Jewish Journal

Mensches: Our third annual salute to big-hearted Angelenos

Posted on Dec. 27, 2007 at 7:00 pm

Samantha Weiner. Photographs by Kevin Scanlon. Cover by Carvin Knowles.

Samantha Weiner. Photographs by Kevin Scanlon. Cover by Carvin Knowles.

"It is hard to convey the special sense of respect, dignity and approbation that can be conveyed by calling someone 'a real mensch,'" writes Leo Rosten in "The Joys of Yiddish."

The Yiddish word infuses the basic German denotation -- "person" -- with an almost indefinable connotation. A mensch is a person who is upright, honorable, decent, as Rosten writes, a person to admire and emulate.

So, why not just call such people saints or angels?

Because, as the stories below will demonstrate, these people have no such airs. They are people, like you, like us, who in the course of schedules no less hectic and demanding than our own, manage to reach out and help others, make the world a better place, day in and day out. They are doing what we all should, and what we all can do, despite the fact that most of us don't. They are just people -- menschen, to use the proper Yiddish plural -- who understand the power and possibility of what just one person can do.

So, we are delighted to introduce you to The Journal's third annual List of Top Ten L.A. Mensches.

We received a far greater number of worthy nominations than could make this list, but these all stood out -- in many different ways.

Thank you to all our mensches and to all who offered up names. Maybe next year we'll all be candidates for the list....

Samantha Weiner: Caring for People in Need

by Jane Ulman, Contributing Editor

Every other Wednesday after school, Samantha Weiner changes into navy blue scrubs and travels 35 miles from her home to the Westminster Free Clinic in Thousand Oaks. There, from 5 p.m. until often 11 p.m., this Milken Community High School senior volunteers as a student intern for the nonprofit clinic, which provides primary care for about 60 working poor and homeless people from a space in the United Methodist Church. And she's been doing this since she was a freshman.

Weiner, 17, works one-on-one with the patients, taking medical histories and documenting their complaints, checking vital signs and presenting the information to the doctor. Initially she began working at the clinic because she thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to give back. But she said that her many experiences -- from assisting a homeless man with a severely infected finger to helping stabilize a diabetic patient who now leads "a healthy and happy life" -- have focused her on a future as a general practitioner.

Weiner is one of 72 high school interns who volunteer at the clinic, half of them from low-income families themselves. All of the kids are treated as part of the medical team, receiving extensive training and ongoing education from the volunteer doctors and nurses.

"Samantha stands out because she takes her work so seriously," said Lisa Safaeinili, Westminster Free Clinic's executive director. "She is kind and compassionate to all the people and makes them feel really cared about."

But that's not all that Weiner does to give back. She is on the advanced leadership track of Yozma, Milken Community High School's social action club. Last year she helped raise $1,400 for Heifer International, a nonprofit aiming to end world hunger. This year, inspired by a Ramah Seminar trip to the Nazi concentration camps in Poland, she is serving as section leader of Yozma's Darfur advocacy group, educating middle school students about Darfur and helping make backpack tags for an educational project that provides schoolchildren in Darfur with backpacks filled with books, school supplies, clothing and other necessities.

Weiner credits her family with teaching her the importance of tikkun olam. Together, among other activities, they all participate in Mitzvah Days and serve Thanksgiving meals at local shelters. She also acknowledges Heschel Day School, Milken and Camp Ramah for helping mold her community-service conscience.

But there's time for school activities, too. She's team captain and middle blocker for Milken's varsity volleyball team, though she is currently recovering from ACL knee surgery for an injury she recently sustained in the third round of the California Interscholastic Federation's volleyball championship.

In the future, she said, she would like to volunteer for Doctors Without Borders or set up health centers similar to the Westminster Free Clinic in other communities.

"This might sound corny," she said, "but there's no greater feeling than knowing I've made a difference to a person in need."

Neal Shapiro: Conscience of the Shul

by Jane Ulman, Contributing Editor When Neal Shapiro was just 8, growing up surrounded by desert in Phoenix, Ariz., he saw his first Jacques Cousteau television special and was immediately smitten with the ocean, vowing to devote his life to protecting it.

He pursued his dream by earning a bachelor's degree in marine biology at UC Santa Barbara and a master's degree in marine policy at the University of Maryland. After graduation, Shapiro spent a decade with The Jacques Cousteau Society. More recently, for the past eight years he has worked for the city of Santa Monica's Environmental Programs Division, overseeing water conservation and urban runoff management programs.

As an adult, Shapiro has also became increasingly Judaically observant, transitioning from Reform to Modern Orthodox after graduate school, and along the way he has melded his ecological passions with Judaic principles, expanding his environmental activities into his private life, as well.

For Tu B'Shevat in 2000, and again in 2001, Shapiro spearheaded B'nai David-Judea Congregation's community tree planting, helping to beautify and provide shade along Pico Boulevard with nearly 100 Chinese flame trees. He continues to co-organize annual plantings, and this year, like last, is also helping facilitate plantings in private homes' parkways, between the curb and sidewalk.

Shapiro's efforts extend indoors, too. Since last spring, he has promoted reusable Kiddush kits, but though he has sold about a dozen, he said, only two or three congregants regularly use them. "I'm trying to change behavior," he admitted. Shapiro has overseen B'nai David's volunteer security force for the past five years, training and scheduling members to patrol on Shabbat and holidays. He also supervises other safety issues, such as fire drill evacuations.

He is also an EMT-certified member of the Pico-Robertson Division of Hatzolah Los Angeles, one of about 30 who respond to medical emergencies. "I was always interested in health and helping people who get hurt or need medical help," he said.

Shapiro and his wife, Fay, have three sons, 21, 17 and 10, and despite all his activities, he makes family a top priority.

For the past 15 years, every Sunday from April to mid-June, he puts in time volunteering for his sons' baseball leagues. He began by coaching one of his son's teams and, for the past seven years, has either managed or co-managed the 240-player Maccabee Baseball League.

In 2001, Shapiro also founded an Orthodox Cub Scout pack in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, initially chartered by B'nai David-Judea and open to all Jewish boys. It began with about a dozen Cub Scouts. A few years later, Boy Scouts were added, and it has grown to 55 youngsters. Shapiro serves as a co-den leader.

"Neal is in many ways the conscience of the shul," B'nai David-Judea's Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky said. "He has his eye on everyone's health and welfare and is quietly persistent in not letting us overlook these fundamentally important things."

Allison Diamant: Hands-On Community Health, With Heart

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor Sometimes, Dr. Allison Diamant has those reaffirming moments at the Venice Family Clinic -- like when the woman in her 40s she diagnosed with diabetes came in a few weeks later to thank her not only for her medical care, but also for caring.

But more of the time, Diamant sees the slow movement and systemic problems. The woman who came in with a suspicious breast mass, but whose cancer had spread by the time she was able to get care at a county hospital. Or the man with chest pains, who was too worried about leaving work and his family to get treatment.

Venice is the largest free clinic in the nation, with 2,400 volunteer doctors and 22,000 patients. Diamant has been volunteering there for 15 years, and in her three shifts a month she gets hands-on experience with an issue she spends most of her time researching. On faculty at UCLA School of Medicine, where she sees patients and teaches new doctors, Diamant is a researcher for UCLA and the Rand Corp., with a mission of improving access to and quality of regular, preventative healthcare among underserved populations.

"Sure, health is about going to the doctor and getting immunizations and being diagnosed with a condition," said Diamant, sitting amid stacks of articles and patient files at her UCLA office. "But it is also about having the education to be able to know what might or might not be best for you, knowing how to read a medication bottle, knowing how to understand what a physician tells you and how to ask the right questions," says Diamant, 46.

Tall and athletic in a flowing, ethnic-print dress, Diamant's ready smile bunches her cheeks into a self-conscious blush when the attention is on her. But when she talks about her work, her passion overshadows her shyness.

Her research addresses basic questions: How is a homeless diabetic supposed to take insulin, which needs to be refrigerated? How can patients take a doctor's advice on healthy eating and exercise when there is no fresh produce in the neighborhood and the streets are unsafe for walking?

She works with L.A. County to analyze and implement solutions to issues like treating breast and cervical cancer in uninsured women, or making sure gays and lesbians are getting the right medical care. Her work has changed the way the county reaches out to those without insurance and ineligible for Medi-Cal, and how private institutions and public programs collaborate most effectively.

Diamant always knew she wanted to go into public health. Living in downtown Philadelphia as a medical student at Hahnemann Medical College (now part of Drexel University), she saw disparity she hadn't seen growing up in West L.A., or as a teacher in a school she set up in a village in Botswana when she spent three years in the Peace Corps, or in Thailand, Nepal and India, where she traveled for months.

While in medical school, Diamant helped set up a homeless clinic, she read to the blind, and she taught adults to read. Today, while she does spend time gardening, throwing large dinner parties, and on amateur photography, her singular focus overlays most aspects of her life.

She rides annually in AIDS LifeCycle, a weeklong bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, during which she starts each morning staffing a medical tent.

She is on the ethics committee at UCLA, and for the past year and half she has traveled to New York about once a month to help her partner, Eileen Gorman, care for her ailing parents.

Diamant has been on the board at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) since 1999 and decided years ago not to work on Shabbat. But even at synagogue, Diamant is on call, frequently helping people navigate the medical system, or being the resident physician for High Holy Day emergencies.

"Dr. Diamant is an extraordinary physician," BCC's Rabbi Lisa Edwards said, "the kind so many of us long for."

Julie Housman: Peer Empathy Born of Own Travail

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor For Julie Housman, the hardest part about fielding phone calls at Teen Line isn't listening to the involved and often disturbing tales of distraught teens or figuring out how to advise them. The biggest challenge is following the guideline that she keep her own experience out of the anonymous conversations. When it comes to family tragedy, dealing with mental health issues, drug experimentation or just finding yourself in a confusing world, Housman, 17, a senior at Beverly Hills High School, has too much firsthand knowledge.When Housman, the youngest of six children, was 2, her mother died of breast cancer. Her father moved his law and accounting business home so he could handle carpools and dinner and sick kids, and kept the family focused through team sports -- soccer, tennis, softball, baseball and football.

The transition to middle school was difficult for Housman, who still battles depression, and she fell in with the wrong crowd. But by 10th grade, some tough love from her father and a precocious realization that she didn't want to screw up her future -- along with ongoing therapy -- helped Housman steer clear of drugs and concentrate on school, sports and helping others.

For the past three years, Housman has volunteered weekly from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at Teen Line, a phone and online hotline affiliated with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center's Department of Psychiatry, where every night teens listen to callers' problems and offer resources on issues ranging from boyfriend trouble to sexuality to suicide.

"I've overcome a lot of obstacles and a lot of problems, and when I help people, I get a lot of satisfaction and self-confidence," said Housman, who is also the captain of her school's tennis team, editor of the yearbook and an avid snowboarder.

Thin and athletic with a tight ponytail pulling a mass of wavy honey-colored hair away from her tanned face, Housman has large hazel eyes that stay serious and focused even when her bright smile makes an appearance.

It's a face her callers never see, but Housman has found ways to tap into her experience and her natural empathy to win the confidence of callers.

"The most important thing I've learned is the only thing you can do is listen. You can't change their lives, but you can help them by giving them resources, by supporting them and by listening to them," Housman said.

Most of the calls are about relationships, but others deal with abuse. Housman got a call from a 16-year-old girl who eventually told Housman she had been raped by her mother's drug dealer while her mother watched. That one was reportable -- calls can be traced -- and the girl was taken into protective custody. It wasn't the first time Housman had likely saved a life. Every three or four shifts a call comes in from a teen who is contemplating suicide. One night, a girl told Housman she was calling because her boyfriend had dumped her, but her progressively slurring speech indicated to Housman that she had probably just swallowed a bunch of pills. Housman quietly alerted the adult supervisor who is always on site, and the police arrived at the girl's house while Housman was still on the line.

Housman hopes to continue this kind of work in college, and she wants to be a therapist.

"I feel lucky," Housman said. "People don't have resources and don't have anyone to talk to, and I've learned that everyone has problems. Teen Line has completely turned me around, and it's really shaped the way I think, and helped me realize that I am really helping people. I have a purpose."

Simon Shpitalnik: From Émigr�(c) to Activist

by Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor Simon Shpitalnik was 62 years old when he left his native Odessa for Los Angeles. Behind him lay the Holocaust, which claimed most of his family, then service in the Soviet army and a highly successful career as a construction engineer and factory manager.

Before him lay a strange country, an unfamiliar culture and language, and a job market that wasn't interested in older workers.

Shortly after his arrival in 1994, he heard about the Association of Holocaust Survivors in West Hollywood, founded by Russian-speaking Jewish �(c)migr�(c)s, joined it, and after a couple of meetings announced that he was quitting because the group wasn't doing anything useful.

"There was only talk, talk, but no action," Shpitalnik reminisced. "So the other people there said, 'All right, we'll elect you president, show us what you can do.'"

So for the past 12 years he has been re-elected president, and fellow members credit him with transforming the once-dormant talking club into an action-oriented group, which has helped change the lives and give dignity to hundreds of men and women now in their 70s to 90s.

At Shpitalnik's initiative, the association has obtained restitution grants to raise its members' living standards above the subsistence level, organized a wide range of social and cultural trips and events, created a sound financial and membership structure, observed Jewish holidays, and conducted political education and voter registration drives, according to veteran community leader Si Frumkin.

In his unpaid volunteer job, Shpitalnik, aided by his wife Bella, is always on call at his home office in Santa Monica, and his constituency has expanded from West Hollywood to the San Fernando Valley, and even as far as San Diego.

In his regular column in the Russian-language Panorama newspaper, Shpitalnik chronicles the birthdays of 20 to 30 members each month, and, inevitably, writes frequent obituaries.

Despite the obits, membership in the association has grown from around 90 in 1995 to a current 400. Notwithstanding the modest income of most members, they have contributed $60,000 to various causes, foremost the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv and Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, and most recently $1,000 to aid victims of the Southern California fires.

Many members live in rented apartments subsidized by the federal government, and Shpitalnik, now 75, has embarked on a campaign to prevent landlords from discriminating against the elderly immigrants.Summing up Shpitalnik's contribution, Frumkin said, "Simon is responsible for a more pleasant and comfortable old age for hundreds of elderly and solitary people who lived through the Holocaust and oppression by the Soviets, and for whom America was as strange and incomprehensible as coming to another planet and another world."

Dara Abaei: A Mentor in Times of Trouble

by Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer On a Sunday morning at 2 a.m. earlier this year, a local Iranian Jewish mother was on the phone crying hysterically after her son had been arrested for drug possession and locked up in the L.A. County jail downtown. She didn't call her relatives, her rabbi, or a lawyer for help -- she called Dara Abaei, an Iranian Jewish youth mentor and activist.

Helping this mother at an hour when most people are asleep is just one of the many volunteer activities Abaei performs to support young Iranian Jews and their families. For the last 18 years, Abaei, 39, has dedicated countless hours to tackling serious difficulties that are often considered taboo within the Iranian Jewish community.

Whether the crisis is homelessness, drug addiction, hunger, spousal abuse, gang activity or religious intermarriage, Abaei has worked -- often virtually single-handedly -- to help find solutions for individuals in need. Abaei responds to as many as 10 to 15 cases per week, and spends many hours per month on his cellphone for this work.

"In my opinion, he may be among just a handful of people who started this crusade to help those with real issues out of pure love of the community," said Dariush Fakheri, founder of the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana. "Whoever knows him or has been touched by his presence has benefited from him."

More than 15 years ago, Abaei formed the Jewish Unity Network (JUN), a nonprofit based in the Pico-Robertson area, to provide activities for the local 10,000 to 15,000 Iranian Jewish youth between the ages of 13 and 26. He handled his volunteer work while juggling a full-time job in construction consulting and trying to feed his family of five. Sensing a greater need for his assistance, members of the community two years ago increased funding for JUN in order to hire Abaei full time as the group's executive director.

"Yes, I took a pay cut from my last job, but I thought it was necessary to help these kids, because I never had this kind of coaching support from the community when I was young," Abaei said. "Even if one Jewish youth is helped, it's like saving the world."

"The truth is, 90 percent of his community work is done in private and in confidence, so much of it actually goes unnoticed," said 24-year-old Eman Esmailzadeh, a Brentwood resident. "If it's flying to Alaska to help convince a community member not to leave Judaism or visiting Jewish prisoners in jail -- wherever help is needed, Dara is there."

Abaei said JUN will continue to collaborate with various other Iranian and Ashkenazi Jewish groups and hopes to raise enough funds to purchase a facility where young Iranian Jews can gather for cultural and religious events.

"Our goal is to inject positive Judaism in our youth and offer them leadership skills," Abaei said. "Then when they are older, in 20 or 30 years, they will more likely be involved in the Jewish community and issues concerning Israel."

Len Kass: Inspiring Lifelong Learners

by Celia Soudry, Contributing Writer

Impassioned senior citizens took on roles of Southern folk for a reading of James Baldwin's "Blues for Mister Charlie," a play loosely based on the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, during a Milken Jewish Community Center play-reading class Dec. 11, thanks to volunteer instructor Len Kass. Performing the role of Tom, one senior hollered in a slangy Southern accent, "Hey, boy, where's your mother? I bet she's lying up in bed, just a-pumping away, ain't she, boy?"

The class is one of many that Kass has initiated at the JCC since 1993. After more than 28 years of teaching high school history for the Los Angeles Unified School District, Kass, 74, decided to volunteer his time engaging in intellectual conversations with seniors. The JCC serves as a home away from home for Kass, and he feels his "students" are extended family.

For 14 years, Kass has taught one monthly and four weekly classes at the JCC -- history, play reading, current issues, novel reading and film. "If I were getting paid to do this, do you think I would?" Kass said. "I wouldn't take their money even if they offered it. The JCC needs all they can get."

The classes are composed of people from varying backgrounds. An 87-year-old stand-up comic, a former military officer, a playwright and a professor are among those on the roll call. Each week they join together, step outside of themselves and portray characters from their favorite classic plays.

"He's a genius," enthusiastic play-reading participant Ed Ash said. "He does great work in so many areas." Teaching these classes is a m'chei'yeh to Kass, a Yiddish term meaning "it's a pleasure," he explained. "This defines who I am these days. I would be lost without it."

Kass served in the Air Force during the Korean War and was editor of the base newspaper in Austin, Texas, in the early 1950s. Growing up, Kass always wanted to be a journalist, but while attending UCLA his focus shifted towards history. During the course of his studies there, he met his wife of 51 years, Zita, who also volunteers for the JCC administrative office about three times per week and participates in various classes. Oftentimes, Kass, along with other class members, follow up the one to two-hour sessions with lunch or dinner at nearby Weiler's Deli. Kass is known for giving members who lack transportation rides home, history class regular Terry Sobo observed. "He engages the senior group in dialogue," she said, "He's brilliant, charismatic and humorous."

"Learning is a lifelong process," Kass said. "People here come to listen and talk and have had enormous life experience in the 20th century. They come willingly and want to learn."

Adaire Klein: Keeper of Memories, Nurturer of Souls

by Amy Klein, Religion Editor Adaire Klein likes to lead people to the next step on their journey. Whether it's in her volunteer capacity of teaching converts about the basics of Judaism or her professional life running the Simon Weisenthal Center's library and archives, the 76-year-old sees herself as a guide to others.

"Even if you can't find the answer that you're looking for, if we can give them one more step in their search: They have to be able to find the next step on their ladder."

Klein was hired in 1978 as the Weisenthal librarian, a year after the center opened. "The whole museum was smaller than this room," she said, pointing around the vast library, which now holds 50,000 books. But when she began, it had only 50 books. By the mid-'80s they realized survivors were leaving artifacts at the library, so they expanded the mission to include archival service, of which Klein is director.

Does a constant immersion in the Holocaust and genocide get depressing?

"For me, it's the component of education -- if somehow I can contribute a little bit to make sure this is a world in which a Holocaust cannot happen, that is primary to me," Klein said. Some days, if it gets to be too much, she looks out the window at the children attending the adjacent yeshiva, and it helps her feel better.

That's why her involvement in teaching people who are choosing to become Jews is also important to her. More than 20 years ago, Rabbi Abner Weiss, who was then head of the Beit Din rabbinic court, asked her to teach Hebrew and basic Judaism to people who were going to convert through the Orthodox court, which requires at least a year of study and observance of the laws. Eventually, Klein only taught the basic Judaism class, covering the Jewish lifecycle, holidays, family, and as much as possible to prepare them for their new lives. Over the years, she has taught more than 150 people who have converted. So many, in fact, that people regularly come up to her to tell her they converted with her a decade or more ago, and that their children have now become b'nai mitzvah.

"At the library I help people with their academic needs, and in conversion class students are on a personal journey for their spiritual needs," she said

But Klein is more than a teacher. She has students over for Shabbat, gets to know them, and also evaluates their progress for the beit din. "There's a lot of hand-holding in the process -- and you become the shoulder, very often, for them to look for support," she said.

In a way, both her professional and volunteer work go hand in hand -- seeing so much destruction, and now so much rebuilding. "Maybe my involvement in the molding of the lives of future Jews somehow makes one feel that they're doing something toward perfecting that world."

Bea Chankin Weisberg: Decades of Devotion to Early Childhood

by Celia Soudry, Contributing Writer

"God couldn't be everywhere, so she created bubbies," reads a mug on the desk of Bea Chankin Weisberg. But the short-statured and soft-spoken Weisberg, 81, is more than just a bubbie.

She is an example of a retiree who just can't stop working. When she officially stepped down from her job as director at the Institute of Jewish Education and Early Childhood Center in 1997, she continued to volunteer there two or three days a week and as the need grew so did her involvement, to the point that now she's once again sharing her vast educational skills full time -- only now she's not getting paid.

Weisberg's official title at the Early Childhood Center is vice president of education, but that doesn't capture the hands-on nature of her work. She regularly meets with the school's director and assists with child evaluations and teacher workshops, among her many tasks.

Weisberg's history in early childcare in L.A. runs deep, over a half century. She had a hand in creating home-care programs through Valley Cities Jewish Community Centers as well as assisting Los Angeles preschools to obtain accreditation from the Bureau of Education and the state of California. She received a prestigious Ezra Award from the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles in 1989 for her pioneering work in Jewish education, though it's a sign of her modesty that she only recently found the award while cleaning her apartment. "I hadn't looked at it in ages," she said.

In the early 1980s, Weisberg was also the consultant for all of the JCC's early childhood programs in Los Angeles. During that time, she pitched a program that would cater to mothers who wanted to go back to work but needed to care for their infants. Weisberg's proposal was initially rejected by the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center and generated much animosity, she said, because some administrators felt it was more important for mothers to stay at home with their children than to work. In 1979, Adat Ari El in Valley Village accepted the proposal, and a full-day nursery school got its start.

She is especially proud of the Bea Chankin Jewish Family Child Care Association, a full-day home-care program for infants and toddlers who are too young to attend nursery school. The home-care program, sponsored by the JCC association, started in about 12 private homes and is currently operating in more than 20 homes, the majority in the Valley.

With her office door wide open at the Early Childhood Center, Weisberg said, she loves to hear the sound of children playing in the adjacent sandlot and playground. "I'm just happy that when I wake up in the morning my brain is functioning, and I am able to do this." As a full-time volunteer, Weisberg fancies herself a "dollar-per-year person," though in order to keep herself afloat with the high cost of Los Angeles living, she continues to do some freelance consulting and teacher training for preschools. "When you raise five children," she said, "you learn how to live without the frills."

On a separate front, she serves as executive director of Ameinu, which is located in the same building as the Early Childhood Center, formerly the Labor Zionist Alliance, and is co-chair of the Pre-Kindergarten program of Koreh L.A., a literacy program of The Federation's Jewish Community Relations Committee. Explaining that public education in L.A is not great, Weisberg is happy to see Koreh L.A. giving kids the opportunity to better themselves and to help parents accept the uniqueness of their children. "Love, identification and pride starts early."

Waving her hands as if blessing the Shabbat candles, she said, "Who I am is all bound together with my Judaism, Zionism and the way I parent."

Dr. Robert J. Meth: Soviet Jewry's Ongoing Champ

by Amy Klein, Religion Editor These days, when most people think of Jewish involvement in humanitarian and advocacy causes, they think of Darfur, fighting anti-Semitism in Europe and on American college campuses, and saving the environment.

In other words, Soviet Jewry is not the first thing that comes to mind.

The emancipation of that region's Jews was a cause c�(c)lèbre in the '80s, with American Jews holding mass demonstrations and wearing silver bracelets to "Let 'Em Out," as the popular Safam song went. But with the disintegration of the Iron Curtain, allowing freedom of religion in the former Soviet Union, and the mass immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel, other causes moved onto the Jewish activist agenda.

Which is why Dr. Robert J. Meth's continued involvement in the cause is so important.

"Bobby," a family physician with Kasier Permanente, is former president and chairman and currently on the executive committee of what used to be the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, and is now NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia.

Meth, 53, is involved with many Jewish organizations, including American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC); United Synagogue Youth (USY); the Jewish Community Relations Council; The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; the Conference of Presidents, Brandeis-Bardin Institute; B'nai B'rith; American Society for Yad Vashem; and solicitation training for the United Jewish Communities.

"Most people in our community can afford to give more than they do," Meth said. He teaches solicitors that it's tzedakah, not charity. "It's the difference between selfishness and being unjust."

Meth first became involved with Soviet Jewry in high school in New Jersey, through USY, which named him alumnus of the year at its international convention on Dec. 26.

"I decided Soviet Jewry was a good way to represent our generation," he said. Although his parents were not Russian, they were immigrants from Europe. "I am a child of refugees. I want to make sure that my generation didn't respond to Soviet Jewry the way my parents' generation was before," he said.

Although at the time that meant visiting with refuseniks and demonstrating, today it primarily means advocacy. The group acts as a watchdog for anti-Semitism in the region. For example, when a technical college in Ukraine invited a series of anti-Semitic speakers, the NCSJ participated in protests that led the government to close down parts of the university, and the government is now suing that university, Meth said.

They also deal with current events such as Russia and Iran and oil pipelines, and Muslim communities in the former Soviet Union, as well as building stronger relations with Israel.

One major focus is helping the 100,000 Jews there build their communities.

"You meet the people, and they're trying to develop Jewish life but they don't even know the Alef Bet," he said.

"I think it's a very current cause," Meth said. "I think it's been ignored by a lot of Jews who have compassion fatigue, or who are rightly concerned for Israel now. Jews do well in crises," he said. "They don't do as well for preparing for them." Tracker Pixel for Entry


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