December 14, 2018

Using the Bully Pulpit on High Holy Days

Editor’s note: Over Rosh Hashanah, local rabbis spoke on a variety of topics, but three in particular took aim at the policies of President Donald Trump’s administration. Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica made national and international headlines when he excoriated his former congregant, Stephen Miller, now Trump’s senior adviser. IKAR Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous received a thunderous standing ovation after her 30-minute sermon pointing out how unwell our country is but that it’s not too late to build a new America. And Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple spoke about the “daily cocktail of anxiety” we see in the news and how the Unetane Tokef prayer can help guide us in these troubled times. Below are edited excerpts from their Rosh Hashanah sermons.   

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels: An Open Letter to Stephen Miller
I was once your rabbi. When you were about 9 or 10 years old, your family belonged to Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica. You attended our religious school.

The actions that you now encourage President Trump to take make it obvious to me that you didn’t get my/our Jewish message. I understand that you were a major contributor to the zero-tolerance policy Attorney General Jeff Sessions initiated to punish and deter desperate families from coming to the United States by separating children from their parents at the border. That notion is completely antithetical to everything I know about Judaism, Jewish law and Jewish values.

Mr. Miller, the policy that you helped to conceive and put into practice is cruel. What you would have learned from me is that ours is a spiritual path that is focused on one task: bringing the shattered pieces of the vessel in which the universe was born back together in both a literal and spiritual repair — a healing of transcendent influence and impact. Mr. Miller, Judaism is a way of responding to the mundane and the unexpected, always seeking the response that is at once the most just and the most merciful. We Jews have chosen our history to be our mandate. We choose to recall and emphasize our most ancient ancestor, Abraham, as a “wandering Aramean,” i.e., a refugee, an immigrant. We choose to remember and underscore that the quintessential experience of the Jewish people is both the slavery in and the exodus from ancient Egypt. We are all refugees, Mr. Miller.  

Honestly, Mr. Miller, you’ve set back the Jewish contribution to making the world spiritually whole through your arbitrary division of these desperate families at our southern border. It’s not that we can’t reverse what you’ve done. We can, we are, and we will. 

We’re not going away, Mr. Miller, and whether you identify now as Jew is not really my concern. What is troublesome is that some of my colleagues and others are concerned about what I might have taught you when you were a member of our community. I can assure you, as I can assure them, that what I taught is a Judaism that cherishes wisdom, values honed over four millennia, wide horizons and an even wider embrace. 

Is there still time, is there still a chance that you might change your attitude? That’s up to you, Mr. Miller. I will never give up hope that you can open your heart.

In the meantime, I will act in accordance with the values that our tradition conveys, values that go beyond the superficial and time-limited expediencies of your allegiance to party and a temporal leader, and I will engage against you in a machloket l’shem shamayim, a struggle for the sake of all that is righteous, not merely what you may deem as right.

Know this: Regardless of whether the Trump administration decides to be accountable, we are choosing to be accountable. We believe, as Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us so precisely, “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.” Because we want this society to remain free, we will continue to act. Someone needs to clean up this mess and, in concert with many others, it will be your long-suffering, uncomfortable Jewish people.

Do you know the Yiddish word mensch, Mr. Miller? In Yiddish, a mensch is a fully-constituted, human and humane being. In Hebrew it parallels to the word ish. Hillel the Elder taught us: “B’makom she-ein anashim, hishtadeil l’hiyot ish”. (Avot 2:5) In other words, “In a place where no one is acting like a mensch, be one!” That’s what we will be doing, Mr. Miller, because that’s who we are. We can only hope you will decide to join us.

Read more of his sermon’s here. 

Rabbi Sharon Brous: Building A New America
We are not well when racist dog whistles today sound more like bullhorns, when Black athletes are scorned and penalized for engaging in nonviolent protests against police violence. When the Justice Department actively works to roll back civil rights achievements of previous administrations

Yes, it’s a victory that only a dozen pathetic Nazis showed up to march in [Washington,] D.C. on the anniversary of Charlottesville, but friends — they’ve moved from the streets to the ballots! There are now several avowed white nationalists, Holocaust deniers and Nazis on the ballot in state and federal races this fall. Organizations that monitor hate groups say it’s clear that white nationalists feel emboldened when the president himself advances their agenda every time he discharges an insult about Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans. No, we are not well.

We are not well when there are one or two shooting incidents in American schools every single week. When middle schoolers report being afraid to return to the classroom because they’re scared they might get shot. And when the Secretary of Education toys with the idea of allowing states to siphon federal funding intended for the arts and music, mental health and technology programs instead to the purchase of guns for teachers. We are not well.

“Oh, keep your politics off the pulpit!” they say. 

As if our Torah is not an inherently political document. As if the story of slaves rising up before the most powerful ruler of the ancient world to demand freedom and dignity is not a political message. 

This I know: Our Torah did not survive thousands of years only to be muted precisely the moment its eternal message matters most. We make a mockery of our tradition when we suggest that the way we live in human society, the way we treat one another, the way we care for — or neglect to care for — the least among us is outside the scope of religion.

What we need is not to return to a time of mythical greatness. We need to build America anew, equipped to hold us in all our diversity and complexity. 

Yes, we are unwell, but we can — and we must — build a new America.

And it’s already happening. This year, we witnessed the beginning of a nonviolent revolution, as a million students walked out of their classrooms and took to the streets. This army is led by 16-year-olds who, while hiding under desks and behind file cabinets, saw their friends shot. Who saw the sickening inaction, the hypocrisy and complacency of our elected officials, and stood up to insist that if the grown-ups wouldn’t do it, they would bend the arc of history themselves.

Our children are in the streets shouting, Pasul! Pasul! It’s not kosher! This is old America, the America of greed, corruption and hatred, of systems built to protect and sustain white supremacy, to entrench power in the hands of the few and keep guns in the hands of the many. It is foul and corrupted. And unlike us, the grown-ups, these kids won’t even consider that change is impossible.

It is their passion that will lead the way to a new America. It’s their moral clarity. Their fidelity to the truth. Their chemical allergy to hypocrisy. They are leading, and we need to stand behind them now, with the full force of our political, spiritual, intellectual and material resources. To do anything less would be a gross abdication of moral responsibility.

There may be a time when it really is too late to redeem America. Thank God, we are not there yet. 

The new America won’t come easily; we’re going to have to fight for it. 

We will rebuild this nation with love. There is a new America being born, and it is fierce, gorgeous and fair. It is built on justice and mercy, and it makes room for everyone. 

To usher this new America into the world, we — every one of us — will need to be brave, brave, brave. 

Read, listen or watch the full sermon here.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder: Double Down on Your Relationships
I suffer from anxiety. It is very real and sometimes very frightening. It can ruin parts of days, weeks, months and years. As a rabbi, I see so much dysfunction, so much hurtful gossip, so much cancer and death that it is hard not to feel like I’m next.

And, of course, there is the news. That daily toxic cocktail of mind-boggling instability, criminality and drama in Washington, tweeting and testing the very fabric of democracy itself — wildfires, Putin, Assad, Iran, North Korea, global warming, Mueller, racism, corruption, sex scandals, immigration cruelty, floods, homelessness — over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. And tonight we’re supposed to wish each other a shanah tovah? Really? Yes. Really.  

Our ancestors put celebrating on Rosh Hashanah ahead of the past remorse we face on Yom Kippur. First comes hope in the future, then the muck of our past. And believe me, the sages knew a lot more about anxiety than we do. Consider the Unetane Tokef prayer we say on Rosh Hashanah. The one that asks, “Who by water? Who by fire? Who will be troubled? Who will be needy? Who shall live and who shall die?” That prayer was written at least 13 centuries ago.  

Life 13 centuries ago was nothing but anxiety. Rape, murder, muggings, death by fire or flood or plague or starvation or war were regular, daily occurrences. But our ancestors had a different, more powerful prescription for managing their anxiety and fear. I try to use it every day. Remember how that prayer ends; what comes after that long list of terrible things to worry about in the coming year? It ends with three simple things that can get us all through. “But teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer) and tzedakah (generosity),” says that wise prayer, “Ma-a-virin et roah ha-gezarah (will make whatever comes next year easier to live with and through).” 

This was the ancient rabbis’ simple, three-part formula for surviving in their time, and it can be ours, too. First, teshuvah — repentance. And what is repentance really, other than trying to make things right with others? Our ancestors lived in small villages, where the key to survival was the quality of relationships with a handful of people who really mattered. Are we any different? Do any of us have more than a small handful of people in our lives who really matter?    

So double down, says the Unetane Tokef. When you are in pain, when you are lost, when you are afraid — double down on your relationships. Cherish them. Nurture them. Whoever you came here with tonight or called to wish a shanah tovah, that person by your side right now, he loves you, she loves you, he will shelter you when the rain falls, she will hold you when the darkness is too dark to see. No one endures suffering better alone. Tend to your relationships with teshuvah. Do not let the centrifuge of life’s stresses whirl your family and your friendships apart.

Double down. Make things right with the people you love. For only love can lift us from our suffering and our fear. Click here to read the entire sermon. 

Rosh Hashanah sermon: Rabbi Steven Z. Leder

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder

My name is Steve and I’m procrastinator.  For years the Temple staff has known that when my assistant says, “Steve is home working on his High Holy Day sermons,” it really means, Steve is home cleaning the garage.  Every year it’s all there, calling out to me:  the car mats from two models ago, vases from flower arrangements dead for a decade, a dirty aquarium filter, an electric chainsaw I never use, hinges, screws, light bulbs, paint cans, one refrigerator full of beer we never drink.  One empty refrigerator—up and running in case the Zombie Apocalypse arrives– an infomercial ladder I can’t figure out even with the Youtube video, Aaron’s 9th grade Lacrosse gear, Hannah’s college microwave, a dried-out sponge mop, tangled cords, cables, clippers and a Poncho Gonzales tennis racket from 1972—it’s all there just begging to be reorganized.

Each August I reorganize, but by the next August there’s the same mess waiting for me.  How does that happen?  It happens because I have been making the same mistake most of my life—a lot of us have.  As Marie Kondo put it in her book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, “Putting things away creates the illusion that the…problem has been solved.”

Are we hear tonight to create an illusion–to listen to the music, read the prayers, acknowledge a few troubling things about ourselves and then store them away until they spill into next year, and the next, and the next until our lives are over?  Or are we here to really get rid of some things, to make real peace, to really say goodbye to our bitterness and our regrets, casting them away forever?  Are we here to engage in change Kabuki, or real change?

Kondo’s method for deciding what to keep and what to discard from our homes is to pull everything out of the closet, everything off the shelves, everything out of the cabinets, the drawers and the boxes, everything in in every room and then, hold each thing up to light of a single question:  Does this spark joy?  If the answer is no, let it go.   Does this spark joy?  If the answer is no, let it go.

Imagine if we ask ourselves “Does this spark joy?” not about our overstuffed garage or chaotic kitchen drawers, but about our inner lives.  That is what the rabbis meant when they commanded a cheshbone hanefesh during these ten days—an inventory of our souls.  These next ten days are not for reorganizing our sins into neater piles and storing our demons in newer, stronger containers; not for restacking our regrets in the basement of our souls, but for facing them and letting them go.

The Rosh Hashanah custom of tashlich, when Jews all over the world take the lint from their pockets and throw it into water, must be done in a body of water that contains fish.  Why?  Because as one sage suggests, just as fish have no eyelids, so too the eyes of God are always upon us.  Jews going to the oceans, rivers, streams and wells of their villages, cities and suburbs on Rosh Hashanah afternoon to do tashlich is more than a metaphor.  It is a promise.  A promise before the ever-watchful eyes of God that we will cast away our sins and our guilt.   Tashlich is a promise to let go….

So is prayer.  That’s what we are doing here with these ancient words and soaring melodies—we are letting go.  God is not some cosmic grantor of wishes.  To pray is not to wish, not to get, not to persuade God to change our fortunes.  To pray is to change ourselves.  To rid ourselves of the sin of indifference, the sin of bitterness, the sin of having betrayed another, of gossip, of cynicism, of pettiness, of an angry, senseless grudge that has gone on for too long.  To pray, is to let go, to lighten, to shed and to know that the shedding and letting go is at one and the same time an embrace of a lighter, better, freer, happier, wiser, more beautiful life….

Ask yourself, what grudges, what bitterness, what guilt, what shame, what avoidances, what foolish pride, what sins tucked away in the cabinets, closets and secret hiding places of your life should you hold up to the light tonight and admit bring you no joy?  Tonight, God and three thousand years of Torah are asking us to hold our joyless, ugly habits, our joyless regrets, mistakes and grudges up to the light.   To think about what we are carrying inside and to ask, does it spark joy?  If the answer is no, pray tonight to let it go.

Is your life not what you hoped for?  Is that what is weighing you down tonight?  After thirty years of being on the inside of other people’s lives—I have learned that no one—no one has it easier than anyone else, and no one has it all.  Tom Waits put it pretty well when he sang:  “Got the sheets, but not the bed.  Got the jam, but not the bread.”  My Yiddish speaking grandmother put it differently:  “God,” she quipped, “doesn’t give with both hands.”

That billionaire you envy may have an ill child, or a child who will not speak to him or grandchildren she rarely, if ever sees.  That woman’s body you envy, she might be living with chronic, debilitating pain in her gut.  The uberkinder you wish your kid could be like might be headed for an unbalanced life that will someday implode.  No one has more or less than you have when you add it all up.  Does envy or jealousy bring you joy?  Count your own blessings, and let your jealousy go…. 

“OK Rabbi, I can let go of my envy, but not my pain.  Do you know what she did?  What he said?  How he hurt me?”  Is it the bitterness of betrayal that is cluttering your soul tonight?  I don’t blame you, unless… Unless the person who hurt you has stopped, has apologized, has changed, and has asked to be forgiven.  We know what Jewish law demands of us then, especially tonight.  We have to forgive; to let it go.  Have you never betrayed another?  Have your passions never gotten the best of you?  Have you never dealt with the stress of your life in some terribly dysfunctional and hurtful way?  Is it right to carry bitterness in our hearts for someone who has done what we ourselves have also done?  Maybe it is, if the person who hurt us shows no remorse.  If that person has not stopped, has not apologized, will never stop or apologize, then it’s true that we do not have to forgive.  But we can let go, move on, make peace with what they will never be—we can release ourselves from their grasp.  To paraphrase the Buddha, “In life, we are not punished for our anger, we are punished by our anger.” 

Remember the 23rd Psalm?  “The Lord is my Shepard, I shall not want.”  Remember that line that says:  “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies?”  Most people consider it is a verse about revenge in the afterlife.  A vision of eternity wherein we will feast at a table while our enemies who wounded us in life can only watch, starve and suffer.  I do not see it that way.  I think sitting down at a table with our enemies is about an opportunity in this life, the opportunity these High Holy Days present us with.  Sit down with your enemies, reach out to those with whom you have fallen out but whose arms may well be open, pick up the phone, apologize, seek forgiveness, do your very best to make peace with what can and what cannot be changed, what ought and ought not to be held in your heart. 

Your unloving mother, your stubborn brother, your egotistical boss, your friend who let you down, hurt you, gossiped about you, failed to be there for you—do your best with them, and when your best creates no change, ask yourself how long will they remain a poison in your heart?  Does that bitterness in you spark joy?  Let it go….

And invite one more kind of enemy to your table this year too.  Sit down with your enemies that dwell within and punish you every day–your shame, your regret, your moral failures, stupidity, arrogance, pettiness, greed—get help to change what you can, stop what you can, vanquish what you can, and then, sit at the table with your own sins, make peace, loosen their grasp on you and grant the most difficult forgiveness of all–the forgiveness, after honest effort, you owe yourself. 

Look at this.  I bought this in a tiny village in India outside of Bhubaneshwar.  It is a village that time forgot.  No running water.  No electricity.  No paved road.  No doctor.  Most people without shoes and with only a goat or a small garden with turmeric and lentils drying in the sun.  It was the kind of place our ancestors during the time of the Torah likely lived their entire lives. 

Inside this is a tiny elephant surrounded on the outside with this beautiful filigree.  This began as a solid piece of stone rounded by an artist who then carefully, meditatively, with the deepest of intention, removed small bits of stone with ancient tools hewn over time, until this delicate, amazing, work of art remained.  This was created by taking away everything that was not beautiful–everything that prevented light from entering.

People think the Torah is a book of light and love but that mostly isn’t true.  Every family in the Torah is incredibly dysfunctional.  Eve convinces Adam to eat of the forbidden tree.  Cain murders his brother Abel.  At his infertile wife’s request Abraham has a son with the housekeeper.  Then Sarah makes him banish the boy and his mother to die in the dessert.  Next, as we read in the Torah tomorrow, Abraham nearly murders his other son Isaac.  Jacob steals his brother Esau’s entire inheritance.  Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery and tell their father he was dead.  Add to these stories the hundreds of thousands dying in plagues or at the tip of a spear. 

Why?  Why is Torah so filled with negative examples of human behavior?  Why of the 613 commandments in the Torah, are 248 positive “Thou shalts,” but 365 are negative “Thou shalt nots?”  Because the Torah knows we can become better people by choosing how not to behave.  Because what we choose not to do, not to say, not to envy, not to hold onto from within any longer, because of what we remove from our hearts and lives…the true light of Torah, of God, of who we really can be, shines upon our innermost soul.       

Reject the America of Charlottesville and you will find within you the America of Houston’s good Samaritans; that rag tag navy of compassion.  When you see someone, anyone, who does not welcome the stranger, the gay, the new kid, the neighbor of color, the poor, the immigrant, the slow, the large, the small, the disabled, the different, the devout Muslim, the faithful Christian, the pious Orthodox Jew, the liberal or the conservative of good conscience—when you see anyone who hates without reason, without even knowing the object of their hatred–reject that narrowness and that arrogance and that indecency.  Throw it out and let the light of tolerance shine in our country and our souls.   

When you see unkindness reject cruelty.  When you see cheating reject the moral short cut.  When you see someone abusing his or her body with drugs or too much or too little food, or exercise, or alcohol, or cigarettes, or weed, reject the desecration of you own God given body. 

When you know you have a problem with money, with anger, with addiction, with workaholism, with stubbornness, with anxiety, depression, with the friend you no longer know, the loved one you no longer call—do something, get help, don’t just tidy up, reorganize, re-shelve and wait another year.    

When someone is truly sorry, forgive, let go.  If you have slayed some terrible demon because you did face it, you did stop, you did confess, you did change, you did hold your moral failing up to the light—then forgive yourself.  Your shame, your regret, they spark no joy–let them go.  We are all, after all, only human.      

Why three-hundred-sixty-five “Thou Shalt Nots” in the Torah?  Because every day we encounter something we should no longer hold onto, or someone we should never become or believe in.   Because every day we have the opportunity not just to reorganize that which brings us no joy, but to cast it from our lives forever. 

The High Holy Days, repentance, forgiveness are all tashlich—are all a casting away with the time hewn tools of Torah, Teshuvah and love.  Use these ten days.  Use these tools.  Use them to finally let go of what is hurtful, and ugly and brings you no joy.  Then, what remains for you in the New Year will be lighter, gentler and more beautiful than before.

L’shana tova.

L.A. synagogues carry on in face of bomb threats

Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Photo courtesy of downtowngal/Wikicommons.

The email bomb threats that shut down three Los Angeles synagogue campuses last weekend weren’t enough to keep Zachary Ansell from coming of age.

The Glazer and Irmas campuses of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, as well as University Synagogue in Brentwood, were closed from about 8 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. June 10, a Saturday, according to Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Officer Mike Lopez. But Zachary, whose bar mitzvah was scheduled to take place at the Irmas campus in West L.A., wasn’t to be deterred.

“It wasn’t aimed at my son,” Zachary’s mother, Debra, said of the threat. “But it was aimed at disrupting the community and the continuity of our rituals — and it didn’t.”

The family was taking pictures in the sanctuary when Rabbi Steven Z. Leder informed them of the situation.

Though the threat later was determined to be a hoax, synagogue officials and the LAPD decided to clear the campus, forcing the Ansells to scramble for a new venue. They had scheduled an afternoon reception to follow the service at the Beverly Hills Marriott, and the hotel agreed to hold the ceremony there, as well.

Leder, meanwhile, sprung into action.

“I strapped a Torah into the passenger seat of my car, put 100 siddurim in the back and off I went to the hotel,” he wrote in an email to the Journal.

He was met in the hotel lobby by a staffer named Michelle, who offered to help in any way she could. “She could not have been nicer or more helpful,” Leder wrote.

The hotel had prepared a pop-up sanctuary, with tables and chairs for the bar mitzvah crowd of some 90 people.

“I told everyone about Michelle and that she, not the cowardly hater who sent the threatening and bogus email, represented the real America,” Leder wrote.

At University Synagogue in Brentwood, the only event scheduled for that morning was a Torah study group. When participants arrived, they found the building under lockdown and retreated about a block, continuing their Torah study on the sidewalk, according to Rabbi Morley T. Feinstein.

The lesson of the day, Feinstein said, is “we never stop the study of Torah — no matter what.”

“We never stop the study of Torah — no matter what.”

Feinstein said the threat was delivered via an “email that was beyond nasty — horrific language, and threatening,” sent to a temple email account. After the temple’s executive director called the police, about 10 officers responded to the scene. The temple was empty at the time, Feinstein said.

Don Levy, the director of marketing and communications at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, said the synagogue received a threatening message via an online submission form on its website. LAPD was notified immediately and the synagogue’s campuses were shut down. A bat mitzvah planned for the temple’s Glazer campus in Koreatown was rescheduled for later that evening.

“While a communication like that can come in through something as innocuous as an online submission form, we take them all seriously,” Levy said. “We take any threat seriously and investigate it thoroughly to protect everybody’s safety.”

By 12:45, LAPD had cleared all three campuses to reopen.

“K-9 units responded to the locations to make sure to render all locations safe,” Lopez said on June 10. “At this time, we have no credible threats.”

The June 10 shutdowns follow a wave of more than 160 threats to synagogues and other Jewish buildings from January to March made by phone and email, including two against the Westside Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles. Two separate arrests have been made in connection with that series of threats.

As for the June 10 threats, if their goal was to spread fear and anxiety, they failed at least on one count.

“Zachary, by the way, was calm through the whole thing,” Debra Ansell said. “He’s not a kid who’s easily fazed.”

What we can and can’t do for Israel

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder sent the following to his congregants at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Our hearts ache and our minds are confused by the violence in Gaza and Israel and the apparent rise in European anti-Semitism.  Some have asked what I am thinking and what our Temple is doing about the situation in Israel, Gaza, and Europe.  

Let us begin with what we cannot do.

1.  We cannot demilitarize Hamas. Hamas has marginalized moderates in Gaza and therefore it is hard to imagine how real peace can be achieved without the demilitarization of Hamas. Demilitarizing Hamas requires cooperation between the world’s superpowers and the Arab powers. Former Obama advisor Dennis Ross correctly points out, “The long-range rockets came from Iran, the know-how to build the rockets came from Iran.”  Which means, according to Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post, “If Iran is intent on continuing this behavior, the United States must engage not only at the bargaining table but also in the region, on the ground. This means supporting allies against Iranian terrorist groups and subterfuge, working to ensure Iran does not dominate Iraq, and getting Iran’s junior partner, Bashar al-Assad, out of Syria without turning the place over to ISIS.” We as individuals and as a congregation cannot do this.

2.  We cannot prescribe peace:  We do not live in Israel.  For Jewish leaders in America to opine about what Israel ought or ought not to do about Hamas is wrong. These decisions must be left to Israel, where currently 95% of the population supports the government’s actions in Gaza.  Decisions are up to those whose lives are at risk every day, not us. Our rallies, prayers, and sound bites will not bring peace. Peace is the result of hard work and painful compromises. Only Israelis, through their democratically elected government, can make the difficult decisions necessary for peace.

3.  We cannot end European anti-Semitism:  Anti-Semitism in Europe is the oldest of stories, yet European and American anti-Semitism do not rule the day.  Anti-Semitism continues to be rejected as a serious political ideology by the U.S. and every government in Europe and hate crimes remain just that—crimes. We must call attention to these crimes and demand their prosecution but let us not be paralyzed or defined by an anti-Semitism that has existed for more than 18 centuries in Europe.

What we can do:

1.  We can write, call, and email to say thank you to the United States. The real victims are the innocent dead and wounded Palestinians and Israelis who want merely to live in peace and security. Without the Iron Dome, for which we owe our country an inestimable debt of gratitude, there would have been many hundreds, if not thousands, more Israeli victims.  It is time to email, call, and write to our elected representatives in the House and Senate as well as to the President, who encouragingly stated: “I have no sympathy for Hamas.” Write to them and thank them for standing by Israel during this recent crisis. Thank them for helping to fund the Iron Dome, which saved so many Jewish lives. American Jews cannot say thank you enough to the U.S. for what it has meant not only to us but to our brothers and sisters in Israel. You can use this link to find the contact information for your representatives in Congress. For specific information about various legislative issues before Congress affecting Israel, please go to:

2.  We can send money to alleviate suffering:  Click on this link to support treatment for Israeli children suffering from PTSD caused by more than a month of running from falling rockets and cowering in bomb shelters. Help pay for the care of wounded soldiers. Help rebuild community centers and schools. Our board of trustees recently upped our congregation’s support for Israel by purchasing more than half a million dollars in Israel Bonds. Let’s all do our part and give what we can.

3.  We can remember:  At 6 p.m., at every Kabbalat Shabbat service at both of our Wilshire Boulevard Temple campuses, and every Shabbat morning at 10:30 a.m., we recite the names of each fallen Israeli soldier and civilian victim. We remember too the innocent citizens of Gaza who have died as a result of Hamas’ barbarism. Prayer does not create peace, but it does create community, sensitivity for others, and gratitude for our own safety and blessed lives.

4.  We can educate our children:  We have had 12 Shlichim (Israeli counselors) at our camps this summer doing the very important job of educating our 1,200 campers and 200 staff about the crisis and life in Israel. We cannot bring all of our children to Israel, but in our own way we are bringing Israel to many of our children.

5.  We can prepare our children: This Sunday, Aug. 17th, at the Glazer Campus from 12 p.m.-3:30 p.m., (lunch included), with help from the organization StandWithUs, we are offering our 11th and 12th grade and college-age Temple members a workshop to prepare them for the anti-Israel sentiment they are likely to encounter when they return to their campuses in a few weeks. It is likely to be the most challenging fall ever for Jewish students, who will be confronted with falsehoods and vitriol from pro-Palestinian groups. We will prepare our students to stand their ground with facts, intelligence, strength, self-esteem, and dignity.

6.  We can go:  We sent 50 of our high school campers to Israel in spite of the crisis and spent significant time helping parents understand the value of that trip so they would allow their children to go. We hope very soon to organize a brief trip to Israel for our members interested in visiting wounded soldiers, meeting with elected officials, visiting the threatened communities in southern Israel, and seeing first-hand the ways in which our philanthropy can improve the lives of our brothers and sisters in Israel. If you are interested in participating, please email my assistant, Nan,<> to let us know.

I am saddened by what we cannot do but devoted to what we can. Israel needs our shoulders to the wheel, our dollars on the line, our active support.  Let us all now do what we can.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple: How do you raise $120 million?

Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s newly renovated sanctuary has been cleaned and fully restored. An extended bimah is more accessible for the first time. Photo © Tom Bonner 2013

Ask Rabbi Steven Z. Leder what the mission of Wilshire Boulevard Temple is, and he’ll tell you, “We make Jews.” The temple started making Jews two centuries ago, in 1862, when the country stood divided, engaged in Civil War, with Abraham Lincoln as the president of the United States. Then known as Congregation B’nai B’rith, it was located first at Temple Street and Broadway downtown, and then moved to a larger space at Ninth and Hope streets. Eventually, in 1929, the synagogue — now the oldest in Los Angeles — moved into its third historic home, on Wilshire Boulevard between Harvard and Hobart boulevards, dominating its portion of the city’s spine. 

Since its grand opening, the congregation has played a central role among Los Angeles’ Reform Jewish community, but over the years, the building’s façade and interior eroded, becoming dilapidated and outdated. When a legally blind congregant, Bea Boyd, called Leder to tell him the sanctuary’s bathrooms were disgustingly dirty, and when a 10-pound chunk of plaster fell from the ceiling in the middle of the night, Leder knew he had to take action. The result is a $160 million project, to be done in three phases, to restore the sanctuary to its former glory and, along the way, to add all sorts of new attributes to an expanded campus. 

Before he got started, however, Leder visited three respected and highly successful Los Angeles leaders, asking for advice. First, he went to Steven Sample, president of USC from 1991 to 2010, during which time he raised $3 billion for a school located in an area of Los Angeles that, as Leder put it, “No one believed in.” Second, Leder talked to Richard Riordan, mayor of Los Angeles from 1993 to 2001, because, Leder said, “He truly understands where Los Angles is heading.” And finally, Leder visited Uri Herscher, a rabbi and founder of the Skirball Cultural Center, who, according to Leder, is “one of the best rabbi fundraisers I have ever known.”

Through the encouragement of these three men, Leder gained confidence to move ahead. He brought on the renowned architect and congregant Brenda Levin to repair and enhance the neglected architectural gem, with its Byzantine dome and beautiful history-telling murals by Hugo Ballin that were commissioned by Warner Bros. studio chief Jack Warner. One of the congregation’s concerns, however, was the future of the neighborhood: Were there enough Jews in the Eastside area to sustain such a substantial investment? Leder said the guidance from Sample, Riordan and Herscher reaffirmed his belief that a resurgence was already taking place in the area and, more importantly, that if the passion and relationships established by the temple are real, the temple will succeed. 

Leder admits he never would have raised the more than $118 million that he has so far without his already strong and longstanding relationships with congregants. At the 2005 High Holy Days services, Leder announced the plans for the project in his sermon. His main message was that the sanctuary of Wilshire Boulevard Temple is at “the center of the center of the center.” In other words, the sanctuary is the core of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and it sits in a vital and diverse neighborhood essential to Los Angeles, which has the second-largest Jewish population in the United States. 

“We are the luckiest Jews to have ever lived,” Leder said. Yet he maintains this privilege and freedom comes with responsibility. He asks, “What will we do with this good fortune?” 

His answer: making Jews in various venues throughout the renovated Erika J. Glazer Family Campus of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. The newly refreshed and glowing sanctuary will be unveiled to the congregation at Erev Rosh Hashanah services on Sept. 4 and throughout the Days of Awe. The temple plans to finish the remaining two phases of the project by 2020. Phase two entails a large-scale Tikkun Olam Center, staffed by professionals and congregants, which will provide the surrounding communities with a variety of social services, rooftop gym facilities, new courtyards for celebrations and other gatherings, the renovation of the temple’s two school buildings and a large parking garage. Phase three includes an office building with conference rooms, administrative offices, meeting places, an events center, a mikveh, cafe deli on site and a kosher kitchen. 

The temple’s renovation and transformation of an entire city block wouldn’t have been possible without the temple’s approximately 7,500 congregants; to date, an estimated 520 people among them have donated to the project at various levels.

For this article, the Journal had space to profile only a small selection of those donors, and this selection, all of whom gave generously, also gave graciously of their time to talk about their philanthropy and motives. There is an extensive list of other congregants who contributed significant sums to the temple’s new effort. Perhaps foremost among them is Erika Glazer, daughter of shopping mall developer Guilford Glazer, who will give a total of $36 million, $6 million for the Early Childhood Center and $30 million over 15 years to help cover the debt payments on the tax-free bond financing the next phase of the project. She also gave her name: What was formerly known as the Wilshire Boulevard Temple campus is now officially renamed the Erika J. Glazer Family Campus of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in honor of her gift. (Glazer was traveling and unavailable to speak with the Journal at this time.) Among the other major donors are Larry and Allison Berg, Janet Crown, Stephen and Peggy Davis, Marshall Geller, Uri Herscher, Bruce and Lilly Karatz, Tom and Barbara Leanse, Yehuda and Liz Naftali, past president of the board Rich Pachulski and wife Dana, Ellen Pansky, Larry Powell and wife Joyce, Rick and Debbie Powell, Reagan Silber and many more. A particularly fervent donor is Sandy Post, who entered kindergarten at Wilshire Boulevard some 83 years ago and remains a temple member today. 

Leder’s fundraising total so far is believed to be the largest amount of money any rabbi has ever raised in the United States. Leder says his success is all due to the community, and he refers to the donors as the “finest, most generous, visionary human beings you will ever meet.”

Bram Goldsmith
Restoration of Sanctuary’s Ark

Bram Goldsmith, who served as chairman of the board and chief executive officer of City National Bank and City National Corp. from 1975 to 1995, was raised in a middle-class Orthodox home in Chicago. His father immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1916 and, soon after, brought over Goldsmith’s mother and two older sisters. Goldsmith himself was born in the United States in 1923, and he remembers from his childhood the family’s staple pushke box, a tin can for alms, in their home. Although not wealthy, the Goldsmiths always put a portion of what they had into the pushke to be picked up by the Jewish National Fund and sent to Israel.

With that box, young Bram was taught early the importance of giving back, and philanthropy became a guiding principle throughout his life. 

“My personal work ethic starts with the issue of integrity and includes taking personal responsibility, being helpful to others, by being charitable with your contributions and your personal involvement,” he said during an interview at his City National Bank office in Beverly Hills. 

In keeping with this mission, Goldsmith has donated $1 million for the restoration of the ark in the Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s sanctuary, which he sees as the heart of the temple. The donation was made through the Goldsmith Family Foundation, which was established in 1960.

For 25 years, Goldsmith served as president and chief executive officer of Buckeye Realty and Management Corp., the largest privately owned commercial real estate development company in Southern California at the time. He then took over City National Bank and guided the company’s growth, increasing assets from $600 million to $3.3 billion. Now, City National Corp. has assets of $27.4 billion and operates in more than 70 locations around the country.

Goldsmith’s first act of philanthropy occurred rather spontaneously, in 1942, when he was a young man in college at the University of Illinois at Chicago. At a dinner for the United Jewish Welfare Fund that he attended with his father-in-law, Goldsmith pledged $100, an amount so large  for him at the time, it took him six months to pay it off. But it was the beginning of a commitment, and, he said, since moving to California in 1953, he has been “involved with the major Jewish philanthropic organizations in the community” here. Among them, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the Wallis Annenberg Cultural Center Foundation, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Los Angeles United Jewish Fund Campaign, the United Jewish Appeal and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

As another Wilshire Boulevard Temple donor, Stanley Gold, put it, “Bram is the epitome of giving back to this community. In my opinion, he is the senior mensch in town.”

“I set a standard that all of us must encourage and respect every human being and do the right thing,” Goldsmith said.

A temple member since 1965, Goldsmith has been part of his five grandchildren’s bar and bat mitzvahs at Wilshire Boulevard and heard his granddaughter sing at Yom Kippur services. Goldsmith has seen the temple grow and change over almost 50 years, and has watched its role evolve in the Jewish world and Los Angeles at large. 

“I think that today, the temple has achieved a new level of respect and leadership in the community,” he said.

“The restoration of this facility to service the needs of Reform Judaism in greater L.A. is very critical,” he said. “A spiritual sanctuary, with thousands of members, represents a very strong foundation for the future education of kids, whom I consider to be most valuable.”

From putting a few cents in a pushke box to renovating Wilshire Boulevard’s sanctuary, Goldsmith continues to build upon his family’s tradition of giving.

Alan Berro
Bimah Accessibility Ramps

The lasting impact of a trip to Israel can be hard to measure, but for Alan Berro, Capital World Investors senior vice president and portfolio counselor, the experience went beyond connecting to the Jewish state. On a Wilshire Boulevard Temple trip there in 2007, Berro deepened his ties to his now-18-year-old son, Bailey, as well as to the synagogue’s Rabbi Steven Z. Leder and the 30 other congregants on the trip. In traveling the 7,000 miles to Israel, Berro discovered his community back home. 

The connection inspired Berro to become more involved in the congregation, which led to his underwriting the new ramps leading up to the bimah, enabling, for the first time, accessibility for all — young, old and the disabled. 

A member of Wilshire Boulevard Temple since 2000 and a current board trustee, Berro said, “Being Jewish is just part of who I am, and I’m proud of that. I really like being a member of a Reform congregation that’s more open and more inclusive.”

A Laguna Beach native, Berro moved back to Los Angeles in 1991 after living in Boston for seven years, arriving just in time for the Rodney King verdict riots in the spring of 1992. The chaos and destruction of neighborhoods during that time, which hit especially hard the Koreatown neighborhood surrounding the temple, made a deep impression on Berro. He has felt motivated ever since to play a part in community building.  

In 1998, Wilshire Boulevard Temple solidified the congregation with the addition of a new campus on the Westside, but Berro saw the importance of rehabilitating the historic location on Wilshire Boulevard and reinvesting in that neighborhood, as well. 

Berro said he especially supports the temple’s efforts to create the Tikkun Olam Center, which will serve people from the diverse surrounding neighborhood of all ages and denominations. 

“L.A. has been through some difficult times,” Berro said, adding, “I think the people who can afford to should try to help all parts of the city. We’re all here together; we’re not very far apart. This is just one more step in that direction.”

Berro attended UCLA as an undergraduate and earned an MBA from Harvard Business School. He worked at Fidelity Investments before joining the Capital Group.  

Berro has served on the board of Inner-City Arts since 1998 and as chairman of the board of that skid-row arts education project for three years. He also has donated money to the California Science Center and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, and in 2012 he joined the board of directors of the Jonsson Cancer Center Foundation at UCLA. Berro said he tries to extend his giving over a wide variety of areas, focusing on health, arts, education, religion and community.

Berro also said he views his contribution to Wilshire Boulevard Temple from a businessman’s point of view: “I see Wilshire Boulevard Temple as a pillar of the Jewish community in Los Angeles,” he said. “We’re really investing in a good place. … The fact we’re making a community and educational center will give a big return to the community.” 

“I hope my son becomes a member,” Berro said, “and that for each generation, hopefully, the cycle continues. I think we have a rich a beautiful history, and I’d like to keep it going.”

Every part of the temple’s exterior was repaired, including bringing back the original color. Photo © Tom Bonner 2013

Fred Sands
Sanctuary’s Triple Lancet Window

Los Angeles real estate mogul Fred Sands hesitates, on the verge of tears, as he explains his emotional connection to the Jewish people and religion. “I’m not aware I lost any relatives in the Holocaust, but the Holocaust is right here,” he said pointing to his heart. “It doesn’t go away.”

For Sands, the spiritual tie he feels to Judaism often remains inexplicable. To him, the important thing is how he responds to this deep-rooted connection. 

The persecution of his Jewish ancestors and the survival of the Jewish people despite the odds spur him to give back, and inspired his donation of $500,000 to Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s renovation of the sanctuary’s triple lancet window. 

“Rabbi Leder says you have to be a good ancestor. You’re not doing this for yourself; you’re also doing this for your heirs, future generations,” Sands said. 

A temple member for 10 years, Sands often has lunch with Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, seeking his advice. In this instance however, it was the rabbi who came to Sands for guidance. According to Leder, Sands was the fourth person he consulted before starting the restoration project .

Sands has lived in Los Angeles since the age of 7, and in 1969 he created Fred Sands Realtors, now California’s second largest and the United States’ seventh largest independent real estate company. After selling the company to Coldwell Banker in 2000, he formed the investment firm Vintage Capital Group. He now serves as chairman of Vintage Real Estate, LLC, and Vintage Fund Management, LLC. 

Many people encouraged Leder to sell the temple building, citing the large move of the Jewish population to the Westside. Sands, however, advised against that. He cited the increase of Jewish families and young couples living in Hancock Park, Los Feliz, Silver Lake and, more recently, an increasingly gentrified Echo Park — all neighborhoods close to the temple. 

“In urban planning, you discover when you study cities, a city starts at the core and works its way out. Ultimately the core rots, and then it starts all over again,” Sands said.

This is the evolution that is occurring in Los Angeles today, Sands said. Where Wilshire Boulevard Temple was once at the city’s core, and then was not, now that core is being rebuilt again, and the temple can play an integral part in the revitalization. 

“There’s a saying, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ They’ll be there,” Sands said. “The place is beautiful; people gravitate toward places like that. That’s a very vibrant community. No question, there’s going to be a resurgence.”

Sands even compares the temple’s rebirth to his own work with Vintage Capital Group, which buys rundown or underperforming shopping centers to improve them, and also focuses on turning around distressed companies and bankruptcies.   

For him, the artistic component is important, too. Sands is a founder, vice chairman and trustee of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art and also serves as chair of the museum’s Investment Committee. He also serves on several boards, including those of the Los Angeles Opera, the Los Angeles Police Foundation and Chrysalis, an organization that aims to rehabilitate the homeless.Sands said he believes any type of renovation, whether for a city, temple, commercial mall or company, requires a kind of generosity and kinship. 

“We’re all in this together, rich and poor. It’s the right thing to do,” Sands said. “We’re supposed to be good people, to help other people. It’s part of life, giving back.”

Stanley Gold
Preschool Play Yard for Future Generations

Stanley Gold sits relaxed and content in his Beverly Hills home as he explains his involvement in Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s renovation plan. The Shamrock Holdings president and CEO — and recent chair of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles — leans back, chewing on a cigar after finishing a summer salad for lunch, and describes his personal connection to the temple and his thoughts on its role in the greater Los Angeles community. Jocular and loquacious, Gold doesn’t hold back as he also describes his overall philosophy on philanthropy. 

He says Wilshire Boulevard Temple means so much more to him and his family than simply a historically and architecturally significant monument. For Gold, the 100-foot-by-100-foot sanctuary holds poignant memories of his son’s bar mitzvah and daughter’s bat mitzvah, and is the place where he’s established important friendships with the temple’s members, as well as its clergy. For the Gold family, Wilshire Boulevard is both a place of worship and a compassionate community. Gold and his wife, Ilene, have both served as members of the congregation’s board at various times during their four decades of membership. 

 “For the most part, we have given to places that have improved and bettered our lives. … Wilshire Boulevard fits that role perfectly,” Gold said. “They have helped us grow as a family, helped us raise our children and answered difficult questions.” To that end, the Golds have donated $2 million to help pay for and name a new play yard for the nursery school, which will be built later.

And while he acknowledges a strong personal connection, Gold said his reasons for donating also go far beyond that tie — he wants to support the temple’s role as a strong leader within the Jewish community as well as a gateway to the non-Jewish community. 

“I think we have a responsibility within the community. We need to be supportive of our neighbors and the non-Jewish world. I think the temple does that in a big way,” he said. 

Gold has seen the temple grow with changes in leadership, the building of the Audrey and Sidney Irmas Campus in West Los Angeles, and now the renovation of the new Erika J. Glazer Family Campus.

Gold said that with the expansion, he hopes the temple will continue to attract young, dynamic, growing and important families.

“We should never forget, as great as our buildings are, we are a People of the Book, not of the building, and that means we need to have new, interesting people to interpret that book and how it goes forward. I’m hoping the new facilities will attract such people,” Gold said. 

Gold added that he thinks all Jewish people have a responsibility to serve the rest of society, a viewpoint he himself tries to live by. 

Gold is a graduate of UCLA; he also has a degree from USC and completed postgraduate work at the University of Cambridge. He worked for the Gang, Tyre, Ramer & Brown law firm before becoming the president and CEO of Shamrock Holdings Inc., which is Roy E. Disney’s private investment company. He served on the Walt Disney Co.’s board of directors for more than 15 years, and donates money and gives his time to numerous Jewish and educational organizations. He served as chairman of the board at USC for six years, as chairman of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of religion for six years and chairman of Federation for two years.

 “I think the Jewish people have an important contribution to make to this society,” Gold said. “I think our values, our outlook on life, our goals are consonant with the American dream. … We improve the quality of society.” 

For Gold, this responsibility to contribute doesn’t only apply to Jews. 

 “I think it’s the job of everybody who’s on the earth to make the world a better place while you’re here,” he added. “Giving to organizations whose main focus is to enrich people and broaden people and show them opportunities is a way to make this place better. I give to those kinds of organizations,” he said. “I think I’m fulfilling what is my real duty for being here.”

The sanctuary’s ornate ceiling culminates in an oculus outlined by the words of the Shema. Photo © Tom Bonner 2013

Jonathan Mitchell
New Central Walkway

Jonathan Mitchell likes to crane his neck backward as he sits in the sanctuary of the historic Wilshire Boulevard Temple, taking time to look 100 feet upward at the omnipotent Byzantine dome, with its centerpiece oculus outlined by the words of the Shema. As the rest of the congregation closes their eyes in prayer, he likes to gaze above, in honor of the memory of his now-deceased mother, Beverly Mitchell.

When Mitchell was a boy, his mother would soothe him to sleep by chanting the Shema. That prayer evokes the memory of her comforting voice, especially, during the High Holy Days services in the resplendent sanctuary. Mitchell fixates on the words above, remembering as well how his mother would surreptitiously point at the dome when they went to services together. This clandestine moment between mother and son established a personal tradition amid the sea of fellow temple members whose eyes remained closed, unaware of what had transpired. 

This ritual, as well as the community he has found at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, inspired Mitchell to support the temple’s renovation and expansion project. Indeed, his family’s connection to the congregation reaches back generations: Both sets of his grandparents belonged to the temple, the temple confirmed both of his parents, the longtime stalwart Rabbi Edgar Magnin presided over the marriage of his parents and assisted in officiating Mitchell’s own bar mitzvah. Mitchell’s mother was also the first female member of the board.

Mitchell now heads the Edward D. and Anna Mitchell Family Foundation, named for his grandmother and for his grandfather, founder of the Beneficial Standard Life Insurance Co., and it was through the family foundation that he donated $1 million to build the campus’ new central walkway, which will be completed by summer 2016. The walkway will act as a main artery extending between the parking pavilion and sanctuary. 

“We had a tradition of going there on the High Holy Days,” Mitchell said during a conversation at his home in Beverly Hills “It was kind of a special time for the family to all be together; I always looked forward to it from that standpoint.”

Mitchell was born and raised in Los Angeles, and he now oversees his family’s investment portfolio and serves as president of the family foundation. He has also been a committed and generous supporter of organizations benefiting education and Israel. The Mitchell Family Foundation donated a major gift to the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and established the Mitchell Academy of Science and Technology at the Milken Community High School. He has also given time and financial support to the Anti-Defamation League, Cedars-Sinai, the Music Center, Goodwill Industries, Sheba Medical Center and the Technion, to name a few. He also has served as a national officer and board member of AIPAC, ultimately becoming chairman of its Political Education Program, from 1995 to 1997, encouraging the building of relationships among government leaders and members of the Jewish community. 

“The keeper of the Jewish traditions is Israel. It’s the heart and soul of the Jewish people,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell first realized the importance of helping Jews in 1968, on a trip to Israel and Eastern Europe sponsored by the United Jewish Appeal (UJA). At the former Jewish ghetto in Eisenstadt, Austria, he met the only living Jew from among those who stayed there after World War II. When Mitchell asked why he hadn’t left the ghetto, the man explained that if he moved, Jewish life in Eisenstadt would come to an end. 

Mitchell especially remembers that moment, and how Rabbi Herbert Friedman, then the executive director of the UJA, sparked in him a drive to live by and support Jewish traditions: “Rabbi Friedman said it doesn’t matter how many Hitlers come and go. All of them put together cannot destroy the Jewish people. The only thing that can destroy the Jewish people is if we forget our traditions,” Mitchell recalled. 

This notion, Mitchell says, has governed his entire life and was the motivation behind donating to the synagogue. 

“I don’t want the end of the Jewish religion to ever happen in Los Angeles, and having an institution that’s substantial, financially strong, that makes a strong statement in the community, like Wilshire Boulevard Temple — that helps to keep the Jewish tradition alive in Los Angeles,” Mitchell said. “And I would like to see that continue forever.

“I believe that in the end people will look back and say we did the right thing.” 

And this year, with the dome fully restored and newly glowing up above, Mitchell might not be the only one craning his neck back to read the words of the Shema prayer.

Martha Karsh
Tikkun Olam Center

“Sharing just feels like the right thing to do.” Martha Karsh, a philanthropist and attorney, said as she reflected on why she chose to donate to Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s renovation and expansion plan. Karsh said she and her husband, Bruce Karsh, were particularly moved by the temple’s plan to reach out with social services for its surrounding neighborhood, practicing the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam — repairing the world. 

Karsh admits she didn’t need a lot of convincing to show her support. She said that along with the temple’s altruistic efforts, the preservation of the temple building “just spoke to us.”

Before the restoration began, Karsh toured the 1929 building and saw firsthand its neglected state, including portions of the ceiling in the main sanctuary that had fallen to the ground. Karsh described her emotional reaction to seeing the extraordinary structure eroding in front of her eyes.

“I’m really an architecture and preservationist buff,” she said. “I love that temple building.” 

Once the renovation of the sanctuary is completed, Wilshire Boulevard Temple plans to build the Tikkun Olam Center, which will provide a variety of free or low-cost services, including medical, dental, legal and food assistance, as well as mental health counseling and English classes, for anyone in need living in the greater Koreatown area — a multicultural neighborhood that includes many low-income residents. The Karsh family has given $5 million to fund the center in hopes of improving the quality of life for both Jewish and non-Jewish neighbors. 

Karsh said she and her husband felt most passionate about this particular outreach programming because of their ardent belief in helping others. Their three children have worked for the food pantry that the temple has operated for more than 25 years. 

“I feel like my Judaism is very much a part of me,” Karsh said. “Many of the things that guide the work I do are really governed by both democratic and Jewish principles. Tikkun olam, for example — you heal the world, you help others that are less fortunate than you,” Karsh said. “Those are things that are really a part of the fabric of our lives.”

Martha and Bruce Karsh met at University of Virginia School of Law in 1978. The couple moved to Sacramento in the early 1980s for Bruce to work as a clerk for now-Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Bruce later transitioned into money management, ultimately becoming president and co-founder of Oaktree Capital Management, in 1995, which as of December 2012 managed $77.1 billion. Martha practiced law as a business litigator and counseling attorney. She also lectured at UCLA and volunteered at the Office of the County Counsel’s Department of Children and Family Services, earning volunteer-of-the-year in 1987. In 2009, she formed an architecture and design firm, Clark & Karsh, with architect Brad Clark. 

Even as they were working and raising their three children, the Karshes also created the Karsh Family Foundation, which has donated more than $120 million to a variety of philanthropic organizations, mostly ones involving education. 

Their philanthropic focus has been primarily on education, including giving to Duke University, University of Virginia, University of Pennsylvania, Teach For America and the Knowledge Is Power Program, and Martha Karsh said she believes education is key to bringing people together. She sees the Tikkun Olam Center as working to promote that goal, as well. 

“When you reach out to your neighbors, you build bridges — bridges of understanding and bridges of sharing. Those are the kind of bridges we need to have more of in the world,” Karsh said.

 “Part of the Jewish values, and just our personal values, are that you help people who are not as well off,” Karsh said. “What you’re doing is paying it forward. That’s why we’re doing it. That’s why it resonates with us.”

Audrey Irmas
The Irmas Family Courtyard

Well-known as among Los Angeles’ most important art collectors and arts philanthropists, Audrey Irmas discovers beauty wherever she goes — whether it’s a Roy Lichtenstein painting in her apartment or the artwork that adorns the walls of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple sanctuary.

Indeed, the sanctuary, built in 1929, is a work of art unto itself, with its audacious dome, resounding organ, delicate stained glass and more. However, for Irmas, one attribute in particular stands out: the Hugo Ballin murals. 

Irmas said she loves to look at, in particular, a portrait of Ruth Dubin, the wife of past Rabbi Maxwell Dubin. Draped in blue, Ruth poses on her knees, as if offering up something, but it’s a mystery as to what she’s offering. “I always kind of say hello to [Ruth] when I go. I feel very much at home,” Irmas said. “There’s something so beautiful and welcoming about the temple. I love it very much.” 

Irmas and her late husband, Sydney Irmas, are the third generation of the Irmas family to be members of the temple, and Irmas’ grandchildren constitute the fifth generation to belong to the congregation; indeed Audrey’s name, along with that of her husband grace the temple’s Westside campus, which opened in 1998. Now she has donated $5 million to create the Irmas Family Courtyard, which will include benches designed by the American artist Jenny Holzer.

When Irmas — who was born and raised in Los Angeles and attended Fairfax High School — was just a 20-year-old newlywed, she said, she took her first steps into the Wilshire Boulevard synagogue with her in-laws, when Sydney was out of town. She embraced the temple, sending her children to Sunday school there and attending services with her family — always sneaking a glance at the image of Ruth Dubin. 

It was in 1948, while a student at UCLA, that she met Sydney, who went on to become an attorney and investor. By 1983, the couple had formed the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Charitable Foundation, and since her husband’s passing in 1996, Irmas said, she has tried to address local, national and global problems through the foundation, as well as focus on women’s and children’s issues. The foundation also has donated money to USC, created the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Los Angeles Youth Center and the Sydney M. Irmas Therapeutic Living Center. Audrey Irmas also has served as president and chair of the board of the Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art and as chair of the Los Angeles Family Housing Corp. 

“I just feel that I am so fortunate. It’s just part of my background to give back. That’s just part of the family tradition,” she said.

She recalls, as a young girl during the Depression, witnessing her parents give $15 to charity. That donation, from more than 70 years ago, still influences her today, as she remembers how difficult times were for her family financially. 

She said there was no question that she would be a donor to the temple’s rebirth. She reflects back on the times she spent at the temple with her in-laws and said she is comforted by her children’s continuation of the tradition.

“We’re a clan. Jews are a clan, [and] I’m a member of that clan,” Irmas said. “Everybody is so excited about the new temple and the campus. It has reinvigorated the congregation.”

Irmas said she believes the temple’s project will rejuvenate what is already a thriving and tight-knit community. The High Holy Days services, in particular, are a time when she is reminded of the support and kindness she has received from the people who make up the congregation.  

“Usually, once a year, I’m invited to sit on the bimah and participate in the holiday readings. I love looking out to see all my friends from high school and my early marriage. We’re all sitting there together and worshiping. And it’s the temple that brings them together, that brings us together,” she said.

An early model of the campus expansion shows a preliminary vision for a Tikkun Olam Center on Sixth Street, at rear.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s transformation

My old office, on the 15th floor at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Kingsley Drive, looked directly at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. It would have been an ideal location to set up a time-lapse camera to document the slow but historic changes that have taken place there over the past few years.

In 2009, the enormous Byzantine Revival-style building sat in dilapidated silence most of the time. Its exterior was the color of a pair of old, soiled khakis. There was some activity, of course, but most of the temple’s large membership used the Westside campus, at Olympic Boulevard and Barrington Avenue. 

When I had non-Jewish visitors who wanted to see what a synagogue was like, I’d walk them across the street and enter the deserted sanctuary. I have a thing for old halls of prayer, and Wilshire Boulevard Temple always gave me shivers: seats worn by generations, the famous Hugo Ballin murals barely decipherable in the dark light. It had become more a monument, or museum, than a place of worship.

Fast forward to today. The old building has been transformed over the past few years. From my window, I watched scaffolding go up and down. Fleets of workers came and went. Holes were dug, concrete poured, landscaping redone. By the time the Jewish Journal moved down the street to new digs last week, and I closed my office door for the last time, Wilshire Boulevard Temple had been transformed, a testament to the idea that the old and nearly abandoned can be made new and vital.

A few weeks ago, Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, who conceived and pushed forward the transformation, invited me to see what had been done, accompanied by Brenda Levin, the architect who oversaw every detail of the restoration.

Inside, I sucked in my breath. “Wow,” I said — and the word echoed in the vast, splendid new space.

I write “new” space because it looks as fresh as it must have during its dedication in June 1929. Levin and her team polished a Los Angeles treasure. They meticulously restored the Ballin murals, donated by Warner Bros., which now seem to shine. The massive roseate stained-glass window, taken out for repairs, now looks like a ruby in its setting. The pews have been redone, the carpet is new, the bimah has been lowered and extended, and a new air conditioning system literally breathes new life into the place.

When the late Rabbi Edgar Magnin beheld the sanctuary for the first time in 1929, he said, “The room reveals the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty.”

Now we can see what he meant.

Leder faced a choice when he took over as the congregation’s senior rabbi. The congregation could sell its historic synagogue, perhaps to a Korean church, or it could invest heavily in its repair. The first option might have made the most sense: Many shuls and Jewish institutions have moved on from where they began, including Wilshire Boulevard Temple, whose first grand edifice was built in 1873 at the downtown corner of Temple Street and Broadway.

History marches on, and Jewish history especially pivots on what happens when temples are lost.

But Leder and the leadership of Wilshire Boulevard chose the second, less obvious option and decided to stay, to invest.

“We will use it to bet on the future of this city,” Rabbi Leder said.

Young Jews were moving back into Eastside neighborhoods. The temple could serve them, but also reach beyond the Jewish community to provide services to the densely packed area’s polyglot, mainly lower-income residents.

“The core of every great city rots,” Rabbi Leder quoted a congregant, “and the core of every great city regenerates.”

The project has taken years, and along the way generated naysaying and tongue clucking in direct proportion to its $120 million price tag. If I personally had $1,000 for every person who told me it could never succeed, I could have donated the cupola. It was folly to spend so much on a synagogue, people sniped, when there are so many homeless people, when Israel faces danger, when people are starving in the Congo — name your cause. Raise enough money and people will gladly advise you on better ways to spend it.

The project officially kicked off on Sept. 1, 2008. Lehman Brothers collapsed on Sept. 15 — the official start of the Great Recession. If it is hard under any circumstances to raise money for the largest synagogue expansion in modern history, in those years it must have seemed impossible.

Yet Leder plunged forward. As historian Karen Wilson pointed out, every building boom in Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s history coincided with a market crash. The Eastside sanctuary was completed in 1929 at a cost of $1.5 million — the Great Depression raised concerns as to whether temple could survive.

A few years ago, I ran into Rabbi Leder at a Starbucks. He had been up late the night before attending an opera performance with a donor, and he had a full day of donor meetings ahead of him. “Unrelenting” was the word I remember him using.

But it paid off. The sanctuary is stunning. In 2003, no children attended kindergarten at Wilshire Boulevard Temple East. Now, 120 kids are enrolled. The next phases — to add community space and outreach services — are on track. On Erev Rosh Hashanah, the congregation will file in for the great reveal.

The lessons in all of this? Where vision and leadership fuse with need, there is more than enough money. And the smart money always bets on the future of the Jewish community, and of Los Angeles.

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

The Way of Madness

The idea of one Jew killing another is shocking. Most of us think it never happens — but the truth is that it does. It happens this week in the Torah with Pinchas. After seeing a Jew apparently enticed by a Midianite prostitute, Pinchas runs them both through with his spear.

It happened when the Macabbees saw a Jew publicly bowing down to a statue of Zeus in the town of Modin. It happened during the American Civil War, World War I and when the State of Israel was founded. Most recently, as most of us painfully recall, it happened when a young, deranged Orthodox Jew named Yigal Amir assassinated then Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. Ironically, it was this week’s Torah portion and the character of Pinchas that some of the most extreme Jews used as a justification for the assassination.

After all, doesn’t God reward Pinchas for his zealotry in this week’s parsha? Isn’t Pinchas granted God’s brit shalom (covenant of peace)? Yes, he is. But to my mind, the Torah is telling us not that God rewarded Pinchas, but that God cured him. God tempered Pinchas’ fanaticism so that he would never kill again.

If you ask me, the best response to fanatics who would kill another innocent human being for their cause was the one spoken by Shimon Peres after Rabin’s assassination. He addressed Amir directly and he said to him: “The Jewish people spits you out.”

That’s the Jewish answer to fanaticism.

Any day now, as the pullout from Gaza and some of the West Bank will begin, we all wait and wonder whether or not the main character of this week’s Torah portion will live again. Will the toxic mix of religion and politics bring forth modern day martyrs and assassins?

I know liberals will dislike what I am about to say, but there is a legitimate Jewish claim to the territories. Hebron is as much a part of the land of Israel as Tel Aviv — even more so. There is ample proof of our right to settle the West Bank and Gaza from Torah to modern Zionist theory. Liberals ought to admit that, from the standpoint of Torah, this land is our land.

But conservatives, hawks and the religious extremists ought to recognize something even more important than our biblical right to the land. Privileging land theology above all else is a distortion of Jewish tradition. As my friend Rabbi Ami Hirsch put it, “Since when did this obligation to settle the land come to define the highest calling of being a Jew?”

In the scope of Jewish tradition, settlement is not the highest Jewish value we are commanded to uphold. Life itself is of higher value. The well being of Israeli society is of higher value. Do the lives of a few hundred Israeli children living in Gaza surrounded by hundreds of thousands of resentful Palestinians count for less in the eyes of God than the ancient precept of settling the land? Do the lives of the soldiers defending them, 18-year-old boys, count for nothing compared to settling the land?

Shame on those parents in Gaza for putting their children’s lives in danger for the sake of land. Shame on them for endangering the lives of other peoples’ children — who have been called up to defend them.

Settling all of biblical Israel is not the highest of all Jewish values. Life and peace are the highest of all Jewish values. If we are to be fanatical about anything, let us be fanatical about life and peace. The way of Pinchas is the way of madness. The Jewish people ought to spit it out.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of “The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things” (Behrman House, 1999) and “More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life Without Losing Your Soul” (Bonus Books, 2004).