JewishPV Blog

Rabbi Yitzie Visit PV High

Peninsula students probe interfaith panel

By Rebecca Villaneda
Thursday, January 7, 2010 11:13 AM PST

Rabbi Yitzchok Magalnic of the Chabad Jewish Center in Rancho Palos Verdes, visited Palos Verdes High School teacher Bryce Stoddard’s comparative religion class on Tuesday, Jan. 5. Magalnic shared his beliefs of Judaism. On Jan. 12, students from both PV High and Peninsula High School will pose questions to clergy people of different faiths as part of the Dawn Unity Group’s Interfaith Discovery Series.

Peninsula News

Peninsula and Palos Verdes high school students will take their comparative religion lessons to the real world in a panel discussion with persons who represent various faiths.

Questions regarding beliefs, traditions, the afterlife and views on controversial subjects such as abortion and homosexuality will be on the tips of the curious teenagers’ tongues.


The discussion, open to the public, is hosted by the Dawn Unity Group and will be held on Tuesday, Jan. 12 at Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay at 7:30 p.m.

Bob Rothman, chair of Dawn Unity, said the idea behind the evening’s program is to spread knowledge about people and their neighbors’ faiths.

“We thought that having the students ask the questions would put a different perspective on it because … it would come from the younger generation — the ones who are studying religion,” Rothman said.

Having taught comparative religion since 1967, Jim Maechling said there was a time when his class was only one of two in the United States being taught in a public school.

“That’s really a controversial issue because most teachers have always been afraid to introduce religion, because they don’t want to cross the line of advocacy,” he said, adding that his class was featured on the “The News Hour” with Jim Lehrer.

“I don’t think the Founding Fathers meant that God should not be mentioned in the school; what they didn’t want … is … any one teacher advocating any one faith,” Maechling said. “Look around. [At] the last check there was, like, over 38 languages spoken at PENHI … Don’t you think it’s important to get inside the belief systems and mentalities of where these other people come from?

“I think that as time has gone on, I’ve become more of a religious pluralist because I believe that all cultures and all religions have something to add,” he continued.

Bryce Stoddard, incidentally, had Maechling as a teacher years ago and he now teaches the same course at PV High.

“Ultimately, interfaith is something that is unique in a lot of communities,” Stoddard said. “The fact that rabbis and pastors are getting together and talking about faith and all the issues surrounding it, [it’s] bridging differences and broadening understanding, and for young people who are so full of questions, it’s an excellent opportunity for them to ask those questions.”

Stoddard expressed that it’s the speakers he invites to his class who make the biggest impression on the students. This past Tuesday, he welcomed Rabbi Yitzchok Magalnic from the Chabad Jewish Center in Rancho Palos Verdes to discuss Judaism to his students.

“As a teacher, there’s a line that we can’t cross, so we have to teach it very objectively … It’s really the speakers that come in and [are] really genuine with the kids in terms of their faith, and really share why they believe what they believe,” Stoddard said. “Not that they push it but, in a sense, they can. They can go places with the students that we can’t.”

While some of Stoddards’ and Maechlings’ students grew up with one or even two religions, others expressed they were atheist but since taking the course, they’ve come to appreciate their peers’ beliefs.

“I’m an agnostic … and I never really understood the essential difference between religion,” said PENHI student Jessica Sosnovskaya. “I never understood where the boundary was … but taking this class, I realized that it’s not just some invisible belief — it’s a way of life for people who don’t know anything else. For me, it was very unusual … but it was remarkable to glimpse into the world of people who see totally different from you but they look like you and they speak like you.”

“I went to a Catholic school for nine years of my life; I didn’t even know what Judaism was until I was 11,” said Ted Johnson, also a PENHI student. “This class has helped me open up my mind and sort of see all sorts of religions. It’s really helped me [understand people too].”

Clergy on the panel the evening of Jan. 12 will be Monsignor Joseph Brennan, Rev. Jonathan Chute, Rabbi Isaac Jeret and Rev. John Morehouse. The program will be the first of its kind with students asking the questions.

“I think religion is good for people … to be so devoted to something, to love something so much,” PENHI student Olivia de Jesus said. “I’m not religiously affiliated in any way, but this class has really helped me learn that.”

Scanned copy of the paper

Daily Breeze Article - June 23, 2007

`I feel it in my heart'
Special needs teen's bar mitzvah is a sign of the work the young man has done over the last year.

Staff Writer

Wesley Baer had a typical bar mitzvah on Sunday - reciting the Torah in Hebrew, chanting traditional blessings and prayers that mark the age of maturity in the Jewish tradition.

But Wesley, 13, of Torrance, is not a typical Jewish teen.

He was born with Down syndrome, a genetic condition in which an extra chromosome causes varying degrees of mental retardation.

Wesley was born in South Africa. His parents, Avi and Jessica, moved the family to Torrance more than a decade ago to provide him better access to educational and medical services.

At the time it was difficult for them to envision Wesley standing before the 100 guests that filled the room at the Fred Hess Community Center in Rancho Palos Verdes, some of whom traveled from as far as his native country to see him bar mitzvahed.

Chabad Palos Verdes Rabbi Yitzchok Magalnic, who officiated, said most special needs teens do not participate in traditional Jewish ceremonies because they can't put in the required time and effort to learn Hebrew and memorize the blessings and prayers.

"For families of children with special needs, this day is often painful instead of a celebration, because the child cannot go through the ritual," Magalnic said.

Magalnic said Wesley's case is rare.

"The accomplishment of this child is very unique," he said.

Wesley spent a year studying with Magalnic, learning not only Hebrew, but also about the significance of Jewish history, holidays and customs. To help Wesley learn the passages, the rabbi put them on a CD for him to listen to outside of their sessions.

Wesley's father is the son of a Holocaust survivor, and his mother was raised in a Jewish family. Both said they wanted Wesley to understand the importance of bar mitzvah.

"We wanted him to understand he's growing up and the responsibility of being a young man," Jessica said.

"Kids don't have an understanding of the legacy they are a part of," Avi added. "For me, seeing my son embrace his heritage was huge."

After nine surgeries and related medical problems, seeing Wesley into young adulthood has not been without its difficulties, but Jessica said it was a "team effort" from family and school staff that helped her manage. Wesley attends Calle Mayor Middle School in Torrance.

In fact, a former teacher and principal were among the attendees at the bar mitzvah.

"It really does take a village to raise a child," Jessica said.

Though Wesley has had challenges, Avi said, he has achieved in and outside of school because of his work ethic.

"From his blue belt in karate to learning for his bar mitzvah, he always does the necessary work to succeed," he said.

So when it came time to arrange the ceremony, Avi said he could have gone to a reform or a conservative synagogue - where the bar mtizvah is abbreviated and would have required less studying - but he knew Wesley was capable of doing the work.

Magalnic said 30 years ago, it was unheard of for a boy with Down syndrome to have a traditional bar mitzvah.

"We're living in a time when parents are more open to having the ceremony," the rabbi said.

During the ceremony, Wesley sat quietly. Afterward, when asked what the ceremony meant to him, he said, "I feel it in my heart."

His mom said watching Wesley's bar mitzvah reminded her of the importance of her own ceremony. "I remember having my bat mitzvah and its impact is still hitting me," she said.

Jessica Baer said she hopes her son will inspire more families of Jewish teens with special needs to put in the extra effort of a traditional ceremony.

"If Wesley can give other families hope, that's great," she said. "One of the worst things you can do is take away hope."

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LA Times Article - June 18, 2007

 LA Times Article - June 18, 2007

A boy becomes a man in God's eyes

Wesley Baer, 13, who has Down's syndrome, takes part in an ancient ritual of his faith as family and friends gather to honor him.

By Alan Zarembo, Times Staff Writer
June 18, 2007

His bar mitzvah was about to begin, but Wesley Baer was nowhere to be found.

He was located several tense minutes later, wandering down a dirt road near a playground. Two guests escorted him back, and, seemingly unaware of the potential crisis, he hugged his father, Avi.

His father smiled and shrugged. It was the day his son would become a man in the eyes of God.

But it was also a normal day.

Wesley, who has Down's syndrome, mental retardation caused by an extra 23rd chromosome in every cell of his body, had been straying off on his own a lot lately.

After he disappeared from school one recent day, a search party found him a few blocks away at a Ralphs supermarket, swinging on a bench in the garden section, eating popcorn and drinking chocolate milk.

Wesley, an affectionate 13-year-old, has shoulder-length, straight blond hair and wears glasses.

Doctors in South Africa, where he was born, told his parents that he might have a normal life, might be a contributing member to society, might learn to talk — always with an emphasis on might.

"He might never have a bar mitzvah," his mother, Jessica, told her mother.

If Wesley were going to have any chance in life, his parents quickly decided, they would have to leave their country, which was just emerging from apartheid. It was a place where the disabled could easily be lost.

The United States, they knew, had laws requiring schools to provide education and other services to the disabled.

Avi already had U.S. citizenship, thanks to his American father, and several of Jessica's relatives had settled in Southern California.

The family moved to Torrance before Wesley turned 2.

His parents divorced when he was 4, but he kept them close.

He knew something was wrong with him, but it was always other people who noticed more.

He took up karate, and he played video games. He sometimes went to synagogue with his parents, who belong to a tiny Orthodox congregation based in office space above a 7-Eleven store in Rancho Palos Verdes.

Eventually he learned to read.

By the time he was 11, a full-fledged bar mitzvah seemed possible.

The rabbi, Yitzchok Magalnic, had never worked with such a child before, but he consulted with other rabbis who had. Even the child who cannot understand cannot be excluded, Judaism teaches.

Avi accompanied Wesley to Hebrew school, held each Sunday. They stayed afterward for private lessons with the rabbi.

Bar mitzvahs are usually held on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. But his parents wanted to be able to take photographs, which are outlawed on the day of rest.

And so about 100 guests arrived Sunday at the rented community center in Hesse Park in Rancho Palos Verdes.

They signed the guest book — "we are so proud of you," "you have become such a wonderful young man" — and paged through albums, which included photographs of the first time Wesley tasted ice cream, a family trip to Israel and a sonogram from when he was a 21-week ordinary-looking fetus.

Men sat on one side of the room, women on the other, as is the practice among Orthodox Jews.

Avi put a red tie on his son, who had just been found, and tucked in his shirttails.

With his father occasionally whispering to him, Wesley recited several blessings from memory, then read English transliterations of the Torah segment of the day. His mother held back tears.

"You do not know what the opposite of truth is," Avi said in a speech honoring his son. "You have no need for this word. Your whole being is one of genuineness, and anything less than that would be foreign to you."

Toward the end, he described Wesley's arrival in the world: "He came complete with 10 fingers and 10 toes and lots of other really cute bits, and in keeping with my motto — 'why be like everyone else?' — we quickly made space for his extra chromosome and off we went."

It was the first time that day that anybody mentioned his condition directly.

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