Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Higher calling

From: Los Angeles Daily News
www.dailynews.com (video posted)

HOLLYWOOD - The Rev. Craig X Rubin read aloud a passage from 1 Kings as the sun set and his congregation prepared for the Sabbath.

Flicking a lighter to the lone candle atop the podium, Rubin burned a bud of marijuana on the flame. He puffed it out, walked to each of the eight members sitting in the pews and waved the smoldering cannabis around them.

This, Rubin proclaims, carries the prayers of Temple 420 to God.

That's the God of Isaac and of Jesus, because members are Christians and Jews. That makes the congregation Rubin founded last summer unique.

But what really sets it apart - and the reason Rubin will be in court Friday - is the temple's use of marijuana as a religious sacrament.

"I am willing to preach the Bible and go to jail if it means getting my message out there," the 41-year-old Panorama City man said. And he knows how strange that sounds.

"I'm a Jewish kid from Beverly Hills who went to UCLA. I could have been a lawyer making $250 an hour like the rest of my friends, or a TV producer. Instead, I'm teaching the Bible, selling weed on Hollywood Boulevard, facing seven years in jail - of course I'm crazy."

The temple's problems actually began as a poisoning investigation performed by homicide detectives. One day last fall, a delivery driver and a security guard were given baked goods from Temple 420, said police spokesman Kevin Maiberger. Both became violently ill and almost died.

No charges came of that, but a few weeks later, on Nov. 3, an undercover officer joined Temple 420. Five days later, at 4:20 p.m., police raided it.

The temple's assets were seized, as were Rubin's. He, his 18-year-old son and another man were charged with one count each of selling or transporting marijuana and one count of possessing marijuana for sale.

"They were trying to set it up under the guise of a religious right and then be able to sidestep marijuana laws," Maiberger said. "The deal was for a $100 initiation fee and $100 annual fee, you could buy all the pot you wanted for quote-unquote `religious purpose.' That's bull----."

Rubin, however, continues to distribute marijuana six days a week to the temple's members - there are more than 400 who have paid the initiation and annual dues - for a "requested donation" of $60 for an eighth of an ounce.

He continues to burn marijuana as a sacrament at Friday night services and preaches on the weekends - Old Testament on Saturdays, New Testament on Sundays, always at 4:20.

His defense relies on his insistence that God wants people to enjoy cannabis - for recreation, religion and industry - and his belief that federal and state laws protect his religious practices.

"It's not a laughable argument," said Eugene Volokh, a UCLA School of Law professor and religious freedom expert. "It's just an uphill argument."

Temple 420 would need to demonstrate that its beliefs are sincere and that marijuana use is not the foundation of the religion but part of a broader ethical system, Volokh said.

Also, the organization would need to prove that its practices don't come at the expense of a compelling government interest.

"But it's not open and shut," Volokh said.

In 1996, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Rastafarians, who believe marijuana is a sacrament, could use federal law to defend their use of the drug, but not to defend distribution or possession with the intent to distribute.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a small religious group in New Mexico could use a hallucinogenic drug in its services.

Groups often opposed to each other - from the American Civil Liberties Union to the National Association of Evangelicals - had supported O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal in its defense against the government.

But the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, cited in the Rasta and O Centro cases, doesn't apply at the state level, and that's where the charges against Rubin will be heard.

California has not passed a law similar to the federal one, and the state Supreme Court has not clearly defined whether the state constitution provides greater religious protection than the First Amendment.

And, of course, there are plenty of Temple 420 skeptics.

"I would inherently be suspect ... of someone attempting to use the Bible as a justification of their desire to smoke marijuana," said Brad Dacus, founder and president of the Pacific Justice Institute, a legal defender of Christian values. "It's not unusual for people to try to use religion as a pretext for purposes of carrying out their pleasures."

Temple 420's tenets stem from Rubin's Jewish childhood, conversion to Christianity and experience taking peyote in American-Indian sweat lodges.

A pro-pot Republican partial to dark suits and red ties, Rubin hangs the American flag behind his podium and gushes about Ronald Reagan. He has been a marijuana activist since his days at UCLA in the early '90s.

A "roper" - who believes hemp is a medicinal marvel and a panacea for fiber, food and fuel shortages - and a "doper," Rubin was dubbed "Hollywood's Wizard of Weed" by High Times magazine and was a consultant on Showtime's hit "Weeds" for two seasons.

While undergoing a family crisis three years ago, Rubin began studying the Bible and, he claims, God revealed to him cannabis' status as the tree of life.

Last year, after the Supreme Court ruled on O Centro, Rubin reasoned he could openly practice his new beliefs, which he describes as "Judeo-Christian" and "Bible based."

In August, Scott Linden, a Pasadena attorney who has helped open several medical-marijuana dispensaries in the San Fernando Valley, filed paperwork with the Secretary of State's Office that registered Temple 420 as a religious corporation.

The organization, however, did not file for tax-exempt status, said Franchise Tax Board spokesman Patrick Hill.

Religious services began Aug. 26, and Craig Roberts, who added the X to his name after studying Malcolm X and changed his last name back to that of his Jewish grandfather, started going by "reverend."

Rubin did not attended a seminary but was ordained in 1990 by the Universal Life Church, an interfaith organization that offers "Free Instant Online Ordination."

"Using sacrament as a way to elevate my spirituality blew me out," said temple member Evan Goding, 29, of Orange, who drives to Hollywood each week with his Jewish girlfriend. "I was like, no way. It just clicked. It made so much sense.

"I've always believed that the world as a whole would be better if most people would just try marijuana. It brings out the better in people. And I'm sorry it's not legal; I'm sorry I can't use it for my religious beliefs without being persecuted."

Temple 420 is located in a strip mall at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, next door to an H&R Block and across the street from a Christian Science Church. Fifteen to 30 people stop by most days to pick up pot, said the cashier, who wouldn't give his name.

Rubin gets his stash from the same guys who sell it to medical-marijuana dispensaries, but he charges about 20 percent less per eighth of an ounce. Income goes to pay salaries and support the temple, he said.

He insists he turns away about half the people who try to join; new members must sign an agreement professing, among other things, that "the God of the Bible created cannabis ... for the healing of all nations."

"There are six medical-marijuana clubs within walking distance of here," Rubin said. "If you're a liar, you don't need to come here. Pretend you are sick."

But it is clear some of Temple 420's members aren't interested in the religious services. The sanctuary seats about 40. Some members have never attended.

"For me, it was worth it," David Donahue, 37, of West Hollywood said of joining the temple. "If I didn't get it through him, I would get it through one of my friends' dealers - and I don't know anyone here.

"Two hundred bucks, to some people, it's a lot. It's a lot to me, don't get me wrong. But we pay for convenience."

Monday, February 19, 2007

Ownership of Torah scrolls disputed

From: LA Daily News

Torah scrolls are the centerpieces of Jewish religious services. The written word of God, they are kept in arks like the tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai and are revered above all Jewish symbols.

But for the past decade, Beth Midrash Mishkan Israel in Sherman Oaks has been "praying on stolen Torahs," said Rita Pauker, whose late husband, Rabbi Norman Pauker, lent the Orthodox synagogue four Torahs in the late 1990s.

Since her husband died in 2002, Pauker has repeatedly implored Rabbi Samuel Ohana to return the Torahs so she can give them to two nephews, rabbis in Florida and New York.

Ohana has refused, saying the scrolls belong to the congregation. In a brief phone interview Monday, he said Rabbi Pauker gifted the Torahs years after he closed his North Hollywood synagogue, similarly named Congregation Mishkan Israel, in 1994.

"He called me in front of his wife and he said, `Rabbi, I cannot bear having these Torahs gathering dust in my garage. Take them. Please,"' he said.

Ohana said he would return the Torahs if Pauker's widow could prove she was going to give them to another synagogue and not sell them. Three of them are likely worth about $10,000 to $20,000 each.

The dispute, deadlocked for the past two years, seems ripe for civil court. But it likely won't go there.

The only attorney Pauker can afford is Jeffrey Bohrer, a longtime member of her husband's synagogue (and coincidentally a former yeshiva student of Ohana's). But Jewish law prohibits Bohrer from bringing a lawsuit regarding a religious article in secular court.

Pauker could take the case to beis din, a rabbinical court, but neither she nor Bohrer has faith in the tribunal process.

"It has been my experience that the beis din is more interested in compromise than in the word of Jewish law," Bohrer said. "... The truth is the beis din probably is going to split the baby. Rabbi Ohana has no claim to these, and Rita has all claim. So it is unfair for Rita to settle for half."

Lending a Torah to a synagogue is a common way Jews fulfill a mitzvah, or a good deed, said Rabbi Nachum Sauer, who teaches Torah studies at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles. "It is on long-term loan to their synagogue, but he still owns it," Sauer said.

"It would be the same as lending any property to anybody else," added David Olivestone, spokesman for the Orthodox Union. "It would be like lending a book to a synagogue. If I wanted it back, it would still be mine. Or if I lent a chair. There is no real difference."

Except Torahs are worth much more, literally and physically, than common books.

When a scroll is damaged and can't be restored, it must be buried. The focal point architecturally and liturgically of Jewish services, said Elliot Wolfson, professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, "the Torah is described in rabbinic literature as the Princess of God."

New Torahs take nine months to a year to ink and cost from the high $20,000s to high $40,000s, said Avrom Fox, owner of AllTorahScrolls.com, an online retailer. Containing 304,805 letters and 245 columns of God's word on roughly 60 sections of parchment, Torahs are made with varying degrees of decoration and aesthetics.

Rabbi Pauker's Torahs were originally donated decades ago by his sister to Young Israel of the Bronx. When the organization closed, the scrolls were given to Pauker.

Toward the end of his career, his congregation began to shrink. At least once, it joined with Ohana's for High Holy Days services at Valley Cities Jewish Community Center near Valley College.

When he retired in 1994 and closed his synagogue, Pauker transferred ownership of most of the assets to Ohana, including the ark, prayer shawls and religious books.

But the Torahs, according to a handwritten contract between Pauker and Ohana, were to be loaned for two years. At the bottom of the page is Ohana's signature.

However, Ohana said the contract was for insurance purposes, and five years later Pauker asked him to take the Torahs and put them to good use.

"He is disrespecting everything Jewish," was Rita Pauker's response. "He is operating on a lie. It's all a lie."

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Golden Rule

(This is an article I wrote for the December issue of Malibu Magazine.)

This was almost another cliché Cinderella story borne on card-table felt: Total unknown gets hooked on poker; enters the World Series of Poker for the first time; has an unfathomable run of cards and wins $2.5 million, $5 million, $7.5 million or, in Jamie Gold’s case, $12 million. The Malibu man and entertainment executive even added a heart-warming touch when he pledged during the tournament to use the money to make his father, who has Lou Gehrig’s Disease, as comfortable as possible. “I’m so lucky. I’ve had the greatest parents, and to be able to give back to them is the ultimate win,” Gold told ESPN during the tournament, which ended Aug. 10.

But the fairly tale faded in a flash. For the first time since the World Series was inundated with amateurs four years ago and practically became a $10,000-a-ticket lottery, people were saying far worse things about the world champ than that he just got lucky.

First, the gossip website Defamer claimed the former talent agent had padded his Hollywood resume. “Lies, lies, lies,” according to a post by Defamer Special Correspondent on Onetime Agents Who May Have Bluffed About Their Client Lists. “He was an ASSISTANT, and then a very very junior agent at a small agency in the early 1990's who MIGHT have taken messages from some of these people, before forwarding them to their real agent. He is a classic Hollywood liar - other people's successes become his own, and his own failures become somebody else's. He has always had a pathological relationship with the truth … which makes him ideal for poker.”

Gold’s former colleagues vouched for his experience and success, and, though openly annoyed, he brushed it off. “It is so funny to me that somebody would think that after winning the tournament that I would then go and rewrite history,” he said. “What do I have to prove to anybody? I could just be the champion of poker. Why do I need to say I even had a life before that?”

But 11 days after the $12 million win, Gold encountered a far bigger problem – a $6 million problem.

A struggling TV producer named Crispin Leyser sued Gold in Nevada for half of the massive poker prize. The two had met in Las Vegas in early August through Leyser’s wife and had begun talking shop. (Gold had recently become head of production for a new boutique studio, and Leyser had some reality TV ideas to sell – for instance, “Mrs. Robinson,” a dating show where older women would seduce younger men).

At some point, the lawsuit claims, Gold told Leyser that Bodog.com, a Costa Rican-based gambling site, had offered to buy Gold’s seat into the World Series if he got celebrities to wear Bodog gear during the tournament. He offered to split his winnings if Leyser secured a few Hollywood stars, the lawsuit claims, which he did in the form of Matthew Lillard and Dax Shepard.

But then Gold won, and he refused to transfer $6 million to Leyser. The poker world buzzed with gossip that Gold couldn’t play by gamblers’ rules regarding verbal agreements – generally good as gold (little “g”). It appeared legal exoneration might not be enough to spare the world champ a leper’s treatment.

“The operative words here, of course, are ‘as a matter of law,’” the blog Wicked Poker Chops remarked in response to a comment Gold’s lawyer gave The New York Times. “Because if it was ‘as a matter of Jamie’s word,’ or ‘as a matter of principle,’ or ‘as a matter of not f---ing with poker’s longstanding tradition of handshake deals,’ then Crispin Leyser would likely have his half, and we’d be able to watch the Main Event on ESPN with at least some sense of enjoyment and a modicum of respect for Jamie Gold’s confident table talk and spectacular big stack play (and yes, his fortunate flops).”

Then in early November, Gold’s attorney filed a response, arguing Leyser wasn’t entitled to any of the $12 million purse. No surprise. The shocker was this: Gold had promised Leyser a share of the winnings.

“I’m not worried. I always do the right thing – and I’m doing the right thing in this situation,” Gold told me in late September, when I met him in the lobby of the Sofitel Hotel, across from the Beverly Center.

Other than those words, Gold didn’t want to talk about his legal problems. He had just returned from Johnny Chan’s invitational tournament in the Turks and Caicos Islands, where he finished 17 out of 163 pros. He wore blue jeans, a tan, untucked dress shirt and a black Bodog cap that read “Play Hard.”

Gold planned to remain at the Sofitel for a week. Afraid to return to Malibu after winning the World Series, he spent at least six weeks hotel hopping around Los Angeles. “I was getting a little too much attention. There is no problem now,” Gold said. “I wasn’t worried: Things were happening. When people are lurking outside my home and banging down the door at five a.m. and taking pictures like paparazzi, taking pictures of my ex-girlfriend when she is driving out of our place.”

His safety concerns began during the tournament when a friend warned Gold to watch his back; instead he asked Bodog to hire two burly bodyguards to stand by while he played. “I was the only thing in the way of everyone winning $12 million,” Gold told me. “Think about the Tonya Harding situation – and poker players are not known to be the most secure, stable community.”

He’s still adjusting to the new attention, albeit mostly benign or even enjoyable. People who see him (baseball stars past, Reggie Jackson, and present, Alex Rodriguez, to name a few) are excited to meet him, and every amateur poker player he crosses wants to beat him. The night before our interview, Gold threw the first pitch at a Dodgers game. And daily he had been taking calls from media outlets big (USA Today, The New York Times, CNBC) and small (a Jewish student newspaper). Twice he made the cover of Card Player magazine. “I don’t remember a day without interviews or appearances, and it doesn’t seem it is going to slow down,” he said.

Now 37, Gold grew up in Paramus, N.J. He was fond of magic, good at tennis and participated in Olympics of the Mind. “He was really superior in math,” his mother, Jane, said. “His teacher would complain that he didn’t know the steps to getting math, but that his mind just worked like a computer and he would get the answers.” Along with the family’s intelligence came an interest in card playing. Jane Gold’s father was a masterful gin rummy player, and her son learned to count 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-jack-queen-king-ace. “He was like a prodigy,” said cousin Dr. Glenn Eisen, a gastroenterologist. Gold claimed that at his mother’s urging he took the PSAT in fifth grade. He told me he scored in the 1200s and told ESPN.com he got a 13 something – compared to the average Pepperdine freshman’s 1240 as a high school upperclassman.

Gold’s childhood dream, though, was not to be a gambler but a Hollywood agent. Throughout college at the State University of New York at Albany, he interned for J. Michael Bloom, a high-profile New York agent, and he moved to L.A. three days after graduating. Within a year he was a full agent for Harter Manning Woo, soon representing the likes of Felicity Huffman, James Gandolfini and Jimmy Fallon. He became friends with his clients, and Fallon slept on Gold’s couch in Malibu for six months.

Gold had arrived beachside in 1993, two years after moving west. Cruising PCH with his college fraternity president, Gold saw a “for rent” sign where Coastline Drive hits the beach. “And I’ve never left,” Gold said of the two-bedroom townhouse with a 40-foot balcony perfect for watching the sunset.

Early this year, when it seemed time for a career change, Gold went into TV development as president of production for BuzzNation, a small firm completing the yet-to-be-purchased “Hottest Mom in America.” But before that, he had set out to become a part-time poker pro. He began at the $200 no-limit tables at Commerce Casino, then moved up to the $400 and $600 tables, and notched a few tournament wins in L.A., including a $54,000 payout at the Bicycle Casino in spring 2005. Before going to Las Vegas for the World Series, he was part of a weekly home game in Beverly Hills with a $10,000 buy-in – hardly an excuse for beer and peanuts with the boys.

“I took it really serious. I was playing 30 to 40 hours a week. Every moment I was awake basically that I wasn’t working I was playing poker,” he said.

Along the way, Gold got some help from Johnny Chan, the poker pro known as the “Orient Express,” who won back-to-back World Series titles in 1987 and 1988. In exchange for Gold working with Chan to develop a poker TV show that never caught on, Chan helped refine Gold’s poker chops. “He’s smart. He’s got a killer instinct. And he wants to win every tournament that he plays,” said Chan, who has called Gold the “Malibu Express.”

A more fitting nickname during the World Series would have been “Gold Rush.” Down early to half the $10,000 in chips he started with, Gold went on a tear, accumulating more than $100,000 by the end of Day 1 and taking the tournament lead at the end of Day 3, something he didn’t lose for the final seven days of the Texas hold ‘em main event.

Chan was there throughout the last hand, acting like a boxing manager. After Gold would play a hand, particularly after winning, he would return to the rail to boast to Chan and get some encouragement. “From the third day on. I treated those chips like my chips and I told him what needed to be done,” Chan said.

But etiquette was something Chan may have neglected to share. In addition to his hyper-confident table-talk, common of younger poker players, World Series commentators at times criticized Gold for trying to negotiate deals with his opponents. On one occasion late in the tournament, Gold raised the bet pre-flop with ace-jack and his buddy, Lee Kort, called with queen of diamonds and jack of hearts; the flop came four-jack-seven, all diamonds, giving Gold the best hand and Kort a flush draw. Kort acted first and moved all-in. Gold moaned, “Oh Lee, come on man. I’ve got top-top,” meaning he had top pair with the best kicker. Kort responded: “Me too.” Gold called the all-in bet thinking they had the same hand and would chop the pot, pardoning Kort for at least one more hand. Gold looked mortified when he saw he was about to knock his friend out of the tournament. “You said top-top. I wouldn’t have called you,” Gold said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I thought you said we were chop-chop.”

Gold joined the final table Day 10 with $26.65 million in chips, almost 50 percent more than his nearest opponent. At 10:52 that morning, according to Leyser’s lawsuit, Gold left Leyser a message about the prize money. “Hey, it’s Jamie. Thank you for your message. I slept pretty well, so we should be fine. … I promise you – you can keep this recording on my word – there’s no possible way you’re not going to get your half … after taxes … You’ve trusted me the whole way, you can trust me a little bit more. I promise you there’s no way anybody will go anywhere with your money.”

Sixteen hours later, after Gold had pummeled his opponents hand after hand, he and his ex-girlfriend mugged for the camera in front of a cool $12 million. Entering the picture with their arms around them were Crispin Leyser and his wife, Jules – no doubt wanting a photo with the mound of cash they believed was half theirs.

But now, determining who deserves what is an order for Clark County District Court. In Gold’s response seeking dismissal of Leyser’s lawsuit and the release of the $6 million being held by the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino, Gold claims, through proof of his contract with Bodog, that he was not obligated to secure celebrities for his sponsor. He only offered to share his winnings with Leyser because he felt sorry for his new friend, who had told Gold he was going to lose his house in Los Angeles and another home in his native Britain. After Gold took the chip lead, Leyser began hounding him and pressuring him to sign a contract about their agreement, which Gold denied. On the last day of the tournament, the harassment had pushed Gold to a breaking point, so he left Leyser the message about getting “half … after taxes.” But even half of $12 million minus Uncle Sam’s was not enough for the eagerly rich Leyser, who insisted on $6 million and no less. Once Leyser filed the lawsuit, Gold decided, according to his legal response, that he didn’t want to give a non-obligatory “gift” to such an ungrateful chum.

For Gold, it remains to be seen if those talent agent skills that have been so valuable on the poker felt – the ability to read his opponents, to protect his assets, to bluff, to befriend and bisect – could prove golden yet again.

“Sometimes the best plays I have ever made are plays where I have lost the hand but I’ve just lost the minimum,” Gold told me, explaining his poker intuition. “Sometimes it’s not how much you win when you win but how little you lose when you lose. I think that is the mark of a great player.”

Well, maybe he’ll settle.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Throwback Christians

From: Los Angeles Daily News

SIMI VALLEY - The twenty-somethings trickle into the tiny apartment.

They laugh loudly and share the previous week's stories about their spiritual struggles. Two slide into the bedroom to hash out a disagreement while the host busily places snacks on the table. Then the group gathers in the living room to pray.

This scene is not unlike a typical Bible study. No altar, no stained-glass windows, no pastor in a purple robe - simply the message of Christ in a small-group format.

But this is not Bible study. For these eight refugees of traditional Christianity, this Tuesday night is like Sunday morning. This is their sanctuary. This is where they pray and sing and study and take Communion.

This is house church.

"You walk into church and people are like, `Hey, how are you? God bless, man.' Really, inside, you could be completely dead, dying, rotting inside. But you are never going to share that because there is no authenticity about doing life with people in mainstream church," said Mike Dickran, 25, of Camarillo.

"What is so exciting about doing small-group house church is just the chance to be real."

At a time when megachurches are blooming, when the yardstick for success seems to be the fullness of pews and the weight of offering plates, a growing number of Christians are casting aside institution for intimacy and gathering weekly in homes, apartments, parks or wherever the Spirit moves them.

"It's not about where we meet or how big the sound system is or even how many seats we fill," said Chris Burton, a former college pastor at Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village who left seven years ago to begin a Simi Valley house church that has grown into five separate gatherings, including the one Dickran attends.

"Those things are not indications of success for us - rather, personal commitment to the Lord and life transformation."

House churchers view themselves as throwback Christians. They express a nostalgia for pre-Nicean Christianity, before the canons and creeds and clergy.

The most oft-cited depiction of first-century Christians comes from the New Testament book of Acts, Chapter 2:

"Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."

Just how quickly house churches are multiplying is a source of debate.

A Ventura-based Christian polling organization reported last summer that house-church attendance had grown about tenfold during the past decade, to 20 million, or 9 percent of Americans, up from about 1 percent in 1996.

"More believers are going back and looking at the early church, looking at the book of Acts and seeing these people who had such a vibrant faith," said George Barna, founder of the Barna Group.

"There were no positions, there were no salary scales, there were no programs. It was just people meeting in living rooms."

The Center for Missional Research, with the help of Zogby International, followed with its own study that found that most people who attend weekly house gatherings also attend traditional churches. Only 1.4 percent of those surveyed attended house church only.

Although registered house churches are tracked by various Web sites, countless others operate under the radar. They are structured to spin off new groups as they grow beyond about 20 members.

Observers agree the house-church movement is spreading, thanks largely to what they call a post-modern Christianity that has left behind the confines of church walls and traditions.

"It is going to be around for a long time and may provide an example for institutional Christianity," said Todd M. Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. "But it's not going to take over."

Long the norm in Asia, Africa and Soviet-era Russia - where Christians met in homes out of necessity - only recently has house church (also dubbed "home church" and "simple church") become an American phenomenon.

"It is about authenticity," said Brian McLaren, a post-modern Christian leader and author of "A New Kind of Christian." "Church services have succeeded at being more characterized by excellence, but one of the consequences of that excellence is artificiality and the feeling that everything is produced and that it is a show."

House church is one of a number of alternatives to traditional church services. It raises questions about the long-term spiritual health of members, said Eddie Gibbs, professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena and co-author of "Emerging Churches."

"This kind of doing your own little thing means you are separated from Christian tradition and wisdom over the centuries," Gibbs said. "Who is it you are gathering into these groups? Are you gathering malcontents or are you genuinely reaching out to your neighbors and friends who never got involved in the church?"

There also is a lack of accountability to outside leadership, critics say. And groups are prone to implosion if leaders burn out or fail.

In Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks, the groups spawned by Burton and Adam Finlay gather two Saturdays a month to remain connected and accountable and meet separately each week for church services.

With a bachelor's degree in theology from The King's College, a small Pentecostal school in Van Nuys, Finlay planned to be a professional minister. Instead, the 27-year-old newlywed said, God guided him to installing home-entertainment systems by day and leading a house church Tuesday nights.

After reading through the Gospels, the church at Finlay's - he intentionally doesn't call it his church - began studying Acts.

Finlay led a recent discussion, but everyone was encouraged to add his or her own religious experience and theological understanding.

"Um, if I can just interject something real quick," Dickran said before drawing a parallel between God's selection of the Apostle Paul for a specific mission and the divine calling of modern-day Christians to certain tasks.

This is one of the benefits of house church. Another Barna study, published last month, reported that house churchers are dramatically more satisfied than traditional churchgoers with their group's leadership, faith commitment, level of personal connectedness and spiritual nurturing.

"I really can't think of anything that is lacking here that a larger church has because of the intimacy and close fellowship," said Jeff Savage, 28. "So I really couldn't say I miss anything about a large church."

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Smells like an onion ...

From: Los Angeles Daily News

NORTH HILLS - The Onion is peeling.

The Sepulveda Unitarian-Universalist Society, long a voice for peace and against war, is at war with itself.

The society - recognizable by its bulbous sanctuary - voted last fall to sell about half its property to a developer of senior artist colonies. The congregation's board and minister envisioned harmony between young and old and a solution to the Onion's dire finances.

With only 96 members and 4.84 acres on Haskell Avenue, Meta Housing Corp.'s offer to pay at least $3 million for the Onion's parking lot and vacant land behind it seemed like a perfect fit.

"I wasn't looking to be rescued," said Gloria Burr, congregation president. "I was looking to do something that would fulfill a vision - to help others and to utilize the land."

But after the congregation voted 36-15 to approve Meta's offer last October, a few members took a closer look.

They didn't like what they saw.

The contract allows Meta to decide whether to enact Plan A on 2.4 acres or Plan B on about 2. Plan A would absorb the entire parking lot and force the Onion to build a new one on the front lawn.

Opponents also worried the construction of about 130 apartments would drag on for years and disturb their spiritual lives.

"We were simply aghast at the amount of land that was being taken by Meta, and we felt the Congregation was not allowed to be aware of this when the vote was take(n)," Ida Hurt, who has attended since 1966, wrote in a letter to the board. "Now that we have read the contract, we consider it completely one-sided and unfair."

That led to another congregational meeting on Sunday, when members voted 39-30 against the contract.

"Quite frankly, I'm not only not optimistic it will go through," board member Don Ordway said of the development he supported. "I'm not optimistic the congregation will survive as anything more than a shadow of what it is."

Uncertain future

It's unclear what will happen next. Burr, a 26-year member, warned the congregation that breaking its contract could result in penalties of $250,000 - something the Onion can't afford.

"They did not rescind the contract," said the Rev. Bob McDill, the congregation's minister. "They cannot. The contract has been signed. It is a done deal."

Meta has been widely recognized for its senior-housing developments, particularly the award-winning Burbank Senior Artists Colony, which landed laudatory New York Times coverage in September.

Thirty percent of those units are designated as below market, which appealed to McDill and the Onion's board. So did the idea of encouraging artistic expression of aging minds and the aesthetic pleasantry of Meta's landscaping.

"The toughest first battle we had - who knows what the next will be - was the idea of whether the congregation wanted to sell their valuable piece of property," said Meta President John Huskey. "We were able to convince them at least some of our mission is to provide activities that will keep people healthy longer."

Huskey was unaware of the turmoil being caused by the land sale.

The strife has spread into spirituality. McDill's reaction to last Sunday's vote has opponents of the land sale complaining that the minister, a retired Presbyterian pastor used to more top-down church governance, is ignoring the pleas of the people.

"He was the king of the roost in his last church and everybody had to do what he said," said Mike Dickson, the Onion's newsletter editor. "But it's not that way in the Unitarian Church, where the people decide."

Several moves

The Onion traces its history to 1943, when a small group of religious free-thinkers met in a Van Nuys house. The United Liberal Church of the San Fernando Valley moved several times before buying ranch property at 9550 Haskell Ave.

In 1964, architect Frank Ehrenthal, who had slept for two weeks in the homes of the congregation's members, completed a truly unique sanctuary - large and round, with no corners where people could hide, and a tall, pointed roof.

"The Onion is not a building, but a state of mind, a philosophy of life, an attitude toward people," Muriel Lustica wrote in a short, comb-bound history of the early years.

Unitarianism and Universalism both came to the United States in the 1700s with those who settled in New England.

Those churches considered themselves descendents of Protestantism but with profound doctrinal differences: They believed in God but not the divinity of Jesus and in the salvation of all humans, regardless of their saviour.

As the liberal religions, which merged in 1961, spread across the country, they increasingly sloughed their Christian roots. Places like the Onion associate no more with Christianity than with Hinduism and Humanism. That's why it is a society, not a church.

With some 220,000 American members, the religious movement has been famous for its social activism - for fighting slavery and opposing the Vietnam War, for promoting suffrage and advocating gay rights.

In 1970, when students at University of California, Los Angeles, and California State University, Northridge, were prohibited from inviting William Kuntsler - a virulent anti-war protester who defended the Chicago 8 - to speak on campus, the Onion offered its arena.

Eleven years later, the North Hills congregation decided to spend $2,800 needed for a new roof to instead qualify a state ballot initiative calling for a "freeze" on basing U.S. nuclear missiles in Europe.

Membership, though, has been dwindling for years, down from 220 two decades ago.

The landscaping also has seen better days. The lush green lawn and beautiful flowers pictured on the "Save Our Onion" badges have browned and wilted.

"We don't have money to fix the sprinklers and we can't pay for the water," said McDill, a part-time staffer. "And the gophers are having a field day."

The Onion lacks air conditioning and hot water, and the religious education facilities are dismal, something the board hoped to solve with the influx of Meta's money.

"Unitarians are famous for splitting or going to another church," said Art Dell, a 81-year-old former congregation president. "And there probably will be some of that now, no matter what happens."

Saturday, February 03, 2007

A History of Newsprint

Here is an article I wrote for UCLA Magazine about the history of the Daily Bruin.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Eruv up there

OAK PARK -- It seemed like a real mitzvah.

Chabad of the Conejo's 120 families would spend $20,000 on a religious structure that would benefit all local Jews.

Common in Los Angeles and most big American cities, the eruv -- a thin monofilament line strung from light pole to light pole to symbolically extend a Jew's private domain to everything within the loop -- would enable Jews to carry keys and push strollers on the Sabbath without violating Halacha, or Jewish law.

But the eruv, constructed in late December, was met by public disgust.

``Is it me or am I the only one that finds this strange?'' Carlos Bernal of Oak Park wrote in an e-mail to local officials. ``Why don't we install a crucifix at every stoplight? Or the picture of Muhammad at every pedestrian crossing?

``I'm not a religious guy and certainly don't have anything against the Jewish faith ... but this rubs me the wrong way.''

Jews were equally critical of the glistening wires that zigzagged across residential streets -- a threat to property values and unsuspecting birds.

``It is not some biblical thing that says, `Hang some fishing line.' It's an arbitrary man-made work-a-round,'' said Susan Flores, a Reform Jew who, like most, does not keep Sabbath.

``While you are making stuff up, why don't you make up something that is a little less obtrusive.''

So less than a month after the Conejo Eruv was erected in Agoura Hills, Oak Park and Westlake Village, its supporters tore down the Oak Park section.

On Friday, organizer Tom Block said the lines still up in Agoura Hills and Westlake Village, where they were properly permitted, would come down within the week because they serve no purpose if the eruv is incomplete.

``It is a dead issue at this point,'' Block said. ``The eruv is gone.''

Yet, despite the contrition of eruv committee member Eli Eisenberg at a heated public meeting last Tuesday, rancor has not subsided in this tight-knit bedroom community of 15,000 in eastern Ventura County.

Vitriol ran so high at the Municipal Advisory Council meeting, during which only one of about 30 speakers favored the eruv, that a Jewish reporter for the community paper left in tears.

``They can practice wherever they want,'' said Tom Hughes, president of the Morrison Estates Owners' Association, which threatened eruv organizers with legal action. ``But it is unreasonable to think they are going to string wires all over someone else's -- or their -- community where 99.9999 percent of people don't share their religion.''

Block, a 47-year-old real estate investor, sought permission to string the wire between Southern California Edison street lights two years ago.

Although he said the plan included Agoura Hills, Oak Park and Westlake Village, the paperwork identified it as the Agoura Eruv, and the permits applied only to Agoura Hills and Westlake Village -- something he said he didn't realize.

The Conejo Eruv -- pronounced A-roov -- was shaped like a Hershey's kiss. Using the Ventura Freeway as its base, it extended north on Kanan and Lindero Canyon roads until the two intersect, then continued on Lindero before meandering through the Morrison Estates -- 360 large homes with regal lawns and price tags approaching $2 million.

In a community where utilities are buried -- with only street lights and electrical lines along the road -- it didn't take long for residents to spot the thin wire 30 feet overhead.

Then people noticed the injured hawks.

In all, three red-tailed hawks were found lying in the road. They were taken to a wildlife center, and one had to be destroyed. Residents said they suspected the eruv.

``Such an injury could have been caused by a large number of obstacles, including monofilament line,'' wrote Duane Tom of the California Wildlife Center in a letter for Tuesday's meeting. ``However, it is impossible to know if such a line was indeed the cause of the hawk's injury.''

By then, about 80 people had called or e-mailed Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks. When she asked the Public Works Agency why they approved the eruv, they directed her to Edison.

That's when she discovered the permits didn't exist, and Block agreed to dismantle the Oak Park section.

``I was on top of the world with it, happy about the whole thing two weeks ago,'' Block said. ``And it just crashed.''

The concept of enclosing a community so Jews can behave on the Sabbath as if they were within their own home stems from the 40 years Israelites spent wandering the desert after the Exodus. Jewish rabbis developed the rules when forming the Talmud centuries later.

Running a monofilament wire from post to post creates a series of ``door frames'' that, according to Jewish law, act like a wall.

Without it, Orthodox Jews cannot take a bottle of wine to a friend's house on the Sabbath, and those with small children have trouble attending synagogue. Driving a car is prohibited, regardless.

``I didn't understand it. I'm Jewish,'' said Todd Haines, chairman of the Municipal Advisory Council. ``Bad Hebrew school, I guess.''

In fact, all five members of the council are Jewish. None are Orthodox, and none were familiar with the high-wire loop.

Though only Orthodox Jews follow the laws regarding an eruv, they say that all Jews -- Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and secular -- benefit from having one in the community because it helps them subconsciously follow a stricter interpretation of God's law.

Chabad of the Conejo, which has five houses, is part of an Orthodox Jewish movement that began 250 years ago in the Russian town of Lubavitch.

Hasidic Jews are known for their black hats, long beards, evangelical outreach to less observant Jews and an anxious awaiting for the Messiah. (The voice mail greeting of Rabbi Yisroel Levine of the Oak Park Chabad ends, ``And, of course, we want Moshiach now. Bub-bye.'')

On Conifer Street, the Oak Park Chabad is a single-story house with a black mailbox, red-tile roof and four palms on the lawn. The only hint it might not be a home is the stucco wall where a garage door should be and a line that splits the driveway into two parking spots.

Often using residences, Chabads blend into neighborhoods as seamlessly as most eruvin -- plural for eruv.

Nationwide, at least 70 eruvin exist. The approval process often takes years, and many proposals have died amid unattainable requirements.

``Imagine getting a permit to open a restaurant. But the city says that there can be no chairs in this restaurant, because people could fall off them and hurt themselves. And there can be no silverware, because they could be used as weapons. Lastly, there shouldn't be food, because people could choke,'' the leader of a Jewish group in Palo Alto told the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California after abandoning its plans in 2000.

``Other than that, feel free to open a restaurant.''

In other communities, including L.A., eruvin have been erected with scant concern.

The Los Angeles Community Eruv, the largest in the world, encompasses everything within the Ventura Freeway, the Santa Monica Freeway, Vermont Avenue and the San Diego Freeway.

In the San Fernando Valley, an eruv runs from the Ventura Freeway to Sherman Way and from the San Diego Freeway to the Golden State Freeway. Against the cluttered city skyline, few ever notice.

``L.A. has a mentality of live and let live,'' said Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, who is involved with the Valley Eruv. ``A lot of people do things that are strange to other people, but they say, `Fine, you do your thing that is strange and I do my thing that is strange. We'll leave each other alone.'''