November 6, 2003
A Tale of Two Cities
What Jews are doing -- and not doing -- about crime in South Los Angeles.
On Oct. 14, Joseph Javaheri, a Jewish man from Pico-Robertson was tending the counter at Avalon Discount, a grocery-slash-everything store in the area patrolled by the LAPD's Newton Division -- considered Los Angeles' third worst neighborhood in terms of crime.
At 8 p.m., closing time, Javaheri, 59, had already locked one of the security gates, and was in the process of locking the other, when two black males in their mid-20s forced their way into the store. One lingered at the entrance; the other dived across the counter and stuck his hand in the open cash register, pulling out a fistful of cash. He jumped back toward the entrance, which was only a couple of feet away from the register. As he and his accomplice started to make their getaway, Javaheri accosted them in an effort to get the cash back, according to some sources. One of the men took out a handgun and shot Javaheri at point-blank range in the chest.
Javaheri was dead. The men got away with less than $100. The murderers remain at large.
For those incubated in the middle-class comfort of West Los Angeles, gang violence is often just a recurring headline in the Los Angeles Times, but Javaheri's murder is a reminder -- to the Jewish community at least -- that the effects of South Los Angeles' festering mess of crime are not quarantined. While the problems of South Los Angeles -- such as poverty, unemployment, gang violence, drugs, illegal weapons -- are many and the solutions few, many Jewish groups feel that ignoring them is only to our detriment, and that it is a religious imperative for the Jews of West Los Angeles to move out of their comfort zone and start taking responsibility for the larger community that they live in for the good of the city.
In 1990, crossed the Iranian border illegally, under threat of death, in order to join his wife, Farideh, and four children who had immigrated to the States two years earlier from Iran. Javaheri was traditional. He educated all his children at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles. He was a hard-working man, and spent many years working in Avalon Discount, until his children convinced him that it was not safe there, and so instead he joined the fabric business of his oldest son, Payam. But, with three children of marriageable age (his second daughter, Parisa, is already married with two children), Javaheri decided that his family would need extra cash for the potential celebrations. He took on a second job, returning at night to Avalon Discount, albeit to a different location according to Shawn Soleimani, the lawyer hired by the family to investigate whether there is a civil case against the store owners, the property owners and possibly the city for inadequate security.
"My father wanted us to be happy, and he always went out of his way to provide us with everything," said Zacharia, Javaheri's 25-year-old son. "His family always came first, and he always had a lev tov [a good heart] and he leaves behind a shem tov [a good name]."
But Javaheri's murder also leaves behind a number of questions -- why did this senseless murder of a good man have to happen? Why were there not policeman tending the heavily trafficked area where Avalon Discount was located? Why did the 20-year-old men think that robbery and murder were acceptable behaviors? And why was this not an isolated incident? Javaheri's murder was the 42nd for Newton Division since the beginning of the year. His store was the 800th property robbed in the area in the same time frame. Although those statistics are horrifying, this is only the third-worst neighborhood in Los Angeles. Newton Division patrols Compton and Watts, where gang violence prevails in a far greater way, and where murders and robberies happen more frequently. Thus, the question becomes: Why isn't anybody doing anything about it?
"After a month of reading the front page of [people being killed] in Iraq, the Congo and Afghanistan, and then turning to the California section and seeing on page six that there were 12 people killed over the weekend, I was wondering why isn't this a front-page story," asked Gary Ratner, executive director of the American Jewish Congress's Pacific Southwest region. "People travel 10,000 miles because they are concerned about human rights violations, but they don't seem to be concerned about what is happening in their own backyards."
Ratner is now trying to raise $50,000 for gang intervention programs in South Los Angeles. He is working with the Rev. Leonard Jackson, the assistant pastor at the First AME Church of Los Angeles, on a violence intervention program, and his organization is also joining up with the Progressive Jewish Alliance's (PJA) Jewish Community Justice Project, which trains community volunteers to be mediators who go out to the violent parts of the city and put juvenile first-time offenders, their parents and the victims of the crime together in a room and get them to agree to some kind of settlement of the case.
"Statistics show that 50 percent of kids who go through this mediation are not recidivist," said Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the PJA. "We don't have any delusions of grandeur about the program, but we do know that it works on an individual level."
Both Ratner and Sokatch told The Journal that they believed that Jews have a moral obligation to be concerned with what is happening in the larger community. Other groups have also taken on the challenge -- KOREH L.A. tries to better educate the children in all neighborhoods of Los Angeles by increasing levels of literacy, MAZON and Wilshire Boulevard Temple have pantries where the poorest families in the city can pick up food.
"Jews have an obligation to turn outward and be guided by our ethics in working to build a better community for everybody," Sokatch said.
But if mediation and intervention programs are going to work to overhaul South Los Angeles, they need to be conducted on a much bigger scale.
"We need help here," 9th District City Councilwoman Jan Perry. "I was at a press conference two months ago, where kids on skid row told adults that they were sick of having to walk to school through the violence, condoms and syringes. In some ways, people in other parts of the city are divorced from the level of violence that occurs. The very fact that this is the first time you are calling me should tell you something."
Perry is working on a number of projects to improve the neighborhood. She increased the amount of reward money (now $25,000) that is offered to people who provide information that will help solve violent crimes. She has negotiated a new $500,000 soccer turf to be built so that youths aged 9-15 could have an outlet in sport, instead of crime; affordable home ownership programs; and a new $19.5 million shopping center to be built that has a local hiring goal of 50 percent for new permanent jobs. The idea of all of these programs is to make residents of South Los Angeles feel invested in their community so that they will look after it.
South Los Angeles is a part of town bereft of all the corporate landmarks that those on the westside take for granted like Ralphs, Gap or Barnes & Noble. Instead, the streets are populated with decrepit, no name-liquor stores, beauty parlors and lunch trucks. On a Sunday night, the small strip mall where Avalon Discount is located was hopping with families washing their clothes at the laundromat, people eating at the doughnut shop and buying last minute groceries at the bodega. Children were ambling around near one homeless man lying on the pavement with his grimy quilt pulled high over his head; a homeless woman was mumbling loudly about a man who attacked her. Most people approached for interviews only spoke Spanish. One 14-year-old African American girl told The Journal that she was not aware that a murder had happened in the store next to where she was sitting, but she had seen a murder victim herself one morning as she was walking to school.
"We need more police here," said the girl, who did not want to give her name. "And they need to be staying in the street corners, not circling around."
A greater police presence in the area is something that many people think is vital to keeping crime down, but funds for more police are hard to come by. Fifth District City Councilman Jack Weiss told the Journal that he thinks a large part of the problem is that many police resources go in tending to false burglar alarms on the Westside.
"Only 6 percent of the homes in Los Angeles have private burglar alarms, and 90 percent of the time when the alarms go off it is a false alarm," said Weiss, who has tried, unsuccessfully, to change the response policy of the Los Angeles Police Department at City Council meetings.
Perry concurred with Weiss that more police are needed.
"If I had to send a message to the people who might read this article, it would be to please impress upon all of your government and elected officials to seek funding for additional police," she said. "We are being disproportionately affected in this district."
Currently, the Javaheri family is waiting for their father's killers to be bought to justice, but they also wanted to make sure that their father's legacy was publicized. Ironically, what their father believed in most was something that his own murder belied completely.
"My father hated sinat chinam," said Zacharia Javaheri, referring to the biblical injunction against senseless hatred. "He was always concerned about bringing about ahavat chinam [unconditional love], so we need to fill up the big gap that he left by increasing our kindness and charity."
And perhaps some of that charity should find its way south of 10 freeway.
"We should never, ever, turn our back on the larger community," said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City. "We have an obligation to help."
"The extremes of rich and poor are only getting more extreme in Los Angeles," Weiss said. "We live in a town that embodies the tale of two cities."