June 29, 2006
20+ Ideas to Jump-Start Jewish L.A.
To celebrate The Jewish Journal's first 20 years, we asked 21 passionate, committed members of the community to share their ideas on how to invigorate L.A. Jewry's next 20 years. Their answers range from the lofty to the practical, from ethereal to
One big, bold idea to energize L.A.'s Jewish community?
Three words: Drink more coffee.
I'm not kidding.
A new study from the University of Queensland in Australia suggests that drinking coffee makes people more open to a different point of view. In other words, it can make all of us more open-minded.
Can you imagine what would happen if our precious Jewish community in Los Angeles became more open-minded? Let's go on a high-octane ride together:
Imagine if on one Shabbat, every synagogue would "open up" to a different rabbi. For example, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky could switch with Rabbi Yacov Pinto, Rabbi Yosef Shusterman with Rabbi David Toledano, Rabbi Laura Geller with Rabbi David Wolpe, Rabbi Elazar Muskin with the Happy Minyan, Aish with Chabad, Rabbi Steven Weil with the Persians, and so on. All over Los Angeles on this One Sharing Shabbat, Jews would experience something different, but very Jewish. If it's a hit, we can make it a monthly tradition, and yes, the chazans would also switch, to give us the full effect.
Want a refill?
On campuses, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller would down a double espresso and invite hard-nosed right-winger Mort Klein, of the Zionist Organization of America, to speak. Seidler-Feller himself would go (with three bodyguards) to give his message of peace at Rabbi Moshe Benzaquen's shul.
You get the picture: cross-promotion across all the colors of Judaism to energize a great community. All we need to put this ingathering of exiles together is one enthusiastic volunteer who is not afraid of rejection and has a good phone plan. (Any takers? E-mail me at email@example.com)
This is peoplehood, my friends. We are one big, noisy, opinionated family, and we are diverse. But what good is a diverse family if we all stay in our own rooms? How can we strengthen our bonds if we so rarely hang out, pray, eat, sing and learn with each other? The opposite of love is indifference. Instead of obsessing over Jewish continuity, we should ignite Jewish curiosity. Sure, the unfamiliar can be uncomfortable, but in this case it has one thing going for it: It's Jewish!
Forget the whiskey club. For those of Jewish unity, let's all choose the coffee bean.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robin M. Kramer:
What if a welcoming, modern, accessible, authentic Jewish nursery school experience were available to the families of every 3- and 4-year-old Jewish child in Los Angeles?
The result would be new dynamism, connection and community, judging by the experience at my shul, Temple Israel of Hollywood, which has tried to create a program worthy of emulation.
What are the characteristics of a top-quality nursery school program? A school's learned and loving faculty should reach out in the best tradition of Abraham and Sarah, welcoming strangers and those less connected to the Jewish tent, extending the community's embrace to grandparents and to families of all configurations, including the diversity of faith traditions. Where isolation exists in our big city, the school community should offer warmth and connection -- a family-centered, holistic port of entry to Jewish life. This essential school should, with mirth and through experience, mark the sacred moments of the Jewish year, and introduce the literature, music, art and soul of our people, bringing to life the belief that every individual is both special and part of a larger human family. A fine nursery school experience builds family demand for an ongoing pipeline of robust Jewish invention and education, both formal and informal. This could be catalytic.
But how could this be affordable for all Jewish families? It would require unprecedented focus, partnership, wisdom and vision -- as well as the development of millions of dollars of new financial and institutional resources. Regional and master plans for early education could provide a roadmap, which would include support for educator preparation, increased salaries, and ongoing professional development. Another key is providing facilities and scholarships to ensure universal accessibility that does not presently exist.
All told, it would be a massive undertaking, but relatively speaking, the investment would be modest, given the potential yield of enduring communal dividends.
Robin M. Kramer is chief of staff for L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
The idea is about ideas.
In my work with Jewish communities throughout America and Canada, I have learned that Los Angeles possesses a wonderful characteristic that none of those other communities have.
We are blessed with the absence of ingrained tradition, free of the boundaries cast by "the way things are just done." Unlike the New York, D.C. and Boston Jewish communities, we aren't committed to pass our thinking and ideas through a paralyzing hyper-critical sieve encumbered with an inner lining of hyper-intellectualism, hyper policy orientation, and a hyper-sense of ownership of all things Jewish.
The L.A. Jewish community is a wide-open environment where we can embrace the vibrant, free flow of ideas. It is time we grabbed that opportunity. Los Angeles, with its thriving creative industries, is poised to become the center for the creation of new ideas in Diaspora Jewish life and beyond.
If we will it.
We even have space where this mission could be planted, nurtured and allowed to flourish. The physical center could be the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, an institution that has for years been in search of its mission. The Institute could convene the best Jewish and non-Jewish minds in Los Angeles, even establishing a creative and thinking discipline, a Los Angeles/Brandeis-Bardin brand -- something that would be celebrated, respected and sought after.
Four times a year, the best minds would convene to discuss such topics as
American values and how they are influenced by Jewish traditions, including themes like education, literature, music, Next Generation issues, Israel/Diaspora relations, medicine/healing, humor, etc. The participants would represent diverse perspectives so that we are not just exchanging the same ideas back and forth. Ideas, like genes, need to be cross-pollinated, or you have a flawed process.
The Institute would have to be strategically and carefully reconstructed so that the Jewish world would wait to see what ideas are coming out of Los Angeles, the natural environment for this gestation. The discipline would lend itself to all other offerings of the Institute, including its camps, and community activities, turning them into national models.
The Brandeis-Bardin Institute would have to give up a lot of what it is holding on to, which is actually holding it back. It would need to form the type of board capable of bringing this to reality. (Imagine that process!)
Of course, you could expect that the East Coast Jewish establishment would reflexively try to negate what we do. The owners of Jewish life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan would write articles challenging our every move.
It could be just what Los Angeles and the Diaspora Jewish community needs.
Gary Wexler is the founder and president of L.A.-based Passion Marketing.
Twenty years ago the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and my son were born.
In the ensuing years I, indeed my generation, have been busy chasing the illusive balance between career, community service and family. Many of us delayed marriage and restricted the size of our families so we could collect degrees and worldly possessions. We had the lowest birthrate in our history and the trend, we are told, is getting worse. In that echo we may have short-changed our community and ourselves.
It's time to do something about this. We cannot afford to let our legacy evaporate. This will involve sacrifice. Our progeny may have to do more with less and those who are able will have to fund this vibrancy.
Ours is a shared mission because we are a covenantal people; our fate is inextricably bound one to another. History teaches us that even during the most cataclysmic times our people did not deviate from the Jewish narrative: the preciousness of life, family, community and continuity.
My vision for the future is both simple and radical. I pine for a bold and transformative era where more children are born, adopted, fostered and reared in loving Jewish homes.
Lisa Stern, a Hancock Park attorney, has long been active in local Jewish causes and spearheaded litigation that forced Nazi-era insurance companies to pay benefits to families of Holocaust victims.
We are at a key moment -- our culture must engage a conversation between the Heeb generation and The Federation generation. The way to do this is to develop a single citywide program that will identify, train and involve these young up-and-coming adults. The program must transcend organizational and denominational boundaries.
We who have come before already know the essentialness of The Jewish Federation, synagogues, the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, etc. The next generation must learn and, indeed, must take over. To make this transition successful, these vital organizations will have to do something that they don't always do well: work together. The future of the Jewish community in Los Angeles depends on a focused collaboration among these well-funded, mainstream institutions.
As someone who helped initiate start-up groups in Los Angeles (MorningStar Commission under Hadassah and the National Foundation of Jewish Culture's Entertainment Council), I've witnessed the difficulty in getting these large unwieldy institutions to talk to one another. They must do so, and open up to new conversations with the 20-somethings who are pouring into public life -- or waiting for the right invitation.
Along the way, we must embrace the tension of not knowing who and what is next.
Joan Hyler, a former William Morris Agency senior vice president, runs Hyler Management, a boutique entertainment company and agency.
Conversation. That is my "bold" idea to help invigorate Jewish life (and just plain life) in Los Angeles -- good old, face-to-face, word-flying, idea-exchanging talk. In a city dominated by cell phones, Blackberries and dinner reservations, the idea of inviting people to your home to sit in person and talk about things that matter may just be a radical notion.
Specifically, I am suggesting we bring back salons -- a structure for conversation that originated in 16th-century France, eventually making its way to 19th-century Germany, where the most important salons were run by Jewish women. These evenings mixed Jews and non-Jews, artists and aristocrats and according to some, were "nothing less than central to the development of modernity."
Lest I scare you off with the weight of these previous gatherings, have no fear. I am not talking about the wittiest of hostesses and guests the likes of Klimt or Rodin. At their core, salons are just "talking parties" and, according to Mireille Silcoff, who started one in Toronto (and is the inspiration for this idea), for a salon to work you only need four things: (1) a willing host; (2) a good mix of people (you don't want "like minds to sit there and be in agreement all night"); (3) someone to keep the conversation on track; and (4) food and drink. Add to that a topic of your choice - anything from "Jewish Guilt and Pleasure" to "What's great about our city/What's missing?" and you're set. (See www.rebooters.net to download topic ideas and readings.) Now imagine if 100 of these were happening around the city - with people of all ages and backgrounds. Imagine how they could change the way people experience community - not to mention the new ideas they could spark. Now go talk amongst yourselves!
Rachel Levin is the associate director of Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation.
Rabbi Marvin Hier:
Today, the majority of Jews are unaffiliated, and our challenge is how best to reach them. In a world dominated by media and technology, one of the answers is through the medium of television. The time has come for the creation of a 24-hour satellite network that would combine films, concerts, theater, educational programs and live coverage of breaking news events that have particular relevance to Jews around the world. After all, there are specific cable networks for African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, etc.
While it is true that such an undertaking would require significant funds, it is also true that the Jewish community has the resources and its prominence would surely be an incentive for the major network and cable television providers to offer the programming.
Let us remember that our world has changed. If we want to reach the unaffiliated, we must think beyond our small neighborhood and the traditional methods to deliver the message of Jewish continuity as widely as possible.
Rabbi Marvin Hier is the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance.
Years ago, when I was active in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, there were two Jewish Community Relations Committees that made a huge difference. The JCRC chapters in San Francisco (under the leadership of the legendary Earl Raab), and Cleveland, Ohio, stood tall and pushed the envelope of social activism. They successfully rallied the Jewish and non-Jewish community to pressure our government and the international community to do the right thing. Our cause was helped, our community was energized and our relations with other communities were strengthened.
It's time to bring that formula to Los Angeles.
The JCRC of The Jewish Federation should be a forum for discussion, advocacy and action on the issues that affect us and our relations with others. The JCRC should be invigorated by making room at the table for representatives of the wide variety of stakeholders within our community. This should include the breadth of the religious spectrum, our diverse social welfare and social action organizations, and the myriad active youth movements.
We cannot afford to be silent or absent from the compelling issues facing our community or our neighbors at this critical time. We should speak out on foreign affairs, domestic policy, immigration and much more. Our voices need to be constructively heard both within and outside our organizational walls.
We really don't have a minute to waste.
Zev Yaroslavsky is a Los Angeles County supervisor.
Rabbi Harold Schulweis:
Can the Siddur be taught without Jewish theology? Can you pray without a conception of God? Can you read the Torah or haftorah without understanding the philosophy of the Bible? Can you observe the Sabbath or keep kosher without understanding its sense of purpose?
It is being done in school and shul, and to our great loss. We have been taught and learned to mimic the "how," "when," and "where" of ritual behavior, absent the "why" and "what for." That sort of practice will not satisfy our spiritual and moral yearnings.
Jewish theology deals with ultimate questions: to whom do we pray; for what do we pray; and can we pray for anything? What is the nature of the God we worship? What are the attributes of Godliness, and can they be imitated in our lives? Stripped of Jewish teleology -- the Jewish sense of purpose -- we are left with a mindless orthopraxy. Fluency in reading Hebrew does not reveal the meaning of the sacred prayer and biblical text.
The common complaint is boredom. Boredom signifies the emptiness that comes from belief-less living. Add responsive readings, enlarge the choir, multiply musical instrumentation, shorten the sermon and all to no avail. Prayer is poetry, but it is poetry believed in. Without belief, prayer is reduced to rhetoric.
Belonging, behaving and believing are the three marks of Jewish identity. We have wrongly thought that we can overcome the need to believe and fill its vacuum with belonging to institutions, paying dues and making contributions. We have wrongly thought that ritual busyness can substitute for the rationale of our behavior.
The Sabbath; the salting of the meat; the binding of the tefillin; and the blessing over lights, bread and wine -- must not be gestures of mechanical behaviors.
We need a believable Jewish theology, not a set of dogmas. We call not for a monolithic set of doctrines, but for the adventure of the ethical and spiritual wrestling with our angels of conscience. Our goal is to persuade the so-called Jewish atheists and acquaint them with the rich theological alternatives within the Jewish tradition. The role of Jewish theology is to awake in our people the excitement and moral sensibility of ideas as ideals, which makes our earned belief system credible and actionable.
C.S. Lewis sagely wrote, "When a person ceases to believe in something, it is not that he believes in nothing, but that he believes in anything."
Human nature, Jewish human nature as well, abhors a vacuum. A theological hole is soon filled with magic, superstition and cultic sectarianism. Neither esthetics nor edifices can serve as surrogates for the foundation of religious rationale. The three intertwining threads of belonging, behaving and believing must not be unraveled.
Harold Schulweis is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.
Observant Jews in Los Angeles (and elsewhere) look for a certificate of kashrut, a heksher or a teudat heshgoha on a product or on the wall or window of a restaurant or market. These symbols tell them what they can buy and where they can eat. These foods, these restaurants, are certified as strictly following Jewish ritual observance.
Similarly, many Jews and non-Jews have come to rely on the county health department for its own version of a teudat heshgoha: letter grades, portrayed in bright colors on a uniform white placard - to determine, at a glance, the level of cleanliness at restaurants and markets. Whether a restaurant has a blue "A," a green "B," or (God forbid) a red "C" has become part of the calculation Angelenos make when considering where to dine.
But there is a next, important step to take. It's beyond the reach of county inspectors but entirely in keeping with Jewish tradition. The notion of what is "kosher" should extend beyond preparation of food in accordance with ritual law; it should encompass the way in which human beings treat one another.
Jewish tradition is just as insistent that Jews respect the rights of workers as it is that Jews adhere to the rules of kashrut. We can tell if the restaurant we are about to enter is clean and kosher by looking for the certificates. But how does it treat employees?
Los Angeles needs a Human Rights heshgoha. We should insist that businesses that want Jewish customers treat their workers fairly and pay them a living wage. Those that do so could proudly display the blue aleph. And we would know to avoid the businesses with the red gimmel in the window - until they improve working conditions.
Who knows? Other community groups might just follow our lead, making Los Angeles fairer and better for all its inhabitants.
Daniel Sokatch is executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.
Uri D. Herscher:
For many centuries of the Jewish people's history, the world outside was hostile at best, lethal at worst. In such a world, insularity was tempting, and sometimes essential. We now live in a nation that strives, if not always successfully, to realize democratic ideals that include openness and inclusiveness. The Skirball Cultural Center was founded on the conviction that Jews need to respond in kind, that Jews do not and cannot thrive as "a people that dwells apart."
And full Jewish participation means that our good works, too, must resist insularity. The Jewish obligation to help the needy, to heal the sick, to school the unschooled only begins in the Torah. It ends on the street, whether that street runs through Fairfax or Pacoima.
If we offer a Judaism that stops at the margins of the Jewish community, we will have marginal Jews. They will walk a narrow path, and a futile one. For we have learned, to our sorrow, that unless the society at large is safe, Jews will never be safe. In an open society, insularity is a grave danger. Even if we could exist in a vacuum, there would be no air to breathe. Whatever the future holds for the Jews, our destiny is tied to the society as a whole, the two strands intertwined -- a double helix, like life itself.
When the Torah commands, "Open your hand to your needy brother," it does not qualify the statement. The person in need is not subjected to an identity test. Jewish concern is ultimately human concern.
We should discover and give voice to people within and beyond the Jewish community. Examples matter! We must seek out opportunities -- as individuals and through our organizations -- to make positive examples of ourselves. And we should focus the benefits of our good deeds where such acts are most needed -- outside the Jewish community as well as within. To open our hands to those in need is to open them as wide as we can.
Uri D. Herscher is founding president and CEO of the Skirball Cultural Center.
Dr. Michael B. Held:
As awareness of "full inclusion" grows, the distinction between "regular" and "special" education is changing. In truth, every child has both typical and special features and Jewish education should be for every child regardless of ability or challenge.
By typical standards, 10 percent of all students have special needs. Given that, we would expect to find 1,000 students with special needs out of the 10,000 enrolled in local Jewish day schools. But fewer than 100 such students have been identified in this category. Why are so many students apparently excluded and how do we go about creating "inclusive" Jewish schools?
Largely because current efforts to help special-needs children are simply inadequate.
Local educators have sincerely tried to address the need, by adding on special services, but in a piecemeal fashion. Rather, we can build inclusive schools where all students benefit from diversity, state of the art curriculum, and a truly collaborative, team-based approach.
In other words, there needs to be a paradigm shift from the goal of simply creating make-do programs to adopting a human rights model, guaranteeing full access for all Jewish students.
As utopian as that sounds, it is the only way to create and sustain access for special needs children and improve education for all students.
And it is doable. Anyone who doubts this should visit the CHIME Charter Elementary School in Woodland Hills, an inclusive public school. CHIME's Academic Performance Index (API) jumped an amazing 77 points in one year. Further, the school was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a national model for innovative education.
It is not about the money; it is about transforming Jewish education by including 900 new students who belong in our school system with programming that is educationally sound and morally right. Let's not delay!
Dr. Michael B. Held is the founder and executive director of the Etta Israel Center.
Rabbi Boruch S. Cunin:
Any serious discussion about revitalizing Los Angeles' Jewish community must focus on one thing: our children. They're our most precious resource, and we must protect and nurture them to safeguard our future as a people. Sadly, we're neglecting this responsibility each day that we fail to guarantee them access to an affordable Jewish education.
This is a real crisis. Whenever a child is denied a Jewish education by prohibitive tuition costs, we lose something that can't be replaced. We squander a chance to impart our values to a new generation- and we abandon the future leaders of our community.
Simply put, any child in Los Angeles who wants a Jewish education should get one. At Chabad schools, we strive to accept every deserving child who comes to us, regardless of family income, so that nobody is denied for lack of funds. Now our entire community must step forward with generous scholarships for all of Los Angeles' Jewish schools to ensure that no child is ever turned away, anywhere.
Other major American Jewish communities are already doing this. Does it cost money? Yes. But we live in a city of riches. And if we don't make this investment today, we'll pay a terrible price tomorrow.
Rabbi Boruch S. Cunin is director of West Coast Chabad Lubavitch.
Rabbi Mordecai Finley:
I am pro-synagogue, but synagogues as they now function do not serve all Jews well enough. The problem for these Jews and other potentially interested spiritual seekers is that affiliated Jewish life is too expensive, too boring, too irrelevant, too far and just too "other."
That's a shame, because it's vital to bring in as many unaffiliated Jews as possible to the wonders and beauties of Jewish life, study and practice. And as a people, we need all possible Jews to commit to Judaism and to the state of Israel. Many good people and good places are taking on this mission, but they are not networked nor coordinated, and they are under funded.
What's needed, communitywide, is the outreach energy of Chabad and Aish HaTorah. We need to reach the hundreds of thousands of Jews (and un-churched Americans) who will not become Orthodox, who may be turned off by worship services, who might not believe in God, for whom Hebrew is (at least for now) too high a threshold for participation in Jewish life.
I would like to see Outreach Centers for Jewish Life and Learning as ubiquitous as Starbucks, as inviting as the as the first sentence of a leather-bound classic. They should feature libraries and bookstores filled with Jewish books, music and videos -- for all ages, intellects and interests. There should be ongoing classes conducted by deep, learned engaging teachers who will bring the profundities of Jewish wisdom to bear on people's lives. And these classes should be geared to different types of beliefs, learning styles, ages, and goals. These gathering spots should include a Beit Midrash (study hall) -- some should remain open 24 hours a day.
Because some people are turned off by worship, or by conventional styles of worship, there should be more create ways to celebrate Shabbat. Maybe a group could read and discuss Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Buber, Harold and Larry Kushner, etc. There could be Learners' Minyans for those who would like to break the code of Jewish prayer. How about music-oriented experiences, meditative experiences, even political discussion (with knowledgeable, fair and balanced moderators)?
As for the next steps.... Well, the possibilities are many, but first a few caveats.
This effort will take substantial funding. Jewish educational institutions - undergrad program, grad programs and seminaries must be ready and able to produce hundreds of talented teachers (who ought to receive excellent salaries and benefits, and lots of variegated support in their work). And synagogues and other communal institutions need to be ready to transform.
What are we waiting for?
How wonderful it would be to send the word out: "All unaffiliated Jews: Come home. We are now ready."
Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah Congregation, and serves as provost and professor of liturgy and rabbinics at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.
Millions of dollars have been expended by our fabulous national mega-donors for the Birthright Project -- two free weeks in Israel for college-age students who have never been on an organized program. This is real vision.
What I now suggest is the next big step: The Birthrate Project.
Married couples with two children, and who value Jewish day school education, have told me that they have chosen not to have a third or fourth child because they cannot afford one more child in a Jewish day school or Jewish overnight camp. These choices portend a Jewish demographic reality that does not even replace our current population of Jews in America, given that many who are physically able have one or no children at all. If we believe that Judaism, and by extension, Jews, have an important contribution to make to America and the world, this situation cannot stand. We have not even replaced, in 60 years, those souls lost in the Shoah.
My "Modest Proposal" is to launch the Birthrate Project where the national community makes a commitment to pay all, or a significant part, of every third (or perhaps fourth) child's Jewish day school tuition, kindergarten through 12th grade and/or for Jewish overnight camp. All awards would be based on financial need. A fourth or fifth child might also be funded in partnership with the local Jewish schools. If, for example, this funding produces 100,000 new kids, the total yearly cost at, say, $15,000 a year for tuition, is $1.5 billion.
Imagine the historic implications for the community, over time, of a 100,000 new, Jewish human beings all in possession of deep Jewish knowledge, vision and values from day school -- or deeply identified through their Jewish camp experiences. Now imagine our Jewish future without this new life.
I'm ready to follow up on this idea. Are you?
Bruce Powell is head of school at New Community Jewish High School.
Our business model was relatively simple. We started with the idea for a different kind of fundraiser -- a fun and cool event for a great cause -- and then recruited between 20 and 30 of our most talented friends to serve on our planning committee and sell tickets and sponsorships.
But here's where we were different. We weren't well-heeled people in our 70s, or even in our 60s or 50s. We didn't do this after our primary careers, after we'd made money. We were in our 20s.
And that's how The Justice Ball was born about 10 years ago. Each year, it raises vital dollars for Bet Tzedek, a legal aid service for the poor, disabled, elderly and homeless. During nine straight sellouts, we've raised more than $3.6 million -- making the Justice Ball the most successful under-40 nonprofit fundraiser in the country. Besides making donations, our more than 16,000 attendees and contributors have been introduced to the wonderful work of Bet Tzedek.
We started The Justice Ball at ages when conventional thought dictated that we would be more focused on careers than on philanthropy. In reality, most people in their 20s are interested in philanthropy and simply don't know how to get involved. In essence, we made it easy for them -- we formulated our idea after choosing a great cause, and with those in hand we targeted a specific but untapped group of talented volunteers.
This "adopt-a-cause, create a fun event, and make-it-easy for volunteers" approach is transportable and would work in other contexts. There are tens of thousands of young professionals in Los Angeles (and elsewhere) who want to get involved. Each synagogue could appoint a rabbi or lay leader to identify future leaders. Nearly 130 synagogues exist in Los Angeles, and if each of these adopted a cause and put its best young leaders together, this formidable but unused human capital could be harvested to do an incredible amount of good.
Randall Kaplan is CEO of JUMP Investors.
We live in a silo community -- many vibrant communities throughout the city that connect and cooperate, if at all, intermittently throughout the years.
My wish is to ascertain, in a thoughtful and representative way, the driving Jewish visions for the greater Los Angeles Jewish community. Are people and institutions ready to set forth an over-aching vision for our collective future? Are there those who would act to bring those visions into reality?
I propose a series of town meetings throughout the community. Participants would be asked to ponder:
Is it important that a Jewish community exist in Los Angeles that is devoted to the cultural, social, psychological, and physical betterment of Jews here and around the world?
If the answer is some form of yes, then I would want to explore exactly how to enhance Jewish identity and how to expand interactive and purposeful relations with likeminded Jews throughout the world.
I would have as many venues as possible; the gatherings would be heavily advertised. I would train 100 or so discussion leaders to keep the focus on the question. Discussions could then lead to specific proposals to satisfy those answering the question in the affirmative.
The first stage of the follow-up would be bringing together 15 to 20 opinionmakers, shakers and doers from the worlds of business, the arts, academia, the rabbinate, Jewish educators and communal professionals. Their charge would be to refine the suggestions into an action program, set priorities and put a price tag on the visions about which there was sufficient consensus. This group would become the sales force to package and sell this set of visions to those individuals and organizations that could assure and underwrite the effort.
What do I imagine could come of such an enterprise?
I'd like to see no economic barriers limiting the creativity and creative continuity of Jewish experiences for individuals and families
What if education, trips to Israel, memberships in all manner of organizations were truly open to all, regardless of economic or social status? How much more would Jewish life flourish if more scholarships were available for those prepared to spend the lives as educators, communal professionals and rabbis serving the Jewish community? What if subsidies were available to pay decent wages for those now staffing services that assist the Jewish community in a manner related to their Judaism?
We live in a golden city and could produce a truly Golden Age of energetic,
creative and purposeful Jewish life here. Are we ready? I would hope so.
Professor Gerald Bubis is the founding director of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Presently he is vice president and fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and adjunct professor of social work at USC.
Rabbi Laura Geller
What if we could change the culture so that most American Jewish teenagers took a year off between high school and college to volunteer for a Jewish "Peace Corps" in the United States or somewhere around the world? What if this year of service was organized in such a way that these young Jewish people would be placed in meaningful work situations with social justice or social service organizations so that they would be serving the larger community? What if, at the same time, they would be living together with other Jewish young people, studying Jewish texts about justice, making decisions together about Shabbat and kashrut, and reflecting together on the work they were each doing?
What if that year were sufficiently funded so that these young Jewish people could earn enough money to live (and maybe even save something for college), and that the program could support the training and placement of spiritual mentors, counselors and resident advisers who would live with the participants? What if other young Jews around the same age from all over the world, including Israelis (before army service), also participated in the program so that all these young people came to understand the reality of Jewish peoplehood simply by living, working, learning and becoming friends with Jewish people from different backgrounds?
Maybe then ... our kids would actually be ready for college when they got there, because they would have come to understand that to be a mensch isn't measured by SAT scores.
Maybe then... these young people would have a better understanding of the world, because they would have lived in another culture. And they would be more grateful for all the privileges that they have because they will have worked with people who have so much less.
Maybe then ... they would feel more able to make a difference in the world. And they would feel part of the Jewish people, because they would have developed deep and lasting relationships with Jews from other countries and other perspectives.
Maybe then ... they would be turned on to Torah study, and understand how profound the connection between Jewish learning and living can be.
And maybe then ... the foundation of their future Jewish lives would be enriched by an experience that transformed their lives.
Laura Geller is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.
Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
I dream that one day, Los Angeles Jewry will have the vision to create a community-funded, community-owned and community-operated House of Torah Learning. This centrally located House of Learning would not be Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Persian, Israeli or Russian. It would belong to the entire Jewish community. Its common agenda, ideology and language will be one and the same -- Torah study. It would offer no academic degrees, no rabbinic ordination and no teaching diplomas. There would be no prayer services, no "prestigious fellowships," and no one rabbi would be called "the rabbi" in this building. This House of Learning would be open to every Jew, irrespective of background, age group or financial status.
In this House of Learning, Jews would seek spirituality through the intellect, finding God in a page of Talmud. Singles would ask each other out on a "study date," and would meet at the House of Learning to get to know each other over a Midrashic text. Lay leaders would gather there to take a break from community meetings, and at the end of the night, new ideas would be inspired and born out of an intense study of Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed. Newlywed lovers would spend a few hours reading Yehuda Ha-Levi's poems and S.Y. Agnon's stories, and parents would sit with their children and study Rashi's commentary to the Torah. Text study would no longer be the realm of a select few rabbis and scholars, but it would belong to everybody. It would suddenly be cool to sit and study text, and the House of Learning would become L.A. Jewry's hottest hangout. The new Jewish greeting in Los Angeles will be, "Hi, how are you, and what are you learning these days?"
Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.
All too often, affiliated Jews and the leaders who serve them, become territorial. This territorialism often clouds the greater sense of purpose of what it should mean to be a Jew or a Jewish leader. Their priority becomes the survival or success of their particular institution, rather than a desire also to serve the broader community or to propose a broader and grander Jewish message. Such behavior presents a special problem in Los Angeles because the Jewish community is so large and dispersed -- and because it takes a lot to stimulate people to positive Jewish action in Los Angles' Hollywood-centered society. Thus, dynamic leaders and dynamic programs need to be even more dynamic.
Here's one potential remedy: The community could hire 10 outstanding rabbis and/or other leaders to serve as "Circuit Rabbis." They would travel to various L.A. venues, providing dynamic impetus to stimulate new programs in existing institutions. The Circuit Rabbis would have no bond whatsoever to any existing institution; nor would they have to fundraise as part of their jobs. Their only objective would be to serve as a resource and to work together with the synagogue and organizational leaders and rabbis to improve and elevate programming, learning, and Jewish life. The Circuit Rabbis would be cutting-edge thinkers and effective, collaborative and dynamic doers.
The Circuit Rabbis' services would be provided free of charge, inasmuch as this program would be underwritten by visionary and generous members of the Jewish community.
Janice Kamenir-Reznik is president of Jewish World Watch.
John R. Fishel
A recent issue of Commentary Magazine contains a provocative article by two well-known Jewish scholars. They hypothesize that the concept of Jewish peoplehood is becoming rarer as efforts to stress individualistic approaches to Judaism and Jewish life in the U.S. increase.
This dilemma manifests itself visibly in Los Angeles. We live here as associated Jews in a vast expanse, but are we a "community" at all or merely a highly diverse group of individuals? Do we coalesce in a meaningful way or are we just occasionally bound together by religious or political ideology, geographic residence or, perhaps, ethnic origin?
I believe our mission is to work toward true community.
A Los Angeles Jewish community that could meld the entrepreneurial creative energies and dynamic singular expressions of Jewish identity with the traditional strength of a collective concern for all Jews as a people, regardless of their beliefs, could set the tone for a potential revolution across the country.
John R. Fishel is president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.