Tag Archives: Rebecca Spence

Think Tank Aims To Infuse Jewish Mainstream With Dashes of Color

by Rebecca Spence
The Jewish Daily Forward
May 8, 2008

Be’Chol Lashon International Think Tank in San FranciscoSan Francisco – Go to almost any Jewish conference and you’ll likely find the ethnic makeup to be largely, and unsurprisingly, white.

But at a recent plenum in San Francisco, a group championing ethnic diversity in Jewish life turned that situation on its head, as scores of black, Latino and Asian Jews from around the world came together to grapple with the challenges they face gaining acceptance in the mainstream Jewish world.

The group of 80 Jewish leaders from 31 different countries — including Uganda, South Africa and Portugal — who gathered the first weekend this month for the Be’Chol Lashon International Think Tank had one clear message for the Jewish community: Open your doors to diversity. The sixth annual event, organized by Be’Chol Lashon — a Bay Area initiative dedicated to fostering diversity in Jewish life — and fittingly held at the Hotel Kabuki in the heart of San Francisco’s Japantown, centered this year on questions of conversion and whether Judaism might take a more proactive role in gaining adherents.

As demographic studies in recent years have shown a shrinking American Jewish population, the organized Jewish community has poured millions of dollars into strengthening identity in young Jews. But the mainstream response to the so-called population crisis, which has resulted in a slew of identity-building projects — among them, “Birthright Israel,” a program that takes tens of thousands of American Jews in their teens and 20s on free trips to the Jewish state — is not the solution, according to Diane and Gary Tobin, co-founders of Be’Chol Lashon. The organization, whose name is Hebrew for “in every tongue,” was established eight years ago in the wake of the Tobins’ 1997 adoption of an African American boy.

Gary Tobin, a Jewish researcher who is president of San Francisco’s Institute for Jewish & Community Research, contends that only through welcoming converts of all ethnicities and breaking down the barriers to conversion will the Jewish people be able to reverse the trend of dwindling population numbers. Tobin is referring not just to welcoming converts who are married to Jews, but also to reaching out to non-Jews generally.

“If we think that going to Jewish day school or trips to Israel are going to save the Jewish people, it’s just silly,” Tobin said. “The response of the organized Jewish community has been to circle the wagons, and what this room represents is the possibility of expansion, not constriction,” he said, referring to the conference participants.

The driving philosophy behind Be’Chol Lashon, Tobin added, is that Jews should, in fact, “be competing in the marketplace of world religion.” If Jews began reaching out across color lines, the number of Jews in America alone could increase, over the next quarter of a century, to 12 million from 6 million, he said.

Indeed, some in the organized Jewish community take issue with Tobin’s approach. In more traditional corners, emphasizing outreach over strengthening Jewish identity from within is often met with skepticism.

“We’re worried about bringing people in, but what about people leaving?” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of the Modern Orthodox Los Angeles synagogue Young Israel of Century City. “We have to have more money and creative efforts spent energizing those who are already within the Jewish community rather than proselytizing.”

Conference participants were as diverse geographically as they were in skin color and ethnicity. Participants included Rabbi Capers Funnye of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken, a predominantly African American Jewish congregation on Chicago’s South Side; Ishe F.C. Raulinga Hamisi, an elder of South Africa’s Lemba community, which claims Jewish roots, and Miguel Segura, who was raised in Mallorca as a Xueta, the name given to descendants of Jews from Mallorca who were forced by the Catholic Church to convert to Christianity.

On the first day of the conference, Jewish legal scholars — including a Modern Orthodox rabbi, Darren Kleinberg — parsed Jewish law, or Halacha, and what it has to say about conversion. Contrary to widely held belief, the panelists agreed, Jewish law is far more open to conversion than contemporary practice would indicate.

That discussion was enough to sway at least one Korean American conference participant, Helen Kim, to reconsider her reservations about conversion. Kim, a 35-year-old sociology professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., is married to a Jewish man and has felt drawn to the religion ever since she first developed a grade-school crush on a Jewish boy. Kim, who has served for the past two years on the board of her local Reform synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, said that she has long felt ambivalent about formally converting to Judaism, because of questions of bloodline. But the panel on Halacha and conversion convinced her otherwise. “This conference has made me feel less resistant to conversion and more comfortable with it,” Kim said.

Another panel considered the effects of last February’s ruling by the Israeli chief rabbinate that only 15 rabbinic courts and 40 designated Orthodox rabbis in America could perform sanctioned conversions. Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, a 39-year-old leader of the Abayudaya, a group of some 800 Jews in eastern Uganda whose ancestors have practiced the religion for nearly a century, said that it was refreshing for him to understand that even among Orthodox Jews, there are conflicts over the question “Who is a Jew?”

“It has become a Jewish culture that we don’t accept each other,” said Sizomu, who will return to Uganda next month, after receiving rabbinic ordination from Los Angeles’s American Jewish University. “You are frustrated with the Orthodox, and then you see they don’t even accept each other.”

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Orthodox Woman Runs for L.A. City Council

by Rebecca Spence
The Jewish Daily Forward
May 5, 2008

Adeena Bleich and former California Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg at a bar mitzvah in Hancock Park.Los Angeles – Growing up in New Haven, Conn., just across the street from Senator Joe Lieberman, Adeena Bleich never thought it was out of the ordinary for an Orthodox Jew to run for political office. Now, the 30-year-old West Coast transplant is herself running for office in Los Angeles, angling to become the city’s first Orthodox Jewish city councilor.

Bleich is basing her campaign not on this historic detail but rather on the premise that she can serve the city’s multiple and diverse ethnic communities. Still, her bid opens a window onto the increasing maturation of L.A.’s burgeoning Orthodox Jewish community. In recent decades, the city’s Orthodox population, based in the neighborhoods known as Pico-Robertson and Fairfax, has seen explosive growth. Now, observers say, L.A.’s Orthodox Jewish community finally may be coming of age in the political sphere.

“There’s no question that the Orthodox Jewish community has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 20 years in L.A.,” said Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, a West Coast representative of the Orthodox Union. “As the community’s influence grows, its presence is more widely respected, and as a result, that could translate into a more formidable candidate from the Orthodox community.”

Indeed, Bleich is not the first Orthodox Jew to run for L.A.’s 15-member city council. A handful of them have tried before, albeit unsuccessfully. Bleich’s success, observers say, will rest on her ability to reach beyond the confines of the Orthodox community and win votes across ethnic lines as well as across the diverse grouping of Jews — from Orthodox to completely unaffiliated — who populate the West Side district.

“She’s running not as an Orthodox candidate, and not in a district that has enough Orthodox clout to carry her,” said Yitzchok Adlerstein, a professor of Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School and a longtime community observer. “She’s running as a person who happens to be Orthodox, who may have some vague rapport or strength there, but her appeal is going to have to be on her record, completely apart from any identity-politics considerations.”

In New York City, the population center for American Orthodox Jewry, Orthodox politicians — including Noach Dear and Simcha Felder — have long served on the city council, and the current speaker of the New York State Assembly, Sheldon Silver, is Orthodox. It was also in New York that an Orthodox woman, Susan Alter, was first elected to the city council in 1978, serving until 1993.

Political consultant Hank Sheinkopf explained that in New York, population density has been the key to having Orthodox Jewish representation dating back decades. Orthodox politicians represent heavily Orthodox areas — for the most part in Brooklyn — and they are elected along the lines of identity politics. A candidacy such as Bleich’s in L.A., where she is running on a wide coalition platform, has yet to materialize in New York. “In New York, it is more important that you have greater population density, because it is much more balkanized ethnically,” said Sheinkopf, who is based in New York. “Ethnic politics matter here.”

In interviews with a wide swath of political professionals who track Jewish representation and voting patterns, not one could cite an example of an Orthodox woman — aside from New York’s Alter — elected to the governing council of a major American city. At least one other Orthodox woman in New York, Judy Rapfogel, ran for city council, but her 1997 bid from the Lower East Side proved unsuccessful.

Thus far, four other candidates have announced their run for L.A.’s 5th District council seat, which includes the Pico-Robertson area, as well as swaths of the San Fernando Valley. Bleich is not only the sole Orthodox Jew in the race — which so far includes former city councilman Paul Koretz and neighborhood activist Ron Galperin — she is also the youngest. But Bleich said that her youth is not necessarily a disadvantage. “If you look at this district, it’s consistently the outsider candidate and the youngest candidate who has won,” she said.

Bleich, who moved to L.A. in 1999 after graduating from Pitzer College, worked as a field deputy and Jewish community liaison for Weiss for three-and-a-half years. In 2005 she went on to work for former California Assembly speaker Bob Hertzberg’s failed mayoral campaign. Hertzberg is now chairing Bleich’s nascent campaign. It was, Bleich said, through watching Weiss and Hertzberg at work that she came to understand the power of a committed public servant to effect real change and better people’s lives.

Bleich, who attends three Pico-Robertson area Modern Orthodox synagogues — B’nai David-Judea Congregation, Beth Jacob Congregation and Young Israel of Century City — also said that while working for Weiss, she came to see her Orthodox Judaism as a plus. “Overall, being Orthodox was a positive, particularly in this district, and in this city,” she said. The observant Jewish community “liked knowing that there was somebody there who understood their language and their customs.”

Now, Bleich said, she hopes to be a voice for the Jewish community at a wider level. “When I think that if, God willing, I were to win, I would be the first shomer shabbos person on the L.A. city council,” she said, “there is definitely a sense of pride.”

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L.A.’s Main Jewish Thoroughfare Threatened by Looming Traffic Plan

by Rebecca Spence
The Jewish Daily Forward
April 10, 2008

Los Angeles – When Aviva Krieger needs a loaf of challah or kosher groceries to feed her Orthodox Jewish family of five, she routinely visits the stretch of Pico Boulevard that has become this city’s central Jewish shopping district. Now, with the threat of a new city-mandated traffic plan looming over the area, many, including Krieger, fear that what has long been a bustling epicenter of Jewish life will whither away.

In the face of the sweeping traffic changes, Jewish business owners are sounding the alarm that the plan’s parking restrictions during peak shopping hours would make it all but impossible for their patrons to shop in the area.

It’s not just residents of Los Angeles who frequent the several-mile stretch of Pico Boulevard for kosher groceries and all things Judaica. According to shop owners, visitors routinely travel from as far away as San Diego and Las Vegas to sample the rugelach or buy a new mezuza. But they say that their livelihood may be jeopardized if the plan, which was proposed by the mayor’s office and is supported by a city council member with close ties to the Orthodox community, is implemented as scheduled on May 1.

“For all the Jewish businesses, it’s going to be terrible,” said Solange Bohbot, an owner of Delice Bakery and a new restaurant, Delice Bistro, which opened last month. “We spent almost $1 million to build the bistro, and now the mayor comes from downtown with this stupid plan. How are we going to survive?”

Bohbot, 45, and her husband, Julien, are Moroccan-French Jews who opened their bakery six years ago. The business, Bohbot said, has been booming, with people coming from across the city to buy their specialty Moroccan challah bread. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, patrons lined up to inquire about their Passover cakes.

The Bohbots are among those who have filed a lawsuit launched against the city in late February, aiming to halt the plan. The complaint, filed by The Greater West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, is seeking to force the city to perform an Environmental Impact Review before moving ahead with its plan, which affects a nearly seven-mile stretch of Pico and Olympic Boulevards.

According to Jay Handal, chairman of the board of The Greater West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, businesses on Pico and Olympic Boulevards could see their revenues drop by about 25% to 30% if the mayor’s traffic plan is implemented. The plan, which was originally set to take hold March 8, has been postponed as a result of the lawsuit. A hearing is now slated for April 30 in Norwalk Superior Court, a branch of the Los Angeles County court system.

But not all members of the Orthodox community — both residents and proprietors — have signed on to the lawsuit. Many in the Orthodox community are conflicted about how best to respond to the proposed plan, observers say, because one of the plan’s chief backers, city council member Jack Weiss, has been a stalwart friend to the Orthodox Jewish community.

One vocal opponent, Scott Krieger (husband of the aforementioned Aviva), neighborhood resident for 19 years, said that he is hoping to work with Weiss’s office to mitigate the effects of the plan, if it goes through. As for taking the legal route? “It’s not how the Orthodox community works,” he said. “We don’t just file lawsuits like other groups.”

Proponents of the plan, known as “Pico East Olympic West,” contend that by restricting parking in the mornings and afternoons, synchronizing traffic lights and making the broad streets run in only one direction, traffic congestion along the heavily used boulevards — which traverse the city from east to west — will be reduced by seven minutes.

“Pico East Olympic West will improve traffic flow and save time for hundreds of thousands of drivers every year with minimal cost,” said the deputy chief of staff for Councilmember Weiss, Lisa Hansen. “The top quality-of-life concern for residents on the Westside of Los Angeles is traffic congestion, and this plan will provide immediate traffic improvement while the mayor and Councilmember Weiss continue to work to build a Westside subway.”

Elazar Muskin, rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, a 450-member Modern Orthodox synagogue on Pico Boulevard, said that it’s still too early to tell whether or not the plan will place an undue hardship on neighborhood businesses and residents. “We have a wonderful representative in the councilman and in the mayor, and they’re not trying to hurt anyone,” Muskin said. “There is a traffic problem here,” he added. “From my house to my shul it can take 15 minutes, and it should take three.”

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