February 22, 2019

NewGround Awards, Zimmer Museum Farewell

From left: Tasneem Noor, Tzivia Schwartz Getzug, Rabbi Reuven Firestone and Rabbi Ruth Sohn attend NewGround’s Trailblazer Awards, which honored Firestone and Shiza Shahid, the founding CEO of the Malala Fund. Courtesy of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change

NewGround: A Muslim and Jewish Partnership for Change honored recipients of its Trailblazer and Change-maker awards at a luncheon at the Skirball Cultural Center on Feb. 10. 

The Suzy and Wally Marks Jr. Trailblazer Award was presented to Shiza Shahid, the founding CEO of the Malala Fund, and Rabbi Reuven Firestone, a professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.  

The Suzy and Wally Marks Jr. Change-maker Award went to NewGround’s professional cohort of 2015, who were the alumni behind the “Two Faiths One Prayer” video, which brought Jews and Muslims together for prayer.

Aron Kader, comedian and founding member of The Axis of Evil Comedy, provided entertainment.

More than 300 people attended the event, helping the organization to nearly reach its fundraising goal of $140,000.

“[The] Suzy and Wally Marks Jr. Trailblazer Awards luncheon reminded us all of what is possible when individuals have the opportunity to really know one another, person to person, and then create something bigger by building on those relationships,” Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround, said in a statement. 

Established in 2006, NewGround seeks to strengthen Muslim-Jewish ties in Los Angeles through a leadership program for high school students, a fellowship for professionals, events, internships and other programs.

Young visitors in Toddler Town Spanish Class with Museum Educator Maritxell Carrero at the closing celebration of the Zimmer Children’s Museum. Photo by Elaine Lee Photography

More than 500 adults and children turned out to say farewell to the Zimmer Children’s Museum by Sharewell at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles building in Beverly Grove on Feb. 10.

After two decades of operating at that location, the museum is relocating
to Santa Monica Place and changing its name to The Cayton Children’s Museum. A grand opening is scheduled for June 1.

Members of the community dropped by to take one last hop in the ball pit, leave a handprint or sign their yearbook as part of an art activity where children and families could leave their mark.

 “The Zimmer Children’s Museum has been a good friend, almost a family member to so many who have visited us over the past 20 years,” Esther Netter, founder and CEO of ShareWell, told the Journal. “Kids have dressed as rescuers, celebrated Shabbat and countless birthdays, and practiced being the best version of themselves.”

Performer Mista Cookie Jar treated a packed house to a lively, yet bittersweet show. Amid some tears was excitement for the next chapter of the museum.

“While we are sad to see the Zimmer close its doors, we are lifted by the anticipation of the new Cayton Children’s Museum by ShareWell,” Netter said. “Inspired by the generosity of Andrea and Barry Cayton, and Andrea’s father, Jona Goldrich, the Cayton teaches each of us that we are responsible for the other and that each of us has the capacity to make the world a better place. With our new site comes expanded capacity, greater accessibility and visibility. We are ready.”

— Debra L. Eckerling, Contributing Writer

From left: Women’s Guild Cedars-Sinai Symposium Chairs Robyn Field and Jane Gavens; speakers Wendy Walsh, Kerry Johnson and Jackie Lacey, honorary chair Dorothy Salkin, Judge Valerie Salkin and Women’s Guild President Shelley Cooper. Photo courtesy of Women’s Guild Cedars-Sinai

The Women’s Guild Cedars-Sinai Symposium 2019 was held on Feb. 7 at the Cedars-Sinai Harvey Morse Auditorium.  

Approximately 200 people attended the event chaired by Women’s Guild board members Jane Gavens and Robyn Field and advisory chair Dorothy Salkin. 
The theme was “Gender: Relationships and Power,” and the group of speakers included Kerry Johnson, chair of communications studies at UCLA; Wendy Walsh, a psychologist and journalist who helped give rise to the #metoo movement; and Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey.  

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Valerie Salkin moderated the gathering.

The attendees started the morning with a sound bath performed by yoga guru Evan Cooper.

Attendees included Women’s Guild President Shelley Cooper; Women’s Guild past presidents Gina Furth, Judy Briskin, Beverly Firestein and Lorette Gross; and Women’s Guild board members.

Since 1957, the Women’s Guild Cedars-Sinai has brought together women philanthropists who are devoted to raising funds toward the clinical and research priorities of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. 

From left: Hebrew Helpers team Ronit Aranoff, Rabbi Keara Stein, Wendy Jackler, Rachel Moran, Debbie Jaffe, Sigi Gradwohl, Melissa Raub, Marnina Wirtschafter, Robyn Altman, Sarah Grondlund-Jacob and Hebrew Helpers founder Todd Shotz. Music Director Justin Stein in the background. Photo by Stephanie Waisler, Hebrew Helpers

On Feb. 10, more than 160 people assembled at Busby’s East for an event marking the 13th birthday of b’nai mitzvah learning company Hebrew Helpers. 

Among those in attendance were students and their family members, as well as many of the Hebrew Helpers “mentors” who have worked with Jewish students to create a meaningful bar or bat mitzvah experience. The event also marked the official launch of the Mitzvah Learning Fund, a nonprofit that will provide small grants to individuals seeking to access personalized Jewish education or to educators working to create new curricula. 

Since its founding in 2005, Hebrew Helpers has mobilized its 42 mentors to help students connect with their bar or bat mitzvah learning. As of January 2019, the organization had helped create 534 services for bar and bat mitzvah students in Boston; New York City; New Jersey; Pennsylvania; Maryland; Washington, D.C.; Richmond, Va.; San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.

The event featured a display of all the past students’ names, formatted to look like text in a Torah scroll; musical presentations by Hebrew Helpers mentors and former students; and speeches by board members, many of whom paid tribute to the vision of Hebrew Helpers founder.

“Every single person in this room has a story about how you’ve brought them Judaism in a way that they’ve never ever felt,” said Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, addressing Shotz and sharing her own experience as a three-time Hebrew Helpers parent. Hirsch, also a Mitzvah Learning Fund board member, presented Shotz and Hebrew Helpers with an honorary citation from the city.

Shotz called the launch of the Mitzvah Learning Fund “the fulfillment of a longtime dream.” 

“As Hebrew Helpers has grown, I have met many families who were seeking Jewish learning but felt they couldn’t afford it,” he said. “Now, through small grants for learners and educators, the Mitzvah Learning Fund will bring these uniquely personal and custom-crafted Jewish educational opportunities into logistical and financial reach.”

“The Mitzvah Learning Fund is going to make the ancient new,” said longtime community professional Rhoda Weisman, a member of the Mitzvah Learning Fund board. “Life is so expensive. Everyone needs a little help. We’re going to have so many adults learning.”  

— Esther D. Kustanowitz, Contributing Writer

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

Talking to Your Students About Pittsburgh

In the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting, Jewish educators have come together to discuss strategies to help students navigate this difficult period. On Nov. 1, The Jewish Education Project, a New-York based organization that empowers leaders and educators, hosted a webinar titled “Responding to Pittsburgh: Helping Jewish Children and Educators Feel Secure.” 

Some 350 people logged on to watch the event, moderated by Rabbi Jen Goldsmith, managing director of Congregational Learning and Leadership Initiatives, and David Bryfman, chief innovation officer of The Jewish Education Project. 

“We hosted this webinar because our Jewish educators are on the front lines, dealing with the confusion of emotions that our children experience,” Bryfman told the Journal in an email. “We owe it to our youth to provide frameworks for them to come together in times like these. And we believe that educators need to take the time to care for themselves so that they can be the best educators that they can possibly be.”

Also on the call were Liron Lipinsky, associate vice president of Jewish Enrichment at BBYO, which calls itself a pluralistic Jewish teen movement; Betsy Stone, psychologist and adjunct lecturer at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; Meredith Lewis, director of content and engagement at PJ Library; and Shira Deener, director of Jewish education at Facing History and Ourselves.

“What’s interesting to see is how the different groups here are coping,” Lipinsky, who is based in Pittsburgh, said during the webinar. “Some are empowered to speak out and speak up about why they believe this tragedy took place and wanting answers and solutions so that this doesn’t happen again. And there are others who really would prefer to spend this time focusing on breathing.”

Stone spoke of the importance of being aware of “stress reactions — sleeplessness and fear” from children in the wake of the tragedy. “And everything we have to be prepared for in our children, we have to be prepared for in ourselves,” she said. 

For students in fifth grade and above, Stone recommended they write condolence notes. “A condolence note has three lines: ‘I’m so sorry’; something nice about the person or the thing you’re writing the condolence note about; and ‘I’m so sorry.’” 

“We owe it to our youth to provide frameworks for them to come together in times like these.” — David Bryfman

Stone also suggested placing large Post-it notes on the wall that state, “I feel” or “I want” and then giving students markers to fill in the blanks. “It gives kids the opportunity to see what other people are saying and to say what they feel anonymously. Don’t just do this once,” she said. “Do it again in a month, and maybe about something else. What it does is validate people’s emotional experiences.”

Lewis, who in her role at PJ Library connects parents and educators, said parents are looking for age-appropriate spaces where they can channel some of their hopelessness and despair into action. Since community vigils and conversations may be the only thing available for families, and are not right for a lot of young children, it’s a challenge.

“It’s OK for parents and children to do different things right now,” Lewis said. Instead of going to the community vigil as a family, Lewis suggested an adult say, “I’m going to a community vigil. As a family, we’re going to bake challah for our neighbors, because there’s a tradition of when we create and bake and share, we express love.”

Stone added it’s important to be careful to not project adult fears onto children. “Kids don’t need to hear how frightened you are,” she said. “That effectively makes it impossible for them to tell you how frightened they are or what else they might feel. It also tells the kids your feelings matter more than theirs.”

Lewis added, “Children are not little adults. They see the world differently. And they probably have a lot to teach us. Just remember, that all of the adult stuff we bring to the table we actually don’t need to bring to them. We can let our children lead.”

For more resources, click here.  

Michele Prince: Helping Kids and Adults Through the Grieving Process

After years of working in advertising, Michele Prince decided to go back to school to pursue a joint master’s degree in social work and Jewish communal service through USC and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

In 2012, Prince, now 51, who attends Mishkon Tephilo synagogue in Venice, became the CEO of OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center. The nonprofit supports kids as young as 4 and adults of all ages who have lost a close loved one: a parent, a partner, sibling or child.

OUR HOUSE offers services in English and Spanish in multiple locations throughout Los Angeles and Orange County, including West Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley and Koreatown, where it operates out of The Karsh Center at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Now in its 25th year of operation, Prince spoke with the Journal about the important work the organization provides and why she’s drawn to help the grieving.

Jewish Journal: Much of your work focuses on bereavement. What is it about this work that called to you?

Michele Prince: My mom died when I was 16 and there was nothing like an OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center that my family found. And so, when I [went] back to school and actually learned about this agency, I was like, “Wow, that’s what I am going to devote my life to: making sure people have those kinds of resources.”

My mom’s death actually followed two earlier deaths. The year before, my sister’s 4-year-old son drowned. It was a terrible tragedy, the worst anyone can imagine. And the year before that, one of the boys in my social circle within the Jewish community killed himself. So that was pretty intense to grow up with and not a lot of support, and that’s why I do what I do.

JJ: Is there a stigma surrounding grief support?

“There is still a stigma around grief support and just about getting help, period. Couple that with a stigma around anything to do with death [and it’s] a doozy.”

MP: There is still a stigma around grief support and just about getting help, period. Couple that with a stigma around anything to do with death [and it’s] a doozy. It’s certainly been reduced. But for many people it doesn’t even occur to them to reach out for help. But then many people think, “I’m OK.”

We still have such a bootstrap society of just pull yourself up and get over it. But that’s why we’re here, because we know it really helps to be in a grief support group with others who understand what you are going through. And I really believe in it. We see miracle after miracle every day.

JJ: What does a miracle look like?

MP: Let’s say we’re sitting in this room and it’s the first night of a young widow/widower group. So they are in their 30s and 40s and they are dragging themselves in here, and their faces are gray, and their clothes are disheveled, and they can barely get up into the world. And then they do the work in the group and they are comforted by the group leaders and their co-group attendees, and in 18 months, our group leaders will share with us, “I heard the laughter” or, “There was a little lipstick.”

They were just holding themselves up a little bit more, re-entering life with a little more resilience or vibrancy than when that group started. And it’s not Candy Land. It’s still painful. And grief doesn’t have an end date. It’s a process and a path that people follow. And so we help them find that glimmer of hope and that transformation.

JJ: Is this work depressing?

MP: I try to be really protective of the staff because they are hearing people’s worst day like 14 times in a day. They are taking that phone call that if you heard it once, it would devastate you. So it is hard. But that’s different than sad because everybody is very mission focused. They know that transformation that I was describing is possible for that person who is calling. We know it’s going to be better for them.

JJ: Do some people feel, “Well I have my rabbi, I’m OK”?

MP: Some people do feel that. But first of all, many clergy members are not amazing at this. Even if they are skilled, again, the idea of being in a group is so powerful because even if [the bereaved] do meet with their clergy member a few times, that’s still short-term. And it can be comforting, also, to be in a really neutral place whether their congregation gets every gold star: They came to shivah, they brought meals, they had Friday night services, or on the opposite end, nobody came, they didn’t call, if they came they bumbled. So in both of those scenarios, people can come here and they can be honest about the things that went well and didn’t go well.

HUC names Rabbi David Ellenson interim president following death of Rabbi Aaron Panken

Rabbi David Ellenson

Rabbi David Ellenson, chancellor emeritus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), has been appointed interim president of HUC-JIR, following the sudden death on May 5 of former HUC-JIR President Rabbi Aaron Panken at the age of 53.

“Rabbi Aaron Panken will be remembered for his leadership, skills, visions, judgment, and ability to inspire and move others to action,” Ellenson said in a May 14 HUC-JIR statement announcing his appointment. “I am confident that his dreams for HUC-JIR will yet be realized through the foundations he constructed and the visions he has bequeathed us. These dreams and visions will constitute his unforgettable monument, as we secure his enduring legacy.”

The HUC-JIR board of governors appointed Ellenson to lead HUC-JIR, the Reform movement’s flagship seminary, with campuses in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, New York and Jerusalem.

“We are grateful to Rabbi Ellenson for his experienced leadership and commitment to HUC-JIR as we mourn the untimely loss of Rabbi Aaron Panken,” HUC-JIR Board of Governors Chair Andrew Berger said. “Rabbi Ellenson’s deep knowledge of our institution and great devotion to our sacred mission will carry us forward.”

Panken died in a plane crash in upstate New York. His colleagues and students remembered him as a dedicated leader and devoted friend, who exhibited a combination of learnedness, adventurousness and sense of humor.

Ellenson served as the president of HUC-JIR for 12 years, from 2001-2013.

In 2014, Panken succeeded Ellenson.

Ellenson, who was raised in an Orthodox household and joined the HUC-JIR faculty in 1979, is just concluding his tenure as director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. At Brandeis he teaches courses on “Who is a Jew? Jewish Status and Identity in Israel and America.”

He received his bachelor’s degree from the College of William and Mary; was ordained as a rabbi by HUC-JIR and received his Ph.D. from Columbia University.



Reform leaders call on Netanyahu to denounce Western Wall body searches of female rabbinical students

Photo courtesy of Women of the Wall.

Leaders of the Reform movement in the United States called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “issue a swift and clear denunciation” of the demeaning body searches of four female rabbinic students at the Western Wall.

The students from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, including two Americans, on Wednesday were asked to lift their shirts and skirts for security before being allowed to enter the Western Wall plaza, where an egalitarian prayer service was being held. The four said they were questioned and pulled aside into a private room.

“These bold young leaders were treated in the most degrading way imaginable,” said the Reform letter to Netanyahu dated Aug. 24. “They were pulled out of line among hundreds of men and women and were subject to a completely unnecessary search. The actions of the Western Wall Heritage Fund go beyond the disagreement we have about the implementation of a compromise at the Kotel. This was an unacceptable and shameful attempt to hurt and humiliate our leaders, and we are deeply outraged.”

The letter was signed by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism; Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; and Rabbi Steven Fox, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Western Wall security did not say what they were looking for, according to the Israel Religious Action Center of the Reform movement, or IRAC. Western Wall officials in the past have detained women and searched for Torah scrolls and other religious items they consider inappropriate for women to bring to the wall.

In January, Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that women are not to be subjected to intense body searches when entering the Western Wall.

“Our goal with our young leadership is to cultivate a love and a commitment to Israel,” the letter also said. “We will continue to struggle for justice and work to create an Israel we can be proud of. The actions of the personnel at the Kotel yesterday morning only continue to make our work extremely difficult.

“Please issue a swift and clear denunciation of the events that took place yesterday,” it concluded.

Why some Jews still support Trump

Illustration by Steve Greenberg

Watching President Donald Trump equivocate during his criticism of the recent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., many liberal Jews saw a new low for an administration they felt never occupied high moral ground in the first place.

But many of Trump’s most ardent Jewish supporters had an entirely different reaction, responding to his freewheeling commentary with little more than a shrug, as if to say, “What’s the big deal?” To them, criticizing Trump for a lack of moral clarity because he failed to single out neo-Nazis for condemnation was just another example of the liberal media and the Democratic establishment blowing his comments out of proportion.

“People were getting upset with him because he didn’t specifically say he hated Nazis,” said Warren Scheinin, a retired engineer in Redondo Beach. “He also didn’t mention that the sun rises in the east.”

For right-leaning Jews in the Southland like Scheinin, who have stood by the president so far, the media rather than Trump or even neo-Nazis pose the greatest threat to American democracy. To many Trump supporters, if Charlottesville mattered at all, it mattered far less than his promises to reverse the course of the previous administration at home and abroad, especially on difficult issues involving Israel, North Korea and immigration.

While it’s difficult to estimate the percentage of Jews who still support the president, it’s likely small. More than two-thirds didn’t vote for him in the 2016 election.

Among all Americans who cast ballots for Trump, however, many apparently continue to stand by him. A CBS News poll found that 67 percent of Republicans approved of his response to the violence in Charlottesville.

In a separate poll this month by Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J., 41 percent of those surveyed expressed approval for the president. Of those, 61 percent said nothing he could do or fail to do would cause them to change their minds about him.

Steven Windmueller, a professor emeritus at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles who researches Jewish political sentiment, said it is difficult to measure how many Jews continue to enthusiastically support Trump rather than merely accept his leadership.

“For those who are in bed and comfortable with him, and even with his quirks and his inconsistencies, there’s little that will push them away from him,” Windmueller said. “But for those who are troubled by at least some of his statements and actions, I think they’re simply hoping for some way out of this nightmare.”

Windmueller pointed to a “credibility gap” between those who put their faith in Trump and those who trust mainstream media outlets.

“Whatever he said, the media would twist it,” said Alexandra Joans, 66, a property manager in Tarzana who supported Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the Republican primaries but shifted her support to Trump once he became the nominee. “If he said today was Friday, they would say, ‘You’re a damned liar, you should be impeached.’ ”

President Donald Trump answers questions about his response to the violence at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York City on Aug. 15. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters


Benjamin Nissanoff, 45, the founder of a line of body-care products who lives in West Los Angeles, said the media are quick to label Trump a Jew hater, but they didn’t criticize President Barack Obama when, in an interview with Vox, he did not denounce a 2015 attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris as anti-Semitic. (In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Obama said: “Anti-Semitic attacks like the recent terrorist attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris pose a threat that extends beyond the Jewish community.” However, he did not refer to anti-Semitism in the Vox interview.) 

“The media not only didn’t challenge [Obama] on it, they defended him against it,” Nisanoff said. “To me, that is almost an equivalent, analogous situation. Where this president, in my opinion, made a gaffe and — instead of defending him like they did for Obama — they went on offense and they attacked him for a poorly worded and phrased condemnation.”

For some Jewish voices that have defended Trump in the past or stayed silent while others attacked, the president’s comments on Charlottesville seemed to cross a line. But that put them out of lockstep with his base among conservative Jews.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who delivered the invocation at Trump’s inauguration ceremony in January, said he wished that Trump had been a more effective communicator at a time of crisis.

“If he was concerned there not be any violence at the demonstrations, he could have said, ‘I appeal to all Americans to obey the police and not violate any of the rules,’ ” Hier said. “But instead, he seemed to draw a moral equivalency between perpetrators and victims.”

The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), which praised the president when he appointed a diplomatic amateur, David Friedman, as ambassador to Israel, and withheld criticism when he failed to mention Jews in an International Holocaust Remembrance Day statement, spoke out against his Charlottesville comments.

“People were getting upset with him because he didn’t specifically say he hated Nazis. He also didn’t mention that the sun rises in the east.”

Responding to Trump’s assertion that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville protests, the group’s national chairman, Norm Coleman, a former U.S. senator from Minnesota, and Matt Brooks, its executive director, contradicted him in an Aug. 16 statement, saying, “There are no good Nazis and no good members of the [Ku Klux] Klan.

“We join with our political and religious brethren in calling upon President Trump to provide greater moral clarity in rejecting racism, bigotry and anti-Semitism,” they wrote.

But other Jewish Republicans saw nothing objectionable in the president’s comments, only the backlash that ensued. After the California Jewish Legislative Caucus, a group of 16 lawmakers in Sacramento, rebuked Trump for his comments, the only Republican member, State Sen. Jeff Stone of Riverside County, resigned from the caucus.

In an Aug. 17 statement, the caucus said Trump “gives voice to organizations steeped in an ideology of bigotry, hate and violence.” Stone fired back hours later with a statement of his own, saying the caucus “receives state resources to merely criticize our duly elected President.”

Carol Greenwald of Maryland, co-founder of the grassroots group Jews Choose Trump, who supported him throughout the 2016 campaign, dismissed the criticism from organizations like the RJC.

“They’re a bunch of hypocrites,” she said. “They didn’t support Trump for a minute during the campaign.”

She sees the fallout from Trump’s Charlottesville remarks as part of a crusade by the media aimed at damaging the president.

“They ran out of the Russian collusion [story], that Trump is a traitor, because there’s obviously no evidence for it, and so they’re now trying to destroy his presidency by saying Trump’s a racist,” she said.

Scheinin also believes Democrats are running with the Charlottesville story to damage Trump.

“The only reason he’s being harassed about it is because the left loves to harass the president,” he said.

Counterdemonstrators attack a white supremacist during a rally in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters


The former Northrop Grumman engineer agreed with the president that both sides in Charlottesville were to blame for the violence.

“I don’t know why people are making a mountain out of a molehill,” he said of the media coverage. “If the counterprotesters hadn’t showed up, nobody would have been killed. It would have blown over.”

Like Joans, Greenwald and others interviewed for this story, Scheinin said he sees far-left groups such as antifa, known for its use of violence to intimidate conservative speakers and protesters, and Black Lives Matter, which has equated Israel’s treatment of Palestinians with genocide, as more of a threat to democracy and Jewish life in America than the far right.

“The skinheads don’t really bother me,” Joans said. “They’re useless to me. I worry about the left more because they’re the true fascists.”

For Trump stalwarts, the perception that violence and hatred are rampant on the left makes it easier to sympathize with the president’s suggestion that both sides of the Charlottesville rallies should be targeted for condemnation.

Estella Sneider

Estella Sneider, a celebrity psychologist who campaigned for Trump and appeared frequently on television to support him, disputed allegations that Trump is a racist or a xenophobe, pointing to his Orthodox Jewish daughter and son-in-law, foreign-born wife and Blacks he appointed to positions in his administration, such as White House communications aide Omarosa Manigault. “Why are people not seeing this?” Sneider said.

Sneider’s family on her father’s side was almost entirely annihilated by the Holocaust. She said she was nauseated by the Nazi symbols and chants at the torchlight march in Charlottesville. After watching Trump’s remarks, however, she was satisfied that he had unequivocally condemned the white supremacists.

“It would be unfair to lump every single Trump supporter into being white supremacists and white nationalists and neo-Nazis, in the same way it would be unfair to lump all liberal Democrats into being antifa,” she said. “Trump was right in saying that not everybody there was a neo-Nazi.”

Nissanoff, the son of a Holocaust survivor, said he was offended by comparisons between Charlottesville protestors who chanted “Jews will not replace us” and Nazis.

“The word ‘Nazi’ is such a powerful idea that to dilute it and start to equivocate with a bunch of losers who run around with tiki torches I think diminishes what a Nazi and Nazism really was,” he said.

In Los Angeles, members of the Israeli community continue to provide a source of Jewish support for Trump.

Ari Bussel, 51, who runs a liquor distributorship in Beverly Hills, was born in the United States but spent his childhood in Israel. He described himself as a proud Republican and said he felt Trump has not been given a chance to lead the country. He said Trump has been “vilified as the greatest Satan, the actual fulfillment of imaginary fears and baseless accusations.”

“As for the latest accusations,” Bussel added, “whatever the president would have said would not have satisfied some people and the American-Jewish leadership — exactly those who vocally and fiercely fought against his being elected.”

For Adi Levin, 47, a homemaker in Woodland Hills who emigrated from Israel in 2000, Trump’s support for Israel is more important than his record on race relations. She said the coverage of Charlottesville has been biased against the president.

“They like to criticize Trump and will continue doing so no matter what he’ll say or do,” she said. “I never heard them criticize Obama the same way, even though he never criticized or said anything about Muslim extremists.”

However, Levin said she wishes Trump would pick his words more carefully.

Cheston Mizel

“It’s obvious that the media doesn’t like him,” she said, “but I don’t think it will hurt to try and be more politically correct.”

The Orthodox community has been another source of pro-Trump sentiment in Los Angeles and beyond. For some of his observant supporters, Trump’s record on religious liberties and Israel far outweigh his handling of race relations.

Cheston Mizel, president of Mizel Financial Holdings and a congregant of Pico Shul, an Orthodox synagogue in Pico-Robertson, said the attention to Charlottesville and to other presidential controversies has distracted from Trump’s successes, including appointing the pro-Israel Nikki Haley to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and nominating Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“While there are obviously things that are problematic about this presidency, Nikki Haley and Neil Gorsuch are two clear bright spots,” he said.

Rabbi Shimon Kraft, 58, owns the Mitzvah Store on Beverly Boulevard and goes to synagogue nearby at Congregation Kehilas Yaakov. He grew up in a liberal Democratic family in Kansas City, Mo., but in the 1980s, after meeting Ronald Reagan at a Kansas City Jewish country club where he was a lifeguard, he changed his party affiliation to Republican.

Rabbi Shimon Kraft

Although he originally supported Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the primaries, once Trump made it to the general election, Kraft’s choice was clear, he said: He voted to make America great again.

Asked whether he feels Trump has adequately denounced white supremacists, Kraft pulled out his iPhone and played a YouTube video of clips edited together to show Trump repeatedly denouncing white supremacist David Duke in various interviews with reporters.

“It was sufficient,” Kraft said of Trump’s response to Charlottesville. “Those who hate Trump could not accept his condemnation of the violent left.”

Ayala Or-El contributed to this article.

Many Russian expats expect ‘strong’ Trump leadership

West Hollywood resident Roman Finarovsky was sitting on a bench recently, watching his fellow seniors play chess and dominoes in Plummer Park. Not long before, he had cast his vote for Donald Trump, and now he was thrilled to find out his candidate had won the presidential election.

“Trump is going to be a strong leader,” the 76-year-old Russian Jew said. “He keeps his word. He will do everything in his power for people.”

As shock spread across the United States following a bitter election season that divided the nation, many Russian expats in the Los Angeles area united in their support of Trump.

Steven Windmueller, a professor emeritus at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles who has been studying American Jewish voting patterns for decades, said that while there’s no real data on the issue, his interactions with the community support this conclusion — as did more than a dozen interviews conducted for this story.

“They expressed to me their belief that the nation needed ‘a strong man’ to deal with the external threats to the country,” Windmueller wrote to the Journal in an email. “Several suggested to me that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and Trump would work well together, as they marveled at [Putin’s] leadership, and they were hoping that Mr. Trump would emulate that model within this country. They also believed that Donald Trump would be ‘great’ for Israel!”

There are about 500,000 Russian Jews in the U.S., or roughly 10 percent of the American Jewish population, according to a recent study. Approximately 80,000 Russian Jews reside in Los Angeles.

There are numerous reasons cited by members of the Russian Jewish community for supporting Trump and his policies. Many Russian-speaking Jews welcomed Trump’s anti-immigration promises, despite being immigrants or the descendants of recent immigrants.

“Trump is against undocumented immigrants,” said Boris Reitman, a West Hollywood resident who moved from Ukraine 18 years ago. “His polices will target those who are in the country illegally.”

A deeper look at Soviet history might explain why expats — the majority of them Jewish refugees who fled anti-Semitism between 1970 and 1990 — appear so unsympathetic to other refugees and immigrants, said Robert English, director of the USC School of International Relations.

“They see themselves as sort of naturally Americans,” he said. “They are white people and they are from the big country that occupies a whole continent, a former superpower. They look at Latinos, Asians and Muslims and see people who don’t really belong here.”

Putin also was at the center of why a number of Russian Jews supported Trump — although sometimes for opposite reasons.

In some cases, they liked that the Russian leader endorsed Trump on multiple occasions and that Trump said he would get along with Putin. Others, like Finarovsky, said Trump will do a better job than President Barack Obama in keeping the Russian leader in check.

“Unlike Obama, Trump is not going to let Putin do whatever he wants,” he said. “Putin feels weakness and he uses it against people.

In the past few months, relations between Russia and the United States have deteriorated over accusations that Putin’s administration hacked the U.S. election and took controversial military actions in Syria and Ukraine. Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., said in September at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., that the relationships between two countries reached “the lowest point since the Cold War.”

Other Russian Jews looked to Israel as a reason behind their vote. Igor Lerman, 66, the owner of a bookstore in West Hollywood who moved to the U.S. 24 years ago from Ukraine, said he admires Trump because of his support of the Jewish community.

“Trump promised to move Israel’s capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” he said. “And I respect him for that.”

But not all Russian Jews endorsed Trump. Igor Mikhaylov, an engineer who immigrated to Los Angeles from Ukraine in 1989, said everyone in his family voted for Hillary Clinton.

“Clinton is a strong and experienced leader that puts America’s interests first. She isn’t using the presidency to enrich her own business interests like Trump,” Mikhaylov, 38, said. “Clinton’s secretary of state record speaks of her willingness to stand against Vladimir Putin’s expansionist plans that are dangerous to peace on the European continent and the security of former Soviet republics. Hillary Clinton’s background appeals to me. As an immigrant, it instills hope and exemplifies a quintessential American story of a simple blue-collar family that worked hard to reach the top.”

Some Russian expats refrained from supporting either candidate. Valeriy Yakovlev, a West Hollywood resident who moved from Moscow 11 years ago, said he opted not to vote because neither candidate was worthy.

“Why, out of 300 million people in this country, they didn’t find two decent candidates?” Yakovlev said. “I don’t know.”

Moving and shaking: Commencement ceremonies, Jews for Hillary and more

Three seminaries — American Jewish University (AJU), Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR-CA) were among the local schools holding commencement ceremonies last month.

At AJU, which held its 66th commencement on May 15 at its Bel Air campus, nine students received Master of Arts degrees in rabbinic studies. They were ordained in a ceremony the next day. Four students were conferred Master of Arts in Nonprofit Management degrees and 13 were awarded a Master of Business Administration through the Graduate School of Nonprofit Management, while seven students earned a Master of Arts in Education. Eighteen students received bachelor’s degrees.

Among those getting honorary doctorates were Valley Beth Shalom Rabbi Ed Feinstein, philanthropist Joyce Eisenberg-Keefer and Jeffrey L. Glassman, CEO of Covington Capital Management and chairman emeritus of AJU. John Magoulas, the associate chief development officer of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles who received an MBA from AJU in 2001, received the Mickey Weiss Award for Outstanding Alumni. 

HUC-JIR ordained eight students in a May 15 ceremony at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, the president of HUC-JIR, was the ordination speaker. Giving remarks were Cary Davidson, a member of the university’s board of governors and chair of the Western region overseers; Congregation Kol Ami’s Rabbi Denise Eger, president of the board of trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Daryl Messinger, chairman of the Union for Reform Judaism’s board of trustees; and Congregation Or Ami’s Rabbi Paul Kipnes

Graduation exercises took place the following day at Temple Emanuel, with dean Joshua Holo offering opening remarks. A certificate of recognition was presented to Michael Zeldin, retiring senior national director of HUC-JIR’s schools of education, who also gave the graduation address. 

Seven students received the Master of Arts in Jewish Nonprofit Management, seven others were awarded Master of Arts in Jewish Education and eight students earned Master of Arts in Hebrew Letters. One student received a Doctor of Hebrew Letters. 

An honorary doctorate was presented to Rabbi Marc Lee Raphael, the Nathan and Sophia Gumenick Professor of Judaic Studies and Director of the Program in Judaic Studies at the College of William and Mary. The Sherut La’Am award was presented to activist, philanthropist and author Buff Brazy Given

AJR-CA held its graduation and ordination on May 30 at Stephen Wise Temple. Seven rabbis and one cantor were ordained after they had received their master’s degrees a day earlier in an event at the school’s Koreatown campus. At the May 30 event, one student graduated with a certification in chaplaincy and another received a master’s degree in Jewish studies. Rabbi Laura Owens, the school’s interim president, gave the opening address. 

— Avi Sholkoff, Contributing Writer

Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Regional Director Amanda Susskind moderated a May 25 panel discussion titled “Challenges and Opportunities Facing Jewish and Asian-American College Students,” hosted by ADL’s Asian Jewish Initiative in Los Angeles. Panelists were Jerry Kang, vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion at UCLA; Heather Rosen, a graduating senior and student body president at UCLA; Riki Robinson, a student and program coordinator at the Center for Asian Pacific American Students at Pitzer College; and Varun Soni, dean of the Office of Religious Life at USC. 

From left: ADL Asian Jewish Initiative co-chair Vince Gonzalez, UCLA Vice Chancellor Jerry Kang, USC Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni, ADL Asian Jewish Initiative founder Faith Cookler, ADL Regional Director Amanda Susskind, UCLA senior and outgoing president Heather Rosen and Pitzer College student Riki Robinson.  Photo courtesy of Anti-Defamation League

Approximately 30 people were present as the panelists drew attention to the clash of identities — how students self-identify and how they are perceived — and what was described as a “wealth of diversity” within both communities.

Jewish students Rosen and Robinson said that some of the challenges Jewish students face come from within the Jewish community, while other challenges are external. On UCLA’s campus, Rosen said, “There’s a huge issue with politicization of identity, especially the Jewish identity.”

“A lot of times, because we are considered to be part of the white population, we are excluded from [progressive] conversations,” she said. “I’ve been told I’m an oppressor because I’m Jewish, because Israel is considered the oppressor and Palestine is considered the oppressed.”

Susskind stressed that there is no competition over who is more victimized. From her knowledge of individual instances, “The only allies Jews have had on campuses … have been oftentimes Asian, oftentimes South Asian.” 

“I want to [end] on an overarching positive,” Susskind added. “We have a lot in common among the Asian and Jewish cultures: the ancient cultures, the strong moms, the great food. And we want to see these alliances improved.”

— Lakshna Mehta, Contributing Writer

The Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) recently announced a $1 million donation from Jay H. Geller and his husband, Lowell Gallagher, to establish the Geller-Gallagher Leadership Institute (GGLI). 

From left: Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management at HUC-JIR Director Erik Ludwig, Jay Geller, Lowell Gallagher and HUC-JIR President Rabbi Aaron Panken. Photo courtesy of HUC-JIR 

The announcement was made at the Zelikow School’s honors reception on May 15, which celebrated eight individuals who received honorary doctorate degrees from the school. Geller is a Los Angeles attorney and member of the HUC-JIR Board of Governors, and Gallagher is an English professor at UCLA. 

The institute is being established “to engage in an open dialogue with professional leaders in the Jewish community to address challenges in the leadership pipeline,” said Erik Ludwig, the director of the Zelikow School. Although the institute will operate under the umbrella of the Zelikow School, it will be open to the general public. 

“Mentorship is really, really important to me,” said Geller, who is the chairman of the Zelikow School Advisory Council. “The reason why we started the institute was to create relationships and foster mentorships. The institute will work with professionals, lay leaders and students to develop those relationships.” 

The inaugural event of GGLI will be on Aug. 8. The speakers at the event will be Gali Cooks, executive director of Leading Edge: Alliance for Jewish Leadership; David Cygielman, founder and CEO of Moishe House; Jordan Fruchtman, chief programming officer of Moishe House; and Allan Finkelstein, former president of Jewish Community Centers Association of North America.

Of the eight honorees at the recent reception, two were from the Los Angeles area: Lori Klein, senior vice president of Caring for Jews in Need at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; and Lesley Plachta, development director of the Los Angeles Jewish Home Foundation. Lori Goodman, the chief development officer of CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation) in Santa Barbara, also was an honoree.

— Lakshna Mehta, Contributing Writer

American Jewish Committee Los Angeles (AJC-LA) elected Scott Edelman as its regional president during its 71st annual meeting and luncheon, held on May 23 at the Intercontinental hotel. He succeeds outgoing AJC-LA President Dean Schramm, who continues on as chairman of AJC-LA.

New American Jewish Committee Los Angeles regional president Scott Edelman. Photo courtesy of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher

“What attracts me most to AJC is its outreach to the non-Jewish world,” Edelman, a Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner and 2015 AJC-LA Judge Learned Hand Award recipient, said during his acceptance speech, as quoted in a press release. “We cannot take our freedom for granted; we live in perilous times. We must fight against anti-Semitism, all forms of bigotry, and the spread of radicalism and extremism.”

The meeting also marked appointments of new AJC-LA board members, including Glenn Sonnenberg, the current president of the board of directors at Stephen Wise Temple. Additionally, Reeve E. Chudd, Julie Bram and Cathy Unger were named AJC-LA vice presidents; Dan Schnur was named treasurer; and Eva Dworsky was named secretary. 

Additional new board members include Jonathan Anschell, Brian Cohen, James Dasteel and Marc Graboff.

Attendees at the event included L.A. City Councilmen Paul Koretz and Bob Blumenfield, and L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin, among others.

Faithful Central Bible Church Bishop Kenneth Ulmer delivered the invocation and spoke about the importance of Black-Jewish relations.

AJC-LA Director Janna Weinstein Smith said she is looking forward to working with Edelman in his new role. “AJC is thrilled to have Scott, an accomplished Jewish community leader, serve as president of our region,” she said in a statement.

Samara Hutman, the executive director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), traveled to Washington, D.C., on  May 6 to see photographs of Los Angeles-based Holocaust survivors on display in the Russell Senate Office Building rotunda. The exhibit, which initially debuted at LAMOTH, is titled “Portraits in Black and White: Survivors and What They Carry” and features 20 black-and-white photos taken by photographer Barbara Mack.

Photographer Barbara Mack and LAMOTH Executive Director Samara Hutman visit Washington, D.C.  Photo by Bryan McLamara 

Two members of the Argus Quartet, violinist Clara Kim and violist Diana Wade, accompanied Hutman. Kim and Wade performed two pieces, “Found Missing” and “Tracks,” which students created as part of the Righteous Conversations Project at Milken Community Schools in Los Angeles. Milken student Noah Daniel composed “Tracks” after learning from survivor Armin Goldstein

“The piece begins with an academic-sounding, exercise-like scale in order to portray the rigorous 14 hours a day Armin spent in school (apart from homework and studying), but also has a youthful joy as the waltz-like pizzicato comes in,” Daniel said, as quoted by LAMOTH. “It then moves into the period Armin spent in forced labor, as a lumberjack in freezing wind and snow. The augmented chord played by the violins as the piece accelerates creates the illusion of a train, as Armin is forced into a cattle car and taken to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in today’s northern Germany.”

Hutman praised the event and stressed the importance of students learning about the Holocaust. “This generation of students is the last one that will be able to connect in person with Holocaust survivors in our community,” Hutman said. “LAMOTH’s Righteous Conversations Project Music Composition Program gives students the opportunity to carry on the legacy of memory to future generations through music.”

— Avi Sholkoff, Contributing Writer

If you want to celebrate an organization that works to help churches, synagogues and mosques create sustainable gardens on their properties, what better place to do it than in the middle of a … sustainable garden?  Netiya’s “Not Just a Garden Party” on May 26 at the home of founder Devorah Brous and Laurence Weber brought together 90 supporters of the organization amid the home’s raised beds, fruit trees, aquaponic pond and chicken coop.

An interfaith gardening event organized by agriculture group Netiya.   

“Almost everything grows here in this part of the world,” Brous said in impassioned remarks to guests. “Yet 600,000 kids are food insecure in Los Angeles County.”

Netiya helps by converting congregations’ water-intensive crabgrass lawns into sites for fresh food production. So far, it has installed 16 food gardens at faith-based institutions and given 10 microgrants to L.A. congregations to grow food.

“These congregations are essentially the greatest source of ready-to-repurpose lands in the entire city,” Brous said. “Faith communities are literally the fertile ground to seed institutional scale change around the city.”

As night came and lights twinkled in the garden, performance artists entertained a crowd including Rabbi Sharon Brous and David Light, Melissa Balaban and Adam Wergeles, Jack Weiss and Leslie Kautz, Brian Pass, Yuval Ron, Carolyne Aycaguer, Shep and Shari Rosenman, Rabbi Noah Farkas, Rabbi Ahud Sela and Jessica Ritz.  

— Staff report

Former Congressman Howard Berman discussed the Democratic Party platform on Israel at the Beverly Hills home of Ada and Jim Horwich during a “Jews for Hillary” event on May 31. 

A “Jews for Hillary” event was held at the Beverly Hills home of Ada and Jim Horwich on May 31.

“My sense from conversations with people who are very involved in Hillary Clinton’s campaign, more so than I am, is … a firm resolve to stand with American support for Israel,” Berman told the standing-room-only crowd that filled the Horwich courtyard.

Co-organized with activist Donna Bojarsky, the event brought out Democratic pols and community leaders en masse. 

“We really need a strong united Jewish community,” said Sarah Bard, Clinton’s Jewish outreach coordinator. “Hillary Clinton is going to fight hard to make sure the platform reflects her long record of support for Israel.”

“I think we got our marching orders,” Bojarsky called out to the crowd.

Spotted at the event were Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin, L.A. City Councilman Bob Blumenfield, Wendy Greuel, Zev and Barbara Yaroslavsky, Rabbi Naomi Levy, Sharon and Leon Janks, Rabbi Ken ChasenSam Yebri, Jesse Gabriel, and Rabbi Sharon Brous and David Light.

— Staff report

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

Middle East artists depolarize politics in USC class

On a recent weekday morning, nearly 20 USC freshmen gathered for a seminar that looked at the contemporary Israeli and Palestinian experience through literature, poetry, film and television. But instead of highlighting the differences between the two groups, as is so often the case, this semester-long class, which ended the last week of April, focused on what they have in common.

“Exile and Identity in Modern Israeli and Palestinian Culture” was taught by Yaffa Weisman. Weisman, 64, is director of the Frances-Henry Library at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), which is located near the USC campus. She is also an adjunct associate professor at HUC-JIR’s Jerome H. Louchheim School for Judaic Studies, which has been offering Jewish studies courses to USC undergraduates since 1971, the year HUC-JIR moved to its current location. 

In the past, Weisman, whose specialty is comparative literature, has taught the “Literature of Resistance,” a class she described as “dealing with how various cultures and societies deal with repression,” also through the Louchheim School. But the exile and identity class was the first time she offered a class focusing solely on modern Israelis and Palestinians.

“In my ‘Literature of Resistance’ class, I have been careful about not teaching literature about the conflict, talking myself into the idea that I may be too biased,” Weisman said. “But then I realized it doesn’t matter where I go. I am still going to be an Israeli.

“My own politics are of reconciliation and peace,” added Weisman, who grew up in Ramla, Israel, in a peaceful neighborhood of Jews, Christians and Muslims. “I didn’t know this was an ideal picture. Jews and Arabs lived together in my life, so I started looking into ways to convey that idea in nonpolitical ways: the idea that there is or should be hope, and there are points of reconciliation, and that there are more points of commonalities than differences between Palestinians and Israelis. I wanted to show how both cultures express ideas and feelings about the situation. But it felt too broad. So I started focusing on two concepts: the ideas of exile and identity.”

Weisman, who has a background in theater, was inspired to create the class, in part, by conversations she had with friends. “I have not lived in Israel for 35 years,” she said. “But I am very tuned in when it comes to collaboration. I have heard from a lot of my colleagues in Israel about work that is being done in theater and realizing there is a whole world of coexistence. Poets talk to each other, writers talk to each other, filmmakers.” 

Her goal, she said, was “to have the students see that this particular conflict is more than the sum of news headlines, and that creative expressions of Israelis and Palestinians shed light on the human aspects of the conflict.”

Among the works the students examined in Weisman’s class were poems by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. They saw several films, including the 1964 satire “Sallah,” generally considered the most successful film in Israeli history, as well as Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s semi-autobiographical 2009 film, “The Time That Remains.” They read short stories by Israeli Benjamin Tammuz and Palestinian Ghassan Kanafani and listened to the national anthems for both Israel and Palestine. Of course, Weisman was limited in her choices; she could use only those works that had been translated into English.

“I tried very much not to be one-sided,” Weisman said. “I didn’t shy away from what for me are very painful descriptions of Palestinian refugees in 1948. I chose texts that show both the pain and the hope, the aspiration.” 

The works that were the subject of the most spirited classroom discussions, according to Weisman, were two interviews. One was a lengthy interview of Darwish by Helit Yeshurun, an Israeli poet. In it, Darwish says, among other things: “Do you know why we, the Palestinians, are famous? Because you are our enemy. Interest in the Palestine problem comes by way of interest in the Jewish problem. … You have given us defeat, weakness and publicity.” In the other interview, from Amos Oz’s 1983 book, “In the Land of Israel,” the Israeli writer sits down with three Palestinian men in Ramallah. They bond over cigarettes and Coca-Cola and talk about power, peace and war.

Based on conversations she had with students and reflection papers they wrote, Weisman considers the class a success and plans to teach it again next spring. “Some of [the students] are at least willing to consider two things: that art can change the world and that there is an ongoing dialogue. And once you open yourself to listening to the other side, or both sides, you get a different perspective on the conflict and I think a little more hopeful perspective.”

Noah Etessani, 18, found the class enlightening. “All the exposure I have gotten on this topic has been very one-sided: just pro-Israel, not really giving voice to the Palestinians,” said Etessani, who grew up in Beverly Hills and is Jewish.

Now, he said, “I have a lot more sympathy toward the ordinary Palestinian people, not the people in charge, [but] the people just born there, trying to live their everyday lives. I definitely came out of [the class] feeling different.

“At the end of the day, I really realized that the vast majority of people on both sides are ordinary people trying to live their lives normally.”

Another student in the seminar had a more personal takeaway. Jess Jun, 18, who was born in Korea and came to the United States when she was 6 — her family lives in Orange County — said she now has a general understanding of the situation in the Middle East and the inner workings of the Israeli and Palestinian people. 

But, Jun added, “I myself, as an immigrant, had trouble determining if I was Korean or American or Korean-American. But taking the class and seeing what Israelis and Palestinians felt made me think about how I should be thinking about the issue. I know [my] issue is very incomparable to what they are going through. But I do think I was able to relate in some way.”

After the Iran vote, now what?

Is it over?

Recently, during a KPCC radio talk show about the Iran deal, the host, Patt Morrison, asked me whether, now that President Barack Obama has the 34 votes he needs to support the Iran nuclear agreement, the rancor and vitriol within the Jewish community that marked the debate over it would subside. 

Honestly, I wish I knew the answer.

The truth is, the debate has opened up some wounds that are going to take some time to heal, assuming they will heal. We knew this day of reckoning would come, and the vote would go down one way or the other, but we acted as if the only thing that mattered was winning the fight, not how we’d live together after it ended.

“We were so busy fighting about days one through 60,” Rabbi Aaron Panken, the head of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion told me — referring to the number of days before the congressional vote — “we haven’t really thought about what happens on day 61.”

I suggest that on day 61, in the spirit of the Jewish New Year, we take a breath and take stock. This, it seems to me, is where we are:

First, we are divided. Right after the deal was announced in July, Jewish leaders, here and in Israel, proclaimed that the Jewish world stood united against it. This moment, they said, was a rare instance of 13 million Jews, one opinion. But shortly after that pronouncement, the Jewish Journal conducted a national poll that revealed a majority of American Jews favored congressional support for the deal by a wide margin — 53 percent to 35 percent. That revelation changed the conversation. It showed a significant political and ideological rift among American Jewry.

Second, it is now clear no single voice represents the Jews. As the debate intensified, mainstream American-Jewish organizations lined up against the deal in concert with the Israeli government. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee led the charge. The Anti-Defamation League also said no, albeit with a slightly more nuanced approach, as did the American Jewish Committee, and numerous local Jewish Federations all weighed in against it. Dueling petitions from hundreds of rabbis, competing op-eds and those pesky scientific polls showed there is a disconnect between the organized and, for lack of a better word, the disorganized Jewish worlds.

Third, a critical aspect of this schism is age. The Jewish Journal poll reported that Jewish adults under 40 supported congressional approval of the deal 59 to 25 percent. This next generation is going to take a long, hard look at organizations and leaders that speak in their name, and spend their donations, but don’t share their views.

Fourth, it is important to be clear who crossed the lines of civility and who didn’t. On Aug. 28, The New York Times ran a misleading article headlined, “Iran Deal Opens a Vitriolic Divide Among American Jews.” The reporters listed numerous examples of vitriol from those who oppose the deal. They wrote that longtime Israel supporter Rep. Jerrold Nadler had been called a “kapo” for siding with the president. The deal’s opponents, they wrote, also held rallies denouncing the pro-deal lobbying group J Street as traitors, and Obama as a terrorist. 

As for the other side, the reporters found that they … appealed for civility. There has been no equivalence to the meanness of tone and foulness of language expressed by what is, to be sure, a minority of the deal’s Jewish opponents. We have a vitriol problem, but the name-calling comes largely from one side. 

Fifth, our divisions are nothing new. Let’s not treat this like it’s the beginning of the end of Jewish unity. It is more like the continuing expression of historic Jewish disunity. We fought bitter internecine fights over how to react to the Holocaust as it was happening, over the formation of the State of Israel and over the Oslo accords. Those ideological divisions have transferred neatly to Iran. Once this debate is over, we won’t leave the ring, we’ll just go to our corners.  

Sixth, here’s the good news: We tend to fight with our mouths. There have been some anguished exceptions throughout history, but, most of the time, we seem to understand that words may hurt us, but sticks and stones are a lot worse.

Seventh, another thing The New York Times misunderstood is that the debate did not create two sides, but three — and that is a crucial point going forward. Some Jews hate the deal and oppose it. Some like the deal and support it. The third group doesn’t like the deal, but thinks it’s the best of all realistic options. In the Jewish Journal poll, even though a majority of Jews interviewed supported the deal, only 42 percent said they believe it would prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon over the next 10 years. This group views the deal with low expectations, raised suspicions and eyes wide open. 

If there is a way to go forward with some kind of unity, this third group, I believe, holds the key. Those who oppose the deal can stop fighting the reality of it and start pushing, pragmatically, for arrangements to improve security in America, Israel and among our other Mideast allies in the face of it. We need to learn from the Obamacare debate that, at some point, the fight’s just over. 

Or, at least, I hope it is. 

Shanah Tovah.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.

Rabbi David Ellenson: Bringing heart and old-school soul to academia

An Orthodox upbringing, no fundraising experience, and, by all accounts, a tendency to virtually inhabit the lives of 19th century Jewish philosophers, Rabbi David Ellenson was not who you might have expected to become president of a major institution of Jewish higher learning like the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

But in 2001, Ellenson was indeed selected to lead the Reform seminary, with its campuses in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, New York and Jerusalem.

“He was not a numbers-cruncher,” Steven Windmueller, Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at HUC-JIR, said of Ellenson, who officially stepped down from his post as president to become chancellor on Jan. 1 and will be celebrated in Los Angeles in a gala at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on Feb. 9. “Everything was built around his warm, friendly style,” Windmueller said.

“He’s a great schmoozer. He can talk to people about anything,” said Rabbi Karen Fox of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, who attended rabbinic school with Ellenson and remains a close personal friend.

“I like people very much,” admitted Ellenson, who said he operates in a nonhierarchical way and that his relationships with people “always remain of primary import.”

Born in Brookline, Mass., in 1947, David Ellenson grew up in Newport News, Va., where, according to Windmueller, he saw firsthand the “sense of commitment” of the Jewish professionals at the local JCC.

In 1969, Ellenson received his bachelor’s degree from the College of William and Mary; he was ordained at HUC-JIR and received his doctorate from Columbia University. Fox recalls that as a student at HUC-JIR, Ellenson didn’t necessarily need to prepare. “The rest of us are breaking our teeth, and he could breeze on in,” Fox said.

[Rabbi Ellenson's daughter: He's Abba to me]

A member of HUC-JIR’s faculty since 1979, Ellenson worked his way up from lecturer to becoming a professor of Jewish religious thought. From 1981-97, he was also the director of the Jerome H. Louchheim School of Judaic Studies at the L.A. campus.

With four campuses in three time zones, Ellenson’s term was a peripatetic one. “I was on the road 150 to 200 days a year during my service as president,” said Ellenson. 

To digitally unite the four campuses, beginning around 2010, Ellenson found funding to create a system of “electronic classrooms,” where “students and teachers on all our campuses can be together,” he said.

During his tenure, however, keeping the four-campus system standing — whether with mortar or circuit boards — was not always easy.

The financial crisis of 2008-9, according to Ellenson, saw HUC-JIR facing a $10 million deficit out of a budget of $38 million. As reported in the Los Angeles Times in a letter Ellenson sent to the college community, he warned that the institution was in “the most challenging financial position it has faced in its history — even more so than during the Depression.”

“We were considering the closing of a campus, perhaps even two,” he said.

The deliberations over which campus, or campuses, to close were complex, and the fact that Ellenson had lived and worked in Los Angeles for 23 years did not make matters easier.

“My two oldest children went to USC, and our children attended Pressman Academy, Emmanuel Community Day School and Sinai Akiba,” he said. While living in Los Angeles, he also attended the Reform Leo Beck Temple, as well as the Conservative Temple Beth Am’s Library Minyan.

With letters and e-mails pouring in — Windmueller estimates there may have been as many as 10,000, each making a case against the closing of their own campus — the pressure for a decision grew. “They struggled with 25 scenarios,” said Windmueller, who served as dean of the Los Angeles campus during that period. “He knew he needed to make cuts. But he refused to sacrifice his relationships for policy.”

Ellenson and HUC-JIR’s board of governors soon sought other remedies, creating “significant economies [in] how we were going to administer the school,” including selling properties that were no long needed and “engaging in vigorous fundraising,” he said.

“The college today has a completely balanced budget,” Ellenson said with some pride. “In 2009, our endowment was $82 million, and it is over $200 million today.”

“I had never engaged in fundraising or administration in any significant way prior to being president,” said Ellenson, who related that a good day would be when someone called call and told him they “were about to contribute a seven-figure gift.”

Windmueller said Ellenson’s longtime relationships were essential to saving the school. He “had all these relationships, and he was able to turn them into valuable resources.”

Now the school is not only on solid ground, but is also growing to ordain progressive rabbis within Israel. “Our Jerusalem program has expanded, and we will soon be approaching more than 100 Israeli Reform Rabbis,” Ellenson said. 

Also during his tenure, more women have been added to the faculty. When he started, only seven of the 55 members of the board of governors were women; that number has now reached almost at 40 percent, Ellenson said.

As to why the school, unlike other parochial colleges, has no sports teams, Ellenson responded, more than half-jokingly, that it has been his “great disappointment,” and that as a precondition for an agreement of cooperation with nearby NCAA powerhouse Xavier University in Cincinnati, he’d had to promise that HUC-JIR would never field a basketball team.

As the college’s new chancellor, Ellenson will be able to return to the classroom, where previously he had introduced new generations of students to Jewish thinkers such as Moses Mendelssohn and Franz Rosenzweig. “There are certain Jewish figures who live inside of David,” Windmueller said of Ellenson.

In the 1980s, Rabbi Steven Silver, now of Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach, was a student of Ellenson’s in the college’s rabbinic program on the L.A. campus.

“Rabbi Ellenson was talking about Rabbi Leo Baeck,” said Silver, speaking of the German scholar and community leader who in 1943 was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. As Ellenson told the story, he became “emotionally moved,” Silver recalled.

“When he talked about how Baeck was given the job of draining the camp latrines, his lips began to quiver,” Silver said. By the end of the story — Baeck survived — “Ellenson was weeping, as well as the rest of the class,” Silver said.

“I learned that intellectual history is not just about ideas, but the triumph of the Jewish spirit — in dark and painful times,” said Silver.

“This is not his job,” Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Fox said of her longtime friend. “It’s his heart and soul.”

Rabbi David Ellenson is Abba to me

On a Sunday evening last December I sat with my father, Rabbi David Ellenson — or, as my siblings and I call him, Abba — at a diner in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Weeks away from his official retirement as president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), evening descended while the holiday lights burned brightly outside. 

As I listened to him speak, I could see my father’s beard was now more white than brown. He speculated on what his life might be like after retirement. Now 66, his time would be his own again. After a career devoted to the beating of Reform Judaism’s heart, his own heart’s desires were once again eligible for consideration. The irony became quickly apparent: the two heartbeats, it turned out, were not that different. 

My father’s entire adult life has been spent enthralled by the promise, community and intellectual calling of liberal Judaism. Abba has been blessed to spend his professional life living out his personal passion for the Jewish people. It has brought him a great deal of fulfillment and recognition, but that has never been what matters to him. Both a rabbi and an academic, his career at HUC-JIR allowed him to lead a Jewish seminary while still being a scholar who got excited seeing his work cited in an academic colleague’s footnote.

If my father is beloved by many of the people who encounter his warmth, knowledge and humor, it’s because he is in love with the Jewish people — in spite of their complexity, but probably also because of it. That love causes him to radiate with a warm glow that invites others toward him. Abba’s sincere curiosity encompasses both people and ideas in equal measure, but its focus is almost always on am Yisra’el. It is not just a religious devotion, per se, but a deep tribalism that engages his heart and mind and motivates his life’s work. 

[Related: Bringing heart and old-school soul to academia]

The evening in downtown L.A. came at the end of another typical weekend in my father’s atypical life. That afternoon he performed a wedding for a lesbian couple who had been together for 31 years and were finally able to legally marry. As my father pronounced them spouses beneath the chuppah, he had tears in his eyes and spoke about how the tide of history moves towards justice, paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr. A day before, he had been honored at the Union of Reform Judaism Biennial in San Diego, a gathering of more than 5,000 people, where he was embraced by his moppet of a granddaughter, Lily, as everyone sang to him. Abba also blessed the incoming president of HUC-JIR, Rabbi Aaron D. Panken — again, with tears in his eyes — moving many of those present to tears as well.

The intimacies of family life do not always lend themselves to experiencing my father the way others see him, and I have been grateful to witness these recent moments of loving public recognition. I share that gratitude with my entire family, especially my brothers and sisters: Micah, Hannah, Nomi and Rafi. A half-minyan of children is a contribution to Jewish peoplehood in and of itself, but to see his work reflected in the lives of the many people he has taught, officiated for and befriended is a gift. As my siblings and I know — as does every rabbi’s child — to love our father is to share him with a wider world.

He grew up an Orthodox Jew in Newport News, Va. His father, Sam, was the son of Ukrainian immigrants who worked in the shipyards. Sam went on to graduate from Harvard Law School. Abba’s mother, Rosalind, a woman whose career began with involvement in Hadassah, went on to manage the social services for the city of Hampton, Va. Neither probably ever imagined their eldest son would become a leader of Reform Jewry, but I am sure they would have been very proud had they lived to see it.

My father’s childhood in the South of the 1950s and ’60s, along with those of his sister Judy and brother Jimmy, took place during a time where he knew, as a Jew, that he was “other.” While popular as a child — he was student body president of Newport News High School in 1965 and played basketball, for which he retains a passion to this day — he also recalls not being allowed to visit the country clubs of his gentile friends as their guest.

My father’s appeal, I’ve often thought, stems from a Southerner’s charm matched with a Northeasterner’s intellectual credentials. As a Jewish Southerner, Abba learned to love not only Judaism from an early age, but also American history and the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Perhaps that is why the personal freedom and intellectual adaptability of Reform Judaism fit him so well.

Growing up in the segregated South, he witnessed firsthand the unfolding of the civil rights movement, which gave him a formative example in embracing his own Jewishness with pride years later when he came to New York to pursue his graduate studies in the 1970s. Earning his rabbinical degree and doctorate, at HUC-JIR and Columbia University respectively, Abba was a member of the Upper West Side Chavurah, a period he has described as finding his intellectual and spiritual home in the world.

At Columbia he focused on Esriel Hildesheimer, a 19th century rabbi and scholar who founded a seminary in Berlin that attempted to reconcile Orthodoxy and modernity. I’ve often thought Hildesheimer appealed to my father because he echoed Abba’s own attempts to reconcile his Southern upbringing with his Judaism.

For my father, the central question that animates his passions is how to lead a meaningful Jewish life in a modern world filled with infinite choices, and how those decisions have been navigated in the past, present and future. While it is a question that has never taken root in my heart the way it has for my father, conversations with him have made me appreciate the art of questioning, and shown me that not always knowing the answer is a driving factor in the Jewish consciousness. 

As I write this in late January, I am in Berlin. The city is quiet under a blanket of thick white snow, and today happens to be International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Adass Jisroel, the Berlin synagogue that Hildesheimer — the subject of my father’s scholarship — founded in 1869 still operates today. As I wandered through the streets to see what is left of the places Hildesheimer once walked, in the neighborhood known as Mitte, I thought of my father and how Judaism is wide enough and strong enough to hold the center, even when its branches bow from the weight of discord. Because of my father, I have faith that the roots will sustain me, even with my questions, and the tree will blossom. I know I am not the only one to feel that way because of my father and his work. We are lucky. Our Jewish world is a wider one because of his open mind and heart. 

In his work as president, I have seen my father ordain hundreds of rabbis. This May, he will ordain my brother Micah. Micah is the first, and may be the only one, among us children to follow in our father’s rabbinic footsteps. I have no doubt that Micah’s ordination will be the most meaningful of all those my father has performed, but with each one he always offers a special moment, both private and public, as he stands before the congregation and whispers a personal blessing to each newly minted rabbi.

Although he has done this countless times, it is always a genuinely beautiful moment. For me, it recalls the Shabbat table at our home, where Abba blessed us every week. That magical moment is to this day my favorite part of being a member of a Jewish family — a pause in the chaos of life that recognizes connection, love and gratitude, and wishes each child peace.

As my father embarks on this new chapter of his life, I join with our entire family—immediate and extended, his colleagues and countless friends, each of whom he makes feel that they uniquely are the most special one of all — to offer our own blessing to him in the next chapter of his life. 

May the happiness and insight he has brought so many be returned to him with abundance, and may he be granted peace.


Writer Ruth Andrew Ellenson and her father won simultaneous National Jewish Book Awards in 2005 for their respective books, “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” (Plume) and “After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity” (Hebrew Union College Press). 

Rebecca Joy Fletcher: Illuminating cabaret

When Rebecca Joy Fletcher was a cantorial student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, she chanced upon something in the library that would change her life forever. It was a box set of cabaret songs from Weimar-era Germany, and Fletcher knew in that moment of what she calls “extreme deja vu” that she needed to work with the material. 

Now, more than a decade later, she’s produced “Cities of Light,” a one-woman musical show that deals with the rich history of the music that touched her so long ago. Fletcher will present it Feb. 9 at American Jewish University (AJU).

The show came about after Fletcher finished a critically acclaimed run of her show “Kleynkunst!” which ran off-Broadway in New York in 2007 and 2008 and focused on cabaret performers in pre-World War II Warsaw. Fletcher found herself thinking, “What about Tel Aviv?” Although “Kleynkunst!” had been narrowly focused, she knew there was a much wider world of cabaret in Europe and beyond to explore. 

“I ended up getting a grant and going and doing research,” Fletcher said recently in a phone interview from her home in Chicago. 

She discovered that Israel indeed had its own vibrant cabaret scene from the 1920s through the 1940s, and so “Cities of Light” began to take shape. The show tells the story of a fictional Jewish cabaret performer named Katarina Waldorf as she travels around Europe and later, Israel. 

“In a sense, it’s her story, and its also the story of this art form, as it was harnessed and really taken to a whole new level by Jewish artists,” Fletcher said.

Cabaret is a style of theatrical performance, often done in bars or cafes, that features music, comedy, dance and recitation in an intimate setting, often with an audience that’s dining or drinking. “Cabaret is inherently a satiric art form,” according to Fletcher. “It’s a bit like shifting tectonic plates; you don’t know what can happen next.”

“Cities of Light” became a personal journey for Fletcher, who found the experience of researching the piece to be rather eye-opening. “It was exciting and important to me to create ‘Cities of Light’ because it addresses a world before the Holocaust … that doesn’t exist anymore and that celebrates an art form that most of us … know nothing about.”

“We have a bit of a tendency … American Jews … to think it was all ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ And it was, by and large, not,” Fletcher said. “These were very cutting-edge artists, and they had a vision of what it meant to be a secular Jew.”

Fletcher tried her best to capture the creativity of the art in “Cities of Light,” which runs around one hour and 15 minutes. It features quite a bit of music — all the songs originated or were popular in cabarets — but Fletcher is quick to point out that “theater is at the heart of the piece.” She said that though the songs were originally in other languages, about 70 percent of the show is in English. There are other differences, too.

“We take liberties musically so that the music will be fresh for audiences now,” said Fletcher, who will also be giving a lecture at AJU on Feb. 6. She described it as a supplement for folks who are interested in the back history of the show. 

Fletcher, who tours around the country and abroad as an artist-in-residence and performer, is excited to perform in Los Angeles, because it’s her hometown. Her mother, Rabbi Susan Laemmle, is the former dean of religious life at USC, and her family has deep roots in the city, stretching back to Carl Laemmle, who founded Universal Pictures. 

The performer is equally excited about a new project she’s working on that centers around a real experience in which a beggar in France handed her a man’s gold wedding ring on the street and told her that she’d found it and that Fletcher needed it. Fletcher describes the piece as “part spiritual journey, part wild goose chase, part circus.” For Fletcher, the new piece, which has the working title “Perfect,” is a nice departure from “Cities of Light.” 

“I love cities, and I love that world … but they’re secular,” said Fletcher, who still serves as a cantor from time to time. She’s looking forward to working on a piece that explores the spiritual side of Judaism, a fitting companion to the secular world of “Cities of Light.”

Right now, however, Fletcher is focused on doing her 97-year-old grandmother proud. She’s reportedly “psyched” to see “Cities of Light.” Fletcher hopes the rest of Los Angeles will be, as well.

“Cities of Light” will be performed at American Jewish University on Feb. 9 at 4 p.m. For tickets and information, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.

“Cities of Light” will be performed at American Jewish University on Feb. 9 at 4 p.m. For tickets and information, visit aju.edu.

B’nai Mitzvah revolution

At Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, the Torah has left the building — not permanently, but as part of a new ritual of sending the holy scroll home with a child the night before his or her bar or bat mitzvah. 

The Reform congregation’s Rabbi Jonathan Hanish said the experiences have been transformational — even calming. One child who hadn’t slept in a week due to anxiety reportedly slept like a baby with the Torah at home.

What sparked this new ritual? The B’nai Mitzvah Revolution (BMR), a national project to change b’nai mitzvah culture and encourage youth to stay engaged in synagogue even after these coming-of-age ceremonies. Temple Kol Tikvah is one of 10 local congregations taking part in the initiative by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

Two local participants — Stephen S. Wise Temple and Temple Isaiah — are among 13 pilot synagogues nationwide that began work in November 2012. Together with the other local shuls, with support from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, they have formed a separate L.A. cohort. The BMR was the subject of discussion at the URJ’s Dec. 11-15 Biennial in San Diego.

Isa Aron, BMR co-director and professor of Jewish education at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, said the project spans a wide range of possible goals, outcomes and timelines, and that it will take a few years to assess results. 

“For some, success equals increased engagement of b’nai mitzvah students and their families; for others, a higher percentage of retention after bar or bat mitzvah; for others, a greater sense of community; and for some, a mixture of all of these, and possibly others,” Aron said.

From structural overhauls of their religious school system to tweaks in the b’nai mitzvah ceremonies, each synagogue hopes the changes will pay big dividends. Here are some of the changes under consideration.

In late October, IKAR, an independent L.A. congregation, began offering a pilot program of parenting classes. By engaging parents, the synagogue hopes to help foster a sense of community at the family level that will bleed over into the children’s lives. “These sessions will cover topics such as teaching teens responsibility and consequences, understanding normal teenage self-centeredness and allowing teens the space to fix their own problems, all presented through a Jewish lens,” said Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal, IKAR’s education director.  

Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Pacific Palisades, wants to make sure there are opportunities for younger students to learn about its high school programs, interact with high school kids and meet other families — thereby creating connections that will make them want to stay involved after their bar or bat mitzvah. “The ultimate goal is to have students participate in a ‘Mitzvah Masters’ program at the high school level, which helps them explore their spirituality, study Judaic content and understand what it means to live in a caring community while developing self-esteem,” said Rabbi Carrie Vogel, Kehillat Israel’s assistant director of youth and family education. 

The plan at Stephen S. Wise Temple is to embed the requirement for b’nai mitzvah projects into the elementary school and religious school curriculum, according to Ariana West, communications director for the Reform congregation in Bel Air. The approach to Jewish service learning will include learning about a social issue and the Jewish response, a hands-on experience and a reflection session.

Temple Akiba in Culver City is implementing an annual daylong retreat for parents, staff, students, teachers and others that is focused on looking at the meaning of b’nai mitzvah from various viewpoints. The first retreat was held on Nov. 23 at Camp Max Straus in Glendale, and will include follow-up throughout the year, said Randee Bishoff, religious education director at the Reform synagogue.

Temple Aliyah, a Conservative congregation in Woodland Hills, is using the BMR process to address the issue of students not focusing enough on the meaning of their parasha (Torah portion). Starting this winter, sixth-grade students will learn to read the parasha together with their families prior to joining an adult study group. “We have begun with baby steps toward getting families to participate with their children in this process, while making it more interesting for the kids as well,” explained Rabbi Adam Schaffer, Temple Aliyah’s religious school director.

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, a Reform congregation, wants to engage children and their families in the b’nai mitzvah process at an earlier age. “We are looking to create community-building and learning opportunities for parents as early as when their children are in the fourth grade, when they first receive their bar mitzvah date, and are actually beginning to think about b’nai mitzvah,” Temple Emanuel’s Cantor Yonah Kliger said.

In West Los Angeles, the Reform Temple Isaiah’s religious school started offering different tracks — religious immersion or prayer, for example — that students can take with the hope of making the process more interesting to them. “We want to start thinking about [b’nai mitzvah] in third grade, and not just as a ceremony that is an ‘end’ but as growth that is just one stage in a much longer process,” said Hannah Rubin-Schlansky, director of informal education and coordinator of Temple Isaiah’s BMR team.

At Temple Israel of Hollywood, a Reform congregation, fifth-graders will go through a unit to develop their family tree, using genealogy Web sites, seeking out documents and interviewing as much of their family as possible. “Passing the Torah from our tradition through the generations will now be combined with passing the Torah of our students’ individual family traditions. Its purpose is not only to discover our students’ unique family histories, but to link that affective experience with the Jewish tradition
as a whole,” Temple Israel’s Rabbi John Rosove said.

Temple Kol Tikvah, in addition to sending a Torah home with b’nai mitzvah students, will ask youth to work together on mitzvah projects. “Each month, we are offering a different tikkun olam opportunity to our sixth- through 12th-graders. Once our pre-[b’nai mitzvah] students have done five projects, they have fulfilled their tikkun olam requirement,” said Hanish, using the Hebrew phrase that means “repairing the world.” Other changes being discussed are life-skills classes that would teach such things through a Jewish lens.

At the Encino Conservative congregation Valley Beth Shalom, the focus is on afternoon b’nai mitzvah services, said Cantor Phil Baron. In order to make them more communal, students will be invited to read their Torah portions in another service the following week, and a member of the board of directors will attend to present the synagogue’s gifts.

For more information about B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, please visit 


Jewish art spans city with ‘Sacred Words, Sacred Texts’

The Jewish art scene in Los Angeles is a small but vibrant community that spans generations, styles, and the full length and breadth of the city itself. Now, for the first time, three of L.A.’s preeminent Jewish institutions — Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), University of Southern California Hillel and American Jewish University (AJU) — have teamed up to produce a collaborative exhibition that stretches across three venues and features more than a dozen local artists. 

“Sacred Words, Sacred Texts,” which officially opened Oct. 6 with a reception at AJU, is an exhibition that celebrates Jews as a People of the Book: Torah, Talmud, Midrash and sacred poetry are all explored through various media by more than a dozen Jewish artists from the L.A. area. It was curated by Anne Hromadka, Sara Cannon and Georgia Freedman-Harvey.

A second reception — this time beginning at HUC-JIR and spilling over to the nearby USC Hillel — took place on Oct. 13, featuring a wide range of styles and forms, from a very traditional, literal sculpted Torah by Soraya Sarah Nazarian, to Will Deutsch’s instantly recognizable drawings, to a video installation by Jessica Shokrian featuring accompanying spices that guests were invited to sniff in a sort of avant garde Smell-O-Vision.

Hromadka said that one of her main motivations for the exhibition was to ask the question, “How are Jewish artists thinking of ourselves as keepers of the book?” 

She continued: “In thinking of ‘Sacred Words,’ I wanted to think about not just the words that we speak to each other, but what are some of the holiest words ever spoken in our tradition? And those are often the words spoken from God to us.”

Hromadka highlighted the work of artist Andi Arnovitz, a beautifully constructed sculpture made of Hebrew text featuring colorful flourishes that depict the battle between the houses of Hillel and Shammai, the circa first century BCE rabbis whose heated debates helped shape much of religious Jewish law and custom.

“The scrolls that make up the house are actually copies of pages from the Talmud,” Hromadka said.

She also spoke about a piece by Iranian artist Krista Nassi, who immigrated to the United States in 2006 after living in Iran post-revolution. The piece, a bold painting featuring sharp contrasts between darkness and light, and the text of the Shema, was apparently a personal one for Nassi. 

“She lived in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war,” Hromadka said. “Whenever there was shelling … her family would gather in one space in the house … and they would huddle. And what were the words they would say to comfort themselves? The Shema.”

Among those in attendance were participating artists Melinda Smith Altshuler and Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik. Altshuler, speaking briefly, highlighted her use of found objects in her work, which she credited to her father being in the scrap metal business when she grew up. He’d bring home “wonders” that she couldn’t help but love. Altshuler described her work, which included a piece that made use of old record sleeves, as being “like the anti-text, because they really have to do with addressing recording, which is what the written word is also, but with visual materials.”

Brynjegard-Bialik went into more depth about what the concept behind “Sacred Words, Sacred Texts” means to him. 

“What I’m trying to do is tell stories,” he said. “I’m very much into our narratives, our stories as a people. Most of my work is informed by biblical stories. And I always say my work starts with text. Maybe it’s a portion from the Bible, maybe it’s something from Talmud, maybe it’s a myth, as with the golem story.”

Brynjegard-Bialik’s beautiful pieces, which weave in images from comic books to create mythic takes on Torah and the Jewish experience, breathe new life into the often tired art of paper cutting. 

“It’s all about revisiting these texts, revisiting these stories, revisiting those things that inform us as a people, and trying to make sense of them,” he said. “The text becomes ours to own and to struggle with. What I try and do is put that struggle on the page.”

At USC Hillel, a jazz quartet played while guests, most of whom made the short walk from HUC, looked at more work by Brynjegard-Bialik, along with Hillel-specific artists like the appropriately named Hillel Smith and Carol Es. 

This display has more of a youth-oriented feel, between the comic book-influenced work of Brynjegard-Bialik, Smith’s selections — which ranged from a pop art T-shirt to colorful abstract prints — and Es’ warped, trippy paintings.

Among the artists represented at AJU are Corrie Siegel, whose map of Los Angeles was used as the artwork for the exhibition’s poster, and philanthropist Peachy Levy, whose generous gifts to many Jewish institutions, particularly camps, have helped fund arts programming for countless children over the years. 

Whichever location art lovers visit, they are guaranteed to see a wide cross-section of Jewish art from Los Angeles, a collection that fittingly captures the many artistic voices that make up our community, and asks powerful questions. The exhibition at all three institutions will continue through mid-December.

Uri Herscher’s and the Skirball Cultural Center: ‘Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude’

One day in early March 1954, Uri Herscher, just 12 at the time, ran away from his parents. His father, Joseph, a cabinetmaker, and mother, Lucy, a laundress, were having trouble making ends meet living in Israel. Together with Uri and his younger brother, Eli, they were meant to leave from Haifa the next morning to travel to the United States. There, the family would find a new home in San Jose, Calif., a thriving middle-class community with very few Jews, where Joseph’s sister had already set down roots.

But young Uri didn’t want to leave. In his short life, he had watched the creation of the Jewish state realize a long-held dream for the Jewish people, and especially those who had escaped the Shoah like his German-refugee parents. He felt tied to the land, and because of the loss in the Holocaust of all his grandparents and many other family members, he looked forward to joining the Israel Defense Forces and ensuring his country’s future.

America meant nothing to the young sabra. 

Eventually, however, the boy was found, and he dutifully boarded the cargo ship and set out on 19 days of traveling rough seas to the United States. Young Uri even celebrated his bar mitzvah onboard the rocking vessel — immediately feeding his celebratory chocolate cake to the fishes. It was only when the boat arrived in New York’s harbor at dawn on March 24, 1954, that the waters finally calmed, and with that calm came a new beginning and a vision that has defined Uri Herscher’s life: The captain woke everyone aboard to see the welcoming figure of the Statue of Liberty.

Had the runaway stayed in the Holy Land, not only would his own life have turned out radically different, but also American Jewry’s cultural landscape would not be what it is today.

“That first impression was a lasting impression,” Herscher, now 72, said — with obvious understatement. 

Herscher sat for a series of extensive interviews in anticipation of the official opening of the final phase of the 15-acre campus of the Skirball Cultural Center. Nearly 18 years after an inaugural gathering on the Sepulveda Pass site for the Skirball’s 1,500 founding donors, the opening of a vast new conference center and social hall will be celebrated with a gala on Oct. 19. The new building marks the first time the Skirball’s founding president and chief executive officer has allowed his family name to be permanently inscribed onto what he has built, as it is on the new Herscher Hall and Guerin Pavilion. Three days later, on Oct. 22, the exhibition “Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie” opens, a retrospective of the work of the man who designed and built the entire Skirball Center complex, a dear friend and collaborator with Herscher for more than three decades. 

Herscher’s Skirball Cultural Center — which intentionally is sited approximately equidistant from the heavily Jewish West Los Angeles and the equally so San Fernando Valley — is all about honoring, celebrating and embracing others. The institution was first conceived in 1981 as an extension of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), from which it is now fully independent, and, like Herscher, the Skirball is fundamentally Jewish but seeks to fulfill an inclusive mission of welcoming, serving and educating all populations, especially immigrants like Herscher — remembering that Jews, too, were once the newcomers in this land. 

Uri Herscher outside the new Herscher Hall and Guerin Pavilion at the Skirball Cultural Center. © 2013 Loretta Ayeroff

“The Skirball is an institution that believes our people should thank America and give back to it,” Herscher said. “And when I say give back, I don’t mean to Jews alone. The Skirball is embracive. We like to find ways to welcome those who may feel at the beginning as strangers to this Jewish institution, but I think that before they leave, they no longer feel so. And usually you feel good if somehow you’ve identified your own story within the story you are told — a story that may have a Jewish source but is fundamentally a humane one.”

In conversation, Herscher constantly highlights the accomplishments of staff, donors and friends, while on public occasions he more often stays on the sidelines. At a special dinner before a summer concert, he mixed comfortably with an array of friends — including Jeffrey Rudolph, president and CEO of the California Science Center, foundation heads, attorneys, bankers and others. He made a brief thank-you speech at the dinner, but then let Mia Cariño, the Skirball’s vice president for communications and marketing, introduce the performers before the larger audience. Likewise, at a talk at the Skirball by his longtime friend and Skirball consultant Marty Sklar, founder and leader of the Walt Disney Co.’s Imagineers — who helped create Disney’s 11 theme parks— Herscher watched from the balcony as Jordan Peimer, the Skirball’s vice president and director of programs, introduced Sklar and later led a question-and-answer session.

Yet if Herscher doesn’t seek the limelight, in conversation he is both warm and deliberate, always focused on the matter at hand — looking straight into his listener’s eyes, choosing his words carefully and frequently overcome with emotion. It is not unusual for Herscher to choke up as he talks of the Skirball’s donors, or the staff who have helped realize his vision. A rabbi and historian by training, Herscher also frequently cites Jewish texts and quotes Torah. 

But, he made clear, he is also pragmatic: “I love concepts — share a concept with me, and you’ll enlighten me, and you’ll enrich me. The next step, though, is, how does it apply and to whom?” 

It is no surprise, therefore, that Herscher’s commitment to inclusion can be seen throughout the Skirball’s galleries and in all its programs. It can also be seen in the culture of intentional kindness displayed by each employee toward visitors, from the ticket takers at the museum’s entrance, to the instructors in the Noah’s Ark interactive galleries, where active play teaches biblical lessons to children and parents alike. 

Re-creating Herscher’s pivotal childhood memory, a two-thirds-scale replica of the actual Statue of Liberty’s hand-held torch stands at the heart of the museum’s permanent collection, amid an exhibit about Jewish immigrants’ arrival in the United States in the early 20th century that also includes vintage luggage holding period clothing, photos of swarms of new arrivals on American shores, a film about the waves of immigration to the United States and more. This particular gallery, like so many of them, personifies the core of what the Skirball is about — that Jews are just one of many groups who came here to share in the opportunities that America affords. The act of immigration is a key American experience, and those who experience it must be made to feel welcome.

“If you think about our history and the worst of times, it had to do with living in countries where no one felt safe,” Herscher said, repeating his message in many different ways throughout our conversations. At the Skirball, he said, “We wanted very much to create a place that was not cruel, where people felt safe, where people’s voices were not stilled. Where the underserved and the poor — especially the children in this town — can come.”

If the success of that dream can be quantified, the numbers tell the story: Since the campus’ public opening in 1996, the Skirball has had some 6 million visitors — 280,000 of them in the inaugural year, far surpassing the original first-year projection of 60,000. Nowadays, about 600,000 people pass through the Skirball annually, coming for exhibitions, lectures, plays and world-music concerts in the indoor and outdoor venues, to dine in the restaurant, to shop in the Judaica store and gift shop and to celebrate life’s most precious moments with weddings, b’nai mitzvah and other events. 

Noah’s Ark, which opened at the Skirball in 2007, welcomes children and families to visit a floor-to-ceiling wooden ark, filled with hundreds of handcrafted animals.

And the Skirball organization, with its 169 full-time staff and some 200 volunteers, is also a feat of Herscher’s leadership and love of efficiency, as his board members attest, running on an $18 million annual operating budget, half of which comes from the center’s $150 million endowment; another 35 percent from income from annual memberships, admissions, food services and event hosting; and just 15 percent — between $2 million and $2.5 million — raised each year from various donors and other sources. The new Herscher-Guerin building itself cost $99 million, including for the halls, courtyards, gardens and a new three-subterranean-floor garage to hold 700 cars. (The Skirball now has 1,100 parking slots.) 

Notably, all these vast sums of money already have been accounted for. The Skirball runs on a no-debt policy.

And Herscher can be particular about where the money comes from: Even having raised hundreds of millions of dollars, Herscher said he has on several occasions turned away or returned donations that came with strings attached. “About $2.5 million to $3 million, I gave back over a period of 20 years, in different amounts — $250,000, in one case,” Herscher said. “The main reason for declining them is that some donors are actually consumers. And I didn’t want to bequeath my successor strings that I was responsible for.” 

He has no regrets about money lost, he says, “And when they ask me — ‘Uri, that’s a lot of money that you just sent me back,’ I say, ‘Honestly, I was born with a nervous stomach, and I want to have joy in creating this institution.’ ”

He also goes against the Los Angeles deep-pocket stereotype and has generally steered clear of Hollywood. 

“You can knock on 10 doors in Los Angeles asking for support or funding, and eight may slam the door, but the likelihood is that two will support you,” he said. “Our money really doesn’t come from public personas.”

One example is Art Bilger, an Internet entrepreneur and philanthropist who currently serves as vice chairman of the Skirball’s board of trustees. Bilger became part of the center’s strategic planning committee soon after meeting Herscher in Israel in 1993 — three years before the opening. (He also, along with Herscher, serves on the board of TRIBE Media Corp., parent company of the Jewish Journal.) Bilger cited some of the elements he believes contribute to Herscher’s success: “Personality is key; he has an extraordinary graciousness that goes a long way and a true appreciation of the person he’s dealing with — he’s never just a dollars guy. He values relationships. 

“Another advantage is being the founder,” Bilger added. “That gives you a lot, versus the next guy, who is not the founder and is just an employee.” Moreover, Bilger said, success breeds success: “People like jumping on board of something that’s successful.” 

Plus, and probably most compelling: “The mission resonates.”

The annual Puppet Festival attracts families of all backgrounds to daylong festivities showcasing the arts of puppetry and storytelling.

To illustrate the relationship part, Bilger spoke of how Herscher served as rabbi at the b’nai mitzvah services for all three of the Bilger children — each one in a different venue of the Skirball as the institution expanded over the years. “Let’s put it this way,” Bilger said with a laugh, “he hasn’t walked my dog,” but Herscher is almost that kind of friend.

Indeed, Herscher’s friendships generally are not fleeting. Among the most lasting is with Robert D. Haas, chairman emeritus of Levi Strauss & Co., a supporter of Herscher’s endeavors since they were classmates in the early 1960s at UC Berkeley, when the two men served together as counselors for the still-thriving Cal Camp — originally a camp for underprivileged youth run by UC Berkeley, for which Herscher was founding director while still an undergraduate. 

There’s also Fred Ali, president and CEO of the Weingart Foundation based in Los Angeles, which has donated many millions of unrestricted gifts over the years to the Skirball, supporting the vision of the center because of its emphasis on education and opportunities for the whole community. “We are completely nondenominational in our approach,” Ali said in an interview, but he cited the recent exhibition “Women Hold Up Half the Sky,” which looked at displaced, often abused and disadvantaged women in Third World countries who were overcoming hardship through micro-businesses. “That was a great example of the Skirball’s approach to a very timely issue,” Ali said. “They take very seriously the whole idea of talking about Jewish history within the context of the greater community,” using the Jewish values to explore “a lot of multicultural programming.”

And, added Ali, “Every time I have a conversation with Uri, I feel like I’ve learned something. He’s warm, he’s engaging, and he’s challenging. And he helps me recommit to the work I’m doing.”

Motivated by the Holocaust, moved by hope

If the Israel Herscher knew as a boy was dominated by his parents’ sadness over their tremendous losses from the Holocaust, in San Jose he found a flourishing postwar, middle-class community filled with promise for all his family. To this day, he cites in his bio on the Skirball’s Web site that the predominantly non-Jewish students of his high school elected him student body president. He became a U.S. citizen and went on to UC Berkeley, where he graduated with honors in 1964, with degrees in history and sociology, then meant to go to Boalt Hall, Berkeley’s law school, but got sidetracked on a camping trip of discovery in Europe, an attempt to recover some sense of his history. While he was still camping, the emergent Los Angeles campus of HUC-JIR recruited Herscher to come to its first tiny L.A. campus, on Appian Way in the Hollywood Hills, and Herscher, almost on a whim, accepted. 

It was a fortuitous move, though he never aimed to become a pulpit rabbi — although Herscher’s brother, Eli, is among the most prominent rabbis in Los Angeles, leading the Reform Stephen S. Wise Temple just across the canyon from the Skirball. At HUC-JIR, Uri Herscher found he loved Jewish study and values. And it was during his second year, in giving a sermon about Moses at the school, that he won the Jack and Audrey Skirball Award in homiletics — thereby introducing him to the man who would become his mentor, teacher, foundational donor, supporter and confidant. If Herscher cites any singular philosophy as his touchstone, it is always Jack H. Skirball’s.

Thousands of world-music and Americana fans pack the Skirball’s central courtyard each summer at Sunset Concerts. The 18th season of this free series will take place in 2014.

Born in 1896 in Pennsylvania, Skirball was ordained as a rabbi at Hebrew Union College in 1921 but also did graduate work in philosophy and sociology at the University of Chicago. He served as a pulpit rabbi for less than a decade and then became a pioneer in audiovisual education, including making “Birth of a Baby,” the first film to document a child’s birth. He also produced films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s “Saboteur” (1942) and “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943). Not stopping there, Skirball went on to become a successful real-estate developer. All of this allowed him to become an active philanthropist to the Reform movement, and Skirball was instrumental in the creation of the L.A. campus of HUC-JIR, as well as in establishing the Skirball Museum on that campus and museums on the school’s Cincinnati and Jerusalem campuses.

It was Skirball who first recognized that the collection now housed at the Skirball Cultural Center should get a real home, Herscher points out: “This magnificent collection was in Cincinnati in a basement, and Jack Skirball made a case to the [then-HUC-JIR] president, Nelson Glueck, that it’s a shame to keep it in the basement, and it should be moved into a city that has a larger Jewish population than Cincinnati, and we should have galleries where the objects tell the stories. Jack Skirball was a storyteller — he was a rabbi, he was a moviemaker, everything for him was a story. And he’s right — without stories, there is no civilization.” Skirball’s ideas commingled with Herscher’s quest to create the cultural center: “I see the Skirball as a surrogate storyteller,” Herscher said, adding, “We wouldn’t have a collection if it weren’t for the Hebrew Union collection. We just added to the collection the Americana part, to a collection, which is, basically, ritual objects.”

To understand the relationship among Jack H. Skirball, the man who died in 1985 at 89; Skirball, the place; and Uri Herscher, it’s important to know that the three overlap and intertwine in many ways, with HUC-JIR at the heart of their bond. Herscher not only earned his rabbinic ordination from HUC-JIR, in 1970, he also was awarded his doctorate in American Jewish history by the school in 1973. And, even while a graduate student, he served from 1970 to ’74 as the national dean of admissions for HUC-JIR, and in 1975, at 34, he became executive vice president and dean of faculty for the four-campus HUC-JIR (including Los Angeles, Cincinnati, New York and Jerusalem), a job that he held until 1995, the year before the cultural center opened.

In 1981, Jack Skirball proposed the idea of creating and donating funds from his own pocket to create a museum in Los Angeles, a place where he felt the collection would serve a broader, more diverse audience. This was the seed conversation for what eventually became the Skirball Cultural Center, and, Herscher remembers, it didn’t go over easily. “The debate was: Why Los Angeles? There were board members [55 in all] from all over the country. And what if the project goes awry? What financial burden would be placed on Hebrew Union College?” 

When it didn’t look good, Herscher said, “Jack got up, knowing we might very well lose, and he said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I thought it was difficult to earn the money that I’ve earned in my lifetime, but you’ve made it clear that it is even more difficult to give it away.’ ” The resolution passed in a simple majority, with just one vote bringing it over the line, Herscher said.

Initially, the collection was housed on L.A.’s HUC-JIR campus, as Herscher, with the help of Skirball, began the undertaking of finding a separate home. The land they fell in love with in the Sepulveda Pass offered a great location, but the long, narrow property had been used as a landfill, so while it cost $4 million to buy the land, an additional $6 million was needed just to prepare before any ground could be broken, Herscher said. Engineers first had to dig down 70 feet and build caissons to support the building’s foundation. 

From left: Uri Herscher, Jack Skirball and Moshe Safdie stand on the future site of the Skirball Cultural Center in summer 1985. Photo by Bill Aron

Meanwhile, while serving as dean at HUC-JIR, Herscher made another of his lasting and pivotal friendships, with Moshe Safdie, who created Jerusalem HUC-JIR’s campus. The two had much in common: Like Herscher, Safdie is binational — the architect was born in Israel, in 1938, and immigrated with his family to Canada in 1953. Both men are fluent in English and Hebrew, both are committed to working in Israel and the Americas, and, as one-time immigrants, they bonded over the mission of the Skirball Cultural Center. Safdie has designed every aspect of what he calls “a necklace of pavilions,” conceived over three decades and realized over the past 18 years.

In an interview from his Boston offices, Safdie said the two men became so “personally engaged” in the Skirball, to the extent that, at times, “Uri was informing the design process, and I was informing the institution-building process — switching places.” 

As will be revealed in the “Global Citizen” exhibition, Safdie’s projects stretch around the world, but aside from the Skirball buildings, his firm is probably best-known and admired within the Jewish community for re-envisioning Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem. There, however, Safdie said, the building was designed according to a linear narrative, with distinct chapters, and, “the subject matter was dark and defining, even overbearing.” The Skirball, by contrast, “is about joy, nature, the successful story of the Jews in America. It is a celebratory building.”

Like many modernist architects working in L.A., Safdie has made deliberate use of landscaping to enhance the visitor’s experience. Thus, the long trek through the arroyo en route from the parking garage to the grand entrance offers a meditative transition from the experience of driving into the garage to the experience of entering the center.

Safdie describes the new Guerin Pavilion, within its expansive 9,000-square-foot room, as a sukkah, with a slatted wooden ceiling lit by the sky and a full wall of windows that open onto a lush hillside garden. Quite unlike a sukkah, though, it has state-of-the-art kitchen facilities and can accommodate nearly 700 for a banquet, more than 1,000 as a theater and more than 1,800 for a reception. Offering new space not only for the various performance and convening needs of the Skirball, it will also be made available for rentals.

Safdie said Herscher’s input has been integral to the process of creating every element of the campus: “I don’t think that you would have expected Uri to be a person who championed architecture,” he said, noting that major architects have rarely been sought out for Jewish institutional buildings in the United States. But Herscher’s vision has been insightful: “When he tells me something is ‘not just right,’ I look at it again,” Safdie said. 

Perhaps the only undercurrent of concern over the creation of the Skirball that came up in the research for this article embodied a kind of envy: The Skirball’s departure from HUC-JIR has allowed it to flourish, even as the college itself has experienced some hard times. 

Following the economic downturn in 2008, every nonprofit was hurting, and Herscher said there was belt-tightening and a reduction in staff working hours at the Skirball for a time. For its part, HUC-JIR saw some very difficult years, and there was even talk of closing one or more of the campuses — among them the Los Angeles school.

Quietly, at that time, Rabbi David Ellenson, president of HUC-JIR, and his longtime colleague, former boss and friend Uri Herscher came up with a plan that would help restore the economic security of the school and assure the long-term life of the cultural center’s core exhibits.

Until 2011, the land and the collections shown at the Skirball continued to be the property of HUC-JIR, leased to the Skirball Cultural Center, as they had been when Jack Skirball helped finesse the creation of the institution. The Skirball is independently incorporated and all money to build and maintain the Skirball had been independently raised, but Ellenson and Herscher saw an opportunity to “preserve for all time the precious legacy of the Jewish people” that was the artifacts, and to sell the land to the Skirball Center. 

After an appraisal, a figure of $10 million was set for the land, which Herscher raised and the Skirball paid to HUC-JIR. The collection, on the other hand, was virtually gifted for just a single dollar — making “de facto what had been de jure,” Ellenson said. The proviso was that the Cincinnati campus of HUC-HIR could take what objects it wanted to hold onto, and that it would have the right to continue to borrow for educational purposes as desired.

Thus a first $10 million was handed over, but at the same time, there was also a second, equal amount, that Herscher helped procure for HUC-JIR, in the form of a grant from the Skirball Foundation, an entirely separate entity of Jack and Audrey Skirball’s creation, of which Herscher is a trustee. That second donation of $10 million became a naming gift, and now Jack H. Skirball’s name graces the L.A. campus.

Ellenson said that with those two amounts, plus other donations from the foundation, Herscher has been instrumental in helping to bring $53 million to HUC-JIR through the Skirballs’ funds and in their name. The school is once again on solid footing, and Herscher, Ellenson said, “played a very positive role to achieve that fiscal balance today.”

The family man

Uri Herscher (top) and his wife, Myna Herscher (back row, right), surrounded by their immediate family, which includes four sons — Josh Herscher, longtime history teacher and varsity basketball coach at Venice High, who recently became a coach in the USC athletics department (back row, left); film editor Adam Coleite (back row, second from left); Gideon Herscher, a director of humanitarian and crisis relief projects at the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee in Jerusalem (front row, left), and television and film writer Aron Coleite (front row, third from left) — and the sons’ spouses and children.

Like so many immigrants, creating a family tree here in the United States has been an important part of Herscher’s life, as well as an illustration of how he continues to pay homage to his late grandparents. He has been married for 23 years to his wife, Myna, (though they’ve been together for 26), and each brought two sons from previous marriages. Josh Herscher was a history teacher and coach at Venice High School and now coaches for USC; Gideon Herscher works for the American Joint Jewish Distriction Committee in Jerusalem; Aron Coleite is a television and film writer; and Adam Coleite is a film editor. Four grandchildren have been added in recent years.

Myna, also a child of immigrant parents, is a now-retired clinical psychologist, and she has long spent much of her time working at the Skirball, which, when prodded, she admits is without compensation. She was intricately involved with the creation of the highly popular “Noah’s Ark” installation, and is currently helping to create an archive of the center’s papers.

Their home, too, has been a think tank for the Skirball, including at one Passover Seder, where the idea for the exhibition about Albert Einstein was conceived. “David Baltimore, then president of Caltech, was there, along with his wife,” Uri Herscher remembers, “And Steven Sample, then the president of USC, and his wife, as well as Hanoch Gutfreund, president of the Hebrew University, and Barry Munitz, then head of the Getty Center, was there with his wife. We said, ‘Who in history is a human being who happens to also have fame, and who acted in the most civilized way at that time?’ ” They settled on Einstein, and the idea for one of the Skirball’s most popular efforts, combining science and humanism, was born.

As one who has accomplished so much, Herscher still takes time to nurture others, and when Mitch Kamin, for example, then an attorney in his 30s, became executive director of the nonprofit legal-aid firm Bet Tzedek, Herscher met every couple of months with Kamin and mentored him on leadership. Herscher has continued that tradition with Sandy Samuels, the current head of the agency, seeing in Bet Tzedek a role for Jews in giving services to all people in need that matches the Skirball’s mission.

Despite being in his eighth decade, Herscher said he has no plans to retire, and that at the center, “the real task is beginning.” A priority, he said, is revitalizing the core, historical exhibits. “We’ve learned a lot from Noah’s Ark as an example of what works,” he said. He is also considering trying to make the restaurant a destination in itself, perhaps opening for more hours, and rethinking the shop. And he wants the new conference center “to be a home for the social issues that confront us daily, whether it be the horrific distance between the rich and the poor, or health care — I can see it deal with the whole notion of imagination.”

But it is in regard to his staff that Herscher’s big heart shows through most clearly. Myna noted that he spent his last birthday lunching with the kitchen staff at the center, and he has made a point that everyone who works at the Skirball deserves recognition, as well as praise when due — and heartfelt thanks. For that reason, the official gala celebrating the new hall will not be its true inauguration — a similar lavish event has already taken place for all staff, volunteers and their spouses, including some 600 attendees. 

“It lifted, appropriately, morale,” Herscher said. 

And Herscher said the gala on Oct. 19 is designed not as a fundraiser, but, instead, as a “thank you dinner,” a full-throated celebration of what Herscher and friends have achieved in what he once dubbed the “Thank You America Cultural Center.” 

Asked what he wants to express to his many friends and colleagues at the gala honoring his life’s work, Herscher didn’t hesitate to answer.

“Gratitude. Gratitude. Gratitude.”

High Holy Days: Sermons take a chapter from writer’s book of life

In 1963, Richard Levy was in his mid-20s and in his last year of rabbinical school when he was sent on an internship to a synagogue in Jasper, Ala. About the time of Rosh Hashanah, not far away in the town of Birmingham, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church, an African-American place of worship, and four girls were killed.

Segregation ruled in the South and African-Americans lived in awful conditions, violence targeting blacks was common, and tensions between white and blacks were high. And there was Levy, finding himself on the pulpit during the High Holy Days, with an audience of Southern Jews looking to him for inspiration. 

Did this 20-something have the life experience to give an effective sermon under such turbulent circumstances? 

Levy, now a faculty member at his alma mater, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), found that he was able to inspire people, despite his age and the fact that the civil rights movement in the South was happening around him. And it changed him, too.

“My experience in Jasper as a student rabbi with contacts in the Jewish community added hugely to my own life,” Levy told the Journal in an interview.

Every year during the High Holy Days, prominent rabbis in the community offer up sermons that are stirring, emotional and meaningful. These clergy have been doing this for years, if not decades. 

But what of the student rabbis who give High Holy Days sermons? Every year, HUC-JIR, American Jewish University and the Academy of Jewish Religion, California — local rabbinical colleges where students embark on programs to be ordained as rabbis — send their students to congregations as part of internships, or student pulpits, that are intended to give them hands-on experience. This includes delivering sermons during the holiest time of the year.

Jaclyn Fromer Cohen, who is entering her fifth and final year of rabbinical school at HUC-JIR this fall, pondered the question of whether the limited life experience of students hinders their ability to give an effective sermon of such importance. Yes and no, she said. 

Last year, the 29-year-old from Brentwood gave the sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashanah at Pacific Palisades congregation Kehillat Israel, and she plans to return to the Reconstructionist synagogue this year to do the same. 

Cohen says she understands the ambivalence that congregants who are older — sometimes several decades older — might have sitting in a synagogue while a student in his or her 20s links life wisdom with Jewish text on the biggest days of the Jewish calendar. 

“You stand in front of the firing squad and hope for the best,” she said. 

The trick, Cohen continued, is to realize one’s age and limitations, rather than overcompensating for them and pretending to have lived more than one has — and to draw from what one has experienced, all the while remaining humble.

“I am very much aware of what I’ve been through, and I am very much aware of what I haven’t been through,” she said. “I am not going to speak in a way that says, ‘I’m a 29-year-old, and I have been through X, Y and Z, and now I will talk to you because [I know everything].’ I don’t think most people do that.

“But I do think what I try to do is I try to say, ‘Listen, I’ve had life experiences, the people I’m talking to have had their own, the person sitting next to the person I’m talking to has had their own. We come with our respective baggage and our respective things and our skeletons in the closet.’ And I try to honor that, and I try never to speak to things I don’t know,” she said.

This thinking has worked for her so far, she said, reporting that congregants offered positive feedback to her sermon that connected a contemporary issue — gun violence — with the biblical story of the binding of Isaac, which Cohen says is the “first mention of love in the Torah.”

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, has given more than 40 High Holy Days sermons at one of the largest Conservative congregations in the area. He said that those who wonder if student rabbis have sufficient life experience to be giving High Holy Days sermons is a completely valid concern for an outside party to have.

Valid but also ultimately irrelevant, he argued. To give a good High Holy Days sermon — or any sermon, for that matter — one needs two things: an in-depth knowledge of Torah and an open heart, Feinstein said.

“It’s not you speaking, you are channeling Torah. If you are saying something important, from the heart, about the human condition, and you are talking about how Torah is bringing wisdom to this, then people will listen to you,” he said. “You can’t speak on your own. You don’t know. What do you know about these things? But you have something important from the world of Torah to say, and people have come to hear your Torah, and that’s what they hear.”

Sometimes students will make the mistake, however, of overcompensating for their age, said Rabbi Ron Stern of Stephen S. Wise Temple, who works with rabbinic students on sermons as an HUC-JIR instructor on homiletics, a required course for students that focuses on the development of sermons. The mistake these students make is trying to make up for experience by overloading their sermons with traditional text that, to the unschooled people in the audience, sounds like a foreign language. In such cases, “sermons become academic presentations,” he said.

As for Levy — the rabbi of the campus synagogue and director of spiritual growth at HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus — his days of student pulpits are long behind him. 

In some respects, however, Levy says students have an edge over seasoned rabbis.

“Freshness always bring an advantage,” he said. 

And if the student takes that freshness, is humble, aware of his or her lack of life experience and still fails to connect? 

“They’re still students,” he said. “Hopefully people [will be] forgiving or understanding.”

A deaf rabbi who listens

Imagine taking a graduate school class — a small one, with maybe a dozen students — and for the entire year, not being able to understand a single word the professor said. For your final examination, you have to rely on notes compiled from your classmates and pray they understood the material enough to effectively teach you. 

For Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe, who was ordained 20 years ago as the world’s first Reform deaf rabbi, that’s how she got through one of her first-year rabbinical school classes in Israel.

“There was one professor in particular who had a beard that completely covered his mouth, and there was absolutely no way I could see what he was saying,” said Dubowe, a spiritual leader at Temple Adat Elohim, a Reform congregation of more than 600 families in Thousand Oaks. 

Dubowe was born with moderately severe/profound hearing loss. She communicates mainly through spoken English, although she can read lips and is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). Others may think this made her different — especially as a member of the clergy — but she never saw it that way.

“My intention was not to be different from anyone else,” Dubowe said. “I don’t feel different from others because there are certain things that I don’t hear. That was not the way I was raised. My parents never said, ‘Because you’re deaf you should or shouldn’t do this.’ They said, ‘You’re Rebecca, and you’re interested in that, so do it.’ ”

The Los Angeles native didn’t initially know that she wanted to become a rabbi, but during a summer-long stay with family in Israel, she began to feel a much deeper bond with her heritage.

“I became very connected with my cousin’s mother-in-law, who was a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, and she knew I was very interested in learning and speaking Hebrew,” Dubowe said. “She only spoke in Hebrew with me, and she was very patient. She told me lots of stories about her life and being a pioneer of the kibbutz.”

After being in college for two years, Dubowe went back to Israel, spending five months on her cousin’s moshav — a cooperative agricultural settlement. When she returned, she knew she wanted to be a Jewish professional. 

“My options were to be a cantor, which I probably shouldn’t be — can’t be; be an educator, which I really thought about but wasn’t really interested in the idea of being in the classroom all day; and maybe social work, which I love to do,” Dubowe said. “The rabbinate included all of that — social work, being a counselor, being a part of people’s lives, and being a teacher in the classroom and outside of the classroom.”

With a bachelor’s degree in Jewish studies from the then-University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), she went on to attend rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

“After interviewing at a Conservative school and HUC, I felt like HUC was ready for me. I didn’t think the Conservative movement was keen on having someone with a disability,” Dubowe said.

The journey was not without complications. As an undergraduate, she had always had an interpreter in class. However, her first year at HUC-JIR was in Israel, and finding a local interpreter who was fluent in ASL was nearly impossible. She had to do her best with a combination of lip reading, hearing aids and notes from multiple classmates. 

Rabbi David Ellenson, one of Dubowe’s former professors and HUC-JIR’s current president, knew she was an especially gifted student. 

“From the very outset, she was effervescent, empathic, intelligent, and committed to Jewish life and learning,” he said. “Her career has been a model of success, and she has brought deep Jewish sensitivity to issues of identity and inclusion.”

Dubowe faced another hurdle once she was ordained. Would anyone hire her? Of the 17 open positions she applied for, she was offered two jobs. Ultimately, she accepted a position as an assistant rabbi in a synagogue in New Jersey. Four years later, she was back in the Los Angeles area at Temple Adat Elohim.

Dubowe said her hearing loss hardly gets in the way of her job as a rabbi.

“There is a rare moment that I may not understand the person speaking. However, if necessary, I would ask them to write it down or repeat what they said, but it has not really been a problem,” she said. 

Aliza Goland, the synagogue’s executive director, said Dubowe’s greatest strength is sort of an ironic one. 

“She is a good listener,” she said. “She anticipates congregants’ needs and is ready and able to consistently exceed their expectations. She listens with kindness and empathy and is genuinely interested in people’s stories.”

And she’s made her congregation a more inclusive place in the process.

“She has brought a heightened awareness and sensitivity about all kinds of disabilities to our community,” Goland said.

Dubowe improved her hearing three years ago when she received a cochlear implant — a year after her husband, Michael, who also has profound hearing loss, had the same procedure performed. (Still, she needs to face a person to understand what they are saying.) Her two daughters also are hard of hearing, though the family mostly communicates with each other via spoken English, with occasional signing. 

While she leads a hearing congregation, Dubowe is involved with the Jewish deaf community. As an undergraduate, Dubowe taught Sunday school at Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf, the San Fernando Valley shul that calls itself the world’s first congregation for the deaf.

She works with the Washington Society of Jewish Deaf as well, and while attending an American Jewish Congress conference on its behalf, she led Shabbat morning services.

“At my service, we had a PowerPoint so we didn’t have to hold on to a book. Rather, we could use our hands and sign prayers,” she said. 

Dubowe also led an ASL Birthright trip and is actively involved with Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., which specializes in educating students who are deaf and hard of hearing.

But Dubowe’s favorite part of her job would be the same even if she could hear.

“The best part about being a rabbi is being part of people’s lives,” she said. “Being there for moments of sadness and moments of joy — watching a child grow. I feel like it’s a privilege and honor to be a part of the life cycle, of the journey — being face to face with people and creating relationships.”

As she’s known all along, you don’t need to hear to do that. You just need to listen.

HUC president-elect to expand technology, innovation

Rabbi Aaron Panken, the newly announced president-elect of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), said just days after being named that he hopes to bring a fresh perspective to the Reform movement’s academic home by marrying technology, creativity and a renewed commitment to Reform values, including at the HUC-JIR Los Angeles campus.

“I think L.A. is a really fertile place for the development of progressive Jewish life,” Panken said during a phone interview on Aug. 1, a day after his appointment was announced by the HUC-JIR board of governors. Panken takes on his new role on Jan. 1, succeeding Rabbi David Ellenson, a former dean at the L.A. campus who has been president since 2001 and will become chancellor.

As president of HUC-JIR, Panken will serve in the top leadership position — chief executive officer — of the international university and Reform seminary’s four campuses, which are located in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Jerusalem and New York. 

Panken’s experience with HUC-JIR dates back to the mid-1990s. At HUC-JIR, he has served as vice president for strategic initiatives, dean of the New York campus and dean of students. He joined the Reform seminary’s faculty in 1995, and he currently serves as an assistant professor of rabbinic and Second Temple literature.

But it is his tech-savvy background that, in many ways, is expected to inform the way he leads. Unlike most rabbis, who tend to gravitate toward the humanities and social sciences as undergraduates, Panken’s first degree was in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins University. (He is also a licensed commercial pilot.)

He said such interests have led him to look at increasing the role technology plays in shaping HUC-JIR’s programming.

“The religious scene is changing in North America, and we will have to try some new interesting initiatives to attract and retain people and develop an exciting and innovative Jewish community,” he said.

Panken will become the 12th president in the seminary’s 138-year history, and he praised his predecessor’s achievements in bringing in top-tier faculty, highly motivated students and turning HUC-JIR into what he called a “first-rate Jewish intellectual center.” 

It is a legacy that he would like to continue, he said.

But new challenges lie ahead, including finding ways to reach and engage a generation of young Jews “reluctant to form connections with centralized institutions and organizations,” Panken said.

“The question is, how can synagogues, schools and seminaries think carefully about how to reach out to individuals who have real religious needs but don’t always feel compelled to be connected,” Panken said.

As examples of new methods and approaches he pointed to a synagogue in a large metropolitan area that, after hiring a recent HUC-JIR graduate, told the new rabbi to spend less time in the synagogue and more time in cafes, bookstores and coffee shops, meeting Jews where they actually spend their time. Another freshly minted HUC-JIR graduate is establishing a liberal Jewish mikveh.

“It’s this kind of innovation and creativity that keeps Judaism exciting and alive and attractive to a lot of people,” he said.

Panken, 49, earned his doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic studies from New York University and serves on the faculty for the Wexner Foundation, the editorial board of Reform Judaism magazine, the Birthright education committee and the Central Conference of American Rabbis ethics committee. His journey with the Reform movement began at a New York Reform synagogue’s nursery school when he was 3 years old, and he said he has never looked back.

“That kind of meaningful relationship that you can form within a religious community has really shaped my life,” he said. “And if I can in any way help my students and help the rest of the Jewish community benefit and grow that kind of wonderful religious community, then that’s exactly what I want to be doing with my life.”

One challenge Panken won’t have is making sure the institution is financially solvent. In 2008, the nationwide recession hit the school hard, even threatening for a brief time the closure of the Hebrew Union’s L.A. campus, but thanks in part to the efforts of Ellenson and Josh Holo, dean of the L.A. campus, HUC-JIR is now financially stable, Panken said.

Panken praised all that Ellenson has brought to the table — including inspiring the movement to value Torah study and stressing the importance of studying theology, philosophy and ethics in engaging the modern Jewish world, he said — while acknowledging ways that they are different from each other.

“There are certain ways that I think in terms of technology, in terms of outreach that are maybe a little bit different,” he said.

And, with the seminary’s books in order, Panken can focus his energy upon what really matters to him.

“I think we can focus on mission and vision and the kind of important things we care about,” he said, “as opposed to worrying about closure and things like that.” 

Hebrew Union College names Rabbi Aaron Panken as new president

Rabbi Aaron Panken was elected president of The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s rabbinical school.

HUC announced the decision of its board of governors on Wednesday.

Panken, 49, of Mamaroneck, N.Y., has taught rabbinic and Second Temple literature at HUC-JIR in New York since 1995. He has served as vice president for strategic initiatives, dean of the New York campus and dean of students.

As president, Panken will serve as the chief executive officer of HUC’s four campuses — in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles and New York.

Panken, the 12th president in HUC’s 138-year history, succeeds Rabbi David Ellenson, who served from 2001 to 2013 and is becoming chancellor.

“I am greatly honored to be called to serve as the president of HUC-JIR and to strive for ongoing innovation and creativity in strengthening our institution as the intellectual center of Progressive Judaism worldwide,” Panken said. “Our mission is to help our students grow into authentic Jewish thought leaders, able to articulate and advance their own visions of a rich Jewish life for a new and rapidly changing religious landscape.”

Panken was ordained by HUC in New York in 1991. An alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, he earned his doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, where his research focused on legal change in rabbinic literature.

He currently serves on the faculty for the Wexner Foundation and the editorial board of Reform Judaism magazine, and has served on the Rabbinical Placement Commission, the birthright Education Committee, the CCAR Ethics Committee, and in other leadership roles within the Reform movement.

“We are proud that Dr. Panken will be leading our institution,” Irwin Engelman, board chairman, and Martin Cohen, chair of the Presidential Search Committee, said in a joint statement.  “He is a distinguished rabbi and scholar, dedicated teacher, and committed leader of the Reform Movement for more than three decades.”

Hebrew Union College elects new president

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) has elected its former dean, Rabbi Aaron Panken, as its new president. Panken succeeds Rabbi David Ellenson, who will become HUC-JIR’s new chancellor upon his retirement from the position of president.

“I am greatly honored to be called to serve as the president of HUC-JIR and to strive for ongoing innovation and creativity in strengthening our institution as the intellectual center of progressive Judaism worldwide,” Panken said in a statement released by HUC-JIR on Wednesday.

As president of HUC-JIR, Panken will serve in the top leadership position – chief executive officer – of the international university and Reform seminary’s four campuses – in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Jerusalem and New York. His appointment becomes effective January 1.

At HUC-JIR, Panken previously served as vice president for strategic initiatives, dean of the New York campus and dean of students — he joined the Reform seminary’s faculty in 1995, and he currently serves as an assistant professor of Rabbinic and Second Temple Literature.

Like Panken, Ellenson will begin at the start of 2014 in his new role as chancellor.

The HUC-JIR board of governors elected Panken into the position, with Irwin Engelman, chairman of the board and Martin Cohen, chairman of the presidential search committee, announcing their selection on Wednesday.

“We are proud that Dr. Panken will be leading our institution,” Engelman said. “He is a distinguished rabbi and scholar, dedicated teacher, and committed leader of the Reform movement for more than three decades.”

Panken’s relationship with Hebrew Union dates back to 1991, when he was ordained at its New York campus. According to his biography on the HUC-JIR website, he serves in a number of “leadership roles within the reform movement and greater Jewish community.” Among the organizations he is involved with are the Wexner Foundation, the New Israel Fund, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Birthright Israel.

To read Panken’s statement regarding his appointment in its entirety, visit huc.edu.

And you will be a blessing …

I was in college when I first heard the Beatles sing “When I’m Sixty-four.” The idea of getting older, losing my hair or wondering whether my partner would still need me was not my concern. But now, with Paul McCartney over 70, and me just one year away from 64, it’s a different story. 

In Pirke Avot we read: “At 5 years old, you begin Torah. At 10, Mishnah. At 13, you are responsible for mitzvot. At 15, for Talmud. At 18, you get married. At 20, you are ready to pursue a career. At 30, for strength. At 40, for understanding. At 50, for advice. At 60, for zikna.” 

Zikna is hard to translate. Old age? Maturity? Some commentaries read the word as an acronym for ze sh’kana chochma: “one who has acquired wisdom.” 

The stages of a life are measured differently now than in the days of Pirke Avot. For my parents, the stages were childhood, adolescence, midlife (when the task was the building of career and family), and then old age. Now there is a new stage between midlife and old age. 

The social scientist, Steven Cohen, research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, once observed: “Boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) are the first generation in human history … to reasonably anticipate living … into their 80s and 90s if not beyond. … Jews (as others) are not only living longer, they are living in an age of meaning-seeking, with the interest and wherewithal to make living a life of meaning an ultimate and reasonably obtainable objective. … As such, this aging, yet largely healthy generation of American Jews poses a challenge and an opportunity to a … community that is as yet unprepared for the totally new policy and planning opportunities that loom in the near future.” 

And we baby boomers are a huge cohort; beginning in January 2011, one person in the United States turned 65 every eight seconds, and that will continue for more than 15 years.

At Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, through our project “Leaning in to Wisdom: The Next Stage Initiative for Boomers,” we have brought baby boomers and those slightly beyond together to talk about this new stage of their lives. Some boomers talk about the fear of becoming invisible, passed over or ignored. Still others describe being caught in the middle, sandwiched between elderly parents who need care, attention and often financial support, at the same time that adult children are coming home to live. 

Many are just beginning to think about how to reimagine themselves when they are no longer working full time or raising their children. Some are worried about becoming isolated as friends die or move away. My husband, Richard, and I wonder where and in what kind of setting we will live when one or both of us can’t negotiate the 35 stairs leading up to our house or when we can no longer drive safely. 

We know, though many of us would want to deny it, that there is less time left than there was until now. The bottom-line question for me and for so many others: How does one make meaning and purpose out of the time we have left? While that question is in front of all of us, no matter what stage of life we are in, it is right in your face once you turn 60. 

This question is at the core of what it means to acquire wisdom. How can Jewish tradition help us answer it and guide us toward creating meaning in the rest of our life? What kind of learning, of travel, of housing, of service to others will create the community we want? How do we stay connected to both younger and older people? What kinds of spiritual practice will help us cultivate the traits now that will enable us to age gracefully? What new rituals does this stage of life call for?

Imagine the time when you might have to move your parents from their home to a retirement community. Then you go back to their home, maybe even the home where you and your siblings grew up, to clean it out. Beginning that task is a sacred moment. How do you acknowledge it? 

Or think about someone who has lost a spouse and comes to the moment when he or she is ready to take off a wedding ring. How might that moment be marked with close family and friends in a way that honors the dead and at the same time supports the Jewish value that we move on from mourning and embrace life? 

Or how do we get together to talk with our adult children about how we want to be cared for as death approaches? You’d be surprised how many times I sit in a hospital room with a dying congregant whose grown children have very different ideas about what mom or dad wanted. Making your wishes known is a sacred conversation, and its absence often leads to real pain and family disintegration. 

Jewish tradition has so much to offer us baby boomers. In fact, the story of our people begins with Avram and Sarai at this stage of their lives. They are mature adults. And at a time when others might simply have grown old, they respond to an invitation from God to go to an unknown place where God will send them.  

Our stories mirror that cosmic story; like them, we don’t really know where the next journey will take us. At the moment God calls to Avram and Sarai, three things happen. The first is that their names are changed to Abraham and Sarah; to each name a “hey” is added: God’s name. The second is that they make a covenant, a new promise to God. And the third is that they offer a sacrifice. 

These three actions have proven particularly helpful to me as I move into this new phase of life. My name is (metaphorically) changing. Almost a year ago, I added a new name — mother-in-law — as my son got married. Someday soon (God willing) I will add another name — grandmother. Inevitably, sometime in the future, my name will change from daughter to orphan. And many years from now, it will change from senior rabbi to Laura, from a pulpit rabbi to a Jew in the pews. What work do I need to do to discover the blessings and even the presence of God in my new names? 

Second, I feel the need to make a covenant that articulates my life purpose. For Abraham and Sarah, it was a covenant with God. They were clear about their life’s purpose. I am less clear about mine. The only way to get clear is to look back, understand what I have achieved and where I’ve made mistakes, and to think about how I want to do things differently. A useful Jewish tool for me has been writing an ethical will, a letter to my children and, I hope, to their children, about how I want to be remembered and what I hope my legacy will be. 

Third, I want to understand what it means that Abraham (and Sarah) offered a sacrifice. The word “l’hakriv,” sacrifice, comes from the root that means both “coming close” and “letting go.” This is a challenge to me: to really explore what I need to let go of and to what I want to draw close. 

When God called Avram and Sarai, God said: “And you will be a blessing.” Embracing that our names are changing, clarifying and recalibrating our purpose, exploring what we want to draw close to and what we need to let go, these are the steps on our journey to wisdom, the work of this stage of our life. Doing this work is how one’s life becomes a blessing.

Rabbi Laura Geller is a senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Weeklong event explores Judaism and wellness

When Rabbi Laura Geller learned that her father had Alzheimer’s disease, she struggled with the news. He was only in his 70s, after all, and it was painful for her to watch the man who had raised her — who she said had been “important and powerful and wonderful” in her life — lose his ability to perform daily tasks. 

For solace, she turned not to a doctor, a psychologist or any other health care professional. Instead, she found her coping strategy in the pages of the Talmud. 

Geller recalled the story of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. Both sets of tablets — those that Moses smashed when he saw the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, and the second set he received as a replacement — were placed in the ark for safekeeping. Why keep the broken set? Rabbinical commentary says they represent the broken among us, the sick, those who have forgotten the Torah. They, too, remain sacred. 

The story gave Geller strength as she cared for her father. She now tells it to her congregants at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills so they can draw meaning from it. 

“The fact that we have this anecdote in the Talmud shows that in a text that old, they were wrestling with the same issues we are,” Geller said. “Because we’re part of this larger community — one that exists across generations — there’s a sense of accumulated wisdom. Other people have walked these paths. Maybe we’ll handle them in different ways, but we’re not alone.”

That’s the idea behind Jewish Wisdom and Wellness: A Week of Learning, a wide-ranging conference to be held next week at venues across Los Angeles and elsewhere in Southern California. Organized jointly by the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and Cedars-Sinai, the event is designed to draw thousands of local Jews together to explore the question: What does Judaism have to say about living a whole and healthy life?

Participants can sign up for more than 60 lectures, workshops and classes April 21-27 taking place at synagogues and Jewish institutions around the city. Topics will include yoga, elder care, sexual health and meditation, among many others, and will involve a combination of text study, conversation and movement. Nearly all sessions are free and open to the public. 

What attendees might find, said Joel Kushner, interim director of the Kalsman Institute, is that Judaism offers a surprising volume of guidance on wellness, healing and living with gusto.

“Our purpose is to raise the dialogue of Judaism and healing in the community and show everyone that we have all these resources,” Kushner said. “So many people turn outside of Judaism for their spiritual practice, when really, we have it in our tradition — it’s just about accessing it. We’re trying to take what’s already there and share that with Jewish L.A.”

Audiences might be ready to listen. A recent surge of interest in Jewish spirituality has given rise to an explosion of Jewish yoga and meditation groups, and the study of Kabbalah has been luring Jews seeking spirituality for years. On top of that, the immutable human need for healing is heightened during times of economic crisis, Kushner said, leading people to lean on faith — and on one another. 

Jewish Wisdom and Wellness: A Week of Learning was a year and a half in the making. Cedars-Sinai had worked with the Kalsman Institute to expand its spiritual care program, now headed by Rabbi Jason Weiner, and the two institutions sought another way to keep collaborating. 

Jonathan Schreiber, director of community engagement at Cedars-Sinai, and Michele Prince, then-director of the Kalsman Institute, decided to co-sponsor a conference that probed the connection between Judaism and health. But they knew the event would hardly register on the radars of far-flung Angelenos if they organized it the traditional way. 

“We thought, ‘If we want to turn that idea on its head, let’s contact hundreds of people and turn this into a topic that’s discussed throughout the L.A. area,” Schreiber said. 

So he and Prince asked congregations, academic institutions and nonprofits to propose programs they would like to host under the umbrella of religion and wellness, then provided micro-grants of $250 to $500 to about 40 participating organizations to cover their costs. The result is a crowd-sourced symposium inclusive of all ages, all denominations and Jews on both sides of the 405. 

“We know in L.A. it’s sometimes hard to get people to come to an event because there’s so much competition for attention,” said Prince, a social worker who now is the executive director of Our House Grief Support Center. “Instead of asking people to come to us, we wanted to catalyze projects happening in every corner of L.A.”

The week will kick off with a panel discussion at Cedars-Sinai, moderated by Rob Eshman, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal, on the power of Judaism to carry those in crisis through trying times. Those participating in the panel are Geller; Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein; Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva; and Rabbi Abner Weiss of Westwood Village Synagogue.

Other offerings across the city include a workshop on Jewish-flavored art therapy, a healing drum circle, chevra kadisha training in Jewish burial practices, a discussion on food justice and Jewish tai chi. 

“In Hebrew, there’s a connection between ‘wholeness,’ ‘healing’ and ‘holiness,’ ” Weiss said. “We didn’t borrow that concept from the mystics of the East. From Maimonides to Nachmanides, there are very strong psychosomatic elements in the Jewish tradition.”

Art exhibits at HUC-JIR’s Jack H. Skirball Campus near USC and Shulamit Gallery in Venice will explore the connection between healing and painting, sculpture and photography. A closing concert at Leo Baeck Temple will celebrate the music of Debbie Friedman, whose tune for the healing prayer, “Mi Shebeirach,” is sung by congregations everywhere. 

Kushner hopes participants come away scratching their heads — in a good way. 

“You might go, ‘I didn’t know Judaism had so much to offer.’ ”

For more information about Jewish Wisdom and Wellness: A Week of Learning, visit this article at jewishjournal.com.

Why counting counts: Who knows who L.A.’s Jews are?

Susan Goldberg, rabbi of Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, grew up in nearby Echo Park.

“There were no Jewish families around when I was growing up,” Goldberg, 38, said. Now that these neighborhoods are being gentrified, and a young, creative crowd is moving in, the Jews are coming, too.

Some five years ago, Temple Beth Israel, a nearly 90-year-old congregation, counted 30 individual members. Today, she said, “We’re bursting at the seams with young families, parents in their 30s and 40s who are living here, in Mount Washington, in Highland Park, in Eagle Rock,” Goldberg said.

But for all the anecdotal evidence that Jews are moving eastward, no one knows exactly how many Jews comprise this trend.

“We know they’re out there, because when we have events, they come,” Goldberg said. “But it would be so, so tremendously helpful to know where they are, who they are, how many there are.”

Los Angeles hasn’t done a Jewish community survey since 1997, and with nothing concrete in the works, organizations are “flying blind,” in the words of one demographer.

“No other large Jewish community has been without a study for such a long period of time,” said Jacob Ukeles, president of Ukeles Associates Inc., a firm that helped conduct New York’s recently released survey.

And that can have serious implications for how effectively a community responds to needs.

“We need to know who lives where, what they do Jewishly, what diversity exists among Jews, what needs they have, what resources they have and what they think on a variety of issues,” said Sarah Bunin Benor, associate professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles. “That’s my take on it, from the perspective of somebody who wants to help Jews have a better life.”

Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said conducting such a study is “rising to the top of our agenda.”

“We really need to do it. We know we need to do it, and I believe we will do it. We have to figure out the resources and how we’re going to pay for it,” Sanderson said in an interview.

A study of Los Angeles’ Jews, who are believed to number between 500,000 and 600,000, would likely cost somewhere around $1 million. In most cities with large and medium-sized Jewish populations, Federation pays for a survey once a decade. Los Angeles conducted community surveys in 1950, 1958, 1968, 1979 and 1997.

When Sanderson took office in 2010, no study was in the pipeline, and he said he had initially hoped to launch one quickly. But as the impact of the recession became more severe, Sanderson said, funds continued to be redirected to such programs as the Emergency Cash Grants, which has provided more than $2.6 million in relief to 5,350 recipients since 2009.

“Now, with everything we’re doing, we’re still trying to put a survey on the front burner,” Sanderson said.

Federation hopes to launch the process in the next year, Sanderson said — if he can figure out where the money will come from.

But the more time that goes by without a survey, the less efficiently the community is spending its dollars, demographers say.

“If you have a Federation that says they are the planning body of the community, where are they getting their information?” asked Pini Herman, a principal at Phillips and Herman Demographic Research. Herman was the L.A. Federation’s research coordinator for the 1997 survey; he has also worked on surveys in San Francisco, Houston and Seattle.

“The longer you don’t have a survey, the more you have to guess, and basically you’re snatching ideas and data out of thin air. And without any community study, there is no way to confirm or refute what they say,” Herman said.

Community leaders say they are eager to have current data.

“Synagogues call all the time, wanting to know where the Jews are moving. Are they moving into our area? Out of our area? Are we losing members because Jews are leaving this area, or for some other reason?” said Bruce Phillips, a principal, with Pini Herman, at Phillips and Herman Demographic Research and a professor of sociology and Jewish communal studies at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. Phillips has conducted or published research on more than 20 Jewish community surveys.

Other questions in Los Angeles also need answering. How many Iranian Jews live here, and what is there economic profile? Their Jewish identity? Their integration patterns?

What areas are people moving to and away from? Are nearby cities that are experiencing growth, such as San Francisco, Phoenix and Las Vegas, doing so at the expense of Los Angeles, or along with Los Angeles? How many French and Latin American Jews have moved into the area, and are they being served? Has the Orthodox population increased, and if so, in what sectors?

Anecdotal evidence about subpopulations can be deceiving, Phillips said, as it’s easier to count visible Jews who are frequent users of community resources — for instance, the Orthodox, or immigrant populations. The unaffiliated are more likely to go undetected if you rely on visibility or data from Jewish organizations.

A topic open to debate is how many Israelis are in Los Angeles. While some estimate there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis in Los Angeles, Herman says his own research points to a number closer to a maximum of 25,000, a figure corroborated by the official Israeli count of how many people have left their country.

The Los Angeles Jewish population, once concentrated on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley, is migrating toward the East Side and north to areas such as the Conejo, Santa Clarita and Simi Valleys.

Several organizations are investing both money and resources in the East Side, including Federation, which has funded a new staff person at East Side Jews, a nondenominational Jewish community that has attracted hundreds of young, hip Jews to its irreverent monthly holiday celebrations and social events. East Side Jews recently became part of the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, an organization that is on a short list to receive significant Federation funding for a renovation and expansion project.

At the same time, Temple Beth Israel’s Goldberg said, Jews in the area remain underserved. When she needs to refer people for social services, she is often told that Jewish agencies don’t extend out to her part of town. In addition to leading Temple Beth Israel, Goldberg serves as rabbi-in-residence for East Side Jews, a position co-supported by Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which is also interested in being part of the East Side Jewish renaissance.

Indeed, Wilshire Boulevard Temple is in the middle of a $150 million project to restore and revitalize its historic sanctuary and campus in Koreatown. Before embarking on that project, the congregation commissioned its own demographic study of the area — roughly from West Hollywood on the west to Eagle Rock and Pasadena on the East, stretching from Adams Boulevard on the South up to Studio City and Glendale.

“I intuitively felt that young Jews were moving eastward, but intuition is not always right,” Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Rabbi Steven Leder said.

Their study, which cost them about $25,000, found around 30 percent growth in the area over the last 10 years, with the most significant increases in the population of childbearing and -rearing age. That information convinced the synagogue’s leadership to buy up the rest of their square block to make room for more parking, an expanded day school, religious school and social service center.

Having data has also made it easier to approach donors, Leder said.

“It’s important to know that there is hard data to support your assumptions when you’re trying to raise money,” he said.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s study was based on Jewish surnames in voter registration listings — a method that may have left out Jews who have a non-Jewish parent or who are married to non-Jews, a population that, anecdotally at least, accounts for much of the growth on the East Side.

What’s in a word? For ‘ordained’ rather than ‘invested’ cantors, a lot

What’s the difference between investiture and ordination?

Plenty, say officials at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which has announced that for the first time since establishing its cantorial school in 1948, it will ordain rather than invest its graduating class of cantors.

Six graduates will be ordained Sunday in ceremonies at Temple Emanu-El in New York.

The change has been several years in the making. Reform movement officials say it both recognizes the elevated role that cantors have in modern times and eliminates some barriers they have faced in their clergy work. For example, one cantor in California could not visit a congregant in prison because prison officials did not recognize her as a bona fide member of the clergy.

“She was unable to fulfill her pastoral duty to her own synagogue member because the prison world didn’t understand the word investiture,” said Jodi Schechtman, a cantor in Framingham, Mass.,  who as director of organizational partnerships for the American Conference of Cantors played a lead role on the language change.

The other major proponent of the change was Cantor Bruce Ruben, director of HUC’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music.

A committee of officers from HUC, the American Conference of Cantors and the Central Conference of American Rabbis made the decision.

“There’s been a significant shift in the role of the cantor,” Ruben said. “Rather than just being responsible for the musical elements of the service, they have full clergy status.”

Ruben and Schechtman say the term investiture has little meaning either inside or outside the Jewish community. Ruben said the term was selected originally to make a clear distinction between rabbis and cantors, and acknowledged that some rabbis are not pleased with the change in nomenclature. But he and Schechtman say it’s necessary.

“For cantors who are serving in partnership with rabbis,” Schechtman said, “it is important for the congregation to understand the cantor is not there just as a singer, but the cantor is there to serve the congregation and to help with all aspects of Jewish life.”

Outside the synagogue, they said, the term investiture has been a stumbling block for cantors. Schechtman noted that in churches, the term cantor simply means a singer or choir leader. In some states, cantors must register as justices of the peace rather than as clergy to be recognized as legal officiants at weddings.

“If a rabbi doesn’t have to be a justice of the peace, why does a cantor?” Schechtman said.

She and Ruben said cantors are not seeking to erase the distinctions between themselves and rabbis but to raise their own professional status—a fight that rabbis battled, beginning in the middle of the 19th century, Ruben said.

There is no intent to compete with rabbis, they said.

“In most congregations, the rabbi is the final leader of the congregation. No one is trying to take that away,” Schechtman said. “We want to make sure it is understood what the role of the cantor is” and that role is beyond being a singer.

Both rabbis and cantors complete five-year programs at HUC, which also lead to master’s degrees—in Hebrew letters for the former, sacred music for the latter.

It remains unclear whether the movement will take steps to ordain cantors retroactively, Shechtman said.

The Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary H.L. Miller Cantorial School invests its cantors, but discussions are under way on changing that to ordination. The nondenominational Academy for Jewish Religion already ordains its cantors.

The Reconstructionist movement no longer offers a cantorial program, but cantors previously were invested.

Rabbi Jonathan Stein, president of the CCAR, said the intensity of those who objected to the change was strong.

“The people who are in favor are much more intellectually oriented, less passionate,” he said, noting that many of those who were against the change worried about blurring the lines between rabbis and cantors.

One rabbi who emailed Stein wrote that rabbinic ordination originated in the Bible with the laying of hands, with rabbis ordained to do effective teaching of Torah, while cantors “have a different origination and a vastly different role.” Another rabbi told Stein that ordaining cantors “defies reason and reality.”

“Cantors are cantors and rabbis are rabbis,” that objector wrote. “Let us not add to confusion to this sometime confusing situation.”

One rabbi who fully supports the decision to give cantors the professional recognition says she has not heard a backlash among her fellow Reform rabbis—on multiple listservs or in person.

“I don’t think that people are feeling threatened by it or upset about it,” said Rabbi Mindy Portnoy of Temple Sinai in Washington. “I have a feeling this is one of the issues where the ones who are upset about it are quiet.”

Educator realizing lifelong dream to become rabbi

Dvora Weisberg doesn’t think she’s had any unfair advantages over her fellow rabbinical students graduating from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) this month. Well, maybe a few.

“I do have a considerable number of years over most of the other students,” Weisberg, 51, admitted recently.

That, and she’s also the director of HUC-JIR’s School of Rabbinical Studies.

On May 15, Weisberg will be ordained as a rabbi through the program she oversees, graduating as a member of the rabbinical class of 2011 alongside a dozen of her pupils-cum-classmates in a ceremony at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. For the longtime educator, her ordination will mark the fulfillment of a dream almost four decades in the making.

Weisberg, who has directed the rabbinical school at HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus for the past two years, said she’s proud to have reached this milestone in her career. 

“It’s very exciting — I’m excited to be ordained,” she said. “It has been interesting trying to balance these different roles. It’s a really unique way to grow into a job.”

Simultaneously managing the Reform rabbinical school and studying in its curriculum has meant a full schedule of office work, homework and teaching — sometimes going from professor to classmate in the course of a single morning. But from her vantage point near the finish line, Weisberg said it was worth it.

“There comes a point in a person’s life when you look past how busy you are and realize that if there’s something you really want to do, you should just do it,” she said. “It got to a point where I thought, ‘I should just go ahead with this.’ ”

After all, becoming a rabbi was something she’d wanted to do since she was 16.

It started with a love of the Hebrew language. Weisberg told an educator she wanted to be a Hebrew teacher and was given a challenge as a response: Why stop there when you could be a rabbi?

But the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), where she wanted to study, was not yet accepting female rabbinical students when she graduated from Brandeis University in 1981. So she pursued her master’s and doctorate there in Talmud and rabbinics instead.

Along the way, she got married, had two children and — when JTS began training female rabbis — applied again to the rabbinical school. Despite being accepted, however, she didn’t want to change her course of study mid-degree.

“I moved toward [ordination] a number of times, but it never quite worked out” between building a family and a teaching career, she said. “It didn’t seem to fit into a schedule — it would always be taking away from something else.”

When Weisberg joined the HUC-JIR faculty as an assistant professor 10 years ago, she again considered the possibility. But it wasn’t until HUC-JIR President Rabbi David Ellenson encouraged her that she took the plunge.

Ellenson will be brimming with “pride and nachas” when he confers the title of rabbi upon Weisberg on May 15, he said.

“I am overjoyed that Dvora has completed this step on a journey she was destined to take decades ago,” he added. “She has such tremendous spiritual depth and combines that with a profound knowledge of Jewish rabbinical tradition. The rabbinical school has flourished under her leadership. It’s only fitting that she will now also bear the title of rabbi.”

Weisberg and the HUC-JIR faculty took steps to avoid a conflict of interest on the director’s part. Although certain thorny situations couldn’t be sidestepped — such as co-teaching the ordination seminar she was required, as a student, to take — “at least I didn’t have to grade my own papers,” she said with a chuckle.

And while she made sure to secure paid internships for the other students, she herself took an unpaid one at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills.

At first, Weisberg was concerned her studies would take too much time away from her students, but she now feels her going to school was beneficial for them. “It’s an affirming experience for students to see their director experience what they’re experiencing directly,” she said. “I was not just sitting in an office, but learning alongside them. The students have been incredibly supportive and enthusiastic.”

Sometimes Weisberg contemplates how her life might have been different if she’d had the chance to go to rabbinical school earlier. But she doesn’t dwell on it too much.

“I feel that I’ve had a really amazing career,” she said. “I love what I do — I love teaching Talmud. I’m not sorry I chose the course I took. I’ve been given this gift that I’ve suddenly gotten the opportunity to grow in a new direction right where I am. It has been an incredible blessing.”

At the ordination ceremony, Weisberg will introduce her class and give a short talk on what it means to be ordained. “I’m really going to focus for the first hour and 45 minutes on being the director, and then I’m going to spend the last 10 minutes being a student,” she said. During those 10 minutes, she added, “I’ll probably cry — but I always do.” 

Her family will watch her graduate from HUC-JIR the following day, including her 21-year-old son — who will have graduated from USC, right across the street, three days earlier.

Now that she’s finally becoming a rabbi, Weisberg has another set of questions to consider.

“A lot of people have asked me, ‘What’s going to be different?’ ” she said. “I think that I may think about things in a more multi-dimensional way; the experience of having gone to rabbinical school while directing one really deepens your appreciation of rabbinic education. But this decision wasn’t about changing my work. This has been a journey of introspection and growth, and thinking about how being a rabbi might shape my work from now on.

“What will this be like? I don’t know — I’ve never been a rabbi before.”

Historian charts L.A. reform academy’s future

When he took over as dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in July 2010, Josh Holo, already a professor at the college, brought with him a few photographs of 11th-century letters to hang on the wall behind his desk. Among the letters is one that mentions a major problem for the Jewish communities in Egypt at the time: how to raise funds to redeem fellow Jews who had been taken captive by pirates.

Getting people to support HUC-JIR, the Reform movement’s preeminent academic institution on the West Coast, doesn’t have the urgency of freeing hostages from the clutches of pirates — at least not anymore.

But just two years ago, it looked like two of the four HUC-JIR campuses might have to close due to financial difficulties, including the one in Los Angeles. “We entered crisis mode,” Holo said.

Then-dean Steven F. Windmueller helped shepherd the local branch of HUC-JIR through those challenging months. “We lived through a period of testing the mettle,” Windmueller remembers. “We’re certainly in a stronger and more secure place than we were several years ago.”

That is due at least in part to a $10 million gift from the Skirball Foundation, for HUC-JIR’s endowment (see sidebar). The L.A. campus was renamed on Feb. 6 in honor of Jack Skirball, an HUC–JIR-ordained Reform rabbi. 

Holo is glad the school has put that tumultuous period behind it. “We’re back doing our work rather than worrying about our work. We are getting our house in order. We have a plan,” Holo said. “We’re either at or ahead of the plan, and that allows us to feel like we’re being responsible, and we can put our nose back to the grindstone and do what we do — which is studying and learning and training our professionals.”

L.A. HUC-JIR campus named for Skirball

At a midday ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 6, the Los Angeles branch of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion officially became the Jack H. Skirball Campus. The decision, triggered by the Skirball Foundation’s recent $10-million donation to HUC-JIR’s endowment, recognizes Skirball’s role as a founder and consistent supporter of the Reform movement’s West Coast academic home.

Skirball was ordained as a Reform rabbi at the Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR in 1921 and served as spiritual leader to two congregations in the Midwest before moving to Los Angeles where he became a film producer. Skirball later became a successful real estate developer but is today perhaps best remembered for his philanthropic support of HUC-JIR and the Skirball Cultural Center.

The Skirball Cultural Center, which opened in 1996, started out as the smaller Skirball Museum on the campus of HUC-JIR in 1971. Founded by Uri Herscher with Skirball’s support, the cultural center was initially conceived as a vehicle for HUC-JIR to reach a broader audience. The cultural center had a long-term lease on the land in the Sepulveda Pass; in 2010 it bought the underlying property and its core collection from HUC-JIR making it, for the first time, fully independent of the institution that served as its first home. 

Those who addressed the crowd of about 100 on Sunday afternoon included leaders from both HUC-JIR and the Skirball Cultural Center.

It’s clear that these are the parts of the job that Holo enjoys most. “I love to teach,” Holo, 39, said. “I love my administration, and I don’t mind the fact that my administration takes me away from teaching, as long as I get to teach — and I do.” Upon becoming dean, Holo established a policy that will ensure that all of the future Reform rabbis and Jewish educators being trained at HUC-JIR will take one class with him during the time they are enrolled. “I want them to see the dean as a practicing scholar,” Holo said.

Holo’s scholarly work focuses on medieval Jewish history, and the photographs of letters hanging on his office wall are also included in his book, “Byzantine Jewry in the Mediterranean Economy” (Cambridge, 2009). Before becoming dean, Holo was already wearing an administrator’s hat along with his scholar’s cap. He was director of the Louchheim School of Judaic Studies, which serves as the undergraduate program in Jewish studies for University of Southern California, whose campus is adjacent to HUC-JIR’s.

He is only the second non-rabbi to serve as Los Angeles campus dean. The first was Windmueller, his predecessor, an experienced Jewish communal professional turned professor. Holo’s job is to chart a course for HUC-JIR in Los Angeles so that it can best prepare future rabbis to lead the Reform movement in the future.

“Generation Xers are really coming into their own, and Generation Yers are right behind them,” said Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, who has close relationships with both Windmueller and Holo as friends and congregants. A self-described “aging boomer,” Rosove said the experiences that impacted him growing up — the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the three major Israeli-Arab wars between 1948 and 1973 — are similar to those that shaped Windmueller, who is 68.

But for Holo — and even more so for Holo’s students — those events are the stuff of history. “They don’t have any personal memories of any of these things, and their experience of Jewish identity will necessarily be very different,” Rosove said. “I’m kind of excited to see what their generation will bring to the American Jewish community going forward.”

Holo’s personal upbringing wasn’t in the Reform movement. The Southern California native grew up attending a Conservative synagogue and a non-denominational day school. He often views the future of Reform Judaism through the lens of his expertise in medieval Jewish history.

“One of his great skills is to understand the nature of the challenges that confront the contemporary Jewish community in light of the historical sweep of the entire Jewish panorama,” Rabbi David Ellenson, president of HUC-JIR, said of Holo. “He brings the perspective of the Jewish past to the present.”

This quality was very much on display during a recent interview. Even when Holo was ostensibly talking about relatively recent trends in the Jewish community — Reform Jews who are incorporating the traditional practice of keeping kosher, for one — the patient and soft-spoken historian consistently referred back to the distant past. At one point, he explained in depth the medieval-era schism between Karaites and Rabbinites. Today, every major Jewish denomination — including Reform Judaism — comes from the Rabbinite tradition. Karaites, whose practice is derived from the Bible alone, have all but disappeared. The citation, which seemed like a digression at first, turned out to be completely integral to Holo’s explanation. It was easy to understand, yet not oversimplified.

It’s no wonder then that Holo’s favorite perk as dean is being able to ask the researchers on campus to meet with him and talk to him about their current work. “It’s not a tenure checkup or anything like that,” he said.

“I’m in this building with this incredible brain trust, and I get to have an hour and a half with them and just get plugged into this world of Jewish learning,” Holo said. “It’s such a privilege.”

Reform cantorial school named after Debbie Friedman

The Reform movement’s cantorial school has been named after the late Debbie Friedman.

Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, made the announcement Jan. 27 in New York at a memorial tribute to Friedman, who died Jan. 9 at 59.

Friends of the late singer-songwriter have made possible an endowment to the school, which will henceforth be known as The Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, Ellenson said.

“A beloved member of our faculty since 2007, Debbie Friedman, z”l, inspired our students through her creativity and musical talents, helped guide their spiritual and leadership development, and provided them with innovative strategies to transform congregations into communities of learning and meaning,” Ellenson said. “Her words and her music will live on and shape the world of prayer in our synagogues and in the larger Jewish community for this and future generations.”

Friedman transformed Jewish worship in North American liberal synagogues with her sing-along style of folk-inspired music. Since her start as a song leader in Reform summer camps in the early 1970s, she released 20 albums and was a much sought-after performer on the Jewish circuit.

Her most well-known composition, “Mi Shebeirach,” a Hebrew-English version of the Jewish prayer for healing, is now part of the Reform liturgy. She was named to the School of Sacred Music faculty in 2007.

HUC’s School of Sacred Music in New York was established in 1948 and has invested 462 cantors.