December 27, 2007
Mensches: Our third annual salute to big-hearted Angelenos
(Page 4 - Previous Page)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 cÃï¿½(c)lÃÂ¨bre 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."