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Moving and shaking

by Ryan Torok

April 10, 2014 | 8:00 pm

Famed Middle East diplomat Dennis Ross and attorney Jeff Abrams mingled before Ross’ recent remarks at Sinai Temple. Photo by Ryan Torok

Famed Middle East diplomat Dennis Ross and attorney Jeff Abrams mingled before Ross’ recent remarks at Sinai Temple. Photo by Ryan Torok

Dennis Ross, former senior Middle East adviser to President Barack Obama, appeared in a panel discussion on “Israel, America and the Middle East: Challenges for 2014” on March 19 at Sinai Temple.

During the event, Ross expressed pessimism about the prospect of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry bringing about a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

“No American involvement is going to produce peace between the two sides. ... The U.S. can play a very helpful role, but it cannot make peace,” he said.

Even if there were a peace deal, Ross said it would not be a “game changer in the region,” because of the extent of upheaval in the Middle East. Still, he said, it’s worth pursuing for a number of reasons, including psychological ones.

“If you can provide a breakthrough in an intractable problem, that’s a good thing.”Another reason relates to the unrest throughout the region. With places like Egypt and Syria distracted by internal issues, there is more opportunity for progress between Israelis and Palestinians, Ross said.

But there are other problems.

“The not-so-good news is that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas clearly distrust each other. The gaps between them have grown, not diminished,” Ross said.

This lack of faith is reflected in the population at large.

“The two publics completely distrust each other and disbelieve in each other ... [with] each side convinced that the other is not committed to a two-state solution,” Ross said, adding that it’s this “disbelief that makes it so difficult to make peace.”

Ross spoke for 25 minutes to the crowd of approximately 300 people. He then joined a panel discussion that included Dan Schnur, who is on leave from his position as the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California (USC); Amy Levin, principal and head of Benenson Strategy Group’s Los Angeles office; and USC student Sarah Sax, former president of Trojans for Israel.

Former city controller and congressional candidate Wendy Greuel; Rabbi Mark Diamond, regional director of American Jewish Committee Los Angeles (AJC-LA); attorney Jeff Abrams of Harder Mirell & Abrams law firm; and real estate businessman Alan Casden were among those who turned out.

During the cocktail hour, Yael Maizel, Southwest field director at the liberal pro-Israel lobby J Street mingled with David Levitus, director of development at the cultural and education organization Yiddishkayt, as Ross munched on kabobs nearby.

The evening was part of the West Coast speaking series of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank where Ross works as a counselor. The Baye Foundation sponsored the event. The USC Casden Institute co-sponsored the event, with cooperation from AJC, the Unruh Institute of Politics and Sinai Temple.

Local philanthropists Debbie and Naty Saidoff were part of an AJC delegation to visit Pope Francis in Vatican City this past February.

“I kept thinking of the word chesed (kindness) when I saw him and met him,” said Debbie Saidoff, AJC-LA vice president and a member of the organization’s national board of governors. “He has that bit of magic about him.”

During his first year in the papacy, Francis has shaken up the role and reputation of the Catholic Church’s highest post. His relatively liberal stance on social issues has won him approval among progressives in the American-Jewish community.

The Saidoffs, along with approximately 50 additional AJC supporters, participated in the meeting with the pope Feb. 13 at the Vatican, which was part of AJC’s ongoing effort to maintain positive relations with leaders in the Catholic community.

The pope’s humble living quarters — apparently, the leader of the Catholic world sleeps in a loft-sized dorm room, the Saidoffs said — and the simple white robe he wore to the meeting earned high marks from the local couple, who are supporters of organizations such as AJC, the Israeli American Council and StandWithUs.

It is the pope’s leadership, though, that deserves the most recognition, according to Naty Saidoff, also a member of AJC’s national board of governors. In an interview with the Journal, he said Francis’ embodiment of Jewish values such as tikkun olam, coupled with his publicly stated commitment to the poverty-stricken, makes him the kind of powerful figure that is becoming increasingly rare.

“There’s a vacuum of morality in the world, and he fills in this gap,” he said. “He is saying, ‘Look, I am going to be moral, I’m going to serve the poor, I’m going to do what I’m meant to do, and it’s no reflection of me — it’s a reflection of my job.”

AJC president Stanley Bergman led the visit, which lasted three days and included Shabbat with Catholic cardinals and the Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See, Zion Evrony. Debbie Saidoff said that spending the Sabbath with Catholic leaders was one of the highlights of the trip for her. The L.A. philanthropist called the entire trip “a beautiful experience.”

Rabbi Sarah Bassin is departing from NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change to become the assistant rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, where she will begin July 1.

Bassin, 31, who currently serves as NewGround’s executive director, will remain involved with the organization as a board member. Aziza Hasan, director of programs at NewGround, will serve as interim executive director until the group that brings together Jewish and Muslim youth finds a replacement.

Bassin was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. NewGround’s programs include Muslims and Jews Inspiring Change (MAJIC), an award-winning fellowship for high school students. In 2013, the office of the governor of California named MAJIC the faith-based organization of the year.

“I have loved working with NewGround and growing this organization from the ground up. But,” she added, “I have also missed doing the weddings and the funerals and the bar mitzvahs in a way that I never anticipated I would when I first entered into the rabbinate. The way that I framed it in my own mind is, in congregations you do life cycles, and in nonprofit you do social transformation, and I think one of the things that became clear to me is, the line has potential to be much blurrier, and to me personally, I need both.”

She said she expects Temple Emanuel to be a place “that embraces the rabbinate as a platform for community organizing.” Her responsibilities there will include reaching out to the young professional demographic and bolstering the synagogue’s commitment to social justice.

Emanuel senior Rabbi Laura Geller expressed excitement about the new addition to her clergy team.

“What is moving to me about Sarah is she is … choosing to leave that [nonprofit] world and come to a congregation. Because as wonderful and as exciting as that world was, and as challenging and as important as work she was doing there was, she misses being present to another human being,” Geller said.

Bassin’s hiring at Temple Emanuel marks several new beginnings for the Reform shul, where there has not been a full-time assistant rabbi in more than five years.

“I think her social consciousness, her inclusiveness, is really important, and her ability to fundraise is important to all congregations moving forward and explicitly important to ours,” said Lisa Greer, temple president.

Temple Isaiah’s Rabbi Dara Frimmer was awarded the T’ruah Rabbinic Human Rights Hero Award during a ceremony in New York City on March 25. The honor recognized her impact on the city of Los Angeles and on her community at Isaiah, where she serves as an associate rabbi.

Frimmer called winning the award from T’ruah, a nonprofit that brings human rights issues to the attention of clergy, humbling.

“The people that I was sitting next to have done incredible work in the name of human rights, and it was an honor to have been considered in that group, and it’s exciting. The organization brought together a couple hundred people for this celebration, and it was very powerful to be in a room filled with people who are committed to social justice and human rights. Everyone there was doing some kind of work related to those two pursuits, and it was a great sense of community and possibility.”

Frimmer was the only honoree from Los Angeles.

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? E-mail ryant@jewishjournal.com.

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