Teachings from the Torah, as well as triumphs on the football field, set the tone for a conference on homelessness, which also included County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; Ed Edelman, retired county supervisor and special representative for homeless initiatives for the City of Santa Monica; L.A. City Council Member Bill Rosendahl; and a panel of agency leaders, ready to enlist the conference participants in a wide range of activities.
"Homelessness is curable and we must cure it," Leo Baeck Senior Rabbi Kenneth Chasen said in his welcoming remarks. "Jews know too well the experience of being strangers and outsiders. We have lived in countless places where there were no homes for us."
More than 90,000 homeless people live in Los Angeles County, about 15,000 of them in downtown's skid row.
"Los Angeles has the dubious distinction of being America's homeless capital," the mayor said, adding that the city is also home to 262,500 millionaires.
The mayor emphasized that homelessness is pervasive throughout the county.
"We have 15 council districts and 87 neighborhood councils, and at the end of the day we have to articulate a common vision.... Every neighborhood has the responsibility to bear the challenge of homelessness," Villaraigosa said, citing studies showing that contrary to residents' fears, property values do not fall, nor does crime increase when supportive housing is provided for the previously homeless.
Rosendahl cited a recent survey that had found scores of homeless people in West Los Angeles as well as Venice. Yaroslavky, emphasized that religious communities, which share a vision and passion for social justice can play a key role.
"The county has allocated $100 million for homelessness," he said. "At one point that was as unlikely as UCLA beating USC in football. For the first time in my career, the political landscape is right for tackling this issue."
A panel of directors of programs that provide services for the homeless provided the audience with specific programs that could use their services.
Adlai Wertman, the CEO of Chrysalis, which finds jobs for as many as 2,000 homeless people each year, left a career on Wall Street to work with the homeless.
"Why?" he asks. "First and foremost because I'm a Jew. I'm a wannabe rabbi. I spend four or five hours a week studying Torah; it was hard for me to read about the duty of taking care of the poor and the hungry without taking action."
The New Direction Choir, composed of previously homeless veterans who've worked with the New Directions orgainzaton, had earlier provided concrete evidence through song and testimonies to the successes of their programs.
"I am a member of this congregation," said Toni Reinis, executive director of the New Directions. "So I have to cite something. Our tradition teaches us that the recognition of injustice is not sufficient. Awareness must be followed by action. Real tzedakah is only committed through our acts of righteousness."
Reinis urged members of the audience to stop by the Veteran's Village Diner on the grounds of the Veteran's Administration in West Los Angeles, which serves breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday.
Joel Roberts, the CEO of PATH, People Assisting the Homeless, introduced Mary Erickson of Imagine LA, a group whose goal is to help every faith-based community in Los Angeles to "adopt" one of the city's 8,000 homeless families for a two year period.
The conference was spearheaded by Ralph Fertig, a professor at the USC School of Social Work. Fertig, who has long been active in the struggle for human and civil rights, joined Leo Baeck two years ago because of its tradition of social justice programming. The ex-Freedom Rider and civil rights lawyer approached the temple's rabbis in the hope of engaging the congregation in issues of homelessness.
"We decided a conference would be the perfect opportunity to get our members' sleeves rolled up," said Rabbi Leah Lewis, who was also a key organizer.
"We though this could be a launching pad for more involvement."
After the presentations, Edelman and Fertig urged everyone to sign up as volunteers. Their exhortations were echoed by Lewis in her concluding remarks.
"The Chanukah season is our time to re-dedicate ourselves to stand up for what is right," she said. "The Macabees were not deterred by the enormity of their task. Like the Macabees, we move forward one step at a time. For us at Leo Baeck, partnering with all these agencies is our congregational first step."
"There is no community or city or region in the country that has dealt successfully with homelessness without the full participation from religious communities of all faiths standing up for community responsibility," said Torie Osborn, Villaraigosa's senior adviser on homelessness.
"I'm especially delighted about the religious community coming together with the city and county," Chasen said as the congregants moved to an adjoining room where tables were covered with snacks, literature and sign-up sheets.
"The remarkable thing is that both Mayor Villaraigosa and Supervisor Yaroslavsky came," he said. "The city and the county have not always worked together on homelessness. It's a great sign of successes to come."