Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs lobbies for the release of three captive Americans

When Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs was received at the White House on Monday, together with other members of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s mission to Belgrade that successfully lobbied President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia for the release of three captive American soldiers, he passed on a message to President Clinton.

It came from Aca Singer, the elderly head of the Jewish communities in Yugoslavia, who had told Jacobs, “I did not survive Auschwitz in order to be killed by American bombs in Belgrade.”

Clinton did not react to the message.

But to the rabbi, Singer’s words represented one aspect of NATO’s response to the “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo. On the one hand, “if ‘Never Again’ is to be more than just a slogan, we, especially as Jews, cannot be indifferent to the immense suffering of the Albanian refugees. We must keep up the pressure on Milosevic,” said Jacobs, speaking by phone from Washington, immediately after an hour-long session with Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

But we must also be aware, he said, that “there are many wonderful Serbians, as well as 3,000 Jews in Belgrade, who are living in constant fear of air raids.”

Jacobs, the spiritual leader of Kol Tikvah, a Reform congregation in Woodland Hills, was the only rabbi among 20 clergymen who accompanied Jackson on his tense mission, which included a heavy bombardment during their first night in Belgrade.

The 59-year-old Jacobs said that he has worked with Jackson since the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. The week before the Belgrade mission, he had attended a service in Mississippi to remember the murder there of one black and two Jewish “freedom riders.”

Jacobs was not among the five delegates who participated in the decisive meeting with Milosevic, because he preferred visiting the three American soldiers, who had been taken prisoners a month earlier. The rabbi added that he also had no desire to shake hands with the Yugoslav leader.

As a fellow Angeleno, Jacobs established a special bond with one of the freed men, Staff Sgt. Andrew Ramirez. The two agreed to attend a Dodgers game, at which Ramirez will be welcomed back to his hometown.

Before he left Belgrade, Jacobs met one Jew who had survived the Holocaust by having his name placed on the famous “Schindler’s List.”

“I wish at that time there had been a Jackson or a rabbi who had interceded for us with the Nazis, as you have done here,” the survivor said.

Women of the Ancient WorldRabbi Steven B. Jacobs of Woodland Hills’ Kol Tikvah is part of Jesse Jackson’s mission that brokerered the release of three American soldiersBy Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor