While the rest of the crowd raised its hands toward the ceiling of the middle school auditorium, an olive-skinned woman in a knee-length black dress shifted on her feet in the front row, her hands folded in front of her.
Iyyar Schwartz, 28, visited the bilingual congregation El Camino Metro in Sun Valley on Oct. 22 as part of a United States tour by former Israeli soldiers, organized by the pro-Israel education organization StandWithUs. She and her traveling companion, Ilan Lopez, make up one of six teams touring the country until Nov. 5. On this morning, Schwartz addressed the English-language service of the nondenominational Christian congregation while Lopez spoke at a larger Spanish-language service at a high school.
Schwartz shared her experience as an artillery officer in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), including the time when a rocket went off as she was patrolling the border of the Gaza Strip during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. Dropping to the ground, she lay prone in a muddy field. “I won’t forget that,” she said. “I had mud in my nose and my mouth, and I was thinking, ‘Would I rather lose my arms or my legs?’ ”
Before the rocket landed, it was intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system — but the incident served as a touchstone for her to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the need for dialogue.
“We need to put ego, money, politics — we need to put that aside, and we need to listen to each other,” she said.
After Schwartz’s remarks, Pastor Cruz Navarro called on the approximately 100 people in attendance to raise their hands and bless Schwartz and all of Israel. “Today, we bless through Iyyar not just her, but the entire nation,” he said.
“They love Israel but they still need connections to what’s going on today.” – Ilan Lopez
The visit to El Camino Metro marked the beginning of the nationwide tour that will bring former IDF soldiers to more than 150 audiences in churches, synagogues, high schools and other venues. Schwartz traveled to California from Israel with Lopez, the director of StandWithUs Latin America. The pair also will travel to Colorado, Nevada and Arizona.
The visits are meant to expand Americans’ understanding of Israel, and to counter negative attention Israel receives in the media.
“There’s a divine mandate in the Bible to bless Israel,” said Pastor Josh Tolle, as he introduced Schwartz.
Nonetheless, Lopez said it was important to introduce Spanish-speaking congregations like El Camino Metro to a “human face to relate to” that was connected with Israel. In downtown Los Angeles on Nov. 5, Lopez is scheduled to visit Tabernaculo Biblico Bautista Amigos de Los Israel, a Hispanic church.
“They love Israel,” Lopez said in an interview, “but they still need tools [to support it] and connections to what’s going on today.”
After Schwartz’s appearance, Lopez took the stage across the street at El Camino Metro’s Spanish service with about 1,000 people, mostly immigrants from Mexico and Central America.
Lopez spoke in Spanish about his upbringing as the child of a Jewish mother and Christian father in Venezuela, where, in 2009, a mob overpowered security guards at a Sephardic synagogue, then tossed the Torah scrolls across the room and spray-painted anti-Semitic graffiti. A year later, Lopez moved to Israel and enlisted in the IDF.
He spoke about his humanitarian work as an IDF soldier, relating a tale about how he helped move a boy from a Palestinian hospital to Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, where Israeli doctors treated the boy for burns suffered after an accident at his home.
After Lopez spoke, the Salvadoran-born Navarro reminded the congregation about an upcoming church trip to Israel in February.
“If there are pupuserias in Israel,” Navarro said, referring to Salvadoran stuffed tortillas, “I’m moving there right away.”