December 31, 2008
L.A.'s Top Ten Mensches: Our fourth-annual salute to big-hearted Angelenos
Gabriel Halimi, Kim Krowne, Manijeh Youabian, Andrew Wolfberg, Susan Corwin, Ari Moss, Dr. Richard Braun, Bracha Yael, Jack Matloff, Neil Sheff
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Manijeh Youabian: Customized, Confidential Help in Iranian Community
Several years ago, Sheila Z., a young Iranian Jewish mother of two who had recently immigrated to the United States, found she could not work here in her profession as a nurse. At the time, her family was barely surviving on her husband's minimal income, and, to make matters worse, their dire financial situation was putting strains on her marriage.
Sheila Z, who asked that her name be withheld for privacy reasons, said her family was unwilling to help. She felt she had nowhere to turn when she was introduced to Manijeh Youabian, a leading volunteer in the Los Angeles Iranian Jewish community.
"Manijeh gave me food coupons, moral support and even introduced me to people who could help me get my nurse's licenses," Sheila Z. said. "That helped me get by during a very difficult time, and now I'm a successful nurse working at two major hospitals -- this one incredible woman totally transformed my life."
For the past 16 years, Youabian has worked through the L.A.-based International Judea Foundation known as SIAMAK, an Iranian Jewish nonprofit. She has almost single-handedly helped hundreds of impoverished and homeless Iranian Jews in Southern California.
Whether providing them with special coupons to get food at kosher markets, paying their rent, providing transportation, locating immediate medical care, finding them employment or even paying school tuitions, Youabian, with the support of donations to SIAMAK, has been one of the last lines of help for innumerable struggling local Iranian Jews.
"My main goal is to help these needy people in our community become fisherman and not just recipients of fish alone," Youabian said. "Ultimately, we help them make a living on their own, and one of my joys in life is to aid another person in this world who has fallen on bad times."
With no staff and a very limited budget, Youabian, a Beverly Hills homemaker, aids about 15 Iranian Jewish families throughout the year and about 50 families during major Jewish holidays. Whether answering phone calls from needy Iranian Jews, visiting them at their homes and hospitals, doing background checks on prospective clients and even personally dropping off food items at their doorsteps, Youabian has done it all and not sought the limelight.
"She is a very humble lady; she cries along with them and devotes an enormous amount of time to this work, which not many people in our community want to do," said Dara Abaei, a local Iranian Jewish activist. "What is very special about her is that she helps these poor people confidentially, so no one is embarrassed or ashamed."
Other community members regularly give Youabian monetary donations, offer their free medical or legal services and donate clothing for the needy families that turn to her for aid.
Even though all of SIAMAK's other community activities have been halted during the past 16 months, while it has been formally separating from the Eretz Center in Tarzana and the Neria Yomtoubian Foundation, Youabian's work on behalf of needy Iranian Jews has continued via the organization.
Youabian said she has also helped a few Russian and American Jewish families in the past, as well. She is seeking additional donations to be able to help the growing number of Jewish families hurt by the current economic downturn.
Those wishing to support Manijeh Youabian's efforts should call (310) 980-4443.
-- Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer
Andrew Wolfberg: A Chance Pairing Was Meant to Be
Shani Levy, a case worker at Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters Los Angeles (JBBBSLA), made countless phone calls to match an 8-year-old boy with cerebral palsy to a big brother and was turned down repeatedly by people who did not feel that they could handle the challenge. Levy did not fault them.
Taking on any child as a big brother or sister is a weighty responsibility; taking on a child with disabilities -- not a common case for JBBBSLA -- is beyond most people.
"I thought, 'It's going to take a very special person to fill this role,'" Levy said. "And, finally, we found him."
Andrew Wolfberg, 38, is a lawyer and not married, whose only other experience with kids not related to him was as a volunteer soccer referee. But he quickly took on the challenge.
Shortly after the two were paired up, the boy's mom called to tell Wolfberg that her son's diagnosis had changed. He did not have cerebral palsy but rather Ataxia-telangiectasia (AT), a neurodegenerative disease that causes severe disability, weakens the immune system, increases the risk of cancer and affects many parts of the body. The disease is extremely rare -- about one in 100,000 people worldwide are diagnosed with it -- and is considered terminal.
By odd coincidence, Wolfberg was well acquainted with the disorder. His cousin had recently died from it at the age of 24.
"It was a shock," Wolfberg said. "There are maybe 900 kids in the U.S. with AT, and I know two of them."
"It was really meant to be," he said of the match. Not only would he comprehend what was going on with the boy, whose name is not included here to protect his privacy, Wolfberg also knew he could understand the boy's limitations and be sensitive to his needs and serve as a resource and respite for the mom, who had the additional challenge of being a single mother.
Wolfberg was not deterred by his little brother's undersized, fragile physique. Nor was he alarmed by the boy's occasional tumbles, slurred speech or need to take frequent breaks.
He took him fishing and go-cart racing; they went to a hockey game and bowled together; they've been to the California Science Center, the Santa Monica Pier, Disneyland and a movie premiere at the Mann's Chinese Theatre, where they were treated to a limousine ride arranged by JBBBSLA.
Wolfberg has been the boy's big brother for a year and a half and said it's the best thing he's ever done. "In video games, his mobility is limitless, just like every other kid. He regularly beats the crap out of me."
On occasion, when the child feels weak or tired, Wolfberg hoists the child's 42-pound frame onto his own shoulders. Once, when they were going to a movie early in their friendship, Wolfberg was not able to park close to the theater's entrance, so he carried him. As they were walking, the boy rested his head against his big brother's cheek and Wolfberg thought with tenderness, "Oh, this is so sweet." Never mind that a second later the boy looked up and asked, "What's your name again?"
Though the child and his mom temporarily relocated to Georgia in September, the relationship did not end.
Wolfberg made his little brother a photo book with pictures from all their outings together, and the two talk on the phone at least once a week. He saved a message on his cellphone, and though most of it was incomprehensible, one thing the boy said quite clearly was, "I miss you."
"I would never quit on him," said Wolfberg. "This is a lifelong relationship."
-- Dikla Kadosh, Contributing Writer
Susan Corwin: Great Miracles Happen Here
"The children are my teachers," said Susan Corwin. "I get so much love and joy through them."
Corwin, 49, is a volunteer at the Nes Gadol (Great Miracle) Project of Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services, which prepares autistic, Down Syndrome and other children with special needs for their b'nai mitzvah.
The pre-b'nai mitzvah program for 10- to 13-year-olds is augmented by post-b'nai mitzvah classes for 12- to 15-year-olds, and planned for next year is a new program for kids from 6 to 9 years old.
Corwin said she was drawn to the project by her dual love for children and Judaism and by the "joyful environment" of the Vista Del Mar classrooms.
She and fellow volunteers teach Hebrew, singing and prayers to the 13 youngsters in the pre-b'nai mitzvah class, but Corwin's specialty is the Miracle Theater, which engages the pupils in drama, voice and musical stage training.
The program's innovative approach was featured in the Emmy-winning HBO special, "Autism: The Musical."
Pressed about her own background, Corwin admits to an early off-Broadway stint in the chorus of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado."
Elaine Hall, director of the Miracle and Nes Gadol projects, both supported by the Jewish Community Foundation, fills in some aspects of Corwin's work and personality.
"Susan put the O in outstanding and the M in mensch," says Hall. She is always there when you need her, from sharpening pencils to serving as Jewish community liaison, creating a new curriculum and coming up with fresh ideas."
Pacific Palisades residents Susan and Scott Corwin are also involved with University Synagogue, where she served as the longtime chair of the Mitzvah Corps, a support group for cancer survivors.
One shul isn't enough, so the Corwins also belong to Temple Akiba in Culver City, whose Rabbi Zachary R. Shapiro describes Corwin as "a woman whose works have truly brought earth and heaven closer together."
For Corwin herself, the biggest thrill is to see one of her students step up to the bimah for the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony. At that moment, she said, "God is right there."
-- Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor