June 26, 2019

Jewish Meditation, Beach Shabbat, Ben Shapiro

“The Hatmaker’s Wife”


“The Joy of Change”
Sinai Temple honors Matt Baram, millennial director at Sinai, at his final Orden Family Friday Night Live Shabbat program. 7 p.m. doors open. 7:30 p.m. services. 8:30 p.m. dinner for all ages. $20. Registration required. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd. (310) 474-1518.

“The Hatmaker’s Wife”
Inspired by the Jewish folktales of Sholem Aleichem, playwright Lauren Yee has written a fairy tale comedy, “The Hatmaker’s Wife,” which may remind Long Beach Playhouse audiences of Aleichem’s broad style. Swinging between the realistic and the fantastical, “Hatmaker” is the story of a young woman who moves in with her boyfriend in hopes of domestic bliss, only to be repeatedly disappointed. She finds assistance from the unlikeliest of places — a wall in her home. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through July 6. $20 Fridays, $24 Saturdays and Sundays. For seniors, $18 Fridays, $21 Saturdays and Sundays. $14 students all performances. Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. (562) 494-1014.

N’ranena Service
Adat Ari El’s musical Shabbat service, N’ranena, features performers from The Miracle Project, which serves those with autism and other differences through an inclusive theater, film and expressive arts program. Challah is provided. Guests are invited to bring their own vegetarian or dairy picnic dinner along with a dessert to share, or they may purchase a meal. 6-8:30 p.m. Free, $10 meal. Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 766-9426.

“Friday Night Inspire”
Beverly Hills-based Beth Jacob Congregation’s young professionals minyan meets for “Friday Night Inspire,” which is dedicated to the memory of Aaron Sichel, who died of cancer four years ago. The hosts are Lauren and Daniel Packer. 6:45 p.m. Mincha. 7 p.m. Kabbalat Shabbat. 7:30 p.m. Kiddush, refreshments and shmoozing. (310) 278-1911. RSVP to YP@bethjacob.org to obtain the address.

Shabbat on the Beach
Members and friends of Mishkon Tephilo in Venice gather for “Na’or: An Enlightened Shabbat,” as the congregation leaves behind its building and moves its Friday night services to the beach in Santa Monica. Attendees convene at South Beach Park, located at the southern end of the Ocean Park parking lot, just off the boardwalk, and are asked to bring their own picnic dinner, arrive early and enjoy the beach. 6 p.m. BYO picnic dinner. 6:45 p.m. musical sunset Shabbat service. Free. Open to the public. (310) 392-3029.

John Biewen

“The Illusion of Whiteness”
Journalist and documentarian John Biewen leads three conversations at Temple Isaiah on race in America and its meaning and impact in our lives. On Friday following Shabbat services, he discusses “Whiteness — A Historical Overview.” On Saturday morning, he offers “A Deeper Look Into Race in America.” And on Saturday afternoon, his topic is “Looking Backward and Moving Forward.” June 14: 6:15 p.m. services. 8 p.m. lecture. June 15: 10:30 a.m. lecture. 12:30 p.m. lunch. 1:30 p.m. lecture. Free. RSVP required. Temple Isaiah, 10345 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 277-2772.

Shabbat Under the Stars
Kick off summer with University Synagogue as the Westside congregation holds its first Shabbat Under the Stars of the season. The scene is the back patio, and guests are encouraged to bring a jacket or sweater for comfort from the ocean breezes. 7:30-9 p.m. Free. University Synagogue, 11960 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 472-1255.


Father’s Day Remembrance
A Father’s Day Remembrance Service at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary features Rabbi Jonathan Aaron of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (TEBH), Temple Akiba Cantor Lonee Frailich, University Synagogue Cantor Jay Frailich, TEBH Cantor Lizzie Weiss and storyteller Joe Koplowitz. 10 a.m. Free. Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary, 6001 W. Centinela Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 641-0707.

“Sacred Sounds Unbound”
To honor fathers on their special day, Temple Beth Am and musical partner Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills hold a “Sacred Sounds Unbound,” starring song leader and composer Joey Weisenberg. The creative director of the New York-based Rising Sound Institute, Weisenberg is accompanied by Los Angeles musicians and immerses the crowd in two types of nigunim, the familiar and the new. This is the second in a series of concerts put on by Beth Am and Temple Emanuel. 2 p.m. $18 suggested donation. Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd. (310) 652-7353.

“Who Will Write Our History”

“Who Will Write Our History”
Seventy-six years after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, American Jewish University (AJU) holds the screening of “Who Will Write Our History.” The documentary is about a clandestine scholarly group that hid treasured archives from the Nazis that were not discovered until after World War II. The Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) co-organizes the evening. The film featuring rare footage also includes new interviews and reflections. Following the screening, Michael Berenbaum, director of AJU’s Sigi Ziering Institute, appears in conversation with Roberta Grossman, the documentary’s director, writer and producer. 7:30 p.m. $15. Warner Center Marriott, 21850 W. Oxnard St., Woodland Hills.  (310) 440-1572.


“Mental Health and Memory”
Dr. Jennifer Logan, a family medicine specialist at UCLA, offers an overview of the causes and recommended treatments for anxiety, depression and dementia. Logan explains how these conditions affect memory and certain kinds of recollections. 2:30-4 p.m. Free. Kehillat Israel, 16019 W. Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades. (800) 516-5323.  

Improv Comedy Night
Comedy Sportz, one of the most popular improv groups in Los Angeles as it emphasizes audience participation, comes to Adat Ari El for “Improv Comedy Night.” With two teams of comedians pitted against each other, audience members holler suggestions and the the crowd eventually votes for the winning side. 7:30-10 p.m. $18 pre-registration. $25 door. Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 766-9426.

Gina Nahai

Libraries Conference
The diverse, tightly packed three days of the 54th annual conference of the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) at the Warner Center Marriott includes presentations on research skills for high schools, talks by Russian-born author and artist Eugene Yelchin and author Gina Nahai, a look at new Jewish fiction for adults, museum tours and a visit to American Jewish University. Through June 19. 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. each day. Prices vary. Warner Center Marriott, 21850 Oxnard St., Woodland Hills. (201) 371-3255.


Alison Laichter

Jewish Meditation
Find a solitary moment in a noisy world to learn and master meditation techniques. Alison Laichter’s Jewish meditation class is for beginners and practitioners. Laichter, who founded the Jewish Meditation Center when she lived in New York, marries the concepts of intention, understanding and Jewish texts in her 60-minute class. Noon-1 pm. $5 general admission. Free for Skirball members. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.


Story of Truman and Israel
Actor and playwright Arnie Weiss tells the story of an unknown haberdasher who convinced President Harry S. Truman to recognize the State of Israel in his one-man play, staged over lunch with the Renaissance Senior Group of Kol Tikvah synagogue. 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. $12.50. Kol Tikvah, 20400 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. RSVP required. (818) 348-0670 or dshayer@koltikvah.org 


Ben Shapiro

Ben Shapiro
Political conservative Ben Shapiro, a nationally syndicated columnist since he was 17 years old and the author of eight books, appears at Valley Beth Shalom for “An Evening With Ben Shapiro.” The Jewish Republican Alliance (JRA) organizes the appearance of Shapiro, whose syndicated radio program is on more than 150 stations. 6 p.m. VIP check-in. 6:30 p.m. VIP reception and event check-in. 7:30 p.m. speaker. No entry after 8 p.m. $25 JRA members, $35 general admission. Advance purchase only; no tickets at the door. Photo ID and copy of receipt required. Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (310) 478-0752.

Have an event coming up? Send your information two weeks prior to the event to ryant@jewishjournal.com for consideration. For groups staging an event that requires an RSVP, please submit details about the event the week before the RSVP deadline.

Weekly Parsha: Bamidbar

One verse, fiv voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “I hereby take the Levites from among the Israelites in place of all the firstborn, the first issue of the womb among the Israelites: the Levites shall be Mine.” –Numbers 3:11-12

Miriam Yerushalmi
CEO of SANE, counselor, author

At the close of Sefer Bereishis (Genesis), Yaakov blesses all his sons. He specifically calls Shimon and Levi “brothers,” criticizing the seemingly negative character trait those two sons shared. “Cursed be their anger … and their fury,” their father pronounces, promising to “disperse them throughout Yaakov and scatter them throughout Israel.” Yet later on, in the wilderness, HaShem takes Levi’s descendants as His own, “in place of all the firstborn.” Why was Shimon not similarly honored? 

When Yaakov’s sons were in Mitzrayim, the tribe of Levi didn’t join the others in working for Pharaoh. They stayed home and learned Torah. After the sin of the golden calf, the Levites, who had not participated in this idolatrous ceremony, acted together to uphold God’s honor and prevent the people from further transgressions. They utilized their trait of fiery passion properly as the nation’s spiritual guardians. 

Yaakov’s words manifested in a most positive way: Levi was dispersed throughout the tribes — as representatives of HaShem. Shimon’s passion, however, led him into sin and scattered his tribe. Shimon and Levi came from “the womb” sharing a characteristic that caused them to err; yet with Torah, Levi learned from his mistakes and directed his passionate nature to serve HaShem. Shimon allowed that fiery trait to direct him. 

Whatever our innate traits, whatever our missteps, through Torah and mitzvos we can develop ourselves to become true servants of HaShem. Every apparent negative can become positive. When we make an effort toward teshuvah (atonement), HaShem helps us to succeed.

Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn
B’nai David-Judea Congregation

Why does God specifically choose the Leviim in place of the firstborns? Our Midrash explains that God intended for the firstborns to perform the Mishkan (Tabernacle) service. But when they participated in building the golden calf — a sin from which the Leviim refrained — God replaced the firstborns with the Leviim. 

In choosing the Leviim, God makes a remarkable statement about leadership: It’s not inherited, but earned. Since Bereshit, God has rejected the primacy of the firstborns — a primacy that every society was built on. This is a countercultural value that the Torah brings to the moral stage of history. By shifting leadership from the firstborns because of their involvement in the sin of the golden calf, God communicates that leadership must be merited and cherished as a privilege — one that also can be lost. 

Today, this focus holds our leaders accountable for their actions. Rabbis and teachers are not kings but servants of God who must continually merit the opportunity to serve His people. And when leadership is abused, there are consequences. It’s worth noting, of course, that the Leviim still have their own lineage, which includes their service. But nevertheless, I would argue that the thinking behind their chosen-ness is revolutionary. In the Midrash, God created a precedent that our choices and actions — not birth order — define us. This value system extends far beyond the Mishkan and into ouar personal lives today. How do our own actions in leadership — as parents, teachers, professionals — define us?

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Temple Beth Am, Senior Rabbi

To be claimed. A treasure? Or a prison? According to psychotherapist Esther Perel, it is both. In “Mating in Captivity,” she describes marriage as a constraint, a rejection of all others, chosen captivity … from which joy and ecstasy can emerge. But when you are another’s “only,” limitations come with the singularity. 

Did the tribe of Levi feel this paradox? They will be priests, royalty of the sacred, God’s chosen among the chosen. The Levites will lead the people in worship and service, but might they be mating in captivity? 

Their treasure comes in exchange for the firstborns, who “earned” their chosen-ness by being saved, and therefore owing God in perpetuity. It is a chosen-ness that is born from obligation. The Levites will never suffer from hunger, as their provisions are guaranteed. But they have no land. Nothing to inherit or bequeath, aside service itself. 

According to Bereishit Rabba, originally it was Reuven, the true firstborn, who would replace “the firstborns” as living a life of service to God. Reuven’s impetuosity ruined his chances for priestly greatness. But as Yaacov blesses Levi at the end of his life, and transfers Reuven’s primacy to him, it comes with earned critique about Levi’s hostility and volatility. He may be a priest, but he is no angel. So this “gift” of belonging to God is part liberation from mundane duties, and also part of the rope that keeps Levi contained. 

Make your anchors and your tethers as holy and liberating as they can be. And remember that any fantasized liberation comes with its own fetters.

Tzvi Freeman
Chabad.org, teaches at Happy Minyan

The Levites got a bum deal. Put up the Tabernacle. Sing sweet songs in the Tabernacle. Take down the Tabernacle. Carry the load of the Tabernacle. But when you get to the Promised Land, you don’t even get a little plot to grow tomatoes. Nothing. Just some dividends off the granary — if you come, maybe we’ll give you some. 

But that’s OK, right? You’ll keep singing those sweet songs. Because you’re a Levite. 

So Maimonides has something really neat to say about the Levites. He writes that anybody — literally anybody who enters this world — can be a Levite, in a spiritual sense. The formula is simple: You just forgo the pursuit of material acquisition and dedicate your life to serving your Maker. 

Which implies that being a Levite is a really good thing. 

Maybe we have to redefine what is a good thing. If life is about dying with more toys and Facebook likes than anyone else, then toys and Facebook are a good thing. But if you consider life an opportunity for closeness with the Source of Life, then, mazel tov! You’re a (virtual) Levite and God says, “You are mine!” 

How do you come close to the Source of Life? You treasure life, you give life, you nurture life. Instead of chasing what feels good for you, you ask what you’re good for. Instead of “What do I need?” you ask, “What am I needed for?” Love and you will be loved. 

Then you will sing about life, because you’ve made life worthwhile.

Havah E. Jaffe
Children’s Shabbat Program Director, Hebrew Discovery Center

Among all peoples of the world, there are traditions to determine who is chosen for the ranks of priesthood. During the generation of the Exodus, the Israelites traveled through the land of idol worshippers for 40 years on the way to the Promised Land. As a safeguard to adopting the ways of the surrounding nations, God taught Moses that all firstborn sons who “open the womb” belonged to God as payback for sparing their lives during the Plague of the Firstborn in Egypt. 

This mitzvah was in stark contrast to the ways of the neighboring Midianites and Moabites, who worshipped a god called molech. This disgusting “deity” was gratified by the fiery sacrifice of firstborn children. Conversely, God wanted the Israelites to internalize how fortunate we were to know that the Creator of the Universe would never ask new mothers to offer their babies as human sacrifice; in fact, firstborn sons were to be the priests! 

God further instructed Moses that rather than those firstborn sons becoming priests as previously taught, the males of the tribe of Levi would replace them as God’s servants. With the mitzvah updated to the Levites as priests, the Israelites could also internalize how fortunate we are to know that the Sustainer of the Universe cares about the pain a new mother would feel if separated from her baby. Instead, priestly service would remain within one tribe, thus keeping families together. As Moses was taught, the family unit is sacred in and of itself. 

Israel Education Re-Envisioned

We’re training teachers how to understand modern Israel’s history, and how to understand the approach to teaching apolitically. — Tal Grinfas-David

Israel education is getting an overhaul thanks to the Atlanta-based Center for Israel Education (CIE) and its three-year initiative to bring resources and expertise to select day schools in the United States and Canada. 

A three-year grant from the Legacy Heritage Foundation is enabling the CIE — an offshoot of the Emory University Institute for the Study for Modern Israel — to work with nine schools, including Sinai Akiba Academy and Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am. 

“Israel is an organic part of the Pressman fabric and Israel education is interwoven into our curriculum,” said Yonatan Rosner, Judaic Studies principal at Pressman. He pointed to the school’s rich Hebrew immersion program, school holiday celebrations and a 22-year-long Jewish Federation twinning partnership with the Magen School in Tel Aviv. Many Pressman families travel to Israel every year and many graduates study in Israel and even make aliyah, he added. 

“The grant with CIE allows our faculty and staff to further their knowledge and understanding about Israel and create a platform that allows further collaboration between Judaic and general studies around themes such as Israel’s people, places and environments; Israeli and Jewish identity; and Israel’s science, technology and society,” Rosner said.  

The program isn’t about creating a political bias to the right or to the left, said Tal Grinfas-David, the CIE faculty member who is working to boost Israel education in day schools across North America. 

“It’s not about narratives,” she said.  “It’s apolitical. We do the history. When you’re a historian, you look at as many primary sources as you can to identify what transpired without a monolithic narrative. Zionism wasn’t monolithic. Similarly, Arabs living in Israel before the state have many reactions to Jews living in the land.” 

The CIE provides sources, including maps and correspondence, Grinfas-David explained, to uncover as many authentic materials as it can to accurately tell what’s happened. “Providing students with these materials will better prepare them [to become] “informed consumers of information.”

We’re training teachers how to understand modern Israel’s history, and how to understand the approach to teaching apolitically.
— Tal Grinfas-David


The program is running in multiple cities including Detroit, Denver and Vancouver, in various educational settings and for various age ranges. This is why it’s “so important to create tailored professional development and resources,” Grinfas-David said. “We’re training teachers how to understand modern Israel’s history, from Zionism to the present day, the connection of people to the land and how to understand the approach to teaching apolitically, allowing students to access the primary sources.”

Grinfas-David said she leaves it up to each school’s administration to decide how the grant will be used (which may include in-person or virtual trainings) and works with the teachers to help them infuse their curriculum with information about modern Israel, bringing in ideas from STEM and innovation. One example of a lesson is a comparison between the American and Israeli declarations of independence, especially the presence or absence of God in the documents.

The Pressman faculty learned with Grinfas-David in the fall and winter of 2018, and another professional development seminar took place at the end of February. 

Rosner said the CIE grant will enable Pressman leadership to examine “how we engage students in understanding the past and present state of Israel and its global connections.” 

Pressman teachers Julie Schimmel and Meghan Stein Hart attended last June’s CIE conference and are now CIE coordinators at the school for kindergarten through eighth grade, identifying what is being taught already as well as opportunities for integration and curriculum development in the years ahead. 

“After having attended CIE twice, I am grateful for the education that they have provided,” said Schimmel, who teaches third-grade Judaic and Hebrew immersion studies. “They are masters at providing learning about Israel to enrich yourself and also learning how to implement Israel learning utilizing best practices. I would attend CIE every summer if I could.”

What’s Happening: Joseph Pulitzer, RBG and Andrew McCabe


Pulitzer Documentary
Nearly a century before the emergence of “fake news,” Joseph Pulitzer was fighting against the dissemination of false information in America. The new documentary “Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People,” opening at Laemmle theaters, tells the story of the penniless, young Jewish immigrant from Hungary who challenged a popular president and fought for freedom of the press as an essential element of U.S. democracy. Adam Driver (“BlacKkKlansman”) narrates and Liev Schreiber (“Ray Donovan”) provides the voice of Pulitzer. Various times. $12 Monday–Thursday, $13 Friday–Sunday. Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (310) 478-3836.


“It’s a Life”
A niece accidentally creates a viral obituary about her character-actor uncle; a mountain climber finds his passion not atop a mountain but in a coffee shop; and daughters feel their father’s presence when they find feathers or see football games. These stories and more comprise “It’s a Life,” the latest production from the Jewish Women’s Theatre that explores the many facets of death and how memories, fears and new understandings transform grief into positive, healing thoughts and actions. Opening tonight at The Braid, the show travels to the Westside, Mid-Wilshire, the San Fernando Valley and the South Bay through March 28. For tickets, times and locations, call (310) 315-1400 or visit the website. 


Sara Berman

“Mental Health First Aid”
Rabbi Sara Berman leads the adult education class “Mental Health First Aid,” about how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders. 8:30 a.m.–1 p.m. $20. Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 766-9426.

USC Hillel Day of Service
In partnership with USC’s Alumni Day of Service, the Jewish Alumni Association holds a service project at Beit T’Shuvah, a faith-based recovery center, with participants meeting current residents and preparing and packaging meals for those enduring homelessness. All friends of USC Hillel and children 10 and older are welcome to fulfill this mitzvah and to join the association’s members for lunch. 10 a.m. Free. Beit T’Shuvah, 8831 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 747-9135.

Sundays in the Park With Camp Alonim

Sundays at Alonim
During “Sundays in the Park With Camp Alonim,” children can ride horses, feed goats, climb the Alpine tower, play on the swings, make arts-and-crafts and enjoy a kosher barbecue with their families at the 2,700-acre Brandeis-Bardin Campus in Simi Valley. Noon–4 p.m. $5 adults and children ages 3 and older; free for children 2 and younger. Brandeis-Bardin Campus of American Jewish University, 1101 Peppertree Lane, Simi Valley. (805) 582-4450.

“Grandparent & Me”
Get ready for Purim when American Jewish University and the PJ Library hold “Grandparent & Me,” a story-time and song session for preschoolers 2 to 6 years old and their grandmas and grandpas. Doda Mollie provides the music. Attendees enjoy singing, crafts and an interactive story. 1–2:30 p.m. $25 pre-registration per family, $30 door. Burton Sperber Jewish Community Library, American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 440-1572.  

Continuing Ginsburg’s Legacy
Jessie Kornberg, president and CEO of Bet Tzedek Legal Services; attorney Katherine Ku, a former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; and Sonya Passi, founder and CEO of FreeFrom, an organization for domestic violence survivors, discuss who will carry on the 85-year-old Ginsburg’s legacy into the next generation. Titled “Succession Planning for the Revolution,” the event coincides with the final day of the popular Skirball Cultural Center exhibition “Notorious RBG.” 3 p.m. $12 general, $10 seniors and full-time students, free for Skirball members. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd. (310) 440-4500.


Aliyah Fairs
Nefesh B’ Nefesh invites anyone considering making aliyah to Israel to “Aliyah Fair & Talks” on the Westside on March 12 and in the San Fernando Valley on March 13. Nearly two dozen vendors and service providers answer questions, and TED Talks-style presentations about life in Israel explore health care, taxes, how to handle investments while becoming a citizen, finding a home and how to land a job. March 12: 5:30–9 p.m. Young Israel of Century City, 9317 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. March 13: Sherman Oaks Courtyard by Marriott, 15433 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (866) 425-4924.

“Anti-Semitism: A Brief History”
Temple Beth Am Rabbi Emeriti Joel Rembaum kicks off the seven-part series, “Anti-Semitism: A Brief History,” which meets on Tuesday evenings through May 7. Blending lectures, text readings and discussion, Rembaum explores the phenomenon that is again at the forefront of Jews’ minds around the world. 7:45 p.m. Free. Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 652-7353.

Connecting Dads and Teens 
In a program for fathers of teenagers, clinical psychologist Babak Kadkhoda discusses “Connecting With Your Kids on a Deeper Level.” 8 p.m. Free. Sephardic Temple, Levy Hall, Third Floor, 10500 Wilshire Blvd. (310) 475-7000.

A Night at the Entwinery
During an evening called “A Night at the Entwinery,” young adults celebrate the Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) Entwine community-building initiatives in Argentina, the Balkans and the country of Georgia by pairing a glass of red or white from these countries with a discussion of their customs and the important work being done in these regions. Ages 21 and older. 7–9 p.m. $10 in advance, $15 door. V Wine Room, 903 Westbourne Drive, West Hollywood.  (310) 339-9202.


Amy Bernstein

“Planet Purim”
One week before Purim, Sinai Temple’s “Planet Purim” offers popular traditional and innovative attractions to celebrate the holiday. Guests at the family-friendly event wear their favorite costumes and enjoy a petting zoo, go-karts, mega-slides, a DJ, live entertainment, carnival games, Xbox sports games, a prize booth, social action projects, basketball games and arts-and-crafts. Adult 18 or older must accompany children. 3:30–7:30 p.m. 4:30 p.m. Purim play and costume parade. $48 all-inclusive wristbands. $15 kosher barbecue meal. Free for adults and children ages 1 and younger. Tickets available at the door. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 481-3228.

Jewish Mindfulness
Kehillat Israel Senior Rabbi Amy Bernstein explores “Jewish Mindfulness and Spirituality: Creating Lives of Depth and Meaning.” 7–9 p.m. Free. Kehillat Israel, 16019 W. Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades. (310) 459-2328.


Shir Chadash Concert
Composer and UCLA doctoral candidate Michel Klein reinterprets a selection of Jewish musical works of the past few decades during the inaugural program of a new Shir Chadash (“New Song”) Concert series. Professional musicians and students from UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music perform Klein’s works that challenge the concept of Jewish music. 9 p.m. Free. Art Share L.A., 801 E. Fourth Place, Los Angeles. (310) 825-4761.

Andrew McCabe

Andrew McCabe
Andrew McCabe, former deputy director of the FBI, discuss his best-selling book, “The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump” at American Jewish University. Just 26 hours before McCabe’s retirement last March, now-former Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired McCabe. Expect him to talk about his dismissal, his issues with the Trump administration and more. 7:30 p.m. $25. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 440-1572.

Have an event coming up? Send your information two weeks prior to the event to ryant@jewishjournal.com for consideration. For groups staging an event that requires an RSVP, please submit details about the event the week before the RSVP deadline.

Gay Father Settles Suit Against Pressman Academy

A gay Israeli father has settled an ongoing lawsuit against Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy.

The man filed the suit against the school on Sept. 20, 2017, on behalf of his two daughters, alleging they were discriminated against because he is gay and single. However, on Feb 15, the plaintiff’s attorney, Robert Starr, filed a settlement notice with the Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dennis Landin. 

Pressman Head of School Erica Rothblum sent the following statement to the Journal: 

“Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am has resolved a recent lawsuit filed against it by the parent of a former student, by agreeing to allow its insurance company to pay a nominal sum in exchange for a dismissal and release of all claims.  

“The parent, identified in the complaint only as ‘John Doe,’ alleged that his child was discriminated against on the basis that the father is single and gay.  In October 2018, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dennis Landin dismissed all of the plaintiff’s allegations of discrimination, together with other allegations in the lawsuit.  The parent has now agreed to dismiss what remains of his lawsuit (two claims of negligence) for a payment of just $4,500, which Pressman Academy characterizes as ‘nuisance value.’ ”

The Journal first reported on this story shortly after the filing, when Doe’s daughters, listed as “Jane Doe 1” and “Jane Doe 2,” were students at Pressman. Their father subsequently removed them from the school at the end of the 2016-17 year.

According to the 47-page lawsuit, students teased Jane Doe 1 by calling her an orphan, pushing a chair into her, circulating rumors about her and, at one point, putting thorns on her pillow.

“Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am has resolved a recent lawsuit filed against it by the parent of a former student, by agreeing to allow its insurance company to pay a nominal sum in exchange for a dismissal and release of all claims.”

 — Erica Rothblum 

Among the myriad complaints alleging discrimination and bullying in the suit, were claims that teachers continually asked the sisters to bring a “woman figure” to the school’s Mother’s Day celebration. 

In 2016, Jane Doe 1 allegedly told a tutor she was suicidal and that teachers had told John Doe that it would be better if Jane Doe 1 went to another school.  

In filing the suit, John Doe said even though Jane Doe 1 was now at another school, she still “continues to suffer from the discrimination and bullying she experienced at Pressman Academy.”

However, Pressman’s attorneys stated in their court papers that the language
in the complaint was “conclusory” and that the claims were “vague,
ambiguous and uncertain.”

Rothblum added in her statement following the ruling, “Pressman Academy is, and has always been, a school committed to the physical and emotional safety of our students. As a school whose core values include community and kindness, we teach students that we are a ‘telling school’ when it comes to bullying, which means that everyone should feel comfortable to tell a teacher, counselor or administrator if they see or experience something, and those adults will then take prompt and effective action. In addition, our commitment to our values includes a life skills class in our middle school that explicitly teaches about sexuality and identity, as well as an active partnership with Keshet, a national organization that works for full LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life. We welcome and celebrate an incredibly diverse parent and student population.”

As of press time, attorneys for the plaintiff had not responded to the Journal’s request for comment.  

Special D’var Torah: Mishpatim

Photo by REUTERS/David W Cerny

If only the whole Jewish world knew, and lived by, this one comment of Rashi.  If only that…then the Jewish people would be kinder, more ethical and more dignified.

Let me rev this up by saying that one of my recent and current pet peeves (which is saying it lightly. What I am about to describe is a source of tremendous pain and anguish for me about Jewish living) is the discourteousness (again, to say it lightly) exhibited by some who are punctilious about ritual Jewish observance.  In my mind, I have thought of this as “ugly Judaism.”  A Judaism which valorizes, and pays attention to, halakhic/legal/ritual detail, while eschewing (sometimes simultaneously) basic politeness and rudimentary ethical comportment.  Myriad examples jump to mind.  Jews who are so careful about not touching a person of the opposite gender such that it impacts where they sit on an airplane, but seem to jettison all expressions of patient, flexible kindness when trying to meet those needs.  Jews who are careful and ubiquitous when it comes to regular, obligatory prayer, and who can recite the prayers fluently and fluidly…but then resort to lashon hara (gossip, damaging speech) as soon as there is a gap in the service.  Jews who are so set on venerating the Torah that they literally knock people over (and thus knock over the values of that very Torah) on the way to giving the Torah a kiss.  Some might call that last example as veneration-turned-idolatry, with frenzy having replaced honor.

(I am neither a perfect Jew nor a perfect human.  I try to name and efface as many of the flaws that I recognize within myself as possible. So I will accept “guilty as charged” for any of the ways in which I fall prey to the very phenomena discussed above.)

I muse about how we got to this place in Jewish sociology wherein the class of phenomena I named is so prevalent. Perhaps it should not be such a surprise. Human beings are complex and riddled with internal inconsistencies.  We undermine, and betray, our own values and principles all the time—sometimes unaware and unconscious, and sometimes quite aware, but as a result of some negotiation, or rationalization, with self.  But even if this is true, ought we not try to aspire to something better, something higher?

The commentary of Rashi I referenced above is his first on Parshat Mishpatim, and emerges from a pretty wonky and zoomed-in read of the text.  The parsha begins with the words ואלה משפטים / V’eleh hamishpatim / “And these are the laws/statues…”.  The parsha then continues with a litany of laws (making Mishpatim the parsha with the second-most number of mitzvot among all the 54 parashot, with only Ki Tetze having more). Most of those laws are related to civic life, business practices and ethical living, with rather few of them existing purely in the ritual realm. Rashi notes that all sorts of sentences in the Torah begin with the introduction of “אלה / Eleh / These…” And he notes, or suggests, a pattern: When the opening word is just Eleh, the word is meant to separate what is to come from what came before.  It would be read something like “Now that we have finished that topic, these are some other things, in another category.” But when the opening word is “V’eleh” (as it is in our verse), the opposite is true: The word connects the upcoming verse(s) and concept(s) with the antecedent, as if we should read it something like “And these things, as well!”

Rashi is highlighting the import of the slim, humble, almost indiscernible vov-letter that begins the word and the parsha.  Within that tiny letter is the following exhortation: lest you delude yourself into thinking that the laws about to be commanded are somehow other, or lesser, or disconnected from the “true revelation” we just had in Parshat Yitro…lest you erroneously think that all (any!) of the commandments after the initial 10 are secondary, the vov of “V’eleh” sets you straight.  You thought that the Sinai moment ended last week? Hardly.  It continues into Mishpatim, with no conceptual or hierarchical separation. So as you remember Shabbat and render it holy, and as you commit to monotheism and to not taking that one God’s name in vain, so too do you promise to act towards your servants with decency, and pay the damages of one you have injured, and guard your animals lest they create havoc, and ensure that your open pits do not pose a danger to unsuspecting wayfarers, and treat the stranger with empathy, and support the widow and orphan, and ease the burden of an overladen animal, and on and on and on.  They, too, are part of God’s revelation to us, and expectations of us.  While the latter category without the former category might be ethical humanism, I would say again that the former category without the latter is ugly Judaism.

Remember that vov, and act on it.  Connect your conception of Sinai to how you hold yourself, especially while you find yourself in the midst of a ritual act.  Make God’s name truly holy by having your very being be a conveyor of holiness, from the ritual to the civil, and back.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles. 


JEA Lunch, TBA Member Named USY Pres

From left: Builders of Jewish Education Executive Director Gil Graff; Milken Family Foundation Co-Founder Lowell Milken; Jewish Educator Award winners Rabbi Shimon Abramczik, Patty Tanner, Florette Benhamou and Fanny Koyman and Milken Family Foundation Executive Director Richard Sandler. Photo courtesy of the Milken Family Foundation

Rabbi Shimon Abramczik, Florette Benhamou, Fanny Koyman and Patty Tanner were selected as recipients of the Milken Family Foundation’s 2018 Jewish Educator Awards.

The 29th annual awards were presented at a Dec. 13 luncheon at the Luxe Sunset Boulevard Hotel. With the award, each recipient was given $15,000.

Abramczik teaches Judaic studies and serves as director of 11th- and 12th-grade student activities and Israel guidance at YULA Boys High School in Los Angeles. Tanner is the K-6 math coordinator for Wise School in Los Angeles. Benhamou is a first-grade teacher at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills. Koyman is the lead Hebrew and Judaic studies teacher for transitional kindergarten and kindergarten at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge.

Attendees at the event included Milken Family Foundation Executive Director Richard Sandler; Builders of Jewish Education Executive Director Gil Graff; Milken Family Foundation co-founder Lowell Milken; Stephen Wise Temple Senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback; and Mark Goldenberg, who sang the Israeli and American national anthems.

The Jewish Education Awards recognize K-12 educators working at schools affiliated with the Builders of Jewish Education organization, “based on their demonstrated excellence as teachers, administrators or other education professionals,” according to the awards website.

“I don’t do what I do every day for an award,” Benhamou said when she accepted her prize. “To teach is to touch a life forever.”

From left: Noa Kligfeld and her father Temple Beth Am Senior Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, who have served as international president of United Synagogue Youth, in 2019 and 1990, respectively.
Photo courtesy of Temple Beth Am

Noa Kligfeld, daughter of Temple Beth Am Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, has been elected to serve as international president of United Synagogue Youth (USY), the youth movement for Conservative teens across the country.

“I believe that, whoever you are, your voice deserves to be heard,” Kligfeld said upon her election. “And I promise to listen to all of you, because in a religious community it is kol hakolot [all of the voices] — all our amazing, unique, valuable voices complementing one another to create something beautiful.”

Kligfeld was elected to the position on Dec. 27, making her the second international president of USY from Temple Beth Am in three years. Noah Lee, a member, of the Los Angeles synagogue, was the 2017 USY international president. 

In a joint statement, Temple Beth Am President Avi Peretz and Executive Vice President Stuart Tochner called Kligfeld’s appointment “nothing less than historic within the Conservative Movement. … For nearly 70 years, United Synagogue Youth has been the crown jewel of the Conservative Movement. Never before, in all those years, have two out of three successive international presidents come from the same synagogue USY chapter.”

Kligfeld previously served on the USY Far West Region’s religion and education committee. Her father, the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am, served as USY international president in 1990.

“Never before in the history of the Movement have a parent and a child both served as USY international president,” the synagogue’s statement said.

“Noa’s remarkable achievement this week reminds us about what makes Temple Beth Am unquestionably unique,” Peretz and Tochner said. “We raise children who revel in their Jewish identities. We ground their enthusiasm with substantive knowledge gained through a Pressman [Academy of Temple Beth Am] or JLC [Jewish Learning Community] education. Most importantly, we raise mensches — and, consequently, the next generation of Jewish leaders.”

Distant Cousins performs at a recent benefit concert in West Hollywood and helped raise funds for the rebuilding of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh; Photo courtesy of Yael Kempe

A West Hollywood benefit concert for Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue was held at the Peppermint Club on Dec. 19. 

Performers included rapper Kosha Dillz, indie rock band Distant Cousins, “conscious pop” band Blesd and singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ray Goren.

The Tree of Life synagogue was targeted in a deadly mass shooting that killed 11 people on the Shabbat morning of last Oct. 27, the deadliest attack against Jewish people in U.S. history. 

The West Hollywood event raised funds to help repair the synagogue’s building, which incurred physical damage in the attack.

Grammy-winning singer Seal (front row, center) visits Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services. Photo courtesy of Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services

Acclaimed performer Seal visited Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services in Los Angeles for the organization’s open mic night on Dec. 17.

The singer spent time with Vista Del Mar’s children, sharing in their talents, stories and a message of hope.

“His choice to be of service and to show the power of song to connect to those of like mind and heart is truly tzedakah,” a spokesperson for the organization said.

Seal, a Grammy Award-winning British singer-songwriter known for hit songs “Kiss From a Rose” and “Crazy,” also met with Vista Del Mar’s Leadership Advisory Board (LAB) fellows. 

LAB fellows, made up of professionals ages 25–45, use their resources and relationships to optimize the lives of Vista Del Mar’s children, according to the spokesperson. They participate in a 10-month comprehensive program where they have the opportunity to work with the facility’s youth and learn from experts about philanthropy, fundraising and children’s mental health, as well as leadership skills, including public speaking and media training. 

Seal, who was raised in a foster family, told his story to the children and provided each of them with a handwritten note with words of encouragement and inspiration.

Before and after his talk, Seal spent time inside Vista Del Mar’s residential Special Care Facility, where he further connected with the youth.

Caroline Cameron, a LAB fellow, introduced Seal at the event and shared the story of her work with the program in the past year. Children from Vista Del Mar’s Arts Enrichment program also sang a song. 

Originally the Jewish Orphan’s Home of Southern California, Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services provides a range of programs serving children and families in need.

Want to be in Movers & Shakers? Send us your events, honors and Simchas to ryant@jewishjournal.com 

Correction: The date that Noa Kligfeld was elected to serve as international president of United Synagogue Youth was misreported in an item in the Jan. 18 Movers & Shakers. She was elected Dec. 27.

What’s Happening: ‘Chichester Psalms,’ ‘Torah L.A.,’ Poker Tourney


Emiliana Guereca Zeidenfeld

Women’s March L.A.
One month before the Jan. 19 Women’s March Los Angeles, Women’s March L.A. founder and Temple Isaiah congregant Emiliana Guereca Zeidenfeld appears as the Friday night Shabbat speaker at Temple Isaiah. In conversation with Co-Senior Rabbis Joel Nickerson and Dara Frimmer, Zeidenfeld shares the history and philosophy of the Women’s March and addresses recent controversies, including allegations of anti-Semitism lodged against the organization’s leaders. A Q-and-A follows. 5:45 p.m. pre-oneg; 6:15 p.m. Shabbat service. Oneg and dinner follow. 8 p.m. conversation. Free. RSVP required for oneg and dinner. Temple Isaiah, 10345 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 277-2772.

Rimonim Shabbat
Valley Beth Shalom’s final Rimonim Shabbat of the year features dancing, singing, prayers and a promise to transform participants. “Rimonim” is Hebrew for “pomegranates,” and tradition teaches that each pomegranate contains hundreds of colorful seeds representing the 613 good deeds each Jew must perform. As one good deed leads to another, the goal is for the sacred music of a Rimonim Shabbat to inspire those present to perform an act of lovingkindness. Dress is casual. 6 p.m. snack and schmooze. 6:30 p.m. Rimonim service. Free. Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 788-6000.

David Broza

Zimriyah Choral Shabbat
An evening of tefilah and music at Adat Ari El features the L.A. Zimriyah Chorale performing the late Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” under the direction of Nick Strimple. Dinner follows. The chorale prayer experience is in place of the 6 p.m. Shabbat service. 6:45 p.m. dinner. 8:00 p.m. service. $24. Service is free. Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 766-9426.


Broza & Friends
Israeli singer and guitarist David Broza continues his annual holiday tradition of performing Israeli and Spanish songs that carry a message of peace, love and understanding. Broza displays his multiple linguistic talents when he sings in Hebrew, English, Spanish and Arabic. He brings the full body of his work to the stage with the backing of the New York-based “Trio Havana,” led by flute virtuoso Itai Kris. Additional special guests slated to perform. 7:30 p.m. $64–$109. The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. (310) 434-3200.



A rural Hungarian village whose residents feel guilty about their complicity in World War II is the setting for the film “1945,” which follows two Holocaust survivors returning home after being liberated from concentration camps. The survivors’ presence reminds the residents of how they stole Jewish property years earlier. After the screening, a discussion follows on today’s political and racial oppression and what moral responsibility Jews may share in it. 9:30 a.m.–noon. Free. University Synagogue, 11960 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 472-1255. RSVP to jimruxin@yahoo.com.

Poker Tournament

holds its seventh annual Texas Hold ’em Poker Tournament. Professional dealers, prizes, business and personal sponsorship opportunities and even mini massages by professional masseuses highlight the event. If you do not play poker, take lessons before the tournament or enjoy casino games, drinks and dinner while others are competing. Or, hang out in the sports lounge and watch the L.A. Rams –Philadelphia Eagles game on a big-screen TV. Must be 21 to attend. Volunteer opportunities available. 4 p.m. doors open. 4:30 p.m. poker lessons. 5 p.m. tournament. $175 tournament entry. $80 non-poker entry. Kol Tikvah, 20400 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 348-0670 ext. 214.

Moving Beyond Hate 
Tim Zaal, a former Skinhead who now works for the Museum of Tolerance’s Hate to Hope program, appears in conversation with Temple Beth Am Rabbi Matt Shapiro. Some of Zaal’s past racist and political affiliations include serving as L.A. recruiter and propagandist for the White Aryan Resistance and director of the Southern California chapter of the Hammerskin Nation. After an audience Q-and-A with Zaal, Matthew Friedman, senior associate regional director at the Anti-Defamation League, assesses the current state of white supremacy. 7 p.m. Free. Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 652-7353.

Orthodox Union Convention: ‘Torah L.A.’
The annual four-day Orthodox Union West Coast Convention concludes with “Torah L.A.” Exploring the theme of “Family First: Torah Perspectives for Today’s World,” rabbis discuss topics including “Strengthening Our Relationships,” “Current Halachic Controversies” and “Family Relationships in Tanach.” Free and open to the public. Pre-registration required. 9:15 a.m.–noon. YULA Boys High School, 9760 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. RSVP at adlerl@ou.org/yarmusd@ou.org or (310) 229-900, ext. 200 or 201.

“Big Ideas, Bold Future”
This entry in American Jewish University’s “Big Ideas, Bold Future” series features AJU’s vice president, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, and UCLA professor/co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center Daniel J. Siegel tackling some big questions: What is consciousness? What is the relationship between brain and mind? How do thinking and feeling connect? How does our awareness connect us to the world around us? What can we do to hone our consciousness for good? The two scholars will approach them from different perspectives in a wide-ranging and mind-expanding discussion. 4 p.m. $10. AJU Familian Campus, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 440-1572.


Yula Comedy Night
The lineup at YULA Girls High School’s annual Comedy Night includes Mark Schiff, Eli Lebowicz, Don McMillan, Michael Rayner, Brian Kelly and Sunda Croonquist. Enjoy an evening of food, drink and laughter. 6:30 p.m. doors, 7:30 p.m. Advance purchase: 1 ticket $125, 2 tickets $200. At the door: 1 ticket $135, 2 tickets $225. VIP preferred seating $500, includes 2 tickets. The Writers Guild Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 203-0755.


“According to Oslo”
Members of IPF Atid, the young professionals network of the Israeli Policy Forum, spend an evening of conversation with Mor Loushy, co-director of the 2018 documentary, “The Oslo Diaries.” Clips of the film will be shown and Loushy will discuss the film, which follows the unsanctioned peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians in the 1990s. Ages 21-39 only. Beverages and kosher desserts served. 7:30–9 p.m. Free. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd. (310) 474-1518.


JNet Holiday Party
It is holiday party time for the Pacific Palisades branch of JNET, which means enjoying dinner, entertainment and door prizes with the Jewish community’s business networking group. For the final JNET meeting of the calendar year, all are welcome, including first-timers. 6:30–9:00 p.m. Free. Kehillat Israel, 16019 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades. (310) 459-2328.


Herb Alpert and Lani Hall

Herb Alpert and Manhattan Transfer
Stepping into the downtown spotlight to celebrate the holidays with a doubleheader, jazz icon Herb Alpert and singer Lani Hall, Alpert’s wife of 41 years, along with the Manhattan Transfer headline an evening of familiar melodies at Walt Disney Concert Hall. 8 p.m. $49–$99. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave. (323) 850-2000.

L.A. Jewish Community Sing
People of all ages, regardless of musical experience, come together to sing, socialize and schmooze at Sinai Temple’s monthly Jewish Community Sing. Michelle Green Willner leads the program, accompanied by guitarist Chris Haller, pianist Jeffrey Silverman, and drummer Scott Beardman. Kosher refreshments provided. 8–9:30 p.m. Free. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd. (310) 474-1518.

Have an event coming up?  Send your information two weeks prior to the event to ryant@jewishjournal.com for consideration. For groups staging an event that requires an RSVP, please submit details about the event the week before the RSVP deadline.

Weekly Parsha: Miketz

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have dreamed a dream,
and there is no interpreter for it.” –
Genesis 41:15

Nili Isenberg
Pressman Academy

Sometimes, like Pharaoh, we feel so alone in our lives. We are beset by challenges that no one can understand, not even ourselves. In our dreams, we replay what has happened during the day, turning events into a jumbled nightmare of concerns and anxieties. They eat us up inside, ravaging our physical and mental states as we become like ugly, emaciated cows. And there is no interpreter for it.

There is no one to explain why these are the circumstances of our lives. Just this past month, we have all asked: Why Pittsburgh? Why Thousand Oaks? Why is our world figuratively and literally on fire?

Mei HaShiloach (Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, 1801-1854) took a mystical approach to our verse. He argued that “everything in this life is like a dream that needs interpreting,” in an active, engaged process.

When my son was diagnosed with Angelman Syndrome five years ago, we learned that he might never achieve the most basic functions in life, such as walking and talking. At the time, my husband and I felt like we had accidentally crossed into a delusional alternate reality, an inexplicable dream. We continue to struggle with this reality every day, looking for an explanation, while still holding in our hearts the faith that God’s world has a design and meaning. But faith is not an explanation.

For Pharaoh, his dream was finally explained by Joseph. How much longer will the rest of us have to continue our search for an explanation?

Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz
Adat Shalom, “My Daily Offering” podcast, “Roadmap Jerusalem” filmmaker

The Hebrew Bible loves the motif of foreshadowing dreams as a method of communication from the divine. Saying there is “no interpreter” for his dream is a reflection of Pharaoh’s negative outlook. Unlike this part of Pharaoh’s statement, the Jewish tradition believes in the power of possibility. There are always answers for those prepared to question, always new rewards for those willing to take risks, always interpreters for difficult dreams, even for Pharaoh. Pharaoh continues this same verse by saying, “but I have heard it said of you [Joseph] that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning.” 

In response, Joseph gives Pharaoh the key to all of our struggles: humility. Joseph attributes to God his amazing ability to interpret dreams. For when we maintain belief in God, answers seem more attainable, rewards seem more reachable, and dreams seem more interpretable.

With God’s help, there is nothing we can’t achieve. That is why President John F. Kennedy concluded his famous “moon speech” on Sept. 12, 1962, at Rice University by saying, “Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail, we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” 

May we all chase our dreams … with God’s help.

Peter Himmelman
Musician, author, CEO and Chief Dream Enabler of Big Muse

Pharaoh’s name translates as “Explosion.” He had an explosive personality with an explosive, childish temper. Pharaoh also possessed a spirituality so explosive that even Moses had been afraid to approach him. Spirituality, however, does not equate to holiness. 

Pharaoh’s worldview was one of extreme egoism and, as such, lacked all sensitivity toward God. Pharaoh famously said, “The Nile is mine and I created it.” And in the verse that immediately follows ours, Joseph states that, “Only God can interpret dreams.” Without a connection to God, Pharaoh and his advisers were powerless to correctly interpret his dreams. 

When we place ourselves at the center of the universe (and face it, at times we all do) we become locked in a kind of myopic mental cage. Our opinions, our beliefs, and our prejudices then start to comprise our micro-reality. When we cut ourselves off from the larger world and the larger community, not only are we diminished, we diminish those around us as well. 

It sounds paradoxical, but when you reflect on the times you were most joyful —perhaps it was when you held your child for the first time — it’s likely you felt very small. I don’t mean less important; I mean you became cognizant that you were merely an infinitesimal part of an infinite universe. 

Interpreting dreams is an expression of creativity at the highest level. Like Joseph, we, too, are at our most creative when we are most alive to our awareness of God — the constant Creator of everything. 

Rabbi Chaim Tureff
Temple Beth Am and director of STARS Addiction Recovery 

Pharaoh is confused and needs guidance. The sheer terror of not knowing what is going on next paralyzes him. He is confounded by his dreams. 

Pharaoh looks around and is told by his chamberlain of the cupbearers about a young Jew who can guide him. Pharaoh has hit bottom and has nowhere to turn except to Yosef. This is very similar to a sponsor/sponsee relationship in 12-step programs. 

The “dreams” are symbolic of the continual spiraling out that one experiences when they are in their active addiction. They look left, right, forward and behind but are unable to find solace. Nothing helps ease the addict’s “dream.” 

When they allow themselves to find their Yosef, and turn over their will to the guidance of someone more experienced in these issues, they find their interpreter. Instead of the responses to their “dreams” that many other people try to interpret, they find a true interpreter, a sponsor, someone who understands their “dream” and can interpret them and help them move forward in their life. 

Kylie Ora Lobell
Jewish Journal Contributing Writer

In this verse, the frightened Pharaoh is turning to Joseph to interpret his disturbing dreams about meager cows. Immediately, Joseph replies, “Not I; God will give an answer [that will bring] peace to Pharaoh.” Joseph is owning up to the fact that he cannot provide comfort — only God can. 

Any answers he gives are actually from God, since God created him. Too often, like Pharaoh, we seek answers to our problems from other human beings. We worship celebrities who supposedly show us how we should live. We follow leaders blindly. We poll our family members and friends for help. We rely on our therapists to solve our issues. But before long, we realize that we can find comfort and peace only by turning to HaShem. 

If Pharaoh had learned to pray, look inward and rely on God, perhaps he would have discovered his interpretations on his own. But because he wasn’t a believer, he had to rely on Joseph, who was. In our daily lives, we need to be like Joseph. We have to recognize that HaShem is in control, and that in the end, only he can help us solve our problems, show us the right path and enable us to lead productive, fulfilling lives, with many prosperous years ahead. 

Weekly Parsha: Vayeishev

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

He has not withheld anything from me except you, because you are his wife. Now how can I commit this great evil, and sin against God? – Genesis 39:9

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Associate Dean, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
— Abraham Lincoln

Joseph’s rise as a trusted associate of Pharoah is among one of the most curious stories of the Bible. From the adversity of his own childish brotherly taunting to being sold into slavery to the accusation of infidelity that follow this verse, Joseph certainly faces his own share of adversity.

Recognizing that God is present with him and that he has Potiphar’s vote of confidence, Joseph is made personal attendant and later, minster over the entire house. Seen for his talent, Joseph gains prominence and power. By all Biblical accounts, he is quite successful.

A true test of his character, Joseph is tempted with sex. Knowing how fragile is his success, to whom he owes loyalty, and that he always stands in front of God, Joseph affirms that to pretend he can do anything he might want to do just because he wields power would be corrupt and morally bankrupt.  

Much in life is absolute wrong or absolute right. Still, there are those who justify small steps even when they know they are wrong, beginning a slippery slope of rationalization and moral equivalency that leads to greater out-of-character acts.

In contrast, in this moment, Joseph knows that he may be in charge of the house, but it is not his home. To assume otherwise would be a violation of all that is sacred and a perversion of his own character.

Rabbi Matt Shapiro
Temple Beth Am

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler emphasized the importance of moments when an individual could go one way or another on his path in life, when the outcome is uncertain. We all experience them; if we’re lucky enough, we notice them, and make a mindful decision toward goodness and growth. This verse encapsulates one such moment for Joseph.

This narrative’s watchword of ra’ah, evil, doesn’t first appear in this verse. Earlier, it describes the report Joseph gives to his father, Jacob, about his brothers; it also characterizes the animal Joseph’s brothers later claim mauled him when they lie to Jacob. It then lingers further on in the narrative, when the brothers are fearful that Joseph will revisit ra’ah upon them after Jacob’s death. But here, Joseph wrestles with the possible ra’ah in front of him, and emerges unwilling to sin before God, to cause damage to a relationship, or to act counter to his values. We don’t know what leads to his new perspective. Up until now, Joseph has seemed primarily focused on his own well-being and gratification. What prompts this awakening? More importantly, we know he remains on this path, rebuffing Potiphar’s wife’s advances repeatedly in the days to come.

Through his decision, Joseph brings himself closer to the moniker of tzadik, righteous one, assigned him by the rabbis. May we each choose wisely when these moments emerge in our lives, and then continue to “turn away from evil, and do good,” living in integrity with our choices.

Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld
Aish Hatorah JMI, COO Harkham-GAON Academy

Faith is tested by both pain and power. In fact, it is only in the company of those two realities that anyone can know with certainty just how real their faith is. I often wonder if my “unconditional faith” is in fact, conditional. Would it survive the traumas that so many Jews have experienced throughout history? And conversely, would it be compromised by my ascension to a position of power? 

Joseph experienced peaks and valleys in his life and yet neither state estranged him from the well of his faith. 

In the beginning, his life seemed charmed, with a father who showered him with love and divine dreams that seem to crown him as a future leader. Then the bottom fell out! His own brothers sold him into dehumanizing slavery. His own brothers! I can only imagine the voices in his head as he was taken to Egypt. Betrayed by his own family and seemingly abandoned by God, those voices could have easily commandeered his faith.

Yet, the Torah tells us that he entered the house of his Egyptian master with a faith that was unshaken. Impressive, but would his faith also survive power?

Enter Potiphar. Despite being given unparalleled power in his master’s household and also being subjected to daily seductions from his master’s wife, Joseph remained faithful to God and uncompromising in his morality and humility. Joseph’s faith, like his coat, was multicolored and brilliant.

May Joseph’s life-energizing faith reassure us and inspire us! 

Rabbi Jackie Redner
Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services

With his refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife, we understand that Joseph has changed, and he has changed profoundly. He is no longer the child who doesn’t understand the implications of his behavior. The mortal desires of flesh and blood do not define him, nor do the mortal fears of punishment drive him. 

We understand now that Joseph has become a man of conscience — a person who navigates the tensions of human life through an abiding awareness and connection to the presence of God, and through a loyalty to that presence. 

The children of Israel are not yet in Egypt, nor have we crossed the sea. Yet, our ancestor Joseph already is teaching us what it means to be a Jew at its essence. It is conscience that eventually humbles the big and little barbarian in each of us, and allows a true human being to emerge. 

Salvador Litvak

Joseph tells Potiphar’s wife he will not have sex with her because it is a great evil and a sin against God. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for him to say, “How can I commit this great evil against Potiphar?” After all, he arrived in Egypt as a slave and now he’s chief of staff to one of the most powerful men in the land. Sleeping with his wife would certainly be ungrateful, but why is it a sin against God?

Rashi points out that adultery was prohibited by God after the flood — one of the Noahide laws given to all humans. But this raises the same question: Why does God care with whom we engage in sex?

Perhaps because we are entrusted with the incredible responsibility to protect God’s honor in our little corner of the world. When the Soul of the Universe places a bit of God’s infinite energy into one of us, God hopes it will be for the good. Yes, hopes. God places good and evil before us and hopes we will do the right thing because he will be diminished if we don’t.

How could an infinitely perfect being be diminished by our lowly actions? Because God grants us this power. God even tells us we can give him pleasure or anger, the ultimate humility for one so far beyond us. And because God is personally invested in us, he will strengthen us in fighting our temptations if we just remember to ask.

Moving Traditions’ New B’Nai Mitzvah Traditions

From the L.A. pilot program

A teenager’s role in the modern b’nai mitzvah ceremony appears clearly defined: study, perform then party. Planning for the event falls to the parents. But should this be the case?  

“Our job is not just the logistics and writing the checks,” Lori Tessel, a mother of two and member of Temple Beth Am in West Los Angeles, told the Journal. “Our job is to experience the learning process together and deepen our connection to Judaism during this journey alongside our kids. That elevates the process for the entire family.” 

Moving Traditions, a Jewish youth education organization, agrees. The Jenkintown, Pa.-based organization has partnered with more than 400 institutions across North America, trained nearly 1,500 educators and impacted the lives of more than 20,000 teens. Its innovative b’nai mitzvah program carves out space for parents, too. 

Two years ago, Moving Traditions received a cutting-edge grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles totaling $200,000 over three years to bring its pilot b’nai mitzvah program to Los Angeles. It supplements staples like the recitation of the haftarah, speechmaking and the party, with weekly sessions to facilitate honest discussions about faith and adolescence among synagogue educators, clergy, teens and parents.

At Temple Beth Am, Moving Traditions partner Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman helps lead b’nai mitzvah education for 20 to 30 families a year. Hoffman has seen the benefits of the training he and his colleagues received from Moving Traditions at the outset of Moving Traditions’ pilot launch in 2016.

As pre-teens get older, communication gets more difficult. When the Jewish community can create a framework for dialogue and a space where they can hear each other and have empathy for one another, that’s crucial.” — Rabbi Daniel Brenner


“[Moving Traditions] helped us make the process much more powerful than just planning for an event,” Hoffman said. “Parents need support systems for each other and not just for party planning tips or navigating synagogue policy.” 

Now, Moving Traditions is readying a national launch to expand to Chicago, Denver, Boston, New York and Philadelphia. 

One of the highlights of the program is a six-part podcast Moving Traditions has produced for families. In weekly sessions, teens broach a range of topics with clergy, educators and parents about varied pressures surrounding the b’nai mitzvah process. Parents often are present to engage in free-flowing, open conversation with their teens; parent-only cohorts also discuss their concerns separate from their kids. 

“The parent cohort is a huge benefit,” said Tessel, whose 12-year-old son, Elliot, will celebrate his bar mitzvah in May 2019. “I’m having conversations with parents that I normally don’t get to talk to. We have spiritual conversations about what it means to raise a teen and what the ceremony means to us.”

That type of praise from parents has become increasingly familiar to Moving Tradition’s Chief of Education Rabbi Daniel Brenner, who held a Los Angeles training for clergy and educators in August to help implement the program at their synagogues. 

“That feedback makes you stop and realize this is something that’s connecting in a way parents really need,” he said. “As pre-teens get older, communication gets more difficult. When the Jewish community can create a framework for dialogue and a space where they can hear each other and have empathy for one another, that’s crucial.”

“The most rewarding part has been learning how to hold conversations with my son about values, what they mean to me and to us,” Tessel said. “We talk about that moment on the bimah. We talk about how getting there isn’t a means to an end. It’s the beginning of your life’s journey of Jewish practice — a journey we’re on together.”

Temple Beth Am Bids Farewell to Its Sanctuary

Temple Beth Am’s current sanctuary (top) and the design of the new space. Photo and rendering courtesy of Temple Beth Am.

How do you say goodbye to a room that holds 63 years of special memories for generations of families?

The Temple Beth Am community gathered on March 21 to answer that question.  With a final Havdalah service, followed by presentations and a dessert reception, 300 attendees bade a fond farewell to their beloved sanctuary.

The Conservative synagogue on La Cienega Boulevard is in the midst of an expansion project that includes acquiring seven adjoining properties, constructing a new middle school building for its Pressman Academy, and remodeling the main sanctuary.

“The sanctuary is going to be completely redesigned, with a flat floor,” Beth Am’s Executive Director Sheryl Goldman told the Journal in an email, “We will be closing off the space at the end of April, with demolition beginning in May.” The Temple hopes to be in the new sanctuary for the high holidays in 2019.

“The sanctuary is being transformed into a space that is conducive to the style of worship that is meaningful, musical, engaging and spiritual,” Goldman added.  “Natural light in the round. Good acoustics. Where the clergy can fully engage with the congregation.” The style, she said, will be very different from the original 1950s design of the formal, front-facing, look-up-to-the-rabbi-on-the-pulpit model.

“The sanctuary is being transformed into a space that is conducive to the style of worship that is meaningful, musical, engaging and spiritual.” – Sheryl Goldman

A significant section of the sanctuary’s Holocaust Memorial Wall, designed by Holocaust survivor Perli Pelzig, will be preserved in the new Sanctuary’s Hall of Memories.

The Pressman middle school’s renovations will include a gymnasium for middle school basketball games and a large atrium for students to eat lunch. It will also double as a Shabbat Kiddush hall.

At the farewell event, members and staff shared memories and spoke movingly about what the sanctuary meant to them. Senior Rabbi Adam Kligfeld said his best memories were of the smiles on the faces of parents as their sons and daughters became bar and bat mitzvah.

In a video compilation, 30 Beth Am members, clergy and staff also shared their memories. Ira and Helene Swartz, celebrating their 53rd year of marriage, recalled being married in the sanctuary by the late Rabbi Jacob “Jack” Pressman in 1965. Another bride was proposed to in the sanctuary’s balcony. Several b’nai mitzvah memories were shared, along with many affirmations such as, “This room has cradled us, supported us and lifted us up.”

Rabbi Emeritus Joel Rembaum said of the sanctuary, “It’s not just a room. It’s a place of human interaction — with each other and with God.”

Guests were invited to bring a photo of their favorite sanctuary moment, and hand-write a note or memory on the back. The photos will be included in a time capsule to be preserved in the new space.

Kligfeld summed up the evening, saying, “I remember all the people of religious leadership who tried to convert this space into one of joy and meaning, substance and poignancy, and a connection to what we’ve come from as Jews, and where we are going.”

Mark Miller is a humorist who has performed stand-up comedy on TV and written for various sitcom staffs. His first book, a collection of his humor essays on dating and romance, is “500 Dates: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Online Dating Wars.”

Super Bowl With the Homeless

Two weeks ago, I received a crazy call.

“We’re putting together a Super Bowl Party for the Homeless. Last year’s video went viral, so now we’re expanding. Can you host the L.A. party?”

The caller was Meir Kay, a social media personality with more than 1 million followers, known for his infectious positivity. In his first viral video, he danced around New York City high-fiving people who were hailing cabs.

I have a million followers, too, but at Accidental Talmudist I’m on a mission to increase the peace by sharing Jewish wisdom with all people. In a video that caught Meir’s eye, I brought two Chasidic musicians downtown on Christmas night to see what would happen. We ended up jamming with a homeless guy named Antonio. Later, we passed the hat for him online and raised more than $600.

At Beth Am, I found that some of the maybes had actually showed up.

Meir told me we’d need a venue, food, a big-screen TV, dignity kits, volunteers, a film crew and homeless guests.

“Meir, this is a great idea. You should’ve called me a month ago.”

“Dude! Last year, I pulled it together in 24 hours!”

Respect. That video was pretty good. The New England Patriots even reposted it.

“How many homeless guys did you have?”


“It looked way busier than that.”

“Yeah, I brought them to a party at a bar. But a bar isn’t a good idea for these guys. Plus, the owner doesn’t want them back.”

I bet. So we had two weeks to pull it off. Walking away was obviously the right move. My soul said stay.

I called Rabbi Adam Kligfeld at Temple Beth Am. He agreed on the spot, and so did his staff. Lia Mandelbaum, director of programming, Shawn Gatewood, director of facilities, and all their personnel brought a problem-solving attitude.

So we had a venue. Then Dovid Leider of Leider’s Catering donated food for 50. Boom! This thing was coming together. My wife, Nina, recruited volunteers. Chasids from Hancock Park, whole families from Temple Beth Am, and non-Jews from our Facebook audience all got into the spirit.

Two days before the game, my cameraman bailed because of a family emergency. Then, Marty Markovits appeared, a documentarian with a great eye.

Sunday dawned.

“Hi! Would you like to attend a Super Bowl Party and have a great meal?”

The first invitee said yes. She spends her days by the 7-Eleven next door to the synagogue and was thrilled to go inside. The next 10 people we approached, however, all said no. They wanted to be left alone. Then a few maybes. I called Nina.

The diversity among homeless people is immense. Some wouldn’t attract a second glance at Coffee Bean. Others are alarmingly challenged regarding mental health and hygiene. Nina found two of the latter and drove them to the synagogue, God bless her.

I headed downtown. We found an encampment of eight. They told us to scram, but one fellow, Michael, said, “Hell, yeah, me and my wife are coming!” That convinced the others. I summoned a Lyft van.

At Beth Am, I found that some of the maybes had showed up. Our Lyft group became the boisterous nucleus of two dozen guests, plus an equal number of volunteers.

I’m a Giants fan, so I was rooting for the Eagles to beat the Patriots. This became the general consensus. Spirits rose. Plates were piled high with tasty wings and pastrami.

Real conversations were happening all around the room. I learned Ed was a 10-year veteran of the Air Force. Uncle Ray was just rooting for a good game.

When the Eagles scored, we erupted in “Yaaahs!” and high-fived like old pals, and we groaned every time the Patriots made a good play. In the end, we brought it home: an Eagles victory for the faithful!

The real triumph, however, came from Brandon after I shared Torah with him.

“Who is strong? One who controls himself. I like that. I’m in a halfway house now, getting it together. I don’t trust no one but God to help me, but I would like to volunteer for this temple. Mow the lawn or whatever. Thank you for doing a great thing for us.”

Salvador Litvak shares his love of Judaism with a million followers every day at

‘Hanukkah Monologues’ Spotlights Personal Stories

REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

This Hanukkah, Joel and Fran Grossman shared the story of a food-related miracle, but in their case, it wasn’t a cruse of pure oil — it was tuna noodle casserole.

The couple’s “food of love” started simply as something kosher that Joel could prepare and Fran could eat, and evolved into a pathway back to observant Jewish life for Joel.

“Thirty-nine years later, I know that the tuna noodle casserole sparked something in me that I didn’t even know I was missing,” Joel said as part of a Dec. 10 storytelling event at Temple Beth Am.

The evening, known as “The Hanukkah Monologues,” featured eight stories on the theme of heroism, light and miracles. Each story represented one of the candles in the hanukkiah, the Hanukkah menorah.

Written and performed by community members of all ages, the stories were workshopped by the event’s director, Stuart K. Robinson, who also wrote and directed “Freedom Song,” a Beit T’shuvah play juxtaposing stories of addiction, rehab and recovery with the Passover theme of freedom and redemption. The venue, Robertson Art Space, was packed to capacity with 120 audience members.

“The intention of ‘The Hanukkah Monologues’ was to bring to light some of the personal, yet also universally relatable, stories that exist within our community,” said Lia Mandelbaum, Temple Beth Am’s director of programming and engagement, and also one of the storytellers. “Sharing and receiving each other’s genuine and sometimes vulnerable life experiences can be such a powerful platform for creating connection, empowerment and transformation.”

The evening featured eight stories on the theme of heroism, light and miracles.

Mandelbaum identified storytellers of various backgrounds and ages, choosing people who would be open to the “process of self-discovery, growth and teamwork.” Over the course of a month, the storytellers prepared; feedback from the others challenged them to shape and focus the tales for clarity and impact.

All but one of the stories were about family, with many focusing on children’s relationships with their fathers. Father-and-daughter duo Rabbi Chaim and Adina Singer-Frankes alternated telling sections of their stories, about how each of them and their respective dads relate to the Holocaust as historical and personal Jewish event. Negin Yamini, who grew up in Iran, Pakistan, Austria, Israel and the United States, shared her complicated family history in which her parents’ bitter custody battle kept her separated from her father for much of her life.

Some stories featured experiences that the storytellers had as children. Rachel Duboff, Pressman Academy’s library assistant, talked about how the butterfly effect of her not getting her dream job as a camp counselor led to the amazing experiences that occurred thereafter. Mary Kohav, vice president of community engagement programs at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, provided a window into her childhood and the Coleman cooler that accompanied her family on trips, including one to Disney World that never happened due to a threat against her Persian family. And Jonah Reinis, a seventh-grader at Pressman Academy, told a story about falling into the ocean in Sweden when he was 6.

Other storytellers told tales of their parents’ perseverance and strength. Mandelbaum talked about how, after her mother crashed her bicycle after getting a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, “the first thing she said after she stood back up was, ‘It’s enough. I refuse to let this disease win, to define my life. I will take back control, and I will have a great life.’ Twenty years later, she still says the same thing.”

And Avi Peretz, executive vice president of Temple Beth Am, noted that finding out how his late father had worked to bring over the rest of his Moroccan family from North Africa to their home in Canada made him regret not having appreciated him at a younger age.

“Perhaps the lesson is that all around us are people that may be doing extraordinary things, right under our noses,” he said. “Maybe we’re the ones doing those things. … Maybe we also need to look a little harder because the extraordinary — maybe even the miraculous — may be right in front of us. Perhaps that’s part of the message, and part of the miracle, of Hanukkah.”

Jewish diversity on exhibit at Temple Beth Am global fair

At a time when many Americans feel separated from others by race, religion or ethnic background, Temple Beth Am staged a one-day exhibit that reminded some people how connected they actually are. Drawing on the temple’s own diverse membership, the “Global Jewish Fair” held earlier this month was an exploration of diverse Jewish tastes, smells and sounds from around the world and across the years.

Lia Mandelbaum, Beth Am’s director of programming and engagement and a co-organizer of the event, said she saw the fair as challenging what she called “Ashkenormativity,” the mainstream belief that most Jews are white European descendants who like to “eat kugel.” The exhibit focused on the look and feel of Jewish ritual objects and family keepsakes from countries such as Iran, Poland and Ghana, as well as the United States — all to support the goal of “shedding light on the diversity that exists” within the Jewish community, Mandelbaum said.

“People were hesitant at first to give their ritual objects,” said Lisa Clumeck, co-organizer of the event and director of the synagogue’s religious school. “They weren’t certain what they would be used for, how it was going to be displayed and who was going to see and watch it,” she said. But “once Lia talked to them about it, they were more willing to allow us to use it.”

Among the 20 exhibits demonstrating diversity in the Jewish community were an ornately decorated silver flower vase, hand-made in Iran by a Jewish artist, and a multicolored, sewn challah cover, made by Jews from the House of Israel community in western Ghana.

The vase, shared by Dafna and Scott Taryle, has been in the Taryle family for four generations. It depicts a bearded character from the Book of Esther, King Ahasuerus and several smaller figures. Scott Taryle said they represent the story of what happened after the king’s death, that the king’s doctors “are at the funeral,” and because their hands are shown open, they “could not have saved him.”

The Ghanaian challah cover with the Hebrew word “Shabbat” sewn into its center was shared by Tyson Roberts, who said it was a reminder of his visits to Sefwi Wiawso, a mountainous region of about 140,000 people, where several hundred of them practice Judaism.

Roberts said the challah cover recalls his experiences of sharing a Friday night dinner with a House of Israel family, attending Shabbat services Saturday morning, and later celebrating Havdalah “with fragrant flowers and Coca-Cola.”

Also on display was a Torah scroll more than 500 years old, one of the oldest in Los Angeles, according to the accompanying text. Originally from Spain, it found its way to the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights, where Rabbi Harry Silverstein, one of Beth Am’s rabbi emeriti, had grown up, and where his father, Oshege Zilberstein, had been a rabbi. Given to the temple by Silverstein, the scroll was displayed in a case made of silver and wood known as a tik.

Other objects, decidedly of Ashkenazic origin, symbolized generational connections often found in Jewish homes.

On loan from Miriam Cantor was an image of the family menorah painted by her mother, alongside photos of Cantor family members with the menorah — a grouping that told the story of the menorah and family passing together through time.

Hanging in Cantor’s home, the painting also serves as a reminder of her mother’s artistic skills. “She wasn’t like the other moms,” she said.

A frayed hardbound book written in Hebrew, Polish and English, with the Hebrew title “Haggadah Shel Pesach,” also told a story of family continuity. According to its owner, Esther Silon, the book was given to her husband Adam’s great grandfather in Poland in 1932. With colorful illustrations of rabbis sitting in the biblical city of Bnei Brak and of the characters in “Had Gadya,” it was used at Passover seders by Adam’s grandfather for many years and passed on to later generations, still in use by Silon’s family.

“It’s a family treasure,” she said, turning the pages, which through seder stains reflected generations of use and served as a reminder of life in the Polish Jewish community before the Holocaust.

An oval, gold-framed family portrait from a century ago told another tale of determination. On loan from the temple receptionist, Sharon Webb, the black-and-white photo had an arrow-shaped Post-it Note, pointing to a little boy in the photo’s center and marked, “Sharon’s daddy.”

“It’s my father’s family,” said Webb, who keeps the photo on her dining room buffet. In 1906, her grandfather, Israel Rosen, had come to New York from Vishnivets, now a town in western Ukraine. After working and saving, he bought passage tickets so his wife and children could join him. Upon arrival, one of the children had ringworm, “and they were all sent back,” said Webb. After saving eight years for a second trip, they finally made it, landing in Philadelphia, where her father, David Rosen, was born in 1915.

“My dad died at 35 years of age,” said Webb. “Having the portrait makes me feel that they are with me.” 

Conservative and Orthodox shuls share in aid to refugees

Tyson Roberts bent over a heap of boxes filled with the debris of everyday life — clothing, kitchen supplies, coat hangers; in short, everything one might need to start a new life — all piled into a corner of a downstairs lobby at Temple Beth Am on La Cienega Boulevard.

“This is way more stuff than I thought we’d get,” Roberts said, as he lifted one of the boxes onto a plastic kitchen cart.

A few boxes at a time, the pile made its way up an elevator, out to the parking lot and into the back of a U-Haul truck. 

The next day, Roberts drove the supplies to San Diego to donate them to the Jewish Family Service (JFS) there, a nonprofit that assists refugees on the last leg of their long journey by finding and furnishing homes for them.

For months, local synagogues have looked for ways to respond to a global refugee crisis that has displaced unprecedented millions in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. After the crisis exploded into headlines and onto television screens last September, the Conservative synagogue formed an ad hoc refugee task force to explore how it could help.

“From the very beginning, we said we’d rather do things right than do things quick,” said Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Temple Beth Am’s senior rabbi.

After presentations from HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit organization, and other refugee support organizations, the synagogue determined that contributing supplies to JFS San Diego was the best way to directly help refugees in Southern California. To amplify its effort, it partnered with B’nai David-Judea Congregation, a nearby Modern Orthodox synagogue on West Pico Boulevard.

Beginning in early July, both synagogues put out a call from the pulpit and in synagogue bulletins for a laundry list of items, starting with school supplies and encompassing items ranging from mops to toothpaste, all needing to be in new or like-new condition.

As the sun set on Aug. 9, Roberts, a political science lecturer at UC Irvine, pulled the 15-foot rental truck into the Temple Beth Am parking lot to collect the items stored there. 

As the truck sat in the lot, Casey Stern, a Temple Beth Am member for more than a decade, pulled in her car with a last-minute delivery: several bags full of tastefully chosen men’s apparel. Her brother, a stylist, gave her the clothing, “so everything is very fashionable,” she said.

“I made sure not to bring any junky stuff,” she said, adding, “They’re going to be starting all over again.”

With the truck about halfway full, Mark Rothman, a B’nai David-Judea member, got behind the wheel to make collection stops at the second synagogue as well as a few house calls. By nightfall, the 300 cubic feet of storage space was full to bursting.

The following morning, Roberts made the drop-off at the San Diego nonprofit on the way to visit his mother and sister, who live nearby. JFS San Diego was able to begin putting the donations to use as soon as that evening, installing a dining set in an apartment where a Syrian family had recently settled.

JFS San Diego is on the ground floor of an international effort to resettle refugees from around the world, with an emphasis, at present, on families from Syria, Burma and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At a rate of about 30 a month, it picks up refugees from the airport, helps them apply for government services and employment and finds them housing.

And, as part of the resettlement process, it stocks their new homes with the panoply of necessary conveniences to lead a normal life from Day One. The week of the Los Angeles shipment, it helped resettle 13 families in San Diego.

The refugee issue has long held purchase in the minds of Jews around the world, who, until late last century, were often forced to cross national borders with little or nothing to their names. (For instance, JFS San Diego was originally founded as a refugee support organization for Jews displaced by World War I who showed up at the Mexican-American border.)

So, when the global refugee crisis became front-page news, “It was something near and dear to us,” said Rabbi Pamela Frydman, a B’nai David-Judea congregant who contributed to the L.A. collection effort.

“It’s near, because San Diego is just a short truck ride away, and it’s dear because as a Jewish congregation, we all have families who have fled persecution,” she said.

Frydman, who was an educator and social justice activist in San Francisco before moving to Los Angeles in May, said the refugee issue is personally important to her because her parents lost more than 100 relatives in the Holocaust.

She said the commandment in Leviticus not to stand idly by while others are persecuted applies today to places such as the Congo, where nearly 6 million have lost their lives to sectarian conflict since 1994 with little global attention.

“When we say we lost 6 million — they [also] lost 6 million, and barely anybody knows about it,” she said.

A Shavuot all-nighter at Temple Beth Am

Charlie Carnow showed up at Temple Beth Am on June 11 with big plans. A paper in his pocket listed all the synagogues he wanted to visit on Shavuot: Beth Am, B’nai David-Judea and LINK Kollel & Shul.

But, midway through the evening, he gave up on his temple-hopping ambitions and decided to stay put at Beth Am, which, like numerous area congregations, held an all-night learning session in celebration of the holiday that marks the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The importance of attending the program, “The Torah of Me: How Do You Receive Torah,” was simple, said Carnow, a member of IKAR.

“It’s escaping the world of work, and devoting yourself to Torah,” he said.

The Shavuot experience at Beth Am began with afternoon prayer, followed by a light dinner. It continued with an opening session at 9 p.m., “Torah Through Our Multiple Intelligences,” featuring songwriter Craig Taubman, sans guitar, leading attendees in song.

Taubman also discussed current events, specifically the broadcast of the Muhammad Ali memorial that had aired the previous day. He read aloud some of the criticism that had been lobbed at Rabbi Michael Lerner, a progressive rabbi who protested the Vietnam War with Ali and whose remarks at the memorial denounced the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

“I was more critical of the criticism of him, than his actual remarks,” Taubman said in an interview after the holiday. “I don’t have to agree with his remarks, but I do have to agree with the right for him to speak his Torah, and that’s what Shavuot is about, that if everybody receives Torah, then everybody should have the right to speak their Torah and not be edited or chastised for having a point of view that’s not yours.”

Other speakers at the kickoff session included Rabbi Aryeh Cohen of the American Jewish University Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and his wife, Andrea Hodos, part-time program director at NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, along with Dan Messinger, owner of Bibi’s Bakery & Cafe in Pico-Robertson, who spoke about operating the cafe and how it affords him the opportunity to interact with Jews of all backgrounds.

Breakout sessions followed, and around midnight, about 25 people gathered in the Temple Beth Am Pressman Academy Lainer Library to discuss how to make God more prevalent at Jewish summer camp. Camp Ramah in California staff members Dani Kohanzadeh and Ami Fields-Meyer led the session, during which attendees grappled with quotes about God from the likes of Martin Buber and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Outside the library, attendees munched on brownies, fruit and vegetables and filled their cups with caffeinated drinks. They also indulged in cheesecake — like learning, it is customary to eat dairy foods on Shavuot.

While adults enjoyed the intellectual stimulation that was occurring on the upper floors of the congregation’s campus, students of Pressman Academy, the synagogue’s elementary and middle school, had a different kind of experience on the lower floors: a sleepover party.

Supervised by Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman, director of youth learning and engagement at Beth Am, pajama-clad kids wandered around the hallways or played table tennis and foosball in the campus recreational room. (Hoffman managed to find some time to dedicate himself to pursue learning, sitting in the back of the room during one session with his head buried in a book.)

Without question, some of the students could have used the caffeine available upstairs. “I’m so tired right now,” one Pressman student told a friend while walking like a zombie down a hallway.

The helpful reply: “Go to sleep.”

Marjorie Pressman, rebbetzin and philanthropist, 94

Marjorie Pressman, a notable communal leader and rebbetzin par excellence of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, where her husband, Rabbi Jacob Pressman, served as rabbi from 1950-1985, died at home April 4 after a period of declining health. She was 94.

It is a stereotype of generations past that behind every successful man stood a smart woman, but no matter how prominent a role her husband took in the Los Angeles Jewish community, Marjorie Pressman was not behind him, but at his side.

They were “quite a team” is how two congregants described them, each using the same words with the same emphasis. Pressman was a force of nature. She was a counselor and protector, defender and advocate — not only for her husband, but also for the causes they both embraced.

[ARCHIVE – Marjorie Pressman: ‘I created my own role’]

It was said of women of her generation that they married what they would have wanted to become. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Pressman would have succeeded in whatever she tried to become, and I do not know if the rabbinate was her calling — as it was her husband’s — but when she took on the role of rebbetzin, she became its personification. She was involved in every aspect of synagogue life, as well as in the larger Jewish community.

Pressman was a prolific fundraiser, even into her late 80s; she was active in support of Israel, throwing her still-enormous energy into activities on behalf of the Sheba Medical Center in Israel. She would call donors large and small, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. She was persuasive, even demanding at times. Her pitch was always compelling.

[READ — Rabbi Adam Kligfeld's eulogy]

Pressman was responsible for bringing Israel Expo to Los Angeles in the heyday of American Jewry’s infatuation with the Jewish state after the Six-Day War in 1967. She pioneered art shows and celebrations of Israel, and her commitment never waned. Philanthropist Marilyn Ziering, who worked with Pressman on many philanthropic efforts, said Pressman never asked anyone to do any task that she would not do herself. Nothing was too menial, no task too difficult. When she was involved, she gave her efforts her full heart and soul — and commanded the same from those who worked with her.

Former Beth Am President Dvorah Colker recalled Pressman’s exquisite taste. She was a skilled photographer and an indefatigable chronicler. She was also a hard taskmaster and never accepted second-rate work from herself or anyone else. She assembled a vast collection of images and historical recollections of her family’s personal life and communal efforts. In honor of the 70th anniversary of her marriage to Rabbi Pressman, she compiled a joint autobiography of their life achievements, including the family they had raised together, the friends they had made and nurtured, the celebrities they had known, the institutions they had jointly built, the journeys they had taken, the values they upheld, and the wisdom they together put into work that is at once beautiful and majestic. It is an autobiography that is also a communal history and an ethical will.

Pressman often recounted how, unlike other rabbis and rebbetzins of her generation, she and her “Rabbi Jack” were close friends with their congregants. They socialized with congregants and traveled with them, not just to Israel and sacred sites, but also on vacation and in informal outings, and never feared that such friendships would diminish the rabbi’s stature. Indeed, their friendships only deepened the respect with which they were held, and enhanced their effectiveness in the congregation. The two were so natural in who they were that the closer you got to them, the greater the respect.

Born Marjorie Steinberg in Philadelphia, began her romance with her future husband in a youth group in an inner-city Philadelphia congregation also named Temple Beth Am, and it never ended. Friends marveled that the couple never quarreled and almost always agreed; it was as if the two had truly become one, each powerful in his or her own right, but ever more formidable together. Together with his wife, Rabbi Jack Pressman served his community as an institution-builder — from Camp Ramah in Ojai, to the then-University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), from the Brandeis Camp Institute — now the Brandeis-Bardin Institute — to raising money for Israel bonds. If it needed to be built or launched, Rabbi Jack and Margie Pressman were at the forefront to make it happen.

The past years had been difficult for Marjorie, who experienced the painful loss of a daughter-in-law and, later, the couple’s son, Joel Pressman, who was a renowned drama teacher at Beverly Hills High School. And then there was her husband’s slow and relentless decline until his death on Oct. 1, 2015, at 95.

Her funeral was scheduled to be held Wednesday at Temple Beth Am, the synagogue she built with her husband, followed by interment at Eden Memorial in the family plot, surrounded by her husband, parents and in-laws. Marjorie and Rabbi Jacob Pressman were only children, so their parents followed them to Los Angeles to be with their children, and her father was deeply engaged, as well, in Temple Beth Am congregation’s religious activities.

Pressman is survived by her daughter, Judith; son Rabbi Daniel Pressman, rabbi emeritus of Beth David Congregation in Saratoga, Calif.; five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren (the latest twins were born just weeks ago). She also leaves behind a grateful congregation and community.

We will not know the likes of Marjorie Pressman again soon. She was an original.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute, a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University and a congregant at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.

Anat Hoffman, local rabbis discuss impact of Western Wall compromise

At the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an Israeli government commission convened to consider how to be inclusive of more forms of Judaism at Jerusalem’s Western Wall — the Kotel — which has long been the domain of the Orthodox. The commission’s report represented, for many, a victory in the decades-long struggle for pluralism, as it recommends the creation of a new, egalitarian prayer plaza adjacent to the current Orthodox one. 

The issue of what pluralism at the Kotel means was the focus of “Separate, but Equal?” a panel event held March 9 at Temple Beth Am, featuring four rabbis from different denominations as well as Anat Hoffman, co-founder of Women of the Wall and executive director of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), and Israel Consul General David Siegel. It was the first in a new “Crucial Conversations” series, designed by the Jewish Journal to bring together the community for vital discussions addressing contemporary Jewish life and concerns. 

Jewish Journal Executive Editor Susan Freudenheim moderated the event, dedicating the conversation to the memory of Taylor Force, an American graduate student stabbed to death in Tel Aviv that week. 

Offering welcome remarks, Siegel noted that “compromises are never easy, never not messy, never perfect,” but urged Hoffman and the assembled to understand that “we are one people.” He charged the audience to “always be involved in what’s happening in Israel,” and to “never give up.”

“Our vision for the future is a big tent,” Siegel said, to make Israel a place “where every Jew feels at home.”

Hoffman, for many the main draw of the event for her frontline engagement on this issue over the decades, attributed progress on the issue in large part to American Jews. 

“You were willing to stand up and fight … in support of finding a solution for this problem,” Hoffman said. “There must be more than one way to be Jewish in Israel. Zionism is not a spectator sport. You are willing to roll up your sleeves and do something about it.” 

Lauding the decision as “a great achievement,” Hoffman admitted that implementation will be challenging. As an example, she reported two seemingly conflicting remarks by Netanyahu — that he was completely committed to the report and was also giving the rabbis three weeks to identify their reservations. “I can save Netanyahu the three weeks,” Hoffman said. “The words ‘gender equality,’ ‘pluralism’ and ‘egalitarianism’ — that’s the objection.”

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of the Sephardic Educational Center, visits Israel regularly, but admitted that he rarely goes to the Kotel, because “every time I go,” he said, “there’s always some kind of argument or division taking place.” He also challenged Hoffman, saying that the egalitarian area means that “you essentially were relegated to a corner, and told that’s where you can go. … I don’t understand how that’s a victory.” 

Bouskila shared a story about his hero, Sephardic chief rabbi, Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, who had gone to the Kotel to pray on the occasion of his inauguration. “There was no minyan,” Bouskila said. “He was not wearing a tallit, there were women walking right by him and there was no barrier, because that was what the Kotel always was. The Kotel HaMa’aravi (the Western Wall) was never a synagogue,” Bouskila said. “The Kotel should not be a place that reflects denominational divisions,” he said.

Rabbi Pini Dunner, senior rabbi of Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, shared his disappointing Kotel experiences and his realization that the Temple Mount — topped by the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock — is no longer the center of Jewish life. “I don’t think I’m ever going to go to the Kotel again. The Kotel is not the holiest site of Judaism,” he said. “It’s a symbol of our shame and disgrace.” 

“To me, this argument about who can daven where and how is like a divorced couple arguing over teacups,” Dunner said. “I just don’t get it. We should all be getting together and every single day, sit at the Kotel and sing kinot (songs mourning the destruction of Jerusalem). Because despite the fact of how fantastic it is that we have the Kotel and Jerusalem and the State of Israel, we’re not there yet, Mashiach hasn’t come. Let’s not treat it as a tourist site or a synagogue when it is a symbol of the fact that the geulah shleimah (full redemption) is not yet here.”

“There is more than one way to be a Jew,” said Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, “That’s ultimately what this conversation is about and what the struggle of the last 27 years is about.” 

“The Kotel should belong to all Jews,” Geller said. “It’s like the National Mall, but on steroids. No one has the right to tell me that my voice doesn’t belong there. Women ought not to be invisible.” 

Geller admitted that the agreement “is a compromise and no one is happy. We gave up so much. That’s the point. It’s not perfect but it is incredibly important. The level of recognition for non-Orthodox denominations is the story and we need to recognize that.”

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld of Temple Beth Am admitted that in rabbinical school, he didn’t feel the imperative to fight for equality at the Kotel. However, during his year in Israel, a Shavuot experience at the back of the Kotel plaza made clear to him that “I couldn’t be on the outside. … Even if I wouldn’t have claimed this place to wage this particular battle, my Jews were under attack, and I had to be with them.” 

Hoffman noted that the progress was because of American Jews representing “the most effective and large coalition in the history of the State of Israel about an issue of pluralism,” and she urged the crowd to stay involved. 

“If a quarter million Jews wrote the prime minister of Israel, ‘This is important to us, this is a beautiful, new idea, we’d like to have a choice’ — if we all said that loud enough, it will happen,” said Hoffman in her closing remarks. “I really believe it. So, may the best plaza win.”

After the event, audience member Sarah Gorney, 27, who works at Hulu and discovered the event on Facebook, took issue with comments by some of the rabbis that the Kotel doesn’t matter. 

“The fact is, it does matter. It’s an important symbol to many, it’s represented so much more and it’s from a place of privilege that you can minimize it,” she said, referring to the fact that men have had decades of greater access to the Kotel and could therefore more easily dismiss it. 

“As someone without equal right to the Kotel, what I see every time I’m there is the divider, of the men yelling at women and the homogenous population, because I’m a woman,” she said. 

The event was co-sponsored by the Journal and the panelists’ organizations and synagogues: the Israel Religious Action Center, the Israeli Consulate, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, the Sephardic Educational Center, Young Israel of North Beverly Hills and Temple Beth Am. 

Rabbi Jacob Pressman: New Year wishes

Last Sunday morning, every seat was filled in Temple Beth Am’s main sanctuary for the funeral of Rabbi Jacob Pressman. Rabbi Pressman, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am for 35 years, community leader and civil rights activist, died peacefully at his home on Oct. 1. Rabbi Pressman was instrumental in founding and/or building not only Beth Am, but also the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), Camp Ramah, Brandeis-Bardin Institute, Los Angeles Hebrew High, Israel Bonds in Los Angeles, Sinai Akiba Academy and Pressman Academy. “There is no Los Angeles Jewish community as we know it without Jack Pressman,” Beth Am Rabbi Adam Kligfeld said. Mourners also heard from Pressman’s daughter, Judith, his wife, Marjorie, Rabbi Harry Silverstein and Pressman’s son, Rabbi Daniel Pressman.

Rabbi Daniel Pressman said that when his prolific and voluble father asked him who will be delivering his eulogy, the son replied, “I will, Dad.” The senior Pressman paused, then asked, “Do you want me to write it?”

To conclude the eulogy, Daniel Pressman indeed read aloud a New Year’s blessing his father wrote, which the Journal reprints below.

In the new year, may you discover that your home is built on solid rock able to withstand hurricanes, floods, mudslides, earthquakes, wildfires, escalating insurance rates and repossession. 

May it be free of mold, mildew and mice, and safe from termites, rug mites, mosquito bites and family fights.

If you have trouble hearing, may you give in and get a hearing aid. If you have trouble seeing, may you get respectable spectacles. If you cannot drive, may you cultivate friends who do. If you cannot chew, may you acquire designer dentures. If you cannot smell, may you take frequent showers.

May your cardiologist hear no murmur, your dentist see no cavity, your dermatologist see no melanoma, your ophthalmologist see no cataract, and your proctologist tell you, “It looks beautiful.”

May your computer never freeze, your automobile never overheat, your garbage disposal never clog, your refrigerator never melt down, your pipes never spring a leak, your air conditioner never quit even on the hottest day of the year, and your neighbor’s gardener’s roaring leaf-blower break down.

May you be able to decipher your electric, telephone, department store and credit card bills, your income tax forms, Medicare medicine plans and the extra-fine print at the bottom of everything stating they didn’t mean what is written at the top of the contract.

May you solve the mystery of getting from here to there despite coagulated traffic, and may you do so without having to declare bankruptcy at the gasoline pump.

May your children take a liking to you, and your grandchildren call you even when they don’t want money, and your great-grandchildren teach you how to use your computer.

May our brethren of the State of Israel be safe from her hostile neighbors and her enemies in the United Nations, so that she may survive and thrive and be a light unto all nations.

May all 7 billion people everywhere in the world learn to love the people everywhere else in the world so that we can survive the 21st century without blowing up the world.

And should you ever feel alone and unloved, may you know that you are never alone, for God is with you, in you, and loves you, and so do I.

May the Messiah come this year, and if he does not, may you live as if she has, and may you be blessed with the happiest, healthiest, sweetest and most peaceful year of your life.

Shanah Tovah u’m’tukah

Rabbi Jacob Pressman, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am, dies at 95

Rabbi Jacob Pressman, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am for 35 years, community leader and civil rights activist, died peacefully at his home on Thursday morning, Oct. 1.

Funeral services will be held  Sunday, Oct. 4 at 10:30 a.m. at Temple Beth Am, 1039 S, La  Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles (parking is limited at the Temple, alternate parking is available at the Beverly Hills Tennis Courts, corner Olympic and La Cienega blvds.)

Interment will follow promptly at 1 p.m. at Eden Memorial Park Cemetery, 11500 Sepulveda Blvd., Mission Hills

Due to the holidays, shiva will not begin until Wednesday, Oct. 7. For times and locations, check the Temple website at www.tbala.org.

[Jewish community reflects on Rabbi Jacob Pressman]

An Appreciation

by Michael Berenbaum

The Los Angeles Jewish Community has lost a giant: Rabbi Jacob Pressman.

In the circles I frequent as a university professor and a scholar, I know many men and women who are smart; far fewer, who are wise. And Rabbi Jack was a wise man.

His role in the Los Angeles community was historic.

Born in Philadelphia in October 1919, he was raised at Temple Beth Am of Philadelphia, whose rabbi took a great interest in the young Jack Pressman and brought him in to teach Hebrew School and to run youth services. He was paid very modestly for his services but it was the time of the Great Depression, when every dime was worth its weight in gold. Through this, too, young Jack’s interest in the rabbinate was born, as was his interest in a certain young woman two years his junior, Marjorie Steinberg, who would become his wife by the time of his death of more than 70 years. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Pressman entered the Jewish Theological Seminary just as World War II began, and his rabbinic training was accelerated as the United States military needed chaplains, and the American rabbinate needed rabbis desperately, as young rabbis were going off to fight with their congregants. While still a student, Pressman served as rabbi of Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens, New York, whose own Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser was in the army. Pressman was instrumental in the design of the synagogue building, a massive structure on Queens Boulevard. And he took particular interest in the Ark, which was designed by noted artist and political satirist Arthur Syk. Although Pressman was offered prestigious positions on the East Coast, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Chancellor Louis Finkelstein advised the young rabbi to “Go West.” Los Angeles, he said, would soon join New York and Palestine – pre-State Israel – as one of the three great centers for Jewish life. Pressman said he never regretted heeding Finkelstein’s characteristically sagacious advice.

Pressman served as assistant to Rabbi Jacob Cohen at Sinai Temple, and then, in 1950, took over a small congregation then known as the Olympic Jewish Center and turned it into Temple Beth Am; under Pressman’s leadership, Beth Am grew to become one of the region’s most prominent Conservative Congregations, with more than 1,300 families. Together with his wife, Marjorie – and they were always a team — Pressman served his community as an institution-builder. From Camp Ramah to the then University of Judaism, from Brandeis – now Brandeis Bardin – to Israel Bonds, if it needed to be built or to be launched, Rabbi Jack and Margie Pressman were at the forefront to help build it.

Pressman was the first registrar of the University of Judaism, he was a founder of Camp Ramah, he helped recruit Shlomo Bardin to come out to the institution that now bears his name, and for years Temple Beth Am, certainly not the wealthiest of congregations in the United States, nevertheless ran the largest annual campaign for Israel Bonds in the country. Pressman helped found Los Angeles Hebrew High, Sinai-Akiba Academy and the Temple Beth Am Day School that now bears his name. He had foresight: he founded a non-Orthodox Jewish High School on L.A.’s West Side – the Herzl School – which could not be sustained, but the need he saw then, still remains.

The late Walter Ackerman, longtime director of Camp Ramah said that not only did Pressman become personally involved in these projects, but he also engaged his “ba’albatim, to expand their horizons, enlarge their reach.” They remained his congregants, but they also became his friends. Yet he never neglected his congregation.

Rabbi Perry Netter recalled that when he interviewed for an internship at Temple Beth Am, he was wary of Rabbi Pressman’s reputation, his association with Hollywood and his sense of showmanship. So he asked Rabbi Pressman, “How do you spend your average day?” Pressman took out his appointment book, and went through every appointment, recited by heart the circumstances of each of the congregants with whom he had met, remembering each bar mitzvah boy and bat mitzvah girl, every bride and groom. Netter was wowed, and went away knowing it would be an honor to intern with this man. Rabbi Pressman may have known the rich and famous, but he also took pride in the men and women in his own congregation.

He was also a communal leader. On a national level, in the 1960s, Pressman helped to create the Save Soviet Jewry movement that brought the plight of Soviet Jewry to the attention of the American public and helped create the program that eventually enabled tens of thousands of Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel.

And, as a supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, in 1965 he joined a group of 293 Southern Californians who walked with Martin Luther King, Jr. across the bridge to the State Capitol building in Montgomery. With so many whites in the “March,” and so much national attention, Gov. Bull Connor could not fully unleash his troops.

In July of 1985, Pressman assumed the title of rabbi emeritus, as he relinquished the reins of spiritual leadership of Temple Beth Am to Rabbi Joel Rembaum. Thus began three decades of continuing community service, including two years as executive director of the local Israel Bonds office in the late 1980s. He remained involved in the affairs of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, serving as chair of its board of governors, among other activities.

Known for his brilliant oratory and penetrating wit, Pressman welcomed the 21st century by embarking on a number of writing projects. In 2002 he published a collection of his sermons on the seminal historical moments of the 20th century, titled “Dear Friends.” He also served as a regular columnist for the Beverly Hills Courier. He also was an entertainer who could put on quite a show, singing and playing the Piano. Some of Hollywood’s great would join him. Jayne Meadows and Steve Allen were friends, and Steve played at his birthday bashes. Marilyn and Monte Hall were not only congregants, but devoted friends.

When Pressman retired, Temple Beth Am named its award winning day school in his honor: The Rabbi Jacob Pressman Day School. For many years, Pressman would say, wistfully: “I served the Beth Am community for more than 60 years, and what did I get? A bunch of kids running around town wearing my name on their dirty shirts.”

“He’s talking about my kids” I thought, my kids and grandkids. “This has got to stop. Don’t get mad, get even,” I vowed.

I waited. And then one day I struck. Pressman had come to the synagogue having just recovered from an illness, and I was the speaker in the Library Minyan that Shabbat morning. I acknowledged his presence and then said. “I know your complaints, Rabbi, but last week I attended a basketball game: Maimonides versus Pressman. Not bad company Maimonides/Pressman in the same breath. My kids call Maimonides Maimo, but Pressman, they call Pressman. My daughter played Hillel the next night Hillel/Pressman, also not bad company. I asked the students who was Maimonides? Few knew that Maimonides and the Rambam were the same, but our kids all know who Rabbi Pressman was!” Enough said, we never heard the complaint again.

My family became close to the Pressmans over the past 18 years; we shared Passover together and holiday dinners. We sought their guidance; we enjoyed their company and we attended many events when Rabbi Jack would get up to speak. In recent last years, he became increasingly frail, he walked with great difficulty, but once you put him in front of a microphone, 20 years came off his age. He became robust again, his voice strong. His wit and his wisdom intact.

Each Rosh Hashanah we attended the large congregational service at Temple Beth Am on the first night, which is not our style, if only to hear his poetic blessing. This year, for the first time in more 65 years, Rabbi Pressman was not there to bless us. Alas, the verdict was sealed, and he did not make it through Sukkot, though he struggled to attend synagogue on Yom Kippur. For decades, even after retirement, at each graduation and gala dinner of the Pressman Academy his words were inspiring, his considerable talent, even when diminished but slightly by age, most manifest.

Los Angeles has lost a Rabbis’ rabbi and a valiant leader. He leaves behind many students and congregants, many of whom still regard him as their rabbi and as a caring friend. He leaves behind a loving family: his wife, Marjorie, his children, Rabbi Daniel Pressman, Rabbi Emeritus of Beth David Congregation in Saratoga, Calif.; and Judy Pressman, who lives in Israel. His son Joel Pressman predeceased him. Plus five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Tribute donations in Rabbi Pressman’s memory are being accepted by Temple Beth Am and by the Rabbi Jacob Pressman Scholarship Fund of the Pressman Academy. Donations, indicating the preferred recipient, can be made online at www.tbala.org/tribute or by mailing to Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90035. For additional information, phone executive director Sheryl Goldman at (310) 652-7354, ext. 223.

Temple collaboration sparks new approach to religious school

With “Midrash Manicures” among their new course offerings, a few Conservative religious schools are hoping to counter student apathy and stem the tide of declining enrollment. The class is part of a new approach developed by the Jewish Learning Community Network (JLCN), a partnership of three Conservative synagogues — Adat Ari El, Shomrei Torah Synagogue (STS) and Temple Beth Am — which recently completed the first year of its new curriculum for kindergarten through seventh grade. 

The network began after Adrianne Pasternak, then director of education at STS in West Hills, became one of 12 recipients of the 2014 PresenTenseLA’s Social Entrepreneur Fellowship from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The program provides mentors and resources supporting innovative Jewish ventures in education, social action, environment, philanthropy and the arts.

Although many Conservative synagogues were reforming their religious schools, Pasternak’s vision was different: She proposed working as a collaborative team with other synagogue educators. She reached out to two colleagues whose work she respected — Johannah Sohn (at the time, director of the Jewish Learning Community at Adat Ari El) and Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman (director of youth learning and engagement at Temple Beth Am). She asked them to join her in reinventing the traditional religious school model. Their objective was to create a community that was larger than just one synagogue and to move away from passive learning through books by immersing students in the experience of Judaism. 

“When kids come at 4 o’clock after a full day of school and they are expected to learn about Judaism and a second language — that really they have no connection to — you are setting them up for failure,” said Pasternak, who is now director of the Jewish  Learning Community at STS. “Our goal is to provide more real-time learning and less classroom learning. One day, I put a bunch of teens in my car and went to the shivah for a religious school teacher’s father. You can learn some things in the classroom, but it’s not the same as experiencing it. … Judaism is all experience and ritual.”

At the core of the network is an experiential, ability-level-based Hebrew language curriculum that is taught through a series of hands-on cooperative games and puzzles. Before students can move to the next level, they have to create a game that teaches someone else what they’ve learned. This gives teachers an easy way to assess a student’s understanding of the material, and it supports JLCN’s goal of creating a community where kids understand that everyone has something to teach others and something to learn from others. 

“We are active, and it’s easy to pay attention when you are doing something that is fun — like learning a parasha by drawing on canvas or making a play and pretending to be God or Jacob,” student Eliana Sarrow said of her religious school at STS.

Students in mixed-age groups also engage in cooperative Jewish Learning Lab electives. Teachers and volunteers staff an assortment of classes — including cooking, building with Legos, dancing and art — that teach Jewish life, ritual and Torah in “out of the box” ways. When studying midrash or a parasha, students manicure their nails with images of biblical narratives by using nail-art decals and various nail polish colors. Another popular lab involves students studying Jewish proverbs, then breaking up into small groups and using their interpretations to create a claymation movie, which is later shown to the congregation. 

Pasternak created a fifth-grade curriculum for teaching lifecycle events that follows stuffed bears through life — starting with a baby shower, birth, bar and bat mitzvahs, and ending with marriage. The students first study the traditional rituals and then participate in creative activities. For example, when learning about the ketubah, they are taught calligraphy by a volunteer artist. They also write about how they should treat and take care of themselves, and how they hope to be treated when they marry. The students make up stories about how the bears met, sew wedding dresses for them and build a chuppah. 

The original mandate of the JLCN was that each of the three sites would follow the same curriculum and then come together as a network for retreats and Sunday programming. After reviewing research, tapping into personal experiences and offering adult workshops at their synagogues, the educators determined that two of the most important factors in creating positive Jewish identity were Jewish camps and youth groups. “Consequently, this year, JLCN incorporated two weekend retreats at Camp Ramah in Ojai and five Sundays at American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley,” said Sohn, who is now head of school at Adat Ari El. 

This first year of the JLCN involved some trial and error. The educators had to figure out how to merge their individual talents of creativity, organization and spirituality into the combination that worked best together. And the religious schools were not all on the same schedule — two met twice a week and one met once a week — which complicated the planning. “Next year, the learning labs will be based on grade level, in response to parents’ comments that their children didn’t form strong bonds with their peers because there were too many activities in the multiage groups,” Pasternak said.

There were other issues, too. “It was challenging for students from Beth Am to travel for many hours on a bus for a day of camp activities in Simi Valley while for the others, it was just a short car ride. There will be fewer camp days next year in order to add some local excursions, including a tour of local Jewish historical sites, kayaking and community service, such as volunteering at Heal the Bay and food banks,” Sohn said. 

The educators also will incorporate some flexibility into the previously uniform curriculum so they can adapt it to the needs of their own school’s students. “This past year was much more successful than anything else, but it would be irresponsible not to make changes where we needed to change,” Pasternak said.  

The JLCN is thinking big, and the educators plan to continue honing their religious school model so more synagogues can adopt it in the future.

“The puzzle is finding a way to connect the students personally and to make sure that they want to be there,” Sohn said. “We aren’t competing with other religious schools. We are competing with every other aspect of the student’s life. We have to be much more engaging and important, otherwise they are going to go to karate instead.”

Sermons slammed to celebrate Sinai

Becoming ourselves is a process. We learn what our family or friends find funny or valuable, and shape our identities accordingly, either to conform to, or in opposition to those norms and expectations. Teachers help us acquire skills, the basics of contemporary education, text analysis and interpretation. If we are lucky, our teachers don’t just teach at us, but learn with us, validating our instincts toward personal interpretation and endorsing multiple possible readings instead of just one definitive one. 
But for many who might never have felt free, or qualified, to interpret holy texts, Torah study remains daunting, incompatible with our hectic daily pace, or inconsistent with the personal convictions that guide our actions. Some of us have been lucky enough to find Limmud events, in Los Angeles and around the world, which position diversity of voices as a primary value. But the contemporary celebration of Shavuot is the one that most brings us the chance to see the text through our own eyes, and to share those visions with the community, as I saw last month, at Temple Beth Am’s all-night study program, or Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which featured a “Sermon Slam.”
The night included eight different perspectives (including one from this writer) on two short texts. Each of us wrote and delivered an original 3-5 minute “sermon” in the “story slam” style known to those who frequent “The Moth,” or other storytelling and performance nights. 
The night wasn’t just about the eight voices – it was about providing the entire assembly with access to the texts that were under our microscope. Outgoing Ziegeler School Dean Rabbi Aaron Alexander (only two weeks before he and his family relocated to Washington D.C. for a position at Adas Israel) taught the texts to the entire audience, giving them the background to understand the performers. 
So what happens when eight Jews stop being polite about text study and start being real? They interpret from their own education, influences, politics, passions and sensitivities, taking something uniform and transforming it entirely. 
WATCH: Esther Kustanowitz: “Brokenness” a Shavuot sermon slam
Rachel Salston, a soferet (scribe for Jewish texts) and a rabbinical student, shared her perspective on broken Torah as an opportunity to fix it. “Moshe Rabbenu was also Moshe Sofrenu. Celebrating the brokenness in revelation. I get to help just like he did.”
Michael Salonius, Clinical Chaplain for the Wounded Warrior project, took a different approach, calling upon his ancestors to “release me from Jacob’s sin…and the outcome of his deceit,” and invoking the rebellious spirit of Resh Lakish, the rabbi – and former bandit – who had been quoted in the text we’d been given. “Only the outliers know the cruelty of the crowd,” he said. 
Josh Warshawsky, artist-in-residence at Temple Beth Am and Pressman Academy and a rabbinical student, spoke of music’s power in piecing together broken fragments: “Song heals… Song enables us to open ourselves up to the melody of another. To infinitely feel their note by note and match it to our own.” 
The Sermon Slam ended with musician Nachum Peterseil teaching a song, then participants moved forward into the rest of the program, with offerings that continued the evening’s commitment to different perspectives.
It is this diversity of voices, the application of modern and creative formats to long-held beliefs and ancient stories that annually renews my interest in these texts. I am lucky enough to have had a solid Jewish education, but traditional programs of text study don’t stir my soul: while rabbis can inspire, it’s the insights of my peers, colleagues and strangers – now granted access to text and given a pulpit for interpretation – that invigorate my connection to tradition.
Such events reinforce what we’ve always been told, that all Jewish souls (including those born into non-Jewish families) were present at Sinai, and that the Torah belongs to all of us. We try to find our modern selves in ancient texts, narratives and characters, to imagine our emotional responses to things we’ll never experience, and to use our contemporary experiences to increase our understanding of our past. 
“We will do and we will listen,” the Jews promised at the base of Mount Sinai. Many interpretations say that this speaks of extreme faith, to promise to do something even before you’re told what it is. But my reading is a little different: na’aseh, we will actively engage in the text, making it our own, and “nishma,” as others offer their wisdom, we will also listen.

Sotloff lauded at Florida service as journalist committed to truth

Nearly 1,000 people including relatives, friends and prominent Florida politicians attended a memorial service on Friday for Steven Sotloff, who was killed by Islamic State militants, recalling him as a journalist committed to revealing the truth.

“I'm so proud of my son for living his dream,” Sotloff's mother, Shirley, told those in attendance at the Jewish Temple Beth Am.

“Most people live a lifetime and never find fulfillment,” she added, remembering her 31-year-old son as inquisitive and outgoing as a child.

The Islamic State released a video on Tuesday showing the killing of Sotloff, the second American journalist it has beheaded in its confrontation with the United States over American air strikes in Iraq on the militant group's forces.

“I have lost my son and my best friend, but I know his passing will change the world,” said Sotloff's father, Arthur, making his first public remarks since his son's death.

Speakers at the two-hour memorial service recalled Sotloff as a man who displayed empathy and courage. As a freelance reporter, he wrote about the hardships faced by average people caught up in Middle East conflicts, said his mourners, remembering his passion for exposing the truth.

Sotloff was kidnapped in Syria in August 2013 after he drove across the border from Turkey.

“Steven was committed to truth and revealing it,” said U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, speaking to the crowd. “He has revealed the true nature of evil in the world today.”

Rubio sat alongside Florida Governor Rick Scott, a fellow Republican, as well as Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist during the ceremony.

Sotloff first fell in love with the Middle East during trips and school in Israel, where he eventually became a citizen, according to friends and family. He spoke Arabic and traveled the region writing for magazines including Time and Foreign Policy.

Others shed light on Sotloff's more rambunctious side. Chris Castle recalled taking a shot of tequila with Sotloff after receiving his approval to marry the journalist's sister.

His uncle and godfather, Lou Bleiman, described a time he ran away from Valley Forge Military Academy and called for a ride from a telephone booth. “Steven had to march up and down in the rain and he didn't like it,” he said.

Dozens of cousins and other friends echoed a prepared statement released by the family earlier this week, calling Sotloff torn between his comfortable life in the United States and the Arab world.

Editing by Letitia Stein and Will Dunham

Community Seder round-up

Discover the eternal meaning of the haggadah and enjoy a seder complete with hand-baked matzah, wine/grape juice and your favorite traditional meal at Chabad of Simi Valley. RSVP by April 9. Suggested donation ($30 adult, $18 child). April 14. 7:30 p.m. 4464 Alamo St., Simi Valley. (805) 577-0573.

Join Chabad of Beverly Hills for its traditional Pesach seder. No one will be turned away due to lack of funds. RSVP by April 7. $50 (adult), $26 (child), $126 (family). April 14. 7:30 p.m. 409 N. Foothill Road, Beverly Hills. (310) 859-3948. 

Traditional seders on the first two nights of Passover at Hillel at UCLA will be interactive celebrations incorporating the recitation of the haggadah, a festive holiday meal, study and song. They will be led by Rabbi Aryeh and Sharona Kaplan. (A liberal seder on April 14 will take place at 6:30 p.m., led by Rabbi Aaron Lerner and student seder captains.)  Students, parents and community members from all backgrounds are welcome. April 14 and 15. 8 p.m. $54 (adults), $36 (UCLA students), $27 (children 3-6). 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-3081. 

Rabbi Zachary Shapiro and Cantor Lonee Frailich celebrate another engaging and memorable seder at Temple Akiba. RSVP by April 7. Space is limited. April 15. 6 p.m. $70 (adult members), $80 (adult non-members), $20 (children 12 and under). 5249 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City. (310) 398-5783.

Married? Single? Lots of kids? No kids? This seder at Temple Beth Am is for everyone! April 15. 7:15 p.m. $50 (members), $55 (non-members), $25 (children 4-12), $10 (children 2-3). 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 652-7354, ext. 217.

Imagine jumping inside the haggadah and experiencing the seder from the inside out. This is “2nd Night: Not Your Zayde’s Seder” at Temple Judea. Have an adventure you could never have if you stayed at home. April 15. 5 p.m. $45 (members), $60 (non-members),  $25-$35 (children 12 and under). 5429 Lindley Ave., Tarzana. (818) 758-3800.

Jar, the highly acclaimed restaurant by chef Suzanne Tracht, plans a special Passover dinner designed to bring families and friends together. This multicultural seder offers an opportunity to meet three teens visiting from Israel and listen to their experiences with Ultimate Peace, a groundbreaking program that unites Jewish and Arab youth using the sport of Ultimate Frisbee. Tracht, who was a 2009 contestant on “Top Chef Masters,”  features a four-course dinner that merges her family’s holiday traditions with the flavors of Jar’s modern chophouse style. $130 (adults), $55 (ages 12 and under). April 15. 5:30 p.m. Jar, 8225 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 655-6566.

The National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles (NCJW/LA) invites you to its annual women’s seder, “Experience the Seder Through the Eyes of Women,” with Cantor Mimi Haselkorn. Men are welcome. Space is limited. RSVP by April 8. $40 (members), $50 (non-members). April 17. 6 p.m. NCJW/LA Council House, 543 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 852-8512. 

Helping the poor on Purim

It was Purim, and the people of Skid Row were rushing Shari and Maya Rosenman’s minivan at Seventh Street and Gladys Avenue.

Maya Rosenman, a student at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Massachusetts who was home on spring break, scrambled to provide bags full of supplies to the dozens and dozens of people grabbing at the piles stacked in the van’s trunk. Meanwhile, her mother sat at the wheel, ready to help the pair make a quick getaway if the situation became threatening — which, arguably, it already had.

“I was sort of expecting it, but it was also overwhelming,” said Maya Rosenman, 17.  “Although I wasn’t scared, I was thinking the whole time, if I need to get out of here, which way am I going to move?”

Her mother said there was a lot packed into a short amount of time.

“Maya and I were both moved by the whole experience, and it felt like something I should be doing more regularly,” she said.

The mother and daughter from B’nai David-Judea Congregation (BDJ) were among some 15 people — including congregants from BDJ, Temple Beth Am and Temple Isaiah — who handed out about 350 bags on March 16 to the needy of Skid Row, Santa Monica and Venice Beach as part of the Purim obligation of matanot la’evyonim (gifts to the poor). The bags were filled with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, granola bars, first-aid kits, toiletries, socks, tissues and more. 

The activity was part of Operation PB&J, a program that was started by a non-Jewish organization known as The Giving Spirit, and which BDJ member Albert Cohen brought to the congregation several years ago. 

College student Maya Rosenman delivers a bag of food and supplies to a homeless person on Skid Row.

Every year for Purim, BDJ and the other congregations do their own programming that provides a serious contrast to the merriment of the holiday by venturing out into the L.A. streets and handing out food and supplies to the poverty-stricken.

“Isn’t that what Judaism is all about?” Cohen told the Journal. “It’s about as important as anything you can do.

“Sunday morning really demonstrates how serious the homeless problem is in Los Angeles,” he said.

As a Rambam interpretation of the laws of the Megillah, the text read on Purim, says, “It is better for a person to increase in the gifts of the poor than increase in his festival meal.”

Cohen and the others weren’t the only ones to take the Rambam at his word. In a separate project on Sunday, Shtibl Minyan of Pico-Robertson sent volunteers to distribute food and supplies in Santa Monica and elsewhere.

Connection more than skin deep

Jamaican Everlyn Hunter is used to standing out in a synagogue.

“I am used to being one of the few blacks in white settings, so I’m not having a new experience being black in a Jewish community necessarily,” said Hunter, a board member at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), a Reform synagogue on West Pico Boulevard.

Carlton Williams, an African-American member of Temple Beth Am, agrees that skin color is not an overriding factor in his connection to the Jewish community.

“I feel more of an interaction from value to value, as opposed to skin color to skin color,” said Williams, 46. “There’s a diversity of Judaism, and I don’t consider Judaism as one color, because I’ve seen multiple ethnicities of Judaism.”

A Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews conducted from Feb. 20 to June 13, 2013, found that 2 percent of the approximately 6.7 million Jews in the United States are black. And although the survey includes a broad definition of “Jewish,” from being born Jewish to non-Jewish people with a Jewish affinity, high Jewish intermarriage rates and adoption levels suggest that the number of racially diverse Jews, including blacks, is significant and climbing.

“Certainly conversion is one way, and the extent to which 50 percent of Jews intermarry,” said Diane Tobin, the founder and director of Be’chol Lashon, a Jewish research and community-building initiative. She added that Jews also adopt — often transracially — at twice the standard rate.

However, the number of black Jews in Los Angeles is still comparatively very low.

“The smallest group I have that ever converts are black,” said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, the rabbinic director of Judaism by Choice, an organization that offers classes on Judaism for those considering conversion, explaining that approximately 10 of his 300 students a year are black.

“The black community is so connected to Christianity, and so if a black person leaves and becomes Jewish, there are very few other black Jews that they connect with, so it takes, I think, a lot of courage for a black person to consider Judaism,” Weinberg said.

Indeed, Lisa Bellamy, 33, who is mixed race and converted to Judaism last August, recalls how before converting, Jews asked her why she would want to add on another reason to be discriminated against as someone who is already a minority.

“In all honesty, I didn’t feel I had the choice,” Bellamy said. “Growing up mixed, I did have issues with feeling out of place and not truly accepted by either race. It wasn’t until I converted and got more involved in my Judaism that I truly felt I was home.”

Indeed, with the coming of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 20, Bellamy points to Jews’ and blacks’ common history: “We have a long history of both being oppressed and with discrimination, and in the civil rights movement a lot of Jews helped out with that. There’s a natural camaraderie and empathy for the Jewish people with the black community,” she said.

BCC member Hunter was raised Seventh-day Adventist but converted three years ago. During her conversion process, she discovered she had Syrian-Jewish family on her maternal side, who had migrated in the 19th century to Jamaica, where Hunter was born and raised until she moved to the United States with her family at age 14. For reasons unknown, her grandmother had raised her mother Seventh-day Adventist, keeping the family’s Jewish heritage secret.

Hunter rejected the church as a child and first connected to Judaism in college through her observant Jewish girlfriend, with whom she kept a Jewish household. However, Hunter later lost touch with Judaism, then reconnected only when she moved six years ago to Los Angeles, where Jewish friends and mentors she met led her to explore the religion further.

“I was looking for a spiritual community, a religious connection,” she said. “Pretty important people in my life were Jewish, and practicing Jews.”

Hunter was attracted to the Jewish idea of tikkun olam as well as the value for education in the community, and she identified with Judaism’s “nomadic history.” Ultimately, converting to Judaism was “less a conscious analytical choice than it was something that felt right.”

Like Hunter, Williams — who had belonged to a Methodist church with his family, then converted along with his wife and three kids in 2010 — pursued Judaism partly due to his encounters with Jews. When he visited a social services agency during the recession, the person who helped him was wearing a kippah.

“I felt a lot of tzedakah from the [Jewish] community,” Williams, 47, said. “We just kept seeing people in kippahs helping us out. As we were being helped and getting ourselves back together, it kept getting back to this Jewishness.”

He recalled thinking, “Maybe there’s a people I belong to that I don’t know about.”

Hunter said she has experienced some tension between her black and Jewish identity. She recalled one incident when she received negative treatment from a gay African-American group with whom she was campaigning for marriage equality when she revealed she was Jewish.

“Within the Jewish community I have encountered prejudice, and within the black community here I have encountered prejudice against Jews as well,” she said.

Bellamy, who attends services at the progressive, egalitarian community IKAR,  first connected to Judaism when she reconnected at 18 with her maternal, white Jewish relatives, with whom she would celebrate the High Holy Days.

“All of a sudden, I had this big huge Jewish family that I always craved and wanted,” Bellamy said. “That was the first time I really started to relate to Judaism and feel accepted.”

All three interviewed for this story said they feel accepted by the Jewish communities they’re part of.

“I went to the Kotel — that was an incredibly, incredibly moving moment … but the [tune to] Ma’ariv Aravim is something that stays with me all the time,” said Hunter. “It’s something that I feel that’s always a profoundly emotional moment for me whenever I hear that.”

Part of the attraction to Judaism is also the Passover story, a story that ties Williams to his African-American roots, as well. 

“My favorite holiday is Passover, as I can identify with the Exodus experience of transitioning from a slave to a free-thinking man.”

Reform Biennial reveals movement’s strengths, challenges

At the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Biennial conference last week, Erev Shabbat offered a study in contrasts that perfectly illustrated the movement’s promise — and its problems.

Just before 6 p.m., as the sun sank into San Diego Bay, nearly 5,000 conference attendees from around the country poured into the San Diego Convention Center for Kabbalat Shabbat. From the back of the hall, a sea of heads sat quietly facing the bimah, where four clergy from Boston’s Temple Beth Elohim were leading the service. Tightly scripted, the worship was abridged, musically mellifluous and mellow. Then, at around the halfway point, a lively rendition of the Mi Chamocha sparked a sudden surge in the audience. People rushed into the aisles, eager to dance. 

It was a moment of inspired worship. And it was about to transform the sterile air of the convention center into a raucous parting of the Red Sea, when — the prayer leaders ended the song. 

Fast-forward three hours to the late-night “song session,” a Biennial favorite. Led by a star-studded cast of Jewish musicians — including Josh Nelson, Doug Cotler, Julie Silver, Beth Schafer and Leo Baeck’s Rabbi Ken Chasen rockin’ the keyboard — it looked like the Jewish version of a Rolling Stones concert. It was a wild, uninhibited scene: thousands of people, arms in the air, jumping up and down, chanting, clapping, dancing horahs. Young and old, rabbi and congregant, lay leader and camp counselor all clustering together as transliterated Hebrew lyrics flashed on three giant screens and live tweets with the hashtag #Biennial13 practically shouted spiritual ecstasy into the digital beyond. 

“This is why I love being a Reform Jew,” Karen Sobel, a Jewish educator from Temple Beth Am in Miami, leaned over and said to me (full disclosure: I grew up at Beth Am). That’s when I turned toward her and asked, “Why doesn’t the prayer service look like this?”

These two Biennial events captured the strengths and weaknesses of the Reform movement as it tries to reinvent itself for the 21st century. On the one hand, last week’s five-day fest of community building, learning and forward thinking showcased the best the movement has to offer: creativity, flexibility, spirituality and soul. But, at the same time, difficult realities like the hard math of the Pew poll, which earlier this year revealed steep declines in membership — or simply, institutional blindness to spontaneity during prayer — reveal deeper anxieties about breaking script. Both poles were on full display last week at what has become one of the largest Jewish religious gatherings in North America, and highlighted that both this movement and much of American Judaism are at a crossroads.

“Synagogue Judaism as a whole is facing a challenge,” Leo Baeck Temple’s Rabbi Chasen said during an interview. “Younger generations are somewhat affiliation averse. Millennials are more skeptical of membership organizations and are not necessarily given to a lot of the institutional staples that synagogue life is about.”

Judging by this Biennial, the URJ appears willing to confront this challenge by catering to a diverse palette of tastes and interests. Attendees were treated to an ample “buffet” of learning sessions, as Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills’ Rabbi Laura Geller described it, from a four-hour seminar on Mussar, to “The Torah of Pluralism” and “Harnessing the Power of Social Media.” Speakers came from near and far, including Israel’s top brass: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (by video); rising star Knesset Member Ruth Calderon; Women of the Wall superhero Anat Hoffman, who heads the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center; and Modern Orthodox educator Rabbi Donniel Hartman, who flew in to accept an award on behalf of his late father, Rabbi David Hartman. 

“There’s an awful lot of inspiration that takes place here,” Chasen added, explaining why 38 of his congregants had accompanied him to San Diego. “The [URJ] does a very good job of bringing in everything from agitators to inspirers. This is a place where you can hear from the greatest rabbis, and also from Julian Bond.”

Bond, the former NAACP chairman, was one of many headliners, including New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, who spoke about food justice, and American Jewish World Service president Ruth Messinger. For the first time in its history, the URJ invited non-Reform participants to the conference, among them L.A.’s Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, an independent, progressive congregation, who spoke on the future of synagogues. 

 The inclusion of more outside voices was seen by some within the movement as a risky move (and according to one insider, “unbelievably debated”), but it proved the movement is willing to engage in the “big tent” Judaism they preach, welcoming independent communities as partners rather than alienating them as rivals.  

Radical inclusion was the theme of the day. In his 16-page, hour-plus state-of-the-union address Thursday night, Rabbi Rick Jacobs propounded a policy of “audacious hospitality,” echoing the movement’s longtime raison d’être

Bereisheit bara Elohim,” Jacobs said. 

“In the beginning, God didn’t create synagogues or rabbis or denominations or even Jewish people. No, God created a wondrous universe teeming with beauty, complexity and possibility.”

But the notion of audacious hospitality is nothing new. As far back as the 1970s, when intermarriage was considered a curse word to most American Jews, the URJ led the way in welcoming the stranger by embracing interfaith families and Jews by Choice. Also in the 1970s, the movement became the first to ordain women rabbis, with the Conservative movement following suit a decade later. And in March 2000, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the organizing body of Reform rabbis in North America and Canada, became the first major religious group to officially sanction gay marriage. 

This time, Jacobs again singled out interfaith families, adding in people with disabilities as deserving of better treatment. “Being ‘against’ intermarriage is like being ‘against’ gravity,” he said. “You can say it all you want, but it’s a fact of life.” Indeed, the Pew study found that half of those who identify as Reform Jews are married to a non-Jewish spouse.

On that point, Jacobs was quick to point out a biblical precedent with Moses: The most important leader in Jewish history, he reminded, was “a Hebrew child, raised by Egyptians who married a non-Jewish woman of color.”

The movement’s aim at broadening its reach is admirable, but the Pew study tests the notion that inclusion can sustain Reform Judaism.

“The Reform movement needs to remember that no matter how much programming you have, some people just won’t walk through that door,” said Rabbi Elka Abramson, president of the Wexner Foundation, in a plenary panel on the implications of the Pew results.

Abramson pointed out that the movement’s ideological obsession with being a “big tent” will not solve all of its problems. “Bigger doesn’t mean better,” she said. “If the Pew study tells us anything, it’s that we’re in the era of radical risk.”

But, she warned, “If we change the way our congregations function, there’s a loss for those of us who love the way things are.”

One longtime URJ board member I spoke to, who requested anonymity, said he is doubtful that the promises made at the Biennial will come to pass. 

“I call it the Obama Syndrome,” he said of Jacobs’ address. “You tell a viable story, and you deliver crap. You sell hope but deliver sand.” 

Dara Frimmer, associate rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, is more optimistic. “I heard that the Reform movement is in a position to be the most influential group of people and institutions to help shape the next generation of Jews,” she said of Jacobs’ speech. Frimmer came to San Diego with more than 20 congregants and 10 temple staff, adding that their “enthusiasm for Reform Judaism and for Temple Isaiah skyrocket as a result of the [Biennial] environment.” 

Whatever challenges the movement faces nationally, Frimmer said her congregation is thriving: “We are overwhelmed with people in their 20s and 30s,” she said. “We are full. Are we the exception? I don’t know, because I have peers who are also actually in synagogues that are thriving.”

 But from his perch, Jacobs said he sees the movement approaching a “dramatic juncture.” 

“You can’t have your eyes open and look at what’s going on in Jewish life if you don’t have deep concern — I do,” he said during an interview. “But I like to channel worry into constructive, productive action. The people who sit around and worry, ‘Why don’t young people care about being Jewish?’ — I don’t want to spend five minutes thinking about that. I interact everyday with people who do care, and I think our job is to help them discover how we could all care more.”  

Israeli Rabbi Donniel Hartman pointed to the Biennial itself as demonstrating great promise and possibility: “Five thousand people came. Is the cup half-full or half-empty?” he asked. “Something meaningful and important is happening here. Why because something isn’t everything does it mean it’s not enough?”

“We’re a people who live by Dayenu,” Hartman added. “That’s our national anthem. Five thousand came. They care about their synagogues; they care about Judaism; they care about their religious life.”

Joel Pressman, cantor and performing arts teacher, dies at 63

Joel Pressman, a cantor and longtime performing arts teacher at Beverly Hills High School, died on Nov. 18. He was 63.

In mid-September, Pressman, son of Jacob Pressman, rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Am, and Marjorie Pressman, announced in a Facebook video that he was dying of abdominal cancer. In late September, more than 300 people met with Pressman to honor him at Will Rogers Park in Beverly Hills. Read more about the event and about Pressman’s life below.

Unafraid of death, cantor offers a philosophical love fest

On a brilliantly sunny Sunday in late September, Joel Pressman, an esteemed cantor and a venerated former performing arts teacher at Beverly Hills High School, wearing a black T-shirt that proclaimed “I’m not dead yet,” walked slowly with a cane into Will Rogers Memorial Park in Beverly Hills.

“Let’s everybody have a love-in,” the 63-year-old musician told the dozens of students, alumni, parents, colleagues and friends who’d gathered in his honor, as they whooped and applauded.

In mid-September, Pressman, son of Jacob Pressman, rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Am, announced in a Facebook video that he is dying of cancer; his doctors have told him he has about two more months to live. Since then, the outpouring of love and support has been so great that Pressman looked forward to the park gathering in order to exchange goodbyes and thank yous with everyone who had touched his life during the 38 years he worked at the school. In his video, he emphasized that he didn’t want people “to cry, to focus on what they had lost,” but rather “on what they have gained.”

Read more.

Unafraid of death, cantor offers a philosophical love fest

On a brilliantly sunny Sunday in late September, Joel Pressman, an esteemed cantor and a venerated former performing arts teacher at Beverly Hills High School, wearing a black T-shirt that proclaimed “I’m not dead yet,” walked slowly with a cane into Will Rogers Memorial Park in Beverly Hills. 

“Let’s everybody have a love-in,” the 63-year-old musician told the dozens of students, alumni, parents, colleagues and friends who’d gathered in his honor, as they whooped and applauded.

In mid-September, Pressman, son of Jacob Pressman, rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Am, announced in a Facebook video that he is dying of cancer; his doctors have told him he has about two more months to live. Since then, the outpouring of love and support has been so great that Pressman looked forward to the park gathering in order to exchange goodbyes and thank yous with everyone who had touched his life during the 38 years he worked at the school. In his video, he emphasized that he didn’t want people “to cry, to focus on what they had lost,” but rather “on what they have gained.” 

And so, while there was the occasional tear at the gathering, much more abundant over the course of five-and-a-half hours were the heartfelt hugs and the conversation, which often turned to reminiscences as more than 300 fans mobbed Pressman like he was a rock star, waiting in line for up to 30 minutes to greet him.

When Pressman spoke with Susan Grayson, his own former classmate at Beverly High, he recalled how, as the youngest student ever to be admitted into the school’s prestigious Madrigals choir, he would sit on the older singers’ laps when they traveled to gigs in a Volkswagen bug.

Pressman regaled others with stories of singing Verdi’s “Requiem” with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl recently — his final concert. 

Madrigals member Arielle Harris, 17, described him as “inspiring, passionate, extremely individualistic and very conscientious,” while Laura Namerow Moss, a student from the 1970s, thanked Pressman for teaching her that singing is about “much more than just having a pretty voice.”

 “It was love at first sight,” she remembered of first meeting the teacher and choir director in 1978. “He was irreverent and sarcastic, creative and funny. He would sing in falsetto for the sopranos on his tiptoes.”

Another alumnus took Pressman aside to tell him that she might well have committed suicide during her troubled high school years had it not been for his influence. In fact, a recent cover story in the Beverly Hills Weekly spotlighted Pressman’s impact on the lives of his students. 

During Beverly High’s annual holiday concerts, Pressman would invite alumni on stage to sing along with the carol “Still, Still, Still,” and at one point in the afternoon, he gathered current and former students to conduct the song one last time. 

The morning following the gathering, Pressman — again decked out in his “I’m Not Dead Yet” T-shirt — sat with a reporter to talk about his life and impending death in his Los Angeles home, where an organ and a harmonium shared space with an array of Judaica. 

“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t doing music,” the baritone said. “I grew up at Temple Beth Am, and there was music all the time in the junior congregation, and also at Camp Ramah.” As a youth, Pressman sang in the High Holy Days choir and, at 16, was approached to serve as cantor at the synagogue’s Erev Rosh Hashanah services. “I said no,” he recalled. “I wasn’t a cantor, and my Hebrew wasn’t that good.” But then he studied the music, and, he said, the others on the bimah “dragged me through the service. … I always thought the cantor’s job was to create a religious experience for the congregation, and I took that responsibility very seriously.” 

Pressman went on to serve for two decades as a High Holy Days cantor at Beth Am, mostly at auxiliary services, then as a cantorial soloist for Wilshire Boulevard Temple. He also edited several pieces for the Sacred Jewish Choral Music series. On occasion at Beth Am, he would preside over services with his father, who is now 94: “My dad loves to sing, and sometimes he would drown me out,” Pressman said. “He’d lean into the microphone and sing a harmony, while I was trying to lead the congregation with a melody, so we spoke about it — and I lost,” he said with a laugh.

All the while, Pressman was making a career for himself in classical music: From USC, he earned a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance and a master’s in choral conducting. He also placed in the regional finals of the New York Metropolitan Opera auditions, and, early in his career, he sang in church choirs around Los Angeles.

Over the years, he also sang with conductors such as Robert Shaw and Roger Wagner and in the original cast of “Gigi” on Broadway; performed at Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; and served as a soloist with the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony and other groups. 

“Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’ was a big, hot tune for me, and I did a lot of Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ ” he said.

When Pressman landed his teaching job at Beverly Hills High, while in his mid-20s, not everyone initially welcomed him at the school. “Two of the drama department people wrote letters to the local papers saying they were ashamed that this young upstart had been hired and would probably destroy the department,” he said. “But excellence is the best revenge.”

A favorite highlight for Pressman was the time his Madrigals performed at a festival at Lincoln Center about 15 years ago, when a renowned educator said to Pressman, “High school students aren’t supposed to be this musical. How did you do it?” 

“I was kvelling,” Pressman recalled. 

He became much more than a teacher to many of his students. Judi Domroy, 38 and now a close friend of Pressman’s, described how he loaned her money for singing lessons when she was short on funds in high school, telling her she had talent and was worth it. Moreover, he attended her college recitals and offered her emotional support during her divorce and upon the death of her mother. Domroy, in turn, has been there to help Pressman, both before and after she learned of his illness.

The symptoms began, two-and-a-half years ago, when the baritone experienced stomach problems and doctors prescribed medicine for acid reflux for a year. The next diagnosis was of sluggish gut, when doctors “basically sent me home to die,” he said. “[It] was horrible. No solid food went into my system for seven weeks; everything got thrown up.”

It wasn’t until he arrived at Kaiser Permanente Sunset hospital in late 2011 that a scan revealed a 2-centimeter tumor blocking his small intestine; doctors at the time told him he had about two years to live. A surgery followed, but the rare cancer eventually spread throughout his abdomen, requiring another operation to remove half of his stomach and portions of other organs. 

His initial response was “tears, fear, confusion and frustration,” he said. “I’ve always been a person that people came to and said, ‘Fix my problem,’ and I always tried and often could, but I couldn’t fix this. And everything about my case was unusual; everything was a dead end.”

But then he remembered how his sister-in-law told him, as she was dying of cancer, that she didn’t worry about things over which she had no control. And he recalled how, at 15, he used to drive his father around on Sundays to a bris, a wedding, a funeral, or to a hospital visit. 

“I got to watch a rabbi in action, and a number of times I heard him say that when [confronted] with life and death, you should choose life,” he said. “And I learned that death was a natural part of life.”

Pressman told these stories and more when he made an inspired, impromptu speech on Yom Kippur at Creative Arts Temple, where he had officiated on High Holy Days the two previous years. 

“I’m dying of cancer,” he told the congregation.” “[Or rather], living with cancer.

“I have a wonderful friend strapped to my side,” he added, pulling up his shirt to reveal a device that pumps painkillers into his system. “When I start to feel bad, I just push the button and soar off to a happy land.

“I do not fear death,” he continued, “nor should you; you should rejoice in the people in your life, in every good thing you’ve ever done. Choosing life means choosing to live every moment we are given, and if it’s six minutes, we make it a really good six minutes, and if it’s 60 years, you make it a great 60 years.”

Creative Arts Temple’s Rabbi Jerry Cutler recalled the speech as the most remarkable he had ever witnessed at the synagogue — “a truly profound moment.” While congregants were dismayed by Pressman’s gaunt appearance, he said, they were also “enthused by his humor and the strength of his voice.”

Jan Perry, a former city councilwoman who now runs Los Angeles’ economic and workforce development department, said Pressman’s speech was “breathtaking. I was lifted up and broken down and lifted up, all at the same time.”

During the interview, Pressman said that while he does not fear death, he does fear “the indignities of dying; I don’t want to submit my family to that.” Now under hospice care, the divorced father of two was planning a trip to Kauai with his son and daughter, “just to be outside and look at the ocean and be with my children. I want to snorkel, to float over a sea turtle and just see where it goes. And then I’ll return home and hope it goes quickly,” he said.

He is also making a point of going out of his way to express gratitude for the goodness he sees in people. As he told the congregation on Yom Kippur: “I’ve been ending my little speeches with simply, ‘I love you.’ I don’t even know all of you, but why wouldn’t I love you? You’re wonderful people.”