Answering the Call

Imagine a cellphone ringing and ringing. Put it in a backpack. Put the backpack next to the wreckage of a bus mangled by a bomb. A rescue worker reaches into the backpack to turn the cellphone off because he cannot bear to hear the voice on the other end of the line.

With that image, from an account given in Israeli papers, I asked my congregants on the first day of Passover to help our sisters and brothers in Israel. We cannot win Israel’s battles nor restore to life those who have died. But we can buy wheelchairs for the injured. We can pay for physical and emotional therapy for those whose lives are scarred by terror. We can provide social services for the shattered lives of the 400 children orphaned by the recent attacks.

As one of the most affluent and fortunate Jewish communities the world has ever known, we can give. God has blessed us; it is up to us to make that blessing matter.

Parvis Nazarian, the founder of Magbit, a Persian Jewish charitable organization, promised that Magbit would match whatever we raised up to $500,000. It seemed too ambitious a goal, but I announced it anyway, because the 1,800 worshippers in the sanctuary knew what was at stake.

Congregants and members of our community rose to pledge humanitarian aid to Israel. Children promised $10, $100, $1,000. Their parents pledged $2,500, $10,000, even $25,000.

The atmosphere was charged with the energy of a mitzvah that enabled us for a moment to escape the fear and frustration gripping our worldwide community. People raised their hands, stood up, called out.

I spun out the following scenario: One day Israel will be at peace. It may come to pass that you will be sitting at a restaurant in Jerusalem or waiting for a bus in Tel Aviv. An Israeli will sit next to you. As you talk, he will recount the losses that he and his family endured. Exchanging stories, he will discover that you come from Los Angeles.

“I know of a synagogue in Los Angeles,” he will say. “They paid for my surgery when I was wounded. Sinai Temple — do you know it?” That day in shul, we made such a future memory possible.

Soon, following the suggestion of board member Lili Shafai, the treasurer of Magbit, Abraham Simahee, stood up and publicly announced Magbit’s matching offer. In 25 minutes, we raised $700,000. With the matching gift we had almost $1.5 million for Israel. In 25 minutes. Inspired by the music of Craig Taubman, his band and our Cantor Joseph Gole, the congregation celebrated the moment by singing and dancing through the crowded sanctuary.

Thousands of envelopes have now been mailed to members who were not in attendance. The students in Sinai Temple religious school and Sinai Akiba Academy have joined the effort. When all the funds are in, we hope to have well over $2 million.

We will select (in consultation with advisers from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Magbit and a committee from our own congregation) organizations in Israel that specialize in aid to victims of terror. Our research has already begun to find institutions and agencies with little or no overhead. Donations must go directly to help those most in need.

It is not our obligation to finish the work, “Pirke Avot” reminds us. But how uplifting it is to make a meaningful beginning. As we joined together in singing “Am Yisroel Chai,” we affirmed that through God’s goodness and our passion, the people of Israel live.