November 18, 2018

The last column

Rob Eshman stands in front of his favorite Jewish Journal cover, which never ran. Photo by Lynn Pelkey

So this is goodbye.

I walked into the offices of the Jewish Journal 23 years ago, and it’s time for me to walk out.

As I announced a month ago, I’ll be stepping down as editor-in-chief and publisher as of Sept. 29 and moving on to the next chapter of my life, focusing full time on writing and teaching, and being open to new possibilities as well. If the urge to return to a regular column proves irresistible, you’ll have to find me elsewhere. So this is my last column as editor. I’m truly touched by the numerous kind letters and Facebook posts from people who say they will miss me. For those of you who won’t miss me, I’m glad I could finally make you happy.

A while ago, I realized I had better move on before it was too late. The Journal has been my home since 1994, and it was time to leave home. Twenty-three years. The voice in my head kept nagging, “If not now, when?”

When I told my therapist maybe this was all just a midlife crisis, he raised an eyebrow. “Rob, you’re 57. Midlife?”

As my friends and family (and therapist) can attest, I’ve struggled with this decision. It didn’t come as an epiphany but as a gnawing sense that I had given this place my all, and it was time to stretch myself in new ways.

Each Yom Kippur, we come face to face with our mortality. The liturgy urges us to make good our vows and repair our wrongs before the closing of the gates. And each Yom Kippur for many years, I sat in services and struggled with the reality that the gates are closing, and I had to decide. I would recite the Al Chet prayer, which asks God to forgive us a litany a sins. I would get to the last one — “For the mistakes we committed before You through confusion of the heart” — and beat my breast extra hard. The rabbis understood how indecision could paralyze us, stifling our potential.

In her new book, Rabbi Naomi Levy (who also happens to be my wife) tells how the rabbis believed that an angel hovers over every living thing, every blade of grass, whispering, “Grow! Grow!” Since I first read that passage, the angel’s voice has only grown louder. By last year, that still small voice — kol d’mama daka — was screaming.

Still, I wavered. Letting go of this job turns out to be really hard. It has given me a public platform, a voice. It has taken me around the world: Poland, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Morocco, Germany, France, England, Mexico and, of course, Israel. It has brought me into the vice president’s mansion and the White House — twice — and enabled me to meet and speak with intellectuals, diplomats, artists, writers, actors, activists, rabbis, educators, politicians and world leaders. It has put me on stages from Encino to Oxford, to speak with people like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Tony Kushner, Ehud Barak, Amos Oz and the brave Muslim journalists whom the Journal has hosted as Daniel Pearl Fellows.

It has paid me to do what I would do for free: keep up with current events, learn all that I can about Judaism, Los Angeles, politics, food and Israel. It has put me into the heart of the Los Angeles Jewish community at a remarkable time, when we Jews are freer, more secure and more powerful than at any other time in our history. It also put me into journalism during a thrilling moment, when the future of media changes weekly, and when what began as a small community paper can now, with the click of a button, have an impact on people around the world.

Maybe I should stop with this litany before I change my mind, but ultimately, those are just the perks of a fascinating job. I am under no illusions about what really made my role so rewarding.

First, you.

When I say the Journal has been my home, I mean you readers have been like family. You are smart, caring, engaged and opinionated. Not for a second did I ever feel I was writing into a void — and, on occasion, I wished I were. “Eshman is a total moron when it comes to Israel,” a letter writer wrote last week. I’ve been doing this so long and have developed such a thick skin, I actually took it as a compliment. Hey, he didn’t say about everything, just Israel.

I’ve always been keenly aware the Journal serves one of the world’s largest and most diverse Jewish communities. As our online presence has grown, so has our community of readers, from L.A. to Tel Aviv to New York to Tehran. My goal has been to make the Journal the easiest and most interesting place for all these disparate voices to meet, to argue factually and honestly, to understand one another if not to agree. I’ve met or spoken with thousands of you over the years and I take comfort in knowing the Journal, 30 years after its founding, remains the one place where all of our many voices can gather and be heard, day after day, week after week. Even as online media catered more and more to ideological ghettos, the Journal remained committed to reflecting the broadest array of views.

My other deep sense of fulfillment comes from having been part of the Jewish Journal board and staff. I was fortunate to work under three chairs of TRIBE Media, the nonprofit that publishes the Journal: Stanley Hirsh, Irwin Field and Peter Lowy. All three fiercely respected the Journal’s editorial independence. Stanley tapped me to be editor and Irwin devoted himself selflessly to the Journal for years. Peter came in at a dire moment and has stuck by the Journal’s side ever since — he continues to be a selfless supporter and loyal defender. If anything, I often felt that if we weren’t raising a ruckus, we were letting Peter down. To me personally, he is a role model for fearlessness and generosity. If you have received any benefit from this enterprise, Peter Lowy deserves more credit than he will ever take.

I’ve appreciated all of our board members over the years, but I owe four of them special thanks. Uri Herscher believed in this paper when the recession had all but finished it off. His commitment to local, independent Jewish press, his moral authority and his wisdom helped bring it back to life. Uri continues to be a mentor and inspiration to me, as he is to so many. Art Bilger was part of the original rescue squad and saw us through very hard times with insight and creativity. Michael Parks, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former editor of the Los Angeles Times, has always been an unflappable editorial sounding board for me. Jonathan Kirsch has acted as the Journal’s pro bono counsel for 30 years. His expertise has been an important part of the Journal’s success, and occasionally its salvation. Tough stories often make for tough enemies. Jonathan Kirsch is our shield.

As for the staff, what can I say? There’s a word for an editor without a staff — it’s called a blogger. An enormous amount of work goes into putting out a weekly paper and a constantly updated website. That work is unceasing, always under deadline with never enough time or money. Whether it’s Tom Tugend, who fled Nazi Berlin and fought in three wars — and still reports for us — or our newest interns, the people who do this work on the advertising, production, administrative and editorial sides are the paper. They are an extraordinary group of people, from all different faiths and backgrounds. I’ll take full blame for any criticism you may have of this paper, but any compliments must be shared with them.

Six years ago, when I asked David Suissa to join the paper, I knew that there were few people in L.A. who share his passion for Jewish life combined with his commitment to fine journalism and an intense creativity. Three years ago, when I first told David I was thinking of leaving, he said, “No!” David can be very persuasive, so no it was, and I’m grateful I stayed. These past few years have been the most exciting.

I know there are Suissa people out there and Eshman people, but as David takes the reins, I want you to know that I am a Suissa person. I am sure under David this enterprise will go from strength to strength.

There is a second “staff” that also has been a blessing: my family. Raising a family in the Jewish community while reporting on the Jewish community has been tricky at times, and often personally hard for them. To protect their privacy, I chose to write about my son, Adi, and daughter, Noa, very sparingly in this space, but know that is in inverse proportion to the amount of room they take up in my heart and soul. Adi and Noa have been my constant joy and inspiration.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in those decades, it’s that nothing is as important to individual success as community. Yes, the community can offer connections and a leg up. But it also will be there when you fall.

My wife Naomi approaches Jewish learning and practice with utter commitment and total joy. She doesn’t just inspire me, she revives my faith when the politics of communal life can sometimes sour it. Being married to a brilliant rabbi and writer has also helped me fool you into thinking I know far more than I do.   

My parents, Aaron and Sari Eshman, are my role models for community and caring. My dad was born in 1927 in Los Angeles, where his father, Louis, was on the original medical staff of what was then Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. I have vivid childhood memories of Mom and Dad heading off to charity events and volunteering for Cedars, Vista Del Mar and other organizations. Like so many of their contemporaries, they have left this city and its Jewish community far better than they found it. I hope I have been a worthy link in the chain.

That chain includes my predecessors at the paper. Founding editor Gene Lichtenstein set an example of journalistic excellence I have tried to emulate. The cover of the first issue on Feb. 28, 1986,  featured a story on Jews and the school busing controversy. Clearly this was never going to be a paper content to run puff pieces.

Gene accepted men-seeking-men ads long before mainstream papers did. After he left, we were the first Jewish paper to run cover stories on gay marriage and transgender Jews. Religion that doesn’t wrestle with contemporary issues belongs in a museum, not a newspaper.

In the pantheon of columnists I most admire — William Safire, Peggy Noonan, Tom Friedman, Steve Lopez, Bret Stephens, Nick Kristof, Jeffrey Goldberg — I put the late Marlene Adler Marks on the highest pedestal. She was a dear colleague who died too young, and could never be replaced.

When I started at the Journal, almost all Jewish papers were exactly what the late Rabbi Stephen S. Wise called them: “weaklies.” They were parochial community organs. The lead  story of one such paper that arrived in our offices back then was, “Jewish Community Center Gets New Deck.” And yes, the entire cover photo was of a wooden deck. This is some business I’m in, I thought.

Today, Jewish journalism is in a golden age: The Jewish Journal, The Forward, The New York Jewish Week, Moment, Tablet, JTA, not to mention The Times of Israel and Haaretz (let’s face it, they’re pretty Jewish) are attracting great talent, breaking stories, providing deep insights and playing a leading role in shaping communal and international conversation. I am indebted to and often in awe of my colleagues in this corner of the journalism world. Of course, Jewish journalism still is, compared with the big guys, a small endeavor. But Jews also are small in number — and that hasn’t stopped us from making a difference. So can our media. Please support it.

I can’t tell you I’m not a little scared. I will miss being in regular contact with the remarkable people who make up this community, many of whom have become dear friends. I have this recurring, chilling thought that nothing will work out and I’ll be the guy at home in my pajamas writing those cranky letters to the editor, instead of the guy at the office who selects which ones to print.

But there’s some comfort, excitement and strength in being open to the uncertainty. That’s the lesson of Yom Kippur:  We know our days are numbered, that life is a passing shadow, and so we resolve to make changes today — haYom! the liturgy repeats — because the future is beyond our control. 

Last week, I was talking all this over with an older and far wiser attorney friend over lunch. I said I’d heard a life transition can be like a trapeze — sometimes you have to let go of one bar before the next appears. “Well,” he said, “as long as there’s a net.”

At first, I gulped. Oh, damn, I thought, he’s right. What was I thinking?

But then I remembered, I have a net, and so do you. It’s called community. It’s the reason this paper exists and thrives, it’s the reason I’ve been doing this job for 23 years.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in those decades, it’s that nothing is as important to individual success as community. Yes, the community can offer connections and a leg up. But it also will be there when you fall. It’s there for you when you get sick or a loved one dies, and it’s there for you to celebrate your successes and your joys. They say journalism is the first draft of history. But journalism’s true purpose isn’t to record history; it’s to strengthen community. No matter what comes next — trapeze bar or net — I am proud to have helped the Journal fulfill that role.

Over the years, many letter writers have accused me of being overly optimistic. Guilty. This was never the column to turn to if you wanted to read the same old dire warnings about how the Jews are disappearing, anti-Semites are everywhere, the younger generation is lost, Israel and the Palestinians are doomed, and every other gloomy prediction that passes as realism.

But it is impossible to do what I’ve done for the past two decades and not be optimistic. I leave this job with a deep sense of the abiding power of community and tradition and the ability of Judaism to meet the challenges of an unpredictable and often cruel world. To be a Jewish journalist is to see an ancient faith renewed in real time in the real world, in all its variety, abundance — and endurance.

Just this week, I was planning an upcoming trip to Berlin for a conference. When I told my wife I was thinking of finally visiting Auschwitz, a place neither of us has ever been, she became  upset.

“Please don’t go to Auschwitz without me,” she said.

The instant she said it, we had to laugh. Seventy-five years ago, who would have thought?

To this day, that somewhat over-the-top 2003 video of Israeli jets flying over Auschwitz still moves me. The weak can become powerful. Refugees can find a home. In a matter of years, enemies can become allies. Things change, often for the good.

But among all that change, the need for spirituality and tradition abides. Just last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg posted a photo of him and his wife celebrating Shabbat with their baby daughter, Max. They gave Max a 100-year-old Kiddush Cup that belonged to her great-great-grandfather.

No amount of money or power, no new technology and no social upheaval can erase our deeply human need for meaning, connection and purpose. Judaism has helped people meet those needs for millennia. After 5,778 years, the burden of proof is on the pessimists. Judaism will evolve, of course, but as long as it changes to meet these eternal human needs, it will endure.

So, now comes the time for my personal evolution. I do hope we can keep in touch. After all, I plan on staying in L.A. and, more than likely, remaining Jewish.  This Yom Kippur, you definitely will find me in shul, thankful for having made my decision, grateful for the past 23 years, and eager to open new gates as the old ones close.

In the meantime, I wish you a sweet and healthy New Year. Serving you has been my deepest honor. May you come to know all the blessings that being part of your life has brought me.

If you’d like to keep in touch with Rob Eshman, send an email to You also can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism, and on his public Facebook page. Rob will still blog at — without a staff.

Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner look for a shul. Can we keep politics out of it?

President-elect Donald Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, are shul shopping in D.C. — and it’s making headlines in the non-Jewish world.

Reporting this in the mainstream media requires some explanation — an MSNBC anchor apparently believed the story was about Ivanka shoe shopping — but generally the narrative touches on few key points: The majority of Jews in the U.S. voted for Clinton — and what does this mean as the first daughter and her family look for safe Washington space to daven and raise the kids in the faith?

And wait — at shul, we leave politics at the door, right?

Aaron Keyak, a congregant at Kesher Israel, the downtown Orthodox synagogue reportedly topping the list for Kushner and Trump, is a Democratic operative who helped run an anti-Trump political action committee. He’s been telling whomever will listen that the new top Jewish power couple will of course be welcome at Kesher.

“You have to be able to enjoy herring and schnapps with your political opponents when they’re standing next to you at kiddush,” Keyak told JTA.

But after speaking with Keyak, I had some doubts. And on reflection, having been a Jewish congregant and parent in the D.C. area for 16 years — and also, admittedly, one with 16 years of experience gossiping with other Jewish congregants and parents in the area — I got to considering how Panglossian this gloss is.

No one wants politics inside the shul. But honestly, in D.C., considering how deeply embedded our political outlooks are in our belief system, who are we kidding?

I’ve heard of several instances where tensions over national politics have reached the complaining-to-the-Sunday-school-principal level. Seriously. (Consider: An adult whose weekday job involves advancing an ideology – or who is married to someone with that mission – spends hours each week exchanging thoughts with 5-year-olds about God and leading a meaningful existence. What could possibly go wrong?)

Here are some occasions where politics on Washington’s mean streets seeped into shuls and holiday celebrations, and vice versa.

* William Safire, the late columnist for The New York Times, in his memoir recalled his annoyance when his synagogue’s rabbi during the Nixon administration issued a call “not to let our country be divided and polarized by those who use the technique of alliteration.” Safire, then a speechwriter in the Nixon White House, helped write Vice President Spiro Agnew’s (in)famous speech excoriating the “effete” that included the phrase “nattering nabobs of negativism.” (For this citation, thanks to Tevi Troy, the former deputy health secretary under George W. Bush, who writing in The Wall Street Journal reviewed the phenomenon of politics insinuating themselves into Shabbat and holiday homilies in 2011.)

* M.J. Rosenberg, a liberal Jewish activist, in 2006 recollected a disruption during Yom Kippur three years earlier, when the rabbi was delivering a pro-peace process sermon at his shul, Ohr Kodesh, in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Charles Krauthammer, a fellow congregant and the conservative Washington Post columnist, started yelling at the rabbi. “People tried to ‘shush’ him,” Rosenberg recalled. “It was, after all, the holiest day of the year. But Krauthammer kept howling until the rabbi apologized.”

* Joe Lieberman schepped nachas at his congregation, Kesher Israel, and among the wider Jewish community in 2000 when he became the first Jew to make a major national ticket — Al Gore picked Lieberman as his running mate on the Democratic ticket.

* Not so much nachas was schepped several years later, when much of the Jewish community soured on President George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion — and Lieberman remained one of its most assiduous defenders. “In my synagogues today, we might have Mark the doctor, Jim the journalist and Joe the senator,” Lieberman wrote in his 2011 contemplation of Shabbat, “The Gift of Rest,” before he retired as a senator from Connecticut. “In synagogue, Joe might complain to Mark of a pain in his knee, to which Mark complains to Joe about Joe’s vote on the Iraq war. And there can be feuds. Jim the journalist, who used to write very positively about Joe, has lately been writing some things about Joe that Joe thinks are unfair. Now instead of greeting each other with a hearty ‘Good Shabbos!’ when they pass on the stairs, Joe and Jim merely nod their hellos.”

* Ohev Shalom’s rabbi, Shmuel Herzfeld, was famously ejected earlier this year from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference for standing up during Trump’s address and decrying him as wicked. Thus Ohev Shalom is reportedly not on Kushner and Trump’s list. But Herzfeld is adored by his congregants for advancing reconciliation within the synagogue’s walls. That didn’t keep one of them, prominent lawyer Nat Lewin, from denouncing Herzfeld in the Orthodox press in 2008 for the rabbi’s public denunciation of labor practices at the AgriProcessors kosher slaughterer. Lewin, noting his membership at Ohev Shalom and crediting Herzfeld with “electrifying” the community, accused him of “joining the vigilantes” against the business. (Lewin led the defense team for AgriProcessor’s manager.)

* A year and a half ago, at the annual Sukkot reception at the vice president’s residence, a group of prominent Democrats were chatting when one lamented that he was not invited to Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer’s home for his Rosh Hashanah reception, until then a regular occurrence. Others in the group said they had the same regret. A round of cellphone calls later, it was clear that every Democrat in Congress who had said they would vote to preserve the Iran nuclear deal, which Dermer vigorously opposed, had not been invited. I’ve been told that some Democrats raised the issue with the embassy, and they were told that the emails were sent, but through a server that tended to deliver emails to spam folders.

Here’s the thing: That’s probably true. I recall at that time getting a frantic pre-party call from the embassy asking me to check my spam folder — and there was, indeed, an invitation there. The staffer explained that the embassy was not getting RSVPs and was calling invitees to assure them they were on the list. I did notice a dearth of Iran deal backers at the party that year — and I also noted they were back this year. But the impression, however unfair, lingers among Democrats that Dermer cut them out of what was supposed to be a friendly holiday affair.

That’s D.C. for you. And the political climate is only worse these days. So if Ivanka Trump wants some solace, forget shul. She’s probably better off shoe shopping.

Walk to Cure Diabetes: A mother’s prayer

This past Yom Kippur, as my 4-year-old son and I were walking into shul, I was explaining why Mommy and the other adults were fasting. I said: “And when you’re 13 …” 

And then I stopped, realizing that he will probably never fast on Yom Kippur. 

Two years ago, the day before his second birthday, Jonah was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. We were visiting my parents in Maryland. He had what we thought was a nasty stomach flu, but two days later, he was so sick that he was airlifted to D.C.’s Children’s National Medical Center. He was in full-blown diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), an acute, life-threatening complication of diabetes. Basically, his body had started to shut down. 

When they came to the pediatric intensive care unit and delivered the diagnosis, it was the happiest I’ve ever been … because it meant he was going to live. Little did I know then, sobbing with relief, that life, as we knew it, would never be the same.

Having a type 1 diabetic child is like riding on a relentless roller coaster ride every single day; sometimes he’s up/high, and just as quickly he can be down/low. It’s like being a tightrope walker, trying to balance that long pole and not fall … because there is no net. 

Or rather, I am the net

As Jonah’s pancreas no longer produces insulin, I am his pancreas. It is my job to calculate and administer the right amount of insulin to sustain him, to not let his blood sugar get too high — which, long-term, can lead to organ failure, blindness, etc. — while making sure it doesn’t go too low, which could send him into a seizure, a coma or worse. The only thing predictable about this disease is its unpredictability. And the fear.

Type 1 diabetes is a disease in which the immune system destroys insulin-producing cells. The 15,000 children diagnosed each year will never outgrow this dangerous and chronic disease. 

Yet other than the plastic tube running from my son’s tush to his insulin pump pack, worn on his waist, Jonah looks like any other healthy preschooler — tons of energy, enthusiasm and stubbornness. He’s an easygoing, sweet boy who loves construction vehicles, building forts, cutting plants, crashing into things, laughing his glorious laugh and snuggling in with me to read a book. 

But he is not like other preschoolers. I cannot drop him off for a play date. He cannot sleep over at a friend’s house. He cannot be a carefree kid. And I cannot be a carefree mom (not that I ever was).

In order to keep his blood glucose levels in range — or attempt to — his nanny, his preschool teachers and I (a single mom) check his blood glucose level via a finger prick about 10 times a day, on a good day. His little fingers, now covered with an ever-growing colony of tiny dots and callouses, have been pricked about 10,000 times since his diagnosis. Ten thousand times. He doesn’t cry. He doesn’t complain. He just holds out a finger, sometimes winces, then asks: “Am I high or low, Mommy?” 

Everything impacts his glucose numbers: what he eats, what he doesn’t eat, if he exercises, if he doesn’t get enough exercise, if he eats too many carbs, if he eats too few carbs, if he sneaks a few strawberries, if he refuses to eat after getting insulin, if I miscalculate and give him too little or too much insulin, if he has a growth spurt, if it’s hot out, if he has a cold, if he jumps around a lot and disconnects his tubing, if the needle doesn’t go into enough fat on his tush, if he’s at a birthday party and has a small piece of cake (with most of the icing scraped off).

And those glucose numbers impact everything. If he’s too high, he can become belligerent, cranky and thirsty. When he’s too low, he can be listless, shaky, ravenous. 

Because of these fluctuating factors, I strictly monitor his food intake — a tangerine, 10 carbs; milk, 11 carbs; graham crackers, 6 carbs; a slice of pizza, 40 carbs (and a night of crazy-high numbers) — with Jonah never knowing what it’s like to just eat whatever he wants, whenever he wants. Recently he said to his nanny, “Look, Mommy gave me a chocolate chip cookie. Now I’m just like the other kids.” And my heart broke just a little bit more.

At night, blood glucose numbers can go low (though sometimes inexplicably high, too), so every night for the past two and a half years, Jonah’s blood glucose gets checked at 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. Sometimes my amazing nanny stays over so I can get a good night’s rest, but Jonah has not had a night of uninterrupted sleep since he was diagnosed. I worry how this will impact him in the future when he goes to elementary school and beyond. 

Recently, Jonah told me he was hungry while we were driving. We were running late, and in order for him to eat, I would have needed to pull over and check his blood sugar, then give him insulin, via his pump, if he was high. Instead I asked him if he wanted to try and test himself. Since day one, he’s handled his diagnosis with inspiring grace and goodness, and he’s been helping to test for a while, but never unaided. 

“Sure,” he said, so I passed the diabetes kit back to him. I watched through the rear view mirror as my little boy cleaned his finger with alcohol, put the test strip in the meter, shook his finger to get the blood flowing, pricked his finger, pushed the tip of the test strip into the drop of blood and read the results: “1-1-3, Mommy,” he said. 

I teared up at that moment, proud of my son, but knowing that was just the first test of thousands he will give himself. Sure, high-tech devices like insulin pumps, continuous glucose monitors and, hopefully, in the next 10 years, an artificial pancreas, are breakthroughs that lessen long-term complications. But they are not cures — they just makes it possible to keep people like Jonah alive. 

That’s not good enough. We need to find a cure.

A few weeks after Jonah’s diagnosis, still reeling but determined to help rid my son of this disease, I formed Team Jomoki , and gathered friends and family to walk at the annual Walk to Cure Diabetes sponsored by JDRF (originally Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation), the leading global organization funding type 1 research. To date, our team has raised nearly $100,00. And this year, on Oct. 27 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, I plan on adding to that amount. 

Type 1 diabetes is a nasty, confounding, insidious, inscrutable illness. But with continued research, maybe one day, in the not too distant future, there will be a cure. And then my son will fast on Yom Kippur and complain about it … just like all the other 13-year-olds.

For more information, to donate or to join the walk, go to

Once a shul, now a church that celebrates Judaism

Some months ago, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was “cruising Boyle Heights,” the neighborhood where he grew up and where a large portion of Los Angeles’ Jewish community once lived. Feeling nostalgic, he drove by B’nai Jacob Synagogue — once known as the Fairmont Street Shul — and recalled that some of his parents’ students had celebrated their bar mitzvahs there. 

On this visit, however, Yaroslavsky noticed something he hadn’t before: the old shul’s exterior was in excellent condition and displayed the same Jewish symbols it had decades ago. There were Magen Davids, menorahs, Mosaic tablets … Yaroslavsky wondered if he was in a time warp — Boyle Heights as it was in 1950. 

“I knew it couldn’t be a synagogue,” Yaroslavsky told the Journal, “because there aren’t enough Jews in Boyle Heights to make up a minyan.” Then he saw a banner: Iglesia Israelita Casa de Dios — Israelite Church House of God.

Inside, the longtime supervisor — and well-known mover-and-shaker in local politics and the Jewish world — found an immaculate sanctuary, its pews upholstered in red velvet, looking as beautiful as it had been in its Jewish heyday. The chandeliers were the original ones, upgraded with energy-efficient bulbs. The two bimahs displayed menorahs and Mosaic tablets.

There were no crosses or other Christian imagery.

On the Saturday Yaroslavsky visited — as on every Saturday — a Spanish-language religious service was going on, attended by about 100 people of all ages. Men and women sat separately. The women wore modest clothing and covered their heads with shawls; the men wore suits and ties, their heads uncovered.

Adam Velazquez, 56, one of the group’s leaders, approached Yaroslavsky and explained: They hold services on Shabbat — Friday night and all day Saturday, but not on Sunday. They follow Leviticus dietary laws. At their services, they recite the Ten Commandments and the Shema — in Spanish. They observe Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, but not Christmas or Easter. 

To Yaroslavsky, as to most people, that sounded Jewish. 

But wait. They also worship “Yahshua” (Jesus) as their Messiah, who, they believe, was sent by God to redeem humanity. 

Similar to groups called “Messianic Jews,” the iglesia (church) practices elements of Judaism while also believing that Yahshua (Yah-SHU-ah) is the son of God. 

So they’re clearly not Jews. But they’re not traditional Christians, either. 

Then what are they? And why does their iglesia, inside and out, look like a shul? And how did it get from what it was then to what it is now? 

B’nai Jacob Synagogue was first dedicated as an Orthodox shul in 1927. In subsequent years, the period in which many Jews lived in Boyle Heights, the shul was active and crowded. 

During the years following World War II, Jews started moving out of Boyle Heights; by the 1970s only a few worshippers remained. So, in 1979, B’nai Jacob went on the market. The Iglesia Israelita made a bid and bought it.

This sect had begun in Guadalajara, Mexico, in the 1920s when a group of Mexicans concluded that Yahshua and his disciples were observant Jews who prayed, ate and celebrated as Jews. This group’s assessment was that from the second century onward, as Christians from non-Jewish backgrounds took control of Christianity, they increasingly separated it from Yahshua’s Jewish roots. 

In founding their movement — Iglesia Israelita Casa de Dios — the Guadalajara group’s aim was to seek a religious experience shaped by Yahshua’s first-century Jewish practices and beliefs: they would pray, eat and celebrate together like the Jewish Yahshua and his disciples did 2,000 years ago. 

“What the founders of our church did was to seek the truth of the original Scriptures,” Velazquez said. By this, he means the Tanakh and the Gospels, both of which are referred to repeatedly in this sect’s Points of Faith. 

In these points, they lay out the importance of Leviticus dietary laws, observance of Shabbat, celebration of Jewish holy days and other biblical elements familiar to Jews. The Points of Faith also talk about Yahshua as the divine and only begotten son of God, of his sacrifice for mankind and future return, and of the importance of baptism — immersion into “living waters” — as an act of repentance.

After Iglesia Israelita’s founding in 1923, its adherents took their doctrines to other parts of Mexico, to Central America and eventually to the United States. At present, there are eight branches in the United States and dozens in Latin America.

In 1960, Iglesia members in Los Angeles pooled their resources and bought a small place of worship in City Terrace, near Boyle Heights. The group eventually looked for larger space, which is how they came to buy B’nai Jacob Synagogue in 1979. 

One of the conditions of the sale, which Iglesia members entirely agreed with, was that the building would not be altered, inside or out. 

“Judeo-Christianity,” or Messianic Judaism, is still a relatively small blip on religion’s radar screen, but in Latin America and in Latino communities in the United States, it’s growing. Conservative Rabbi Daniel Mehlman, who has presided over many conversions to Judaism, sees this movement as “problematic.” 

“The Iglesia is not trying to convert Jews to their beliefs,” he said. “But on the other hand, they call themselves Judeo-Christians; whether it’s deliberate or not, there’s a degree of deception in that … because Jesus is central to their ideology.” 

Mehlman, who was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is concerned because groups like the Iglesia — which behave as Jews, because that’s what Yahshua and his disciples did — can be confusing to Latinos who want to convert to Judaism. 

“I’ve participated in the conversion of about 150 Latinos,” Mehlman said, “and messianism is a problem. … When Latinos wanting to convert to Judaism enter a place like the Iglesia, they might stay there.”

That’s possible, of course; but if so, it’s not because the Iglesia practices charismatic worship — they don’t. In its gentleness, the Iglesia is the opposite of rapturous religious frenzy.  

Their prayer sessions are soft-spoken and their study sessions are a mix of textual analysis and therapy session. These gatherings are gentle and healing, and after each person speaks, the volunteer leader, whoever it happens to be, says “Gracias.” 

They call each other “brother” and “sister,” and it’s more than automatic habit — it’s a way of life for this group, which operates like an extended family.

As people file out of the service, they greet each other with “Paz a vos,” which means: Peace unto thee. Shalom aleicha. The language, too, is aimed at creating a first-century Hebrew-Christian experience.

If you understand Spanish and spend time with this group, it’s abundantly clear that Iglesia members have put their reverence for Christianity’s Jewish roots into practice. They don’t — like Christians did for many centuries — reject, obscure or denigrate those roots. Instead, they celebrate them.  

Whatever one may think about the religion — or religious services — going on nowadays at the Fairmont Street Shul, it’s hard not to feel, as Yaroslavsky did when he visited, that the stately old place is in hands that take good care of it. 

Bill granting FEMA funds to Sandy-damaged shuls sparks uncharacteristic Jewish response

How essential is a house of worship to a neighborhood?

That’s the crux of a question now exercising Congress as a bill advances that would provide direct relief to synagogues and churches damaged by superstorm Sandy last October.

The bill, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives last week by a vote of 354-72 with strong bipartisan support, adds houses of worship to those defined as a “private nonprofit facility that provides essential services of a governmental nature to the general public.”

The Senate is expected to take up the measure soon; backers there include Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has withheld funding for houses of worship, citing constitutional separations of church and state. FEMA, which fiercely opposes the bill, wrote in a backgrounder distributed to congressional offices and obtained by JTA that “churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship” cannot “be broadly considered to provide ‘essential services of a governmental nature.’ ”

Despite the strength of its House approval, the bill has stirred controversy, but the divisions are novel: Instead of the classic disagreements engendered by church-state arguments, this one has liberal Democrats disagreeing and the two major Jewish civil rights groups on opposite sides.

The American Jewish Committee joined lobbying on behalf of the bill along with a number of other Jewish groups, including the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America and the Jewish Federations of North America. The Anti-Defamation League is opposed. The Reform movement, meanwhile, has been careful not to take a position, noting its disagreement with such funding in the past but not weighing in this time.

“In general, we have serious constitutional concerns about this type of funding,” Sean Thibault, a spokesman for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said in a Jan. 10 statement. “However, we recognize that this aid is, in certain respects, distinct from other forms of aid that we have historically opposed. We continue to work with congregations to help them understand the varied constitutional and policy concerns before each synagogue makes their own decisions.”

Rabbi David Bauman of Temple Israel in Long Beach, N.Y., said his synagogue suffered $5 million damage from Sandy and that the disrepair bled into the wider community. Religious school students who have not met for months recently gathered in each other’s homes for smaller tutorials — a situation that Bauman said is “not ideal.”

The local Alcoholics Anonymous group hasn't had a place to meet since the synagogue social hall was ruined in the storm. “Those people need to come together,” Bauman said, noting that he was searching for an alternative venue.

Such services are why houses of worship should be as eligible as other community service organizations, says Nathan Diament, who helms the Orthodox Union’s Washington operation.

“Already among the private non-profits eligible for FEMA’s aid are community centers, and FEMA’s definition of community centers are places where people gather to engage in educational and social and enrichment activities,” Diament said. “FEMA then decided on its own that if those activities are done in a house of worship, they are not eligible. What we are seeking to legislate is government neutrality and equal treatment.”

Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), whose congressional district includes much of the borough of Queens, co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.Y.). In an interview, Meng said she co-sponsored the bill because some 200 institutions in the New York-New Jersey region had been devastated but were still providing critical relief for neighbors.

“They were one of the first ones to open up their doors and feed people at the same time their electricity was out or their floors were ruined,” Meng told JTA.

The Orthodox Union has estimated that some 60 to 70 synagogues in New York and New Jersey of all denominations have been affected.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), whose district covers much of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, vociferously opposes the bill, which he said would amount to government funding of religion.

“This bill would direct federal taxpayer dollars to the reconstruction of houses of worship,” Nadler said in remarks quoted by NY1, a cable news channel. “The idea that taxpayer money can be used to build a religious sanctuary or an altar has consistently been held unconstitutional.”

Those concerns were echoed by the ADL in its statement issued Jan. 4.

“Houses of worship are special — not like other non-profits and not like other buildings,” it said. “They receive special constitutional protections from government interference, special tax-exempt benefits for contributions and have special restrictions that prohibit direct public funding.”

Such concerns, also expressed by the American Civil Liberties Union, are misplaced, according to Marc Stern, AJC’s associate general counsel. He noted FEMA-directed relief for a church damaged in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of a neighboring federal building, as well as relief for a Jewish day school hit in the 2001 Seattle earthquake.

“The ACLU-ADL position is a little bit odd,” he said. “You can pay for rebuilding a zoo, but houses of worship are not eligible.”

FEMA in its briefing for lawmakers said the precedents cited by Stern and others do not hold in this case. In the Oklahoma City case, the agency said, the congressional appropriation made it clear that the funding for the damaged church was a one-time exception. In the Seattle case, the money was applied to a school, not a house of worship.

“In contrast, a house of worship such as a synagogue is not an educational facility, nor does it fall within one of the other categories of facility specifically listed” under prior law, FEMA said.

Meng said FEMA easily could assess whether a house of worship was seeking funds to advance religion or to provide a community service in the same way it assesses whether homeowners are eligible.

National Council of Young Israel changes rule to let shuls quit

The National Council of Young Israel voted to eliminate a rule barring member synagogues from withdrawing from the franchise.

The rule became a subject of controversy two years ago when the National Council considered expelling a synagogue in Syracuse, N.Y., that was said to owe some $20,000 in unpaid dues to the national organization. The move was seen as a possible precursor to legal action to seize the shul’s assets, causing alarm among member synagogues.

The Syracuse synagogue ended up dropping the Young Israel moniker and becoming Shaarei Torah Orthodox Congregation, and the National Council gave up its efforts to enforce the provision. But existing and prospective synagogues remained concerned that the National Council’s constitution gave it the power to seize their assets if they ever tried to quit the Orthodox synagogue umbrella group.

“It deterred possible new members, and yet if someone left, the National Council was not able to enforce it, and it upset people, so it had three terrible consequences to it,” Farley Weiss, the president of the National Council, told JTA.

This week's vote to drop the provision from its constitution passed with overwhelming support.

“Now, synagogues can join without the fear that once they join they can never leave,” said Farley, who last November became the organization’s first president from outside the New York metropolitan area. He lives in Phoenix and works as a trademark lawyer.

Some 200 Orthodox synagogues worldwide carry the name Young Israel, including more than 140 in the United States, 50 in Israel and a handful in Canada. The Israeli synagogues are affiliated with the National Council but are not under its control.

Farley said the rule about quitting was the organization’s most controversial issue and that other contentious issues would come up for review this year. Among them will be the organization’s position on what to do about synagogues that want to hire rabbis whose only ordination is from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal and pastoral-focused Modern Orthodox rabbinical school founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss of New York.

“Within the year we’ll have a more clear position on it,” Farley said.

There are no plans to change the organization’s rule against allowing women to be synagogue presidents, which Farley said follows the religious edicts of Rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Joseph Soloveitchik, two luminaries who guided Modern Orthodox American Judaism in the 20th century.

The National Council also is looking to hire a new executive director to fill the vacancy left by the departure of Rabbi Pesach Lerner in early 2012.

Kollel Rashbi Ari faces eviction

The sukkah, the booth in which Jews celebrate Sukkot, is made to be temporary, to survive, perhaps, a brisk windstorm, but is unlikely to stand much longer than for the weeklong harvest festival. In this regard, the wooden sukkah in the parking lot behind the Kollel Rashbi Ari, a synagogue in a narrow storefront on Pico Boulevard at the heart of Los Angeles’ “kosher corridor,” is no exception. When the holiday ends, the carpet that covers the asphalt floor will be rolled up, the cloth that lines the sukkah’s four walls will come down, and the tables and chairs that fill the space will be removed. 

But unlike the Persian-owned kosher butcher shop next door — whose customers will once again be able to park in the two parking spots currently occupied by the sukkah — the Kollel Rashbi Ari will almost certainly not go back to its day-to-day existence after Sukkot. 

Or, at least, not for very long. 

Last March, MCM Property Management, which manages the commercial property that is home to the kollel (Hebrew for house of study) first informed the leadership that it had 30 days to quit the property. The company stopped accepting rent payments, and the kollel’s current leader, Mikhael Maimon, said he stopped raising funds to make the $1,800 monthly expense. 

Instead, Maimon has lately been soliciting moral support from members of his community and beyond, in an effort to buy the kollel more time. 

In August, when the management company obtained a court-ordered eviction that could have been initiated by the Sheriff’s Department as early as Sept. 11, Maimon rallied supporters in opposition to the kollel’s being thrown out before the High Holy Days. After receiving a number of e-mails and phone calls, MCM’s office manager, Barbara Jager, told Maimon the kollel could remain through Yom Kippur. 

Maimon then objected to not being allowed to stay for Sukkot. So, there he was, sitting in the sukkah on Sept. 30, the holiday’s first night. In an interview, Maimon said he expected the kollel would be allowed to stay in place for the remainder of the holiday, and that he hoped it would be allowed to remain in its building until a deal on a new location could be made.  

“We want to move,” Maimon said, sitting at the head of the table while others cleared away the Styrofoam plates and leftovers from dessert. “But this is a synagogue. It’s not a group of squatters downtown.” 

Maimon said he had found a new space a few blocks west on Pico, though a deal hadn’t yet been finalized. 

The property manager of the current location, Martin Gurfinkel, said the owner wants the kollel out. 

“They were late on the rent all the time, just constantly late,” Gurfinkel said in an interview in early September, before Rosh Hashanah. “The old woman who owns the building really depends on the income.”

Kollel Rashbi Ari, named for two kabbalistic giants, is quite unlike other synagogues — and very different from most commercial-property tenants. A former art gallery and framing shop, the kollel was born in 1999, when Chaim Mekel, an Israeli painter who became religious late in life, decided to devote himself to a life of learning and converted his shop into a house of study. 

Mekel moved back to Israel in 2006, and today the kollel is supported in a haphazard way, with individuals stopping by to put a dollar in a donation box and local merchants and shoppers occasionally dropping off a few bottles of wine, bags full of challah and the occasional box of unsellable vegetables. 

Among the kollel’s regular patrons are users of the kollel’s private mikveh, a ritual bath. Constructed in 2003 without permits, its cold waters can draw between a couple dozen men on typical days, to as many as 60 before holidays like Yom Kippur and Passover, and the fees they pay are the most reliable source of income for the kollel. 

Because they come at unusual hours, often before the sun rises, Maimon has been living in the kollel, in a loft space someone built in the years before he took over as leader, in April 2011. 

But for Keith Levin, a former leader of the kollel, the people who benefit most from the kollel are the “lost souls,” individuals who might not be eating anywhere if they weren’t eating at the kollel. 

On the first night of Sukkot, about 25 people — all of them single, all but five of them men — came to the kollel for dinner. While there are dozens of synagogues in the immediate vicinity, many said they didn’t feel at ease in those settings. 

“For a single person, it’s a desert, once you get to a certain age,” said Sheila Ginsberg. 

Ginsberg said she has been coming to the kollel for more than a year. Asked where she will be if the kollel loses its home, she practically spat in disgust as she answered. 

“Home,” Ginsberg said. “Home, alone. Every Friday night.”

Tiny shul faces eviction threat

“I call it a hub, like the airlines, Mikhael Maimon said. “When people want help, they come through our doors. And when people want to help others, they come here.” Maimon is director of Kollel Rashbi Ari shul in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. The shul got its start when the artist Chaim Mekel used the space as a studio, then slowly became a place of worship as Mekel studied kabbalah and Torah in his free time. Kollel Rashbi Ari thus began as a nondenominational center. As an interviewer speaks to Maimon, people wander in from the street, wanting a hot meal or needing to borrow Maimon’s cell phone. 

Nine months ago, Maimon became director of the 15-year-old shul. Located in a tiny space, just 700 square feet, it includes a mikveh for men, as well as a table for studying and a kitchen that produces food for the hungry any time of day. 

“We are for the people and about the people,” Maimon said. With its mission as a “center for spiritual and material sustenance,” Kollel Rashbi Ari holds a daily minyan and serves more than 200 people at a weekly Shabbat dinner. The food is donated by caterers, and the shul is run by donations and volunteers.

In addition to feeding the hungry, the center helps find housing for the homeless. However, despite their best efforts, financial problems persist. The building that houses the shul is leased from the MCM Property Management Co., and MCM has threatened eviction multiple times, because, Maimon admits, “We don’t pay the rent really ever on time, but we always pay.” Kollel Rashbi Ari pays $2,100 a month for the space, which includes utilities, but it often pays up to three weeks late. They were given a three-day eviction notice just before Rosh Hashanah last fall, and were served with a 30-day notice after that. 

Kollel Rashbi Ari reached an understanding with the management company, who, Maimon said, agreed that it wasn’t “a good idea to close down a shul,” and it has so far been allowed to remain open.

“So, we were going to have a fresh start and sign a new lease. See, it was a Rosh Hashanah miracle.” The rent has been paid through January, but not yet for February and March, but there have been no recent eviction notices posted on the door. The problem is, Maimon said, the writ of execution remains open with the sheriff’s department, which means the management company can “merely push the button, and the sheriff will show up and evict us.” MCM Property Management declined to comment for this article.

Maimon said that paying the rent on time isn’t always possible. “We don’t always have the money on time, and we have to take care of the people who walk in the door as well. But, hopefully there will be a large donation coming through that will take care of all of our financial troubles. We just need to be allowed to stay long enough for that to happen.”

Late to shul, on time for kiddush

My friend and I go to the same synagogue but almost never run into each other. “How come?” I was musing the other day.

“Well,” she said. “I only go there to pray.”

Aha! That explains it! When she’s walking out, I’m walking in.

Yes, I’m one of those synagogue goers who arrive pretty much just in time for the “Amen!” as we raise our mini plastic cups of wine before elbowing our way — er, gently sauntering over — to the food. My timing is never quite exact, of course, so there are days when I get there and my fellow congregants are still singing “Adon Olam,” the last song of the service. I’m happy to sing along — in fact, I like it if I’m in time for Kaddish and the announcements; makes me feel very much a part of things. But for shallow, antsy and kind-of-cheap me, going to synagogue means going to lunch with friends, there, in the social hall.

And how important is the quality of that lunch? Let’s just say that a tray of hummus and carrot sticks makes my spiritual aura shrink to the size of a store-bought gefilte fish ball. You could pierce my soul with a toothpick. But a glistening mound of bar mitzvah lox — the Holy Grail, as it were, of Kiddushes — maketh me skip through the Valley of Death and cartwheel over to the scallion cream cheese. It restoreth my soul and maketh my kids a lot happier about my bringing them along, too. In fact, it getteth them psyched to come again, the way a random shower of slot machine nickels getteth bubbe back to Atlantic City. And I know that I am not the only congregant who peruses the synagogue calendar to see who has a great big spread — er, great big simcha — coming up, and precisely which Saturday we are talking about.

My worry, of course, is that the Divine One is probably not thrilled with the attendee who arrives when the audience is filing out of the theater. Come to think of it, the rabbi probably isn’t, either. But I do believe there is something more than just lip service (and Tam Tams) being offered when a congregant arrives in time only to eat and shmooze. And, I am glad to say, some folks agree with me.

“Kiddush is not just a snack. The word ‘kiddush’ is from ‘kodesh,’ meaning ‘holy,’” says Elliott Katz, author of “Being the Strong Man a Woman Wants” (Award Press, 2005). (It’s also a good idea to be the rationalizing man a woman wants.) “Going just for kiddush is a lot better than not going at all.”

Hear, hear! Maybe it’s not quite as holy as actually participating in the service, but a couple of transcendent things are indeed going on, says Alan M. Singer, author of the recently published “Creating Your Perfect Family Size” (Wiley). First, he says, “It’s the central opportunity in a normal week to socialize with other Jews on a large scale, and I think that’s holy.” Then, too, consider the fact that many Kiddushes are sponsored in honor of an event, or a person.

If the event is a happy occasion, you’re joining in a celebration. It’s a mitzvah, like dancing at a wedding. But if it’s in memory of a person, just being there could be even more significant, because when you say the blessing over the wine or the bread or even the Costco celery sticks, you are adding that prayer to all the prayers being said sort of on behalf of the departed. Which somehow — I was never quite clear on this or on any part of the hereafter where our peeps are concerned — can help the dearly departed only in the afterworld. (Which we don’t believe in. Or do we?) Anyhow, it’s like the dead man given an enema in the classic Jewish joke: Even if it can’t help, it couldn’t hoit.

Then, too, adds Gigi Cohen, a Chicagoland mom of three, quoting her cousin the rabbi, who gets things going Saturdays at 9 a.m.: “If you want a one-hour service, come at 11.”

Vermont rabbi (and stand-up comic) Bob Alper agrees: Shorter services make folks more punctual. But he also reminds us of the quote from writer/publisher/convict/satirist Harry Golden, whose atheist father attended synagogue religiously: “One day he asked his dad why, if he didn’t believe in God, he went to shul. The reply: ‘Everyone goes to synagogue for a different reason. Garfinkle goes to talk to God. I go to talk to Garfinkle.’”

Exactly! And if I am one of the last to arrive at synagogue, I should add that I am also one of the last to leave, because my synagogue is full of Garfinkles. I love talking to them, hearing all the news, being part of an ongoing community. If I also happen to be surrounded by bagels and lox, well, my heart opens wide.

And sometimes, so does my tote bag.

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and author of the book Free-Range Kids (Wiley, 2010) and of the blog of the same name.

Chabad renews push to evict Crown Heights shul’s leaders

Chabad-Lubavitch leaders have renewed their push to evict the congregational leaders of the Chasidic movement’s main Brooklyn synagogue.

On Sept. 21, leaders of Chabad’s governing bodies issued vacate notices in a bid to force out the congregational leaders, or gabbaim, who effectively run the massive synagogue in the basement of 770 Eastern Parkway, the movement’s world headquarters in the Crown Heights neighborhood. The notices gave the gabbaim until Oct. 4 to leave.

The notices are the latest salvo in a long-running fight over control of the synagogue, with the two sides battling in court for more than half a decade. In May, the appellate division of the New York State Supreme Court reversed on technical grounds a previous court order for the gabbaim to vacate the synagogue.

Over the past decade, the synagogue has been the scene of occasionally violent clashes stemming from the ongoing dispute and religious conflicts. Under its current gabbaim, the synagogue has been a stronghold of those who aggressively promote the idea that the Lubavitch Chasidic sect’s late rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, is the messiah.

The recent vacate notices were signed by Rabbi Avraham Shemtov, chairman of Agudas Chasidei Chabad of the United States, and Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch.

A New York court ruled in 2006 that the groups led by Krinsky and Shemtov are the synagogue’s rightful owners.

Earthquake-damaged New Zealand shul renting for Rosh Hashanah

The small Jewish community in the earthquake-ravaged New Zealand city of Christchurch will celebrate Rosh Hashanah in a rental property because the city’s only synagogue has not yet been repaired.

The congregation would now be “lucky if repair works can start in 12 months’ time,” the acting president of the Canterbury Hebrew Congregation, Bettina Wallace, said in a Sept. 17 report to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The JDC donated $20,000 to the community’s earthquake appeal.

The devastating Feb. 22 tremor claimed the lives of more than 180 people, including three Israelis.

The synagogue building suffered extensive damage. The tower that holds the ark had to be removed. Engineers insisted that the entire front part of the synagogue will need to be demolished and rebuilt, according to Wallace.

Wallace said the congregation rented a house two weeks ago thanks largely to the donation from the JDC.

“The house is small, but has a huge living room which we have converted into a sanctuary,” she wrote.

The lay-led community is organizing for two young Chabad rabbis from Melbourne to lead the services, Wallace added.

The city’s Chabad house, a rented property, suffered severe damage in the earthquake.

Rosh Hashanah ‘in the house tonight’ dances into the new year

Aish brings together rhythm, beats and davening for their Rosh Hashanah ‘in the house tonight’ dancing spectacle that parodies LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem.  Here’s the chorus from the lyrics, but be sure to watch the video for the full effect.

Rosh Hashanah’s in the house tonight
All the world is passing through the light
Let’s all get written in the book of Life
Shana Tova—it’s High Holiday time


National Cathedral, damaged in quake, will hold services in shul

After their building took a battering from Tuesday’s earthquake, parishioners from Washington National Cathedral will instead worship in a Washington synagogue.

Due to earthquake damage, the church canceled services, including a Saturday dedication event for the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, while the building undergoes assessments. In the meantime, Washington National Cathedral will hold its Sunday services in the Washington Hebrew Congregation buildling.

Washington National Cathedral sustained what it called “significant damage” after the earthquake, losing ornate capstones from the church’s central tower, which at its peak is the highest point in Washington, D.C. There were also cracks in the flying buttresses in the area around the altar, the church said in a statement.

The cathedral’s dean, the Rev. Samuel Lloyd III, noted in a statement “the need to take every measure to ensure safety.” He also thanked the Washington Hebrew Congregation and its rabbi, Bruce Lustig, “for inviting us to hold services there for the next two Sundays.”

On road to renewal, Shul gets multipurpose life

A plastic bag whips in the breeze, trying in vain to free itself from the coil of   barbed wire atop a chain link fence that surrounds the Breed Street Shul just off Cesar Chavez Avenue (originally Brooklyn Avenue) in Boyle Heights. The crumbling concrete stairway leading up to the double-arched doorway sags in the center, and while a stained glass Star of David crowns the facade in bright tones of amber, green and blue, a closer look reveals holes punched through the mottled panes. The window, above the proud words “Congregation Talmud Torah, Los Angeles” etched into the stonework, is boarded up from inside.

But there are signs of life in what was once know as the Queen of Shuls, the largest and last remaining of some 30 congregations that once populated Boyle Heights, the center of the Los Angeles Jewish community from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Blue and yellow extension cords snake from a fuse box outside into the building over the metal door that blocks the entrance. A contractor’s truck idles in a narrow parkway, and the sounds of drills and hammers announce that work has commenced.

For most of the last two decades, homeless squatters and opportunistic flocks of pigeons were the only inhabitants of this 18,000-square-foot Byzantine revival structure, condemned after its unreinforced masonry was badly damaged in the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake. The occasional Jewish Historical Society of Southern California tour group came by, shaking their heads at the graffiti that defaced memorial plaques and folk art murals. Nostalgic Jews and, more commonly, neighborhood Latinos, peered up from Breed Street at the shattered stained-glass Jewish star and felt the tug of grandeur gone to waste, the sigh of a chapter of history surely closed.

Finally, after more than two decades of small steps and dogged efforts by a group of volunteers and preservationists, the first phase of construction is under way to convert Congregation Talmud Torah, known as the Breed Street Shul, into a center for the Latino community that now dominates the neighborhood as well as a destination for the Jewish community that abandoned the neighborhood long ago — and, perhaps most important, to help connect the two.

“When we embarked on this, our immediate goal was simply to stop demolition of something we considered a treasure, and to have there be an opportunity for the community to preserve its history and reclaim this important site,” said Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, who has spearheaded this effort from its inception. “As the project has evolved, it has taken on this additional, and I think equally — and perhaps even more — important aspect, which is using it as a resource and an opportunity to build a bridge between the Jewish community and the current neighbors of the shul.”

Peace Over Violence, a community-based nonprofit that offers Latino youth academic support and leadership opportunities, and the Jewish Free Loan Association are slated to move in. The Jewish Historical Society of Southern California will house its archives here, and there will be a space where people can share their own oral histories.

Construction on the chapel building is expected to be completed by the end of summer — the small 1915 wood-frame bungalow housed Congregation Talmud Torah when it moved from downtown, where the congregation was founded in 1904. The bungalow was moved to the back of the property in 1921 to make room for the main shul. The last minyan was held in the main building in 1987, but services continued in the original structure until 1996.

A total of about $3.5 million in grants from governmental, Jewish and preservationist organizations, private donations and in-kind services over the past 15 years have repaired gaping holes in the roof, restored some of the site’s artwork, and completed some of the seismic retrofitting needed to make both buildings habitable.

There are enough funds now to complete renovations on the smaller building, and the Breed Street Shul Project plans next to launch a $10 million to $15 million campaign to renovate the main hall, which was designed by Abram M. Edelman, son of Los Angeles’ first rabbi and the same architect who created Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s iconic domed structure. When work is completed, the main shul will house an event hall with a catering kitchen, an exhibit on the multicultural history of Boyle Heights, nonprofit programs and office space, and a shared suite for nonprofit start-ups.

Ellen Sanchez, who is Jewish, and whose father grew up in Boyle Heights, is the director of Healthy Communities at Peace Over Violence and is heading up the Breed Street Shul Project. 

The chapel before restoration. Photo by Don Schwartz

“The first time we went into the shul with three or four youth leaders from Ramona Gardens,” she said, referring to the nearby public-housing project, “they had just finished renovating the mural, and Stephen Sass was giving us a tour. He explained that the Hebrew on the bottom meant, roughly, ‘stand for something,’ and that so resonated with them. You could immediately see them saying, ‘Oh, this is the work that has been going on inside this building over the years, and now we’re picking up and continuing it,’ ” Sanchez said.

She hopes to program joint activities with Jewish youth groups, and to host a Passover seder celebrating freedom.

Peace Over Violence is one of 40 Boyle Heights organizations that participates in Building Healthy Communities, a 10-year comprehensive effort funded by the California Endowment focused on strengthening health care, public safety, education and leadership in 13 communities throughout the state.

After school, Peace Over Violence kids will come to the Breed Street Shul for tutoring, homework help or classes in things like music instruction, poetry, urban art or filmmaking. A teen youth council will work on tackling the issues that face the community.

To make the bungalow suitable for programming, preservation architects opted to open up the space by removing the central bimah and the gates sectioning off the women’s area. Some restoration work already has been completed to repair vandalism — the doors to the ark that once housed the Torah were pulled off their hinges, and graffiti marred Yizkor plaques meant to memorialize the dead in perpetuity. Some of the defaced plaques will remain hanging, a testament to the building’s layered history.

The room will retain elements of the shul, most notably the wooden ark. A richly hued mural, restored last year, surrounds the ark with a lavishly painted wooden Ark draped in red velvet and golden ropes.

What was once the rabbi’s office will become a kitchen where kids can prepare their own wholesome snacks and meals and learn to cook for a healthy lifestyle.

During school hours, Sanchez hopes to run parenting classes, drawing adults to other services that might be offered. KOREH L.A., The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ literacy program, and Bet Tzedek Legal Services are considering opening up shop in the building. The Jewish Free Loan Association is already signed on to house mobile loan analysts at the shul and is working with a donor to set up a fund to serve the downtown area.

Work on the buildings sprinted ahead in the last two years after the Breed Street Shul Project, a nonprofit set up by the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, hired Tsilah Burman as executive director. Burman, a long-time Los Angeles community activist whose professional experience includes nonprofit and real-estate work, has increased the fundraising, received multiple grants and managed the construction project.

Making the 1915 structure suitable for occupants is an important tangible first step.

“We can begin to show everyone what we really want to do, that this is what is going to happen on a larger scale when everything is complete,” Sass said.

Activities in the main building will be more extensive and varied, once it opens in a few years. The space will be available for weddings, bar mitzvahs and quinceañeras, and an expanded front lobby, with its original speckled terrazzo tiles in geometric insets, will house “The Power of Place,” an exhibit created for the Japanese American Museum about the multicultural history of Boyle Heights. Some of the artifacts from the original shul will be lent out to other shuls, but some will also be on display — heavy wooden pews, Torah mantles, and perhaps smaller items like the dusty and decaying prayer books now stacked on the bimah or cracked aleph bet chart that leans up against a rusted old radiator. Even old wine bottles still stand on a small table, as if they were never told the occupants weren’t coming back.

Robert Chattel, a preservation architect on the board of the Jewish Historical Society who has worked on the project for 20 years, says he wants to see the building be more than a museum and wedding hall.

“I want to see people in a computer class, in a reading workshop, learning Yiddish,” Chattel said. “I see this variety of things happening and maybe some of them are literally cross-cultural — there is some event that happens between 11 and 2, and another that happens at 3, and they are so different that the hour in between is when the business of becoming a community happens.”

The central bimah in the main sanctuary will be removed, but the ark and the platform leading up to it will remain. Murals around the room — folk art featuring symbols of the zodiac as well as symbols of Jewish holidays — have been partially restored.

From 2004 to 2009, the Judson Art Studio worked on restoring 47 stained-glass windows — rectangles of amber panes with jagged accents of greens and blues. (The guano was so thick that the workers who removed the windows had to wear protective suits.) Each window had an 18-inch round inset that displayed one of the 12 tribes of Israel, but only five remained. Judson restored those, and they will be on display in the historical exhibit.

Once called The Queen of Shuls, the main building will house an event hall and programming space to serve both the Latino and Jewish communities. Photo courtesy of The Breed Street Shul Project

Once the building is occupied, Judson will install reproductions of all the tribe insets.

The Star of David on the Breed Street facade will be restored (it was already restored once, then vandalized) and will remain visible from the main hall through the second-floor balcony, which once housed the women’s section. The balcony will retain the first few rows of seating, and behind that a glass wall will partition off the rest of the space for meeting rooms and a reception area.

The lower level, once the social hall, is now crowded with cobweb-covered heavy wooden tables and chairs. That space will be cleared out to make way for an office suite for nonprofit start-ups. The old stage, backed up by a mural and framed by carved wooden columns, will be glassed in to serve as a conference room. Down the hall, the old catering kitchen will be refurbished, its antique appliances replaced with easily kashered stainless steel equipment.

The architects used standards set by the secretary of the interior for preserving national landmarks to retain the feel of the shul while also making the space accessible and functional.

While Jewish law regulates decommissioning a holy space, Chattel notes that the building had been abandoned by the time the Breed Street Shul Project began its work.

Had the Jewish Historical Society not stepped in, the building could have been razed.

Jews began moving west to the Fairfax district and the San Fernando Valley after World War II. A small community still remained through the 1970s and ’80s, and the last service at the Breed Street Shul is believed to have been around 1996.

In 1988, a former Breed Street Shul rabbi and his son, not wanting to see their spiritual home given to other uses, applied for demolition permits, hoping to sell the lot to build a shul elsewhere.

Working pro bono on a political and legal strategy for more than a decade, Jewish Historical Society board member Allan Mutchnik of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in Century City, got the city to have the building declared a Los Angeles historical and cultural monument in 1988, which immediately thwarted any demolition efforts. The city then put up a barbed-wire-topped fence to offer mandated protection for the monument. Because the building’s nonprofit owner — Congregation Talmud Torah’s board of directors, which was functionally, if not legally, dissolved — could not pay for the fence, the city put a lien on the building. With some arm-twisting from the Jewish Historical Society, the city enforced the lien and took title to the building. In the final move, the city tapped into a state law that allows a municipality to deed a landmark to a historical society. The Jewish Historical Society of Southern California in 1999 created the Breed Street Shul Project to oversee restoration efforts and in 2000 took ownership of the building.

The shul was listed in the national registry of historic landmarks in 2001, and in the same year then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton named it as part of her Save America’s Treasures campaign.

Last month, the project held its second fundraiser, raising $150,000 and honoring Lucille Roybal-Allard, the congresswoman who procured a key U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Develoopment grant that partially funded the renovations on the 1915 building, and Yaakov Dayan, the Israeli Consul General who reached out to the Latino community, attracting 6,000 people to Fiesta Shalom in 2009, a celebration of Israel’s independence day that brought Latinos and Jews together for a street fair on Breed Street.

The shul, Sass says, has always held a place of honor in the Latino community, with Latino artists painting it and with Jewish iconography part of the local folk art. Having the building come alive will mean a lot to the local community as well as to the far-flung Jewish community, Sass said.

“On our new logo, the front doors are open, and that speaks to what we feel about this,” Sass said. “This was born of a Jewish experience in a particular time and a particular place, and that is still meaningful, and we want to share that meaning and expand it and reinvent it.”

From shul to the mikvah, transgender Jews seek place in Jewish life

Noach Dzmura has a master’s degree in Jewish studies, publishes widely on Jewish topics and is the communications director at his synagogue. In 2006, he received an award from the San Francisco Jewish Federation that funded a year’s study in Israel.

He also was born a female.

Dzmura, 48, is one of a growing number of transgender Jews who are open about their status, taking leadership roles in the synagogue and trying to carve out a place in the Jewish community for those who fall outside the standard definitions of male and female.

It’s not easy, he acknowledges.

“Transgender people have tended historically to ‘go stealth’ [blend in as a nontransgender person] or opt out of Jewish communal life altogether,” he wrote in “Balancing on the Mechitza,” a collection of essays about transgender Jews in the Jewish community that Dzmura edited in 2009. It won this year’s Lambda Literary Prize for Nonfiction.

Transgender individuals do not identify with the gender into which they were born. Some undergo sex reassignment surgery so their external genitalia correspond to their inner sense of who they are, but most do not. Some take hormones to encourage secondary sexual characteristics. Others simply live as the opposite sex, changing their dress, hairstyle and other outward details. Still others do not identify as male or female.

There are no hard statistics on the number of transgender Jews.

Rabbi Reuben Zellman, 32, who transitioned from female to male before his acceptance to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and who is now the assistant rabbi at Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El, says hundreds of transgender Jews from all over the country have contacted him for advice.

Zellman, who graduated from HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, says he has worked with more than 150 people who wanted to change their Hebrew names to reflect a different gender status.

“I’ve heard people combine ‘ben’ and ‘bat’ to get ‘ban,’ ” he said, referring to the custom of calling Jews the “son of” or “daughter of” their parents. Other variations are “mibet,” meaning “from the house of,” or “mimishpachat,” meaning “from the family of.”

Zellman changed his Hebrew name from Hannah Yoninah to the masculine Hananya Yona when he began living as a man 22 years ago. But he is still “bat Herschel v’Gitel.” There are no set rules, he says; the business of living openly as a transgender Jew is still too new.

Jewish tradition does not look kindly upon those who cross accepted gender boundaries. Although the Mishnah and the Talmud discuss the legal status of individuals who are not fully male or female — hermaphrodites, eunuchs and others with questionable gender identities — the observant community does not accept transgenderism as distinguished from intersex individuals, those born with indistinct sexual status.

“Halachically and theologically, from the perspective of the Jewish religious tradition, a person’s sexual identity is dependent on the sex he or she is born as, assuming that the person’s genitals are unambiguous,” Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the Charedi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, said.

The Conservative movement also regards genitals as the final determinant. Although the movement has not said whether sex reassignment surgery is allowed, a 2003 responsum by its committee on law and standards holds that individuals who complete surgery and whose new gender is accepted by state authorities should be so recognized by Jewish law.

There are a variety of Reform responsa on the topic.

Dzmura, Zellman and their colleagues in the trans-Jewish activist community want to encourage the next generation of transgender Jews to join the Jewish community instead of avoiding it.

The goals they have set range from the mundane to issues of ritual and worship. They want to get Jewish institutions to provide nongendered bathrooms, which a few now do. They also want to be able to determine for themselves which side of the mechitzah to choose in an Orthodox shul and how to marry or convert in more liberal congregations.

“Liberal Judaism says come on in, but when it comes to changing our schools, how we bless our children, our rites of passage to adulthood, how we bury people, we really stick to a gender binary,” Dzmura said.

As more transgender Jews come forward looking for inclusion in Jewish life, there are a growing number of trans-friendly Jewish resource and advocacy organizations nationwide. At least two are in the San Francisco area:,  run by Dzmura, and, run by a collective of local rabbis and scholars, including Zellman.

These resources can be accessed anonymously, which is particularly important for the more observant users, they say.

“Many trans people are not ‘out,’ especially those living in Orthodox or Chasidic communities where no one knows they’re transgender,” said Zellman.

“I work with trans people who have suffered tremendous exclusion from Jewish life,” he said. “Sometimes people get overwhelmed or intimated by the idea of expanding Jewish rituals. But it’s really not that hard.”

Same-sex Jewish couple united in Amsterdam shul

Holland’s first same-sex Jewish commitment ceremony was held in Amsterdam.

The couple, who were not named in the Radio Netherlands report, was united Sunday in the synagogue of the Liberal Jewish Community.

The Council of Rabbis of the Dutch Union of Progressive Judaism recently ruled that such ceremonies may be held in the country’s nine Liberal synagogues. The ceremony, called a brit ahava, or covenant of love, is not an official Jewish wedding, a rabbinic spokesman told reporters.

Same-sex marriage has been legal in the Netherlands since 2001.

Letters to the Editor: Shul funds, Rabbi funds, Efrat construction

Better Use for Shul Funds

My husband and I happened to be in Los Angeles this month and saw the article about the revival of the Breed Street Shul (“Breed Street Shul Raising Funds With ‘Fiddler,’” May 14). My grandfather, Gershon Yehuda Wetstein (a.k.a. “Yeedle”), was a regular worshipper there for more than 40 years. He was also a schochet (ritual slaughterer) and as such was well known in the Boyle Heights Jewish community. A distant cousin, Rabbi Osher Zilberstein, was the rav of the congregation for 35 years.

While I can certainly understand a sentimental attachment to a shul that at one time pulsated with Jewish life and prayer, I can’t help thinking that the current campaign to renovate the building into community use is a terrible misuse of Jewish funds.

What Jewish educational institution in the Los Angeles area couldn’t put $10 million to good use? What Jewish child who longs to attend a Jewish day school will attend a public school next year because the scholarship funding ran dry?

Marsha Wetstein Motzen
Englewood, N.J.

Support for Rabbi

As members of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (PJTC), we write to support the efforts of our Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater to fight for social and economic justice in the United States, the Middle East and globally. A handful of current and former members recently wrote a letter to The Jewish Journal attacking him for his outspoken views, including his support for President Obama (“Jews Must Stay on Visionary Obama’s Side,” (, April 19). We disagree.

We admire Rabbi Grater for his courage in tackling controversial topics in his sermons, his writings and his public actions. His support for Israel is unswerving and is reflected in many aspects of our congregation’s life and activities. At the same time, his criticism of certain policies of the Israeli government reflects Judaism’s prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power.

As a scholar and spiritual leader, he draws on Jewish tradition not only to educate the congregation and the public about the importance of combating social injustice but also to stir debate. He actively encourages a diversity of opinion and dialogue within the synagogue.

Since he arrived at PJTC seven years ago, the rabbi has emerged as a powerful voice of conscience and commitment. We value his leadership, as do the overwhelming majority of members of our congregation, which recently renewed his contract.

We do not agree on all social and political issues, but we share a common admiration for Rabbi Grater’s bold leadership.

Susan Auerbach, Hal Barron, Jared Becker, Cindy Cohen, Douglas Crane, Mike Davidson, Peter Dreier, Mark Esensten, Jennie Factor, Betty Fishman, Jane Fishman, Yudie Fishman, Cecilia Fox, Jon Fuhrman, Rebecca Golbert, Claire Gorfinkel, Allen Gross, Karen Gross, John Guest, Sandy Hartford, Ed Honowitz, Cara Jaffe, Susan Kane, Patricia Kirkish, Kathy Kobayashi, Sandra Lavine, David Lorin. Brian Mark, Madeline Mark, Maureen McGrath, Peter Mendel, Terry Meng, Amy Nettleton, Jenny Owen, Ellen Pais, Meredith Rose, Glenn Rothner, Faith Segal, Mickey Segal, Diana Selig, Ruth Several, Mike Several, Debby Singer, Jack Singer, Jonathan Swerdlow, Ruth Wolman, Steven Youra.

Efrat Construction

I would like to add one point to David Suissa’s tear-wrenching column on Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s plight in not being able to continue building in the settlement of Efrat during the partial construction moratorium now in effect (“Natural-Born Builder,” May 14). While it is our country’s policy that the final eastern border of Israel will “reflect subsequent developments” to the 1949 Armistice line, the changes will be the result of negotiations.

It cannot be assumed that Efrat will be included in the new boundary of Israel. The settlement is deep in the occupied Palestinian Territory and has a detrimental impact on the economic development of nearby Bethlehem and on the Palestinian population in Jerusalem.

Efrat blocks Palestinian access to the road connecting Bethlehem and Jerusalem to Hebron, which restricts Palestinian access to employment, markets and social services. If Rabbi Riskin wants to build, he should return to Israel and do it there.

Michael Several
via e-mail

A May 14 article, “Breed Street Shul Raising Funds With ‘Fiddler,’ ” incorrectly named the source of funds used to hire Tsilah Burman as the first executive director of the Breed Street Shul Project. Her hire was made possible by grants from the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Community Pillar.

A May 14 article, “Israel’s Haitian Tent Hospital Boosts IDF Image,” incorrectly described the tent hospital staffing. The 200-plus personnel who staffed the Israeli field hospital in Haiti were mostly members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Medical Corps, and the rest were from several Israeli hospitals. Dr. Ofer Merin (who, in the reserves, is commander of the IDF field hospitals) was not the head of the Israeli effort in Haiti. He was chief of the surgery and trauma unit — one of the two units that made up the hospital. The head of the field hospital was a member of the IDF Medical Corps.

VideoJew’s VideoGuide to L.A. #3 — Jewish Los Angeles

Dining, shopping, living, praying—VideoJew Jay Firestone shows you how it’s done Los Angeles-style.


Mayor: Building inspectors need better training, sensitivity to block another Yom Kippur showdown

One year after an emotional incident in which city building inspectors sought to halt Kol Nidrei services for Orthodox worshippers at a Hancock Park service, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has followed up with a report with recommendations designed to increase sensitivity and prevent future problems.

The confrontation at the Yavneh Hebrew Academy in the Hancock Park area outraged the Orthodox community and its political supporters.

Triggering the incident was a series of anonymous phone calls from a neighbor of Yavneh, alerting the city Department of Building and Safety (DBS) to a probable violation, on Yom Kippur, of restriction governing the hours that Yavneh could use the facilities.

At 8 p.m., while Rabbi Daniel Korobkin was conducting Kol Nidrei services for some 200 worshippers, two inspectors walked into the lobby and told startled congregants that they had to vacate the premises immediately.

When told that worshippers would leave only if carried out by force, the inspectors left and the services continued.

The roots of the incident lay in a contentious nine-year feud between some residents of the upscale Hancock Park neighborhood and an influx of strict Orthodox families.

Villaraigosa, together with city councilmen, felt the heat from both sides and the mayor asked the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom “to independently review, pro bono, the events that occurred on Sept. 21, 2007…and to make recommendations.”

In a letter yesterday (Sept. 23) to DBS general manager Andrew A. Adelman, obtained exclusively by The Journal, Villaraigosa cited 12 findings and recommendations by the law firm and asked for a response by Nov. 7.

In general, the report found that DBS had not singled out the Orthodox community as such, but called for an improved inspection process within DBS, and better communications with the city planning department and with institutions, such as Yavneh, operating with certain restrictions under a conditional use permit.

Specifically, the report recommended continued “awareness seminars” for inspectors at the Museum of Tolerance, supplemented by a “cultural diversity” program, in addition to the following points.

Training to avoid conflicts while conducting building inspections.

Review of the policy under which DBS accepts anonymous complaints.

Avoid interrupting cultural or religious events.

Institutions operating under conditional use permits to appoint community liaisons, who would be notified of complaints before city officials take action.

Korobkin, the Yavneh spiritual leader, said he was very pleased with the mayor’s recommendations and that the fault for last year’s incident lay mainly in the way DBS was structured, as well as a certain lack ofsensitivity.

There is no chance that last year’s incident will be repeated, he said. For one, Kol Nidrei falls on a weekday this year, which allows for extended operating hours.

Korobkin also asserted that relations between Yavneh and its neighbors had improved over the last 12 months and that complaints came mainly from a hard core of seven to eight residents.

But future relations between Yavneh and the Hancock Park Homeowners Association, which includes a fair number of Jewish families, will bear watching.

No spokesperson for the homeowners was immediately available, but in the past they have persistently accused Yavneh of violating the terms of its conditional use permit and have initiated a number of court actions.

Although Yavneh is not located within his district, City Councilman Jack Weiss has been a vocal champion of the religious school.

He said that in the dispute, “justice is on the side of Yavneh – it’s not even close.”

View Larger Map

Shul playground pays tribute to young pilot

In mid-April about 300 people gathered at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) for the dedication of Mark Air, a large, eye-catching structure in the nursery school play area. With its colorfully painted slides, tunnels and swings, its portholes and decorative elements, Mark Air is a multipurpose play apparatus that resembles an airplane.

The structure honors Mark Gabriel, a 23-year-old aviator who perished in an airplane accident four and a half years ago. Among those in attendance were Mark’s parents, Mary and Moneer Gabriel, their relatives and co-workers, as well as VBS nursery-school families, including toddlers who couldn’t wait to play in the brand-new structure.

At the dedication there were also many who know the Gabriels from having met them at their place of worship in Pico-Robertson: St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church.

Mary and Moneer Gabriel are not Jewish. They’re Christian, born in Egypt. In an interview, they talked about Mark, their middle child.

“With Mark, everything was so fast,” Mary Gabriel said, recalling the day of his birth: April 13, 1980. “Even his delivery was fast…. As he was growing up, he kept me on my toes all the time. Never a dull moment. He was very energetic.

“Mark was a free spirit. He wanted to do everything. The first time he drove a car he was 8 years old. At that age he got into Moneer’s Volkswagen and tried to drive it. With Mark everything was so quick, quick, quick … as if he knew….” Her eyes welled up. “He’d get bored with things: with school, with classes. He was smart, but he couldn’t sit still.”

In the 1990s, Mark Gabriel attended Alemany, a Catholic high school in Mission Hills, then went to CSUN, where he studied accounting and finance. After that, he worked in the insurance business. According to his parents, Mark was too adventurous and restless for a desk job, so one day he announced that he wanted to be an airplane pilot.

At pilot school in Florida, Mark Gabriel found something that he loved and had the craving to learn. After two years of study and training, he returned to Southern California, where he worked as a co-pilot for a charter jet company.

On Dec. 23, 2003, Mark Gabriel was co-pilot on a small business jet that took off from Chino Airport. Eleven minutes after take-off, the plane plummeted 20,000 feet into the Mojave Desert.

In the wake of this tragedy, Ron Braverman, Mary Gabriel’s work supervisor, helped the Gabriels start a foundation in Mark’s name.

“We started the Mark Moneer Gabriel Foundation,” Braverman said, “and we collected a nice sum of money. We went to Alemany, where Mark had gone to high school, and we met with their scholarship program. But somehow, it never fell into place.

“We wanted to use the money to keep Mark’s name and memory alive, and we wanted to do something that benefited other people, because Mark was very big on taking care of others. If he had a dollar in his pocket and you needed it, he’d give it to you.”

Another work colleague of Mary Gabriel’s, Shirley Lowy, also reached out to the Gabriels in their time of grief.

“Shirley is the connection to VBS,” Braverman said. “Along the way she brought Moneer into VBS, and he started attending lectures and classes about four years ago.”

“Shirley tried to bring me here so many times,” Mary Gabriel said, “but I wasn’t ready.”

In time, Mary also started coming to VBS, where she felt “comfortable.”

“I wanted to do something [to honor Mark],” Mary said, “and here at VBS they’re very warm.”

“We were open to everything,” Braverman said, “but because Mary and Moneer are not Jewish, I wanted to make sure. Did they want something here at VBS? Did they want to do something that was compatible with their church at the same time?”

Little by little, after talking with those at VBS who work in the playground, the idea for Mark Air took shape.

“We wanted it to have something to do with Mark,” Braverman said, “and the playground people came up with the concept. They told us their needs and came up with a design. Sometimes things just happen at the right time, and it all falls into place…. Long after we’re forgotten, Mark Air will be there for children to enjoy.”

On April 13, the day Mark Air was dedicated — the day that would have been Mark Gabriel’s 28th birthday — Moneer Gabriel cut the ribbon, and the children swarmed all over the structure, playing and jumping and having fun. It was a day of tears and joy.

“It couldn’t be more special,” Mary Gabriel said, her eyes welling up again. “The pain will never go away, of course. But seeing the children play, knowing that Mark’s name will live on this way, helps ease the feeling of loss.”

New group for school and shul rabbis addresses shared issues

A new group of Orthodox day school principals and pulpit rabbis on Los Angeles’ Westside began meeting a few months ago to work through issues that overlap the classroom and the synagogue.

Since December, a group of 10 rabbis has discussed issues ranging from bar and bat mitzvah decorum to serving kids with learning or behavioral differences.

“Usually what happens is pulpit rabbis and day school principals rarely talk to each other, and it shouldn’t be that way, because we share the same community — the congregants are going to the schools — and we share so many issues. If we just talk to each other and try to brainstorm and become a think tank, everyone would benefit,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin, who started the Shuls/Schools Coalition (SSC) in December.

The rabbis meet about every six weeks for 90 minutes, addressing a previously agreed-upon topic. The host rabbi provides lunch, the only cost SSC incurs.

So far, participants include Rabbis Yosef Kanefsky of Congregation B’nai-David Judea; Steven Weil, Beth Jacob; Daniel Korobkin, Kehillat Yavneh; Nachum Kosofsky, Shaarei Tefila; Moises Benzaquen, Magen David; Boruch Sufrin, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy; Karmi Gross, Maimonides Academy; Moshe Dear, Yeshivat Yavneh; and Shuki Gabbai, Shalhevet.

At the first meeting in December, the rabbis addressed the problem of kids running wild in shuls when they attend a bar mitzvah. The rabbis agreed to visit the schools so the kids would have a familiar face associated with the shul. They also agreed to appoint adults to keep decorum and make the experience more spiritually meaningful for the young guests.

At the next three meetings, the rabbis devoted all their time to addressing communal responsibility for children who aren’t served by a standard day school curriculum. The issue arose because Kol Hanearim, a two-year-old program to serve emotionally and behaviorally challenged kids in day schools, was in deep financial trouble.

The rabbis decided to examine different models and assess what the best solution is for Los Angeles, an ongoing process. They have pulled the Bureau of Jewish Education and non-Orthodox day schools into the discussion.

The next meeting will look at how to make prayer a more meaningful experience both in school and in synagogue, a long-term problem Muskin sees among many of his adult congregants who graduated from day schools.

“Something is desperately wrong, and this is a synagogue-school problem. It’s an issue that crosses the line between the school and shul, and we’ve got to figure out ways to fix it,” Muskin said.

Selma’s Sermon

This is a big time of the year for sermons.Last year at this time, I wrote a column called “Words of Awe,” comparing the different styles of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform sermons.I even previewed some of the sermons we could expect to hear here in the hood — and I discussed the Orthodox tradition called Shabbat Tshuvah, which is the biggest and most anticipated sermon of the year, on the Shabbat afternoon before Yom Kippur.

The thing is, though, all these big, important sermons are usually given by rabbis.

They’re not supposed to be given by young, pretty, career-driven single Jewish women with a weakness for Italian shoes and vintage Jaguars.

But that is exactly what happened four years ago, on Yom Kippur of 2003, when a rabbi’s daughter named Selma Schimmel got up to speak. She didn’t speak in a shul in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, but this is a story that can play in any hood.

Selma spoke right after the Torah reading, and just before Yizkor, in a Studio City shul called Beit Meier. Her sermon, as she recalled it the other day in my dining room with kids playing in the background, didn’t focus on High Holy Days themes like spiritual renewal, forgiveness and personal atonement.

Instead, she spoke about ovaries, genetic testing and the BRCA gene mutations.

You see, Selma had an announcement to make that day. A week earlier, she had undergone a seven-hour operation to treat advanced ovarian cancer, which no one knew except her now-late father, the founder and spiritual leader of the Beit Meier shul.

So she and her father had huddled together and decided she had to say something. This was a small community, and the Schimmel name was revered. People worried easily. Twenty years earlier, Selma had been diagnosed at an unusually young age with breast cancer, and three years before that, her mother, the rebbitzen, had died of ovarian cancer.

This was not a time for family secrets. So there she was, in her tailored suit and Italian shoes, recovering from surgery and groggy from pain medications, in front of a standing-room-only crowd that was waiting for its annual Yom Kippur sermon — and she was telling them about her second cancer.

She explained that about 10 percent of ovarian cancer cases have been linked to genetics, typically through susceptibility genes. As part of the genome project, the two BRCA genes, located on chromosome 17, were the first to be identified as carriers of a predisposition to breast and ovarian cancers. When a woman has a mutation in either BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, like Selma has, she is at higher risk of developing one of these cancers.

Then she got personal.

She explained how about one in 40 American Jews of Ashkenazi descent — who make up about 90 percent of American Jews — is believed to carry the mutant genes, compared with one in 400 for the general population.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, researchers speculate that the genetic mutations arose by chance among the Ashkenazim over several centuries, starting as far back as the 1100s. Under assault by ethnic attacks, millions of Eastern European Jews contracted to a group numbering in the thousands, then expanded again into a population of millions — a “genetic bottleneck” in which random mutations in the small, largely intermarried group are passed down to many descendants.

Selma was one of those descendants, and as she went on with her “sermon” that Yom Kippur day, she seemed to forget that she was in a shul and not a school of medicine. But she was going somewhere with her lecture on mutant genes.

She wanted the people of the community to open their eyes and start asking more questions. She wanted them to look more carefully into their families’ medical histories, and if they suspected anything, to immediately make the necessary appointments.

She also offered to help. As the founder and executive director of Vital Options, an internationally renowned nonprofit cancer support group she started during her first bout with cancer in 1983, she could help answer a lot of questions.

But still, what did any of this have to do with the Days of Awe, the Book of Life or the Day of Atonement?

Selma admits today that when she got up to speak on that day, she came with an agenda. She knew she was about to go in for long-term treatment. She didn’t like the idea of rumors flying around about the rabbi’s daughter. She wanted to put everything on the table, while also enlisting the community in her efforts to help others with cancer prevention and early detection.

In other words, she didn’t really have your basic High Holy Days sermon in mind.

If you ask me, though, I think Selma’s not giving herself enough credit.

Is there a better day than the one when we abstain from all physical sustenance to reflect on the sanctity of the human body and honor the Torah’s injunction that “You shall guard your being”?

During these Days of Awe, when we are instructed to reflect deeply on ourselves and seek personal rectification, is there a better time to be reminded that the miracles that God has given us — which include the human body — also include the gifts of human knowledge, and the obligation to use that knowledge to help care for God’s physical miracles?

We will all hear many sermons during these Holy Days, and I’m sure many will touch on our need to become better Jews and make the world a better place. In the middle of all these noble sermons, however, I hope we’ll remember a simple Holy Days message from a fearless Jewish woman with an antique Jaguar who’s just been diagnosed with her third cancer.

Take good care of what God gave you.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at

Shopping for back to shul

It can be an exhausting process. And it can sometimes be exhilarating. Because of the hundreds of possibilities among Los Angeles’ shuls, success in finding the perfect one for you and your family too often seems just one more visit away.

Whether you are new to organized Jewish life, have kids, are pinching your pennies or just want a spiritual home base, there are four questions that are best answered before you begin your shul shopping.

First and foremost is your denomination, whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or other special non- or trans-denomination. Then there is the question of community: Are you becoming a member of a congregation because of the religious aspect of Judaism, to find friends or both? Most congregations offer a mix of social and sacred activities, but it’s worth asking yourself where your priorities lie.

Now for question No. 2: What specific features must your synagogue have?

If your main priority is a high-quality religious education program for your children, this city is packed with terrific congregation-affiliated day schools, preschools and religious schools. However, a well-regarded school can provide other challenges for small synagogues. For example, Temple Isaiah has struggled for years to retain families who join for the shul’s renowned preschool but split for larger congregations with more to offer post-graduation.

These days, joining congregations with affiliated day schools has become more popular than ever among parents seeking religious education for their children, and, in turn, membership has become necessary for securing a space on the school’s enrollment list. For example, enrollment at Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy or Temple Israel of Hollywood’s day school is only available to the shul’s members.

Here’s a tip: Becoming a member at a synagogue can sometimes lead to some cost cuts when it comes to the education of your kids. Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s nursery and elementary schools are open to the Jewish community at large, but substantial tuition discounts (not to mention higher positions on the waiting list totem pole) are given to member families because the congregation subsidizes the schools.

For those seeking a religious supplement to the secular education of their children, religious school on afternoons or weekends is key. However, in most cases, the right to send your children to these schools is only given to congregants.

Parents or professionals with full agendas might want to find a synagogue with a flexible schedule of religious services. Congregations have progressively become more willing to compromise when it comes to scheduling in order to attract a wider range of members. Beth Jacob in Pico-Robertson (one of Los Angeles’ largest Orthodox congregations) offers three Shacharit minyamim every morning. Other synagogues have experimented with shorter services and earlier Friday night services for families who want to eat Shabbat dinner together.

If you have never belonged to a congregation before, take a look at the shul’s adult education program. Numerous synagogues offer courses introducing new members to Jewish life.

For widows, widowers or divorcees, a synagogue with singles mixers or a mourner’s club may be the place for you to meet new people.

The singles scene has become an active part of congregational life in Los Angeles. Events like Friday Night Live (on the second Friday of every month) at Sinai Temple cater to the 25 to 40 crowd and have become popular for matchmaking and phone number-swapping.

But beyond all this, connecting with a synagogue’s rabbis is often the most important part of a shul search. If you don’t like the rabbis, it won’t be much fun sitting through their High Holy Days sermons every year. Most will be more than happy to take the time to talk with you as you visit their congregation. Let them know your interests and what appeals to you – or doesn’t – about their offerings. How they address your concerns could give you as much information as what they have to say.

Another important intangible is the lay leadership. Temple presidents and boards decide what occurs on a daily basis at the shul, so it can be useful to speak to at least one board member to get a sense of the ruling body’s future plans. In addition, talking to the synagogue’s executive director and event coordinator can give you some insight on what it means to be a part of a congregation. Be careful, though, and take whatever they have to say with a grain of salt – after all, it is their job to convince you to join their shul.

If community outreach is important to you, look for a shul with an abundance of “social action” activities. For the politically minded, find a congregation that has a “social justice” program, a feature that is rising in popularity among congregations throughout the city.

On to question No. 3: How big do you want the congregation to be? Houses of worship like Stephen S. Wise Temple (the largest congregation in the United States) offer countless ways to explore every aspect of Jewish life, including major lecture series and events, but some people prefer smaller congregations. When you make your decision, don’t forget to keep your children in mind. Shared b’nai mitzvahs and large class sizes are staples of shuls like Wilshire Boulevard Temple. At the same time, kids can connect with a wide variety of friends in larger congregation.

Finally, question No. 4: How much are you willing to pay in membership dues? Most shuls have price tags of at least $1,500 for a yearly family membership, but, if money is tight for your family, some dues subsidy may be offered. Do not be shy. The vast majority of synagogues don’t turn away members because they cannot afford the annual fee. You need to sit down with the rabbi or executive director of the shul and tell them about your financial quandary. And for the devout, joining a Chabad might be the way to go, since membership is completely free of charge.

Don’t forget that what is most important when looking for a congregation is to find an environment that provides comfort, community and challenges. Make sure that you take time and are thoughtful on your shul shopping expedition. This is one purchase that is not easily returned.

Willingness to Sacrifice

Animal sacrifices are rather messy, and most of us would have a hard time imagining ourselves offering them up upon a Temple altar.

I’m probably not going too far
out on a limb in suggesting that when we come to shul each year to begin the book of Vayikra, we feel quietly relieved that the “lecture” won’t be followed by a “lab.”

We’re confident that the chances of our rabbi exhorting us to come next Shabbat with two year-old unblemished lambs for a pleasing fire-offering before the Lord are extremely small. (Rabbi Abraham Kook, chief rabbi of pre-state Palestine, actually opined that all of the offerings in the Third Temple will be vegetarian.)

Although strangely enough, I would argue that the cost of distancing ourselves emotionally from the world of sacrifices has been high, and that the historical lapsing of the practice has had a negative impact on the state of our contemporary religious practice.

Sacrifices were never actually about sacrifice. Sacrifices were about the willingness to sacrifice.

God did not command our ancestors to offer sacrifices because He needed or wanted them. “For what do I need your numerous offerings, saith the Lord?”
(Isaiah 1:11).

Rather, God did so in order to instill and reinforce within us an essential feature of the entirety of religious living, namely the willingness to endure personal sacrifice in the pursuit of doing that which is holy and that which is good.

It’s impossible to compare the power and potential of religious commitment that comes with the willingness to sacrifice with those of a commitment that are not thus accompanied. If I am committed, for example, to feed the hungry of my city, and I am prepared to expose myself to the cold, the rain and other unpleasant circumstances in order to do it, I will impact much more powerfully than if I am unprepared to do so.

Yet, despite the obviousness of this observation, we very often fail to apply its implications to the wide swath of our religious commitments. Consider these three examples:

A holy ethic of speech

We are each committed to the Torah’s vision of holy and ethical speech. We recognize the damage we can inflict by publicly humiliating others (the rabbis compare it to murder), the pain we can inflict through cruel or insensitive use of words (the Torah employs the term “oppression” to describe speaking in this way) and the irremediable harm we can cause by speaking ill of others (even when what we have said is true).

But how much personal sacrifice are we willing to endure to uphold this commitment? In certain situations, our commitment will require us to sacrifice personal popularity, reputation, even personal pride. The holiness of verbal discretion is not always appreciated in all social or professional circumstances. To what extent is the willingness to sacrifice part of our commitment to ethical speech?

Identifying with the grand narrative of the Jewish people

Broken down to its most basic formulation, to have a Jewish identity is to commit to consciously live one’s life as a chapter in the ongoing narrative of Jewish history. We each can and do define this in our own way, but the objective is a common one. The premise of such a life, of course, is being anchored in the chapters of the narrative that have already been written.

The instrument through which we achieve that anchoring is the observance of our holidays. Sure, we love and cherish our holidays. But we often are not prepared to make the sacrifices necessary if we are to truly, deeply “become one” with the chapters of our history that they embody.

We often hesitate when it comes to making dietary sacrifices (Tisha B’Av, Passover), sacrifices in our convenience (Sukkot), professional/financial sacrifices (Shabbat). But with no pain, there’s no gain. And our ability to firmly establish our place in our people’s ongoing story is diluted.

Seeing the world through God’s eyes

We are each aware of our own limitations. Our best and most sincere efforts are vulnerable to the intrusions of our egos and to the variety of ulterior motives that are endemic to the human condition. The best antidote we have is daily prayer — when we hold up our deeds and thoughts before God, and we see them as God does.

Any impurities in our motives or insincerities in our intentions are revealed, and we emerge from prayer with the blessed ability to fine-tune our course. Prayer, too, requires sacrifice however; sacrifice of the most elusive of all quantities nowadays –that of time. Prayer simply takes time.

The details of Parshat Vayikra indeed come to us from an era long ago. But the underlying message, the need to be willing to make sacrifices in order to realize our deepest commitments, is timeless. The reward for this willingness is nothing less than the unlocking of all the hidden potential that resides within our most profound and cherished ideals.

Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

The Schwartzes and me

When Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz gave his wife, Olivia, a surprise party for her 60th birthday in Mar Vista Park a few weeks ago, it was filled with the usual assortment of Schwartz family members and their devoted entourage.

Present were their 12 children, 24 grandchildren, friends (both religious and secular), fancy Hollywood powerbrokers and international celebrities.

Reggae/rock star Matisyahu was swinging his kids; Dov Rosenblatt, the newest Schwartz son-in-law, was on a park bench playing guitar with his band, Blue Fringe; high-level lawyers from Loeb and Loeb were plotting and planning with Rabbi Mendel Schwartz, talking about the next Shabbat on the Croisette at the Cannes Film Festival, which has become a well-attended annual event; and Rabbi Mashye Schwartz and Hindel Schwartz were teaching bites of Torah amid the gourmet food, served courtesy of son and Cordon Bleu chef Rabbi Josef Schwartz.

The afternoon was spent singing, dancing and learning Torah. It was the usual Schwartz family moveable feast — an island of inclusiveness and tolerance set amid what is often a divided and parochial L.A. Jewish community.

The Schwartzes are Lubavitch Chasidim. Twenty years ago they created the successful Chai Center, which they operate out of their home. The Schwartz home also serves as their corporate headquarters; shul; scene of weekly Shabbat dinners (advertised as “Dinner for 60 Strangers”); and classroom for the constant flow of groups that come to learn (Women’s Torah and Nails on Tuesdays!) or study with Olivia Schwartz or various high-level Torah scholars (Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz or Rabbi Yitzak Ginsburg) who frequent the Schwartzes’ salon.

All these events — which are open to all who are lucky enough to know about them — are either free or require a minimal donation.

Their High Holiday services at the Writers Guild of America building in Beverly Hills are free, as are their Shabbat dinners.

Their open-minded tolerance and acceptance of any Jew who moves makes them all the more astonishing, whether hosting a large-scale event or offering comfort, sympathy and Olivia’s homemade challah to those who require it.

The Schwartzes have been my friends for more than 21 years. Their learning and charisma has had a deep effect on many Jews, not least among them Jews in Hollywood’s Jews. In the late ’80s, many friends and clients of mine in the entertainment industry were getting involved with Lubavitch and studying Jewish mysticism. We eventually started a class at the Schwartz home on Sundays. Among those who participated were Richard Dreyfuss; music executive Brooks Arthur (who produced Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song” and his albums); record producer Linda Perry; comedian and writer Bruce Vilanch, who at the time was working for Bette Midler and Billy Crystal and writing for the Oscars; and attorney Andy Stern with his wife, Jackie.

My personal Jewish journey began in New York City, where I was a guest at the home of Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, whose Shabbat dinners were home to his friends Elie Wiesel and Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan. It was through Wolfe that I first met Simon Wiesenthal, and as an agent realized I could weave together my growing love of being Jewish and my work at William Morris: I have since represented Wiesenthal on several of his projects.

When I moved to Los Angeles in the ’80s, I had hoped to continue to weave my growing Jewish identity with my work. I shul hopped, met amazing teachers, but didn’t find my community until I met Rabbi Shlomo and Olivia Schwartz. Back then, I was representing Bob Dylan, and a friend of his brought me to one of the Schwartzes’ free Shabbat dinners.

In a way, I’ve never left the table.

So, naturally, I was with the Schwartzes for a week of sheva brachot for Aura, their youngest daughter, and her marriage to Dov Rosenblatt. The wedding was also typical Schwartzie — a sit-down dinner for 150 at the elegant Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, where a blend of Schwartzes danced, laughed, ate and toasted with the East Coast Rosenblatt family. (The groom’s father, Gary Rosenblatt, is editor of The Jewish Week; his mother, Judy, is equally accomplished). They were surrounded by a contingent of rabbis from Yeshiva University who married the couple.

Friends and family mingled easily with the usual collection of haute Jewish life who surround the Schwartz family. Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller and wife, Doreen, schmoozed about their upcoming trip to India with William Morris agent Shai Steinberger, life-long friend of the groom. Movie producer Scott Einbinder and powerbroker attorney Craig Emmanuelle were seen toasting with Miriam Rhodes from Jerusalem, who weekly takes women in armored cars to learn in Kever Rachel.

Watching this effortless blend of joy and learning, family and strangers and friends and chasidus, I realized how the Schwartz family embodies chesed, or kindness.

It was easy to see why so many people like me come for a Shabbat, and spend a lifetime.


Laura’s Smile

Laura Benichou was born on June 9, 1998, with a hole in her heart. This hole probably saved her life, because she was also born without her main pulmonary artery.

The blood had to go somewhere, so it went through the hole. Her condition would take too long to explain, but one result was the lowering of the oxygen level in her blood to 75 percent and below (normal is 99 percent to 100 percent), which meant that her body had to compensate by producing more red blood cells. This in turn thickened her blood and caused other complications, like periodic brain seizures.

The first major seizure happened before she was a year old. To save her life, the top cardiac team at a major hospital in Los Angeles performed an 11-hour operation that implanted small “pipes and faucets” to help normalize the blood flow between her heart and lungs. This didn’t get the results they wanted, so a few weeks later they went back in to implant larger devices. Laura was not responding well to post-surgery care, which created more complications and led to another operation. After six months and three major operations, Laura was a year and a half old when she returned home.

Laura has never spoken a word, but she can coo, laugh, sigh and cry. At her best, she has taken steps with the help of a walker. She has a thin body with a smallish, sweet face framed by dark-brown hair. She gets 24-hour home care, with three rotating nurses monitoring her breathing and other vital signs.

One of those nurses says that Laura expresses a wide range of “appropriate” emotions, from happiness to surprise to crying for attention. Her favorite movie is “Mary Poppins,” and her favorite TV show is “Hannah Montana.” She likes toys that move, and she has a fondness for anything slapstick.

Oh yeah, and she loves to smile.

It’s that spontaneous smile, which I saw firsthand on a recent visit to her family’s handsome high-ceilinged apartment in West Hollywood, that her mother says “hypnotizes everyone who meets her.”

I think the smile has also helped her family fight to keep her alive. While she was in the hospital for six months, her parents took turns to be with her at all times. Her brother, a very cool-looking 16-year-old who’s a starter on his high school basketball team, is very protective of her and seems to have a knack for making her laugh.

Her mother, Veronique, a thin and perfectly put-together French Moroccan Jew in her early 40s, has become a walking medical handbook. During my late-afternoon visit, while she was serving mint tea in elegant china, she took several hours to calmly answer all my questions regarding their ordeal, and Laura’s medical history, even drawing a diagram to explain one of the surgeries.

Veronique says she “stopped living” when the doctors told her the news about Laura. At the time, she had a thriving international trading business. Her husband Richard, an intense, darkly handsome, French Algerian Jew who is a member of the Pinto shul on Pico Boulevard, ran a successful garment business. They were also going through a major renovation of their home near the Sunset Strip, which they were preparing for the new baby.

It didn’t take long for the house (which they have since sold) and their businesses to take a back seat to Laura. Veronique herself was in a “coma of denial” for the first few months, but once she got out of it, she became quietly unstoppable — whether fighting in court against insurance companies (so far, she has prevailed at the key hearings) or doing constant research on the Internet to make sure that everything medically possible is being done for her daughter.

And God knows she’s done it all, medically and otherwise. She recalls now, with a tinge of disappointment, how vulnerable she was to faith healers of all kinds. She especially remembers the woman mystic from Israel, who spent three days rubbing different oils on her daughter while chanting special prayers. Veronique knew then that because they were people of means, there would be no shortage of miracle workers knocking on their door. But she was too vulnerable to turn them away.

Meanwhile, she was knocking on the doors of emergency rooms at all times of the day and night, whenever Laura had a seizure or some other complication. After a few years, she got so frustrated with the service and long waits that she started a company called SOS Medlink, which coordinates a network of doctors who make house calls (I’ve used the service myself, and if I had a say on the Messiah, I’d nominate a doctor who makes house calls). She is currently looking for partners to expand the business nationally, in the hope that it will help provide for Laura’s future care. Her husband has also gone back to work.

Right now, they’re both hoping for a medical success. They don’t like the option of doing nothing, because Laura’s condition hasn’t gotten any better, which leaves her at risk of another seizure (Veronique won’t elaborate). At the same time, though, an “out of the box” operation to repair Laura’s heart is also delicate. So they’re torn between two risky options.

Veronique and her husband will soon make a decision. In the last few days, they have met with a prominent surgeon, and they are exploring a “middle of the road” option that will hopefully do a little repair of the heart and buy them some more time.

In the meantime, they will continue to care for Laura around the clock, take her to parties and to visit family around town, and enjoy one thing that can always fill the hole in their own hearts.

Her smile.

Chasids in the Hood (or Not)

It’s one of the quirks of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. There’s a movement that owns a huge block on Pico Boulevard right in the middle of the hood, runs a preschool,elementary, middle and high school for girls on that same block, has official or unofficial connections with six shuls in the area, has one of the higher-profile brand names in the Jewish world and yet, strangely, you walk around the hood and you don’t really feel their presence.

I’m talking about Chabad-Lubavitch.

They have two shuls on Robertson Boulevard, both south of Pico. The one closest to Pico — commonly called the Yemini shul, after its founder and leader Rabbi Amitai Yemini — has been in the area the longest. The other shul, farther south, is a small minyan called Chabad of Beverlywood.

On Pico, you’ll find one minyan officially connected to Chabad — a tiny weekly minyan in their Bais Rebbe building — and three independents: a Persian Chabad near Cresta Drive; a shul near Beverwil Drive recently opened by Rabbi Eyal Rav-Noy, who used to run a branch of Chabad’s Jewish Learning Institute, and finally, near Robertson is Bais Bezalel, the biggest Lubavitch synagogue on Pico, also known as the Rabbi Lisbon shul.

So with all this presence, how come Chabad is so, er, quiet around here?

In a way, it’s an easy answer: Chabad doesn’t make a lot of noise in areas where people put on tefillin.

They thrive in nonobservant communities, where their unconditional love for every Jew, and their flair for promoting mitzvahs, make them highly visible. For more than 50 years, Chabad has taken this outreach model throughout the world and has lit up thousands of communities with a tireless, single-minded focus on “giving you” a mitzvah.

The problem is that here in the hood, most of the mitzvahs are already taken. The soul of the hood is clearly Modern Orthodox, with the majority of Jews already observant and affiliated with one or more congregations, which cater mostly to their members. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone if there isn’t a market in the hood for Chabad-style outreach.

Of course, I had to meet a rabbi who thinks all this is baloney.

He’s a chabadnik who lives in the hood and who believes that there is, in fact, a market for outreach in this part of town. He doesn’t just believe it, he lives it.

In truth, he does outreach all over Los Angeles — with an emphasis on the Westside — but he has a special place in his heart for the hood, maybe because he lives and hangs out here. He’s like a gold prospector. He loves, for example, those buildings on Bedford and Wooster avenues, where he has discovered plenty of single, unaffiliated Jews who are now on his mailing list and come to his outreach events.

He recognizes that the hood is more of a post-outreach neighborhood, where Jews come to pursue their Judaism after their Jewish spark has been lit, usually elsewhere. But that doesn’t faze him. He thinks there’s a fair amount of unaffiliated Jews in the hood, but they are hidden (I think some of them are hiding). Either way, he says that even if there’s a tiny amount, he wants to reach them all.

His name is Rabbi Mendel Schwartz, and for the past few years he has been running the outreach organization called Chai, started 20 years ago by his father and former Chabad emissary Shlomo Schwartz (I’ve rarely met a Jew in L.A. who hasn’t heard of “Schwartzie”; I go to a lot of events, and he or a look-alike is at all of them). Chai, like the other independents, does not fall under the official Chabad umbrella, and it is neither a shul nor a location.

Rather, it’s a nimble guerrilla outreach operation that uses cool events to bring Jews to Judaism. A Purim party at a comedy club; a haimish Shabbat “dinner for 30 strangers” at Schwartzie and Olivia’s (his wife and partner); High Holiday services at the Writer’s Guild; a Chanukah lighting party in a minimansion. Because they move between venues, they supplement the work of other shuls. Their outreach feeds the shuls for inreach.

But while Chai may be eclectic and independent, their inspiration is classic Lubavitch: using mitzvahs to light Jewish sparks.

This, for me, is the Chabad genius: a knack on the deed, not the talk. They don’t get turned on by grand debates that lead to more grand debates. While the Jewish world agonizes over “profoundly important” issues, Chabad agonizes over getting to Kinko’s on time to get their flyers out for their Chanukah event.

And at Chanukah time, all Chabads make noise. Here in the hood, the Yemini shul had their big outdoor bash at the Wells Fargo parking lot on Saturday night, with the hot band, 8th Day (major sound system). Across the hood, many Lubavitchers have placed large portable menorahs on their cars (they were part of a Chabad citywide parade Monday night) and a giant menorah billboard is on the wall of their Bais Rebbe building, to go along with the actual menorah in front of the building.

There’s no doubt: Hood or no hood, outreach or inreach, Chabad salivates for Chanukah.

It’s the holiday that embodies, through one simple icon, what the Lubavitch movement yearns for all year long: a chance to make observant Judaism shine. With thousands of public menorah lightings around the world, they proudly shine a light on the Jewish faith, on the freedom to practice that faith, and on the value of doing another mitzvah.

They are the Nikes of the Jewish world: They believe that if you just do it, the mystical power of the mitzvah will win you over, and your heart and mind will inevitably follow. And if you live in Los Angeles, where might that lead you?

I’m guessing right back here in the hood, to look for a house.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at

Getting kicked out of shul

A few weeks before the High Holidays, Aaron Biston went to pray at Beth Jacob Congregation, a Modern Orthodox synagogue on Olympic Boulevard in Beverly Hills.

After services, during the Kiddush, Steven Weil, the congregation’s rabbi, came over to Biston and asked him to leave the synagogue because he had been banned from its premises several months prior.

Biston refused and demanded, in front of his 13-year-old daughter, to know why he should comply.

Biston said the rabbi replied by addressing the girl: “Your dad’s a thief, a crook, a bad man and a menace to the community.”

Biston then cursed out the rabbi.

What happened next is a matter of some dispute, but both parties agree that the rabbi publicly asked Biston to leave the synagogue and never return.

Biston is now threatening a lawsuit against the congregation unless, he said, he receives a public apology from the rabbi and is allowed to return to the synagogue. Weil has already sent a letter to Biston and his daughter, in which he apologized for his language but said he stands by his decision to ban Biston from the shul.

Biston’s public airing of his story and his threat to file suit have brought to light a number of complaints from others who also have been asked to leave Beth Jacob. They claim the rabbi is autocratic and mercurial and bars people who don’t fit his image of an appropriate congregant.

Weil is a charismatic and intense leader. He came to Beth Jacob from Detroit in 2000, and he can often be seen wearing the work boots and jeans of his upstate New York farming upbringing. He is known for innovative programming, including a cigar club where the rabbi and young men in the community smoke, drink and learn Torah, and the summer Kollel, a post-college learning program.

He spoke to The Journal in the company of synagogue president Dr. Steve Tabak and former synagogue president Marc Rohatiner. Together they openly discussed the half-dozen people who have been banned from their shul.

Although they did not divulge identities of the people they had banned in order to protect them and their accusers from public scrutiny, they painted a picture of individuals whom they believe pose a threat to Beth Jacob’s membership.

Among the stories was that of Biston, who was a defendant in a civil lawsuit over a real estate deal with another member of Beth Jacob that went sour. Court documents allege that Biston cultivated the deal on the shul’s grounds, although Biston claims to have known the man outside of the shul.

The other individuals include someone alleged to have sexually harassed a synagogue member, a man alleged to have behaved inappropriately with children, a woman alleged to have stalked a member with whom she believed she had a relationship and a man who, shortly before being asked to leave the shul, was convicted of pedophilia.

This ugly underside of synagogue life raises the question for all synagogues, not just Beth Jacob: What power does a rabbi or executive board have to deny entry to Jews?

The legal answer is straightforward: A synagogue is a private institution, and when it comes to membership — or in this case, entry, because most of the people asked to leave were not members — the synagogue is entitled to accommodate however it sees fit.

The religious answer is not quite as clear. According to halacha (Jewish law), one needs a beit din, a religious court, to put a person in herem — which means to excommunicate them, to cast them away from the community and isolate them.
But the old rules don’t really hold today, when there are many congregations from which to choose.

“Many times, throughout Jewish history, there were rabbis who placed people in herem,” said Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, West Coast director of the Orthodox Union. “In those days it was a major thing; today, they’d laugh and go to the next town.”

The Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), which runs the Orthodox religious court of California, said it does not get involved in private synagogue matters.
“The RCC is a council of rabbis, not a council of synagogues, per se, and doesn’t set synagogue policy,” said Rabbi Avrohom Union, the administrator for the RCC.

In any case, all the religious courts have refused to intervene in the Biston case. (Biston said he is taking his case to a New York beit din.)
The Orthodox Union, the governing organization for Orthodox shuls, holds that a rabbi has the authority to act independently.

“Each rabbi is the morah d’atra, the rabbinic halachic authority of his congregation — that’s why he was chosen,” Kalinsky said. “If the rabbi feels strongly about [someone], he will go to his board, which is responsible for the issues of governance in the synagogue, and they could enforce what they deem appropriate.”

Even if the question is neither legal nor halachic, it nevertheless remains one of ethics: If a synagogue is intended to be open to all Jews, how should leadership deal with characters they feel are unsavory or pose a threat to the community? What is the balance between freedom and security?

Synagogues everywhere always have grappled with the issue of security, but especially since the attacks of Sept. 11. With terrorism and anti-Semitic attacks on the rise internationally, most Jewish institutions have strengthened their security. For example, on the High Holidays this year, a month after the Jewish Federation offices in Seattle were attacked by a gunman, murdering one worker, most synagogues in Southern California increased the number of guards at their doors and carefully checked guest lists of people who had preregistered.

The price? Drop-ins, unaffiliated, undecided and last-minute shul-goers, were turned away. In addition, before the High Holidays, Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss met with neighborhood synagogues to discuss security issues and precautions.

But what of the insider whom synagogue leaders believe may pose a threat to synagogue members? In a climate of increasing vigilance against sexual predators, many religious leaders these days would rather err on the side of caution than take any potential risk.

Rabbi Pinto’s miracles

Growing up in Morocco, the word “miracle” was a familiar one. I remember how my parents, especially my mother, would bring up the great Moroccan mystics at alltimes of the day — either to pray for a miracle, or to thank them for one.

No miracle was too small. If a plate would break and a child was not hurt, or if a plate would break and a child did get hurt, whatever it was, mothers would immediately call out to one of the sages. Their names were our security blankets. For centuries, they provided a protective, spiritual cocoon for the Jews of Morocco.

These sages were different from the sages of the Bible or the Talmud; they were the sages of the hood. They were gone, but they were not long gone. You knew someone who had kissed their hand. Your father would tell you about a miracle that his own father had experienced with a certain sage. Somewhere in the neighborhood lived the grandson or grandnephew of another great mystic. We would sleep in tents at their burial sites during their yahrzeit. Their pictures were on our walls.

You could almost touch them.

Today, one of the great Moroccan sages, Rabbi Chaim Pinto of the city of Mogador, has a living presence right here in our own hood, on Pico Boulevard, just east of Robertson. It’s at a little shul called the Pinto Center.

It’s not uncommon for a Moroccan synagogue to be named after a well-known sage (a mile north on Fairfax Avenue is another Moroccan shul named after the great Baba Sale). What’s unusual here is that the heart and soul of the Pinto Center is a Pinto himself. He is Rabbi Yaacov Pinto, a direct descendant of the Pinto dynasty.

But I haven’t told you about the miracle yet.

Rabbi Yaacov opened the synagogue in the mid-1980s and built a thriving little community center of prayer and learning, attracting a high-intensity blend of Israeli, French and Persian Jews. Then, seemingly out of the blue, Rabbi Yaacov developed an irresistible urge to return to Israel, where he had been born and raised.

For a shul that revolved around the charisma and leadership of one man, this was a spiritual earthquake. Nevertheless, after much agonizing, Rabbi Yaacov and his family moved in the summer of 2003 to Ashdod, a coastal city north of Tel Aviv with a large Moroccan community, including the rabbi’s mother and several of his siblings.

(I knew Rabbi Yaacov well at the time, and from what I gather, the pressures of fundraising were starting to burn him out; he wanted a better education for his kids, and, like he said to me once, he simply missed the Holy Land).

It didn’t take long for the Pinto shul to unravel. Despite Rabbi Yaacov ‘s best efforts — he came back every six weeks or so and was here for all the holidays and stayed in constant contact with his people in Los Angeles — the Pinto Center was losing its soul. When the Shabbat minyan dwindled from more than 100 to fewer than 20, the end was near.

Rabbi Yaacov prayed to his ancestors, as he often does. That’s when an idea came to him: He would create an intimate “candle room” in the synagogue, where people could come meditate and light candles in the presence of the great Pinto tzadikim, and pray for anything they wished. Well, the word got out and they came from all over to light candles, and I guess somebody must have prayed for the revival of the Pinto shul, because that is precisely what happened next.

The “miracle” took about a year, but slowly the Pinto shul came back to life. It’s not a coincidence that Rabbi Yaacov chose as the ba’al habayit, or master of the house, someone whose family has been connected to the Pinto family for three generations. When this highly enthusiastic man, Maurice Perez, talks about the Pinto family, he sort of transfers the goose bumps over to the listener. His defining family story is when his mother and grandmother got an impromptu blessing on a street in Casablanca from one of the Pinto sages. This story happened 70 years ago, but when you hear him tell it, you’d think it happened yesterday.

Maurice, who joined the shul in 1997 and who currently does the chazanut, decided with Rabbi Yaacov to bring in a teacher (“Rabbi Raffi”) to give Torah classes during the week, and to speak on Friday nights and during the third meal of Shabbat. Maurice formed a small, core group of supporters to cover all expenses, which helped reduce the stress level and bring a general harmony to the shul. They upgraded the interior, with new seating built in Israel, and a new women’s section that features an ethereal, see-through crimson curtain for a mechitzah.

Rabbi Yaacov himself increased his visits to Los Angeles, but he did more than that, too. He made the shul think “bigger than itself,” and got it involved with two projects in the Holy Land.The first was a “supermarket” for the needy, which Rabbi Yaacov started in Ashdod and which has garnered attention for its unique approach: a system based on points, where the poor can keep their dignity while “shopping” for donated food. This project, called C.H.A.I., is a big source of pride for the Pinto shul, as you can see from the pictures on the wall.

The second is a recent decision to have a sister shul in Hebron, where the Patriarchs of the Bible are buried. A few months ago, the Pinto shul donated a Torah scroll, and they are planning regular activities and visits between the shuls.

And then, of course, there’s the dafina.

Live in the ‘hood: Davening at Aishhhhhh

You walk into an elegant, minimalist little building on the corner of Pico and Doheny in the heart of the hood. It’s Shabbat, and you’ve come to pray.

You go through a narrow hallway, where you pass a few small conference rooms filled with books. Some congregants are milling about as you make your way to the big wooden doors of the sanctuary. You open the doors. The davening has already started, and you quietly find a chair. There is a modern mechitzah, made of blond wood,that is perfectly centered to give equal space to the men and women. The people are appropriately dressed; suit and ties for the men (some in black hats), and modest but elegant attire for the perfectly coiffed supermoms.

You are now inside the eighth wonder of the world: A shul where no one talks.I don’t mean a shul where they tell you not to talk, or where they have signs asking you not to talk; there are plenty of those. I mean a shul where really no one talks. Nada. Not a peep. And on the rare occasion that an unsuspecting newcomer will, say, utter a word that’s not in the prayer book, a supersonic shhhhhhh will immediately enter his airspace, guaranteeing that the violation will have occurred twice simultaneously: first and last.

At the Aish Center for People Who Don’t Do Small Talk, absolute silence during davening has been the norm for many years. Talk to the people who run the place, and they’ll give you a matter-of-fact explanation: It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the halacha (Jewish law). I did my own research and, yes, there is a source in the Talmud. (Did you think there wouldn’t be?)

But that doesn’t explain everything. Why would an outreach organization do something as extreme as enforce a no-talking rule in their shul? After all, isn’t outreach all about talking and hand-holding and explaining? Well, yes and no.

You see, there’s a question that all outreach organizations must eventually face: After years of doing successful outreach, is there a point where you must also do some serious inreach to keep your regulars happy?

In the case of Aish, a little history will help. Over the past two decades in Los Angeles, Aish has grown from a tiny outreach outpost to a real community. As newcomers became old-timers, their needs evolved. Many of them wanted more than the introductory fare Aish is famous for. Some started defecting to more hard-core shuls like Anshe Emes. Some started wearing black hats. This was to be expected: Aish has always attracted a serious, no-nonsense crowd. People in the Aish community take their Judaism very seriously, so it’s not surprising that as their learning and their families grew, they would expect more and more from their “outreach center.”

The synagogue became the natural place to cater to the old-timers. Aish groomed a new generation of leaders and Torah teachers, some of whom give regular classes at the synagogue. But Aish didn’t stop there. They delivered on the serious davener’s ultimate fantasy: a schmooze-free minyan.

It was a classic trade-off. You might turn off some new people (and from what I hear, they do), but in return, you keep your old-timers happy, and in the bargain, you develop a certain pride of sacrifice: “We believe so much in the sanctity of prayer, that we are willing to risk turning off some Jews.”

For an outreach juggernaut, that’s no small potatoes.

Of course, it helps that Aish has a whole array of other vehicles to reach out to the unaffiliated and the disconnected: special classes, singles events (they created the highly successful Speed Dating), Discovery seminars, trips to Israel, documentary films, a major Web site, even beginners’ services on Shabbat and the High Holidays.

But when it comes to the main davening, well, chalk one up for the old-timers. Membership has its privileges, and the no-schmooze sanctuary is high on the list.

Personally, I’m ambivalent about this zero-tolerance policy on shul schmoozing. I see the value of a prayer service where the emphasis is on the prayers and the praying. There’s a collective energy that sort of transports you to a higher place. It’s davening with a purpose.

My problem is with the emphasis on zero, as in zero tolerance.

Honestly, could we really have survived so long without some schmoozing in shul? Could we have accomplished so much? How do we know that Maimonides didn’t get the idea for his “Guide to the Perplexed” from conversing with a perplexed congregant during the Shabbat mussaf prayer, circa 1172? Or that Herzl didn’t use the little time he spent in sanctuaries to schmooze with big machers so they would help fund his Zionist dream?

OK, I’m reaching, but if just about every shul on the planet allows at least a little bit of schmoozing during davening, there must be a good reason. I bet you a lot of it has to do with the fact that shul time is often the only time people get to connect with each other; so they look forward to their weekly schmooze, as much as they look forward to the Shemonei Esrei, or to the ketchup-laden cholent.

In a schmooze-friendly shul, you greet your buddy whom you haven’t seen since last week, and, during those davening lulls, you find out if the kids are OK, did he get your invitation to the AIPAC event, does he know a good dentist, did he understand the rabbi’s sermon and so on until Kiddush. It might not be very noble or pious, but hey, it’s real and it’s haimish, and, dare I say, it’s even a little Jewish.

I guess my issue with the zero-tolerance policy is that it creates the illusion that Maschiach is already here. It’s so bloody perfect! And I’m so bloody not! Whatever happened to the notion of work in progress? Do my friends at Aish realize what it feels like to be surrounded by all this quiet perfection? Can’t they just call a meeting of the old-timers and ask them to lighten up just a teenie little weenie bit?

If they invite me to the meeting, I will share with them this little insight: Keep making your davening inspirational, keep looking for captivating melodies that move the soul and everyone will be so into it, you’ll never have to go shhhhhhhhhhhh.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at