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Jewish Journal

The 5 Commandments

by Rob Eshman

December 22, 2010 | 4:56 pm

Every year I read the copy for our annual Mensch List, and every year I feel like a big loser.

The people who make the list are most often unsung heroes, below-the-radar types. They’re not the ones who write the big checks, run the big organizations or draw big salaries. The most common reaction they have when our reporters call to tell them they’ve made the list is, “Why me?” Which just proves why them.

This year I can answer that question easily, by example. There’s the 13-year-old who devotes his free time to ending the trade in conflict rare-earth minerals. The two friends who gave up their professional lives to start an organization that gives beauty treatments to cancer patients. The 80-year-old Dutch Holocaust survivor who spends his days digitizing survivors’ photos. When I read the story behind the woman on our cover, Lauri Burns, who picked herself up out of a life of abuse and prostitution and created a haven for at-risk teen foster kids, I immediately logged on to her Web site and sent in a contribution.  How could I not?

We don’t publish lists of the most powerful, the richest, the top donors or the hottest bachelors, at least not yet anyway. This is our sixth annual Mensch list, and by now I can begin to see patterns, qualities, that all our various mensches share. 

TRIBE City Guide

The Jewish Journal is on hiatus next week, just like The New Yorker.

That means you’ll need to check in with jewishjournal.com for Jewish news, opinion and perspective from Los Angeles and around the world — just as 4 million other people have done in 2010.

You’ll also want to pick up our first TRIBE City Guide, available at all of our delivery points next week. Our TRIBE City Guide team has produced a glossy, full-color guide to all things Jewish L.A. that you will want to keep all year long — until next year’s guide. 

The guide is far-reaching, useful and beautiful. For that, we have to thank our TRIBE City Guide editor Adam Wills, our designer Lynn Pelkey and the generosity of photographer Bill Aron, who gave us permission to use his images, along with our TRIBE sales team, who worked at breakneck speed to support the publication.

Please use and enjoy our inaugural TRIBE City Guide. And here’s to a wonderful, happy and healthy holiday season.

1. They don’t dwell on victimhood. These people don’t dwell on the “Why me?” — or at least they seem to have gotten quickly past that dead-end question to the more existentially accurate “If not me, who?” Even when they or their loved ones have been stricken by misfortune, their strongest reaction is: What can I do?

2. They don’t dwell on fear. The mensches may seem fearless, but after reading their stories, you see how often they have also doubted their chances of success. Nevertheless, they persevere, doing the very things they thought they’d never be able to do: ask for money, give a speech, plan a budget.

3. They didn’t try to fix everything. Last year, we put Bryan Berkett on the list. He looked at the mess in the Middle East and didn’t throw himself into solving the Arab-Israeli problem through negotiations or politics. Drawing on his success as a businessman, the 28-year-old created a program that provides business training and microloans to Arab and Jewish women living in Israel. One $1,000 loan at a time, Berkett is strengthening Israeli society and Arab-Israeli ties.

So many of the mensch projects are small, focused and therefore effective. Leave the revolution to others — these people are perfecting their corner of the world.

4. They don’t go it alone. Every mensch journey starts with advice, some initial financial help, a small group of supporters. It’s possible to be good on your own, but it’s impossible to do good without some help. The Darwinian idea that we live on our wits and survive on our strength isn’t true in the charitable world. (It’s not even true in the animal world, where the most successful hunt in packs.) Last year, we told of two Israeli-born Angelenos, Miri Lahav and Hayuta Cohen, who started BeYachad (Together), whose sole goal is to bring Hebrew-speaking cancer patients together. It strikes me that so many of the projects the mensches initiate find strength in numbers.

5. They have their priorities straight. “Rabbi Yona Landau is sitting in his insurance office in the Beverly-La Brea area, not selling insurance,” our reporter Julie Gruenbaum Fax wrote last year. I love that line. Thirty years ago, Landau started providing weekly groceries to families short on money. Today, at 56, he runs Touch of Kindness, a $2.2 million, almost all-volunteer organization that provides food, diapers, apartments and jobs for some 1,500 people each year, including some 200 families who receive food to cook for Shabbat each Thursday night. The rabbi built up the organization while supporting his wife and six children and working as a day-school teacher. “You just see the need out there,” he said, “ and you see the pain, and you just make that a priority.”

Priorities. At a time of massive gift-buying and materialism, the mensches swoop into our lives like some humble superheroes, not to scold or lay on the guilt (though, you know — that goes with the territories), but just to ask us: What are we doing? What about next year? Why not now?

The Jewish Journal is on hiatus next week, just like The New Yorker.

That means you’ll need to check in with jewishjournal.com for Jewish news, opinion and perspective from Los Angeles and around the world — just as 4 million other people have done in 2010.

You’ll also want to pick up our first TRIBE City Guide, available at all of our delivery points next week. Our TRIBE City Guide team has produced a glossy, full-color guide to all things Jewish L.A. that you will want to keep all year long — until next year’s guide. 

The guide is far-reaching, useful and beautiful. For that, we have to thank our TRIBE City Guide editor Adam Wills, our designer Lynn Pelkey and the generosity of photographer Bill Aron, who gave us permission to use his images, along with our TRIBE sales team, who worked at breakneck speed to support the publication.

Please use and enjoy our inaugural TRIBE City Guide. And here’s to a wonderful, happy and healthy holiday season.

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