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Jewish Journal

Does Hollywood give Jewish?

by Brad A. Greenberg

July 26, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Producer Jeffrey Katzenberg. (Getty Images)

Producer Jeffrey Katzenberg. (Getty Images)

This is what Hollywood's old-school Jewish philanthropy looks like: 900 Jews worried about anti-Semitism sitting inside the International Hall of the Beverly Hilton.

Holocaust survivors sit side-by-side with some of entertainment's biggest big shots. Onstage, the American and Israeli flags hang together, with "Rush Hour" director Brett Ratner saying the Hamotzi; Rabbi Meyer H. May singing the national anthem and Hatikvah; talk show host Larry King telling jokes and introducing household names, like Queen Latifah, that aren't necessarily Jewish.

It's the 30th anniversary of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the internationally recognized human rights organization and operator of the Museum of Tolerance located a mile and a half away, and the men behind this June 20 gala are Jewish entertainment chieftains --Time Warner President and COO Jeff Bewkes, Universal Studios President and COO Ron Meyer and, specifically, Jeffrey Katzenberg, a center trustee and CEO of Dreamworks Animation.

No. 40 on the list of wealthiest Angelenos, according to the Los Angeles Business Journal, Katzenberg has given millions to philanthropies ranging from the Motion Picture & Television Fund to AIDS Project Los Angeles to the American Jewish Committee. For the past 15 years, though, his favorite Jewish cause has been the Wiesenthal Center.

"When I took my first tour, the sensation was almost overwhelming -- a combination of anger, sadness, hope and resolve to support this institution in any way possible," Katzenberg tells his $125-a-plate guests in opening remarks.

This is a familiar sight, one steeped in tradition. The Wiesenthal Center may only be 30 years old, but Jewish entertainment leaders have been deeply involved in Jewish nonprofits since before Hollywood became synonymous with the motion-picture business.

First it came from the fathers of film, Carl Laemmle, the Warner brothers and Samuel Goldwyn; the second take was of "The Last Mogul" Lew Wasserman and game-show host Monty Hall; next came Sherry Lansing, Steven Spielberg, Katzenberg and a few others. Soon, that task will fall to a new generation that is now in its 20s, 30s and early 40s. But who will step forward as tomorrow's Katzenbergs or Wassermans or Warners?

That is a difficult question to answer because most of today's Jewish philanthropists are cut from a different mold than their predecessors.

On the one hand, no longer feeling the insularity and even paranoia that led them to support only their own, many of today's Hollywood's Jews -- notables include David Geffen and Michael Eisner -- are increasingly giving to causes that have nothing to do with Israel or the Jewish community directly.

At the same time, some organizations have found that appealing to the singular Jewish community isn't the only way to go: Jewish World Watch, a decidedly Jewish organization founded by a rabbi and designed to provide relief to people under genocidal attack, has had great success partnering with black actors, even more so than Jewish ones.

And then there are those who pick and choose their causes specific to their own personal development. Peter Spears, as just one example, came to Hollywood for his work, but recently found himself on a mission to Israel's film industry, which helped him to rediscover his Jewish self in the process.

This is Hollywood Jewish giving ... Take 4 ...

The perception that Hollywood doesn't do squat for the Jews may be as much a part of Jewish belief as monotheism. It's hyperbole, but a disconnect does exist between many Hollywood Jews and the greater Jewish community. Some of it can be attributed to the phlegmatic nature of Los Angeles, some to the city's geography and transient nature of its denizens and some to the growing trend away from Jewish giving.

David Lonner, co-head of the motion picture department at the William Morris Agency -- who has been described in this paper as "the kind of agent whom stars thank by name, along with God, from the Oscar podium" -- has wrestled with these forces as he's tried to engage his colleagues in issues he finds important to the Jewish community, both by taking them to Israel on trips he funds and by serving at one point as the volunteer president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles' Entertainment Division.

"In the '60s and '70s you had people from that generation who were very affected by those two gigantic earthquakes in Jewish history," said Lonner, 45, referring to the Holocaust and the creation of a Jewish state. "Now you've got an assimilated, prosperous society who is also focused on what affects their lives directly. It is not that they are shunning Jewish causes; it is just that they are removed."

To be sure, this phenomenon is affecting young Jews across the country, not just in Hollywood. Recent studies -- by Brandeis University, Reboot, sociologist Steven Cohen, Hillel -- have found young Jews are conflicted about how to express their identity. They are proudly Jewish -- some more "Jew-ish" -- and cherish the culture, but they have little attachment to Judaism and reject the idea of remaining part of an insular tribe. In terms of charity, or tzedakah, they want to heal the world, but they aren't so comfortable doing it the way their parents did.

"It is an acknowledgement that one's responsibility is to the broader community," said Dan Adler, a former talent agent and vice president of business development at Walt Disney Imagineering, now working on an Internet venture. "Whether it is Darfur or poverty, or whether it is any cause it might be, the Jewish community is doing a great job of honoring those broader pillars of Judaism, whether you want to frame it in tikkun olam or frame it in a responsibility to the broader community."

But what has this meant for Los Angeles' Jewish community?

It is no secret that Jews built Hollywood, but less widely known is that Hollywood helped build L.A. Jewish life. The American Jewish Committee's local chapter and the ancestors of The Federation have their roots in the entertainment industry. So do prominent synagogues like Temple Israel of Hollywood and Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Sixty years ago, about a third of the annual contributions to The Federation's predecessor, the Jewish Welfare Fund, came from the entertainment industry. In 2005, the proportion of The Federation's total from the industry was between 8 and 10 percent.

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