Saturday, October 14, 2006

The New Latino Jews

From: Los Angeles Daily News

Farsi, Hebrew, Russian and, of course, English have long been the languages of conversations at the Jewish community center in West Hills.

Now, you're as likely to hear Spanish.

Latino Jews who came in a wave to Los Angeles during the past five years were without a home and without a place to celebrate their Jewishness. But Omar Zayat, an Argentinian Jew who immigrated in 2003, solved that problem.

Last year, he and a few other area Latino Jews created the Latin American Jewish Association. The New JCC at Milken in West Hills, the only full-service Jewish community center in Los Angeles, decided to support the program by providing Zayat with an office and a modest salary.

"Jewish community centers for decades have emphasized immigrant absorption," said Michael Jeser, the center's assistant executive director. "It is part of our mission, and it is part of Latin American culture to link up with JCC, so it was a natural partnership."

There are two major differences between Latino Jews and American Jews. The first is their sense of connection to and concern for the state of Israel. While 40 percent of American Jews have visited Israel at least once, according to a recent American Jewish Committee survey, Latin American Jews often go regularly.

"In the Mexican Jewish community, it is not if you have traveled to Israel, it is how many times," said Dina Siegel Vann, director of the AJC's Latino and Latin-American Institute.

The other significant difference deals with Jewish community centers. In the United States, involvement in JCC activities has been on the decline for years. Many Jews no longer find the services relevant or convenient. But in Latin America, Siegel Vann said, JCCs are "the heart of Jewish life."

There, they serve a role similar to synagogues here. Latino Jews, who don't see their Jewish identity as linked to a religion, rely on JCCs as their social network, the place they go to embrace their tradition.

Also, in the United States, many Latino Jews have lower incomes than the general Jewish population and cannot afford synagogue membership dues.

A mixture of legal and undocumented immigrants, middle class and working class, many of Los Angeles' estimated 11,000 Latino Jews previously lived in anonymity. But what began with 13 people, Zayat's organization - which goes by the name LAJA (pronounced La-Ha)- has grown to 400 families.

It is a committed group that includes families from Orange County - people willing to brave nasty traffic while some Israelis won't drive from Tarzana, Jeser said.

"There is a vibrant community. What LAJA has done is create a place for people to go to that hadn't really existed," said Steve Gitlin, 39, of Woodland Hills, who heads the young professionals network and regularly frequents the JCC with his wife and three sons.

Though there are about a half-million Latino Jews in the diaspora, they remain a small minority in the United States. An estimated 100,000 strong, they account for less than 2percent of U.S. Jewry.

"Immigrants are surprised to see a white one who talks Spanish, is a rabbi and is like them," said Rabbi Aaron Katz, an Argentinian who leads Spanish-language Sabbath services at Beth Shalom in Whittier.

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was apparently surprised too when he spoke recently at The New JCC at Milken, and a few audience members cheered in Spanish.

"I didn't know there were Spanish-speaking Jews," Jeser recalled the mayor saying.

While not faced with an identity crisis, Spanish-speaking Jews in the United States often feel doubly removed from the mainstream: first because they are Latino immigrants and second because they are a minority even among Jews.

"Most (Jews) think of (Latinos) as maids, the gardeners, people at the market," said Jenny Kopelioff, an Argentinian Jew who teaches Spanish at Milken Community High School and for 10 years has run an exchange program with a school in Mexico City. "I decided to show my students not everything is that way. It is just another community in the Jewish diaspora."

There are two histories of Jews arriving in Latin America. The first wave came ashore after the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. The second followed in the 1800s and 1900s, consisting mainly of Jews from Eastern Europe. The largest communities are in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico.

Rosie Milstein's parents fit the latter group. Her Russian father and Polish mother were both taken by their parents to Argentina as toddlers.

"I was born in Argentina, and I lived in Israel. I don't know how to define myself," said Milstein, a 52-year-old Reseda bookkeeper. "Speaking Spanish, people in Israel didn't understand me."

In their native countries, Latino Jews tend to be affluent, except Argentina, which has more of a middle-class Jewish community. And when they immigrated to the United States in the past, it was often done in response to a job offer or a business opportunity.

"The families that come from Mexico are very well-educated, and they already have a plan as to how they are going to make their living. But basically they need to be integrated to the Jewish community here," said Nadine Gerson, a Westside Jew who grew up in Mexico City and first came to the States to study at Yale University.

Since returning to the United States 22 years ago for work, Gerson has aided many families trying to adjust like she did.

"It is a pretty fast process," said Gerson, whose mother used to make gefilte fish Vera Cruz style. "Once you start making Shabbat dinners and having your kids in Hebrew school learning the curriculum, it's much easier for them to integrate into American society."

Until 2003, the flow of Latino Jews was rather weak. Then Argentina's economic crisis hit, and about 25 percent of the nation's 220,000 Jews left for the United States and Israel, with many settling in L.A., which has the nation's highest concentration of Latino Jews.

Zayat came then. Now 40 and living in North Hollywood, Zayat has light skin, curly hair and a reddish-brown mustache. He appears indistinguishable from a European Jew - until he speaks broken English with a thick accent.

A trained psychotherapist, Zayat was director of a Jewish children's camp and worked at a Buenos Aires JCC for 20 years. He works in a cramped office with a handmade calendar posted on the wall. He is LAJA's staff. "It was operating on Omar's energy and fumes of a budget," Jeser said.

Israeli dancing, which Zayat launched in January, is a snapshot of the bridge-building LAJA is doing at The New JCC at Milken. Tuesday, about 20 Jews from Argentina, Canada, Chile, China, England, France, Germany, Israel, Iran, Russia and South Africa interacted.

They began the weekly hourlong session with a beat-thumping song that implored them to "pump it up" - clearly not Israeli music. The next track was salsa music. And the third was in Hebrew.

Argentina-native Susana Ezon, 53, of Woodland Hills said, "Omar gave us such energy that we absolutely have to come and dance and have fun."

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

All L.A.

From: Los Angeles Daily News

Yvonne Velez loves L.A.

You get the message from her convertible sports car, her spiritual leanings, her career rebirth.

Even her license plate proclaims it:

"I ♥ LA"

Velez is a classic California dreamer, a New York transplant who still believes life is better near the Pacific.

All those reasons to hate Los Angeles - the traffic, the smog, the people, the home prices - Velez overlooks. All she sees are sun and sand and a slower pace of life. Slower.

"Wow," the 58-year-old Chatsworth resident said she thought after arriving, "this is where I am supposed to be."

Velez had left behind the poor Puerto Rican childhood in the Bronx; the completing of college and a master's in finance while toiling away at full-time jobs; the long and cold days.

In 1980, the aeronautics company accountant was transferred to a Burbank office. Tired of New York winters, she jumped at the chance.

She quickly noticed the coastal differences, for better or worse.

"In New York, Mrs. Goldstein would come over - `Do you have a cup of sugar?' - and she would stay and talk for an hour and forget the cup of sugar," Velez said. "Here, you could live next door to someone for 10 years and never meet them.

"I had a mission: to bring a little bit of home to L.A."

Ten years later and burned out on bean-counting, she left Bendix Corp. and began soul-searching.

"What am I going to do when I grow up again?" she asked herself.

Five feet tall, with a tanned, muscular build and tightly spiraled golden-brown hair, Velez had become a health nut and an amateur bodybuilder. She was embracing LaLa Land and wanted to turn her new lifestyle into a standard of living.

She settled on massage therapy and physical training, later added assisting women during childbirth, and created a business: Yvonne's Touch.

The career change became a major factor in her happiness. Though self-employment carries its own stresses - inconsistent income, higher health-care costs - it meant not having to deal with a boss, making her own hours and choosing when and where she wanted to work.

Velez has opted for clients who live near her home, which has afforded her a relatively traffic-free life - a good thing in L.A.

"The key to life in Los Angeles is learning how not to commute a long distance," said urban historian Joel Kotkin.

The most recent report by the Texas Transportation Institute found that the average Angeleno loses 93 hours per year - 2 1/2 workweeks - sitting in traffic. The Bay Area is runner-up with 72 hours lost per year.

Another common knock on L.A. is that it's a lonely place, and that its suburbs are the most lonely of all. Friends of Velez, however, describe a vibrant and dependable woman eager to assist neighbors with the trash or fix their washing machine.

"She is always there like Johnny on the spot, helping," said Vicki Ahlers, a 66-year-old neighbor. "She is the type of person everyone would love to have as a neighbor."

In 1999, Velez decided her life again needed some new seasoning. Desiring a car that would let her savor the Southern California sun, she chose a white Mitsubishi Eclipse with a black convertible top.

"I was entitled to a fun, little, black-and-white convertible," she said. "And black and white is like the yin and the yang."

In picking a customized license plate, Velez listed 12 possibilities. She didn't think her top choice - "I LA" - would be available, so she placed it at No. 12.

But as the DMV checked No. 1, No. 2 and on through No. 11, the clerk had the same response.

"Sorry. Taken. Taken. Taken."

No. 12 was available - and a rare find.

"I wouldn't be surprised if somebody offered her $10,000 for that," said Richard Barnett, president of, a site through which collectors can buy, sell and trade vanity plates.

A few months later someone spotted the license plate and offered Velez $1,000.

"Sorry. Not tempting enough," she recalled saying. "Then he asks, `Do you know Randy Newman?"'

Newman, whose publicist said he was too busy for an interview, wrote the 1980s hit "I Love L.A."

"From the South Bay to the Valley/From the West Side to East Side/Everybody's very happy/`Cause the sun is shining all the time/looks like another perfect day

"I love L.A."

Velez does not know the Oscar-Emmy-Grammy-winning composer. But she shares his sentiments about their adopted hometown.

"Most New Yorkers, or most people from out of town, they hate L.A. I truly, truly love L.A.," she said. "I'm a transplant and I love the place. Pollution and all, I love it. High real estate prices and all, I love it."

She later added: "I feel like I have been on vacation 26 years."

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Returning to God

From: Los Angeles Daily News

Scott Newman was fresh out of jail and trying to shake a 20-year heroin addiction when he heard about a rehab center in L.A.

Beit T'Shuvah wasn't like the rehabilitation centers he had been to before. It was just for Jews, and it treated addiction by healing the soul through Jewish teachings. Newman wasted little time hopping a bus from Washington state to Los Angeles in June 1996. And he has been clean since.

"Beit T'Shuvah became my community and my life. It was where I went when I was sad and where I went when I was glad. It was where I was acknowledged and appreciated," said Newman, 45, of Lake Balboa, who is now a homeowner, a consistent jobholder, a loving husband and a reliable father.

"They don't just offer detox, they offer a home."

Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown tonight, is about t'shuvah, or returning to God. Jews will observe the Day of Atonement, the holiest of their year, by attending synagogue, refraining from work and fasting for 25 hours.

But for the 120 men and women at Beit T'Shuvah, or the House of Return, t'shuvah is a yearlong act. These Jews are repenting day after day of their sins and repairing relationships with their friends, family and God.

"Addicts are people who are seekers. If you look on a bottle of whiskey, a lot of them say 'distilled spirits.' Drug addicts, a lot of them go to their connection to get a 'fix.' It's really a spiritual language," said Rabbi Mark Borovitz, the center's spiritual leader. "So we give them the way to God, to their spirit, to their soul, without ever having to get loaded again."

Combining Jewish faith and tradition with the fundamentals of 12-step programs, the center directly confronts a sentiment common in the Jewish community: Jews don't fall prey to addictive behavior.

That has particularly been the belief about alcoholism. There is even a Yiddish saying, "A shicker is a goy" — a drunk is a non-Jew.

No major studies have surveyed Jewish addictions, but anecdotally it seems to be about the same rate as the general population, said Jonathan Katz, director of a New York Jewish organization that runs a support group called Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others.

"You see people from all parts of the spectrum — educators, rabbis, doctors, lawyers, successful business people, mothers and grandmothers and aunts — people who challenge the stereotype that an addict is something lying filthy in the gutter," Katz said.

Borovitz knows how easy it is to be seduced by addiction.

Having grown up in a comfortable Jewish home in Cleveland, Borovitz threw away stability for booze and crime. He was a mobster, a con man and a thief — serving two prison terms in the '80s for it.

"My crime was I stole your trust," he said Friday before a Sabbath service at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. "A con man steals from you all you have: A con man steals from you your soul."

But, for the past 18 years, he has been trying to restore souls. "He really emphasizes self-forgiveness," said Basya Goldstein, 43, of Memphis, Tenn. "We hate ourselves so badly, and if we don't get past that it perpetuates the drug use."

Goldstein arrived at Beit T'Shuvah three months ago. She had been to Hazelden, to the Betty Ford Center. Nothing could cure the cocaine addiction she began at 23 out of boredom. "I was the mom who was snorting cocaine in the car-pool lane," she said.

An Orthodox Jew of upper-middle class means, Goldstein left behind her four children and husband, a financial adviser, and anticipates being at the rehab center for 12 months.

So far, she's been shocked and encouraged by the love and support she has felt from both her families — the one in Memphis and the one in L.A.

"That's our biggest fear: If we let people know who we are and what we've done, no one is going to love us," Goldstein said. "Rabbi has shown me that's not true."

Beit T'Shuvah began 20 years ago as a halfway house for Jewish ex-cons. Located near MacArthur Park, the home was created to rehabilitate Jews who were repeatedly returning to jail and prison for crimes connected to alcohol and drug addiction.

Its founder, Harriett Rosetto, was performing outreach to Jewish prisoners at the time. A few years after, she met Borovitz, who was an inmate and the rabbi's clerk at California Institution for Men in Chino. When Borovitz got out, he went to work for Rosetto. They fell in love and married.

Under the guidance and spurring of Rabbi Ed Feinstein at Valley Beth Shalom, Borovitz became the spiritual leader at Beit T'Shuvah. Even before he was ordained a Conservative rabbi in 2000, he was already the addicts' rabbi.

In 1999, Beit T'shuvah moved to a new — and larger — building on Venice Boulevard, near the heavily Jewish Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Addicted Jews across the country are referred to the center, and the dorms often are filled with patients, ages 18 to 65.

Plenty of its patrons are the well-heeled, but about $2 million of the center's $3 million operating budget is supported by donations from foundations such as Resnick and Annenberg.

Some of the biggest spiritual support, though, has come from members of Valley Beth Shalom. For the past 10 years, Beit T'Shuvah members have visited the Conservative synagogue for Sabbath services the Friday before Yom Kippur, known as Shabbat Tshuvah.

"I wanted the kids of this synagogue to meet real heroes, so I am glad you are here," Feinstein said as dinner wrapped up. "You have a place set at our table. You have a place in this community. You are our family. You are home here."

Goldstein leaned over and whispered to another at the table, "Do you know how radical that is?" She couldn't imagine an Orthodox rabbi saying that.

From the social hall, about 200 people — a mix of members from both congregations — moved into the sanctuary. Beit T'Shuvah's choir led the worship, and Borovitz delivered the message, one about the importance of repairing relationships.

"Our tradition said do t'shuvah one day before you die, and since none of us knows when we will die, we should do t'shuvah every day," Borovitz said.

The service then took on the shape of a support group, with Jews from both congregations standing up to share their struggles.

"I'm Samantha," a 20-year-old woman said.

"Hi Samantha!" the congregations responded.

"OK, so I just had a meltdown. I hadn't cried about anything in a long time. I think the reason I was so upset is the last time I was here was my brother's bar mitzvah, and I was disrespectful and on coke," she said.

"I'm really grateful to be here. I've been to a lot of rehabs, and this one's the best. Thank you, rabbi."