November 19, 2018

Teens Portray Survivors in ‘Voices of History’

Eli Susman and Eliana Axelrod | Photo courtesy of L.A. Museum of the Holocaust

Admittedly nervous, 16-year-old Eli Susman sat on the steps outside the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills and ate shawarma — his preshow dinner. With minimal acting experience, Susman was tasked with portraying local 91-year-old Holocaust survivor Phil Raucher. 

When the stage lights shone down on Susman, stoic and dressed in all black, he pantomimed the digging of a grave inside a German labor camp. “I had to bury my own father,” he cried out to the dark abyss of seats. Even though he couldn’t see him, Susman knew the real-life Raucher, who actually had to bury his own father while detained at a German labor camp over 75 years ago, was watching him.  

Susman, together with seven other teens ranging in age from 13 to 18, took the stage on July 25 in the culminating performance of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) “Voices of History” program. During the two-week theater workshop, participants wrote and starred in a pair of plays based on the wartime experiences of Raucher and a fellow survivor, 79-year-old Lea Radziner. 

“At first, the idea of playing [Raucher] with him sitting there [in the audience] was intimidating,” Susman said. “But once I started getting into it, I was really able to embrace the role and look past that.” 

During the workshop, the teens took part in acting exercises, played improv games, listened to the stories of the two survivors and then crafted a two-act play under the guidance of their director, Anne Noble, a professional playwright, actor and arts educator hired by LAMOTH. 

Chloe Victoria, 18, is a trained actor who will be studying theater in college this fall and was one of the program’s non-Jewish participants. She has long been interested in Holocaust education and was eager to combine it with her love of performing. 

“It was amazing to get to work with people who are as passionate about listening to survivors’ stories as I am,” she said. “I felt a strong connection with them. Together, we felt it was an honor to stage a play and bring the stories to life.”

Radziner also was in the front row at the Wallis to watch her story unfold. She said when LAMOTH asked her to participate in the project, she was reminded of feelings of insecurity about not being perceived as a “real survivor.” As a young child in the early 1940s, Radziner’s parents had her smuggled via the Dutch underground to an adoptive Christian family in the southern part of the Netherlands. She avoided deportation to a concentration camp, a distinction that she said made her story feel “not needed” and “unimportant” for many years. 

“We have a kid playing the 91-year-old survivor at 16. There’s something special about hearing that story come out of the mouth of a 16-year-old.” — Anne Noble

But after seeing the performance with three generations of family by her side, Radziner was overcome with emotion. “I don’t know if I have words to thank the children and to say how much I admire what they did,” she said. “It helps me see the importance of stories like mine continuing to be told in new ways.”

Wallis Director of Education Mark Slavkin told the Journal, “Sharing the stories of these survivors and empowering youth to share these stories is what we’re all about. It has been a terrific collaboration. It has been nothing short of inspiring.”

For her part, Noble found inspiration in seeing a group of young actors of varying performance backgrounds lean on and learn from one another in forming “a true ensemble. I found that it didn’t matter what experience they had because they were telling the stories from their hearts,” she said. “We have a kid playing the 91-year-old survivor at 16. There’s something special about hearing that story come out of the mouth of a 16-year-old.”

Raucher agreed. “I was emotional,” he said. “He [Susman] is the age I was. I’m sure he was able to identify, to think about what he would’ve done in that situation. I think he did a very good job. They all did.”

‘Filming the Camps’ shows how directors chronicled horrors of WWII

Screenwriter Samuel Fuller’s satchel is part of an exhibition at LAMOTH. Photo by Eric Hall, LAMOTH

In early 2017, when Beth Kean, executive director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in Pan Pacific Park, was booking a new exhibition, “Filming the Camps: John Ford, Samuel Fuller, George Stevens, from Hollywood to Nuremberg,” she could not have imagined that fresh images of neo-Nazis marching would be in many people’s minds when the exhibition would open on Aug. 27.

But confronting was was thought unimaginable and deciding how to document and report it are major elements of what the exhibition is about. On display through April 30, it all comes together to inform and warn.

Just as we might think white supremacists and neo-Nazis marching couldn’t happen here, Kean wants Angelenos to realize, both through the exhibition and the museum’s permanent collection, that World War II “wasn’t just something that happened halfway across the world. It affected the people of Los Angeles.”

Through film footage and interviews of Hollywood directors Stevens, Ford and Fuller at the time the concentration camps were liberated during World War II, the traveling exhibition, which already has been to several cities, documents the extent of the horror of the concentration camps, which many people had trouble accepting as real once the war ended.

With both imagery and highly descriptive captions written by Ivan Moffat, a British screenwriter who settled in Hollywood after the war, we come to understand, just as those who first viewed these images, the meaning of “genocide” — a word coined in the early 1940s by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer — a deliberate mass murder of peoples by their oppressors.

“Having the exhibit at our museum, which focuses on three directors who made their mark in L.A., who enlisted in the U.S. Army and filmed the liberation of the camps, is very relevant, since it fits our theme of highlighting the Los Angeles narrative,” Kean said.

The exhibition’s curator, Christian Delage, a historian and filmmaker who did much of his research in Los Angeles, also emphasized the local connection. “L.A. is very, very far from Germany and Poland, but they made it there,” he said of the directors.

Stevens, known for directing Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in Hollywood musicals, was drafted into the Army and assigned to direct the Special Coverage Unit (SPECOU) of the Allied Expeditionary Force. Tasked with gathering evidence of war crimes, the unit was ordered to collect and record information “in a uniform manner and in a form which will be acceptable in military tribunals or courts,” according to the exhibition text.

The exhibition points out that one of Stevens’ major objectives was “to convince Americans of the authenticity of the evidence gathered by his unit.” To that end, the exhibition includes a number of interviews by Stevens with several survivors of Dachau, shot with a camera with synchronous sound.

A film sequence shot by Stevens in Dachau documents, step by step, how the gas chamber operated: A shot of the metal door with the latch on the outside, then the false shower heads, the vent, the gas pipes leading into the chamber and the control panel.

Another sequence at Dachau, shot by Stevens’ crew and edited by him, shows the condition of the camp at liberation, including a train filled with corpses

In 1945, according to the exhibition text, the footage of Dachau taken by Stevens’ crew appeared in a documentary, “Nazi Concentration Camp,” that was used as evidence of Nazi war crimes during the Nuremberg trials.

Stevens and his group also recorded at Dachau a speech given by Rabbi David Max Eichhorn, one of the first rabbis to enter the camp, to a group of survivors and others.

“We know that upon you was centered the venomous hate of power-crazed madmen,” the rabbi said. “In every country where the lamps still burn, Jews and non-Jews alike will expend as much time and energy and money as is needed to make good the pledge which is written in our holy Torah … ‘You shall go out with joy, and be led forth in peace.’ ”

“For me, it was very moving to listen to the speech by the rabbi,” Delage said. “He was pushing them toward life again.”

Ford, who already had won an Academy Award for best director for “The Grapes of Wrath” in 1940, headed the Field Photographic Branch, a special unit of the Office of the Coordinator of Information of the U.S., responsible for producing such films as “December 7th” and “Midway,” for which he won an Academy Award for best documentary. He and his crew filmed the liberation of Dachau. (Ford and Stevens are two of five Hollywood filmmakers featured in the 2014 book and 2017 Netflix documentary, “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War.”)

Fuller comes into the picture in a different way. A former crime reporter for the tabloid press, he became a scriptwriter. In 1942, he joined the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, which was nicknamed “The Big Red One.” Shooting with a camera he asked his mother to send from home, Fuller, who later would direct such films as “Verboten!” and “The Crimson Kimono,” used it to film the liberation of the Falkenau concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.

The exhibition also features a display of Fuller-related artifacts, made available by Christine Fuller, the director’s widow, and Samantha Fuller, his daughter, who live in Los Angeles. Among them are the camera Fuller used at Falkenau, a canvas satchel on which he doodled, his helmet, the Silver Star he was awarded by Congress and a Red Cross request form that says, “Cigars Please.”

A visitor to the exhibition may wonder after examining the frames documenting the unthinkable: How were these men able to do their  work day after day? Ford and Fuller, Delage said, “were soldiers — that helped them to resist the primary emotion. The fact that they were used to the violence of the war helped them to deal with the vision of the camps.”

“For Stevens, it’s a little different” Delage said. “He was coming from a world of musicals and comedies.  I think he was really affected.”

In terms of a point of view, Delage believes what you can see in the exhibition is “how they tried to keep a good distance. Not too far or too close.” The directors were trying to gather evidence that would bear scrutiny “and not just to shock people.”

LAMOTH’s Kean, a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, said she hopes young people, like those she saw in the coverage of the recent events in Charlottesville, Va., take notice of the shocking nature of the exhibition. 

“We have a sense of urgency now,” she said.

LAMOTH makes Holocaust personal with ‘Names Instead of Numbers’

Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust

In early 1945, when a Russian-Jewish soldier rode in on horseback to help liberate Auschwitz-Birkenau, 21-year-old Renee Firestone was there, barely alive. Her mother and sister, victims of Nazi atrocities, weren’t so lucky. With odds heavily stacked against her, Firestone began life anew.

“Without a penny in my pocket, not even underwear, wooden Dutch clogs on my feet, emaciated and with my shaved head, I re-entered the world, the same world that put me in [Auschwitz] 14 months ago,” Firestone, now 92, said, addressing a crowd of nearly 800 at Pan Pacific Park as part of the 25th annual Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) Yom HaShoah commemoration on April 23.

“How does one become a human again?” Firestone asked, as the audience, which included 50 other Holocaust survivors, sat in silence.

Universal lessons of shared humanity was a prominent theme as survivors, community leaders and special guests honored the 6 million Jews lost in the Holocaust.

One of the featured survivor artists was 87-year-old Eva Zuckerman-Warner, who spoke to a small group that included her grandson Jerry. As a young girl who designed clothes for her own dolls, Zuckerman-Warner longed to attend art school. Hungarian anti-Jewish laws prevented her from doing so.

“I think I was born without a left brain,” she joked. “I only got the right brain. I’ve always been this way.”

Zuckerman-Warner sat beside one of her 20 sculptures, a life-size clay-molded face with a gaping mouth crying out in agony. She said the work is a tribute to the nameless, faceless Jews who perished in the concentration camps, an example of how the tragedies of her past dominate her work and often help her cope.

“For me, art is a way to reflect on the trauma of the Holocaust, the horrors I experienced,” she said. “This came from my heart. I wear my heart on the outside.”

Guests were invited to visit a new international traveling exhibition, “Names Instead of Numbers.” An in-depth look inside Dachau concentration camp, it features artifacts, letters, photographs and personal testimonies both from LAMOTH’s collection and from the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site in Germany.

“What’s really unique about this exhibit is that it shows the personal experiences of people who were persecuted by the Nazis,” Jordanna Gessler, LAMOTH’s director of education, told the Journal. “Each part of the exhibition is curated to highlight these individual stories.”

One of those individual stories is that of a young Polish man identified on a dilapidated, 1948-issue German driver’s license as Idel Aleksander. After his liberation from Dachau, he drove around Germany looking for surviving family members. He found none. Now 94, Joseph Alexander stared at his old driver’s license on display.

“I like that it’s here. I like that people will see it,” Alexander said. “It’s important that we share personal stories like mine in this way. There are still deniers out there in the world. I’m the living proof; so are these documents. People need to know these things happened to me. We have to keep talking about it.”

Paul Nussbaum, president of LAMOTH and a child of Holocaust survivors, opened the ceremony by reading aloud a letter sent by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. He then delivered a fiery speech in which he spoke not just of a need to look back into tragic parts of history like the Holocaust, but also to recognize similar historical patterns forming today.

“We must bear witness now, because as I look across the landscape of Europe, Great Britain and — shamefully, I must admit — our beloved United States, the seeds of otherness have sprouted and are being fertilized by the sowers of hate, fear and intolerance,” he said.

John Emerson, the U.S. ambassador to Germany from 2013 until early this year, and his wife, Kimberly Emerson, a lawyer and human rights activist who now sits on the board of Human Rights Watch, served as keynote speakers. Both touched on the importance of Holocaust education to prompt change in future generations and to eradicate genocide in all forms. John Emerson made his point by illustrating the difference between history and memory.

“Historians conduct research, they fix dates and interpret the significance of events,” he said. “But memories are kept alive through storytelling, through teaching, sensitive writing, commemorations, even judicial proceedings, and especially at places such as this that are devoted to preserving survivors’ stories.”

Pairs of survivors and young grandchildren lit commemorative candles. A quartet of teenage classical musicians from Los Angeles County High School for the Arts performed “Tracks,” a melancholic composition written by Noah Daniel, a Milken Community Schools student. Alyssa Jaffe, a Santa Monica High School student, sang the U.S. national anthem and “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem. A delegation from the Knesset looked on.

In her speech, Israel’s minister for social equality, Gila Gamliel, said, “The difference between today and some 75 years ago is that today we have a strong State of Israel. This is our pledge. This is our bond. This is our unbreakable link. This is our ‘never again.’ ”

Firestone plays her part by traveling the globe as a public speaker. She told the crowd she felt compelled to take control over the tragedies of her past by sharing her story. A longtime Los Angeles-based fashion designer, she capped her speech by offering advice and hope.

“To parents, I say speak to your children and teach them to respect each other and help each other,” she said. “To the schoolteachers, on the other hand, I tell them to tell their students to put their cellphones in their pockets. This way, they may just find out that most of them want to live in peace, and by learning to respect and care for each other, maybe — maybe — we can make that happen.” n

High school pupils enact scenes from survivor stories

Santa Monica High School students act out a scene from Erika Fabian’s story on March 22. Photo by Eitan Arom.

“David Lenga?”

Gavin Graham, 17, stood up.

“I am David,” he said.

The other student, playing a Nazi trooper — a tall, bespectacled girl in an overcoat with a felt swastika band around the upper arm — looked him over.

“Run,” she said. “Just run and don’t come back.”

It would have been a tense scene to act out in any theater — perhaps the most fraught moment in the Holocaust story of a man who never saw his younger brother again after being sent away, mysteriously, miraculously, from the deportation center where they were being held.

But the scene was made all the more nerve-racking for the teenagers bringing it to life due to the fact that there, in the second row, among the almost 150 who gathered in the theater of the Santa Monica High School (Samohi) Humanities Center to watch the show, sat David Lenga, in the flesh.

“It was definitely a ton of pressure,” Graham said after the show.

The “Voices of Survivors” performance on March 22, the first of its kind in Los Angeles, was the culmination of an eight-week collaboration between Samohi’s theater department and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH). The project paired four Holocaust survivors with groups of students who acted out scenes from their harrowing stories of survival.

“It was heart-wrenching,” said Lenga, a spry 89, of watching his story performed. “When I saw it depicted here, it really all came back.”

But he said it was worth it, for the sake of teaching the students to be vigilant against the creeping signs of dictatorship and tyranny even in the modern age. And in the end, despite the minimal props and stage elements and the students’ lack of acting experience, he felt they did well.

“I had my doubts they could carry it out, because it’s so difficult and so wrenching,” he said, holding a bouquet of flowers they presented to him after taking their final bow. “But they really did a good job. They really did.”

Preparation began eight weeks earlier when the 35 students in Samohi’s introductory acting class, most of whom are  not Jewish, visited the museum to learn about the Holocaust and how to interview survivors. The following week, over three days, they met with the four survivors — Lenga, Avraham Perlmutter, Edith Frankie and Erika Fabian — to hear  their accounts.

“As a high school teacher, I very rarely see that kind of silence from students,” Samohi theater director Kate Barraza said of the encounter.

LAMOTH furnished educational material while a mentor from Writer’s Room  Productions, a writing education organization, assisted each of the four groups in scripting their scenes. Students wrote, directed and eventually performed each story, handling the details down to lighting
and sound.

“It really came entirely from the students’ hearts,” LAMOTH creative programs director Rachel Fidler, who headed up the museum’s participation, said at the event.

The performances drew on some of the more tense scenes from each survivor’s account, such as Fabian unsuccessfully trying to cross the border from communist  Czechoslovakia into Austria after World War II with her mother and sister, and Perlmutter jumping from a moving van to escape Nazi captivity.

The program was meant to have students not just hear from survivors but also engage with their stories.

“You can see the numbers and the pictures, but to have the guy in front of you that it happened to — that’s really an experience,” Graham said.

Frankie, 85, is so used to telling her tale to students and other groups, that it didn’t faze her to see it performed.

“It was pretty true to my story,” she said of the performance.

Clutching the bouquet the student performers had presented to her, she sat outside the theater with LAMOTH special projects coordinator Michael Morgenstern dutifully manning her wheelchair as she waited for her son to drive her home.

“I always say, ‘If I touched only one student with my story, then I did my  purpose.’”

Moving and Shaking: VBS students dance, ADL honors law enforcement, new leadership at LAMOTH

Orly Star Setareh (far right), a dance specialist, leads VBS students in dance at The Music Center. Photo courtesy of the Music Center.

About 40 Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) Day School fifth-graders were among the 18,000 elementary school students who participated in the 47th annual Blue Ribbon Children’s Festival, a free arts education initiative held Feb. 28 at The Music Center in downtown Los Angeles.

Nancy Herbst, director of general studies at the day school, was among the adults accompanying the VBS students, who attended a performance by the Ailey II dance company in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion before they performed a synchronized dance inspired by Ailey II in The Music Center plaza.

Blue Ribbon is the self-described “premier women’s support organization of The Music Center.”

The Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Helene & Joseph Sherwood Prize for Combating Hate luncheon and awards ceremony was held March 14 at the Skirball Cultural Center.

The event honored law enforcement officials who have played a role in fighting hate in Southern California.

Among the honorees were Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Yadira Perez, who helped apprehend an arsonist responsible for setting a mosque ablaze in Coachella in December 2015, and Cindy Cipriani, senior management counsel and director of community outreach in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California, who “has dedicated her life’s work to advancing the values of unity and understanding with humility and compassion,” the ADL statement said.

Perez recalled her decision to pursue the arsonist after spotting him while off-duty: “At that point,” she said, “I felt the risk to public safety outweighed the risk of me catching him.”

LAPD and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigators and L.A. city attorneys, who were honored for their takedown of a white supremacist gang in the San Fernando Valley, come together with Joseph Sherwood (seated, front row) and his son, Howard (crouching, far right) at the Anti-Defamation League’s Helene & Joseph Sherwood Prize for Combating Hate luncheon and awards event.

LAPD and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigators and L.A. city attorneys, who were honored for their takedown of a white supremacist gang in the San Fernando Valley, come together with Joseph Sherwood (seated, front row) and his son, Howard (crouching, far right) at the Anti-Defamation League’s Helene & Joseph Sherwood Prize for Combating Hate luncheon and awards event.

The fire at the mosque was seen as a vengeful reaction to the killing of 14 people and wounding of 22 earlier that month at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino by perpetrators who claimed terrorist allegiances.

In addition, the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Division, its Orange County Resident Agency, the Orange County Intelligence Assessment Center and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California were honored as a group for thwarting “two Anaheim individuals planning to travel to Syria and fight for ISIS,” the ADL said. One of the individuals had planned to fly from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv to join terrorist fighters in the Middle East.

The event’s additional group honoree was the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ L.A. field division, the L.A. City Attorney’s Office and the Los Angeles Police Department’s Major Crimes Division, which were honored for removing a “stronghold of San Fernando Valley Peckerwoods, a white supremacist gang,” the ADL said.

The more than 250 attendees included Ayelet Feiman, an L.A. city attorney prosecutor who was honored with the Sherwood Prize in 2013 for her efforts on a case involving swastikas drawn in maple syrup outside the home of a Jewish family in Northridge; Joseph Sherwood and his son, Howard; ADL Regional Director Amanda Susskind; L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell and others.

The event also celebrated Joseph Sherwood’s 100th birthday, on March 12.

The Sherwood family launched the prize in 1996 as a way to bring attention to the positive contributions of law enforcement.

From left: Former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Michael Tuchin, Richard Pachulski and Patricia Glaser attend the American Friends of Hebrew University Torch of Learning Award Dinner, which honored Tuchin and Pachulski. Photo courtesy of AFHU.

From left: Former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Michael Tuchin, Richard Pachulski and Patricia Glaser attend the American Friends of Hebrew University Torch of Learning Award Dinner, which honored Tuchin and Pachulski. Photo courtesy of AFHU.

The March 1 American Friends of Hebrew University (AFHU) Harvey L. Silbert Torch of Learning Award Dinner at the Beverly Hilton honored Richard Pachulski, a corporate restructuring attorney, and Michael L. Tuchin, a founding member and co-manager of Klee, Tuchin, Bogdanoff & Stern.

Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, who often writes about events pertaining to Israel and has spoken out against President Donald Trump despite being a conservative, was the guest speaker. He discussed what makes America great, noting the disproportionate number of Nobel Prize winners who are Americans, many of whom are immigrants. Additionally, he said HU, with its diverse student population of Arab, secular and religious students, embodies what is best about Israel.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is described by an AFHU press release as “the honorees’ longtime friend,” presented Pachulski and Tuchin with their awards.

The event raised $1.2 million for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Faculty of Law.

Attendees included Patricia Glaser, event chair and the AFHU western region vice chair; Michael Karayanni, dean of the Hebrew University Faculty of Law; Richard Ziman, vice chairman of the AFHU board of directors; and Brindell Gottlieb, president of AFHU’s western region.

AFHU raises awareness of and support for Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

From left: Cedars-Sinai Dr. Shlomo Melmed, Isabelle Szneer and Cedars-Sinai Dr. Charles Simmons commemorate Szneer’s donation to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Photo courtesy of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

From left: Cedars-Sinai Dr. Shlomo Melmed, Isabelle Szneer and Cedars-Sinai Dr. Charles Simmons commemorate Szneer’s donation to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Photo courtesy of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

The family of the late Leopold Szneer, a German-Jewish Holocaust survivor and former Congregation Mogen David cantor, has provided a $250,000 gift to the Cedars-Sinai Pediatric Inflammatory Bowel Disease program.

A dedication and luncheon to celebrate the donation, given in Szneer’s memory and in the memory of the 1.5 million children who perished during the Holocaust, was held Jan. 17 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Szneer, who died in 2016, was imprisoned in Dachau during the Shoah, fled on the Kindertransport to Belgium in 1938 and experienced numerous challenges before immigrating to Los Angeles in the 1950s.

He went on to serve as a cantor, his longtime dream, at Congregation Mogen David in Pico-Robertson, for more than 20 years.

Isabelle Szneer, his wife since 1947 and also a Holocaust survivor, provided the gift in her husband’s memory. “He was a much loved man in the city,” she said.

Attendees at the event included Congregation Mogen David Rabbi Gabriel Elias; Dr. Shlomo Melmed, executive vice president of academic affairs at Cedars-Sinai; and Dr. Charles Simmons, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Cedars-Sinai.

Beth Kean

Beth Kean

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), which describes itself as the oldest survivor-founded Holocaust museum in the country, has named Beth Kean its executive director and Paul Nussbaum its president, according to a March 14 announcement.

Kean, who became the museum’s president in January 2016, had also been serving as interim executive director since November, following the departure of the museum’s previous executive director, Samara Hutman. Nussbaum previously served as the museum’s treasurer. Jamie Rosenblood, a current board member at LAMOTH and museum docent who has a background in finance, is succeeding Nussbaum in that role. 

Paul Nussbaum

Paul Nussbaum

The leadership transition is part of “an unprecedented five-year plan to expand [the museum’s] mission of teaching the dangers of genocide and promoting empathy, tolerance and understanding through history, shared knowledge, and personal experience,” the announcement says.

Kean, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, has been involved in various leadership roles on the museum’s board for more than a decade. Her husband, Jon, is a filmmaker whose work includes the documentary films “Swimming in Auschwitz” and “After Auschwitz.”

“The relevance and urgency of our mission has never been more critical than it is in today’s environment,” Kean said in the announcement. “We are creating a strategic plan that will ensure that we continue to provide free educational programming, opportunities for dialogue with Holocaust survivors, and substantially grow our audience while teaching them the relevance of becoming stewards of this important history.”

The museum expects to draw more than 60,000 visitors in 2017, an increase from the 48,000 visitors it had in 2016, according to the announcement.

In the announcement, Nussbaum, the son of Holocaust survivors, expressed optimism about the museum’s continued success.

“We’re aware that we’ve become one of the most cherished cultural assets not only in Los Angeles but in the country,” Nussbaum said. “Our intent now is to establish a roadmap to guide LAMOTH on its journey toward continued growth and awareness.”

From left: Rabbis Elie Spitz, Naomi Levy, Stewart Vogel and Reuven Taff — all of California — received honorary doctorates from Jewish Theological Seminary. Photo by Jewish Journal Staff.

From left: Rabbis Elie Spitz, Naomi Levy, Stewart Vogel and Reuven Taff — all of California — received honorary doctorates from Jewish Theological Seminary. Photo by Jewish Journal Staff.

During a March 2 ceremony at Sutton Place Synagogue in Manhattan, New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) awarded honorary doctorates of divinity degrees to 55 rabbis, including five California rabbis, all of whom are members of the Rabbinic Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis.

The honorees have served the Jewish community for 25 years or more, on the pulpit, in the classroom and elsewhere.

The local rabbis were Elie Spitz of Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin, who was ordained at JTS in 1988; Naomi Levy of Nashuva in Los Angeles, who was a member of the first class of women to attend JTS’s rabbinical school, in 1984; Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, who was ordained in 1988; Neal Scheindlin of Milken Community Schools in Los Angeles, who was ordained in 1986; and Reuven Taff of Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento, who studied at JTS and was ordained in 1988 at a seminary in Israel.

Levy gave remarks on behalf of those being honored.

— Jewish Journal Staff

CORRECTION – 3/28/17: The original version of this story misidentified Orly Star Setareh.

Calendar: March 17-23, 2017

Scene from "Settlers" premiering March 17 at the Laemmle Theaters.



This documentary by Shimon Dotan offers a provocative look at the controversial Israeli settlement movement. Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and West Bank during the Six-Day War. The hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have moved into the West Bank have made reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians much more complex. “The Settlers” examines residents ranging from opportunistic families seeking less costly living conditions to Western-style hippies, messianic religious extremists to idealistic farmers, settler “patriarchs” to new converts. Israeli intellectuals, politicians and academicians weigh in on the issues. Laemmle’s Monica Film Center, 1332 Second St., Santa Monica. (310) 394-9744.


The Young Jewish Professionals of Los Angeles presents an opportunity to connect with a diverse group of 100 career-minded peers while enjoying a four-course meal and open bar. Hosted by Mendel and Rachey Simons. 6:30 p.m. $60; tickets available at; no tickets at the door. Shefa Melrose, 7275 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles.



The JFed Players Community Theater Ensemble presents “Curtains,” the final collaboration between Kander and Ebb, creators of “Cabaret” and “Chicago.” Set in 1959, this clever musical features murder, music, mystery, comedy and romance. 8 p.m.  $25; discounts available. Tickets available at Through March 26 on select dates. The Clarke Center, 401 Rolyn Place, Arcadia. (626) 445-0810.



The Conejo Valley Chapter of the Brandeis National Committee presents “Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction.” Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman will discuss in detail the case of serial killer Lonnie Franklin, known as the Grim Sleeper, who was charged with the murder of 10 women from 1985 to 2007. This well-publicized trial concluded in May 2016. 1 p.m. $20; $22 at the door. RSVP to Jessie: or Frona: Temple Etz Chaim, 1080 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks.


Join Young Adults of Los Angeles’ post-undergrads (ages 22-26) for a 90-minute introductory course on the Israeli self-defense techniques of krav maga. 1:30 p.m. $10; ticket sales close at noon March 17; no tickets available at the door. Krav Maga Worldwide, 11400 Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles.


Greek poet and Holocaust survivor Iossif Ventura is one of the last members of the Jewish community in Crete. Ventura survived World War II as a child in hiding and has used poetry to transform his trauma into words. He has published six books of poetry and his works have been translated into six languages. 3 p.m. Free. RSVP to Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, 100 S. The Grove Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 651-3704.


cal-korzenComedian Annie Korzen returns to the Whizin Center stage. Q-and-A to follow. 5 p.m. $25. American Jewish University, Familian Campus, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-1572.


Leading cantors from across Los Angeles will perform in a concert to benefit the next generation of Southern California cantors. Proceeds from the Cantors Benefit Concert will fund scholarships for cantorial students at the Miller School of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. Featured cantors include  Nathan Lam, Marcus Feldman, Lisa Peicott, Don Gurney, Seth Ettinger, Phil Baron, Hillary Chorny, Judy Dubin Aranoff, Ira S. Bigeleisen and Alexander Berkovich. 7 p.m. Tickets start at $25. Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 766-9426.



Join Temple Menorah and the Islamic Center of the South Bay for a Women’s Freedom Seder. Learn how the Exodus is understood in different faiths and how that message teaches the value of freedom. Come with your focus on unity, tolerance and respect for all faiths and people, and to promote freedom. 7 p.m. $25. Temple Menorah, 1101 Camino Real, Redondo Beach. (310) 316-8444.


cal-snyderTimothy Snyder, the Bird White Housum Professor of History at Yale, is an expert on 20th-century European history. Snyder warns us that in the 1920s and ’30s, many European democracies didn’t believe their countries ever could succumb to Nazism, facism or communism. He wrote a practical handbook called “On Tyranny,” a guide to knowing the signs of authoritarianism. “On Tyranny” provides 20 tips on preserving our freedom. Snyder will be in conversation with Jonathan Kirsch, author, attorney and the book editor of the Jewish Journal. 7:30 p.m. $20. Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills.



Enjoy an evening of original student theater based on the life stories of four Holocaust survivors. The performance is the culmination of an eight-week collaborative project between the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and Santa Monica High School’s theater department. The students in Santa Monica’s acting class participated in the museum’s “Voices of History” theater workshop, learning about the Holocaust, interviewing survivors and working with mentors to write, direct and stage the event. 7 p.m. Suggested donation: $10; $5 for students. Santa Monica High School, 601 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. (323) 651-3704.



Presented by the Whizin Center and University Women: Coffee & Conversation, author Susan Silverman will discuss her book “Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World.” Silverman, the older sister of irreverent comic Sarah Silverman, grew up with parents who were atheists. She shocked everyone when she became a rabbi and moved to Israel. The author will discuss her funny and moving memoir about her unique family that will resonate with anyone who has struggled to find a place in the world and to understand the significance of that place. Silverman will be joined by Jewish Journal columnist Danielle Berrin. 7:30 p.m. Free. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles.


Israeli television icon Assi Azar will give a motivational presentation in Hebrew. 8 p.m. $25. IAC Shepher Community Center, 6530 Winnetka Ave., Woodland Hills. (818) 451-1179.


Young professionals in every field are invited to the annual Emet After Party, featuring an appearance by honoree Albert Z. Praw. Emet, which means “truth” in Hebrew, is an active community of Jewish attorneys and other legal professionals in their 20s and 30s. 9 p.m. $30; $40 at the door; free with the purchase of ticket to the Legal Division Dinner. Business attire. The Beverly Wilshire Hotel, 9500 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills.

Betty Cohen: At 95, ‘bionic woman’ still going strong

Betty Cohen, a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor, is unsure if all the time she spends telling her story has amounted to anything. 

“Is it worth it, or do I make a fool of myself?” Cohen says at the conclusion of a recent interview in the apartment on Beverly Glen Boulevard that she shares with her daughter, Hedy van der Fluit, and their two dogs, Lady and Ace.

A widow, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, Cohen was born in the Netherlands, interned at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and lost both of her parents to the crematoria. She said she last saw them on May 22, 1944, and has lots of questions for God.

“I ask Him all the time,” she said. “ ‘Why did it happen?’ ”

Cohen has regular speaking engagements at the Museum of Tolerance and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, where her video testimony is featured in the “Tree of Testimony” permanent exhibition.

But that’s not the half of what she’s up to these days. Despite her age, Cohen volunteers every Thursday at the UCLA Medical Center gift shop and has been volunteering at the medical center in some capacity for almost 30 years. It’s one way that she has kept busy, she said, ever since she stopped working for her son’s music retail business 33 years ago at the urging of her children. 

Cohen takes Uber multiple times a day to the various routine destinations in her life, including the medical center and Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Koreatown, where she studies Torah every Saturday morning with her daughter and volunteers every Sunday for the synagogue food bank. 

Her work at the hospital began with spending time with young patients. She recalls bonding with a boy with autism before she left for a visit to Holland. Upon her return, the boy was gone. He had died. 

“He was a sick boy,” she said. Afterward, she decided she did not want to volunteer with child patients anymore, so she started visiting patients just out of surgery. As she grew older, she felt the need to do simpler work, and today she helps in the gift shop. 

Among her responsibilities for the Wilshire Boulevard Temple food bank are picking up day-old bagels from Noah’s Bagels on Larchmont Boulevard — her Uber driver always waits while she retrieves them — and helping to distribute fresh vegetables, potatoes, bread and yogurt to food bank visitors. She said she is grateful to have somewhere to go every Sunday morning and enjoys her relationship with the other volunteers as well as the regular guests at the food bank.

She goes most places by Uber and sits in the front passenger seat, a chance to get to know her drivers. Just back from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where she related her survivor story to a group of 35 law enforcement officials, she said the Uber driver who brought her home was a young Israeli man who wanted to take her to Las Vegas. 

The sprightly Cohen exercises regularly at the senior center in Culver City, despite having a pacemaker, hearing aids and two new hips. She calls herself the “bionic woman” and says she talks to God every night — that she is ready to go as soon as He’ll have her.

Her daughter and roommate, who is a high school teacher, says no one is more deserving than her mother of being recognized for good deeds in the local community.

“She’s one of a kind,” she said.

Moving and Shaking: ‘Laughing Matters’ fundraiser, Nick Mermell retires and more

Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles’ fifth annual “Laughing Matters” event on Nov. 1 at the Laugh Factory on the Sunset Strip raised nearly $70,000 for the agency’s efforts to assist homeless families as well as battered women and their children.

Performers included comedienne Rita Rudner, a regular on the Las Vegas circuit; comedian Michael Kosta; and 14-year-old Southern California singer-songwriter Molly Bergman.

In a joint statement, event co-chairs Linda Levine and Wendy Silver described the evening as a success: “We are grateful to everyone who supported ‘Laughing Matters’ not only to see a great comedy show, but to help survivors of domestic violence.”

Rosenfeld meet in front of Chabad of Beverly Hills. Photo courtesy of Sinai Temple

When Nick Mermell retired after four decades at Sinai Temple, this is how he did it: He came to my office and handed me a note. It read: “Moses served forty years and so have I. Thank you and Sinai for everything.” Then Mermell, who at 89 was Sinai’s longest-serving and oldest employee, left without allowing even a farewell party, slipping quietly into his home life with Margaret.

That combination of modesty and humor explains why, each year, Evan Schlessinger organizes a group from the Sinai minyan to make an annual pilgrimage to Chabad of Beverly Hills to daven with Mr. Mermell and take him to breakfast. Now 97 years old, celebrating 66 years with Margaret, this survivor of several camps is still vigorous and funny. He was born in Munkatch, in Czechoslovakia, and was taken by the Nazis for two years, mostly digging trenches before being liberated by the Russians.

The most painful memory of that entire time, he told me, was “coming home and seeing an empty house.” His parents and siblings were murdered, except for one sister who died a few weeks ago at 100 years of age.

Mermell first went to Israel, then Canada and finally to Los Angeles, where he applied for the job of shammes, or ritual director, at Sinai. Also certified in air-conditioning repair, for some years he did both jobs.

Mermell brought a friendly but also formal touch to the minyan, and was deeply loved. I remember the first day I came there in my shirt and tie. “Rabbi, did you leave your jacket in the car?” he asked. No, I answered, it is in my office. “May I get it for you?” I got my jacket and wore it to every minyan with Mr. Mermell from that day forward.

He still goes to minyan every morning, but now it is closer to where he lives, at Chabad of Beverly Hills. There, Rabbi Yosef Shusterman greeted us all and with a smile explained, “These are the bodyguards from Sinai for Reb Nick.”

For 40 years as shammes, he taught and comforted and was a symbol of our shul. For a generation, “minyan” meant Mermell. We remember very well, and are very grateful.

—Rabbi David Wolpe, Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple 

Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust President Beth Kean (second from left) is also serving as the museum’s interim executive director until a permanent executive director is hired. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust

​Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust President Beth Kean has been appointed interim executive director of the museum in the wake of the departure of Samara Hutman, who was hired as executive director in 2013.

“Ms. Hutman is leaving the museum and returning to the Remember Us organization where she served as executive director before joining LAMOTH three years ago,” an Oct. 31 statement on the LAMOTH website says.

Hutman told the Journal: “I’m really, really excited to be reconnecting with the core work of Remember Us, because that’s my love.” 

Kean, a third-generation Holocaust survivor, has been serving as interim executive director since August. She said the work of the museum would not be affected as its leadership conducts a search for a permanent executive director.

“Our mission is still the same: commemoration and education about the Holocaust, providing free Holocaust education to all our visitors and thousands of students who come through,” Kean said. “We have a rich collection of artifacts and a variety of programs we offer to a very diverse group of students. In that sense, nothing has changed.”

From left: Michelle Moreh, director of academic affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles; gap year fair student speaker Ethan Youssefzadeh; Ron Krudo, executive director of campus affairs at Stand With Us; Phyllis Folb, executive director of the American Israel Gap Year Association; and student speakers Aliza Benporat and Sarah Katchen.The American Israel Gap Year Association (AIGYA) held its fourth annual Los Angeles Israel Gap Year Fair at B’nai David-Judea on Nov. 17. The fair is sponsored by Masa Israel Journey and endorsed by the American GAP Association. Photo courtesy of American Israel Gap Year Association

More than 400 public- and private-school students and parents from across the denominational spectrum attended the event, which featured more than 50 Israel program representatives of a variety of gap year cultural and educational experiences.

The gap year, also known as the “bridge year,” is the year between the completion of high school and the first year of college.

“The goal of AIGYA is to advocate for the gap year to be reidentified as a ‘bridge’ and solidifying factor of the student’s post-secondary-school Jewish education. Experiencing Israel’s strength and challenges as a resident, not just as a tourist, builds a deep relationship to Israel and one’s Jewish identity,” AIGYA Executive Director Phyllis Folb said.

Folb explained that colleges are starting to encourage students to take a gap year as it makes them more likely to finish college in four years, more likely to stay at the same school at which they begin their collegiate career and more likely to achieve overall levels of academic success.

“It’s really exciting,” Folb said. “There are countless programs for these students to choose from, from traditional learning to internships, to arts programs and army service programs. It allows them to find their own niche and take ownership of their Jewish identity in both traditional and nontraditional ways.”

— Julie Bien, Contributing Writer

Moving and Shaking: LAMOTH fundraiser, Hummus Festival, Israel-Asia Community Summit and more

About 600 supporters of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) attended its annual fundraiser Nov. 6 at the Beverly Wilshire hotel, which honored deceased Holocaust survivor Jona Goldrich and film producer Gary Foster for his film “Denial.”

Historian Deborah Lipstadt — the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, and author of the book “History on Trial: My Day in Court With a Holocaust Denier,” upon which “Denial” is based — was the guest of honor and presented Foster with his award.

“When I learned that David Irving, the leading Holocaust denier, was suing me for libel, my first reaction was to laugh,” Lipstadt said. “This was a guy who claimed more people died in Sen. Ted Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than in the Holocaust. But the burden of proof was on me to prove the truth of what I [wrote], and we did that. The man was left destroyed, and much of the foundation of hardcore Holocaust denial was destroyed too.”

In accepting his award, Foster said he was inspired to make a film about Holocaust denial after hearing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then president of Iran, publicly deny the Holocaust. Foster began researching the topic and happened upon Lipstadt and her book, “History on Trial,” pretty much by accident. Once he discovered Lipstadt, he said, he knew he had to turn her story into a movie.

Lipstadt said she was skeptical: “I told him, ‘I’m ready to sign [the film contract] but you’ve got to understand this story is about truth. This movie has got to be accurate.’ ”

From left: Israeli American Council Los Angeles co-chair Tamir Cohen, Beverly Hills Vice Mayor Nancy Krasne, Beverly Hills Recreation and Parks Commissioner Frances Bilak and Maya Kadosh, consul for public diplomacy, culture, media and public affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles served as judges at the Hummus Festival. Courtesy of the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles

Despite sporadic rainfall, nearly 300 individuals crowded the Beverly Hills Farmers’ Market on Oct. 30 for the inaugural Hummus Festival. The goal was to not only indulge in the popular Middle Eastern dipping sauce but to partake in Israeli food, music and the arts.

The event sponsors included the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, City of Beverly Hills and the Israeli-American Council (IAC).

“This festival is a part of the historic partnership agreement signed last year between the Israeli government and the city of Beverly Hills to increase the cultural exchanges between Israel and the city, as well as offer locals exposure to rich Israeli food, Israeli music, the arts, film and music,” said Maya Kadosh, Israeli Consul for Public Diplomacy, Culture, Media and Public Affairs.

Kadosh and four local culinary experts were on hand to recognize the best-tasting hummus produced from among nearly a dozen local restaurants, food manufacturers and food trucks. It was a tie for first place between Rose Kemp and Rachid Rouhi.

“We thought Beverly Hills would be a natural fit for this event because of the large Jewish population and Israeli population in the city, and when you bring in food and culture to a place like the Farmers’ Market, it is a win-win situation for everyone,” said Dikla Kadosh, senior director for the IAC’s community center and events.

Young children at the festival took part in an Israeli dance competition and families enjoyed a band as well as DJ playing popular Israeli music. Also on hand for the event were local Israeli artists, jewelry makers, clothing vendors and even a booth offering visitors a virtual reality tour of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, using the latest in high-tech Israeli electronic goggles.  

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Masha Loen, the last living founder of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, dies

Masha Loen, the last living founder of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), the oldest Holocaust Museum in the United States, died peacefully in the care of her loving son, David yesterday. She was a champion of LAMOTH since 1961, and a force to be reckoned with.

Mariashka Sapoznikow Loewenberg (she became Masha Loen upon her arrival in America) was born in Lithuania, and loved to tell everyone that a Litvak was an “Emeser Yid” (Real Jew). Her grandfather was a rabbi, and her early childhood warm and safe. After a period in the Ghetto, her family was deported. She survived the infamous Stutthof concentration camp, three additional labor and concentration camps, a death march, and two rounds of typhus (which she jokingly referred to as The Typhuses) before finally being liberated. She was in a pile of dead bodies, but managed to move her arm up and down to signal that she was still alive. She met her husband Cornelius, who was working for the Allies after the war in Germany. He spoke several languages, and was considerably older and more sophisticated. He was smitten the first time he saw her, and she with him. They were married 70 years, and totally devoted to one another. We lost Cornelius several months ago.

I never discovered her true age, but she was “about 70” when I met her 20 years ago working for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now the USC Shoah Foundation). She was an interviewer for the project, and a some-time volunteer at the Foundation’s headquarters in trailers on the back lot at Universal Studios. I was assigned to do quality assurance on a few of her interviews, and we spoke often. When I became the Executive Director of LAMOTH in 2001, I inherited her as my secretary, a term she thought much more glamorous then the word assistant, which she insisted I not use. Masha taught me more about managing people than any advanced degree ever could. She taught me how to dress (“You are my director, look like it!”), how to ask for what I wanted, and how to take a stand for the institution I was charged with running, without fear.

Though she couldn’t type, use the computer, and often could not tell the difference between the fax machine and the printer (“But it’s coming out like a fax” she used to yell at me daily), she was by far the most tenacious, loyal and brazen employee I will ever have. Masha’s passion for the Museum knew no bounds. I witnessed her confront wealthy philanthropists fearlessly, once tearing what she considered a measly donation check to her beloved institution in half. “You can do better than that” she said, looking the donor square in the eye. “Double it and bring it back tomorrow!” He did. She worked tirelessly for the Federation for a myriad of Survivor causes in Los Angeles over the years, as a lay member and on the payroll when the Museum was an agency of Federation. She felt betrayed when the then-leadership of the Federation tried to shut her Museum down. She wasn’t afraid to confront this upsetting issue, once pointing her finger in the face of the CEO at the time, and telling him he should be ashamed of himself. She was right.

Her sense of humor, like her tenacity, also knew no bounds. Once, when we attended the Remembrance Ceremony at the Lodzer synagogue, a couple who had received honorary doctorates at an Israeli University was called forth as Dr. and Dr., to light a candle. In what can only be described as the loudest stage whisper in history, she tartly noted “So if I was a millionairess, I should be Dr. Masha Loen.” But her true gift was talking to children who came to the Museum about the Holocaust, meeting each child on their own level. She shared her story, and the story of each artifact in the Museum, including the last photo of her mother ever taken, holding her infant sister. Children loved her, their parents and teachers loved her, and we would often get requests from all over the Southland requesting that Masha be at the Museum when they returned.

You probably had never heard of Masha. She wasn’t wealthy, or scholarly, or what many in the Jewish community in Los Angeles considered to be an important person. She was however, one of the brave women that helped to build the Jewish community in post-war LA. She owned her own business, raised her (wonderful) son David, and gave her time, her money and her energy to the Survivor community in LA. We are losing our Survivor community is a phrase we all hear regularly from the directors of our organizations. It’s a phrase used as a fundraising tool, or to inspire you to become involved, or to teach, and for a plethora of other reasons, all valid. But these Survivors are not merely living history lessons. They were and are people, with flaws and gifts, who made 20th century Jewish America what it is today. Each loss is profound in a unique sense. They are irreplaceable. Masha is irreplaceable. Years ago, I wrote a piece eulogizing the death of a Survivor and founding member of the LAMOTH board, Freddy Diament z’l. Masha liked what I wrote, and asked me if I would write her eulogy someday. I promised her I would. “Call it Masha’s Eulogy” she told me. “And be sure to write it good!”

Rachel Lithgow is the Executive Director of the American Jewish Historical Society in New York City. From 2001-2007, she was the Director of the LA Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH).

‘Pokémon Go’ capturing Jewish hearts and sites around L.A.

With “Pokémon Go” suddenly a craze across the world, it was only a matter of time before the augmented reality game’s creatures started showing up at Jewish sites across Los Angeles.

The impact was felt almost immediately at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), much to the dismay of the museum’s executive staff. The site was designated a PokeStop, a real-world location incorporated into the gameplay where players can collect items.

“We expressed to the folks at the game company we didn’t think the … museum was an appropriate place for the game to be played out because of the sensitivity of the material being presented and educated,” LAMOTH Executive Director Samara Hutman said in a phone interview. 

But like the rest of the country — the game has been downloaded more than 30 million times in the United States, according to SurveyMonkey Intelligence — Hutman said she’s intrigued by the possibilities such technology presents.A Pidgey, a type of Pokemon, appears outside the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Photo by Joey Schoenberg

“I think if I had to sum it up, I would say we like to think organizationally we retain a curiosity about emergent ways of connections,” she said.

Elsewhere in the city, Pokémon are making their presence felt — from the purple, snake-like Ekans discovered at the Museum of Tolerance, a PokeStop, to the cute, yellow Pikachu who has made appearances at Pan Pacific Park outside LAMOTH, to the wild Mankey this reporter found in his Jewish Journal cubicle. 

A number of local synagogues also serve as PokeStops, including Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Koreatown, Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino and Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills. While this might make visiting temple more attractive to some, the end result might not always be positive.

“It’s become enough of a concern that now we’re going to place a sign out on Shabbat asking people not to play during services,” said Elana Vorspan, director of marketing and communications at VBS. 

She wrote this in an email on July 22 after spotting a Pidgey, a tiny bird Pokémon, in one of the social halls, and a Zubat, a poisonous bat Pokémon, in the hallway.

A Graveler shows up outside of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Photo by Ryan Torok

“Pokémon Go,” available on iPhone and Android devices, fuses smartphone and GPS technology to create what has been described as an augmented reality gaming experience. Game characters are set against real-world environments so that a Pokémon appears in a real location and a player can interact with it. Developed by the Pokémon Company International and software company Niantic, “Pokémon Go” was released in the United States, Australia and New Zealand on July 7 and has since become available in many other countries. 

Represented in the game by avatars, players walking around town are charged with capturing the virtual creatures and collecting items essential to training and powering up their Pokémon. A vibration alerts one to a Pokémon nearby — whether it’s an Ekans curled up on the sidewalk across from Pat’s kosher restaurant in Pico-Robertson or, a few blocks away, a yellow Sandshrew across the street from Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy. 

Rosanna Tornel, 25, was walking her pug, Fiona, and playing “Pokémon Go” recently when the Sandshrew appeared. She said she’s been playing the game with her Mexican-Jewish fiancé, Dan, and both have been enjoying the experience. 

“I think when ‘Pokémon’ came out, the TV show, I was 9 years old and loved it as a little girl … and I think it’s a fun game,” she said. “You need to go and walk around, and I know all the Pokémon.”

Tornel said her fiancé has more powerful Pokémon and that he frequents “Pokémon Go” gyms, places where players battle other players. Young Israel of Century City (YICC), despite being under construction, has been designated a gym by the game. 

Yoel Rubin, 23, was walking to YICC on Friday before Shabbat when this reporter discovered an Ekans on the sidewalk. 

“It’s a waste of time, if you ask me,” he said, a black tefillin carrier bag hanging from his shoulder. “People are spending so much time on their phones, not with their families.” 

Temple Beth Torah Cantor Sarah Fortman Zerbib-Berda is among those in the Jewish community who have been won over by the game after initially being unsure. She said the game has helped her keep her exercise routines, among other reasons. 

“When the “Pokémon Go” game first came out, I was skeptical and guffawed like a lot of the world, but now I’m a true believer that going outside to play this game has more positive elements to it than negative,” said Zerbib-Berda, whose Ventura synagogue is a PokeStop. “It’s getting autistic children to be social, and agoraphobes and those with other mental illness such as anxiety and depression to feel like going outside and interacting with the world for the first time in a long time, if ever.”

The IKAR community has been playing the game, according to Meredith Hoffa, its media and communications manager. She said IKAR Rabbi Ronit Tsadok even delivered a recent Shabbat sermon about how the game’s augmented reality is its appeal. 

“Real-world life is challenging and crapola right now,” Hoffa wrote in an email, “so it’s not surprising that millions of people are opting for an overlay of adventure and fun to deal with it all.” 

Zerbib-Berda agreed, saying the release of the game came just in time, on the heels of tragic shootings involving African-Americans and police officers. 

“The game came out at the end of a horrible week and it was good timing,” she said. “We needed to have people out enjoying life together and meeting each other, making the world smaller and less scary.”

While some synagogues are concerned about the potential distraction of the game, other rabbis are reacting with nothing but good humor. 

Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of Pico Shul said his synagogue’s name sounds like a character from the game. (Probably the most famous character is the lovable, yellow Pikachu.) 

And his wife, Pico Shul rebbetzin Rachel Bookstein, said, “I do think it’s very cool for our neighborhood and certainly for the neighborhood kids, or the grown-ups who play the game, that synagogues are on the map, or are Poke-destinations.” 

Stephen Wise Temple Senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback said in an email that having a Pokémon at temple might even help make services possible, though he hadn’t seen any at the Bel-Air Reform synagogue as of press time. 

He offered a halachic question: “If you’re short one person for a minyan, will a Pokémon count?”

Adam Yaron: Uniting people through a universal language

HIGH SCHOOL: Harvard Westlake
GOING TO: USC Thornton School of Music

Given that Adam Yaron will be attending the prestigious USC Thornton School of Music in the fall, it might seem surprising that he didn’t always see music in his future. He thought about studying medicine, working in a lab or finding a profession with a tangible effect. 

“I think what I realized is that music can make an impact and can make a difference,” said Adam, 17, who has just graduated from Harvard Westlake. But, he said, “What I realized is that this is what I’ve always done. This is what I’m good at, what I want to pursue.”

He grew up in a musical family. His mother teaches piano, and his brothers play drums and bass. Adam plays piano and guitar and sings. 

Music, he said, has always been a constant in his life: “As I kept playing and kept singing, I realized, wow, this is something that I love and something that I wanted to pursue.”

Adam took music lessons and participated in musical theater at Harvard-Westlake. His favorite productions included “Grease,” in which he played Doody, and Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” in which he played the lead, Bobby, his most difficult role. 

In his senior year, Adam played Tony in “Westside Story,” his dream role.

What distinguishes him from most teen music lovers, though, is his desire to connect his passion for music with teaching about the Holocaust. 

In seventh grade, Adam participated in the inaugural Righteous Conversations program at his school, a program that connects students with Holocaust survivors, facilitating dialogue, social action and creative collaborations. According to Cheri Gaulke, a visual arts teacher at Harvard Westlake who worked with Adam on the project, he was the youngest student to participate. For his project, Adam created a short film about being a responsible consumer. 

Last summer, Adam assisted in piloting a new composition workshop within the Righteous Conversations program; he helped to score the films created by the students and the survivors in the program. 

“My first time scoring for any film setting,” he said. “I had written songs [before], but not really composition. That was a very cool opportunity for me.”

On Yom Hashoah this year, he participated in the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust’s (LAMOTH) annual ceremony in Pan Pacific Park by singing a song titled “Misheu.” 

“That was a very cool experience to be able to give back [to] that LAMOTH community,” Adam said.

“You reach out to him, and he’s up for anything,” Gaulke said. “He’s a kind-hearted and generous person. … [He has a] sense of caring about the greater good, being open to whatever that means. He was wonderful to work with.” 

With his high school choir, Adam traveled to Germany and Poland, a trip that included visits to Auschwitz and Birkenau. 

“Outside of Birkenau gates, we came out and sang a prayer for peace, ‘Sim Shalom,’ ” Adam said. To stand “outside of the camp singing, what so many in there couldn’t, was very powerful for me.”

Adam enjoys spending time with his family, sometimes even playing in a band with his brothers. Because all of his extended family lives in Los Angeles, he said he cherishes his weekly Shabbat dinners at his grandmother’s house — especially her chicken soup. When he attends USC in the fall, he hopes to continue this tradition. 

He also served as a prefect for his senior class, planning activities and fundraisers.

In college, he hopes to study scoring, performance and songwriting. 

“In a world with so many people who speak so many different languages and come from so many different backgrounds, there is one language that we can understand, and it’s music,” Adam said.

A Bar Mitzvah with 1.2 million guests

I rarely pay attention to walls when I’m in a synagogue. I’m usually more focused on the people, the prayers and the rabbi’s sermon.

On a recent Shabbat, though, I couldn’t stop looking at the walls. I was at a bar mitzvah service for my friend Steve Kessler’s son, Benny, with about 80 other guests. The service, led by Rabbi Lori Shapiro of the Open Temple in Venice Beach, featured some beautiful rituals I had never seen before, because I usually pray in more traditional synagogues.

And yet, as meaningful and poetic as the service was, what really blew me away was what I saw on the walls: 1.2 million little holes, each one representing a Jewish child who perished in the Holocaust.

The service was held at the open-air Goldrich Family Foundation Children’s Memorial, which is part of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) in Pan Pacific Park.

The holes are the sort of inspired design element that bridges architecture with storytelling. Instead of trying to imagine the loss of 1.2 million souls, you actually get to see 1.2 million holes.

Those tiny, little holes, of varying sizes, riveted me, because Benny Kessler had chosen to honor one of them.

He was sharing his bar mitzvah with a Dutch boy named Hijmie Bachrach, who was 7 when he was murdered at Auschwitz along with his parents and two sisters. A faded black-and-white photo of Hijmie (pronounced “Hymie”) lighting a menorah was on the cover of the program, right beneath a color photo of Benny doing the same.

Benny spoke movingly about Hijmie during the service. He had invited Hijmie’s first cousin, Avraham Perlmutter, who’s now 89 and living in Los Angeles, and wished him, “Mazel tov on the occasion of your cousin’s bar mitzvah.”

Perlmutter had always referred to his cousin as Hijman (“Hyman”). But when he contacted surviving family members in The Netherlands to let them know about the event, the family asked if Benny could use the more endearing Hijmie, which is how they remember him. They also sent photos of the boy, which found their way into Benny’s program.

As the service unfolded, the little hole that represented Hijmie became a little story. Here was a cute, rambunctious Jewish kid from Den Haag (The Hague) whose life was brutally terminated in 1943 before he had a chance to have his own bar mitzvah. And now, 73 years later, a Jewish kid in California was bringing that child and that story to life.

Hijmie Bachrach during a kindergarten Chanukah celebration in 1942 in The Hague, Netherlands.  He was killed in Auschwitz the following year.

Just as he lit a menorah in his own photo, Benny was now lighting one of the 1.2 million souls represented on the wall.

Benny’s special morning was the first such event to be held at the Children’s Memorial, which is a story in itself. My friend Steve knew about the idea of twinning b’nai mitzvah kids with children of the Holocaust, as he had seen two of my kids do it. When he and his son attended a school trip to the museum earlier this year, during which they visited the Children’s Memorial, they fell in love with the idea and the venue.

So they asked Samara Hutman, executive director of LAMOTH, if it would be possible to hold the service inside the memorial, and she said, “Of course!” Hutman used to run Remember Us, the organization that arranges the twinnings, before she merged it with the museum when she was named executive director there a few years ago. The program still holds a special place in her heart.

Benny’s bar mitzvah teacher, Shapiro, loved the idea of the unusual venue, and she brought along her cantor/musician and created a soulful and uplifting service.

I couldn’t help suggesting to Hutman during the lunch that maybe she and the rabbi should start a b’nai mitzvah program at the memorial for unaffiliated families looking for something different. They can call it “A B’nai Mitzvah for 1.2 Million Kids.” 

What better way for Jewish kids to connect to their ancestors and to Jewish peoplehood than to share their most special day with a Jewish kid who could never have one?

They could hold a service every week for the next 500 years and still have plenty of Jewish souls left on the wall.

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

Passing an art legacy on to the next generation

During the lengthy visits she would have with her great-uncle and great-aunt, David and Rivka Labkovski, at their home in South Africa, Leora Raikin — who was a young girl at the time — recalls these relatives being a bit eccentric.

David owned one pair of shoes, and Rivka — the sister of Raikin’s grandmother Zlata Spektor — had but two dresses. Husband and wife wanted herring with every meal, a carryover from the frugal ways they lived during the years they spent in a Siberian prison camp during the Holocaust. 

“He used to take my face in his hands and say, ‘Do you want to be smart or do you want to be pretty?’ and I would say, ‘Can’t I be both?’ ” Raikin said. “With Rivka, it was all about knowledge, intellectual ability and learning something new every day. She always wanted to know, ‘What have you learned today?’ ”

David Labkovski had been an artist in his native Vilna, Lithuania, and during eight years in a Siberian prison camp, where he served as a sketch and tattoo artist. After the war, he resumed his artistic career in Israel, where he lived in the artist colony of Safed from 1958 until his death in 1991.

Labkovski would sometimes give Raikin a painting or a sketch as a present. She always hoped the gift would be “one of the happy ones,” such as a picture of flowers. 

Not all of Labkovski’s work was so upbeat. 

His imagery covers a spectrum, from images of his homeland, including scenes of everyday life in Vilna and its Nazi occupation during the war and its destruction during the Holocaust. Labkovski returned to Vilna in 1946 and met with survivors, capturing their memories on canvas. He also produced a series of works portraying the characters of Sholem Aleichem.

Works spanning Labkovski’s career are represented in the exhibition “The Art and Life of David Labkovski,” on display at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) through June 14. The LAMOTH exhibition marks the first time a comprehensive collection of Labkovski’s work will be seen in the United States. His family regained possession of the collection nearly three years ago, after a lengthy court dispute in Israel over ownership of the works. 

During his lifetime, Labkovski’s views on the placement of his art were as complex and conflicted as the man himself. He wanted the work seen in the Diaspora, but only when the viewers — particularly the next generation — were ready for it. He refused to sell his work, and, after a 1959 exhibition of his work in Israel, he and Rivka concluded that the time was not right, according to Raikin. 

“The audiences in Israel were not ready to confront the horrors of the Holocaust. It was an Old World thing — they wanted to move forward,” Raikin said. “David and Rivka had this absolute belief that one day a generation will come along that will appreciate this life that was lost, the enormity of it.”

According to Raikin, after the deaths of her great-aunt and great-uncle, the artwork was left to the city of Safed. A small museum was badly maintained and eventually fell into disarray, and the art eventually fell under court conservatorship, Raikin said. By the time the court case was settled and the art came to Raikin’s mother and her siblings, more than 20 years had passed. 

An artist herself, Raikin wanted the work to be seen, and she found people of like minds in Connie Marco and Lisa Lainer-Fagan, both of whom are parents of students at New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in West Hills. Marco, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, also volunteered at LAMOTH and worked closely with the museum’s executive director, Samara Hutman. 

Hutman studied the Labkovski collection — the haunting self-portraits, the vibrant depictions of market scenes and shtetl life — and immediately knew that she would put the paintings on display. 

“There was something incredibly prescient in the mind of the artist,” Hutman said, “to sort of hold his body of work together to keep the integrity of the collection and of the vision and to save it for when the time is right.

“The work is magnificent, and I think there’s something in really incredible alignment for us to exhibit this work,” she added. “It has a lot of symmetry with the narrative of the museum. It is all about finding these little shards and remnants of a world that was blown apart by the Holocaust, and now we’re all in this work of recovery and excavation and redignification.” 

The more people who saw Labkovski’s work and heard Raikin’s story, the more his great-niece was encouraged to get the art displayed, and the more the circle of support grew. A smaller version of the exhibition had an initial stop at the school, where a group of art students co-curated the exhibition under the guidance of art instructor Benny Ferdman.

Labkovski’s work resonated not only with the art students, but with a spectrum of departments across the NCJHS campus. In addition to the eight co-curators — who argued and debated which works should be included — two film students are assembling a documentary about the Labkovski experience. Students have written poetry that accompanies the work at the school and at LAMOTH, and a student sang a song in Yiddish about Vilna at the openings.

This was the first time such a cross-department art display had come together at the school, said Ferdman, arts director and artist-in-residence at NCJHS.

“When you look at an artist’s work over time and place, that kind of turns the work into an artifact as well,” Ferdman said. “Beyond its aesthetic value, it becomes the witness to a time and place. It was like a little time machine from the past coming to us now.”  

Wherever the journey next takes Labkovski’s art after LAMOTH, Raikin feels that by passing through young hands, the work has found its place again.

“I think we all feel it’s our responsibility to make sure this next generation cares,” Raikin said. “That the [NCJHS] students were so involved and vested, that superseded any dream I possibly could have had. It would have made David and Rivka so, so happy to have seen these students so interested. I can walk away and say I feel safe. I feel that these kids get it. They can pass it on.” 

For more information on “The Art and Life of David Labkovski,” visit

Son’s postcard to Lodz Ghetto resurfaces 72 years later

Almost 73 years ago, on March 21, 1942, Stefan Prager wrote a postcard from Sweden to his parents, who had been deported from their native Berlin to the Lodz Ghetto in Poland.

He wrote about his recently celebrated 18th birthday, adding, “I’m feeling healthy and the winter passed well. How are you doing?”

Prager never got a response or heard from his parents.

Now, as Prager approaches his 91st birthday, the postcard has resurfaced within the extensive digitized archives of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH). The postcard’s discovery has led, in turn, to new inquiries and some answers about his parents’ fate.

Stefan Prager was born in Berlin, the son of Ruth Prager and her husband, Ernst Wolfgang Prager, who was wounded three times fighting in the German army during World War I.

The boy attended a Jewish school in Berlin for four years, and in March 1939, the parents sent their 15-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter on a Kindertransport (children’s transport) to Sweden.

Stefan, a big-city boy, spent the war years with a farmer in a remote forest area, living in a house without electricity, a toilet or running water, feeding the livestock and chopping down large trees in the icy winter. He kept writing to his parents in Berlin until they were deported in October 1941.

This was the time of Hitler’s greatest victories, and as the German armies came closer and closer to Sweden, Stefan wondered, “Where would I go to hide?” he told the Journal in a recent interview.

“In the [Swedish] village where my sister lived, there were several known Nazis who would tell [the Germans that she was Jewish].”

Thus the story — like those of millions of other Holocaust victims — might have ended, but for the resilience of this postcard, which eluded destruction through all the upheavals.

In late 2011, Edward Victor, a retired Los Angeles lawyer, donated to LAMOTH an unusual collection of Nazi-era mementos that he had acquired and organized during a 30-year period. It consisted of some 2,000 stamps, letters, identification cards, visas, school records and currency receipts, which frequently traced the fate of a given Jewish family from the beginning of the Nazi era in 1933 to its bloody end in 1945.

At LAMOTH, Vladimir Melamed, director of Archives, Library and Collections, integrated the material in the Archon Platform-LAMOTH, the museum’s online archive, which now holds close to a million document pages (

In December, Melamed received an email from Stefan Prager, who was living in Stockholm as a retired manager at SGS, a company that provides inspection, testing and certification services, primarily for international shipping.

“A relative of mine found a postcard at your museum which I sent to my parents from Sweden to the Lodz Ghetto in 1942. … I never heard from them,” Prager wrote.

Melamed and his staff went to work and tracked down the postcard in one of his digitized files labeled “Correspondence to and from Lodz Ghetto.”

No one knows how the card survived, but Prager speculates that “it was found at the Jewish administration office [in Lodz] among lots of similar stuff following the total evacuation of the ghetto to Auschwitz.”

With the recovered postcard as a lead, Melamed contacted the State Archive in Lodz for details on Prager’s parents’ fate. Last month, he received copies of handwritten entries by a Nazi official to the effect that Ernst and Ruth Prager were deported from Berlin Oct. 27-29, 1941, to the Litzmannstadt Ghetto (German for Lodz).

The next paper is an “Announcement” from the ghetto’s “Eldest of the Jews,” dated May 22, 1942, that Ruth Prager, now widowed, was being moved from the one room where she lived with her husband to another room shared with three other persons.

The last notice, dated Oct. 13, 1942, simply stated that Ruth Prager had vacated her room the previous day. Under “Reason for the Move,” an official entered “Death.”

LAMOTH president E. Randol Schoenberg noted that “the recovery of the Prager postcard reinforces the point that even 70 years after the end of the Holocaust, there are still undiscovered documents, still descendants of families searching for the fates of Nazi victims and still large gaps in our knowledge of concentration camps.

“For instance, who has heard of the Maly Trostenets extermination camp near Minsk? Yet, 65,000 Jews were murdered there.

“We owe it to the generosity of collectors like Edward Victor and the dedication of archivists like Dr. Melamed and his staff that large parts of the still unknown history of the Holocaust are coming to light.” 


Moving and Shaking: LAMOTH recital, Fiesta Shalom at Sea and Thanksgiving

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) inaugural Young Pianist Showcase Recital took place Nov. 23 at the museum.

The event featured performances by Jacqueline Wax, 17, a senior at Milken Community Schools; Jonah Goldberg, 14, a freshman at Calabasas High School; Adam Amster, 11, a sixth-grader at Paul Revere Middle School; Elizabeth Chou, 12, a seventh-grader at Paul Revere Middle School; Josh Abel, 16, a junior at Hamilton High School; Jasmine Elisha, 15, a sophomore at Hamilton High School; Camille De Beus, 17, a senior at Santa Monica High School; Dave Mandi, 15, a sophomore at Pacific Palisades Charter High School; and Grace Alexander, 13, an eighth-grader at John Adams Middle School.  The Trio Catalyst, which features Wax, Aaron Feldman and David Sackler, also performed. Each performer played on the museum’s historic Bluthner piano.   

Pianist, author and actress Mona Golabek was featured in the program. Her mother, Lisa Jura, a piano prodigy who was saved from the Holocaust by the Kindertransport, is the subject of Golabek’s book “The Children of Willesden Lane,” which inspired the one-woman show starring Golabek, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.”

De Beus and Alexander represented the museum as LAMOTH Ambassadors of Music and Memory during the Los Angeles Unified School District citywide reading of “The Children of Willesden Lane,” which took place at Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts during the week of Nov. 3. The remaining students who performed at LAMOTH were recognized as Stewards of Memory and Music. 

Los Angeles based-pianist Tali Tadmor serves as program director of the LAMOTH Musical Ambassador program, which “is an opportunity for teenage students to learn about and advance the mission of Holocaust education and commemoration through music,” a press release said. 

The initiative was open to all California middle school and high school students, who were required to audition, complete essay questions, turn in recommendations from their respective music teachers and more. 

Habonim Dror Camp Gilboa board president Elizabeth Bar-El and philanthropist Harold Grinspoon. Photo by Shana Sureck

Habonim Dror Camp Gilboa board president Elizabeth Bar-El has been honored with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s JCamp180 Outstanding Board Leadership Award. She received the award during the organization’s annual conference in Springfield, Mass., on Nov. 2.

Habonim Dror Camp Gilboa, a Southern California-based summer camp, is a program of the international kibbutz-style labor Zionist youth movement, Habonim Dror (the Builders of Freedom). The international organization runs seven machanot (summer camps) across the United States and Canada, including Gilboa, its local camp. It also has an Israel summer program, a gap-year program in Israel and year-long work activities in North America.

Bar-El, a Habonim camper in the late 1970s, has served as Gilboa’s president since 2009. She helped oversee the camp’s purchase of a new home in Big Bear, Calif., in 2011, among other accomplishments.

JCamp180 is a program of the Massachusetts-based, grant-making Harold Grinspoon Foundation and honors those who have “shown consistent leadership … and made an important and ongoing impact on a Jewish summer camp’s long-term vitality and sustainability,” a press release said.

Israel’s Consul General in Los Angeles David Siegel and his wife, Myra Clark-Siegel. Photo by Rebecca Weiner

The second annual Fiesta Shalom at Sea — a Nov. 23 event to celebrate Israel across diverse Los Angeles communities  — started off with a cocktail reception on the FantaSea yacht. That’s where 200-plus attendees, including elected officials, community leaders and various other supporters of Israel, mingled and took photos with Israel’s Consul General in Los Angeles David Siegel and his wife, Myra Clark-Siegel

As the yacht went around Marina del Rey, attendees were treated to a program full of speakers emphasizing the importance of working across communities to solve problems, especially those in Israel. Bishop Kenneth Ulmer of Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood and American Jewish Committee-Los Angeles’ Rabbi Mark Diamond each led prayers to kick off the program that featured remarks by Siegel, Moctesuma Esparza and Hyepin Im. Both Esparza and Im, activists and leaders of Latino and Korean communities, respectively, reinforced the need to build bridges of understanding within communities in L.A. and those in Israel.  

Siegel talked about the strong bonds between Israel and North America. He presented the Theodor Herzl Award for Visionary Leadership to Assembly Speaker Emeritus John Perez and to Zev Yaroslavsky, who recently ended his run as county supervisor. Perez, who has worked in immigration legislation, praised Israel’s dedication to tolerance and community. Yaroslavsky, an activist on behalf of Soviet Jewry, spoke about the endurance of Jewish people through hope. 

Marina Rozhansky, director of media and communications for the consul general’s office, said, “Fiesta Shalom creates an environment in which we can open our worlds and our hearts to each other; where we can talk about our shared experiences and bonds and the values that knit our communities together into a beautiful mosaic.”

The event, which included a band playing popular Latin music, was hosted by the consul general, along with the office of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti

— Rebecca Weiner, Contributing Writer

From left: The Rev. Ramon G. Valera, Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church; The Rev. David Loftus, Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church; Cantor Daniel Friedman and Rabbi Ahud Sela, Temple Ramat Zion; and The Rev. Steve Petty, Northridge United Methodist Church. Photo by Michael Guttman Photography

Approximately 500 community members gathered at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Northridge on Nov. 24 for an annual interfaith Thanksgiving event.

Participants from the local Jewish community included Rabbi Ahud Sela and Cantor Daniel Friedman of Temple Ramat Zion, a Conservative synagogue in Northridge. The Rev. David Loftus of Our Lady of Lourdes was among the other attendees.

The event featured singing, sermons and more. A choir of more than 100 singers from Temple Ramat Zion, United Methodist Church of Northridge and Our Lady of Lourdes performed.

Meet Each Need With Dignity (MEND), an anti-poverty nonprofit, collected nonperishable food items, and the Rev. Steve Petty of Northridge United Methodist Church spotlighted recent events in Ferguson, Mo. — riots followed a grand jury’s decision not to indict a white police officer in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teen — as an “example of why we need to pull together,” Temple Ramat Zion spokesperson Michelle Nachum told the Journal in an email. Members of the Islamic Center of Northridge attended the event, as well. 

“Temple Ramat Zion is honored to once again represent the Judaic tradition at this unique observance, to share our wisdom with other faiths and appreciate the beauty of their beliefs,” Sela said, as quoted by a press release. “The holiday season is an ideal time to reach out to our Valley neighbors and explore what makes us all one people, all one nation, and all one community. Around the world, far too much attention is paid to our differences, when we should be honoring our similarities.”

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email

Will Jews reject Donald Sterling gifts?: Jewish organizations recoil at Clippers owner’s comments

[UPDATE, May 2] David Suissa's conversation with Donald Sterling

Recent comments attributed to Donald Sterling, the Jewish owner of the Los Angeles Clippers who was banned for life from the league by the NBA's commissioner on April 29, have been denounced as racist by numerous area Jewish organizations, some of which have received donations amounting to tens of thousands of dollars from the embattled owner.

A search of public records, made available through the website, indicates that from 2010 to 2012, the Donald T. Sterling Charitable Foundation gave at least $10,000 to groups including The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Jewish Vocational Service of Los Angeles (JVS) and the Museum of Tolerance.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance, supported NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s actions. The museum received three donations of $10,000 between 2010-2012, according to

“There’s no place in America for this kind of racism,” Hier told the Journal. “We believe the action to ban him for life is correct, and we will not accept any donations from Donald Sterling in the future.”

The NBA commissioner’s action “is what should happen whenever someone makes anti-Semitic or racist remarks, as millions of people are touched by this view,” Hier said.

Federation CEO and President Jay Sanderson made clear in an April 29 phone interview with the Journal that his organization also would not consider future donations. It received $10,000 in 2012.

“Donald Sterling is clearly not a member of the Jewish community,” Sanderson said. “He has chosen to make small gifts to a large number of organizations. … We are appalled and abhor the comments Sterling made. We condemn Sterling for his comments, and we plan on not accepting his gifts in the future.”

On April 25, a recording was released in which the billionaire Sterling — who grew up Donald Tokowitz in Boyle Heights and is a member of Temple of the Arts in Beverly Hills — allegedly is heard having a conversation with his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, and he asks her not to bring black people to basketball games. In the recordings, the man tries to justify his controversial comments by saying that, in Israel, blacks are “treated like dogs.”

The NBA’s commissioner placed a lifetime ban upon Sterling, as well as a fine of $2.5 million, the maximum amount allowed under the NBA constitution. Silver said at the press conference that he would do everything in his power to rally the NBA governing body into forcing a sale. Since this story broke, several of the Clippers’ major sponsors, including longtime partners CarMax and State Farm, have either suspended or terminated their deals with the team.

An April 28 statement from JVS Board President Jim Hausberg and CEO Vivian Seigel described the reported comments from Sterling as “deplorable” and “indefensible.”

“We are shocked and stunned by the blatant racism of these alleged remarks, particularly from Mr. Sterling, who has been a supporter of many nonprofit organizations and understands the tragic consequences of discrimination and anti-Semitism,” it said.

The organization received a total of $30,000 from the Sterling Foundation between 2010 and 2012, and used the funds to support work with at-risk, foster and on-probation youth, according to the statement, which did not comment on the possibility of future donations.

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust received identical gifts that were spent to provide free Holocaust education, according to a statement from its board. Looking ahead to the potential of future donations, the statement asked the question: “If funds that have already been committed to charity cannot be distributed to organizations that are committed to fighting bigotry, how else should they be used?

“Perhaps Mr. Sterling and his family will choose to make amends … by redoubling his donations to organizations that combat the very corrosive disease from which he obviously suffers. That would seem to be the appropriate way forward from this debacle.”

In all, the Donald T. Sterling Foundation has made donations to more than 10 Los Angeles Jewish organizations over the last three years, according to

Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles: $50,000 (2010).

Beit T’Shuvah: $10,000 (2010); $10,000 (2011); $10,000 (2012).

Jewish Vocational Service of Los Angeles: $10,000 (2010); $10,000 (2011); $10,000 (2012).

Los Angeles Jewish Home: $10,000 (2010); $10,000 (2011); $10,000 (2012).

Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust: $10,000 (2010); $10,000 (2011); $10,000 (2012).

Museum of Tolerance: $10,000 (2010); $10,000 (2011); $10,000 (2012).

Vista Del Mar: $10,000 (2010); $10,000 (2011); $10,000 (2012).

Guardians of the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging: $10,000 (2011); $10,000 (2012).

Creative Arts Temple: $10,000 (2012).

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles: $10,000 (2012).

Temple of the Arts: $10,000 (2012).

Moving and Shaking: Ted Sarandos honored, Persian New Year and Righteous Conversations Project PSAs

Entertainment industry titans gathered to honor the man of the moment, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance dinner on March 18. The event raised $1.6 million.

Sarandos, who is responsible for Netflix hits “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black” was honored with the Humanitarian Award. His rising status in the industry was evidenced by a powerhouse guest list that included media mogul Haim Saban; producer Harvey Weinstein; DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg; and Ron Meyer, vice chairman of NBCUniversal.

Emceed by “Arrested Development” creator Mitch Hurwitz, who was invited to resurrect his previously defunct show for Netflix under Sarandos’ watch, the dinner at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel focused on the Wiesenthal Center’s perennial efforts to raise global consciousness about the Holocaust, and included a sneak peak of their new state-of-the-art facility currently under construction in Jerusalem. 

The Wiesenthal Center also honored ordinary civilian heroes with Medal of Valor awards. This year’s recipients included Mike Flanagan, a British Army deserter who was posthumously recognized for assisting Israel’s fledgling armed forces during the 1948 War of Independence; Massimo Paruccini and Mercedes Virgili, whose families hid a Jewish family from the Nazis in the Italian town of Secchiano; and Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal, who was awarded a prestigious Arabic literary prize that was later rescinded when it was discovered he had attended a writers festival in Jerusalem. Sansal since has become an outspoken crusader against anti-Semitic attitudes in the Arab world and concluded his remarks with a quote from Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), as a comment on his own pariah status. “In places where there are no worthy men, strive to be one,” he said.

—Danielle Berrin, Staff Writer

From left: Joe Shooshani, Beverly Hills planning commissioner; L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; Congressman Tony Cardenas; L.A. City Councilmember Paul Koretz; Nowruz festival organizer Alex Helmi. Photo by Karmel Melamed

More than 5,000 Iranian-Americans of various religions packed “Persian Square” in Westwood Village on March 23 to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Traditional Persian music and the smell of saffron-infused rice dishes filled the air as community members danced and exchanged New Year’s greetings. 

The festival was the first in a series of celebrations participated in by close to 1 million Iranian-Americans living in California, who joined in marking their ancient new year and the beginning of spring, which fell on March 20 this year. 

Nowruz is traditionally a secular holiday celebrated by Iranians of all faiths living in Iran and elsewhere worldwide. The holiday is one of the rare occasions that brings Jews, Muslims, Christians, Baha’is and Zoroastrians of Iranian background to unite for the common goal of renewal and improving their society.

“We are honored each year to welcome spring with the Persian New Year celebrations and bring the community of everyone in Los Angeles, not just Iranians, together,” said Joe Shooshani, a Beverly Hills Iranian-Jewish planning commissioner. “This is a special time when we embrace one another in a sense of brotherhood and friendship.”

The event in Westwood brought out a number of local elected officials, including Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, former city controller and candidate for the 33rd Congressional District Wendy Greuel and Beverly Hills Mayor John Mirisch.

“I am incredibly proud of the Persian community, the majority of whom live in my district, and we are able to celebrate Nowruz each year here in Westwood, where the first Persian businesses were started 40 years ago,” Koretz said.

Other local Iranian-Americans celebrated the holiday by giving back to the needy on Skid Row. Close to 120 local Iranian-American volunteers gathered on March 14 to feed nearly 1,200 homeless at the Midnight Mission in downtown Los Angeles. The move to feed the homeless is a three-year tradition, and local Iranian-Americans said they wanted to feed the homeless on Skid Row during NowRuz because of a sense of responsibility they feel to help bring hope to those who are less fortunate in the city.

The holiday also has a special meaning for many Iranian-Americans this year, since one of their own, Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian, representing the 46th District, recognized Nowruz for the first time in the Sacramento legislature on March 24. Nazarian, who is not Jewish but of Armenian background, said he wanted to shed light on the significant contributions of Iranian-Americans to the state. 

“By celebrating No Ruz in the Assembly for the first time ever today, we honored the Persian community because they have been an incredible asset to the state for more than 30 years and account for a lot of our continued success,” Nazarian said. “I’m also honored, as an Iranian-American immigrant, to be able to recognize Nowruz on a state level.”

Additional Nowruz celebrations were held on March 21 at L.A. City Hall for the formal recognition of the Persian New Year by city councilmembers. 

For more information, photos and video of the Iranian community’s local Nowruz celebrations, visit

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Righteous Conversations Project participants Purag Moumdjian, Trey Carlisle, Arine Eisaian and Kali Van Dusen, with film producer Amy Ziering (third from left), Righteous Conversations staff member Cheri Gaulke (second from right) and Holocaust survivor Helen Freeman (far right). Photo by Ryan Torok

High school students and their parents, community members and others turned up at the Ann and Jerry Moss Theater in Santa Monica on March 18 for a screening of 13 public service announcements (PSAs) created through the Righteous Conversations Project.

“The gathering was a celebration of all the work that the young people and the survivors have come together to do,” said Samara Hutman, co-founder of the Righteous Conversations Project and executive director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH). 

The program, which is run under the auspices of Remember Us, an LAMOTH program, provides high-school students working under the mentorship of Holocaust survivors with the opportunity to produce PSAs that connect Holocaust stories and themes to contemporary issues of injustice. 

Exploring subject matter such as body image, bullying, technology’s impact on human interaction, the value in learning your family history and more, the 13 films screened — and gifted to different organizations — explored a range of subject matter relevant to teenage life. 

During the event, Lisa Grissom, L.A. program manager at the Jewish creative think tank Reboot, accepted the PSA “Disconnect to Connect on behalf of her organization. The 30-second film created by students at Aveson Global Leadership Academy suggests that teenagers glued to their cell phones are missing out on opportunities to connect with each other. 

Other organizations that received PSAs included 30 Years After, NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change and BJE-Builders of Jewish Education. 

Film producer Amy Ziering (“The Invisible War”) was the keynote speaker at the event, which drew more than 100 community members.

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Survivors gather for ‘Survivor’ exhibition

On Sunday, Jan. 26,Samara Hutman, standing in a gallery at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, pointed to the walls displaying David Miller's large photographs of Holocaust survivors and said, “These are our neighbors.”

She was speaking literally—the portraits that line the temporary exhibition space at the museum in Pan Pacific Park are of Holocaust survivors who live in Los Angeles. 

Hutman, the museum's director, spoke to the dozens of survivors and their families and friends who had come to the museum for the opening of the exhibition, “Survivor Portraits From The Jewish Journal.”

The installation showcases 29 selected works from the Jewish Journal's ongoing series, “Survivor,”  a bi-weekly series of profiles written by Jane Ulman and accompanied by Miller's photos that has run in the Jewish Journal since Yom Kippur in 2012.

Each evocative portrait in the show is accompanied by an excerpt from Ulman's deeply moving stories, which can be found in long form in the show's catalog and on the Journal's Web site,

“These are the stories of survivors—ordinary people who made the extraordinary choice to fight despair, to embrace life, to live again,” Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman wrote in the introduction to the show's catalog .

At the show's opening, many of the survivors featured in the series posed for pictures by their portraits. 

“These are not the stories that have been turned into Holocaust movies or books,” Eshman wrote.  “They are about, if such a word could possibly apply, regular survivors—ordinary people who made the extraordinary choice to fight despair, to embrace life, to live again.

Admission is free to the museum, which is located at 100 S. The Grove Drive | Los Angeles, Ca. 90036. For more information:  (323) 651-3704.

Moving and Shaking: Samara Hutman names LAMOTH executive director, BJE supports schools

Samara Hutman, the new executive director of the L.A. Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH). Photo courtesy of LAMOTH.

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) has appointed Samara Hutman as its new executive director. Hutman comes to the museum from the organization Remember Us, where she has served as executive director since 2011.

“Samara’s creative vision and passion will help further LAMOTH’s mission to commemorate and educate,” E. Randol Schoenberg, LAMOTH board president, said in a statement. “We are confident that she will increase our outreach in the greater Los Angeles area in order to teach future generations about the history of the Holocaust.”

Additionally, LAMOTH and Remember Us are joining together, with LAMOTH adopting Remember Us programs. These include the Holocaust B’nai Mitzvah Project, in which b’nai mitzvah students remember a child who died in the Holocaust, and the Righteous Conversations Project, in which high school students work with survivors in creating public service announcements focused on contemporary justice issues.

“We are all looking forward to the work ahead,” read a statement released by Hutman and Remember Us board president Cece Feiler, following the Sept. 30 announcement about Hutman taking the position. “We have been working closely with the museum’s president Randy Schoenberg, who shares our hopes and dreams for the continued growth of our many projects.” 

The museum’s search for a new executive director began in December 2012, when it decided not to renew the contract of former director Mark Rothman. Schoenberg served as director in the interim.

Hutman joined Remember Us in 2007 after her daughter, Rebecca, participated in the B’nai Mitzvah Project. 

LAMOTH is the oldest Holocaust museum in the country. In 2010, it opened its $20 million site at Pan Pacific Park, and has received acclaim for exhibitions such as the Tree of Testimony, a 70-screen video sculpture displaying 51,000 survivor testimonies courtesy of the USC Shoah Foundation…

Five Los Angeles-area day schools — Kadima Day School, Beth Hillel Day School, Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School, Weizmann Day School and Yavneh Hebrew Academy — will receive technical, financial and professional support from BJE—Builders of Jewish Education now that they have been chosen in the Generations LA 2 program. A kickoff training session marking the official start of this second installment of Generations LA, a three-year initiative that aims to help day schools grow and sustain endowment funds, takes place on October 23.

“Securing a place in this program is an incredible honor and assists our community in securing the longevity of Kadima Day School. Community donors will have the opportunity to truly have a lasting impact on the future of the Jewish people,” said Bill Cohen, head of school at Kadima Day.

The schools receive help in growing and sustain endowments – which BJE believes are vital to a school’s long-term existence – in the form of technical, financial and professional assistance, in return for them meeting fundraising benchmarks.

“The goal is to build a foundation for starting an endowment initiative and after three years giving them the tools to start the initiative and helping them to continue that momentum once the program is over,” said Rebecca Spain, Generations LA coordinator at BJE. None of the schools selected for the program currently has an endowment.

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

Holocaust Museum adds Spanish audio guide

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) announced Aug. 30 that it now offers a comprehensive Spanish-language audio guide covering 15 hours of historical material on display in America’s oldest Holocaust museum.

Funded by a $15,000 grant from the city and supported by Mayor Eric Garcetti when he was a city councilman, the guide includes recordings from prominent local Latinos, including state Sen. Alex Padilla, who represents part of the San Fernando Valley, discussing African-American soldiers who liberated concentration camps and Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board member Monica Garcia talking about Kristallnacht.

E. Randol Schoenberg, LAMOTH’s president and acting executive director, said, “Spanish is the most common foreign language request” at the museum. In addition to adding audio tours in Russian, Korean, Chinese and Japanese in the future, Schoenberg said he hopes to make LAMOTH part of the Common Core educational curriculum for LAUSD students.

State superintendent of public instruction Tom Torlakson, who attended the press conference announcing the guides, said that he would work with LAMOTH “to see how we can have the great collection of information and stories here — and truth here — shared with other students.”

Gabriella Karin, an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia who is a docent at LAMOTH, said that she has given many tours to students from Los Angeles who speak little English. They have had to rely on their teacher translating for them — until now.

“It’s a wonderful tool now that we have a Spanish audio guide,” Karin said.

Making cookies … And a difference

Left destitute overnight when the Nazis confiscated his life savings in 1941, Ben Lesser’s father, Lazar, used a 100-pound bag of flour and some salt — a housewarming gift from a friend — to bake pretzels for the local bars in Niepolomice in southern Poland. 

While his family of seven subsided on wheat husks, normally fed to the pigs as waste, Ben Lesser’s father went on to became the town baker, and the family was able to support themselves in spite of the country’s harsh anti-Semitic laws.

Lesser’s parents and three of his four siblings did not survive the Holocaust, but the lessons he learned in his father’s kitchen did. The 85-year-old survivor of multiple concentration camps — who spoke about his experiences last month at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) — founded Papa Ben’s Kitchen, which makes five varieties of kosher mandelbread, in 2011. 

The company, whose products became available in stores last year, doesn’t just exist to satisfy the American sweet tooth; Lesser created it, in part, to support the Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, a nonprofit he founded in 2009. It provides pins that read zachor in Hebrew (“remember”) to audiences at Holocaust education events. (More than 30,000 pins were distributed in just its first few months, according to its Web site.)

“We give pins with the message that now you are responsible for the story you have heard today,” said Lesser’s daughter, Gail Lesser-Gerber, president of Papa Ben’s Kitchen.

Lesser was born in Krakow, Poland, in 1928, to a middle-class family involved in the production of kosher wine, syrup and chocolate. The family left for Niepolomice in 1941, according to Lesser’s Web site, to avoid joining the Krakow ghetto, where most of his extended family would perish. 

Two years later, at age 14, Lesser escaped to Hungary — his parents were reported by a neighbor and shot before they could join him — only to endure the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the labor camp Durnhau, a night at Buchenwald, and then Dachau, as well as a death march that lasted at least two weeks in February 1945. Upon liberation, he fell into a starvation-induced coma that lasted about eight weeks. 

After the war, Lesser was reunited with Lola Lieber-Schwartz, his only surviving sibling, and settled in the United States. He eventually found his way to Los Angeles, where he met his wife and went on to become a real estate agent. Now a great-grandfather who has retired to Las Vegas and written a book about his life (“Living a Life That Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream”), Lesser gives speeches about his Holocaust experiences at universities, libraries, prisons and government institutions across North America.

Despite having no formal training in cooking or baking — and no written recipes from his father — Lesser has baked from memory throughout his life, using the smell and texture of the dough as his guide. He brought the treats to card games with buddies, and passed them out as party favors at his 80th birthday party. Friends kept asking why the family wasn’t selling Lesser’s mandelbread, remembers Lesser-Gerber.

“Everyone loved my dad’s cookies,” she said. 

The family needed to cover the cost of Lesser’s unsubsidized speaking engagements and the Zachor foundation. They finally decided to take their friends’ question to heart.

The result is Papa Ben’s Kitchen, for which Lesser and his family developed multiple recipes. Available at Whole Foods and Gelson’s, the cookies come in various flavors: original family recipe, minty dark chocolate, chocolate espresso bean, lemon blueberry with poppy seeds, and spicy chipotle with ginger and dark chocolate.

A pastry chef prepares their products at a bakery in Costa Mesa, Calif., in Orange County. 

Lesser-Gerber remembers her father, with his old-fashioned mentality, proposing he knock on the door of Ralphs grocery stores with some of his mandelbread and ask if they wanted to buy some.

During his recent visit to speak at LAMOTH, Lesser read from his book while a diverse crowd listened with rapt attention to stories of beatings, intimidation and executions, but also of human dignity and courage.

Lesser recalled how he bribed the cook at Durnhau with diamonds he had smuggled in his shoes to get his uncle a kitchen job rather than the hard labor forced upon other prisoners — breaking apart boulders to make gravel. This experience, he said, taught him the importance of saving valuables for emergencies, and of making personal connections. Both of these were lessons he would find important later in life as a businessman in America.

Most of all, he learned from the concentration camps that to succeed, he had to understand what was expected of him, and simply get it done no matter the difficulties. He said he remembers thinking: “Ben, if you want to live, you have to do it exactly the way they want you to do it.”

And once in the United States, he knew that he had to work harder than others to be the best — his own education had been halted at age 11. So when he was working for UPS at one point, for example, he learned everything about the company so his employers knew they could count on him to do any job, at any time, including holidays. For a time, he worked two jobs and went to night school. 

“Figure out how to be the best at your profession,” he told the LAMOTH audience. “Don’t be a clock-watcher. Give yourself all the way.”

Despite his difficult life, Lesser-Gerber said her father always managed to keep a positive outlook on life.

 “[He] wanted to live his childhood through us,” she said. “He could not pass up a roller coaster without taking us.” 

Lesser never spoke about his experiences until asked by his grandson to appear at an elementary school event. 

“The kids are so grateful,” Lesser said. “They had no idea … most of them are not being taught about the Holocaust.” 

Lesser said that his talks emphasize the importance of mutual respect and living peacefully. He said listeners go home “new, different people” who do not take their families for granted.

At each of his presentations, Lesser passes out Zachor pins to the audience, paid for by the skill his father taught him over 50 years ago. As Lesser-Gerber said about her father’s company, “It’s about making cookies and making a difference.”

‘Tree of Testimony’ showcases redemption, hope

Ablack lattice of metal piping spreads in front of a dark, curved wall holding a large cluster of television screens. About 20 people stand or sit transfixed beneath this Tree of Testimony, watching the faces of about 70 Holocaust survivors as they laugh, cry, gesticulate and often just sit solemnly while speaking to the camera.

“These people have … shown through their stories what it means to be human,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, describing the videos. “These are stories about overcoming and living in spite of the evil that lives in the world.”

The Aug. 2 dedication of the “Tree of Testimony: USC Shoah Foundation Institute Survivor Interviews” at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), also marks what organizers are calling the end of construction for the museum, which moved into its current facility in Pan Pacific Park in October 2010.

“Our final idea is that this is not only an informational and aesthetic experience, but also a memorial,” said E. Randol Schoenberg, the museum’s president, referring to its newest permanent exhibition.

The Tree of Testimony, a collaboration between LAMOTH and the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, was completed in April, just before Yom HaShoah, after about two years of planning, according to Mark Rothman, the museum’s executive director. Architect Hagy Belzberg, who designed the museum building, also created the $1-million Tree of Testimony. Funding for the project came primarily from the Wilf Family Foundation.

The museum, which is dedicated to using evidence of the Holocaust to educate the public, is organized into a series of rooms that roughly echo the chronology of the Shoah. The rooms contain exhibitions on Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust, through Kristallnacht, the concentration camps, and the response to the Holocaust and World War II. The Tree of Testimony now marks the end of the museum’s tour.

Visitors use headphones and an iPod Touch instead of ambient audio, which is intended to provide a more personalized experience. At the Tree of Testimony, visitors can listen to a particular interview by typing in a screen’s number.

Schoenberg said his inspirations for this project included the video art of Nam June Paik as well as exhibitions at other Holocaust museums.

“Many museums use survivors’ testimony for this [final] space, but one of the principles of this museum is showing the enormity of the Holocaust, and it is hard to show large numbers of things to people in a way that is intelligible,” Schoenberg said. “So instead of selecting one or two videos to represent it, we come up with a way of showing them … the entire universe of survivor videos.”

The 51,000 interviews, which were originally archived by the Shoah Foundation, are in 32 languages, but do not include English subtitles, and were recorded in 56 different countries. About half of the interviews are in English. It takes an entire year for all the interviews to be played on the 70 screens, and it would take 12 years for a single person to watch all the videos if they were played nonstop.

Many of the people attending the dedication ceremony had participated in the filming of the interviews as either survivors or helpers for the Shoah Foundation.

Survivor Jona Goldrich happened to see his own interview playing on one of the screens and felt compelled to speak.

Standing in front of the Tree, facing other survivors, their families and supporters, Goldrich reminded those present of the importance of facing the truth of who the Nazis were and what they did. The people who perpetrated such crimes against humanity, he said, were considered the most educated and sophisticated of their time.

“When I was 10, they said God would never let these people do the things they said they were going to do,” he said.

Goldrich said he sometimes still cannot believe that he ran away from the Nazis at the age of 14, and that all of his friends from school and his family were killed.

Dana Schwartz, a survivor who has worked extensively for both the Shoah Foundation and LAMOTH, told one of the stories she had heard from a survivor interview. The interviewee was a doctor who had hidden with his wife and two other couples in the narrow space between two walls. When asked by the interviewer whether he and the others had ever quarreled during their two years in such stressful conditions, the doctor said, “Only about millimeters.”

During the dedication ceremony, Schwartz said her “heart trembled” when listening to these stories, but she emphasized hope for the survivors and for the future generations who would visit the museum.

“They [the survivors] became scientists who changed the world, teachers, builders, writers and healers,” she told the audience. “Will you send people here? Will you tell people about this place?”

When the world was upside down

To mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, on Jan. 27, Mark Rothman was invited by the Krakow Medical Society at Jagiellonian University Medical College in Krakow, Poland, together with the university’s Centre for Holocaust Studies,  and Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum to address their commemoration in Poland via videoconference. The following is an edited text of his remarks.

As I address you today, I am both bereft and optimistic. I am bereft for the obvious reasons one feels the deep, unfathomable sense of loss for what the Holocaust represents: the taking away from this world of 6 million innocent Jews; the destruction of the European communities and cultures they represented; the murder of approximately 3 million other victims persecuted by the Nazis; the political assassination of 3 million Poles; the death of the rich history of Jewish life in Poland; the severing or even amputation of Jewish-Polish coexistence; and more. I could easily go on.

But I am also bereft, a word which I use today to emphasize my lack of a certain, specific word to describe the reversal of nature, the turning on its head of a natural order, that existed during the Holocaust. In this reversal, leaders entrusted with the welfare of entire nations pursued paths that brought their people to ruin. In this reversal, children became adults in an instant, and adults became childlike in their impotence to act. In this reversal, religious leaders that had inspired us to act as if we were angels to beat back evil too often chose paths of devilish complicity with it. In this reversal, the innocent people were the prisoners and the bad people built the prisons and threw the innocent in them.

I am bereft because I cannot find a word to describe this upside-down logic. I am bereft because 67 years have not been enough to explain to me how this could happen. I am bereft because I don’t think in 67, 670 or 6,700 more years a satisfactory explanation will emerge. I am bereft because the only way to fully understand the Holocaust is, in fact, to admit that we are bereft, and we always will be bereft of any complete understanding of how and why the Holocaust happened.

I am sure each of you, as people of science and the empirical analysis upon which science relies, can particularly appreciate what it means to confront the truly unknowable. Your work and your lives are dedicated to pushing back the frontiers of what we don’t know, of what we can’t treat, of what we can’t learn to do to improve the lot of our fellow beings. The unknowable is an affront to everything you stand for. And, paradoxically, to truly fathom the Holocaust is to realize this is exactly as it should be when we consider the worst event in human history.

But I am also optimistic. I am optimistic because of what this commemorative conference represents. When I first met representatives from the Jagiellonian University Medical College when they visited the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust I was deeply impressed that a medical college took such a keen interest in this period of history. Usually, visitors have a much closer obvious connection to the work we do at the Museum; they are scholars from departments of history or Jewish studies or genocide studies or specifically Holocaust studies. Or they are artists committed to expressing the emotions brought out by the Holocaust. Or they are direct colleagues, such as your esteemed director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Dr. Piotr Cywinski.

The fact that Kraków Medical Society makes such a commitment, together with the Centre for Holocaust Studies and Auschwitz-Birkenau, to memorialize the events of 67 years ago proves to me that another reversal is taking place. This is a fundamental and necessary reversal of history. The only way we are going to ensure the 21st century is better than the 20th century is for us to acknowledge and embrace the tragedies of our past and, in doing so, rededicate ourselves to the future. Thus, while the cause for the commemoration today leaves me bereft, the fact of the commemoration fills me with optimism, and even a hint of joy. Optimism because I can see a vision for a brighter future; joy because we are taking an actual, concrete step toward it.

To those of you with us today who were at the center of that storm 70 or so years ago, who were the innocent persecuted by the criminal, the witnesses to the great reversal that has no explanation, I ask you to join me as much as you can in my optimism. I ask you to see all of us here today as more than just participants in a conference to commemorate the events of your suffering. I ask you to see us as the witnesses to the witnesses. We will hear your stories and we will carry them forward and we will remember them and we will retell them. You are giving us the gifts of your stories. We cherish them and we will pass them on, the same way my grandfather passed to me stories that I pass on to the great-grandchildren he never had the privilege to meet. He lives on through those stories, and you will live on as well through yours.

There is a phrase in Judaism that a truly righteous act is a Kiddush Hashem. Its literal translation is ‘a holiness to God,’ but I find particularly beautiful the broader translation, that the act is bringing God’s essence of goodness into the world. Whatever your particular understanding of God, that is what you are doing today. You are bringing God’s goodness into the world. You are commemorating the day 67 years ago when the great reversal of the Holocaust was itself reversed and the natural balance was restored. You are noting the moment when a world that had shut out God’s essential goodness for 12 years, finally let it back in. We will always find ourselves bereft, empty and lacking when we consider the Holocaust. But your actions today provide us a spark of goodness to at least illuminate the void. l

Mark Rothman is executive director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

Rare collection of Nazi documents donated to L.A. Holocaust museum

A rare collection of stamps, letters, ID cards and other documents of the Nazi era was donated to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

Valued at $260,000, the Edward Victor Philatelic Holocaust Collection was acquired and organized by Victor, a retired Los Angeles lawyer, over a 30-year period. In many cases the content tracks the fate of a given Jewish family from the beginning of the Nazi regime in 1933 to its demise in 1945.

After arriving by cattle car at Auschwitz, many Jews were handed postcards with a uniform message thoughtfully prepared by the Nazis.

“Things are going well and we are enjoying ourselves,” the postcard reads.

The Jews added their signatures and the addresses of relatives still in ghettos or labor camps, thus lulling them into the belief that they had nothing to fear when it was their turn for deportation to the east.

The Germans dubbed this deception “Operation Postcard,” and some of the originals are included in the Victor Collection.

E. Randol Schoenberg, president of the L.A. Holocaust museum, said the Victor collection represents written and photo information on an “enormous swath” of hundreds of concentration and labor camps, sub-camps and ghettos throughout Europe, as well as refugee internment camps in Britain, Switzerland and Canada.

Victor got the stamp-collecting bug as a youngster, initially concentrating on stamps from Palestine during the Turkish and British administrations, and after 1948 from Israel. As he grew older, he started reading about the Holocaust, and “eventually I merged my philatelic and Holocaust interests,” he said.

Victor soon discovered that there were many people, particularly in Europe, who shared his combined interests.

“It is not just Jews who are interested in this field, but many Germans and other Europeans, and one of the largest collections is at the Cardinal Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History in Weston, Mass.,” he said.

Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust Wins MUSE Media Awards

The new Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMH) earned gold and silver MUSE awards in the annual competition of the American Association of Museums (AAM). 

The international AAM Media and Technology Committee announced the 41 winners for the 22nd annual MUSE competition from more than 200 media submissions utilizing games, videos, audio tours and Web sites.

For the category of Audio Tours & Podcasts, LAMH won a gold for its Spatial Audio Guide, which consists of an iPod Touch that visitors carry throughout the museum, allowing them to “have a private and contemplative experience worthy of the subject matter” the MUSE judges wrote in their award description.

The museum also received a silver award for the “18 Camps” presentation within Multimedia Installations, chosen by MUSE judges for “the degree to which it accomplishes its overall objective: a simple, smart and powerful presentation that brings all elements together brilliantly.” The 18 waist-high touch screens each describe a different concentration camp and are arranged to surround visitors so that they “have to become responsible for their own experience rather than remaining passive,” the museum’s executive director, Mark Rothman, said.

“We know from our visitors’ feedback that all of our exhibits are winners, and it’s just great to get some external feedback,” Rothman added.

Briefs: Groundbreaking for Holocaust Museum, finally

Groundbreaking on Holocaust Museum

After 47 years of waiting for a permanent home, everything seems to be moving quickly now for the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Museum officials and an impressive list of L.A. politicos broke ground Jan. 25 on the museum’s future home at Pan Pacific Park, joined by the survivors who founded the first memorial of its kind in the United States nearly five decades ago.

The event coincided with the 63rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz; and it came more than three months earlier than planned. Until the museum, currently located in Mid-Wilshire, signed a 50-year lease with L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks in November for the Pan Pacific property, the groundbreaking had been planned for Yom HaShoah in early May.

“We realized we had a major accomplishment when we signed our lease with the city, and we wanted to celebrate,” said Mark A. Rothman, museum executive director.

So on a cold and wet afternoon, some 250 people packed the park’s senior center to honor the achievement and symbolically dedicate the land by digging into a box of dirt atop the auditorium’s stage. The new 15,000-square-foot museum is expected to be completed in 2010 and will include several exhibits, a library and an archive. Officials hope to educate 50,000 students each year.

“This museum will serve not only as a memorial for those who died in the death camps,” said L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, “but for those who survived and started life anew in Los Angeles.”

Being built across town from the better-known Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance — which covers a history of human rights abuses including the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide and Darfur — the Museum of the Holocaust will be dedicated solely to remembrance of the atrocities committed by the Nazis. About $7 million of the $20 million needed for construction has been raised.

“There aren’t enough,” said Jona Goldrich, a board member who donated more than $1 million to the museum and built the monument. “If you built a museum on every corner of every street in Los Angeles, you wouldn’t be able to tell the whole story.”

— Brad A. Greenberg, Senior Writer

Live for Sderot Benefit Concert Planned for L.A.

The Israeli consulate in Los Angeles began a campaign this week to raise awareness about the precariousness of life in the western Negev, which has been bombarded by more than 7,000 Qassam rockets since fall 2001.

The consulate uploaded a video to YouTube that shows the daily struggles of those living around Sderot. A benefit concert featuring Ninette Taieb, a top Israeli singer who won that country’s first “American Idol”-style contest. The benefit is scheduled for Feb. 26 at the Wilshire Theatre, and plans are also being made to bring a group of children to Los Angeles.

“We’d like to present to the Americans the plight of Sderot, which is constantly under fire since the disengagement from Gaza,” Consul General Yaakov Dayan said. “The concert will provide an opportunity to show the solidarity that the people in Los Angeles feel toward the citizens of Sderot.”

Daily life in the western Negev is a constant test of will power and psychological strength. With sometimes dozens of rocket attacks each day, residents learn to respond with measured terror to the siren warning of an incoming attack.

“Tzeva adom” (red light) they hear, and then they’ve got 20 seconds or less to take cover.

“The attacks are unprovoked, unpredictable and continuous, and their effect has been close to catastrophic for us, both economically and psychologically. Our every action, our every waking moment, is geared toward minimizing the impact of living under enemy fire,” Marcell Bar-On, a resident of Kibbutz Nir-Am whose family was profiled in these pages last summer, wrote in a recent e-mail.

“Our first concern is always for our elderly and our children. My son Gabi, who turns 10 in December, was 3 years old when the bombings started, and doesn’t remember life without Qassam bombs. There are no reinforced rooms in our homes, and the old communal shelters cannot be reached in the five to 10 seconds it takes a Qassam bomb to travel between Beit Hanoun and Nir-Am. So our family does what all the other families do: when we hear the ‘tzeva adom’ alert, we huddle in a small windowless area (in our case, a small passage between bedrooms), our bodies and the tiled roof the only barriers between our children and the incoming bomb. We silently count the seconds to impact; I often need to remind the children to breathe — they are frozen in total terror. And we pray that this time, too, we will be spared.”

For more information, visit

— BG

Jews In Space

Two Milken Community High School students (photo, above) who won first prize in a national space-oriented high school competition were recognized this month in a ceremony at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Seniors Michael Hakimi and Talia Nour-Omid won the inaugural “Pete Conrad Spirit of Innovation Award” from the X Prize Foundation in September for developing a business and technical plan for a device that would effectively monitor a human being’s vital signs while in space. The X Prize sponsors various awards that recognize civilian efforts to further scientific and technological breakthroughs, and this is its first award for high school students.

In Washington, Hakimi and Nour-Omid helped unveil a new traveling exhibit, co-sponsored by NASA and the X Prize Foundation, which showcases their proposal and other entries into the 2007 X PRIZE Cup at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

The Conrad Award Scroll, inscribed with the names of the winning team, will be carried to the International Space Station in the fall of 2008 by Richard Garriott. The team also won a $5,000 grant for the school’s science program and a trophy presented by Nancy Conrad, wife of the late Apollo astronaut Pete Conrad and creator of the prize, and Erik Lindbergh, X PRIZE Foundation Trustee, great-grandson of Charles Lindbergh and designer and sculptor of the First Prize trophy.

Hakimi and Nour-Omid are both students at Milken’s Mitchell Academy for Science and Technology, founded in 2003 and headed by Roger Kassebaum. Students there immerse in college-level research and pair up with professors at local universities. Milken students have placed in the Intel Talent Search, a young epidemiologists competition, an Israeli physics competition, and a civil engineering competition.

Holocaust Museum to Reopen Doors

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMH), dubbed the “Wandering Jew of the Community” by one survivor, has lost one more rented home, found interim shelter in another, but is dreaming of a permanent place of its own.

Led by a self-described “quixotic” physician as chairman and a feisty executive director, the museum is fighting tenaciously for its survival and insists that it fulfills a needed mission in Los Angeles and in Holocaust education.

The odds facing the hard-pressed LAMH include its proximity to the high-profile Simon Wiesenthal Center-Museum of Tolerance, diminishing financial backing from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and declining involvement by the Holocaust survivors who founded the museum.

Yet, there are hopeful signs. Executive Director Rachel Jagoda has sent out a flurry of grant proposals and has been rewarded with a $100,000 check from the Annenberg Foundation and lesser sums from three other foundations and a German bank. Best of all has been a $3 million pledge from highly respected Holocaust survivor, who wishes to remain anonymous, earmarked as the building block for a permanent museum.

It is the dream of Jagoda and chairman Dr. Gary Schiller that the structure might rise on city-owned land in the midtown Pan Pacific Park, next to the Los Angeles Holocaust Monument.

The museum had its beginning in 1961, when a group of survivors donated artifacts from their concentration camp experiences and founded what was then known as the Los Angeles Martyrs Memorial and Museum of the Holocaust.

The first home was a single room in The Jewish Federation building at 6505 Wilshire Blvd. In 1978, the museum took over an entire floor of the building, and the space expansion allowed it to add extensive exhibits and photo displays, archives and a resource center, in addition to initiating tours and programs for the public and students.

As space in the building became tighter, the museum moved to various other floors, each time to smaller quarters, Jagoda said. In the late 1990s, when The Federation had to temporarily evacuate 6505 to repair earthquake damage, the museum and the community library rented a small separate building on Wilshire’s museum row.

There the museum staged a number of well-received displays, most recently an exhibit on the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, which attracted 5,000 visitors.

The staff and volunteers also expanded the mentor and educational programs at about 60 public and private schools, mostly in the inner city, involving about 2,500 middle and senior high school students.

Early this year, the landlord announced that he was converting the museum building to condos and evicted the tenants. Left homeless, the museum was forced to close its doors March 1 and put the exhibits in storage.

After much frantic scrambling, LAHM signed a lease to take over the street floor of the ORT Building at 6435 Wilshire Blvd., next to The Federation headquarters. There, the redesigned museum is expected to open in June or July.

In the past few years, as annual Federation support for the museum dropped from $189,000 to $120,000 to the current $60,000, relations have soured.

Now facing annual expenses of $400,000 for operations, rent and a three-person staff, the museum leadership has its work cut out. Schiller pins some of his hopes on the Hollywood community, with whom he is planning a major fund raiser.

However, the museum’s support from survivors, its original base, keeps going down. Except for the $3 million pledge, “they haven’t stepped up to the plate,” Jagoda said.

Dr. Samuel Goetz, a survivor and chairman of the museum board from 1995-1999, countered that many of the most active survivors have died, and that others have become frustrated by the museum’s lack of continuity.

A more fundamental question is whether at a time when giving to Jewish communal institutions is flat and demands in Israel and at home are rising, if support for the Holocaust museum is money well spent.

Schiller vigorously answers in the affirmative. The 40-year-old hematologist and oncologist at the UCLA Medical Center, and a noted researcher in leukemia and bone marrow transplants, draws on his own practice for an analogy.

“I am frequently asked why we should spend money to save the life of a 60-year-old cancer patient, when there are millions of kids who haven’t been vaccinated,” he said. “I answer that it’s not one or the other. We have the financial resources to do both.”

As cities with much smaller Jewish populations have shown, there is enough money for a first-rate Holocaust museum, community centers and other needs, if the whole community is involved, rather than relying mainly on a handful of big-time philanthropists, who are hit up for every cause, Jagoda argued.

Nor does Schiller believe that the Wiesenthal Center, whose work he admires, obviates the need for a community Holocaust museum.

“The Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance are nonsectarian and deal with universal discrimination and genocides,” he said. “We are focused purely on the Holocaust. We have strong relationships with schools and colleges, and we reach out to parts of Los Angeles nobody else reaches.”

For information, contact Rachel Jagoda at (323) 651-3704or visit .

Holocaust Arts Contest

By 7 p.m., the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust was packed with parents, teachers, survivors and dozens of students who had participated in the Jay Shalmoni Holocaust Arts and Writing Contest. The May 22 reception honored those students, each of whom had spoken to a Holocaust survivor and, inspired by those in-depth talks, had created powerful works of art.

Public and private high schools throughout the greater Los Angeles area displayed students’ prize-winning works of art. Not surprisingly, students from Jewish schools like Milken, Shalhevet and Yeshiva University High Schools contributed many insightful interpretations of survivors’ experiences. Overall contest-winner Ashley Hanna got involved from Palm Valley High, and awards went to students from both L.A. County High School for the Arts and the California Academy of Math and Science.

By far the most well-represented school at the reception, however, and among the most prize-winning schools, was Notre Dame Academy, the Catholic girls’ high school. More than 60 Notre Dame students participated in the contest, with 11 prize-winners in five categories.

Roz Rothstein, who founded the contest in honor of her late father, made a special point of thanking the teachers who involved their students in the project: “If it weren’t for them telling, asking, requiring, and giving extra credit for this contest, we would never have had the response we’ve had,” she said.

That’s certainly true for the girls of Notre Dame Academy, who have teacher Carla Wynn to thank for getting them into the project.

Christa Garcia is in Wynn’s ninth-grade global civilization class. Her photography and text collage “Through Edith’s Eyes,” for which she learned some Hebrew words to help her present survivor Edith Frankie’s recollections, won first place in the mixed-media category. “We hadn’t even got to study World War II yet when [Wynn] told us about the contest,” Garcia said. “She really encouraged us to do it, and we wound up learning so much more than we could learn from a book or a video.”

For Wynn — the only Jewish teacher at Notre Dame, where she has taught for 11 years — getting involved in the Shalmoni contest just seemed natural. “I got a flyer about it in my [school] mailbox. I lost family in the Holocaust; actually talking to someone who was there just seemed like the best way to get kids to understand what happened,” she said.

“This was the first year we participated, so when they started bringing in [their artwork] I couldn’t believe it,” said Wynn, who noted that she was impressed by both the sensitivity and diversity of her students’ creative interpretations of Holocaust experiences. In addition to paintings and collage, Notre Dame Academy students created award-winning stained-glass work, a video and an informative Web site (

The innovative Shalmoni Holocaust Arts and Writing Contest hopes to ensure the Holocaust will be remembered long after its witnesses are gone. As Rothstein says, “This is a living interaction. And we’ll reach even more students next year.”