A Congregation in Shock : Venice: Members of Pacific Jewish Center look out for each other, and live in relative peace. The brutal slaying of a congregant has shattered that peace.
On the second to last night of her life, after a festive Sabbath dinner, Stephanie Bernstein was escorted on the mile walk back to her Venice apartment by a fellow member of the Pacific Jewish Center congregation.
Such escorts are a way of life in the close-knit community, because of its members’ observance of the Jewish tradition of walking everywhere during the Sabbath, and because of the danger in the sometimes-seedy area of the Venice Beach boardwalk where the congregation lives and worships.
For 13 years, hundreds of center congregants have lived a laid-back yet traditionally observant Jewish life among the eclectic characters of the boardwalk. The mostly younger couples and singles who belong to the center watch out for one another and have lived in relative peace.
But last week that peace was shattered. The somewhat insular and religious community came face-to-face with the sometimes violent world around them on April 23 when Bernstein was brutally slain in her apartment, allegedly by a recently paroled rapist.
“We have been pretty lucky up until now,” said Meyer Denn, executive director of the center. “But now we have been touched by it too.”
The 41-year-old writer and editor was stabbed and beaten to death, and may have been raped, by an intruder in her 3rd Avenue apartment just off Rose Avenue.
Police say they caught Kermis Taffy Thompson Jr., 29, of Venice at Bernstein’s apartment. He has been charged with murder, rape, robbery and burglary. Thompson, convicted in 1980 of raping and robbing a Los Angeles woman in her apartment, was released from prison just 10 weeks ago. He could face the death penalty, police said.
The attack has shocked and outraged the 500 or so members of the congregation and has scared many into taking extra precautions.
“We have been devastated,” Denn said. “We are like a big family and to have someone wrenched out from among us, and the way it was done, makes it very difficult for us to understand.”
Some of the community’s single women have moved in with friends and family, including Allison Gordon, a close friend of Bernstein who lives close by.
“Otherwise,” Gordon said, “I wouldn’t be able to sleep. When something like this happens, as a woman, it focuses you on how vulnerable you are.”
Amid the soul-searching by members of the center, there has been a strengthening of their resolve.
Nearly all the congregation members moved to the area around Rose Avenue so they could be within walking distance of other community members and the center’s synagogue, formerly the Bay Cities Synagogue on Ocean Front Walk overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
They were drawn to the center’s philosophy of nurturing a communal lifestyle steeped in the traditions of Judaism, a lifestyle described by congregants as a tranquil oasis amid the chaos of urban life.
Those attractions were not changed by Bernstein’s death.
“I can say this very emphatically for everyone living here; we are not going anywhere,” said writer Michael Medved, the center’s president. “This is not going to deflect us from our purpose of building a very dynamic center of Jewish life in this corner of California.”
Added Rabbi Daniel Lapin, who founded the center with Medved 13 years ago: “People here assist each other at all levels, based on the desire to create an oasis of communal tranquility. . . . We have been outraged. But you can’t run from this sort of thing. There is a determination not to yield.”
Center leaders and congregants describe the community as a very special place, a return to the Old World notion of a community in which they do more than worship together.
Everyone knows and helps one another. Meals, particularly the Friday and Saturday Sabbath meals, are festive occasions in which a dozen or so members spend a few hours chatting about the week’s events. Married members look to fix up singles with mates. Members pitch in to make newcomers feel welcome.
When a woman gives birth, others cook the meals for her family for two weeks. Members pitch in financially when others need help. The center itself sponsors seminars and teaches classes on a number of issues pertaining to history and religion.
Medved said it was that spirit of community, along with its emphasis on Jewish traditions and values, that brought Bernstein and her former husband to the community. Medved invited them for a holiday meal four years ago and they moved to a house near the synagogue four months later, he said.
“Stephanie isn’t somebody who just happened to find herself in Venice,” Medved said. “She, like virtually everybody else . . . moved here to be a part of this experiment in living Judaism.”
At a memorial ceremony last Thursday night, Bernstein was eulogized as a caring, loving person, “without a mean bone in her body,” who would often stop to give a homeless person a blanket or money. Her contributions to the center were noted, including her anonymous donations to help needy congregants, and the hours she spent volunteering at the center’s school.
“Stephanie was drawn to this neighborhood and our organization because she exemplified it that much,” Medved said. “In the best, most open tradition spirit of the Jewish tradition, she found valuable and beautiful things in every corner of society.”
A funeral service was held Sunday for Bernstein in her parent’s hometown of Scarsdale, N.Y.
Bernstein, who dropped her married name of Corey after her divorce, had not been all that religious until several years ago. But since moving into the community, she kept kosher, walked everywhere during the Sabbath and began learning more about Judaism.
She recently had become concerned with reports of violence in the area, and the occasional eruptions of gunfire, according to Paula Bernstein, an in-law and friend, and had thought about moving from the area since her divorce a year ago. The two had even discussed the subject on the day Bernstein died.
But she wanted to stay within walking distance of the synagogue and the school, said her friend.
“She felt that she didn’t want to leave the community. The support was very important to her,” said Bernstein.
Medved and Lapin founded the center after finding that the once-thriving Jewish community by the beach had been reduced almost to a handful of old men, and that many younger Jews were new to the area and without a community to call home, they said.
They set out to build a community, family by family, in the hopes of creating a haven that would encourage Jews to return to their roots, or to find the religious roots many of them had never known.
In the years since, more than 125 families have moved in to the community, and there have been about 85 weddings and 160 children born, Denn said. Along the way, the center has built a school that mixes American history and Judaism with lessons in Hebrew, English and Spanish.
The school, with its whitewashed buildings and playgrounds surrounded by a heavy security fence, plans to expand each year until it incorporates children from kindergarten to 12th grade.
Because Bernstein spent a lot of time at the school and with the children, a trust fund in her name has been established there to provide books at the school and to encourage the youngsters to engage in creative writing.
Congregants are quick to explain that the community is neither overly insular or religious. Rather, it is a place to study Judaism away from cloistered and rigid confines.
“Many people have the tendency to view religiously committed people as exclusive, isolated and withdrawn from the world,” Medved said. “But PJC has always stood for the opposite; that the more religious you are the more involved you should be with the world around you, and the more connected.”
Center officials say the area around the center is no more dangerous than any other urban area and see Bernstein’s brutal murder as an isolated incident. Congregation members and Los Angeles Police Department officials said Thompson should have been in custody at the time of the attack.
The 6-foot, 200-pound ex-convict, who has pleaded innocent to the current charges, had been detained by police nearly a month ago in a gang raid at a Culver City motel. Police arrested Thompson and others on suspicion of conspiracy to commit murder, but he was released when the district attorney’s office declined to prosecute, Sgt. Alan Thatcher said.
Thatcher said members of LAPD’s anti-gang unit thought Thompson’s association with the gang members was a violation of his parole.
“We think (Thompson) screwed up, and that there were grounds to revoke his parole,” Thatcher said. State parole officials, however, said Thompson had not violated conditions of his parole.
Police had questioned Thompson just 20 minutes before Bernstein’s slaying, as he and another man stood on a street corner, but determined that he was doing nothing illegal. The same officer who questioned Thompson arrested him less than half an hour later, as Thompson came out of Bernstein’s bedroom covered with blood and brandishing an iron bar, according to Lt. Ross Moen, commanding officer of detectives in LAPD’s Pacific Division.