Coming Together Aboard Bus No. 2

I have never been a fan of group travel. Bernie and I like to headout for parts unknown, armed only with a guidebook and a rental car.So what were we doing on the mammoth Golden Anniversary CommunityMission sponsored by the Jewish Federation Council of Greater LosAngeles?

Frankly, the opportunity to see Israel as privileged insidersseemed too interesting to pass up. This mission promised us a chanceto hobnob with Israeli leaders and spend an evening at home withIsraeli citizens. Special cultural events were also on the itinerary,as were visits to agencies that grapple with Israel’s thorny socialproblems.

Still, the thought of traveling for 10 days with 400 Los AngelesJews gave us pause. Would we have to cope with whiners and kvetchers?With know-it-alls or shopaholics?

A get-acquainted brunch for our Metro West bus group hardlyrelieved our anxiety. For starters, our group turned out to spanseveral generations. One traveler had a 5-year-old son; another wasan octogenarian. What could we possibly have in common? Little did weguess that 32 very different individuals would meld so quickly into aclose-knit family unit.

When we first boarded Bus 2, wearing the dangling name tags thatmade everyone look like pedigreed poodles, we were barely beginningto sort out relationships. There were long-married couples, singles,and a pair of “just good friends.” One devoted son was escorting hiselderly father, trying to help the old man regain his zest for lifeafter the loss of a beloved spouse.

Certain travelers quickly stood out because of their quirks andenthusiasms. We learned that Michael, a retired dentist with a tastefor study and reflection, was the person most likely to waxphilosophical. Heidi, a single parent searching for new directions,was characteristically eager to plunge into every new lifestyle wecame across. (At Kibbutz Kfar Giladi, it was she who breathlesslyqueried, “How does someone become a member?”) Dick, who could notpersuade his wife to share Israel with him, spent his scant leisuretime in jewelry stores, shopping for coming-home gifts. And, when ourschedule became too restrictive, a plucky obstetrician named Beverlyimpressed us by sprinting away from the pack to give the mosaics ofZippori a closer look.

It was more of a challenge to get to know the group’s quietermembers. But each conversation held its share of surprises. I learnedthat Margot, who booked this trip because her neighbors areFederation stalwarts, was born and raised in Morocco. Largely cut offfrom the Jewish community through years of marriage to a nonbeliever,she was only now rediscovering her heritage. Also on a journey ofdiscovery was Erika, a recent émigré from Moscow, whorefused to let her limited English stop her from experiencingIsrael’s wonders. And Reiko, a native Japanese who converted toJudaism when she married Jake, showed herself ready to explore yetanother corner of the world.

Gradually, the barriers fell away, and we became privy to oneanother’s deepest emotions. It was a visit to a Druze village thatprompted Jane, a Los Angeles businesswoman, to reveal aspects of herlife that she had long kept hidden. Hearing how the Druze look outfor one another, Jane was moved to make a personal connection; we onthe bus listened, enthralled, as she told her tale. Born in London,the child of Holocaust survivors, Jane got early help with herschooling from the Jewish Board of Guardians. When, all alone, sherelocated to Los Angeles at age 19, our Federation found her lodgingand the means to establish a credit record. Years later, as a victimof downsizing, she learned to rebuild her career through the JewishVocational Service. And more Federation assistance came her way afterher home was badly damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Buoyedby our response to her story, Jane pledged to speak out publicly onbehalf of the Federation’s fund-raising efforts, in gratitude for asupport network that has never failed her.

The waterfall at Banias evoked in me tender recollections of myfather, who had loved the spot. I confided this to a woman namedJoyce, not yet knowing that her own father had just died. Thefollowing evening, when we went as a group to the Western Wall, Joycedissolved into tears. It was poignant to see Joyce gravitateinstinctively toward Rose, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary whoherself was sobbing away the pain of many old sorrows. Thoughstrangers three days before, they clung together like mother anddaughter, united in their separate grief.

We on Bus 2 learned to be protective of one another. We all cameto sense a mutual obligation to keep Jake from wandering off, to helpRose and Alex with their luggage, to extricate Erika from herproblems with English. So a small episode at Yad Vashem looms largein my recollections.

The mission had arranged a brief memorial service for the SixMillion. Some of us took part: Susan played hauntingly on the flute,and Jane placed a wreath. Everyone else crowded onto a mezzanine –standing room only — to watch the ceremony below. Ida, our oldestand tiniest group member, found herself stuck behind a tall couplefrom one of the other buses. They haughtily refused to budge: Afterall, they had staked out this spot first. I felt deeply hurt, forIda’s sake. By now, a slight to one of us was a slight to us all.

Mr. and Mrs. Territorial watched the service from their front-rowvantage point and went away properly moved. I’m not sure what theylearned at Yad Vashem, but I know what the experience taught me. It’sall very well to feel an abstract solidarity with your fellow Jews.And there’s value, certainly, in honoring our Jewish dead. But thegreater lesson of the Holocaust is that we need to care about theliving.

Bus 2 helped me see with crystal clarity that we’re all in thistogether.

Our Collective Voice in Israel

By Osias G. Goren

I was a participant, along with 430 other Angelenos, on the recent50th Anniversary Mission to Israel. Although I have been on manymissions, this one had a special character. It is the 50thanniversary of Israel’s rebirth. We wanted to revel in the joy of theoccasion, but this was tempered by our bearing witness to thegathering of 200,000 Israelis in Rabin Square who were commemoratingthe second anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Some of uswere together in the home of an Israeli Arab Family who lit candlesin Rabin’s memory before a picture of the slain prime minister.

Two issues were, and are, on the minds and tongues of everyIsraeli. First is the issue of peace and the peace process; second isthat of the conversion bill and its impact on both Diaspora andIsraeli Jews. As to the peace process, we found a feeling ofuneasiness and uncertainty among the Israeli populace, with people(other than zealots on either the left or the right) not having aclear idea of where the process would, or should, go. However, we didhear people say that, although they voted for Binyamin Netanyahu forprime minister, they would not do so in the next election.

As to the conversion issue, which dominated the thinking anddiscussions we had in every walk of Israeli society, no one amongthose we talked with, except the most traditional Orthodox, want thatbill to pass.

Under the leadership of Herb Gelfand, our Federation president, aseries of meetings was held at the Knesset with six influentialmembers: Yossi Beilin (Labor), Michael Eitan (Likud), NaomiBlumenthal (Likud), Dr. Yuri Shtern (Yisrael Ba’Aliyah), ShaulYahalom (National Religious) and Rabbi Benyamin Elon (Moledet[Orthodox]).

Gelfand opened each of the meetings with a forthright statement ofour position: “Passage of this bill is unacceptable; it will tear thefabric of the Jewish people apart.” The essence of what we got out ofthe responses, I believe, is summarized by the acknowledgment bythese Knesset members that they had misjudged and had neveranticipated that kind of reaction, not only from Diaspora Jewry, butalso from t
he secular segment of Israeli Jews.

It should be added that Gelfand led a hard-hitting,no-holds-barred discussion, and while those Knesset members who arepart of the ruling coalition are bound by written agreement to votefor the conversion bill should it come to a vote, none of them wantit to happen. Not only did they assure us that it would not, but thatthey would work toward that end.

It is refreshing to know that the Israeli people do not want tolose Diaspora Jewish support of any kind and are reacting. We wereasked to continue our pressure on this matter, to let Israelileadership know how strongly we feel and what dire consequences canensue. We are doing that. Last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu wastold in Indianapolis and in Los Angeles, in no uncertain terms, justhow strongly many of us feel about this matter. He asked that we waitand see the results of the compromise being worked out by the NeemanCommittee, due Jan. 31, 1998. We who traveled to Israel on the LosAngeles mission are doing just that.

Osias G. Goren is the former chairman of the Fair Employmentand Housing Commission (California’s Civil Rights Commission).