A postcard from LA

There are many Israeli emissaries (shlichim), but I think that with all due respect, we also have a lot to learn from those communities.

Sivan Rahav Meir ,

Sivan Rahav Meir
Sivan Rahav Meir
צילום: עצמי

1.

The confused expressions on the faces of the religious Shalhevet high school students in LA said it all. They didn’t know which side of the gym to join. I arrived at this Jewish American high school to give a talk but arrived early, on the principal’s advice, in order to observe a social studies lesson. Every week, the entire teaching staff and student body gather in the school’s enormous gym to debate a current events issue. I was told that the previous week, they had discussed convicted IDF soldier Elor Azariya. Yes, it was very much on their minds.

The week I was there they had chosen to discuss Trump and the partial ban he wanted to issue on Muslim immigration to the US. The moderator, a young and confident high school student, asked the students to divide themselves into two groups: Whoever was in favor of Trump’s ban against Muslim immigrants would stand on one side of the gym and whoever opposed the plan would stand on the other side. The confusion on their face was visible. In the end, they divided themselves up almost evenly – and then the stormy debate began. Teacher David Stein, who sided with those who opposed Trump’s ban, told the students about his grandfather, a German Jewish immigrant during Hitler’s reign of terror. “If Trump had been president then, my grandfather would not have come to this country,” he emotionally declared. “As Jews, we cannot remain silent.” Ayala Shefer, a student who was standing on the opposing side retorted: “Excuse me, what’s the connection? Was your grandfather a terrorist? Trump is merely trying to prevent terrorism.”

The above photo of the basketball court is a reflection of what’s currently being felt by American Jews. Ambivalence. Uncertainty. In the photo you can’t see that many of the students changed sides during the discussion, sometimes even more than once.

2.

There are many Israeli emissaries (shlichim) who are involved in education – both from the Jewish Agency as well as from other organizations – who travel abroad to teach in American Jewish communities. But I think that with all due respect, we also have a lot to learn from those communities. For example, I would definitely be in favor of importing the importance they attribute to community, education and Jewish identity.

We’re so used to living in a Jewish country that sometimes we don’t invest much time and effort in cultivating our own identity. But if you live in Beverly Hills and work in Hollywood, you have no choice but to create a Jewish atmosphere for yourself and sometimes even fight for it. No one is going to do it for you. When I was in LA, I met several [Orthodox] congregations that are literally social, Zionist, spiritual empires. In Israel, people come to synagogue mainly to pray – but in the States, the synagogue also serves as a community center. At first I didn’t understand why synagogues were so big, but when I stepped out of the services for a moment and took a look around, I discovered that the synagogue building housed no less than a reading room, a game room, a youth service, a senior citizen service and even a study room (beit midrash) – yes, a study room (!) – for six to eight year olds. And at the same time a scavenger hunt for the four to six year old crowd was going on.

There’s a special area allotted for baby carriages and another one for wheelchairs – they’ve simply invested a lot of thought in making everyone feel welcome. It’s so organized and efficient – so typically American. And yes, it does cost money. People there are willing to pay a lot for a rabbi who’ll mesmerize them, for a cantor who will unite them in prayer, for high level Hebrew lessons and even for a karaoke evening for teenagers – as long as they’ll be singing some Israeli songs there.

One out of every six people in Los Angeles works in the entertainment industry. All week long they are writing scripts, producing, acting or managing the money of the entire world of show biz. But once a week everything stops. At any given moment you could sense that it was Shabbat, their weekly Jewish prime time – and the day they stop everything and recharge.

3.

We lived in Ramat Hasharon for six years and we were dying for one kosher café. During our three-day visit to LA, we discovered no fewer than ten kosher restaurants. One in particular piqued our interest – Milky Way, a home-style dairy restaurant operated by Steven Spielberg’s mother, Leah Adler. The first time we went there the doors were locked. Passersby explained that Leah is very elderly and therefore opens the restaurant only when she feels up to it. But it’s worth waiting for, we were told, and were let in on the secret – her son, Steven, sometimes stops by there for lunch.

We tried twice more. It’s a little discomforting seeing Spielberg’s mother’s restaurant closed. In the restaurant next door where we wound up eating, they told us again not to give up. Leah is a personality, they explained. She’s a famous and colorful person in this city, an artist in her own right. She’s the one who fostered her son’s interest in filmmaking. And she’s very connected to Israel, Judaism and to Chabad in particular.

Our short visit came to an end and we returned home without having eaten at the Milky Way, but mainly without having met the mother of Hollywood’s most famous personality. No big deal, we thought. Next time. But this past Wednesday, a friend from LA sent us a death notice: Steven Spielberg mourns the death of his mother, Leah bat Shraga. Instead of sending flowers, he requests people make a donation to a charity organization.

Translated by Shoshana Silver




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