With echoes of the Holocaust and pogroms haunting a collective conscience, the Jewish community in Los Angeles has mobilized forces to come to the aid of Kosovar refugees left homeless and hungry by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.
Schools, synagogues and organizations have moved into action over the past few weeks, putting aside political opinions and historical complexities to send basic necessities — food, shelter, medicine — to the sea of ethnic Albanian refugees flooding Albania and Macedonia.
About $100,000 has come out of Los Angeles to support the Joint Distribution Committee’s operations in the region, according to John Fishel, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation. About $50,000 came through the Federation, while he estimates another $50,000 went directly to JDC, which is set up to provide food, clothing, shelter and medicine for the masses of refugees as well as for the Jewish residents of the area.
The Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation energized the fund-raising with an initial donation of $10,000 from a disaster relief fund. Other donations began to flow after the Federation also asked the Board of Rabbis of Southern California to urge its 250 member rabbis to appeal to their congregations.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance announced last week that it has purchased a mobile medical unit equipped to aid 54,000 refugees, along with enough money to support four months of operation.
“It is impossible for an institution such as ours to remain indifferent to the plight of tens of thousands that have been driven from their homes and seen their lives destroyed,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the center, which is dedicated to Holocaust remembrance and defense of human rights.
The brutal imagery so familiar to the Jewish community — convoys of refugees, families separated, villages burning — has been a major force behind the emotional response.
Still, many are wary of drawing parallels to the Holocaust, saying that the Kosovo crisis does not compare to Hitler’s attempt to systematically annihilate a people.
But Hier says the question is irrelevant, that with such a massive humanitarian crisis at hand, there is no room for such debate.
“This is not a question of whether or not the tragedy of Kosovo equals Auschwitz,” Hier said. “Nobody can say Auschwitz and Kosovo are one and the same.”
But, he says, no matter the intensity of the persecution, our history and tradition call upon us to act. “We ought to protest it and do what we can to alleviate suffering.”
Whatever the degree of similarity to the Holocaust or pogroms, the Jewish community clearly empathizes with the Kosovars, collectively cringing at the eerily familiar scenes in refugee camps and border crossings.
The fact that the crisis coincided with Yom Hashoah, when the always-present impact of the Holocaust is brought into sharp focus, seems to have further cemented that empathy.
At the community Yom Hashoah commemoration in Pan Pacific Park last week, several speakers took the opportunity to encourage the Jewish community to act.
Many rabbis also used the Yizkor appeal on Passover — a time when victims of the Holocaust are remembered by family members — to appeal to congregants to support the refugees.
At Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, congregants responded generously and immediately to Rabbi Harold Schulweis’ appeal, plunking down $6,000 the next day, with more to follow.
“They understand the language of sealed box cars, and the homelessness and hunger that people are experiencing,” Schulweis said.
Students at Milken Community High School evoked those images at a town meeting about the Kosovo crisis. Candles lined the auditorium aisles, and students wore blue ribbons to show solidarity with the refugees. Several students walked across the stage, stopping in the middle to give their personal reasons for supporting the refugees.
“I do this for my grandfather who died in concentration camp,” one said. “We do this so no child will be forced to leave his hometown,” another said.
According to Laurie Bottoms, director of General Studies at Milken, the tone of this town meeting was set by the students. Since a town meeting a few weeks ago about the history and geography of the Balkans, many students seemed to have internalized the crisis, relating it to the Holocaust and pogroms, Bottoms said.
While some students expressed ambivalence about the military action, all were ready to donate their lunch money or allowance to support the refugees.
The students sent around plastic bags to collect donations, and about 20 bags came back stuffed with dollar bills, Bottoms said.
Many synagogues have taken a similar tack, holding educational forums and, at the same time, soliciting funds for the refugees.
Adat Shalom in Westwood held an informational panel last Shabbat, dealing in part with the fact that it was the Serbs who helped the Jews during the Holocaust, while the Kosovar Albanians aligned themselves with Germany.
The forum, said Rabbi Michael Resnick, aimed to help congregants wrestle with the issues when “we are faced with a humanitarian crisis where the people being persecuted were not friends of the Jews 50 years ago,” he said. At the same time, the response to the humanitarian crisis must be decisive, he said.
In addition to the funds he solicited in a personal mailing to congregants, he is hoping his congregation will be able to adopt a refugee family.
Schulweis, of Valley Beth Shalom, has little patience for those in the Jewish community who look to the history of the Kosovars during World War II to justify inaction.
“That is in fact visiting the sins of another generation upon this generation, and it seems to me we have long ago overcome that,” Schulweis said. “There is nothing in our history or tradition that would countenance that kind of rationalization.”
Rather, he said, World War II history indicates that this is a time for action, and for the Jewish community to support that action.
“My hunch is that those of us who remember the frustration that we experienced in the 1940s when Allied bombers did not rip up the railroad tracks to Auschwitz… are especially appreciative of what the NATO countries are doing.”
The American Jewish Committee has taken ads in major international papers expressing just that idea.
“When history asks who stood up to evil in Kosovo, the answer will be: NATO,” a bold headline reads. The ad, part of an international educational campaign to garner support for NATO, also acknowledges Serbia’s history, stating Milosevic has “led Serbia to betray its proud anti-Nazi legacy.”
“The American Jewish Committee feels strongly that what is going on in Kosovo isn’t about oil or commerce or trading routes or anything. What is at stake here are basic principles like human rights and human dignity,” said Rachel Devon Schwartz, who is in charge of the international portfolio at the West Coast office of the American Jewish Committee.
The ads and a mail campaign have helped raise $500,000 for the AJC’s Kosovo Relief Fund, Schwartz said.
Apart from raising money, many in the Jewish community are raising their voices in prayer.
At Congregation Shaarei Tefila in Los Angeles, Rabbi Yehoshua Berkowitz recited a “Mi Sheberach,” a prayer for well-being, for the three American soldiers captured by the Serbs, as well as for the refugees. Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Cunin, director of Jewish Studies at Milken High School, led a prayer group for students, taking his cue from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote a piece titled “Pray to be Shocked.”
“One of the purposes of prayer is to overcome a certain lethargy, to break through the everyday,” Bernat-Cunin said.
“Different people are revolted by different things, and at a certain point you just shut down, you can only handle so much. And yet on the other hand it’s a challenge to try to be open and receptive and responsive and empathetic,” Bernat-Cunin said, citing Heschel. Adults as well as students, he said, need to look inside and “be responsible for as much as you