Hollywood Writers’ Strike Produces Flood of Red Ink at L.A. Synagogues

By Rebecca Spence

Published February 06, 2008, issue of February 08, 2008.
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Los Angeles - At Hanukkah time, one month into the Hollywood writer’s strike, Rabbi Sharon Brous, founding rabbi of IKAR, a spiritual community on Los Angeles’s West Side, sent out an e-mail to her congregants, expressing support for members of the Writers Guild of America. Her position was a no-brainer, in some respects. Brous, who framed the cause as one of workers’ rights, is known for her views on social justice. Plus, the political was also personal: Her husband, David Light, is a screenwriter.

But the strike also hit home in a different way. Brous estimated that at least 25% of the 357 families that belong to her community are writers or industry professionals who have not worked since November 5, 2007, when the walkout began. Brous co-founded IKAR in the spring of 2004, and said that the congregation is heavily dependent on pledges above and beyond the regular membership contributions, which range from $210 to $1,500. Because of the sense of uncertainty surrounding people’s finances and work lives, she said, many who either pledged gifts or were expected to could not make good on those commitments, leaving the upstart community in dire financial straits.

She is not alone. If the writers strike comes to a conclusion this week, as it seemed poised to, Jewish institutions throughout Los Angeles will likely breathe a sigh of relief. In a town where Jews and the entertainment business are inextricably linked, the strike’s far-reaching effect has trickled down to Jewish life. A handful of congregations with large numbers of writers and others affected by the walkout — in this town, that can mean everyone from talent agents to the florist who spruces up the Golden Globes — has been feeling the pinch, as many of the synagogues’ congregants have spent the past few months walking picket lines rather than penning television episodes.

“More than half of what we need and expect to receive in individual contributions simply has not come in yet,” Brous said. “If we don’t recover some of the money we’ve lost from the strike, we’ll end up with a significant shortfall.”

At Temple Israel of Hollywood, a Los Angeles Reform congregation heavily populated by writers and other entertainment industry professionals, the writers strike has had a noticeable impact on the synagogue’s finances: Between the synagogue’s day, nursery and religious schools, nearly 20 families have asked for some form of tuition assistance.

A rabbi at Temple Israel, Michelle Missaghieh, estimated that some 20% of the synagogue’s 910 families are affected by the strike. The synagogue has had to absorb the costs for those members who simply could not make their education payments on time or, in a few cases, could not make them at all. With day school tuition at $13,170 per child and the cost of sending a toddler to preschool at $10,425 — on top of $2,000 of synagogue dues — many parents requested help.

According to Bob Pierson, Temple Israel of Hollywood’s school business manager, the synagogue spread out tuition payments to ease the financial crunch. In several cases, Pierson said, they stretched the payments until December, a full six months beyond when full payment would be due at the end of the synagogue’s fiscal year in June.

Like Brous, the rabbis at Temple Israel addressed the issue head-on with their congregants. Just eight days into the strike, on November 13, Missaghieh and Rabbi John Rosove sent an e-mail declaring their solidarity with the guild membership. “We write to you as clergy in support of the Writers’ strike, in which many of those on the picket line are Temple Israel of Hollywood members, and we hope that our congregants will support them along with us,” the e-mail said. “We do so not only as a matter of fairness and justice, but also because we believe that Jewish tradition supports them in their struggle for equitable compensation.”

At another West Side synagogue, Congregation Kol-Ami, year-end contributions are down by 10%, according to Rabbi Denise Eger. She estimated that of the 350 households that belong to Kol-Ami, a gay and lesbian Reform synagogue located in West Hollywood, about 25 are directly affected by the strike. But many more of her congregants, she said, are indirectly affected. Those include the countless hairstylists, event caterers, makeup artists and florists whose livelihoods depend on the red-carpet affairs of the Hollywood calendar: the Golden Globes ceremony, which was canceled, and the 80th Annual Academy Awards, slated for February 24, which may or may not go forward.

Last July, when dues renewal came up, some six guild members approached the synagogue’s executive director, Aaron Solomon, and asked for a fee reduction in anticipation of the impending strike. Solomon said that he accommodated those pleas, reducing most charges by a little more than 50%. Annual dues at Congregation Kol-Ami are $1,150 for singles and $1,680 for couples.

One of those writers, Diane Saltzberg, had asked that her dues be completely frozen. The 51-year-old screenwriter, whose script “Prince Charming” has been languishing for three years in the development process at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., said that with the strike coming, she wanted to pre-empt any added financial hardship. As a result, she worked out a deal with Solomon. “I’m volunteering my proofing services in lieu of paying my dues,” she said. For the past three months, Saltzberg has been editing the synagogue’s monthly newsletter.

Despite the hardship experienced by those congregations with high numbers of industry folk, at least one area community has found a silver lining. At Yavneh Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox day school — where, given Orthodoxy’s shunning of popular culture, the number of entertainment industry professionals in the school’s broader community is markedly low — Jeff Astrof, who once wrote for “Friends” and most recently worked on CBS’s “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” has worked the strike into his weekly comedic Sabbath service announcements. “Given the strike, it’s my only outlet for creativity,” Astrof said.

For the past year, Astrof, 41, has delivered the announcements, traditionally broadcast by the synagogue president, as something akin to a stand-up comedy routine. When the strike began, Astrof announced that he was going into “repeats.” For four weeks, he delivered the same synagogue announcements he’d delivered in earlier parts of the year. In late December, when the guild worked out an independent agreement with David Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, Astrof lent the same interim agreement to his one-man “announcer’s guild.”

Even better than letting loose his comedy chops on Orthodox synagogue-goers who, in many cases, do not even own televisions, Astrof said, has been the outpouring of support that he has received from his decidedly non-showbiz community. Astrof said that at least a dozen Yavneh attendees offered him financial help, with no strings attached, and that while he didn’t accept the monetary assistance, he and his wife did make good on an offer from a doctor’s family to join them for Friday night dinner every week until the strike ends. Needless to say, Astrof added, “we’ve become very close.”






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