Thursday, November 08, 2007

Jewish (and all film and TV) writers on strike

From: The Jewish Journal

"Are you Jewish?"

With some discomfort, I asked that question repeatedly of the 300-plus picketers in front of CBS Studio Center in Studio City on

Monday, the first day of the strike by the Writers Guild of America.

It was an awkward query not because I feared dismissal -- after accounting for noses and facial hair and eyeglasses, I was able to reduce uncertainty to about 20 percent -- but because I knew these TV and film writers did not see a connection between Yiddishkayt and the failed contract negotiations that spurred some 12,000 members of the WGA to go on strike at 9:01 p.m. Sunday.

"What's the Jewish angle?" Andrew Jacobson, a co-writer of "Not Another Teen Movie," asked me. "I don't see one except in the most stereotypical sense. This is an issue that affects people regardless of religion or race or gender. It's writers united."

Indeed, "Hollywood writer" is among the most Jewish job descriptions anywhere, which is why, as this long-anticipated strike approached, my editors asked me to report the news through a Jewish lens. The difficulty, however, is that this really isn't a Jewish story. It's a business story that just happens to deal with an industry built largely by Jewish immigrants and sustained by their successors.

Both sides of this fight count many Jews among their fold, and both claim the moral high ground -- the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers accuses "irresponsible" writers of endangering the entertainment industry and the L.A. economy; writers say they simply want their fair share of a hugely profitable business, as well as a the livelihood for middle-class scribes who spend most years out of work.

"The Jews have such a history of fighting for the worker, and there is certainly some beautiful text material for one to draw on in fighting a fight like this," said David N. Weiss, an observant Jew and WGA vice president. "But I would hate to have it characterized as a Jewish struggle. That would be just off the mark."

In the end, this story is about money.

"There is an ethical component, but this is business," said Robert J. Avrech, an Orthodox Jew who wrote "The Devil's Arithmetic." "I don't understand why people need to bring in a moral, ethical argument. This is about business, about our share of the profits. Why is anything more needed?"

The last writers strike, in 1988, was a 22-week affair that cut deep into the pocketbooks of Hollywood scribes, and many felt it ended with few gains. Observers expect this strike to be long and bitter, with the WGA pushing for increased payment on DVD sales and for residuals for original and recycled content played on the Internet.

"We live off the residuals, and if people are watching reruns on the Internet, it's going to change retirement plans for a lot of writers," said Eric Lapidus, a consultant on "Two and a Half Men."

Lapidus, who was picketing Monday in front of the main gate at the CBS lot, also has a lot to worry about right now. His journalist wife recently left the editorship at Angeleno magazine to give birth to their daughter and is now freelance reporting; he could be out of work for a long time. Fortunately, he said, the strike was anticipated, and he and his wife did what they could to prepare.

"Hopefully this will end soon," Lapidus said, rejoining the picket line after a brief break. "And if not, I'm going to get in good shape."

The writers marched in a circle. Young and old, successful writers and laboring grinders, wearing either blood-red union shirts or sweaters or cheap Ts with blue jeans and sneakers -- always sneakers -- picketed alongside each other. During the afternoon shift, children joined their parents on the line. Aiden Lewis, the 11-month-old son of TV writer Meghan McCarthy, sat smiling in his stroller, on which had been taped a sheet of paper that stated, "My mom's not greedy, she just wants to feed me."

This scene was repeated in four-hour shifts at 14 locations in Los Angeles and others in New York. This week, guild members were expected to spend 20 hours participating in the strike, either by picketing or volunteering at headquarters for WGA, West, at 7000 W. Third St.

"There are more Jews here than at my Hebrew school," said Alan Marc Levy, who wrote the TV movie, "Searching for David's Heart." "It's just that is who is swimming in the writing pool."

Read more at The God Blog

Saturday, October 20, 2007

New Jewish Federation leader 'gonna make it relevant'

From: The Jewish Journal

Stanley P. Gold wastes few words describing the status of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

"It is largely irrelevant," he said last week.

What makes Gold's remark so stark is that on Jan. 1, the sharp-tongued and fast-paced Gold, a 65-year-old self-described "monomaniac on a mission," will take over lay leadership at The Federation as chairman of the board.

"I'm gonna make it relevant," he quickly added. "Gonna make it relevant to the donor community. Gonna make it relevant to the Los Angeles community. And gonna make it relevant to most of the Jewish community. The alternative is a slow dissipation. I'm not going to let that happen."

"It is not so much about Stanley Gold," he said, making clear he recognizes the arrogance behind his ambition and that he's not the first to try to reform the 96-year-old institution. "It is changing the culture; it is changing the way they do business; it is changing their focus. I think once I get them off in the right direction, there are probably people better than Stanley Gold on how to run it in the future. The value I would hope to bring is midcourse change."

Gold is known for being as proactive in his volunteer work as he has been professionally. He got his name saving the Walt Disney Co. from corporate raiders in the 1980s and has held onto his reputation for success with Shamrock Holdings -- an investment company that is the Diaspora's largest private-equity player in Israel. He's chaired the board of trustees at USC since 2002 and has served throughout the Jewish community. As The Federation's chair, he will have just two years to set in place the mechanisms he believes will make it a better-run not-for-profit.

It's no secret that The Federation's role in the community has slipped, following a trend affecting the nationwide network of umbrella organizations that have long been the lifeblood of Jewish social services. Increased assimilation coupled with a move toward directed giving, a jump in the percentage of charity given by Jews to non-Jewish causes and an under-50 demographic that doesn't view the mission of local federations with the same appreciation that their parents did are chipping away at the vitality of these organizations large and small. (See related story.)

In Los Angeles, add to that litany the decimated staff and reduced visibility of The Federation's Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) and the national prominence of largely independent organizations, and it's no wonder The Federation's annual campaign in 2005 was $47.3 million, less than a million above what it was in 1990 -- and about 33 percent lower when accounting for inflation.

"They know all this stuff is true. They just don't want to talk about it; you don't find this on the agenda of most federations," said Gary A. Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research. "Whether the L.A. Federation is doing slightly better or slightly worse than other federations really misses the point: The annual campaign is in trouble everywhere, both in terms of how much they raise and the fact that there is a declining donor base."

Gold's focus is threefold: He wants The Federation to become the preeminent program provider in L.A.-Israel relations; he wants to reinvest in community relations; and he wants to increase leadership development. For Gold, everything else is secondary, even unnecessary, particularly those programs in which The Federation competes with other Jewish service providers.

"If they are doing it better, we ought to support them -- and certainly not be second or third best," Gold said.

And the change will mean cuts, Gold made clear, though without specifics: "There is going to be some pain in the self-evaluation, in some of the eliminations, in some of the changes that are going to occur. It is wide open. I am sure there will be changes in personnel and programs. I'm not prepared to tell you which today, because I don't know."

News of Gold's appointment has been met with hopeful surprise.

"Stanley's success has been taking undervalued companies and making them more effective. The Federation is an undervalued business, and somebody with Stanley's passions and talents and vision could really turn around the Jewish community," said Jay Sanderson, CEO of JTN Productions, on whose board Gold's wife once served and his daughter now does.

He will not be the first bigwig to lead The Federation. Preceding him are Ed Sanders, once President Jimmy Carter's Jewish community liaison; Bruce Hochman, a respected tax attorney and the first UCLA School of Law alumnus to pass the California Bar; and Barbi Weinberg, founding president of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and wife of Larry Weinberg, a former American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) president. But Gold may have the most-rounded experience, from his love affair with the Jewish people to his experience running massive nonprofit organizations and for-profit enterprises.

"We are at a juncture in the life of The Federation that we are looking for somebody who has directed organizations, who can engage donors and has an experience in complex organizations -- in this case, both for-profit organizations and not-for-profits -- and is also Jewishly committed," said Federation President John Fishel, with whom Gold will work closely. "He seems to have it all."

Stanley Phillip Gold grew up in what was South Central Los Angeles, not far from USC. The son of first-generation American Jews, Gold was raised in a working-class neighborhood with equal parts Asians, blacks and whites, and he was taught to be proud of that heritage, a directive he clearly heeded.

"There is no one in the world who has a more visceral attachment to the Jewish people, the State of Israel and Jewish values than Stanley Gold," said Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). "It is inherent in his very being."

When Gold was a teenager, his parents moved to the San Fernando Valley, and there he ran track at Van Nuys High School before heading off to start his undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley.

"In college, he didn't have any money. I was rich. I had a Volkswagen Beetle," said Mike Shaub, Gold's Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity brother. "In college, he borrowed it to go into San Francisco with [his then-girlfriend] Ilene. He couldn't even pay the toll; he had to write a check to cross the Bay Bridge.... Everything he has, he has earned. Nobody gave it to him."

From the shadows of Dorsey High to the flatlands of Beverly Hills, Stanley and Ilene Gold now reside in an 8,200-square-foot colonial brick home that is as tasteful as it is massive, the reward of 40 years of hard work, in particular the past 30 as Roy E. Disney's most trusted adviser.

Gold scheduled an interview for this article at his home on the morning before Yom Kippur, immediately after the rumors that he would chair The Federation were made official. I pulled through the gate and parked behind a pair of Porsches, a Cayman and a Cayenne; 10 more of the German sports cars, from a few 911s to the �ber-limited 959, were housed in a backyard garage. When I asked Gold which was his favorite, he pointed to a Porsche poster on the wall: "It's like children, you can't understand until you've had one."

We met inside for the first of two interviews, seated on couches in a study the size of a two-bedroom apartment. A bookcase covering the expanse of a side wall was filled with a fraction of Gold's art collection, but in the middle of it were some of his priceless treasures: a few dozen encased baseballs signed by some of the best who ever played the game.

"To my pal, Stanley -- Babe Ruth."

Another's from Stan Musial: "To Stan the Man, from the other Stan the Man."

Gold wore a checked blue shirt, navy tie and suit sans coat and circular steel-rim glasses. His wavy, black hair was slicked back. He chomped on and twirled an unlit cigar as a spoke, adding meaning to an office throw pillow that quoted Mark Twain: "If I cannot smoke cigars in heaven, then I shall not go."

"I have a deep -- I want to say desire but it's almost an obligation -- to help the Jewish people," Gold said, explaining why he accepted the chairmanship of The Federation. "I find myself having lived an enormously fortunate life, having grown up in this community at a time when Jews were really being accepted into all walks of life. So I got the best out of America."

His tone of gratitude appears genuine. He first assumed his obligation of repayment while a young partner at the entertainment law firm of Gang, Tyre & Brown (now Gang, Tyre, Ramer & Brown), when founding partner Martin Gang paid an unusual visit to Gold's office.

"How's everything?" Gang asked. "Wife? Kids? You making enough money?"

"Yeah. Sure," Gold responded.

"OK. Good. It's time for you to give back to the community."

Gang set Gold up with leaders at HUC-JIR, and a month later, Gold joined the board of overseers for its L.A. campus. From 1991 to 1996, he served as chairman of the Reform college's national board of governors, and in 2001, Gold gave $500,000 to establish the Martin Gang Scholarship Fund for students at the L.A. campus.

Since that call to service, Gold has joined the board of trustees at USC, where this June he will complete his sixth and final term as chairman; he's also led The Federation's Israel and Overseas Committee and served on the board of the Israel Policy Forum, a counterbalance in ideology, though not influence, to the AIPAC. Add to that the countless speaking engagements for issues affecting one part of the Jewish world or another, such as the address he gave last month at the Beverly Hilton.

"The old adage that to make a small fortune in Israel you need a large one is simply not true anymore," Gold said, speaking alongside the director general of Israel's Finance Ministry to about 100 Southern California businesspeople.

Gold would know. Over the past two decades, he has directed more than $1 billion in Shamrock investments to the Jewish state, and over that time, he's seen an average annual return of 31 percent.

"I came to Israel as a committed Jew," Gold said, "and returned home as a committed capitalist."

Asked years ago how such a champion of capitalism could also be a gospel-sharing socialist, Gold sounded like Ralph Waldo Emerson: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

Indeed, having a little mind is not among Gold's shortcomings. After transferring from Berkeley to UCLA to complete his undergraduate degree, Gold attended USC Law School and Cambridge University and then began his career in 1968 at Gang, Tyre. He quickly made partner, and then met Roy Disney, for whom he created Shamrock Holdings, to invest the fortune of Walt's nephew and his family. By the late '70s, Gold was transitioning from entertainment lawyer to boardroom dealmaker.

"Anybody who's called 'full of crap' in The Wall Street Journal, by no less a person than William Buckley, has arrived," Stanley's wife, Ilene, reportedly remarked after Shamrock's leveraged purchase of Starr Broadcasting Group drew an attack on Gold's credibility by the conservative author and founder of National Review magazine. Buckley was Starr's largest shareholder.

Gold's friends and business associates, while praising him in ways that might be expected, also offered more candid assessments of his strengths and weaknesses.

"He's extremely loyal and generous. Insightful. A good partner. He tolerates different viewpoints and enjoys being challenged and challenging other people," said Gene Krieger, Shamrock's vice chairman and chief operating officer. "He's intellectually curious, a quick study. Decisive. Sometimes to a fault. And a lot of confidence, a lot of self-confidence, but not to the degree he doesn't accept advice or counsel."

At some point, Gold also became a trusted counselor. Steven B. Sample, who as president of USC has dramatically raised the private university's reputation, considers his board chairman a personal "mentor." And Rabbi Steven Z. Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, on whose board Stanley and Ilene Gold have served, describes him as a bit of a sage.

"When I have a serious issue to think through, when I have some kind of intellectual or moral dilemma that involves the greater community, he is one of the very few people that I will turn to that I know will be forthright and instructive," Leder said. "He is one of my go-to guys and always will be."

Just before 11 a.m. on Aug. 10, 1999, a tranquil day in the San Fernando Valley turned to tragedy, when Buford O. Furrow stormed into the North Valley Jewish Community Center and unloaded some 70 rounds from an Uzi. He had picked the JCC because Furrow, a white supremacist from the Northwest, hated Jews, and security at the community center was a lot lighter than his three initial targets -- the Museum of Tolerance, the Skirball Cultural Center and the American Jewish University (AJU), formerly known as the University of Judaism. Furrow wounded a receptionist, a teenage counselor and three children and later that day killed a Filipino American postal carrier.

All five Jewish victims recovered, but the community's psyche was severely wounded. The Federation responded by providing counseling for victims and securing the JCC facility. Nevertheless, that a rally organized by The Federation and other Jewish organizations at Cal State Northridge days after the shooting was attended by only 1,000 people still stings almost a decade later for Michael Berenbaum.

"I would have thought that given the attack on the JCC, and how many people have kids, and how many people routinely drop kids off at the JCC, I would have thought that we would have had 50,000 people show up. I was horrified by how low a turnout it was," said Berenbaum, who'd moved to Los Angeles a year before, after creating the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

"That was 10 years ago, but they did not succeed in mobilizing the community for an event in which there had been shots fired at our kids. I was saying to myself, 'How is that possible?'" he continued. "It said something about Los Angeles, and it said something about the lack of community. I've never gotten over that."

"Jewish life in Los Angeles is flourishing," added Berenbaum, a writer and adjunct professor at AJU, "but it is flourishing with decentralized initiatives that don't feel a need to consult The Federation. That says The Federation is not central or pivotal. Clearly we have a community with wealth and a community with commitment but not a community that seems to be talking with each other and dreaming great visions of the community together."

To be sure, The Federation is not dead. But with the successes of organizations like the Simon Wiesenthal Center, with its larger-than-life leader, Rabbi Marvin Hier, and with the rise of voices like those of the Jewish World Watch, Progressive Jewish Alliance and StandWithUs, which receive some Federation support and have filled the public-advocacy gap left by the decline of the JCRC, many observers fear The Federation's leadership role is fading.

"Way back in '67, when there was the war, it was the rallying point for that and every crisis since then, even last year in the war in Lebanon," said Richard Sandler, a big-idea guy who sits on the boards of AJU and the Milken Institute and who will be joining Gold in January as The Federation's vice chair. "It's always been the focal point of the Jewish community, yet every year I think we all see the fact that more and more organizations that do fantastic work in the community do their own fundraising. The Federation doesn't seem to this generation -- now, I'm old -- to have the same anchor position in the community."

At 59, Sandler is not actually that old. But a native of Los Angeles with a history of service at The Federation that dates to his father, Raymond, Sandler remembers days when more people gave to The Federation out of enthusiasm, not obligation.

Together, he and Gold hope to return that enthusiasm by elevating The Federation's role for Los Angeles Jewry.

What exactly could happen at The Federation's headquarters? Well, to start, Gold wants to make 6505 Wilshire Boulevard the premiere Los Angeles address for Israel relationships.

In this vein, Gold can build upon a solid foundation. The Federation's 10-year-old Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, with an annual budget of $1.5 million, has created relationships between 18 local Jewish schools and 18 in Israel; it's provided a channel for Israeli writers, producers and actors to communicate with their counterparts in Hollywood, and supported the exchange of students between Tel Aviv University and UCLA.

"I want to expand not just the partnership, but the functionality of our relationship with Israel to being superb," Gold said. "I want every organization in Los Angeles to see us as their travel agent, as their tour guide, as their introduction to social, culture, religious, political counterparts in Israel. We can do it. We have half a leg up on that."

His second focus is leadership training, regardless of whether the grooming results in more Federation volunteers, Gold said. "If they go on and become leaders of AJC or HUC or the new American Jewish University or 100 other organizations, that is fine with me. They are making a contribution at that level, and we ought to take great pride in that, and we ought to help them along."

Gold's third area of interest, community relations, will likely be the most challenging. Jewish activists have been sharply critical of the downsizing of the once-vibrant Jewish Community Relations Committee, which prior to the mid-1990s spoke out on behalf of L.A. Jews on controversial issues, ranging from Proposition 187 to the nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court. But it's been mostly reduced to one program, KOREH L.A., a successful literacy program that provides volunteer tutors at public schools.

"It is going to be very difficult for The Federation to effectively re-engage community relations. The JCRC doesn't have any staff. It is basically one person," said Michael Hirschfeld, who spent 24 years with the department before Fishel fired him as executive director in 2003. He's now president of Jewish Communal Professionals of Southern California. "First thing they have to do is hire more employees. Then they have to figure out how they can be more effective in a community relations arena and not alienate major donors, and that is a tough job."

Fishel has held that times have changed, and public advocacy is no longer necessary for The Federation. Gold, too, said he is not interested in The Federation taking positions on public policy, but he wants to strengthen ties with immigrant communities, particularly Latinos.

"As Jews, we are going to live in this community as a minority. We have been very blessed -- this goes back to my good luck -- and I think that part of having a Jewish soul is repaying the contributions people have made to us to others who are lower on the socioeconomic scale," Gold said.

Just what that means for The Federation is unclear. If it is relationships that Gold seeks with other minority groups, former U.S. Rep. Mel Levine said, The Federation will not be able to remain silent on political issues, whether the topic is immigration legislation or public education.

"The big stumbling block has been that we only want to be involved with these communities when we need their support, and not when they need ours," said Levine, who spent a frustrating two years as JCRC chair. "Stanley is a sophisticated, smart, thoughtful, talented person who understands that these alliances only work when they go both ways."

Cynical or realistic, a few veterans of The Federation's inner workings were skeptical about the likelihood of Gold -- or anyone -- reshaping the organization.

"Stanley Gold is not a pushover, but how much hands-on will he have at The Federation?" asked one board member. "John Fishel tends to put people in places where they are yes-men. Is John going to be telling Stanley what they're going to do, and he is just going to be a rubber stamp?"

Fishel said that is not his plan.

"Change is never easy, but sometimes change is absolutely necessary to change your future viability," The Federation's president said. "There, Stanley is going to play a vital role because he is going to force us to ask some hard questions."

Regardless of what obstructions or challenges arise, Gold seems unwilling to be stifled. A visit to 1984 helps demonstrate why.

The Magic Kingdom was under attack. Corporate raiders were attempting a hostile takeover of the Walt Disney Co., lusting for control of the company so they could strip mine its studio and real estate holdings and hang onto the profitable theme parks. Stock prices plummeting, it was the end of innocence for Disney -- some would say an allegory for the United States -- and somehow the man who had long been known around the office as "Walt's idiot nephew" got a chance to be the hero.

At Roy Disney's behest, Gold began buying hundreds of thousands of Disney shares to add to the 1.1 million his boss already owned. Then he and the brain trust, a roundtable of Roy Disney and his advisers, began working to ward off the raiders and quell Wall Street's anxiety.

It was obvious the current CEO had to go; Disney had just made it's first profitable live-action film, "Splash," since "The Love Bug" was released in 1968 -- 16 long years before. But Disney's board of directors, which included Gold and Roy Disney, couldn't agree on who should replace him.

Gold's selection to run the company -- a combination of Paramount No. 2 Michael Eisner and former Warner Bros. chief Frank Wells -- was opposed by 10 of the board's 13 members. As autumn approached, Gold had a week to convince four directors to support his candidates. He was told it couldn't be done; even members of the brain trust were beginning to worry.

"We're going to run it my way," Gold told Mark Siegel, a partner at Gang, Tyre and member of the brain trust, according to John Taylor's book, "Storming the Magic Kingdom," the definitive account of the affair. "We're going to run it right down the middle of the street, where they're uncomfortable and where I'm comfortable. We're going to put on a political campaign right out there where everybody can see us. I'm tired of being told to be quiet because somebody's feelings are going to be hurt."

By Saturday morning, Gold's men were voted the new heads of Walt Disney Productions. He celebrated by ordering vanity license plates that said "10-3." Two decades later, Gold and Roy Disney proved just as formidable when, fed up with Eisner's management, they resigned as directors of the company and single-handedly led a shareholder revolt that resulted in Eisner's resignation.

"The most important thing to know about me," Gold said when I asked if he was worried about spinning his wheels at The Federation, "is I don't get ulcers. I give ulcers."

Read more at The God Blog

Friday, September 28, 2007

God & Grades

From: UCLA Magazine

Brandon Kuiper arrived at UCLA with a strong Christian faith and an inquisitive scientific mind. He didn't believe in evolution, but he was intent on studying neuroscience. Something was bound to give, but the biggest spiritual crisis in Kuiper's 20 years came not from South Campus but from studying the philosophy of Voltaire and Hobbes and Kant and Freud.

"I was reading that stuff and I thought, ‘This makes so much sense.' I had to stop and evaluate why I am a Christian and what I believe," he recalls. "I remember thinking, ‘What if I've been wrong all along?' "

Kuiper, now the student chaplain for the Christian fraternity Alpha Gamma Omega, is not the first Bruin — and he certainly won't be the last — to question everything he believed. For many students, that's just part of college.

But, unlike most places in the nation, religion and science are not locked in mortal combat. At least at UCLA, the search for truth often leads to a middle path where student seekers find a way to live and learn comfortably from both textbooks and holy books.

There's certainly no shortage of seekers. A study by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) found that three-fourths of freshmen are "searching for meaning/purpose in life" and that half are either "seeking" or "doubting" their spiritual understanding of the world. Forty percent said it was very important they follow a set of religious teachings.

"It is the nature of the beast of people that age. It's just part of being a college student," says Alexander Astin, co-leader of the "Spirituality in Higher Education" study and an emeritus professor of higher education. "College students are on a developmental adventure."

For many students, there is a decline in ritualized religion, in attending services, in studying scriptures. This, Astin says, can be attributed to leaving the parents' nest, to being around a more diverse peer group and, no surprise, to "social liberation," a.k.a. partying. But that doesn't translate to a significant decline in faith, Astin says.

"That really got me set in my faith," Kuiper says of his philosophy course. "I've never been a stronger Christian."

The implications of this national survey of 112,000 entering freshmen in 2004 — a follow-up analysis of the same students as juniors this past spring will be published this fall — are, well, eternal, not to mention political, social and medical. Students with high levels of religious engagement are politically conservative three times as often as liberal, and they exhibit moderately better physical health.

Though there are more than two dozen Christian groups on campus, more than any other faith, UCLA has something for everybody. The prevalence and diversity of religion is most apparent at the start of each quarter, when scores of spiritual groups hawk literature and recruit from tables along Bruin Walk.

When the outreach coordinator for the Secular Student Alliance entered this gauntlet last fall, he found non-religion a tough sell — even though there is a Bruin Alliance of Skeptics and Secularists that has existed since 2002 and currently has 15 members. After two hours, he packed up and left, having spoken with only six students, none of whom were interested.

This is L.A., where congregations from more than 100 different religious groups worship. Sure, there have been instances of religious tension. Last year, for example, someone tagged swastikas on a bathroom stall in Kerckhoff Hall; there also was the flare-up when the student group L.O.G.I.C. — Liberty, Objectivity, Greed, Individualism, Capitalism — held a forum to display the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. But UCLA generally is a place where young adults learn to appreciate diverse worldviews and where they strive for understanding.

Rupa Lalchandani arrived at UCLA having spent the previous decade attending Bal Vihar, she says, "which is like Sunday School for Hindus." During her first two quarters, though, the only education she received was on campus. "There was a religious void in my life."

So she began seeking. She found the Hindu Students Council, for which she currently helps plan weekly discussions. She also started attending church each Sunday with a close friend. And she began hanging out at Hillel with Jewish friends. Next year, she says, she wants to visit a monastery.

"Religion centers me. College life is so fast. It is always one thing after another, especially in Los Angeles ... I wanted time to think about what I was doing with my life," the fourth-year psychobiology student says. "Everyone is on a spiritual quest, whether or not we realize it. It's a lifelong process."

Across the country, students are on that quest. Fifteen years ago at Harvard University, a group of graduate students started the Veritas Forum for others seeking meaning in the Christian tradition. The forum has spread to 80 campuses in six countries, including UCLA from 2001 to 2004, and, through a Christian lens, helps students wrestle with the mysteries of existence.

"Generally, seeking students, or Christian students, they find one another, and they live in a kind of para-academy where they are creating a culture within their own friendships — but one that does explore the big questions," Kelly Monroe Kullberg, one of the Harvard founders, says. "Questions like: What does it mean to be human? What are our origins? It seems like the Big Bang and DNA point to a creator who speaks things into existence; why is no one talking about that in the academy?"

Still, the Spirituality in Higher Education study claims that universities generally do little to support these journeys. Astin said that is because colleges, particularly public institutions, don't want to be perceived as promoting sectarianism.

"But from our perspective, that is a problem, because students feel they have to contend with these questions and they are not getting support doing it," Astin says. "And these are questions that certainly affect their studies and choice of career, so colleges would be wise to pay attention to that."

UCLA does not have a dean of religious life and, until 1995, the College of Letters & Science lacked its interdepartmental Center for the Study of Religion. But Janina Montero, vice chancellor of student affairs, says the faculty and administration are taught to recognize the role religious development plays in students' college experience.

"The important thing," she says, "is to be able to support and encourage exploration and outreach to that part of a student's experience, to encourage them to engage either with their religious traditions or engage with their church or synagogue or temple at home, to maintain those ties."

That was easy for Naqib Shifa. He grew up only 15 miles away in the San Fernando Valley, and when he arrived at UCLA in September 2005, his cousin, Reshad Noorzay '06, was already involved with the Muslim Students Association (MSA). Shifa joined and last year was managing editor of the Muslim student paper, Al-Talib.

"MSA has been my family away from my house in the Valley. Just being around that environment, being with other people who have the same focus you do, is something to treasure about college," says Shifa, who is majoring in geography and environmental studies. "Just talking with them, sitting with them, doing projects with them, I've learned a lot. It has definitely helped increase my faith and nurture my faith."

Shifa's faith could first be differentiated from his parents' when he was in 10th grade. "Since then I have been wholeheartedly devoted to living my life according to the Quran and being pious," he says.

While the Spirituality in Higher Education study found many students with high spiritual involvement and commitment just like Shifa, plenty of collegians aren't actively pursuing the greater mysteries of life. And that bothers Shifa.

"Little thought is given to this subject," he says. "While we are trying to pursue a degree in biology or microbiology, people are giving little thought to why we suffer in this world, why some people are oppressed, why we live 60, 70 years and just die. There has to be more to life than just that."

Another surprise, albeit more pleasant, Shifa said, is that while on campus he has not felt like a member of a minority religion. When he took History 4, the popular history of religions course (see sidebar, page 23), Professor Scott Bartchy, a Christian, would always follow the Prophet Muhammad's name with "and peace be upon him."

In the Jewish history courses Professor David N. Myers teaches, he's found that Muslim students are not only respectful of Jewish history, but eager to learn from it. "They are interested in learning about the history of Muslim-Jewish relations and about the ways that Jewish history might offer lessons for how Muslims can exist as minorities in Western society."

In fact, Muslims have some of the highest rates of spiritual quest. That's why on any given Friday a few dozen Muslim students can be seen doing the afternoon prayer in Kerckhoff's Grand Salon or Ackerman's Viewpoint conference room.

Jewish students, on the other hand, "are the most secular religious group," says Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA. "They are outstanding; they are champions in religious disbelief."

But don't tell that to Marco Gonzalez, an international development studies and political science student. Gonzalez, who is Jewish, emigrated six years ago from Mexico with little understanding of Jewish culture or tradition. So he added a weekly class to his course load. Only, it wasn't offered through the university, but at the Chabad House on Gayley Avenue.

On a Wednesday night, Gonzalez enters the upstairs classroom at Chabad and pulls out his textbook, Jewish Essentials: A Spiritual Guide to Jewish Life & Living.

"In the last couple of classes, we learned about the paramount importance of the Torah," Rabbi Dovid Gurevich, the Chabad campus co-director, says. "The Torah was received at Mt. Sinai, and the next holiday we celebrate, Shavuot, reminds us of that. That is very nice, but we have to make it practical and real ... We have to learn ways to make it real in our daily lives."

Tonight Gonzalez and three other students learn about the mezuzah (a sacred parchment hung on door posts to make holy the room inside) and tefillin (the boxes containing passages of the Torah and the leather straps Orthodox Jews use for prayer).

On college-ruled paper, Gonzalez takes detailed notes. "I want to be able to pass on these traditions to my children," he says. "I want to know what I'm talking about, so that when they have questions I don't have to say, ‘Ask a rabbi.' "

Gonzalez departs about 9:30 and heads straight to Powell to finish studying for a midterm the next day on international relations of the Middle East. But he doesn't mind staying up late and getting up early if it means not missing the time at Chabad.

"I would rather go to Chabad and learn it and enjoy it there, and just put in some extra time into my classes," Gonzalez says. "I've been taking the class at Chabad, and it's almost like having another class for school. But it's a more important subject. It is the subject of our lives."

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Life under a canopy of Qassams

From: The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles

Moments before we met, Mayan Bar-On bolted for the center of her family's home on Kibbutz Nir-Am along the Gaza border.

Away from the windows, away from the doors, in a hallway underneath a red-tile roof that couldn't withstand a Qassam strike, she and her 9-year-old brother, Gabi, huddled and waited for the boom.

Now, though, the 12-year-old girl is partaking in a more peaceful ritual. She lights the Shabbat candles and prays
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam. Asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat.
"Shabbat Shalom," her father, Uzi, says.

Everyone shares the sentiment and begins to pass the dinner plates, knowing that at any moment, with only a few seconds warning from a public intercom, they may have to drop everything and again -- again and again -- take cover.

Six seconds: That's all the time residents of Kibbutz Nir-Am have to react.

Six seconds: Less time than it took to read this paragraph ... Boom! And after they hear the boom, they know it's safe to return to life, at least for now.

This is fast becoming tradition on the frontier of Israeli society. Between the rocket-launching Gaza fields of Beit Hanoun and the primary target town of Sderot, Nir-Am has been constantly under fire for the past six years. More than 6,000 Qassam rockets have been launched at Israeli cities and villages since September 2001, and hundreds have landed in this community of about 350.

It's difficult to imagine the effect of this terror on daily life. It's even more challenging to comprehend why a sensible person would stay here. But for the Bar-Ons and thousands of other families, living under a canopy of Qassams is simply their life station.

"You never get used to it, but you learn to live with it, you learn to compensate, you learn to do things: Teach the children what to do when this happens, keep them as close as possible to some kind of shelter that they can run to. But it's a nightmare," says Marcell Bar-On, Mayan's mother. "You are really torn between trying to keep your children safe and getting them out of a situation which is terrible and being in a place where your home is and where your heart is and where everything is."

It takes about an hour and a quarter to drive the 90 kilometers from Jerusalem to Sderot. It's a relatively short journey, but the two communities' realities are worlds apart.

In Jerusalem, the economy is booming and the population is soaring. In Sderot, 370 of 450 small businesses have closed shop during the past 18 months, and even some of the most stalwart residents have lost faith; those who could leave, for the most part have.

In Jerusalem the last terrorist attack was in early 2004. In the Sderot region, it likely was within the past few minutes.

Even the northern border with Lebanon, the site of last summer's war with Hezbollah, appears way ahead of its southern sibling in the return to terror-free normalcy. Travel to Metula, west of the Golan Heights and within sniper distance of Klea, and you see comfortable suburban homes and picturesque farmlands.

"You can see the parched hillsides. That is the most lasting reminder of what was here last summer," Jacob Dallal, spokesman for the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), told a group of American Jewish journalists brought to the region this month to see how donations to the United Jewish Communities (UJC), through local federations, have helped rebuild the region through small-business loans, counseling centers and after-school programs.

But to the south, the region of the western Negev that includes Sderot and surrounding kibbutzim and moshavim, where $6.5 million in donations from the UJC's Israel Emergency Campaign have been similarly allotted, the bombardment continues.

And that is the big difference between recovery in the north and the south.

Cities like Nahariya and Haifa and Kiryat Shmona were given a reprieve from military conflict after last summer's month of intense attacks. The war ended, even if no one believes it's over for good, or even for long.

Around Sderot, by contrast, the threat continues to crest, with no break in site.


As an agent of death, Qassam rockets are a bad selection. Since 2001, those fired from Gaza have killed 11 people. That's only about one death per 550 rockets. But as a tool of terror, the homemade missles, packed with 1 to 5 kilograms of gunpowder and with a range of 10 to 12 kilometers, are very effective.

The emotional toll piles up when children are forced to think about where they can hide from incoming rocket fire each time they go outside; just waiting for the bus seems like a game of Russian roulette; and going to work means spending eight hours wondering if that morning was the last time you will have seen your kids.

The Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma found that about 11 percent of adults and 16 percent of toddlers in Sderot have full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder. Another study reported that as many as 33 percent of children between ages 2 and 6 show symptoms of PTSD.

It should be no surprise then that one of the most popular places in town is the city's trauma center, an unreinforced one-story building with a handful of beds and blast walls protecting the front door. Here the distressed come to calm down after a Qassam has rattled the house next door or shaken the ground under their feet or simply frayed their nerves to a frenzy.

"Once you have experienced a rocket landing nearby, you are absolutely sure that when the next siren goes off, that rocket is headed directly for you, even if it is aimed a few kilometers away," said Noam Bedein, a 25-year-old college student who lives in Sderot and is director of the Sderot Information Center of the Western Negev, which has heightened awareness on its Web site,

More than 2,000 trauma cases were opened just in the past 12 months. Some patients stay at the trauma center only long enough to get a cold drink and some comforting conversation; others need medication and a few days' attention.

"You can't give people what they really need: security," said Aharon Polat (pictured), a social worker at the center. "You can be a great psychologist or you can be a great social worker, but if you speak with someone and one minute later there is an alarm for a Qassam, he doesn't breathe well. It comes again and again and again, and it is very difficult to make people learn to live with it. What can I say to them? 'Don't worry?'"

"It can hurt everyone every hour," he continued. "When there is one or two days without a Qassam, people feel much, much better. You can see they are happy. They are almost normal. But then a Qassam comes again, and it breaks them. It's very hard to live with this. You can't stop thinking something will happen to you or your child."

Polat lives just outside of Sderot on Kibbutz Karmia, where he is raising his two children. He said he takes some comfort in the mundane. But it is a pragmatic sense of peace, not an idealistic one.

"When I breathe, I enjoy breathing, and when I eat, I enjoy eating, and when I run, I enjoy running. I enjoy life for whatever I can. I try to hold life together," he said. "I have a problem with sorrow and a problem with pain and with angriness and with what will be of this country -- will Israel continue to exist in 20 years? Will they be free? -- but I can function."


Less than a mile from what was once the refugee community of Gaza, Sderot took shape in the early 1950s as a tent city for new Israelis. Its name means "broadways" in Hebrew, a fitting selection for an outpost in the western Negev that continues to be a point of entry for immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. (The influx of Russian speakers doubled the city's population during the '90s to a total of about 24,000; the tally has ranged from 10,000 to 20,000 since the escalation of attacks in May.)

Far from ever being a metropolis, Sderot was an outpost of pre-1967 Zionism, a settlement of Jews within the Green Line that stood as a citadel against Egypt. Following the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005, when the settlements were razed and the Israeli army left, Sderot's role in defending Jewish statehood returned.

"There is no more Jewish act than living in Sderot," said Los Angeles Councilman Jack Weiss, who visited last summer. "They are truly on the front lines of our entire people. Sure, people want to move out of the range of the missiles, but all that will prove is that the existence of the State of Israel and the existence of the Jewish people is just a function of range. So the simple defiant act of staying there is so awesome and so impressive."

"Sderot" has become a catchphrase for the region under fire in the western Negev. Due west of Sderot, just before you reach Beit Hanoun, lies Kibbutz Nir-Am.

Asher and Rachel Bar-On moved to this former patch of sand and hardscrabble desert -- now fecund with citrus groves and sunflowers and wheat fields -- in 1943. They came by way of northern Israel after fleeing Eastern Europe at the start of World War II, and the Bar-Ons were among the founding families of the kibbutz, the oldest in this region.

Twelve years later, Rachel gave birth to Uzi, whom she named for a doctor who helped when the kibbutz was getting shelled during the War of Independence. Back then, the border with Gaza was an open field, and as a child, Uzi tended cattle out in the pasture. There he befriended a young Palestinian shepherd with whom he still speaks almost daily. (Until the outbreak of the second intifada, Uzi and his family traveled regularly into Gaza to see friends and eat seafood. No longer.)

Today, Uzi is the logistics manager at Michsaf, a tableware manufacturer run by Nir-Am residents. He, Marcell, Mayan and Gabi live in a four-bedroom stucco house with yellow walls and a red roof; two older daughters, Kelly, 21, and Dana, 20, live in separate housing on the kibbutz.

The Bar-On's front door leads into what used to be the veranda, but, thanks to the addition of two mostly windowed walls, is now the living room. The ceiling is rich cherry oak and the floor smooth brick. This is where Mayan and Gabi sit on plump, blue leather couches and watch Nickelodeon, and from where they run when they hear the "color red" warning of an incoming rocket -- "tveza adom."

"If we're sitting in here with the air-conditioning on and the windows closed and the TV on, we can't hear the siren. What does it matter if we can hear it or not?" Marcell asks, growing exasperated. "What can we do? We're going to go where there are not windows, but we are still not protected."

For that reason, when the rocket attacks are heavy, like they were for the last two weeks of May, when 293 rockets were launched from Gaza after a six-month cease-fire broke down, the Bar-Ons often sleep on the concrete floor of a communal bomb shelter about 50 meters from their house.

"I like this one because it is underground," Marcell says, walking down the stairs in the dark. "It's something extra. It's really, really safe."

"Ooh, it smells terrible," she says, before flipping the light switch and revealing a red picnic bench, tile floor and wine cellar d├ęcor. About 15 feet by 20 feet, the room is stuffed with upwards of a dozen people on busy nights.

Fortunately, the previous few weeks have been "quiet." Marcell uses that term several times and usually follows it with a grimace, as if the Sderot region has been experiencing the calm before the storm.

Quiet, anyway, doesn't mean silent. It still means three to four Qassams coming their direction each day.

Last month, Uzi and Marcell saw one of the rockets fly above them as they swam in the pool after dinner.

"We knew that Gabi was playing soccer and that Mayan was in bed. We were totally helpless in the middle of the pool, and we saw this bomb fly right over our heads," Marcell recalls. "We jumped out of the pool to see where Gabi was, to see if he was still alive."

He was. But the rocket tore off a room in an elderly couple's home. That direct hit followed the Qassam that landed on the kibbutz restaurant, Fauna, and burned the structure to the foundation, which followed the bomb that tore through one of the dorms rented to students at Sapir College. Amazingly, each time, no one was hurt.

"We have," Marcell adds, "so many stories like that ...."


The political sentiment in Sderot is easy to gauge. As you approach the area, just read the wooden signs with painted red Hebrew messages that appear on the side of the highway:

"We are staying here because we are connected to the soil. But shortly we will be buried inside. Thank you, Olmert."

In a meeting with journalists last month in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Jerusalem office, before which the group was told that Olmert's comments were on the record but couldn't be quoted, the prime minister said the attacks from Gaza, which seem even more problematic since Hamas' forceful expulsion of Fatah government officials in June, require continuous and meticulous intervention but not a comprehensive military response.

A major operation, Olmert said, would not entirely end the attacks, and he believes it would come at too great a cost to Israel. He declined to comment on future plans for dealing with Gaza.

In May, this paper reported that most military experts believe that only a major ground operation would eradicate the threat. But they echoed Olmert's sentiment. It would cause, they said, significant "Israeli military casualties, Palestinian humanitarian suffering, [negative] international opinion and economic losses."

"Everything is waiting," IDF Reserve Brig. Gen. Shalom Harari said at Sapir College before a tour of the Gaza border. "Now, you ask me, what will decide about the timing of such an operation? That is what is called the 'strategic Qassam.'"

"The Qassam that will fall on a synagogue in Sderot and kill 10," said Harari, a senior research fellow at the Middle East Media Research Institute. "Or the Qassam that will fall on a kindergarten and kill, I hope not, God hopes not, 10 children. Or the Qassam that will fall here and kill 10 students. That will be the igniting point."

There are countless stories of near-massacres that could have been such a catalyst -- the gasoline tanker that left the station moments before a rocket blew a crater in the driveway, the Qassam that flew through the roof of a synagogue office while congregants were in the sanctuary on Shabbat, the bomb that fell on the playground of Gabi's school the day all the parents kept their kids home in protest.

For now, the Israel Defense Forces have been instructed to target Hamas and Islamic Jihad members who are orchestrating or participating in the Qassam attacks. This past Monday, an Israeli jet fired a missile at a car in the Gaza Strip that was carrying six Hamas operatives involved in rocket launches hours before. All were killed. On Tuesday, three more were killed in a separate airstrike.

"Once you target the head of that area and the head of that zone, the organization is damaged and it limits their ability to carry out the terrorist activities against Israel in the future," IDF Maj. Avital Leibovitch said shortly after the Monday mission.

But many in the western Negev say the government could be doing a lot more. Ari Shavit, a columnist for the liberal newspaper Ha'aretz, lamented in late May that denizens of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and the rest of Israel's core had forgotten Sderot.

"Suddenly, the feeling is that perhaps it has really happened: Perhaps Sderot has been broken," Shavit wrote. "But Sderot has still not been broken. If the rocket attacks cease, most people will return. Without security, without hope, without happiness -- a depressing return to no choice.

"So the basic fact remains: Sderot 2007 is a city that seems cursed. A frontier city with no home front. A frontier city with no aura of heroism. A frontier city that the government should protect, but isn't protecting. A frontier city that the nation should be standing behind, but is not. A frontier city abandoned by the center of the country."

But Sderot has not been forgotten. Thanks to people like Bedein, who keeps the region's story in the news; to Israeli philanthropists like Arcadi Gaydamak, who gives freely to whatever the need is in the region, and to American Jews, who indirectly support Sderot through donations to the UJC's Israel Emergency Campaign and other programs.

UJC, through programs administered by JAFI and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, has reinforced buildings, provided trauma counseling, financed summer camps outside the Qassam range for the region's 8,200 children ages 6 to 17 and supported a senior center where elderly residents attend daily continuing education courses in a large bomb shelter furnished as a classroom.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles earmarked $20,000 for new equipment for a youth center computer room. And after matching funds with Temple Isaiah, The Federation sent $35,000 for the Etgarim program for at-risk teens.

"For us and all of those who love the State of Israel, it is essential that we get the things we need so people don't leave Sderot," said Shimon Peretz, the city's director-general. "If we leave, Sderot will be the first to fall, and following Sderot will be Ashdod and Ashkelon."


Smaller than a walk-in closet, the white bomb shelter with the blue door trim is stocked with two small beanbag chairs, a flannel blanket, a pillow and a pink-and-blue "My Own Beauty Vanity."

Immediately outside the portable shelter stands a netless soccer goal. This patch of browning grass rimmed by houses is the only place children are allowed to play soccer now, the larger field fenced off because it was too far from emergency cover.

"It's a sh—ty life," Marcell says. "That's not the way it's supposed to be. But it's life."

Everybody struggles differently with the reality.

Dana struggled to sleep, lost 20 pounds and developed low blood iron after a Qassam landed a few meters away while she was lying out by the kibbutz pool.

When Kelly was in the army last year, she didn't want to come home on the weekends and started sleeping under her bed when she got out.

And Gabi, for two weeks this summer, woke up most nights sprinting for the center of the house. Marcell found him there one morning about 2 a.m., curled into a ball with a sheet over his head.

"Gabi," she asked, "what are you doing?"

"There was a tzeva adom. There was a tzeva adom."

There hadn't been, but such fears are fomented by an existence so precarious that people are afraid to close their eyes lest they slumber through a rocket warning. Showers and sex also are problematic: No one wants emergency workers discovering their bruised bodies naked in the bathroom or cleaved to a lover. And under such circumstances, who's going to hear the alarm?

"One day, I walked into the shower and I heard 'tzeva adom,'" says Sigal Yisrael, a teacher at Gabi's school, Shaar HaNegev Elementary. "I had to decide real fast to go out or to stay in. I just covered myself with a towel and looked down at my legs to make sure they were shaved."


Why then does anyone stay in Sderot?

Like many in this area, the Bar-Ons have tried leaving. They skipped from kibbutz to kibbutz, even fled to Marcell's native South Africa for a few months. But, at the end of the day, they're stuck in the area like most everyone else here.

Property values have tanked for homeowners -- who would want to buy a home in an area where predictability has become so unpredictable? And for those on the kibbutzim, homeownership is a misnomer. As members of a cooperative community, families like the Bar-Ons "own" their house as long as they remain part of the kibbutz. But the title is not truly theirs, and if they were to leave, they would receive a payout from the kibbutz and have little equity to start over.

"I used to watch the news during the Bosnian War, and I'd see these guys running to work with briefcases, trying to avoid the snipers," Marcell says. "I used to think, 'How can people allow themselves to live like that?' And now I'm doing the same thing, and I understand: It's a lack of choice."

For more, check out The God Blog

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

What Olmert thinks of American Jewish money

From: The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles

JERUSALEM, Aug. 8 -- "You are not to directly quote the prime minister," Ehud Olmert's press handler told a group of American Jewish journalists I've been traveling with this week.

This directive came today as we sat in a conference room in Olmert's Jerusalem offices. It seemed a ridiculous rule, but the prime minister's fears made more sense once the meeting was over.

When Olmert walked confidently into the conference room, he shook some hands, said 'Shalom' and posed for a photo with a few journalists. Dressed in a navy suit and red tie, he sat tall, speaking in fluent English as he cracked jokes and invited our questions -- and that's when the meeting went south.

Asked about the hundreds of millions of dollars sent by American Jews to help Israel during and after last summer's war with Hezbollah, Olmert responded that the donations were very important -- but he stopped short of calling it "necessary."

If a giver wants to give and the receiver wants to get, Olmert said, God bless that situation.

And as we've seen this week, God -- or human resourcefulness -- has blessed a quick reconstruction of northern Israel. But Olmert's comments seemed particularly ungrateful because he spoke not only to the American journalists, but also to some top officials of the United Jewish Communities (UJC).

Through the UJC's Israel Emergency Campaign last summer, North American federations sent $360 million to Israel. UJC is also the sponsor of this media trip, which was designed to show reporters and editors how American donations have been used. UJC officials have shuttled our group, including editors and writers from major Jewish publications in Washington, New York, Philadelphia and L.A., to show us the pain inflicted by war.

They arranged this forum with the prime minister to allow him to speak to the most philanthropic Diaspora community -- and this is what he says?

Nachman Shai, senior vice president and director general of UJC Israel, wouldn't directly respond. "UJC is extremely proud of the work we have done with our partners and the government of Israel both during and after the war," he said in a statement prepared after the meeting.

It could be that Olmert didn't want to show Israel's hostile neighbors any sign of weakness by suggesting that the country cannot survive without Diaspora money. But given the past 60 years of American Jewish support for Israel Bonds and emergency aid during wartime, this was probably not the best audience for such high-handedness.

Olmert's popularity already is insanely low. Last month, the newspaper Yediot Ahronot reported his approval rating among Israelis has fallen to 8 percent, next to which President Bush looks like the coolest kid in school. Olmert has been heavily criticized for myriad mistakes in last summer's war, and even now, 12 months after the ceasefire, he appears oblivious to the situation on the ground.

I've spent the past three days in Northern Israel, near Haifa, Nahariya, the Galilee - and most everyone I've met has talked at some length about the lingering and traumatic affects of having been bombarded by Katyusha rockets for 34 days last summer.

Take, for instance, Shiri Havkin, who lives in the town of Rosh Pina. Havkin runs a small business, Drora's Herb Farm, out of her home; it was started by her mother, the Israeli singer Drora Havkin, and the younger Havkin took over when her mother died in 1995. She nearly lost it all last summer when tourism stopped -- her savings shriveled and she bounced so many checks the bank froze her activity.

She only stayed afloat thanks to a low-interest loan from a small-business development center that was supported by UJC. Another war, though, might be enough for Havkin to give up on the Galilee.

"If there will be another war, I will have to sell my house," she said. "I'm sorry to say but I cannot stand another war."

Olmert dismissed such sentiments as isolated and insignificant.

There is no trauma, he said: Nothing is collapsing; the north is booming; income is higher than ever; employment is higher than ever.

And, in fact, his claims are partially true. Israel's economy is once again going gangbusters. People have returned to the north, and the most visible remnants of war are a few blackened trees on the hillsides close to the border. Nahariya's streets and boardwalk are filled day and night with young revelers.

But that doesn't account for the emotional wreckage inside many Israelis.

Numerous psychologists and social workers told our group that post-traumatic stress disorder is a public-health crisis in northern Israel. One to-be-published study by Rami Benbenishty of Hebrew University found that 10 percent to 11 percent of children in Nahariya are in "critical, immediate need" of psychological treatment. They suffer not from war fatigue, but concussion paranoia. Debilitating fear is literally a sneeze away for some.

But what did the leader of Israel say when told many psychologists would not agree with his analysis of how war has affected his citizens?

He said it was time to change the psychologist.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Interview with a serial blogger

From: The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles

Luke Ford loves gossip.

He loves to dish dirt on rabbis suspected of sleeping around and on pornographers stealing from their customers.

The blogger likes playing the role of the outsider journalist, the little guy willing to fight back, more nimble than those dinosaurs we call newspapers. He is -- to quote Luke Ford himself -- "more a kid who likes to throw manure."

The son of a Seventh-day Adventist evangelist, Ford is named after the gentile physician who wrote one of the Gospels and he shares his last name with one of the most infamously anti-Semitic Americans in history. But that's not why mentioning the contentious Internet journalist, who converted to Judaism 15 years ago, gives some Jews the sensation of nails scraping across a chalkboard.

"He's a lashon hara monger," said one community leader, who like many agreed to speak only anonymously. "He comes up with the most outrageous conclusions and puts them up on his Web site, passing them off as truth. If a rabbi stands up on the pulpit and says something, by Saturday night it is on [Ford's] Web site, twisted, with his perverted insights, as if it is fool-proof truth."

But sometimes, Ford is right. And therein lies this tale: what happens when gossip, roundly despised in Jewish law and tradition, turns out to be true and important? What is the difference between making gossip and breaking news? And how, in the brave new world of blogging, do we answer these questions?

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa might be wondering the same thing. It was Luke Ford who on his blog broke the news that the mayor's marriage had failed. Los Angeles has thousands upon thousands of niche bloggers, and Ford is nowhere near the most read. But he got the ball rolling, and he didn't relent after Villaraigosa vehemently denied the claim.

Eventually, Ford's reporting at was vindicated, and the Villaraigosa revelation led to radio appearances and regular mentions on notable blogs like's Kausfiles and Last week, the Los Angeles Times invited Ford to debate blogging and journalism ethics with KTLA reporter Eric Spillman at

"I'm 41 years old," Ford said over coffee last week, "and it is just so obvious to me that the only thing I am good at is blogging.... As a blogger, I have to pick up the crap; I pick up the droppings that polite reporters don't want to touch." is now getting about 4,000 page views per day, according to Blogads, which tracks traffic for advertisement pricing. That's double the eyeballs Ford attracted before the mayor confirmed in June that he and his wife had separated.

And Ford's run is continuing: Last Friday he reported L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca was divorcing his wife; by Monday other media outlets had picked up on it.

But to Ford's critics, the value of such scoops doesn't justify the less savory aspects of blogging in general, and specifically. After all, Ford has had a handful of breakthrough stories before, and then returned to obscurity.

"People who act that way can and do get lucky and therefore some credibility is given to them," one Jewish critic said. "It's like B.F. Skinner said about variable reinforcement schedule: If you don't give the rat a pill every time they push the bar, but you give it every third time or every fifth time or at an interval, the rats keep pushing the bar like crazy. And that is what some of these blogs do."


Many Jewish leaders are disgusted by Ford. They say they have befriended him and been betrayed. Who knows what he might catch them saying, or what he might publish somebody else saying about them? Multiple rabbis contacted by The Journal declined to comment; not only that, they didn't even want to be named as having declined comment.

Few sins are as serious as that of lashon hara, the evil tongue, though the severity of gossip and negative speech wasn't widely understood until Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan came along in the late 1800s and published his famous book, "Chofetz Chaim."

There are 31 commandments regarding lashon hara. The gist is that it's not only sinful to gossip about someone, but to say negative things at all, even if true, unless there is a compelling reason.

If a person knows their friend is getting involved romantically with a scoundrel or professionally with a crook, they should dish the dirt -- privately, said Rabbi Avrohom Stulberger, a local Orthodox expert on lashon hara. That's different from making a broad-brush PSA.

"When it is put out in the open like that on the Internet, it almost never becomes acceptable," said Stulberger, principal of Valley Torah High School. "If there is a situation where you have factual clear knowledgeable information and you needed to warn a wide spectrum of people because you couldn't get to everybody personally, I suppose there could be a scenario where it would be justified. But certainly if it is haphazard, if it isn't researched properly, if you haven't thought through the repercussions -- there are so many variables that the Chofetz Chaim talks about, it would be a rare, rare day that something like that would be justified."

Stulberger wasn't familiar with, but it's hard to imagine the blog fitting the Chofetz Chaim criteria. Though the site is loaded with insightful interviews and

Brad adds (4:48 PM, 8/03/2007):

As expected, Luke Ford has been blogging about this profile.

To see the continuing dialog and some of my other musings on the cowboy blogger, visit The God Blog.
profiles of local and national Jewish leaders, the blog does little to distinguish between rumor and reportage.

"Whether blogging about Jews, porners, Australian fauna, my mental health, my dad Desmond and myriad topics, I've never been one to rigorously check my facts before posting," Ford wrote in April. "And I've misused the English language quite regularly. The speed of the Internet doesn't allow for fact checking or being clear when I write. I'm a blogger, mates, and I play by [my] own rules."

The outcome is a mosaic of phone conversations, e-mails, reader comments, personal reflection, questions, opinion and fiction.

"Is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg Gay?" a July 10 headline asked. "His mannerisms scream gay to me but maybe he's just a perfect gentleman," Ford wrote.

That is not news reporting; it is Ford posting a question in hopes that it will lead him to the answer. (An Associated Press story Sunday about a sexual harassment lawsuit Bloomberg settled in 2000 with a female executive of his financial company ran on under the headline, "Guess This Answers My Question About Mayor Bloomberg.")

Ford argues that gossip is morally neutral. The benefits of gossip balance out the negatives, he says. But even Ford's favorite Jewish journalist doesn't agree with that.

"I looked up your Web site and have to admit to being troubled ... by the lashon harah aspect of your work," Yossi Klein Halevi, a contributing editor to The New Republic and senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, wrote Ford in a July 2004 e-mail, quoted in Ford's book "Yesterday's News Tomorrow: Inside the World of Jewish Journalism." "It's not at all as straightforward as you put it -- especially the notion midah k'neged midah [measure for measure], which is not in our hands but in God's hands to do."

To which Ford replied: "If we held by the Chofetz Chaim, most of your work, as well as mine, would be forbidden."


Ford got his online start in 1997 after producing and directing an adult film, "What Women Want" -- not to be confused with the Mel Gibson movie -- and acting in a few pictures. (He says he never appeared naked or had sex on camera. Others confirmed this; I was not diligent enough to roll back the tapes.) He had just written "A History of X: 100 Years of Sex in Film," and his curiosity about the business was at a high.

Within months, (a porn blog he sold in 2001) broke the biggest crisis to rock the adult industry in years. HIV had infected five adult performers, and Ford was the only one pushing the story, naming "patient zero" and the infected actresses.

"People were saying, 'He's lying. He's wrong. He can't be trusted.' And he was right. He was way out in front of everybody else on this HIV story," said former New York Times reporter Nick Ravo, who turned to Ford as an industry insider.

Ford was not only ahead of the curve on the HIV story, but on the power of the Internet in general. Before newspapers began worrying about the coming circulation crisis, the Internet savvy of people like Ford was hastening it. With little training and even less money, Ford was uncovering stories about HIV, Mafia ties to the business and pay-for-porn scams with a cheap computer and an inquisitive mind.

His techniques were unorthodox, and not simply because he kept kosher and Shabbat while profiting from pornography. Trading in rumor and innuendo, lawsuits became part of the gig because he was willing to publish one-source stories and anonymous accusations as fact.

"There are three reasons why people come into the adult industry and two of them are wrong. The first is sex, which is mechanical, and the second is money, which is incidental. The primary reason is for the glory, and Luke has made himself glorious," said Bill "Papa Bear" Margold, once dubbed "the renaissance man of porn" by Playboy. "He is the first site you go to see what is going on. Even if he doesn't know what is going on, you go there to see that he doesn't know what is going on."

But his notoriety as an adult-industry blogger complicated Ford's search for a spiritual home in Los Angeles' Orthodox community. The first shul to give him the boot was Aish HaTorah in 1995 for being too antagonistic and again in 1998 when Rabbi Moshe Cohen discovered Ford's double life as a porn journalist.

"He was one of the Torah weirdos," said Rabbi Aryeh Markman, the shul's executive director. "You get all sorts of people showing up in shul and we bust them. 'I'm happy you're looking for a place to daven. But this isn't one of them.' And you throw them out. ... The antithesis of Torah is porn."

Ford journeyed down Pico Boulevard and created a new life for himself at Young Israel of Century City, going by his Hebrew name Levi Ben Avraham. He remained there for three years before being ousted.

About the same time, he was tossed from the Rabbinical Council of California's conversion program for "deceit and deception," administrator Rabbi Avrohom Union said. "Don't take anything he says at face value."

Ford sold in 2001 for $25,000 and started his personal site, In 2004, he also returned to adult-industry blogging at Still, Ford has found a place to daven. The one condition for his cooperation on this article was that the shul not be named, although its identity is an open secret in the community.

Back in January, Tony Castro had a sexy story to sell: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had stopped wearing his wedding ring and hadn't been seen with his wife in months. Castro, a reporter for the L.A. Daily News, knew he'd hit gold. He dug deeper, verified what he'd heard and pitched it for page one. Only, his editors -- who at the time also were my editors -- weren't buying it. They didn't think the story qualified as much more than glorified gossip, even if it was about Los Angeles' most vocal family man. The story appeared destined for a journalistic coma.

But on Jan. 29, while interviewing Ford for the Daily News' series on porn in the Valley, Castro mentioned the mayor's marital troubles. He knew Ford would get the story out. Before the phone conservation was over, Ford had posted this headline at "Antonio Villaraigosa's Marriage Kaput."

"The mayor and his wife Corina haven't been seen together in public in about 10 months (since the president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, visited in May 2006)," Ford wrote. "Villaraigosa no longer wears his wedding band (not since the first week of September 2006). His wife does not live with him in the mayor's mansion (I don't think she's ever lived there with him)."

This apparently prompted an L.A. Times reporter to pay an unexpected visited to the Getty House, the mayor's official residence, and prod about the mayor's nuptials. Villaraigosa was adamant that his marriage wasn't over.

"Absolutely not true," he said. "We are not separated."

But then in June, something peculiar happened: Villaraigosa came clean. He and Corina were having serious problems and had separated. The next day, she filed for divorce.

Ford's reporting was not only exonerated but exalted.

Previously, Ford's non-porn reporting was most notable for his profiles of film producers and Jewish journalists and for publishing allegations of people who said they had been sexually harassed or assaulted by Jewish leaders.

Last year, Rabbi Aron Tendler, then the pulpit rabbi at Shaarey Zedek in Valley Village, stepped down after Ford and a few other blogs published accusations of inappropriate sexual relationships with women and girls at Yeshiva of Los Angeles (YULA), as a teacher and later principal there between 1980 and 1999.

"A few years ago, Ford irritated administrators of American Jewish University, then known as University of Judaism, when he published pages upon pages of documents from a former rabbinic student's lawsuits for assault, battery, negligence, sexual discrimination and retaliation. Ford interviewed the former student, Marsha Plafkin, and published the 39-page transcript of her accusations as fact. (The court ruled in AJU's favor on the assault, battery and negligence lawsuit, and dismissed the second case without prejudice; university President Robert Wexler declined comment for this article.)"

Ford has long been famous for two things: his spartan lifestyle and his propensity for turning gossip into news, thanks to the ever-present digital recorder he uses to capture scuttlebutt at journalism parties and porn functions.

"I didn't realize just how irresponsible we normally are in everyday private conversations until I encountered L.A. blogger Luke Ford," Mickey Kaus of Kausfiles wrote in a 2003 article for titled "The Case Against Editors." "Ford goes around to parties and immediately posts snatches of his conversations on the Web. His reporting is impeccable. He has faithfully quoted me libeling dozens of people on two separate occasions."

Kaus, like most of Ford's media connections, was a friend of National Review Online columnist Cathy Seipp. Ford repaid Seipp, who died in March, by eulogizing her on his blog as a "bulldozer" and an unrepentant adulteress who "had an unshakable belief in her own righteousness."

It was classic Ford, throwing stones at the people who would save him from drowning, which is a tale he tells often about falling off a pier as a child after throwing rocks at his sister and she coming to his rescue.

He has no qualms with castigating those who have propped him up in life.

Ford credits his Jewish conversion to the wisdom of talk-radio host Dennis Prager, whom he heard speaking about Judaism when Ford was bed-ridden with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome after dropping out of UCLA. The two began talking regularly by phone, but then Ford bought the domain and used it to lambast the man he loved like a father. (That info has all been moved over to

Prager has since completely distanced himself.

"He was neither a pupil nor a friend," Prager said in a brief interview. "I think I appealed to something good in him at some point, and I hope I did. But I don't know."

While Seipp's college-age daughter still converses with Ford and he says Kaddish for her every day at shul, most in that circle have written off their friendships with the blogger-without-boundaries.

"I'm barely even an armchair Ford watcher, but it seems like every time there's a brouhaha like this (i.e., every month or so), the conversation turns to whether this time, this time!, he's gone too far, whether it might finally, finally!, be time to write the Vulcan porn gossip out of polite society," Tim Cavanaugh, Web opinion editor of the L.A. Times, wrote on the paper's site. "I suspect the reason he always comes back can be found in this recent defense of a Seipp family enemy. If he were just some amoral jerk who constantly turned on his friends, they would drop him without further thought. But Ford always has some elaborately worked-out justification for doing the wrong thing -- and even if the morality is understood only by Ford himself, there's something compelling in the amount of thought and ethical self-torment that goes into the decision."


Shortly before sundown last Thursday, Ford updates a story about an aide to Villaraigosa who's leaving City Hall. He's seated at his desk in his home south of Pico Boulevard. This is where he spends day and night, only leaving once or twice most days to walk to shul or to get some exercise. Three of four days, he says, he doesn't leave the hood.

He lives in a guesthouse occupying half a converted garage. In a narrow room smaller than a college dorm, a few blankets -- Ford's bed -- lay on the ground between his desk and the bathroom door, against which two white pillows rest. A bookshelf is lined with Judaica items and books on the Talmud, Jewish history and English literature; most of the books he reads come from the library.

There is a fridge and microwave; cassette tapes of recorded phone conversations are piled on the floor, a smorgasbord of bottled vitamins and medication cover a white dresser with gilded accents. "The Hovel," as Ford endearingly refers to it, feels dank and smells worse, but for $600 a month, it's home.

Ford posts the story, slips into the bathroom to wash his hands, then locks up and begins the half-mile schlep to shul.

"This is a good place," an elderly man says to a teenage boy as Ford reads a Talmud commentary before a minyan has arrived. "You're welcome here. You can come in the morning; you can come in the evening. You will feel good here."

Certainly, that is true for Ford. This is the place that gives his life structure and purpose and stability. This is the only shul that's let him continue davening there after discovering the depraved world within which he works. Judaism is not about a personal relationship with God, and without an accepting community there is no religious observance. For a convert like Ford, there is no Jewish identity absent Judaism.

"Orthodox Judaism in general, not just going to shul, gives me much needed structure," Ford says after the service ended. "I have no core. I'm way too flexible on the things I do. This gives me some structure, and it's important for me to bounce off the same people everyday.... It gives my life meaning, it gives my life rhythm, it gives my day a beginning and end. And it reminds me that there is a God."

He returns home and hops in his van -- a distinctly dented and rusted old GTE work van -- and heads out to the Valley. He's got a porn party to infiltrate.

Friday, July 27, 2007

What Hollywood does for the Jewish community

From: The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles

This is what Hollywood's old-school Jewish philanthropy looks like: 900 Jews worried about anti-Semitism sitting inside the International Hall of the Beverly Hilton.

Holocaust survivors sit side-by-side with some of entertainment's biggest big shots. Onstage, the American and Israeli flags hang together, with "Rush Hour" director Brett Ratner saying the Hamotzi; Rabbi Meyer H. May singing the national anthem and Hatikvah; talk show host Larry King telling jokes and introducing household names, like Queen Latifah, that aren't necessarily Jewish.

It's the 30th anniversary of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the internationally recognized human rights organization and operator of the Museum of Tolerance located a mile and a half away, and the men behind this June 20 gala are Jewish entertainment chieftains —Time Warner President and COO Jeff Bewkes, Universal Studios President and COO Ron Meyer and, specifically, Jeffrey Katzenberg, a center trustee and CEO of Dreamworks Animation.

No. 40 on the list of wealthiest Angelenos, according to the Los Angeles Business Journal, Katzenberg has given millions to philanthropies ranging from the Motion Picture & Television Fund to AIDS Project Los Angeles to the American Jewish Committee. For the past 15 years, though, his favorite Jewish cause has been the Wiesenthal Center.

"When I took my first tour, the sensation was almost overwhelming -- a combination of anger, sadness, hope and resolve to support this institution in any way possible," Katzenberg tells his $125-a-plate guests in opening remarks.

This is a familiar sight, one steeped in tradition. The Wiesenthal Center may only be 30 years old, but Jewish entertainment leaders have been deeply involved in Jewish nonprofits since before Hollywood became synonymous with the motion-picture business.

First it came from the fathers of film, Carl Laemmle, the Warner brothers and Samuel Goldwyn; the second take was of "The Last Mogul" Lew Wasserman and game-show host Monty Hall; next came Sherry Lansing, Steven Spielberg, Katzenberg and a few others. Soon, that task will fall to a new generation that is now in its 20s, 30s and early 40s. But who will step forward as tomorrow's Katzenbergs or Wassermans or Warners?

That is a difficult question to answer because most of today's Jewish philanthropists are cut from a different mold than their predecessors.

On the one hand, no longer feeling the insularity and even paranoia that led them to support only their own, many of today's Hollywood's Jews -- notables include David Geffen and Michael Eisner -- are increasingly giving to causes that have nothing to do with Israel or the Jewish community directly.

At the same time, some organizations have found that appealing to the singular Jewish community isn't the only way to go: Jewish World Watch, a decidedly Jewish organization founded by a rabbi and designed to provide relief to people under genocidal attack, has had great success partnering with black actors, even more so than Jewish ones.

And then there are those who pick and choose their causes specific to their own personal development. Peter Spears, as just one example, came to Hollywood for his work, but recently found himself on a mission to Israel's film industry, which helped him to rediscover his Jewish self in the process.

This is Hollywood Jewish giving ... Take 4 ...

The perception that Hollywood doesn't do squat for the Jews may be as much a part of Jewish belief as monotheism. It's hyperbole, but a disconnect does exist between many Hollywood Jews and the greater Jewish community. Some of it can be attributed to the phlegmatic nature of Los Angeles, some to the city's geography and transient nature of its denizens and some to the growing trend away from Jewish giving.

David Lonner, co-head of the motion picture department at the William Morris Agency -- who has been described in this paper as "the kind of agent whom stars thank by name, along with God, from the Oscar podium" -- has wrestled with these forces as he's tried to engage his colleagues in issues he finds important to the Jewish community, both by taking them to Israel on trips he funds and by serving at one point as the volunteer president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles' Entertainment Division.

"In the '60s and '70s you had people from that generation who were very affected by those two gigantic earthquakes in Jewish history," said Lonner, 45, referring to the Holocaust and the creation of a Jewish state. "Now you've got an assimilated, prosperous society who is also focused on what affects their lives directly. It is not that they are shunning Jewish causes; it is just that they are removed."

To be sure, this phenomenon is affecting young Jews across the country, not just in Hollywood. Recent studies -- by Brandeis University, Reboot, sociologist Steven Cohen, Hillel -- have found young Jews are conflicted about how to express their identity. They are proudly Jewish -- some more "Jew-ish" -- and cherish the culture, but they have little attachment to Judaism and reject the idea of remaining part of an insular tribe. In terms of charity, or tzedakah, they want to heal the world, but they aren't so comfortable doing it the way their parents did.

"It is an acknowledgement that one's responsibility is to the broader community," said Dan Adler, a former talent agent and vice president of business development at Walt Disney Imagineering, now working on an Internet venture. "Whether it is Darfur or poverty, or whether it is any cause it might be, the Jewish community is doing a great job of honoring those broader pillars of Judaism, whether you want to frame it in tikkun olam or frame it in a responsibility to the broader community."

But what has this meant for Los Angeles' Jewish community?

It is no secret that Jews built Hollywood, but less widely known is that Hollywood helped build L.A. Jewish life. The American Jewish Committee's local chapter and the ancestors of The Federation have their roots in the entertainment industry. So do prominent synagogues like Temple Israel of Hollywood and Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Sixty years ago, about a third of the annual contributions to The Federation's predecessor, the Jewish Welfare Fund, came from the entertainment industry. In 2005, the proportion of The Federation's total from the industry was between 8 and 10 percent.

That generation was less concerned with Jewish education or culture or benevolent services than with telling the story of Jewish assimilation and affluence in America, said Gerald Bubis, founding director of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

"Their efforts were not altruistic," Bubis said. "They were concerned about what would gentiles think about Jews. The bulk of what they did in the Jewish community was focused on how to protect the good name of the Jews, not to help Jewish people in need."

Some, like talent head William Morris, preferred to support Jewish efforts that dropped the word "Jew" from fundraising literature. And others, like David Selznick, wanted nothing to do with Jewish causes regardless of how they were framed.

"I am not interested in Jewish political problems," Selznick told screenwriter Ben Hecht, according to Hecht's memoir "A Child of the Century," when he was raising money for Jews in Palestine during World War II. "I'm an American and not a Jew. I'm interested in this war as an American. It would be silly of me to pretend suddenly that I'm a Jew, with some sort of full-blown Jewish psychology."

For those not at the top, there was plenty of pressure to give. The United Jewish Welfare Fund circulated a magazine that listed how much Jewish entertainers had given, and the constant demand for money, often coming from studio higher-ups, was enough to drive some crazy.

"Jack Warner demanded that his Jewish employees donate a percentage of their salary to the United Jewish Welfare Fund," Neil Gabler wrote in "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. "During a fundraising drive, he would call them into the studio commissary.

"'When we were all assembled,' screenwriter Alvah Bessie remembered, '[Warner] marched in and -- to our astonishment -- brandished a rubber truncheon, which had probably been a prop for one of the anti-Nazi pictures we were making. He stood behind his table and smashed the length of the rubber hose on the wood, and then he smiled and said, "I've been looking at the results of the Jewish Appeal drive, and believe you me, it ain't good." Here he paused for effect and said, "Everybody's gonna double his contribution here and now -- or else!" The rubber truncheon crashed on the table again as everyone present reached for our checkbooks.'"

Historically, though, Hollywood was considered a dry well for all charitable causes. But a decade ago that trend started to shift, marked by a 1997 New York Times article that stated, "In Hollywood, a new generation of philanthropists is being born -- and not a moment too soon."

The report largely focused on people making sizable contributions to improve L.A. culture -- David Geffen giving $5 million to the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood and Michael Eisner committing $25 million from his then-media empire, the Walt Disney Company, for downtown's Disney Concert Hall -- but also noted people like Spielberg who were donating millions to enrich specific communities.

"For all their glitzy wealth and self-promotion, residents of Los Angeles, particularly members of the entertainment industry, have been relatively stingy when it comes to charity," the paper reported.

Compare that to this turn of phrase by The Hollywood Reporter in its annual philanthropy issue this month. "These days, executives themselves are as likely to be found rolling up their sleeves for charity as they are posing for paparazzi at posh dinners. Indeed, the people at the top can be a nonprofit's best friend."

The shift in Hollywood's attitude toward philanthropy can be partially attributed to a sort of economic enlightenment, said Alan J. Abramson, director of the nonprofit sector and philanthropy program at the Aspen Institute. Hollywood gets that conspicuous acts of charity can be a good investment.

"Celebrities are like corporations, so philanthropy has the same attraction," he said. "It gives them a chance to get their names out there associated with a humanitarian cause that might go down well with the public, and so the public might think better about celebrities like they would about corporations doing philanthropy in the U.S. and the world.

"It is good to better the world, " Abramson said. "But it also makes good business sense."

Hollywood Jews have gotten more involved, too, and they aren't limiting their support to organizations building schools in Israel or fighting anti-Semitism in Europe.

Howard Gordon, executive producer of "24," and his wife, Cami, contribute heavily to both University Synagogue and the Stroke Association of Southern California. They also give to the "I Have a Dream" Foundation, which, among other things, provides college scholarships to inner-city children who maintain good grades.

"Helping someone help themselves is the greatest form of giving," Howard Gordon said. "It was not a Jewish charity, per se, but it is based on Jewish values."

Such enlightenment has put Jewish organizations in fundraising competition with those searching for a cure for breast cancer or trying to slow the pace of global warming. "Or," The Federation's Meredith Weiss said, "whatever the sexiest cause is."

Right now, that would be Africa.

The entire July issue of Vanity Fair, guest-edited by U2's Bono, was dedicated to issues affecting Africa. A front-page Sunday story in the Washington Post last month followed Drew Barrymore up the Capitol steps as she lobbied on behalf of the U.N. World Food Program for African child-feeding programs. George Clooney just filmed the documentary "A Journey to Darfur," Brad Pitt helped start the One Campaign to Make Poverty History after visiting Ethiopia and South Africa, and his love interest, Angelina Jolie, is a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Within this milieu, only a short jaunt over the Santa Monica Mountains, Jewish World Watch began three years ago at Valley Beth Shalom and has since received international recognition for its efforts to end the slaughtering in Darfur. The organization receives most of its support from synagogues and schools, public and private, Jewish and Christian.

Jewish World Watch has not set out to court celebrities, though it has caught some of their attention. Actors Danny Glover and Forest Whitaker attended its Seder for Darfur and Don Cheadle, who starred in "Hotel Rwanda," just filmed a public-service announcement promoting the Encino-based organization's Solar Cooker Project, which fits refugee camps with solar heating and protects women from the dangers of leaving the camp for firewood.

The organization has not asked Hollywood Jews and been rejected, said JWW President and CEO Janice Kamenir-Reznik said. It simply hasn't asked. To date, only a few Hollywood Jews have gotten involved, chiefly actress Monica Horan Rosenthal and her husband Phil Rosenthal, creator of the sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond."

"We can't turn a blind eye on things of a horrific global nature," said Horan Rosenthal, who was raised Catholic and converted to Judaism before marriage. "The worst genocide of all time was the Holocaust, and from that I think the Jewish people have taken on that we are never going to let that happen again."

Across the nation, though, Jews are increasingly giving to non-Jewish causes. The Institute for Jewish & Community Research found that between 1995 and 2000, only 6 percent of the money given away by Jewish mega-donors went to Jewish causes.

In 2002, the year before the study was published, David Geffen, the movie and music mogul, was the fourth-most generous donor in the country, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. But of the $206.2 million he donated or pledged, $200 million was for the UCLA School of Medicine and $5 million the Geffen Playhouse, leaving at most 0.5 percent of his charity for Jewish causes. The year before, when his foundation reported $2 million in charitable contributions, $110,000 went to Jewish organizations.

But that does not mean Jewish philanthropy has gone wrong. Jews have long cared about the arts and about medicine, about creating a better world, whether it's the world of Jewish life or the whole globe.

"What's best is the person who is not saying, 'I will care for the whole world at the expense of the Jews,' or 'I will care about the Jews at the expense of the world,'" said Bubis, the Jewish communal service expert. "A wholesome and fulfilled Jewish philanthropist is one who finds opportunities and outlooks and bridges those two into the fusion. That is why for me a Jewish World Watch is a healthy fusion of something universally mindful out of a sensitivity of what a Jews is supposed to care about as a human being based on what Jewish texts teach. It is not either/or."

These are better days for Hollywood Jews. They no longer need to change their names -- sometimes not even their noses. Orthodox screenwriters like David Sacks of "The Simpsons" and "Malcolm in the Middle" find producers more understanding of Shabbat. Young stars like Natalie Portman, Sacha Baron Cohen and Seth Rogen make it cool to be Jewish.

But a chasm remains between Jewish identity and Jewish institutions. One reason has as much to do with geography and economy as it does with generational shift. The problem in Los Angeles is not simply that young Jews aren't interested in Jewish organizations. The problem, in part, is Los Angeles.

"There is plenty of blame to go around. Some of it is Los Angeles, some of it is the Jewish community, some of it is the lack of appeal to younger people," said Donna Bojarsky, an adviser to Hollywood figures. "In the Los Angeles Jewish community, most people didn't grow up here. You don't have those communal ties that sometimes facilitate engagement. The Jewish community itself, therefore, is perceived as your mother's or grandmother's Jewish community, so it doesn't seem as interesting to younger Jews."

Scott Halle's story makes the case for the importance of communal continuity. A 28-year-old native of the San Fernando Valley, Halle grew up attending the shul his grandparents help start -- Valley Beth Shalom -- and watching his parents in volunteer leadership at The Federation.

"I can see my stepfather running around at the West Valley JCC on Super Sunday, talking on his walkie-talkie. He always looked happy."

So when Halle returned in 2002 from the University of Wisconsin, volunteering at The Federation would have to fit into his schedule somewhere between co-founding a production-management company and participating in the AIDS Walk.

"I always knew I was going to be involved in Jewish causes," he said.

For Keren Markuze, who arrived in the Fairfax District from Montreal without a thread of attachment to the Jewish community surrounding her, getting philanthropically plugged in was much more challenging.

She eventually discovered the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which hooked her up with a victim-offender mediation program, and once she decided she was going to stay in Los Angeles a while, she called Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters. For the past three years, the 30-year-old documentary TV writer -- Markuze's main work has been scripting medical programs for Discovery Health -- has spent a few hours every other week with her 11-year-old little sister.

"One of the most important aspects of my Judaism is the sense of love thy neighbor as you love thyself," Markuze said. "That is where I draw a lot of my identity from in terms of giving back. If you look at tradition and ritual, a lot of the things we do are ultimately about how our actions can benefit our community and society."

The Federation has created a feeder for both the Halles and Markuzes in the form of its Entertainment Division. The division, which has been around longer than officials can remember, has been recently re-energized by director Meredith Weiss, who left Creative Artists Agency last year after five years in its entertainment-marketing group. It operates a yearlong leadership institute, organizes industry socials and facilitates missions to Israel.

"The goal of this is to get them to start believing in philanthropy now so it is a part of their being as they grow in their careers and professional development," Weiss said.

In a place where time is money -- and the young have no time to spare and even less money -- donating energy and enthusiasm is how many young Jews choose to give back.

"In Israel, you did Milu'im, which is reserve duty, and officers do it between 30 and 42 days a year. If you live in America, you don't have to do that. The least I could do is volunteer for the community and help people less fortunate than us," said Amotz Zakai, vice president of Echo Lake Productions.

Zakai, 34, who moved from Israel to Los Angeles 12 years ago, volunteered for five years with The Federation and ran a youth program at Temple Israel of Hollywood that planted trees, cooked for AIDS patients and visited women's shelters.

"We really live in this bubble, especially in Hollywood. There is no connection to the real world. It is like this magical wonderland," he said. "Think about it: We do jury duty for one or two days here, and we get upset about it. In Israel, you serve in a reserve unit in the Gaza Strip and you might die."

Cynical. Pessimistic. Lazy. Uninspired. Gen-Xers may be the most maligned generation since the Gilded Age, but they also learned a lot more about charity at a younger age than their parents. That's become increasingly the case with Generation Y, or the Millenialists.

"What I am getting from the people who come to me -- the agents and celebs and whoever else comes through -- is this, and this is refreshing," said Michelle Kleinert, executive director of the Lastfogel Foundation at William Morris. "'I don't want to just write a check. I write a lot of checks. I want to get involved. I don't have a lot of time, but I want to do something I am passionate about.'"

For Brad Fuller, producer of "The Hitcher" and "The Amityville Horror," that meant delivering Shabbat meals to homebound Jews and getting involved with the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and its annual dinner at which an entertainer -- the past three were Barry Meyer, Amy Pascal and Joe Roth -- is given the Dorothy and Sherrill C. Corwin Human Relations Award, which is named for Fuller's maternal grandparents, who owned Metropolitan Theaters.

"It is my responsibility to continue the tradition of my grandparents," said Fuller, 41. "If you can, it is a blessing to be able to give back. I was taught to do it. I was raised doing it. I don't know anything else."

The AJC reported that last fall's dinner brought in $1.5 million for the national organization. A lot of that is thanks to having a name like Meyer's, the chairman and CEO of Warner Bros., on the program. This is an advantage of being a household name in Hollywood: Your involvement with charities doesn't so much demand that you dig into your pocket as it creates the expectation you'll inspire others to reach into theirs.

And when words speak louder than actions, an entertainer's message often means more than their money. That is why the Consulate General of Israel recently created a special consul liaison to Hollywood. And that is why Sam Nazarian, a young Persian Jew, whose company SBE Entertainment owns several nightclubs and produced the film "Mr. Brooks" this spring, held a fundraiser last October at his Sunset club Privilege for victims of Hezbollah rocket fire in Israel's north.

"People in Hollywood are often viewed as trendsetters," Nazarian said, "and that is an important role when translated to charity."

Spielberg, in particular, wields unfathomable influence; in May, he told the Chinese government that he was ready to meet with President Hu Jintao to urge Beijing to help stop genocide in Darfur.

But Tinseltown is a fickle place, and even Spielberg's popularity as a supporter of Jewish causes has ebbed and flowed. After directing "Schindler's List," founding the Shoah Foundation to record the stories of Holocaust survivors and creating the Righteous Persons Foundation, to which he has contributed about $70 million, predominantly for Jewish causes, Spielberg's social capital took a significant blow two years ago with the release of his film "Munich" -- criticized as "an anti-Zionist epic" and "a politically correct 'Mein Kampf' for our time."

"It takes a Hollywood ignoramus to give flesh to the argument of a radical anti-Semitic Iranian," Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer griped.

Less than a year later, with Israel at war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Spielberg was exalted as a hero when his Righteous Persons Foundation donated $1 million for Israeli relief. The money was significant, but his philanthropic adviser said the gesture was more so.

"Having someone like Steven Spielberg back a cause provides a seal of approval, a mark of credibility, for much of the Hollywood community," Andy Spahn told The Journal last August.

Israel has traditionally been taboo for Hollywood philanthropy, too politically charged for the image-conscious. Sure, Joshua Malina had no problem speaking out during the Second Intifada on behalf of Israel and Jason Alexander wasn't punished for joining a few other actors on the Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative One Voice. But such cases have been the exception, not the rule -- until a few years ago, and not just for Jews but non-Jews, too.

Last summer, 84 celebrities signed a letter than ran as a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times urging the world to support Israel's fight against Hezbollah, Hamas and terrorism. Jews and non-Jews joined hands, including Sylvester Stallone and Sumner Redstone, Nicole Kidman and Haim Saban to state: "If we do not succeed in stopping terrorism around the world, chaos will rule and innocent people will continue to die."

There is, however, another emphasis for entertainers concerned about supporting the Holy Land -- giving a leg up to Israel's burgeoning picture business.

"The Jewish mentality and the Jewish sense of the importance of art and the importance of culture is now exploding out of Israel," said Joan Hyler, founder of Hyler Management. "And thank god we have something to talk about, except for the other explosions out of there that have haunted us for the past 10 years."

In May, not long after the Israeli Film Festival came through town, Hyler, another talent agent and an actor/writer/producer went with The Federation to Tel Aviv to teach a three-day class titled "Hollywood 101." On the third day, Peter Spears shared his journey from Kansas country boy to producer of the new HBO series "John From Cincinnati."

"This is your moment," Spears told a crowd of actors and writers, according to The Federation's newsletter. "Hollywood is looking at Israel right now."

This was the first time Spears, 40, had been to Israel and the second time he had gotten involved with The Federation. The first experience was volunteering to help the elderly after noticing a flier for the organization at an audition. To his pleasure, he was connected with a nonagenarian who made a name in silent films, Loyal Lucas.

"I'd only been out here several years, not a long time, and trying to do this whole Hollywood thing. And here was somebody who had been there in the beginning of Hollywood," Spears said.

Spears' second involvement -- the sojourn to Israel -- so moved him that he had his bar mitzvah at the Western Wall. Coupled together, the experiences taught Spears the importance of getting personally involved.

"It is easier to write a check, but you don't get as much back from the experience as you do when you do it in person," he said. "I wouldn't have the fond memories of going to Israel or spending time with Loyal. I only have a vague recollection of it during tax time. And then you get kind of solicited by them for eternity. That one-on-one thing is really great. Twice now in my life it has been an amazing experience The Federation has afforded me. And if they called me again, I wouldn't hesitate to do whatever it was they asked."

When asked to compare the next generation to the legends of show biz, Bruce Ramer, the high-powered entertainment lawyer and honorary national president of the AJC, said it couldn't be done.

"Wasserman was supportive and active in ways and respects that were appropriate to that day and age," Ramer said of his late friend. "I don't think one can indulge and say he did it better than others. We continue to have exceedingly generous and great people who are leaders. I'm not sure I can compare them; that was a different time.

"Different times, different styles, different methods, different technology, different concerns."

In other words, Hollywood will continue to have Jewish leaders who care about more than themselves, who give time and money to Jewish organizations and secular ones too. The times will change. So will the methods and expressions of charity. But the values remain the same.


For more on Hollywood Jewish giving, check out The God Blog