January 21, 2019

Moving & Shaking: Top Israeli Sephardic Rabbi Visits L.A.; Tribute Paid to Leonard Cohen

Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, and former L.A. Mayor and current California gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa meet in Los Angeles. They had a private conversation about Israel and other topics. Photo courtesy of Congregation Mogen David Rabbi Yehuda Moses

Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, visited Los Angeles from Nov. 21-26 and met with many community members and leaders, including former L.A. mayor and current gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa.

During a meeting in the rabbi’s hotel room, Villaraigosa, who is running in the 2018 California gubernatorial race, asked the Hebrew-speaking rabbi for a blessing. The two leaders also discussed pluralism issues facing Israel in light of the Reform movement’s efforts to create a mixed prayer space at the Western Wall.

“It was a very interesting conversation,” Congregation Mogen David Rabbi Yehuda Moses said. “I was in the room. I thought it would be a two-minute conversation. It was a 15-minute conversation.”

Yosef’s trip was coordinated by Moses, who received rabbinic ordination from Yosef’s late father, former chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel Ovadia Yosef. It was the first time Yosef visited Los Angeles since his appointment in 2013.

The chief rabbi, author of books on Jewish law important to the Sephardic and Mizrahi communities, also met with Chabad of California Rabbi Baruch Shlomo Cunin; Rabbi David Zargari of Torat Hayim; Nessah Congregation Chief Rabbi David Shofet; and Rabbi Netanel Louie of the Eretz Cultural Center.

Yosef also spoke to about 700 representatives of the Sephardic community at the Eretz Cultural Center in Tarzana. “He strengthened the whole community,”
Moses said.

From left: Limmud FSU co-founders Sandra Cahn and Chaim Chesler, Israeli Minister Ofir Akunis and singer Mike Burstyn at the event “Leonard Cohen and Judaism” at Hillel at UCLA. Photo by Eli Mandelbaum

A Nov. 14 event at Hillel at UCLA lauded the late singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and his Jewish roots. “Leonard Cohen and Judaism” was hosted by the organization Limmud FSU and included speeches touting Cohen’s legacy and the singing of his hit song “Hallelujah” by actor-singer Mike Burstyn.

Cohen died on Nov. 7, 2016, in his Los Angeles home at the age of 82.

Limmud FSU, an organization dedicated to connecting Jews from the former Soviet Union with their roots, hosted the event in part because of Cohen’s Eastern European heritage. Chaim Chessler, the organization’s founder, pointed out that Cohen’s mother and paternal grandfather were from the region.

The event included a rendition of “Promise,” an unreleased song by Cohen that was performed by local musician Willie Aron, who co-produced it.

“When the world is false, I won’t say it’s true,” Aron sang. “When the darkness comes, I’ll be there with you.”

Speeches addressed Cohen’s connection with Judaism and the liturgical roots in many of his lyrics.

Cohen taught that “in order for us to be whole, we have to realize the shadow, the darkness, and not hide from it,” said Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, president of the Academy for Jewish Religion California, a transdenominational seminary that shares a building with Hillel.

Ofir Akunis, a Likud member of the Knesset and Israeli minister of science, technology and space, also spoke at the event, calling Cohen “one of the greatest artists of all time” and applauding his “tight connections to the Jewish people.” Akunis referenced Cohen’s 1973 trip to Israel to perform for soldiers during the Yom Kippur War as a sign of the artist’s connection with the Jewish state.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director emeritus of Hillel at UCLA, praised Cohen’s ability to combine Judaism and universalism. “Cohen translated Judaism through music,” he said, “and ask any musician, music transcends boundaries. … He was our rebbe.”

Eitan Arom, Senior Writer

Zane Buzby (right), founder of the Survivor Mitzvah Project, was honored Nov. 27 by the Mensch International Foundation, founded by Steven Geiger. Photo courtesy of the Mensch International Foundation

The Mensch International Foundation honored four community members with the Mensch Award on Nov. 27 at Sinai Temple.

The honorees were Michael Berenbaum, professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University; Zane Buzby, founder of the Survivor Mitzvah Project; former Sinai Temple Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz, who served there for 47 years; and Meir Fenigstein, president and founder of the Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles.

“The first award I received was the Silver Angel Award, 37 years ago,” Berenbaum said. “I told my mother about it and she said, ‘I already know you are an angel, but now you should try to be a mensch.’ And here I am today, a real mensch.”

Steven Geiger established the foundation 15 years ago in Hungary, where he was born. The organization’s goal is to raise money to support Holocaust survivors in need and to combat anti-Semitism and stereotyping through education.

Geiger has named many well-known figures as recipients of the Mensch Award, including former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau and former president of Israel Yitzhak Navon.

Actress Frances Fisher introduced Buzby, an actress, film director and philanthropist who then screened a short video documenting the harsh conditions facing Holocaust survivors living in
Eastern Europe.

“I founded the Survivor Mitzvah Project to change their lives, but they are the ones who changed mine,” she said.

Dershowitz was born in Czechoslovakia in 1928 and fled the country with his family 33 days before the Nazi invasion. The family settled in New York City. Dershowitz, who also served as a chaplain in the Southern California prison system for many years, said the award actually “belongs to my parents, who were the real mensches.”

Fenigstein was moved to tears as he recalled his parents, both of whom were Holocaust survivors. “Their love and support gave me the energy to follow
my passion, and I’m here because of them,” he said. “They would have been very proud of me if they saw me
here today.”

The event commemorated the 70th anniversary of United Nations Resolution 181, which was passed by the U.N. General Assembly on Nov. 29, 1947, and called for the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states.

A panel discussion about the U.N. resolution followed the award ceremony. The speakers were Berenbaum, UCLA professor Judea Pearl, Chapman University law professor Michael Bazyler and Rabbi Moshe Kushman.

Ayala Or-El, Contributing Writer

From left: Jewish National Fund (JNF) L.A. board members Barak Lurie and Doug Williams attend the annual JNF breakfast, which they co-chaired. Photo courtesy of Jewish National Fund

More than 1,000 invited guests attended the sold-out 12th annual Jewish National Fund (JNF) Los Angeles Breakfast for Israel on Nov. 28 at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills.

Guest speakers included author and radio commentator Larry Elder and Chemi Shalev, senior columnist and U.S. analyst for the Israeli Haaretz newspaper. The topic was “Media Bias & Israel.” More than 60 table captains and partner organizations helped to bring a cross section of
civic and Jewish community members to the event.

Additional participants in the program included Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg and event co-chairs Douglas Williams and Barak Lurie.

JNF is a nonprofit organization focused on alleviating Israel’s water shortage, promoting education, maintaining more than 250,000 acres of forest in Israel,
and more.

Roman Catholic Priest Father Patrick Desbois (left), author of “The Holocaust by Bullets,” appeared in conversation with Heritage Retreats’ Rabbi Mordechai Kreitenberg. Photo courtesy of Miller Ink

Humanitarian and Roman Catholic priest Father Patrick Desbois appeared in conversation with Heritage Retreats’ Rabbi Mordechai Kreitenberg and philanthropist Mitchell Julis at the Museum of Tolerance’s Peltz Theater on Nov. 7.

Desbois, president of Yahad-In Unum, an organization dedicated to identifying and commemorating sites of Jewish mass executions in Eastern Europe during World War II, shared his experiences documenting genocides and educating for their prevention.

“It is a big challenge to be a believer in God while living with open eyes, but it is part of that belief to cry out,” said Desbois, author of “The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews.” “Searching for these victims who are waiting to be found is an act of faith.”

The panel opened with a video introducing Desbois’ work and contextualizing its importance in light of contemporary anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. A Q-and-A session with the audience followed the discussion.

Heritage Retreats, which provides young Jewish adults with an opportunity to engage with Judaism in outdoor wilderness settings, organized the event.

The group plans to lead trips to Poland, where participants will visit the massacre sites identified by Desbois and meet witnesses whom he has interviewed near Krakow.

Race to Aid Eastern Europe’s Forgotten Survivors

Zane Buzby hugs Mina Zalmanovna, then 80, on her second visit to see her in Pinsk, Belarus, in 2016.

In 1941, Iraida Solomonova, an 18-year-old slave laborer in Kuibyshev, U.S.S.R., was arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. She was tortured and jailed for a year.  She then spent 10 years in a Kazakhstan gulag, where she endured hard labor, hunger, insect infestations and malaria before exile to Siberia.

Now 93 and living in Kishinev, Moldova, Solomonova is a survivor of two heart attacks and suffers from hypertension and thrombophlebitis. She has difficulty walking and has not ventured outside for several years. Her gas stove leaks and her 1958 refrigerator needs replacing.

Solomonova is one of 1,000 or more people The Survivor Mitzvah Project hopes to help as the end of 2017 — the peak season for charitable giving — approaches. Zane Buzby, the project’s founder, is preparing the year’s final distribution of funds, poring over lists of Eastern European survivors who are new to the program or need additional assistance.

This year to date, Buzby has brought in more than $500,000 to help just over half of the 2,300 impoverished, ailing and mostly forgotten survivors in Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Slovakia, Russia and Ukraine on The Survivor Mitzvah Project’s current roster. She hopes to raise at least an additional $250,000 by year’s end to assist Solomonova and other survivors, whom she defines as any Jewish man, woman or child impacted by the Holocaust.

“It’s always a race to the finish. We don’t have any source of guaranteed institutional funding,” Buzby said.

The Survivor Mitzvah Project (survivormitzvah.org) has been a grass-roots effort since 2001, when the former actress and television sitcom director/producer traveled to Lithuania and Belarus to visit her grandmothers’ former shtetls. There, she encountered eight elderly survivors, living alone in Vilnius or remote Belarusian villages, poor and forgotten.

When Buzby returned to Los Angeles, she couldn’t get them out of her mind — survivors such as Zeydl Katz, then 80 and toothless, covered in dirt from digging up potatoes, his only food supply for the long winter. She began sending them money.

Zeydl Katz offers Buzby apples on her 2001 visit to Volozhin, Belarus.
Photos Courtesy of The Survivor Mitzvah Project Holocaust Educational Archive

The list of survivors quickly grew to 35 and kept expanding.

“I thought once I told people about these survivors living in such conditions, the major philanthropists and the Jewish welfare organizations would immediately step in,” she said.

They didn’t. So by 2008, Buzby had founded The Survivor Mitzvah Project, got 501(c)(3) status as a public charity, and started helping more than 750 survivors in five countries with financial aid for food, medicine, heat and shelter on a total budget of $209,000.

“These destitute survivors are forced to choose every day between food, heat and medication.” — Zane Buzby

Buzby,  a CNN Hero in 2014 and a recipient of the Anti-Defamation League’s 2017 Deborah Award, has relied mostly on individual donors. “These people who are compelled to help these last survivors are, and always have been, the lifeblood of the project,” she said.

Individual donors account for 91 percent of all contributions, mostly small donations averaging $150, with some up to $5,000 or $10,000. The project receives some larger contributions from corporate and family foundations.

In 2016, the project’s best year to date, it raised $711,185. All donations go directly to help survivors, except those earmarked specifically for general support, which include an annual contribution for overhead from the project’s co-founder, Chic Wolk, 91, and help from foundations for translators. Buzby takes no salary.

The project wants to ensure that each survivor — each of whom has been vetted — receives $150 a month, or $1,800 a year, for adequate food, medication and heat. But the need always has exceeded the resources, and providing all of the survivors on the current roster with $1,800 a year would require $4.1 million.

With less than $1 million a year, Buzby and her staff are forced to triage, distributing funds according to need. Crisis situations, such as hospitalizations, surgeries, expensive medications, caregivers and broken windows, are covered by a small emergency fund.

Over the years, the project has been life-changing for survivors, providing emergency aid as well as friendship and hope.

Anna Israelevna, 93, from Kherson, Ukraine, wrote to Buzby: “Thanks to The Survivor Mitzvah Project, I stay alive, I am warm, I have food, and because you helped me, I was able to have the operation on my eyes, and now I can see.”

Like most American Jews who Buzby meets, she once believed that the majority of Eastern European Jews had been murdered by the Nazis or had emigrated to the United States or Israel.

But many thousands were — and still are — struggling in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Their current pensions average $75 a month, just $18 a month above the line the World Bank established in 2015 for measuring extreme poverty. Some pensions, particularly in Moldova, are as low as $10 a month.

“These destitute survivors are forced to choose every day between food, heat and medication,” Buzby said.

These are survivors who receive no compensation or only a minimal, one-time payment of reparation funds from Germany as negotiated by the Claims Conference, and who receive no or minimal goods and services from the Joint Distribution Committee.

Data culled in September 2017 from 530 Survivor Mitzvah aid applications show that 69 percent of survivors do not have enough food; 73 percent cannot pay for doctors, hospitals or medication; and 50 percent need help with daily tasks or home improvements.

As they age — most are in their mid-80s to mid-90s — and encounter more health issues without health insurance or government assistance, their situation becomes more urgent.

And the number in need continues to grow.

The Claims Conference recently changed eligibility requirements for survivors in the former Soviet Union, cutting off compensation funds to 3,000. Many of those are seeking aid from The Survivor Mitzvah Project, which already has helped more than 100. (To help all 3,000 would require $5.4 million a year.)

Buzby also received the names of 70 survivors from Father Patrick Desbois’ organization Yahad-In Unum, which locates and marks the Einsatzgruppen killing fields of Eastern Europe and interviews aging witnesses. Buzby began collaborating with Desbois in 2015.

Buzby receives additional names from other survivors and volunteers in Eastern Europe.

Since her initial trip in 2001, Buzby has made 12 expeditions to Eastern Europe. She’s had the opportunity to see firsthand the impact that the project has made in survivors’ lives.

Mina Zalmanovna, now 83, whom she visited in Pinsk, Belarus, in 2007 and again in 2016, now walks less painfully and without canes, and can treat her diabetes and heart problems thanks to previously unaffordable Western medications. She has a new gas stove, replacing a wood-burning unit, new windows to protect her from rain and snow, and new curtains.

“You are my rescuers,” Zalmanovna wrote.

Buzby is planning an expedition to Moldova, where more than 1,200 survivors are scattered across 16 cities and villages. But first she needs to raise at least $120,000 to distribute.

More than 75 years since the start of World War II, Buzby is hoping major funders will step in so every survivor on her list can be helped and she can begin the search for the tens of thousands still out there suffering.

“Everyone has to die,” Buzby said. “But for a Holocaust survivor to die of neglect, what does that say about us as a people?”