Jewish Angelenos find creative interactive ways of giving back to the world

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The holiday season ushers in an abundance of all things festive: the flickering flames of menorah candles, the sweetness of sugar-dusted sufganyot and the contagious spirit of generosity. Now, more than any other time of year, we’re inspired to help others less fortunate than ourselves. But although tzedakah is one of the cornerstone tenets of Judaism, the way we give and to whom we give have the power to create a whole new level of meaning.

For many Jewish Angelenos hoping to make a tangible difference in the world, it’s not just about writing a blank check to a charitable organization, but rather finding specific causes with detailed needs that speak to them, and funding them through to fruition. More and more, donors are seeking to be actively involved in the causes — contributing their support, encouragement, time and talents in addition to their money.

When Linda Witkow, an Oak Park resident, decided to donate to Joshua Neuman’s documentary short project, "Johnny Physical Lives," she was as much motivated by her determination to raise awareness of leukemia in young adults (the film’s main topic) as she was by her desire to support Neuman, an L.A.-based writer and magazine editor whose brother, Jonathan, an aspiring rock star, died of the disease in 2002 at the age of 22.

"I’ve known Josh for a few years now and I see him as this really creative, really interesting guy with so many facets to his big brain," says Witkow, who’s suffered the loss of close family members to leukemia and understands the disease’s devastating impact. "I trust him and want to support him in anything that he does. Nothing is worse than watching somebody you love go through a horrendous disease and die. It makes me feel great to give to somebody that I love and to whose experience I can relate. This being such an exceptionally tragic story for Josh, I know that he will wind up with an expressive and wonderful piece of film."

Mixing animation with raw footage shot by Neuman while his brother was undergoing chemotherapy, the film chronicles Jonathan’s year-and-a-half battle with leukemia through the eyes of his alter ego, a rock band frontman named Johnny Physical. Since launching his fundraising campaign on Kickstarter in October, Neuman has raised more than $23,000, which will cover the remaining costs of production (animation, sound design, color correction) and distribution (outreach, packaging, legal fees).

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Above: Artwork from the Kickstarter page for “Johnny Physical Lives.” Below: Jonathan Neuman in Israel, winter 2000.

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For Witkow, also a long-standing supporter of City of Hope cancer center, donating directly to a project makes far more practical sense than, say, attending a pricey VIP-sponsored fundraising event.

"If I were to go to a big dinner where they’re charging $500 a plate, that money is going to pay for the dinner itself," she points out. "And to me, that means nothing. I’d rather write a check for $500 to the organization than pay money for the dinner. Having somebody that has had a loss and to be able to give to that organization in a direct way means a thousand times more."

The generosity of these donors is not lost on Neuman, whose goal is not just to raise money for "Johnny Physical," but also to create a sense of unity among those involved in making the film possible.

"If someone were to offer me a magic wand that I could wave and simply make my film’s budget appear like magic, I would crack that wand in half," he says. "Having donors for my project gives me something additional that money can’t buy — not just credit, but community."

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