June 26, 2019

Empowering Homeless Youth With Technology

Photo by Cyndi Bemel

Donating phones and laptops aren’t the first things people think of when wanting to give to the homeless. But Heather Wilk realized technology was a necessity and made it a priority to use technology to help homeless teens.

Wilk is the executive director of Straight But Not Narrow (SBNN), a nonprofit founded in 2011 that provides resources to homeless LGBTQ youth. Forty percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, according to Wilk.

“We wanted to be more hands-on,” Wilk told the Journal. “Not just talk about awareness but do something about it and actually help them.”

To this end, SBNN takes donated cellphones and laptops, refurbishes them and gives them to homeless teens and young adults as an incentive to connect with shelters and LGBTQ support centers. SBNN also provides them with tech courses and resume services.

“I think we take for granted the digital world,” Wilk said. “This isn’t a luxury anymore. It’s a necessity to have a phone now. The phones are filled with information [including apps, resources and hot spots] so [teens] will always have a safe place to go to and a number to call if they need.” 

Wilk, 33, said that many of the teens she’s worked with haven’t met someone “like them” until connecting on social media. To date, SBNN has distributed 825 devices and reached more than 35,500 LGBTQ teens all over the country. Among the 12 centers it works with, SBNN has partnered with the Trevor Project and its resources to help bridge the divide for teens who feel they don’t belong. 

“I think we take for granted the digital world. This isn’t a luxury anymore. It’s a necessity to have a phone now.”

“High school is already an alienating place,” Wilk said, “and if you don’t have someone out there looking out for you, to mentor you, you can feel really lonely. Their first real communication that’s safe with someone is through the internet, especially if you are in a rural area. You need the device to connect with others.”

Wilk, once part of the small Jewish population in Oklahoma (in school, she’d play teacher and educate her classmates on the Festival of Lights), knows what it’s like to feel different. 

“I think growing up in Oklahoma as a Jewish person, you immediately felt like an outsider, so I’ve always empathized and clung to people who maybe don’t feel they fit the norm,” she said. “I always loved being able to help out if I can. I think allies are really important. We all need to be allies for one another.” 

The need to supply homeless teens with solar charging portals for phones was one of the most valuables pieces of feedback Wilk received. Since teens on the street rarely have regular access to electrical outlets, they need to be able to use a charging port that generates its own power. 

“I think familiarity and knowledge changes everything,” she said. “Once you are more informed, you will be more accepting and empathetic, and so I [want to] do what we can to get people to understand what’s going on.”

Wilk said her compassion for others comes from her father, Larry. “He puts everyone’s needs before his own. He was always welcoming and grateful, and happy to have any of my friends come over no matter who they are. I think [from] that open-door policy, we learn about other people and then become better people ourselves.”

Read more about our 2019 mensches here.

Celebrity Stylist Cuts the Hair of the Homeless

Photo courtesy of Solo Artists.

Clippers in hand, celebrity hairstylist Jason Schneidman trims a man’s long, disheveled locks into a neat, hipster cut before clipping his grizzly beard into presentable facial hair.

However, his latest client isn’t sitting in Schneidman’s swanky chair in a high-end Beverly Hills salon. Instead, he’s seated on an upside-down bucket and having his excess hair on the back of his neck cleaned up with a leaf blower.

That’s because the man in question is homeless, and on this Sunday morning, like so many others, Schneidman is volunteering his services at Samoshel, a Santa Monica homeless shelter that provides interim housing for around 70 men and women.

“I’m doing great,” the homeless man says when asked what he thinks of his haircut. “This guy’s amazing.”

When not giving free haircuts to the homeless, Schneidman is employed at the Beverly Hills-based Chris McMillan Salon, whose clients include late-night talk show host James Corden, musician David Foster and actor Dustin Hoffman.

“I approach them like they are people, like they are me, because I was that person, because all I needed was a helping hand.” — Jason Schneidman

Schneidman said the free haircuts, which he started doing a year ago, began by accident. One of his clients, filmmaker Stephen Kessler, was interested in filming Schneidman giving free haircuts to business people on the street who were in need of makeovers. They went into a U-Haul dealership looking for a day worker in need of a haircut, and the woman at the counter told them there was a drunken man in the alley who could use one. And so, haircuts for the homeless was born.

The now 47-year-old was able to connect with homeless people facing struggles with alcoholism and substance abuse because he had become addicted to alcohol and drugs in his late 20s when he was living in Long Beach.

Sober now for 14 years, Schneidman said cutting hair has always been his anchor, and with the support of his family and the help of an employer who paid for his rehab while he worked as his assistant, Schneidman turned his life around. He’s now a happily married father of two and lives in Venice.

To date, Schneidman has cut the hair of nearly 100 homeless people, either at a single location like Samoshel, or simply by approaching people on the street and offering his services.

“I approach them like they are people, like they are me, because I was that person, because all I needed was a helping hand,” Schneidman told the Journal.

Additionally, the self-described “twice-a-year Jew” said Judaism teaches giving back to others.

“When I got sober I was like, ‘I want to go to shul,’and it was the High Holidays, and I showed up and it was the first time I could sit and listen because my head was clear, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, Judaism is amazing. It is like recovery. It is all about love and service.’ ”

On this particular Sunday at the Santa Monica shelter,  Schneidman’s parents, Daisy and Vic, showed up to donate supplies to the homeless.

Vic said his son’s work with the homeless brings Jewish values to life.
“It resonates with tzedakah, tikkun olam,” he said.

Schneidman, however, dismissed any notion that he’s a role model.

“I’m not a pillar of society,” he said. “I’m just a 47-year-old kid that loves life.”

Super Bowl With the Homeless

Two weeks ago, I received a crazy call.

“We’re putting together a Super Bowl Party for the Homeless. Last year’s video went viral, so now we’re expanding. Can you host the L.A. party?”

The caller was Meir Kay, a social media personality with more than 1 million followers, known for his infectious positivity. In his first viral video, he danced around New York City high-fiving people who were hailing cabs.

I have a million followers, too, but at Accidental Talmudist I’m on a mission to increase the peace by sharing Jewish wisdom with all people. In a video that caught Meir’s eye, I brought two Chasidic musicians downtown on Christmas night to see what would happen. We ended up jamming with a homeless guy named Antonio. Later, we passed the hat for him online and raised more than $600.

At Beth Am, I found that some of the maybes had actually showed up.

Meir told me we’d need a venue, food, a big-screen TV, dignity kits, volunteers, a film crew and homeless guests.

“Meir, this is a great idea. You should’ve called me a month ago.”

“Dude! Last year, I pulled it together in 24 hours!”

Respect. That video was pretty good. The New England Patriots even reposted it.

“How many homeless guys did you have?”


“It looked way busier than that.”

“Yeah, I brought them to a party at a bar. But a bar isn’t a good idea for these guys. Plus, the owner doesn’t want them back.”

I bet. So we had two weeks to pull it off. Walking away was obviously the right move. My soul said stay.

I called Rabbi Adam Kligfeld at Temple Beth Am. He agreed on the spot, and so did his staff. Lia Mandelbaum, director of programming, Shawn Gatewood, director of facilities, and all their personnel brought a problem-solving attitude.

So we had a venue. Then Dovid Leider of Leider’s Catering donated food for 50. Boom! This thing was coming together. My wife, Nina, recruited volunteers. Chasids from Hancock Park, whole families from Temple Beth Am, and non-Jews from our Facebook audience all got into the spirit.

Two days before the game, my cameraman bailed because of a family emergency. Then, Marty Markovits appeared, a documentarian with a great eye.

Sunday dawned.

“Hi! Would you like to attend a Super Bowl Party and have a great meal?”

The first invitee said yes. She spends her days by the 7-Eleven next door to the synagogue and was thrilled to go inside. The next 10 people we approached, however, all said no. They wanted to be left alone. Then a few maybes. I called Nina.

The diversity among homeless people is immense. Some wouldn’t attract a second glance at Coffee Bean. Others are alarmingly challenged regarding mental health and hygiene. Nina found two of the latter and drove them to the synagogue, God bless her.

I headed downtown. We found an encampment of eight. They told us to scram, but one fellow, Michael, said, “Hell, yeah, me and my wife are coming!” That convinced the others. I summoned a Lyft van.

At Beth Am, I found that some of the maybes had showed up. Our Lyft group became the boisterous nucleus of two dozen guests, plus an equal number of volunteers.

I’m a Giants fan, so I was rooting for the Eagles to beat the Patriots. This became the general consensus. Spirits rose. Plates were piled high with tasty wings and pastrami.

Real conversations were happening all around the room. I learned Ed was a 10-year veteran of the Air Force. Uncle Ray was just rooting for a good game.

When the Eagles scored, we erupted in “Yaaahs!” and high-fived like old pals, and we groaned every time the Patriots made a good play. In the end, we brought it home: an Eagles victory for the faithful!

The real triumph, however, came from Brandon after I shared Torah with him.

“Who is strong? One who controls himself. I like that. I’m in a halfway house now, getting it together. I don’t trust no one but God to help me, but I would like to volunteer for this temple. Mow the lawn or whatever. Thank you for doing a great thing for us.”

Salvador Litvak shares his love of Judaism with a million followers every day at

Dating 101: Dinner at McDonalds

Yesterday I was running some errands and headed into a shop. I was on the phone and didn’t pay too much attention to my surroundings, but did see a homeless man sitting to the right of the door asking for money. Before I left the store, I looked in my wallet for a dollar to give him on my way out. I stopped to hand him the money, he said thank you, then asked if I wanted to go out for dinner. It made me laugh. I thanked him for the invitation, declined, and headed to my car.

As I was walking away I continued to laugh and realized this man had made my day. He was sweet to ask me out for dinner, and while I didn’t know if he was unwell and potentially dangerous, I knew I needed to go back. I approached the man and said that while I was not able to have dinner with him, could I buy him something to eat. He looked wary for a quick second, then said he would love some dinner. I asked him what he felt like eating. Without hesitation he said McDonalds.

I asked if he wanted to come with me, and he said he’d wait. I assured him he could come with me, but he said I’d be better off not talking him as people get nervous. That made me sad, then it didn’t because the truth is under different circumstances, he would make me nervous. So I went into McDonalds and bought him a Big Mac, fries, coke, water, apple pie, with a Quarter Pounder and some cookies as back up. When I got back he looked surprised to see me.

He said he didn’t think I was coming back and opened the bag with joy and relief. I told him to enjoy his dinner and stay safe. He looked me in the eye and locked my gaze. It was a lovely moment of thanks and compassion. I smiled and told him I needed to head home. He asked me what my name was, and when I told him he thanked me by name, introduced himself, then asked me out for dinner one more time. I laughed again, and without overthinking it, I told him I’d be right back.

I went back to McDonalds and got myself some fries and a drink. I then joined him for dinner. We sat at a bus stop and shared a meal. We chatted about the weather, and he told me about himself. It was lovely. I enjoyed talking with him and was happy about how happy he was with his dinner. He told me he knew we’d have a date. I assured him it wasn’t a date and just dinner because I would never go on a date to McDonalds. He laughed as he watched me eat the best fries ever.

I grabbed a blanket and umbrella out of my car and gave them to my new friend. He said it was his lucky day and I was an angel. It was all very sweet and I left him with a smile on my face. My goal for 2018 is to ask people to share their stories, and view everyone as a human being who shares the planet, not just people who are different. It is empowering and inspiring to look at all people with compassion. I am setting aside fear, making room for bravery, and keeping the faith.

Alana Yakovlev: Law Isn’t Just a Profession — It’s a Calling

Alana Yakolev

A month after taking the California bar exam in 2010, Alana Yakovlev took the case of an indigent Jewish man facing felony charges whom she had heard of through her network of friends and family in the Los Angeles Jewish community. She believed he was not guity, but prior convictions made him a candidate for a significant sentence.

“They were saying he was going to serve four years in state prison,” she said in the conference room of her Koreatown law office. “Lo and behold, I got involved in the case and two months later, he walked — time served.”

Now, Yakovlev, 33, an Orthodox mother of three, routinely takes on as many as 10 cases at a time of fellow Jews who are often mentally ill and homeless, working to wrest them from the revolving door of the criminal justice system and get them much-needed treatment. She often works with the Aleph Institute, a nonprofit that reaches out to incarcerated Jews.
Too often, she said, mentally ill individuals become trapped in legal limbo by virtue of their illness, for instance, if a court deems them incompetent to stand trial.

“By the time a court deems them incompetent, by the time a court issues an order to give them the medication to restore them to competency, by the time they get sent out to a facility with a bed available for treatment, you’re talking about five to six months,” she said.

Yakovlev, who runs a private criminal defense practice, offers her services to these individuals for free, working to ensure they have access to medication, ideally at a facility equipped to deal with mental illness. She said the penal system often overlooks or ignores mental illness, meaning lengthy jail terms and inadequate treatment for those afflicted.

Depending on the client, her job ranges from contacting social workers, family mem-
bers and jail staff to arguing cases in court.

“Some cases could be a couple phone calls, a couple jail visits, a couple court appearances; others could be very intensive writs, petitions, legal arguments. It varies,” she said.

In theory, this should be the work of public defenders, or PDs, but for mentally ill clients assigned PDs, Yakovlev said, “Good luck. They’re not equipped. They don’t have the resources, and a lot of the time, even when I’ve co-counseled with a PD, I had to do the brunt of the work.”

Having a private lawyer involved, she said, “makes an impact on the end result, because your opposing people, the district attorney’s office, they see it. They see you’re making a fuss not just for the sake of making a fuss, but because it actually means something to you.”

Yakovlev said she often draws on her faith as a devotee of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, sharing with her clients a word of Talmud, Torah or the great Chasidic rabbis, which she said brings them comfort.

“They might not know anything in Hebrew, but they feel that they’re a Jew, that there’s a God, that HaShem loves them even though they’re locked up right now,” she said.

Likewise, she draws on her faith to deal with disappointments.

“Everything I do, I try to do leshem shemayim [in the name of heaven],” she said. “With that in mind, nothing really scares me. Sometimes, things don’t work out. It’s life; it’s disappointing. But at the end of the day, if you go to sleep and you know you did the best you could do for that person, it’s a good day.”

B’nai David-Judea Celebrates 13 Years of Helping the Homeless

Pressman Academy students serve at B'nai David-Judea's Sukkot breakfast for homeless people. Photo by Kelly Hartog.

David Nimmer remembers how the idea began.

During a 2004 Torah class in B’nai David-Judea Congregation’s sukkah, a rabbinic intern explained that when God told the Israelites to “do my work,” it was a commandment to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the sick.

Nimmer took the message to heart. “We should do this,” he recalled saying. “We should invite some poor and hungry people into the sukkah.”

The congregation made an effort, extending lunch invitations to a number of homeless people in its Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Only one person showed up.

“It was not the most auspicious beginning,” said Nimmer, a former B’nai David-Judea president. “But it was a beginning.”

On Oct. 10, some 70 people gathered for what has become an annual sukkah breakfast, part of a B’nai David-Judea program that serves monthly meals to about 60 homeless people. The program is celebrating its bar mitzvah year.

Inside the sukkah, B’nai David-Judea members and students from nearby Pressman Academy sat alongside homeless people, chatting with them and bringing bagels, cereal, coffee and juice to those too frail or too tired to stand in line themselves. 

The monthly meals are usually served by students from Yeshivat Yavneh or Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, but Pressman students serve on Sukkot.

As the morning continued, attendees learned about traditional Sukkot customs, heard some Torah from B’nai David-Judea’s Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, and sang, danced and shook the lulav.

Noah Weissberg, 13, was busy pouring cereal and milk into bowls for people waiting in line. “It’s really nice to see the people and talk with them,” he said. “It’s just a good thing to do. They seem really happy and we make them feel good.”

As the program grew over the years, it began to draw many from the Russian-Jewish immigrant community. To accommodate those Russians who speak no English, the synagogue now serves two monthly meals, including one specifically for the Russian community.

This year’s Sukkot meal, though, was a combined event with plenty of Russian being spoken. One attendee, Eugene, apologized for his broken English but said he loved the monthly meals, “because I did not grow [up] with Judaism in the Soviet Union.”

He waved off a reporter’s attention, saying, “I am nobody.” But on this day, every homeless person was treated as special, and Eugene said he enjoyed all the “Jewish things.”

Those things included Pressman students showing attendees how to shake a lulav if they wanted to try. Three girls assisted an elderly Spanish-speaking woman in saying the blessings over the lulav, explaining everything in Spanish.

Take a look around at everyone here and see how miraculous it is.” – Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

It was a festive, raucous morning, with people stomping their feet, clapping, singing, and even forming a conga line with Kanefsky at the lead.

Among those enjoying the festivities was Jesse, who said he had worked for 22 years cleaning the stands at Dodger Stadium, “But I’m retired now.” Jesse said he had attended the monthly lunch previously, but not the Sukkot meal. “This is all so new,” he said, “but I love it.”

He made an effort to shake the lulav and recite the blessings. “It’s so wonderful how the kids come and talk to you,” he said. “It’s really a beautiful thing.”

Jesse said that when he has attended the monthly meals he has also picked up one of the Ralphs grocery store gift cards Kanefsky has distributed to homeless people for years.

The number of gift-card recipients has grown so much that the synagogue eventually created a registration system to control costs, Kanefsky said, “but we also have smaller denomination cards for unregistered people who show up so that no one ever walks away empty-handed.”

With the meal program in its 13th year, Kanefsky said the challenge is constantly assessing “How are we meeting the needs of this [homeless] population and how are their needs changing?”

Standing in the sukkah, Kanefsky noted during his drash the impermanent and precious nature of life. “If we can enjoy the things while they are here, then our lives will be rich with fulfillment and joy and memories that will last us a lifetime,” he said. “Take a look around at everyone here and see how miraculous it is.”

B’nai David-Judea will commemorate the program’s anniversary with a Nov. 5 community brunch. Evangelical author and speaker Philip Yancey will discuss how to care for society’s less fortunate. The event will also feature Torah learning on feeding the hungry.

Moving & Shaking: Mike Burstyn’s directorial debut, Rabbi Jon Hanish honored and more

From left: “Azimuth” director Mike Burstyn; Egyptian actor Sammy Sheik; Israel Film Festival Director Meir Fenigstein and Jewish Journal President David Suissa attend a Beverly Hills screening of “Azimuth. Photo courtesy of Israel Film Festival

Yiddish actor Mike Burstyn’s directorial debut, “Azimuth,” which tells the story of two soldiers during the last day of the Six-Day War in June 1967, premiered at an Aug. 24 Israel Film Festival event at the Ahrya Fine Arts Theatre in Beverly Hills.

Burstyn, 71, who also wrote the script, is the Bronx-born son of Yiddish actors. The Los Angeles resident first read the story about the two soldiers years ago and decided to develop it into a full-length film, which stars Israeli actor Yiftach Klein and Egyptian actor Sammy Sheik.

Sheik, who lives in Los Angeles, told Burstyn he loved the script.

“He called me back and said that, even though it’s an Israeli film, he wanted to do it because of the message it sends,” Burstyn said during a Q-and-A after the screening, conducted by Jewish Journal President David Suissa.

“Azimuth” follows the conflict between two soldiers deadlocked in an abandoned United Nations outpost during the ceasefire that ended the Six-Day War. Burstyn said the movie doesn’t take sides but, instead, portrays a battle of survival between two relatable individuals.

“The metaphor is … we cooperate or we are going to die in the desert,” the filmmaker said.

Sheik, who attended the premiere, said he traveled to Israel and met many Israelis whom he found to be the “sweetest people I ever met. I found that most people really want peace.”

Both Sheik’s and Klein’s fathers participated in the Six-Day War, on opposite sides.

The film will screen during the 31st Israel Film Festival, which opens in Los Angeles on Nov. 5.

Ayala Or-El, Contributing Writer

Bottom row, from left: Shawn Landres; Santa Monica Mayor Ted Winterer; Valley Beth Shalom Rabbi Noah Farkas and Julie Munjack and (top row, from left) Mishkon Tephilo Rabbi Gabriel Botnick; Dara Papel, Caroline Kelly, Va Lecia Adams Kellum and Adam Murray attend a Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles homelessness event. Photo courtesy of Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles


Religious and community leaders gathered at Mishkon Tephilo Synagogue in Venice on Aug. 24 to discuss strategies to prevent and end homelessness.

The panelists addressed the lack of sufficient resources and affordable housing in Los Angeles County at the event organized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Community Engagement Strategic Initiative.  

“Every person who became homeless went through some kind of trauma,” Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom and chair of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, told the audience at the synagogue located in the beach community where hundreds of women and men sleep on the street.  

“We don’t have a lot of shelters, food banks and affordable housing,” Farkas said. “We have to establish neighborhoods, so people who fall into homelessness can stay in the communities and neighborhoods where they used to live.”

The event drew about 140 guests and community and civic leaders, including Ted Winterer, mayor of Santa Monica; Va Lecia Adams Kellum, president and CEO of the St. Joseph Center; and Shawn Landres, chair of the City of Santa Monica Social Services Commission and chair of the Los Angeles County Quality and Productivity Commission.

Before the panel, guests were invited to take a tour of the St. Joseph Center, which provides services to homeless people in the area.

Adam Murray, executive director of the Inner City Law Center, said the lack of affordable housing units in Los Angeles is pushing people to live on the streets. He encouraged guests to educate themselves on the issue, volunteer and join organizations that assist homeless people.

“Roll up your sleeps and get involved,” he said. “Every community needs to have affordable housing.”

With homelessness at crisis levels, some panelists encouraged everyone in the audience to be patient.

Caroline Kelly, chair of the Los Angeles County Mental Health Commission, said that because of mental illness issues, people who are homeless often “need much more time to have housing and stay in the housing.”

Other panelists talked about the importance of erasing the stigma of mental illness and homelessness.

“[Homeless people] are someone’s mother, father, brother, sister or daughter,” Murray said. “We need to bring a sense of urgency to homelessness and see them as ourselves.”  

At the end of the event, the organizers announced the recipients of the Federation’s 2017 ChangeMaker Challenge, a program that rewards organizations that make an impact on the city. This year’s winners were the Latino Resource Organization, the New Beginning Outreach Foundation, Safe Place for Youth, Shomrei Torah Synagogue and University Synagogue.

Olga Grigoryants, Contributing Writer

Rabbi Jon Hanish, senior rabbi at Temple Kol Tikvah of Woodland Hills and a recipient of the National Alliance on Mental Illness 2017 California Outstanding Clergy Award. Photo courtesy of Temple Kol Tikvah

Rabbi Jon Hanish, senior rabbi at Temple Kol Tikvah of Woodland Hills, has received the 2017 California Outstanding Clergy Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The honor, announced on Aug. 25 at the annual NAMI California Conference in Newport Beach, recognizes faith leaders who show exemplary commitment to supporting people with mental illness and their families.

“I know many religious leaders who do more than me when it comes to mental health issues,” Hanish said in a statement. “I feel dwarfed by their efforts. All I can do is say thank you to NAMI for this unexpected award.”

Hanish became involved with NAMI, a volunteer-based organization that provides resources and support groups for people affected by mental illness, when he participated in a clergy panel in 2013. Hanish has since become a regular speaker about Judaism and mental health at NAMI events, and every year has invited a NAMI speaker to address his congregation between morning and afternoon Yom Kippur services.

Hanish recently gathered 12 congregants and community professionals for “Care and Share Training,” a two-night NAMI program that prepares religious institutions to launch mental health support groups. Hanish’s session was the first of its kind in California.

Before leading the misheberach, the prayer for the sick, during Kol Tikvah services, Hanish often emphasizes the equal importance of mental and physical healing. 

“Acts of God are the actions taken by us and our communities to embrace everyone,” Hanish said. “No illness, no affliction, no challenge should be suffered alone. Community is needed.”

— Gabriella Kamran, Contributing Writer

Saba Soomekh, assistant director of interreligious and intercommunity affairs at American Jewish Committee Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of American Jewish Committee

American Jewish Committee (AJC) Los Angeles announced on Aug. 28 the addition of Saba Soomekh as its assistant director of interreligious and intercommunity affairs and Roslyn Warren as associate director for international relations.

Soomekh was the associate director of research at UCLA’s Leve Center for Jewish Studies from 2015 to 2017 and has written about world religions, women’s studies and the geopolitics and history of the Middle East. Her book, “From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Jewish Women Between Religion and Culture,” was published in 2012 and was awarded the gold medal at the 2013 Independent Publisher Book Awards in the religion category.

“It is an honor to be a part of the AJC family,” Soomekh said. “For the past 13 years, I have been involved with AJC as a lay person. As a religious studies scholar, my new position as the assistant director of interreligious and intercommunity affairs enables me to engage directly with various faith groups and communities in order to ensure that we work together to promote democratic values and the protection of human rights.”

Warren previously worked at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security alongside Melanne Verveer, the first U.S. ambassador for global women’s issues and a former chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Warren has traveled to more than 50 countries throughout her career, and has written about international affairs ranging from local partner protection in Iraq and Afghanistan to women’s participation in global peace processes.

“After spending several years dedicating myself to human rights issues across the world,” Warren said, “I am honored to have the opportunity to return to my hometown of Los Angeles and serve a community and a global mission that I hold dear.”

Virginia Isaad, Contributing Writer

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

Brother can you spare a dime?

I give money to homeless people who ask me for it. Always have. I figure if someone has the courage to ask a stranger for help, I will help them. I always keep cash in both my glove compartment and my wallet. A day does not pass where I do not help someone. Sometimes I buy people food, or toiletries. One time I bought a lovely man a pair of shoes. I think kindness matters and when I give someone money and they offer me a blessing, it makes me happy every single time.

Last week I was asked for some help from a man on the street. I gave him a dollar and wished him well. He looked at the dollar and asked me, “Is that all you’ve got?” I was startled for a second and didn’t understand what he was saying. He looked me in the eyes and said, “Is that it?”. I told him to have a good day and left as my chin started to quiver and I burst into tears. It hurt my feelings and made me sad. It was as though the man felt disrespected, which wasn’t my intention.

I have had people ask me why I give money to those who are going to use to get high or drunk, but I never wonder what they’re going to do with the money. I can’t give them money with restrictions on what they can do with it. It is not personal, political, or judgmental. It is simple kindness. Who am I to judge anyone? I help when and how I can, so when this man asked if that was all I could do, it made me wonder if I should maybe stop giving money and instead just look away.

My friend George deals with homelessness every day as he works in law enforcement in an area of the city where there are a lot of homeless people. He has seen it all and helps save a lot of people. Not give them a dollar save, but actually get them off the street save. He thinks it is sweet I give everyone money, but feels it is only a matter of time before someone responded like this man. He never tells me not to do it, just to be aware not all people will appreciate it.

We view homelessness very differently. When I see a kid asking for money I want to invite them over to have a shower, get some clean clothes, and feed them a home cooked meal. George wants to find out why they’re there, investigate if they can go home, then give them tools to get off the street. For me, I want to put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound to fix it, while he wants to perform emergency surgery to stop the source of the bleeding. Both ways are valid to me.

How do I not help someone who asks? Even the guy who sits at the freeway off ramp wearing Beats headphones gets a dollar from me on occasion. He sits for hours in temperatures over 100 degrees, so why not give him a dollar? I am angry this one person could make me rethink giving money. He shouldn’t have that power over me. In all the times I have given out money, this is the first time I can remember experiencing something unpleasant in response.

I will continue to give money to people who ask me for it. Whether they spend it on food, a bottle of water, or drugs, if whatever they buy brings them a moment of happiness, or comfort, or quiet, then God bless them. There but for the grace of God go I. Everyone has a story to tell and everyone can appreciate a Band-Aid when it is offered to them. To the man who was unhappy with my gesture, I hope someone else gave you a bigger Band-Aid and you are keeping the faith.










The Highs and Lows of Paris

I have spent the past 12 days in Europe with my son. He went to Greece and Italy, then joined me in London and Paris. It was a wonderful holiday and watching the joy and wonder on his face as he discovered parts of the world he has always wanted to see, was everything. Thanks to Facetime, he was able to take me along on his adventure and it was spectacular.  I will treasure this time together always.

We took the Eurostar from London to Paris and spent 28 hours walking everywhere. We strolled endlessly and saw amazing things. We had lunch atop the Eiffel Tower, ate crepes under the Arc de Triomphe, drank wine on the Champs-Elysses, and said a prayer at Notre Dame. It was magical and that I shared it with my beloved boy was special. I am the mother of a remarkable human being.

I look at the pictures today and I smile because it was a great trip, but also because there is proof of the trip. When my son was young there were no selfies, just me and a camera. I have a ton pf pictures of my son growing up, but very few of us together. I was always taking the pictures, so the shots of us are limited. It is sad, but makes the pictures I’m able to take now even more important.

I look at the pictures from Paris and can remember what we were talking about as we strolled along. It was very special and I am happy that when my son visits Paris again with his wife, or takes his children, he will be able to tell them that he went there with his mother for the first time, and is happy to share it with them now. Perhaps that is silly, but it matters to me that we build a history together.

I cannot think about our time in Paris and not think of the unbearable sadness we also saw. No matter where we went, there were Syrian families on the streets. Mother and fathers with their young children, looking broken, but hopeful. They would smile and one could see the pain and humiliation in their eyes, while also seeing the hope and relief. It was tragic and demands serious attention.

Watching a woman breastfeed her baby on the street, surrounded by wealth, when it is clear she needs a shower and a meal herself, is heartbreaking. In what world does it make sense that living on the street with your children is safer than living in your home? We live in a time when we can see everything that is going on in the world, but when you see it in person, it touches your heart in a different way.

Paris is the most romantic city in the world. From every location, every direction, every time of day, there is no view that is not beautiful. It is a city that inspires love, and she has now inspired me to be more loving. Me and my son left Paris wanting to do more, wanting to help, wanting to not pretend that the problems of the world are not also our problems. We need to make changes, quickly.

I am inspired by my son’s view of the world and the work that needs to be done.  Paris was the highlight of my trip for a lot of reasons. I saw my son as man, not a boy. I looked into the eyes of a woman sitting in the street and heard her ask for help, even though she never spoke. I was inspired to not only appreciate the love I have, but want to spread it. Paris has demanded that I keep the faith.









Homeless, not nameless

Natalie Levine (right) with Tova Suissa and her dog, Hank. Photo by David Suissa

barely noticed the woman who was sleeping on a sidewalk the other morning on Pico Boulevard. I was rushing to meet a friend for coffee, and the last thing on my mind was to delay my first caffeine intake of the day. But maybe because she was lying there so conspicuously under the bright morning sun, I couldn’t help mentioning her to my friend.

“I just saw a homeless woman sleeping,” I told him. “She was probably an adorable little girl one day, with pigtails.”

About an hour later, on the way back to my car, I saw her again, but this time she was sitting up. I hesitated, wondering whether I should talk to her. My mind was telling me to just get in the car and get on with my day, but my heart was urging me to find out who she was.

It’s true that because I write a weekly column, I’m always looking for good stories. But that awareness didn’t lessen my uneasiness. There are enough interesting stories in our community without having to feel the acute awkwardness of speaking to a homeless person.

As a kind of compromise, I walked over and handed her some money. That was easy. Giving money to a homeless person is a perfectly acceptable interaction. No need to engage any further.

But after handing her the money, I caught a glimpse of her eyes as she said, “Oh, thank you!” I guess my heart must have overpowered my mind, because at that moment I pushed myself to engage. As we began talking, I asked if I could film our conversation, and she agreed. So I pulled out my iPhone and recorded my sidewalk chat with a homeless woman named Natalie Levine.

Later, as I viewed the eight-minute clip, I was in awe at how much the film conveyed: her facial expressions, her voice, her cadence, her anxiety, her mannerisms, her eyes, even the street life as people walked by.

I hadn’t taken any notes. I didn’t have to. The human drama was all in the film, as raw as can be. There would be no need to write up a story.

As much as I love telling stories through words, it struck me that people should see and hear this woman, not just read about her. With subjects that are deeply uncomfortable, words on a page can create a safe distance.

There is no safe distance when you look into a homeless person’s eyes and feel their presence. What I felt when I looked into Natalie’s eyes was her humanity, pure and simple. Yes, there was a story behind those eyes, and I got a few glimpses — a Jewish woman in her early 30s who attended a Hebrew day school in Connecticut, lost her parents at a young age, has been homeless for years and looked like she caught all of life’s bad breaks.

Just as important, that story came with a real name: Natalie Levine. There is a special intimacy to a name, especially one that sounds so familiar. After we posted the clip on social media, people kept referring to her name. They wanted to help Natalie Levine. A few people even got on my case: Telling Natalie’s story is not enough, they said. You must do something.

So I did.

I went back to Pico the next day to track her down. Then, with the assistance of friends and volunteers who had reached out to me, I spent a week helping out any way I could. We put Natalie up in a motel to buy us time to find a longer-term solution. We gave her food for Shabbat, helped her clean up and got her new clothes. My daughter and I even took her to a park with our dog, Hank.

As I contacted shelters and experts around town, I got a taste of the complexity of the homeless problem. It’s not as simple as helping people who want to be helped. It’s compounded by issues such as mental health and personal traumas.  

After we checked her out of the motel, we spent a long day looking for a shelter, with no luck. By midnight, we had found partners who placed her in a temporary facility an hour from Los Angeles, where we went to visit her during the week.

We caught a major break when I bumped into longtime local public servant Zev Yaroslavsky at an Israel event. After I told him Natalie’s story, he knew what was needed. He has spent years working on this problem. He connected me the following day to an ideal facility, and they took her case.

Natalie is certainly not out of the woods, but at least for now, she’s off the streets and under a caring umbrella. She has hope. 

I’m no expert on homelessness. I don’t pretend to have a solution to this dark, complex blight on modern life.  But after spending a week with Natalie Levine, I’ve learned at least one thing: When you look into a homeless person’s eyes, it becomes easier to help.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Jewish, homeless and alone: One tale of grief on L.A.’s streets

On a Sunday last December, Joe Wedner leaves a church service carrying fruit from a free food pantry. Photos by Eitan Arom

For Joe Wedner, theology is well-worn territory. God and His workings are among the trains of thought that keep Joe’s mind chugging, often in a broad and frenzied circle. At the center of that theology is a paradox that causes Joe a fair amount of strife.

Joe is 77, stooped and bearded. He’s a Jew by birth, but in practice, at least since 2013, he honors every faith — Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc. — without discrimination or distinction. His face betrays the weatherworn quality of someone who has spent years living on the streets, and he carries an air of all-consuming tragedy.

“I cry a lot — so I’m sorry — but I’ve never been locked up for crying,” he told me the first time we sat down together, in January 2016 at Native Foods Café, a vegan restaurant in Westwood.

He sat in front of a heaping pile of beans, grains and vegetables, his pushcart parked next to our table. Overflowing with pieces of cardboard and extra jackets, the cart held the sum of his worldly possessions.

Vegan cuisine was Joe’s idea. He avoids processed foods and animal products, not for ethical or health reasons, but religious ones. When a waiter stopped by our table, Joe pointed to his food and asked, “Is this the most natural, unchanged-from-God whole food that we got?”

God pervades Joe’s existence.

“There is no place that God is not,” he told me. “God is everyplace. God is in every belief. God is in every emotion.”

His relationship with the Almighty is perhaps Joe’s one remaining comfort in this world, although even that relationship is not without strain. According to Joe, two activities offer him any sort of solace from the unrelenting fear and anxiety that rule his day-to-day existence: religion and sex. Since Joe is homeless and elderly, it’s not easy for him to find sexual partners, so religion is all that remains in any practical sense. Every week, when he has the time, he attends as many religious and spiritual services as he can.

But his God, he insists, is not a particularly benevolent one. The paradox at the heart of Joe’s theology is that although God is everywhere, He is a maniac.

“God can do the impossible,” he explained to me. “He can give absolute, total freedom and still prevent man from sinning and leaving Him, and therefore He can prevent suffering. Why doesn’t He prevent suffering? Because He’s mentally ill. He’s seriously mentally ill, and we are His image and likeness, and we are mentally ill.”

When it comes to his own mental illness, Joe makes no secret. In his second email to me, shortly after we first met, he wrote, “I thought you might be interested in the attached information.” It was a psychiatric report diagnosing him with bipolar disorder, for which he refuses medication. He also admits to being delusional and cripplingly paranoid.

[To give or not to give? Experts weigh in]

For Joe, delusion bleeds freely into reality and vice versa. Consider his present life plan: Joe is taking UCLA Extension courses on the entertainment industry, hoping to land a high-paying job and strike it rich. The basis for his plan is his conviction that education is the key to income. Although that makes enough sense, his plan to strike it rich stretches credulity.

Yet Joe sticks to his plan doggedly, even if it means forgoing a roof over his head.

Joe has been homeless for four years, a condition that puts him in the category of “chronically homeless” — those homeless for a year or more due to debility. He is less an anomaly than a poster boy for the definition: By the latest count, 61 percent of the roughly 13,000 people who are chronically homeless in Los Angeles County are mentally ill, about 8,000 people total, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

If there is an anomaly to Joe, it’s his religious background.

In 2014, the Pew Research Center ranked Jews as the most financially successful religious group in America. Only 16 percent claimed a family income of less than $30,000 a year.

Tanya Tull, a homelessness policy pioneer and CEO of Partnering for Change, said in addition to Jews living on the street, many others eke out an existence in deplorable conditions in cramped apartments in poor neighborhoods like MacArthur Park and Mid-City. She cited as one example a 71-year-old retired Jewish man who spends more than 80 percent of his Social Security payments on rent in a studio apartment in Pico Union, where he experiences regular power outages and struggles to treat a chronic pulmonary condition.

Some local impoverished Jews are clients of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and its partner organizations. Federation estimates that together, the groups help about 20,000 Jews living in poverty, providing them with free kosher meals and grant assistance for housing, paired with case management.

But that number reflects only those whom they help.

“There are more people out there — Joe is a perfect example — who are not accessing these services,” Lori Klein, Federation’s senior vice president for its Caring for Jews in Need program, told the Journal.

Federation estimated that 50,000 Jews lived in poverty in Los Angeles in 2014, the latest year for which data are available. More than 600,000 Jews live in the Greater Los Angeles area.

Klein suggested that Joe call a central access hotline of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, which directs people experiencing financial instability to appropriate resources.

Joe said he called in April, but found that the services it offered were more or less the same as those he already was getting from a Kaiser Permanente social worker. As for housing, Joe, it turns out, has other priorities.

I first met Joe when I showed up for an assignment at jumu’ah, the Muslim prayer service offered Friday evenings at UCLA. I was early and found Joe sitting on a metal folding chair in the hallway outside the prayer room with the demeanor of someone who didn’t have anywhere else to be.

After services, I took down his email address. Joe checks his email frequently — somewhere among the loose cardboard and plastic bags in his cart was a laptop that he’d had since 2013. (It’s since been stolen; he now returns emails via public computers at UCLA.)

It turns out that Joe has little to hide and, by his estimation, much to gain from an interview.

“The more you tell the better,” he told me at Native Foods. “My psychiatrist does not disagree that my whole problem is a girlfriend deficiency, and I’m trying to get that out there.”

It was only much later in the interview that I learned he has a wife and daughter — but that hasn’t interrupted his other plans. Joe is interested in obeying all of God’s commandments, including to “be fruitful and multiply.”

“I need a lot of girlfriends,” he said, without a hint of irony or jest. “So I want to put that out there, just in case there might be somebody like me, that also wants a lot of children, a female. Because … I’m a panhandler, and a panhandler knows if you say the same thing to enough people, no matter what it is you’re saying, if you say it to enough people, you find a few, one or a few, that’ll agree with you.”

With Joe, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between delusion and what could be described merely as misplaced priorities. His desire to have children is motivated not just by the joy of sex but also by the conviction that children represent “eternal life and salvation from death.” But whether Joe should father a child at 77, with no means to support one, is a consideration he ignores. He remains enthusiastic in pursuing his goal.

In the middle of the conversation, a young woman approached our table to express interest in the interview. Joe’s demeanor changed instantly. His eyes lit up, and he began talking more quickly, almost frantically. It occurred to me that he was putting on a show.

“You could sit down,” he told the young woman. “You could sit down and listen to me. If you’ve gotta go — want my email address? I’m an extremely interesting person. You’ll never find anybody running around loose more mentally ill than me.”

Joseph Leo Wedner was born on Feb. 2, 1940, in Detroit.

His father was born to an Orthodox family near Sanok, Poland. His mother, an American, was what Joe called a “three-day Jew,” someone who attended synagogue approximately three days a year. They had one other son, John, since deceased.

At 13, Joe became a bar mitzvah at Congregation Shaarey Zedek, a Conservative synagogue near Detroit. He recalls his trips to his father’s shul with fondness if also with a bit of detachment, saying, “That was very nice, people talking with their creator, praying and asking to not get sick with colds or anything else.”

But even at a young age, Judaism didn’t quite do it for him. He remembers, as a 5-year-old, being beset with a paralyzing fear that his faith couldn’t extinguish. He recalled his envy when he saw a glow-in-the-dark crucifix hanging over the bed of a grade-school friend.

“I thought, ‘Man, oh, man, everybody’s lucky except me. I gotta have horrible, terrible nightmares ’cause I’m scared of school. Why can’t I go to Catholic school and have that crucifix hanging by my bed?’ ” he said.

His family life was dysfunctional, he said: “That’s what our family does, is yell at one another. Big ones yell at the little ones.”

But Joe managed to hold things together and graduate from a local college, enrolling in medical school at the University of Michigan. Soon, though, his mental health began to slip, as it would at crucial moments in his future. He described struggling with paranoia so severe that he didn’t think he could make it in medical school. When things got bad, he went to see the dean.

“I told him, ‘I’m going to flunk out anyway, I’ll never get through this, it’s too hard, and I’m afraid of the American Nazi party. I’m going to Israel,’ ” he recalled.

His experience in Habonim Labor Zionist Youth as a teen in Detroit had convinced him that a Jew could live happily only in a socially just environment in Israel. So in January 1964, he left for Israel, landing at Kibbutz Sarid in Israel’s north.

It didn’t quite play out the way he had hoped. Instead of working, he “slept and ate all day and chased the tourist girls,” he said. He was kicked out, and he fell in with some hippies — or maybe they were secret police. Joe can’t be sure.

His new friends taught him to play guitar and beg on the street. After a stint in Abu Kabir Prison in Tel Aviv on narcotics charges — “all the hippies were doing narcotics,” he said — he felt disillusioned and left the country the year after he arrived.

From there, Joe tramped through Europe and the Middle East, his first experience with vagrancy. But, in 1968, he was back in the United States, and over much of the next four decades earned a living wage subsisting on odd jobs and help from his mother as he moved from place to place, with stints in New York, California, Washington state and Hawaii. Things weren’t always great, but there was a roof over his head. And then came Josie.

It was 2004. Joe had been living in the Philippines for about a year, living off the interest from an inheritance from his mother, when his psychiatrist suggested he hire a live-in maid because he hadn’t cleaned his Manila apartment in more than a year.

Josie showed up at his door. “Right from the beginning, we fell in love,” he said.

They were married a short while later. Their daughter was born in 2006, and a year later, they moved to Loma Linda in San Bernardino County, where they lived in a “very small, but very comfortable apartment.” The marriage was a rocky one, which he blames on his own upbringing.

“My family is dysfunctional, extremely, is as dysfunctional as a family can be without actually flying apart,” he said. “It was always screaming, weeping, crying, insulting, criticizing etc., so I did that to my wife, whose family never did that.”

In 2011, they traveled to Josie’s hometown, Zamboanga City, in the Philippines, moving from apartment to apartment. Josie started a few businesses, but they all failed. By 2013, he recalls, she told him, “Get me back in the USA, I don’t like it here.” He flew to Los Angeles, with plans for her to follow later — but no plan of where to stay once he left the airport.

Even living on the street, Joe was sending money back to Josie from his Supplemental Security Income, a federal program for the elderly, blind and disabled. After a while, he couldn’t afford to continue. “I heard from her when she needed money and then, when I stopped sending her money, I haven’t heard from her,” Joe said. She last contacted him in December. I reached out to Josie through email and Facebook, but she did not respond.

Nonetheless, Joe is keen to bring his wife to the U.S. While his strategy may be a doubtful one, he persists: To earn a visa for Josie, he needs to demonstrate to Immigration and Customs Enforcement that he can support her. Thus, his coursework at UCLA.

Sevgi Cacina, a film student at UCLA Extension who is making a documentary about Joe, first approached him after she saw him pitch his skills as an actor and producer at networking events. The crowd typically doesn’t know what to make of Joe, but one thing is certain, she said: “He’s not joking.”

He’s even enlisted some help. Screenwriter Brooks Elms said Joe enrolled in an online course that Elms taught through UCLA Extension in 2015, during which Joe diligently completed each assignment. After the course concluded, the students invited Elms to lunch in Westwood.

“Joe came to that lunch, rolled his cart right there from the street, and asked how he could get a movie made,” Elms wrote in an email. “I asked why he was even spending money on a film class when he could be spending it on basic survival needs, and he was determined to learn about the film business and make something happen that way.”

Elms said he’s now helping Joe make a film about Joe’s life on the streets.

“We plan [to] post it online with hopes it will bring him some much-needed income,” Elms wrote.

Until that happens, Joe remains on the street and sleeps in a sleeping bag in Westwood. Mostly, he’s tenacious about his plan, but sometimes his resolve lapses.

“This is as close to work as I got, giving an interview for a lunch,” he said at the vegan joint, “which is extremely disconcerting to me, because now I’m afraid I’ll never get my wife and daughter back.”

Joe’s separation from his wife and daughter is “an overwhelming tragedy that pervades my being every moment. … It causes anxiety, depression and every bad feeling.” Any kind of spiritual activity, from Mass to a 12-step meeting, relieves the pain of those feelings.

One day, on a visit to the Seventh-day Adventist church in Santa Monica — which he calls “Simcha Monica” — he ran into a Chabad missionary near the church.

As a lapsed Jew with a spotty relationship to the tribe, he was nervous about allowing the rabbi to lay tefillin on him. So he thought about it, and prayed about it, and decided he’d better drop by a Chabad.

“If I’m striving for God to help me, in everything, then I got no better or worse chance at the Chabad Lubavitch synagogue than I got anyplace else, so I’ll go,” he said. “So I started going. The more I went, the more I started feeling that … if I know what’s good for me, I better add Roman Catholic and Muslim to the places I pray.”

Basileia Community church elder Bill Horst bows his head and prays for Joe Wedner after a service in Hollywood.

Joe’s schedule for religious services is noncommittal and wide-ranging, though it leans Christian. Perhaps his favorite place to pray is a Christian congregation called the Basileia Community, which meets in a Baptist church in Hollywood. At one point, he was going twice a week, on Tuesdays and Sundays, while attending Roman Catholic services on Mondays and Thursdays and Chabad or Seventh-day Adventist services on Saturdays.

Lately, school has interfered with his attendance, and he’s often forced to stay around UCLA for services. One Sunday in December, I agreed to drive him to Basileia. We met on the corner of Westwood Boulevard and Le Conte Avenue with boisterous crowds of students surging by. He looked even smaller than I remembered, dressed in two coats and too-long pants that he’d rolled up at the cuff over a scuffed pair of brown loafers.

I loaded his pushcart, with its one broken wheel, into my car, and we set off for church.

On the way, I decided to raise the issue of permanent supportive housing — apartments made available by the city and county expressly for chronically homeless and mentally ill individuals like Joe. Los Angeles voters recently passed Measure HHH, a $1.2 billion bond that earmarks most of the funds precisely for building this type of housing. Joe conceded that it would be nice to have a toilet of his own, and the privacy to have company.

But “it might not be around here,” he speculated as we turned onto Wilshire Boulevard. “Then I’d have to wait for a bus and ride the bus and wait for a bus back … then it would slow down my saving up that $60,000 I need to show to get my wife over here.”

By now his foot was tapping violently enough to shake the car. The topic clearly made him anxious.

His thoughts are scattered, with a tendency to trail off or pivot wildly. On occasion, an unrelated question will reveal a heretofore-unexplored saga in Joe’s life.

By the time we reached Basileia, a question about his wife inadvertently had revealed details of the money he had inherited from his mother: Between 1984 and 2007, he said, he played the stock market, growing $250,000 into more than $800,000 at one point and living off the interest. When the market crashed 10 years ago, Joe said his bank account flat-lined.

As we walked into the church, people were schmoozing around a light buffet. Joe wasted no time in loading up a plate with fruit and breakfast rolls. It had been some time since he had been here, and several people approached him to say hello. A massive man with a kind face and a blond bun, the drummer in the congregation’s music ensemble, greeted Joe with a fist-bump.

Explaining my presence there as a Jewish Journal reporter, I mentioned that Joe was Jewish.

“I didn’t know you were Jewish, Joe!” a fellow churchgoer interjected.

I was mortified for outing him, but Joe was unfazed.

“I’m all things,” he explained.

For Joe, God is in every religion, all beliefs, indiscriminately and without exception. He likes Basileia for its inclusiveness and the kindness of his members. But it has no monopoly on his faith.

The band started to play and the hymns began to flow. “Holy Spirit, come fill this place!” the congregants sang, sitting in a semicircle under the exposed rafters of the tall, gabled roof.

The gathering was a dressed-down affair, community-oriented and progressive. The room flickered softly with the glow of candles and Christmas lights, and a plain, wooden cross overlooked the scene.

While the music played, Joe crossed his legs and tilted his head downward, staring just past his interlaced fingers, his white beard fanning out over his UCLA Extension T-shirt. The pastor, Suz Born, a bespectacled woman with a soft voice and the measured demeanor of a kindergarten teacher, kneeled next to him with her hands raised in the air.

Joe Wedner shows off a T-shirt reflecting his enrollment in UCLA Extension while standing on a corner in Westwood in December.

Soon, the music slowed to three or four chords repeated on an acoustic guitar. The frenzied foot tapping that had shaken my car had slowed to a soft, irregular beat.

When the service broke up, he stuck around to chat with friends and acquaintances, indulging them in detailed explanations of his theology. “The only reasonable conclusion is that God is mentally ill,” I overheard him saying.

He shares his theory widely, even if to awkward laughs or kind dismissals. It doesn’t earn him many friends. The Roman Catholics and Seventh-day Adventists say he’s blaspheming God. He says they’re blaspheming God by calling his truth blasphemy, since truth is God.

After services ended, church elder Bill Horst sat beside Joe to pray with him, resting his head on his hand and concentrating intensely. Later, Horst told me he prays for Joe to experience the mental soundness that often eludes him and to find a way off the streets.

Horst said that despite “packaging that’s a little tricky to get past,” Joe gets along OK at Basileia. At one point, he was making sexual overtures to single women there in a way that made them uncomfortable, Horst said — but church leaders sat him down and asked him to respect certain boundaries, and to his credit, he did.

“Someone can have a meaningful relationship with someone like Joe even if they find that difficult to imagine,” Horst told me on the phone later. “There is something real and coherent and worthwhile there if you’re willing to look for it.”

As people began to file out of the church, Joe headed to a basement room to pick up some donated food. He made a beeline for the fruits and vegetables. “There’s salad over here, boyfriend,” a homeless woman called out to him. But the salads were of the prepacked grocery store variety, and some had meat in them, so he passed over them. Even with his dietary restrictions, food is the least of his worries. Between panhandling and food banks, he has plenty. If he lacks for something, it’s not provisions but companionship.

“I need friends,” he said at Basileia. “My family is gone, so I need friends. Inshallah” — if God wills it.

Joe’s first serious brush with Christianity came during a lockup in Washington State Penitentiary in January 1978, when he was 37. He’d enrolled in a university-level accounting course in Tacoma, Wash., hoping it would set him on a path to quick riches. But he was failing and frustrated. One day, he decided somebody was driving too fast down his street, so he took out a loaded .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun and brandished it, yelling, on his porch. He was imprisoned for 25 months before his mother, an attorney, managed to get his sentence vacated on a technicality.

Prison was not a welcoming place. “The guards were unfriendly and the prisoners were even more unfriendly,” he said.

The only people who would speak with him were the missionaries.

“The Christian missionaries were there every day. I saw Jewish missionaries there once the whole 25 months I was there,” he said. “So naturally, I read the Christian Bible — a few times.”

He acquainted himself well with the text and continues to read and reread it. He keeps one in his pushcart. These days, one of Joe’s favorite verses to quote is the Man of Sorrows in Isaiah 53: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”

It’s not hard to puzzle out why he’s so fond of the verse. On the one hand, it’s easy to imagine Joe as Isaiah’s outcast, “pierced for our transgressions … crushed for our iniquities.”

On the other hand, it’s a potent illustration of a capricious and unsparing God, doling out suffering: Why would any but a mentally ill God cause one man to suffer for all the rest?

And so, my question for Joe was, why go to such great lengths to worship a God he believes — fervently — to be insane? Joe’s theology and his delusions often are baroque, but they’re pieced together from pieces of simple, direct logic. To my spiritual question came a pragmatic answer.

On weeks he goes to prayer services and reads from the Bible, he said, “things coincidentally or not coincidentally go better. And so I just keep doing it.”

To give or not to give?

Photo via WikiCommons

We asked experts on homelessness what to do when passing a homeless person on the street. The answers have been edited for length and clarity.

The most important thing to remember when you see a homeless person is that they, like you, are a human being.  They were given a name by their mother, they have dreams and aspirations.  As one formerly homeless woman told me, the hardest part of being homeless is the social isolation. There is nothing worse than feeling like an object thrown out into the gutter.  When you see someone who is suffering homelessness, the most important thing you can do is look them in the eye like a friend and say “Hello.”  The rest is commentary, now go and learn.

Rabbi Noah Farkas, clergy member at Valley Beth Shalom and Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) commissioner

[Jewish, homeless and alone: One tale of grief on L.A.’s streets]

My best recommendation would be for someone who encounters a homeless person to try to direct them to a local shelter or service center that would provide intake and shelter and the other necessities of the person needs. Often, low-income destitute folks who panhandle would use the money they receive from friendly neighbors to attempt to purchase drugs or alcohol, and that would only prolong their problem. We basically discourage giving to panhandlers.

Rabbi Marvin Gross, former longtime CEO of Union Station Homeless Services

Because of the work I have done for 35 years and still do, I am unable to pass a single homeless person on the streets without deep feelings of anger and despair. I am angry because I know that this doesn’t have to be and that they are on the streets because we as a civil society have failed them. It’s not rocket science! So what do I do when passing a homeless person on the streets? I quite often stop to make eye contact and then give them $5 or $10, depending upon what is in my wallet at the time. Why do I do this? Do they deserve it? Will they just by drugs or alcohol? I do it because I care that they are suffering and I try to let them know by my actions that I see them and am sorry.

Tanya Tull, homelessness policy pioneer and CEO of Partnering for Change

The most important rule of thumb is that people should do what they are comfortable with, whether that is a smile, hello, water bottle, protein bar, meal or a conversation. Homelessness can feel dehumanizing, so just acknowledging a person can sometimes make a difference.

Victor Hinderliter, associate director of homeless services for LAHSA

Whether to give someone who is homeless on the street spare change or cash is a highly personal decision. There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to human compassion. The question to consider is what the purpose or motivation is for you to give money and whether doing so fulfills that motivation.

Dora Leong Gallo, CEO of A Community of Friends, a nonprofit that operates permanent supportive housing

Are you homeless or struggling? Here are some numbers to call.

Jewish Family Service Central Access (877) 275-4537

Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) Emergency Response Team (213) 225-6581

LAHSA Shelter Hotline (800) 548-6047 

Homeless on Pico— Natalie Levine Update: Day 6

Natalie Levine did not sleep on the street last night. We were able to place her in a temporary facility about an hour from Los Angeles. This is a reprieve that will, hopefully, buy time for a longer term solution. Lots of people and experts have reached out to help, and they are invaluable. As you might expect, the bureaucracy is just that, a bureaucracy. We experienced it first hand yesterday, when we bounced around looking for a shelter or any place that would take her.

I don’t want to sound like an easy critic of bureaucracy. The homeless problem is extremely complicated and it’s compounded by other issues, like mental health and life traumas. I got a little taste of this complexity over the past week. Maybe at some point, I will write in greater detail about it.

For now, our immediate goal was to keep Natalie off the streets, even for just a few more days. The amazing team at Cedars Sinai Hospital helped save the day—and the night.

I think one of the reasons many people in the Jewish community have rallied to Natalie’s cause is her Jewish neshama. In this short video clip, as we were waiting for a case worker, I asked her to go down her Jewish memory lane.

Homeless on Pico—Natalie Levine Update: Day 5

It was a difficult weekend. After years of sleeping on sidewalks, Natalie had trouble acclimating herself to a motel environment. We heard from someone on Facebook that they saw her late Friday night walking on Pico Boulevard in an agitated state. When Aliza Wiseman went to check on her Saturday morning, the manager was (understandably) quite upset. Luckily, Aliza was able to calm her down and spent most of Saturday helping out with Natalie, bringing her food and cigarettes and cleaning her room.

It’s a good thing we had already paid for three nights (we have already raised $600 through my daughter’s crowdfunding page—which will cover all immediate expenses) which meant Natalie was OK until Monday morning.

I spent most of Sunday trying to find a shelter that would take in Natalie. Lots of people reached out through Facebook with leads, but most of those leads didn’t pan out. We had more success with a social worker with the Department of Mental Health, who reached out to me. We texted back and forth on Sunday. She referred me to a legal aid attorney and connected me to a shelter in Culver City, which I contacted by phone. I told the person all I knew about Natalie. He was open and welcoming. The fact that he thanked me for helping out was encouraging.

They open at 1PM today and are expecting her.

I checked in on Natalie around 11am. She was still in an agitated state. We couldn’t find the key as we checked out, so I gave the manager some money to replace it. It’s clear that Natalie has some issues. She can ramble on and be incoherent. Once in a while, though, she’ll let out a smile and be quite coherent, as when I said the checheyanu blessing.

We had a couple of hours to kill before the shelter opened, so we decided to take her to a park near my house. My daughter Tova met us there with our dog Hank. This seemed to relax her a bit. We then decided she needed another shower before going to the shelter, so we took her to our place and she showered in Tova’s room and put on some fresh clothes we got at Ross. After lunch, we will take her to the shelter.

Will send another update tonight.

Homeless on Pico—Natalie Levine: Day 2 update

After we posted the video clip yesterday on Natalie Levine, a lot of people asked me: How can we help? What can we do? I felt a twinge of guilt that I told a very sad story without much hope. So this morning I decided to go back and see if I can find her. My heart sank when I saw that she wasn’t there. Because she had told me she “likes Jews,” I figured she was still in the neighborhood. So I drove around, very slowly, looking at sidewalks. Finally, I saw something from far that looked like it could be a homeless person sleeping. It was on the same side of Pico Boulevard where Natalie and I first met. I parked my car and walked over. It was hard to see her face, but as I got closer I realized it was her. She almost had a heart attack after I said her name.

“It’s David,” I said. “We met yesterday.”

“Oh hi,” she replied.

“A lot of people want to help you, Natalie. I posted that film we did yesterday and people want to help.”

She didn’t say much. She just gave me an easy smile and said, “Oh OK.”

But she had a very emotional reaction—a mix of excitement and tears– when I told her that her old Hebrew day school in Connecticut had seen the story and reached out to me. It was as if her childhood had come rushing back into her consciousness, cutting through the pain of the present.

I realized at that point that helping a homeless person takes tactical skill. So, first, I made her promise that she would not leave the spot for a few hours. I gave her water, 20 bucks and my cell number, and told her, “I’ll see you in a bit.”

The first thing was to find a safe place for the night. Actually, no, the very first thing was to clean her up. My amazing friend, Aliza Wiseman, offered to take her to her home until I found a place. She also went to Ross to buy some clean clothes. So, while Natalie was taking a hot shower, getting into new clothes and eating an omelette, I called around looking for motels that would take her. I made several calls, but had no luck until my friend Elaine Courtney, who saw the story on Facebook, suggested a place.

I called. A woman named Lucy answered. She said they had one room left, but it would be more expensive because it had a separate bathroom.

I booked the room. $70 a night, cash only.

As you can see in the photo above, Natalie is now in her room.

Meanwhile, my daughter Mia is setting up a crowdfunding page to give people a chance to help.

Next update on Monday.

Shabbat shalom.

Homeless in Brentwood: When journalism fights

Journalists cover stories—we don’t make them. Once in a while, though, stories find us, and they move our hearts so much that we can’t help adding to the original story.

This is what happened to my friend Sharon Waxman, founder, CEO and editor-in-chief of the popular entertainment and culture news site, The Wrap.

I’ve known Sharon for years. Before starting The Wrap, she covered Hollywood for The New York Times. One of the things I’ve always admired about her work is a no-nonsense quality to covering glamorous subjects. She’s not starstruck, she’s storystruck. Earlier in her career, she covered foreign affairs in Europe. Now she covers cultural affairs in Hollywood. She’s still the same journalist looking for real stories.

On her way to a Brentwood restaurant on a recent Friday night, she stumbled onto one of those real stories. She noticed a 40ish woman sleeping beneath an outdoor heater at The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Next to the woman were her two teenage daughters, slumped against one another.

They were in the same position when Sharon came out of the restaurant. She couldn’t resist. She doubled back and asked the woman, Katherine, if she needed help. They were homeless, Katherine explained. She and her 19-year-old twins had nowhere to go.

One thing that caught Sharon’s eye was that Katherine was well-dressed and articulate, while her twins were beautiful girls with wide eyes that said “they expected nothing from anyone.” As they laid there with no place to go, they even charged their cell phones.

Sharon decided this was a story. So she stayed and asked questions. Here’s what she wrote later on her Waxword blog:

“In a resigned monotone, Katherine said that all the shelters were full. That since her daughters weren’t pregnant and none of them were drug addicts, they could not get into city programs. A Veteran Administration facility was less than a mile away on a huge federal plot of land, but they weren’t veterans.

“Family would not help them, she said. She had a car up until a few weeks ago but it was repossessed when she learned the payments she’d been making on a friend’s car were going elsewhere.

“I asked when was the last time they’d slept in a bed.

“Three weeks, they said.”

But here’s where the story takes off. After Sharon published the story, a group of people started reaching out to help. Within a week, the “Wrap community” was able to raise $2,000 via a Gofundme campaign to put Katherine and her girls in temporary housing. Of course, Sharon knew this wasn’t a longterm solution. So she set her investigative eye on city services. Here’s what she wrote on April 3:

“Social services that claim to exist to help families like this—I keep hearing about this terrific, phantom thing called ‘Rapid Rehousing’—have been missing in action.

“The two local organizations, OPCC or The People’s Concern, and St. Joseph—where everyone tells me the people are hard-working and professional—need to do their part. So far a case worker from St. Joseph has failed to show up to two appointments. I’d love to know why. Where’s the OPCC?

“Katherine and her daughters are burning through the money we’ve raised at a local motel. Scott and Lori Sale are willing to provide support for longer term housing, but not without the support of a case worker, which is critical. What’s the deal, social services?”

Yes, what’s the deal?

Sharon is not letting go. She’s tweeting about the case and moving the story forward. When I emailed her saying how much I loved the initiative, she used the term “nightmare” to describe the case. Her focus now is to help publicize the plight of Katherine and her two daughters and get them longer term help.

Knowing Sharon, I’m sure she would have preferred if my lead to this story was an appeal for help. I do hope the help will come through and that this story has a happy ending. But I can’t help seeing another story here that I stumbled upon—that of a journalist who walked out of a restaurant on a Friday night and decided not to ignore human pain.

Mayor Garcetti on the future of Los Angeles, his faith and Trump

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti visits the Journal office for a wide-ranging interview. Photos by Lynn Pelkey

No one can escape the challenges of Los Angeles — not even the mayor.

As voters prepare to take a stand on ballot initiatives that aim to impact homelessness, development and, yes, L.A.’s infamous traffic, no one can say Mayor Eric Garcetti can’t relate. Just last week, he found himself ensnarled in gridlock, 20 minutes late for an interview at the Journal’s Koreatown office.

In the midst of a re-election campaign, Garcetti — the city’s first elected Jewish mayor — said he’s looking at the long-term. So while he’s confident that Los Angeles is moving in the right direction, he promised no quick fixes.

“I never approached my first term as, you know, I have four years to change this city,” he said in a freewheeling interview that covered topics as varied as city services to the city’s response to President Donald Trump’s executive orders to his own spiritual journey. “I think from the beginning, I’ve approached this job as an Angeleno, a lifelong Angeleno. And I kind of looked at the next decade to 50 years as the time horizon I wanted to influence. So I think my second term is very much similar to the first term, about being able to reach for great opportunities and address pressing challenges.”

Garcetti, who faces seven challengers in this election, talked about his role in raising the minimum wage, and putting the heft of City Hall behind last November’s successful ballot initiatives to fund transportation and homeless efforts to the tune of billions of dollars. Now he is campaigning for Los Angeles County Measure H on the March 7 ballot, which would raise the sales tax by 0.25 percent to provide drug and mental illness rehabilitation and prevention programs for the homeless. He’s also come out against Measure S, the initiative that aims to reform land use, saying it would negatively impact affordable housing in the city.

The mayor — son of a Jewish mother and a father of Mexican and Italian heritage, former District Attorney Gil Garcetti — had plenty to say about his increased spirituality, as well, and how it’s informed his response to recent events on a national level. (Garcetti has pledged to fight Trump’s effort to deport undocumented immigrants, who number about 11 million nationwide, with 850,000 of them in Los Angeles County.)

In a roundtable discussion, arranged by Journal columnist Bill Boyarsky, Garcetti discussed all this and more. An edited version of that conversation follows; for the full transcript, go to this story at jewishjournal.com.

JEWISH JOURNAL: Six years from now, what’s traffic going to be like in L.A. if you’re the mayor?

ERIC GARCETTI: We’ll be on the way to relieving traffic, no doubt. I don’t think it will be much better in six years. … It’s impossible to undo, you know, 40 to 50 years of urban planning in that short period of time. But I think the 10- to 20-year horizon is actually incredibly hopeful. We will build, you know, Measure M, $120 billion, about half of that to new capital [projects]. To boil that down, that’s 15 new lines or extensions of existing lines — the biggest, I think, physical change to this county since water came here. I don’t think it’s overstating.

JJ: What is homelessness going to be like at the end of the next term?

EG: I think we’ll be more than halfway home. … The biggest thing, I think, to end street homelessness is we need an army of social workers out there. I go out with these outreach teams all the time. I don’t know if a mayor’s done that before, but I go out as regularly as I can. I know people by their first names on the street now. I know their stories. And we had 15 people, trying to talk to 28,000 homeless Angelenos in the city of L.A. when I started. Just do the math. I’ve gotten that up to 80 through some city funds that I kind of have scraped along, but the reason I’m so passionate about Measure H is we probably need 500 or 600 — then we could really make an impact.

JJ: Talk about the deportations advocated by Trump. What are you prepared to do, and are you prepared to pay the price that you and the city might have to pay?

EG: Chief Justice [John] Roberts said [in a previous case that] the federal government cannot force you to do one thing in order to get money for another thing. … It’s very clear you can’t take port money because my cops won’t be turned into immigration officers. I’m not kidding myself that they won’t potentially try to take some dollars from us: Bring that fight on. I mean, what are you going to do? Take away radiological and biological weapons detectors at the port? You’re going to take away the vouchers that go to homeless vets that are now being housed and take away their rents?

I think this is a moment when [you should] stand up for your values, and we’re prepared to do that politically, legally and economically.

JJ: What obligations do you feel to Los Angeles’ very large Jewish community?

EG: I feel a deep one. I feel my values have been informed by both sides of my family. When I look at something like my responsibilities to the Jewish community, [they] are both direct in what I can do to serve them, but also in what we can do to activate each other. [Like] when a moment comes like people turned away from our airport because of their religion or the country of their origin. I re-read the [S.S.] St. Louis history, which, the one aspect I didn’t realize was, St. Louis wasn’t just turned away [in 1939] because it was refugees and Jews. They actually said they were worried there was a national security threat of Nazi spies on there, which is like so much a mirror of what the justification is right now for Syria and Somalia and other places.

JJ: Have you talked to law enforcement about the threats against Jewish facilities?

EG: Yes, I’ve talked to LAPD about it. Absolutely.

JJ: Is it a major concern of yours?

EG: It’s a concern. I’ve watched too many of us say the sky is falling before it actually falls, with this new administration and the change. I think we have to be really precise so that we don’t let anything go under-commented on but we don’t stoke the fears, as well. We’ve seen a doubling of hate incidents since the elections.

JJ: In Los Angeles? In the country?

EG: In Los Angeles. And that’s not just anti-Semitic.

JJ: According to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD)?

EG: Yeah. LAPD statistics. So that’s what’s been reported. I get [reports] once a month, and I’ve asked them to add hate incidents since the election so I can track it more carefully.

JJ: Last question: What have you learned from your text studies with Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR that’s made you become a better mayor of Los Angeles?

EG: Well, you know, it’s funny, like most good talmudic studies, you just sit around and gossip a lot. … I’ve learned a lot. It’s funny, I love being, for instance, in a Black church in South L.A. and bringing up the lessons she taught me about, you know, for instance that it was a sin in the olden days to pray in a room that was windowless, because you had to reflect the divinity. … God isn’t about going inward; it’s about reflecting outward that divinity. And so I use that as a metaphor for what our responsibilities are — for us to not just close into our communities and close into our issues but actually reflect that divinity off of us. …

It’s not just with Sharon but with other folks as I’ve kind of come to more faith and spent a lot more time going to services. I actually love the High Holidays. I get to hear some really brilliant thinking that, you know, rabbis have tried to encapsulate an entire year. And there’s, I would say, a real split right now between those who see this moment as a moment to stand up and be urgent and to possibly offend some folks that are in their congregations, and others who are playing it safer and saying look, we have diverse views, I can’t get involved in that, but let me just talk about internal things. And, you know, I personally err toward the former. Whether you’re a religious or a political leader, we’re called on in these moments to stand up.

Listening to Mayor Garcetti — from the side

Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti at the Jewish Journal office on Feb 22. Photo by Lynn Pelkey

Public officials come to meetings armed with talking points. And who can blame them? They’re asked the same questions over and over. Their words are carefully dissected. One wrong phrase can destroy a career. It’s hard to improvise smart, knowledgeable answers. That’s why politicians must always be on top of their messaging: what they have accomplished, what they promised, what they plan to do in the future, and so on.

This is the world of public service, and it’s especially true for a high-profile position such as the mayor of a big city like Los Angeles.

So, when Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti visited the Jewish Journal offices last week for an interview with our reporting staff, I fully expected to hear some well-crafted talking points, and he didn’t disappoint. On every subject, from crime and homelessness to housing and transportation, the mayor seemed to know exactly what he wanted to say.

There were a few moments, however, where he veered off course with a brief, offhand remark. I pay special attention to those moments because I can often tell a lot about a person by what they choose to emphasize.

The funny thing is, when I heard these offhand remarks, my reaction was: Why is he not making a bigger deal of these things? They make him look human and real. They make him stand out from other politicians.

The first remark came in the middle of a long response on the problem of homelessness. The mayor dissected the problem, gave us a candid take on the scope of the challenge and outlined the steps his administration had taken as well as his future initiatives. So far, so good. All good talking points.

Then, as he spoke of the need for “an army of social workers” to help fight homelessness, he made an offhand remark that he “goes out with these outreach teams all the time” and that “I know people by their first names on the street now.” That personal aside lasted a few seconds before he went back to discussing statistics, programs, and so on.

I thought to myself: Wow, a mayor who goes out on the street to talk to the homeless. That’s big. That’s the kind of politician I would vote for. Why didn’t he play it up more?

His next offhand remark was also very brief. He was talking about the problem of crime, and was making the connection between crime, mental health and the ubiquitous use of drugs. He quoted a psychiatrist at a local hospital that he had met recently. How did he meet her? Here’s what he said:

“I talked to a woman. I do office hours where people come in and talk to me, just kind of random people who can sign up. And the one who, one of the people who got through this last week to talk to me was a psychiatrist.” He then went right back to his main subject.

Again, I thought: Wow. A mayor who allows anyone to sign up and make an appointment with him. That’s what President Lincoln did! Why doesn’t Garcetti make a bigger deal of this stuff, especially in front of journalists?

The only explanation I could come up with is that this man is not a show off. A policy wonk, maybe, but not a show off. Putting any cynicism aside, maybe he does these “extra” human things not to look good but because he really wants to do them.

There was one more offhand remark that caught my attention. It happened while the mayor was talking about his administration’s efforts to bring the Olympics to Los Angeles in 2024.

Out of the blue, he looked out at the late afternoon view from our conference room, and said, “Don’t miss the sunlight on the Hollywood sign right now.”

He could have given me twenty well-crafted talking points about his love for Los Angeles, and it wouldn’t be worth the spontaneity of interrupting himself in front of journalists to admire a view of his beloved city.

His appreciation for that golden view may have something to do with the fact that he’s an avid photographer. That’s another human trait he downplayed – in fact, he never brought it up.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Sara Zaghi: Helping the homeless through jean therapy

Sara Zaghi, a 19-year-old sophomore at UCLA, is committed to bettering the lives of homeless youth by providing them with something she believes everyone should have: a pair of jeans.

“Homeless teens don’t have the same clothes as everyone; they don’t fit in with everyone else. It’s not just about giving them jeans — which is important to help clothe them — but about battling these stereotypes about homelessness,” Zaghi said. “I think it’s important, a great way to give back, and I think it’s super easy, something everyone has and something everyone can do.”

January will mark six years since Zaghi started the citywide jeans collection drive as a partnership with Teens for Jeans, an initiative of the youth-oriented nonprofit dosomething.org, which says jeans are one of the most requested items among homeless youth. 

Working with 20 local businesses, 10 schools and major businesses, including Buffalo Exchange, a used clothing store chain, Zaghi has collected approximately 16,000 pairs of jeans in the past five years. She developed the idea as a freshman at Taft Charter High School in Woodland Hills, where she served on student government, edited the school newspaper and organized a fashion show.

“I was literally in, like, every club,” she said of her years at Taft.

Her focus on social change is not limited to helping the homeless. In 2014, again working with dosomething.org, she created the national campaign Shower Songs, a water conservation effort that involves compiling a five-minute playlist of songs and sharing the playlist with friends. The idea is to listen to music in the shower and reduce one’s showering time to the length of the playlist. 

“I’m, like, at 15 minutes, which is saying a lot,” she said. “I used to take really long showers.”

A resident of Tarzana and the youngest of three siblings (her brother Justin also made the Mensch List this year), Zaghi is a member of Valley Beth Shalom, where she’s become a leader in the temple’s United Synagogue Youth tikkun olam committee.

“Being involved in the Jewish community is really important to me, especially fulfilling tikkun olam,” said Zaghi, who currently is on the board of the Persian Community at Hillel at UCLA. “Our duty is to do mitzvot.”

Zaghi, who is studying communications at UCLA and hopes to work in entertainment pubic relations, interned last summer for Kris Jenner, matriarch of the Kardashian clan.

“I really look up to her,” Zaghi said of Jenner. “A lot of people think of the Kardashians in a bad light, but I truly think Kris is very smart in the way she has handled the family and their businesses in the past few years, and they really turned this one opportunity” — the reality show, “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” —  “into a lifetime of success for the whole family.”

Zaghi’s family’s business, meanwhile, is Subway restaurants. Her father owns three, and Zaghi has helped out often in the stores.

“I’ve grown up with Subway,” she said.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Zaghi relaxes by watching “Shark Tank,” a reality show featuring entrepreneurs who pitch their ideas to successful business people.

How would she pitch her jeans drive to the panel of “sharks”?

“I would just pitch it as a very easy way to give back, and also there are a lot of opportunities for them to partner with any big businesses they have as a promotional social action campaign,” she said. “That’s the angle I would go with, especially since all the sharks have connections with clothing stores or teen brands, which could help us with the drive.”

Faces of homelessness in Los Angeles

Cal State Northridge journalism professor David Blumenkrantz traveled to four locations in the San Fernando Valley in August to photograph and speak with homeless individuals in an attempt to spotlight — and humanize — the issue that has risen to crisis proportions in Los Angeles. Here are some excerpts from those encounters.

Kim and Isaac Sofer

Kim: [We stay in] Van Nuys, usually around the Super King. Well, we do as much as we can. It’s a struggle, but we do it. We usually have a tent. We really haven’t had any troubling situations because we’re both kind of stand-offish, where people don’t want to mess with us. People … want to keep away from us. We kind of put that out there. We have to. That’s the only way that you stay safe out there, is to put something, or you’re going to get your ass beat …

Isaac: The public just thinks that all homeless people are drug addicts and the scum of the earth, and they don’t even consider them people.

Kim: The way they look at us and the way they talk to us. …

Isaac: They’re people out here, if you take just —

Kim: — consideration to say hello —

Isaac: — a minute, two minutes to sit there and talk to them, you’d find out that 90 percent aren’t monsters or drug addicts and a lot of times that they just —

Kim: — want a friend.

Isaac: Are just going through a rough patch —

Kim: — need a smile —

Isaac: — had life s— on them and that’s what they’re doing. They’re sitting there, trying to survive, trying to get to a better place, but nobody’s giving them a chance.

Keith Collins

I basically live in the Valley. I work, and I spent all of my money on rent. So I just choose to stay in my van. Otherwise, I’d probably have to spend most of everything I make on rent. Since 1998, I think it was. I park it where I can. I’m a paratransit driver for Access …

I’m in pretty good health. Well, if I can find affordable rent, like I said, I probably could rent an apartment, but to spend everything, everything I own … I probably have too much saved to qualify for any type of rental assistance. Maybe, I’m not sure, but I’m just waiting for a situation where I can find affordable rent. Basically, that would be $400, $500 a month, maybe. Because when you start renting, what happens is, you make the same thing and your rent keeps going up, so you may go into a situation where it’s affordable now, but later, it may not be.

I come to this location [North Valley Caring Services] for showers. I earn enough to eat OK, you know. I do eat here sometimes, sometimes not. The assistance here seems to be pretty, you know, pretty good. I mean, I just go about my business and I shower a couple of times a week. Otherwise, I just kind of live a normal life, besides sleeping in my van.

Brook Carillo

I’m 44. I was born and raised in Chatsworth … I’ve been homeless now for five now …  I worked for the movie industry. I’m a scenic painter. You know, I do the sets. If this wall was just given to me and they said, “OK, make it look like New York City,” then they’d film on it and it goes on tape. But you work 12 months, 12-hour, 16-hour days and then you’re off for six to eight months. And by that time, bills are paid up, debts are paid up, you end up with nothing. So it was really hard for me to try to keep money to get rent to pay first and last. It’s really difficult. That’s like the hardest thing. …

You’re one paycheck away [from] being homeless. Everybody in this world is, you know. And the ones that are homeless that want to get out of the situation get mixed up with the drug addicts and thieves and the scummy ones that never take showers and totally take advantage of every system possible and don’t try to help themselves.

But then there’s us, there’s the other half who try to do what we can to better ourselves to get us back into the real world and to do better things. I mean, most of us have 10 toes, 10 fingers. We can work, but they just don’t give us jobs because you don’t have a mailing address. You don’t have a mailing address so there’s nowhere to send anything from work. You have no shower sometimes, you know, and they’re capping all the hose faucets and everything all around the whole city. I mean, you can’t go anywhere to find a hose to just rinse off. Even when it’s 110 [degrees], they don’t care, they just cap them off. Because the homeless will go there, they’ll find a spot, and they’ll shower there.


I got evicted from my place. I’ve been homeless four months now. They’re trying to raise up the rent, trying to up the rent, so they found a way to evict me. They made up some stories that I owe this sum and owe that much money, but I went to court and fought it, but eventually I lost so …

Currently now, I have a job, thank God. I work at Walmart, so I keep, I hold on to that job. Very grateful. It’s not easy, you know? I just got used to sleeping in the car, you know? That’s very hard. This guy tried to rob my car one night and tried to steal my car, but luckily he didn’t pull out any weapon or anything like that. I usually park it at work. They let me park over there.

This [MEND Poverty] is the only place I take showers or a friend’s house, sometimes. I have a girlfriend. She’s in Alabama. So, I’m trying to save up money and probably move back over there with her. I usually hang out at the library, read some books, you know. Sometimes I go out to the park, just keep in touch with nature, exercise, move around. Basically that’s what I do pretty much when I’m not working. I don’t even pay attention to society anymore. I mean, my focus in life is just to better myself, you know? I don’t really care about what other people think about me. I don’t really care about that. I’m just here to survive and try to better myself. That’s my priority right now.

Joseph Sanberg: A one-man army against poverty

On a recent Thursday morning at Casa Teresa, an emergency women’s shelter in Orange County, five spirited, young pregnant women and a new mother gathered around a conference table, waiting for for their class on budgeting to begin.

The teacher was late, so the women joked and laughed about how broke they were.  At the center of the table, a newborn cooed in his carrier.  

Before long, Joseph N. Sanberg, a Harvard graduate, Internet entrepreneur and investor, entered the room a little breathless from rushing. “Did you all do your homework?” he asked, getting straight to business. 

Sanberg was dressed casually, in jeans and a lavender button-down, his strawberry blond hair windswept and wild. Twice a month, he teaches this financial class to Casa Teresa residents, who tend to have little experience with money management. 

“Remember we talked about the key part of budgeting being the difference between spending that’s an expense and spending that’s an investment?” Sanberg said. “What would be an example of spending you did in the last couple of weeks that’s an expense, not an investment?”

“I bought red lipstick,” a woman in a flannel top said. The group laughed, nervous with recognition.

“Why did you do it?” Sanberg asked.

“Because it was a pretty color,” she said.

Sanberg paused, then looked directly at her: “Did you do it because you were trying to make yourself feel better?” he asked.

“In a way, yeah,” she admitted.

“How do you think you would have felt if you hadn’t bought it, and you’d had the confidence to resist that temptation?”

“I’d have more money than I have now,” she said, a little embarrassed. “And it would have been way better for me.”

Sanberg looked pleased. But his cool quickly faded when another woman confessed an addiction — to Starbucks.

“Starbucks?!” Sanberg said, flashing an incredulous smile. “Bad!”

He grabbed a marker and headed for the board. 

“This is a really, really bad expense!” he continued, almost comically exasperated. He popped the top off a dry-erase marker. 

“How many Starbucks do you get in a day, every day?” Sanberg asked.

“One,” she said. “Venti.”

“Five bucks?” he asked.

“Five twenty five.” 

Sanberg did the math. “Roughly speaking, $5 times 365 days, that’s like 1,800 bucks,” he said. “That’s a lot of f—— money. You could literally buy a used car with that.”

He asked the woman if she had a job and how much she made per hour, in order to demonstrate that she had to work 45 minutes for every Venti coffee she ordered. He suggested she buy a thermos instead and fill up at Casa Teresa.

I don’t even drink Starbucks,” Sanberg said. “Rip-off!”

This isn’t what you expect to hear from a guy who spent seven years working on Wall Street, and who, at 36, admits he has already made an amount of money that is “ridiculous,” and that he will “never be able to spend.” But Sanberg isn’t your typical tycoon — he doesn’t wear tailor-made suits or drive a fancy car or sport a fine watch. He doesn’t even own the Laguna Beach house he lives in. “I don’t value material things,” he told me. Instead, the thing that animates Sanberg most is his mission to “change the world,” a formidable goal he talks about with the kind of casual confidence someone else might have, say, for doing a load of laundry: “Everything I do, and the way I think and believe, is bound together by the notion of tikkun olam,” he said, using the Jewish expression for healing the world. 

Sanberg could easily be the guy standing at the front of a boardroom talking about the derivatives market. Instead, he has spent the last five months traveling around California speaking to low-income working families about how to get their share of a $400 million tax credit. This year is the first in California history that a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) has become available, over and above the federal one. Sanberg thinks this anti-poverty program is so important, he has invested $1.5 million of his own money to create an education and outreach campaign, CalEITC4Me, whose aim is to get every eligible Californian to file a tax return by April 15 and obtain their credit. It is estimated that the EITC could impact 600,000 California households and improve the lives of 2.2 million people. 

But reaching everyone eligible won’t be easy: California already has the third-lowest utilization rate of the federal EITC, meaning nearly $2 billion dollars in available tax credits go unclaimed in the state each year. If Sanberg and other like-minded advocates can’t prove in this first year that the new program is indispensable, there is no guarantee it will be part of future state budgets. 

“That’s why our work this tax season is so damn critical,” Sanberg told the community organizers and state leaders at a November United Way conference. “If people use California’s EITC and love it, it’s going to be very hard to take it away. The measure of [our] success is entirely about implementation.”

Joe Sanberg shakes hands with a man while mingling among community members during the listening tour in South Gate last September. Photo by Hector Gomez, CalEITC4Me Campaign

The idea behind the federal EITC first appeared in a welfare reform proposal put forth by the Nixon administration in 1971; it underwent various iterations before becoming permanent under Jimmy Carter. Designed to reward work, the amount of the credit is calculated based on a percentage of earned income and the size of the household — the more you earn and the more people you support, the higher your credit. Initially modest, the program ballooned in the 1990s in a national effort to reduce poverty, and today is considered the largest anti-poverty cash entitlement program in the United States. At a cost of $56 billion per year, the EITC is the third-largest welfare program in the country behind Medicaid and food stamps.

Last June, Gov. Jerry Brown made California the 26th state to offer a state version of the federal credit. “This was a big deal,” Chris Hoene, executive director of the nonprofit California Budget & Policy Center (CBPC) told a confab of community organizations at the United Way event. According to Hoene, in the 2012 tax year alone, the federal EITC helped lift 1.3 million Californians above the poverty line — 630,000 of them children. “It single-handedly reduced the child poverty rate in California by 6 percentage points,” he said, even with California’s low utilization rate. 

A state supplement could do even more: Using the example of a single mother who works part time at minimum wage, earning about $5,600 per year, Hoene said the combined state and federal EITC could boost her total income by $4,000 — a life-changing 80 percent.

Sanberg’s task is basically to blow the shofar on this and wake up low-income households to the possibility of a better future. He points out that the main reason eligible people don’t claim the credit is they don’t know it exists. And low-income earners tend not to file tax returns, because they either don’t owe money or they’re wary of tax agencies. CalEITC4Me has therefore partnered with VITA, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program that provides IRS-certified volunteers to help qualified individuals file returns.

What this all adds up to for Sanberg is accomplishing his most ambitious goal: solving the problem of income inequality in America. When he talks about the lack of opportunity hindering the middle class and the marginalized, he does so with intense idealism and earnestness. As an entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist working in the public and private sectors, Sanberg’s mission is clear and unequivocal: “I always had this sense that I wanted to be a champion for people who are victims of unfairness or injustice,” he told me. “Whenever I observed that, it always really fired me up.”


“Everything I do, and the way I think and believe, is bound together by the notion of tikkun olam.” — Joseph N. Sanberg


I first met Sanberg last November at a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan Beach, where he confessed his only self-indulgent luxury: “I could give up every other thing that comes with being rich,” he said, “but the one thing I really enjoy is sushi.”

Sanberg is tight-lipped about his actual net worth; the website crunchbase.com lists his investments since 2012 at nearly $77 million. “What matters is what people do with their money, not how much money they have,” he said. Still, rather than spend his millions on the good life, the former managing director of Wall Street’s Tiger Global Management is spending his fortune, and his time, trying to improve  the lives of others. Aspiration, the 2-year-old Internet bank he co-founded with Andrei Cherny, targets middle-income and young people with low-cost, high-quality investment opportunities that are normally available only to wealthy investors. And instead of charging a fixed percentage of profits, as most investment banks do, Aspiration takes the unique step of allowing customers to determine their own fees. So far, 15,000 people have signed up — with upward of 40,000 on a waitlist (Sanberg said that taking time for customer education is part of the “on-boarding process”). Sanberg also claims that Aspiration is doubling its customer base every five weeks. Aspiration’s business model, he says, is “based on trust,” a word not often associated these days with America’s financial institutions. “We are a business that makes the money our customers choose to pay us,” he said, adding that Aspiration also promises to donate 10 percent of its profits to charity. “Investing with a conscience” is the company’s tagline. 

Sanberg applies this same principle to his personal philanthropy as well. Last fall, when UC Riverside launched its inaugural Master of Public Policy program, Sanberg donated enough money for half of the program’s students to attend tuition-free for two years, with additional funds left over to support more students with “significant” scholarships. In 2014, after an electrical fire caused $300,000 in damages at his childhood synagogue, Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, Sanberg contributed $200,000 to the rebuilding effort. He is also a major donor to the Jewish Graduate Student Initiative (JGSI), an organization that fosters relationships between Jewish graduate students and Jewish business leaders, including at an annual conference. Rabbi Dave Sorani, 33, JGSI’s founder and CEO, described how Sanberg frequently speaks to the students, most recently at a Shabbat dinner at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. 

“He blew people away,” Sorani said. When you hear him speak about how he gives philanthropy from his company, the students are like, ‘Who the heck is this guy?’ People are usually nervous to give to charity when they’re so young, but Joe’s different. He’s not saying ‘I’m gonna become wealthy and then give to philanthropy.’ He’s saying ‘I’m gonna become wealthy and give philanthropy.’ Joe is teaching students to think: ‘How can I make the most money, and how can I give the most money?’ We have so many speakers, and no one says that. No one talks about it. ”

Last year, Sanberg caught word that Sorani wanted to host a Passover seder for graduate students with nowhere else to go. Sanberg offered to help fund it, but only if the seder would also include low-income families. “As a nonprofit CEO trying to raise money, you almost … actually … never get anyone approaching you,” Sorani said. “After [that phone call], I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Of course I’ll do that, that’s awesome.’ ” The seder was held at the Peninsula Hotel and more than 100 people — including Sanberg — turned out to celebrate the holiday. 

Friends and colleagues describe Sanberg as “passionate,” “driven,” “full of big ideas” and value-oriented, someone who sees public service not as a weekend mitzvah project, but as a way of life. In 2012, he became chairman of the Jefferson Awards Foundation, a national organization co-founded in 1972 by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis that’s devoted to honoring and facilitating public service. Widely considered the most prestigious prize in its field, past recipients include Michael Bloomberg, Walter Cronkite, Steve Jobs, Sonia Sotomayor and Elie Wiesel. 

Before Sandberg took on the chairmanship, the foundation was struggling to reinvent itself to become an organization that not only recognizes public service, but powers it. Sam Beard, one of the foundation’s founders, personally asked Sanberg to take on the chair position and help rehabilitate their long legacy through better internal business practices.

“We knew we were on the cusp of becoming one of most impactful nonprofits in the country,” said Beard’s daughter, Hillary Schafer, the foundation’s executive director. “But we needed some work to get there; we needed to be structured like a world-class business, something that could have impact and create real scale.” Sanberg helped monetize contributed services, which increased the foundation’s revenue from $2.6 million to $13.5 million and helped Schafer turn around the place.

“Joe fundamentally believes in possibility — in everything he does,” Schafer said. “That really drives him, the concept that possibility should apply to everybody. He believes in big, wholesale change, and I think he feels quite blessed that he is in a position to take big ideas and do something about them.” 

When Sanberg first decided to tackle income inequality full time, he assembled a team of policy experts to research effective programs, and it wasn’t long before they happened upon the EITC. The movement to create one in California had already been building, but it took Brown, and a balanced budget, to finally make it feasible. When Sanberg heard the governor was considering pushing through the EITC, he hired a team of lobbyists to reinforce its passage. And then, when it was clear that the state’s allotment for outreach wasn’t sufficient to reach the hundreds of thousands of eligible low-income households, Sanberg created CalEITC4Me. At the program’s launch in Sacramento last November, Nancy McFadden, Brown’s top aide, credited Sanberg as “the spark” for the entire effort. 

“Now I want you to say it louder and together,” Sanberg commanded a room packed with journalists, state leaders and community organizers at the San Diego launch of CalEITC4Me in January, one of many stops on a statewide tour. In a video posted on Twitter, Sanberg stands at a podium at the front of the room conducting the crowd in a collective chant: “END. POVERTY…

“That’s why we’re here,” Sanberg says. “We shouldn’t have poverty. The problem isn’t a question of resources, it’s [that] the people who need the resources aren’t getting them.”


“We reach poor people; we give them money; they spend it on their kids; their kids have better outcomes in life. It’s a very linear relationship.”


Sanberg and his younger brother, Rick, grew up in the middle-class suburb of Villa Park in Orange County. They were raised primarily by their mother, Soni, who worked as a book editor and substitute teacher. Their father struggled to support the family. “Before I was born, he was allegedly a successful real estate developer,” Sanberg said, “but then he hit a wall. He kept reinvesting in projects, and the savings he had for our family kept declining and declining.”

Sanberg doesn’t remember his father being around all that much when he was a child. “I don’t remember a single meaningful conversation with my father,” he said. But he does remember dealing with the impact of his father’s choices: Just before Joe’s high school graduation, the family home went into foreclosure. His parents divorced. Sanberg’s mother and brother were forced to move in with his grandparents, while Sanberg went off to an internship in Washington, D.C., with the Democratic National Committee.

He can’t really recall what happened to his father; they haven’t spoken in the 18 years since. When I ask him about this, he answers impassively: “[My father] experienced a number of personal and financial problems, and it was around that time that I last spoke with him. I’m not sure of his circumstances then or thereafter.” 

For Sanberg, the trauma of losing his childhood home was irreparable. “That really conditioned how I saw the world, and how random bad luck and chance could impact how we lived,” he said.

Sanberg’s family story is also something of a selling point on the EITC trail. He talks to people in crowds as if he is one of them. At the United Way event, he said, “You may be asking, ‘Who the heck is Joe Sanberg?’ So let me tell you: By the time I was in high school, I was an EITC family, so the EITC is personal for me.” 

Despite the family turmoil, Sanberg did well enough in high school to get into Harvard. He wrote his admissions essay about the Led Zeppelin song “Ramble On,” which he said got him through his grandfather’s death when he was in 10th grade. “I learned that Led Zeppelin songs were inspired by ‘The Odyssey’ and Tolstoy, so I wrote about how ‘Ramble On’ continued the journey tradition in literature.” 

I ask Sanberg if he was that kid who was tagged “most likely to become president” someday, which made him blush. “Maybe,” he answered. 

His track record of success, which he prefers to attribute to “luck and chance” rather than any innate aptitude, has sometimes come at a cost: In 2014, Sanberg learned that several websites bearing his name had racist and misogynistic posted messages on them, and that an anonymous extortionist was attempting to get him to hand over $750,000. He sued, and the court ordered the domain registrar to disclose the websites’ owner — the name revealed was Sanberg’s brother. 

When I asked him about the fallout, he declined to talk about it, except to say that it tore apart his family. When it comes to personal matters, Sanberg is well guarded, sounding more cerebral than emotional, and he acts completely disinterested in the enigma of his own psyche. Describing when his family lost its home, Sanberg recalled feeling “stressed, anxious, uncertain and alone,” but stopped short of dwelling on his own pain. “I think it’s self-indulgent to reflect on those kinds of feelings,” he said, launching instead into a more universal assessment. “What I experienced was not a special experience; it’s common to probably a majority of Americans now. That’s why the shrinkage of the middle class isn’t some abstract mathematical phenomenon. It’s a moral crisis. Because when you don’t have the confidence of your basic needs being met, you don’t have the luxury of being fully human.”


“I don’t have a problem with people having a lot of money. I have a problem with people not having enough money to meet their basic needs.”


For Sanberg, public assistance was not a crutch, but a crucial leg up.

“I wouldn’t have been able to go to Harvard without student loans,” Sanberg said, citing the importance of federal assistance. That support enabled, and perhaps also inspired, Sanberg to plunge into campus politics. In 2000, he even took a year off to work for Al Gore’s presidential campaign, later returning to Harvard to study government. 

Ricki Seidman, former executive director of Rock the Vote, who also worked for both the Clinton and Obama administrations, was a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government when Sanberg was an undergraduate. She decided to mentor him, making Sanberg her intern.

“What stood out to me about Joe was that, some kids were interested in the process of politics,” Seidman recalled. “They wanted to work on campaigns, they liked the machinations of politics. … Joe was always interested in how you could use the political process to bring about change. He was very idealistic. And he had really strong values. He really stood out among the students that I encountered. I really liked him and got to know him.”

Today, Seidman is executive director of Sanberg’s Golden State Opportunity Foundation, which he created in 2015 with the mission to solve income inequality and create more equality of opportunity in America. CalEITC4Me is its first major initiative. “It’s not that often that you’re able to do something that is just so unquestionably good,” Seidman said. “Coming from Washington, where nothing gets done and the atmosphere is so negative, the opportunity to work on something so positive, so non-polarizing that brings people together, is really exciting. There aren’t very many things you can work on in politics where you’re able to make an immediate difference in someone’s life.”

According to several studies, recipients of the EITC tend to spend their refund on housing or household expenses, transportation, food and clothing. “We don’t screw around with indirect transmission,” Sanberg said. “Instead, we reach poor people; we give them money; they spend it on their kids; their kids have better outcomes in life. It’s a very linear relationship.”

While Sanberg spent most of his undergraduate career nurturing his affinity for political activism, the reality of needing to support his mother began to weigh on him as graduation approached. Wall Street and its allure of economic promise beckoned him. 

He started as an analyst at Blackstone’s Private Equity Group in New York, where he paved the way for a younger friend from Harvard, Matt Salzberg, to join the firm. It would become an important relationship: A few years later, in 2012, when Salzberg decided to start his own business, Sanberg invested in the company that would become Blue Apron, a food delivery service providing fresh, healthy ingredients and original recipes to home cooks. Sanberg saved the company from a major headache when he bought out a disgruntled early investor unhappy with the company’s direction. “It was the kind of thing that only a really close friend and supportive, thoughtful investor would do,” Salzberg told me. “And it ended up working out really, really well for him, because Blue Apron did really well, too.” 

In fact, Sanberg says his investment in Blue Apron has been more financially rewarding than his time on Wall Street. According to Forbes.com, Blue Apron now delivers 5 million meals per month and is valued at $2 billion. 

After leaving Blackstone in 2004, Sanberg jumped to Tiger Global Management, where he served as managing director until 2009. He describes his time there as “a very prosperous period” but also a frustrating one, that reinforced his wariness of Wall Street.

“I don’t think a free market is at its best when so many financial rewards accrue to so many people who create so little economic value and solve so few problems,” he said. “I still struggle with the period of time I spent on Wall Street, when I wasn’t living my business life true to my tikkun olam values. I made my money in a way that really created no value for anybody, except for a small number of people at the investment firm where I worked. I struggle with that.” 

Being in the center of the country’s economic engine during the 2008 financial crisis especially tested his conscience. “It was one of the most unfair things that has occurred in modern economic history,” Sanberg said of the Great Recession. “The American taxpayer got screwed by Wall Street, bailed Wall Street out, and then Wall Street complained about regulatory burdens imposed on it by the government to ensure a crisis wouldn’t recur. That whole dynamic astonishes me.”

So Sanberg did some soul searching. “Coming out of the financial crisis, I realized I had become unanchored from my core values,” he said.

Joseph Sanberg with members of the Home Start nonprofit at a press conference for the launching of CalEITC4Me at the Jacob Center in San Diego last month. Photo by Holly Martinez, CalEITC4Me Campaign

When I asked him to talk about the source of those values, I expected Sanberg to cite a book, a treatise, an icon of history. But his answer was much simpler. 

“The No. 1 influence on how I think and live is my belief in God,” he said.  “It informs how I live my life entirely. I’ve always [felt] this way; since I was a kid.” 

Sanberg’s spiritual philosophy is really an argument for a wholly integrated ethics. He doesn’t believe in compartmentalizing. “These distinctions we construct between how we make money and how we give money away are bulls— distinctions,” he said. “There are too many of us who say, ‘I can make my money however I want, as long as it’s legal. And then I’ll heal the world with my philanthropy.’ Those distinctions shouldn’t occur.” 

Driven by these values, Sanberg thought about how to address inequality through the private sector. “There are two ways you can change the financial industry,” Sanberg said. “One is through regulation, the other is through competition.”

He teamed with political wunderkind Cherny, also a Harvard graduate, to create Aspiration, a web-based financial firm targeting people disenchanted with big investment banks; Cherny, a son of Czechoslovakian Jewish immigrants, had already made a name for himself as the youngest White House speechwriter in history, in the Clinton administration. Aspiration quickly attracted high-profile investors, including billionaire Jeff Skoll, former president of eBay and now CEO of Participant Media, which produces social-impact films (among them, this year’s multiple-Oscar-nominated “Spotlight” and Al Gore’s Oscar-winning climate change documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth”). 

Publicly launched in November 2014, Aspiration now offers two investment funds — including a “sustainable” fund that invests in companies with progressive employee practices and environmental policies — as well as a fee-free checking account with a $10 minimum, free ATM access worldwide and a 1-percent yearly interest rate for balances more than $2,500 (“That is 100 times higher than most banks are offering,” Cherny, Aspiration’s CEO, said). Money magazine recently named it in a tie for best checking account in America. 

Some remain skeptical as to whether the company’s premise can turn a profit, but Sanberg insists the foundational hypothesis that “people are fair-minded and will pay for a service they value” is bearing out. He and Cherny said 90 percent of customers are electing to pay a fee for Aspiration’s products. Though there are some like-minded competitors in the field, such as Ally and BofI (Bank of Internet) who also offer attractive banking options, Sanberg believes Aspiration will prevail by being “very, very pro-consumer” and acting as what Cherny described as a “countervailing force” within America’s financial establishment. 

Sanberg thinks of Aspiration as a disruptor. “We’re changing the financial industry by stealing customers from existing firms that don’t treat people well. The failure of the financial industry to well serve middle-income people is one of the many factors that is driving the stagnation of the middle class. So, in my life as a business person, I am trying to solve that.” 

When Sanberg declaims about inequality, his passion is persuasive. In the same sentence, you might feel inclined to vote for him — or give him a hug. “He is in fierce pursuit of justice when it comes to economic opportunity,” Cherny told me. “It makes his blood boil when things are wrong, and he really wears his heart on his sleeve. It’s easy to get his goat by [talking about] some of the terrible things people are doing — he’ll start bouncing off the walls in indignation.”

“I don’t have a problem with people having a lot of money,” Sanberg said. “I have a problem with people not having enough money to meet their basic needs. 

“There’s an isolation that comes with that, and a loneliness, and I think that’s what’s overlooked by the dryness of economics or the aloofness of our politics — it reduces people into numbers.”

That last thought makes me wonder whether that was the worst part for him when he was young — to have his own identity tied to his income level — homeless, poor, on welfare or financial aid. Perhaps that’s why he’s not comfortable being rich, or at least, with playing the part. “I don’t do anything fun that has to do with being rich,” he told me.

For Sanberg, his wealth says no more about who he is, or what he does, than getting cast out of his childhood home defined the student he was in high school.

“My No. 1 belief is that the opportunities kids enjoy in their lives shouldn’t be based on luck and chance. We want to be a society where people can go as far as their skills and hard work can take them.”

Jews have unique obligation to help the homeless

As the number of homeless people in Los Angeles has grown to a level that is a civic disgrace, I’ve been wondering whether we Jews have a special obligation to help them.

Statistics show the calamitous nature of the situation. The total of homeless people locally has increased by 12 percent in the last two years, the Los Angeles Times reports, to 44,000 in Los Angeles County — 26,000 of them within L.A. city limits. Many live in vehicles, the 9,535 tents downtown and throughout the city, or under tarpaulin shelters in makeshift encampments, which have grown by 85 percent since 2013. Those figures are expected to increase after this week’s Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority annual count of the homeless is tallied.

I began thinking about our obligation to help the helpless while reading an excellent history, “1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History” by Jay Winik. What distinguishes this book from the many other Franklin D. Roosevelt-era histories is Winik’s deep exploration of the years just before and during World War II, when President Roosevelt and his administration refused to try to save European Jewry from the Holocaust.

Winik writes of the frantic efforts of American Jews, extending from the grass roots up to leaders such as Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau and Rabbi Stephen Wise, to save the European Jews. Some 40,000 New Yorkers crowded into Madison Square Garden, with thousands more outside, to watch a pageant called “We Will Never Die.” Jews around the country protested. The president’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, joined the effort in her newspaper column, “My Day.” Escapees from the concentration camps and many others tried to alert an indifferent world, to no avail. Roosevelt, guided by a State Department riddled with anti-Semitism, did nothing.

I am not, of course, comparing the Holocaust to the plight of the homeless. I imagine some readers will be offended that I even pair the homeless and the Holocaust in the same column. I know the situations are not comparable. But I can’t help wondering whether our experiences of being persecuted don’t give us a heightened obligation to be leaders in the effort to save the homeless. 

I’m not alone in that, as I learned when I began to ask what the Jewish community is doing in this area. I contacted Jewish Family Service. I had written about JFS efforts to help the newly unemployed during the recession and thought it would be involved in this latest crisis. I had called the right place.

“Sure, Jewish people become homeless,” said Nancy Volpert, director of public policy for Jewish Family Service. “The Jewish community is not exempt from homelessness, poverty, drug abuse. We come together to provide services to people in a way that is respectful but fills their needs.”

JFS’ efforts, which are not restricted to Jewish people, have long focused on two segments of the homeless population not often mentioned in media accounts — victims of domestic abuse and the elderly. JFS is putting its experience assisting such people to work with the homeless.

The common view of the homeless is that they are mentally ill, addicts, or both, and are beyond help. But as JFS has found, that’s a simplistic view — and a cruel one.

“About a third of the homeless come out of a violent home, particularly but not limited to women,” Volpert said. “The current plans put forth by the city and county do not designate any program for [victims of] domestic violence for the homeless. They recognize drugs, alcohol, mental illness, but not domestic violence.”

Yet, spousal abuse can be a fast track toward homelessness. A wife without resources of her own bundles up the kids and flees an abusive spouse, maybe to stay with a relative. If that doesn’t work out, the family will often live in a car, moving from parking lot to parking lot at night, and then to an encampment.

Jewish Family Services is part of a network of organizations that serve such people, offering two emergency shelters in the San Fernando Valley and one in the more urban side of the city, south of the Santa Monica Mountains.

“That’s one of the two major things I would like you to know about,” Volpert  said. “The other is the homeless who are aged.”

The elderly factor shatters another preconceived idea about the homeless — that they are young, tough and scary.

“People who live on the streets age much more quickly,” Volpert said.  “They show signs of age-related debility. How do we provide services to those who are older homeless?”

That’s a question that hasn’t been answered by anyone yet. The number of afflictions that come with old age, both physical and mental, add a puzzling new dimension to the homeless problem. But at least Jewish Family Services is shining a light on it and offering food and other forms of assistance.

As homeless encampments have expanded out from the more traditional sites on Skid Row and in Venice into the Westside, Hancock Park, Silver Lake and the San Fernando Valley — all areas with significant Jewish populations and institutions — the plight of these encampments’ occupants has become a matter of community concern. The Jewish community, with its history and long experience in charitable work, can and should provide invaluable help to the effort to reduce, or even end, homelessness. 

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and LA Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

Homeless in Koreatown

You can’t knock on a tent, so I had to yell. I wanted to meet the people inside the blue tent and hear their story. I had seen several sidewalk tents on my way to the Jewish Journal offices in Koreatown, and the rain storm had made me especially curious about how the homeless were faring.

I told the man who answered that I worked at a newspaper and wanted to hear his story. The man, Gary Ellison, age 42, from Chicago, was lean and balding with brownish skin and strong features. His eyes were warm and friendly. He was definitely happy to see me.

Gary tried as best he could to untangle the entrance flaps to the tent. As I crouched awkwardly to enter, he put an old grey jacket on a sitting area so I’d be more comfortable. Behind another flap was a dark-haired woman sitting cross-legged on the ground, hugging a blanket. Her name was Cierra Bartholomew, age 23, also from Chicago. Cierra had large brown eyes, olive skin and a gentle demeanor. She had laid out Christmas lights on a little rug in front of her, which created an amber glow inside the tent. Behind her was her boyfriend, Rick Rock, who was sleeping.

The sound of rain falling became like background music to our conversation.

Gary was eager to talk. He was raised by his mother in Lemont, a suburb of Chicago. He didn’t know his Dad, meeting him for the first time when he was 12. “He never respected me as his son,” Gary said. The same was true for his younger brother, who only met the Dad when he was on his deathbed.

But Gary’s mother loved him dearly. He still speaks with her whenever he can. He pulled out a few old pictures of her and proudly showed them to me.

Gary is good with his hands. In his 20s, he made a decent living working on barges at Illinois Marine Towing, before a bar fight put his life on hold. A knife stabbing had severed his main artery and he underwent open heart surgery that incapacitated him for over a year.

He moved to Las Vegas in his 30s and worked as a mechanic. One night, at a 7-11, he met Karlina, a single mother of two. They fell in love and got married.

He made enough money to get an apartment and support his new wife and her kids. But he says “she ran around” on him. “I would wake up in the middle of the night and she was gone,” he said. “She broke my heart.”

With his heart broken, he left Vegas for Los Angeles about three years ago. Unable to find work, he entered a homeless shelter in Costa Mesa but had to leave because he says people would steal his things. “There’s bad stuff going on in shelters,” he told me. “I prefer the streets.”

But not all streets are created equal. Before moving to Koreatown about three months ago, he had pitched his tent at MacArthur Park, which he says wasn’t very safe. Thankfully, though, MacCarthur Park is where he met his future best friend, Cierra.

“We’re both from Chicago,” he said. “We understand each other.”

They consider their new location on New Hampshire Ave in Koreatown a blessing. “The Korean Consulate is right there,” Cierra said. “That keeps us safe.”

As far as the police goes, “If we respect them, they respect us,” she said. In fact, officers have come by occasionally to give them information about shelters and other places that might help them find more permanent housing.

For now, they’re banking on their old tent to protect them from the rain and the elements. It does a decent enough job. I got a little wet, but that’s because I was close to the entrance. Cierra, who was inside and bundled up, seemed reasonably cozy.

I asked them if they had any plans for the future. Cierra said she’d love to open a “dispensary” where she can lawfully sell medical marijuana. Gary would love to do carpentry or any other handy work. He dreams of building a house. He told me he has a Facebook page that he hopes will help him make connections so he can get back on his feet.

Cierra is reluctant to get into a shelter because she doesn’t want to be separated from Rick and Gary. Apparently, the three have built a strong friendship.

Before I left, Gary sang me a song he wrote, called “Homeless Man.” It’s about a homeless man looking for work, who's always dressed in a suit and tie.

Our moral obligation to be a voice for the homeless

Apathy —  noun; absence or suppression of passion, emotion or excitement.

I write this with a broken heart. I serve many roles in the community, including that of a county-appointed commissioner to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Today I write not as a commissioner — I do not speak for the commission — but for myself, a rabbi who sees the yawning chasm between the golden dreams of what our city could be and the iron-hard realities of what our city is. 

The other night I sat in the commission hearing during which we released the homelessness count for Los Angeles County. The numbers are shameful. Homelessness is up 12 percent across the county in just two years. Veteran homelessness has remained relatively flat, despite the millions of dollars poured into the region by the federal government. The number of individuals taking refuge in tents, vehicles and other makeshift shelters climbed 85 percent. Skid Row used to be the center of homelessness in America; now it, too, has replicated the ubiquitous model of urban sprawl with new subdivisions cropping up across the county. There are now as many homeless men, women and children in our area as the total capacities of Staples Center, The Forum and Pauley Pavilion combined

Homelessness is terminal in Los Angeles. You can be robbed, raped, assaulted or even murdered. You live in constant fear of others on the street and of the authorities. Leundeu Keunang and Brendon Glenn, two homeless men, were fatally shot by officers during the last two months. Our county is in a state of crisis.

Whatever you feel about adults who are homeless, you can never say that a child would choose to be born to a mother who is homeless. Eric Rice, an associate professor at USC, has found that 42 percent of youths who experience homelessness were in the foster care system, and 27 percent were gay, lesbian or bisexual, as illustrated by the story of the 16-year-old girl who was booted to the street because her parents found the love note she wrote to her girlfriend. He writes, “More upsetting is that 50 percent reported being abused by their families, and 44 percent reported being kicked out of their home, forcing them into homelessness at some point.” Statewide, there are more than half a million children who are homeless. Youth homelessness leads to dropping out of high school, underachievement and incarceration. We are 48th in the nation in the extent of child homelessness, and we are 49th in state planning. We are not only near the bottom, we are planning to go even lower. 

I know, however, that there is a monumental effort by activists who are trying to house those without shelter. The good news in this very dark time is that Los Angeles has invested more resources than ever in ending homelessness. There is a coordinated entry system that seeks to align priorities between governmental and nonprofit agencies. There are huge efforts to provide vouchers for people who are homeless in order to rehouse them rapidly. There is intense focus on the Housing First model, in which those who have been on the street the longest and have debilitating conditions are given apartments with wrap-around social supports. But as these numbers show, the problem is getting worse, not better.

Have we failed? 

Yes, but not because we aren’t building shelters. Our shameful failure is to see homelessness as a unique problem, something that can be fixed through building a larger system of shelters. What this moment calls for, however, is a radical shift in our thinking. Homelessness is a symptom of a greater disease, not the disease itself. Homelessness is an indicator of our nation’s lack of moral strength to deal with poverty.

We live in a world that blames the poor for their poverty, the homeless for their sluggishness and their lack of will. We are trained into apathy by the stoic notion that sympathy for the poor is an unwise passion that must be purged from our consciousness. We have internalized the dark counsel of Nietzsche, who excoriates the weak by framing them as tricksters who try to unseat the powerful through their sheer meekness. We live in a land that has contempt for the poor. They speak as if poverty is unrelated to sickness. They speak as if poverty is unrelated to old age. They speak as if poverty is unrelated to the despair of our leaders. They speak as if poverty is unrelated to new immigrants. They speak as if poverty is the fault of the poor, who are taking advantage of the rest of society. We listen to the dark voice that says to us, “Rid yourself of your liberal guilt and your bleeding heart. This is not your problem. Mish zich nisht arein — ‘do not get involved.’ ”

Do we not remember as Jews that we once knew what it was to lay out our necks under the heels of power? Are we so quick to embrace cultural amnesia that we have forgotten that we were once a homeless nation? How has the foreign ethic of apathy seeped so deeply into our collective souls? Our Jewish understanding of the world does not come from secular liberalism. It comes from the prophets. When we hear the voice of apathy emerge, we must remember the other voice that cries out through millennia: 

“Listen to this, you who devour the needy, annihilating the poor of the land, saying, ‘If only the new moon were over, so that we could sell grain; the Sabbath, so that we could offer wheat for sale,’ using an ephah that is too small and shekel that is too big, tilting a dishonest scale, and selling grain refuse as grain! We will buy the poor for silver, the need for a pair for sandals. The Lord swears by the pride of Jacob, ‘I will never forget any of their doings.’ Shall not the Earth shake for this …?” (Amos 8:4-8)

We must be proud as Jews that our greats, our statesmen and our prophets saw life through the eyes of the oppressed and spoke with anger and thundered against those who had become so hard of heart that they begrudged the poor. We are the people of the prophets and the children of the prophets. Shall we not take up their call to embody the Divine concern for justice? Shall we not shake the Earth? 

What makes for a great city? Is it its sunny beaches and rolling hills? Is it the heights of its skyscrapers or the extent of its art collection? No. It is our ability to let all who are hungry, eat; all who need a bed, a place to rest; all who need refuge, a place to call home. We must go to sleep tonight dreaming of a better tomorrow, and we must wake up in the morning to pursue those dreams. The only way to solve the problem of homelessness is to put the blaring light of justice on our collective shame and draw together in harmony the voices of our city to say enough is enough! We must sing out from the chambers of City Hall. Sing out from the pews and from the shelters. We must sing out from office buildings, the hospitals and the nonprofit agencies. No longer can we be fettered by the chains of our apathy. No longer can we say that what happens in Venice or on Skid Row is not my problem. No longer can we despair. We must put our shoulder to the wheel and focus our energy.  

Remember the words of Rabbi Hayim of Brisk, who said to be a rabbi is to “redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone … protect the poor and to save the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor.” Speak to your congregations, move the Earth. The time for your leadership is now. We need more funding from the city to be allocated to homelessness services. Speak to your councilmember. We need to pass legislation that restores funding from the state to build more affordable housing. Speak to your state representative. We need more communities in this fight. Speak to them and they will listen. 

To end homelessness, we need to heed the prophetic call to stem the flow of families falling into poverty and slipping through the bottom of the safety net. We need the strength of all of our hands to lift this very heavy burden. My teacher Rabbi Harold Schulweis taught me a poignant story: There was a certain Jew in Sodom and Gomorrah who preached against the injustices found there. For his troubles, he was mocked by all who knew him. “Why do you break your heart speaking to these people who are resolved not to change?” He answered, “I do not do this for their sake alone. I do it for my own sanity.” 

We must all be a sane voice in an insane world, if not for the sake of the needy, then for our own.

Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas is associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and founder of Netiya, a faith-based network that advances urban agriculture in synagogues, schools and nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles.

My year of street tzedakah

When I lived in Berkeley in the late ’60s and early ’70s, walking along Telegraph Avenue could be expensive if you gave to every panhandler who asked for spare change. Not that much has changed in all these years. The number of people asking for handouts is at least as great as it was, and perhaps more so. Given unemployment (mercifully down to 5.8 percent) and the underemployed, the historically low minimum wage, the federal cuts to food stamps for the working poor, and the incoming Republican Congress that is unlikely to act on behalf of the chronically poor and food-insecure people, it is no surprise that people asking for help on the street are ever-present.

What to do? Democrats in Congress who believe that the federal government should extend a helping hand, especially in difficult times, are slogging it out with a recalcitrant, hard-hearted, extremist Republican Party that cares little for “the least among these” (Matthew 25:40) despite their own Christian faith claims.

What about us? Do we give to the people on the street? Something to everyone, nothing to anyone, or sporadically when we feel like it?

I confess that, over the years, I have been alternately generous and tightfisted. Sometimes I open my wallet, but more often I walk by without responding, feeling guilty.

Last year, my friend Letty Cottin Pogrebin sent me a link to an op-ed she had just written for Moment Magazine called “The Politics and Ethics of Street Tzedakah.” After reading it, I felt especially ashamed of myself.

I decided, both for the sake of the person asking for help and for myself, that henceforth I would give to everyone asking me for assistance. Since then, I have given to virtually everyone I encountered who asked me for assistance. I keep dollar bills in my wallet for these people and give everyone $1, not very much in the grand scheme of things (I estimate that I have given out about $250-$300 this past year). The payoff, however, is great in human terms. The opportunity to connect heart to heart and soul to soul with a stranger in need is a benefit for both of us.

In each of the several hundred cases, the recipient usually responded gratefully: “Thank you, brother!” “God bless you!” “Have a great day!” They felt seen and respected. I felt I did the right thing. It was, in a limited way, a win-win, though my dollar gift did little to solve the great socioeconomic problems in our country.

None of those who panhandle wish to be doing so. I remember one young man walking through traffic held a sign that read, “This is humiliating to me, but I am hungry. Please help!”

To those who say skeptically that these people are scamming us, that they can do better standing at a busy intersection than by actually getting a job, I ask only that you put yourselves in their place and reflect on what it would have taken for someone to do what they are doing.

Regarding giving when we legitimately suspect fraud, Rabbi Chayim of Sanz (1793-1876) said:

“The merit of tzedakah is so great that I am happy to give to 100 beggars even if only one might actually be needy. Some people, however, act as if they are exempt from giving charity to 100 beggars in the event that one might be a fraud.” (Darkai Chaim, 1962, p. 137)

Maimonides reminds us, “One must never turn a poor person away empty-handed, even if you give him a dry fig.” (Mishneh Torah, “Gifts to the Poor” 7:7)

The obligation to give tzedakah includes everyone, without exception, even the poor who receive community funds and individual handouts (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 248:1). When the poor give, they realize that there are others worse off than themselves. 

According to surveys, the American-Jewish community is among the most generous communities in the country per capita. I am proud that our people give to all kinds of worthy causes, to alleviate suffering here and around the world, to the people and State of Israel, to local, national and international Jewish causes, to synagogues and food pantries, homeless programs, refugee organizations, universities, hospitals, art museums and symphony orchestras. We write checks because we know that Judaism requires it, because we know the heart of the stranger, the poor and oppressed, and in the interest of tikkun olam.

But how often do we give when we meet strangers on the street?

I decided a year ago that I am no longer walking by without giving. I pledged to myself to carry $1 bills at all times, and to give them whenever asked, not just for the sake of the other, but for my own sake as well.

Rabbi John Rosove is the senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood since 1988. He blogs at jewishjournal.com/rabbijohnrosovesblog

Hope and help for the homeless at LAFH

Los Angeles Family Housing (LAFH) is the largest provider of homeless services in the San Fernando Valley. The organization got its start in the early 1980s with the conversion of an old North Hollywood motel to house homeless families. Today, LAFH encompasses 23 properties, from Lancaster to Boyle Heights. 

The organization proudly sees 92 percent of its clients go on to secure permanent housing. Last year, it served nearly 3,500 people. 

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, 46, has been president and CEO of LAFH since 2007. Jewish Journal sat down with the Northridge native and longtime Adat Ari El member in her office at the Sydney M. Irmas Transitional Living Center in North Hollywood, which is home to 65 families, to discuss everything from the myth of people “choosing” to live on the streets to ways that even child volunteers can make a difference.

Jewish Journal: How do individuals or families connect with you? Or how do you connect with them?

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer: We are one of the most sought-after shelters in the county, for families, primarily because of our unique model that allows families to stay together. In contrast, at most shelters … they have a women’s floor and a men’s floor. They separate by gender from 14 on. So a little girl could not stay with her dad.

[At LAFH] whether you are a single dad with his little girl or you are a grandpa, mother, father and four teenage boys, we can accommodate any configuration of a family. It might be crowded if you’re a family of 10, but you have your own bathroom, and the door locks. So, we’re well-known and always full.

How do singles come to us? Word of mouth. We are the only shelter for individuals that is non-recovery-based in the Valley. 

In the last two years we have made a much more concerted effort to do street-based outreach: We go into Tujunga Wash, meet individuals who have been living burrowed in brush for 15 years; we go out into Lake View Terrace. A gentleman we met there, his name is The Wizard. He’s been living at the side of a freeway off-ramp literally for 22 years. So we’re going out into the streets more and identifying the most vulnerable.

JJ: But not everyone necessarily wants help, right?

SKG: We see it as they are not ready for it yet. Nobody wants to live on the street. They may be incapacitated because of mental health. They may be scared.

We just opened up a new part of a building last year. The Wizard, he moved into his own apartment there. It’s not a shelter. He signed a lease. He’s cooking meals in his own kitchen. That took about a year and a half: getting him first to come indoors, then, once indoors, to stay indoors.

JJ: What sort of opportunities are there for volunteers?

SKG: We have a number of volunteer opportunities that we really try to make meaningful for the volunteer and supportive of what our residents need. It could range from hosting a monthly birthday party for all the kids on that property to working in our kitchens and helping to prepare a meal. Another option that is not on-site but that is truly beneficial is doing a collection. We have corporations that do, for example, Toothpaste Tuesdays or diapers on Friday and then donating that to us. 

We just had a teenager do a fabulous reading-cooking club. She would read children’s books to little kids that all had some food association, like “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” and they would make cookies. 

We have a tremendous amount of community volunteers through high schools. A lot of them provide assistance through Homework Club. We even have little kids coming on-site. They might be sorting welcome baskets. 

JJ: Beyond providing for their basic needs, what can LAFH do to foster a sense of pride and drive in the clients, especially the kids? 

SKG: They have to earn it here. We have Scrub Day Fridays. Residents have to give back and help clean. There is a lot of focus in our family programs on educating, and educational enrichment. We have a lot of incentives to help our kids succeed academically. 

One of the things we do really well: We celebrate milestones all along our residents’ journeys. We don’t just celebrate when they move into permanent housing. We recognize that a kid gets a great attendance record. If he got a C on a spelling test and he hadn’t been engaged before, we celebrate that. If someone gets a certificate in a job training program, we celebrate. We don’t just celebrate the getting the job. I think that fosters a great sense of pride in the accomplishments that each resident is achieving. 

We [also] have a mandatory savings program.

JJ: There’s a bank at LAFH?

SKG: Yes there is, without any fees. Many of our residents don’t have any form of credit. We do a lot of work on creating budgets and savings. There is tremendous pride when a resident leaves and realizes they saved $2,000. 

They are supposed to save 80 percent of their income no matter what their income is. Remember, they don’t have any expenses when they are living here. They are going to have a lot of expenses when they move out. It doesn’t matter if you’re getting $200 a month in general relief or earning $1,200 a month — we want you to save 80 percent so you leave with some cushion and you get in the good habit of saving.

JJ: Can you share a success story?

SKG: Fara’s story is a wonderful success story. She [and her four children] moved out of the shelter about four years ago. They have remained stable and successful. The mom is Fara, and the oldest daughter is Fara also. They lived here for three years. Fara [the daughter] is only 15 now. She was, like, 11 when she lived here. These were really children who grew up homeless.

That they succeeded in their transition out of homelessness — a single mom with a lot of barriers — this is the proudest, happiest family unit you could meet. Fara [the daughter] is a successful cheerleader in high school, getting straight A’s. … What Fara’s daughter always says is, “My mom always taught us not to let our situation define us. It’s because of her we succeeded.” 

Homelessness in California: Homes in the city, not on the streets

The other day, I was taking my kindergarten daughter to school at our synagogue, Valley Beth Shalom (VBS). We passed a homeless man sleeping at the bus stop. She asked me if that man had a home, and I said no.  

California, which accounts for 12 percent of the United States population, is home to nearly 22 percent of the country’s homeless. More than half of all homeless Californians — 64 percent — are unsheltered, meaning they literally sleep on the streets, in parks, at bus stops and elsewhere. Fourteen percent of the homeless are veterans, and 20 percent are families. 

Here in Los Angeles, nearly 60,000 men, women and children live on the streets, many driven there by the high cost of housing. The average two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in this city rents for $1,523 per month, according to RealFacts.com. To afford that apartment, a family would need to earn $60,920 a year, if they are to spend one-third of their income on housing. That means a full-time wage earner would have to make $29.29 per hour, to afford rent — far more than many Angelenos earn. 

We at VBS have a proud tradition of helping the needy through our food bank and through relationships with shelters and service organizations. But we have come to believe we can’t solve this problem with aid alone, which is why our community now supports the California Homes and Jobs Act (SB 391), which has passed through the state Senate and is now under consideration in the assembly. 

Average incomes for truck drivers, social workers, childcare workers, most restaurant workers and construction workers can’t support that two-bedroom apartment, based on income data from the California Employment Development Department. To make ends meet, adults work multiple jobs, families double up with relatives, or scrimp and struggle to pay for living arrangements that they simply can’t afford. 

Lawmakers at the state, federal and local levels have proposed hikes to the minimum wage, in part to help working Americans make up for their reduced purchasing power. But even if the minimum wage were hiked to $15 an hour, as one Los Angeles city councilman has suggested, it would only bring a family halfway to affording that apartment.  And all it takes is one job loss, one medical problem, one car breakdown or needy relative to unravel a whole household budget, possibly landing that family on the street.
Meanwhile, the state’s commitment to building affordable housing has waned. Money from two housing bond measures has ended; local redevelopment agencies, which were required to allocate 20 percent of funds to affordable housing, were closed in the state’s budget crisis of 2012.

SB 391, which would institute a $75 recordation fee on real estate transactions other than the sale of property, is a good first step toward addressing the housing affordability crisis in California. It is expected to raise an average of $500 million annually that will be used to build or refurbish affordable housing statewide. By passing this bill, the state will also be able to leverage federal and private funds through matching, which will otherwise be lost. 

A wide array of business, labor and nonprofit organizations have recognized the urgency of this situation; the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the County Labor Federation, AARP and the United Way all support SB 391, as do veterans’ and children’s advocates.

We recognize it is not enough for our community to service the outcomes of injustice. We can never feed all those who are hungry; nor can we clothe all those who are naked. We must also move upstream, to the headwaters in which these injustices find their power. 

This bill — the only one being considered this year that could create new affordable housing options for thousands of Californians — specifically works with the population who rely most heavily on social services such as emergency rooms and emergency shelters. The funds raised will be used to help both working- and middle-class families, and will spur development of rapid rehousing initiatives, transitional and permanent rental units, and other housing options aimed at the homeless population. This is the latest and best effort of our legislators to create affordable housing that helps all Californians, including the homeless.  If this bill dies, then the hope for affordable housing dies in California. 

We urge you to learn more about SB 391. We’ve met with representatives from our congregation’s catchment area, and we encourage you to contact or schedule a meeting with your representatives to let them know that you are paying attention to this vote. A handful of Democrats in the assembly have not yet committed to voting for the bill, which needs a two-thirds majority to get to the governor’s desk.  

After passing that man asleep at the bus stop, my daughter asked me if we have to help him because once we were like him, poor and homeless, slaves in Egypt. “That is exactly why,” I said. 

We cannot let the parks and sidewalks of Los Angeles become the fleshpots of Egypt. It is not enough for us to provide meals at shelters or a word of comfort. We have an obligation to change the conditions of the market, with our mighty hands and our outstretched arms, in order to make it possible for hard-working people to live in our city.

Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom and founded Netiya, a faith-based network that advances urban agriculture in our synagogues, schools, and nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles.

The Mensch List: The way home

Wendy Colman Levin spoke with quiet intensity about the people who have touched her during her four-and-a-half years as an advocate on behalf of the homeless, among them the young woman who was thrown out of her childhood home when she told her stepfather that her stepbrothers were raping her, and the middle-aged man who spiraled into street life after his wife died of cancer.

Since 2009, Levin has served as a member of the Home For Good Business Leaders Task Force on Homelessness that aims to find permanent supportive housing for the chronic and veteran homeless, among other endeavors.  

Her personal mission is to help these often invisible individuals tell their stories through the arts: For the task force, she curated an exhibition, “Faces of Homelessness,” which has been on display in more than 10 venues around Los Angeles since 2011 and is now at Encino’s Valley Beth Shalom. She’s also the co-editor of Stuart Perlman’s documentary “Struggle in Paradise,” which spotlights the homeless of Venice Beach, as well as a coach to help previously homeless people craft personal narratives about their life on the streets and beyond, through the Skid Row Housing Trust and the Corporation for Supportive Housing.

Levin is currently coaching an educated man who had lived with and cared for his mother until she died, but then, unable to continue to pay the rent, found himself sleeping in his truck. “He talks about drifting, and being lost and shocked to be in a situation he could never have imagined,” she said.

Levin — who grew up attending Stephen S. Wise Temple — first worked with the homeless during an internship while earning her doctorate in behavioral sciences and health education at UCLA in the mid-1980s. Her doctoral dissertation focused on how entertainment media can influence health-relevant beliefs and behaviors among the viewing public; it was an idea she drew upon when she joined the task force several years ago.

“I wanted to find ways to bring the issue of homelessness to the public consciousness in a way that wasn’t just informational, but was also through storytelling, because that can deliver more of an emotional impact,” she said. “And I wanted to show that these people are individuals.”

Levin came up with the idea of the exhibition while talking to Perlman, a Los Angeles psychoanalyst and artist who had begun painting vibrant portraits of the homeless denizens of Venice Beach; the inaugural exhibition in 2012 featured Perlman’s portraits as well as the work of photographer Gaelle Morand. A larger exhibition on display at the Venice Art Walk last year also included the work of sculptors, an installation artist and a documentary filmmaker.

“When we were on display in the lobby of the City National Bank in City National Plaza, a banker in a beautiful suit said to us, ‘I wonder if one of these portraits is my daughter,’ ” Levin recalled.  “And we were just weeping with her. The truth is that this isn’t the problem of ‘the other’; it involves all of us.”

In between helping to edit more than 60 hours of footage for Perlman’s documentary, Levin has also coached five previously homeless individuals as they developed monologues to help raise awareness about the issue. 

“I urge the people I work with to be as honest as they feel comfortable with in their narratives, and to go as deep as they can,” she said. “The truth is, they are tremendous success stories because of the things they have survived, and often through no fault of their own.”

A homeless heart for Sukkot

I want to tell you about a man I’ll call Jack. Jack was a man who slept under the 405 underpass that I cross on my walk to synagogue every Shabbat. For a long time, I didn’t really see him. He was tucked away in the bushes next to the on-ramp. But that’s not what kept me from seeing him. Angelenos like Jack who sleep among the concrete and refuse are, to most in our city, nothing more than landscape. Our own hustle and bustle has caused a moral blindness that prevents us from taking notice of them. The voice of our ethical exhaustion tells us that these folks are simply the price we pay for living in a city. And so we don’t see them. 

I didn’t see Jack until he waved at me one Shabbat morning and I waved back. This became a weekly ritual. Then, one Shabbat, while walking to synagogue, I stopped and talked with Jack. Sitting there next to the 405, I found out that Jack is a veteran. He served our country overseas and experienced the carnage of war. When Jack came home, he couldn’t put the shards of his life together. To cope with his trauma, Jack fell into the vicious cycle of pain, addiction and self-abuse that landed him there next to the freeway. There we were together, face to face, me in my suit and he in ragged old clothes. And for the first time, I really saw this man. I saw inside him, his pain, his shame and, most importantly, his humanity. 

After shul, I gathered together some food, a bottle of water and some materials with information on getting help from a social service agency. But when I arrived at the underpass, he was gone. At first I thought he had moved on. But later I learned from a police officer that Jack had been arrested for sleeping beneath the underpass. 

This bothered me a great deal and it still bothers me. As a family man it bothers me. As an American it bothers me. As a veteran it bothers me. But most importantly, as a Jew it bothers me. 

The author Alice Hoffman said, “Once you know some things, you can’t unknow them. It’s a burden that can never be given away.” That’s especially true of people who, having fallen on hard times, can’t seem to pick up those shattered pieces of their lives. 

There are nearly 60,000 people in Los Angeles who sleep on the streets every night. Twenty percent of all homeless are veterans like Jack. And the outlook for their future is not bright. Now that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are ending, experts are anticipating a “reverse surge” of veterans. They predict that 31,000 veterans will become homeless in Los Angeles in the next two years. The statistics are staggering and shameful. 

This great country has brought prosperity to so many. If we can build a society that lets a man take a small step on the moon, place Old Glory on the Sea of Tranquility and call that a victory for humanity, why can’t we build a country that lets every family take a small step across the threshold of a home? 

As Jews, there can be no argument that since our people left the dark ghettos of Europe and the sun-baked streets of Tehran we’ve made it. We can attend any university, belong to any club and do business with any person we like. The mayors of the three largest cities in America are Jewish. Three of the most powerful elected officials in Los Angeles are Jewish. We’ve made it.

But in the eyes of our tradition, we haven’t made it. Not yet. 

When Moses dreamed of a future for our people, he envisioned us settled in a land flowing with milk and honey. Yet, at the pinnacle of our flourishing, the Torah teaches that we stand before the priest and the congregation in Jerusalem, holding the bounty of our harvests, affirming our identity as Jews. At that moment, when we can say, “We’ve made it,” the Torah instructs us to say, “My father was a homeless Aramean who went down to Egypt with meager numbers and resided there … when we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, the Lord heard our cry and freed us from Egypt.”

Moses’ vision for our personal prosperity is to truly enjoy the fruits of our labor, but not to make material gains our identity. We are not only our wealth. Our lives began in a much earlier time, an ancient time, thousands of years ago, back to Jacob, back to Abraham, who left their homes, as wandering homeless men. Our Torah teaches us that in all our settledness, in all our wealth, in all our power, in all our privilege, there is still, deep inside each one of our chests, beating with the steady thumping of time, a homeless heart. 

We are Adam and Eve, who were exiled from their home. We are Noah and his family, who had to make a home aboard a ship among turbulent seas. We are Abraham, who left his home and wandered in search of the Promised Land. We are Jacob, who left his home to find himself and to build a nation. We are Joseph, thrown into the pit, far away from home. We are Moses, who left his home and found God in the desert. We are the people of Israel, who crossed the sea, wandered the wasteland and were exiled, homeless for thousands of years. 

In the soul of every Jew, no matter how much we believe we’ve made it, we have not yet fulfilled the dreams of the prophets unless we remember that homeless hearts beat in our chests. 

And in this season, when we are commanded to build the sukkah, a symbol of God’s sheltering presence, can we be deaf to the beating of our hearts? The frailty of our sukkot should remind all of us of those whose homes are as fragile as the sukkah all year long. For once you see these fellow human beings as reflections of the Divine, you cannot stand idly by; your homeless heart must beat in time with theirs. 

The time to act is now. Valley Beth Shalom is taking a stand to work with those who want to end homelessness; to teach about this issue through our innovative art gallery and lectures; to work with others like Milken Community High School, New Jewish Community High School; and the Jewish Journal to collect signs from the homeless to build a Homeless Sukkah; and to work with coalitions of other organizations to advocate for a solution to this wrong. Let this New Year be a year when we can find a home for all.

To get involved in the Homeless Sukkah Project, visit the Facebook page at facebook/homelesssukkah or e-mail info@homelesssukkah.com.

Noah Farkas is associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue in Encino.

Is beauty a Jewish value?

When we talk about Jewish values, we usually refer to things like justice, compassion, generosity, humility, honesty, faith, wisdom and so on. We rarely talk about beauty.

Beauty is vain and superficial, we’re so often told.

And yet, the word “beautiful” is prominent on this week’s cover of the Jewish Journal, which features an unusually beautiful sukkah, created by designer Jonathan Fong.

Normally, our instinct would be to focus on a deeper meaning of the holiday — the sukkah as a metaphor for humility; as a wake-up call to help the homeless; as a physical, palpable link to our ancestors; as a paradox of frailty and strength; or as an eternal symbol of Jewish endurance.

Those angles are all more profound and meaningful than the notion of beauty. So, why would we feature aesthetics on our cover this year?

One answer is that maybe we simply need a break from all the heaviness. Yes, we can overdose even on things like depth and meaning. Let’s face it, especially at this time of year, we’ve all been marinating in one deep sermon after another. Serious, heavy issues are weighing on us — whether about Israel, society’s ills or the need to transform our lives.

So, it’s quite possible that a light, beautiful sukkah might be just the right antidote to holiday heaviness — an ideal opportunity to lighten up and let all this depth sink in.

Or not.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but in Judaism, meaning lurks everywhere — even in something as superficial as beauty.

“Beauty enhances the mitzvot by appealing to the senses,” according to “Gates of the Seasons: A Guide to the Jewish Year” (Central Conference of American Rabbis). “Beautiful sounds and agreeable fragrances, tastes, textures, colors, and artistry contribute to human enjoyment of religious acts, and beauty itself takes on a religious dimension.”

In other words, by adding beauty to what we see, hear, taste and feel, we enhance our spiritual experience of the mitzvah, which brings us closer to the mitzvah itself.

Beauty is also defined, in the Jewish tradition, by the virtues of endurance and permanence.

As Rabbi Joshua Shmidman explains in the magazine Jewish Action: “The Torah requires: ‘And you shall take unto yourselves on the first day (of Sukkot) a fruit of a beautiful tree — pri etz hadar.’ The Talmud (Sukkot 35a) wishes to define what constitutes a beautiful tree by analyzing the Hebrew word for beautiful, hadar.

“The sages conclude that it is the etrog tree, because the word ‘hadar’ is interpreted to be a fruit which ‘dwells continuously all year on the tree’ (ha-dar, literally, ‘that which dwells’). Thus, they understand the word ‘dar’ to mean the opposite of temporary or intermittent residence; rather, it implies permanence, a continuous process through time (similar to the French ‘duree’ or the English ‘endure’).

“The etrog tree fulfills this requirement of constant dwelling, for most other fruits are seasonal, but the etrog grows, blossoms and produces fruit throughout all the seasons: in the heat and the cold, in the wind and in storm — it stubbornly persists! It endures! And in the Jewish view, that is why it is beautiful.”

In addition to its permanence, beauty is also an expression of love. 

As my friend Rabbi Benjamin Blech said to me over lunch last week, adding beauty to a mitzvah — such as making a sukkah beautiful — is an expression of love because it’s a sign that “we are doing the mitzvah not just because we have to, but because we want to.” We glorify God’s presence by going beyond the minimum requirements, by pouring out our love for Him just as we would for those we deeply love.

As the rabbi spoke so beautifully about love, I reflected on another aspect to beauty that is often overlooked — and that is, the beauty of the words we speak.

I don’t care how beautiful we make our sukkahs or holiday tables, if some well-intentioned guest decides to ambush the conversation with a rant against Obama, or Israeli settlers, or the tragic mess in Syria, or any number of incendiary topics best left for another time — all that aesthetic beauty we’ve spent so much time creating will be immediately colored ugly.

If beautiful sounds contribute to the human enjoyment of religious acts, I can’t think of a more beautiful sound than that of pleasant conversation that stimulates the mind and warms our hearts.

In short, by making our sukkahs beautiful and adding meaningful and beautiful conversation, we can honor the enduring value of Jewish beauty, enhance our spiritual experience and deepen our love for the Almighty.

How’s that for superficial?

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.