From the heart of finance to the height of fashion, the cog of publishing to the kings of media, New York sees itself as the center of everything. That's no less true when it comes to Jewish religious life.
"New York has a tough time seeing behind the Hudson," said Rabbi Steven Burg, national director of the National Council of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), the youth movement of the Orthodox Union (OU).
Burg should know. Although he grew up in Brooklyn, he's spent most of his career outside the tri-state area, including here in Los Angeles, where he worked with NCSY until relocating to the East Coast three years ago. Last week Burg returned to Los Angeles, bringing with him five senior OU staff members for a two-day brainstorming session with the West Coast OU.
The Synagogue and Community Staff Conference, Oct. 10-11 at the OU West Coast headquarters on Pico Boulevard, indicated that New York leadership of the synagogue service group is beginning to recognize that there is life beyond the Big Apple. Coming to Los Angeles to plan West Coast activities and meet with member synagogues was like the mountain coming to Mohammed, so to speak.
"The West Coast office is a model for us nationally," said David Olivestone, OU communications and marketing director. Servicing some 40 synagogues -- 25 in the Los Angeles area and the rest in communities like Vancouver, Seattle, Phoenix and San Francisco -- the West Coast office is the only satellite OU office in the United States (there's one in Israel).
Olivestone said the OU is looking at large Jewish communities such as Chicago and Miami to "consider" opening up offices like the one here in Los Angeles. "It's worked so well on the West Coast," he said.
While the OU is best known for its kosher certification program, the organization, especially in Los Angeles, provides a host of other services for the Orthodox community, mainly serving as a liaison for its member synagogues.
Some of the synagogue-aid activities include providing security grants to synagogues, assisting the Pacific Jewish Center ("The Shul on the Beach") in its legal battles with the California Coastal Commission over its eruv, helping rebuild a Sacramento synagogue that was firebombed and extending funds to an Orange County synagogue to build a mikvah (ritual bath). It also resolves synagogues' internal problems, such as finding a rabbi (or providing interim or High Holy Days rabbis where necessary), building mechitzas (barriers separating men and women) or board issues.
Yearly programming includes synagogue seminars ("Conflict Resolution in Congregational Life"), Torah learning lectures (scholar-in-residence Rabbi Hershel Schachter, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva University), parenting and "making marriage work" classes, as well as outreach workshops ("Outreach: Not Just for the Professionals: What You Can Do and How You Can Do it"). It's all capped by the West Coast OU annual convention, open to the entire community. This year's Dec. 20-25 convention is called "Guaranteeing Continuity: Keeping our Children Jewish and Orthodox."
While some say the OU is not the most influential Orthodox organization in Los Angeles -- compared, say, to the Rabbinic Council of California, which provides local kosher certification as well -- West Coast OU leadership stresses that the organization's goal is to service synagogues and the community.
"We're not a rabbinic body," said West Coast Director Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, noting that the group's job is to help synagogues increase membership and strengthen the community's ties to Orthodoxy.
For example, on Simchat Torah, when it's customary to drink, the OU instituted a zero-tolerance policy on drinking in synagogue, and no one ended up in the hospital, Kalinsky said.
"If a rabbi [alone] took the position, everyone would laugh," he said, but because it was a community-wide ban, it was effective.
"We're out there because we want to make a difference in people's lives," he said.
As for Los Angeles, the West Coast staff hoped to show the New York visitors that L.A. has come of age. They brainstormed on future programming, met with local synagogue leaders and took a tour of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
"L.A. is producing the future leaders of Orthodox community," said Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, West Coast community and synagogue services director.
"Well, some of them," one of his New York colleagues conceded.
Is 'The Secret' Kosher?
While many rabbis in The Jewish Journal's July 7 article "Judaism vs. 'The Secret'" didn't think so, one rabbi thinks otherwise. Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, kabbalah and chasidut authority who lives in Israel, will present five days of lectures on "The Secret: Behind The Secret," Oct. 21-25. "To what measure it is found in Judaism? And how does it apply to an individual life in a kosher venue based on the teachings of Chasidut and kabbalah?" asked Rabbi Shaya Eichenblatt, the West Coast director of Gal Einai, or "inner dimension," the organization devoted to disseminating Ginsburgh's teachings (www.inner.org).
Lectures will include "Love and Attraction," "Spiritual Magnetism," "Success without Arrogance" and "Providence and Mazal."
Although both Ginsburgh and Eichenblatt are followers of Chabad (Ginsburgh lives in Kfar Chabad in Israel), Gal Einai is not affiliated with Chabad, and presents "classic" Judaism, Eichenblatt said. The organization hopes to begin offering classes for Jews of all denominations as well as for non-Jews, and begin a matchmaking service for people interested in kabbalah and chasidut and the Law of Attraction.
When asked how it might differ from other local disseminators of kabbalah in Los Angeles, Eichenblatt said, "This is the kabbalah as it is understood according to the Ba'al Shem Tov, applied to modern-day thinking. It's the synergy of the teachings of Torah as it parallels the modern world."
For more information on the lecture series, call (323) 933-1646, or e-mail email@example.com.
Interfaith Children Just as Happy, But More Prone to Drinking, Drugs
The September issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion published a study that questions whether having parents of dissimilar faiths has an effect on children's overall well-being. "Parents' Religious Heterogamy and Children's Well-Being," by doctoral student Richard J. Petts and assistant professor Chris Knoester of Ohio State University, examined data from the National Survey of Families and Households to test the hypothesis that it did. The researchers found that while "mixed" marriages do lead to more marital conflict and less religious participation, it had no impact on children's self-esteem, grades and life satisfaction.
"I suspect that part of the reason that we did not find negative effects [in those areas] is that being raised in a religiously heterogamous [dissimilar] family may actually be beneficial to youth in some ways" Richard Petts told Christianity Today, an Evangelical magazine. "If interfaith parents teach their children that it is important to find a religion that best suits them [as individuals] and accept religious differences in others, then youth may actually develop a strong sense of identity and have an opportunity to find out which religious beliefs are important to them," he said.
Also, being raised in a diverse family will increase tolerance and acceptance of others, he said.
However, the study found that use of underage drinking and marijuana increased in heterogamous households. Petts attributed this to lower religious participation.
"Youth raised in religiously heterogamous marriages may be less exposed to the social control that religion provides, increasing the likelihood that they become involved with drugs and alcohol," he told the magazine.
Why Can't Everyone Just Get Along?
How can you decode the Christian right? Are there really two Irans? How should Israel deal with its Arab neighbors? What makes a Mormon?
These "Flashpoints" -- religious conflicts in the world today -- will be lecture topics at the Center for Religious Inquiry, Wilshire Boulevard Temple's adult education arm that hopes to build bridges between all faiths, now in its second year. Also offered is a three-night course, "The Ten Commandments: Fact, Faith, or Fiction?" "Buddhism for Beginners" and "Introduction to Judaism."
For more information, call (213) 388-2401, or visit http://www.wbtla.org