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Community Briefs

April 30, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Armenians Threaten Another Protest

A group of 14 Armenian American college students, who ended a six-day hunger strike outside the Museum of Tolerance on April 21, have threatened to resume their protests unless the museum gives the recognition to the Armenian genocide of 1915, which the students believe it deserves.

Liebe Geft, the museum's director, strongly denied that the genocide had been neglected and charged that the students' actions were due to ignorance of the museum's efforts and a desire for media attention.

For the past two years, Geft said, her staff has been working on a timeline wall exhibit of 20th century genocides, which will include facts, quotations and some photos on the Armenian genocide. The exhibit is due to open in a couple of months, she said.

Ardashes Kassakhian, regional director of government relations for the Armenian National Committee, said that the museum staff had been unresponsive to letters and suggestions from the Armenian community, and that the museum's leadership had assumed "a tone of moral righteousness."

The Armenian community, like the Jewish community, has a bewildering number of organizations and spokesmen, but all seemed to agree that they had a certain historical right to the museum's special attention.

In 1985, then-California Gov. George Deukmejian, who is of Armenian descent, and the Legislature passed an act supporting the future Museum of Tolerance and allotting $5 million toward its construction.

The legislation's opening paragraph stated that Californians must be informed about the "mass murder of the Armenian Genocide and the Nazi Holocaust and other genocides." Deukmejian could not be reached for comment.

At this point, Vicken Sosikian, spokesman for the American Youth Federation, which organized the hunger strike, said, "We will see if the promised exhibit goes up in the next two months. If not, we will renew our efforts." -- Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Temple Beth El to Mark 80th Year

Temple Beth El of San Pedro will celebrate its 80th anniversary this year. The temple, one of the oldest continuing congregations on the West Coast, has roots dating back to 1922, when the first organized Jewish religious services were held in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Levin.

At the time, there were only 25 Jewish families living in San Pedro. The women of the community soon established the San Pedro Jewish Sisterhood, dedicated to supporting the local Jewry and helping the needy.

By 1935, the San Pedro Jewish Community Association was dedicated, and the Beth El Women's League was formed to develop a religious school.

There were about 75 families living in San Pedro in 1938, when the name Congregation Beth El was adopted. The Conservative congregation became Reform and changed its name to Temple Beth El in 1959, three years after the synagogue moved to its present location at 1435 W. Seventh St.

In 1985, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, dedicated the synagogue's expanded space, which includes classrooms. Today, more than 400 members belong to Temple Beth El.

An 80th anniversary party -- featuring a musical program led by Jan Bunker and two of her students, Zachary Barnes and Jenna Romano -- will be held on May 10 at 6:30 p.m. For more information, call (310) 833-2467. -- Michael Aushenker, Staff Writer

North Valley Center Stages Festival

If the turnout at the North Valley Jewish Festival on April 27 is any indication, the North Valley Jewish Community Center, where the event was held, has quite a fight ahead for its continued survival. About 100 visitors were present at the festival at midday, but organizers said that "several hundred people" attended over the course of the day.

Elaine Fox, president of North Valley Jewish Community Center Inc. (NVJCC), said it has been difficult to publicize the community center and what it has to offer, even with the support of local synagogues.

"Some people don't know we're here," Fox said. "That was the reason for the event ... to let people know that the center is still open."

The center has been negotiating for possession of the Granada Hills site for almost a year. The property, held by the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA), was one of those slated to be sold last year to mitigate JCCGLA's $5 million debt. So far, Fox said, the group has been lucky: the center was closed by JCCGLA on June 30, 2002, and reopened under NVJCC auspices the next day.

There are currently 127 member families, with additional signups on Sunday, according to Fox, translating to nearly 350 individual members. Programs are on the lean side, with the emphasis on the center's preschool, which will operate a camp this summer.

Camp Valley Chai, for many years a fixture at the Granada Hills site but temporarily moved to the West Valley JCC last summer, will return to the center this year.

Because there are still too few members to maintain the center's operating costs, NVJCC leaders have obtained grants from organizations, including the Zimmer Family Foundation, and from the city of Los Angeles. The center also plans to lease 1.25 acres of the property to a developer for a senior citizen housing project.

Fox said the combined use should make the center more attractive to potential members.

"Just think, you can visit grandma at her apartment and then pick up the kids from preschool," Fox said. -- Wendy J. Madnick, Contributing Writer

Westside JCC Takes Step Toward Future

The Westside Jewish Community Center (Westside JCC), attempting to leave its painful, not-too-distant-past behind, took another step toward the future when it unveiled the architectural design for a major overhaul of the center.

The blueprints, shared April 27 with a crowd of 100 supporters, feature an Olympic-sized pool that would be built on the site of the current parking lot. The plan also calls for an underground parking structure that could accommodate up to 300 cars, more than double the current number of spaces.

"We believe a world-class city like Los Angeles deserves a world-class JCC," said Michael Kaminsky, center president.

The Westside JCC, located on Olympic Boulevard, is in the midst of a $14 million capital campaign. So far, it has received pledges for $5 million. Within the next six months, the center expects to land three gifts of at least $1 million a piece, Kaminsky said.

The Westside JCC, like other area community centers, nearly went under recently because of a systemwide financial crisis. Last year, the Westside JCC had to close its health and physical education programs.

Paid memberships have dropped from 2,000 two years ago to just a "few hundred" today, Kaminsky said.

Still, Kaminsky said he felt optimistic. "We're moving forward." -- Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

Ex-Envoy Discusses Middle East Issues

Ambassador Dennis Ross addressed a meeting of the Brentwood Country Club branch of the United Jewish Federation on April 10. Ross, the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a diplomat who played a leading role in shaping U.S. involvement in the Middle East peace process, said that there are four things necessary to "win the peace" in Iraq.

The first is to stabilize the situation in Iraq by having for a limited time a multinational military administration to control the chaos and lawlessness that erupted after the war. He said it was also important to enable the Iraqis to obtain the basic necessities of life, such as food and water.

"We need to create a symbol that this is about emancipation, not occupation," he said.

The second is to create an international civil administration to rebuild institutions in Iraq. The third and fourth are to create and fund an interim Iraqi administration -- an executive council that is representative of every segment of its society. He said the council should have a rotating leader, so that no one group is "anointed."

"If you anoint one of those groups, then it looks like there is an American design that we are going to impose on Iraq," he said.

Ross said that Middle East countries should have to submit annual reports on women's rights. He also said that incitement and terrorist groups operating from within Syria (such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad) need to be shut down.

Discussing the "road map" for Israel-Palestinian peace, the former ambassador said there are several problems with the plan. While the Palestinians have several strategic goals embedded in the road map, he said, Israel has none -- except a comprehensive cease-fire. Ross said Israel needs to insist on the delegitimization of violence and to have Israel recognized as a Jewish State.

"[In the road map, it's written that] the Palestinians are supposed to stop financing and supporting terror, which implies they support and finance terror today. That shouldn't be going on -- that should be a precondition to the road map," Ross said. -- Gaby Wenig, Contributing Writer

High Court Hears Holocaust Law Case

Approximately 20,000 California residents might find it harder to obtain payments on Holocaust-era insurance policies if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a state law meant to aid survivors and heirs of Jews killed by the Nazis.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments April 22-23 on the constitutionality of California's Holocaust Registry Law, which would bar European insurers and their U.S. affiliates from doing business in the state if they refuse to publish a full list of all policyholders between 1920 and 1945.

Many, if not most, of the Jewish policyholders perished in the Holocaust, and their descendants say that the insurance companies have stonewalled demands for payments over some 50 years, often maintaining that they could find no records of the policies.

The insurance companies, joined by the U.S. Justice department, argued that the federal government has sole jurisdiction in the matter, and that all claims should be processed through an international commission established in 1998.

Critics argue that only a trickle of claims have been resolved by the commission, which is funded entirely by European insurance companies.

The court will issue its ruling on the case in late June, but from the tone of the justices' questions, it is widely expected that California will lose.

Although not all provisions of the California law are at stake in the Supreme Court matter, attorneys currently litigating related cases believe that if the court rules for the insurance companies and the federal government, Holocaust survivors in California, and in five other states with similar laws, will have an even more difficult time collecting adequate payments in the future.

Following the hearings, Gov. Gray Davis pledged that his administration will continue to fight for the rights of Holocaust victims, and said that "it would be a travesty for the Supreme Court to wipe out this potential tool for survivors to verify their families' insurance policies. -- Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

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