December 14, 2018

Max’s Very Special Bar Mitzvah

Like many Jewish mothers, Jody Barrens Moran knew she wanted to do something extra special for her son Max’s bar mitzvah, but she wasn’t trying to come up with a crazy theme or have a horse gallop into the ceremony with the bar mitzvah boy in the saddle. She was just trying to figure out how to have a meaningful ceremony at Temple Emanuel, a Reform synagogue in Beverly Hills, for her 13-year-old son, who is nonverbal and can’t walk without assistance. As Barrens Moran says, she lives her life according to her favorite quote from actress Audrey Hepburn: “Nothing is impossible — the word itself says, ‘I’m possible!’ ”

Max has significant developmental delays in all areas, but doctors haven’t been able to diagnose him. He communicates with family members and those who know him by his expressive eyes, attends a special education program and participates in intensive physical and occupational therapy.

Rabbi Jonathan Aaron and Cantor Lizzie Weiss at Temple Emanuel embraced the idea of planning a joyful, nontraditional bar mitzvah, and created a unique prayer experience that would put Max in the center of all the activities, even though he wouldn’t be able to assume the traditional roles of leading the congregation in prayer or read Hebrew from the Torah scroll. So on Feb. 24, Jody Barrens Moran read from the Torah instead of Max, and a cousin Max’s age held the Torah on his behalf during the l’dor v’dor ritual, when a Torah is passed from grandparents to parents, and then to the youngest generation. Weiss wrote a custom tallit blessing that was titled, “We Wrap You in Love” and included these lines: “With each glance into your eyes we see your soul /And we see our Blessing.”

Max was beaming throughout the service that was attended by 150 family members and friends, recognizing and soaking up all the love in the room that was focused on him. “I really feel that my son knew what was going on and that everyone was there for him,” Barrens Moran said.

Instead of the usual bar mitzvah gifts or checks going directly to Max, Barrens Moran asked that guests make donations to Max’s third-party special needs trust, to enable the family to legally supplement vital government benefits such as Medi-Cal and SSI with private funds that can go toward ensuring Max with a high quality of life.

Barrens Moran encourages other parents of children with special needs not to let their kids’ disabilities stop them from having a full life. “Having a bar mitzvah for Max was part of my dream and it became a reality when I finally said I’m going to do it.”

Barrens Moran’s other dream is to create a home “for Max and for other children like Max [where they can] live in a loving environment. There will be about four or five kids at a time, and I’ll hire all the staff and the therapists,” she said.

The common thread that runs through all of these b’nai mitzvahs, however, is a powerful sense of holiness and love that permeates the sanctuary.

As Barrens Moran and Maxine, Max’s grandmother, described to me the beauty and moving nature of Max’s bar mitzvah, it reminded me of our son’s bar mitzvah, held almost a decade ago in Beth Am during Rosh Chodesh Hanukkah, which was also a unique, tailored service for his own set of special needs. We have also been guests at Valley Beth Shalom for so many of our friends who have children with special needs and also attended many wonderful special needs b’nai mitzvah through the Vista del Mar program called Nes Gadol, led by Rabbi Jackie Redner.

Abilities vary widely among teens with special needs, from those who can chant their haftarah flawlessly from memory, to some who use a voice-assisted communication device to speak, to others for whom dressing the Torah is a huge milestone. The common thread that runs through all of these b’nai mitzvahs, however, is a powerful sense of holiness and love that permeates the sanctuary as a group of people come together to honor the dignity and uniqueness of an integral member of the congregation.

Michelle K. Wolf is a special needs parent activist and nonprofit professional.

Police Investigate Defacing of Temple’s Bathroom

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Police are investigating what an Anti-Defamation League official called a “hate incident” after anti-gay graffiti was found scrawled on the door of a Beverly Hills synagogue’s all-genders bathroom last month.

The profanity-laden message, discovered after an Oct. 15 bat mitzvah party at Temple Emanuel, contained slurs against liberals, gays and lesbians, as well as the synagogue’s rabbi.

“It was definitely a hate incident and, because it took place at a temple, it could be an anti-Semitic incident,” said ADL regional director Amanda Susskind, who is a Temple Emanuel member. “We’re still trying to sort that though.”

Eric Reiter, the temple’s executive director, said the synagogue’s video surveillance system captured a suspect on camera. Reiter declined to identify the suspect, an adult male who he said had a confrontation with a temple security guard that evening. The family holding the bat mitzvah party belongs to Temple Emanuel; the suspect does not.

Beverly Hills police are seeking to obtain the surveillance video, which could yield clues about the alleged crime, Sgt. Max Seubin said in a phone interview.

An Oct. 26 statement co-signed by Temple Emanuel Senior Rabbi Jonathan Aaron and President Barry Brucker described the suspect as a “non-member attendee [who] vandalized our all-gender bathroom and wrote angry, hateful words against the LGBTQ community, and threatening language directed toward temple clergy.”

“We condemn this act of hatred and do not tolerate hate crimes in our synagogue and beyond,” the statement said.

On Oct. 29, the synagogue held a town hall meeting to discuss what took place and to address any community members’ concerns. Brucker referenced the incident as he addressed congregants during Friday night services on Nov. 3.

The defaced bathroom is located in the synagogue’s sanctuary building, at 300 N. Clark Drive, next to men’s and women’s restrooms and adjacent to the synagogue’s reception hall. A sign next to the door says, “This restroom may be used by any person regardless of gender identity or expression.”

The bathroom was a single-stall family bathroom before Temple Emanuel’s Associate Rabbi Sarah Bassin enlisted the help of JQ International — a Jewish LGBT support organization — to transform it into an all-genders bathroom in 2015.

The vandalism occurred as many Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and non-denominational communities are introducing gender-neutral bathrooms. In the Los Angeles area, these include egalitarian community IKAR and Reform synagogues Stephen S. Wise Temple, Temple Adat Elohim and Kol Tikvah.

Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or, director of the JQ Helpline and Inclusion Services, said many Jewish day schools, synagogues and other institutions from the liberal Jewish movements have inquired about ways to fund the creation of gender-neutral bathrooms.

“It is a radical statement for a synagogue to make and one that is really welcomed by the LGBTQ community,” she said. “We know if we walk into that organization, even if we see only that sign, we know we have stepped into an LGBTQ-inclusive organization and we can assume there are other ways they welcome the LGBTQ community.”

“It was definitely a hate incident and it could be an anti-Semitic incident.” — Amanda Susskind

In separate interviews, Aaron and Bat-Or said they considered the vandalism at Temple Emanuel an affront to progressive Judaism.

“It is a hate crime against Jews but more specifically a crime against progressive Judaism and liberalism — two values I will stand by until I die — to be progressive and liberal and accepting of everybody,” Aaron said.

“I don’t think that it was particularly a Jewish crime — it was an LGBTQ crime,” Bat-Or said. “The fact that it was done in a Reform synagogue and the word, ‘liberalism,’ was used was hate speech against the rabbis and hate speech against liberal progressive Judaism.”

Scott Stone, who is gay and serves on the temple’s board, said he and his partner have two teenage children who spend a lot of time at the synagogue. Years ago, Stone chaired the synagogue’s capital campaign for a renovation of the building where the incident occurred.

“We think of the temple and its buildings as our spiritual home,” he said. “To have someone enter our temple and vandalize it with homophobic and anti-reform Jewish graffiti is as if they broke into our actual home and did the same.”

Moving and Shaking: HUC benefit gala, Schoenberg and IKAR come of age

The Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education recognized Valley Torah Girls High School students Adina Ziv (third from left), Meital Shafgi (fourth from left) and Aviya Gaviel (fifth from left) on May 18. Photo courtesy of the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education

The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s (HUC-JIR) fourth annual benefit gala, held at the Skirball Cultural Center on May 16, honored Peachy Levy, Rhea Coskey, Rochelle Ginsburg and other women leaders of the Western region.

Levy sits on the board of overseers of the HUC-JIR Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles. Coskey became involved with HUC-JIR when her daughter, Laurie, entered rabbinical school, and she went on to mentor students and chair the school’s advisory board. Ginsburg is the chair of the HUC-JIR’s national school of education advisory council.

Sally Priesand, an HUC-JIR ordinee who in 1972 became the first woman rabbi to be ordained in America, was featured in the ceremonies.

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion honored (from left) Peachy Levy, Rhea Coskey and Rochelle Ginsburg at its fourth annual benefit gala. Photo by Edo Tsoar

The more than 430 attendees included Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills Rabbi Laura Geller; Leo Baeck Temple Rabbi Ken Chasen; Kol Ami Rabbi Denise Eger; Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin and his husband, Temple Akiba Rabbi Zachary Shapiro; Stephen Wise Temple Senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback; and Shana Penn, executive director of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture.

“It was our biggest turnout ever,” HUC-JIR Public Affairs Associate Joanne Tolkoff told the Journal.

Proceeds from the event benefit HUC-JIR students and faculty.

Founded in 1875, HUC-JIR is a Reform seminary focused on academic, spiritual and professional leadership development, with campuses in Los Angeles, New York, Cincinnati and Jerusalem.

“From Generation to Generation,” a community celebration concert, was held May 25 at Sinai Temple on the occasion of Joseph Schoenberg becoming a bar mitzvah. Approximately 1,200 people attended.

His parents, Pamela and Randol Schoenberg, sponsored the event, which was held in memory of Joseph’s great-grandfathers, composers Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl.

Participants in the musical program included conductor Nick Strimple, associate professor of choral and sacred music at the USC Thornton School of Music and an expert on the works of composers persecuted by the Nazis. Strimple led the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale. Additional participants were Los Angeles Voices, the BodyTraffic dance company, and London-based pianist and organist Iain Farrington.

BodyTraffic, which included new addition Natalie Leibert, performed to liturgical works for chorus and organ by Schoenberg and Zeisl, and a newly commissioned work for chorus and organ by composer Samuel Adler.

Randol Schoenberg is an honorary director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. He is an attorney who has worked to retrieve artwork stolen by the Nazis during World War II, as was depicted in the film “Woman in Gold.”

Joseph, whose bar mitzvah was May 27, volunteered with Food Forward, which saves local produce that otherwise would go to waste, leading up to his bar mitzvah. He donated produce from his bar mitzvah weekend to hunger-relief agencies and, through the website, had environmentally friendly centerpieces at his luncheon. 

celebration and fundraiser held in honor of the 13 years since the founding of the egalitarian spiritual community IKAR was held May 21 at Playa Studios in Culver City.

The “bat mitzvah” event raised about $370,000 and drew a crowd of more than 375 founders, members and supporters, including Richard and Ellen Sandler, Marvin and Sandy Schotland, and actress Lisa Edelstein.

The party had a 1980s theme, with music from that decade playing throughout the event. Attendees viewed a video retrospective on IKAR’s place in the community and were treated to a classic b’nai mitzvah-style candlelighting ceremony.

Attendees dressed in costumes that featured neon tights, blue eye shadow and other staples of ’80s fashion, with some guests invoking Ferris Bueller, Madonna and Michael Jackson. Mini Rubik’s Cubes, slap bracelets and centerpieces featuring jellybeans, malted milk balls, Reese’s Pieces and Good & Plenty candy adorned the tables. IKAR members Shelley and Steph Altman, who own Playa Studios, donated use of the venue, and Diana Kramer designed the interior theme, which featured full-size video game machines and other era-appropriate décor.

The Rev. Michael-Ray Mathews, director of clergy organizing with PICO National Network, the largest grass-roots, faith-based organizing network in the United States, offered words of welcome. “History is past, present and future all at the same time. We are all one people,” he said.

“It took a lot for us to get this thing off the ground, none of it with any assurance of success,” IKAR founding Rabbi Sharon Brous said. “Thank you for casting your lot with us. This is about fighting for civil society.”

— Esther D. Kustanowitz, Contributing Writer

The Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education (CIJE) West Region held community events on May 16 and 18 at the Westside Jewish Community Center.

On May 16, the CIJE Co-Ed Engineering Conference featured SpaceIL co-founder Yonatan Winetraub as its keynote speaker. Addressing approximately 150 teenagers, Winetraub discussed how his organization is aiming to make Israel the fourth country to land a spacecraft on the moon. Additional speakers included Sari Katz, Western Region director for Rambam hospital in Israel. Katz announced a partnership between Rambam and CIJE that would provide a scholarship to students who develop an outstanding biomedical device in 2018.

Students from day schools in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, Seattle and Dallas attended.

“Nobody knows precisely what jobs will be around when you all graduate from college within the next eight to 10 years,” CIJE President Jason Cury told the students. “Which is why it’s so important to develop the skills which will be required, and to be prepared for whatever challenges and opportunities that present themselves.”

From Tarbut V’Torah in Irvine, students Mika Ben-Ezer, Zeke Levi and Julian Wiese received the Award for Innovation for their “Sonic Jacket,” which serves the visually impaired. Harkham-GAON Academy in Los Angeles students Aliza Leichter, Oze Botach and Shani Kassell won the Award of Social Value for designing a car seat that detects when a child is alone in the vehicle. And the Award for Best Visual Display went to Mendy Sacks, Aryeh Rosenbaum and Daniel Jackson from YULA Boys High School for a digital portable piano teacher known as “Teachapii.”

CIJE Vice President Jane Willoughby gave the closing remarks.

The May 18 Girls Engineering Conference drew students from YULA Girls High School and Valley Torah Girls High School.

In the keynote address, engineer Yvette Edidin discussed how “the different fields of engineering need and would benefit from more women,” a CIJE press release said.

Valley Torah’s Adina Ziv, Meital Shafgi and Aviya Gaviel were awarded Project of the Year for their sensor that detects when automobile drivers are getting sleepy and alerts them using a vibrating device.

At the 2017 ADL Entertainment Industry dinner, “Big Bang Theory” co-creator and ADL honoree Bill Prady (second from left) joins (from left) award presenter Wil Wheaton, ADL Regional Director Amanda Susskind and event emcee Joshua Malina. Photo courtesy of the Anti-Defamation League

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) honored Bill Prady, co-creator and executive producer of “The Big Bang Theory,” at the 2017 ADL Entertainment Industry dinner on May 24 at the Beverly Hilton.

Actor Joshua Malina (“Scandal”) served as master of ceremonies and actor Wil Wheaton, a recurring guest star on “The Big Bang Theory,” presented the award to Prady.

“While preparing my remarks for this evening, I emailed Bill and asked him if it will be honest and accurate to tell you that Bill is an outspoken voice for the most vulnerable among us,” Wheaton said. “And Bill said, ‘There is no sentence that begins with, Bill has been vocal about — that is not true.’ ”

Prady, in his speech, talked about his childhood in Detroit.

“Anti-Semitism was a pretty abstract idea. I knew what it meant only from a distance,” he said. “I knew it from the punchline from a Woody Allen movie. Growing up in my Jewish Detroit suburb, I didn’t know anti-Semitism. And it’s not only that. For me, racism was something in social studies class. And hatred of immigrants? I never heard of such a thing. My world was filled with immigrants, so many that I thought that when you grow up, you have an accent. But I know all these things now. We hear it on the news, from our politicians, online.”

Prady explained why he is a supporter of the ADL, which was established in 1913 to combat hate and bigotry.

“After the election, I made a decision to change my personal focus from politics to the front line. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) was battling the attack on freedom, and Planned Parenthood was fighting for women reproducing rights, but who was fighting to dig out the weed of hate that had taken root in modern technology? It was the Anti-Defamation League,” Prady said. “So I called them up and I asked what I can do to help. And they said to do this, and I said, ‘It’s going to be a pretty boring night.’ So, I called the Barenaked Ladies.”

The Canadian band, which wrote and recorded “The Big Bang Theory” theme song, provided the evening’s entertainment.

Additional speakers included An Nguyen, the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants and an ADL National Youth Leadership delegate.

— Ayala Or-El, Contributing Writer

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

It takes a village to build community

Sylvia Price and Helene Korn laugh and enjoy food at a Village new member potluck event. Photo courtesy of ChaiVillageLA.

Temple Emanuel Rabbi Emerita Laura Geller and her husband, Richard Siegel, put up a sukkah in their backyard every autumn during Sukkot. Siegel usually erects the structure and Geller decorates it with colorful paper chains. For one week, they typically eat all their meals in it.

Last year, with Siegel scheduled for a minor surgery in the middle of the holiday, he knew he could build it but perhaps not take it down. They built it anyway, and shortly after the holiday, six men and women over age 55 who walk in a nearby park once a week, stopped by Geller’s house and took it down.

“Those are the kinds of moments — even just needing to change a light bulb — that make people realize they have to move into facilities,” said Geller. “Good neighbors mean you don’t have to do that.”

Just their luck? No, it was their “village.”

The “Village Movement” began 15 years ago in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston when concerned community members came together to figure out how best to age in their own homes. More than 200 similar villages have since popped up around the country, providing volunteer-driven services and programming.

Geller, Siegel and the six weekly walkers all belong to Chai Village LA, with Geller and Siegel serving on its14-person steering committee. The village organized last July and now has nearly 200 members older than 55 in and around West Los Angeles. The venture is a partnership between Reform synagogues Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and Temple Isaiah and is the nation’s first synagogue-based virtual village.

Geller believes Chai Village LA addresses a growing need in the city’s aging Jewish community that hasn’t existed in previous generations.

“People are living much longer,” she said. “There’s this new stage in life between your career, raising a family and then the end of life. People don’t just retire and get old. People are trying to figure out what this stage of life is about.” 

Ongoing communication exists among villages around the country, through the Village to Village Network, a website that promotes dialogue and best practices. There’s also an annual conference.

Villages are normally composed of people living within set boundaries who pay nominal membership fees and often hire professional staff to help train volunteers. Chai Village LA’s paid full-time director, Devorah Servi, described the village as a “chavurah,” a Hebrew word that often refers to a group of like-minded Jews who assemble to share communal experiences.

“Synagogues are more top down. We’re more bottom up. It’s very volunteer-driven,” Servi said. 

Servi has a small paid staff, but members run programs — with the exception of those that are health-related. More than 100 programs initiated and executed by volunteers — who also are members — have included gatherings focused on genealogy, photography, backyard gardening and film discussion. Servi estimates that her active member base is 80 percent aged 60s and 70s, the rest 80 and older.

“We’re tapping into the amazing talents of people who are 65, 75, 85 — even 95,” she said. “We’re not just taking care of people; we’re engaging people in community life. I can’t say people live longer this way, but they definitely live happier.”

Rabbi Zoe Klein of Temple Isaiah cited a deeper meaning for members.

“We talk often of frailty and weakness when we talk about age, but this is about power,” she said. “It is about bringing together people’s skills and passions to make a difference in each other’s lives, and once strong enough together, to use that collective power to generate real change.”

“They are not worried about losing their place in line for the next promotion, or their children’s daily dinner plans,” she added. “Rather, they have the time, means and vision to be the activists of tomorrow on today’s critical issues.”

Chai Village LA members pay $100 in annual fees, or $150 per two-adult household. They must be members of either Temple Emanuel or Temple Isaiah and are required to volunteer for four hours per month in administrative roles, chairing committees or providing services like meal delivery.

The idea for Chai Village LA was borne out of a sermon on aging that Geller delivered six years ago when she was still senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel. In it, she quoted the Beatles song “When I’m Sixty-Four,” which includes the lyric, “Will you still need me / Will you still feed me /  When I’m sixty-four.”

In the ensuing months, Geller embarked on what she billed “a listening campaign” with more than 250 congregants older than 60. Over potluck dinners in private homes, discussion groups grappled with spirituality, end of life and other health care concerns. But chief among topics, she said, was craving a sense of community from years past.

“For some, it was as simple as wanting someone to go to the movies with,” Geller said.

When a research group of congregants discovered the “Village Movement,” a clear goal emerged.

Siegel, who retired in 2015 after serving as the head of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management, wrote a grant proposal to establish Chai Village LA as a virtual village connected to the national network, based on Jewish values, the first of its kind anywhere, according to Geller.

“We were surprised that none of the other villages were faith-based,” she said. “If you think about it, it’s a perfect fit for a synagogue, church or mosque.”

Siegel’s 2015 proposal won a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, making Chai Village LA a reality. The grant will fund development and operations for three years. Beyond that, Chai Village LA will have to find partners and sponsors willing to donate, something Geller says she’s not worried about.

According to Geller and Siegel, synagogues and their fee-for-service model — like paying fees for religious services and Sunday school — is becoming dated, leading to a dwindling engagement after bar and bat mitzvahs. That has given rise to fervor among synagogues to keep young people engaged through all kinds of programming.

Siegel said the collaboration of two synagogues viewed as “competitors” is what made the proposal for Chai Village LA so cutting edge.

“This is really a cross communication type of initiative, a partnership initially between Temple Emanuel and Temple Isaiah and maybe eventually others,” he said. “It’s a new model of community organizing within the Jewish community not bound by the confines of institutional walls.”

Geller and Servi said they feel that this sort of collaboration could foretell the synagogue of the future, one involving more home-based, volunteer-run programming. They also said they would like to see programming become multigenerational. Chai Village LA is even exploring technology innovations to match volunteers and services to appeal to young people.

“The larger Jewish community has nobly focused much creativity, energy and resources on the emerging adult population, post-b’nai mitzvah through chuppah. Less has been invested in adults, and less so in the period between mid-life and frail old age,” said Klein, adding, “the period between middle age and frail old age is now significantly longer. We are the pioneers of what society will look like as people live longer. We are the pioneers of what the Jewish community will look like.”

Now there’s an app for atonement – meet eScapegoat

The confessions come flooding in at this time of year to the Twitter feed of the atonement app


My lunch with a Los Angeles Tea Partier

Of the 3,977 angry e-mails I received last week, one stood out.

“I am a Jew, a member of Temple Emanuel in Los Angeles, and the founder of the largest local, grass-roots Tea Party group in Los Angeles called the Hancock Park Patriots,” Mark Sonnenklar wrote.

“I, and many of my fellow leaders in the Tea Party movement, are pretty upset about the recent ‘Tea-hadist’ cartoon published in the Jewish Journal. I would like to discuss this matter with you. Would you be open to a phone call?”

Sonnenklar was referring to the political cartoon in the Oct. 11 issue of the Jewish Journal. Our longtime cartoonist, Steve Greenberg, portrayed a Tea Party activist as a suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest labeled “Govt Shutdown.” You get the idea.

Tea Party-affiliated Web sites reposted the cartoon and urged readers to e-mail me their outrage. It worked. Overnight, my inbox filled with thousands of e-mails railing against the cartoon. The vast majority of the letter writers were not Journal readers. Many repeated the charge that the cartoon “mocked the actual victims of Islamic terror,” and I took that to heart. I issued a public apology for the cartoon’s insensitivity to terror victims. 

Many letters were vicious; some were strange. 

“May God show you the error of your wicked ways and give you the redemption you clearly do not deserve!!” Scott Walker wrote.

 “You should … use your amazing resources to find out just how many Muslim Brotherhood members are working in the White House,” Charles Walter wrote. “Did you know Obama has a ‘Sharia Czar’?”, an intelligent conservative site, originally flagged the cartoon. But a site named had picked up the cause, and many of the e-mails turned outright anti-Semitic.

“Jews have caused [sic] the world by stealing land instead of just paying for it in the first place, I guess I can understand the idiocy,” someone calling himself Ron Paul wrote. 

The few writers who identified themselves as Jews were not much kinder.

“This may come as a shock to you, Comrade Eshman,” Aaron Shuster wrote, “but not all Jews share in your utopian socialist agenda for Islamic hegemony.”

Amid these screeds, Sonnenklar’s civility stood out. So did his Web site. It listed seven action steps activists could take. No. 7 was, “Click here to sign up for the Koch Brothers Check Distribution” — a cheeky swipe at those who say Tea Partiers are just dupes of the 1 percent. 

I called Sonnenklar, and three hours later we met for lunch at Le Petit Greek on Larchmont.

Sonnenklar is 44, a corporate lawyer, father of three, and he bears more than a glancing resemblance to Bradley Cooper. He wore blue jeans and a trim striped dress shirt, untucked, along with the standard L.A. three-day growth of beard.

We decided not to talk about “it” — the cartoon — until at least after the grilled halloumi.

Sonnenklar told me he had established the Hancock Park Patriots in 2010, because he was “tired of not doing anything. I wanted to make a difference.”

Between 50 and 100 people from all over Los Angeles attend the Hancock Park Patriots’ monthly meetings. Sonnenklar estimates about 20 percent of them are Jewish.

“The goal is not to become a third party,” he said, “but to become more powerful within the GOP. There needs to be a Tea Party to bring the Republican Party back to its core principles.” 

Those principles: smaller government, greater individual liberty, protecting free enterprise.

The Constitution is sacred, he said — everything has to flow from that.

I asked him: Don’t many progressives want the same things? More efficient government, greater liberty, etc.? And isn’t the Supreme Court the arbiter of the Constitution, and didn’t it uphold Obamacare …

“It’s a very politicized court,” he interrupted, and then batted away my arguments.

He saw President Barack Obama’s campaign pledge to “fundamentally transform” the country as a declaration of war against America. I saw it, in the context of a boilerplate campaign speech, as a promise to the middle class.

We were like two doctors who agreed easily on what an ailing patient looked like, but not on the cure.

“I’m not a moderate,” he said, smiling. “I’m just more articulate than most.”

I asked him how that flies in his Reform Beverly Hills synagogue, which has a liberal reputation.

“I have no doubt if people found out I was a leader of a Tea Party group, I would be ostracized,” he said. “As a conservative in Los Angeles, you can’t be open. You’re going to be the one guy at the dinner party who stands out. The Tea Party is almost a support group. Now I feel I can be open about who I am and my political views.

“We are under attack by the hard-left establishment,” he went on. “They are using Alinsky-like tactics to undermine any opposing point of view. That’s why this cartoon hit such a nerve.”

Sonnenklar knew I had publicly apologized, but he pushed further. Would I run a cartoon of Obama in a Hitler mustache?

That didn’t sound very funny or clever to me, I said — and talk about insensitive. I did point out that the Journal publishes opinions from many different perspectives, because thoughtful debate is a core Jewish value. 

We reached an impasse on many points, but it was a good, long lunch — a useful outcome to an unfortunate incident. After all, thoughtful argument may be a core Jewish value. Agreement — not so much.

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

17 years of Rashi

Rabbi Laura Geller is well known as a woman who does not shrink from a challenge. A senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, she stands as a pioneer among women rabbis, the third women ordained in the Reform movement and the first to lead a major metropolitan synagogue. In 1996, Geller was in Israel studying with Rabbi David Hartman at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. During a lunchtime discussion about Jewish education, Hartman made the statement that unless a person has read the whole Torah with Rashi, that person can’t call himself or herself an educated Jew. Geller, who had studied the medieval commentator but had never read the whole of his Torah commentary, was haunted by his words. She returned to Los Angeles determined to fulfill Hartman’s requirement. And because Jews always study together, she also invited her congregants: “Join a discussion with the greatest of classical commentators, Rabbi Shlomo Ben Yitzhak, aka Rashi.”

To her surprise, this “discussion” continued with meetings almost every Sunday for a full 17 years. Geller and her congregants studied Torah and Rashi’s commentary, verse by verse. And at Shabbat morning services, on April 6, about 20 members of the class, some who had been there from the start and some who had joined as recently as this year, gathered in the chapel at Temple Emanuel to mark the completion of their task: The group, in its many incarnations, had read all of Rashi’s Torah commentary. Members of the group led all of Emanuel’s congregants, broken into small groups, in a final teaching from Deuteronomy followed immediately by the opening line of Genesis and Rashi’s exhortation: “This verse says nothing but ‘talk about me!’ ” 

Rabbi Shlomo Ben Yitzhak, whose Hebrew initials spell Rashi, is probably the most widely read biblical commentator. He lived in France in the 11th century, and his Torah commentary was the first Hebrew book to be printed mechanically, even before the Bible itself. In it, he focused on the plain, or pashat, meaning of the text, based on his own extensive knowledge of rabbinic teaching. In traditional yeshivas, students today study Rashi’s interpretations as soon as they begin to learn the Torah.

The Rashi class at Temple Emanuel included doctors, lawyers, homemakers, historians and scientists, many of whom had in common a Reform Judaism more often associated with social action than with study of an 11th century commentator. Yet, within two years, they expanded Geller’s class from a religious-school schedule to a year-round gathering. Additional facilitators stepped in when Geller wasn’t available, and the group turned to several translations, including Jewish Publication Society and Art Scroll, which they kept open on a table as they worked. For the past 10 years, the group was grateful also to have the guidance of Chaim Plotzker, a teacher from the Orthodox tradition. 

When these students talk about what kept them coming, Sunday after Sunday, they talk about community, conversation across the table and across centuries and the way lived experience naturally becomes part of any Torah discussion. 

In a pamphlet created for their class siyyum (celebration of completed talmudic study), Ann Goldman wrote, “I was surprised to find I became part of conversations that have been going on for thousands of years, conversations with men and women, ancient and contemporary, who nourish my heart and soul.” 

Gary Mozer, who spent two years in the group, wrote, “The Rashi class is what Judaism means to me. … Instead of being told what to do or how to live, we read, discuss and in the end, it is up to me to take what I want.” (Geller herself says the class disagreed with Rashi more often than not.)

 “We Jews do not take vows of silence,” Victor Gold, dean of Loyola Law School, observed. Gold has been in the group for 16 years. “We find God in relationships with each other.” 

“This small community became a family to all participants,” David Silber said of his 16 years in the Rashi class. 

Some joined the group and left. Together the group shared celebrations and losses. At least once, the class met at the bedside of student Charlotte Behrendt, when she was terminally ill. Plotzker fell in love and married. 

Steven Mandel, a physician who has been in the class for a decade, wrote, “These 500 Sunday mornings have sharpened my awareness of choices, especially where my wife and family are concerned. … I’m still no Moses, but I’ve become a much more complete and tranquil person.” 

 “The questions we asked of the text were tied with the questions of our lives,” wrote Gregory Dubois-Felsmann, a physicist whose contributions to discussions of Genesis and the big-bang theory delighted Geller. He quoted from Deuteronomy 30:11: “It is not too difficult for you, nor too far off.” 

At the April 6 morning celebration, Plotzker also talked about these verses from the conclusion of Deuteronomy: “No, this thing is very close to you, in your mouth and on your heart” (30:14). Plotzker taught that words cannot be put into the heart, but instead rest on the heart; so, in unexpected and holy moments, they will be close at hand, and, when the heart is open, they will sink in. 

Opening the heart was a topic that might have surprised the medieval commentator, but to Geller it is an essential goal of study. Rashi’s practice of questioning teaches students to question, she said. And when people pose the questions that are important to them, they listen for the answers. And in taking in the answers, they open their hearts to make the stories their own.  

Geller said she was able to tell Hartman about her promise to read all of Rashi, but he died on Feb. 10 of this year, before she could tell him the goal had been accomplished. This Rashi conversation Geller initiated across the table, the generations and the streams of Judaism seem a most fitting way of keeping her promise. 

And, as is always the story for such undertakings, the very next morning, with the Book of Ruth, the class began again.

When Crystal met Spielberg; A rabbi, a reverend and a pastor walk into a shul

Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation Shines

When Billy Crystal met Steven Spielberg at the Oct. 22 Shoah Foundation dinner, the comedian had a beef with the filmmaker.

Why, asked Crystal, was there never a part for him in a Spielberg movie? Couldn’t he have changed the title of “Jaws” to “Jews”?

Or how about a juicy part in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Beth Shalom” or “Saving Private Mishkin?” Or another Spielberg movie, “Artificial Intelligence,” starring opposite Sarah Palin?

Cystal’s running shtick on Jewish themes was often hilarious, but somewhat lost on Circuit’s tablemates, who included a good-looking blonde couple of Christian evangelists from Orange County, a witty black South African and an Israeli ex-pat with his Chinese wife from Seattle.

But the three-hour dinner and show at the Wallis Annenberg Building of the California Science Center, to benefit the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, had much more.

Spielberg, who established the foundation following the triumph of his “Schindler’s List,” and USC President Steven B. Sample, spoke of the unique collection of video testimonies by 52,000 Holocaust survivors.

“There were Six Million who left their foot prints in the ashes,” Spielberg said. “On our watch, these footprints will never blow away.”

A feisty Bette Midler sang, backed by a 12-piece band, with lyrics and side comments that made my evangelical tablemates blush.

Finally, the climax, when Kirk Douglas, recipient of the Ambassadors for Humanity Award, came onstage — we should all look so good after 91 years on this earth, a helicopter crash, a stroke and a record-breaking career as a one-time Hollywood stud.

Douglas gracefully accepted the encomiums, such as Spielberg’s praise of him as “a great American, a great Jew, who stands up for what he believes in,” and Crystal’s admiration for “the greatest head of hair I’ve seen on a Jew.”

Douglas wore his laurels easily, commenting, “If my wife Anne ever leaves me, I’m going to marry Steven’s mother, so I’ll have a rich son-in-law to take care of me in my old age.”

Among those joining some 600 guests were the extended Douglas mishpacha (though son Michael was shooting a film in New York), actors Tobey Maguire (“Spider-Man”) and Debbie Allen, singer Eric Benet, producer J.J. Abrams and former studio head Sid Sheinberg.

The gala’s main sponsor was TNT (Turner Network Television), while June Beallor organized the fete with her customary skill and taste.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Coming Together for ‘Radical’ Dialogue

Billed as “Radical Conversations in a Reluctant Metropolis,” the friendly Oct. 23 chat at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills before an audience of about 150 seemed anything but revolutionary.

Three clergy — Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel, the Rev. Dr. Clyde Oden of Bryant Temple AME Church in Central Los Angeles and Samuel Chu, pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church — talked about how they come together to break bread, share concerns and create community among their diverse congregations. The event was organized under the umbrella of One LA — an organization that aims to unify Los Angeles communities that otherwise might not band together.

ALTTEXTIn a session moderated by “Speaking of Faith” American Public Media radio talk show host Krista Tippett, Oden spoke of how the group had helped to change the route and date of the annual L.A. Marathon to avoid interruption of Sunday services, and Geller told of how her interaction and friendship with Oden had raised her consciousness on news topics such as the unraveling of the King-Drew Medical Center, located near Bryant Temple.

Chu explained how opening up to Los Angeles’ larger community helps him focus on more than just his congregation’s immediate personal concerns: “When I am not engaged in public life, I tend to be easily manipulated by my fears,” said the Hong Kong-born leader of a mostly Latino congregation in Koreatown — a microcosm of Los Angeles diversity in itself. The interfaith interaction and the stories people share helps dispel fears like “they’re taking out jobs; they’re taking our resources,” he added.

The desire for unity and connection — and attempts at coming together — is hardly new to Los Angeles. In the aftermath of the 1992 riots, for example, outreach was deemed key to healing, and such exchanges abounded. But what was perhaps most revealing at the Thursday night event, and the only thing that was radical, albeit subliminally, was the evidence of comfort and true friendship among the three pastors.

That comfort clearly has come from long-term commitment to friendship and sharing with one another. As Oden and Chu joked and shared from Geller’s pulpit, their relaxed posture and easy exchanges bespoke of real commitment to a new kind of family, earned through the rewards of time. And if that’s not a step toward tikkun olam, what is?

(From left) Samuel Chu, Immanuel Presbyterian Church; Rabbi Laura Geller, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills; Krista Tippett, “Speaking of Faith” creator and host; and Rev. Dr. Clyde Oden, Bryant Temple AME Church Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld

— Susan Freudenheim, Managing Editor

The Circuit

Choirs Rock the House

Temple Emanuel was rockin’ recently when it hosted the Temple Bryant A.M.E. Church Choir that performed with Emanuel’s choir at a Shabbat Shira Service. The entire congregation and guests were on their feet singing and clapping in joyous rapture.

Behind the Camera

The Peninsula Beverly Hills was filled with aspiring future filmmakers at the Multicultural Motion Picture Association’s (MMPA) 13th annual Student Filmmakers Pre-Oscar Scholarship Luncheon. Actors, cinematographers, writers, and directors came together for the annual luncheon, to show support for the next Spielbergs and Hillers.

Seven students selected for their outstanding achievements, creative vision and technical talent received financial awards toward their tuition, certificates of merit and grants from film providers like FUJIFILMS and Eastman Kodak.

MMPA President Jarvee Hutcherson, said it was “an honor to pay recognition and award scholarships to a particularly fine group of up-and-coming filmmakers this year.”

The scholarship recipients include Vineet Dewan, Dwjuan F. Fox, Margaret C. Kerrison, Nathan D.T. Kitada, Anthony Sclafani Jr., Phyllis Toben and Ashley York.

Readers and Leaders

Third-graders from Maimonides Academy, Los Angeles, recently donated 48 Jester books and 24 Jester dolls to the Pediatric Hematology Oncology Unit of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The philanthropic youngsters read more than 19,000 pages for a penny a page during the one month Jester & Pharley’s Reading to Give campaign and collected additional funds, as well.

“I’m delighted by the incredible efforts of Maimonides Academy students to help ill children at Cedars-Sinai Hospital,” said Barbara Saltzman, executive director of The Jester & Pharley Phund. “Many people talk about how important it is to help others, but Maimonides students and their families have demonstrated what it really means to actually do something to help others, something that will make a difference for many years to come.”

A Big Step

Beit T’Shuvah held its annual “Steps to Recovery” gala dinner at the Beverly Hilton Hotel recently.

Young and In Charge

A new generation of Jewish leaders is taking the reins of philanthropy and making a difference through its efforts. Young WIZO, an organization dedicated to helping battered women and children in Israel, has brought together young Jewish professionals and business leaders across the L.A. area.

Bernard Hoffman, Lisa Gild, Joyce Azria-Nasir, Sabrina Wizman and many others have found that focusing their energy on Jewish community leadership brings profound meaning and unequivocal fulfillment to their day-to-day lives.

Through participation in organizations like The Jewish Federation, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Young WIZO, they are realizing their goals of helping to build a vibrant, thriving Jewish state.

If you are between the ages of 21-40 and would like to know more about upcoming events, contact Sabrina at or call (310) 278-8287.

Animal Crackers

Philanthropist Suzanne Gottlieb, and her company, Greenview Inc., gave the Greater Los Angeles Zoo $2 million for expansion and renovation of zoo. Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Zoo officially christened the zoo’s veterinary facility the Gottlieb Animal Health and Conservation Center, in honor of Gottlieb and her late husband, attorney Robert J. Gottlieb. With Gottlieb, is GLAZA trustee and animal activist Betty White.

Friends in Israel

Women’s Alliance for Israel (WAIPAC) welcomed Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Consul-General of Israel Ehud Danoch at a reception hosted by Michal and Danny Alpert and Barbara and Jeff Scapa. WAIPAC is a bipartisan pro-Israel political action committee that supports candidates for and members of Congress who believe that Israel, an important ally and friend, deserves American friendship and support.


A.M.E., Rhythm and Jews

It's Friday night, and as I wander toward the entrance of Temple Emanuel, a Reform synagogue in Beverly Hills, an usher approaches and asks brightly, “Are you with the choir?”

I'm African American, but I'm not with the choir, at least not with the choir of Temple Bryant A.M.E. Church, which is visiting the synagogue tonight. I smile through a twinge of annoyance.

Later, as I search for a seat in the cavernous but crowded temple, another helpful-looking usher with a pile of programs catches sight of me: “You must be with the choir!”

Must I?

To be sure, some of those A.M.E. folks, some of whom are splendidly dressed in West African kente cloth, are looking like they need a little bit of direction. But the first lesson of multiculturalism may be that not all black people are churchgoers and/or singers. I could have been Jewish, for all anybody knew. As it happens, I'm not Jewish, my husband is and my married name, Kaplan, tends to throw people of all colors and religious beliefs when I show up in person. So I've learned to carry a certain sympathy for cultural and ethnic misconceptions.

But still.

Then I remind myself that I like the reason why I'm here on this Friday in February: This concert marks an early step by Temple Emanuel and Bryant A.M.E., from Leimert Park in the Crenshaw District, to develop relationships between their respective flocks. Not political, agenda-driven, public relations-conscious relationships, but ties forged the old-fashioned way — through individual conversations and personal connections over time. The bridge-building is part of a larger effort by the community organizing outfit, One L.A. (the latest iteration of the Industrial Areas Foundation), to unite Los Angeles' disparate populations around conversations on a whole host of common, quality-of-life issues.

The Rev. Dr. Clyde Oden Jr. of Bryant and Rabbi Laura Geller of Emanuel are putting their own stamp on this, starting with names: Oden calls the project “Shalom in the City,” Geller has dubbed it “Hineni, Here I Am.” Both admit they are on a long journey that has no real road map and that may take years to accomplish, if it is accomplished at all. Yet both are encouraged so far. Geller has taught the Torah at Oden's church, and he brought some congregants to temple last Friday; the two groups have already planned a joint seder and picked an L.A.-resonant theme for it: “Coming out of a narrow place.”

Oden says it's all in the spirit of creating a new model of activism, one rooted not in the leaders or agendas of yore, but in friendships.

“These won't be drive-by relationships,” says Oden, who proposed the crosstown outreach. “Our society promotes distance, and we don't know each other — Jews, gentiles, Latinos, blacks. We're kind of in the wilderness here on this project, but we're going toward the Promised Land.”

Geller says she also wants to deconstruct the management-heavy, '60s model of activism and remake it into something more meaningful and effective for today.

“One of the criticisms of the civil rights model is that Jews were perceived as helping blacks,” she says. “If we start with personal issues that matter to everybody — things like drug addiction, aging parents, emergency health care — then we'll be on equal footing.”

One L.A. organizer, Daniel May, describes the dynamics of the Emanuel/Bryant project, and others like it around town, as “moving from strangers to neighbors. It's not about issues, but commonalities. And also differences.”

I keep that in mind as two musical traditions come together tentatively, somewhat clumsily, before my eyes. Besides the black choir, the service features Jewish singer/guitarist Rick Recht. I have no idea who Recht is, but his name, pronounced “Wrecked,” sounds appropriately rapper-esque.

He turns out to be the furthest thing from that — a smooth, charismatic performer and storyteller with impeccable pop sensibilities and an occasional edge — kind of a Jewish Jim Croce. But he hits a serious sour note when he decides to turn the venerable “Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing,” a poem-cum-song penned at the turn of the 20th century that evolved into the black national anthem, into a kind of summer camp sing-along, complete with call and response.

I get the good intention, but it's mildly horrifying nonetheless. The black people look a bit stunned, though tolerant.

Then, when the Bryant choir backs up another gospel number, Emanuel's sonorous and dignified cantor suddenly erupts with a funkified solo on “Let My People Go,” complete with hand gestures and foot shuffling that must be meant to echo James Brown.

My Jewish husband seated next to me, puts his head in his hands briefly.

“Look at what my people are doing,” he murmured. “It's embarrassing.”

Maybe. But I hardly expected Jews to have that kind of rhythm, or for anybody nonblack to resist the temptation to boogie when black people give them the chance. But music is not the main point: This evening is facilitating a larger and, I believe, enlightening purpose. For that possibility alone, I'll endure 1,000 more funk faux pas. And I trust the congregants will put up with mine as well.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a regular Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

The Circuit


Temple Emanuel celebrated its annual Mitzvah Day last month, with the Beverly Hills congregation coming together to perform benevolent activities focusing on those in need. One event, the Sock and Sack Day, was held at the Midnight Mission in downtown Los Angeles.

Temple Emanuel congregants, together with Rabbi Laura Geller, made lunches and gave away new white socks to nearly 600 homeless people, including children, who live on the streets of downtown. The Midnight Mission and its marvelous team publicized the event and brought the homeless into its facilities for the giveaway.

The captain of Sock and Sack Day was 15-year-old congregant Erik Krasney, who has been actively involved with the cause of the homeless in Los Angeles.


The Fulfillment Fund honored Imagine’s award-winning producer Brian Grazer at the annual “Stars Gala” at the Beverly Hilton last month. The evening was emceed by Chris Rock and included an auction, featuring surprise guest Sinbad auctioning items with board member Tom Sherak.

The event raised more than $2 million for the Fulfillment Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping economically disadvantaged students graduate from high school and go on to college.

For more information, visit


A Concert of Conscience

In choreographer Roni Kosmal-Wernik’s piece about the aftermath of a suicide bombing, a dancer prowls the stage as if searching for a lost loved one. Her movements become heavy, brooding, as if she is burdened by an invisible weight.

Inspired by a family friend’s death in a 2001 attack, Kosmal-Wernik’s work will help kick off a June 20 event at Temple Emanuel to support other victims of terror. Performers such as pianist Sha-Rone Kushnir will appear to benefit ATZUM, a Jerusalem-based charity that provides necessities for families not covered by Israel’s overburdened welfare system.

“Artists for ATZUM,” is the latest Los Angeles response to Israel-based violence. While synagogues have supported programs such as Adopt-a-Family, and musicians have played for Rock for Israel concerts, Kosmal-Wernik contemplated what she could do to help several months ago. Although she had previously donated funds to ATZUM, founded by her friend, Rabbi Levi Lauer, “It always bothered me that I couldn’t give more,” the 27-year-old choreographer said. “So I began thinking, ‘What can I do,’ and I decided, ‘I can give my art, and I can get others to do the same.'”

As Kosmal-Wernik enlisted performers such as choreographer Ben Levy, she kept costs minimal to match ATZUM’s practice of rigorously limiting overhead.

“Every cent raised will go toward families in need,” said Lauer, who will speak at the event.

The concert will include two works Kosmal-Wernik choreographed in response to her own experience of living in Jerusalem from 2001 to 2003. The alternately agitated and hopeful movements of “Two Years in a Land” reflect the conflicting emotions she felt about remaining in Israel after a car bomb exploded near her apartment.

When a 19-year-old family friend was blown up at the Naharia train station, she interviewed his mother to create a dance memorial; the piece features seven performers, symbolizing the seven days of shiva, who protectively surround the mourner.

Kosmal-Wernik hopes the upcoming concert will convey similar sentiments. “Especially now, when people are afraid to visit Israel, it’s crucial to let [Israelis] know there are Jews in another part of the world who care,” she said.

For information about the June 20, 7 p.m. performancecall (310) 274-6388, ext. 560 or contact For informationabout ATZUM, visit .

Emanuel’s Jumpin’ at the Synaplex

It’s erev Shabbat, and this joint is jumpin’. As dusk deepens, seniors who have just emerged from a talk on globalization mingle with new arrivals in the lobby of Temple Emanuel’s school building on Burton Way in Beverly Hills, where "Cafe Synaplex" has been set up. In the building’s social hall, young professionals sample hors d’oeuvres and chat before a catered dinner.

Meanwhile, across Clark Drive in the Reform temple’s main building, Emanuel’s associate rabbi, Jonathan Aaron, and its assistant cantor, Judy Greenfeld, are beginning the service that caters to families with small children. As families stand around a U-shaped arrangement of tables covered with Shabbat objects and flowers, Greenfeld and Aaron lead them in song.

This programming comes at a time when ever-higher proportions of unaffiliated American Jews are causing synagogue professionals and lay leaders to search for ways to make the temple a more appealing place to be Jewish. The leaders often look to "synagogue transformation" ideas devised by think-tanks and organizations that have sprung up in recent years within and alongside the major Jewish movements.

Since last fall, Temple Emanuel has been participating in a program called Synaplex, sponsored in partnership with STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal), a nonprofit foundation. Offered once a month on Friday night and once on Shabbat morning, Synaplex seeks to bring members and unaffiliated Jews into the temple with different activities on Shabbat, much as a multiscreen movie theater caters to filmgoers with disparate tastes.

"We provide multiple entries to Shabbat," said Richard Tell, an Emanuel vice president who serves as general chairman for Synaplex. "To some, it’s prayer; to some, it’s study; to some, it’s Israel."

Accordingly, Synaplex starts at 4:15 p.m. with a current events/contemporary issues program geared to seniors in the mood for something to chew on intellectually. Gerry Nelson, coordinator for the current affairs program, arranges for speakers to facilitate "a host of economic, social and political discussions." Guest speakers are also brought in for the discussion program, "Israel Matters."

A recent addition to the Synaplex lineup is a healing service, added in response to calls from the Emanuel community after a much-loved congregant, Ilana Rosenberg, 16, was gravely injured in an automobile accident last month. More than 100 people, including many teenagers, sat in concentric circles as the afternoon light faded during the most recent Friday Synaplex to pray for Ilana, who is still in the early stages of a slow recovery.

Meeting the needs of the Emanuel community is an often-stated priority for Synaplex. "Sometimes we lead the congregation; sometimes the congregation leads us," Tell said.

The Shabbat dinner party has grown from a handful of couples last fall to up to 40 singles and couples, professionals in their late 20s to early 40s. Dinner chairperson Jody Podolsky said attendees typically include attorneys, academics, Jewish communal professionals, people in software, health care and politics, plus a variety of folks who work in the entertainment industry.

The centerpiece of the Friday night Synaplex is "Shabbat Unplugged," a mellow Shabbat evening service held in the round and featuring lots of singing led by Aaron and Emanuel’s cantor, Yonah Kliger. After the service, congregants are invited to share songs, stories and stand-up routines at "Open Mic Night."

Similarly, Emanuel’s Shabbat morning Synaplex is built around the temple’s New Emanuel Minyan and also offers classes, a mitzvah program, children’s programming and even yoga.

Twelve synagogues across the denominational spectrum were chosen by STAR for Synaplex funding, most of them in the Northeast or California.

Not all the Synaplex temples are nearly as large as the 1,000-household Emanuel, but they are synagogues that have an active volunteer corps and access to Jewish resources, such as professors and other rabbis, in the community, said Rabbi Hayim Herring, executive director of the Minneapolis-based STAR. The foundation also looks for temples that "are moving along a certain path: not just offering tefilot [prayers] but other programs" and are well-stocked with "risk-takers and innovators," Herring added.

Temple Emanuel, which had already established alternative Shabbat services and has a history of lively programming, was a good fit for Synaplex, said Rabbi Laura Geller, who made the match with STAR. She added that the temple’s board of directors, which embraced the program enthusiastically, is "willing to be playful and experimental" and, over the temple’s initial three-year commitment to Synaplex, to give the program "time to evolve and to grow and to take risks and make mistakes."

Ron Wolfson, vice president of the University of Judaism and co-founder of Synagogue 2000, the first of the "synagogue transformation" think tanks, lauded the Synaplex concept. "Any attempt to invigorate synagogue life is great, and I’m all in favor," he said.

Wolfson’s only caution was that "programming is essential but not the core of building a synagogue," explaining that a temple needed to create and maintain a culture in which congregants and potential congregants felt a strong emotional connection to the institution and its people. "My hope is that [Synaplex] goes beyond programming to address the issue of engagement with synagogue life," he said.

Whether Synaplex will result in more members for the already-thriving Temple Emanuel and a greater number of member hours spent in shul remains to be seen, but Geller sees the bustling rooms and halls of her temple as an answer to the question: "How do you turn Friday and Saturday into Shabbat?"

"How we reach people is a challenge," she said. "It’s been an interesting challenge and quite exciting."

For more information about Temple Emanuel and its Synaplex, call Yoni Rosenberg, director of membership and programs, at (310) 274 6388, ext. 236.

Rebel, Rebel

Rabbi Jonathan Aaron of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills knows as much about show business as shul business.

The 39-year-old rabbi, a former actor and managing director of the Open Forum Theatre in Connecticut, is the author of a new musical, “Hyrcanus,” an intergenerational production of the temple’s Emanuel Arts Center.

The story, enacted by 65 actors, singers and dancers, aged 7 to 87, is based on the life of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, a renowned scholar of the Talmud (circa 80-120 C.E.) who captured Aaron’s imagination in rabbinical school. In the musical, the young Hyrcanus, frustrated with his life as a farmer, leaves home to learn from the great Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, even though he does not know a word of Torah. Angry about his desertion, Eliezer’s father follows him to Jerusalem to tell him he is cut off from the family fortune — but learns more about his son than he ever imagined.

Why did Aaron pick Hyrcanus for his musical theater debut? “Nobody knows the rabbinical stories, and I think they’re the richest stories in Judaism,” says the rabbi, who is married to Michelle Azar, the managing director of an L.A. theater company, Neurotic Young Urbanites. “Most Jews think the Bible is it, but Judiasm has much more to offer.”

“Hyrcanus is the only rabbi who was ever excommunicated,” adds Aaron, noting that more than 300 of his halachot are quoted in the Talmud. “So I’ve always loved him. I like people who are a bit on the edge.” The excommunication was politically motivated and occurred after the time span depicted in the play. But the children in the cast identify with the determined young man, Aaron notes.

“They recognize the rebellion of the child against his parents,” concurs Nili Kosmal, the Israeli-born director of the play and the Emanuel Arts Center. “And the parents recognize how the character of the father needs to let his son spread his wings and fly.”

Kosmal, who came to the U.S. in 1966 to earn a theater degree at UCLA, drew her cast from every segment of the shul’s population, from the religious school to the day school to the sisterhood. The performers include a USC professor, a personal injury attorney, even Tom Cruise’s agent, Lawrence Kopeikin. To secure a young lead actor, Kosmal turned to Aaron, who recalled officiating at the bar mitzvah of a teenager who had a good singing voice and had quickly memorized his Torah portion. Nicolas Krasney, now 14, is playing Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, and his real-life father, Robert Krasney, is portraying his father in the play. “We have at least 20 families participating together, which is one of the Center’s goals, along with teaching Judaism through the arts,” Kosmal says.

Center President Marilyn Weiss has a theory about why the intergenerational productions work: “It allows people to learn about Jewish tradition in a unique way,” she says. “It’s a very different type of learning than goes on in the classroom.”

For some cast members, the upcoming play will be especially memorable. Two years ago, active shul member Charlotte Goode played a breast-cancer patient leaving an ethical will for her granddaughter in the Center’s “From Generation to Generation.” After the performance, Goode herself was diagnosed with cancer and underwent treatment. “She battled the cancer, and she is still a bit frail, but she is determined to perform in the play this year,” Kosmal says.

“Hyrcanus” runs Feb. 24 and 25 at the Emanuel Arts Theater, 8844 Burton Way in Beverly Hills. For tickets, call (310) 274-6388 ext. 232.