Rabbi Zoë Klein: L.A. delegation to Israel returns with wealth of optimism

Last week I returned from traveling through the land I love with some of our most influential local leaders, all journeying to Israel with the desire and will to help our collective Los Angeles reach its highest potential.

Sitting in the office of the mayor of Tel Aviv-Yaffo with date cookies and strong tea, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said, “Los Angeles is in many ways a paradise lost, which we are in the process of regaining.”

To come to Israel as part of that regaining of paradise was as productive to Los Angeles as it was precious to me, to have the two worlds my heart’s inhabited for so long come together in a dance. Like the scouts who returned from the Land of Canaan bearing a cluster of grapes, each one as big as a globe, we returned with an abundance of fruit, ripe with wisdom, vision and hope.

I was proud to be part of this delegation, proud to be among some of the gatekeepers of our city, astounded at the vast amount Israel had to offer us and the generosity of her leaders to share.

One of the biggest themes of our journey was water. The CEO of the Israeli National Water Commission quoted Vladimir Nabokov when he talked about Israel’s culture of innovation, saying, “A genius is an African who dreams up snow….”

At the Clean-Technology roundtable in Tel Aviv, some of the most brilliant minds in green technology spoke with us, starting from the premise of Israel’s most pressing question: “How do you run an entire country without oil?”

One after another genius dreamt up snow before our eyes, explaining how Israel planned to create an entire national transportation system by connecting the parking grid to the electric grid and how the L.A. Basin (which is the same size as Israel) could do the same, becoming the cleanest city in the world.

The list of technologies invented in Israel was overwhelming. That a country so small would have more companies traded on NASDAQ than any other country outside the United States amazed us: defense, drip-irrigation, Intel, Pentium, Centrino, cellphones, cordless phones, voice mail, flash technology, MP3, satellite TV, cable, DVD, Direct TV (heart of the box made in Jerusalem), plasma televisions, IM, firewalls, pill cam, generic drugs, first drug to delay Parkinson’s disease, geothermal, solar power, storage, fuel cells, batteries.

The list was out of control. Our mayor said, “Each company is great, but more than that, we need to create the kind of partnership where there is real investment in a lasting relationship, particularly with solar and greening.”

We all had a new appreciation for why our futures are intertwined.

We asked how a country so small could be so oversized when it came to invention?

One answer was that it is a culture of acceptance of risk. Another answer was that it is a culture that identifies the brightest and puts them in top positions in the army, where they learn discipline. A third answer was that it is a culture that embraces immigrants who come with degrees, perspective and the fire to create.

We visited a progressive school in Tel Aviv for immigrants, where there were 48 languages spoken, where our mayor said he was particularly heartened to see refugees from Darfur.

“I hope we think about how to embrace each other, in our shuls, in our churches, in our mosques,” he said.

Tel Aviv-Yaffo Deputy Mayor Yael Dayan, daughter of Moshe Dayan, spoke to us there saying, “The melting pot idea was a mistake, that you take everyone and put them in a pot, heat them up and create something new. You have to respect the uniqueness of each culture; you have to care about them. Don’t put them in a melting pot but make them part of a collage.”

At our last dinner together before boarding the plane, we spoke about Israel and our deepened respect for its accomplishments. Members of the delegation expressed concern about the wall, and Villaraigosa expressed concern, as well, adding, “Then again, they have built a wall to keep people out who want to kill them. It is hard to argue with that.”

Then he thought for a moment and laughed, shaking his head and saying, “And we’re building a wall in America to keep people out who want to take care of our babies.”

The highlight of this working trip for many of us was the time we spent with Israeli President Shimon Peres. He welcomed us warmly, saying that whenever he hears of a fire in Los Angeles, “We all want to run and help put it out.”

Villaraigosa explained that he was from Boyle Heights, and Peres asked if that was close to Beverly Hills. Our mayor laughed and said, “It is very far.” The two spoke about being optimists, and Peres said, “In the beginning, the pessimists are always right, but in the end, the optimists are right.”

Peres spoke about pollution, that pollution was endangering our lives in so many ways, physically and also by funding terrorists when we rely on oil.

He said, “You cannot negotiate with nature. Nature is getting impatient. You cannot tell the icebergs to wait…. We prefer to depend on the sun not an Arab country. The sun is more friendly, more objective, open to everyone.”

He spoke of the difference between “holy countries” and “oily countries,” about the problem of oil, that when one discovers oil they stop working, stop thinking.

“Why work when you’ve found oil?” he said, and then added about Israel, “What makes us proud is that we have become richer by working … we don’t have oil, but we have science, and science is unlimited.”

“We have had seven wars, always outnumbered and outgunned,” Peres said, weightily, “but never did a day of war postpone a day of freedom.”