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Jewish Journal

JewishJournal.com

December 31, 2008

L.A.'s Top Ten Mensches: Our fourth-annual salute to big-hearted Angelenos

Gabriel Halimi, Kim Krowne, Manijeh Youabian, Andrew Wolfberg, Susan Corwin, Ari Moss, Dr. Richard Braun, Bracha Yael, Jack Matloff, Neil Sheff

http://www.jewishjournal.com/the_mensch_list/article/las_top_ten_mensches_--_big_hearted_angelenos_20081231

Gabriel Halimi
Photos by Dan Kacvinski

Gabriel Halimi
Photos by Dan Kacvinski

"It is hard to convey the special sense of respect, dignity and approbation that can be conveyed by calling someone 'a real mensch,'" writes Leo Rosten in "The Joys of Yiddish."

The Yiddish word infuses the basic German denotation -- "person" -- with an almost indefinable connotation. A mensch is a person who is upright, honorable, decent, as Rosten writes, a person to admire and emulate.

Boy, could we use some now.

As the last pieces of 2008 crash down around us, there is ample evidence that mensch-hood (more properly, menschlikayt) is in short supply, at least judging by headlines. Worse, the Bernard Madoff scandal revealed a disturbing tendency to hide chicanery under the guise of do-goodery. Madoff, his middlemen and some charitable boards were doing good while doing wrong -- either out of evil, in Madoff's case, or, at best perhaps, just out of gullibility and incompetence.

So we look to The Journal's fourth annual Top Ten Mensches list to brighten our spirits and boost our hopes for a better year. As the stories here demonstrate, these are people who in the course of lives no less hectic and demanding than our own, facing temptations no less alluring than those we all confront, manage to reach out and help others, making the world a better place, day in and day out.

The Jewish Journal created this list as a response to all those lists extolling fame, money, power and hot-ness. We honor these special ten because they are just people -- menschen, to use the proper Yiddish plural -- who understand the power and possibility of what just one person can do to help others.

Thank you to all our mensches, and to all who offered up names for consideration. Maybe next year we'll all be candidates for the list....


Gabriel Halimi: Partying For a Cause

It was a stuttering problem that turned Gabriel Halimi into a mensch.

"I had a really bad stutter when I was kid," the now 27-year-old recalled recently. "My therapist said I needed to speak up in class and try to get myself to talk more, and then I started falling into leadership activities because it forced me to talk."

Dressed in a pink shirt and a brown blazer, Halimi looks much like the young professionals he now helps lead in the 4-year-old Beverly Hills-based nonprofit, Society of Young Philanthropists (SYP).

By day, Halimi works at ACG, a real estate consulting firm. But he recently passed the California Bar exam and said he hopes to be practicing as an attorney by February.

In addition to working full time and attending Loyola Law School, Halimi is one of 25 young professionals who helped found SYP and is currently serving as one of its board members. The philosophy behind SYP, Halimi said, is simple.

"We wanted to do well in our work," he said. "We wanted to party, and we wanted to do something bigger than ourselves, and that's kinda where SYP was born."

Halimi grew up in Los Angeles, attending Temple Emanuel Community Day School before eventually transferring to Beverly Hills public schools. But Halimi said it wasn't until college that his Jewish roots really took hold.

At UC Santa Barbara, Halimi joined the Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, and became immersed in its world of partying and doing good.

"He was really seen as a leader even among his peers," said Elishia Shokrian Bolour, a childhood friend who, along with Halimi, helped found SYP.

However, Halimi insists that working with SYP has demanded little self-sacrifice. Throughout the year, SYP holds events -- big, bold, boisterous events -- and rather than have all the money go to the DJ, the club or the liquor, the majority of the proceeds (about 70 percent) goes to charity.

"We just kinda wanted to get people to think in more philanthropic terms," Halimi said. "If you're going to be doing this anyway [partying], you might as well be doing it for a good cause."

On May 14, 2005, Halimi and his friends launched SYP's first event by pulling all their resources together and throwing a huge bash in Beverly Hills.

Approximately 500 young Angelenos -- mostly ages 18-30 -- raised close to $70, 000 for three Jewish organizations: IMA Foundation, which is dedicated to disaster relief in Israel; the educational foundation Magbit, which helps those in Israel gain a higher education; and Beit T'Shuvah, a Jewish drug rehabilitation center in Culver City.

Halimi said his favorite SYP cause so far, however, has been one that doesn't directly involve the Jewish community: Darfur.

"It was just so beautiful," Halimi said, referring to the $45,000 SYP donated to American Jewish World Service's relief work in Darfur. "We could see beyond ourselves and recognize that there are a lot of people out there that could use our help."
"It goes to the principle of tikkun olam," healing the world, he said.

SYP is not a Jewish organization, although most of those involved have grown up within the Jewish community, and the nonprofit does not make any outright political statements.

"We don't want to take any kind of political stance that might alienate someone," he said.

The organization chooses the causes it supports democratically, allowing every member to have a say in the direction of the nonprofit.

In addition to SYP, Halimi is involved in 30 Years After, a nonprofit dedicated to uniting the Iranian American Jewish community, and the Lev Foundation, which promotes balanced, responsible living and is named in honor of Daniel Levian, a recent victim of a drunk driving accident.

When asked, Halimi said he doesn't consider himself a mensch -- he's not worthy, he claimed -- but he offered up this definition of one: "Someone who can see past themselves."

But just ask Rhoda Weisman, executive director of the Professional Leaders Project, an organization dedicated to developing the next generation of Jewish leaders. She said, "In all honesty, if you were to ask me what a definition of a mensch is, I would name you Gabe."

-- Lilly Fowler, Contributing Writer


Kim Krowne: 'Hakuna Matata'Means Bringing Hope to Tanzanian Kids

Kim Krowne thought she'd be attending medical school. Instead, the 24-year-old Northridge native, a graduate of Sierra Canyon and Milken Community High School, spent most of 2007 and 2008 in Tanzania, improving the lives of orphaned children and many villagers. She's been home for the past several months and plans to return to Africa in January.

ALTTEXT Once a "total planner," Krowne's current philosophy of life is more hakuna matata -- "there's no problem" in Swahili, a language she speaks fluently. "Obviously, this was not my plan. But I love it. There's so much work to be done," she said.

The focus of her passion is the Matumaini Child Care Center, a small three-room building in the village of Rau that houses 20 children, ages 6 to 15. Krowne discovered it in the fall of 2006 while taking a year off after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where she fulfilled her premed requirements while majoring in the sociology and anthropology of health, concentrating on Africa.

At that time, the nongovernmental, nonreligious and nonprofit Matumaini Center cared for eight children whose parents had either died of HIV/AIDS, were alcoholic or couldn't afford their care. Newly opened, it desperately needed funds for food and school fees, less than $20 annually per student. Krowne immediately e-mailed family and friends and raised $1,000.

She came home in March 2007 knowing she would return. Her last week there, she had met Michelle Kowalczyk, 27 and a nurse, and asked her to look after the kids, who then numbered 20. Kowalczyk also became enamored.

The following December, Krowne and Kowalczyk together formed a nonprofit, Knock Foundation (www.knockfoundation.org), to help solicit donations and grants. They also signed a five-year contract with Matumaini (meaning hope in Swahili) to fund the nonprofit and become decision-making partners.

When they returned to Tanzania they facilitated a host of improvements, including providing the children with nutritious meals, medical and dental care and school uniforms and supplies and paying salaries to the orphanage workers.

They also had bunk beds built in the rooms, upgraded the latrines, improved the general cleanliness and constructed a chicken coop on the property.

Their reach extends as well to the greater community in Rau and nearby villages, with the goal of making families more self-sufficient. One such effort, dubbed the Piggery Project, has provided 50 families with supplies needed to build a pig hut, as well as two pigs to raise. The families will keep some of the proceeds from the sale of the pigs and reinvest the remainder. They hope to expand the project.

They have also renovated a government medical clinic and dispensary in Shimbwe, the only health facility available to serve thousands of people in the Kilimanjaro region. In addition to repairing the clinic's roof and painting its rooms, they purchased laboratory materials and medications.

Plus, they organized a two-day life skills and HIV/AIDS seminar in conjunction with a local NGO that was attended by 100 women and children. It will become a yearly event.

To date, Krowne and Kowalczyk have raised about $85,000 and need an additional $35,000 for 2009 to sustain the current projects. They would also like to construct a new building for Matumaini, start another orphanage and help provide secondary and university education for the children, among other dreams.

Kowalczyk marvels at Krowne's ability to transcend barriers. "Kim has been able to reach people who otherwise would have been untouched," she said. "We'll be doing this for the rest of our lives."

To make a donation or for more information, visit www.knockfoundation.org, call (818) 831-6075 or e-mail kim@knockfoundation.org.

-- Jane Ulman, Contributing Editor


Manijeh Youabian: Customized, Confidential Help in Iranian Community

Several years ago, Sheila Z., a young Iranian Jewish mother of two who had recently immigrated to the United States, found she could not work here in her profession as a nurse. At the time, her family was barely surviving on her husband's minimal income, and, to make matters worse, their dire financial situation was putting strains on her marriage.

ALTTEXT Sheila Z, who asked that her name be withheld for privacy reasons, said her family was unwilling to help. She felt she had nowhere to turn when she was introduced to Manijeh Youabian, a leading volunteer in the Los Angeles Iranian Jewish community.

"Manijeh gave me food coupons, moral support and even introduced me to people who could help me get my nurse's licenses," Sheila Z. said. "That helped me get by during a very difficult time, and now I'm a successful nurse working at two major hospitals -- this one incredible woman totally transformed my life."

For the past 16 years, Youabian has worked through the L.A.-based International Judea Foundation known as SIAMAK, an Iranian Jewish nonprofit. She has almost single-handedly helped hundreds of impoverished and homeless Iranian Jews in Southern California.

Whether providing them with special coupons to get food at kosher markets, paying their rent, providing transportation, locating immediate medical care, finding them employment or even paying school tuitions, Youabian, with the support of donations to SIAMAK, has been one of the last lines of help for innumerable struggling local Iranian Jews.

"My main goal is to help these needy people in our community become fisherman and not just recipients of fish alone," Youabian said. "Ultimately, we help them make a living on their own, and one of my joys in life is to aid another person in this world who has fallen on bad times."

With no staff and a very limited budget, Youabian, a Beverly Hills homemaker, aids about 15 Iranian Jewish families throughout the year and about 50 families during major Jewish holidays. Whether answering phone calls from needy Iranian Jews, visiting them at their homes and hospitals, doing background checks on prospective clients and even personally dropping off food items at their doorsteps, Youabian has done it all and not sought the limelight.

"She is a very humble lady; she cries along with them and devotes an enormous amount of time to this work, which not many people in our community want to do," said Dara Abaei, a local Iranian Jewish activist. "What is very special about her is that she helps these poor people confidentially, so no one is embarrassed or ashamed."

Other community members regularly give Youabian monetary donations, offer their free medical or legal services and donate clothing for the needy families that turn to her for aid.

Even though all of SIAMAK's other community activities have been halted during the past 16 months, while it has been formally separating from the Eretz Center in Tarzana and the Neria Yomtoubian Foundation, Youabian's work on behalf of needy Iranian Jews has continued via the organization.

Youabian said she has also helped a few Russian and American Jewish families in the past, as well. She is seeking additional donations to be able to help the growing number of Jewish families hurt by the current economic downturn.

Those wishing to support Manijeh Youabian's efforts should call (310) 980-4443.

-- Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer


Andrew Wolfberg: A Chance Pairing Was Meant to Be

Shani Levy, a case worker at Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters Los Angeles (JBBBSLA), made countless phone calls to match an 8-year-old boy with cerebral palsy to a big brother and was turned down repeatedly by people who did not feel that they could handle the challenge. Levy did not fault them.

Taking on any child as a big brother or sister is a weighty responsibility; taking on a child with disabilities -- not a common case for JBBBSLA -- is beyond most people.
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"I thought, 'It's going to take a very special person to fill this role,'" Levy said. "And, finally, we found him."

Andrew Wolfberg, 38, is a lawyer and not married, whose only other experience with kids not related to him was as a volunteer soccer referee. But he quickly took on the challenge.

Shortly after the two were paired up, the boy's mom called to tell Wolfberg that her son's diagnosis had changed. He did not have cerebral palsy but rather Ataxia-telangiectasia (AT), a neurodegenerative disease that causes severe disability, weakens the immune system, increases the risk of cancer and affects many parts of the body. The disease is extremely rare -- about one in 100,000 people worldwide are diagnosed with it -- and is considered terminal.

By odd coincidence, Wolfberg was well acquainted with the disorder. His cousin had recently died from it at the age of 24.

"It was a shock," Wolfberg said. "There are maybe 900 kids in the U.S. with AT, and I know two of them."

"It was really meant to be," he said of the match. Not only would he comprehend what was going on with the boy, whose name is not included here to protect his privacy, Wolfberg also knew he could understand the boy's limitations and be sensitive to his needs and serve as a resource and respite for the mom, who had the additional challenge of being a single mother.

Wolfberg was not deterred by his little brother's undersized, fragile physique. Nor was he alarmed by the boy's occasional tumbles, slurred speech or need to take frequent breaks.

He took him fishing and go-cart racing; they went to a hockey game and bowled together; they've been to the California Science Center, the Santa Monica Pier, Disneyland and a movie premiere at the Mann's Chinese Theatre, where they were treated to a limousine ride arranged by JBBBSLA.

Wolfberg has been the boy's big brother for a year and a half and said it's the best thing he's ever done. "In video games, his mobility is limitless, just like every other kid. He regularly beats the crap out of me."

On occasion, when the child feels weak or tired, Wolfberg hoists the child's 42-pound frame onto his own shoulders. Once, when they were going to a movie early in their friendship, Wolfberg was not able to park close to the theater's entrance, so he carried him. As they were walking, the boy rested his head against his big brother's cheek and Wolfberg thought with tenderness, "Oh, this is so sweet." Never mind that a second later the boy looked up and asked, "What's your name again?"

Though the child and his mom temporarily relocated to Georgia in September, the relationship did not end.

Wolfberg made his little brother a photo book with pictures from all their outings together, and the two talk on the phone at least once a week. He saved a message on his cellphone, and though most of it was incomprehensible, one thing the boy said quite clearly was, "I miss you."

"I would never quit on him," said Wolfberg. "This is a lifelong relationship."

-- Dikla Kadosh, Contributing Writer


Susan Corwin: Great Miracles Happen Here

"The children are my teachers," said Susan Corwin. "I get so much love and joy through them."

Corwin, 49, is a volunteer at the Nes Gadol (Great Miracle) Project of Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services, which prepares autistic, Down Syndrome and other children with special needs for their b'nai mitzvah.

ALTTEXT The pre-b'nai mitzvah program for 10- to 13-year-olds is augmented by post-b'nai mitzvah classes for 12- to 15-year-olds, and planned for next year is a new program for kids from 6 to 9 years old.

Corwin said she was drawn to the project by her dual love for children and Judaism and by the "joyful environment" of the Vista Del Mar classrooms.
She and fellow volunteers teach Hebrew, singing and prayers to the 13 youngsters in the pre-b'nai mitzvah class, but Corwin's specialty is the Miracle Theater, which engages the pupils in drama, voice and musical stage training.

The program's innovative approach was featured in the Emmy-winning HBO special, "Autism: The Musical."
Pressed about her own background, Corwin admits to an early off-Broadway stint in the chorus of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado."

Elaine Hall, director of the Miracle and Nes Gadol projects, both supported by the Jewish Community Foundation, fills in some aspects of Corwin's work and personality.

"Susan put the O in outstanding and the M in mensch," says Hall. She is always there when you need her, from sharpening pencils to serving as Jewish community liaison, creating a new curriculum and coming up with fresh ideas."

Pacific Palisades residents Susan and Scott Corwin are also involved with University Synagogue, where she served as the longtime chair of the Mitzvah Corps, a support group for cancer survivors.

One shul isn't enough, so the Corwins also belong to Temple Akiba in Culver City, whose Rabbi Zachary R. Shapiro describes Corwin as "a woman whose works have truly brought earth and heaven closer together."

For Corwin herself, the biggest thrill is to see one of her students step up to the bimah for the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony. At that moment, she said, "God is right there."
-- Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor


Ari Moss: A Leader for the New Century

"In a time when social networking, iPhones and videogames dominate the youth culture, Ari Moss, 30, is focused on answering one of the most prevalent questions facing the next generation of Jews.

Why be Jewish?
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Seeking the answer to that question is what provokes Moss' continued involvement in the Jewish community and the Jewish young professionals movement.
For the past few years, Moss has been a volunteer leader in the Professional Leaders Project (PLP), an organization focused on helping the next generation of Jewish leaders. In the fall of 2007, he co-chaired PLP's Think Tank 3, a biannual national conference in Los Angeles that brings together lay leaders and young professionals.

"Judaism for contemporary times is much more serious, because evolution is moving faster," Moss said. "Reshaping it will show we're a serious faith that will attract people. I don't know if there are answers to life's great questions. I do know that Judaism provides a life of meaning."

For the 2009 Think Tank 4 convention, Moss plans to take a step out of the spotlight, serving as an advisor for the chairs, though he says he'll do whatever they need him to do, whether its sitting on a panel or even picking people up from airport.

In addition to his work with PLP, Moss currently sits on the board of directors at IKAR, the nondenominational minyan, and serves as vice president of the Shalom Institute, the parent organization for Camp JCA Shalom, which he attended as a kid, and where he got, he said, " the most formative experience of my Jewish identity."

Moss' legal practice takes on its fair share of noble causes, as well. A 2004 graduate of Loyola Law School, he is a trial lawyer specializing in "bad-faith insurance," representing injured parties who seek compensation from an insurance provider or nursing home that failed to provide proper coverage or care.

"It comports with my sense of right and wrong," Moss said, adding, "people need help; they need an advocate, a fighter when the fight has been taken out of them."

A native of the San Fernando Valley, Moss said his parents always encouraged him to be a compassionate person.

"I grew up with parents who put a premium on being a good person and being an ethical person. You had to be successful in school, but you had to be a better human being."

So, why not just become a rabbi?

"A rabbi is a good start to helping people find answers, but I think of myself as just a regular guy," said Moss, who twice considered entering the rabbinate before graduating from law school.

At the end of the day, Moss said all he wants to do is "serve the Jewish community in the best way possible, through Jewish camps, helping synagogues and advocating for a meaningful Jewish life."

And maybe an occasional airport pickup.

-- Jay Firestone, Contributing Writer


Dr. Richard Braun: From Medicine to 'Musical Midrash'

Dr. Richard Braun, 78, is clear on one thing: He considers his progeny his greatest accomplishment. Three of his four children followed him into the field of medicine -- David is a neonatologist; Jonathan is chair of pathology and laboratory medicine at UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine; Sarah is a child psychiatrist; and then there's Robert, who instead chose a career in law.

He's also got nine grandchildren who are variously studying English, philosophy, music and Middle-Eastern languages. His family, he says, is his life's "real source of meaning and joy."

Quietly modest, Braun isn't entirely comfortable talking about himself; instead he shifts the conversation to people who have inspired him. This is all in character or rather, the character of this thoracic surgeon who, in 1960, chose an unconventional path in medicine that valued patient relationships over financial reward.

ALTTEXT Later, when he established the Jewish Music Commission of Los Angeles (JMCLA), his goal was not to produce star composers but rather to add to the corpus of Jewish music, using composition as a new way of interpreting Jewish narrative.

Braun's work, as a physician and the founder of the JMCLA, is very much about giving voice to things underserved and suppressed.

In the late 1960s, while serving as a lay cantor at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, where Braun and his wife, Barbara, have been members for more than 50 years, he first discovered an under-acknowledged pool of talent within the Jewish community. A musician since childhood -- Braun plays violin and viola -- with a penchant for Jewish scholarship -- the influence of his father, a rabbi and a physician -- Braun joined the VBS choir, learned Torah trope and helped lead overflow services during High Holy Days.

When Israeli jazz pianist Aminadav Aloni came to VBS as an accompanist, Braun found a partner in developing new Jewish music but also a challenge in finding funding for serious composition.

"What I learned is that there was a society of Jewish composers in Los Angeles that were writing Jewish music and couldn't get it performed," Braun said. With Aloni's help and the support of the VBS community, Braun founded the JMCLA to encourage the development and performance of new Jewish music that could be played by small groups at synagogues.

Braun is heavily involved in the planning, coordinating and fundraising for the JMCLA's various concerts and music competitions. He invests both his time and money in order to realize his vision of contributing to Jewish culture.

"We keep our plans on a small scale because we know we're not going to be able to produce something that requires a full orchestra," Braun said. "A single concert by the L.A. Jewish Symphony [for which he plays the viola] costs $25,000."

So instead, Braun focuses on substance. When he began, Braun drew out Jewish composers from Hollywood like Charles Fox, David Shire, Lucas Richmond and Michael Isaacson and encouraged them to write Jewish music. He wasn't interested in adding to the lexicon of Jewish folk music, which he considers "a flash in the pan," but in creating "musical midrash" -- compositions that aim to express biblical drama.

For the past six years, he has produced an interfaith concert and symposium at Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church based on universal biblical themes -- creation, angels, prophets and psalms -- and pairs specially commissioned music with scholarly and religious commentary by experts in the community. It's important to Braun to reach out to people of other faiths who share the same sacred texts as Jews and to reveal religious commonalities.

"Music is a way to bridge differences," he said.

-- Danielle Berrin, Staff Writer


Bracha Yael: Rewards of Life in the Slow Lane

Bracha Yael was the vice president of a construction company, a triathlete and getting her master's in religion. She was on the board of the Los Angeles Hillel Foundation and Temple Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC).

Then one afternoon in 1997, she started to feel dizzy and tired. She lay down. And she couldn't get up -- for about two years.
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Yael, 40 at the time, was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Immune Deficiency Syndrome, a condition that left her dizzy, nauseous and without enough energy to sit up for more than five minutes at a time.

After about two years, she and her doctors began to get a handle on her symptoms, and she got to a point where she could function for a few hours a day. She hoped to resume some semblance of her former life -- maybe work part time, exercise a little. But every time she pushed too hard, she would set herself back weeks.

The realization that her life would be radically and permanently different was a traumatic blow to Yael, even more shocking than her initial diagnosis.

"Rabbi Lisa Edwards [of BCC] started to talk to me, saying that life is not about doing, it's about being," Yael recalls. "I had internalized that identity and self-worth are about what we do, especially about what we do for a living, and that wasn't there anymore. I had to develop some sort of identity and find meaning in my life that wasn't connected to what I do."

It took another few years of struggle for Yael to come to terms with her new identity. About four years ago she changed her name from Jeannette to Bracha, which means blessing, as a tribute to the blessings in her life: the strong community at BCC, her friends and her partner of 29 years, Davi Cheng, who stuck by her through her struggles.

And she began to think about how she could be a blessing to others.

After she became ill, Yael continued to work on a master's thesis she had already started exploring how the Jewish community responds to AIDS patients. Now, her discussions about spirituality and illness became more personal, with Yael often conducting her interviews lying down.

She also got a certificate in spiritual direction, a form of peer counseling, and Edwards began to call on her to talk to struggling congregants. Yael even helped a suicidal congregant through the night.

Tuned in to the extreme isolation and depression that can come with chronic illness, she started a weekly phone-in Torah study group at BCC -- but the topics, based on the weekly portion, are not about illness.

"When you deal with chronic illness, you can become the illness," Yael said. "I thought if we had Torah study, we could come together and talk about something we all cared about but not about our illnesses."

The idea spawned a second offering, a monthly phone prayer service that Yael leads. About 10 people call in each month, from those who are ill to some who live far away.

For the past two years, she's also run a High Holy Day phone service, and now she has arranged for a speakerphone to be on the bima at BCC every week, so that shut-ins can listen and feel connected to the larger community.

With the help of doctors, medications and staying closely attuned to the limits of her body, today Yael has many days where she can be upright for hours, with breaks. And she is taking advantage of that energy to help others. She and Cheng have adopted Harriet Perl, an 88-year-old BCC member. Yael and Perl do their weekly grocery shopping together, and Yael just accompanied her to the vet, where Harriet's cat of 17 years was put down.

When Yael was most encumbered by her illness, the little things that people did -- the phone calls, the soda crackers and juice left at the back door -- were often the most helpful and most meaningful, she said.

So now she tries to return such.

"I have time to write a letter now, and I know how precious getting a note can be. I know what it means," she said. "I live a quiet and modest life now, but I try to bring as much joy as possible."

-- Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Senior Writer


Jack Matloff: A Surgeon With a Big Heart and a Mission

If a Hollywood casting director were scouting for an actor to portray a famous heart surgeon, he would pick someone like Jack Matloff.

At 76, Dr. Matloff is tall, well built, with white hair, a strong face and large, powerful hands, and, best of all, he wouldn't need any rehearsals to play the role.

Recently, Matloff was chosen as the 2008 Pioneer in Medicine by the professional staff at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he worked from 1969 until his retirement in 1998, but his influence extends well beyond Los Angeles.
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Today, there are cardiac surgery centers at hospitals and universities in the United States, Israel, Japan, China, Germany, Russia, Colombia and El Salvador that owe their beginning and professional leadership to Matloff's initiative and training.

At Shaare Tzedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, he not only helped create the cardiothoracic surgery department named in honor of his parents but also led a $15 million fund drive to assure its establishment. Other such departments in Israel at the Hadassah Hospital and in Tel Aviv and Haifa owe much to his personal efforts.

"He became somewhat of a medical hero in Israel," said one colleague.

Born in New Haven, Conn., the son of a milkman, Matloff was recruited by Cedars-Sinai to establish its now internationally recognized cardiothoracic surgery division for child and adult patients, which later added heart and lung transplants to its program.

Asked how many heart surgeries, including transplants, he had performed during his career, Matloff had to pause for a few moments before answering, "Oh, between 4,000 and 5,000."

Even in so-called retirement, hardly a day goes by without calls from doctors around the world asking for professional consultations, from potential patients seeking advice and from college students requesting recommendations for admissions to medical schools.

As the author of well over 500 scientific papers, abstracts and books and a major figure in the development of artificial heart valves, Matloff is widely recognized for his professional accomplishments, but there is another side to the man.

"Jack is a warm and kind-hearted person, who has never lost touch with his Jewish identity," said one longtime co-worker.

Matloff helped to establish a Hillel Center at Yale, one of his alma maters, and also donated a Torah. At Cedars-Sinai, he contributed Torah mantles to the chapel and also initiated the first sukkah at the hospital.

Back in 1982, Matloff performed a quadruple bypass operation on then 54-year-old Aaron Eshman. "The operation was on May 8, and every year on that date, Matloff phones me to congratulate me on my rebirth," Eshman recalled.

Matloff carried his religious outlook over into his daily work, a colleague noted by saying, "Jack never forgot that there is a spiritual side to healing."

-- Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor


Neil Sheff: Rekindling the Light of Ladino Culture

Neil Sheff would rather not be referred to as a mensch, but not for the reasons you might expect.

If you must label his altruistic nature, he prefers you skip the Yiddish and go straight for the Ladino word: ben adam.

Sheff, 47, has been a steadfast figure in Los Angeles' Ladino-speaking Sephardic community since he was a teen, but you'd be hard-pressed to find much written about him beyond a few articles on the Sephardic Film Festival, which he chairs.
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Sheff is driven by a passion for Ladino culture and the larger Sephardic world, but he feels the weight of being one of the few in his generation to carry the Ladino mantle. In addition to the film festival, he also sits on the board of the youth-oriented Sephardic Education Center (SEC) in Los Angeles and Jerusalem.

The Sephardic community raised Sheff, an only child, after his Ashkenazi father died when he was 3 and his Sephardic mother was forced to spend long hours working downtown. His friends growing up were mostly seniors, who looked after him and taught him Ladino, the language of Spanish Jews, along with its rich catalog of songs about joyous hope, unrequited love and heavenly reverence.

During a social hour following Friday night services at the former Sephardic Hebrew Center "they would get little Neil up on the microphone to sing songs," Sheff said, while seated on the living room couch in his Westwood home. "All these old people thought I was the best thing since bourekas."

Now an immigration attorney with a family of his own, Sheff volunteers countless hours to promote Ladino culture at a time when the younger assimilated generations count gastronomy as their primary cultural tie.

In a recent week, his activities had included meetings with the Los Angeles SEC executive director to discuss scholarships for teen trips to Israel; the founder of an Israeli soup kitchen, where Sheff and his family volunteered during a recent trip, to discuss how to raise funds in Southern California; and the filmmaker of "The Last Jews of Libya," to help her connect with a Sephardic music group in New York for a possible tour.

Lacking a father, Sheff fell under the wing of Dr. Jose Nessim in the 1970s. A gynecological surgeon who addressed issues affecting the Diaspora Sephardic community early on, Nessim, now 86, was an important figure in establishing the Sephardic Education Center in Los Angeles and Jerusalem.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila of Sephardic Temple Tiffereth Israel says that Sheff has always been driven by a passion for the Sephardic way of life, the hallmarks of which include moderation, tolerance, caring and compassion.

In addition to caring about Sephardic youth through the SEC, Bouskila said Sheff has also remained committed to the seniors who looked after him early in his life.

"Neil has quietly done a lot for the older people in the community," he said. "He continues to invite them to his home for Shabbat and Pesach. He's always cared for them and their welfare."

Sheff carries on in the hope that past SEC participants, who have grown and now have children of their own, will return to the center to help him rekindle a culture that is slowly dying with the immigrant generation.

"I try to teach my kids some of the songs that we would sing in Ladino, even though most people don't understand it. But just to try to keep it going and keep it alive a little bit longer," he said.

For more information about the Sephardic Education Center, visit http://www.secjerusalem.org.

-- Adam Wills, Senior Editor
FULL TEXT OF SPEECH: HONORING DR. JACK MATLOFF & FAMILY COMMENTS BY STEPHEN MATLOFF SHAARE ZEDEK DINNER 6/16/10 Dad regrets that he cannot be here tonight. As some of you know he took a little fall a couple of weeks ago literally walking through the front door from our trip to Israel and the East Coast. X-rays of his neck revealed a fracture in his 2nd cervical vertebrate and so he is at home somewhat immobilized. For those of you who thought he was a tough guy, you might be interested to know that his x-rays showed another fracture in his neck that none of us – including Dad – knew about! So Dad is a guy who apparently goes around breaking his neck from time-to-time and just toughs it out. In all seriousness, Dad will be down-and-out for a few months but his doctors already are quite happy with his healing. Thank you everyone for being here for this important occasion for Dad and for our family. Thank you also to everyone from Shaare Zedek and the American Committee who have allowed the Matloff family to associate with such an outstanding institution for several decades. And thank you especially to Mr. Harkham and the Luxe staff for graciously hosting us this evening. We have come together tonight because 30 years ago Dad recognized that many of his cardiothoracic patients here in Los Angeleswere coming from Israel and other parts of the Middle East. Some research revealed that 18 month wait times for heart surgery resulted in too many Israeli patients dying while they waited for care and too many others travelling halfway around the world to receive care sooner. Through a series of luck-would-have-it events, Dad teamed up with Shaare Zedek and the leadership of its American Committee to turn a large, unfinished space at Shaare Zedek into a world-class center of excellence in cardiac care. Since 1995, patients have been diagnosed, treated, operated on and rehabilitated for all sorts of heart ailments on Shaare Zedek’s formerly vacant 10th floor in the Jesselson Heart Center and its sub-departments – including the Ruth & Hyman Matloff Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery named for my grandparents. From the clinical perspective, the Center has fulfilled and exceeded all lofty expectations. What some don’t know is that Dad’s original vision for the Jesselson Heart Center included a geopolitical or societal metric, as well: to provide a bridge-to-peace in the region as the Center would treat patients as patients and not as Jews or Arabs or anything else. And in fact, the Jesselson Heart Center is staffed by medical professionals from all walks who treat patients from all walks – side-by-side in every respect and with every respect. So while we all unfortunately still yearn for peace in the region, the Jesselson Heart Center has fulfilled and exceeded expectations from the societal perspective, as well. Now, 30 years later, another large, vacant space at Shaare Zedek is going to develop into a world-class facility. Again, the promise of this facility is twofold: to fill an acute clinical need and to seize upon a great societal opportunity. More out of need than choice, Shaare Zedek’s emergency and trauma capabilities have matured very significantly over the last decade. As the only major hospital within Jerusalem’s city limits, Shaare Zedek was the closest facility capable of treating large numbers of terror attack victims when Jerusalem was too often disrupted during the first half of this decade. As a result, 40% of all victims of terror attacks in the area were treated at Shaare Zedek. Since 2000, the number of visits to the emergency room by adults has grown 103% while the equivalent statistic for ERs at other facilities in the area basically have remained unchanged. Today, Shaare Zedek’s emergency room receives roughly 60,500 adult visits annually – or about 165 per day – in addition to almost 15,500 pediatric visits. So Shaare Zedek already has tremendous expertise in the area of emergency and trauma care. From the clinical perspective, what the currently vacant space we’re focused on tonight will offer once completed is a safe-haven in the event of a chemical, biological or nuclear attack on the area – something that unfortunately is becoming a greater possibility in the current geopolitical environment. In this new Center, victims of new disasters, inpatients of the hospital and hospital staff will be able to continue treating and being treated despite what might be happening outside. And in fact more new trauma patients will be able to be treated than currently can be. From the societal perspective, this new department will become a shining example of an important trend that many inside and outside of Israel have come to recognize and some have begun writing books about. In those books, the very compelling argument is being made that Israel’s importance in the world has extended far beyond its role as a place that Jews from all corners of the earth could go to if they no longer felt welcomed in their homelands. Rather, Israel’s importance in the world today is rooted in its unparalleled generation of innovation in many fields – certainly continuing in agriculture and biotechnology but extending much deeper into every facet of the high tech and energy industries. In short, Israel today is an exporter of excellence in innovation. To some extent, Israel already exports its disaster and emergency response capabilities. It did so most visibly in Haiti earlier this year when the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) organized and deployed 235 search and rescue and medical professionals to Port Au-Prince. Within 80 hours of the devastating earthquake, Israelis – who had travelled from around the world – were treating injured Haitians with several tons of medical supplies that they brought with them in a field hospital that they constructed with triage, registration, imaging, orthopedics, OB and surgical departments among others, not to mention a sophisticated electronic medical record system. They were there before other nations and humanitarian groups and were substantially more organized and better equipped. The media – some of which is not friendly to Israel –called the IDF’s field hospital “the Rolls Royce of emergency medicine”. Shaare Zedek is only 1 of a couple dozen hospitals in Israel, but its leadership in disaster and emergency response was illustrated by the fact that two of the four professionals it sent directed all surgical efforts and nursing functions, respectively, while the other two professionals it sent played important roles on the orthopedics and OB teams. In fact, the physician who ran the IDF’s triage and surgical efforts in Haiti is Dr. Ofer Merin – a cardiothoracic surgeon by training who currently directs Shaare Zedek’s trauma efforts and has been named the Director of the new Matloff Disaster and Emergency Response Center. Dr. Merin also recently was named Professor Halevy's Deputy Director General for the entire hospital, which I believe at least in some small measure indicates the importance of this project. With a pre-defined academic purpose, the new Matloff Disaster and Emergency Response Center will formalize the export of innovation in this important area of disaster and emergency response. More than just mobilizing hundreds of Israeli professionals and tons of supplies within hours of devastating events anywhere in the world, the Center will be a place where professionals from around the world come to learn how to respond themselves – potentially in isolation or until additional help arrives. The first hours after a disaster are so critical, and the impressive standard that Israel set of 80 hours from around the globe just isn’t good enough. From this perspective, giving to this important Center is far more than charity. It is an investment – not only for the people of Israelbut for all people worldwide who may be afflicted by disaster. In fact, I hate to say it, but as inhabitants of a major American city susceptible to earthquakes and other natural disasters and containing sites that could be targets of future terror attacks, it is not out of the realm of possibility that we could be very significant beneficiaries of this investment ourselves. Dad has always been concerned about the care of Israelis, but it is the potential to improve the lots of all humans precisely when they are most vulnerable and fragile that excites Dad and our family about this important new Center. While Dad was an outstanding surgeon and his thousands of patients benefitted from his expertise and wisdom, he perhaps was most proud of the hundreds of peer-reviewed articles and books that he wrote and edited and the cardiac centers around the world that he helped create – including Shaare Zedek’s. These activities to advance the field of cardiothoracic surgery represented his sharing of his experience and knowledge – his personal exporting of innovation – and it resulted in improved health and better and longer lives for millions of people worldwide. We believe that in addition to improving the lives of Israelis, the Matloff Disaster and Emergency Response Center can have a similarly grandiose impact on the lives of humans around the world. Again, our family thanks all of you and the rest of the Shaare Zedek family for your recognition on this evening. And we all hope that you will share our excitement about this important and unique investment opportunity in humanity.

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