Rob Adler Peckerar
CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
Dr. Rob Adler Peckerar has worked in a variety of nonprofit organizations for over 25 years, crafting and leading innovative arts and education programs.
Dr. Rob Adler Peckerar has worked in a variety of nonprofit organizations for over 25 years, crafting and leading innovative arts and education programs. Since 2011 he served as Executive Director of the groundbreaking arts and culture organization, Yiddishkayt, in Los Angeles and became Executive Director of the Ojai Foundation in Spring 2022. Robby began his career as a researcher and translator at Human Rights Watch and then earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from UC Berkeley. Having developed some of Berkeley’s earliest experiments in digital humanities, he went on to lead Yiddishkayt’s digital projects, for which he was honored with a Webby Award in 2016. He taught in Berkeley’s Departments of German and Comparative Literature, where he won the 2008 Outstanding Instructor Award, before moving to the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he was assistant professor of cultural studies.
In 2014, Robby trained in the Ojai Foundation’s Council practice, bringing Council to artists and scholarly communities. One of the world’s foremost scholars in Yiddish modernist literature, he is also a writer and translator. His recent translation of Meyshe Kulbak’s book-length poem Childe Harold of Dysna was published in 2020 and his translation of Itzik Manger’s novel, The Book of Paradise, will be out in summer 2023. He brings his career in creative leadership to Topa Institute.
Leon Berg‘s connection to the ridge began in 1975, when he met the founder of Human Dimensions Institute West. He joined Joan Halifax to become a founding member of the Ojai Foundation.
Leon Berg‘s connection to the ridge began in 1975, when he met Luke Gatto, the founder of Human Dimensions Institute West. He joined Joan Halifax to become a founding member of the Ojai Foundation in 1979. During Leon’s tenure he took on many roles: business manager, board member, and treasurer providing thought leadership for core decision making. He also oversaw the design development of the physical infrastructure, executing the plan to create a viable and sustainable land sanctuary meeting County and State compliance goals. In the 1990s he trained in the practice of Council under the tutelage of Jack Zimmerman and Virginia Coyle. In 2001 he was invited to introduce Council to groups in Israel, eventually co-founding the non-profit Ma’agal Hakshavah. Leon is a certified mediator through the Ventura Center for Dispute Settlement and holds a certificate in Peace and Reconciliation Studies from Coventry University, U.K.
Together with his partner, Glori Zeltzer, he teaches the Art of Intimate Conversation to couples. Leon is the co-founder of Circles of Resilience, an introduction to the practice of listening and speaking from the heart (Way of Council), along with social engagement activities and mindfulness processes to help build psycho-emotional resilience in these turbulent times. Today he serves as a through-line from the very first community on the ridge through Ojai Foundation to Topa Institute.
Office & Marketing Manager
Carla Borella was raised in Porto Alegre, Brazil in a diverse family of Indigenous, European, and African origins.
Carla Borella was raised in Porto Alegre, Brazil in a diverse family of Indigenous, European, and African origins. Growing up in such an environment instilled in her a strong interest in exploring different cultures, which led her to travel around the world from a young age. She has lived in seven countries and explored many others. She speaks Portuguese, Spanish, English and Italian. Passionate about sustainability, surfing and community, she spent one year volunteering in a tiny fishing village in Nicaragua before moving to the U.S. to pursue a Certificate in Sustainability at UCLA. Carla holds a B.A. in Advertising and Marketing, and has ten years of experience in digital marketing, having worked with global brands developing their online presence. While in the U.S., she worked as Marketing Manager with Groundswell Community Project, a non-profit delivering Surf Therapy for women who have suffered trauma and abuse.
Carla came to the Ojai Foundation back in 2015 when she spent 10 weeks volunteering and living on the ridge. Since 2017 she has served as the organization’s office manager and communications director, and now brings her strong background in cross-cultural communication into Topa Institute.
Residential Programs Director
Clare Fester is an organizer, political writer, and program director originally from Australia.
Clare Fester is an organizer, political writer, and program director originally from Australia. She has served as the Program Director at Yiddishkayt and coordinated the organization’s flagship Wallis Annenberg Helix Fellowship since 2016. A Helix Fellow herself in 2013, Clare now oversees the annual Fellowship from start to finish, including recruitment, curriculum and itinerary development, international network cultivation, and program logistics and administration. She co-manages the David Shneer Culture Grant to foster new creative work inspired by the Fellowship. Prior to joining the team at Yiddishkayt, Clare studied at both Sydney and Monash Universities, where she wrote her thesis on three emigré Jewish socialists who attempted to organize newly-arrived workers in the 1950s Australian manufacturing industry.
Clare holds her MIS from Charles Sturt University, where she specialized in information access for marginalized communities in the United States. In addition to coordinating all aspects of the organization’s central program, Clare writes grants, coordinates communication technologies for digital programs, and manages Yiddishkayt’s archive and library. Clare brings her experience as an arts and culture program director to Zimzalla, Topa Institute’s arts and culture division for residential retreats.
Lisa Kenner Grissom
Art & Culture Curator
Lisa Kenner Grissom produces arts and cultural programming with over 10 years of experience.
Lisa Kenner Grissom is a producer of arts and cultural programming with over 10 years of experience. Lisa has created innovative cultural experiences for a variety of communities across LA, including incubating projects as the LA program manager for Reboot, a national nonprofit that reimagines Jewish rituals for the 21st century. Lisa joined the team at Yiddishkayt/Zimzalla following her experience as a Wallis Annenberg Helix Fellow in 2018-2019. Her work for Yiddishkayt/Zimzalla includes producing both live and virtual events including the LAYKA Lens film conversation series, a culinary + culture salon series, and a range of multidisciplinary events that connect artists and culture makers to the public in fresh ways. Her work also supports Helix alumni through the creation and management of the David Shneer New Yiddish Culture Grant to foster new artistic projects. Lisa is also an award-winning playwright/screenwriter whose work explores complex social truths through intimate relationships, often through a female lens. Her latest project includes the in-process documentary film, FOLLOWING FANIA, which is inspired by meeting Jewish partisan/resistance fighter Fania Brantsovsky in Vilnius, Lithuania while on the Helix Fellowship travel program. For more about Lisa, visit lisakennergrissom.com.
EDUCATION Program Director
O’Kawai Kin is a youth educator, Council facilitator, visual artist, athlete, and musician.
O’Kawai Kin is an educator, Council facilitator, visual artist, athlete, and musician. They studied sociology at San Jose State University, where they also played on the women’s basketball team. Following graduation, O’Kawai worked for five years as a behavioral specialist for children with autism. In 2009, they began working with Celebrate Life, an outdoor education organization in which the Council practice is instrumental. This led to O’Kawai’s desire to become a Council facilitator and trainer. They now teach Mysteries (Life Skills / Council) at Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences as well as Mysteries (Human Development / Council) at New Roads in Santa Monica, California.
O’Kawai has worked at the Ojai Foundation as a facilitator for Rites of Passage and other programs. For over a decade, they have been teaching and facilitating Council circles in schools, professional development settings, and with “at risk” youth outreach programs. Their dream is to bring the practice of Council to communities all over the world. They infuse their work in Topa Institute’s youth education programs with passion for the practice of authentic communication as a path to deeper relationships, greater social understanding, and a more peaceful world.
Facilitation & OUTREACH DIRECTOR
Anita (Ani) Samaha has led mindful communication programs in California and across the world.
Anita (Ani) Samaha has led mindful communication programs in California and all over the world. She attended Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, where she majored in pre-med, which led her to a Masters program in Traditional Chinese Medicine at the Santa Barbara College of Oriental Medicine in 2001. Soon after, she had the opportunity to help start a semester abroad program for 16–19 year olds in New Zealand. For several years, in addition to administrative and admissions work, she ran the outdoor program and taught Chinese nutrition, knitting, and juggling electives.
In 2006, she found herself back in Santa Barbara and began working as a team building and ropes course facilitator for various organizations, including Wilderness Outdoor Leadership Foundation, Santa Barbara Boys and Girls Club, Teamworks, Celebrate Life, and the Ojai Foundation. In addition, Ani leads backpacking and bicycle trips with Santa Barbara Middle School. Through her work with the Ojai Foundation, she learned about Council and became a facilitator of this beloved practice and, ultimately, a Council Trainer in 2017. From 2018 to 2021, she facilitated Council circles and trainings at Pacifica Graduate Institute. She has worked with countless organizations from companies such as Snapchat to social justice organizations like the Brotherhood Crusade. Ani brings to Topa Institute her long history sharing Council practices with diverse groups and organizations.
DRAGON RIDGE SANCTUARY
Irasha Talifero has lived in the Ojai Valley since 1976, cultivating a wealth of local connections.
Irasha Talifero has lived in the Ojai Valley since 1976 and has cultivated a wealth of local connections. She moved to Ojai to have and raise her son, Snowshadow Talifero, who is now a local hero — a fireman who protected the ridge that Topa Institute now calls home during the Thomas Fire. The same year Irasha arrived in Ojai was the first time she went up to the ridge above what is now the Besant Hill School, then the home of Human Dimensions Institute West. She soon began volunteering and gardening on the site, planting some of what remains there today.
Irasha has had the privilege of experiencing many new ways of learning from teachers from all over the world. Here, in her own backyard, she was blessed to know and interact with the prominent spiritual and cultural figures of the Upper Ojai, including Jiddu Krishnamurti, Beatrice Woods, as well as Chumash elders Grandfather Vincent Tumamait and Grandfather Semu Huate. This was a new awakening for her. Over the decades, she continued her involvement with the Ojai Foundation and began facilitating programs for thousands of students, some of which were her most valuable teachers. In 2016, she became a Council Trainer. Four generations of her family have become a part of the ridge’s practices and communities: at present, her granddaughter Tara Talifero is a junior at Besant Hill School — a star student and representative at the campus. Irasha brings this long history on the ridge to Topa Institute, continuing to introduce this special place to new generations of people.
Michael Wiatt has spent his life hiking, biking, exploring, and protecting beautiful landscapes.
Michael Wiatt has spent his life hiking, biking, exploring, and protecting beautiful landscapes — starting with the immense forests surrounding his hometown of York, Maine. There he developed a strong connection with plants, animals, and the natural environment. He first traveled to California as a senior in high school with Outward Bound as part of a Sierra Nevada Alpine Mountaineering program. During the program, he bonded deeply with an Indigenous guide and fell in love with the mountains of the West Coast. He moved to Ojai in 2015 and began working as an electrician with a focus on clean energy solar electric installations.
In addition to being an electrician, Michael has frequently worked in landscape design, farming, and general construction. While attending college in Portland, Oregon, he studied philosophy, political science, and Spanish. He spent five years in Costa Rica continuing to study the Spanish language and working as an owner-operator of Maracatu Natural Tropical Cuisine Restaurant. The restaurant offered healthy eating and atmosphere and supported an affiliated network of farms in a “Farm to Table” program. Michael is a graduate of the Regenerative Design Institute’s Ecology of Leadership. There he focused on Council within community and daily nature-based gratitude practices. His background in construction, desire for personal growth and love of plants and animals has led him to The Ojai Foundation as Land Steward. At Topa Institute, Michael stewards the land in ways that balance ecosystems, create fire resilience and sustainable, self-sufficient practices.