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PJA Names New Executive Director

February 4, 2009 | 5:18 pm

PJA Names New Executive Director
After a seven-month search to replace its founding executive director, the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) announced this week that Elissa Barrett, an attorney for Bet Tzedek Legal Services, will take the helm.

Barrett, 38, survived seven interviews and was the last candidate standing after a national search performed by m/Oppenheim Associates, a premier nonprofit search firm. She has been a member of PJA’s board of directors since 2000 and will begin her duties as executive director March 16.

“Elissa Barrett brings to PJA exactly the kind of bright, dynamic and resourceful leadership we need as we consolidate our growth in California and look toward the planned national growth of our organization,” Douglas E. Mirell, PJA board president, said in a statement.

At Bet Tzedek, which provides legal aid to low-income Angelenos, Barrett directed the Sydney M. Irmas Housing Conditions Project from 2002 to 2007, when she became the nonprofit’s pro bono director and created the Holocaust Survivors Justice Network. The project links Jewish social service agencies, law firms and corporations to help Holocaust survivors receive German reparations.

“I am excited to see what she will do at PJA,” Mitch Kamin, Bet Tzedek president and CEO, said in a statement. “If it’s even half of what she’s done at Bet Tzedek, it will be truly amazing. Our loss is the community’s gain.”

PJA was launched in 1999 as a liberal organization concerned with social justice and strengthening Jewish identity through advocacy. Over the years, it has been best known for its living-wage and kosher-clothing campaigns and for encouraging dialogue with young members of L.A.’s Muslim community.

The founding executive director, Daniel Sokatch, was, like Barrett, trained as a lawyer. He left last July to be CEO of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties. Barrett said he left behind a healthy balance sheet and a talented staff.

“I love the mix of haimish and activist. I love the way PJA incorporates Jewish learning into it’s activism in a way that is so accessible. You could have gone to Hebrew school or yeshiva or be a rabbi or you could be an unaffiliated Jew — and all are equally welcome and find a place in PJA,” Barrett said. “I think that is an important place for PJA to occupy in the Jewish community.”

On March 29, PJA will celebrate its 10-year anniversary with a dinner at the Skirball Cultural Center that will honor Sokatch and Erwin Chemerinsky, a renowned constitutional scholar and founding dean of the UC Irvine School of Law.
— Brad A. Greenberg, Senior Writer

Hospital Official Finds Trauma Parallels in Life-Threatening Illness, Danger in War
Dr. Ernest Katz’s recent trip to southern Israel crystallized for him a parallel he’s been exploring for several years: Children and families facing a life-threatening illness and those facing life-threatening weapons respond to the trauma in similar ways.

“For a parent informed that their child has a life-threatening illness, the reaction is similar to a parent whose kid is hit by shrapnel — my wonderful, healthy child has gone from being a regular kid to being at death’s door,” said Katz, co-director of a psychological and social support network for children with cancer at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA).

Over the last three years, Katz has been mining collaborative opportunities between Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and Soroka Medical Center, which is affiliated with Ben Gurion University in southern Israel.

During a visit to Soroka at the end of the Gaza operation, Katz curtailed the lectures he was supposed to give helping Soroka develop the state-of-the-art social and psychological services CHLA has built through its Hematology-Oncology Psychosocial and Education Program (HOPE). Instead, he helped out at, and learned from, the programs the hospital was offering to support the community during the traumatic time.

Wounded from the area were all brought to Soroka — everyone from a Beersheva mother who threw herself on her child but was unable to prevent the shrapnel from entering his skull to severely wounded Hamas fighters and Gazan children. In addition to medical services, they needed psychological support.

During the war, while Beersheva schools were closed, Soroka brought 300 children of hospital staff to the pediatric hospital, where hallways double as bomb shelters and state of the art classrooms, a movie theater and a staff clown are a regular part of the medical center.

“The community came through in a big way, with volunteers and actors and celebrities to keep everyone’s spirits up. The hospital became this safe meeting place, where people could come together and try to get through it — that is what a hospital should be,” said Katz, saying he could see applying those lessons after major earthquakes.

The collaboration began three years ago, sparked by Chaim and Sheryl Saban, who are supporters of both institutions.

After Katz set up the initial contacts between the two institutions, CHLA expanded the program. In addition to the psychosocial services, Soroka and CHLA have an exchange for two pairs of medical residents a year.

Researchers also regularly share information and look for collaborative opportunities.

“There are a lot of differences in how we practice, but there are a lot of similarities,” Katz said. “We have a lot to learn from each other.”
— Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Senior Writer

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