November 21, 2018

Moving & Shaking: NewGround Honors; Teens’ Relief Work

From left: NewGround Executive Director Aziza Hasan; NewGround honoree Sadegh Namazikhah; Muslim Public Affairs Council President Salam Al-Marayati and NewGround honoree David Myers attended the NewGround Trailblazer Award Dinner. Photo by Salim Lakhani

The nonprofit interfaith organization NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change honored David Myers, Sadegh Namazikhah, Julia Meltzer and the Zeno family during its Suzy Marks and Wally Marks Jr. Trailblazer Award Dinner on Feb. 13 at the Iman Cultural Center.

The honorees represented a cross section of the Muslim and Jewish world.

Myers is the president and CEO of the Center for Jewish History in New York City and a professor of Jewish history at UCLA. He is involved with the NewGround Change-Makers fellowship and teaches about anti-Semitism to participants of the program.

Namazikhah is the founder of the Iman Cultural Center and has supported NewGround since its inception.

Meltzer is an American-Jewish film director who partnered with Mustafa Zeno, a Syrian-American Muslim, on a film about members of Zeno’s family displaced by the Syrian conflict. The film, “Dalya’s Other Country,” which premiered on PBS in June, follows a Muslim teenager and her mother as they acclimate to life in the United States.

Attendees included former L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; NewGround’s Executive Director Aziza Hasan and its Program Co-Directors Andrea Hodos and Tasneem Noor; Muslim Public Affairs Council President Salam Al-Marayati and Director of Policy & Public Programming Edina Lekovic; and Rabbis Jonathan Klein and Aryeh Cohen.

NewGround was established to improve relations between Muslims and Jews through a professional fellowship, high school leadership council and public programming. The Trailblazer Award is named after Suzy Marks and her late husband, Wally Marks Jr., who provided seed funding to NewGround when the organization was in its infancy.

From left: David Lehrer, president of Community Advocates; Temple Israel of Hollywood Senior Rabbi John Rosove; former L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin; and former Congressman Mel Levine discuss “The Challenges of Trump’s America.” Photo by Robert Lurie

President Donald Trump is dangerous for American Jews, Washington Post conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin said during a Feb. 20 appearance at Temple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH).

“When I’m asked, ‘Is Trump so bad?’ Of course he is so bad,” Rubin said while participating on a panel titled “The Challenges of Trump’s America: A Conservative’s View on Trump.” “He has undermined the basis for American democracy and with that the greatest protection, the greatest support, the greatest freedom the Jewish people in the Diaspora have ever experienced.”

The panel also featured former Democratic Congressman Mel Levine and former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. TIOH Senior Rabbi John Rosove moderated the discussion, the third program in a series called Community Conversations.

Sponsors of the event included Community Advocates, the Jewish Journal, Jews United for Democracy and Justice, Stephen Wise Temple and Valley Beth Shalom.

Stephen Wise Temple Senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback was among those in the audience.

“Why is the Republican Party enabling this man to the extent they are doing it?” Levine said.

Rubin, a former TIOH member, was visiting L.A. from Washington, D.C., where she writes the Post’s “Right Turn” column. Her opinions could have come from Trump’s strongest critics on the left. She characterized the president as an authoritarian who “does not understand what America is about and what it means to be an American.”

“Without that basic understanding, without the appreciation of what America is and what defines America and what the Israel-and-America relationship is built on, we are in very, very deep trouble as Americans and as Jews,” Rubin said.

From left: Jewish Graduate Student Initiative (JGSI) CEO Rabbi Dave Sorani, Walt Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn and JGSI COO Rabbi Matt Rosenberg attend the Jewish Executive Leadership Conference. Photo by Ari Praw

The Jewish Graduate Student Initiative (JGSI) held its seventh annual Jewish Executive Leadership Conference on Jan. 28 at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel and Bungalows in Santa Monica.

The conference, which drew more than 360 Jewish graduate students and young professionals, featured keynote speaker Alan Horn, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, along with approximately 50 other top executive panelists from various industries. During the conference, the graduate students and young professionals learned from the industry leaders and exchanged contact information in the hopes of keeping in touch to help empower their careers.

“This year’s conference was undoubtedly our best ever,” said  JGSI Chief Operating Officer Rabbi Matt Rosenberg. “Each panel room was filled to capacity with standing room only, all of the speakers were fantastic, and we had hundreds of young Jewish professionals networking with one another throughout the day.”

Additional speakers included Scott Adelson, co-president and global co-head of corporate finance at Houlihan Lokey; Michael Kohn, general counsel at Dick Clark Productions; Doug Mankoff, CEO of Echo Lake Entertainment; Jana Winograde, West Coast president of business operations at Showtime Networks; and Lee Zeidman, president of the Staples Center, Microsoft Theater and L.A. Live.
The conference also featured a networking hour showcasing nonprofits — including the Gift of Life Marrow Registry, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and Moishe House — whose representatives presented volunteering and leadership opportunities to conference participants.

“We are quite excited at the fast-paced growth of this conference,” said Rabbi Dave Sorani, CEO of JGSI. “It is the only event of its kind in the country. We see it growing bigger and bigger each year. And we are extremely proud of its success.”

Mati Geula Cohen, Contributing Writer

Tzedek America’s teen disaster response team, including Avram Mandell, founding executive director of Tzedek America (back row, far left), deconstructs a house in Port Arthur, Texas. The house was flooded during Hurricane Harvey and the water rose to four feet high in the home. Photo courtesy of Tzedek America

Fifteen teenagers from Los Angeles traveled with Tzedek America to Houston and spent several days engaged in relief efforts benefiting Hurricane Harvey victims.

Tzedek America’s Teen Disaster Response Team organized the Feb. 15-19 trip.

“The trip was a huge success,” said Avram Mandell, founding executive director of Tzedek America, a Los Angeles-based Jewish gap-year and social justice program. “We gave over 350 hours of service to the cities of Port Arthur and Houston, Texas. The teenagers worked tirelessly without complaining and celebrated Shabbat with the Jewish community of Beaumont, Texas.

“At the conclusion of the five days, the teenagers said it was a great trip and they only wished they could have had more sleep,” Mandell added. “They are eager to do more service work. They feel that helping people is part of being Jewish, and being part of the Tzedek America Teen Disaster Response Team was a great way to do that.”

The teens spent two days demolishing two houses in Port Arthur and a day rebuilding a house in Houston. They represented three synagogues — Kehillat Israel, Leo Baeck Temple and Temple Israel of Hollywood — all of which are active in social justice work. Two of the teens were unaffiliated, Mandell said.

One of the partners on the project was Nechama: Jewish Response to Disaster, which in February kicked off its rebuilding project in Houston.

“Just thinking about the fact that there are still tens of thousands of houses that stand in disrepair, almost all belonging to poor and elderly people with nowhere else to go, saddens my heart,” said one of the participants, Noam Ginsburg, a 17-year-old junior at Westview Academy. “But I am so grateful that Tzedek America was able to help me help others.”

A Feb. 10 gala at Shomrei Torah Synagogue honored Shomrei Torah Rabbi Richard Camras (second from left). He is joined by his wife, Carolyn (third from left), and flanked by their children, Talya, left, and Noah. Photo courtesy of Shomrei Torah Synagogue

Conservative community Shomrei Torah Synagogue honored its Rabbi Richard Camras on Feb. 10 during a “Hamilton”-themed gala at its West Hills campus.

“It was an overwhelming experience being honored and recognized for the 18-years-plus that I have served my community,” Camras said in an email. “While I know that I am deeply valued by the members of Shomrei Torah Synagogue, and together we have accomplished so much over the years, it was incredibly meaningful to experience and comprehend the deep appreciation the membership has for their rabbi.”

More than 475 guests attended — including gala chair Judy Groner; the synagogue’s Cantor Ron Snow, Cantorial Soloist Jackie Rafii and President Rob Schreiber; and Camras’ wife, Carolyn, and their children, Talya and Noah — to celebrate Camras, who has served as Shomrei Torah’s rabbi since 1999.

“In just 18 years,” Groner said, “Rabbi Richard Camras has experienced a rabbinic evolution, from taking on his first senior pulpit rabbinic position at Shomrei Torah to becoming a passionate, wise, religious leader, both within our congregation and in the greater Jewish community.”

Avrum Schwartz, Cantor at Shomrei Torah, 79

Cantor Avrum Schwartz, who for 42 years was a cantor of Congregation Beth Kodesh of West Hills, which in 1994 merged with Temple Beth Ami of Reseda and became Shomrei Torah Synagogue, died Feb. 9 after a brief illness. He was  79.

Schwartz was born Sept. 13, 1937, to Hy and Muriel Schwartz in Philadelphia. When he was 2 years old, his family relocated to Southern California, where they lived in the Fairfax District.

Schwartz performed services with the Jewish youth organizations AZA and BBG in the 1950s, and trained privately with prominent cantors in Los Angeles, his wife, Marion, said. He attended Fairfax High School and UCLA, where he was a cantor for Hillel at UCLA.

He met his future wife on a blind date. “We were fixed up by mutual family friends,” Marion said. They were married in June 1962.

Over the years, Schwartz taught thousands of bar and bat mitzvah students, and also prepped young people for a Bible contest called Chidon Tanach.

“He was very motivated by Chidon Tanach,” Marion said. “He taught junior high and high school students to participate in the Bible contest. Winners in California went on to win in New York and then went on to participate in Israel.”

Schwartz also was an authority on the Jewish theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. “He used to lecture on Heschel in synagogues and in study groups, and had one of the largest bibliographies of Heschel’s works,” Marion said.

“Cantor Schwartz always understood that his teaching was just as powerful on the tennis court or at the ice cream parlor, and sometimes even more impactful as a result of allowing his students to see him as a real human being,” wrote Rabbi Richard Camras of Shomrei Torah in an email. “His passion was infectious, his desire for his students’ success palpable. But make no mistake, his standards weren’t just high, his expectations demanding. He expected the best because that is what he expected of himself.”

While a cantor, he also worked at J Roth Bookseller in the city. After retirement, he continued to teach Hebrew and bar and bat mitzvah students, and lecture on Jewish thought and philosophy. He worked at House of David, a Jewish bookstore and Judaica shop, for the past 15 years.

“He was non-discriminatory — he didn’t only teach Jewish people,” his son Howard said. “He also taught non-Jews who were interested in Jewish thought and philosophy. He taught Hebrew from the original texts — he taught anyone who wanted to learn anything about Judaism; he made himself available. The last three or four years after closing the House of David in the evenings, he’d drive out to Lancaster and teach Christian groups about Judaism.”

In the last few years, he walked the 3 1/2-mile round trip to Chabad West Hills to read Torah for congregants, Marion said.

“He loved to read — that’s why he worked in those bookstores,” Howard said. “His knowledge of books was extraordinary. He also loved music — classical, jazz and pop music. He also loved sports — basketball, baseball, football, tennis. Being from Philadelphia, he liked the Phillies and Eagles. … When he’d be teaching at Hebrew schools, he’d play basketball with some of his students, just to show he was a regular person.”

Schwartz and his wife enjoyed trips to Israel, Spain, Italy and Morocco. Both of their sons became bar mitzvah in Israel.

Schwartz is survived by his wife, Marion; daughter Elana (Avi) Feder; sons Howard (Eydie) and David; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Shomrei Torah burns its mortgage

For a congregation that faced millions in debt and a dwindling membership 10 years ago, hosting a “Burn the Mortgage” event was a particularly sweet moment for Shomrei Torah Synagogue. More than 500 people turned out on June 16 to celebrate the Conservative congregation’s final payment on its West Hills complex.

Judy Groner, a former executive director, recalled the importance of the June 16 date.

“On June 16, 1992, the ceremonial ground-breaking took place when the site was just a dirt lot. Four years later, the building was dedicated on June 16,” she said. “What the builders envisioned happening then is now happening. It’s been a very exuberant experience.”

Canoga Park’s Congregation Beth Kodesh, led by Rabbi Eli Schochet, purchased the Valley Circle Boulevard property with plans to move west and develop a larger, more modern facility. Two years after Beth Kodesh broke ground on its state-of-the-art complex, the congregation merged with Reseda’s Temple Beth Ami, led by Rabbi David Vorspan, to become Shomrei Torah Synagogue.

“They joined forces to develop a new building,” said Robert Weingarten, a member and financial adviser to Shomrei Torah. “It was expected that membership would grow after the merger, but there was a gap between expectation and reality.”

But when Schochet retired in 1999 after almost 40 years of service and Vorspan was not promoted to senior rabbi, Vorspan left, and many of his original congregants followed.

“When Rabbi Richard Camras came on board, it was a risk for him to move his family here from Maryland,” Groner said. “But he has done a fantastic job. … He helped to bring new life to the congregation.”

By 2001, the congregation realized that it was unable to repay the loan on the building. The synagogue had to restructure its debt by taking out a new loan.

“Half a million was put up for the loan, from 10 generous congregants,” Weingarten said.

After the 2001 restructuring, the congregation was under pressure to come up with a way to pay down the principle on its new mortgage. One generous donor came up with a solution.

“Barry Wolfe, who at the time was an anonymous donor, came up with a matching-funds campaign, where he would donate $100,000 every year if the community could match it,” Weingarten said.

Board member Leah Kuluva, who was charged with collecting the community’s donations,  said it was a very daunting task in the first year.

“I was worried,” she said. “We had 22 days to try and raise $100,000. But the response was just amazing.”

In the nine years that followed, Shomrei Torah consistently matched Wolfe’s donations, and in some years surpassed the $100,000 goal.

Kuluva said Wolfe bowed out in the final two years of the loan after contributing $900,000 to the synagogue, and the congregation approached 10 donors to complete the final two years of payments.

Over the years, the congregation has hosted Los Angeles Hebrew High School, New Community Jewish High School and the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School to bolster its finances.

With the loan finally paid off in late May, Shomrei Torah is looking to the future.

Former president Marcia Weingarten says the congregation’s membership is on the upswing with 525 families.

“There are challenges ahead, but we are well prepared for the future,” she said. “Over the last four or five years, there have been an increasing amount of young families joining the congregation. We see a lot of faces now we don’t know, and it means we are a community that is growing, and that’s always a good thing.”

New Community Jewish High School, which has been located on Shomrei Torah Synagogue’s campus since 2004, is set to move to the Milken JCC building in 2013. With the potential loss of a consistent source of revenue, the synagogue is already looking for a new occupants for the space.

“We are looking at various alternatives,” Weingarten said. “The school has been an integral part of our campus, so we are looking to replace it. We’ve been speaking with other schools and other community service organizations about the premises. As the school isn’t scheduled to move until possibly June 2013, these are general, exploratory discussions for the moment.”

Nachas From Noggins

El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills has once again given Los Angeles something to kvell about. The school claimed top honors at this year’s national Academic Decathlon, the annual contest of intellectual prowess.

Three of the nine team members generated special pride for the Jewish community: Lindsey Cohen and Linsday Gibbs are both affiliated with Shomrei Torah, while Kevin Rosenberg attends Temple Aliyah.

“I got enormous support from my parents, from my temple [Shomrei Torah] and from my friends,” Gibbs said. “After we won state, the rabbi sent me a letter and the cantor called me…. They didn’t know what I got on each test or how I did medal-wise, and yet, they were all so supportive and welcoming and congratulatory when I got back.”

Team members began preparing for the April contest last summer, gradually increasing hours until December, when they started staying at school until 10 p.m. The competition challenges students in 10 different categories, including art, economics and science, and each nine-member team must include an equal number of A, B and C students.

“The questions were incredibly detailed,” said team member Kevin Rosenberg, who answered correctly when asked to name the 15 nations captured by Hammurabi. (He was the king of Babylon in the 18th century B.C.E. — but you knew that, didn’t you?) Rosenberg said a fellow teammate put the group’s study material on a scale and it came to 61 pounds.

Besides the studying, all three students cited the camaraderie and cohesiveness of the group as part of their success.

“The team chemistry put us over the top,” Cohen said.

Tryouts for next year’s team are already under way, and more than 80 students have indicated interest. Zol zein mit mazel (Lots of luck to you all)


Kiddush, Not Kaddish

Looking around the room at the recent tikkun leyl Shavuot held at Shomrei Torah in West Hills, it was hard to believe this synagogue was ever doomed to failure. There was hardly an empty seat to be found in the huge sanctuary; Rabbi Richard Camras said it was typical of the holiday and Shabbat attendance at the newly invigorated shul.

Yet, failure was what the congregation faced only a few short years ago. Wracked with millions of dollars in debt and congregants slipping quietly out the back door, the future looked anything but bright. Yet, through the efforts of a determined group of temple members and a massive fundraising drive, the congregation was able to retain its spiritual home, a victory it celebrated June 9 with a banquet. The "Gala 2002" honored treasurer Robert Weingarten, along with a group temple leaders refer to as "the Guardians of the Gate," people who contributed their money, time and expertise to ensuring the shul’s survival.

"We are certainly out of what was a very significant crisis," said Camras, who joined the congregation in 1999 and helped steer it through the emergency. "People had us closing our doors and saying ‘Kaddish’ for Shomrei Torah."

It was the spring of 2000 when temple leaders realized they were in deep financial trouble, faced with an approaching balloon payment on their state-of-the-art, $5 million facility for which they had never initiated a building fund. In addition, the synagogue was the result of a shaky merger between Congregation Beth Kodesh, led by Rabbi Eli Schochet, and Temple Beth Ami, led by Rabbi David Vorspan. When Schochet retired in 1999 and Vorspan was not promoted to senior rabbi, Vorspan left and many of his original congregants followed (he is now leader of Congregation Shir Ami, which holds its services at Kol Tikvah’s building in Woodland Hills).

These two factors, plus fallout from the 1994 earthquake, resulted in the congregation taking drastic measures to ensure its survival. Fundraisers were held, an assessment of $80 per month was levied on all member households (later adjusted to be more equitable, e.g. a lower assessment for seniors) and an outside consultant, Rabbi Jerry Danzig, former executive director of Valley Beth Shalom, was brought in to coordinate recovery efforts and streamline the shul’s operations.

"We started out with a very complete, in-depth study of the functioning of the synagogue and as a result completely restructured the organization, particularly the board and the executive committee, so it would be more efficient," Danzig recalled.

Danzig also assisted Weingarten, a certified public account and financial consultant, and temple member Stuart Marks, a real estate developer, in approaching the synagogue’s mortgage holder and working out a restructuring of the loan. According to Weingarten, the new financing takes the synagogue through 2006 with a reduced interest rate and a much lower principal.

"Between the assessment, the money we were able to raise internally and the new mortgage holder, we were able to make everything much more manageable for the temple and cut our monthly payment in half," Weingarten said. "Formerly that [expense] was approaching $40,000 a month."

With the financial pressure alleviated, temple leaders are concentrating on rebuilding the infrastructure and working on programs to attract new members. In the past two years, the congregation dropped in membership by about 50 families, due in part to negative press from media.

One of the ways the congregation hopes to grow is by positioning itself in contrast to other nearby Conservative congregations. The shul has acquired a reputation for being slightly more traditional, with a concentration on learning at all levels, from preschool to adult education. This fall, the religious school will move from a three- to a two-day schedule and begin a program of electives called Chuggim, where once a week, students can participate in either art, sports and games, drama or creative writing, all with Jewish content.

"We read the whole Torah and do daily minyans, and so for that reason we do have a reputation for being more traditional," said Nancy Wold, community vice president of Shomrei Torah’s board of directors. "However, we also have innovative programs like the Ruach [Shabbat service held monthly], and of course our religious school has undergone a dramatic change. We are traditional, but also very cutting edge."

Danzig said he is confident that the synagogue is now firmly on the road to recovery.

"I’m convinced Shomrei Torah will survive," he said. "It’s in a good location and with the renewed spirit of the congregation, they have a hopeful approach to the future."

Casting their Differences Upon the Water

Four West Valley synagogues representing three different denominations — the Calabasas Shul (Orthodox), Temple Solael (Reform), Temple Aliyah and Shomrei Torah (Conservative) — will join together for a Tashlich ceremony Sunday, Sept. 19, at the Westlake Village Marina.

“The goal was to find a mitzvah where we could stand united before God as we approach the end of the High Holidays,” said Rabbi Yakov Vann, spiritual leader of the Calabasas Shul. “We’re well aware of our differences, but the beauty of performing this mitzvah can bring us together.”

Tashlich is a custom that takes place between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in which Jews visit a flowing body of water, e.g. a river, lake or ocean, and symbolically cast away their sins by throwing bread crumbs into the water in accordance with the Biblical commandment, “You will cast [tashlich] your sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:10). Once relegated to the traditionally observant, the ceremony has seen a resurgence in popularity among Jews of all denominations and even the unaffiliated.

“It’s a perfect ritual in that it expresses for all of us the notion that we want to rid ourselves of behavior that estranges us from other human beings, God and even ourselves,” Rabbi Ron Herstik of Temple Solael said. “These are the relationships we need to consider during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.”

Herstik credited Temple Aliyah’s Rabbi Stewart Vogel with coming up with the idea for the shared ceremony. Vogel and the three rabbis from the other synagogues have been making an effort to meet periodically for lunch at a local kosher restaurant.

“I knew all the rabbis but they did not all know each other,” Vogel explained. “Rabbi Camras [of Shomrei Torah] is new to the community, and Rabbi Herstik and Rabbi Vann have only been here a few years. So we decided to get together at Tiberias and share our experiences in order to better understand and appreciate each other. We wanted our congregations to experience that type of sharing and this [tashlich] naturally lends itself to inclusion by everybody. It was a natural.”

Vogel said he hopes to see such joint programming grow among Valley synagogues.

“We are all working for the same thing and each congregation has something unique to offer,” he said.

Sunday’s ceremony will take place near the Sail Club at the Westlake Marina in Westlake Village. For directions or further information, call Temple Aliyah at (818) 346-3545.

Replacing a Legend

This month sees the official retirement of a Valley legend. Rabbi Eli Schochet of Shomrei Torah will step down after nearly 40 years at the pulpit. Still available for “life-cycle events,” the synagogue’s new rabbi emeritus will be essentially withdrawing from his very public position.

Schochet’s accomplishments are matched by few rabbis in his field. Beginning as the spiritual leader of Beth Kodesh in Canoga Park in 1960 and remaining with that congregation all his professional life, he saw it through a stormy merger with Temple Beth Ami in 1994 to become head of Shomrei Torah. He is an adjunct professor in rabbinical literature at the University of Judaism and the author of six books, the most recent of which examines the early roots of the Chassidic movement. Seeing the need for a Jewish day school in the West San Fernando Valley, the rabbi and his wife, Penina, founded the Kadima Hebrew Academy in Woodland Hills. Schochet has held a number of leadership positions in the Jewish community over the years, including president of the Western States Region of the Rabbinical Assembly.

“He’s going to be deeply missed,” said Judy Krigsman, Shomrei Torah’s executive director and a longtime congregant. “He is a rabbi of rabbis, very profound and, yet, very down-to-earth. He’s the kind of person who can quote from many sources and be esoteric, yet he’ll always ask you about your family and know their names. It is unique to have someone who is very scholarly and also very sensitive to others.”

Large shoes to fill, indeed.

Shomrei Torah’s board of directors believes it has found the perfect fit. Rabbi Richard Camras, although yet to build a portfolio as impressive as his predecessor’s, possesses the same charismatic qualities as his former teacher: a low-key yet intense authority, an easy connection with people and an absorbing love of Torah.