December 18, 2018

Renowned lawyer Shapiro brings substance abuse awareness to Jewish community

Photo from Pexels

More than a decade later, renowned lawyer Robert Shapiro still can’t seem to get a distinctive ringing out of his head.

“The phone rang and rang and rang. It seemed to ring a little too long. It was a little too early,” Shapiro told a crowd on May 8. “Then we got the call that no parent would ever want to get.”

The October 2005 phone call was regarding Shapiro’s son Brent, a 25-year-old college undergrad who was contemplating law school. A recovering drug addict, Brent relapsed in the early hours of that morning at a party. He was buried just over a day later.

An overflow crowd of nearly 300 people, mostly observant Jews, at YULA Girls High School listened to Shapiro and other speakers during a program called “We Need to Talk About Prevention.”

The drug and mental health awareness event was organized by the Aleph Institute, a Florida-based Jewish nonprofit, which runs Project Tikvah — “tikvah” meaning “hope” in Hebrew — a program that advocates for alternative sentencing options and interventions for struggling Jewish youth and those in prison.

The Aleph Institute, which has offices in Los Angeles, was awarded a 2016 Cutting Edge Grant of $250,000 from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles for its Project Tikvah proposal. 

Robert Shapiro. Photo courtesy of Aleph Institute.

The event featured mental health professionals, heads of treatment centers and former addicts discussing the prevalence of substance abuse and mental health issues, particularly among youth in the city’s observant Jewish community. It was repeatedly mentioned by speakers that many in observant and Orthodox circles are hesitant to address substance abuse and mental health concerns for fear of judgment and stained reputations.

Aleph Institute Vice President Jimmy Delshad, a former Beverly Hills mayor, who is Iranian-American, told the Journal that he thinks the city’s Persian-Jewish community is “sweeping the issue under the ‘Persian rug.’ ”

Ari Stark, vice president of operations for Destinations, a company that operates teen treatment centers in California and Nevada, cited statistics to illustrate the seriousness of the issue. He said East Coast Orthodox communities have experienced 75 suicides in the past year, all attributable to either drug or alcohol abuse and mental health issues. Each case involved an individual under the age of 35, he said.

“We as a community are not immune,” he said. Stark added that in his work at his company’s teen treatment centers, he has dealt with students from most of the city’s yeshivas and elite Jewish day schools.

Josh Harvey, 32, grew up a Jewish day school poster boy in West Los Angeles. The product of an observant Jewish household, he attended Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am, a Pico-Robertson-area day school. As a teen, he turned to substance abuse and began to sell drugs. He spent years in and out of treatment and jail.

Now, sporting stylish glasses and ornate tattoos on his arms, he’s four years clean and sober and working as an addiction counselor at a Los Angeles recovery center. Harvey applauded the efforts of the program organizers to raise awareness in the Jewish community.

“We need to know that even Jews can be addicts,” he said. “I can’t believe that the Jewish community would hold such an educational event. It’s so positive for our community to acknowledge that addiction exists and we need to treat it. We need to be aware of it. We need to make families aware of it. We need to make communities aware of it because this is a problem that isn’t going away.”

According to Leah Perl, Project Tikvah’s associate director, the aim of the event was to initiate a difficult, ongoing dialogue.

“Los Angeles is ready to start tearing down the stigma and shame associated with mental illness and drug addiction,” she said. “By ignoring it, we’re losing kids. This is happening within our own community. You can’t teach people everything in one event, but you can start the conversation.”

Dr. Ron Nagle, a Beverly Hills pediatrician, emphasized the need to monitor drug use in the home. He poured dozens of Tylenol pills into a tin cup, showing how many it might take to induce an overdose. He then took just two of them, meant to represent common prescription painkillers such as Oxycontin or Vicodin, and said, “That’s all it might take.”

Shapiro, well known as one of O.J. Simpson’s defense lawyers when the former football star faced murder charges, established in 2006 the Brent Shapiro Foundation, an organization dedicated to creating awareness about addiction diseases and finding ways to help halt their spread. He left the audience with one final plea for increased attention to what he repeatedly referred to as an epidemic.

“If there is a problem, don’t run away from it; face it head on and do the best you can to get the help you need,” he said. “And if there’s not a problem, do everything you can to prevent one.”

Calendar Picks and Clicks: May 12-18, 2012

SAT | MAY 12

What if O.J. Simpson didn’t do it? The Journal invites you to the L.A. premiere of a documentary that examines that very question. Explore the evidence with private investigator William Dear, whose ongoing investigation into the 1994 murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman comes to a conclusion that has yet to be explored. A panel discussion and Q-and-A follow, featuring Dear, Deputy District Attorney Alan Jackson and criminal defense attorney James Blatt. Journal president and columnist David Suissa moderates. Must be at least 17 years old to attend. Sat. 7-10 p.m. $12. Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (800) 838-3006.

TUE | MAY 15

The master of narrative nonfiction appears in conversation with David Kipen, founder of the Boyle Heights used bookshop Libros Schmibros. They discuss Larson’s bestseller, “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin,” which follows U.S. Ambassador William Dodd, who arrives in Hitler’s Germany in 1933. Glamorous Germany soon reveals its true colors, but the State Department shows indifference to Dodd’s reports of Jewish persecution. Tue. 7:30 p.m. $20. Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, 300 N. Clark Drive, Beverly Hills.

The out-and-proud executive at Bravo, who oversees development of shows like “Top Chef” and “The Real Housewives” franchise, discusses and signs copies of his new memoir, “Most Talkative: Stories From the Front Lines of Pop Culture,” which recounts how he became the first openly gay late-night talk show host, an Emmy winner and network head. Wristbanded event. Tue. 7 p.m. Free. Barnes and Nobles at The Grove, 189 Grove Drive, Suite K 30, Los Angeles. (323) 525-0270.

WED | MAY 16

Journal president and columnist David Suissa debates Peter Beinart, author of the controversial book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Temple Israel of Hollywood’s Rabbi John Rosove moderates the discussion on the lack of progress in peace talks — Beinart acknowledges acts of violence on the Palestinians’ part but faults Israeli policies; Suissa ascribes blame to the Palestinian Authority’s use of incitement against Jews. Wed. 7 p.m. Free. Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 876-8330.

The National Council of Jewish Women holds an educational program advocating for reproductive freedom and addressing the current pushback against feminism. Actress and activist Tyne Daly (“Judging Amy”); American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) staff attorney Maggie Crosby; Serena Josel, public affairs director for Planned Parenthood Los Angeles; Linda Long, vice president of California National Organization for Women; and Kaya Masler, a USC student and political organizer, participate in a panel discussion. Los Angeles Times columnist Sandy Banks moderates. Light refreshments served. Wed. 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Free. NCJW/LA Council House, 543 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. RSVP (323) 852-8503.

Israeli musicologist and pianist Astrith Baltsan’s concert reveals the surprising origins of Israel’s national anthem, which has its roots in an ancient Sephardic prayer, classical music by Mozart, Chopin and Smetana, and a Romanian immigrant folk song. Presented by Mati and the Consulate General of Israel. Cocktail reception included. Wed. 7:30 p.m. (cocktails), 8:30 p.m. (program). $50 (advance), $60 (door). Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. (323) 351-7021.

THU | MAY 17

The new Skirball exhibition explores how a Chinese game became an American Jewish tradition, influencing fashion, style and cultural identity. Mah jongg-inspired contemporary works by Isaac Mizrahi, Bruce McCall and Maira Kalman accompany mah jongg sets and rulebooks, newspaper articles and vintage photographs. Visitors are encouraged to play at tables set up throughout the Skirball. Included with museum admission. Thu. Through Sept. 2. Noon-5 p.m. (Tuesday-Friday), 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Saturday, Sunday). $10 (general), $7 (seniors, students), $5 (children, 2-12), free (members, children under 2). Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.

The veteran “CBS Evening News” anchor discusses his new memoir, “Rather Outspoken: My Life in News,” with Journal columnist Kaplan, the Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Thu. 7:30 p.m. $20. Writers Guild Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills.

Opinion: Truth be told

Just because the truth is difficult to ascertain, does that mean it doesn’t exist? Is it as simple as saying that, in any debate, we each own a piece of the truth, but no one actually owns the whole truth? And is that a cop-out?

Those questions will be on my mind over the next week as I participate in two events where the search for an elusive truth will take center stage. The first is a screening of a provocative documentary that challenges the conventional wisdom on the O.J. Simpson murder case, and the second is a debate between Peter Beinart and myself on the current state of Zionism. Both events promise to be lively and controversial; both will present a difficult struggle to arrive at some kind of truth.

The notion of truth was a complicated mess in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, which kept Los Angeles and much of America spellbound as it unfolded more than a decade ago. Most people didn’t believe the jury’s verdict of not guilty — and I count myself in that group.

Needless to say, I was highly skeptical when my friend Howard Barrett, producer of the documentary “Overlooked Suspect: What if O.J. Simpson Didn’t Do It?” came to The Journal’s offices a few weeks ago and told me: “David, you have to see this film. It will change your mind about the case.”

I did see the film, several times. I arranged private screenings for Hollywood producers, friends, criminal attorneys and colleagues, and, each time, the response was the same: “Wow.” It turned the truth we thought we knew upside down. So, I thought: Why not give everyone a chance to see the film and judge for themselves?

You’ll have that chance on Saturday night, May 12, at The Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, when we will screen the film, followed by a panel that I will moderate with criminal defense attorney James Blatt, Deputy District Attorney Alan Jackson and the private investigator featured in the film, William Dear.

Dear is the man responsible for the pursuit of truth chronicled in the film. This is not some grand philosophical search; it’s a tedious, methodical, dogged pursuit that has lasted more than 15 years and has introduced plenty of reasonable doubt for those who believe O.J. is guilty.

“It didn’t smell right to me from the start,” Dear told me over the phone last week. “There were too many holes.”

By picking apart the prosecution’s case, Dear, an award-winning private investigator from Texas, was able to identify an “overlooked suspect,” which he describes in the film in detailed and dramatic fashion.

Does Dear’s skepticism warrant some skepticism of its own? Yes, according to Jackson, who, true to form, was able to punch a few holes in Dear’s theory when I showed him the film. You will hear from both sides after the screening. 

Rabbi David Baron, whose Temple of the Arts is co-sponsoring the screening, explained his interest in the film this way: “The pursuit of truth and justice are supreme Jewish values, and anything that advances those values should be a Jewish interest. While the film may not bring us a final truth, it does bring us a little closer.”

I hope to get closer to some truths in my debate with Peter Beinart, the author of the much-discussed book, “The Crisis of Zionism.”

Beinart takes a highly critical view of Israel’s inability to end the “occupation” of the West Bank, which he considers “non-democratic Israel.” His alarmism is at full tilt: If Israel doesn’t end the occupation soon, the Zionist dream of a Jewish and democratic state will die.

This line of argument is hardly new; Zionist critics of Israel have been making it for decades. What makes Beinart’s book stand out, beyond his alarmism, is that he connects Israel’s failures to failures in American Judaism. He chastises, for example, the American Jewish establishment for blindly supporting Israeli government policy and then blames that approach for alienating from Israel a new generation of American liberal Jews.

I think Beinart’s conclusions, while dramatic, are full of holes. I also think his call to boycott settlements is counterproductive and that his overall approach will not bring the parties closer to peace. When we debate on the evening of May 16 at Temple Israel of Hollywood, I will make sure to mention all of that.

But here’s the bigger question: Will our debate bring us closer to some kind of truth, or will it simply bring each of us closer to the truth we already believe? Can any debate bring us closer to the truth, and how would we know if that happened?

And what role does emotion play? If I’m offended, for example, by the way Beinart brazenly criticizes Israel, does that represent a worthy truth in itself, or is it a useless emotion that has no place in a rigorous debate?

I’m pretty sure there will be plenty of emotion at both events — and little agreement on what constitutes the truth. There’s something reassuring about the absence of certainty, but I’m still tantalized by the possibility that an absolute truth exists out there, somewhere, and none of us knows for sure who has it.

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