November 18, 2018

Moving & Shaking: Seinfeld Headlines Ball, Iranian-American Jewish panel and Israeli American Council National Conference

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld (fourth from left) appears at the American Friends of Magen David Adom (MDA) Red Star Ball with (from left) MDA first responders Nati Regev, Rivka Or, Aharon Adler, Israel Weingarten and Mohammed "Chamudi" Arrabi. Photo by Michelle Mivzari

Leave it to Jerry Seinfeld to transform a Beverly Hilton ballroom into an intimate comedy club.

Performing a half-hour set to conclude the American Friends of Magen David Adom (AFMDA) Red Star Ball on the evening of Oct. 30, the comedic legend commanded the large, candlelit room like he was headlining the Improv.

Seinfeld opened the evening with a few minutes of material — joking about how Gentiles attend events for the alcohol, Jews for the rolls — but he promised he would return at the end of the night. When he came back onstage after 10 p.m., the funnyman captured both the mood of the fundraiser and the comic sensibility he is famous for.

“It’s been a beautiful night of generosity …,” he said. “Now, let’s get back to complaining.”

The gala raised pledges of more than $18 million, a record for an AFMDA event anywhere in the country, according to an event spokesperson. It also spotlighted the life-saving work of Magen David Adom (MDA), Israel’s ambulance, blood-services and disaster-relief organization that serves as emergency medical first-responders for the state’s more than 8 million people. MDA is mandated by the Israeli government to serve in this role, but it is not a government agency.

Of those in attendance, Humanitarian of the Year Honorees Sheldon and Miriam Adelson pledged $12 million to the organization, and Maurice Kanbar, creator of SKYY Vodka, pledged $5 million.

“My heart is in Israel,” Sheldon Adelson said. “And Israel is in my heart.”

Renee and Meyer Luskin received a Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of their support for the arts and education in Greater Los Angeles.

Next Generation Award winner Nikita Kahn — an actress, model and animal rights advocate — credited gala co-chair Dina Leeds with instilling in her the importance of supporting Israel.

“Her passion for Israel is contagious,” Kahn said of Leeds, who co-chaired the evening with her husband, Fred.

Additional speakers included Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg and the Leeds’ daughter, Alisa. The latter highlighted the contributions of MDA to Israel. She has volunteered with the organization and called it a model for peace as it treats patients regardless of religion or ethnicity.

A number of MDA medics attended the gala, including Rivka Or, a senior emergency medical technician; and Mohammed “Chamudi” Arrabi, a gay, Muslim medic.

“It makes me happy when I help somebody,” Or said.

Also in attendance were comedian Elon Gold; Rabbi Zvi Boyarsky, of the faith-based rehabilitation organization Aleph Institute; USC Hillel Executive Director Bailey London; Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa; and Israeli reality TV star Yossi Dina.

From left: Jesse Sharf, Kam Babaoff, Aliza Karney Guren, John Ghermezian and Kamyar Shabani participate in 30 Years After’s “The Builders of Los Angeles.” Photo by Jasmine Foroutan

30 Years After, the Iranian-American Jewish civic engagement organization, held its first in a series of events celebrating its 10th anniversary. The event, titled “The Builders of Los Angeles,” took place on Oct. 24 at the PH Day Club – Luxury Penthouse in West Hollywood and brought together a panel of prominent real estate developers and philanthropists.

The panel included Kam Babaoff, managing director of Ensemble Investments; Aliza Karney Guren, CEO of Karney Properties; John Ghermezian, chief business officer of Mall of America; and Kamyar Shabani, principal of Optimus Properties and a member of the 30 Years After advisory board. Jesse Sharf, partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, moderated.

The panelists discussed their careers, the real estate industry, their passion for philanthropy and the Jewish community, and how their Jewish identities influence their philanthropy and businesses.

“People think that bad people get ahead in business, but people actually like doing business with good and philanthropic people,” Sharf said in response to an audience question. “It gets you further.”

When the panelists were asked what compelled them to be philanthropic, Babaoff responded: “My mom and dad were my role models. Growing up in Iran, our house was like Grand Central Station. People who needed help were always coming through, whether for money or dispute resolution. It is our duty and responsibility to give back, and giving back isn’t just giving money.”

“Money isn’t satisfying, but philanthropy is,” Ghermezian added. “A cause gives you a reason to continue working hard.”

About 250 people attended the event, including former Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad; Los Angeles County Assessor Jeffrey Prang, and 30 Years After co-founder Sam Yebri.

In an interview, 30 Years After Executive Director Shanel Melamed said she was proud of how the program has helped provide a space for Persian Jews.

“This decade of engagement and leadership training has led to a comprehensive, emerging generation of Iranian-Jewish leaders who are equipped and motivated to contribute to, and lead, Los Angeles,” Melamed said. “We’re proud to be the central organization empowering Iranian-American Jews to be impactful members of society, and we have even greater goals for the next 10 years. We welcome everyone to join our exciting and growing movement.”

Mati Geula Cohen, Contributing Writer

Diego Cartagena, vice president of legal programs at Bet Tzedek. Photo courtesy of Bet Tzedek

Bet Tzedek, a pro bono legal aid agency, has named Diego Cartagena as its next vice president of legal programs.

Cartagena succeeds Gus May, who became a Los Angeles Superior Court judge in August, and will report directly to Bet Tzedek CEO Jessie Kornberg.

“This is a good day for Bet Tzedek and a great day for the thousands of clients that depend on us for a fair chance and a better life,” Kornberg said in a statement announcing Cartagena’s appointment.  Diego exemplifies what is best about our mission: an audacious commitment to push the bounds of what seems possible and deliver on our pledge to deliver equal justice for all.”

Cartagena’s responsibilities will include managing “the continued growth of Bet Tzedek’s community services,” according to the announcement. He has worked at Bet Tzedek since 2012, serving as the organization’s pro bono director.

“I look forward to working with longstanding and new community partners, pro bono supporters, and sister legal services agencies to continue to build on Bet Tzedek’s incredible history of protecting the rights of those most vulnerable by building innovative programs and coalitions that are responsive to the evolving community landscape,” Cartagena said.

Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks to the Jewish Journal’s David Suissa at the Israeli American Council National Conference. Photo by FPerry Bindelglass

The Israeli American Council (IAC) National Conference attracted a record number of attendees this year — about 2,500 — when it was held from Nov. 3-6 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.

“We have to make sure that America is pro-Israel regardless of who is in Congress and who is in the White House,” Congressman Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) said at the event, which examined Jewish and Israeli identity, Israel as a nation-state of the Jewish people and cutting-edge innovative ideas in education, technology and community building.

Israel Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer also appeared and described President Donald Trump’s recent speech criticizing the Iran deal as “the second-best day since I have been ambassador.”

Additional speakers included U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley; Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, who participated in an interview with Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief David Suissa; diplomat and author Dennis Ross; IAC Chairman Adam Milstein; and Miriam Shepher, an IAC national council member from Los Angeles. Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, sat for a conversation with IAC board member and chairman emeritus Shawn Evenhaim.

The IAC is an umbrella organization with 16 chapters across the country, including in Los Angeles. Since 2007, the organization has prided itself on investing in programs that assist the Israeli-American community.

From left: Imam Abdullah Antepli, Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief David Suissa and Yossi Klein Halevi participate in a discussion titled “Enemies, A Love Story.” Photo courtesy of Beth Jacob Congregation

An Oct. 29 discussion at Beth Jacob Congregation, titled “Enemies, A Love Story: A New Way Forward for Jewish-Muslim Relations,” featured a formerly self-proclaimed extremist Jew and a formerly anti-Semitic Muslim discussing Muslim-Jewish relations. The Shalom Hartman Institute, a pluralistic research and leadership institute for Jewish thought, organized the discussion.

Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa moderated the discussion between Yossi Klein Halevi and Imam Abdullah Antepli, co-directors of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative, which, according to, “invites North American Muslims to explore how Jews understand Judaism, Israel and Jewish peoplehood.”

Halevi and Antepli spoke with compassion and conviction about how they want to see the program work now and in the future. Their remarks often drew applause from the approximately 250 people who attended, including Beth Jacob Rabbi Kalman Topp.

Ginger Vick contributed to this report

Larger Than Life children and volunteers attend the 14th annual Larger Than Life gala dinner at the JW Marriott L.A Live. Photo by Abraham Joseph Pal

Larger Than Life–L.A. Family, a nonprofit affiliated with the Israel-based Larger Than Life organization, in October brought to Los Angeles from Israel 38 youths with cancer for a 10-day dream vacation.

The youths, ages 10-18, enjoyed Southern California theme parks, rode ATVs, sailed on a yacht and partied at a gala dinner downtown at the JW Marriott hotel at L.A Live on Oct. 29. It was the 14th annual trip organized by Larger Than Life.

At the gala, approximately 750 guests watched a video about two friends, May Gurfinkel and Noa Tzemach, who both died months ago after battling cancer for two years. The two became close after visiting Los Angeles in 2015 on a Larger Than Life vacation.

“Noa started as a mentor to May, and they became one soul. They went together to the very end, talking about things that we will never, ever be able to understand,” said Gurfinkel’s father, Golan, who traveled from Israel for the event. May Gurfinkel died in July.

“I used to be the one who gave others money and a helping hand, and I thought I could handle this by myself, but it simply wasn’t possible,” he said. “We needed all the help we could get. Without Larger Than Life, your generosity and help, we wouldn’t be able to make it. The Larger Than Life dream trip gave May hope and the best friends ever.”

The event raised more than $1 million, including $2,000 raised by the youths themselves.

Ayala Or-El, Contributing Writer

Zhenya Gershman, ‘Larger Than Life’

Although she stands at 5-foot-10, the artist Zhenya Gershman is not imposing. Her canvases, on the other hand, are grand, standing up to 7 feet tall, befitting their subjects: actors, musicians and celebrities who very much live up to their billing in the aptly titled new exhibition “Larger Than Life.”

The faces adorning the walls at the Bergamot Station Arts Center’s Building Bridges Art Exchange in Santa Monica should be recognizable, so much so that each portrait carries only a first name. But as intimidating as it might be initially to be stared down by a billboard-sized rendering of Jack (as in Nicholson), Bryan (as in Cranston) or Sting, the artist’s intention is to draw the viewer in, not push him away. 

“I have been this height since I was like 12 years old, so I’m very conscious of my body as an artist, and I can only paint big,” the Moscow-born Gershman said during an interview at her home studio in Brentwood. “I always felt comfortable where my body fits into the work of art in a way that I can feel like I can walk into it. I have always wanted people to be able to relate physically to the works of art.”

As is the case with so much of Gershman’s work, the exhibition contains a significant tie to the artist’s family history. One hundred years ago, her great-grandfather operated photography services in Russia that advertised “portraits up to life-size with negatives carefully preserved for re-prints.” To create the “Larger than Life” works, she began not with a living model, but with a photograph. (For the celebrities, Gershman also studied interviews, films and performances. Her research time often took far more time than the actual painting.) 

Gershman’s grandfather, Mikhail Lvovich Matusovsky, was a celebrated poet and composer in Russia who wrote — among other things — the well-known song “Moscow Nights.” Because his circle of friends included multiple celebrities, the young Zhenya considered them “just older people, part of my family.”

In her professional life, Gershman has met her share of celebrities, some of whom have commissioned portraits. For the past three years, she has created portraits to honor the Grammy MusiCares Person of the Year. This year’s item, a guitar featuring the eyes of MusiCares honoree Bob Dylan, was signed by all of the performers who participated at the MusiCares gala and then auctioned off. Proceeds benefit people in the music industry who have fallen on hard times. 

Whether or not Gershman has met her subject in person, by the time the subjects hit her canvas, Gershman hopes these individuals have become part of her — and her viewer’s — family.

“The idea with these particular iconic faces is to break the ice, break the boundary and make them feel that in some strange ways, they reflect who we are,” Gershman said. “We are learning more about ourselves, so it’s no longer that distance, but what memories and associations come for you. So that face is part of your history.”

Anna Dusi, curator of “Larger than Life” agrees.

“The ‘portrait’ becomes a conceptual device through which the artist also looks at her own self. It is not just the mere picture of a celebrity but a visceral and psychoanalytic interpretation of selfhood,” Dusi wrote in her curator notes. 

“In a way, they’re all self-portraits,” Gershman agreed. “Even Clint Eastwood.” 

The exhibition’s only two women are not celebrities, but they are certainly larger-than-life figures in their importance to Gershman: the artist’s 7-year-old daughter Nikka and her 97-year old grandmother, Evguenia Matusovskaya, after whom Gershman was named and the subject of a previous Gershman exhibition titled “Baba.”  

In the portrait “Secret” in “Larger than Life,” Nikka is whispering in the ear of her great-grandmother. The moment was inspired by an actual encounter that followed Baba’s return from the hospital. 

“My daughter was very nervous and so excited for her to come back, and they just reconnected and had this miraculous moment,” Gershman recalled. “I had my iPhone, and I took a quick photo. I witnessed this little secret of these four generations between being passed and I wanted to paint it. I’m really excited to have it in the exhibition.”

Gershman created her first work of art — a portrait —at the age of 10. She took the red, white and black drawing to her mother, who told her daughter, matter-of-factly, “you are an artist.” The family received informal instruction for the girl from a pair of well-known Russian artists, friends of Gershman’s grandfather who were both in their 70s. They looked like “dinosaurs” to the 10-year-old Zhenya, but they reviewed the girl’s work, praising the elements that they admired rather than denigrating the ones they did not. 

Gershman had her first solo show at 14. When the family immigrated to the United States, their belongings included a blanket, a set of curtains and a suitcase containing Zhenya’s art. She was not quite 15, and soon became the youngest person ever accepted to the Otis College of Art and Design, according to Gershman. Because she was not yet a citizen, Gershman had to wait for a year to enroll in order to qualify for scholarship funds.

As Gershman became an adult, her career blossomed. She earned an MFA from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and worked for 11 years at the Getty Center. She is also the co-founder and president of the nonprofit Project Aesthetics of Western Esotericism that merges magic and art and that looks to explore new dimensions to understanding and experiencing cultural icons of Western European heritage. 

Next up: a spring exhibition at the Los Angeles LGBT Center celebrating Gershman’s more than 10 years collaborating with her longtime muse and model Mark Snyder. The LGBT center also will screen “The Artist’s Model,” a documentary about the Gershman-Snyder collaboration.

Viewers hungry for a sneak preview can see Snyder in the current Bergamot Station exhibition. 

“He is to me what a Hollywood star would be to other people,” Gershman said of Snyder. “He is my larger than life.”

“Larger Than Life” continues through March 21 at the Building Bridges Art Exchange in Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave. Santa Monica, (310) 770-1961.