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Jewish Journal

Do-it-Yourselfers

by Rob Eshman

November 8, 2001 | 7:00 pm

At my college newspaper, new writers all received the same encouraging spiel. "We want you to start writing for us immediately," the editor would say. "We're not like the Harvard Crimson, where you have to scrub floors all semester before anyone even talks to you."

I doubt the Crimson really used Ivy League freshmen as tile washers, but the notion has stuck with me as the very image of the entrenched hierarchical East Coast, where a young person with dreams and energy is told to grab a mop and wait his turn.

I thought of this image again last week, as I witnessed three events so common in L.A. Jewish life we hardly stop to realize just how remarkable they are.

Two occurred last Thursday. At noon, at the offices of Creative Artists Agency (CAA), 80 of the Industry's busiest actors, directors, agents, producers and screenwriters gathered to hear a rabbi speak about rejuvenating Jewish life.

In the history of Hollywood, there has never been an event quite like it: not a self-selected group meeting for lunch-and-learn Torah study, or a charity fundraiser, but a mid-afternoon, turn-off-the-cell phones discussion at the top echelon of the Industry on what it means to be Jewish.

The speaker flown in for the occasion was Rabbi Irwin Kula. Kula could easily go head-to- head with his audience for intensity. He prowled the stage of a corner auditorium, asking these mostly young players to throw out what they think Judaism is -- "Why would you even sit through High Holy Day services if you get nothing out of it?" he demanded -- and recognize it as a living, changing tool. "The goal of Judaism is to make you better humans," he said, "not to make you better Jews."

For years Jewish groups had sought to reach just this kind of crowd, and most have all but given up. But four graduates of the Wexner Fellows Program, CAA agents Dan Adler and Rick Kurtzman, Endeavor agent David Lonner and activist Donna Bojarsky, decided to take it upon themselves to try. Invitations went out, assistants were pressed into service, and the group waited for what they expected would be 15 or so positive reservations. The turnout was five times that.

"Sept. 11 is really what did it," Adler said.

People came hungry for words that could make sense of the attacks. There was a modicum of schmoozing. Kula spoke for most of the hour, leaving many in tears, and, judging by post-event e-mails, an audience eager for more. "I'd been dreaming of doing something like this for a long time, " Bojarsky said. "It worked."

Then came Thursday night at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The Zimmer Jewish Children's Museum's first banquet honored museum president Jean Friedman and Sesame Street president and CEO Gary Knell. The 10,000-square-foot museum on the ground floor of The Jewish Federation building was founded by Esther Netter several years back in a corner of the Westside Jewish Community Center. Since copied by communities from New York to Scotland, it began as a simple idea, a way of giving children a hands-on experience of Jewish tradition and values. Now, thanks to a league of donors, volunteers and staff, thousands of children of all faiths attend the museum year-round.

Finally there's the story in this issue on the New Community Jewish High School (see page 16). Two years ago, a group of parents in the San Fernando Valley recognized the need for another Jewish high school there. They organized, they worked like dogs, they made it happen.

A few things strike me about these examples of dreams made real. One is that these projects brought together Jews from across the religious and political spectrum. At CAA, Jewish men in kippot learned together with Jewish women in short skirts. We're no longer so intent on organizing according to old categories, but according to new needs.

Another point is that in the case of the museum and the school, organizers relied on existing institutions like the JCC, the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Federation to provide expertise and some funding. The new communal institutions don't replace the old, but give them new purpose, maybe even new donors.

The proof is all around us: This is a Jewish community where people with good ideas can make them happen -- no permission necessary, no standing in line, no scrubbing floors. There is energy, there is money, and, of course, there is much more to be done.

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