November 17, 2018

Moving & Shaking: Beit T’Shuvah Celebrates, Aliyah Hosts MLK Prayer

From left: Beit T’Shuvah gala auction co-chair Stefanie Post, auction co-chair Laura Kinsman, Beit T’Shuvah founder Harriet Rossetto, Beit T’Shuvah Senior Rabbi and honoree Mark Borovitz, Beit T’Shuvah President Annette Shapiro, Beit T’Shuvah board member and honoree Sam Delug, gala co-chair Lynn Bider and gala co-chair Heidi Praw attend the annual Beit T’Shuvah gala. Photo courtesy of Beit T’Shuvah

Jewish rehabilitation organization Beit T’Shuvah held its 26th annual gala on Jan. 28 at the Beverly Hilton.

The event drew about 900 people and raised $2.2 million for the organization, making it the top-grossing event in the organization’s 31-year history, said Janet Rosenblum, Beit T’Shuvah’s director of advancement.

The cocktail-attire event honored “Rebel Rabbi” Mark Borovitz, the senior rabbi at Beit T’Shuvah, and “Mogul Mensch” Sam Delug, a Beit T’Shuvah board of directors member.

Lynn Bider and Heidi Praw, who have been involved with Beit T’Shuvah for over a decade, co-chaired the event.

Valley Beth Shalom Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein served as emcee of the event, which also featured a silent auction, dinner and an awards program.

Attendees included Stanley Black, Rev. Mark Whitlock, Annette and Leonard Shapiro, Joyce Brandman, Charlotte Kamenir and members of the Kamenir-Reznik family, Nancy Mishkin, Ruth Ziegler and representatives of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, a partner of Beit T’Shuvah.

Beit T’Shuvah serves people recovering from substance abuse and other addictions, including gambling, eating disorders and compulsive behaviors. Every year, Beit T’Shuvah reaches more than 500 residential clients and an additional 2,500 community members through its congregation and prevention programs.

“With the opioid epidemic now considered a national emergency, Beit T’Shuvah is one of the few places dealing with addiction regardless of someone’s ability to pay for treatment,” Rosenblum said. “We are truly unique that way, and we don’t throw you out when your insurance runs out. Many of our 145 residents stay six months to a year. This dinner makes this possible.”

Honorary chairs were Joyce Brandman, Warren Breslow and Gail Buchalter, Asher Delug, Jeff Frasco and Beverly Frank, and Annette and Leonard Shapiro. Laura Kinsman and Stefanie Post Pollard were the auction chairs.

Elana Wien, vice president of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, has been selected as a Wexner Field Fellow. Photo courtesy of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles

Bailey London, executive director at USC Hillel, has been selected as a Wexner Field Fellow. Photo courtesy of Bailey London

Los Angeles Jewish community leaders Elana Wien, vice president of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, and Bailey London, executive director of USC Hillel, have been selected for the latest cohort of the Wexner Field Fellowship, a three-year leadership development program for the Jewish community.

The fellowship is awarded by the Wexner Foundation in partnership with the Jim Joseph Foundation.

“We are very proud of Elana Wien for her many contributions in the community, including this significant honor,” Jewish Community Foundation President and CEO Marvin Schotland said in a statement. “Having worked with Elana for over six years, I’ve watched her develop into the outstanding Jewish leader she is today. We congratulate Elana, and all of the Wexner Field fellows, and look forward to her continued growth through this fellowship and beyond.”

Wien and London are among 15 fellows selected for the 2018 Wexner Field cohort, from cities that include Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

“I’m beyond honored to have been selected to be a part of the second class of the Wexner Field Fellowship,” London said. “Throughout the early stages of my career, I have had the privilege of participating in high-level professional development, and this opportunity is, by far, the most comprehensive way I can imagine continuing the process of growing and learning. I’m most excited to be a part of a network around the world of professional and volunteer leadership that has not only been invested in their own development but in strengthening the Jewish community for generations to come.”

From left: Vance Serchuk, director of KKR Global Institute; former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi; and retired Gen. David Petraeus were the keynote panel at the recent AIPAC L.A. gala. Photo by Timothy J. Carr Photography

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held its annual Los Angeles gala on Jan. 21 at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. About 1,000 people attended the event, the theme of which was a celebration of 70 years of friendship between the United States and Israel.

The program featured AIPAC Regional Director Wayne Klifosky; Houston City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards; AIPAC UCLA student activist Amir Kashfi; and a keynote panel with retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, and Vance Serchuk, director of the investment firm KKR Global Institute.

The panelists discussed the U.S.-Israel relationship and challenges and opportunities in the Middle East.

AIPAC is a bipartisan pro-Israel lobby seeking to promote and strengthen the U.S-Israel relationship.

L.A. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, who has pledged $7.5 million over five years to Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital, appeared at a ceremony for the pledge. Photo courtesy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital

Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, through his philanthropic organization the Ballmer Group, which supports economic mobility, has pledged $7.5 million over five years to Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital.

The Ballmer Group, which Ballmer co-founded with his wife, Connie, and the Weingart Foundation, a grant-making foundation founded by the late Ben Weingart and his late wife, Stella, together pledged $15 million to the nonprofit hospital serving South Los Angeles.

“Both Weingart and the Ballmers identified the hospital as an agent for change in South Los Angeles,” said a Jan. 12 Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital press release.

The organizations’ goal is to bring more doctors to South Los Angeles and thus close the physician gap, the
release said.

Ballmer attended a Jan. 12 ceremony at the Los Angeles Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion that celebrated the pledges.

The Temple Aliyah Martin Luther King Jr. Day interfaith service featured Jewish and Christian children’s choirs. Photo courtesy of Temple Aliyah

Jews, Christians and Muslims gathered together on Jan. 19 at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills for the 19th annual Voices of Unity interfaith prayer service in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

An estimated 800 people attended the Shabbat service, including Pastor Najuma Smith Pollard of Word of Encouragement Church in Pico-Union, Pastor Michael J. Fisher of Greater Zion Church Family in Compton, Father Michael Evans of St. Bernardine of Siena Church in Woodland Hills, and Shaykh Suhail Hasan Mulla of the Council of Islamic Scholars.

The service included performances by Christian and Jewish children’s choirs and Algerian actor-activist Ben Youcef, who is also a muezzin, the man who calls Muslims to prayer from the minaret of a mosque. Youcef sang the Abrahamic prayer “We Are All Children of Abraham,” which Temple Aliyah Cantor Mike Stein had translated into English so the choirs could accompany him. They created a fusion of voices, singing in harmony in English and Arabic and sending a message of peace and friendship.

Over the years, Stein said, Temple Aliyah’s collaborations with Christian churches and the Ezzi Masjid Mosque in Woodland Hills have gone beyond the annual prayer service.

“Five years ago, while [the Ezzi Masjid Mosque] was going through renovations, they used our synagogue on Saturdays for their classes,” Stein said. “And when we found some swastikas on our walls about 2½ months ago, the Shaykh Mulla came with a bouquet of flowers to show support.”

The prayer service concluded with the participants singing “Oseh Shalom Bimromav” and “We Shall Overcome.”

“We have been doing this for 19 years, and each year people leave feeling a wellspring of hope that no one will be treated differently because of their race, religion, ethnicity or sexual preference,” Stein said. “We are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. This event started and continues to be inspired by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream — that people will not be judged by the color of their skin, only by the content of their character and their souls.”

Ayala Or-El, Contributing Writer

Temple Aliyah Painted With Swastikas, Gang Graffiti

Woodland Hills Conservative congregation Temple Aliyah discovered graffiti of swastikas and gang signs on its synagogue campus on Dec. 11.

There are no suspects and there are unlikely to be any for what authorities are considering a hate crime because security cameras did not capture the incident, which occurred at the entryway of the synagogue, Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Det. Nick Abbinanti said.

“We’re calling it a hate crime at this point. Even though it is a minor vandalism it is considered a hate crime by us. It is motivated by, in our opinion, hate, based on the type of graffiti that is there, that is present —  the swastikas in general, if that makes sense,” Abbinanti said in a phone interview.

The swastikas were painted backward onto the windows of a guard station at the entrance of the synagogue. The graffiti also include symbols for a gang, MS-13. Like the swastikas, the gang symbol graffiti was done inaccurately, Abbinanti said. There also is a spray painting of a penis on a sign bearing the synagogue’s name.

Temple Aliyah and LAPD believe the incident is the handiwork of teenagers, not gang members.

“They [the LAPD] are confident it is teenagers because of the misspelling in the taggings and the incorrect swastikas,” Temple Aliyah Executive Director David Brook said in a phone interview on Monday.

Brook believes the incident occurred between 11 p.m. Dec. 10 and 7 a.m. Dec. 11. A synagogue maintenance person discovered the graffiti early on the morning of Dec. 11.

The synagogue contacted the LAPD, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Aliyah’s neighboring synagogue, Shomrei Torah Synagogue. Shomrei Torah had not been targeted with any graffiti, Temple Aliyah Rabbi Stewart Vogel told the Journal.

“As always, we are concerned when any synagogue is vandalized.  Although it appears that the swastika was drawn incorrectly, and that there was some other graffiti included with the swastika, we consider this an anti-Semitic incident since the target was a synagogue,” the ADL’s Pacific Southwest Region said in a statement.

Vogel said the synagogue’s No. 1 concern is the safety and security of its membership. It is “one of those cases where we don’t know whether it is a serious threat, but you want to take it seriously and that’s what is important for us.”

In a message to congregants, synagogue officials vowed to be especially careful moving forward.

“Temple Aliyah is our sacred home and this act of vandalism, even if just a teenage prank, is a violation and desecration,” the statement reads. “It raises concerns regarding anti-Semitism in our community and for our own safety, in particular, our children. In the short term, we will be more vigilant than usual in our security measures and will continue to work with authorities and the Jewish community to ensure the safety of our congregants.

“As we prepare to light the Hanukkah candles tomorrow night, may we find strength from our tradition that emphasizes standing up to the forces of anti-Semitism and also celebrates the miracle of Jewish survival throughout the millennia.”

Temple Aliyah Rabbi Ben Goldstein was driving his 4-year-old daughter to the synagogue on the morning Dec. 11 for preschool when he saw the graffiti. In a phone interview, he expressed disappointment that hate crimes continue to target the Jewish community.

“We’ve been around for 2,000 years and acts like this aren’t a new phenomenon,” Goldstein said. “They are an occasional reminder there is still work to be done regarding education, regarding empathy and the idea that we are neighbors and we are all in this together. We have a common bond, no matter our races, creeds or religion.”

Moving and shaking: Transgender in the IDF, Shana Torah and more

“My story really is a fairy tale,” said Shachar, a transgender Israel Defense Forces lieutenant at an event at Congregation Kol Ami (the IDF does not permit the use of the first names of active-duty personnel). “That’s why I want to share it. I want everybody to have a chance for their own fairy tale.”

At the June 24 gathering of about 40 people, which included Israel Consul General David Siegel, Shachar talked about coming out, first to his family and then to the IDF, and the acceptance he experienced all along the way.

Shachar said that as a child he always behaved like a boy, but didn’t come out as identifying as male to his family until he was 16. His parents and siblings were accepting and loving. Years later, when he came out while in the IDF, Shachar said, the military was equally open.

Shachar had enlisted as a woman and served the requisite two years for a female soldier. He then enrolled in officer training, at which time he came out to his fellow officers. After completing his training, he started the process to physically become a male. He is currently undergoing hormone treatment and is scheduled for surgery.

At every base and every assignment, his commanding officers were aware of and accepted his male identity, Shachar said. “The officers always did the right thing.”

The IDF has admitted personnel regardless of their sexual orientation since 1993. An IDF chief of staff’s women’s affairs adviser, Brig. Gen. Rachel Tevet-Wiesel, addresses cases of sexual harassment (experienced by males and females) and other issues affecting transgender personnel.

Gay and lesbian personnel have been permitted to serve openly in the U.S. armed forces since the 2010 repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but the Pentagon’s ban on transgender personnel serving openly was just lifted on June 30. 

— Lakshna Mehta, Contributing Writer

Woodland Hills Conservative congregation Temple Aliyah has hired Rabbi Benjamin Goldstein as its second rabbi, effective July 18.

New Temple Aliyah Rabbi Ben Goldstein. Photo courtesy of Temple Aliyah

He previously worked at Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in New Jersey and at Beit T’Shuvah, the Los Angeles-based rehabilitation center. He is a graduate of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University.

The shul’s rabbinic search committee recommended Goldstein’s hiring to the synagogue board of directors, according to a June 15 letter signed by Temple Aliyah President Rick Shumacher.

According to the letter, Goldstein visited the synagogue in May, participated in a Shabbat service and “it was clear at that time that Rabbi Goldstein had the mix of skills and experience that the search committee was seeking, and that he could step into the role … as one of the spiritual leaders of our congregation,” Shumacher wrote.

Temple Aliyah serves approximately 1,000 families.

Goldstein succeeds Rabbi Gabriel Botnick, who has been hired as the head rabbi at Temple Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, effective Aug. 1.

New Temple Mishkon Tephilo Rabbi Gabriel Botnick. Photo courtesy of Mishkon Tephilo 

Botnick is succeeding Mishkon Tephilo’s current rabbi, Dan Shevitz, 65, who is retiring and will become the Conservative synagogue’s rabbi emeritus.

“I’m sure there will be tons of new programming and changes, and I’m really excited,” Mishkon Tephilo Executive Director Kelley Courtney said in an interview, adding that she hopes the new leadership will help Mishkon Tephilo, which serves approximately 150 families, grow.

“I’d like to double that,” Courtney said.

Beginning Aug. 1, Rabbi Liat Yardeni-Funk, former director of Milken Community Schools’ Tiferet Fellowship program, will be the new dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California’s (AJRCA) rabbinic school. Yardeni-Funk will succeed Rabbi Rochelle Robins, the schools’ interim dean. Robins was appointed after Rabbi Michael Menitoff left the position in December 2015. 

Rabbi Liat Yardeni-Funk, the Academy for Jewish Religion, California rabbinical school’s new dean. Courtesy of Rabbi Liat Yardeni-Funk

Born in Jerusalem, Yardeni-Funk attended an all-girls yeshiva and as a young girl became interested in studying Talmud. 

She served as a second lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces Intelligence Unit during the first Lebanon war. After her military service, Yardeni-Funk received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from UCLA and her master’s degree in education from Cal State Northridge. She received a second master’s degree in Talmud and rabbinic studies from AJRCA and was ordained at its rabbinic school in 2006. 

Previously, Yardeni-Funk served as director of education at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel; director of education at Camp Ramah; rabbi and director of Judaic studies at Stephen S. Wise Temple; and most recently, director of Milken’s Tiferet Israel Fellowship, a program in which the high school’s students live and study in Israel during the second semester of their sophomore year. 

Rabbi Laura Owens, AJRCA’s interim president, said, “Rabbi Liat Yardeni-Funk will bring a passion for education and connection to Israel as well as an ability to relate to all constituents as she has been a student, alumna and now the rabbinic dean.”

— Kayla Cohen, Contributing Writer

Shalom Institute rededicated its newly restored, 200-year-old community Holocaust Torah on the first Shabbat of Camp JCA Shalom’s first session on June 25 in Malibu. The Torah — on loan since 1989 from the Memorial Scrolls Trust in London — is one of nearly 1,600 scrolls from the former Czechoslovakia to have survived the Holocaust. 

Shalom Institute President Adam Weiss holds the Torah before it was unrolled for Executive Director Rabbi Bill Kaplan’s blessing at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu. Photo by Marsha Katz Rothpan

The Torah restoration project, called Shana Torah, kicked off at the camp’s first Shabbat last summer. During the past year, Shana Torah included educational programs, scribing events with Rabbi Moshe Druin — a scribe with Sofer on Site — and a fundraising campaign. The year-end goal is $50,000, and more than $36,000 has been raised so far. 

About 400 campers, staffers and family members attended the event, witnessing the unrolling of the Torah and participating in blessing the scroll. Board members Ari Moss, Andrea Spatz, Gil Breakman and Shalom Institute President Adam Weiss were present. 

“Our Shana Torah has had such a tremendous impact on all who participated in this incredible experience. And now, our Torah, along with its legacy, has been rededicated and put back into use for the thousands of campers, students and families who experience Shalom Institute each year,” Shalom Institute Executive Director Bill Kaplan told the Journal. 

— Virginia Isaad, Contributing Writer

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

Bar mitzvah invitation comes with an added dimension

As they began organizing the bar mitzvah of their oldest son, Josh and Kareen Rubel knew they wanted to “do something creative.” 

Of course, a parent who works with product developers at YouTube — which is owned by Google — might have a different view of creativity than a person who flips through fonts and card stock at a traditional stationary merchant. 

Invitees to the March 5 ceremony at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills received not only a link to a 2 1/2-minute video invitation to Aidan’s bar mitzvah, they also got a Google Cardboard viewer enabling them to watch the video in 360-degree virtual reality. You might say the Rubels took a panoramic approach to their invitation … a 360-degree panoramic approach.

By accessing the YouTube app on their smartphones, viewers can “enter” the invitation, moving around inside the family’s house and the temple’s sanctuary. In that last location, Aidan stands at the bimah flanked by Rabbis Stewart L. Vogel and Gabriel Botnick. Pan to the left or the right and you encounter Aidan’s friends and relatives of all ages rocking out to an abbreviated version of Eminem’s award-winning song “Lose Yourself.” 

“Kids thought the invitation was cool,” Aidan said. “Some said it was the best invitation ever.”

A select 150 people received actual invitations to the ceremony, but as of March 11 more than 840 viewers have checked out the “World’s 1st 360/VR Bar Mitzvah Invitation,” as it’s titled on YouTube, since the family posted it Jan. 10. 

“We thought it would be a nice twist,” Josh Rubel said. “I know about 360-degree video through my work, and we came up with the idea and thought it would be a neat and different thing. … Technically, it was a little tricky, but not as tricky as explaining to people how to use the Cardboard who had never used it.”

Rubel originally intended to shoot the video himself but he ultimately elected to hire a production crew, which used a system of six GoPro cameras to film the locations from a multitude of angles. The two rabbis arranged to give up an hour to appear in the filmed invitation, with Botnick being particularly gung-ho about embracing the new technological frontier that efforts like this could usher in.

“The technology right now is not inexpensive, but the price is only going to come down,” Botnick said. “This invitation is proof of a concept of where we could be going in the next couple of years that ought to be really awesome. You have a glimpse into the relationship of the family, all the siblings and friends, in a much more personal way.” 

Asked whether his high-tech savvy earned him extra coolness credit with his son during the bar mitzvah ramp-up, Rubel demurred.

“I think for your children you’re never that cool, and I wouldn’t say we were trying to be cool,” said Rubel, who has three other children. “In fact, it was out of my personal comfort zone to do something like this — to be on camera, lip-syncing and doing my version of dancing.”  

In his professional life at Google, Rubel helps companies use YouTube to enhance their brands. He envisions 360-degree virtual reality capability as a tool that businesses will embrace with greater frequency. Imagine an automobile company that, through virtual reality technology, can place potential customers in one of their cars and send them rocketing down the Autobahn.  

Rubel and administrators at Temple Aliyah have also brainstormed ways that some of the technology could be used for educational purposes within the Jewish world.

“It would be really neat to be able to get tours of great synagogues all over the world, or be up on Masada,” Botnick said. 

Challah, wine, Torah … and Trump?

For the past few months, whenever we’ve hosted guests at our Shabbat table, I’ve repeated different versions of the same joke: “I’d like to thank everyone at our table for not saying the name Donald Trump once during the last hour. What a miracle.”

When I mentioned this last Sunday to Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills (where I moderated a Shalom Hartman Institute event with Yossi Klein Halevi), he immediately replied, “You should write a column about that! I never like to bring up politics on Shabbat. It’s not in the spirit of Shabbat vayinafash.”

So, to get a better understanding of what the rabbi meant, I did a little research on “Shabbat vayinafash,” which is included in the Shabbat lunch blessing over the wine (in the Sephardic tradition, we repeat “vayinafash”).

“The language that the Torah uses to describe the rest or cessation that is commanded on Shabbat is ‘Shabbat vayinafash,’ literally translated as your nefesh, your bodily soul, will cease,” Jerusalem author and teacher Elana Mizrahi writes on “On Shabbat, we gain a neshema yetera, an additional soul. While so much of Shabbat is about physical pleasures such as eating, wearing fine clothing, and sleeping, the pleasure and ‘rest’ that one derives from Shabbat is deeper than these things, for you could take part in them during the weekday and yet you wouldn’t be observing Shabbat.”

Reading Mizrahi’s words made me realize that a Shabbat meal can easily suck us into a weekday energy. After all, what do we usually do when we sit around a table over a meal? We talk about stuff that’s on our minds. And, more often than not, what’s on our minds is current events. So, if the world is abuzz about a presidential candidate who spews vulgarities during a televised debate, it’s not surprising that we would bring it up during a meal’s conversation.

The problem is that it’s hard for us to see conversation itself as a Shabbat ritual.

We have no problem observing rituals such as lighting the candles, blessing the wine, washing our hands and blessing the challah, but after that, when conversation starts, freedom of speech takes over. We may observe basic rules of courtesy, but as far as content goes, often all bets are off. A presidential candidate acting like a vulgar buffoon? Why not talk about it?

In fact, this topic may lead to interesting discussions about the unraveling of American political culture, the dumbing down of the media and the electorate, or the undue influence of big money on politics. But is this in the spirit of “Shabbat vayinafash”? I don’t think so, especially if it leads to unpleasant arguments when people just want to prove that they’re right.

I have no doubt that everyone has meaningful stories waiting to be shared. At its best, a Shabbat table should elicit these kinds of moments.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate a good argument; it’s simply that I can have those arguments during the week (as I often do). When Shabbat comes along, however, I’m looking for something more — something elevating, something spiritually nourishing.

The usual custom of discussing the weekly Torah portion is fine, but it’s not enough. Lately, I’ve gotten into the habit of asking people around the table to share meaningful stories.

Last Friday night, I asked my friend Edna Weiss to share a story about her late husband, Mickey Weiss. She recounted how he came up with the idea of collecting and distributing perishable food to the needy. It started one day in a downtown Los Angeles warehouse about 30 years ago, when Mickey saw a batch of fresh, unsold strawberries about to be thrown out. He had just seen homeless people not far away and figured they could use this free food. Within a few months, Mickey had set up an operation to feed the needy that eventually became a national movement.

Weiss took her time telling the story. It was a deeply personal story that brought joy to the storyteller as well as to those hearing it. 

I have no doubt that everyone has meaningful stories waiting to be shared. At its best, a Shabbat table should elicit these kinds of moments.

Torah rituals are not an end in themselves — they have spiritual components. The ritual of blessing the wine, for example, is useless if the wine makes us drunk and obnoxious. The whole purpose of blessing the wine is to make it holy, to remind us that it should bring us deep joy rather than just pleasure.

The Shabbat meal is itself a ritual with a spiritual component. We don’t simply gather to eat and schmooze as we do during the week. This weekly meal — one of the gems of the Jewish tradition — is our opportunity to elevate our conversation in a way that elevates our neshema yetera, our additional Shabbat soul.

The Donald can always wait until Monday.

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

Moving and shaking: Michael Oren, Tony Blair, synagogue softball and more

Former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren’s dual loyalties — and his frustration with the growing separation between Israel and the U.S. — were evident in his remarks July 1 when he appeared at the Museum of Tolerance to discuss his recently released, controversial memoir.

“Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide” (Random House) is an autobiographical account following an American native who made aliyah and renounced his American citizenship in order to serve in the Israeli government.

“I always thought of myself as a person who can span the divides,” Oren, who is based in Tel Aviv, said during the 90-minute event, which was billed as “A Special Evening With Michael Oren” and drew a crowd of about 300 people.

The book is, at times, critical of President Barack Obama’s approach to Israel, alleging that he hurt the U.S.-Israel alliance by putting “daylight” between the countries and by implementing policy decisions that caught Israel by surprise.

Museum of Tolerance Director Liebe Geft delivered an introduction, and Oren then spoke for approximately 20 minutes before participating in a lengthy back-and-forth with Journal President David Suissa, who joined the former ambassador onstage. Oren attributed the current divide between the two countries to the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama see the world differently.

“You have two men who have profoundly different worldviews,” said Oren, a historian who served as ambassador from 2009 to 2013 and now is a member of the centrist Kulanu Party in the Knesset. He also discussed the backlash he has faced since the book’s June 23 publication. (For the full story, click here.)

Congressmember Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) appeared June 28 at Congregation Bais Naftoli’s 23rd annual breakfast and discussed anti-Semitism in Europe, the importance of a U.S.-brokered nuclear deal with Iran that does not endanger Israel and other topics of interest to the Jewish-American community.

Congressmember Ed Royce appeared at Congregation Bais Naftoli. Photo by Kati Kereki 

Also during the evening, the Orthodox shul on La Brea Avenue honored its youth director, Rabbi Shaul Spira, and Reka Szemerkenyi, Hungarian ambassador to the U.S. Szemerkenyi said her country is working to counteract anti-Semitism, and as part of that effort, is introducing Holocaust education into school curriculums.

“We do see a thriving Jewish cultural life in Hungary,” she said.

The event drew a crowd of dignitaries, clergy and community members that included Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin, L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer, L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich and former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca. Bais Naftoli President Andrew Friedman and Rabbi Yoel Gold were on hand, as were singer Moti Boyer and Arnold Ross, a 2013 Bais Naftoli honoree and congregant. 

Tony Blair, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, accompanied by Michael Milken, chairman of the Milken Institute, made an impromptu visit to Milken Community Schools on  May 26.

Tony Blair joins two members of Milken Community Schools’ robotics team during a recent visit to the school. Photo courtesy of Milken Community Schools

Blair and Milken toured the school, stopping by its Mitchell Academy of Science & Technology (MAST) and meeting with robotics team members and other MAST science research students. Students took the opportunity to share their accomplishments with Blair. Ben Kotzubei, class of 2016, detailed the football helmet concussion technology he developed and the cancer research he is conducting at UCLA. Marcus Bernstein, class of 2018, recalled how he built a 3-D printer out of a hot glue gun and Legos, according to Andrea Smith, Milken Community Schools communications and marketing coordinator.

Roger Kassebaum, director of MAST, described the academy’s connection with Israeli institutions such as the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Weizmann Institute of Science. Milken said connecting with Israel is important, but students should not forget places such as Singapore and the U.K. Blair agreed, mentioning that there are many scientific endeavors progressing in the U.K. that are similar to what Milken students study, Smith added.

Blair and Milken also visited the AP language and composition class, where Blair participated in a Q-and-A. Student Ella Sherman, class of 2016, asked Blair if he would sign her yearbook. (He did.)

“Milken Community Schools was honored to host Tony Blair,” Metuka Benjamin, Milken Community Schools president, said in a statement. “Blair enjoyed interacting with our talented students and faculty. He was particularly impressed with Milken’s innovative learning environment and rigorous academic curriculum.” 

— Virginia Isaad, Contributing Writer

Softball teams from all over the area battled on the diamond June 14 as part of the Los Angeles Synagogue Softball league’s Championship Sunday. 

The Temple Aliyah A’s of the Synagogue Softball League. Photo courtesy of Synagogue Softball

The games were held in the morning at Sepulveda Basin, where league commissioner Kevin Weiser and his top-seeded Wise Guys from Stephen Wise Temple played in the “A” division championship. The team, led by coach and captain Mike Goodman, gutted out an 11-8 victory over Temple Aliyah and its Aliyah Stars team, the defending champion.

The “B” division championship pitted Wilshire Boulevard Temple against Temple Israel of Hollywood. Wilshire, after barely sneaking to the playoffs, pulled off a 9-5 upset, capturing its first “B” division crown. It was managed by Stephen Matloff.

With “C” division bragging rights on the line, the third-seeded Temple Aliyah A’s, managed by Stuart Hoffman and sporting Oakland A’s-inspired canary yellow and forest green uniforms, squared off against the top-seeded Temple Ramat Zion team, which had only one loss. A high-scoring affair, with a final score of 15-12, saw Temple Aliyah capture its third division title in seven years, qualifying it as a bona fide dynasty in the world of recreational softball. 

The Mensches of Mayhem, representing Temple Beth Ami, capped an undefeated regular season in the “D” division by defeating University Synagogue. Temple Beth Ami President Eddie Nathan scampered home with the winning run thanks to Jerry Witherspoon’s walk-off single. It was the perfect weekend for Witherspoon, who enjoyed the bat mitzvah celebrations for his twin daughters the day before.

— Oren Peleg, Contributing Writer

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Chocolate shakes up the seder ritual

Rabbi Adam Schaffer, who's been leading chocolate seders since he edited a chocolate seder haggadah in 1996, acknowledges that “people often do feel ill” from all the chocolate.

Still, Schaffer, the religious school director at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, Calif., says he was motivated to “experiment outside the box and engage college students who were not in the usual Hillel track,” and found that the chocolate seder took things to a “fun level, helping make connections for people, re-contextualizing the seder.”

In the last couple of decades, college campus groups and synagogue youth groups have concocted the seders that replace the ritual foods with chocolate. There is green-colored chocolate for the karpas/lettuce; chocolate-covered nuts for the charoset mix of nuts, apples and wine representing mortar used in building for the Pharoah; a chocolate egg for the roasted egg symbolizing the Passover sacrifice; a very dark 90 percent to 100 percent chocolate for the bitter herbs or maror. You get the idea.

A chocolate-soaked seder may help sugar-hyped participants absorb the ritual’s teachings about freedom. An alternative to wallowing in the gooey substitutes for the usual ritual foods, as entertaining as that might be, could use chocolate to name the issues of slavery, economic justice and fair trade in the chocolate business and to elevate the profound themes of Passover.

My chocolate haggadah amplifies awareness about ethical quandaries around chocolate, and challenges participants to consider labor justice and spotlight Passover’s underlying messages of freedom, dignity and fairness.

In “A Socially Responsible Haggadah for a Chocolate Seder,” chocolate becomes the medium for uncovering teachings about ethical kashrut, worker equity and food sustainability to celebrate those who toil, often in great poverty, to grow and harvest cacao, including children and young adults — some of them in bondage in the Ivory Coast and Ghana’s cocoa plantations. The haggadah hopes for a harvesting of the fruits of productive, meaningful and safe labors.

The custom of three matzahs — the chocolate haggadah version uses chocolate-covered — recalls our tikkun olam, our ongoing struggle to perfect the world, as we consider responsibility for the contrast between the limited resources of most cacao growers and the wealthy consumers of chocolate. When we cover our matzah with chocolate, we recall that not only are we descended from slaves in Egypt, we recall child slaves on cocoa plantations of our time.

As we prepare to celebrate Passover this year, may we feel assured that we have helped advance the messianic era through our tantalizing array of chocolate choices, not just chocolate matzah.

Rabbi Deborah Prinz is the author of “A Socially Responsible Haggadah for a Chocolate Seder,” which may be found at her blog, Her latest book is “On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao” [Jewish Lights.]

Nachas From Noggins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Casting their Differences Upon the Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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