Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Jordan Farmar and the Jewish future

From: The Jewish Journal

It’s the second night of Passover, and Jordan Farmar is warming up under the bright lights of Staples Center. His teammates have already slipped into the locker room to decompress before taking the court against the Denver Nuggets. Farmar is still taking shot after shot.

Peeling off imaginary screens, pulling up as he’s running down the court, stepping to the free-throw line. Swish. Swish. Swish.

Alone on the court before the sell-out crowd arrives for one of the last home games of the regular season, Farmar looks as dominant as he did when he led Woodland Hills’ Taft High School to the city title, as flawless as he did in an NCAA run that took UCLA to the championship game. It’s difficult to remember that in his third year playing pro, all with the Los Angeles Lakers, Farmar hasn’t been so splendid: surgery, limited playing time, a diminished role.

Farmar finished the season poorly, and in Sunday’s playoff opener against the Utah Jazz he played just under four minutes, registering zero points and one assist. Lakers fans have started to trash the once-popular back-up point guard who last year showed so much promise.

But Farmar is only 22 and has “nothing but time.” He knows he’ll get his chance and that he cares too much to let it pass by.

And despite the struggles, Farmar already is a well-known name among basketball followers. His “brand,” as he calls it, has been bolstered by playing for two of the most storied teams in college and professional basketball history and by an oddity that would have been unfathomable 50 years ago: Jordan Farmar is the only dual Member of the Tribe and the National Basketball Association.

Indeed, a sport once dominated by Jews now counts only one MOT at the highest level. And Farmar, who doesn’t celebrate Jewish holidays and considers himself spiritual but not religious, is no Sandy Koufax. At the same time, though, Farmar doesn’t shy away from his Jewish heritage, from the mixed racial and ethnic identity to which it contributes or from the pride that many Jews take in having their own hoop hero.

“People see me as somebody they can relate to,” said Farmar, whose mother is Jewish and father, who is black, is Christian. “It’s not something I even think about. It’s more them relating to me; just me representing them and their people and what they believe and stand for. I don’t make a big deal about it. I don’t deny it or don’t stress it. I just live my life and be who I am.”

Jordan Robert Farmar was born Nov. 30, 1986, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to Damon and Melinda Farmar. He didn’t come out of the womb clutching a basketball, but he might as well have. His father was a minor league baseball player and his godfather is former major league all-star center fielder Eric Davis. Farmar quickly learned to love sports. He started playing basketball at age 4 and never wanted to do anything else.

Like many Jewish identities, Farmar’s is complicated. His parents — black and white, Christian and Jew — divorced when Farmar was 3, and he went to live with his mom, who soon met a Jew far more observant than she had been.

Yehuda Kolani had been in Los Angeles on vacation. He told Farmar’s mother not to fall in love, and that he wasn’t going to go native. After he returned to Tel Aviv, Melinda followed and brought him back to Los Angeles. They soon married, adding another tint to Jordan Farmar’s multicultural experience.

“I was born in a Christian family,” Farmar said recently. “And then my mom and dad got divorced and she married an Israeli. He was Orthodox when he was in Israel. He came over here and really reformed a lot. He wanted to have a family and treated me like his son. Everything after that was being raised in a Jewish household. Doing Shabbat dinner, celebrating the holidays and all that.”

Farmar is seated on the couch of his Redondo Beach home. It was Saturday evening and Farmar spoke as he watched North Carolina thump Villanova in the NCAA semi-final game. Over the next hour, he talked about improving his play, building his brand and whether it was more painful to miss out on an NCAA title in 2006 or NBA championship ring last year.

“College,” he said. “I was playing a lot and felt like what I did every night would make or break what happened with our team.”

He shared vaguely the details of his Jewish upbringing, largely because his experiences were limited. Farmar attended Hebrew school at Temple Judea in Tarzana and became a bar mitzvah. From his days playing at the YMCA through high school, Farmar would invite his teammates over for Shabbat dinner. He would bless the wine; his younger half sister, Shoshana, would take care of the bread.

“And that is about it,” Melinda Kolani said in a later interview. “We have friends from all nationalities and all races and all religions, so [being Jewish] is not the major focus.” But, she added: “I’m proud of being Jewish, and I want my kids to know what it is to be Jewish and to have their heritage.”

Perhaps the most apparent legacies of Farmar’s upbringing are his deep commitment to family — he has, after all, never lived outside Los Angeles County — and his appreciation for the value of money, which contributes to his entrepreneurial spirit.

Farmar grew up in a 1,500-square-foot house in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. The Van Nuys neighborhood of his childhood is pleasant, tree-lined and clearly middle class. It’s a lot further removed from his mother’s upbringing in Bel Air than the 10 or so miles that separate the two. But it was home, and it was a good home.

“We didn’t have a lot,” Melinda Kolani said. “We didn’t have abundance. But we were happy.”

Making $1.08 million this year and set to earn $1.9 million next year, Farmar is still living relatively modestly. His Redondo Beach bachelor pad, about two miles from the Pacific and three blocks from Chabad of the Beach Cities, is spacious and luxurious but far from extravagant. He drives a Mercedes and a Cadillac Escalade hybrid, and also bought Benzes for his longtime girlfriend and his mother, but has avoided the trappings that ensnare so many professional athletes. (Sports Illustrated reported last month that within five years of retirement, 78 percent of professional football players and 60 percent of basketball players are broke.)

“I make a lot of money, but if I had to stop today, I would have to work just like everybody else,” he said. “You never know what is going to happen with your career. I could get hurt tomorrow and never be able to play again.”

That maturity — the awareness that God-given gifts and talents are blessings that can be God-taken without warning — has been present in Farmar for years.

“He had this combination of high IQ, period — not just basketball — and was conscientious and a ridiculous worker and just motivated,” said Derrick Taylor, the varsity basketball coach at Taft High School. “He had the whole package.”

While starring at Taft — Farmar averaged 27.5 points with 6.5 assists per game his senior year and led the school to its first Los Angeles City title — he was already being recognized as a Jewish player. Often, this suckered opponents into underestimating him.

“I’ve seen many games, just a countless amount of times, when guys would be like, ‘What’s you got white boy?’” Taylor said. “Oh boy, that would light a fire under him and he would destroy them. He could just bring it.”

By the time Farmar arrived at UCLA in the fall of 2004, the Jewish community had discovered a star they could call their own.

“Everybody knows Jews can’t play basketball.” Or so Eric Cartman, the infamous anti-Semite on Comedy Central’s “South Park,” opined when his classmate Kyle, the fourth grade’s lone Jew, tried out for the Colorado state basketball team.

While humorous and more than a bit bigoted, this statement seems painfully true today. In 2009, notable American Jewish basketball players are the exception. But a century ago they ruled.

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame includes a handful of Jews. Arnold Jacob “Red” Auerbach, the legendary Celtics coach who won nine NBA titles in 11 years and helped integrate the game; Nat Holman, a visionary playmaker who was widely considered the greatest player of the 1920s; and Barney Sedran, who at 5-foot-4 is the shortest member of the hall. Moses Malone, though a Hall of Famer, was not among the renowned Members of the Tribe.

“Consider this,” said Dolph Schayes, another Hall of Famer who starred at New York University in the mid-1940s, “our greatest rival was St. John’s, which was a Catholic institution, and two of their best players were Hy Gotkin and Harry Boykoff. Every college in New York wanted Jewish players. Jews dominated the sport.”

Back then basketball was, in many ways, a different sport. “Today if the fans saw motion pictures of our play, they would laugh probably because the game was played below the basket, not above it,” said Schayes, who went on to be a 12-time NBA All-Star for the Syracuse Nationals and Philadelphia 76ers and the NBA’s 1966 coach of the year.

Speed and intelligence and precision took precedence over strength and size and athleticism. Not surprisingly, some found cause to denigrate Jewish basketball success.

“The reason, I suspect, that basketball appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background,” the sports editor of the New York Daily News, Paul Gallico, wrote in the 1930s, “is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart-aleckness.”

In fact, Jewish excellence on the hardwood had more to do with sociology than biology. Like boxing, which Jews also excelled at, basketball was a favored sport of the inner city, and in the first half of the 20th century, few areas were more urban than New York’s Lower East Side, where Jews were so poor they often rolled up newspaper for their ball and used a fire escape ladder as their basket. The neighborhood was a factory for basketball talent.

Indeed, of the 110 inductees to the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Commack, N.Y., about one-third were basketball players, coaches or commentators.

“This is heritage in a way you don’t think about it,” said Alan Freedman, who, as the hall’s director, travels the country and talks to children about the Jewish sports stars of the last 100 years. “If someone had done this for me, I probably would have gone to Hebrew school and not cut so much.”

Implicit in Freedman’s quip is what many at the time saw as an irreconcilable tension: sports or scholarship. Poor Jewish immigrants wanted their children to grow up to be doctors and lawyers; that left no time for mindless sports.

But Jews would find that they could excel both in class and on the court. And while basketball was in constant conflict with Jewish identity — “There is nothing more American than sports,” said Jeffrey Gurock, author of “Judaism’s Encounter With American Sports” — it also helped strengthen Jewish communities.

“Basketball played such a huge part in the Jewish community and was almost a centerpiece of social life,” said David Vyorst, executive producer of “The First Basket,” a 2008 documentary that explores basketball’s Jewish roots. “In fact, that’s how I ended up joining my JCC. I was playing in a basketball league there and I ended up taking a Torah class. It still works that way today.”

It’s just that Jews now live more comfortably and much more commonly in the suburbs. They still play basketball, but no longer develop their talent in the Petri dish of the inner city. And they can afford to, and are allowed to, play more bourgeois sports.

“The era of Jews being predominant in basketball is a bygone era,” said Gurock, who is also a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University. “It isn’t only a function of being Jewish. It is a function of being middle-class Americans and having other interests that attract them. They’ve outgrown it socially and economically.”

Basketball, too, has changed.

In 1946, when the league that would become the NBA held its first game, four of the New York Knicks’ five starters were Jewish. One of them, Ossie Schectman, scored the league’s first points. But by the time Dolph Schayes’ son, Danny, was drafted in 1981, only two Jewish players, Ernie Grunfeld and Joel Kramer, remained in the NBA.

“Basketball has always been colorblind, religion blind. It’s one of the most neutral experiences: you can play or you can’t,” Danny Schayes said. “Basketball is basketball. Being there to be part of the Jewish community was just the bonus part.”

Although he didn’t see himself as a Jewish symbol, Schayes was embraced by some fans simply because he was Jewish. A journeyman center who played for eight teams in 18 years, including the Lakers, he remembers being cheered on several times in New York and Los Angeles by young Jewish fans waving yarmulkes.

He retired in 1999, and until Farmar was taken by the Lakers with the 26th pick of the 2006 draft, the NBA was Jew free.

The small Jewish athlete corps has given way to an at-times searing spotlight for those fortunate enough to have made it. Top Jewish sports stars, past and present, tend to be household names: Mark Spitz and Dara Torres in swimming; Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax, Shawn Green, Kevin Youkilis and Ryan Braun in baseball; Benny Friedman in football; Barney “Pride of the Ghetto” Ross and Benny “Ghetto Wizard” Leonard in boxing; Schayes, Sedran, Holman and Auerbach in basketball.

Maybe someday Farmar, too.

The added attention often poses unique challenges. Athletes appreciate the built-in stable of supporters, but there is an expectation that comes with it.

Braun, who is known as the Hebrew Hammer and in two years playing left field for the Milwaukee Brewers has been National League Rookie of the Year and an All-Star, has been willing to carry the flag. But he didn’t ask to be a spokesman. Never was this more apparent than during last summer’s All-Star weekend.

During a press conference, Braun was asked whether he thought an off-the-cuff comment that Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson had made over the weekend was anti-Semitic. Too much was being made of too little, and, as the JTA staff quipped on its blog, “Poor Ryan Braun is expected to play Abe Foxman instead of left field.”

Braun, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley and attended Granada Hills High School, tried his best to neither offend baseball’s Mr. October nor anyone at the Anti-Defamation League.

“Obviously, it would be disappointing,” Braun said, “but until I’ve actually had a chance to see the comment I couldn’t really respond to it.”

Mike Bauman, a columnist for, remarked at the time, “A player who wasn’t Jewish would never get this kind of question. If some prominent person made, for instance, an anti-Protestant remark, the Presbyterian and Lutheran players would not be quizzed about it. But Braun gets the difference.”

Braun realizes that he’s not just another ballplayer. He’s a Jewish ballplayer. Even though hitting home runs and knocking in runs and securing wins are the most important part of his job, he can’t avoid being what others need him to be.

“I think that it’s something that comes with the territory,” Braun added. “There aren’t too many Jewish athletes at the highest level. It’s something that I certainly embrace. But there are times when people expect me to be aware of issues, like that specific example.

“I didn’t have any idea what he was talking about.”

In this realm, Farmar and Braun have a lot in common. When asked what he thought about President Obama’s so-called Jewish problem during his campaign last year, Farmar, who introduced Obama at a Newport Beach fundraiser, said he hadn’t heard anything about it. Indeed, today’s top Jewish athletes, whether deeply committed or only distantly observant, prove just how remarkable Koufax, possibly the greatest Jewish athlete since King David, was when he refused to pitch Game One of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.

“I wish people wouldn’t say — and I’ve heard this from others — don’t think of me as a Jewish ballplayer or African American or whatever. But that is the way we look at it,” said Freedman, the Jewish hall of fame director. “We all have that feeling of pride when we hear Adam Sandler’s ‘Chanukah Song.’ We are looking at them and put this pressure on them. I look at Ryan Braun and say that Ryan Braun is a great left fielder and a great home-run hitter and he’s Jewish.”

Farmar has picked the spots to blend his identities as athlete and Jew. Last September, he joined the star-studded Chabad Telethon and shot free-throws as a fundraiser.

“Jordan is a real mensch,” said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, executive producer of the telethon and CEO of Chabad of California. “He raised $66,600 in 90 seconds. How many people can say that? He made 37 free throws in 90 seconds. That is a lot of mitzvahs, as we say.”

Before that, in August, Farmar had made his third visit to the Jewish state. But this trip to Israel wasn’t to travel with family. Instead he spent a week leading a basketball camp for Israeli and Palestinian children, getting them to play on the same team and to, at least for a few moments, leave all their differences aside.

“I wasn’t trying to convert anyone or change anyone’s beliefs. I was just trying to open their eyes to just being kids rather than thinking about religion or war or anything like that,” Farmar said.

“For me it doesn’t make any difference one way or another who is in control of that area or whose region it really is or belongs to,” he added. “Like I said, I don’t practice religion like that, so it doesn’t matter to me. But to see people affected by it, it’s unfortunate. Being a kid from a multicultural background, I know that different cultures and different races can coexist and make things happen and work.

“It’s just that their beliefs are completely opposite, and Middle Eastern people are very stubborn. They’ll do anything for their beliefs. They’ll die for it,” he said. “So I don’t know if it will ever end.”

In addition to those endeavors, last summer Farmar started Hoop Farm, a basketball camp he leads at UCLA that also encourages kids to be eco-friendly, and this summer he is hosting the first annual Jordan Farmar Celebrity Golf Classic at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks. The proceeds from the golf tournament will benefit the Jordan Farmar Foundation, which is run by his mother and primarily helps at-risk youths and children undergoing cancer treatment at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA.

Successful as these efforts are, they won’t change the fact that what’s most important when Farmar steps on the court is how he performs.

“The bottom line is he will be judged for the merit of his play,” Danny Schayes said. “One thing you learn in sports is there is no residual benefit outside of your play. It’s not something where you get additional kudos because you have a foundation or you are the only Jewish player — you can play or you can’t.”

And in that arena Farmar has been hindered this year by the first serious injury of his career, a tear of the lateral meniscus in his left knee that required surgery and sidelined him for a month. He’s struggled since returning, putting up weaker numbers (6.4 points per game) and getting less playing time (18.3 minutes per game) than he did last year. He hit his roughest skid in the last week of the regular season and fans have begun piling on, writing enough disparaging questions to the Los Angeles Times last week to fill out a “Bash Jordan Farmar Q&A.”

“Is it me or is Phil Jackson tightening his reins on Jordan Farmar’s sloppy play?” one fan asked. “His playing this year has been pretty bad, and I could not consider him to be the Lakers’ future starting point guard.”

“No, Roger, it’s not just you. It’s Phil also,” the Times sportswriter responded. “Take the last five regular-season games as an example. Jackson has used Farmar less, playing him 15 minutes, 14, five (all in the first half against Portland), 13 and 17. And Farmar hasn’t been productive. He has scored 12 total points during that five-game span. He has made only 17.3% of his shots, 22.2% of his three-pointers, over that time.”

Farmar is clearly frustrated. “He expected more of himself and a bigger year this year,” Taylor, his high school coach, said. “He thought he was turning the corner.”

But as the Lakers continue their playoff series tonight, April 23, against the Utah Jazz, Farmar is looking to reclaim his spot as their point guard of the future and to show that he can star alongside the best players in the world.

“It’s been up and down trying to stay levelheaded and consistent and continue to improve and help this team however I can. I’m still only 22, but this is my third year and I wanted to be farther along. Starting or close to it, definitely playing a lot of minutes,” Farmar said. “I have no concerns it’s going to work out for me. I care too much and I work too hard. Hopefully, we’ll be able to come home with a championship this year.”

Lakers fans and more than a few Jews are pulling for him.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Why blame the Jews?

From: The Jewish Journal

Henry Lehman left Bavaria in 1844 for a peddler’s life in rural Alabama. Within a year he had saved enough money to open a dry goods store in Montgomery, and a few years later he was able to send for his brothers, Emanuel and Mayer. The firm, Lehman Brothers, expanded, moved into cotton trading and in 1958 opened a New York office, where their prestige grew as international financiers and members of the German Jewish royalty. For the next century the holdings company, one of Wall Street’s most storied investment banks, always was led by a Lehman and, regardless of staff demographics after that, always identifiably Jewish.

All that ended Sept. 15, 2008 — the day Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, the United States economy fell off the cliff it had been marching toward and anti-Semitism received a powerful shot in the arm.

“Yes all the jews ... you are all complicit in being a blight on the community ... money money money ... it’s the only song the jews sing and the only thing they eat ... what they won’t do for money….” a reader from New York, identified as Shawna Murray, commented on The God Blog on this newspaper’s Web site, after reading an Oct. 8 post about the spike in anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semites have long fed off fallacious claims that Jews drink the blood of gentile financial calamity. And, reality be damned, they wasted little time before lobbing such attacks this go-around.

Given the anonymous nature of the Internet, it’s impossible to know whether such sentiments signified a new surge in hatred of Jews or were simply a sign of increased efforts by an angry few. But it appears that more than just the usual suspects have bought into the conspiracy theories and abject anti-Semitism. In February, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported 40 percent of Europeans in seven countries — Austria, Britain, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Spain — believe Jews have too much power in business and nearly a third blame Jews for the economic crisis.

“Jews run the world,” Draskovics Andras, a leader in the right-wing Hungarian Guard movement, said in remarks televised on Hungarian TV last month. Jews “need only 2 billion people for their tricks, and the rest of mankind will be executed.”

Though less socially acceptable in the United States, anti-Semitic attitudes appear to be just as common.

In January, Neil Malhotra, an assistant professor at Stanford School of Business, and Yotam Margalit of Columbia University set out to determine just how much blame Americans were assigning to history’s favorite scapegoat. And though the ADL regularly finds that fewer than 20 percent of Americans harbor anti-Semitic attitudes regarding Jewish business practices, Malhotra and Margalit’s study suggests that the historic urge to outsource blame is bringing in at least a few new faces.

Primed with news articles related to the crisis, including one about Bernard Madoff, the macher who made off with billions from the American Jewish community and admitted to running a $50 billion Ponzi scheme, study participants were asked the question: “How much to blame were the Jews for the financial crisis?” They then had to choose between “a great deal, a lot, a moderate amount, a little and not at all.”

“Among non-Jewish respondents,” Malhotra told The Journal, “a strikingly high 24.6 percent of Americans blanketly blamed ‘the Jews’ a moderate amount or more, and 38.4 percent attributed at least some level of blame to the group.”

The campaign against the Jews began shortly after Lehman’s collapse. On Oct. 2, a rumor, based on insinuation and wishful thinking, began circulating on anti-Semitic blogs that before going belly-up Lehman had diverted $400 billion — that’s billion with a “b” — to accounts in Israel.

The origin of this claim was a Bloomberg article reporting that before the company’s collapse, its assets fell from $500 billion to less than $100 billion — a drop of $400 billion. A Lehman trustee attributed this to a “proverbial run on the bank.” The article contained no mention of Israel or Jews or any recipient of these billions, but anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists knew the only answer for the money’s disappearance was Jewish clannishness and trickery.

“The reality is irrelevant. Anti-Semites and bigots and people who accept stereotypes have nothing to do with reality. Facts don’t matter. They create their own,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, said in an interview.

“Sometimes in bigotry you use a modicum of facts to build your conspiracy,” Foxman said. “If the economy was not in crisis, bigots could not use the economy as a platform on which to operate. Lehman, Bear Sterns, the current Fed chairman, the previous Fed chairman — but that assumes a classic anti-Semitic canard that all these people are in these positions because they are Jewish and therefore act out their Jewishness.”

This is familiar territory for the Jewish people. From poisoning the well to plunging Weimar Germany into desperate poverty, Jews have often been blamed for otherwise explainable tragedies (such as poor sanitation and war reparations).

Anti-Semites looked to the business pages and found Jewish names being mentioned in almost inverse relation to the stock market’s decline.

They turned to Washington and found Jewish economists being blamed for policies that precipitated the crisis and labeled as Jews several policymakers who aren’t, such as former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and his successor Timothy Geithner.

And then in early December, anti-Semites received an early Christmas gift: Bernard Madoff.

Never mind the culpability of the policies of President Bush and President Clinton, the mortgage lending practices of the likes of Countrywide’s Angelo Mozilo — let alone the conspicuous consumption of the American consumer.

Anti-Semites prefer to discount the facts and cling to convenient Jewish names and faces.


“I am actually grateful for this opportunity to publicly speak about my crimes, for which I am so deeply sorry and ashamed,” Bernard Madoff told a U.S. District judge in New York on March 12. “As I engaged in my fraud, I knew what I was doing [was] wrong, indeed criminal.”

With this statement, Madoff, the biggest con man in American history, plead guilty to 11 counts of fraud and accepted the fact that he almost certainly will die in prison.

On top of stripping billions from Jewish nonprofits and their megadonors, Madoff confirmed every ugly stereotype anti-Semites tend to promulgate about Jews. Crooked. Wicked. Consumed by a lust for mammon to the point of moral bankruptcy. Madoff was a walking stereotype — as Foxman said, “a cherry on the top for bigots.”

But Madoff, 70, did not cause the economic collapse. In fact, if the stock market hadn’t plunged about 35 percent between mid-September and mid-November, he and the so-called mini-Madoffs now coming to light likely would have continued their fictitious businesses and have kept robbing Peter to pay Paul. Far from a cause of the recession, the wreckage brought on by Madoff — “scoundrel of scoundrels,” in the words of Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel, one of his multimillion-dollar victims — was a consequence of it.

There were, however, plenty in legitimate corners of the financial services industry who deserve their share of blame. It’s just that their mistakes have nothing to do with their identities as Jews.

Shortly after news of the economic crisis broke, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” aired a sketch that poked fun at people the comedy show’s writers thought were getting rich on taxpayer money. In a skit depicting a press conference on the federal government’s $700 billion bailout, an actor impersonating George Soros, the billionaire Holocaust survivor, said in a thick accent that he had pocketed the government’s money, which he converted to Swiss francs because he was shorting on the U.S. dollar. Yuppie speculators and “deadbeats” who were approved for loans without credit or jobs also were pilloried. Herbert and Marion Sandler got the worst of it.

The Sandlers had sold Golden West, a savings and loan reportedly filled with bad assets, to Wachovia Bank for $24 billion in 2006. “Actually, we’ve done quite well. We’re very happy,” Marion Sandler said in the sketch, as the screen subtitles identified her and her husband as “people who should be shot.”

Whether these caricatures were anti-Semitic or simply satirical has been a point of debate, in this newspaper and others. Regardless, the Sandlers certainly weren’t pleased.

“I have been listening to this crap for two years,” Sandler told the Associated Press the morning after the SNL sketch. “We are being unfairly tarred. People have been telling us to speak out for some time, but we didn’t think it was appropriate. That was clearly a mistake.”

“Unfairly tarred” is another point of debate. By September, Wachovia had become so fiscally troubled, in part because of Golden West’s toxic assets, that the bank had to be saved by Wells Fargo. Sandler did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but NBC apologized and has edited the Sandlers out of the version of the sketch that can be seen at and, the latter of which is partially owned by NBC.

To be sure, there are people who happen to be Jewish who deserve blame for their role in the financial crisis. And many would argue that the Sandlers are among those topping the list. But it’s hard to argue that their actions, like those of former Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld or former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, have anything to do with being Jewish.

These were decisions made as banking executives and economic policy leaders, and not at the diabolical direction of the Elders of Zion.

In fact, the genesis of the global economic malaise was as American as Chevy trucks and apple pie.

The collapse began as a crisis in credit markets, which had been contaminated by the U.S. housing market, which had been precariously propped up by bad lending practices and rabid real estate speculation. All the while, consumers kept spending more and more. Dismal salary increases were no deterrent for homeowners. There was plenty of cash stashed inside that exponentially appreciating home for a new motorcycle or boat or Hawaiian vacation.

The profits weren’t real, but homeowners spent as if they were. Bankers were all too eager to keep supply in line with demand. And Washington politicians gladly looked the other way.

Indeed, economists say the meltdown had too many moving parts — speculative home buying, lax financial regulations, low interest rates, etc. — to pinpoint one clear catalyst.

“The current problem is one of certain confusion by so many people; there are so many fingerprints on this thing,” said Roy C. Smith, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business. “We don’t have an answer to who the culprit really is.”

“I’m not willing to say that person or that agency is to blame,” said Mark Thoma, an economics professor at the University of Oregon who writes the Economist’s View blog. “There were several faults, any one of which if it wasn’t there would have made a big difference.”

But what’s clear, economists agree, is that the colossal downturn was not the work of just Jews — no matter how anyone manipulates the evidence.

In a Time magazine list of 25 people to blame for the financial crisis, six Jews were among the culpable parties. The ratio is about 10 times Jews’ representation in the general population, but it is unclear whether that measure is different from that of Jewish involvement in the financial industry. What is known, though, is that while Jews are prominent and prevalent, they do not dominate the financial industry. In fact, not a single CEO of the 10 largest commercial banks, as of Sept. 30, was Jewish.

How is it then that Jews came to be so strongly identified with Wall Street and the world of international financing?


Long before 23 Dutch Jews arrived in the colony of New Amsterdam in 1654, moneylending was one of a few professions open to European Jews, who often weren’t allowed to own land or join the guilds. Moneylending was prohibited of Christians by the Catholic Church; Jews were familiar with businesses built on large amounts of risk and preferred jobs that endeared them to those in power. The glove fit — for some, a bit too well. In some cases exorbitant interest rates led many Christians to believe that Jews were more intent on destroying their debtors than on making money. The most infamous depiction, of course, is Shakespeare’s Shylock, a fictional character who has done more to color the Jewish people than just about anyone in literature — biblical or otherwise.

“The more Jews became involved with commerce, the more non-Jewish society associated them with commerce and finance, the more they became negatively stigmatized by it and the more they were excluded from noncommercial activities, such as agriculture,” said Jonathan Karp, an associate professor in Jewish studies at State University of New York, Binghamton, and author of “The Politics of Jewish Commerce: Economic Thought and Emancipation in Europe, 1638-1848.” “There was an element of a vicious cycle or a self-fulfilling prophecy that pushed Jews more and more into these activities.”

The art of charging interest was passed from father to son and so on, and though the church’s restriction eventually faded, Jews had the experience and a leg up. This would pay a pretty penny for a handful of German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the mid-to-late 1800s. Here they found a proven formula for success that was rooted in the ingenuity necessary for diaspora life and their Old World familiarity with moneylending: from rural peddlers to international financiers in a matter of only a handful of years.

It began with the Our Crowders — those aristocrats of post-Civil War New York, the Lehmans and Seligmans, the Loebs and Schiffs, the Goldmans and Sachses. “The New Crowd,” as Judith Ehrlich and Barry Rehfeld dubbed the next arrival of Jews on Wall Street in a 1989 book by that name, took over in the hyper-aggressive, private-equity days of the 1970s and 1980s. Many of these business leaders still work on Wall Street today; no longer is it a profession of necessity.

“I don’t think Jews are predominantly drawn to finance anymore. Jews are drawn to a whole variety of prestigious and lucrative professions,” said Derek Penslar, a visiting professor at Columbia University and author of “Shylock’s Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in Modern Europe.” “They have been drawn to banking and the stock market; to medicine and law; to academia. I think Jews are simply attracted to pursuits that require higher education and promise good money or a prestigious reputation. They are oriented toward brainwork, but not toward finance.”

It should be said, too, that the financial crisis — just as rough on the Jewish community as the broader American public — certainly has not been good for the Jews. Charities supporting Jewish causes have been hammered. Jewish megadonors have lost substantial chunks of their wealth and have tightened the purse strings. And professions with heavy Jewish representation have been decimated: the financial industry, real estate and construction, law and, not to be forgotten, media.

Looking forward, Jews have landed on both sides of the debate over the recession’s cause and course of action. While many worked for the banks that leveraged themselves beyond belief, and in some cases out of existence, and many worked for the government agencies that could have reigned-in an economic bubble built on low interest rates and an out-of-control housing market, many others were sounding the alarms during the years that preceded the current crisis.

This reality was replayed last month on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” when, hours after Madoff plead guilty, Jewish host Jon Stewart coolly excoriated the also-Jewish CNBC personality Jim Cramer for his network’s “cheerleading” the inflated economy and for the frenetic nature of the stock advice he belts out on “Mad Money.”

“We’re a big network. We’ve been out front, and we’ve made mistakes,” an unusually contrite Cramer said. “We’ve got 17 hours of live TV a day to do. But I —”

“Maybe you could cut down on that,” Stewart quipped.

Then in defending the advice he dishes on “Mad Money,” Cramer said, “The show has evolved as the market got tougher.”

To which Stewart offered a correction: “I think evolved might be a strong word. Mutated.”

The six-minute interview — or interrogation — became an immediate moment of cultural catharsis. Comedy Central also uploaded unaired portions of the interview onto one of its blogs, Indecision Forever, which quickly was peppered with more than 3,500 comments, the vast majority of them thanking Stewart for calling Cramer on the carpet.

Anyone who saw “The Daily Show” on March 12 — the show’s audience of 2.3 million was second in 2009 only to Inauguration Day — understood the differences between these two small-statured, big-brained, larger-than-life Jews from quite similarly modest backgrounds:

Hero and villain.

Watchdog and booster.

Prophet and king.

It didn’t matter that Cramer wasn’t responsible for the mania in home buying or irresponsibility in bank lending, that he was simply a TV personality who shouts commands to buy and sell certain stocks. It didn’t matter that, as Megan McArdle wrote for The Atlantic, “Going after Jim Cramer is like trying to fix your marriage by getting new drapes.”

Though he admittedly had offered some bad advice since Wall Street collapsed six months ago, Cramer became the fall guy for just about anything that’s wrong with the economy.

You could even call him a scapegoat.

But lost in all the scapegoating — often the case when Jews are blamed for someone else’s problems — is the crucial lesson of the U.S. and global financial crises: Most Americans and many in industrialized countries got drunk on money that didn’t exist and comfortable with lifestyles they couldn’t afford. Now the world is suffering a pretty nasty hangover.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Madoff and the LA Jewish community

From: The Jewish Journal

The stock market had been hammered for more than a year, but the Jewish Community Foundation (JCF) was doing relatively well, David Polak, chair of the JCF's investment committee, told the board of directors early this month.

The JCF's common investment pool, which manages the endowments for some of Los Angeles Jewry's biggest social service agencies, was down for the year -- but only by about 19 percent. Its performance could be attributed, at least in part, to one of the investment pool's money managers. Polak didn't identify this apparent financial all-star, which in terrible economic times had managed this year to produce almost a double-digit return on investment.

But less than 10 days later, everyone knew the name: Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities.

Last week, as the largest Ponzi scheme in history claimed hundreds of millions of dollars from Jewish organizations and institutions, the JCF reported it had lost an $18 million investment that had grown to $25.5 million on paper. Overnight, 9 percent of the money some L.A. Jewish nonprofits use to generate cash for their programs vanished.

"No one is happy, including us," said Marvin Schotland, JCF president and CEO. "But there has been an enormous amount of understanding about the unique set of circumstances that caused this to occur that could not have been foreseen or expected. It's a testament to the strength of the community, at least with respect to donors who have funds with us."

"They have not been engaged with blaming," he said. "They have not been happy, but they have understood this is an aberration."

Such a scandal -- any scandal -- had not touched the JCF before. But, then again, a Ponzi scheme on this scale had never occurred anywhere before.

The fraud has cut deep into not only Los Angeles' Jewish community but throughout the country and internationally. The list of victims has only grown since Madoff's arrest on Dec. 11.

The Jewish Community Centers Association of North America reported losses of as much as $7 million; American Technion Society no longer has $72 million. Hadassah is out $90 million and the Minneapolis Jewish community lost an estimated $100 million.

Revelations about Madoff's middlemen -- key money managers and machers across the country and the world who took a commission for directing investments to him -- have raised questions about how apprised individuals were of their investments and how knowledgeable these "fund feeders" were about Madoff's house of cards.

Stanley Chais, a Beverly Hills investment adviser, is clearly one victim. His family foundation, which annually gave $12.5 million to Jewish causes, suffered a fatal blow in the fallout. But now, Chais finds himself and his Brighton Co. the subject of a $250 million class-action lawsuit that accuses him of being not an innocent victim but a victimizer who mismanaged his clients' savings by investing with Madoff.

This is just one of many anticipated lawsuits that will likely drag on for years. Now, said Gary A. Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, "comes the inevitable search for the guilty."

The head of the Securities and Exchange Commission has already chided his staff, charged with regulating the U.S. financial securities industry, over "apparent multiple failures" in addressing all the red flags Madoff raised during the past decade.

Locally, the JCF has created a special committee to pursue the recovery of funds and investigate what procedures led the organization to invest in Madoff and whether those should be reformed. The committee includes JCF Chair Cathy Siegel Weiss and Lorin Fife, who will assume the chairmanship next month, as well as Richard Sandler, vice chair of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which lost $6.4 million and has a nonvoting seat on the JCF board.

"When something goes wrong, everybody has a thousand theories as to who did what wrong," Sandler told The Journal last week. "I've been watching all these congressional hearings for the last few months. Too much of the focus of the hearings was about who to blame instead of what to do now. I think that is a mistake."

"Obviously," he continued, "we could blame this guy Madoff. But when you look at the investment list, it is really hard to pick out a person. I am a great believer of the statement, 'But for the grace of God, there goes I.'"

The JCF made its first investment with Madoff in 2004. At the time, Madoff's fund was akin to the financial world's holy of holies -- divinely sanctified and even more exclusive. Getting in required a good connection, often from another financial titan.

Polak, chairman emeritus of L.A.-based NWQ Investment Management Co., opened that door and brought the proposal to the investment committee. They decided to invest $12 million. Two years later, in 2006, another $6 million was directed there from the common investment pool.

"We've all been surprised. The whole world has been surprised," said Polak, who stepped down last week from the investment committee. "But I'm under instructions as a member of the board from Cathy Siegel and Marvin Schotland to refer all questions to Marvin."

Schotland said the committee, whose membership hovers between eight and 10, made the decision after an "extremely robust discussion." They employed, he said, the same caution they use for each of the JCF's investments.

It is unclear whether the JCF's outside investment advisers, Cambridge Associates, recommended using Madoff. The firm was not hired until a few months after the first investment was made.

Schotland declined to speak for Cambridge, whose officials did not return calls for comment. The previous advisers, Consulting Services Group, also could not be reached.

Meanwhile, nonprofits have been re-evaluating how they will spend their money next year.

Organizations like Jewish Family Service (JFS) had already been wracked by an economy in turmoil. The California Legislature this year cut $700,000 from JFS' funding, and more state cuts are expected. While JFS' losses in the Madoff affair were relatively modest, about $425,000, they will remove another $25,000 in interest-generated revenue from the agency's budget -- an expense JFS can't afford.

"It's a convergence of factors all at once: The government is unraveling, the economy is hurting our supporters and now you have not only the decline on Wall Street but also this fraud. It's a perfect storm," said Paul Castro, JFS executive director and CEO. "We are hopeful, but it is going to be a big challenge. We are focused in on raising the dollars we can just to keep existing operations going."

Like many of the local Jewish nonprofits ensnared in the Madoff mess, JFS is a participant in the JCF common investment pool. The pool's roster has not been released, but Schotland said communal organizations, from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to Valley Beth Shalom, account for about 38 percent of the funds.

Family foundations exclusive from JCF's donor-advised funds, which account for about 70 percent of JCF's managed assets and were unaffected by the investor fraud, constitute another 6 percent. One percent of the pool comes from miscellaneous sources. And the bulk, 55 percent, belongs to the JCF and is used for grants.

In an e-mail, president Andrew Hyman of Valley Beth Shalom told the congregation that the synagogue had lost about 8 percent of its endowment, although he did not disclose the full value. The loss, he wrote, "will not have any significant negative impact on the endowment or its continuing support for the synagogue." But that doesn't mean the impact will not be significant and negative.

"It's tragic. And it has to be understood beyond one rotten apple," said Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis of the Encino synagogue. "You have to look at the barrel. We are living in a culture, and have been living in a culture of greed, of success at any price, and we have allowed that scene in the movie, 'Wall Street,' to become reality -- greed is good, and you know that as long as money comes in it is justified."

If there was any good news for Beit T'Shuvah, the Culver City-based Jewish drug and alcohol rehab center, it was that a little more than half of its $8 million endowment was withdrawn from the JCF's common investment pool earlier this year, when the agency was considering buying a halfway house, and that money hadn't been reinvested, limiting the organization's exposure to $3.6 million.

"But I think the damage is greater than the numbers -- the damage in people's trust and the damage in the whole philanthropic ideal and the fact that this hit on top of the economy are making people not want to part with their money," said Harriet Rossetto, the center's founder and CEO. "We haven't seen the extent of the damage here. It is going to keep being a domino effect -- things people haven't even thought of yet."

The next domino to fall may occur when supporters of Jewish social service agencies that lost money with Madoff realize that they no longer have the discretionary income to contribute to their regular charities.

"We have seen reported in the media the names of some people and charitable bodies who are based out here and been contributors to us. We feel bad about them and that their ability to support things we do may be reduced or eliminated," said John Fishel, Federation president. "We have not heard as of yet any impact on a larger group of donors. That is not the case in some communities on the East Coast and down in the Southeast."

Indeed, a few significant donors have already told the New York-based Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, of which Schulweis is the founding chairman, that they will no longer be contributing. Madoff himself had given in previous years.

While some donors were completely insulated from Madoff, others were acutely exposed. Everyone, though, is feeling the pinch of a tumbling economy. And this, nonprofit leaders and experts said, remains a much bigger concern than this onetime loss in funds.

"We have really had here a tsunami of economic crisis and distrust as a result of the crisis in the nonprofit sector and more specifically the Jewish communal system," said Steven Windmueller, dean of the L.A. campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and an authority on the federation system.

Still, the Madoff scandal has shaken the very core of Jewish philanthropy, threatening a key component of giving -- a donor's ability to trust that the money will be put to good use. To restore that, Windmueller said, organizations should ask a lot of questions about who is making investment decisions, what safeguard to add to the process and whether stricter investment guidelines should be self-imposed or government regulated.

"All of this is about trust, all of this is about confidence -- but before you even go through these new initiatives we are going to have a period of handwringing, the ability to take apart what happened and who's responsible."

Friday, November 07, 2008

Getting Jewish with Jesus

From: The Jewish Journal

Benyamin Cohen is not someone you'd expect to find at church.

The son of an Orthodox rabbi, the founding editor of the now-defunct American Jewish Life magazine, Cohen committed to marrying within the faith to the point that during his 20s, which preceded JDate, Cohen flew from his home in Atlanta to the deeper Jewish dating pool of New York twice a month.On a scale of Yiddishkayt, Cohen was a super Jew.

And yet there he was one day, projected 20-feet-tall, for all to see, on "Jesus' JumboTron."

"Oh, God," Cohen thought, "forgive me."

This scene, which took place at a black megachurch in Atlanta, opens Cohen's just-released memoir, "My Jesus Year: A Rabbi's Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith" (HarperOne, $24.95), named by Publishers Weekly as one of 2008's best religion books. Cohen's experience on the first Sunday of his year-long spiritual quest makes clear that he won't just be able to blend in as he visits Baptist churches and Pentecostal revivals and Christian wrestling events.

His story is also laden with Jewish guilt, a theme that runs throughout Cohen's Jewish journey, as if hell hath a special place for wandering Jews.

Cohen, 33 (the "same age as Jesus when he died"), never thought he would find himself worshipping God with the help of a gospel choir. Yet all his life he had been tantalized by Christianity, gazing from the outside at the seemingly easier lives that Christian children led. While Cohen observed the Sabbath, his Christian neighbors played baseball; while he kept kosher, they ate bacon cheeseburgers; while he said a blessing after using the bathroom, they just washed their hands.

"I am, for better or worse, burdened for all eternity by my religion," Cohen writes.

And over time it began to feel it was for worse. Judaism's rules and ritual left Cohen feeling a bit crazy. Attending synagogue, praying, worshipping God, all these things had become rote, stripped of value. Cohen felt spiritually suffocated by tradition.

"What kind of religion was it that worshiped minutiae over meaning?" he writes. "Don't get me wrong. There are brilliance and beauty in this faith. I just haven't found them yet."

Jesus, as you can imagine from the book's title, helped Cohen find that brilliance and beauty. Cohen kept his journalistic guard up and didn't drink the Jesus juice, though he did take communion. But by spending a year with Christians, Cohen's own faith was invigorated.

"Stepping outside my comfort zone and hanging out with other people gave me a fresh perspective," said Cohen, who will be on a panel and sign copies of his book on Sunday as part of the Celebration of Jewish Books at American Jewish University.

In a phone interview, he told The Journal that his journey got out of his system what had been gnawing at him for years. "I finally got to taste the forbidden fruit. I think that was always a hurdle in my spiritual growth. No matter what, I was always looking across the street at the Christians. I was finally able to experience that, and I learned the grass isn't always green at the church across the street. And I learned to appreciate my own Judaism."

His Jewishness was, in essence, born again.

"I'm getting a fresh start and being reborn," Cohen writes a little more than halfway through his journey. "At the Georgia Dome, among forty thousand Christians, on Easter, the day of resurrection."

I had looked forward to reading Cohen's memoir -- written in the Jewish tradition of A.J. Jacobs' "The Year of Living Biblically," Mark I. Pinsky's "A Jew Among the Evangelicals" and Daniel Radosh's "Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture." Cohen's tale seemed particularly poignant for me because it was, at heart, a mirror image of my own travels.

I joined The Jewish Journal last year for reasons that were as personal as they were professional. It wasn't until I became a journalist that I learned more than the most basic details of Judaism and Jewish history -- this despite three Jewish grandparents and a face that can't evade the advances of Chabadniks.

On my own Jewish journey, I've learned a lot about my family history, but I've also learned how to be a better Christian; not by pretending to keep kosher or observe the Sabbath -- not through some Messianic hybrid -- but by applying Jewish cultural values to Christian observance and appreciating the common ground between two faiths that worship the same God.

Cohen's experiences have been quite different from mine, but the life lesson -- that Christians and Jews can learn a lot about their own faiths from the other -- is the same.

Cohen's interest is not in celebrating "Jon Stewart Judaism," though he worships in that temple every night. Cohen wants to engender, or at least encourage, excited-to-be-observant Jews. And, after 52 weeks spent going to church and to Christian rock concerts and even to confession, Cohen found that Christianity can reveal many secrets to the Jewish kingdom.

In the way Christians use pop culture, such as the cartoon "VeggieTales," to teach biblical stories and spread the gospel; in the way megachurches are so welcoming to newcomers -- even being greeted by a stranger with a kiss made Cohen feel uncomfortable -- and in the way Christians get big organizations, like the Atlanta Braves, to target them with Faith Night at the ballpark.

"We shouldn't take their theology," Cohen said, "but just from a marketing perspective, there is so much we can learn from Christianity."

Near the end of the book, Cohen thanks Jesus for changing his life, for breathing new life into an ancient faith that's been in his family since Aaron. And he sounds a lot like a Christian in free-form prayer.

"Thank you, Jesus, for making me less of a cynic," Cohen writes. "Thank you for teaching me that prayers can be recited in many ways and in many languages, and that God listens anyway. Thank you for miracles, even those of the golden dental variety. Thank you for small synagogues. For big churches. For gospel choirs. For holidays. Thank you for gratitude. For sickness and health. For repentance. For the lessons gleaned from death and loss. And, most of all, thank you for rebirth."

More at The God Blog

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Obama or McCain: The fight for the Jewish vote

From: The Jewish Journal

Gov. Sarah Palin was effusive during the vice presidential debate when given the chance to express her affinity for Israel. Given the chance, Sen. Joe Biden, her Democratic counterpart, was quick to point out that he loved Israel too. In American politics, most people do.

But in this presidential election, American Jews have not been convinced that Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain, the Democrat and Republican headliners, are equal when it comes to the future of Israel. McCain has been painted as a hawk willing to wage war with Israel's enemies, Obama a naïve peacemaker who would rather talk things out.

Viral e-mails, based on half-truths and un-truths, have furthered fears about Obama. They claim he's a Muslim; he Hamas' choice; he's not who he claims to be. (He's not; he isn't; and who is?) Recently, the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) has aimed attack ads -- including "Barack Obama's Friends: Pro-Palestinian. Anti-Israel. Hostile to America." -- at Israel-first voters.

The combination has taken its toll.

Jewish voters are the evangelicals of 2008, the holy grail of the electorate, and an ungodly amount of news ink has been spilled on Obama's "Jewish problem."

Back in the spring, it seemed more like media groupthink than plausible pitfall. But the reality is that only one Democratic nominee since the Jewish political realignment under FDR has received less than 60 percent of the Jewish vote (President Jimmy Carter in 1980) -- and polls from Gallup and the American Jewish Committee show Obama struggling to achieve even that minimum level of support.

"If Barack Obama doesn't become the next president of the United States, I'm gonna blame the Jews," comedian Sarah Silverman says in a public service announcement for The Great Schlep, which last weekend sent about 100 Jews from around the country to Florida to convince their bubbes and zadies to vote for Obama. (See story page 18.)

While oddsmakers say they expect Obama to be at least on par on Election Day with past Democratic candidates -- if not receiving the 80 percent of the Jewish vote of Gore-Lieberman, certainly 70 percent or above -- many Jews, Republicans and Democrats, leaders and laypeople, remain unconvinced.

"It terrifies me," said Rabbi Sharon Brous, spiritual leader of IKAR and one of the 300 members of Rabbis for Obama.

Brous' fear is shared by many Obama supporters. Talk with the candidate's backers about the election, and you hear optimism tinged with terror, their hope for a new American future bridled by a tight presidential race and anxiety at the possibility of another four years with a Republican in the White House. Many of McCain's supporters, by contrast, can't imagine a United States led by a liberal who would, as Palin repeated several times recently, "pal around with terrorists."

The contest has split the country and the Jewish community. Feelings of anger and division have only intensified as the tactics of the campaigns, and their proxies, have gotten nastier.

"One of the most depressing developments from the past months has been the barrage of negative information I am getting from both sides of the Jewish community," a middle-age man said during a town hall discussion of the election at Temple Israel of Hollywood on Yom Kippur. "It's just which hot-button issue is going to scare people to action. Not only is this not enlightening, but it speaks incredibly poorly to what the Jewish strategists think of the Jewish community."

To be sure, the Jewish vote, like any other group, cannot be counted on to vote as a bloc, but reading the tea leaves this year has become more difficult because of the unknowns of race, let alone the economy.

Obama supporters have said that at least some Jews supporting McCain do so because they can't bring themselves to vote for a black man. McCain backers have said their liberal co-religionists are putting domestic issues, on which McCain is to the right of the non-Orthodox Jewish community, ahead of Israel and, by extension, national security.

"This is not an election where Jews feel they can wholeheartedly embrace either candidate," said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. "I've had this conversation numerous times, particularly with older people. But at some point you have to make a decision, and I doubt Jews will sit out this election."

So how will they vote? Plenty of predictions have been made -- Sarna anticipates Obama getting a "strong majority"; Michael Berenbaum, an adjunct professor of theology at American Jewish University, guarantees 70-30 favoring the Democrat, at worst. A few doubt the incumbent Republican Party can escape the election without losing voters angry about the plummeting economy, and even Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol has said McCain's presidential hopes are probably doomed.

But, of course, it's all a betting game until Nov. 4.

helly Mandell's endorsement was a surprising one. Mandell, a Westside attorney, is the Los Angeles president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the leader in feminist activism, and there she was at a Carson rally on Oct. 4, introducing Republican vice presidential nominee Palin.

"This," Mandell said, "is what a feminist looks like."

Booed when she identified herself as a lifelong Democrat, Mandell continued by stating that Palin "is a reformer who will break up that ol' boys network" and expressing hope that she might be able to change Palin's mind regarding Roe v. Wade.

The move was not appreciated by NOW's national office. Its political action committee had endorsed Obama a few weeks before. Mandell's endorsement, though, was indicative of the traditionally Democratic voters who aren't inspired by their party's candidate this year.

For her part, Palin really didn't need an introduction.

Few people had heard of the Alaskan governor when McCain tapped her to be his running mate Aug. 29. But she immediately became a preferred story subject, from her teenage daughter's pregnancy and conservative Christian worldview to her political experience and press-shy blunders. She also breathed new life into "Saturday Night Live," bringing her doppleganger, Tina Fey, back to that show's cast.

There has been hand-wringing since the get-go about whether she would be good for the Jews, not least because Palin is a self-styled Mrs. Joe Six-Pack.

Officials with the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) spoke glowingly of Palin, noting that the only flag in her governor's office is a small Israeli flag.

"She keeps that flag in her office because she keeps Israel in her heart," said Matthew Brooks, RJC executive director. "She, like John McCain, understands how to stand by Israel and support Israel and get a comprehensive peace agreement in the region."

But questions persisted.

Palin had been in the audience of her church only two weeks before joining McCain, when the national director of Jews for Jesus, David Brickner, said terrorist attacks in Israel were God's "judgment of unbelief."

"When a Palestinian from East Jerusalem took a bulldozer and went plowing through a score of cars, killing numbers of people," Brickner said, "judgment -- you can't miss it."

And people began to wonder about Palin's real view of the Jews. (She hasn't spoken about Jews, only Israel, though Larry Greenfield, RJC's California director, asserted the day Palin was selected that she was "close to the Frozen Chosen!")

The McCain campaign responded by saying Palin did not agree with Brickner's remarks. But that brouhaha was quickly followed by news that Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention used direct passages from the writings of the notorious anti-Semite, Westbrook Pegler, a mid-century columnist for the Hearst newspaper chain who once wished, in print, for the assassination of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Like Obama, Palin also was immediately plagued by a handful of untrue rumors: That she backed Pat Buchanan for president in 2000 (she supported Steve Forbes); that she moved to ban books from the Wasilla library (she asked "what if?"); and that she is a secret secessionist (she was never a member of the Alaskan Independent Party).

Amid all this noise, a few people also raised concerns about Palin's politics.

"Some of the hostility and mocking of Gov. Palin," Greenfield said, "is simply anti-Christian bigotry and discomfort with this common sense sort of Mrs. Palin Goes to Washington kind of leadership that she offers."

he acrimony surrounding Sen. Hillary Clinton's long goodbye from the Democratic presidential primary left a terribly sour taste in her supporters' mouths. This, in turn, led to much worrying that these folks would, in anger, vote for McCain. And that was before he picked a woman as his running mate.

One of Clinton's biggest backers, Lynn Forrester de Rothschild, made the move last month.

"I believe that Barack Obama, with and Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean, has taken the Democratic Party -- and they will continue to -- too far to the left," she told the Associated Press. "I'm not comfortable there."

Rothschild, who has resigned from the Democratic National Committee's planning committee, said she feels McCain would run a "centrist" government.

But Rothschild has been the exception to the rule. For an indication of just how difficult it's been for Clinton supporters, look to Daphna Ziman.

Ziman was one of Clinton's bundlers here in California. She and her husband, Richard, hosted several fundraisers for Clinton at their Beverly Hills home. And Ziman was terrified about what Obama might mean for her native Israel.

"I don't really know what he is going to do for Israel. It is a big question mark," she said in a January interview. "And we can't afford the risk."

But Ziman recently changed her tune, and this month she co-hosted with Clinton a fundraiser for Obama in downtown Los Angeles.

Why? Reproductive rights.

McCain has expressed a desire to see Roe v. Wade overturned; Palin is even more passionately pro-life. For Ziman, who founded the charity, Children Uniting Nations, which mentors inner-city kids, voting for a conservative who would likely replace at least three Supreme Court justices was out of the question.

"When I look at Islamofascism across the Muslim world, it is based on the lack of women's rights, and the ability to sacrifice that in an election is not an option for me," Ziman said.

As for Israel, Obama's selection of Biden as a running mate calmed, though it did not allay, those fears. Other prominent Los Angeles Jews have felt no discomfort regarding Obama and Israel.

Stanley P. Gold, chairman of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and a substantial giver to the Democratic Party, had backed Clinton. Now, he's known to be supporting Obama. (Gold declined to comment because of his role as the Federation's lay leader.)

Additionally, several luminaries in the L.A. rabbinate are among the leaders of Rabbis for Obama -- the first time rabbis have banded together to endorse a candidate. The organization's co-chair is Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector at American Jewish University.

"Sen. McCain has voted for President Bush's policies 95 percent of the time, and he promises to continue those policies if elected president," Dorff said when he introduced Obama in a conference call last month with 900 rabbis. "That, though, is disastrous. Absolutely nothing is better now for our country than it was eight years ago."

"Obama, by contrast," Dorff continued, "offers us intelligence, caring, individual rights; well thought out programs for improvement in education and health care; programs to stimulate American productivity and to develop alternative sources of energy; respect and honesty in dealing with our fellow citizens and our allies -- and, yes, wise and firm support for Israel and for peace in the Middle East."

Like many, Carmen Warschaw, a matriarch of L.A. Jewry, needed no convincing. She's been in Obama's camp all along.

Back in June, her home was filled with a coterie of Hollywood's who's who -- including Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation, and Michael Lynton, chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures. The mission of the Obama Los Angeles Jewish Community Leadership Committee, organized by the campaign, was to convince Jews that Obama should get their vote.

But other well-known L.A. Jews, like Ozzie Goren, the 86-year-old former Federation president, haven't been moved by Obama's message.

"Obama is a brilliant speaker. But does he say anything? Nope," Goren said. "It's just 'hope' and 'change' and 'my time.'"

One media macher you wouldn't have found at Warschaw's Beverly Hills home is Harry Sloan.

As chairman and CEO of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Sloan is an anomaly. It's unusual for Jews to be Republicans -- only about 17 percent of Jews identify as such, according to the American Jewish Committee -- but it's almost unheard of for a Hollywood insider.

He twice held fundraisers at his home for McCain, first in January 2007 and again last January. On Oct. 1, he introduced Cindy McCain at a fundraiser at the Century Plaza Hotel that brought in $3.5 million from business folks and a few Hollywood stars, including, Jon Voight and Kelsey Grammer.

Sloan, a lifelong Republican, said in an interview that, like most Americans, he is frustrated with where our country is now and headed in the future. He doesn't lay the blame squarely on the Bush administration but disperses it over all of Washington's insiders. And McCain's willingness to stand his ground when convinced of the correct course -- with unpopular immigration reform or the surge in Iraq, for example -- is exactly what he believes Washington needs.

"He is not Mr. Congeniality because he tries to make changes. We have a country that seems to be on the wrong course," Sloan said. "I don't really think he is afraid to take on anybody."

Certainly not with Iran. That's one distinction between the candidates that has highlighted the differences between hawks and doves, of varying degrees, in the Jewish community.

Both candidates have said Iran cannot be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons; on this there is no disagreement. But Obama seems more interested in talking softly, while McCain wants to wield a big stick.

Contrary to what is commonly repeated, Obama has said he would be willing to talk with leaders of rogue nations but never said he would meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denies the Holocaust and wants to see Israel wiped off the face of the Earth. Indeed, Ayatollah Khamenei is actually the head of Iran .

Not surprisingly, both sides have spun their candidate's position as being in the best interest of Israel.

"I believe that to some degree this election is a referendum on what are the most important issues of our time," said Rabbi Isaac Jeret of Congregation Ner Tamid. "To my mind, the security of the State of Israel, the security of our own country, our financial wherewithal, are the major issues of the day."

"Who selects which Supreme Court is less my immediate issue," Jeret continued, "Is the environment our national priority, for many people it is. But I want to be around for many years to address those issues, and there are many existential issues for our country and the State of Israel that are at hand."

bout 150 liberal-minded Jews were standing in the backyard of a massive house located just down the street from the mayor's official residence in Windsor Square. Projected onto the side of the house was the world premiere of a pro-Obama video readymade for YouTube that its producers hoped, and likely everyone knew, would soon go viral.

"If you knew that visiting your grandparents could change the world, would you?" Silverman asked in the opening of the video. "Of course you would."

In the four-minute short, Silverman goes on to argue that young Jews have more power to rock the vote in Florida by convincing their grandparents to vote for Obama than by staying home and simply voting for Obama in a blue state like California or New York. And so, she says, they should remember Al Gore's fate in Florida and join The Great Schlep, an effort organized by JewsVote.

Characteristic of the tit-for-tat actions of Republican and Democratic Jews this year, the RJC responded with a two-minute video from Jackie Mason, a Jewish comedian from a very different generation and caste.

Mason took issue with Silverman's insinuation that every Jew who doesn't vote for Obama is a racist -- in the video she uses her characteristic wry humor to explore how much elderly Jews and young black men have in common: they love track suits, Cadillacs, their grandkids and bling, and "all their friends are dying" -- her claim that elderly Jews don't like Obama "because his name sounds scary; it sounds Muslim, which he is obviously not."

To which Mason replied: "You're not a bigot and don't let her convince ya you are. She's a sick yenta for mentioning it."

The schleppers aren't the only Jews heading to battleground states in hopes of making a difference as Nov. 4 gets closer.

Writer Sharon Rosen Leib will head with her friend, Karen Gross, both 45, to West Palm Beach for the final days before the election. With their husbands in charge of their kids back home, they'll be staying at a friend's house and spending every waking minute promoting Obama.

On Election Day, Leib said, they plan to use their rental car as a voting booth shuttle for those who can't or don't want to drive. After all, the election could hinge on Florida, which could swing on the smallest margin of votes, and Leib needs to know she did all she can for her candidate.

"There is just too much at stake this election," Leib said, "and I felt powerless sitting at my computer, watching all the e-mails go back and forth."

Indeed, there seems to be an even greater awareness of what Berenbaum, the adjunct professor of theology, told The Journal in January:

"The last four years of the Bush administration have been disastrous. If we don't get ourselves squared away, it could be the end of the American Century and the end of the way the American Jewish community has been American in this era."

"We are voting as if our lives and futures depend upon it," he continued. "Not because we fear someone is going to come out and kill us, but because we fear that if we don't get this right, our children and their children will not enjoy the privileges this generation has enjoyed as Americans -- the economic opportunity, the prosperity, the education, all of those elements that have characterized our existence and our flourishing.

"After Florida in 2000, everybody knows that every vote absolutely counts."

More at The God Blog

A Christian makes teshuvah

From: The Jewish Journal

My first mistake was arriving when the Yom Kippur morning service at Valley Beth Shalom was scheduled to begin. The flier said 7:45 a.m. and, this being my virgin voyage, I didn't want to be late.

Naive? Certainly. I didn't realize Jews attend High Holy Days services like Dodgers fans frequent Chavez Ravine: arriving in the third inning and leaving in the seventh.

The first hint of my folly came when, after poking my head into a nearly empty Niznick Sanctuary, I returned to my car, parked a half-mile away, and bumped into one of the temple's main rabbis.

The morning rush, it turned out, was about two hours away.

It may be surprising that a reporter at The Jewish Journal named Greenberg wouldn't know the standard practices of synagogue attendance on the holiest day of the Jewish year, but this ignorance hints at a more complex story of guilt, confusion and married identities.

I wasn't raised Jewish. Both my grandmothers were, and so too was my paternal grandfather. But my mother was raised Catholic down south and my father as a non-religious Jew here in Los Angeles. (You may know a few like him.)

When I was young -- 6 or 7 -- my parents both began attending a non-denominational Protestant church. Soon they were baptized, and, as a teenager, so was I.

My sister and I identified as Jewish in name only, or, more aptly, by our name: When it comes to anti-Semitism, it's not about whether you consider yourself Jewish but whether others do -- and others did.

I still go to church most Sundays, but though I'm not with Jews for Jesus or a Messianic -- that's worth emphasizing -- I've become increasingly interested in my Jewish cultural history. Yom Kippur, it seemed, was something I should experience.

So I selected three synagogues where I thought I would feel comfortable and find something meaningful to take home: IKAR, where Rabbi Sharon Brous has been recognized for her alternative, spiritually engaging community; Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), to hear Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, one of the leading voices of Jewish conscience from the last half century; and Temple Israel of Hollywood because, well, I have a screenplay to sell.

I didn't anticipate a problem blending in.

"The High Holy Days," a friend had remarked before Rosh Hashanah, "is the time of the year when secular Jews pretend to believe in God and religious Jews pretend to believe them."

The High Holy Days draw the biggest crowds of the year, and, just like Christmas and Easter services, you can hear the outreach from the bimah.

"To the privatized Jew, hell is other people," Schulweis said during his morning sermon, paraphrasing the philosopher Sartre.

Yes, he said, huddling close causes pricks and pain, but so does remaining alone outside of a community.

"This is the porcupine's dilemma. This is the human condition," Schulweis said, soon adding, "Judaism depends on Jews being Jewish.... In Judaism, believing means belonging. For we are a family."

At that moment, I felt a part of this family, the Tribe. I was praying and singing in Hebrew, wearing tallit and a kippah, and at 5:30 p.m. on erev Yom Kippur I had begun my fast, which I might have completed had I not driven past Pita Kitchen en route from VBS to Temple Israel of Hollywood. (They make a ridiculous lamb shawarma.)

Guilty? Maybe a little. But the day before I read on Ynet that only 63 percent of Israeli Jews planned to fast. And, besides, I'd already achieved a greater level of observance than at any point in my life.

Temple Israel hammered home what Schulweis had spoken of. I had been bored at VBS; tired from little sleep, with falling blood sugar, and, most importantly, no one to chat with in the surprisingly social hallways. But at Temple Israel I recognized people from the moment I walked into an afternoon breakout session on the presidential election -- friends, sources, current and former colleagues.

As the time, spent in community and talking about shared concerns, passed quickly by, I several times reflected on my experience the night before, when I celebrated Kol Nidre at IKAR.

I felt strikingly comfortable in a packed gym at the Westside JCC. It might have been a shvitz because of a broken air conditioner, but when I looked around I saw a packed, spiritually moved house of Jews, many who looked a lot like me: Chuck Taylor sneakers, thick plastic glasses, the curly hair that always has reminded me of my family's story.

When we prayed, I told myself the room was praying to my God, that I was praying to my God. The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. The God of the Exodus. The God of all creation.

Of course, there was no mention of Jesus, but the sermon was one I have heard in one form or another in churches all my life:

God is good. People are not. But we can do good, we can fulfill God's will on Earth by stepping outside ourselves, by feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless and helping the helpless -- by, in two words, tikkun olam.

Faith is not bad, Rabbi Brous said, specifically taking aim at anti-god avenger Bill Maher, whose new movie "Religulous" ridicules godly observance. Yes, man has used God for his own selfish gain, Brous said, but we can change the course.

"It's nice to see you here," a friend said to me as I digested Brous' sermon. "You should come for Shabbat."

I wondered: Could I? Could I be part of a religious Jewish community without practicing Judaism, with -- and there's no other way to put this -- believing in something that was a heretical outgrowth of Judaism?

Probably not.

Maybe I could just come around on the High Holy Days. I hear people do that.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Bill Maher's battle against religion

From: The Jewish Journal

Bill Maher is on his soapbox, looking like a lunatic and holding court in London's Hyde Park. A crowd forms around the American talk show host, who is disguised in glasses and a funny hat as he preaches that aliens have infected our souls and only Scientology provides the answer.

"Xenu brought us here 75 million years ago, stacked us around volcanoes and blew them up with an H-bomb. You have to rid yourself of the implants from the extraterrestrial dictators," Maher says, imploring folks to use an e-meter, Scientology's primary tool, to measure their Thetan level and determine the imprint of these aliens.

This scene appears in Maher's new documentary, "Religulous," and it prompted roars of laughter from an audience at a screening last month. But it is just the setup. Maher's punch line, which comes from a comedy club clip, has nothing to do with the 55-year-old religion -- often called a cult -- that's turned Tom Cruise into such a weirdo.

"Jesus with the virgin birth and dove and snake who talks in a garden -- that's cool," Maher says. "But the Scientologists, they're the crazy ones."

Comedian and political commentator Maher, host of HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" and before that "Politically Incorrect" on ABC and Comedy Central, has become known for attacking drug laws, organized religion and PC sensibilities.

On Oct. 3, his biggest battle -- Maher v. God -- will hit theaters.

It's not a mockumentary, but some of the real-life religious folks in "Religulous" could well have been in "This Is Spinal Tap."

The film is a series of interviews, often more debates than conversations, tied together with Maher's reflections as he travels between locations. With a talk show host's benefit of always getting the last word, Maher outwits, outquips, outthinks and outperforms his victims. And his subjects -- the evangelical Christian who directs the Human Genome Project, a U.S. senator, an anti-Zionist rabbi and a Muslim rapper who loves suicide bombers -- are the victims here.

Maher's bias is clear even in his title's marriage of "religious" and "ridiculous."

"What I am saying is if you are religious at all, you are an extremist," Maher said in a phone interview last week, later adding, "There is no doubting that there are brilliant people who are religious.... People find ways to wall off areas of their mind -- that is why I use that phrase, 'neurological disorder.'"

So why did Maher's subjects sit down with him? It's difficult to imagine any religious person familiar with his politics and godlessness actually agreeing to an interview.

The fact is, nobody knew whom they were dealing with until it was too late.

"We never, ever used my name," Maher told the L.A. Times' Patrick Goldstein of how the interviews were arranged. "We never told anybody it was me who was going to do the interviews. We even had a fake title for the film. We called it 'A Spiritual Journey.'"

This art of deception is only one of the very evident fingerprints of director Larry Charles, who mastered this skill as director of "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." "Religulous" avoids Eastern religions, worrying only about fanaticism in the Abrahamic faiths -- Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Maher considers himself a former member of two of the three.

His father was Irish Catholic, and that was how Maher was raised as a child. "It wasn't relevant to my life," Maher says in the film, "Superman was relevant, and baseball cards." In his teens, Maher discovered why his mother never joined the rest of the family at church: She was Jewish.

"I never even knew I was half-Jewish until I was a teenager," he said on "Larry King Live" in 2002. "I was just so frightened about the Catholics and everything that was going on there in the church -- and I was never, you know, molested or anything. And I'm a little insulted. I guess they never found me attractive. And that's really their loss."

Irreverence is Maher's trademark. In the film, he calls Jesus "nuts" and Moses "cuckoo." He considers himself a contemporary, though much younger, of the late George Carlin, founder of frisbeeterianism. (When I asked readers of The God Blog for any questions they had for Maher, a career church leader wanted to know whether "he's always been a douche bag, or is this a new look and feel for him.")

"I always felt religion was a giant elephant in the room of comedy gold and that people don't laugh at it simply because they are used to it," he said.

This is what could make "Religulous" so difficult for the God-fearing: It is positively entertaining.

Maher visits the Creation Museum in Hebron, Ky., and Orlando's Holy Land Experience; he tongue-ties the brilliant geneticist Francis Collins and walks out of an interview with Rabbi Dovid Weiss of Neturei Karta International -- "Never again, rabbi."

His religious journey takes him from the Valley of Armageddon in Israel to the Trucker's Chapel in Raleigh, N.C. An interview with a Muslim minister in Amsterdam is interrupted by the imam's cellphone ringtone, which is Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir."

When Maher asks Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) how people who believe in the Bible's creation story could be helping to run the most powerful country in the world, the senator plays into his hand: "You don't have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate, though," Pryor responds.

At times, Maher's interviews are frightening, like when the Muslim rapper Propa-Ghandi defends the 19-year-old fatwa against Salman Rushdie for "The Satanic Verses" and argues that his music, which praises suicide bombers, shouldn't be censored.

The so-called New Atheists -- bestselling authors who appeal to science, logic and intellectual elitism -- typically preach only to the choir.

"I don't like the term atheist because, to me, that is as rigid as religion is," Maher said. "I preach the doctrine of 'I don't know.' I don't know and I don't think it should matter. I don't think people should be so obsessed. Give yourself a break. You don't have to worship something, you don't have to worship something that is really just in your head, that you made up."

But Maher avoids two of these major trappings -- he can't help the high-minded snobbery -- and sticks to what he is good at: comedy.

"I think Jesus was probably an awkward teen -- big Jewfro, bad at sports," he says in the film, at which point a clip of Jonah Hill from "Superbad" flashes on the screen: "Here I am!"

And what better way to discredit something than to make belief in it laughable?

With his Catholic and Jewish backgrounds, Maher should feel guiltier than anyone about such heathen humor. But instead, the religious moviegoer is the only one worrying about God's forgiveness.

"Religion comes off as looking at best ridiculous in Bill Maher's new film 'Religulous.' But the early buzz has also been correct: Brilliant," I wrote on The God Blog the day after seeing a screening. "And so I've spent the past 13 hours wondering if there was something wrong with my enjoying the movie."

But quickly my feelings of guilt faded into an understanding that the film is a guilty pleasure. "Religulous" is hilarious and poignant because it pokes fun not just at things that bother Maher, but that bother countless among the faithful: violence in God's name, seeing science as a religious bogeyman, End Times theology.

"The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is not arrogant certitude, but doubt," Maher says in the film's closing five-minute monologue, which shifts the tone to dead serious.

"The plain fact is, religion must die for man to live," he says.

For being anti-religious, he sure is preachy.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Economy puts pressure on Jewish community

From: The Jewish Journal

The food pantry would not open for another 40 minutes, but already about a dozen people were waiting in the parking lot, many holding umbrellas to shield themselves from the blistering San Fernando Valley sun. Before day's end, more than 100 people, Jews and non-Jews alike, many coming on foot or by bus, would visit SOVA's Van Nuys pantry to apply for food stamps, register with a dietician and, most certainly, receive the groceries they need -- literally -- to put dinner on the table.

So began a regular day at one of the three pantries SOVA Community Food & Resource Program operates throughout the city, evidence of an experience that has become familiar for a growing number of indigent families across Los Angeles.

These are tough times for all Americans. The drama working its way through the economy -- surging gas and food prices, crises in the housing and financial markets, climbing unemployment rates and a dismal overall outlook -- has been written into the American Jewish story, too. That much is abundantly clear from a trip to SOVA.

Monthly traffic at the food banks has more than doubled since 2002, to about 5,600 client visits in June, the busiest month since Thanksgiving. Only about 10 percent of those who come are homeless; the overwhelming majority are unemployed or, increasingly, underemployed.

This is, of course, exactly the need SOVA exists to fill. But these days there is no way its 15-person staff can fully compensate for the swelling demand on resources and the shriveling of public and private support.

"You are really talking about a perfect storm in the social service world of not being able to raise private dollars to make up for the sagging or lagging public dollars," said Paul Castro, executive director and CEO of SOVA's parent, Jewish Family Service (JFS).

The scariest reality for many organizations is how unclear the future remains. So far, many charities report that fundraising is on pace with last year, but at the same time, officials admit the situation could go south in a hurry if the economy doesn't improve. The demand for resources continues to climb each month for many, but social service organizations' financial health won't be fully known until donors write their final checks for 2008.

Already there are signs of belt-tightening: Last month, when SOVA's executive director left for another job, she was replaced by Joan Mithers, JFS' director of community programs and staff training. Mithers new role was blended with her old, and that position was frozen. More trimming is expected as soaring food costs continue to push SOVA's $1.5 million budget upward. And that is assuming end-of-year fundraising can live up to budgeted expectations.

That story could be told this summer over and over throughout the world of philanthropy in general and Jewish communal service specifically.

"It's really a catch-22," said Jay Soloway, director of career services for Jewish Vocational Service, which through June this year has seen a 50 percent spike in referrals from SOVA and an increasing number of clients holding master's degrees.

At the same time, in May, United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella organization for North American federations, adopted a $37 million budget that was $3.2 million lighter than the previous years and included the reduction of 32 jobs.

Last month, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) announced that it would cut 60 jobs, including 52 in Israel, to deal with a $60 million budget deficit, due, in large part, to the dollar's dropping value and the rising cost of work abroad.

And locally, Steven Windmueller, dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said the Reform college is evaluating the practicality of shaving a day off the workweek. Windmueller said other institutions and organizations are doing the same.

"The question [nonprofits] have to come up with," Windmueller said, "is whether this is viable for their operations, for meeting state law with hourly earners and whether the expectations of their donors and members and clients can be met in the context of a four-day workweek."

Some organizations will choose to borrow heavily to sustain programming, while many will cut back services and reduce staff, said Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Others will choose to collaborate or merge with another organization, and a few will likely call it quits.

Nevertheless, a broad survey of Jewish schools, synagogues and social service agencies big and small -- from the JDC to Project Chicken Soup -- depicts a mosaic of caution and pragmatic optimism, an awareness that the sky is not yet falling, but it very well could.

"We all have to proceed forward knowing that there is this ambiguity, there are a lot of pieces of a complex puzzle which are not filling in the gestalt of the communal reality," John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said in an interview last week. "I start from a premise of 'let's be practical; let's assume the best, but be aware that the best may not be able to be achieved.'"

That perspective is a reflection of just how jarring the decline in the American economy has been during the past 12 months.

Inflation nationwide was up 5.5 percent in June from the previous year. California's jobless rate climbed to 6.9 percent. Stocks have fallen sharply, with the S&P 500 off about 22 percent last week from its October peak.

Home prices are dropping fast, too, the result of a combination of prices artificially inflated by speculators, fraudulent or high-risk mortgage lending and some resultant mass hysteria. New construction, a huge source of labor in California and nationally, has stalled; lenders are struggling to stay afloat, with IndyMac leaving the loan business and laying off 3,800; the government is considering how to secure Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; and, according to, Los Angeles County foreclosures spiked to 14,505 in the second quarter, almost quadruple the number during the same period in 2007.

Bad news has been coming even from places that report the news -- the Los Angeles Times last week began its latest round of cuts, about 250 employees, including 17 percent of the newsroom. Questions about whether the United States is in a recession or on the cusp of one have been pretty much settled.

The query now -- tantamount to both individuals wrestling with life changes and the organizations seeking to help them -- is: for how long?

"The effects of the housing contraction and of the financial headwinds on spending and economic activity have been compounded by rapid increases in the prices of energy and other commodities, which have sapped household purchasing power even as they have boosted inflation," Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke told the House Committee on Financial Services last week.

"As events in recent weeks have demonstrated," he added, "many financial markets and institutions remain under considerable stress, in part because the outlook for the economy, and thus far credit quality, remains uncertain."

For Avi Edery, a 35-year-old Israeli native living in Woodland Hills, "sapped purchasing power" began a breakneck decline in the fortune of his home-improvement business.

"This winter was really bad," Edery, said. "Beforehand, we could just go into a house, and people would pull off money from their equity, whatever they wanted, and just roll with it. Now, nobody."

Edery and his wife fell behind on their rent. His credit was poor and their savings small. Traditional borrowing wasn't much of an option.

But Jewish Free Loan Association, with an interest-free emergency rental loan for up to $3,000, offered enough to stem the tide. Edery applied last month and was quickly approved.

"It's not a lot of money," he said. "But every penny helps when you are in need."

And who isn't in need when Jewish life can be so expensive? Synagogue dues, Hebrew school, summer camp, kosher food, the occasional trip to Israel -- the individual costs of Jewish involvement -- can significantly tap into "the discretionary income of practically every middle-class Jewish family in America," said Gary A. Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco.

When times are tight, some families look to congregational membership and Jewish education as significant expenses they can cut.

"A year ago, people still had savings, and they did not think it would take a year for them to find another place of employment," said David Brook, executive director of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, a congregation heavy with real estate professionals. "Now we are seeing those same people come in, and they have not found employment, so they are either starting their own business or going into a new industry. We as a synagogue have to be there to help them. These are families that have children in our religious school and our preschool, and we will not deny a Jewish education to any of them."

Life was precarious enough last year for many congregants at Temple Aliyah, which budgeted about $50,000 for members needing dues reductions. These members, some paying as little as $180 for an annual membership that a family of four would ordinarily pay as much as $2,500 for, accounted for about 5 percent of the temple's 900 families.

"Seventy-five percent of the congregants who were asking for dues reductions were Realtors. And we also had two open administrative assistant positions, and we had Realtors applying for those," Brook said. "Then midway through the year, we had another open position, and we had Hollywood people applying because of the strike."

The temple budgeted 10 percent more for dues relief this year but won't know just what is needed until membership renewals roll in as the school year and High Holy Days approach. Unfortunately, Rabbi Stewart Vogel said, there are bound to be some who can no longer afford membership, but rather than ask for assistance, they will disappear from the synagogue community.

"I've had families who I tell, 'This is the job of the synagogue,'" Vogel said, "and they still don't take the help, because it makes them uncomfortable."

At Shalhevet School, where a Modern Orthodox high school education runs about $23,000 a year, one-third of students receive financial aid, Rabbi Elchanan J. Weinbach said. There has been an increase in scholarship applications from middle-class families.

"The wealthier families, thank God, can afford the cost, and the families at the bottom are the easiest to get assistance for," said Weinbach, who took over as head of school last month. "It's really the families who are somewhere in the middle that become the most painful cases."

In an effort to expand Shalhevet's scholarship fund, the school has been reaching out to affluent members of the community who have the means to increase their giving. Shalhevet, however, is not the only Jewish institution or organization turning to this community of higher-earning, committed Jews.

"In these kinds of troubles, there are some people who reach back and become more generous," Tobin said. "In every war Israel has fought, for example, people reach back. The capacity to do so is there. It's a matter of leadership and will."

When the real estate market was piping hot two years ago, friends courted him to build new homes on two parcels they had bought in Woodland Hills. They told Doustan the plans had been finalized and approved, and they offered $250,000. He bit.

But there were problems, and those only got worse as the market cooled. The plans hadn't been approved, and the partners' construction loan application had been denied. Doustan's payment was C.O.D., so the longer the project lagged, the more he had to tap into his savings, and the more he felt compelled to finance building expenses himself.

"After I got all the plans approved -- building, soil report, everything -- and I am already short $70,000," Doustan said, "they applied for a construction loan."

It was approved this time around in April 2007, but then the credit market soured, and the loan was cancelled before being administered.

Doustan finally cut his losses -- 60 years old and single, he became the suddenly unemployed owner of a $457,000 two-bedroom Woodland Hills townhouse, in which he sunk another $50,000 in upgrades and has since watched it fall in value roughly 20 percent.

"I had a very good business; I have been living on my savings," Doustan said. "It's almost reached the end, because everything has a limit. I haven't been paid in two years."

"The worst thing for me is I am not doing anything," Doustan said, eating baba ganoush during lunch last week at the Green Cottage Persian restaurant. "I feel restless. In New York, I used to work seven days a week. I feel worthless."

Doustan now finds himself in the place that many recent college grads do: He doesn't know what he wants to do for a living or how to search for a job, having never even drawn up a resume. But unlike the typical career virgin, Doustan has a healthy home mortgage.

So, four months ago, he turned to Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) after seeing an ad in The Jewish Journal. A career counselor helped him draft a resume and enrolled him in a four-week JVS course at the New JCC at Milken for seniors being pressured back into the workforce, as well as a logistics-training program at Santa Monica College. The counselor also is assisting Doustan with the job search.

"I am not financially desperate," Doustan said. "But I am desperate to do something."

The notion that a butterfly in Singapore could cause a tornado in Kansas seems an accurate parallel for the relationship between the health of industry and charity. When fortunes cool, donors, from the largest corporations and private foundations to the humblest of wage earners, have less money to give away. Soon, so, too, do governments. Eventually, reductions in prosperity trickle down to nonprofits.

"At our dinner last year, there were a number of financial service companies that had historically been big supporters, and when they are firing CEOs and laying off workers, one of the first things that gets cut is charitable donations," Mitch Kamin, executive director of Bet Tzedek Legal Services, said shortly after the organization's new fiscal year began July 1, on the eve of its big annual fundraiser, last Saturday's Justice Ball.

"Our overall fundraising numbers were not down, but I'm concerned about this coming year as companies and major donors and foundations are all looking at the impact of the economy on their giving," Kamin said. "It's not that people are walking away, but funders are cautious about what they support right now and how much they support."

At Project Chicken Soup, which delivers kosher meals two Sundays a month to 105 people in the county living with HIV/AIDS, slightly fewer volunteers have been participating lately. This partly is a symptom of summer, President Paul Chitlik said, but also could be tied to the cost for volunteers of commuting in and delivering the meals. What is clear is that donations, which usually increase this time of year, are flat. Food prices, on the other hand, are "spiraling."

"We have to do more fundraising to cover that," Chitlik said of the charity, which has a budget of about $100,000 and one 30-hour-a-week employee.

December represents the zero hour, the time for assessing just how close nonprofits came to their fundraising targets. This often is the case, but during a downturn in the economy it is especially so. A significant amount of supporters who commit in the first three quarters don't write their charitable checks until after Thanksgiving; many smaller-fund donors don't give at all until reviewing their year-end finances as New Year's Day approaches.

The Federation through mid-July, for example, was outstripping last year's fundraising, receiving donations and pledges of $35.1 million from donors who last year gave $30.3 million to a $49.8 million campaign. But Chairman Stanley Gold said in January he wants to increase fundraising this year by at least 10 percent, and the $14.7 million needed to equal last year's campaign isn't a gimme.

"We are going to be hopeful and just continue to push until Dec. 31, and then do the calculations on what we have," Fishel said.

Many organizations are now evaluating the easier decisions: prioritizing programming, paring travel expenses through reductions in staffing and frequency, looking for ways to work with other agencies. But there is no simple solution to the overall problem, and nobody knows how long the economic turmoil will last.

"Anybody who tells you they know the answer to that question is someone you should turn tail and run away from, because nobody knows," Tobin said. "This is one of those cases where you plan for the worst, and hope for the best."