growing number of students. Finding that help is not as easy as it may seem at first glance, mainly because children do not really want to ask for help. It is sometimes the fault of the parent that does not acknowledge the child when he/she asks for help but in many cases, it is a matter of pride.

In many cases, it is the responsibility of the teacher to realize when children have problems with homework. This is when it is assessed whether or not less work is needed or when it is important to offer extra teaching to help deal with the problems. Homework is sometimes difficult for a child and really easy for others. This is when teachers should adjust their homework assignments.

Obviously, parents do want to help children with homework. Unfortunately, in many situations this would only lead to extra problems as too much help is given or the child simply does not get to learn how to do the homework properly. That is not a good idea since children need to learn how to do the homework alone.

The last option that should be presented is that in which homework help is offered through an online service. Such a service is normally staffed with older students, teachers or different other school subject experts. This opportunity is going to be great from time to time but should not be overused as students would not be able to do the work on a consistent basis.

Helping Each Other To Do School Work

Most children are not going to need homework help and many will help those that do. When you do school work together with others it will be easier to understand everything and bonding are also going to happen. Going over lessons, studying and doing homework can be done by more students at the same time in a group. This is definitely something that should be considered.

One thing that can be mentioned is that it is so much easier to remember information when you are teaching it. That is why even fifth graders can learn better and faster as they do homework together with other children. Regular study groups are normally recommended. Goals can be set together and work completion can lead to rewards.


It is a shame to see that more homework help is needed by students from all around the world but this does not mean that aid is not available. The options presented above are definitely beneficial but teachers need to look into this problem since it should not be like this.





Improving your kids’ health can be simple. Here’s how.

One mistake families make is skipping breakfast.

One in 5 school-age children in the United States is obese, and many others are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And even children at what is considered a healthy weight aren’t necessarily healthy.

“There is no magic diet, no one diet that is good for everyone,” said Dr. Bahareh Michelle Schweiger, a pediatric endocrinologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Schweiger and Dr. Richard Brucker oversee the Step-Up Kids Weight Management Program at Cedars-Sinai. They and their colleagues, including certified diabetes educators (pre-diabetes and diabetes diagnoses in children are on the rise) work with children and their families to develop customized weight-loss and healthy-eating plans.

The Journal spoke with Schweiger — a Sherman Oaks resident, Valley Beth Shalom congregant and mother of three children — about changes families can make in their diets to improve their health. She offered the following suggestions:

Don’t Play Food Police

Going through the pantry when the kids are at school and tossing out every package of Oreo cookies and Cheez-It crackers may sound like a surefire strategy to prevent your kids from eating junk. But Schweiger advises against it. “Forbidding certain foods and trying to play police can actually be more of a draw for the kid to overeat those foods whenever they get a chance,” she said. Not to mention that it could set up an unhealthy relationship between you and your child. Instead, start with smaller, more manageable steps. And be a good role model.

Make It a Family Affair

Schweiger said she knows families are busier than ever, which often leads to eating on the fly and grabbing whatever is quick and easy. However, when families sit down to eat together, they tend to eat less-processed foods and share food that is higher in fiber. Your family can’t do weekday dinners? Try Saturday breakfast or lunch.

Involve your children, too. Let them choose their favorite fruits and vegetables at the market, or something they are open to trying, and enlist them to help prepare the meal. “They need to be part of the process,” Schweiger said. “Otherwise, there is going to be unwillingness to make any change.”

If your family likes to go out for the occasional treat, don’t go overboard. Everyone in the family can order a kiddie portion of ice cream.

Pay Attention to Portion Size

Portion sizes at some restaurants are four times bigger than what is healthy. So even if you eat only half of a serving, you could be consuming twice the portion size you really need, Schweiger said. So how do you figure out the proper serving of chicken or pasta or broccoli? Use your palm as an approximate measure, she said. And remember, since your child’s palm is likely smaller than yours, their portion size should be smaller, too.

Banish the Clean Plate Rule

Don’t expect children to eat everything on their plates. Conversely, parents should not be short-order cooks. If your child does not like what you make for dinner one night of the week, don’t whip up a special dinner just for them. If children are eating a variety of foods, they will manage. They can grab a piece of fresh fruit if they are famished.

Eat More Fruits and Vegetables

Half of your diet and your kids’ diets should be made up of fruits and vegetables. Research has found the fiber in fruits and vegetables helps to prevent certain cancers. And fruit juice isn’t a replacement. “Often, our brain doesn’t process those calories as food,” which can lead to weight issues, Schweiger said.

It can take 15, 20, even 30 introductions of a food for a child to learn to like it. A strategy to make fruits and vegetables more enticing is to serve them alongside something you know your child likes.

Eat a Healthy Breakfast

If there is one meal where many families go wrong, it is breakfast — or skipping it, Schweiger said. “You’ve already been fasting all night,” she said. “[Breakfast is] an important time to get some good nutrition in, especially before sending your kid to school. Get their metabolism up and going.” There’s research, too, that shows those who skip breakfast have an increased risk of obesity and pre-diabetes.

So what does a healthy breakfast look like? Schweiger suggests a piece of wheat toast with cream cheese, oatmeal, yogurt, or a hard-boiled egg, along with something else. Even some packaged breakfast bars are OK, she said. And cereal merits its own portion-size reminder, since many kids (and grown-ups) are in the habit of filling their bowls nearly to the brim, which could be two or three times the recommended portion, Schweiger said.

Snack Smartly

A quick snack can be healthy. Schweiger suggests a cheese stick or a portion of nuts, yogurt or hummus. Try putting out a plate of fresh fruit or veggies when you know your kids are going to be hungry — like when they get home from school. “They are more likely to grab it, as opposed to going to the cupboard and opening up a processed snack,” Schweiger said. If you are going to provide crackers or something similar, measure out a portion size and put it in a baggie. Eating directly out of a box is an invitation to overeat.

Also, make sure an after-school snack doesn’t turn into a full meal. It’s nice to be hungry come dinnertime.

Ditch the Electronics

Electronics and mealtime are not an ideal pairing. If your child has a smartphone, make sure it’s not part of the dinner party. That goes for Mom and Dad, too. If you are texting or watching YouTube videos at mealtime, you are not paying attention to the food you are eating and “You end up eating a lot more food,” Schweiger said.

Special Considerations for Jewish Kids

Protein should be a part of most meals. “It can help make you feel full longer and keep your blood sugar more stabilized,” Schweiger said. But some Jewish schools don’t allow students to bring meat in their lunches. If a child also has a nut allergy, it could make it difficult to get enough protein during the day. Schweiger recommends hummus and avocado as good sources of protein.

Get Moving

In keeping with the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Schweiger said children should get 60 minutes of moderate physical activity a day. The exercise doesn’t need to be done at one time. It can include, for example, walking to school, playing at recess, or participating in a dance class.

Of course, many kids don’t walk to school, and some may spend their recess on their smartphone. If your child loves electronics, Schweiger recommends they do 15 minutes of “Just Dance,” a popular game available for various platforms, or even 20 jumping jacks here and there. She also is a fan of many exercise videos geared for children. One of her favorite series is “Instant Recess,” available on YouTube.

Be Patient

It is important to be patient when looking for weight-loss results.

“This isn’t a quick fix,” Schweiger said. “There are always ways to be healthier and eat healthier.” 

Children’s books offer new ways to enjoy the holiday

New Passover books for children include a variety of themes that previously have not been explored. There’s a picture book about a Jewish Argentine gaucho, a visit to Moses in a 3-D time machine, and an examination of what it would be like to hold a seder when a grandparent is ill.

Consider these as Passover gifts for some of the youngest participants at your seder this year:

“The Passover Cowboy” by Barbara Diamond Goldin. Illustrated by Gina Capaldi. Apples & Honey Press, 2017.

This Passover-themed story takes place in the early years of the 20th century in Argentina, where (we learn from the author’s note) 25,000 Russian Jews settled with the help of German-Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch. Young Jacob is learning how to ride horses like his new friend Benito, and even though Jacob has been in the country for less than a year, he is doing his best to become a typical Argentine gaucho. His mother even offers him a special Passover gift of bombachas — loose, wide pants for riding horses. When Benito arrives as a guest at the family’s seder, he brings Jacob another coveted gift — a lasso to signify that Jacob has been accepted in his new country. The watercolor illustrations are heavily researched and depict the period and the holiday celebration beautifully. 

“Passover Scavenger Hunt” by Shanna Silva. Illustrated by Miki Sakamoto. Kar-Ben Publishing, 2017.

book-passover-scav-huntGreat Uncle Harry is terrible at hiding the afikomen. All the kids anticipate his usual hiding places, and so the search isn’t very fun. But young Rachel hatches a clever plan and offers him the option to let her hide the matzo this year. She then creates a family scavenger hunt containing a variety of rhyming clues. With each solved riddle, the other children get a part of a puzzle that, when pieced together, contains the biggest clue about where the afikomen is hidden. Information regarding the symbols on the seder plate is included within the clues, and even Uncle Harry is in on the merriment by the end. A fun game that could become a future family tradition.

“How It’s Made: Matzah” by Allison Ofanansky. Photographs by Eliyahu Alpern. Apples & Honey, 2017.

book-matzahLast year, we learned from this same author-photographer team how a Torah is made. Now, kids get to meet the people who make matzo (heralded as “the ultimate fast food”), either by hand or by machine, but always within 18 minutes. One of the matzah-makers states, “Making matzah teaches us to work together. It is not possible to make matzah alone.” These books are special because of their innovative graphic design, various Passover do-it-yourself projects and depictions of diversity throughout more than 100 engaging photos. Plus, there is a recipe for homemade matzo and, of course, a recommendation to “Watch the clock!”

“The Family (and Frog!) Haggadah” by Rabbi Ron Isaacs and Karen Rostoker-Gruber. Illustrations by Jackie Urbanovic. Behrman House, 2017.

book-frog-haggadahIf your haggadah is too dull for the kids at your seder table, consider this charming new offering that features the talkative Frog commenting on the traditional text. Large, engaging photos — often paired with interesting family discussion-starters — ensure that this year will be more fun for everyone. Frog is depicted as hopping from page to page as he spreads his froggie puns and wisecracks. Examples include finding a “piece of toadst” while searching for chametz, and penciling in (with green crayon, of course) a suggestion to include a “Frog’s cup” along with Elijah’s. But the strengths of this family-friendly haggadah are in the flow of its storytelling, its compelling content and design, and the inclusion of Hebrew transliterations. The content is mostly English, but main passages such as blessings, the Four Questions, the Ten Plagues and parts of songs are included in Hebrew.

“Meeting Moses” by Robert Chasin. Illustrated by Matt Roussel. Meeting Bible Heroes Publishing, 2017.

book-meeting-mosesThe Exodus story meets H.G. Wells in this tale of Max and his professor dad, who has invented a time-traveling machine. The standout 3-D illustrations will highly engage children. They remind the reader of a mix of Claymation and a video game, and seem to be partially painted and partially computer-generated. The story follows Max, who has inadvertently taken the time machine to ancient Egypt. By the Nile River, he meets young Moses and young Ramses with Pharaoh’s daughter and is taken to meet Pharaoh. Max is imprisoned, but then freed by Moses. The two travel through time together to Mount Sinai so Max can show Moses what his future will be. Exciting illustrations depict the burning bush, how the stone tablets could have been written, the golden calf, and Moses breaking the tablets. Max eventually gets back home to the present day by tricking Pharaoh and using the convenient “rewind” button to delete the experience from the memories of those he left behind. (It should be noted that the author used the term “Old Testament” to refer to the Hebrew Bible.) The book is available inexpensively in e-book format from the author’s website as well as in a hardcover version.

“A Different Kind of Passover” by Linda Leopold-Strauss. Illustrated by Jeremy Tugeau. Kar-Ben Publishing, 2017.

book-different-passA young girl practices the Four Questions in Hebrew and travels, as usual, to her grandparents’ house for the seder with her extended family. She loves the repetition of the yearly rituals, but this year her “heart hurts” because Grandpa was in the hospital recently and cannot leave his bed to lead the seder. She cleverly solves the problem of how Grandpa still can be included with the rest of the family and learns that when things change, they also can remain the same in many ways. The well-written and poignant tale provides us with a young person’s view of the meaning of joyful Passover family traditions.

Millions of Israeli children said at risk of stunted development, possibly from desalinated water

Children play in a water fountain near the Tower of David in the Old City of Jerusalem on April 17, 2016. Photo by Corinna Kern/Flash90 (via JTA).

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel’s first-ever national survey of iodine levels in the population revealed widespread deficiencies, which could mean millions of children are at risk of stunted development.

The survey, whose unpublished results were presented last week to endocrinologists in Ramat Gan, found that 62 percent of school-age children and 85 percent of pregnant women have iodine levels below the World Health Organization minimum.

According to the researchers behind the survey, Israel appears to have one of the highest rates of iodine deficiency in the world. The national health problem is likely related to Israel’s world-leading use of water desalination, they said.

“We could be talking about a significant detriment across the population,” Dr. Aron Troen, a nutritional neuroscientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who helped lead the survey, told JTA. “For anyone below the minimum level, you may lose 7 to 10 to 12 IQ points, which translates into a huge decrease in GDP due to reduced productivity.

“We are concerned that increased reliance on desalinated water in the Israeli food chain is contributing to iodine insufficiency in the population.”

Even mild iodine deficiency can limit intellectual development. In the womb or early childhood, deficiency has been shown to impair brain development and in severe cases cause physical malformation, dwarfism and intellectual disability. Previous studies have found the children of iodine-deficient mothers perform much more poorly in school.

Researchers from Hebrew University, Maccabi Healthcare Service, Barzilai University Medical Center in Ashkelon and ETH Zurich in Switzerland collaborated on the survey, which analyzed urine samples from 1,023 school-age children and 1,074 pregnant women. They found similar results among Israeli Arabs, secular Jews and Orthodox Jews.

From left, researchers Dov Gefel, Yaniv Ovadia, Aron Troen and Jonathan Arbelle (Courtesy of Hebrew University)

Based on their findings, the researchers called on the Israeli government to mandate the addition of iodine to salt or other foods, as do many other countries, including the United States. They said the change would be easy, inexpensive and have potentially large public health benefits. They also called for regular monitoring of national iodine levels.

In the meantime, Israelis can change their diets, including by buying iodized salt, which is currently expensive and hard to find in Israel.

“Individuals can improve their iodine status through increased consumption of iodine-rich foods such as milk, dairy and saltwater fish. They can also replace regular table salt with iodized salt,” Yaniv Ovadia, the doctoral student and registered dietitian who performed the survey, said in a statement.

Israel was one of only a few countries to have never before gathered nationally representative data on its residents’ iodine levels. But Troen said “the trajectory” of his research suggests the problem has worsened in recent years and may be related to Israel’s pioneering use of water desalination, which removes iodine as well as other minerals. About half of the water Israelis consume is desalinated – a higher percentage than in any other country.

In a study last year, Troen and fellow researchers found a “surprisingly high” prevalence of insufficient iodine intake among the residents of the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, where residents get much of their water from the local desalination plant. They also found a strong association with thyroid dysfunction among adults and evidence that the problem increased in the 2000s, as Israel was ramping up its water desalination program.

According to data from the Israel Center of Disease Control, self-reported use of thyroid medication among Israeli adults increased 63 percent between the Israeli National Health Interview Surveys of 2003-04 and 2007-10.

Troen said other potential explanations for Israelis’ iodine deficiency are increased consumption of processed foods and surprisingly low consumption of dairy products. The scarcity of iodine-enriched salt and other food is certainly a factor as well, he said. Troen has started new research on the causes of iodine deficiency in Israel.

Camp: Security first: fun and adventure in a safe setting

Chicagoan Christie Tate isn’t one to be easily cowed.

A lawyer and writer, Tate lives with her husband and two kids on the city’s South Side, which has seen a surge in violent crime over the past year. Last year, her kids got a day off from school because of an active shooter threat. Over the summer, someone was murdered in her alley.

But while Tate doesn’t want to change her lifestyle out of fear, the recent spate of bomb threats at Jewish community centers across the country gave her pause as she considered whether to send her kids back to a JCC camp this summer.

“I don’t believe that we should go running and alter our lives and our summer plans because of threats,” Tate said. “But then, when I was doing my research, I saw the pictures of the kids standing on the sidewalk during a bomb threat, having been evacuated — it just became more real. I just thought, ‘Oh my God.’ I was swayed by that, which is probably a problem.”

Despite the wave of recent threats against Jewish institutions, coupled with a surge in anti-Semitic activity in recent months, no one has been seriously injured by a security breach at an American Jewish summer camp. The worst incident many camp leaders could remember was in 2012, when a group of intruders drove through a religious camp in Pennsylvania yelling anti-Semitic slurs and damaging property.

But many Jewish camp leaders aren’t taking any chances.

“The foundation of our success is all about the sacred trust that exists between our parents, our campers and our communities and our camps,” said Paul Reichenbach, director of camping and Israel programs for the Union for Reform Judaism, which operates 16 summer camps across the country. “Parents have to have confidence that the people and place to where they’re going to send their children, in whom they’re going to entrust their children, has as their highest priority their child’s welfare.”

As with many Jewish summer camps, the Reform movement’s security efforts were beefed up significantly  after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. The movement launched a security manual for their camps, created specific job requirements for camp safety personnel and established protocols for responding to a range of threats. It also retained the services of an Israeli security firm, which recommended security improvements from entrance gates to lighting and video surveillance. The camp’s security protocols are reviewed and updated annually.

Many involved in security at Jewish camps say that training and advance preparation are key — perhaps even more important than guards or barriers, both of which are increasingly common.

Among the preparedness steps camps are taking: the development of protocols that determine who does what in the event of an emergency. Preseason security training for camp staff has become commonplace. Camp leaders also are strengthening their relationships with local law enforcement, and many law enforcement agencies conduct annual site visits to familiarize themselves with the camp environment and provide advice.

“In the end, it’s all about training,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “Training itself builds awareness. You can never train enough. By continuing to train, you’re building that sort of level of awareness.”

Security at summer camps presents a number of unique challenges not faced by urban Jewish institutions, which typically have a defined perimeter and controlled access points. Camps are open, their borders often marked by little more than a tree line, and everyone involved in their security acknowledges the need to strike a balance between safety and preserving the sense of freedom and openness emblematic of the camping experience.

They also have to contend with an evolving security climate. While radical Muslims presented the foremost security challenge in the wake of 9/11, that is no longer the case. Many camp leaders noted the case of Anders Breivik, who gunned down 69 Norwegians at a summer camp on the island of Utoya in 2011, as well as the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut in 2012.

“My concern is not just from jihadists anymore,” said Paul Goldenberg, the director of the Secure Community Network, the organized American Jewish community’s security arm. “We’re starting to see a real uptick from the white supremacist side of the house right now. Some of these people are calling for death to the Jews. It’s pretty serious.”

Goldenberg stressed that he knows of no specific threats against Jewish camps and would not hesitate to send his own grandchildren to one, a sentiment shared by many other Jewish camp directors. And while most directors contacted for this story were hard-pressed to name a single serious security breach at a Jewish summer camp, a handful of recent incidents have raised the alarm.

In the summer of 2012, several intruders drove through Camp Bonim, a religious boys camp in rural Pennsylvania, according to local police who later arrested five suspects. In 2015, it was Camp Agudah Midwest, a religious camp in Michigan, where two vandals spray-painted a swastika and damaged a building, according to The Associated Press. That incident came two weeks after an attack at upstate New York’s Camp Karlin Stolin, in which three teenagers threw bottles and coins at campers and staff.

Officials at all three camps declined a request for comment. But security experts say the incidents only serve to highlight the dangerous level of unpreparedness at some Jewish summer camps.

“If anything, the risk has continued to rise,” said Joshua Gleis, a security consultant who works extensively with Jewish institutions. “I do think that camps certainly need to continue to button up security as you see schools, houses of worship, community centers doing right now. Many camps are not taking the actions that I think they should. While many have been improving, I know many camps that have still not changed their security structure significantly.”

Camp Seneca Lake in Honesdale, Pa., isn’t one of them. On the advice of the State Police, camp owner Irv Bader now has guards check all trucks entering the camp for deliveries. The camp has also hired 24-hour armed security — “not rent-a-cops,” Bader said — and installed a network of security cameras that are monitored around the clock. At night, the camp is illuminated with high-wattage lighting.

“It looks like daylight in the camp,” Bader said.

“I do it because it’s necessary,” he said of his security precautions. “The world is crazy today. And you’ve got too many crazies around. It’s a deterrent.”

Despite the heightened sensitivity, many camp directors say the most common threat to the well-being of campers comes not from violent attack, but from the weather.

Jamie Simon, the director of Camp Tawonga in Northern California, said she is far more concerned about an earthquake than an intruder. (In July 2013, her camp was hit by tragedy when a counselor died after a tree fell on her.) Still, the camp installed a video camera last year at its front gate so it can screen visitors remotely.

Camp Tamarack in Michigan is taking the camera tool even further. New technologies enable surveillance systems to learn about normal movement in an area and send an alert when it detects something anomalous.

For a camp like Tamarack, that sort of assistance is invaluable. The facility is among the largest Jewish residential camps in the country, covering more than 1,000 acres and 400 structures.

“It’s a force multiplier,” said Gary Sikorski, the director of communitywide security for the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit. “You can monitor areas that would be almost impossible to monitor with an individual.

DIY alphabet art with cereal boxes

Photos by Jonathan Fong

Walk into any home décor store these days and you’ll see that alphabet art is a big trend. There are big capital letters made of metal, wood, wire, plastic — and some even light up. But you can make your own alphabet artwork without spending much money by using upcycled cereal boxes. As if you needed an excuse to eat more cereal.


– Cereal box
– Blank piece of paper
– Black marker
– Paperweight (e.g. an old battery)
– Duct tape
– Construction paper
– Glue
– Old maps or other colorful paper


1. Trim a blank piece of paper so it is the same size as the front of the cereal box. Then draw a large letter of the alphabet on it so it touches the top and bottom edges. Cut out the letter on the paper and trace it on the front of the cereal box with a black marker. Then flip over the letter so it’s backward and trace it on the back of the cereal box. (For some letters, such as “A,” flipping it over isn’t as important because the letter looks the same either way. But letters such as “E” or “Z” are in reverse when you flip them over.)


2. Cut along the lines, but don’t cut out the letter from the top or bottom of the box, so that the front and back letters are connected. 


3. Tape a paperweight to the bottom of the letter, on the inside, with duct tape. An old battery works well. This will help the letter stand without tipping over.


4. Cover the open-ended sides of the letter with some construction paper. Measure the depth of the cereal box and cut paper strips that will overlap the sides. For example, if the box is 2 inches deep, then cut 3-inch strips — 2 inches to cover the sides and a half-inch tab on either side to wrap around the box. Cut the strips to fit each section of the letter, fold over the tabs and use glue to attach the tabs to the box. 


5. With the same letter template that you used to trace on the cereal box, trace the letter on an old map and cut out the letter. Flip over the letter template and trace on another old map so you have artwork for the back of the letter. (Of course, you can use any type of artwork you wish besides maps — the Sunday comics, comic books, wrapping paper, etc.)


6. Glue the map letters onto the front and back of the cereal box. The great thing about wrapping the sides first with construction paper is that the map letters don’t need to fit perfectly; the construction paper acts like a border. Display your alphabet art — no one will believe you made it out of an old cereal box.

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself  projects at jonathanfongstyle.com.

Does your child really need that antibiotic?

ImmunoXpert, a novel blood test developed in Israel, accurately distinguishes between bacterial and viral infections in children, according to a study recently published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases. The international study in children was led by researchers from the University Medical Center in Utrecht (The Netherlands).

ImmunoXpert, made by MeMed in Tirat Carmel, also was shown to outperform routine tests significantly.

“The results are beyond our expectations,” said principal investigator Dr. Louis J. Bont from the division of pediatric immunology and infectious disease at the Dutch medical center. “We independently confirmed that the test is highly accurate in children, with significantly better diagnosis compared to any of the routine tests we use today. It has the potential to significantly aid us in reducing antibiotic overuse and combating bacterial resistance. To our knowledge, this is the first prospective validation study for a diagnostic assay differentiating between bacterial and viral infections that was double-blinded.”

MeMed CEO Eran Eden said the company “took the unusual risk of allowing leading experts to independently evaluate its tests in a double-blind manner,” meaning that neither those taking part nor the researchers knew which participants belonged to the control group.

Eden continued, “We are excited that the new results corroborate the findings of our previous study,” published in March 2015 in PLOS One. “This is another important milestone in our continuous efforts to generate clinical evidence of the highest quality to support our tests.”

“Unlike most traditional diagnostics, which focus on identifying the disease-causing virus or bacteria, ImmunoXpert looks at the immune system where it identifies markers that indicate if the patient is fighting a bacterial or viral infection,” Dr. Kfir Oved, MeMed chief technology officer, said. “This immune system-based approach overcomes the inherent limitations of many traditional diagnostic tools. It is accurate and rapid and can diagnose infections that are not readily accessible, such as pneumonia.”

The study evaluated 577 children ages 2 to 60 months with lower respiratory tract infections or fever without a source. ImmunoXpert was accurate in distinguishing between clear bacterial and viral infections with a sensitivity of 88 percent, specificity of 93 percent and a negative predictive value of 98 percent. ImmunoXpert outperformed routine tests, reducing the number of cases in which viral infections were erroneously diagnosed as bacterial, by more than 50 percent.

ImmunoXpert is cleared for clinical use in the European Union, Switzerland and Israel. MeMed is collaborating on a series of multi-center clinical studies, enrolling more than 10,000 patients, and has plans to conduct clinical studies in the United States in 2017. The company is partnering with international stakeholders from industry and government to facilitate global availability of its tests.

Miriam’s House opens doors for struggling women and their children

Rhonda Evans was 40 years old and addicted to drugs when she decided she needed help. She had three sons — two living with her parents and one with her — and she had been living in a motel, cobbling together money to pay for her habits. 

What turned her life around was a place called Miriam’s House, a nonprofit sober home for mothers. From 2007 to 2009, Evans lived at the house and got her life back on track, eventually getting to the point where she went to school to learn substance abuse counseling. 

“It was a passion of mine. After I lived [at the house], I wanted to give back,” said Evans, who is now the home’s program director. 

The West Los Angeles house opened its doors in 2007 and focuses on women recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. It has 15 rooms and is currently hosting seven women with little to no income. Residents might just be regaining contact with their children, getting a degree and going to work. 

It sits on a large property and has communal spaces for children to play in and women to gather. There also is a back garden where residents can sit outside and have time alone.  

Miriam’s House is part of the Promises Foundation, started by Lisa Rogg, a holistic medicine expert, licensed acupuncturist and lifelong resident of Los Angeles, along with her husband Richard, who founded Promises Treatment Centers.

“When you are a homeless mother or a mother living below the poverty line, it’s difficult to find help for addiction,” Lisa Rogg said. “Often you are faced with the choice of giving up custody of your child or receiving the support you need. As a mother, it was my mission to help these women keep their families together.”

The home, which is funded by private donors, has a success rate of more than 90 percent for reuniting mothers with their children, according to executive director Brenda Valiente.

“The women are so inspired by their children to become better people,” Rogg said. “When you have that threat of losing a child to the system, you really don’t want to go through that.”

If a woman wants to be admitted to Miriam’s House, she has to be at least 30 days sober and willing to follow the designated schedule, along with Alcoholic Anonymous’ 12 steps of recovery. She can bring along one or two children under the age of 10, who live with her in her room. During the time that she’s there, which can range from a few weeks to a year, her children can attend the public elementary school a few blocks away.  

The staff at Miriam’s House aims to get the women back on track and contributing to society. They make sure the residents are set up with housing after they leave, are able to work at a job or get a degree, and know how to plan for their future. 

“We try to impact their lives,” Valiente said. “We not only believe that they can be self-sufficient, but we give them the tools to make sure they are.” 

Miriam’s House hosts AA and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, offers parenting classes, provides child care, shows the women how to meditate and do yoga, and asks them to prepare and attend nightly dinners. The house also holds celebrations for various holidays, including a Chanukah dinner and candle-lighting in partnership with the Reconstructionist synagogue in Pacific Palisades, Kehillat Israel, which Rogg attends. (Residents do not need to be Jewish, and not many are.)

 Not every woman succeeds during her first stay at the house — about 1 in 15 relapses — but in those cases the woman is welcome to try again. 

“We’ve had women relapse,” Rogg said. “But they show a lot of strength and determination and are then very successful.” 

Valiente said that since the women aren’t forced to be there, they must resolve for themselves to do their best. “The women admitted have shown and agreed to certain standards they will fulfill for being in the program. They have to show that they’re committed to being in recovery.”

Evans said places like Miriam’s House are essential because there are too few organizations for mothers in recovery. “There aren’t a handful of places like this where women with children can get sober and the skills they need to be on their own.”

Like Evans, many of the mothers go on to earn their degrees in social work and become drug and alcohol counselors, Valiente said. They find jobs through outlets like Jewish Vocational Service Los Angeles and the nonprofit Chrysalis. Some residents receive scholarships from the Promises Foundation to fund their education. In terms of housing, the women may go on to live in Section 8 buildings, transitional homes, or apply for help from St. Joseph Center, a nonprofit that helps the needy find housing and treatment for mental illness, as well as receive education and training for jobs 

After women graduate from the program, they are always welcome to reach out for support from their counselors. The house hosts alumni events, like a Mother’s Day gathering, to stay connected to their network of mothers.

“What we’ve learned is the women who stay connected and engaged tend to stay sober,” said Valiente. “They feel like they want to do good in the community and pay it forward.”

By assisting mothers on the road to recovery and allowing them to stay with their children, Rogg said, Miriam’s House is able to make a real impact on their sobriety. 

“I think that being able to keep the family together and not have kids go into the foster care system is probably one of the best preventative measures for stopping the cycle of addiction.” 

The art of healing

The piece of art is heartbreaking: Under gray skies filled with drops of rain stands a single tombstone. Under that, the artist has written in bright red, “Death now looking for Me.”

It is the work of a fourth-grader.

By way of explanation, the student, whose real name is not identified, writes: “I live close to school where it’s not safe to play in my neighborhood. … My 6-year-old sister was shot and killed when she was playing in the front yard. I get scared sometimes and really miss her. Also, last year my uncle went to jail and I miss him too. It seems like things don’t get better around my house.”

Pieces of art created by students in the Share and Care program. Art images courtesy of Cedars-Sinai Psychological Trauma Center’s Share and Care program

And yet, somehow, drawing pictures about it all — something the student has done as part of a program known as Share and Care — helps.

“In Share and Care,” the pupil writes, “I drew a picture of my sister and my uncle and other things that made me sad, but I also drew what helps me feel better when I’m having a lonely day.” 

This student isn’t alone. About 27,000 local schoolchildren have been helped by Share and Care since it began 35 years ago. Based at Cedars-Sinai, its roots date back to 1981, when Suzanne Silverstein and the late Gladys Wesson-Strickland were working at the medical center’s department of psychiatry.

One day, Wesson-Strickland approached her colleague with a concern: Two of her grandsons (the children of current Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson and preschoolers at the time) had a schoolmate who was shot dead by his father. The boy’s mother had been shot and killed, too, and the rest of the class was having difficulty coping with the event. 

“We should go to the school and work with the parents and the teachers and the kids,” Silverstein remembers saying. 

And so they did. 

In the early days of the program — then known as the Center for Psychological Trauma — Silverstein and other counselors worked only with children who had experienced trauma related to violence. That changed after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which had an official death toll of 57 and injured more than 8,700. Silverstein was asked to put together a program to help school children in the Valley cope with the aftereffects of the quake. 

It was from there that the program began to diversify in the needs it addressed. By 1996, the eight-week art therapy program had expanded to 12 weeks and was dubbed “Share and Care” by some students at Canterbury Avenue Elementary School in Arleta. Today, the program helps young people deal with trauma related to violence, grief, bullying, anger management, divorce, homelessness, foster care and the incarceration of family members. 

But why use art as a form of therapy?

“Kids don’t always understand their feelings,” explained Silverstein, the program’s founding director. “Some kids, it’s really hard for them to talk. But they all know how to draw. So it’s a different way to communicate with people. They can then look at what they draw and talk about it.” 

For example, counselors from the program visited an elementary school after 9/11 and asked them what their thoughts were on the event. One student drew the image of a boy standing next to a building, both at the same height. 

“I wish I was a giant,” the boy who drew the image had said, “so I could squash bin Laden.”

“Art is a natural expression for elementary students,” said Krishna Smith, the principal of Loyola Village Elementary School. “It allows them to tell their stories, and the therapy helps teach them coping skills at a young age.” 

The art itself becomes reflections of the person in therapy — child or adult — so they can better understand their experiences, according to Madoka Urhausen, a supervisor and coordinator of school-based mental health programs at The Guidance Center in Long Beach. Similar to Share and Care, The Guidance Center has art therapy programs in 20 schools in the Long Beach Unified School District. 

“The use of art therapy is more empowering,” Urhausen told the Journal. “People come to the ‘aha’ moment on their own instead of the therapist telling them what their problem is.”

Through Share and Care, run today under the auspices of Cedars-Sinai’s Psychological Trauma Center, a high school student named Janelle said she was able to find other students in a situation similar to hers — her mother and brother are in jail — and who identify with her feelings. She went from failing her classes to wanting to do well in school and become an artist. 

“Now, I have shared my story in group. … I thank my group for believing in me,” Janelle wrote. “I have friends and my counselor believes in me. My homeroom teacher said I am blossoming into an amazing young woman.”

Emma Kaplan, 12, has been through the program twice — once to help her deal with the death of her uncle, and the second time because she was fighting a lot with her brother. Both times, drawing her feelings and then talking about them helped her deal with them better, she told the Journal. And even though she still sometimes fights with her brother, it’s not as bad. 

Teachers refer students in need to 13 program counselors who are stationed at the schools during the academic year. Therapy sessions take place in small groups during school hours, twice a week for 12 weeks. At the end of the 12 weeks, students can avail themselves of additional services if it is determined that the students need more time to heal. 

Although the Share and Care program may be geared toward elementary and middle school children (and sometimes high schoolers), the Psychological Trauma Center also has programs for parents and teachers. 

Silverstein recommends that parents speak to their children about a traumatic event as it happens because “you know your own kids and you can talk to them and explain it in a way that they could understand.” 

The teacher training program focuses on helping teachers identify students in need of counseling and helpful techniques that can be used in classrooms to help students deal with traumatic events.

Funded entirely by Cedars-Sinai — officials declined to say how much is spent on the program — the programs offered by the Psychological Trauma Center are free to schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District. The Share and Care program is currently active in 28 schools, with 33 schools on the waiting list.

The center celebrated its 35th anniversary May 30 with a dinner and exhibition of 33 pieces of art done by students who have gone through the program over the years. The youngest was by a 4-year-old.

“People are much more impacted by violence now than they were ever impacted before,” Silverstein told the Journal. “If you don’t start with the kids and you don’t start early on, you’ll never make a dent in what’s going on. So I’m hoping the little bit that we’re doing here will start to prevent that.”

More children in Syria dying of malnutrition

This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

In one town in Syria an hour’s drive from Damascus, 86 people have died from causes related to the Syrian government siege of the town – 65 from malnutrition and starvation, 14 from landmines, six from snipers and one from a chronic health condition. Almost all of them could have been saved if they had access to food, medication, medical equipment and medical treatment, according to a new report by two human rights groups.

The report by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) says that the town of Madaya today houses 40,000 Syrians, four times the town’s original population. It is surrounded by landmines, checkpoints, and snipers. There is not enough food, and medical care is given by two dentistry students and a veterinarian.

“What do we expect two dentistry students, a veterinarian and a field hospital to do for these cases, each one in need of specialized care? We are in an impossible situation,” Dr. Muhammad Darwish, one of the dentistry students asks in the report.

In another example, Dr. Mohammad Yousef, a veterinarian, performed a caesarean section.

“We had to make the family sign an agreement saying we are not liable if there were complications and the mother or infant died during the surgery,” Dr. Yousef told The Media Line. “We were so afraid during the operation, but it was a success. We cried tears of joy and thanked God for allowing us to save the mother and her child.”

The report details the cases of 65 people in Madaya, many of them children, who died from malnutrition and starvation between November 2015 and the end of May 2016. Countless others have suffered the effects of malnutrition including osteoporosis. Doctors say many in the town could suffer effects in the future including “stunted growth, poor mental development, behavior abnormalities, insulin resistance and hypertension.”

Only occasional shipments of food and medicine have been allowed into the city, and residents have not been able to leave.

PHR calls on the Syrian government to “lift all sieges and allow freedom of movement for all civilians, including medical personnel, in, out, and across all towns.” In addition the UN and non-governmental humanitarian organizations must be allowed to reach all besieged areas to provide supplies and services to people in need. The human rights groups also call on the Syrian government to remove all procedural and other bureaucratic delays that continue to hamper the delivery of lifesaving aid.

Madaya is only one example of the difficulties that Syrian citizens are facing. Forces loyal to the Syrian government have seized control of the Castello Road, the last road into Aleppo cutting off supplies of food and aid to the 300,000 Syrians there – about half of them rebel fighters and half civilians.

Human rights groups say there are some stocks of food and medical supplies but they will run out quickly if they are not replenished.

The siege comes after heavy fighting in Aleppo.

“Every day there are 70 or 80 airstrikes attacking everything on the ground –hospitals, schools or shops,” Dr. Abdelaziz Aladel, a surgeon in Aleppo told The Media Line. “The attacks hit the same area over and over, meaning anyone who tries to help can also be wounded.”

He said there are only about 25 doctors left in the city.

However, it is not only children inside Syria who are suffering. Another group, Human Rights Watch, also issued a report today saying that more than half of the almost half a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon do not go to school or receive any formal education.

There are more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon and almost half of them are between the ages of 3 and 18. Lebanon has allowed Syrian children to attend public schools, fewer than half have done so, mostly because the schools are far from where they live or they have limited resources. The finding means that hundreds of thousands of Syrian children have not received any formal education for up to five years.

“Despite Lebanon's progress in enrolling Syrian children, the huge number of children still out of school is an immediate crisis, requiring bold reforms,” said Bassam Khawaja, a Sandler fellow in the children's rights division at Human Rights Watch. “Children should not have to sacrifice their education to seek safety from the horrors of war in Syria.”

A fearful farewell to the dragon of childhood

A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys” is a line from Peter, Paul and Mary’s song “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Here I am, three days before I turn 18, saddened by these lyrics. 

I can’t help but compare myself to Holden Caulfield, my favorite antihero. “The Catcher in the Rye” is the only book north of 50 pages that I have read more than once. Holden informed so much of who I am today, and as I’m in his position, I can’t help but mentally compare myself to him. 

My troubles come at what should be a more lax part of my high school career. Last night, my parents set a curfew for me — the first time this has occurred in high school. In my second semester of my senior year, three days before I turn 18, two months before I graduate, my parents imposed a curfew on me. 

After a long argument with my dad, I left the house in frustration, not understanding the sudden and, in my opinion, untimely rationale behind this. Although my dad said it was because he felt I was partying too much with my friends, I think he’s trying to cling to what little childhood I still have left. “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys.” 

Senior year can be a joyous time for many, full of celebration; for others, it can be disappointing and discouraging. It’s second semester of senior year, I should be taking school lightly — which I am — and be locked into a college — which I’m not. 

The college acceptance process didn’t work out for me as well as I had hoped it would. They say it’s random, but I have no one to blame but myself. My options are consequences of my own actions. Those nights I chose to go bowling instead of studying, or to watch another episode on Netflix instead of going to sleep finally caught up with me. 

I guess after my fight with my dad the other night, I really started to realize that. I kept on telling him that he has two more months of parenting, and then he is done forever. (I’m the youngest.) I am working at a special needs camp in New York this summer. Then in early September, I head off to yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem. After that, who knows what lies ahead?

 I guess what I’m really getting at is I have no idea what I’m doing with my life. I’ve accomplished a lot in my high school career. To be immodest for a moment, I started a minyan at my school that is the largest student-led minyan in the country. I wrote an article about a major contemporary halachic issue, which received more than 25,000 hits on my school newspaper’s website. Today, a junior told me his class discussed how I was the epitome of the leader they wanted and needed, a compliment I do not take lightly. Yet as I sit at Shabbat meals and talk with family and friends, I do my best to avoid the subject of what I’m doing for college. 

Again I think about that line, “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys.” I don’t even know if I fully understand it, but it forces one troubling thought into my mind: My childhood is coming to an end, whether I want it to or not. 

It feels ironic to me. Somehow the fantasized fire-breathing dragon I pictured while listening to this song as a child is the part of my youth that continues to live on, while my actual young and innocent self is leaving forever. The Noah who used to spend Shabbat playing wizards and jedis with his cousin Avi has been outgrown. The priceless memories live on, and I get to share them with those around me, but I don’t get to play the game anymore. 

Holden Caulfield knows this, too. He’s the one who first showed this to me. I know why Holden wants to stand at the edge of a cliff as a protector and make sure that not only the “dragon” lives forever, but so, too, little boys. 

And yet, the little boy in me is soon to be no more, plain and simple. The “dragon” of childhood will live on elsewhere, and it will no longer be my place or turn to access it. It feels like 18 years of childhood is being pushed over a cliff. Eighteen years of good times and bad times are soon to be sealed. 

One of the scariest parts is I feel as though everything is happening to me, like fate, like it’s not me controlling my life. Whether I like it or not, and as scary as it is, I have to move on. I don’t have a choice.

I am no longer a little boy. Never again will I get to experience being a child, and the unknown of what is to come terrifies me. 

NOAH ROTHMAN has just graduated from Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles. A version of this article previously appeared in The Boiling Point, Shalhevet’s student newspaper.

For Jewish UNICEF official, it’s all about the children

Whether Caryl Stern, the president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, is touring a war-torn country, a natural disaster or a refugee camp, she always sees children playing.

They may be kicking a ball made of paper or hugging a doll made of rags or straw, but they are happily playing.

The kids’ ability to smile and play through the most extreme of circumstances is what inspires her every day. Since taking the helm of the organization in 2007, Stern has guided UNICEF’s responses to disasters as varied as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the Ebola crisis in west Africa.

She has also faced criticism that UNICEF is hostile to Israel. Many years ago, one of the camps it sponsored in Beirut to keep children off the street was subsequently renamed for a suicide bomber. Hearing this, the Reform movement of Judaism in the United States ended its sponsorship of the program. Although the camp’s renaming was unofficial, “the damage had been done,” Stern said, and for years Jewish children stopped carrying the bright orange UNICEF collection boxes during Halloween.

“I stand very proudly as a Jewish woman at the helm of this organization,” said Stern, 57. “Right now is our moment. This is our opportunity to stand up for everything we believe.”

Stern, who previously spent 18 years at the Anti-Defamation League and was a 2014 Jewish Women International Woman to Watch, said that her “firm belief in tikkun olam [repair of the world] and not putting the sins of our fathers on children” make it necessary to be involved.

Her current focus is the scores of young people fleeing their countries, sometimes without adult supervision.

“I call them children,” Stern said. “They aren’t migrants. They are not refugees. They are not illegal aliens. They are kids.”

Some 30 million children — 13 million of them from the Middle East and North Africa — need a permanent place to live and a school to attend regularly, she said.

Stern is aware that these children have “scars that are going to be with them for a long time,” including physical and intellectual problems due to malnourishment and disease.

But their resiliency motivates her.

“If you turn on music, they will dance,” she said, boasting that she’s  “played ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ in just about every language.”

So many of the problems facing the children face “are fixable, curable,” she said. With proper medicine, vaccines and clean water — and with an end to war — many of their woes would disappear. Her goal is “zero hunger, zero poverty, zero disease,” which she described in her 2013 book, “I Believe in Zero.”

Stern was in Washington last week to attend Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women event and launch a new fundraising program, UNICEF Kid Power. A $40 bracelet encourages children to be more active while teaching them about other cultures in a game-like program that awards points for exercising.

The bracelet “lights up, and it buzzes,” she said. “Kids love it.” The money raised will be used to deliver food to malnourished children around the world.

Some might assume Stern’s position is an office job, but she said she needs to “bear witness” — in her eight years at UNICEF, she has traveled to 32 countries. Stern said that having grown up in a family steeped in Holocaust memories, she understands the importance of retelling stories from firsthand knowledge.

Stern’s mother was 6, and her uncle 4, in 1939 when their mother, Stern’s grandmother, kissed them goodbye and sent them from Vienna to America with a woman they didn’t know. They ended up in an orphanage on New York City’s Lower East Side.

That same year, her grandfather boarded the St. Louis, the German cruise liner filled with Jewish passengers heading to Cuba. The ship was forced to return to Europe when no country would open its arms to the Jewish passengers.

Growing up, “the two stories we constantly heard were how nobody gave a damn” to help the Jews, according to her grandfather, and “how nice people were to take my mother in and care for her.”

Stern, the mother of three sons, knew she wasn’t going to be the one to turn her back on children who, through no fault of their own, were suffering.

People sometimes hear that UNICEF has programs in areas hostile to Israel — including, most recently, the Gaza Strip — and they condemn the organization, Stern said. But UNICEF’s mandate allows it to operate only in underdeveloped countries, and Israel is not one, she explained.

There are exceptions, she added. It has set up a recreation center for children in Sderot, who grow up under the constant threat of bombing.

“UNICEF has absolutely no politics,” she said.  “We don’t deal with adults. … We only want to give the children what they need.”


Combating an Israeli-American identity crisis

A year after Irit Bar-Netzer arrived in Los Angeles from Israel, she had her first son. That was 37 years ago, and that’s when the dilemma began.

“I wondered back then: How am I going to raise my children? As Israelis? Americans? Who is going to help us raise our kids? We didn’t have Grandma and Grandpa around. What’s going to happen to their identity?” 

It was by no means a new dilemma, however — in some ways, not even to her. As a daughter of Holocaust survivors, Bar-Netzer remembered how she felt growing up in Israel as a child of immigrant parents who didn’t speak Hebrew very well. 

“The children used to laugh at us because we spoke Hungarian and not Hebrew,” she said. Still, she ended up speaking Hebrew to her first son in America because, she said, “It was easier and natural for us.”

Bar-Netzer, a psychologist who has worked with children for years, related this story during an Oct. 11 seminar at Temple Judea in Tarzana that was sponsored by Ma Koreh, a project of Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) that is spending the next year providing lectures to Israeli parents. Conducted in Hebrew, the intimate gathering — the first in a series — was attended by 16 parents of young children and featured Bar-Netzer and child psychologist Ernest Katz. 

BJE Associate Director Phil Liff-Grieff said, “We want Israeli-American families to connect better through the organized Jewish community. We want them to understand that it is a tool in their toolbox for raising their kids here.”

The program is funded by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles and is done in cooperation with the Israeli-American Council and Sifriyat Pijama B’America, which provides books written in Hebrew to young children. 

Although many of the parents at the recent event said they insist on speaking Hebrew to their children, they wondered if that’s enough to keep their kids “Israeli” and how important it is to send their kids to private schools in order to maintain their Jewish-Israeli identities. And while many agreed that not all aspects of Israeli characteristics are welcomed, they do want their kids to maintain some of the values and traditions they were raised on. (The famous Israeli chutzpah was not one of them, according to participants.) 

One father of a 4-year-old described the problem like this: “When my daughter asks me, ‘Am I an Israeli?’ I am confused. I don’t know what to answer her. I do want her to take the good things from both cultures: the Israeli and the American — because there are good things and bad things in each culture — but how do I do that?”

His wife, who was born in Israel and moved to the United States with her parents when she was 8, said she experienced the issue herself as a child. 

“Throughout my childhood, my parents spoke to me in English and I know they meant well, but today I know it was wrong. I never knew what I was. Israeli? American? Americans always thought that I’m an Israeli and Israelis thought I’m an American, so I was confused about my identity, and I don’t want my kids to go through that as well.”

Not that simply speaking a certain language solves the problem.

One mother of three said she insists on speaking with her children in Hebrew, even though they often answer in English. “I struggle with it every day,” she said. “Each time I speak to my son in Hebrew, he says, ‘I was born here. I’m an American. It won’t help you.’ It’s a constant conflict. How do you deal with that?”

Bar-Netzer said she believes part of the parents’ challenge is not only their children’s identities, but also their own.

“The conflict is huge, and you need to think what is right for your child,” she said. “You have decided to come here and raise him here; now you have to decide what’s important for you and what will be best for him. The fact that you had come here ready to listen and discuss it means that the subject is important to you and your children will benefit from that. When I came here, 38 years ago, there was no such discussion on how to raise Israeli children.”

While Bar-Netzer and Katz didn’t offer answers to the many issues the parents raised during the 1 1/2-hour meeting, they suggested that parents make a list of what is important for them and what’s important for their kids. 

“Learn to listen to your children and see what they need. You should send your children a clear message. That is the most important thing. You don’t want to confuse them by questioning their own identity,” Bar-Netzer said. “As long as it’s good and right to you as parents, it will be good for your children as well.”

UPDATE [10/19/15]: This article has been changed from its original form to protect the names of parents at the event.

Forget annoying helicopter parents. Helicopter kids are way worse.

There are parents who hover over their kids like a helicopter. And there are parents who generally leave their kids to their own devices. Each side insists their way is the right way. I’m not here to judge other parenting styles, though I assume, as is often the case, that the best way is a healthy mixture of both — allowing your kids some independence, coupled with giving them the security of boundaries and a loving home base. But what do I know? Figure it out yourself, and I’m sure you’ll let me know when you do. Because every parent seems to be a maven in all things parenting.

But I’m here to talk about something entirely different from helicopter parents: helicopter kids. When I take my kids to the park, I struggle to shake them off of me like a ragdoll in the jaws of a tenacious pit bull. They’re clingy, they check in constantly, and they compete for my attention — when all I really want is for them to get the hell away from me. “Go on the slide. Go bounce a ball. Go keep that homeless guy company who’s talking to himself and could probably use a conversation partner.” 

I pick up my kids from preschool and look around the playground. There are kids on slides, kids in three-wheelers, and kids chasing each other. My kids? My daughter, Sydney — almost 5 — is getting her hair braided in the lap of her cute young teacher with the pink highlights; my son, Asher, 3, is helping to clean and rake the sandbox with his teacher. This is a playground filled with kids — why are they hanging out with the teachers?

My kids are well-liked by their peers. They’re socially adept and smart. But given the choice of chasing a kid up a hill or sitting with my wife and me on a park bench, they choose us, even when their friends are begging them to play. They might occasionally run off with another kid for a few minutes, but they’re not gone for long. There is an ongoing societal debate about kids watching TV — should they, shouldn’t they, should TV time be limited? We don’t have that issue. My kids have never sat through a whole movie. We throw on “Annie,” sneak away, and 20 minutes later they come running down the hall to our bedroom and climb into our bed. I beg them to go away. I insist. “You’ve never gotten past the first act. Keep watching. Annie gets out of the orphanage. It’s not always a hard-knock life for her!” But they don’t care. I plop them down in their room to play with each other. They come back to ours. No matter what I do, they always come back. 

“I love you guys, but leave me alone,” I beg. They play for a few minutes, which quickly turns into a wrestling match, or a tug-of-war over a toy. And then they’re back again, running to us for help, one or both of them in tears. I say, “Solve it yourself. You don’t need us.” Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But either way, they have managed to worm their way back to us.

I’m flattered that my kids like their parents so much. And I know it won’t be long before they want nothing to do with us. I know this, and yet I feel like if these nerds don’t start making friends they’re not going to have anyone to hang out with when it comes time for them to hate us. They’ll just be angry, and stuck at home, locked in their room listening to whatever version of The Smiths is around for sad teenagers.

At birthday parties, they take a long time to warm up. They spend most of the party with each other, and within inches of my legs. At one party in the park last week, a parent, Monique, walked over and gave me a kiss hello. “Have you seen Dash?” she asked. I looked around for her son. He was climbing a tree, albeit not very well. What he lacks in coordination he makes up for in confidence. I pointed in his direction. Monique looked to my kids. “They’re always on top of you,” she said. She wasn’t criticizing. She was just pointing out the anomaly. “It’s good they think you’re so fun.” She thinks I’m a clown, perpetually happy and silly. She doesn’t know the side of me who broods, and worries, and gets frustrated with my kids. She’s never heard my daughter yell out, “You’re a bad daddy!” So I went along with the ruse. “I wish I wasn’t so awesome,” I said with a wink. She playfully hit me on the arm and then took off after her kid.

A week later, I was picking up the kids from school, and my wife called to tell me she was going out with her sister for the night. I saw Monique on the playground and made impromptu plans with her and her husband to take the kids out for pizza and ice cream. Dash jumped into my car and asked if he could ride with us. There wasn’t enough room, so I asked Asher if he wanted to ride with Dash’s baby brother. He ran right over to their car and hopped in. He doesn’t know Monique well but I assume he must have sensed that she’s Argentine and was all over that like blanco en el arroz

Meanwhile, in my car, Sydney and Dash were sitting in their car seats talking to each other. I leaned my head back to talk to them, but they weren’t that interested in what I had to say. There was a moment where I wasn’t even sure what they were talking about — and I was actively trying to eavesdrop. Dash has a slight speech impediment and he’s a little hard to understand — at least to me. Sydney didn’t seem to notice. She laughed at his joke, but I didn’t get it. What was the joke? I asked them to explain it to me, but they just giggled. I felt left out.

We parked on Larchmont Boulevard and headed toward Village Pizzeria. The kids ran ahead of me. They ducked into a store, but I was distracted by a text message and wasn’t sure which one. Monique and Asher came up behind me. “Did you see where the kids went?” I asked. Monique pointed to a little boutique. I walked in. A woman with a sourpuss face was speaking on the phone. She was indifferent to the two kids standing at the jewelry case. I walked over to them, as I overheard Sydney tell Dash she liked the gold necklace with the long charm hanging from it. Dash waved his hand over all of the jewelry — “I’m going to buy you all of them.” Sydney laughed. I defensively said, “Sydney, you don’t need a man to get you anything. You’ll buy your own jewelry.” She looked at me, confused. So did Dash. Then they ran off to the pizza place without me. 

I heard Asher chasing after them — “Wait for me!” And even though I was only a few paces behind, something in me ached as my helicopter kids stopped hovering and learned how to fly.

Seth Menachem is an actor and writer living in Los Angeles with his wife and two kids. You can see more of his work on his website, sethmenachem.com.

Grieving the children of Palestine and the dream of Zionism

Through all the turmoil of these last weeks and months I have been tortured by thoughts of children, Jewish children, Palestinian children, Syrian, Iraqi children – all those who most innocently of all, and most grievously of all, are the victims of the Middle East Madness.

Rachel mebaka et baneha, Rachel mourns her children. With her I weep for the children knowing that they are all her children, our children, every one of them.

The shameful apologies trying to justify the death of Arab children with trite explanations of ‘collateral damage’ and ‘use children as shields and they will die’ fill me with anger. Yes, a Jewish child’s life if precious to me but how dare anyone suggest that another child’s life is less precious, less deserving of a future? What is most frustrating is that those who place lesser values on non-Jews are supposed stalwarts of a community that I can no longer rightfully call mine. Where is the commitment to open dialogue, the respect to hear out opposing ideas, where is the dictum that commands us to listen, to debate, to agonize with each other rather than hurl epithets of disloyalty?

People see suffering and unless it is Jewish suffering they are silent. How dare they? Many years ago, at the famous March on Washington, Rabbi Joachim Prinz declared that the crime of the century was silence, silence in the face of injustice. I say it now to my own community; Jewish silence in the face of injustice is intolerable because Jews are commanded to live by a moral code that calls such silence not only wrong but makes it a crime.

My father has been gone for many years now but he left me to be the guardian of his dream, a dream of a Zionism whose engine to fulfillment would be the socialism of the kibbutz movement. Both have now been corrupted and made irrelevant in a land that practices capitalist consumerism and allows children to go to bed hungry.  In my mind I have been offering my father apologies that his dream has been thwarted and that both he and I are left with the sadness of frustrated hope.

I am an old man now but I know how to grieve over a boyhood dream that has gone.

Theodore Bikel, 90, is the chairman of Partners For A Progressive Israel. He has served as national vice president of the American Jewish Congress and as president of Actor's Equity and the 4A's. His latest film, “Theodore Bikel in the Shoes of Shalom Aleichem” recently premiered at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival; his updated autobiography “Theo” has been published early this summer, and his recording on Elektra records are now available for download on iTunes. 

Noa, Noam most popular names for Jewish babies in Israel

Noa for girls and Noam for boys were the most popular names for Jewish babies born in Israel in 2012.

Israel’s Central Bureau for Statistics released the list of names Monday.

Noa, of biblical origin, was followed in order by Shira, which means song; Tamar, a biblical name and date; Talia, which means a female lamb; and Maya. Rounding out the top 10 are Yael, Sarah, Adele or Edel, Ayala and Michal.

Noam, which means pleasantness, was followed by Uri or Ori, which means my light, and the biblical names Itai, Yosef and David. Rounding out the top 10 are Yehonatan, Daniel, Ariel, Moshe and Eitan.

Among Muslims, Miriam was the most popular name for girls and Mohammad for boys. For Christians, the winners were Maria for girls and George for boys.

My last Halloween

These days it creeps up on me like an ache — the occasional pumpkin in a front yard, the synthetic cobwebs in trees, the subtle turn in the weather and, yes, there’s that feeling in the pit of my stomach, the hollowness of those dreams in which you’re lost in a white tunnel, with nowhere to go but forward, though you know that every step will take you farther away from home. 

I know why Lot’s wife looked back. 

From early September, the discussions begin. What am I going to be this year, and when are you doing to decorate the house, and do we have enough candy for the trick-or-treaters, and why don’t you dress up as well — my friend’s mom wears a costume every year and my teacher painted her feet green. Throughout October, negotiations revolve around which stores we’re going to shop at and how many trips we’re going to make and how many hours in total we’ll spend looking for “the same as last year, but different.” My older son is a ninja redux, the younger one wants to dress up as a cowboy, even when it’s not Halloween. My daughter, who likes fine clothes and red lipstick, has been a ballerina three years in a row and wants to be a ballerina again, “only not the same kind of ballerina,” she says, and the boys join in the chorus, “and not a ballerina that has to wear a sweater if it’s cold.” Ninjas and cowboys, needless to say, don’t wear sweaters either. 

Our neighbors are mostly young families with small children. The house directly across from ours is one of those haunted mansions that spits out fog and echoes of laughter, with the shadows of headless corpses popping out of open coffins every 60 seconds. The owners have the whole decorating thing down to an art, so they don’t have to start until the weekend before the big day, but the rest of us, bumbling pumpkin carvers and clumsy spider-web spinners, get to work in mid-October and are still “perfecting” the set at 5 o’clock on the 31st, when the first few kids with their parents appear at the door. By then, my little cowboy has been dressed and ready for a couple of hours already, and has posted himself, basket of candy in hand, in the foyer. The ballerina is waiting upstairs for her cousin, Cleopatra, to arrive for hair and makeup, and the ninja is setting boundaries for me as to how much of the evening’s spoils I’m allowed to take in the name of tooth decay. 

So much of my remembrances of motherhood is traced with guilt — at the mistakes I made thinking I was doing the right thing, the chances I missed because I was focused on the wrong thing, my impatience and arrogance and just plain ignorance. So much of it, too, is condensed into a cluster of midnight feedings and birthday parties, school trips and beach outings and, “Alex, stop working and go to bed”; “Kevin do your homework and go to bed,” seven nights a week. Amid it all, those early Halloween memories sparkle — bright, fleeting, untainted, brimming with anticipation, rife with possibility. 

When did I last put my children to bed with the makeup still on their faces and the candy tucked under their beds? Close the door behind the last trick-or-treater? See the back of that young woman with the long, pale hair and giant angel’s wings? The zombie impaled with a sword and still walking? 

The next morning, the street is strangely quiet. The cobwebs have been cleared from the trees, and the doorbells no longer howl. The haunted mansion has been sold to a less theatrical family, and the basket full of candy remains, untouched, by the front door. The kids have grown up and left home. Oct. 31 is just another day on the calendar.  

It’s not that I have nothing else to do with my time, now that the obligatory visits to the pumpkin patch have stopped. It’s not that I have no identity outside of being a mother. On any given day. I’m a good few months behind on a whole lot of work-related projects, my domestic talents still waiting to be discovered. I can attend to neglected friendships and an ailing social life, spend more time with my parents, travel again with only my husband to places that are not necessarily child-friendly. But even with all that, I feel like a typewriter in the age of Siri: still operational, but functionally obsolete. 

I think that’s why Lot’s wife looked back: to see her daughters one last time and, through them, the part of herself she most liked. 

I do have other things to do with my time, yes. I just can’t think of anything better to do on those October mornings when I drive by the little preschool on my way to the gym and see tall those little fairies and wizards march, single file and effervescent with joy and pixie dust, before their adoring, admiring parents.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.

The Torah and child sexual abuse

Everything we build and teach our children, all our investments and dedication to good, all our moral standards, our entire education system, can be wiped out in one fell swoop when we or our children are violated.

The first of all ethical and Torah axioms must be stated at the outset: No one has a right to in any way violate in any way the body or soul of another human being. Indeed, we don’t even have the right to mutilate our own bodies, because your body does not belong to you; it is “Divine property.” 

No crime is worse that assaulting another’s dignity — which is compared to the dignity of G-d Himself, being that every person was created in the Divine Image. Even a hanged murderer must not be defiled and his body not left to hang overnight because it reflects the Divine Image. How much more so — infinitely more so — regarding a live person and innocent child.

Abuse, in any form or shape, physical, psychological, verbal, emotional or sexual, is above all a violent crime — a terrible crime. Abusing another (even if it’s intangible) is no different than taking a weapon and beating someone to a pulp. And because of its terrible long-term effects, the crime is that much worse.

The next question is this: What are our obligations as parents, teachers, writers, Web site editors or just plain adult citizens when it comes to abuse?

On one hand, we are talking about protecting innocent people from criminal predators, which clearly is a major obligation and a priority concern. On the other hand, we do have laws prohibiting embarrassing people (even criminals) in public, always hopeful, allowing people to correct their ways. We have laws about avoiding gossip and speaking ill about others (lashon harah), and not feeding into the base instinct of “talking about others” or “mob mentality” witch-hunting expeditions.

We have several obligations when we see or know about a crime, as well as obligations to prevent further crimes:

1) A witness to a crime who does not testify “must bear his guilt” (Leviticus 5:1). 

2) “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14), which includes the obligation to warn someone from a danger we are aware of. If you see someone walking down the street and you know that farther down the block there is an uncovered pit in the ground or a man with a gun, you are obligated to warn him. If we are aware of a predator, we must do everything possible to protect people from him.

3) “Do not stand still over your neighbor’s blood (when your neighbor’s life is in danger)” (Leviticus 19:16). It’s interesting to note that this commandment follows (in the same verse) “do not go around as a gossiper among your people,” suggesting that gossip is an issue only when no life is in danger. But if a life is in danger, then “do not stand still” even if means speaking about it in public.

4) “You must admonish your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17). If one does not admonish, then he is responsible for the other’s sin (Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive 205; see Shabbat 54b. 119b). Although at the outset rebuke must be done “in private, kindly and gently,” not to embarrass him publicly (Arkhin 16b; Sefer HaMitzvot, Negative 305), but if it doesn’t help, the obligation is to admonish him in public (Rambam Deos 6:8. Shulchan Aruch HaRav Hilchos Onaah v’Gneivas Daas 30).

This is true even about a crime that does not affect other people. All the care taken about public shame is because the crime does not affect the public. And even then, there are situations where the admonishment must be done publicly. By contrast, in our discussion about abuse, which affects others, all these restrictions do not apply: Embarrassment of a criminal is never an excuse or a reason to put anyone else in potential danger.

Based on the above, I would submit the following criteria to determine whether to publish and publicize the name of a molester:

1) The abuse must be established without a shred of doubt. Because just as we must protect the potential victims of abuse, we also are obligated to protect the reputations of the innocent, and not wrongly accuse anyone without evidence or witnesses.

 2) Publicizing the fact will serve as a deterrent or even possible deterrent of further crimes, or will warn and protect possible future victims. If that is true, then lashon harah does not apply. It would be the equivalent of saying that it is lashon harah to warn someone of a weapon-wielding criminal who may cause harm.

3) Even if a name is not available to be publicized, the issue of abuse itself must be addressed for the same reasons stated: to make the public aware of the dangers, to protect innocent children.

The argument that publicity will give the community a “bad name” and “why wash our dirty laundry in public?” does not supersede the obligation to protect the innocent from being hurt.

Anyone who suggests that abuse must be overlooked, because (as one person told me) it “happens all the time” and “by many people, including our leaders,” or for any other reasons — is not different from ignoring any other crime, and is in itself a grave crime.

One could even argue that the greatest “kiddush HaShem” (sanctifying God’s name) is when a Torah-based community demonstrates that it doesn’t just mechanically follow the laws or isn’t merely concerned with reputations, but that it sets and demands the highest standard of accountability among its citizens, and invests the greatest possible measures to protect its children from predators, create trust and absolutely will not tolerate any breach or abuse. That the greatest sin of all is ignoring or minimizing crimes being perpetrated against our most innocent and vulnerable members: our children.

In conclusion: The bottom line in all matters regarding abuse is one and only one thing: protecting the innocent. Not the reputation of an individual, not the reputation of the community, not anything but the welfare of our children. In every given case, whether to publicize, whether to take any other action, the question that must be asked is this: What is best for the victims? Will or can this action help prevent someone from being hurt or not? If the answer is yes or even maybe yes, then the action should be taken.

The crisis has reached a boiling point where it must be addressed and brought to the attention of the public to make everyone aware of the dangers, the long-term consequences and the zero-tolerance policy that needs to be applied to every form of abuse.

Anything less would be irresponsible, immoral and, yes, in some way complicit.

Rabbi Simon Jacobson is the author of the best-selling book “Toward a Meaningful Life.” He heads The Meaningful Life Center (meaningfullife.com), in Manhattan, N.Y., which bridges the secular and the spiritual through a wide variety of live and on-line programming.

Getting ready for baby

Rabbi Julia Weisz found herself in a bit of a conundrum when she became an expectant mother.

On the one hand, the rabbi and director of education at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas was cautious about holding a baby shower. In the earlier stages of her pregnancy — she is due to have her first child in July — she said, “It seemed uncomfortable for me to celebrate something that wasn’t here.”

However, her Reform congregation wanted to honor her pregnancy. Ultimately, she agreed to have one in May. 

“A baby shower is a good way to bring the community together around something positive,” Weisz said. “I wanted to give them the opportunity to do something to help.”

When it comes to Jewish laws and customs, there are many different opinions on every lifecycle event — from birth to marriage to death. Baby showers are no exception.

While some Jews and clergy have no problem with throwing baby showers, others won’t even select a name for a baby prior to birth. There are no textual laws banning celebrations before the baby is born, but in some circles, it’s customary not to hold them. 

“It’s a little bit arrogant to assume the baby is going to be born,” said Rabbi Chaim Bryski of Chabad of Thousand Oaks. “Traditionally, we don’t tell anybody about the pregnancy, not even until the third or fourth month. To make a party to honor the baby would be uncomfortable from a traditional perspective, but there is no law that says you can’t.”

Some believe that if a baby’s name is uttered or his or her life is celebrated before birth, the evil eye, or ayin harah, might harm it, according to Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), a Conservative shul in Encino. 

“In our tradition, there is the theological and religious idea that a new life is very tenuous,” he said. “One of the superstitions is that the evil eye knows who to run after because they know the name of the person. If someone gets really sick, they can change their Hebrew name to escape the angel of death. We don’t do a lot to celebrate the baby in order to protect it from the possibility of its own demise.”

After a baby is born, more traditional Jewish families will celebrate by sponsoring Kiddush meals at their synagogues or hosting a shalom zachar, or a drop-in party for a baby boy, on the Friday night after he is born. 

Bryski suggests registering for gifts, and once the baby is born, they can be delivered. He said that if something happens to a baby, it adds to the pain the parents experience to be surrounded by presents.

Still, Rabbi Jonathan Hanish has no hesitation about having a baby shower, particularly because of modern medical advances.

“In today’s world, where you know a baby is healthy and you have such a high rate of successful pregnancies, a baby shower is totally acceptable,” said the rabbi at Temple Kol Tikvah, a Reform congregation in Woodland Hills.

One of Hanish’s congregants, Sarah Knopf, a mother of three, had a baby shower for her first son. Although she grew up with a superstitious grandmother, she wasn’t convinced that there was anything negative about it. 

“I needed to have everything done and organized before he came,” she said. “I’m a planner, so that made me feel better. I would have gone crazy.”

Farkas said that at VBS, which has 5,000 members, traditions vary. 

“Most of the congregation does do baby showers of different types. In our community, it’s not homogeneous by any means,” he said. “Some in the community will give babies names, and then there are some who [won’t do anything before a baby is born]. Some are in between. That reflects the larger Jewish community.”

Like Knopf, VBS member Nikki Eigler chose to hold a shower because she wanted to plan before the baby arrived. She said, “I’m a person who needs to be prepared. I did not want to come home from the hospital without having anything in the house.”

Allison Lotterstein, a congregant at Kol Tikvah, had no concerns either. She, like many expectant mothers, just wanted a way to commemorate a new life coming into the world. 

“Every pregnancy should be celebrated,” she said. “In my mind and in the minds of the people who threw me a shower, my baby was a blessing.

Former JFS director of children and family services rejects report she shielded Australian abuser

When veteran social worker Debbie Fox’s name appeared in Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald on April 10, the story about her claimed she was doing the unthinkable: protecting a known abuser of children.

The story purported to quote from an e-mail she wrote to an unnamed sex offender in November 2011. “I have no idea how anyone found out,” she was quoted as saying, “but calls are coming daily from many sources. So far, we’ve been protecting you.” 

Fox worked at Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS), until budgetary pressures led her to resign late last year. Most recently she was the agency’s director of children and family services. She also served as director of the Aleinu Family Resource Center, an arm of JFS serving the local Orthodox community. 

Fox, who is internationally known as a leading authority on child abuse prevention within Orthodox communities, confirmed in an interview with the Journal that she wrote the e-mail quoted in the Herald, but said the Australian newspaper took it out of context in a way that misrepresents its intent. 

Speaking on April 14, Fox stated that her e-mail was not about protecting the offender from prosecution or from the local Orthodox Jewish community. 

Rather, Fox said she was informing the offender of what he already knew: that if he did not follow through with the evaluation and treatment that he and JFS had come up with, the victim, who had first brought the offender to Fox’s attention, would go public with what the offender had done to him 20 years earlier in Australia. 

The complete chain of e-mails, Fox said, make clear that she and Aleinu had no intention of protecting the offender from such exposure, and Fox said that each e-mail she sent to the offender also was copied to the victim and to a rabbi on Aleinu’s Halachic Advisory Board (HAB), a group of Orthodox rabbis who work with Aleinu on its cases and protocols. 

“The victim, the offender and the rabbi were all notified of every communication,” she said. 

The Herald’s story is just one of many published about abuse within the Australian Jewish community, and it comes at a time when revelations and prosecution of sexual abuse within Orthodox Jewish communities around the world are on the rise. 

This story could draw further scrutiny of the work of Los Angeles’ HAB, which has been considered by many Orthodox experts as a model for treating abusers because of HAB’s close cooperation with law enforcement. Critics, however, see HAB’s work as undermining reporting requirements by presenting itself as an alternative to law enforcement. 

Since the early 2000s, when three sex abuse scandals in Los Angeles’ Orthodox Jewish community received broad press coverage, Fox has been working on a number of fronts to prevent sex abuse. 

A licensed clinical social worker, Fox created a program that aims to educate children, parents and educators about how to prevent and respond to child abuse. She worked with the HAB rabbis to devise a “conduct policy” that has been introduced in Jewish schools and camps. And she oversaw the growth of the HAB to its current size, with 11 local rabbis from across the Orthodox community now working on a volunteer basis on some particularly sensitive issues.

Fox is herself a mandated reporter — if she has reason to suspect child abuse, she must inform authorities — as are JFS and Aleinu. But the HAB, Fox said, only intervenes in cases of child abuse where there is no reportable offense, and has taken on between 25 and 30 cases of alleged or confirmed child abuse in the past eight years. 

Fox said she was contacted in 2011 by a victim who was seeking to force the man who abused him decades earlier in Australia to go before the HAB. 

The offender, now living in Los Angeles, admitted to the abuse, but Fox said that when she called the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services, she was told there was nothing to report locally because the offense took place decades earlier and in another country. Fox said she also encouraged the victim to call police in Australia, but he declined to do so at the time, citing personal reasons. 

For a victim of abuse to decline to report an offense, even years later, is not unusual in insular Orthodox communities. That is, Fox said, what drives the HAB in the work that it does. 

In 2011, both the victim and the offender — both of whom provided statements to Fox, but declined to be interviewed by the Journal either by phone, e-mail or in person — were in “100 percent agreement,” Fox said, both about what took place decades earlier and what had to happen going forward.

Under threat of exposure, the offender underwent an in-depth assessment to determine whether he was still a danger to children. 

Such evaluations, used frequently by the HAB, can last up to 50 hours and involve lengthy questionnaires, a lie-detector test and other examinations. 

This one, however, ended up being atypical, Fox said: The assessment found the offender had offended in the past but had not reoffended in “more than 20 years.” 

The outside evaluators recommended the offender undergo therapy with an expert in the field, Fox said, and in accordance with the victim’s wishes, disclose his past offenses to his own rabbi. The offender is now required to meet with that rabbi on a monthly basis. 

The offender complied, Fox said, and the victim told her he was completely satisfied with the results of the HAB’s involvement. 

The other unusual aspect of this case, Fox said, was that the offender took, in his words, “a significant period of time” to complete the evaluation and to get set up with treatment. 

Too long, as Fox made clear in her e-mail of Nov. 21, 2012. 

“We have NEVER had any evaluation take nearly this long,” Fox wrote in the e-mail obtained by the Herald, reminding him that he had to complete it “for [his] security.” 

Fox declined to share the entire e-mail chain with the Journal, but read the text of those that preceded the one obtained by the Herald to a reporter over the phone. The e-mails were insistent that the offender move forward with the agreed-upon assessment and treatment regimen. 

“Every communication was about following through with the protocol,” Fox told the Journal. “When he [the offender] did not follow through in a timely manner, what I said is, ‘I can’t protect you.’ 

“The victim is going to just let everybody know that this is what you’ve done 20 years ago, and I’m not going to stop it,” Fox added. “I can’t protect that. That is what the e-mail said.” 

Fox has many supporters within the Orthodox Jewish community, but some advocates for the sexual abuse victims are critical of her work with the HAB. 

 “Why do you need an advisory board? Why do you need gatekeepers?” asked Ben Hirsch, a spokesperson for Survivors for Justice, an organization that educates and advocates on issues related to child safety. “Duplicating the job of trained law enforcement professionals serves no purpose other than the occasional cover-up.

“The only thing rabbis should be doing is to tell people to report all incidents of abuse directly to the authorities — even when there is no legal requirement to do so — and to offer public moral support to victims who do report,” Hirsch added. 

Richard Baker, one of the reporters who wrote the Herald article, said this week that the unnamed offender is now under investigation by detectives in Sydney for acts committed against four victims when they were children. 

Australia has no statute of limitations on criminal charges of sexual abuse against children. 

Egyptian exodus comes to Westwood

With focused eyes and wide smiles, a sea of preschoolers in white baker’s hats worked slowly, carefully kneading and flattening the dough that would soon emerge from a brick oven as that classic Passover food: matzah.

These little amateur cooks were part of the model matzah bakery at Chabad’s West Coast headquarters in Westwood, which over a two-week period drew about 6,700 children, most ranging in age from 3 to 7.

The 28th annual event, which took place March 3-17 at the Chabad on Gayley Avenue, gave inquisitive Jewish and non-Jewish children a chance to experience the biblical Exodus firsthand. They went from learning about the hardships of slavery to unleashing a torrent of plagues on the Egyptians to crossing the sea — and even enjoying their own hand-made, piping-hot matzah on the other side.

At the first of five stations, dozens of young participants, along with their teachers and some parents, learned about what the Hebrews suffered through: arduous work, little rest and molding mortar for the bricks. What is normally a large social hall was divided into stations, each with tarps designed according to a specific theme of the period of the Exodus.

One station resembled the Egyptian desert, with images of sand and pyramids adorning the tarps. Another featured Moses, Pharaoh and an Egyptian magician — all played by yeshiva students. 

After witnessing eight plagues, including, to their wide-eyed amazement, water poured into Pharaoh’s goblet turning into blood (or some other mysterious red substance), the children’s Egyptian masters suddenly stopped moving. They had been struck blind by the ninth plague, darkness. 

“We are frozen,” Pharaoh said, appearing to panic. 

“If you allow the Jewish people to go free,” Moses responded, then God will restore light. 

“Maybe,” Pharaoh said. “But first take the plague away.”

“OK, I trust you,” Moses said as he “removed” the darkness with a movement of his staff.

“He’s kidding!” yelled one child, not buying Pharaoh’s promise.

“Ha, ha, ha!” exclaimed Pharaoh. “I’m not letting anyone get away.”

The kids appeared disheartened, exhaling loudly. But after the 10th plague killed every firstborn male in Egypt, Pharaoh crumbled, allowing the children to leave Egypt to the tune of “Under the Sea,” from “The Little Mermaid.”

That brought them to an area where a man who went by the name “Farmer Joe” — the bakery’s wheat and flour expert — taught the basics of grinding wheat stalks into flour, the first step of the delicate and precise matzah-baking process. He softened up the crowd with a bit of comedy, introducing his stuffed ram.

“He’s an interesting ram. He doesn’t eat at all,” Farmer Joe said. “He always says he’s stuffed.”

As children crowded around several wooden tables, they separated kernels from the wheat stalks, grinding them down to flour. They then moved to the mixing station, where they watched some of their classmates enter two booths connected by a wooden plank, one booth for water and one for flour. The children in the respective booths enthusiastically dumped their flour and water into a stainless steel bowl, creating dough.

According to Jewish law, once water touches flour, there is a period of 18 minutes that may pass until the dough leavens, turning into chametz, which cannot be consumed during the holiday. In professional matzah bakeries across the world, this process is intense and hectic, as workers must ensure, down to the second, that all matzah packaged for distribution is baked within 18 minutes of the water and flour mixing.

Because the bakery in Westwood was just a model one, the matzah baked there was not technically kosher for Passover, but the kids understood that time was of the essence, hurrying from the mixing station to the bakery itself.

Little hands flattened the dough on large tables, then made holes in it using spiked rollers. They placed their creations in a brick oven, waiting eagerly for a taste. As the small, handmade, roundish pieces of matzah emerged minutes later, the kids gathered around, staring excitedly at the crunchy unleavened bread that was placed into their outstretched baker’s caps. 

As they left the building with their teachers and parents, munching on their snack, and singing a catchy tune about matzah, Rabbi Aron Teleshevsky, organizer of the bakery, reflected on the annual program.

“I love this,” Teleshevsky said. “It’s not ‘in-your-face’ Judaism; it’s a fun opportunity to celebrate Passover.”

Teleshevsky estimates that about 90 percent of the children who pass through the bakery in any given year are not from Orthodox day schools. Many, he said, are from public schools, or even a Christian school, and are simply interested in the holiday.

Rabbi Chaim Cunin, CEO of Chabad of California, thinks that model matzah bakeries — which are held worldwide — help children connect on a deeper, more personal level during the Passover holiday.

“They’ll be sitting at their own seder table, eating matzah around the table, telling the story. All of a sudden they have a point of reference to make sense of it all and to relive it,” Cunin said. 

The Mensch List: Two-person army for their autistic son

Just try asking Connie and Harvey Lapin to recap 44 years as parent activists in the world of autism. In hyperactive tag-team, the couple bursts forth with stories and ideas, only to interrupt themselves and one another with still more anecdotes, ideas and accomplishments.

In the end, through laughter and tears, they manage to produce a coherent story of the tireless chutzpah, visionary courage and what they call serendipity, but is probably more about persistence, that helped them change the landscape, locally and nationally, for people with autism.

Harvey, 75, and Connie, 73, both grew up in Detroit. The second of their three sons, Shawn, was born in 1968 and was diagnosed with autism in 1970. Shawn is mostly nonverbal, and when he was younger was prone to violent and self-destructive behavior. He now lives in his own apartment with 24-hour help.

In 1970, there were no services for Shawn, and autism was misunderstood as childhood schizophrenia, often blamed on a frigid mother (Connie melts with warmth), and was treated with what today would be called abuse. The Lapins were told Shawn was incapable of feeling love or attachment and that the state had no obligation to educate him.

The Lapins had no intention of standing for any of that.

Story continues after the video.