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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Ari Moss: A Leader for the New Century
"In a time when social networking, iPhones and videogames dominate the youth culture, Ari Moss, 30, is focused on answering one of the most prevalent questions facing the next generation of Jews.
Why be Jewish?
Seeking the answer to that question is what provokes Moss' continued involvement in the Jewish community and the Jewish young professionals movement.
For the past few years, Moss has been a volunteer leader in the Professional Leaders Project (PLP), an organization focused on helping the next generation of Jewish leaders. In the fall of 2007, he co-chaired PLP's Think Tank 3, a biannual national conference in Los Angeles that brings together lay leaders and young professionals.
"Judaism for contemporary times is much more serious, because evolution is moving faster," Moss said. "Reshaping it will show we're a serious faith that will attract people. I don't know if there are answers to life's great questions. I do know that Judaism provides a life of meaning."
For the 2009 Think Tank 4 convention, Moss plans to take a step out of the spotlight, serving as an advisor for the chairs, though he says he'll do whatever they need him to do, whether its sitting on a panel or even picking people up from airport.
In addition to his work with PLP, Moss currently sits on the board of directors at IKAR, the nondenominational minyan, and serves as vice president of the Shalom Institute, the parent organization for Camp JCA Shalom, which he attended as a kid, and where he got, he said, " the most formative experience of my Jewish identity."
Moss' legal practice takes on its fair share of noble causes, as well. A 2004 graduate of Loyola Law School, he is a trial lawyer specializing in "bad-faith insurance," representing injured parties who seek compensation from an insurance provider or nursing home that failed to provide proper coverage or care.
"It comports with my sense of right and wrong," Moss said, adding, "people need help; they need an advocate, a fighter when the fight has been taken out of them."
A native of the San Fernando Valley, Moss said his parents always encouraged him to be a compassionate person.
"I grew up with parents who put a premium on being a good person and being an ethical person. You had to be successful in school, but you had to be a better human being."
So, why not just become a rabbi?
"A rabbi is a good start to helping people find answers, but I think of myself as just a regular guy," said Moss, who twice considered entering the rabbinate before graduating from law school.
At the end of the day, Moss said all he wants to do is "serve the Jewish community in the best way possible, through Jewish camps, helping synagogues and advocating for a meaningful Jewish life."
And maybe an occasional airport pickup.
-- Jay Firestone, Contributing Writer
Dr. Richard Braun: From Medicine to 'Musical Midrash'
Dr. Richard Braun, 78, is clear on one thing: He considers his progeny his greatest accomplishment. Three of his four children followed him into the field of medicine -- David is a neonatologist; Jonathan is chair of pathology and laboratory medicine at UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine; Sarah is a child psychiatrist; and then there's Robert, who instead chose a career in law.
He's also got nine grandchildren who are variously studying English, philosophy, music and Middle-Eastern languages. His family, he says, is his life's "real source of meaning and joy."
Quietly modest, Braun isn't entirely comfortable talking about himself; instead he shifts the conversation to people who have inspired him. This is all in character or rather, the character of this thoracic surgeon who, in 1960, chose an unconventional path in medicine that valued patient relationships over financial reward.
Later, when he established the Jewish Music Commission of Los Angeles (JMCLA), his goal was not to produce star composers but rather to add to the corpus of Jewish music, using composition as a new way of interpreting Jewish narrative.
Braun's work, as a physician and the founder of the JMCLA, is very much about giving voice to things underserved and suppressed.
In the late 1960s, while serving as a lay cantor at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, where Braun and his wife, Barbara, have been members for more than 50 years, he first discovered an under-acknowledged pool of talent within the Jewish community. A musician since childhood -- Braun plays violin and viola -- with a penchant for Jewish scholarship -- the influence of his father, a rabbi and a physician -- Braun joined the VBS choir, learned Torah trope and helped lead overflow services during High Holy Days.
When Israeli jazz pianist Aminadav Aloni came to VBS as an accompanist, Braun found a partner in developing new Jewish music but also a challenge in finding funding for serious composition.
"What I learned is that there was a society of Jewish composers in Los Angeles that were writing Jewish music and couldn't get it performed," Braun said. With Aloni's help and the support of the VBS community, Braun founded the JMCLA to encourage the development and performance of new Jewish music that could be played by small groups at synagogues.
Braun is heavily involved in the planning, coordinating and fundraising for the JMCLA's various concerts and music competitions. He invests both his time and money in order to realize his vision of contributing to Jewish culture.
"We keep our plans on a small scale because we know we're not going to be able to produce something that requires a full orchestra," Braun said. "A single concert by the L.A. Jewish Symphony [for which he plays the viola] costs $25,000."
So instead, Braun focuses on substance. When he began, Braun drew out Jewish composers from Hollywood like Charles Fox, David Shire, Lucas Richmond and Michael Isaacson and encouraged them to write Jewish music. He wasn't interested in adding to the lexicon of Jewish folk music, which he considers "a flash in the pan," but in creating "musical midrash" -- compositions that aim to express biblical drama.
For the past six years, he has produced an interfaith concert and symposium at Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church based on universal biblical themes -- creation, angels, prophets and psalms -- and pairs specially commissioned music with scholarly and religious commentary by experts in the community. It's important to Braun to reach out to people of other faiths who share the same sacred texts as Jews and to reveal religious commonalities.
"Music is a way to bridge differences," he said.
-- Danielle Berrin, Staff Writer
Bracha Yael: Rewards of Life in the Slow Lane
Bracha Yael was the vice president of a construction company, a triathlete and getting her master's in religion. She was on the board of the Los Angeles Hillel Foundation and Temple Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC).
Then one afternoon in 1997, she started to feel dizzy and tired. She lay down. And she couldn't get up -- for about two years.
Yael, 40 at the time, was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Immune Deficiency Syndrome, a condition that left her dizzy, nauseous and without enough energy to sit up for more than five minutes at a time.
After about two years, she and her doctors began to get a handle on her symptoms, and she got to a point where she could function for a few hours a day. She hoped to resume some semblance of her former life -- maybe work part time, exercise a little. But every time she pushed too hard, she would set herself back weeks.
The realization that her life would be radically and permanently different was a traumatic blow to Yael, even more shocking than her initial diagnosis.
"Rabbi Lisa Edwards [of BCC] started to talk to me, saying that life is not about doing, it's about being," Yael recalls. "I had internalized that identity and self-worth are about what we do, especially about what we do for a living, and that wasn't there anymore. I had to develop some sort of identity and find meaning in my life that wasn't connected to what I do."
It took another few years of struggle for Yael to come to terms with her new identity. About four years ago she changed her name from Jeannette to Bracha, which means blessing, as a tribute to the blessings in her life: the strong community at BCC, her friends and her partner of 29 years, Davi Cheng, who stuck by her through her struggles.
And she began to think about how she could be a blessing to others.
After she became ill, Yael continued to work on a master's thesis she had already started exploring how the Jewish community responds to AIDS patients. Now, her discussions about spirituality and illness became more personal, with Yael often conducting her interviews lying down.
She also got a certificate in spiritual direction, a form of peer counseling, and Edwards began to call on her to talk to struggling congregants. Yael even helped a suicidal congregant through the night.
Tuned in to the extreme isolation and depression that can come with chronic illness, she started a weekly phone-in Torah study group at BCC -- but the topics, based on the weekly portion, are not about illness.
"When you deal with chronic illness, you can become the illness," Yael said. "I thought if we had Torah study, we could come together and talk about something we all cared about but not about our illnesses."
The idea spawned a second offering, a monthly phone prayer service that Yael leads. About 10 people call in each month, from those who are ill to some who live far away.
For the past two years, she's also run a High Holy Day phone service, and now she has arranged for a speakerphone to be on the bima at BCC every week, so that shut-ins can listen and feel connected to the larger community.
With the help of doctors, medications and staying closely attuned to the limits of her body, today Yael has many days where she can be upright for hours, with breaks. And she is taking advantage of that energy to help others. She and Cheng have adopted Harriet Perl, an 88-year-old BCC member. Yael and Perl do their weekly grocery shopping together, and Yael just accompanied her to the vet, where Harriet's cat of 17 years was put down.
When Yael was most encumbered by her illness, the little things that people did -- the phone calls, the soda crackers and juice left at the back door -- were often the most helpful and most meaningful, she said.
So now she tries to return such.
"I have time to write a letter now, and I know how precious getting a note can be. I know what it means," she said. "I live a quiet and modest life now, but I try to bring as much joy as possible."
-- Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Senior Writer